Check and Double-Check!

“Check and Double-Check!”

Acts 17 bereans

Acts 17:1-5a, 10-14 – September 13, 2015

When I attended seminary I had a handful of classes that were absolutely superb in every way. Interesting course material, fascinating professors, and assignments I could totally sink my teeth into. One of these courses was Reformed Tradition, taught at the Presbyterian seminary on the south side of Chicago. This course highlighted the Reformed Protestant church practices and theology since the 1500’s. And, I absolutely loved it.

One of the strong memories I have of this course is studying the practices of the Reformed missionaries of past centuries who were called to cross barriers (and in some cases, also cross continents and oceans). They took the message of the Gospel to those who had not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That’s just what Paul and his friends are doing here in Acts 17. This week is the last of our Summer Sermon Series, Postcards from the Early Church. When last we met our intrepid heroes, (in Acts 16) they had crossed from Asia into Greece, into Europe. Here, in both towns of Thessalonica and Berea, they start preaching and speaking with the groups of Jews living in both areas, and they also preach to their Greek neighbors and friends.

To go back to the course I loved in seminary, Reformed Tradition, I discovered that many Protestant missionaries and mission agencies had a master plan. The missionaries would not just go and preach the Gospel. No! They almost always had an excellent method behind their outreach. They not only would start a small church or chapel, but would also often develop a health clinic, sometimes even a hospital. And—the missionaries almost always began a school. They wanted to teach people; not only how to read, but also teach math and other subjects; sometimes even beginning institutions of higher learning in far flung areas.

So, reading and literacy were of extremely high regard to the missionaries! This went along with the importance of each person being able to read the Scriptures for themselves. We can see that translating the Bible became a high priority, too.

What does this have to do with our Scripture passage for today, you might ask? After Paul and his friends were thrown out of the town of Thessalonica, they went down the road to the next town of Berea, fifty miles away. We don’t know very much about Berea, except—the Bereans eagerly searched the Hebrew Scriptures after they heard Paul’s message. Paul wasn’t just delivering a line, or trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, no! The Bereans not only read, but diligently searched and sifted through the Scriptures to make sure that what Paul and his friends were telling them was true!

The literacy rate in Jewish communities has always been extremely high. For millennia it’s been this way. It’s marvelous to learn how to read, as well as do math and learn other subjects, too. Literacy has been a strong priority among large groups of Protestant missionaries, too. Reading the Scriptures is and has remained a primary goal, but just think about it. As we teach people how to read, we are also teaching them how to think, and how to reason. And, as more people in these far away mission areas learn more and more, the quality and standard of living rises in the whole community, as well! All very good things.

Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us too much about the Bereans. Except, the people in the town of Berea, in the foothills of the Olympian mountains, certainly seem like “people of more noble character” than the troublemakers in Thessalonica.

Using an excellent sermon illustration I discovered, “I want you to pretend for a moment that you are a first-century Berean Jew. Now suppose one Saturday a stranger comes into your synagogue and addresses the congregation. He says that his name is Paul, and he brings you the exciting news that the long-awaited Messiah has finally come! No, he didn’t actually restore the [physical] kingdom to Israel, as expected. In fact He was murdered a few years ago by the Romans. But, Paul says, that this is exactly what was supposed to happen to the Messiah, and he seems to prove it from Scripture. So now what do you do? If you are of noble character [as Dr. Luke says], you begin to search the Scriptures yourself to see if what Paul said is true.” [1]

Luke’s word used here in this passage is a legal term. Luke states that “Paul’s appeal to Israel’s Scriptures [was] a legal ‘witness’ to warrant his gospel’s claims about Jesus.”[2] Paul was not just making up imaginary tales, or fabricating fairy stories to put little children to sleep. No! Paul was using the Hebrew Scriptures as competent testimony to back up what he was telling them. And thus, many of the people who heard Paul out, believed what he said. Because they searched the Scriptures and made sure that what Paul was telling them matched with what they knew and already believed.

It’s like fact checking, today. How many people here have “heard something” about someone famous, or about some political candidate? How many people here are not sure where they first “heard it,” but “everyone is talking about it!” Like, for example, some Internet meme or email sob story passed around from person to person that is patently untrue.

My husband is an editor and journalist, working at a trade publication downtown. He takes special delight in exposing these sorts of gossip and misinformation that keep getting passed from one person to another via email, Facebook, and other kinds of social media. One of his favorite online tools is snopes dot com. “Snopes.com is the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”[3]

I can just see some of these people in Berea, going to the library or to the synagogue where the scrolls and books were kept, checking out the sermons that Paul had just preached, as well as the discussion they had afterwards. Making sure—fact checking!—that Paul was the real deal. Dr. Luke tells us, “As a result, many of [the Berean Jews] believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”
But, wait! This was not the end. Paul and his missionary friends did not have an easy time of it after starting the church in Berea. The people who stirred up things in the previous town heard about Paul and company and how they were having such an effect on the people in Berea. Some of those troublemakers from Thessalonica came over to Berea and made trouble in that town, too. Talk about nasty people! So, Paul’s new friends, the new believers in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, shipped Paul out of town in a big hurry.

But the church Paul founded in Berea remained. Paul’s work here was done. We know they had a firm basis, since the Berean believers already had a solid foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

What about us? Do we have a similar solid foundation? Thank God, we have the Bible translated into English. It was translated for us centuries ago! We can look back to the great job that William Tyndale did in the 1500’s, paving the way for the King James Version, translated just after 1600. And now, today, we have many translations!

We can celebrate those translations, just as we celebrate our freedom to read the Bible, and our ability to study and learn about Scripture. There are still some places in the world today where it is a crime to read and study the Scriptures. I encourage all of you to pick up the Bible. Read a little every day. Become familiar with it. I know some of you do already. There are wonderful helps. Just ask me and I will hook you up with one!

God’s Word is truly a lamp to all of our feet, just as I told the Sunday school children before the sermon. The Bible sheds light on all of our paths. Just as it was with the Berean believers, just as it was with the Apostle Paul and his friends, so it is today. Praise God for God’s Word, freely available to all of us, today.

[1] “The Bereans,” Acts 17:10-14. Sermon delivered 10/25/2009 – Pastor David B. Curtis

[2] Wall, Robert W., Acts, from the New Interpreter’s Commentary series. (Nashville, Abingdon Press: 1994-2004) 239.

[3] http://snopes.com/

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

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Spinning Out of Control!

“Spinning Out of Control!”

Acts 16-31 Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ stained glass

Acts 16:30-31 – September 6, 2015

Most people I know like things in order. Neat and tidy. Under control. I mean, most things. Steady income, check! Roof over our heads, check! Clothes to wear and food to eat? Check and double check. Sure, we can have little surprises now and then, but most people crave order. Everything’s hunky dory! Just the way it’s supposed it be.

Until, it isn’t. We experience things spinning out of control.

In our Scripture reading today, we have Paul, Silas, Dr. Luke and their missionary friends in the town of Philippi. This is another in our summer sermon series, Postcards from the Early Church. If you remember last week, we met Lydia, a Gentile woman. We are told she is from a city called Thyatira, and is a dealer in purple cloth, which for that time was a luxury item. What I suggested last week was that it’s similar today to a dealer in high-end designer clothing in our culture and context. She not only owns her own business, but she also has her own house.

The pertinent part for us in this week’s sermon is that after becoming a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, Lydia invites Paul and his friends to stay at her large house in Philippi. Paul and friends start to carry out the challenging work of starting a church plant. That is, spreading the Good News of the risen Lord Jesus.

Paul is skilled at debate, and I suspect he and his friends went to gathering places all around town to talk with people. To tell them about the Good News about the Lord, how He died for our sins and was raised from the dead, conquered death, and has ascended to heaven.

Now we discover a slave girl starts to follow Paul and his friends around, as they travel about town. Listen to Acts 16: “We were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days.”

Here Dr. Luke gives us a thumbnail sketch of this slave girl. Yes, she is telling the truth. Paul and his friends were telling people the way to be saved. But, the truth can be twisted. She refers to “the Most High God.” Meaning, a God among other Gods. And, in the polytheistic environment of Greece, the title “the Most High God” was also a common name for Zeus, ruler of the Greek pantheon of gods.

This slave girl was a factor completely out of the control of Paul and his friends. From what this looks like, she was a sort of a heckler. Walking after them, shouting and making a big fuss. And, the slave girl was a local. A known person to the inhabitants of the town. Paul and his friends were visitors, strangers in town. There was that dynamic, as well.

Not only is she starting to get irritating and annoying, following them around like a pesky little sister for many days, Paul realizes this slave girl is energized by a demon. The demon inside of her enabled her to tell fortunes, to tell people what would happen to them in the future. I suspect the demon knew with great certainty the exact identities of Paul, Silas, Dr. Luke, Lydia, and the rest of the believers in the risen Lord Jesus there in Philippi.

Let’s see what happened next! “Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.

What was that that happened? Paul got fed up with the persistent heckling the demon—I mean, the slave girl was doing. So, he cast the demon out of this slave girl. Next thing we know, the girl’s owners got really mad! That was a serious consequence, to be sure.

Let’s trace this back a bit. Why were her owners so angry and upset?

Apparently, the slave girl’s owners didn’t particularly care that she wandered around the city of Philippi shouting about Paul and his friends being servants of God and telling people how to be saved, as long as she pulled in the money. As long as she was a profitable cash cow, her owners were happy.

But in casting out the demon? Talk about things spinning out of control! The unexpected consequences of Paul’s action? It dried up all the profits the girl’s masters were making! Paul dried up the owners’ lucrative source of revenue! Talk about hitting them in the pocket book!

Continuing with Acts 16: “19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.”

I owe thanks to John, a pastor on a sermon discussion board I follow, from time to time. His insight? The wallet. The billfold. “’Religion’ is all well and good, at least until it starts affecting my pocketbook. In this [passage], it’s only after the new religion affects the slave girl’s owners’ bank account that they have Paul and Silas arrested.”

With you and with me, today. What about us? Is “Religion” all well and good, until it hits us in the pocketbook, too? Is “Religion” affecting our bank accounts? Will following Jesus here in the United States affect us in a negative way? Affect our pocketbooks? Or, is that hitting too close to home for us? Hmm. I’ll let us think about that for a while. Let it sink in.

Let’s follow along with Paul and Silas. Dr. Luke tells us specifically about their time in the prison. “23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

Things are spinning out of control again. Paul and Silas are thrown into the inner cell of a prison. I bet that was an especially secure place. But what do they end up doing? Instead of crying and desperately lifting their voices in prayer to God, they begin to sing. Imagine, singing hymns of praise to the Lord, at midnight. Securely locked, in a dark prison.

We continue with chapter 16: “26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”’

We can see the economic effect this earthquake had on the jailer, for sure! Plus, the horrible sinking in his heart, seeing his jail destroyed, with the prisoners quite possibly running away, escaping in the middle of the night. No wonder he drew his sword, ready to kill himself.

The jailer is stopped by Paul, shouting out to him: “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

Did you hear? What must we do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus.

It doesn’t matter what is spinning out of control. It doesn’t matter what economic consequences are happening. It doesn’t matter what the authorities say or don’t say. Instead, we hear the Good News preached to us. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and we will be saved. All of us, and our households, too!

On this Labor Day weekend, we can see all levels of society hearing the Good News. We can see the slave girl—a slave, someone from the lower class, being freed and exposed to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus! And, we can see the jailer, a solid member of the middle class, receiving salvation with joy! And last week, we saw Lydia, a member of the upper class in Philippi, listening eagerly to the Good News. She came to faith in the Lord Jesus, too.

Our Lord Jesus is not only for the Gentile and the Jew, not only for male and female, but Jesus also transcends all class distinctions. All separations of caste, of nationality, of ethnicity, of background.

That’s how it was in the first century, and that’s how it is today, too. What about you? Do you believe in the Good News? Do you believe in the power of Jesus to forgive your sins, and help you to walk with Him day by day?

As I proclaim each week after our Confession of Sin at the beginning of the service, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven!” Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

God Sends Us Out!

“God Sends Us Out!”

Acts 8-5-8 Philip preaching in Samaria

July 26, 2015 – Acts 8:4-8, 12, 14-17

Did you ever have something unexpected happen? Let’s say, you’re going about your everyday business, everything perfectly normal. When, something out of the ordinary happens. Comes out of left field. Knocks your socks off! Could be called a miracle, even!

That’s what happened in our Scripture passage from Acts chapter 8 today. Something certainly out of the ordinary happened to the Samaritans!

I’m continuing with my Summer Sermon Series from the book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. But before I continue, I’d like to thank everyone for the opportunity to take a week to go to a church conference, the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania. I hope everyone enjoyed Pastor Gordon as he preached and led the service last week in my absence. The mission conference was a marvelous opportunity to see what God is doing around the world in mission and outreach. Reaching out to people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Surprise! It’s just what the apostle Philip was doing, in our Scripture reading today.

It’s only a number of months after that first Pentecost. The apostles have been preaching and teaching up a storm. The fellowship of new believers in the risen Messiah has been growing by leaps and bounds! When—we have the super-deacon Stephen get hauled up before the authorities. You remember, just like a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . !” Only, things went from bad to worse for Stephen. Some things he said about God really got the authorities mad. They thought he was saying blasphemous words, so they stoned him to death. And, God rest his soul. Stephen was the first martyr of the Church.

You might have guessed that Jerusalem was no longer a safe place to stay for many early believers in the risen Jesus. The apostles and other church leaders left town in a hurry!

The early believers in the risen Messiah were ALL Jewish. Everyone in the first church in Jerusalem was Jewish! The first few months were like a greenhouse; this growing church was spreading like a wild fire! But the sudden death of Stephen brought the rapidly growing situation in Jerusalem to an abrupt end.

Which brings us to Philip, one of the apostles. His task is a continuation of sending. The Greek—the original language definition for apostle is ‘one sent on a mission.’ So, Philip is doing his job! Doing what Jesus told him to do.

One problem: Philip was not preaching to Jews. This is unheard of, at this point.

Preaching to Jews? Acts 8 says clearly that Philip—one of the Jewish apostles—went to Samaria, an area some ways north of Jerusalem. There’s a problem: no self-respecting, kosher-keeping Jew would willingly go to Samaria!

Let me tell you a little about the Samaritans, a tribe of people forcibly brought to Israel several centuries before. As John Petty says in his Lectionary blog, “Samaritans and Jews were all-but-enemies.  Centuries of insults and provocations had made each group so disgusted with the other that Jews travelling to Galilee or Judea would usually opt to take the longer route through the area across the Jordan River rather than set foot in Samaria.

“The Samaritans shared some aspects of faith with the Judeans.  Their sacred book was the Pentateuch, and, in their minds, they worshipped Yahweh.  They rejected, however, the focus on Jerusalem that was integral to the Judeans’ Jewish faith. As far as the [Jewish people] were concerned, the Samaritans were some form of ‘half-breed’ and their theology was heretical.”

I think you all can see where the problem lies. Jews hated Samaritans! Samaritans hated Jews! A racial issue! A huge barrier in relationship stood between them!

Just a minute. Let’s step back. Barriers between people? Misunderstood and marginalized people? Differences in religion, even heretical viewpoints? Sounds like a mission field to me!

This past week at the mission conference, I heard about mission outreaches that crossed all kinds of barriers. Differences in language, religion, culture, and viewpoint. Differences in urban people going to rural places, Christian worldview meeting Buddhist or Hindu or Moslem worldview. Wide differences in cultural views and assumptions. And—that’s just on the missionaries’ side.

So, when we consider the apostle Philip crossing a barrier of hatred and disdain and religious difference to reach the Samaritan people with the knowledge and understanding of the risen Messiah, we know for sure this was missionary activity. Listen to verses 5 and 6:

“5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.” This verse mentions “signs.” I think I know what those signs were. In the very next verse, Dr. Luke explains: “For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.”

I don’t have time to go into the topic of evil, or impure, spirits at this time. I’ve been preaching a midweek bible study for the past few weeks on Angels: Elect and Evil. I’m going to do a “coming attractions spiel.” If you’re available this coming Wednesday at 11:00 am, step on down to this very room! If the weather is hot and toasty outside, come on in. We have air conditioning. This week will be the final session, on demons. Or as they are sometimes referred to, evil spirits.

Let’s move on—to Philip and his effective evangelism. He reached out with the Good News, to this despised and disdained group of people. Guess what? Many believed! Continuing with Acts 8: “12 When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”

But, wait! There’s more! Apostles Peter and John show up, wondering what is going on.

What did Peter and John think of the Samaritans? Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect they had similar feelings to their fellow countrymen.

I have another question for you: What do you think about crossing barriers today? What about outreach right here, right now? What about an Indian church, culturally different from St. Luke’s ? Oh, wait! The dancing classes St. Luke’s Church hosts during the week come from a Catholic Indian church. What about a language barrier, where a different group of people uses a completely different alphabet? Oh, wait! What about Love Sharing Disciple Church? Our Korean friends who worship in the sanctuary here at 12:30 pm.

Do you think Jesus included everyone in His invitation to come to Him? Or, did He say, “Oh, everyone is invited, except for people with physical problems.” That would put my friend and church elder Bob out of the picture, because he has a withered arm, withered from birth. Or, did Jesus say, “Everyone is invited, except for people with disabilities.” No! Remember my friend Pastor Joe, who was at my commissioning service? He’s blind.

Jesus loved Samaritans just as much as Jews. Remember the woman at the well from John 4? Yup, she was Samaritan. And a woman of loose morals. No self-respecting Jewish man would even talk to her. The Rabbi Jesus crossed lots of barriers to bring her to faith! What about the Good Samaritan? Jesus made a Samaritan the star of one of His best-loved parables! And, here’s the kicker. Jesus’ last words, just before He was taken up into heaven, Acts 1:8b. “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter whether the Jews despised the Samaritans. God would help the Jews to love the Samaritans. They still needed to introduce Samaritans to Jesus.

Did you all hear? The apostles needed to go to the ends of the earth. Praise God! That’s just what they did. Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter what kind of barrier you and I are need to cross, God is there to help. We can overcome language differences, culture or worldview problems, religious differences. Remember John 3:16? For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” For you, for me. For everyone.

God loves the whole world. What part of “whole world” do we not understand?

Peter and John were finally convinced. God does not divide or isolate persons one from another. Instead, Peter and John prayed and laid hands on the Samaritan believers. What happened? The Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit came with power to the Samaritan believers as well as the Jewish believers.

God is all about mission. Outreach. God is a sending God. It doesn’t matter if we are moved to reach out to our neighbor across the alley, to our community with the Maine Township Food Pantry, to the poor and marginalized of Chicago with Bundled Blessings diaper pantry, or to a mission outreach halfway around the world with Dana and Carolyn Belton, with SIM Ministries in Zambia.

In this way, we are following the command of Jesus—to go to our Jerusalem, our Judea, our Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. We have that opportunity, too. We can reach out, say ‘hello’ to someone who looks different—sounds different—worships differently. I have accepted this challenge! This opportunity. This challenge. God would like you to accept it, too!

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Radical Stewardship!

“Radical Stewardship!“

Stephen stoning Acts 7

Acts 7:8-9, 57-59 – July 12, 2015

When you have a crisis or serious situation around the house, or personal matters that require some assistance, who is the first person you think of? Who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? Do you have someone in mind? That’s who, that’s what I think of when I think about Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Early Church.

Here we are, in the next installment of our summer sermon series from the Book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. I’ve mentioned this before, of how this sermon series reminds me a bit of a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . “ Last week, we took a look at the first recorded church conflict, in Acts 6.

This tension and conflict revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. It escalated into a problem between two separate groups of believers in the early Church. Jews separated by language and by culture. One Greek-speaking group of Jews—a minority group—claimed they were being overlooked, and were being left out in the charity distribution to widows.

Remember, the twelve Apostles needed help, so they called upon the whole congregation to choose deacons, people of good standing, stature, and wisdom to serve the congregation. Among these Greek-speaking men was someone named Stephen. Like the others, he was appointed and ordained to take care of social welfare matters in the congregation.

Let’s take a closer look at Acts 6, and see what it has to say about Stephen and the other deacons. I’ll be reading from a modern translation, called The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. “[The congregation] went ahead and chose [seven Greek-speaking men.] Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task. The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith.”

In these deacons, we have seven respected believers, people of wisdom, with Greek names. What’s more, one man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. These Greek-speaking believers were good stewards of the gifts God had entrusted to them. They were also good stewards of what the congregation in Jerusalem had entrusted to them, too.

The book of Acts is not specific, but I can imagine them taking up their new duties. Going around the main part of Jerusalem and perhaps the suburbs, too. Checking up on the widows and those who could not come to services regularly. Making sure that the elderly, the young ones, and the infirm had enough to eat, and if need be, medical care. In this way, the deacons freed up the Apostles to continue in prayer, and preaching and teaching God’s Word.

Whatever they were doing must have done the job. We can see, as Dr. Luke said, the number of believers continued to grow—and grow!

What about us, here, today? Think about the things God has given you stewardship over. What gifts and talents do you have to offer the church? What can you offer to your neighbors? I’d like you to think about that, as we continue to look at Stephen.

Acts 6 lifts him up as a stand-out, as far as the new deacons are concerned. Stephen does an exceptional job. If there were Olympic-level competition in being a deacon, I suspect Stephen would be right up there, competing for a medal. He is a stellar deacon, serving the congregation! Listen to our passage from Acts: “Stephen, brimming with God’s grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.”

Remember how I opened this sermon? How I asked everyone here to think of someone who is dependable, helpful, and downright handy to know? Who always seems to have the answers, provides service, and responds in a cheerful, friendly manner? I just so happen to have someone like this in my extended family. My brother-in-law, married to my husband’s sister. Rick is one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was a volunteer fireman in his small town. Now he’s a fire inspector in his region of Michigan.

But that’s not what I wanted to highlight about Rick. Instead, he goes above and beyond when he’s asked to help. Now that my father-in-law is in his mid-eighties, my husband and I are sure glad that Rick lives only about a half hour’s drive away from Grandpa Jones. Rick is handy around the house, always keeps a cool head no matter what, and is just a swell guy to have around. Not only that, he’s an elder in his Presbyterian church, and a pillar of the community. Very much the kind of person I imagine Stephen to have been.

Back to Acts 6: “Then some men went up against Stephen trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.”  

It seems that Stephen is not only an outstanding deacon, excellent at serving others in the congregation, but I understand God has blessed him personally. Abundantly. He is an excellent steward of both his personal gifts, as well as God’s gifts of life and blessing for others. He must have been articulate, too. Fantastic at expressing himself, with wisdom and holy insight.

Remember, the Early Church was located in Jerusalem in these early days. Jerusalem was not friendly to the group of believers in the Risen Messiah Jesus. (I’m getting worried about what is going to happen.) Let’s read some more from Acts. “So in secret, the men bribed others to lie: ‘We heard him cursing Moses and God.’ That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council. ”

Ah. The High Council. In other words, the religiously powerful. I see them as those who block access to God. As a United Methodist commentary says, “those who use and interpret the Law in order to control access to God’s gifts. It seems that Stephen is so good at doling out ‘life abundant’ to anyone and everyone, that the religiously powerful go to unscrupulous lengths to stop him from doing what they perceive to be their job exclusively.”

Stephen continues to be a stand-out steward of the gifts God has given him. Even in his lengthy defense to the High Council—he takes almost all of Acts chapter 7 to go through the history of the nation of Israel, showing how ungrateful and stiff-necked the Jewish people are.

Just listen to the climax of Stephen’s defense: “And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!”

“At that point [the Council] went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed—he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side. He said, ‘Oh! I see heaven open wide and the Son of Man standing at God’s side!’

57-58 “Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them. 59-60 As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, ‘Master Jesus, take my life.’ Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Master, don’t blame them for this sin’—his last words. Then he died.”

As a commentator says, “Even as the council is extinguishing Stephen’s life – stone by hideous stone – he continues to dole out life and grace to them, his killers.”

Radical stewardship, indeed. He gave generously of God’s gifts of life and blessing for other believers. Such a stand-out, he was martyred for his stewardship of his gifts.

Stephen and his example of stewardship stand not only as an example for us, but for the Church Universal, and for the centuries. We can see that “The first Christian martyr comes not from those preaching the word, but from those feeding the hungry.”

This is what this church does. This church has a regular collection of food for the Maine Township Food Pantry. We feed the hungry and provide for God’s table of grace. This congregation shares food—and we share God’s gifts of life—with the hungry, with the vulnerable, with those in need. This is serving in the way that God wants us to serve.

I will adapt Paul Waddell’s words, as he writes for the Center for Christian Ethics: “Christian [stewardship] is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, [stewardship] is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”

Do you share God’s gifts of life, every day? Do we provide God’s table of grace for others, regularly? God calls each of us to be generous, each day. Be of service, one on one. Be excellent stewards—personally. God is calling, to you, and to me. Won’t you answer?

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

(My thanks to “Radical Gratitude,” http://www.umfnw.org for several excellent ideas and quotes I used in this sermon. And, my thanks and deep appreciation for Eugene Peterson’s translation of selected verses from Acts 6 and 7;  “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”)

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

“We Must Obey God!”

“We Must Obey God!”

Acts 5-29 floral saying

Acts 5:12-29 – June 28, 2015

I remember an older documentary I saw on PBS about fifteen years ago, about classic comedy shorts. Tracing the history of comedy, I was introduced to a serious study of the silent comedy shorts of the teens and 1920’s. Including the Keystone Kops. I immediately recognized their wacky, incompetent ways as similar to other, more recent comedy acts I had seen. Running around, like chickens with their heads cut off. Bumbling, yet energetic, inevitably they would end up floundering around helplessly.

This reminded me so much of the Temple guards from our reading today.

You remember our Summer Sermon Series, from the book of Acts. Postcards from the Early Church. When last we left our intrepid heroes, Peter and the other apostles were regularly preaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. In the city center, getting lots of attention from all passersby. And especially getting negative attention from the Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin.

Peter and his fellow apostles remind me of some modern-day radicals—I mean, street preachers. People like those calling for a living wage, or like those advocating for wider access to decent education for all people, or those clamoring for clergy accountability for hidden sexual abuse. Even though the Jewish authorities told Peter and company to pipe down! The disciples refused to do so. Just like the modern-day street preachers protesting today.

Remember, last week I talked about how those pesky, persistent disciples were like the carnival game Whack-a-Mole? How they kept popping up, all over the place, no matter how much the Jewish leaders whacked at them? Here they are again, those pesky, persistent preachers. This resistance was serious! This was major disruption!

Of course the Jewish leaders and Temple police needed to round up these pesky, disruptive upstarts!

We pick up the narrative at verse 17 of chapter 5 of Acts: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18 They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” the angel said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.”

You heard it again, right here. An angel of the Lord supernaturally went into the prison by night, and miraculously released this group of men. (They probably all were men, in prison. Although, there were women disciples of the Risen Jesus, too!)

Next thing you know, the angel of the Lord told the disciples to continue to preach, and to continue spreading the good news. If I had just had an angel perform a miracle especially for me, chances are that I would listen to that angel, too!

Moreover, the disciples did not hightail it for the hills. Instead, they stayed put, in Jerusalem, and got right back in the thick of things.

Even though the Sanhedrin specifically told them NOT to preach any more, what do you think they are doing? You guessed it. They are out in the Temple again, and on the downtown street corners, preaching away. Telling everyone who would listen about the Risen Lord Jesus, the resurrected miracle-working Rabbi who rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty.

Despite being sternly told not to say a word about what had happened in Jerusalem in the past few weeks.

Now, let’s look at the flip side. The side of the Jewish leaders. Starting at verse 21: “When the high priest and his associates arrived [in the morning], they called together the Sanhedrin—the full assembly of the elders of Israel—and sent to the jail for the apostles. 22 But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 23 “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” 24 On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to. 25 Then someone came and said, ‘Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.’”

I can’t help but keep going back to the Keystone Kops! The Temple guards and Jewish leaders, who threw all these guys in prison. Even the bars and locked doors couldn’t hold the disciples! As one commentary said, the opposition—the priestly establishment—could not stop these determined preachers. The guards’ and leaders’ befuddled incompetence highlights how useless it is to oppose God and God’s purposes.

Rev. Daniel B. Clendenin preached a sermon on this text from Acts 5 a few years ago. He noted that “in July 2003, Dominican nuns Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, members of a peace community in Baltimore called Jonah House, were sentenced to 34 months each in federal prison for sabotaging the national defense and damaging government property. They had protested nuclear weapons by smearing a cross on a Minuteman silo with their own blood and pounding on it with hammers.”

Regardless of what anyone’s personal feelings about national defense may be, I can palpably feel how deeply these women believed in what they were doing. How they said, like Peter and the other apostles, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” How strongly theses nuns felt that these deadly nuclear bombs killed innocent civilians as well as opposition soldiers. Not just “collateral damage,” but individuals. Women, children, seniors, clergy, medical personnel. All creations of God, and all much loved by God. Just like all of us. Each one of us.

Did you hear? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” That’s how Peter and the other disciples responded to the Sanhedrin! That was their answer, and then they kept on preaching! They kept on spreading the Word of God!

The Jewish leaders desperately wanted to get these disrupters out of the way. But the public response and reaction to the outspoken disciples and their preaching—plus their very public miracles!—was overwhelming! The guards knew it very well, and they didn’t want to get hurt, or even stoned! Popular opinion? Very much in the disciples’ favor.

Looking at the present day, what is our situation? If we were to stand before a modern-day group of civic leaders, if we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?

Are we telling people about the Risen Jesus? Are we witnessing to His mighty power? Are we telling people of Jesus’ awesome, affirming, welcoming acceptance? Do we let people know about Jesus’ all-inclusive love?

We can see, again and again in the Gospels, Jesus loves everyone! The loose-living Samaritan woman at the well. Nicodemus, member of the Sanhedrin. The thief on the cross. The chronically unclean woman with the flow of blood. That chiseling, tax collector-turncoat Zaccheus. I think that message of unconditional love and acceptance, told to each and every person the disciples met, changed people’s lives. Changed people’s hearts.

I ask again—what about you, and what about me? If we were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Yes, we answer to God. And, yes, we offer each person Jesus Christ. His loving, welcoming embrace is ready, today! Are you? His life-changing message is here and now. Do you offer it freely, to everyone you meet?

God willing, I can. God willing, you can, too! Let us pray for the power, for the openness, for the willingness to share God’s good news. The Risen Jesus loves you. The Risen Jesus loves me. And He is ready to welcome all those who would come to the Family of God. In Jesus’ blessed, powerful name we pray, Amen!

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)