Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Set the Gospel Free - Roads and Doors

Preached on Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scripture readings: Colossians 4:2-6; Acts 16:6-10

Along Lower Crab Creek, Near Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
January 2016
The following radio conversation was overheard between the US Navy and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.
It was foggy: visibility zero.
The American captain radioed the Canadians: “Please divert your course fifteen degrees to the north to avoid a collision.”
The Canadians answered: “Please divert your course fifteen degrees to the south to avoid a collision.”
The Americans responded: “This is a US Navy ship. I say, again, divert your course.”
The Canadians answered: “No, I say again, YOU divert YOUR course.”
The Canadians answered back: “We are a lighthouse. It’s your call.”
Sometimes what we call the church has been compared to a ship. Actually it has been compared to an ark, like in the story of Noah and the ark. There are jokes about that.
In another way God’s people are not a single boat, but a fleet on a mission. Like any modern fleet we sail in a cloud of communications: with headquarters, with each other, with other ships at sea, with lighthouses and with other navigational networks.
For us, who gather here, this is our base. This is our home harbor. We serve as a fleet together. There are other fleets a lot like us, for their size and for the age of their commissioned ships.
Other fleets might be bigger. They might also have a lot of baby ships. Maybe we should call them training ships. I wish we had some of those, but we don’t right now. We could be given an assignment in which we have to take on a bunch of those training ships. Right now we are on a mission in which we train each other. We are training to communicate with other ships at sea, and we are authorized by headquarters to commission those independent ships into new ships of the fleet.
Of course you can already tell that I have no idea what I’m talking about. It just seemed to me that Paul, and his missionary team, and his churches, were all moving in this cloud of communication with headquarters, and with each other, and with a sea that was crowded with other ships (I mean other people).
There was a connection (for them as it is with us) between communication and navigation. For Paul, in the story we read today from the Book of Acts, conditions seemed to encourage them to chart a course in a particular direction, and each time they settled on their new destination or a mission, headquarters communicated with them (in the form of the Holy Spirit) not to go that way and not to do that thing.
Paul was smart. He was full of faithful determination and experience. Paul loved the Lord, and he loved a new mission, and he especially loved the mission to grow the fleet.
We don’t know how the communication took place. We don’t know whether headquarters communicated with Paul and his friends through circumstances, like really hot resistance that kept them from going where they wanted, or whether communication came in the form of some low-frequency inner-voice, or a deep conviction that formed within them, when they prayed. We don’t know.
Don’t you imagine that they must have felt very confused and frustrated? They may also have felt very defeated and demoralized.
Somehow, every step of their way, the Lord made all their best options impossible. Whenever they plotted the next best course, the Spirit said “no”. It was when they came to the coastal city of Troas that they literally came to the end of the road.
Their mission had taken them on the road that stopped at the shoreline. Then the Lord told them that, when you come to the end of the road, you might just take a boat. Sister Maria, in “The Sound of Music” says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”
Paul was relentless, and brilliant, and creative. Still he missed the point of those closed doors and the end of the road. Then God spoke, and Paul refused to learn from all his past frustrations and all his past defeats. God spoke to Paul, and Paul listened. Then Paul spoke with his team. So they went off-road. They dropped all their most carefully considered options and they took God’s way instead.
Not everyone does this. I remember, long ago, a poster with a kitten on it. The logo on the poster said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”
That’s what the kitten was doing. It was very cute, of course. The problem is that, sometimes, deciding to hang on is the last decision that some people ever make.
Holding on can work for a while, until headquarters sends you the next message. I like the Disney cartoon series “Phineas and Ferb”. The main characters are very adventurous kids. For Phineas and Ferb, the next likely message will not say “hold on”. It will probably say, “Jump.”
I often think that something will be possible if I jump. You might not believe me, but I have done this before.
This is what we must pray about. All Christians and all congregations must pray like this.
They usually don’t, because they don’t have to. They have alternatives to jumping. Most of the time, they can follow the trends and the best advice. They can listen to the experts. They can use their best judgment and their common sense. They can read the latest how-to book. But that is, somehow, not quite the same as being in communication with the Holy Spirit.
I don’t mean for us to not use our heads and to not pick other people’s brains. I love doing that. Brains are good. God made our brains; and even other people’s brains as well. Yay brains! Go brains!
You might say that, in our story in Acts, God spoke to Paul by using all of Paul’s exhaustive planning, and all of his constant course-changing, as a way of giving him a completely different plan: an unexpected plan, an unplanned plan. Paul’s frustrated planning made him receptive to God’s real plan. This can happen to us and it would be a wonderful thing.
Paul saw our navigation, as followers of Jesus and as a family of followers, as a combination of brains and Spirit. He said, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” (Colossians 4:5) There’s the brain, but remember it has to be a Spirit-filled brain.
Remember that the good news of the gospel is that God followed an unconventional, completely unexpected plan. God became a baby, and a dusty, calloused carpenter, and a convict on a cross, and an escapee from an empty tomb. The good news of the love of God (as we meet God in Jesus) is a pure and earth-shaking miracle. It is a superhuman gift that we call grace. It is a superhuman power that makes us become the humble humans that God created us to be.
We call this salvation, but it is a miracle. It is also called grace, and it has got to fill us up.
Paul told us to us to talk like people filled up with a miracle. He said, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)
Every encounter with everyone around us is a kind of miracle. It’s a kind of grace. It’s filled with a kind of wonder that makes us wiser than this world.  It really is good news and we should be able to tell it with unadulterated happiness.
It should be “tasty” to any sane person. I think that is why Paul said that it should be “seasoned with salt”. What we share with others should come out tasty for us and for them.
Paul said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, and pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (Colossians 4:2-3)
The mystery is the wonderful surprising story. The mystery is this miraculous grace that fills us up, and which we could never have imagined without actually knowing Jesus. It’s that kind of mystery.
There you see the miraculous open door. Why would anyone (especially the people who were holding Paul prisoner; and especially the officials who were handling his case) listen to a prisoner’s source of joy? There was no reasonable course for Paul to follow. All he hoped for was simply a suddenly open door.
Paul said to pray and be watchful. In prayer we have dealings beyond this world and yet, in these dealings, we are supposed to be able to watch for how to live as Christians in this world. We watch for opportunities that come from God. And we are open to those opportunities because we are thankful.
Paul was thankful in chains. Paul was thankful at the end of his road, and at the end of his rope. Paul just went off-road. Paul jumped.
I had a hard prayer exercise this past week. My prayer journal instructed me to spend an hour asking God what to do next. I was instructed to ask God what to do next, that morning, at every step of the way. Should I brush my teeth next, or should I shave?
Well I always do things in the same order every morning. How could I do that by asking?
It was hard. I never thought it would be so hard. But I realized that I need to live more by asking, and not so much by habit, and not so much by planning custom, and not even by reason. I tried for more than an hour I tried all day, and the next day, but it was hard.
The people who designed that prayer journal were smart. We must learn to live by asking. I can see that this is what we all must learn to pray and to do: otherwise we will miss the open door. We will not receive the signal. This is what the church needs. God help us.
The Lord’s Supper has something to teach us about this. It requires our watchfulness. It requires us to see the strange opportunity. This is a funny meal that brings us into fellowship with all the fullness of God in a little bite of bread and in a small sip from a cup.
There’s a wonderful passage in a church document called “The Scot’s Confession” It was written by the Church of Scotland, during the reformation, in the year 1560. It says this, in its old and fancy language, about our fellowship with Jesus in this meal. “…This union…which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacraments is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, once broken and shed for us but now in heaven, and appearing for us in the presence of his Father.” (“The Scot’s Confession, Chapter 21)
In a sense, in this meal, we have our fellowship with Jesus not merely by him coming down to us here. It is just as much by our meeting him, in the Spirit, in heaven, and having fellowship in heaven with everything that Jesus is, and possesses, and promises, and does.
This is what the Church has in it. This is what we have in us. In all our planning there is a course charted for us with Christ in heaven. This is how we navigate as a church and as individual Christians every day.
Our life, as Christians, comes to us by a miracle that we never could have planned. This is what we have that enables us to watch, and see, and know what to say to each other, and to our families, and to our neighbors, and to our communities.

This is how we, as a church, can know what to do and to say to reach others for Jesus, and bring them into the family of faith and life. This is how we find what to do at the end of our road or at the end of our rope. This is how we find that open door.

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