What We Offer, Old First Sermon 05.05.13

What We Offer, Old First Sermon 05.05.13

Psalm 67 and Acts 16:9-15
I love our passage from Acts.

A dream.
A trip and a task.
A series of surprising twists and turns.
And success that’s clearly not Paul and Silas and Timothy’s, but God’s…

Let me start by asking,
If someone asked after your Christian faith because they were in need of help,
how would you respond?

Imagine, someone looks at you and says, “You’re a Christian, we need some help over here…” — both recognizing you by your faith or the community you are a member of,
and then presuming because of it, you will not only respond to their need, but have something to offer.

How would that feel?
Would you be honored, even impressed that you are recognizable as a Christian?
Or would it make you a bit nervous?
Would you wonder if you were coming off a bit too preachy, or sanctimonious or…

How do you describe someone who is “visibly Christian?”
Is it a positive list of characteristics that leads you to reference someone’s faith?
Or is it a bit more… well, does such a description leave you wary, if not running away?

But moving deeper into the story:
if someone, having recognized your faith, said, “we need your help,”what would you think to offer? Would we even know what we have to share?

What is it that your faith adds to your life? (It’s a real question, not just the pastor being rhetorical. So, I’ll give you a minute to begin making your lists in your head…
what’s faith add to your life?)
Do you think, humbly, that the same things might be additions to other people’s lives too?
If it was hard making a list, I suspect you are not the only one. It’s probably not our greatest skill as a church these days! Since the late 60’s, the church has sort of lost its confidence:
So many people have left,
walked away,
voted with their feet as if to say,
“No, You don’t add much to my life. I don’t need you.
I’m better off on my own, or with an extra hour of sleep
or a quiet morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper.”

It’s easy for church folk to blame those people.
But if we assume they know their lives.
And know what they were or were not getting from church participation,
Well, we might asking ourselves,
“Have we offered what people need?”
or more to my own understanding of the issue,
“Do we offer what people need in forms they can receive?”

I’m going to leave those questions open for a minute.
in order to get back to the passage from Acts.

Because the “oddness” of the request Paul receives
is only added to because it comes from someone Paul doesn’t know
and in a less than obvious form of communication.

It’s not a good friend or a family member who asks for the help of your faith.
Not someone you know well who is going through a tough time you know about who says, 
“Well, what would your faith counsel or offer me in such a tough situation.”

Instead it’s a stranger. An unknown man who appears in a dream.

So now someone you don’t expect or even know not only recognizes you are a Christian, and expects you to help accordingly.

Or at least you think that’s what it meant!

Imagine you are walking down Chestnut street in Center City during lunch hour,
and a stranger stops you and says,
“You’re a Christian, and I need your help. Can you come with me?”

Or someone you might know something about,
If not a Macedonian, than a Muslim,
If not a Phillipian, than what we call today a Philistine,
not someone who you expect to want such help…
asks you to go out of your way for him or her.

How would you feel? What would you say? Would you stop what you were doing, make a detour and go out of your way to try?

And it gets weirder still, church! What if you woke up one morning with a sort of half- remembered? understood? baked? sense of all this. It turns out it wasn’t on the street during lunch hour and a real person at all asking you something surprising and a little less than specific. It was at night while you were asleep.

So now you’re not sure, but you feel that someone wants something from you.
You’ve got this strange and unclear message, passed on in some indirect way or in some awkward language that you aren’t quite sure the meaning of.

You know sometimes when you just get an intuition, you aren’t sure where from.
And there’s no way to check it out. What if you had this feeling that someone might want to talk. That he or she had this longing to know or hear or be reassured.
Would you dare go to him or her and then see if anything happens? Or would you, even bolder, find a way to broach the subject?

Would you feel confident enough in your understanding, to change your plans,
even to have to wait around (when they got to Phillippi, there wasn’t anyone apparently waiting for them there!) would you go and wait and see if anyone or anything turned up?

I love this story so much because it rings so true. God’s counting on us because we’re Christians to go to others, even people we don’t know, and to make some difference in their lives. It’s only the where and the how and the who and the when that we’re left to figure out. But we’re told that, even with all those question marks, it actually works out more than we might imagine, but not because of us, but because God is with us or works through us and all the fog!

Because the end of the story just keeps twisting. They get to the Roman capital of Macedonia, Phillippi, though one can’t be sure that was what the dream indicated.
And they are in the city. And apparently there’s nothing obvious to them. No opening.
No person waiting. No further message. Or clearer directions. So they hang out and wait to see what happens. (This really does sound like real life!)

And then they go outside the city walls where there is some open space by the river,
and they expect they might meet some people have come to pray. They’re right on that hunch. There they meet a group of women. Not a man or the man in the dream. But women. And one of them in particular, Lydia.

In fact a woman, which in the classical Greek setting of biblical times is notable in itself. But even more so, a woman — this is more than we today can know just by reading as the minor place names in the Bible are unknown or even beyond us — a woman who herself comes from the part of Asia Minor that just previously Paul had thought he had been sent to share the Gospel, but where the Holy Spirit had forbidden him to go.

Now in Philippi, the Roman capital of the region, it is a woman from Thyatira who Paul meets, and who first receives the good news. It’s the Bible’s way of saying that all this is only of the Holy Spirit. Only God’s spirit could fashion all these connections from the unclarity and movements of human life.

In the end of the story, it’s as if Paul is missing from the narrative. I think the narrative’s point there is that spreading the Good News, how the church’s mission works out, it’s not really in our control.

We have to listen and go and wait and be open. But God opens Lydia’s heart. God sets the direction, leads followers where they don’t know to go, and it’s God who is the cause of the results.

Lydia is also moved. She and her entire household are baptized.(That’s 2 weeks in a row we’ve had baptisms!)

And social barriers crumble, strangers no more, the woman invites men she had not known 2 hours before to stay at her home. And this corner of the Empire is beginning to be changed by God’s grace.

* * * * *
You’ve heard the promise that God sends you exactly who you need, even though that messenger and what she or he says or does may all be a surprise? I’ve known that in my life. Not always, but enough to imagine there’s some truth to it.

But interestingly, we hardly ever consider that if there’s any truth to that promise,
there are not just those who receive these visitations from those who God sent. There must also be those who God is sending. Apostles is the biblical word. People hearing and answering God’s strange call, folks off on some unclear mission who are making a difference nonetheless. Often it may feel like a fool’s errand, or like it doesn’t make that much difference — being sent, to do something you are not sure about, trying to be ready to offer something you can’t quite grasp, to someone you don’t quite recognize…

And somehow — by God’s grace — it all works out. That’s real life too, though real life in Christ.

And the messengers, missionaries really, find themselves in places and with people and ministering to situations they never expected.

Church, we’re the one’s God’s sending
that needs will be met,
hearts touched and turned,
and this corner of the Empire begins to change.

Steve has a mission moment about a recent conversation about our Outreach Ministries…