Naturally, a few weeks ago, I expected to be preaching on “Doubting Thomas,” reminding you that Thomas is no different than most of us and certainly does not deserve his moniker, seeing as how he is the one who encouraged the other disciples to follow Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with Him. But a strange thing happened along the way. Last Thursday, Judy brought an Order of Worship from a parish she had visited, and she was very much taken in by the prayer. She should have been; it was one of our Collects for unity. But we got to talking about whether it might be appropriate for our use at Advent, given the discussions of our Vestry retreat. You will pray that prayer in a bit, and you will be able to judge for yourself.
Between Judy and my discussion was a feast we call Easter. Those of you who made it to church last week may have noticed we had a visitor or three. Many of those who came apologized to me afterwards for not having attended earlier. Many introduced themselves as Adventers, but lamented that life had gotten in the way of their spiritual life. All, by the way, were blown away by the other-worldliness of the choir last week. Brothers and sisters of the choir, you all do good work week in and week out. Last week, however, was spectacular. A bunch of people asked me if I thought the heavenly choir would be better. Those who attend infrequently may or may not remember my sermon and may or may not be serious in the desire to attend more regularly this summer. But they will all remember that music for some time to come. Thank you.
The Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter celebrations are important to us because they remind us of the love God bore for us in the work and person of Jesus Christ and of the life we are called to live in light of His testimony and work of incredible power among us. The short version of that new call on our life is that we are called to be an Easter people. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then how should you and I be living?
One of the treasures of the Bible hidden by our lectionary editors is the book of Acts. I say hidden because we read very little from it during the course of the three year cycle. Most years, we only read from the book of Acts during our celebration of the Feast of Pentecost. It makes sense, of course, Acts begins with the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost. In year B, this year, Acts supplants the Old Testament readings during the Easter season. Why is this disappointing? Acts is the longest book of the New Testament. Better still, It testifies to the life of those who witnessed the Resurrection and those first people who believed in their testimony. We have an Archbishop of Canterbury and a Pope calling upon their respective churches, and their personal view on ecumenism, arising out of churches’ reclaiming their heritage from the book of Acts. It is in the book of Acts that we see the Church as a place for healing. It is in the book of Acts that we see God using those who truly believed in the Resurrection of Jesus to accomplish amazing things in His name. It is in the book of Acts that we see another characteristic of the early Church today.
When I was in seminary, I was privileged to eat a few meals with a number of notables in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. My bishop had caused a ripple or two around the church and the Communion by supporting the redefinition of marriage and by allowing me to attend Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. In everyone’s mind, the two were incompatible, antithetical. Trinity was insistent that we seek Jesus in the Scriptures and test our thoughts, our experiences, and our feelings against God’s word. Generally speaking, bishops who supported the redefinition of marriage would not allow their ordinands to go to Trinity. What made the bishop’s position even more unique was his refusal to release me to a call outside the diocese of Iowa. So, when people came to visit, I had a number of people who wanted to meet me and get a measure of my bishop, or at least my perspective of his measure. More often than not, we would eat in the lunchroom at seminary and talk.
One of those conversations that really hit me was with a gentleman by the name of George Gallup. You are right, as far as I know, there was no Archbishop or bishop Gallup. George was businessman who happened to be Anglican/Episcopalian and on our Board of Trustees. George’s business was the collecting of information. Gallup polls are probably world famous. And I see by the nods you have all heard of them. During a conversation, George shared with me some disturbing news. It was either he or one of his competitors had commissioned a poll to examine how non-Christians perceived Christians. What disturbed him as a faithful Christian and me, as a soon-to-be Christian clergy, was that we were viewed overwhelmingly negatively by those outside our parish walls. Words like “Arrogant,” “judgmental,” “boring,” and “hypocritical” come to mind from that conversation. In fact, almost three quarters of respondents in that survey overwhelmingly identified us in very negative ways. Very negative. Our lunchtime conversation turned on that question of how the Church had lost its joy, its playfulness, and its respect among those not a part. That conversation, no doubt, played a part in my wardrobe decision. Yes, I take God’s Word seriously. Yes, I believe it is true, even the things that I cannot yet explain. But I call you and others to a feast, I call you and others to The Feast in His name. I don’t wear black because the colors are a small testimony that we can be a joyful people even as we are serious about our faith and our callings. For better or for worse, my colored shirts have provoked a couple hundred conversations among people who are not part of the church and not a few with those not a part of our church.
Now, I say it may have been one of George’s competitors who collected the information because I came across a book around five years ago that was based on a three-year Barna research product. It was entitled something along the lines like “What the New Generation Thinks of Christianity.” The time frame of the research overlaps, so George could have been pondering this survey. The guy who wrote the book was a member of that research team that collected information for three years. In this book, he shared that our society had an incredibly negative view about people of his faith. 90% or more saw Christians as antihomosexual; 80% or more saw Christians as hypocritical and judgmental; 70% or more saw us as insensitive, boring, and in other such negative tones. It wasn’t until the ninth or tenth adjective that the next generation had something positive to say about Christians. Think about that for a second. If I asked you to describe yourself, would words like judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical come to your mind first? What if we asked our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our family members outside the Church how they saw us, would their description match your own of yourself? Or, do you think, they might think you are the special one and not see you as they overwhelmingly see Christians?
Such descriptions and attitudes contradict the Church from early Acts. Everyone who believed was of one heart and soul. Their job seems to have been two-fold. They navigated that tension that exists in the Church. They ministered to the needs of one another even as they gave their testimony to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. One of the difficulties we face is drawing others into our Lord’s embrace even as we minister to and care for one another. Last week is a perfect example. I was told by several regular attendees that the service would have been perfect had I sung the liturgy. Yes, it was a high, festival day. Yes, it would have been a great day to sing the liturgy. But, aside from my joyful noise bringing the music experience way back down to earth for everyone last week, the sung liturgy would have made the experience that much more challenging for those who do not come. For every “I wish you would have sung” I got last week, I got a “thank you for not making us sing.” What was the right answer? Honoring God and celebrating the Resurrection with a sung liturgy? Or making the liturgy more accessible to others? I don’t know. I struggle with questions like that.
Did the early Church? At times it seems as if they did, but at other times it seems as if they did not. In our reading today, we are told that all who believed forsook private ownership of all property. Now, before the capitalists among us get their hackles up and think I am going to preach communism this morning, relax. God does not say that private property is a bad thing here or anywhere else in the Bible. In fact, He is quite adamant that we have things as stewards for Him in most places. The people in the early Church, being of one heart and soul, decided not to claim private ownership. If someone needed something, proceeds of sales were used to supply the need. It was a thankful response to the Resurrection and loving response to their brothers and sisters in Christ. How counter-cultural was that living testimony! How counter-cultural would it be today?
How good are we at meeting the needs of others within and without? Is there a reason that outsiders look in on the modern Church and describe us so negatively? And I am not just talking about financial needs, although those are often the easiest to see and the easiest to see met. What about companionship? That requires tremendous gift of time. Sometimes all our brothers and sisters need are a shoulder to cry on, a friend to remind them their circumstances do not signify abandonment by God. Maybe they are recovering from illness and need a meal or three, transportation to a doctor or therapist, help cleaning their home. Maybe they are homeless and need a warm place to sleep, a couple good meals, access to medical care, and maybe access to mental health care. Maybe they suffer from addiction and need and need to hear they are loved, that there is help available. Imagine if the Church got back to being about the care of its members and preaching with power the testimony of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus. What would be the impact on individual communities? Cities? Nations? The world?
And what of those not yet a member of His Church? How do we serve them? How do we incarnate the love of Christ in their lives? In a few weeks we will remind ourselves that we were all given gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve this body, the Church of the Advent, to His honor and His glory. Are we using them? Do people, when they hear of or think upon Advent, begin to recount all the things that we are doing which testify to our collective belief that He is risen indeed? Our we reknowned for our care of widows, of orphans, of slaves, of survivors of domestic violence, of shoddy medical access, of those who slip between the cracks of the government’s safety net, of those in our prisons, of those who are new to our country? Are we a church that takes our faith so seriously but is joyfully emboldened to help those outside our parish but within our diocese, our country, or our Communion, knowing that in serving them, we serve Him and advance His kingdom? I see the squirms.
The truth is, brothers and sisters, how we care for one another and how we care for strangers is some of the best testimony that you and I can give to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus. I can stand before you and speak in passionate and eloquent terms, but if, as a parish, we are miserly with our resources, our time, and even our talents, the world rightly judges us as hypocritical and, more often than not, turns away from our Lord’s saving embrace. What if we were that island of hope and joy in the middle of the world’s concerns? What if we were known for how we visited one another when ill or shut-in? What if we were known for how we cared for those most hurting among us? What if we were, to use the words of Pope Francis today, an oasis of the Living Water that brings life to the world? Would the world be repulsed? Or would the world maybe want to share in that Peace and Joy we possess? We already know the answer.
A few decades after this event in Acts, one of the emperors decided to confiscate the property of any who followed this “Way” of a son of a Judean carpenter. He decided to strip citizenship from any Roman citizen who was determined to be a Christian. We cannot begin to understand the worth of Roman citizenship in the ANE, but ask an immigrant to this country what American citizenship means to them and we might begin to get an idea. Anyway, in the midst of this particular Persecution, the emperor Julian included in his edict that the Christians were doing precisely what the state ought to be doing for those who lived under its umbrella. Think about that for a second. A persecuting emperor acknowledged that his enemies were doing the job that his government should be doing! That would be like modern atheists or Imam’s, as they were ridiculing us or condemning us, said that we were doing their job better than they! Can you imagine a Fatwa that said Christians cared for poor Muslims better than Muslims? Can you imagine a treatise that said these idiots who worship a spaghetti god sure act as if their God is real? Is there higher praise than when an enemy praises us? What made his edict even more lamentable was the statement that the neediest in Rome would be forced to look in vain to the state to meet the needs now that he was eradicating the Galileans.
In March, the Vestry and I gathered in the annual retreat. We spent some time imagining how we wished church worked, but in particular, we spent some time imagining how Advent worked? Who are we? How do people describe us? Do they even know who we are? As part of the fruit of that discussion, most of the Vestry and I will take part in a series of classes on Gifts & Talents taught by Dick and Ron. Before we can begin to lead the parish properly, we need to understand where God is leading us, calling us, individually. In turn, it will be our job to help you hear that same still, small whisper in your life. Over time, I have no doubt we will hear God’s voice and discern His will for us here on the county line. In the meantime, I have some homework for you. In the Holy Cow you claimed to want a teacher; well, teachers come with homework assignments.
Your first assignment is to ask questions, be quiet, and listen. Think back to that wonderful service last week. Remember how transported you felt, how alive you felt giving thanks to God for the Resurrection of His Son our Lord? Now, look around. I know it is low Sunday and we good little Episcopalians use Low Sunday as a training day for Episcopal vacation. But look around and ask yourself the questions: Who is missing and why? What is more important than day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out, giving thanks to God for the gift of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord? Who in your life missed out on that wonderful service last week that you fear may miss that eternal worship to which we are called. Almost as important, who that attended last week was absent this week and why? Then here comes the hard part. Go to your friends, your co-workers, your family, your neighbors, your golfing buddies, your bridge partners and ask them what they think of Christians. Ask them what it is about God that turns them off. And then listen. Consider well what they say. Ask God to hold your tongue that you might here His conviction in their voice. Ask them, in the end, what they think of you. If the “they” are Christians, then the “they” are you. Ask them why they find you arrogant, judgmental, somber, and whatever other description they want to use. Don’t defend yourself. Pray to God for the strength to be silent before the shearers and listen.
Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the homework I give you is hard. We do not like critical evaluations in our society. But consider: we have the greatest news in the world to proclaim, that Christ has come into the world, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead. Better still, He calls us as heralds of His eternal kingdom. We get to issue invitations to the greatest wedding Feast that will ever occur. And that feast will never end. Even better, cool people like us will be the guests. We will be there talking and singing and celebrating with the Lord who loves us so. If we as a parish really accepted all that, really believed all that, last Sunday’s worship would be the norm. Every time we gathered, every time we came together to thank God for the saving work He has done in our lives, our service would be like last week’s. We would be, for a few minutes of our day, see that veil thinned just a bit and His kingdom breaking in. We would be reminded that we will be at a table that extends beyond space and time, at a table that has other cool guests such as our spiritual heroes and heroines, at a table that has even those who invited us and those whom we invited, at a table with even better music than last week as “background noise.” And terms like “low Sunday” and “Episcopal vacation” would fade from memory like the dry grass. Why not find out what keeps others from sharing that joy that is within you? Who knows? Maybe in your conversations your flame had become an ember and that all you needed was a reminder of why you clung to His promise in the first place. Maybe, maybe if we all intentionally engage in such critical evaluation, we might discover HIs calling on our lives and on our parish. Maybe, if we respond faithfully to that call, people here in our community will speak of us as did Rome, an enemy, of our brothers and sisters, and find themselves drawn to our heart and our soul, the Lord Christ.