- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship: Psalm 96: 1 – 6
Sing God a brand-new song!
Earth and everyone in it, sing!
Sing to God—worship God!
Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea,
Take the news of his glory to the lost,
News of his wonders to one and all!
For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs.
God made the heavens—
Royal splendor radiates from him,
A powerful beauty sets him apart.
Lighting of the Christ Candle (The Light of the world is Jesus)
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Amazing God, you are the Creator of this world.
Everything that exists is made by your word and sustained by your hand.
You are the Lover of this world.
You are always faithful. When we turn from you, you wait for our return.
You never give up hope.
You are the Saviour of this world.
You lay down your life for us and took it up again.
You invite us to die and rise with you.
You are the Comfort of this world.
You are always with us.
You assure us that we belong to you, and nothing can separate us from your love.
We confess that while there is much in this world that fills us with awe and joy, we also judge it harshly.
We do not seek to connect with people.
We do not try to be your presence to our world.
We do not bring your hope of new life into the world.
We keep to ourselves.
We fail to relay your love and your will in ways that are relevant.
We give you thanks today for those who sit with us in worship and for those who join us in their homes. Together we are the body of Christ.
We thank you for this opportunity to worship. For the joy we feel when we come together. For the awe we feel when we come into your presence. May our worship reflect our awe, our joy, and our hope. May it be pleasing in your sight, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 52: 10
God has rolled up his sleeves.
All the nations can see his holy, muscled arm.
Everyone, from one end of the earth to the other,
sees him doing his salvation work.
Hymn Take Time to be Holy
Prayer for Illumination Jesus, Light of the World, illumine our minds and hearts so that we may take the news of your glory and wonder to one and all, in ways that open them to your saving grace. Amen.
Luke 5: 27 – 39
Acts 17: 16 – 34
Hymn Be Thou my vision
Message: Being the church – Relating
Social Media has created a new category of marketing known as the “influencer”. An influencer is a person (think Kim Kardashian) who, by some mystery of the universe, has thousands or even millions of people “follow” them on-line to hear their insights, get their advice and look at their selfies. To be an influencer you need to believe that every second of your life, everything you buy, and every thought you think deserves to be shared with the world. Influencers say things like, “Eat vegan; Dump that friend; Coconut oil; buy Prada.” They may mention their favorite cause or share how hurt (yet resilient) they are. Never-the-less, influencers do influence. 42% of people buy items on the recommendation of an influencer. 47% consult blogs to stay in touch with current trends. 68% trust on-line endorsements. 74% rely on social media for purchasing decisions. Conversions from one product to another increase 3 to 10 times if promoted by an influencer. It’s remarkable that some people manage to gain so much influence in a time when the Church is becoming less influential. When it comes to conversions from one way of life to another, the Church cannot keep up with the Kardashians.
Admittedly, the Church has a hard sell. Following Jesus doesn’t up your social standing like a Gucci bag does. Urban Decay makeup may make you look good on Instagram, but it doesn’t meet your spiritual needs. Unless we count aching feet or a depleted bank account, a new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes don’t require sacrifice. In part, not a lot in Christianity feeds one’s ego, evokes envy, or makes you popular. It’s not supposed to. Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” not follow an influencer and exalt yourself.
There are, of course, other reasons the Church has lost influence. We have a negative reputation due to our historical legacy, some of which is deserved and much of which isn’t. Some Christians turn people off with their un-Christ-like attitudes and behaviour. As well, the Church does not advocate for itself as well as other faith groups do. For instance, we watched silently as our spiritual practices were removed from schools due to the increasing secularization of our culture. Because we value humility, we don’t promote the good we’ve done. But among all the reasons the Church is no longer influential, I’d like to focus on two.
One reason influencers are influential is that they instinctively understand our culture. They know what makes people tick. They understand their hopes, dreams, and values. The other day, Google asked me for my birthdate. It was for legal purposes, but they admitted they’d use the information to send me more “relevant” ads and articles. What is key, is they asked. To relate to people, we need to know them, and we need to know the world – the culture they inhabit. As a missionary introducing people to Christ, Paul would enter a town and go to the synagogue. He believed that as the Messiah, Christ came first for the Jews. He also understood the Jewish people and Jewish culture. He knew the Hebrew scriptures and practices. He knew their shared traits and ways. Because he shared things in common with them, it was easier to connect their faith and life experience to his own. He would then go to the gentiles. Because they were philosophically minded, they were open to new ideas. They were also poly-theistic so the more gods the better. But Paul didn’t relate as easily to them. He had to learn their culture. In Athens, Paul was brought to the same place where Socrates gave his defense 500 years before. Paul’s audience was curious and wanted to discuss the good news of Jesus and his resurrection which Paul proclaimed. From where they sat, they could see the statues of the Greek gods, each standing in their own temple. Rather than telling the crowd they were wrong to worship idols, Paul built on what he knew. He credited the Greeks for being so spiritual. He’d noticed, however, that one temple was up for grabs. A temple to an “unknown god”. If you believe in a pantheon of gods, it’s always good to keep a space open so you don’t insult the one you’ve missed. Paul connected with them by saying, “I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with” (Acts 17: 23). Notice how he tagged into their cultural values of intelligence and logic. He then pointed out the flaw in their logic. As the creator, God makes us, we don’t make God. To carve gods out of a marble slab made not sense. Paul told them about the nature of the unknown God. God is Spirit – he isn’t carved in gold or marble from people’s imaginations. He doesn’t live in human shrines. He created all people and is sovereign over life. He is not far off or unknowable. He connected his message to their lives, offering a new world view – we’re nothing without God, and offering a new purpose – we’re created to seek God. He backs up his argument by quoting one of their own poets. Knowing one of their own has similar ideas, lowered the resistance of his audience. Showing he knew something about their culture and not judging it, helped them to connect with Paul on a personal level. He told them God was patient with our ignorance, but now that they knew better, it was time to respond. Then he spoke of Jesus whom “God confirmed before everyone by raising him from the dead” (vs. 31). Some came to believe, others wanted to hear more but about half the crowd laughed at the absurdity of resurrection and left. Resurrection doesn’t lend itself well to logic. Many people think we’re ridiculous for believing Jesus rose from death. We never know how people will respond, but we can pretty much bet that at least half the time, people will mock us and walk away. But a few will come to believe. Paul’s love for God, and the possibility that someone might be saved, made the risk worth taking. None of us here is as brilliant as Paul. It takes a lot of skill to weave the threads of a culture into the story of our faith. But we can speak about our faith in little pieces when the conversation opens that door, and the more we get in touch with our culture and its rapidly changing trends, the more points of connection we’ll have. My stepdaughter is an educator. She knows all the music, idioms, styles, values and thinking processes of each generation that goes through her school. My musical savvy ended about 1990 with the Talking Heads. Between myself and my stepdaughter, who do you think has the better chance of having a spiritual discussion about Jesus with people? Many of us get uncomfortable about purposely finding ways to share our faith. Google’s interest in me is 100% unabashedly financial. They want to use me and manipulate me to make money for themselves and others who are already obscenely rich. It may be true that some Christians don’t really care about people, they just want to convert them to get another notch on their belt. No one here is that kind of Christian. Most would rather not talk about faith at all. Who likes being laughed at? We do it because God’s love compels us. We want to relate our faith to people so they can choose new life. Understanding our culture helps us to do that.
Another reason the Church has lost influence is because we tend to stick together. When my daughter started kindergarten, her teacher reported that she was making friends and added, “children usually make friends with kids who are like them.” And so do adults. Birds of a feather, flock together. It’s human nature for people to hang out with those who share their values, understand their motives, and support their choices. However, when Christians stick too closely together, we look strange to the world. People don’t understand us, and we don’t understand them. Sometimes, Christians tend to flock together Because we’re told to “guard against corruption from the godless world” (James 1: 26). Like sparrows who think all other birds are eagles out to devour them, sometimes Christians keep “apart” from people because we’re concerned the world will lead us astray or destroy our faith. We worry that we’ll give up seeking holiness, slide into bad behaviours and/or decide Jesus is not Lord. Just as people who start AA are advised to stay away from people who will get them drinking again, it is often wise for new Christians to find new friends within the church. Once we mature in our faith, we’re not so vulnerable. Just as Jesus sent his disciples into the world, so he sends us. Our tendency to stay “out of the world” so we won’t be “of” the world is misguided, because that’s the same world that God so loved, and for which Jesus came to die.
In our Gospel reading we see Jesus calling a tax-collector, Levi, to be his disciple. Tax collectors were Jews who had “gotten into bed” with the Romans. They saw the tide shifting and recognized an opportunity to endear themselves to the people with power while getting wealthy. Other Jews felt betrayed by them. Their association with gentiles made them “unclean”. For those reasons, tax collectors hung out together, so when Levi threw a party for his new mentor, Jesus, he invited his friends. Rather than avoid these people, Jesus got right in and mixed it up. Everyone was having a great time – the food was tasty, the wine was flowing, Jesus was enjoying the company of Levi’s guests. In a sunny dessert climate, people ate outside. When the Pharisees saw this, they disapproved. Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5: 31 & 32). Jesus didn’t avoid or judge people, he saw their need. He also didn’t get so carried away with their lifestyles that he forgot who he was. That’s the balance that always needs to be struck. Jesus healed people without catching their illness. When the Pharisees pressed the point, suggesting Jesus’ disciples should be more like the Essenes, who were an ascetic sect. Jesus used it as a teaching opportunity, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (vs. 34 & 35). Jesus didn’t avoid others – not even those who were on the edge of society, and we can’t either. The solution to the potential for corruption isn’t for us to stay away from everyone, but for us to stay centred in our faith while amid them.
We too need to find that balance. The writer, Abigail Dodd reminds us of the sort of thing that tips the scale. “Oh, you yell at your kids, too? What a relief. Let’s have a laugh”. “Oh, you’re pouring another glass of wine. Me too. I had a bad day. Ha-ha” “Oh, you’re binge-watching Netflix for the fourth night in a row? Me too.” To paraphrase Dodd, This way of relating doesn’t pull back the curtain quite far enough for us to walk with other meaningful ways. This interaction is designed to get people to like us, but we are to relate to others on a deeper level – as people of hope. We will have common temptations and trials that we ought to confess and share—and our transparency can help others—but only if it leads to Christ. Rather than sharing a hearty laugh over how common and predictable our sin is, we can connect because of Christ’s forgiveness…When I reflect on the most acute and lasting influences on my life, it isn’t disarming humour and relatable stories that most influenced me. It has been people who found contentment and kept their faith in life’s worst situations, and who continued to love and serve selflessly.
Not only do we have people to meet and things to learn about the world we live in, we also have something to offer. When we offer new wine, new ways, and new life in gentle, loving, respectful and relatable ways, we will be influencers for Christ, which is all the Church is meant to be.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Holy God, we bring you our money. It is not holy, rather it is common to all people. Use this money so that we may bring your gospel to others in ways that speak to them. Use us so that we may bring your kingdom to our world. Amen.
Hymn This is my Father’s world
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
we come to you in prayer,
giving thanks that you are with us in all situations.
You bring us strength and courage when we are anxious or afraid.
You provide wisdom and direction when we face choices and challenges.
Thank you for your faithfulness to us.
In this time of prayer, enlarge our love and sharpen our vision
so that we may serve the well-being of the world you love more faithfully.
We pray for those who live on the margins of our society,
For those who face physical or mental challenges,
For those who belong to racialized groups,
For those who feel disenfranchised by biases against them,
And for those facing the challenges of unemployment or financial insecurity
in these days of transition.
Give leaders in government, business, and labour co-operative spirits so that the needs of people may be served.
Move people to share their resources and to respect the needs of others.
Move people to contribute to society as they are able and to find dignity in work.
We pray for all those facing famine and drought this year,
and for those who have lost everything through fire, storm, or pandemic.
Bring support to those people and agencies who work to alleviate suffering
and help them rebuild lives and communities.
We give you thanks for those who work for peace and mercy
in a world divided by bitter conflicts,
and for those who keep peace and lead negotiations in international disputes.
Give them courage and perseverance.
We remember those who face violence, persecution, or discrimination daily,
and pray for all whose lives are marked by danger or upheaval.
Send your Spirit to protect the vulnerable and shame the vicious
so that justice and well-being will prevail.
We pray for teachers, students, educational administrators, and support staff, both in our school systems and in our churches.
Thank you for the gifts of education,
for insight into this ever-changing world
and the ability to distinguish truth from error.
Grant those in education mutual respect
and commitment to the shared venture of learning.
Help each of us bring the benefits of our education to our life of faith
and give us all a teachable spirit.
We pray for children who are too young to be vaccinated and are vulnerable to Covid. Keep them well in body, mind and spirt as they learn and grow. Keep guard over their hearts and minds.
As our country goes to the polls tomorrow, we pray that democracy will be respected. Give us wisdom to put the best people in leadership. Be with all who serve in government so that they may always seek the best for our nation.
We pray for all those who struggle with pain or illness,
disability or daunting diagnosis.
May they be aware of your presence with them.
Be with those who face death this day,
with their caregivers,
and with those who weep for loved ones who have died.
We pray for our families and those we love.
Unite us in love, whatever we are facing,
and grant us the peace and hope you have promised us in Christ Jesus.
We pray for your church in these difficult and divisive times. Help us to seek peace and unity together. Help us to regain our influence so that we may promote your love and grace. Show us how to make the gospel relevant.
Hear us now as we say the prayer that Jesus taught all his followers:
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn He leadeth me
Invitation to Mission
We go from here in our shared humanity
to give the hope of Christ to a world in need
We go from here as part of the world
to share Christ’s grace in fresh ways.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.