The Spirit at Work: Courage
The Rev. Joanne Blair
June 23, 2019
1 Samuel 17:31-40; Acts 9:21-25
We are in week 2 of our sermon series, “The Spirit at Work,” and this week we are talking about courage. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines courage as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”
Well, the story of David’s battle with Goliath certainly demonstrates courage. Here we have this young man who has been guiding sheep now daring to face down a huge, Philistine warrior just by using a slingshot and five smooth stones. And we know how the story ends: David flung a stone to Goliath’s forehead, knocked Goliath to the ground, and then killed him. We all like to hear stories of the triumph of the unlikely hero, the underdog. The story of David and Goliath is one of the best known and most told stories in the Bible, where the seeming underdog comes out on top. But this celebrated story is also one of the most misunderstood. Many think that this is a story of personal courage in the face of insurmountable odds, that if you face down your giant with courage you will always come out victorious. But there is much more to this story. There is a reason our scripture reading today ends before the match. David’s courage is demonstrated not in killing the giant but in fighting him. David did not have great military experience; he demonstrates that courage and power have other sources, namely, Yahweh. What drove David’s courage was his confidence in God’s promises and God’s power to fulfill them. He was not so much confident in himself as he was confident in God.
So how does this dramatic story correlate with our second reading of the day, that of Paul being lowered in a basket to escape capture and death? For Paul, himself, writes in his letter to the church in Corinth that being lowered in a basket at night was humiliating. Yet Paul exhibits courage before, during, and after his escape. Paul, one of the greatest role-reversals in the Bible. Other than Jesus, no person influenced the history of the Christian community more than Paul. No wonder the people were confused! This man had always fought for the importance of the law and would punish anyone who disagreed, even unto death – especially followers of Jesus. Yet after his conversion, this Pharisee of Pharisees immediately went out to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Those who conspired to kill Jesus, those who conspired to kill Stephen, and those under King Aretas are now after Paul. Paul, the persecutor, is now the persecuted. While he may consider being lowered in a basket humiliating and an act of weakness, it was an act of courage to proclaim the good news and an act of courage to face the dangerous unknown by traveling about and continuing to do so.
As his opposition increased their attack, Saul became more powerful. The Greek word used here for “powerful” denotes “strength from the work of the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:20, Phil 4:13, 2 Tim 4:17).” We call this strength: courage.
There is a great difference between courage and bravado and we sometimes confuse the two. Bravado is daring, audacious, uninspired boldness. Many of you know that I used to skydive. And yes, it took daring boldness to do so. But there was nothing inspired about it. I just really wanted to do it. It was an act of bravado, (though my parents probably used a different word!) Courage, on the other hand, is not autonomous. It is not a self-produced virtue. Courage is produced by faith, faith in God or something else.
I want to turn again to the definition of courage: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” We usually think of danger as a threat to our physical safety and we often think of courage in the most dramatic of situations – soldiers in action on the battlefield, firefighters, first responders. These are people of extreme courage and I know we are all very grateful for the gifts of their service. Most of us, gratefully, will not face these types of challenges. But we are put in situations where our spiritual strength, our physical health, our moral fiber, and our choices are challenged. And courage, by very definition, acknowledges fear and difficulty. Yet we are to persevere and withstand it.
In the King James version of the Bible, people who count such things have noted that the words “fear not” appear 365 times (one for each day of the year☺). This, in itself, demonstrates that although God does not wish us to be afraid, we humans experience fear. And, the words “courage” or “courageous” appear 26 times, stressing its importance.
So where does courage, real courage (not bravado), come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Courage comes from trust in the ultimate goodness and presence of God. In this trust we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Real courage recognizes that we cannot persevere in our challenges alone. We need God, who is right here with us. The call for God’s people to be courageous is always based upon the confidence in God to be with us.
Courage does not mean that things will always turn out the way we hope. Courage is facing the challenge even when we aren’t assured of the outcome. Every act of courage takes place in the life of an ordinary person. Courage is needed to fight life’s everyday battles: addiction, cancer, resentment, greed. Each of us has many battles to be fought in our life. We need courage, and we need each other, to do so.
Last week Pastor John spoke of being called to community, by God, for the purpose of blessing the world. That takes courage and we can – and should – be God’s instruments to encourage one another. Being in community helps strengthen our faith, build our courage, and allow the Holy Spirit to do her work even better.
Having courage doesn’t always have to do with fighting a giant or being persecuted. But it always has to do with trusting God. Whatever battle we are fighting, the Holy Spirit will give us the courage – if we but trust.
And so our challenge this week is to ask ourselves:
The Spirit at Work: Calling
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 16, 2019
I loved baseball. As a kid I loved to play baseball, read about baseball and dream about baseball. What that meant was the one of the most exciting times of the year was when the season would arrive, my mom would sign me up and I would go to tryouts. I have no idea if getting into Little League is the same today as it was then, but there would be a date set for all of those who wanted to play to come to try out. We would run the bases. We would bat. We would field. And the whole time the coaches and assistant coaches would be taking notes and chatting. Among the coaches were those who were major league coaches and those who were minor league coaches. Then there would be the wait. I would then begin the process of listening for the phone to ring with a coach on the other end calling to tell my mom which team had chosen me. Let me clear that I had accepted early on that I was a minor leaguer. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that call saying, its time to get your uniform and come play. Any of you ever waited for that kind of a call; a call saying you have been selected? A call saying you have gotten the college acceptance; have gotten the job? It is exciting isn’t it? What I hope for this morning is that before we are done, you will be just as excited for a different kind of call as you were for those. But in order to understand how this works, we need to remember three words, “to”, “by” and “for”. Yes we are to remember two-by-four
First is the word “to”. We are called to a community; to a family. When God calls us, it is never intended to be me and Jesus. As someone once said, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. When God calls us desiring a relationship, it is also God’s desire for people to be in relationship with one another. This is so because we were not made to be alone. We were created for community. This is why when we baptize an adult or an infant, we say that they are now part of God’s worldwide family. Again, we can see this is our story this morning. Jesus has called Paul (known by his Jewish name, Saul) but does not tell him everything he needs to know. Instead the Spirit then calls to a man named Ananias and tells him to go and welcome Saul. Ananias is not happy about this considering Paul had been on the way to put Ananias and his friends in prison. But Ananias goes and does two things. First, he calls Paul brother, meaning if Jesus had called Saul then Saul was Ananias’s brother. Second, he baptizes Saul and by so doing brings him into the family. This is one of those wonderful things about God’s call that it calls us to a community that will love us, support us, guide us and sometimes correct us. What that means for us here this morning is that not only has God called us to be in relationship with God, but God desires that we be in relationship with each other. God calls us “to” a family.
Second is the word “by”, meaning we are called by God. When I say God, I mean it can be God, it can be Jesus, or it can be the Spirit. Regardless of which does the calling, it is God who calls us into relationship with God. This is one of the great themes of the Bible that God desire us not only to be in family but to be in relationship with God’s own self. And because God desires to be in relationship with us, then God is always calling us, drawing us, silently working within us. We can see how this works in story after story in the Bible. In the Garden of Eden God can’t find Adam and Eve and so calls to them. God calls Abram and Sarah. God calls Moses out of a burning bush. The Spirit calls to Jesus after his baptism and sends him to the wilderness. Jesus calls disciples as he begins his ministry. And in our story this morning Ananias makes it clear that it is Jesus who called Saul and Jesus who asked him, Ananias, to be the agent of the call. As an aside, I realize that often when we think about being called, we think of dramatic stories, but what we need to understand is that this is not the way God usually calls us. God can call us through a deep felt need that perhaps something is missing in our lives. God can call us through the stories in the Bible. God can call us through family, friends, or perhaps even a sermon. Regardless, of where we sense the call, scripture, friend, an inner need, it is God who initiates the relationship.
Finally, the word “for”. We are called “for” a purpose. This is where many of us grind to a halt in our examination of being called. We stop here because we have been taught that being called for a purpose means being called to a particular religious position, such as pastor, or maybe even elder…though many elders would not think so. But the fact is that being called to a religious position is simply a subset of the purpose to which we are called, because the purpose to which we are called is to bless the world. Let me say that again. Our purpose in being called by God to a community is to bless the world. This means that each of us has been called to this purpose…and we can express this purpose in hundreds of ways. We can bless the world at school or at work by how we treat others. We can bless the world in our homes through how we rear our children and how we pray for others. We can bless the world through our giving, our forgiveness, our compassion and our understanding. And the ways we bless can and do change over the course of our lives. How we bless as children is different from how we bless as youth, then adults and onward. God calls us to a family for a purpose.
My challenge to you for this week is simple…enjoy your call. Enjoy knowing you are part of a family. Enjoy knowing you are known by God. Enjoy knowing that you have a purpose in life. Then as you get ready each morning for the coming day, simply say, “God, thank you for calling me with your to-by-four” and then let that reality shape your day.
Dr. John Judson
June 9, 2019
Joel 2:23-29; Acts 2:2-13
It was his graduation day. It should have been an exciting day to be getting his BA after six years of effort. Even so, he began to cry. And the tears were not tears of joy but of worry; worry, because he knew how much debt he and his family had taken on; two-hundred thousand dollars. He had no idea how they would ever pay it back. As he sat at graduation though, something happened. The speaker made this young man and his classmates a promise and in that promise, he found hope. The promise? His debt would be paid, in full. The speaker, Robert Smith, the wealthiest African American in the United States, as he was delivering the commencement address at Morehouse College, promised that he would pay off all the outstanding loans of the graduating class. At first the students did not know what to say or do. However, it did not take them long to express their delight and gratitude. Mr. Smith and the school are now working out all the arrangements so that the promise will be kept and a group of young adults will begin their lives with encouragement to make a difference not only for themselves but for others.
The people in the time of Joel were looking for encouragement as well. Joel was preaching and making promises about four-hundred years before the birth of Christ. The people were needing hope because they were in the midst of a horrible famine and they were a subject people of the Persian Empire. And so they turned to the two promises of Joel in which to find hope. The first was that the famine, worse than any in the memory of his audience, would come to an end; that God would act and once again make the land fruitful. The second promise was that one-day God’s Spirit would appear and transform humanity; that not just men would prophecy, but that men and women, young and old, free and slave, Jew and Gentile would all be filled with the presence of God and they would be able to declare what God has done, is doing and will do in the future. This was a radical promise that probably seemed more like a campaign slogan than a real promise of God. The outcome of these promises? The first was fulfilled in a season or two. They second…well it faded into memory as years, decades and centuries passed. While the famine ended, the Spirit never came...at least until the day of Pentecost.
The story of Pentecost is one of those exciting yet frightening stories that fill the Bible. It is exciting. It is exciting because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers. Luke describes it as a moment in which the Spirit, appearing like a powerful wind and tongues of fire, swept over all the disciples, men and women, young and old giving them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shooting them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God. It is also frightening because we watch a bunch of frightened, confused Galileans, in hiding out in an upper room, unsure of what to do, be suddenly turned into a cadre of fearless Good News tellers because the Spirit, appearing like tongues of fire, flickering over all the disciples, men and women, young and old gave them the power they needed to overcome their anxious hearts and then shot them out into the street to tell people about Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God.
While we may want to stop the story of Pentecost with that exciting and frightening moment, we ought not to do so. We shouldn’t do so because it was only the beginning of what the Spirit was going to do. Just like the wind of God that brought order out of chaos in the first creation, here the breath of God was bringing chaos out of order for a new creation. This chaos was that all flesh, all people were now elements of a new creation. Men, women, slave, free, rich and poor were given spiritual gifts; gifts that the Spirit gives to everyone who believes. These gifts include preaching, teaching, caring, loving, giving, encouraging, hosting and even healing and speaking in tongues. All people were given the fruit of the Spirit, transforming them into new people. Fruits included love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control. And it is these gifts and fruits that created a radical new religious community. It becomes this wonderful amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, free people and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, citizen and foreigner all drawn together and empowered by the Spirit to love, serve and share. And this is why there is still hope and encouragement in this place…in this community…because the Promise is still real…that the Spirit is still pouring itself out in power.
This year marks the 185th anniversary of the founding of this church. And in each of those years the Spirit has been here making this a place of hope and encouragement. The Spirit has seen this congregation through the Civil War, two World Wars, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Civil Rights Movement, integration, and the movement toward the full inclusion of persons of all races, genders and sexual-orientations into the life of the church. The Spirit led us to be one of the first churches to ordain women and members of the LGBTQ community as elders and deacons. The Spirit led us to actively worked for low income housing in Birmingham. The Spirit led us to create one of the only full inclusion programs in our denomination for persons with disabilities. The Spirit continues to push us to work with partners in Detroit, Pontiac, Mexico and Kenya touching the lives of men, women and children. The Spirit continues to pour itself out on our children and on every generation from the Greatest, to Boomers, Busters, Millennials, Gen X and beyond. The Spirit gifts us for the building of the body of Christ. The Spirit gives us the fruits of the Spirit to make life richer and fuller. The Promise is being fulfilled in us. And what I perceive is that the Spirit is pushing us out of the doors of this place to do something great for Jesus Christ. That we are set to tell in word and in deed about God’s all-embracing Kingdom and change the world for the better; that a new transformation is upon us. This is the hope, this is the encouragement.
My challenge then is for each of us to ask ourselves, “What is it that the Spirit is empowering me to do for Christ and the world”, then to go and do it.
Encouragement Along the Way: Serving
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
June 2, 2019
Joshua 24:14-25; Luke 5: 17-20
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” These are the words Joshua tells Israel in his farewell address. This isn’t a new revelation for Joshua. He has spent his whole life serving God. Joshua’s leadership has taken Israel from a wandering covenant community to an established nation state. Toward the end of his life he gathers the people of Israel and announces that he is rededicating himself and his household to serve God, affirming that all the work has been worth the struggle and he would do it again if God asked.
His example and leadership over the years has been so reliable that the crowd instinctively shouts back that they too will serve God. But Joshua tells them to slow down and think about this. Joshua wants them to read the user agreement. He has seen what serving God requires. He worked alongside Moses, a man who was a prince in Egypt and in service to God. Moses was asked to leave his comfortable, convenient life in the palace for the life of a fugitive in the desert. Joshua knows from personal experience serving God will require sacrifices, that empty commitments will come with consequences. Before anyone can dedicate their lives to serving God they must acknowledge that service will be inconvenient. The people reply that they are ready to serve God, come what may.
What comes is just as Joshua warned – inconvenient. Women giving birth late in life, men leaving their trades to follow Jesus, children giving up their lunch so that the 5000 adults who forgot to pack a lunch could eat. Serving God is inconvenient.
The story of the four friends and the paralyzed man is filled with inconveniences. The person who owned the house was inconvenienced. Not only had they prepped all week for Jesus’ arrival, the crowd that shows is larger than they anticipated. With so many in their home they were probably worried about things getting broken or stolen. And then the roof is busted through! Some of the people in the crowd were Pharisees. Their inconvenience was a challenge to their world view. Jesus’ message went against fundamentals they had built their lives around and listening to him teach was disturbing and uncomfortable. It was inconvenient.When we read the story of the paralyzed man and his four friends we take for granted that these four men were happy to help. The more likely scenario is that they had other plans for the day. Appointments to make, deadlines to reach, chores to finish, commitments to keep, debts to pay, quality family time to have. But Jesus was in town today.
For some reason they decide to forget everything else that could have gotten done that day, and they lug this full-grown man across town. When they arrive, they find that the crowd is so large they can’t even get to Jesus. It would have been easier to turn around and go home, to come back when Jesus was available. Going home is the convenient option, but instead, they decide to go up onto the roof, dig through the thatching and tiles, and lower their friend down to Jesus. For some reason, this task of getting their friend to Jesus was more important than their excuses not to.
It’s possible the man on the bed was just a great guy, the kind of friend to inspire outrageous acts of loyalty. Or maybe, these four men were repaying a favor. Maybe someone had been sick and the others helped him, or maybe one fell on hard times and was supported by the others. Maybe they had inconvenienced others and were simply repaying the time and effort others had spent on them.
Or, maybe they had heard the gospel. They had sat in a crowd listening to Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness. They had met Jesus’ followers and seen how they loved one another, and the message rang true for them. They had felt that switch flip inside them as they realized God loves them and wants good things for them and for their friend who is paralyzed. This would have been a very different kind of message than anything they had heard before.
This message of abounding love stood against the prevailing theology that God rationed out love to those who were righteous. Jesus rejected the idea that if you were down and out, if you were sick or disabled, it meant God had turned away from you. Jesus said the sick and poor were blessed, they had worth, they were loved.
Inspired by this message, these men carried their friend in his bed. This detail stopped me as I studied the verses this week. He is in his bed. No where in these verses does is say this man is poor; we sometimes assume he is. Its just as possible he has money. Jesus does send him back to “his home” after he is healed. If he has a bed he is doing better than some. Maybe his paralysis is a recent development that has thrown him into a downward spiral, and now his friends can’t even get him into a chair. Now he spends his days in bed, depressed by his circumstances.
Who can blame him, The world tells him his sins caused these circumstances, that God has abandoned him, that he is unloved. The theology of the day shackled him to that bed. The friends knew Jesus’ message was the only way they were going to rescue their friend. They had probably tried to teach him the gospel, to tell him God had not turned away and that in fact God loved him but they could not get through to him. So the only thing left to do was to pick up the bed themselves and walk him to Jesus so he could experience the message of the gospel first hand.
The crowd prevented their friend from hearing Jesus – they were still too far away – so they go up to the roof. But the house was so well built they couldn’t hear from the roof and they had to break it down. Their friend had to hear the gospel from Jesus. Nowhere does it say this trip was about getting their friend to walk again. I think they simply wanted him to hear Jesus say, “You are Loved.”
It was inconvenient for them, it was back breaking work, it probably cost them a pretty penny to fix the roof, it wasn’t exactly the right weekend to make it all happen, but it was worth it for their friend to know he was loved by them and by God.
This month is Pride Month. There will be endless images of colorful exuberant parties and parades on social media. For me the ones that bring the most joy are the ones of Christians giving free hugs to the participants. A hug is so simple but it means so much. It means, “I am not just willing to be in the same space as you: I want to embrace you, heart to heart.” A hug is a physical expression of acceptance. It acknowledges worth and expresses love, and it’s just a hug.
The images won’t show us the inconveniences someone had to go through to get there, the traffic jams, the declined lunch dates. but it does show that for that person, being present was the most valuable and productive thing they could do with their day. It does show that that person has made a commitment to making another human feel loved. That that person has said, “I will serve the Lord.”
When we think of service we think of building, cooking, visiting. The physical actions we do with our bodies. In some ways that is correct; serving is about the physical movement of our bodies, but it is less about “the job” we are doing and more about where our bodies are. When we show up for someone we are casting a vote for them. Our physical presence says to the world I stand with them and against the forces hurting them. We can say children deserve a good education or the homeless need a place to go in the winter, but placing our bodies, the most valuable and fragile thing we have, into the issue is next level. This guy’s friends climbed to the top of a house and broke through the roof! They used their bodies to physically cast a vote that said you have worth, you are loved. The single most powerful thing you can do for someone who is in need is to move toward them, sit with them, physically be there for them.
Service is not about “being able to do a job;” it is about being physically present for someone else – no matter the inconveniences.Not all service is going to be inconvenient. A large part of my job and the work of our Outreach Ministries Committee is to make service as convenient as we can for you. Some service will come naturally and you will be happy to be present for the people who need you in that time. But eventually God will call you to do something inconvenient in service of the gospel. You will have to give up the one free night you have. You will be asked to make another meal for another family in the church who has had a baby. You will have to visit someone for the 5th week in a row. When those inconvenient calls come, a voice in your head will run through all the reasons you can’t possibly help. It will try to convince you that you don’t have to BE there, you could just …
When that voice starts its list of inconveniences it is time to stop and decide if we want to rededicate ourselves to serving the Lord, if we are willing to put our bodies into the issues we say we care about. Every time we step out in service we rededicate our lives to the love God has shown us. We ensure the message of the gospel survives by physically bringing the love it inspires to those who need it. When we offer our time, our hands, our shoulder we affirm that the gospel is worth the inconveniences and cast a vote that tells the world God’s love is here.