Acts 17: 17-34; Romans 12:9-21
About a month ago now, a dozen of us from this church went to a Conference called REACH in South Dakota. And at the Conference one of our speakers was a United Methodist Pastor by the name of Jacob Armstrong who shared with us part of his call story. Jacob was from a small town in Texas and as he got ready to graduate from Seminary, he noticed that there was a new community growing near his home town called Providence. He decided to approach the Bishop about starting a church there, and the Bishop very kindly but firmly told him that our system doesn’t exactly work that way— you don’t tell the Bishop where you’re going— and when appointment season came, Jacob was appointed to an existing church. After serving there for a few years, Jacob really felt called to plant a church. He prayed and prayed about it, and one day his wife came to him and said, “I really think God wants us to go wherever God calls us.” Jacob had been hearing the same thing, so the two of them began to pray about where God wanted them to go. Through a friend of a friend an opportunity came up for them to explore being missionaries in Mexico. So they flew to a city in Mexico and began walking the streets praying, wondering what God could have in mind sending two Texans with no Spanish language, to this town in Mexico. But as they walked they fell in love with the people they met and flew home convinced this is where God was leading them. Not too much later they told their church that they were being called to Mexico and began making all of their plans. And Jacob said from that moment on, every door closed. Nothing worked as it should have. As they prepared to go to Annual Conference that year, they weren’t sure what they were going to tell people. Then, to top it all off, at Annual Conference, Jacob kept hearing that there was a new church being planted in Providence. And not only did it break his heart, it broke his ego. He didn’t know what God was calling him to. But on the third day of Conference, Jacob’s District Superintendent approached him and said to him, “Jacob, Have you ever heard of a new community called Providence in Texas? We’d like to send you there to start a church.” Clear as day Jacob heard God say to him, “I want you to have the same missionary heart for these people as you were going to have for the people in Mexico. Listen before you speak. Don’t assume you know what they want or need just because it’s near your home town. Learn their language. And love them.”
In Acts we find Paul, who has been traveling around telling his own story of call— how he threatened Christians, beat them up, killed a few— and then how Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and even though he was an enemy of the followers of Jesus, those same followers of Jesus welcomed him in. But when he gets to the Areopagus, when he walks the streets of Athens, when he arrives in this amazing city that is known for its intellectual rigor, for being the birthplace of Socrates, Paul sets aside his story and begins to tell the Athenians about Jesus in a different way. Each argument in his speech is set out to agree with a different philosophical group in Athens. And they love this— we are told from the start that the Athenians love new ideas; they are trained in rhetoric; it says that they argued, but they’re not arguing like we argue in public today— by slandering each other— no, the Greek word “symballo” means to debate in good humor; to have a collegial exchange towards a constructive end. Both sides want to get something out of the conversation that’s happening in the public square.
And what I love about all of this, is that there’s no contempt. In our culture today, especially in the public square, there is almost all contempt. This is worse than criticism, it is when someone puts themselves in a superior position, saying something negative about someone else in order to make them seem less than. John Gottman, a well known author and marriage therapist has become good at predicting whether marriages will be successful or not; and the single most important predictor, is whether the couple shows any contempt for one another. Contempt is the single biggest predictor that a marriage will end in divorce. I would venture to guess this is true for any relationship we have. Contempt does not have a place in any relationship that’s going to last.
Paul graciously goes to a new city and he shows the people great respect. He is not being sarcastic when he tells them that he can see they’re very spiritual people. He tells them that God is not only the creator of everything everywhere, but that God is also near to us— and, in a sense, he tells them that he can see that God has been at work in their lives already. But at the end of the day, not very many people, in hearing Paul’s arguments, decide to follow Jesus. They hear this new idea, but it does nothing to transform their lives.
I wonder what would’ve happened if Paul had not only met people where they were, but allowed them to see him as he was as well? What would’ve happened if Paul had listened to where their hearts were breaking and then, in hearing their stories, would’ve shared his own story. Instead of thinking up intellectual arguments to match the Athenians wit for wit, I wonder what would’ve happened if Paul would’ve shared with them that for a long time he had been following his own ideas and ideals and hid behind his own pride; that, like their gold and silver idols, he had made an idol out of the Jewish faith; and then one day Jesus came to him and pointed to the truth— that he had been abusing Jesus’ followers and in doing so, abusing Jesus— and then Jesus invited him to be forgiven; to turn his life around; and to follow.
In order for our lives to be transformed; in order for any of us to have the courage to change anything about our lives, we need someone in our lives who will love us unconditionally and we need a safe space to tell our stories.
That’s why Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, to love ourselves, to love our enemies. Because it is only in that love— the unconditional love that comes from God— that we can find healing.
Our first goal as a church is to know that we come together to follow Jesus— not ourselves. Our second goal as a church is to have a common understanding that there are many ways to church.
You see too often “being church” has meant that there is an inside and an outside. Even though most of Jesus’ ministry is actually outside the walls of the synagogue, we somehow talk ourselves into staying inside, at least in our minds, in our cliques, in our comfort; and when we hang out too long on the inside, our contempt for those on the outside can grow, and our contempt for ourselves begins to grow. We begin to think we know what’s best. We know what “real” church looks like. We know what worship should be. Sure, we are broken, but we are uncomfortable with our brokenness, so you shouldn’t bring your brokenness here either. And that’s when we begin to worship all the other gods of our lives, including ourselves, rather than Jesus.
Jesus invites us to bring our whole selves— our warts and wrinkles and all— to bring our authentic selves to God and know that we are loved and that we are also broken and that God offers us healing. There is no “us” and “them;” and we have to rid ourselves of the perception that there is. As DT Niles said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
When we are able to recognize this in ourselves— our need for God’s love and our power to share that love, then we are freed up to be creative about what it means to be church.
This past week I was listening to a TED talk with Pam Warhurst who created something called Incredible Edible in 2008, and reminded me what creativity can really look like. Pam had gone to a talk about the environment but hadn’t really planned on changing anything at all. On her way home, however, she realized she didn’t want to start small— she wanted to change the entire conversation. So Pam got a few people together and they began planting vegetables in all the ugly spaces in her community of Todmordan, England, and when they’d planted in all of the ugly spaces, they began planting in other places. She said they just planted food everywhere; sometimes asking permission, and most often not. As I listened to this podcast, imagining all of the vegetables that are now growing all over Todmordan, the interviewer said, “It must just be beautiful to see” and Pam replied, “Well it’s no English garden, but we’re doing our flippin’ best.” And I thought: that’s the Gospel. We are called to plant love everywhere, sometimes with permission when appropriate, but oftentimes just to plant it and see what will grow. And it doesn’t always look beautiful, although often it does, but it does feed people and create community and bring us together and inspire us about what is even possible in our world. It changes the conversation.
We as a church have been planting love through our new initiative around being Trauma responsive as other churches and schools are getting curious about how to connect with us in this work. We have been planting love in grocery stores and along sidewalks as so many of you handed out books of forgiveness last winter and then we handed out books about living in truth instead of secrecy at PRIDE this year. We have been planting love as we have been taking communion to those in our congregation that can’t get out of their homes; as we have been leading worship services at St. Ben’s; as we are now in our second year of offering the Seasons service on a quarterly basis. We are planting seeds of love with our youth— equipping them to lead amazing events like we had here on Friday when dozens of families came together to build community, to enjoy free time together, to be in a space where we can tell our stories and know we are loved. It may not be pretty all of the time, but we are definitely doing our “flippin’ best!”
What does planting love look like in your life? Who in your life needs you to listen to their story and to be willing to share your story of how God is at work in your life? Who will you reach out to this week?
Pam Warhurst said the motto of “Incredible Edible” is, “If you eat, you’re in.” Imagine all of us authentically saying to everyone in the St. Cloud Region, “If you love, you’re in. If you need love, you’re in. If you want to practice love, you’re in.”
Resources Consulted: Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed and Fail Robinson, Anthony and Robert Wall. Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day. TED Talks Radio Hour Www.incredibleedible.org.uk www.workingpreacher.com