Sermon preached by Michael Cheuk, for Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014. Taken from Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.
For those of us who are parents, we remember the birth of our children. On the morning of the day that Thea was born, Beth and I went to visit a church friend at Martha Jefferson Hospital because she had just given birth to a son. On the way back home from the visit, Beth’s water broke, and I turned the car around and hurried back to Beth’s obstetrician. Thankfully, his office was right across the street from Martha Jefferson Hospital (the old one on Locust Ave.), and he immediately admitted Beth to a room. The nurses at the birthing wing were surprised to see Beth again, this time sitting in a wheelchair and in full labor! An hour or so after we casually visited our friend’s new baby, we had one of our own!
For me, that experience was chaotic and disorienting, as I felt like a helpless bystander in a whirlwind of activity. I tried to support Beth the best that I could, but there was little that I could do. Beth’s labor came so quickly, she didn’t time for an epidural. So she experienced the full labor and the full pain of childbirth. But when the nurse brought Thea into the room for Beth to hold in her arms for the first time, we saw that living miracle and we knew that our lives would never be the same.
Little did we realize just how much our lives would change! With a baby in our lives, we said good bye to blissful, uninterrupted nights of sleep! We suddenly became fascinated with poop and pee. Spit up became my new cologne for the next couple of years. We could no longer go anywhere at the drop of a hat. We spent money investing in a car seat, a pack and play, a Snuggli, a bouncy seat, and diapers galore, and whenever we traveled, half the car consisted of all things baby. We made mix tapes not of top 40 songs but of children’s music. We recorded one entire tape – I kid you not – with one single song, “Baby Beluga” by Raffi. It was all Baby Beluga, all the time, because it was Thea’s favorite and could get us through any road trip.
As I look around, I see many parents here smiling and nodding your heads, because I suspect you have many similar stories to tell. In any age, in any generation, birth is a perfectly normal and natural part of life, but it also leads to a lot of change, which can be chaotic and disorientating. That was certainly the case at Pentecost, a day theologians describe as the birthday of the church. On that day, as recorded in Acts, Luke describes in vivid and graphic language the Holy Spirit coming like a rushing wind and descending like tongues of fire upon the disciples. I don’t know exactly what happened that day, but at the very least, the language Luke used suggests it was a chaotic and confusing time. It may also have been a scary time. The disciples were pushed out of the womb-like safety of a house so that they could engage with God-fearing Jews from all over the world who had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. No longer huddled together as one group, the disciples were scattered amongst the crowd, and they discovered that they were able to speak in different languages to share the good news of the risen Christ. Instead of joyfully receiving the good news, some in the bewildered crowds mocked the disciples by accusing them of being drunk with wine. Peter courageously spoke to the crowd about the death and resurrection of Jesus, explaining that all this was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. Upon hearing this, over three thousand accepted Peter’s message and were baptized. Through this miraculous event, the church was born.
The church of Jesus is a spiritual entity, but it is also made up of human beings. Because of this human element, the church, both in its universal form and its local expression, must periodically give birth to a new generation if it is to survive and thrive. Most established churches instinctively know this, especially when they say they need more youth, young adults and families with children in the congregation.
During UBC’s transition period after Tom Leland’s retirement, the church went through a time of discernment through workshops and surveys. In November 2011, UBC members and regular attendees considered the question “Where is God Leading UBC in the Future?” More than 150 people offered 600 responses that addressed areas like core identity, outreach, in-reach and worship. According to the responses, we want to continue as a moderate church, maintaining theological openness with integrity to a Baptist identity. We want to expand our outreach to the University community. About three-fourths of the responses in the area of demographic focus suggested strengthening programs for college students, young families, and youth. Others called for strengthening programs for senior adults and children. In the area of local mission efforts, the church also affirmed the importance of continued focus on the University community. In the area of worship, a majority of respondents supported maintaining the current worship style, though nearly as many urged that we be open to the idea of change. A significant number suggested that an alternative, contemporary second service be considered.
After I was called to be your senior minister, I studied these responses and began to pray that God would give me the eyes to see when and how we can begin to address these responses. In the past year, I have seen the birth of a small, but vibrant group of young adults, young couples and young families. In the past couple of months, I have had conversations with several young adults who are sensing a desire to reach out to UVA’s new children’s hospital across the street and to start an alternative worship service for the purpose of sharing the love of Christ to a younger generation, especially in our university community.
Now before I go on, I want to be clear about what I mean when I say “alternative worship service.” First of all, it will not replace our traditional Sunday morning worship. It will be held at a different time and perhaps even a different day. Furthermore, an alternative worship service is not the same as a contemporary worship service. In many churches, the difference between a traditional service and a contemporary service mostly has to do with musical style — the former is orderly and reverent, using organs and classical music to sing hymns, while the latter is sometimes less structured and more exuberant, using drums and electrical guitars to sing pop songs. That may be true, but I want to suggest that apart from musical styles, there is actually a deeper similarity between “traditional” and “contemporary” worship. Both styles of worship are usually heavily dependent on a small group of “trained” or “professional” worship leaders who do most of the speaking and singing, while the rest of the congregation is mostly passive – mostly sitting silently as they observe, listen, and pray.
The alternative worship I have in mind has less to do with differences in musical style (although there are differences). The difference is more about the engagement and participation of the congregation during worship. Instead of having a small group who does most of the speaking, singing, and leading, this alternative worship would seek to engage the different gifts of the members of the congregation in every service. Worshippers would be encouraged to be active participants, using not just their minds, but also their hands and feet. Instead of just hearing from one speaker, an alternative service provides a space and a time for worshippers to share with others what God is doing in their lives. In my mind, that may be a present-day picture of what the prophet Joel pronounced eons ago, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” In worship, all are empowered to participate in the work of the Spirit regardless of gender: your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; regardless of age: your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; regardless of who has power: even on my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, and God’s Spirit will empower all so that different gifts might be used for the common good.
One way of thinking about the new service might be to consider different ways of receiving information. For many of us, we receive our news from the newspaper or a trusted broadcast. This was epitomized by the late Walter Cronkite, an iconic anchorman who for nineteen years signed off each television news broadcast with these words: “And that’s the way it is.” Now, many of us still get our news from media such as the news, radio, or paper. But for many of us in this sanctuary, we’re just as likely to learn breaking news via Facebook or Twitter. Having seen a tweet, we’ll often confirm the rumor by checking with an authoritative source, but then we join the conversation – we return to a social media site and then we “like,” we “link”, we repost the news, and we comment. An increasing number of people are speaking a new “language” of participation. They want to participate in the conversation – just as they do on social media sites. They don’t want to just sit back and observe, they want to participate, they want to be heard, they want to generate content. And that attitude informs their understanding of worship, and in order to reach them, we need a worship gathering that speaks that language.
By starting a second service, we will targeting an increasing number of people who desire to worship God in a more participatory way, and to use their different gifts to pursue the common good of being faithful to God’s calling to University Baptist Church. Let us remember Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 12: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
On this Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, I believe that God’s Spirit is working within this congregation possibly to conceive and give birth to an alternative worship service that taps into the different kinds of gifts, different kinds of service and different kinds of working at UBC to worship the same Spirit, the same God and the same Lord. Another way to put it is this. Several months ago, I preached about the church as a bus, a vehicle moving in the direction that God is calling us. During the period of pastoral transition, this church affirmed that we are a bus that is still committed to reaching out to the university community, especially to our youth and young adults. The birth of a second worship service can be seen as the launch of an additional vehicle to go into the university community and pick up an emerging generation of young adults who would not ride the existing bus. While the vehicle is different, the destination is the same. In order for this birth to take place, we need folks currently in the bus to support this birth, to drive this vehicle, ride in this vehicle to welcome new travelers, invest in this new vehicle with their different gifts of time, talent, money, and prayers. A birth is an exciting time, but it can also be disorienting, and we may feel the birth pangs. But if we are true to who we say we are as a church, this is an opportunity that we can’t pass up.
While I’ve had conversations with church leaders about this new venture, while I’m beginning to recruit the pioneers to lead us in this new venture, none of this is a done deal. I welcome your input and thoughts. In the coming weeks, as we explore this vision, I hope we can affirm the different gifts of the various groups and members of this congregation. By the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, I pray that we will give birth to a significant new ministry that will expand God’s Kingdom and promote the common good. Amen.