I was asked to share my sermon preached at the 2018 ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly. The assembly met with the theme, Reformation 500…Now What? Following is the sermon I shared with the community.
Our text today is from Acts Chapter 2, versus 1-21. In it, we find the community of believers from all over the world gathered on the day of Pentecost.
The disciples there, who have walked with Jesus, have been through a time…
They had experienced the awe of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the hope of the gospel, the betrayal by one of their own, the joy of the resurrection, and the fear that those who crucified Jesus might be coming for them next.
And so they gathered, all together in one place…now what?
Since the Protestant Reformation, the Church has been through a time over the last 500 ½ years. There has been awe and hope, betrayal, joy, and fear.
Today, we gather, here, together in one place, pondering…now what?
Listen, I know “Now What?” moments can bring a wide range of emotions – some people are excited about the possibilities, others are rolling their eyes – but, I also know that from the beginning of time, God has shown up in “Now What?” moments.
When Adam and Eve were hiding there in that garden, naked, ashamed, and alone, wondering “Now What?,” God showed up and loved them enough to make them some clothes.
When Sarah and Abram got to a place where they could not see a way forward, when they had tried their own way and failed, wondering “Now What?,” God continued to show up, reminding them of the promise, exceeding their every expectation.
When the prophets had tried over and over again to lead the people in a different direction yet all of humanity failed, and they wondered “Now What?,” after some silence, God showed up, and Jesus came to redeem us all.
Now, on the Day of Pentecost, as this community of believers stood in the room from all over the place, speaking different languages, having different lived experiences, wondering “Now What?,” God showed up, and the Holy Spirit changed the lives of the people in that room forever.
The winds of change stirred the people, opening their mouths to speak, and ears to hear and understand each other unlike ever before, inspiring, and empowering them for ministry, to go share and live the gospel.
They came into the room one way and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they could not leave the same. They were stirred beyond stagnation. They proclaimed God’s mighty acts in different ways. They walked out among the people and the people were amazed that the believers were speaking their language for the very first time.
I wonder…in what way is the Spirit blowing among us now, opening our ears, hearts, minds, and mouths to speak the language of the people around us, because for what’s next, we’re going to have to understand each other, and not just understand the language of our native land but understand the language of our faith?
See, what I have experienced in my time as a Mission Developer, walking around neighborhoods and having coffee and talking with people who are unchurched, is the reason most people are unchurched is not because they have never, ever, ever heard of Jesus before. So many are unchurched because they have not found a place in the institution of church that seeks to speak about Jesus in the same language that feels natural for them.
They come into church, craving a language of acceptance but finding a language of judgment. They come into church longing for a language of inclusion, but finding a language of racism, sexism, and ageism. They come into church, sure they will hear a language of justice but instead they hear silence that is deafening.
Church, I wonder what do people hear when they gather with your faith communities? What don’t they hear? Can they hear the grace, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ reaching to the margins, reaching to them?
My prayer today is the answer to this question is yes, unequivocally yes. In each and everyone of our congregations and ministry settings, I hope that the love of Jesus is proclaimed in such a way that anyone who walks through the doors or encounters you on the streets would know that Jesus loves and welcomes them and so do you.
I’ll never forget very early on in my first new start in Boston, we were having Advent Camp and I had placed a sign out front that said, “Advent Camp, All Kids Welcome.” A woman, her 6-year-old daughter, and 3 year-old son walked in, hesitantly. They were greeted at the door, invited over to participate with the other kids, they had a great time.
Afterwards, mom told me how happy she was they had a good experiece. She said the only reason they came in was because her daughter begged her to come. Originally, she told her no, that it wasn’t for them; but, her daughter said, “The sign says ‘All Are Welcome’, so that includes us.” Mom said she wouldn’t let up so they came in. And, she was relieved that they were actually welcomed.
See, turns out this family, up until two days prior had been homeless for two years. They had been living in their car, while they still had it, and then a shelter. They had just that week been placed in temporary housing by the city, across the street from the church. And, this opportunity at Advent Camp was so special because her kids didn’t often get opportunities to do things with other kids.
What struck me about this experience was that it never occurred to the 6-year-old that she wasn’t welcomed; and, it never occurred to her mom that she was. Mom’s experiences with church over time were such that a 20-something Latina with two kids and no job, who were all homeless up until just the other day could not just walk in a church and be welcomed just because the sign said so.
The Holy Spirit is burning today, a hot flame and a blowing wind opening our ears to hear and understand the people around us, calling us to be the voice of grace, hope, love, and justice our communities need, calling us to extend real welcome to people, so we might share the story of Jesus.
What would happen if even more than ever before, we started really hearing and understanding our neighbor?
Now, the Holy Spirit is blowing among us, sending us out into Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, opening our ears to hear the voices that go unheard among us in our neighborhood.
Now, the Holy Spirit is sparking a fire within us to look at our church, to see the people still sitting on the margins of our congregations, synod, and national church.
Now, the Holy Spirit is calling us to move beyond hearing and understanding to action – to be the hands and feet and voice of God in the church and community.
Now, we have to shift our language and understanding about the Reformation. See, I often experience us as a church talking about the Reformation as a particular event or period in history; but, I believe the future of our church is critically dependent upon us moving from celebrating and relishing in the event of the Reformation and moving forward to living into the spirit of the Reformation. We have to move from the proper noun of the Reformation to the regular ol’ noun of reformation – the act or process of reforming an institution or practice.
Reforming – to make changes in something in order to improve it. The very definition itself suggests continuing action. It implies a relevant response to the current context. It suggests we continue to reform, over and over, and over; we do not remain the same.
Church, we are standing in a Now What moment and I believe the Spirit of the Living God is saying the time for the Reformation was not just 500 ½ years ago, the time for reformation is now!
Now what in Alabama? Now what in Georgia? Now what in Mississippi? Now what in Tennessee? Now what with declining church attendance? Now what with competing priorities for time and money? Now what with the culture around us shifting?
Beloved, I know you have a lot going on. I understand people are busy. I understand money is short. The mere idea of more change may make you shudder. But, the commission remains to go, from the day the first disciples stood on that mountain with the risen Christ and received the Great Commission to this very day. We have not been called to remain stagnant. So, in the face of our current context, we have to become even more creative than ever before.
We are living in a time where we have to learn to pivot while we juggle. We are juggling competing priorities but we have to stay relevant and pivot when necessary to engage our current context. We cannot fully live into vital ministry if we are a 1958 church serving in a 2018 world.
Where is the Spirit blowing us in our communities today?
We have had potlucks with AME colleagues and watched the movie Selma…and maybe even 13th…But, Black people are still being arrested at Starbucks and Waffle House; shot at when asking for directions; and having police called for having BBQs, taking naps in their dorms, pushing their baby in their baby stroller in the park, playing golf, checking out of the AirBnB house, showing a real estate client’s house, and arriving at their own house.
We have approved the AMMPARO strategy as a church for protecting migrant minors; but, parents and children are being separated at the border and there are children sleeping in cages like animals.
We have offered our thoughts and prayers, we have marched with signs held high, we bought the t-shirt, and we hashtagged Never Again and Enough is Enough on Facebook, Twitter AND Instagram; but, our babies are still dying in their classrooms, so Enough is clearly not Enough.
The mission field is fertile and God still has plenty of work for us to do, Church. The Spirit of the living God fires us up even more fiercely to continue to reach towards the margins and declare the love of Christ in the hurting world around us.
What if we heard the voices around us even more clearly, the ones that typically go unheard? When we understand the stories of those around us, we are able to receive even more of the full glory of God because without these voices, we are missing a part of what God is doing.
The Spirit came at Pentecost regardless of gender, education, sexual orientation, income, ethnicity, or social status. The story of Jesus is intertwined in all of our stories and in the stories of every person we meet. If we ignore any of those stories, we are stifling a part of the witness.
And, the Holy Spirit is not a fan of being stifled, quenched, or silenced. You can try to control the Spirit but She will still have her way. We have to be open and prepared for what may come next. It won’t always be a gentle breeze.
Sometimes – oftentimes, even – we will be called to hear and understand the story of someone very different from us. Though they may be different, their story is a part of God’s story just like ours and we are called to embrace that story. We are all created in the image of God and the image is only truly reflected if all are included.
And, wouldn’t onlookers look upon the church in a fresh new way if rich people were talking about God together with poor people and adults were talking about God together with children – not like “awe that’s cute, baby” – but really taking them seriously. Wouldn’t onlookers look at the church differently if the college-educated were talking about God together with those who did not finish high school. And, if transgender people were talking about God together with cisgender people. And people who had never been to prison were talking about God together with those who had – without judgment or pity. All calling on the name of the Lord, together!
Oh, wouldn’t that change the way some of the people who just aren’t sure about Jesus, who aren’t sure about this church thing felt about coming to church? This vision isn’t something I randomly dreamed up. I believe it is the vision of the kingdom of God, and I believe it is the answer to Now What?!
I wonder: What passion is ignited in you today for hearing and sharing the story of Jesus in a whole new way? Who do you need to open your ears to hear in your neighborhoods? Whose story do you need to understand? I encourage you this day to be fired up about sharing your story and hearing the story of those around you.
But, here’s the thing…we can’t go just one little place, to those neighbors just like us who make us comfortable, and decide we’re done. No. The Holy Spirit is blowing us out to go to our neighbors over there to the left and share stories with them and engage them. Then say, well, “Now what?!”
Then go to those neighbors over there to the right, share stories, serve together. Then, say, “Now what?!”
And head over especially to that place you never thought you would go and love the people there like never before. We leave there encouraged because that was a tough one, but we’re not done yet. The question remains, “Now what?!”
What about the people around the corner, you know, the ones we might drive by on the way to our beautiful sanctuaries, ignoring their need for sanctuary.
They are whats now.
The Spirit keeps calling us to say…”Now what?”…over and over and over and over and over and over again until Jesus comes.
Beloved, what’s next won’t be easy. But, you would be hard-pressed to find a time in scripture when God called somebody to something easy.
Just ask Noah who had to build an ark before it ever rained before. Just ask Moses who had to lead some whiny people in the wilderness for 40 years. Just ask Joshua who had to take the whiny children and whiny grandchildren of those whiny people into the promised land. Just ask Esther who had to stand up to the king to save her people who were exiles in a foreign land. Just ask young Mary who birthed a savior. Just ask that savior, Jesus, who had to die on a cross for the sins of the world.
What’s next may not be comfortable. But, we are reminded, the One who calls us is faithful and God WILL do it.
So, let us finish our work here this weekend and walk out of this place, fired up for what’s next.
And, now, may the winds of Holy Spirit blow you into new places and new spaces to engage new people who the church has never engaged before. May you be ignited with new ways to serve to bring about the mission of God in your community. May the winds of the Holy Spirit lead you to break down boundaries that divide.
May the passion of peace ignite a fire in you. May the winds of joy lift you off your feet. May the fervor for unity light you into action. May the winds of love blow through your communities. May the fire of the Holy Spirit ignite you to speak life to a broken world.
Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney
2018 ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly
June 2, 2018