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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Loud Hosanna! (Luke 19:28-40)

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Palm Sunday is one of the great days of the church year. This is the day that we celebrate our Lord’s triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem. In those days, people from all the known world came into the city of Jerusalem. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, claimed that there would have been up to two million people in Jerusalem for the Passover in those years. That is probably an exaggeration. But at the very least we can say that hundreds of thousands of people would have been packed into the city.

Most Palm Sunday sermons focus on Jesus riding into the city. Other Palm Sunday sermons focus on the donkey – leaving no shortage of word plays at the creative preacher’s disposal, many of them involving one of my favorite words in the English language – a word that is both descriptive and incredibly useful. We know that Jesus rode a donkey as a symbol of humility and peace, to show the world that he was not like other kings, that he ruled not with might, but with love; not through war, but through peace. Others talk about the disciples, how they obeyed Jesus’ command to get the donkey and serve as an example of faithful obedience for us.

All of these would make a fine Palm Sunday for us, and in other years, you’ll probably get to hear sermons on these themes. But today, I want to talk about the crowd – that great multitude no one could number who lined the road from the Mount of Olives to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem. I want to talk about the people who waved palm branches, who laid their cloaks on the road, and who shouted, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But the same crowd would be shouting “Crucify Him!” before the week was over. May we pray.

Walker Percy once asked, “Why is it that when we see a photograph of a crowd the first thing we do is to look for ourselves?” When we look at a church directory or a high school yearbook or ESPN crowd shots, the first thing we do is look for ourselves.

When I was working on my degree at Duke, I went to every basketball game I could. During the games, I would often get calls and text messages from friends all over the country who were watching the game and had seen me. Sure enough, I would go home, pull up the recording of the game, and scan the crowd scenes trying to find myself.

This picture, titled “Rivalry in Blue,” was released while I was a student, and it shows Cameron Indoor Stadium right at tipoff in a UNC at Duke basketball game. Can you see me in the picture? Right there – blue shirt, white hat.

Something about us loves to see our face in the crowd. I don’t know why we do this, but we do, and it sets the stage for what we’re talking about this morning. We’re talking about the crowd on Palm Sunday, and there were lots of different people with different agendas in the crowd. But as we talk about the crowd, I invite you to look for yourselves among those who were there on that first Palm Sunday so long ago.

In the crowd, there were people who were curious. They were simply there in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. They weren’t there to see Jesus; they probably didn’t know anything about Jesus. Maybe they were just leaving the hotel or were finishing breakfast at IHOP or were traveling around the city, seeing the sights and enjoying the Passover festivities when they heard the commotion.

A parade! How marvelous! They checked the official Passover Program Schedule, but there was no parade scheduled for this time of day on this side of town. But there it was – a crowd of people lining the road, shouting “Hosanna in the Highest!” “What is going on?” they asked. Someone replied, “There is a rabbi named Jesus from Galilee coming into town. Some say he is the Messiah.” They hadn’t intended to see Jesus, but they were curious about the spectacle all the same.

They were sort of like Voltaire. Back in the 18th Century, Voltaire was one of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. He was not, however, a Christian. In fact, he had some pretty harsh things to say about the church. Yet, one day when he was walking down the streets of Paris, a church procession passed him. Who knows, it may have a Palm Sunday procession or for some other religious festival or feast. At the head of the march was the crucifer leading the way with the cross. As the procession passed, Voltaire stopped, took off his hat, and nodded. Someone in the crowd said, “Voltaire, are you now a follower of Christ?” He replied, “No, but we have a nodding acquaintance.”

Maybe that’s where you find yourself in the crowd this morning, curious, perhaps with a nodding acquaintance of Jesus. If you’re curious – welcome. This is a place where you don’t have to have it all figured out or have your mind made up about who Jesus is. Church is not only for those who follow Jesus, it’s for those who are curious or noddingly acquainted with him. If you are curious, I am glad you are here, but I need to forewarn you – you will likely find the message of Palm Sunday challenging.

In today’s scripture, as they approached the city, Jesus told his disciples, Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, The Lord needs it.’ What’s the deal with the donkey? Because the prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout, daughter of Jerusalem. Behold your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.”

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was intentionally fulfilling this prophecy and making his claim as Messiah. He made his claim not with words, but with action. He said to Jerusalem and to the world, “Behold, your king comes, and I am your king.” By riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was intentionally forcing an answer to the question, “Who you do you say that I am?”

We are forced to answer that question. The poet James Russell Lowell said, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Palm Sunday is not a day to be noddingly acquainted with Christ. Nor is this a day to be mildly curious. There comes a point in every person’s life when we must decide. On Palm Sunday, the time was at hand. Not with words but with action, Jesus says to Jerusalem and to the world, Either you will you receive me as the King of kings and the Lord of Lords, or you will crucify me.” But the choice is yours.

In addition to curious people in the crowd, there were also those who had made their decision and they were against Jesus of Nazareth. Our reading from St. Luke’s gospel says, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’” Jerusalem was an occupied city in those days. It was under control of the Roman government and army. You can’t just waltz into the city and claim to be a King! The political leaders will consider it an insurrection. The Romans will clamp down on us with martial law. The religious leaders would call it heresy. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” But Jesus said, “Even if my disciples were silent, the very rocks would cry out.”

I would like to think I’m with Jesus here. I’d like to think I’m one of the shouting disciples, leading the crowd in cheers of “Hosanna!”, looking at Peter, James, and John and saying “No rock is going to cry out in my place!” But the religious people were decidedly against him. I can’t help but wonder if that’s where my face would be in the crowd.

Jesus once said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:36). Old wineskins are hard and brittle. New wine breathes and expands, and pouring it into old and brittle skins will burst those skins, and both the skin AND the wine will be ruined. We need to be like new wineskins. We need to be flexible and pliable and shapeable to what God is doing. If I become so rigid in my traditions that I am no longer receptive to what God is doing in our midst in the here and now, if I become so entrenched in the old ways that I am no longer willing to accept the new, if I cling to the authority of the past while rejecting what Christ is doing in the present, then I am like the Pharisee who said, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” The thing that haunts me about Holy Week is that it was not the bad people who turned against him. It was the good religious people. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Before the week was over, the good religious people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover would be shouting “Crucify Him!” There were those in the crowd who were against him.

But, there were people in the crowd who were for Him. These were the people who laid their cloaks in the road. These were the people who waved palm branches. These were the people who shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They had made their decision – they were for him as the Lord and King – but they shouted for the wrong reasons.

In those days, the palm branch was a national symbol. We know this because coins that were made during the Maccabean revolt of Jews against Syrian Greeks show a palm branch on them. There are mosaic pictures of Hebrew soldiers with palm branches. In the crowd that day were those who cheered for a militant Messiah. They were watching and waiting and ready to start a rebellion. They were hoping for a certain kind of king – a king who would restore the kingdom of David, a king who would unite the country and bring down an army of angels and run the hated Romans out of the country, a king who would turn their country into a military superpower before which all nations would cower in fear and trembling.

Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” As Jesus came to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he wept, saying, “O Jerusalem, if only you had known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

There were those in the crowd who cheered for him, but for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t know the ways of God. They couldn’t see that his kingdom is of heaven, not of this world. Would my face have been in that crowd?

Whenever I am tempted to use Jesus Christ to justify my opinions, or my political views, or my agenda – when I am more concerned with my way than his way – when I reduce and abuse Christ to fit into my preconceived notions about how the world works, then I am like those who cheered for all the wrong reasons. Before the week was over, they would join those who were against Jesus, because they realized that he was not there to fulfill their agendas, but God had a different agenda. Before the week was over, they would also be shouting, “Crucify Him.”

Finally, there were those in the crowd who understood exactly what was happening. Earlier, the disciple Thomas had said to the others, “If he is going to Jerusalem to die, then let’s go die with him.” Thomas understood at least that much of it. After his death and before they realized his resurrection, two travelers on the road to Emmaus said to a stranger, “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” They understood the message of redemption and salvation. Mary Magdalene loved him so much that she refused to leave his side when the other disciples fled and hid; she understood it wasn’t about using and abusing Jesus to promote a political agenda. It was about the forgiveness of sins and the amazing self-giving love of a Savior. There were those in the crowd who understood. They understood Jesus’ message, they realized the true cost of God’s love and grace, they understood the sacrifices they would make to be his followers. I don’t know about you, but I want to find my face among that group in the crowd.

Today there are Christians around the world marching and shouting “Hosanna!” and raising their palm branches high. With join with them and countless believers through the ages – a great cloud of witnesses with whom we are partners in praise. This is a day to proclaim Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of our lives. This is a day to follow Christ instead of telling Christ to follow my agenda. This is a day not to allow our fears and blind religious traditions to keep us from seeing the new things God is doing in our midst. This is a day to move from being mildly curious about Jesus to committing ourselves as his followers. There are plenty in the crowd who will end up shouting, “Crucify Him,” but I hope and pray that we will not be among them.

This is a day to commit ourselves to what God is doing in our world today. Today is a day to cheer for the right reason – our Lord and Messiah has come to us and we belong to him.

There were those in the crowd that day who were ready to follow Jesus to the end. There were those who were willing to lay down their lives with him. There were those whose lives had been changed by his love and who wanted to give him the honor that he is due. I don’t know about you, but I want my face to be in that crowd. I want to be among those lifting our palm branches and saying, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Evangelist (Acts 16:1-10)

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen to vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focus has been on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. We have been looking at various chapters in his life, learning about the man for whom this church is named, and discovering what we can learn about our lives by examining his. Three weeks ago, we looked at St. Paul the persecutor – he was trying to destroy the church. Then, he was St. Paul the converted – he had a blinding encounter with God, and his life was changed. Then, he was St. Paul the ordained – he was set apart for a great and important task. Today, we conclude the series with St. Paul the evangelist. So a man of violence against God was transformed into a missionary for God, and the world was changed forever. May we pray.

Early in his ministry, Billy Graham arrived in a small town. He had several letters to mail, and asked a young boy where the post office was. The boy gave him clear directions, and Dr. Graham thanked him. He said, “If you come to the church tonight, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven.” The young boy thought for a moment and said, “No, offense, Mister, but you don’t even know how to get to the post office.”

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time in the car. I’m driving to meetings, to the hospitals, to your homes, to restaurants and coffee shops for more meetings. It’s not as bad as when I was living in Boone, in which I was averaging about 30,000 miles per year, but I drive a lot.

I like to know where I’m going. One thing I hate is being lost. Not to reinforce too much of a stereotype, I also don’t like to ask for directions. However, when I moved to Charlotte, I didn’t have the ins and outs of the city in my head yet. I felt like friends from out of town who got lost. You’ve all gotten this phone call: “I’m lost!” I’d say, “Where are you?” “I dunno, let’s see, Queens Road.” I start to laugh. “Where on Queens Road? And, which Queens Road?” The response: “Well, there are big trees, big houses, and a church.”

For Christmas, Ashley got me a GPS. A pleasant female voice directs me turn-by-turn from here to there. It tells me the Speed Limit, it shows a map with my car right in the middle of it, it estimates what time I will arrive, it alerts me to traffic situations ahead and suggests alternate routes – it’s great.

Now, here’s the funny thing – never before have I been so willing to take directions from someone else in the car. Garmin says, “In 500 feet, turn right on Elm Street,” and I find myself saying, “OK! I will!” I have developed a sense of trust in this device to get me from here to there, to lead me through unfamiliar and uncharted territory, and to show me the way to get where I want to go.

All this got me thinking. In his evangelistic journeys, St. Paul had to trust God the same way I trust my GPS.

When we meet St. Paul in today’s text, he has his entire journey mapped out. He has put together a pretty aggressive strategy to take the Gospel to the cities of lower Asia Minor – what we would know as southern Turkey. St. Paul has been set apart with prayers and laying on of hands, and now he is spreading the Good News of the kingdom of God. He is preaching and teaching the way of Jesus with great success. He is introducing people to Jesus, and their lives are being changed because of it.

Before we go any further, this is a pretty good place to get some definitions in order. Evangelism is, quite simply, introducing people to Jesus. The Greek root of this word simply means “good news.” For various reasons, the terms “evangelism” and “evangelical” have gotten quite tarnished in our society. Some of that has to do with the methods of evangelism used by different groups – methods that seem to have no good news in them but are based on fear and intimidation, methods that are more like a sales pitch than about the kingdom of God, methods that care more about the number of conversions ratcheted up by the presenter than about the person with whom the so-called Gospel is being shared.

When I use the term “evangelism,” I mean none of these usages. Evangelism is simply, as one person has put it, “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Evangelism is announcing the reign of God. Evangelism is, first and foremost, about introducing people to Jesus.

By its very definition, the church is evangelical. The church is not only charged with proclaiming the message of Jesus in the world, the church is the physical presence of Jesus in the world. Think about that! We are charged with being the presence of Christ in the world! We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world! Our very existence is evangelical! God has commissioned the church to be the presence of Christ in the world, and poured out the Holy Spirit on us so that we can. The only reason we exist is to tell the good news of Jesus Christ, and to be the good news of Jesus Christ! We have no purpose other than that!

Evangelism and mission are like two sides of the same coin, and both are absolutely essential to the church’s existence. Evangelism and mission are not something the church does, they are what the church is. Mission is to the church what combustion is to fire. Evangelism is the church what wet is to water.

A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be evangelical! A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be absolutely obsessed with missions! A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be consumed with those who are, as of yet, outside our walls!

As we look at today’s text, several things jump out. First, Paul invested in Timothy. Paul arrived in Lystra, and he made a personal investment in the life of Timothy. Though he was young, he showed great promise, he was well-regarded by others in the church, and Paul invested in him.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a young man named Rob Lee. Rob is 17, a junior at Statesville High School, and the youngest certified lay-speaker in the Western North Carolina Conference. He has been preaching since he was 15. I am one of his mentors – I have made a personal investment in his life. I see the promise in his life, and I am making an investment in him because of the impact I know he will leave on the church. I hope that he makes a bigger mark on the world than I ever will – that will be the greatest sign of good mentoring on my part. You will all get a chance to hear him preach here on April 18.

Every Paul needs to seek out a Timothy. Every person needs to seek out someone to mentor, to nurture, to train, and to invest in. I am who I am today because of people who invested in me along the way; it is incumbent upon all of us to find someone to whom we can pass that along.

One of the curious parts of this text is when Paul is prevented from preaching in Asia. “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

Really? God didn’t want them to go and spread the message in certain parts of the world? What was up with that? Some have offered theories that God deliberately chose to neglect some parts of the world, but that’s not accurate. Some have said that God was powerless in those parts of the world – also inaccurate.

What’s going on here is that this particular travel itinerary was Paul’s, but not necessarily God’s. Going to these cities at this particular time was part of Paul’s plan, but not God’s. This can be one of the greatest frustration points in church life everywhere. At times, it seems we work away on plans and projects, but we keep hitting walls. When this happens, it’s because we are following our own plans before seeking God’s.

What did we learn last week? What statement should be over the door of every church? “IT’S NOT ABOUT ME!” It’s about God! So often, what we do in church work is begin to put our plans together and then ask God to bless them. Instead, what we need to do is take a step back and seek God’s will together. Sometimes we have to discern the places God is already at work or desires us to be at work, and then align our resources to be a part of that. Yes, God gives us abilities and faculties, and God expects us to cultivate those things to God’s glory. But t’s not about what we can do on our own, it’s about what God can do in and through us. It involves dedicating ourselves to God, and then asking God to put us to work wherever and however God chooses. When our work is aligned with God’s will, there is no limit to what we can do. But how do we figure out God’s will? How do we discern that? We need to have some dreams and visions, of course.

Paul had a vision. Having been prevented from taking his work to certain cities in Asia, he has a vision of a man in Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” If we are going to discover the will of God and then align our time and resources with it, we need to have some time to dream and have visions. We need to seek the presence of God, and we need to listen for the things God is telling us to do.

If any church is going to reach its potential, there need to be some people having God-sized dreams. We need to be devoted to prayer, to humbling ourselves in God’s presence, and to being open to what God has to say.

When people say certain things, it’s a sure sign that their dreams aren’t God-size, and their dreams shouldn’t be the ones dictating the future of the church. Listen for some of these: “We don’t have that kind of money.” The God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills doesn’t have a cash flow problem! If God gives us the vision to do it, God will provide the resources to see it through.

“That could mess up the building.” The building is a tool for ministry – it is not a monument to ourselves or previous generations. It is not a museum of religious artifacts – it is the place we use as our staging ground for the work to which God has called us in the world.

Years ago, Christ United Methodist Church outside Hickory prepared to move into the $2 million first phase of a new building. The Sunday they moved in, Charles Kyker began his sermon by walking out into the middle of the floor with a cup of coffee in his hand. He turned the cup upside down and dumped it onto the brand new floor. He looked around and said, “We’re not going to worry about stains in the carpet around here. We’re going to worry about the impact of God on people’s lives. This building is a tool, and if we have to use it up because people have encountered God and experienced change in their lives, that’s the price we’re willing to pay.” Since then, the worship attendance at Christ Church has grown from 150 to over 2000.

We have to seek God’s will. We have to humble ourselves in God’s presence. We have to seek God’s vision and discern what God is calling us to do. But then, we actually have to do it.

Having received a vision, Paul acted. Paul went to Macedonia. He set foot in Europe for the first time because God had called him to go. He didn’t say, “I’ve never done that before,” or “I can’t do that because we’ve always done it this way.” God told him to go, and he went. He didn’t sit still. He didn’t put a sign out front, and hope people would come in. He went. Wherever the people were, he went. I have been brought in to consult with struggling churches. One of the first things I ask about is their evangelism strategy. They say, “Well, we have that nice sign out front, and that lets the community know we’re here.” Friends, that used to be true, but it’s not anymore. Up until about fifty years ago, you could put up a building, put a sign out front designating it as a church of some denomination, and the Christians of that flavor would just show up.

It stopped working that way, if it ever really did, about fifty years ago. We can’t just sit here and hope people will come to us. The best signage and egress will not bring people to know Jesus through the ministry of this church. We have to get outside the walls and go to where the people are.

When Jesus called the first disciples, what did he call them to do, but to be fishers of men! Jesus calls his followers – then and now – to fish for people. Everything hinges on this. The building, the money, the programs, the committees – it’s all about making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Yet, how many churches have you seen and perhaps even been a part of that get this backward. Jesus calls us to be fishers of men, yet how many churches operate as if they are keepers of the aquarium? If they engage in mission and evangelism at all, it’s simply to take care of the institution they have built called church. You know how these conversations go. “We need to bring in more members so we can meet the budget.” “We need to engage in more mission projects so we can fill out an increase in missions on our year-end paperwork.” “We need to bring in more members so we can have leaders to run these tired old programs that don’t matter and that no one is interested in, yet no one has the guts to shoot and put out of their misery.”

I even know of some churches that treat missions and evangelism like optional, lowest priority programs at the end of the budget – the sort of things that we’ll support after all the other expenses are taken care of, if there’s anything left over. Those two things are essential to our very existence, those are our first priority! God wants you to invest in the things that matter. God promises to take care of those temporal institutional sort of things when we are willing to put our time and resources into the places where they really matter?” Seek first the kingdom of God, and then all these things shall be added unto you.

Friends, we are not called to be keepers of the aquarium; we are called to be fishers of men, women, and children! And yes, I understand that there are all sorts of things that keep the church from doing just that.

Sometimes we fail to do this because of fear. Sometimes the church, as an institution, is set up to operate for maintenance and not mission. Sometimes we make church more about us than about God. Sometimes our feet are headed in the wrong direction. Sometimes we are prideful and lack concern for other people. Sometimes we love all the vain things that charm us most, and fail to discern God at work.

Yet, for a church named St. Paul, this is not an option. St. Paul was the early church’s greatest missionary and evangelist; the Spirit of God worked within him to move beyond himself out into the world. For a church named St. Paul, if we want to embody the spirit of the man for whom we are named, we have no choice but to reach beyond ourselves with the same missionary zeal. Jesus’ primary mission was to seek and save that which was lost, St. Paul’s primary mission was to spread the light of Jesus in the world; in light of this, our mission could not be clearer. We are not here for ourselves – we are here to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world around us.

We are called to evangelism. We are called to share the love of God in Christ with the world around us. So here’s your challenge. Two weeks from today is Easter Sunday. Easter is the central hope of our Christian faith, everything we do, everything we are hangs on Easter. Easter is the most important day in the church’s calendar. It is the day of our greatest hope, and on Easter Sunday, our worship service will proclaim the hope that we experience through Christ’s resurrection.

But, since we are called to evangelism and to share the good news with the world, on Easter Sunday, your challenge is to bring someone with you. Whatever the worship attendance is today, I expect it to be at least double on Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday, every one bring one.

Think of one person you would like to bring with you on Easter Sunday. Begin praying for that person and then next week, we will have some invitation cards prepared for each of you to take to the person you’re inviting. The same cards will be mailed to homes in our immediate neighborhood. Begin praying for the person you will invite, take a card next week, hold that card, pray for the person’s heart to be open, and then hand deliver the invitation to them before Easter Sunday.

St. Paul experienced God, and his life was transformed. He was set apart for a great work, and became a great missionary and evangelist, making deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ wherever he went.

In 1948, a group of believers organized this congregation as St. Paul United Methodist Church. I pray that the same spirit of zeal for those outside ourselves will consume us, and we will be obsessed with spreading the love of God, being the hands and feet of Christ, and that we will continually see the Holy Spirit poured out upon us and upon the world in which we serve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Ordained (Acts 13:1-12)

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Selucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them. When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. But the magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen – the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for awhile, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focus is on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. Each week, we’re focusing on a different chapter of his life, learning about this man for whom this church was named, and finding out what his life means to us today. We have talked about St. Paul as persecutor of the church, St. Paul converted on the road to Damascus, and next week, we’ll talk about St. Paul the evangelist. But today, we’re talking about St. Paul the ordained.

Let’s recap where we’ve been. Two weeks ago, Paul, who was also known as Saul, was persecuting the followers of Jesus. He was a Pharisee – a Jew’s Jew, and he thought the followers of Jesus were committing the greatest heresy possible. Last week, he was on his way to arrest Christians in the city of Damascus, when he had a blinding encounter with God on the road, and his life was changed. So Saul, the greatest enemy of the church, became one of its most influential leaders. So it was that Saul was transformed from a man of violence into a missionary for God. May we pray.

Saul is now settled in with the believers in Antioch. The church there seems to have been blessed with leadership – the text names five men who were prophets and teachers. A true prophet of God is one who can speak God’s truth in such a way as to convict God’s people and lead them to change; a true prophet leads people to follow God more faithfully. Teachers are those with the gifts to patiently nurture people in the ways of God. Would that every church were so blessed with such leadership!

They were together in worship. It was in humbling themselves together before God's presence, and seeking His will together. They became one when they were in worship. It is the same for us as well.

Worship is central to who we are and what we do. But, what is worship? Quite simply, it is ascribing worth to something or someone. So when we worship God, we are saying that God has worth. With all the other things we could be doing with our time and our resources, we are saying that God gets the priority. We praise God. We speak, we sing, we share about how good God is, about how God is worthy, about how God and God alone deserves our praise.

But the Bible speaks of worship in other terms as well. In both Greek and Hebrew, two kinds of words are used for worship. The first kind of word means to bow down, to kneel, to put one’s face to the ground as a sign of submission and respect. Our body language says, “I will do whatever you want me to do, Lord. I am ready to obey, and I am listening.”

Yet, how many Christians come into worship with their own agendas. Indeed, in many services of so-called Christian worship, it’s about everything else but God. It’s about personal tastes and preferences – “I don’t like this kind of music or that kind of music” or “I don’t like what the preacher is wearing,” or “I don’t like what’s in the sanctuary or not in the sanctuary,” or “I don’t like it when this happens in worship or when that doesn’t happen in worship.” In too many places, worship has become more about people’s personal preferences than about bowing low in submission to the will of God.

Over the door of every Christian church in the world should be these words: “IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.” God is the center of the universe – not us – and our lives reach their fullest potential when we honor and submit to God. Our churches reach their fullest potential when we do the same thing. Have you noticed the difference when the church becomes what it was meant to be and exists as a Spirit-driven, God-focused, Christ-shaped body of believers? How energizing and life-giving that is, the way it gives shape and purpose and meaning to everything we do? How much it matters when God is at the center?

But, have you noticed what happens when God is not at the center of a church’s life? When God is not at the center, a vacuum is created, and nature abhors a vacuum. When God is not at the center of our lives and at the center of our church, all sorts of other things rush in to fill that vacuum. Agendas, personal preferences, and human institutions try to occupy the top spot, and we will watch all these things grapple and topple with each other like schoolchildren playing king of the hill. If God is not our center, then we will never reach our potential. Potential is that thing within us about who we can be and become, about the lasting mark we will leave on the world. But we can and will reach our God-given potential if we will pause, place God at the center, and remember to worship God above all else.

Going back to those Greek and Hebrew words for ‘worship,’ roughly half the time they are translated in that way of bowing down. The other half of the time, they are translated as “service,” meaning that worship is something we do for God. It means serving God, carrying out God’s instructions. Praise is good, but if all we ever do is praise God, without listening to God, we have to ask ourselves if we believe the words we are singing and saying. If we say God is all wise and all loving and all powerful and all that, then we need to be attentive to what God is telling us, because certainly such a God is worth listening to. If we want to know and carry out God’s instructions, we have to listen for them.

It is important here when the Holy Spirit said to the church "choose out for me Barnabas and Saul." In the midst of worship and prayer the church believed they had heard the word of and will of God.

We refer to this book of the Bible as the Acts of the Apostles, but I think it might be more appropriate for us to refer to it as the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Time and time again, the story is recounted for us of what the Holy Spirit did – through the apostles, certainly – but make no mistake here, it was the Holy Spirit who served as primary actor in the drama.

It all started in worship. In worship, they were all together. Depending on your translation, this is the place Japanese cars are mentioned in the Bible. Don’t believe me? Some translations will say, “While they were all together in worship,” but other translations might say, “They were all in one accord.”

It starts in worship – where people gather to praise God, to listen to God, and then to do something in relation to what they have heard from and experienced of God. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

And so it was that St. Paul and his partner in the Gospel, Barnabas, were ordained. Ordination is that act of setting certain persons apart for the work of the Gospel. It begins in worship, it proceeds with a call from the Holy Spirit, it is discerned and confirmed by a community, representatives of the church lay hands on heads and offer prayers and then we are sent off – out into the world – across the globe and across the street to join in sharing the good news that the kingdom of God has come near.

The verb, “to ordain,” comes from the same Latin root as “to order,” and it means basically the same thing. Ordination is, presumably, about putting things in the right order.

As a pastor, people sometimes ask me to describe my call into ministry, and they are often surprised at my response. I don’t remember the day, but I know the day I first received my call into ministry. A certificate in my home reminds of this day when God first called me into ministry. It was November 11, 1980, and I was exactly 7 months old. I was first called to ministry at my baptism.

Ordination is about getting things in the right order, and we all need to get some things in the right order. At his baptism Jesus experienced his call. From that time forward the world knew that he was grasped by God’s spirit and that God was calling him to unique service, and God was setting him apart. And God said, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I will always be with you."

At baptism, God claims each of us. Baptism is a time when God claims us, places a mark on us, if you will, as members of the family God. Did you know that I have never performed a Methodist baptism? It’s true. Baptism claims people as Christians in the name of God, not as members of a particular denomination. There is no such thing as a Methodist baptism, or a Baptist baptism, or a Lutheran baptism, or a Presbyterian baptism, or a Catholic baptism, or a Biblical baptism. There is only one baptism – a Christian baptism. Baptism claims each of us as belonging to God in Christ.

You all remember several years when the Harry Potter craze hit. I had several people who wanted to know what the church’s stance on Harry Potter was. Some were concerned that Harry Potter was going to teach impressionable children about witchcraft and sorcery. Now, Harry Potter is a great story that teaches a whole lot of other things about life, and coming of age, and difficult family circumstances, and meaningful relationships and friendships; how evil it is depends on how evil you choose to make it.

You may remember that in the story, Harry is scarred on his forehead as an infant, and that because of that scar, or that mark, he has a very specific role in overcoming the forces of evil. In that mark, a claim is made on his life. If you can understand that, then you can understand the similar way God marks us and claims us as His own in baptism. Baptism seals us with a new identity as God claims us as members of His family. As God did with Jesus, God looks at each of us and says, “This is my beloved daughter.” “This is my beloved son.” Baptism marks the beginning of a brand new life that belongs to God.

But beyond claiming us, baptism commissions us. Baptism is a call to ministry. Every person who has been baptized has been called into ministry. You can’t be a Christian from the sidelines. You have to live the life God has called you to lead—a life of healing the sick, and welcoming the stranger, and feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked—a life of sharing the good news anywhere and through every means you can.

Everyone is called to ministry! It’s not only pastors or teachers, missionaries or evangelists or so-called professional ministers who are in ministry. Now we can truly embrace St. Peter and Martin Luther’s ideal of “the priesthood of all believers.” The unspoken contract between pastor and congregation can be re-written, for we are all called to ministry, all called to serve God daily and wholeheartedly.

But beyond the general call to ministry that we all experienced at baptism, there is another call.

Ordination is an act of setting a person apart, but it is not an act of setting them above. The Holy Spirit sets men and women apart to order the life of the church, to be shepherds, to care for the flock, to care for the temporal needs of the congregation, to lead the congregation in mission, to bring people closer to God. The pastor does not deliver the truth – that’s the job of the Holy Spirit. The pastor gathers us and helps us to develop theological language to describe and re-describe our lives. The pastor reminds us that we are a royal priesthood, that we are the body of Christ. Within the body, we all have a role to play. Every member of the body matters, whether ordained or lay. This is not authoritarianism but cooperation.

Ordination is about setting persons apart for specific functions in the body of Christ. I was ordained to ministries of Word, Service, Order, and Sacrament. God has set me apart to preach and teach the Word of God, to lead the congregation in service and mission, to provide leadership for ordering the life of the church, and to celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, these are my roles.

What I want you to notice about all of these things is that they have absolutely nothing to do with me. These things are about being and communicating the presence of God in the world. They are about announcing the reign of God, they are about being the channels through which God’s grace is shared freely and abundantly in a broken, bruised, and hurting world.

Friends, I have no idea why God chose me for such a task. I’m nothing special – I’m just me. But while I was working on this sermon earlier this week listening to Pandora Radio, the song “Take a Chance on Me” came on. Yep, I was rocking out to ABBA. But I got to thinking, why would God take a chance on me? I’m broken, I’m flawed, I have my failings and shortcomings – surely there are others better-qualified for the job than me. But then, why would God want to take a chance on St. Paul? He was a sexist, racist, elitist, bigot. He certainly had his own neuroses, and was, in every sense of the world, a cracked clay pot. And I realized that if God was willing to take a chance on someone like St. Paul, then maybe God would be willing to take a chance on someone like me, as well.

And really, it’s not about God taking a chance on St. Paul, or on you, or on me, or on us as a church. It’s about God setting us apart and pouring out the Holy Spirit upon each of us to accomplish the work of God in the world. It’s not about me. It’s about God.

These things all remind me that I belong to God – that my life is not my own but God’s. And so every Sunday, when I put on this robe and place this stole – this symbol of ordination – around my neck, I am reminded that I do not belong to myself. I belong to God. I am reminded that I have been set apart for a specific role within the body of Christ. This stole weighs heavily with the solemn and sacred duties I am called to perform.

I remember the night of my ordination – both the culmination and confirmation of God’s prompting and, at the same time, the unfolding of a wonderful and mysterious journey in leading and serving this thing called church, this thing Jesus loved so much and for which he was willing to die. The highlight of the ordination service is the bishop laying hands on each ordinand, calling them by name, and calling for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon each. I remember how heavy those hands felt when they went down on the top of my head. Then, other hands were added – on my shoulders, on my back, including the hands of my father behind me – hands that pressed down with the weight of a great cloud of witnesses willing to give their all for the cause of Christ.

I am well aware that I am a little extreme or a little fanatical, a little too impatient with mediocrity, a little intolerant of people’s petty and private agendas, a little too focused, and a little too driven to see the church live into its God-given potential. So be it. I am simply not willing to give my life to the maintenance of mediocrity. I refuse to believe that God sets any of us apart so we can simply come and play church. I am almost 30 years old and only have 60 years or so left on this earth – I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to play church. I have given my life to this because I believe it matters.

Paul was set aside in worship. When the community was all together – when they were all on the same page, when they had agreed that God was at the center of their existence, that other agendas wouldn’t shear them away from the work God had for them, that God was in charge and not anyone’s pettiness or personality – the Holy Spirit spoke and set Paul apart. I have to wonder, if we do the same thing, who and what will be set apart in our midst? I have to wonder, how will the world be changed because of it?

It all began in worship. It began in praising God, in listening to God, and then going out into the world to do the things God tells us to do. Can we say the same thing? Has worship changed us? Have we felt called to do, or be something other than what we were when we came in? Or, have we come week after week and left pretty much unchanged? If so, nothing could be sadder.

This morning, I am inviting you to allow worship to leave its mark on you. Today, our worship is going to conclude with a healing service. What I realize is that we all stand in need of healing. At different times, we may need healing in our body, in our mind, in our spirit, or in our relationships. At times, we feel broken and incomplete. We all need healing.

Laying on of hands is a powerful symbol. It is a symbol of ordination. It is a symbol of healing. It is a symbol of commissioning us to ministry. And each and every time, it is the Holy Spirit at work. This morning, as you come forward to receive the laying on of hands for healing, I pray you feel the Holy Spirit at work in all areas of your life. I pray we all feel the Holy Spirit at work in our church. And I pray that we will all be sent forth from this place to share healing freely and abundantly with a broken and hurting world.