Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA
I believe the theological diagnosis for today’s readings is that the Early Church has a case of But that’s how we’ve always done it.
As readers and listeners of the story of Acts, we knew this moment was coming. A bit of dramatic irony that the author of Acts has let us in on, as we remember the story that Peter experienced from the chapter before.
Here, Peter is sharing his experience with the Jewish believers who have no concept of Gentiles being included in the kingdom of God. Their Scriptures, our Old Testament, spoke against it, the abomination that Gentiles were. Peter even reminded us in the previous chapter that they weren’t even allowed to associate with Gentiles.
Of course, there were those passages that tended to be skimmed over, perhaps because they were harder to live by, the ones that spoke of loving and welcoming in the stranger, the non-Israelite, or entire books like Jonah that at least tell stories of what Gentile conversion might look like, real or not.
But Israel was God’s chosen people;
and that’s how we’ve always done it.
Until the Spirit spoke new words to Peter; words that were living and expansive, that broadened the parameters,
and his horizon,
and their imaginations.
Suddenly, Gentiles are being allowed in? Indeed, as we learned last week from Peter’s experience, we must not call unclean those whom God has called clean.
For all the expansion they saw unfolding through Jesus’ ministry, and subsequently their own, these followers of Jesus had no idea what was coming. They had no way of conceiving that this new work of the Spirit’s would be as offensive to them as Jesus was to the religious leaders in his ministry.
And yet, now they were being asked by Peter, and God, to move forward in faith, even if they still weren’t used to it.
But that’s how we’ve always done it, you can hear them saying. And Peter explains his experience, and you can almost hear them saying again, but we’ve never done that before. And round and round they go until they eventually come around themselves.
The rest of this book and the New Testament unfolds as a witness to their faithful march forward in the midst of their doubts, uneasiness, resentments, fears.
It is in essence the record of how the Church flourished by doing a new thing, or maybe an old thing in a new way.
It is what happens when “But that’s how we’ve always done it,” no longer cuts it.
They began to discover, to remember, that they didn’t worship a stagnant set of codified laws, but rather an active, still-speaking, tabernacling God. A God on the move, leading the Way forward, a Way that builds bridges between groups who are divided, a way that welcomes and includes, a way of humility and awareness and discovery.
The new word of God for their time and context meant exactly that, building bridges. It meant that they were the ones who needed to change, not the Gentiles. And when it came to it, Peter took a stand against his very friends, and spoke from his experience, and they saw from his witness these new words of God to them. That they were the ones who needed to change.
And like any change, it would take some getting used to.
Now, I know you’ll be surprised to hear this, but not even the great First Baptist Church of Worcester is immune from bouts of
But that’s how we’ve always done it.
Sometimes, depending on the season, it’s a different strain, more like
Well, we’ve never done it that way before.
It makes me smile because I can only imagine this being as common a refrain in Christianity as is saying “Jesus is Lord,” or having food at any Baptist get-together.
Your parents probably said it.
And the many members before them in all the many churches across New England.
I found a copy of our church’s constitution and bylaws from the 1830s. And in the bylaws it states that anyone who partakes of alcohol or ardent spirits will be considered a member in poor standing and will be at risk of losing their membership.
But that’s how we’ve always done it.
I found a map of the second building we ever had over on the Worcester Common. The map was of the pew layout from 1836. The design was different than this, we had two aisles instead of a center aisle. There was a balcony that wrapped around.
And each pew was inside a pew box, with a little door, and that pew was “your pew.” You think these are your pews now, back then, you had to pay for your pew. You rented the pew on an annual basis, and that was your spot, and a way to contribute to the ministries and budget of the church.
Of course, the prime seating, as a few of you know, wasn’t in the spit zone of the first couple rows, but in the third row or so. These were $300 a year, and the former mayor of Worcester Isaac Davis and his family paid for those.
The very back of the sanctuary, were the cheapest, except for the balcony, coming in at $10 for the year.
You see, back row Baptists.
Paying for your pews like you have season tickets to the Hanover.
But that’s how we’ve always done it.
You didn’t know your seating preferences were so deeply ingrained, I bet.
When the beautiful sanctuary on Ionic Avenue burned down in 1937, the church had a choice to rebuild on the same spot or move locations to this very spot. Based on the pamphlet they sent out with architect sketches of both options, remaining downtown meant another gothic style church building, something more akin to what Wesley United Methodist church looks like now; or moving here would be a style built to match the neighboring Antiquarian Society building.
The vote was put before the church, and while the decision was hardly unanimous, with over a 1000 votes, an unbelievably united 95% agreed that no matter the outcome of the vote, they would continue to worship with and be a part of the First Baptist Church of Worcester.
They were saying in near unanimity that they would agree to disagree and continue to worship and grow closer together as a community of faith.
I suppose that is something we’ve always done before.
It got me thinking. We’ve made many important, theological decisions over the years. We’ve made bold choices to change certain ways of our church routine, to make our spaces more inviting, more welcoming, more inclusive.
Whether it was changing our written words to allow people to drink alcohol and remain members in good standing, or allow dancing in the building, or changing the ways we raised money for our ministries so that people could sit and worship without paying for their seats, or changing our policies around membership again, to welcome and celebrate our LGBTQ members.
Time and again, we’ve chosen people over tradition, we’ve chosen to be a gospel people over a rigid people, we’ve chosen to build bridges instead of drawing lines in the sandbox on the playground.
Sometimes those decisions take some getting used to.
And that’s okay. We all know that change isn’t easy. And it might even feel distracting for us for a time. We like to look to our churches for stability and structure, something predictable in the uncertainty of our everyday lives. But like those earliest Jewish Christians came to discover, or remember, we don’t worship a set of codified laws or traditions or buildings; we worship an active and still-speaking God on the move in our world. It’s in this God we place our trust.
And soon enough, the memories of the former way will fade, and whatever new way will become “the way we’ve always done it.”
That’s the cycle of life in the church, and it seems to me like that’s the cycle of the life of faith. Our active God is still speaking, so we must still be listening.
And that’s what got me thinking.
What will our church look like in the next 25 years?
For starters, I’ll be the longest tenured pastor in FBC history.
And Tom Grisso, the longest-tenured Moderator. Wesley might still have a couple years to go on some former Music Ministers, I’d have to double check.
The longer I’m here, the more I believe in you, and believe that God’s Spirit is at work here. And I think that work is exciting and contagious.
So, I believe we’ll have even higher attendance in 25 years than we have today. And not just because the Pastor challenges you to attend for 6 weeks in a row, (or 25 years in a row.)
I think people of all ethnicities and genders, sexual orientations and ages and beliefs will continue to gather here because they find in this group of people
a love that is unmistakable
and a purpose that is undeniable.
I believe the seeds we are planting today of more hands-on involvement in our community will blossom into meaningful and vital work in communities of Worcester that need friendship and attention and advocacy.
Whether it’s the seeds of beginning ESL classes here at this very spot, trusting that people will come as we learn to go. Whether it’s seeds of sponsoring free laundry days for entire laundromats for any and everyone who walks through the doors. Whether it’s the seeds of hosting meals that bring us closer together with those in our community whom we don’t know, showing hospitality by breaking bread together. Whether it’s the seeds of using our kitchens to train cooks and chefs through accredited programs or offering our facilities to other churches for worship or walking alongside more refugee families.
I envision us having presence in our old neighborhood of Main South, having found at least a couple ways to reengage the community and people we left behind when we voted to move over here.
Maybe this one’s selfish, but I hold out hope that our teams and council find ways to hold fewer meetings. Maybe every other month a meeting, and the other months engaging as a team or council.
I believe we will have reshaped our understanding of church, such that we won’t view worship like a night at the Hanover and leave to return to our “regular” everyday lives. But rather we will leave this place energized and encouraged, and motivated to continue being the church when we leave this building.
I believe we will have reshaped our understanding of membership, such that we won’t think of membership like we have with clubs or organizations, where dues are paid and titles are had. But rather we will think of partnership, that we are equal partners, each one of us, partners in ministry and mission, and partners with God in the work of the Spirit in Worcester.
I have a lot of dreams, and hopes. Some will be wrong. Hopefully not all of them. And many more things will happen because of your imaginations, and your courage,
to choose people over tradition,
to be a gospel people instead of a rigid people,
to build bridges and come together,
instead of drawing lines in our sandbox (that will still be here in 25 years).
For many things, we’ll give way to trying something new, even though it will take some getting used to, even though it’s not what we’ve always done.
But above all, I believe that this church will remain true to the spirit of unity that will have held us together for 230 years at that point. A faith that we can agree to disagree because that’s what we’ve always done.