Sermon delivered by David Burrow April 18, 2010 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
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Our readings today are the lectionary readings for the Third Sunday of Easter:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" And the elders fell down and worshipped.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."
I hope you'll understand when I tell you the service for today was planned very quickly. While I'd agreed some time ago to speak in church one more time, that time was supposed to be next summer--June 20, or Father's Day to be precise. That was the plan before the board met a week ago.
In discussing Rev. Pope's departure, the board looked fairly carefully at how this would affect our church long-term. I must confess, though, that my first question was, "So what's happening next week?" There were a couple of ideas, but those didn't pan out. So, just as happened a year and a half ago when Rev. Gilbert moved away, we were left in a pinch, and it fell on me to come up with something that could pass as a sermon.
Let me start by acknowledging that our church has been on a bit of a roller-coaster for quite some time now. We've gone up and down and through numerous twists and turns, and this past week we came out right where we've been twice before in the past four years--between pastors and with an empty pulpit. I personally hoped these issues might have been handled differently, and I know some others who feel that way as well. We can't change the past, though; we have no choice but to move forward.
I chose for the main title of today's message "The Word Gets Around". Under the circumstances, I suppose what probably comes to mind when you see that is gossip, and I'm sure this past week the phone lines and e-mails were busy passing on all the latest news in our church. That really wasn't the point of the title, though. I chose it because it fits the theme of today's Bible readings. The Lord instructs Peter to tend his sheep, and Paul is converted on the road to Damascus. Those events marked the real start of Christianity, as people began to spread the word of Christ around the world.
When I looked through the lectionary readings for today, I was reminded of a TV show I saw almost a quarter century ago. Not long after I moved to Algona, I remember watching a documentary called The Christians. It was one of the first shows to air on the Discovery channel, back when that network mostly replayed programs from the BBC and Australian television.
On that show a British professor noted just how improbable the spread of Christianity was. You see, Christianity is very different from most of the world's religions. Most faiths focus on a distant, unapproachable god, a true king to be feared as much as worshipped. That's the god we see in the Old Testament, and it's also the god described in today's reading from Revelation. "Power and wealth and wisdom and might ... and the elders fell down to worship." While those words refer to Jesus, the imagery is taken from the Old Testament. God is literally a king in Revelation, and that's also the god of Judaism, the god of Islam, and the god worshipped and feared by most of the world's great faiths.
While we use words like "king" in Christianity, the whole point that makes our faith different from others is that the Christian God literally was one of us. An ordinary girl gave birth to our God, and he grew up much like any other person of his time and place. There have been thousands, maybe even millions of prophets over the years. Most were barely noticed even in their own time. Yet the Christian prophet is far more important two thousand years later than he was during his lifetime.
Aside from the Apostles, no one would have believed that in Christ's own time. From the point of view of the Roman Empire, Jesus lived out in the sticks. Palestine was just a desert area and much smaller than Iowa, hardly a trend-setting place. Today, though, even nations that don't believe the gospel are influenced by Christ and Christianity.
Today's gospel tells of a little spark that began the spread of Christianity. God commanded Peter, "Feed my sheep". Peter and the other disciples did show their love by caring for the flock of believers-tending it and helping it to prosper. The gospels end shortly after this, but much of the book of Acts tells how those original disciples helped to bring the Good News of Christ to anyone who would listen.
As Christians today we need to continue what Peter began. We need to keep the church alive-both around the world and right here at McGregor and Moore in Algona, Iowa. We need to feed God's sheep-spreading the good news and doing Christ's work in our modern world.
Our other reading today tells of one of the biggest turning points in the unlikely history of Christianity, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul the Evangelist. Paul became the first missionary. He spread Christ's message beyond Palestine, truly making it good news for all the earth.
While Paul's story is important, it also creates some important divides in Christianity. There are a lot of Christian denominations that focus on the conversion, and some people claim you can't be a Christian unless you go through the kind of conversion experience that Paul did. I still remember an unfortunate experience I had when I was a kid, when I was attending a Methodist summer Bible school. A well-meaning young woman asked the class if we had been saved, and when no one answered "yes" she felt it was her personal mission to make sure we had the same kind of conversion Paul did-or at least as she did. I remember that all these years later-and it's not a good memory.
Later in my life I'd have Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and even Catholic friends all of whom tried to convince me that I wasn't really Christian because I'd never really converted and gotten rid of my former self. I don't doubt any of those people's faith, and I'm glad that a conversion experience was meaningful for them. That's just not my religion, though. I was brought up in a good Christian home, and while I'm far from a perfect person, I've tried to do what's right. To this day I've never been "born again", but even so I'm quite certain I'm a Christian. To me it's what you do because of your faith that matters, not how you got there.
That said, there is something important we can learn from our friends in more fundamentalist churches. They are much better than we are at "getting the word out" and sharing their faith with other people. While I'm not a big fan of testifying, those of us in the old "mainline" churches can often be a bit too shy to talk about religion with others. We're so afraid we might offend people that we often end up saying nothing. In the process we lose the opportunity to share Christ's message and maybe even attract people to our church.
There is a problem, though. Telling others what we believe means that we have to know ourselves what we believe--and for those of us in the United Church of Christ that's not always completely clear. Most of you know I work in a Catholic school, and from time to time I've had some of my students ask me what our church believes. When they ask that, they assume it will be an easy question to answer. Both Catholics and Protestants know what the Catholic church believes; they may or may not agree with it, but everyone knows what those beliefs are.
Saying what you believe is harder for mainline Protestants, and it's especially hard for those of us in the United Church of Christ. Our church, after all, has its roots in the sober Puritans who killed witches at Salem and endured grim day-long services. In modern times, though, we're sometimes seen as progressive to the point of being radical. Ours is, after all, the church of controversial figures like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The fact is, of course, most of us are nowhere near either of those extremes. We have a long history and a very active national church organization, but there's nothing that forces us to believe what our ancestors did and nothing that requires our local church or any of us individually to believe exactly what the national church says. That's actually one of the things I like best about the UCC. Every church is different, and every member is different.
I joined this church as an adult. I grew up in an enormous Methodist church in southern Iowa, and when I came to Algona I tried but never felt comfortable in the Methodist church down the street. It was really almost by accident that I ended up in this gorgeous old building with a small, but friendly congregation--the First Congregational United Church of Christ.
I came to this church by my own choice. When I joined, one of the things that attracted me here was the local Statement of Purpose that we read as our affirmation today. One of my favorite lines from that statement is "We find strength in the diversity of the interests and backgrounds of our members. We welcome all persons who would seek with us answers to life's ultimate questions."
Some people are scared of diversity. They want everyone to look like them, act like them, and believe as they do. We see far too much of that in politics today, where too many people on both ends of the spectrum don't want to even listen to those whose opinions are different than theirs.
I find it refreshing that our church welcomes diversity. Some of our members are very liberal; others are quite conservative; and others are a bit of both. I think of myself in that last group. I'm traditional and restrained in my personal life, but I try to be caring and tolerant of other people, regardless of who they are or what they do. The beauty of our church is we can all talk to each other, respect each other's opinions, and learn from each other. I'm proud of our church for acknowledging that there is strength in diversity. We have room for everyone, regardless of where they're coming from. I feel I was welcomed here, and I hope we will continue to welcome all people well into the future.
Our Statement of Purpose goes on to stress that love is the unifying force in our church. It says, "We nurture one another through acceptance, caring, and sharing. We reach out beyond ourselves to the needs of others, to promote justice and to witness to God's love." This is truly something we all believe, but I think if we search ourselves hard, we'll have to agree it's a work in progress for all of us. We try to be loving to everyone. We try to promote justice, and we try to care for those in need. As hard as we try, we all know there's more we could do, though. Imperfect as it is, stressing love still a noble goal. Today's gospel reminds us we need to tend God's sheep--we must continue to make loving and caring part of everything we do as a church.
Our Statement of Purpose reveals a lot more about what our church really is all about. It says that God "has given us in Jesus the image of what human life is meant to be". You might remember a few years ago when it was popular for kids to wear wristbands and lockets that said "W.W.J.D."--What would Jesus do? That message isn't just for kids. Our Statement of Purpose reminds us that Jesus should be a model for everything we do as well--and wouldn't it be nice if everyone around the country and all the politicians and all the corporations followed that model too? We need to pass that word along, and encourage others to hear and follow it.
There's one other main point in our Statement of Purpose, and it's something else that attracted me to this church years ago and has kept me here ever since. Our affirmation reminds us that "we strive to mature in faith by encouraging the free exploration of our Christian beliefs so that our faith will be more relevant to our individual lives and to the society in which we live."
So, what does that mean? Well, among other things, it means none of us is ever done growing in our Christian faith. Perhaps you've seen those posters or mugs or bumper stickers that say "God ain't done with me yet"--well that's exactly what we're saying in our affirmation. Working in education, I know that one of the big buzz-words in schools is "lifelong learning", and our Statement of Purpose is basically telling us that need to keep learning about the faith continues all through our lives. While individual rites of passage like baptism and confirmation are important, what our statement is saying is that they're really more the beginning than the end.
...And there's something else that's important, too. Our church acknowledges that everybody is different-we all learn about Christianity differently and express our faith in our own unique ways. While "making things relevant" is not a phrase many people have used since the 1970s, I like the fact that our Statement of Purpose says that. We need to make our religion our own, and it's important to realize that what we get out of church may not be the same as what other people do.
We also need to remember that society is not static-it changes, and our church needs to change to adapt to those changes. We can't expect our church to be the same as it was in the 1800s or the 1950s or even the '80s or '90s.
We have made some positive adaptations-things like trading our Sunday school for the Wednesday evening family time. We've also responded to community needs by taking on responsibilities like overseeing the Mahana scholarship fund. We need to continue to constantly re-evaluate what we do to make sure we're truly serving the needs of our members and our community.
So here we are in another time of transition. It's more important now than ever that we do get the word around about our church-let people know just what our church is all about ... and that goes for both the UCC as a whole and for First Congregational Church here in Algona. If we do get that word around, we can continue to fulfill our church's purpose. We will be "an alive and growing family of faith in God", and as our Statement of Purpose says, we'll "continue our heritage of being a pioneering people in a changing world".
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The background music on this page is the hymn "Pass it On", which was sung at this service.