The Church on the Move: Philippi

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 18, we visited Philippi, and talked about the ways that Paul and the others took a risk on preaching to those on the margins of that society.  You can read about it in Acts 16

In 1996, a group of people got together and wondered if we could create a reality wherein the poor of the world could be served by giving them a market for their unique handcrafts. We incorporated a little non-profit, called KingdomCome, and began to sell these goods at church bazaars, craft shows, and so on. As the word spread, and as sales grew, it became apparent that schlepping our inventory back and forth from the 3rd floor of the Crafton Heights church wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goal of allowing people to support themselves and their families. We needed to open a storefront.

So we checked out locations all around the city – from Edgewood to Fox Chapel to Southside to Downtown, and eventually settled on a piece of property ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep on the south side of Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We chose that location because it had these features:

–  A strong retail history with a flair for independent and so-called “destination” shops

–  A lot of foot traffic

–  An upscale neighborhood filled with people who not only shop, but BUY.

It has worked out very well for everyone concerned as that little experiment has become one of the most successful Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. When a business is looking to expand, it’s all about location, location, location, right?

GreecePosterNow, let’s rewind and back up time a couple of thousand years. The faith movement spawned by the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is growing by leaps and bounds. From its roots in Jerusalem and Galilee, it has spread through the Middle East and up into Asia Minor. While certainly not a traditional business, it is expanding rapidly. One of the leading Apostles, Paul of Tarsus, feels led to explore the as-yet-untapped European market, and makes plans to sail to Greece. Greece – the cradle of Western civilization. Home to Athens, the Parthenon, democracy, and a really good pita, lamb, and cucumber sandwich. Excellent choice, Paul!

Except he doesn’t go to Athens – not right away. The first Christian foray into the continent of Europe takes place in the town of Philippi. OK, Paul, that’s not a bad choice. It’s a Roman Colony, a city founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon. There are gold mines nearby; there’s some legacy wealth – a lot of “old money” – around. You could do worse, I suppose.

EarlyChurch3One thing, though, that makes this choice curious is that Paul, who usually preached first to the Jews, chose to go to a town that didn’t even have enough Jewish men to open its own synagogue. Up to this point, although they had begun to admit Gentile believers, the Jewish population made up the largest percentage of the early church.

As a result of that, this particular Sabbath day finds the pre-eminent apostle of the Way of Jesus preaching the Good News for the very first time on European soil…to a small group of women, including some foreigners, who were down at the river doing their laundry.

It is, I believe, a curious way to launch a movement.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

One of those present, a woman named Lydia who was apparently a foreign convert to Judaism, is so moved by what she hears and by the power of the Spirit within her that she asks for, and receives, the sacrament of baptism. In fact, not only Lydia herself, but her entire household, including what we believe to be a number of other women as well as slaves and children, is baptized and enters into the Jesus Way. She is bold enough to invite Paul, Luke, and Timothy to stay in her home so that she and her household might be further instructed in living as Jesus would have them live.

Unfortunately, her hospitality is not emblematic of the entire city, however, and Paul and his companions are treated “shamefully” (I Thessalonians 2:2) in Philippi. They are arrested, beaten, and run out of town.

But the church remained. And it appears to have been one of Paul’s favorite congregations. Whenever he speaks of that place, and in his letter to that congregation, he speaks with great warmth and affection. He commends the church that began on the day of Lydia’s baptism for their willingness to participate and share with Paul in the life to which he was called. In fact, this is one of the only churches from which the stubborn and prideful old Apostle was willing to accept financial support – because in some way, they “get” Paul and what he’s about.

We are spending the time between Easter and Pentecost looking at how the early church grew from a disorganized, dispirited group of doubting, betraying, and hesitant followers of Jesus into a movement of apostles and churches that changed the world. Philippi gives us a good example of the apostolic conviction that the church is called to risk itself on “nobodies” every single day – seemingly insignificant people like Lydia and the women of Philippi.

Faithful friends of Jesus, of course, would not be surprised by this. In Luke 4, when Jesus sets out the road map for his own life and ministry, he says that he’s been sent to preach Good News to the poor, to release the captive, and proclaim God’s favor to all. The first disciples themselves were not exactly the “cream of the crop” and so they evidently followed Jesus’ own model of ministry and preached about him to whoever was willing to listen. Which is why, I suppose, they found themselves on the outskirts of town preaching to a group of women and receiving hospitality from people who were clearly on the margins of acceptability.

In fact, that became a common refrain amongst those who were critical of the Jesus movement. A 2nd-century writer named Celsus has the distinction of being the first author to publicly condemn and criticize Christians. In his work The True Word, he rails against this new religion that appealed to “the foolish…slaves, women, and little children” who could be found at “the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or washerwoman’s” place.[1] Celsus is especially indignant that various social classes could come together in Christianity, and is in general appalled at the church’s willingness to extend forgiveness to those who had fallen into sin.[2] In short, Celsus and much of the ancient world believed, Christianity is a religion for pathetic losers – people who ought not to be accepted in refined society.

I’m sad to say that there are many in the church today who have lost touch with the call to live a faith that is so radically inclusive and welcoming of “the other”. A lifetime ago, when I was being trained for youth ministry, I was taught to build my youth group by looking for the popular, successful students and trying to engage them first. If I could get the quarterback and the head cheerleader to come to my youth group, I was told, then the group would grow like crazy. Why? Because if “the cool kids” are doing it, then everyone will want to.

Isn’t that, to some degree, how the church in the USA continues to operate? Isn’t that why we get all excited when a rock star or a pro athlete or a movie star shares the fact that she or he is a Christian? “Oh, yeah, Tom Hanks? Donna Summer? Tim Tebow? Johnny Cash? Bow Wow? Yep. They’re all believers…”

Our adult mission team used a little book called Coffee With Jesus as a part of our devotional reading. One of my favorite comic strips in that volume pokes fun at our fascination with celebrity believers:

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist.  For more, see www.coffeewithJesus.com

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist. For more, see http://www.coffeewithJesus.com

You see, that’s one of the reasons that I tend to be a fan of baptizing babies and children before we know who they are going to be. Is little Sam going to grow up to play High School baseball and slam them out of the park like his dad? Or is he going to be a weak-hitting right-center fielder with a mysterious overconfidence in his own baserunning abilities like a certain pastor we know?

God doesn’t care.

Neither should we. In baptizing him today, we claim that Sam is already surrounded by God’s grace. There are no “cool kids” in the Kingdom of God, because the call is for all who will listen!

If we are going to grow from being disciples into being apostles, we have got to be willing to invest ourselves in those who are seen as insignificant. As individuals, as a congregation, and as The Church, we’ve got to claim the fact that the things that unite us in Jesus are more powerful than those that would divide us by race, income, geography, gender, or anything else. We all belong to God every bit as much as little Sam – no more, no less.

That means that where we can, as individuals, we’ve got to support the kinds of one-on-one ministry that exist here. Will we do what we can do to empower the people who volunteer or work at the preschool, the Open Door, or the Youth Group? If we can’t personally volunteer with those vulnerable neighbors, can we create a climate that encourages them?

That means that we’ve got to pledge ourselves to refuse to see people as belonging to a category: when you look at someone, do you think, “Oh, that’s the black kid…the white guy…the drunk…the user…the loser…the stuck-up rich person…”? That kind of labeling has no place in the Christian world.

That means that we’ve got to find ways to celebrate the real love of Jesus with real people. We commit to sharing meals together. To listening to stories. To sharing moments of laughter and friendship on the bus or in the check-out line. We’ve got to risk engagement with the people around us, even when they seem to be “other” than we are.

Do we have to be cautious? You bet we do. But we can’t, in the name of safety or fear, reject other people just because they appear to be different.

And how do we get there?

By remembering, deep within our own sense of self, that we are, well, nobodies ourselves.

I’m not saying that we are all losers and none of us are the cool kids and that Christianity is, as Celsus claimed, a religion for ignorant, weak, uneducated people.

I am saying that we are all people who have been bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft at one time or another. And, it seems to me, the only way that we can move forward is to pray like bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, and bereft people for others who are bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft.

In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell points to this truth. He writes,

I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on…

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches….And eve though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long…[3]

Paul’s trip to preach to Lydia and a handful of other women by the river in Philippi was not a stroke of genius that was applauded by the head honchos in the church marketing department. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t have a marketing department then, because maybe the nobodies in Philippi would never have heard the good news about Jesus. And maybe the nobodies in my neighborhood wouldn’t have, either. But thanks be to God, he gives us a model to follow. We’re not here to celebrate the fact that God loves the rock stars or the celebrities or the athletes. He does, of course, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because he cares for us, and expects that we will show our neighbors his care in our daily lives.

Listen: choosing you and me to live out his love every day may not be the smartest thing God’s ever done, but he didn’t ask us for advice. He’s asking us to do it. Thanks be to God, he’s asking us to do it. Amen.

 

[1] Quoted in Will Willimon’s Interpretation Commentary On The Book of Acts (Atlanta, John Knox, 1988), p. 138.

[2] See Bernhard Pick, “The Attack of Celsus on Christianity” in The MonistVol. 21, No. 2 (APRIL, 1911) (pp. 223-266)http://www.jstor.org/stable/27900311?seq=14

[3] The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Seabury Press, 1968), pp. 91-92

The Church on the Move: Ephesus

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 11, we visited Ephesus, and talked about the controversy that took place when the Apostles challenged the status quo.  You can read about it in Acts 19.  

I have had the privilege of traveling to Malawi in Central Africa a number of times. Because I am profoundly grateful for that, and because our friends in Malawi have some significant needs, I rarely travel empty-handed: I usually try to bring along some relief or community-building supplies.

Generally, I fly into the airport closest to where our sister church is, and I am met by some sort of a delegation that helps me to sort out my luggage, etc. However, on one trip I was flying alone and happened to be landing in the capital city, a six-hour drive from my close friends. I’d be on my own.

As it happened that day, there was an extremely zealous Malawian customs officer on duty who was very curious about the contents of my second piece of luggage – a foot locker containing sports and medical equipment that was clearly not for my own use. I explained that these were gifts for friends, and she explained that she didn’t care about that, and that I needed to know that I was liable for several hundred dollars in import tariffs and had a long afternoon of government paperwork to look forward to…

I was wearing my collar, I was trying to look kind and compassionate and, well, meek. She was having none of it. She handed me a sheaf of paper and a pen and instructed me to itemize everything in both suitcases and assign it a value. Just as I resignedly took the paper, I heard a voice calling from across the terminal. “Abusa! Abusa Davie Cava! Abusa! Stop right there!” And, looking up, I saw a uniformed police officer sprinting toward me. He had his baton in hand, and he grabbed the paperwork from me and laid it on the table. He smacked the papers with his baton and went to town on the woman from customs. He was talking so quickly and with such animation that all I could pick out were the words “Abusa” (that’s the Chichewa word for “pastor”), “mzungu” (Chichewa for “white guy”), and “Davie Cava” (Chichewa, evidently, for “Dave Carver”). They had a rather energetic discussion, during which point he was placing items back in my luggage and attempting to close it up whilst she was taking items out of my luggage and pointing to the paperwork.

He packed faster than she could unpack, and he slammed the lid on the footlocker, gave it a whack with his baton, and said, “Abusa, come with me.” She started to argue, and he smacked the footlocker again and said, “No!” They were ANGRY!

We went around the corner and he broke into a huge grin, hugged me, and said, “I can’t believe you have come back to Malawi!” I hugged back, a little tentatively, because I had no idea who my rescuer was. It turns out that he had been a member of a congregation in a very remote area that I’d visited about ten years previously. So far as he knew, my family was the first American family to visit his village, and he remembered my preaching in his church – and he was going to be darned if he let someone like me pay taxes on relief supplies that were heading to a village like that! He told me I was famous in Makanjila, one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Malawi.

I realize that doesn’t help me get a discount at Shop N Save or good seats to the Pirate game, but, hey – I’ll take what I can get.

Where are you famous? Who knows you, and where do they know you? I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture reading tells about the day that Paul found out that he was famous in Hell. Did you catch that? These charlatans are going around trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and the demon says, “Jesus, I know. Paul, I know. But who are you?” and then goes ahead and gives the would-be exorcists a run for their money. Those who would drive out the demon are themselves driven away.

EarlyChurch2As we continue to look at the process by which disciples and followers mature into apostles and those who are entrusted with a ministry of real import, our venue shifts this morning to the town of Ephesus, a port city in what is now known as Turkey. What were the characteristics of the Body of Christ in that place, and what can we learn from them in our attempts to be faithful?

One thing that Luke wants us to know about the church there is that it was a powerful, powerful place. The church in Ephesus came about because of a deep investment by some really gifted people. [1]In fact, we’re told that Paul stayed in Ephesus longer than he stayed anywhere else. His commitment, and that of the rest of the believers, left a profound impact not only on the local population, but, as we’ve seen, on those in the next world as well! The stories of handkerchiefs and aprons are significant because they reveal the strength and power that is attributed to the presence of Paul and the other leaders in that community.

In the same way, I have been encouraged by some real signs of the presence of the Holy in and around Crafton Heights. Oh, so far as I know, we’ve not seen any healings as a result of used handkerchiefs, but we also haven’t had any botched exorcisms, either – so I’ll call that a draw. What we have seen, though, is a community that is growing stronger as people engage in long-term commitment and the intentional practice of ministry – a commitment to a place and a people that is remarkable in our mobile, 21st-century American culture. In fact, one of the things that drew me to this place more than thirty years ago was the depth that I saw in friendships shared between people like Dorothy Larimer and Peg Morse and Margaret Tranter and John McConnell and Beebe Lightell. Prior to coming to Crafton Heights, I’d never really seen a community where people valued long-term friendships like this. If anything good is happening in and through this church, then it is happening at least in part because a group of you have decided that you are called to invest yourselves in each other and in these neighbors. Do not, my friends, underestimate the power of that commitment.

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

There’s a danger, of course, to that. In Ephesus, we see that the power and strength that comes from the witness of the Christian community leads others to have a certain familiarity with the name of Jesus and the trappings of faith, but no real relationship with Christ or his people. The “Seven Sons of Sceva” see that the name of Jesus is associated with big things, and so they try to appropriate that name without knowing the One it represents. To them, the name is a magical incantation.

I thought about that earlier this week as a few friends and I engaged in a conversation about the ways that sometimes people will look at me and say, “Well, what do you think, Dave…will you say a little prayer about this for us?”

What, exactly, is “a little prayer”? Is it a brief prayer telling God what we think we need and which he already knows? I’m ok with those kind of prayers. Or is “a little prayer” an incantation that we send out when it doesn’t seem like anything else is going to work, anyway?

Prayer is a powerful gift. But it’s not magic. I have to remember that when you shake my hand and tell me that your family reunion is on Saturday and will I please pray for good weather – and then the next person through the line reminds me that she’s planted more tomatoes than ever before, so will I please pray for rain. I can only pray for us to experience God’s best in the place God has given us. That’s not magic, and it’s not a little prayer. It’s recognizing the power that is given in the context of a relationship with the Lord of all creation.

The third thing that I notice about the church in Ephesus is the stark contrast between the faithful, intentional, long-term ministry that the church is seeking to build and the fly-by-night hocus-pocus that the Sons of Sceva are attempting to sell – and the ways that that contrast is an invitation to the church in Ephesus to take a step forward in faith and demonstrate what really happens when a people know not just his name, but Jesus himself.

In our context, I think that begs the question, “How do we create a climate that constantly invites deeper growth and maturity in faith?” To put it another way, are we showing up at worship because we want some of the “good luck blessings” that seem to come to Jesus’ friends to rub off on us? Or are we growing in our ability to trust that Jesus, not chance, rules the world; that service and humility, not fame and fortune, are the hallmarks of successful living; and that obedience, not convenience, is what God wants from us?

I was getting ready to assist in a baptism in Malawi when my friend Pastor Ralph engaged in an animated conversation with the young couple who’d brought their daughter forward. The baby was wearing a lovely little necklace, and Ralph spoke sharply and pointed his bony finger at the parents, then roughly grabbed the necklace and threw it to the ground, grinding it to dust with his heel.

I discovered that the “necklace” was an amulet given to the baby by the local witch doctor, who had assured the parents that if their daughter wore the charm, she’d be protected from all evil spirits and bodily harm. Ralph insisted that when we baptize our babies, we aren’t guaranteeing them anything – we’re insisting that they grow up knowing that they belong to God and are called for his purposes. He said, “Look, you can’t have it both ways – are you going to worship the god of the witch doctor, or learn the Way of Christ?”

In our world, we face a similar choice. Every year at this time, I get a litany of complaints about the fact that the sports leagues schedule their games on Sunday mornings and how we wish that Johnny could come to church, but he made a promise to the team to show up there, too.

Now, hear what I’m saying, people. Pastor Dave is not capping on the folks who have to go to Dance recitals or softball games. And Pastor Dave is not making the world a place where it’s all black and white, and where church is the only place that God’s intentions are revealed. After all, if we act like that, we’re acting as if this place is magical and we’re treating our baptism like it’s the good-luck charm.

But Pastor Dave is (in addition to talking about himself in the third person) saying that we have a responsibility to learn for ourselves, and to help our children learn, that our primary identity is that of being part of the Family of God. How and where and when we choose to work, to shop, to socialize, to engage in the day-to-day aspects of living are reflective of the values that underpin those choices. Seeing ourselves as the family of faith who wear the name and carry the power of Christ in this place means that there will be days when we go for the team event or the family reunion because Christ plays in those arenas, too. But it will also mean that we integrate our spiritual lives into the fabric of those other areas so that we play, shop, eat, and vote in ways that reflect the glory of God.

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

The rest of Acts 19 describes in vivid detail a riot that ensues when the church in Ephesus lives into its call to walk in faith in humility before God. In particular, the local metal workers create a disturbance when they realize that if everyone adopts the Way of Christianity, then the market for their shiny idols will drop and they’ll lose business. The Church, carrying and living the name and power of Christ, represented a real threat to the status quo and the powers of the day. We can do the same thing, you know. In fact, we are called to do so.

What if our embrace of the radical call to follow Jesus prompts us to follow the example of the church in Ephesus?

Listen: the early church was filled with people who believed in Jesus AND in sorcery and witchcraft – until they saw what happened to folks like the Sons of Sceva. Then the believers in Ephesus decided that they needed to purge their homes of the scrolls and books that guided them in that aspect of spirituality. We read where they burnt their libraries – worth 50,000 silver pieces – because they felt as though those libraries were holding them back in their ability to follow Jesus effectively. A silver piece was a day’s wage – so if I do the math right, that’s more than 150 years worth of wages for a single person. It’s a huge number…and it represents the fact that the Christian community was willing to pass on something that was attractive in order to gain that which was eternally important.

Do you need to purge something from your life today? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus in ways that bring forth power and really make a difference in the world, what do you need to set aside?

Maybe you need to trust God to be your comfort, not the rocky road ice cream or the drive-through at the Taco Bell. Maybe you need to quit looking for relaxation and “inner peace” by zoning out with bad television or substance abuse. Maybe you even need to stop spending so much time doing something good so that you can be fully engaged by something great. I don’t know what it is for you – but I know that the Lord Jesus Christ is calling you to drop anything that stands between you and whole-hearted obedience so that his name and power are more clearly seen in your life.

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

I had the privilege to visit Ephesus about six years ago. I went to the site of the Temple of Artemis – one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” I saw the temples that were built to the local goddess, and the images in stone and marble that had once been incredibly beautiful but now bear witness to decay and death.

DSC01388

The Grand Theater, Ephesus

I served communion in the Coliseum where the riot described in Acts 19 took place, and where Christians later met their deaths at the hands of gladiators or the claws of beasts.

And as impressive as all of that old architecture was, I was more overwhelmed by the power of the Name that was proclaimed in the homes and churches of this ancient city. Scratched into a paving stone in the ancient sidewalk was a small, insignificant shape – it looks a little like a pizza – but it is the coded shape that the earliest believers used to say “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.” The graffiti has lasted as long, or longer, than the temples to the idols. And the message it represents is eternal: the Gospel of Christ that freed slaves and fed the hungry and drove out demons and unleashed dreams… May we be able to receive the call to purity so that we can focus on that which is most important even as we hope for the transformation of what we see before us.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S - the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S – the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

If we are able to commit ourselves to seeking the truth of Jesus single-mindedly, we probably won’t become famous here or anywhere else. But we’ll be participating in the kind of lifestyle that builds the Kingdom in our children and grandchildren – the only Kingdom that will last forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church on the Move: Antioch

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 4, we considered the little town of Antioch in Pisidia, and the controversy that took place when the Gentiles were included.  You can read about it in Acts 13 (note that there are TWO Antiochs in this chapter).  

The women behind the registration table were staring at me as if I had come from outer space. Finally, the one in the middle regained her composure and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t catch your name. You would be…”

I simply pointed to the little nametag in front of her, and to my name on the list of those who had RSVP’d, and said “Him. That’s me. Rev. David Carver.”

She smiled, looked at the list again, at me, at the list, and finally, she slid the nametag toward me and said, “Of course, you’re Rev. Carver. The Secretary and other guests are down the hallway in the room on the left.”

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

Some weeks before, I had received an embossed envelope from the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. The then-Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, was going to have a series of meetings with inner-city pastors in an attempt to rally their support behind President Bush’s initiative called “No Child Left Behind.” The ornate invitation indicated that Secretary Paige was eager to meet with me and others of my station.

The meeting was scheduled for one of the downtown hotels, and there were all sorts of signs welcoming both Secretary Paige and the urban pastors. Finding the registration was easy. The four women behind the table, presumably volunteers from one of the congregations, were all African-American. And, as I said, they were all rather surprised to see me.

GeorgeWashingtonCarverWhen I went down the hall and into the conference room, I realized why they were so shocked. There were probably fifty people in the room, and forty-nine of them were men of color. Clearly, when the White House sent out the invitations, and they saw my name, they assumed that I was from the George Washington Carver branch of the family tree. And if you look in phone books, particularly in the southern part of our country, you’ll find that many of the Carvers are named Roosevelt, or Tyrone, or Otis – names that carry a certain ethnic implication. When lunch was served, Pastor Woodworth and myself were the only Caucasians in the room – a circumstance that was handled gracefully by everyone involved, even though it was clear that we were not the target demographic.

“What are you doing here?”

“Who let them in?”

We have all experienced that at some point or another, I suppose. Who is included in “we” and “us”, and what are we going to do about “them”?

The Covenant with Abram, by Michael Winters.  Used by permission of the artist.  For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Count the Stars, by Michael Winters. Used by permission of the artist. For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. Jesus saw himself as the unfolding of all that God had been doing since the beginning of the world. God had made the world to be beautiful and perfect, but sin interrupted that and brokenness and division seemed to reign. God steps in, all the way back in Genesis, and promises to straighten what has been twisted, and we read of how God, in Abram, called a people to himself. He does this, he says, so that all the people of the world might be blessed (Gen 12:3). These people who are called, whom we come to know as the Jews, are then shaped by a series of behaviors and practices as they continue to point to the promise of God’s blessing for all. And finally, two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “I am that blessing. I am that to which you have been pointing.”

Many of the people who had been longing for the fulfillment of the promise believed him. As we discussed last week, those first followers of Jesus became apostles, who were sent out to proclaim the good news of this promise and its fulfillment to those who had been waiting for it and to those who did not even know that a promise like that existed!

However, they soon discovered that some of those folks who were living lives that were shaped by certain behaviors and practices were more committed to the behaviors and practices than they were to the promise itself! For many people, “being faithful” was less a matter of holding to the promise, looking to God, and wanting to participate in what God was doing than it was a matter of what you wore, what you ate, and who you spent time with.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

The book of Acts is full of situations where someone shows up to a group of those who believed themselves to be called by God and said, “Hey! I have great news! I’m here to tell you how God has kept his promise!”, and the reply is, essentially, “Not wearing that you’re not! Not with those people, you’re not.”

Acts 13 is a description of how some people refused to hear the apostles’ message because it was far too inclusive for their tastes, even when the Old Testament is full of reminders that the promise is intended for all of creation and the call is to care for all people. And by the end of the chapter, which is our reading for this morning, we are confronted with a reality in which the Holy Spirit is alive and active and moving; a community through which joy and hope and love are flowing. It’s just that those things are not present in the community that for so long had been a steward of the promises of God.

In fact, the community of those who had been called by God was so hostile to the messengers that God’s Spirit had sent that they persecute the apostles, who wind up leaving town and shaking its dust from their feet.

I want to make sure that we point out that the people who persecuted the first Apostles were not bad people. The folks who filled the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia were decent, honest, God-fearing people.

They were people who for generations had been committed to preserving what was. They wanted to sustain the truth. They hoped to point to the promise.

And these good, loyal, stalwart people are suddenly confronted with a group of apostles who are more excited about dreaming of what could be than they were about conserving what was; they were more eager to share the truth than they were to sustain or steward it; and they said that they were called to carry the promise, not merely point to it.

Do you see the difficulty? The people who had lived in Pisidia for years were like a group of folks who owned a car that they kept in nice condition, and every now and then, if you cleaned yourself up right and asked nicely, they’d take you out for a little spin. But the Apostles came barging in talking about good news and grace in Jesus Christ were like the outspoken neighbors who didn’t just have the car, they tossed you the keys and invited you to go give it a whirl yourself, whenever you needed to.

And when those Apostles started talking to the Gentiles about the way that God’s blessing was available to them, well, that was too much. If we let them in, then how in the world are we going to keep control of where this is heading?

Yes, the folks in Antioch saw what was happening, and they acted fast. If they were going to preserve their habits, customs, and way of life, then these new folks were going to have to leave. They were pushing the boundaries a little – no, a lot – too far.

Last week, we spent time with the church in Jerusalem, and we saw that it was a church of survivors and witnesses – those who had lived through the ministry years with Jesus, and followed him, and been taught by him. In the days after the resurrection, that church became empowered and somehow changed from a group of tired, timid, deniers and betrayers into a force of bold, energetic, zealous missionaries.

EarlyChurchThat boldness got them into trouble, and some of their number were killed by the authorities, and the church then scattered. Some of those apostles wound up in a town called Antioch in Syria, an important city in the Roman Empire. The congregation in Antioch became a hub of early Christianity, and in fact was the church that really became known as the sending church – men and women like Paul and Barnabas and Priscilla and Aquila were empowered for ministry by that congregation. And some of those men and women found themselves in places like Antioch in Pisidia (just for point of reference, the difference between Syrian Antioch and Pisidian Antioch is like the difference between Washington, DC and Washington, PA – that is to say, a huge difference!). And it was in little, out-of-the-way places like Pisidian Antioch that the rubber met the road for the first Apostles. They had been emboldened, and they were sent, and then they told of what they knew. And the world was changed by the promise they carried – and shared.

It seems that there are several implications for the church in the 21st century. Chief among these, I’d suggest, is that we cannot be more in love with the way that we do things now than we are with Jesus.

We can’t love our music more than we love the One about whom and to whom we sing. We can’t love our clothing more than we love the One for whom we get dressed up. We can’t love our building more than we love the One to whom it is dedicated.

More than that, I cannot love my whiteness, my maleness, or my ideas about what it means to be a person who inhabits race and gender more than I love the One who created me in some degree of whiteness and maleness. I cannot be more committed to my wealth or my American-ness than I am to the One to whom I must render an account of how I used that wealth and citizenship in His service. Do you see? HE must come first, and my ideas and practices and habits and theories about Him, about me, about you, and about “them” must come afterward, and in the light of, HIM.

I understand – I really do – the conflict that filled the synagogue that day. Because while things aren’t perfect, I’m at least used to them. And I don’t like change. And I am a little afraid of if we do things differently, then we will lose meaning. But the promise itself is always more important than the things that we do that point to the promise.

Another implication for us is that we have got to remember that no one of us has a lock on the truth. We know our story, and we may know it well. But we only know our story – and we have got to learn the other’s. The way that God’s goodness and grace have come to me may not have much in common with the ways that they have come to you, and neither your experience nor mine may be of great use in helping that person over there to see God’s goodness and grace. Because, thankfully, God is God, and I am not. God has, and is, the truth. I can only point to it from my little corner of the balcony.

And if we remember to love Jesus more than we love our ideas about Jesus, and if we remember that we only know some of what there is to know, then we can be free to look for the fruit that is growing where the Spirit of God is present. Where is there joy? Where is there love? Where is there kindness, or truth, or justice, or hope? When we see those things, can we go to where they are and celebrate?

When we leave this worship today, can we commit to pointing to the promise in all of the ways that we know how – and trust that the promise is greater than our ability to understand or explain it?

“What are you doing here?” I got an invitation from the guest of honor. So did you. That’s all that matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.