There is a lot happening around here these days. I have more weddings this summer than ever before and more babies are being born (I guess that kind of still goes hand in hand, no?) People graduating, and moving, and getting new jobs. And on the more sobering side, more people facing surgery, loneliness… change.
We are at the crossroads of life, both in gladness and sadness. So what do we do next? How do we do marriage, or parenting, or being alone?
As Christians, we have tools to help us move forward. You need community. You need a prayerful openness. You have to be willing to take some risks, and risk mistakes. Many times God doesn’t move until YOU do.
This is what is at stake in the story in Acts. Jesus is gone and so what are the disciples to do next?
They spent a lot of time in prayer. My guess is that their prayer is filled with contemplation about what they had just gone through, from the horror of crucifixion to the fear and joy of resurrection. They have to re-think everything, they have to get a new mind for a new age.
The scriptures tell us that they waited, they prayed, they worshipped, they listened to the community and discerned in small group until clarity came.
Figuring out what to do next can be excruciating, but when practiced deliberately God delivers. It’s like living in the first moments before God said “Let there be light.”
The first “next” thing to do was to replace Judas. They were very systematic, and came up with criteria that met their mission. The new person had to have been a follower of Jesus, possibly even a disciple of John of Baptist, someone who had witnessed the resurrection. So Justus and Matthias are named and the disciples decide that whosever name is drawn will be the one God chose. Matthias is selected.
Then they waited and prayed some more. And in time Pentecost came and the community of Jesus was changed forever—not without tension – because change is never easy. They gained a lot of new members but they lost some folks too.
There always comes a moment, you see, when you have to decide to take the risk, to draw the lot, to trust the Spirit. You may not know the success of the outcome for a while BUT as Christians “nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it!”
What happened in that upper room takes place in rooms all over the world today as we wonder if we should get married, or take the job, as we face surgery or any kind of change. As Christians we have to pray more, and take time, and sometimes you just have to leap out into the great unknown, trusting that God will equip you with everything necessary for the living of these days – and then you go for it with everything you have.
What is going on now at our beloved church today reminds me a lot of the early disciples in the upper room trying to figure out “So what do we do next?”
A small group of disciples called the Discernment Task Force gathered and prayed, listened, and observed. They told the story of God’s goodness to this place over and over again; they listened to staff, lay leaders and many of you. It’s been almost two years since Clover left us—and in the meantime we have been blessed with Lois and Rachel. God has been so good to us!
And the word came to the Discernment Task Force, and they recommended and the Session approved that we should call an African American female Co-Pastor to equally share pastoral responsibilities (we will have a congregational meeting sometime next month). Now that is bold! But if you do not name it, you will never achieve it. God works through those who move towards what they envision.
As I preached on Easter, the church is at the crossroads of fear and great joy.
I feel some fear about calling a Co-Pastor but I get filled with great joy at the prospect that at the corner of the Lee and Monticello we will show the world what can happen when the people of God are open to the word of God!
I know this makes some of you queasy but others very excited! At our first talk back we got responses that included: “disturbed” and “foolish” as well as “visionary” and “excited!” – and it’s probably all of the above!
Look, I don’t know, the skeptics may be right –but if this is of the Spirit, this really might be something transformative. It reminds me of another passage in Acts when the Rabbi Gamaliel was asked what to do about the growing number of Christians and he said: “If it is of human design, it will fail. But if it is of God’s design, then nothing will stop it.”
The Spirit has always led Forest Hill into risks that fool the wise. It is our brand!
I remember sitting at the kitchen table in Winchester, Virginia when Deanne brought out the advertisement for Forest Hill Church and we both knew that was the community we wanted to be a part of — a community filled with smart, socially-engaged people who wanted to change the world and show that faith matters. You were into equity and integration. You had helped change the community and equipped powerful leaders. You were willing to lose members and money in pursuit of the kingdom’s goal.
And by the grace of God for which Deanne and I are eternally thankful and still in amazed wonder at how we got so lucky, God planted us here with a call to cultivate the “journey inward,” reminding you again and again that you are a “beloved child of God” and “All God’s Critters have a place in this choir!”
And as part of this call, Clover Beal took us to a whole new depth of spiritual discernment. Last week Todd Webster informed us that over 80 persons have gone through Faith Leader – our 28-week spiritual formation program; 80 new trouble makers who learned how to pray and then cultivated gardens and food panties and small groups and hands-on missions in East Cleveland.
But I have come to understand lately that the journey inward is not only an individual spiritual odyssey but also an institutional journey inward. We have to be and become what we profess we want to see happen in the world. We can’t proclaim change if we will not be changed.
And so we are hanging flags showing our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, every “he” “she” or “they,” that this is a place of welcome, and celebrating and calling African Americans to this place. And we have done some hard work, truth-telling work, about race, and how America’s Original Sin cannot be smoothed over because there will be no reconciliation until there is systemic change. We have to become the beloved community and witness to the Kingdom of God within and without.
I have no doubts that this is God’s call for us. But it creates tension at the intersection of fear and great joy: Forest Hill is not just a safe place (although it is that!) but a place of agitation and growth.
We are not only an institution that seeks to maintain the status quo (although we do that!) but a place of radical risk taking that may seem foolish, and may fail – but may just really change the world.
We are not a business with a bottom line (although we are that!) but an incubator of spiritual power that needs venture capital.
We are not just a religious United Way writing checks and doing good deeds (although we do that!) but a place where everything we do from staffing, to building care, to education, to justice work – all express the mission of Jesus Christ to proclaim the gospel – so how we take care of this building is as much our mission as giving food to the poor; educating our children and adults is no more or less important than paying fair wages to our employees.
I think we have been in formation for this day for 50 years. This model of shared ministry celebrating gender and race without hierarchy may be the most exciting thing this church has ever done – and worth every penny.
As Gimli the Dwarf says in the Lord of the Rings, “Certainty of death? Small chance of success? What are we waiting for!”
In our case it is “certainty of God’s grace, great chance of resurrection power, what are we waiting for?”
So, what do we do next? We learn from the early disciples: pray, support the process, be open and ready; we let our fear be guided by the great joy that God is good and is not done with us yet!
And Pentecost is not even here yet – so stay tuned!