Monday, July 12, 2010

July 11, 2010 - Right, but oh so Wrong

Right, But Oh, So Wrong
Acts 16.16-40

The Preacher
A husband and wife went to an old fashioned revival in a little town. The preacher preached that night on money, and presented the sermon under three points.
1. First point: "Make all you can." The husband nudged his wife and said, "That preacher is the best I’ve ever heard. He is no nitwit. He knows what it’s all about. He is one smart preacher."
2. Second point: "Save all you can." This excited the husband, and he whispered again, "This beats anything I’ve ever heard. He’s smart enough to be President. This town has never had a preacher that could hold a candle to him." The preacher commended hard work and thrift, denouncing laziness and waste. The husband couldn’t keep quiet. He whispered to his wife, "I’ve believed this all my life."
3. Third point: "Give all you can." "Oh my!" exclaimed the husband, "Now he’s gone crazy. He has quit preaching and gone to meddling."

[THOT:] How does the church "meddle" in the affairs of the world? On what basis does the church speak out in the public arena?

One day, Paul and Silas were walking to the place of prayer that the Jewish people in Philippi used. It was a little out of the town; it was just a gathering place. As they walked, a slave girl followed them. She had a demon that enabled her to do divination. It was not just a typical demon like we encountered during Jesus' ministry; this was a demon that arose from Greek mythology. In the Greek of the New Testament, it is called a "a pythian spirit." In Greek mythology the "python " was the dragon that guarded the Delphi oracle at Mt. Parnassus and was killed by Apollo. Although this is not clear in the English translation, her power was clearly tied into the pagan worship and mythology of the Greek world.

Well, as she followed Paul and Silas, she cried out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." As you think about it, this was a strange claim for her to make.
1. First, she was a slave owned by masters who made money from her ability to divine the truth. Now, watch her as she tells the world that Paul and Silas are themselves slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." She is a slave, calling Paul and Silas slaves.
2. Secondly, she has a pagan demon that gives her the power to speak the truth, and she uses it to tell God's truth about Paul and Silas. I suppose that we should appreciate the respect that the pagan demon shows to the Most High God of Israel.

Now, as she continues this for several days, Paul gets annoyed. It is an unusual word in the Bible. God's people often act out of conviction or calling or faithfulness, but the Bible rarely tells us that someone acted with the power of God because they were annoyed. No matter. Paul was annoyed. He turned to the slave girl, and cast out the demon. Why would he bother? Even though she was a pagan, possessed by a demon, she was announcing the truth. What was the problem that annoyed Paul so?
[Ans:] While factually correct, the problem is that her announcement is misleading:

1. It is misleading to offer the fact of God without inviting someone to faith and loyalty to God. Read the Bible from one end to the other: we are never offered the fact of God without being invited to a new life of obedience following God. As an older member told me one time: No sermon is complete until the invitation has been offered. She offered the fact of God without the invitation. She was misleading and Paul was annoyed.

2. It is misleading to suggest that the gods of the Greeks (along with their demons) are equal to the God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. By using her pagan gift to tell the world that they were slaves of the Most High God, she left the impression that the pagan deities and the God of Israel are in some sense equals. Paul could not tolerate any suggestion like that. By casting out her demon, Paul demonstrates God's power over the pagan Greek demons and gods.

3. It was also misleading for her to use the name, “The Most High God,” because the Greek God Zeus was also known by that name. Which did she intend? Zeus or the God revealed in Jesus? She did not say clearly, and Paul could not accept her ambiguity.
So, Paul got annoyed and cast out her demon. He did not act because of her faith; she claimed none. She did not request healing; the demon did not challenge Paul as other demons challenged Jesus. You might say that the slave girl was right, but oh, so wrong. Paul cast out her demon because he was annoyed.

II. When the demon was cast out, the slave girl became as any other young woman. She could not divine the truth or see the future. More importantly, she could not make money for her masters without her gift. So, her masters caught Paul and Silas, dragged them to the marketplace in the center of the city, and there they charged them with destroying their money-making machine.

Now, think about these events just a moment. This is different from most of the healings that Jesus performed in his ministry. Paul, through the power of jesus christ, has just interfered with the way someone makes their living. To confirm this point and its importance, Paul and Silas are brought to the marketplace. There they are charged before the magistrates and thrown into jail.

When I was young in ministry, I often heard the complaint that preachers should stick to spiritual matters and leave the world's matters to others. I remember living through the Civil Rights Movement here in the South and through the protests of the Vietnam War. They were necessary but severely painful times in this nation. In both of those great movements, Christian leaders spoke out and walked in the demonstrations. And in both of these great movements people expressed the wish that the Christian leaders would stick to spiritual matters and stay out of worldly matters.

The situation is pretty much the same now. In our preaching, we preachers tend to stay away from situations that require technical expertise.
+When all I know to do about the oil spill in the Gulf is to weep for the spoiling of the earth, what can I say?
+When all I know about our nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is what the talking heads on TV tell me, what more can I add?
+When all I know about poverty in Knoxville is what I see on Thursday at Soup Kitchen, what more does preaching have to add?

[THESIS:] And yet, I am convinced that the Church is called to speak out. If the scriptures have spoken to ancient kings and harlots, to rulers and fishermen, then we are called as the Church to give voice to the Word of God in our time.

[TEXT] Paul and Silas were walking rather innocently to the place outside Philippi where the Jews gathered to pray. This slave girl follows them, speaking God's truth about them. "They are servants of the Most High God." All of this is very spiritual, very theological. Then, out of annoyance, Paul turns and casts the demon out of her. In that simple act, out his annoyance, he thrusts himself into the public arena. There is no indication that he wanted to make that leap from the spiritual to the worldly. He just wanted her to be silent. But there he was – interfering with the local religion, interfering with the way her masters made their good living, challenging the way everyone in Philippi assumed that the world should work. Out of his annoyance, he jumped from the spiritual into the worldly. There was no going back.
Think about it: on what basis does faith speak out and act in the public arena? On what basis does the Church address the world?

IV. I want to suggest several intellectual practices and spiritual commitments that could serve as the basis or the foundation for our public life as a community of faith.

1. The first commitment we should make is to foster a sense that we are a community shaped by the living God – the God revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Too often we enter the church only "to pick up something we need," not realizing that a church invites us into a community of faith. Too often, we approach the church the same way we approach Walmart: Does it have the items on my shopping list? Could I get these items cheaper or more conveniently somewhere else? While we see others on Sunday whom we recognize as regulars, we are less and less prepared to see ourselves as a community together. We enter the church and expect to leave as individuals.
But, God calls us into community – into a Christ-shaped community of faith. In worship, God calls us to know ourselves and our neighbors as "the people of God." Then, as a distinct people, we can speak to the larger world around us with the concern and witness of this community.

2. We should build upon the foundation document of the Church – the Bible. Without the Bible, we do not know how to worship, how to tell the story of our faith, or what language to use when speaking of God. The Bible is absolutely necessary to forming and keeping the Church. The earnest study of the Bible is essential to a thoughtful, Christian witness in the world.
We have not come to this place to study LAW or EARLY CHILDHOOD INSTRUCTIONAL METHODS or ENGINEERING. We have come to this place to learn the things and the teachings of God. We have come to this place to gather around the source-document of the God who embraces all – all that we can REACH and all that LIES BEYOND HUMAN REACH. In the opening of the Bible at the center of the Church, we are formed, we taught, we are given voice to speak the life-giving Word of God.

3. The next commitment rises from the foundation of scripture: We must want for the world what God wants. (Note: See #2: The foundational commitment to the Bible above.)
I see God wanting justice and charity. I see God showing us how to live through Law and story. God wants the broken world to be reconciled through Jesus Christ. God wants all this and much more. Let us want for the world what God wants.

4. The sobering truth is that we will sometimes find success in the world; other times we will just mark time, or, worse, we will meet crushing failure. We must hold onto the vision of God's great creative and redemptive purposes in Jesus Christ for all peoples and all creation. We must hold out the conviction that God’s great purposes will in God’s good time be fulfilled – and in that fulfillment the world will be healed.
In times of defeat as in times of victory, the one whose vision remains focused on God's goal of blessed and universal peace/shalom will neither despair not exult, but in all circumstances will give God alone the glory. Indeed, anyone who clings to the vision of what God wants for the world can be satisfied to be known as a “servant of the Most High God. Vision gives ordinary work its wings.

5. The fifth commitment that will give us the foundation we need is our personal commitment to God in Christ. Over the past generation, we have focused on the practices of religion and given less attention to the relationship with Christ which is life-giving. In the hallways and the councils of the Church we have
+waged the battle between contemporary and traditional worship but failed to learn the depths of worship;
+done research projects on church growth but failed to add to our church membership;
+asked an MBA to optimize our church operations but have not learned how to pray.
We are quick to ask other Christians if they have completed a certain program and slow to ask them if they know the Master. Faith leads us – as individuals and as a congregation – to a personal connection with and a personal obedience to Jesus Christ. It is a commitment of the heart just as it is a commitment of the head.

[WRAP-UP:] I offer these five foundational commitments because they give us a distinctive voice in the world. These five commitments keep us true to the God in whose name we would speak.

[ILLUS: Tex:] Tex Sample tells the story of the day he explained to a seminary class why the old song, "In the Garden" is not a very good song. He listed his objections, and he was devastating:
+This is a song about just me and Jesus
+Does the writer of this hymn believe that no one has ever known this kind of joy except him?
+And, where is Christian community in this song?
Sample said that, as he continued to list his objections, he grew more animated. He could see the impact his critique was having on his young students.
+[Quote from Sample:] "Jesus is more than a good feeling between your liver and your gall bladder."
The bell rang; class was over. He thought that he had put an end to that song in the lives of these students forever. The students filed out with those agreeing with him winking and chuckling about this critiques and his passion.
But one student waited until all the others were out. She was a 40-ish woman who came to seminary in mid-life. When everyone else had gone, she stood before Tex Sample and told him: "Tex, my father started sexually abusing me when I was eleven years old. He kept at it until I was sixteen and finally found a way to put a stop to it. After every one of those horrible ordeals I would go outside by myself and sing that song:

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses...
And he walks with me
And he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own.

She summed it up by saying: "If it hadn't been for that song and for Jesus walking with me, I would never have made it through that absolutely awful time." Tex Sample said that his eyes dropped to the floor. He was reeling from the impact of what she said (1).
You see, she had a foundation, that regardless of her circumstances, could not be taken from her.
1. That foundation gave her the strength and courage to choose a better direction for herself.
2. That foundation gave her the courage to speak out when her professor could not see the insignificant places in this world where God was holding lives together.
That is what a foundation will do.

V. Where do we address the world as Christians and as the Church?
1. We speak through our worship. Worship is the constant witness we make to the world – our witness to a great God revealed in Jesus Christ.
2. We speak through lives shaped by this Christian faith. I hope you are a better teacher, baker, or McDonald's employee because of your Christian faith.
3. We speak through the ministries we undertake as a church or a Sunday School class or as a prayer circle. We speak about God's hope for a world that is made more gentle through charity and kindness.
4. We speak through the pulpit and every Sunday School lectern, bringing real events under the light of ancient Biblical truth.
Count on it: like Paul, we will one day find ourselves brought in the public arena through unexpected circumstances. So, be careful when you are inclined to get annoyed with the truth that someone tells about you. You might find yourself on the hot seat for being God's witness.

1. Sample, Tex. “In the Garden,” Earthy Mysticism, Abingdon Press, pp. 77ff.

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