Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Welcome home! Welcome home from cabins up North, from vacations around the country, your children’s weekend sports tournaments, and of course, summer’s good intentions.  Welcome home to Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church on this Rally Sunday!  While you were away, seven couples tied the knot here in this place.  Two children were baptized here and began their Christian journey.  And surprisingly, there were no funerals, though we hosted one visitation.

Throughout the summer, we have meditated on the Book of Acts.  It began with Jesus’ command to his disciples on the day of his ascension, when he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Since then, I have preached 15 sermons on the amazing Acts of the Apostles and the work of the Holy Spirit, from the day of Pentecost and the early years in Jerusalem, to the missionary journeys of Paul through Asia Minor and Greece.  And along the way, we have listened to the stories of the courageous  boldness of the apostles, and the challenges they faced as they witnessed to the gospel.  Today, we have come to the last sermon.  In this colorful episode, Paul, while speaking before the Roman Governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa, is granted passage to travel to Rome. Mind you, neither the Governor nor King is convinced by Paul’s words.  The Roman Governor thinks the apostle is out of his mind, and King Agrippa feels that Paul is working too hard to persuade.  But finding no crime in his actions nor words, and meriting no punishment, they send him on to Rome to address the Emperor Nero.

Now ever since St. Luke penned the Book of Acts nearly 2000 years ago, Christians have struggled with the words once directed at Paul.  All you have to do is spend a few minutes talking to somewhat outside the Christian community and you’ll certainly hear a list of complaints and insults.  Either, “You’re out of your mind,” or “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”   And yet the Book of Acts teaches us that the Apostle Paul never shied away from criticism, and neither should we way.  The apostles were called to share a gift that was life-giving.   It is that same gift that you and I have been called to embrace and to share with friends and families unto the ends of the earth, still today.  As Paul wrote in his letter to Romans, even before he had travelled there, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

My friends, on this Rally Sunday, I would like to challenge you to embrace with confidence, the faith of the apostles.  In a world that is skeptical of all things religious, “Do not be ashamed of the gospel.”  When colleagues and neighbors dismiss you with the age old criticism, “You’re out of your mind,” and “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”  Remember, “Do not be ashamed of the gospel.”  In a time when friends prefer to say that they are spiritual and not religious, “Do not be ashamed of the gospel.”  But instead, boldly proclaim, “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

Now if the gospel is so life-giving and life-affirming, why do men and women give in to the world so quickly and abandon it?  Of course, there are many critics today who would tell you that the church has an image problem.  As a pastor, they question why I would want to Rally Up the congregation’s enthusiasm for the church.  As for you, the rank and file members, why would you want you to participate in the life of a congregation?   After all, if you attend worship regularly and choose a church activity for your son or daughter over a sports program, you are viewed as “very religious.” And if you attend a church college you are very suspect.  You may be viewed by future prospective employers as extremely religious. Christians and the church are treated unfairly in the press in as well.  Based on recent newspaper headlines, we might as well shutter the doors and windows of the church now.

The Book of Acts, however reminds us, that such attitudes and perspectives are not new.  The familiar criticisms you hear today, “You’re out of your mind,” and “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” were voiced 2000 years ago.  But there was a difference.  Men and women, Jews and Greeks, slaves and freedmen, did not shy away from the church.  Nor were they ashamed of the gospel.  No, they believed it was their responsibility to share the power of God for salvation unto the ends of the earth, and to make disciples of all nations.

Yes, Christians may be badly misunderstood, but I’m not so sure that is completely an image problem.  I believe that it is also an integrity problem.  As a former missionary, I understand that.  Across the centuries, Christians have often marched in locked step with political, economic and national movements.  The great Indian pacifist and leader of the civil disobedience movement Mahatma Gandhi who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement, once chided, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

So what can you and I do about our personal, religious integrity?  Let me offer you two challenges. First of all, do not be ashamed of the gospel, but believe in the possibilities of faith.  And second, be aware of how you walk the way of faith.

The world is changing all around us, and the church is being forced to change with it.  Some of the familiar patterns and habits of the heart we once cherished are hard to let go of.  Even dry, boring sermons.   I am reminded of the elderly woman who walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.  “Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely.  “The front row, please,” she answered.  “You really don’t want to do that,”  the usher said. “Our pastor is really boring.”  To which the woman replied, “Do you happen to know who I am?”  He looked at her for a second, and said, “No, never seen you before.” She huffed indignantly, “Well, I’m the pastor’s mother.”  The usher stared at her a bit apologetically and said, “And do you know who I am?” Pointedly, she said, “No, never seen you before.”  To which he answered, “Good.”

Certainly more engaging sermons and Bible studies are available at the click of an app, but one thing I have discovered, is that people aren’t starved for information;  they are starved for meaning.  Science and technology have provided us with a sea of information.  People can look on our website and get a glimpse of what life at Life of the Isles looks like.  I know that people have done their research on the pastor even before they walk in the door.   They often ask me about my Norwegian background. But with all that great sea of information out there, many people are still drifting.  Perhaps, you are one of them.  You are not sure of who you want to be yet, nor are you certain of who God wants you to be.  But you know you want to experience a life that is different, and that Christ is at work in you.  Yes, people are starving for meaning, “So do not be ashamed of the gospel.  It is the power of God for salvation.”

The second challenge is this:  You must be aware and self-critical of how you walk the walk of faith.  As Christians, we can be our own worst enemies.  We can be judgmental, hypocritical and sometimes, just plain unfriendly.   I am reminded of the woman who went in to wake her husband early one Sunday morning.  “Dear, it’s time to go to church” to which he replied, “I ‘m not going.”  Insisting, she asked.  “Why not?”  Pulling the pillow over his head, he said, “I’ll give you three good reasons:   Nobody likes me there, Nobody listens to me there, and, Nobody talks to me there.”  The wife responded, “But honey, you have to go.  You’re the pastor.”

Most of us walk from one extreme to the other: either we always talk about faith, or we never talk about it.  We all need to find a way for the walk to match the talk. Believe it or not, that is what Rally Sunday is all about.  It is trying to connect you to programs and people with meaning so that you can bring out the best in your Christian integrity.  Just deciding you’re not going to make mistakes never keeps you from making mistakes.  Studying the scriptures is good, and yet never integrating God’s word and a spirit of love into your works is empty.   The gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in many ways.  And whether it seems fair or not, your personal integrity, your walk of faith, makes or breaks everything.

The Roman Governor Festus and the Jewish King Agrippa sent Paul on his way, dismissing him and purpose.  The same happens to faithful Christians all the time.  But my friends, do not be ashamed of the gospel.  We live and walk the faith, because we believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Paul’s departure from Caesarea was followed by a long journey at sea and a shipwreck along the way, but Paul was never ashamed of the gospel.  Even in Rome, where he lived under house arrest at his own expense for two years, he welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.  Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.  Regardless of how he was received, he walked the Way, and was not ashamed of the gospel.  In this new age, may you and I find that same strength and conviction.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.