On June 16, my visit was to St Barnabas', Havana, which took the opportunity to observe its patronal feast day, transferred from June 11. The lectionary text on which the sermon is based is Acts 11:19-30; 13:13, with a brief allusion to Matthew 10:7-16.
We are all no doubt familiar with the expression “think outside the box.” It’s so familiar it’s actually a bit of a cliché. It refers to some default mental behavior that we all engage in when we’re trying to solve a difficult problem—that is, we confine our thinking to certain conventional, established, tried-and-true pathways. By restricting ourselves in that way, by keeping ourselves “in a box,” we stifle creativity, and simply don’t see some potential solutions to our difficult problem.
Churches—at any level: local parish, diocese, national church—are certainly not immune to “inside the box” thinking. It’s particularly easy, I think, for church people to get very attached to the familiar infrastructure of our church experience—certainly highly symbolic things like the altar area, but even things that are not all that significant: carpets, drapes in the parish hall, exterior landscaping, the color of the roof tiles. We also get attached to infrastructure that is invisible and institutional: terms like “vestry” and “warden” and “standing committee” and other expressions that only an Episcopalian might know. And in our various attachments to objects and processes and words that are familiar to us, it’s distressingly easy for us to lose sight of our underlying mission and purpose, which is to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus and to announce the inbreaking kingdom of God. Church people in general and Episcopalians in particular are very prone to confine their thinking to the dimensions of the box that they perceive.
The first generation of Christians certainly had a “box” to restrict their thinking; it was the box of Judaism. Many of the challenges they faced grew from the fact that they felt thoroughly Jewish, yet faced growing resistance from the leaders of the Jewish establishment in their proclamation of the risen Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. So they eventually realized, certainly by the end of the first century, that the box of Judaism didn’t have room for them anymore, so that had to invent themselves afresh, to “think outside the box,” with lots of trial and error, to be sure, but also lots of freedom and flexibility when it came to being creative and innovative.
A fellow named Barnabas, a good Jew who was also a disciple of the risen Jesus, is a shining example for us of nimbleness and out-of-the-box thinking. In the pages of the Book of Acts, we se him re-inventing himself several times:
First, Barnabas is an emissary and an investigator. When the Christians in Jerusalem, which was mostly all Christians at that time, scattered to outlying areas during the persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen, some of these took refuge in Antioch, a Gentile city in Syria, and some of the Gentiles there subsequently became Christians, which was very much an outside-the-box notion. When word of this reached the church leaders in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to go to Antioch and find out what was going on, and, if necessary, do some remedial instruction. Barnabas went, and found the whole situation to be generally encouraging, and had a wonderful time with the Jewish-Gentile Christian community in Antioch. Perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves, in light of this, where is our “Antioch”? Do we know other Christians whose ways are different from ours, whose ways we’re not sure we trust? And then, do we look for Barnabas among us? Do we look for someone who can be an emissary to those other, strange, Christian communities, someone who can build a relationship with them?
Later in on Barnabas’ ministry, he became a recruiter and strategizer. When nobody else would have anything to do with Saul of Tarsus—the one whom we know as St Paul—because of Saul’s reputation as a persecutor of the Church prior to his conversion, Barnabas reached out to him and lured him into a more active ministry, a more visible apostolate. Barnabas thought outside the box and recognized Paul’s raw gifts; he saw Paul’s potential for the mission of the gospel. Here is an invitation to ask ourselves whether we are allowing fear to confine our thinking to a box. Are there those whom we fear, perhaps because of hurtful things they have done to us in the past, and whom we would therefore prefer to avoid? Might these people whom we fear have gifts for ministry, gifts that could be put to use for the cause of the gospel, that we are thereby not seeing? Where is Barnabas? Who will seek them out and recruit them?
While Barnabas and Saul were in Antioch, the Book of Acts tells us that they spent their time and energy teaching the people there, the new Gentile Christians. Teaching is such a vital ministry for the health of the Church, and I’m afraid we don’t have enough of it, due not only to a shortage of teachers, but to a shortage of learners as well, a shortage of people who are willing to patiently be taught, willing to be formed ever more deeply in the knowledge and love of God. How might we become more open to—indeed, hungry for—good, solid teaching, either as givers or receivers? Do we allow Barnabas the Teacher to live among us, as he lived among those in Antioch?
Later on, there was a severe famine in the eastern Mediterranean area that had a particularly adverse impact on the geographic heart of Christianity at the time, Jerusalem and the surround region of Judea. So the church in Antioch took up a collection on behalf of the Judean Christians. And whom did they entrust with these funds, to deliver them to the church leaders in Jerusalem? You’re right, Barnabas. So Barnabas added “relief bringer” to his résumé. Need still abounds. Are we eager to put Barnabas to work, bearing our gifts to those whose need exceeds even our own, the poorest of the poor?
Next up: Barnabas became a missionary. The Antiochian church, having listened to the Holy Spirit, laid hands on Barnabas an Paul and commissioned them to carry the Good News of God in Christ to the rest of the Gentile world. For us, today, we don’t have to send Barnabas very far. The mission field is all around us, right in our own neighborhoods. So, do we know where our unchurched neighbors are? Do we know, perhaps, where there are pockets, concentrations, of people right here in Mason County who have no relationship with any church? Do we know where their pain and anxiety come from? Do we know what keeps them up at night worrying? Have we considered how Jesus might want to help them through us? Are we ourselves called to be Barnabas?
Finally, Barnabas’ parting shot was just that … a parting shot. He disappeared. As they were about to set out on what would have been their second missionary journey together, Barnabas and Paul had a serious disagreement that they simply could not resolve. So Paul chose Silas as his new sidekick and the rest of the Acts is about them. Barnabas we never hear from again. He faded from the scene. Are there moments when we need to have the grace to fade from the scene? When the time comes—not before, but when—are we willing to stand aside and let the limelight fall on others? In that moment, Barnabas, whose very name means “son of encouragement,” stands beside us, providing courage.
My friends, the mission of the gospel flourishes when Christian disciples, like Barnabas, respond to changing circumstances with courage and nimbleness, when we allow ourselves to think and act outside the box. This means traveling light, as Jesus instructed the apostles whom he sent on a mission trip. It means thinking outside the box, sitting loose to our habits, our buildings, our personal preferences, our familiar ways of doing things, all for the sake of keeping the main thing the main thing. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.