A Short Break

June 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Greetings readers,

Although I’ve not been posting sermons lately, there is a good reason. At our congregations, we have been using the Narrative Lectionary, a cycle of readings which follows the arc of the biblical narrative beginning with creation and going through Exodus, the fulfillment of God’s covenant, exile, the prophets and then follows one gospel through the spring. The NL only runs September through Pentecost, so these weeks during the summer, preachers are able to focus on topical series or other themes.

In addition to this, my colleague and I rotate our time between our two congregations. During the summer, we spend 6 weeks at one congregation and then 6 weeks at the other. As such, we have elected to each prepare one six-week series and preach it at both congregations. Based on conversations which have been happening at both congregations about who is welcome to communion and how we treat confirmation, I’ve decided to focus my topic on the sacraments.

I never feel that my sermons are ever ‘complete.’ Even after I give a sermon, I always find better (I hope!) ways to communicate my point. That is one way that this blog is especially helpful: it gives me the chance to iron out the manuscript after having given it. So, I have elected to wait until the second time around to post these sermons so that I can feel they best represent what I feel called to proclaim. You will see them beginning the week of July 20th. Until then, I want to thank you for your readership and assure you that, though we’re on a short break here, there is more to come. I hope everyone is enjoying their summer!

Categories: nota bene

The Story of Pentecost

June 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Pentecost Day, NL Year 4.
Text: Acts 2.1-21; Phil 4.4-7

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all gathered together in one place. They didn’t know what to do next, so they just did what they always did: they got together, sang some songs, prayed and wondered what do to now. They were afraid. They were afraid that everything they’d done up until now was for nothing. They were afraid that their little community would slowly die out, and that after a while there would be no one left.

Outside, there were lots of people. The trouble is, they didn’t know how to get those people out there to come in here with them, why they would ever want to join their little community. All those people had commitments and responsibilities of their own. They had their own neighborhoods and communities to keep them busy. How were they supposed to get any of those outside people to come in?

This is the story of Pentecost. It is the story of those disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem, but it is also the story of the disciples of Jesus at Our Redeemer’s in Benson, and of countless other congregations. Whether those disciples are Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, or even Pentecostal, we are all asking ourselves the same question: how do we get those people out there to come in here?

It’s a natural question. We want our little community here to outlast us. We want to pass on our faith to our children and hope that this congregation will be here for them the same way it has been for us. We know that in order for this congregation to keep going, we need more people; and when we look around at how many are here, we sometimes get a little worried.

Acts tells us that that first congregation of disciples was about one hundred and twenty people; and you can bet that they were all adults. Like us, they were afraid of what the future might hold for them, how they were going to survive as a community. They were daunted by the task of trying to convince anybody out there to come join them in here. It was while they were stewing over that problem that something incredible happened: the Holy Spirit came and gave them another problem.

We sometimes think that the miracle of Pentecost is that when those first disciples began preaching, the people around them heard them speak in so many different languages. I think the miracle of Pentecost is that somehow God got a bunch of Christians to get out of the room they were in and start telling people about Jesus. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, they all had a burning desire to go out and talk about Jesus. They left all that fear and worry and concern inside and they went outside and just started telling their story; and that was a problem.  It was scary, it was uncomfortable, and it was dangerous. Yet, this problem that the Spirit gave them ended up solving their other problem of how to get the people outside to come in. The answer came when God’s Spirit sent them outside.

It’s okay to admit that this makes us nervous. Why should anybody listen to us? We don’t want to be obnoxious or nosy or to sound like one of “those” Christians. When we think of getting out and telling people about Jesus, we think of Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, going door to door asking, “Have you heard the good news about Jesus?” We know that those people often get the door slammed in their face, because we are sometimes the ones doing the slamming. In a world that is so thoroughly saturated in the Christian story, everybody knows about Jesus, and everybody has their own faith or their own ideas about God, so why would they want to hear ours?

But that’s not true anymore. Not everybody has heard about Jesus, not everybody knows about God’s love. We live in a world where almost everybody around us has heard of Christians and knows something about what we believe, but a lot of those things they think know about Jesus and his disciples are wrong. Lots of people believe God is angry and judgmental, that Christians are hypocritical and willfully ignorant, that we choose to believe the fairy stories of an old book over the cold, hard facts of science. Lots of people have never heard that God loves them deeply and that Jesus came to save them, or if they have, they don’t understand what they mean. They think it’s all about some magic, pie-in-the-sky afterlife that is supposed to make up for all the bad stuff that happens here on earth.

Just like those disciples in Jerusalem so long ago, we still have a story to tell; the story is about God who loved us enough to become like us, and even though we killed him, he continues to love us and to offer us something better. That story is worth sharing. It is a story that people want to hear. When the disciples in Jerusalem told that story, 3,000 people in one day believed and were baptized. In one day, the Church went from only 120 to over 3,000. That is a powerful story. That story is our story.

In one way, this story from Acts is wonderful because it reminds us that we are not alone in our fear and our worry, and that we have the same Holy Spirit available to us that those first disciples had. However, in another way, this story is also not so helpful. This story can make us think that we’re supposed to all preach eloquent sermons like Peter’s, that if we do it right,  people will join by the thousands. It puts a lot of pressure on us. What if we don’t know our bible that well? What if we can’t find the words to say? What if we can’t find an audience? What if we do it wrong?

Sometimes the Spirit does big things like that, but she can be subtle, too. The work of the Spirit is not just in preaching elaborate sermons or asking people, “have you heard about Jesus?” The Spirit is at work in us in all kinds of quiet ways, from how we answer our children’s questions about faith to how we treat people in line for the checkout counter at the grocery story. The Spirit gives us a multitude of languages to preach with: kindness, patience, compassion, courage, solidarity, love. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, everything we say or do is potentially a sermon that can teach somebody about God.

My point is this: it is easy to be afraid and to worry about the future, whether our own, or that of our congregation, or that of our children. If we give in to this fear and worry, we’ll never get out of that room. Instead, we have to learn to trust God, to let the Spirit guide us outside to tell our story. We don’t need silver-tongued sermons that quote scripture and impress everyone with our theological prowess.

When you were baptized, you received the Holy Spirit. You may not have a tongue of fire over your head right now, but just as surely as those disciples in Jerusalem, you are filled right now with the Holy Spirit. You have a story to tell about God’s love and about Jesus’ faithfulness. You have the motive and the means to go out from here and preach the good news of Jesus Christ. You are a well-equipped, capable child of God.

Each of us already has a story to tell, an account of how you’ve seen God at work in your lives, a memory of how God’s love has changed you. It may be a story of a teacher or grandparent who taught you something profound, or wonder at the birth of a child, or an inexplicable peace you felt in the face of deep grief, or any number of things where you saw God’s hand at work. These stories are the Spirit’s sermon. These stories are the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit is at work in us. It may not always feel like it, but we need to remember that. It is still Pentecost; the tongues of fire are harder to see and the rushing sound of the wind is much fainter, but the Spirit is still here among us—always blowing, always at work, always prodding us to get out and share these stories. It’s a big problem, but it’s also the answer to our prayers. Trust her. She knows what she’s doing.

 

“Bee” Like Christ

June 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Easter 7, NL Year 4.
Text: Phil 2.1-13

Honeybees are amazing creatures. One colony is comprised of hundreds or thousands of individuals, all working together. There is no central authority; the queen bee doesn’t order her subjects around like a human queen would. Her job is just to make new bees. And within the colony, each bee has its own job: caring for eggs or babies, or foraging for food, or building the comb.

I’ve always been fascinated with colony insects like bees and ants, how the individuals display such altruism and sacrifice for the good of the hive, how they work together with such singular devotion. In the winter, a hive of bees will actually compress in on itself for warmth; the bees shiver to raise the temperature, which even in the coldest winter can maintain almost 90 degrees at the center, where the queen is. And, the workers rotate through, so that everybody gets a chance to be where its nice and warm, and nobody has to stay out in the cold for too long. How’s that for a loving community?

Paul writes to the Philippians: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.” (The Message) Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be great if the Church could always be like a beehive, where everybody always agrees about everything and where we all get along all the time and take care of one another?

That’s one of the criticisms we sometimes hear about the Church: “It’s full of hypocrites! They talk about loving one another and caring for each other, but what do they do? Fight, argue, bicker. They’re as selfish as anybody else.” And it’s true. We are human beings, not honeybees. We don’t always live in perfect agreement; yet this is what Paul is asking the Philippians to do.

I saw a show on PBS not long ago, and in it they talked about honeybees and how they make decisions. When a hive grows too large for its home, it swarms. A portion of the colony takes a newly hatched queen and strikes out on its own to look for a new place to nest. Now, bees have this uncanny ability to find a good place to nest; when you consider that this work is accomplished by individual workers going out and searching more or less blindly for a home, this is an amazing feat. So, these researchers wanted to study how they do this. Here’s what they found.

Even bees, it turns out, don’t always agree. When a worker finds a new potential nest, she reports back to the swarm. Upon arrival, the worker does a little waggle-dance to tell the others about the new site. Meanwhile, other workers are coming back from other sites, making their reports as well. As other bees are ‘convinced’ by the dance, they will go check out one of the potential sites. Then they will come back and make their own report as to whether it is a good location. As soon as enough bees come back and make a favorable report about a new place, the swarm moves and settles in. When a ‘quorum’ has been reached, the bees send the message that a decision has been reached, so stop dancing. And so, when everyone is ready, the hive moves to the new site.

Just like human communities, the best decision is made when all ideas are freely shared and the hive comes to a consensus together. Now, bees are not people, they don’t have the same emotions and thought processes we do, but we can see that they have ‘opinions’ of sorts, and where there are opinions, there are disagreements. Yet, in spite of differing opinions, when the time comes, the whole swarm moves together to the new nest.

In human communities, what sometimes happens is a split. People refuse to agree, and so we go our separate directions. For bees, this would mean death. Individual bees don’t survive long without the support and protection of the hive. So, whether or not each bee ‘agrees’ with the decision, they all go.

What drives this consensus is not single-minded agreement, but their guiding principle. For bees, the life of the individual is expendable: all that matters is the survival of the hive. Every decision, every move, every reaction that bees make is for the survival of the hive. Perhaps if we had a guiding principle like that, we could accomplish some similar unity.

In this letter, Paul gives us just such a guiding principle: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Sounds a lot like bees, doesn’t it?

That “same mind” language often gets interpreted as always agreeing. That’s how Eugene translates it in “The Message”. However, even honeybees, driven by their singular devotion to the hive above all else, don’t always agree. To “be of one mind” is better translated, “have the same guiding principle,” and for us, that guiding principle is the cross.

Paul quotes for us this lovely hymn from the early Church to describe what the cross means for Jesus and for us: Even though Jesus was equal with God, he didn’t lord his authority over us. Instead, he emptied himself out, he became like one of us—a slave—and was obedient to God to the point of death—even such a shameful and scandalous death as crucifixion. Because he gave himself up in love, God gives him glory all the more, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”

The cross is about obedience to God, about love and service to one another, and about putting the needs of the whole before the needs of the self. That, Paul says, is what our guiding principle ought to be. It does not mean being a doormat or a martyr, always sacrificing for everyone else; it does not mean shouting until everybody listens or bullying to get our own way; it does not mean that we never disagree and keep our ideas to ourselves to avoid making waves.

It does mean doing everything for the sake of our community—we state our opinions for the good of the community, we disagree for the good of the community, we make decisions for the good of the community, and we treat one another with respect, dignity and love for the sake of the community, regardless of how we might want to do otherwise. As somebody once said, “if two people always agree on everything, then one of those two people is irrelevant.” It’s not about not making waves; it is about making waves so as to not capsize anybody’s boat.

We need disagreement. Where would the hive be if all those different bees didn’t come back and tell about the different nesting sites? Where would they be if the queen made all the decisions blindly and the colony followed her blindly?

One of my frustrations here is that a lot of you think that Gary or I should be “the one in charge.” “You’re the pastor, we hired you to lead us.” Wrong. I was not hired to lead you or to make decisions for you. I was called here by God and the congregation to add my voice to yours, to walk alongside you as together we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul says. The bees are not lead by the queen, and the congregation is not lead by the pastor. I bring with me some skills for leadership and interpreting God’s word, but my job is not to run the show, but to add my gifts to the myriad of gifts all of you bring. Together, we talk, debate, argue, even fight, but in the end, together we go together because if we split up, we’re done for. The key is that guiding principle: the cross.

The good news is that we’re not in this alone. Paul reminds us that it is always God is at work in us—all of us. Through listening to one another, God’s voice is heard. Not only that, but God is also guiding us through the wider Church: through our Southwestern Minnesota Synod, through the ELCA, through the words of Paul and Luther and Bonhoeffer and many others. Together, by carefully listening to each other, we may be able to discern the voice of God.

And what if we’re wrong? What if we make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing? As long as we are guided by the cross, we cannot fail. As long as we keep the cross as our guiding principle, God is at work in us, and we trust that God will guide us to ‘swarm’ in the right direction, and will preserve the life of Christ’s Church. That’s what faith is, and that is what Paul is asking us to do.

Memorial Day Invocation

May 26, 2014 Leave a comment

I was asked this year to give the invocation and benediction at our town’s Memorial Day observance. I believe it is absolutely right that we should remember and honor our veterans and the people who lay their lives on the line for us. I do not believe that the United States has any special place in God’s heart. As such, I am grateful to participate in Memorial Day activities, but I am uneasy about all the super-American flavor to it all. I tried to express the difference in the following invocation and benediction.

 

INVOCATION

We gather here to remember the lives of service and sacrifice led by the brave women and men of our armed services. However, we know that they do not need us to remember them. What they have given, they have given not for glory, nor for pride, nor for personal gain, but because their country needed them. Some have even given their very lives, all for the sake of their fellow citizens, including those among us who may not care about their sacrifice, even those who may have hated them. Those honored dead have already earned their just reward.

No, these servants of our country do not need to be remembered. We gather here today because it is we who need to remember them. Let us not dishonor these brave citizens by believing that it is only in their deaths that they have showed heroism, and not in the lives they lived in service to others.

We look to them to know what it is to live a life of sacrifice, to protect and serve even those whom we might find intolerable, simply because a greater power calls us to love them.

It is in the name of that power that we gather today; it is in the name of that power that we honor these veterans, living and dead, and look to them to teach us how to answer that call to live as one community among division, as one nation [under God]. [We gather in the name of that power, the name the Living God. Amen.]

 

BENEDICTION

God of All Nations,
Your love knows no boundaries. It does not stop at the edges of countries, it is not contained by the platforms of political parties or competing ideologies. We give you thanks for your love shown to us through the lives of service lived by these veterans, and for the service given by women and men everywhere to protect their homes, their communities, and their principles. Strengthen and nurture us to love and serve one another as selflessly as these brave people have done for us, so that in the end we will outgrow the need for bloodshed, war and violence, and come to live in a world of peace for all humankind. [With this vision of hope, we pray in the name of the crucified and resurrected One, who gives us all the power to become your children.] Amen.

 

N.B. In my community, the entire population is Christian or post-Christian. However, Memorial Day does not belong just to Christians. The phrases in brackets are part of my original manuscript, but could easily be left out in honor of our sisters and brothers of other faiths who have served in the military and who observe Memorial Day.

Never Alone

May 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Easter 6, NL Year 4.
Text: Phil 1.1-18

About 5 years ago my grandma passed away, and I flew back to Montana for the funeral. We had cleaned out a lot of her stuff when she moved into the retirement home a few years before, but there were still several boxes of papers to go through. So, one afternoon at the church, several of us kids and grandkids spread out and began sifting through these papers—church bulletins, recipes, newspaper clippings, and old letters from family and friends.

The bulletins and newspapers were certainly interesting, but what caught my attention the most was the letters. I found an entire series of letters between my grandfather and one of his brothers in Thief River Falls. Grandpa had died before I was born, so I never got to meet him; but here in these letters from his brother, I began to learn about his family, and even got to know him a little bit by piecing together what he had written to which his brother was now replying.

These letters that we have from Paul are very similar to those letters we found in my grandma’s things. They tell us about Paul and about the people to whom he was writing, but as all letters are, these are profoundly personal: they are written by one person to another (or, in this case, to a group of people) about very specific things. None of those things I found in Grandpa’s letters applied to me, but they were still interesting to read because they helped me learn a little more about my family history. Paul’s letters to his friends are interesting for the same reason.

However, “interesting” by itself is not enough to make it into the Bible. In the end, we threw out most of those old letters after we read them, because they weren’t worth the space and the trouble to store them. Paul’s letters weren’t thrown out, though. Instead, they were treasured not only by the communities that first received them, but by later generations of Christ’s followers down into the centuries. In addition to telling us about Paul and the people to whom he was writing, these letters also tell us about God.

Like those old letters that my grandma had, not everything in these letters applies directly to us. For example, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul talks about whether Christians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. That particular problem has never come up for us. However, many of the things that Paul wrote to them about God, about how to be Church together, about living together in community and leading God-fearing lives do still apply to us, and that is why we have saved these old letters and re-read them so much. Even in Paul’s advice about meat sacrificed to idols, we can find guidance and instruction on how to love and respect one another as God wants us to.

With this in mind, we begin reading Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi. You might remember hearing about Paul’s trip to Philippi a couple weeks ago in Acts. That was where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after Paul cast a spirit out of a slave girl. They were beaten and imprisoned, but in the middle of the night, an earthquake came and broke the chains and opened the doors; yet, out of compassion for the jailor, they stayed. On that trip to Philippi, Paul first gathered the community of people that became the congregation to whom this letter was written.

Like that first trip, Paul again finds himself in chains as he writes to the Philippians; and, like that night in the Philippian jail, he is not unhappy or angry, but joyful. Seeing as how ancient prisons were even less hospitable and pleasant than modern prisons, it is remarkable that Paul could feel such joy while he is locked up. Here he tells us what is the source of his joy: it is the Philippian church, the people there who have loved and supported him throughout his ministry and continue to do so even now while he is in jail.

Paul is able to be joyful even in prison because he knows that though he is locked up, the work of spreading the gospel continues through people like the disciples in Philippi. Even where he is in prison, people are coming to know Christ: the imperial guard who hold him in captivity and the people of the city all know that it is for Christ’s sake that he is imprisoned.

So what can we learn from this bit of Paul’s letter? Maybe nothing, except that he is inexplicably happy even while he is suffering; or maybe we have lots to learn from Paul’s joy.

The first thing I notice is that Paul’s happiness comes from Christ, and it comes because he knows he is not alone. Wherever he goes—to Philippi, to Athens, even to jail—Christ is there with him, and Christ is in the hearts of his friends throughout the world who share the good news of God’s love. Even if he dies in his cell that night, he knows that Christ will continue to be with them—and him—and that the gospel will continue to spread. No matter what happens to him, other people will come to know the same joy he himself has in Christ.

The second thing I notice is how important community is to Paul and to his work. The disciples in Philippi organized themselves into a congregation, just like the disciples in the other cities where Paul visited, just like all the Jews did in their synagogues. The people who heard Paul’s message and believed didn’t simply go off by themselves and worship alone, but joined themselves to a community so that they could love and support one another, and so that they could continue to love and support Paul, who first shared that good news with them. Because of these people, even in prison, Paul was never alone, but was always surrounded by a tight-knit family of Christians, a “great cloud of witnesses,” some of whom he may never have even met.

These are important lessons for us to learn. If we believe ourselves to be alone in our work to spread this good news, then it becomes easy for us to fall into fear and despair, especially when we consider the troubles we have. When our congregation suffers through economic hardship, when we see empty places in the pews or shrinking Sunday school classes, we begin to worry about our own mortality and fear for our future. Like Paul, we are caught up in circumstances that are often beyond our control; but where we are fearful, he is joyful, because he remembers that he is a part of something larger.

The same is true for us. Shepherd of the Hills is not alone in our goal of nurturing the disciples of Swift Falls and spreading the good news of the risen Jesus. We have partner congregations to work with us, and we have a whole community of support through the Southwestern Minnesota Synod and the greater Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Through those expressions of Christ’s Church, we have resources and people available to help us that we wouldn’t have on our own.

Just think about the call process: I’m here today because people like Bishop Jon Anderson and Pastor Linda Pederson helped me find this call. I was trained by several professors at an ELCA seminary in Pennsylvania, which is supported by many Lutheran congregations just like this one. I was raised in a Lutheran Church where I was surrounded with loving people who taught me what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and I was slowly guided into realizing God’s call for me to be a pastor by experiences I had a Lutheran camps like Luther Crest and Lutheran Campus Ministry like we have in Morris. It is thanks to the work of those hundreds upon hundreds of people that I am able to be here today. And, when this congregation contributes to the work of our synod or the ELCA with financial gifts or offerings of time and effort, we are supporting other Christians in the same way, both near and far.

The reason God pulls us together into a Church is so that we can share one another’s joy, like Paul is able to share the Philippians’ joy, even in prison. Joy is both the starting point and the end goal of what we do: we begin with the joy of God’s love and Jesus’ resurrection, and we aim to share that joy with others. It’s good for us to remember that, even in the midst of fear and suffering, joy is at the core of who we are as God’s people.

Thankfully, we have the letters of Paul, writing to congregations who, though they lived thousands of years ago, were a lot like us. Thanks to these letters, we not only have the people of the SW MN synod and the ELCA supporting us, but also the people of Philippi and Corinth, Thessalonika and Rome, and many others, as well as our friend Paul; all reminding us what it is we are here to do: we get to share the joy of God’s love with the world! Even when it looks like we are failing, that joy continues to spread; so rejoice!

 

On Confirmation

May 18, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Easter 5, NL Year 4.
Text: Acts 17:16-34

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to be able to preach about baptism. This week, as we confirmed Avery and Grace, I was again privileged to be able to preach about baptism again, this time focusing on the Affirmation of Baptism.

A few weeks ago, we heard about a man named Saul, also called Paul, and how he was blinded on the road to Damascus by Jesus, then healed by a disciple named Ananias. After his healing, he was baptized, and then went out to proclaim the good news that Jesus lives, and that because he lives, so do we. He went all over the place telling people this good news. Last week, we heard about his trip to Philippi where he ended up in prison. When we join him this week, he is in Athens, about 200 miles south of Philippi across the Aegean Sea.

Normally, when Paul entered a new city, he would first seek out the synagogue, the place where the local Jewish community met to worship. Paul was himself a Jew, and he was preaching about the Jewish messiah, so this made sense. However, on this trip to Athens, Paul made an exception. In addition to going to the synagogue, he also took his message to the marketplace, because he was troubled by all the idols in the city.

It took a lot of guts to do what Paul did. It’s one thing to talk about Jewish religion with Jews, but to try to convince Greeks who worshiped Hera and Zeus and Poseidon and Ares and all the rest to abandon all their Gods for this Jewish one was a long shot. The Greeks—especially the Athenians—prided themselves on their intelligence. In the marketplace, philosophers from different schools of thought would debate one another about the nature of reality and the gods. Who was this out-of-town Jew, and what did know that they didn’t?

We know, of course, that Paul’s authority to preach came from his baptism. After Ananias restored his sight, Paul was baptized and sent by Jesus to preach to Jews and Greeks alike, to teach them the good news of what God had done for them. The baptism that gave Paul his authority and his job of preaching is the same baptism we all share, the same baptism we affirm with Avery and Grace today.

A few weeks ago, I said that baptism is kind of like being drafted. When we are baptized, we are given this job of sharing the good news. Because most of us are baptized as small children, we also do this thing called “Affirmation of Baptism,” or “Confirmation” so that, when we are old enough, we can be reminded of the job we’ve been given.

It is a chance for each of us to affirm, or agree with, the promises made by our parents on our behalf at baptism: promises to live among God’s faithful people, to come to hear God’s word and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of Christ with our words and actions, to serve all people like Jesus did, and to work for peace and justice for the whole earth. That is what Confirmation is all about: re-affirming those promises to God and to the Church for ourselves.

The job we have been given, like Paul’s job, is very important. Thanks to Paul’s work, many churches were established throughout what is today Turkey and Greece. His letters to those churches are what make up most of the New Testament, letters like those to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Thessalonians and the Philippians. His work paved the way for the Church to grow from small, scattered groups of believers to a worldwide community of faith. Our work, too, given to us at our baptism, is important work that might cause the Church to continue to grow both here in our local community and maybe even around the world.

Even though the Church is much larger today than it was in Paul’s time, there is still much to be done. When Paul came to Athens, he was upset by how many idols he saw there. In our world today, idols are still widespread. They’re not statues of gods like the kind the Athenians worshiped, but they are there all the same, pulling people away from God. Our idols today are many things: money, fame, popularity, success, houses, cars, boats… anything that becomes so important in our lives that it takes our focus away from God is an idol. By the authority given to us through our baptism, we are called by God to preach against these idols and to remind people of the God who loves us enough to die for us.

Avery, Grace, today as you affirm your baptismal promises, you are being reminded that you have been chosen by God for a special task. What God is calling you to do may be very similar or very different to what God is calling each of us to do. At my baptism, God called me to be a pastor, and even though it took me a while to figure it out, that is why I am standing up here today. In this room with us are people God has called to be farmers, nurses, teachers, and office workers. We all have different jobs, but the one thing that is the same is that God is using each and every one of us to do those jobs in such a way that we point to God’s love as we do them. The same is true for you: you may not know yet what it is God is calling you to do, but remember today that whatever it is, God is calling you to do that job so that others might see God through you.

If that sounds like a big responsibility, that’s because it is. That’s why we need this community called the Church to help us figure out how to live our lives and do those jobs the way God wants us to. We will fail sometimes, and sometimes it might seem like all of our hard work is for nothing. Paul preached this great sermon we heard today in Athens, but it didn’t seem to matter. No church started there; there is no “Letter to the Athenians” from Paul in our Bible. However, even though Paul seemed to fail in Athens, his work there made all the difference for a few people, people like Dionysius and Damaris, who came to know God through him. Even when it seems like we are failing at the jobs God has given us, we never know how God’s Holy Spirit is working through us.

I want to leave you with one final image from our reading today. Paul began his sermon talking about this altar he saw in Athens, dedicated to “an unknown god.” He used that altar to demonstrate to the Athenians how, even without their knowing it, God had been among them the whole time. That altar was there centuries before Paul came, and it is a reminder that Paul didn’t bring God with him to Athens; God was there at work long before Paul or even Jesus had ever been born. In the same way, wherever we go, God is already there ahead of us, waiting for us, working through others to help pave the way for us and the work we have to do.

Thanks to this big, beautiful family we call the Church, no job is to hard for us, because we’re all in it together. As we celebrate Confirmation for Grace and Avery today, we celebrate the work God has called them to do and we each remember the work God has called us to do, and today we all affirm together those promises we’ve made to God and one another to stick together through thick and thin and help one another see where God is at work.

The Acts of the Holy Spirit

May 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Easter 4, NL Year 4.
Text: Ac 16:16-39

This sermon is a little longer than usual because I have included in it the reading of the lesson from Acts.

We’re continuing our story today from the book of Acts. The full name of the book is “the Acts of the Apostles,” because it is a book about the things that the early apostles did in Jesus’ name to help establish the young Church. Last week, we heard about a young man named Saul, who was a zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers. His mission in life was to round up those early followers and beat them and throw them in prison. On the road to Damascus, Saul had a vision of the risen Jesus who called him to stop persecuting Jesus and start following him.

Today, we meet Saul again, only this time, we are calling by his Roman name, Paul. We meet up with him and his traveling companion, Silas in a Roman colony called Philippi. This is the city that gives the book of Philippians its name; that letter was written by Paul to the church he founded here on this visit.

The first of the acts that the apostle Paul makes today is an act that is likely a mistake.

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.  17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

Unlike when Jesus’ casts out spirits in the gospels, there is no sense of compassion or pity or love here, just annoyance. In return for this act, Paul and Silas are arrested. Now it is Paul’s turn to be beaten and thrown in prison.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

They didn’t deserve this sentence. As Roman citizens, they had a right to a trial. They might have spent the night bemoaning the bad fortune that got them thrown into this jail, or repenting of the mistake that got them there, or wondering if God was trying to tell them something; instead they spent the night praying and praising God. They may even have been lifting the spirits of the other prisoners who were in there with them. They didn’t see this imprisonment as God’s punishment or unfair suffering, but instead, they trusted that God was still at work. And sure enough…

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.  26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

At this point, it seems, God has provided an escape for them, a way out of this unjust mess. However, they knew that if they and the other prisoners escaped, the man whose job it was to supervise them, would be held accountable. He would be punished, perhaps even killed, and all for something over which he had no control.

27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.  28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.

Even though they could have escaped, Paul and Silas stayed in prison for the sake of the jailer. Not only that, it appears that they somehow convinced all the other prisoners to remain as well! According to the law, they should not have been there in the first place, and yet they stayed in order to save the jailer from danger.

What happens next is very interesting:

30 Then the jailer brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Now, he has already been saved: he was saved from punishment by Paul and Silas remaining in prison out of compassion for him, and he was saved from killing himself by Paul’s words. The love of God, shown to him through Paul and Silas, has literally saved this man’s life; and now he asks what must he do to be saved. Perhaps he wondered how he might prevent them from leaving him to be punished, perhaps he saw their love and wondered how he could be a part of something that was so strong it could keep two innocent men in prison to protect the life of a stranger. Regardless of his reasons for asking, Paul and Silas respond.

31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.  34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Belief here is not just an intellectual assent. St. Peter writes that even demons ‘believe’ in Jesus in that sense. Belief means living one’s life with the love of God at the center, like Paul and Silas did. They still make mistakes, and they aren’t perfect, but when the rubber meets the road, they are ready to lay down their lives for somebody they don’t even know, somebody who is, to all appearances, their enemy. To believe is, to quote the slave girl, to become a slave of the Most High God, to love how and when God commands us to love. As we have already seen, not even a prison cell and chains can hold the slaves of the Most High God; God’s love is more powerful than the authority of the magistrates, than the walls of the prison, and than the iron of the chains. To believe is to submit to God’s power rather than to any earthly power.

We sometimes think of a life of belief as a life of meek suffering, as a life of ‘laying down and taking it.’ This sounds all well and good until we face injustice. But pay attention to what Paul and Silas do when the morning comes:

35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”

Far from laying down and taking it, Paul and Silas demand their rights as citizens of Rome. They demand to be treated as equals and as citizens, rather than as lesser people.

38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens;  39 so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.

What we are hearing here is a battle between powers. On the one hand is the power of the Roman Empire. Caesar and his authorities have the power to punish and imprison. They even have the power to take a man’s life, as in the case of the jailer who is ready to kill himself. Roman power gives people the ability to own other people as property, like the slave girl. However, we also know that Roman power can by corrupted by wealth and influence, as when the girl’s owners wrongfully accuse Paul and Silas. Even though Roman power gives people the right to own one another, that ownership is based on economic worth; when the girl can no longer make money for her masters, what will become of her?

On the other hand is the power of God. God’s power can also own people, as Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High God;” but their worth is based on God’s love, not how much money they can earn or what abilities they have. God’s power is greater than Rome’s power: Rome imprisons these apostles, but God sets them free. Rome punishes them, but God saves them. In the end, the power of Rome—the magistrates and police—finds itself apologizing to and bowing before God’s power.

Perhaps this is what the jailer realized in the middle of the night: that though Rome had the power to imprison these men for no cause, the power of God could break their chains and set them free, and yet also hold them in service to himself, a sinful man serving a corrupt power. Any reward or punishment he would receive from the power of Rome would be based on how well he carried out his duty; but the rewards of God are given based on love alone—love powerful enough to destroy prisons and yet keep prisoners in their cells, love powerful enough to hold the Son of God to a cross and call him from a tomb.

This is the power that Paul and Silas served, and the power we still serve. We call this book the “Acts of the Apostles,” but it could just as easily be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” because it records all the things that God did in those days among the people of Judea, Samaria and all the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit did those things through broken, imperfect people like Paul and Silas, people like us. Acts tells us how often these people spread the good news of Jesus, but it also tells us how often they missed the point, bickered and argued among themselves, and flat-out failed. Yet, through it all, the gospel continued to spread, and God “day by day added to their number those who were being saved.”

We read this book because its story is our story—the book has no end; it is still being written here among us. Everything we do together as a community of faith is another new chapter in the Acts of the Holy Spirit: we are now the apostles, and the things that God is doing now among us are the acts future generations will recount. Through us, God is still “day by day adding to our number those who are being saved.”

We often think that stories like this one of Paul and Silas are old stories of things that once happened, but we could not be more wrong. The power we hear about today—the power of God to break chains and to demand justice—that power still belongs to us. The question now is what we will do with it. Today we learn of God’s power to use even wrongful imprisonment to spread the gospel. Even now, we sit in our prison cells, and the walls have crumbled and the chains been broken by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. What will our next act be?

 

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