July 10, 2016

Pentecost 8   July 10, 2016   Acts 11:1-18; 19-26; 27-30, 13:1-3

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As we pick up again in the book of Acts today we’re visiting a new church-start… in pretty strange territory for our parent church back in Jerusalem. Syria was a powerful enemy empire in days of old, one of the many empires that conquered Israel… Now Syrian Antioch’s the third largest city in the Roman Empire, the contemporary evil empire…Yet ironically this church has been planted by Jesus-followers who’ve found refuge in Syria… from persecution in Jerusalem.

We’re revisiting our faith family history. Friday night we had calling hours for one of the saints (of this church/of the Cataumet church), and there were family pictures on display everywhere, poster boards with hundreds of pictures of Jean Parker, her family and church… Reading the book of Acts is a bit like this…

Here we are, looking through old family pictures. Remembering the infant church, barely beginning to walk – but looking already like a chip-off-the-block of of Jesus. Who, remember, picked twelve apostles from across the spectrum of political persuasions – choosing St Simon the zealot, part of the radical opposition to the empire – and also St Matthew, a tax collector, who worked for the empire.

Now here’s First United Church of Antioch, the next generation,with even greater diversity…

All five prophets and teachers mentioned in our last reading are from outside Israel. At least four are probably also from somewhere other than Antioch. (Barnabas, we’ve been told, is a native of Cyprus. Simeon, called Niger, which means Black, is likely from Africa. Lucius of Cyrene, is from a city in what’s now Libya in North Africa. And Saul is from Tarsus.)

Here, as with the twelve called by Jesus, we also have real cultural diversity. Manaen being part of the court of one of the several Herods in the bible, all of whom are hostile to the Christian movement. Yet Manaen, probably at serious risk to his professional future, has become a leader among disciples of Jesus. And here again is Saul, whom we met a few weeks ago, soon to be re-named Paul – till recently, the foremost persecutor of the church. Yet now since meeting Jesus, risking his life for the church…

Here in Antioch, where disciples are first called Christians, the young church is diverse and growing… Taking risks and making sacrifices for the gospel. As, responding to what they’ve heard from the Spirit, believers lay on hands, pray, and send forth Barnabas and Saul to serve as missionaries…Giving up two of their most gifted leaders… to help others get to know Jesus…

A little bit like we’ve just done a few weeks ago (here/in Bourne), with Isaac (Ryong Jae) Jung, his wife Irene (Eunsook), and their daughter Eveline Yewon –  sending them off to serve a United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Kansas. Laying on hands – praying – sending them forth to serve…

As we’ve also just done for Rebecca Hewett – sending her to serve as pastor in South Middleboro. Again, laying on hands – praying – and sending forth to serve…

It hurts to see them go… Yet we feel deep satisfaction in having done our small parts to help them prepare for ministry. Helping them share their gifts and graces with others.

And I’m grateful for any time we can see ourselves in the story as readily as this. Finding ourselves in the biblical story can be challenging. Especially in a book like Acts, with all it’s many signs and wonders… How can we identify, for example, with the larger-than-life-double-visions of Cornelius the Gentile centurion, and Simon Peter the apostle?

Cornelius’s vision of an angel telling him to send for Simon Peter. Peter’s vision of a sheet descending from heaven full of kosher and unkosher animals, and a voice saying “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” How often, really, do we see or hear anything like this?

The nearest I’ve come to sanctified double-vision lately was getting up at 2:30 one morning last week to go fishing, catching a bunch of small fish quickly, then hooking what I thought was a larger fish. Till I reeled in a little, and noticed the guy next to me reeling in too. Our lines had crossed. And – turns out, our lives had also crossed. He said “Tim, I didn’t recognize you in the dark.” I recognized him then, and said “Good memory, how did you remember my name?” We’d only met  once or twice, about a year ago, fishing. He said ‘I recently met your choir director, Kari, and we got talking about fishing, and she asked if I knew Pastor Tim.’ And I remembered Joshua, who works with Kathy Parsons at Audubon.  Not quite double vision – but it did bring us together, unexpectedly, in an almost double-vision kind of way. We just need the Holy Spirit now to tell us what it all means…

And probably giving the Holy Spirit time and space enough in our lives to teach us what it all means – is the key to understanding just about anything…

And perhaps it’s enough for this week even just to notice how often the book of Acts relies on similar double-visions and double-affirmations…to help us with discerning where the Spirit is leading…

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In our first reading we’ve got an account of double vision, double visitation, double testimonies, and finally double agreement… (We looked at all this in some detail last week, and I won’t walk us through it all again today.) The main point of all the doubling up and doubling down of the message – is God making it really hard for the church to miss the message – that the gospel of Jesus is for all – including yes, all Gentiles we never thought were included. All those people with really different lifestyles, who eat foods we’re not supposed to eat, go places we’re not supposed to go. But now the Holy Spirit’s telling us they’re all included.

And it takes awhile and some repetition… for this news to sink in…

Today Peter retells the whole story of his vision and Cornelius’ vision very patiently…. Going over it, explaining what it all means, step by step. Till the church’s initial strong objections are finally overcome….and…

Isn’t this the way big changes so often occur? First the earth shakes, mountains move, tectonic plates rearrange themselves….

Then comes the nitty-gritty work… of translating revolutionary visionary changes… into all the little changes… in all the little details… of daily life…

Now we’re all together, united in Christ, diverse people of all tribes and nations, gathered round the table of the Lord. So – how exactly do we do this? Do we set the table with soup spoons or tea spoons – or both? Or chop-sticks – or all three? Can we eat this meal as finger-food? How do we do gospel life together now, as people of many generations, many places, many walks of life…?

We aren’t told many details of how it was done. Probably because if the first century experience was written down in detail we might think we have to it exactly the same way forever….Which is not what the word is asking. In fact, God doesn’t do any re-runs… The gospel always happens live… wherever it happens.

We are told that for a whole year the church is focused intensely just on teaching. Just learning the story of God, the story of Jesus.

Many times in Acts we’re also told the whole church is meeting together regularly for study and prayer and table fellowship. Probably the other details are not described, because they’re not nearly as important as this daily commitment to prayer, study, and fellowship… Which inevitably leads us into service.

Every year we prepare health kits and supplies for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which always tries to be prepared in advance for any kind of disaster, anywhere. And here’s the roots of UMCOR – with the early church in Antioch, taking up a collection and giving generously, even before the predicted famine occurs, in response to the message of the prophet.

And is not the preparation that matters most in these times to be ready, much like this, also for all the natural and un-natural, man-made and spiritual disasters that will surely continue to come our way? (Just as surely as there will always be another typhoon, another earthquake, another hurricane…)

This past week has been very difficult for our nation… and for many other nations. I wish I could tell you the week we’ve just been through, with all its violence in so many places… won’t happen again.

But the church in Antioch prepares for whatever is ahead by giving… And even more so through prayer, and worship, and fasting…

Jesus tells us somewhere in the gospels, when disciples are trying to heal someone afflicted by demons – “this type can only be cast out by prayer… and fasting…” Fasting, in the case of our struggles with the demons of this present age, must include fasting from quick and easy answers. Fasting also from judgement of others. Lest we be judged ourselves…

I’m thinking along these lines all the more because… Yesterday in our memorial service for Jean Parker we kept being reminded… First, of how Jean simply would not listen… to anyone, anywhere… even those she loved most… talking negatively about anyone… She insisted, just as Jesus insisted – on showing love not just to the loveable, but also to those most difficult to love. Whenever someone spoke critically even of a certifiable villain, she would invariably say – “but… they are still a child of God…”

We also kept being reminded yesterday… how much time Jean spent every day in prayer… Praying for so many people… She loved church, but she’d even be late for church if she hadn’t finished her morning prayers… Praying for all the people of the church…and the wider community… She and her close friend Mim Dubuque prayed every week together, sitting at table, praying down through their long list of people and prayer concerns… They prayed with great persistence… Never giving up on anyone on their list… till the prayer was answered…

Which is how the early church prayed… And because they prayed like this – (probably also because there were many of them praying like this) – it didn’t take long for the church, that a few days ago was highly critical of Peter for eating with Gentiles, to undergo a change of heart and mind, and join Peter now, in the apostolic soul food kitchen – helping him with cooking and serving the gospel for Jew and Gentile, old and young, together…

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Most of our work of faith is about quiet revival…Teaching each other the gospel by word and deed…

Making time to pray with the Spirit… Fasting from distractions… Knowing the presence of God…This is what makes faith contagious…

Our visions and dreams are often small enough to be easily overlooked…

Yet when we’re faithful in meeting together for worship and fellowship, serving the Lord, serving the people…

When we support each other with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our witness, our service…

Even when all our efforts seem so small…

Now we’re doing what the early church did…

Lifting each other in prayer…

Lifting our world to God in prayer…

Hands and hearts together…

As the Spirit sends us into the mission field again… every day…

To share the love of Jesus,

Alive among us…

This is our privilege… and our blessing.

Amen.