May 31, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
The title of this sermon, “This is Not Rocket Science,” goes back to the sermon planning I do each year in August. That title made sense to me back then, but I have forgotten why. That was a long time ago. I guess I could change the title. But I kind of like the title, so I’m keeping it. I’m just not sure what it has to do with what I am going to be talking about today.
Here’s what I think, maybe. I knew today would be Pentecost Sunday so I would have wanted to talk about the church. Pentecost is the birthday of the church, after all. But sometimes when we preachers talk about the church on Pentecost, we give a sermon that sounds more like a term paper. It sounds like a lecture on rocket science. I’ve been guilty of that. You know. So maybe that title was meant to remind me to keep things simple.
We all have friends who don’t go to church. What if they asked us why we do? What would we say? Would we be able in a short, simple way be able to explain why church is important to us? If that question makes you nervous, maybe this sermon is for you.
Three things. This first one may not sound simple, but really it is. The church offers a heritage of meaning. What do I mean by that?
The church has been around for a while. We might say 2,000 years, but our heritage actually goes back at least 4,000 years. Back to Abraham and Sarah. People believed in God before that. They believed in many gods. But the revolutionary new idea we trace back to Abraham and Sarah is that there is one God and that one God cares about us. God is not hostile or indifferent. God is on our side. So God can be trusted.
At first the idea was that God is on our side as long we belong to God’s chosen people. But Jesus expanded this to include all people. “God so loved the [whole] world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
Abraham, Sarah, and Jesus are part of our heritage. So are dozens of other men and women in the Bible, and countless men and women of faith who have lived since Bible times. We are not the first generation to discover God and what God is like and what God expects of us. This heritage of meaning is not something we invent but something we inherit. It keeps us anchored. It keeps us from falling for the latest “new thing.”
A few years ago Flip Wilson had a comedy sketch called, “The Church of What’s Happening Now.” There is always a temptation to be that church. Whatever is popular, whatever is current, whatever brings people in, that is what we will do. And the sad thing is we probably will do that, unless we remember our heritage.
We live in a time when heritage is not taken seriously. If it’s old, it must be old-fashioned. If it’s traditional, it must belong to the past. We want new, current, cutting edge. We want the latest thing. What could the ancient people who wrote the Bible possibly know that would be of any value to us today?
Then you find yourself in a wilderness time in your life, and you remember that story from Sunday school about some people who were traveling through the wilderness. They trusted God to help them get to the Promised Land. Maybe God will help you, too.
Or you find yourself discouraged. You’re not good enough. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to please anyone. Not even yourself. And then you remember bits and pieces of what you know of the stories of Paul or Augustine or Luther or Wesley. They had the same struggle. And God helped them see that it’s God’s grace, not our good works, that saves us. So maybe you can rest in that grace.
Or you are feeling lost. You wake up in the morning and you have no idea what you are supposed to do. You’re pretty sure it’s not going back to bed. Then you remember today’s Pentecost Sunday scripture. The disciples were lost and confused and clueless about what was next for them, and then the Holy Spirit showed up. And you wonder, does the Holy Spirit still show up? Even for someone like you?
Faith – grace – Holy Spirit. Nothing new about any of these. They are ancient. They are part of our heritage. But does that mean they hold no meaning for us today? I can’t get through a day without all three, and I’m pretty sure you can’t either.
Part of life is entering uncharted territory. That’s pretty much where we have been and still are with the coronavirus. We have moved off the map. We haven’t been here before.
I remember feeling that way when each of our three children was born. Uncharted territory for sure. Big changes were coming. So much unknown. A little scary. A lot of responsibility. I knew I needed God. I also knew this tiny new life had come straight from God.
Here’s what Naomi Wolf wrote after the birth of her first child:
It was such a miracle, and I had no way with which to address it. The manifold miraculousness of having your child wake up in the morning and look at you. It is hard not to speculate about where did you come from. In fact, it’s easy to do just that.
Whenever we get to a place where we have never been before, it’s good to know there is no place where God has not been. It’s good to know that we can find here at church a heritage of meaning that will guide us on our journey.
The second thing the church offers is a fellowship of caring. Some churches do this better than others. I admit I’m biased, but I think our church does this very well. The church does not have a monopoly on caring. Of course, you don’t have to go to church to be a caring person. What churches do well though, or at least what churches work at doing well, is to cross the boundaries that often separate us from each other.
We tend to like being with people like us. People tend to know if they fit in with a particular group or not. There’s the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Not just birds. People are that way, too. And churches can be that way. Churches can be cliquish. But the closer a church is to the Bible’s ideal, the more that church fights that. The more we work hard at including all and excluding none.
Our model is the day the church was born. Pentecost. On that day the disciples were given a language that people who spoke all different languages could understand. Most languages create an “us” and a “them.” They make you feel either included or excluded, depending on whether you speak the language. Most languages separate people. The language of Pentecost united people. Because the language of Pentecost was the language of love.
The early church had a word for it. “Koinonia.” This is a Greek word that we usually translate “fellowship.” But it’s not just any old fellowship. It’s something special. It’s a fellowship of caring for one another the way Christ cares for us.
Maybe you heard the story on NPR. It was about churches and how hard it has been to have our churches closed. It gave a specific example of “koinoinia”, and it happened to be in a United Methodist Church! Platte Woods UMC is north of Kansas City. Sarah DeVoto is a member of that church. Her church means a lot to her, in many ways and for many reasons. But the story she told was about the hardest thing she ever faced in her life.
She had given birth to a beautiful boy, but there was a problem. The newborn was whisked away for some emergency attention. After what seemed like an eternity, Sarah got the news. They had done all they could, and it was not enough.
So Sarah was asked about her church in this interview. Here is what she said:
They came to the hospital at 4 am for us. They made sure we had meals. That community was able to pray over me when I couldn’t pray. It was a time that I wish hadn’t happened, but it was also a time I never felt ever alone.
Sarah was on the receiving end of caring. But I’m pretty sure she’s had plenty of opportunities to be on the giving end. That’s the way it works in a church. We love and we are loved. And no one is left out. The love of Jesus is made real in our fellowship of caring.
The third thing the church offers is a mission of serving. It is hard to think of a hospital that is not affiliated with some church. St. Alphonsus. St. Luke’s. We had a St. Charles when we lived in Bend. And it’s not just the Catholic Church. Our son was born at Adventist Hospital in Portland. There is an LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. There is a Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. There is a Baptist Hospital in San Antonio. There is a Methodist Hospital in Dallas.
Why do you suppose most hospitals have some saint or some church in their name? It’s because the church has always taught that every human being is loved and precious and equal in the sight of God. It’s because healing sick people is what Jesus did. And it’s what Jesus does, through his followers today.
It started as a fellowship of caring inside the church. It quickly moved outside the church and became of mission of service. The first hospitals were started by monasteries and nunneries. The word comes from “hospitality.” It says in Romans 12:13, “Practice hospitality.” These followers of Jesus way back then took that seriously. And so do we today.
The first hospitals were necessary in order to care for people who had been rejected by everyone else. People were scared of lepers. Jesus wasn’t. Nor were his followers who started these first hospitals.
I suppose the people we are scared of today are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. It’s not an unjustified fear. It’s a virus easily caught and it can be deadly. But we haven’t closed our hospitals, have we? The work of Jesus continues, whether those doing his work are part of his church or not. Caring for the sick. Caring for the dying. Risking your own life to save the life of someone else.
Our ministry of service is bigger than medical care. Wherever people are denied their God-given rights, the church is on their side. The poor, the powerless, the oppressed, the ignored, the forgotten, the outcast – they all had a friend in Jesus and they all have a friend in us, his followers. And being a friend means taking action to make life better.
This is a huge part of our tradition as United Methodists because of John Wesley. The Church of England had become a church for the privileged upper class, so he went to those the church had forgotten. He preached outdoors to coal miners. He had a special concern for widows and orphans. And prisoners. His last known letter urged the abolition of “that execrable villainy,” slavery. This was 72 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the Wesleyan heritage we believe Jesus changes both individuals and society. If all we care about is personal conversion, we only have half a Gospel. If all we care about is social justice, we only have half a Gospel. Jesus preached a whole Gospel, which included a mission of serving.
There are critics who will ask a valid question. The church has been here a long time, so if the church really cares about making the world a better place, why isn’t the world a better place? How would you answer that? Here is my answer: The world is a better place because the church has been here. I cannot imagine what the world would be like without the church.
Not that the church has always been right. The church has often been wrong. There are chapters in the history of the church that make me cringe. The church is a human institution. We demonstrate that frequently.
Walter Rauschenbusch was a champion for social justice in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Here is one of his prayers:
O God, we pray for your church, which is set today among the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with a great new task. When we compare her with all human institutions, we rejoice for there is none like her. But when we judge her by the mind of the Master, we bow in pity and contrition.
You don’t have to part of a church for long to discover that the church isn’t perfect. I figured that out a long time ago. But here is the amazing thing. Even when the church is at its worst, even in times when the church was the most corrupt, the church has always produced her own reformers. How do you explain that?
The answer lies in the meaning of this day, the Day of Pentecost. The day the Spirit entered the lives of ordinary men and women and empowered them to do extraordinary things. The day the Spirit formed a church, breathed life into it, and still breathes life into it today. The church is still here. Reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. Still we offer a heritage of meaning that goes clear back to Abraham, and a fellowship of caring open to all, and a mission of serving that can and will change the world.
Pentecost Sunday and still we are closed. But thank you God that the Holy Spirit is not stopped by closed doors or even closed hearts. We pray for the church of which we are a small part. So many people right now participating in worship from home. And churches that are open but with few people there. Most people waiting just a little longer. God I pray for this church. One of your best churches, as I’m sure you would agree. We aren’t perfect. Far from it. But we are getting better all the time, because your Spirit is here, not just in this building, but in our hearts. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.