Leaving the Building

Acts 8:26-40

May 6th, 2012


            He was “other”. He was probably dark-skinned, since he came from Ethiopia. He held an important position in a pagan court, handling the queen’s entire treasury. He was privileged-- he rode in a chariot. He was ritually unclean, from a Jewish point of view, having been surgically altered as a child to be a eunuch.


            If Philip was looking for a new member of the church of Jesus Christ, he would never have considered approaching this chariot and this man. Yet the Spirit moved Philip to do the unexpected, maybe even the unthinkable. The Spirit nudged Philip to find a connection, and to risk social embarrassment by approaching someone very different from himself.


            At last Sunday’s Association meeting, we heard a report from a church growth event that took place in our conference last fall. Of course, when people these days get together to talk about church growth, they usually begin by talking about church decline. Many cultural factors have combined to make our churches smaller than they were in the heyday of the 50’s and 60’s. We do a lot of hand-wringing about what we are doing wrong, and what we need to do, in order to get people back into the church-- to add to our membership rolls! The leader of the event last fall, Tom Ehrich, suggests all kinds of strategies, some of which make me cringe. But he has a general, guiding principle that I find most intriguing. It centers on the primary purpose of the church.


            What is our primary purpose? How do we spend our time and money to make it happen? Is it taking care of our own people?  Or, is it enlisting new members who will share the work with us, who will help pay the bills?  These are urgent concerns. Yet Ehrich suggests that our main task, as the people of Jesus Christ, is to equip one another to bring the good news out of this building and into the world in which we live.


            He suggests that we pay attention to the needs and concerns of the people we encounter, at work, at the playground, wherever-- and that we share with them the benefits we ourselves have received from our faith. This is not old-style evangelism, where the goal is to get someone to visit the church, to join the church, and serve on a committee. Instead it’s about meeting people where they are, and offering them sincere friendship and open sharing. The goal is relationships in which we live the welcome, the grace and the spaciousness of Christ (without ulterior motives.)


            Some Methodist churches have recently held special Sundays in which they announce “The church has left the building.” On that day, instead of gathering for worship, the entire congregation goes out into the community to do service projects. It is powerful advertising: “This is who we are. Church is much more than what happens inside these walls on Sunday morning.  We notice and respond to the needs of the world.”


            As I read this week’s scripture story, it strikes me that that is exactly what Philip did with the Ethiopian Eunuch. He “left the building” of religious rituals and ceremonies. He followed the prompting of the Spirit, to go to a person he would never have otherwise engaged in conversation. He did not come with his own agenda. He listened to what the Eunuch was reading out loud. He used the Eunuch’s concerns as the basis for starting the conversation. He asked a question….. “Do you understand what you are reading?”


            And it turned out, that the strange foreigner was hungry for a teacher. He had lots of questions, and Philip did his best to answer them. I bet Philip never rode in a chariot before, but he jumped right up and they sat side by side. Philip made connections between the fierce justice of the prophet Isaiah and the self-emptying love of Jesus of Nazareth, and he told the eunuch about the diverse community that had gathered since Jesus’ death and resurrection.


            But notice, even then, Philip did not push to make the sale. He did not sign the eunuch up for membership in the fledgling church, nor ask him for a contribution out of the queen’s treasury. Instead, Philip allowed the eunuch to set the rhythm of the encounter.  “As they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”


            This bit of magic emphasizes the heady early days of the Christian church, when the Spirit was making miracles happen all over the place. But it also underscores the nature of encounters that take place “outside the building”. The people whom we touch with our caring and with our stories of faith will not necessarily ever “come to our church.” Our goal, as Ehrich suggested, is no longer to add names to our membership list, but instead, to share the peace, grace, and wisdom of Jesus in the world. This may result in people like the eunuch who are eager to be baptized and join the party. Or it may not. Perhaps the church of Jesus is moving into a new era, which none of us can readily imagine, in which church buildings and membership lists become less important and the Spirit moves in new patterns.


            So here we are. I don’t see any chariots riding by our church, nor any eunuchs dressed in silken robes. But I do see many “others”. One recent study claims that 70 % percent of all 20 year-olds have never been inside a church. That means they don’t know the Doxology or the Lord’s Prayer or the story of Noah’s ark. Meanwhile rigid and judgmental fundamentalists have twisted Jesus into a form I scarcely recognize, scaring people away from faith altogether. Yet people are hungry for values, for relationships, for ways to make sense of the mystery and meaning of life, and comfort for life’s heartaches.


            We are the people the Spirit has called and sent out in our time and place--  to listen, to ask questions, and to reach out in friendship. Our friendship with Jesus is not a product we sell, but it is who we are. And it is a gift the world hungers for. Amen.


A Roll of the Dice as an Act of Faith

Acts 1:15-17,21-26, Psalm 1

May 20th, 2012

Rolling the dice goes against so much of who we are, and not just because of their association with gambling. We believe in making informed choices. We believe in using logic, comparing resumes, checking references, and taking votes. Jeffrey Peterson-Davis wrote of today’s passage from Acts: “Whether it is schoolyard kickball teams, national elections or calling leaders in the church, we are used to choosing and having our voices heard in the process.”

Today’s passage takes place in the time in-between the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The friends and followers of Jesus continue to meet together and to pray—some 120 of them, but no one knows what will happen next. “Church” as we know it today does not yet exist; not even the name “church,” let alone its various structural forms. What the friends of Jesus do have, is the sense that they are somehow continuing the legacy of the twelve tribes of Israel. And they can't do that without twelve representative apostles. Judas’ betrayal may have been part of God's larger plan, but it has left their leadership council incomplete. How will they choose a replacement?

Peter begins, but in spite of his prominence as the acknowledged leader, he does not just appoint a new apostle. Instead, Peter outlines the criteria they will use for the selection. The new apostle should be someone who has been there with them since the beginning—with Jesus at his baptism, and through all that followed. It seems that the 120 believers present (who included a substantial number of women) used some kind of democratic process to put forward two names for consideration. And then they cast lots.

Casting lots was an ancient Biblical practice-- something like flipping a coin, or tossing dice. The sailors on Jonah’s storm-tossed ship cast lots to figure out which passenger needed to be tossed overboard. The Roman soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ robe, rather than tearing it up and dividing it. This practice seems to us primitive, arbitrary, and random, but to ancient peoples, it was sometimes used to discern God's will.

Scripture commentators are divided as they consider the implications of this passage. Some say, “casting lots” shows that the disciples acted out of anxiety. They should have waited until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would have shown them which new leader to appoint. As it turns out, Matthias, the apostle chosen by the roll of the dice, is never mentioned in the Bible again. So we do not know how effective he was in his new role.

Other Bible scholars see in this passage an acknowledgment that in many areas of our life together, it is God, not we, who is in control. While casting lots may seem like magic—like the old trick of closing your eyes and opening the Bible at random to find your word for the day—this practice also evidences deep trust in God’s guidance.

Notice how the initial selection of the two candidates was carried out by the gathered assembly of 120 people. They chose two candidates, using the criteria set by Peter. Then they prayed: “Lord you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of the two you have chosen.”

They were willing to give up the illusion that they were in control of the outcome of what Jesus had started. In this, and in their lives in general, they were willing to allow God to move them like chess pieces, to let themselves be called and sent according to a roll of the dice, a tap on the shoulder, a dream in the night. And even though they had just experienced Judas’ shocking betrayal, they trusted that there were many among them who could take his place. We don’t know what happened to Matthias, but we do know what happened to the 120 followers of Jesus. They exploded into the Roman world on fire with the Holy Spirit, and burning to share the love of Jesus. Their trust in God's guidance was wholly justified.

It’s one of those strange coincidences in church life that this text shows up in our lectionary readings just a few weeks before we face a big transition in leadership. In additional to saying goodbye to a fruitful partnership between us that has lasted nearly 23 years, you are also being asked to use a system in selecting your new minister that feels a little bit like the roll of the dice. The Methodist system asks you to trust the process by which the bishop and his cabinet hear about our church’s strengths and needs and ministries, and appoint the leader they feel will best serve Christ here. “But, but ,but….!” we sputter… We want to interview lots of candidates, take their measure, and make the choice ourselves…..We want, in short, to be in control.

Life is full of random moments we cannot control, some delightful and some terrifying. We meet our future spouse at a laundromat. We miss a plane that later crashes. Someone we love dies young. We run into an old friend in an airport. We lose a job or our health. Life can too often feel like a roll of the dice, and it’s not usually a good thing when it feels this way.

Some people believe that everything happens for a reason, and that God is always and everywhere in charge. Some people believe that life is totally random, and that any meaning or purpose is our own overlay on the indifference of the universe. Is there a middle ground between these two positions? Today’s story may give us some ideas.

The followers of Jesus in Acts prayed before, during, and after their selection of Matthias. Prayer gave them humility about what they could and could not control. Prayer gave them the resiliency to solve whatever problems and challenges came along. Prayer gave them clarity as well, about their priorities in the rapidly developing church.

In addition, they knew that God’s unfolding story depended not just on the newest apostle but on all of them. Theirs was a shared mission, and it required from them anything but passive acquiescence! Life may have been random, but they did not notice, because they were so focused on bringing the story of Jesus to life again and again through their own lives of love and service. They saw everything that happened through that lens of faith and possibility. And because they believed that God had a hand in the selection of Matthias, they were ready to support him as one whom God had sent.

Does this mean, that they all agreed on everything? I am sure they did not. Does this mean that Matthias was universally admired as an outstanding apostle? We have no idea. But this passage gives us an overall sense of the forward movement that is made possible by an open-minded trust. These followers of Jesus, living in the uncertain and in-between time after Jesus ascension and before Pentecost, believed that God was on the move, and they were excited to be along on the journey. They were attentive to the new ways God would call them to live and die for the joy that was set before them. For them, casting lots for a new apostle was one act of faith, among many.

J. Peterson-Davis reflects further on this passage:

The story of the selection of Matthias pushes us to ask questions about how we discern the will of God and the confidence we place in systems we employ. While casting lots seems primitive and out of step with reason, could we trust that God might reveal the divine will in such a simple and definitive way? To what extent do the mechanisms we employ in discernment get tangled up in our own need to control circumstances and outcomes? How does prayer influence our decision making?

Can we admit that being in control is often an illusion in our personal lives, and in the life of our church? Can randomness serve as a space in for the Holy Spirit to move? Can you trust that God is in control of the Methodist appointment system, and that Tim Wilcox is the God-appointed leader who is best for the United Church of Newport at this time? Can you so focus on the shared ministry ahead of you, that you will make it work, despite the challenges and adjustments that inevitably come with change?

Roll the dice, flip the coin, and don’t forget to pray. Amen.

Languages of the Heart

Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-26

May 27th,2012 Pentecost

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Pentecost is a story about the power of words. We approach and comprehend the infinity of God through language. Towards the beginning, according to the book of Genesis, all humankind spoke a single language, and there was no seeming limit to what they could do with their combined powers. They became so full of themselves that they decided to build a tower all the way to heaven. But God, knowing this was not a good idea, brought the project to an end by confusing human speech into different languages. Because the people could no longer understand one another, the project faltered.

Language has great power, and it also has limitations. Sometimes, there is such joy in finding just the right words to convey how we feel, or in telling our own story to someone who listens with care. And sometimes, especially in our modern world, we are surrounded by so many words that convey so little light and truth, we long for the simplicity and space of silence.

The story of Pentecost conveys both the power and the limits of language.

Whereas different languages divided the people of God since the tower of Babel and kept them from understanding one another, on the day of Pentecost, this situation is reversed. For a few hours, everyone present, people from every nationality in the known world: “hear, in their own tongues, about the mighty works of God.”

It is the living Spirit of Jesus Christ that makes this happen. And the Spirit’s signs are not just auditory. There are visible manifestation—flickering flames of fire and mighty winds sweeping through the indoor assembly room.

Church is a communal enterprise, and to be sure, the early church at Pentecost experienced this day while they were gathered together. But this passage also reminds us that faith at its most powerful is always deeply personal. Each of us has, in a way “our own language”, our own way of apprehending truth and beauty and holiness. Each of us has our own way of meeting life’s challenges, our own way of answering life’s big questions, and indeed, our own way of touching God.

Like those gathered on the day of Pentecost, we may not have instant understanding. Acts reports that having heard the disciples speak to them in their own languages, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another ‘What does this mean?’” The task of interpreting the story of Jesus is a necessary corollary to the promise that the Spirit speaks the very language of our own hearts.

Without this personal experience of the love and power of God, without the conviction that, “Yes! Jesus loves me”, faith becomes dry assertion of abstract doctrines. And without the communal discernment of the church, there would be a different religion for each person born. The Christian church developed by finding a balance between our personal encounters with God's free-flowing spirit, and our common work and witness.

At Pentecost, though the scene was wild, even out-of control, the message was about Jesus. Connections were made between the prophets of the Hebrew tradition, and the Jesus who taught and died and rose again, and the community of rustic Galileans, gathered with curious seekers from the Greek diaspora.

The scene was one of such irrational exuberance that some bystanders thought they were drunk. This accusation reminds us that not everyone was converted that day. Some remained deaf to the voice of the Spirit, skeptical of the claims made about Jesus. Maybe some were too uncomfortable with the wildness of the scene. The Holy Spirit sweeps away careful human seating plans and logical arguments. The Holy Spirit will not be controlled or contained. It whooshes through, sets fires, sings too loud. And not everyone can handle it.

The Spirit also insists on blowing where it will. It does not fall on one denomination or nationality and skip another. This Pentecost Spirit is radically inclusive, universal. Every known language is spoken and heard. Every nationality has the chance to respond to the message, and every known nationality will be represented among those who go forth to share what they have heard and believed.

The Sprit is also radically inclusive in other ways. Peter quotes the prophet Joel to explain what is going on.

In these last days, it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams. Yes, and on my menservants and maidservants in those days I will pour out my spirit.

God’s spirit is prophetic—it challenges the social hierarchies of age and status by which we normally value people. It asserts that everyone has access to the truth of God; that everyone, by listening with an open heart, can be a channel of divine wisdom. Even children, even teenagers, even old people, both genders, and even illiterate servants!

So the early church grew, in part, because it allowed for this unprecedented diversity in its membership. People of every race, gender, language group, ethnicity, economic status, and age, were welcome, and it was expected that each one had something to teach the others about God. Do we still have this expectation?

Of course the early church did not always live up to the bold promises of Pentecost. For a few hours, they saw everything so clearly: God’s powerful love, Jesus’ uniting vision, the Spirit’s language of the heart. But then they had to go back to earning a living, and figuring out how to manage their differences of opinion, and deciding what color the carpet should be in their houses of worship. They had to choose leaders, because in the end, they couldn’t all be leaders. And they fell back on old patterns of hierarchy and patriarchy.

Too soon, even in the heady days of the early church, they wondered what had happened to the ecstatic dreams of Pentecost. Jesus promised a new heaven and earth. At Pentecost, words flew and shimmered with the promises of God. But later came times, when the same words seemed inadequate, empty. The promised New Creation wasn’t happening, at least not according to the timetable they expected.

The apostle Paul admitted that sometimes Jesus’ friends couldn’t even pray. Affirmations of faith just stuck in their throats. Paul suggested that whatever was underway among Jesus’ followers, it wasn’t finished yet. He encouraged them to trust the Holy Spirit, even when they could not see what lay ahead, nor find the words to tell God how they felt. He wrote in Romans:

The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, as we wait for adoption as sons and daughters…. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope… But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for human words.”

This is the same Spirit who speaks our native tongues, who whispers the words of our hearts’ longings and wild hopes. When words fail us, the Spirit is still present, still, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, the Holy Spirit “over the bent world broods, with warm breast, and with ah! bright wings.”

Spirit is elusive by its nature. We describe God the Creator, and catalogue the wonders of the natural world. We hear Christ the Teacher and theorize about why he died, and the message of the resurrection. But the Spirit slips through our fingers and our formulas. The Spirit is that part of God that lives inside each breathing soul; that glimmer of God that shines at sunset; that wild impulse from God that moves us to do brave and courageous things for love. Pentecost, at least once a year, moves us out of the realms of logic, and into the realm of intuition.

So, on this day, and in the season to come, listen to the language of your heart. God is still speaking there. When words fail, trust that the Spirit is there too, in the silence of the night, with sighs too deep for words. Try, as much as you can, to resist the urge to tidy up the organization of the church, to decide according to the ways of the world who is worthy to carry the flame of Christ’s truth. Let the Spirit blow where it wills, spark what it chooses, and give life to all. Amen.