Scripture for the day was Acts
6: 1 - 7
it takes is a small group of thoughtful, committed people.Of course, change is never easy and the illusion of ongoing stability is so enticing and seductive that it usually wins the day when the possibility of change is in the air.
Yet, in the very earliest days of Christianity
we find examples of people willing to embrace radical change in the life of the church in order to maintain their focus on changing the world.
Well, because so many people came to settle in Jerusalem in their later years, there was a large number of widows there, some Aramaic speaking ("Hebrews
") and some Greek speaking ("Hellenists").
The church leadership - the disciples - were all Aramaic speakers ("Hebrews
") and whether through oversight, because of the sudden growth in the size of the church, or because of some underlying discrimination because of ethnicity, these Hebrew leaders were not getting the food evenly distributed to all those in need - the Greek-speaking widows (the Hellenists), in particular, seemed to be getting the short end of the stick and they were not happy about it.They spoke up and complained and it quickly became apparent that there was a need for action.
The disciples saw that there was a tension in their organizational structure.Everyone knew that they were "in charge" and so it was expected that they would oversee the important business of caring for the widows through the distribution of food.Yet, the disciples were called for another purpose."It is not right that we should neglect the word of God
in order to wait on tables," they said.This might sound a little condescending to us these days, but actually the expression "wait on tables" isn't supposed to conjure up images of waiters and waitresses in restaurants.The "tables" in question are more like the counters or desks that you might find in a bank or in a business office.The idea behind the comment is simply this: even a task as important as managing and overseeing the distribution of funds and goods must never interfere with the disciples' primary task - carrying the word of God
into the world.And make no mistake, the distribution of food was regarded as a very important task - in fact, far from being menial, it was the job of the head of the household in a Jewish family.Recall
that it was Jesus who distributed the bread and the wine to his followers at the Last Supper.
They could have backed off from their commitment to the word of God
.But they were thoughtful, committed people and so they did what thoughtful, committed people do: they changed the church such that both critical ministries could proceed, full steam ahead.Here's
what they did: they empowered the congregation to pick seven individuals - likely seven because of the tradition in Jewish communities of having seven men managing the public business of the community in an official council - and they endorsed and empowered these seven individuals to manage the ministry to the widows.And, in a masterful move, the new group of leaders - those now in complete control of the distribution system - were chosen - every last one of them - from among the Hellenist community - the Greek-speaking community who had felt left out and marginalized.They were put in charge.Seven men with Greek names, not a "Hebrew" among them!One
of them was even a proselyte - in other words, a Gentile convert to Judaism
They were now able to recommit themselves to prayer and to the word of God
, which was, after all, the central purpose of their call.And we read, "The word of God
continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem , and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith."
While we have no numbers to look at, we might get an idea of how effectively this structural reorganization allowed for the disciples to get about the business of spreading the word of God
from the last few words of the verse we just heard - "a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith".Now, in Jerusalem in the first century it is estimated there were around 8,000 priests (not counting the 10,000 Levites) associated one way or another with the Temple . So I
wonder what "a great many of the priests" might mean?
His impassioned speech before the council is a wonderful retelling of the history of the people of Israel , culminating in the good news of Jesus Christ
It was a speech that led to Stephen being stoned to death - making him the first martyr of Christendom
Well, Philip went on to preach in Samaria, fulfilling the command of Jesus to carry the good news to that place, and it was Philip who converted and baptized a court official from Ethiopia
- perhaps the first black Christian ever.
may not be easy, but it is surely inevitable.The last words of a dying church are, "We've always done it that way."And now change, here at Epworth
, is accelerating towards us.Bob Ball retired in February
, this is my last Sunday to be speaking to you from this pulpit, Bob Thomas will be here in a few short weeks to begin his appointment as senior pastor, and Andy Wagner will arrive to lead our youth ministry.
And, as I see it, the way the folks described in the Book of Acts
organized themselves is pretty much the way that we are setting about things here at Epworth; some stay and watch over the flock, caring for those in need, while others are sent out to carry the Word into the world and find the lost sheep.
And that is my call at this time, to go and find lost sheep.It won't be easy to walk away from this place.Those of you who were gracious enough to come to the celebration of my ministry last Sunday heard me tell my story about Epworth
and so I
beg your indulgence as I share part of that once again.
You see, I
know all about lost sheep, because I
lived most of my life as one.I
was raised in a family of atheists and even the idea of church was completely irrelevant to us.I
had been inside a church perhaps three or four times in my whole life up until about 15 years ago when my wife, Mary Kay
, who never gave up on me, persuaded me to come to church with her
one Sunday.And it was this church to which we came.And through the people of this church I encountered the grace of God and I fell in love with you all.I
think it is a general truth that people fall in love with the community of Christ long before they fall in love with the Christ of the community.
And so I
decided to join this church and I
was baptized here - baptized by the person who was then youth pastor, David David
, whose position I would one day fill.And after a journey through a series of Disciple classes, a Walk to Emmaus, and more Sunday School classes than I
could even count, I wound up going to seminary, resigning my position at The University of Toledo
, and entering fulltime ministry.
...And when Bob Ball retired and the Bishop appointed me as interim pastor I realized that I had taken a journey that may be unique in The United Methodist Church - I wandered through the doors of Epworth as an atheist and wound up as the "pastor in charge", having never attended, been a member of, or been appointed to any other church at all.
...And yet, when I second guess myself and ask myself why I am setting off to do this unusual, risky and difficult thing - to plant a new church, to start one from scratch - I recall the words of Charles Dubois, the American artist, "The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."
think about those lost sheep - not people who already attend a church, not people who are "seekers" - who are out looking for something - I
'm talking about those people who have never given the church a second though - perhaps not even a first one - and I
think to myself, "I know you, I've
been you, I've
lived your life."And if I
can use the life I've lived to reach even one of those people and help them to experience the grace of God
for themselves, the same way that you did for me, then it will all be worth it.And the work you started with me will have borne fruit and the world will be a better place, at least for that one soul.
You know that saying I've
mentioned a couple of times this morning, that quotation from Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
You did know that I
was talking about you, didn't you?