Time, Devotion and Clergy Nirvana

We’re on Day 22 of our Great 50 Days of Easter, and our lessons turn from Resurrection Appearances to how we are to follow Jesus.  We got the great lesson from Acts 2 where we hear that tons of people began to follow the Way of Jesus and devoted themselves to this endeavor.

It’s enough to make any clergy person giddy.

So that’s what I talk about in my sermon.  Here you go.

Easter 4A—Acts 2:42-47 

            If you talk to clergy about the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, you will probably encounter some good old- fashioned envy.  What we clergy know as well is that in the previous verse we hear the results of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  It’s a pastor’s utopia, with the people spending much time at the temple, with their generous hearts sharing their possessions with one another and the Lord adding to their number each day.  A priest could sit and daydream about such a place for hours.

But then something in our heads pops up and says, “Wake up and smell the coffee.  Such a place doesn’t exist, at least not today.”  It’s easy to give in to this “nostalgia for those biblical days,” as one pastor put it.[1]  But, he warns, “from there it is a short step to nostalgia for our own church’s better days, when pews were full, programs were exciting and we had an impact on the large community.”  We don’t live in those times anymore, for better or for worse.  We live in the here and now, and longing for the past will leave us blind to the present.  It will so shade our understanding of things that we will lose our focus and mission in the present day.

So I want to assure you that this is not a sermon in which I ask why you all can’t be more like those first converts a couple of millennia ago, which would lead to me pointing a stern finger and having you all feel guilty and also questioning your desire to ever come back here again.  I want to live in the present day, and see it for the blessing and challenge that it is.  “Holding all things in common,” and pooling all of our money won’t work today, and in fact, it wasn’t even something that happened in other churches throughout Acts.

Yet I don’t want to go on as if there is nothing to learn from this text either.  This is a challenging piece of scripture if we allow ourselves to hear it.  Rather than imagining clergy nirvana, what might these verses be saying to us in 2011—this post-modern, fragmented, overly-busy world that we live in?

Personally I am not really struck by the sharing of money here, but by the deep building of community that happened.  We’re told that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  Those words may sound familiar, since it is the first of five questions asked of us when we renew our baptismal covenant or baptize someone for the first time.  “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” we are asked.  “I will with God’s help,” we respond whole heartedly.

They did this, these first followers of Christ.  They devoted themselves to this.  They spent much time, day by day, together.  In worship, in sharing meals.  In living their lives in community.

If I had to speculate about what keeps many of us from this kind of life—that is a life centered on our faith, building community, saying the prayers—I would say quite certainly that for many it is one thing.  Time.  We are so mind-numbingly busy in our day and age that we hardly have time to rest, let alone fully putting our faith into practice.  We are overly scheduled.  Both us and our kids.  Even those who are retired will often say that they have never been busier in their lives.  Often in social settings this topic comes up, and we talk about our over-loaded schedules almost with a sense of pride, each trying to outdo the other.  We think it makes us important.  Or we don’t know how to say no.  Or we are scared to face the demons of our inner life so we keep ourselves busy so that we never have to.

I promised not to head down the road of nostalgia to a time when 24 hours was magically longer than it is today, nor would I stand up here and point a finger saying that you must add more things to your overly-extended calendars.  So how do we do this?  How do we devote ourselves to the life Jesus wants for us as his followers?

If there were easy answers, I could write the book and make a bundle.  Many have tried, of course, and the results are all somewhat unsatisfying.  There aren’t magic bullets in the spiritual life, no pill we can take that will somehow make everything better.  It is, I think, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction.  I think it takes intentionality and perseverance.  Without either of those two, our faith life will take a back seat to the other distractions in our lives.  And for many of us—a great deal in fact—it’s because we don’t know how to live into this life.  We haven’t been taught how, or given a reason to see its importance.  And that, if I am honest, is because we who are clergy have failed you.  We have for too long felt as if we needed to hold the information to ourselves and give it out in palatable doses, or we think that you aren’t mature enough or intelligent enough to handle such a life, or we think that you won’t listen to us anyway so why should we bother.  Or, if I am even more honest, it’s because many of us haven’t been really taught how to live this type of life ourselves.  And for that, on behalf of all the clergy you have known and let you down, I am truly sorry.

You see, I think Jesus invites us into a better life.  The way life is meant to be.  Peace in our homes, deep and lasting friendships, time set aside for prayer, caring for one another, enjoyment of God’s many blessings, compassion for those who face injustice, having generous hearts, finding fulfillment in the work we do in this world.  But this life often gets lost in the busyness of our days.

I’ve recently discovered a blog written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of the board for Thomas Nelson Publishing.  He writes a great deal about productivity and the things that steal our time, and about intentionality.  He says that many of us spend more time planning our vacations than we spend on planning our lives.  We live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, experience to experience.  And so we may, like I have been doing this weekend, give hours of our time to watching the Red Sox and Yankees, while also feeling as if we have no time to devote to the life we desire.  If you desire a certain type of life—and I hope you’re like me and desire the life that Jesus wants for us—you have to make a plan.

That sounds so much like a First World problem, but in my understanding of things, I cannot think of any other way to put it.  If we start with the reality of our overly-busy lives (also a First World problem), then most of us cannot address our desire for a new life without intentionality.  If we desire authenticity in faith and devotion to Jesus, we must begin somewhere.  And we begin best of all by making a covenant to look at our lives honestly to see where we spend our time, and then finding a way—even if it’s small—to begin living the life Christ calls us to.

Imagine if each person at St. Mark’s covenanted to spend 10 minutes each morning and each evening in prayer and reading of scripture.  20 minutes a day.  The average adult watches somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of television a day.[2]  You may not be the average adult, but I suspect you could find that pocket of time for prayer if you wanted to.

And I want to covenant with you that I will be a priest that provides you with the tools you need to live this life.  I will spend my days by giving you ideas and tips for living this way, in deepening relationships with you, in providing opportunities for you to devote yourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And I will invite you to walk alongside me, and share in this leadership.  I cannot do this work alone–that is a damaging fallacy that has run its course much too long in our churches.  All of the disciples, and apostles were lay people.  They were folks like you who had families and day jobs and had to pay their taxes and all the rest.  The Way Jesus invites us into is not only for those who are seminary trained.  We are all called to walk in this way, to grow and deepen in our faith and to share that faith with others.

If as a community St. Mark’s lived in this fashion, I bet we would see the same sorts of things happening here that they saw in the Early Church.  That we would worship together, sharing meals with one another with a spirit of generous hospitality, praising God for our many blessings and caring deeply about the goodwill of all people.  This is the life Jesus holds out before us.  I pray that we intentionally desire this life for us and for others in this community, and that we devote ourselves to authentically following Christ.  Amen.


[1] Gary Neal Hansen, “Acts 2:42-47 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, eds David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Pg 424.

[2] http://www.emarketer.com/blog/index.php/time-spent-watching-tv-tops-internet/ Accessed 5/12/11