Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Who is your hero? Whom have you told? . . .

     As you call can well imagine, a lot of my work this week was spent discussing where people are in relationship to their transformation into a sheep dog.  It really hit home yesterday at the end of the Mens’ Prayer breakfast.  By the way, let me take this opportunity to invite all you younger men to that event, and the Mens’ Dinners.  We alternate months, so the June meeting will be a dinner.  It is open to any males who enjoy spending time with other guys.  We eat, we drink, we talk about how we can support the mission of the parish, and anything else that comes up.  In any event, as the meeting was ending, Jerry asked if there was anything for the good of the order.  I told the men I had a suggestion.  I told them that, unless they had been living on Pluto these last few weeks, there was a new movie they had heard about called the Avengers: Age of Ultron now out.  I told them to think about taking their grandkids or great-grandkids, assuming age appropriateness, to see the movie.  Believe it or not, their looks mirrored your own right now.  They were wearing that “He’s finally snapped.  The paint fumes and living away from his family have finally driven him over the edge” look on their face as many of you now do.  So I explained the madness to my method.

     I do not know if you pay attention to the finances of movies, but hero movies have been doing rather well the past few years.  They have been doing so well that DC and Marvel are taking their decades-old fight for market share in the world of comic books to the world of movies.  Luckily, for many of the movies, the writing has been nearly as good as the CGI.  The result is that a whole new generation of teenagers are being introduced to the Dark Knight, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, the Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman.  Shortly, DC will be re-introducing us to the Justice League.  Those of who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons cannot help but feel a little excited, can we?  Some in the entertainment wonder at the popularity.  Are Superheroes retro and cool?  How far can we push this renaissance of heroes?  Can we poke a little fun at it, like with Guardians of the Galaxy?  Can a man the size of an ant really have super powers that matter?

     The truth is, of course, the world of today is not unlike the world of many of you when you were teenagers.  I know a lot of the characters were birthed out of the ethos of WW2.  During the war, people went without so that we could beat the Axis powers.  After the war, we had to get back to work to rebuild our economy and our society.  In America, we had it a bit easier.  Europe had to rebuild buildings and repair psyches.  In such chaos, the need for a hero makes sense.  We want to know there is someone fighting for us, more so when we are the underdog!  We have this need for idol.  Those heroes in the DC and Marvel universes gave many of us hope, dreams, and maybe even a little daring in ourselves.

     It makes sense that the teens of today are seeking heroes.  War and terrorism have become so common that many adults are blasé about their impact.  Have you ever considered that there are teens getting their driver’s licenses among us who have never known this country not to be at war?  Think about that for a second.  While you are at it, consider the effects of school shootings.  Many in here dreaded going to school, but that was because we weren’t prepared for a test or a quiz, or maybe because we played outside rather than doing our homework.  Now, teens can get their hands on automatic or semi-automatic weapons.  Heck, who are we kidding, they can get homemade bomb designs off the internet.

     Speaking of the internet, remember when bullying ended at school?  Teens today never get a break.  Your hearts would break if you saw what youths are writing about others or having written about them in social media.  It’s never ending.  It is a constant barrage.  And none of us would have ever thought of the bully taking our lunch money as the “golden age of bullying,” would we?

     When speaking about teens and the internet, of course, we have to acknowledge how sex has changed.  In my travels to schools and universities for human trafficking awareness, I get to hear and see the terrible consequence of pornography on our youth.  “It’s just hooking up.  No one is getting hurt.”  Those protests always come before the big “but.”  Relationships, and the room for emotional development that come with them, are not encouraged in this new revolution.  Neither is, to a great degree, personal preference.  As a society, we will be dealing with the consequences of the hook-up culture in the future, much as we are beginning to have to face the effects of the “no fault divorce culture” today.

     Looking at your faces, I can see you now understand why the next generation has fallen in love with heroes again.  And that’s why my suggestion to the men yesterday.  Some of those men know more about the characters in these movies than the youths could ever imagine.  One grandpa even took a moment to champion Captain America to me.  “We should really only like the Captain because he is a Christian.  The rest are not.”

     I told the men, though, that the heroes could be an easy touchstone for the next generation.  How cool would it be to go by an ice cream shop or Starbucks and overhear a grandpa and granddaughter arguing over who would win in a fight between Hulk and Superman?  Who is richer between Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark?  Better still, the movie and the accompanying of heroes could allow those grandpas to begin to share their faith and not sound like a “Jesus freak” in their own ears.  “You know, I used to wish I could meet Aquaman, but then I met this guy Jesus . . . “  I know, nobody ever wanted to meet Aquaman.  But you get the point.  Besides, as I told the men who protested because movies are expensive or loud, those are easy crosses for many of us to bear, especially when it comes to proclaiming to the generation newly born the saving deeds He has done in the world and in their lives.

     Who here does not want to spend eternity with their family?  Seriously?  Is your fight with your family so important you would like it if they were condemned to Hell for all eternity?  Are your relationships so distant that you really cannot love them and want what is best for them?  Here is the scary part: If you are not telling them about Jesus and why He is important to you, who is?  Are you willing to take that risk with your own flesh and blood?  Besides, what is the real downside?  At best you get to share with your own flesh and blood the love you have for Jesus?  At worst, you’re the cool adult who made their teenage grandchild go see the Avengers?

     You may wonder why I am launching into the application first.  Normally, I talk about the passage and then what it means or should mean for us today.  Today, I wanted you to understand how important the lesson from Acts is.  I wanted this not to be a theoretical person to whom you might be speaking, but your own flesh and blood.  My thought was, if we get comfortable speaking to loved ones about Jesus, it will make speaking to those outside our families that much easier.  But how much easier is it to understand God’s love of everyone when we begin to consider our love of the next generation?

     I know evangelism has taken on a whole new meaning today.  It is a shame.  It comes from a Greek word that simply means “Good Message.”  In fact, the root of the word, angelos, from where we get angel, means messenger.  Those of us present who are recovering from some other denominational practices might well wonder where the good message is in some of the efforts to share the Gospel.  “Repent or die” and “God hates . . . “ you fill in the blank with whichever sin are the messages that get the most attention.  It is a shame, really.  We are heralds of the greatest news ever told, and we reduce our message to a soundbite for the masses.  While good preaching can bring conversion, it is the one on one relationship, I think, where many of us who stumble our way into this denomination excel in sharing the good news of Christ Jesus.  Yes, great preaching can cause thousands to repent and follow Christ, but far more often we see one on one encounters responsible for the spread of the Gospel.  Why?  Because people get to see how we live, hear what informs our thoughts, see us hope in the face of struggle, show compassion when it is called, and however else you want to describe living Kingdom of God values in this world.  How you face death, how you face disease, how you face blessing, how you  face privation – these are the best testimonies ever shared with others, and they are often best shared in small circles of friends, if not one on one.

     Look back in your passage from Acts.  What do we see?  It is a crazy scene, is it not?  A eunuch from Ethiopia has travelled from there to Jerusalem, presumably for the Passover.  Now, there is travelling and there is travelling.  This Eunuch got to ride in a chariot, the ancient version of the Rolls Royce, rather than walk.  Since he is the Treasurer of the kingdom, it is probably a safe assumption on our parts that he had some guards with him to protect him from bandits on this “wilderness road.”  You may not even know what makes this scene so crazy.  Can Eunuchs worship in the Temple in Jerusalem?  Great guess, MC!  Why?  She is right in that eunuchs were forbidden from worshiping God in His Temple.  Eunuchs were cut off, literally, from the congregation.  So why would he be travelling to Jerusalem knowing he could never enter?  Even stranger, why would he be reading from the scroll of Isaiah?  The passage from which we hear Phillip teaching today comes from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah.  A few chapters later, however, finds Isaiah promising the Eunuch that God will give the Eunuch an everlasting heritage.  If one cannot have children, how can one have an everlasting name?  The branch of the family tree ends with the eunuch.  Maybe now the scene makes a bit more sense.  The eunuch has gone to Jerusalem to worship God and give thanks for the Passover.  He has been reminded that he is cut off from the people of God, physically kept from worshipping within the Temple.  Now he is headed home.  We can well imagine the need he might have to be reminded of God’s promises.  I am sure the pilgrimage started out well and happened as expected, but it had to be a tough reminder that he could not join in the worship in the Temple.  He may be a faithful believer, but he is still excluded.  He has returned to a place in God’s Word where he finds comfort, and that is where we meet him.

     Now, up walks this Jewish fisherman.  Is there an odder couple in Scripture?  There is an Ethiopian Eunuch who oversees the finances of the kingdom and Jewish fisherman.  Wouldn’t you have loved to see the guards’ faces?  If the Jew is truly faithful, shouldn’t he be repulsed by the eunuch?  Plus. There’s the whole socio-economic strata that pervaded the Roman empire to consider, never mind any racial component.  This scene is set to end poorly.  But what happens?  Phillip goes to the chariot as instructed.  He hears the eunuch reading from Isaiah.  Phillip asks the eunuch if He understands what he is reading?  The eunuch wishes someone would explain it to him.  Phillip obliges and tells the eunuch of the good news of Jesus Christ.  The eunuch is baptized.  As a result of that conversation, the so-called Coptic Christians come into being, all from a simple conversation.

     I want those of you who argued with me last week and during this week that you cannot be used by God to reach others in His name to pay attention to this closely.  Were there a lot of barriers to a successful sharing of the Gospel in this setting?  Then why does it work?  Why do the characters involved ignore race, social status, education, background, location, and whatever else?  Because the Lord they are seeking transcends all those differences.  The commonality they shared, the love of the Lord, makes the differences seem insignificant by comparison.  When we are speaking to others of the love of God, we need to remember that.  God is seeking everyone.  No exceptions.  Like Hawkeye says in the movie, whatever we were, whatever we did does not matter.  Once grafted into His Vine, we are part of His story, His Kingdom, His family.  With that adoption comes great responsibility, and primary among those responsibilities is the willingness to share with others the saving work He has done in our lives.  Look at how simple the solution is to the obstacles facing God.

     Phillips had to be obedient.  When God said “take that road,” Phillip took the road.  When God said “Speak to the guy in the chariot,” Phillip approached the chariot.  No doubt he was as surprised at what he heard as you are this morning or the men were when their new priest said “Take your grandkids to see the Avengers.”  Though he likely thought of every reason not to approach the chariot or to take the wilderness road, Phillip did as God instructed, trusting that God wanted to glorify Himself in Phillip’s life.

     The second key ingredient, and maybe the most important, what magic words or phrase did Phillip use to reach the Eunuch?  What secret formula did Phillip follow?  Put differently, Who prepared the Ethiopian Eunuch’s heart to be open to the good news?  God, and God alone!  Brothers and sisters, there is no magic formula, no secret catchphrases to make others believe.  It is called witnessing for a reason.  We tell of what we have come to know and to believe.  Some of what we learn comes through good preach preaching and good study, but much of what we know about God comes from our interaction with Him over the years.  Tell your story.  Your story is different from story is different from Phillip’s is different from the eunuch’s.  But tell your story.  God wants to be glorified in you, so share your story with confidence.  With boldness!  With Awe and Wonder!  And in your voice!  People know when we are parroting.  People know when we are mouthing words we do not believe.  Tell those whom you encounter about Jesus in your own voice and in your own words.  In the end, that is all you can do.  Only God can prepare the heart to receive His Gospel.  You and I cannot.  It took a question from the Ethiopian to begin the conversation.  No doubt he was as surprised that Phillip could answer as Phillip was that he asked the question, but look at the result!  Thanks to the prepared heart of the eunuch and the obedient heart of Phillip, the Coptic church was birthed!  It may have seemed insignificant to both at the time, but its impact is still felt nearly 2000 years later!

     The last thing we can do when speaking of the saving work God has done in our lives is to press for an answer.  We Christians have taken lessons from the worst salesmen and salesladies in the world.  Ever been on the phone or in a conversation where the person selling never asks you if you want to buy?  You want to buy but they go on and on and on.  So often, we talk and talk and talk about Jesus, but we never ask the other person if they want to follow Jesus, too.  Just as Phillip was intentional, so must we be.  We must ask those to whom we are speaking if they want to follow Jesus or know Jesus better.  Over time, some will.  But, like the Ethiopian’s comment this morning, how can they if no one will share the good news of God in Christ?  How can someone find their way to that wonderful wedding feast if no one invites them?  And just because we do not like their answer at first is no reason to cut off the relationship we have with them.  But we must continue to tell His story and continue to invite others to His Feast. 

     Brothers and sisters, I mentioned the movie and my discussion with the men at the beginning of this morning’s sermon.  I get that there is a cultural fear of evangelism around here.  I understand that.  As I mentioned earlier, some of us gathered in this parish are recovering from their experience of well-meaning, if bludgeoning, evangelists.  I started with grandpa and grandsons, though, to show you just how necessary such witnessing is and how close it hit to home.  This weekend will see this country spend some $200 million looking for a super hero.  For all that money, for all that investment of time, they will be reminded that humans can make muck of the best intentions.  You and I gather to remind ourselves that we have a true hero, a hero that even the biggest fans of the comic strips and movie franchises can love.  You see, these enhanced humans, these super heroes are men and women like ourselves.  They know their own fears and failures; they sense their own unworth and their ultimate failure, and it frightens them.  In the first movie, in his drink with the villain Loki, Tony Stark summarizes the best the Avengers can do and the idea behind the group’s name.  “We may not be able to save the world, but we damn well will avenge it.”  Why not share the name and love of the God and Man, Jesus, who saved the world and has no need to avenge it with those whom you love?  The man upon whom all the failures, all the sins, all the hurts and pains fell on the Cross.  The God and man, who for His obedience, was raised as a foreshadowing, a hint of the upcoming joy at the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to humanity.  That is the calling Jesus placed on each of us; that is the fruit of the joy and love that ought to be inside our own hearts, bursting forth like the next generation of arc reactors from all our hearts and minds!



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