Monday, June 28, 2010

June 27, 2010- Do What You Know!

"Do What You Know!"
Church Street UMC
Knoxville, TN
Rev. Sarah Varnell

Acts 9:36-42 The Raising of Tabitha

One Sunday, a young girl decided that she would actually listen to her pastor’s sermon. It was the first time, as she was coming to age, and to her Mother’s surprise, the crayons stayed put up. It was a compelling sermon, that particular day, as the pastor passionately spoke about God’s desire for us to do something... anything...for the kingdom. It’s simple, the pastor said, “Do what you know!” The young girl thought on this- what did she know? Her solution to the quandry? The next week, so got back to the crayons.

The story of Tabitha, the seamstress for widows, also encourages us, “Do what you know!” which begs the question, “What do we know?” It is my prayer that our conclusions today won’t send us literally, back to the drawing board, but will inspire and call each of us into action.

[Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.]

Someone once wrote in a letter to a colleague in response to his encouraging letter: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. (Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979).”

Do you hear the sadness? Sounds like one filled with doubt, discouraged, and questioning the existence of God. Reminds me of many of the blogs on the internet written by former Christians that have been hurt by God or the church and sought other forms of fulfillment. Those are the words of the beloved and well-respected, Mother Teresa. These are her words: “As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” She also devoted her life to service and acts of charity.

I remember when she died, this colleague published a book of personal letters exchanged between he and she. The world collectively dropped its jaw when we read that she doubted the existence of God, that she felt lonely and forgotten by the Lord she served so fervently. It just confirmed the post-modern, post-enlightenment drive in modern society to dismiss the power of God and the church, even Mother Teresa joined the chorus of doubters.

On the contrary, we are told that the story of Tabitha, another woman known for her service to others and acts of charity, calls people to belief in Christ. She also devoted her life serving the downtrodden and forgotten of her society- lepers without spots in biblical times-- the widows. Without their husband, they were stripped of their power in the culture and the larger society, the forgotten ones. After her death, the widows and other Christians in the area mourn the loss of this beloved saint. Peter is invited to come and pay his respects and his visit culminates in her being raised from the dead. The passage ends by reporting that “many heard and many believed.”

This is a very different report from the post-Mother Teresa death; however, the truth that is so easily overlooked about Mother Teresa is that even on her loneliest and emptiest day wondering about the Lord, she never hung up the towel. God would not let her forget the lepers, just as the Interpreter's Bible Commentary lovingly claimed about Tabitha’s being raise from the dead, “God would not abandon the widows.” Mother Teresa continued to give, day in and day out, she lived out her discipleship even when faith felt far away. Anyone that has ever had a mother, father, sister, brother, best friend or spouse knows that love is not always felt, faith is sometimes far, and to love that person is to choose them. To love and serve God, is to choose God, when we feel convictions strangely warm our hearts, and especially when our hearts are cold and we feel that God is far from us.

One day, I was thumbing around in the library at Duke, and a book title caught my curiosity, it was called “Awakening the Sleeping Giant (Alleckna, Mario C.),” and being a thorough literary scholar, I held it long enough to flip past the cover and read the first few lines. It was immediately evident that the sleeping giant is the church. I’ve yet to stop recalling those words and meditating over their insightfulness…

Fred Craddock, retired homeletics professor, from that other seminary- Candler- explains the same concept in a parable:
“I saw a 9-pound sparrow walking down the street in front of my house, and I asked the sparrow, ‘aren’t you a little heavy?’
The sparrow said, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m walking, trying to get some of this weight off.’
And [Craddock] said, ‘Why don’t you fly?’
The sparrow looked at [him] like [he] was stupid and said, ‘Fly? I’ve never flown. I could get hurt!’
[Craddock] said, ‘What’s your name?’
And he said, ‘Church.’”
(Craddock, Fred B., Craddock Stories, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, pg. 128)

… what will it mean for the world if and when we wake up and realize that like birds on a wire, we have no idea the power beneath our feet?

God enters into a unformed world of negation, death, despair, nothingness... and from that God creates life, and newness. It is by the grace of God that we were no people, and now we are God’s people, that our abilities and talents can become for another a gift and a service. Tabitha was a seamstress, and her skill became a gift of time and service as she offered it to the community of widows. What skill do you have? You don’t even have to know how it will become a gift, just be willing to identify it... or better yet, look to your neighbors and identify the gifts within them. Often others see us more clearly than we can see ourselves.

Last week the Holston Annual Conference met at Lake Junaluska. Lay people and clergy gathered for a time of learning, study, reporting, worship, and voting. One of the speakers that addressed the Conference during a teaching moment was a pastor from Columbus, Ohio. He stood up and told the story of his church. Located in a forgotten part of town over-grown with sub-standard housing, in the midst of soil that was deemed unfruitful, the “Free Store” was born. The concept of the “Free store” was simple, (1) everything is free, and (2) everyone that is a child of God is welcome.

The store was stocked with clothing, electronics, food, toys, and all on the goodwill of others that will give the things that do not want. As you might imagine, the store was a huge success bursting at the seams with people every-time the doors opened. The pastor shared that even though they had a multitude of people taking advantage of the free stuff, that they never ran out. He explained that their shelves were always filled to the brim, but their greatest challenge was having enough people in the back to sort through the things so that they were buried in the sheer mass of stuff that was collected. He said, “we believe in abundance, God’s economy is abundance, not scarcity.”

As we look to our immediate community- what do we see? What does God see?

I believe that inspiration- like the story of the Free Store begets inspiration and passion
. God has entrusted us, the Body of Christ, kingdom-dwellers, with the power and the tools to make new life. Do we have eyes to see it? Unfortunately we rarely know how our small offering or idea might affect the whole, so we do not share it.

One of the churches I visited in Durham had a soup kitchen like ours, and a member told me that it began with a child that handed her simply sandwich to a homeless man while her family picnicked on the church steps. What do we “do” and “know” and “see” already that has the potential to be shared? We are the answer to prayer, the response to the world’s needs... offered on behalf of Jesus as his hands, feet, and eyes.

Starting today, our youth group will begin their local mission project, called “MAD (Make a Difference) in the City.” The will work with the Wesley House and they will put on a roof. Our church has a longstanding history with the 100 year old Wesley House, and this week as our youth participate in sharing acts of charity and service with their sisters and brothers in the community, they will undoubtedly receive charity from the very people that they serve. They will all be changed, simply because they obeyed the notion that discipleship matters.

It is by reaching out and sharing our gifts that others come to know that God is generous, and that God will not abandon anyone. This may be Darryll’s story to tell, but I’m going to tell it anyway… A powerful thing happened in our church a couple of weeks ago. We sent nearly 100 food kits to Zimbabwe, through the Knoxville District… we also sent 3 of the men that benefit from eating at our soup kitchen every Thursday to help load the truck. Our discipleship draws others into discipleship.

Mission, service, and acts of charity are the building blocks of the Kingdom of God. Start by doing what you know…

In the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 13, 2010 - A Follower Like Us

Acts 6 and 7

You might say that the Book of Acts is the Church’s book – the Church’s wall where we remember the shaping events of our earliest years. More than other books in the Bible, we read the Book of Acts and think to ourselves, “Hey! I have been in that situation. This woman or this man looks a lot like me.”

Stephen was a follower of Jesus who looks more like us than most of the other characters of the Bible. The Bible is filled with full-fledged heroes who did amazing feats for God:
+Moses who led the children of Israel out of Egypt to the Land of Promise,
+Rahab who risked her life to make a way for the people of God to enter the Promised Land.
+Mary and Joseph, who risked their lives to be the earthly parents of Jesus,
+The Twelve Disciples who left ordinary work to follow Jesus,
+Paul the Apostle who was turned into the greatest evangelist the world has seen,

Each of these people was an extraordinary leader and a powerful believer. Each of these gave their entire lives to the service of God, taking great risks for their faithfulness, witnessing amazing results from their ministries. On my best, most faithful, most energized day, I have never imagined myself to stand in the company of a Paul, who spent his life taking the Gospel throughout the known world, or a Mary, who bore the Baby Jesus at great risk to herself. Each of these seemed to have a direct and life-shaping experience with God. For example: None of us can say that we walked with Jesus in Galilee. None of us can say that we encountered God in the wilderness at the burning bush. Very few of us can say that God did mighty miracles through our hands. Like Stephen, we are faithful, even inspired, but few of us can claim to be amazing.

We are those who have come to faith in Christ through the Word of the Gospel. Like Stephen, we have never been brought to our knees as Jesus himself preached. Like Stephen, we were not there when the Master stilled the raging storm or healed the lepers. Still, we have found faith.

Do you remember that, after the resurrection in John 20, Thomas doubted and would not believe until he had seen and touched the risen Christ for himself? Thomas did get what he needed so that he could believe. But, following Thomas’ confession of faith, Jesus said "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (John 20.29). Jesus was talking about us and about the Stephens of this world: those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

II. Stephen has something to teach us about being a follower of Jesus.

A. A follower of Jesus is like Jesus himself. The growing hostility provoked by Stephen’s ministry is due to his likeness to Jesus. Stephen is portrayed as a prophet full of “wisdom and Spirit,” capable of performing “great wonders and signs.” These are words the Bible used to describe Jesus himself. He continued what Jesus had begun to say and to do. The accusations brought against him are also similar and are made by the same opponents. Ultimately, Jesus and Stephen died as martyrs, obedient to God to the end. For both, their final prayer was for the forgiveness of those responsible for their deaths. Stephen is like Jesus in character and conduct. And like Jesus, he is lionized by the church as a great example of Christ-like obedience to the great purposes of God (1).
Take a lesson from Stephen: are we becoming more and more like Jesus? Can it be said of us that we are also FULL OF WISDOM AND SPIRIT? Do we make it our purpose to say what Jesus said and to do what Jesus did?
Surely, Christ would save us from our sins and restore us to the Father. But, the first moment of our faith is not also the last moment. Christ does not count himself finished with us just because we are saved or just because we sought baptism. Christ would continue to work in us until the image of Christ is formed within us.

B. But, Stephen has more to teach us about discipleship. Along with our conviction that the image of Christ is being formed within us, we are convinced that we can never stand in Christ’s place; we can never be little Messiahs in his place.
[Calvin & Hobbes]
Calvin is standing in front of his bedroom mirror in his BVD’s, flexing his muscles. He's proudly saying, "Made in God's own image, yes sir!"
Hobbes is flopped on the floor beside him, disgusted at his pal's self- absorbed preening. "God," he says, "must have a goofy sense of humor" (4).
The church’s confession of Jesus as Savior and Lord underlines his unique role and status in God’s salvation. To imitate the risen Jesus is not to assume for oneself his messianic calling or his heavenly status (2). As Peter said in Acts 4.12:
“There is salvation in no one else,
for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals
by which we must be saved."

C. Third, Stephen teaches us costly obedience. How? While they were stoning him, Stephen chose to pray. His inspired vision of the exalted Lord at the very moment of his martyrdom, expresses a deep piety. Yet the most compelling evidence of the depth of Stephen’s spiritual life is the content of his prayers. Similar to Jesus’ dying words, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his enemies at the very moment of their apparent triumph over him. He does not ridicule his executioners, nor does he express regret for his untimely death. He prays for their salvation: It is for what and for whom he prays, and not that he prays, that gives his death its most profound meaning (3).
[APPLIC] Let us exercise costly obedience when we pray. What are we praying at the moment our tormentors are at their worst? Are we praying like Stephen, “Lord, forgive them,” OR are we praying, “Lord, give ‘em what they have coming to them”?
I have a suggestion: Watch your prayers over the coming weeks. What do you pray? Who are you praying for? For others? For the needy? For your enemies? Or only for yourself? Are you the neediest person you know? Pray in costly obedience to Christ.

D. Fourth, Stephen teaches us that often great ministry happens as we serve tables. I am always caught as I read the beginning of Acts 6 that the real disciples (those who knew Jesus personally) were too busy to wait tables; they had to focus on the ministry of the Word. But, I think that I have misunderstood this exchange. Both the concern and the work of waiting Tables were respected by the disciples and the early Church.
When people complained that their widows were being neglected, the disciples recognized the problem, but decided that the ministry must be expanded to include others. So, they said the church should identify others to serve the tables. The interesting part of this duty is that it was considered a spiritual duty and calling. It was never considered to be a menial task; it was a spiritual task. This is the source of our ministry of the ordained deacon (as Rev. Rick Isbell, a deacon on the Church Street clergy team, demonstrates); this is also the source of our conviction that baptism is the ordination of the laity. The work we do as our ministry in the church is not just busy or messy work; it is a calling from God, a spiritual work.
Stephen's story presses us to think deeply about our discipleship. Read this passage again; think about its lessons for us.

Finally, something happens at the Table when disciples are serving. It happens at the dinner table and it happens at the communion table.
+There is welcome for the stranger and the one who has become estranged.
+There is not just a memory but an enactment of the breaking of the bread which Jesus did at the Last Supper. It happens again in this hour of worship.
Look around the table at these others who kneel beside us. These are our family, the family of God. These are our family: they believe with us in Christ Jesus. They are also servants of the Master. Together, we also ache for the broken and spoiled world. They also know the heart of Jesus. All of this happens at the Table.

I invite you to come and share the cup. You see, at the Table, somewhere in the serving and the receiving, Christ is seen again.

1. Wall, Robert W. “Acts of the Apostles,” The New Interpreters Bible, vol. X, p. 132.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, p. 133.
4. [Calvin & Hobbes] cartoon, 10/16/93

Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 6, 2010 - Buying Our Way Inside

Buying our Way Inside
Acts 8:4-25

Sometimes, “*I believe*,” and “*Lord, I want to be a Christian*,” are not enough. Simple faith runs the risk of being simplistic. A gentle spirit runs the risk of being manipulated. There are times when the Christian life must be undergirded by bedrock convictions – convictions which have been thought out and carefully examined.

In his blog published on July 12, 2007, Andrew C. Thompson, said: The United Methodist Church’s “Open Hearts" slogan is marketing, not theology. He went on to say:
**I have heard church members make comments to the effect that the United Methodist Church is a church where "you can believe anything you want" and where "no one is going to tell you what to believe." The people who say such things intend them as compliments. To them, the "Open Hearts" slogan serves as confirmation of an "anything goes" policy of discipleship.
And consider the permissiveness and consumerism rampant in wider American society. A stranger to the church might hear the "Open Hearts" slogan and conclude that the church that broadcasts such a message isn't too different from the world around it. Or else, he might be attracted to just such a church because he figures that not much is going to be expected of him!
We should get something straight. The "Open Hearts" slogan is not a theological statement about the beliefs of the United Methodist church. It is advertising.
A United Methodist church, like every church, is a community called into existence by Jesus Christ. It has a mission to nurture Christian disciples and faithfully proclaim the gospel. "Open" accurately describes its invitation, but it does not begin to describe the way of life called for by Jesus** (1).

America is a *shop for whatever you want* society. My guess is that all denominations (not just the United Methodists) have to contend with people who want the faith – not just their burgers – their way.

[TEXT] The early church certainly had to contend with people who wanted Christ on their own terms. In the passage we read from Acts 8, the Church has just received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The church in Jerusalem has been growing by leaps and bounds. It has grown so explosively that it has attracted the attention of a certain Saul of Tarsus. It is Saul who got the authority to arrest and execute Stephen. Saul and the persecution he brought are so effective that the Christians leave Jerusalem in droves. Hoping that the persecution against the Christians is local, they leave the area hoping to find a better welcome among strangers.

Now, Philip is one of those who left Jerusalem for safety. He heads for Samaria, not so far away from Jerusalem. There, he is not silent or timid, but begins to preach the Gospel of Jesus. It turns out that a certain magician named Simon, who lives in Samaria, hears Philip preaching and comes to faith in Christ. He is so taken with Philip’s preaching that he begins to follow him around as a kind of disciple.

It was all going very well until the Jerusalem church heard that the Samaritans were coming to faith in Christ. To support Philip’s work, the Christians in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria. There these two apostles learned that they had not received the Holy Spirit, so they laid hands on the believers. They received the Holy Spirit immediately. Simon, the former magician, sees all of this and wants it for himself. He goes to Peter and John; he offers them money and says: "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."

Question: Is Simon, this magician, a bad guy or just stumbling over a misunderstanding?

Now think about this scene:
1. Simon heard Philip’s preaching of Jesus and responded with faith. This is good.
2. Simon has begun to follow Philip as his disciple so that he can learn more and to be close to this great Christian. This too is good.
3. Presumably, he has seen other Samaritan Christians receive the Holy Spirit and perhaps he received the Holy Spirit himself along with the others.

All of this is good. Where this story goes astray is at the point where he offers Peter and John some silver in exchange for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on others.

[TASK] This morning, let’s think through this moment in the life of the early Church, I hope this will increase our ability to think deeply about our Christian faith. And, thinking about the faith, we too can challenge the places where we are tempted to accept just anything and call it *Christian enough*. We too can challenge the places where we are so open minded that we have nothing to believe.

III. Simon sees a power at work for good in the Holy Spirit and wants to purchase some of it to use himself. But, the apostles reject his offer; the Spirit is not for sale. What Peter and John understand is that the Spirit is a divine gift. It is not a tool which we own and use whenever we like. It is not some power at the beck and call of wizards like Simon (or even Harry Potter). This is where his thinking went astray: the power of God is not ours to hold and own and use as we see fit. The power of God is always in God’s hands. We only “use it” as we open ourselves to serve God and allow this Holy Spirit to work through us.

The power to heal and changes lives, as noble and impressive as that work may be, is subordinate to the greater task of pointing others to the Spirit. Thus, the attempt to buy God's gracious gift is a serious misunderstanding. You see, Simon failed to see who was acting whenever the Holy Spirit moved around them. It is God who moves and acts; we are those who open ourselves to God’s movement. We can never command the Spirit any more than we can command the Almighty.

There are so many places where we too are tempted to misuse and misrepresent the power of the Holy Spirit.
1. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we try to command the Spirit to do magic tricks: like fixing things, or getting “A’s” on our report cards.
2. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we try to use the Holy Spirit to punish our enemies. Remember when Maude used to threaten her ex-husband by saying, “God is going to get you for that, Walter!”
3. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we baptize our plans and our stands as the only ones which God can bless. For example: We assume that our politics are blessed; but theirs are condemned to disaster.
4. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit when we assume that if God is on our side, then God cannot possibly be on the side of our enemies or even grieve when our enemies suffer. We assume that the only people God can love are people who look just like us.
5. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When our stand on the hot cultural topic of the day comes from our selected use of scripture; we assume that no other reading can possibly be on-target. Of course, we have already discounted our opponents' reading of the Bible.

Think it through: we must come to a faith that stands in awe of the God who is great enough to create the Universe without assuming that our poor understanding of this *Great God* is the whole story.

So, Peter challenged Simon. He did not lower the church's standards just to get Simon into the church or to get his money. Instead, he challenged and taught Simon carefully. He is not trying to drive Simon away; he is trying to teach him and to bring him back again stronger than he was before.

**Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.

Peter corrects, but then he points the way to a new direction for Simon. He invites him to change, to repent.
Then, Simon responds:
"**Pray for me to the Lord,
that nothing of what you have said may happen to me**."

Oh, that we might do as well as Peter did when he thought carefully, then spoke lovingly to the young magician, Simon. Somehow we as Christians must learn to do two things at the same time (God's version of multi-tasking):
+Step forward to say, "Here I stand" and at the same time put the "Welcome Mat" out.
+Test our convictions against the scripture and the leading of the Spirit AND at the same time keep the door open.
+Speak clearly what it is we believe AND at the same time speak tenderly to the weary and brokenhearted.
+Cling to all that we have come to understand of the will of God AND at the same time be open to the possibility that God may yet have something new to teach us.

Let us put ourselves in the place of Peter and John. They upheld the standard against which the faith of the new Christians in Samaria was measured. They knew that Christian faith cannot be any old thing a new convert wants it to be. They knew that sometimes even long-time Christians have some unhealthy ideas about faith. Like Peter and John, we must learn to hold to the rich, vibrant Christian faith *AND* at the same time be loving and welcoming to anyone who seems to be going astray. We must learn to speak with clarity and at the same time speak with tenderness. We must also speak, knowing that we too might have something to learn about faith and faithfulness. What they taught this young magician was that the Holy Spirit cannot be bought; it is a gift – a gift of God.

1. Thompson, Andrew C. Blog at, "Open Hearts" slogan is marketing, not theology, Jul 12, 2007.
2. “Betty Butterfield visits the Methodists” at