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Amazed and Astonished

Amazed and Astonished

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A few months ago I got an email from a pastor in Florida inquiring about visiting our church with a tour group. Thanks to Jonathan Edwards, we get a lot of visitors here at First Churches and let’s just say they tend to be on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum.

They show up throughout the week and we always open the church to them so they can come in and pray and bask in the presence of one of their theological heroes.

But this pastor wanted to know if they could come and worship with us on Sunday, and I’ll admit, that made me a little nervous. Did I mention the church was from Florida? Yeah, that right there was enough to set my Spidey senses a tingling. So I looked up their church on-line, read their statement of belief, and then clicked on the link for the “Revival Wells New England Tour.”

Turns out they were getting ready to embark on a 5 day “prayer assignment” with an historian/evangelist whose mission, according to his website, is "Raising up a new generation to aggressively invade the nations with the spirit of revival and reformation!” (Roberts Liardon Ministries).

“Aggressively invade the nations…” Yeah. Sounds like somebody needs to take a class or two on decolonizing Christianity.

Well, that made me really nervous. And I admit I only grew increasingly wary as I perused the itinerary.

Their plan, according to the website, was to come north to “visit, worship, and pray at the historical locations of the First and Second Great Awakenings as well as visit two Ivy League Universities: Harvard and Dartmouth.

“It’s time to take back our Ivy League universities, which were all founded for God!,” it said.

And then I learned that after visits to Park Street Church in Boston and Northfield MA, that they would, “visit Jonathan Edwards’ church in Northampton, where Edwards oversaw some of the first revivals in 1733-35 and preached his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that helped launch the First Great Awakening.”

Goodness, I wondered, are you coming to take back my church too?

Needless to say, I emailed the pastor right away and said, “call me.”

And here’s where things get interesting.

She did.

Yeah. She.

Wasn’t expecting that, were you? Me neither.

But the fact that she was a fellow woman in ministry didn’t stop me from being crystal clear and laying down some boundaries for this visit once I finally got her on the phone.

“Look,” I said, “you are most welcome to visit our church. We welcome groups from all over the world who love Jonathan Edwards. But you need to understand that our church is open and affirming and very progressive, as is the city of Northampton. You are visiting during Pride weekend. Our church is fully affirming of LGBTQ people and they make up a large portion of my congregation.

When you arrive you will see rainbows everywhere. I want to welcome you, but I can’t have you coming in here on a Sunday and making anyone feel unsafe or unwelcome in their own church. That would be devastating for my people and I hope you understand that as their pastor, I have a responsibility to protect and care for them. I need to know that you and your people will respect the fact that this is our sacred space and we are sacred to one another.”

And you know what? She was very understanding. She also let me know that they would actually be coming right after worship, (which after my little speech was probably a relief to both of us), and assured me that they would be respectful of anyone they met.

“OK,” I said. And then, for good measure, I let her know that I had actually gone to Harvard Divinity School, but not for the reason most graduates drop the “H word.”  I just kind of felt the need to defend the university. I mean HDS isn’t what you’d call the most Godly place, “but,” I said, “those are the folks who educated me for ministry and I think they did a pretty good job.

Look, all I’m saying is please try to keep an open mind and an open heart on this trip and be careful how you talk to people up here about all of this. We may be liberal Christians, but we’re still Christian.”

Okay, fast forward to two Sunday ago. They came. They saw. They had a lovely time. Hollie and I welcomed them in and got them settled here in the sanctuary. They enjoyed a lecture from their historian and had some time to worship. And then I invited them into the Fleming-Ives parlor to show them the pictures of our meeting houses that Greg Wilson and Chuck Whitham and Bob Riddle worked so hard on, so they could see how the church had grown and changed since 1656.

I showed them the building where Jonathan Edwards would have preached and I thought we were about done when someone asked about the pictures of the Baptist Church. I explained that we had merged our congregations a number of years ago but then told them the good news about the Resilience Hub. I shared all about how our city and our various faith communities are working together to turn that beautiful old church into a center for services so people would are struggling wont have to work so hard to find the help that they need.

Somehow that led into a conversation about how we had opened our building to the unhoused during covid and allowed our whole church to be transformed into a shelter. This led into a discussion about what it means to carry on the legacy of the meetinghouse.

“Remember,” I said, “back when our church was founded, there was no separation between church and state.” (Oh let me tell you, they loved that.) “The church was also the meetinghouse or the town hall. Well,” I said, “we carry on that legacy by opening our doors to the city for meetings both large and small.” I told them about cathedral in the night and AA and the town hall meetings, concerts, etc. etc. that we host here.

“We consider ourselves stewards of this place,” I said.  “We hold this building in trust and maintain it for the sake of our neighbors, not just ourselves.”

Well, I have to tell you, there were some tears and a lot of nodding as people learned more and more about our mission to make God’s love and justice real here in the midst of the city. And being the non-denominational/Pentecostal/Charismatic/Evangelicals that they were, they did what non-denominational/Pentecostal/Charismatic/Evangelicals do: they started to lay hands on me - in a nice way - and pray for me and for you - in a truly beautiful way.

They prayed that God would strengthen our ministry and our outreach. They prayed that God would bless and protect me as I pastored. They prayed…a lot.

I guess I just want to say that it was really clear as we talked that we don’t agree on a lot of things - and I don’t want to minimize that - but because we welcomed them in, they also got to see how the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us-  and I don’t want to minimize that either - especially on this day when we celebrate the gift and challenge of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

I say gift and challenge because let me tell you something about the Holy Spirit: it may give us the power and the push we need to love and witness to people in word and deed, but it doesn’t always let us choose who those people get to be.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t take our boundaries or our labels, our prejudices or our preconceived notions about one another, nearly as seriously as we do. In fact, I think that’s actually the central miracle at the heart of this fantastic story.

But before we get into it, let me offer you a little background. Pentecost, for those of you who don’t know, was originally an agrarian holiday that drew Jews from all over the known world back to Jerusalem to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest.

That’s why we have Parthians and Medes and residents of Mesopotamia chilling in the town square right next to folks from Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, in this story. Not only are they all from different regions, I think we can safely assume that they all have different ideas about what it means to be Jewish.

As I said maybe two weeks ago, there was nothing monolithic about the Jewish faith back then any more than there is right now. There has always been great diversity of thought and opinion within Judaism just as there is within Christianity, which is why I probably have more in common, theologically speaking, with, say, a progressive rabbi from L.A. than I do with a conservative pastor from Lowell. And, not for nothing, why I’d probably be more comfortable talking with the rabbi from L.A. than I would the pastor from Lowell.

I know there are folks who really love to go out into the world and engage others who have a totally different point of view, but on the whole, I think most of us are just as happy to hang with people who like us because they are like us.

We don’t want to challenge other people’s beliefs anymore than we want ours challenged. It’s upsetting, it’s exhausting, and honestly it usually just leads to hard feelings. Which is why most of us actually go out of our way to avoid conversations with people we know are ideologically different, and when we can’t, we get nervous; as nervous as I was about speaking to the tour group from Florida.

And yet, on the day when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples who were already an extremely diverse group of men and women, those folks went forth and proclaimed the gospel to the most diverse group of people imaginable. They witnessed not in one language they could all understand, but each in the language of the one they were speaking to so "those people” could understand. And thanks to the presence f the Spirit, in spite of all their differences, they wanted to understand.

I think it’s remarkable that the Spirit doesn’t flatten the diversity of the people gathered in order to communicate the gospel, but works through it and with it. I mean, think about it on the day of Pentecost women from Judea taught men from Egypt about God. On the day of Pentecost, slaves from Mesopotamia were seen instructing the free.

Fisherman from Galilee are imparting their knowledge of the gospel to learned men from Rome. Sex workers from Cyrene are preaching to Sadducees from Cappadocia. Conservatives from Libya are listening to liberals from Crete.

People of different races and classes, different political and theological persuasions, are speaking to people of other races and other classes and other political and theological persuasions, not just in a language they can understand but in such a way that they want to understand…understand what this very different, very other person is saying in the name of God.

I think that’s a miracle; a miracle that enabled Jesus’ disciples to not just impart the gospel but embody the gospel; the good news of God’s love for all people.

It would seem that in spite of all our divisions, God not only loves us, but loves us as we are in all of our diversity of thought and opinion.  And it would seem that God longs for us to love one another, not in spite of our differences, but through them.

Which brings me back to the tour.

When our friends from Florida were finished, I went in to lock up the sanctuary and found the pastor and a handful of people going from pew to pew.  “Did you lose something," I asked. She came right up to me and said, “Oh Sarah, I am so sorry, but one of our members took it upon herself to put reading material in the pews, and I promised you that we wouldn’t do anything like that.”

“You all need to find every last one before we leave here,” she said to her people. “This is not how we repay the gracious hospitality we have been shown.” And then she had the woman had slipped them in the pew racks come over and apologize to me directly.

Yeah. I don’t know if I was “amazed and astonished,” like the people in our reading today, but I was surprised.

“Hey,” I said, “I probably don’t agree with what is on that piece of paper,”

- and let me tell you, I’ve since found a couple of these bad boys and I really don’t, so if you see any of these bring them to me because we don’t not want them here -

“But,” I said to that woman, “I believe your decision to leave them here came from a sincere desire to do what you think is right. Thank you for respecting our space and coming back to get them.” She gave me an awkward little smile and kept gathering them, along with a few others, the pastor, and - to his credit - the historian who maybe wasn’t quite as “aggressive about invading” or “taking back” space for God as I’d prepared myself for him to be.

As they left, the pastor turned toward me and thanked me one last time. I held out my arms and we hugged one another. We blessed each other. And in that moment I think we both realized that for all of our differences, we really are just two pastors doing our very best to love our people and teach them how to love others.

It wasn’t as dramatic an occurrence as that first Pentecost, but friends, in showing hospitality I believe we did the same sort of good. For by welcoming them in and communicating with one another we built some bridges and busted up some preconceived notions on both sides…maybe even healed some old wounds and laid the ground work for good things to come.

Due to the partisanship that has divided this country, it’s almost as if we speak a different language from some of our Christian siblings. But in spite of that divide, I think I can say that thanks to the Holy Spirit, a conservative church from Florida and a progressive church from Northampton still managed to communicate love and respect to one another right here in this sanctuary.

One might even call it a miracle. A minor one, to be sure. But a miracle all the same. May the Holy Spirit take us all back to that state of loving communion that God desires for all people. Amen.

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