Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, May 11, 2014
A Spirit-Fed and Spirit-Led Community
[Acts 2:42-47; John 10:1-10]
Today is a joyous one in the life of our congregation! My husband, David, and I had a playful walk down memory lane Wednesday night, invoking the memory and spirit of our former pastors. From the staggering, Rev. Colin Lindsay in the early 1800s who sometimes confused the Holy Spirit with distilled spirits, to Rev. Joseph Evans, the great grandfather of our beloved J. Browne Evans, to the distinguished Dr. Ephraim Murray, who baptized Mary Catherine McCormick Houck and officiated at the marriage of her parents. It was a poignant one-on-one dialogue between baptized child and a long-deceased spiritual guide and shepherd, who would be unspeakably proud of her deep, abiding and knowledgeable faith, as this child of God approaches four score and ten years of faithful Christian service.
Rev. Larry Parker, who preached the first sermon in this beautiful sanctuary in 1969, sent us greetings, along with Dr. Joel Alvis who concisely preserved the first 200 years of our history. Even Rev. Ben Burrows dropped by on his way back to the beach in order to thank St. Pauls PreZ for teaching him how to be a pastor.
It’s impossible to “turn back time” – but Wednesday night, we gave it a shot, enjoyed some laughs, & profound observations about who we are, where we’ve come from, and where God is leading us now. It’s fitting today’s Scriptures give a “snapshot” of the earliest Christian community, where our faith was birthed. Was this New Testament community too good to be true, just an idealized version of church seen through rose-colored glasses? I often tell people I now live in Mayberry, NC, because I treasure the small-town intimacy of my new home, but truth-be-told, St. Pauls is also like the Wild West! There’s crime, unemployment, corruption, violence, poverty, and people not living up to their potential in God’s eyes. That’s always been true, in all places and at all times.
However, the vision we uncover in Acts 2 is what a HEALTHY CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY looks like in practical, down-to-earth, boots-on-the-ground kinds of ways. The Christian Church IS and CAN BE an alternative community built on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, where all people are of equal worth and value.
The world without Christ DOES NOT treat people the same, but ranks and distinguishes between people based on categories: beauty, intelligence, employment, wealth, family of origin, health, education. Human nature is inherently competitive and comparative always ranking people high or low, in or out, good or bad, worthy or unworthy. People compete for the “inner circles,” the “first chair,” “the first pew,” “the first class,” and for “first place.” We want to be “up” not “down.” Then we hear these words:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… They broke bread…and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
There’s a remarkable unity and LACK of competition in that snapshot. A HOLY AWE came upon EVERYONE; ALL who believed were together and had ALL things in common. They sold possessions and goods to provide for the needs of EVERYONE… praising God and giving God the credit for everything. Day-by-day the LORD added to the number who were being saved.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, a new era began. The Spirit was poured out. Jesus told the disciples to expect the Spirit, but they couldn’t even imagine what the Spirit brings us. He said: “It’s to your advantage that I go away, for if I don’t go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) The Spirit leads us into all truth. The Spirit ALWAYS glorifies God and ALWAYS empowers the Christian community to model the values of God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
What boggles my mind about this 175th Consecutive Communion and Homecoming Celebration is the fact that Rev. Hector McNeill began this tradition around 1839-1840, before the Civil War, before Reconstruction, before World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, long before 9/11 and long before we had a national Mother’s day. The 175th Consecutive Communion reminds us that the CORE of our faith is the sacrament of Holy Communion, when we make whatever sacrifices are necessary to be here personally with Christ and with one another, reenacting Jesus’ last supper, and remembering Christ’s life, death and resurrection. THIS IS THE LONGEST AND MOST ENDURING TRADITION OF OUR CONGREGATION. Rev. Hector McNeill was the second installed pastor and would be amazed to know that despite every failing, trespass, sin and omission in 215 years we continue to celebrate the second Sunday communion in May. This is the first congregation I have worshiped in or served that holds the Lord’s Supper this reverently despite so many historical changes. May Jesus Christ be praised!
When I first came to St. Pauls, I have to be honest; I wondered why Homecoming ALWAYS fell on Mother’s Day. What were those ancestors thinking? Mother’s Day is SUPPOSED to be a day of rest and pampering for mothers (at least that’s what American culture tells us) but St. Pauls Presbyterian Church works her women to death on this day!
Indulge me just a minute, as we reflect on today being the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day in the United States, declared by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. The Fayetteville Observer ran an article about Anna Jarvis, who inspired this day, even though she never had children of her own. For Jarvis, Mother’s Day was intended as a day for quiet attentiveness to the best mother in the world: her own! Although she helped create this holiday, its origin goes back to HER mother: Ann Reeves Jarvis in the 1850s. As a woman’s organizer, Mother’s Day work clubs were established to help improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality by fighting disease and eliminating milk contamination. The work groups also tended wounded soldiers from both sides during the Civil War. In the postwar years Jarvis organized Mother's Friendship Day picnics to unite former foes. Julia Ward Howe, for one—best known as the composer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—issued a widely read "Mother's Day Proclamation" in 1870, calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace.
When Jarvis’ mother died in 1905, she advocated for a national Mother’s Day, when each son or daughter could thank their mother, in the singular, not plural form. Anna Jarvis's idea of an intimate Mother's Day quickly became a commercial gold mine centering on the buying and giving of flowers, candies, and greeting cards—a development that deeply disturbed Jarvis. She dedicated herself and her sizable inheritance to returning Mother's Day to its reverent roots, UNSUCCESSFULLY. Jarvis ended up dying penniless in a sanitarium in a state of dementia, as a woman who could have profited from Mother’s Day if she wanted to, but she opposed the commercialization of the day as long as she lived. She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits, and even attacked First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother's Day to raise funds for charities.
I have to admit, I love Mother’s Day, even though both my mother and David’s mother are now with God. I love giving and receiving flowers, cards and gifts. However, I respect Anna Jarvis sense of loss and grief over the fact that we have made it a day for “profit” and “commercialization” rather than simple, devoted attention.
This brings me back to why THIS day is so special in the life of our congregation. Yes, it IS Mother’s Day and we continue to love and honor our mothers; however after immersing myself in the history of this worshiping community, I finally understand how central it is that even our nuclear family celebrations be rooted in the singular event of gathering around the larger table of Jesus Christ! Sharing the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ EVERY SINGLE YEAR together on this special occasion, as FAMILY, gathered from near and far, gives us the Spirit-Food we need to be God’s devoted people.
This Sunday is the closest we come to being that Christian community in Acts 2. We act out what it means to be Christ Caring for People through People. We are each other’s keepers today. We step away from the commercialization of Christian traditions and feast on the SOURCE of love, the SOURCE of unity, the SOURCE of faith.
Jesus calls himself the “Gate for the Sheepfold.” We are God’s sheep who enter the sheepfold through Jesus Christ. As we share in God’s Spirit by singing, praising God, & eating the spiritual food God provides, we are re-membered into the Body of Christ and re-united as Christ’s Living Church.
When we move from the Lord’s Table to the picnic tables, let’s be mindful of those who move slowly, who have served the longest, those with mobility issues, those who tire quickly while standing in line. We invite our elders to the front of the line. Let’s offer to carry their plates. Let the weakest be honored today, rather than the fast or efficient. Let’s be mindful of tired young mothers with babies & toddlers, and of family who do not speak our language! We are grateful beyond words for this extended family, which reaches far beyond the town limits, who are responding to our financial needs by sharing their resources with the Mother Church, as Paul’s churches shared with the Mother Church in Jerusalem.
When we leave this sanctuary, fed by the Spirit, I invite you to be LED by the Spirit in every relationship, decision, habit, and practice of your life. When we truly & practically live as people who are spirit-fed & spirit-led, the Lord adds to our number the ones being saved. Today isn’t about one person’s happiness, but about the well-being of everyone, our entire extended household, God’s whole Christian community. Let’s practice, not just Southern, but SPIRITUAL hospitality on this beautiful day God has made. Let us pray.