Monday, May 30, 2016

Christ Has Set Us Free

Sermon for May 29, 2016
Psalm 96 and Galatians 1:1-12

"The Apostle Paul" via Wikimedia Commons
By now you may have heard that our sermon and teaching focus this summer is on that ugly e-word: Evangelism. Yes, it’s true. Presbyterians will actually gather in worship to ponder Christ’s Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[i] Undoubtedly, if spreading the gospel is something that interests us, there is no better place to begin than with the writings of the Apostle Paul.  So over the next two months, we will explore Paul’s life and his passion for telling all the world about his love for Christ.

First, a little background. Before he became the Apostle Paul, Paul was known as Saul and he was a faithful Jew who was fixated on persecuting the first Christians. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and he continued to ravage the church by entering house after house, dragging both men and women off to prison. Finally, he asked the high priest for letters to the synagogues at Damascus—letters that gave him permission to bind and bring back to Jerusalem any followers of Christ. But Paul’s journey took a surprising turn when, on the road to Damascus, a light from heaven flashed around him and a voice said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was dumbfounded. “Who are you, Lord?” Imagine Saul’s surprise when he heard, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”

Saul is led by the hand into the city because he is unable to see. Three days later Ananias shows up with words from the Lord. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately, Saul’s sight is restored and he is baptized. God pierces the frozen shell of Saul’s heart and he is transformed. Christ gets into his heart. Love gets into his heart. The Gospel gets into his heart. It’s what Saul needs most. It is what we all need most. 

Thus Saul is transformed into Paul—an apostle, a missionary, a follower of Christ.  While he had been passionate about persecuting Christians, he becomes even more so about spreading the good news of Christ’s gospel. His letters fill the bulk of our New Testament canon. He is a great thinker, a great theologian, and he helps us understand things like grace and freedom—which brings us to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. This letter is different from Paul’s other letters. It’s different because it is the only Pauline letter in which the traditional prayer of thanksgiving is missing. There is no word of thanks—no words of praise. Instead, there is a brief greeting and then, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” Paul is aggravated. Paul is annoyed.

As one commentator notes, were this not an assigned reading in the lectionary, we might be tempted to avoid this text altogether. It would be easy enough to justify: We have simply intercepted mail that is not addressed to us. This is a matter between Paul and the Galatians—it’s personal. Except, the truth of the matter is: This is God’s word to us so it might behoove us to pay attention.[ii]

What has happened to lead the churches in Galatia astray? Although more details are provided later in the letter, for our purposes this morning it is important to know that some other Christian teachers have visited the Gentile Galatian congregations and have left their calling card behind. More than that, they have planted the seed in the people’s hearts and minds that Paul only preached part of the gospel. From their perspective, to fully participate in God’s salvation story, Gentiles must be circumcised and they must keep the Law of Moses.

When Paul hears that something has been added to the gospel, he has no recourse but to teach it again in his letter. Irritated and angry, in essence, his message is this: “The Law may make you aware of your sin but only Christ liberates you from it! Christ makes you a Christian. Christ justifies you. Christ makes you right with God. And Christ’s love is available for all people through faith. Nothing needs to be added. You don’t earn God’s love. You don’t earn anything. Through Christ, you have been set free. Live as free people!”

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charles Cousar served as a New Testament Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary for many years. In his commentary on Galatians, he sheds light on the predicament the churches in Galatia find themselves. Cousar writes,

They are working at the wrong end of the relationship with God—what they can do to assure inclusion in God’s family; what they can do to cope with the power of the flesh; what they can do to fulfill the law. The answer lies at the other end—what God has done in Christ and how he has done it. “Grace,” a word occurring at six key points in the letter, is not a “thing,” even a “thing” God gives. Rather it describes the manner in which God gives himself, the personal relationship he establishes with his people. The word depicts the unmerited and unconditional way in which God has made and continues to make his move toward sinful humanity…. What is the appropriate human response to grace? It is, of course, faith—the sometimes quiet, sometimes reckless confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of God…this means that faith is not a way for humans to “get God on their side.” God is already for them.[iii]

God is already for us! God is already on our side! Through Jesus, the love of God embraces all the world.  Each one of us bears Christ’s image.  We all belong to one human family. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water.  Every person is God's "offspring." Thanks be to God! What wonderful news we have to share! We are the church, after all, and we are called to share the gospel. But what is the gospel? The word “gospel” summarizes the Christian faith story. What is the gospel? God raised his own Son from the dead, thereby proclaiming for all the world to hear, “Death has lost its sting—death, itself, has been destroyed.” What is the gospel? Through Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins have been fully forgiven. What is the gospel? Christ loved the world so much he came to set us free—free to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and free to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Indeed, we are free people but it turns out that living as free people can be hard work. We are anxious about our freedom. Surely we have to do something. Surely God’s grace is not sufficient. So we add stuff to the gospel. For the churches in Galatia—it was Christ AND circumcision. Over time, it became Christ AND believing right doctrines. Sometimes it is Christ AND my particular denomination. Often it is Christ AND my political party.

One day in a doctoral class at Columbia Theological Seminary, a young woman said with a certain degree of frustration, “You can’t be a Presbyterian Church without being a “social-justice” church.” To me her remark felt a little like Christ AND social justice. Of course, I believe the church needs to be about justice in the world but I also believe that God is not into cookie-cutter churches. God gives some churches the spiritual gifts and resources to work specifically in the area of social justice. God gives other churches the spiritual gifts and resources to focus on mission work—both near and far. Other churches, God equips to attend to ministries like feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. Still other churches, God has blessed to provide care for the world in numerous creative ways.  

Photo in Public Domain via Pixabay
No, God is not into cookie-cutter churches but each church has work to do. Ultimately though, aren't there some things we are ALL called to do? For instance, aren’t we ALL called to further the gospel to the ends of the lands…starting in our own neighborhood?  If so, as a denomination, Presbyterians are falling behind because we have a reputation for shying away from evangelism. That’s something those churches down the street do. Not us. Furthermore, for decades we have relied on those people “out there” to come “in here” to worship with us. Sure, occasionally we have invited friends and neighbors to join us and that’s wonderful. But maybe it’s time for us to do more. Maybe it’s time for us to go beyond these four walls with the gospel in hand. Otherwise, how will the unchurched in our neighborhood hear the good news that has transformed our lives?

Let’s face it! On any given Sunday morning, the unchurched are more prone to worship at St. Panera, St. Starbucks, St. Mattress, or the St. James River than to enter the doors of a church. The question is: Is there anything we can do about it? That is what we will explore together this summer as we consider ways to share the love of Christ with our neighbors. To help us get started, we will engage in our second Christ Walk experience beginning today through July 31st. Our goal is to cover 6900 miles—approximately the number of miles Paul covered by land and sea during his first three missionary trips. We will accrue miles through exercise, prayer and meditation, and service. This time, though, we will also accumulate miles by sharing our love of Christ with others and inviting people to church.

We will explore evangelism in other ways, too. For example, Session has asked the Professor of Evangelism at Union Seminary, John Vest, to preach July 10th. After worship we will have a covered dish luncheon with a Q&A so you can ask Dr. Vest questions about evangelism. Also, two of our new classes will actually meet in the community—the Book Club at the library and the Faith Formation Class at Panera Bread. And finally, the Online Bible Study, set to begin later this summer, will initially study the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the birth of the church and the early spread of the gospel.

Evangelism. Yes, it’s that ugly e-word. But maybe it is time for us to embrace it rather than run from it.  Maybe it’s time for us to open the doors of the church and truly enter the mission field with the message of Christ’s love on our lips. Maybe it’s time for us to tell the world that Christ has set us free. Christ AND Christ alone!

[i] Matthew 28:19-20a.
[ii] Heidi Husted Armstrong, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3, 86.
[iii] Charles B. Cousar: Interpretation Commentary: Galatians, 9-10. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Blogging toward Sunday

"The Apostle Paul" via Wikimedia Commons
This Sunday, May 29, 2016, we begin our summer focus on evangelism and the Apostle Paul. In preparation for worship, read Galatians 1:1-12. Then consider the following:
  1. What is the "feel" of this portion of Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia?
  2. Who has "sent" Paul?
  3. What has upset Paul?
  4. Paul's mission was to spread the gospel. How might you explain "the gospel" to someone who does not have a relationship with Jesus?
  5. Is sharing your faith story something you feel comfortable doing? Why? or Why not?
May the Lord bless your comings and your goings until we meet to worship together this Sunday morning. 

Grace & Peace,

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Blogging toward Sunday

"Dove: Holy Spirit" by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons

In the life of the church, this Sunday carries great importance. It is the Day of Pentecost, which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. As you prepare for worship, meditate on Acts 2:1-21 and then consider the following:

  1. What were the signs of the Spirit's arrival?
  2. Did the festival of Pentecost originate in the Jewish tradition or the Christian tradition?
  3. What might be the significance of the list of countries included in this reading?
  4. When some of the observers see such amazing things happening, what accusation do they make?
  5. In general, churches do a good job celebrating Christmas and Easter. What about Pentecost?

The following is a poem penned by Malcolm Guite entitled, simply, "Pentecost." May it bless you on your journey toward Sunday. 

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.

Grace & Peace,

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Blogging toward Sunday

"St. Paul the Apostle" via Wikimedia Commons
This Sunday, May 8, 2016, we will gather to pray and to sing hymns to God. In addition, we will listen for a word from God. To prepare for worship, spend some time meditating on Acts 16:6-34. Familiarize yourself with the text very well because the sermon will be interactive in nature. That means, you will have an opportunity to participate in the sermon!

So come, let us gather, and let us worship for we are believers in the Most High God.

Grace & Peace,

Monday, May 2, 2016

How Far Will You Travel?

Sermon for May 1, 2016
Psalm 67 and Acts 16:9-15

"Baptism of Lydia" via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: The first part of sermon is a monologue.)

[Put on head scarf] Thank you for allowing me to visit this morning. I have really been looking forward to traveling here to share my story with you. My name is Lydia. Although I am originally from the city of Thyatira, most of my adult life was spent in Philippi. Likely you know something about Philippi since later Paul would write a letter addressed to the house church that met there—a letter that would become part of your New Testament canon. Philippi was a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. It was founded in 356 BCE by Philip of Macedon—the father of Alexander the Great. Philippi was more of a village than a city in those days, though, until it was “rediscovered” by Emperor Augustus some 300 years later. He chose Philippi as a retirement community for retired army officers. By the time I arrived, the city had a population of around 15,000 people—a little less than your own city of Colonial Heights.

I came to the Philippi because I wanted independence. I wanted a new life. I learned the skill of dyeing fabrics from my mother, who was incredibly creative and talented. She could do anything she set her mind to do. When I heard of the vast opportunities available in Philippi, I traveled there to start my own business. Maybe that seems a lofty goal to you—since I am a woman. But somehow I knew in my heart and soul Philippi was the place for me. And I was right.

With a lot of hard work and a lot of prayer—my business took off. Purple cloth was my specialty. I, along with some family members and other women who worked for me—extracted the purple dye from murex shell fish. It was hard work—back-breaking work—and it was a trade considered “unclean.” Still, it was a lucrative business because purple cloth was a luxury item only the wealthy could afford. That’s how I was able to be in charge of my own household. That’s how I was able to have my own property—instead of be someone’s property. 

In business, I was successful but I knew that my success was not my own—I knew that God was the source of it. God put the notion in my head to travel to Philippi. God helped me get my business going. God helped me choose good workers who would help things go smoothly.  Even though I was not born a Jew, God put a Jewish woman in my life who shared her faith story with me. Through her I came to know and love God—not one of the myriad other gods the people in Philippi worshiped—but Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jewish law required 10 Jewish men to make a synagogue. But in the Greek city of Philippi there were not 10 Jewish men to be found. Greeks, however, experienced places of “living water” as holy. So since we could not gather in a synagogue, as was the custom of the Jews, I, along with other women believers, gathered by the river to pray on the Sabbath. There we found comfort. There we found strength. There we found community. But in my heart of hearts, I yearned for something for which I had no name…I yearned for something more...

One Sabbath when we were at the river’s edge, a man came along—he and some others. At first I thought they were just looking for a place to pray, too, but then they actually sat down and started talking to us about God. Jewish men—talking to mostly Greek women—well that was unheard of. Paul, the apparent leader of the group, began to tell us what had brought him to Philippi. He told of a vision he had of a man from Macedonia pleading for help. Then Paul shared his own story of faith. He once persecuted people who believed in Jesus. “Who is Jesus?” I asked. “Jesus,” Paul responded, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Righteous One, the Son of God who came into the world to set us free—free from fear—free from tyranny—free from all that keeps us bound to darkness and despair.” Paul went on to tell about his conversion on the road to Damascus. He told us about God’s own Spirit that came to live in the heart of every baptized believer. In that moment I knew that God had once again provided what was most needed—God had sent a witness to travel many miles for me—for us. Eagerly I asked to be baptized—me and my entire household. Oh what a joyous day—when Christ washed my sins away—there in the river where I had come to pray.

Life for me was forever changed. I implored Paul and his traveling companions to come and stay in my home while they were in Philippi. It was the least I could do after they had traveled so far to share such good news: Good news of the love of Christ. Good news of the power of the Spirit to transform lives. Good news to save people lost in darkness and sin. In the days that followed I continued to learn from Paul’s teachings. Others learned about these men of God who were staying in my home. People came to hear and many believed. Eventually, my house became a house of prayer for Christians throughout the area.Together we began to learn about becoming believers in community—we devoted ourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayer. We praised God because day by day the Lord added to our numbers those who were being saved.

I have traveled here today to share my story with you. We, who go by the name “Christian,” have a story to tell.  I hope you, too, will be a messenger of the good news so that more people may be added to God’s family here on earth. [End monologue by removing scarf.]

The story of Lydia’s conversion—what a wonderful story. Truth be told we do not know much about her. We know she was a successful business woman who was probably a non-Jew who had somehow been drawn to the Jewish faith. We know she was a person of means because she had a home large enough to house several visitors. We imagine she had some influence in the community because she had contact with the elite. We do not know for sure if the Philippian Letter Paul eventually wrote was sent to a church that met in Lydia’s house—but it seems likely.

The story of Lydia’s conversion has captured the imagination of many down through the ages. Allow me to share a poem that resulted from such pondering. Written by Holly S. Morrison, it is entitled simply, “Lydia.”

The purple wouldn't wash off. Still,
Stubborn and savvy as ever, she planned her path
past market stalls, walled gardens, city gates
past the buzzing, glittering temple,
to a place outside: a praying place.
She went down to that dirty river and
prayed for the soft golden skin of her youth,
the bangles jangling on slender wrists,
the traceries of henna,
painted lines of prettiness and praise--
She prayed with hardened hands for better days.

She went down to that rough-edged river and
prayed for the soft smiles of all her servants,
so deft and deferent, so smooth and skilled
she could not quite learn whether she'd
earned—or merely bought—their trust--
She prayed with oil-rubbed skin and the taste of dust.

She went down to that deep old river,
where other praying women met her, held her, heard her.
She prayed for the soft hollow of her soul,
the empty ache under the fine fabrics of her trade,
like a weeping burn, all bandage-bound.
She prayed at the river, where the women gathered.
She prayed at the river, where men seldom wandered.
She prayed at the river till a stranger prayed with her,
and the purple folds of her heart fell open
and the stains of her trade no longer concerned her
and she opened her house to apostles and pilgrims
there at the river,
there at the fringes,
where the Spirit weaves through
and the floods bring fertile ground.

By the river’s edge, Lydia met Paul—Paul who traveled thousands of miles to share the good news. As you look back over your own life, how far have you traveled? Have you gone out of your way to tell someone about Jesus? Have you used your talents and resources to spread the gospel? In the days and weeks and months and years ahead, how far will you travel? You may have an opportunity to travel across the seas to a faraway country to tell someone about Jesus. That would be incredible. But if you do not, there is a mission field right outside our doors. In our own community, there are people who do not know Jesus. There are people who are unaware of their desperate need for the transforming love of Christ. There are people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Some people have lost interest in institutionalized religion. Others have been hurt by Christians and have no intention of ever darkening a church door again. Regardless, we have an obligation to them. They are children of God and we have been commissioned by Christ himself, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[i]

We are all called to go and share the good news of Jesus Christ. But we never go alone. Christ’s Spirit goes ahead of us to prepare the way—to open hearts to listen just as Lydia’s heart was opened. She was ready, willing, and eager to hear the story Paul came to share. We all have a story—a story about the difference Christ has made in our lives. Why do we tell it so seldom? As a church, is our only evangelism strategy to wait for them to come to us? Are we glued to our pews? Have we been struck dumb? We can talk about the nonsense of the world ad nauseum. Why do we resist talking about something as important as our faith in Christ our Lord? Our love of God the Father? Our dependence on the Holy Spirit?

Over the summer we will have many opportunities in small groups as well as in worship to continue this conversation. We will speak often of that dirty E-word: Evangelism. It is my prayer that God will bless us as we learn new ways to share our story. But we won’t stop here. We will learn and we will go and we will do. Because there are still people like Lydia who are waiting—waiting for good news. May God allow us to be the ones who bring it!

[i] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.