Monday, July 06, 2009
For folks who might be checking here for updates about Donna, please go to http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/dcottle. I am in the waiting room at the University of Pennsylvania right now, and when I update, it will be to there. Thanks for stopping by here, though!
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Acts 1: 21-26
Summer can be a difficult time for schedules. I know that in our house the rhythm is different every week, with Joe going to a different camp or experience, one week he’s at his school for a stage performance camp, and another week he’s building robots at Penn State Wilkes Barre, and another again, he’s at sleepover camp at Sky Lake.
If your lives are like ours in the summer, the absence of rhythm makes it even harder some Sundays to make it out of bed. You want to, I know, but it’s just too hard some days.
So, this summer, I would like to offer some small assistance. I will be preaching a series of seven sermons on the book of Acts, beginning to end. I will also be putting in the bulletin the section of the book I’ll be using the following time I preach (it won’t be every week, for one reason or another). There will be some weeks when preparation will cover seven chapters (which really is still not a large burden, that’s only a little bit longer than a good newspaper article). In addition, in worship, Carolyn and Penny will be picking the hymns they like the most.
If you want to study more about the section of the book coming in the next sermon, I invite you to come to Center Moreland on the Wednesday nights before the Sundays I am preaching, and we will get a little bit more in depth about this important book of the Bible, the only book of story and narrative outside of the Gospels in the New Testament. It answers the question: what happens after Jesus ascends to heaven? How do we get to here from there?
Acts doesn’t give the 2000 year history of the church, but it does tell us how the word began to spread about Jesus after he ascended, how the Jewish followers of Christ started taking in Gentile believers and what that meant for Jewish practice, and where Paul, the writer of a third of the New Testament became a follower of Christ, whom he did not ever meet bodily. In a sense, it is the story of how a group of people changed from following a man around Galilee and points near to it, to becoming witnesses to who that man was and what he did after he was gone. In that story, the story of Acts, lay lessons for us as modern disciples and how we can witness to that same man.
Let me give a little background first. Acts is generally thought to be the second half of a larger story, the first half of which is the Gospel of Luke. You could think of it as the sequel to Luke. Both are addressed to a person named Theophilus, and the writing style is generally thought to be similar. Also, the same thoughts about God pop up in both—there’s an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on prayer, there’s concern for gentiles understanding what Jewish meal customs are, Luke wants gentiles to make sure they understand that much of what Jesus did and what comes after are fulfillments of Jewish Scriptures, and most importantly, there are lots of occasions where the disciples, as well as others who did not know Jesus, begin to witness to what he has done, not just while in the body, but what Jesus has done for them after his ascent.
This morning’s text is very short. Chapter one has only twenty-six verses, and three things happen. Jesus commissions the Disciples and his followers to witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, then there is an account o the death of Judas, and the last part is about how Judas is replaced by another follower as a disciple.
The 8th verse is the key to understanding the whole book as the way Luke means for us to understand our role as followers of Christ. The whole rest of the book can be seen as the story of how the witness of Christ went from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. It starts with the simple administrative job of replacing a fallen disciple, and end, with Paul, a man who is not yet even Christian in the story, sitting in a jail cell in far off Rome, the very belly of the Empire, witnessing to Christ.
The lesson for us today is HOW the Disciples decide to pick a new disciple. Let’s look at the story again—Peter stands up and says “OK, folks, Judas is dead, and the scriptures were fulfilled by that happening. Someone else needs to take his place, and that someone needs to have been with us from early on, from Jesus’ baptism. The group of about 120 put forth two names, and they pray over them. Then they cast lots (the closest approximation that we can understand is that they flipped a coin, or they cast pieces of wood that worked like dice) to see what God intended.
It’s an interesting thing, this “casting lots”. Rather than argue about qualifications, or allow politics to enter into the decision, they name two well qualified people, and then allow the element of chance to enter in. In their world, introducing the element of uncertainty actually allows God to enter into the proceedings; it’s a way of listening to God’s will. Who knows that the US would be like now if, instead of taking the case to the Supreme Court, the election board of Florida flipped a coin to see who would become the President in 2000.
I am not advocating the throwing of dice or the flipping of coins as a method of making decisions in your life. But I do wonder what role God has in how we make decisions. How do we provide an opening that gives us way to hear God’s will? It’s more than just a gut feeling, as important as the leading of the conscience is.
I think that it is a matter of praying first, and the Disciples did, picking equal solid choices, as the Disciples did, and then seeking the Lord’s will. Casting Lots would be the way they did that. We can seek opinions from friends and others who know something about what we need, and then sit and think about them, mull them over, “let them ferment a bit, and then listen to instinct. If we are truly led by Christ and seek His will, then the answer eventually becomes clear, and sometimes it’s the kind of answer that slaps us in the head, saying “why didn’t I see that from the beginning!”
Careful thought in a spirit of prayer is the way to discern God’s will. Sober and reasoned consideration is itself a witness, sometimes. Living by wise and moderate means is itself evidence of God’s leading.
So, this week, I encourage you to stop and think, if you have to make a decision. Pray first, find out the best options, and then let it sit for a while. Maybe even flip a coin, if the two seem to be equally good choices. The important part isn’t the casting lots; the important part is the prayer at the beginning, the advice listened to, and the time taken to think.
We’ll see this again and again in these stories of the Disciples and others, as we go through Acts. Prayer first, listening second, and what results ends up being a witness to Christ.
Not a bad witness to us, is it?
Mark 4: 35-41
Have you ever been on a rollercoaster? There are lots of different kinds. Josiah’s first coaster was a small one in the kiddie rides at the Texas State Fair, and it was no more than maybe 8 feet high, and went around in a circle three times that had 4 sharp turns and a few humps. There are also the ones like the old wooden ones like they have a Knoebels, much higher, faster and they rattle excitingly, and when you finish, it feels a little bit like you’ve escaped the coaster collapsing.
The steel track coasters are much smoother in their rides, but they do much more intense things, like corkscrews and loops. Then there are those coasters for the ones who are bored with that, and the designers figure out how to change your position for the ride, and the one that looks the most interesting to me is the one that is themed for Superman, and the ride actually lifts you into a position where you are on your belly, and then it seeks to simulate a joyride flight with loops and turns and corkscrews.
Some folks are comfortable only in that type of extreme coaster, others are more comfortable in the old wooden ones. Some never want to leave the little kiddie coaster, and some are just fine on the carousel.
It’s probably the same way with storms. When you are on a boat in the sea, wind is a good thing. It is what gets you to the other side, even if you have to put down a keel and tack, or zigzag, back and forth. But there can be too much wind, and what is strong enough to push you through the water can also be strong enough to push you over and capsize. The phenomenon of seeing racing sloops heeling over almost to a 45 degree angle, crew strapped to the upper side as a counterbalance, I’m sure is a phenomenon foreign to 1st century fishermen.
Jesus, just as he was, was sleeping through a heavy wind. Who knows, he was comfortable with the amount of wind because it was getting them to the other side faster. But he’s just come off preaching to large crowds, for hours, and he’s tired. So, just as he is, with no bathing or washing his face and maybe even with no food, he suggests that they go to the other side of the lake, the pagan side, and preach some over there. The disciples are faithful enough to say OK, even though they know they are headed into something unclean, and seek to get him there. And a wind comes up, and it’s a little too much wind, because the boat is being swamped. Jesus, though, after preaching for hours, is sleeping in the back of the boat, and nothing is bothering him. The man needs sleep, and he’s got complete trust in God, and the guys sailing the ship.
They however, are new to this God-among-us thing. Rather than figure out a way to use the wind to get them to the other side, rather than assign people to bail, they run to Jesus, because the trip is just a little too exciting. They’ve had enough of the ride, it’s time to dial it back. So even though Jesus was comfortable enough with the storm to be sleeping through it, and though the disciples merely needed to notice that in the midst of the storm, Jesus was sleeping, and so it must have been ok, Jesus does still the storm. He dials it all the way back, back to where they now have to row the rest of the way across; the story says he stilled the wind, and there was a dead calm. Which means there is now no way to move the boat except for breaking out the oars and rowing it. But a rowed boat, I assume is a great place to sleep—cool sea breeze, rhythmic swooshing noises, and the whole crew silent and thoughtful as they row, thinking about what they’ve just seen.
Which is fine, I bet, for Jesus, who I would guess lays back down in the stern of the boat and goes back to sleep. Mark doesn’t tell us. After all, the next day is the day they go to the pagans and preach to them, and Jesus needs to be ready for that. So I think Jesus, exhausted, lays back down. Jesus, in the boat, just as he is, his full humanity being weary.
There are times when we all panic. Times when we forget that Jesus is with us, and the events of our lives get a little too rambunctious, and we cry to Jesus to still the storm for us. It may have been that the storm was moving us towards God’s goal for us quickly, like a sailboat before a strong wind, but it’s too much for us. We need to slow down. Considering the alternative, we’re ok with doing it under our own power, breaking out the oars, which are slow, and cause blisters and sore muscles. Sometimes we prefer pain and delay so that we can maintain our own control over situations.
Jesus, just as he is, loves us even though we still demand control. Jesus loves us, seeks, us, leads us, just as we are. Incomplete, stubborn, without a clue half the time, holding on to the wrong things in the high winds that surround us. Too much of the pain that is caused in our lives is because we are pushed beyond what we though we knew to be truth, and the Holy Spirit blows us into the uncharted part of the sea, where our truths are too small, now. And Jesus is comfortable enough to sleep through it.
Let go of what you see as truth. Take it out and compare it to the love of God as seen in Christ. The radical love of everyone, and the radical expectation that we are to treat each other with the same love that we assure ourselves God loves us with.
And then hang on for the ride.