Sermon for May 11th, 2014
37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Birthing, Mothering & Raising a Church
I was born on Tuesday May 27th, 1975 at 2:52 in the morning. From time to time throughout my life, my mother has taken great delight at calling me at 2:52 in the morning to wish me a happy birthday. The first time she did this, I think I said something to the effect of, "Mom, I was sleeping. You woke me up." To which she promptly replied, "Hey, you woke me up that first morning...I'm just returning the favor!" These days, I just say, "I love you mom. Thanks for getting up so early to bring me into the world."
Today is Mother's Day. We make a big deal out of this holiday in our culture, and rightly so. But as you wish everyone a happy mother's day today, it's also important to remember and be sensitive to the fact that not all women are mothers. For some, that's by choice, but for others who want children but cannot have them for any number of reasons, today can be a painful reminder. There are also some mothers whose have lost children, and today can be difficult for them as well.
Given this, I think it's helpful to remember that whoever you are, whether you are a mother or not, whether you are male or female, young or old--all of us were brought into this world by way of a mother, and all of us were mothered by someone--whether it was our biological mother, or any number of people along the way who cared for us and raised us in a loving, nurturing, "mothering" sort of way. For those who mothered us, we give thanks to God.
Of course, it's not just people who are birthed, mothered, and raised up. This also happens to communities, movements, and organizations. Thirteen years ago, Amy and I experienced the birth of a new church--Faithbridge Presbyterian Church in Frisco, Texas (a suburb north of Dallas). Our first Sunday at Faithbridge was the day the church was chartered, and over the next decade we helped to "mother" and raise this young church, first as active members, then later when I came on staff as the church's first director of music and youth ministries.
Over the course of a decade we went from meeting every Sunday in an Elementary school (and weekdays in the homes of members), to laying the cornerstone on a new building. Amy and I had the exciting privilege of leading worship on the very first Sunday (Easter Sunday) in that new building, once it was completed. Every year, the church grew in membership, worship attendance, number of programs. Every year, its members grew in their relationship with God and with each other. I grew a lot too. In fact, it was this experience of birthing, mothering, and raising a church that ultimately led me to seminary, and to the decision to serve God as a pastor.
Here at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, our "birth" was over 130 years ago, and unfortunately none are still with us who can remember those first days. I can imagine, however, that it was an exciting time: It was 1882, and the railroads had just arrived in El Paso, bringing with them crowds of people eager to settle in a frontier town and make a new home. Long before our first building, worship services were held in a tent that we shared with the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Episcopalians. There were just 16 members when the church first chartered, and the young 32-year-old pastor, Rev. James Alexander Merrill was a real Western Cowboy Preacher, complete with enormous lambchop sideburns and moustache.
You can read more about those days in the history book about First Presbyterian Church, written by Evan Antone and Carl Hertzog in 1982 on the occasion of our Centennial. We give a copy of the book to every member, but if you've lost yours or would like to borrow one, just let me know. It an exciting story well worth reading.
Both of these stories--my own first-hand account of the birth of Faithbridge Presbyterian Church, and the written account of the birth of First Presbyterian church--share a lot in common with our scripture passage today. Today's scripture passage from Acts recounts the birth of the earliest church in the New Testament; the Apostles and their earliest followers after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It was an exciting time with a lot of energy: Everything was growing, everything was fresh and new. But it was also a frightening time, with a lot of uncertainty: Everything was changing, everything was new and different.
We are a 130-year-old church, and our "birth" was long ago. In fact, as the cycle of life goes, we did most of our growing in the mid to late 20th century, and for the past twenty-two years, we've been steeply declining, in membership, attendance, programs, finances, all the measurable statistics. It may sound harsh, but for the past two decades, we've been a dying church. That doesn't frighten me, and it shouldn't frighten you, either. Because as Christians, we ought to know a thing or two about being "born again."
We are entering a new millennium. We have called a new pastor. We have climbed out of deficit and now have a balanced budget. Our fastest growing demographic right now is young families with children. In other words, even though we are a 130-year-old church, we are in the midst of a rebirth. And for that reason, I think we can learn a thing or two from the birth story of the early church in Acts. When I read the story, I see three things (okay, maybe I see 4 or 5, but I really like the number three, and I only get 20 minutes for the sermon!). These three things ring true to my own experiences in birthing and raising a church in North Dallas, and also to what I've read of our own birth story back in 1882.
First: Newborn Churches (or newly re-born churches) are Highly Transitional.
In verse 46 we read, "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." There is a deep transition happening in just this one verse alone. The Jewish faith is centered around the temple, the synagogue. Almost all of the earliest converts to Christianity were Jewish, and they didn't exactly see themselves as converts, or even as leaving behind Judaism, including their leaders. That's why they continued to meet in the synagogue, they continued to follow the old laws and customs. But we also know that the early Christian church became increasingly a house-church movement, centered around and gathering in the large homes of wealthier members. So at this point in the text, we see both. But make no mistake, it is a transition away from the synagogue and toward the house-church. And as cheerful and generous as this passage sounds, we know from later chapters in Acts and later books of the New Testament that it was often a rocky transition, pitting old laws, customs and traditions squarely against new ones and causing a lot of grief and tension among leaders and followers alike.
What's important to remember here is that nothing is ever completely new. Even brand new churches are made up of people who bring their old traditions and customs with them. History shows that one vision (and usually the newer one) ultimately prevails, and then it begins its own process of becoming the "old" vision against which an even newer one will prevail. But the birth of a new church is the place where that transition is the most keenly felt, where new and old clash most visibly, and because of this, a spirit of flexibility, generosity, and meals shared around a common table are the most critical.
Second: Newborn Churches (or newly re-born churches) are Radically Inclusive.
Verse 39 reads, "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." Peter preached this sermon in Jerusalem, and in 1st century Jewish faith, you came to Jerusalem to worship. Jeursalem did not come to you. You came to Jerusalem to worship if you were Jewish. If you weren't Jewish, you didn't come. We know that early Christianity was the opposite--it spread quickly through all of the Roman Empire, and reached out to people of every faith, every culture, every socio-economic class, every age. It was not just for adults, but children, too. Unfortunately, in many established Christian churches today, we've reversed that once again. We build a building and then expect people to come to it, because our worship is so great, or because we put on a concert or special event. We secretly hope that the people who come will be those who look like we do, dress like we do, think like we do.
But newborn churches can't afford that luxury (often because they don't even have a building for people to come to yet!). They go into the community, into the streets and marketplaces to proclaim their message, just like Peter did, and then they welcome anyone willing to listen. One of the three goals adopted for this year by our leadership at First Presbyterian Church is to work on our inviting, welcoming, and engaging all those we come into contact with. It's my hope that in our own re-birth, we too can be a Radically Inclusive community.
Third: Newborn Churches (or newly re-born churches) are Fundamentally Simple.
This one sounds counter-intuitive. I don't mean to say that newborn churches are any less complicated than any other group. People are complex, and so are all of their interactions. But rather the focus of newborn churches is dead simple. It has to be if you want 3,000 new converts to quickly grasp the purpose and share it with others. The crystal clear focus of the early church in Acts comes in verse 42: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." The word "devoted" here is in the original Greek προσκαρτερέω (proskartereo) which is the kind of single-minded, undistracted attentiveness that an artist gives to her craft, or that a hawk gives to his prey. So here, they are devoted to just four things: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship with each other, breaking of bread together, and the prayers. Everything else is just a potential distraction.
This is nice. It means they only had four committees, at most (by contrast, we have 11 right now!) A lot of established churches burn themselves out trying to do everything, trying to be everything for everyone. Most of these things are worthy causes if taken alone, but completely unsustainable when they are all piled on together. My son, Grady, participated in a basketball league this year, and as his coach assembled and molded this brand new team, kids new to the whole idea of basketball, he spent a lot of time teaching them four simple fundamentals: dribbling, shooting, passing, and control of the ball. When a professional sports team that has been around for years starts struggling and finds itself in need of a re-birth, what do they do? They go back to the fundamentals. They keep it simple, and they grow from there. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we have some fundamentals, too. They're printed on the cover of every bulletin and embedded in our logo. Faith. Hope. Love. If we can devote ourselves to these three things above and beyond all distractions, we'll grow, too.
So to review: Newborn churches (and newly re-born churches) are
- Highly Transitional (and therefore flexible, generous, gracious and patient with each other)
- Radically Inclusive (reaching out far beyond their walls to bring in people who are diverse and different)
- Fundamentally Simple (focused on a few, simple, fundamental things)
First Presbyterian Church, we are a community in the midst of re-birth. And that means you are all mothers, young and old, male and female. Together, we are raising something new; we are mothering something fragile, but something infinitely precious.
Now since it's mother's day, I have to close with my favorite mother's day story:
There were three brothers, who had all done very well for themselves in life. They were also very competitive, and so as mother's day approached, they tried to outdo one another in their generosity to their mother, who was by now quite elderly.
The first brother boasted that for mother's day this year, he had bought their mother a brand new Rolls-Royce limousine, complete with a chauffeur to drive her around wherever she wanted to go. The second brother responded, "Good, because she'll need something to park in one of the four garages of the brand new ten-bedroom Victorian-style mansion that I bought her this year for mother's day.
At this, the third brother smiled and said, "I've got both of you beat: You know how more than anything else in the world, our mother loves to read the Bible, but with her eyesight going, she can't see too well anymore? Well, I traveled halfway around the world to buy for her a expensive and rare kind of exotic parrot that has memorized the entire Bible. It took the bird's trainers over thirty years to teach it, but now all you have to do is say the chapter and verse, and the parrot will begin to quote the Bible for you. It cost a fortune, but I'm convinced our mother will absolutely love it.
Well, a few months after mother's day, the brothers got together for dinner with their mother in her new mansion, and naturally, they asked her what she thought of all her gifts. She told the first son, "The limousine is very nice, and I sure do enjoy talking to that nice man who drives it...but really, I don't travel much, I have everything I need right here, so I'm afraid I don't use it that often.
The second son said, "That's right, everything you need is right here in this beautiful house! You like the house, don't you?" His mother replied, "It is certainly a beautiful house...but you know I really spend most of my time in just one or two rooms, and with my poor eyesight, I'm always afraid of getting lost in here!"
Seeing how hard their mother was to please, the third son got a little nervous (especially since he hadn't seen or heard the parrot anywhere around the house). But remembering the minor fortune he had paid to please his mother, he timidly asked her, "And how did you like my gift?" Then his mother got a really big smile on her face and she said, "You always were my most practical son, and you always do know just what I like. The chicken was delicious."
Happy Mother's Day, First Presbyterian Church! Keep it simple, keep it flexible, and welcome everyone!