Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27
John 16:23-33

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple.

We've had some weather issues recently, including large, dangerous hail. The weather men predicted more storms last night. We were afraid that our unbelievably good luck had to end (we've only had very minor damage so far) and so we wanted to do something to protect our cars. My husband planned to get out early from work so he could cover the windshields with wood, cardboard or blankets, which is helpful, but complicated. I thought that we should look for car covers. We could still use extra padding underneath, but the car cover would help hold it into place.

Of course, after two major hail storms in a week (we had lemon and lime sized hail both times!), I was certain car covers would be impossible to find. We have five auto parts stores within blocks of each other a few miles from our house. It seems impractical to have so many of the same sort of store in such close proximity (four of them are in one block), but it made it very convenient for me. My plan was to hit each one until I found what I needed. I found exactly what I wanted, even the right sizes for all our cars, at the second store.

I'm always surprised also by how close the different drug store chains build to one another. How do they do business right across the street? I suppose that some people are loyal to one brand and others stop at the one that is convenient to the direction they are traveling, but it seems like very strange business practice. Auto sales are the same way. Every town has their "auto mile" where all the car dealers seem to congregate. Car shoppers will lot hop from one to the other until they find exactly the right car for their needs. It may seem impractical, but they all seem to sell just enough cars to stay in business.

There was a street in a town near where we lived a number of years ago that had what we jokingly called "church mile." It was almost like the street was zoned only for churches. There was one after another. I can't imagine what traffic was like on a Sunday morning. You might think it would make more sense to merge those churches, especially since some, if not all, were struggling. Yet, each of those churches, though all Christian, were unique. They each had their own style of worship, their own mission focuses, and their own preferences in the administration. They all share Christ but had aspects that make them unique. And it was those unique aspects that make their identity.

I like my own church. I like liturgical worship, lectionary based readings and preaching, a variety of music. I like the focus on the sacraments and the symbolism found in our worship space. I have tried other types of worship, and I appreciate those who enjoy and prefer their practices even though I was not particularly comfortable with them. That's ok! We all have unique personalities and like the chain drug stores, there are those of us who are loyal to a particular type. I am delighted to know that there's a place where someone who likes to shout "AMEN" can go and worship God in a style that gives them joy, but also a place for the quiet, introspective type to go and find the joy of God in prayer and listening.

We often mourn over the fact that there are so many church bodies because it seems like we are too divided, and yet what a blessing it is to have so many different ways available to us so that everyone can find God in a style that suits their personality! God gives us what we need in many and various ways. That "church mile" might seem impractical, but it is actually a gift because it opens the church up to people from every culture. We want our pews to be full, but our task is to share Jesus and every person needs the opportunity to experience Him in a way that fills them with joy.

Unfortunately, we end up arguing about these things. We see the church down the road is growing and we think that we need to change the way we do things so that we will grow, too. We change our music, we get rid of the things that make us unique and we add programs to compete with that church. We reject our identity and conform to what we think will draw people to Christ, but sadly we often ignore the thing that they really need: Jesus Christ. We focus on programs and forget the Gospel. Oh, we call our basketball league an evangelism program, but we don't spend time talking about Jesus. We claim our outreach is meant to bring people into the Church but we never really give them what they need: the Word of forgiveness and hope.

We try too hard. We think if we just offer this or just change that or just conform to this way of thinking, then we'll be successful. We think it is about us and our work; we try to draw people to us instead of being the vessels through which Jesus draws people to Himself.

We see that in today's lesson from Acts. Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. Paul understood this as a vision from God and he left immediately to go on a trip that eventually led to Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city, a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires, with few Jews and Jewish believers. It was usually easy for the apostles to find the believers when they traveled to a new city because they went to the synagogue. But, the Jewish community at Philippi was not large enough; they did not even have the ten men which were required. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship. That's where Paul went to search for believers.

When he arrived at the place of prayer Paul met Lydia, who was a seller of purple and so a woman of wealth. Luke tells us that she was a worshipper of God, which does not mean that she was necessarily a proselyte, but that she was one who believed in the true God and followed the moral teachings of scripture.

She listened to what Paul had to say and she believed. She was baptized and so was her whole household. We don't know what happened with the other women. Did they also believe? Were they baptized? We don't know, we only hear the story of Lydia. Paul did not do anything to convince her to believe. Luke tells us, "[Lydia] heard us; whose heart the Lord opened to listen to the things which were spoken by Paul." The Lord opened her heart to listen.

I think this is interesting, especially since we spend so much time trying to fill our pews. We boast when we have a large number of people join our congregations. We triumph over every baptism. We are excited when we can claim double digit growth in our communities. But are we willing to trust God to open the hearts of those to whom we are sent to share the Gospel? We do what we can to get people through our doors, but are we willing risk the dangers that Paul faced when he followed that vision to a strange land to speak to one open heart?

How did he know that this was a vision? What made him follow? Did he have other visions that he ignored? Would he have followed the vision if it had been the woman Lydia who had called him to come? It is impossible for us to answer these questions based on the record we have been given, but it is helpful to realize that the apostles most likely suffered from the same kind of questions that we ask today. For every story of a healing, there must have been a dozen people who weren't healed. For every conversion there must have been hundreds that never came to faith.

That's what happens when it is all about "we." We forget that we do not know the mind of God. We do not have a complete picture of His plan. We want to fill the pews and to grow like the church next door, but what God truly wants from us is faithfulness. We have a purpose; we have work to do and that work is to share the Gospel in a voice that will be heard by the one whom God has opened the heart to hear. That voice might loud and joyful, full of AMENS or quiet and introspective with prayerful listening. God knows and He's called us to be true to our own identity for His sake. We can't do that if we are so busy trying to be something we aren't for people who can't hear because God is not drawing them to Himself.

It is sad that there are so many different churches, but that's how it is in this world. The passage from Revelation makes a promise, however. There is a time coming, hopefully soon!, when there will be no need of a temple, or church, or river community because we will dwell in the New Jerusalem. We will dwell in God's eternal Kingdom, and there's no need for special places for us to worship in our own personal, individual ways. John writes, "I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple."

We have that today, although not as it will be. See, we do meet in different buildings with different practices, but as long as the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the foundation of those places, then we are one body. We share in the same promises; we are called to the same mission. We are blessed with the same Holy Spirit who gives us everything we need to follow God's vision for our lives today. When God is our focus, then all we have to do is speak and we will be heard by the hearts God has opened.

Jesus knew it would be this way. He warned the disciples, "Behold, the time is coming, yes, and has now come, that you will be scattered, everyone to his own place, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you these things, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have oppression; but cheer up! I have overcome the world." He was addressing the disciples and the fact that they would scatter after His arrest, but isn't it also true for us today? Aren't we scattered and in our own worries and fears of failure, and don't we also ignore our Lord Jesus Christ?

When our churches seem to be failing, when our pews are empty and we aren't sure what will happen to our congregation tomorrow, we can have hope: Jesus Christ has overcome the world. We can live in peace even in the midst of chaos because God is with us. We gather together not to be "successful" but to rejoice in our God. When that is our focus, we will see God doing great things among us.

The Psalm for this week is a song of praise for the world as God means it to be. "Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth." This is the heaven for which we hope, knowing that our own names are written in the Book of Life. It is not by our works or by our righteousness that we will be remembered, but by our faith in Jesus Christ.

The Psalm includes a word that is used more than seventy times in the psalms and a few times in a poetic portion of the book of Habakkuk. That word is "Selah." It is not easy to identify the meaning of this word, though many would suggest it is simply a liturgical word in the midst of the psalm to direct the music, as in a rest or a stop in modern musical composition.

However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word "Selah" is thought to mean something like "stop and listen" indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means "to measure." With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or "measure" the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Listening is more than hearing; it is stopping to really listen to understand what is happening.

In today's passage, the word "Selah" is used twice. The first is following a benediction. "God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us." Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, "That thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among nations." God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world.

The second time comes with a directive to the people, that they -- meaning all nations -- be glad and sing for joy, for God's mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God's grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.

This is the will and purpose of God: He calls us to take the risk, to go out into the world and find those opportunities that He has prepared for us to share His Gospel. We just need to go out in faith. God knows when and how it will happen. Thanks to the mark of Christ we have nothing to fear; our names are written in indelible ink in God's Book of Life. We aren't called to worry about the numbers of people in our pews or doubt whether we are doing everything we can do to be successful. We are called to believe. We are called to take one step at a time, sharing with one person at a time.

We don't need to wait for the Heavenly Jerusalem to come because God's Light already shines on us even though it seems like there are too many different churches along the road. As the body of Christ we dwell in His glory now just as we will dwell with Him forever. We can believe in the indescribable promise written by John of the New Jerusalem because we know the end of the story. We already have a place in this incredible city because we have been forgiven. That hope is our foundation and it is even more beautiful than the jewels John uses to describe it. So let us dwell in this world as if the New Jerusalem has already come to us and share the Gospel so that those hearts which God has opened might hear and receive the forgiveness and hope of Jesus Christ and the peace that comes from knowing that their names are written in God's Book of Life.

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