…together with glad and sincere hearts – December 9, 2006

The third of three Chapel Hill Saturday Night messages.

We tried to launch in January 2007. It didn’t work. Random what-ifs still crop up about it in my mind and heart.

I’m tempted to blame being on MySpace, tho.

…and this got us through three trial services. Once again, to everybody who helped: thanks so much.

Keep tabs on what we’re doing through the Chapel Hill Saturday Night myspace page – we are going to shoot to launch the service formally in mid-January.

I’m amazed at how well this came together, for how late I started typing up – there were a TON of thoughts and words spinning around my head, honestly…

–BEGIN PEARSON-JABBER HERE–

I think that one of the most frustrating things for me, growing up in the church, was the feeling of being alone.

And it’s not that I was actively ignored in my church, as a youth. It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by kind, generous and loving people. I think the fact that I didn’t actually live in the town that I went to church in did make things more awkward. In part because of that, in part because I was just a terribly different kid from the youth in my UMYF group, I never really felt like I knew anybody there, that I had any true friends that I could lean on.

And socially, loneliness is epidemic in this culture – moreso than ever before. I have referenced in my own blog writing, and Bryan has mentioned from the pulpit here, a study from June of this year from groups at Duke and the University of Arizona that appeared in the American Sociological Review. The study dealt with how connected people are with friends. Their stunning conclusion: The average American has only two confidants outside of their family who they can talk to about serious matters. Over the past twenty years, the number of people who have no confidant whatsoever has grown from 10% – already incredibly high for a civilized country – to an absolutely staggering 25%. We live in a land surrounded by painfully lonely people.

It goes without saying that this is a severe problem, and Something Ought To Be Done. And that I feel this passionately.

But – and here we get right back to my hypocrisy – what do I do with my own life? I fill my life with so many THINGS, so many TASKS and DUTIES, that the time to simply be with others and to enjoy company of others gets drowned out. Even this little exercise, in which I have this so-called awesome vision to provide a place for people to come and to be together, can very quickly turn into an excuse to be Doing Stuff instead of genuinely fighting loneliness.

And, of course, the sole end isn’t fighting loneliness. The hope is that we’re pointing people to Jesus and pointing people to the transformed life that we know that Jesus Christ provides.

I have to confess something: The scripture I’m pointing to here – Acts 2:42-47 – is a bit of a softball for me. It’s one of the scriptures I’ve studied most in my life, and when I first came across it in graduate school it revealed so much to me about what was right in the times in my life that I was most actively growing in my faith, and what was wrong in the times in my life when I was foundering and failing. It truly was a transformative passage in my life.

The story surrounding the scripture is this: The event that in Christendom we call the Pentecost has just happened. You want to talk about transformative events, this is it. The Holy Spirit comes on the small group of believers who have clung together after Jesus has died, been resurrected, appeared to the disciples, and has left the disciples waiting for his return. These believers find that they’re able to speak in different languages, and they pour out of the room they’re praying in speaking in these languages, and as people in Jerusalem who hear them speaking in REAL DIFFERENT LANGUAGES recognize, people gather around in shock and stunned amazement. Peter preaches. He convinces. He gives what we’d call an altar call. Three thousand respond. They’re all baptized. Basically, that day, the “church” – the whole body of believers in Jesus Christ – grows by about 2000%.

That’s radical growth for ANY church.

Now, that’s a whole lot of people to come in the door and to want to have something to do with Jesus. There had to be plenty of people there who, just before, had nothing whatsoever in common, and now suddenly have everything in common and are thrust together. And whatever they did, it obviously worked, because here we are today heirs to the legacy that they started more than two thousand years ago. So what they did is worth studying.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, puts what happened next this way. Starting with verse 42 of Acts 2:

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

Honestly, this is a really radical vision for what a church should look like. It’s a vision built for another time, when people did live closer together, when we felt less trapped by our property and our things, when people didn’t have to hop in the car every morning to go to work or school. It’s not a vision that we’re going to be able to turn and meet tomorrow. Nonetheless, there are priorities here that we can set for ourselves.Now, I’m going to be an obnoxious teacher here and pull out three take-home lessons. They’re hopefully very straightforward.

We need to have a discipline of worship. I believe the Sunday morning worship service is laden with baggage for people of my generation. It’s hard to get up on the Sabbath morning. The music style turns them off immediately. The sermon is too long. We could go on. But the reason it has sustained – and the reason something of that sort needs to sustain – is because it provides a central meeting place, and a central point of organization for the church. When I have avoided the church in my life and pretended that I can worship God on my own, in my life, that’s been where I’ve seen spiritual deadness set in. And if the service is taken with the right spirit – how can I see God and touch God in this time I’m here? – then even the most high-church, ancient-music worship service can be relevant and renewing.

We need to be dedicated and determined to worship God together. But simply having a discipline of worship doesn’t do the job.

We need to share life together beyond the worship service. So many Christians have their “friends” in the church that they only see on Sunday mornings (or even on Saturday nights). They’re warm and engaging at the one time during the week, and then they don’t have another thought of one another in the intervening week. Or, alternately, they exchange shallow e-mails or swap phone calls on church business during the week. There’s nothing shared in their lives together beyond that.

We’ve always heard it said that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” That might be why I’ve always found it so compelling that the NIV says in verse 46 “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Sharing meals together is a clear entryway into shared lives. Why else have we historically considered the family meal such an important time in our culture? And why not take the next step, and share meals together as a church family?

And it’s not just time spent together over food, but time spent talking and sharing who we are, and as we get to know one another better, being able to share with one another where we are weak and where we are strong. It takes a serious amount of work to take our conversation from a surface level to real depth and accountability to one another. But that work pays off.

We need to share our possessions. There is a great deal of teaching in the church about the tithe, to the point of legalism in some places – you’re obviously not a good believer if you aren’t giving your 10 percent. And in all that teaching, a larger point is lost – it is considered important, in the Judeo-Christian ethic, to give a substantial sum of your possessions to something bigger than yourself. If there are others in the community who have need, they can pull from those monies. And all that community money put together can do bigger things than if we just tried to do good works with our money on our own.

It is sacrifice to look at the money that we’ve earned, that we’ve worked hard for, and then say “others need this more.” But that’s part of our calling.

The first believers didn’t see their numbers grow just because of the amazing teaching of the apostles or because of the wonderful worship singing and playing. We won’t see our numbers grow for those reasons either. We will grow because there will be something in the life we share together that smacks people upside the head and says “This is different. This is new. This lifestyle works.” The NIV translates verse 47 notably – the believers were “praising God and enjoying the favor of all of the people.” Can we put together a church community that is not only transformative, but is respected – both among those who believe and those who don’t?

–END PEARSON-JABBER HERE–

Zaccheus Wanted To See Jesus – December 2, 2006

Message 2 of 3 from the Chapel Hill Saturday Night series. There’s a link to the first message hidden in plain sight below.

Result from round two: why, yes, it DOES work when you only prepare two pages’ of text, instead of three-and-a-half.

Thanks to those of you who came out tonight! It REALLY did my heart good to see you there. Please, if you haven’t already done so (or if you don’t completely forsake teh MySpace) add the Chapel Hill Saturday Night page as a friend and help support us!

And we go again next Saturday night, same time – when I’m no longer so mental over finals.

Here’s my text…

–BEGIN PEARSON-JABBER HERE–

So, let me tell a story.

You can find the story in your bible (around Luke, chapter 19) but forgive me if I don’t read it straight out. Many of you have heard many of these words repeated many times. I want to look at the story fresh.

The story is of a little guy by the name of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector by trade, in a day when tax collectors are even more hated than we hate the IRS. All things considered, we have a grudging trust for the IRS – we have a half-decent sense that the money we actually give to the government will go there. But Zacchaeus was taking taxes in a place where he wasn’t claiming taxes for the local government – he was claiming taxes for Rome, and Rome was not investing the money back in Jericho, let’s put it that way.

Zacchaeus was also rich in a place where he was surrounded by poor people. And this led to a pretty massive amount of hatred, and it was easy to suspect where Zacchaeus might have gotten his money from. Heck, it would be very easily to justify hatred of Zacchaeus – if he’s got all this money, and Jericho doesn’t have all this money, and Zacchaeus is a tax collector, well, the guy must be skimming it off the top. Zacchaeus is the quintessential villain, the mandatory bad guy every story needs.

And evidently he’s heard a good bit about Jesus. Because Jesus comes to Jericho. And Zacchaeus absolutely, positively has to go see him.

Now, this next part of the story is what’s familiar to every child who grew up in Sunday school. I meant “little guy” literally earlier; Zacchaeus is quite short. Zacchaeus goes out to see Jesus and sees him basically walking a parade route, and the streets are lined with people. Of course, Zacchaeus can’t see over the crowds, and every attempt for him to get a place where he can see out fails. Maybe there were some people who saw him coming, crowded him out, nudged him out of the way. More likely, the people were just so enraptured with the chance to see Jesus that they didn’t see Zacchaeus trying to get his place.

Finally, Zacchaeus comes upon a sycamore tree. Perfect. Shamelessly, Zacchaeus climbs up.

Jesus comes through to a rock star’s reception, of course. After all, this is the same Jesus who has championed society’s rejected, its poor, people of ill repute, people of different races, and in the eyes of the people on the street, he’s leading a populist crusade. We don’t know what Jesus thought of this particular reception, and quite frankly, Jesus probably had other things on his mind.

Like Zacchaeus.

Jesus surveys the gathered people, sees Zacchaeus, and to the crowd’s amazement, makes a beeline for the sycamore tree. To the crowd’s utter horror, the following words are the first they hear Jesus say: “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.”

This doesn’t work. This does not fit with our expectation of Jesus. This guy might be the richest guy in town – and ill-gotten riches, at that! This is the guy Jesus is supposed to explode at, to accuse forcefully of all the poverty in Jericho – after all, obviously Zacchaeus has profited at this town’s expense! This is the bad guy! And here Zacchaeus is, bounding out of the tree, making all nice with the guy who’s supposed to be on our side! What’s Jesus doing with him? “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?”

Well, that’s one way to kill your rock-star status. Jesus must not have cared about his popularity with the people all that much. He must have been after something more important.

Like Zacchaeus.

Listen to the exchange between Zacchaeus and Jesus:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Now, if the mere thought of Jesus associating with Zacchaeus was galling, the idea of Jesus calling Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham” – a member of the most heralded family of the faith – had to send them completely over the edge. What exactly was Jesus seeing that they weren’t?

I think it’s very straightforward. Jesus was seeing Zacchaeus’ humanity.

It’s one thing to say that we’re good, moral, God-seeking church people, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing while in our own little enclave. But when Jesus breaks through, he sees beyond who we are. He sees the people outside our walls who want a glimpse in, and who find themselves blocked out.

Maybe we see a person outside our walls that for whatever reason – because of their poverty or because of their wealth, because of their looks and dress and number of tattoos, maybe because of their race – we don’t want to let in. That may be true for some of us, but for most of us I’ll wager we don’t think that clearly. I’ll bet that we don’t let somebody who wants to see Jesus in because we get so enraptured in the church, we get so enraptured with our worship style, we get so enraptured by this good thing we have ourselves – we get so enraptured that we forget that there are people outside of these walls.

But there are. And when Jesus finds them, and when Jesus starts to work on them, we should not reject them. In fact, we should be prepared for transformation to be already happening to them.

There are any number of statistics I can point to that speak to the state of our own denomination in terms of bringing in people from the outside – and I commend to you a quick scan of the United Methodist News Service at UMC.org for plenty of those. But – as much as I cherish this denomination and want to remain in the Methodist Church – this denomination is dying. There are churches in this denomination today that might not even exist in twenty years, ten years, even five years. And there are plenty of churches in other denominations that are in equally ill health. Those of us in these churches, we have to honestly ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can, not merely to try to make our church survive, but to begin to legitimately demonstrate Christ outside our walls for this generation and for generations to come.

And if we see people being transformed by Jesus outside of these walls, we need to welcome them, not condemn them and condemn those who reached out to them. While we play “church”, Jesus is at work. We need to pay attention. We need to see what we can learn.

–END PEARSON-JABBER HERE–