Sunday, May 12, 2013

Going Forth By Staying Put

Mother's Day Sermon

Going Forth By Staying Put

Acts 16:16-34

According to the bureau of labor statistics, American mothers are busy people. On an average day, full time working American mothers with children 12 and under spend about an hour per day playing, reading, and talking with their children, about 1 ½ hours providing primary physical care, almost 2 hours in travelling back and forth, picking them up and dropping them off for ball games, church activities, and other organized time. That’s all on top of career expectations, trying to keep healthy and stay fit, being active and involved in church, caring for aging parents, and balancing relationships with spouses, family members, coworkers, and friends. Mothers are truly busy folks. It is no wonder, then, that according to the American Psychological Association, women (28%) are more likely than men (%20) to report high levels of stress, with 54% of married American women reporting that in the last month that they had incidents in which they were likely to cry, %52 percent reporting that they felt irritable or angry, 49% reporting that they had lain awake at least one night, and 48% that they had stress headaches, and 47% experiencing fatigue—all in the last month. Money and work are the most common factors for stress, according to the APA, but I imagine other factors such as concern for our families, the business of our lives, and other pressures build upon us as well. We are busy folks, and it is likely that our mothers know this better than the rest of us. Many mothers understand that their calling and work is to be missionaries to their own families, to serve and nurture, and stand by their families in the day to day, in times of joy and the times of need.

So we come together on this one day a year to celebrate mother’s day and reflect about what Scripture might have to say, not only to our mothers, but to all of us, as we try to balance work and family schedules, serve as faithful members to our churches and communities, and take care of elderly parents and friends in need. And it is hard, isn’t it, because the Bible seems to speak to another time and another place, and may not speak to the kinds of anxieties and stresses that we have today. However, as I was preparing for today, I felt like these two incidents from Acts really can speak to us, especially as we think about what it means to be missional in our everyday lives. Now some of us have been on mission trips. Others spend time in community service or doing local ministries. In a real sense, when we go to another country to build a church, or when we go to a local homeless shelter to feed the poor, we are learning what it means to be missional. But what I think today’s stories tell us is that being missional doesn’t always mean going to exotic countries or serving people who are in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, if we pay attention to what God is doing in our midst, being missional means recognizing what God is doing right where we are and allowing ourselves to be the conduits through which God is going to act.

This is what’s going on in these two stories in Acts. In the first story, Paul and Silas are in the city of Philippi ministering and witnessing to the people there when, day after day, they encounter a young slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination. Apparently this spirit gave her the ability to tell the future and reveal secrets—and her slave-masters used this girl to make a profit from those who would seek out her services. Anyway, whenever this slave girl saw Paul and others going to the place of prayer outside Philippi, she would cry out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Of course, the irony in this text is profound. Here, a girl who is enslaved not only to an evil spirit, but also to human masters who are exploiting her for profit, is proclaiming Paul and his company to be slaves. Anyway, regardless of her status, Paul found her caterwauling particularly annoying, so he turns around and casts the demon out of her in the name of Christ Jesus. The owners of this girl don’t take too kindly to this, because their ability to make a profit is lost. So, the irony of this event is that Paul’s act of liberation for the woman, leads to his and Silas’ own enslavement, due to pressure by the slave-girl’s owners.

The next episode in this little story is in the jail of Philippi, where Paul and Silas have been put in stocks in the innermost cell. While Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, there is a tremendous earthquake, so profound that everyone’s stocks, chains, and doors are opened and the prisoners have the opportunity to get free. When the Macedonian jailor enters into his prison to see all the doors open, he draws his sword to kill himself, thinking that his career and his livelihood are over. However, Paul calls out to him to say that they are all there. Astonished by this, the jailor asked to be saved by the same power that has saved Paul and Silas, the same powerful God that freed the Macedonian slave girl. This then becomes the opportunity for Paul to witness to the jailor and his family--and that very night the jailor’s entire family is baptized.

One of the really interesting facets of these stories is that Paul and Silas don’t really do much special in order to be missional. Especially in the second episode, all Paul and Silas really do is stay put, rather than running away, when God provides them an opportunity to witness to the Philippian jailor. And really, in the first story, with the slave-girl, Paul doesn’t set out to do anything special. He is just so annoyed by her following them around and screams them that he basically just turns around and yells at the spirit within her and orders it to come out. So, I guess what I’m trying to say, when I look at these examples, we don’t really need to engage in huge projects, special events, and fancy ministries to be missional. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against mission trips and service projects. I think programs and special events in churches are great. But being missional is more about one’s attitude, one’s day to day practices than it is about international trips and mountaintop experiences. When Paul and Silas are in the prison in Philippi, they are doing missional work simply by staying put.

So often churches think that the more programs they offer, the larger and more splendid their facilities are, that they are doing more and more the missional work of God. But look, Paul and Silas were just walking through the streets down to a clearing by the river, when God gave them an opportunity to touch this slave-girl’s life. Paul didn’t need a program or a budget or a building to be missional. Paul didn’t need a degree or a committee to study the matter. He just got annoyed and turned around and cast out the demon that was inside of that girl. Now, I know what some of you working mothers are thinking: does that mean it is OK to turn around when I’m driving my annoying kid from baseball practice and shout at them to high heavens. Well, I’m not so sure about that. The point is that Paul and Silas looked for the moment that God was giving them. Sometimes a confrontation with a neighbor or coworker may lead to their liberation from something that is enslaving them. But you have to use discernment to know whether God is in that moment or not. I think also that Paul and Silas must have used discernment to realize that the earthquake that had led to their freedom was also an opportunity for them to spread the Gospel.

You see, in the midst of our hectic and stress-filled lives, being missional is about finding those in-between moments when God is giving us an opportunity to transform lives, whether those be the lives of our children, our coworkers, or even strangers we might meet. You see, I suspect that God does not want to burden us with more stress. You see, God does not need our committee assignments, and church programs, and a myriad of other activities to show God’s power. If we become aware of it, God is offering us moments every day where God is going to do real and transformative missionary work through us. Sometimes, mothers, that may mean taking a moment at the stoplight on the way to soccer practice to say a little prayer with your children. Sometimes, it may mean offering an agitated and stressed out parent at that soccer practice your ear for a few minutes so that they can vent and cry. Sometimes, for those of us who are retired or off of work and may have a little more time, it may mean allowing that stressed out mother with a toddler to have your place in line at the supermarket. Sometimes, parents, it may mean keeping the faith and continuing to address a destructive or potentially addictive habit that your teenager has taken on. It is wondrous to read in the story of the Philippian jailor that, before Paul baptized him and his family, the jailor washed Paul’s wounds. For some of us, it could be that being missional means allowing a stranger to wash our wounds, whether that’s allowing a friend to speak an encouraging word, or asking someone for their blessing, when we’re having a particularly difficult or stressful day.

I recognize that mother’s day can be a difficult day for some of us. Some among us may have never been blessed with the opportunity to be mothers. Others among us may have lost their children, whether through accidents, or illness, miscarriage, or even war. And still others, like myself, have lost our mothers recently. So, while today is a great day to celebrate those of us who are mothers, I think it important to keep in mind, that through Christ, we are all offered opportunities to be mothers to one another. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he sees himself as their mother, their nursemaid in Christ, and yet when he is far away from them, he feels orphaned. So in our community and our faith life, God is giving us opportunities every day to be missional, to be mothers to one another, and to be mothered by one another. Church, I hope and pray for you that you will take the opportunity that God is showing you and be a mother to someone in need in the days and weeks ahead. If you do, maybe it will become a habit for you—and you’ll know what its like to be a missionary, without having to go anywhere at all.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Marathon Sermon

I know its been a long time since I posted.  I thought I'd post a sermon I am preaching tomorrow.  Maybe it will give someone comfort.

Rev. 7:9-17;
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

This has been a tough week for Americans.  On Monday, we witnessed the horror and images of the explosions and mayhem at the Boston marathon.  Then, as the week progressed, more news came about an explosion that rocked the small town of West, Texas. Finally, as the week drew to a close, more news about shootouts, manhunts, and finally the discovery, capture and arrest of the perpetrators of the horrific crime in Boston.  Whether at a large international sporting event at Boston, or at a small, sleepy rural town, Americans had their world shaken this week, a week unlike few others since 9/11.  Now, with our 24/7 news cycle and the constant updates and wash of opinions through Twitter and Facebook, all of us can share in the trauma, anxiety and fear.  Even though only a few of us are directly impacted by these events, many more are experiencing these events through connections and social networks.  So, collectively, we experience shock and trauma, as we are reminded of the loss and brokenness that many of us and our families have known in the past.
            This week, through Scripture, we are given the imagery of sheep and shepherds.  Israel was a herding nation.  Living in the Judean hill country, sheep herding, and the growing of olives and grapes, were some of the main ways folks could make a living.  The hill country was rugged terrain, unsuitable for large scale farming of grains that one might find in Northern Israel or in the Transjordan.  So the people of Israel knew sheep and idolized the herding culture.  At least since David, the image of the shepherd had become associated with leadership.  The shepherd symbols of leadership persist today.  Bishops carry a shepherd’s staff, with the straight end designed to prod sheep along and the hooked end designed to pull them back from danger.  Being a shepherd was hard and dirty work, and often dangerous, alone in the country, sometimes at night, protecting sheep from wild animals or poachers.  A shepherd often had to rely on his wits and cunning to keep his flock safe, fed, and watered.  On the other hand, a shepherd often had large amounts of time alone with his sheep (and maybe his dog), time to reflect, whittle, sing, or practice his pipe or lute.   
            So for Israel, the image of the shepherd is one of a leader, and as we see reflected in Psalm 23, one of comforter and protector, an image associated with Israel’s God.  God provides us fresh water in still streams and provides us green pastures upon which to feed and sleep, leads us through dangerous valleys, and feeds us.   God’s guiding rod and staff protect.   In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus applying the image of the shepherd to himself.  Those of us who are Jesus’ sheep know his voice and we follow him.  No robber or evil shepherd can snatch us away from Jesus the shepherd, for we are safe under Christ’s watch. 
You see the dynamics of herding is an amazing thing to watch from afar.  My wife is from Slovakia, another mountainous region, where the sheep herding culture is not only part of the mythic imagination, it is something you can witness in everyday life.  Sometimes in the summer, when we are visiting the mountain villages surrounding my wife’s home town, one can look up at the hills and see shepherds slowly moving their flock through the pastures.  I imagine, up close, to my untrained eye, it would seem like chaos and confusion, with shouting and mewing, sheep bells ringing, and sheep going this direction and that.  But it is an amazing thing to watch from the distance, because although there may be dozens and dozens of sheep, from a distance it appears that they are moving as one, like one flexing and stretching organism along the hills.
These images of sheep and shepherds are compelling in a week when it seems like we are a flock that has been scattered and set astray, where each sheep is going in its own direction in terror and fear, ducking and covering from real and metaphorical explosions.  In a week like this, I wonder whether our experience isn’t more akin to that of the original audience of the seer’s Revelation.  You see the audience of the apocalypse had this experience that they were living in the end of times.  Many of the churches in Asia Minor listed at the beginning of the book had undergone recent persecution at the end of the first century.  These were folks who knew what it was to live in terror, to live in fear that their neighbors might turn them in for believing in this new-fangled religion that worshipped only one God and proclaimed a crucified criminal to be God’s resurrected King.  These were folks who had seen fellow believers arrested, even martyred.  Others were confronted regularly with the temptations of wealth and luxury, still others were surrounded by pagan idols and false gods whom friends and family members still worshipped.  These believers in Asia Minor were composed likely of small house churches in major urban centers, and their makeup was largely of slaves and other low status people.  If ever there was a people who felt like scattered sheep and who needed a word of comfort, it was the audience John of Patmos was writing to.   And the vivid imagery of Revelation does not disappoint.  Its mix of symbol and imagery enlivens the imagination and senses.  It is designed chiefly to provide comfort to a people whose senses have been overloaded. 
 This is where we find ourselves in Revelation 7:9-17.  We join the seer as he looks around and sees a great multitude, countless people from all the nations, standing around the throne of the lamb.  Now this is a powerful image; and I guess the image that comes most readily to mind is that of the Boston Marathon.  According to the Boston Athletic Association, this marathon provided the widest spectrum of humanity now possible, with over 23,000 people to run, you had people running from age 18 on up, with almost 50 runners in their late seventies and eighties, over 50 people in wheel chairs, and about 80 people with visual or mobility impairments.    Runners came from 54 US states and territories, and representatives from over 80 nations!  Get that picture in your mind and I think you have something similar to John’s vision.  Except in John’s visions, instead of running, all of these peoples from all over the world are praising and worshipping the lamb who is sitting on his throne.  
What do we learn about these people?  The seer learns that they have gone through a terrible ordeal, and “they have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb.”  This is a profound and ironic image.  It is one we can relate to especially in a week like this one.  Many bystanders at the Boston bombing commented on the blood in the street, that so many had lost legs and limbs from the bombs, that the bombs were intentionally build to cause injury and harm through the inclusion of nails and bb-s as shrapnel.  I can’t even imagine the horror.   Yet John’s vision here functions in a completely opposite manner.  Of course robes washed in blood would be expected to be stained in red.  Yet through the blood of this lamb, the robes are made white.  Here the author is using ironic symbolism.  The blood of the lamb represents Christ’s sacrificial death.  The image here is of temple sacrifice, in which the blood represents the covenant that is sealed between humans and God.  Ironically, this blood does not stain the robes of the worshippers.  It does quite the opposite.  It cleanses and purifies them.  It makes them white. The same ironic symbolism us being used at the end of the chapter,  when the lamb at the center of the throne becomes the shepherd who will lead this international mass of people to living waters.  Here we see a complete transposition of roles.  The baby sheep, the vulnerable lamb, becomes the powerful guiding shepherd.
At the heart of these symbols, the blood of the lamb that washes the robes white, the vulnerable baby sheep that becomes the shepherd of all people on earth, is the irony of the cross.  And you see, this is where we find the good news of this text for our fearful and hectic lives.  In Christ, we recognize that God’s power functions through powerlessness.  We believe in a God that has the power to take nothingness and make something out of it, to take the bitter shameful defeat of the cross and make out of it a cosmic victory for life over death.  You see, the message of the cross is that our God exists in the very human weakness, frailty, and powerlessness that we experience in our lives and bodies every day.  And that is the overwhelming Good News of the Gospel.  A parent may be helpless as he or she watches a dying child in a hospital bed, a person with a grave illness or disability may feel utterly broken and helpless, we may cry to the heavens when we lose a spouse, or child, parent, or sibling.  Yet the good news of the Gospel is that Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of the resurrection.  God has achieved the ultimate victory over death and the forces of evil that try to strike terror in our lives.  Folks, like the saints in John’s end-time vision, we too can go through great ordeals and still wash our robes to see them gleaming white in Christ’s blood.   When we experience the ordeals, the terror, the loss, we know that Christ has already achieved the ultimate victory and that soon, any time now, we will join in singing heavenly praises to the lamb.  As Paul says, Christ’s power is perfected through weakness.  Yes, and that means that the weak and frail lamb is an all-powerful comforting shepherd.  There is nothing in our bodies too frail, there is no one in our community too weak, nothing in our lives so broken that Christ through the cross and resurrection can transform it into newness, eternity, and life.  Whatever your fears, whatever your brokenness, whatever trials or ordeals you are going through, I invite you today to wash them in this little lambs blood.  Saints, you will experience cleansing.  Brothers and sisters, we will experience life together in God’s beloved community.  When we are feeling lost and scattered.  When we are feeling confused and bewildered, heavenly multitude from all over the earth, we will find our shepherd.  And that shepherd is ready to lead.  My brother and sister sheep, are we ready to follow that shepherd?  Are we ready to drink from the waters of life?  Are we ready to hunger and thirst no more?   Are we ready to have every tear wiped away from our eyes?
If you are, all you have to do is follow that shepherd.  Be scattered no more, for we know his voice and he knows us as his sheep.