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Sunday, April 23, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 19 & Acts 22:1-16
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Practice makes perfect. I’m sure you’ve heard that aphorism before. Whatever you do, the more you work at and hone your craft, the better you get at it, right? We all know this is true, but despite knowing this, we often don’t live as though it is true.
Since moving here I decided that I wanted to take up swimming once again just to discipline my body into shape. I love swimming, but over the past two decades, I really haven’t swum very much. Back in high school I became a very good swimmer. I was captain of the swim team. My times threatened school records. During peak training times, I could swim 10,000-12,000 yards per practice, which is around 400-500 lengths of the pool. The more I practiced, the more time I shaved off in my races.
But then I took two decades off from the pool, and that swimming sabbatical’s effects were obvious. I eked out 1,000 yards my first time in the pool here, and I wanted to take a nap almost as soon as I finished. I tried to swim 100 yards at a faster pace. This was a distance I used to be able to swim in a little over 50 seconds. Now I was double that. It was disheartening, but I’ve kept at it since that first time back in the pool. It’s getting easier. I’m getting faster.
Today we embark on our next sermon series. It’s called “Practicing Faith.” We will spend from now until the end of June looking at the Book of Acts to see what practices the earliest Christians developed to help hone their way of life in following Jesus, and our hope is that looking at these practices will give us clues into how we can implement specific, simple practices in our lives to live as Jesus would have us live.
Why is it that we teach our children that practice is so important for sports, for music, and for school, but we adults stop practicing? We order our lives around youth sports and activities, but where does all this training lead? Don’t get me wrong: I love sports; I love activities; and I am so glad that I grew up with them in my life and that I now get the chance to offer the same opportunities to my children.
However, why don’t we think that learning to follow Jesus takes a similar commitment to practice – to regular repetition of the basics until they become engrained in us and they become natural to us? Also, why are we OK with learning and practicing so much when we’re younger, but the further we get along, we assume if we’re no good at it, that we’ll just always be that way? Living as a disciple doesn’t just happen. It takes practice.
Let’s begin with our first practice – testimony, or if that sounds too evangelical for you, let’s call it “telling your story.” We all have a story. Every day God is writing a new chapter in our story, but we get to look back and see where we have been, where we are now, where we believe we are heading, and what God has to do with it all. If you think you have no story or that your story is not interesting, then you haven’t been paying attention! I hope to inspire you to start paying more attention to your life, so that you begin to see those places where God was at work, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. For I am convinced that God is constantly at work in the world and in our individual lives, and I hope that we wake up like Jacob did in Genesis 28 and declare that, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was unaware of it!” Or, perhaps like the psalmist, we see God’s fingerprints in creation and in the ordering of human life.
In Acts 22 Paul stands in the Temple in Jerusalem and tells his story. I believe we can learn much from how Paul tells his story and that we can put what he does into practice in our own lives. As with any good story, Paul’s has a beginning, middle, and end, so, like Paul, we should have an understanding of what God has to do with our past, present, and future. Let’s take a closer look at how Paul goes about this in his storytelling.
First, Paul knows his past. He begins telling his story with these words, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia” (22:3). He has an identity that is rooted in where he came from. It is rooted in who his parents raised him to be. He is not just Jewish, but he is zealously so, having spent much of his childhood learning this way of being in the world from Gamaliel, once the preeminent rabbis of his day. It explains what brought him into contact with Jesus’ first followers, and it explains why that contact was so abrasive for him. Paul was raised with a particular worldview, and his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus caused a massive reordering of everything in his worldview.
We all have a past. How much do you understand about your past? Where have you seen God’s hand at work in your past? How has God used all of your life – even the crummy parts – to shape you into who you are today? Relating to God is not one-size-fits-all. It never has been. It never will be. Each of us has a unique story because God’s handiwork is unique in each of us. Know your past.
Second, Paul understands how God has shown up in his life. Now, I’ll grant you this: Paul’s moment was a blinding light and a voice from heaven. Most of us don’t get something that extreme, but most of us aren’t as hardheaded as Paul! But Paul quickly realizes that his entire past – all of his experiences – get redefined by this encounter with God. Who he was counts for who he now is.
I love how Frederick Buechner puts it, which is why I put his writing on the front of today’s bulletin. “If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then you might as well give up the whole business.”
God shows up in everyone’s story. I have no doubt about this. Some have eyes that see God’s appearances, and others do not. One of the great practices of the Christian faith is learning to see the world through God’s eyes and to see how God shows up over and over again in a world that is filled with so much beauty and so much pain.
This past week I was thinking through people in my own life and about how God showed up in their lives. My wife, Jessica, told me that I should share her mother’s story. My mother-in-law, Judy Hauser, is one of the best people I know. She grew up nominally Christian in Rockford, Illinois. She was raised in the Lutheran church, and even made it through a two-year confirmation process, although to this day she says she remembers little of it. Church didn’t stick for her.
Years into marriage and a few years into motherhood, Judy began to sense that something was missing in her life. One day two Mormon missionaries showed up at her door. She let them in. Soon she found herself at the Mormon church, bringing Jess and her brother. Jess’ dad had grown up Christian Scientist, and while he was not actively practicing his faith, he had no interest in joining Judy in her quest. And for Judy this was a quest. She poured herself into learning all she could. She was seeking and seeking, but ultimately the answers she was getting didn’t quite make sense to her.
A couple of years later, there was another knock on the door. This time it was a delightful older couple from the Bible Church. Judy let them in. In them she began finding answers to her questions. In them she found a set of spiritual parents who helped open her eyes to God’s presence and calling in her life. Soon she joined the Bible Church. Her husband also began meeting with this couple, and they walked him through Scripture until he, too, became convinced. He joined the church as well. Jess and her brothers also went to the church.
This elderly couple in Judy’s story reminds me so much of Ananias in Paul’s story. When God broke into Paul’s life in a new way, Ananias was the one who helped Paul see what God was up to. Ananias helped disciple Paul in the way of Jesus. Because of this couples’ faithful witness, I married into a tremendous family that loves Jesus. I have an amazing wife, who is a partner in ministry. I have brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law who serve the church well and who are serious about teaching their children the way of Jesus.
It is vital to know how God has entered our stories, directing us in the way of Jesus. For in doing so, God redefines our past and present and sets us on a new course for the future.
Third, in light of all that has come before, Paul knows where he is heading. For Paul, he knows that God has called him to bear witness to the Gentiles. It also gives him an eternal perspective on how he conducts his life. So, too, our confidence in God’s provision and plan leads us to live today with that eternal perspective.
For Paul, his story gets rooted in God’s bigger story, as revealed in Scripture. Our lives are rooted in this story too. Do we see our past, present, and future in light of what God is up to in the world?
To give your testimony is to tell the truth about God’s activity in your life. Paul’s speech is like a closing argument in a courtroom. And just like witnesses in a courtroom, our work is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how God has been at work in our lives. It’s a simple as that. Know your story. When called upon to do so, be ready to share your story. It may just be the word of encouragement and truth that someone else needs to hear. Perhaps you’re here to be like Ananias to someone whose life is ready for a change.
As I said at the outset, we are focusing on practices. Practice your story. Take a look at your life. See it through God’s eyes. And when called upon, be ready to share the good news of what Jesus means to you with others who need to hear about grace and truth and joy. Surely the world needs that, and surely God wants to use you to bring light into another’s darkness.
 Buechner, Frederick. Whistling in the Dark.