Giving More Than You Get

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 16, we jumped to a new book as a source for these stories: I Chronicles 29 served as our primary source, and we also sought to be attentive to selected verses from Romans 12.  Thoughts on facing challenges, responding to persecution, and leaving a legacy in this week’s message.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please click on the player below:

So, how do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? And, in a related question, how do you want to go? What’s the last story you want people to tell, or hear, about you?

Jim Heseldon, the inventor of the Segway, died when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. The first man to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel died fifteen years later after complications resulting from a fall when he slipped on an orange peel. Then there was the lawyer in Toronto who was so fascinated by the safety ratings of the windows in his skyscraper that he used to hurl himself against them, demonstrating to anyone who cared that the glass was unbreakable. In July of 1993 he threw himself at the window in his 24th story office and, sure enough, the glass did not break. The frame, however, popped out and the man fell to his death.

You and I can think of a million ways that we’d NOT want to die, and we hope that if we get caught in some embarrassing situation, that’s not the last story that gets told.

“Study of King David”, 1866 photograph by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

Last week, we read the last story about David that gets told in the books of Samuel. I’m not sure that David – or the rest of Israel – wanted people to remember his pride and the ill-conceived census he ordered as his final achievement, though. For that reason, we move today to the book of I Chronicles. I and II Chronicles contain many of the same stories that we find in the books of Samuel and Kings. They are written by a different author, and to a slightly different purpose. The name that these books have in the Greek translation of the Old Testament may give us some insight into that purpose: they are called paraleipomena, which means “the things that were left out” or more literally, “the leftovers.” It’s as if the authors are saying, “Look, don’t forget that this happened, too!”

For almost a year, we’ve walked through David’s life. Here, I’d suggest that even his “golden years” are behind him and he is making plans for his own death. Of utmost importance to him, as it is to many kings and politicians, is the line of succession. Who will replace him? In no small part because of his own sinfulness and failures as a parent, the normal process of naming the first-born as king is not available to this family. Adonijah and his brother Absalom have already been killed in family warfare. It will be one of his sons, but it won’t be the “leading candidates.”

Furthermore, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his own brokenness and sinfulness, David is increasingly concerned about providing the nation with a legacy of faith and worship. He wants to build a grand and glorious temple as the site for worship of YHWH.

“King David Presenting the Sceptre to Solomon” (detail) by Cornelus de Vos (17th c.)

The authors of Chronicles tell us in chapter 21 that David had a vision wherein he was told, firstly, that the Lord would not permit him to build the temple himself because he had too much blood on his hands, and secondly, that his son Solomon should succeed him as king. Solomon, not David, would build the temple that would glorify the Lord.

And so in the reading you’ve heard from today, David addresses these two issues publicly. He names Solomon as the one who will replace him and he charges Solomon to build the temple to the Lord. He further states that he’s providing Solomon with the financial and material support necessary for such an undertaking.

Where did this come from? I mean, where did David learn this kind of stuff? His life had been so messed up in so many ways for so long… plucked from the fields as a mere boy and anointed as king in a secret ceremony; resented by his older brothers; mocked by his peers and his adversaries; threatened, persecuted, and then hunted down by Saul, his predecessor as king…

And his own ascendance to the kingship was simply horrible! After Saul and Jonathan were killed, most of Israel looked at David and said, “Him? No thanks…” It took another seven years for the nation to unite under David’s leadership.

This man, now seventy years old, who has been raised in uncertainty and surrounded by those who question his authenticity is doing anything he can to seek to save Solomon and the kingdom from all the grief that he himself went through. In publicly declaring Solomon’s ascendancy and praying for his rule and providing him with the resources necessary to gather the people together in worship of YHWH, David is clearly giving to his son and to his people far more than he ever got from those who preceded him.

In some ways, this is not surprising. You saw how David sought to provide the vulnerable with protection and security even while he himself was on the run. You know how he sought out Mephibosheth and honored him for his father’s sake. So on the one hand, you might have seen this coming.

But on the other hand, the notion of going above and beyond, of giving more than you got, goes against the norms of David’s day and ours own.

We are much more likely to live by creeds such as “You get what you pay for” or “You get what’s coming to you…” We say things like, “Well, what did you expect? After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” What about, “You can only play the cards that you’ve been dealt, right?”

Now listen: there is a nugget of truth in all of these old adages. I’ve said them all, for crying out loud. But they are NOT, thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord.

David, for some reason, got more than he paid for. He was an apple that fell a long way from the tree. And he demonstrates here that on at least some occasions, he was able to play way better cards than he was ever dealt.

How is this possible? Because of an even greater wisdom and greater truth that we know simply as grace. David knew that the world would love to operate in a simple math problem: garbage in, garbage out. An eye for an eye. That’s all neat and tidy.

And deadly. It’s an equation nobody can live with. As a man who has sinned so frequently and so publicly, David realizes that he has not gotten what he deserved, and that he will therefore seek to give to others better than what they’ve earned.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

In the first century, a follower of Jesus named Paul wrote to a small group of Christians in the city at the heart of the Roman Empire. These women and men, who met in secret for fear of persecution and betrayal, were told in no uncertain terms that the life of faith means following the example of both Jesus and David in giving more than you get.

I want to point out the fact that Paul was writing to a group of people who were persecuted because that is a sentiment shared by an improbably increasing number of Christians in the USA. In a recent survey, 57% of white evangelical Christians said that they sense discrimination against Christians in America. Only 44% of those same people feel as though Muslims are discriminated against. And an amazing 75% of whites who call themselves evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians is as great or greater than that which is leveled at blacks or other racial minorities.[1]

If those statistics are accurate, then I would have to assume that there are those in the room who identify with that – who feel threatened or persecuted. And if that’s the case, then the words of Paul and the context in which he uttered them are of great significance to the church in the USA. Do you think you face discrimination because of your faith? Are you feeling worried about the negative repercussions that could arise should someone discover that you’re a Christian? Then let’s listen to the man who writes to people who are facing the reality of being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, or public floggings in the square. Let’s pay attention to the man who would himself be beheaded because of his faith in Jesus Christ. What does Paul say?

Live graciously.

Give better than you get.

I’d like to suggest that there are three concrete ways in which everyone in this room can respond to the charge of Paul in light of the example of King David.

We can do this financially. What do you have? What can you anticipate? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Too often we think of our spending and consuming as aspects of life that are just not going to go away. I have to make this car payment; I need the new smartphone; I can’t stand to stay home and cook again tonight… And yet we think of the gifts we bring to the Lord as afterthoughts. We look in the wallet when the plate is being passed and hope that we’ve got something small to toss in. It’s a little embarrassing, after all, to try to make change from the offering plate when it’s going past…

David gave his wealth for the building of the temple; he set aside a significant portion of his material well-being so that the people of God would have a place in which to encounter God’s truth.

Do you have a will? Does it include provision for the Work of the Lord? I can tell you that I have a will and then when it’s my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, there’s something in it for this church. I should also warn you that there’s probably not enough in it to warrant anyone tampering with my brakes this week, though…

How does your discipleship determine your spending? If the answer to that is “Um, I don’t know…” or “It doesn’t”, let me encourage you to take some time this week thinking about what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus as a citizen of the wealthiest society this planet has ever known.

Another area in which we can easily give more than we’ve gotten is that of investing ourselves in future generations. In a few moments, we’ll be baptizing little Karalynn. You’re going to like it. I’ll probably cry. Her parents are going to make a few promises, and then it’ll be your turn. You’ll be asked whether you intend to live a life of faith on which she can model her own. You’ll be asked whether you intend to make available to her resources that will allow her to grow as a follower of Jesus. We’ll ask you all of these questions in the context of the baptism of Karalynn.

But here’s the deal: this particular little screecher lives in Akron, Ohio. So when you’re asked these questions, you might be tempted to think, “Sweet! There’s no way I’ll be asked to really follow through on these. She’s not my problem!”

Except, of course, that you’re not only speaking for yourself in these moments. You’re speaking as an agent of The Church of Jesus Christ. Her parents are promising to put her in a place where The Church can see her. You, on behalf of The Church, are promising that there are believers who are interested in and concerned for the lives of babies who have been baptized elsewhere – or not at all.

You are saying that a part of being a Christian means that we take an active role in the spiritual nurture of other people’s children. And, to be honest, with the ministry of the Preschool and the Open Door, this congregation does this better than most… but what is your investment in this practice? How are you blessing the next generation as it seeks to learn what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God?

And finally, each of us can give more than we’ve gotten as we seek to live lives of grace and gratitude. In our every day decisions about how to invest our energy, what to get excited about, where to put our worries… can we just be thankful? David thought about his death, and then turned around and thanked God for life. Paul saw the conflict and fear that faced early Christians throughout the Roman Empire, and said, “Well, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”

You, beloved – you can do this. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When the yahoos cut you off in traffic, let them in. Buy someone else’s lunch. That little thing that your spouse does that just gets under your skin? Let it go. Turn off the social media and the talk radio and news every now and then. That horrible thing that happened to you? Don’t make that the most important part of who you are.

About fifteen years ago, modern American poet Scott Cairns penned this brief verse entitled “Imperative”, and I keep it in my Bible to remind me of the call to live a life of grace. Listen:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.[2]

Beloved, we’re getting close to the end of David’s story. We may be close to the end of mine or yours. At any rate, let us commit ourselves to being people who give freely what we cannot keep forever in the hopes that in so doing, we’ll learn how to hold on to that which we cannot lose. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/perceptions-discrimination-muslims-christians/519135/

[2] From philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns. Used by permission of the author.

When God Says, “Not Yet”

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On March 5, we wondered what happened right after Saul died… in the years between when David could have assumed the crown and the time it finally happened.  Our texts included II Samuel 3:1-5 as well as Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh”, found in II Corinthians 12:6-10

Did you know that the average American spends thirteen hours each year waiting on hold for someone in customer service to pick up the stupid telephone? Six months of your life will be spent waiting at a traffic light. That’s easy compared to the two years you can expect to spend waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the gas station, or the movie theater…

Waiting… who likes to wait? Isn’t that about the most frustrating part of your day? And these examples, while certainly unpleasant, are only the day-to-day, small-picture, grindingly-irritating things for which we wait.

The time you spend in line at the bank or watching the calendar pages turn as you wait for your tax refund to arrive is frustrating, to be sure, but we can usually comfort ourselves by knowing that the resolution to our concern or the fulfillment of our desires is at least in sight, if not imminent.   You know what I mean, right? You’re chafed at the fact that the other line is moving faster, but you know that sooner or later the clerk will start scanning your items and you’ll be able to take your groceries and head for home. This kind of waiting is a pain in the neck, but it doesn’t produce a crisis of faith or lead to long-term angst or depression.

But what about the other things for which we wait in life? The “big” waits? What about the couple who is desperately trying to conceive a child, or the young father who’s looking for work? Can you imagine living in a refugee camp, knowing that you’re not home, but not sure whether there ever will be a “home” again? Or the single person who longs for the intimacy of marriage, or the person living with cancer who wonders about the length of the remission she’s been granted… What about that kind of waiting? The kind of uncertainty and hopefulness and despair that can lead you to say “O, please, God, when will it stop… or change… or get better?” The kind of waiting that can lead to deep questions about God, and life, and meaning, and eternity? How well do you deal with that kind of waiting?

Now, while you think on that, let me ask you to picture this scene in your head. You’re on a retreat or a mission trip with a large group. We’ve all agreed to meet at, say, 8 a.m. to get started on our day. You know how it is… some of us are there at 7:45, eager to get a jump on things. A handful come into the room at 7:58. And, because this is our church, let’s assume that another half dozen people show up at 8:05. Can you picture this in your head so far?

How many times is there that one guy who just isn’t there by 8:10? We’re waiting, and we clarify with each other – “we said 8 o’clock, right?” We get a little passive-aggressive and we start rolling our eyes, or conspicuously checking our watches. We sigh – quite loudly. And you want to send someone into the next room to check on him to make sure that he’s aware, but you know he’s there. You can hear him whistling a show tune or maybe working away on his laptop. Finally, he strolls into the room, brushing his teeth, and looks up and says, “Oh, hey guys! What’s up? Oh – wait – did we say 8??? I was sure it was 9! My bad…”

OK, show of hands… how many of you have been in a situation like that, where you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for someone who seems to be pretty clueless and disengaged from the group process?

Now, how many of you have ever been that guy at least once in your life?

The question is… how many times when you’ve been in the midst of some huge and horrific wait have you felt as though God has been acting that way?

Here you are – you’ve got some serious business going on. You need that job, you are dying of loneliness, you can’t stand to see your child struggling with addiction any longer, and you’ve been praying and praying and praying. You have cried out to God, and it seems as if he’s not there, or even worse, as though he’s just messing around with something else? You want to scream at all those athletes and poor students, “Will you shut up about that game you’ve got coming up or that test you didn’t study for? God’s got more important fish to fry!”

I am not aware of the source of this illustration. If you know where credit might be rendered, I’d be grateful to know.

Where is God when you need him?

Where is God while we are waiting, or hoping, or suffering?

Why is it that God sometimes takes so long to get his act together?

Do you remember when we met David? He was just a kid, out minding his own business, taking care of his father’s sheep. Through the prophet Samuel, God calls to this boy – who is maybe fifteen years old – and says, “All right, son: stay on the straight and narrow. One day, you’re going to be king. Not yet, of course, but one day…” And David shrugs and says, “OK, God, I’ll wait…

And then he goes out and kills Goliath… He moves into Saul’s house, and Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a best friend.   He marries Saul’s daughter, and then he gets chased out of Saul’s house. His wife is taken from him. He gets chased out of Israel. His friend dies. For fifteen years, give or take, David is on the run. Finally, Saul dies.

This is it! This is what David’s been waiting for, right? Now he can be the king! And, in fact, he is anointed king… in the tribe of Judah. The other Israelites are holding out for a relative of Saul’s. There’s a power struggle and uncertainty and dis-ease for another seven and a half years.

With the benefit of three thousand years’ hindsight, we can say, “Wow, God really was faithful to David, wasn’t he?” But the reality is that for nearly a quarter of a century, David’s primary experience of God was…not yet. For David and those around him, year after year was spent asking, “Now?” and hearing “Nope.”

I know that nobody here has waited twenty-two years in the hopes of becoming the rightful king of Israel, but I know that you know the pain of waiting or the frustration of unanswered questions. What do you say when God seems silent? How are you supposed to act when it seems as though God has already checked out?

Let me suggest that in some important ways, David can be a model for us in these situations.

The scripture that you heard a few moments ago from II Samuel summarizes seven and a half years of conflict in a single verse, and then goes on to name the six sons that were born to David during this time. What does that suggest about the way that David was behaving during this time of waiting?

– That is not what I meant! –

I’d venture to say that this is one way of saying that David was getting on with his life. He continued to act as though the promise was coming true, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes right now. While this behavior is not necessarily the model for family life that we’d like to see in the church in the 21st century, the reality is that even while David is continuing to wait on God, he is looking toward the future that God has promised him.

The other thing that David did during these years after Saul’s death was to continue to seek the Lord. Although it isn’t mentioned in the readings we heard this morning, II Samuel chapter 2 relates the fact that David continued to inquire of the Lord with some regularity. In his public as well as his private life, David appealed to the covenant that God had made, even though the terms of that covenant had not all been fully realized.

Furthermore, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the very experience of waiting in this manner shaped David into the kind of king that he would become. Of course he behaved differently as a forty-year old king than he would have as a fifteen-year old monarch. Some of what he went through shaped him for that which he was to become.

In the same way, those of us who are waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen or for something to end are called to continue to walk in the paths of discipleship. We can hold on to what we have and continue to act as though all of God’s promises are true even on those days when we have a hard time feeling their truth.

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. He mentions what he calls his “thorn in the flesh” – some mysterious affliction – that seems to get in the way of his happiness or productivity. We’re not sure exactly what this “thorn” was: some scholars have suggested Paul struggled with depression, or epilepsy, or failing eyesight, or recurrent bouts of pain. We can’t know what it was, because Paul doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us, however, is that what God is doing is more important than what Paul is feeling. Paul senses God’s presence with him saying, “Look, don’t put all your trust in what you can do or what you hope will happen. Trust that my grace is enough for you. Trust in me to hold you up.” Paul does this, and is able to write about finding contentment in Christ.

We are not promised easy answers or short-cut solutions. Those things didn’t show up in David’s life or in Paul’s. It seems to me that the path of faith invites us into all of the messy and sometimes painful places of our lives in the expectation that God will show up at the right time… even if the timing is not what we would wish.

Søren Kierkegaard stressed the importance of the discipline of waiting in faith. He said that many of us are like the student who didn’t like math, but needed a good grade in the course, and so he stole the teacher’s answer sheet before the test. His goal, of course, was to memorize all of the right answers and then get a perfect score. Kierkegaard rightly points out that answers like that are not really answers at all. To truly have the answers, we have to work through the problems.[1]

Your life and mine are full of problems. Some of them are minor irritants, such as choosing the slow line at the Giant Eagle or getting lost in traffic. Some of them are incredibly difficult to bear, such as the loss of a child or the dimming of hopes that were bright. We will not escape the problems. But with the help of God, we can walk into them knowing that these problems will not overwhelm us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the company of those around us in the body of Christ, we can work it out. We can wait it out. We can hope it out. God’s grace was sufficient for David and for Paul. It is enough for you and me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Intervarsity, 1989) p. 14

On Flags and Faith

We gathered on July 5 to consider the Word of God in relationship to our nation’s Independence Day celebrations.  We took our cue from the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:25-40 and Galatians 3:26-28

 

LifeguardI saw something pretty cool at the beach last week. No, I’m not talking about the 8-foot hammerhead shark that came within ten feet of my boat (although that was awesome!). I’m talking about a display that the line of “Surf Rescue Technicians” (that’s the new name for ‘lifeguard’, by the way) put on as they began their day. All up and down the beach, they stood on their platforms and held out small flags, waving them in such a fashion as to communicate via semaphore the fact that the beach was now officially open for business.

That, in turn, got me to thinking about flags. Did you know that people have been using flags for more than 4,000 years? Pretty much as far back as anyone can tell, folks have been taking little bits of cloth or some other material and holding it up in order to communicate information to someone else.

In the middle ages, for instance, all the knights looked alike when they wore their armor, so the flags helped them know who was fighting whom. Flags have been used to instill fear in people, to assert dominance over someone or something, and to rally folks in times of crisis. Flags are wonderful and powerful symbols.

The South Carolina and American flags flying at half-staff behind the Confederate flag erected in front of the State Congress building in Columbia, South Carolina on June 19, 2015. Police captured the white suspect in a gun massacre at one of the oldest black churches in Charleston in the United States, the latest deadly assault to feed simmering racial tensions. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead during bible study on Wednesday. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

And, as you know, flags have been in the news lately. A lot. Whether we’re talking about the battle flag of the Confederacy, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay and lesbian pride, the stark black and white banner of the Islamic State, the “white-power” insignia of the KKK, or even the old stars and stripes of the United States – the display of flags and the way that we treat them reveals a great deal about the things that we believe, respect, fear, and hope.

Perhaps the most powerful conversation I’ve ever had about a flag was with a friend who has since passed away. We were talking about the appropriate manner in which the US flag should be displayed, and he told me through angry tears of his three friends on Clairtonica Street, “boys who went into the South Pacific and onto the beach at Normandy and who gave their lives for that flag!”

Literally, of course, that was not true. Those men did not sacrifice themselves for a piece of fabric – they died because they believed that the things that flag represented in their lives and in their world – justice, freedom, hope, independence – were worth dying for. The flag about which my friend and I talked was a symbol for those things, right?

All of this leads me to ask you on this Fourth of July weekend, “what is the relationship between flags and faith?” As we consider that question, I’d like to turn to our brother, Paul, and the way in which he lived his life.

In the reading we have from Galatians, we see that Paul – a man, who, by the way, took his various identities quite seriously – emphasized the fact that when it comes to children of God, our history, tradition, ideology, political views, ethnicity, or gender identity is not the most important thing about us. “Some of you are all of these things,” he says, “but that’s not the core of your self. You are BAPTIZED. You belong to Jesus. You are his. After that, you might be slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek. But all of those things are secondary to your identity in Christ and all that entails.”

Many of you know my friend Saleem, who described for me a worship service to which he had been invited in another city. He said that the congregation was friendly and the Scripture was proclaimed in a language the people could understand. The singing was fine, and the sanctuary was beautiful. At the front of the sanctuary was a large cross – Saleem said that it was clearly the focal point of the architecture in the room – all eyes were directed towards the empty cross – the symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life we’ve been given in his name.

Near the end of the service, the organ started playing a patriotic tune, and as the people rose to sing the song of their country, that nation’s flag was slowly unfurled from the rafters of the church. It was, Saleem said, a beautiful flag. And it was huge. And it filled the front of the sanctuary. The problem, however, was that the flag blocked Saleem’s view of the cross. Here, in a service of Christian worship, the national flag obscured the view of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Beloved in the Lord, when any flag, from any nation or any interest group ever gets in the way of you being able to see Jesus – that flag is simply flying too high. Any flag that impedes our ability to see Christ is a flag that is in the wrong place.

But we love our flags, don’t we? Oh, we don’t all love the same one, but we all love some of them. And yet the Gospel calls us to love Jesus more.

Here’s a little experiment I devised. Check out these two images – one of a US flag being desecrated and disrespected, the other of an African-American church that has been torched. Ask yourself: which image provokes a more visceral reaction for you? Are you more disgusted by the sight of someone burning the stars and stripes, or by the thought of a person hatefully destroying the house of God?

Flag Burning

church-burning

Oh, they’re both merely symbols, we know that. One of them is a piece of colored cloth. The other is a building used for meetings – meetings which many of you have freely described to me as “boring”. But oh, the power of those symbols! If Paul is right about our identity in Christ, we ought to be more angered by the desecration of a church than by the desecration of a national symbol. My primary loyalty, says Paul, is not to a government, a history, or a piece of land – but to the One who empowers governments, who directs history, and who created all lands. That’s not to say that it’s ok to burn a US flag, or to cheapen its symbolism – rather, I’m trying to emphasize the fact that as strongly as we feel about that symbol, our connection to the people of God is deeper and more powerful – or at least it should be.

So be careful, beloved, as you wave your flags. Send your messages. Communicate. But be sure that you don’t love that flag – any flag – more than you love the One who invented meaning and purpose and, in fact, you.

photo-us-flag1Having said that, the fact remains that we live here. Many of you, like me, are people who left home today and had your US flag flying. It’s Independence Day. We want to celebrate the fact that this is our home. Most, if not all of us in the room today are citizens of the richest, most powerful civilization to ever populate the earth. What does it mean to be a Christian and an American? Does our citizenship impact our discipleship, or vice-versa?

Again, I’d like to take a glance at Paul’s life. Although he wasn’t an American, his passport was the gold standard in his day. He was born as a citizen of the Roman Empire, which bestowed upon him great privilege around the world at that time. In addition, he was raised as a Jew, and understood the practice of his faith to be central to his identity. He became a scholar’s scholar – multilingual, well-traveled, widely-respected…and then he met Jesus.

In that weekend, Paul’s whole life and sense of self changed. His view of the world, the lens through which he saw everything – was adjusted because of his faith in Jesus. Instead of seeing his citizenship as a right to be grasped or a privilege to be exploited, he sought to use his place in the Roman Empire to further the cause of reconciliation in Christ Jesus.

Our reading from Acts, for instance, describes how Paul showed up in Philippi and began moving among the people talking about Jesus. He was attacked and beaten – and, apparently, said not a word. They imprisoned him, and he spent the night in the jail singing and praying.

PaulSilas

Paul and Silas in Prison by  Gerard Hoet (1728)

And then the earthquake hit, and Paul and the other prisoners were free. The first thing that he did was to save the jailer’s life. The jailer took Paul and Silas to his own home, where he first washed their wounds, and then they shared with him the cleansing waters of baptism.

I want you to note that to this point in the story, even though Paul is a natural-born citizen of the Roman Empire who is traveling through and then experiencing significant pain in one of the leading colonies of that empire, he has not said anything about his nationality. It is only when they ask him to leave that he brings this up. Why? Why do it then?

Well, look at what he does: he approaches the Roman Magistrate and says, “I’m a citizen of the Roman Empire who has been publicly beaten and jailed without a trial – and now you want me just to slink out of town?” The magistrates had broken the law when they treated Paul in this manner, and he had them over a barrel. He demanded that he be escorted publicly to the edge of town.

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Only that’s not where they go – at least at first – is it? No. They stop at Lydia’s place and greet the church that is there. A church that is not comprised of citizens of the Empire. A church that has watched followers of Jesus be beaten to within an inch of their lives. And now Paul and Silas say to the police in that town, “Look, we’re leaving, and we’re not going to make trouble for you even though you beat us. But these people? They are our friends. And we’re going to be watching you. We care for them…nothing should happen to them.”

Paul used his Roman Citizenship all right – but not as a badge of honor or a status symbol, rather as a blessing to other people and a means to stand with the marginalized.

When I read of Paul’s visit to Lydia in the sight of those who bore great power to hurt and destroy, I had a flashback to my recent visit to South Sudan, a nation torn by civil war and atrocity and violence and every manner of evil.

I had gone with my team to a restaurant on the Nile River in Juba. It was to have been a day off, and we were dressed casually, laughing and joking. An armored vehicle drove up, and a huge man bristling with weaponry and accompanied by six or eight soldiers strode to an adjacent table. He was a fascinating man…and as I stared, I realized that I recognized him from somewhere…but where?

I asked one of my South Sudanese hosts who he was, and he sat up and said, “Him? Oh – that is ___________.” Of course it was. This man is a butcher – he has led in the burning of towns, the raping of women, the abduction of child soldiers, the destruction of property… by all accounts, he is a horrible person. As I reflected on what it meant to be sharing space with that man, I could see the wheels turning in my friend’s head, and he turned to me suddenly. “Will you take a photo with him? You and the team?”

I was flabbergasted. Before I knew what was happening, my host was at this man’s table, saying something like, “Sir, we have a group of friends from the United States who care about us and they have come to make sure we’re all right. They’ve heard about our troubles here and have just made a visit to emphasize peace. Would you take a photo with them?” And that’s how I wound up posing for a photo with a man who could, and perhaps should be on trial for war crimes some day.

Do you see? It’s not about him being a celebrity. I have come to understand that in some way, this was an invitation to use whatever influence, authority, or status we have as citizens of the world’s most powerful nation to help shield our friends in South Sudan. Because now in addition to me having a photo with this man, he has a photo of me, given to him by a pastor who said, “These people are from the USA, and they are watching us. They care for us. They will notice if something happens to us…”

It wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t plan it, but if my small effort to stand publicly with someone in harm’s way may wind up protecting that person or his family, it may be the single best thing I’ve ever done as a citizen of the United States of America. I was in a position to respond to an invitation to use any status or rank that I have on behalf of someone who has neither status nor rank. And, thankfully, I did, just as our brother Paul did when he took the soldiers to Lydia’s place.

It’s the Fourth of July. Watch the fireworks. Have a hot dog. Yippee. Celebrate your independence and your rights. Have a blast.

But what are you doing with that gift? How do you understand the power that your citizenship carries as you seek to love your neighbor in Jesus Christ?

Will you take the time to be informed about issues and then communicate with your elected officials, advocating for those on the fringes? Will you care about the neighborhood in which you live, and seek to treat all who are there as Christ has treated you? Can you be bothered to cast your vote in various elections, remembering that the people who win elections write the budgets, and the people who write the budgets determine the priorities of the nation?

Many of my friends approach this most patriotic of holidays as a Holy Day of sorts, in which they are eager to name all of the rights that they have inherited as citizens of the United States: we can own all the guns we want, we can fly whatever flag we choose, we get cheap gasoline, we can worship where and when and how we choose, and my internet better work when I want it to.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point.

US-PassportcoverThis is my passport – stamped with the seal and flag of the United States of America. It is an incredible tool, and, frankly, I’m pretty proud of it. It guarantees me some freedom. And it gives me great power.

 

Baptism

And this is the font that holds the water in which I was baptized. It is at this font that I learn who I am and who I will be, and how I am called to use every gift, all my powers, all I am or hope to be – for the service of Christ and the love of my neighbors.

Please, beloved, don’t let me ever, ever, get these two confused. If I start to think that my baptism is a tool that gets me into a club that carries certain privileges and gives me great benefit, and that my passport is the place where I learn my true identity and who I really am, bad things will happen. Thanks be to the God who calls us – from all flags and all places – to wade in the waters of baptism and celebrate the power of Christ. Amen.

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.

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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.