Acts 21-26: On Paul, Judgements Past and Future, and the Urgency of Slow Things (with Special Guest Robert Hayden)

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DELIVERED 17 NOVEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

I want to start today by saying I don’t really know how this thing is going to go. But no matter what, the thing I want you to write down is this: what is slow can still be urgent

There are three reasons I’m not sure if things are going to click together quite right this morning. The first is because we are talking about some pretty abstract concepts. I think this is worth doing, because these concepts have a practical impact on how we live out our faith in the world. But they are abstract nonetheless, and that makes me nervous. The second reason I’m worried is because we are covering too much ground: we are working through 6 chapters of the book of Acts today, and six that can be frustratingly and deceptively repetitive! And third, I’m nervous because I am going to start by talking about a poem. I know what you’re thinking: “Kenny, if you already have too much confusing stuff going on, a poem is not going to help!” And I hear you, I really do. But here’s the thing: it weaseled its way into my head at the beginning of the week, and I couldn’t shake it, and so now I feel like I have to share it. But in any case, to make sure we don’t lose the forest for the trees here, I want to repeat: the big idea today is that what is slow can still be urgent

So let’s start with the poem, if only to get it out of the way!

hayden

It comes from the American poet Robert Hayden, and it was written in 1962 after the death of Hayden’s foster father, William. It’s titled, appropriately enough, “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I think about this poem a lot. There is much to say about it, but in the end, it’s a poem about Hayden’s realization that although his foster father was a man of “chronic anger,” and a man who was withdrawn and distant, he nonetheless practiced love for his son in what ways he could. The repetition at the end–”What did I know, what did I know”–focuses us on his point: that the work of love, even if love is a thing shared between people, is also “lonely” and “austere,” or disciplined. His father, for his faults, tried. Hayden’s poem is remorseful, as he reflects on his ignorance of this and his indifference towards this while his father was alive. 

To make our first pass at connecting things to our central point, the work of love is slow. But it is also urgent: his father needed to be better. He also needed to be better. And becoming better takes time…but it cannot wait. 

Our second major piece this morning is the text we are looking at, which is Acts 21 through 26. These chapters cover the apostle Paul’s various arrests and trials after he returns to Jerusalem.

paul

Travis told us last week that Paul knew he was walking into a dangerous situation when he came back to the city, but that there are “right kinds of trouble” for a person to get into, and for Paul, these arrests were a key part of the journey his relationship with Jesus was taking him on. 

It would be extraordinarily convenient for us if there was a clear passage in these chapters where Paul articulated his mission: where he told us why walking into this trap was so important, and what Jesus wants to transform in the Jerusalem Temple, and how spending the rest of his life in prison was going to help multiply and grow the early church. But unfortunately, this never happens. It’s not because people don’t ask him, or because Paul doesn’t try to answer them…it’s because, over and over again, once Paul starts speaking, his audiences get angry, they interrupt him, and then they try to kill him.

paulmob

So, since Paul doesn’t say exactly what he’s up to, we’re going to try and work through these chapters from a different perspective: we’re going to look at why people keep interrupting him, to see if we can detect the underlying objections to what he’s saying that are causing so much trouble. 

To pick up where we left off last week, when Paul returns to Jerusalem, he goes to see Peter, James, and the other church leaders to report on his journeys. They listen and do their best to keep him safe, but within a week or so, Paul has been found out by a group of Jewish leaders who have followed him to Jerusalem from Asia, and who intend to see him arrested and killed for what he has been teaching. In chapter 21, they rouse a mob to attack him, saying

Acts 21:28-29

“Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

Now, for the last month, we have been talking quite a bit about the core issue that was riling these folks up, which was Paul (and the church’s) teaching that Gentiles, or non-Jews, could become followers of Jesus without having to be circumcised. All they would need to do would be to repent of their past sins, be baptized, and strive to follow Jesus’s teachings moving forward. This business with Trophimus the Ephesian gets at the dispute: although Trophimus had become a Christian, the Jews of the Temple were offended that he had been welcomed without being circumcised, and they believed that this meant he was unclean, and so he was defiling the Temple by being there. They end up taking Paul from the street where they found him back into the Temple to defend himself, and there, Paul tells the story of his conversion and his calling, saying that it was Jesus who told him 

Acts 22:21

“Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”

So, at this point, the Jews from Asia and now the Jews from Jerusalem are both up in arms, and for the same basic reason: Paul is claiming that Jesus is inviting non-Jews to participate in Jewish community, even though they are ceremonially unclean. So, that’s interrupters 1 and 2: Asian Jews and Jerusalem Jews. 

They then convince the Romans to arrest Paul, and Paul appears before a joint council of Jewish and Roman authorities: interrupters #3. There, Paul says 

Acts 23:1-3

“Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 

Now, the complaints against Paul escalate: he not only defiles the Temple, but he claims to do so in “good conscience”! After another fight breaks out, this time among the leaders themselves, and the Roman guards take Paul to the prison for his own safety. He is now under the care of the Roman governor of Jerusalem, a man named Felix. Felix is an interesting character, as he has landed in this position by marrying the sister of the current Roman King of the region, a woman named Drusilla, who was also Jewish. Felix is aloof, and he seems to have an academic curiosity about Paul and why Paul is so hated by the Jews of the Temple. And so, after a few days, Felix and his wife bring Paul out from his cell and invite him to meet with them and explain himself. There is no reference to tea, but it all feels to me very much like a tea party. In any case, we don’t have a transcript of Paul’s words at this meeting, but we get this summary and exchange, which I think is extremely important for us today, and it involves interruption #4: 

Acts 24:24-25

Felix […] sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 

Felix ends up allowing Paul to languish in prison for two full years, and then his term as governor ends and he is succeeded by a man named Festus. 

Now, that was a lot of summary and a lot of text, but I shared it all at once because I want us to pause for a moment and try to think about what exactly it is that is upsetting everyone about Paul. What is the substance of their accusations? And, since so many of their accusations actually seem to be a bit misleading or trumped up, what might be underneath their anger and actually driving it? 

I think there are three basic objections we see here to Paul’s actions: 

  1. Paul is watering down the Law by disregarding circumcision for Gentiles
  2. Paul is desecrating the Temple by bringing Gentiles into it
  3. Paul is talking about a future-focused faith

The first two we have seen before…but the last one, which is what seems to happen when Paul is talking to Felix about righteousness, self-control, and judgment, is new and–to do a bit of foreshadowing!–I think it can connect us back to Hayden’s poem and our point this morning that what is slow can still be urgent. 

paultrial

To look at objections 1 and 2 first, it is so, so easy to see what the Temple Jews are saying here as absurd, if only because we are reading a book where Paul is the protagonist! But I don’t think they are being crazy at all. I think these two concerns–that the Law be taken seriously, that the Temple be treated as sacred–are extremely reasonable. In fact, I think we also mostly think these things. There is a reasonable fear that some churches–maybe even that our own church–can make so much of our desire to be inclusive of others that we downplay or ignore things the Bible is saying which might be hard or which might challenge us. I say this as a person standing in front of you with tattoos! The book of Leviticus–one of the books of “The Law” the Jews are talking about!–says very clearly

Leviticus 19:28 

You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.

And the Law says many other things that it might seem we are simply choosing to ignore: many of us eat pork, we eat shellfish, we sit here in a church service without head coverings on, and, in our case at Revolution, we have women in many positions of authority. All of these things are things the Bible, at various points, prohibits. And there are some who would say that our practices, as inclusive or inoffensive as they might seem to us, make a mockery of the Law. They water the Law down. I should say that’s not what I believe; but there are others who share this faith with me who do. 

But here’s the hard part: when we feel justified in what we are doing, we also run a risk of flipping the script and pointing the finger of judgment, discrimination, and persecution back at the other person. When Revolution was founded, we used the slogan, “Church for People Who Don’t Like Church.” I don’t think we meant any offense by that: I think we were trying to communicate to people who might not be interested in giving “church” a chance because of past negative experiences that our doors were open to them, and that it would be safe to explore faith here. That’s all great! But what we found, over time, is that that slogan was being read very differently by some of our brothers and sisters in other churches around us. To them, it sounded like we were saying they weren’t doing church the right way. It felt judgmental and arrogant. We had taken our “inclusiveness” and turned it into just another way of separating “us” and “them.” 

And I don’t think we can do that. The root problem for the Temple Jews might have been that Paul was disrespecting the Law, but the reason they were so angry was because they felt Paul was telling them they were wrong. We refer to them as Paul’s “accusers,” but undoubtedly in their own minds, they were the Temple’s defenders. This matters, not because they were “right”–they weren’t!–but because they are people, too. And if they are people, God loves them. 

To bring that to bear on our own church, if we allow a sense of “us” and “them”–of doing church “right” while others do church “wrong”–to seep into our attitudes about what it means to be a church, we are going to do real harm to ourselves. Because–and this our first “takeaway”  this morning–if slow things can still be urgent, we need to be uncomfortable. We need to be uncomfortable: we need to feel challenged by the Law. I need to feel challenged about tattoos! We need to feel challenged by the way we sing songs and the way other people sing songs; we need to feel challenged by teaching, both here and in churches that have very different beliefs about doctrine than we do. Why? 

This is the second takeaway this morning: because humility is the secret to pursuing righteousness. Not confidence: humility. Knowing that there are real answers, and it’s possible you and I don’t have all of them…and we want to be transformed. 

So what about objection #3? What about Felix? And, of course, what about that Hayden poem?

Felix objects to Paul’s description of a future-focused faith. And this is where we get to the last of our major concerns this morning: this question of abstract ideas. But, if you remember, I think these ideas are incredibly important for us as a church! The phrase “future-focused faith” is worth pausing on for a second: what would it mean for our faith to be looking towards the future versus looking back at the past? What is Paul getting at here? 

paulfelix

When Felix brings Paul in to try and understand the nuts and bolts of his theological dispute with the Temple Jews, he is expecting Paul to talk to him about the Law and the prophets who foretold Jesus’s coming. This is what Paul has done before when he was on trial…and it’s what Paul was typically talking about when he would get interrupted! But when Paul talks to Felix–himself a non-Jew–he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t give Felix the theology lesson. Instead, Paul “reasons with him about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment.” What does that mean? It means Paul isn’t getting into the weeds on circumcision, he’s talking about Jesus’s resurrection. He’s telling Felix that “The Way,” as the Jesus religion was beginning to be called, really was about the future. It was about “The Way”: it was about how we can and should live, and that things like “self-control” matter because there is a coming judgment. There is, in other words, a way things are supposed to be. A way humans are supposed to be. And God intends to hold his creation to that standard. 

So what do we do when we are afraid we won’t measure up? Well, if we are Temple Jews, we double down on our commitment to the Law and the past! Strict adherence to codes will save us! And if we are Felix, we double down on our aloofness and intellectual abstractions! We treat the questions as issues of philosophy, but not as things that might have authority over our behavior, or which might be leading us towards some future maturity. Everything gets pulled out of time: we just want to know stuff for the sake of knowing stuff! 

We forget, in other words, that even if the work of transformation, of becoming more righteous, or becoming a person who is more like what a person is supposed to be like is slow, it is still urgent. 

And it’s Jesus who creates that urgency. This is how all the pieces stitch together this morning, I think: Jesus fulfills the Law, but he doesn’t abolish it. He says that the Law is leading somewhere: that, in fact, it’s leading to Him, and he is here in order to show us how to become more righteous. The Temple Jews are right that the Law tells us what holiness is, and tells us that the Temple is supposed to be sacred…but they are wrong in supposing that we flip a sort of switch and just become that. Which means that Paul’s challenges to them, and to their understanding of what it means to bring others of this world into a right relationship with God, upset them because he is saying the work of becoming obedient to the Law is work that is slow and progressive and inclusive. 

But when Paul tells folks like Felix that Jesus is coming back to judge us, he is also saying the work is urgent. Our pursuit of righteousness isn’t abstract or intellectual: it’s real, and it has real bearing on how we live our lives in the here and now. We have a goal we need to be at work pursuing it. Our ideas about righteousness, about the way we have been made to live, are meant to bear real fruit in our lives. 

And this is where the Hayden poem connects for me this morning in a way that I hope feels practical and challenging for you, too. In that poem, Hayden regrets that he did not see the love his father was trying to show him. He doesn’t ignore that his home was full of problems: he says he feared the “chronic angers of that house,” and the way his father behaved was certainly part of what drove Hayden to behave indifferently toward him. But the tragedy of what happened is that Hayden sees his father’s love too late. He is grown: he’s in his forties when he writes the poem, and his father has died. There isn’t an opportunity now to say that he understands. 

And as I think about that poem and its last lines–”What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”–I think about what I do know about them: my ideas about what it means to love others, what it means to love my children, matter now. And I don’t have forever to put them into practice: my oldest daughter is 11; my son is 5. They are learning how much I love them, they are learning what it means to love others, from me, everyday, right now. My ideas about being a good dad aren’t perfect yet…but I can’t pause their lives, figure out what I think is right, and then hit “play” and get it right. I have to try harder, in real time, to show them love. 

And here’s the key thing: what I most need to show them is that I am humbly trying to be better. They don’t need a dad with all the answers: they need a dad who is committed to trying to be more righteous today, to be a better dad today, than I was yesterday. It’s good for them to see me fail…so long as what they also see is my willingness not to love in “lonely” ways, but to struggle in relational ones: to tell them I’m sorry, and to show them that it is okay to be transformed. This process isn’t fast…but it IS urgent. I need to be uncomfortable. And humility is the secret to pursuing righteousness.

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

One of the curiosities about how Paul defends himself here is that he never gets to finish in part because he always starts off by talking about his conversion: about how he used to persecute Christians, but Jesus stopped him and set him to the Gentiles. I think Paul does this because he is trying to say that he is walking this process out, too. He is trying to live the way Jesus is calling him to live more and more each day. This idea doesn’t show up much in Acts, but it does show up in Paul’s letters to the early churches, when he laments the ways he continues to fail and to struggle. The best thing he can do–the best thing we can do–is to be honest about the slowness of that work…while also chasing it urgently.

I said at the outset that I was a bit worried that things would be a mess this morning, and the pieces of all of this wouldn’t really click together. Here at the end, I’m not at all sure that they have! So I want to wrap up as clearly as I can, by saying what I most want all of us to remember:

You need to show people you are growing. You need to remember the ugly stuff, even if it’s embarrassing. You need to be bold as you take new steps. You need to be truly committed to living out the things you are learning to believe. And you need to say you’re sorry when you get things wrong. 

All of this matters because time is short. The way you are living your life matters to other people, too. You are teaching other people what it means to follow after Jesus, whether you mean to be doing this or not. If you lack humility, they will see you as a judge. And if you lack action, they will see your faith as something toothless and abstract. And if you are comfortable, you will allow all of this to slide past you because you have forgotten that what is slow can still be urgent. But this is the sort of thing righteousness is! We need to be lined up with the sort of thing we have been made to be. This is the very thing Jesus tells us to do, and it’s the very thing he promises to help us to do–in real time!–if we will follow him. I have every reason to trust him more than I trust myself in this. I hope I can live a life that is not lonely or austere, but one that is open and honest and uncomfortable and humble and urgent in the ways I trust in Jesus because I believe that doing so opens a window to my own transformation that can share light with others.

Acts 17: Knowing the Unknown God

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DELIVERED 3 NOVEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

I want to start this morning by asking a rhetorical question…but it would probably be helpful to pause for a moment and actually define what a rhetorical question is. There are two parts to this term (which we encounter in our lives and our culture all the time) that we need to consider. The second part is the easiest to define: a “question” is a series of words we use to elicit information from someone else. It’s an essential tool in our “human being toolkit” for learning about concepts, as well as about other people. We use questions to get our bearings in the world when we ask things like:

“What’s the weather today?” “What time is it?” “When is this due?” 

And we also use questions to gain a deeper understanding of others when we ask:

“What’s your name?” “How are you today?” “Is anything wrong?”

But as clear as this part of the definition of a “rhetorical question” might be, the first part of that term is often used to steer us in an entirely different direction. If I were to ask you right now how you would define “rhetorical question,” what might you say? Probably something to the effect of: “a question you aren’t really supposed to answer”…like the one you just asked! We use these kinds of expressions–which we refer to as rhetorical questions–in conversation all the time. Sometimes they are jokes, like: “is the Pope Catholic?” “Do bears poop in the woods?” “Do you have a better idea?” And sometimes we use them to create certain reactions:

“How many times do I have to tell you to do that?” “That’s not a good excuse, is it?” “How should I know?”

In all of these cases, the great irony of how we use rhetorical questions is that we don’t use them as questions at all: they take the form of questions, but they are really just ways for us to make our own point. 

But that’s not what the “rhetorical” part of that term means. “Rhetoric” is a word that refers to the “science and logic of argument.” If something is “rhetorical,” it’s something with the characteristics of a logical argument. So, a “rhetorical question” is supposed to be a question where the answer takes us a step further down a logical path. It’s not supposed to go unanswered…its answer is supposed to lead to more questions. 

This might sound like a lot of silliness, but to set a course for us this morning, I’d like to get to that “rhetorical question” I was promising you. It is, simply, this: What do you really believe? It might seem–when a pastor asks this question in front of a church on a Sunday morning–that the answer goes without saying. But my main point this morning is that I don’t think that’s true. I think your answer–your personal answer–is absolutely a thing worth saying, not because I’m trying to test you or trick you, but because your answer can and should lead you–lead all of us–a step further down a logical path. What we “believe” is the starting point for the real process of discovering and developing what we call our faith, and real faith isn’t something that you memorize or something you just roll your eyes and say “yes” to, like the User Agreement for your iTunes account…real faith is something that grows. And it grows through questions.

This morning, we are continuing in our series on the second half of the book of Acts, which recounts the apostle Paul’s three missionary journeys throughout Europe and Asia. Over the last two weeks, we have tried to dig deeper into the core beliefs of the early church: first, as those beliefs shaped the ways the church managed its own growth, and second, as those beliefs directed the way Paul and the other apostles actually approached new communities. Over the last two weeks, I have personally been struck by how generous and humble both the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and Paul himself were as they managed these early decades of growth. I think our conventional wisdom about leadership is that the more firm and demanding and even dictatorial a leader is, the more inspiring they are, and the more confident they will be as they lead from their strengths. But what I see in the book of Acts is a style of leadership genuinely interested in the feelings, beliefs, and struggles of those they are reaching. Interested in questions. The early apostles are focused on people, and as we saw in Acts 15, when that focus causes tension among them or with their doctrine, they pause, share what they think one another, and dig deeper into their faith in order to find a place of gentle and devout reconciliation. 

It goes without saying that I want Revolution to look more like the church of the first century than the culture of dictators and strongmen we often celebrate in our own corporate cultures! But how can we really do that? What can we see in the patterns of the early church’s behavior that can train us to expand the circle of our church community while also honoring the sincerity of others’ beliefs? Which might be the world’s longest way of asking: what does it mean to share the Good News of our faith and the hope of our experiences with God’s love for us…with others? And my big point today is that the answer is one that has to start with that rhetorical question: what do we really believe?

Today, we are going to be looking at Acts 17, which picks up after Paul and Silas leave the city of Philippi and continue west into Macedonia. They visit 3 cities in this chapter, and although their approaches to each one mimic their approach to Philippi, the reactions others have to them in each city vary widely. In Thessalonica, 

Acts 17:1-5

There was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked [them in] the house of Jason.”

After Paul and Silas are chased from the city, they go to Berea, and 

Acts 17:10-13

when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.

At this point, Paul and Silas split up, with Silas staying in Berea and working to start a church there, while Paul goes on to Athens, where he was instructed to wait for weeks or months until the other apostles could meet him and they could return to Jerusalem.

So, along with Paul, let’s pause for a moment and see what we can see: in both Thessalonica and Berea, Paul and Silas start–just like we talked about last week!–by going to the places where people are already having conversations about their beliefs. In these two towns, those places are the synagogues, where the minority Jewish communities in each city gathered. Their approach in both synagogues is the same: they participate; they wait their turn to speak; and then, when they have their chances, they try to explain how the miracle of Jesus’s death and resurrection fulfills the ancient Law. Theirs is a Jewish faith, different not in its roots but in its branches: they believe Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have been looking for. And they are prepared to patiently walk this through, examining the prophecies and the evidence, for as long as it takes others to respond. In Thessalonica, they meet for weeks; in Berea, we know they met for at least some extended period of time, because the Jews there are “more noble” than those in Thessalonica, which they demonstrate not by just immediately going along with what Paul is saying, but by eagerly “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Their nobility is a factor of their sincere curiosity: in effect, Paul and Silas have asked them what they really believe, and now they are working through their beliefs together, with Scripture as their common warrant and their common cause. 

What changes when Paul gets to Athens is that he begins to attract a different curiosity. The Bible says that 

Acts 17:16-21

While Paul was waiting […], his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. [They] brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul begins as before by going to the local synagogue…but he is genuinely curious about the religious culture of the city, and before long, it’s the locals who begin to ask Paul our rhetorical question of the morning: ‘what do you really believe?’ They invite Paul to speak at an important gathering place called the Areopagus because they are curious about this ‘new’ thing he is talking about. 

areopagus

Now, it’s important to pause for a moment and note that this is some typical Athens business. Luke, the author of this passage, makes a reference here to a common first century truism about Athenian culture: he says that the people of that city “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They are philosophy-drunk, in other words, and their own ‘religiosity’ isn’t so much rooted in devotion to a particular belief, but in devotion to the idea of belief more generally. In this way, the Athenians are much, much like our own culture: although any and every statistic will tell you that the numbers of not only Christians, but adherents to any organized faith, are rapidly declining in this country, forms of non-committal spiritualism are on the rise: the zodiac is back; so are fortune telling and shamanism. And I don’t mean to be unduly insulting to those things: I bring them up as examples of how the concept of religion has shifted and is continuing to shift away from institutions and towards personal exercises and experiences. It is my belief that the church has been playing this game itself for quite awhile now, building church and worship experiences that encourage anonymity and similar kinds of spectating, but they don’t focus on how communities of Christians can develop and strengthen their beliefs. 

So, in the midst of this city that is culturally similar to our own country and home, what does Paul do? How does he approach this moment at the Areopagus? He starts as we have come to expect: by seeing people as they are. He says, 

Acts 17:22

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”

He acknowledges that they are people who are curious about their beliefs. But then he pivots towards our rhetorical question of the morning: what do they really believe? He says, 

Acts 17:23-27

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 

This is the heart of Paul’s message. He says, “I see that you are very much ‘into’ religion. You have temples and idols for worship all over the place! But for all your religious culture, you haven’t practiced digging in to the things you believe.”

unknowngodHe points out that one of their altars is to “the Unknown God,” which was an altar the Greeks would use as a kind of “catch all,” in case their other temples were missing something. Paul doesn’t mock this…instead, he uses it as a starting point for what he wants to share, which is a challenge to dig deeper into what the Athenians actually believe. He goes on to say, “let’s think through this whole ‘god’ business: if there is a god who created all of this, he would already exist somewhere. He wouldn’t need to live in a temple built by the people he created! And likewise, if he has the power to give life and breath to the world, he doesn’t need anything–he doesn’t need offerings or sacrifices–he can sustain himself. And another thing: if there is a god who made everything, everything that exists would have a common root in him; everything and everyone would be related. So there’s no point in discrimination or arrogance!” 

We can point out that Paul doesn’t say, “here’s who God is!” He says, if you are willing to believe in a god–which your culture of spiritualism suggests you are–let’s think logically about what that god would be like.” What do you really believe? And, as you answer that question, where do those beliefs take you

Paul makes the case here that if you can accept that: 

  1. The world has a creator
  2. That creator has no need of his creation
  3. But that creator reveals himself to his creation

Then it stands to reason that 4) this creation wants his creation to seek him. And 5) that he wouldn’t intentionally frustrate that seeking: he would be possible to find. 

So, we can know the unknown god. 

Acts 17:27

“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

The God you are looking for is not far from any one of us. He is at hand. So, why would Paul land at this point, with this audience? I think he did it because it gets to the root of their–and perhaps our–biggest faith problem: we convince ourselves that God is remote; that he is a philosophical question we can have an opinion about. But if God is really God, and if it is true that we have this yearning inside of us to understand and relate to him, that can only be because he made us this way. We must be people of belief. And to feel that yearning, that desire, to believe…and then content ourselves with a statue to an ‘unknown god’…or, in our own culture, to content ourselves with saying things like, ‘yeah, there’s probably a god up there’ or by half-holding to a sense of ‘spirituality’ that is disconnected from any religious devotion doesn’t make any sense. 

Religion, the Church: these things exist to lead us into deeper questions, which in turn are meant to generate a deeper relationship. This is the means by which we pursue a God who wants us to pursue him, and who is not far from any one of us. 

netflix

A silly example, but one that I think gets at the crux of the matter for the Athenians and us: how many of you struggle to pick out a movie on Netflix? I would assume the answer is: everyone who has Netflix. That phenomena of scrolling forever, not being able to make up your mind, and then after 30 minutes just giving up or rewatching The Office for the 12th time…that is a picture of what the Greeks–and what we–do when we choose spirituality over religion, or over the church. We are afraid of making up our minds and really pursuing something. We are afraid of belief. 

But where does that fear come from? I think it comes from worrying that if we pursue something, we are blindly committing to it forever. “What if it turns out that Breaking Bad isn’t that good?” But the absurdity in this attitude is that you don’t have to watch it forever. If it’s not good, you can turn it off. But if you don’t start it, you won’t know. 

It might sound strange for a pastor to say “you can start with a religion, even if you don’t finish it,” but it’s the truth, isn’t it? Our fear of belief hurts us in both directions: we fear eternal commitment, and this fear keeps us from ever asking the questions that can deepen our faith. We become afraid of getting “sucked in” forever. And then, for those who have taken the first steps, we fear jinxing things, and this stops us from asking questions which might break our faith: “what I’m doing now is working…why risk it?” But that’s like stopping after watching a really good pilot for a show! I’m not afraid of saying “just take a step” because I believe in Jesus and in his church: I’m walking this out myself, step by step, and it is still holding me up. Do I know that it will hold me up forever? No, of course not. But every day that I put my weight on my faith and it sustains me is a day that my confidence in my beliefs grows. And that is how beliefs work! 

I want to be clear: by comparing it to Netflix, I am not saying that our religious faith is a matter of entertainment. But I am saying that what we believe about God isn’t something we memorize and accept…it’s something we wrestle with and live out in our lives. It’s something we test and explore and test again. It’s a relationship with our creator…who wants us to know him more. 

Why do I believe that? 

Paul concludes his message to the Athenians by saying 2 things: the first is that what you believe about God matters: if God is God, he has set a way for his creation to be, and he will judge his creation by that standard. And second, that if God is truly relational, he will, in his own ways, reveal himself to his creation. He says, 

Acts 17:29-31

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God commands us to repent because we can’t browse things forever: we are either trying to be what we are created to be or we aren’t. And God’s desire to be known can be trusted because God came to live with us, to die with us, and yet he lives again. Jesus is proof of a relational God, and his resurrection is proof that God’s Kingdom is coming, and in it, things will be made right. 

So, what can we learn from Paul about how we share our beliefs? We can learn that we should 

  1. Speak with those who are seeking
  2. Reason with what is reasonable
  3. Believe in our beliefs 

My prayer is that this last point in particular will challenge all of us: what do we really believe? What are you wrestling with and putting your weight on? Can you ask each other those questions today? Can you ask it this week, and listen to one another without judgment? It’s worth really and truly doing this: what do we really…believe? About God? About Jesus? About the church? About ourselves? About justice? About hope?  

Are these “rhetorical questions” leading us to more questions, to deeper relationships, to more faith? God knows they can.

Acts 16: Seeing People as People

sermongraphic-01-01 (14)

DELIVERED 27 OCTOBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This morning, we are continuing in the second week of our series ”Acts, Part 2,” and to catch us up, last week we looked at the central tension of the book, which is the difficulty of holding firm to the Truth of the Law while also looking to expand the circle of the church community. We looked at the story of an event called the Jerusalem Council, when Paul, a missionary among the non-Jews in Asia, disagreed with other early church leaders over the issue of circumcision. Paul argued that the non-Jews he had been baptizing into the church had demonstrated true conversion, and thus nothing was to be added by having the men among them circumcised as adults. However, others in the church believed that Paul was erasing one part of the Law of Moses, and doing this was a slippery slope. 

We didn’t talk politics last week, but it probably struck some of you that this sounds a heckuva lot like some debates we still have in the church over controversial issues like the roles of women in church leadership, the ways we approach issues of sexuality and gender identity, and even contemporary political topics like war or immigration. And I want to tell you why I didn’t bring up those things: I didn’t do it because I want us to be careful not to allow our contemporary applications of the Bible to obscure the central lesson we learned from our reading last Sunday…which is to say, I didn’t want our rush for a ‘hot take’ on our own world to overshadow the deeper, and I think more foundationally important, points. So, what were those? We saw last week that the early church led through a divisive time in their own history by: 

  1. Staying focused on the trajectory of the Jesus movement
  2. Empathizing with the experiences of new believers
  3. Reading Scripture together with true humility 
  4. Walking through the consequences of their decisions together

Those actions are political. But my hope last week–and my hope now–is that we can embed these principles in our own church in such a deep way that they shape and direct all of our responses, not only to the hot topics of 2019, but in each case we encounter moving forward. It’s not that we don’t have positions on difficult issues…it’s that we want our positions to be more than cheap shots on Facebook or belief statements on our website. We want our positions to be lived out, with humility, empathy, and a deep desire to walk through our beliefs with others, all the way to the end of the line. That’s the example we see in Acts…and its the model we want to live by at Revolution. 

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

So, what about this week? This morning, we are going to be zeroing in on a specific example of how Paul and others actually moved into new communities and transformed them by living out what they believed. Our text comes from Acts 16, and in it, we find a play-by-play account of how the church in Philippi got started. There are 4 specific moments we are going to spend time talking about, but before we get into the details, I want to lay out the “big idea” of this chapter for us as clearly as I can. This, I think, will help us to see the connections between these 4 stories, as well as the ways they can best challenge our own practices as a church. The “big idea” is this: 

Paul’s ministry is centered on seeing people as people.

In seeing them where they are and as they are. This central point is going to drive every decision we see Paul and his fellow apostles make in Chapter 16, and it’s also the focal point and central challenge for us this morning: do we see people as people, too? If so, how does that affect the way we act towards others as a church? And if not, what is getting in the way?

So, Story #1: at the beginning of Chapter 16, Paul is introduced to a young man named Timothy who has recently accepted Christian faith, and who comes from a culturally-divided home: his mother is Jewish, and his father is Greek. Accordingly, Timothy was not circumcised. But

Acts 16:3-4

Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, [so] he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 

Did you catch that? What did Paul do to Timothy?? He circumcised him. And then what was the message Paul and Timothy together were delivering to Macedonia?? Bing: that the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council was that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. So what is going on here? Why is Paul doing the very thing he is about to go around telling people they don’t need to do

To answer that, we can turn to our own good friend Travis, who has studied the early church and Paul a fair amount, and who–if you ever get him talking about Paul–will inevitably tell you that the most important thing to know about Paul is that he permits nothing to get in the way of the Jesus message. This is a big big big deal for him. Paul recognizes that Christian faith is about freedom and equality; even radically so. But he also knows that Christians live in particular cultures, and picking certain cultural fights can shut people’s ears to the Jesus story. So, Paul encourages–but does not demand–that Christians avoid cultural fights, even to the point of willingly suffering great discrimination, persecution, and harm. So, it fits here that he would circumcise Timothy, even as he is sharing a message that circumcision is unnecessary. He does that–to attach this to our main point this morning–because he sees the people of Philippi and Macedonia first, even in their weakness and insecurity, and he tries to meet them where they are instead of where they should be. This is even true of how he sees the Jews there! Maybe even especially them. 

So, Story #1: Paul circumcises Timothy so they can talk about the absence of a need to circumcise. Why? Because Paul sees where the people currently are and meets them there. 

Now for Story #2: Here, we see Paul, Timothy, and the author of Acts, Luke, establishing a new ministry in the city of Philippi. It’s significant to note what they don’t do: they don’t first find a meeting place and then put up signs for a service. They don’t go to the temples of the city and pick fights with other religious leaders. Instead, 

Acts 16:13-15

on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia […] a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” 

So, where do the apostles begin? They begin among marginalized people, in the place where those people are already gathering for their own religious purposes. They don’t go to the men of Philippi; they go to where the women are. Those are their first contacts. And they don’t go to just any old place: they go where the women go to pray. And once they are there, they enter into existing conversations about faith. They talk about God, and if we take Paul’s sermons at other places in the New Testament as examples, they start by exploring what the women believe. This opens a door, and through that door walks Lydia, a woman who worships God already in her own way, and who the Holy Spirit moves to listen to Paul. She believes his message, she is baptized…and then, she opens up the doors of her home to the apostles, who end up baptizing her entire family. The church in Philippi is born! 

A related aside: a few weeks ago, I was talking with an old friend and missionary, and he was telling me about his desire to start a new podcast where he interviews people of various faiths, just so he can better understand why religion matters to them. This started because of a conversation he had with an Uber driver about Sikhism. He’s not looking to fight or judge: just to listen and share. It strikes me that his approach imitates Paul’s: his point is to understand the spiritual roots of people’s beliefs…and then allow that to open a door for him to share his own beliefs, too. 

Too often, we either wait on people to come looking for us, or we engage them just so we can get to our own point or argument. But we can’t expect openhandedness and sincere listening from others if we aren’t willing to be openhanded and sincere! Do we model real curiosity as we talk to our own neighbors or coworkers about faith? Do we talk to them about faith at all? I am struck by Paul’s willingness to go, to listen, and to share. I am also struck by how his eyes were open to whoever was receptive: Lydia, the text points out, isn’t even from Philippi! She’s not his “target demographic.” But she’s there, and she’s listening. And Paul follows her. Again, Paul and the apostles sees people as people, respect that they already have spiritual beliefs, and seek to engage with them where they are

Story #3: Days later, as the apostles are again 

Acts 16:16-22

going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.

Here, we get our first real sign that the way Paul and the apostles are behaving in this city is different than the way the people of the city generally behave towards one another. It perhaps bears mention that this is also our first look at how the men of Philippi behave. In this story, Paul is continuing his ministry down at the river, and he catches the attention of a young female slave who has what the Bible describes as a “spirit” which enables her to tell fortunes. She does this for the profit of a group of men who don’t seem to be around at first. She is following Paul and causing a bit of a commotion–even if what she is saying is actually true–and eventually, Paul releases her from the spirit in this miraculous moment. I am tempted to make the argument that Paul does this because he sympathizes with the girl, but I don’t know if that’s true: the text just says he was “annoyed.” But I can point out this: as the story unfolds, we can see a difference in the way Paul saw the girl and the way her owners saw her. What is that difference? For the owners, she is only a means to gain income: when they go to the judge, they don’t complain that Paul mistreated her; they complain that he interfered with their profit. They were running a business, and that business was unconcerned with the human cost of its operation…which was ongoing demonic possession! But God–if not also Paul–was unwilling to prioritize the health of a business over the health of the people who work for (or are enslaved to) it. 

It would seem here, based on the reaction of the judges and the crowd, that the cynical and dehumanizing way the slaveowners treated the girl was par for the course in Philippi: they quickly agreed that by costing the slavers money, Paul ought to be imprisoned. Even if we can’t be sure of how altruistic Paul’s motives were, we can learn something, I think, from the underlying challenge to consider human costs of the systems around us, be they economic or otherwise. God, we can be sure in this story, sees the young girl first as a human being. He releases her from the bondage of possession; one of several bondages she suffered. And in this, the economy of God and his Kingdom is set against the economy of Philippi and its slavers. People…must be understood first as people. They are not means to an end. 

And lastly, Story #4: After Paul and his companions are beaten, they are imprisoned in the local jail. Then, that very night, 

Acts 16:26-30

there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 

This, I think, is the craziest of the 4 stories, and here’s why: if I were a missionary, and I had been imprisoned so unjustly, and then on the very night of my arrest, there was an earthquake that didn’t knock down the building but DID open the door and release me from my chains? I would be out that door. How in the world could I not see this as God’s miraculous deliverance?! It would be crazy to behave otherwise!!

UNLESS.

pauljailer

Unless my eyes weren’t focused on me. Unless they were focused on the jailor. THIS is where Paul’s approach to Philippi is made most clear, and where it stands most opposed to the common ways of the world. Immediately upon waking and seeing the prison doors open, the jailor moves to take his own life. Why? Because he serves the institution of the State. It’s his job to keep the prisoners inside; if he has failed at this job, he has failed to inhabit the role he is in. 

So why doesn’t Paul leave? Because he sees the servant of the State first as an imagebearer of God. He sees his humanity. He sees him as a person…even before he sees him as a jailer. Can you imagine the relief of the jailer? Can you imagine how quickly and completely his view of Paul, of Paul’s crime, of Paul’s ministry, of Paul’s God must have changed? It was instantaneous. Instantaneously, Paul has the authority to speak to him about Jesus. Because at great cost to himself, Paul saw him and loved him first. 

Do I see people in government or in other civil jobs first as people? Do I see judges or politicians or police officers first as people? Or do I see them first as placeholders for something else? And when I do that, does it change how I relate to them? What I think I can get away with? 

A challenge for the church: what if not one of us cheated the system? What if not one of us gave sass to the lady at the MVA? What if we were kind to those who are doing their jobs, even if we hate the job they are doing? I’ll really step on some toes now:

baybridge

What if every single one of us stayed on Route 50 towards the bridge, without jumping over to that road that goes to Sandy Point so we could jump back into traffic right at the toll booths? That’s a joke, but it gets at a deeper truth: when we stop seeing the people who do institutional jobs as people, we stop behaving like we are real people to them. We look for shortcuts, metaphorical and real. We excuse inhumane behavior. We call for or permit inhumane policies. 

And I don’t think we can fight that by perpetuating inhumane attitudes. What if we were patient? What if we were kind? What if we were loving, even to those whose work we find recklessly unjust? Could we begin to separate people from what they do? Would that extension of humanity challenge them to behave in a more human way themselves? Is this not what Paul does for the jailer? This challenges me so, so deeply

So, what have we seen? We’ve seen Paul see the Jewish authorities as people and work to accommodate them, even when they’re wrong, even when it is painful to Paul (and moreso to Timothy). We’ve seen Paul see people of different faiths as people and meet them where they are, even though he disagrees with them. We’ve seen Paul see a slave girl as a person, even when her owners saw her as property and as commodity, and in doing so, we’ve seen Paul risk and receive a beating and imprisonment for daring to see someone as more than their society saw them. And we’ve seen Paul see an officer of an unjust government as a person, even when it meant staying in prison…and even possibly ignoring a miracle of God himself. Why? Because if he left, the man would die: simple as that. 

So, what about us? Who are we really willing to see? 

I want to close with a story. In 2008, while I was living in South Carolina, I was selected to serve on a jury for a difficult case. The details here are graphic and disturbing, and I want to pause for a moment if anyone would prefer not to hear them, or have their children hear them. [30-second pause]

The defendant in the trial was a 17-year old black man who was facing charges for a crime he had committed when he was only 16. The accusation was as follows: this man–boy, really–was the youngest in a group of 4 teenagers who had specifically targeted a family of Mexican immigrants in a poor neighborhood, broke into their home, beat the two Mexican men they found there nearly to death, and then locked the two young girls they found in the home in a bathroom where they were repeatedly assaulted. The details of the case were horrific: the victims were specifically targeted because they were in the country illegally, and the 4 teenagers did not think they would report the crime. They were very nearly right: the two men, and one of the two women, fled when they were released from the hospital and did not press charges. Only one of the women–who was 15 when the incident happened and whose husband was one of the men who was beaten and disappeared–stayed to see the case through. If she hadn’t, all 4 of the assailants would have been set free. 

Late in the day of the trial, she testified on the stand: she was tiny, and her voice was so quiet we could barely hear her. But she told the story from the beginning: every detail. Her courage was stunning to me. But her testimony wasn’t the most damning part for the defendant, because although he had pled not-guilty to the charges, the three other assailants took plea deals, each earning a 20 year max sentence in exchange for testifying against him, one at a time. It was awful to watch. 

When the prosecution rested, the defense didn’t call a witness. The defense attorney was a court-assigned public defender. Throughout the day, I watched the defendant: he was a kid, and he was so hopelessly lost in this thing.

In the jury room, I was inexplicably made the foreman. We debated for a few hours, and although no one questioned the boy’s guilt, several people were hesitant to take his entire life away for an act of cruelty when he was 16. We eventually came to a decision: guilty.

After I read the verdict, the judge sentenced this boy to Life, plus an additional 60 years after Life is served. He will die in prison. His mother cried inconsolably. Days after the trial, the victim was deported.

I think about this experience a lot, and I ask myself: who should I weep for? For a child-victim of an unspeakable crime? For her husband, somewhere in hiding? I wonder if she found him again; if she is married. For the mother of the boy convicted, who lost her son? For the boy who did a terrible, terrible thing at 16 and will die in prison? For the injustice of the youngest in a group of 4 teens, who will breathe his last breath behind bars while his 3 friends walk free in their late-30s? Who should I weep for? Who in that room is a person, carrying in them the image of God himself? Who am I supposed to see

Who are we supposed to see

 

2019 Family Meeting Keynote Address

I want to thank you for being a part of our traditional Fall Family Meeting! I say “traditional” because our plan is that this is not a one-time event: we want to build a rhythm of gathering each year in the fall, near Revolution’s birthday, in order to do a better job of talking about our church as a church together. We hope these annual meetings give us a chance each year to look back at the year that has been and start to pivot towards the year ahead. We want these meetings to give us a chance to celebrate together, and to talk through changes and updates in the bigger-picture work we are doing as a church in a way that we don’t have time for on Sunday mornings. We want to challenge one another to continue to be invested in the health and future of our church. And we want to spend focused time together in prayer for our community and for the health of Revolution.

So, this evening, there are 7 things we need to talk about, and you can see them there on the front page of the handout you were given when you sat down. We’re going to cover:

  • Our Year-in-Review
  • Budget: Updates and Direction for 2020
  • Medical Debt Relief Update
  • 2020 Theme
  • Staff Recognitions and Transitions
  • New Governance at Revolution
  • Your Church

 

2019 in Review

So, first up: our 2019 year in review. I want to start by saying two quick things: first, I want to say that we haven’t talked about it all that much, but 2019 has been a tremendously important and complicated and even difficult year in the life of our church. This isn’t just because of things that have happened specifically to us; it’s also because of the season we are passing through as a church community. This year, we have walked through a transition in our church’s leadership from the planting pastor–the person and the family who worked to see this church come into being–to a new pastor and a new season. Statistically, transitions like this are incredibly hard on churches: it is typical for a church to see significant percentages of its community leave; it is typical for hard feelings and tensions to surface, and even for communities to split or die. So, first, I want to acknowledge that we have been walking a hard road. But second, I want to personally thank all of you for seeing this process through. I want to thank you for accepting me so quickly in this role, and I want to thank you for continuing to celebrate and love the Burnett family. I want to thank you for unity in our church, and for committing to walk this road together, both with me and with each other. I am honored to be here, and I am privileged to be in a church with each and every one of you. Thank you.

As we look at the year so far, we can see that some of those difficult statistics have shown up…and others haven’t. As many of you know, we have seen the size of our Sunday services shrink over the last 3 years as we have stepped away from Annapolis High School and from the level of production we put on when we were there. A lot of that is sad, but it isn’t unexpected: we believe in the church we have become at Germantown, and we aren’t planning to change course. 

In 2019, our attendance decline seems to have plateaued, which is encouraging. In the spring, we averaged around 160 people on Sundays, and over the summer, that dropped to around 130. This fall, we have rebounded back to that 160 average, which is encouraging. I want to thank you all for sticking it out this year, and I want to encourage you by saying that Revolution’s plan for real growth isn’t going to be driven by mass-mailings or billboards or attention-grabbing events, and the reason is because the folks who come because of those things don’t typically stick. The way we want to grow our church is by you–by me–inviting people we care about who are still trying to figure out what they think about faith to step into our community and look for answers with us. We really and truly want to reach the people of our city who don’t know what they think about church…and we’re only going to do that by being a body of people who love what our church is and want to invite other people to share it with us. 

Other things that have happened this year? This March, I baptized the first person I have ever baptized in my life: my daughter, Cecilia. And next week, Cecilia will be joined by Sophia Derico, as Revolution’s second baptism of 2019. Two weeks after that, Rob Johnson is going to be baptized. I am so, so excited for these two folks and the commitment they have made to chase after Jesus. 

This year, we have also launched several new Groups, including a new Local. Our Groups continue to be welcoming and wonderful places for people to discover community at a level that pushes (but doesn’t overwhelm) them. Many of you know this from experience…but if you don’t, please join a Group!! We have seen Group attendance rise this year, even as our Sunday attendance has fluctuated, and I think that’s a really good sign. 

All in all: 2019 has been a challenging season, but I am proud of how this church has persisted and grown deeper. I am really excited about who we are and where we’re headed.

 

Budget Updates & 2020 Direction

Our next topic is our budget. You may or may not know this, but the last 3 years–since we left Annapolis HS–our budget at Revolution has undergone extremely significant changes. In that span of time, we have reduced our annual operating budget by more than 60%. This has been in response to major changes both in our giving and in our vision for the church. For the first time in our history, we have less than 3 full-time staff members: right now, we have just one. We have reduced operational costs dramatically, including going fully-mobile during the week. We’ve made big changes. 

In this pretty radical season of downsizing, we have been operating by the philosophy that our job, as leadership, is to build the church God provides. This means that who we are–how we are staffed, where we meet, how we are generous–is going to reflect the tithes and offerings that come in. As the lead pastor, I’m a steward or a caretaker of those gifts: and it’s my job to make the most of what we have. 

This year, although our overall giving has been down, we have been efficient in ways that will ensure Revolution ends 2019 in a safe place financially. And we are committed to being the kind of church we currently are: God has led us to focus on community, discipleship, and impact in our city, even if we aren’t a megachurch…and we continue to “punch above our weight,” so to speak, on that front. 

At a meeting like this, it’s appropriate to say that we have needs, financially: we don’t talk about this often on Sunday, mostly because I don’t want any of you who show up with a guest to feel the cringe of “Oh no! It’s a money sermon!!” while you’re sitting there! But here’s the thing: we believe, as Christians, that it is good to give. That ALL of us are stewards of the wealth God blesses us with. That YOUR job as a steward is the same as my job as a lead pastor: God has provided you with resources, and you have a calling to live efficiently and to bless others. One way you can do that is by contributing to a local church like Revolution, but that’s not the ONLY way. Giving is GOOD FOR YOU. It resonates with how we are all made. And I want you to do it, no matter where it goes. I want you to live generously, with your time and your talents and your wealth, and I want you to feel stretched in this…and then I want to be able to celebrate with you in this. 

If you are giving currently to Revolution, THANK YOU. This church is OUR church: it exists because of the people in this room. And it is FOR God’s glory, both in our city, and in each of us.

 

Medical Debt Relief Update

While we are on the topic of generosity, I wanted to tell you guys some pretty cool news that you have all played a critical part in bringing to light.

This past spring, our small church raised an extra $15,000 and donated that money to forgive almost $2,000,000 of medical debt in our local area. To do this, we worked with an organization called RIP Medical Debt, who at the time had an organization goal of forgiving half a billion dollars of medical debt in the United States over the course of their lifetime. We were the second church in the country to approach them, and the first to ask about focusing on debt in a single community. Your generosity ended up reaching 11 counties throughout Maryland, emptying RIP’s portfolios for the entire state. 

As our story spread this past spring, I ended up doing interviews with the Capital, with news stations in DC and Baltimore, with Christianity Today, with Fox News, and even saw our church’s story translated into Korean and Portugese. As our story spread, RIP began connecting other church leaders with me who wanted to follow our example so they could ask questions. I ended up on dozens and dozens of calls, including with megachurch pastors in Texas and Bethel in California. We connected RIP to Stadia, so they could make debt forgiveness a part of launching new churches, too. To date, more than 70 churches in America have partnered with RIP, forgiving almost half a billion dollars of debt in the last 6 months. Our model of geographically-focused campaigning have become a key part of RIP’s strategy nationwide, and this spring, we will be continuing our partnership with them by exploring how we can partner directly with local hospitals to buy more-expensive debt and forgive it BEFORE it can wreck people’s lives. This story is not over, and I promise we will hear more about it in the year ahead!

 

2020 Theme

And on that note, I want to take a second to introduce our “theme” for 2020: we will be following up our year of exploring the question “Why Church?” by spending next year looking at “Mission.” We want to investigate what it means to be people on mission together, and I am excited about how God will use that focus to deepen our work with RIP, see us hopefully beta-test Josh’s Flourish project in our own city, continue deepening our partnerships with Lighthouse Shelter and the Harbor House neighborhood, and developing even more ways for us to have a positive impact on the lives of the people of Annapolis. I’m really excited about this!

 

Recognitions and Transitions

Speaking of the future, I want to update all of you on some changes in our staffing, too. Or, if you don’t actually know who is on staff, I want you to know that, too! 

First of all, I want to take a moment to thank and recognize Shawn Livingston, who is our Children’s Pastor. Shawn stepped in last fall on a 6 month contract, and this past spring, he told me that he would be willing to stay on indefinitely. I want to thank him for bringing steady and consistent leadership to that department, and to making his team a model for recruitment and involvement in our church. Shawn has been a blessing, and I am really excited that he will be staying on with us as a part-time employee. 

I also want to thank my wife, Meredith, who has been serving as our graphic designer for the last few years and who stepped into the chief administrator role this past January. Meredith has brought such incredible consistency to our systems and operations, almost all of it through work that is almost invisible. She manages accounts, handles church emails, runs CCB, does all of our social media on Facebook and Instagram, and also designs every bit of printwork you see at Revolution. She has been amazing.

Sarah Kramer leads our Worship Team, and she has also been an incredible asset. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a line in a song that connects so well with the sermon, it stuns me. And she does that: she picks music that deepens our experiences on Sundays, and I am so grateful for her, for her creativity, and her thoughtfulness. 

And lastly, I want to take a moment to celebrate SUSANNE LEACH, who has led our Production Team for the last several years. Susanne has been a model of faithfulness and consistency: she is there every Sunday, at the crack of dawn, to make sure that our space is set up and ready to go. She also edits and publishes the podcast and puts together the slides and lights each week. She has been so, so steady and faithful, and I have loved working with her.

However, I also want to announce that she is stepping down from her position this month. She has been in a “temporary gig” for several years at this point, and she actually told me last February that she was ready to step down…but she would stay until we found the right replacement. That’s a microcosm of how selfless she has been: she worked 9 more months after giving me her 2 weeks notice

But this month, she is going to be replaced by Garrett Rivera, who will be stepping in to oversee Sunday production and lead those teams. Garrett is really eager to serve the church in this role, and I am excited to have him on the team. I know he’s going to do a great job!

I also want to give Susanne a token of appreciation for her hard work…

 

New Governance at Revolution

Okay, so in some ways the biggest announcement we are making this evening is this next one about changes to our governance model at Revolution. A bit of backstory is warranted here, so here we go:

In 2009, prior to Revolution’s launch, Josh was responsible for building a Management Team to oversee him and to oversee the church as it came into existence. The roles on that team were held by 6 folks from the organizations and churches who played a role in funding the church. In 2013, members of that external Management Team began rotating off, and they were replaced by new members from our church community. Last winter, the last of the original team members rotated off, and for the last year, we have been entirely governed by folks who are also a part of our church. For the last year, the team and I have been steadily working on building a fully internal and fully independent model and system for our governance moving forward. This process was set up in our bylaws all the way back in 2009, and we are ready this evening to announce that we have completed the first phases of our work and we have voted to move forward with a new system.

So, beginning in the first quarter of next year, Revolution will no longer have a Management Team but will instead by governed by a group of what we are calling Lay Leaders as part of a 7-person Leadership Team. That team, which will include 6 Lay Leaders and the Lead Pastor, will govern the church through what’s known as a plurality of leadership model. That means that we will have equal authority, as members of that team, and all the big decisions about our church’s future and life and health will be made together. This is really exciting news, and I am incredibly excited about this plan!

But how does this impact everybody here? And what are the details about what these positions are and how they will work for the health of our church?

What is most encouraging for me about the plan we are pursuing is that each of the 6 Lay Leader positions we will be looking to fill has a specific area of oversight, or focus, that the Leader will be focused on. This means that our team won’t just be a group of 7 “leaders” getting together to make decisions…each “leader” will have a department, of sorts, that they will be responsible for praying for, developing, and representing in the group. These 6 focus areas are going to be a tremendous help for our church because they are going to help break up a lot of the planning that has traditionally fallen on the Lead Pastor and staff in a way that will help the body of our church have tremendously improved level of access to what we are doing. To say that a bit more clearly: if the old model was one that ended up putting a lot of the planning and vision for the church on the shoulders of the staff, the new model is going to bring a lot of that work out front here, for the people of the church as a whole. 

So, what are the 6 positions we are going to be filling in the next few months? 

  1. Discipleship
  2. Financial Oversight
  3. Church Life
  4. Community Engagement
  5. Sunday Services
  6. Benevolence/Generosity

The 6 Lay Leaders filling these 6 roles will help give our church energy and focus as we plan for the years ahead. 

So, who will the Lay Leaders be? 

That’s the second big part of this announcement. Lay Leader positions can be held by anyone in our church, male or female, who is a committed part of our community, passionate about the particular area the role covers, and is approved by the existing Team after submitting an application and being successfully interviewed. These are roles that are open, in other words, to many of the people in this room. 

Over the next few weeks, the team and I will begin meeting and talking with folks, and I want to encourage all of you, even if you’ve never quite thought of yourself as a “leader,” to ask yourself: am I passionate about one of these areas? Would I be interested in stepping in to a responsibility to pray for this, to work with team leaders on existing teams on this, and to represent this area in our church’s governance? If that’s something you are considering, I want to ask you to talk with me, or to talk with any member of the current Management Team, about it. 

Our plan right now is to gather applicants for these roles through the end of November, meet with and interview candidates in December, and introduce the new Leadership Team in January or February of 2020, where members will serve terms of up to 3 years. Each fall, in our annual family meeting, we will discuss upcoming vacancies on the team–after building the team this year, we will rotate two folks off each winter–and work through this process again. 

My big hope for our meeting today is that each and every one of us leaves here asking ourselves: what am I passionate about? How has God gifted me to serve in my church? What can I offer or bring to the life and health of Revolution? Because here’s the big point: this church is made up of the people in this room. There isn’t something else, or somebody else, somewhere else making Revolution happen: it’s us.

And as we’ve been talking about over the last few Sundays, the Bible teaches us that the church is a body. We are, each and every one of us, members of that body. And for the body to be healthy, we all have to do our best to play the roles God has given us. What part are you? What role do you have to play?

I want to close by framing things up like this: 

My hope for all of us is that each and every person who calls Revolution their church home will one day find ourselves fully plugged into this church community in 4 ways:

  • We will find a way to connect to the church outside of Sundays, through a small group or through some other personal relationships
  • We will find a way to serve our church on Sundays, by joining an existing team or even inventing something totally new that is just the right fit for us.
  • We will be supporting Revolution by giving financially, at a rhythm and amount that is comfortable for us, but also hopefully always stretching us to live more generously.
  • We will be investing in relationships both inside and outside of our church. Some of you might remember the “fishbowl project” we did last January: are we continuing to do things like this? Are we being intentional about making friends with one another, and strengthening our connections with one another, as parts of the same church body?

These are the 4 ways we can play our essential part in this church. It’s how we can find and embrace our roles here. And more than that: it’s what we need as a church if we want our church to grow and to be healthy. You are Revolution; Revolution is this church family. 

I love this community. I am “all-in” here. I am honored–continually–to be here, as your lead pastor. And I am so, so eager to see all of us take these next steps towards an even healthier church. I am so excited to see what God can and will do through this church in the year and years ahead. I am for this, in every way I can be. Will you be “all in” with me?