The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man who was about to embark on his second appointment in the United Methodist Church. He had gone to the right seminary and learned from the best professors. He had served his first church faithfully, but the time had come for him to follow his call at a new church.

However, he didn’t know much about where he was being sent. All he knew was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

For four years the young man had worked hard for his first church, he had made just enough mistakes to know what was right and what was wrong, and when he drove into town with the moving van full of his belongings, he went to the church before he went to the parsonage. Filled with excitement and hope he drove out on the old country road but when he arrived at the right address there was no church. So he doubled back and went down the empty road until he found a very disheveled looking building with the biggest and the most hideous tree he had ever seen blocking the sign and most of the church.

The place needed some work: a new roof, new paint, new everything really. But above all things, it needed to have that tree uprooted. The young pastor stood on the front lawn of the property and the wheels started clicking in his mind… How many people had driven past the building without evening knowing it was a church? How could they let such an ugly tree blemish God’s house? And then he knew what he needed to do.

He got in his car and went back to the parsonage, but instead of unpacking all his belongings and getting settled, he was on a mission for one particular box, the one labeled: chainsaw.

Hours later, with sweat dripping from his brow, the pastor stood proudly on the front lawn with the church now being completely visible from the road. The marquee shined with a new brilliance, the side of the building was available for all to see, and the old gnarled tree was perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor continued to day dream about how many more people would be there for his first service simply because the tree was gone. And he was working on his first sermon when the telephone rang; it was the District Superintendent. For a fleeting moment the young pastor thought that maybe the DS was calling to congratulate him for taking the initiative to beautify the church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s, John Wesley himself had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all the Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love of the scriptures, and its shade was enjoyed like the mustard bush from the time of our Lord.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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I haven’t been here long, but I love how we have these open windows in the sanctuary, windows through which we can see the church property. And I want to be clear: no trees have been chopped down since I arrived in town!

Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

We are the stories we tell. And today we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps even more frighteningly, who we are to be.

We only need to think back to the recent presidential election to see how much it further divided us as a country, we only need to turn on the television to see how violence and anger and fear are separating us as a people, we only need to get online for a brief moment to see how broken this world really is.

Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us how to think, speak, and act through stories.

But God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationships with those who are different from you.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty of scripture such that it speaks new and good and true words into your lives. Let the story of God with God’s people wash over your like the waters of baptism such that you can take steps into a new life. Feast on the bread and the cup at this table such that it will bring you to the upper room from long ago and you can hear Jesus speak into your ear: “You are mine and I am thine.”

We are the stories we tell.

When the stories of the world become the only stories we tell then we fail to be the church that God is calling us to be. If who we voted for, or what team we celebrate, or what show we love is more important than the living God, we are no longer the church at all.

Paul proclaims that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our truest story. The story of God in the flesh, of a baby born in a manger, a child who sat at the feet of the teachers, a man who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, a savior who turned the world upside-down, a Messiah who died on a cross, a Hope that broke forth from the tomb three days later.

That is our story.

Two weeks ago I sat down at a Chili’s in Hampton with four people from Cokesbury Church. We introduced ourselves and got to know one another. I asked questions in order to find out what the church was like, and they asked questions to find out whether or not the church would like me.

It was a hope filled conversation as we casted visions about what the church can be. But if you had been with us an hour earlier in the midst of Annual Conference with all of the other United Methodists from Virginia, you would’ve felt the whiplash.

According to the ways of the world, Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, worship attendance is plummeting, and churches are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are absent from the reality of church. At Conference we went over all the statistics, we learned about how the average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. We learned that most churches have attendance that has stayed the same or dropped even when the communities surrounding the churches are growing. And we learned that most people who claim to be part of a United Methodist Church invite another person to worship once every 33 years.

By the standards of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place.

Well then thanks be to God that Jesus is the solid rock upon which the church stands! Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Thanks be to God that the Lord is not in the business of statistics and analytics, God, our God, is in the business of making all things new!

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The story of Cokesbury Church is entering a new chapter. God is breathing new life into this church, and not through a new pastor, but through our willingness to know and believe that God will provide. We can name and claim this because our church story is part of God’s great story.

And at the heart of what it means to be the church is a willingness to learn one another’s stories. We learn one another stories by gathering here for worship, by meeting together to study God’s Word, and by going out to serve the community. We learn one another’s stories so that we can cherish the trees of our foundation while at the same time look to the future with hope because God is doing a new thing.

In time I will come to learn your story. I will discover who you are, what you believe, how you think, and how you act. And in time you will come to learn my story, how I felt called to the ministry, what I believe, how I think, how I act. But in learning one another’s stories we will be doing so much more. In fact, in telling our stories we will discover how we are caught up in God’s great story.

Friends, we are more than the stories of the world. We are more than the statistics and the estimates and the analytics. We are God’s people and this is God’s church!

And this is why we read from the story that is our story. The story of scripture speaks greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. In it we learn about who we are and whose we are.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world; my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand.

We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about God’s story. The ways of the world, the stories competing for our allegiance, will falter and crack and fissure, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Tell the story that is our story! Remember your truest identity in Christ Jesus. Listen for who you are and whose you are in the Word of God. Remember your baptisms and be thankful. Come to the table and see that the Lord is good. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Amen.

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The Uninvited Guest

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

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I only have three opportunities left to proclaim God’s Word in this place. After preaching for 4 years from the Old and New Testaments, after listening for the Spirit’s movement for more than 250 sermons, I only have 3 left.

It’s hard not to think about what my final thoughts should be. I’ve been the pastor of St. John’s for some incredible mountaintop moments, and some frighteningly deep valleys. I’ve gone on a bunch of mission trips, taught lots of bible studies, and implored us to do some pretty strange things in this sanctuary all under the auspices of “worship.”

What do I want to leave with all of you? Should I try to whittle the entirety of the gospel down to an easily digestible sentence like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Should I use my last three sermons to build you up with stories of love and grace and generosity? Should I use these final sermons to break you down with talk of sin, evil, and repentance?

I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks I’ve found myself far more concerned with what I want to say than with what God wants to say.

 

Here we are my friends, today is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. I know some pastors who will spend part of this morning in worship gathering their congregations around a giant birthday cake and will encourage an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others will spend the service talking about how it is our responsibility to offer gifts to the church for her birthday and will then not-so-subtly move to the time of tithes and offerings. And others will use the church’s birthday as an opportunity to talk about inviting others to celebrate and make the whole thing into a guilt trip about evangelism and church growth.

All of which don’t have much to do with what God is saying in the text.

But, of course, Pentecost seems like a party. There are people gathered together in one place, the house is filled with something that propels the guests to do something, and everyone leaves with a gift.

But if Pentecost is a party, how long had God planned it? Who was on the guest list? Is it the kind of party we would hope to be invited to?

Pentecost may be the birthday of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples to worship the living God, but it is NOT the birthday of the Spirit.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… sound familiar? When nothing existed but chaos the Spirit of God swept across the waters and brought forth order. The Spirit is not new, it was there in the creation of all things, it rested on the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. By the day of Pentecost in the upper room the Spirit had already overshadowed Mary’s womb, and called Jesus forth from the tomb. It was there at Jesus’ baptism, it compelled him to preach his first sermon, it fed the 5,000, it healed the sick, Jesus even breathed it on the disciples in the upper room shortly after his resurrection.

The story of Pentecost is not about the arrival of some previously unknown force that we call the Spirit; the entire bible is the story of the Spirit of God made manifest in and among God’s people.

What happened on Pentecost began long before that day, and will continue long after we’re gone.

Near the beginning, the people of God had grown restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began work on a giant tower. With brick and mortar, sweat and tears, they cut through the horizon in an attempt to reach God, and become like God. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to confuse our language and scatter us across the earth. The unity and connection at the heart of our species was ripped apart and never again would we so brazenly attempt to reach and control our Lord.

Or so we thought.

Later, while Moses was on top of the mountain with God, at a place called Sinai, the people down in the valley grew restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began forming a golden calf to worship. With a gathering of precious gems, with kneeling and praising, they chose a new god to put their hope in. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to wipe us from the face of the earth. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and instead only 3,000 were killed for worshipping the golden calf.

The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Golden Calf in Exodus are stories we’d like to explain away. Not just for their strange and supernatural elements, but also because they don’t match with our anachronistic and modern sensibilities. We’d rather talk about what we think the text means than what it is actually saying.

But the stories of Babel and the Golden Calf do not end with a division of language or in a slaughter.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel with God’s magnificent power reuniting God’s people under a common tongue: the Gospel.

            Pentecost is the undoing of the episode with the Golden Calf where, instead of 3,000 being killed, 3,000 were added to the budding church in order to redeem what happened in the valley long ago.

            The Spirit at Pentecost is the one who brings forth life out of death, hope out of despair, and a beginning out of an ending.

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We here in church like everything nice and orderly, or at least I do. I want to have a bulletin that is clear and organized, I want a theme that stretches throughout the entirety of the service, I want people like you to get exactly what you want and what you need.

But the Spirit is not one for white linens, and perfect bulletins, and calm consciences. On Pentecost the Spirit did not come with manners and a polite disposition. No, the Spirit comes with power that could knock someone to the ground, fill a room as if with fire, and even turn the world upside down.

The Spirit shows up at Pentecost like an uninvited guest.

During the height of segregation, there was a well-known church in the heart of Durham that was filled with proper looking white families every Sunday. They all made sure their children were quiet in worship, knew when to bow their heads, and stood to sing the hymns. Their clothes were always clean and coordinated, they always had plans for lunch after worship, and to them the church was perfect.

On one particular communion Sunday however, a young black man showed up at the main door and attempted to walk in. The ushers promptly blocked his path and used a few choice words to explain what they thought about his presence.

The next month he showed up with a few of his friends and there were even more ushers blocking the entrance.

Finally, in the deep heat of the summer, the young black community members decided to wait until the service started before walking in. They waited for the ushers to head inside and stand in the back and then they made their way through the doors precisely when the preacher stepped forward with the bread and with the cup and invited everyone forward.

At that cue the group pushed through the back pews and made their way down to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus.

I wish I could tell you in that holy moment the white people of the church were filled by the grace of God to receive their black brothers and sisters in love.

I wish I could tell you that the whole congregation stood to sing Amazing Grace and gather with their new friends at the altar.

I wish I could tell you that the whole white community of Durham came to their senses in that profound moment and began working to end segregation.

            But that’s not what happened.

The nice people sitting in the pews with their perfect families and their perfect worship service saw the young black men and women as uninvited guests, and they did what some people do when the unwanted show up, they kicked them out.

A fight broke out that Sunday in the aisles and in the pews, clothes were torn, blood was spilt, and windows were broken.

The police were called to break up the fight, which made matters even worse, and the church was evacuated before anyone even got communion.

The Spirit does not always arrive as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart. Sometimes the Spirit is electric, atomic, volcanic, and even violent.

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The human community divided by God at Babel, and punished at Sinai, was brought back together in the upper room on Pentecost. Instead of overwhelming confusion there was a new cooperation. At Babel and at Sinai the people of God wanted to move vertically to become like God. At Pentecost, God connected the people of God horizontally through the kingdom.

God, on Pentecost, offered us a new way, but sometimes we fall back to the Babels and the Golden Calves of the past. At that church in Durham, they believed that one’s skin pigmentation meant more than just about anything. And it took a fight between the pews to show them how far they had fallen.

For some of us we care more about what political party we’re affiliated with than anything else. We therefore ignore or even attack those who disagree with us.

For others we divide ourselves over ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, socio-economic status, and a great slew of other factors.

But at Pentecost God did what God had to do to unite humanity back together. Like an uninvited guest God arrived as a violent wind rushing throughout the room and filled the entire house. Divided tongues like fire appeared among the disciples and a new tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was there at the creation of existence, there in the virgin’s womb, and there in the empty tomb.

God interrupted the sensibilities and the gathering of the first disciples to offer a new way, a way filled with a frightening and powerful Spirit. God united the people under a common tongue of the gospel of His Son through the power of His Spirit and it forever altered the way we understand the world.

For at Pentecost we discover that WE are the church, and that “we” often includes people we can’t imagine; people who do not look like us, think like us, speak like us, or even worship like us.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the way we worship. I love our hymns and our prayers and even the way our sanctuary looks. I love the way we greet each other as we enter the building, I love the way we share signs of Christ’s peace, I even love how many of us are wearing red this morning in honor of Pentecost.

But the church should be a disruptive thing because that’s precisely what God’s Spirit did at Babel, at Sinai, at Pentecost, and it’s precisely what the Spirit did at that church in Durham, and frankly it’s what the Spirit is going to do to the youth of this church on our mission trip this week. The Spirit will upend our expectations and our hopes and our dreams. The Spirit is the one who will show us that WE are the church, all of us, and all of the people that we can’t imagine, they and we are the church, whether we like it or not. Amen.