Sermon for 10-24-10: “Keeping the Promise, Act 2: Presence”

Sermon Text: Acts 20:7-12

(Please Note: No video this week. Sermon videos will return on November 7.)

Last week we began focusing on stewardship and the five promises we United Methodists make to support this church through—what are they?—our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Last week we talked about our prayers for and with the church. This week we talk about “presence,” which means the promise that we make to be at church. You’ve heard the expression, “Showing up is half the battle.” Maybe that’s not quite true, but according to our membership vows “showing up” in church on Sunday for worship and at other times is at least 20 percent of the battle!

Sometimes just “showing up” is easier said than done. Has this ever happened to you on Sunday morning? The alarm goes off—early—and you roll over and tell your spouse, “We were out late last night. I think I’m just going to sleep in this morning.” And your spouse whispers, “You can’t do that.” And then you say, “You know, honey, between work and running the kids to ballgames and running errands, I haven’t had a chance to sleep in a long time. I’m going to skip this once.” And your spouse whispers, “You can’t do that.” Finally, you say, “But, you don’t understand, between church committee meetings and Bible studies and Wednesday night activities and Fall Fest, I’ve been at church so much recently. I think I’m just going to sleep in.” And your spouse says loudly this time, “You’re the pastor! You can’t do that!”

O.K., that’s probably never happened to you… But the point is, I understand sometimes that it takes commitment to get up and out of the house, and it’s especially difficult with small children.  If you have young children, then you know that you really need church by the time you get here!But sleep is no excuse. After all, as we see from today’s scripture, the need for sleep did not prevent good ol’ Eutychus from attending church on this particular Sunday. Many of you may be relieved to know that sleeping during a sermon is very biblical!

Our scripture begins, “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them…” Luke, who is traveling with Paul, is giving us the first glimpse of a regular Sunday worship service. It takes place at night, because keep in mind Sunday is not the “weekend”—it was a working day like any other, and these church members had to work. In spite of that, it was still incredibly important for Christians to gather for weekly worship. Why?

Anyone from Britain out there? Tell me if this is true: I’ve read that it is very difficult for British people to comprehend the size of North America until they get here. You fly into New York from London and you think, “Oh, some time while we’re here let’s get in the car and take a day trip over to San Francisco while we’re here. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.” And then you realize that it takes about as long to fly to San Francisco as it takes to fly from London to New York in the first place!

Did you know Africa was this big? Like this map, worship helps us to regain our perspective.

Speaking of which, I was fascinated by this map of Africa that I saw recently. Have you seen this? It gives us a sense of just how dramatically large this continent is—that you could fit China, India, the United States, most of Europe, and Japan into the same land mass. This surprises many of us for whom Africa is so small in our imagination that we think of it as one country called Africa. The problem is that we lack a sense of the proper scale of things. We need to recalibrate the way we see reality. And I believe this is especially true of our relationship with God.

During the course of a normal week, with all the stresses of family or marriage or career or school work or childrearing or personal finances, our problems can loom very large in our imagination. Meanwhile, our God, who has the ability to shoulder our problems and see us through any difficult situation, can become increasingly small. Worship enables us to find our bearings again, and put our lives and our problems back in proper perspective; to find strength and encouragement.

When I was in seminary at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, the most infamously difficult class we had to take was Systematic Theology—it’s sort of like, everything you wanted to know about God, but were afraid to ask. I signed up with this brilliant young German professor named Dr. Losel whose reputation was as the toughest of any professor at Candler. I’ll never forget a particularly difficult and contentious lecture during which Dr. Losel gave back our midterms The students were not happy. There was hostility and bruised egos, and many students were openly critical of Dr. Losel and his teaching methods. And he was getting defensive. We were nearing the end of the class feeling unsettled. Finally Dr. Losel looked at his watch and said, “It’s five to eleven. Why don’t we all go to worship?” The chapel has a worship service at eleven on weekdays. And Dr. Losel and most of the students went. And whatever problems we had going into worship, it’s not that they went away; but we found through worship the strength and comfort and encouragement we needed to deal with them. They didn’t loom as large anymore. That’s what true worship does for us.

It’s no wonder in John Chapter 3, John the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Worship has a way of magnifying Jesus in our lives while shrinking us and all the challenges of life down to size.

Worship is also all about celebration. The reason why Christians began gathering on Sunday in the first place is because it was on Sunday that Jesus was resurrected. Every Sunday worship service is a miniature celebration of Easter. Every Sunday we celebrate that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God defeated the most powerful force for evil in the universe: death. Do we appreciate just how big a victory this was? Do we appreciate just how big an enemy death is?

Is it safe to say that we as a culture are afraid of death?

When I was a young teenager, before Jesus Christ took hold of me, I lived in fear of death—specifically, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war. Maybe this is hard to imagine now, but when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined what it would be like if the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, TV news. Our teachers even had special classes in which we shared our feelings about nuclear war. Sting had a hit song in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command,” in which we tried to protect cities from nuclear attack. We watched movies like “WarGames” in which Matthew Broderick nearly launches World War III by accident. It scared me when I was an impressionable young teenager without Christ in my life. I was afraid that someone could permanently rob me everything that I held most dear.

Of course this is the same kind of fear that we have about terrorism and other frightening and evil things in our world.

And it’s not that we Christians put our heads in the sand about problems in the world and say, “Well, we’re going to heaven when we die, so what happens here doesn’t matter much, and we’re O.K.” On the contrary, because of what God accomplished through the resurrection of Jesus, we are now able to live our lives in a new way, offering love and compassion to a world in which hatred and indifference so often has their way; offering freedom to those whom the world has enslaved; offering a true alternative to people who feel as if they’ve run out of options; and they’re stuck; and life is just this way.

In today’s scripture, God used this potentially tragic accident of Eutychus to demonstrate to the church in a powerfully symbolic way that life cannot go on like it did before; that business as usual is no longer an option; that death and sin and evil in this world no longer have the last word—life has the last word; love has the last word; Jesus Christ has the last word; and his last word to us is the same word to the criminal on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And that knowledge changes everything for us now.

When we gather on Sunday for worship, how can we not celebrate? When Jesus was coming into Jerusalem in his triumphal entry, the crowds were going wild with celebration, praising God with loud “hosannas.” And this embarrassed some of the strait-laced religious authorities. And they told Jesus, “Can you tell your people to knock it off. Just calm down a little?” And Jesus said, “I’ll tell you the truth, if these people were quiet, the stones would shout out!”

We just can’t contain ourselves because we’re so filled with praise and gratitude and love! That’s what I want for this worship service. You won’t be falling asleep in Vinebranch because you’ll be too excited to sleep! And I’ll throw things at you if you do!

But it’s hard sometimes. We’re all a little bit like Eutychus, aren’t we? Life has a way of knocking us down, pushing us over the edge, making us feel like we’re in free fall. We need encouragement. In verses 1 and 2 of Acts 20, we’re told that that’s exactly the message Paul was preaching to these young churches. Encouragement! We may come into this church feeling spiritually dead, but the good news is that the Lord Jesus Christ can work a miracle! We can leave here alive! Just like Eutychus! Have you been made alive through Jesus Christ? Have you said “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life through Christ? Have you claimed for yourself the victory God won on your behalf through the cross of Christ? If you have, say “Amen.” If you have, say, “Hallelujah!” Praise God! I don’t want to hear the rocks shouting out, I want to hear you shouting out!

So they gathered on the first day of the week to hear Paul preach words of encouragement and to “break bread.” This is Luke’s way of saying that the church celebrated Holy Communion. In the earliest days it was a full meal. Shortly thereafter, in part because having a full meal would become very expensive, Holy Communion became the essence of a meal, the bare essentials of bread and wine. We Methodists use bread and unfermented grape juice out of respect for the recovery community, but the meaning is the exact same.

Do you know what it means? It means that you are no longer a stranger to God. You don’t break bread with strangers; you break bread with close friends and family.

Are you like me? One of the most stressful things about being in high school was the first day of school. And you’re in the cafeteria, and you have your tray or your bagged lunch, and there’s that anxiety of looking around for a table of your friends—looking for a place at which you will feel welcome. And then when you find that table with your friends, and you find a seat there, you’re so relieved! Holy Communion is a little bit like that!

My first Holy Communion—one of those very meaningful worship experiences like Rachel described in the video—was around a campfire on a cold February evening, with a church youth group I was only just beginning to know. This retreat was my first experience with these people. I was just coming to faith in Jesus. And after Communion we had a time of sharing and testimony. I said something about how real the love of Jesus was for me. And one of our youth interns gave me a hug and said, “I love you, brother.”

He called me brother. Maybe that sounds corny now, but it wasn’t at all corny. Because that’s what he was to me; and I to him. That’s what Communion is all about. Coming to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion means that you are now a friend and brother of Jesus, a member of God’s family. It means that you have a place at the table—and on the other side of death and resurrection, when there is what the Bible describes as a heavenly banquet, you will have a place at that table, too.

Everyone is invited to this table—it doesn’t matter what your religious background or upbringing happens to be. It’s not our table in the first place. It’s the Lord’s. He extends the invitation—not the United Methodist church. And maybe you feel unworthy to come to the table. That’s O.K. Raise your hand if you feel unworthy. You are unworthy; so am I. All of us are. None of us earns a place here. Think about Eutychus! You want to say to him, “You are in the presence of St. Paul, one of the greatest writers and thinkers in human history—not to mention the greatest missionary and possibly the greatest apostle. And Luke here… He’s literally writing the Bible as Paul speaks. And you’re falling asleep? How can you do that? Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand how important this is?”

No… If there’s a place at the table for Eutychus, there’s a place for you and me, too. And in a moment, we’re going to come to this table.

Luke 19:40

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