The Messy Church – Sermon on Acts 2:42-47


I’m not sure I fully believe it. Call me a cynic, but I’m not sure I fully believe Luke when he describes the early church. It’s not that I don’t believe that they broke bread or sang songs or grew in number, it’s just I think our memories are biased, and I think Luke’s memory has become idyllic.

It’s why you have a second baby, because some how your brain makes you forget the child-birth, the sleepless nights, the colic, the poopy diapers and all you remember is that little baby and you think, “ it wasn’t that bad, let’s have another one.” How quickly we forget.

We do that with vacations and holidays. We only take pictures of everyone smiling, we don’t take pictures of the temper tantrums and bad traffic. Thus our memories of the event are slanted to the ideal experience and not the actual one. nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but life is messy.

We do that in the church a lot. “Remember the days when the sanctuary was full, the children all knew the Bible by heart and everyone loved each other and everything was perfect?

I think that is what Luke is doing in the book of Acts. The Book of Acts is the one book that tells the story of how the disciples formed the church after Jesus was resurrected. It tells the story of how the disciples created a sacred community. I imagine that Luke wrote this with future communities in mind and so on there best days this is what the church looked like:

They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed where together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

The church in the Book of Acts was a community of people who ate together, treated each other with kindness and generosity, and shared what they had. Their compassion toward each other was contagious and their hospitality toward each other attracted attention by people who were not part of the community. Scholars tell us that they had a radical openness and that their hospitality and inclusivity was so noticeable and controversial and impressive. People who never ate together, rich and poor, men and women, clean and unclean, moral and immoral, all were welcome. That’s the ideal picture. Sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t.

This morning is called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s the Sunday that while we are told this story of the ideal church, also remember we are sheep, which is a pretty humble image. We’d all like to believe we are a little more than sheep.

There is a story of a minister who had all the kids in the congregation up front on the steps for a short children’s sermon, and it was on the 23rd Psalm. He told the children about sheep, that sheep weren’t smart and needed lots of guidance, and that a shepherd’s job was to stay close to the sheep, protect them from wild animals, and keep them from wandering off and doing dumb things that would get them hurt or killed. He pointed to the little children and said that they were the sheep and needed lots of guidance.

Then the minister put his hands out to the side, palms up in a dramatic gesture, and with raised eyebrows said to the children, “If you are the sheep then who is the shepherd?” He was pretty obviously indicating himself. A silence of a few seconds followed. Then one boy said, “Jesus. Jesus is the shepherd.”

The young minister, obviously caught by surprise, said to the boy, “Well then, who am I?” The child frowned thoughtfully, and then said with a shrug, “I guess you must be a sheep dog.”

This was not the ideal children sermon. But it was the ideal message. We all need to remember who is really in charge and who truly is the shepherd.

It is hard for us to think of ourselves as the sheep, to relinquish control, but if we do suspend our skepticism for a moment and actually do think of the image of sheep . . .

 All sheep need a shepherd. If we want to spiritually mature people, we begin with the premise that spirituality happens in the most humbling of circumstances.

I used to think that the ideal spiritual person only prayed on mountain tops or by the sea or in monasteries. I used to think that in order to really be a deeply spiritual person I would need to leave the world behind and enter the peaceful quiet world of some other place. I used to think that in order to have prayer time with God I would need lots of space and lots of quiet. I used to think I knew something about God and spirituality and life.

Now I know better. Now I am a mother.

If you want to find me, I am in one of three places, if I am not at work, I am at home, and if I am not at home, I am in my car or minivan schlepping kids from practice to lessons to school has resulted in me imagining myself cruising down the street in a Harley Davidson or a red mustang convertible. As much has I try to keep the it clean and perfect, I find that life gets in the way. A water bottle gets left behind, stinky soccer socks, piano music, pony tail holders and bobbie pins, a leaf from a fall hike, old homework, handouts and art projects seem to be forever being stored there. I try to always keep hand sanitizer, sunscreen, an extra jacket for each kid, a pocket-size Bible, reading material for upcoming sermons and a communion set , just in case. My car in many ways is a reflection of my life – which can often be messy, harried, and in need of a good wash.

Life doesn’t really happen in a monastery or retreat center. Life happens in messy minivans. That is where conflicts are raised, prayers are said, stories are told and routine becomes prayer.

The ideal is overrated, it is in our messy lives where the Holy happens.

In his book, Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli, puts it this way:

“My life is a mess. After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busyness of my life. I know Jesus is there, somewhere, but it’s difficult to make him out in the haze of everyday life. I want desperately to know God better. I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together. I don’t want to be St. John of the Cross or Billy Graham. I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God, who served others more than he served himself and who was trying to grow in maturity and stability. I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up most days with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is. Even though I am a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my following is…uh.. meandering.” Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People Hardcover
by Mike Yaconelli

How about you? Where are you going and who are you following? How do you know you have faith? How messy has life gotten for you. If you have survived twenty, forty, sixty, eighty years of this life, you have survived something. You have overcome adversity, you have known loss, you have experienced a trial or two. There may have been a time when you didn’t know if you were going to make it. Maybe you chose the wrong road, or loved people too much or not enough. Maybe you have followed too much the devices and desires of your heart, and maybe sometimes your heart called you to be brave, kind and honest and you have not followed through. But even still you did not give up. Why? What kept you going? Maybe you remembered that you are a child of God. Maybe you remembered that you were made in the depths of the earth and that the one who created you and knows you by name has journeyed with you. Maybe you remembered that Christ died for you. So that you could live. Maybe you remembered Christ in the disguise of another person, who forgave you, sacrificed for you, loved you without question. Maybe you remembered Christ in those who gave you strength to carry on. Maybe you remembered Christ in the hospitality of the stranger on the street, the kindness of a friend, the compassion of a neighbor.

What we remember about our messy lives matters.

Writer Anna Quindlen authored an essay on being a mom in which she wrote, “One of the biggest mistakes I made as a mother is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of my three children sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 7, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to go on the next thing: dinner bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”

When I meet with family members and we plan a funeral, they come in raw with grief. The best part is when they start telling me stories of their loved ones. They always tell me the stories of them at their best, at their ideal. The stories of their loved one begins to unravel like yarn and they weave a tapestry of stories about the person they loved, what they liked, what they believed, what they learned, what they taught, that healing begins and the person comes to life in the tapestry of memory. And slowly their cracked, grieving souls are filled with healing grace. Of course the person wasn’t perfect. Of course the person lost their way from time to time, but at the moment what matters is where their light most shined. What mattered were the moments in the sun.

Luke was looking back on the 1st Century church and remembering with love it’s days in the sun when people got along and all loved to sing the same hymns. But the truth is the first church was idyllic not because it was perfect, but because it was messy.

I don’t want to be part of a perfect church. I want to be part of a messy church, where people are real and vulnerable. Where people bring their dirty mini vans, and cluttered cars and their honest stories and we sit across from one another and ask questions and listen and learn and pray and cry and laugh and share. This is the ideal. It’s messy and challenging and joy-filled and honest. And it always, always, always relies on one and only Shepherd who leads us through dark valleys and restores our souls.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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