Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
I think Paul would recognize the world in which we live, not the technological advances, but the attitudes, the approach to life. Our world is not so different from the world he found in Athens. Athens was quite different from the “religious” society of the Israelites. Athens was a multicultural city with a multitude of attitudes about religion. As he “toured” the city, he saw idol after idol. And, he saw that even though there was a Jewish synagogue, its members had had little impact on the society around them. So, he had conversations with the Jewish people, with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The narrator tells us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Paul noted their interest, and to paraphrase he said, “Athenians, I see how extremely ‘spiritual’ you are in every way.”
“I’m a very spiritual person.” That’s a common assertion in our society today. “I’m a spiritual person – but I’m not religious.” So, we see people seeking the newest, the latest fad in what it means to be spiritual. I did a quick internet search and you can find approaches to spirituality that based on art or music or nature or meditation. The approaches to living a spiritual life are numerous and changing day by day, year by year. Anthony Robinson noted that it is, in some ways, a surprise. In the 1960s and 1970s scholars assumed that we were moving toward a fully secular society. They thought that by the 21st century we would have only remnants of spirituality or Christianity. Although some might complain that Christianity is tattered and increasingly sidelined, the interest in spirituality has, if anything, stayed strong – or even strengthened.
Modern spirituality speaks to our human hunger. Robinson writes that the Epicureans with whom Paul spoke considered “personal pleasure” to be the aim of human existence. Does that not sound familiar? The Epicureans critiqued the gods that Paul saw because they considered those gods to be powerless. So, they sought their own pleasure apart from religion or religious observance. (They were “spiritual, but not religious”.) It was a “me” centered approach to life. The Stoics had a different emphasis. They sought a civil religion that would enable human beings to live together with tolerance and peace. The god they worshipped would accommodate the differences. That god was the god in whom they “lived and had their being.”
The Epicureans and the Stoics were comfortable with a spirituality that served them and their perceived needs. The Epicureans sought personal pleasure. The Stoics sought a stable society that lived comfortably with differences. Robinson suggests that Paul recognized in them the human desire for a god who somehow transcends our differences and a god who meets us in the very depths of ourselves.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel in her book When “Spiritual But Not Religious”Is Not Enough wrote of her experiences encountering the “spiritual but not religious” people of today. It struck me that her experience was not all that different from Paul’s in Athens. She wrote of a man who told her, “I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.” Her reflection sputtered, “So you find God in the sunset? Great, so do I. But how about in the face of cancer? Cancer is nature too. Do you worship that as well?” She noted that “suffering is seldom accounted for in these self-made spiritualities, other than as something we might overcome, by hard work, exercise, and reading the op-ed page. But worldwide disaster, how do you wrestle with that?”
One of the big “spiritualities” she noted was one that I found in my internet search – “gratitude”. That one finds its way into our Christian practices as well. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But, Daniel says, “When you witness pain and declare yourself lucky, you have fallen way short of what Jesus would do. ….while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky. I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and, rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.” The spirituality that is so much a part of our culture is little more than a projection of one’s own values. It demands little.
Paul and Daniel note the spirituality of the culture. And in that spirituality they saw/see the human need for God, for God who is more than a human projection of our own limited vision. Robinson says that Paul described Israel’s God who is “transcendent yet personal, sovereign yet fully engaged in human life.” Paul was offended by the lack of intellectual integrity in the spirituality in Athens. The great philosophers hadn’t seen that their gods were little more than human projections. He proclaimed the transcendent God of Israel who was beyond what human beings could dream up.
Daniel focuses more on the modern spirituality that has as one of its components the rejection of organized religion – and in Christianity, of the church. She acknowledges all the faults and flaws of the church. We know them well – and the outside world is very happy to point out any flaws we might ignore – or, worse, relish. Yet, Daniels suggests that the church is what God has given to us – even in its imperfection. She writes, “..in the church, as everywhere, we are stuck with one another, and being stuck with one another, we don’t get the space to come up with our own human-invented God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In church, in community, humanity is just way too close to look good.”
That got me thinking. How might I speak about the church when someone says, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Why does church matter? Why is it that I see the community of believers as an important, vital – even central—part of the life of faith?
Maybe it is because, as Daniel said, it is in and through the community that I encounter the transcendent God – the God who is much more than I can imagine. The church pulls us from self-defined and self-centered “spirituality” toward the God who transcends human culture and yet, speaks to the depths of who we are. The community of the faithful – which we need to define not narrowly but broadly – challenges our assumptions, proclaims God known and experienced by saints current and past, educates and nourishes us, comforts and strengthens us, and calls us beyond ourselves, to participate in God’s work. Daniel said that there is a hunger in this world for testimony --- not that soap box, self-righteous condemning voice – but honest speech about seeing light in the darkness, about encountering God’s grace and hanging on to the hope that there is something more than what we can readily see and know.
Eugene Peterson suggested that modern spirituality’s usefulness “is not in its precision but rather in the way it names something indefinable yet quite recognizable: transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy. Transcendence: [the] sense that there is more, a sense that life extends far beyond me, beyond what I get paid, beyond what my spouse and children think of me, beyond my cholesterol count. Intimacy: [the] sense that deep within me there is a core being inaccessible to the probes of psychologists or the examinations of physicians, the questions of pollsters, the strategies of advertisers. Spirituality, though hardly precise, provides a popular term that recognizes an organic linkage between this beyond and within that are part of everyone’s experience.”
Jesus said to his disciples that they needed to look around and see how the fields were ripe for harvesting. He was sending his laborers out. Robinson noted that Paul was “out in the field” in a way, meeting the Athenians in the places that mattered to them. The synagogue was not engaged in the city. So, there had been no harvest. Robinson suggested that the church of today is often so involved in its internal life that it has forgotten the need to be out in our own communities, our own society. That message is resonating with many. For a long time the church has operated under the assumption that people will find us. “If you build it, they will come” was the motto of new church development. Now, the approach is to find ways of connecting with people in the community –and seeing what might happen. Many creative approaches have been generated—Beer and Bibles, a bar ministry—a ministry in strip clubs—Bible studies brought to the homeless—truck stop church—a churches in malls or shopping centers.
Yet, the Book of Acts says that Paul ended up with two converts in Athens! Two! Obviously the harvest was a long time in coming! Yet, Paul’s apparent lack of success might also be a warning to us. So often I hear people speak of evangelism (telling the good news) and what they really mean is finding new members so that our churches can survive. Or, we present God as the god who will meet our needs. I saw a church sign the other day that asked, “Got God?” I’m sure the intention was good. But, it sounded like something you would get to serve yourself rather than an invitation to God’s invitation to be “gotten” by God and invited into God’s work.
Spirituality – even Christian spirituality—becomes just another means of serving ourselves, of meeting our own needs. We try to tame, to domesticate God to serve us rather than remembering that we are called to serve God. We might note that way Christianity is offered as a way by which we might all get along -- or the way Christianity gets used in service of nationalism – in many, many nations. It is an easy slippery slope. We get things backwards. We think of God serving what we know instead of acknowledging that we are to serve God. So, our evangelism, our testimony is not for ourselves – and we need to be careful about our motives. Our testimony, our sharing is of the good news we have received from the witness of the saints who have gone before us and who are around us. Paul proclaimed the God who was and is beyond all human schemes and understanding.
Robinson concluded that Athenians, like many affluent and well educated people, didn’t really accept Paul’s message. He said, “Today some people who are fascinated by spirituality will respond in similar ways when their self-centeredness is challenged, when they are presented with a God who cannot be reduced to fit their world or domesticated to serve their agenda…In our day, spirituality holds within it a great lure and potential: people long for the beyond and hunger for within – for both transcendence and intimacy. These hungers are real and powerful, and we should respect them and take them seriously.”
The world around us is hungry. That is good news for us – because we are witnesses and bearers of the bread that satisfies. We can offer – with grace, with humility, and with respect. The harvest is God’s responsibility. Amen.
Acts 7:55-60, John 14:1-14
As I was doing some research on the passages for today, I went to a website I hadn’t visited in quite a long time. The website is “The Edge of the Enclosure.” Suzanne Guthrie, its creator, is a modern mystic. Each week she reflects on the scriptures in the Lectionary and suggests a journey of meditation and prayer related to them.
I was intrigued by her meditation on the passage from John’s gospel. She looked at the passage and focused, not on the dwelling places, but on Jesus’ departure. He will be leaving –yes, to prepare a place, or places for his disciples—but what they will know first is his absence. Guthrie wrote, “Christ prepares a place, but just as I get there he disappears, just as he did at Emmaus. For he is going to prepare the next place for me For in the house of the Holy One there are many mansions/dwelling places/resting places/rooms.”
I have to admit that I’ve tended to hear in this gospel passage a description of the promised place as one where people are “divided” from one another. Individuals or groups live in “separate” dwellings. After all, there are many dwelling places! I might think of the old jokes about heaven where different denominations are “inhabiting” different spaces.
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, "Denomination?" The man says, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list, and says, "Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. "Denomination?"
"Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
A third man arrives at the gates. "Denomination?"
"Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8."
The man says, "I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?"
St. Peter tells him, "Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones here.
Guthrie had a very different idea about what the dwelling places are. She drew from the book Interior Castle by 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa used this imagery of the dwelling places or mansions. But these weren’t “permanent” dwellings to which we aspire. The dwellings were places on the journey to the most interior dwelling of all – the Holy of Holies – the place where God’s very presence dwells. And, these dwelling places are accessible to Jesus’ followers – accessible through an ever deepening awareness of God. She wrote, “I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” Once inside she said that the soul “must be allowed to roam through these mansions” and “not be compelled to remain for a long time in one single room.” Guthrie took this concept and suggested that Jesus remains ahead of us, preparing each place toward which we should aspire as deepen our discipleship.
I was reminded of an afternoon I spent on my porch in Pennsylvania. I saw and heard a cardinal. As I looked further, I noticed a baby cardinal, just out of the nest, sitting on a branch. The mother (I’m assuming) was a few branches away, tweeting furiously, until the baby spread its wings and flew the short distance. The mother immediately moved to a new branch and started the encouraging tweets again. Sometime later the baby flew to the new branch – and the mother moved away – a little further this time. The process was repeated again and again. The mama bird moved on, encouraging the baby bird to follow. And that little bird learned to fly!
St. Teresa’s book is beautiful, providing guidance for strengthening our relationship with God – for moving from the easy, quick assertions of faith to a deeper awareness of God’s glory and love. We read the book in seminary. It was given to us in a course called Faith Formation--- required in our final year. The students always noted that the faculty had spent two years challenging our faith. It seemed that they recognized the need to start putting the pieces back together before they sent us out into the world. Perhaps they chose her book because, in the church, it is easy to get caught up in institutional life. The demands of being an institution can crowd out our awareness of God’s call to each and all of us. We forget that the church is a means to being grafted into the ways, the desires, and the call of the One who loves us. Perhaps, the church is merely one of those dwelling places on the way to encountering, more fully, the glorious Creator who, through the Christ, has redeemed us. The church is not the end.
That’s hard to remember, as we gather in our church building. Our life is organized around a place where we gather. We are shaped and caught up in the ways of the institution that is the church. Yet Jesus was always on the move. He traveled around Galilee, into Samaria, and down to Jerusalem. Early in his ministry, he sent his disciples out. Jesus said, responding to someone who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The early church continued this sense of movement. Those who believed the good news of his resurrection carried that news as they went out from Jerusalem.
The church is not the end. We speak of the church triumphant, but, the Biblical witness, instead, speaks of the day when there will be no more need of church. In the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the writer says, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”
I’m not advocating that we abandon the church. Yet, if we consider St. Teresa’s approach to the dwellings – that they were “on the road” to a fuller and deeper relationship with God – and if we consider Jesus’ own ministry and the vision presented in the Revelation to John, we need to remember that the church, itself—that is, the body of believers, not the building—should always be on the move toward a deeper commitment.
Guthrie wrote, “Christ prepares a place, but just as I get there he disappears, just as he did at Emmaus. For he is going to prepare the next place for me For in the house of the Holy One there are many mansions/dwelling places/resting places/rooms.” Jesus moves on, like the mother bird, calling us to venture forth, to venture out and find the world beyond and within—those sacred places where God’s presence is discovered. God’s people are always invited to move beyond what we know, what feels safe. Mark Twain may have understood why. He said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and any of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of [people] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s life.”
We are blessed, in this place, by an abundance of experiences and perceptions. We gather from many places and bring the awareness that God’s ways are broad. This is not the place to land, but a new “resting place” in which and through which we seek the God who dwells among and in us. And, even in this resting place, we are to look for new “travels” into God’s world, heeding the invitation and loving call of the one who always goes before us.
Act 2: 42-47, John 10: 1-10
“Very truly,” Jesus said, “I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” You know, when I let my imagination play with that imagery, I think of all the Saint Peter cartoons. Peter stands at the gates of heaven – and determines who will and who won’t be allowed to enter. “I am the gate.” We think of insiders and outsiders. Add to this imagery the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which depicts an early Christian community. “All who believed were together and had all things in common…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke the bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…” They were the insiders. They were a group that offered community – such a strong community, that there was a willingness to share goods to provide for anyone in need.
I’ve encountered a few approaches to Christianity that seem to be designed to create groups that present themselves as closed to outsiders -- as semi-secret societies. If you are allowed in, you become knowledgeable. You are educated in the language and traditions that are a mystery to outsiders.
Sometimes, the sense of exclusiveness is unintentional. When I was in college, I was accepted into the 40 voice choral group that the university used as a recruiting tool and a means of staying connected with alumni. Every year we toured, visiting schools and alumni functions. When I first joined, it was hard to feel that I was a part of the group. Those who had been around had stories that they freely shared with each other. Newcomers felt left out. I learned to tell newcomers, in the following years, that it wasn’t intentional, and that they, too, would feel much more a part of the group after tour. And it was true. You became a part of the group when you shared the story.
As society around us has become much more secular, we often find ourselves speaking a language that outsiders struggle to understand. Near Christmas, one of the high school teachers in Boonville, NY, a town that in many ways reflected life decades ago, asked her students to write something about the three wise men. (Now, I would quibble with the “three,” but her knowledge reflected the beloved carol, “We Three Kings.”) The school librarian told of a young woman, one of the outstanding seniors, who came to her for help. “Who are these wise men?” she asked. “Where do I find information?” For the student, Christmas was a secular celebration. She knew nothing of its connections with Christianity. The assignment asked for knowledge that the teacher assumed was general. Yet, for that bright young woman it was obscure.
For many, the idea of coming into church for a service is daunting! Consider how hard is it to attend even a different tradition We might not know when to sit, when to stand, when to kneel. We might not know how to say the prayers or what responses are expected. And those challenges are for us who are a part of the faith tradition. How difficult would it be for someone who has had no connection with or experience of the Christian faith? It’s a reason for putting things in the bulletin that, once upon a time, might have been omitted because everybody knew what to do! Yet, even that’s not enough. We strive to provide information and “road signs” for those who might come in. Yet there are many who wouldn’t even dream of entering a church!
Anna Carter Florence wrote, “I don’t much like the idea of Jesus as a gate, or gatekeeper. It is just too big a temptation for the rest of us to go and do likewise. This history of the church is littered with gatekeeping battles, some of that wreckage haunts us still.” The church obsesses over who belongs and who doesn’t, over who should belong and who should be kept out. Jesus is the gate or gatekeeper – preventing those who are undesirable and unworthy from getting in to where the good sheep abide. So, the church, influenced by this image, has spent centuries striving to purge the flock of those who have somehow entered when, truly, they didn’t or don’t belong. And, even when we haven’t actively been gatekeepers, we have functioned in a way that often isolates us from the world and sets up unintentional barriers.
What are those barriers? There is the perception (reality) that we are hypocrites who don’t live up to what we preach. We are seen as judgmental and unwelcoming. We are accused of being out of touch, preaching and proclaiming a message that has little to do with the world people inhabit. Maybe it’s that our language – the language of worship, the language of music – doesn’t connect with those outside. Early in my ministry, I had a colleague who had finally decided that worship using King James English was, perhaps, a little dated! Maybe God wouldn’t be angry with him if he started using every day English!
Carter Florence wrote about seeing something new in this morning’s gospel lesson. She noted this gate is not something that is closed, permanently, or locked. It swings open and it shuts. And the sheep go in and out. “When he calls, we come in, and we go out, and we come in again. When he calls, we listen. When we listen, we are saved, because we have the pasture we need…we go out and we come in, even when we are saved. Good pastureland is not simply self-evident…So the flock keeps moving, according to the shepherd’s best wisdom…There is nothing particularly magical about the gate; it simply marks a boundary between a place to graze and a place to rest. It is part of the dailiness of life.”
We have to get beyond what jumps out at us – perhaps the word gatekeeper or the description of the early Christian community as one that was “together and had all things in common”—so that we do not miss the rhythm portrayed in both passages – the coming in and going out that were and are a part of the life of faith. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.” “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
The Reverend John Buchanan, who was pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, wrote of the need to have the church be a place set apart from the world’s noise. It is a place of respite. Yet, he said, it cannot be merely a place of escape or retreat. If and when it becomes so, it has missed its very call. He wrote, “The church is called to be in the world, in the city, and that means intentionally, imaginatively, creatively, and aggressively in the city, living in and for the human community in order to be faithful to God.” He went on to quote Professor Langdon Gilkey who said that the world is in need of the religious community of grace. That grace should embrace and accommodate the world’s creativity while acknowledging and speaking to its fallenness, its flaws. He said, “How to balance these two requirements is a trick practiced with accomplishment only in the kingdom.”
I think it’s interesting, in Jesus’ metaphor, that the flock finds nourishment not in the ingathering, but out in the world, in the pasture. Yet, is there not something nourishing in participating in God’s redeeming work in our world? We are fed as we work for God’s realm. We are fed as we work for God’s ways. Yes, nourishment comes in rest. It comes in our time together and apart from the world. But it also comes in our work out in the world, where the shepherd leads us.
We might picture the flock somewhat scattered in that wide pasture – mixed among the other sheep from other flocks that have gone out to graze. Yet, they know the shepherd’s voice. They still belong to that one flock. Carter Florence wrote, “A sheep that flat-out refuses to go out will die. Likewise, a sheep that flat-out refuses to go in, when the call comes, may soon be lost in the night. So the gate is part of life and also the key to life, but not because it keeps us out or in. It simply marks the boundary between what we are to do in each space.” She asserts that salvation comes not in the space, but in the going out and coming in, heeding the shepherd’s voice.
It’s easy to get locked into thinking that we are supposed to be on one side of the gate or the other – and forget that it is the movement where we find our salvation. The story in Acts gives us a glimpse of the early community’s life – many scholars say that it is an idealized glimpse. But this limited look gives us a sense of the movement of the community. They gathered in homes. They worshipped in the temple. Something in the rhythm of that going out and coming in was welcoming to others. They weren’t shut away. Their actions in the world –out where others could see them – was a form of testimony that intrigued and invited others to join them.
One of Ann Weems wonderful poems asks the question, “Do we or do we not believe the news is good?” She asks the question in a poem that challenges the way we might worship. “How one will we come before the Lord with tired spirits and droning voices? How long will we sit in half-filled churches and sing praise with noiseless songs? How long will we worship with bored faces and dulled senses and offer tin when we could give gold?” Something about the way that early community of believers worshipped in the temple, something about the way they interacted with those around them, proclaimed the news they knew was good! They knew and celebrated the good news in their time apart and in the world around them.
Buchanan noted that the church, too often, has thought of its engagement in mission as something extra that we do. Emil Bruner said, “the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” Buchanan says we can’t merely exist. We can’t be the sheep that are shut away from the big, bad world. We’re not supposed to just survive or succeed as institutions. He asserts, “We are called, as churches, to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to serve the world as he served it, to love the world as he loved it, to give our lives away to the world as he gave his life away.”
There is a rhythm to being God’s people. We strive to live by our faith – and that very faith takes us out into the world so that we – or more importantly – God can by known by love. It is the call to each of us in our daily lives. It is the call to us as a community of faith – to live giving ourselves away to God’s beloved world.
Anthony Robinson, one of the premier writers about church transformation for today, has a book titled Called to Be Church: the Book of Acts for a New Day. The season of Easter, in which we find ourselves, invites us to explore the Biblical book of Acts which tells us about God’s people being formed for a new way of being in light of the resurrection.
Robinson has an entire chapter of his book focused on the second chapter of Acts, most of which was our lesson for today. Now, the lectionary suggests the latter part of what I chose to use. I expanded the lesson because there are dangers whenever we take or hear a portion of the scripture and don’t consider its entire context. Numerous scholars noted the consequences in hearing Peter’s declaration: “Therefore, let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him (Jesus) both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified,” out of context. That assignment of blame has permeated much of Christian history. “The Jews crucified Jesus.” I remember hearing the story of a young Jewish girl who came home crying and asked her mother, “Who is Jesus and why did we kill him?”
It’s always tempting to assign blame somewhere else. “You sure told them, pastor!” is a reflection I and other ministers have heard after a Sunday service. “You sure told them!” In some ways, it might sound like Peter is “telling them!” But we have to remember who Peter is. Peter is the disciple who promised Jesus that he would be there every step of the way – even if that meant he would have to die with Jesus. Yet, he abandoned him. He denied him. I know that I begin to miss the mark when I’m looking at preaching to others and forget to preach to myself – to find the challenge that confronts me, convicts me, and invites me to a new way of living as God’s disciple. Calvin said that “judgment always begins with the house and people of God.” Judgment begins with us. God’s people are the ones who have some sense of what God’s intent for the world and its inhabitants is. Yet, God’s people, part of the world, always fall short. The Israelites were the keepers of the stories of God. Yet, when the Messiah came into their midst, they chose the broken ways of the world instead of receiving God’s presence through Jesus of Nazareth.
So, Peter is not preaching to assign blame or even to condemn. What sounds harsh – and, perhaps is harsh, is only the first step. He himself is included in the judgment that found the people of God failing to accept the Christ. Peter’s sermon invited them to hear the story – the ancient story – in a new way. Robinson described the sermon as Jewish Midrash, a commentary on the scripture that connected the ancient stories to the life of Jesus and his resurrection. They were to hear that story not to wallow in God’s condemnation, but to acknowledge their failure and to hear and accept and to live into God’s gift of forgiveness. It was, to borrow a title from another book I pulled off my shelf, a culture shift. Peter invited them to rehear the ancient texts, to acknowledge the ways in which they had failed to live according to those texts, to receive, accept and rejoice in God’s forgiveness – and then, to move on toward the new life God’s forgiveness offers.
There are things to hear in Peter’s sermon – timely words for us, God’s people, in this day and age. Robinson pointed out that the gift of the Spirit is not a private gift – for one’s personal salvation and assurance. The Spirit of God is not private property. It is a gift to the community that is public. The crowds heard the Spirit’s coming and the sound of the believers speaking in different languages. They saw these Galileans pour forth into the streets and speak of God’s work. Peter’s message is that the future has come – and the people of Israel are called to continue what Jesus had started. The one who was forgiven for his betrayal proclaimed the grace he had known and called his sisters and brother to receive that same grace and join in Jesus’ continuing work.
Robinson critiqued the way the modern church has often approached faith. He complained about worship services that focus on “friendly ideas, good advice, cheerful platitudes and encouragement to participate in useful projects or activities.” He asked if our focus is how to adjust to the world that is, or is it, as Peter preached, an invitation to seek out an entirely new world? Garrison Keillor said, “I’ve heard a lot of sermons in the past ten years or so that make me want to get up and walk out. They’re secular, psychological, self-help sermons. Friendly, but of no use. They didn’t make you want to straighten up. They didn’t give you anything hard. At some point and in some way, a sermon has to direct people toward the death of Christ and to the campaign God has waged over the centuries to get our attention.” The Spirit, given on that Day of Pentecost, didn’t come as a gentle breeze, but as a fiery, impelling and compelling tornado – disrupting and challenging all who encountered it directly or through the believers.
I mentioned the book Culture Shift. It’s full title is Culture Shift: Transforming Your Congregation from the Inside Out. In a sense, that’s what Peter did in his sermon. He reframed the ancient stories so that the Israelites could see Jesus’ life, ministry and death in a new way. Many who have looked at church renewal and transformation have suggested that a congregation look back and find out what’s in its DNA – why it was established. I’m not sure that Presbyterians have always articulated that well. You look back through the records and see careful attention to membership, building issues, and financial issues. Somehow, the how and why of the church’s mission didn’t or doesn’t get recorded. We are too often bogged down by the institutional demands. Sometimes its almost impossible to get to the church’s DNA.
But, there’s a deeper DNA – a more compelling DNA – and we find that DNA is the Biblical witness that calls us to engaged response to God’s presence revealed in the stories of God’s people, and, most particularly, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We find our DNA in the emergence of the earliest faith communities that found the courage to speak of and work for the world to which Jesus pointed.
A member of the Commission on Church Vitality had a conversation with a non-denominational church planter (in the area). The pastor said that a small group of folks volunteered to be involved in the community – in fact, they became the “go to” people. They made connections with others. Then, they chose a mission and invited people to get involved. And their church was born – and grew!
That story made me think about the way Presbyterians have been involved in our nation – striving to make it a better place. I thought we’ve done that. We do that. But maybe we don’t articulate that – even to ourselves. One, John Witherspoon, was actively involved in the birth of this nation. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Think about the way our nation’s government is structured. There is a strong connection with our “representative” form of government in this denomination. Some historians note Witherspoon’s influence. Presbyterians have taken their faith into the civic realm in many, many ways—working for the good of their communities, their states, the nation and the world.
Maybe what we’ve forgotten to do is to connect our service to our faith. I had a colleague who, every month, named what the people in his congregation were doing in and for the community. He would list service such as delivering for Meals on Wheels, volunteering in a hospital, nursing home, or school, serving in public office, and people in the military. He connected their faith to their service. It was a reminder to those who served and to the entire congregation that we are called beyond ourselves. One of the authors of Culture Shift wrote, “Your church, whatever its size or age, has billion-dollar potential. Yes, your church, and every church where the Spirit of God lives…God’s children are heirs to things so precious that no amount of money can buy them.” One of the culture shifts they wrote about was moving from the mentality that we, as a church, have to fill slots of leadership to a mentality that says this is where dreams of what could be take shape and are given the wind of the Spirit that fills their sails. One couple dreamed of a desire to provide mentors for junior high students. They developed a program that became statewide. They made a difference. The church hired a receptionist who needed a job and discovered an artistic talent. She became the head of that growing church’s media department.
Culture Shift, like Peter in his sermon, says we need to challenge ourselves to see things differently. The book says all the quick fix programs we look for ultimately fail because the transformation starts with us.
Whatever our history might say – or not say—about who we are, our ultimate identity is that we are God’s children, beloved, forgiven, empowered and sent – sent into the world with God’s vision of what the world – beloved by God—could and should be. Particular congregations have particular calls. And, perhaps, those calls change with the times. Gulfport is not the same city it was 20, 25, 50 or even 100 years ago. Speaking of which, 100 years ago, in 1917, this church was founded – first as an independent church which in 1947 became Presbyterian. Now, I would guess that the church was founded because people saw a need for a Christian community and witness in Gulfport. But the Gulfport of 100 years ago is not the Gulfport of today. So, what does it mean to for us to be a Christian community and witness in today’s Gulfport?
One of the things I loved about the Culture Shift stories was that God’s call was varied and that it emerged from and through people’s passion. It’s also one of the things I liked about that colleague’s approach to identifying and celebrating ministry. It’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. Different people have different gifts. At time those gifts come together in powerful ways. The couple that started the mentoring program found others who embraced and committed themselves to their vision. The receptionist’s talents stayed more in-house. Others were connected and empowered by her gifts. But, the ministry was smaller in scale – and that’s OK.
How can your passion and your gifts be connected more powerfully with God’s call to make this world a better place? As most of your know, I’ve found an outlet for music that has given me great joy. However, sometimes I’ve wondered if it is taking too much of my time. It’s an “outside” thing that I do – not connected to my faith. Or – I wondered – is it? What if I began to look at what I do in a new way, a different way? I realized that the orchestra concerts provide music for those who might not be able to afford Florida Orchestra tickets. The small group has played for fundraisers – an Episcopal Feeding Ministry, a Wounded Warriors benefit, this congregation’s Elementary School ministry. We’ve played for community events. We’ve played for some church services. And we’ve played at retirement and nursing homes – bringing music to those who can’t get out. What if I saw it not only as a way of indulging in a passion to make music, but also as a ministry that is worthwhile?
Marilyn and Maureen make prayer shawls. Taryn serves in ROTC. Mary has made quilts to beautify our space and quilts to benefit others. Yvonne served as mayor of Gulfport. Lavon cares for and about those she works with and her customers. Mark Spence was (is?) involved in a surfing ministry. Gail and Jerry, in their trucking careers, connected with school children across the country. Barbara, for years, has welcomed refugees in Newfoundland. Vilia plays music for the residents of the nursing home where her mother is. I hate making such lists because I know that I leave out many people, many ministries. So, I challenge you to share with us what you are doing. And, I challenge all of us to explore more fully the ways God is calling us to live our faith in this world – seeking to proclaim the world God intends.