31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
April 3, 2016
Mark 1: 16-20
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
The First Congregational Church is a church of welcome and hospitality. We welcome all people to participate in this community, ministry, and mission, regardless of whether you are a member or not. There comes a time though when people want to make a commitment to the First Congregational Church. They want to become an active member, investing their energy and resources in our shared ministry.
Today, Rev. Ruth Chartier, Jan Gaski, Michael Krauss, and Rickey & Mitzi Bouffard in absentia, will be promising to faithfully follow God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and covenanting with the members of this church to share fully in our work to welcome all, nurture all, and go forth to transform the world with Christ’s love.
It’s a big commitment, yet a simple ceremony, and it’s simplicity would have been totally unacceptable to our Puritan Congregationalist forebears. To become a member of the church and be allowed to participate in communion and also have the right to vote in society, a Puritan had to be a “visible saint”. They had to be baptized and be able to “point to a specific experience of divine grace.” (Martin Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, pg 111)
Requiring a conversion experience – It sounds more like a Pentecostal or Seventh Day Adventist church than the forebears of the United Church of Christ. We do not talk a lot about conversion experiences or being born again. Few of us can point to one specific time when God took a hold of our lives, a moment when Jesus called us by name to follow him and become disciples, a time when our hearts burned with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
In the United Church of Christ, we are more likely to talk about our Christian journey of faith, little stepping stone moments when we grew in our relationship with God.
Faith is a journey. My faith is not the same as it was when I was confirmed and joined the church as a teenager. My faith is not the same as it was when I was ordained as a twenty-something. My faith is not even the same as it was four years ago before I became a mother and breast cancer survivor. The journey of life changes us, and our faith changes as well.
That said, when we only see faith as a journey, when we do not expect transformational moments when the Holy Spirit sets our hearts on fire with love for God, we can become lax in knowing when we have progressed, grown, matured in our faith.
The twelve had a transformational experience when Jesus personally invited them to leave behind their jobs as fishermen and accept his call to be fishers of men. For three years, they followed him throughout the countryside, listening to his teaching, witnessing his healing, being sent out themselves to heal.
They were disciples. They were students – learning, watching, soaking in all of Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God, but in their three years with Jesus, did the twelve ever expect graduation day to come? Were they prepared for the moment when the teacher would entrust his ministry to them?
Well, whether they were ready for it or not, graduation day came on Easter. After the resurrection, as Jesus prepared to ascend to heaven, Jesus taught them one last thing – they were students no longer. They would be empowered by God’s Holy Spirit and become witnesses, messengers, apostles.
And regardless of the fears and questions they had before, the twelve readily accepted that this was their moment to be transformed from disciples to apostles, from students to servants, from receivers to messengers.
When was that transformational moment in your life? Was it when you were confirmed or joined the church? Did the Holy Spirit burn inside your heart empowering you to share the good news of God’s love? Was it on a retreat or in a time of crisis? When was that transformational moment when you were changed from follower to messenger, minister of God’s love?
Jesus the Christ has commissioned all of us to be his witnesses, his messengers. We have been transformed by the amazing resurrection of Jesus Christ, and now is our time to share the good news of God’s amazing, unconditional love.
So this Eastertide, I have a three-part challenge for you, a challenge for you to complete before Pentecost on May 15th. It’s not to have a conversion or born again experience. You cannot plan or orchestrate those moments when God will set your heart on fire.
Instead, your challenge is to blow on the fire the Holy Spirit placed in your heart on your baptism day. To cultivate that fire by being Christ’s messenger, sharing your faith in God with others.
Share it first with another member of this church community. Share it next with a family member or child in your life. Then, share your witness with someone who does not attend our faith community: a neighbor, friend, co-worker.
Share in it a simple way, saying, “I believe God is love.” Or “I believe God listens to our prayers.” Point to the sky and speak of God’s amazing creation. Tell them you are thankful to God for their presence in your life and why. Be bold and tell them about a time when God was real in your life, guiding you, watching over you, bringing peace to your heart.
A number of years ago, Rev. Ken Brookes, the Senior Pastor Emeritus of our sister church in Newington, preached here. At the end of his sermon, he gave us a challenge – to sum up the good news of Jesus in 7 words. He then told everyone to email me their seven words. No one did.
I was on maternity leave at the time, but I am not going to let you off the hook so easily now. Over the next fifty days, be prepared that I am going to ask you how you are witnessing to the love of God. I’m going to ask, not to guilt you, but because Jesus asked. Because it’s important for us to witness to the love of Jesus. Knowing God loves us, being able to trust in God’s eternal presence saves lives, our own and others.
Last Thursday night, a few of us attended the Family Promise meeting to learn more about our upcoming ministry hosting homeless children and their families. Members of the core team gave their testimony about why they felt called to participate in Family Promise. They were powerful stories with Marie’s being the most personal. Through no fault of her own, Marie had once been homeless.
Because of the lack of family shelters, she was separated from her grandson and daughters, one of her daughters having barely turned 17. It was a painful, difficult time, and her eyes welled up with tears as she remembered not being to care for her children. And then she said – But God was with me through it all. God gave me the strength to keep going. God did not do this to me, but God used this to make my testimony stronger!
You could feel the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Marie. It warmed the room and transformed our lives, deepening our commitment to this ministry.
That is the power of testimony. That is the power of being Christ’s witnesses. Every time we tell someone about God’s presence in our lives, it transforms them, warms them with the Holy Spirit, and it transforms us, warming us from the inside out, empowering us to build the kingdom of God, here on earth for all people.