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Dear Theophilus

Dear Theophilus

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I think most of you know that the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke, were written by the same author.  What you might not remember is that they are both addressed to the same person. Anyone remember who? There is a super big hint in your program. Yeah. Some guy named, Theophilus! That’s right.

Luke wrote to tell Theophilus all about the life and ministry of Jesus in his first letter which became the 3rd gospel, and all about the acts of the apostles and the growth of the early church in his second letter, which became the book of Acts.

Now, Theophilus may have been a real person. There are lots of fun theories about that. But because the name literally means “friend of God, or “one dear to God,” we can also assume that the letters are addressed to any one of us who love God enough to care about the story Luke has to tell.

Well, in today’s reading from his second letter, we heard all about the sudden and explosive growth of the church on the heels of Pentecost. The church went from roughly 120 disciples to 3000 members in one day. Luke tells us that as those folks devoted themselves to learning more about Jesus from the apostles, breaking bread, fellowshipping with one another, and sharing all they had in common and with anyone who had need, that the Lord added to their number daily.

Well something interesting happened as I was meditating on this passage. I got inspired to write my own letter to Theophilus about how things are going here, and I’d like to share it with you this morning. But first, let’s pray together. Holy One, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, you who are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.


Dear Theophilus,

It’s been a minute. How are you, old friend? We’re hanging in, “we” meaning the church. You wouldn’t believe how the faith has spread and grown and changed over the last two thousand years. You cannot begin to imagine the harm we have done in the name of Jesus or the tremendous amount of good, the nefarious ways we have warped his teachings and the beautiful ways we have come to embody them.  I can’t go into all the history now, but I can tell you how my little ecclesia is doing.

I’m the pastor of a progressive church in the middle of a small city in a part of the world you never even knew existed. We worship in a great big beautiful old temple. Just sitting in the quiet of the sanctuary with its soaring rafters and gorgeous stained glass can make you feel closer to God, especially when the sun breaks through the clouds and illumines the space in a warm rosy glow. We know full well that the church is more than a building, but Theophilus, trust me when I say that there is something both heavenly and holy about this place.

We are blessed with some beautiful old instruments and many talented musicians who lead us in worship. I have been brought to tears more than once by the harmony of our choir, transported by the purity of a single voice, and filled with joy by the raw power of our sanctuary full of people singing their alleluias.

I can remember one advent a number of years ago when it felt like all hope had been lost. People in positions of real power were working overtime to oppress the poor and the marginalized in our midst and our acts of resistance had cost us. We were all so exhausted that it hurt.

But at the end of my sermon I started to sing this tiny little song and the congregation joined in. Then members of the choir began to harmonize and together with nothing but our voices, I stood there in awe as we sang the hope we needed into being. Worshiping with these folks isn’t just beautiful or dutiful. Theophilus, there are times when it is the thing I know for sure is saving my soul.

Because here is the truth about my church: as spectacular as our building might be, it is nothing compared to the beauty of the people. I am blessed beyond measure to serve this congregation. You remember how in those early days the first converts devoted themselves to coming together to learn more and more about Jesus in spite of the cost; in spite of the disapproval of their families and their neighbors? Well, weirdly, we live in a time when the name of Jesus has been so used and abused that we are finding ourselves in a similar place.

Good people think there’s something odd about us for wanting to be part of the church at all because they associate our faith with bigotry and nationalism, exclusion and hate. Christianity isn’t popular in our neck of the woods, and for good reason. Many of our churches are dying as a result. And yet, for all the ways Christians have failed on a grand scale, more and more people are showing up on our doorstep because by some miracle of the Sprit they have not given up on Jesus.

And so we read about him most every week in church, in Bible study, and in small groups where people are deepening their faith. I spend a lot of time thinking about what to say and how best to apply his teachings to our time, and Theophilus, here’s the most beautiful thing: my people listen. Their hearts are open. The more they learn about what Jesus actually said and we work together to discern what he really meant, the hungrier we are for more.

His teachings are as wonderful and confounding as ever.  You’d think we’d have him all figured out by now, but we find that God is still speaking to us, challenging us, always calling us to expand our hearts and our understanding to be even more loving, more forgiving, more just and generous and inclusive.

We find that Jesus is so radical, he’s still ahead of his time. And so we strive to welcome people the way Jesus welcomed people, love people the way Jesus loved people, serve and feed and protect those on the margins the way he did. Which means that we welcome everyone into joyful Christian community just as they are, and we show up for people in the community when they need us.

Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith: be you a friend, a member, a believer, a seeker, a saint or a sinner, a citizen or a stranger, we will pray for you and sing with you, we will rally and advocate for you, we will find ways to feed and shelter you, bless and keep you, break bread and share Christ’s cup with you. Jesus didn’t turn people away, Theophilus, and neither do we.

I’m sad to say that this is not the case with all or even most churches. Even in our denominations - the U.C.C and the A.B.C. - only 35% of our congregations are officially open and affirming of all God’s children and even the most progressive among us have more work to do around racial justice, equity, and inclusion.

We’ve learned a lot, but we haven’t learned enough. We support and help provide shelter for those experiencing homelessness and yet we still have people sleeping on our doorsteps. The work is never-ending and we can always do better. But this is who Christ has called us to be in the world and thanks be to God, we are striving to be faithful to that calling.

Ah, but where was I. Oh yes, I was telling you how blessed I am to serve this congregation, in large part because, my friend, this is a congregation full of people who know what a blessing it is to serve. And their service comes in so many different shapes and forms. I’ll get to all the ways we serve people in and around our community in just a moment, but first I have to say a word about the people who keep our church running so we can serve at all.

It takes a great deal of effort to keep an organization in operation so it can serve its mission, and those behind the scenes jobs can feel thankless and boring at times. Or -even worse - they can leave you feeling like “no good deed goes unpunished” after you’ve given of your very best.

Revising by-laws, balancing budgets, creating policies, being the point person on a plumbing project that is going to cost twice as much as we anticipated or having to explain that we simply don’t have the resources to do something we all want to do: it’s not fun. But it is is necessary.

And our community is blessed to have a number of people who have stepped into those roles with love, integrity, expertise, good humor and a tireless devotion.  It is because of their willingness to serve the church, that we have a church at all, and because we have this church, we are able to serve our neighbors in countless ways.

We all look back on those early days that Luke was telling you about with awe and wonder. The fact that those first Christians shared everything - not just food, fellowship, and prayer - but held all of their resources in common so no one was rich but no one was in need… I have to tell you Theophilus, we struggle to understand how this is possible.

And yet I see how my people push themselves to be as generous as they can be with what they have. They don’t just give in a big way to support our ministry, they give to people in need here and all over the world.

One of our biggest fundraisers every year provides scholarships for children in Haiti so that the kids there can not only go to school, but have the food and clothing and the supplies they need to survive. We raised enough to provide for 46 kids this year!

We are helping two refugee families start a new life here amongst us, which takes countless hours. But I see my people show up for their families with patience, thoughtfulness, and a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to welcome the stranger the way God would want us to.

We bring food to the cot shelter and the survival center and this fall we will be packing up food to send home with kids whose families need a little bit more to get through the weekend.  And that’s to say nothing of the food we make for one another when illness or grief or the demands of life become overwhelming.

In fact, the lovely woman who coordinates the meals for the cot shelter recently told us that one of her volunteers not only made quiche for the guests, but made an extra quiche and bread for the coordinator’s family so that her family would have a meal at home while she was out serving at the shelter.

That right there, Theophilus, that is my church in a nutshell. I will enclose her letter, which went out to our church folks this past Friday, because it is full of signs and wonders … the countless ways God multiplied the loaves and fishes they had on hand to feed all of the hungry people before them.

Theophilus, what can I say? These folks give so much and they share with such ease. You may have heard that we’ve recently suffered through a plague, and during that time we all had to stay home.

This plague made it impossible for the cot shelter I just mentioned to operate in its tiny space, so we turned a huge part of our building over to the city to provide shelter for those in need. The state provided funding to cover the rental cost for using our building, which was a huge blessing for us even as we were seeking to be a blessing.

But when all was said and done and the costs were calculated and the bills paid, the congregation voted to give half the money we cleared to the “Friends of the Homeless” to support their on-going work.

It was a hefty sum and we could easily have used all of that money to care for our own building, but as we gathered to talk about it, I tell you Theophilus, the Spirit moved amongst us in a powerful way. By the end of our meeting, the prevailing sense was that we needed to keep the generosity flowing. We gave in the same way we had been given, and we haven’t looked back.

In spite of all the challenges we have faced, we just keep moving forward, and as you move through the hallways, poke your head into classrooms, and rummage about in the cupboards and closets, you can see the evidence of that all around you.

We have a dedicated team and countless volunteers working on this venerable old building all the time, which is good because we are not the only ones who use it. This is the last thing I will tell you about because I know our time is running short, but even though this building is ours, we like to think of it more as a gift we hold in trust on behalf of the whole community.

We think of ourselves not as the owners of this place, but as its stewards. Our church is a gift that has been handed down to us and that we hope to hand down to the next generation so we can keep the doors open not just for worship, but for the good of our whole city.

To that end we share the building with 80 acres - a school for black and brown children, with people in recovery, and school groups who need a place for concerts or to sleep over when visiting Northampton. We have a sister ministry called “Cathedral in the Night” that provides a hot meal, worship, and support every Sunday night on our front steps.

We open our doors to pilgrims and local leaders, brilliant speakers and talented musicians; really any group that wants to gather and inspire people to create opportunities for beauty, love, and justice to flourish.

Luke mentioned that those first Christians enjoyed “the goodwill of all the people.” I think we are held in the same way by the people of our city because they know we are not just here amongst them but that First Churches is here for them.

O Theophilus, there is so much more I could tell you. I haven’t even had a chance to mention the dinner church we are reviving or the many ways we practice prayer or gather for fellowship like Dorcas and the new men’s group, Taize with the church up the hill, or the faithful who sit every Friday for centering prayer.

But it’s late and we are running out of time. So let me just say this. The Holy Spirit that Luke wrote to you about… my friend, hear me when I say that this same Spirit is still alive and well and on the move. I see her at work in everything we do. Christ has not returned, nor has he appeared to us.

But I think I can say with confidence that by the power of that Spirit he continues to appear through us, among us, and within us as we work side by side to make God’s love and justice real. God began a good work amongst you 2000 years ago and that work continues to this day in churches like this one thanks to the generosity and faith of the people I am so very blessed to serve.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you, dear friend of God. Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Sarah Buteux

First Churches, Northampton, 2023

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