Saturday, June 9, 2012

Build Up, Encourage and Console

Barnabas the Apostle
10 June 2012

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Isaiah 42.5-12; Psalm 112; Acts 11.19-30; 13.1-3; Matthew 10.7-16

Click here for a link to the audio file of the 10.00 a.m. sermon.

Inside, Outside, Inside Out

            Some years ago I was invited to preside and preach at a parish in the Lower Mainland on a Sunday in July.  There was to be only one service and the rector promised that one of the wardens would be present to unlock the doors and to welcome me.

            I arrived about a half hour before the service was scheduled to start.  I tried the front door and found it locked firmly.  I tried the door that was closest to the parking lot and found it locked even more firmly.  I began to circle the building, testing every door until I finally came to a door, partly obscured by a hedge.  When I turned the door knob, it opened easily and I found myself face to face with the promised warden.  "Did you have any trouble finding us," she asked.  "No," I said, "but I couldn't get in the front door or the parking lot door."  "Oh," she said, "no one from the parish would ever try those doors, only visitors."  You may not be surprised to find out that there were no visitors on the Sunday I was there and, I suspect, on most Sundays.

            This parish was an 'inside' parish.  Only insiders had the knowledge to penetrate its defenses and find their way into the building.  Visitors and the uninitiated were kept at a distance as the 'faithful' found a sanctuary within which they could worship undisturbed by unfamiliar faces and presences.

            Let me describe a different parish.  For many years I worshipped in a congregation whose building had been designed by a priest who believed that all parish functions except worship should take place in people's homes and other locations.  Consequently meeting space was almost non-existent, church school space abysmal and office space completely inadequate for any one of the size of an average adult.  Few community groups eve met at the parish and it was always difficult to plan and deliver a parish programme that required space for more than five people.

            The priest who designed the building was committed to an 'outside' parish:  A parish that reached out beyond the parish walls rather than turning in on itself.  But the result was a congregation whose building prevented the congregation from connecting with the neighbourhood.  It was not a natural place for community groups to gather and it is only recently that the congregation has begun to make connections with its neighbourhood.

            At this time in the church's history I believe that the key is for every congregation to be an 'inside out' congregation:  A congregation that nurtures an open life-giving community that looks beyond its walls to embrace its neighbourhood.  An 'inside out' congregation will see itself as 'a light to the nations' and a sign of God's commitment to each and every one of God's creatures.  An 'inside out' congregation offers hospitality to the many and various groups that make the neighbourhood as well as being clear about its Christian identity.  What we do we do as followers of Jesus of Nazareth and in gratitude for the over-flowing generosity of God.

Barnabas the Apostle

            In the early days of the Christian community in Jerusalem a spirit of generosity and compassion seemed to fill the believers.  Those who had resources took steps to ensure that the needs of those who did not were met.  Among the first named was Joseph, a member of the priestly caste who was a native of Cyprus. 

            As a native of Cyprus Joseph was likely Greek-speaking and there were tensions between the 'native' Aramaic-speaking Jews and the 'foreign' Greek-speaking Jews.  Despite the tensions, Joseph sold a field that belonged to him, perhaps part of his Judean patrimony, and gave the money to the apostles.  For this generosity the apostles named him 'Barnabas'.

            I have mentioned before the importance of names in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  'Barnabas' comes from an Aramaic phrase which means 'son of the prophet'.  Now, when you and I hear the word 'prophet', we think of some one who predicts the future.  To early Christian ears, a 'prophet' was someone who speaks God's word to people.  In 1 Corinthians Paul describes a prophet as one who speaks ". . . to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation."  (1 Corinthians 14.3) 

            Joseph, now Barnabas, was one who acted and spoke in a manner that built the people up, encouraged them and consoled those in need.  Later in Acts it is Barnabas who brings the newly-enlightened Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem and speaks on his behalf.  It is Barnabas who recognized in Paul the gifts that would later lead to an apostolic career that would change the world.

            Barnabas becomes a light to the early Christian community, a prophet if you will, not by words but by deeds.  He crosses the dividing line between Aramaic- and Greek-speaking believers to deliver his gift of money.  He crosses the dividing line between Paul the former persecutor and the apostles Paul's victims to vouchsafe a man who will become one of the most significant figures in the early Christian movement.  Barnabas builds up; Barnabas encourages; Barnabas consoles.  He is, dare I say, an 'inside out' apostle.

Being a Light to the Neighbourhood

            It was during the exile in Babylon that the prophet we know as Second Isaiah spoke the words we heard in today's first reading:  "I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness."  (Isaiah 42.6-7)  With these words the prophet hoped to build the people up, to encourage the people and to console the people so that the world could see, through them, God's faithfulness to the whole of creation.  The people would fulfill their mission not by preaching but by being a just people, a people whose identity was revealed by their actions.

            God made a covenant with Israel to be an 'inside out' people, a people whose corporate life was not turned inward but outward, whose 'chosen-ness' was not a license for exclusivity but a vocation to holiness and to witness.  Last week we celebrated our participation in this call to being 'inside out' when Henry Brendan Murray was baptized.  We did not baptize him to be an insider nor to be a dandelion seed floating through the air in the hopes of finding fertile ground.  We baptized him to be a member of this community of faith and to join with us to build up our neighbourhoods, to encourage those who are weary and to console those who despair --- not just by our words but by our hospitality to our neighbours and our commitment to share our resources with as many individuals and groups as we are able.

            In the weeks and months ahead we will have many opportunities to be Barnabas' in our time and place.  We will see the exterior face of our parish change as we move the playground from its relative obscurity to a more prominent location.  We will become the base of operations for our new Deacon, Christine, as she continues and expands the ministry she has begun here.  We will welcome, for a day in October, any who have need of winter clothing and a warm meal. 

            All this and more we will do because we are followers of Jesus and are called to build up not to tear down, to encourage not to disparage, to console not to wound.  We will make sure our front doors and our side doors are unlocked and open.  We will make sure that our building buzzes with the sounds of a preschool, recitals and the voices of many groups.  All this and more we will do because we are followers of Jesus who honour Joseph called Barnabas.

            And our neighbours will see and know that surely God is in this place and that God is for them as surely as God is for the whole of creation.  Amen.

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