The Strength of Christ: sermon by Laura, 9.19.21

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time there was a chapel. It was a small, round building on a college campus. Students and their chaplain gathered there for Christian worship on Sunday evenings, but on other days of the week, groups from the community used the space, which was just right for intimate gatherings. 

One summer day, a group of women came together early in the morning to do their spiritual practice together. But when they walked into the chapel, they discovered that another community group had decorated the space with camouflage banners, tiny green plastic tanks, and toy U.S. Army-style guns dangling from the ceiling. 

Now, though these women often practiced poses named after warriors, the intent of their practice was union with God and others. In a chapel dedicated to a nonviolent Messiah, they wondered how anyone who followed him could simultaneously glorify instruments of war and pretend they were merely children’s toys. In shock and anger, the women tore down the weapons. 

True story: these events actually took place at the Sheldon Jackson College Chapel. The first group was–you probably guessed it–a women’s yoga circle. But did you guess that the second group was actually a local church, leading Vacation Bible School with the theme “Soldiers for Christ?” 

You can bet that VBS used this passage from Ephesians 6 at some point in their lessons. Paul’s metaphor, of putting on the “whole armor of God,” might seem right in line with the war kitsch. After all, Paul certainly describes the armor and weaponry of soldiers in his time. The VBS folks probably thought they were just updating the metaphor. 

But the yoga women, who themselves regularly practiced the postures of Warrior 1, 2, and 3, thought the VBSers had crossed a line. And I would agree–there is a big difference between the tone and context of Paul’s metaphor, which was given to encourage a persecuted minority dwelling in an occupied nation, and the visual of weaponry produced and utilized in present-day military occupations by a world superpower. Though I also think the yoga women’s concerns would have been better served by opening a dialogue instead of rushing to tear down the decorations! 

This story is a parable of a conundrum in which we often find ourselves. Paul is very clear that people who follow Jesus will have to withstand enemies. His metaphor draws on the virtues of the Warrior: standing strong to protect others. But what is the difference between standing strong as a Warrior and being a bully? How do we embrace Warrior virtues without glorifying War? 

First, we need to understand the nature of the enemies of Christ. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” Paul says, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 

Paul is clear that our enemies are not other human beings, but rather spiritual influences, which infiltrate and distort the inner lives of individuals and the ethos of institutions. And it is very difficult to pin down and name this enemy, because, as Eugene Petersen writes, it is “evil that rarely looks like evil.” Petersen continues, 

“There are a lot of things in this world that people do that are wrong and that look wrong. Paul has mentioned some of these…But there is far more that is wrong with the world than the sum total of what we name as sin and sins…This evil has nothing to do with cartoon caricatures of pitchfork-wielding demons or sulphur-breathing dragons.”

“The powers” Paul is talking about “insidiously make themselves at home” in institutions which are founded with good intentions and provide ongoing benefits to society. Money, language, and technology–good things in and of themselves–can become evil when institutionalized in business, governments, the media, schools, churches, and other structures. Petersen writes, “The basic good of money is idolized into the god Mammon; the basic good of language is debased into lies of propaganda; the basic good of technology is depersonalized into a world of non-relationship.”

The early Christians were pacifists. As religious minorities in the Roman empire, they faced harassment, discrimination, and the suppression of their officially illegal religious activities. But they understood that their battle was spiritual, a battle against sin, evil, and death; these forces waged war “in their inner spirit and at the cosmic level,” with tangibly “dehumanizing, death-dealing, alienating” effects. Early Christians died as nonviolent martyrs, rather than take up arms against other human beings.

But as the history of Christianity has continued on, the concept of spiritual warfare has too often been used to justify flesh and blood wars, with some people calling others the ‘enemies of God.’ Christians began persecuting other Christians by 325 CE, after Constantine legalized Christianity. The tragedy is that any time we justify violence against other human beings, all of us created in God’s image, we’ve already been defeated by the true foes Paul exhorts us to stand firm against. 

My friends, we don’t have to be defeated! In fact, the victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We face an enemy in its death throes, though still dangerous. And though it is difficult to see, we are not powerless against this enemy. We need to be aware that we will be attacked, sometimes full on, sometimes in distractions, distorted teachings, or in the age-old temptations of sex, money, and power.  

Of course, you won’t see it at all if you simply refuse to acknowledge that evil exists or that it is constantly exerting influence upon you and infecting your relationships! But acknowledging evil’s influence does not mean living in paranoia or anxiety, or setting up some kind of fortress to guard yourself from it. Nor should you ally yourselves with those who think of themselves as “defenders of purity,” who “vilify, mount crusades, [and] define [them]selves by what [they] are against.” 

Paul describes a third option, neither hiding, nor attacking directly, since the “wiles of the devil” are usually immune to direct attack. Our response to the enemy we face is to stand firm, to “be strong in the strength of the Lord.” 

Now let’s pause for a moment and think about the “strength” of Jesus Christ. In the gospel stories, we see that Jesus did not hide from conflict or controversy, and he rarely spoke directly against anyone, though he did rebuke the hypocrisy he saw in religious leaders.  Overall, he stood his ground gently and generously, condemning violence when his disciples tried to defend him with swords: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He did no violence to those who actively harmed him, but on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

“Lowly and meek, yet all powerful:” that’s how one of my favorite songs describes Jesus’ strength.  That’s the strength of the Lord in which Christians are called to stand. “We are called to realize and cultivate our unique identity as men and women living under the lordship of Christ in the household of God that is the church,” writes Petersen. 

Our strength is in that identity and community. And the good news is that God has provided us tools, not only to withstand evil influences, but even to transform evil into good: We’ve been provided the whole armor of God! 

Paul’s metaphor serves to remind us of the tools God has provided: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. By linking these qualities to items of armor, Paul emphasizes that they are not passive. They are means of active participation which develop qualities of character within us as we engage with Christ in the redemption of the cosmos. In fact, though Paul calls us to put on external items–a belt, a breastplate, shoes, shield, and helmet–as we mature in our practice of them, these qualities become internalized, like a strong backbone and core strength, so that we come to embody the strength of God in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It does take practice, and we need help: to recognize the enemy’s attacks, to learn how to put on the whole armor, and to stand firm. Thankfully, God has also given us one another, God’s church, a community of practice in which we hold one another up in prayer. 

In the final section of today’s scripture, nearly at the close of the book of Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers once more of the power of prayer. The letter began in prayer, and now it ends in a request for prayer. Prayer: the communication of both our thanksgiving and our supplication, our communion, direct with the Source of all that is! Prayer is the most powerful tool we have, not only to withstand evil influences, but to transform evil into good! 

Prayer keeps us alert and helps us persevere. Prayer reveals how obstacles can become opportunities. Through prayer we are enabled to see all people with God’s eyes, the eyes of love, so that instead of repaying evil, we can offer and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled to those we have harmed or who have harmed us. 

Never be too shy to ask for prayer on your own behalf! Even the mighty apostle needs others to pray for him. He models for us his own awareness of his susceptibility to evil and the struggle of his current state–which he also sees as an opportunity. An “ambassador in chains,” Paul desires to speak boldly the message of the gospel. The prayers of the community will strengthen him when nothing else can! 

So, my friends: stand firm! You know well how challenging it can be in our times to discern the influences of evil from the good. You also know the strength of the Lord: lowly and meek, yet all powerful. It is not easy to stand in Christ’s strength, but we are here for one another, praying with and for each other, that we will neither cower in fear nor demonize our opponents, but instead stand firm, consciously participating with God’s truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Word in the redemption of the cosmos, now and always. Amen. 

(Note: nearly all quotes are from Eugene Petersen’s Practicing Resurrection, a major resource in the writing of this sermon.)

What Do You Want Me To Do? Sermon by Laura 10.25.15 Pentecost 22B

The story of Bartimaeus is Jesus’ last healing miracle in Mark’s gospel. Coming just before Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, it’s a transition story wrapping up one section of the narrative while it points toward the next. In the story of Bartimaeus, we have a rich gathering of imagery and ideas about who Jesus is and what he’s about, as well as what it means for us to have faith and follow him. This story seems simple, but it has many layers of meaning, so it lends itself well to a prayer practice from Ignatius of Loyola, who valued the power of human imagination in deepening our relationship with God. The idea is that you use your imagination to enter into the story and find yourself as a participant in it, experiencing for yourself an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m aware that this kind of prayer is a challenge for some of us, so let’s be clear: there is no way to do this exercise right or wrong, and I invite you to release any expectations you might have about how it will go.  If you have a new powerful insight, great; if nothing comes, that’s okay, too. Allow yourself to be present; invite Jesus to sit with you in any discomfort; breathe, rest and trust that God is present no matter what. Even if you fall asleep, well, God’s with you there, too.

So, let’s go. First, get as comfortable as you can in your seat and close your eyes.  Let’s take three deep breaths, Trinitarian-style,letting our bellies fill with air and soften and then releasing with our breath anything outside of this moment. Two more…one more…

Now, letting your breathing settle into a relaxed and regular pattern, begin to imagine a busy ancient street in Jericho…a regular thoroughfare for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the festivals…It’s a spring day, and you feel the bright sun on your face. You hear animals, and smell the dust rising from the road. Hawkers shout out what they have to sell, and beggars plead for alms. You hear the sounds of a large crowd, many feet stepping, and feel the buzz that someone special is coming, anticipation and the curiosity building on the street. Find yourself in this story as I read the text…

Mark 10:46-52

So…Where did you experience yourself in this story? Were you an observer, watching the whole thing? Were you on the street in the crowd? Were you on the roadside with Bartimaeus? Maybe you saw yourself as Bartimaeus, or maybe, if you were daring,you experienced the scene from Jesus’ point of view. Is there anything that surprised you about this experience?…

Here are a few thoughts I had, pondering this story from multiple perspectives. First, the disciples: how would you, one of Jesus’ “inner circle,” be feeling at this moment? You’ve been journeying with Jesus for many days, and you know it’s significant to be closing in on Jerusalem. Not so many days ago, Peter named Jesus “the Messiah,” and since then Jesus has been predicting strange things you can’t quite take in, using scary words like “suffer” and “be crucified.” You don’t really want to hear them, and they make no sense,
so you continue imagining that the moment you’ve been dreaming of is finally approaching, when Jerusalem is reclaimed and restored to the rightful King of Israel,and you, one of the 12, are at the center of power.

Then there’s the crowd. These are folks who have heard of Jesus, who are curious about him and want to be near him, who are carried along with the wave of energy his presence creates.  As a crowd member, it may be unclear to you why you are here. The buzz around him, the stories about things he’s done and said connect with you, but otherwise you are not particularly committed to Jesus. When you hear Bartimaeus calling out, the beggar’s voice at first feels like a dissonant interruption. And then, when you hear what he’s saying, it makes you a bit nervous. To call Jesus “The Son of David” is a pretty bold assertion that he really is the true king the Jews have been waiting for. It’s a politically dangerous claim, and you want him to quiet down before Herod’s spies or local Roman centurions hear anything and get everyone in trouble.

And of course, there’s Bartimaeus, a beggar with a curious name. It oddly combines Aramaic and Greek to mean the “son of Timaeus.” In naming him thus, Mark might be making a connection to Plato, who wrote a philosophical piece called “The Timaeus;” so I like to imagine that Bartimaeus before he was blinded, was a confused student of both Jewish and Greek ideas,  wondering about what’s truly true.

But what, if you are Bartimaeus in this moment, are you thinking? What is you’ve heard about Jesus convicts you now that he is the one, your true king? What is about Jesus that inspires your trust, that he can and will help you in your deepest, most desperate longings? What is it about him that compels you to shout against the crowd so that he will hear and see you?

Finally, there’s Jesus. If you are Jesus, you are pacing yourself, step by step, toward Jerusalem, aware of the big picture. You know that what you’ve been doing and saying will inevitably be recognized as dangerous by the powers-that-be. You know the time remaining for your mission of proclaiming and enacting God’s kingdom is limited, and you know that even your closest companions are not really “getting” it.

God’s ways are so different from human ways, turning everything upside down. Yet you have trust and courage; you are centered and focused; the affirmation God pronounced at your baptism rings in your mind with each step: “You are my Beloved Son.” Amidst the flurry around you, you are somehow able to rest and trust in those words, in their truth and promise.

When Bartimaeus causes his commotion, the crowd—presumably including the disciples—tries to shut him down. But I love how the text says that Jesus “stood still.” I imagine him as the still point in the whirlwind of emotions and expectations the disciples, the crowd, and Bartimaeus represent. It reminds me of another chaotic commotion, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was the still-point, calming the Sea’s chaos and the disciple’s terror with authority.

Here Jesus uses that authority, commanding the crowd to call Bartimaeus, and a different kind of transformation takes place. I love how the crowd, obeying Jesus, goes from being a disinterested collection of people to a community of care and encouragement. I love how Bartimaeus goes from a disempowered beggar to a man of vision, doing what the rich man earlier in Mark 10 could not, flinging away his one possession, his cloak, as he springs with raw hope toward Jesus.

And I love the powerful question Jesus asks Bartimaeus, by which, perhaps, just perhaps, the disciples  are brought a teeny-tiny bit closer to understanding. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. This is the same question he asked James and John, when they approached him a few verses earlier, wanting to be Jesus’ #1 and #2 courtiers when he kicks out the Romans once and for all. Jesus tells them their request is not his to grant, telling them, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What do you want me to do for you? It’s a beautiful question, says author John Dear, revealing not only that God truly desires to help us, but the very nature of our God: “In Jesus, we have a God who is humble, loving, and generous, a God who longs to serve humanity, especially in its brokenness, poverty and blindness.” Bartimaeus’ response shows his clear insight, his transparent humility, so different than the presumptions of the power-hungry disciples. Bartimaeus is graced with awareness that he is indeed broken and in need of mercy, and that Jesus is the One who can heal and restore him.

This question also shows that Jesus makes no assumptions. It may seem obvious to us that Bartimaeus will want his eyesight back, but I believe Jesus looks on him as Jesus looks on all of us, a human being in need but with inviolable dignity. Jesus’ compassionate vision can hold both our brokenness and the wholeness God intends for us, and he doesn’t presume to decide for us what we need most. It is up to Bartimaeus, as it is up to each one of us, to see and name our deepest desires for healing and wholeness, entrusting them fully to God in Christ.

My friends, Bartimaeus asks for what he wants and receives what he asks for. The disciples and the crowd are not yet as clear—not just about who Jesus is, but about who they are and what they truly want.

Where are you in this story? The good news of the gospel is that we have a King who has come to serve. Wherever we find ourselves today, we are invited to know ourselves as those who need his mercy, and we are invited to become aware of the mercy we need. Flinging away everything that stands between us and Jesus, we are invited to tell him, with profound trust, exactly what we long for, what we hope for, our deepest most desperate desire for new life.

I am convinced we will find it as we follow, like Bartimaeus, in Jesus’ way, a way that leads us from our blindness through suffering and loss into the wide-eyed wonder of resurrection faith by which we ourselves are blessed to serve and heal the world. Amen.

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,

[ii] Christopher Michael Jones,

[iii] Christopher Michael Jones, as above.

[iv] Mary Hinkle Shore,

[v] Kenneth Carter,

[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.


(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.

The Winds of Change: Sermon by Keith, Pentecost C, 5.19.13

Texts: Romans 8:9, 14-17; Acts 2:1-21

Where Laura and I lived in Southeast Alaska, There is an unwritten rule for preachers.  In an area where it wasn’t uncommon to have day in and day out of rain, you didn’t preach on Noah’s flood.  Forty days and nights of rain were a real possibility in towns that received upwards of 200 inches of rain a year.  Now having lived here for over three years, I realize there ought to be an unwritten rule for preachers in the Grande Ronde Valley.  We shouldn’t preach on the wind.  Really, the wind seems to just be a part of our lives here.  Carol, the church secretary, said that when property is sold in Union County, it ought to come with a ‘wind disclaimer.’  The interstate is commonly closed when a semi-truck is blown over blocking all the lanes of traffic.  In the fall, I never rake the leaves from our trees in our yard since they have all blown into the neighbor’s yard.  But, that doesn’t mean I don’t do any raking.  The other neighbor’s tree leaves have all blown into our yard.  I remember one of our first weeks in La Grande sitting in the Wal-Mart parking lot, feeling the wind rock the car back and forth.  We were afraid to open the car doors, thinking the wind would rip the doors off their hinges.  The wind is a real, consistent companion to our lives here.

So if there were residents of Union County on pilgrimage in Jerusalem on Pentecost that day the Holy Spirit came rushing in from heaven with the sound of a violent wind, they might have just kept on walking, having grown so accustomed to the sound.  So it made me wonder, how would the Holy Spirit get our attention today?  As I sat in my office pondering that question, I could hear the wind blowing outside, but in just a few minutes time, I also heard two helicopters and a plane fly overhead, a large truck rumble by on the street, my cell phone beeped that I had a new text message, my computer did it’s little noise that lets me know that I’ve received another email, the office phone rang, and Mary Helen started practicing on the organ the songs she would be sharing with us today.  We are constantly surrounded by sounds and noise, so much so that when they aren’t there, we reach for a switch to turn something on to fill that void.

That made me realize the Holy Spirit just might use the power of silence to get our attention these days.  So, we are going to do a Holy Spirit listening prayer.  Mary Helen, please don’t reach for the keyboard, and if anyone’s cell phone goes off, you might get a microphone thrown at you.  So, close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Relax and be prepared for some silence.  Now, as we do this, I want you to remember the Holy Spirit came upon that group of disciples long ago and really stirred things up.  She changed them into what has become known as the church, and their community was never the same.  We are part of that same church, the same church that is continually open to the movement of the Spirit in our midst, open to what she is telling us, open to where she is directing us to go, open to be continually formed as the people of God.

Keep your eyes closed and let us pray…Come, Holy Spirit. Come…move through us like the winds of the valley…Speak, Holy Spirit.  Speak…Pour yourself out upon all of us here, so that our sons and daughters shall come to know you, our young men and women have visions of your glory, and those who have lived long lives dream dreams of your grace and love and power.  We are your church.  We ask that you give us a vision of who you would have us be and a vision for your church in this time and place.  We ask that you fill our hearts and our minds with your presence as you point us in the direction you would have us go…Come, Holy Spirit.  Come.  (two minute pause)  Come, Holy Spirit.  Come.  Amen.

Now, the Holy Spirit blows wherever she wills and wants, and she may have said something to you.  If it is something you would like to share with us, feel free to write it down on the back of the bulletin insert that has the Apostles’ Creed on it and put it in the collection basket.  Or call us or stop in the office or send an email.  Friends, God moves and acts and speaks through God’s people, through you, and it is through you the Holy Spirit will make known the will of God in our midst.  Amen.