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Witnesses (Sermon)

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

This week, I had my first in-person trip to the DMV, and my faith was tested. The DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) is one of those places in our culture where we throw our dignity at the feet of a complicated system and hope it treats us gently. It’s why Yunkyong and I have put it off as long as we could, because we knew it could cause us to reconsider our move to California, this beautiful state.

Particularly fitting then waiting outside of the DMV’s front doors – a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses with their displays of reading materials, asking piercing questions like “Are you feeling sad?” “Are you feeling lost?” “Are you angry at the world?”

My first reaction – what wonderful product placement. Of all the places to catch humans at our lowest point in a public place, the DMV is perfect. What other place can crush our soul so quickly? (I hope we have no DMV employees in the church.) Of course, there was one problem with their strategy – their display was facing those who were coming into the DMV, not those leaving. And it is those leaving who often had just waited for an hour and learned that they had left 1-2 pieces of crucial information at home or seven states away and were handed additional paperwork to fill out intended to confuse them. That’s the moment – when people are leaving – that they would be willing to sign their life over to a Savior who could deliver them from having to step foot inside the DMV again.

I was almost tempted to stop – tell me what to sign. Tell me how much money to give. A car to donate. Whatever. So I can be done with it.

One of the most ancient and common yearnings of our lives as humans is for ways around pain, suffering, and discomfort. Or perhaps even underlying that, a desire for control in the chaos of our lives. The ancient religious practice of sacrifice still used by some modern religious communities – and certainly there are aspects that go beyond my basic definition – but on some level, humans for generations have offered gifts to the gods as part of their hope and yearning for an answer. For healing. For change. For rain. For food from the earth. For a successful hunt. For good favor. For success in battle. For a speedy DMV trip. And on and on.

And so while Christianity does not practice “sacrifice” as far as bringing a bull or a calf to the temple, we practice it so often in how we talk about our faith. Give Jesus your life, and God will take over. Give up your pilot seat, and let God drive your life. If you just give or do x or y, everything will work out.

In essence, it has the potential of turning God into an invisible vending machine in the sky. Insert quarter. Receive blessing.

But does God work that way? Does life work that way? Does faith work that way? How do we, as we continue on this journey of understanding Easter, of resurrection, share what we know about a God of radical love without turning God into something we manipulate to get what we want?

In our scripture story today, we jump ahead into the Acts of the Apostles, the second part of the Gospel of Luke, as the early church begins to blossom and grow in fits and starts across the Roman empire. These stories of the early church are wild, rough, uncensored – and yet speak to the unique clash of cultures happening in the first century as Christianity, beginning as a small spiritual movement among Jewish people, exploded and began to find an eager audience among non-Jewish people, aka Gentiles.

To some, this is one of those big thematic shifts of the Gospels and into the rest of the New Testament, this idea that Jesus largely came to do ministry first among his own people, using the metaphors, symbols, imagery, and religious language of his community to offer prophetic critique and renewal – but found that over time some Jewish communities weren’t interested in this peculiar “good news” and yet by chance or by accident Gentiles were. There were apparently always some Gentiles who were considered “friends of Jews” in ancient days, who may have visited synagogues and sought to learn about the Hebrew people and even practice their faith. Jesus’ message of welcome resonated with this broad community.

But early Christians often paid a price for sharing their message in the larger Roman culture. Or confused the crowds around them.

Such is what happens to Paul and Barnabus as they enter Lystra and encounter a man who had been born at birth with physical challenges such that he had never been able to walk. But something in this man made him hungry – hungry for a vision of a world where he could sit at the table, not disregarded, not ignored. Maybe that hope, that deep hunger for that other reality, gave him what we call faith. Paul notices this faith and commands the man to stand up. Through God’s healing Spirit, the man is able to walk for the first time in his life.

A quick note about salvation – salvation and healing in the Bible go hand in hand. It’s not one or the other. To be healed is to be saved. To be saved is to be healed. And it involves more than just one person but an entire community and entire family experiencing new life. Can you imagine how this man’s family felt when he walked into his home for the first time in his own life without needing help?

The people, who are living in a culture that has built its beliefs around sacrifice, go wild. They believe that Paul and Barnabus must be Zeus and Hermes come to earth. They want to sacrifice to these two men who can wield such power.

But Paul and Barnabus are not special. They are called and blessed by the church for this work. In verse 2, the scripture says they are “set apart” which is a way we talk about those who are called to ministry or called to a special task. And really, in our church, we believe that all of us are set apart.

Paul rips his clothes in disappointment at the people’s response to worship him and not the one they are pointing to. They lacked the imagination in that moment to understand that there could be a Spirit at work in the world that didn’t ask for sacrifices – but longed for their wholeness freely and fully.

Brian McLaren has written that early Christians were often criticized for being atheists for their rejection of the gods of the status quo, of not participating in the sacrificial and cult practices. Of undermining their practices that manufactured certainty in a chaotic world.

When I look at the landscape of Christian churches, many of us wrestle with these same dynamics on a daily basis. Where do we place our trust? What can we seek out for certainty? We speak to our culture that sees material things as certainty through that same lens, which is why prosperity gospel and an individualistic focused faith are so popular. We turn to high-powered preachers in nice suits or trendy wear who we believe can help us find certainty in our lives. We worship at the altars of guns, of a particular political party,

And we go about it with our displays and our pre-formatted brochures offering easy answers to the enormous challenges we face and grief we sit with and confusion we experience. Can’t we just make a sacrifice to the right people and everything will go our way?

There is a hunger that exists for alternatives in our world, that accepts the world with sobriety and humility, accepts that the world is a beautiful and at times terrifying place. Our faith is not a way to escape that reality but to live and thrive and survive in the midst of it.

A psychiatrist in my previous ministry setting once said to the church, “Our faith is not the faith of why – it is the faith of how.”

We will always ask “why” does the world seem uncertain. Why is it so hard to get a California driver’s license. Why do bad things happen to anyone? Why does God not answer my prayer? I believe these can all be faithful and healthy questions for us to ask, but sometimes I wonder even if God appeared and wrote it in blazing letters, if I would take that answer.

But the deeper pursuit is often in the “how” – how will we endure, how will we respond, how will we move forward in the uncertainty? How will we find the strength to be family when we are being torn apart? How will we do the painful work of healing and hoping?

Yesterday, I learned of the passing of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner who wrote so pastorally and lovingly over the years of a faith that met the complexity of life head on.

He wrote, “People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray bicycles, good graces, or good boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.”

Even in the healing story this morning, the man’s journey did not end with his healing, and he rode off into the sunset to live happily ever after. His healing moved him back into community, back into life, back into the process we all face of learning how to get up and keep moving each and everyday, even when things are hard, even when the DMV turns us away.

We are called like Paul and Barnabus to share an invitational faith that at times makes us look like fools to the world – a faith that doesn’t fit into the narrow imaginations of a culture infatuated with status and power and wealth – but that points us to a horizon yet to come where we all have what we need to endure, to survive, to find the daily miracle to to stand up and move in faith.

To share that faith, brochures won’t work. Nor will placing our trust in glitzy, trendy preachers. Nor glittering cathedrals. But in seeing and noticing in each other a hunger and faith for something more.

What prayer has God answered in you that has helped you find courage and strength? How are you set apart to share that good news? What does God have you noticing in those around you?