Come and Sit Beside Me For a While…

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This sermon was preached on June 6, 2015 for the Presbytery of Northern New York at its Stated Meeting which was held at the church above, Oxbow Presbyterian Church.   This was part sermon/part address on ideas for middle governing bodies today.  

The text was Acts 8: 26-40.

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Come and Sit Beside me for a While….

Imagine if you can for a few moments the setting of this story.

Two unlikely people to encounter each other.

They couldn’t be any further apart in every way:

They were racially different.

Different socio-economic classes.

Different religious backgrounds and upbringings.

We do not know about their ages but might imagine that this could be one place where they were similar.

Luke wants us to know this one thing:

They were different.

And yet God drew them together on that lonely road between Jerusalem and Gaza.

And I would be remiss if I did not pause for a brief moment to reflect on the road.

Between Jerusalem and Gaza—what is that road like between two peoples today?

Can we ever just sit beside each other?  

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

The question for us today as a Presbytery, as a Church is:

  • Do we understand what we are reading?
  • This world we inhabit, this culture we live in?
  • This separation of one people from another whether it be from the sins of war and violence, difference of religious tradition, family fights that go back a generation, dislocation?
  • Do we understand the history around us, do we understand the history we are creating each day?
  • Can we correctly read the shifting winds around us of race, socio-economic change, generational divide, religious difference—even within our own tradition?
  • Can we correctly read the shifting winds of change in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Northern NY Presbytery, in the Synod of the NE, in Oxbow Presbyterian Church, in your worshiping community—in mine?

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

I graduated from Seminary in 2001. I was trained as many of you were trained. I had coursework in Christian Education, preaching and worship, theology and exegesis, church history and pastoral care. I did three years of field education, six months of CPE.   I went to a Seminary that has a reputation for being cutting edge, half of my classes were at neighboring Seminaries that were not Presbyterian.

I thought I was learning a lot.

And I did.

And I love that place.

I am grateful for what I gained as a student there—a solid foundation.

But no one told me what I most needed to know:

  • That I would never serve our beloved Church (up until this point in ministry) during a time of growth in the ways we traditionally measure it.
  • That I would serve a dying institution.
  • That I would serve during highly anxious times.
  • No one could have perceived when I was in Seminary that two months after being ordained that 9/11 would pivot the direction of our world in profound ways. And that we must take up the cause of nonviolence and peace-building in urgent ways.
  • That I was being trained to be like Phillip—the bearer and bringer of God’s Word—the preacher and the teacher—the expert….
  • But that in reality, in order to thrive in today’s world, I would have to approach ministry as the Ethiopian eunuch. I would never get a chariot (but I would like one, that would be fun….)—but I would have to invite others to come and sit beside me for a while….to tell me what they know—to share with me their learnings.
  • I would have to always be in the position of asking for help.
  • That faith and leadership would be “on the road,” moving and not stopping. Transient.
  • That I would have to take the role of a lifelong learner and the humility of saying each and every day—“Things around me have shifted….I know a little bit but overall I do not understand much of anything. Can you come and sit beside me for a little while and tell me what you know, impart a little bit of truth to me? Can you help me out?”
  • I would have to be open to sitting with someone different, and to asking the hard questions.
  • I would have to constantly let go of my privilege and acknowledge that my tribe who has ruled the roost in our denominational life for so long just might not have the keys to our future.

And while I, like each of you do not need to be baptized again—we do need to renew that promise of our baptism every single day. To make that sacrament which happened in most of our lives at a time we do not remember alive and passionate in our daily living.

Will you reject evil and its power in this world?

Will you commit your life to Jesus Christ before all else?

And just like Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch our call as Presbyteries in a time of change and transition is to sit beside each other for a while to learn and renew our commitments to God.

We are called to diverse communities.

We are called to be something different.

Must most of all we are called to remember that we do not control where God will put us and what conversations then the Spirit will invite us into.

All we have to be is ready—and willing…

To God where the Spirit takes us.

And to talk with those the Spirit places us near.

And those the Spirit snatches us up and puts us beside.

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I without some help?”

Do WE understand what we are reading?

How can WE without some help?

Theologian Mitzi J. Smith offers this idea:

“The Ethiopian’s story vividly demonstrates how God in the Jesus-event will and can draw different persons, not of our choosing, to experience the power of the resurrection.”

God’s Spirit is out of control—uncontrollable by us.

We are called to diversity and to encounter someone new. To risk and see what God will do with us. Even in our congregations, even in our governing bodies—in this historic denomination that is struggling so deeply to find its way in a changed and rapidly changing world.

Do WE understand what we are reading?

How can WE without some help?

Recently I was invited to reflect on what I understand the calling of a Presbytery to be. I offer my reflection to you today and I invite you to listen to my ideas through the lens of Phillip and the Ethiopian he was called to sit beside for a while and talk with… :

In his book, The Fly in the Ointment Russ Crabtree invites this question: “How do we view the person who walks through our door? If you view the person as the potential resource to keep your life the same, then you are internally focused, and still functioning as a monopoly. If you view the person as someone to be served and that service may require growth and flexibility on your part, then you are externally focused; the monopolistic thinking has begun to be broken.”

At its core, this is the challenge that is before presbyteries in the 21st Century—to model external rather than internal focus as we engage in ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. This is the leadership challenge from which many others follow for our congregations, specialized and new ministries and for the people who fill our pews or we seek to serve. And it is the role and the responsibility for presbyteries to model servant leadership, which sets a beacon of hope and provides the challenge to congregations and ministries within our bounds to return to the Gospel-mandate of ministry out in the community that is free from the bonds of denominational loyalty in the service of institutional preservation. We must reclaim the calling that we serve each other with humility and grace.

Presbyteries are called in today’s world to be risk-taking, innovative and transformational leadership bodies. They are called to serve as gathering places for leaders and places of safe haven for artists and creators of newness. They are called to be conveners of community and places of connection in a time of ministry isolation and fear borne out of rapid change.

Presbyteries are called to be places of governance, oversight, and connectionalism. In a denomination that struggles to find its voice and place, in these in-between-times a Presbytery might just be the holding ground where denominational loyalty finds its newest location.

As we live in the time of the next reformation, in a Church that is in the midst of a pregnancy leading to the birth of something new; presbyteries are called to be faith-filled, compassionate, loyal and steady. Above all else they are called to model bold, prophetic and creative leadership and to preach without fear the Gospel of God’s abundant present-future which finds its roots in justice and peace for all people.

I’d like to close today with a story, that came to me earlier this week from a colleague in ministry:

She told me a story about a church she used to serve. It was in Arlington, VA, the church building was surrounded by apartment buildings were many single people lived who were young and worked for the federal government. One day she got a call in her office from a woman who lived behind the church building. She said she was lonely, her apartment was small and that she loved to play the piano, could she come and play the one at the church sometime. She said she didn’t believe in God, just wanted to play the piano. My friend who was pastor of the church at the time invited her over, gave her a key to the building, the security code and showed her how to turn on the lights. The woman came in and played the piano. Later she moved onto another job and the piano playing stopped.

Years later a man walked into the church who was Southeast Asian, a different social and racial class than most of the current congregation. My friend greeted him after worship and he said he was on a yearlong exploration of the world’s religions, looking for a faith to have as his own. “I’ve read your Bible,” he said, “Can we get together for coffee, I have some questions.” My friend the pastor met with him and a year or so later he asked to be baptized and join the church after many cups of coffee and conversation.

She asked him how out of all the churches in that place he came into hers, why choose hers.

“Years ago,” he said, “I had a co-worker in the cubicle next to mine. She told me that you let her come and play your piano. I figured your church was a good place to start.”

Will you come and sit beside me for a while?

Will you come and share Jesus with me for a little bit?

Will you come and learn your faith anew?

Will you come and have a different kind of conversation?

Will you go along when the Spirit snatches you up and moves you from one place to the next—or tells you to go somewhere that is not of your choosing?

Will you come and follow me, says Jesus…

Will you come and follow me….

Will you come and sit beside me for a little while…

Because I need some help figuring all of this out.

Grace for the road.

Love for the journey.

The Spirit as our companion.

Amen.

(Thanks Jan Edmiston for the story, you told a bunch and this one was perfect.)

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