FIRST LESSON Mark 14:1-11
SECOND LESSON Romans 5:6-11
TIME FOR CHILDREN Exodus 20:1-17 and 32:1-14
Sunday, February 28, 2016
There are two basic questions which the Christian Church has been wrestling with ever since the days of Adam and Eve. The first is the question of good and evil – why do bad things happen to good people? Or, how can a kind, loving God let so many bad things happen to good people? We’ve struggled with that question for thousands of years. Sometimes we have reasonably good answers and sometimes we have bad answers, and we never really have answers that satisfy completely.
The second question is also a question of good and evil: how can sinful people live with a perfect God? For all the years of human history, people have faced that very tough question, too. We don’t always have words for that, or at least very good words, so over the years we’ve developed all kinds of pictures and stories to help us understand the relationship between a perfect God and very imperfect people. And the Bible is full of these pictures and stories.
When Paul thinks about how a perfect God relates to imperfect people, the answer is always Jesus. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome to people who lived about twenty or thirty years after Jesus had died. And when Paul wanted to write to these Romans about Jesus and what his death meant, he used language that the Romans in those years would have easily understood. The Romans were great law makers. They had carefully constructed, complex, detailed laws about this and that and everything else and their legal system stretched all over the Mediterranean world. They understood all about penalties for crimes. They knew very well that when people do something wrong, they have to pay for it. They all had slaves and they understood that when slaves disobey, there are strong consequences for that. They knew all about people being crucified when they committed offenses against the Roman government. So when Paul wants to talk with them about how it is that sinful people live with a holy and perfect God, he calls on those images. He talks about God’s anger, and he talks about laws and disobedience and penalties and slavery and death. Those are Paul’s pictures.
Just a minute ago we read from the Confession of 1967. In a part of that confession which we didn’t read, the writers mention some of those pictures and stories about a perfect God and imperfect people: They say that Jesus is like a good shepherd who dies protecting his sheep. They say that Jesus is like that lamb in the Old Testament stories who was sent off far into the wilderness to disappear forever, carrying all the peoples’ sins on his back. They say that Jesus pays a debt for sinful people. They say that Jesus is victorious over the powers of evil in his death and resurrection. We’ll read those parts of the confession in a couple of weeks. Sometimes we say that Jesus is the bridge between God and people. Because of Jesus, we can walk on a bridge over the deep chasm between ourselves and God. And of course there are other images as well.
The central theme of the Confession of 1967 is reconciliation. In 1967, if you remember the Viet Nam war was at its height. There was a real threat of worldwide nuclear disaster. There was tension between the races, and those were the years of what we called the “race riots.” Men and women were fighting it out and women were battling for equality. (Those were actually the words we used.) It was a painful, distressing time – full of tensions. And to our great credit, the Presbyterian Church in those years said, “There needs to be a word from God in the middle of all this. And,” they said, “the word is ‘reconciliation.’ People are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and it is now the task of the church to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world.” Those were the pictures in the Confession of 1967.
So let me give you one picture of what this reconciliation looks like, drawn from the entire story of God’s relationship with people.
Starting with Adam and Eve. God put Adam and Eve into a gorgeous garden. And before they could even begin to dig up any carrots or and smell all the roses, God said to them, “I’m your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. And here’s how it’s going to be between us: I’m going to care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and you’re going to follow my instructions.” And before you know it, Adam and Eve had done precisely what God had told them not to do. God had said, “Don’t eat that. If you eat it you’ll die.” And they ate it. So God said “I am deeply disappointed. I am hurt to my very core. I am furious with you. But I can’t let you die. You’re mine and I love you. I made you and I named you and I can’t let you die.” So instead, God had another punishment for Adam and Eve.
And all through human history it’s been that way. God comes to almost every Biblical character and says pretty much the same thing. “I am your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And in return, you’re going to follow my instructions.” But before very long at all, the whole world had disobeyed and God would have been justified in killing them all. And then came Noah. And God said, “I’m deeply disappointed. I’m hurt to my very core, I’m furious with the whole lot of you. But I can’t let you all die.” So Noah and his family were saved.
Pretty soon, God gave the Ten Commandments, and it was the same story. (the story I told the children just now) God said to that motley band of former slaves, “I am your God. I love you. I have named you and claimed you and rescued you and I have made you my very own people. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and here are my instructions for you.” And God gave them the ten commandments. And the very first thing they did was make a gold cow to worship instead of God - which God had made a point of telling them precisely not to do. And for centuries, they disobeyed God’s very explicit instructions, and they didn’t care a bean that God loved them and had named them and claimed them and cared for them exquisitely.
So God said, “Maybe you’re a little hard of hearing. Maybe you can’t hear me. I’ll send prophets. They’ll get right into your face and talk loudly at you and they’ll speak the words I tell them to say.” And the prophets did. They stormed into palaces and shouted on the street corners for centuries and threatened horrible things, and still people didn’t respond. The prophets said, “You’re not doing what God asks you to do, and the consequences are going to be drastic.” And they were. The best and the brightest of them were marched off to Babylon for years and years. But they didn’t all die. And some of them came back to their homeland. And after centuries and centuries of that, and after centuries and centuries of chances upon chances and prophets upon prophets upon prophets, God finally said, “I love you. I made you and I named you and I claimed you and I care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And I can see that you can’t follow my instructions. You simply don’t have it in you. You didn’t hear me when I spoke. And you didn’t listen to the prophets when they spoke. You turned your backs on me time and time again over centuries and centuries and you ignored my love and you didn’t care that I had named you and claimed you, and you didn’t do as I asked you to. So now my son and I are going to do this. He’s going to follow my instructions and it won’t matter that you can’t and you don’t have to do anything at all. He’ll show you what I have in mind for the world. He’ll do as I want you all to do. And when I look at your sorry little selves, all I’ll see is my perfect son Jesus.”
And that’s how it happened, my beloved. And that’s why I say to you all the time that has God has made us and named us and claimed us and that God loves us exquisitely. And I say it to you so often because I want so much for you to hear it and know it in the time I am with you.
First Lesson: Mark 11:20-25
Second Lesson: Romans 5:1-5
Children’s story: Romans 1:8-13
Sunday, February 21, 2016
A few years ago now, my Uncle John passed away. Our families were always very close and I still have a close relationship with his children, my cousins. At his funeral, the pastor spoke about this passage that we have just read from the book of Romans. He went on and on for about forty-five minutes, and the gist of it all was to say how very happy God was that my uncle had suffered in his last days. My uncle was a good man. A sincere, deeply committed Christian man. He was an elder in his church forever and ever. He was kind to his very core and had a gentle little sense of humor. He was a very astute, very successful business man. He had three children – one of them is a judge in Grand Haven, another is a nurse in Grand Rapids, and another is a musician in Italy. He loved his wife dearly and he had an open heart toward everybody he ever met. There would have been a great plenty for any pastor to thank God about in Uncle John’s life. But this pastor had to go on and on and on about how happy God was and how good it was that he had suffered in his last years. I squirmed and fidgeted and got very antsy and angry in my seat and if I hadn’t been sitting way in the very front next to my mother I would have walked out. I do not believe that God is happy when we suffer. I do not believe that for a moment. I believe that God cries right along with us when we cry and that God anguishes with us when we anguish. And there is no way in the world that I could ever be happy that that dear man had suffered.
And yet. Paul is writing these words. And if anybody can talk about suffering, it’s Pastor Paul. Several weeks ago now we read that passage in the second letter to the church in Corinth. He goes on and on for several lines about how he has suffered. The Romans had this policy you know, that they would not whip a prisoner forty times with their whips because they believed that forty lashes would kill a person. So they restrained themselves and they only whipped people 39 times. And that’s what happened to Paul, five times. Five times over his career as a pastor he was beaten with 39 lashes, almost to the point of death. And there was more – three times he was beaten with sticks. Once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked and spent a night and a day floundering around in the ocean. He faced danger from bandits and danger on the high seas and danger from his enemies. And he had been in prison more times than anybody else he knew. Among other things. And that’s the man who says that he rejoiced in his sufferings. That’s the very word he used. He was glad about his suffering.
And yet. I have spoken with many people who have had cancer. And some of them have said to me things like this: “I never wanted cancer and it was very hard experience, but I am grateful for what I learned through it.” I know a man who struggles with severe disabilities and a host of other serious health issues. And he says to me almost every time I talk with him, “I am so grateful for the good things in my life. God is so good to me.” Or people have said to me, with tears in their eyes at a funeral, “My faith is bringing me through this hard time.” My friend Don had some very tricky, very serious surgery recently and the night before the surgery he posted on his Caring Page, “This experience is bringing me closer to God.” And recently somebody said to me, “I went through a very hard time back there. And it was the prayers of other people that made all the difference.”
I cannot say that I have ever really suffered the way some have. I have not lost a child or spouse to death. I am a very healthy cancer survivor. I have never been shipwrecked or beaten or put in prison. I live very nicely in my lovely home.
And yet. I have moved a lot in my life. My dad was a pastor and I’m a pastor, and that just simply means that we move. And from about the age of nine, every single one of those moves has been heart-wrenching and very, very hard. I would have given anything to have stayed happily in my childhood village of Whitinsville, Massachusetts or in most of the other places I have lived. And now that I am adult it just keeps on. Every time I have left dear congregations and dear people whom I have loved it has been very, very painful.
And Yet. Moving so many times has had its blessings. I’ve learned to be hospitable to others who may be lonely. I’ve learned to welcome newcomers into my life for what I may give them and for what they may give me. Most of all, I’ve learned that God is with me wherever I am, and it doesn’t really matter what my address happens to be.
We talk all the time in this church about becoming the sons and daughters of God. Becoming the people God intends for us to be. About becoming more and more like Jesus every day, for the rest of our lives. We say that it’s a lifelong process. We Presbyterians have a long theological name for that. We call that the process of sanctification, which happens to us as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. We talk about getting up every day and saying good morning to God and then living through the day with God. Whatever that day will bring. And every single Sunday morning I lift my hands over you with the love of God flowing through me, and I give you God’s blessing for the week ahead. Whatever the week will bring. Whatever surprises or happiness or deep sadness will come to you.
And Presbyterians say that God works through the experiences of our lives to bring us closer to God. Through the words of dear friends when we don’t know where to turn next. Through the words of Scripture when we’re grieving – maybe a Psalm written by somebody long ago who was also grieving. Through nature when our bodies cannot contain the joy of a perfect summer day. In prayer, when we blurt it all out and blubber in front of God and hardly know what to say. AND we say that the very hard experiences of life bring us closer to God. We don’t say that lightly. We don’t say that loudly. We don’t say empty pious words to each other in times of illness or death or grief or trouble. But we acknowledge what we experience to be true. That suffering brings us to the arms of God.
We learn from the saints in our lives who have been through the death of dear ones, and through surgeries and through large losses. We sit with them every chance we have. We listen to their stories. We see their patience, and grace and kindness and hope and gentleness. We witness the strength that comes to those who trust God. We see the love of God in their lives in ways that astonish us. We hear that there can be a beautiful side to suffering. We learn to experience what Paul says, “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
Maybe you have experienced that?
Sunday, February 14, 2016
First Lesson: Mark 11:12-19
Children’s story: Matthew 22:15-22
We’re not sure who had started the church in Rome, or exactly when it was formed, but it was certainly before the year 50 – about twenty years after Jesus died. Which means that it was one of the very earliest Christian Churches outside of Jerusalem. It actually may have been started at Pentecost – when all those people from all over the world were in Jerusalem for the holiday. They all heard the sound of a loud howling wind and came from everywhere all over the city, running to see what had happened. They came to the house where Jesus’ friends were sitting and they saw the flames of fire on their heads. And among many others, people from Rome came running to see what was happening – merchants and business people or Roman military personnel who were in Jerusalem at the time. And you may remember that Peter preached a very eloquent sermon on Pentecost Day and that three thousand people were added to the church in one day. So it may be that some of those folks from Rome came to believe in Jesus that day and carried their new faith back home to Rome with them. But whoever was the first pastor of that church and however it was, we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t Paul. And we’re pretty sure that he’d never been to Rome before and didn’t actually know the people he was writing to. Even though, as usual in his letters, he’s full of love for them.
We think that there were wealthy people in that church in Rome, people who belonged to the aristocracy, people connected to the Roman government – high ranking soldiers, people who were politically powerful. And Paul had heard reports about that church in Rome – very good reports. And he was hoping to go to Rome.
Paul wrote this letter at the height of his career – maybe in about 54, or 55 or 56, and really his dream was to go to Spain, and to stop off in Rome and maybe stay there a while. So he sent them this letter of introduction.
He introduced himself in the very first sentence and then he gives a short summary of the entire letter he’s about to write to them: about Jesus our Lord, the Son of God.
And in his very first sentence, he makes the very strong point that Jesus the Son of God. And that Jesus is our Lord.
So think about that with me for a minute. We could easily miss this. Paul is writing to the church at Rome. Where the Emperor Caesar Augustus had had his ornate palaces and his courts and his military headquarters from which he had ruled the entire western world. People all over the world had called him the son of god. Caesar was actually known as the savior of the world. He was considered to be the god who had brought peace over the whole world. On the front of the coins that I showed the children was the picture of Caesar and on the back were the words, in Latin – “son of God.” That was in Jesus’ time.
And a few years later, in the year 54, about when Paul was writing this letter, the great Emperor Nero was the Emperor in Rome. And he was called by the whole world – the divine Nero. Nero was actually called the “very god who rules the nations.”
And in that environment, to people who believed that Caesar was god and that Nero was the son of god, Paul writes in his very first sentence, “Jesus Christ is the son of God. Jesus Christ is our Lord. God is the one who gives us peace.” It was a very bold statement, and eventually it cost him his life, along with other things he said and did. He never made it to Spain, and some of the very smart people that we consult think that both Paul and Peter were executed in 64 or 65 – when Emperor Nero slaughtered masses of Christians in Rome.
Jesus Christ is our Lord. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
A few minutes ago we read a very short excerpt from the Theological Declaration of Barmen, which is one of the creeds of the Presbyterian Church. Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and at first a great many Christians there supported him. But then he began to do things like this: He abolished all civil rights. All the military and government officials were required to take a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler. He tried to get rid of portions of the Old Testament with all those stories about Jews and huge portions of the New Testament. There was to be no talk of Jesus and his crucifixion. Next, he proclaimed himself to be head of the church and took upon himself the name “Der Fuehrer,” the supreme leader.
But as you have just heard, in May, 1934 in Barmen, in Germany 139 Lutheran and Reformed pastors and lay people met to ask this question: “Who is the Lord? - God or the government? God or Hitler?” Who is the supreme leader? Jesus or Adolph Hitler? In answer to those questions they wrote the document we have just read, and they said, emphatically and very boldly, that there is only one Lord, and that Lord is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Lord in every area of life and the church obeys him and him alone. He is the supreme leader and no other. All 139 people present signed it and for that bold statement some of them were repeatedly imprisoned and put in concentration camps.
Jesus Christ is Lord. Only Jesus Christ is Lord.
Why does Paul make such a point to say that in such dangerous times? Why were he and the Germans pastors and elders so determined to make that statement when they knew it would cost them dearly?
What does it mean to us when we say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior? We say that all the time. We say that when we join the church and when we are ordained to be elders and deacons and when we baptize children. But what does that mean?
Here’s what that looks like for us. It means that we spend a lifetime getting to know Jesus and his priorities. We watch how he made decisions, and what and whom he favored. We notice what made him furious. How he spent his time. Whom he spent his time with. And over a lifetime, we learn to be like him. To think like him. To act like him. To value what he valued and give our time to what and whom he gave his time to. Over a lifetime, we become followers of Jesus.
We read scripture with others and we learn what it means for us. We hear him say, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So we give food and clothing to those who are hungry and cold and we welcome refugees. We read the stories about Jesus healing people with hideous diseases and talking with women whom everybody else avoided. And we ask ourselves which unlovable people have we loved lately – maybe even members of our own families. Or people whom we work with.
We spend our money with Jesus in mind. Jesus, who said he had nowhere to lay his head at night and who continually accepted the hospitality of strangers. We vote with Jesus in mind. We learn to think like Jesus and act like Jesus. Adolph Hitler doesn’t tell us how to live our lives. Barack Obama or Rick Snyder don’t tell us how to live our lives. Jesus tells us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ is Lord. We live as though we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and minds of voices of Jesus in this world – which we are.
Which means that we go against the grain a great deal of the time. Because a great many others we know are not consciously trying to follow Jesus. Our politicians are not trying to follow Jesus. I can tell you that. Maybe the people we work with are living under a different set of assumptions too. Maybe our friends don’t know or care much about Jesus and his priorities. Or don’t take him very seriously. So sometimes it’s a lonely business – having Jesus as our Lord – the supreme authority in our lives. He wasn’t very popular when he was here and sometimes we know how that feels.
This is hard stuff. And we could become exhausted and discouraged from thinking like Jesus and doing like Jesus every day. He was often exhausted himself. So we do what he did - we spend time away from it all – with God, in prayer. We bring our lives and our days and our minutes to God and we talk them over with God.
We spend time with God. Actually, consciously, spend time with God, regularly. We collapse in prayer in front of God when it all becomes too difficult. And God’s Spirit guides us and we make decisions. We ask for the wisdom to be angry about what Jesus angry about and gentle when Jesus was gentle – which may mean a great turnaround in our thinking. And we have conversations with friends who support us.
We behave like Jesus not because we are such noble, or generous or kind people. We behave like Jesus because he is the Lord (ultimately authority) in our lives. When Jesus Christ is our Lord we give our allegiance to him – our entire allegiance. We hear him only. We listen for his voice only. We acknowledge that he is the center of our lives. We spend a lifetime of lively richly with God and a lifetime of patterning ourselves after Jesus.
And we call ourselves by his name: Christian.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
First Lesson: Mark 9:2-10
Children’s story: Matthew 14:22-33
February 7, 2016 – Communion Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, Scout Sunday
If you want to start an organization or a movement, you better do it right. You better not send out twelve unemployed men with no income and without a penny in their pockets and no credit cards or ATM cards. And not a decent pair of pants or a sports jacket between them. You better not start up a brand new business or a brand new movement when your main clients are poor people and sick people and homeless people panhandling in the streets.
And yet, that’s what Jesus did.
It seems foolish to let three people witness an absolutely breath taking event, the most stunning achievement of your career, and then tell them not to talk about it. If you want to accomplish anything remarkable in a new venture you’d think you’d want all the PR you could get. And all the first person witnesses to the highpoint in your life.
And yet, that’s what Jesus did.
It was an indescribable moment of brilliant light and dark clouds and important people from the past suddenly appearing on a mountain and a voice saying, “This is my beloved son.” Peter, James and John heard and saw it all, and Jesus told them not to say a word to anybody.
Smart people do not get out of a boat in the middle of a storm on a lake. And think they can walk on the waves, even if they are experienced fishermen, and even if they know the secrets of that lake very well. It’s very foolish to think that a person could walk on water. In fact, we all know it can’t be done. But somehow Peter did that, at the invitation of Jesus and in the power of God.
It seems foolish, in fact dangerous, to let people who love you cheer and call you a king and dance beside your donkey in a procession. And make a whole lot of racket in the streets just when you’re expecting trouble. Just when the authorities are out to get you. When you knew all along that was the thing that would get you killed. It seems very foolish indeed to knowingly make enemies of the people who have the power of life and death over you.
And yet that was the wisdom of Jesus on his Coronation Day. Palm Sunday. And it was the power of God.
It seems very weak to allow yourself to be beaten and all your clothes taken off you without a word of protest. It seems weak to stand in front of a judge, wearing a silly purple robe that doesn’t fit you. With your hands tied in front of you and your head and ears bleeding from the beatings you have received and maybe some of your teeth knocked out. It seems very weak to have nothing to say when the judge asks you to defend yourself, or even answer a simple question. It seems puny to allow yourself to be convicted when you know you’re completely innocent and that the charges against you are ludicrous. It seems the height of weakness and utter loneliness when all your friends dessert you just when you need them desperately and when even your most loyal companion swears he never even heard of you. It’s the depth of loneliness and the depth of powerlessness to cry out that God has abandoned you.
Yet that was the strength of Jesus and the power of God.
It doesn’t make any sense at all that one very simple man who lived 2,000 years ago would take on all the evil in the world and win. And that his death would make a difference to the whole world from then to now and counting.
Except that Jesus did that in the power of God.
We wouldn’t believe that a man would be dead –certifiably dead in his grave for three days, and then come back to life again.
Except that Jesus did that in the power of God.
It seems absolutely crazy that a very well educated man from a prominent family would go wandering from one city to the next, getting himself in serious trouble wherever he went, and being thrown into jail and being run out of town after town. It seems pointless that he would spend his very precious time with a few small churches and a handful or so of people, some of them slaves and many of them women. It seems a crying shame that he would give up a stable home and a family and a reliable income or any security in his life at all.
But Paul did that – in the power of God.
It really doesn’t make sense that a small congregation in Michigan would collect warm clothing and sheets and pillow cases for people they have never met. Except that warm socks and sweaters given in God’s name are very powerful tokens of God’s love, which is why they do that. .
It really seems pointless, maybe, to bring a jar of peanut butter or a box of cereal or a can of beans every week and put them in a barrel in Fellowship Hall. When you think of the great need in our community and the number of people out of work and struggling and the number of families and seniors who have empty cupboards. Not to mention huge medical bills and utility bills. It might seem like much too little, against far too much need. But that’s what Jesus asks of us, and God blesses every jar of peanut butter and every box of cereal given in Jesus’ name.
It might seem a waste of time for adults to spend an evening with a group of boys every week, guiding them through badges and activities and requirements especially when sometimes it seems like they don’t really want to be guided. But that’s what our Scout leaders do, and look at the results! Thirty-seven of our scouts have become Eagle Scouts!
And come to think of it, why in the world would a small group of very busy people with very busy families give an hour and more every weekend to sit in one place singing and praying and hearing somebody read something out of a book and then talk about it? Or why would intelligent people take a little hunk of ordinary bread and a little sip of ordinary juice and sit in sacred silence with it? And why would they bother to shake hands or hug people they aren’t related to, and why in the world, in these days, would anybody give away any of their hard earned money? It all seems very foolish indeed.
But if you look closely at that little bunch of people in that little church you would see that the Spirt of God is churning up a storm in that little church and that they are accomplishing miracles. And you would be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t be – at what one small church can do in the power of God.
First Lesson: I Corinthians 13:1-13
Children’s story: Exodus 3:1-4:20
A few years ago a church I was serving was doing some serious thinking. They were looking around at churches that were larger than ours and seemed to have more younger people than we did, and seemed to be more “active” whatever “active” means. So the session sent me off to one of those newer, larger, younger, more active churches to see what I could learn.
I went and my experience was a good one. The church building was large, and built within the last twenty years, and very well maintained. The congregation was large and seemed pretty affluent. As I came into the building, people at a welcome area smiled at me, and greeted me and shook my hand. A very kind woman took me on a tour of the church building and showed me the rooms where the children had Sunday School – very impressive, brightly painted, with murals on the walls – and a well-stocked baby nursery. Once the service started there were many things that I appreciated. The singing was good. I didn’t know the songs, but most of the words were taken directly from scripture which I was glad about. People raised their hands in the air as they sang, which I had never done before, but I realized that was the way people in Old Testament times sometimes sang and prayed. The pastor spoke well and seemed very sincere. The pastor’s wife also spoke and she seemed very sincere as well. But all of a sudden, in the middle of that worship service, I had the terrible feeling that I didn’t fit. That I wasn’t really welcome – even though all those people had smiled at me and shaken my hand and said hello to me and taken me on a tour. I had the feeling that if I had a real conversation with that pastor and he really heard what I thought, he might not like me so well, and maybe the members wouldn’t either.
I looked around me in the congregation and most of the women and certainly all the women in leadership were cute blonds in their thirties or so, wearing tight black pants and very high heels. And I’m not any of those things. I’m not a cute blond. I’m not in my thirties. I don’t wear tight black pants and if I tried to wear those high spiky shoes, you can’t begin to imagine what would happen. I suddenly realized that I didn’t belong there, and neither did a whole lot of other people whom I love.
So I’m very glad to be here, with you, whom I love. We genuinely welcome people of all ages and all abilities. We have attractive blond women in their thirties in our church and I suppose they sometimes wear high heels. There are also gray haired women in their seventies and eighties who wear low heels. And there are men of all ages. There’s no particular dress code in this church and we don’t pay much attention to what people wear.
There are people in this church who go to work every day in positions of responsibility and there are people who are retired. There are people who can speak very eloquently of their faith in Jesus and who inspire the rest of us. There are people who know all about the plumbing and electrical systems in our building and they make sure we are comfortable when we come to worship. There are people who bring food every week and one of us brings it to North Kent Community Services. There are people who teach Sunday School and people who make prayer shawls. There are people who sing in the choir and lead us all in praising God. There are people who mark the prices on the items at our garage sale. There are people who keep our financial records and others who give generously. There is one person who provides the bread for our communion services every month and one who prints our worship bulletin. Some speak in worship. Some provide good food for the rest of us to eat happily. Some visit in nursing homes. There are some who care for our children in our nursery and a few people who encourage the rest of us in the mission we want to do but we wouldn’t know where to start. Some have strong administrative skills. Some have warm, generous hearts. Some have developed the art of forgiveness. Others are peace makers. There are some in this congregation who have lived through a great deal of pain and sadness and who are gentle, genuine people of great faith. Silent examples for the rest of us. Some of you are very wise. Some of you are long time students of the scripture and teach it passionately. Others are just learning. Some pray eloquently and simply. Others are learning that, too. Some of you are called to be deacons and you are the back bone of this church. Some of you are called to be elders and to make decisions and to lead this church wisely as God leads you. I am looking at people who are genuinely kind and creative in their caring. Many of you have known each other well for a whole lot of years and you have learned to accept each other’s foibles and oddities and it’s obvious that you love each other. You listen to each other respectfully and you complement each other, and I have witnessed that you have learned to look past a lot of differences and you work and worship well together. And do mission, and learn and laugh together. You love children and you hear the voices of those who are younger and accept them into leadership positions. You welcome newcomers warmly and you are moving into the future together in harmony.
I am very proud to be your part time temporary pastor, and I wouldn’t trade you for all the larger churches or all the tight black pants or high spikey shoes anywhere.
Pastor Paul would have been proud of you too.
He wrote this letter to the church he founded in Corinth, in Greece. We’ve been talking about that church and this letter for a couple of weeks now. There were these quarrels going on in that little church that Paul loved. There were wealthy business men and wealthy independent business women and there were an assortment of slaves and free servants and they were motley bunch. And if we read between the lines here we get the feeling that some of them felt that their contributions to the church were more important than others. That maybe the ones who made the most money or gave the most money, or owned the largest businesses should have more authority in that church than their slaves who worked in their homes. Or be more honored than their slaves. And that somehow the deacons were more honored, or the elders were more respected, or those who spoke in tongues in worship. And Paul goes to great lengths, for many paragraphs in his letter, to set them straight. He compares a healthy church to a healthy body where all the parts of the body are necessary and honored and important and we can’t do without any of us.
I remember who you were when I first met you a little over a year ago. I sat with almost all of you in those early months in small groups- mostly in the pastor’s office. I asked you to tell me anything you’d like me to know about North Kent Church, and I heard a great many painful stories of past years. There was a lot of hurt. And a lot of anger. Some of you were not talking much with each other – either because you were so angry with each other, or because you were intentionally avoiding any conflict. Or because you were weary of it all. The session was dispirited and pretty much inactive. The committees had pretty much given up. A few stalwart souls had taken over doing what was essential to be done, or pushing through a wall of discouragement. A number of you thought the church would not survive, and I heard you use the word “hospice.” Others of you were desperate. A whole lot of you said, “We’ve got to get some new younger folks here or we’re going to die.” Or: “We’ve got to get a new very young pastor in here or there’s no hope for us.” It was all painful to see, and I grieved for you. But maybe the most painful conversations I had were with the younger folks in the church who told me that they were repeatedly ignored and their ideas were beaten down by the older folks. I honored them and thanked them, wholeheartedly, for staying in a place where they felt so unwelcome.
But have you looked at each other lately? Now you’re functioning like the healthy body that Pastor Paul was talking about. Everybody offering their skills and talents. Respecting each other, appreciating each other’s gifts. Talking with each other. Forgiving each other. Practicing kindness. Working together. There’s a holy hubbub in the narthex before worship and I can’t get you into the sanctuary on time. There was a whole lot of happy hugging last week as we welcomed new members. Coffee hour is lasting longer and longer because you can’t stop talking with each other. There’s a strong little Sunday school, with good curriculum and good teachers and good planning. There’s a new vibrant Bible study group, and two other strong continuing study groups for adults. Hunger Fast for youth is coming up and next Sunday is Scout Sunday. Financial giving is strong. We continue the very strong mission support that this church is well known for, and we’ve added Mel Trotter Ministries to our very long mission list. I’m thrilled to see that younger folks are being asked to serve and their ideas are being heard. The PNC is up and running and working very hard. They’re a cohesive group of really good people with a common spirit. You’ve learned well from the guests we’ve invited to speak to us. Every once in while Dr. Jack Stewart and Dr. Laird Stuart check in with me and ask me how you are and I’m very pleased to give them this very good news.
See what can happen in a church when the Spirit of God gets ahold of it?
So now maybe it’s time for another set of questions to be circulating about the church. Maybe this is the time to focus on the future instead of the past and to ask, “What’s the next almost impossible thing this church will do for God?”
Or maybe you’d like to pray and ponder another thought: You have heard me say more than once that “Churches grow when the members know who they are and like who they are and offer themselves as a gift to others.” Take a look at the insert in your bulletin. Pray and ponder that for a bit, why don’t you?
Maybe we could talk about those questions in small groups in the next months.