Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"The Wonder of Welcome"

Scripture Readings: Acts 9:1-30; 10:27-48

The Book of Acts is the story of how the Holy Spirit went to work, long ago, shaping and molding the disciples of Jesus into what he wanted them to be.
In our own time we are the present chapter in that long story. And the Book of Acts is still the story of how the Holy Spirit likes to work today with the disciples of Jesus.

So we can read in the Book of Acts and see what the Lord wants to make of us. We can see the kind of people the Lord wants us to be. We can see the kind of family the Lord wants his church to be as a group, as a body.
What I see, in the two places we have read from this morning, is that the Lord wants his people to welcome others.

Long ago the Lord wanted his people to welcome his new servant, Saul (who would later become known as Paul). This was very hard for them to do, and (in the beginning) they did not do a very good job of it. It’s true that they had good reasons for doing a bad job of welcome. Saul (or Paul) had been a dangerous enemy whose heart had been suddenly changed (completely unexpectedly) by the grace of the Lord.

And the Lord also wanted his disciples to welcome Gentiles (non-Jews) into the family of God’s chosen people; starting with a Roman army officer named Cornelius, along with his family and friends. The lesson Peter learned from this was that the Lord wanted a relationship with all of the nations and all of the races outside Israel. The Lord wanted to include them in the kingdom of God.

They should have known this all along. At the very start of God’s work with Israel, with the children of Abraham, the Lord gave this blessing to Abraham: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

The Lord wanted his people to eventually become a blessing people, a welcoming people: a people who reached out to others, and who took other people in. He wants us to be like that too; because that is one of the wonders of the big story of the gospel. There is no real gospel without it.

As the years passed, and Paul found himself to be accepted by the church, he wrote some thoughts about how important it was for Christians to be a blessing and welcoming people. In the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians (5:16a, 17-18) he wrote: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is a kind of welcome. Reconciliation is a very scary and radical kind of welcome. It is much more than the welcoming of strangers. It is the welcoming of former enemies.

It is a way of saying that God is in the friend making business. God came in Jesus to die on a cross to make a world of enemies into his friends.

When God speaks to any human being from his cross, God reveals a love, and a holiness, and a mercy, and a hope that cannot be found anywhere else. When God speaks to a human soul from his cross, this welcome of God’s love opens the secrets of that person’s heart.

When God is speaking to us from his cross, we see the sins that we have cherished in our lives, and we see the ugliness of sins that we didn’t even know were sins. When the Lord speaks to us from his cross, and when we hear, we die; and this is the gift of God’s love.

What we have been, up to that point, dies. Our old self is lost to us. We must become new. From the depths of our hearts we are changed; because we have been welcomed by the love of God in Christ.

We might still fight the old battles, and struggle with the old weaknesses, but we do it with a different mind and heart. We fight the old battles with a different kind of strength: with a strength that is never entirely our own, but belongs to God; to a God who would never surrender and would never give up on us, not even if we belonged to his crucifiers and killers.

The love of God in Jesus says what Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) We will fight our oldest battles with the humility and patience that Jesus showed on the cross.

And sooner or later we realize how much we need the welcoming of a God who never gives us up. This is the message of reconciliation.

Now the Book of Acts tells us how God’s people are being trained by the Holy Spirit to welcome others, to welcome people who have been their enemies. We see these lessons in how the church learned to welcome Paul, the persecutor and murderer of Christians; and Cornelius, an army officer of the Roman occupation who, no matter how good and spiritual he was, still worked for the enemy.

Now, if you know that God requires you to welcome enemies, then you must know that you have to welcome others as well; not only enemies, but strangers, too; outsiders, people who are not like you, people you may not understand, and people who may not understand you.

When I was going to the community college near my hometown, there was another kid who wanted to come to church with me, but I never let him, because I knew what would happen if some people saw him wearing blue jeans. It was as petty as that. I knew, as well as I knew myself, that there would be people there who would snub him, or make some comment to him and make him feel embarrassed about what he was wearing. (This happened in the year 1971, when a lot of people actually had issues about blue jeans in church.) And the fact that those were the only pants he owned would have made no difference to certain people.

Now-a-days we are very broad-minded, and we can’t imagine holding off a person from the church over the matter of blue jeans. But just try to think of someone you would rather not see here, and ask Jesus what he thinks about your reasons.

I was looking for one verse about welcoming others and found three of them together. They are from the thirteenth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (13:1-3). “Keep on loving each other as brothers (or as brothers and sisters). Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Keep on loving each other. (“Keep on loving” is our translation’s way of making the Greek verb tense clear.) Sometimes the way to welcome someone is to keep on loving them.

Some people really don’t believe in love. At the point when you are trying to welcome them they may have no concept of a healthy love. And the gospel is all about love. So they will often fall back on being hard to love, to see if your love is real, or they will be hard to love simply because they can’t help themselves.
These people won’t ever learn anything about Jesus, in the long run, if you don’t decide to keep on loving them. This is related to what we ask God for when we pray, “Forgive us our debts (or our trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us).” How we keep on loving is very revealing about our own grasp of the good news of the grace and love of God in our own lives.

Then there is the welcome of strangers, “for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Now this verse deserves a whole sermon in itself. This is probably a reference to Abraham (Genesis 18) and Gideon (in Judges 6), and the times when they were visited by angels. It may be a reference to some experiences of the first Christians. It describes a miracle. It really does.
But the word for angel, in Greek and Hebrew, also refers to plain old messengers. Sometimes strangers bring us messages from God. When God’s people welcome strangers, they learn something, and they are wiser than before.

And then there is “remember those in prison”. Remember here means to do something real about something, and here remember means to visit. One kind of welcoming is not what you do when someone else comes to you, but what you do by going to them. Welcome is about making a first step; all by yourself.

There are people in prison, or in hospitals, or even people caught in some pattern of life, or some trap of life; who (because of who and where they are in life) cannot come to you. But you can come to them. You receive them; you welcome them, by going to them, by giving yourself.

Now, welcoming others, or being a welcoming place, as a church, is not something that should be up to us. Peter asked his friends about what to do with these Gentiles, these Romans, who believed. He asked, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized?” (Acts 10:47) Later on, the church in Jerusalem challenged Peter’s welcoming of the Gentiles into the church. And Peter just said, “Who was I to think that I could oppose God.” (Acts 11:17)

There was a cartoon of a church business meeting, and the leader was reading from the by-laws, and said, “According to our by-laws, the will of God can only be overruled by a two-thirds majority of the congregation.” The will of God here is all about what kind of heart and soul we are going to have, and how we are going to live a different way, based on what the Lord wants to nurture in our heart and soul. How are we going to live out the welcome of Jesus in this fellowship, this church? Will we do it by coming back to live the message of reconciliation from our heart?
That is the standard.

Otherwise what do we have that is any different from what this world offers? We are talking about being a new creation that does not work the way the world works. All the welcome you could possibly give, with every fiber of your being, is not going to be a welcome that anyone would possibly want, if it isn’t a doorway into some kind of haven and shelter that does not give us, a home of steadfast love and faithfulness.

There was a wealthy woman who was interviewing a prospective maid, and she asked, “Can you serve company?” The applicant answered, “Yes ma’am; both ways.” The employer was puzzled and asked, “What do you mean both ways?” And the answer was, “So they’ll come again, or so they’ll stay away.” (in “”My Little Salesman Truck Catalog” Parables, Etc” June, 1988)

The wonder of real welcome is that it must come from the heart, and the heart speaks clearly. And it is just as clear whether or not the welcome in our hearts speaks from our knowing the welcome of God’s heart; the welcome that comes from the good news of the gospel. That is the welcome that people need the most. That is the welcome that shows Christ to them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"The Guided Life"

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Luke 2:25-32

There is a story that may not be a true story at all, although it rings true, about the great scientist Albert Einstein, who was famous not only for his brilliance, but also for his amazing absent-mindedness. Einstein was taking the train to a city where he was scheduled to give a lecture. The train left the station and the conductor went down the aisle of the passenger car, checking and punching everyone’s ticket. When he got to Einstein, the scientist reached into his breast coat pocket and couldn’t find his ticket. Then he started fumbling through his other pockets. He was upset. He apologized over and over again. And he began to rummage through his briefcase.

Einstein had a famous, one-of-a-kind face. At a glance, the conductor knew, for a fact, that here was the great Dr. Albert Einstein. So he said, “Dr. Einstein, don’t worry. I know who you are. I am sure you bought a ticket. I don’t need to see it. Just enjoy your trip.”

The scientist said, “Sir, you don’t understand. If I don’t find my ticket, I won’t know where to get off the train.”

In our reading from the book of Acts, Philip knew where he was going, because the Lord had told him so. We read that an angel told Philip what road, and what direction to take. The Holy Spirit told Philip who to meet and talk to.

As a follower of Jesus, with a life full of examples of the Lord working around him and his friends, Philip clearly lived a guided life. This is a very important message for us. A life with God, a life with Christ, a life in the Spirit, is a guided life.

And yet it is a strange story; this thing that happened to Philip. And we read a lot about this kind of thing in the Bible.

I want to talk about living the guided life, but I can’t do that faithfully without dealing with the strangeness of the guidance that we sometimes find in the Bible. But all I am going to say is that there are people, even today, who have thoughts, and insights, and guidance, invisibly given to them by God. There are even people who have seen and heard angels, or met angels in their dreams, in ways very similar to the descriptions we find in the Bible.

The chances are that, even in those Bible times, communication with angels was exceptional. But the people of those times understood that it was always possible, and they would not have been at all surprised by it.

I am one of those people who have met angels, a couple of times in my life. And there have been times when the Holy Spirit has spoken to me; not in words that my ears heard, but in words I heard in my mind, or my spiritual being.

In Roman 8:16, Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit speaks in our hearts to give us assurance that we are faithfully loved by God. Paul says it this way: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” The Holy Spirit can teach us and guide us in the depths of our hearts, in the core of our spiritual being. But the most important guidance the Holy Spirit has to give us is to assure us that we belong to God and that God is faithful to us. We are children of God.

When I first visited Washtucna, and was meeting with the Pastor Nominating Committee, I had some time to be by myself, and I came into the sanctuary of this church. I was very anxious and worried because I had different places that I was pretty sure would call me, if I wanted to go.

But I was afraid of making a choice. I felt desperate because I didn’t want to make the wrong choice.

I was kneeling here, in the late afternoon, and I felt a presence; and I felt words form in my heart that said, “This place is my answer to your prayers.” I did not hear these words with my ears, but I clearly heard them silently; in my mind, in my heart, in that spiritual depth of my being.

I have told you that I first felt the serious calling of God to the ministry when I was twelve, and that I found this calling very disturbing and scary. I prayed a lot about this and, around the time of my thirteenth birthday, I was praying about this one night, as usual, before I went to bed, and I asked God to tell me clearly, in a way that I could not doubt or explain away.

That night I had a dream that I can still see and hear in my mind. An angel came to me and showed me some things, and the angel summed up what he had shown me with a call to what I was called to do.

Even though it happened in a dream, I could never doubt it, but I did try to avoid it, until the beginning of my nineteenth year. Then I finally surrendered, because I couldn’t stand the pressure any more.

Once I began to obey the guidance that God had given me, I found that my life didn’t get any easier. But I would never have chosen to go back.

Over time I grew able to do things I had never shown any gifts or potential for doing. I learned things I never dreamed of learning. I found great experiences of fulfillment. And I found some experiences that tore me apart and nearly destroyed me, spiritually and emotionally. And following the guidance of the Holy Spirit has never made be what the world would call a success. Still, this calling has been a good gift for me, and I, feel sure that I would never go back on it.

I continue to love God, and I know that God loves me. And if you love God, and if you know that God loves you; then you can never refuse to do what you know he wants you to do, and expect to be happy about it.
Even though an angel told Philip where to go, this doesn’t have to have been something he saw with his eyes, and heard with his ears. There was the sense of a presence, the sense of knowing what he must do; and he did it.

Even though the Gaza Road, that led from Jerusalem, to the seaport of Gaza, was a desert road, it was not a deserted road. It was the main overland route from Asia to Egypt and North Africa.

Once on that road, a choice had to be made of whom to talk to. There were whole strings and clusters of travelers all along that road.

One group on that road was especially forbidding. It was the caravan of the Chancellor of the Treasury for the queen of Ethiopia. A whole train of servants, and pack animals followed him. Armed guards marched with the chariot and the supplies. The chariot was a carriage big enough to hold the driver, the Chancellor who sat in a seat reading, a servant standing to wait upon him, and seats for other passengers like Philip.

Normally someone like Philip would never be asked to sit down in the presence of someone like the chancellor. The Holy Spirit obviously chose a humble and gracious person for Philip meet: someone who was ready to listen.

Other travelers would tag along with this armed party, for the extra safety they provided, but they trailed behind in the dust. Philip ran up to the chariot, and kept pace, at a moderate walk, among the guards, who seem to have been friendlier or more relaxed than expected.

The Holy Spirit gave Philip the guts to ease his way into the pattern of the guards, where he could hear the chancellor read. And, as he walked, Philip realized that the Chancellor was reading the Bible from the Prophet Isaiah. (In ancient times everyone read out loud.)

From that point, Philip was guided by what he saw and heard. He didn’t see and hear angels, but the sight and voice of a man reading. God’s love for this man spoke through the signals of what Philip saw and heard.

This too is the guided life. What you see and what you hear in the world around you are all signals from God. They are all cues in a drama, in a story you are acting out along with everyone else; a drama of the working, and the power, and the love, and the grace of God.

It is a drama where everyone’s words and actions are improvised. I mean that you can have no fixed plan for what you might say and do next.

Well, you might have some sort of plan or idea. You can have a set of priorities. And you certainly have ways to prepare for this drama (prayer, scripture, fellowship with others); but there is always the possibility that it could turn out completely different from what you expect.

All you can be sure of is that your job is to stick to your part; to stick to character. Your part is to be yourself as a servant of Jesus, and to stay in character, no matter what happens in the improvised drama.

This pattern runs all the way through the Bible, and this is the model for us. The person who belongs to God, the person who is claimed by the love of God in Christ, the person who finds his or her life refreshed by the Holy Spirit, will live a guided life.

This guidance is usually a journey through mystery. One of the early people of God, who are the pattern for the guided life, is Abraham. In the Book of Genesis (12:1) the Lord tells Abraham, “Go to the land I will show you.” Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. He only knew that he would be shown or guided along the way. Abraham experienced great successes and joys; and also great frustrations, and struggles, and losses.

Philip knew something about the destination of his journey. The destination was described in the words the Ethiopian Chancellor was reading, about the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world.

The leader and the destination of the journey are the same person. It is Jesus, who is one with the Father, who has died for our sins, and who has given us a new life of grace, and power, and hope, and love; a life of the Spirit. We are not on a journey to enlightenment. We are on a journey of partnership and faithfulness with Love Himself (a Love who cares about everything that goes on in this world). And we are headed for the destination of partnership and peace with Love Himself, and with all those who have ever made the same journey.

It is a sacrificial journey because we walk with Jesus, who gave himself as a sacrifice for us. Walking in his path will make us like him. We walk this journey with him because we belong to him.

It is a life that makes us want to be alert and ready for anything, because it is a guided life. Being alert for God makes us take in everything and everyone in this world, because everything and everyone speaks to us from God. Anything, anyone, any issue, at any time, may turn out to be the voice of the angels and the Holy Spirit calling to us.

We don’t know which of the signals will be for us, or what they will ask of us, until he shows us. And he promises to show us the way to go.

And so we live our lives as if we were all eyes, and all ears; ready to be all open-handed and open-armed. And so we become uniquely alive because, in the Spirit, we live this guided life.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Wonders of Courage

“Life in the Spirit: The Wonders of Courage”
Scripture Readings: Acts 4:1-22;
Matthew 10:16-31

A teenager was almost robbed in New York City. He was walking from the subway to his family’s apartment in Manhattan. Suddenly he realized that there were two other teenagers walking on each side of him. They started asking for his wallet. He told them, “No!” They asked him over and over, “Give us your wallet.” He kept saying, “No!” They finally gave up. They asked why he didn’t give them his wallet. And the teenager said, “My learner’s permit’s in it.” (Dave Mote, “The Pastor’s Story File, ’86)

The teenager in New York, Peter and John in Jerusalem, and Christians in many times and places, have found themselves in need of courage, or something like courage. The leaders in the Temple had arrested Peter and John for doing a wonderful thing; for healing a lame man. They were conducting a trial in the hopes of punishing them, at least frightening them, perhaps killing them, and one way or another eliminating them as a challenge to their authority.

They were the people of authority, and they were more than willing to use the power of their authority. But they were not people of courage. Their authority and power actually made them afraid of Peter and John, as they had also been afraid of Jesus.
They had gotten Jesus crucified to show that they were stronger than Jesus; to show that (in their world) they were the ones to be feared. But they were the ones who were afraid.

What they feared the most, as we see in this story, is that Peter and John were not afraid of them; or didn’t act like it. The authorities saw courage in them, “and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” They connected the courage they saw to the relationship that Peter and John had with Jesus. They were worried about this courage, because they lacked it in themselves.

Peter and John would not have been thinking so much about courage. If you had asked them if they were brave people, they probably would have said no. In fact they were people who found a great need in their lives to pray for courage and boldness (Acts 4:29), because, to their mind, they lacked it.

It wasn’t courage that was most on the mind of Peter and John. What was on their mind was faith. They knew that what they needed most was to trust Jesus. They made it their determination that they would go forth, against all odds and even against their gut feelings, to trust Jesus; and this is what looked so much like courage.
Faith and courage look a lot alike, in terms of how we live. The line from the Psalm, which Peter quotes, is the reason that he chose to live faithfully and bravely, even if he didn’t feel a lot of faith or bravery. Jesus, Peter said, “Is the stone which you builders rejected which has become the capstone.” (Psalm 118:22)
Peter knew that, although Jesus had been rejected and crucified, Jesus was alive. Jesus had conquered death, and had risen from the grave. Jesus was “the capstone.” Jesus held things together. Jesus was on top. He was in charge.

For Christians, faith and courage come from this: the Lord is in charge; therefore (therefore) the universe is our friend. But, the universe might not look that way.
If there had been neutral bystanders present at the trial (bystanders who knew how things stood in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire); those bystanders would have been pretty sure that the universe was no friend of Peter’s or John’s. Jesus didn’t seem to have much power there.

The Temple authorities believed that God was on their side, and that God was in charge, and that the universe was their friend. The evidence they had, for this being true, was that God had put them on top. If their position on top looked like it was in trouble, then they had no courage and no faith.

Peter and John knew that they were not on top of anything in the world. They knew that the day of that trial could have been their last day on earth. Still, Jesus was in charge.

They could die. They could seem to fail. Yet the universe was really their friend (because Jesus was their friend), and so they lived accordingly. And this is what made the difference that looked like courage and faith.
Jesus had prepared the disciples for this very thing. The very first time that Jesus sent the twelve disciples on a mission of preaching and healing, he gave them a set of instructions; and you can read the whole set in the tenth chapter of Matthew.
The first part of those instructions was fairly simple and common sense. But where our reading jumps in, they started to get scary. Jesus told them that they were going off on a mission where, one day, the people who go on that mission might be arrested and killed by the authorities, or even killed by their own families; and all for simply doing what Jesus was sending them to do.

None of Jesus’ scary warnings came true to the disciples on their first mission, or maybe on other missions that followed. The scary things would come later. And we believe the Bible teaches that, in the last days, the scariest time for Christians will come.

Why did Jesus set out to scare them on their first timid, innocent, childlike training mission? It would be like teaching kindergartners the rules for crossing a street by showing them the really gory videos of accidents that I remember seeing in my Driver’s Safety Class, when I was in high school. Something like that would make them afraid to cross the street for the rest of their lives.

And yet, with all the warnings of horror and terror, in Jesus’ instructions, those instructions are also full of promises. “Do not worry about what you will say or how to say it…for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20) “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (10:29-31) “It is enough for a student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (10:25)

Jesus could get really scary about what his disciples should be prepared for when they went out into the world to follow him, and to live and speak for him. Jesus got scary (realistically scary), but he did it for their safety’s sake. He oddly did it to make them people of courage and faith when the universe did not look like their friend.

He promised that they could never find themselves in any situation where he and his Father were not in charge. If they took things step by step in faith, no matter how hard that might be; if they took life step by step in faith, no matter what it cost; they would find that Jesus and his Father and the Spirit were in charge.

We know that mothers and fathers should never be scary to their children: never, unless something very important is at stake. For instance, mothers and fathers may scream at their children for their safety’s sake. They may make themselves scary for their children’s good. They usually mean to do this to create a healthy fear.
Faith and courage do need to be afraid of some things.

Faith and courage need to be afraid of being foolish and stupid. When the authorities became scary, and challenged their authority to heal and to share the power and grace of Jesus, Peter said, “If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this!” (Acts 4:9-10)

This was an especially wise way to answer in a scary situation. It is as if Peter were saying, “You are putting us on trial, but we all know that something good was done yesterday. Why don’t we talk about this good thing?” Peter spoke in such a way so that he was not provoking trouble, and he was not avoiding trouble either. He was helping the people who were against him to listen, if that was possible. Why would kindness make someone mad, or afraid?

It was also a choice of gentle humor (deliberately getting the reason for the trial wrong), to help his opponents see the real issues. Being light-hearted is a part of real courage and faith. It is part of what Jesus called being “shrewd or wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. (Matthew 10:16)

Faith and courage also need to be afraid of not living themselves out, and not doing the things that are worth doing and saying. This is what Peter means, toward the end of the trial when he says, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God; for we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

There was an old television show called “All in the Family”. Something would come up that was upsetting to the husband, Archie. Trying to be helpful, the wife would say something compassionate about the people who had offended him, and Archie would say, “Oh stifle yourself, Edith.”

Faith and courage need to be afraid of stifling themselves. They need to be afraid of not living fully and being themselves. They need to be afraid of not being free.
Good courage and faith are not fearless. They pray to be wise and innocent in order to be at their best.

Jesus nurtured his disciples to have the proper, healthy fears that would keep them from being stifled, or stifling themselves. Being a Christian, being faithful to Jesus, is as dangerous and as fun as driving a car, or using a chainsaw, or just simply living. Some families, and some church cultures or families, rob their children of a life that can be lived Jesus’ way in courage and faith.

The authorities recognized the mark of Jesus in the way the disciples stood up to them. They saw Jesus in them. When we need the courage and faith to live contrary to the pressures of the world, and the pressures of our peers, and the trends and injustices of our culture, there is a Jesus way to do it.

Just as the disciples did, when they were on trial, we can defeat the temptation of being provocative about our differences, and we can defeat the temptation to blend in, and deny and avoid our differences from the world. We can be different in a way that will show that we have been with Jesus: wise, and innocent, and unstifled in our way of life.

The Lord’s Supper is the place where we remember to live our lives with Jesus. This is a meal where we are fed and nurtured by Jesus, and released out, into the world. We are fed with the presence of Jesus so that we can go out into a world that often turns against us and live there with courage and faith.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Wonders of Compassion

SERMON Dennis Evans 5-3-2009
Scripture Readings: Acts 3:1-20; Matthew 15:29-39

I was in my early twenties and traveling on the Greyhound Bus. I had a long layover in a big city. So I decided to kill time by walking around the city for a while. Out on the street, on the sidewalk outside the main doors of the bus terminal, there was a small crowd of about thirty or forty beggars; panhandlers. I had never seen anything like that before in my life.

I was a Christian, and I knew that Jesus helped beggars. I also knew some warnings about panhandlers. I wasn’t stupid that way; but I decided to be like Jesus anyway. I pulled some change from my pocket and gave it to one of them. All at once, I had the whole crowd around me. I got scared and started to back off. Then they began to follow me. Then I ran, and yelled back at them; “Get away from me. Leave me alone!”
It really shook me up. Fortunately the terminal was a big one, and there was another way for me to get back in, around the corner.

I learned several lessons from that. One is that trying to be like Jesus can be scary, and it can get you into serious trouble. Of course being like Jesus is what got Jesus into trouble. It got Peter and John into a lot of trouble when they tried to be like Jesus, when they met the lame beggar at The Beautiful Gate of the Temple.

Whether it was the disciples long ago, or whether it is us today, there is a special kind of trouble that comes from following Jesus, and that is the trouble that comes from compassion.

Sometimes Christians are tempted to make their faith simply a matter of a lot of religious talk and words: preaching, teaching, praying, even singing. And all of that is good. I know I like doing it sometimes.

And we all know that you don’t have to stand up in front of a church in order to preach. Some people go around preaching to everybody, all the time, for better or for worse. But I think Jesus could have spared himself a lot of trouble if he had done nothing but that.

Jesus came to talk, but he also came to save. Jesus came to give himself for the sins and evils of this world. Jesus came to recreate the world, beginning with those who meet him, and trust him, and follow him. That is the work of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus could have talked about the kingdom all he wanted, and not have gotten into trouble. What got Jesus into trouble was that the Kingdom of God, and the recreation of the world, and the recreation of lives is a compassionate thing.

Jesus seemed to think that the best way to help the people around him to understand what he wanted to do for them; the best way he could think of to show them what the cross itself was going to be about; was by the power of compassion. When we read in the verses from Matthew about Jesus sitting down to heal, he was not really doing what a healer did. Sitting down was not the posture of a healer, as I understand it. Sitting down was the posture of a teacher at work, in those ancient times. By sitting down, Jesus was doing what a teacher would do when he spoke with authority and wanted people to listen. (We stand up when we want to speak with authority, but in those days people sat down.) So Jesus was teaching when he was healing and feeding others. His healing was the lesson. Compassion was the message.

Jesus healed people. He fed people. Even worse than that, Jesus provoked the spiritual people by healing on the Sabbath. He provoked them by turning over the tables of the merchants in the Temple, who sold the sacrifices for worship, and who exchanged people’s worldly money that had a picture of the emperor on it for holy money that had an image of the Temple on it.

The problem with these businesses was not so much that they were there in the Temple, but the fact that they gouged the people. It was oppressive to those who could least afford it. There was no compassion behind them.

The compassion of Jesus stood up against the injustice of that system. And this was the last straw. This was what made the cross inevitable. (Of course, Jesus made sure that the cross was inevitable. He came as a sacrifice.) The compassion of Jesus was what made him a threat to be feared by those who loved being spiritual just as long as it didn’t cost them anything real.

Peter explained where the miracle of the healing of the lame man came from: God was glorifying Jesus. The healing was a picture of the kingdom of the Messiah, Jesus. The compassion of the kingdom of Jesus was at work among them.

“Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.” (Acts 3:12-13)

In a way it was not true what Peter said, about having no money to give. The church in Jerusalem collected money for the needy. Peter could have come back later and given the beggar some money to support him and his family, for a time. But Peter knew that, for this particular human being, in his present need, Jesus wanted to give more than money. Money was too simple a solution to the problem of the beggar. Compassion now required more.

The beggar had no idea that Peter represented more than just himself. The beggar didn’t know that Peter stood there for Jesus.

And, at first, Peter didn’t know any better either. He didn’t realize that he was going to have to stand there for Jesus. At first, Peter was prepared to just walk on by and pass through a sea of beggars, and an ocean of need, and get safely to the other side; but then one little ripple in that ocean became a face, a soul, a human being who had never walked.

The story of the compassion of Jesus was going to become that beggar’s story. The man, who had never walked before in his life, was going to walk, and run, and leap, praising God; and that would tell everyone who saw it and heard it the story of what Jesus and his cross were about. Compassion would tell the gospel.
There are two things that Jesus wants us to see, and these are very hard for us. We need to learn them.

One thing that Jesus wants us to see is the wealth that surrounds us. He wants us to see his image in others. He wants us to see his gifts present in others. He wants us to see the gifts he has given us. We don’t really know anyone, not even ourselves, unless we can look at them and see the image of God, and see their potential as fruitful beings and as gift bearers through the power and grace of God, if only they would open their lives to it.

The other thing Jesus wants us to see is that we are walking through a sea of beggars, and ocean of need, every day. We don’t really know anyone unless we realize that they could tell us a story of challenges, and struggles, and dangerous choices, and hard fought victories, and desperate defeats, and fears, and painful scars.

Compassion is the power of Jesus to see both the beauty and the need that surrounds us. Compassion is the power of Jesus to give us a special calling; to wake us up and to see the need in the face of a fellow human that calls out to us. Compassion is the power of Jesus to change a human request into a calling from God himself; a calling for us to give, even if that giving may get us in trouble.

The human being who had never walked had undoubtedly known about Jesus, and may have actually heard him and seen him. But he had never gotten close enough to have Jesus lay hands on him.

The beggar didn’t know who Peter was, but with the words, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk,” (Acts 3:6) Jesus suddenly stood before him. Peter suddenly became Jesus to the beggar.

Jesus was there; but not with money to make lameness of the beggar bearable. Jesus was there in the redeeming power that changed his life.
That is what the church is called to do. We are called to be involved where compassion is needed to change things, and to make life more than bearable; to make life beautiful.

Peter did more than talk words. He reached out his hand. He held on tight. He pulled the beggar up. He involved himself. That was part of the miracle as the lame beggar would always remember it. There was power in that grasp of Peter’s hand. There was the presence of Jesus in it.

We are called to talk, and to touch, and to grasp, and to hold on to people who need compassion. We are called to be involved like that. It is a call that Jesus wants you to carry out.

He wants you to do more than to know this calling in the abstract. The Lord wants the calling to happen inside you, and present itself to you face to face, in the face of another person’s need.

Compassion is the experience of trouble, one way or another. But compassion is also the wonder of the experience of Jesus himself, and the power of his kingdom at work among us.