Our story begins with a vision in the night, a dream that seems to give direction. So many good stories begin with a dream… Throughout human history, we have stories of new journeys, new beginnings, new energy, commencing with a vision of what might be.
Many of you have heard pieces of my story- of how the Spirit sent pieces of a vision, of how I set out to start a new church from scratch, of how I followed my foolish heart to the Silicon Valley in northern California to live a call to be a spiritual entrepreneur, of how I followed a dream and a vision to share a word of wild love with those untouched by the power of faith community. I set out to reach people who weren’t already in our congregations, people who had been bored by church, hurt by church, left hungry or lonely. And I was convinced that the people God wanted me to reach were people, well like me… I thought it was all about: Young professionals. In a high-tech hub who needs spiritually infused community more than energetic, high-minded, well-educated young people? So we launched a new progressive church with a worship service at 8 p.m. in downtown San Jose in a theater with a bar. It seemed just perfect. But after a couple of weeks in, something was wrong. People were coming, but it wasn’t a hip, young crowd. It wasn’t who I thought. The most enthusiastic about our vision, the most willing to share the time to make it happen, the early adopters … were mostly Baby Boomers. It took me a while to see it, because I was looking for something else.
In the book of Acts, Paul was absolutely sure he knew exactly what his dream meant. He awoke and shared of a man from Macedonia asking for help. The text says he was, “convinced that God had called…” And we don’t read of any group discussion, or of any doubts among him or any of them. It simply says that they all set sail and eventually arrived at Philippi, a leading city of the district of Macedonia. Now Paul was the sort of person who loved a pattern. He stuck to his plan and he followed it at every stop. The Book of Luke, which many scholars believe shares the writers of the Book of Acts, tells us exactly what Paul did when he entered a new town: he went to the synagogue, shared his message with the men about Jesus being the messiah and then hoped for a good response. Of course each place offered a mixed reaction.1 But he kept on. At each new town, he followed this patter. Find the synagogue, talk to the men, carry on. He didn’t stop to ponder the big questions: How can we possibly grow this movement from where we are right now? What would be needed to build Beloved Community from a pile of Wisdom teachings, some weird stories and not a lot of treasure?
Even though Paul was the kind of guy who loved his plan and followed it faithfully at every stop, you might recall that earlier in the book of Acts, we do have an example of him changing course, there Paul literally changes direction because of an encounter on the road to Damascus. And now in this part of the story, as one scholar put it, “God sets Paul’s course…by vetoing Paul’s strategic plan.”2
Does anyone else know what it is like when God or the Universe seems to veto your strategic plan? I do.
The Spirit had something else in mind because this time, Paul doesn’t meet the men, instead he has an encounter with a woman. And she doesn’t even have a man with her, which is notable for the historical context of this unfolding. This time, it’s Lydia. It was so not what Paul had planned that he likely could have gone the other way, but instead… he went with it. Instead, he kept the channel open, just to see what might happen. And that’s exactly what innovation is- it is keeping the channel open, to dare leaving a familiar pattern to see what happens, it is being willing to creatively respond to a need.
The word “innovate,” literally to make new, throughout history had generally negative connotations. Edmund Burke called the French Revolution a “revolt of innovation”; Federalists declared themselves to be “enemies to innovation.” George Washington, on his deathbed, was said to have whispered these words, “Beware of innovation in politics.” Noah Webster warned in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”3 Innovation “signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end.” The tone in general: Beware of innovation.
In 2012, near the beginning of the process of creating a new church in Silicon Valley, I received a letter in the mail. Our family had been in San Jose about a year and I had used my initial contacts to host some events. I co-wrote a piece in the San Jose Mercury News about spiritual awakenings and it inspired a retired minister from Saratoga to send me a two-page typed letter. He chastised me poetically complaining about my terrible use of the words “radically inclusive and unapologetically progressive,” my descriptors for the new community. And in response to my declaration that we would sing music of all kinds he wrote, “The music you yearn for, will be passé in a few years, but Bach will still be going strong… I should send out a notice to all the organ builders about you, “Beware the adversary in the Valley.”
“Beware the adversary in the Valley.”
He ended his caustic piece with this, “I do wish you well and pray that your ministry may over time become more firmly fixed in the pattern of the historic Christian faith.”
It was as if he was saying: Beware of innovation.
But here’s the thing, innovation does not ignore the patterns of history, instead it draws deeply from them, it builds on them, adds to them, glorifies them by drawing from them new possibilities. Innovation examines what is at the heart and asks how it can be made new, how it can be expressed in this moment to add love, justice, hope, peace, possibility and more. Innovation requires history as its co-creator.
It was 1828 when Hungarian, Ányos Jedlik, invented an early type of electric motor and it was in 1834 that a blacksmith in Vermont named Thomas Davenport, who built something similar that operated on a short circular electrified track. And in 1835, two Professors in the Netherlands created a small-scale electrical car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.Electric cars that have shown up in this decade are innovative indeed, but it doesn’t mean their presence is novel, it means they are a fresh reordering of technology that was created before. The new stuff cannot exist apart from the patterns that preceded it. It builds on them.
In my circles of religious leaders, I often feel a sense of distress and anxiety. Religion, like journalism, healthcare, transportation and more is being disrupted and for some this is simply too much to take. No longer is it clear what is needed or where we are headed. There is a sense that right in front of our eyes, foundations are crumbling or at least illusions of the strength of particular institutions are unraveling. And among them, of course are churches.
There are some who say that the Church is dying or at the least the Church as we have known it. Perhaps religion cannot be saved from abuse of power, toxic patriarchy, oppressive hierarchies? Maybe Christianity in particular has done more harm than good? Maybe we might all be better off building non-profits in our local communities?
Perhaps we aren’t far from where this all began, where we find ourselves asking: How can we possibly grow this movement from where we are right now? What is needed to build Beloved Community from a pile of Wisdom teachings, some weird stories and not a lot of treasure?
I believe, Paul points the way. He remains open and Lydia changes the course of history. She is baptized and becomes a leader herself. We are called to share what we know, what we love, to give our gifts, even when what unfolds is was so not what we had planned. In this time, we don’t have to know exactly what to do, rather our strategy is this: Keep the channel open, daring to leave a familiar pattern to see what happens, being willing to creatively respond to a need.
In preparation for today I was thinking of all of the experiments we have done together since I arrived and I want to celebrate that. Community Office Hours, intergenerational Ash Wednesday service with bubbles, prayer stations, spiritual mapping in small groups, a Prayground, and next week a spiritual hike. We need not be afraid of the how of this time, instead let us bring ancient patterns forward with new life. Let us not miss who and where God brings us because we were looking for something else.
In her words to Agnes DeMille, Martha Graham spoke of “a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.”
She said, “You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you. Keep the channel open.”
Beloved of God, this is innovation, this is newness in our lives, in our neighborhood and in this congregation. Let us keep the channel open, daring to bring familiar patterns into this moment, just to see what happens, it is being willing to creatively respond to a need. Agnes De Mille was a dancer and she also said, “The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” Leaping in the dark…”
Experimenting. Failing. Leaping in the dark. Keeping the channel open. This is our call. May it be so. Amen.
1 Paul Walaskay in Feasting on the Word:
2 David Forney in Feasting on the Word: Sixth Sunday after Easter Acts 16:9-15