Tag Archives: Openness

Open

A Sermon for 26 May 2019 – 6th Sunday of Easter

A reading from Acts of the Apostles 16:6-15. We’re hearing of the travels of Paul, Silas, and Timothy today. Listen for God’s word to us.

“They went through the region of Phrygia (Fur-gee-ah) and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia (My-shah), they attempted to go into Bithynia (Ba-thin-ia), but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia (My-shah), they went down to Troas (Trow-as). 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 the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace (Sah-mah-throw-ass), the following day to Neapolis (Knee-ah-po-lis), and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia (Lid-dee-ah), a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira (Thigh-ra-tie-ra) and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Somewhere, I recently read the insight that if you look at every major disaster in the United States, you can see evidence not just of the terrible destruction we withstand as a people. But of the way we rise. The way we open ourselves to be our best selves among one another after such catastrophes. Think about 9/11 – a day that dramatically changed the world. Early in the morning as many of us were just starting work, the reports broke in. In an instant our sense of security as a nation came crashing down. And in the next instance, an overwhelming compassion for one another bubbled up in so many hearts. We knew ourselves connected as we hadn’t known the day before. We kicked in to help – donating time, talents, and money. We walked around a bit dazed, but a little bit more friendly to each other too. In a new way, we were open to the truth that we all are in this together. . . . Same thing happened in the Nashville floods of 2010. Some of you might have found yourself in a very dangerous situation. As the rain came down, so too did the defenses many of us often wear around our hearts. The disaster reminded this city, we all are in this together. Neighbor helped neighbor. Strangers provided for the needs of other strangers. Hearts were open to the pain each other was experiencing. In the midst of such destruction, it was beautiful to see all that loving-kindness spreading like a comforting blanket. From horrific mass shootings, to tragedy striking one of us individually. When life comes crashing down, something new often gets opened up.

That’s what happened to the Apostle Paul, who once was Saul. A man that vehemently, violently persecuted those who had started following the Risen Christ’s Way. A bright light on the road to Damascus blinded him. The Voice spoke. At last something new opened – an impact that dramatically altered the course of human history – as Saul became Paul with the same vehement tenacity he had before. It’s just that after the opening, he hunted instead for those with whom who he could share the good news of Christ! . . . At the start of our reading for today, we hear that Paul and the fellow followers Silas and Timothy had a whole itinerary mapped out. They wanted to go into parts of Asia. But they couldn’t. Instead in a vision, a man of Macedonia comes to Paul pleading for help (Acts 16:9). Paul heeded the message – he now was open to what God wanted. So immediately Paul set course to head in that direction. For the first time, the message about Christ was on its way into Europe. ‘Cuz Philippi was in the district of Macedonia which is a part of modern-day Greece.

Paul and his buddies had a typical pattern when they entered a new city. Usually on the Sabbath they would seek out a Jewish synagogue. They’d look for any circle or house of prayer where Jews would be gathered for Sabbath to give praise to God. For whatever reasons, the place of prayer Paul had learned about in Philippi was outside the gates of the city, over by the river. Maybe because there weren’t ten Jewish men of the city to constitute an official synagogue there. Open to finding those the man of Paul’s vision said were in need; Paul, Silas, Timothy and whoever else might have been with them were willing to venture this different course. . . . I wonder if they were shocked to find that it was a women’s prayer group they were intruding. In those days, men and women most often kept themselves separated. The world was divided into women’s work versus men’s. Male places of privilege and the typical spots of the women. In antiquity, whether they wanted to or not, women usually were obligated to keep to the home – seeing to the needs of however many family members lived there. Property of their husbands, it was suspect for women to converse with un-related men. In the spirit of Jesus who didn’t bother himself with such rules, the apostles don’t seem to care that it’s a women’s prayer circle they find that Sabbath day. Teachers sat to teach back then (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Paul W. Walaskay, p. 479). And the text clearly notes that “we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there” (Acts 16:13). They were open to teaching whoever might listen.

Someone else in this story was open – thank goodness: Lydia. She’s a fascinating woman. Way back then, before women’s suffrage, Lydia was a successful businessperson. The text makes no mention of a husband. In fact, it’s shockingly clear that she is in charge of her household; for when her heart is opened, “she and her household (are) baptized” (Acts 16:15). She is open to this new message and has the authority in her household to ensure they all receive the mark of commitment as well. Then, without seeking permission from any male relative, she invites this group of foreign men to come stay with her at her house – additional signs of her independence and wealth (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, David G. Forney, p. 476). She’d have enough to be able to provide for whatever they needed. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth – which likely means that she rubbed elbows with the elite. Purple cloth was costly. It was a sign of immense wealth because the dye to make cloth purple, came from secretions of sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean. Supposedly twelve thousand snails were needed to yield enough dye to color just the trim of a single garment. One could either take the laborious time to milk each sea snail day after day in order to collect each snail’s small yield of dye. Or one could crush the snails completely, which of course meant that business would be dependent upon fishing the next day for more sea snails all the while hoping the snails won’t become extinct. Either way, purple cloth was a luxury item. As one involved in such an elite trade, Lydia certainly must have led an interesting life! . . . One thing more we know about her was that despite any temptation to let her status go to her head, Lydia worshipped God. The word used in Acts to describe her indicates a Gentile who somehow had come to know of Judaism’s God. So she observed the Sabbath and offered her prayers. Maybe she had spent her life searching for something more so that her spirit is open to hear whatever these strangers have to say. She must have been so brave to even stick around when the unfamiliar band of men approached. Unhindered by fear or social customs or entrenched beliefs, she is eager to listen. She is open to whatever might come.

O for a world that lived each day like that! I mean wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun? Paul went to bed that night possibly a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to go to the next place he wanted to in Asia. Then God gives him a totally new direction when Paul hears the need of those somewhere he’s never yet considered: Europe! One biblical commentator reminds, “This was not where they had planned to preach the gospel, but by attending to the voice of God, they found a new and fertile ground to share God’s good news! (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 2, WJKP, 2018. Gary W. Charles, p. 267). And what about Lydia? Lydia got up that Sabbath probably thinking it was going to be like every other time she arrived to worship. When suddenly some strangers come along. The stories they tell about one crucified and risen, one filled with compassion, who was completely faithful to God’s mission of love – those strangers knew stuff she never could imagine! She too is reminded that “God takes the initiative in calling followers to go where God wills” (Ibid.).

A friend once sent me a text reading: “I wonder what the next crazy venture beneath the skies will be” (Anonymous). What an incredible attitude! What a great way to get up each day open to whatever God has in store. Maybe, like Lydia, one of us is supposed to open ourselves that a whole new ministry might begin in our midst. You know, she insisted the apostles come back to her home and thus began a joy-filled church in Philippi – the first one ever in Europe! . . . Open to whatever comes, we’re bound to know more joy. Open to God’s presence in our midst, we need not fear. Open to each new day, even open to each other, we can trust that somehow God can take who we are, what we have, and see to it that God’s will is accomplished in this world. . . . If it doesn’t come naturally, then we can pray. Acts indicates that it was the LORD who opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14). Can’t you just hear her daily praying: “Open me, LORD. Open me, LORD, to whatever you will this day!” . . . With this as our mantra, who knows what crazy venture beneath the skies will be next for us all!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

 

Belief Beyond Expectation

A Sermon for 8 July 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 6:1-6a.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, “Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Who do you call when your air conditioning goes out on the hottest day of summer – as mine did this week?  An HVAC technician, right?!  Where do you turn for help with a pain in your chest that squeezes tighter and tighter and tighter?  If not the ER, then at least your doctor!  What if you have quandaries about the Divine?  You might expect a pastor would be your best bet or an older, wiser friend in the faith.  . . .  Whether we realize it or not, we live according to a lot of assumptions.  We suppose particular people are best suited to help us with certain things.  We wouldn’t want a lawyer doing our open-heart surgery.  Or a plumber pulling our teeth.  How about a carpenter opening us to the mysteries of God?  It doesn’t quite fit with our expectations of the expertise required.  But sometimes the most unlikely of candidates can turn out to be the exact ones needed.

Early in my ministry when we were having a baptism in worship, sweet little Caitlin was being brought.  And man did that kid have lungs!  From the moment her parents got her from the nursery to be baptized until the moment they took her back out, that child was NOT happy!  She screamed throughout her entire baptism.  During the sacrament, we did all the usuals – including asking members of the congregation “do you promise to nurture this child in the faith?”  In that church, all the children were gathered up front for baptisms so we asked them to make promises too.  We questioned the peering children:  “Do you promise to be good church friends, loving Caitlin, and teaching her about Jesus?”  . . .  Well you know how it is when questions like that get asked in worship rituals.  We say aloud the words printed in the bulletin whether or not we whole-heartedly commit to nurturing the children of God.

The baptism proceeded.  Still screaming, baby Caitlin was handed over.  The water trickled down her brow.  The prayer, the blessing, Amen.  Caitlin’s parents and all the church’s children were released from the font.  . . .  Each week in that congregation, children didn’t stay in the sanctuary for the rest of worship but went to their own children’s worship in a classroom.  When the baptism ended, a stampede of about twenty three through eight year-olds was underway.  I went along, trying to wrangle the running children.  Outside the sanctuary door, I nearly knocked into 8 year-old Christopher.  He stood motionless, his back to me.  Heading down the hall, I instructed, “Come on, buddy, let’s go.”  He didn’t move.  “Christopher, come on,” I insisted.  Still no response.  I finally returned to where he stood, face to face with him.  His eyes were closed – nothing.  I stood there in front of him for a moment, preparing myself to have to handle some sort of excuse about why he didn’t want to go to Children’s Worship that day.  At last his eyes popped opened.  I asked:  “Christopher, are you okay?  It’s time to go to Children’s Worship.”  By that time, he and I were the only ones left in the hallway.  He finally said:  “I know.  I was just saying a prayer for that little baby.  She was crying so much I thought she needed a prayer right now.”  . . .  And a little child shall lead them, Isaiah records.  . . .  No sooner did Christopher tell me what he was up to, than he took off to Children’s Worship.  Meanwhile, I was left standing astonished by his instantaneous commitment to baby Caitlin.  He definitely took his “I do” seriously!  In my haste to smoothly chorale all the kids back to their classroom, I nearly missed it.  I wasn’t expecting such profound wisdom from one so fresh in the faith.

That’s kinda how it was another day long, long ago when folks had gathered for worship in Nazareth.  It was Sabbath rest in the synagogue.  Perhaps they were hoping the rabbi would have a reviving lesson that day.  But they didn’t quite get what they were expecting.  Instead their neighbor, Jesus, got up.  We have to remember that they knew him well:  the little boy who grew up down the street.  Mary and Joseph’s kid – the eldest of their clan.  According to the gospel of Mark, they were five boys and who can remember the scads of sisters.  Certainly, visions of the boy Jesus playing with other neighborhood children ran through the worshipers’ minds.  Some remembered the time the child got lost on the trip back from Jerusalem.  And likely other memories from Jesus’ childhood, his teens, and his twenties before the day Jesus went off the deep end.  Everyone back in Jesus’ hometown knew that not long ago, he ran out on the family.  Left his carpentry work to meet up with that rabble-rousing John the Baptist.  Out yonder in the wilderness John was stirring up a heap of trouble.  Proclaiming folks needed to repent for sins to be forgiven.  Even though they all knew that wasn’t the way sins got cleansed!  The gathered synagogue-goers knew that the Jerusalem priests make their sacrifices.  Their take on the situation was that Jesus had gotten messed up with that John guy and the next thing you know, he too was out shouting all sorts of stuff.  Like the kingdom of God being near.  Jesus had become a disgrace to his family – not to mention an embarrassment to his hometown, because, you know, no one wants to get on the map as the generators of the latest lunatic!  Those in the synagogue that day believed that Jesus had denounced his family that time they tried to take him home – away from crowds that believed he had gone mad.  He said his mother and brothers were the ones gathered with him – the ones doing the will of God (Mark 3:34-35).  Now here he was back in town.  Joining in Sabbath worship.  Yet, it wasn’t just some announcement about the up-coming mission project that he stood to make that day.  Rather, this lowly, un-trained carpenter got up to unlock ancient mysteries about God.  Indeed, no one expected that!  After all, assumptions about who does and who doesn’t know what run pretty deep.  If some completely unqualified handyman gets up to start teaching something new about God – something never before named – something revolutionary, like say a kingdom in which all the tables are over-turned.  Power, prestige, and privilege completely reversed!  Well, we might not be too keen on listening either.  . . .  Homeboy Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations.  So they shoo him off center stage.

How often do we do it?  How often do we miss the marvelous lessons of God because our minds already are made up?  We can’t imagine anything good coming from that kind.  So, instead of listening, we walk away.  Mumbling, “what do they know anyway?”  We keep ourselves comfortably in our pre-conceived worlds.  Not having to stretch too far.  Not opening ourselves to something different.  Because it’s scary, and it’s challenging, and to be honest:  too often, we’re too tired to try.  . . .  But faith requires openness.  Did you catch the chilling words at the close of the reading we heard today?  What a shame it would be if those words from Jesus ever found themselves pointed in our direction.  Mark 6:6a reads:  “And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  In fact, the gospel records that due to their unbelief, Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6:5).  Human beings have rebelled against the unexpected since the beginning of time.  All the while, at least according to what we learn from Scripture and from our own lives too if we’re paying attention; all the while, God has been using the unexpected to do the most marvelous of things.  From Father Abraham and barren Mother Sarah, to the scoundrel Jacob who becomes Israel, to that little exiled nation, to a child miraculously born to a betrothed young lady, to first followers who were totally unqualified in the eyes of the world.  Right down through history to you and me:  regular ole’ people who come together to worship the God whom Jesus embodies.  . . .  The double-edged, good news for us is that God does use the most unlikely of candidates.  The Apostle Paul once reminded that it’s the best way to see the unleashed power beyond us:  the strength of God, who always makes something out of what seems to be nothing.  Who turns death into new life.  And makes a way where there seems to be none.  For our part:  we’re asked to believe.  Which isn’t about accent to a certain set of facts.  We’re called to believe.  To trust.  To keep ourselves open to God.  For then, we just might have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the marvels of the God who works beyond all our ingrained expectations.  Changing the world of our lives one powerful deed at a time!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)