May 13, 2007

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22 — 22:5
John 5:1-9

As we move through the season of Easter and towards Pentecost, the readings continue to prepare us to function as community without the physical leadership of Jesus. We are invited to participate in our own salvation and to continue to struggle towards a more just and faithful expression of community in Christ.

In the Book of Acts, Luke writes about the progress of the early Christian church, and in today’s story he describes the conversion of Lydia, a “faithful woman.” It is the second reading in Acts that features and names a woman. Two weeks ago, we heard about Dorcas, a beloved follower of Jesus who provided clothing for the widows in her community.

Luke is noted for his inclusion of women in his writings, and here he portrays Lydia with remarkable agency as she chooses to convert and then actively supports the fledgling Christian community.

Agency is a lesson that John reaffirms in his portrayal of a man who is cured on the Sabbath. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be well?” The man accepts Jesus’ invitation and immediately is freed from physical and spiritual paralysis.

Finally, John’s vision in Revelation of a new heaven is one that is without a temple — without any religious structure or institution, for “its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.” His vision cautions us that our churches never become ends in themselves — that we never get too attached to our buildings — that we never get too wrapped up in our own needs and concerns — but that our churches always serve as a means to more fully worship and know God.

John’s point is not to condemn a certain faith or particular religious leaders, but to warn against the narrow-mindedness to which all organized religions are susceptible. He emphasizes that the Christian mission is defined by our ability to act freely and faithfully, to participate in our own healing and salvation, and, above all, always to be prepared to recognize and join in the work of the Spirit.

Ours is not a faith that simply involves praying, and then waiting and watching for God to act on our behalf. Jesus called his disciples to follow, to listen, and to learn. But then he commissioned those same disciples to become apostles. He invited them to participate in the breaking-in kingdom, to do the work that he had begun, to be his hands and his feet in the world — to be his whole body continually present and active even once he was physically gone.

Paul took part by becoming his mouth — preaching and teaching as Jesus had before him — about the coming kingdom, about the love and grace of God, about Jesus himself. Lydia took part by becoming the wide-open arms of Jesus — welcoming, sheltering, and feeding God’s people at her table. She opened her home to the apostles and then to the developing church, providing for them practically out of her personal resources.

There are many people within the church today who live and act like Lydia and Paul. Sometimes they respond to the needs expressed around them. They hear cries for help, and they respond by offering their gifts, talents, and resources for the sake of the kingdom. Other times, they consider what gifts they have to offer, and they think creatively about what they can do. How can I use these gifts towards God’s work?

These faithful people are agents of change in the world, and they also participate in the healing of their own lives. As they give of themselves, their lives are changed, infused with meaning and purpose by God’s Spirit.

Pauline Brown is a Canadian Presbyterian who has spent her life and offered her gifts to God’s work with the Bhil People of India. Pauline is a community health nurse who has been working since 1951 developing community programs for the Church of North India. She works in towns and villages where people are very much in need, helping professional nurses in community programs and training illiterate village women who, in turn, pass on their learning to others. Pauline grew up at the same Presbyterian church in Ottawa that I did (though 50 years earlier).

While I was studying at Knox College, I met another Canadian Presbyterian who offered his particular gifts for God’s work in Taiwan. Paul McLean is gifted with language, and has spent many years, with a team of translators, translating the bible into the Hakka language. They have already completed the New Testament and Psalms, and now they are working on the remaining 37 books of the Old Testament. By offering his gifts, Paul helps make it possible for Hakka people in Taiwan to read, study, and apply God’s Word in their own language. This important work is giving them the words to share the good news of God’s love in Hakka.

Many other gifted people participate in God’s work through humanitarian agencies like “Doctors Without Borders.” Every year, doctors, nurses, water-and-sanitation experts, administrators, and other medical and non-medical professionals go out on aid assignments with “Doctors Without Borders.” Working with local people, they deliver emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural or human-made disasters, and they help people who are excluded from health care opportunities in more than 70 countries.

These volunteers frequently work in the most remote or dangerous parts of the world and provide help based on people’s needs — not on political, economic, or religious interests. They direct medical care with a commitment to speaking out against the causes of suffering and the obstacles to providing effective assistance. These people offer their gifts towards God’s work of healing, helping, and advocating for justice for all people.

Just down the street from our church, there is another group of faithful people offering their gifts for God’s work. “Cloth For Kids” is a program that runs out of the Rainbow Centre at St. Thomas-Wesley Church. Various companies donate the fabric, and a group of sewers gathers each week to do the work. They make pretty much anything you can make out of cloth that is needed in the community… clothes, quilts, back packs, table cloths, and much more. They volunteer their time and their talent, and the benefit to local children, families, and helping agencies is amazing. By offering their talents, they are participating in God’s work in the world, right here in the innercity of Saskatoon.

Very frequently in the church, we hear cries for help with particular needs, ministries, and missions. Some are pleas for financial aid. Some are calls for needed volunteers or for donations of goods. But rarely do we stop to think about how we will participate in God’s work by thinking first about what we indeed have to offer.

That’s what I would like you to consider doing today. What are the gifts, talents, or resources that you have to offer to God’s work? Can you sing? Can you sew? Do you have money? Do you have a home? Do you have a vision? Are you a doctor or a nurse? Are you a teacher? Do you listen well? Can you bake a fine cake? Do you have time on your hands? Have you got wisdom to pass on? Do you know your bible? Are you ready to pray?

Inside your bulletin today, there is a blank, coloured piece of paper. And you should have received a coloured pencil as you arrived. Take out that paper, and on it, trace the shape of your hand.

As members of the church, we are the hands of Jesus, and God has put into our hands both the power and the responsibility to continue Christ’s work in the world.

Once you have the shape of your hand, I want you to write one word in each finger and the thumb. Write words that represent the gifts, or talents, or resources that you have to offer to God’s work. Think about whether you are already offering these gifts. Perhaps you have offered them in the past, but you’ve become too busy lately. Perhaps you hadn’t even thought about offering them yet.

And I invite you to choose one gift today, and plan a way that you will offer that gift for God’s kingdom. As a sign of offering your gifts, you are welcome to place your paper into the offering plate when it is passed around.

1 Peter 4:10-11 says: “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.