Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.

 

She Who Believed in a Fulfillment: Sermon by Laura, 12.20.14, Advent 4C

Scriptures:  Luke 1:39-56, Micah 5:2-5a

 God nudged me the other day. It was very gentle, a little burst of warmth and awareness somewhere between my mind and heart, and suddenly there was a new idea,a motivation to do something that hadn’t been there before. Do you ever get nudges from God? Author Margaret Feinberg, calls them “God whispers.” She writes, “God is big. [God] could use anything to communicate with [God’s] people…[God] could fill the sky with a Star Wars presentation,leaving messages beaming in the atmosphere for hours…But…[God] takes a much more subtle approach. Instead of shouting, [God] whispers…Why? Because God is not as interested in imparting information as [God] is in a relationship.”[1]

The God-whisper I experienced was indeed about a relationship, as they usually are,about my relationship with God or with others,which amounts to the same thing. In this case, God suggested I contact a friend with whom I haven’t really connected in 10 years. I’d been rereading old journals, in which God revealed to me how this friendship made a difference for me during a particularly hard time. This friend gave me acceptance and wisdom which invited me to a new awareness of myself in God.

As this truth became clear, deep inside me, the Spirit wondered, “Does she know she had such an impact on you? Perhaps today’s the day to bless her with your gratitude.” My response to this nudge was a little thing—just a Facebook message!—and my friend hasn’t yet responded. I have no idea how it will affect her, or how it fits into God’s larger plan, but in receiving and responding to God’s whisper, my eyes have been opened in a new way to appreciate God’s gracious provision of friends who offer welcome and wisdom.

Of course, God didn’t just whisper to Mary. She got an angelic visitation with a big picture promise of the impact she would have in her willing participation with God’s call upon her life: “You will conceive and give birth to a son…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and…his kingdom will never end.”

A spectacular message for certain! But God also knows that the scope of Mary’s calling to be the mother of Christ means she will need especially sturdy companions to help her stay the course. At the end of his message, Gabriel gives Mary a little hint, a nudge: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary wisely responds “with haste,” heading straight to Elizabeth’s door. This was a significant undertaking—the hill country of Judea would have been an 80-100 mile journey for Mary, a teenage Jewish girl on her own in an occupied territory. She needed strong motivation to make that trip.

What is going on in Mary’s mind and heart The signs of her pregnancy are not yet visible, so I don’t think she’s primarily motivated by the not-unfounded fears of becoming a village outcast in her unmarried, pregnant state, or being rejected by her fiancée, Joseph. But more immediately, Mary has a need to share her incredible story with someone who might understand, even a little, what it means to have accepted God’s strange and wonderful calling. Mary needs a friend.

The good news is that God has already been at work to provide just the friend Mary needs. As one author writes, “In truly stunning fashion, God orchestrates Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies six months apart. It is a testament to God’s care and provision that each woman has someone to journey with as she navigates the peculiar seasons in which she finds herself. The gift of a believing community can make all the difference in the form our challenging waiting seasons take.”[2]

Elizabeth offers Mary the priceless gift of friendship, welcoming her to a safe haven, not just accepting Mary in her present state, but rejoicing in Mary’s faithfulness, offering wisdom from the broader perspective of her longer faith journey even as she remains present with the new thing happening in Mary’s life. Elizabeth is for Mary a “believing mirror,” recognizing, naming, and reflecting Mary’s power, strength and beauty back to her.[3]

Whenever we say “yes” to God’s invitation to whatever creative and transforming work God wants to do in us, whether birthing a baby or a work of art, starting a business or shaping a community, the companionship of such “believing mirrors” is vital. These are friends who not only affirm and reaffirm the value of the calling upon us but who also strengthen our courage, energy, and capacity to pursue the call.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” says Elizabeth, offering Mary the powerful gift of believing with her that God will do what God has promised. In the warmth of Elizabeth’s friendship, Mary moves more profoundly into her calling. Elizabeth’s prophetic blessing draws forth Mary’s powerful song of praise for the Redeemer and Restorer who scatters the proud and uplifts the lowly, who indeed fulfills the promises made to God’s people, generation upon generation. What an amazing moment in scripture, when two obscure pregnant women on the margins of their world, become aware of themselves as powerful prophets at the center of the eternal story, agents of God’s blessing for all humanity. These women, these holy friends, bless each other, giving each other “shelter and sanctuary” even as they free each other to “imagine and live into a world made new.”[4]

My friends, in this Fourth week of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth invite us to reflect on the people who have walked with us in our faith journey, people who have offered us welcome and acceptance and blessing. As we wait on God’s promises in Jesus Christ, God provides us with the sustenance of friends and communities to encourage and strengthen us. In such friendships, we practice sharing ourselves and our stories, risking vulnerability and receiving grace. They pattern us in daring to trust and receive the steadfast welcome and wisdom of friendship with God, the fulfillment of God’s covenant to God’s people.

Even further, the holy friendships God brings us not only bless who we are in this moment, but invite us to imagine something greater, a yet-greater outpouring of ourselves in love for God and God’s world. We are blessed by such friends so that we may in turn be sent as a blessing for others.

Friendship. In one light, it seems such a small and ordinary thing. Yet in our world these days, where ugly divisions and debates claim all the airwaves, a current of fear seems to cling to us, and we are often tempted to despair, I can think of little we need more than people who offer of themselves the kind of acceptance and welcome, affirmation and blessing Elizabeth and Mary give each other. These two women provide an example of the life-giving hope God provides us in the friendships God brings us, especially friendships across differences of circumstances and generations.

It is not always easy to offer our friendship. It often feels messy and awkward. Children trying to navigate the ins and outs of school-yard friendships remind us that bravery is often necessary in learning to communicate our God-given authenticity to others and in trusting it will be graciously received.

Yet I am proud to say that this congregation is a place where we have the privilege of witnessing such friendships being offered on a weekly basis between women and men and children who are related through Christ and care deeply, not only for the old friends they know well, but for the new friends they haven’t met yet.

So in these last days of Advent, amidst the busy-ness of preparing Christmas for you and yours, consider this a holy nudge, a God-whisper, inviting you to notice and give thanks anew for the friends God has brought into your life. Who are your “believing mirrors,” who are the people whose blessing enriches your life?  Notice, too, how you are being invited to offer such blessed friendship to others. For whom might you serve as a believing mirror, as a welcoming sanctuary? Ask God this week to open your eyes to someone you may normally have passed over; how might God be inviting you to offer friendship to that person?

The One who comes to us through Mary, the babe to whom she gives birth and lays in a manger, is the One who says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” My friends, you who are friends of God, let us receive Christ’s friendship and let us share it with the world he loves. Amen.

 

[1] Margaret Feinberg, God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice. Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002, 21.

[2] Enuma Okoro, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2012, 67.

[3] http://juliacameronlive.com/2011/09/26/week-3-task-believing-mirrors/

[4] Jan Richardson, “Introduction,” in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015, xiv-xvii.

Prayer for Humans like Us: Sermon by Laura, 7.5.15 Pentecost 6+ June with James

Scripture: James 5:7-20

“Where are we going?” I was following my Guatemalan host father, Daniel, and other elders from the Trinidad Glorioso Presbyterian Church, walking the dirt paths of their Mayan-Quiche village. “We are going to anoint our brother with oil,” Daniel replied. I was puzzled, not just by the language barrier, but also by the practice itself, which Daniel seemed to assume was self-evident, standard Christian practice. But though a lifelong Presbyterian, this was my first experience witnessing healing prayer done just as James counsels in the scripture today.

I found the scene both moving and concerning. The elders surrounded the sick man, reading scriptures, singing hymns, and offering prayers of deep passion and sincerity, closing by rubbing olive oil into his hands. I joined in as I could, but part of me stood aside in skepticism, thinking these humble Guatemalans seemed a bit naïve. I worried about how disappointed they would feel if and when their fervent prayers failed to accomplish the healing they so desired.

Looking back, I see now that my worry was less about them and more about me. I was uncomfortable with healing prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing, taught to be skeptical in my North American mainline Protestant worldview. I worried about their disappointment, because I’d heard tales of people in my own context; those that had left the faith, angry with God, even doubting God’s very existence; or those who heaped guilt on themselves for lack of faith, when it seemed prayers for physical healing had lacked results. Wouldn’t they all be better served by getting him to a doctor?

But then again, that question revealed that I was the naïve one, not yet grasping the realities my Guatemalan community faced. They had minimal access to medical care, and while they were very hardworking and resourceful people, in almost everything they did, they faced limitations imposed by systems of power and privilege from which they were at best excluded and at worst, actively oppressed.

Furthermore, the healing prayer they offered for their brother-in-Christ was only on the most basic level about alleviating his physical suffering. While they hoped and expected God to work through their prayer to heal his body, these Christians also trusted God to initiate other layers of healing. They recognized that this man might also need repentance from sin and reconciliation in estranged relationships, because sickness and sin are just different kinds of disruption to a whole person’s body-mind-and-spirit. They knew that there is healing for the whole community when a sick person is able to admit his vulnerability and speak the truth of his illness with others, trusting the community to join with him against whatever is causing his suffering. [i]

There are commonalities between the context of my Guatemalan community and the people to whom James originally addressed his wisdom. Early Jewish and Christian communities under Roman imperial rule faced persecution and systemic oppression, with their lives at stake daily. Suffering and emotional discouragement were just part of daily life in this context, and people struggled to maintain integrity of body, mind, and spirit. One scholar notes that while some illnesses were believed to result from personal sin, others were seen as the result of “uncontrollable external forces which sinfully pressed against the oppressed body of the poor and the persecuted.” [ii]

James, like my Guatemalan hosts, understands the Christian church as the place where a different kind of life could be learned and practiced, giving sustenance “in the midst of social disorder and oppression;”[iii]and in prayer, God could restore each person, inside and out, with sickness healed and sin forgiven.

This is the kind of community that James envisions throughout his epistle. Studying his wisdom over the past month, we’ve seen James address issues of divisiveness, warning against attitudes of partiality toward rich members; the slanderous use of words; and the dangers of boasting about ourselves or judging others. James counsels an attitude of humility, which Keith described last week as “living into the reality that God is everything.” James exhorts us that our outer actions reveal the truth of our inner faith, and that a central facet of true religion is caring for the most vulnerable people among us.

Today, we hear James call the community to a practice of prayer. “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no,” he writes, advocating a basic practice of speaking the unvarnished truth of one’s life and actions. Prayer is only possible if we can tell the truth about ourselves to God and others. The other actions of prayer James names are other forms of telling the truth: Can we allow others to know we are suffering or cheerful, sick or stuck in sinful patterns?

Such truth-telling is not easy in our culture. We expect adults to be independent, autonomous individuals who are self-directed and self-sufficient. We think we are supposed to have it all together, to stay in control of our bodies and emotions, and we’re continually convinced by consumer advertising that we should be able to fix every problem that might possibly cause suffering. When we get sick or a relationship goes wrong, we often experience a burden of shame, wondering what we—or someone we can blame—did wrong.

It takes courage to ask for others’ prayers. Many people resist it, even—maybe especially—in church communities. Mary Hinkle Shore asks, Is there any congregation in the whole Christian church on earth that you don’t have to leave when you are having a problem that you can’t hide? …Hardly anyone leaves church because things are going well for them.”[iv]

Our congregation has a strong practice of intercessory prayer for family and neighbors suffering loss or going through illness, our Prayers of the Community. To me, that time is often a highlight of our worship service, especially when we receive thanksgiving for our care and testimonies of healing.

However, even here we are understandably reluctant to ask for prayers when the cause of suffering is not sickness but sin. Yet according to James, confessing and praying for one another in our sins is equally as important as anointing the sick: “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

It is a basic truth of the human condition that we are sinners. All of us, each and every one of us, sometimes sin against God and our neighbor in what we say, think, or do. Ultimately we cannot ignore, deny, or cover up these ways we miss the mark in living out of God’s love; we can only move through and beyond sin in the practice of confession. Confession is naming the sin in the presence of a trusted companion, and then accepting and claiming forgiveness as our new reality.[v]

For James, we are able to tell the truth of our lives because we know and trust in a merciful and compassionate God who is ever-ready to heal and forgive. Our community with one another is established on the level ground before the cross of Jesus Christ.  That’s why there can be no boasting or judging, no partiality or diminishing of one another; that’s why James calls us to move towards—not away from—those who have wandered away to bring them back into the community. There is justice and mercy for all in the presence of the gracious, self-giving “Judge who is judged in our place.”[vi]

Our awareness of our equal standing as sinners who are also God’s precious children makes those who live in Christ able to trust and act in ways vastly different from our surrounding culture, able to stand with one another in suffering which is not unusual but to be expected, able to stand together against the distortions of abusive systems or relationships; and able to speak the truth of our need for God’s compassion and mercy, thereby finding healing and forgiveness.

In closing, I offer you another story from my year in Guatemala. It was the middle of the night, and this time, I was the sick one, suffering from the usual traveler’s ailments. My host parents, sleeping in an adjoining room, heard me get up to the latrine multiple times. Back in bed, nauseous in the dark, there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I said, wanting to tell them to go away, but also not wanting to offend my hosts. Daniel and Toribia and Fredy, my host parents and brother, along with two visiting church youth leaders, came in and gathered around my bed. They offered to pray. I agreed, though I was completely mortified by how public my, uh, internal issues had become.

I don’t remember their specific words, but I remember feeling awed by the sincerity and passion of their prayer for me, that I would find healing in their community. And I don’t remember being immediately and miraculously cured —it took a trip to the doctor and some Cipro—but I do remember a strange sense of relief and peace, that I didn’t have to hide my illness, that I wasn’t alone in it, that even as a stranger in a strange land, I was part of a community of people who believed in a God of healing and forgiveness, people who knew how to talk to God with trust and conviction.

And here’s my testimony 15 years after that healing prayer: that moment, when, uncomfortable and humiliated, I agreed to receive the care of people I’d just met, people I’d previously understood to be “poor” Guatemalan farmers somehow in need of my volunteer service, that moment began a journey of healing in Christ continuing to this day, in which I have learned and am still learning to lean into my vulnerability and accept my limitations, to recognize God’s presence with me in suffering, and to trust God’s acceptance and forgiveness, revealed in and through the people Christ has called together, a journey of healing that has been teaching me the depth and breadth of God’s love for me and every creature of this earth.

So on this day after “Independence Day,” I invite you to embrace and lean into our mutual dependence on the God of grace and mercy; I invite you to risk vulnerability and tell the truth of your weakness and limitations, to let others in to stand with you in times of sickness or sinfulness. May you be found when you wander and be brought back, again and again, to the true community of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One in Three, Three in One. Amen.

[i] Mary Hinkle Shore, http://www.pilgrimpreaching.org/2003/09/being_church-1.html

[ii] Christopher Michael Jones, http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52

[iii] Christopher Michael Jones, as above.

[iv] Mary Hinkle Shore, http://www.pilgrimpreaching.org/2003/09/being_church-1.html

[v] Kenneth Carter, http://day1.org/1436-to_make_the_wounded_whole

[vi] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IX: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Edited byG. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh T. & T.Clark, 1936–1977.

Bold Prayer: Sermon by Laura, 6.23.13 Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2

I first encountered Scott and Gabby Dannemiller through their website. They were serving as Young Adult Volunteers in Guatemala, where I had served myself a few years before.  Scott and Gabby knew how to put together a great website, with compelling, funny stories and beautiful photography, testifying to the joys and challenges of living out God’s call. Scott was also a songwriter and singer, and when they returned from Guatemala, he recorded a CD of original songs, and the two of the traveled all over the country performing at churches and raising money they sent back to ministries in Guatemala.

It was extremely impressive. But I must confess that my reaction was mixed. I was in awe of their creativity and excellent work, but I’m ashamed to admit that another part of me thought them a little too bold. “Who do they think they are?” I thought to myself. As if they were somehow arrogant for trusting they had a testimony to give and using their considerable talents to share it as widely as possible!

Later on, when I actually met Scott and Gabby, who turned out to be fairly ordinary people, young adults trying to find their way in a complicated world. I did a little self-reflection and recognized how the way they lived out their faith challenged mine. In their boldness, I saw a confidence in God that I realized I lacked. I had felt called to do something significant, as they were doing, after my own time in Guatemala, but beset by insecurities, I felt had I backed off of those dreams.

Ah, envy. I’ve come to realize that it is a quite useful feeling, meant to help us become aware of ways we can make changes and grow in faith. And so I took my envy as a sign that it was time to learn what Scott and Gabby seemed to be living out.

Today’s scripture from Acts—in fact, the whole of Chapter 4—would have been a good text to study. Last week, we heard the story of Peter and John, standing before the high priests and elders at the temple, in the very place that Jesus had been tried and falsely convicted, testifying to Christ’s power to heal a man. Ordered not to speak or teach in Jesus’ name, they refused, saying, “You judge whether we should listen to you or to God; we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” In spite of this retort to the authorities, they were released, because so many people celebrated the miraculous healing. But as they walk away, I think Peter and John began to recognize that they would not always get off so easy. They began to understand the risks of ministering in Jesus’ name; finding themselves confronting the powers-that-be, they began to see that allowing Christ to live fully in them might actually lead them to their deaths. Are they a little bit shaken by this awareness?

At any rate, they pull back and return to their faith community. As we continue reading Acts, I want us to attend to this rhythm of public engagement and withdrawal back to worshipping community, which scholars have noted is a pattern in Luke and Acts. It is important for us to learn and practice a similar rhythm of action and reflection. We are called to act and speak in Jesus’ name in all parts of our lives, but we cannot continue to do so with integrity if we do not regularly pull back to a supportive community, receiving God’s care through our fellow believers and finding renewed conviction.

And we cannot speak about God to others if we are not also making space to listen as God speaks to us. One way we honor this rhythm is by gathering in this space for Sunday worship, after full and busy weeks of engagement. Praising and praying, confessing our failures,receiving forgiveness, witnessing to the Word: what we do here is meant to rejuvenate us and send us forth again to publicly proclaim Christ in our words and deeds.

And that’s exactly what happens when Peter and John return to their community. Their fellow believers listen to their story, hearing all the implications for their own lives, and together they raise their voices in prayer.

Now, let’s recognize that their response isn’t necessarily the most self-evident in an hour of danger. They could have gotten angry at the Sanhedrin and started forming plans to bring down their opposition. They could have fled quickly out of Jerusalem to save themselves. Or they just could have done as the Sanhedrin commanded, to stop speaking and acting in Jesus’ name.

But what do they do instead? They pray.

And what do they pray for? Do they pray for God to smite the Sanhedrin or the Romans? Do they pray for God to clear away all opposition? No—accepting the reality of these threats, they pray for boldness to speak and heal in Jesus’ name, to do more and more of the very thing that got them arrested.[i]

It’s astonishing, really, and possible because the Holy Spirit is in their midst, inspiring them to see beyond the implications of the moment, to see a deeper reality, the vast and hopeful culmination of God’s purpose, presence, and power in Jesus Christ. That’s the reality they enter in their prayer, as they turn to the Sovereign God, the One they trust is continually creating and sustaining all things in heaven, earth, and sea; as they remember the faith of their ancestors, embodied by David, whose words in Psalm 2 named the truth of the opposition they are now experiencing, that even those who oppose God’s purposes turn out to be used by God to fulfill those purposes!

It is a reality they experienced in relationship with Jesus the Christ, whose entire life, death and resurrection not only demonstrated the depth of the world’s opposition to God’s purposes and the suffering that comes upon those living God’s ways in that world, but also the ultimate triumph of mercy, grace, and love over the ways of sin and violence. Because of Jesus, they are ready to stake their lives on the deeper reality of God’s kingdom.

Only after they have voiced these convictions together do they petition God, honestly acknowledging their need in the face of such opposition. I like how William Barclay puts it: “They did not pretend that they could face this in their own strength; they took it to God. In the hour of trial they turned from time and stretched to eternity; when their own strength failed they turned to a power that was not their own.”[ii]

And what a sign they receive in response to their prayer! The place in which they were gathered together was shaken. The ancient preacher Chrysostom suggests that God did this to reveal that their prayers had been heard and “to make it more fearsome and to lead them to courage.”[iii]

It’s a confirmation of their assertion that God is truly sovereign over all; both fearsome and inspiring, because who can stand against the One who has the power to shake the earth at its foundations? So this awesome sign empowers and emboldens the apostles: “‘The place was shaken,’ and that made them all the more unshaken.”[iv]

My friends, if we truly believe that God holds the whole world in his hands, we can be bold, for there is nothing to fear from any human opposition. The same One who can make the earth tremble has a purpose and a call for us in Jesus Christ, and when we pray for boldness to follow that call, God will make a way where it seemed there was no way.

What I learned from Scott and Gabby is what I learn from the praying community in Acts. Right now, I’d like to share with you the song Scott Dannemiller wrote when he and Gabby decided to go to Guatemala, called “What Would You Do?” You received the lyrics to this song with your bulletin this morning. (Play music.)

“Lord, grant us wisdom to discern and the intellect to learn

that courage is just faith on top of fear, so we can do your will right here.”

This is a prayer for boldness, isn’t it? Scott says elsewhere that “fear is just something God gives us to let us know what we’re doing is significant.” Laying our faith on top of our fear is to trust not only that God has a significant purpose for us, but that when we ask for it, God will give us the boldness we need to carry out that purpose.

Therefore, let us take seriously the question in Scott’s song: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” What are you called to do that right now seems exceedingly bold? In what areas do we as a congregation need to pray for boldness?

Friends, the life of faith in Jesus Christ is full of risks. We will run us up against enormous opposition. Sometimes we will run up against the powers-that-be, as we seek to minister in Jesus’ name. But sometimes the opposition will simply be our own fears and anxieties. “Who do we think we are?”

Friends, when we find ourselves asking that question, it’s time to return to this community, to return to the Bible, to return to the witness of God in Jesus Christ, to remember that we are the servants of the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and to trust the Holy Spirit will always ignite the courage we need to act in God’s will and walk in Christ’s ways.

Amen.

(by the way, Scott is now blogging at The Accidental Missionary. Check it out!)

 


[ii] William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, 38-40.

[iii] Chrysostom, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Acts. Edited by Francis Martin, Gen. Ed. Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 54.

[iv] Chrysostom as above, 54.