THE EVOLVING CHURCH
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. (Acts 8:26-31, NRSV)
The one constant in life that never changes is this—everything changes all the time even when things appear static. Charles Darwin told us this, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” The same could be said of any human institution including the church, “those [institutions] that learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Which is exactly where we find ourselves today as an evolving church—we progress through collaboration and improvisation. We progress all for one and one for all by working together, collaboration. We progress too by dreaming together, inspiration. As a church we are part of a 2,000 year movement that evolved from a group of Christ’s early disciples, and there were only a handful, to millions upon millions of people who are followers of Christ today. The church has evolved over the centuries, too often in slow motion, through scandal and reformation, through collaboration and improvisation to this October morning in the year of our Lord 2018, to those of us gathered in this sacred place at 1845 Northern Blvd., in Manhasset, New York.
The story in today’s scripture reading reminds us that our faith is ever changing and evolving. It was just another normal day for Philip, one of Christ’s 12 original disciples. Both Good Friday and Easter Sunday were behind him. And Christ had left the earth in a “beam me up Scotty” moment on Ascension Day. Philip had been filled with God’s Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and left Jerusalem for parts unknown to share the love of God and the story of Jesus. On this particular day, Philip received word from God by way of an angel that God wanted him to go south on the desert road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza
On the road to Gaza, Philip met a man who seemed altogether different from him. This man was from Ethiopia, while Philip was a Middle Easterner of Semitic descent. In addition to their geographical differences, they also had cultural differences. This man was a eunuch, who had visited Jerusalem. According to the Law of Moses, eunuchs were excluded from congregating in the temple. While the eunuch in this story is [called] a ‘God-fearer’ or convert to Judaism, he was nevertheless culturally removed from those born into Judaism.
And then there was the difference in their standing. The Ethiopian eunuch served as the queen’s treasurer and thus represented those with great power. After all, the eunuch didn’t walk along the dusty, desert road like Philip. Instead, he rode in a mighty chariot with a personal driver. The eunuch hung out with the rich and powerful while Philip hung out with Jesus, a humble carpenter turned rebel rousing rabbi.
Philip overheard the eunuch reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah and asked if he understood the text. The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He then invited Philip to sit beside him in the chariot. The eunuch happened to be reading about the Suffering Servant in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. These passages profoundly shaped Christ’s ministry and the church’s understanding of Christ’s mission. Although the eunuch visited Jerusalem and read the Hebrew Scriptures, he’d never heard the stories of Jesus until Philip gave him a firsthand account.
Before long, they saw a body of water and the eunuch asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In other words, why should I be excluded from the fellowship of those who follow Jesus? The simple answer was this—he shouldn’t be excluded and he should be baptized if he desired it. And he did. So the driver stopped the chariot and Philip baptized the eunuch right then and there in some water by the side of the road.
Traditionally, biblical interpreters focus on the conversion aspects of this story. However, the story is also one of radical inclusion. The eunuch wanted to know if he could be included. Why did he feel excluded in the first place? For many of the same reasons people feel excluded today—skin color, social standing, religious perspectives, and sexual issues (eunuchs were castrated and thus sexually ambiguous). For many people and many religions, these issues still divide. I am so pleased that these divisions have been overcome in our church and in our denomination the United Church of Christ.
This story says something about our church on this Stewardship Sunday. The church universal and our local church have evolved over time. We have changed as our culture has changed, but I believe more times than not we were ahead of the curve. I hope you have noticed that we are enjoying a renaissance in our church with a plethora of new ideas and new programs to enrich the lives of members and nonmembers alike. Under the auspices of the Board of Deacons, we started our Congregational Center for Wellbeing in the summer of 2017 and the 2017-2018 program year was our first with our new wellbeing emphasis. As you may recall, we launched the Center for Wellbeing to offer programs to people who have no interest in showing up at church at 10 AM on a Sunday morning. I am very pleased to report that by every measure, we exceeded our expectations.
And we could not have done it, and I’m not just being nice, but we couldn’t have done all that we did if not for new church member, therapist, and mindfulness teacher, Rev. Keith Fiveson. One year ago Keith launched an 8 Week Mindfulness Wellness and Health Program. In November, he hosted a program entitled, “The Mind Body Connection.” Continuing in that vein, he hosted an “Eating Awareness” workshop in January. In March, Stacey Kelly, our yoga teacher, brought in her friend, Lorraine Miller, to lead a “Gratitude Workshop.” In the spring, Keith led a two session “Spring Into Mindfulness” gathering.
I am also pleased to report that in addition to our new wellbeing emphasis, we also launched other new ideas. Dr. David Dorman offered monthly current events discussions. In December, Dr. Joe D’Angelo brought an added dimension to our Christmas festivities with a discussion of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In February, we hosted a Valentine Potluck featuring Charlie Temkey singing the songs of Frank Sinatra. In the spring, we ran a 4 week Sunday afternoon Spiritual Cinema series. And then there was our Spring Retreat when we welcomed the largest crowd in well over 25 years to enjoy nationally known minister/stand-up comedian/lawyer/Harley rider, Rev. Susan Sparks (friend of Rev. Maureen Kessler). The retreat brought in over 60 participants.
We ended our remarkable program year with an ambitious series entitled, “Concerts For A Cause” on three subsequent Friday nights, June 1, 8, and 15. The events were a great success on many levels. The performers (Chely Wright, The Wineskins, and Raffi Froundjian) put on great shows that were fun and meaningful for those in attendance. And, thanks to a generous couple who underwrote all three concerts, we were able to raise money for 3 different charities with a connection to our church—Adventures in Learning, the Katie Oppo Research Fund (ovarian cancer), and the Gay Straight Alliance Clubs at Manhasset High School, as well as at Port Washington’s Webber Middle School and Schreiber High School. Through the years, we have had students from our church participate in these GSAs. Many thanks to new member and event planner, Tina Tonorezos, for conceptualizing the decorations and set up for the concerts. Thanks too for all of the volunteers who helped make it happen, especially Dave Meyer who brought his sound system and expertise and David James who worked on the lights. I also want to thank Nancy Nevins, Rev. Amy Karriker, Jacob Burgess, and Colleen Only for their untiring help. Lori and I also did a thing or two to make it happen. Oh yeah, and I heard that The Wineskins’ guest drummer wasn’t half bad, though he shouldn’t quit his day job anytime soon!
And don’t forget, when launching and leading all of these new programs, we continued many programs from previous years—the 9 AM Sunday Seminar, the Fall Theology Class, the Lenten Theology Class, the Thursday morning Bible Study, and the Monday Women’s Prayer Group. Craig Tocher, our Chancel Choir, and soloists gave us 3 wonderful concerts as well as inspiring music week in and week out.
We should also remember the people who attend our Women’s Club and Men’s Club. And those who ably lead our church through our Board of Deacons, Board of Christian Education, Board of Missions and Outreach, Board of Trustees and oodles of committees.
Despite all of our new programming, Lori maintained a full calendar for our youth and children with Sunday School classes, Family Sundays, the weeklong Service Trip to help with hurricane recovery in south Texas, as well as other PF service projects, from apple picking in Wading River, to my daughter Alina’s personal favorite, the annual “messy games” in Lori and Jacob’s backyard. We must remember that Lori leads our immensely popular Women at the Well program which has a dedicated following. This only scratches the surface of the many wonderful things that the Reverend Lori Burgess brings to our church family. Lori and I have been a pretty good team for over 11 years now.
And while we were doing all of these new events and all of our traditional fare, we gathered for worship at 10 AM every Sunday with the exception of a couple of blizzard Sundays. Of course we had all of our traditional Christmas events and our traditional Holy Week services. We continued our Communion Sundays, baptisms, weddings, and too many funerals.
And it’s the funerals that directly impact today’s Stewardship Sunday. In recent years, we have lost some of our most faithful members when it comes to attendance, volunteer hours, and financial donations. We need people who can match or exceed the many hours and large pledges of people who are no longer with us.
We can only continue the renaissance our church is experiencing if we have your faithful support in attendance, in volunteer hours, and in financial giving. Our faithful staff needs to be paid and the upkeep of our building and grounds never ends. Outside of our walls, we support Island Harvest, Adventures in Learning, and so much more. You have always been there for us in the past and I have every confidence you will continue to support us as we follow the Spirit into the new and exciting future that awaits us. After all, we are better together with God and with one another in this warm and wonderful place we call home, our church. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
October 21, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, source of all blessings, we praise you for all your gifts to us, and give thanks for your generosity. Everything we have and creation itself comes from your gracious hand. Help us to be grateful and responsible with these your gifts. You have called us to follow Jesus without counting the cost. May your Holy Spirit give us courage and wisdom to be faithful disciples and good stewards of your bounty. Help us to be grateful and generous, willing to give back as best we can.
Through Jesus Christ our Friend and Brother we pray. AMEN
Adapted from http://www.rcav.org/uploadedFiles/Diocesan_ Offices/ Stewardship/Stewardship%20Prayers(2).pdf