You Are the Witnesses
NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.
Today's sermon includes an update on the Unglued Church work being done by the Emsworth U.P. Church.
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.
41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
43and he took it and ate in their presence.
44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48You are witnesses of these things.
49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Let us begin with prayer: Oh holy God, be with us this day in our hearing and our speaking. Open our minds to the truth of your mercy and love. Let us be true and faithful witnesses to your resurrection power, here in this place, and in the fullness of each day we are granted. In Christ, the risen savior, we pray. Amen.
The one thing nobody warned me about before having children is that they quickly become a relentless reflection of everything that is good about their parents. That part of raising children delights parents. We like that part.
Unfortunately, our kids also reflect many of our bad traits. We may believe we keep our quirks and weaknesses cleverly hidden, but our kids pick them up anyway. That part of raising kids often horrifies us.
The great cosmic joke in parenting is that the apple hardly ever falls far from the tree. At least it hasn’t at our house. Rachel and David have inherited some fine qualities from their parents, but they have also absorbed some annoying and painful ones. And the same is true for all of us grownups. Who among us hasn’t had that occasional moment in which it seems all too true that we are turning into our mother? Or our father? And not always in a good way.
I am not sure that means parents do a poor job. I think it’s how human beings operate – it is a simple thing to talk about the kind of people we want our kids to be. It is an easy thing to talk about the kind of people WE want to be, or imagine we already are. But putting flesh on our good intentions is something we often do poorly. And very often, our kids are on to us. Sometimes we only recognize our less sterling qualities when we see them in our kids.
It is the same thing in our lives of faith. As a young man, the great Indian leader Mahatma Ghadni studied in London. After learning about Christianity and particularly after reading the Sermon on the Mount, he decided that Christianity was the most beautiful and complete religion in the world. Later in his life, after living with a Christian family in East India, he changed his mind. After a few months actually living with Christians, Ghandi discovered that Christian behavior rarely reflected the teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ words were beautiful, but the words did not become flesh very often. Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians - you are not like him.”
Ouch. Ghandi was on to us.
I am not sure it’s entirely fair to say Christians are doing a poor job of following Christ. We want to be Christ-like. We want our words and actions to line up in a faithful way. But like the disciples in our text today, I think we are terrified. Depressed. Scared sick. Worried about what the future can possibly hold for us. So frightened of death, that we cannot see the possibilities of resurrection life, much less live into it. Even when it’s staring us in the face.
Even when Jesus is right up in our face, there’s so much negative stuff blocking our vision. But that doesn’t discourage the risen Christ from seeking us out.
Jesus comes to the disciples in Jerusalem after appearing to Cleopas and his buddy on the Emmaus Road on Easter Sunday. As you may recall, that story begins with the two men telling a stranger about their broken dreams.
“We had such hopes,” they cry and moan as the stranger sidles up beside them. “We had such hopes that this Jesus of Nazareth would be the one to redeem Israel.”
But that’s all over now, as far as they can see. As they walk along the Emmaus Road, all they can see is blood, pain, despair and death.
We had such hopes. Nothing turned out the way in which we imagined it. No overthrow of Rome. No warrior Messiah on a chariot taking on Caesar’s legions. No miraculous triumph. Just death.
And then, as the story continues on, the stranger, Jesus, begins to talk with them. And as Jesus talks, we see him slowly bringing the men out of their despair, inviting them back into the larger story of God’s promises and God’s goodness. Jesus speaks to them in a way that they can begin to make sense of the pain and see what it all means. Jesus’ presence with them moves them from death to life, from despair to hope. The two disciples are so transfixed and transformed by this stranger that when night falls, they ask him not to go. They want Jesus to stay and continue the conversation about the very things that are troubling their minds and their souls. They have come down with a serious case of holy heartburn and it feels too good to let go.
As they sit down for supper, they recognize Jesus for who he is. The One who has taken all their broken hopes, and redeemed them in a way that seemed unthinkable just a few hours before.
After their encounter with the Living Christ, the two men rush back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they have seen, how Jesus became known to them when they sat down to break bread together.
But the disciples in Jerusalem want no part of this holy heartburn and will do everything they can to resist resurrection possibilities.
Jesus comes to them and they are startled and afraid. Resisting resurrection.
Jesus comes to them and they think they see a ghost. Resisting resurrection.
Jesus comes to them and they doubt. Resisting resurrection.
Jesus shows them his hands and feet, flesh and bones and they disbelieve. Resisting resurrection.
Jesus offers them the chance to touch him and still they still wonder. Resisting resurrection.
Finally, Jesus eats a piece of fish and tells them – you can trust me. You can trust all that you have read in the law and the prophets and the psalms. See what I have done? I have put flesh on the bones of God’s promises so you can trust what is burning in your hearts. You can trust what your eyes see, even if your mind is telling you it cannot be possible.
You. Jesus says. You are the witnesses to all that is now possible.
You, Jesus says. You are no longer have to be crippled by fears of death.
You. Jesus says. You have been given not only open-minds, but new-mindedness.
You. Jesus says. You will have the Holy Spirit so you may see the world in an entirely new way, and will tell the world what you have seen.
You. Jesus says. You have been given new life to live in a new way so that they world will see my Word in your bodies.
And ever since, the Holy Spirit has put flesh on the Word. The Holy Spirit continues to enter into broken hopes and grief over what used to be, or what is, or what will not be, and transform it all into joy.
Resurrection. New Life. Abundant Life. Eternal Life. A big case of holy heartburn that has the power to set the world on fire. In the best possible.
We are the witnesses of these things. We are the witnesses of these things. We have inherited both the despairing resistance and the crazy joy of Jesus’ disciples. Where will we go from here?
How shall we witness to the resurrection, brothers and sisters?
That is the question of the “Unglued Church” project. How will we be witnesses to the resurrection for a new generation? How do we release the anxiety and fear and frantic technical fixes that only serve to drain us, and move into adaptive change that frees us to serve God with joy in this time?
Over the past year, we have talked about many things, all of us. About the past of this church. The good and the bad. About the present situation in this church. We have talked about the incredible gifts of this congregation, and the many challenges. Some of these conversations have been hard. Some have been filled with laughter. Some with tears.
It is tempting to stay exactly where we are, as we are, just as the disciples did when they realized that their hopes about who Jesus would be for them had been wiped out on Calvary. We resist resurrection. It is easier to stay where we are.
But Jesus won’t leave well enough alone. Jesus won’t let us stay stuck. Jesus continues to speak to us through the power of the Holy Spirit in the voices of this congregation, your pastor, your community, and through the Unglued Church project. We are challenged to see where Jesus is calling us as a community of faith, and to be open to the Spirit’s urging.
There are many options, many paths we could take as a church. At our last meeting, a few weeks ago, our Adaptive Change Apprentice, Rev. Sarah Robbins and I put together a range of nine possible directions – not plans, but general directions we could begin to investigate more fully and pray about specifically in order to continue moving forward.
The nine options are printed on the insert in your bulletin. As you can see, the possible options range from dissolving the congregation and turning the keys over to the presbytery to completely re-inventing the church.
For each of these options, Sarah and I determined based upon our knowledge of other churches experience the amount of energy, money and spiritual depth that would be required to explore and execute each of the nine paths.
At the beginning of the last meeting, we reviewed where our congregation is on its life cycle – and determined that the majority of participants agreed that we are where we believed we were a year ago. On a downward slope, with the majority believing we are on the cusp of becoming unviable, or already there.
We talked about where we are as a congregation in terms of energy, finances and spiritual depth.
Most felt our energy is low. We have an average Sunday attendance of between 30 and 35 people. We have 59 members “on the books.” Only a small percentage of our congregation is active in leadership and/or other activities outside of Sunday morning worship. And a substantial percentage of our members on the books are shut-ins or folks who live out of town.
Most felt our financial resources are low. We have a modest memorial account. Our current offerings are sufficient to sustain a half-time pastor, other part time staff, and maintain the building. In 2014, we spent around $88,000, with $79,000 going to staff costs, administration and building maintenance. Our mission giving has been sustained at between 7% of our total budget.
When we have had to make withdrawals from the memorial account from time to time to deal with building repairs or utility bills, we have been fortunate that rising earnings in the stock market have kept our investments fairly steady, at least over the past few years.
Most of the participants in the last meeting felt our spiritual depth/fortitude is between low and medium. Which means that we have a modest ability to endure significant changes in worship, mission, and the nature of our congregational life. For many in our congregation, their spiritual life is centered on this place, this building, this congregation. Some have commented that if this church closed, they wouldn’t go to church at all. And we heard over and over again that there is a strong desire to stay in this building.
So given that honest and realistic assessment of who we are, the group narrowed the nine general directions down to three. Only one of the three directions includes the possibility of selling the building:
1. Age in place. Continue as we have, finding one outward-focused mission activity that has legs (garden, feeding ministry, homeless ministry).
2. Keep the building, but lease/rent out all or part of the building, use space for Sunday worship, and use income from lease to continue as long as possible.
3. Sell the building and “nest” with another congregation, and explore merger possibilities.
We are asking the congregation, together with the leadership, to form three “working groups” to consider the implications of each direction. Each working group will begin to put “flesh on the bones” of each general direction, assess the positives and negatives of each, the costs, the challenges, and the possibilities.
I realize that all of you cannot be at our next meeting on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. when we will form the working groups to consider these directions. So today, we’re going to replicate an exercise we did at the last meeting.
Of these three directions – where do you see possibilities?
Of these three directions – where do you see yourself giving some time and energy to explore how it may come to pass for us?
Of these three directions – where do you sense the Holy Spirit may be calling this church?
Remember, we are not making a decision today. Just getting a sense of where the congregation might be right now. And giving you an opportunity to begin thinking about where each of these three directions might take us.
Let us pray:
God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, we confess to you that we are frequently slow to believe what you have promised through your prophets and in your Son Jesus. We succumb to fears of death as if it were the end of everything - and all too often we live as if there is nothing to live for beyond death. Forgive us Lord: forgive us our doubts, our disbelief, and our deafness to the witness of other believers, and our silence when we could give witness to the faith which we have...
Lord of mercy, God of the living, grant that we might see beyond the ruins that lie about us; that we might take to heart the lessons of Scripture which testify to your willingness and ability to bring new life to dry bones. Give to those who despair a vision of the resurrection which awaits all those who believe, all those you have chosen. Help them to order their lives by the principles of your everlasting kingdom—that kingdom in which faith, hope and love transfigure all that they touch...
Father, help us be a people who are prepared for the journey which lies ahead. Take from us all evil desire; remove from us any refusal we have to forgive others; lift from us any reluctance we have to love our enemies and to bless, in your name, those who curse us. Send unto us the desire to love one another as Jesus loves us, the yearning to bring your saving word to those who hunger, the longing to reach out and touch another person with your love and to speak to others—and to ourselves—your truth. Help us to be ones who are prepared; help us to be ones who live Christ-like lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.