Being Real; Acts 4:32-35
First United Methodist Church, September 23, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Somewhere along the way, you wanted to fit in, but you weren't sure you did.
You didn't want to stray too far away from the dress code, the hair length or style of the day, or the words you chose to use.
You wanted to be sure you used your very best manners. You went home that night and realized that your face muscles hurt because you had pasted on that smile. You wanted everyone to know that you were happy, that life was good, that you felt good about the decision you'd made, that you were worthy, that you were the right choice…
You might do that in a school setting; we start trying to fit in when we're pretty young. Even elementary school-aged children may be hesitant to express their individualism. Adolescents, young adulthood…still happens even later. We want to be liked. We want to be accepted. We want to be a part of the community.
Because maybe you won't like me if I'm real. If you see who I really am.
Maybe we come into the church with that same fear. If I'm "real" maybe people here won't like me. Maybe you won't accept me. If you knew how broken I really am, maybe you'd prefer that I leave…clean myself up first, and come back later. Or, maybe I can just cover it up. Smile. And you'll like me…accept me.
Maybe that's where I am with God, too. I hesitate to even attempt a relationship—because if God rejects me, where will I be? Especially if I KNOW I've made some dumb decisions—yes, ultimately it's my fault that I'm feeling so lost or alone. I blame myself for the problems I'm dealing with. If I'd only done *this* while the kids were growing up, if I would have finished school—*whatever* you choose to kick yourself for. Why would God want me when I'm so obviously messed up?
Historically, we have built churches that reflect our understanding of God—with magnificence, awesomeness, grandeur. We want our place of worship to give honor to the One whom we come to worship…we love the stained glass, the depth of the musical notes and sound produced by the pipe organ. For so many of us, the structure and the form of worship together take us to the throne of God.
And yet, might there be times when that awesome grandeur intimidates us? When it contributes to our feelings of unworthiness?
I'm thinking of the tall steeple churches now crumbling in neighborhoods that were at one time situated in thriving communities but now are overgrown with poverty, crime and weeds. When did that building become irrelevant? Unnecessary? When did it seem no longer real to those who walked through its doors? When did what happened inside the doors become removed from what was happening outside; when did it become separated from the community in which it now stands, a skeleton of what it once was? When did it stop reaching a new generation who so often seem put off by "what has been" and now seek something new?—or, simply prefer to step out on their own and make their own way through life…?
How did we get to the place where we are now?
How might the "real-ness" of who we are overflow from our pews and pulpit to the real needs of the community that surrounds us? What are we already doing, and doing well? What do we need to strengthen? What do we need to learn and do—or do better—so that we can effectively communicate God's love and grace and mercy to those who haven't experienced it yet?
This week we're talking and reading about Missional Practice #2 in Shaped by God's Heart: We're challenged to "Be Real, Not Real Religious."
How can we be real…relevant…authentic?
The Bible thumpers turn me off. Is that what happens to you? I love the Bible, I love studying it and talking about it…but then there's the "Bible Thumper," who seems more interested in sharing what they know rather than finding out who I am, or what I might be dealing with, and how that scripture might speak to me. I could carry my study Bible around and maybe look kind of impressive. It would probably help me tone the muscles in my upper arms, but I'm not sure it would help me to be more effective in reaching people with the Gospel. It seems that being real has something to do with relationship rather than being real religious: relationship with God, and relationship with one another.
We want to be real…relevant…authentic.
Look at today's scripture. It's about this new generation of Christians whose new-found faith has brought them together as a community. They were from different places, different ethnic backgrounds, attitudes and points of views—but they were of one heart and mind. They gathered one another into the fold, as they sought to live out the resurrection life in community. It was less about living together communally, and more about generous sharing—a desire to include and care for one another so that each person could live out their call as a follower of Jesus Christ. It involved standing alongside one another in the difficult times, and giving generously in the good times so that everyone would have what they needed.
As a community of faith, we do that, as well. We share our needs, we pray for one another, we offer what we have.
There were interviews on the radio this past week of people affected by the storms out East. One woman from North Carolina admitted that she had evacuated much sooner this year than last time—before she had to leave her home by boat because everything was flooded. This time she left before it had gotten that bad, and was now staying safely at a friend's house out of harm's way. But she still felt awful. She couldn't sleep because she was so worried. She ended up going through the house and waking everybody up so they could worry along with her.
That's what we do as a community of faith…that's how we love and care for one another. We share hearts and homes and troubles. We sit with one another. We listen. We care. We share of ourselves.
When Scott and I were first married we made a big wall-sized banner that we hung in our apartment. It read: Let there be such oneness between you that when one cries, the other tastes salt. That's being real…relevant…authentic.
As a missional church, we're not only caring for one another, we care for those who are outside our doors, as well.
A United Methodist from India named Sudha shares about a boy named Mustaq who was in her 10th grade class in the private school she attended. He wore the filthiest uniform that she and her classmates had ever seen. He had unkempt hair, smelly feet, and a torn and dirty schoolbag that held equally dirty notebooks and textbooks.
His classmates would make remarks to one another about him: does he ever have a bath? What do you suppose the original color of his school bag was? Ugh, I wish he were in some other class. Why does the school allow him to be here?
Though he most likely knew they were talking about him, if it hurt him he didn't allow it to show.
Mustaq sat alone on the first bench on the left side of the classroom. Between classes when everyone else was busy chatting and laughing with one another, he mostly sat quietly and looked out the window to the fields outside. No one talked with him. No one made an effort to get to know him.
During math, history, geography and language, he needed extra assistance from the teachers. His classmates wondered if he would make it out of high school.
Sudha often smiled at him—but from afar. She kept her distance.
He seemed saddest in English class. He was especially terrified when he had to read aloud, because every time he mispronounced a word or stuttered, the class broke into muffled giggles, which continued until their teacher shushed them and threatened detention.
One afternoon during recess, Sudha saw him sitting on his bench preparing for an upcoming test. She gathered the courage to go to him and ask if he could use help understanding the poem he seemed to be struggling over. He nodded, and line by line, she shared the meaning—until her eyes were drawn to a torn page held together with some awful, thick, gooey stuff.
"What is this?!" she asked.
He hung his head in shame and in a barely audible voice confessed: "It is c-cooked rice. I can't afford to buy g-glue. M-my mother and I are v-very poor," he went on, stammering, "and t-these are old, d-discarded textbooks a r-retired teacher gave me."
Sudha was stunned as he told her about himself and the truth dawned on her—he had only one uniform and washed it by hand; his uneducated mother earned so little they could barely buy food, but she had always told him she was determined to put him through school so he wouldn't suffer the indignities that she had. The dirty clothes, the tolerance, and patience of the teachers, the ready-to-fall-apart books all suddenly made sense.
Sudha told her friends what she had learned. That night she realized what she had to do.
Two mornings later, when Mustaq walked to his desk, he found a new glue-stick, a pencil-box, a pair of socks, several new notebooks, and even a neatly folded, ironed uniform. He gave Sudha the look of someone betrayed and fled the classroom. They found him under a staircase, sobbing.
"Thank you," he choked.
When they returned to the classroom, two other classmates were sitting at his usually vacant long bench. He smiled through the tears.
After that, classmates would surprise him on occasion with needed supplies, including a new red schoolbag. They played volleyball and cricket with him on the school grounds, and he was good!
Mustaq changed for the better: he smiled frequently, lost his stammer, and no longer stared out the window. But Sudha admits that she and their other classmates changed even more.
They came to realize how blessed they were and how they took those blessings for granted. They had learned that they needed to show compassion instead of judgment. They had come face-to-face with their pride, the prejudice they harbored against him, and their unforgiving treatment of him.
And their biggest learning came from Mustaq, in how readily he had forgiven them in spite of the way they had excluded him. He must have longed for a kind word but had been met with selfish indifference; to belong, but he had been excluded from the joy of simple friendship.
By modeling forgiveness, Mustaq taught these students to look beyond themselves—to reach out to others and to share what they had. They discovered that he was materially poor, but they were poorer—in Spirit (Sudha Khristmukti, Alive Now, Shaping Community, January/February 2010).
One 10th grade student turned out and away from her group, from what was "easy" and saw the needs of someone who struggling to make it on his own. She reached out, she listened, she offered herself…she was real, and it made all the difference….for him…for all of them.
Being real…relevant…authentic…that's who God calls us to be. That's when we're our best selves—as individuals and as the Church.
Real…relevant…authentic…turning out and toward the brokenness of the world.
Toward whom do we need to turn? To see?
What difference might we make?