Text: Acts 2:42-47
Every time I step into this pulpit, I am humbled by the cloud of witnesses who have occupied it over the years. Great pastors of this church, highly-regarded Christian preachers, imams and rabbis from our state and many regions of this country, international partners and friends…so many inspirational and provocative speakers have stood in this spot through the years. Last Sunday, the proclaimer for the final worship of the Alliance of Baptists Gathering was a woman from South Africa, Naomi Tutu, the daughter of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I wish I had a copy of the text of her sermon because her message was very moving. But I don’t – because she didn’t have one. Granted, she had developed an outline of what she wanted to say that she discussed with Brian Crisp to be sure it fit the theme of the Gathering. But when she stood up to preach, Naomi placed only one prompt on the pulpit: her cell phone. There were no notes on her phone. She put it there to keep track of the time. Otherwise, her compelling words came solely from her head and from her heart.
I joined Pullen in 1994 when Mahan Siler was pastor. One of the many words of wisdom I heard from Mahan more than once was the importance of asking the question, “What time is it?” He was not referring to a literal clock like Naomi placed on the pulpit last Sunday. Rather, he said, we always need to be asking, “What time is it in our personal lives? What time is it in the life of the world? What time is it in the life of the church?” He advised us that we need to ask these guiding questions frequently if we want to be faithful followers of Jesus and witnesses to God’s justice and love. Father Richard Rohr asked similar questions at a recorded retreat I heard nearly 30 years ago. He suggested that every morning, we should look in the mirror and ask God, “What does it mean to love you now? What does it mean to serve you now? What does it mean to follow you now?” He maintained if the answers to those questions are the same day after day, we’re not growing.
Today we come to this hour of worship at a particular time in our personal lives, in the life of the world, and in the life of this church. We each have our celebrations and our sadness. Some of these we can share here and some we keep to ourselves. Our nation is anxiety-filled, most recently about health care, and our world is deeply troubled. Our church is in its 133rd year of trying to be an instrument of God’s justice. In this unique moment, the lectionary offers us the story of the early church found in Acts, chapter 2. It’s a story of an inspired, loving, generous people that the New Interpreter’s Bible calls “The Community of the Uncommon Life.”
Some scholars question whether even in its early days, the followers of Jesus ever lived a communal life where they literally “held all things in common.” Like questions about the year of Jubilee described in the Hebrew bible when the land was to be returned to its original owners and debts forgiven, some doubt that this “holding all things in common” ever really happened. Certainly today very few communitarian relationships last long despite the best intentions of a community’s members. We’re human and American. Our instinct seems to be to keep rather than share, to value privacy, and to resist giving up control in the way that living a fully communal life requires.
In contrast, Luke, the author of Acts, offers a snapshot of the early church that portrays a joyful, countercultural community. The group learned, fellowshipped, ate, worshipped, owned things, gave them away, and praised God together and they were respected by people outside of their community. It was not all rosy for sure. In fact, before the book of Acts ends, there is much evidence of their struggles over what it means to be the church, who is in and who is out. They were human after all.
Taking Luke’s words at face value, there are many lessons to be learned from what he says about those early followers of Jesus. It is certain that the presence of a transforming spirit united diverse believers into a common fellowship. Since this story follows the telling of the Spirit’s dramatic arrival at Pentecost, Luke seems to want us to know that following Jesus was not just about a momentary spiritual ecstasy. Their enthusiasm was disciplined and it permeated their entire lives. We know they shared common values and beliefs. Yet these early Christians also displayed a profound care for one another’s spiritual and physical well-being. They were, as one writer put it, a community of friends.
Perhaps the most important lesson for us this day is the implication that there are very personal and economic consequences of being part of the Church. As Rob Schofield reminds each of our Pullen 101 newcomers, we live in a culture that trains us to be consumers of everything – not only of food and cars and gym memberships, but also of public services, government and church. We are taught to determine if what we receive is meeting our personal needs. If what we get falls short, then we complain or withdraw or go elsewhere. When it comes to buying a car, this system works. If you don’t like the offer from one dealer, you move on to the next. Unlike the House of Representatives this week, we’re taught not to buy things without knowing the financial and human cost of the purchase – at least not intentionally.
The problem is that we take this consumer perspective everywhere we go. If government doesn’t do for us what we think it should, many people simply disengage rather than invest in improving how our state or nation cares for all of its citizens. This is also true of the church, something the early followers of Jesus knew even if they didn’t use the same language. We are not to be consumers of the Church but committed partners in the mission and ministry of the Church – givers and not just receivers. We use the term “community” so much these days that we’ve watered down its meaning. But the people Luke describes knew what this word truly represents. They understood what it meant to commit to something greater than the self and to sacrifice, if necessary, to do what’s best for the whole. They worked hard to embody their understanding of God’s commonwealth where solidarity and mutuality control – where no one is better than anyone else. They also knew something essential to a life of faith: the practices they were engaging in were too demanding, too rigorous for an individual alone. Their way of life required a supportive community committed to love and forgiveness and generosity and self-giving. They also knew that God’s commonwealth is the real world. Contemporary culture is not.
These early Christians described in Acts were diverse in background, but they shared values and concerns and a vision of what God wants for all of God’s children. They also had something else in common: a geographical location. They did not all live together as best we know, but they had a place where they could gather to see other members of their chosen family face-to-face. Here at Pullen we are diverse in background and perspective although we share core values. We do not always agree. People outside of Pullen think we’re just a bunch of flaming liberals over here. But you don’t have to be around long to learn that we are a lot more diverse than others think.
One thing we do have in common, whether we like it or not, is this building. We share a specific geographical location at 1801 Hillsborough Street. We are rooted in this neighborhood near a hotel, our state’s largest university, older, middle class homes, a nonprofit serving women who experience homelessness, a new art gallery, low-income apartments, the YMCA, a community arts center, soon-to-be “luxury student housing,” coffee shops and restaurants in a rapidly developing section of our city. Some want to put a seven-story high-rise building across the street and we have those beloved roundabouts. The members of Pullen who chose this sight next to NC State a century ago would be absolutely stunned to see what this neighborhood is becoming as our city continues to grow. But this location is part of who we are now and this building with its leaky internal gutters and flaking plaster and uneven floors and German stained glass windows that look milky from the outside because of the plastic that protects them and its steeple-less clay tile roof sitting on a very valuable piece of real estate is ours. It’s where we learn and fellowship and eat and worship and own things and give them away and praised God together and we are respected at least by some people outside of our community. We may not be communitarian in the way the Acts 2 church was, but we share a lot in this space.
As you have been hearing from others and from Amber this morning, we need to raise a half-million dollars to take care of long-deferred maintenance that threatens the health of this building. It’s been deferred for lots of good reasons. Fundamentally, Pullen people over the years have prioritized giving our money away and funding staff to lead our witness for justice and peace. If it’s a choice between funding Emmaus House or the Hope Center or AMOS Health and Hope in Nicaragua vs. repairing the plaster, it’s a no-brainer. We’d much rather contribute to the health and wholeness of our sisters and brothers here or around the world. We’re willing to tolerate a less esthetically-pleasing environment to meet the needs of others. Thank God for this value of Pullen. It’s why many of us came here and remain here. Children are starving in Syria. How can you spend money to repoint brick?
Earlier in my life that would have been my response to a request for a half-million dollars for building repair, regardless of its urgency. But I had an “aha” a while back that altered my perspective a bit. I was in a conversation with a colleague from another church who was looking for help for an individual who was pretty desperate. That church was unable to assist so my friend referred the woman to us. When I asked if she was given directions to Pullen, the church staffer said, “Oh, she knows where you’re located. These folks all know where you are.” When I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, “What a testimony it is to the witness of this congregation through the years that people who need help know where we are – that they believe if they come to the corner of Hillsborough and Cox Avenue, someone here will help them.”
Do they all get help here? Unfortunately, no. The requests far exceed our capacity to assist the many callers and visitors who come to us. Is it a sometimes a burden to respond to all of the requests? Absolutely. Ask John Hilpert or Mary Hamrick or David Anderson or Brian Crisp or me whose job it has been in recent years to try to help the many who need it, or our office volunteers and other staff members who encounter these neighbors. It can be excruciating to say “no” to someone who needs help. But the fact that they come and they call day in and day out; the fact that other churches, community agencies, city staffers, county workers and many individuals say, “Go to Pullen. They may be able to help you,” is a testament about who we have been and are today in this place. And if we want to keep being this beacon of hope, we have to address the needs of this old building lest it literally fall down around us. Our children and others who will come after us will need this space to do their creative work for justice and peace.
At its most essential level of identity, Pullen Church is people – all of us, those who aren’t with us this morning and the many faithful Pullenites who came before us. But this location – this holy space – is also part of our identity in this community. This week Malkhaz reminded us that one of the gifts of our partner Peace Cathedral in the Republic of Georgia is that the cathedral, which is a Baptist church, is the only house of worship in Tbilisi where interfaith events are held and where the LGBTQ community is supported. That’s essentially what we are here. We’ve hosted services in this sanctuary both to celebrate and to grieve events in the life of our community and our world that are not held anywhere else in our city.
Now please don’t hear this as devaluing the importance of the people of Pullen. That’s not my intention. At some level, Pullen could still be Pullen, I suppose, if we sold our property and broke up into a bunch of house churches. Our people are our strength. But I do want you to hear this as a reminder of the importance of this geographic location that we hold in common – this old building with its lovely Siler Garden were we will gather after worship today and our shiny-diner chapel and our limited parking and our fellowship hall that is filled every week with groups of like-minded people who are working for God’s justice in our world. This common asset we own is not only a gift to us from our forbearers, but it is a gift to our community, to the world and to those who will come after us. We must cherish it and protect it. To do so, we all have a role to play in repairing it – soon. And this is likely require sacrifice from some of us.
However long the Acts 2 church managed to hold itself together in joy and generosity, it has been a model for all Christians who have followed. We don’t have to be exactly like them. In fact, we can’t. We do not live in their time. We live in a fast-paced, consumer culture where being counter-cultural is really hard. But we can try to discern what it means to follow God now. We can live an uncommon life together. We can nurture and protect the things we hold in common –especially this sacred building. And we don’t need a cell phone on the pulpit to tell us that now is the time, my friends. Now is the time.