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May 25, 2016, 9:05 AM

Hope in Hard Times

by Sandy Bach

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

Five verses.  Five short verses that are chock-full.  We could spend weeks unpacking it.  Five verses that offer us insight into this community we call the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So where should we begin?

Perhaps we could talk about justification by faith.

We would begin with Jesus’ time on earth teaching and modeling God’s love.  Because of his death and resurrection, we know and trust that we have been made right with God.  We can depend on that and know that the Spirit is working in and through us to transform our lives.

Perhaps we could talk about peace.

Being made right with God means that we have real peace with God.  Real peace is what happens when God sees us as whole.  Others may scoff, but we don’t care.  Their opinion doesn’t matter.

Real peace is also an action.  It’s what we work at each day of our new lives, actively communicating with God and learning to build and sustain our relationship with God.

Real peace is also an action when we seek to understand and serve our neighbor.  It’s noticing people around us and, in Tony Campolo’s words we, “see Jesus in their eyes.”  It’s serving God by serving those in need.  It’s praying daily.  It’s smelling the roses despite your hectic day.  It’s being a right model for our children.

We have been made right with God; our relationship is intact because of God’s activity on earth.  Being made right grants us real peace to become the authentic man or woman or child that God created us to be.

Perhaps we could talk about grace: freely given, unearned and irresistible.  Grace that flows from the father as a gift.  Grace that enters into our lives unexpectedly to remind us of God’s great love for us.  Grace that surprises us by making the crooked straight; making us right with God.

And so, we boast in our hope.  Not the chest-pounding boast of those too full of themselves.  No, this is rejoicing, giving thanks being joyful at what we have to look forward to.

So far, we've read about God who entered the world as a vulnerable baby, crawled up on that cross and claimed victory in death.  All so that we can be right with God and ourselves.  We accept this offer through the gift of faith.

But, wait, Paul says.  There’s more.  And we sit on the edges of our seats waiting for more.

When “more” arrives, we run for cover.

We also boast in our sufferings, Paul writes.

Really?  We boast in our trials and tribulations and sufferings?  This is the part I’d like to skip, if you don’t mind.  Not the talk of hard times; the hard times, themselves.

What does that boasting look like?

Perhaps it means we can waylay that good friend at the grocery store who makes the mistake of asking you, “How are you doing?”  Then we make sure they know how awful life is, that no one knows the trouble you’ve seen, that nothing is going right in your life.  But, of course, you’re not complaining.  (At that point, your friend rolls her eyes.)

Wrong, says Paul.

So, perhaps when someone asks us how we’re doing, we should have a stiff upper lip.  Through gritted teeth tell them things couldn’t be better, that you’ve never had it so good.

No, that’s not the boasting Paul is talking about.

Then what is it?  What does he mean by boasting?  That’s where we have to look at context.

This letter was written in a part of the world where shame was something society did to disgrace those who didn’t go with the flow.  Christians of that day were a combination of Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and gentiles who left behind their multitude of gods to worship Christ.

People did then what we sometimes do today.  They tried to shame them and guilt them into returning to the common practices.  When guilt and shame failed, oppression and affliction increased.

It was hard being a Christian in first century Rome, especially for those whose living in cultures that kept their communities in line with shame.   If you’ve ever been bullied, you know how it feels.  The bully wins the fight by out-talking you, winning the argument and then shaming you for not agreeing with him or her in the first place.  That’s the kind of shame Paul is writing about.

Paul says that when bad things happen, this isn’t a time for putting on sack cloth and ashes.  This isn’t meant to put one to shame.  Rather, he points out a different response to suffering: Don’t waste it.

Peter L. Steinke wrote in his book, “Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach” says that “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted by a source of life and health.”[i]

If anyone knew about suffering and affliction it was Paul.  Beaten countless times, imprisoned, criticized and rebuked, he knew about endurance and character and hope.  He didn’t view suffering as something to be pursued; it wasn’t even something desirable.  Yet, he also believed that to duck and run is a waste of time and energy.

Times of intense struggle are opportunities to seek out and feel on a deeper level the presence of God: a deep sense of God living within you and walking with you.  After all, if you’re going to have to walk through that refiner’s fire, you might as well as get as close to the almighty as you can.

Funny thing is, the closer to the fire of hard times the closer we are to God and the less intense the heat.  God is at work within you.  Don’t waste the opportunity.

Michael Jinkins suggests that a kind of purgatory might exist; not in a place but as a process.  What if God uses this process of purgation in order to make us whole?

When have hard times ended up making you whole?  When have you felt that sense of endurance and character building?  Does it give you hope today?  Are you a better person for what you experienced?

Paul suggested to the Roman church to stand tall when they are suffering.  In the face of shame and guilt, it was a good ploy.  When you smile at your bully, somehow it takes some of the sting out of their hateful words and actions.

I wish I could make this into a formula.  An easy three-step formula of how to endure hard times with little or no angst.  But, that’s not how it works.  Some people don’t make it and are broken forever.  It’s to those we cannot nor should not boast.  They are the ones we walk beside, knowing that it wasn’t easy for them and empathizing in their pain.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  A fitting and appropriate day that follows Pentecost: the day the Holy Spirit burst in on our world to change it forever.  Trinity Sunday celebrates that holy community of Father-Son-Holy Spirit; Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

We need this Trinity.  We need what each of them offers in the living God.  We need it in order to see God through the life and the sacrifice of Jesus, His only Son.  We need it so that we can see God through our faith instilled in us by the Holy Spirit.

We need this Trinity.  We need what it offers in order to endure the bad times, to build up our character and know that hope doesn’t disappoint.

We need this Trinity and its promise.  The promise of love poured out when we most need it: an ever-flowing love that has no end.  The promise of peace that we find when we open our eyes and see God at work in our lives.

Suffering – endurance – character – hope.

Paul knew all about these thing.  And the older I get the more I appreciate his daring words on suffering.  I know for a fact that many of you have experienced the same outcome: endurance and character and hope.

You didn’t waste it.  God helped you endure.  You can stand tall.  Walk quietly with others who are suffering.  Allow the Holy Spirit to speak the right words through you.

In the words of Michael Jinkins:  “To claim, as we do, that we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is to claim no less than this: We are washed, cleansed, in fire and water, and henceforth we drip the holy stuff wherever we go.  We track it into every room of our lives and out into the world.”[ii]

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

[i] Peter L. Steinke, “healthey Congregations: A Systems Approach (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 20016) page 52.  As quoted in Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Michale Jinkins, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) page 42




May 25, 2016, 9:04 AM

Pentecost People

by Sandy Bach

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?...—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’[c]

She was present at creation, sweeping across the face of the waters.  She was present to bless the 70 elders chosen by Moses to lead God’s people through the desert wilderness.  The promise made by the prophet Joel was this same Spirit that would be poured out on all flesh.

She’s usually quiet, unassuming, yet pushy when necessary.  Humanity has heard her voice and at times chosen not to hear; heeded her voice and at times chosen not to heed.   Come that Pentecost celebration in Jerusalem, she became as loud as a violent wind and as showy as the yellow and red flames of fire.  Still not finished, she gave each one present the ability to speak a variety of languages.

People stopped dead in their tracks – they heard their native tongue – not the international Greek of the Empire; their own language.  Those who spoke, proclaimed the mighty deeds of God.

I believe the Holy Spirit was at her absolute best that day.  Loud, showy, awesome, granting ability as she saw fit.  It was an amazing spectacle.  And she was just beginning.  The immigrants and pilgrims probably had a good grasp of Greek.  Yet, when they heard their native tongue, it must have felt as if they were coming home.  So familiar and friendly.  What was spoken touched their hearts and minds, with some help from the Holy Spirit.

And she still wasn’t done.

The witnesses of this noisy event, couldn’t figure it out.  Were they drunk?  No, that would hardly make it possible to speak in various languages.  They’re uneducated Galileans; this is something bigger.  Then, “what does this mean?” they asked again and again.

She chose Peter: the doubter, the denier; the one tested and found wanting.  She chose him and gave him the gift of insight and understanding.  And then she nudged him forward and opened his mouth.  Peter spoke.  He was a Jew with a solid Biblical background.  He remembered what the prophet Joel said, and reminded his fellow Jews:  God would pour out God’s Spirit.  God would pour out God’s Spirit on everyone:  young and old; men and women; slave and free.  And you’ll know it when the Spirit arrives.  It’ll be a huge entrance that you won’t be able to miss.

And still she wasn’t finished.

Peter would continue his ministry, becoming inclusive of Gentiles and women.  Paul would meet Jesus on that road to Damascus and end up forming house churches in Gentile lands, inclusive of Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free.

And still she wasn’t finished.  She isn’t finished today.

God continues to pour out that Spirit on you and me and strangers and friends.  She continues to include those who some would exclude; she continues to speak to those some may not like or trust.

She’s still pushy, when necessary.  She creates community where she sees fit.  She calls us to unexpected places all the time.

She is ruach – the breath of God.

She is pneuma – God’s Spirit.

She is active and busy yesterday, today and tomorrow.  She calls us Pentecost People.  And that’s who we are.  Blessed to be a blessing.

So take a few minutes right now.  Be still and listen:

Breath in:  "Be still and know..."

Breath out: "that I am God."

Breath in: "Be still and know...

Breath out: that I am..."

Breath in: "Be still...

Breath out: and know..."

Breath in: "Be still..."

Breath out: "Be still..."

Breath in:"Be..."

Breath out:

What is she saying to you now?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 25, 2016, 9:03 AM

Faith Under Fire

by Sandy Bach

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.  (Acts 16:16-34 NRSV)

There are slaves and there are slaves.

There are slaves trapped in mental illness; slaves to addictions; slaves captured by lust for other things that get in the way of their relationship with God.

The slave girl in our story certainly is enslaved.  Luke doesn’t even tell us her name.  She probably has a mental illness; some suggest schizophrenia.  It has given her the ability to read people’s fortunes.  Whether they are true or not, probably doesn’t matter, as long as she continues making money for her owners.

She is owned by others; she has no freedom; she is locked in her illness.   Perhaps her fortune-telling skills tend to be truthful, because she definitely recognizes Paul and Silas accurately: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

She’s also a pest.  Day in and day out she catches up with Paul and harangues the crowds with her words, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  She’s relentless.  Paul and Silas try to slip out the back door and through the alleyways.  There she is, waiting for them.  They leave home early, she’s there.  They leave home late, she’s there.

No matter what they do, she continues her tirade: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Finally, Paul can stand no more.  Is he angry at a system that uses women like her for profit?  Is he embarrassed?  Is he tired of her stocking him?  Or has her voice finally gotten on his last nerve?

We don’t know, however he puts up with it for several days before he finally turns to speak, not to her, but to the demon.  “In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to come out of her.”  And it does.  This side-lined slave girl continues to be sidelined in our story.  We have no idea what happened to her.  Did Paul do her a favor by releasing the demon from her or not?  I truly hope she found a place in the house church that Lydia supported.

With her healing, though, we’re led to the next group of slaves:  her owners.  They are slaves of the almighty denarius ; slaves of wealth; slaves of fear of anyone who doesn’t look and act like them.  They're anger and fear won't permit them to marvel at the miracle of healing.  No, these men have to be dealt with!  They gather Paul and Silas up and take them before the magistrates.

And here we meet the next set of slaves.  Government officials enslaved by power and stature.  They can’t dismiss the charges or they’ll appear soft on crime.  Perhaps, they too, are afraid of others who aren’t like them.  Caught up in the trappings of their position, they, too, are unable to marvel at a miracle of healing.

Then we meet the jailer.  He holds the keys to the freedom that his prisoners long for.  But, as the holder of the keys, he is enslaved to Rome’s military who will not go leniently if he loses prisoners.

Finally, we hear a little bit about the prisoners.  Those who have done things to hurt society, they, too, slaves.

Slaves of disease and illness; of money and wealth; of power and stature; of job and career.  Only two men in this story aren’t slaves to society: the prisoners, Paul and Silas.  They remain in the deepest, darkest part of the prison, singing hymns and praying.  Don’t you wonder what the others in the prison are thinking?  Yet, the text tells us they listened.  It's as if they listened and heard the message.

We’ve experienced earthquakes quite a bit the past few years.  I remember an earthquake that touched my home in the dark of night.  It scared me; I didn’t know what was happening.  But that earthquake was only a rumble next to the one that hit Philippi that night.  It shook the foundations; would the roof fall in on them?  Look the doors are standing open.  And how did my chains come loose?  Quickly the jailer comes from his nearby home to check on the prisoners.

His worst fears have come to pass: the jail is unlocked and the prisoners have surely escaped.  He’ll do the honorable thing, but he’ll do it his way.  He’ll fall on his sword.  Paul figures it out and calls out: “We’re all here!”

And that was Paul and Silas’ testimony: they didn’t run.  They stayed where they were, not because they were guilty of anything, but because they were men of faith who would see this difficult situation through.

People of faith are like that.  They see slavery in all walks of life: fear of immigrants; fear of Muslims or African-Americans or anyone who doesn't like them; fear of our quickly changing world; love of money, prestige and power; love of anything that impedes their relationship with God.  People of faith identify enslavement both in themselves and in others.

People of faith pray to God for release from those demons in themselves and others.  And they keep praying, trusting that transformation is happening, day by day.  They see the world around them from 30,000 feet and know there’s a better way to be.  They read about Jesus and try to emulate him, even the hard stuff like eating with sinners and tax collectors.

People of faith testify to the love of Christ by simply being.  Their actions speak louder than words.  Their love crosses the divides of race, gender, culture, economy and stature.

When the jailer met Paul and Silas in that jail cell, free in more ways than one, he wanted to be a part of that.  “Tell me what I need to do,” he asked.  And his first response to his new life of transformation was to care for the prisoners.  He brought them into his home and tended their wounds.

What challenges have you faced?  What challenges you today? What have you done in the past to remain faithful in your response to the challenge?

Prayer.  So easy that it’s almost too easy.  Or is it?  Sure, we can pray for the ordeal to be over.  However, resting in prayer and learning to listen for Christ’s voice brings about understanding and insight.  Resting in prayer brings a sense of peace and well-being, knowing that no matter how it turns out, God will not abandon and God is still in charge.

Talk with others who have come through a similar situation.  Someone you can trust who can help you remain faithful and will remain in prayer with you and for you.

A friend recently suggested to me that people don't go to church because they think they have to get their lives in order before they're good enough to enter.  If they only knew!  If they only knew that sitting in those seats and pews are slaves to all manner of ailments.  If they only knew that what they see are people who aren't good enough, but come anyway.  If they only knew what awaited them: hope, forgiveness, healing, acceptance.

There are slaves and there are slaves.  Today, I pray that you can honor that part of you that is captured and hurting.  Recognize it and honor it and spend time with God.  Live into hope.  Trust that healing will come.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




May 2, 2016, 10:19 AM

Gospel Hospitality

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[a] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 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. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 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.  (Acts 9:11-15 NRSV)

So far, in our two-week journey through Acts, we’ve encountered some interesting people with engaging stories.  Peter is summoned to Joppa for the sake of a woman whose ministry is caring for widows.  He brings her back from the dead.

Peter is then summoned to Jerusalem to answer for his actions in ministering to and eating with Gentiles.

Visions abound.  The Holy Spirit is active.  People from all walks of life are led by the Spirit to be converted: women, gentiles, Romans, the wealthy.  The Spirit is able to overcome road blocks: gentiles hostile to Jews, Jews doubting the gentiles, discussion and debate, even dissension in the church.   It would seem that nothing could get in the way of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit.

Today we meet Lydia: a woman, probably a gentile and she’s wealthy.  She seeks more in her life, though.  Her spiritual life craves God.  So she meets with other women by the river to pray.

Meanwhile, Paul and his associates are attempting to spread the gospel.  They travel through Asia, repeatedly blocked by the Holy Spirit from preaching.  They arrive on the coast of the Aegean Sea opposite modern-day Greece.  They endeavor to enter an area close by.  “No,” says the Spirit.  “Not here.”

Ministry is like that.  We show up with a great plan and enthusiasm and energy only to have our hopes dashed.  The Holy Spirit has blocked the way, always with good reason.  It takes awhile for us to understand that reason, though.

Just as Paul decides to sit tight, he has a vision.  Lots of visions appear in Acts.  What visions have you experienced?

This vision essentially says, “Your ministry is in Macedonia.  Get going.”  The next few verses indicate a sense of urgency in their travel plans: from Troas across a peninsula to Samothrace Island and then they land in Neapolis.  (I’m told that this is the same journey the Syrian migrants take to find a home in Europe.)  From there a short journey to Philippi.

They settle in for a few days.  Come the Sabbath, they head for a place of worship.  What led them outside the city gate?  What drew them to the river’s edge?  They know they’ve arrived when they see them:  a group of women.  Paul crosses all kinds of barriers to minister to them.  They are women, at least one is wealthy and they’re gentiles.  He begins to speak.

Lydia is among the women.  She’s from Thyatira, a city known for its production of purple dye. Purple is the color of royalty and it’s illegal for anyone outside of the royal family to purchase it.  She’s a unique woman; wealthy and successful, able to move in a world completely dominated by men.  That day she arrives at the river not knowing her life is about to change forever.

Paul, on his way somewhere else and blocked at every turn meets Lydia and helps her fill that need in her spiritual life.  What were the chances they’d meet up in Philippi?  Pretty good, if you consider the Holy Spirit is at work.

As I said, a lot happens in Acts by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Barriers of race, gender and economic means are crossed.  The church becomes a place for Jew and Greek, men and women.  And next week we’ll learn about the barrier of slave and free.

It’s in Acts that we learn of the origins of Deacons: those chosen to serve the widows and others in need.  Today we learn another important part of the life of the church:  that of radical hospitality.  Lydia prevailed upon Paul and his entourage to stay at her home.  She has responded to God’s call on her life.  Now she responds to this call by caring for the messengers of the Word.

Plans blocked by the Holy spirit.

Leaders pointed in a different direction.

Ministry to non-Jews and women.

All leads up to radical hospitality. One could well ask, “What is this first century church coming to?”

In our 21st century church of declining members, churches closing, the increase of no church involvement or belief, one may well ask, “What is Christ’s Church coming to?”

I suggest the church is becoming better at listening to the real needs of people and are learning to pay attention to the Holy Spirit.  I suggest that the vision of the man of Macedonia pleading and saying, “Come over here and help us,” is that sector of our society labeled, “spiritual but not religious.”  These are the Lydia’s who don’t know what church can be and that there is living water here for their thirsty hearts.

What is this 21st century church coming to?  What I believe is this:  the Spirit is still active and God isn’t finished with us, yet.

So, we can sit in sack cloth and ashes and immerse ourselves in gloom and doom.  Or we can be a part of God’s plan, discerning the call of the Holy Spirit and reaching out to those whose paths cross ours.  And when we meet up with them, we can be authentic, caring Christians who meet people where they are and honor their pain and their joys.

And that’s how we begin to offer gospel hospitality.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Are there barriers that you’ve erected from those who aren’t like you?  Are they appropriate barriers or not?
  2. What would it look like for us to reach out to the “spiritual but not religious?”
Post a Comment





April 24, 2016, 7:04 PM

Transforming Change

by Sandy Bach

5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven... 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  (Acts 11:5-9;17 NRSV)

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Well, I’m human, for one.  I’ve lived through six decades, each one stranger than the last.  I live in an age that has adapted to a new form of warfare; truth has become relevant;and exponential change everywhere I turn.

In my opinion, that’s enough reason to hinder God.  I would never want to discover that I’m getting in I God’s way.  But, the truth is, I probably do it on a regular basis.

Perhaps, though, we could learn more from the times when we didn’t hinder God.

Several years ago I decided to wander through my favorite bookstore.  I could always find a good book there and simply wandering the aisles was pleasant.  After an hour of wandering, no book was found to be bought.  Somewhat surprised, I left the store.  Just as the door closed behind me, I saw her coming into the store.  Melanie.  We hadn't seen each other in years.  We took the next half hour catching up on our news.

Then she asked me about a situation that had occurred in my life a few years back.  We talked for a while and I share that the pain was still with me.  I had failed as a parent and was trying to find a way to forgive myself.  I can't remember what Melanie said that day, but her words began the real healing of my broken heart.

Before we parted ways that day, we both acknowledged that we had been led to this place in front of the book store.  I will always see that as the work of the Holy Spirit: that I was brought to a place where Melanie could begin my healing process.

When have you sensed the Holy Spirit alive your life?

From the time Jesus met Peter on the beach and asked him, “Do you love me?” three times, we’ve had glimpses of a stronger man, more determined to serve our Lord and growing in maturity and power.  The more he experienced, the more he grew.

Was he excited to return to Jerusalem and meet up with friends in the faith?  Was he surprised at his welcome; or, rather, lack of welcome?  “What are doing eating with those people?  They’re not like us, Peter.  They’ll defile our faith.  We’ll lose our center.  Besides, what they eat is yucky.  It’s just not right.”

Peter could have responded with argument; with theological debate; with anger.  Instead, he shared his story and brought them in to the scene for them to experience it themselves.  By the end of the story, they must have felt as if they had been there with Peter, seeing that sheet lowered down from heaven from its four corners; sensing the Holy Spirit empowering him to enter into the gentile world and share the good news.

“How could I hinder God?” asked Peter.

“You couldn’t,” replied the rest of the apostles.  This wasn’t the end of the debate, though.  Eventually, there would be the first Jerusalem Council and they would have to discern how best to welcome gentiles into the faith: through circumcision, or not.

The Spirit has certainly been alive in this building the past few years.  Our congregation has grown in numbers, but more than that, we’ve grown spiritually and we’re open to new things that God is doing in the life of the church.  Most recently we opened our doors to our Methodist brothers and sisters.  For two-and-a-half years, they’ve nested in our building so they can continue in ministry without the enormous burden of building upkeep.

We didn’t move quickly, though.  With the diligent and faithful work of a parish council made up of members of both of our congregations, the potential road blocks were removed.  Our relationship has grown stronger.

Now a new opportunity emerges for the Methodist church.  With the announcement of their minister being moved to a new charge,  they are looking at several possible options:

Ongoing pulpit supply

Tent maker pastor.  Someone who works for a living and serves the church on a limited basis.

A lay pastor, licensed by the Methodist Church to serve part time.

Retired Minister.  Again, part time, but someone willing to keep their hand in during their retirement years.

Federating.  Two congregations with one pastor: me.

That’s where we come in.  How do we discern the Holy Spirit speaking to us on federating, with the possibility of being one church some day in the future?  Where to begin is the first question and the answers are as many as our creative minds can come up with.

This past week, I encountered a vision during my mediation time.  I pictured our two congregations worshiping together once or twice a month at 11:00.  A worship committee made up of representatives from each congregation meeting weekly to unpack our bulletins.  What is the order of worship for each church?  Why do we do it that way?  What holds meaning for us?  How might we create an order of worship that speaks to everyone in the pew?

The Methodists could see my particular style and learn my theological beliefs with an eye to determining if they could live with me as their preacher. And, think of twice the number of people worshiping together in this place!  You could sing those hymns as loud as you want!

Peter’s vision led him to new places and opened him up to new ideas.  The word of God spread quickly because he refused to hinder God.

My vision may never take place, and I’m okay with that.  Its purpose has been to open me up to new possibilities.  I look forward to the future, however it may turn out.  I invite you to envision the future as well, whether it’s as a faith community joined with another in worship and ministry, or moving forward as separate congregations.

What if? Is the question of the day.  Be open to the Holy Spirit as you imagine what God holds for us in the future.

Peter asked the question, and now it’s our turn to ask it.  Who am I that I could hinder God?

Let’s move forward together in love, ministering to God’s people wherever they may be.  Let’s move forward in faith, knowing that we won’t be abandoned, but guided by the hand of God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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