Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sunday, May 27, 2007 Sermon: "Pentecost Passion"

Series: The Passionate Life
“Pentecost Passion”
(Last in the Series)
Acts 2:1-21
May 27, 2007

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’"

The event of Pentecost is about power. Two things about power: it can be explosive and it can be harnessed. For example, there’s a lot of power in 10 gallons of gasoline. If you have 10 gallons of gas in a can and put a match to it, you would have quite an explosion (Please do not try this at home!!!). On the other hand, 10 gallons of gas in the tank of a compact car, channeled through its fuel-efficient engine, might take the car all the way to Amarillo!

On the Day of Pentecost, the power of the Holy Spirit worked both ways. The Spirit exploded on the scene with wind and flames and foreign tongues in a dramatic display of miraculous power. But the Spirit also stayed on the scene to work through the apostles and the early church to give the church staying power and to take it from small beginnings to worldwide prominence. The church of Jesus Christ was born on the Day of Pentecost, and the apostles and other followers were given a passion for the church as God’s chosen instrument to be the “body of Christ” on earth.

We here at First UMC, as well as every other Christian church in the world today, owe our existence to that explosive event that gave birth to the church at Pentecost and to the dedicated servants and disciples who harnessed that power and created an institution that has existed now for almost 2,000 years. Those early Christians loved the church and many of them gave up their lives for her. They sacrificed, they suffered, and they stuck with it, and the church not only survived – it thrived! If we hope to re-gain their sense of passion and take the church boldly into the 21st century, we can learn a lot by looking at what defined the mission of the church in the 1st century and make sure we are still on track.

When I look at the church that was born on the Day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2, four words come to mind: Salvation, Transformation, Participation, and Communication. The Christian Church, born on the Day of Pentecost, grew so quickly and became a worldwide movement within a matter of generations because they were passionate about these four things. Even though the church is now 2,000 years older, those four terms still define our mission and should still describe our passion. I want First Church to be a “Pentecost Church.” Now, I didn’t say “Pentecostal” Church – that’s something completely different. I want us to be a “Pentecost Church” with the same kind of power and passion that the Holy Spirit gave the Church at Pentecost, so we can do and be everything that God put us here for. So let’s explore these four “passions” of a Pentecost Church and see what they mean for us.

First of all, a “Pentecost Church” is passionate about…

1) Salvation

The last verse of our reading today says…

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:21)

It may come last in our reading, but salvation should be the number one priority and passion of the Pentecost Church. God brought the church into existence as the means by which the people of planet Earth might be saved.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that the church saves anyone. As the saying goes, going into a church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than going into a garage makes one a car. Salvation is by grace and grace alone – through faith in Jesus Christ. But the church is God’s divinely ordained institution for providing everything necessary for salvation. The church was put here on earth by God to share in as many ways as possible with as many people as possible the Good News that salvation is available through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are here to tell people that if they call on the name of the Lord, they will be saved. If we are not doing that, then we are not fulfilling our purpose and there is a danger that we will go out of business.

When the church is passionate about saving lost souls, it flourishes and grows. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, told his preachers:

“You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.”

When that passion wanes or we get distracted by other concerns, the church suffers. You may have heard the modern parable of the ramshackle little lifesaving station on a rocky seacoast where shipwrecks were common. It was manned by a few brave people who kept constant watch over the sea and who went out fearlessly into the storms if there was a shipwreck. They saved many lives and the station became famous. Soon, more and more people wanted to be associated with the work of the station, so they gave time and money, bought new boats, and trained new crews. The old hut was replaced by a comfortable building, which between shipwrecks, became a popular gathering place and a sort of a local club. After a while, the members became so busy socializing that they had little interest in lifesaving, and actually viewed the few people who were saved as unwelcome nuisances. Finally, the founding members complained that the social activities had replaced their original purpose, but they were invited to leave the club and start another. Which is what they did – a little farther down the coast, and this same pattern was repeated again and again until today you find a number of exclusive clubs dotting the shoreline. Shipwrecks still happen, but nobody seems to care.

To be a Pentecost Church, we must maintain our passion to be a saving station in a world of shipwrecked lives.

Second, a Pentecost Church is passionate about…

2) Transformation

Salvation is our #1 priority and passion. But the church is also to be about the business of transformation – transforming lives, families, institutions, and the world. The image of transformation comes through for me in the wind and fire of Pentecost…

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them… (Acts 1:2-3)

Wind and fire are two of the most powerful transforming forces in nature. Wind can work slowly to transform a landscape, as it has done in the beautiful sandstone arches of Arches National Monument in Utah, carved over many thousands of years. Or it can work explosively and violently in a tornado or hurricane. Fire also works to transform. A forest fire can destroy a forest, but it also clears the land for new life and growth.

The church is also here to witness passionately to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which sometimes works explosively and suddenly, at other times slowly and deliberately, like wind and fire, to change hearts and lives to make them more like Jesus. We are in the business of taking souls that have been saved and helping them grow into the image and likeness of Christ. Sometimes people are transformed by worship, or by Bible study or small group, or by a mission trip, or by a Walk to Emmaus or other retreat – the church has many means at its disposal to help nurture and grow disciples.

Next, this passage speaks to the Pentecost Church’s passion for…

3) Participation

Verse 17 says that God’s Spirit will be poured out on “all flesh” – men and women, young and old, slave and free. The church must be passionate about inclusion – making sure we are reaching out to all kinds of people and not limiting ourselves only to those who are “like us.” The church works best when it’s like a body, as it is described many times in scripture. Just as a body has a lot of parts and all parts need to work together, so the church has a lot of people and we all need to work together.

The church should be a place where all people are loved and respected and where all gifts are treasured and used. When just a few people are taking all the leadership and doing all the work, something’s out of balance. But when everyone is using their gifts to serve God – that’s when the church is hitting on all cylinders.

Finally, on Pentecost the church was given a passion for…

4) Communication

That’s what this miracle of tongues is all about. Jerusalem at Pentecost was like a mini-United Nations, only there weren’t translators available to make everything understandable through headphones. So God gave the apostles the amazing gift of being able to talk in the languages of the people who were there so that the Good News could be proclaimed.

The church needs a passion to communicate, otherwise we can never get our message of salvation, transformation, and participation out to the people. The message is unchanging – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; the Holy Spirit can transform your life and make you more and more like Jesus; God’s love is for everyone and God needs everyone to make the church work – but the way the message is communicated has to change to meet the needs of the people we are trying to reach. Obviously, we have to speak their “language,” but that means much more than Spanish, Russian, or Swahili. We have to speak their language culturally, musically, electronically – whatever it takes to get through.

In the “old days,” there were just two main ways for the church to communicate with its audience: verbally and in print. Now we have TV (cable, satellite and over-the-air), magazines, radio, Internet, video projection, books, mass mail, billboards, CDs, DVDs, and on and on. We have to use all the means at our disposal to get our message out – communication.

So on this Day of Pentecost, may we renew our vision to be a “Pentecost Church,” where the power of the Holy Spirit is creating a body of believers where salvation, transformation, participation, and communication are our passions. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sunday, May 20, 2007 Sermon: "A Passion for the Holy Spirit"

Series: The Passionate Life
“A Passion for the Holy Spirit”
Acts 1:1-8
May 20, 2007
(Sixth in the Series)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Some Sunday School children were putting on a program to show their parents what they had learned during the year. When they got to the Apostles’ Creed, one child stepped forward and said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” A second child stepped up and said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord.” After a long silence, a little voice spoke up and said, “The boy who believes in the Holy Spirit is absent.”

When it comes to thinking about the Holy Spirit, some of us may feel like we were absent from class that day. Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit is the least understood Person of the Trinity. We may feel comfortable talking about God the Father – after all, we know the Father through the work of creation and we’ve seen the Father’s likeness on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And God the Son – well, that’s Jesus, and we’ve seen lots of movies and heard lots of stories about him.

But the Holy Spirit – that’s a tricky one. We don’t really have an image in our mind to associate with the Holy Spirit, except maybe a dove, and that’s not a lot to go on. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t really help us all that much either. God the Father – we say we believe he’s the maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ – he was conceived by the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at God’s right hand, and will come to judge the quick and the dead. But the Holy Spirit – we just say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and that’s it.

And yet, the Holy Spirit should be the best known and most understood Person of the Trinity. After all, while God the Father sits on a heavenly throne and Jesus, the Son, sits at the Father’s right hand, the Holy Spirit is present with us in the world today. After Jesus had been raised from the dead and had appeared to the disciples and others, and after he had taught them all he could teach them, he was ready to return to heaven.

The disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t sure how they would make it without him. They depended on him so much and they felt so close to him. But Jesus had promised not to leave them alone. Jesus promised that in between his ascension back to heaven and his coming again in glory, God the Father would send the Holy Spirit to be with all believers. God kept that promise on Pentecost, as we will see next week, and the Holy Spirit has been with us ever since.

None of us has ever seen God the Father, and we weren’t around when Jesus walked the earth. But we have received the Holy Spirit – the Spirit is with us and in us, so we should know the Spirit best of all. So let’s get to know the Spirit a little better this morning.

The early church had a passion for the Holy Spirit, and because they did, the Spirit empowered them to make disciples and to grow the church explosively. If we can regain that same kind of passion, we can see the same kind of results. Our reading this morning mentions the Holy Spirit several times, as does the whole Book of Acts. In fact, some have even said that Acts should be called the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit,” because the Spirit is such a central character of the story. In chapter one, we get to know the Holy Spirit as Promise, Power, and Proclamation. Let’s explore those three themes this morning. First…

1) The Holy Spirit Bears God’s Promise

Acts 1:4-5 says…

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

The disciples were faced with a decision. Could God be trusted or not? Could Jesus be taken at his word? Were the promises of God trustworthy? They had left their former lives behind – as fishermen, tax collectors, citizens – to follow Jesus. They thought all was lost when he was crucified, but he was given back to them in the resurrection. Now he was leaving them again. He was returning to his place at the Father’s right hand. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father, meaning the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

If God could not be trusted, then they might as well go back home to their fishing boats and tax tables. Without Jesus, how would they hope to stand up to the powerful Jewish establishment and the mighty Roman Empire? But if Jesus could be trusted, if God was going to send them the Holy Spirit to be with them in a mighty way, just as the Spirit had been with Jesus throughout his time with them, then they would be able to accomplish all that Jesus had told them to do and even more.

Indeed, God did keep his promise. As we will see next Sunday, when we look at the story of the Day of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit down upon the disciples as they waited in Jerusalem, just like Jesus told them to do.

That’s important for us to know because we also may wonder sometimes if God can really be trusted. Will God keep God’s promises to us as God kept them to the early disciples? The presence of the Holy Spirit with us today means that the answer to that question is Yes. God’s Spirit bears the Yes of that promise to us as certainly as he bore it to the disciples waiting in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago.

The Apostle Paul makes a beautiful affirmation in 2 Cor. 1:20-22. He says…

For in [Jesus] every one of God’s promises is a “Yes” … by … giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.

In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit at our baptisms, is a “down payment” that assures that every promise that God has made to us in Jesus Christ is true: the promise of forgiveness, the promise of new life, the promise of God’s presence. The Holy Spirit is an ever-present witness to us that God will keep all his promises.

Those of you who are being confirmed today: Remember that as you stand up here and make your promises to God in just a little while, God is also making a promise to you – to give you the gift of the Holy Spirit so that you will never be alone.

Second, this story tells us that…

2) The Holy Spirit Brings God’s Power

Jesus promised his disciples…

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. (Acts 1:8)

The disciples knew they could never fulfill the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations and baptize them and teach them, through their own power alone. They would need another power source. And that power source was the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit gave them power to preach, power to heal, power to stand up to persecution and opposition, and power to grow.

That same power source is available to us today, but we don’t always take advantage of it. One New Year’s Day, in the Tournament of Roses parade, a beautiful float suddenly sputtered and quit. It was out of gas. The whole parade was held up until someone could get a can of gas. The amusing thing was this float represented the Standard Oil Company. With its vast oil resources, its truck was out of gas. Often, Christians neglect their spiritual maintenance, and though they are “clothed with power” find themselves out of gas.

Where do you need power in your life right now? Do you need power to work through a difficult time in your marriage? Do you need power to resist a destructive addiction or harmful habit? Do you need power to make it through another week of an exhausting schedule? Wherever you need power, the Holy Spirit is ready to give it to you. You just have to ask God to give you his strength, and he promises to help. Don’t neglect the Holy Spirit as a source of power.

Confirmation Class: You are full of energy and enthusiasm. We who are a little older wish we had some of that for ourselves. But there will be times in your lives when your own power runs out and you will need to plug into another power source. Just remember that your power is always standing by, through the Holy Spirit, whom you receive today.

Finally, this passage tells us that…

3) The Holy Spirit Blesses God’s Proclamation

Promise, Power, and Proclamation – the Holy Spirit is God’s way of making each of these a reality. Jesus told the disciples that when they had received the promised power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost…

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Witness means proclamation. The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples to proclaim the Good News beginning in Jerusalem and eventually take it to the ends of the earth.

The early church took the Holy Spirit’s call to proclaim the Good News very seriously. They began in Jerusalem. Philip took the Word to Samaria. Peter took the word to Cornelius and his family. Paul took the Word to Philippi, Corinth, Athens, and Rome. That’s how the church grew so quickly.

We have received the Holy Spirit not just to assure us of God’s promises and to bring us God’s power. We have also been blessed with the Spirit so we can be witnesses, proclaimers, of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We too are called to proclaim the Gospel in our own Jerusalem, Gainesville, and to take it to Ft. Worth and Waco and Houston and New York and Los Angeles and to the ends of the earth.

Even you confirmands aren’t too young to be witnesses – to your friends and classmates. Just let them know how much God loves them.

We are people who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we are absent when it comes time to believe in the Spirit and the Promise, Power, and Proclamation the Spirit brings, then the world will miss out on something vital. Let us be passionate about the Holy Spirit and passionate in trusting the Spirit to make us proclaimers of God’s love and grace. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2007 Sermon: "Purple Passion"

Series: The Passionate Life
“Purple Passion”
Acts 16:11-15
May 13, 2007
(Fifth in the Series)

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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. 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. 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.

Four brothers left home for college, and they became successful doctors and lawyers and prospered. Some years later, they chatted after having dinner together. They discussed the Mother’s Day gifts they were able to give their elderly mother who lived far away in another city.

The first said, "I had a big house built for Mama."

The second said, "I had a hundred thousand dollar theater built in the house."

The third said, "I had my Mercedes dealer deliver an SL600 to her."

The fourth said, "You know how Mama loved reading the Bible and you know she can't read anymore because she can't see very well. I met this preacher who told me about a parrot that can recite the entire bible. It took twenty preachers 12 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute $100,000 a year for twenty years to the church, but it was worth it. Mama just has to name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it."

The other brothers were impressed.

After the holidays Mama sent out her Thank You notes. She wrote:
"Milton, the house you built is so huge. I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house. Thanks anyway."

"Michael, you gave me an expensive theater with Dolby sound, it could hold 50 people, but all of my friends are dead, I've lost my hearing and I'm nearly blind. I'll never use it. Thank you for the gesture just the same."

"Marvin, I am too old to travel. I stay home, I have my groceries delivered, so I never use the Mercedes. The thought was good. Thanks."

"Dearest Melvin, you were the only son to have the good sense to give a little thought to your gift. The chicken was delicious. Thank you."

I hope all of you have given a little thought to your own Mother’s Day gifts.

A new survey just completed by George Barna confirms what many of us might have suspected: Mothers are among the most faith-minded and spiritually active segments of the American population. While it’s not meant to be a competition, mothers “lead” fathers on 11 of 12 faith-measurement factors. For example:

• More mothers say they have been “greatly transformed by their faith” than fathers.
• More moms than dads said their faith is very important in their life.
• Moms are more likely to attend church, read the Bible, participate in a small group, attend Sunday School, and volunteer their time in a typical week than dads.

While many hold up the role of the father as the spiritual “leader” of the family, most of us know that it’s more often the moms who are their family’s real spiritual glue.

In other words, following our theme of the “passionate life,” we might say that women in general and mothers in particular are very passionate about their faith. In the very early days of the church, we might think of men like Peter and Paul as being the passionate ones, but we meet a very passionate woman and perhaps mother in today’s reading: Lydia. Maybe her story can fire up a little passion in us men too!

Passionate people can be frightening, and yet admired at the same time. I like passionate people, whose feelings run very deep. But they are scary sometimes. They remind me that it is possible to go out of control and to commit to things so intensely that we lose sight of everything else. That scares me. That sort of passion can produce suicide squads to hijack planes and send them into the Twin Towers. Passion!

And yet I admire passion too. I admire passion because I know that the world is not going to be changed by people who just take things as they come, the bitter with the sweet, and lazily lounge around. I admire passion, intensity, burning hot within someone’s soul, but also reaching out and drawing others. Passion: it gets things done.

What do you feel deeply about? What do you feel passionate about? Does it scare you when intense feelings stir? And, if I were to suggest to you today that we ought to feel and indeed can feel passionate intensity about Kingdom work, what would you say?

Play along with me on this for a few moments. I want to think with you about passionate feelings. I have a little phrase I want to work with: “purple passion”. “Purple passion.” Now what does that mean? What is that about, besides the fact that it is a neat alliteration?

Curiously, the color purple is often associated with passionate feelings, intensity. It goes way back, well before Elizabeth Taylor began marketing purple perfume called “Passion.”. Purple passion – I expect it has to do with the way your face and your neck color up when the adrenaline flows and the heart pumps hard. “Purple passion” means exceptional, tremendous conviction. I remember my mother used to have an expression: “I hate that with a purple passion.”

So let’s talk about passion, purple passion. There was, in the city of Philippi, in the ancient colony of Macedonia, a woman named Lydia. Lydia was a businesswoman – a seller of purple. That means that she traded in purple cloth, the finest and the most expensive material available. Purple dye came from shellfish and was very costly to produce. Some ancient writers say it was worth its weight in gold!

Something happened to Lydia one day. She got her passion stirred up! I guess, you might say, Lydia went into a purple passion! How did it happen?

Lydia’s journey to a passionate life started when she let the Spirit of God transform ordinary worship into extraordinary openness. Lydia’s calm life began to find a new dimension because Lydia opened her heart and listened eagerly – there’s a passionate word – she listened eagerly to the word of God.

Lydia started a journey toward purple passion because she was willing to be open for the Lord to say something new and direct to her. For Lydia, who, according to the text, was already a worshiper, already a praying person, it would have been easy to have said, “Ah, one more Sabbath. They’re all the same. Go and sit and smile and go home.” But Lydia came to “church” that day with an open heart and an eagerly listening mind. She came expecting God to speak to her – not just to the world in general, but to her.

Someone has commented that you might just as well shoot some church members, because whether you hit them with a bullet or brush them with a new idea, either one will take their breath away! We get so committed to “this is what I do” and “this is the way I am”, that we are not willing to hear anything new. We are not prepared to hear anything intended for us personally. And so we miss the rich excitement that God wants to give us.

But that’s the way some people are in their spiritual lives. They want their worship bland; their prayers colorless; and most of all, they want nothing new, nothing challenging, nothing demanding. But I tell you, if we do not worship God with open hearts and eagerly listening minds, we will never feel any passion, we will never get any intensity, we will never be captured by mystery.

Do you want passion, purple passion, for God and for His way? Then come here each Sunday expecting a word from the Lord, expecting beauty in the music, expecting warmth in God’s people, eagerly, on the edge of your seat, listening for God’s word with your name on it. And, like Lydia, you will be on our way to a purple passion!

But then Lydia, once she began to hear, did something else, very important, toward gaining a purple passion. Lydia took her first step of commitment. She didn’t know everything yet, and doubtless she hadn’t sorted out all her feelings, but she took a step on the basis of what she did know. She made a commitment.

It says that after her eager listening, “she and her household were baptized.” They stepped forward to declare their faith. You know, there is no substitute for stepping out to make a public commitment to something. That’s what will give you the courage to stay with it. Take marriage, for example; there are plenty of passionate couples out there, plenty of men and women who have a passion for one another. But I will tell you that something special happens when they stand up here and say those “I do” words publicly.

Next Sunday the young people in our Confirmation Class will be stepping up bravely to say before all of us – “I want to be a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. I don’t want to be an ‘accidental’ Christian. I want to be a Christian on purpose.” They are making a commitment. I’ve told them it’s the most important commitment they will ever make, because all others only last as long as they live – this one lasts for all eternity.

That Barna survey reported that among the other factors, mothers were more likely to say they are absolutely committed to Christianity than fathers. We commit ourselves to what we are passionate about.

Now when Lydia got out of that river where her baptism took place, what did she do? What did she do to maintain her purple passion for the Lord? Lydia insisted on a close fellowship with other believers. It says that Lydia urged – there’s another passionate word – Lydia urged the others to come home with her and to stay there. My guess is that she knew that unless she stayed close to other believers, she might waver. Unless she created an intimate, loving fellowship with other Christians, she might cool off.

It’s a crisp October evening, hayride time, Halloween, and it gets cold. You build a bonfire to warm your hands. After a while you notice that there in the center of the fire, where the logs and the charcoal touch each other, the fire is warm and bright. But out there on the edge, where one log gets separated, it cools down. The fire loses intensity. The coals on the edge, they aren’t red or orange or purple anymore. They are ashes, gray; they’ve lost their warmth.

Passion is kept alive when you and I find each other, cherish each other, encourage each other, and strengthen each other. I am persuaded that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. You cannot follow Christ all by yourself. You need others, and others need you. We nourish our faith and keep it passionate by coming together in the life of the church.

If your journey toward passion has begun because you were eager to hear God’s word; and if it continued because you made a personal commitment to Christ; then it’ll be all right when you gather with other believers and let them build you up. It’ll be all right, because where two or three are gathered, there He is in the midst of them, and the joy you share as you tarry there, none other has ever known. You can keep your purple passion for the things of the Kingdom alive by allowing your church experience, like Lydia’s, to be close and intimate, warm and supportive.

I said earlier that passionate people scare us as well as draw our admiration. I suggested that people who feel deeply are scary; but that we do admire those definite, passionate people, because the world will not change without them. Nothing ever gets done with half-hearted, ho-hum, hit-or-miss guesses. The only way the world changes is for passionate people to stake out what they want to do and to prevail.

I serve on the Allocation Committee for Cooke County United Way. We met a couple of weeks ago to interview the agencies who were asking for United Way funds. Almost all the representatives were passionate about what they do. But one young man in particular comes to mind. He works with the Boys and Girls Club. He graduated from high school not long ago and said when he graduated he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do but he knew he wanted to make a lot of money and retire early. But he got a summer job as a lifeguard at the Boys Club and then a part-time position during college. And he found out he has a gift for working with kids. That’s what he’s become passionate about. Now he knows he might not get rich working with kids, but he’s going to follow his passion.

Can you get to a purple passion about Kingdom work? Once any one of us listens to the Lord, eagerly; then steps out personally, in front of the world, to make a commitment; then gathers in a group of like-minded spirits to keep the fires burning – once we do those things, we can prevail. We can accomplish. We can keep a purple passion.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday, May 6, 2007 Sermon: "A Passion to Include"

Series: The Passionate Life
“A Passion to Include”
Acts 11:1-18
May 6, 2007
(Fourth in the Series)

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

At the end of the 1960s, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district reverted to high rent, and many hippies moved down the coast to Santa Cruz. They had children and got married, too, though in no particular sequence. But they didn’t name their children Melissa or Brett. People in the mountains around Santa Cruz grew accustomed to their children playing Frisbee with little Time Warp or Spring Fever. And eventually Moonbeam, Earth, Love, and Precious Promise all ended up in public school. That’s when the kindergarten teachers first met Fruit Stand.

Every fall, according to tradition, parents applied name tags to their children, kissed them good-bye and sent them off to school on the bus. So it was for Fruit Stand. The teachers thought the boy’s name was odd, but they tried to make the best of it.

“Would you like to play with the blocks, Fruit Stand?” they offered. And later, “Fruit Stand, how about a snack?” He accepted hesitantly. By the end of the day, his name didn’t seem much odder than Heather’s or Sun Ray’s. At dismissal time, the teachers led the children out to the buses. “Fruit Stand, do you know which one is your bus?”

He didn’t answer. That wasn’t strange. He hadn’t answered them all day. Lots of children are shy on the first day of school. It didn’t matter. The teachers had instructed the parents to write the names of their children’s bus stops on the reverse side of their name tags. The teacher simply turned over the tag. There, neatly printed, was the word “Anthony.”

The teachers had made a false assumption. The church has also suffered from false assumptions.

In the beginning, Peter had made the assumption that the Gospel was only for Jews and not for Gentiles. But in our reading today from Acts 11, he tells the story of how God came to change his mind by giving him this vision that there was no such thing as unclean food or unclean people. God’s purpose was to include everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike. And soon Peter was aflame with this passion to include.

That kind of false assumption has continued into the church today. Nowadays the false assumption is that the Gospel is only for people “like us,” not “like them.” You know, people who dress like us, live in houses like ours, talk the way we do, move in the same social circles we move in.

Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers, illustrates that false assumption in a story he tells about a church in east Tennessee that he pastored in his student days. It was a beautiful little church in Anderson County. The church was a white frame building, pretty as a picture. There were good people in that church, too. It was a warm, loving family. But when Dr. Craddock arrived, he noticed something. He noticed that none of the new people in the community, people who had come to work on the big government project over at Oak Ridge and all those people living in trailers and hastily built shanties with all those children, none of those people were in that church.

Dr. Craddock called the church board together and told them, "We need to reach out to those folks who are out here. They are close. Here's our mission." And the chair of the board said, "Oh, I don't think so. They wouldn't fit in here." Craddock protested, "But they need the gospel. They need the church." "No, I don't think so," said the chairperson. And the next Sunday night the board passed a resolution, "Members will be admitted to this church only from families who own property in [Anderson] county."

Years later, Craddock took a trip back to that community. He searched out the church and found it. It was still a pretty place. But out in front of that pretty, picturesque little church was a sign that read: "Barbecued Chicken, Ribs & Pork." It wasn't a church anymore. The church had died. It was a restaurant now and it was full, full of all kinds of people, sitting in those pews, eating barbecue. The building was packed and Craddock said to his wife, "It's a good thing this isn't a church anymore.”

I have been guilty of this false assumption too. About 20 years ago I ran into a man in the convenience store next to the church. He looked big and rough and mean. He had tattoos and rode a motorcycle when he wasn’t driving a big ol’ truck. I knew definitely that I wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley. And I assumed that church would be the furthest thing from his mind. No way a guy like that went to church.

After a while I found out that his name was Leon and he did have a rough past. He was kicked out of the house by his dad when he was about 14 (his mom had left when he was a kid). He got into trouble with drugs and alcohol and spent time in juvenile detention. My assumptions were confirmed. But the story didn’t end there.

A doctor and his wife in that town who were strong Christians took Leon in and raised him as one of their own. Leon had become a Christian and eventually started his own foundation business. He used his rough past to help law enforcement with sting operations. He helped bust several meth labs out in the country.

Despite his rough appearance, Leon was actually very active in one of the churches in town and I got to know him after he went on the Walk to Emmaus and we were in the same small accountability group. Leon had a passion for prison ministry and I went with him to one of the TDC units once. He had a rapport with those inmates that I could never match.

Unfortunately, Leon had contracted hepatitis from his earlier days and he died a few years ago at much too young an age. But whenever I look at someone and think, “That person would never come to church here,” I think of Leon.

The early church grew so explosively because they had a passion to reach out, to include.

I’ve always wanted to go to one of those “all-inclusive” resorts in the Caribbean where your lodging, food, recreation, tips are all included in one price. It sounds like fun. The early church began to grow when they figured out, like Peter, that God’s vision was for an “all-inclusive” church where the doors were open to everyone.

God’s love is for everyone. God’s love meets every one of us right where we are and offers us salvation an eternal life in Jesus Christ. Now God loves us too much to leave us where we are – God is in the transformation business – but God’s love is all inclusive. We will begin to fill the empty spaces in these pews when we reach out with that inclusive kind of love to the people we know, even those we assume would never come to church. Maybe they’re just waiting for an invitation.

Let me share one more story by Fred Craddock to illustrate the difference that can be made in one life by reaching out to those that life excludes. Craddock tells a story about vacationing with his wife one summer in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One night they found a quiet little restaurant where they looked forward to a private meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. Craddock leaned over and whispered to his wife, "I hope he doesn't come over here." He didn't want anyone intruding on their privacy. But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. "Where you folks from?" he asked in a friendly voice. "Oklahoma," Craddock answered. "Splendid state, I hear, although I've never been there," the stranger said. "What do you do for a living?" "I teach homiletics at the graduate seminary of Phillips University," Craddock replied. "Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a story to tell you." And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with Craddock and his wife.

Dr. Craddock said he groaned inwardly and thought to himself, "Oh, no! Here comes another preacher story!" The man stuck out his hand. "I'm Ben Hooper," he said. "I was born not far from here across the mountains. My mother wasn't married when I was born, so I had a pretty hard time. When I started to school, my classmates had a name for me, and it wasn't a very nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and lunch time because the things they said to me cut so deep. What was worse was going to town on Saturday afternoons and feeling like every eye was burning a hole through me, wondering just who my father was.

"When I was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to our church. I would always go in late and slip out early. But one day the preacher said the benediction so fast I got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. I felt like every eye in the church was on me. Just about the time I got to the door I felt a big hand on my shoulder. I looked up and the preacher was looking right at me. 'Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?' he asked. I felt this big weight coming down on me. It was like a big black cloud. Even the preacher was putting me down. But as he looked down at me, studying my face, he began to smile a big smile of recognition. 'Wait a minute!' he said. 'I know who you are. I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he slapped me across the rump and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.'

The old man looked across the table at Fred Craddock and said, "Those were the most important words anybody ever said to me, and I've never forgotten them." With that, he smiled, shook hands with Craddock and his wife, and moved on to another table to greet old friends.

And as he walked away, Craddock--a native Tennesseean himself -- remembered from his studies of Tennessee history that on two occasions the people of Tennessee had elected to the office of governor men who had been born out of wedlock. One of them was a man named Ben Hooper.

Our job is to reach out to all kinds of people and tell them that they are children of God. You never know, they may just begin to live that way. Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2007 Sermon: "A Passion to Serve"

Series: The Passionate Life
“A Passion to Serve”
Acts 9:36-43
April 29, 2007
(Third in the Series)

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

When do you feel closest to God, closest to Jesus? For some of you, it might be when you worship. Worship at its best should draw us closer to God and fill us with an experience of God’s presence.

Others might feel closest to God when they pray. Pouring out your heart and soul to God in fervent prayer is bound to make you feel closer to him.

Maybe you feel a special closeness to God when you read the Bible. When you’re looking for answers and God’s Word speaks directly to your need, that’s a wonderful feeling.

Next Sunday is Communion Sunday and for lots of people, the Lord’s Supper brings an intimacy and a fellowship with Jesus that can’t be matched.

Some people say that they feel closest to God when they are out enjoying the beauty of God’s creation somewhere in nature. If you’ve been in my office you’ve seen my poster of Grand Teton National Park. I feel close to God when I’m in the Tetons and staring at those mountains. There’s just something spiritually uplifting about mountains, especially those mountains, for me.

These are all excellent ways to feel closer to Jesus, and you might have some other suggestions, but I’m wondering today if we might not be closest to Christ not when we worship or pray or read the Bible, but when we serve.

We’re talking in this sermon series about a passion-filled life, like the passion the early disciples felt in the Book of Acts. We’ve already seen that Peter & John had a passion to witness, to tell the story of Jesus, and they made thousands of new disciples. Paul’s passion at first to persecute followers of Jesus became a passion for Jesus, and he changed the world.

In coming weeks we’ll be looking at the early church’s passion to reach the lost, to learn and grow in their faith; their passion for the Holy Spirit and for the Church. But today we want to focus on the passion to serve. A passion for Christ must include a passion to serve.

We encounter this passion to serve today not in one of the great “heroes” of the early church like Peter, James, John, or Paul, but in a relatively unknown woman of Joppa with the Greek name of Dorcas and the Aramaic name of Tabitha, which both mean “gazelle.”

Luke, who was most likely the author of the Book of Acts, tells us two very important things about Tabitha. First, he describes her as a “disciple” (vs. 36). The Greek word he uses is “matheteria” – the feminine form of the word for disciple – and this is the only time it appears in the New Testament. This means that Tabitha must have been known as a very faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re used to thinking of disciples as men – but here’s a woman who is called a disciple.

The second thing Luke tells us is that Tabitha was…

…devoted to good works and acts of charity. (Acts 9:36)

In other words, she was a servant. And she was not just a servant, she was devoted to serving – we might even say she had a passion to serve. Tabitha was a disciple and she was a servant. The two go together.

There were probably many servants of Jesus Christ among the early Christians, but Tabitha becomes known to us because she falls ill and dies, and Peter is called to do something. Peter is taken to the upstairs room where Tabitha’s body is lying. In a very touching scene, Luke says that…

…all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. (Acts 9:39)

What was it Jesus had said? “I was naked and you gave me clothing…” (Matt. 25:36). Among Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity, she had made clothing for poor widows. Maybe she was a widow herself. Maybe she had been a seamstress to make a living. But Tabitha had used her experience and her talents to serve those in need and in doing so, to serve Jesus himself. And she was going to be greatly missed by those she had served.

But the story wasn’t over yet! Jesus had promised the disciples that they would do even greater works than his, and in that spirit, Peter prayed for Tabitha and then said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and sat up as if she had only been taking a nap, and Peter gave her his hand and helped her stand up.

Tabitha had new life! Don’t you know there was celebrating in the streets of Joppa that night? The power of the risen Christ had given new life to one of his devoted servants.

Tabitha had a passion to serve. When she died, that passion lived on in the legacy she left behind – in the tunics and other clothing she had made for others. Maybe she had even taught others the art of sewing so that they could carry on the good work after she was gone. Tabitha would die again some day. But her legacy of service would live after her.

Have you ever thought about the legacy you will leave behind when you die? Some people might measure their legacy by the size of their estate – how much money and property they leave for their heirs. But what about a legacy of service? I believe that service is the pathway to real significance. Success is fine in its place. We all want to be successful. But success can only take us so far. If God allows us to be successful with our careers and our money, I believe it’s so that we can be of even greater service to him.

The widows who were crying beside Tabitha’s body and showing the tunics she had made weren’t weeping because Joppa had lost a successful businesswoman. They were crying because they had lost a servant of the Lord. Wouldn’t you rather be remembered not for how much money you made but how many people you helped? That’s a lasting legacy.

God can still use followers who have a passion to serve. In fact, that’s why we have been given the gift of new life in Jesus Christ – to share it with others in service. Do you remember what Paul said in Ephesians?

It is God himself who has made us what we are and given us new lives from Christ Jesus; and long ages ago he planned that we should spend these lives in helping others. (Eph. 2:10, LB)

That tells us that service is not just an option for Christians, something to engage in if we feel like it or have the spare time. Service is why we were created, why we were given new and redeemed lives in Jesus Christ when we were saved – it is meant to be our way of life, our “lifestyle” if you will.

And if we are faithful in our service, we will feel closer to Jesus Christ, because Jesus himself was a servant, and we want to be like him. Jesus himself told us…

…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. (Matt. 20:28)

You have probably heard the contrast made between the two main bodies of water in the Holy Land: the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is alive and vibrant and full of plant life and fish while the Dead Sea is just that – dead and full of salt. Very little if anything grows in its brackish water. Why this difference? Because the Sea of Galilee has water flowing in and flowing out. The Dead Sea only has water flowing in – nothing flows out. The Dead Sea is only a taker and not a giver. We are meant to both receive and give – that’s what gives us life.

Albert Schweitzer, the theologian and world class organist who left that behind and became a medical missionary to Africa once said, “You will never know the true meaning of life until you have sought and found how to serve.”

One of the most memorable servants I ever met was Dr. Warren Rasmussen. Warren had spent his medical career with the U.S. Public Health Service. He and his wife Betty had a home on Jekyll Island on the coast of Georgia. When he reached retirement age, he said he searched the Bible for the word “retire” and couldn’t find it, so he looked around for what he would do next. Jekyll Island has beautiful beaches and golf courses and Warren and Betty could have spent their retirement sitting on the beach or on the golf course. But here’s what he did.

He found out there was a need for medical clinics in Mexico. So he bought a motor home, equipped it as a mobile medical clinic and he and Betty would drive it from their home in Georgia to McAllen, Texas once a month and they would stay a week and drive over into Mexico and do health clinics at several poor villages. Some of these places had only one central water well and no indoor plumbing. They did that every month, year round. And then they would stay three months in the summer.

Can you imagine driving once a month from Georgia to Texas, even for fun, let alone for service? They wore out three motor homes in fifteen years, so they started leaving the motor home in Texas and driving a little car back and forth from Georgia.

They also distributed Christian literature in Spanish at their clinics. In time they brought on a Mexican lay preacher and his wife to start several small congregations in the villages they served, so that the spiritual as well as the medical needs of the people would be served. Our church in Lancaster did mission trips with the Rasmussens for several summers.

They kept this up this until Warren was killed and Betty badly injured in an automobile accident in March 2001 when they were on their way to Texas. The Rasmussens were true servants and they left a lasting legacy.

John Wesley once said, “Do all the good you can in all the ways you can for as many people as you can for as long as ever you can.” That’s our heritage as United Methodists – we are called to serve.

Service simply means helping people in need without regard to payment or recognition or reward. The opportunities for service are practically unlimited. Our “Time and Talent Survey” is a good place to start if you are looking for ways to serve within the church. We need volunteers at Second Time Around, for example. But there are lots of others: committees; ministry teams; mission projects; worship opportunities; working with children, youth, adults, shut-ins; special events; etc.

Service doesn’t only have to be in or through the church, either. You can serve at a local school, the hospital, a nursing home, VISTO, Habitat for Humanity, just to name a few. The main thing is that you join your passion to people who need you, and you’ll feel that special closeness to Jesus that comes from selfless service.

Chances to serve don’t have to be organized and planned either. Sometimes they happen on the spur-of-the-moment: a visit to someone in the hospital; a plate of cookies for a new neighbor; changing a tire for a stranded woman on the side of the road.

Jesus the Servant promises to draw close to us when we serve others because of our love for him. Let us be devoted servants like Tabitha, using the new life we have been given to serve the Lord. If you do, I can promise you, your life will never be the same. Amen.