- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 26, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship
Generous in love—God, give grace!
Huge in mercy—wipe out my sordid past.
Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
I’ll let loose with your praise!
Lighting of the Christ Candle (Hymn: The light of the world is Jesus)
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
God of Power,
You spoke a word and what had been nothing became something.
You transformed chaos into substance and darkness into light.
You breathed into a lump of clay and a human being emerged.
These are the birth pangs of being.
God of Intimacy,
You took on flesh and became one of us.
Jesus rattled the preconceptions of his culture.
He turned things upside down.
He suffered for our sake.
When his time to die came, the Earth shook, and the sky turned dark.
These are the birth pangs of salvation.
God of Comfort,
In our grief, you gave us the hope of resurrection.
You took what was not possible, by your own laws of nature and generated the most life-giving event in history.
You came in wind and fire to awaken your people to live in your world, your way.
These are the birth-pangs of new life.
We confess that we like the status quo. We have little desire to examen ourselves, repent and be truly different. We do not want to go through the hard work that growth entails. We are righteous in ourselves. We do not value your grace. We discourage the transforming power of your Spirit. Forgive us. Change us.
We pray today for those who are worshipping with us. For the person beside us and for all those around us and for those who are worshipping from home. Thank you that we are not alone.
As we worship today, may all we do and say bring you glory. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Romans 12: 1 – 2
Take your everyday, ordinary life and place it before God as an offering.
Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.
Fix your attention on God.
You’ll be changed from the inside out.
Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.
God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Hymn: In Christ Alone
Prayer for Illumination
Holy Spirit, enlighten our minds, touch our hearts, and transform our spirits, so that we may be fully mature, fully developed, and fully alive, like Christ. Amen.
Acts 9: 1 – 19
John 3: 1 – 9
Hymn: I Know Whom I Have Believed
Message: Being the Church – Changing and Growing
Jim and Mary, both in their late 50’s were enjoying life. Their kids were doing well. They had 2 grandchildren they adored. Retirement was on the horizon. Then they were hit with a series of crises. Mary was diagnosed with cancer and began treatments. A recession hit, and their plans to retire were put on hold. Jim found it difficult to adapt to changes in his workplace. He began to withdraw out of fear he would offend someone and lose his job. Then Mary’s mother whose dementia was advancing, needed to go into a long-term care facility. In the middle of all this, Covid hit, and they were isolated from their children and grandchildren.
Every year or two, we all go through events that disrupt our lives. Many are small crises from which we’re able to recover and life goes on as normal. At least 4 or 5 times in our lives these crises blow up into a huge life event – a “life-quake”, after which things are never the same. You are never quite the same. Perhaps you can think of one or two of those events in your life. Life-quakes are liminal experiences – they take us from one reality to another similar to when you cross a border, go down a rabbit hole or land your house on a witch. As the saying goes, “We’re not in Kansas anymore”. A life-quake disorients us. The life we knew changes radically. We go through an outward transition and an inner transformation. Life-quakes can be positive or negative, welcome or unwelcome, foreseeable or surprising. They change our identity. A girlfriend becomes a wife. A couple become parents. Life-quakes can happen directly to us or to someone we love. About half our life-quakes are involuntary, these include events like having a spouse cheat on you, losing your job, getting a medical diagnosis, natural disasters, or having a loved one die. The other half are voluntary or chosen; they include you cheating on your spouse, leaving your job to start a business, deciding to move, making a faith commitment. Life-quakes shake us from a state of orientation, where the world runs smoothly, and we know what to expect. They disorient us, because our “world view” – how we live and what we think we knew and can rely on gets blown out of the water. We may become stressed or depressed. We ask big life questions. Am I doing things that make my life meaningful? Are my relationships with my spouse, my kids, my church, my job, working? Is it time to move? How do I live with this? What can I change? For Christians, this is also a spiritual crisis – what we believe is challenged. We may feel abandoned by God or others, or that we are being punished by God, we question God’s love and what we knew of God’s will. We pray. We search the scriptures. We ask more questions; what I call “God questions”. Where is God? What is the Spirit saying to me? Am I doing what God wants? How do I honour Christ in this situation? Am I living in the best way? Am I open to change or growth? Do I need to look through the lens of faith in a new or different way? Am I being faithful? Am I trusting? Re-orienting ourselves often takes 5 – 10 years.
The Biblical narrative is the record of “life-quakes” in the lives of God’s people. The Fall, the covenant with Abraham, crossing the Red Sea, Pentecost. The greatest life-quake in the Bible is, of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus which literally shock the Earth to its foundation. Today we read of the life-quake in the life of St. Paul as he journeyed to Damascus. Paul – or Saul as he was known – was a devout Jew, a Biblical scholar, a strict observer of the written Law. He was admired for his devotion to God, his education, his lifestyle, his dedication, and his spiritual practices. As a staunch devotee to Yahweh, Saul, like all of God’s covenant people, believed in one God. He believed that any teaching that did not adhere strictly to the worship of the one true God was idolatrous, contrary to scripture, sinful, shameful, distorted, dangerous and untrue. For this reason, Paul had great difficulty accepting the new heretics known as Christians who claimed to have a Triune God. In Saul’s mind, Christians broke the first commandment, “I am God, your God… you are to have no other gods, only me” (Exodus 20: 1 & 2). They defied the Shema, “ Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Exodus 6: 4 & 5). So, Paul felt justified and believed he was pleasing and serving God when he weeded out the Jewish Christians and brought them to justice. And justice for idolatry was as severe as it comes, “If you find anyone within the towns… going off to worship other gods, bowing down to them. If you find that it is true… take the man or woman… outside your city gates and stone him or her. Hurl stones at the person until dead” (Deuteronomy 17:20). Saul, not wanting to be guilty of the sin of murder, held the cloaks of those who carried out “God’s will” on Stephen. He built up quite a reputation scouring the Middle East and bringing Christians before the courts. Then one day, he was walking to Damascus to fulfill his mission, there when he had a life-quake. “He was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of light. As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?” He said, “Who are you, Master?” “I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.” His companions stood there dumbstruck—they could hear the sound, but couldn’t see anyone—while Saul, picking himself up off the ground, found himself stone-blind. They had to take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus. He continued blind for three days. He ate nothing, drank nothing.” Given the intensity of it, we tend to think of Saul’s conversion as an instantaneous event. But Paul was blind for 3 days. We’re not told what Paul struggled with in this time of transition. Everything he knew, his beliefs, his life purpose, had come to a grinding halt. Could it be that Jesus is God as his followers claimed? Because conversion meant joining those he’d been persecuting, he may have struggled with a sense of self betrayal. Did he worry about what his fellow Pharisees would think of him? Did he question his sanity? Did he feel condemned and abandoned by God? We simply don’t know. The text does imply he didn’t eat or drink anything during that time, which is often the case in the middle of a life-quake and a sign that he was perhaps struggling with his demons.
Three days later, Jesus came in a vision to a Christian resident of Damascus named Ananias. He told Ananias to go to a particular home on a particular street to visit Saul. Saul’s reputation had preceded him. Ananias had his own crisis. He had no desire to place himself in the hands of a man who had unleashed a reign of terror on Christians everywhere. He was caught between being obedient to Jesus and preserving himself. Jesus insisted, “I have picked him as my personal representative to non-Jews and kings and Jews. And now I’m about to show him what he’s in for—the hard suffering that goes with this job” (Acts 9: 15 & 16). I’m sure Anaias prayed all the way to the house, wondering if God would come through for him. When he arrived, he prayed for Saul. The scales fell off Saul’s eyes. Saul was baptized. He ate. He was never the same. Paul’s zeal for Christ was at least as strong as his zeal had been in opposing him. And he soon learned about the hard suffering that goes with the job.
From the time Jesus confronted Saul on the road, the Spirit was working. Saul’s blindness was an outward symbol of his inward reality. And it was Jesus, working through Ananias, that allowed those scales to fall away. Saul was baptized. This is the first indication that Saul had chosen to follow Jesus. When we go through a life-quake, God is at work in us and in our lives, to transform or change us and to help us grow. I don’t believe God gives us pain to make us grow, but I know he uses our pain to help us grow. We are also required to be present to what’s happening and to participate in the resolution. Our resistance makes it difficult for God to change us. Allowing that to happen is a choice we make. It is hard work. The hard suffering of being a follower of Jesus. We obsess. We grieve. We talk. We go through a flood of various emotions. We discern. We make choices. Perhaps, we then make better choices. We mature. And through all that the Spirit blows and brings new life.
In the account of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus, we aren’t told what life-quake Nicodemus was facing. I believe he was facing one because people rarely seek out Jesus without one. We know he came to Jesus by night because he had witnessed the miracles of Jesus and believed he was from God. Perhaps, like Saul, Nicodemus was having a crisis of faith or a crisis of doctrine. Perhaps he was in conflict with the majority of the Pharisees. Perhaps, he was wrestling with something which he wanted to keep hidden. Maybe a personal or family matter brought him to Jesus. Regardless, he came seeking truth. Meeting Jesus would shift his understanding. Ignoring Nicodemus’ opening remark, Jesus got right to the heart of the matter. Nicodemus needed to be “born from above” (John 3: 3). He needed to be spiritually generated, spiritually made – he needed to become a “living spirit” instead of simply an outward being.
The Church has come to think of being “born from above” or born again, as a one-time conversion experience. It is the moment when you make a commitment to Jesus or agree to have him be the Lord of your life. That is certainly the soul-changing experience of salvation. But we have led people to believe that is the end, the whole, of our transformation; that nothing else needs to happen. Except – faith and life are intertwined. We are “born from above” many times. Conversion is an experience where the scales fall off our eyes and we see God’s love and grace in Christ. But we need also to eat. We need to grow and change. Just as giving birth is physically painful and frightening, so our spiritual re-births are emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually painful and frightening. Just as a newborn baby needs to grow physically, so those who are born of the Spirit need to grow spiritually. Conversion is just the beginning. Throughout our lives we learn to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and might”.
Transformation is more cyclical than stagnant, more spiral than linear. The Spirit blows through our life experiences to refine, change, and mature us. Because life-quakes are intense and difficult and they demand adaptation, the Spirit blows through them – a lot. As we go through them, we need to hold on to two truths – Christ is with us always. No matter what happens, he will not leave us or forsake us. And as painful as they are, when we go through a life-quake with Christ, we change and grow. Our love for Jesus is renewed; it intensifies and matures with each of our spiritual births. Our life-quakes do pass. They are temporal situations. We do survive. What matters is what the Spirit does in us through them. Each life-quake can become an opportunity for our spirits to change and grow. And in Christ, our spirits will last through eternity.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Transforming God, by your power you take our ordinary self and make us beautiful and useful for you. Take these gifts we bring and transform them into acts of care and compassion so that we may bring you glory. Amen.
Hymn: Love Lifted Me
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
you have called many people together to become the church
that bears Jesus’ name.
Thank you for joining us in fellowship in so many different places,
and giving us opportunities to make a difference for Christ’s sake.
Bless our congregation and our denomination,
so that we are united in mission and purpose, wherever and however we serve.
Creator God, you made all things and called them good.
May the earth be held in reverence by all people.
May its resources be used wisely,
and the fragile balance between all its species respected.
Be with those whose lives have been disrupted by wildfire, storm and drought,
and bring healing to creatures and communities struggling for life.
You hold us in the palm of your hand.
Thank you that we live in a country, although imperfect, that people don’t want to leave and where others want to come and make their home.
Look with mercy on all those who are fleeing from danger,
and find themselves homeless and hungry.
We think specifically of the millions of people who have left Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and S. Sudan, and Myanmar. We remember hundreds of thousands fleeing from Burundi, Central Africa, the Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, the West Bank and Gaza, Venezuela, Columbia, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, and China. We remember thousands of others from countries scattered around the world. And we pray for those who are unable to escape oppression. We pray for those who are leaving their countries and awaiting permission to cross a border.
Bless and protect those who work to bring relief;
and inspire generosity and compassion in hearts that have resources to share.
Guide the nations to work together to bring an end to conflict
so that little children may grow up safe and happy in their own homes.
all nations rise and fall in your sight.
Hear our prayers for those who rule in countries around the world,
that they may act with integrity, establish justice for all citizens,
and seek the ways of peace.
Give guidance to the government elected in Canada this week, to Mr. Trudeau and all who have been elected to govern. Give them the desire to seek the best for our nation. Help them to work together to address the needs of the most vulnerable,
and to lead recovery from the pandemic in appropriate and helpful ways.
God of hope,
We thank you for gifts of home, family, friends and health.
We bring before you the names of people and places on our hearts this day,
seeking the gift only you can give them: (pause)
Ever faithful God,
you have knit together your people from all times and places
into the body of Christ through his resurrecting love.
Keep us in communion with all your saints,
those we have known and loved, as well as those known to you.
Inspire us to learn from the examples of their faith in action,
and bring us together in the joy we will know in your presence.
accept our prayers, spoken and unspoken,
and strengthen us to do your will through Jesus Christ,
who taught us to pray, saying:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn: In the Bulb There is a Flower
Invitation to Mission:
Go from here to grow in the grace of Christ
and to mature in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
We go to live for his glory here and now
anticipating the day of eternity when we will be complete in him. Amen.
Benediction May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.