“Down by the Riverside”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 26 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  Not everything made it into the sermon, like the strong belief that Luke, the author of Acts, was the “man from Macedonia” seen in Paul’s dream – suggested by the change in pronouns in this passage to “we” from they in this text.  Nor did I go into any depth as to the joyful relationship Paul would have with the young church at Philippi.  So, as it is, here it is… -Vinson

________________________________________

Book of Acts 16:9-15

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.  The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

_____________________________

INTRODUCTION

Who hasn’t gone on a trip?  Maybe a vacation to distant ports?  Maybe a visit to Jamestown?  Maybe just a route for a series of stops using the least amount of gas and time to get errands done?

But do trips go 100% the way we plan?

That hasn’t been my experience in life.  Plans rarely survive the first hours… whether it is the traffic, or a sudden phone call, or the line that’s too long, or the friend we run into?  There are just oh so many variables.

Who has not heard some variant of the saying that “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!”?  Not to hurt our feelings or frustrate us, but because we plan on the basis of what we know.  God simply knows all.  No wonder the Psalmist wisely concluded, in Psalm 16:9, that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”

And that’s the crux of the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.  Paul had his plan, but as Luke writes the narrative “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them…”  Having instead gone to Troas, it is said that “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I’m actually VERY pro-planning — as my wife will attest, but I also have to recognize that as well-reasoned or as well-intentioned as any plan may be, we often encounter the proverbial wrench in the works!  And, when this happens, be it in minor details or larger events, we humans often struggle mightily with the uncertainty or uncontrollable nature of life.  When major parts of the plan go awry, we mere mortals push back, rant and rail, and can truly wrestle at times with the concept that God is in the business of changing our plans to His plan – though many times His plan will ultimately result in something much better than we ever dared hope for.

 FOR INSTANCE

As we have made note of in a previous sermon on Acts, the narrator of the book, Luke, is never accidental in what he includes or excludes of the unfolding story of the Gospel as it spreads following the resurrection of our Lord.  Philippi is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.  It is a city of proud heritage, respected by the Romans.  Founded centuries before by Alexander the Great and named after his father, Philip, it has the major status of a being a Roman colony, and emulates this idea in its imperial presence.  Here, the Empire is powerful and popular, and the city IS the heart of the Empire in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extension of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offered to the world.

Arriving in Philippi, Paul, Timothy and Silas go looking for the local synagogue, but the Jewish presence is so small, it apparently did not even have a Minyan – the minimum of 10 men – needed to say the prayers.  So, needless to say:  there exists no synagogue.  Instead, any Jews or God Fearers who happen to be in the town or passing through, apparently knew to meet down by the river on the Sabbath to pray.  They head down to the riverside, hoping to preach the gospel to what men are available.

But the plan keeps changing… there are no men either.

Instead, they find only women, with whom, we are told, they sat down and spoke.  That might not seem so odd to us, especially as we can look around here or at other congregations and women outnumber men.  They are also, typically, the ones getting most of the work done.  But for the hearers of the Book of Acts, with two strange men in town meeting with women, it would have been striking, even offensive.  Unrelated men and women simply didn’t mix, especially in a relaxed place down by a river.

Amid what now likely appears to Paul, Timothy and Silas be to a slowly revealing plan of God, we are told that “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to them; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.”  Referred to as a “God Fearers” – Lydia was not Jewish, but, along with some number of others, were so intrigued with the God the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews.  Typically, most such God Fearers would have followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision.  So right from the beginning of the story, Lydia is described in an unconventional way.  Like many around us today in our society, she knew of God, sought to live as much possible by what she knew to be right, and yet did not have that relationship with either Christ or the community of believers.  The funny thing is how this plan God has in mind, to plant the church in Philippi, isn’t centered on a local person.  Instead, Lydia is actually from some distance away – from a town well known for making the valued purple cloth in which she dealt.

Folks still like purple, but it was no small thing at the time as the most highly valued of colors in that age.  Producing the purple cloth took crushing thousands of mollusks – tiny shellfish – just to make enough dye to make a yard or two of purple cloth.  So purple cloth wasn’t just very expensive, it was worth its weight in silver.  And wearing purple?  It was a statement of status and wealth, even more that someone today carrying a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch.  Purple was THE power color.

And so she’s not only from elsewhere, but she is independent apparently – the head of her own household, with no man mentioned, and a person of means.  This woman is the person who opened her heart to the Lord, listening “eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  As a result, she and her whole household were baptized, and she invited Paul and Silas to come and stay with her – thus Lydia became known as the founder of the church at Philippi.

Looking back to a time when we have been led to believe that conventions demanded that women stay out of the public realm, this was simply NOT the case in the early church.  The Apostle Paul — who down through the centuries has been widely-quoted for his words to the Corinthian church as to women not speaking in church — in actual practice — PROMOTED the proclamation of the Gospel by  entering into all sorts of ministries that were being successfully led by women.  Lydia was just one of several women, named and unnamed, who established the first congregations in their homes.  Like Joanna and a number of female followers of Jesus during his ministry, these were women of means who saw to it that the church had what it needed to grow and flourish.

Unmistakably for Luke, this is the way upon which God planned the church to walk – to follow God’s call to reach across social, economic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, and to seek opportunities to do God’s work in even the most unexpected places.  This puts before us the question that if the Spirit’s movement in Acts reaches across the lines, ought not our own mission paths reflect the same or even deeper enthusiasm?

SO WHAT?

At the outset, the movement that would be called Christianity FLOUTED normal conventions and DEFIED attempts to CONTROL the Spirit of Christ.  It was broadly and proudly inclusive and affirming of the worth of God’s children.  So it is that Paul and the others find themselves going where they didn’t expect and speaking to one not on their list.  Yet, here was the person and place that God would form not just any church – but the very one that attended directly to Paul and nursed his ministry in the many years to come.

What was that old thing about wearing purple?

Are we —  are YOU? — male or female, either young at heart or old enough to throw caution to the wind, to wear purple — with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you?

Do you think you are ready, to make up for all those years of following the so-called rules, the limited and closely defined “expectations, all those admonitions to color ONLY INSIDE the lines?  Do you want to go out in your slippers in the rain, or pick the flowers in other people’s gardens, and learn to spit?

NO??!!??

REALLY??!!?

Well…… maybe you’re right; maybe you’re not young at heart enough yet or even old enough just yet. But maybe you ought to practice a little now? So people who know you are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly you are old, and start to wear purple.  Truthfully, what have we got to lose?

I want today to challenge you to truly LISTEN to the ways the Spirit of God is moving   IN  YOU.   It seems to me that it might just be high time to  take a chance together — like Paul and Silas — and mosey on down by the riverside!

Amen and Amen again!

_________________________________

“Not of One’s Choosing, But God’s”

PPT for WordPress*Sermon preached on 19 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  There are a number of directions this text affords conversation, which is why a pastor can indeed preach on the same text every three years!  – Vinson

Book of Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision.  There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.  These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

________________________________

INTRODUCTION

Who didn’t love the TV show “I Love Lucy”?  As a kid, I watched that glorious, hilarious redhead get into more fixes and then —- get herself in deeper most of the time before she got out again!   And probably six times out of ten, we all heard that famous line:

“LUUUUUUCY!   You’ve got some ‘Splainin’ to Do!!!”

From time to time just about all of us have some explaining to do, in some fashion, to someone.  I know I do.  Reasonably often.  Just ask Julie!

Sometimes though, it’s serious.  In today’s lesson from Acts, we hear how Simon Peter finds himself explaining himself twice.  First to Cornelius and then to the church leadership that would be seated in Jerusalem until its destruction in 70 AD.  It’s no ordinary thing Peter unpacks, and which Luke retells for us.

We’ve read as Peter has been drawn into a less and less Jewish area.  We talked last week about him coming to Joppa, a mixed area, as much Gentile as Jew, where he healed Tabitha and then stays at the home of Simon the tanner.  That particular occupation, though needed, wasn’t exactly looked upon in favor by most – as it involved a certain amount of stench, in dealing with dead animals and the lye to process the skins.  We forget, President Grant was a tanner by trade, returning to the Army having utterly hated that life.  It wasn’t an easy one.

Fittingly enough, it’s here, in this setting, that Peter has a vision, a dream.  He comes to with the insight that ALL things God has made are good.  What we would refer to in our age as “privilege” will be cast away – right along with the tendency to pretend that there is an ownership of God – making one’s feelings toward “those people” more justified.  At just about the time Peter had his dream, so does Cornelius.  This centurion lives about nine miles away in Caesarea, a Roman seaport that is still seen as an engineering marvel.  His would have been no small responsibility.  So… — not unreasonably – Cornelius did according to his dream, sending emissaries to Peter.  There’s a knock on the door, and the story begins – one that brings Peter to a whole new way of thinking.  Completely.  180 degrees out.  When they get together, Peter tells him about Jesus, and before the day is over Cornelius and all his friends are baptized.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

God does that.  Putting us in places, with people, and with decisions we likely might not choose otherwise.  If anything, it is God reminding us that it is God’s idea and not ours – so we can be certain of his will.

FOR INSTANCE

It isn’t a snap.  Peter apparently went to great lengths to explain himself to Cornelius.  He doesn’t want to be there.  That’s the first thing Peter has to say as he hangs back, the image one of him standing in the doorway.  He lays it out.  ”You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.”  It isn’t just his pet religious conviction, it the Jewish law at that time in the land where Peter lives and moves and has his being.  It would have been a no-no, for Peter to sit down and dine at the same table.  The law and all his upbringing said so.  And yet, here God had sent him.  Cornelius would have probably attended the synagogue there in Caesarea, where he worshipped God, but things were different in Jerusalem and in the Galilee that was Peter’s home.  Let’s call it what we once called it here in our land:  segregation.  That was Peter’s frame of reference.

In his next breath, Simon says with emphasis, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”  There is an undercurrent of reluctance, as if saying,  “GOD is making me do this, but IF it were up to ME…”   So, finally… Peter goes on to basically say, “I came without objection.  Now, what’s go-ing on?”

The body language must have been noticeable, don’t you think?  Standing at the door.  Able to make a quick exit.

Cornelius tells Peter his story of how he has faithfully served God.  He is one of constant prayer, generous in his giving alms to the poor in God’s name, and having a personal relationship with God.  But clearly, he knows God has something more in mind.  Cornelius and Peter basically compare notes.  They find they truly have something in common, or rather someone, as Peter ends up not only baptizing all of them, but staying with them for several days.

I have to imagine Peter, who was not a solo act, had to wonder what he was going to say when he got back to Jerusalem.  There will be unhappiness.  Maybe even elements of conflict, and we all know how fun that is.  The council of apostles will have some hard questions, even of Peter.  There is an accountability.  When one goes and starts messing with some of the most sacred beliefs and ideas, it will be dicey.  Sure enough, before he has a chance to tell them, word had already been received and they jump on Peter.

Old ways die hard.

Nearly always.

Peter knows this.  He’s been there, after all.  Many times, if one reads the Gospels.  We know that if you’re trying to give old, worn-out beliefs a decent burial, it’s best to take your time and go slow.  Ironic, given the times the Gospels demonstrate his impatience.  This is the one who resisted so strongly that Jesus had to rebuke him, when Jesus started talking about suffering and persecution and death.  We’re talking about Peter, the one who always had a way of saying the wrong thing.  But, Easter has changed him.  Grace has changed him.  It has opened him to change, the kind he had struggled with for the entire three years Jesus and the disciples crisscrossed the land.

At times, maybe always in some cases, we want to sanitize things.  But church.  Real church.  Well, it can be messy sometimes, especially when God is doing a new thing.

“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?,” Peter is asked.  I think it’s reasonable to hear real anger in these words.  They don’t simply refer to them as Gentiles by using the least flattering of descriptions.  It would have been easy, surely understandable, if this had become a contest of wills.  Instead, Peter tells them his story, about his vision, his encounter with Cornelius and his household.  Step-by-step.  What.  Why.  How.  If they believe Peter, it isn’t because – as Peter is clear on the day of Pentecost – he isn’t a person of eloquence.  The Spirit of God has dragged Peter – and the larger church – into this encounter to make THIS point:  There will be NO Distinction between people with regard to salvation and table fellowship.  “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life,” they say.

SO WHAT?

Wherever you find God, expect to find God doing a new thing.  God is always in motion, calling forth those willing to journey with him into new and uncharted waters of the faith – among people and tasks one might not otherwise choose.

Luke makes it clear that God chose Cornelius not because he is a pious person who prays a lot and is generous with his gifts to the poor, but rather, — and this is the larger point here — that WHAT HE DOES reflects his openness to what God Can Do with — and in – him!

Perhaps it is fitting that this is the word in the lectionary for today, as we continue to look to the path ahead for our congregation.  Who will lead?  What vision would we cast?  What path are we called to follow?  How might God be talking to you and to me on a personal, individual level?  How open are we all to the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives?  Do we still have “some ‘splainin’ to do”… both publicly and internally as we seek to listen to and serve our Lord with our whole hearts?  Let us listen, my friends.  Let us open our hearts wide.  Let us continue to seek our new thing!!!”

Amen.

Celebration of Life – Charlie Cathrell

*Celebration of Life service held at First Christian Church of Hampton, VA, on 18 May 2019.  “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself,” and in no one was that more true than in Charlie.  This is my remarks and does not include the family remembrances which were profoundly touching. Please keep Charlie’s family in your prayers.  – Vinson

________________________________

Scriptures Read During the Service

Romans 8:35, Isaiah 41:10, Philippians 3:20-21, II Corinthians 1:3-5

John 14:1-3 & Proverbs 4:1-13

_________________________

INTRODUCTION

In the Gospel of Luke [chapter 24], on the day of Easter, two disciples walked from Jerusalem toward Emmaus, talking as they went.  Jesus joined them.  Lost in thought and conversation, they didn’t recognize him.  Not even when Jesus asked them “What things?” when they wondered why he didn’t know anything of what transpired the previous days.  The ending wasn’t was they anticipated, and Good Friday had come.  The reports from the women that Sunday morning had seemed… implausible.

Then they added “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” is a phrase that’s really resonated in the journey that’s brought us to this afternoon.

“We had hoped” that Charlie would push through the medical crisis.

“We had hoped” for a different diagnosis through one thing and the next, that the stubborn streak of Charlie’s and his enthusiasm for life would translate into healing, surprising the docs and pleasing us.

“We had hoped” that Charlie would recover, that if not more years, we’d at least have more months.

“We had hoped,” but on a Thursday we experienced our Good Friday, and there are few things more painful than dashed hope in our broken world

WHY I BRING THIS UP

Amid this, I would suggest that right now we can learn a lot from how Jesus interacted with the disciples that journey us through healing.  As we move through and beyond “we had hoped” – discovering they won’t be the final words we will speak – to the new kind of hope the disciples experienced… and spoke.

FOR INSTANCE

If we have found ourselves walking this road away from Jerusalem, still hurt and confused, what’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t just start telling Bible stories so as paper over their hurt or force them to feel better.  You see, my friends, Jesus is OK hearing us speak of our hurt, holding forth a clear example for those of us who would walk this journey with the family.  Jesus comes alongside us on the road.  He asks what’s wrong.  He listens to what is said of all that’s transpired and of the life absent.

He lets them tell their story.  The whole story.  He lets us tell ours.

After all, as those who proclaim Christ, isn’t that what today is about as we tell the story of Charlie?  We may tell the story of grief, but as Psalm 23 assures us, we aren’t alone on that walk… and as Jesus shows us – the shepherd is present.  That’s what gets us to the story of LIFE – one whose legacy will become only clearer as we tell stories about Charlie – for whom Easter has come.

Anyone who knew Charlie knows at least one good story… probably several.  We’ve already heard a few and I hope the story telling keeps going!

Among the stories?  Let’s face it, Charlie was never allergic to hard work.  It started when he was a boy and would often help his Dad at the grand brick cotton spinning mill in town, built little more than a century ago.  A sprawling brick palace, surrounded by a mill village, in that age it wasn’t uncommon for children to be found in the mills.  Smaller hands were very adept in dealing with some of the finer details, to ensure a good product.

His work ethic certainly continued when he moved to the Peninsula to work at Newport News Shipbuilding, and when a strike came along, Charlie didn’t sit around.  He went to work for UPS.  Now this was when the brown UPS trucks were still very much a new thing.  The business had just expanded to all the lower 48 states and marketed itself on timely deliveries.  To start off right, Charlie decided to spend Sunday afternoon before his first day, practicing driving his route, right along with Betty, as usual, his trusted sidekick!

Charlie left nothing to chance, and it showed.  It was no different with the kids.

Just ask Rob was it was like to have a paper route with his Pop driving.  Sometimes even letting him drive, while Charlie would then sprint for the doorsteps, even if… uh… Rob was underage!  It was going to be done:   right AND on time!

But what really defined Charlie was “family.”  He completely owned being a father, not just a husband.  Charlie saw no difference whether the children were of blood – with Cindy, or of the heart – with Rob, Mark and Jamie.  They were ALL his kids, protected with a fierce heart and clear love.  He embraced the boys, then young survivors of great sadness – and over the years he gave them a sure footing in life – on the ballfield, at home, in the shop, in the house.  No soft touch, except maybe for the grandkids!  Charlie could hand out discipline and wherever there are three boys, as was also the case in my own family, someone’s going to merit it!  But the objective was clearly the hope of the father who spoke in Proverbs 4, to not “…let what I say go in one ear and out the other.  Stick with wisdom and she will stick to you, protecting you throughout your days.”  He knew how to offer that very pragmatic word of counsel that is best heard in a true and trusting relationship.

Bottom line: One cannot underestimate the lifelong impact of Charlie’s fathering.

Of course, Charlie, being his gregarious self, just as readily pulled into his heart his children’s spouses and then the grandchildren, whom Charlie so clearly and deeply adored – and anyone else he could add to his merry band.  All knew his encouragement, tenacious love, sense of fun, and ever infectious laugh.  Always laughter!

Charlie and Betty shared a deep love and an even deeper friendship with one another.  It was a partnership from the outset, one that brought them from Edenton to the Peninsula.  I don’t know many women who don’t deeply love a man who loves her children and Betty is eternally grateful for that lifelong gift.  Yet, not only were they teammates through the daily demands of guiding and raising the children, they were devoted partners: in love, in fun, in laughter with one another – and yes, watching Charlie’s beloved Redskins!  As Julie likes to say, the best partners of all are our partners in crime, the ones who cry with us, giggle with us, roll eyes at us, plot shenanigans with us, and never, ever let go of us, no matter the circumstance.

Betty and Charlie were blessed by second chances to create their love story; they neither wasted them, nor took them for granted.

Together, they cherished their beautiful family, the grands, even the family of friendships they created amongst us here, welcoming so many into their home.  To the end, they were devoted, caring, attentive, loving.  It was a difficult walk those last few weeks, in particular, but they did it the way they did everything: side by side, smiling and encouraging one another, letting grace lead the way.  The example they set shows in the next generations’ relationships as well.

SO WHAT?

I’ve been thinking about how on the last Sunday in March, when our congregation had a hymn sing.  The one Charlie sang with a full heart, a favorite of his, was “I Love to Tell the Story.”  It’s clear Charlie’s story is one intertwined with love for family and clear in a faith lived out in action.  It was everything we could hope for.  His story was and IS one to tell, as we walk with the Lord

Amen.

__________________________________

Charles “Charlie” E. Cuthrell

Charles (Charlie) E. Cuthrell, 75, passed away on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at Riverside Regional Medical Center surrounded in love by his family.  He was the son of the late William “Ed” and Carrie Cuthrell (Batton) of Edenton, NC.  He graduated from John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC.  After graduation he enlisted in the Army for 4 years.  After leaving the service he moved to the Peninsula to work at Newport News Shipbuilding. He left the shipyard to put on his browns for UPS and retired after 25 years.  After retirement he went to work ABC store in Yorktown for 4 years.  He was an avid wood worker and landscaper, enjoying working in his shed on many projects.  He was all about family, faith and friends, making many wonderful memories for everyone.  His favorite was the annual family vacations to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Charlie was a member of First Christian Church, Todds Lane, Hampton.
Charlie was preceded in death by his parents William and Carrie Cuthrell, brothers Robert Twiddy and Payne Twiddy, and Payne’s wife, Erna. He is survived by his wife of 43 years Betty Cuthrell and his children, Rob Cuthrell (Tina) of Yorktown, Cindy Seymour of Edenton, NC., Mark Goodrich (Melissa) of Newport News, and Jamie Cuthrell (Carmelita) of Lawrenceville, NJ. He is also survived by six grandchildren, Amber, Andrew, Emily, Daniel, Freddy and Lilly; a sister Faye Mullins of Newport, NC and Ruby Daniels of Suffolk and many nieces and nephews.
The family would like to give our heartfelt thanks for the loving care dad received from Riverside Regional Medical Center, Peninsula Cancer Institute, HR Neurosurgical and Spine Specialists and the RRMC Medical ICU team. Thank you!
The family requests in lieu of flowers, gifts of love sent to
First Christian Church
1458 Todds Lane
Hampton, VA 23666

________________________________

I Love to tell the Story

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story,
because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else could do.

      Refrain:
I love to tell the story;
’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story;
more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies
of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story,
it did so much for me;
and that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.  [Refrain]

I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word.  [Refrain]

I love to tell the story;
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest.
And when in scenes of glory
I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story
that I have loved so long.  [Refrain]

Celebration of Life – Sarah Schuermann

*The “Celebration of Life” service held in remembrance of Sarah Schuermann was held at First Christian Church of Hampton, on Thursday, 16 May 2019.  Sarah was precious to all who were graced by her presence, her love, intellect, music, and much more.  While I have known Bill since 1990, when he was still an active duty Air Force chaplain and I sought endorsement from our denomination to serve as a Navy Chaplain, I did not know Sarah until Alzheimer’s had taken its long toll.  It is surely my loss.  I am thankful for those who shared insights and memories with me, so that I could honor her life.  May we continue to lift up Bill, their family and all who loved Sarah. – Vinson

 Readings for the service were Psalm 100, Psalm 150, and Psalm 23.

_______________________________

INTRODUCTION

It is my hope, Bill, that I get this right!  As a colleague in ministry, thank you for trusting me with this service, so we can truly honor Sarah.  I will also note that if today is about celebrating Sarah’s life, it seems to me that to do so is to acknowledge today is also about a love story.

This is a story of two interwoven lives from youth to being aged, spanning over six decades of marriage and even longer of being in love.  It is about two people, committed to one another and as much to our Lord, paired for life, hand in hand.  It is about a deep and abiding love which embodied the vows of marriage and commitment in parenting.  It is about an abiding, gentle friendship that enjoyed the safeness of shared confidences.  It is about a complimentary ministry of music that ran parallel to and in support of Bill’s ministry, one largely about caring for those who wore the nation’s cloth and their families.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I say this to ask each of us to stop for a few moments and ponder the life Sarah lived – in the team that was marriage, family, and ministry.  In this, consider how you hear the joyous love of our Lord, in the witness of Sarah’s daily life.

FOR INSTANCE

Raised in the church as a musician, meeting Bill in high school, dating through college, Bill and Sarah didn’t wait until she graduated to get married.  I’m not sure how you did it, Bill, beyond promising her dad that you would take care of Sarah.  Getting a father’s permission was a really big deal.  I know my Dad had no such luck with his future father-in-law, who made them wait.

In an age when marriage often ended a woman’s college path, Sarah finished her degree.

She did it while pregnant, and STILL finished the last two semesters.  Her professors must have loved her, because they worked with her to make it happen.  While EVERYONE always speaks of Sarah as such a sweet woman, it took real steel for her to accomplish that:  Steel enclosed in great kindness and joy.

Perhaps the most defining part of Sarah’s life was her 30 years as the wife of an Air Force chaplain.  Not only did she have to navigate her husband’s absence for years in Vietnam, she had to stay strong for their children. Staying close meant phone calls that could not be transparent due to censors and letters that were never fast enough.

More than just sustaining their own relationship and sharing at a distance the life of their young family, hers was the only truly safe ear for Bill.  That’s the way it is for chaplains.  Their wives offer that special gift, and carry that special burden.  It would be what she did to strengthen Bill as he cared for those bearing the weight of battle, far from their own families, suicidal, depressed or grief-stricken over friends lost to the war, receiving “Dear John” letters and being unable to go home, and even giving needed insight to commanding officers.  In the thick of it all, Sarah was Bill’s confidante, his friend.

Being a chaplain’s wife means going wherever the military says her husband is needed, bringing any children in tow.  It might be every three years, or receiving surprise orders in the middle of an assignment.  Rarely in the same location or even state.  If the last tour was here at nearby Langley, other tours meant living in the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam or elsewhere.  Anyone who has done a career, especially one of 30 years, would learn the Air Force has installations in some nice locations.  It also has them in just as many in places in the middle of nowhere, or of being in a country while a dictator was toppled – giving Sarah the opportunity to view the infamous Imelda Marcos shoe collection!  Regardless of where, the nature of such a life is that Sarah often sacrificed being close to her larger family.  It was in the selfless way she supported the man she loved, adored, and in whose gift of ministry she so strongly believed, that Bill could serve others and God.

Through the many times that the family would be uprooted, as the mom, Sarah would navigate them through the transitions into new schools, neighborhoods, friendships, routines.  Each time she would reinvent what was “home.”   Then, when their now adult children were back in the states, while they served in the Philippines, Sarah still found a way to connect to her children and grandchildren.  When apart, it was reading books onto cassette tapes for them to read along with her.  When together, there was driving go-carts, bowling, roller skating, or whatever other fun filled adventures she conceived.  Always, it was making sure they knew family was important and loved, as she shared her enthusiasm for the life God gives.

Sarah reveled in bringing her lifelong love of music and talent as a both a pianist and an organist to a variety of settings.  In chapels, it was more than just Sarah playing.  If there wasn’t a choir, she invented one:   their kids quickly drafted as the first members, naturally.  Having been the drum major of her high school marching band, no small thing – especially for a young woman almost 70 years ago, it was a given that all the kids would learn instruments and sing, and she would lead them on!   This congregation itself experienced Sarah’s gifts and the love that radiated through her as she played and sang after Bill’s retirement — always with joy upon her face!  No wonder she had from childhood, a lifelong love for the words to “Jesus Loves Me!,” its words echoed through her life:  “Walking with me on my way, Wanting as a friend to give – Light and love to all who live.”  Knowing this, now imagine what she was like for those far from their own families, for whom chapel was their “home away from home” family?  While in the Philippines, far from their own grown children, Sarah became the welcoming “mom” to young airmen far from their own families.  Bill and Sarah’s home, became a place for home-cooked meals, music and love – especially for the single airmen.  She took care of other people’s children, as she put it, in hopes that someone would take care of hers.  It was simply how Sarah lived out her faith in God.

A chaplain’s wife tends to be widely known both for her own personality but also because she IS the chaplain’s wife.  It meant Sarah was regularly approached by other wives, those far from their moms needing advice about babies, or faith, or those trying to navigate new marriages under the stresses inherent to all military families.  Always, the safe ear.  Whether walking into the chapel to worship or the commissary to shop for groceries, a chaplain’s wife is often looked to as someone compassionate, loving, approachable, and automatically trusted for her presence of faith.  Sarah would know how to help!  Absent of title, make no mistake, Sarah had her own special form of ministry in partnership with Bill.

SO WHAT?

Having journeyed through such a life, I know taking care of Sarah wasn’t what Bill anticipated.

Life can take us in directions we would not always choose.

If Alzheimer’s, the disease of forgetting, would become her life, remembering FOR her became Bill’s mission– her door festooned with photos of a young woman, of a musician, of a wedding, of children, of a life with the one whose hands would always hold hers.

Some hands are truly meant to be held for a lifetime: Bill’s would be the gentle hands that fed her every day, the hands that stroked her head.  He sang to her and always,  ALWAYS!  kissed her.

Sarah would, in the words of the Psalmists, now be the one served as “goodness and mercy” [Psalm 23:6] followed her all the days of her life until she could enter the Lord’s “gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” [Psalm 100:4]  And, if Sarah was once thrilled to touch the stadium field of her beloved Nebraska Huskers, an enthusiastic lover of football, how much more now the streets of gold in heaven?  There, at last, to live fully those eternal words, to “Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing (and to) make a joyful noise to the Lord!” [Psalm 100:2]

“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” [Psalm 150:6], for the precious life of Sarah!

Amen.

______________________________

Jesus Loves Me 

Jesus loves me! This I know,  

For the Bible tells me so;  

Little ones to Him belong;  

They are weak, but He is strong. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me still today,  

Walking with me on my way,  

Wanting as a friend to give  

Light and love to all who live. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me! He who died 

Heaven’s gate to open wide; 

He will wash away my sin,  

Let His little child come in. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

 

Jesus loves me! He will stay 

Close beside me all the way; 

Thou hast bled and died for me,  

I will henceforth live for Thee. 

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

Yes, Jesus loves me!  

The Bible tells me so. 

Celebration of Life – Arthur (“Art” “Peewee”) Taylor

*Memorial service for Arthur (“Art” “Peewee”) Taylor, was conducted at First Christian Church of Hampton VA, on Tuesday, 14 May, prior to our weekly “Welcome Table” meal.  Art was one of our regulars, a part of the community that gathers for a meal… and finds friendship across all the lines.  We cherished him and we miss him.  A gentle spirit; always with a smile. – Vinson

______________________________

First Letter of John 4:7-16 (New Revised Standard Version)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

II Corinthians 5:14-17 (New Revised Standard Version)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,[c]we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Gospel of John 14:1-3 (New Revised Standard Version)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

 ______________________________________

INTRODUCTION

We have no choice but acknowledge that death is present in life.  It leaves us confused at best or hurt at worst.  An absence is now keenly felt on Tuesday evenings at our Welcome Table, where Art was among those who called him friend.

Art had a fall.  A number of them.  Somewhere along the way there was an intercranial bleed.  It wasn’t discovered until he collapsed in a doctor’s office.  Attempts to save him would eventually prove fruitless.  Such medical facts we may well protest with the question: “Why?”  I know I have at times reflected back on the many times I was the chaplain in an Emergency Room and ICUs where tragedy was a common occurrence.  So often I was asked “Why?”  Why did this happen?

WHY I BRING THIS UP

It’s a question among the faithful as old as the patriarch’s in the Book of Genesis.  It’s as old as when King Josiah, one of the really few “good” kings to rule Israel, died suddenly.  Everyone went looking for a satisfactory answer.  None were to be found.  It doesn’t make sense when a “good” man dies, although there is, to quote Ecclesiastes, a “season for everything.”

FOR INSTANCE

So, when we hurt and ask why, we’re actually asking a question of justice.  We cannot see why a particular person had merited death, regardless of age.  Circumstances only catch us more off guard.  It doesn’t seem right and we protest death.

I have to think that even were we to be assured that we had the right logical and scriptural answer to “Why did this happen?” – we would still be left wanting.  God knows this too.  Nothing makes what we view as an untimely death, acceptable in our hearts and minds.  That is the nature of grief.  That is normal for people.  It is often wrestled with in the pages of the Bible.  Some more quickly than others will work through the spiritual wrestling and prayer that grants peace.  Yet, the perplexing loss of a friend remains an individual journey for each of us for which we cannot be hard upon ourselves.

The hands of the clock have moved.  We stand at a new place in time, one not of our choosing.  We may find a kinship in the words of the ancient Israelites.  They found themselves living in exile, having been carried off by the Babylonians, following the conquest of Israel.  In Psalm 137, they ask the most essential question of now: “How can we sing a new song in this land?”

That, my friends, is the crux of any death that touches our spirits.  How do we go forward, exiled from a future that no longer exists?

We are advised in God’s word that “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” [Romans 14:7].  I have thought about hospital visits at an earlier time, just as much as sitting down to dinner with Art and Nancy and friends scattered across the tables.  I found myself with a man whose countenance was peaceful, smiling, interested in others, considerate, humble.  I have wondered what shaped his life’s outlook.  Was it was how he was raised.  Did he drew lessons from his time serving in the Army?  Was he befriended and mentored amid the shipbuilding environment that he made his career?  Did he find something among friends in his later years/  Was it being around Nancy?  Did the faith in Christ long woven in him shape him this way?  I suspect it is all of those things and much more.

What we do know is that each person is unique in God’s creation.

What we do know that each person who accepts Jesus Christ is gifted by the Spirit.  That giftedness is a way of being and serving in the world in relationship with others.  It is a way of remembering what drew the disciples of John to Jesus wasn’t his words.  They had not heard them.  It was his deeds.  We all notice WHAT people do.  We notice HOW they treat others.  We notice the WAY they are present in life.  Your presence here celebrates that truth about Art, and about all people.

What we do know is that each person is a part of our journey.  Some leave us with a voice, a perspective, or sometimes something just as simple as a gentle smile like the photo on the bulletin.  They become an image, an icon, in our hears and minds.  They point to the One who gives us breath.  Maybe that image helps us in the critical moment when we are scattered in thinking.  Or, when we are sad or needing to be grounded amid anxiety.  I would submit that Art and others whose spirits are woven into the better part of our lives, offer us such.  Insight.  Behavior.  Perspective.  A gift of kind or presence.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.  Know it or not, we integrate that which others bring into our own way of being in life.  This is even more true when we walk in fellowship with one another and Christ.

What we do know how many friends we’ve lost over the years.  Some much older.  Some much younger.  Yet each is a teacher in some way to us.  It’s what has made us better persons in this world.  It’s the images or voices of counsel that come to mind when we need to go in a better direction.  We hear the Apostle John’s words encouraging us to “love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”  They remind us of the greatness of that which seems the smallest thing of all when we offer it:  the kindness of loving one another.  John, who wrote those words, was the last of the Apostles to die.  In his final years he was crippled by a stroke.  Unable to walk, he was carried on a chair into church.  Unable to easily speak, he still spoke from his heart saying over and over: “Little children, love one another.”  Whether one is of many or few words, that’s how we speak Life to one another.

SO WHAT?

The only question left to us is: What of who Art was among us, will we choose to carry forward in us?  What is it that we saw in Art that we want to remind ourselves to do likewise?  What in Art we would want in us – to witness to our Creating God and Redeeming Christ?

I once knew a young man who died way too young.  Along the way had tattooed upon his arm the phrase “Life goes on.”  No one knew why he chose those life-affirming words as his personal motto.  Yet, I suggest they answer our question, as much as the Psalmist.  As the Psalmist sat by the waters of Babylon, he asked: “How shall we sing a new song in this foreign land, this new experience?”  It to asks of ourselves, if we would honor Art…

How can we be an encouragement to the next person…

How can we laugh deeply when the opportunity arises…

How can we to embrace life in all of its seasons.

Until such the day we are caught up in heaven and meet again, may the grace of our Lord hold Art in eternity and us in hope.

Amen.

“Eyes of a Gazelle, Heart of God”

 

pptF9B.pptm - AutoRecovered*Sermon preached on 12 May 2019, at First Christian Church of Hampton.  If we are to understand what “being” church… the body of Christ… is amid this world, there is no better place to start than the Book of Acts.  We are in a changing season, a time when the Church is sometimes far removed from the spirit that draws people into relationship, with one another and with Christ.  We should be asking ourselves how the “way” of Jesus exploded across the Roman Empire, in spite of agressive efforts to stamp it out.  It wasn’t just “know the Lord” that brought people, and certainly not the desire to be persecuted.  It was what they saw in the believers.  THAT is what we must ponder if we are to witness in our own age.  So… start with Acts!  – Vinson

Book of Acts 9:36-43 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.  She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs.  All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  He gave her his hand and helped her up.  Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

_____________________________

INTRODUCTION

As we continue through the Book of Acts, discerning what “Church” is for the community of Christ followers, and what that means for us today as we seek to be “church,” we are brought to the telling of the death and the life restored, of Tabitha, by Peter.  Mourning her loss.  Celebrating her life.  The most concrete reminders of her life being how she made and clothed those who were the marginalized of the time.  The tension mimics the words of Ecclesiastes [3:1-4] that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”  Dance, is, of course, the last word, to we who are a resurrection people, in the reign of Christ Jesus.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

So it seems that the timing of today’s lesson feels appropriate to frame the week we have ahead, as we look to the welfare of one another in the shadows and in the sunshine, within our community gathered in Jesus’ name.  But, I suppose there is always an element of that on Mother’s Day, which brings a mix of emotions that varies by life history.

FOR INSTANCE

In approaching the passage from the Book of Acts today, I find myself reminded not so much of my Mother’s abilities as a seamstress, but the only reality TV show my family’s found worth watching:  “Project Runway.”  We’re somewhat addicted to it, even our son watches, as each season starts off with a new group of fashion designers, each with his or her own flair, making their way through thematic design challenges for unusual occasions or using unusual materials.  Yeah, there is a bit of behind the scenes drama sometimes between people, but it is just fascinating as to what they come up with, and yes, how they help each other with insight and sometimes labor.  Always, under a severe time constraint as they work, most of the time we find ourselves stunned with the creativity and detail, right down to the stitching that says something tangible about the personality of the designer and his or her care about making clothes for normal people.

Apparently, if Luke’s words in the Book of Acts are to be taken at face value, Tabitha would have done very well in “Project Runway” – because she took the time and her means to make clothes that spoke to the worthiness of each person in the sight of God – the widows and others who lacked economic means to clothe themselves.  These were no hand-me-downs, but custom made to give light and life to each life troubled by loss and economic stress.  It is, I have to think, the same spirit that guides us when we feed people at the Welcome Table – as we ensure meals are the best of home cooking on a large scale.  After all, even if sometimes we might wonder how it will come together, the careful design of each meal honors the worthiness of each who partakes.  Adding to it, of course, is their experience of being waited upon and served – with a love and respect akin to that which Jesus showed for his disciples when he washed their feet.

As always, scripture speaks in silence as much as words.  Luke doesn’t say Peter or some other disciple, converted Tabitha, but presents her as already being a disciple.  I think it not unreasonable to suggest, she had her own encounter with Jesus during his three years of crisscrossing Judea and Galilee.

Then, in Acts 9:36, her discipleship was given definition by the acts of loving kindness by which she is known, imitating Christ by her love for those whom he loves.  We know those hands which have surrounded us or others with love… that have clothed… or fed… or encouraged… or in any number of ways – made Christ visible.

But then, Tabitha dies.

It strikes the community with as much anguish as if our guests suddenly found themselves with no Welcome Table, no place to experience hospitality and develop friendships.  With her death, it’s as if people came up to Peter showing photos of the meals they had eaten here, of their friends at table, and pleading for him to do something – pleading for restoration of a life that gives hope.

Given the custom of burial by sundown, with ten miles separating the two small cities – a three or four hour journey for the messengers to Peter and his travel to Joppa, we know Peter would have had to rush.  Traveling in increasingly less Jewish and more Gentile locales, with Joppa itself  primarily a Greek city in this timeframe, Peter enters a semi-chaotic scene amid weeping widows and others as “they showed the tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made for them.  Keep in mind, in that age property of the husband went to any sons, or back to his family; there was no right of survivorship, like we know.  The focus was on just surviving, so the spiritual impact of being properly clothed in such a way that one could be seen as a person worthy of respect, simply cannot be overstated.

Literally named a “female disciple” in the original Greek text, the only time this word is used in Acts, Luke makes clear she is no ordinary follower.  If the male disciples of Acts 6 are spoken of as filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, her spirit is abundant with good works and alms.

Her name, given in both in the Aramaic spoken throughout Judea and the common Greek pervasive throughout the Roman world, was likely not her birth name, but the name that had been given her because of her character, a name meaning Gazelle.  An animal of grace and quick movement, it is known for its watchfulness in that it sleeps – literally! — with one eye open, and for having keen eyesight that puts one in mind of how Proverbs 22:9 puts it, those who have “…a good eye will be blessed, for [they] shares [their] bread with the poor,” and if, as Jesus said, “your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light” [Matthew 6:22].

Tabitha has an eye for people.

Luke holds her up as not just a committed Christian, but as a person of some status and importance in the Joppa Christian community – every bit as much as Priscilla would become in the Roman community of believers.

SO WHAT?

So what do we make of it all?

I think the temptation that is present is that we can put people up on pedestals so high that we forget that at the end of the day – we’re all human beings.  Disciples are ordinary people who live out an extraordinary love, one which compels those who live in the “way, the truth, and the life” of Jesus – to care about the wholeness of others’ lives – hearts, minds, and bodies.  Tabitha was just such a disciple.  She lived in the way of Jesus… simply, mercifully, and justly – as a gifted servant and craftswoman – a normal human being – whose extraordinary care and creativity was in seeing Christ in the “least of these” in society.  This is our high calling.

Perhaps as well this story asks us to ponder the challenge in doing good, especially works of charity and mercy, is sometimes feeling like you’re at the bottom end of a stream, pulling people out, with acts of justice akin to going upstream to the other end to stop whoever is throwing them in.  Either way, fatigue can enter in, raising the question of whether we, like Tabitha, may seemingly run out of life and energy to do the great work.

As those who seek to be not simply hearers of His word, but doers as well, in this life of love… of service… of mercy and justice, we don’t have a Peter among to raise us up.  We have the Table of the Lord.

We have been made an Easter people, here we gather in the grace of our Lord, to be equipped in common love, fed for the journey, and blessed with life-affirming and sustaining grace.

Amen.

“You Want Me to Do What, God?!”

pptF9B.pptm  -  AutoRecovered.jpg*Sermon preached on 05 May 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton.  As we continue to look at what being “church” really means, let’s be honest with ourselves.  Do we want to take comfort in being a people of a noun (“Christian”) or a people of a verb by accepting those folks we don’t want Jesus to accept, because we don’t.  It is our first witness in an age when the faith is held suspect by skeptics because those speak of following in the “way” of Jesus… aren’t.  – Vinson

Book of Acts 9:1-20 (New Revised Standard Version)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”  The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.  Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.  At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”   So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.  For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

_________________________________

INTRODUCTION

Sometimes, if we are honest, sometimes we push back against the vision God has for us, like the Biblical Jonah who had no intention of going to Nineveh, considering the people there detestable and unworthy of salvation.  He would find himself there before it was all over.  In the same way, when we listen to the reading from the Book of Acts, we read how Ananias is asked by God in a vision to go to this man Saul – a man already well-known and just as much feared, in the early Christian community.

Ananias’ reaction could be best summed up as “You want me to do WHAT, God?!”

Are you serious?  This guy is terrible!  Ananias pushes back against God with a not unreasonable objection to the instruction of the vision.  After all, he has already heard all he needs to know about this man Saul.  Word of his ensuring the brutal execution of the first martyr, Stephen, and his imprisonment of believers had traveled to Damascus.  How can God send Ananias to such a person?

God doesn’t argue with Ananias, but simply repeats “GO.”  And, oh, by the way, Saul has been chosen to be “my chosen instrument.”

WHY I BRING THIS UP

One could say that this is a “rubber meets the road” passage.  Do we believe in what we are selling – Jesus – or not?  But I think it’s more complex that just overcoming fear… but taking in what really makes church – “church.”

FOR INSTANCE

If Acts is where we start, even if in Acts 11:26 it’s recounted that it was at Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”  A noun.   What’s easy to miss is that prior being known as “Christians,” they were know by a verb – known for their following in “the Way” of Jesus.

One is a name.  The other is what one’s doing.

It seems to me that the “doing” is what Jesus was actually teaching, and what caught fire in people.  Thus, rather than being identified by a name and its attendant defined set of beliefs – not that there weren’t clear beliefs – these communities were instead known by their character in the world… How they expressed their faith in Jesus Christ.  How they lived in the “Way” that defined their relationship with God and one another.  They held tightly to love, support, belonging, and mutual respect.

It would appear that what people and churches apart is indeed their character.  In essence, how do values… beliefs coalesce in the nature of the person… or an organization?  Faith.  Integrity.  Love in word and deed for others.  Courage, and so forth.  The marks… the fruits of the spirit visible.  No wonder that Paul would later write in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”  It is coming to people without any agenda other than to receive them as they are and to love them as they desire to be loved.  Resting in the safety of that, they begin to be transformed.

Paul was talking character.

Character defined the followers of Jesus.  It still does, for better or worse.

But it isn’t static.  It can change.  That is the message of the Gospel.

At the earlier point, when he was still known as Saul, the first time we hear about him, in Acts 7:58, Luke recounts how he stood guard over the coats of those who were preparing to brutally execute Stephen – the first Christ follower to die.  Saul wasn’t some passive observer, but had been he who “approved of their killing him” [Acts 8:1a].  Then, as the 8th chapter details, Saul is seen as one “ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women,” jailing them.  Centered in Jesus, this new kind of relationship with God that was inseparable from a community of those living together in a way that continued the way of Jesus.  It had, in the language of our age, gone “viral” – this open table of our Lord’s.  It brought in people seeking such a life.  It also brought the attention of those who just didn’t get it.  Like Saul.

Luke’s readers know who this Saul is; they know what turns his life will take.  They know how the episode will end, but in describing the complete shift to take place in Saul’s life, Luke draws a portrait of God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives.  So, as Saul draws near to Damascus with expansive plans for a slew of persecutions, he is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by a heavenly voice – that of Jesus himself.

Saul had been so sure of himself and what he was doing, but he was about to be taken down a peg.  Actually quite a few, as Jesus asks Saul why he has sought to persecute him.

Three days later, Jesus calls upon Ananias, who resists the direction, but submits – in the knowledge that just being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence.  The Saul he had heard of…

Sometimes, God ask us to do difficult things, to go to unexpected places, and perhaps be surprised by who we are called to serve alongside.  It may, for instance, take us from a perspective that looks at the community and asks, “How can we get these people to come to our church?” to one that asks “How can we go and be engaged with our neighbors and those on the margins?”  Amid this, the Book of Acts is a teaching portrait of the early church community, and a potent reminder of how we are to function as church, across the centuries.

I would suggest that it’s offered as a template, not as a rigid example of structure, but an example of pragmatism and – always – inclusivity and transparency.

I would suggest that it’s a witness as to how God intends his people to stay in the PROCESS of becoming church, and to not see it “church” as some fixed point of achievement – and that’s one reason it continued to grow.

I would suggest that, using contemporary terms, it was marked primarily by a transformational style holding forth a vision of what could be, thinking outside the proverbial box wherever needed – bringing the vision into reality.  This congregational style of the church expanded in the face of stresses far greater than any we are experiencing; while addressing the need to keep things running smoothly – which is how we ended up with Deacons – but both reaching out and doing the “rather tedious, sometimes boring, slow process of nurturing deep relationships” which is disciplining, not merely the simple, measurable data of new folk in the door.” [A Bigger Table, p 97]

SO WHAT?

Pastor John Pavlovitz, in his book A Bigger Table, writes that “We wrongly imagine the Gospel stories as one continual, thirty-three year tent revival, a never-ending rock-show crusade, and we miss the reality that the pages of the story of Jesus are filled with quiet conversations, with walks in the field, with hands upon weary shoulders, with loving meals around the table.  We forget the wounds that were tended, the feet that were washed, the break that was broken.  Those were as real and powerful and life altering as any tearful worship service prayer.” [A Bigger Table, p. 99-100].

Sharing the gospel, then and now,, in the time of Ananias and Paul or the present, is really a matter of giving people a daily front row seat to a life that looks like Christ….” the BEST way “to make disciples is by showing people the fullest incarnation that we can manage and resting in that.[A Bigger Table, p. 100]

Amen.

________________________________