I’m re-sharing an old podcast, in light of the recent immigration / refugee crisis in our country, and our administration’s recent racist actions.
Thought it is not Holy week, I am re-sharing this in light of the recent crisis at the border and the recent racist actions by the current administration.
This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 14th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon: “Be the Church:”. “Be the Church: A United and Uniting People”.
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 15:1-29
Both our Isaiah reading and our Acts reading tell us of scattered and divided peoples becoming one. In Isaiah, we see the words of Deutero- or Second-Isaiah, an anonymous disciple of the original prophet Isaiah who prophesied after his death and after the exile of the Jewish people by Babylon. They see how their nation was destroyed, their royal palace flattened, and even their holy temple snuffed out. They see so many of its members become exiles and refugees from their homeland. Speaking from such a point of exile themself, this un-named prophet is inspired through their relationship with God to see their situation from a different point of view: now they have the opportunity to become friends, allies, and partners with those with whom they are in exile, tearing down the walls between them, so that they can come to understand the truth and light of God, just as the people of Israel and Judah have. They imagine a time when this time of being scattered refugees will end and all their people who are scattered will be able to be united again. This vision includes a home where even those not yet part of God’s covenant will be welcomed into God’s family, so even those who have been their persecutors will be gathered in and even those now scattered to the most distant islands not yet even listed in any map, shall be welcomed home. This vision probably is a part of what of what Jesus had in mind when, as a rabbi schooled in the words of the Biblical prophets, he said he had other sheep who were not of his fold of the disciples then with him, who must be brought in, and when he prayed of all these scattered ones that they all could be one as he and his Father were one, the very prayer which we in the United Church of Christ look to as our inspiration for our calling to be a united and uniting people.
In Acts, we see the church in its infancy struggling to live out Isaiah and Jesus’ hefty vision of the family of God’s people being a united and uniting people. We see the messiness and beauty that comes when they try to be ones who tear down barriers of division so that very different people with different perspectives can be welcomed and treating fairly. In striving to extravagantly welcome all people as the Spirit showed them and us we must, the early church had grown and changed. No longer was it a tiny group of Jews going to temple in Palestine, no different from those around them but in their shared faith in Jesus. Now the church began for the first time to resemble what archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “the rainbow people of God”. There are observant Jews who are committed to the way of Jesus. There are people who have never stepped foot in a synagogue, who have no clue how to keep kosher, and who more closely resemble in dress, speech, and music the people of their own lands, which include places as varied as Asia Minor, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Ethiopia. This movement towards extravagant welcome began for these early believers as it had for Second Isaiah, by tragedy and struggle. The church in Palestine went under attack by the powers that be for the ways it was counter-cultural and, in its words and actions, called into question the patterns of oppression in its day. So Christians scattered, spreading the way of Jesus with them, being the church wherever they went through their actions, welcoming into their communities their neighbors and friends, many of whom looked and spoke and acted differently than them.
When we join these early believers in Acts, this fledgling movement is threatening to come apart at the seams. Some long-time Christians who can date their faith in Christ to Pentecost itself, are worried about all these new folks joining up and calling themselves Christian. These new believers are people of cultures, races, and backgrounds very different than their own. As they join the faith, they are changing it, shaping it to reflect the needs and backgrounds of their communities and cultures. These new Christians and their churches don’t sing, prayer, worship, dress, or act like these original believers who can trace their faith to the days of Jesus. I can almost hear them sneering and muttering to each other, What is the church becoming? Among these new believers, some still keep some connections to the old time religion of the first Christians. Others are new believers in communities that have never seen Palestine, with no connections to the Jewish culture in which Christianity began. Some among them are happy to share their faith with these culturally Jewish believers, living and let live, accepting that some need the older more traditional ways of worshipping God; and others begin to feel they are the superior ones. “We aren’t hung up on their rules, stuck in the past, and are really open to the Spirit”,
In Acts 15, we find representatives of all these different groups of people coming together and, with great effort, finding a way to lay their differences aside, find common ground together in their shared faith in Christ, and discover how to work together without having to lay aside the essential truths about who any of them are. As a more modern voice of faith, the late James Baldwin, has said ““We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
The decision they come to makes room for the continued welcome of churches and Christians that are reflective of and relevant to new cultures and times who thus barely resemble church as it once was, while also respecting the needs of long-time believers who value time-proven traditions. The path they forge allows them all to walk arm in arm with other churches and Christians that understand Christ and worship God differently than they do. It takes work, it takes listening carefully to all sides, it takes not assuming any one person or group has all the answers, it takes being open to the still-speaking voice of the Spirit, to get to this point. To me, ultimately the way the decision is made, by listening to and valuing the many divergent and sometimes disagreeing voices in the church, is a living out of a principle Hindu faith leader and civil rights advocate Mahatma Gandhi once called “the many-sidedness of truth”. Rather than truth being one sided, like the top of a table, Gandhi suggests that it is many-sided like a diamond. To truly grasp the full truth of a situation involves looking at each possible facet, from every possible side or angle. What Gandhi meant is that God speaks most clearly through us listening to the multitude of perspectives as fully as we can and looking for the truth that unites them all. As Baldwin’s quote suggests, such listening ought never involve compromising on justice and fair treatment for anyone, especially a marginalized or oppressed person, but it does involve making space for all people to also be treated with such respect, even those you deeply disagree with, so walls can be torn down and reconciliation come.
In this gathering of leaders at Jerusalem, those gathered do just that. Ultimately they are stronger together through finding a way to make room for their differences, room to be reconciled to each other, and room to move together as one family in faith, expressed in many different ways.
In our own tradition in the United Church of Christ, finding a unity that reconciles us into one family in Christ without erasing our differences is the foundation of who we are as a denomination. Our denomination was formed when a number of very different denominations with very diverse ways of worshiping and believing chose to lay aside their differences which could divide them in order to be reconciled with each other. Stepping out in faith, these pioneers in faith chose to live together out of this unity their shared relationship with Christ brought.
Here in the South working to be a united and uniting church meant in the early days being counter-cultural by resisting the pressure for racial segregation by having historically racially divided churches cross racial lines to gather together for worship, training, and mutual support in our denominational gatherings, even when crossing such lines to stand as one brought threat and harassment.
This call to be tear down barriers, to seek reconciliation, and to embrace both what draws us together in common and also the beauty in our differences, without compromising the call to do justice, was beautifully pictured in the life of one United Church of Christ lay-woman, Annie Atwater of Durham. She was an active member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ in Durham and her faith led her to speak up against unfair treatment of poor members in her community in general and the inhumane treatment of people of color under segregation.
As is depicted beautifully in the recent film The Best of Enemies, ultimately this fight against segregation forced Annie to have to work side by side alongside the then head of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, C. P. Ellis. As you can imagine, this outspoken activist for racial equity and this then leader of a racist hate group initially butt heads throughout the debate about the future of Durham schools. Eventually, though, since she never gave up on this relationship, her persistent Christian life of relating to Eliis and others with both what the Gospel of John calls truth and grace, both truth-telling and compassion erodes Ellis’s prejudices, and he concludes she and the families of color she represents deserve fair and equal treatment, being children of God like he is. He renounces white supremacy and racism, abandoning the Klan, and joining her in her fight for civil rights for all and tearing down of barriers to racial reconciliation. When many in the white community in Durham abandon C. P. Ellis for embracing reconciliation, the black community of Durham, including members of her United Church of Christ church, gather around him to give him aid and help him find his way.
I have to admit I hear echoes of this story whenever I hear how many of you here at Life’s Journey have, in the midst of some harassment and name-calling, chosen to stand side by side with members of our community of other races than yourself, as have some of you who have stood with the NAACP though you yourself are white, with people of other sexualities as some of you who are straight have by standing beside the LGBT community, and with people of other faiths as many of you have by standing beside groups like Burlington Misjad when they faced religious discrimination. We need to continue this work as a church.
Yet to be people who are united and uniting people we must not only continue in such areas of strength but also face into the fact that our community around us remains still deeply divided into haves and have-not’s, too often with much of the money and power in the hands of people of one race, one gender, one background. We must ask how we as a church together can work to tear down these barriers, working both for equal and fair treatment for all and a reconciling of all as one in our community.
We must also face into the painful truth that Dr. Martin Luther King named when he famously said 10 or 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; and confess not much has changed since. We must look around our worship service and ask what we have done or have failed to do in order to make our church a place where people of all backgrounds come and experience reconciliation rather than division, a tearing down of walls rather than a building of them up. We must face into how much we might be still a segregated space and ask God’s help in learning our part in making our church become more and more a place where God’s kin-dom comes here on earth as in heaven by embracing reconciliation and diversity rather than what just goes along with the tide of the culture around us that further splinters and divides.
I close with words of Martin Luther King from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in which he expresses the heart and vision we need to be committed to being people of reconciliation. He writes, ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All … are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…” May we embrace this call to be ones who tear down walls of division, being people of reconciliation here in our church, and throughout our community & world. Amen & Amen.
This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 7th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon “Be the Church:”. “Be the Church: People of Extravagant Welcome”. Pastor Micah.
Acts 8:26-40, New Living Translation.
26 As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah.
29 The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.”
30 Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him.
32 The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. And as a lamb is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. 33 He was humiliated and received no justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” 35 So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus.
36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?”38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea.
Friends, These are the words of God for all of God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture. Amen.
Does anything stand out to you in either our Micah or our Acts reading today?
In Take This Bread, Sara Miles tells how her experience of extravagant welcome changed her life. Growing up, Sara was raised in a home harsh and critical to all things religious, yet she spent her life hungry and searching, a longing she channeled into good things — into her working in kitchens preparing and serving food, her traveling to Central America organizing the fight for social justice there, her working as a reporter in war-torn parts of the world, her finding and marrying the woman she loves, her raising a daughter together with her wife. Yet in all that goodness, her hunger and longing remained, a yearning for something more. One day after becoming a mother, on a whim, she walked into a church that practiced “open communion,” the practice of saying at the communion Table that whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome there, without question. Sara was welcomed to take of the bread and the cup, even though it was her first time strolling into the church and even though she had a big chip on her shoulder towards religious people. She was welcomed even though she wasn’t sure what — if anything — she believed. She was welcomed even though she was what some would some folks would call a leftie pink-knick. She was welcomed even though she was a lesbian. Though most churches said “you are not welcome here” to people like her, this one said “come, just as you are”. So she came. She took the bread. She drank the cup. She shared the Lord. And she kept coming, taking, drinking, sharing. And it changed her life.
No, she didn’t quit being a writer. She didn’t quit being a lesbian, or an activist, or a wife, or a mother, or a chef. Rather, at Christ’s table, she discovered that she was made by One who knows her name, One who loved her just as she is. Sara discovered that if people had a problem with who she was, their real problem was not with her, but with the God who made her. She discovered how to be all of who she is in a way that reflects God’s love and compassion to the world. And each time she returned to the table, she found herself welcomed there, just as she was. Before she knew it, her eyes were opened by her welcome at this table to truly see those around her, including the hungry and hurting in her community. She began to use what she learned through her years as an activist to organize people in her community to start a feeding ministry where all such hungry and hurting would be welcome, and where no one need walk away hungry or empty handed. Her one feeding program grew. As it grew, it inspired another to start, and then another after that, and then still more, creating ripples all through her community.
Such a change in her life, which flowed into such change in her community, all began with that one church being a place where the table was always open to anyone and everyone, a place where there was always room for one more at the family table, a place where whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s Journey, you are welcome.
Today’s reading from Acts tells a similar story of expansive welcome and radical hospitality. Phillip is drawn by the still-speaking voice of the Spirit out of the comfort of his home and his neighborhood, to a road running out of town, through the desert. He is drawn there to befriend someone who is not only a stranger to him, but a foreigner to his country. And though this man from distant Ethiopia is wealthy and in a position of power, this Ethiopian is also a kind of outcast. Luke tells us this man is returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to try and worship, headed now back to his home county. Likely he was returning heavy hurted.
Most likely, instead of being welcomed there, this Ethiopian man discovered there that his money, power, and prestige didn’t count for beans. Likely, after journeying countless miles to be a part of God’s people in worship at the temple, upon arriving there, this man heard instead your kind of people aren’t welcome here. After all, folks would have told him, the Bible clearly says in Leviticus 21 and Deuteronomy 23 that eunuchs cannot enter the temple and be welcomed in worship. You can almost hear them as they tell him, it’s nothing personal against you It’s in the Bible, after all. God says, I believe it, that settles it, right? You are too different. Your skin is too dark. You don’t fit into our nice categories of male and female, man or woman. You, man of Ethiopia. Go back where you came from!”
No doubt, he was heavy hearted and feeling rejected, as Phillip came up to him. Likely this is why he was reading so intently from the book of Isaiah in our Bibles. There are just a few chapters distance between the text in Isaiah 53 the man of Ethiopia was reading aloud when Phillip arrived and the slightly later text of Isaiah 56 that promises, despite the prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, ““Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will never let me be part of God’s people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’ For this is what the Lord says: I will bless those eunuchs … who choose to do what pleases me and commit their lives to me. I will give them—within the walls of my house— a memorial and a name far greater than sons and daughters could give. For the name I give them is an everlasting one. It will never disappear!” Likely the man from Ethiopia had seen or heard this promise in Isaiah and wondered, when will this hope become true for me? When will I no longer be on the outside looking in? When will I finally be welcomed, just as I am, within the walls of God’s house? You can see why this passage about the suffering servant stopped him in his tracks. This servant was someone he could relate with: one who was rejected as he has been rejected, one who suffered as he has suffered, but all in order to make room for others to be welcomed into God’s tent as God’s own family.
When Phillip arrived, the words Phillip shared with him connected directly with this man’s burning questions. He discovered in Christ one who welcomed him, just as he is, fully as God’s child. He discovered for himself what Paul later would proclaim to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. And when this man asks to be welcomed into Christ by baptism, just as Sara did not encounter a long list of requirements to join Christ at his table, but was told “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, so Philip said the same about the waters of baptism when asked: nothing prevents you.
This story illustrates powerfully that, to truly be the church, we have to be a people where there are no entrance requirements at the door. Rather, we must say as a church what is written at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When asked, what prevents me from being welcomed through baptism or the Lord’s table? we must learn to say nothing prevents you.
Yet, as a few of you reminded me this week, such a calling is not just a calling to a welcome in the church but in the wider world, both by moving out of your comfortable bubble and standing in solidarity with people different than you right where they are, and by working to have our communities and our world be places none are excluded, and where every voice matters. I was reminded of the way we’ve already been living this out as a church first by Mike Lynch, inviting me to join him in standing in solidarity with a new LGBT+ caucus beginning in our community to speak up for fair treatment of LGBT+ people and their families. What a gift, as a straight man, to be welcomed by our church to go where they are, hear their stories, and join them in calling for a more welcoming world! I was reminded as well by Alice, who reached out to me about her love for how we as a church have stood side by side, as allies with the local Muslim community, speaking up for their right to be treated fairly, and even helping them find a building for worship.
Friends and family in Christ, we already are striving at Life’s Journey be a welcoming church and to build a more welcoming community. Let’s continue in this work and grow in it. Let’s continue to live so whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome at this table, in this church, in our community, and in God’s world. Amen and Amen.
This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 30th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon “Be the Church: Working to Build a Just and Loving World”. Pastor Micah.
Acts 4:23-47, New Living Translation
23 As soon as they were freed, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said. 24 When they heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God: “O Sovereign Lord, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— 25 you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, saying, ‘Why were the nations so angry? Why did they waste their time with futile plans? 26 The kings of the earth prepared for battle; the rulers gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ 27 “In fact, this has happened here in this very city! For Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant, whom you anointed. 28 But everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will. 29 And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
31 After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness.
32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.
36 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. 37 He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.
These are the words of God for all God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds so we might see and know what God is saying to us in these words of Scripture. Amen.
What stands out to you, either in our Isaiah reading or our Acts reading?
This Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall protests in New York. On June 28, 1969, police swept into Stonewall Inn to beat, arrest, and harass members of the gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender community, just as police had done regularly over and over again, not just in New York City but throughout our country, from time immemorial. Yet, not this time. Tired of being jailed, beaten, humiliated, and marginalized simply for being who they were, those at Stonewall said “no”. This time, they had enough. They stood up. They acted out. They protested, all at great risk to themselves. Stonewall marked the beginning of a movement to speak up for civil rights and the equal treatment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, a movement which continues to this day all over the world.
This Stonewall protest, like many protests in our country before and since, was inspired by the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King spoke out against racial discrimination in his famous “I have a Dream” speech, which also was a protest largely organized by a member of the gay community: Bayard Rustin, who was almost passed over for march organizer for openly living as a gay man, yet thankfully organized this powerful protest for racial justice.
Both the struggle for LGBT rights and for racial equality involved upset and conflict, with those advocating for justice facing danger, risk, abuse, and imprisonment. In both movements, some who spoke up and acted out over the years lost their lives for the cause. Yet those involved were driven by a hope for a better world, a world where those once oppressed and marginalized would now finally be fully welcomed and treated fairly.
We have seen progress come from both fights for civil rights. Yet there remains many more miles on this road left to travel, a fact made perfectly clear each time there is another news story telling of another young person of color shot by police, yet more people of color and transgender people being harassed our killed through hate crimes, and yet more supportive houses of worship being targeted with vandalism and violence — let alone our current White House working to strip transgender people of their right to serve in our military. Despite all our progress, we continue to ask, “what’s next?”
Today’s reading, similarly, asks “what’s next?” Despite the powers that tried to silence them, the apostles Peter and John chose to say too. No. We will not be silent. No. We will not stop. We will continue to share Jesus’ message. We will yet speak of his kin-dom of God, his new way of being community based on Isaiah’s vision of ones anointed by the Spirit announcing good news to the poor, bringing freedom to captives, extending the forgiveness of debts, opening blind eyes, and leveling the playing field for all. By refusing to be silent, Peter and John engaged in perhaps the first successful nonviolent protest in Christian history, the very kind of protest that inspired the march on Washington and, through it, Stonewall itself. In our Acts reading, we see the early church, now that this first protest is over, asking “what next?”
These early believers responded to the end of this initial protest first and foremost by praying. It is easy to forget to stop working, to forget to pause from our busy-ness and from raising our voices long enough to drink deep of the waters of life. Not stopping for spiritual renewal will stretch you and me thin until we are frayed and ineffective. When we stop to center our lives through prayer and related spiritual practices, we root ourselves in God’s living waters, so the power from on high Jesus promised at his ascension can flow through us, renewing our ebbing fires of passion and our vision for changing this world.
As these early Christians pray, they also commit to continue engaging these systems of injustice by further acts of protest. This is why they call out kings, rulers, and nations who resist God in their prayer. Peter and John’s just-complected act of nonviolent resistance is not the last time Christians will be called to protest injustice. As we continue to read the book of Acts together, we will see more people persecuted, jailed, exiled as refugees, and even killed for speaking up against the powers of oppression that marginalize, use, and abuse. We are not done yet. More will need yet to be done. Just as with these first disciples, as with Stonewall and with the march on Washington, we cannot be silent in the face of injustice. We must remain ready, vigilant, our sleeves rolled up and all of us poised to work whenever the need arises.
Yet, the church does more than just pray and protest. They do not just say no to what is wrong but also choose to pro-actively say yes to living with compassion and justice. They say yes by standing in solidarity with each other. They say yes by not treating the differences they see in others as barriers to communion, but rather as opportunities to grow, to learn, and to love more deeply. They say yes by both standing alongside each other and sharing what they have with each other so that, whenever people are in need, they can have that need met.
This is what we mean when we say in the United Church of Christ that we thank God by working for a just and loving world. This involves fear being replaced with love and hope. We often live in fear – fear of being hurt or being taken advantage of by others, fear of there not being enough for all. It is such a fear that leads straight people to fear if they welcome and embrace queer people and their families, somehow those straight people and their families will be diminished. It is such fear that leads people to silence the voices of those who are different. It is such fear that leads some to build walls to keep out the immigrant or the refugee, even when it causes the kinds of harm we have seen it do this past week. It is such a fear of the bottom line which leads some to look away from our collective need to care for creation so it can continue to foster life, shutting their eyes to the damage neglecting or polluting the earth brings.
Instead of fear, these disciples embrace hope and love. They live out the challenges both Cornell West and Henri Nouwen give when they say, respectively, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” and, “Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. … Still, if we want to avoid [such] suffering …, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
Rather than building walls that exclude, justice as love lived out in public recognizes our God as the God who, whenever we give and share, responds by widening the tables with us, providing more for both us and for others than we could ever find by hoarding what we have for ourselves alone. Jesus demonstrated this response in God when he passed around a tiny handful of bread and fish that not only fed a multitude, but, as multiplied by the Spirit, left baskets upon baskets left over for those hungry masses to take home. As we live out this difference as an outpost of God’s kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven, choosing to be the church together, we send ripples around us across the waters of our world, our examples inspiring others to live and act for justice and compassion who otherwise would just sit on the sidelines. By choosing to be the church in this way we plant seeds of justice and mercy in the soil of God’s earth which God’s Spirit can water, nourish, and cause to grow all around us.
Let us roll up our sleeves, lift up our voices, and busy ourselves being that change we wish to see in our world. Amen and Amen.
This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 16th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Sermon “Be the Church: Disciples who are One at Baptism and the Table.”
The Lord appeared again to Abraham near the oak grove belonging to Mamre. One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2 He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.
3 “My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4 Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5 And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”
“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.”
6 So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7 Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8 When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.
We continue our series, “Be the Church” today, exploring values of a vibrant church taken from the book of Acts.. I will be reading Acts 2:37-47 from the New Living Translation, and invite you to read along in the translation of your choice, or to listen quietly in your seat, imagining yourself as those first hearing these words.
37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away — all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”
41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
42 All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
43 A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. 44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. 46 They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – 47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
These are the words of God for all God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds, that we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.
Does anything stand out to any of you either from our Genesis or our Acts reading?
Though we are studying Acts, today I’m drawn first to our Genesis reading. In our Genesis reading, God appears to the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, our father Abraham. In our Tuesday sermon shaping group, several of us noted with surprise how God neither appears in power and in glory, nor as a single solitary person, to Abraham. Instead, long before the names Father, Son, and Spirit were used in prayer, God appears as three persons all at once, who seem to be strangers passing by Abraham’s tent in the extreme heat of the day in the Arabian desert. Knowing anyone traveling under such a sweltering desert sun would need shelter, Abraham is moved with compassion and offers these three hospitality. Jim Bissett pointed out in our sermon-shaping group the historical context: that in this situation whether or not you offer or receive hospitality would have been a life or death question. Someone traveling in that extreme desert heat could easily die without an offer of the kind of shade, water, or shelter Abraham offers these seeming strangers. Abraham and Sarah not only welcome them out of the heat of the sun into the shade of their campsite, they also wash their feet, and give them each food and drink from their own table. Moved by Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality, God speaks as these three persons who are somehow also one, announcing to these two their promise that, though they are past child-bearing years and have begun to give up any hope of children themselves, God will yet grant Abraham and Sarah a child and, through this son, the whole world would be blessed.
This story was so important to early Christians that one of the earliest pieces of Christian art is based on this story. (pass out copy of art) In this painting, the Trinity is pictured as these three who came to Abraham, now gathered around a table of welcome. The artists make clear this story is not only about Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming strangers but just as much about how these three persons who are together the One God are the true host, welcoming Abraham and Sarah and offering them gifts beyond words. This painting is meant to show the Trinity as not just hosts to Abraham and Sarah — but also to all who walk this pilgrim path through the circles of our world. As Abraham and Sarah did, this Triune God welcomes all people out of the blazing heat or freezing cold of their days to find rest under the shelter of their tent at a place at the Triune God’s table, where there is always more than enough to eat and drink, and where all are welcomed as one family.
When we celebrate God as Trinity as we do this Sunday, and as we do whenever we sing our Doxology, we are joining these early Christians in celebrating how, at heart, God is not some lonely judge sitting on a distant throne far removed from our lives dispensing heartless rules and cold judgments; and celebrating how our lives, at heart, are neither merely blind chance nor blind obedience to dogmas or rules. At heart, God is instead a perfect community which all are invited to join, an embrace of compassion extended to all, a dance of lovingkindness that has existed long before anything was ever made and which will continue long after the world as we know it now winds down and passes away, a love that always makes room for more at the table of mercy. It is love, the love shared by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, that birthed us and our world into being; it is that same love as it is extended to you and to me that gives us the strength to embrace all our joys and challenges with hope; and it is to such love we all long to return, for that love is our heart’s true home.
Yet, though this love is the dance at the center of the universe and our lives, it is something with which we each can lose step and fall out of rhythm. Our Acts reading points us to what we can do to get back in touch with this love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Spirit. Struck to the heart by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, facing the many ways they have fallen out of step with this love which moves lives forward to their deepest fulfillment, people ask what to do to get back to this connection and this rhythm for their lives. Peter points them toward a change of mind and thinking – which is maybe a better translation of the Greek word metanoia than the word “repentance” in our Bibles, with all it often conveys today – followed by baptism. This change of mind ushers people into God’s renewal of their lives, reconnecting them with the love of the Creator, The Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Peter goes on to say this promise of renewal is not just for those being baptized by Peter that day but for all who come after them, following in their steps, each and every one of them– even all outside these walls, even those the world had given up on and judged too lost, too last, and too least, no exceptions.
As Annette and Jim both pointed out in our sermon shaping group, too often we think of what Peter describes as a one and done deal — wih is thinking, you’ve said a prayer, been baptized, or come to the altar, and that’s it— you are saved! — when instead changing our hearts and minds is an ongoing process, one which we see the church in Acts constantly needing to go through, each time they get it wrong by trying to put up “you are not welcome here” signs.
Those who accept Peter’s invitation continue being transformed again and again through connecting with the love of the Trinity which is at the center of their lives. They do so through taking part in specific actions that help keep them connected with , grounded in, and growing in God’s all-inclusive love: they listen to the apostles’ teaching, they embrace fellowship or solidarity with each other despite differences, they share meals and resources together including the Lord’s supper, and they pray together. As a few in our Tuesday night group pointed out, the rest of Acts make it clear that, like most of us, even as he preaches these words, Peter himself even doesn’t completely get them. Throughout Acts, Peter again and again has to return to these sources of connection and renewal to begin again whenever he loses sight of God’s love for all.
These activities that Luke highlights are what theologians call means of grace – a 50 cent phrase for practices that help us remind ourselves who we are and whose we are, and help us find our place again back in that dance of creation, that movement of love, that embrace of kindness, that is our own true home. If even Peter and the apostles need to reconnect with this flow of love, so must we. Just like these first believers did, we need to consider what practical acts we can put in place in our individual lives and our lives together to slow down our busy lives, quiet the noise around and within us, to return home into the rhythm and dance of the love of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.
When we are baptised or confirmed — which I remember some of you recently saw happen to your grandchildren! — we remind ourselves how God said over Jesus at his own baptism “this is my child whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”, while the Spirit came over Jesus like a mother dove enfolding her chicks under her wings. We are trusting the promise that God the Trinity enfolds us too in this same embrace of love — each and every one of us — announcing through Christ we too are God’s own children whom God loves, in whom God is well pleased.
When we pray and listen to Scripture, which is where we find the apostle’s teaching today, together, we quiet the noise of our world and our worries. We remind ourselves who we are from God’s perspective. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, “you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this. Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: ‘These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting” love.
When we take the Lord’s supper together, we remind ourselves at that table that we are not intended to be alone. We are made to bear the image of the God we know as Trinity, a God who is not some lonely hermit in the sky but a community of love, open to all. At Christ’s table we are reminded we can only discover who we are as bearers of that image when we stand together in friendship and in solitary with others, especially those very different from us. As Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa during the end of apartheid, reminds us, “… the essence of being human” is “that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation.”
As a number of people pointed out in our sermon shaping group, as beautiful as such a vision of openness and community is, it is also messy. Being open to others is not always easy. Standing in solidarity with others, sharing our lives, our resources, our finances, with them, is both risky and sometimes costly. Like Jesus, you and I can be hurt, can be forsaken, when we go down that route. I bet if I asked around this room, many of you would have stories aplenty to share about just this painful truth.
What’s more, unlike Jesus and the Trinity, you and I will fall short and make mistakes — we will fight, we will argue, and we will have conflict in our attempts to be this kind of community. You can take that to the bank! God’s Table of mercy reminds us there is always forgiveness from God bigger than our failings. None of us can fall too far or do too much to return home to love of the Trinity. God’s love and mercy allows each and every one of us to begin again. No matter what. That is good news!
Yet these ever open arms of welcome by the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are not only good news but also a challenge. For, to embody this love together, to move in step with it, we also have to make space for all, even for others who have failed us, even those who have us caused us harm and betrayed us, being ready to begin again with them too, welcoming them back to us as God in Christ has welcomed us back again and again. No wonder we need to be connected with the Triune God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace!
Ultimately, slowing down from the busyness of our lives like this to connect or re-connect to God and each other through these means of grace opens us up more fully to life itself. Our challenge, as we explore how to “be the church” together, is to explore how we can do this together, how we can discover ourselves as one at baptism and table, as one with God and each other, and one with all God’s creation and all people, through these means of grace. May we embrace this love, this welcome, this full and fulfilling life together today and all our days. Amen and Amen.
This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 9th, at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in Alamance County, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us! Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215. We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.
Scripture reading – Psalm 104; Acts 2:1-21
Sermon “Be the Church: Listening to the Still-Speaking Spirit”
Welcome to worship on the lake this Pentecost Sunday! Today, we continue our series “Be The Church”, studying the book of Acts together. Each week we are exploring a different building block of being a vibrant church found in the book of Acts both during our sermon time and our Tuesday night sermon shaping group. Today we look, of course, at the description of the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, beginning in verse 1.
“On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting.3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability.
5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers.
7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” 12 They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other.
13 But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!”
14 Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. 15 These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that. 16 No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young men will see visions,
and your old men will dream dreams.
18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit
even on my servants—men and women alike—
and they will prophesy.
19 And I will cause wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below—
blood and fire and clouds of smoke.
20 The sun will become dark,
and the moon will turn blood red
before that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives.
21 But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”” ( Acts 2:1-21, NLT)
These are the words of God for all God’s people. May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts to what God is saying to us in these words of Holy Scripture. Amen.
Before I turn to what these words say to me, what stands out to you?
As I reflect on where we are in our own lives and especially as a church, I am drawn to how Peter says the Holy Spirit’s coming on Pentecost and ever since fulfills God’s promise to send the Spirit so people of all ages and backgrounds will “will dream dreams”, and “see visions” again.
In life we face situations we don’t expect, when the path we’ve been on collapses beneath us, and the maps we’ve been using to guide our steps no longer work. It might be a health crisis, the loss of a job, a relationship that unravels, or even opportunities or callings emerging we never expected which, though good, upset the apple cart of our plans. As Michael Lynch pointed out in our sermon shaping group Tuesday night, in such moments the dreams we’ve had for ourselves can feel shattered, like so many shards of glass, lying all around us, as we are forced to pick up the pieces, dust ourselves off, and search out how to dream again. And as Annette and Robin brought up on Tuesday night such experiences can drive us to react to life with fear rather than the hope and openness we need to dream.
One of the more moving examples to me of someone facing into situations that could have shattered her dreams who was yet able to find strength to dream again is Pauli Murray.
Pauli grew up in Durham in the early part of the 20th century, in the hay-day of both segregation here in the South and also what Pauli later called “Jane Crow”, the laundry list of laws in her day aimed at keeping women “in their place” as second-class citizens. Raised by devout Episcopalian aunts, Pauli grew up with deep faith, both in herself and in her God, the kind of faith that led her to live out Martin Luther King’s maxim, “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”. Facing into deep discrimination and mistreatment as a person of color in the south, a woman in a society that wanted women to be seen and not heard, and as a person who gradually discovered over the course of her life she was what we would today call “queer” or “LGBT”, it would have been easy for Pauli to let the world shatter her dreams and determine her future. And yet, the faith she had been taught at the hands of her aunts continued to open her up to God the Holy Spirit, whom we know in the United Church of Christ as the God who is still speaking.
Each time the world sought to rob Pauli of her dreams, this still-speaking Spirit renewed them for her, helping her embrace openness and hope rather than fear. And Pauli truly lived out her dreams, despite every obstacle. Long before the end of racial segregation in the south, she did not let the color of her skin dictate her destiny but became a journalist, a writer, and a lawyer who worked alongside the NAACP supporting civil rights causes. Along the way there, Pauli began to pave the way for the end of racial segregation both by fighting the state of North Carolina for banning people of color from the UNC Law School and by being jailed for bus sit-ins long before Rosa Parks. She also fought against discrimination based on gender in education and in the workplace, even helping found the National Organization for Women. Pauli ultimately became a leading voice for the full inclusion of women in the church, a dream which led her to become one of the first women ordained a pastor in the Episcopal Church (USA), and their first black female pastor ever. Each time Pauli faced something that might shatter her dreams, the Holy Spirit opened her up again, speaking and pointing out for her how to dream again. Tuesday night our sermon shaping group suggested the Holy Spirit transforms tragedy into a chance to begin again. Just so, Pauli learned through the Spirit how to turn these struggles not into stumbling stones but springboards from which to leap forward into God’s future.
Many of you have, like Pauli, also faced situations that challenged your dreams. When this happens, where do you turn to hear the still-speaking voice of the Spirit to help you dream again?
The book of Acts provides many places to look and listen for God’s dream-weaving Spirit.:
First, the Spirit comes down when people show up, even while worn to the bone or in the midst of trial and crisis. In the period between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost, before there are any flashy signs or wonders to speak of, people gather, they elect leaders, they work and they wait. When the Spirit comes down, it is first upon those same ones who have rolled up their sleeves to show up. This is good news to some of us, who, though you are weary and exhausted, keep showing up, rolling up your sleeves, not yet seeing the results of your hard work.
The Holy Spirit also speaks as people open themselves up in prayer. In the days between Ascension day and Pentecost Sunday, the main task of these first followers of Jesus is to pray. In the midst of praying and waiting, the Spirit comes and a new dream breaks forth. Slowing down from our busy tasks and from our worrying for prayer that opens us up to God’s still-speaking voice today just as it did then.
Though it is less flashy than tongues of fire, one key way the Spirit shows up on Pentecost is through people listening to the voice of Scripture together. It is to the Scriptures that Peter turns to discover the shape and direction this experience of God speaking in new ways points. Peter does not turn to the Bible as a rule-book to blindly follow, but as a living conversation into which he and others are invited, a conversation in which the Spirit is still speaking new things for those who listen. I feel this is the way we approached it in our Tuesday night sermon shaping group. When we learn to hear Scripture together in this way, like a flashlight on a trail at night, it can point us beyond itself to the paths God is already laying down in your life, in my life, and in our world, helping us hear what the Spirit is already speaking.
The Holy Spirit who shows up on Pentecost is also the same creator Spirit we see in our Psalm reading –who moves like wind on a lifeless world, breathing new life wherever that Spirit touches. To hear the still-speaking Spirit then involves paying attention to the messages nature gives. We are not listening to the Spirit if we ignore evidence of pollution and climate change, the findings of science, or the proof people are, to quote Lady Gaga, born this way.
Tuesday night Larry asked the question of how our lives and history would have been different if we had realized not only do we have a story to tell to the nations, but the people of each of those nations have a story to tell to us. This too is part of Acts’ message. The Spirit also shows up on Pentecost in languages and voices the disciples had not previously known. Throughout Acts, the Spirit opens up new ways to move God’s dream forward whenever long ignored voices are finally truly heard. Whenever we listen to the voices of those our world deems as “other” and tries to silence, we open ourselves up today still to the voice of the still-speaking Spirit.
Finally, the Spirit speaks through people’s imagination. We can easily become skeptical of how much in Acts the Spirit speaks through dreams, visions, apparitions of angels or the risen Jesus, asking, Was that real? Or was that just their imagination? Yet once we use that word “just” about imagination , we miss the point, forgetting God created us, imagination and all. We can be too quick to rule out our own longings, desires, imaginations, and hopes as if those are not parts of us God made, parts of us God can use, and parts of us God can speak through. Yet, if God can speak through the voice of the “other”, through nature, through Scripture, through prayer, and through us showing up, then certainly there is no reason our own imagination, dreams, and longings cannot sometimes be exactly where the Spirit speaks.
Let’s close by looking at our imaginations and dreams. I have placed mirrors, as kinds of symbolic windows to God’s future, on our tables. I want to invite you to take sticky notes and write down some of your dreams for yourself, for your church, and for your community, and place those sticky notes on the mirror to imagine what dreams may lay ahead for us, if we open ourselves to God’s Spirit together. When all have had a chance to do so, I will offer these dreams to God in prayer.
O Still-speaking Spirit, help open our ears to your voice, our eyes to your dreams and visions. Amen!