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Discontinuous Change

Acts 1:1-11

(Sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, in May, 2018)


When I graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in the Spring of 1966, there were about 50 students in my graduating class, and every single one of us received a call.  In those days, there were approximately 800 vacant positions across the denomination each year, making it possible for a healthy movement of pastors in addition to the wealth of opportunities for seminary graduates.  The Presbyterian Church, along with all the sister mainline denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Disciples) was thriving.  In those good old days, there was such a thing as denominational loyalty, meaning, if and when you moved to another town, city, or community, anywhere in the country, you shopped for another Presbyterian Church to transfer your membership.  As Tod Bolsinger, the author of Canoeing the Mountains, a popular book on Christian leadership in uncharted territory, puts it:  Our mainline churches could enjoy a “home court” advantage.  Our churches grew simply by baptizing all the babies born each year; we didn’t have to work very hard at evangelism and church growth.  On my first Wednesday on the job here at Calvary, I witnessed my first Wednesday Play Group.  The WPG reminded me of my very first call after seminary, which coincidentally, was to Calvary Presbyterian Church in Riverside, CA.  One of the most popular programs at Calvary Riverside was the weekly Mothers’ Club.  Mothers brought their infants and toddlers to the church where childcare was provided and the mothers could enjoy a program of fellowship, sharing, and study.  At the WPG here at Calvary SF, there were a handful of mothers and grandmothers; I witnessed, however, an overwhelming number of nannies!  In the good old days, there was such a thing as families surviving on ONE 40 hour work week income.  As a result, our churches could enjoy a huge pool of volunteers.  Finding elders and deacons, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, meal preparers and servers, drivers, receptionists, childcare providers.  Whatever help was needed, volunteers could be found.  We can no longer enjoy those good old days, can we?  The Presbyterian Church has been shoved to the sidelines.  Quoting Tod Bolsinger again:  “Sundays are more about soccer and Starbucks than about Sabbath.”  

What we are experiencing these days is tantamount to what the first century Jewish Christians faced as described in today’s reading from the Book of Acts.  The incredible news and appearances of the resurrected Christ have been replaced by the catastrophic destruction not only of the Temple, but of the Holy City, Jerusalem, 30 plus years later.  The Romans had devastated the Holy City, slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews.  And the remainder of the residents were marched out of the city in chains.  So the early Jewish Christians were struggling to make sense of this catastrophe.

I. Our times are not so catastrophic and we don’t face such threats as the first century Jewish Christians.  But the future of our denomination and of our congregations, including Calvary, is no less uncertain.  Acts chapter one describes the period of time when the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus had ended.  It was a period of transition, an interim period.  It is the in-between season between Easter and Pentecost.  The lectionary could not have provided a more appropriate text for me, your Transitional Pastor, to preach on.  In today’s reading, Jesus is quoted as saying:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  At the precise moment Jesus finished making this promise, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of sight.  So what did Luke the writer of the 2 volume—Luke-Acts–have in mind in this transitional chapter? 

In the first volume, the Gospel of Luke, we find Luke’s narrative of God’s saving activity in Jesus; and in the second volume, Acts, we read about God’s saving activity in the Holy Spirit.  Chapter one of Acts, commonly known as the story of the Ascension of the Lord, is the transition point, marking the end of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances to his disciples and the prelude to the sending of the Holy Spirit.  To put it simply, God’s promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower the disciples cannot happen until Jesus departs from the scene, is out of the picture.  The Ascension is about removing Jesus from center stage, in preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Calvary is in that interim period, that time of transition, before the call and arrival of your next Head of Staff.

II. Acts 1:6 captures the emotions of such transition times well.  The Apostles’ question to Jesus helps us to appreciate the depth of their anxiety; and for congregations in transition to appreciate that they are not alone in how they are feeling.  The Apostles’ question reveals what they hope will happen next.  Listen:  “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  The hope and expectation behind their question is the messianic return of King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history; and that Jesus would restore the political fortunes of Israel, overthrowing the hated Roman occupiers.  Their question is not much different than the questions some of us are asking:  When and how will our beloved denomination be restored to our good old days and reclaim our mainline status?  When will you help restore and rebuild Calvary Presbyterian Church to its former glory, to the church we once knew and loved in the good old days?

Listen to me carefully.  As long as we see the future of our church only from the perspective of the past, as good as the past was, we will miss Pentecost!  Instead of being opened and receptive to the wild and wondrous movement of the Holy Spirit, we will instead be preoccupied with trying to domesticate, to curbing and controlling the Spirit.  We are living in times of “Discontinuous Change.”  Discontinuous change is different from Continuous Change in that our familiar strategies and programs don’t work.  It is no longer enough to have our pastors read the latest best seller on church growth, or for sessions to come up with a glitzy marketing strategy and adding another worship service, or for church staffs to work harder at what they’ve always done in the past.  “The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.”

III. I have always been drawn to the Exodus story, to the experience of the Israelites’ dramatic departure from Egypt and journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land; which is why Sharon and I so enjoyed Calvary’s Chancel Choir and Orchestra presentation of Handel’s Israel in Egypt concert in April.  It was far from an easy journey and it certainly took a long long time—40 years to be exact.  One of the most important aspects of that journey was how to detach Egypt from the new and transformed lives they would discover in the Promised Land.  As you well know, the Israelites were tempted on more than one occasion to return to their former lives, to the fleshpots of Egypt.  So you see, we all have to acknowledge that we live with deep, default maps, maps which inform us how to respond to challenges and change.  We are hard-wired to believe and to structure and to organize the world in a certain way so that with the right knowledge and the right information and the right strategy, we will manage these changing times if we work hard enough at it.  But in these times of Discontinuous Change, our default maps don’t work.  Like the Israelites needing to detach Egypt from their lives (and it took 40 years to do it), we need to detach, to let go of our default mode.  God is ahead of us.  God is in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.  God is in the daily portion of manna.  The Israelites didn’t have an endowment fund to fall back on.  We are called to rely on the Holy Spirit in these times of discontinuous change.  We are like the trapeze artist flying through the air, having let go of the old bar but not yet having reached the new bar.

Tod Bolsinger reminds us that “people don’t resist change; they resist loss.”  As you read in the recent letter from the Session, there will not be a Mt. Hermon family conference this year.  For many of you, that is a huge loss.  I am still in pain from my daughter leaving home for college (that was over 30 years ago).  I grieve not having my mother around on this Mother’s Day.  In these times, it is not about measuring success by way of numbers and statistics; but about the willingness to experiment, to try something new and different.  It is about the willingness to take risks, to learn from mistakes, and going from failure to failure.  The reality we face is that our churches will die of boredom first; before the controversies we engage in kill us.  Congregations that thrive, thrive because they have a distinctive stance, an identity, a message.  And it is not measured by numbers.  Jesus preached about the leaven, the salt, the remnant.  It is not about triumphalism, of building empires.  We are a minority movement.  At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, of the 500 plus African American churches in the Southern States, only 20 supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  


In these times of Discontinuous Change, it is wild and scary.  I remind you that from the beginning, the church belongs to God.  Calvary Presbyterian Church belongs to God.  The city of San Francisco belongs to God.  God is already here in our neighborhood.  In his new book, “Faith: A Journey for All,” former President Jimmy Carter wrote that despite believing he had only weeks to live following a cancer diagnosis in 2015, he had no fear of dying.  He was asked, “do you believe in an afterlife?”  Jimmy Carter answered:  “Yes.  I’m perfectly willing to leave it up to God.  I didn’t have anything to do with when I was born or who my parents were, and I trust God also with the question about my afterlife.”  He was then asked:  “What do you think it might be like?”  Carter then said:  “I have no idea, but the Bible compares our rebirth to an acorn becoming a tree and a seed becoming a flower.  So a transformation of some kind.”

A transformation of some kind—that is what Calvary Presbyterian Church can look forward to!

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