Note: This weekend is the Southeastern Minnesota Synod Assembly. Because so many of our synod’s pastors will be at the assembly on Saturday and Sunday, our Bishop, Steven Delzer sent out a sermon that congregations could use if they did not have a pastor there. While I was at Trinity to preach, there were certain elements of the Bishop’s sermon that I really liked, and so I’ve incorporated them into this sermon. Thanks to Bishop Steve for sharing his wisdom.
You’re familiar with that old axiom, “You can’t tell a book by its cover?” Sure you are. You’ve probably even said it. I just heard someone say it this past week. But here’s the thing: I’m not so sure I believe it. Sometimes, I think you can tell a book by its cover. In fact, there are times when it is kind of easy to tell something important about someone by an aspect of their appearance. For example:
- I can often tell someone who is a diet and exercise fanatic as opposed to…say…the rest of us.
- Or, sometimes you can tell what kind of work someone does by looking at their clothes…or even at their hands. My grandfather and my uncles were farmers. They had thick fingers…tough and calloused, from years in the field. When I shake someone’s hand, I can often tell if their work is difficult, or physical. Me? I write sermons. I have these little, teeny tiny callouses on the tips of my fingers from the keyboard.
- Occasionally, you can tell a person’s religious affiliation: Women of Muslim faith often wear a hijab. Orthodox Jewish men might wear a Kippa. If someone is walking around with a glob of ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross on Ash Wednesday, the odds are pretty good that they aren’t Baptist.
While these superficial signs don’t really tell us about a person’s character, or their heart, they can tell us about into what type of community a person fits…or wants to fit. We can observe these things.
Underlying these observations are some hard truths: We like to separate ourselves. In our culture, we want to know where we fit, and so we cluster together into cultures, religions, clubs, teams, tribes and cliques. While not inherently bad, these divisions can create challenges for us.
And these challenges are not new. Humans have been dividing ourselves up for thousands of years. As a matter of fact, in the sixth chapter of the book of Acts, we hear a story about a challenge that faced the early church as it sought to follow Jesus into a changing world. It had to do with the distribution of food to the poor. The Hebrew Christian widows were being better cared for than the Greek Christian widows. In response, the people gathered together to discuss this challenge, to discern what it means to follow Jesus into a changing world, to discern what it means to be the church in a changing world. And the Spirit guided them to a solution. They chose seven people, who they believed were equipped by the Spirit, to oversee the distribution of food to the widows and the poor.
One of the crucial things that underlies this action by the early church is their trust that God would lead them to choose people who are equipped by the Spirit to carry forward into a changing world the message that does not change: that all people are saved by the grace of God and all people are beloved by God.
In today’s reading from Acts 15 we hear about another challenge that faced the early church as it sought to follow Jesus into a changing world: Are we saved by the grace of God? Or is there more that is required? This was a critical issue for both the Jews and the Gentiles. The earliest Christians were Jews who had converted, and most of them continued to observe all the Jewish food laws and rituals that they believed set them apart as the people of God. As Paul and Barnabas spread the good news about Jesus many Gentiles became Christians. They knew little about the Jewish food laws and rituals.
They simply knew about the love and grace that had welcomed them into a relationship with God. Some of the Jewish Christians, especially those who were also Pharisees, insisted that for those Gentile converts to be true Christians, true people of God, they had to be circumcised and observe all the Jewish food laws.
So once again the people gathered together to discuss this challenge, to discern what it means to follow Jesus into a changing world, to discern what it means to be the church in a changing world. In Acts 15, we get to eavesdrop on a bit of their conversations as one of the early Jewish Christians says: “’God, who knows the human heart, testified to the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.
On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of God, just as they will. . .God’s desire is that all peoples may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles. . .therefore we should not trouble those who are turning to God. . .’ Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to share what had been decided.’” In other words, “we’re going to leave those people be. No extra requirements for them!”
Once again, the people gathered together to discuss this challenge, to discern what it means to follow Jesus into a changing world, to discern what it means to be the church in a changing world. And once again the Spirit guided them to a solution: they chose people who they believed were equipped by the Spirit to carry forward into a changing world the message that does not change: all people are saved by the grace of God and all people are beloved by God.
One of the things I love about our church still today is that when we are faced with a challenge, we still come together to discern what it means to follow Jesus into a changing world, to discern what it means to be the church in a changing world. Our council meets monthly, and when it’s a bigger issue, we gather for congregational meetings. Bigger issues yet are talked about at our synod assemblies, like the one happening right now in Rochester. And for issues that affect the whole of the Lutheran church, there is a churchwide assembly every three years. And we do these gatherings, trusting that God still leads us to choose people who are equipped by the Spirit to carry forward into a changing world the message that does not change: that all people are saved by the grace of God and all people are beloved by God.
In my experience, when people are less apt to welcome someone… when we tend to exclude, the root cause isn’t because of a lack of trust in them; rather it is because we don’t have trust in our own sense of identity. The sinful, broken side of me excludes someone else because I want to make sure that I feel included…wanted… important…It is my own insecurity that causes me to exclude someone else.
One of my favorite animated movies is the Disney film, “The Lion King.” If you have kids between the ages of 12 and 20, you’ve probably seen it…73 times. But there is a really powerful scene in this film, when the boy king, Simba, has left home, believing he caused the death of his father, Mufasa. After years of living with no king, no leadership, the land suffers. Finally, Simba is found, and is confronted by the spirit of Mufasa. Simba says to his father, “How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be?” Mufasa says to him (in that great James Earl Jones voice) “Remember who you are…you are my son, and the one true king. Remember who you are.” And Simba returns home to heal the land. He remembered.
The singer, Jason Gray, wrote a song that I love called “Remind Me Who I Am.” The song is really a prayer. I’ll post the video of the song on my blog if you’d like to hear it. One of the verses in the songs says:
When I lose my way, And I forget my name,
Remind me who I am.
In the mirror all I see, Is who I don’t wanna be,
Remind me who I am.
In the loneliest places, When I can’t remember what grace is.
Tell me once again who I am to You, Who I am to You.
Tell me lest I forget who I am to You, That I belong to You.
Remember, always remember, that each of us here today face those times when in our insecurity we forget our identity, and we turn to God and say: “Tell me once again who I am to you. Tell me lest I forget who I am to you, that I belong to you.”
Still today, even in this rapidly changing world, we come together to be reminded in word and sacrament that each of us has been saved by the grace of God, that each of us is beloved by God, that each of us belongs to God.
Because we belong to God, we still come together, here, to discern what it means to follow Jesus into a changing world, to discern what it means to be the church in a changing world, and to be reminded that we are the ones who have been chosen and equipped by the Spirit to carry forward into a changing world the message that does not change: that all people are saved by the grace of God and all people are beloved by God.
That’s why we must never place any barriers in the path of those who seek a relationship with God, not even our own fears and insecurities. God desires that every possible door be opened, so that every possible person, in every possible circumstance, might be welcomed into a relationship with God that is life giving.
The things that separate us are not nearly as powerful as our shared identity which unites us.
It is when we remember and are secure in who we are…in our baptismal identity as a child of God, loved beyond measure, that we can then turn our attention to making sure that those around us, those in need, perhaps those who are not as secure in their own identity, can hear the story of God’s great love for them, and can be reminded of their own identity as child of God.
We are those God has chosen. We believe we are equipped by the Spirit to carry forward into changing world the message that does not change: all people are saved by the grace of God and all people are beloved by God.
Thanks be to God!