Monday, May 28, 2007


The sermon just wasn't good enough to post. I meant well. Babel and Pentecost make such a great contrast, but I just couldn't pull it off. It is sort of funny that on a Sunday in which communication is the theme, the preacher had trouble communicating.
Here's something profound, instead. I got it off the bulletin my friend Bill Capel put together for the church he's "pastoring":

"I want to pay a simple tribute to God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, the ruha elohim is feminine gender in the Old Testament, neuter in the New Testament, but never masculine.
"It operates quietly - sometimes it comes with a mighty roaring wind and thunder and lightning. This is exceptional. Most of the time, it works quietly and is at work in the churches of Asia, in the societies of Asia, in the whole global development.
"In my church, the liturgy every Sunday speaks of the Holy Spirit who brings all things that exist, and all the things which are to exist in the future, to perfection. That is the job of the spirit: to bring everything to perfection. The Spirit is quietly at work.
"Would that we have the sensitivity to see where it is at work and become available, so that we can truly become the instruments of the Spirit. That is the commitment I hope all of us have."
- Paulo S Mar Gregorios 1922-1996, (India)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday's Sermon - May 20

Acts 16:16-34

Freedom is the subject of our scripture lesson for the day. If you look at it carefully, the themes of freedom and enslavement or freedom and imprisonment or freedom and security are woven into every thread of the story. The questions, “Who is free? Who is not?” echo throughout the narrative. “What does freedom mean? Who can be free? Who has the right to take away freedom, and from whom can it be taken away? Can civil society afford the cost of freedom? When is the line between the freedom to practice one’s religion a license to interfere with someone’s economic interests?”
All of which is just to say that issues of gaining or losing freedom and the boundaries around liberty are as current and pressing now as they were 2000 years ago. So let’s look at the story from Acts and see how freedom and what kind of freedom, marked the life of Paul and the early church.

Freedom for a slave girl.

The story opens with a somewhat strange story about a slave girl who follows Paul and Silas around Philippi, declaring everywhere they went “These are servants of the most High God, who bring news of salvation.” On first impression, the thought of this overzealous cheerleader chasing Paul around town is sort of funny. None of us have cheerleaders like this. You might think it would be sort of nice, at least for a while. And the fact that what she says happens to be true makes it better. But, nonetheless, after a few days, it sort of interferes with Paul’s mission. Can you imagine teaching a class where one of the pupils calls out “Great teacher! You’re a real super teacher!” or how would you like to go to be followed around the office, from meeting to meeting, trying to get a report done before deadline, but having one of your co-worker’s teenage daughter following you, shouting, “You’re doing a great job there! You’re really being efficient!” Or, Moms, how about around the house, the loudest child (and you loud children know who you are) shadows you, telling you over and over what a great job you’re doing with the shopping, the disciplining, the laundry. Would you have the patience Paul did? To wait several days, trying to ignore her, until finally, he just got fed up? Finally, Paul had had enough. He has to deal with her.
The girl is possessed of a spirit. I’d tell you what that meant, exactly, except for the fact that I don’t know. We’d probably understand her as mentally ill. Or with a behavior disorder of some sort. Her owners apparently were exploiting her condition, charging for people to listen to her strange outbursts. But as for understanding what was really going on with her, the scripture only gives a clue. The Greek says she had a “pythonic” spirit. Whatever was inside her was wrapped around her soul like a python around a rabbit, squeezing her true life right out of her. . Did she know that she was possessed? There’s no indication that she did. She probably didn’t know any different. This strangling, crushing spirit was just her life.
Which is the thing about this slave girl that makes me wonder about how free I really am. What snakes have I let wrap themselves around my soul that I don’t even admit to myself are there? I was thinking about this poor girl when I heard a story about Oprah – who spoke at a Commencement ceremony this last week. Remembering the girl Paul freed, I want you to hear a piece of what Oprah said: I beseech you to remember what Harriet Tubman spoke concerning her sojourn to bring slaves out of the South. She said that she could have liberated thousands more if she had been able to convince them that they were slaves.
Freedom is a mark of the Easter church. In humility, we might consider the possibility that we are not as free as we would like to think. AT this very moment, we may have a python of pride, greed, envy, guilt, anger . . . wrapped around our hearts. And, like the slave girl, we don’t even know we need to be freed.
But the good news is that the name of Jesus Christ, that Paul invoked to draw the spirit out of the girl, is still as powerful, still as effective, still as mighty as it was back then. Freedom bestowed in the name of Jesus Christ makes one free indeed.

Freedom from crushing, enslaving spirits is the first kind of freedom that marks the church, the second is more lyrical - it is the freedom to sing.

Look again at the story. When the slave girl was freed from her evil spirit, her owners realized that they weren’t going to be making much money off of her anymore. Paul and Silas have interfered with somebody’s money machine. And you and I both know there is no easier way to get in trouble than to mess with somebody’s income. The owners seize Paul and Silas and drag them to court. Now, they don’t say, these guys are interfering with the way we were exploiting our worker. They don’t say, we’re suffering a loss of income because these men did something good for a poor person. No, no, no. When guys like this cause a stink, money is never going to be the issue. It’s always going to be “a way of life” that’s threatened, or disorderly conduct that is objectionable. Remember when we talked about “It’s not about the money?” Well, when freedom and justice cost people some of their fat bankroll, and their financial cushion, it’s not about the money! It’s always about some great principle about to be violated. When you hear stuff like that, you remember this story. And you lay down your last dollar on this sure bet: It is about the money.
And somebody is going to pay. Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten are beaten and thrown into prison before they even have a trial. Their feet are fastened in stocks, which makes it very difficult for the prisoners to sleep. Sleep deprivation is not a new torture. It is an old one.
Midnight comes and Paul and Silas are awake, in pain, and in prison. And they are singing. Songs sung in the darkest hour are the sweetest songs there are. They are freedom songs. Victor Frankel, a doctor who survived Nazi death camps during WWII and went on to author a brilliant book called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” wrote
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
This last of human freedom – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, is the freedom that Paul and Silas demonstrate while they are in chains. It is Christ’s freedom, to suffer but not to give way to bitterness or hate. To meet meanness with forgiveness and answer curses with a prayer.
The amazing thing is that freedom to choose singing and prayer, even in the darkest hour, is one of the characteristics of the God’s Easter people. We are Christ’s followers, and this freedom to sing in the dark is Christ’s gift to each of us. No matter what difficulties, what disappointments, what losses we must face, “How can we keep from singing?” For our faith is in the God who gives us freedom to sing.

Freedom for a slave. Freedom to sing. What other kind of freedom is there in this story? Freedom to save.

As Paul and Silas were singing, there was an earthquake, and the doors of the prison flew open, and the stocks were twisted out of the floor. The prisoners were no longer shackled. They were free – in the simplest way we know: Free to go. They could have stood up and walked out and disappeared into the night. But they didn’t go anywhere. Why?
The answer is amazing. Because they considered what would happen to their jailer. Indeed, the jailer woke up, ran down to check on his prisoners, saw all the doors of the jail, swinging on their hinges – and he figured that he’s prisoners were gone. He’d failed at his job. He’d be disgraced in front of the council. And he figured he’d rather die than be dishonored. So he drew his sword and was about to fall on it, to kill himself, when Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself. We’re all here.”
It was consideration and concern for someone who wasn’t a Christian that made Paul and Silas stay. They stopped to think about the consequences of their actions on an unchurched person. They stopped to consider what was going to happen to him. They stopped to try to see their freedom through his eyes and so, thought they were free to run away, they chose to stay. They chose the greater freedom to impact another person’s life for Christ.
The jailer is so amazed at their kindness that he immediately falls down, begging to know how he can be saved. Because Paul and Silas cared about what their actions meant for the jailer, he and his whole family were saved.
The point here is that how Christians handle our freedom determines other people’s openness to the Gospel. If we look out only for ourselves, using our freedom to run away from trouble and danger, we may escape. But we will not save anyone but ourselves. If the power of God moves in our lives – like a mighty earthquake – but all we do is free ourselves – we are not free indeed.
How Christians act in freedom
How Christians react to freedom
How we, the Easter people, treat our freedom
Impacts the unchurched, unsaved world. It either condemns them to death (the jailer was going to kill himself) of it opens up the way for them to ask, “How can I be saved?”
Do we consider how our freedom impacts others? Do we behave in a way that shows we care about their welfare, as well as our own? Do we ever exercise self-restraint, freely choosing to limit our freedom for the sake of someone else’s? As we do these things, we begin to show that we have true freedom – the freedom to save.
Freedom in Spirit
Freedom to Sing
Freedom to Save.
These are the marks of God’s Easter people. God grant that they become part of our lives.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Old Melancholy Dane

That's what they called Soren Kierkegaard. I don't think I appreciated K. as much as I should have when I read him in seminary school. But as I get older, melancholy is growing on me. So are hats.
Here's something K. observed about freedom:
People hardly ever make use of the freedom they have. For example, the freedom of thought. Instead, they demand freedom of speech as compensation.
I'm guilty of that, certainly: Speaking freely before thinking deeply. But usually, eventually, I do think. And I'm profoundly curious about what other people are thinking. It's always a little heartbreaking to discover that someone I care about isn't thinking at all.

O, Freedom!

This week the worship "theme" is freedom, and all week I've had the camp song/spiritual going through my head:
O Freedom, O Freedom, O Freedom over me!
And before I'd be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave,
and go home to my Lord and be free.
But, of course, I'm probably the only one who knows that song. Do YOU know that song?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ready for adventure

This morning I got out "The Book of Common Worship" 1947 edition for a little change of pace in morning prayer. The "thees and thous" and "bestoweth"s can make it both a little awkward and very effective. Prayers can't be said quickly and unthinkingly when you are using this older language. And sometimes, perhaps because the idiom is a little antiquated, the meaning behind the words is especially fresh. That was the case for me this morning.

So I'm passing on one of the morning family prayers. Maybe your family will pray it together, too:

O Lord of all good life,

we pray Thee to purify our lives.

Help us each day to know more of Thee,

and by the power of Thy Spirit
use us to show forth Thyself to others.

Make us humble, brave, and loving;

make us ready for adventure.

We do not ask that Thou wilt keep us safe,

but that Thou wilt keep us ever

loyal to the example of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Make us ready for adventure. Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Communications Workshop

Today Mahala (the church's admin. assist.) and I drove to Bloomington for a workshop on church communications. We learned lots of valuable stuff.
One of the things I'm going to remember most, however, will be the speaker's critique of many church comm. pieces which, she said, made people feel self-conscious or guilty.
Examples were a flyer for a kid's program that said, "Where children go to learn values", which implied that the parents didn't teach values.
Or a brochure for credit counseling that said, "When your monthly bills are larger than your paycheck - we can help."
Or a counseling program that said, "Problems can be overwhelming. We can help you get through them."
She said that nobody picked up those pieces, and nobody came for help. So she redesigned them. The credit counseling piece said, "Do you know someone whose bills are larger than their paycheck? Tell them we can help."
The counseling service slogan became: "When a friend suffers grief or loss, let them know about (the counseling center)."
Though nobody would pick up the literature for themselves, they readily picked it up when it suggested they were helping a friend. These redesigned outreach pieces were much more effective. Calls to the agencies went up, and lots of people were helped. Doesn't that make sense?
So - I had a stroke of genius. Here's how to get past the embarrassment people feel at admitting they have spiritual needs; the church needs to design a brochure with the heading -
"Is someone you know going to hell?"
Don't you think that's a great idea? Neither did the workshop leader.
But I made some pastors laugh.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lectionary Monday

I have a great lectionary group - pastors and preachers I really enjoy, who take the scriptures seriously and themselves not so much. Today we were talking about the Acts passage which is the text for this weeks sermon (Acts 16:16-34). In it, Paul and Silas and the bunch get thrown in jail for interrupting culture and commerce in Philippi. It reminded one of us (who spent some time in Washington DC working for politicians - before he was "saved" I guess . . . ) of what Texas Sen. Jim Hightower used to say when people told him that he should tone down his views and take a more "middle of the road" stance on issues: "There ain't nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos."
Isn't that great? Nice to be reminded that even moderation can be over done.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day

OK. Here's the Mother's Day message:

We’ve been looking through Acts to see the signs that characterize the Easter Church – how God’s people live in the light of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. So far we have seen that the Easter Church is marked by courage, revival and integration of us “Gentiles”. And this week we see that the Easter Church is a church “On the Move”

Text: Acts 16:9-15

Paul’s ministry was a ministry on the move. Up to this point, the Acts story has focused around Peter, but as the Church grew and matured, a new leader – a new leading evangelist – emerged: Paul. Paul understood the implications of Jesus’ great commission: To proclaim the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. The story we read this morning traces three very important ways the church was and continues to be “on the move”

The first and most straightforward way that the church is on the move is by moving the Gospel message through space. From physical place, to physical place, over hills and through valleys, by land and by sea, the highways and byways of this world become a conduit for God’s message of love. Did it ever occur to you how strange and wonderful it is that the Bible – our Holy Scripture – the book through which we hear God speaking to us by the power of the Holy Spirit – this most spiritual book contains MAPS of actual places on Earth. Not diagrams of heaven. But Maps – not much different that the maps you pick up at the interstate highways’ visitor’s center: Welcome to Illinois. Maps and facilities, next right.
One of my friends quoted a seminary professor who liked to say of the Bible, “I believe in the Bible – from Genesis to the maps!” Now, our edition of the Bible doesn’t have all the maps in the back. The map of Paul’s missionary journeys is found on p. 117 or your pew Bibles. It’s a little hard to read – but the trip referred to in our story this morning was on the second of his missionary journeys. It’s the dashed line – starting farthest on north on the map.
And the author of Acts is interested enough in geography to give us the route by which Paul gets from Asia (up where the map says Mysia) is where he is when the story starts. They he goes to Troas, sails to Samothace, then to Neapolis, then to Philippi – the capital of Macedonia.
And why is Paul on the move from one continent to the other? Because the Spirit of God has given him a vision of people who need help. That vision – of a man of Macedonia, a man who Paul never met but who needed the Gospel – put Paul on the move through space in service of the world-wide mission of the Easter church. Why didn’t he just stay where he was, and minister to the folks in the region around him? Why didn’t he concentrate exclusively on reaching the unchurched- helping the poor and needy in Galatia and Phrygia? Because the Spirit of God helped him to know that reaching out to those far away was an integral part of Christian life.
Let there be no mistake about it – foreign mission is still a vital piece of what it means to be God’s people. The Easter church is still a church on the move through space – touching the lives of those in foreign lands with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is not something about which it is possible for committed Christians to disagree. There is no Biblical or theological rationale for excluding or minimizing foreign missions from the life of the Church. Churches which seek to be wholly local in focus and concern violate one of the principles upon which the church is based. And they do not flourish. In research conducted by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, who live in north Champaign and are probably the leading scholars conducting and publishing research on church giving and spending issues in the country, the Ronsvalles found that churches that spent less on foreign missions declined in members and influence in the community, actually losing 25% of their members in the years from 1968-2003, while those who spent more than the average on overseas missions actually experienced significant growth and vitality. Churches which were “on the move” through space, sending their mission dollars out to foreign lands, grew in membership by 41% during those same years. Coincidence? Paul would say “no”.
We are God’s Easter people, called as a whole to be responsible for missions far away as well as missions close at hand. Being on the move through space, being involved in ministry with those far away, as well as those next door, is one of the marks of the Easter church.

The church is on the move through space, but as our story shows, it is also on the move through time.

The most obvious reference to time in the story is that it says Paul went out and preached on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a special time in which the Spirit of God seems especially able to move in our lives. OT scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is because the “Sabbath is a day when routines of management are suspended and there is a patterned receptivity.”
You have heard from this pulpit before about the importance of patterning our lives on the calendar of creation – in which every week includes work and the mundane and every week includes a time of rest and focus on the living God. We are creatures made of clay. We are formed out of the dust of the earth by God’s hand. Our creator, who knows us best and loves us most, says that we need to set aside one day out of every seven to suspend our busy-ness and rest and worship Him. It’s in the user’s manual: Every week, one day out of service. Every week.
God’s Easter people are on the move through time – respecting and observing the rhythm of our Creator – which means that we gather for prayer and worship every week to be refreshed and renewed in our faith.
In Paul’s time, the Sabbath still meant Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, but not too long afterwards, God’s Easter people chose to celebrate our Sabbath on The Day of Resurrection – on the first day of the week. Each Sunday is a little Easter, Sunday is the Easter people’s day to put aside our regular routines, our everyday chores, our work a day schedules, and move into a time of openness to the moving of the Spirit among us.
I do not pretend that this rhythm is an easy or effortless one for us. I get up on Sundays, as many of you do, wishing that I could stay in bed, anticipating with a certain amount of anguish, the struggle to motivate my child to get dressed and eat breakfast and get himself to church. Like you, I stand in front of the closet, thinking how much easier it would be to put on blue jeans and work in the garden. And I have to bow my head, as I’m sure you do, and ask God to give me love and patience for the people in this community of faith and, please God, a good sermon. Just like you. I share your struggles with the Sabbath. And, I hope and pray that we also share the Sabbath’s joys: The sense, more times than not, that God has strengthened and enriched our faith through the growing relationships between us, and the beauty of music and liturgy, and the power of His word.
God’s Easter people are on the move through time – and the Sabbath is a special time through which we move.

The Easter church is on the move in space and in time, but, perhaps most importantly, the Easter church is on the move in the hearts of those touched by God. By moving through space, by moving through time, Paul succeeds in reaching Lydia with the Good News of the Gospel. Acts tells us that “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
Lydia is a Greek woman, from the Macedonian town of Thyatira, and the first named convert in Europe. Just a note – “worshiper of God” is the term that Jews used to describe Gentiles who lived good and moral lives, who observed that Sabbath and who worshipped the one true God. In other words, Lydia was not a pagan idol worshipper. She was a good woman who, on her own, had attempted to draw close to God. Even though she was already, Acts says, “a worshiper of God” – she was open to hearing something new about the God she loved.
There are so many good and moral people we know. Some of them even pray and believe in a higher power. Some of them are mothers. But what a difference it makes when the Lord opens their heart.
Listen to what one of them, Gini Bunnell, wrote about her opened heart:
Erma Bombeck, that much beloved and much missed voice for all mothers, wrote: "Motherhood is the biggest on the job training program in existence today. Motherhood is not a one size fits all. It's not a mold that is all-encompassing and does not mean the same thing to all people. Some mothers have so much guilt they cannot eat a breath mint without sharing it. Other mothers feel nothing when they tell a kid his entire pillowcase of Halloween candy got ants in it, and eats it herself. Some mothers cry when their thirty-year-old daughters leave home and move to their apartments. Other mothers sell their twelve year old son's bed when he goes to a long scout meeting."
When I became a mother at the age of 23, I had a lot of good things in my mother heart. I had youth, energy, some very good role models for parenting, and a super amount of untested confidence. But I had no relationship with Jesus. Although I had been raised in a church, I didn't know what it meant to have an alive and vibrant relationship with the Creator of the Universe who loved me and was intimately involved in the mundane details of my life. I never had prayed for our sons. I never had called on God's unlimited grace for strength, wisdom or creativity. Instead, I depended on my own power, cleverness, insight and instincts.
I relied on my own counsel until our sons, Doug and Scott, were 12 and 10. Then, thanks to God's unfailing mercy and the persistent prayers of a good friend, I asked God to take up residence in my heart. I asked Jesus to be my King, and I've never regretted it.
I have regretted, though, that I never rocked my babies and sang hymns of praise to them. I have regretted that I never read them stories from the Bible. I have regretted that I never modeled for them how a godly woman deals with stress, difficulty and irritation. I have regretted that when they were toddlers fresh out of the bath-tub and ready for bed, I never taught them to pray.
But, the wonderful good news is, God restores the years the locusts have eaten. One of my treasured possessions is a paper that Doug wrote in high school about a typical day in his life. He began, "It's early in the morning...I can hear my brother, Scott, taking a shower, soon it will be my time. I can hear my parents in the kitchen, getting breakfast and discussing scripture..." We never discussed scripture at that early morning hour. More likely we were shuffling around, talking about things like coffee and cereal. But Doug's perception was that we were in the kitchen, alertly and lovingly discussing scripture. Oh the grace of God, to give him that perception!
And God has given me another chance with our grandchildren. I've been blessed to do with them all the things I didn't do with our own young sons. My young mother heart and my older grandmother heart are very different, and what makes the difference is my relationship with Jesus.” (A Mother’s Heart. Spirituality for Every Day. Cupertino CA)
An open heart, like Lydia’s, hears gladly the Gospel when it is shared, and Lydia responds by opening her home to the missionaries, in Christian hospitality. Her home became a beachhead in Europe for the growing young church and the center of the congregation to whom Paul wrote: “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy because of your sharing in the gospel with me. I am confident of this, that the one began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
God’s people are a people on the move: Moving through space, moving through time, and moving in the open hearts of those who give their lives to God. This Mother’s Day, and every day, my we be Easter people, ever on the move.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Top Ten List to Love

I thought this was very funny:
It's a top ten list of why men shouldn't be ordained.
I'm so blessed to have been born in the right denomination and the right time not to have to fight this battle for myself. But, if I had to, this is the way I'd "fight" - I'd aim to disable the "enemy" with laughter.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Making Decisions - Moving Ahead

"What does God want me to do in this situation?"
"Which alternative should I choose?"
"How do I know whether it would be better to do A or B?"

When facing difficult decisions - stay or go, this job or that job, stand and fight or cut your losses and run - it seems to me that the temptation is to think that God has the one right answer already set for us. We plead to know God's will as if it were the answer to a trivial pursuit card that God is holding in his hand. We pray for just a peek at that magic card that tells us what to do.
And God can seem like a pretty smug opponent we're up against. God is keeping the answer a secret from us and making us guess! And if we are faithful, we'll guess right? Or if we guess right, that's proof that we are faithful? Or if we pray hard enough, God will give us a fat juicy clue?
Maybe God isn't holding all the cards. Maybe God is just holding us.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton
—Thoughts in Solitude

Monday, May 7, 2007

Seasons of Faith

Tonight is Session, and I'm going to open the meeting by asking Session members to describe their current spiritual lives in terms of a season of the year. Is your faith wintry right now? Hot as the Fourth of July? Somewhere in between?
I don't know how I'll answer.
It seems to me like it is a good thing to ask each other, though. Too often church meetings seem to put the highest priority on getting through the agenda and out the door. We miss the opportunity to have an quality time with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I don't want this church to get lost in busy-ness and that's a temptation. If we aren't loving and caring for each other in Christ's name, what are we doing?
So what season is it in your soul?

Good News on Sunday Morning

The neighborhood hummingbird has found the feeder on the back porch. Yesterday morning, as I sat on the back porch going over my sermon for the morning, there he was. And he came back, off and on, all day.
Tim reported seeing two of them jousting. Last year, one hummingbird refused to share the feeder with other hummers, so we're going to get a couple more feeders this year, and see if we can't satisfy the selfish little things. I don't let the sugar water run out. There are several places to sit, and at least 6 openings in the feeder we have. More than one hummingbird could certainly use it. I don't know why they can't share!
It's another example of scarcity thinking in an abundant world.

Believe it or Not!

Believe it or not, I've had requests to post Sunday sermons on this blog. And I just figured out how to do it. So - Here is May 6th's sermon. The Scripture is Acts 11:1-18

This Easter season we’ve been looking at the Marks of the Easter Church

The characteristics that the people of God – the church – take on in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.

The first one was courage. If you don’t have courage, it doesn’t matter what else you have – because you won’t be brave enough to do anything about it.

The second mark of the Easter Church is revival. We are re-vived, returned to life by the power of Jesus resurrection.

The third characteristic that can be seen whenever the Easter church is truly present is integration. The Easter church is integrated.

(Acts 11:1-18 here)

Integration is usually a word we hear in connection with schools, not churches, isn’t it? Growing up in Topeka, Kansas – the origin of the landmark integration case Brown vs. the Board of Education – in which the Supreme Court struck down the tragically unfair system of separate but equal public education for whites and African Americans, I lived and breathed the excitement and the challenges of integration in the schools I attended. By the time I got to Topeka, any hesitation about sharing schools with families of different colors was either long gone or way under the surface. We were proud of our integrated schools. Race was like a new subject in school. Like learning a language by immersion, we were picking it up as we went along. And I’m sorry that my child is missing an opportunity to learn that dialect every day, face to face in the hallways of his school.

Integration is a word we usually associate with schools, not churches. But did you know that the Easter church represents a remarkable example of racial integration? I see you looking out of the corners of your eyes. Has Cindy lost her mind? No. I know. Churches, especially American churches, usually don’t cross the American racial divide of African American and white. Martin Luther King once said that it was a crying shame that the most segregated hour in Christian America was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. That’s probably still true. A recent study by sociologists from Rice University found that fewer than 3% of all mainline churches – like the Presbyterians, God bless us – are truly multiracial, having at least 20% of its members be of a different race than the majority.

So if the Easter church isn’t integrated black and white, what, you may ask, do I mean when I say that the church is integrated? Well, quite simply, I mean that before there was black and white, there was a racial divide just as obvious, just as pervasive, just as challenging as the one between African Americans and whites in America. It was the line between Jew and Gentile in the early church. Let’s review the basics: Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jewish. The early church came into being as a sect of Judaism, as a reforming movement within that other religion.

Attitudes toward Gentiles were . . . racist. Gentiles were thought to be vulgar, smelly, having only a crude spiritual life, animalistic. Differences in culture – eating habits, dress, music, etc., were highlighted on both sides of the racial divide. And contact was minimized.

The leaders of the early church believed that their job was to bring more Jews into their new sect. But the Risen Christ was already beginning to move them in another, more integrated direction. Remember how, in last weeks lesson, a woman who had both a Greek and a Hebrew name was revived by Peter. She was on the edge, between the Jewish and the Gentile world. Then Peter went to stay with Simon, a tanner, on the edge of town. Because tanners worked with dead animals, it was really frowned upon by observant Jews. And the location, on the edge of town, is not only a physical place, where fewer people would be disturbed by the smells of the tanning process. It is also a spiritual location: at the outer limits of Peter’s known spiritual universe.

While staying there in this liminal space, Peter has a disturbing dream. The dream is disturbing because in it, dividing lines between clean and unclean – Kosher lines – are broken. In the dream, a sheet full of all kinds of animals is lowered in front of Peter’s eyes. Some of the beasts are considered good eatin’ – that is allowed – for Jews. But some of the animals are strictly NON Kosher. And in the dream, Peter hears a voice, God’s voice, telling him to eat what is set before him. God forbid! Peter cries. I’m a good Jew. I don’t eat that nasty stuff! To do so would change who I am! But God insists. Three times.

The dividing line for Peter between “his kind” and the rest of the world is the line between clean and unclean – kosher and not. If we think of dietary rules at all, we think about those we adopt ourselves, voluntarily, for reasons of health or weight control, or because of specific taste. Some of us don’t eat margarine. Some don’t touch butter. Some limit sweets, or red meat, or whatever. My only dietary rule is I don’t eat anything blue. Peter’s dietary rules were not like that. He understood the kosher rules to be given by God, to set apart a people for himself. To violate those rules would be to break down the wall that protects him from the profane, unclean Gentile world. But that is exactly what God does in the dream.

What are the dividing lines that we believe rightly separate us from other people? Here are some possibilities: Race and ethnicity. Income. Level of education. Sexual orientation. Family connections. Church affiliation. Maybe you can come up with others. Old timers/newcomers? South side sitters/ North side sitters? I wonder if we can think of a dividing line that it would upset us as much as Peter was upset by God telling him to cross. And if we do become aware of dividing lines in our own heads, can we imagine God saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call dirty.” It’s a tough-y, I know. But think of this – That’s what had to happen for us Gentiles to get integrated into God’s people. Dividing lines had to be broken for us to get in.

Second, for the Gentiles, like us, to get integrated into the church, boundaries had to be crossed. When Peter woke up from his disturbing dream, there were people at the door, with an invitation to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, an Italian stationed in the Mediterranean city dedicated to Caesar by King Herod. Caesarea was a beautiful, new city, but not one where a Jew would feel at home. (Present day Caesarea has something that might make Presbyterians feel at home, though: Israel’s only golf course is in Caesarea. My Dad used to say, I don’t mind a bad sermon now and then, if it at least has one thing new I can learn. That’s your factoid for the day.) The story in Acts tells us that when he went, he took some believers with him, probably because he was nervous.

It’s natural for people to be a little nervous when they are venturing across boundaries. Did you see the front page story in the news gazette about the exchange program between the rural Caitlin High School and a predominantly African American high school in Chicago? On the bus up to Chicago, those kids were apprehensive.

Integrating the early church required that boundaries be crossed. Peter had to go, meet Cornelius, talk to him, and listen to him. In the same way, if we are to be God’s Easter people here and now we need to cross our familiar boundaries, whether that is a street, the railroad tracks, the city limits of Urbana, or the state line.

I am so proud of your young people, who are taking a literal trip - crossing literal boundaries in order to encounter something out of their experience – rural poverty of Appalachia. I truly believe that this congregation is being led by its young people into a future where mission to God’s neediest people is a priority. For Peter, crossing the boundary between the Jewish and the Gentile world was a faith changing, life shaping experience. When he crossed that boundary, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Peter met someone he experienced something that he wouldn’t have ever “gotten” in a million years if he had stayed on the fishing boat with his Jewish crew in Galilee. He experienced integration.

And the life of the church, the course of Christianity and the DNA of every Christian was altered forevermore. Opening the church to Gentiles, like us, changed what being a Christian meant profoundly. It enabled the Good News of God’s love for us in humanity to be shared, not just in a little sect in the middle east, but around the world. It changed everything from how we eat to what we believe. “I believe in the holy catholic church” – Catholic means all encompassing.

The Easter church is an integrated church. And the integration is never “done”. Breaking down divisions between people, crossing boundaries to met those who are different – these are part of what it means to be a Christian. It is how we got invited to the table, and it is how people who are at the table live.

As we come to the Table of Jesus Christ, let us do so mindful of the dreams, and the courage of those who extended Christ’s invitation – even to Gentiles like us. And let us be strengthened by the very life of Christ – his body and blood – to continue to invite and include others. Integration is a mark of the Easter church.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Faith Perspective

Soren Kirkegaard wrote, "Life is understood backwards, but must be lived forwards."

'Makes it tough for "a stiff necked people" - as Moses described us in the Old Testament.