October 17, 2021

The (Re)Birth of the Church, VI: Outreach

Passage: Acts 19:11–20

Lisa Bond says “never waist a good pandemic.” I think what she means by that is don’t waste a crisis as an opportunity to rethink who you are and what God is calling you to be. So the staff has been doing that, trying to think of the rebirth of the church after this pandemic. We’re not without blueprints, we’ve been looking at the story of the church which comes to us from the book of The Acts of The Apostles which includes the story from Acts: 19.

The Sons of Sceva

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.

Sceva was a high priest of the Greek goddess Artemis, whom the Romans called Diana, the goddess of the hunt, very popular in Ephesus, and when the seven sons of Diana’s high priest Sceva watch Paul heal the sick, chase the demons, and win the hearts of the folk, they say to themselves, “Hey, maybe there’s something to this Jesus business,” and they begin taking on the demons themselves.

They approach one guy who is apparently possessed. Maybe he’s epileptic, or maybe he’s schizophrenic, or maybe he’s one of the unhinged homeless you see shouting incoheren­cies at innocent pedestrians on the streets of any big city. “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul proclaims, I adjure you to come out,” they ritually chant at the demon messing with this guy’s mind.

And then another great example of Luke’s wry sense of humor; this is funnier than Eutychus falling asleep and out the window during Paul’s interminable sermon in Troas. This single schizo­phrenic, this one lonely lunatic, goes on a rampage and overpowers all seven sons of Sceva till they run screaming from the scene. “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” says the demon to the seven sons of Sceva.

You see what’s happening, right? This exorcism doesn’t work because these imposters are pretending. They don’t know anything about Jesus of Nazareth. They’re counterfeits, and the forces of darkness always know this about the pretenders.

Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” says the demon to the imposter exorcists. Aye!  There’s a sermon in that question, isn’t there? Do the demons know us?

Now, don’t get thrown off by this story’s archaic vocabulary and obsolete metaphors. When we come upon the word ‘demon’, let’s read “whatever in our present world is dark and sinister and ugly and untoward and evil.”

Those unseen forces that cripple human life are sometimes so large and so inexorable and so inscrutable and so inchoate, that when the Bible wants to talk about them, it often uses this spooky, ancient word ‘demon.’

The point is: do the powers of evil in our world know who we are? Jesus they know, and Paul they know, but do they know us?

Last week we talked about Inreach, that introverted aspect of our ministry by which we care for our own, the people we know, the people we love. This week I want to talk about Outreach, that aspect of our ministry by which we try to minister to everybody else. The Church exists for those who are not members of it. YET.

Every congregation’s Outreach should have two aspects. It must include both Charity and Justice. Outreach must be micro and macro. Outreach must be local and global.  Outreach must personal and social.

Charity is Outreach at the personal level. It issues from the individual heart transformed under the influence of the Nazarene. With our charity we become philanthropists who are both generous and wise. We give till it hurts a little bit and we give to agencies that we are sure will leave the world a fairer, finer, lovelier place.

One of the reasons I accepted your call to be your pastor seven years ago was that I learned that every year you gave away $500,000 to people you don’t even know. That’s extraordinary for a church like ours. You know, to be fair about it, some of our ministries are supported by the generosity of past generations. Some of it is given by dead people. That’s okay. When we die, we’ll also leave a pile of money to this church so that our great-grandchildren can give it away in 2075.

One of the greatest, most genius congregational stewardship projects I’ve ever heard about was your gift to Gil and Marlene Bowen when they retired 14 years ago. You didn’t give it to Marlene and Gil. You gave it so that Marlene and Gil could function as servants of Jesus and brilliant stewards of God’s money. I don’t even know how much you gave them in 2007, something like $3 million? Gil and Marlene have been giving it away like crazy for 14 years, but they can’t spend it fast enough. It’s still $3 million and will be funding worthy agencies for generations to come.

Our own Kenilworth Union Trustee Scott Bondurant teaches a course every year at Northwestern University called “History of Investing.” Great course. Scott quotes Albert Einstein to his students every year. Albert Einstein said, “The greatest miracle in the history of the world is…what? General Relativity? Special Relativity? No. Dr. Einstein says the greatest miracle in the history of the world is compound interest. The Bowen Fund is an example of that miracle.

And the agencies Kenilworth Union and the Bowens give the money to: Night Ministry, Refugee One, Sarah’s Circle. You think the Demons of Poverty and Homelessness and Ignorance know their names?  Those Demons don’t say to those agencies “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” Those forces of darkness know those names.

So Charity is Outreach at the personal level. But Justice is Outreach at the social level. Charity addresses the effects of poverty, inequality, and ignorance. But Justice, Outreach on the social level, addresses the causes of poverty, inequality, and injustice. Social justice is at least as important as personal charity for every Christian congregation.

William Sloane Coffin used to talk about “the pallid, pinched, pygmy world of private piety.” You see what he means, yes? Prayer, Bible Study, Divine Worship, Charity, are all wonderful things, but our Religion must be macro, global, and extroverted, addressing both the causes and the effects of injustice.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of human beings and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that can scar the soul is a moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”[1]

Does the Demon of Environmental Destruction know our name? We have a Green Team. It’s a start. Does the Demon of Racism know our name? We have a Racial Justice Commission. It’s a start.

What is the church for if not for the promotion of social justice? A while back a few of us read this book called Hitler’s Pope, about Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII in 1939 and is now world famous for what he did not do and did not say.

In September of 1941, Hitler forced every Jew to wear the yellow star. In November of 1941 Joseph Goebbels said, “Every Jew is our enemy.” In 1942 the Final Solution began with death trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka, and still Pius was silent. The few public comments about the holocaust he was able to muster were bland and harmless. Benito Mussolini famously, derisively scoffed at the banal and timid pronouncements unleashed by the Vicar of Christ.[2]

Did the demon of Nazism know Pius’ name? Not a chance! “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” said Hitler to Pius. “Only those who speak out for the Jews,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “have a right to sing Gregorian chant.”

Do you know the fine film Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce, the well-heeled  member of the British Parliament who after a patient, relentless, nineteen-year struggle, finally succeeded in putting an end to the slave trade in England in 1807?

William Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian, very religious, very pious, significantly influenced by John Newton, the ex-slave-trader who wrote the famous hymn. Wilbur loved to sing. He especially loved to sing “Amazing Grace.”

Early in his political life, when he was tempted to retreat from public policy into the pinched, pallid world of private piety, his best friend, future Prime Minister William Pitt, on hearing him once again sing “Amazing Grace,” asked, “Wilbur, do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord, or to change the world?”

Wilbur chose the latter. Praising the Lord is a wonderful thing, but changing the world: that’s what we’re here for.

Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?

[1]Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1960 speech at a fair employment conference.

[2]John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York: Viking, 1999).

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