Reveille United Methodist Church
Pentecost Sunday – May 31, 2020
Today, May 31st, is Pentecost, one of the high holy days of the liturgical year. If you ask most anyone who plans worship for this day, they will likely tell you that this is one of their favorite Sundays of the year. One could argue that of all of the Sundays in our liturgical journey, Pentecost is perhaps the brightest, most vibrant, kinetic, colorful, bombastic days of worship. See the bright red/yellow/orange tongues of fire alight above the heads of the disciples. Feel the mighty rush of the Spirt/wind across your face, filling the upper room. Hear the cacophony of different languages from all over the world calling out in praise of the wondrous deeds of God, diverse languages spoken from the lips of the Galilean disciples. Imagine the scent of fire and smoky mist as Peter preaches so boldly of a darkened sun and a blood-red moon.
Were things like they once were, today would be the day of confirmation for our eighth graders, as they stand before the congregation who, in so many cases, has raised them and who will be their witnesses when they stand in our majestic chancel and say words of salvation: “I believe.” This would be their day of a reception at noon and photographs on the steps of Reveille House after a service where names spoken into the mystery of worship at their baptisms so long ago now reverberate again amidst the marble and the pillars and the red paraments and the words proclaiming “peace on earth and goodwill to all” as these young people kneel and receive a new name, the name we all have: Christian.
This is a day that would have included a sequence hymn and this morning’s text proclaimed from the center of the worship space, this text with all of those difficult-to-pronounce nationalities, this text that tells of three thousand people becoming believers and giving birth to that which God has chosen and set apart as both a sign of God’s grace and as an outpost of Heaven on earth: the church.
This is the second-to-last sermon I will ever preach as your lead pastor, and since today is the birthday of the Christian church, I would like to use this sermon to give glory to Christ by discussing his church, his bride, his body on earth as scripture attests by giving voice to the choice that stands before this church, today, and in all of the days to come, and I will do this in the bright, colorful, flickering light of Pentecost. I believe that doing so will help explain several facets of our relationship as pastor and parish over these last six years.
In the grandest sense, perhaps without meaning to, churches tend to situate themselves in to one of two broad categories in regard to how they understand themselves and how they relate to the world, and those models are known as the Attractional Model and the Missional Model. Now, let me be very clear from the outset in saying that there is no purely attractional church just as there is no purely missional church. Every church, regardless of doctrine, has elements of both. However, churches also tend to lean more in one in one direction than the other, and it is that which I am speaking to today.
The self-image of the Attractional Church trends this way: our predominant purpose is to “bring people in,” and we do this through elements such as beautiful worship, elegant facilities, and large, attractive, popular programs. “If we can offer these,” Attractional Churches believe people will come, and the house of God “will be filled,” to use an image of the Lord’s in Luke 14. The Attractional Church understands its primary mission to bring people in.
By contrast, the Missional Church understands its purpose to be going out. It asks questions that attempt to locate the pain, the need, and the injustice in their community and world, and measures success not as much on how many people it brings in as much as how many people it sends out, and how many people and situations are ministered to though the congregations’ living out of its purpose. These churches often like to quote the Epistle of James, chapter two when they say “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” as well as “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
Again, let me be clear when I say that all churches have elements of both of these models, they just tilt more in one direction than the other.
For most of its history, Reveille has tilted on the side of the Attractional Model, which makes perfect sense. We have the most beautiful building and grounds of any church in the city, if not the Commonwealth. I have loved showing Reveille’s sanctuary to people seeing it for the first time because to a person, I always hear them catch their breath. Throughout its history, Reveille has taken pride in offering the very finest music to be found anywhere in the Conference, a large and amazing youth group, and profound youth performances. You have had pastors like Bishop R. Kern Eutsler preach from that mighty pulpit, thirteen steps above the nave. You offered studies and classes that many people wanted to join. The Reveille Weekday School was so popular that I have heard stories of women learning they were pregnant from their OBGYN and driving directly from the doctor’s office here to secure a spot for their yet-unborn child.
And anytime we did something grand and people came, we felt successful. Reveille has been throughout its history a very, very attractive church, not without important missions, but a very attractive, and attractional church.
Yet what I think explains so much of the relationship between pastor and parish during my tenure here over these last six years comes from the fact that I have worked to push Reveille, in our life together and in our programming in a more missional direction. This is why I have spent so much time in Swansboro while encouraging you to do the same. It is why I preach on things like social justice and inclusion. It is why I have challenged us to not only serve those in need, but to be in relationship with them as well. It is why I have always tried to challenge you, why I feel so connected to our early Methodist roots. It what informs everything about how I think, pray, and lead.
And as I have pushed, you have understandably pushed back, especially in the fair questions you have asked of me, questions such as “Help me understand how doing ministry in Swansboro gets people to come to Reveille?” and “Why are you always telling us to do things?” and comments I have received when I have preached challenging sermons on prophetic texts asking why I could not, in essence, preach on topics more lighthearted and encouraging, and why you hear so many sermons and prayers about God’s pervasive sense of justice, and how the church should reflect that sense of justice.
This is all fair. If I am going to enter into an established community and question fundamental assumptions you hold dear about who you are, about your identity, I should absolutely expect you to ask “Why?” Likewise, it would be an abdication of my role as your pastoral leader if I failed to respond to these queries.
Everything I have done since I landed here in 2014 has been done with an eye to two things. The first is asking how Reveille can grow in grace and be the embassy of the Kingdom of God that God calls all congregations to be? In other words, how can we live and love such that we resemble a glimpse of heaven, such that the world will see the Christ in us? The second thing is to ask how Richmond and how the world are different because we are here?
In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison for speaking out against King Herod and he sends messengers to ask Jesus, in essence, if he is indeed the messiah, or if they should wait for someone else. Jesus’ reply is telling when he says “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus, like the Epistle of James envisions an active, visible faith that transforms lives and communities as God utilizes them for nothing less than the salvation of the world.
Through it all, the conviction that I have carried with me in regard to our life together has been this: a largely attractional church can often survive for a season without being very missional. However, there is little more attractional than a truly missional church, for no other reason than we are actively in the world into which God sends us, living what we believe, resembling the one who saves us, showing them the Christ in us. Throughout my life I have met many, many people who gave up on God because of the actions of Christians. However, I have yet to meet anyone who lost their faith because of the grace, acceptance, compassion, and love of Christ. To be like Jesus, and to prioritize in our life what was most important to him, is to be attractional.
It is how, in a world of doubt, we earn the right to be heard.
A year ago, it was Holy Week, and our Director of Children’s ministries Tammy Tipton-Nay and I were in the chapel having worship with large groups of children from our Weekday School. When the oldest group arrived, the children who were on the very cusp of kindergarten, I told them the Easter story, and when I was done, a little boy spoke into the silence and said “He is not alive. It is just a story.”
Friends, I believe that Reveille has the God-given ability, with all of our gifted people, talent, creativity, and resources to work towards creating a beloved community here and world around us that we can partner with God in fashioning a world where that boy grows up and changes his mind, where he, too stands one day in our chancel on Pentecost, amidst the marble and the majestic columns and words on the reredos promising peace on earth, and that he, too can one day stand before the congregation and say the words of everlasting life: “I believe.”
On Pentecost, when the tongues of fire descended and the wind of the Spirit began to blow and people from all over the world began to hear the disciples from Galilee speak words of praise to God in foreign tongues, in their tongues, the Spirit did not tell the disciples to hold tight and await the arrival of the crowd in their upper room, but instead, the Spirit sent them into the crowd, into the community in Jerusalem, to go where the people are.
When John the Baptist sent messengers to essentially say to Jesus “If you are the Messiah, please start acting like it,” Jesus replied with stories, missional stories about changes being wrought in the lives of real people in real communities. Even Luke 14, where Jesus envisions the Master’s house being filled, he tells his disciples to go out to where the people are, find them, and bring them in to make it so.
Now to be clear, nothing I have said precludes beautiful buildings, beautiful music, attractional programming, or the importance of excellence in worship and preaching. And yet, in the world in which we find ourselves today, the church, unempowered by the culture around us, must regain the right to be heard, and we do that by walking the talk, embodying the message, reflecting the light of Christ into the dark places, living the words of the prophets by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. This is how the infant church lived in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost towards the end of Acts chapter two. They loved one another and they loved their community in a way that was attractional because it was missional, and as such, our faith is the descendent of their life and witness. Acts tells us that as they lived in this visible, missional way, “the Lord added daily to the number of those being saved.”
Does Reveille have the courage and the will to live as Pentecost people? I believe we do. I believe Reveille can live and love and serve out loud, in a way that makes the love of God in Jesus Christ real, tangible, and believable, such that children like the little boy in the chapel can grow into young adults who regard the Kingdom change wrought by this church in your life and in our witness to the world in a way where he will someday say “It has to be true. Christ must be alive. How else can I explain these things I have seen done by these believers who claim to know him?”
Over these last six years, I have preached the word to you. I have broken the bread of life for you. I have baptized your babies, married your couples, and buried your dead. I have visited in your homes, sat beside your hospital beds, and heard your most private confessions. I know you and I love you, so hear me when I say this to you: Transitions are indeed difficult and change is rarely easy. And yet, Jesus says we gain our lives by losing them, and that this loss is the very first step towards gaining them forever.
Living as an authentic missional Christian witness in the world is not only how Christ’s kingdom comes to bear in this realm, it is also the means by which, in a time of change and doubt, Reveille saves its very life, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of this community, for the sake of generations yet unborn, and for the sake of the world Christ died to save.
The Spirit of Pentecost is moving. God’s voice is speaking words we can understand. Do we have ears to hear?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.