Repenting Hearts

“Repenting Hearts”

Jer 17-9 heart deceitful, script

Jeremiah 17:5-10 – July 31, 2016

I just came back from my study leave at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. Wonderful conference, again. (It always is!) I sat in bible class, and mission hour, and morning and evening meetings all week, learning about the marvelous ways believers are reaching out, locally and all over the world.

However, I also learned about many, many places in the world where believers are persecuted and in danger. Where the government has tight control, or where different groups are fighting. Where believers, especially church leaders, have been imprisoned, even killed. Countries like Syria, Egypt, South Sudan, Iraq; parts of Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. One of our bible passages for the morning is from Jeremiah 17. It tells us: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Humans can be particularly inhuman, sometimes. Human hearts can be deceitful above all things, sometimes.

We are continuing with our summer sermon series from the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission. I am sad to say that the sentence of the week is: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves: To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death.”

Natural humans without God can be inhuman. They can treat each other abominably. Not only through evil deeds like fighting, destruction and war, but also through general chaos and death—just as our sentence of the week from the Statement of Mission says. Many people want power and control. Many people strive to maintain power and control at all costs. They trust in humans’ own strength, and Jeremiah says their hearts turn away from the Lord.

What an awful thing! To have people in control—police, mayor, other government officials—whose hearts are completely separated from God. These people are controlled by the forces of evil, of chaos and death, according to the prophet.

Yes, these verses contain poetic language about humanity. As one commentator says, “To ancient peoples, the heart was not only the center of emotions, feelings, moods and passions, but also of will and motive power for the limbs. The heart discerned good from evil; it was also the center of decision-making. Conversion to God’s ways took place in the heart. In verse 9, it is said to be where evil begins.” [1]

At the mission conference this week, we had a chance to put our words into action.  Interested people had the opportunity to sign a petition to request Secretary of State John Kerry to intercede on behalf of the people of South Sudan, and to allow humanitarian aid to come in to the regions of the country under conflict and war. That is a concrete way to come up against the forces of evil, of chaos and death, and to show the love of God in a tangible way.

Evil. Chaos. Death. Just what the sentence from the Statement of Mission for today says. Natural humans—humans without God—have deceitful hearts, hearts that turn from the Lord. Our scripture passage for today tells us: “That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.”

Well, I am not a deceitful person, an evil person. I know God. In fact, God lives in my heart! Where can I go wrong?

One problem there: according to our Statement of Mission, we are to “repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death.”

You mean, being silent can be a problem? Maybe, even a sin? The statement tells all of us to repent. That certainly sounds like sin language. What is more, the statement mentions “all of us.” Not “some,” not “most,” but “all.”

            Albert Einstein said, ““If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.” Can anyone relate? Horrible things happen every day. People who live next door, or down the street, or other places nearby find themselves in a difficult situation. They can be seen as vulnerable. Observers can turn out to be ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand. Hoping against hope that the problems of domestic abuse and its connected trauma might just go away.  Or, when there is racial tension in your side of town, to do nothing. In fact, to say nothing, to look the other way, and to stand on the sidelines with your mouth shut.

            What is wrong with that picture? That kind of behavior telling us what the sentence from the Statement of Mission tells us. The deceitful people who actively do terrible things to others? Are they at all like the quiet people who shut their eyes to injustice, or pretend that violence, bitterness and inequity never happen…at least, not in my world. Not on my block. Not in my part of town. Something to think about.

            This past week, I had the joy of learning about mission aspects of the Lord’s Prayer from a coworker for the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Rev. Jen Haddox. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed all over the world. In a multitude of languages, and numerous settings. This prayer can cross boundaries—just like believers. Believers can, with God’s help, cross the boundaries of unbelief and of chaos. Believers can bring the love of God into an evil and traumatic situation.

            Jen Haddox spoke about areas of Vietnam, where the government has tight control over everything—both everyday life in the villages and towns, and over the house churches and Christian leaders. And, some believers live in fear of government oppression and even prison. Yet, as Jen said, believers in Vietnam have a joy and a freedom that overcomes the forces of chaos and death.

            In both bible passages this morning, both passages give us the good news from God. Both passages have a compare and contrast section: natural humans, without God, and humans who strive to follow God. We can see what can happen when God intervenes.

Yes, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as the Statement of Mission says. And, yes, we can pray for believers throughout the world, as well as in our backyard. We can pray for South Sudan, for Vietnam, for other areas of war and conflict. Remember, conflict and trauma can be anywhere. Not only physical conflict, but psychological and emotional, too. Here in the Morton Grove area, and in Chicago, as well as far away in large parts of Africa and Asia.

The prophet says: “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.” We can bring that blessing to those under the forces of chaos and death. Yes, we need to repent our silence in the face of evil. We can tell God we are sorry for our silence, and strive to bring words of blessing and peace into situations of trauma and chaos.

What an opportunity to strive to become believers who transcend boundaries! Praise God for the chance to spread the love of God into lives of people near and far. Through prayer for faraway places, and through tangible means like food from the Maine Township food pantry for those who are nearby.

Won’t you join in the mission of God? Let’s all strive to pray, go, and do, in the name above all names, the name of Jesus. Alleluia, amen!

[1] Chris Haslam, Anglican Diocese of Montreal. http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/cpr06m.shtml

God Sends Us Out!

“God Sends Us Out!”

Acts 8-5-8 Philip preaching in Samaria

July 26, 2015 – Acts 8:4-8, 12, 14-17

Did you ever have something unexpected happen? Let’s say, you’re going about your everyday business, everything perfectly normal. When, something out of the ordinary happens. Comes out of left field. Knocks your socks off! Could be called a miracle, even!

That’s what happened in our Scripture passage from Acts chapter 8 today. Something certainly out of the ordinary happened to the Samaritans!

I’m continuing with my Summer Sermon Series from the book of Acts, Postcards from the Early Church. But before I continue, I’d like to thank everyone for the opportunity to take a week to go to a church conference, the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania. I hope everyone enjoyed Pastor Gordon as he preached and led the service last week in my absence. The mission conference was a marvelous opportunity to see what God is doing around the world in mission and outreach. Reaching out to people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Surprise! It’s just what the apostle Philip was doing, in our Scripture reading today.

It’s only a number of months after that first Pentecost. The apostles have been preaching and teaching up a storm. The fellowship of new believers in the risen Messiah has been growing by leaps and bounds! When—we have the super-deacon Stephen get hauled up before the authorities. You remember, just like a radio serial. “When last we left our intrepid heroes . . . !” Only, things went from bad to worse for Stephen. Some things he said about God really got the authorities mad. They thought he was saying blasphemous words, so they stoned him to death. And, God rest his soul. Stephen was the first martyr of the Church.

You might have guessed that Jerusalem was no longer a safe place to stay for many early believers in the risen Jesus. The apostles and other church leaders left town in a hurry!

The early believers in the risen Messiah were ALL Jewish. Everyone in the first church in Jerusalem was Jewish! The first few months were like a greenhouse; this growing church was spreading like a wild fire! But the sudden death of Stephen brought the rapidly growing situation in Jerusalem to an abrupt end.

Which brings us to Philip, one of the apostles. His task is a continuation of sending. The Greek—the original language definition for apostle is ‘one sent on a mission.’ So, Philip is doing his job! Doing what Jesus told him to do.

One problem: Philip was not preaching to Jews. This is unheard of, at this point.

Preaching to Jews? Acts 8 says clearly that Philip—one of the Jewish apostles—went to Samaria, an area some ways north of Jerusalem. There’s a problem: no self-respecting, kosher-keeping Jew would willingly go to Samaria!

Let me tell you a little about the Samaritans, a tribe of people forcibly brought to Israel several centuries before. As John Petty says in his Lectionary blog, “Samaritans and Jews were all-but-enemies.  Centuries of insults and provocations had made each group so disgusted with the other that Jews travelling to Galilee or Judea would usually opt to take the longer route through the area across the Jordan River rather than set foot in Samaria.

“The Samaritans shared some aspects of faith with the Judeans.  Their sacred book was the Pentateuch, and, in their minds, they worshipped Yahweh.  They rejected, however, the focus on Jerusalem that was integral to the Judeans’ Jewish faith. As far as the [Jewish people] were concerned, the Samaritans were some form of ‘half-breed’ and their theology was heretical.”

I think you all can see where the problem lies. Jews hated Samaritans! Samaritans hated Jews! A racial issue! A huge barrier in relationship stood between them!

Just a minute. Let’s step back. Barriers between people? Misunderstood and marginalized people? Differences in religion, even heretical viewpoints? Sounds like a mission field to me!

This past week at the mission conference, I heard about mission outreaches that crossed all kinds of barriers. Differences in language, religion, culture, and viewpoint. Differences in urban people going to rural places, Christian worldview meeting Buddhist or Hindu or Moslem worldview. Wide differences in cultural views and assumptions. And—that’s just on the missionaries’ side.

So, when we consider the apostle Philip crossing a barrier of hatred and disdain and religious difference to reach the Samaritan people with the knowledge and understanding of the risen Messiah, we know for sure this was missionary activity. Listen to verses 5 and 6:

“5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.” This verse mentions “signs.” I think I know what those signs were. In the very next verse, Dr. Luke explains: “For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.”

I don’t have time to go into the topic of evil, or impure, spirits at this time. I’ve been preaching a midweek bible study for the past few weeks on Angels: Elect and Evil. I’m going to do a “coming attractions spiel.” If you’re available this coming Wednesday at 11:00 am, step on down to this very room! If the weather is hot and toasty outside, come on in. We have air conditioning. This week will be the final session, on demons. Or as they are sometimes referred to, evil spirits.

Let’s move on—to Philip and his effective evangelism. He reached out with the Good News, to this despised and disdained group of people. Guess what? Many believed! Continuing with Acts 8: “12 When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”

But, wait! There’s more! Apostles Peter and John show up, wondering what is going on.

What did Peter and John think of the Samaritans? Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us, but I suspect they had similar feelings to their fellow countrymen.

I have another question for you: What do you think about crossing barriers today? What about outreach right here, right now? What about an Indian church, culturally different from St. Luke’s ? Oh, wait! The dancing classes St. Luke’s Church hosts during the week come from a Catholic Indian church. What about a language barrier, where a different group of people uses a completely different alphabet? Oh, wait! What about Love Sharing Disciple Church? Our Korean friends who worship in the sanctuary here at 12:30 pm.

Do you think Jesus included everyone in His invitation to come to Him? Or, did He say, “Oh, everyone is invited, except for people with physical problems.” That would put my friend and church elder Bob out of the picture, because he has a withered arm, withered from birth. Or, did Jesus say, “Everyone is invited, except for people with disabilities.” No! Remember my friend Pastor Joe, who was at my commissioning service? He’s blind.

Jesus loved Samaritans just as much as Jews. Remember the woman at the well from John 4? Yup, she was Samaritan. And a woman of loose morals. No self-respecting Jewish man would even talk to her. The Rabbi Jesus crossed lots of barriers to bring her to faith! What about the Good Samaritan? Jesus made a Samaritan the star of one of His best-loved parables! And, here’s the kicker. Jesus’ last words, just before He was taken up into heaven, Acts 1:8b. “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter whether the Jews despised the Samaritans. God would help the Jews to love the Samaritans. They still needed to introduce Samaritans to Jesus.

Did you all hear? The apostles needed to go to the ends of the earth. Praise God! That’s just what they did. Did you all hear? It doesn’t matter what kind of barrier you and I are need to cross, God is there to help. We can overcome language differences, culture or worldview problems, religious differences. Remember John 3:16? For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” For you, for me. For everyone.

God loves the whole world. What part of “whole world” do we not understand?

Peter and John were finally convinced. God does not divide or isolate persons one from another. Instead, Peter and John prayed and laid hands on the Samaritan believers. What happened? The Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit came with power to the Samaritan believers as well as the Jewish believers.

God is all about mission. Outreach. God is a sending God. It doesn’t matter if we are moved to reach out to our neighbor across the alley, to our community with the Maine Township Food Pantry, to the poor and marginalized of Chicago with Bundled Blessings diaper pantry, or to a mission outreach halfway around the world with Dana and Carolyn Belton, with SIM Ministries in Zambia.

In this way, we are following the command of Jesus—to go to our Jerusalem, our Judea, our Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. We have that opportunity, too. We can reach out, say ‘hello’ to someone who looks different—sounds different—worships differently. I have accepted this challenge! This opportunity. This challenge. God would like you to accept it, too!

Alleluia, amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!