Monday, July 16, 2012

Where is He calling you to go?

     I know that there are a couple obvious recommended themes for preachers to discuss this weekend.  Clearly, there is a warning in our readings this week about the consequences of ignoring God and His prophet.  The king and high priest of Israel certainly learn that lesson the hard way in their dealings with Amos, as does Herod, whose suffering and death was legendary among extent literature as God’s punishment for, among other things, his willingness to kill John the Baptizer.  And, while I intended to focus on Amos this week, as evidenced by the cover on your orders of worship, I found myself pushed elsewhere during the course of my discussions this week.  Now, let me say first off that I understand the danger.  I was focused primarily on one sermon, so much of my preparation centered around that reading.  Even a bit more dangerous, none of the conversations which prompted my decision were with any of you.  Primarily, the discussions which pushed me afield were with people not a member of this congregation.  All of them, however, have a relationship or two with members of this church.  It dawned on me that I had better prepare you to think about these questions as you head back to work, head into ministry, or simply run into people who are not with us today.

     I also want you to understand I did not do this unreservedly.  It is always a dangerous thing to talk about things outside our parish life -- dangerous in the sense that I might be preaching on a question about which none of you care.  But, I was swayed on Thursday morning as I looked forward with the ladies on Thursday morning to the collect that I just prayed.  Just to keep it fresh in your mind and to prepare you for this adventure, I want you to hear the words one more time.  O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  It is interesting, is it not, that on a day when we look at Amos and his battle with the authorities of the Northern kingdom and at Herod and his ultimate act of rebellion against God (as if the murder of the Innocents in an attempt to kill the rightful King pales), we pray that we might discern our calls and be given the grace and power to accomplish those calls.  Makes you wonder, perhaps, if you or I can end up like the villains in our readings.  But we are here to focus on the possibilities of our inheritance as sons and daughters of the Lord.

     To that end, I want to take a look at Ephesus.  I don’t want to look so much at the passage today as I do the whole ministerial effort at Ephesus.  I think sometimes, as you and I and those on vacation from among us share the ins and outs of some of our ministries, we tend to find ourselves defending what we are doing to outsiders.  I am not talking in the sense of whether our ministries are important, but whether we are nuts in the eyes of others for trying to do those things which we believe God has called us to do.  If we are, we are certainly in good company. God often gives seemingly impossible challenges to His sons and daughters, and then He works incredible salvation through their faithful responses.

     How much do you know about the effort to plant a church in Ephesus?  I am expecting not much.  I am almost fearful to ask, but I hope everyone is familiar with the church in Ephesus being named by John in the book of Revelations.  John commends them for their ability to test apostles and to remain steadfast in the faith, though God notes that the Christians there have forgotten how to love.  Believe it or not, there was a big effort on the part of God getting Ephesus from where it was to where it ends up in the book of Revelations.  Ephesus was located in what is modern day Turkey.  It was famous in the world of antiquity for being the city of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World.  It had a bustling port, was thoroughly Hellenized, and was, by ANE standards, a very good place to live.  In fact, some archeologists estimate that as many as 250,000 people lived there by the time of St. Paul.  It was considered by the Romans to be the most important city in Asia Minor and was made the capital city by Augustus, yes, that Augustus.  It is no wonder that Paul wanted to go there and proclaim the Gospel.  Can you imagine the glory and prestige associated with such a conversion?  A large city that is comfortable by most standards and a bastion of idolatry.  Who would not want to convert such a city for God!  And, let's be fair, how much easier would it be to convert lesser cities if one of the gems converted?

     Did you know that Paul was twice prevented by God from going to Ephesus and beginning his efforts to convert the citizens and grow God’s kingdom?  After Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul spent some three years processing what the Resurrection of Jesus meant to his understanding of God and God’s plan of salvation.  Once Paul had figured out that all Scripture pointed to the work and person of the One whose followers he once persecuted, Paul was turned loose to work for the growth of the kingdom of God.  Near the beginning of his labors, Paul wanted to go to Asia (Ephesus), but he was prevented by the Holy Spirit from entering there.  Instead, he seems to have gone on over to Corinth.  On his way back, he seems to have wanted to stay, but God wanted him in Syria.  Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos, instead, were given the charge of Ephesus.  Why?  Did God not know what He was doing?  I mean, how many times do we hear from secular critics that what we follow is “Pauline” Christianity?  Whatever Jesus of Nazareth preached and taught, if in fact He was real, is not what spread throughout the Mediterranean.  Paul, most critics agree, was the impetus for the spread of the religion you and I follow today.  Yet God prevented him from entering Ephesus not once, but twice!  Why?

     Clearly much had to change.  On the one hand, Ephesus was not prepared to hear from a newly converted and inspired Paul.  Ephesus was comfortable in its life.  Except for the health problems posed by the growing swamps, it had little to fear from anyone or anything.  It was a destination city in the ANE.  Who did not want to see the Temple of Artemis?  The hotel and restaurant industry did well.  Apparently, the silversmiths who made souvenirs made a comfortable living for themselves; otherwise, why would they rebel so hard against Paul when he finally arrived and began to preach?  And, if businesses are doing well, so is the tax man.  No, Ephesus was a great city by ancient standards, a place where people would have no reason to need to hear the Gospel.

     On the other hand, Paul had to change as well.  I know we as Christians sometimes cringe when we read Paul’s words.  Sometimes, we forget that his words were inspired and wish that Paul spoke a bit more euphemistically, a bit more softly.  I think those of us who are embarrassed sometimes by Paul’s passion and Paul’s stubborn refusal to allow himself to be distracted by anything which might hinder his proclamation of the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected forget his mindset.  Paul was a persecutor of the early Church.  When Paul calls himself the least of the apostles, he is not speaking from false modesty.  Paul recognizes rightly that he of all those engaged in the early Church has no right to have been given the commission given him by God.  He was actively hunting them down, ferreting them out, trying to ruin their lives.  Now, only through the grace of God and through an encounter with the Risen Lord, Paul is given an opportunity to serve God rightly.  He has an opportunity to thank God for the gracious love shown him.  And he is not about to blow it!  Add to that his fervent belief that Jesus could return any moment, and you and I might remember the urgency and thankfulness which impelled him to be plain spoken.  And we might understand why he wants so hard to be the one to go to Ephesus . . . 

     Yet that honor goes to others.  Specifically, we remember that Apollos was given the task of preparing the soil for Paul.  Apollos found himself directed to Ephesus and laying the groundwork for what would come later.  Was Apollos the evangelistic equal of Paul?  No.  In fact, Luke records that he did not teach the Gospel in its entirety.  Paul criticizes his brother for teaching the baptism of John, of repentance, and not the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  From my perspective, I am certain God knew what He was doing.  What gift did the people of Ephesusneed?  From their perspective, they had few lacks.  They would have understood, however, the nagging of a conscience.  Apollos could stroll into the city, preach about repentance, and people might well be intrigued, much as the people in Jerusalem were intrigued by John’s message.  Once the soil was prepared, however, Paul could pick up where Apollos began.  He could take the story begun by Apollos and complete it.  And, simply put, that is what happened.  Paul arrived in the second half of 52 AD, stayed some two and a half years, and look what was wrought!  Through the labors of Apollos, Priscilla, Aquila and maybe others, through the evangelistic efforts of Paul and those who worked closely with him, and finally through the pastoral efforts of those left in charge when Paul finally departed Asia, Ephesus grew into a church worthy of praise!  Looking back where it was when the ministry started, did such an outcome seem possible?

     You and I, however, find ourselves in situations not unlike the ministry at Ephesus.  When people hear about some of our work, they sometimes wonder what we are thinking.  Truthfully, I expect such disbelief from non-Christians, but I am amazed at how often Christians cannot seem to accept nor believe in the saving power of God.  Human Trafficking is a ministry which illustrates this pointedly.  How many of us have encountered people who scoff at the idea of the problem, tell us that if there is a problem there is nothing that can be done by us, or face otherwise generally unsupportive comments?  Heck, how many of us actively engaged in the ministry have felt them?  Said them?  Believed them?  I won’t go into all the details because some of this should be for our private consumption, but look at what is going on out there now.  I am sure that if you or I or anyone had asked Robin, or Sue, or Rick, or me, for that matter, what we hoped to accomplish when we began our Ministries of Presence, we had grand ideas.  None of that has happened.  I am sure that all of us have a bit of disappointment at that.  Yet think of the recent reconciliation which enabled me to return out there without the threat of arrest.  What made that possible?  The truckers themselves specifically mentioned the quiet witness of people like Robin and Sue and Rick and so on, not just at our location, but at stops around the country.  In a quick ten minute story we learned that others are doing the exact same thing as we and that one of our target segments of the population have noticed!  Now, they demand a response!  Was it our focus?  Does it seem a waste of our resources of time and money?  If the reconciliation is true, though, what is the response in heaven?  In light of that celebration, does our labor seem a waste?  Have we thrown away good money for no result?  Not at all.  God has simply used our faithfulness to accomplish things other than we considered important.  Who knows best?  God.  Whom should we trust?  God.  Maybe the bishop is right and we deserve a bigger pat on our collective backs than we think.  And by the way, this story of faithful obedience is shared with other churches in our midst.  It is not a story confined only to our walls.

     This week being trivia, I was naturally drawn to some of the outcomes there.  A few years ago George & Annette and Robin asked if I was in favor of or against trivia in principle.  Once they explained it, it sounded no worse than Bingo in other churches.  George, probably in an effort to sell me on the idea, promised to have a Bible category each time.  What motivated them?  Our lack of money, particularly in the summer.  Were their concerns real?  You bet!  But they were committed to running it a particular way.  Each summer we make a couple thousand dollars or so for the church.  I have to say, I have enjoyed it, too.  Last night is the first night that Karen & I have not been at the winning table.  Being a bit generous (but not too much), Karen & I have usually split our winnings with the church.  We have used our half to treat ourselves to Steak N Shake or Subway or some other restaurant we don’t make it to during the course of the month.  It’s not Lunardi’s, but it still blesses us.

     But the trivia has been a blessing to a number of others as well.  Over the course of the few years that we have had trivia night, three families have reconnected with their church.  Now, I admit that I wish they would have joined us, but three families have called me or visited me to explain that what we are doing (when I say we, I really mean George, Annette, Robin, and all those who help organize and who help come up with questions) made a difference in their lives.  Invariably, it has been the Bible category which caused the household heads to return to church.  I knew I should have known the answer to those questions, but I had been away too long.  I just wanted to thank you and let you know that, thanks to your gentle prodding, we started going to church again.  What started as a creative way to help pay the bills has turned into a mission and a ministry.  George and Annette, as most of us know, were raised as clergy kids.  They know from experience that God wastes nothing.  But ask them if they ever expected to help people reconnect with God through their four Saturday nights a year.  I doubt seriously that George ever thought his questions were prodding people to think about their relationship with God.  Maybe he was and was afraid to say it aloud for fear of the naysayers.  My guess is that their hopes and dreams for the Trivia night were not about helping three families find God again.  Yet, God had other plans.

     Brothers and sisters, I could go on and on about a number of the ministries here.  Our support for Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes has reminded a troubled soul that God cares and that God redeems, even a death at the hand of a batterer.  Our battle against hunger that began some 45 years ago is now the focus of almost 160 churches in our community.  Yes, there is always hunger in our midst, but there are always cooks and servers in our midst as well!  God has seen to that.  Yes, the problem of sin and evil is enormous.  But God is bigger and more powerful.  Best of all, He cares and pays attention to the individual details!  I had to laugh this week as another prayer was answered.  I had been praying to God for a woman or women from AA to come alongside us and help us offer sobriety and support to those victims we encounter.  My first volunteer, after weeks of asking and praying, approached me and asked me if her history disqualified her.  She had turned to alcohol in her teen years to cover the pain from the sex abuse she experienced at the hand of those whom she most trusted.  As I prayed with her and apologized for what she had experienced, I reminded her that she was uniquely qualified to minister to the ladies we encounter.  All of them have been abused as well.  She, better than anyone I know, except those already rescued and redeemed, can testify to the healing power of Christ and the redemption of personal lives.  What better person to minister to them in His name!  We have redeemed ex-cons who are willing to share their stories with women released from prison.  Our list of opportunities, gifts and talents goes on and on.  Yes, the challenge is daunting.  Yes, the work is intense and hard.  But, brothers and sisters, the reward is without parallel!

     You and I have been adopted into our Father’s family, and you and I have been given a role to play in salvation history.  The world may see the problem too big or the human effort too weak, but you and I know better.  We serve a God who redeems all things to His glory.  We serve a God who knows precisely what is required.  And we know a God who loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves.  And it that God, our loving Father, who commissions us in His name and send us out to do His work, one lost soul, one lost city, at a time.  Will the world know or care about who did what when in His name a decade from now?  A century?  A millennium?  No, but He will never forget.  And just as you and I remember the work of Paul and Apollos and Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus some two thousand years ago, He will remember ours.

     What is He placing on your heart?  What evil has God called you to confront?  Brothers and sisters, if He has called you, you cannot fail.  By simply accepting that call, you are helping to prepare the way for another amazing story of redemption.  Let us pray.  O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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