Does Good Work

(Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43) – J G White
11 am, E4, Sunday, May 12, 2019 – UBC Digby

I’m starting with a little show-and-tell today.  So first, this little quilt, handmade by Joan White in 1984 for me. Then there is this blue, zippered hoodie she made me a decade ago, I suppose, on her sewing machine and surger. And this sweater; she hand-knit this about thirty years ago, and it is rather fun. It is pretty much the one thing she knit me that I do wear.

This is just a sampling of my mother’s good work.  I can also show you lovely things made for me by other dear people. This glass mosaic made for us as a Christmas gift last year by my sister, Michelle, in Ontario. This cross-stitch of the Prayer of St. Francis, by my friend Frank, in Halifax, as an ordination gift in 1998. This poster to celebrate me (and my friend, Nancy) walking 80 Kms in one day, last Nov., created by our friends Jonathan and Meghan and Catherine.  

All these handmade gifts are rather happy momentos, and all the creative gift-givers are still alive. Today’s Gospel story has a sad and poignant moment, when the handiwork of a woman who had just died, is on display.  The legacy of Tabitha, of Joppa, was the clothing she made. Her weeping friends celebrate her life by bringing it all out. Tabitha’s legacy also was the kind and charitable deeds she was known for, mentioned here in Acts 9.

Tabitha, we are told, had become a disciple of Jesus, a follower of the new Way.  In a sense, the Easter story continues here, as we see life-giving power displayed, when she is brought back to life.

But before that happens, the mourners and visitors take note of Tabitha’s legacy.  The good she did in her life. The things that made a difference in her world.

I sometimes wonder what my legacy is, at this point in my life. What good little things have I left behind?  What difference have I made in the life of others, so far? And I see plenty of other people wondering the same thing about themselves.

I think of John.  He wheeled into our congregation in Windsor one Sunday in his motorized wheelchair, and joined in. He was a talkative Cape Bretoner. He came to us as a man who had started the lay-pastor training program. He had led some Bible studies and even preached in other places. But he had a chronic disease that was slowly ravaging his body. Along with his increasing physical problems, mental health issues were at times quite serious for him.  

John wanted to be in ministry, he wanted to do some good work. I helped him organize a mental health support group in our church. It got off to a good start, I thought.  For about a year, it served a real need for some people in our community, who got together each week in the Church Parlour, to be heard and to encourage one another.

But it was hard for John to lead the group. Often his mood and his depression almost shut him down.  His physical abilities were decreasing. He moved to a different apartment in a different town. I lost touch with him, eventually. Curious, I looked him up last year in the obituaries, and found him there.

Did John, at times, wonder if his life was worth it?  He worked so hard to carry on, so hard at following Jesus, so hard at making a difference and at being a leader. I hope he knew, at his better moments, that his life did make a difference. He has a legacy.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

I think also of another person from that far end of the Valley. A middle aged, single woman, she came to the church in a time of emotional crisis. She had so much care and compassion to give, so much time to volunteer and help. These are her gifts. She really had no money – she was barely getting by – and she likely has some learning disabilities.  I found her language skills, both written and spoken, rather poor. She had suffered abuses and tragedies.

But she always believed in herself.  She often dreamed big dreams of things she could do and of new career paths. She was often longing to do what she saw her friends do: who were pastors and chaplains, firefighters and prison ministry volunteers.  She overestimated her capabilities regularly.

But, as I say, she believed in herself.  Others inspired her. And she overflows with compassion for other people.  Her life still makes a difference.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:38)

I wonder about myself, my legacy, the difference I have made in this world for Christ. I have moments that I fear my efforts and my effects have been feeble and few.  It is likely true that our day and age, here, is a more difficult one for Pastors than the past century.

I go back to the town where I first served as the Minister, and meet people I baptized. The ones who quit taking part in church in the years since I was there. And the folk who left the Baptist Church and went to something else in town. Did I succeed in keeping the people in the pews safe and happy while I was there, but the real spiritual transformation of souls that could have happened, never happened?

I don’t always think this way, but I often wonder these things. Then I recall Isaiah’s poetry (49:3-6):

And he [God] said to me, “You are my servant,     [Israel,] in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”
And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant… “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In my heart of hearts I know and believe that our lives matter.  We all do good work. It may be often that we don’t reach our potential, and that is not only sad but, at times, even a sin. Not reaching our potential can be against the will of God. Being a mediocre me is cooperation with the evil one.

Then I get inspired. Praise God!  Like at the Fresh Expressions Vision Day in Halifax on Thursday, put on by our Baptist convention.  Or Dr. Harry Gardner’s sermon in Wolfville on Friday evening, at the service for the Divinity School graduates.

Or, when I remember the little devotional reading that sparked my long-pondered decision to answer the call to the ministry, in 1991.  

Many of us have a sort of vision of the kind of person God wants us to be.  We must be true to that vision, whatever it is, and we must try to live up to it by living the way we believe we should live. We can believe that God has a vision of what he wants us to be like.  In all people there is the good person which God sees in us, the person we could be and that God would like us to be. (Twenty-Four Hours a Day, Dec. 2)

I want every one of you to be inspired to ‘be all that you can be!’  To know the difference you make. And to grow that inner confidence that is both humble and hopeful. Christ in you is the hope of glory!

The wise Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes said: I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. (E 3:14)

Once Peter performed the miracle, and Tabitha is seen to be alive again, Christ gets the attention.  Luke does not say, “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in Peter.”  Nor does Luke write, “and many believed in the Church.”  Luke tells us, “many believed in the Lord.”  

This is Jesus. Jesus, who once had said, No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mtt 5:15-16)

Yet this Jesus also taught us to pray secretly, quietly; and to give to help the needy in secret.  

This is all so that the good we do will point to the source of goodness, spelled with a capital G.  So, each daily task you do, each moment of helpful action, makes a difference in this world, in God’s Kingdom.

Thanks be to God that ‘she does good work,’ he does good work, they do good work, we do good work. Thanks be to God!

Religious Conversion

(Acts 9:1-20) – J G White
11 am, E3, Sunday, May 5, 2019 – UBC Digby

A number of months ago some divinity college students met ‘a convert.’   

One Friday, I went with my favourite divinity student, Sharon White, and others, to prayers and a luncheon at Umma Mosque in Halifax.  For the divinity students, it was an assignment: to visit a very different worship event.

It was during interfaith harmony week, and the Mosque was ready for lots of visitors.  We were part of a big crowd visiting that day, observing their Friday Prayers. And there was a big lunch served after, information booths, and a panel discussion.  

After prayers, before lunch, a friendly young woman from that faith community, wearing a hijab, spoke to the little group of us, and answered our questions.  Ironically, this Islamic woman who stopped to welcome a group of Baptist divinity students, was a former Baptist. She had left being a Christian, and converted to Islam.

What happens when the religious persons makes a conversion?  By ‘Religious Conversion,’ today, I don’t mean getting a non-religious person to become faithful.  I mean, getting a religious person to change their religious ways.

Today’s Bible story, the Saul of Tarsus story, is of a very religious person converting to a new Way.  It is not the story of ‘a heathen’ seeing the light and meeting God. This is a faithful Jew, meeting the Messiah, and learning to follow Jesus.  

It is, really, another ‘resurrection appearance’ of Jesus!  And though we use the phrase “Damascus road experience,” Saul’s story is not necessarily the typical, normal conversion story.  It’s not how I became a Christian. Saul, who becomes know better as the Apostle Paul, gets moved to make a big step. As a Jew in the ministry, he becomes a leader of a new religious movement, that eventually becomes Christianity.  

All these centuries later, within Christianity, Christians can need ‘conversion.’ A big change.  A paradigm shift, as some call it. The Spirit moves, and your way of being a believer gets made new.  

This is what the revival movements of the past centuries were all about. Converting your religion.  & what’s religion, but a way of sharing your spirituality?

But a big change is not just up to you: it is God at work. As with Saul, Jesus gets actively involved, and He also recruits helpers to work with you.   In Saul’s case it was a man named Ananias who was Saul’s helper, aiding a new faith to be born in Saul.

And even the messenger chosen to help Saul needed some convincing to take up the mission.  Ananias was even told that Saul would be told how he must suffer. Sounds like a hard sell! Yet Saul was transformed.

When someone’s religion gets converted, some things change, and some things stay the same.  Saul, he kept the same scriptures. He had the same skills. He had the same line of work, so to speak.

In our days, there is a lot of change in the practice of our Christian Faith.  Everything old is new again. Notice the Three Priorities of our denomination? The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada?  
65 New Congregations
75 Emerging Pastor-Leaders
300 Mission-Edge Churches

65 New Congregations: Multiply! Multiply! Multiply!  New Churches. Multi-site congregations.  Re-planted churches. Fresh expression of church are creatively being established.  Pray about something new your neighbourhood needs. How many times will your church multiply over the next 8 years?

300 Mission-Edge Churches: We must discover how to live on mission at the edge of culture in our neighbourhoods, engaging neighbours effectively, living out a faith that attracts people to Jesus.  Is your church displaying the markers of a mission-edge church? Remember the six markers of a missional church?  I gave you six sermons in a row about them last September and October.

Things are changing a lot in Christianity, in our lifetimes: it is a new reformation, 500 years later. The ways things have always been don’t stay the same.  God breaks & remoulds them, like a Potter with clay.

Example: ‘Not Your Grandmother’s Offering Plate’, a webinar by John Campbell, ADC:
Tithes and offerings just aren’t what they used to be. People in our pews have a wide range of options when it comes to where and how they give their money to the Lord…and it’s not always in your offering plate. In this workshop, we will discover the changes in giving across generations in Canada. We will wrestle with a theological understanding of tithing to the Lord and then explore practical ideas of how we can better help people to support your local church ministry.
Join me for a live webinar on Tuesday, May 7th 2:00pm.

Such little things, these pieces of our lives, get to be new, every once in a while.  The way we always did things shifts. Our attitude gets an adjustment.

When your personal religion gets converted, it can mean several things.
Your beliefs change.
How you practice your faith changes.
How you understand who is in your religion, who is in fellowship with you, changes. Joining changes.
What kind of God you serve may change.
The stories you tell and that you sing change.

I am so grateful to Christ for own transformation through the years.  As a child and a youth, I loved all the activities of my local Baptist Church.  When I was almost 18 years old and moved away from home, I met some Baptist Christians who opened the door from me to think new thoughts I was ready for, and worship in fresh ways I had never before experienced.  I was given real permission to believe God was great enough to have created the world over the past 14 billion years, not just six days. I was encouraged to trust the Bible to speak not just as history, but to inspire as a form of holy poetry and storytelling.  I was welcomed into worship that was quite fancy and formal and serious and beautiful.

Years later, I am a Pastor in my thirties, and I must come to terms with what I am as a leader: because it is not what I thought leadership was supposed to look like.  The leadership of Jesus, and Moses, and others, again opens more doors for me as a person with purpose.

Today, my thinking about our Bible storytelling and how we explain the Gospel is being touched by God.  The violence we see that runs so deep in the Holy Scriptures, and in our Church History, must be handled carefully and creatively.  I am just now learning how to read the Bible more like Jesus did.

When God wills the change in us, it is an improvement, of course. It is the next step for you and what you do.  Sometimes, as with Saul, it will involve being told what we will have to suffer for the sake of our mission in life.  And, like Saul, we become convinced, motivated, transformed. We count the cost, and go for it. And we thank those who led us and corrected us and inspired us.

There may be a better way for you.  A better way for you to live you life.  A better way for you to live out your purpose in the world.  Better ways to be religious, to share your spirituality. Your next step in the right direction may not start with a ‘Damascus road experience,’ but it may be an important change, nevertheless.  

Somewhere down the road, just around the bend, there may be a turnaround. A new thing.  A fresh expression of live Faith in Christ. It’s not that we need to get saved. But, you and I may still be ‘New On the Road.’