I am at Sugar Loaf (NY) United Methodist Church this morning (May 5th). The message is “What Does Your Church Look Like?” and is based on the Scriptures for this Sunday, Acts 5: 27 – 32, Revelation 1: 4 – 8, and John 20: 19 -31. Services are at 11 and you are welcome to attend.
I will be at Monroe UMC (Monroe, NY) on May 12th; services are at 8:30 am and 10:15 am and you are welcome to attend. The message for Mother’s Day and Ascension Sunday is “The Gift of Love” and is based on the lectionary readings for May 12th, Acts 16: 16 – 34; Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 17, 20 – 21; and John 17: 20 – 26.
When I began thinking about this message, it was first based on the last lines of today’s reading from Acts,
After she was baptized, along with everyone in her household, she said in a surge of hospitality, “If you’re confident that I’m in this with you and believe in the Master truly, come home with me and be my guests.” We hesitated, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Here was a woman, who at the very moment of her conversion, opened her heart and responded to the Gospel message of Paul. Now, in an effort to understand this moment, I turned to one of my favorite references, the Cotton Patch Gospels of Clarence Jordan.
This translation of the New Testament is a distinctly Southern version of the New Testament written by a Southern Baptist preacher and Greek scholar who sought to make the words of the Bible relevant to the people of the South and in terms that related to the world of the South in the 50s and 60s to the time when Jesus walked the roads of the Galilee. Sadly, Dr. Jordan died while working on the translation of John so I am not able to read how the Gospel of John or the other books attributed to John would have been expressed.
This, I think, is important. If you cannot put the words of the Bible into the context of your own time, then the words of the Bible become somewhat meaningless. I knew when I was in high school where the church in Corinth that Paul was writing to was but I am sure that many people in the Memphis, Tennessee, area where I went to high school would have first thought of Corinth, Mississippi, before thinking of Corinth, Greece. And when I hear of Mount Moriah I am as apt to think of the most dangerous streets in Memphis as I am to think of the place where God told Abraham to take his son Isaac.
So it was when I read of Dr. Jordan’s translation describing Paul’s journey through Louisana and Mississippi and going to St. Louis, I could not help but think of my own journey and my ties to St. Louis and Missouri. As a graduate of the University of Missouri, I can relate to the Holy Spirit telling Paul not to go to Kansas. But I should also add that my own journey as a lay servant/speaker began in Odessa, Texas.
So while I was thinking of the hospitality of Lydia and what it means for us today, I was also thinking about my own journey throughout the South and up here in the North. I began thinking about the fact that I can often tell if a particular church that I see before me is a United Methodist Church long before I see the sign in the front. That was the case when I first came here to Sugar Loaf.
Sometimes you can see what you know is a church from miles away. I still recall the first time I ever saw the cathedral in Conception Junction, Missouri rising above the plains of northwest Missouri. I don’t know how far away I was but I could see that it was a church and it was something that I wanted to see up close.
Sometimes, that’s not the case though. There is a church in Springfield, Missouri, that looks like a three-story office building, square in shape and in the middle of a parking lot. It is not that different from the other office building along its street. The only way that you could ever know that it was, in fact, a church (besides the sign) is that the windows on the street side of the building form a cross.
And in the hills of eastern Kentucky you will see houses that could only be best described as run-down shacks; yet they are the homes of active Pentecostal churches.
Now, I have never been inside that church in Springfield, Missouri nor the Pentecostal churches that dotted the roads of eastern Kentucky (probably because I was on my way to my own small non-descript but decidedly United Methodist Church in Neon, Kentucky). I have been inside the church at Conception Junction and can understand why the people built it as an expression of their faith in the late 19th century.
But I also know of the massive cathedrals in Europe, built as an expression of faith, but now, for the most part, lie empty or serve more as tourist destinations than places to find God.
But it is not the outside but the inside of the church that tells you what a church looks like. I return to Lydia and her act of hospitality. Luke, the writer of Acts and companion on the journeys of Paul, probably included that note in his recording because Lydia probably began a church in her own home as did so many others in the early Christian church.
You may recall that many of what are know established United Methodist churches in this country, especially in this area began as gatherings in homes because the religious establishment would not let them meet in churches or build a church of their own.
It was the faith and desire to meet God that brought people together, even when it was perhaps difficult and possibly illegal to do so. And we can only imagine what it might be like to have been invited to visit one of these early home-churches or even a church today. (There was a great discussion on a blog that I follow on whether or not to invite a fellow Christian to one’s church.)
Some of us, I know, first came to church because someone invited us to come with them. Others, perhaps, were dragged kicking and screaming and not necessarily as children (though that perhaps describes my own situation).
There is a pastor in the New York Annual Conference who will tell you about the time before he was a Christian when he was told that he needed to be in a particular church on a Sunday morning for the baptism of a sibling’s child. And he will show you the bulletin for that Sunday that he still keeps on his desk so many years later that reminds him of that day and the lady who helped him get a cup of coffee after the service.
He will tell you how he found that bulletin a few weeks later and how he came back to the church, not kicking or screaming or rather reluctantly, but quite willing. He will gladly show you the spot at the altar rail where he answered the call and gave his life to Christ. This, by the way, was and is a United Methodist Church. It was the church that gave him the push and the backing to change his life and become a minister.
These are the stories that we want and need to hear; of people finding Christ and people, through simple acts helping some one to Christ.
This pastor told his story in that very church a few weeks ago. Unfortunately and rather sadly, there were some in the congregation who did not want to hear the story and who were complaining, before the service was over, how long the service was going. Instead of being time with Christ, church was, for them, a brief moment on Sunday mornings and not to interfere with their daily routine.
My own journey is perhaps a little different. Yes, I was brought kicking and screaming to church when I was in school and I could think of so many Sunday mornings when I was in college when I would have rather stayed in bed. But I made a decision to follow Christ when I was in high school on my own and the Holy Spirit spent much time and energy reminding me of that commitment. And while I may not have wanted to go, I also knew that I needed to be in church on Sunday morning, perhaps for reasons not yet evident.
I do know this; were it not for Marvin Fortel, the pastor of 1st United Methodist Church in Kirksville, Missouri, when I began attending college there, my own journey with Christ, let alone my journey as a lay servant/speaker would have taken a different path and I probably would not be standing here today.
His words and his actions showed me the walk that I needed to walk; his counsel and the counsel of others at that time put the Gospel message in the context of my own life and gave me hope for the future. But I also know that Reverend Fortel’s words, thoughts, and deeds, with regards to the civil rights movement and his opposition to the war in Viet Nam which were similar to my own words, were not easily accepted by the other members of that congregation and he was asked to move on.
It does not matter what a church looks like on the outside; what matters is what is in the hearts and souls of the people inside the church. Have they built walls that exclude others? Have they built walls which they think protect them from the world outside but actually lock them in a prison?
The first Christian churches were in the homes of the followers because there was no other place to meet and to meet in public somewhere almost certainly meant the followers would be arrested. The first Methodists in this country met in homes as well because they were barred from meeting in the churches and they built meeting houses because the laws would not allow them to build churches of their own.
They met because they wanted to be with Jesus and help others meet with Him, even when the establishment would not allow it.
But there are no such rules and laws in place today in this country that prevent us from meeting openly in a church of our own, no matter what it may look like.
But what is it that people see. In the Gospel reading for today, Jeuse tells us that a loveless world is a sightless world. The world cannot see Christ if the love of Christ is not present. It was perhaps that knowledge of the love of Christ that prompted Lydia to extend her hospitality to Paul and Timothy. It was that expression of hospitality that allowed one man to get a cup of coffee and begin walking a new path.
It is that hospitality that says to the world that this is a place where one can be among friends and find Christ. John Wesley once said (I hope) that the world was his parish, that his call to ministry extended beyond the walls of the church where he preached.
There is a crisis in this world that is not just a counting of the number of wars or acts of violence. It is a crisis in that we see war and violence as the answer to our problems. We as a society, not just here but throughout the world, are not willing to seek other solutions, even when present solutions do not seem to work.
The other day, I heard Willie Nelson say that one person could not change the world but that one person with a message could. The message that Jesus carried across the roads of the Galilee and to Jerusalem is the prime example.
Many people today see the words of Revelation as the end, the end of everything. For them, these words are dark and exclusionary, meant only for a select few. But John the Seer may have written them knowing that darkness could not win, that darkness and evil will not and would not prevail. If we read the Book of Revelation with the thought that God has won and that evil in whatever form it may take has lost, then we see and hear words that tell us what we must do.
John wrote that the Tree of Life will yield twelve kinds of ripe fruit but who is to pick the fruit and distribute it? The leaves of this Tree are for healing nations but who will heal the nations and the people?
There are people outside the walls of the traditional church seeking to come in and find Christ. Would it be better if, perhaps, the people inside the church were to go outside and show them what Christ is like through their words, their deeds and their actions? What might happen in this world today if we extended the love of Christ to all we meet?
It is a frightening thought but perhaps no more frightening than that first time you came into the church, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps kicking and screaming. Jesus told the disciples
I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.
So we know that we can go out into the world, we know that we can as Lydia did, invite the world into our homes, perhaps not all at once but surely one person at a time.
The call goes out today to follow Jesus, to accept Him as savior. And the call goes out to allow the Holy Spirit into your life, to empower you and provide you with the strength for the task before you.
What does your church look like? I think it looks like each one of us for in each one of us, people will see Christ and we will see Christ in those we meet.