The sermon for week April 29, 2012
COMPASSION AND BOLDNESS, Acts 4:5-12, John 10:11-18
When last I spoke of Peter when I preached on Easter Sunday he was standing with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, first act upon rising from the dead was to seek to rescue one of his lost sheep, Peter, who had abandoned Jesus by denying he even knew him on the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus’ first instruction following the resurrection was, “Tell Peter, I will meet him in Galilee,” and there standing on the shore the two of them met, and Peter reclaimed his dignity, able to affirm his love for Jesus three times, the number of times he had turned his back on Jesus on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion.
As with Peter so it is with us. We know a shepherd whose one desire is our well being. There is no place we can go, there is no sin that we can commit, there is no harm that can come to us, that the Shepherd is not there, never absent, never excluding, never condemning, but always the Good Shepherd, lifting the wounded into his arms, bringing the lost back into the fold, carrying only that we know, “For God so loves the world” and each of us as much as the world and no one or anything can separate us from that love, not even death. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
So, on the shore, in the presence of his Lord, the living Lord, the resurrected Lord, Peter is made whole. His dignity is restored. The man he once thought himself to be, filled with courage and compassion, will become the man he is. So it is when God’s love touches our hearts. We are made new again, reborn, ready to try again. We are the people of second chances and third chances and however many chances it takes until at last the Good Shepherd’s watchfulness over us becomes a trust out of which we live our lives and we begin to become all we knew was in us to be.
This is what happened to Peter and explains for us why now we find Peter, no longer lingering by the seaside, the place of quiet rest, but back at it, involved in the life he once fled. Peter has returned to Jerusalem, the place of death, the place of the cross, the place of his denial, but, as well, the epicenter for that region of culture, religion and politics. Peter was back involved, sharing in the cause of Christ, in the same way as Martin Luther King once stood on the mall of the nation’s capital and announced for everyone, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last,” the same way every Christian carries in his or her heart, the same desire, as Peter, to share what has been found, the love of God, personally and for all creatures, everywhere. Universally and without exception.
There are two words I want you to remember this morning. They are the words that for me describe the life of Peter, post meeting Jesus by the sea, two words that define who Peter was following his encounter with the one who was for him and is for us the Good Shepherd. These words are “compassion,’ and “boldness.” This is the Peter we want to emulate, so others will see in us what we have seen in Peter.
First, the word, “compassion.” Peter and John were on their way to the Temple to pray. Along the way, a man, who is crippled, meets them. The man by the nature of his infirmity, lives at the margins and is reduced to a life of begging. This man shouts out to Peter and John, “Alms,” he pleads. “Give me some money.” Peter and John could have ignored him, most people did; they could have passed by on the other side, but instead, this is what they did. They stopped. They looked at the man. They took a moment not to see him as unworthy of recognition, but as a real person, and Peter said, “I don’t have silver or gold, but what I do have, I give to you, in the name of Jesus, stand up and walk.”
That’s the way it is. You can’t have experienced the love of God, experienced it in any way, without wanting to share it with others. No matter what that experience might have been - a healing touch, a moment of grace, a feeling of awe, the awareness of being blessed, a kindness mediated through a stranger, the offer of a fresh beginning - without somewhere inside of you, having the desire to pass it on. You want to give back. You want to express your gratitude in some tangible way. This is what the church is. It is a people trying to give back, a people desirous of sharing the grace that has been given them.
And though this desire is in each of us, the nature of it is we all do it differently. If Peter and John had been millionaires it might have been money they gave and it still would have been in the name of Jesus, the one who is for us the Good Shepherd. We respond with our own abilities and talents, the means through which God’s Spirit breath’s God’s grace across the world.
In a few weeks, May 20th to be exact, our church is sponsoring Guest Sunday. On this Sunday we are asking church members to bring a Guest, practicing the ancient art of hospitality through which we are told we sometimes entertain angels unaware. Our reasoning for such a Sunday is that of all the mainline denominations the United Church of Christ is the least understood. We want to be able to say this is who we are as the Sylvania United Church of Christ and to that end we will have displays throughout the Gathering Area and Wright Hall of all the various ministries, study and fellowship groups, and mission projects sponsored by the church.
But, most of all, I hope what we will be saying in all the displays and events of that day is, this is what it means for us, as a community of faith, to follow the one, who says to us, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is what it means for us to be a member of the fold and in our own way be as Peter and John, in the name of Jesus lifting the beggar to his feet. For instance, I am still learning about this church. I did not realize until recently, that every dinner, every luncheon, every meal served by the church, and there are more than any church of which I have been part, all prepared and served by members of the church, and most using china and silverware to be responsible stewards of the environment, in all of them, in all the meals, not one cent beyond costs, is kept by the church. It all goes to outreach. It all is used to help support missions. It is all given away.
“What I have I give to you,” is the same refrain as Peter and John. I hope you will invite a guest for Guest Sunday. There is an Irish prayer that goes, “O God, your seas are so vast, and my boat is so small,” but on Sunday May 20, we hope to show what one small boat can do as it seeks to navigate across the sometimes turbulent waters of our age.
And this leads to the second word, “Boldness.” Peter and John were arrested because of what was thought a defiant act of healing and witnessing. They were placed in jail. The next day they were brought before the counsel, representing the religious and political establishment of that region, and there with what the Bible says, “All boldness,’ Peter spoke truth to power.
He defended the right of people to be made whole. He defended the right of every person to be free from the infirmities of body or soul or culture that keep them from realizing their potential created in the image of God.
I want to read you a quote from Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, given after his diagnosis of cancer, a disease that would ultimately take his life. He said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
I agree, you keep following your heart, and for me, it is on the sands of the shore, down by the Sea of Galilee, where alone you meet the living Lord, standing in the presence of the one who loves you, you begin to listen and find the compassion and boldness beating in your heart, and even if sometimes, be it a diagnosis from a doctor or standing arrested before the council, it doesn’t leave you, but still there beats within you the same compassion and love of life, the same boldness and courage, and Peter, once pronounced a coward, stands firm, remains bold, knowing though his accusers may condemn him, they cannot take away the love his Savior has for him and for everyone in the world, including the crippled beggar, a love from God, a love that is eternal.
I asked at the beginning that you remember two words from this sermon, “compassion,” and “boldness.” We hear a lot about compassion in the church but I want to say one last word about boldness, especially, I believe, as it should be exemplified in the church. The most frequent exhortation in the Bible is not any of the commandments, but, “Don’t be afraid. Fear not.”
I believe Bill Chidester in his living and his dying, modeled for you what these words, “compassion” and “boldness,” should mean in the life of the Christian. But, I also think he gave you a task before he died so you might better understand these words in the life of the church. He asked and set in motion the request that this church study and consider in the light of the Gospel, following Christ as the Good Shepherd, what it means to be opening and affirming as a congregation, particularly toward the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Now, mostly it is in our nature to avoid such subjects. We want to keep the peace. And besides, some of us are not so sure. We don’t want to rock the boat. We would rather pass by on the other side. In spite of the flares of potential danger, this church entered into the conversation and called them sacred conversations. We are not sure where this leads, what the ending point will be, but I hope, as I am sure Bill must have hoped, it has taught all of us, those who worked on the committee, those who spoke at our Lenten dinners, those who engaged in the discussion, and those who have reflected. It has taught all of us something about boldness, the boldness of what it means to be in Jesus Christ, the boldness of sometimes having to stand up to principalities and powers, the boldness of knowing there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus, and therefore, there is nothing in heaven or on earth, no issue or concern that cannot be discussed in church and there is no one in all creation who does not deserve to know the love of God for them, and in that discussion ask ourselves how can we make that love more real for them.
Even as Bill lived his life and his dying with compassion and boldness, so he wanted this church to face its future with the same compassion and boldness. He wanted us to keep growing in our faith, so he asked that we with all compassion and all boldness continue our journey by having this discussion and out of this discussion determine how best we can incarnate God’s love for all people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian, who was often a critic of the church, wrote these words: “When I read the Bible, I get the impression that God expects each one of us to be giants.”
We have met the Lord in our own Galilean place, the Good Shepherd, who has assured us of God’s Love for us, now whether it is serving a meal to the homeless at St. Paul’s, or standing before a decision making body to correct an injustice or to promote peace, or having a sacred conversation at church, let us live out our faith with the same compassion and boldness we have seen in Peter, believing as Soren Kierkegaard that, “when we read the Bible, we get the impression that God wants each of us to be giants, which is so say, be our true selves, both privately and publicly, created in the image of God, as we have found ourselves to be in the presence of the one who says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”