SLIDE 3: HAPPY!?
When I have worked with young people, I have often asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Over and over again I get the reply, “I want to be happy!” Happiness as a goal in and of itself is elusive. The more we try to focus on happiness, like a bar of soap in the shower, it slips away from us.
SLIDE 4: THE ENTERTAINMENT YOU DESERVE
Some young people think they can achieve happiness by having “fun.” I am all in favor of fun. Most churches don’t have enough fun. But like happiness, when we pursue pleasure and excitement as the primary goal in our lives then nothing is fun. Some people in our contemporary culture have adopted as their primary goal in life to be entertained. Have you ever seen the ads for cable companies, or video games or gambling casinos or resorts claiming to be the entertainment you deserve. But a life spent drifting from one entertainment to another is empty and shallow. I am reminded of a very liberal Southern Baptist preacher I met in Plattsburgh, New York, Ernie. Ernie was so far out on the left wing of the Southern Baptist Convention he probably fell off. Ernie claimed to have the distinction of pastoring the Northern most Southern Baptist Church in the Continental United States. At one clergy meeting we were discussing how shallow the culture of perpetual entertainment had become. And Ernie said, “we’ve become so shallow, why we are so shallow, we are as shallow as the dew on the Sahara Desert at high noon.”
SLIDE 5: JOY IS NOT HAPPY, HAPPY ALL THE TIME
Joy is not happy, happy all the time, and that is why I chose as the sermon title joy and shalom. Joy is an essential spiritual practice growing out of faith, grace, gratitude, hope, and love. It is the pure and simple delight in being alive. Psalm 63: 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. 3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5 My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips, 6 when I think of you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. Joy is our elated response to feelings of happiness, experiences of pleasure, and awareness of abundance. It is also the deep satisfaction we know when we are able to serve others and be glad for their good fortune. Joy includes a sense of gratitude toward something greater than ourselves, and a sense of meaning that we derive from a purpose that is greater than ourselves. Humility then is part of joy. We invite joy into our lives through worship and praise.
SLIDE 6: JOY IS A MYSTERIOUS MIXTURE
Joy as I have said, is not happy, happy all the time. As C.S. Lewis’ wife Joy said shortly before her death from cancer in Shadowlands, “the joy now is part of the pain then – that’s the deal.” Joy is mature enough to include pain and grief. Sister Miriam Therese Winter captured the mysterious mixture of joy, sadness, pain and challenge in her song: “I Saw Rain Drops on My Window”:
SLIDE 7: VIDEO I SAW RAIN DROPS ON MY WINDOW
I saw rain drops on my window, Joy is like the rain.
Laughter runs across my pane, Slips away and comes again.
Joy is like the rain.
I saw clouds upon a mountain, Joy is like a cloud.
Sometimes silver, sometimes gray, Always sun not far away.
Joy is like a cloud.
I saw Christ in wind and thunder, Joy is tried by storm.
Christ asleep within my boat, Whipped by wind, yet still afloat,
Joy is tried by storm.
I saw rain drops on a river, Joy is like the rain,
Bit by bit the river grows, ’til all at once it overflows.
Joy is like the rain.
Let me suggest five steps on the path of joy. First is the practice gratefulness. Brother David Steindl-Rast offers us some suggestions for improving our gratefulness.
SLIDE 8: GRATEFULNESS
Gratefulness can be improved by practice. But where shall beginners begin? The obvious starting point is surprise. You will find that you can grow the seeds of gratefulness just by making room. If surprise happens when something unexpected shows up, let’s not expect anything at all. Let’s follow Alice Walker’s advice. “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”
To expect nothing may mean not taking for granted that your car will start when you turn the key. Try this and you will be surprised by a marvel of technology worthy of sincere gratitude. Or you may not be thrilled by your job, but if for a moment you can stop taking it for granted, you will taste the surprise of having a job at all, while millions are unemployed. If this makes you feel a flicker of gratefulness, you’ll be a little more joyful all day, a little more alive.
Once we stop taking things for granted our own bodies become some of the most surprising things of all. It never ceases to amaze me that my body both produces and destroys 15 million red blood cells every second. Fifteen million! That’s nearly twice the census figure for New York City. I am told that the blood vessels in my body, if lined up end to end, would reach around the world. Yet my heart needs only one minute to pump my blood through this filigree network and back again. It has been doing so minute by minute, day by day, for the past 75 years and still keeps pumping away at 100,000 heartbeats every 24 hours. Obviously this is a matter of life and death for me, yet I have no idea how it works and it seems to work amazingly well in spite of my ignorance. Gratitude is a first step to joy.
SLIDE 9: OPTIMISM
The second step on the path of joy is to cultivate optimism. Look on the bright side, not naively, but trust that life is good as it is given. I am reminded of the observation that a pessimist will complain about the wind; an optimist expects the wind to change which it will eventually; but the pragmatist adjusts the sails. In this season of resurrection I want to remind all of us that faith is a choice. We can choose to live our faith as if life sucks and then we die, or we can live our lives as if the best is yet to come. Jesus wants us to live our lives as optimists.
SLIDE 10: LET THE DAY’S OWN TROUBLE BE SUFFICIENT FOR THE DAY
So don’t worry. God will take care of us even as God takes care of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Don’t give into anxiety by borrowing trouble ahead. As Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
SLIDE 11: PURPOSE
The third step on the path of joy is to embrace a purpose larger than ourselves. If all we live only for ourselves, then life is indeed dreary and meaningless. As I learned from my father, if we are alive, we have a purpose. And the secret of life is finding our purpose. If we listen, God will disclose to us our purpose. Often our purpose is something we might rather not do. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsamane did not want to be tortured and crucified. Yet he remained faithful to God’s will. He trusted that beyond the darkness there would be light. If we want to find joy we have to listen and embrace our purpose.
SLIDE 12: LIVE IN THE MOMENT
The fourth step on the path of joy is to learn to live in the moment. The present moment is all we have, and what joy there is can only be found in the present moment. If we constantly put off our opportunities for joy, then joy may never come. As Bob Neuschaefer reminded us over and over again, travel while you can – seize the day. God gave us the Sabbath because we were not made to work all of the time. I have a Prayer of Confession that encourages us to live in the moment: From slavery to schedules, lists, and deadlines, from the tyranny of telephones and the rule of wristwatches, from bondage to busyness, to all things that simply must be done before we stop to think or feel or care. Good Lord, deliver us and make us free to be human. Stop and be human and experience joy in the present moment.
SLIDE 13: SHALOM
The fifth step on the path to joy is shalom. You know how we all join hands and sing shalom at the end of the service? Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace, reconciliation, restoration, completeness, wholeness. The concepts of forgiveness and grace are part of shalom. Shalom means being at peace with God, with ourselves and with our neighbors. Shalom means not giving other people free rent in our heads — giving up both our guilts and our grudges. Shalom is letting go of our worries as well as the wounds of the past. Shalom implies a deep spiritual healing that may involve claiming and healing our woundedness. In shalom we open our hearts to be healed by God. Singing shalom at the end of the service, joining our hands and feeling at one in community and with God is a beginning, but only a beginning. Practicing shalom means letting go of our resentments, our fears, our wounds, and allowing God to bring reconciliation, restoration, wholeness and peace to our lives. What would we do if we weren’t afraid – shalom. Embrace shalom. Embrace joy.
Bible Study April 22 for Worship May 12
Acts 16: 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying.
17 She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
18 And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge 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 gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers;
20 and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city.
21 They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.
23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely.
24 Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them,
26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened.
27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.
28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas,
30 and brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?”
31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all that were in his house.
33 And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family.
34 Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.
Mental Illness in the ancient world was often believed to be associated with the divine. Most of the time mental illness was characterized as demon possession, and the possessed were considered to be evil, or the victims of evil. But other times the mentally ill were viewed more benignly as having been touch by the gods. Often people who are mentally ill can be profoundly brilliant but still disturbed. The film “a Beautiful Mind” may have romanticized paranoid schizophrenia, but it still portrayed the brilliance behind the illness. The mentally ill can be quite problematical, but their flashes of insight can be truly amazing. Some of the mentally ill in the ancient world were thought to be divinely inspired soothsayers, and that belief could be used to turn a profit. Such was the case with the young slave girl Paul and his companions encountered in the market place in Philippi.
The story in Acts provides distressingly little detail. Paul does not mention the incident in any of his letters, but then his letters are not usually biographical in nature. If we are allowed to speculate, we might speculate that the girl was present daily in the market place offered by her handlers for soothsaying for a fee. In addition we might suspect that Paul had spent some time in the market place, engaging people with his message about Jesus, and perhaps praying over people with healing affects. The slave girl may have had opportunities then to hear Paul and witness his ministry.
At this point let’s digress for a moment and remember the healing ministry of Jesus. Jesus was a teacher. But teachers in the ancient world were a dime a dozen. What really drew the crowds to Jesus was the healings that were achieved in his ministry. Some of the healings credited to Jesus appear to have been the placebo affect engaging the faith of the individual to accomplish a healing. The placebo affect is still alive and well among us. Jesus even encouraged people to credit healing to their own faith, “your faith has made you well.” Some of the healing attributed to Jesus appeared to go way beyond the placebo effect and have something to do with energy transfer, sort of like Reiki on steroids. Also most fascinating and mysterious to modern readers were the healings he performed on those who were demon possessed – exorcism. Before we discount the healing of the mentally ill by Jesus, we should consider that some dramatic experiences can flood the brain with chemicals that permanently rewire the brain. These are in no way ordinary experiences, but truly life altering changes in the brains internal structure and brain chemistry. Apparently some of the followers of Jesus received the gift of healing mental and emotional problems. Who knows? It is a mystery. Paul, who himself had received a life altering experience on the Road to Damascus had some ability to heal others. Other than discounting the healing of the slave girl, we might open ourselves to the possibility that Paul did in fact heal the young woman.
Of course when the owners of the slave girl discovered she had been healed, they were enraged. Their investment became worthless. We are aghast at this kind of exploitation and human trafficking in the First Century it was common place. We need to remember that slavery has always included sexual exploitation. In this case the woman’s illness was being exploited. She was in bondage not only to her masters but to the mental illness that possessed. Once Paul had broken the bondage of her illness, her value as a slave disappeared or at least was much diminished.
The aggrieved owners took Paul and Silas companions before the magistrates who promptly ordered that the two of them be beaten with rods and thrown in jail. Property rights down through history have trumped human rights. In prison Paul and Silas prayed and sang, and the other prisoners began listening to them. About midnight an earth quake caused the doors of the prison to come off their hinges, but Paul and Silas convinced the other prisoners to stay in place. The jailer of course thought that everyone would have fled and he would be held responsible prepared to commit suicide. But Paul called out to him and to the jailer’s immense relief, everyone was still in place. Overwhelmed by this gesture of good will from Paul, Silas and the other prisoners the jailer made his confession of faith that night. The jailer, his family, and perhaps some of the prisoners became part of the fledgling community of the followers of Jesus that night.
What should we learn from this scripture? First, there are many different kinds of bondage. Jesus intends that all people can be set free. We can be set free from political oppression. We can be set free from physical and psychological abuse. We can be set free from our fears and anxieties. And through the loving care community of faith people suffering from mental illness can be set free from the isolation and stigmatization that so often accompanies mental illness. And there are spiritual practices that can help to regulate and heal some of the symptoms of mental illness. (People should take their medications, but love and faith are also important.)
Second, we never know when we will have an opportunity to share our faith. When we pray with and for other people, we are sharing our faith. When we respond in faith rather than fear, we are sharing our faith. When we reach out in love to others we are sharing the faith of Jesus. We don’t always know when our faith is being shared and other have to be open to receive the faith we extend to them. As the great preacher Fred Craddock said, “Preach Christ use words if you have to.” I think, however, in an increasingly secular world with more and more unchurched people, we do have some need to share the story. We can no longer assume that everyone knows the story.
Third, when we attempt to free people from oppression we can expect that the oppressors will react with anger, hostility, even violence. Do not challenge the bondages of the Empire of Darkness unless you are prepared for hostility and persecution. We must also join with others in ending human trafficking in our own day.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. In what City were Paul and Silas walking through the market place?
2. Who followed and harassed them in the market place?
3. In response to the harassment, what did Paul do?
4. How did the handlers of the person react?
5. What charge was leveled against Paul and Silas?
6. What was the response of the authorities?
7. What punishments were meted out to Paul and Silas?
8. How did Paul and Silas comfort themselves in the night?
9. What was the response of those around them?
10. What natural event took place that night?
11. How was the keeper of the jail affected?
12. What was the keeper’s response to the gestures of Paul and Silas?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. From what do you think the slave girl suffered?
2. Have you ever known someone who was healed of a mental illness?
3. How important do you think a loving caring community can be to the mentally ill?
4. How do you feel about property rights versus human rights?
5. What are some of the human rights you think are most important?
6. Have you ever challenged what you would consider to be oppression and what were the consequences?
7. If you had been in the place of Paul and Silas how would you have responded to being beaten and thrown in jail?
8. Do you see any parallels between what was done to Paul and Silas and the suffering of people in the civil rights movement?
9. If you had been a prisoner in the jail, when the earthquake came, what would you have done?
Week of May 6 – May 12: Seventh Sunday of Eastertide – Acts 16:16-34 – Breaking Chains – Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26.
SLIDE 6: TRANSFORMATION OF SAUL TO PAUL
We have two immensely important stories in our scripture today: the Story of the Transformation of Saul to Paul, and the Story of Ananias. The Conversion of Paul has been a classic of Christian Faith. Most of us have not had a dramatic and blinding spiritual experience. But our recent study of Near Death Experiences and how God can change our brains should give us a perspective on Saul’s sudden and dramatic conversion experience.
SLIDE 7: OUR BRAINS CAN BE FLOODED WITH CHEMICALS
Our brains can be flooded with chemicals as a result of illness, fasting, seizure, near death, concussion, injury, and sometimes just spontaneously, perhaps divine intervention. This flood of chemicals can permanently rewire our brains. Paul appears to have had such an experience. Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts contain tantalizing hints as to the source of his conversion experience. His “thorn in the flesh,” may have included seizures, or migraines. He may have been disciplining himself with severe spiritual exercises including prayer vigils and fasting. From a distance of 2,000 years we cannot be sure what brought on his stunning experience, including temporary blindness on the Road to Damascus. We can only say for sure his life was changed forever.
SLIDE 8: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES CAN REWIRE OUR BRAINS
Even if we have not experienced such a sudden and dramatic event as Paul, the spiritual practices of faith over time can rewire our brains. And so I would direct our attention to a quotation from the book How God Changes Our Brains. We began discussing this book around the Sharing Table on March 21st and we will finish discussing it in June, after Marianne Phillips has finished her Reiki program.
SLIDE 9: HOW GOD CHANGES OUR BRAINS
As a neuroscientist, the more I delve into the nature of the human brain, the more I realize how mysterious we are. . .
. . . I’ve learned that behind our drive to survive, there is another force, and the best word to describe it is faith. Faith not just in God, or in science or love, but faith in ourselves and each other. Having faith in the human spirit is what drives us to survive and transcend. It makes life worth living, and it gives meaning to our life. Without such hope and optimism – synonyms for what I am calling faith – the mind can easily slip into depression or despair.
SLIDE 10: FAITH IS EMBEDDED IN OUR NEURONS AND OUR GENES
Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes, and it is one of the most important principles to honor in our lives.
Some people put their faith in God, while others put it into science, relationships, or work. But wherever you choose to place your faith you must still confront a deeper question: What is your ultimate pursuit and dream? What do you truly desire in your life – not only for yourself, but for the world as well? And how will you begin to make that desire a reality?
SLIDE 11: GIFT IS DEVELOPED THROUGH SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Paul was changed forever and we can be transformed as well if we are willing to honor the faith that is embedded in our neurons and genes. Like any latent ability, the gift has to be developed through spiritual practices. We are admonished to pray regularly and seek the community of faith in worship, Bible Study, and around the Sharing Table of Jesus.
SLIDE 12: STORY OF ANANIAS IS AS IMPORTANT AS PAUL
The story of Ananias is as important as the story of Paul. Paul had been struck blind by his spiritual confrontation with the Risen Christ. Just in case he didn’t get the message, spending three days unable to see brought him to his senses. He was in need of healing. He was in need of the healing power of Christ, and just to reinforce that message God needed a follower of Jesus to bring that healing to Paul. So God called on Ananias.
SLIDE 13: ANANIAS WAS PRAYING
Note that Ananias was praying when God called. I suppose God can get through to us, even when we are not praying, but spiritual practices open us to the presence of God. God called Ananias by name like Jesus called Mary by name at the empty tomb. Ananias responded with the traditional prophetic response, “Here I am Lord.” So God told Ananias what to do. But there was a problem. Ananias was afraid. And this story is a good illustration of “just because we are afraid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get us.” Saul was coming to Damascus with warrants for the arrest of any “followers of the way,” he might find there. He was authorized to bind them and bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before the Temple Court. There is considerable scholarly controversy about Paul’s mission to Damascus. It seems hardly likely that the Temple authorities could commission someone to go into a different Roman Province and kidnap people to bring them to Jerusalem for persecution. It also seems hardly likely that agents of the Temple authorities would have been sent abroad for followers of Jesus to persecute, while there was a church in Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul was going to Damascus to organize local Jews in Damascus to terrorize potential followers of Jesus. And Paul may have organized such a mission on his own without the authorization of the Temple authorities. After all Paul and his thugs had broken Stephen out of jail and stoned him to death without the authorization of the Sanhedrin. Again from a distance of 2,000 years we cannot determine exactly what was going on.
SLIDE 14: ANANIAS OVERCOMES FEAR – LOVE WINS
For the purpose of our story we just need to know that Ananias had good reason to be afraid. And so we are confronted by the question once again, what would we do, if we were not afraid? What Ananias does is incredible. He loves. He goes to Paul, and he calls him “brother.” Through faith he overcomes his fear and anger toward this person and loves him. As a result of the love Ananias extends to Paul, the very healing power of God was able to restore Paul’s eye sight, and transforms him into perhaps the greatest evangelist the church has ever known. Love wins!
SLIDE 15: CAN LOVE WIN OUT OVER OUR FEARS?
What I want to ask this morning is can love win over our fears? We have so many potential worries, anxieties, and terrors in this life. Will I be able to get a job? If I try something new, will it fail? If I follow my dream, will it all fall apart? Will I be able to save enough for retirement? Will people still like me, if they knew the truth about me? What if I fall and break something? What if I have a stroke, or a heart attack, or get cancer? Who will take care of me, if I get sick? Will there be enough? What if someone I love dies? What if I die? Life is filled with so many fears.
SLIDE 16: LIVING THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES
Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes. If we follow that faith God can change our brains, so we can live productively, confidently, hopefully, transcending our fears. The key is living the spiritual practices that strengthen and re-enforce the spiritual gifts: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. At our Jazz/Gospel Vespers there was a list of spiritual practices in the bulletin, and I have included that list in our bulletin today, and allow me to address how some of those spiritual practices can change our lives to help us live more hopefully, joyfully, lovingly and with greater peace.
SLIDE 17: SELECTIVE ATTENTION
Personal ritual practice, meditation and prayer, can increase our ability to practice selective attention. In the Buddhist tradition this is often called mindfulness meditation. When prayer incorporates relaxation, breathing, word or sound repetition, singing, even repetitive movement and concentration the practice improves both memory and cognition. Whole body movement can even be incorporated in the practice of walking the spiritual labyrinth, while praying or singing.
SLIDE 18: IN THE ZONE
Our brains can change and even a few weeks of consistent spiritual practice will begin to change the wiring in parts of our brain. Some of these changes can even be demonstrated in differences in before and after brain scans.
Dr. Andrew Newberg writing in How God Changes Your Brain noted: In our brain-scan studies of nuns and Buddhists, we also found decreased activity in the parietal lobe. When this happens, one’s sense of self begins to dissolve, allowing the person to feel unified with the object of contemplation or intention. . . . We don’t fully understand the reason for it, but it appears that a loss of self-consciousness enhances one’s intention to reach specific goals. A loss of one’s sense of self also appears to improve one’s ability to perform a variety of tasks, with greater pleasure. In sports it’s called being “in the zone,” and in psychology, this state of optimal experience is called “flow.”
SLIDE 19: COMMUNITY AND COMPASSION
Personal spiritual practices are important to developing healthy minds and spirits. Another dimension of spiritual development, however, brings us into the experience of community. Compassion appears to be an evolutionary adaptive process, and our neurological “heart” appears to be in the anterior cingulate. . . . It helps to maintain a delicate balance between our feelings and our thoughts, and is the newest part in the evolutionary history of the brain. . .
The anterior cingulate appears to be crucial for empathy and compassion, and many brain-scan studies of meditation show that this part of the brain is stimulated by such practices. . . We can use spiritual practices to become less hostile and greedy and more compassionate toward others.
SLIDE 20: DEVELOPING COMPASSION THROUGH DIVERSITY
Part of participating in a diverse faith community is the development of compassion. Learning how to overcome our fears, “work it out,” with all those other people in the community who are not like us. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here is the goal of a compassionate community. In addition learning to pray with and for other people, even people who are different from us, even people, even people we don’t like, helps us to extend our circle of compassion. And by the way becoming open minded does not mean our brains will fall out.
SLIDE 21: COMPASSION MARKS THE CULTURAL DIVIDE
I would suggest the great divide in world culture today is compassion. We have a choice between a culture that cares for other people, welcomes everyone, motivates us to share and embraces non-violence, or a culture that encourages selfishness, sees those who are different from us as the enemy and embraces violence and exclusion as the primary methods of resolving conflict.
SLIDE 22: A FAITH WORTH SHARING
As we pray, meditate, engage together in positive spiritual practices, worship, praying with and for each other, welcoming everyone no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, in our life together as a community of faith we overcome our fears and promote compassion. And that is a faith that can change the world and is worth sharing.
SLIDE 3: UPSTART, UNEDUCATED, COMMON, ORDINARY JEWS
In Luke’s account of the early church this story occurs after the Pentecost Experience and before the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The Apostles were still attending daily prayers in the Temple, and they thought of themselves as good Jews, who were preaching the way of Jesus as an expression of Judaism. No gentiles had yet been converted. The Deacons as officers in the Jerusalem church had not been selected. The Temple Authorities, however saw these upstart, uneducated, common ordinary Jews forming their own religious community as a threat. This was Jesus coming back to haunt them in a way they had never anticipated.
SLIDE 4: HEALING REALLY ATTRACTS A FOLLOWING
The ministry of the Apostles began to take off, when they discovered that the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had bestowed upon them the gift of healing. Preaching is all well and good, but healing really attracts a following. The hundreds of crutches and wheel chairs left at the Shrine of Lourdes is testimony to the power of healing in people’s imaginations.
SLIDE 5: PETER AND JOHN HEAL LAME BEGGAR
In chapter three of the Book of Acts Peter accompanied by John healed a lame beggar at the gates of the temple. In response to the commotion created by the now formerly lame beggar celebrating his healing, Peter, John and the beggar were all arrested and brought before the ruling council the Sanhedrin. Peter claimed boldly that the healing at been performed in the name of Jesus, and that really ticked off the High Priests. But since the formerly lame man was standing right there the Priests were unable to railroad a condemnation through the Sanhedrin. Peter and John were simply instructed not to preach or perform any more healings in the name of Jesus.
SLIDE 6: HOLY SPIRIT HAD BESTOWED COURAGE
Now we need to remember these Apostles were the same people, who at the first sign of trouble, when Jesus was arrested, they all went into hiding. They boasted and talked a good game at the Last Supper, “Lord, we are ready to follow you to prison and to death,” but when the chips were down the Apostles were gone. Something new had happened. They had been encouraged and empowered by their experience of the Risen Christ. The Holy Spirit had bestowed spiritual gifts upon them, and one of those gifts was courage.
SLIDE 7: AUTHORITIES RESORTED TO INTIMIDATION
In defiance of the orders of the High Priests, the Apostles returned to the Temple preaching the way of Jesus to anyone who would listen. So the Sadducees resorted to intimidation. The Temple police rounded up all of the Apostles roughed them up a bit and then put them in the common jail overnight. “Let them spend some time in the cooler, and then we will question them.” The strategies of intimidation are distressingly common – threats, intimidation, low level punishments in the beginning. People who abuse power count on exploiting the fears of others. Shoot a few in the head, send a bunch to the Gulag and the others will fall in line.
SLIDE 8: ANGEL IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
In the middle of the night, however, an angel came and let the Apostles out of jail. We do not know if this was a heavenly angel or a sympathizer among the jailers. And the time behind bars had not deterred the Apostles, for the next morning there they were in the Temple courts again preaching in the name of Jesus. The escape of the Apostles must have become a favorite story in the early church, for the Temple Police come out looking like the keystone cops. “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside.” The Temple Police re-arrested the Apostles but did not rough them up this time out of fear of the crowd that had gathered.
SLIDE 9: WE MUST OBEY GOD RATHER THAN MEN
Again the High Priests tried to resort to intimidation: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”
When people are no longer afraid, however, intimidation does not work: “We must obey God rather than men. . . we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
SLIDE 10: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID
I hear this passage asking me a question. Maybe you can hear it too. “What would you do, if you were not afraid?” In a recent “Still Speaking Devotional” Anthony Robinson spoke to this very question.
A friend says to me, “When you’re at the end of your rope, let go. There’s a reason you’re there.” She is not saying give up. I think she is saying stop trying to do it all by yourself. Sooner or later . . . some event, person, death, idea or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources.”
SLIDE 11: TRUST GOD RELY ON FAITH
It happens. We get to end of our rope — the end of our own private resources. What then? Let go and put all your trust in God who is able, as Paul says, “to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” Trust God and rely on faith.
The Apostles had been led far beyond their own private resources of courage and faith. They had failed so miserably on the night Jesus was betrayed. They learned on Easter morning and through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that God can give us new resources of courage and resilience far beyond our poor powers. When we let God see us through, we will not yield to intimidation, and we can be bold witnesses to the way of Jesus over against the powers of fear and death.
SLIDE 12: MOST FEARS ARE IRRATIONAL AND SELF-LIMITING
So let me ask this morning, what would we do, if we were not afraid? Most fears are irrational and self-limiting. For instance, according to most surveys, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
SLIDE 13: CAUTION – POTENTIAL DANGER
Some things like tornados, hurricanes, king cobras, lions, traffic on the South Parkway deserve respect. We should use an abundance of caution, because there is potential danger. But most of what holds us back are neurotic or imaginary fears. If I speak the truth, they won’t like me. If I do what I really want to do, I might fail. If I offer my opinion it might be wrong. If I dare to be honest about who I really am, others might reject me. If I dare to stand up for what I believe then maybe others won’t like me. What would we do, if we weren’t afraid?
SLIDE 14: WHAT ARE WE REALLY AFRAID OF?
I am reminded of a story about a little boy, who was afraid of thunder storms. One summer evening during a violent thunderstorm his mother was tucking the boy into bed. She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, “Mommy, will you sleep with me tonight?”
The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug. “I can’t dear,” she said. “I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.”
A long silence was broken at last by his shaky little voice that said: “The big sissy.”
SLIDE 15: DO NOT BE AFRAID, FOR I AM ALWAYS WITH YOU
The gift of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s message, “do not be afraid, for I am with you always.” The opposite of faith is not unbelief. This is not a matter of trying to will ourselves to believe. We don’t have to gather around the dying Tinker Bell chanting, “I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies.” No, the opposite of faith is fear. And when we learn to trust God, rather than relying on our own pitiful resources, then faith begins to grow.
SLIDE 16: RE-VISIONING – SEEKING TO DISCERN GOD’S INTENTION
Remember part of the re-visioning process is seeking to discern God’s intentions for our community of faith through prayer. Too often in the past we have insisted that we are the smartest people in the room, and we have insisted upon what we want rather than trusting that through prayer God will give us the wisdom and the resources to do what God wants us to do. And so again and again our selfishness and our fears have sold us short. Admittedly this congregation has persevered through hard times in our past. The Big Boeing lay off, when the church had barely gotten itself off the ground was devastating and frightening. And God brought us through. As we face an uncertain future, the world is changing all around us, we need to trust God to show us the way. We need to pray Proverbs chapter 3 verse 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. God will show us the way, if we ask for guidance in discernment.
SLIDE 17: SHARING OUR FAITH
What would we do if we weren’t afraid? Share our faith. Some of us are afraid of faith sharing, because we are afraid of any form of public speaking. But I remember the words of the famous homiletics professor Fred Craddock, “preach Christ, use words if you have to.” It’s not so much what we say as what we do. Reaching out beyond the walls of the church in mission is the most powerful statement we can make to the world. But that means giving up our resistance to mission, because we are afraid there won’t be enough resources to keep our little congregation going. If we aren’t willing to reach beyond the boundaries of our congregation, we will die.
SLIDE 18: LET’S GET OVER IT AND WELCOME NEW PEOPLE
Another reason we may be afraid of faith sharing is because we are afraid to grow. Every time we talk about growing the church there are folks who immediately say, “Well we don’t want to be a mega-church, or there are all of these new people I don’t know.” Friends we are so far from becoming a mega-church, we aren’t even a financially viable congregation. So let’s get over it and learn to welcome new people – really welcome them.
SLIDE 19: UNBINDING YOUR HEART
A third reason we may be afraid of faith sharing is we are we don’t want to be perceived as being too religious, or we’re not sure we have any faith. And that is why I keep urging everyone to ask Bill Green and Greg Kamback to lead another Unbinding Your Heart study group and then attend. Unbinding Your Heart can help us find the courage to claim our faith and share it. Like those early followers of Jesus we too can become witnesses of the resurrection.
SLIDE 20: BLACK SLIDE