Losing My Church – A sermon for Manchaca on May 24, 2020

Here’s the story of Acts 14:1-7 – in my own words: The missionaries Paul and Barnabas go to a new city – Iconium, into the synagogue, and begin proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. The established religion there does not like these new ideas – they don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah – and they especially don’t like it that there are people from amongst them that do believe. The missionaries stay and preach and perform miracles. Some people in Iconium believe the gospel the missionaries proclaimed, but some sided with the religious establishment. The religious establishment became so mad at the missionaries – and felt so threatened by them – that they planned on using mob force and stoning the men. So Paul and Barnabas ran to the next city to preach there instead. 

In this final Sunday of talking about the topic of loss and grief, we are focusing on the loss of … comfortability. Some may call it the status quo. The status quo – or existing state of affairs – is often used in conversation in a negative light. But most of us really like the status quo. Most people like the way of life that we have known. That’s why we keep doing life the way we’ve been doing it. We’re comfortable. And when that status quo lost – there can be grief! 

Probably everyone in this city has experienced grieving the loss of status quo firsthand starting in March this year with the stay-at-home orders. Our status quo was turned on its head. And we all have and are feeling the pain of it. But that change was thrust upon us, and there was no getting around it. We had no choice, and the change is due to tragic circumstances in our world – communicable disease. Today I want to focus more on disruptions to the status quo that we do have some choice over – or that affect people to varying degrees based on how they react. Ones that you can opt into or opt out of, but either way – we are all affected.

Let me share a personal example. It revolves around social media. Back in seminary, my best friend introduced me to a smartphone app called “Path”. It was a social media platform. She said she was using it to share pictures and updates on her life with a more intimate group of friends. We both had Facebook – but we also both had over 1,000 facebook friends – nearly all with whom we did not want to share the details of our every day lives. Not that it’s wrong to share (if you’re a share-er)! We just were more private about things. My friend had a very small list of friends on her Path app. And I liked that idea. I had to convince my family to add another app to their phone so that we could use it together, but they did – and soon enough I was in better touch with my family – and with my best friend (because she was on my short list, too) – by making daily posts on Path about what Jason and I were up to. We really liked it. After a while of doing this – I don’t know if it was a year or so later – but my friend one day told me she wasn’t doing Path anymore. She’d found a new social media platform. What?!?! No!! Don’t leave Path! I told her. She told me I should come to the new platform, too. She said it was better. But I was like – no! My family is on Path. I can’t move us all over! And Path works just fine! Leave well enough alone. And I don’t want to lose the continuity of all the posts I’ve made before on Path. So she moved over to … Instagram …(you’re probably more familiar with that than path) … and I stayed on Path with my family. And I felt loss. With that friend, at least. No longer would I see her posts about what was going on in her life, and she didn’t keep as good of tabs on me, either. My family still used it and we benefited from that app … until the day that Path shut down. Instagram beat it out and Path’s developers decided to call it quits. So, in the end, I did have to leave Path. (Why don’t you leave a comment in the comment box and tell us – What technology have you been slow to adapt?)

There’s a theory – developed in the 1960s by a professor named Everett Rogers – about people who embrace change and innovation, and people who don’t. This theory puts forth a bell curve about the adoption lifecycle of technology. He studied farmers but it has since been applied widely to other fields to help us understand how adoption of innovation occurs. Rogers found that individuals within any society fell into one of five adopter groups based on how quickly they adopted innovation. The first 2.5 percent are the innovators. They are always the first to learn about and adopt an innovation. Being adventurous, they love being on the cutting edge. The next 12.5 percent are early adopters. This small, forward-thinking group are respected as opinion leaders. Then we “cross the chasm” between trend setters and the majority. We’ve got 34 percent in the early majority – people who take time and want to observe others’ experiences and adopt when it’s the new status quo. The 34 percent who are late majority are resistant to change and want theories to be widely tested and used before they use it. The final group is the laggards – that’s the 16 percent who are highly resistant to change, wait until something is completely mainstream before adoption … and still may not do it. Some say you know a thing is in decline when these people finally get on board. 

My friend from seminary – an early adopter of technology on all accounts – did not feel pain or loss when she moved from Path to Instagram. It was her choice! She thought, this is exciting! This is new and better! It’s shiny and I like it! Moving on from what she had before didn’t feel like loss because this new thing was so much better in her eyes. But me? I wasn’t convinced. I was in one of these later categories, at least in this instance. And I felt pain. 

Do you know who else wasn’t convinced about the new thing and felt pain when things started to change around them? The religious establishment in Iconium. The people in that synagogue had an established way of doing religion. They liked it. They were comfortable. But then Paul and Barnabas came – those troublemakers!, and the people heard the news about Jesus. This was the first time they’d ever heard about Jesus being the Messiah and God’s plan of redeeming the world through Him – and some people were early adopters. Some were early majority. They didn’t feel the pain of loss from these changes because they believed what they were accepting was so much better than what they previously had. Other people, though … didn’t become late majority or even laggards. They flat out refused to accept the new way of doing religion. They said no. The establishment was threatened by new ways. They didn’t want to lose their old ways of doing things – even when the missionaries’ news was so good and life-giving, so liberating and full of love. And so full of proof. Paul and Barnabas did signs and wonders! The Jewish stalwarts’ time-honored and established ways of doing religion were threatened. So they chased Paul and Barnabas out of town, under threat of violence. 

Who would you want to follow – the angry guys with stones or the guys who performed miracles and spoke of a loving God?

Synagogues existed to help the community hold on to their hope of a coming Messiah. Paul and Barnabas brought news of that coming Messiah – he had come! – but Jesus didn’t look the way some of them wanted the Messiah to look. He didn’t go about their salvation the “right” way. And when some people from their community started accepting the news about Jesus, it began affecting the rest of the community, changing their status quo. When vested interest is challenged, we can expect that they will probably bite back. ((If you’ve ever tried to introduce a new idea but you got negative reactions from it, leave us a comment and say “amen” in the comment box so we can sympathize with each other.))

All of this talk about the status quo makes me think of a song from High School Musical. Forgive me if referencing that movie dates me … I was in college when it came out! (Some of you may be more familiar with the British band from the 60s called Status Quo.) Well, in this Disney movie musical Troy – the star basketball player – does the unexpected. He auditions for the high school musical, something jocks did not do. And it set off a chain reaction of kids in their cliques confessing that they, too, liked to do things that people wouldn’t expect. And then you’ve got all these teenagers dancing around the cafeteria singing, “No, no, no! Stick to the stuff you know. It is better by far – To keep things as they are. Don’t mess with the flow, no no. Stick to the status quo.” Troy’s teammates as well as Sharpay, the school diva who is not happy about her precious musical being taken over by outsiders, bite back – causing Troy and Gabriella distress and conflict and … all the angsty stuff we love about teen movies. 

Hmmm… Worry about being taken over by outsiders … distress and conflict … those words all too often describe churches, too. There is plenty of resistance to innovation – resistance to changing the status quo – within congregations. People are afraid of losing their church.

And here’s where scripture provokes us in the church to examine ourselves. Are we as a church ready to embrace the new thing that God is doing and will do in our community, or will we chase the gospel out of town? Will we be a church of innovators, early adopters, and early majority? Or will we drag our feet, argue about things, be divided, and say no?

Here’s the caveat: Some things need to be rejected outright. If someone comes to us and says there is a new Scripture, in addition to our Bible, that we must follow – we will say no. If someone speaks a prophecy and the message runs against the loving and powerful character of God, then we will be able to discern it is false. Discernment still plays a role. 

The problem is not in rejecting what is certainly wrong. Rather the problem arises any time I value what I’m doing more than what’s effective for the gospel. As nice of a person as I am, I am still following in the footsteps of the religious establishment of Iconium when I hesitate to embrace the Holy Spirit’s new work – and reject … new forms of worship or a new ministry we are to begin or new kinds of people coming into my church.

My church. My. Church. There’s a problem with that phrase. Sometimes we start to think of the church as ours – something that we own – … rather than God’s. When it’s my church, I get to be in charge of what’s allowed in and the way we’re going to do things. When it’s God’s church, God can innovate and bring unexpected surprises. We are faithful disciples when we get on board and rejoice over it. 

Here’s a confession: I am a part of a religious establishment. I grew up in church, and now I get paid by a church to do my job, and I like things pretty well the way they have been. But I get on my knees and I have to ask God to help me not be resistant to the gospel moving in new ways. 

We can either be like my friend from seminary, who was ready to embrace what was in front of her – or we can be like I was in my social media platform choices, digging in harder and grieving over change happening around me and then ultimately watching what I was holding on to … die. God’s Church will never die. But mine might.

We at Manchaca have been doing church in new ways recently … and it’s tempting to think, “Hey! We’re forward-moving – because we’re doing online church!” Well, we actually didn’t have a choice about that. If we didn’t jump on board that moving train, then we currently wouldn’t have community or communal worship. So – just because we’ve done a few things differently in the last months, it doesn’t mean we have “arrived”. 

Another thing I’ve thought about as I considered the bell curve and theory of early adopters – combined with discussions that church leadership is having about when we believe it is wise and prudent to resume in-person worship services … my mind jumped to wondering if those churches that are starting back already with people in their buildings now are the early adopters and we are lagging behind. But then God stopped that train of thought because this is an entirely different thing. When we lag behind others in opening our building, it’s about safety, not innovation. This is about showing love through caring for the vulnerable – the very people Jesus said we should show preference for. I don’t condemn the churches who have made the tough decision to step into that risk, but I also don’t see us as laggards for giving it a little more time. We thank you for your patience and understanding. We have not felt pressure from you to move faster than we think we should. We will keep you informed.

But now back to Scripture. The missionaries Paul and Barnabas brought many people in Iconium to faith in Christ. But when the religious establishment got so fed up with the changes to the point of intending violence against them, they fled. Sometimes responsibility calls us – the innovators, the ones bringing God’s new thing – to resist and hold fast, even if it means it will kill us. Other times, it’s more wise to flee to continue our work. For Paul and Barnabas, moving down the road was the better course of action. Thrown out of one place, they just go to another – and the spirit of God goes with them. It may have hurt that they could not continue to evangelize and disciple the new Christians in Iconium. But new beginnings came out of it as they preached to more people in the next towns. 

And that was great for them! And for those next people who received the gospel! But what about the religious establishment back in Iconium? The Holy Spirit through the work of Paul and Barnabas – had passed them by. No – had been kicked out. Those men and women who turned away this innovation of God’s Spirit in their midst would now go about their lives without it. They probably were happy that the intruders with their intrusive ideas were gone, but think about the abundant life they never got to partake of. They didn’t know what they didn’t know – because they hadn’t given themselves the chance to experience it. 

My prayer is that we as a church do not follow in Iconium’s footsteps. Please Holy Spirit, do not pass us by. May we never kick out the new thing You want to do among us. I pray that we can be a place of innovation. I pray that YOU feel the freedom to share ideas … ideas for how to reach new people with the gospel, ideas for how to serve those who have need, ideas for how to help each other feel the bonds of friendship, and ideas for ways we can help nurture each other’s faith. Manchaca United Methodist Church is a place open to innovation. We are open to whatever God is doing in this new day. And we are living in a new kind of day. Spirit of God, breathe on us. 

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