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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Responding to Opportunity (John 6.1-14)

Sermon by: the Rev. John Todd; August 26, 2018 - John 6:1-14; 2 Kings 4:42-44

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
Lord, Speak to Me (CANONBURY)
Here I Am, Lord (Shutte)
Offertory: O God of Boundless Mercy (Keyes) - Eric VanderHeide, vocalist
I Then Shall Live (FINLANDIA)

Monday, August 20, 2018

Building a Home Together (Ephesians 2.19-22)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 19, 2018 - Ephesians 2:19-22

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
Cornerstone (Bethel Music)
In Christ Alone/Solid Rock (arr. Cottrell)
All to Us - worship team (Tomlin, Reeves, Maher, Redman)
The Church's One Foundation (AURELIA)

:: 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.

About two or three years ago I stepped into the restroom just outside the sanctuary and had a big scare. I’m glad I happened to look up when I first walked in because when I turned the lights on I saw that the drop ceiling was… not right. It was bowed and buckled down and there was at least one piece on the floor. What in the world?! We had just had the big air conditioning unit replaced above that part of the roof and the process of installation had caused that part of the roof to sink a bit. As it turns out, it was probably the fault of the original construction rather than anything the AC installers did wrong. You can also probably imagine the blame game between those folks, the original construction company, and the insurance company. But that part is beyond the scope of this sermon. I’ll just say a huge THANK YOU to John Wright and the facilities ministry team for chasing all that down and making sure it was quickly fixed, safe, and secure for our bathroom needs.

My point in all that is that many of us probably take for granted that buildings are well-constructed. Unless you are in the construction or design business or have had a major failure because it wasn’t done right, the best sign of a well-built car or structure is that it doesn’t attract that kind of attention! This morning’s text is talking about something the Lord has made that we get to live in and enjoy. This is the Master-Builder and Architect, the Creator of the world, so you can count on it being well-made and solid! It fits perfectly into our “open house” series because it is talking about the house God has made for His people.

So, in recent weeks we have been looking at Ephesians 2 and the broad reach of God’s love, gathering people from far off to be part of God’s family and Kingdom. Today the news to all those God has gathered, far and near, is that God has a home together for us. And it is one God has made, perfectly and with purpose.

No Longer Strangers (v.19)

In verse 19 we have the connection with what has gone before. Those who once were “far off” or wandering or lost are now, in Christ, no longer strangers and aliens. Those who were strangers to God’s covenant promises have now been brought near, recipients of God’s wide mercy and great love. So, no longer strangers, but now fellow citizens with the saints. Our citizenship is in Heaven, in God’s Kingdom, with God all at once as King, Lawgiver, and Merciful Father. Talk about open house – this is the Good News, that God’s Kingdom and people are not a closed group, but one that welcomes people from every nation, background, education, status, class, and race. All are welcome through Christ, who is the embodiment of God’s promises to bless the whole earth.

And it’s not just citizenship in a Kingdom, but verse 19 also says you belong to God’s family: you are of God’s household. Remember the speech the prodigal prepared for his father? He would just ask to be taken on to the household as a hired hand. But the Father did not just hire him on, but welcomed him home as his son. It’s a double-belonging: you are citizens in God’s Kingdom and beloved members of God’s family.

I often say that though humanity rebelled against and turned away from God, God did not turn away from us, but has pursued us. That’s the story of the Bible: God’s pursuit of the humanity He made in His image. And like the compassionate father in the Prodigal Son story, God is not waiting to cluck His tongue or say “I told you so” or make us pay for our wandering; God welcomes us home with joy and celebration. So hear the Good News: no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or where you find yourself in relation to God, in Jesus Christ God welcomes you home. And it is not just a reluctant welcome, but a joyful one because you are, indeed, no longer a stranger to God, but a beloved son or daughter.

What comes next is like a tour of the house that God has prepared for you. In case you might miss it or take it for granted, this is like the architect or builder walking you through to explain just what a great home you have!

Well-Built (vv.20-21)

In verses 20-21 we get some of the detail about how well-built this house of the Lord is. If you were talking to an architect or contractor you might hear details about plans, materials, quality of craftsmanship, and the like. We get the theological version of that here in this metaphor about the home God has prepared for us. There are three details given:

  The foundation of any structure is critical to the stability and soundness of the building. In the building metaphor here in Ephesians God’s house is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. That is short-hand for saying on the Word of God. The Prophets are the preachers of old who reminded God’s people of God’s Law and promises, calling them again and again to repentance and faithfulness. The Apostles are the New Testament leaders of the church who also proclaimed the Good News of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus. All this is to say that God’s faithful Word and promises are the foundation of the house.

Jesus Himself is the cornerstone, a critical part of ancient building that ensured a stone building was square and stable. Jesus is at once the fulfillment and the measure of God’s Word and promises. It is because of him and through him that the structure is sound and our place in it is secured.

In order to be a house, something has to be built on top of the foundation and cornerstone and we read here that the whole building is “fitted and built together” in Christ. In 2 Peter we read that we are “living stones” making up the house of God. What a lovely picture that we are who God uses to create the home in which we also live. If we read ahead a bit we also see that the building is not ‘done’ as such, but is growing still, as more and more living stones are built into it.

All this really comes together to describe what we’ve been talking about as an “open house church.” We don’t just have an open house; we ARE the open house.

House of the Lord (vv.21b-22)

Finally, in the second half of verse 21 and in verse 22, we read about two purposes of our being fitted and built together on the foundation and cornerstone: growing into a holy temple and dwelling of God in the Spirit. Did you catch that? God is not just preparing a home for YOU; it is a home for us together with God! It is a temple – a place of worship, prayer, and service; it is also a dwelling – a home together.

In the language of the Prodigal Son, you are not only welcome back from far off, but you are home and there’s a celebration together with the father and family. And it’s not home because the Prodigal returned to 220 Prophet’s Way; it’s home because he is there. It’s home because you are there.

I’ve often reminded you that Good Shepherd – this church – is not the building or the property; it’s you, the people God has called together here. You are God’s building; you are God’s workmanship. You are the house of the Lord that is both the temple of worship, service, and prayer and the dwelling of God together with us.

That’s why I say things like “we don’t just have an open house, we ARE an open house.” It’s because YOU are the home God is building in this place. So how do we put all this together with what has come before? Remember that God welcomes those who are far off. The home and the doors are never closed just for those within. Rather, God invites in those who are yet far off, those who are still wandering, those who are struggling.  We will be the ones who embody that welcome as we share the amazing warmth and love in this place. We will be the ones who don’t just answer a knock on the door, but who go out with eyes and hearts open to see those God puts on our path. We are the ones who will meet a stranger and think, “I, too, was once a stranger and Jesus welcomed me in.” So go and do likewise. God has and is growing us into a living building with purpose.

May God give us ears to hear and hearts that will join in with God’s celebration. Amen!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Reconciling Peace (Ephesians 2.13-18, Luke 15.25-32)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 12, 2018 - Ephesians 2:13-18; Luke 15:25-32

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
What a Beautiful Name (Fielding, Ligertwood)
Women's Trio: Put Peace into Each Other's Hands (arr. Holstein)
Prince of Peace (Michael W. Smith)
My Lighthouse (Rend Collective)

:: 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.

Division, arguments, polarization, barriers, frustrations, anger, fear… while these things have been around since the first sin of Adam, it seems all around us (and in us) in a new and alarming way these days. Do you feel it? It’s not just politics, economics, or race; those are manifestations of something deeper and more pernicious. Last week we looked at the wideness of God’s mercy in welcoming home the lost, wandering, and far off. We focused on the character and compassion of God, portrayed so vividly as the loving Father in Jesus’ parable of the lost or prodigal son.

This week we will focus more on what God did out of that character of mercy and compassion. We left off with “But now in Christ Jesus, you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (v.13) Today we’ll look at the verses that follow and unpack what that means for humanity and for us.

Sin Remembered: Civil Rights Museum, Birmingham, AL

I don’t know that you need an illustration of the division, arguments, barriers, anger, and fear, but I want to share one. One of the most significant memories I will have of the high school mission trip to Birmingham, Alabama, was the time we spend in the Civil Rights museum. We met in the park outside the museum where different historical civil rights moments have been captured in bronze. We walked a path between bronze, life-sized snarling dogs unleashed on black citizens. We walked through a door to see bronzed full-scale water hoses turned on us as they were on children in one tragic and historical moment in Birmingham. The museum itself was well-done, a walking tour through black and white history, with things to see, touch, and listen to. We saw a jail cell like that where Martin Luther King, Jr., penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” urging the white clergy and Christians not to remain silent or aloof in the face of racial injustice. We saw the difference in desks, books, materials, and more in reconstructed classrooms from segregated schools. It reminded me of much of what I’ve read in the Color and Character book of Charlotte and West Charlotte history that I’ve been reading this summer. Our whole group moved slowly as we saw the history of barriers and division and contemplated how many obstacles and division continue to this day.

As I read today’s text all this came to mind, not because the distinction of Jew and Gentile are the same thing exactly, but because it is fruit from the same tree of human sin and selfishness. I want to take a moment to look at Paul’s focus in the passage, but then broaden out the discussion to speak to some of what we face today.

Breaking Down the Barriers and Division (vv. 14-16)

Verses 14-16 describe what God did through the sacrificial death of Jesus. In this context it is focused on the reconciling of Jew and Gentile, those described in Ephesians as being either inside or outside the blessing of the covenant promises and presence of God. Yet Paul has reminded his readers that God’s intent from the beginning was hope and salvation for all people. And that promise is fulfilled in and through Jesus. Listen to those verses again:

14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. (vv.14-16)

Jesus portrays the core division of Jew and Gentile in the parable, with the rule-keeping older brother portraying the Pharisees and their adherence to the letter of the Law. For all that the older brother kept the rules (like a Pharisee), he was unable to welcome the wandering brother home or join in the joy of his father. What was going on in him? Was he jealous that he did not get to go wild like his younger brother? Or did it feel like throwing the feast for his rebellious, returned brother was robbing him and eating into his own wealth and inheritance? Or did he see his father’s love and joy over his brother and wonder if his father felt that way about him? Who knows? All those are human responses that are possible; all those are feelings I’ve had towards people that seem to receive undeserved generosity – that is, GRACE.

And if I’m really being honest, that’s where the older brother in me really struggles. I want to earn God’s favor. I want to be a self-made man. I want to compare myself to others when I can come out on top. And grace doesn’t account for any of that. In my strength and pride that makes me angry. In my weakness that makes me afraid. If I can’t count on me, who can I count on? Listen to how the father answers all those spoken and unspoken questions:

31 “His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—32 but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

While I have had periods where I felt more like the prodigal, most days I identify more with the older brother. And these are God’s words to me: be at peace, you are my son. Try to rest in that and experience the joy and freedom of my grace. One mark of struggling with being an “older brother” is struggling to experience joy and freedom. And yes, we might be jealous of what the prodigal did, but that’s not where joy and freedom is found either (remember his desperation?). It’s in the father’s love! It’s in the father’s acceptance.

Peace and Access Far and Near (vv.17-18)

Look back in Ephesians 2 at verses 17-18. That’s where we read of PEACE. We read about the result of Jesus breaking down barriers and division between humanity and God, and among people:

17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

I’ve always read this in terms of justification; in Christ we are no longer at war with God. And that is true. But alongside the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and Older Brother) I think there is more to understand here about peace. I am reminded of the quote often attributed to Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” The prodigal was restless and wandered far away in search of satisfaction or peace. The older brother showed his restlessness in the anger over the party for his brother. And in the midst of it the father was offering them both what they sought: peace to you who were far away and peace to you who are near.

And don’t miss that last part, because I think it is what was at the heart of both sons’ longing for their father: “through [Christ] we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” Access to the Father, whether you have been wandering or whether you realize that’s what you need and want. That’s Good News!

Postscript 2018

So, let me return to my experience in Alabama. I believe there is much in both these texts to speak to the systematic racism in our history and in our present. Interestingly, white supremacists often identify themselves with a kind of new Israel, new Phariseeism, where a distorted form of God’s covenant is specially passed down to them and all others are excluded, outside the covenant. But that kind of exclusion and dividing wall was not part of God’s original covenant to begin with and here in Ephesians it is explicitly expanded to all peoples. This is why elsewhere Paul writes that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All are one in Christ and have access in one Spirit to the Father.

But closer to home and much more practically day-to-day I see the strain of older brother in me where it’s easy to feel like something is being taken from me if my kids have to change school zones or share resources or include people different than me. I think, “What about what I’ve worked so hard for?” “That isn’t fair?” “Is anyone still looking out for me?” and the list goes on… older brother style. And I’m missing out on the joy of seeing another person, perhaps in need or perhaps from a “long way off” experience the blessings I have come to take for granted.

There’s a lot there to unpack and I think it takes a softening of spirit and openness to learn and face our past to do so. I continue to invite you to that. This fall, I’d love to have some more reading groups around Color and Character. It’s a history of education and race in Charlotte, a history many of you experienced first-hand. The lessons of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham continue to play vividly in my mind and heart.

And I wonder, will I get it? Will we get it? Will we, in my children’s lifetimes get it?  PEACE, GRACE, JOY. They are pretty abstract, but they are what we are restless for. And they are God’s gift for us in Christ if we will receive them. Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Welcome from Afar (Ephesians 2.11-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 5, 2018 - Ephesians 2:11-13; Luke 15:20-24

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
Come Thou Fount/We'll Feast (arr. Austell)
What a Beautiful Name (Fielding/Ligertwood)
And Can it Be (SAGINA)

:: 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.

Today we are returning to our “Open House” summer series. We are looking at how God invites all people to know Him and enter His presence through Jesus Christ and how we can be an “open house” church in participation with what God is doing.

Today we are going to start in the middle of Ephesians 2 and slowly move through the middle of chapter three over the next five weeks. The overall theme is exactly that of our summer series: God is an inviting and welcoming God whose reach is far and wide. And He is building a refuge, a home, and a sending station on earth through His church. And that’s us! I have included part of the story of the prodigal son in today’s readings because that parable captures the theme in a memorable and moving story form. We’ll consider that story, our own story, and who God is forming us to be as His church in this place.

The Prodigal (Luke 15:20-24)

The story of the prodigal son is practically the reverse of this. The younger son, eager to have his independence and be free of the responsibilities of life at home asks his father for what only would have come to him at his father’s death. It was insulting, selfish, and particularly in the days Jesus told the story, embarrassing and shameful to the father and family. But after burning through all the money and finding himself not only in one of the lowliest jobs imaginable for a young Jewish man (feeding pigs!), he remembered something of who he had been and recognized where he was currently.

He remembered that even the servants in his father’s household ate and slept better than this. He remembered the kindness of his father, though he would not imagine the extent of it. He recognized just how low he had come and decided to go beg his father to take him on as a hired hand, to regain some semblance of dignity and life.

Now you probably know the end of that story and we just heard it read anyway. But I want to pause there and look at Ephesians with you.

Remember! (vv. 11-13)

Starting in v. 11, twice we see the word REMEMBER. That’s what scripture says. Remember who you were and what happened to you. Remember what God has done. Let’s look:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Paul is writing to non-Jewish people – that’s who Gentiles are – about their relationship to God before the salvation of Christ. The first “remember” was that they were outside of God’s Word and covenant. Circumcision was the sign of participation in God’s covenant with Abraham and only those who were part of Israel took that sign. The second “remember” in verse 12 continues, spelling out some of the implications of not being part of the covenant. The Gentiles were separate from Christ (and all the promises and hopes for God’s Messiah signified and spelled out in that covenant).

Interestingly enough, anyone who WAS familiar with God’s covenant with Abraham and with Israel knew that God’s promises and hopes were not limited to the people of Israel, but were intended to be shared widely through the people of Israel. So it is not a surprise ending, but a promise kept to reach verse 13 and the big news: “BUT NOW.”

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

The blood of Christ is Jesus, giving his life for the forgiveness of sin, for the sake of all who believe, insiders and outsiders, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. In fact, that’s the same promise Peter spoke over the peoples from many nations gathered in at Pentecost: “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:39)

God has kept His promise; God has kept the covenant, not just to bless Abraham and his children, but indeed all the nations and peoples of the world. That’s the amazing Good News, especially for those on the outside, those who have wandered, those who have experienced what it is to be separate from Christ. God doesn’t just care for those who hang near to him, but His vision and His heart are for those who are far off!

That’s the same God portrayed as the father in the story of the prodigal son… with extraordinary vision and compassion for His lost son who was far off.

Remember Who You Are

So Paul wrote Ephesians to a group predominantly made up of Gentile believers. He encouraged them to remember who they had been in order to appreciate what God has done in Christ and who they now are.

That’s the exercise I believe this text would have us engage in. Remember who you were in order to appreciate what God has done and who you now are in Christ. I recognize though, that for many of us the story is not as simple as that. For many of us, we have known the goodness of God, yet have wandered again. Like we sang earlier in the service, we are “prone to wander.” I was reminded of that this week when a friend posted a picture of their toddler, who keeps climbing out of her crib. There on the video monitor you can see her sleeping on the floor next to the crib. Her mom still sees her; her mom has a safe, comfortable place for her to sleep soundly, but she is going through a little stage of defiance and has decided to sleep on the floor. I thought, “There’s an illustration in that.” How often do I resist and rebel against the good things God has set aside for me only to stubbornly do my own thing. I am not outside God’s sight or love or rescue, but I’m also not experiencing His best for me.

So as I invite you to this exercise of remembering this morning, I want to acknowledge the complexity of our lives and that we put ourselves again and again in places that are not our true home. The point of this message and this text is not shame or condemnation, but to remind you who and whose you are. God loves you and has created a good (best!) home in which for you to flourish, have joy, and experience rest. That home is within His Word, His presence, and His community.

If you’ve never known that, hear the Good News: God loves you and desires the best for you – not TV versions of “your best life” but joy, rest, and peace in Him. His invitation is not limited to the children of Abraham, to “good people,” or to those with a certain pedigree. His invitation and salvation are for you, right now.

If you’ve known God’s presence and peace, but feel like you are wandering right now, hear the parable Jesus told of God’s love for you. You may feel like you are the prodigal in the midst of the mud: remember your Father’s goodness and love. You may be risking the return home: picture the Good Father, not waiting to shame or condemn you, but Himself looking foolish in running to welcome you home and celebrate you being found. And hear me say: Welcome home to THIS community; it is one of the expressions of God’s family on this earth and we are glad you are here!

If you feel like you are in the midst of God’s presence and peace, I am thankful! Take both these texts up on their challenge to remember a time when you weren’t and give thanks to God for His great mercy, compassion, and love.

In a nutshell: remember who you are and remember who God is!


And as a postscript I’d say: “Don’t go it alone!” One of the benefits and blessings of being in the Church is that in the Church we have a tangible experience of what it means to belong to God’s family. And while it means something a little different, we use the same root word of MEMBERSHIP to talk about belonging and claiming the identity. One way to experience life in the family of God is to participate in Church through regular worship, giving, service, fellowship, and learning together. Often wandering from God in heart or spirit goes hand in hand with wandering away from regular participation at Church. So, while it’s a bit of a play on words, there is a lot of overlap to challenge you not only to remember who you are and what God has done, but to RE-MEMBER or re-commit to participation in the Body of Christ that is the church.

Let me give a for instance. Sometimes we might remember God’s great love by recalling the stories of grace and redemption. But reconnecting at Church – RE-MEMBERING in that way – can provide a tangible and memorable experience of God’s love through the hands and hearts of other folks. Today’s text provides a prescription for relapses of wandering from God: that prescription is to REMEMBER as well as to RE-MEMBER or reconnect as a way to experience the presence and truth of God’s deep love. Amen.