Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons
This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.
First Reading – Psalm 145
Second Reading – Luke 20:27-38
“Why are we here?”
It’s Sunday morning again. We just had the time change last week, so it’s still a little light out in the morning, but it’s getting darker and darker as the days go on. Some of us have tough work schedules, and Sundays are our only “real” day to relax. Besides, the Giants game starts at 1. So why are we here?
That’s the title that I chose for this week’s sermon. Why are we here? What draws us to come to church on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or whatever day of the week we attend? What draws us to our own personal spiritual practices? What draws us to attend committee meetings or to teach Sunday school or to help out with a charity event?
So WHY are we here? What is the reason?
As I talked about with the children, Psalm 145 is a psalm of praise. It even says so. If you look in the Bible, you’ll see that just above the first verse it says “Praise. Of David.” In fact, the Hebrew word for psalms means “Praises”. Among others, the last 6 psalms in our Book of Psalms are psalms of praise.
As Presbyterians, we are part of the Reformed faith, and as PCUSA Presbyterians, we have a Book of Confessions. Several of the confessions in that book have a statement like this one, which comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which some of you may have learned in Sunday School or Confirmation):
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
(This was written in 1640, so please excuse the masculine language for us and God.)
So, Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
We are called to glorify God. And not just now, but forever. We are told that “one generation shall laud your works to another” and that “all flesh will bless his holy name for ever and ever.” There’s a long list of verbs in the passage: to extol, to bless, to praise, to laud, to declare, to speak praise, and join with all flesh to bless. These are what the psalmist would have us do for God. And as I told the children, these psalms were written to be used in worship, so these are what we sing that we will do.
And we do that in worship. We sing praises to God, as we did and will do in several of today’s hymns. We do that in proclamation. Our reading of scripture and the words of the preacher speak of God to us and others. And it’s not just those of us up here at the microphones – as we confess, as we pray together in unison, or as we pray silently while one leads we are showing others here and elsewhere what God’s message looks like.
We do that with our hands and our feet and our voices, when we help others, inside and out of the congregation. And I’m going to talk more about that later.
We do this, because God asked us to. Told us to. Commanded us to. This is what God created us to do.
So that’s WHY we are here.
The next question is … why are WE here?
And to a certain extent, this is something that we have to each answer individually. Speaking for myself, I could easily say that I’m here because this is my Field Education assignment. But that’s too simple. I could say that I’m here because I’m in seminary, or that I want to become a minister, but that doesn’t explain the time before I started seminary. My story began long before that, and although my own story involves 15 years away from the church there was clearly a time when I was an adult and not forced by my parents to come to church, but I come anyway.
Most of you are in that situation – you don’t have to be here. Now, don’t get up and leave – this argument is coming around to the point here in a minute. Most of you are here voluntarily – you decided to be here. Some of you might be here because your parents are here, or because someone that you love is here. But you’re here.
Most of you are now or were at some point members of a church, for many you were or are members of this church. In order to become a member you made a profession of faith in one form or another. You said in front of the Session, or the church council wherever, or the congregation that you believe in Jesus Christ, and that you accept the teaching of the church. You agreed to participate in the life of the church.
So that’s probably why you are here, and that’s why I am here. But why are WE here?
God calls us into community. The Israelites were a community of faith. Jesus created that community of faith in Him, a community that was sent into the world to proclaim the gospel starting with Pentecost. We worship God in community. We mourn in community. We pray in community. We celebrate and we play in community. We eat in community. We work in community. And we go out into our community as a community of faith, working and playing and meeting and supporting our community as a group, and as a part of the greater church. We teach in community – through our bible study and Sunday school and youth group, and through scripture and preaching.
And we live that community every Sunday. And all week long. On special days. When hurricanes and cookie walks happen. When Christmas and Easter happen. When we need, and when others need.
We are part of a community. We’re part of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian community. We’re part of Presbyterians in the Plainfields. We’re part of Presbyterians everywhere. We’re part of this neighborhood around Watchung Avenue itself, and all of North Plainfield, and the surrounding area. And we are identified by our faith in Christ, a faith that is strong enough to get us up on a Sunday morning in whatever weather to come here.
So that’s why WE are here.
Now, why are we HERE?
In 1916, a new independent congregation of the Presbyterian church was chartered here. In 1907, this building was built. Before that, in 1893 the mission that was meeting here affiliated with the Crescent Avenue church. The Crescent Avenue church in turn traces its history back farther, to Scotland, to Geneva, to Rome, to Jerusalem. And why? Why are there Christians all over the globe?
Jesus calls us and called us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” His apostles began that, following the message of scripture to proclaim the gospel and ensure justice, and take care of those in need. And to do that we need a presence in every place.
And so we are HERE, in North Plainfield. And we as Presbyterians, and as Christians as a whole are here in the Plainfields. To proclaim the gospel, work for justice and peace, and to take care of those here and around the world who are in need.
In this building? Yes. We do that with the Y, and we do that with Headstart, and we do that with other groups that use our space. We do that with our special events for the presbytery and the general public. But also so much more than what we do this building. We walk for hunger. We grow food with our Catholic neighbors. Many of us serve God by helping others in some other way in some other charity, or through our occupations.
The psalm talks about God upholding those who have fallen, giving them food, and watching over those who cry out. God could do that by pointing a finger – ZAP. But God also can, and does do that with the help of his creation. That’s us. God also hears their cry and “saves them”. That’s us too – whenever we hear the cry of pain, we take care of people’s needs. We hear their cry for spiritual food, and we give them scripture and preaching. We hear their cry to be with others, and we give them community. And sometimes we are them, and our cries are heard and we are fed and cared for and taught.
When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, we sprung into action. First we did what we needed to, checked on our homes and our own families, but quickly we turned to checking on each other. All of the members of the church. Some folks offered space in homes that still had power and heat. Some folks came and checked out the church building. A lot of people made phone calls to each other to make sure that everybody was OK. And then we turned outward as a church– to see what the community needed. We put together a meal for those needing food – because of trouble getting food or because of missing paychecks. And we did not lose our community. We got lucky – we got our power back about an hour before worship on that first Sunday after the hurricane – but we were ready to worship over in the fellowship center in the cold, if that’s what needed to happen.
That’s why we are HERE. And this is WHY … WE … are HERE. To praise God. With our voices, with the work of our hands and our time and our talents and our treasure and our faith and our love. To bring God’s message to all who need it.
To bless God’s holy name for ever and ever.
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons
This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship. Audio is not currently available and as a result I cannot post my exact words – here is my manuscript.
First Reading: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Second Reading: Luke 16:19-31
It was a crazy thing to do. Jeremiah, buying a field at Anathoth, in the middle of Jerusalem, a city under siege by Babylon. Jeremiah surely knew better – he’d spent years and 31 chapters warning the Israelites to shape up and follow God’s covenant, and then when they failed he told them that they would be going into exile. Today, this would be like buying land in the middle of Detroit, or Damascus, or Camden. Sure the land would be a bargain, but why would anybody want that land, want to live there, under siege?
In the Presbyterian Church – and by that I mean the PCUSA denomination that we are part of, things look a little disconcerting too. In May the numbers came out and we lost just over 100,000 members in 2012. That’s about a 5% loss. Two-thirds of that loss came from the silent departure of members – those who were removed from the membership rolls for inactivity. It’s not just us either – all Protestant denominations are shrinking, and the Catholic Church is barely holding its numbers. And yet, a Pew Research study says that while increasing numbers report that they are “unaffiliated”, 80% of Americans still say “I never doubt the existence of God.”
In her book “The Great Emergence,” the church historian Phyllis Tickle talks about the different big changes that have happened in the Church since Christ left us and Pentecost happened. She sees a pattern. About every 500 years, we get to arguing with each other and go through a process where the way that we do church is overhauled. She calls it a Great Rummage Sale – we sit down and figure out what we do that is important and should be kept, what we do that isn’t as important as we thought and should be jettisoned, and sometimes what we stopped doing and should do again. The first of these started with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the early church worked out exactly what we believe about Christ. Our definition of Jesus as fully human AND fully divine comes from that meeting. It sounds a little boring now, but trust me – the fights over whether Jesus was of two natures in one person or two different persons in one body were just as nasty as fights over gay marriage are today. People were excommunicated. The second big change was the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054. Then, and most importantly for us, came the Reformation in the 1500’s. Each time the church changed in a radical way – both the winners and the losers – and each time it was difficult for those living in the church. Phyllis Tickle’s assertion is that we are going through one of those times again now, and that we are looking at what we do with an eye towards cleaning house.
Things change here at this church, too. Before the Memorial Service for Virginia, her daughter Debbie brought some old picture directories and other booklets of Watchung Avenue over the years. This space where I am standing underwent a major change, one that I’m sure that some of you remember. The picture on the front of the bulletin has the old look at the top, and today’s look at the bottom. The pulpit used to be at the center, the choir used to sit where these curtains are, and this raised area was round. There were more pews up close. Also, the events that the church holds each year have changed. The leadership has changed – when this church opened Shannan could never have been ordained, being a woman, and neither would the five women on the Session today. I wasn’t here, but it seems likely to me that at each change the church had people in favor and against who felt like winners and losers – it was certainly painful at some point.
So what do we do? How do we get ready to ride the wave of change? Will there be a spot for us on the other side?
In my first career I was trained as a Project Manager. Some of that came out last year with the revision of the Bylaws. One of the things that project managers need to understand and be able to work with is Change Management. You can change the organization that you’re in, but you need to do it right. You need to make sure that you’re making the right change. You need to make sure that the change matches the direction that you want to go in. You need to make sure that the change matches your values, that you aren’t selling yourself out with the change, OR avoiding change that must be made to live your values. And it’s very important that people understand why the change is needed, and that you plan to help people along the way. You need to be there for those people who are uncomfortable with the change and help them through it. You want them to feel there is a place for them on the other side. That’s especially true in the church.
The Session here is talking about that. One thing that they’re looking at is the difference between Technical change and Adaptive change. Technical changes are those that you already know how to make, and are generally clear. If the boiler breaks, you fix it or replace it. If people are having trouble reading the bulletin, you print it on bigger paper. You run the Stewardship campaign each year to make sure that we have enough resources to operate. You schedule Church School for the children. Things like that.
Adaptive change is change that isn’t quite so clear. You know that something needs to be changed, but you can’t even tell what the problems are. You have to learn what the questions are before you can find the answers. Maybe you need to learn how to do something new to answer the need. Adaptive changes might be things like moving to a mostly electronic newsletter (while still printing it for those who can’t get it online). Or working with other Plainfield churches to figure out what the Presbyterian community here will look like. Or studying discipleship as a church in order that we may make and become good disciples.
She doesn’t say it in quite this way, but I feel certain that Phyllis Tickle would call the change that the church is undergoing Adaptive Change. The whole church knows that things are changing, but they don’t quite know how. The whole church is realizing that the way that we are doing things isn’t quite working the way it used to, but we don’t yet know how to change it. We’re worried about where the young people are. We’re worried about how to reach the people living around the church. We’re wondering how to be socially responsible Christians in a difficult world. And while we’re considering change, some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of change.
Scary? Yes. Necessary? I’d say yes.
Jeremiah was in that sort of “what do I do?” place too. He’d been held in the court of Zedekiah – a ruler that the enemy King Nebuchadnezzar had put in place over Judah. He was imprisoned there because he’d been speaking out, saying first to shape up, and later telling people that losing the battle was inevitable, and that they would be at best exiled to Babylon (and at worst, might end up dead). And then the call from God came to him, telling him to do this crazy thing and buy land in a place that he was telling everybody they’d be forced to leave. He had to work through intermediaries to buy the land, and the process also ensured that the purchase would come to the ears of many. And he followed God’s orders and put the deeds in a sealed earthenware jar. This was the closest thing the Israelites had to humidity and temperature controlled storage – you put the document in a big pot and sealed it up to protect it – the Dead Sea Scrolls were found like that. He was told to make sure the deed lasted for a long time. Why?
Because God was telling Jeremiah that there would be a place for him after the exile ended. After the great upheaval, he would be back to use that land. God said explicitly, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The Israelites would again have a home. The previous three chapters are a letter that God told Jeremiah to send to the exiles already in Babylon, promising them that they will return, and prosperity will return again to Israel after the captivity – after the change is complete. Jeremiah had the word from God to have faith and he did have faith, that there would be a place after it was over.
And it is the same with us. Our faith, our belief call us to make a home for all. While change will bring discomfort for some, we are in a time when change is a must. And we must be sure to bring everyone with us to the best of our ability. It will take bending by all. Those who are uncomfortable with change will need to give it a chance, and keep an open mind. Those who are pushing for change will need to listen to others, and help them to understand why the change is being made, and to make accommodations where possible. We need to get through the change together, with new people as they join us.
Jeremiah lived in interesting times. Times of great change. Life was difficult, different, and confusing for a while. But Jeremiah went into the change knowing that it would all turn out well in the end – that he and his people would be returning home. Prompted by God, he planned for that time when the Israelites would return.
And so it is with us. We live in interesting times, with great change. Life is confusing, difficult, and the church of the future may be quite different from what we grew up with. We go into the change with that same hope. That God, through Christ and the Spirit, is making a home for us. That we will have a place in the church on Earth and the church in heaven after the changes. That we should plan for the 200th anniversary of this church. And that we should keep moving forward into the future.
I grew up in Tenafly, NJ. We had one Middle School and one High School. I attended both from the early to mid-1980′s. Because it was a small town and most people went all the way through the school district, the middle and high school gym programs shared locker room locks. At the start of 6th grade, you paid a $4 deposit and received a lock. At the end of 12th grade, you could turn it in for your $4 back. It had a key slot on the back so that the gym teachers could open them. The picture on the left is similar, but the lock that I had was so old that the knob that you turned was silver metal.
I clearly wasn’t the first person to use this lock. Let’s assume an age of 20 years – probably two people had used it before me for 7 years each. Maybe three people. This lock traveled with me throughout middle and high school. Some summers it came with me to camp on my footlocker. For some reason, I didn’t turn it in after graduation. I know that I used it for storage over break in my dorm at Rutgers, and probably as a bike lock once or twice after graduating from college . It has been sitting in a cabinet here at my house since Carolyn and I moved in, with a piece of paper – now yellowed – with the combination in my handwriting. It probably hasn’t been used for 20 years. And yet, it still works.
Yesterday, I bequeathed it to a friend. We met in seminary and she’s one of my favorite people. She’s moving far away for her first job after college and seminary. The lock is attached to a moving pod that is following her in a week or so. And so the lock, now in the hands of someone 20 years younger than me who wasn’t born the last time I opened it on my high school gym locker, continues to serve. And I’m glad that a little piece of me goes with her to her new home.
This post is a continuation of post 1 from yesterday. I recommend that you read that post first.
2. I feel like I don’t know as much as others. If your first degree wasn’t in Religion or Theology or something along those lines, then you will enter seminary knowing less than some of your classmates. Some of them will take the option to test out of classes like Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, or Systematic Theology based on their undergraduate work. Others will in essence take those classes over again. In your first year, it will be common for you to hear terms in class that you have never heard, but that others around you understand completely.
DON’T panic. You can catch up. Google is your friend – most of the names and terms that you will hear are easily defined online. I remember the first time in Old Testament class that I was taking notes, and an unfamiliar name came up. I looked puzzled, and a young friend leaned over and wrote the correct spelling of the name on my notes. It was a great help. One staff member who was herself a second-career student at PTS told me the story of how she heard the term “hermeneutics” and wrote in a paper about the theologian “Herman Neutics”.
DO get help from others. The professors and teaching assistants understand and are usually willing to help you catch up. Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament class is not intended as a “weed out” class – the professors truly want you to get through and do your best. The same goes for the language classes. Your fellow classmates will also be willing to help – both the young and the old.
DO know that the situation will reverse itself later. In your second and third years, the classes shift from those with a flood of information in huge lectures to classes that require more thinking and discussion in smaller settings. Your life experience and work experience will be of benefit to you. You may be taking preaching and have to write a funeral sermon, and some of your classmates may have never attended a single funeral. You may take a speech class where you learn to say the Words of Institution for Communion, and your years of hearing them said over and over will greatly help you memorize. In a pastoral care class you may be called upon to role play a situation that you’ve experienced, while your younger classmates have not. At this point, your willingness to share your life and experience will help them.
Also, you have undoubtedly worked in the world, and the same practical work skills (organization, time management, self-direction) will be of great benefit as you learn how to study again. The seminary degree is one where doing all of the assigned work is impossible – you have to figure out what readings must be read, and how to skim them, and how to write. It’s likely that you’ve done that in your career.
3. I feel like I’m missing out on things. This is particularly true if you live off campus. A lot of the community building that happens takes place in the evenings, in the dorms, and between the apartments. If you come on campus for classes, bring your lunch and eat alone, and then go home you will miss out on community. This can also happen if you live in the dorms or apartments.
There are a few ways to fix this.
DO eat lunch at the dining hall every day that you can, even if you bring your own lunch. A lot of the social structure of the campus gets built in the dining hall. DO join groups of people that you don’t know periodically. DO meet friends of friends – some of my strongest friendships can come from those connections.
DO come back to the main campus at night for events and organizations and special worship services. Some of the neatest things that happen at seminary happen outside of the classroom. I participate in the handbell choir that meets every Wednesday for rehearsal, and that time of the week feeds me. Others attend worship services with groups or participate in other organizations.
DO socialize with classmates of every age outside of class. Outside of lunch, too.
Now, this may sound like you have to be a social butterfly, maximum participation extrovert. That’s not true at all. You know when you need to study, and you know when you need to take time for yourself. I’m a fairly strong introvert, and I manage this. One thing that I learned the hard way (by almost burning out) is that seminary forms all sides of you – the academic, the spiritual, the social, the practical. You won’t make it if you concentrate on homework and reading. Sometimes you have to make the decision that right now, this minute, it’s more important for me to connect with other people than to keep up in a specific class. And you have to listen for the working of the Holy Spirit in those moments. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit in the dining hall hoping that someone will sit and distract you from work. Because those conversations turn out more often than you’d think to be important moments in your formation.
4. A few last thoughts.
Attend chapel. It’s worth it. And the preacher is often a senior. Someday you will be that senior, and want others to attend your service.
The schedule isn’t set up for those who work. It’s just not – that’s not their priority. Even if you construct the perfect schedule that balances your classes and work and whatever outside life needs there are, it’s not going to work every week. Shoot, the schedule isn’t even set up for those who have Field Ed (except for Wednesday afternoon), and that’s a requirement. Here’s the thing – ministry isn’t on a perfect schedule either. You have to learn to be flexible, and to build resources into your life to compensate for those unexpected emergencies.
Ask for help when you need it – with schoolwork, with mental health, in spiritual crisis, when your car breaks down. There’s an aura at Princeton that seems to require us to act as though we have our stuff together all of the time. The truth is the total opposite – nobody has their stuff together all of the time, and it’s rare that any person has all of their stuff together at the same time. The school is starting to work on breaking down this need for apparent perfection. What that means for us is that we need to work on it from the other side. Let your dirty laundry show some, let people know that you need help, and offer help to others. I hear from others that this is an issue unique to Princeton. Let’s fix it.
Have fun. It’s not possible to study and work and pray and such all of the time. Be sure to take time out to enjoy yourself and recharge your batteries. A 20-minute power nap helps many people to work for several more hours. It’s the same with fun – a fun afternoon helps you to work all weekend to finish a paper. All work and no play makes you a terrible minister.
Last – if you are planning to attend Princeton or considering it, please feel free to contact me with questions. If you will be there for the 2013-14 year (my senior year), please find me and we’ll chat. I live in the area and expect to do so after graduation, so I’ll be around.
I’m a senior at Princeton Theological Seminary. I’m also a second-career student – my first career was in the Information Technology field for 20 years. I live off campus at my home near the seminary. This makes me unusual at PTS. I’m an odd duck, but this duck has learned to swim. Hopefully other ducks can learn from my experiences.
This seminary is really set up to provide a residential experience. The dormitories are surrounding the quad and are near the classroom and other buildings. The apartment housing is separated from the main campus by several miles, but forms a community of its own. PTS has intentionally created a residential community where people will interact outside of class as well as inside. Living off campus I miss some of that. A duck in another pond, as it were, visiting occasionally.
The student population is overwhelmingly in their twenties. There is a small but significant percentage of people who are older – anywhere from thirties through sixties – but for the most part the students either came straight from college or had a couple of years between college and seminary. In my mid-40′s, that makes me unusual. An older duck.
Last, the seminary does not allow part-time study for the M.Div. degree. There is limited part-time study for the M.A. degrees. There are very few evening classes and I have yet to see one designed for Masters’ students. The expectation is that school is your first priority.
It’s important to know that the seminary knows that it has set things up a certain way, catering to the needs of mostly-younger students who live on campus. It’s not designed to make things harder for second-career students or to turn them away but we need to realize that we are a small population. There are beginning to be signs that they recognize the need for part-time studies, and that the percentage of students who are older is increasing. But so far, it’s a twentysomething full-time on-campus world.
I think that I have found my way through that. It’s easier for me because my wife works and has a well-paying job, so I am able to attend school full-time without needing a lot of outside work. It’s also nice to come home to a single-family house rather than a dorm room or apartment on campus. But I miss things that happen on campus and it’s a different experience.
Here are some thoughts on what you should know and what I recommend that you do if you’re a duck like me, in order to get the fullest experience on campus. The first thought today, another three in the next post.
One note – there is a lot of “us and them” language below. It really doesn’t work that way most of the time at school. It’s more like each of us is at a different place along different spectra – maturity, age, spiritual growth, academic achievement, etc.
1. They’re so YOUNG. Yeah, they are. It’s a bit jarring the first time that you have a conversation with someone and realize that they were born after you graduated from high school. Some of your classmates are about the right age to be your children. For some older students, their children are older than their classmates. It takes some getting used to. You will make references to things from your youth that get blank stares. You will remember events that were just history book entries for your classmates.
You have something to learn from them. They speak the language of younger generations, and you will someday minister to those generations. Many of your younger peers come from college with a Religion degree, while your degree may be in something else entirely (in my case, Computer Science). They will know things that are really useful in class that you have to catch up on. They may have greater technological savvy than you do (though maybe not – at seminary we joke that there is no math requirement).
Even more important than that is the fact that we all grow and mature at different rates. You will be more mature than some of your younger peers. Some of them may be more mature than you. All of us are on a journey of growth and discernment of vocation and theology and becoming who God calls us to be. We are developing our pastoral identities. We have something to learn from the younger folks, and they have something to learn from us.
So a few things to do. DO make friends with younger folks. Try to experience life through their eyes as well as through your own. You will be helpful with life experience. They will be helpful with perhaps more energy than you have, and their differing life experiences. Spend time with them doing what they enjoy. Introduce them to what you enjoy. Share common enjoyment. You’ll find that you learn as much from them as they do from you, and that this a gift to both parties.
DO make friends with the other second-career people on campus. PTS runs a second-career group (up to 40) and a third-career group (40 and older) through the chapel office. Take advantage of those lunches. Find the people that you can talk to when you need to have a conversation without explaining Reagan’s presidency or the Saturday-morning cartoons that you watched when you were a kid. Find the people who learned to learn the same way that you did so many years ago. Find the people who share the life stage that you are in, and know what you are dealing with.
This list continues tomorrow with part 2.
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons, Work
This sermon was preached on April 28, 2013 by Ann Elyse Hicks and Mark Smith (seminary interns) at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ.
New Testament Reading: Acts 11:1-18
Look, I understand why you would be upset. I understand why many of you are angry over what happened. That’s why I’m here before you now. I do not want to preach or argue with you, but I do want you to hear my story; I want you to hear what happened to me in Joppa.
My story could have happened to any of us, really. It all started while I was praying. I had a vision, you see…
Peter was one of the most important apostles. He was the one Jesus called the rock on which the church would be built. He was later named the first Pope.
He’d been going around, meeting with other early Christians. He’d been performing his own miracles, healing and raising from the dead, right before this happened to him. Now, those might have seemed fairly unusual to the average person, but to Peter they were his work – the same work that he’d seen Jesus do.
And now he’d had a vision, one that seemed strange even to him …
I know! It sounds crazy; I know it sounds impossible. I know that you have doubts about the reality of my dream. Please, trust me a little longer. Keep listening to my story for a few more minutes. In this vision, there was a giant blanket lowered down from the sky until it rested right in front of me and on it rested every single type of animal … that I have never touched in my life. They were there, all the animals that I, that we avoided — there was pigs, lobsters, shrimp, a cobra.
And then, as if seeing all these animals was not enough to make me cringe, a voice, God’s voice, called to me, telling me to “Get up, kill, and eat.” I was revolted. I was horrified. How could God expect me to do something like this? What do you mean, what did I do? I told God no. I said that I would have nothing to do … with those unclean animals. I would keep to our traditions; they served our ancestors well, all the way back to Moses. Why should I suddenly abandon that, step outside the tradition, and try something new?
Up until now, the apostles assumed that what had happened before Jesus died was the right thing to do. That only Jews could be Christians. That Christians had to keep the Jewish law, including such things as circumcision and following the rules about eating food. It was even wrong for a Jew to associate with a Gentile in many cases. Of course, we know that Jesus didn’t follow the rules, but then the apostles weren’t Jesus.
There were boundaries around that early Christianity. And only Jews were able to practice it properly. The early Christians had created a bubble around themselves, by their practices, by what they ate and how they ate it.
Sometimes we in the church can create bubbles around ourselves. We can choose to keep things the way that they are, to keep doing things the way that we always have, because … “it’s comfortable. It works for us. It’s right.” We may resist change because change is uncomfortable to us, or because we worry about what others might feel. We might worry that a change will cause people to leave, without considering whether others stay away because of the way that we already are.
Well, after I told God no, God responded to me. God said that all those animals on the blanket were clean, and that I must not consider them profane. This happened, this vision with the blanket from heaven happened, three times, and I can honestly say I never quite figured out what I was supposed to learn. In a way, it was God telling me that the traditions that I held dear were, in fact, harmful for the church. I could not understand it. I could not make sense of it at all.
This was a big deal for Peter. His dream overturned his core beliefs. He was being told that the laws that he had learned as a child were wrong. And not just wrong, but getting in the way of doing God’s will. God told Peter that his creation was good, even though these parts of creation – the pigs and lobster and snakes – were things that Peter was taught were unclean and unacceptable. God was telling Peter that he (and the rest of the Christians) needed to get out of the Jewish bubble and to talk with and eat with and spread the Word with Gentiles.
It’s hard to look at something or someone or a new idea and to fight down your fears or anxiety or assumptions. I’d imagine that Shannan might have a hard time if she were told – by God, no less – that she needed to bless snakes on Blessing of the Pets Sunday. It can be tough to take that risk, to make a change in the church or in the world, knowing that it could upset you, or upset someone else. But then who are we excluding because we don’t make that change? Are we keeping snake-lovers from the Gospel message, because we don’t like snakes? What is the bubble here at Watchung Avenue? Who is inside the bubble and who is outside the bubble? Are we right about that? And should there even be a bubble?
While I was still praying, I was jolted back to the present by these three men shouting to me, waving their arms in greeting. They invited me to go to dinnere with them in Caesarea, and after my vision, well, I went. I felt called by the Holy Spirit to go, and not to comment on their differences. I mean, I went to dine with Gentiles, when I have never before even sat with them. I don’t know what I was thinking. I only knew that it was the right thing to do.
And the owner of the house where we went, Cornelius, he did not seem to know why I was there either. He had been convinced by the Spirit to invite me. Here we were, two strangers, united by our visions, by our call to dine together and learn together.
Peter and the rest of the Apostles were very aware of the work of the Holy Spirit. They had been given their gifts by the Spirit at Pentecost. They were in turn giving the Spirit to others through the laying on of hands. They felt the call of God through this working of the Spirit, and were quick to listen to it.
And so when Peter heard the call of the Spirit to go and visit the house of Cornelius, he went. He went even though Cornelius was a Gentile and not a Jew. This was against much of what he had been taught, because Jewish purity laws made interactions between Jews and Gentiles difficult – particularly the sharing of meals.
Peter would have been stressed about this. He knows that it’s the right thing to do, and Peter tells us that he was told by the Spirit to go. Perhaps it was something like the Spirit telling Shannan to go to the zoo, enter the snake’s cage, and eat a picnic meal. When God tells you to do something you do it … but it can be hard.
Peter went outside of the bubble. Cornelius went outside of his bubble, too. It would have been very unusual for a Roman Centurion to invite a Christian to visit and eat together.
What would going outside of our bubble here mean? What does going outside of your bubble mean to you?
Well, after dinner, I started preaching a little bit. Y’all know how I can be. Anyways, we were all sitting in Cornelius’s living room, and I was bringing a lovely message, when I remembered Jesus saying to us that John baptized with water but that he, Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Do you remember that teaching?
And I realized, like a flash of lightning, that we were all baptized with the same Spirit. We had, each of us in that room, received that same gift—life in Christ. Where had my hesitation come from? How could I have ever thought that eating with Gentiles was bad, or that we could not learn from each other? How could I have ever resisted leaving my comfort zone when God called me to do exactly that? Who was I that I could hinder God?
This was a historic moment. Peter preached at the house, and the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius and his family. Gentiles. Non-Jews. The faith in Jesus had been taught to someone from outside of the Jewish bubble, and they accepted it and God accepted them.
For Peter, the bubble popped. It was gone. There was no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female. Jews and Gentiles together shared the uniting faith in Christ. And remember, we are those same Gentiles.
This was the big payoff. The chance for the apostles to do what Jesus had commanded them before ascending into Heaven – that they would be his witnesses to not just Jerusalem, not just Israel, but to all the ends of the earth.
And we as their successors are called to do the same. We are to preach the Gospel to all. And so the question falls to us – what bubbles have we created? Where does our hesitation come from? Are we hindering God’s work?
We have a chance to move beyond what we have known. When we accept new people into the faith, we are accepting their new ideas as well. The gospel message of Jesus is eternal. But the way that we hear and experience this message changes as we grow in the Spirit, and as the church faces new challenges in each generation. We have God to guide us, always and forever, through each and every time of change.
And so we Praise God for the gift of the Spirit
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
Make disciples of all nations.
Get outside the bubble.
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons
Sermon preached by Mark Smith at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ
It was a really unusual experience for Peter, John and James. It started simply enough – Jesus took them off onto a mountain to pray. And that wasn’t all that unusual – Jesus was known for praying in isolated places and had gone to a mountain to pray before. He had prayed with his disciples before as well.
While he was praying, things started to happen. Jesus’s face changed. His clothes became a glowing white – in Greek it says that his clothes were so bright that they flashed like lightning. Maybe these disciples knew their Jewish scriptures well enough to remember that Moses’s face had shone when Moses spoke to God. Maybe they remembered how the sky flashed with lightning when Ezekiel saw his vision of God, or when Daniel saw the figure in his vision that was clothed in fine linen and who had a face like lightning.
And then they were joined by two figures, Moses and Elijah. I imagine that this looked a little bit like the end Star Wars, where the deceased Jedi appeared to Luke Skywalker. Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus and told him of his departure – of his future death and resurrection at Jerusalem. Peter and the others saw all of this even though they were sleepy – they saw Jesus’s glory, and the return of the man who received the Law from God, and the Prophet of God. This was a holy moment.
And then Moses and Elijah left. Peter asked Jesus if they should build three tents – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter recognized them as three holy figures, heavenly figures, and wanted to create a special home for them here on earth. The word in Greek in the scripture that I read, that read as “dwelling,” can also mean “Tabernacle.” And the famous Tabernacle was the tent that God instructed Moses to construct to hold the Ark of the Covenant – God’s home on earth among the Israelites from the time of their wandering in the wilderness. That Tabernacle was used until God commanded Solomon to build The Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s place. Peter wanted to create a single place to commemorate the holy moment for these three great holy men, as if holy things happened in one place. The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying – he reacted reflexively, mirroring what had been done before.
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, very much like the way that a cloud covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke to God. God spoke from the cloud. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” And this is a lot like the words that we heard at Jesus’s baptism. God says that Jesus is God’s son. And this time we are told to listen to him.
In the time of the Old Testament, from Moses until Jesus, there was one place that they might have called the church back then, and that was the Tabernacle that was carried around from place to place in Moses’s time. In the psalm that I read it talks about God sitting enthroned on the cherubim – and that’s what the top of the Ark looked like. If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark it looks exactly like it’s described in the Bible, and there are the two winged cherubim with their wings pointing towards the center, and that’s where the priests made their sacrifices to God, to fulfill God’s covenant with the Israelites. Later the place of this church settled in the Temple in Jerusalem. The church was in a building, at least a temporary building. God’s main way of interacting with God’s people was in one place.
A day after all of these things happened on the mountain Jesus and the disciples came down, and a man came to them because his son needed healing, and Jesus healed his son. The man didn’t need to go to The Temple in Jerusalem. He didn’t need to go to the top of the mountain where Moses and Elijah had appeared. He met Jesus where the man was – at the bottom of the mountain. He met Jesus in the world, not inside of a church building.
Jesus did most of his work in the world, rather than in a building. He did appear in the Temple, and he appeared in the synagogue a few times, but most of his work was done outside, among the people. He worked with people as he traveled. He worked with people as he preached outdoors, on a hillside or a lake. He worked with people in their homes. He talked to and ate with and healed and helped people who couldn’t come into the Temple – those who could not walk, those who were ritually unclean, and those who worked in professions that made them less acceptable in the Temple. Jesus did more of his ministry among those who were on the edges of society, than those who were on the inside. He did his work in the world, rather than in a building.
Here at Watchung Avenue, we do a lot of good work inside our building. We meet every week to praise God, to hear the scripture read, and to hear a message. We are a community that is learning and growing and building each other up. We do a lot of good for others in this building as well. We serve meals to those who need them. We collect and distribute groceries. We offer space to Headstart and WIC and the Y. And we share our worship space with Christo mi Rey. We invite others in to learn and grow, as we did with the Love Free or Die movie, with diversity training, and as we will in March with the upcoming Trigger documentary on gun violence. We do a lot of good inside our building when someone is here. The church is where we are.
We also do a lot of good outside of our building. Together we walked in October to raise money to fight hunger. We have been networking with others on hurricane relief and how we might best participate. Our youth and our adults have gone to Stony Point and other places to do mission work. Cameron has been working outside of our building on hunger and disaster relief. We also do a lot of good outside of our building. The church is where we are.
And our lives are God’s work as well. Each of us brings our Christian faith with us … to home, to work, to volunteer. The way that we live is a reflection of Christ within us. I worked in the corporate world for a while before starting seminary, and many times I found myself asking is this thing that I’m doing … this decision or this action … a good idea? Is this software that I’m writing to support an advertising campaign helping people to buy things that they want, or is it just finding new ways to take money from people? Is this report that I’m writing being used to support integrity in the business, or is it just being written to make somebody else in the company look bad? There was simply no way to act in the world without my faith coloring my thoughts and decisions. Sometimes I was able to push back when my faith told me that an action was not the right thing to do. Sometimes I wasn’t able to push back, and then it hurt. So I wonder if you’ve ever faced that – a situation at work where your values conflicted with what you’ve asked to do? How did you handle it? I brought my faith to my work every day. But it’s not just me. We create common everyday miracles of faith when we act with God in mind. When Bob helps someone plan their financial life, Bob is reflecting his Christian faith. His actions and decisions are colored by his faith and he brings the church with him to work. When Pat works with residents in senior housing, she brings her faith with her, and the image of God within her shines through in the help that she gives. She brings the church with her as well. When Virginia goes to the Senior club, she brings her faith along, and brings the church with her in all that she does. When Cori cares for her niece, when Andrew cares for his grandson, they bring their faith into their families and the church comes with them. When Ryan participates in the Boy Scouts, he brings his faith and the church. When Shelby and Chris create their art and music, they use their God-given talents to create beauty in God’s creation. They are inspired in part by their relationship with Christ, and the church comes with them. There are so many other examples in this congregation and everywhere, and if I tried to include all of them we’d be here for a while. What’s important is that the church is where we are, in this building or someplace else.
So what is common to all of this? Is it the building? No, it’s the people. We bring our talents, our time and our energy to the work that all of us do. We bring the image of God that is within each of us to our service to others and our faith and our values ride along with us in everything that we do. Is the church a building? The church is people. Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.” When we are in the world interacting with others, there are at least two gathered and wherever we are, Christ is. And we bring our community with us as well. We can draw on the resources of the church, on our fellow churchgoers, in everything that we do to help others. We can talk through issues with our church friends – whether that’s a question about what to do at work or where to go to get people the help that they need. And we can always show our faith to others, in the hope that our faith may help them, and perhaps may become their faith. The church exists where we are, doing our common everyday miracles.
I’m going to ask you all a question. This isn’t a rhetorical question – I’m actually looking for an answer.
Where is the church?
“Where we are! … Where we are…we are… where we are!”
OK, not bad. That was a little ragged. (laughter) Let’s try it one more time. Where is the church?
“Where we are!”
OK, and one more time …. Where is the church?
“Where we are!”
And that is a wonderful thing.