26 May 2019 Working with Compost Martin Baker
Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
14:8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy." 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Let us pray
I want to start off by asking a strange question. But it is a question that has some important Biblical connections which I will come to a little later on.
So the question is how many of us have been good at making compost? (We make bokashi compost)
What does good compost have in it?
So there are two Biblical stories that kind of relate to compost.
The first story you can find at the start of the Book of Genesis. “Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it.” In Hebrew the word for soil or earth or compost is adamah, and the word for man is Adam. The words are very similar. And there is a wonderful poetry in this. From the compost or earth our bodies were created. Adam from adamah. And to the compost adamah we, the children of Adam will return. So there is some lovely but, maybe somewhat confronting poetry in the language. So in ancient Hebrew, whenever you talked about humans you would be reminded of their connection to the earth. Along with the knowledge that God made humans from compost and that we will all make compost one day, we are also embraced by the promise of eternal life.
That same kind of universal blessing and promise comes through too in our reading today where we hear Paul talk about the nature of God and the sense that all people have been blessed by the fruits and benefits provided by life . Paul says in verse 17 God has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.
So these connections with earth, soil compost, creation, blessing. That universal starting point in our discussion about faith, when we talk to others about the God of all creation. Whoever we are we share a common origin with the earth. We are all children of Adam created from the Adamah.
But there is another kind of compost that we find in the Book of Acts.
It doesn’t have the poetry of our Hebrew. But the book of Acts gives us this overwhelming impression of the social compost that formed the base in which the first church grew and expanded.
One commentator I was reading described it this way. He said it was in this compost-like blend of East and West, good and bad, morality and depravity, the gospel germinated, took root, and flourished like a rose in a rubbish dump.
This comes through so strongly today. We start off today with this fascinating insight into that mix of people, some of the characters who were responsible from bringing the Gospel story to a world which was vastly tougher, more brutal and religiously complex than our world is today.
So we start off with these characters.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers.
Barnabas who was from Cyprus. Family was mostly likely Jewish and Greek.
Simeon who was called Niger. (pr Knee jer.) Knee jer means black in Latin. So most likely from Africa. Maybe even from Niger.
Luscious of Cyrene. Cyrene is in Libya in North Africa. Early centre of Christianity
Manaen – a person who it seems had deep associations with Herod who, along with his family, had been the brutal and corrupt ruler of the region.
And Saul who is also called Paul. Greek and Hebrew for the same person
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
We don’t often hear this reading at church. And so it is worth pausing for a moment and to think what scriptures are saying to us here.
If we ever needed evidence of the work of the Holy Spirt to bring people together from such a mix of backgrounds here is the evidence. Not just a group of people. A compost of people.
A Jewish Greek Christian from Cyprus. An African from a pagan background. A north African Jewish Christian. Someone with significant connections with a particularly brutal group of rulers Herod the great. And Paul a super educated religious Jew and former persecutor of Christians, probably a Roman citizen, who had a vision outside Damascus and became the most famous theologian and missionary to non-Jews, of the day.
As we face the challenges of our faith for today and tomorrow it’s important that we embrace this story as our story. If we were on a marae and speaking about our origins and identity our turangawhaiwai, this would be part of it.
Remember two weeks ago, Jesus gather these 11 apostles on a hill in Galilee, some of whom were fisherman, peasant farmers, some educated at least one, a likely Roman collaborator and he said go into the world and make disciples. How unlikely.
And then last week Peter a strict Jew who became a follower of Jesus a close friend but also a denier when things got touch. The man who would become the first Pope meets Cornelius a mid-ranking Italian solider. Both are transformed in their meeting. Cornelius is baptised and Peter comes to an understanding that Jesus is there for Jews as well as Gentiles and Pagans. He finishes the interchange with, for him the astonishing affirmation, that God shows no partiality. That we are all God’s favourites. How unlikely.
And now today, in our third story about the grounds of life and faith. Jew, gentile, pagan black and white respond to Christ calls on their life and risked everything to bring the Good news of God’s love to a world, most of who are completely ignorant of the Christian message and many who worship Zeus, Hermes and all the rest of the Roman and Greeks Gods. So the hearers of these stories on one hand go ‘how unlikely’, ‘surely not’. And they also say Praise God, the power of the Holy Spirit to do so much more than we could ever have imagined or dreamed.
Paul and Barnabas travel to Lystra.
Apparently Lystra doesn’t exist anymore. A small town in what we now call Turkey. A place where they worshipped Zeus and Hermes - or mercury. A temple there. Paul and Barnabus down the Papakura-Clevedon Road and they walk past this beautiful marble temple dedicated to Hermes.
Barnabas and Paul turn up there.
The scene in Lystra and it begins with Paul’s healing of a man who could not walk. While preaching, Paul “looks at him intently and sees that he has faith to be healed”
It might seem like a subtle point, but way back, far more than today, the amount of people with disability. We have to imagine a world before modern medicine, dentistry, optometrists, corrective surgery.
So a couple of things. Having eye problems or leg problems or health issues, or mental problems, doesn’t make anyone any lesser or greater in terms of wholeness.
No one is less a child of God despite their disabilities.
We all come with our injuries and scars. Some obvious,some less obvious.
We are told here the man has “faith to be healed,” This is a teaching moment for the early church. The Gospel and its healing message come to those who have a hope for this healing and a trust that God and God alone could provide it. This is the nature of faith in Acts: trust in a God who will keep God’s promises. A God who meets us and heals us.
Once healed, the crowd is stunned and in their jubilation assume that Paul and Barnabas are living embodiments of the gods Zeus and Hermes.
In response, Paul and Barnabas lament and testify that the God who created everything you see is the one who empowered this miracle. Worship that God for God is the same God who has showered your crops, fed you, and caused your heart to abound with joy.
Many commentators, reflecting on these stories, remind us that we somehow think that the Church is here for us; we forget that we are the Church, and we, are here for the world.”’
The tendency, when things get tough, is so tempting to say that we have to look after ourselves. To circle the wagons, to become more and more consumed with our own issues and identity. But things were really tough back in the church in Antioch - and so what do they do. They send out Paul and Barnabas to visit an obscure Zeus worshipping town in southern Turkey.
And maybe at a personal level it can be similar. The whole push for self-improvement, introspection mindfulness can turn into a kind of self-worship that turns us inward and away from engaging in a world of such blessing. A world where we with Paul and Barnaba’s witness to the God who gives us rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and fills us with food and our hearts with joy. We find our purpose in turning outward and not inward.
One of our lovely older members, Mathilda suffered a bad stroke that has left her in Lady Elisabeth hospital. I went to see her last week and I said I want to pray for you Matilda. And she turns awkwardly to me in her bed, takes my hand and says, no first I will pray for you. And she prayed for me. Not in Lyconian, or Latin or Greek. But in Dutch.
This morning in Acts we see a lingering and a kind of delight in a vibrant chaotic unlikely scenes. There is almost a certain comedy here. Religious fervour and misunderstanding. And yet God is in the middle of it all. Reminds me of our HATCH dinners.
Wherever we are in our faith. Whatever our background. Whatever compost we are dealing with.
Again and again we hear of this transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. So let’s join with the Libyan and the black guy from Niger. Let’s be open to the spirit in ourselves , and be inspired us to see the unexpected ways God calls each one of us to bring celebration, love and healing and the Good News of Jesus into the places God calls us to live and to work .
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