Sunday, May 27, 2012

May 20 - Blessed until Our Nets Break

Friends, let us begin this morning in scripture. God’s word to us may surprise us. God may speak to us in way we do not expect, at moments we do not expect. Even on a Sunday morning. But again and again we gather around these stories, these poems and prayers and laws and letters, here in this bible, because we hear God’s voice in them. So let us listen and wait this morning for what God will say to each and all of us.

Open your bibles to Luke, chapter 5, verse 1 through 11. Listen as I read for what God is saying to you, to us.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Lk 5.1-11) Amen.
For seven months my wife Cindy and I lived in Skopje, Macedonia, a small country in Eastern Europe. We crossed the ocean full of love for Jesus, young and wanting nothing more than to spend our energy to love as he loves.

When I started the application process with the mission board, I imagined I would split my time in Europe between bringing comfort to orphans and refugees and sharing the gospel over cappuccinos with young people. But, instead, what met me once the plane touched down was confusion and loneliness. I asked what I could do in a city I did not know that spoke a language I did not understand. Instead of cafe conversations and building orphanages, I taught American missionary kids arithmetic, history, and grammar.

But wise friends and co-workers told me to persevere, that they could see that God had brought me there even if I was a bit foggy on God’s reason for doing so. They also encouraged me to learn to language. I would be a lot happier they said, once I could zboruvat Makedonski.

So every Tuesday and Thursday night Cindy and I would ride the bus toward the center of the city, to a neighborhood called Novo Lisiche, and sit for an hour or two with our language teacher Richard learning vocabulary and grammar, how to ask for directions, how to buy a kilo of potatoes or oranges at the market.

One Thursday night, a few months into our time in Macedonia--probably in February--I was riding the bus back to our apartment.

It is not warm in Macedonia in the winter. This night there was snow on the ground. I was sitting in the back of the bus. The bus was pretty empty, just me, a few men riding home from a day at cafes watching soccer, and a Roma family riding up front, a father and mother, one son who looked about ten years old and a younger son who was probably four or five. The mother and especially the father looked too old to have such young children, but by this point in my time in Macedonia, I’d learned that in Roma families people often look much older than they are. The Roma are gypsies, the trash-pickers, the scrap-metal collectors, the people who build their homes in the city dump. They live hard lives, so a man who looks sixty may only be thirty and a woman who looks fifty-five may only be twenty-eight.

I looked up again at the family at the front of the bus as we bounced through another intersection. The father’s toes and heels were sticking out of his shoes. There was snow outside, cold air blowing in around the doors to the bus, and this man’s bare toes and exposed heels had nothing between them and elements.

I sat there, disturbed, unsure what to do. I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I knew that I had come to the country with two pairs of shoes and a pair of sandals besides and this man had nothing that passed for decent shoes on a cold February night. And I felt afraid. How would I speak to him? I could barely express myself in my broken Macedonian, and odds were that his own Macedonian was not that great; he would speak some Roma dialect. Would I offend him? Is it an insult to his character if I offer him a gift in front of his children?

I sat there feeling guilty and afraid until he and his family stepped out into the cold a few stops later. When the bus finally reached the end of the line, my stop, I thanked the driver, pulled my coat collar up, and walked to my apartment, feeling disappointed at my lack of response.

I had an opportunity to love the way Jesus loves--to bring warmth to a poor man’s feet, to offer him some small measure of protection and stability. This action, this gift was what I wanted--the hope that brought me to Macedonia. But instead of untying my shoes and misspeaking and gesturing my way through an awkward interaction, I sat securely in my seat in the back of the bus. I failed to respond.

Luke’s story about Jesus asks us to make a decision. When Jesus brings us good news, he brings us a demand, a demand that we choose whether to follow him and join with him or to ignore him, to pretend nothing has really happened, to go back to life as normal. We must choose.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

May 6 - Worship & Mission

Let me tell you a story: Eight years ago, just as Cindy and I finished college we heard rumors of a group of students and professors meeting in an old, red-brick church in a forgotten neighborhood of urban Springfield, Ohio. They would meet to praise God and hear God’s word. They would also meet to go door-to-door fixing broken windows in the neighborhood and offering gifts of baked goods.

Cindy and I had friends who’d gone on a Saturday night. We knew and admired some of the professors who led this group. But I, at least, was nervous to drive the fifteen miles north to Springfield and stop-in on this meeting. Finally, just as Cindy and I were preparing to pack up and move away to Eastern Europe, we made a visit.

It was an early summer afternoon. We parked our car behind the church. In front, I timidly pulled open one of the heavy wooden doors. I stepped inside, unsure where everybody was. After some looking, we found them in the musty basement, divvying up baked goods to take door-to-door as they introduced themselves to the red brick church’s neighbors.

Cindy and I were welcomed in. I was partnered with the wife of a music professor. I remember walking through a squeaking gate on a chain link fence to ring a door bell next to a cracked storm door. A big dog barked behind the door, and finally a bleary-eyed man came to the door. Nervous, I introduced us and pushed a coffee cake toward him. He wanted to know who we were. I said we were with the church down the street. He remembered a health and social services fair the group had held a month or two ago. We asked if there was anything he wanted us to pray for at our meeting in forty-five minutes. He couldn’t think of anything. He took the coffee cake, and we walked down the block.

Two or three conversations later, we met back at the church. Others had pulled out guitars and set some bread and grape juice on a table in front. One of the professors prayed, and then we sang songs printed on half-sheets of paper. I looked around. I knew a handful of people, recognized a few from campus. But many were strangers. Tired looking adults, some, I would learn later, fighting the demons of crack cocaine addiction. I saw kids, singing and fidgeting. Some were professors kids. Some were kids from the neighborhood who like the music, the stories, the children’s programs.

A professor got up and read a sermon about Jesus being baptized by John. The Red Brick Church passed around preaching responsibilities from week to week between a number of the adults. We ate and drank communion together. We sang one more song. The kids came stampeding down from their classrooms. We all walked down to the basement. Every Saturday ended with a potluck. Everyone brought what they had, everyone ate, and everyone helped with the dishes.

Cindy and I drove back to our small apartment in Cedarville just as the skies were turning dark. We knew we’d seen something good. This wasn’t our usual Sunday morning church service. We weren’t sure what it was, but we knew it was good.

Friends, I believe that a church that does not follow Jesus in mission is not a church. I’ve said this for two weeks, and I am giving this last Sunday to say this same thing once more: A church that does not follow Jesus in mission is no church.

The last two Sunday morning we have listened to Jesus in Mt 10 as he instructs his followers what it means to join him in announcing that God’s kingdom is arriving. Spilling over with compassion for the anxious and oppressed, Jesus ask God to send others to join him in bringing in the harvest. And then he tells his followers to go and do what he has done: to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. And Jesus tells his followers that they must risk the things they hold dear to follow him in this work, and that, like him, they will suffer the loss of many things they love. Students are not above their teacher . . . It is enough for students to be like their teacher. But God their Father is trustworthy, and God will make all things right in the end. Every sacrifice is noticed, remembered, and rewarded.

This morning we turn the page to Mt 11 where we hear about the response to Jesus and his followers’ mission. We could spend our entire morning here. We could spend many mornings here. John the Baptist--the greatest prophet--hears rumors about what Jesus and his followers have been doing, and he’s confused. Making the lame walk and giving sight to the blind was not what he’d expected of a Messiah. But Jesus reassures him that these very actions are the signs of God forgiving and bring God’s people back to Godself.

Then in vv 16-24 we hear from the crowds. The crowds who are never satisfied. Whatever God does it’s not enough for them. John the Baptist came preaching fire and brimstone, and they laughed him off as a crazy man. Jesus comes giving life and blessing, and they think he’s too easy on sinners, lax and wishy-washy. These are the people who have seen the miracles worked by him and his followers, who’ve heard his message over and over. But what do they do? They go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. They are self-assured, maybe in their religiosity, maybe in their hopelessness and despair, maybe in their schemes and dreams. Unlike John, they won’t even acknowledge a God who disrupts their expectations. Jesus promises hard punishment for them at the last judgment.

We could spend a week or more on each of these stories. I believe that if we are quiet and patient and honest, we’ll see ourselves standing in one of these two groups. Either we’re with John and his disciples, believing Jesus, even when he surprises us, or we’re with the crowds, refusing to accept Jesus for who he is. And life and death, forever and for today, hang in the balance.

But at the very end of ch 11, in vv 25-30, Jesus says something that I feel speaks even more specifically to us--not just to the original twelve and the group of true-believers who traveled with Jesus, but to Dry Creek Bible Church here in the Gallatin Valley.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

April 29 - How To Be a Missionary

A church without a mission is no church.

Last week we listened for what Jesus would say to us in Mt 9.35-10.8. Jesus looked out at the anxious and oppressed crowds, and like God, his heart ached for us. He told his followers to ask God that they might join in Jesus’ work. (This is incredible--that we get to share with Jesus, that we get to work alongside Jesus.)

And when we ask, God sends us out to bring in the harvest. So Jesus sent out his followers--his sent ones, his apostles. He told them to do what he was doing. If people are sick, heal them. If people are dead, raise them. If people are outcast, welcome them back home. If people are demon-possessed, free them. In short, whatever the needs of the world are, however it has been broken, go and show how God sets it right. By word and deed, announce God’s kingdom.

But how do we go? “Heal the sick,” “raise the dead,” “cleanse the lepers,” “cast out demons,”--these are, for us, all somewhat hypothetical actions. They’re hard to imagine in the course of our day-to-day lives. We may need help picturing what joining in Jesus’ work means here and now.

That’s why this morning we’re reading on, to listen to the rest of Jesus’ instructions to the original twelve sent out to carry on his work.
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