Making Community in the Wilderness: A Church Anniversary Sermon for April 8, 2018

This week, the town of Exeter had a birthday. On Tuesday, April 3rd, Exeter was 380 years old. That’s a pretty big celebration on its own, but for those of us who are a part of this church, it’s even bigger. When the earliest towns in New England were being settled back in the 17th century, you could not have a town until you first had a church. This was back before separation of church and state, of course. So back on April 3, 1638, not only did the town have to be chartered, but so to did a church. This church.

new_town_seal_10So, this week, The Congregational Church in Exeter turned 380. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about roots that go back to just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Just eight years after the founding of Boston. And that’s 56 years before the Salem Witch Trials and138 years before the Declaration of Independence.

In other words, we’re old. But, in the scheme of the larger story of the church of Jesus Christ, we’re actually pretty young. And that’s where today’s Scripture comes in on this first Sunday after Easter Sunday. 

Today we turn to the book of Acts. Acts is the book of the Bible that tells about the very earliest church and how they became church. After Jesus’ resurrection, after that first Easter, the disciples started to have to figure out how to live together and share this experience that they had with others. They became the very first church. 

The passage from today tells us a little about how they lived: 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

In other words, they were one body, with one task: share the message of Christ’s resurrection. They lived as one unit, sharing everything they had, and they focused their all on the mission at hand. That was what it meant for them to be church.

So, next week, bring your bank account information and check books, and we’ll get started.

So, I’m kidding about that part. But, I read this passage and I realize there are some things that churches could learn from that first church. First, the ideas, as the passage says, that a church should be “of one heart and soul”. Now, by that I don’t mean that we should all believe the exact same things, or give up who we are as individuals. But I do mean that a church should be bound together by more than the fact that we all come to the same building on Sunday mornings. 

There has to be something bigger than that keeping us together. And I think that thing is the story that we gather around every week, and what it points to, which is the love and grace of Jesus Christ. We may struggle with what we believe, how we believe, or how to live in the world because of it, but at the heart of our life here together is simply that: the Gospel, the good news, of God’s love as found in Jesus Christ. Without it, there’s not much point in us being here. 

Acts tells us that the first church “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”. That might sounds like they were a little bit preachy. Fair enough. But I think their task was more than just saying what they had seen. And I think that task is the same one that you and I still have to carry out today. 

21314839_1664971753555416_1075856799694847201_nYou see, I believe that to be a Christian is to be called to testify to the good news of Resurrection. In other words, our job is to tell the Easter story again and again to a world that needs to hear it. Because, like I said last week, the Easter story is this: First, God became one of us and lived as one of us. Second, God’s love and grace were so threatening that the world tried to kill it. And third, God’s love and grace refused to die.

That’s the story that you and I are called to tell, just like those early disciples were. But we don’t tell it by standing on street corners and shouting it. We don’t push it onto others, insisting that they believe as we do. We don’t use our faith as a weapon. Instead, we do this…we live our lives in such a way that we are constantly witnessing to God’s love and grace. We do out best to love others, to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized, to take care of the least of these, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That is the testimony our faith asks of us.

It was a testimony the earliest members of this church tried to live as well. See, we would be remiss if we forgot our history, and for our church that means remembering that once this church was a church full of religious refugees.

In some ways that was true of many early New Englanders. They disagreed with the Church of England. Some, like the Pilgrims, were separatists who wanted complete freedom from that church. Others, like the Puritans, true to their names just wanted to “purify” the church from practices they didn’t agree with. That didn’t go over well, so some came across the ocean to Massachusetts, a place where they could more freely practice their faith.

But even in Massachusetts, even in a community of spiritual refugees, there was a right way and a wrong way to believe. And one man, John Wheelwright, ended up on the wrong side of things. He was a Puritan minister, like all the others, but instead of always preaching about the judgement of God, Wheelwright was more inclined to preach about God’s grace. 

That made him some enemies. They thought he was preaching heresy. And so, eventually, the other ministers and the authorities in Massachusetts had had enough. They banished him from the colony, and they sent him out to the absolute worst place they could think of: New Hampshire. 

So, that’s how this church got here. A minister talked so much about grace that he and his followers were forced to move here. Last year I said this about Wheelwright, but it still holds true: “You know that dour looking Puritan in the portrait down in the vestry? He was the fun one.” 

So, that’s how we got here. And 380 years later, despite everything that has happened in our world, and in a country that didn’t even exist yet, and in the walls of this church, we are still here. We are a very old church. But, we are also a very new one. We are new, because you and I are here now, and now it’s our turn to write the history of this place, this church that has been handed down to us by people who dared to testify to God’s love and grace. And this place that we are only temporary caretakers of, that we will one day hand on to others. 

And so, how do we be the church together? How do we remain of “one heart and soul” and work to testify by our words and deeds to God’s love and grace. As I wrap up today, I want to leave you with four ways I propose that we do that.

First, we make church a priority. We come on Sundays, and we worship together. We put it on our schedule, and we give our spiritual lives enough importance that we show up for this the way we would show up for anything else that’s important in our lives. And while we’re here, we get to know each other. We stay and have a cup of coffee. We talk to someone new. We become a part of this place.

That leads us to the second task: we invest in our community. I never want anyone to feel like there are things they have to do at church, but the reality is that there is a lot that we do as a church, and we all have to chip in a little to get it done. And so, we serve on committees. We teach Sunday school. We usher, or serve in the nursery, or greet people at the door. We give financially to the ministries of this church. We make a commitment of our time, talents, and treasure to this place because we believe it matters.

Third, we keep growing. Our spiritual learning does not stop when we are confirmed. We have to keep growing in our faith. And so, we are called to study Scripture, to pray regularly, to think about our faith in new ways, and to stay curious about what we believe and what it means to the world.

And, finally, we take our faith beyond our doors when we leave on Sundays. We serve on a church ministry, like Seacoast Family Promise or cooking dinner for the Salvation Army shelter, for instance. Or, we take our faith into our daily lives, advocating for change in our communities, standing up for those who have no voice. Or we take it into our homes and offices, treating people the way Christ calls us to treat them, living our lives as people of grace and faith. 

In other words, through all we do, we become one heart and one soul, with one another, and with Christ. Make church a priority, invest in church, grow spiritually, and take your faith with you all week long. I’ll be talking about these in the coming months, but today I ask you to reflect on these things. Because the ones who came before us did them, we’ve been here 380 years. Now, I don’t know what the world will be like in 380 years from today, but I do know that this place is good, and I do hope the Congregational Church in Exeter is a part of it. 

Good King Wenceslas: Sermon for May 14, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be heard here or downloaded as a podcast on iTunes.

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

When I was 8, I started taking piano lessons. I was given a stack of those lesson books that kids get, with the very simple songs that you can sort of plunk out with one finger. And I remember being very excited about it because it was a Christmas one, and I knew these songs, and so as I was finding the right key with one finger I could sing the words.

So, jin…gle bells…jin-gle…bells. Or, we wish you a mer-ry Christ-mas…

But there was one song I didn’t know, and it had these words I didn’t understand: “good King Wen-sa-les? Wen-ces-las? looked out….on the feast of Ste…phen.”

Who was King What’s-his-name? And what was the “feast of Stephen”? In my 8-year-old mind I thought it was some physical place that the king was looking at out his window. And I had no idea what any of this had to do with Christmas.

My piano aptitude never really progressed much past those books, but my theological training did. So years later I would read the text from today, and I’d learn who Stephen was, and that the Feast of Stephen was actually a feast day that takes place on the day after Christmas.

So, why did Stephen have a special day? Well, you only get a feast day by being a saint. And Stephen is not just a saint, but is also commonly recognized as the first martyr of the Christian faith. He was a deacon in the early church and that alone put him in danger because he was professing a faith that was considered blasphemous. And when he was brought to trial, instead of recanting or saying something to save himself, he instead doubled-down, and gave this long speech to the religious authorities that ended in him accusing them of not following the law.

The court and the crowd were enraged, and they attacked Stephen, and stoned him to death. Deacon Stephen became the first Christian to die for his faith, and in doing so he became a martyr and a saint.

So, next time the nominating committee asks if you might like to be a deacon for this church…just remember that the job has gotten a little less dangerous over time.

The reality is that few of us, especially in our American context, will ever have to die for our faith. But back then, being a Christian was akin to accepting a death sentence. And those who died for their faith became martyrs.

We hear that word now and we probably think of it in two ways: one, as great heroes who die for their faith and beliefs. Those are people like Dr. King, Bishop Oscar Romero, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But we might think about it another way too; a negative way. Maybe you’ve known someone who always seems so put upon and needlessly self-sacrificial, and always seems to be begging other people to notice it. You might roll your eyes and say, “Ugh, that guy is such a martyr.”

Chances are good that you don’t want to see yourself as a martyr in either of those ways. You may love your faith, and work for goodness in the world, but you probably don’t want to end up dead. Likewise, you probably don’t want to be the person that people dismiss as having a martyr complex either. You probably just want to be a good person who gets through life unscathed.

Fair enough. But it’s important to know what that word “martyr” really means. The Greek word the New Testament uses is μαρτυρία (marturia) which literally means “witness” or one who gives “testimony”. A martyr, in the literal sense of the word, is not someone who dies, but someone who bears witness to a greater truth.

For Christians, this means being a witness to the greater love of God. And in a world like the one we have today, where there is so much hatred, violence, and worship of false idols, it means showing the people around you that there is another way to live.

In a real way that is what Stephen was doing in front of the religious authorities. Every religion everywhere has seen corruption and hypocrisy at times, and the ones who were judging Stephen were not immune to that. They were so comfortable in their own understanding of their faith that they heard Stephen’s witness to Christ, his testimony, as a threat. And so, they killed him.

As Christians we, as much as Stephen, are called to witness to God’s love and justice to the world. And, like Stephen, our testimony will sometimes fall on ears that do not wish to hear it. Unlike Stephen, that probably does not mean that we will be in any mortal peril. But, that means that sometimes we will be ignored. Other times we will rejected. And sometimes we will pay a price for refusing to compromise our beliefs and values.

That’s a good sign. Because if your Christian faith does not require you to stand up against the injustice of our world from time to time, something is wrong.

But the good news is that when you are being witnesses to God’s love, when you are giving your testimony, others just might notice. It was that way for a young man named Saul who was at the council that day. Saul was what we might today call a “company man”. He bought into the ideas of the ruling religious authorities, and he believed that anyone who challenged them was dangerous.

That day, as the crowd killed Stephen, they laid their coats at his feet. And Saul just stood there, and watched.

We don’t remember Saul for this moment though. Instead we remember him by the name he came to be known as: Paul. It is Paul who, perhaps more than anyone else, carried the testimony of Christ’s love and grace to others. After his conversion, he became an unparalleled witness to the Gospel.

And while we are taught that Paul’s change of heart came in a flash of blinding light while walking down the Damascus Road, I wonder if maybe it didn’t start on this day, when he heard Stephen, and he saw a man willing to die for what he believed in. Maybe it came when Stephen called out to Jesus to not judge the ones who killed him, and showed Christ’s love and grace to the very end.

I think it might have happened that way, because I think that’s how faith happens for most of us. We come to believe not because we study our way to faith, or even pray our way there, but because people in our lives are witnesses to God’s love, and because we see that witness, and we want to follow along.

On this Mother’s Day I think about that, and I recall some statistics I saw a few years ago. People were trying to figure out why some kids grew up to value their faith as adults, and others didn’t. And what they found was this: the biggest influence in whether a child would grow into a person of faith was not the particular church in which they grew up, or the pastor, or the young group, or anything like that. It was this: the parents.

82% of kids whose parents “talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs, and were active in their congregations were religiously active as young adults.” By contrast, just 1% of those whose parents attached value to their faith were religiously active at the same age.

In other words, faith starts with mothers, and fathers, and parents. And it continues with every adult who is in a young person’s life. It is the job of those people to be witnesses, and to testify by the way they live to what really matters.

This world is in need of a new generation who can live lives full of God’s grace and love. We need witnesses to a better way. We need morally courageous young people who can transform the brokenness of our world. And our faith can give them the tools they need to do this work. It’s our job not to hide those tools, but to show them how to use them.

I’ll close with this. At the beginning I was talking about the song, “Good King Wenceslas” and the Feast of Stephen. It turns out that King Wenceslas was a real guy, but he was really only a duke in what’s now the Czech Republic. And legend has it that one day he did look out his window, on December 26th, and he saw a beggar, or as the song says, “a poor man, gathering winter’s fuel”.

What the song doesn’t make clear is that the man was very far away, and the weather was very bad. But Wenceslas was a good man, and he wanted to help the man. And so he set off, along with his page, his assistant, to give the man money.

It was so cold and snowy, though, that it was tough going. Wenceslas’s page wanted to turn back and go home. But the king told him, “I’ll walk in front of you and make the path. Just walk in my footsteps. It will be easier, and warmer for you, and you’ll know the way to go.”

That’s the work of a witness, and that’s the work of anyone who cares about who comes after us. We clear the path, and we lead by example. We show by our lives what is important, and we teach the next generation how to walk this path. And we do this because Stephen and Paul and Wenceslas and a host of other witnesses, sometimes known only to us, showed us the way first. And we do this because what was done for us, we are now called to do for others.

Called Into the Waters: Baptism of the Lord, 2016

When I was a senior in high school I was in this European history class, and we spent a lot of time studying the Protestant Reformation. One afternoon the teacher was trying to show us how the Reformation still shaped us all these centuries later, and so he went to the blackboard and he wrote a list of religious traditions and denominations. And then he turned to us, and one by one, he asked each of us to tell him our faith.

There were a lot of Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Episcopalians. A few classmates were Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. And then there was me. Because he got to my row and called on me, and asked me the question: What religion is your family? And of the entire class, I was the only one who couldn’t answer.

I stammered something about my family being a blend of Catholics and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but the teacher said I had to give one answer. In the end I think I blurted out “Presbyterian” because we had at least gone to that church a few times on Christmas.

I had been waiting for, and dreading, this day for a long time. I grew up in a place where no one I knew didn’t have a faith tradition. Most were Christian, and they talked about their churches, confirmations, youth groups, and more. But I never said very much, because the truth is of all my classmates whose family was not some other faith than Christian, I was the only one I knew who didn’t have a church. I hadn’t even been baptized.

After school that day, I decided I was never going to be in a situation like that ever again. I was going to have an answer the next time someone asked. And so I drove to a church downtown, and talked to the pastor about being baptized. And I figured that by the time I went off to college in the fall, and I had to fill out demographic forms, I’d have this whole religion thing figured out.

That’s how I got baptized. In retrospect, I don’t think that was exactly what Jesus was looking for back when he told his followers to be born again in the waters of baptism. True, my baptism did not come from an empty place – my faith was real – but it was provoked, quite frankly, by my own embarrassment. And when I received the sacrament later that spring I told very few people about it. Most of my friends had been baptized as infants; I didn’t know what kind of ribbing I’d get as a 17 year old who was doing what babies normally do.

IMG_3213So, that’s my baptism story. I’m telling it to you today because we are hearing two other baptism stories too. The first is the story of Jesus’ own baptism, in which he went to John the Baptist and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. Like John said, Jesus did not need this baptism. But Jesus received it anyway, and as he came out of the river, a voice called down from heaven, “this is my son, my beloved…in him I am well pleased”.

Today is the day that the church remembers Jesus’ baptism every year. And in doing so we are asked to remember our own baptisms, because what Jesus began by receiving his own baptism is what we too are called to receive. All of us who would follow Christ are called to follow the leader into these baptismal waters together.

And today we also tell another story too, that of Lydia. As you know, whenever our church school starts a new unit, I talk about the story in the sermon. And Lydia, coincidentally, is also a compelling story about baptism.

Lydia isn’t a story we tell much in church, which is too bad. Not only is she an example of a powerful woman in Scripture, she is also an example of a person hearing the call to follow Jesus, and responding with an open heart.

The Apostle Paul and his cohort came to Turkey and preached the Gospel, and Lydia heard it and was the first one baptized. Some say that Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in all of Europe.

That’s noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that she was a woman who made this decision for herself. Lydia was in a unique position as a woman who had somehow garnered enough independence that she could make that choice, and she could then even invite these men into her home, something most women would never have been allowed to do.

Lydia had made a living for herself as a merchant who sold purple fabric. And from what little we know we can assume that she was doing well. She had her own money, she had independence, and unlike many women of the era, she had the power to decide who she would follow. She was like a Beyonce song; she was the very definition of an “Independent Woman”.

And so that makes it all the more incredible that she, and she alone, made the decision to be baptized by Paul. She had what she needed, but she still responded to the Gospel in a powerful way. By being the first to step forward and say “this is who I want to follow…baptize me” she became a leader of the growing Christian community. Orthodox Churches have even come to call her the “Equal to the Apostles”. That’s pretty high praise when you think about it.

Lydia’s baptism reminds us that from the very beginning the Gospel has not been restricted to anyone, or withheld from anyone. It’s always been for everyone who has ears to hear it. And the same is true of baptism. It’s there for anyone who wants to share in the sacrament. Even if they are a woman 2000 year ago. And even if they are a 17 year old who is embarrassed in history class.

The truth is that whatever brings us to the baptismal font, no matter whether we were brought there as infants by our parents, or whether we bring ourselves there as adults, the sacrament is the same. And the journey does not end in the waters of baptism. Instead, in those waters we are claimed. We are called God’s own. And we are come to know who we truly are, and whose we truly are.

That’s worth repeating. We learn in baptism whose we are. When Jesus was baptized, God claimed him as he came up from the waters. And when Lydia was baptized, despite all she had accomplished in her life, she truly learned whose she was.

And when I was baptized, even with intentions that weren’t quite right, I was set on a path that has continued to teach me who and whose I am all these years later. And the same is true for every child we bring to this font. Even then, even long before they can understand why we are putting water on their heads, God is claiming them, and we are proclaiming that they are God’s beloved.

In the early church, those who wished to be baptized spent Lent preparing for that baptism. And then, on the night before Easter, at the Easter Vigil, they were baptize and were welcomed into the congregation as full members. That period of preparing was called the catechumenate, and it was a time of learning and getting ready to respond to the Gospel message.

This year Lent begins on February 10th; that’s just around the corner. And this Lent I would like to take a page from the early church. Many of you, particularly many of you who are around my age or younger, grew up in a time when church was optional, and baptism was too. That’s okay. I know what that feels like. And I know what it’s like to wonder what it will feel like to be baptized when all you’ve ever seen are children at the font.

And so this Lent I want to offer a new opportunity for those of you who are interested in baptism, but aren’t sure how to start preparing for it. So, if you are an adult or an older youth who has not been baptized, I’d love for you to join us on this journey by coming to a class each Sunday in Lent, and exploring what baptism might mean for you. And at the end, we will celebrate the baptisms of those of you who would like to receive the sacrament on the evening before Easter, in the tradition of the ancient church.

And, if you have already been baptized, you are not excluded. We do not re-baptize people in the church. Once is sufficient for God’s grace. But, if you would like to take the step of re-affirming your baptism I’d love for you to join us as well. In a way, this formation process will be a little like an adult confirmation class that will end with you renewing your baptismal vows during the Easter vigil and claiming it as your own. It’s a chance to go a little deeper this Lent.

You do not need to make your decision now, but I invite you to open your heart to how God might be speaking to you. Are you being called to even consider baptism? Are you at a place in your life where reaffirming your baptism would have spiritual meaning? Are you at least curious? If God’s love is somehow nudging you right now in your heart, listen to what it is telling you. And join us.

Baptized or not, you are God’s beloved. That’s already true. You are God’s own. The choice you are left with is how to respond to that great love. Like Lydia, at least go hear what the Gospel has to say to you. Because like her, you can make a good life even better. Amen?

No Longer Lost in Translation: A Sermon for Pentecost, May 19, 2013

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi

A few years ago, when I was working as a hospice chaplain on the South Shore of Massachusetts, I had one patient down near New Bedford. And whenever I went to see them at their nursing home, this other resident on her unit would see me in the lobby and start shouting at me in a foreign language. I had no clue what she was saying, but it was obvious to me that she was upset, and so I always just apologized and got out of there as quickly as possible.

One day I went back and the same thing happened. Only this time there were people around. And one of the aides said, “Do you know what she’s saying?” I said, “no, but whatever I did I’m sorry.”

And then she told me that the woman was speaking Portuguese, and that she was a little confused thought I was a relative of hers, and that when she saw me she wasn’t mad at all; she was excited. And she was yelling joyfully to me about how glad she was to see me. After that day I would always say hello to her, and I understood now that when we talked, though I couldn’t understand her, she was happy.

I learned then that translation matters. It can change everything. And today’s story is about translation too. It’s ten days after the Ascension, and the disciples are together, trying to figure out what to do next, now that Jesus is gone.

And all of a sudden a rushing wind, with tongues of fire, fell on them. And suddenly, the disciples, all of whom were Galileans all just speaking the same language, were speaking languages that they had never known before. People from other places were nearby and they heard it and they could understand what they were saying, and they asked “how come we are hearing this in our own language”?

Some didn’t even believe it; they said “they must be drunk.” But Peter gets up and he says “look, it’s only 9am..we’re not drunk”. Instead, something new has come, and everything has changed.

In the church we call this the Pentecost, which is translated to mean “fifty days”, as in fifty days after Easter. And we call that mighty rush of wind that came down the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we call this the birthday of the church. This is the day when the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, and the church was born.

I’ve always found that interesting. Because, intuitively, it might not make a lot of sense. Shouldn’t Easter be the birthday of the church? After all, it’s the day Jesus rose again and appeared to the disciples. Maybe you could even argue that Christmas, with the birth of Christ, should be the day of celebration? Or, maybe Maundy Thursday when Jesus tells the disciples how to love one another?

But the tradition of the church is that Pentecost is the church’s birthday. And I think it’s because that was the day the disciples went from being this sort of loose band of followers of Jesus, standing around wondering what now, to being equipped by the Holy Spirit to minister not just to their own, but to the whole world.

And I think it says a lot that on its day of birth, when the Holy Spirit came down, the first gift that the disciples realize they have is the gift of being able to speak in new languages. The ability to translate the message to others.

I told you that story earlier about translation, and how it helped me to know what was being shouted at me in Portuguese. But translation doesn’t always have to be literal. Sometimes we learn to speak, and to understand, the language of others even when we don’t have the words.

One night when I was on call as a hospital chaplain, I received a page, and I was asked to come meet with a man whose wife had just given birth and who now was not doing well. And he was an Orthodox Christian originally from the Middle East. He spoke English fluently, and had been in this country a long time, though. And we were talking and I asked him, as I always did in these situations, if he wanted to pray. And he said “yes”, and took my hand and I was about to start praying, as I always did, but instead he started. And in Arabic he prayed this impassioned, heart-felt prayer for his wife.

And I have no idea what those words were that he was saying. But in that moment, without knowing a word of Arabic, I knew exactly what he meant.

If the Holy Spirit were to sweep into this place again today, and give us all a birthday gift, because we are all the church, I think we would get the same gift the disciples got. And I don’t mean by that that we would all be able to speak Spanish or Chinese or Russian or Arabic, per se. Rather, I think we would learn how to speak in new ways to those who haven’t heard about God’s love in language that they understand yet.

And you don’t have to leave the country to find people who haven’t. You don’t even have to leave the Valley. Some of you have heard me talking about how Vermont is sometimes called the least religious state in the country. And “nones”, those who do not claim a religious tradition, are the fastest growing demographic group.

And yet here we are in the church, speaking a foreign language. There was a time when everyone knew what the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and all of our other church words meant. There was a time when most people knew our language. But they don’t anymore. And that is new, but it’s also not necessarily bad. And that also doesn’t mean that ours is not a language worth sharing.

For decades now too much of the church has stood still, angry at the world that no one understands us anymore. No one speaks our language. We complain about that fact, and we have plenty of things to blame, everything from parents to Facebook to sports on Sunday morning, but the reality is that few people are going to spontaneously show up at our doors asking to learn our language. Especially not if we alienate them by judging them.

But do you notice something about the Pentecost story? When the Holy Spirit comes, it;’s the disciples who learn the new language. All the other people there don’t suddenly speak the disciples’ language: instead the disciples learn to speak theirs.

I think maybe the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. We can’t wait for others to talk the way we talk. Instead, we have to learn their language. We have to learn what is important to them. We have to be able to communicate in the ways that matter to them. We have to be willing to make the connections. It’s what the church has been doing since its first days, and it’s what we are still called to do today.

And sometimes the smallest points of connection, the smallest shared words, can make all the difference. I’ll give you an example. The other day I was at a meeting and I spent the whole time sitting next to this woman I’d never met before. And after the meeting we were talking, and I don’t think I have much of a Southern accent anymore, but I do have one tell: I say “y’all”. And as soon as I said that she got excited and said “where are you from?” And I told her, and she told me she was from Alabama, and immediately we had this connection.

All it took was one little signal that we spoke the same language, came from the same place, and had the same background. It’s not so different when it comes to faith. We aren’t some forgotten dinosaur speaking some lost language. We’re alive, and we have something to offer. And there are people who want to hear about it. They want us to make the connections, they want to know.

So, what languages are we speaking well? And which could use a little tutoring? What languages do our neighbors speak that we don’t speak quite as well? We live in a ski town. Should we learn to speak “ski” a little better? Our church’s front door is literally on one of the major motorcycle routes in the northeast. Should we be able to speak “biker” a little better? We live in a time when youth and younger adults are tied to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Should we speak social media a little better? What other languages could you and I brush up on?

That’s the question that the church needs to ask itself today. Because Pentecost didn’t just happen 2000 years ago. It happens still. And that gift is our to receive. You and I can speak in more languages than we realize. So, happy birthday, church. It’s time to unwrap our present and share it with the world. Amen.

“What We Share” – Sermon for May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 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,

2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I sometimes get asked how I choose what I’m going to preach about on Sundays. Sometimes folks think I pick a topic first and then select the appropriate Scripture. But that’s not what actually happens. Instead, I let the Scripture pick my topic. I preach using the lectionary, the calendar of readings I’ve told you about before which most mainline churches follow. Each week I’m given an Old Testament, Psalter, Gospel and Epistle reading.

On most Sunday mornings I preach to you from the Gospels. The parables of and stories about Jesus are usually a little more interesting, and more fun to preach about. But today I’m preaching from Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the earliest church and the way they lived together in the first years. This is a sort of “next chapter” of the Gospel stories. This is how this band of believers began to become something greater than just themselves

This morning’s reading from Acts talks about how they sustained themselves in the earliest days: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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 all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I really resisted preaching about this passage this morning. I hate preaching about money and about how you should be using the things you have. I make it a point not to know who gives what to this congregation. I don’t want to. And I make it a point not to harangue you to put more in the collection plate. Some weeks you just can’t, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I don’t tell you to give. It makes me feel like a televangelist. And so I say, in the end, don’t listen to any preacher who tells you what you should do with your money.

But as much as that is true, I remember something one of my seminary professors used to say. If you are scared to preach on a particular text, if it makes you uncomfortable, it means you probably need to preach on it.

The Bible says more about the correct treatment of money than it says about a lot of other things. More than it says about heaven. Far more than it says about sex. More than a vast majority of topics. In the end, the stewardship of money, which is how you use it, seemed to matter a lot to the people who wrote the Bible.

The interesting thing is not that they are saying “turn over all your money” to the church. If I said that, I hope you all would walk out the sanctuary doors and find a new pastor. Instead, we are told in this passage about what the earliest believers did. We are told about how they as a community survived in the hardest of times.
They took what they had, and they shared it with one another, and they shared it with those who needed it outside of the church, and they gave thanks for all that they had been given. In a very radical way, they cast their lots in with one another so that they could do ministry to those who needed it most.

There is a church in Washington, DC that takes up an unusual offering on Sunday mornings. They still have a collection plate, but people don’t just put something in. They tell the people that come to worship that if they are in real need, they are free to take something out.

You might think that would make the church and easy target. You could come and just sit on the back row and take everything out when it gets to you. But that’s not what happens. Rarely does anyone take more than they need. And usually, those who you might thing have nothing to give, give something instead of taking.

I’m not suggesting we start that here. But I do think there’s something to be learned there. The people give fearlessly. They give because others need. They give because they receive. They give because they believe something good is happening at that church and they know that they have to be the ones who ensure that it’s there for the people who need it the most. And they give without fear.

It’s hard to give without fear. Especially in this economy. I know how hard it is out there right now.I know there is a lot of anxiety.I know that the impulse is not to give now more than ever, but to try to keep as much as possible for ourself in case of emergency. My friends at non-profits tell me that they are having a particularly hard time making ends meet. People aren’t giving the way they used to even as more people are losing services that they depended upon. They are struggling to do more with less and often turning people away. In the end, the need is becoming greater and greater.

And I think about how the way we give is sometimes so different that was in this earliest church. I think about how when things were so bad for them, far worse than they are for those of us nowadays, they reached in a little deeper and gave to one another and the ones they didn’t even know.

And you know what happened? They didn’t go into the red. They didn’t lose everything. They didn’t die.

Instead they lived. Scripture tells us: the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They grew.

Yesterday I was helping a friend move. We were nearing the end and she cleaned out her refrigerator. She threw out the products that were opened or about to expire, or already expired. I went and took them out to the dumpster and came back from more trash. When I went back there was a woman, probably in her 80’s, digging through the dumpster and pulling out the expired food. She spoke only Russian, but I could tell what was happening. This was the only way she would eat. I gave her some money, something I rarely do, and I went upstairs to try to get her some more food. When I came back she was gone. But soon another elderly couple appeared in her place doing the same thing.

I remember how that morning I had been looking at my bank account and getting frustrated that I wasn’t able to afford a minor want. It made me feel pretty ashamed that I was so worried about that, than about the woman downstairs who would dig through bags of trash to eat.

And I thought about how that was my work, because I was a Christian. And about how it was the work of the churches. And I thought about that neighborhood. So many churches. Churches I knew. Churches that held on to everything they had out of fear. Churches that thought they couldn’t help her because their membership was dwindling and so were the reserves. Churches that, unless something drastic happens, will be dead in twenty years.

And I read this passage. And I read those lines about what happened. About how they gave, not until it hurt, but until it felt good. And how they grew. The church as we have known it for centuries would never have existed without that first church making the decision to be fearless with what they had, and with the love that Christ gave them.

And so, that is my challenge to you today. How will we cast aside our fears and be fearless in Christ? How will we be owned not by the demons of “do we have enough” but by the love of Christ? How will we show the world outside these doors that grace is real, and that we can be God’s agents of it?

This morning the Psalm was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” If we really believe that, if we really believe it when we recite it, then we have to believe that it’s true when it comes to stewardship. And we have to believe that in the end we are all here because someone in the church showed us grace of one kind or another. And in the end, it is not our fear, but our joy and our hope and our generosity that help us grow. Amen.