Sunday, May 15, 2016

In One Place

Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016
Acts 2:1-21

I grew up in Gainesville, Florida. We lived right downtown, next door to First Church of the Nazarene, where my daddy was the preacher. Church was all I knew in my early years. The year that I was four, I was left alone and lonely. My brother, Stanley, who is one year older than I am, started kindergarten that year. My two older brothers, Kendall and Dale, were busy with school, band, sports and girls. My mother was the church administrator and pianist. My father was always busy in his study, visiting church members or attending meetings. I was left to entertain myself.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the front steps of our house, watching people park their cars and then walk down First Avenue to work. I knew everybody who worked downtown: Mr. Smith, who owned Smith’s Gulf Station, went to our church. Red, who worked at Kilgore’s Feed and Seed, was my pal. Mr. Johnson, who owned Johnson’s Home Hardware, was tall and handsome. I had a big crush on him. But they were busy, working. They had little time for me. I sat on the front steps and watched the world go by.
I remember the moment clearly when I first noticed the tin-roof shanties across the empty field. There were six of them. Once I noticed them, I couldn’t help wondering why I had never noticed them before. Straight across a weed-covered field, where houses had been torn down, there were six frame shacks in a row and, the most exciting thing, there were children playing all around them! I stood up to see more clearly. Children were running, chasing each other, squealing and laughing with delight.
I ran inside and found my mother at the typewriter. “Mama! Mama! Look! There are children playing over there! Can I go over there and play?!” She was busy and didn’t want to be bothered. I had to pull on her arm for a while. Finally she sighed heavily and stood to look outside. Her eye followed my eager pointing. Then she frowned and shook her head. “Oh, no!” She sat down and started typing again.
“Mama! Why not?!”
“Because!” She was annoyed. “It would just cause trouble. Now go on outside and stop bothering me.”
So I went over to the church and found my father in his study. “Daddy! Can I go across the street and play with those kids over there?”
“What kids?”
“Over there. Across the field.” He stood and looked out the window.
“Why not?!”
“Those children are negroes and you can’t play with them.”
“Why not?!”
“Because they have their own friends to play with. That’s why.”
“Their own friends?”
“That’s right. Negro friends.”
“Do they go to school with Kendall and Dale?”
“No. They have their own school.”
“Well, why, if they live right there, across the street, why don’t they come over here to church with us?”
“Because they have their own church, just like they have their own friends and school.”
And so I went back to sit on the front steps, all alone, wondering about this division, this separation, this difference between us and them. A year later, when I learned to read I would read the signs downtown: Colored Only and Whites Only on the water fountains. Colored Entrance at the back of the dime store. The signs were there and clear.
The church didn’t have any printed signs. It didn’t need them. The signs were everywhere: who was in and who was not. Depending on race, the language a person spoke, the kind of dress they wore, the level of education. All of it kept us separated and divided into our many places of worship.
And this week, the United Methodist General Conference met for its quadrennial gathering and voted once more to separate and divide people. Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are not to be ordained or included in the same way that heterosexual people are to be included in their way of doing and being church.
But how has it happened and what does it mean that the church has become a place that keeps people apart, assures that some people never get to meet, know and share life with others? Some people stay lonely and isolated on their front steps forever. Never knowing that God’s love is theirs. The Holy Spirit came to include them in the one place where love reigns for all.
What does it mean to be a church? Is it a building we claim, maintain and visit once or twice a week? Is it a place with an open door and signs of welcome for only a few or for all people? How do we live now as church people? I’ve spent my life asking these questions.
Today is Pentecost Sunday. I have worn a red dress today because the color of Pentecost is red. Red with passion. On Pentecost Sunday we remember when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of The Way. The Spirit came like a mighty rushing wind; flames of fire stood over the heads of believers and they had an experience of being able to speak in a variety of languages so that people from every nation who were present that day could hear and understand what the believers were saying. The "church" began to broaden that day, to widen its scope and include people of varying backgrounds, races and nationalities. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians in order to broaden our understanding of God's love for all people.
It was seven weeks after the resurrection. On that Pentecost Day, there were about 125 people gathered together with the disciples. There were people who had met Jesus, followed in his path and there were people who had heard about Jesus from those who had known him. All of them were finding their lives transformed by the stories, and the love that Jesus had shared.
Christianity is a love story. It is that simple and that broad. Pentecost happened to broaden the love, widen the spread of God’s promises for all creation.
Christianity has succeeded because it transformed the lives of people. It has brought us together and allowed us to discover meaning in the days between our birth and our death. Christianity has given us hope. The Holy Spirit has come to live in us and among us to make it clear that hope exists for all people, to make it possible for us to share hope with all people. The church is called and equipped to live differently than the culture around us.
In the first five centuries of the Christian faith, people understood that following in The Way of Jesus was to challenge the status quo. Believers infuriated the defenders of ancient Roman religions, who insisted that Christianity was an immoral sect with secretive rites and rituals that undermined the family values of that culture.
The Way was based on Jesus teaching recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
And Jesus replied with the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Christianity is a love story.
The Holy Spirit came upon us as a mighty wind, flames of fire and the capacity to communicate with each other and to be understood in a variety of languages. Christianity connects us to each other. The church belongs to a kind of love that brings us all together in one place and for one purpose: to be connected and transformed by love’s presence and power.
That first Pentecost Sunday brought changes. And people then, just like people today, were uncomfortable with change. Changing our understanding of who we are and how we connect with each other is challenging.
Shady Grove has its own challenges as you live out your love story together. The world is changing around you so quickly. It’s hard for all of us to keep up anymore. The ground seems to shift under our feet as we learn about new threats, new enemies and new challenges every day.
And here in this place, you have recently merged two congregations, two traditions, two sets of people. You are grieving the loss of your long time and beloved pastor. The winds of change are blowing you about. Blowing away the dust and awakening your passion to follow in The Way, to be the best love story this congregation can be together and in one place.
It’s the birthday of the church, a day when we recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit to broaden our understanding of God’s love for all people—all people in this place, in this city, in our nation, in all creation. May Shady Grove always be a place where people feel the passion of the Holy Spirit’s longing to share hospitality, to make all people welcome and included in the particular love story in this one place.

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