This is an excerpt from Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew: When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God. As I thumb once more through my stack of Christmas cards, I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary. It is remarkable how charitable our culture is to Christmas. After all, who’s going to take issue with a baby boy lying in a manger? Everybody loves a story about a miraculous birth and a family seeking shelter and simple shepherds who get a visit from angels and exotic stargazers “bearing gifts (they) traverse afar.” It’s about the birth of hope. It’s about the birth of innocence. Who’s going to balk at the good news that “God is with us?” You won’t find people to be nearly so agreeable when it comes to Easter: a story of torture and execution followed by the fantastic claim that a man was raised from the dead.And most people, myself included, aren’t so agreeable when that cute little baby starts calling on people to repent. But the truth is it all goes together. You can’t have Christmas without Easter, or vice versa. Without Easter, Christmas is the story of the birth of yet another peasant refugee who would grow up to build a marginal following and then disappear into the obscurity. Without the crucifixion and resurrection there would be no nativity scenes. And with it all comes this unrelenting claim that the one who was in the manger and the one who was raised from the dead has definite plans for all of us. He’s not just the Babe in swaddling clothes, or even just the Savior of all humanity. He’s also the Lord. And it’s ironic. Easter is what makes Christmas such wonderful news. It’s what makes Jesus’ birth the best gift ever. Christmas day ends at midnight next Saturday. The celebration continues on and on. And the news is better than even most of us Christians give it credit for. I hope you’ll celebrate with me this morning.
In the Flesh You may remember this one from last year, but it fits what I want to talk about this morning. And I loved reading it again. I hope you do, too… It punctures my ego (which is often ripe for deflation) to be researching for a message and to find that this same message has already been written and in a much better way than I could hope to myself. That was the case here. I found this quote from Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, and I just had to share it. It originally appeared in her book, Bright Evening Star. I hope you’ll spend some time dwelling on it this morning in preparation for a time of worship: “Don’t try to explain the incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine. Was there a moment, known only to God when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love in to the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy? Power. Greater power than we can imagine, abandoned, as the Word knew the powerlessness of the unborn child, still unformed, taking up almost no space in the great ocean of amniotic fluid, unseeing, unhearing, unknowing. Slowly growing, as any human embryo grows, arms and legs and a head, eyes, mouth, nose, slowly swimming into life until the ocean in the womb is no longer large enough, and it is time for birth. Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be. Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.”
“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect…(Acts 24:5) I’d like to start by drawing your attention to these words from Madeleine L’Engle. You may recall her as the author of the novel A Wrinkle in Time: It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name, and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names, and turn to labels; there are many familiar ones today, such as: Fairy tales are not real and should be outgrown. Christians are people who are not strong enough to do it alone. Chopin is only a romantic. El Greco must have had astigmatism to account for his elongated people. All Victorian poets had TB. Roman Catholics are not Christians. Protestants cannot understand Holy Communion. People who write for children are second-class and cannot write for adults. And the list could go on and on and on. If we are pigeon-holed and labeled we are un-named. Some of you will, I hope, recall me mentioning the word “just” before and the harm that it can do. It’s a word that we use to label and to limit. It’s a word that we use to make a person one dimensional. And usually it’s so we can give the impression that there is nothing more to that person than the thing we dislike about them: • He’s just a drunk. • She’s just lazy. • He’s just a pervert. • She’s just a bad mother. You get the idea. One of the reasons we like to do that is because it reduces a person—makes them small enough to handle. Then we can put them over there in a little corner so we don’t have to bother with them or actually get to know them as a person. This Sunday we’re going to see how often this happens to Paul once he actually arrives in Jerusalem. From the time he gets there through the end of the book of Acts, we’ll see people in power seek to vilify and, in the end, execute Paul. Their actions lead me to believe that they’re not interested in hearing the truth or treating Paul with decency. They just want him gone for good. We’ll see that this is not the way of Christ. We’re not called to agree with everyone or compromise our beliefs or our integrity. But we are told very clearly be Jesus to love even those with whom we disagree. It’s a calling to a higher way of behaving than we see here at the end of Acts. One I hope we can aspire to.
35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20) Kevin Harney tells the following story in his book, Seismic Shifts: Years ago, a little boy named Dustin entered the Smarties stage of life. It might not be in the psychological journals, but there is a time in the development of every child when they are ready to receive their first pack of Smarties. You remember Smarties, a row of multicolored, chalk-like, bite-size candies wrapped in clear plastic, about 10 to 12 pieces in a pack. They are perfect for sharing. I am not a huge fan of Smarties, but when I saw Dustin come into church with a fresh roll, I just had to ask him if I could have one. Dustin immediately became my Smarties hero. He peeled out a piece with a smile and handed it over gladly. This was surprising enough, but at that moment, something happened in this little boy's heart. From that day on, for the next two years, every time Dustin got a pack of Smarties, he took out the first one and set it aside for me. Every Sunday, Dustin would track me down at church and generously offer me one or more Smarties. He did it gladly, with a smile, as if he enjoyed it… …Dustin loved Smarties. He also loved his pastor. Every week before the worship service began, Dustin and I shared a time of communion. Jesus was present as we shared a few moments of conversation and partook of some Smarties together. Somewhere along the way, Dustin's mother pointed out that the packs of Smarties she bought for him had ten pieces, and she saw this weekly ritual as Dustin's introduction to tithing. What I saw was a little boy who loved to share and who understood the power of generosity. Since that time, I have asked myself many times, How am I doing with my Smarties? I really like that story, because it reminds us that our acts of service don’t need to be grand. It’s the small, every day ways that we take care of one another that, when seen together, constitute the heart of following Jesus. This Sunday, we’re going to read Paul’s farewell message to a group of people that he’s known for a long time. It’s interesting that, in the end, Paul wants his work to be known, not by monumental deeds, but by simple acts of kindness and service. It makes me wonder what simple acts I can be doing.
The following excerpt is from a 2004, Chicago Tribune story about a young man who was a graffiti artist: Cinda Cason never understood the dangers her son courted until he died. She never grasped his drive to climb higher, go farther and mark his name in spray paint, ink and shoe polish. She knew of his long career as a graffiti artist, fought a losing battle against it, hoped he would someday walk away. But she never knew of his trips through tunnels where trains sped by, or how he climbed a 200-foot crane to write his name on the top, or found the strength to mount an overpass on the Stevenson Expressway just so he could leave his mark on steel… A longtime fixture among Chicago’s group of graffiti taggers who illegally write their names on walls, buildings, platforms, buses and trains, Berry was killed in the early morning hours of Aug. 16 . He was hit by a northbound CTA Red Line train near the Morse Avenue station. The death was ruled accidental. He was 22. One of his friends and fellow graffiti artists said of Berry, “He climbed to the highest spots. He had guts. His name was known. His name will still be known.” Berry’s mother didn’t approve of his graffiti work, and she often tried to convince him to stop. She reminded him that there were other ways for him to display his considerable talent. She warned him that he would end up in jail. Her son would simply reply: “I want to leave my mark.” I can identify with the impulse. I’m not exactly a “Type A” kind of guy, but even I have this desire to be known for something. I want to leave my mark in a different way. I want to be respected. Interesting: the other way of saying that is “I want to have a ‘good name.’” This urge to have a “good name” helps us understand our passage for this Sunday. Apparently the name of Jesus matters, too. Some people think they’re going to toss it around for their own purposes and find that Jesus’ name is not to be taken lightly. I think it’s a lesson that we could learn as well.
Another Day, Another Denarius In 1974 Studs Terkel, the writer and broadcaster famous for his “person on the street interviews,” published a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book is a compilation of interviews in which Terkel talked to everyday folks about their everyday jobs. Here is an excerpt from the foreword: This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us… It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book. That balance, the one between working a job and pursuing a vocation, can be difficult to find. It’s difficult to find meaning and a paycheck, so most of the time, we settle for the paycheck. But sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize that we have both. We realize the job we are doing we weren’t meant to do. We realize that our job is about something bigger. This Sunday, we’re going to look at a passage in Acts that talks about Paul’s job. And his profession was not just preacher or missionary. Paul was trained to work in a trade, and, had it not been for that trade, he wouldn’t have been able to do the work that we know him for. God used Paul’s work, a somewhat menial job, to accomplish great things. Perhaps he wants to do something similar through whatever it is that your job happens to be right now.
In his book, The Jesus Revolution, Leith Anderson recounts a trip that he and some colleagues were making to a Communist country where Christians were being persecuted. They were presented with something of a dilemma when a connecting flight left them in a neighboring country overnight. Christians from that country met with them and asked them to smuggle some Bibles into the Communist country that was their destination. That’s where the following excerpt picks up: Overnight, I made a decision. A Bible or two might be risky, but not impossible. However, I wasn't prepared for the following morning's delivery. It was a small library of Bibles, books about Christianity, study tools, and videos. I truly can't explain why we did what we did. We divided up the Bibles, books, and videos among the four of us and loaded up every available space in our suitcases, carry-on bags, and purses. It was not a comfortable experience. When nearing our destination, the flight attendants distributed customs forms representing our names, passport numbers, and the answers to pointed questions. Were we bringing guns, narcotics, or literature into the country? The four of us sat paralyzed over what to write. If we said we were not bringing literature, we were lying. If we checked that we were bringing books and Bibles, we were in serious trouble. … It was one of those moments when the Holy Spirit gave a simple solution that we would not have thought about ourselves. We didn't answer the question. We left it blank. I can't say that we were confident in our choice, but that's what we did. As we passed through immigration surrounded by armed guards and immigration officers, our forms were carefully scrutinized and all four of us were waved through. What I next remember is the secret night meeting when we turned over the Bibles and literature to Christians from the underground church. Their faces still remain with me all my life. I would like to have seen their faces. I have Bibles all over my house. I have literally tripped over them before. They are a common facet of the scenery. I’ve spent my life studying scripture. And yet I wonder who values the Bible more, me with my seminary education, or a factory worker who has waited months or years to hold a Bible of his own, who will then go hide it in a special place that only he knows about so it won’t be confiscated? This Sunday we’re going to read about some people whom Paul encounters on one of his journeys through Greece. These people valued scripture. They turned to it for answers. And, because they had scripture, they were unafraid to hear Paul’s and Silas’ message. I hope that we will have the same courage to search for God’s guidance in scripture.
There was an article in the paper this week about a high school student in Florida who, as a part of a class project, went to the beach and released a message he had enclosed in a wine bottle. That was about sixteen months ago. Cory Swearingen, now a student at Florida Atlantic University, got a message from his high school science teacher saying that the bottle had been found—some 4,000 miles away in Ireland. It had been found by a father and son who were out walking on the beach. It appears that, while rare, Swearingen’s story isn’t altogether unheard of: In 2004 a fourteen year old boy from Baltimore dropped a message in a wine bottle while on a Caribbean cruise. The bottle was picked up five years later, 4000 miles away on the coast of England by a retired electrician. In 1979 a couple dropped a message in a bottle during a Pacific cruise. It was picked up by a man in Thailand. This began a correspondence that led to the couple serving as a sponsor for the man’s family to immigrate to the United States. In 2008 a man in a small, Alaskan fishing village was beachcombing and came across a message in a bottle. It had been written by an elementary school student in Seattle, Washington. What made this one so special was that the message had been written over 20 years ago. The man tracked down the author of the note only to find that she was still living in Seattle, but was now married and working as an accountant. Chance (or providence, depending on how you look at it) is a funny thing. Who knows how things will turn out once events are set into motion? This Sunday we’re going to be looking at a couple of stories in Acts 16 that remind us of this. Two unlikely people find themselves face to face with the Gospel. It has to be one of the most unexpected turns their lives could have ever taken. Both stories remind us that we really have no idea what God might be up to in our lives. They also remind us to be ready when the opportunities arise. Perhaps God is trying to do something unexpected in your life today. Are you ready?
Working Behind the Scenes In one of his sermons, preacher Van Morris points to this story from author Richard Phillips: There are two statues in Washington D.C. that together tell a remarkable story. One is the massive memorial to General Ulysses S. Grant that stands at the east end of the Reflecting Pool, literally in the morning shadow of the U. S. Capitol building. Visitors can hardly miss this majestic depiction of the legendary general atop his war stallion. Grant's military leadership was decisive to the Union's victory in the Civil War, and he is considered a symbol of the force of human will, an icon of the strong man who stands against the storm when all others have shrunk back. Some two-and-a-half miles away, in a pleasant but nondescript city park, stands a more commonplace memorial. The statue of this lesser-known Civil War figure, Major General John Rawlins, has actually had eight different locations and is hardly ever noticed by visitors. Rawlins had been a lawyer in Galena, Illinois, where Grant lived just prior to the war, and he became Grant's chief of staff. Rawlins knew Grant's character flaws, especially his weakness for alcohol. At the beginning of the war, Rawlins extracted a pledge from Grant to abstain from drunkenness, and when the general threatened to fall away from that promise, his friend would plead with him and support him until Grant could get back on track. In many ways, it was Rawlins who stood beside the seemingly solitary figure of Grant the great general. Rawlins' memorial is modest compared to the mounted glory afforded Grant, yet without his unheralded love and support, Grant would hardly have managed even to climb into the saddle. How many times have stories like this been told down through the ages? It seems that, for most figures of great renown, there is someone who has been working behind the scenes—a man or a woman either forgotten or unknown by history. But without these encouragers, the person of fame, whose greatness we laud, might never have been known. This Sunday, as we read Acts 11 together, we’re going to meet one such person. Barnabas (whose name actually means “son of encouragement”) doesn’t have the same reputation as his partner Paul. That’s probably due to the fact that Paul penned much of what we call the New Testament, and we have no such writing from Barnabas. But, as we’ll see, Barnabas is crucial to Paul becoming “Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.” Without him, who knows how things might have turned out? It takes a special kind of person to do what Barnabas does, with special characteristics. We’ll be looking at them during our worship time. In the meantime, let me thank those of you who are like Barnabas here at our church. There are many of you who work quietly behind the scenes, who aren’t out for recognition, who are able to let others get the credit. Thank you for that. God bless you.
The following story comes from an AP News report, back in 2004: On October 2, 2004, 17-year-old Laura Hatch left a party in a Seattle suburb, and that was the last time she was seen for more than a week. No one knew why she didn't return home later that night. No one knew she'd lost control of her car and careened down a steep forested ravine. Laura's parents contacted the police, and a search began. When a week went by without any leads, the Hatches organized a search team of 200 volunteers including members of Creekside Covenant Church in Redmond, Washington where the family attends. When the extensive search failed to produce any results, family members began to assume the worst. "We had already given her up and let her be dead in our hearts," Laura's mother told the media. Sha Nohr's daughter was one of Laura's friends. Norh, a Creekside Covenant Church member, told her distraught daughter that all they could do was pray. But Nohr had trouble sleeping that night. She kept having a recurring dream of a wooded area and heard the message, ''Keep going, keep going.'' The following morning, Sunday October 10, Nohr and her daughter drove to the area where the crash occurred, praying along the way. ''I just thought, 'Let her speak out to us,''' Nohr told the Seattle Times. Nohr said something drew her to stop and clamber over a concrete barrier and more than 100 feet down a steep, densely vegetated embankment where she barely managed to discern the crumpled 1996 Toyota Camry. Nohr discovered Laura in the backseat, conscious, but seriously injured. When the paramedics arrived, Laura was taken to Harborview Medical Center where she was treated for severe dehydration, a blood clot in her brain, broken ribs, a broken leg and facial lacerations. Amazingly, she had not had anything to eat or drink for eight days. The skeptic in me wants to know, “Was this girl really saved by a dream, or was it just luck?” And the only answer I can give to that is, “Why not?” We get so busy telling God what he can and can’t do. But I don’t think we’re exactly in a position to dictate God’s limitation. Perhaps the first rule that we need to learn and relearn is that God is God and we…aren’t. Today we’re going to read a story in Acts where God decides he’s going to save somebody without consulting anyone else. And thanks be to God that he does make this unprecedented and unforeseen move. Without it, you and I would not be sitting where we are today. You and I would not have been granted the wonderful privilege of being called his sons and daughters. And it’s all because God had bigger dreams for his Kingdom than anyone could possibly imagine.
I was forwarded an email from a friend this week containing a discussion of John 20:7. That verse tells us that, when Peter and John ran to the empty tomb after Jesus was raised from the dead, they found his burial clothes and the “the napkin, that was about his head…wrapped together in a place by itself” (John 20:7, KJV). The forwarded email went on to explain that the napkin was folded because Jesus was making an intentional reference to a Jewish custom where the Master of the house folds his napkin and places it on his plate to signify that he’s not finished eating; he’s coming back. Get it? According to the email, Jesus was saying that he’s coming back. My friend wanted to know if this is really what John 20:7 means. Loving a good Bible mystery (nerd that I am), I went back and looked at a couple of commentaries. My verdict? I'm not convinced that this is the point of the folded up head cloth. I couldn't find any reference on the internet or in my commentaries to this Jewish Master legend. More than that, I think this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the word that the King James Version happens to translate "napkin" in John 20:7. The Greek word is soudarion. It comes from the Latin word sudor which means "to sweat." (Where we get our English word "exude.") A soudarion is a cloth used to wipe one's face. Not necessarily for food, but for sweat. It's not really a napkin; it's more like what we would call a handkerchief. Thus, the KJV is the only version that translates it "napkin". Other translations are cloth (NRSV), face cloth (NAS) and burial cloth (NIV). So why does John want us to know that it was "folded"? Probably as evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. If Jesus' body was stolen, it is unlikely that the grave robbers would have stopped to unwrap his body. And they certainly wouldn't have neatly rolled up the burial shroud and put it back in place. This just seems more likely than connecting it to an obscure Jewish dining custom for which there is no evidence. In the end, it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to be encouraged by the fact that Jesus is returning to us. And it's great news, without or without the strange story of the folded napkin! But what John is telling us is also great news. John wants us to know that Christ is risen! He has seen it with his own eyes. His body wasn't stolen. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. This Sunday, as we read Acts 9 together, we’re going to see just how Jesus’ resurrection changes one man’s life in a way that will change the world. —— Robert
Bearing Witness Things are about to get kind of dark. This Sunday, as we continue to read through Acts, we’re moving from the heady early days of the church to the dark times when Christians are drawing all of the wrong kinds of attention. It starts shockingly, with the execution of Stephen, the first of Jesus’ followers to be killed because of his faith. It’s easy for us to forget that, for many people, persecution has always been a routine part of following Jesus. We gather freely and in public. We boldly display the name of Christ on the sign in front of our building. I preach without fear of retaliation. But it is not that way everywhere. Let me remind you of just one story. It’s from Sky Jethani’s, The Divine Commodity: Ghassan Thomas leads one of the few public churches that emerged [in Baghdad] after Saddam Hussein was toppled. His congregation erected a sign on their building that said "Jesus Is the Light of the World," but the church was raided by bandits who left behind a threat on a piece of cardboard. It read: "Jesus is not the light of the world, Allah is, and you have been warned." The note was signed "The Islamic Shiite Party." In response, Pastor Ghassan loaded a van with children's gifts and medical supplies—which were in critically short supply following the American invasion—and drove to the headquarters of the Islamic Shiite Party. After presenting the gifts and supplies to the sheikh, Ghassan told the leader, "Christians have love for you, because our God is a God of love." He then asked permission to read from the Bible. Ghassan turned to Jesus' words in John 8, "I am the light of the world." He then showed the cardboard note to the sheikh. The Muslim leaders, astounded by Pastor Thomas's actions, apologized. "This will not happen again," [the sheikh] vowed. "You are my brother. If anyone comes to kill you, it will be my neck first." The sheikh later attended Pastor Thomas's ordination service at the church. I don’t know what I would do if I found such a note in my church. I hope I would show the same courage as Ghassan Thomas, but I don’t know. I think first I would be shocked: “How could something like this happen?” I wonder if the first Christians thought the same thing in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom. I wonder if they thought it would be the end of their new Way of life—the end of Christianity. If they did think it, we’re never told that. What we’re told is that God took this awful thing that happened and he used it to grow his Kingdom. That’s the way it works. That’s what we need to hear. We’re not promised that we won’t suffer as Christians. We’re promised that God will take it and make something amazing of it, if only we will be faithful.
Skeletons in the Closet If you don’t watch as many movies as I do, you may not be able to relate, but have you ever been watching a movie and seen a memorable actor and thought to yourself, “They look…different!” It happened most recently when a friend of mine and I went to see Iron Man 2. There’s a relatively famous comedian who plays a US Senator, and when he showed up on the screen, I could tell my friend was thinking the same thing as me, “What happened to him?!” The man didn’t have a wrinkle on his face. His lips were swollen. His forehead was puffy. He looked like he’d been on the losing end of a run in with a swarm of bees. Every time he showed up on the screen, I wanted someone to sneak up behind him and jab him with an epipen. Clearly, he’s had a little “work” done. Then there’s Joan Rivers. Since 1965 she's had bags removed from under her eyes, two complete face-lifts, cheek implants, fat injections, brow smoothing, teeth capping, neck tightening, a tummy tuck, and a nose-thinning. Regarding her obsession with her appearance, she once said, "When you look better, you are treated differently. …People want to be around attractive people." Now, most of us would scoff at this obsession others have in hiding their physical imperfections. Sure, maybe we try to dress well or look our best. But multiple surgical procedures is just too much. But I wonder if we aren’t guilty of doing something similar to that when it comes to our spiritual imperfections. I wonder if we don’t go overboard smoothing out all of our spiritual blemishes and wrinkles and flaws. I wonder if we aren’t obsessed with hiding our sin. That’s why I think we need to see the passages that we’re going to look at this Sunday. It’s easy, especially in our tradition, to think that the early church was this pristine gathering of flawless people. But it simply was not so. In spite of all the wonderful things that God was able accomplish through the first believers; in spite of their courage and willingness to give; the members of the early church were far from perfect. As we study parts of Acts 5, 6 and 8, we’re going to see that the early church certainly had its flaws. We’re going to see dishonesty, theft, greed, and conflict. For some of us, this might be bad news. It might disrupt our notions of the early church’s perfection. But for others, I hope it will provide relief. I’m not just trying to throw stones here. I’m not trying to burst anyone’s bubble. And I’m certainly not suggesting that God doesn’t want us to do our best. But maybe if we can spend some time looking at the failings of the people in the earliest church, we can let go of this need to act like we don’t have any of our own. And when we stop hiding, God can really get to work. —— Robert
In Jesus’ Name In his book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson tells the story of a woman named Judith, an artist in textiles: Judith had an alcoholic husband and a drug-addicted son. She kept her life and her family together for years by attending twelve-step meetings. One Sunday, when she was about forty years old at the time, she entered the church where I was the pastor. She came at the invitation of some friends she knew from her meetings—"You need to come to church. I'll meet you there." She had never been to church before. She knew nothing about church …. She was well read in poetry and politics and psychology, and knew a great deal of art and artists. But she had never read the Bible …. Something, though, caught her attention when she entered this church, and she continued to come. In a few months she became a Christian and I became her pastor. I loved observing and listening to her. Everything was new: Scriptures, worship, prayer, baptism, [communion]—church! … [She was so excited]: "Where have I been all my life? These are incredible stories—why didn't anyone tell me these? How come this has been going on all around me and I never knew it!" Judith goes on to describe the frosty reception she receives when some of her friends find out about her newfound faith: My friends would accept me far more readily if they found that I was in some bizarre cult involving exotic and strange activities like black magic or experiments with levitation. But going to church branded me with a terrible ordinariness. But that is what endears it to me, both the church and the twelve-step programs, this façade of ordinariness. When you pull back the veil of ordinariness, you find the most extraordinary life behind it. This Sunday we’re going to read a story in the book of Acts that begins with ordinariness and ends with the sublime. What appears to be an ordinary trip to the temple by Peter and John becomes extraordinary when Peter decides to “pull back the veil” on a typical scene. He encounters “a man crippled from birth” who is begging on the temple steps. If this were an ordinary story, Peter and John would absent mindedly toss him a few coins and be on their way. But when they stop and look at him—when they notice him—an extraordinary chain of events is set into motion. Because they are paying attention and are courageous in the face of opportunity, a lot of good is done “in the name of Jesus.” I’ll be encouraging us to do great things in Jesus’ name—great things that start with paying attention.
Control Freaks I wanted to share some excerpts from an article entitled “Living With an Intruder” by Dick Peterson. Peterson’s wife, Elizabeth, has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a neurological disease that progressively robs a person of their ability to do even simple tasks. There is no cure. Peterson reflects on the ways that he and his wife have had to change their lives: Uninvited and unwelcome, this disease now forces us into a kind of sick reality game, leaving no choice but to follow the rules even as they change and become more restrictive … Every family divvies up chores, fairly or not so fairly. The MS dictates ours and it's not at all fair, but we do have the choice to let it tear us apart or use it to strengthen our marriage bond as we face the adversity together. This reaches deeper than deciding who does what. It reaches to feelings, emotions, and attitudes about what we do, what's done to us, and who we are to ourselves and each other … We both pray for healing. With our families and our church, we agonize before God for a return to the day when Elizabeth can offer an open handshake instead of a permanently clenched fist, or take a flight of stairs without thought. But if we only grieve the loss, we miss the gain—that what this disease does to us may also be done for us. Even as the MS steals abilities from Elizabeth's life, a healing grows almost undetected inside. When we talk about this, Elizabeth wonders aloud, "Did it really take this to teach me that my soul is more important to God than my body?" And I ask, "Is this what Jesus meant when he taught his disciples to serve? When he washed their feet, did he look 2,000 years into the future and see me washing my wife's clothes and helping her onto her shower seat to bathe? Did it really take this to teach me compassion?" … I somehow doubt that the Peterson’s would ever have chosen to go through this. But it’s awe-inspiring to see how they are walking with honesty and faith. They continue to be open to God’s leading. When I read Dick’s reflections, I am challenged and a little embarrassed. I let even the most minor of inconveniences anger me. What that says to me is I don’t like to be out of control. I get angry when I think I’m losing control of something. But control is something of a myth. We’re not quite the masters of destiny that we think we are. The good news is, when we can accept this and get out of the way and let God work, great things happen. This happens again and again in the book of Acts. As we’ll see this Sunday, Acts begins with a reminder to Jesus’ followers that they are not the ones pulling the strings. And, when they’re willing to let God do the string pulling, great things happen. May we have the courage to let go of things and trust in God, as well.
Developing News This morning I thought I’d share this excerpt from Bill Hybel’s The God You’re Looking For. Bill is the senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, a congregation of around 17,000 people. You can imagine he’s a pretty busy guy. One day Bill was in a rush to get to just one of several meetings he had on his agenda. It seems God had other plans: When I got partway there, I saw someone from our building services staff washing a window with the enthusiasm of a man who's just been given a life sentence. I remember thinking, “If this is a contest between the rag and the window, the window is winning.” I was planning to walk right by, but I could sense God squeezing my hand and whispering, “Stop. Just ask him how he's doing. It looks like he's hurting.” So I stopped and I said, "Are you okay?" He looked at me and his eyes said, "I'm not, but I know you're always busy. And if I start telling you what's breaking my heart and you say, 'Gotta go, bye'—it's going to be too hurtful for me." God squeezed my hand—a little harder this time—and said, "Let the other meeting wait," so I spoke to the man once again and added, "I'm not in a hurry. What's up?" And what came out was a kind of hurt that only a couple of us on staff could identify with. So I spent the next twenty minutes encouraging him and praying for him. Later on, as I reflected on that moment with God and that man by the window, I realized that particular staff member has probably heard hundreds of my sermons. Yet years later, when he looks back and reflects on the impact that my life had on his, he probably won't remember many of them. But he will probably remember the day I stopped to talk when the window was winning. When’s the last time you felt God squeeze your hand? When’s the last time you let God change your agenda for the day? This Sunday we’re beginning a series of messages that will take us through the book of Acts. In Acts, God isn’t squeezing hands, he’s tackling folks. God (often through Holy Spirit) is always at work in Acts. He’s the hero of the story. And he accomplishes great things through people who are willing to be pushed around a little bit. I hope the book of Acts pulls you in. I hope it squeezes your hand. I hope you’re drawn into an ongoing story and that you want to play a part. Because the same God who changes the world in Acts is still at work today.
Firm Foundation A while back, when Rachel and I were driving through New Mexico, we were amused by some of the peculiarly worded road signs. One, that was clearly written by a philosophy major said, “Caution: High winds may exist.” It would have been funnier if, in parentheses, the sign had added, “Theoretically speaking.” Then there was the one that ominously warned: “Hitchhikers may be escaped convicts.” Man. Somebody’s a real Negative Nelly! It made me think of other scary options: “Hitchhikers may be Barry Manilow fans.” “Hitchhikers may have just eaten a chilidog.” (For the record, kids: Don’t pick up hitchhikers.) I found some other signs on the internet that made me laugh: • Caution: This sign has sharp edges. Do not touch the edges of this sign. • Caution: Do not hit this sign. • Danger: Hazardous Fumes, Steep Cliffs, Rough Surface, Hot Lava. Flashlight required after dark. Then there are the funny warning labels that companies feel compelled to use in order to avoid lawsuits from an overly litigious and common sense deficient customer base: • On a hairdryer: “Do not use while sleeping.” • On an iron: “Do not iron clothes while on the body.” • On Windex: “Do not spray in eyes.” • On a Baby Stroller: “Remove Child before folding.” • On a laser printer: “Do not eat printer toner.” • On an industrial drill: “Not to be used as a dental drill.” Not that warnings are a bad idea. There are plenty to be found in scripture. This Sunday we’ll return to one that we talked about at the beginning of the year. It helps make up our theme verse for 2010. We’ve reached the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and we’ve come back around to a warning and a promise from Jesus—a promise to those who will put his words, this sermon, into practice and a warning for those who don’t.
“A New Jersey woman is waging a campaign to become the world's heaviest living woman, admitting that she is as hungry for attention as she is for calorie-rich food.” That’s the opening sentence of a Reuters article about Donna Simpson, 42, of Old Bridge, New Jersey. Simpson currently weighs 600 pounds. But what really sets her apart is not so much her weight as what she wants to do about it. She doesn’t want to lose weight, she wants to gain more. She wants to be the world’s heaviest living woman. Her goal weight is 1,000 pounds. She says she has received a book offer and she hopes to be featured in her own reality TV show. She claims that she’s doing it all in order to make obesity more socially acceptable. Let me be clear. It’s one thing to struggle with weight and eating and how you deal with food. I sure can sympathize with that. And I certainly can’t pretend to have the right to throw any stones her way for that. And I can certainly appreciate what she has to say about the way we exaggerate the importance of external beauty. She’s right. We place a stigma on the overweight that isn’t helpful. And I can sympathize with her desire to “…be a voice, so that people can see a woman of size having a regular family." I get all of that. But is that really what’s going on? How “normal” can her family life actually be? How much will her aspirations cost her two children, ages 3 and 14? Besides, it seems to me that intentionally doing what she’s doing to her body isn’t the only way to achieve her goals. Does she need to spend $750 a week (which is what she currently spends) on food? Can’t she do her part to remind us of our own vanity in a way that doesn’t pose a threat to her life? How good is any plan that ends with her early death? There’s a disconnect between Simpson’s words and the outcome of her actions. This Sunday we’re going to be looking at a warning that Jesus gives to his followers concerning how to judge people. What he says is, don’t just listen to the words that they say. Pay attention, as well, to their actions and to the outcome of their actions. Don’t just judge a person’s words, judge them by the “fruit” that they produce. Our faith is about more than our talk, it’s about what we are making happen. I hope that you’ll take a moment and ask yourself, what fruit is my life producing? —— Robert
Mapping it Out …But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Mt. 7:14) I pulled the following quote from a previous bulletin article. Some of you will recall that it’s from the song “Once in a Lifetime” by the band Talking Heads. “And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack And you may find yourself in another part of the world And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?” I love that refrain: “And you may find yourself…” It’s such a wonderful description of the way life goes for most of us. Most of us have had this experience a number of times where we say, “I never thought I’d be here.” You can decide for yourself what your “here”is. And it’s not always a bad thing. I never dreamed I’d be living in Virginia with my 3 kids and “with a beautiful wife.” But how wonderful that I did! All I can say to that is, “Thanks be to God.” But there’s a danger there, too, isn’t there? Our life can lead to unexpected blessing, but it can also lead to us making some pretty bad decisions. Perhaps it’s happened to you, perhaps it’s happened to someone you know. You hear that they’ve made a mess of things: their marriage, their job, their relationships with others. And you say to yourself, “I never dreamed that he’d do that.” The chorus of the song has an explanation of how we get to that point: Letting the days go by/letting the water hold me down Letting the days go by/water flowing underground Into the blue again/after the money's gone Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground. If I understand it right, I think he’s saying that the way we “get here” is by drifting along with the flow. We don’t so much swim as float. Water can be powerful that way. It can sweep us along. Especially if, instead of paddling, we’re in a dead man’s float. Best I can figure it: we can’t exactly control the flow of our lives, but we can do our best to swim in a direction as it carries us along. This morning we’re going to look at a passage that warns us to pay attention to where it is we’re heading. It warns us to resist the urge to just go along with the flow. Jesus is telling us to choose our path carefully. I hope that today you’ll take a moment and take stock of where you’re headed. It’s never too late to make a change in direction.
Lord, I crawled across the bareness to you with my empty cup, uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known you better. I'd have come running with a bucket. --Nancy Spiegelberg Ten years ago now, while the world was just becoming acquainted with spam. A rancher in Powder Bluff, Colorado got a preview of the power of mass mailings via snail mail. A computer malfunction at a company that handles a number of magazine subscriptions sent him exactly 9,734 notifications that his subscription to National Geographic had expired. While unintentional, this ploy met with success. The rancher travelled 10 miles to the nearest post office and renewed his subscription, along with a note that said, “I give up! Send me your magazine!” In 1998, 40-year-old Reynaldo Tovar-Valdivia was arrested for possessing methamphetamines with intent to distribute. Upon pleading guilty, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. In January 2000, his conviction was overturned when it was discovered that police had conducted an illegal search on the man's property. U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs signed an order releasing Tovar-Valdivia. Somehow the order was misplaced, so Tovar-Valdivia was incarcerated for two more years. In March 2002, Tovar-Valdivia wrote a letter to the judge calling attention to his oversight. He wrote: "I would like to humbly request that this court make an order invalidating my conviction. Thanks for your time, and have a nice day." A few weeks later the judge, impressed by the polite letter, facilitated the prisoner's request. If Jesus were preaching today, I think he’d like both of those stories. After all, He did tell a story about a widow who pesters a judge into giving her what he wants. The moral of His story and the moral of these others stories would be the same: It never hurts to ask. In fact Jesus was fond of saying it this way: “How much more…” With these two stories, he’d say, “If a computer malfunction can get a man to fork out his hard earned cash, how much more will your Father in heaven give to those who ask?” Or, “If a prisoner can get released just by sending a polite letter, how much more eagerly will your Father in Heaven release you from your sins?” Either way the message of this Sunday’s text is deceptively simple: “Ask and you will receive.” Simple? Maybe. Easy? Not always. The question for us is do we have the audacity to simply believe this bold promise?