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Sunday, May 26, 2019

Remember This! (Psalm 145)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 26, 2019; Psalm 145

:: 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 ::
We Will Remember (Tommy Walker)
Great is Thy Faithfulness (arr. VanderHeide)
OFFERTORY: Song Without Words, Susan Slade - flute (Richard S. Williams)
Here is Love (chorus) (Lowry, Rees)
O God Our Help in Ages Past (ST. ANNE)

:: 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.


To begin today, I’d like to ask you to think about something difficult you are facing today in the present. Alternately, think about something you worry about in the future. Think for a moment…

I won’t ask you to share that, but I’d encourage you to write it down in short form in your own Bible next to Psalm 145 or in the back… or take a short note on your phone. I want you to remember it during the sermon today and we’ll come back to it at the end.

* * *

In our civic life, this weekend is a memorial in which we remember those who have died in military service to our country. A memorial is an intentional remembering and it is important to do, not only in civic life, but in our own lives and faith.

We remember birthdays and anniversaries because they celebrate things that are important to us. They mark events of significance and can bring back memories and commitments from years past. We also remember things like deaths and wartime sacrifice because those also mark events of significance that can bring back memories and commitments from years past. Doing so can inform our present and inspire our future.

Likewise, memorials are an important part of our faith and spiritual lives. Specifically, scripture teaches us to remember who God is and what God has done. We do that to mark events of significance, to recall memories and commitments from years past. And we do so to inform our present and inspire our future.

Today’s scripture text is Psalm 145, which reminds us that one such form of spiritual memorial is praise. In summary, Psalm 145 says: Remember to PRAISE GOD!

Remember God to Praise

In one sense, Psalm 145 is one long rush of praise. It’s a little hard to dissect or organize. And there’s a reason for that. But I do want to suggest one loose way to look at it. It is a series of reflections or challenges on the importance of praise, punctuated by actual moments of praise. We sometimes see that in songs. The verses may be a call to praise, “Let’s all praise the Lord” and the chorus might be the actual praise, “Praise the Lord!” That’s kind of how this goes, with more meat and detail and poetry to it. Let’s look briefly…

Opening Pledge: I will praise (vv.1-2)

Psalm 145 opens with several ‘I’ statements that basically say in several different ways: I WILL praise the Lord. There are elaborations in terms of how to refer to God, frequency of the praise, and so forth, but that’s the basic gist. Then then in verse 3 there is direct praise around God’s greatness.

Praise is Public (vv.4-7)

In verses 4-7, we move back to calling for praise, with two noticeable developments. The call for praise is now issued to the people of God (not just the Psalmist), and the form of praise takes on a much more public nature. Praise is now described by words like DECLARE, SPEAK, TELL, UTTER, and SHOUT. We also see a broader description of what praise includes: it is both the character and the works of God. It is both who God is as well as what God has done. This section also moves into direct praise, now around God’s love, mercy, grace, and kindness.

God’s character and works are demonstrably praiseworthy. (vv. 10-12)

Finally, in a third section (vv. 10-12), we are back to talking ABOUT praise, now with God’s works as well as God’s people doing the public praise of God’s character and deeds. The focus seems to move toward God’s power and glory. Then in a much longer section of direct praise, the Psalmist spends eight verses praising God. I’d like to remind you of the first three examples of direct praise, then list these eight, for a total of 11 Praises to Remember.

11 Praises to Remember

1.    God is Unimaginably Great (v. 3)
2.    God is Gracious, Loving, and Kind (v. 8)
3.    God is Good and Merciful (v. 9)
4.    God Reigns (v.13)
5.    God Helps (v. 14)
6.    God Provides (v. 15)
7.    God Satisfies (v. 16)
8.    God is Right and Kind (v. 17)
9.    God is Available (v. 18)
10.  God Hears and Saves (v. 19)
11.  God Judges Rightly (v. 20)

In order to recognize and engage in those praises, we must REMEMBER what God is like and what God has done. And that remembering is precisely what fuels our present praise and our future hope.

Remembering as a Resource

And so I would ask you this question: What do you remember about the character or involvement of God from the Bible?

That brings me to today and one more question: What do you remember about the character or involvement of God in your own life?

Think through that list that came from Psalm 145. Do you remember God being or doing any of those things in the Bible? in your life? Pick one… “God provides.” There are numerous examples of God providing in scripture. He provided water and food for His people wandering in the wilderness. He provided a lamb for Abraham to sacrifice. Has God ever provided for you? Can you remember?

What does remembering God’s character and involvement in scripture tell you about how God will meet you in your current challenge? What stood out to you in your remembering… that God was faithful, strong, near, forgiving, merciful, or something else? What about God’s involvement; what stood out… that God listens, delivers, saves, or something else? What did you remember from your own life? What stood out? Is that something you need to be reminded of… to remember?

I would encourage you to write these things down, to ‘mark’ them both to help in the current challenge and to remember in the future. Scripture even says we can use such things to teach the next generation about God.  If answers to these questions didn’t come to mind in the short time I gave you to answer, I’d encourage you to write the questions down and work through them on your own.  Here they are again:

What is a challenge you are facing right now?
What do you remember about the character or involvement of God from the Bible?
What do you remember about the character or involvement of God in your own life?
How do these memorials of God’s character and involvement inform the challenge you are facing?


If you were able to respond, I’d encourage you to write those responses down in your Bible or some other place you can find them again. Maybe you could mark them “Memorial Day 2019” or have a special page in the back of your Bible for “Things to Remember about God.”

Scripture says that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)  Trouble is, our memories are short and we forget that. Beloved, hear the Good News: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) Remember that and be encouraged! Amen.

Remember to PRAISE God

Finally, in addition to teaching us to remember God in order to praise, Psalm 145 also challenges us to remember to praise God. It was written as an acrostic to help God’s people remember it and remember to praise. In the original Hebrew, each verse starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So it’s something like: A – always praise; B – begin your day in praise to God; C – continue praising throughout the day; and so forth. Rather than try to recreate that OR omit the memory tool embedded in the Psalm, I want to offer you a simplified way to remember the contents and the charge of this Psalm: PRAISE God!

The letters of ‘PRAISE’ can remind us of several of the essential challenges in this Psalm.

P – We are to PRAISE to speak back to God and to publicly tell of God’s great character and works.
R– In order to do that we must learn and REMEMBER who God has been and what God has done. We can read that in scripture, learn it from the testimony or public praise of others, or recognize it in our own life.
A– It involves ALL of life because God does not just dwell in temples or houses built by human hands. Rather, God has made everything and is involved with everything. That’s easy to see in the good and beautiful things; but God is also involved with the sad and sorrowful, the things that cry out for a Savior, help, and healing.
I– In order to participate in all this I must praise and remember God. God is there and working even if I don’t, but I will be blind to it. The Psalm began in the 1st person to engage us personally: “I will praise God’s name forever and ever.”
S– We must SEE with our eyes and heart, looking for God’s active presence in all of life.
E –  We talked about the ‘all’: there is no place God cannot reach. Therefore, everything good or bad EXCLAIMS who God is and what God has done, whether positively or as a cry for God’s help.

If you put that P-R-A-I-S-E together with God at the end, PRAISE God can remind you to Praise, Remembering All I See Exclaims: God! If we remember to do that, we will see and know God as our very help in times of trouble and our hope for years to come. Amen.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

God's Perfect Work (Ephesians 1, Philippians 1, Romans 12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 19, 2019; Ephesians 1:3-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Romans 12:1-2

:: 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." 



::: Music ::
My Lighthouse (Rend Collective)
SOLO: Now You Make it Your Own (Dawson/Austell) - confirmation song

Before the Throne of God Above (Vicki Cook)
CHOIR: Rejoice the Lord is King (arr. Forrest)
Blessed Assurance (ASSURANCE)

:: 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’s sermon is for the Confirmation students. It’s the story of God working in time and out of time to bring about the salvation of His children. It is a promise to those who have trusted Jesus Christ and committed their lives to him – that means this sermon is also for you, if you have trusted Christ and made that commitment. The promise is that God is working on you and in you, perfecting you until you are transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. God is getting each of you ready for Heaven. Finally, the sermon is for you, even if you have not yet trusted Jesus Christ, because it describes the great love and purpose with which God pursues His children.

God Chose You in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-4)

Today I’m simply going to talk about three different passages from the Bible. The first is Ephesians 1:3-4. There Paul writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.”

This is the truly mind-boggling part! God, who exists outside of time and space, was pleased to choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. This is neither the time nor place to get mired down in discussions of fate, predestination, free will, temporal mechanics, or if-God-chose-me-what-about-the-other-people. Today’s message is directed at YOU. If you are a Christian, the Bible says God not only knew about you before the world was made, but God chose you for the purpose of salvation and being perfect in His presence – “holy and blameless before Him.”

It’s that PURPOSE of God that we are focusing on today… God’s perfection. Why did God create human beings? Genesis says that it was because He was pleased to do so, for mutual relationship, and for humanity to worship God. Even with Sin and the Fall and all that seemed to mess that plan up, God’s plan was bigger – when the time was right, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and accomplish salvation for all who believe. That means you, confirmation students. That means you, brothers and sisters in Christ. That means you, who may not know Christ, but who would believe in him.

And these words in Ephesians not only say that God purposed to rescue us from sin; God’s purpose all along is that we might be made perfect to stand in His presence to enjoy relationship and worship of our God and Father.

God Told His Story to You (Philippians 1:3-11)

The second passage I want to mention is Philippians 1:3-11. In short, this passage reassures us that God does not leave us on our own to accomplish either our salvation or the perfection of our lives. This passage says that God is at work in you, willing and working in you to make you perfect. There are two handy theological words to describe all this. The one is “justification,” which describes the instant right-standing granted to us by the grace of Christ. Christians are justified by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – we are forgiven and viewed by God as having the perfect righteousness of Christ. The second word that describes God at work in us is “sanctification” – God has not only declared us holy in Christ, but is MAKING us holy through the work of the Holy Spirit.

All that is a complicated way of saying what Paul says pretty simply in Philippians 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” God not only chose you and made you for salvation through Jesus Christ; God is in you, working on you to mold and shape you into the likeness of Christ, to do what the old children’s Christmas hymn says, “fit us for Heaven to live with you there.”

This assurance of God-at-work is both testimony to what is going on in the lives of these confirmation students and hope for all of us as we look ahead. Each of these students have been loved and raised in the church. Like the young Christians to whom Paul was writing in Philippians, the seed of the Gospel was planted by parents, Sunday school teachers, year after year of VBS, youth advisors, church services, and friends. And now in hindsight we can see how God has been at work to cultivate faith, belief, and commitment. This is what we talked about last week – how God uses ordinary people like you and me to pass on faith to children and others in our midst.

And the hope for all of us as we look ahead is that God is not finished with us. He will continue to cultivate and grow our faith, belief, commitment, purity, and holiness until the day we stand before Him in Heaven.

It’s such a great promise and such a relief! We don’t have to get our act together to get into Heaven. God has given us that gift in Christ. Rather, God’s additional gift is that he continues to participate in our lives to cause us to become more and more like the one whom we call Savior.

Each Day You Will Follow (Romans 12:1-2)

The Bible makes it clear that there is a mystery – God is sovereign over everything, including our salvation AND He invites and requires our participation in life and salvation. This work that He is doing in our lives is not the tinkering of a great inventor on inanimate robots; it is the interaction of a Father and a child.

In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul urges us to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice. He goes on to challenge: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These are concrete acts of commitment on our part. This is what the confirmation students are doing today. They believed in Jesus long before this year of confirmation classes. But in addition to making absolutely clear what they believed, we also made it very clear that being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus Christ, and that means committing our lives to him completely. Each of them has made that conscious decision, marking it in a memorable morning on our retreat this past February and in front of you today.

That’s what Paul is calling for in these verses in Romans – commitment. Again, it is not so that we can earn our way to Heaven or clean ourselves up enough to please God. Instead, and here is the great and mysterious connection between our will and God’s will… it is “so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Our commitment to God helps us see and understand God’s commitment to us. That is important enough a statement that I’ll repeat it: Our commitment to God helps us see and understand God’s commitment to us.

God’s Perfection

So, what does scripture teach us?

It teaches that God created us with purpose.

It teaches that God intervened in human history to provide a means of salvation through Jesus Christ – and that to accomplish His eternal purpose.

It teaches that God continues to be involved in the lives of His children, to lead us, mold us, make us, and shape us into the likeness of His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

It teaches that our part in God’s plan is to respond to the great gift of grace by offering ourselves whole-heartedly in obedience and service to our Lord. In doing so, we realize more and more how much God loves us.

God’s purpose is perfect. God’s purpose is for you – for your life and your salvation. He who began this good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus – that is what is good and acceptable and perfect to God.

You are God’s perfect work!

Now You Make it Your Own

To the confirmation students:

As I said earlier, God planted the story and the seed in your hearts. For some of you that began as far back as you can remember. The Bible said it began before the world was made! When you were little children, you depended on your parents for everything, including your relationship to God. You have all shown that you are old enough to hear Jesus’ call to “Come, follow me” for yourselves. So now you take your parents’ faith and training, your church’s teachings, the testimony of the Bible, and God’s timeless purpose for you, and you make it your own.

Today you have publicly confessed and demonstrated your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I charged you to “remember your baptism” – for all baptism is a witness to the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to God’s eternal purpose and plan for your lives.

Though you are still young and have some years before you are adults in the world’s eyes, you are adults in your faith – choosing for yourselves to trust and follow Jesus Christ with your lives. Know that God goes before and behind you, above and below you, working with and within you for His perfect will. Amen


Now You Make it Your Own
By Gerrit Scott Dawson and Robert Austell, 1997



God chose you in Christ before the world was made
He came here for you... the Word was enfleshed
In Jesus, on the cross, your sins were laid
So dying, then rising with him, you are kept

Long love foresaw this day
Parents vowed before the throne
Friends in Christ showed the way
... now you make it your own


God told his story through those in your home
Christ showered love as water was poured
The Spirit brought friends, you’re never alone
So in the Church, you share one faith, one Lord

Chorus

The world will insist that you turn its way
But dear ones resist, remember this day!!


Before God and us, you make holy vows
The name of Jesus you confess in Word
And in your heart. Each day you will follow
The Savior whose call to serve you have heard

Chorus

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Passing on the Faith (2 Timothy 1.2-7, Acts 18.24-27)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 12, 2019 - 2 Timothy 1:2-7; Acts 18:24-27

:: 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 Praise and Glorify (Sovereign Grace)
Ancient Words (DeShazo)
SOLO: For the Beauty of the Earth (Dyer/Horness)
Now Thank We All Our God (NUN DANKET)

:: 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.

I’d like you to think back through your life and think of people who have had a spiritual impact on your life. Who first told you about God’s love? In whose life did you see a relationship with Jesus Christ modeled? If you grew up in church, who were those key Sunday school teachers or youth advisors or spiritual mentors? If you came to faith or grew in it outside of church, who along the way shared faith with you? That’s what I want to talk about today.

I want to share two examples of passing on faith from scripture, then share a few examples from my life, then ask you to look for ways to BE such a person for others.

Two Biblical Examples

Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1)

First, let’s look at two women, Lois and Eunice. They are mentioned in 2 Timothy 1, in Paul’s letter to his young friend, Timothy. Paul is urging Timothy to hold fast to his faith, and to fan its flames with power, love, and discipline. And Paul gives us a tidbit of insight into where Timothy learned of this faith:

For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. (v. 5)

Timothy became one of the significant early leaders of the Christian church, under the tutelage and blessing of Paul. But where did this faith and this calling develop? It came from his mother and grandmother in the home. Paul knew grandmother Eunice and mother Lois, and knew them both to be women of faith. And he knew them enough to know that they told God’s story and shared their faith with young Timothy.

In the Presbyterian church, the ENTIRE congregation stands and vows at each baptism to be godparents to the children of the church. Our children and youth are blessed to have a whole community of spiritual mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. And passing on faith to each generation is not an instant knock on the door or walk forward to the altar kind of thing. Like raising children in general, sharing faith is a day by day process of words, actions, and prayer, with lots of waiting, patience, and trust in the Lord. Sometimes, you see faith bloom early. Sometimes, it takes years and years. Many parents, spiritual parents, teachers, and mentors are still waiting for faith to bloom in young people they love.

Eunice and Lois not only taught the faith, but surely also lived out their faith through a life of worship and service to God. Even that doesn’t guarantee that our children will believe – they are, after all, human beings who must respond to God on their own terms. Nonetheless, God delights in telling His story and showing Himself through the lives of spiritual parents and grandparents.

Priscilla (Acts 18:24-26)

Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, had moved around. They fled Rome when Claudius was emperor because he expelled all the Jews from Rome. Prisca (short for Priscilla) and Aquila had a business making tents (leatherworks) in Corinth and Paul connected with them there. He worked with them and stayed in their home while he went to the synagogue each week to tell the Jews in Corinth about Jesus. Somewhere along the way, Prisca and Aquila believed, for a little while later they traveled with Paul to Ephesus (18:19), where they made their home for a while.

Not only did Prisca have early connections with the church that would form in Corinth, but now in Ephesus. It is there that we read of them correcting and instructing the gifted teacher Apollos, who didn’t quite have all the facts about Jesus straight (Acts 18:26). Passing on faith isn’t just from adults to children; it is also between mature adults and even believers. Apollos was a gifted and effective teacher, but even he could grow in faith and knowledge because of spiritual mentors like Priscilla and Aquila.

And not only did they teach teachers, they were involved in the creation of several churches. They had been involved in Corinth. Then in Ephesus, it is likely that church became established with them at the heart of it, perhaps even meeting in their home. Later, when Claudius died, they moved back to Rome, for they are the first ones Paul greets in the Roman church at the end of his letter to the Romans (16:3). Surely many looked to them as a spiritual sister and brother, mother and father, or grandparent in faith.

In My Life

When I think of spiritual mothers and fathers in my life, I do certainly give thanks for my parents. But growing up in a church community there were many parents of faith. I remember Jane and Bill Sykes, who welcomed me into their home throughout my childhood, not just to hang out with my friend and their son, but to actively engage me and my faith. As a young child Jane would treat me as one of her own kids, pray with me, encourage me, and even call me down if need be. As a teenager she would often sit me down in her kitchen and ask about all my latest endeavors, from school to dating to sports. She would ask how things were with God and how she could pray for me. And when her family when through extraordinary challenges in my middle school years, she and Bill lived out their faith, trusting deeply in God’s plan and provision for them. Their sharing of their faith with me has shaped my faith and life profoundly.

I remember a whole host of young adults who volunteered as youth leaders when I was in middle school and high school. They weren’t just chaperones for youth events, but active teachers, leaders, mentors, and friends in and out of church. I still am in touch with many of them to this day: Joan and Carter, Belinda and Carlton, Huck and Emily, Mitchell, Bob, Beth and Chuck, Jane and Bill, and others. Each one invested in my life and the lives of all our church youth and not only taught us about Jesus, but lived out their own faith in front of us and in relationship with us.

I remember being at my first church in Lenoir and a tiny older lady named Millie decided her ministry was going to be to pray for and encourage me. Her health was fragile and she couldn’t do a whole lot in terms of physical, active ministry. But boy could she pray. I’d visit her and she’d ask me everything under the sun about me, our family, and the church. She’d share about her own family and invite me to pray with her. I was the pastor, but she was my teacher in learning how to pray. She was a mother (or grandmother) in the faith.

Passing on the Faith

This is how we learn; this is how faith grows. It’s not something that you learn in a classroom, from a sermon, or even from reading the scripture. All of those things fuel faith, and God gives faith. But it seems to me that ordinarily the way God does that is through relationships within the family of faith. God uses people of every age and stage to teach, encourage, sharpen, and lift up others in the family. And I believe that is what God would have every one of us do and be to one another.

What does that look like here at Good Shepherd? It’s volunteering to help with Vacation Bible School, in the children’s Sunday school, at the monthly Kids Club, or by being a youth advisor. It’s helping welcome and get to know new members, particularly if they are new to church or new to the faith. It happens – or should happen – every time we rub shoulders at church. Church is not just the location where we take in a sermon and some good music. It’s where we ARE the church, encouraging, sharpening, sharing, and shaping one another’s faith to grow and deepen. It happens in book club, in the community garden, at the men’s Wings Night, or when the Primetimers gather. Or it can! Sharing and shaping faith doesn’t happen automatically; it requires conscious commitment and engagement. But it’s something every single person who has faith is capable of. You don’t have to go to seminary or be a Sunday school teacher or be comfortable speaking in front of people. It’s just the willingness to be involved in each other’s lives, and to do so with faith engaged.

What does that look like beyond Good Shepherd? Passing on faith is not limited to church events or the church property. If you are a person of faith you take it with you. When you rub shoulders “out there” at the grocery store, gym, sidewalk, lunch spot, workplace, school, or anywhere else you are also interacting with people. Do it with faith engaged. You can ask those same questions and show that same interest that I experienced in Jane Sykes’ kitchen. How’s work? How are relationships? How’s your health? Is there anything I can pray for in your life?

Passing on the faith, whether at church or in the world is almost never an instantaneous one-time thing. Rather, it happens over time, touch by touch and encounter by encounter. Each touch in another’s life is an opportunity to draw on the hope we have in Christ, whether explicitly or implicitly. I am grateful for all those who have poured faith into my life. My hope is that one of the things that will describe us as a church is that this is a place and we are a people who pour faith into the lives of each other and the world around us. May God help us be that kind of people! Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lessons from Camp Bluegrass (Acts 2.42-47)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 5, 2019 - Acts 2:42-47

Preached at Matthews Presbyterian Church for "Bluegrass Sunday" 
with the congregations of Good Shepherd, Matthews, and Morningstar Presbyterian Churches

:: 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 :: all bluegrass styled

The Church in the Wildwood - prelude
Come All Christians, Be Committed
Spirit, Open My Heart
This Little Light of Mine - children's message
Blest Be the Tie That Binds
Let Us Build a House - offertory
Doxology (English folk melody)
Build Your Kingdom Here - during communion distribution
Lord, You Give the Great Commission (HOLY MANNA)
Medley: I'll Fly Away, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, I Saw the Light

:: 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.
42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This scripture passage from Acts 2 describes the earliest church and is often looked to as a kind of model passage for what we aspire to as churches. Do we have the core activities of teaching, community, sacraments, and prayer? Do we experience God at work and lives being changed? Do we continue day by day and year by year in unity, in fellowship, and in deep community with one another? I can’t speak for each congregation, but I know that while Good Shepherd aspires to those dynamics, it’s easy to get in a rut or get focused on secondary things and make them primary. Perhaps in this text is a reminder of who God first called us to be as the Church… a reminder of who we can be again by God’s grace.

In order to get at that, and since it IS “Bluegrass Sunday” after all, I’d like to share three brief stories from an experience I had at “Camp Bluegrass.” This is something I did with my brother a number of years ago when we were looking for something to do together. He lives in Lubbock, TX, and we don’t see each other often. So we signed up for “Camp Bluegrass” at his suggestion, he as a beginning banjo player and I to get better at mandolin, which was pretty new to me at the time. While I did learn a lot about the mandolin and I treasured a whole week spent with my brother, I came away with several ‘aha’ moments about the Church and being a Christian.

WELCOMING: “Please Introduce Your Mandolin” [gladness and sincerity of heart]

There were several hundred folks at the week-long camp, with instructors on each instrument. The schedule was divided into times of class, concerts, and informal playing together. When I signed up, I could choose between beginner, intermediate, and advanced mandolin. I chose intermediate. Even though I was new on mandolin, I had been playing guitar for a long time and figured I knew enough about chords, rhythm, and picking to be intermediate. However, when I arrived and registered I found that they had not had enough people for an intermediate class, so I had to pick between beginner and advanced. I figured I’d rather be stretched than bored, so I went with advanced with some fear and trepidation.

I went to the first class and there were about 8-10 people in a circle. I found a seat and tuned up, waiting for the instructor to arrive. The other participants were already talking about him, his skill, and some had seen him in various concerts here and there. I was not very familiar with bluegrass musicians, but apparently was going to get to work with a pretty well-known musician. He arrived and took his place and did what one might expect at the beginning of a week long time together: introductions.

But here’s the thing; he said, “Let’s go around the circle; please say your name and introduce your mandolin.” I’m sorry; what? But this was the advanced class, and everyone else knew exactly what he meant. Fortunately, he went the other direction and I would be last to go. So the first guy said his name and then something like, “This is a 25 yr old Kentucky-style mandolin, with a spruce top and maple back. It was made by Master Luthier, Jack Dawson.” (I’m making all that up from memory now; don’t go looking for a Jack Dawson.) And around the circle we went, with various types of wood and names of different mandolin-makers.

Now I don’t know if you noticed my mandolin earlier or if you can see it now, but if you could look closely you would notice something: it is not very fancy. In fact, my mind was racing as to how I was going to introduce my instrument, the very same one I am playing today. Ultimately, I decided to tell the absolute truth: I’m pretty sure my mandolin is plastic and I got it from Amazon for $64. (Actually, about half that cost is the pick-up to plug it in… I know because I got the same model for my daughter for $36 without the plug-in!) I was expecting some looks of disdain if not outright disgust. But I was surprised to not only get a hearty “welcome” but a clap on the back and the same full and sincere welcome that each person there got, regardless of their instrument. All of a sudden, fear of being a poser or an outsider turned to a warm appreciation for belonging. And that proved to be true, not just in the moment, but throughout the week.

What are our expectations of visitors at church? Do we look at the exterior? The pedigree? How do we respond to people who dress or talk differently? People of other races? Do we have any kind of grid or filter for determining “who belongs here?”

In Acts 2, the early worshipers were taking meals together with “gladness and sincerity of heart.” It was just an act or a marketing ploy to boost membership. It was genuine and real and full of joy. How do we welcome people into the community of faith?

LISTENING: Meet the Leaders

In the first assembly, the whole camp gathered (about 200 people) to meet the instructors.  There were about 20 instructors on the various instruments (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, dobro, vocalists).  After being introduced by name, they were introduced musically.  They all played unamplified and, as is the custom with bluegrass music, played a song and took turns improvising. The skill and musicianship was AMAZING. I would have paid to hear any one of them in concert, never mind 20 of them. But I was also struck by several things during this 10 minute "introduction."

I love sound gear and noticed right away that the auditorium was amazingly equipped for amplification of this style of music. Think about the setup we have here this morning, with each instrument plugged in and everyone with an individual microphone. And this place had state of the art equipment, acoustics, and speakers. So I was shocked when the instructors lined up across the front of the auditorium on the floor and unamplified. It was about three times as many instruments as what we have this morning. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but banjoes are LOUD! (no offense to Chip!) This meant that when one of them soloed, the other 19 instruments played amazingly softly in order that each might be heard.  And that’s what happened: each, as they took their turn playing the lead part, was heard clear as crystal, even the very softest of instruments.

In addition to that, I am fairly confident that the piece was unrehearsed, though it was familiar to each of them.  They just soloed in the order of the 20-person line they formed across the stage, and the handoffs were SEAMLESS.  As each neared the end of their improvisation, they "set up" the next, who often picked up a riff or sound from the one before and wove it into their own improvised solo.  And each nodded and honored their 'neighbor' (and even left space for the applause of the one who went before). There was very little ego up front, though these were world-class musicians. There was not the one-upmanship that you might expect, but a genuine interest in each other and what each brought to the whole. This ethos was borne out in class, when these virtuosos would patiently meet each of us at our level and help us grow.  These soloists weren't trying to upstage their neighbors, but build on, add to, support, and interact with what each had brought.

The Bible describes the Church as having a range of gifts – different “instruments” if you will. Do we take turns, listen carefully to others and build on, add to, support, and interact with what they bring to the church community?

We read in Acts 2 of the early church being together, having things in common, sharing with all. I imagine some came with a lot and some came with a little. But in order to make that level sharing work there has to be a lot of listening, mutual respect, and care for the other. It’s one of the core things Jesus taught and modeled… to serve and love others. I was stunned to see such an embodied illustration of what the Church is to be.

LEARNING: Learn a Song, Share a Song [breaking/sharing of bread]

Finally, I discovered another thing about bluegrass culture that has proven to be true just about everywhere I have run into it: bluegrass folks love to share! This is, perhaps, nowhere more evident than in the teaching and learning of songs. A very typical bluegrass gathering (picture 4-20 people in a loose circle) involves each person having the opportunity to choose a song for the group to play. If a song is unfamiliar, they will take time to teach it to you or one person will pull you aside and walk you through it. It is not unusual to come away from a bluegrass gathering having learned a bunch of new songs. It would be very unusual to come away without learning at least one!

While you can get written music for bluegrass, most tunes and chords and licks are learned from the community, around the circle or in friendly and willing collaboration off to the side.  The whole culture of bluegrass is family and friends sitting around swapping stories, tunes, lyrics, and encouragement - and is one of participation WITH rather than attention TO a performer. In fact, that just happened a few days ago when we met to practice. Sarah asked me to start a song off… it’s one that I have played every year here, but always just chords on the guitar. But she wanted me to kick it off with the melody and I admitted that I didn’t know the tune. So we took a moment out and she came over and slowly sang her way through it so I could learn it. That is par for the course in bluegrass circles.

Is that how we do church? Do we take time for one-on-one mentoring and sharing the faith? Do we expect people to arrive already knowing all the major stories? Surely you know David and Goliath… everybody knows that. But what if they don’t? Do we maintain a posture of welcoming the outsider or the new person to faith? Are we willing and ready to share the stories of God in groups, around tables, in our homes, with visitors, with children, with seeming outsiders?

Bluegrass culture doesn’t seem to identify folks as outsiders. If you are there you are invited in and welcomed in so many ways. What a parable and model for the church! In Acts 2 we read about the fellowship and breaking of the bread. The early church was ready to welcome folks to the table and share what was there. Are we?

***

Every time I remember “Camp Bluegrass” I remember great music, an even greater week hanging out with my brother, and I remember these three lessons I took away for my life as a Christian and part of the Church. I was reminded of what turns out to be a very biblical model for being the Church, one that welcomes, listens, and shares. That’s a tune worth singing about! Amen.