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Sunday, July 31, 2016

==SUMMER SERIES (2016)==

"Summer Series" (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
July 03-31, 2016

Various themes

Christ is All (Colossians 3.1-11)

Sermon by: the Rev. Dee Smart (guest preacher); July 31, 2016
Text: Colossians 3:1-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Some Music Used ::
Hymn of Praise: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (HYMN TO JOY)
Hymn of Assurance: Grace Greater Than Our Sin (MOODY)
Hymn of Sending: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (CWM RHONDDA)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hearts to Love (Luke 10.25-37, Micah 6.6-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 24, 2016
Text: Luke 10:25-37; Micah 6:6-8

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Song of Praise: You Have Shown Us (Compassion Art - multiple composers)
Hymn of Sending: See My Hands and Feet (Bringle; arr. Austell)

:: Youth Testimonies ::
Three youth shared about their experience on the youth mission trip last week with Vigilant Hope in Wilmington, NC.

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Lord, give us eyes to see and hearts to love…

Last week we looked at the encounter that led to Jesus’ telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. We heard that again this morning – a man, an expert in the Jewish scriptures, asked Jesus about eternal life with God. He rightly identified to Jesus that the scriptures taught we are to love God and neighbor, but then tried to qualify and justify himself. We talked about that tendency for us to want to be seen as “good Christians” or to be let off the hook with God as “good enough.” But Jesus pulled back the veil, wanting us to SEE and DO what God truly desires. And while it is what God desires FROM us; it is also what God desires FOR us. Micah 6:8 puts it succinctly: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” And just in case we miss the teaching of the Law or the message of the Prophets, Jesus tells a story to help us understand.

Last week we focused on seeing what Jesus wants us to see: our neighbors and their needs. This week, we follow up with what Jesus wants us to do: respond with compassion out of love for our neighbor and for God.

Jerusalem to Jericho (vv. 30-35)

It’s easy to draw a parallel between the man in the parable who was beat up by robbers and only make this parable fit people in extreme situations.  We limit being a Good Samaritan to helping people with flat tires, calling 911 when we see an accident or some similar situation.  But the type of crisis was not Jesus’ point at all.  The person in need could be lonely, scared, depressed, out of work, financially strapped, hungry, lost, hopeless or just plain far from God.  Last week we talked about the many needs that could be found within a mile of the church, including the great need to know God. 

Jesus focused on people, compassion, and mercy.  The setting of his story was personal and familiar.  The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was as main a thoroughfare as there was.  Providence Road would be an easy comparison within the city.  And priests and Levites coming and going on that road were as commonplace as all of us driving to and from this church several times a week.

The key issue and the thing that distinguished the Good Samaritan from the priest and Levite was what happened when each SAW the man in need.

Feeling Compassion (v. 33)

Last week we talked about SEEING our neighbors and their needs.  I want us to be keenly aware of our surroundings when we drive to and from church.  Do we see the school, the shopping center, the group home, the churches?  Do we see people in their yards and read their faces?  Do we see people moving into and out of the neighborhood?  We would probably notice a car crash in front of the church… would we notice someone walking on the sidewalk with tears streaming down their face? That’s the first question – do we see?  If we drive to and fro blindly, we can’t even ask the next, more important question.

In Jesus’ story, all three potential helpers saw the man in need.  The priest and Levite saw him, then chose to pass by on the other side of the road.  The crucial thing that distinguished the Good Samaritan from the others – and the thing Jesus commended – was that the Samaritan felt compassion.

That’s easy to describe, harder perhaps to teach.  How do we stir up compassion?  What happens when we see need?  Maybe we just don’t want to get involved.  Maybe we feel guilty.  Maybe we’d like to help, but don’t know how.  Maybe we don’t look and avoid seeing the need so we won’t have to face THESE questions!

I’m not sure how to stir compassion in your hearts or mine, except to say that God is a God of compassion, and if we are seeking Him, then His compassion will overflow into us.  Don’t turn that around – if you are not currently beating down our neighbors’ doors trying to be compassionate, it doesn’t mean you don’t love God or seek His will.  But it is the case that seeking God’s heart will ultimately increase the compassion of our own hearts.  So all I know to do is encourage you to seek what God would have you do related to our neighbors and trust that God will give you the heart and motivation sufficient for the moment.

Stirring Compassion I: some examples

I do know that we can take certain actions to prepare our hearts to respond to God.  We can choose seeing over not seeing – making a point to be aware of people, homes, and gathering places in our church neighborhood. For example…

Prayer Walk/Drive: On occasion, we have taken Bible study groups, small groups, youth, or church officers on a “prayer walk” in the neighborhood. I also do this on my own sometimes. You simply walk around this neighborhood or your own, offering prayer (eyes open) for those in each home or gathering place you pass. If you know them, you can be specific; if not, you can ask God’s blessing for whatever their needs may be. If you walk in this neighborhood, you may pass the elementary school; more than I could describe to pray about there – students, teachers, administrators, support staff, safety, learning, friendships. We’ve also done this as a prayer drive – a great thing to do in pairs if one person drives and the other offers prayers. It is a wonderful way for God to open your eyes and heart to your literal neighbors. There are many variations; you can do this at work; as you walk to lunch or to your office or desk, say a short prayer for each person you see or for those working in each office or space you pass. And dig a little deeper than “God bless Jane; God bless Bob; God bless boss.” Give thanks for what you can give thanks for; pray for needs you know of; ask for help where you may have some inter-personal challenges. I think you’ll be amazed what regularly praying for those around you does in your own heart and soul… not to mention in their lives!

People Watch (discreetly):
A variation of the prayer walk is to simply go someplace and sit and people watch. Maybe the store or lunch spot, or airport while traveling. Don’t just judge hairstyles and outfits; notice people and pray for them.

Volunteer (to do AND to see): Another way to cultivate a heart to love is to volunteer in a ministry of compassion. It is possible to do this and not cultivate compassion, however, for it to become simply a “good deed” that we use to justify ourselves with God or others. That’s not a reason not to volunteer, but a caution and an invitation to do so not just to DO, but to SEE. Who are you helping? What are their needs? What does God stir up in you as you work? And that leads to…

Empathy and Sympathy: One of the critical ingredients to a heart that loves, that feels and shows compassion, is being able to put yourself in another’s place. Words like sympathy and empathy describe what it is to imagine and even feel another person’s pain, frustration, anger, helplessness. That is a critical piece of what is missing in so many conversations, encounters, and conflicts today. Can I as a white man at least try to conceive what it means to be black or a woman in our culture? With all the news and anger swirling around bad police behavior, can we not also appreciate the courage, conviction, and service rendered by so many faithful police officers? Can we understand and recognize the integrity of someone who votes differently, even if we don’t agree with their perspectives? What motivates those perspectives? Can we try to understand their experiences, fears, convictions, and expectations? Or is all we can say, “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!” (or worse, we don’t even disagree, we just declare them worthless or mindless or evil? really?!)

Ask!: I also believe that if we ask God to give us hearts of compassion, He will gladly do so.

Stirring Compassion II: An Exercise

To help stretch these compassion muscles a bit, I’d like to ask the ushers to help me pass out some cards this morning. On these I have listed just a few groups of people that are on my heart in recent days. Rather than ask you to choose one or some of these groups, I’m going to ask you to choose to notice, empathize, and pray for each of them – whether some groups are easier or harder than others. There are six groups, enough for one each day between now and next Sunday. So take a moment to look at the card (there will also be a copy on the screen if you are still waiting to receive yours). Notice the groups down the left side. And after each one there are the three words: notice, empathize, pray. I didn’t say notice, critique, dismiss. But notice – acknowledge the existence of each of these groups. Empathize – try to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine them as fathers and mothers, as grandparents, as younger and older. Imagine what fears they may have; what hopes they may have. Spend some time, even some days doing this. You may even want to do a little research. Talk to someone in each group (and just listen to their story). Then pray. I challenge you to do this for two weeks, to go through the full list twice. There are six groups, enough for each day between the Sundays. Or split it up however you want. But we’ll come back to it at Bonclarken, then again in August. I want to hear from you. I want to hear where it was hard, where it stirred compassion. I want to know where the Lord meets you.

•    Police Officers – notice, empathize, pray
•    People of Color – notice, empathize, pray
•    Democrats – notice, empathize, pray
•    Republicans – notice, empathize, pray
•    Refugees and Immigrants – notice, empathize, pray
•    American Muslims – notice, empathize, pray

Showing/Doing Mercy (vv. 34-37)

Then what happens?  What if I have seen my neighbors and their needs and my heart is moved with compassion.  Jesus’ words there are actually that the Samaritan was moved in the pit of his stomach – in his deepest parts.

Jesus describes the direct result of such compassion – it is mercy… “doing mercy.”  Mercy is compassion in action – compassion is the feeling; mercy is the action.  And Jesus described the Samaritan’s mercy in such wonderful detail.  He bandaged wounds, poured oil and wine on them; he lifted him onto his beast (donkey, camel?) and transported him to an inn; he even left extra money and promised to check back in on the man.  Clearly, these actions were not just minimal helping out, but responding mercifully from the depth of his heart.  These were actions appropriate and necessary to the need at hand.

My hope is that if our eyes are opened to “who is my neighbor?” and our hearts are cultivated with compassion, then this will be the burning question we will ask and seek to answer together: 

How will we respond in mercy to the needs of our neighbors?

Let me know how the cultivation exercise goes this week. I think it is necessary work, but also work we can’t luxuriate in for too long; the needs are too immediate and too urgent. So please take it seriously and we’ll see where God takes us!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Eyes to See (Luke 10.25-29, Micah 6.6-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 3, 2016
Text: Luke 10:25-29; Micah 6:6-8)

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Open the Eyes of My Heart (Beloche)
Hymn of Praise: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (KINGSFORD; arr. Austell; demo AUDIO)
Offering of Music: You Have Shown Us (Compassion Art - multiple composers)
Hymn of Sending: Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: senior video

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Lord, give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel and love…

Have you ever seen the effect in a movie where a camera swoops in through walls and buildings, giving the appearance of being able to see everything and anything going on in the scene?

Imagine such a view of our neighborhood, today and throughout this week…

… worshipers at Matthews-Murkland, Candlewyck Baptist, Wesley Methodist, and others driving in for church this morning even as we do.

… some of the same worshipers having the mother of all fights between parents and kids, between spouses… all on the way to church.

… a jammed crowd of cars and people at the shopping center at the corner of Rea and Colony, and the sound of cash registers, swiped credit cards, shopping bags, and commerce.

… an elderly and blind widow sitting home alone each day, thinking back on her life and more active times.

… a handful of young men moving through the paces of daily life at the group home down the street.

… a single mom fighting to maintain some kind of peace and order as three young children try to out-scream each other.

… hundreds and hundreds of kids coming and going from Old Providence Elementary School, each with their own set of needs – emotional, educational, social, and spiritual.

… a group of men and women who come week after week to work the 12 steps.

… walkers, joggers, drivers, grass-mowers, and a whole army of individuals who come and go within sight of the church as they seek exercise, solitude, or just do what needs to be done.

… packs of teenagers playing Pokemon on their phones, wandering the sidewalks and parks and coming up to churches for a ‘refill’ in their game.

… a whole building full of older adults, dependent on others to assist them in living day to day.

… apartment after apartment of families – some single parent, some dual parent, scraping by on a meager income, living in the middle of relative affluence, wondering when and if things will ever change.

… new neighbors, come to Charlotte or moved across town to buy a home, build a home, or re-settle, and in a new and unfamiliar place, needing friends and community.

… even in a neighborhood as suburban as ours at the church, an astonishing range of race and color, economic prosperity and struggle, comfort and suffering.

And if you could pause and linger at any given house, you might see children home alone, abusive or loveless marriages, desperation over finances, hours and hours of TV or computer addiction.  You might catch a glimpse of otherwise “successful” people who in the privacy of their own homes are miserable, lonely, or empty.

I’m not describing unusual or unique people – just people who must live in this world and this life… and they live all around us in our neighborhoods, literal neighbors… spiritual neighbors.

The Gift of Life and the Gift of Living

A man once “tested” Jesus by asking how to live forever with God.  Jesus turned the question around on the man, who answered correctly that loving God and our fellow men and women was the secret to life and living.  Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ, and once we have trusted him, we are assured of eternal life.  But Jesus was talking about LIVING this reality, starting now.  Do we take our salvation, stick it in our back pocket, and go on living indifferent to this great gift?  Or are we transformed by this salvation so that life itself doesn’t look the same any more?

Jesus affirmed that the life of one in relationship with God is completely transformed – heart, soul, mind, and strength… even affecting our attitude toward and relationship with other people.  This is simply what it looks like to have a living, vibrant faith – we love God and we love others.  Elsewhere in scripture we read that we can and should love in this way because God first loved us so extravagantly!

Wanting to Justify Himself

The man’s interaction with Jesus could have been that simple and been over – a good question, well-answered.   But something nagged at the man.  What if knowing the answer wasn’t good enough… did he actually live that way?  Maybe Jesus would define the terms loosely enough that the man could go away content. The man wanted to JUSTIFY himself – the way he lived, so he asked Jesus another question: “Who is my neighbor?… Who is it that I’m supposed to love?”  We do the same thing… that is, justify ourselves.  I’m doing a good thing here this morning, right?  I’m worshiping God… I love all these people here – I ask Mrs. So-and-So how her sick aunt is doing.  I check in on Widow Smith and the Jones’ little kid in the nursery.  That’s pretty good, right?

My dear friends – two answers: first, yes, that’s good.  You worship God well here – your love and heartfelt devotion to God are tangible when we meet.  And you love each other well.  Almost every visitor I talk to feels it – it’s extraordinary!  And you do take care of each other so well!  Yes, that’s good! And the other answer is the one that Jesus gives to that question, “Who is my neighbor?… Who exactly am I supposed to love?” And here’s what we might expect Jesus to say: “You do this thing well – maybe a B+; but here’s where you fall short – a D- or worse.” But that’s not what he does.

Pulling Back the Veil

Let me say it this way… What you see and know you love pretty well; but you are not being graded. God is not handing out report cards for Being a Neighbor 101. Instead, you are clay pots, shaped by the hand of the Potter, and filled to overflowing with His Holy Spirit.  And God’s heart breaks when he looks through our neighborhood and into homes and into hearts and sees such great need.  You are not being graded this morning – instead, Jesus is pulling back the veil on how extensive the love of God is!  We justify ourselves by not looking hard around us – out of sight is, unfortunately, usually out of mind. We justify ourselves by being content with what we see and know and experience. And like the religious folks in Jesus’ story that we’ll return to next week, it’s easy to walk away from the things that challenge that contentment.

But Jesus is giving us the in-depth and “God’s-heart” answer to the question. God’s heart breaks for all these people around us right now… for our literal neighbors and our spiritual neighbors, for the folks we talked about last week – the families of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police officers wounded and killed in Dallas. God’s heart breaks for so much, and if we are seeking God and desiring to have hearts like His, then we cannot help but love outwardly as a church. And the first step in that is having our eyes and hearts opened, to have God pull back the veil and us not turn away. Our inclination is to justify ourselves as good, but God responds, “I’m not grading you; I want you to walk with me and feel with me for a while.” That’s the godly compassion we talked about last week.

Who IS Our Neighbor?

So, who is our neighbor?  Our neighbors those already named, and more besides.  Our neighbor is the struggling single mom, the black men and women and children going to church around the corner, the shoppers at the stores down the street, the blind widow, the dear men in the group home across the street, the kids at Old Providence Elementary, the people in Emotions Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, the walkers, the joggers, the drivers, the grass-mowers, the folks at Sunrise, the families, and the newcomers.

And their needs are great… overwhelming, if you want to be honest about it.  We cannot begin to address all the emotional, social, financial, physical, and other needs, even in a one mile radius of this church.  But we can address some of those needs, and we can do so in the name of Christ and with the love of God. 

And, most importantly, we can address the spiritual needs of our neighbors.  We can do that in a way that schools, stores, police, social service workers, government, and others can’t.  For we have the words of life and the love of God.  In many cases, spiritual needs and other needs can’t be separated – folks who are hungry need food in order to hear about the bread of life… but that’s exactly what Jesus did – he fed the hungry physically and eternally.  Folks who need hope may need a friend and need the Gospel.

Our UNIQUE JOY AND PURPOSE as Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church on Rea Road, in the Old Providence neighborhoods of South Charlotte, is to be the lighthouse, hospital, meeting place, and sending place for the light and hope of God in this very neighborhood.

However, the old model was to "hold church" and hope to attract people to what was going on here. That is not working any more, and I'm not sure it ever was the right model. More recently, we have talked about carrying the light of Christ beyond these walls, but I will admit to thinking in terms of taking something uniquely 'here' out to places and people that were 'without' it.

What I have come to understand is that God is already at work out in those places. That's part of the great unveiling in Jesus' parable: that God wasn't just where the priest and Levite were headed, but God was interested in the wounded man and was present when the Samaritan stopped to help him and show compassion.

A better model, then, is to expand our view of the community of Christ - to re-discover that old definition that "where Christ is, there is the Church." 

Our special joy and purpose as followers of Christ sent out from this place – to other communities and, for you graduates, to a college community – is to recognize that Christ goes before us, and he invites us to come and follow. Individually you are also called to open your eyes and open your hearts. I pray that we have equipped you to do so.

What Are We Going To Do?

One of the long-time values and realities of this church community is that we are known for being extraordinarily warm and welcoming and worshipful… you can feel the love of God here.

I would add to that:  I believe our specific calling is to love our neighbors as we love one another, and out of our deep love of the Lord.

Especially right now – especially in the world right now – people need this kind of compassion. There is no better solution coming from government, economics, military, or media, than what God has called you to do as followers of Christ. And here’s the special economics of serving God: Love of neighbor doesn’t replace or somehow balance out with love of one another and love of God. You don’t have to decrease one to do the other. Instead, they magnify each other.  Folks who already love so extravagantly are EXACTLY the kind of people God will use to love extravagantly and outwardly in His name.  You are that kind of people.  We are that kind of people!

This week I have focused on “eyes to see” – God’s desire to pull back the veil beyond what we see merely to justify ourselves. Next week we will return to these same scriptures and what it means to have “hearts to love.”

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Three Compassions (Luke 7,10,15)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 3, 2016
Text: Luke 7:11-16; 10:30-37; 15:11-24; Psalm 25:4-7

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Praise: Friend of Sinners (Red Mountain Music)
Song of Praise: My Soul Finds Rest (Psalm 62) (Keyes, Townend)
Offering of Music: As Water to the Thirsty - Lisa Honeycutt, soloist (Timothy Dudley-Smith)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (arr. Austell)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.
4 Make me know Your ways, O Lord; Teach me Your paths. 5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day. 6 Remember, O Lord, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; According to Your lovingkindness remember me, For Your goodness’ sake, O Lord. (Psalm 25:4-7)
Last week I spoke about the early Christians who found reason to trust and hope in God in the face of persecution and unrest. They understood God to be greater than the nations and the powers of this world. My intent was to look to scripture for a word to us as we face the uncertainties of the future and the great political turmoil in our country and the world right now. Then this week the country witnessed the deaths of two men at the hands of police officers, deaths on the same day in two different parts of the country.. Two black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul. Then only one day later, eleven police officers were shot in Dallas, and five of those died.

In politics, our country is divided in half, with each half thinking the other is completely deceived, if not the enemy.

With respect to race, our country is divided, with a majority of black and white seeing the same events and coming away with a radically different narrative and explanation.

My goal this morning is not to ‘solve’ either dilemma (nor could I); nor is it to suggest the ‘right’ way to understand politics or race. Rather, I want to make an appeal to compassion. I do so because that’s what I read in scripture. I read about a compassionate God who calls on his people to be compassionate people. I did not write much online about these events, but what I did write is this:

Compassion… is a necessary first step to living and loving beyond ourselves and what we and the whole of the human race needs to survive and flourish.

This morning I want to read three accounts of compassion from the Gospel of Luke. I am going to trust the texts largely to speak for themselves, and simply add a comment or question or two after each one for you to ponder. We may have a bit of silence after each one as you ponder the question. My hope is that the Holy Spirit would stir up godly compassion. If that can happen, I think the Lord will be pleased to use that.

I’m taking these in the order they come, which is interesting in and of itself. The first one is of a mother’s loss.

A Mother’s Loss (Luke 7:11–16)
11 Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. 12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!”
Jesus did not inquire into the reasons for death or the worthiness of the widow or her son for a miracle. And she did not approach him to ask for one. His heart simply went out to her, to a loss that is one of the hardest we have to bear. A widow had lost her only son in this world and was grief-stricken. And Jesus felt compassion.

I could not help but be moved by Alton Sterling’s son, Cameron, by Philando Castile’s girlfriend who was in the car when he was shot, and her young daughter in the back seat. I have not seen, but can only imagine the grief-stricken mothers, wives, and children of the police officers killed in Dallas.

What is our first response to these griefs? Is it to post about our understanding of “Black Lives Matter?” Is it to assert our position, pro or con, on gun rights? Might it be the case that pausing to identify and identify with grief and loss, to experience compassion and show compassion, might even reframe our understanding and communication of the related issues?

[a moment for silent reflection]

Consider a second story from Luke. It is one of the more familiar stories, about a stranger’s need.

A Stranger’s Need (Luke 10:30–37)
30 Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. 31 “And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 “Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 “But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, 34 and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 “On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”
There’s so much to convict me in that story, not the least of which is that I share a profession with the priest and Levite. In one sense, I can always reach for the excuse, “I’m about the Lord’s business” – even when I’m not. It’s so easy to look at the stranger hurting on the side of the road and decide that they got themselves into that trouble and can get themselves out. It’s too complicated to get involved.

But where Jesus really snags his audience isn’t on ignoring the stranger, it’s in highlighting the hero. The Samaritan was unexpected; the priest and Levite, not to mention Jesus’ audience, would have wanted less to do with the Samaritan than with the hurt stranger. There was history with the Samaritan’s – religious history, racial history, and political history. And the Samaritan felt compassion and showed compassion.

Jesus asks, “who proved to be a neighbor?” It was not the ones with the right religion, race, or politics. It was the one who showed mercy. And THEN, Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”

Where do you find yourself in the story? Where are you challenged? Where would Jesus lead you?

[a moment for silent reflection]

Finally, Luke tells a third story, perhaps even more well-known than the last.

A Father’s Love (Luke 15:11–24)
11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 14 “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” ’ 20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”
There’s so much in this story; I could talk all day long about it and I could sit and learn from it all day long. It’s full of the human experience – relationships, selfishness, wrong behavior, consequences, compassion, mercy, celebration, judgment, resentment, and sorrow.

It takes very little effort for me to be the older brother. I was literally the responsible older brother and I played out this very scenario more than once, jealous that my dutiful behavior was not rewarded and my younger brother was (seemingly) let off the hook. I’ve also experienced a bit of the younger brother, choosing my own way and reaping the consequences, only to find some person (or God) incomprehensibly forgiving. Perhaps the most tragic part of this story is seeing the older brother through the Father’s eyes and realizing what joy the older is missing out on because of his blindness to mercy. There is much to ponder for us between the two sons, and most of us have figuratively been both at some point in our lives.

But I’m also struck by the Father in the story. He is not a merciful judge, who simply relents in sentencing and lets the guilty son off the hook. He is a loving father, even a foolish one by the standards of Jesus’ day, who looked each day for his son’s return, who did not wait for the son to reach him, but ran spectacularly to greet his son, moved by his compassion and love for his son. Compassion (v. 20) from a long way off. THAT is what the Father lavishes on the son… and on us. It is the same compassion commended in each of these stories in Luke, and what Jesus commends in us.

As you think about our country and the people in it, what does it mean for you to have compassion from a long way off? To celebrate the lost being found? To not miss out on what God is doing?

And is it not a central command of scripture that we love as God has loved us? That reshapes everything. Compassion is a game-changer.

I am convicted freshly again how I fall short when it comes to compassion. But Christ invites us again and again to turn to him. So I take these stories as an invitation to commit to the compassion of the Father through Christ the Son. Let’s pray:

Compassionate Father, I pray today for open eyes and an open heart, in matters of race, politics, economics, religious conviction, relationships, and more. I pray for open eyes and an open heart that leads to godly compassion lived out towards my neighbors near and far, even as you, Father, have shown it to me. May it begin with me; may it begin with us. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

While the Nations Rage (Acts 4.23-31, Psalm 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; July 3, 2016
Text: Acts 4:23-31; Psalm 2

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Lord, Most High (Harris/Sadler)
Song of Praise: O Church, Arise (Arise, Shine) (Getty/Townend)
Offering of Music: Home (Austell)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: O God, Our Help in Ages Past (ST. ANNE)
Postlude: Home (Austell)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

It is wonderful to be back with you this morning! As I wrote in the church newsletter, I look forward to sharing bits and pieces of the sabbatical with you over the coming weeks and I hope the overall benefit of rest and renewal will be evident to you. Next week, in particular, I’m going to speak more about the God-designed benefits of Sabbath rest.

Today, though, I want to speak from Scripture to a different topic. It seems to me that we are at (at least) a generational high in terms of civil unrest, war and terror, and political uncertainty. Consider just some of what’s in the news: racial tension, mass shootings, BREXIT, the presidential election, ISIS, and the list goes on. And those things show no signs of abating in the near future. On top of that, Christianity seems to be losing its place in the cultural fabric of our country, and that can unsettle even the most stalwart believers among us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve wondered more than a few times about what kind of world my children are inheriting.

I was pondering these things recently and the opening words of Psalm 2 came to my mind: “Why do the nations rage, and the people devise a vain thing?” And as I spent some time looking at that Psalm, I was drawn to the scene in today’s text in Acts 4, where a group of early Christians quoted this Psalm in the midst of civil unrest, political uncertainty, and religious persecution. So I’d like to look at that story with you and see what we might learn for our own context.

The background to this story began back in Acts 3 with the healing of a lame man in the area outside the Temple in Jerusalem. Peter and John, two of Jesus' disciples, encountered the man begging and offered him all they had: Jesus. Praying for him in Jesus' name, he was healed and began following them around the Temple courts as they talked about Jesus and all he had said and done. What follows is in two parts: the trouble that got them into (with some legitimate reasons to be afraid) and the response of Peter, John, and the other believers in the face of that trouble.

Reasons to Fear (vv. 13-22)

Peter and John were quickly arrested. It had not been all that long since the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, so all the same tensions and opposition from the religious leaders was still in the air, perhaps even more so because the early Christian movement was gathering followers quickly. That Peter and John did something that brought such attention to the name of Jesus flew directly in the face of the power and authority of the same religious leaders. And those leaders had the same power to bring to bear against them that they brought against Jesus.

After the night in prison, Peter and John were put on trial. Though the religious court did not find anything worthy of their conviction and feared the large crowd's response if they did (see v. 21 – “on account of the people”), they did try to intimidate them into silence. I see at least three explicit words describing that culture of opposition:
  • WARN (v. 17) – “so it will not spread any further… let us warn them to speak no longer… in this name”
  • COMMAND (v. 18) – “they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus”
  • THREATEN (v. 21) – “when they had threatened them further, they let them go”
I’m not sure we can fully appreciate the intimidation factor at that time. This was a local religious government overlaid with an oppressive foreign government, and fully opposed to Jesus and what he stood for. It’s the kind of thing we might fear in modern times, when in reality we still enjoy far more cultural freedoms and independence and security than Jesus’ disciples did.

But here’s what I want you to see: the peace, joy, and purpose of those early believers was not contingent on a supportive culture or government, on earthly prosperity, or even on personal safety. The peace, joy, and purpose of those early believers was fixed on their faith and hope in Jesus Christ, and him alone.

Just consider Peter’s response the religious leaders WARNED and COMMANDED them to stop talking about Jesus: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (vv. 19-20) But what may be even more inspiring than the faith of these notable disciples is the response by the group of new believers when Peter and John reported these events back. Spontaneous worship broke out!

Worship and the Presence of God

After Peter and John reported these events, the gathered group of believers “lifted their voices to God with one accord and prayed.” (v. 24) They may well have been afraid, but they didn’t huddle in fear. They may well have been angry and opposed those in power in Jerusalem, but they did not argue or revolt or post angry memes on Facebook. They gathered with the community of faith and prayed. And listen to what they said.

1.    Praise (vv. 24-26)

Their response was a spontaneous exclamation of praise to God, specifically for God’s power in this world. First, the friends declare, “O Lord, it is you who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” (v. 24) Having praised God’s work in creation, they quote from Psalm 2, “Why did the Gentiles rage…?” (vv. 25-26), which describes the sovereignty and power of God, even over the so-called powers of this world.

I am challenged and instructed by these words of praise. This is not just generic “God is good; God is great” praise, but is specific to the situation at hand. Peter and John have run up against the earthly powers of their time and place – the religious leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. They have been imprisoned and put on trial, threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus. And God has brought them through all of that. Rather than view this as a lucky break they were emboldened all the more to trust in God to talk about Jesus. The people’s praise and their knowledge of God’s Word reminded them through their worship that God was sovereign, even over earthly rulers and powers. I am also reminded of how ably scripture teaches us what God is like, giving us words and thoughts with which to pray and praise our God!

What would it be like if, instead of responding to the evening news with fear or anger or hopelessness, we prayed in faith to the “Lord who made Heaven and earth and the sea” and before whom the activities of nations and people are just an ‘uproar’ and ‘a vain thing?’ At the very least, would not taking time to pray and praise our God frame how we think about all the rest and give us a needed perspective?

2.    Open Eyes (vv. 27-28)

The next few verses are particularly striking to me. These folks don’t have their heads buried in the sand. They aren’t just singing “Kum Bah Ya” in a room somewhere, but are keenly aware of what’s going on around them. They are engaging the world with faith WITH OPEN EYES. In fact, I believe that it is just this kind of open-eyed awareness that enabled Peter, John, and friends to offer the specific praises we just looked at.  They knew just what had happened:

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to occur. (vv. 27-28)

Why did Psalm 2 come to mind? Why were the praises about the sovereignty and power of God over earthly powers? It is precisely because these same people had seen the earthly power that had set itself against Jesus and now was set against them and they connected the dots. Specific names and scenes came to mind: Jesus before Herod and Pilate; the crowds shouting, ‘Crucify!’; the opposition and threats to Peter and John.

One of the critical pieces to a living faith is paying attention to what is happening around you. I often remind you to pray: God, what are you doing in and around me and how can I be a part? Open eyes and ears not only help us see God at work, but also fuels our prayers of praise as well as petition.

3.    Petition (vv. 29-30)

What do we do with that open-eyed information? Is that the time to worry, fear, be enraged? Too often, it is. But John and Peter’s friends continue in prayer, now moving from praise to petition, asking God to CONTINUE the kind of sovereign protection God described in Psalm 2 and that God has already shown to Peter and John. So they pray, with open-eyed specificity:

And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that your bond-servants may speak your word with all confidence, while you extend your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (vv. 29-30)

Again, this is not a generic prayer, “Lord, help my friends out”; it is specific, mentioning the threats, the preaching, and the healing that were all a part of Peter and John’s experience over the past few days. And it rests on the assurance of God’s sovereignty and power, already named through praise and also seen in the past few days. They also don’t devolve into “deliver us from this or that” but stay focused on the work of the Sovereign God… making Himself known throughout the world. That’s another key point; we can get everything else right in terms of praise and open-eyed assessment of the world, and then focus in on a “what’s in it for me” kind of prayer. These early Christians model for us the kind of perspective and attitude that I think we desperately need today.

Finally, already present as they prayed, the Holy Spirit filled the whole group and they all began to talk about Jesus with boldness. So the ministry and message of Peter and John spread among the followers of Jesus and the surrounding city and countries in this very manner.

Praise, Look, Ask

How shall we then respond to a culture and world seemingly crazier by the moment? God’s Word teaches us, “Fear not! God is sovereign over the Heavens and the earth and is at work among us.” There is reason to praise, and not only alone; but importantly, in community. And our faith is not a head-in-the-sand faith, but one in which we are invited to be informed, open-eyed, and aware, for not only is this the world we live in, but it is the world God loves! And finally, God invites us to pray and participate in His work in this world.

That may look different for each of us, but it also shares this commonality: through our unique experiences and locations and opportunities, each of us have the same calling – to talk about and live for Jesus, the one we have “seen and heard” in faith. God make it so; Amen!