Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Surprising Mid-Year Report

The main part of our church year here in London is winding down—a lot of people are heading back to the US for extended holidays, and many of those who stay are taking advantage of the good weather to make short weekend trips. Last year at this time it was raining daily, so the sunshine is something to seize when it happens. The result of all this is that over the next few months our attendance at the church and the programs we offer will dip a bit. It's a good time of year to look back on where we've been.

Last year at this time we were finishing up our first half-year here, and we were physically and emotionally exhausted. Settling into a new life in a new place, getting back into full-time ministry, living on a much tighter budget and adjusting to a new climate took a lot out of us. To top it off my Mom got sick while visiting us here almost a year ago, and we went back to LA for our vacation still reeling from the seriousness of her illness. I’m happy to say that she’s doing much better—back to full health and feeling even better than before the crisis.

I’m even more happy to say that the same is true for us and for our work at the American Church.

When I started here I introduced a four-pillar understanding of the church. If you’ve been reading this blog or attending ACL for a while you know that a healthy church is built on Jesus Christ and expressed through Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and Mission. Our plan has been to make sure that we are growing and challenging each other in each of these four areas. We even restructured our church council to reflect our priorities as a church—our business committees are grouped into one team that makes everything work, and the rest have been renamed and/or reshaped as Fellowship, Worship, Christian Education and Mission committees.

As I look back on the progress here I feel very positive about the direction we’re going. With Kate's leadership our children’s ministry has grown in numbers and depth, we’ve established a partnership with Young Life for the fall that will join our resources with theirs as we reach kids and their parents for Christ. Our adult Sunday School class is wrestling—honestly and faithfully—with some serious questions about the Bible, about the role of the Christian in a secular society, and how to share what we believe in meaningful ways. We’ve done evening Bible study series on Genesis, Philippians, and a topical section on biblical justice. There are still holes to fill and needs to meet, but our plan for discipleship here is underway.

Our worship service is evolving. I'm committed to the blended worship I learned at Glendale Presbyterian Church, where instead of homogenizing everything into a soup with unrecognizable parts, you make a salad, where each ingredient keeps its shape and flavor. It's hard. I think there are people from all around the worship spectrum who wish I would just choose one form of worship and make the rest either leave or conform. I can't say this strongly enough: That's not going to happen on my watch. Traditional worship reminds us of where we've been as a faith and as a redeemed gathering of fallen people who have always needed a savior. The more contemporary music and forms of communication remind us that this old, old story still has something to offer people today, right now, in this place. We're on the right track here, but there's a long way to go.

On the fellowship side, Julie and I are starting a Young Marrieds fellowship, and seven couples have already joined—that’s 14 people out of an average Sunday attendance of 130. In the fall we’re introducing a Group Date Night open to everyone, but specifically aimed at parents of young children. There will be activities for kids at the church while the rest go out to one of the local restaurants for a meal and conversation. It won’t even happen until October, but six couples have already said they want in. We’ll celebrate Thanksgiving together and laugh our way through our traditional Quiz Night and Talent Night events. Our fellowship—one of the most difficult things to establish and grow in a city church—is about to start thriving.

Our mission efforts are also set to expand dramatically in the coming year. Our partnership with Young Life is shared within our church between the youth and mission programs—it will be an extension of our evangelistic work here in London. We continue to support the Soup Kitchen for local poor and homeless persons, which is housed here on the church grounds. We’re hoping to get a Habitat for Humanity project off the ground for all ages here at the church—it’s our goal as much as possible to make our mission service as intergenerational as possible. Finally, we’ve committed to joining the network of churches providing shelter for homeless people during the winter months. From January through the end of March, every Wednesday night, we’ll have 15 people sleeping here and being served by volunteers from our congregation. That's a bold commitment to service, and an indication of growth in other areas.

But we're not done.

While we've paused the plans for developing the church facilities, there is still a lot of work to do to make our building accessible to people with limited mobility. That's a commitment we can't ignore, and I'm happy to say that we've made good progress in that area just recently. Our new website is up and running, but work remains to be done on improving the range of tools we have for communicating with our church family...past and present. We ended last year 'in the black', which is great, but we still rely too much on our church-run business for revenue.

We're not done.

We have miles to go before we can rest on any laurels or feel as though we’ve ‘arrived’ in any way. But as we move into the slower pace of summer here in London, I’m feeling much better—much more connected with God’s plan for this place—than I was a year ago. Ministry is so much harder than it looks, but it’s also much more thrilling. There are more aggravations in this job than I could fit into my allotted space on this blog, but the privilege I feel to be a part of a church that is finding its way—honestly and faithfully—into being an authentic expression of the Body of Christ in London, is more than I could ever put into words.

While the main part of our year may be winding down, and even as I look forward to my time away visiting family and friends this summer, I’m moved to tears to write this next sentence:

I can’t wait for the new church year to begin.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not Secret at All

So there’s been a lot in the news over here recently about two government officials leaving secret documents on trains. The first one was a potential catastrophe—it had to do with Britain’s security efforts to counter terrorism here and around the world. Luckily it was turned in without it falling into the wrong hands. The second was slightly less damaging—it described how money was laundered by terrorist groups, and how the government was trying to cut off those funds. With the Labour government already losing its public support and credibility, this was a major screw-up.

Secrets are important. From military plans to PIN codes, we all benefit from secrets staying, well, secret. Some of the great stories from WWII focus on the breaking of secret codes and the advantage it gave the side with the information. In the Pacific Navy codebreakers helped the US crush the Japanese forces at Midway, a battle that was all the more astonishing because it took place just six months after Pearl Harbor. During the war in Europe the deciphering of the Enigma code gave the Allies an advantage that helped end the war.

The other night we went to the US Embassy to see one of our young people become an Eagle Scout. It was a beautiful ceremony—full of tradition and respect and parental support. It’s the second year in a row that a young man from our church has earned the rank, and we were proud to be there.

The event was held in one of the large press briefing rooms, a bit like a small theater in the basement of the Embassy. They used the projection screen to list the scouts who were earning honors, and to show slides of their events over the last year. When they were done projecting images, the screen went back to its home page: an enormous seal of the US State Department, big eagle and all, on a solid looking blue field. At the top there was a graphic saying that the image was part of the Embassy intranet, and below it had the following words:

Sensitive, But Not Classified.

Partly it was a reminder that we were in a government building, and that secrets played a major role in the work that was done here. It was a way of saying that the information on that system needed to be treated with care, even if it wasn’t top secret. But the phrase has stuck with me for the last few days—there’s something about it that bears on our relationship to the Gospel.

It many ways the message of Jesus Christ is sensitive. It gets at the heart of who we are—of our sinfulness, our hopes for a future (and a present) that matters, and our desire to wrestle control away from the Sovereign God. The Gospel addresses real things—real issues about life and love and suffering. It’s also sensitive in that it needs to be nurtured and shared and even understood. Every Christian is tasked with studying the message of Christ, partly so we can grasp its transformative impact on our lives, and partly so we can communicate its meaning to other people.

That’s where we lose the plot of our own story, if we’re honest. Recognizing that the Gospel is sensitive is one thing, but resisting the temptation to keep it classified is another. By its very nature the message of Jesus Messiah is meant to be shared lavishly, even frivolously—certainly it’s not meant to be kept secret or hidden or covered up. It’s precisely the sort of thing that we should be leaving on buses and trains and anywhere else we can think of. It’s precisely the sort of thing we should be living and sharing without any cloaking or covering.

There’s a challenge here for all of us. The challenge—the dare—is to figure out creative ways to share the good news we know as freely and generously as we can. That’s hard, but then again, no one in their right mind ever said this would be easy.

As I watched the new Eagle Scouts stand in front of their peers, with their parents behind them sharing in the glory, I thought of all the places we go and the things we have and the activities we get to enjoy, as we share in God’s glory here. Those guys won’t brag—it’s against their code—but they will bear the mark of that Eagle badge for the rest of their lives. I was reminded of the line from Stuart Townend’s contemporary hymn, ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’:

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection.

That’s it in a nutshell. Nothing classified—no secrets—and no time wasted trying to take the credit for ourselves. When I reflect on the message of the Gospel—which is an awful lot like saying ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’—I’m reminded that there’s nothing about it that should be classified—held back—from a world that needs to hear it badly. It made me think that if we ever got to a point where we had our own intranet system, the graphic on it should read as follows:

Sensitive, but for general distribution, even to the ends of the earth.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A New Set of Values

Acts 7

Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, has made a career out of saying inappropriate things and then having to go on his own network and apologize for them. A few years back he had to get on camera and say he was sorry for repeatedly referring to Christianity as ‘a religion for losers.’

The other night Julie, Ian and I were honored to attend a Boy Scout event at the US Embassy, where one of our own young men became an Eagle Scout. As they read through all the requirements and described the things he had to do in order to earn his rank, it occurred to me that so much of it was focused on other people. It was about service and sacrifice, discipline and generosity. I wonder what Ted Turner would say about that.

Where we pick up our story, Stephen is on trial, falsely accused of blasphemy. When he gets his chance to speak, instead of defending himself he retells the story of Israel’s troubled relationship with God’s messengers—with God’s message. When he’s done he looks at the religious leaders passing judgment on him and says this:

51"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
54When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56"Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
57At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.
1And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

There are four things to notice about Stephen’s reaction to his predicament.

First, Stephen never addresses the falseness of the charges against him. He willingly surrenders his right to win—his right to be right—in order to proclaim the truth of his faith to his accusers. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine doing that? In our culture we know our rights and we demand what we’ve been told we deserve—those have become our values. We place a high value on winning as often as possible—that’s often a stronger motivator for us than whether we’re being the sort of people that reflect Christ to our neighbors and in our communities. Nobody wants to be a loser, right?

The second thing to notice is that Stephen really knows his material here. He doesn’t wade into the discussion unarmed, and he doesn’t use personal attacks to make his point. Even his angry words are directed at what the people had done, not who they were. Stephen knows the history of his people and the content of his faith. It’s clear that while on the one hand Stephen has an intimate relationship with God, that he also has the discipline to read and pray and study. Stephen is prepared to give and answer for his faith—to be a witness for Christ, even at his own trial. When we talk about being grounded in the Scriptures, this is what we’re talking about…

Third, notice that Stephen never criticizes or even appeals to the secular Roman government. His challenge is to the people who should know better—the religious leaders of the day—his challenge is to them, not to those who haven’t heard or haven’t believed in who Christ is. It’s not power or influence that Stephen is after, but rather the truth—the truth about who God is and what he’s done, the truth about the meaning of Jesus Christ, and the truth about what the life of faith offers and demands of us.

Finally, notice that Stephen chooses faithfulness over his own needs—over his own safety. This is really the most shocking part of the story. Stephen is a star on the rise. He’s the Eagle Scout, national merit scholar and first-round draft pick all wrapped up into one. He has an important job in the early church, organizing the resources that community set aside for ministry. He’s blessed with knowledge and wisdom and leadership ability. He’s compassionate and willing to step out in faith for God. Stephen could have benefitted the church in great ways by staying around for a good long while—by working his way through the ranks over a long period of time. And yet, Stephen believed that being a disciple of Jesus Christ was more important than any of the perks life could throw his way. Stephen knew that if the things he believed were true, then he could never pass up an opportunity to share his faith with the culture around him—even if it cost him something. Even if it cost him everything.

Dennis Prager is a syndicated radio presenter in the States. He’s known for sparking discussions of morality—both public and private—as he comments on current events. Each year, I think around Father’s Day, Prager devotes an entire show to one question. He asks parents to call in and tell him whether they would prefer, if they had to choose, that their kids grow up to be successful or good. What unfolds, every year, is a discussion of values, of what we choose to emphasize in the way we conduct our own lives, and the way that we raise our kids. So many of the parents who call in try to rationalize their preference for their kids to be successful… One father, with no sense of irony at all, said that if his son got into an Ivy League school and got a good job and married well, he could learn to be good later. Seriously.

It’s important every so often to check how our values impact our lives. What we value most is reflected in the choices we make—in the dreams we have—in the goals we set for ourselves and our families.

What does this mean?

The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to rethink and sometimes radically alter what we value. Think back on Stephen. Stephen shows us that the values of the life of faith are different from the values of our world. We’ve heard these before—the bible is full of strange teachings like ‘the first will be last’, or ‘only slaves to Christ can truly be free’, ‘love your enemies’, and ‘you have to die before you can truly live’.

Stephen’s world wasn’t all that different from ours: Money talked back then, just like now; political and military power still ruled; certainly, in most people’s eyes, the ends could justify almost any means, especially if there was a profit to be made. But what ties our culture to the values in Stephen’s day is this: people who refused to live by the profit-centered, winner take all culture of the day—the people who tried to resist those values were considered to be weak, or too idealistic, or maybe even losers.

Stephen’s world was no more resistant to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching than our culture is, and frankly it was a heck of a lot more dangerous. And yet in the face of all that resistance—against all of the pressure to conform and be successful and win, Stephen was willing to be falsely accused (weak); he refused to win his slam-dunk of a court case (sucker); so that he could bear witness to Jesus Christ (fanatic); and ultimately give up his own life (loser). By the values of his culture—and our culture—Stephen was a failure. And yet the irony is that in his humility and wisdom and faithfulness, Stephen did something truly great.

As we work our way through the book of Acts and learn what it means to be a church in the real world, a real-world church, we have to face the example Stephen set for us. We have to think about what it would mean for us to adopt a new set of values—values that might go directly against what we’ve believed or practiced for most of our lives. We have to face how those new values might change what we teach our children.

Being followers of Christ—being engaged with the culture and grounded in the teachings of the Scriptures and alive to the Holy Spirit—being a new person in Christ means adopting a new set of values.

To paraphrase Dennis Prager’s question for our context: Would we rather be successful or good? Would we rather be financially secure or sacrificially faithful? Which would we want for our kids, if we really had to choose?

Those are hard questions: They’re the kind of questions that make us squirm a little if we choose to wrestle with them honestly. And that’s probably a good thing. Learning to be a Christians in the real world means that occasionally we have to make some hard choices—for ourselves and in the way we raise our families.

At the Scouts event the other night I was reminded of the Scout Law, which says that ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.’

There’s nothing there that makes it impossible to be successful, but there’s an awful lot about being successful that manages to edge out some of these important traits and practices.

The challenge to us as a community of faith in the real world, is to live and teach and give and believe, while we remain engaged with the culture, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Can I Get a Witness?

Acts 6:8-15

As of yesterday we finally have our two candidates for the US presidency. It’s been a long process, and now (finally) we can focus on issues and character and leadership styles for the next five months. Reaching this point in the election season brings to mind past candidates—winners, losers and those who never got to complete their run for the highest office.

This past week we remembered Robert Kennedy’s assassination during his run for the presidency in 1968. That anniversary reminds us that, whatever your party or political beliefs, we haven’t seen anyone since who can articulate a uniquely American vision of community and justice and dignity and compassion. Here’s a quote from one of his speeches:

“For the fortunate among us, the…danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men and women than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge himself--on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Kennedy gave that speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966. Amazing.

Today we begin the first of two messages on Stephen, the leader of the group we learned about last week—the ones who were given the responsibility of managing the ministry resources of the early church. Stephen fits this quote from Robert Kennedy in that he stood as someone of promise, of ability, and that he gave up his personal ambition and any hope of financial success in order to serve Jesus Christ. What he chose to do with his gifts and abilities would end up costing him his life, but in the renewed, transformed, radical values of the Kingdom, we see Stephen as one of the great success stories in the New Testament.

8Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
11Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."
12So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
15All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

In our text the church is taking shape within the backdrop of 1st century Palestine. This was a region torn apart by economic hardship and conflict, still reeling from the brief ministry of someone who was called the Messiah, and on top of all that, it was occupied by the Roman Empire. These were definitely ‘interesting times.’

We pick up the story with Stephen and his ministry within the early church. Stephen’s power—personal, spiritual and organizational—has rankled the cultural leaders of his day. He was rocking the boat, and the self-appointed captains of that vessel didn’t like it one bit. They tried to engage him head-on, but they couldn’t defeat him fairly. So naturally, they decided to go after him by any means necessary. They accused him of bogus offenses, had him hauled into court, and produced false witnesses to make the charges stick.

The idea of ‘truth’ is really important in this story, as it is in all of Luke’s writing. Lies are a common way to discredit something we don’t like. But lies that go unchallenged work their way into our consciousness and take on the look and feel of truth, and that’s dangerous. Last week a friend sent me an excerpt of a letter by Jay Leno, supporting the president and the war while sounding like someone who was running for office. The letter sounded fishy, so I checked it out on Have you heard of Snopes? It’s a site devoted to checking on the things people tend to circulate by email, and then reporting on whether they’re real or fakes. Snopes told me that there was a single line in the letter that was really from Jay Leno, and that the rest was made up.

There are other, more serious, lies that make their way into our consciousness and start to sound like truth. The most damaging one is this: More people have died in wars over religion than in any other.

Now while that may have a ring of truth to it in this anti-religion age, there’s no getting around the fact that it is patently false. Let’s just consider, for a moment, the ‘big three’ industrial-strength killers of the last century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao. These guys were directly responsible for tens of millions of deaths. They were also aggressively, passionately and explicitly secular down to their shoes. Those three—those three non-religious dictators—killed more people than all the other wars in history put together. Can we just agree right now, right here in this place, just as a bonus for showing up this morning, to make a pact that we will stop throwing this one around as if it had any basis in truth?

The truth matters. And if we’re going to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ—what he did, what he offers and what he promises—if we’re going to be witnesses to the gospel we have to make sure we’re being faithful witnesses about other things as well. The truth matters. The truth is a habit worth getting into.

The role of the witness—of being an agent of truth—in Scripture, is highly valued.

In the Judaism at the time of Jesus, two people had to agree on an account of something in order for the courts to accept it as truth. That made witnesses extremely powerful back then, and made their honesty crucially important. In Luke’s writings he builds on that tradition by calling those who share their faith ‘witnesses’. They were called to testify to the truth of what they had seen, and their developing understanding of what it meant.

Being a witness in this sense was more than just testifying to a set of facts, though it was at least that. Bearing witness was deeper—it was the way a life could be seen as evidence of a deeper truth. That’s why God places such an enormously high value on our honesty—‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.’

Being a witness also came to mean more than just playing a minor role in the story of the gospel. The Greek word that translates to ‘witness’ came into English as the word ‘martyr.’

Think about that for a moment.

While we’re remembering Robert Kennedy today, I want to share another quote of his with you:

“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and with their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of our society.”

In a real-world church we set aside personal ambitions and comforts and exchange them for the opportunity to blend passion, reason, courage and faith in Jesus Christ as we seek to address the world’s problems. We accomplish that by renewing our commitment to be a real church in the world—a real-world church—by being engaged in the culture around us, grounded in the Scriptures, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.


Monday, June 02, 2008

The Main Thing

(There is some news about the book just below this post.)

Acts 6:1-7

About 30 years or so ago a man named Charles E. Hummel wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of the Urgent. It talked about learning to discern between important matters and the urgent thing that blindside us and distract us from what we really should be doing. It was a helpful little booklet.

Another way of saying the same thing is: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” No one knows who really said that. My pastor used it in sermons years ago. Stephen Covey has it posted on his website. But that’s not the main thing…

1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7So the word of God spread.

What’s going on here?

First, our story begins in the middle of a typically stupid church fight. One group of church members was feeling slighted by the treatment of another, and started complaining about it. The church at that point existed by sharing what they had in common, and distributing it according to need, and the complaint actually shows us what an amazing community the early church had turned out to be:

They weren’t just doing spiritual things.
They weren’t just gathering once a week to see each other.
Church life wasn’t an interruption or distraction from what they were really doing with their lives.

The community of faith in these early days was exactly that: a community where people worked, worshipped, served, prayed and shared meals. The fact that a problem over distribution of those meals shows up as a complaint is evidence of how much must have been going right in those early days.

Second, the problem was that the leading disciples were caught in-between managing a minor conflict and doing their job of preaching and teaching the gospel. In those early days the message of Jesus was in the process of being shaped from first-hand accounts to the stories and documents and instruction we have today in the form of the New Testament. Communicating that message to people who were not first-hand witnesses was the first order of business for the apostles of the early church.

Notice that their response to the needs around them wasn’t to say: ‘Go be quiet and fix this yourselves.’ No, they acted decisively and chose seven of the best and brightest among them to oversee that part of the ministry. This is the birth of the deacon function in church life, by the way. In a lot of churches this separation of labor still exists: elders gather for prayer and business and the organizational leadership of the church, and deacons make sure that the resources of the church are used to meet the needs of the people both in and out of the church.

Third, in verse 5 we see one of the most shocking statements in the entire New Testament, if not all of church history. This one really shook the walls then, and we can only hope to come close to being able to say it here or in any contemporary church. What was this shocking statement?

‘The proposal pleased the whole church.’

Think about that for a moment. A conflict springs up about the ministry of the church, and the leadership decides on a course of action that the whole church agrees with and supports.

Finally, after they prayed for these leaders and commissioned them to do their ministry, what happened? The Scriptures tell us that ‘The word of God spread.’

Before the modern Civil Service system was established in the US, people who wanted government jobs lined up to ask the president directly. The line could run around the president’s residence and down the street. Isn’t that hard to imagine? One applicant in the early 1880s was so angered that he didn’t get the job he wanted that he later shot the president, James Garfield.

Chester Arthur, who took over after Garfield died, immediately signed the Pendleton Act into law, not least because he didn’t want to run the risk of being assassinated himself. That law established the modern Civil Service system in the US, which created a fair process for hiring people who worked with the public on behalf of the government.

The Pendleton Act allowed the government to meet all of its responsibilities. The president and the rest of the executive branch of government could do the job they were elected to do, and the Civil Service office could give out public jobs in a way that was fair and impartial and not connected to political favoritism. Both of those are important parts of the function of government.

It’s important to notice in our passage this morning what the disciples did not decide to do. They didn’t say that since their work was more important to the life of the church, that the other activities should be cut. They didn’t say that if food distribution was getting in the way of the worship life of the church, that they should stop doing it. They figured out a way to do both things well. And the Scriptures tell us that ‘the word of God spread.’

In the real world churches have to do the same thing. We balance the needs of managing the organizational, social, business and financial needs of the church with its spiritual, communal and even our theological function—teaching people about God. There’s a lot of business to do here at this church—maybe more than in some other churches—but the focus should always be on the main thing: To provide Christian community for everyone who comes through the door. To provide a place of fellowship and worship, Christian discipleship and opportunities to serve in the mission of Christ’s Kingdom.

In other words we focus on providing a place where the whole range of church life can grow and thrive: close relationships built on Jesus Christ; faithful, passionate worship; study of the Scriptures; and sharing the gospel with the world around us. That task can be daunting sometimes, but I don’t have any doubts that we are able to accomplish it together.

This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of another daunting task: the Berlin Airlift. The war in Europe had been over for just a few years, and the Cold War was just getting off the ground. In an attempt to get sole control of the city of Berlin, the Soviet Union closed the railways, the Autobahn and other ways leading into the city. There was no treaty that secured the rights to enter the city for the other Allies, and so Berlin was cutoff from the rest of the world. At the time Berlin had about 35 days worth of food in reserve, and a month and half’s worth of fuel.

The British and American Air Forces joined together and after a slow start, by the second week they were delivering 1000 tons of food and fuel into Berlin every day. By the end of the airlift, when the Soviet Union finally reopened the roads and rails, the airlift was averaging almost 8000 tons of goods per day—more than the city had been receiving on the ground before the blockade.

It’s important for healthy churches to be responsive like that. To take on responsibility for meeting needs and overcoming petty squabbles and obstacles. None of those armies or governments or nations collapsed by taking part in the Berlin airlift. There was still a general election in the States in 1948. American baseball was still racially integrated—and so was the US military. The Marshall Plan didn’t grind to a halt just because the airlift took some of the resources. The need to serve Berlin didn’t mean that everything else fell apart.

What we learn from the early church in our passage today is that churches in the real world figure out how to meet needs, to serve people, to be the hands of Jesus in the world without losing their identity as the voice of Jesus Christ. Sharing the gospel and meeting the needs of people are the two undiluted, inseparable pieces of the Main Thing.

And if the main thing is the main thing, then everything else is, well, secondary.

We live out our calling to be the church of Jesus Christ when we remember what that true calling is: being the hands and voice of Christ himself in the world. We do that by remembering that a true church—one that provides fellowship, worship, Christian nurture and service—that a true church is engaged in the culture, grounded in the words of Scripture, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

If you’ve come today with needs, with things you want to talk about or share. If you’ve come feeling lonely or if you’ve come wanting share the abundance you feel in your own life. We will never say to you: ‘Go away, be quiet and fix this yourselves.’ This place can take it. As a community of faith this church wants to be a refuge and a place of comfort, as well as a place of service and celebration.

God acted decisively in Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and he calls us to act decisively in meeting the needs of the world around us.

At this church we seek to focus on the main thing, so the word of God can spread and take root and come alive.

As we come to the Table this morning we are reminded of the one who calls us to this new life. Let’s stand and prepare for Communion today by singing together: Fairest Lord Jesus, #227 in the Pilgrim Hymnal.