What A Responsibility!

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-10 — During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

So much of the story of the Bible, the story of our relationship with God, is a story of failure.

You’d think that the story of God would be a story of success.  Who, after all, wouldn’t want God to succeed?  Who wouldn’t expect that, when we follow God, we will all succeed?

And yet, at least one of the truths of the Bible is that success is hard to come by, easy to lose, and not always clear in the moment.  The path of following God is not even as clear as an old trail on the Appalachian Trail, where the bushes have grown up and the arrow painted on the tree faded to only vague visibility.

And, of course, we know that what exactly constitutes success is never clear.

We might think we know what success is – isn’t it having more money than we need?  Isn’t it being young, vigorous, a leader in our work? Isn’t it having well-behaved children? Or, being young, isn’t success getting into the right college, getting a good job, marrying well, and so on?  Isn’t it about cheering for a successful, winning team – go Patriots?  Isn’t it about having the right house, with colors that “pop”, with “sleek” appliances — can’t you tell I watch a lot of HGTV?  Isn’t all of that success?

But, sadly, it isn’t. You can paint every room in the house in the right color, but next year there’ll be a different color and you’ll be behind the times yet again.  Chasing that kind of success is like a dog chasing its tail… always running, never catching,

The story of the people who follow God is a story of a different kind of success, not a chase after the shiniest object or the latest gizmo, but a quiet search for worth and meaning, a yearning for the pure essence of love to infuse our world.  As people of God, we yearn for that which draws our world into good relationship with one another.

And that brings us to today’s lesson – because it’s a story of success and failure and more success, or more something….

Paul and Luke and Timothy were travelling together, on a missionary journey to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  Paul had had a dream that the Macedonians wanted him to come over and be with them, and so they had travelled to Philippi, a city on the eastern (Turkey-facing) coast of the Greek peninsula.  There they met Lydia, who was a prosperous merchant.  Don’t miss that – this is an amazing success story, that a woman was a public success, and especially at something which required her to engage as an equal with men.  Lydia was a success.

But Lydia knew that success in the world of business only took her so far, and she had been looking for something more eternally satisfying.  She’d been attending the services at her local synagogue, even though she wasn’t Jewish.  It was good, but it still didn’t seem right.  She didn’t feel called to become a Jew, and so she couldn’t formally join the community.  But then she heard Paul speak, heard his message, that in love, God welcomes everyone, God offers us all a way to live lives of value, and – on the spot – she asked him to baptize her and all her family.

And here’s the message for today.  When Lydia heard Paul, really heard what he was saying, she responded.  Right then.  Immediately.

Her choice changed her life. No longer simply focused on making money, she was now focused on following God’s call to build a better world.  No longer simply trying to please herself, now she has said that God is in charge.

This is important for us, because sticking to our choice is a constant challenge for those who follow God. The choice to follow God is not a once-for-all kind of thing.  We have to renew it every day, renew it with every opportunity which comes to us.

We are going to be faced, every day, with opportunities to show forth our love of God, and opportunities to take the easy way, to continue to do what we’ve always done.  And it’s all too easy to make excuses as to why we’re not going to take the time to figure out what God wants, not today, since we already know what we remember that God wanted in the past.

But the world changes and the needs of the world change as well.  What helps us bring good news to our community one year may not be effective another year.  Worship which is wholly satisfying to one may no longer speak to all.

When change is needed, how do we respond?  Reluctantly, dragging our feet, complaining that we really don’t like that new (whatever it is)? Or with a sense of exploration, with our eyes open to what’s out there?

Or do we respond with fear, because we know we can’t do it alone?

Here’s the good news – we’re not alone.  God is our guide, God is our strength, and when we follow God, we will be sustained.

And there’s more good news. it’s not about success… it’s not about failure…. God doesn’t measure us by the number of times we hesitate; God doesn’t measure us at all.  God simply loves us, and calls us, every day, into a loving relationship.  That loving relationship will move us forward, step by step.  And when we falter, it is love that will call us back again.

So, step out in love, and follow God.


Who Follows? Who Leads?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA  May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.

16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”


Who’s in charge here?

Over in the Connecticut Conference, a group of pastors are talking on-line about what makes a church, a church.  It’s been an interesting conversation.  Some of us quote the Constitution and Bylaws of the United Church.  Some of us cite the attitude of the members of a church, to determine whether it’s a church or a club.  Some of us want to identify the activities a church sponsors, or leads, or participates them in – and maybe even discern whether or not they are really church-like.

And it makes me wonder, just who’s in charge of deciding whether a church is, indeed, a church.  Our bylaws tell us what makes us a United Church congregation, but they cannot define what makes a church a church.  Sociologists can discern that some churches are really clubs, picking and choosing who will be accepted, but they cannot define what is a church.  And being a church has nothing, nothing to do with who or how many different groups use our building.

But I don’t want to get lured off into a delightfully diverting discussion of the nature of churches.  I know you’re disappointed to hear that <smile> but, for today, the question is not “what is a church””, but rather, who is in charge, in this case – who decides what is a church?  It’s not about “what”, but it’s about “who”.

And “who” is a question we all need to answer.

You see, the temptation in our world today is to say that, of course, no one is in charge of me.  And in churches, however you define them, one of our temptations is to say that the pastor is in charge.  Can you see the challenge if, on the one hand, we believe that no one can tell me what to do, and on the other hand we believe that it’s the pastor’s job to tell us what to do?

So, who’s in charge?  If we leave this unexamined, we end up in a place where it’s pretty difficult to move in any coherent way.  We can just allow the pastor to do whatever she (or he) wants, so long as it doesn’t mean that we ourselves have to do much.  Or it might mean that she can call us to follow and we can, fighting all the way, or maybe even just quietly resisting, because “we’re congregationalist and no one can tell us what to do.”

I think Peter knew this situation exactly.  He was a leader, going forward with what he thought God wanted, living in the tradition of Jesus Christ, but then found himself in a tough space, when the folks “who’d always been here” began to criticize his actions.

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

The long-term folks thought they were in charge; they thought Peter thought he was in charge.  And they were divided.  Divided, because they didn’t know who was in charge.

Peter then told them why he was doing what he was doing.  And in the telling, he tells us the answer to the question.  Peter thought he was in charge, you know, thought he was in charge right up until he had a dream.  He didn’t like his dream; he fought against the vision, but it came back again and again.

Peter’s dream was anathema to him, for he dreamt of a great feast spread out before him, filled with foods his faith told him were never to be eaten. I’m sure that at first, he thought he was being led astray.  But there was that persistent voice, the voice of God, telling him that there was further light breaking forth from God’s Holy Word, that God was still speaking, that what he had always thought was unacceptable, had been made by God and was good.  “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So, who was in charge?  Our reading for today concludes:  “When they heard this, they [the leaders in Jerusalem] they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Who was, who is in charge?  Not the people, not the pastor, but God.

Who’s in charge here?  Not me, not you, but God.

It is God who guides our work together.  It is our task to listen to God, and when God’s voice is as upsetting as it was for Peter and the Jerusalem Council, to listen to God together, to talk together about how to respond, what to do.

God proposes, God calls, we work together to make God’s will manifest to our world.

We believe that the single best way to know what God is asking us to do, is to listen and talk together.  That’s why every voice matters in our church, that’s why it’s so important for each and for all to participate.

Here’s the thing.  Following God’s call often means that we have to re-examine well-loved old habits, maybe leave behind things we’ve loved, certainly move into ways we aren’t sure about. The future is ambiguous. Yesterday’s certainties no longer work, and tomorrow’s certainties are yet to be discovered.  We are in an in-between time, what the professionals call “liminal time”, literally time on a threshold.  It’s not easy.

There are days when I’m sure we’d love to be in a time when all the answers are clear and no one is asking tough new questions.  Well, all I can say is that I’d love to be thin, but it’s not going to happen.  We can’t spend our time yearning for a time that’s not here.   For God has called us to step forward into this unsettling time…

….and it is God who is in charge.


© 2019, Virginia H. Child