Philippians 1:3-11

Welcome…and thank you for letting me give the sermon this morning, on Pentecost Sunday and the last Sunday in our worship theme of “Love Letters.”

In case you haven’t heard, we’re moving away in a few weeks, and next year I’ll be attending Interfaith Seminary. On the application there’s an essay question that asks for a description of my spiritual journey and, of course, UCG plays a vital part in the story. As I journaled on this essay question, I realized that I was essentially writing a Love Letter to all of you, to UCG.

I’ve never preached a sermon before, and it’s fitting that I would do this for the first time on the observance of Pentecost – when the Apostle Peter preached his first sermon, spontaneously. Mine, of course, has been carefully written and practiced and is not spontaneous at all, but I’d like to think I’m in good company. It may not be improvised, but like Peter, I am moved by Spirit to share with you today.

In my preparations, our worship theme of “Love Letters” also led me to Paul’s Epistles – letters of support, advice, hope, and love to newly forming congregations that were starting to follow the teachings of Jesus. In a time when people were being oppressed by the will of the Roman government and religious pantheon, Paul was fostering and advising those who dissented from the old ways; he was supporting and encouraging a different way of living, and he did that through letters of love. He shared the insights of his own revelatory experience with others as a way to prop them up, to bolster their courage and strength in changing times.

It is with this intent – to relate my spiritual experience with you, to show you the ways that you have propped me up – that I share this Love Letter.

Dear UCG,

In our first weeks of moving here, almost five years ago, I answered a job ad that was listed as “local nonprofit seeks administrative assistant.” I applied and got a call from Lisa. She said she’d like to interview me, but I should know that this “nonprofit” is a church. She suggested I check out the website and let her know if I was still interested.

Honestly, I got off the phone feeling kind of dejected. A church? Really? Not my bag at all, I thought. I didn’t grow up with church or much religion. I’m spiritual, but not religious. I’m one of those people who dislikes organized religion, I told myself. But I just moved here and I needed a job, so I went to the website.

The first thing I saw was, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.” Ok, that’s nice. Then I came to a circle of rainbow colored people and the phrase “open and affirming.” I read more and more.

Could it be? A Christian church in the south, in my home town, land of a thousand churches, that welcomes people of all faith backgrounds, income levels, sexual preferences, gender identities, everyone? This must be too good to be true, but I decided to go to the interview. It went well and I was assured that I wouldn’t have to work on Sunday, that I wouldn’t be expected to join the church, and that the role was very secular. Fantastic.

When I came in to sign all the official paperwork, Sandy told me that she and Larry were retiring only two months later. My heart sank, and I knew I had to make the most of my time with them. In those short two months, they both taught me so much about having grace in all situations. Luckily for me, and all of us, they have stayed in my life, and I continue to be inspired by their elegance and aplomb.

During the time of transition that followed, Andy and Vince led us with surety and dedication and the whole congregation pitched in. I began to really understand the enormity of the commitment to community that UCG embodies. During that time, I grew closer to the ministers, other employees, and all of you as we collectively experienced this turning point. It was starting to sink in that my function at the front desk meant something. All of my previous experience was blending into one role, and it mattered. I had a job where what I was doing actually made a difference to someone.

And then wonderful Shelly arrived. Our getting-to-know-you period was a little awkward, however, and within a week of her starting, my mother passed away. It happened over Fourth of July weekend while Andy was away at Camp and at staff meeting that week, it was just me, Vince, and Shelly. I cried uncomfortably, feeling bad that she didn’t even know me yet and this is what she was seeing. Vince too – I hadn’t even been there a whole year. Andy called later that day with concern in his voice and I tried to play it cool. Larry and Sandy reached out to me as well. It was in those moments, for the first time in my life, I experienced “pastoral care.” It was then that I learned what it meant to be a minister, what it meant to minister-as-a-verb to others.

In the Apostle Paul’s letters, his goal is to provide guidance and advice to newly forming congregations. These new religious communities were bringing together many different types of people and they were experiencing some growing pains in fellowship with one another. Paul’s message of Jesus’ teachings was new to them and they all had varying interpretations. Rather than letting them fight it out, Paul took action and his letters attempted to give them a framework around which to unify.

He ministered-as-a-verb to these burgeoning churches and the essence of his message was clear – no matter what life you came from, let’s be together in peace without judgment, let’s be nice to each other, show respect and love for each other, and help one another in times of need. And Paul wanted everyone to share in this knowledge, no matter their faith background or economic class. He loved them all, just as Jesus would have, and his mission was to teach them to love one another in turn.

For the last four and a half years I’ve tried to give you my best, and you have shown me your appreciation. And when I wasn’t my best, you didn’t hold it against me. Like Paul, you have not only accepted and loved me, you have allowed me to express and share myself with you. You let me offer, and even signed up for, small groups about spirituality and animals, let me write a prayer for the first Church on the Prairie service, smudge you with incense on All Saints Day, and create the ashes and oil that anoint us on Ash Wednesday; you have let me hug you in times of sadness and joy, we have laughed together and cried together and everything in between. Like Paul and the communities he was serving, we have loved and supported one another.

This is a blessing and a curse. It is these acts of compassion, empathy, understanding, acceptance, and community that have called me away, to pursue Interfaith Ministry.

Some of you may have noticed, but I don’t usually come to church on Sunday, and I haven’t officially joined the church. While I love UCG and the tenets of the UCC, I have never been able to label myself a Christian, or any other faith. I am also not an Atheist or an Agnostic, yet I find I can no longer label myself as “spiritual but not religious.”

Still, though, I cannot say with certainty that I believe one religion to be more true than any another. Even the Feast of Pentecost, that we are observing today, and like many of the religious holidays we observe, has its roots in the ancient festivals of other faiths. Those present at the Feast were observing the Jewish Shavuot, which itself was based on the harvesting of grains, celebrating the end of the barley harvest and the start of the wheat harvest. The abundance of beer and bread is surely worthy of a great and holy festival.

As for what occurred at the Feast, Acts 2: 1-4 tells us that “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Now they weren’t speaking gibberish, but rather the native languages known to others in the room. The Holy Spirit wanted to reach everyone, wanted to be understood and witnessed by all, no matter what language they spoke or what previous religion they came from. You might even say that the Holy Spirit took an interfaith approach to getting the message across.

Its mighty power, previously known only to prophets, priests, and kings, was shown to ordinary people. Spirit chose to make its presence known to them during a time of community, fellowship, and celebration. And the message was delivered in such a way as to cross all linguistic and cultural barriers. The Feast of Pentecost is about being touched by the fire of Spirit and being moved to action, which is something that can be experienced by anyone of any faith.

My sermon today has been influenced by Biblical scripture, so how do I reconcile a call to ministry with not adhering to a particular faith? My calling to ministry has not been as obvious or pointed as what was experienced by those at the Feast of Pentecost, but rather Spirit has called me with whispers, gentle tugs, and delicate, quiet moments. Spirit has called me by providing opportunities to learn about other belief systems. Spirit has called me by fostering beautiful relationships and exposure to great and inquisitive minds, like your own.

Shelly recently told me that I have a “spacious spirituality.” I like this term. It means that my container is large and there is room for everyone. UCG has taught me about compassion-without-borders; taught me about what “organized religion” can look like; shown me the benefit and place religion can have in people’s lives. My time here has led me to pursue a ministry that will support people of all faiths; a ministry that will help people discern the role that religion and spirituality hold in their lives; a ministry that will help people in need of spiritual guidance, no matter what they believe.

I consider the ultimate purpose of all spiritual paths to be respect and love. It is not my intent, then, to convert anyone or, in the opposite, to say that all religions could be unified. If you look carefully at the order of worship today, I’ve chosen every reading and prayer to represent some of the other faiths that exist in the world because they are all inspiring. Each path has its own wisdom and I know that Interfaith Seminary will teach me how to meet people where they are, honor what they believe and practice, and stand beside them in their spiritual journey.

Again, my time with you is a blessing and a curse. It is all of you, this community, that have helped me discern this path in life, but now I must move forward. Peter’s first sermon, sort of like mine, was inspired by the passion of his spirituality and it was Paul’s ambition to provide spiritual encouragement and comfort to his community. These are the same motivations leading me to pursue Interfaith Ministry. You all have shown me through real life actions that it is really true, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here.” It is not the message of a particular faith I wish to spread, but rather that of this community – a place that lives into what they believe, more so than any other I’ve experienced. For that, I am forever grateful.

With all my love and gratitude.

My friends, when you go from here
know that our hearts are always in a holy place,
for we are always connected to one another.
Know that deep down, our hearts beat in one universal rhythm.
May we each find the sacred space to hear it.
May Spirit bless and guard you;
May Spirit shed light upon you
May Spirit be gracious to you;
May Spirit lift you up and bring you peace.
~ Hebrew Priestly Blessing (adapted)

Readings from the service:

Bahá’i Prayer for Peace
Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity.
Be fair in judgement, and guarded in speech.
Be a lamp unto those who walk in darkness, and a home to the stranger.
Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring.
Be a breath of life to the body of humankind,
a dew to the soil of the human heart, and a fruit upon the tree of humility.

Daily Thanksgiving Prayer of The Onodaga Nation of Ontario and Quebec
Let us give thanks to each other as people.
to the Earth, mother of all.
to the Four Winds, for purifying the air we breathe and giving us strength.
Let us give thanks to the Sun, for the light of a new day.
to the Stars for their mystery, beauty, and guidance.
to our Teachers from all times, reminding us of how to live in harmony.
Let us give thanks to that which has been forgotten, for now we remember.
Let us give thanks for all the gifts of creation and for all the love around us.

Buddhist Prayer for Healing
May all beings plagued with suffering of body and mind quickly be freed from their illnesses.
May those frightened cease to be afraid, and may those bound be free.
May the powerless find power, and may people think of befriending one another.
May those who find themselves in fearful wilderness be guarded by Spirit.

Hindu Prayer to the Divine
Sing the song of celestial love, O singer!
May the divine fountain of eternal grace and joy enter your spirit.
May the Divine One pluck the strings of your inner soul with its celestial fingers,
that you may feel its presence within.
Bless us with a divine voice that we may tune the harp-strings of our life
to sing songs of Love to you.