Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upside Down - Acts 17:1-9

After Paul and Silas has passed through Amphipolis and Appolonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite afternoon cartoons was Animaniacs. Who here remembers Animaniacs? It’s a cartoon about the Warner brothers and their sister, Dot. They live in the water tower at Warner Brothers studios, and just for run they run around the Warner movie lot. Every episode included a sort of “guest segment” that would rotate with each show, sort of like on Saturday Night Live you may intermittently see a spot featuring “Debbie Downer.”

On Animaniacs, my favorite recurring spot was “Pinkie and the Brain.” This was a spot about two laboratory mice who had been experimented on to the point that they were capable of some interesting thinking. Pinky, the one mouse, was quite goofy and seemed just a bit out-of-sorts. The other mouse, called “Brain,” turned out to be a global mastermind. There was one thing they were bent on doing each and every night, and this sole sense of purpose was captured in a dialogue that was part of the opening of every episode.

“Gee, Brain – what do you want to do tonight?” “Same thing we do every night, Pinkie, try to take over the world.” That dialogue sets up for us very clearly what these two lab mice were going to attempt to do in every episode. No questioning, no debating, just a single, unified vision. I wonder what it would look like for the Church to have that sort of clarity about its purpose. May we pray.

By this time, Paul and Silas had developed quite a reputation for themselves. These traveling preachers had worn out their welcome in just about every city they came to. Their pattern was always the same: show up in town. Preach Jesus in the synagogue. Get kicked out. Preach Jesus to the non-Jews. Convert some. Get run out of town. Sometimes the details of the story are a little different – sometimes there’s prison, sometimes there are new characters introduced, sometimes they’re run out after one week, or two or three – but this is their pattern.

It actually sort of reminds me of what used to happen to John Wesley and the early Methodist preachers. John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England his entire life. He never intended for the Methodist movement to break away from the Church of England, but hoped it would serve as a vehicle for renewal within the established Church. Even so, John Wesley’s brand of Christianity was a little too radical for some within the establishment. He records several instances in his journal of delivering a sermon in a particular congregation of the Church of England, and then being “uninvited” to preach there ever again.

Paul and Silas were also uninvited to preach in the Jewish synagogues, and this passage tells us exactly why. They were accused of turning the world upside down. Now, a side note here. Have you ever been wrongly accused of something? Or, has someone wrongly assumed they knew the motivation behind your actions? That’s incredibly frustrating. I think that’s what happened to Paul and Silas, at least in some regard.

Paul and Silas made the religious establishment nervous. A sort of “us-them” mentality always developed between the leaders of the establishment and Paul and Silas. It was seen as a power struggle between those who were already there – the guards of the old game, if you will – and these new up-and-coming disrespectful traveling preachers.

What’s interesting here, however, is Paul was one of their own. Paul was a Jew’s Jew – someone with the pedigree, education, and credentials to be a prominent rabbi, a prominent leader in the religious establishment, a guardian of the old ways of doing things. When it came to an impressive religious resume, Paul had it. He went to the right school, he knew his Bible inside and out, he knew all the rules (even the ones that contradicted all the other rules). In other words, when it came to being a Jew, Paul was all that and a can of Pringles.

But for Paul, there was more to it than that. Paul had also had a blinding encounter with the life-giving God. What’s interesting here is that Paul’s encounter with God did not erase his training, his education, his appreciation for his heritage or anything else on his religious resume. Paul, instead, saw all these factors pointing to the very truth that God revealed – that Jesus – the same Jesus whose followers Paul had been persecuting relentlessly, was the long-awaited Messiah who would reconcile the world back to God.

So when Paul and Silas showed up in a city, they had no intention of turning the world upside down simply for the sake of grins and giggles. They were there with a holy boldness to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, as God’s anointed, as the one who could heal their broken relationship with God. They went to the synagogue to share the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had actually come, and they wanted to give everyone there an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus just as they had. Just as John Wesley was trying to help the people of his day become better Christians by returning to their own heritage while moving into a new life-giving future with God, so Paul was trying to help the Jews of his day become better Jews by living into God’s new life-giving future that was based in the Scriptures and traditions they had so come to love.

“These people have been turning the world upside down!” That was the complaint. That was their reputation. Paul and Silas were known for one thing – turning the world upside down. Sure, that’s how it seemed to the leaders of the religious institution of Paul and Silas’ day. It seems to happen everywhere, in every society, throughout history. Movements spring up that are new, fresh, radical, and dynamic. But somewhere along the way, movements become institutions, and more time is spent maintaining that institution than remembering what it was designed to do in the first place.

I think what made the religious institution uncomfortable was the fact that Paul dared to suggest that God’s work was bigger then they were. The institution had come to view itself as the guardian of truth and dispenser of revelation, and Paul said, “Wait a minute – this thing that God is doing is bigger than me or you or any of us!” Because he knew his own history, Paul knew that his religious tradition had started as something much broader and grander than what it had become. He remembered back thousands of years, to a covenant made between God and Abraham. Over time, the Jews had come to understand and interpret this covenant as securing some sort of a privileged place among all people. But they had forgotten just what those privileges entailed. God had promised to make their name great and to make them a great nation – that much was true. But God also promised that through them all peoples on earth would be blessed. In other words, God was blessing them in order that they might bless others; their privilege carried with it great responsibility.

They were turning the world upside down all right, but the world needed to be turned upside down. And really, they were turning it right side up, but it had been backward for so long, it seemed strange and foreign to those who liked the world off-center.

Friends, when the world has been upside down for so long that it seems up is down, down is up, left is right, right is wrong, the world needs to be turned upside down yet again. But here’s the thing – if you read this passage carefully, you’ll notice it wasn’t the world as we commonly think of it that was being turned upside down.

In fact, the powers of the world were fairly uninterested in the whole thing. The government and civil authorities were really uninvolved until the religious leaders stirred things up. Look at this – it wasn’t even Paul and Silas who stirred things up! Things were going fairly well until the religious leaders went and found “marketplace ruffians” who stirred up a riot in the city, and then they took Paul and Silas to the government officials and said they were stirring things up, when in fact the religious leaders were the ones who got the riot going!

They were turning the world upside down all right, but it was the world of the religious establishment that was most threatened. It was a world that needed to be turned over.

Friends, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’d better be ready to turn some worlds over. That’s what we’re here for. In every generation, a revival is called for as we remember once again with freshness and boldness what we’re here to do. There are a whole lot of other things that churches can and do get involved in – many of them good, worthwhile, fun things. But if we’re not careful, those things can become more and more important and take more and more time away from what we’re here for in the first place. The Church can be known for a lot of things, but if we’re going to be known for anything, it better be because we’re transforming the world.

People will sometimes comment to me that they wish the Church would do this or that. My comment back is usually, “And what are you personally willing to do about it?” Sometimes we speak about the Church as if it were some nameless, faceless institution. But the Church is made up of people, it’s made up of you and me, and whatever I do, the Church does, and whatever you do, the Church does.

If you want the Church to transform the world – if you want the Church to turn the world upside down – allow me to make this suggestion: go ahead and transform the world and turn it upside down. Please don’t wait for permission. Please don’t wait for a comprehensive master plan to be unrolled. If God has placed something within you to do, just go ahead and do it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is someone who turned the world upside down. As he sowed the seeds for what became the civil rights movement, many in the religious establishment begged him to slow down. A group of church leaders in Alabama asked him for more time to get people used to the ideas he was proposing, to adjust slowly. It’s not that they disagreed with him, at least not openly. They wanted more time and a more gradual transition. But Dr. King simply said, “The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

You know that John Mayer song, “Waiting on the World to Change?” That song is the exact opposite message from the one we followers of Jesus should be listening to. In too many churches in too many places, too many people are simply sitting there waiting for the world to change. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting. Life is too short. I only have, at best, 60 more years to live on this earth. I’m 29 years old and almost dead, I don’t have time to wait for the world to change. I want to be part of changing the world, not sitting around waiting for the world to change. Like Paul and Silas, if people are going to accuse me of anything, I want them to accuse me of turning the world upside down.

How about you? If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’d better be ready to turn some worlds over. We’re sometimes reluctant, and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe we’re waiting for permission. Maybe we think our hands are tied by institutional structures. Maybe we think it’s not our problem. Maybe we don’t want to be accused of turning the world upside-down. But I’m telling you, whatever it is that God has put within you to do, please just go ahead and do it. We don’t have to wait. We have the Holy Spirit on our side, empowering us, enabling us, leading us to turn the world upside down, or really, right side up, for Jesus.

This morning, we baptized little Rowan. In her baptism, she is claimed as a child of God in the Christian family. In her baptism, the grace of God is poured out into her life. In her baptism, she is commissioned for ministry in the world. She is commissioned to turn the world upside down. Today we have said that she will be one who turns the world right side up for God. Today, we have all renewed our commitment to turn it right side up. In her baptism, she is commissioned for a life of radical service in the world. Our baptism is not about some spiritual cosmetic or a cute reminder of God’s presence in our lives. Baptism is something that changes our lives forever – in it, God says “This one belongs to me, and this one is going to be part of my plan to turn the world upside down.” In baptism, God has declared this truth about Rowan. In baptism, God has declared it about each of us, as well.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t about being polite or following the rules. It’s not about wearing the right clothes or following some arbitrary ethical standard of behavior. It’s not about believing the right thing or knowing the right secret handshake. It’s not about committee meetings or institutional structures or preserving the ways of days gone by. It’s not about excluding others to feel better about ourselves. It’s not about the building, it’s not about the budget, it’s not about the programs – it’s not about any of our own random stuff we so often try to make it about. It’s about doing everything in our ability and beyond our ability to turn the world upside down – to turn it right side up for God. It’s not some after I die, pie in the sky, sweet by-and-by sorta thing. Every week, we people of Christian faith pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Right here, right now. It’s time to start doing what we’ve been praying all along.

The Spirit doesn’t wait. The time is always ripe to do what is right. The world is just waiting to be turned upside down. It has often been said that when Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, he pointed to an upside down kingdom. The values of God’s kingdom are exactly the opposite of what had come to be expected as normal.

This is the kingdom of God! The ministry of Jesus is about righting every wrong, about letting the oppressed go free, about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, about declaring people who have been shut out by the kingdoms of the world to be embraced at the exact center of God’s kingdom, about turning the values of the world completely on their head, about spinning things so far that what seems to be turning things upside down is really turning them right side up. The will of God, the ministry of Jesus, is about restoring everything has ever been marred – most importantly, the relationship between God and humankind, and our relationships with each other. It’s the ministry of Jesus, and it’s the ministry of all those who claim to be his followers.

And just where are you supposed to transform the world? That’s a good question. There is so much to be done – where on earth do you start? Theologian Frederick Buechner says your calling in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need. In other words, find the intersection between what you love to do and what the world needs most.

We all need to stir up that calling from God that has been placed within each of us. We all need to find our purpose, and then be empowered to live out that purpose with holy boldness.

On your sermon notes, you might want to write the beginning of two sentences. The first is “My joy is . . .” The second is “The world needs . . .” Think and pray about these sentences and figure out your own answers to them.

We all have a ministry and calling, and we will find it where our greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.

Friends, if we’re going to be followers of Jesus, we need to be about the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that literally turned the world upside down. We don’t need to wait for permission, we don’t need to wait for gradual change, we don’t need to wait for the institutions to change. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of waiting. Life is too short. I’m 29 years old and almost dead; I don’t have time to wait for the world to change. I want to be part of changing the world, not sitting around waiting for the world to change. If people are going to accuse us of anything, I want them to accuse us of something that matters. I want us to be accused of turning the world upside down.

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