January 27, 2019 - The Heart and Soul of the Church: What Do You Have to Offer?
This morning we continue our series of messages from the book of Acts, with this week’s message coming from chapter 3:1-10. Before moving into what I have to say about the text, I want to tell you about a conversation I had with my mom about ten years ago. My home church had recently called a new minister, and in the course of our conversation I asked my mom, how is the new minister doing? Her response included a pause and then a well…. Obviously, I couldn’t let that pass, as there seemed to be a story there, so I asked why the hesitation in her answer. Her reply was surprising, as she said, well, he doesn’t really preach. Doesn’t preach, I said. What does he do then? My mom then gave a very interesting reply, as she said, he doesn’t really preach. He gives Bible studies instead of sermons and they are not the same thing. I have thought about that statement a number of times over the years, and I believe my mom is correct – preaching is not the same as leading a Bible study. Obviously, preaching includes a Biblical text upon which a minister expounds, but preaching is more of a “birds-eye view” of a text. A sermon does not go into the level of detail that one would encounter in a Bible study, where there is an opportunity for questions, answers, and discussion. A sermon is much more thematic and may only draw from one verse or one phrase from the longer Scripture text (I understand not everyone would agree with the manner in which I have defined preaching, so I will acknowledge that is my opinion and my point of view). I mention this because this morning I will focus on just one phrase of today’s Scripture text. The text we are studying tells the story of Peter and John entering the temple one afternoon, at the time of prayer, and as they entered the temple they encountered a man who had been unable to walk from his birth. The man asked Peter and John for money, and Peter gave his famous reply silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk. In this message I want to concentrate on the words of Peter – what I have I give you– as I speak about what we have to offer in service to God. Follow along with me as I read from Acts 3:1-10 – 1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. I want us to think this morning about what it is that we have to offer to others in the love and service of Jesus. What do you have to offer? What do I have to offer? I want you to know these three truths this morning – 1. Everyone Has Something to Offer. When I was living in Louisville in the early 80s, and attending seminary, I visited a lot of churches. After visiting a number of different churches, I began attending one regularly. I really liked the worship services and the minister was an outstanding preacher. It was a rather large church and was located in a neighborhood of Louisville that was quite prosperous. I would drive into the parking lot on Sunday morning and park my old clunker of a car between BMWs, Mercedes, and Jaguars. I attended a Sunday School class that was comprised of very successful individuals, while I was living a hand to mouth existence as a poor student. There were times I would sit in that Sunday School class, or in worship, and think to myself, what am I doing here? I don’t belong here. I certainly don’t have anything to offer that compares to what the people here are able to offer. When I recall those thoughts, I realize how wrong I was. Love and ministry do not function as a game of comparison, where we see how we stack up to others. Love and ministry do not function as a competition, where are trying to outdo one another. Love and ministry have nothing whatsoever to do with what the person sitting next to you is doing or giving. Love and ministry have everything to do with using what God has given us to use for his kingdom. Throughout my years of ministry, I have heard so many people remark that they do not have anything of value to offer to God. People will say they have little or no money to offer, little or no talent to offer, little or no ability to offer, and on and on the list goes. Nothing, however, is further from the truth! Every person is equipped by God with a gift or gifts to offer in service to His kingdom. Listen carefully to what I have to say – you have something to offer! God has not left you without talents and abilities. In fact, God has given you something special that can be used in ministry to others. Luke 21:1-4 tells us the story of the widow who put two very small copper coins in the temple treasury one day (1 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”) Luke notes that the rich were also putting their gifts into the temple treasury that day. Now, I don’t know, but I imagine the widow could have felt that, in comparison to the rich, she had very little to offer. She put in two mites, which were the smallest of coins, and which had very little monetary value. It would have been easy for her to believe that offering such a small gift was of no value, certainly not in comparison to the much larger gifts offered by the rich. Jesus, however, commended her above all the others, which was a great testimony to what she had to offer. John 6:1-13 tells the story of the feeding of the 5,000, and out of the six passages that tell of the feeding of the multitudes it is this one that tells us that a young boy offered the five loaves and two fish (1Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee [that is, the Sea of Tiberias], 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. In verse 9 of that passage Andrew says here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? Even in the voice of the disciples you hear the skepticism that such a small amount could accomplish much. Philip could only see what they did not have in terms of resources – where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? As Andrew presented the young boy with his meager rations, he too wondered out loud what difference such a small amount could accomplish – here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?Well, Philip and Andrew were about to find out just how far those few loaves and fish would go, weren’t they? One of the elements of this story that I love is that Jesus had the disciples pick up 12 baskets full of leftovers. Do you know why there were 12 baskets? I assume it was because there were 12 disciples, and Jesus wanted each of the disciples to carry the bounty of what God was able to provide, so they would not be as prone to doubt the miraculous provision God is able to make. In this story, we also see the beauty of young people; they don’t tend to have the sense of defeatism and doubt that we have as adults. We call itreality, as we tell them you have to be realistic, you can’t do that. That’s not possible. I’m just telling you the way the world works. Well, maybe it’s time we start telling them how God works! Do you think so? Maybe it’s time for us to stop thinking from a theology of scarcity and impossibility to one of bounty and possibility! Do you think so? How often do we think too small? How often do we hope for the equivalent of a few tiny coins from God when he has so much more to offer to us? Take a few minutes and read I Corinthians 12:4-31. In this passage, Paul writes of the reality that every person is gifted by God in some capacity, allowing them to work for the greater good of His kingdom. Paul specifically refutes, in this passage, the idea that anyone is without some gift, or that some gifts are of lesser value or lesser importance. As he writes in verses 6-7, there are different kinds of working, but the same God works in all of them in all…now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. What are the gifts that God has given to you? Do you have trouble seeing yourself as possessing gifts and abilities that can be used in God’s kingdom and the church? You have something to offer! 2. What Will You Offer? The man made a request of Peter and John directly. Notice that Peter did not say let me find someone who can help. Maybe one of the other apostles are more skilled at this and they can help you. No, Peter did not shift the responsibility responding to anyone else. He helped. Love and ministry can be shared, but they are not outsourced to the extent that we become exempt from the responsibility to offer and to use what God has given to us. Notice also that Peter and John were going into the temple to pray. It was church time, and they were going to worship. By ministering to this man as they entered into worship, they demonstrated that prayer and worship are not simply about affirming right beliefs or simply showing up or asking God to do something or asking God to find someone to do something. No, prayer and worship lead usto action. Peter and John demonstrated there is a connection between what takes place in worship and outside of worship as they were moved to action. One validates the other. What happens outside of worship relates to and validates what happens in worship. If nothing is happening outside of prayer and worship, nothing is really happening inprayer and worship. Peter’s willingness to act on behalf of the man validated the reality and the integrity of his faith. Peter and John did not simply attend worship; their lives were an act of worship. The question becomes then, what will we offer? What will I, as an individual, offer in service to God? 3. What You Offer Makes A Difference. Even when we are not aware of it, what we do makes a difference to others. I have told you, on other occasions, about people who have made a difference to me, and whose lives made a big impression on me. One of those people was someone I met when I was in college. One of my best friends, Kim Frazier (who also introduced me to Tanya) introduced me to a guy name Rich. Rich was a great singer, songwriter, and musician. He led a band named Zion, and we would attend their concerts in churches around the Tri-Cities (Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol) area of northeast Tennessee. In the summer of 1978 Rich was the Youth Minister at First Christian Church in Kingsport. Several of us drove to Kingsport one afternoon to visit with him and when we walked into the church office looking for Rich, we were told to wait in the sanctuary and they’d send him out if they could find him. At that time, First Christian was a very formal church, both in worship and the way in which people dressed, and I remember Rich walking into the sanctuary, barefoot, wearing tattered jeans, an old T-shirt, and with long hair. I remember thinking, I wonder how this goes over at this church? He was carrying his acoustic guitar and sat on the edge of the platform and played and sang a bunch of songs. It was a great afternoon. Rich’s talent was eventually discovered by people in Christian music, most notably with Amy Grant, who recorded his song Sing Your Praise to the Lord, and then others. Rich began recording his own albums, finding great success in Christian music and writing many classic songs, several of which we sing regularly here at our church – Awesome Godand Step By Stepby Rich Mullins. But what is most interesting about Rich’s life was that he was not interested in what his success brought to him, at least not in terms of the money he generated and the renown that came his way as well. Rich set up a foundation and directed all of the money he earned to go to that foundation. From that foundation he was paid $25,000 a year, which he believed to be the typical annual earnings of many Americans. The remainder of the money – which I’m sure was very substantial – was given to charity. He once gave a tour’s worth of income to a church planter in Columbia, South America, to begin a ministry in the slums of Bogota. He asked that he not be told how much money he earned, because he knew how addictive money could be. Rich died, sadly, in 1997 in a car accident in Indiana. By the end of his life, Rich had stepped away from the spotlight, which was a place where he was never comfortable. He was receiving, by that time, only $1,000 a month and was living in a small trailer on a Native American reservation, teaching music to children. I imagine that a lot of people thought he had given up too much. Imagine, some people certainly said, what you could do if you continue using with the platform that brings so many people to your music. Imagine what you can do to help others with the amount of money at your disposal. That is how I felt, honestly. Rich had given up what I so strongly desire, and I couldn’t imagine giving up what was, in my opinion, something of so much value and importance. But for Rich, he wanted to see close up the difference he could make, and he knew it did not take a lot of money or public renown to make that difference. He wanted to see the difference that could be made when you plant your life somewhere, when invest your life somewhere, and when give your life somewhere. His example caused me to do a great deal of re-evaluating the manner in which I was living. The other person who made a difference to me is Judy Norris, who was the wife of Bill Norris, the minister at my home church from my 6thgrade year of school into my college years. I have spoken before of Reverend Norris, who was the primary role model for me as a minister, but his wife, Judy, was important to me as well. Mrs. Norris led our children’s music and directed the plays at Christmas and the other productions we presented. My friends and I often made her life, I’m sure, very difficult. We were not the best-behaved kids, most of the time, and I imagine she would have been happy to recommend that we go down the street to the Methodist or Presbyterian churches. But she was patient with us, even, I’m sure, when she felt anything but patience. Mrs. Norris was also a writer, publishing several devotional books. One of those she presented to me when I graduated from high school, which I still have. About five or six years ago I wrote some letters to people who influenced my life in important ways, and one of those letters went to Mrs. Norris. I thanked her for all she had done for me and told her I still had the book she had given me, and I shared the inscription she had written inside the front cover. Mrs. Norris passed away not many months after I wrote her that letter, so I was glad I had taken the time to write to her. She sent me a very kind letter in reply, which I have kept. I could go on and on with individuals who have made a difference to me, but I will instead add a group of people, and that group of people is you, the members of this congregation. As a minister, I live in an odd world. I live in somewhat of a bubble, separated, often, from what we refer to as “the real world.” It is a world that is 24/7, and I am out most evenings and on weekends as well. It is a world in which I am sometimes called out in the middle of the night, or away from a family activity. It is a world in which I don’t often see the results of what I do, and I am often left to wonder if what I do has any bearing on anyone or on the world in any way. That is one of the reasons why you all mean so much to me and have had such an influence upon me. You are kind, encouraging, and very important to me. During the time of communion in the early service, David played the hymn Now I Belong to Jesus. I love that hymn. When I was a teenager, and attending church camp, we sang that hymn each time someone was baptized, so hearing the song today brought back many fond memories to me. It also brought a great truth to mind, and that is this – I belong to Jesus, to a great extent, because of people like you, people like Bill and Judy Norris, and so many others. There are many people who have helped to shape and to mold my faith, many people who have been examples and mentors to me, and many people who have nurtured and guided my faith. I am grateful beyond words for each of those individuals. What do you have to offer? I will answer that question for you. You have so much to offer, and you have already offered much. Continue to offer what God has given to you and know that as you do, you are making a very great difference.
January 6, 2019 - The Heart and Soul of the Church: Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing.
2019 is going to be a good year. I know this because I did something totally crazy and unpredictable yesterday. After we finished taking down the Advent decorations here at church I went to McKinley’s for lunch. I have been eating lunch at McKinley’s for years, and I always order the same thing – a turkey sandwich on wheat with lettuce, regular chips, and an iced tea. I’ve ordered that meal so many times I think they start fixing it when they see me walking up the sidewalk. Well, yesterday I went totally crazy and ordered something different; I ordered a turkey and ham sandwich with no lettuce on Italian bread. And toasted. I think I put the McKinley’s staff into a state of shock. Okay, I’ll admit that it wasn’t radically different, but for me it was, which tells me that 2019 is going to be an exciting year since I stepped out of my comfort zone and placed a different order! In recent years I have not preached a New Year’s message, although I suppose this is sort of one. Last week I began a new series of messages titled The Heart and Soul of the Church, in which we will study passages from the book of Acts. The passages we study tell us of the priorities of the early church, priorities which should then be ours as well, so in that sense, a series of messages about priorities becomes a good message for the beginning of the new year. One of my favorite activities over the years is water skiing. I love to water ski. My mom’s oldest sibling, my aunt Katie, and her husband had a summer cottage on a lake in eastern Ohio. Down the hill from their home was a really great double-decker dock, with a diving board and, much to my delight, several boats. We spent many summer weekends skiing up and down Austin Lake, and I loved it. In the 80s, when I lived in Anderson County, I continued to pursue my love of water skiing with some friends, as we skied up and down the Kentucky River. At one point, my friends and I tried to use a knee board, without success. If you have ever water skied with one of those contraptions, you will know it is very difficult to get started on one without continually falling. We finally had an idea – one person would get on the board while I would float in the water, holding the board steady. I would continue to hold onto the board as the boat began to pull the board and the slack went out of the tow rope. As the boat gradually picked up speed, and it was obvious the person on the board could maintain their balance, I would then let go of the board while the boat and the person on the board went on down the river. It seemed like a really great idea, until I realized I was left to float in the middle of the river while waiting on them to return, wondering if they actually would return. If you have ever spent time on the Kentucky River you will know that it appears to be very still, as though there is no current. Until we moved out to our farm when I was 5 or 6, our backyard went to the bank of the Ohio River. The Ohio River has a very strong, dangerous current, and we were always told to stay away from the river. Floating in the Kentucky River, I believed I was not moving, but I found that to be very deceiving. As I floated in the river, thinking I was not moving, I eventually looked to the shore and realized that, although it seemed there was no current in that part of the river, I had moved quite a distance. The moral of that story is there is not only drift in a river, but there is driftin many other places as well, such as a church. This morning, the passage we will study tells us about the reality and the danger of drift. The concept of driftis one that applies to businesses, individuals, and, yes, to churches. Driftis what happens when we begin to move away from our core principles. Drift is something that takes place imperceptibly and is generally not noticed until something has gone wrong or there is a realization that an individual or entity has driftedfar from their most foundational of principles and purposes. I want to emphasize that I am not saying that is what has happened to our church; I am, instead, offering this message as a reminder – and we need reminders on occasion – that we must always remain vigilant against the dangers of drift. This morning’s message is titled Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing(not the most original of titles, I’ll admit). This message is about taking care not to drift from our mission as a church. Our text for the morning comes from the 6thchapter of the book of Acts, a very familiar passage about the calling of the first deacons. The passage comes from an issue the early church was having in their ministry of feeding people. There were some who felt they were being overlooked, so the apostles got together and decided there needed to be another position of leadership to take care of managing the ministry of serving food, so they selected a group of seven individuals who would become the first deacons. This passage marked a very significant development in the organization of the church. This was a moment when the church was growing rapidly; adding ministries, such as the feeding of people in need; and the church faced a corresponding need for organization and thoughtful planning. I have used this passage a number of times over the years, often when new leaders are installed or when an ordination takes place. Instead of focusing on the usual part of this passage, which is the selection of the first deacons, I want to focus upon the reason why those deacons were selected. In verse 2, the apostles say that it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God. This is an interesting verse. Were the apostles simply uninterested in helping with an important ministry? Did they believe they were too important to work at a task such as feeding others? No, there were certainly no such reasons for their decision not to do so. The apostles believed they should not be helping with the feeding ministry of the church because they had a task to which they were called, and they knew the importance of keeping to that task, because their work played a very significant role in the growth and expansion of the church. If they lost their focus – if they failed to keep the main thing the main thing– it could have endangered the rapid growth and spread of the church because it would cause the church to driftfrom its primary purpose, which was to reach people for Jesus. It is very easy in churches to lose sight of our primary calling, which is to testify to the love of God as shown in Jesus. The early church did not have a plethora of programs and ministries; they were, instead, focused upon spreading the Good News of Jesus. There is nothing wrong, however, with the many ministries that churches practice. Those are good and needed ministries, and they obviously make a difference in the lives of many, many people. It is very important, however, to never forget the reason whywe practice those ministries, and that is because of Jesus. Serving Jesus and living like Jesus is the core of who we are, and that calling cannot get lost in all of the other activities and things that we do. Everything we do as a church should be designed to help us to better serve that purpose and calling. Follow along with me as I read the text, Acts 6:1-6 – 1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. I want to break this passage down into three areas of focus, three areas that tell us what the apostles were doing in relation to keeping their focus on the goal of the church. If you read through the book of Acts, you will find that the apostles were always practicing and preaching these three things – 1. They Called People From Something. As the apostles preached and taught, they called people fromsomething, which is what we find throughout the Scriptures. Allow me to offer a few examples of this. Abraham is a great example of being called fromsomething. Abraham bursts onto the scene in the book of Genesis when he is called by God to leave his homeland and go to the land I will show you(Genesis 12:1). Abraham was, presumably, living a very secure life in Harran, which was his home. When he is called fromHarran, Abraham was leaving behind his security and everything that represented security. Who wants to leave behind security? No one. When God calls us, however, security is not something that we can count on, at least not in the normal ways in which we think of security. When God calls us, we might find it necessary to give up the security of where we live, the security of our career, and other matters upon which we base our security. Moses is another great example of one who is called fromsomething. Moses was born to one of the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 2). When Moses reached the age of three months his mother placed him in a basket and put the basket in the Nile River. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went to the river to bathe, she found the basket and took Moses to raise as her own. Moses was raised in privilege and power. He was a prince of Egypt, raised in the house of Pharaoh, with the possibility that he might one day ascend to the highest levels of power. God, however, called Moses from his power and privilege in order to lead the Hebrew people out of captivity. Moses left behind his life of power and privilege and eventually embraced his role as a deliverer of God’s people. David, as another example, was called from his youthfulness and his inexperience to the role of the one anointed as the next king of Israel (I Samuel 16:1-13). Samuel the prophet was instructed by God to go to the home of Jesse, David’s father, where he would anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king. Jesse was so certain that David would not be a candidate that he did not bother to call him in from the fields. One by one, Jesse paraded his older sons before Samuel, and each of them were rejected as the one chosen to be king. Finally, Samuel asks are these all the sons you have? (I Samuel 16:11). Imagine everyone’s shock – including David – when God reveals that David is the one who has been chosen to be king. When I was young, I did not always take seriously my responsibility to serve. I often thought of serving as something that would come later, when I became an “adult.” And, to be honest, I wasn’t always taken seriously when I was young, and, unfortunately, that is an attitude we often have towards those who are young. God, however, called David from his youthfulness and his inexperience and into a position of powerful leadership. When we come to the New Testament we find more examples, such as Peter, James, John, and Andrew. We know these four were fishermen, and Jesus called them from their work and their careers into a life of leadership and service (Matthew 4:18-22). I don’t know if Peter, James, John and Andrew left fishing behind forever. Perhaps they continued as fishermen to some extent, as they needed to make a living to support their families. We don’t know for sure if they found support to serve in ministry after being called by Jesus, but one thing is certain, and it is this – these four men no longer concentrated on their work and careers to the extent that they did previously. We live in a culture that pushes work and career very strongly, and while it is a blessing to receive a good education, to find a good job, and to make a good living to care for our families, there is more to life than work and career. God calls us froma preoccupation with work and career to a life of service, caring for others and using the resources we gain from our jobs to help those in need. What might God be calling you from? 2. They Called People To Something. We are not only called fromsomething; we are called tosomething, and that is to serve. The first deacons were called to be servants. The word deacon, in fact, means servant. The words deaconand diaconateare words that are taken directly from the Greek language into the English language. The first deacons were those who literally served, as they fed people who were hungry. We continue in that tradition with the many ministries in which we are involved. Members of our congregation serve at the Serenity Center, distributing food each Wednesday to hundreds of people. Members of our congregation serve at God’s Kitchen, providing lunch. Members of our congregation serve at the Diersen Center, leading worship and having a time of fellowship with the residents of that facility. Members of our church have served with members of other congregations and with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help settle a family of refugees in our country. Members of our congregation serve as tutors with Arriba Ninos. Members of our congregation serve as Stephen Ministers. Members of our congregation serve as Sunday School teachers and Vacation Bible School leaders. Members of our church serve as drivers to help transport people to church and to vital appointments. Members of our church serve as visitors to those who are homebound and unable to attend church or to be out and about in the community. And in many other capacities, members of our congregation go about the important work of serving others. We are called tosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than living for ourselves. We are calledtosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than using our financial resources simply for ourselves. We are called tosomething as an important reminder that there is more to life than using our time only for ourselves. We are called tosomething as an important reminder that others are very much in need of our help and our service. What might God be calling you to? 3. They Called People For Something. Simply put, we are called forlove. In our culture, we are used to the idea that we ought to love and serve others. Even businesses recognize this and encourage their employees to be involved in service projects, such as working at food banks or helping to build a Habitat house. This is not, however, the way societies have always been. The Roman Empire, under which the apostles lived, was not interested in love; they were interested in domination and power. Love became part of the culture because of the church. In our society there is a great emphasis on loving others, and this is the legacy of the Gospel. It is not simply happenstance that love has become a foundational principle in our country and in all of Western society. Love is foundational because of the Gospel and the church, and we can never drift from that calling. Tony Campolo was, for many years, a professor at Eastern College in Philadelphia. He has on various occasions told the following story. It is a story I share as a reminder of how easy it is to drift from our primary purpose as a church. I do not share this story because I believe we have drifted, but as a reminder to always remain true to our calling. On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little life-saving station grew. Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now, the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired life-boat crews to do this work. The life-saving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a symbolic life-boat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did. As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown. We are called forsomething, and that is to share the good news of the love of God in Jesus. The love of God is good news, not bad news, and not a terrible judgment to be inflicted upon people. This is who we are called to be, and what we are called to do, and we must never allow ourselves to drift from this calling!
As a general rule, I do not repeat sermons. To me, an old sermon is a bit like leftovers after a meal; a bit stale, not quite as fresh as the first time, and just not as appealing. I do, however, use bits and pieces of some older sermons on occasion, and will repeat some stories if I haven’t used them in a while. One of the main reasons why I don’t often repeat sermons though, is that by the time I finish reworking them it would have been simpler to write a new message. I say that for this reason – I went home from the office on Monday not feeling well and was out sick much of the week. Late in the week I decided it would be helpful to use a previous sermon, but after reading over the one I chose, rewriting it, and reshaping it, it really didn’t save me any time. The message comes from 2010, when I did a series titled Answering the Skeptics. The title of the message is Why I Believe, which is one that is probably worth sharing from time to time, because it is really less a sermon and more of a personal testimony, and I believe a personal testimony to our faith and our belief is one of the most important presentations we can offer. I have often been asked Dave, why do you believe? Sometimes that question is asked because people want to know more of my story, in relation to my faith. What role has faith played in my life, how did I come to faith, and why did I come to faith? Sometimes it is asked as more of a challenge, in a why in the world would you believe that stuffsort of way. I believe the question why do you believeis one to which we should all have an answer. Most of us were born into faith, making it so much a part of our identity that we do not think about why we believe; we simply do. I was raised to believe. I was raised in a family where faith was important. I was raised in a family that attended church every week. Because it was important to my family, it was important to me. At some point, however, it was necessary for me to fashion an answer to the question of why I believe. To simply say that I believewas eventually not enough. It was necessary, as I became an adult, to decide what role faith would have in my life once I became independent of my family. It became necessary for me to decided how I would answer the challenges to faith. It became necessary, basically, for me to develop my own faith, a faith that was not dependent on my family. This morning I will speak to you about the three areas that have formed my belief, shaped my belief, and continue to hold me to that belief. Those three are the head, the heart, and experience. I believe that faith and belief are very much of the heart, but I also very strongly believe that building and keeping that faith is a result of using my head. Undergirding both of these is my personal experienceof faith, that is, the way my faith and belief has carried me through some of deepest struggles and enriched my greatest blessings. Our text for the morning comes from the 11thchapter of the book of Hebrews, the famous passage about faith. Follow along as I read Hebrews 11:1-2, 13-16, 32-40 – 1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. 1. The Head. Our culture is very much oriented towards the heart side of things. We love to say things such as you’ve got to stop using your head and start using your heart; follow your heart, not your head; and your heart will tell you what to do. Well, that’s not always the best of sentiments, because the reality is, sometimes we have to use our head more than our heart. We need a careful balance of both, and the same is certainly true when it comes to faith. Sometimes we need to use the head – the brain – that God gave us in order to give an answer to some of the challenges that are presented to us, because the heart is not going to give us an adequate answer. Some of the challenges presented to us are very common and also very shallow, but they continue to persist and so we must answer them. Some of them, honestly, are on the level of a student that has just experienced their first ten minutes of philosophy class and believes that qualifies them as an expert on everything. I was once one of those students. Two days into college I thought I was so smart and so wise that I went to the store and bought a pipe, and I would sit in my chair in my room or in the lobby offering my incredibly insightful opinions about every matter of importance in life, all the while smoking my new pipe. If I could have grown a beard I would have done so, which would have allowed me to stroke my beard thoughtfully while smoking my pipe. As I smoked my pipe and opined about all manner of things philosophical, I thought I was the living embodiment of Rodin’s The Thinker statue. Actually I was more like Goober, in the episode of the Andy Griffith show when he grew a beard and suddenly believed himself to be a genius. It was embarrassing for me to act that way, and I can’t believe I’m actually telling you I did such a silly thing! When we use our minds we will find, for example, that the oft-repeated news reports of declining faith, belief, and church attendance, are not actually accurate, because the ways in which faith and belief are measured are not always the best measures to use. For one, they are often measured by institutional participation in religion, such as church attendance. While I am all for church attendance, I also recognize that lots of people who have a very vibrant religious faith do not attend church, at least not on a regular basis. Secondly, when people are asked to name their religious affiliation, the answer given is increasingly “none,” especially among young people. Researchers have often assumed that a religious affiliation of “none” means people have no personal faith or religious belief, which is absolutely not true. Large numbers of those who self-classify as “nones” have religious belief; it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily attach itself to an institutional expression. And third, the change (I prefer the word “change” to “decline”) in belief is almost exclusively applicable to Western society. Much of the rest of the world is seeing an explosion in religious belief, to the point that atheism and disbelief is not increasing as a percentage of the world’s population, as is often assumed or often claimed, but is actually decreasing. About 85% of the world’s population can be classified as religious, which is an extremely high percentage, and the percentage of religious people, worldwide is increasing while the percentage of atheists, worldwide, is decreasing. The mind will also tell us that another oft-repeated charge against faith, that Christianity has started more wars, been responsible for more deaths, etc. than anything else in historyis a completely false claim. It is so demonstrably not true that I find it amazing that people with a great deal of education continue to perpetuate this falsehood. Anyone who makes that claim, certainly anyone who has been to college, where it is so often perpetuated among pseudo-intellectuals, should ask for a refund on their education. There are serious questions to consider about belief, but some questions aren’t at all serious, certainly not in terms of their accuracy, and the charge that Christianity has caused all the wars and brought about more deaths than anything else in history is one of them. When you hear that claim, it only takes a little bit of the head to say, no, that isn’t true. Can you back up that claim? No, you can’t. It’s not that I do not take seriously the arguments against faith by skeptics. I have thought a great deal about those arguments, but I find most of them wanting. A few require more thought, but that is why God has given us a mind to use, because sometimes it takes more than just the heart. Sometimes we have to put in the hard work of thinking, and studying, and debating, and drawing conclusions that help to strengthen our faith. For me, my mind tells me that the evidence of God is too overwhelming to dismiss. I have thought a good deal, for instance, about where we come from – about where everything comes from – and I always come back to the conclusion that the proposition of some that the existence of humanity is the result of nothing more than a chain of random events, and that human consciousness somehow magically came into being as an outcome of those random events, is a stretch that that I not only cannot make, but one that I find to be irrational and impossible to believe. I simply cannot, for instance, believe that the universe and all that it contains came about because of a series of random events. When we include human consciousness into that equation, I find it completely impossible to believe that consciousness can arise out of nothingness. Human consciousness is something much, much deeper than chemical and electrical reactions in our brains. While consciousness is based upon those reactions, there is something far deeper and more mysterious about how those reactions form our consciousness. I Peter 3:15 tells us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. Don’t be afraid to engage your mind in regard to faith. I have thought a great deal, I have read a great deal, and I have studied a great deal about faith and about the questions related to faith, and also about the objections and challenges to faith, and the end result of that study and thought has been the strengthening of my faith. 2. The Heart. Having said all that, faith is something that does not come to everyone through the head, and through logic, and through debate. Some people have been argued and debated and reasoned into faith. I have had some interesting interaction recently through social media with a scientist, who is a former atheist and now a Christian, who came to faith through logic and the intellect. I very much look forward to reading the story of his conversion, in a book that will be out this spring. But probably more people find faith the domain of the heart, and more people respond through an appeal to the heart. While I believe that a good, logical argument can help to open the way to belief, I don’t want just the logical appeal to faith. Jesus spoke to the hearts of people far more than he spoke to their intellects. His parables were masterful stories that could tug at one’s heart rather than make them nod their head in intellectual agreement. Read through the gospels and you will find that much of what he had to say was directed more to the heart than to the head. Much of our worship is designed to appeal to the heart rather than the head. As I prepare a message, I try to have some appeal to the head, but I more often appeal to the heart, because the heart is the language of our day. I remember a seminary professor of mine coming into class one morning and pausing his lecture after just a few minutes, telling us about a visit to the church of a student over the previous weekend. He told us, don’t just speak to my head, because you’re not going to tell me something I don’t already know (though the remark sounded somewhat pretentious, it was certainly an accurate observation). I want, and need, someone to speak to my heart. This is why we have music in worship and why it plays such an important role in our services, because music speaks to the heart. When we hear the choir sing a beautiful song or David shake the foundations of the building with an organ piece, does anyone think, that combination of a 6/4 time signature and the use of legato notes, along with the proper use of pedal tones is the logical thing to do and it results in a nice feeling in my head. No! We respond because it touches our hearts! The church, for so many centuries has used beautiful, wonderful, majestic art to touch the heart. When Tanya and I visited Rome several years ago we went to the Vatican, which was an overwhelming experience. When we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, the beauty of that sanctuary filled our hearts. Just after entering the doors, I looked to my right and there was Michelangelo’s Pieta, a stunning piece of art that I had studied years before in Humanities class, and now it was right in front of me. As we walked through the sanctuary, everywhere we looked was a beautiful piece of art that testified to the greatness of God. When we entered into the Sistine Chapel, and gazed up at the unbelievable art that covered the ceiling (from which the picture on my title slide is taken), it was an incredibly powerful moment. The chapel was packed with people but was absolutely still, as the crowd of people looked upon that great work of art that has inspired millions of people over the centuries. As I looked at that work of art I wondered how can anyone not believe? 3. The Experience. One of the really interesting things to me about Jesus is this – he called his disciples to walk with him through life, inviting them into a personal experience. Yes, he spoke to their minds and he touched their hearts, but he also invited them into an experience. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew he said come, follow me(Matthew 4:19). It was an invitation to walk the roads of experience, to spend time together, to experience life and ministry together, and to tie together the head and the heart into a personal experience. There is nothing like personal experience to serve as an open door to faith. If you have traveled as a part of a mission or ministry team you probably found that experience to be one of the most powerful in your life. Why is it that people will give up a week of their time, endure bad food and cramped and uncomfortable sleeping spaces, work in uncomfortable weather and difficult conditions, and then say, at the end of the week, this was one of the most amazing weeks of my life? Why? Because the experience of helping others is powerful and life-changing. This is why I have been a lifelong advocate of church camp for young people. Camp was a very powerful experience for me. That one week would carry me through an entire school year. In the midst of difficult days at school I found great encouragement to know that camp was only months, or weeks, away. For many years now, as an adult counselor, I have witnessed the life-changing experience that camp continues to be for so many. People walking into our church want to experience something. They want to know that the music, the message, the prayers, and the fellowship will facilitate the moving of the spirit in this place and in each of us to bring us to an encounter with God. For me, the personal experience of faith began at home. Faith is more often caught than taughtsomeone has said, and that is certainly true in my case. My faith was caughtfrom my parents, from experiencing how it impacted their daily lives. As I remember, neither my mom nor my dad came from families that were church-going families. My mom’s mother, because she married a Protestant, was denied communion and thus rarely attended church the remainder of her life, so my mom would walk, with one of her brothers, to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My uncle didn’t really go to church – he would hang out with friends – but he would walk my mom to and from church. My dad’s family were Episcopalians but didn’t really attend church. My dad and his brother, as kids, would sometimes walk to a Methodist church in their neighborhood. My mom and dad were married in an Episcopal church in Steubenville, Ohio, where my mom by then was attending, but my dad didn’t want to attend an Episcopalian church, because when he was nine years old his father died, and his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from their mom. Because of that he disassociated himself from them, including their church affiliation, which is a reminder that a negative experience will shape a person’s reaction to faith as powerfully as will a positive one. I saw faith as something very real to my mom and dad, and it made a huge impression on me. It wasn’t just that they took us to church; it was seeing the role that it played in their lives and how real it was to them that made a difference to me. They didn’t really talk about it that much, which may be what made it more powerful, because I saw that it was more about actions than just words. I have two brothers who are also ministers, and we are often asked if our father was a minister. He was not, although he told me shortly before he died that he was thinking about possibly finding a small church he could pastor after he retired from where he worked. My dad was a steelworker, and my younger brother is also a steelworker and not many years ago began his move into ministry. He was not a very likely candidate for ministry, and he would agree with that description. After many, many years of rejecting spiritual things, a personal experience of faith entered his life and changed it dramatically. It was not long after our father died, and I was home, and my brother and I stood just outside of the garage – I can see it in my mind and can remember it as though it were yesterday – and my brother spoke of how our father’s death brought him back to a realization of his need for faith. It is proof, I believe, that after all the arguments for and against belief in God, it really, I think, comes down to some kind of personal experience with God. Something happens to us. We can’t force that kind of experience on someone else, certainly, but we can help to facilitate the opportunity for the experience to happen. That’s why I’m such a strong believer in the local church. I believe in being connected to something – there is greater power in the many rather than the one, and the connectiveness that we have one with the other can help to bring about that experience with God. I know that church is not always a positive experience for some people. I’m a minister, so I can say it’s not always been a positive experience for me. I have been through my share of difficult experiences, but I couldn’t imagine ever letting go of this beautiful experience called church, or maybe more correctly say I can’t imagine this beautiful experience called church ever letting go of me. What would my life be like if I did not believe, I sometimes wonder. To be honest, there have been times when I thought in some ways it would be so much easier to not believe. My time, my money, my life is all mine, but that seems a very impoverished way to live. Without belief, my life would certainly be so much poorer. Belief has affected every facet of my life. It was belief that helped me survive adolescence, surrounded by the drug use and abuse of so many of my friends, and helped me to avoid going down that road. It was belief that led me to Milligan College, to prepare for ministry, and where I met Tanya. Without belief I would have certainly been in another school and life would be very different. It was belief that led me to the different churches I have attended and served throughout my life – including this church – and I can’t imagine how much poorer my life would be without each of you and the countless others who have entered my life. Without belief I would not be in ministry, and I would not have had the opportunity to be invited into so many lives, where I have been given the gift of walking through the joys and sufferings of others. Without belief I would not know the gratitude I have for the people who have invested in my life and whose love for me and confidence in me give me the strength to continue in my belief every day. Many of those saints are gone now and you would not know most of those names. My heart will forever be inscribed with their names and their influence. Thankfully, there are many people still involved in my life – among them every one of you in this church – and not a day passes without my giving thanks to God for the people he has brought into my life. And that is Why I Believe.
January 20, 2019 - The Heart and Soul of the Church: Community.
How many of you have visited Shaker Village, just outside of Harrodsburg? How about New Harmony, Indiana, in southwest, Indiana? Both Shaker Village and New Harmony were attempts to create a utopian community, and both were based, at least in part, upon the example found in our Scripture text for this morning. That Scripture text comes from a passage in the book of Acts telling of a time in the early church when there was an atmosphere of community that could be described almost as a utopia. Luke writes of how the sense of unity and community in the early church was so strong that no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. That example has been so powerful that, throughout history, there have been numerous attempts to recreate that level of community, such as Shaker Village and New Harmony. Shaker Village was established by the religious group known as the Shakers, who reached their peak in this country in the mid-1800s. If you have never traveled to that community, I would highly recommend that you visit there. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, and you can also get a good meal there while visiting. New Harmony lasted, as a utopian experiment, only a couple of years, while Shaker Village lasted longer. The Shakers founded communities that spread throughout the eastern and northeastern areas of our country, eventually growing to a point of thousands of followers. Since their peak years, the Shakers went into decline and there are now, I believe, only two Shakers still living. The desire for community is one of the most powerful longings that God instilled in humanity at creation. While we all need our times of solitude, none of us can survive without being part of some kind of community, and the image of Christian community as shared by Luke in the book of Acts has become the model for an ideal community. Follow along with me as I read that passage, Acts 4:31-37 – 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. 32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. This morning I want us to consider the idea of community in relation to three qualities that define Christian community, as found in the early church. 1. Caring. The first aspect of this passage that jumps out is the amazing level of care that existed in the early church. There was an incredible level of sharing that took place, where people sold their possessions to care for those who were in need. The early church created what did not exist at the time – an infrastructure for support. We are blessed to live in a time and in a society where there are many “safety nets” for those who are in need. Safety nets are provided by our government, by churches, and by a number of civic groups and private agencies. During the time of the early church, the Roman Empire had no such social safety nets. If you were in need, you had better hope you had friends and family who would look after you. It was a tough time in history to be in need, and there were many, many people who were in great need. The early church provided what was not provided anywhere else, and that is an atmosphere and a commitment to caring. There was in fact, so much care that was offered, that Luke was able to write in verse 34 that there were no needy persons among them. Wow! Can you imagine? That is quite a statement Luke is able to make about the level of caring that was found in the early church. Caring, whether for physical needs, emotional needs, or spiritual needs, has always been one of the very core ideals of the church, and has been so from the beginning, and the willingness and the demonstration of caring is one of the defining characteristics of any church. Churches that demonstrate a caring spirit are not only ones that reflect the spirit of Christ, they are the churches that will thrive and will remain tied to the purpose for which they were called. Churches that do not demonstrate care, well, the outcome for them will be much different, sadly. When we fail at caring – either corporately as a church, or as individuals – it can be very hurtful to those who are in need. All of us have probably been on both sides of that equation, either neglecting or overlooking opportunities to care or to be the one who felt neglected or overlooked. Some of my greatest regrets not only in ministry, but as a person, are the times when I missed, or neglected, opportunities to care. As a congregation, we work hard to bring all of what we do back to the call to care. Every one of our ministries is built upon the foundation of the call to offer care. On the first and third Thursdays of each month our Stephen Ministers gather for a time of continued training and teaching. The Stephen Ministry motto is Called to Care. Laine Kephart leads us in this ministry, and Laine is amazing in her leadership. I have come to very much appreciate those times that we gather. For me, it is like a small group time, and I appreciate being with those who gather, not only because of the fellowship, but because of what we learn and because of the example of caring that each one of those Stephen Ministers exhibit. Laine asked us a question this past Thursday night, asking us to think of a time when we were in need, and then asked if that need was met or not met. The line between those two responses makes all the difference in the world. A need that is met can change a life. A need that goes unmet, in comparison, adds to the difficulty a person is already suffering. It is interesting that, after this passage of a utopian-like community, we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife who both died after misleading the church about the gift they offered (Acts 5:1-10). Remember, the books of the Bible were not originally divided into chapters and verses; each book was one long piece, with no divisions like we have now, which results in the separation of stories. I say that as a reminder that the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a part of the longer story from which our Scripture text for this morning comes. One of the points of that story, I believe, is that Ananias and Sapphira had not simply misled the apostles about their gift, but their dishonesty brought about a disruption in the spirit of community in the early church, causing that sense of community to be seriously damaged, which then damaged the ministry of the church, specifically damaging the ministry of care. Being dishonest about their resources and the giving of their resources was a very big threat to maintaining the spirit of community that allowed the high level of care to take place. 2. Encouragement. We have a lot of geese that fly over our neighborhood, and I enjoy watching the beauty of them flying in formation. You have probably heard the illustration of the way they work together as they fly. Researchers tell us that they fly in the V formation because it helps to create an air flow that supports the geese that are flying further back in the formation. Those geese, because they have had to exert less effort to fly, are then rotated to the front, where they take turns in leadership. The one in front, taking its turn as the leader, must be able to handle turbulence and headwinds, which comes from being in the lead. After a turn in the lead position, each of the geese is then able to move to the back of the formation to receive rest. While in flight, the others are honking out their encouragement to the one in front as they are flying. At least that is what I have read. Personally, I think some of the ones in the back might be honking out something else, such as I think you are going the wrong way,orcan we stop and take a break? Here is something very significant about encouragement – it is not only very much needed, but a little bit makes a tremendous difference. Something as simple as a kind word, a friendly greeting, or a reminder to someone that you are praying for them can serve as a great source of encouragement. Imagine the encouragement it was when someone in need received care from the early church. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was hungry to receive food. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was lonely to receive fellowship. Imagine the encouragement it was for the one who was mourning to receive comfort. And on and on we could go. In verse 35 Luke tells us of Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement). Joseph, or Barnabas as we know him, became a living example of the power of encouragement. Imagine the difference Barnabas must have made for many, many people, as his name was changed because of the power of his encouragement. 3. Belonging. Community is very important, and very necessary for all of us. We all want to be part of a group. It was the English minister John Donne who wrote those immortal words that sum up the human condition – No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's Or of thine own were: Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. Indeed, none of us is an island unto ourselves. We were created with a powerful need to belong, and that need to belong is one of the primary reasons why people become a part of a church congregation. Beyond the larger gathering in worship, people find their place to belong in a Sunday School class, a ministry, or some other smaller group which allows us to get to know one another better. And when we speak of belonging, here is something important about which we must speak – there are no membership requirements in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, and by extension the church – there are no requirements for membership and belonging. I have been a member of various civic clubs and community groups and they all have some requirement in order to join, but that is not so when it comes to the kingdom of God. Churches should not have membership requirements either, although some do, which I find rather unbelievable. Whenever I get the opportunity, I like to wander around church buildings. I like to look at their sanctuaries, Sunday School rooms; I enjoy looking around church buildings. When I do, I often read the literature that is in the foyer of the buildings. In recent years when I have done so, I have found, on more than one occasion, applications for membership. Can you imagine, an application for membership in a church! I cannot fathom such a thing. The applications ask for all kinds of information, including the applicant’s position on various theological questions, and then will state that the candidate for membership must also submit to an interview by one of the ministers or lay leaders in order to judge their fitness for membership. One of the reasons why some churches do this, I imagine, is to enforce an orthodoxy upon every member, I find such a practice to be very objectionable. God’s kingdom has an open door policy! It is a kingdom where everyone can belong and that extends to the church as well! In the Roman Empire, life was much better if you were a Roman citizen. The problem, however, was that most of the people who populated the Roman Empire were not citizens of Rome. But that worked in the church’s favor, because people needed a place to belong, they needed a place where others would care for them, they needed a place where they would be encouraged, and they found that place in the church. Because the church was open and welcoming, and because the church gave people a place to belong, scores of people came into the church. The early church was often criticized, however, because they welcomed everyone and because they were egalitarian in nature. It did not matter if people were male or female, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, or any other distinction. None of those differences mattered, because the church welcomed everyone and gave everyone a place to belong. The Shakers were also looked at with great suspicion, because they were a place in society – in the 18thand 19thcenturies – where women and people of other ethnicities were treated equally. A lot of people didn’t like that about the Shakers, just as a lot of people didn’t like the free and open welcome that the early church offered. In my first message in this series I talked about the Council at Jerusalem, from Acts chapter 15, where the leaders of the early church joined together to discuss whether or not there would be restrictions and requirements placed upon those who wanted to become part of the church. Thankfully, they rejected the idea of placing any restrictions and requirements upon people, which makes me wonder how churches today can justify having an application for membership. Those lines of separation are created by humanity, not by God. In God’s kingdom, everyone belongs. We are now in the 30thday of a shutdown of our federal government. I’m going to say something about that shutdown and it is not meant as a political statement as much as a spiritual statement, so please do not mishear me. Humanity is obsessed with borders and boundaries, and as much as humanity is obsessed with borders and boundaries, God is not. Borders are a political issue, not a spiritual issue, because there are no borders in God’s kingdom; borders only exist in earthly kingdoms. I realize that does not answer the questions about security and other matters related to politics, so please don’t read into what I am saying what I am not saying. What I am saying is this – as humanity has a tendency and a desire to create walls and borders, God removes walls and borders, because walls and borders are not conducive to community and to belonging. We are too easily conditioned by the ways of the world to think that borders and boundaries are a natural part of life, but they are not part of God’s creation. Humanity was created to be in fellowship and to live in community, not to be separated from one another. If we desire to truly live in community then we must recognize that we are part of one community – God’s community, which is a community that is not about boundaries and exclusion, but about inclusion and belonging. While humanity too often draws boundaries to demonstrate who is not included, God’s kingdom is about the reality that all are welcomed and included. We must not allow ourselves to be conditioned by exclusionary tendencies of humanity. We must, instead, be shaped and molded by the inclusionary will of God. We live in a time when people are desperate for authentic community. In God’s kingdom, and the church, we find that community. Let us do all we can, at all times, to be that authentic, welcoming, caring, supportive, and encouraging community as was the early church!
I Corinthians 13, A Guide for Life: When It All Passes Away The text of the message of Sunday, November 4, 2018. I Corinthians 13, A Guide for Life: When It All Passes Away.
Though I don’t remember who it was, or the circumstances in which it was said, someone once told me, “you know Dave, you have basically one sermon. Every sermon you preach follows the same theme.” I don’t know if they meant that as a criticism or as a compliment, but either way I would say it’s basically true. All of what I have attempted to say over the years, at times in very muddled and stumbling ways, has been about the love of God. That’s pretty much my one theme. I decided long ago if I was going to have one basic theme in my sermons that ought to be it – the love of God. That doesn’t mean I consciously ignore other themes, but everything comes back to the love of God as primary because that is the great theme of Scripture and of our faith. And I know it sounds overly simplistic to say that everything ought to come back to the love of God, but the truth is, it is easy to get sidetracked into other matters, and that often happens in churches. So if I have one theme in my messages, if we have one approach in all of our ministries, and if we have one theme in our worship services, let’s have it be the theme of the love of God, because that’s what it ought to be, and everything else we do and say should be a way to help us to better understand and to live that one basic truth.
Continuing with our series of messages from I Corinthians 13, that is the theme – the love of God. Paul has a lot of underlying themes in this passage, but love and the love of God is the overriding theme. This morning I am going to read from a rather new translation that you probably have never heard of, and it is called The Passion Translation. Like The Message, it translates the words of this passage into language that sounds very different from what we are accustomed to hearing, but it is a very good translation, I believe.
I Corinthians 13:1-13 (The Passion Translation)
1 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. 3 And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value. 4 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. 5 Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. 6 Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. 7 Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. 8 Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. 9 Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, 10 but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. 12 For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. 13 Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.
I like that version, and I hope that you do too.
This morning, I want to use verse 10 as a touchstone for what I will say. Verse ten says that “when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away.” I like that verse – “when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away.” What that means, I believe, is that we are living with a lot of the partial in this life. We are living in a kind of shadow world, a shadow world that is a very, very dim version of the reality that God intended for creation. This world is not yet where God wants or intends for it to be. What we see is just a little bit, just a portion, of what God desires. When we experience the greatest joys and beauties in life, we are experiencing moments that give us an inkling, a glimpse, into what will one day be. You know what kind of experiences I mean. I’m speaking of those transcendent moments in life, when we feel lifted above and beyond the cares and the struggles in life, the moments when we feel the fullness of love and blessing in our lives, and the moment when the powerful movement of God washes over us. Those moments can be few and far between, and too fleeting when they come, but they are powerful moments, and they are moments that put us in touch with a greater experience of God and the presence and the love of God.
I also like the final sentence in this passage, and I want to read it again and offer a few thoughts about that verse before moving on. The last sentence of that passage says, “so above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.” That’s an interesting way to portray love, isn’t it, as though it is somewhat elusive, something that must be pursued and in some ways, certainly, it is. Love does not always come naturally to us, because at times, self-interest takes over, so pursuing love has to be a very conscious effort, and a conscious effort that is ever on our mind. In my younger years I used to run a lot. Now I walk mostly, with just a bit of running, because running for so many years did a bit of damage to my joints. My joints ache, I have a torn meniscus in my right knee, my other knee often hurts, my feet hurt, but the good news is that it’s not from age; it’s just the wear and tear of all those years of running (at least that’s what I tell myself). One of the things I did to keep me motivated to run each day was to run in races – 5K and 10K races. Those races were great motivation to run every day because I didn’t want to be unprepared for a race. And what I liked about running in those races, aside from keeping in shape, was that they had a very simple goal – get to the finish line as quickly as possible. I do so much better when I have a very clearly stated goal, such as getting across the finish line as quickly as possible.
To expand on the analogy of running, here are a couple of things to remember. The first is a question – “what is the prize for which you are running in life?” Running can mean you are running “from” something as well as “to” something, but there is a difference in those two perspectives. Running “from” something, it seems to me, is more fear based, but running “to” something is the pursuing of something good, and hopeful, and this passage is very much one of hope. We can run “from” our problems and worries or we can run “to” the goal of a life that is rooted in love and not fear. The prize to which we are running, then, ought to be that of love. Second, running reminds me of the importance and the need for being with others. I often ran with a friend, and it was very helpful for me to do so. When I did not feel very motivated, my friend helped to motivate me. My friend pushed me and challenged me when I needed to be pushed and challenged, so I don’t know how well I would have done if I had been entirely on my own. We do better when we are with others, don’t we? That’s why I believe attending worship is so helpful and so important, because when we gather here together we find strength, comfort, and encouragement as one body.
This passage is also, I would say, a passage of prophecy, specifically, a prophecy of hope. I don’t imagine many people think of this passage as a prophecy, but it is. It is a prophecy because it gives us that glimpse into what life will be like when the will of God comes completely into being. We’re certainly not there yet, are we? It is easy to be impatient waiting for that to come, and odds are we will not see it come in its completion, but one day it will come to pass. Paul is writing about the reality that all the things that are antithetical to love will one day pass away, and while we are living in times of difficulty and times of challenge, these words are a promise – they are a promise that things will one day be different.
So now I want to turn our attention to what fades away, or passes away. What fades away, what passes away, are the things that keep us from experiencing love in its fullest capacity. So let’s think for the rest of our time this morning about what will pass away. Some things need to pass away. Some things are way overdue in their need to pass away. The good new is – the days are numbered for those things that must pass away! Here are some of the things that need to pass away, and one day will pass away.
Fear, worry, and anxiety will pass away.
The call to worship for this morning (Matthew 6:25-34, from The Message – If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes) is about worry and anxiety, but in a different translation than we are used to hearing, and it’s a passage from which I have preached on more than one occasion. I understand that fear, worry, and anxiety will never completely fade from our lives, but they do not have to hold us captive. It’s amazing how some things, at the time, can seem so huge and so ominous. Years ago, when I was an associate minister, I was asked to lead a youth church softball league. I was the new guy in town so I imagine I was an easy mark to draft for such a task. A group of about a half dozen people came to see me one day and asked if I would take on the task and I agreed, even though I knew nothing about organizing or running a softball league. The final words of the group, as they left my office, were, “if you need any help, any help at all, don’t hesitate to let us know.” That was the last I ever saw any of those people. I never saw them or heard from them again. I’m certain they changed their phone numbers and their addresses. In fact, I think they all went into the witness protection plan! I was in the church office the evening before the first game, trying to complete the schedule and other matters, and I was so stressed out that I thought my head was going to explode. The next day, at the first game, everything was a mess. The schedule had conflicts, there were many matters I did not have covered, people were upset, and I was ready to leave town. In retrospect, what is interesting is that I had forgotten all about the stress and anxiety of that moment until a few days ago, as I was working on this message. What seemed like such a huge deal at the time, it turns out, really did not matter, certainly not in the grand scheme of things. Why did I worry so much about something so inconsequential in life? I like to turn things around, from bad to good, so I believe we can learn from such moments, so here is what I believe we can learn from those moments of stress and anxiety. Those moments can help to prepare us for the much greater difficulties of life, those things that really do matter and that inevitably come our way. Those moments helped me when I was faced with much great difficulties, especially early in ministry, when I needed to learn how to deal with crisis situations, such as the time I was called to the scene of an accident where a young boy had been hit by a car. I arrived at the scene to find a very difficult situation. His injuries were very serious, his grandfather was on the ground crying and begging God to save him, and I was asked to go and tell his mother what had happened, and then to take her to the hospital. Thankfully, he recovered and did very well, but I don’t know how I would have handled that situation if not for what I had learned from other moments of stress and anxiety. Such moments also prepared me for the times sitting at the bedsides of people as they departed from this world, to hold their hand and think about how much we would miss them, but to hold to the hope that we would once again be together, as Paul says in verse 12, “one day we will see face to face.”
Hatred will pass away.
Hatred is all around us and has been with us from the beginning. It’s relatively easy for humanity to make progress scientifically and technologically. We are constantly making better cell phones, faster and faster computers, and making advancements in so many other ways, but when it comes to learning how to love and rejecting hate, we have as far to go as ever. The knowledge of humanity grows but the nature of humanity continues to struggle with the scourge of hatred.
When I was young, our family farm had a large field that stretched from the front of our house to the road. In the spring it was a carpet of dandelions. I don’t know how many seeds there are in a single dandelion, but I know that one dandelion will produce scores of dandelions. In fact, one dandelion can produce enough dandelions to cover a field of several acres because those seeds produce many more dandelions that in turn produce many more. That is a good example of how hatred – or love – can grow. One action, one word, however small they may seem to be, is a seed that is planted in the soil of the human heart. That action, that word, will in turn, plant other seeds of either love or hatred. Verse 8 says “love never stops loving.” No matter what. Love never stops loving when harsh and ugly and dehumanizing words are hurled at others simply because they are different in some way from the one with hatred in their heart. Love never stops loving, even when hatred bursts into a grocery store or a school or a place of worship and takes lives. Love never stops loving even when the bomb of a terrorist takes lives. In verse 7 Paul writes that “love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.” We all need a safe shelter from the hatred in this world, and what a beautiful hope that one day we will indeed find it. We used to think of churches as safe places. We worship in sanctuaries, a word that means a safe place and a place of shelter, but that is no longer true, sadly. Schools used to be places of safety but no longer are. In spite of this tragic reality we must continue to believe and to proclaim and to work for the truth that love will win over hatred and that hatred will one day pass away.
Disease, suffering, and even death will one day pass away.
I am now early in my 10th year here at First Christian, and I don’t believe I have ever seen a time when as many people from our congregation have struggled with health challenges and with difficult medical diagnoses. Not a week that goes by that I don’t get at least one phone call from someone with a really big challenge. Increasingly, it seems to be every day that I receive a phone call about those challenges, and sometimes several calls in a single day. They are calls in which people share the challenges they face and ask for prayers. It seems that for every two or three steps of forward progress made by medical science, disease takes four or five steps forward. But we must remember that the promise of God is that disease will one day pass away and we will be free of the suffering that has so long plagued us.
And we look around the world and there is so much suffering. So much. Even in our own small community. We serve lunch at God’s Kitchen, for those who need a daily meal. Next week we will travel to the Diersen Center, to lead worship and to visit with the residents there. When we visit with the women there we listen to them talk about their children from whom they are separated, and it is so heartbreaking. Every week we have volunteers at the Serenity Center helping to pass out food to literally hundreds of people. And beyond all this there is so much suffering that we don’t see, but the promise of Scripture is that one day all of this will be overcome, and all of this will pass away.
And there is that great challenge, finally, that life is so temporary and will one day end. On Friday evening I attended a gathering with Tanya and her coworkers. Every fall they have a bonfire and time of fellowship and I go with her and I enjoy getting to know her coworkers. In past years, when the company was smaller, I knew all of her coworkers but this year there were a lot of new people there and most of them I didn’t know. About halfway through the evening, a disturbing realization hit me. It was mind blowing to me and it was this – I was the oldest person there. Tanya likes to hire young people and her office is populated mostly with people in their 20s and 30s, but it was still a jolt to be in the unfamiliar position of being the oldest person in attendance at a gathering. I was tempted to ask the few people there who looked to be similar in age to me “how old are you? Please tell me you are older than me!” I couldn’t help but wonder, how did I so suddenly and so swiftly arrive at this point in life? Where did the time go? It seemed such a short time ago that I was one of those young people and most everyone was older than me, and now there I was, the oldest person present. Life is so brief. Life passes by so quickly. Our sojourn in this life is but a moment.
Early in my previous ministry one of the members of the church told me, “you know Dave, if you stay here very long you are going to have a lot of difficult funerals to do.” And he was right. It was a small congregation and a small community, and I got to know those people like family and they became an important part of my life and I did indeed, over the course of my more than eighteen years of ministry there, have many, many difficult funerals, including the person who said those words to me. I’ve spent a lot of time with people as they take their last breath, and it becomes overwhelming. I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals, and I have many more to go, and that is overwhelming when I think about it. Please understand that I don’t mean to be morbid, because that is not my intent. It’s hard for me to imagine, though, if this were all there is. I would be so discouraged and so in despair if I thought that life was passing by so quickly and that at the end of life there was nothing else. Can you imagine, if we had nothing but several decades and then nothingness? But I know there is more, and you do too. The great, prophetic words of Scripture promise us that there is more. While anxiety, worry, fear, hatred, disease, and struggle will all pass away, so will death. As Christ was triumphant over death some day we will be as well. In the passing away comes something new. As the book or Revelation promises us God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). While so much passes away, the great gift of life continues. The gift of life, created in love and empowered in love, continues because of love, the great love of God!