Sermon from May 16, 2010

May 24, 2010

A Godly Mess
Acts 16:16-34

There’s a strange shift in this story in regard to the person of the narrator. At first the story is told from the perspective of “we”. That “we” actually begins in the previous paragraph, but this particular story begins with the line, “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer we met a slave-girl. And verse 17 talks about how she kept following Paul and us. Verse 18 is where we’re told that Paul got annoyed and proceded to heal the poor girl, and when we get to verse 19 that “we” disappears and it becomes Paul and Silas who got seized and drug into the marketplace. Things deteriorated for them from there – they ended up getting charged, sentenced, stripped, beaten and put in stocks deep in prison, and we don’t know what happened to the “we” that was walking along with them at the beginning of the story.

It’s a strange shift that happens every now and then throughout the Book of Acts. I guess the author, who was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, wanted to be considered a reliable witness to all that went on, but he has a pretty mysterious presence in my opinion, and not necessarily a heroic one. He seems to disappear whenever things get dicey. I understand this behavior, but I’m a bit surprised that a person would write himself in and out of a scene like that.

The author of Acts is a Clark Kent sort of character who seems to disappear at critical moments, but as far as I can tell he doesn’t go off to become a superhero and save the day. I don’t know what to make of this, but it’s not the kind of thing that will earn you an A in Comp. I. I trust that the author had good perspective on who Paul was and what he did, but it sure left me wondering who we was.

There is a considerable amount of saving that goes on in this story, and Paul sort of functions as a superheroic disciple, but unlike most superheroes, he doesn’t save the day without getting hurt. He seems to have a super-power of sorts, and many people’s lives get turned around through him, but as I say, it comes at considerable cost to him.

Of course this is not unlike Christ, and clearly Paul does what he does and responds to situations in the manner that he does through his relationship with and understanding of Christ. Paul doesn’t display superpower as much as supertrust – which is in itself a remarkable characteristic. Of course this is why we have stories like this – to remind us of what is possible when we exercise radical trust.

Now Paul was a special case (in many ways) and while I consider Paul to have been a person who was struggling (like the rest of us) to understand how best to follow Christ and serve God – I’m moved by his capacity to face hardship in order to spread the message of Christ’s saving grace. And I don’t use this phrase “saving grace” with the assumption we all have a common understanding of what this means, but I think there’s something of great value behind the idea that Christ offers salvation. There’s a lot to unpack in this phrase, saving grace, and while many people have been abused by people who were trying impose their version of saving grace on other people, I still think it’s a rich concept. In fact I feel in need of some.

It’s come to my attention that on some level we are in trouble. We aren’t exactly in a crisis, but frankly we will be in about six months if we don’t find ways to reach some new people and to better nurture those of us who are already here. I don’t like saying this, but I feel compelled to say that the way we are really isn’t good enough. There are a number of ways in which we need to grow.

There are gaps in our community. Not everyone wants to be a part of something outside of our Sunday morning worship, but we need to find better ways for people to connect with one another. I like the fact that people don’t come here out of generational obligation, but the down side of this is that people leave here pretty easily because they don’t feel very deeply connected.

And we aren’t just an economic enterprise, but we can become a former enterprise if our economic trend doesn’t start moving in another direction. And I’m not saying this to try to get those of you who are here to dig deeper. Maybe some of you can, but the truth is we need to find more people to join with us, and we need to make sure everyone who is currently involved knows how important they are.

We have some tremendous challenges, and if you want to know more about this feel free to attend our Trustees Meeting on Tuesday at 5:30 where we’ll be talking about the renovation of our elevator and other daunting essentials. I don’t want to get into the details of our challenges, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that we will be in trouble if we don’t have a revival of sorts before Christmas.

Now what I don’t want you to hear is that everything is bad, because it’s not. We are blessed in many considerable ways. Nor do I want to get lots of advice on what we need to do to get a few more people or a few more dollars. It’s not that I don’t feel in need of good ideas, I feel a deep sense of need for guidance and inspiration right now, but this isn’t an easy fix, and it’s not that we’ve been doing things all wrong.

OK, maybe my strategic plan has some gaps. I now understand that we’ve got to have more than outstanding music, a reasonably sound sermon, and honest people keeping track of things if we want to grow, but right now I’m about as receptive to quick advice as Job was to his friends who came to tell him what he needed to do to get God off his back.

I have no doubt that we need to change in some ways, and I know there are some ways I personally need to change, but I really don’t think the solution to our problem is on the level of tweaking the font in our bulletin. What we need is for a bunch of us is to put ourselves in the vulnerable position of loving Christ, loving each other, and searching for ways to be in ministry to people who are outside of our church. And when I say this I’m not just talking about the people who come to eat breakfast and then leave. Yes, we need to love them and include them in our ministry and community, but we also need to reach out to the people we live near and go out to dinner with.

If you feel good about this place please tell people about it. Tell them the music is always good and the preacher has a good sermon about once a month but you never know what Sunday it will be so you have to come all the time.

I know I’m in need of advice. I know there are things we need to do differently in worship and in our programming, but our revival depends on the extent of our trust in God. I assure you I’m going to try to hear what I need to hear, but I’m convinced our salvation depends on the grace of God, and our corporate exercise of trusting in God.

The bad news is we are in a bit of a mess. We need more people, more money, and more opportunities for people to get involved in spiritually enriching work and play. The good news is that God responds well to people who find themselves in messy situations. Difficult circumstances are opportunities for God’s love to become manifest in dramatic ways.

The thing about our situation is that we don’t have Paul and Silas around to take the beating and to emerge victoriously from the shambles. We don’t have the option of disappearing until the coast is clear and the next scene begins. We are the Pauls and Silases we are in our own spiritual drama. We are facing an opportunity to exercise an extra-ordinary amount of faith in face of a costly undertaking. Like the author of Acts, some people have written themselves out of our scene, and others may well be feeling compelled to serve Christ elsewhere, but I don’t want anyone to leave this morning feeling like there’s nothing going on around here.

There’s something going on and it’s a trial. We are being challenged, and I’m trusting that this is going to bring out the best in us and we are going to witness the brick wall of stagnation to fall down around us. There may be people who will feel suicidal if Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church becomes the rising star of the Arkansas Conference, and that will be another opportunity for God’s saving grace to abound.

I don’t mean to be overly dramatic about our problem or our possibility, but I didn’t come here in hope of presiding over the decline of the most compelling congregation in our conference, and I’m not going to let that happen without making a lot of noise. Overly dramatic is what you’ll be getting in October if nothing has changed.

Yes, we’re in a bit of a mess, but it’s a Godly mess, and thanks be to God, that’s not a bad place to be.


2 Responses to “Sermon from May 16, 2010”

  1. tom benton Says:

    Great sermon, as usual. You are very much appreciated.

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