Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
May 27, 2007
The Last Days
“May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be
acceptable to you,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.”
To begin his stirring sermon on that first Pentecost, the apostle Peter quotes the ancient Hebrew prophet Joel. “In the last days it will be that, God declares, that I will pour my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.” It’s an obvious point that is, nevertheless, often overlooked that every generation throughout time has always lived “in the last days,” or in what was for prior generations the distant future.
I remember reading George Orwell’s classic book 1984 in the early 1970s, when 1984 still seemed far in the future. I could just barely imagine what life might be like for me then, as an adult – as far as I knew I might be driving a flying car. But then, just this past weekend, my family watched a movie from way back in 1984 (I think it was Beverly Hills Cop) and found ourselves laughing at the big, puffy, dated hairstyles on the women and the pretentious leather disco clothes on the men. Tomorrow’s visions of the future so quickly become yesterday’s sepia-toned dreams of the past.
In fact, the so-called “generation gap” has always been a challenge in the history of the church, beginning with the young Jesus movement standing up to the more established elders who were the scribes and Pharisees of his day. Joel’s prophesy of old men dreaming dreams and young men seeing visions is not necessarily a picture of harmony – those voices of old and young are not necessarily in concord. An old man’s dream may very well be of “the good old days” while the young man’s vision may be for times that he fervently hopes “are a changing.” But the promise of Pentecost is not that all prophetic voices will agree, and speak in unison, but that they will all speak and understand each other. That’s miracle enough to keep Christ’s church alive.
As we were preparing for this Sunday, and this historical re-enactment service, more than one person has made some variety of the joke that “we won’t need music, because we’ll have the sound effects of all those past pastors and parishioners rolling over in their graves”! It’s not hard to imagine that they might be more than a little shocked, and maybe even dismayed, to see our church today. Our worship style is far more casual, our theology is a lot more positive, and our leadership is much more diverse than it was just 50 years ago – not to mention 250 years ago. We have not just one, but two women pastors. We have voted to become “open and affirming” to people of all abilities, races, faith backgrounds, and sexual orientations. And most sermons are over in 15 minutes or less – all these things would be big surprises to our church in the not-too-distant past.
The confession that unites us across the ages, the thing that has not changed, is our profession of faith in Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior. The prayer that unites our voices across the ages is that the same Holy Spirit that was poured out upon the disciples that first Pentecost should continue to guide and strengthen and comfort Christ’s church even today, in these “last days.” The deeper meanings of our confessions of orthodox Christian belief may be as individual as each individual who joins us in membership, because we each have our own unique faith journey story. HOW each of us encounters the Holy Spirit is as different as we are, but THAT we somehow all are trying our best to know the love of Jesus is what draws us together in this body of Christ. Therein lies the power of this prophesy, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
I recently came upon an old revival sermon delivered in Newington back in 1888 by a rather famous English preacher of that day. Like most sermons of that age, it was a lengthy one – and drew a full house out to church on a Thursday night in May. Yes, this is what the world was like before “Gray’s Anatomy” and “ER” took over Thursday nights. But like the best of our TV soap operas, that sermon painted a picture of daily life that, while exaggerated for the sake of drama, we know in our hearts to be true. Then, like today, sad and angry and confused people get up each morning to engage and re-engage in a cosmic and timeless struggle to find meaning in life and love amid the wreckage of our flawed humanity and broken world. People are still engaged in this daily struggle to connect with each other, and with a Source of love and power greater than our own. And we Christians are still proclaiming, with the great prophet Joel, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Therein lies the miracle of the Holy Spirit that is the glue that has held Christ’s church together across the generations.
I want to close with a little story about a character I told you about once before – the usher from my first church in California who was on a one-man campaign to get people to wear what he considered “proper” clothes to worship on Sunday. He insisted that the ushers on his team not only wear suits and ties, but wear black suits and matching black shoes – no grays, browns, or blues allowed. I’ve actually forgotten the man’s name, because I’ve for so long remembered him as “Mr. Black Shoes.” But Mr. Black Shoes had a fateful run-in with one of my youth actors one Youth Sunday, when she was the star of the medieval morality play, “Everyman,” which I had my rewritten as our sermon. It was retitled “Everyone,” and this girl was the title character. As she was supposed to be an ordinary, average teenager dressed for school, she was wearing a pair of raggedy bell-bottom jeans, sandals, and a “Jane’s Addiction” T-shirt. It fit beautifully with the allegorical theme of the play because of its dramatic, flames-on-black portrait of a tormented young woman reaching up from the pit of Hell.
But the play almost didn’t go on, because Mr. Black Shoes tried to keep our lead actress out of the sanctuary. He didn’t approve of her clothes. After the young guys playing Wisdom and Knowledge intervened on her behalf at the door, the show went on. The great irony was that the moral of this classic morality play, which dates back to the 1300s, is this very theme of grace, which was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and every revival sermon since. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved, not just those who look like us or think like us or who speak our language. It’s a theme older even than Christ’s Gospel, dating back to the Hebrew prophet Joel. In the last days, it shall be that “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
As those great preachers of 19th century revivals would proclaim, no matter how wretched a sinner you are, God will forgive you. As that Berkeley teenager and Mr. Black Shoes learned that day, God loves a faithful and contrite heart much more than a neat suit and spit-shined shoes. Or as the slogan of the United Church of Christ says today, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” In these last days, as in every last day of our history as the Christian church, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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