Scripture: Acts 2:1-13
Rev. Leanne Walt
Going to church is like choosing to take the subway as opposed to a taxicab. The first time I went to New York City, I got lost on the subway. I had just graduated from college and decided I would assert my independence by taking the infamous Fung Wah bus from Boston to New York, which at the time was charging an astronomically low fee of $10/ticket that caused you to wonder what kind of business they were really running after all. For $10 a ticket I couldn’t complain when I had to join 40 other New York bound hopefuls in chasing down the industrial bus through the streets of Chinatown in the ripe August heat because there is no designated bus stop for the Fung Wah.
Five hours later, I was in Chinatown, New York, deposited onto the street and left to my own devices to find my way to my older brother’s apartment in Midtown, Manhattan. I had too much pride and too little money to hail a cab and give the driver the address of my desired destination. Instead, I would take the subway.
Have you ever seen a New York City subway map? It looks like a can of multicolored worms exploded on a piece of paper.
I spent the majority of that day attempting to find the correct worm-to-worm-to-worm ride that would lead me to my brother among the 8 million people in that city. I rode that subway in faith, relying on the help of strangers to guide my way.
Going to church is like choosing to take the subway as opposed to a taxicab. It’s a bit smelly and crowded, the train buckles and bolts, it’s prone to squeaky breaks and breakdowns. There’s rarely a direct route to your destination. The doors open and all kinds pour in, from all walks of life. In just one New York City subway car, you can find the businessman and the addict, the sick and depraved, the child and the old woman, the artists and the scientist, the blind and the beautiful, the tattooed and the straight-laced side-by-side, on a common journey.
We normally think of Pentecost as the descent of the Spirit for the birth of the church, the coming together of people from all over the ancient world - Parthians, Medes, Libyans, Egyptians – and their powerful discovery of their common bond in Christ. While that’s true, the saga of the Holy Spirit began long before the birth of the church and has roots in God’s earliest act of creation: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Divine breath, Holy Spirit, animates the soul, from Adam to each one of us. We are each a soul - each thief, each leader and each follower, each politician and each hungry belly, each Muslim and Christian, each one riding on the subway, each one sitting in these pews - as the words of the Falmouth poet, Dennis Downey remind,
“And each of us is in our own incarnation a soul inside a body/
for some reason/
a fire/a flame/a soul/
what we desire (that we desire)/
Lighter than flesh/
the soul is the glow of us.”
Prior to Pentecost, the fire, the flame, the Holy Spirit of God burned outside of and external to us - we remember Moses and the burning bush – the mysterious flames that signified the presence of God and also during the Exodus that God went ahead of the Israelites as a pillar of fire in order to light their way. At Pentecost the people were reminded that the Holy fire burns within, from the inside out. Just as the earth is on fire at its core, a ball of iron burning from the inside out, flames of energy and life, so too do we burn at our individual cores with the common Spirit of God.
In fact, our Reformer ancestor, John Calvin, paints the human soul as the very image of God:
“For although God's glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul.”
Pentecost is as much about understanding the common image of God that constitutes the human soul as it is about understanding our common language.
For, when we recognize the common, holy flame that burns from within each one of us, then we can begin to recognize another story of our lives and the history that we hold. The story written by God rather than humanity, the story that binds us together in community – through a common hope, a common love, a common good, a common humanity, a common faith – a story that leads to ultimate understanding.
Consider the history of our churches. Consider the history of this church. There is the history that is written and recorded so neatly and concisely in the books, the names that First Church has held, the ministers who served and the length of their tenure, the gifts that were given and in whose name, the trajectory of its membership and size.
Then, there is the history that has been written on the hearts of the people over the course of time and spanning the generations. This is the deeper, truer story, the story that tells of the life that is truly life (in the words of 1 Timothy). This is the story that has carried us from the first Pentecost up to this very moment in time, the story of the image of Christ burning forth from within the people out into the world.
This lesser known story tells:
- Why all those people joined the church in the first place;
- What they hoped to accomplish together;
- What their collective hopes and fears were;
- When they experienced the presence of God in their lives and what they did in
response to these moments;
- Where they displayed courage in living out the gospel; and
- What new things God did here to rally the people through the tides of change.
Pentecost reminds us that this is the story that Jesus is urging us to tell, a story that digs deeper than our regularly told history; one that reaches beyond the superficial barriers that divide us on the subway and in the church, beyond those visible, external differences that work to overshadow the underlying common hope, common love, common good, common humanity, common faith that bind us all together. A universal tale of redemption that transcends the nations, language, and ethnicity; wealth, culture, and ideology.
At the first Pentecost the organizational structure, the great institution of the church and its complex hierarchy simply wasn’t there. Jesus had left the world, ascended to heaven and that small band of apostolic followers who he left behind wondered if they could carry on his ministry without him. For, there were many prophets in Jesus’ day. Even John the Baptist had a following and the movement survived, as we know from Acts, but probably not for more than a generation.
Yet, by the end of that day when Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, somehow, someway, the early church had grown from one hundred and twenty people to more than three thousand.
Something was different. Something had happened. They saw in one another, and so also in themselves, the glow of Christ. They recognized their own hands as the hands of Jesus, healing the sick and blessing the poor;
they recognized their own eyes as the eyes of Jesus, seeing God’s perfect kingdom instead of a flawed creation;
they recognized their mind as the mind of Jesus, speaking wisdom instead of division, and their feet as those of Jesus, setting out to spread the good news.
They were aglow. They were on fire with the common image of God burning in their souls and they began to write a story of understanding that transcended all linguistic barriers.
It’s the story of the most predominate Christian community in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church, condemning apartheid in 1989.
It’s the story of the Confessing Church in Germany that spoke out against genocide of the Jews.
It’s the story of a group of religious leaders from Quincy founding Protestant Community Services in 1947, now known as Interfaith Social Services, to serve poverty stricken families.
It’s the story of the group of ministers who began meeting with homeless people on the streets of Boston in the mid-nineties to form Ecclesia Ministries and the community of Common Cathedral.
We are called to ride the subway together. To spread the good news out into the world side-by-side with strangers and unlikely cohorts, not always knowing where we are headed, but relying on faith that we will be led to our final destination. We are called to recognize the image of God, the presence of Christ in each person we meet and, in turn within ourselves. We are called to write the good news story in our day and in this place, in all days and in all places.
 “We Never Go Away,” by Dennis Downey, from NPR’s “This I Believe” series, September 18, 2006
 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 188.8.131.52-8
 Inspired by the thoughts of Paul Nixon in Nixon, Paul, Finding Jesus on the Metro and Other Surprises Doing Church in a New Day (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009) 87
Scripture: John 15:9-17
Begotten by Love
Rev. Leanne Walt
According to Greek mythology Cassiopeia, the mythical queen of Ethiopia, angered Poseidon, the sea god, by claiming that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. As punishment, Poseidon placed her high in the sky near the North Pole, upside-down, no less, where the constellation Cassiopeia bears her name.
That the existence of motherly love and pride practically exceeded the history of time itself explains quite a bit about my childhood. My mother always seemed to believe that her children had absolutely no weaknesses or limitations in our abilities whatsoever.
The most shining example of this being that when it came time for me to apply to college, my mother took it upon herself to befriend the administrators who worked in every college admissions office throughout the continental United States so much so that after I had sent my application to Carleton College in Minnesota, one of the most competitive colleges in the country, I received a letter of acknowledgement in return stating (and I quote), “We are pleased to have received your application and understand that your mother highly recommends you for admission to Carleton College.” I saved this letter and needless to say, it has become a long running family joke so much so that when I applied for my very first job out of college at a Boston publishing house, I asked my mother to write me a letter of recommendation because surely a mother’s recommendation trumps all others in the business world.
It’s no surprise that my mother highly recommended me for admission to any college or university in the country. To this day my mother insists that I have a beautiful singing voice. I have explained to her time and time again that not only do I not have a beautiful singing voice, but that I don’t need to have a beautiful singing voice - but no, no, no, she insists that I do. She has yet to understand why I chose ministry over a lucrative recording contract.
Most recently, she reminded my husband Bill of this fact as he lightheartedly commented that it would be a real surprise if our son turned out to be a singer or musician of any kind given the nearly nonexistent musical talents of his parents.
“Bill, Leanne has a beautiful singing voice,” she emphatically reminded him.
Well, with my mother having highly recommended me, I did attend college and while there I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Sri Lanka where I lived at an all girls Christian orphanage called Evelyn Nurseries. Having labored, laughed, learned, and worshipped with the girls and young women there, I came to know the stories that had brought each of them to this place. Addiction, abandonment, and ambiguity marred their respective histories. Daughters of mothers who left them on the doorstep in the dead of the night. Children who had never ventured off the tropical island of their birth and yet had come to know the bitter cold of winter, as the poet remarks:
“My sorrow’s flower was so small a joy
It took a winter seeing to see it as such.”
But joy they saw indeed.
One night, toward the beginning of my stay at the Nurseries, after we had eaten supper, washed the dishes, cleaned the kitchen, swept all of the walkways on the grounds, and had evening worship and prayers, I walked by one of the bedrooms where I saw Shamalie and Anoma, two teenage girls, sitting on one of the beds. A large, open book sat on Anoma’s lap and Shamalie sat across from her. I knocked on the open door, not wanting to startle them, and I walked into the room. They looked up at me.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked them.
“I’m spelling,” Shamalie told me.
“What are you spelling?” I asked her, confused.
“Words from the dictionary. We’re on the Ds,” She explained, gesturing to the large book in Anoma’s lap, which I then noticed was a dictionary. Shamalie had won the spelling bee at her school and next month she was going to be competing in the regional spelling bee held at the University. In preparation, Anoma was going through the entire English dictionary and helping Shamalie learn to spell every single word. Shamalie and Anoma continued with this routine each night. After evening worship and prayers they would retire to their bedroom where they had a date with Webster, reciting letters and meanings.
Aristotle wrote that, “One of the best ways to habituate oneself in a particular virtue is to emulate those who already embody it.” As I witnessed Anoma’s dedication to helping her friend, I wondered where she had learned such virtuous love. I was always taught that the greatest example of Aristotle’s insight resided in the model of family - that parents embody love so that their children might learn to love; they embody trust so that their children might learn to trust, embody patience so that their children might learn patience, and charity so that their children might learn charity.
Yet, during my time at the Nurseries I came to understand that there is a greater, equally embodied love at work among the forsaken and among us all than that of parent to child. Each night at the orphanage, we would close our worship services by singing a familiar hymn:
Jesus loves me this I know/ for the bible tells me so/
little ones to Him belong/they are weak but He is strong
For these girls and young women, their point of reference for love came not by way of a parent’s example, but by way of Jesus. Jesus. Alive. Embodied. At the Nurseries, out of broken and imperfect beginnings came strong and perfect love. A love that had little to do with family of origin, genetics, or namesakes. A love that encouraged and supported, that guided and sustained. A love originating in and freely flowing from God, for Jesus explains: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). Speaking to his disciples here in John, Jesus calls upon them to model their love after his love for them. Yet, here Jesus is also emphasizing the power of God’s love and how it serves not only as the model for but as the motive for Jesus’ love for the disciples and our love for one another. In the words of 1 John, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
For, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son to the world, incarnating his love in the person of Jesus Christ for all eternity. We have been begotten by a love-incarnate that has no beginning or end, created with a love that encompasses all that we are and encourages us in everything that we do. A love that washes out all of our flaws, deficiencies, and inadequacies. A love so powerful and pure that it sustains us, even and especially when we come into this world without a mother who’s wonderfully blind to all of our imperfections. A love that insists we can accomplish more than we ever thought possible, a love that encourages us to persist despite the greatest of challenges.
And if we allow God’s love to truly flourish within us, then we cannot help but to give it away, following Jesus’ commandment, “To love one another as I have loved you.” Christian love begets love begets love begets love.
I remember well that Saturday morning, boarding the overcrowded, smelly bus with Anoma and Shamalie, traveling hours to the University for the regional spelling bee. Anoma sat in the crowd, a mixture of nerves and pride, as her friend spelled her words on stage. Shamalie didn’t leave that day with the title of Paredynia’s Spelling Bee Champion, but she left unconditionally loved and encouraged.
True love moves through us – from mother to child, husband to wife, friend to friend – flowing from one person to another, as it seeks to find its way back to its origin in God.
 “By Love We Are Led to God,” by Christian Wiman in The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2012 (p. 33)
Scripture: John 15:1-8
The Bad and Good News
Rev. Leanne Walt
Sunday mornings were filled with the aroma of Dunkin Donuts coffee and fresh blueberry muffins. Sounds of the NFL pregame show playing on the old rabbit-eared television set permeated from the kitchen into the church’s social hall where the “regulars” dined over an open box of munchkins. On occasional Sundays the “regulars” would venture up the stairs that were in the front of the church building for the worship service. But most Sundays, Mona, Evelyn, Francine, and John, would just sat around this familiar table, woven together by the strands of time, memory, and shared history.
It was the pair of patent leather Mary Jane shoes that Mona remembered most fondly from her childhood days at the church. She remembered the day her mother took her to Ann and Hope to buy this pair of brand new Christmas shoes to give a child in need. “You can pick out any pair you’d like,” her mother told her. And she did. Oh, how she loved those shoes - black with a big red bow - shining as bright and as deep as the night sky. They were fancier than any pair of shoes she had ever owned. With a soft cotton cloth, she shined these shoes every night for a week before she went to bed until she could see the glare of her smile on their surface. But come Sunday she wrapped them in white tissue and set them on the church altar along with the other gifts for those in need.
For John, well, he remembered the basketball games most fondly. Lacing up his Reebok sneakers outside his parent’s apartment and dribbling the ball past the Bunker Hill Monument, down Green Street, and into the church gymnasium every Friday afternoon. There the young men of the church played pick up game after pick up game until the sun set through the tall rafters.
Evelyn, she remembered the bean suppers most fondly. The long tables that lined the church’s social hall with red and white-checkered tablecloths and the distinct smell of hot dogs, baked beans, and homemade brown bread. The hall would be packed so full and the line for food so long that Evelyn would sneak in the back door of the kitchen and beg her father to give her a hot dog behind the serving counter.
Over fifty years had come and gone since Mona shined the patent leather Mary Janes to place on the church altar or Johnny had laced up his Reeboks or since Evelyn’s dad slipped her a secret hot dog in the kitchen, but they continued to tell these stories. Time and time again they told me these beloved old stories about their beloved old church. Time and time again until all that was left of their beloved old church were beloved old stories.
* * * *
Each night now, I rock my child to sleep, the lights turned down low, the noise of the day having passed and giving way to the quiet of the night. I look at his gentle face, his restful eyes, tiny hands and feet – so strong, healthy, and vibrant he is - and I say to him, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
From that vantage point, in the back bedroom of the parsonage where we live I can see over the rooftops of the homes throughout the neighborhood and I know in those moments that I join every mother and father housed under those roofs along with every parent throughout the history of time in softly rocking our children to sleep whispering the words, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
I wonder if time and time again God hasn’t spoken these very words to His churches.
The heart of God must have been swelling with sweet expectation as He looked upon the founding of Second Parish Church of Braintree on September 10, 1707 and decreed, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”
* * * *
This past Friday, early in the morning, I was at the Weymouth Club. I was on one of the cross trainer machines and there were three people using the machines directly to my right. There were two women, probably in their 40s and then a man to their right who was maybe 50 or so. I was on this machine and these three people on the other machines knew each other and were talking. AND, they were talking about church, of all things! As you can imagine, my ears perked up.
Now, they didn’t know that I was a minister, as I don’t typically wear my robe to the gym but the woman to my immediate right said she stopped going to church because it made her feel guilty.
The woman in the middle said she didn’t go much anymore at all but that they still call to ask her for money, most recently for money to restore the organ.
The man said that he stopped going to church because the members were fighting with one another and there was a group there who didn’t like the minister and that caused tension.
This is what so many churches have become: community centers of politics and business, finance management and administration, hubs of power plays and conflict. This is what so many churches have become and this is why so many of our friends and neighbors make a conscious decision to opt out of this way of being and doing church.
And because of this reality there are many church leadership theories today, especially those focused on vitality, revitalization, and turnaround. Books, articles, dissertations and theses are published every day on the topic of church revitalization.
But the greatest lesson in church life and leadership that ought to be at the heart of any approach to vitality and revitalization is the one that Jesus teaches in the 15th chapter of John’s gospel where he tells us: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus here is speaking to his disciples; he is preparing them for his death, as he knows the resistance and trials that this community of his early followers will face once he has left this world.
As the sun was rising this morning, I looked out our kitchen window through the misty air at the beautiful cherry blossom tree in our back yard. Its thick trunk firmly rooted in the ground, so vibrant and life giving that I can’t even count count nor distinguish the flowering branches from one another. And each branch is unique, lined with gorgeous white blossoms. Of all objects in nature about which Jesus could have chosen to make simile, metaphor, or parable of Christian community, he chose this - painting a picture of a living, growing community of faith, a beautiful organism of productivity and increase.
And there is both bad and good news imparted through this image that Jesus offers and that is that each branch has a part in the whole and is able to bear fruit only in so much as it is connected to the vine, its life-giving source. It imparts our utter dependence on God, the vinegrower, and Jesus, the vine.
In fact, St. Augustine’s entire theology rested on the theological premise that Jesus conveys in John 15: that apart from God, no good can come – no blossoms or fruit will be.
This is bad news for churches who remain apart from God; for those communities that hold onto their church like some private possession, those who are held hostage by money and fear, history and memory, or those that run as a business and not as disciple-forming, life-giving organisms.
This is good news for churches that are connected to the true vine, those that seek to be a branch of God, an extension of Christ - practicing compassion and not doctrine, seeking justice and not power. So I ask you, is this bad or good news for this church?
For if we balance our budget but do not use our resources to feed the sick and clothe the poor, then we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
If we hold meetings but do not work to the make the presence of Christ manifest in the greater community, then we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
If we love one another, but do not invite the stranger in, we are not being church because we are not abiding in Christ.
In the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (127:1).
On Sunday mornings, I often think of Mona, John, and Evelyn sitting around their table sharing coffee, munchkins, and memories and time and time again I pray that God might find new ways to work through them and their beloved old church.
And on Sunday mornings I hear the voice of God right in this very sanctuary whispering over the beloved old rafters, “I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”