Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Risking the Church for the Sake of the Gospel

(The following sermon was preached on May 5, 2013, the Sixth Sunday of Easter at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville TN on the occasion of Messiah's first SERVE day experience. On SERVE day, Messiah's members gathered for one worship service, instead of two, and then left in teams, directly from worship, to go out into the community to participate in service projects. The text for this sermon is a modified version of the RCL pericope of the day, Acts 16:(6-8) 9-15.)

Those were the days, those long, lazy, carefree days of summer. Back then, my childhood friend and I would strike out on our bikes, unencumbered by time or fear or parental restriction. No helmets or fancy camelback water bottles. Just our bikes and a free and easygoing wanderlust. Me on my three speed Murray bike. My friend on his single speed Schwinn. Turning the pedals over we’d journey over suburban lanes, narrow dirt roads and grass covered fields. Whatever we desired; wherever we wanted; we would go, completely free to choose our path and destiny. 

Looking back with 21st century eyes, it seems what we did then - two children out and about, unsupervised - was risky, dangerous even. Maybe we were just being naive’ and didn’t know any better. Or, maybe it’s exactly what we needed to do in order to grow up. Maybe we needed to go out on our own, step out of the familiar, and risk something. 

According to today’s reading from Acts, Paul is striking out on the way, he and his fellow missionaries, going wherever their little hearts desired. In their thinking, maybe they would go on to parts of western Asia Minor (what is modern day western Turkey) or possibly to the Asia Minor province of Bithynia (what is modern day northern Turkey on the Black Sea.) There wouldn’t be much risk involved in that. Each of these destinations would be familiar territory for Paul. He was from Tarsus in southern Asia Minor (southern Turkey) after all. So this would be safe and easy going. Better to enjoy. More likely to be successful as far as building churches goes.  

But, Paul soon discovers that he is not as free as he thought to wander where he may. 

At each crossroad along the way, Paul is redirected by the Holy Spirit. Like some supernatural gatekeeper, the Spirit forbids entry not once, but twice. Instead of western Asia Minor or Bithynia, the Spirit sends Paul and his companions on to Troas on the coast just across the Aegean Sea from Greece. It appears Paul was not to stay in the safe confines of the familiar. Paul would need to risk something, if he and the nascent church were to grow up. 

In a vision Paul is called to come over and help in Macedonia, what is modern day Greece. Macedonia hadn’t been part of Paul’s plan. Macedonia, across the Aegean Sea would be unfamiliar, and thus very risky. Paul, if it had been up to him, would have stayed in Turkey. But faithfully, prayerfully, he and his companions discerned that God was calling them on.  The Spirit was moving them on, forward into the unfamiliar.  

Paul’s willingness to listen to God’s call, Paul’s willingness to put himself at the disposal of the Spirit’s wanderlust, Paul’s willingness to step out into the unknown, Paul’s willingness to risk is exactly what Paul and the early church needed to do. All of it - the willingness to listen to and discern God’s call, the willingness to risk - all of it served as a catalyst for the spreading of the gospel and the growth of the church. You see, this would be the Gospel’s first foray into the unfamiliar, strange land of what would become modern day Europe. And here we are, two millennia later most, but not all of us, of European descent, the spiritual beneficiaries of Paul and the church’s willingness to risk.  

Pastor Delmer Chilton - many of you know Pastor Chilton, formerly Assistant to our Southeastern Synod Bishop, Julian Gordy - well Pastor Chilton, storyteller extraordinaire, tells the following story on himself. “A few years ago,” he writes, “I ran into an old friend in a shopping mall in Raleigh, NC. It had been 20 years since we had seen each other while students at Duke Divinity and I wasn’t sure it was him. He wasn’t very sure about me either; especially since he had been laboring under the illusion that I was dead. We stared at each other for a long time and finally I spoke his name and identified myself and he turned as white as a sheet and sat down on a nearby bench. He was very shook up. Someone had told him I had died in a car accident...Once we got that cleared up he said an interesting thing. ‘I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.’” Pastor Chilton goes on to say, “I sent this story out to my church and a few friends around Easter. Bishop Gordy emailed me back and said – ‘sounds like the motto of the post-Christendom church’. “I had gotten used to the idea of your being dead. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea of your being alive.” It has taken those of us in the mainline [church] a long while,” concludes Pastor Chilton, to get used to the idea that the church we knew in the...50s and 60s, maybe the early 70s in some places, is really dead.” 1 
Pastor Chilton and Bishop Gordy, they’re correct, you know. The world has changed. The culture for which this church was designed, and for which many of our assumptions about how to be church were made, that world no longer exists. We, the church, are trying to stay in Asia Minor. While the world, long ago, crossed over to Macedonia. 

That being said, we need to be asking ourselves, What does it mean to be the church today? What does it mean in a post-Christendom world, where the church is no longer the most popular institution in town, what does being church look like. We keep trying to operate under assumptions that no longer apply. And all the while keep wringing our hands over the looming death of the mainline church. To fix this, we keep running in circles, doing the same things we’ve been doing and expecting different results. We keep trying the familiar ways to stave off the death of the church. 

And maybe, just maybe that’s the problem. 

According to Delmer Chilton, a mentor of his, Dr. Herb Edwards, formerly professor of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School was fond of saying: “The trouble with the white church is that it does not believe in the resurrection. When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.”
“When you do not believe in the resurrection, you spend all your energy avoiding death instead of embracing life and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.” 2

I don’t know what the future holds for the mainline church. I don’t know what the future holds for Messiah Lutheran Church. What I do know is, God is calling us to stop getting used to the idea of being dead. God is calling us to believe in the resurrection and embrace the resurrection life. God is calling us to step out of the familiar places and ways and cross over from Asia Minor to Macedonia. God is calling us to risk for the sake of the gospel. 

Thanks be to God, here at Messiah, I think we are. We are taking risks for the sake of the gospel. Not, mind you, for the sake of saving this congregation. For the sake of the gospel...we are taking risks. For the sake of the gospel we’re risking welcoming our homeless, transient, impoverished neighbors through a more intentional and relational benevolence team. For the sake of the gospel we’re sharing our building with other local and ecumenical ministries - at no cost to them - ministries like Compassion Coalition and Harmony Family Center. For the sake of the gospel we’re adding new staff and new ministries, even when that means a more challenging budget, even when that means risking a budget short fall. For the sake of the gospel we’re risking welcoming all people, inclusive of race, economics, sexual orientation, gender identities, or life experiences. All kinds of people with all kinds of baggage journeying together as a community of faith. For the sake of the gospel we’re risking making some mistakes; ministries that don’t exactly work as we planned; ministries that proceed in fits and starts, and letting some ministries die for the sake of ministry and mission. For the sake of the gospel we’re risking holding one worship service on a rainy Sunday, then going out into the community together, where the Spirit takes us to serve. 

Maybe we are just naive’. Or, maybe this is exactly what we need to do in order to grow as a community of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ. Maybe we need to go out, leave our Asia Minor, step out of the familiar, and risk something for the sake of the gospel. But again, not for the sake of saving the church. 

Everything we do, must be for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of sharing with a thirsty and hungry world the love of God whose name is Jesus; the wisdom of God that turns the world right side up; the grace of God who welcomes all us broken ones, who washes us, feeds us, serves us and makes us saints, beloved children of God, each and every one.  
So, what do you say?

Shall we keep on listening to and discerning God’s call? 
Shall we keep on risking for the sake of the gospel? 

Shall we cross over to Macedonia?


1 From The Lectionary Lab blog site
2 Ibid.

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