Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 30, 2013 on Acts 11: 19-30 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.
I can still remember my first big trip out of the United States. I was in high school and spent nearly the entire summer between 11th and 12th grade in northern Greece. In many ways, it was a multi-cultural experience. The food was different (although I found out I really liked Greek food on that trip!), the culture was very different, the language of course was different, and I went from growing up my whole life in the built-up suburbs of major U.S. cities to living in a tiny little house with a farming family on the border with Macedonia. I remember feeling very dislocated, but also very excited. My biggest learning about myself from that trip when I was nearly 17-years old was that I enjoyed being in new cultures, learning and growing from the experiences. Little wonder that I’ve been seeking out experiences like that ever since!
But there are some in my family who approach culture in a different way. They don’t like to leave the United States and even within the United States they like to stay within communities that are basically the same from a socio-economic or even racial standpoint. It is also not surprising to me that Juan spend a year right after high school living in Canada, having an intercultural experience—and that together we have made this a part of our lives. It doesn’t bother us. It’s something we enjoy. My happiest moments sometimes are when I’m sitting in a plane on the runway tarmac about to take off and go to another country. It gives me a rush of energy. If I could, I’d be travelling all the time. But as Juan likes to say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Of course, you’ve already figured this out about me. I have wanderlust. But I have had to also learn to understand that not everyone else does—and to respect that as well.
Today we heard our last story from Acts in this sermon series. And in it we hear a description of two different churches. One with wanderlust and the other that liked to stay in its lane. The church in Antioch versus the church in Jerusalem. Luke continues the story we have been hearing about for a few weeks, that after the stoning of Stephen the early church got scared and it started to scatter away from Jerusalem, looking for safety in new places. And as Luke tells us in the opening sentences of today’s reading, looking for safety with the same groups of people it had always been with even those groups if were residing in a different land.
In Jerusalem the converts to the early church were Jewish. They were in the same ethnic group as were the first disciples called by Jesus. So, it was easy to tell the Jesus-story to that group of people because you had to tell it in just one way for it to make sense and you had to connect it to one ethnic group of people’s story. Now, Jerusalem for the world then was a big city, and the Jews were not all from Jerusalem, some of them were from other places as the story tells us. But culturally and ethnically their religious practices were the same, and that made evangelism, to a degree, easy for the each church. And as Luke told it in the reading we just heard:
The people who had been scattered because of the persecution that came about over Stephen went as far afield as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word only to Jewish people. But some from among them, who were from Cyprus and Cyrene in the first place, arrived in Antioch and spoke to the Hellenists as well, announcing the good news of the Lord Jesus.
Luke goes on to tell us that word of this speaking to non-Jews reached the “mother-church” in Jerusalem and so they sent Barnabas one of the trusted leaders to Antioch, presumably to check things out and see what the non-Jerusalem Jews were up to. This was new and uncharted territory! Someone needed to take a look, make sure everything was ok and that the early church wasn’t getting involved in something dangerous or perhaps watering down their message—they were talking to Hellenists—not Jews! Barnabas finds when he arrives, that indeed, all is well. He heads out to go get Saul and bring him to see this new thing that was happening. And as the numbers grew in Antioch, people in that town coined a new name for this religious group—they began to call them “Christians.” It is the first time that the name we use to describe ourselves today was ever recorded! We were first called Christians in Antioch—in what is today modern-day Syria. We were first called Christians when we went to a new place, when we met the challenge of telling the story in a new way, when we left our comfort zone and when those among us who were not the privileged elite led us. We were first called Christians in Antioch!
This sermon series that I have been working through since Mother’s Day and that will continue for three more Sundays is about journey and transformation. It’s about the new things that God’s Spirit is doing with us and with our world. It’s about the new call that the church today is experiencing and in some places is acting upon—like that first group of Christians who went to Antioch and talked to the Hellenists. And it is also, to a lesser degree about the Spirit-led changes that in some places our church is ignoring because the change is too terrifying—and so we react like the first group of Christians who went to Antioch and only talked to the Jews. This story of our larger church is not new. For the last 2000 years we have lived with the tension of these two churches—the Jerusalem Church and the Antioch Church. The history of Christianity is filled with examples of the church that went out and not only engaged but embraced new cultures and new ways of being. And the history of Christianity is also filled with examples of the church that stayed with one group of people and one way of being. These two ways of “doing church” have been in place since our beginnings—and we live with that legacy, history and challenge even today.
You see we have a problem in the Presbyterian Church today in the United States. Our church like the Jerusalem church, has been since it’s inception, tied up and held together by our ethnic traditions—which for the most part have been white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ones. Racial, socio-economic, religious privilege. And like the Jerusalem church, our larger church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lived through an extended time when this has also been the majority tradition in our country. But the community around us is different and has changed and so has our country. But our church is not really changing. We are still for the most part like the early church leaders who wanted to only talk to the Jews in Antioch. We know we need to talk to the Hellenists of our day—but it is hard. The language is different, the customs are for many of us, new; and we do not understand the culture. If we are honest, we are afraid. And here’s the deal—the racial and cultural makeup of the Presbyterian Church (USA) today is 92% white or Caucasian. But the racial makeup of the United States is 63% white or Caucasian. And the “Antioch situation” we face today isn’t just racial. We used to live in a country and in a culture and “do church” in a space that was majority Christian. No longer. And here’s another issue we still figuring out what to do with—this one is with the GLBT community. While our congregation and many others in our denomination are places of welcome and have been for a long time—we still struggle to deal with this issue. Our “church law” in our Book of Order does not allow for marriage equality, yet 50% of the people in our country now live in States with either marriage equality or domestic partnerships/civil unions. So what do we do when our “church law” doesn’t fit in with the culture around us? How then can we say we are the church of welcome when we are tied up in knots by our Book of Order that hamstrings our ability to welcome and grow, and prevents Pastors like me from offering the full-range of pastoral care to those who come to this congregation? If we do not think any of these issues are a big deal, or are worth our attention or matter—or impact our witness in our Antioch, then all we have to do is to look at the US Supreme Court which this week ruled that federal benefits are to be extended to GLBT persons in states where marriage is legal, overturned Prop 9 in California while at the same time tragically gutting the legal protections for millions of Americans by throwing out the key part of the Voting Rights Act—a hard won victory of the Civil Rights Era of our country.
The Antioch-moment our church faces is very complicated. We live in a culture that is diverse and growing more diverse every day. But we also live in a culture that is filled with the sin-sick realities of racism, sexism and homophobia. Our political class in many cases is bought and sold to the highest bidder. That leaves you and me and what we would think is right and just most of the time out of the equation. Just because we are diverse does not mean we have learned a new way. Our culture is in desperate need of the Good News that Jesus taught us! This is where we the church not only have a role to play—but the opportunity to tell our story, which is the Jesus-Story in unambiguous ways. We are the people of love. We are the people of grace. We are the place where you learn how to let go of your fears. We are the place that believes in nonviolent action but prophetic change. We are the place where all are welcome.
I do not pretend to have all the answers about how we go forward in this rapidly changing context in which we “do church” today. For the last 100 years we have been able to “do church” easily. Our programs always worked, people set aside Sunday morning for worship and the culture around us catered to our needs as a mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant culture. Ethnically, socially, religiously—we’ve been the “top dog” for quite some time. But those days are over, and they’ve been over for a while. And it is not because the culture is diverse. It is because we stayed the same while the world around us changed. We’ve wanted to stay inside. We’ve been afraid to go out. We do not know what to do. We do not know how to live in a new way. Just like those early church members who went to Antioch and only talked to the Jews. Doing something different was simply too scary and they didn’t know how to do it, and they didn’t like feeling inadequate or incapable because they had always had the keys to power and helplessness was terrifying. Aren’t we the same? Afraid of failing? Afraid of falling?
I know I have wanderlust. But I have learned, and Juan has learned that with our families of origin not everyone shares our excitement about new things. We both know and love relatives who struggle with their fears. And yet we love them the same because they are family. And we keep on trying to bring them along because they are family. We tell them stories about the places we go to. We talk to them about what it means to have a partnership that is intercultural. We laugh when we still some days get “lost in translation.” We do these things because we believe bit by bit we are bringing them along. And they go with us and they trust us because they love us and because we are family. It is the same thing here in church. Some of us have wanderlust. Others of us are just not quite sure.
Yet the church of the present-future is not just beckoning, it is banging on our doors. The truth is that some of our congregations will adapt and live on into the future. Others will not. That is the place we are in today. That’s the reality of our Antioch-moment. It’s an exciting and it’s a terrifying moment in the life of our church. Yet we are family. And we have a responsibility to trust and to care for each other as we go through this time. But we also have a responsibility to not hold back because the Spirit is beckoning and leading us once again. But most of all we must go forward because we have the commandment from Jesus to welcome and love all people, in all ways—and the difficult teaching of Jesus to let go of the things of our past that hold us back even when that thing is the family.
My friends, we are in Antioch. Amen.