The Commitments

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
October 30, 2011 - Ordinary (31A)
Commitment Sunday
Joshua 3:7-17
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Today is commitment Sunday, and my job is to make you feel that your commitment to the church is somehow more valuable than any of the thousand other commitments in your life. At least that is what it feels like from my side of the pulpit. Truth be told, that is what I often feel like when I forget my place.

God has a way of putting me back in my place, and usually scripture is a part of that action. Today’s texts are a reminder that it is God alone who makes us low or raises up. Our various commitments may be a part of that experience, but they do not determine our value. So, for that reason, it is kind of silly to think that one commitment or another is more valuable in the eyes of God.

Yet all of our actions and decisions affect our ability to experience and express the active presence of God - who is in our midst. Maybe the mountains of laundry, bills, homework, medical appointments, needs of family members, and other commitments make it seem like God is absent.

Maybe there is some part of you that is waiting for God to step in and stop up the river so you can just get across. Maybe there is something about the church that draws you in and makes you feel like you can find some footing to move forward. God calls us in so many ways, and we come because we know that there is a need; a hunger deep in our souls. There is a need in all of us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves - something we come from and move to at the same time.

In an odd way it reminds me of a movie from 1991 called The Commitments. It’s a movie set in Dublin, Ireland in the late 80‘s. A disgruntled and unemployed young man decides to recreate his destiny by forming a band - but not the rock or punk bands that typically expressed the angst of the day. Oh no, Jimmy Rabbitte wants to start a soul band. As he recruits the band and instructs them in the way they must follow, he shares this vision with them.

Soul is the music people understand. Sure it's basic and it's simple. But it's something else 'cause, 'cause, 'cause it's honest, that's it. Its honest. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there's a lot of different music [out there] but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you ...and lifts you [up].

Jimmy continues, making a connection between the angst of living in high unemployment and war zones between Catholics and Protestants. [Don’t you] get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud.

As the movie continues the band endures internal conflict and coalesces under their charismatic leader only to fall apart on the eve of their breakthrough. In the end The Commitments turn out to be a name that is disconnected from the reality they hoped to represent.

That is the razor’s edge that any of us who dare to touch something deep and holy walk upon. That is the danger of feeling like I, or you, or anyone has the right or responsibility to moderate or mediate the active presence of God. Note that I did not say participate.

I did not say participate, because that is the invitation that is ever present through the greater reality the church represents - the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples and the crowds to do as the Pharisees say but not as they do, and the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have immediately connected this story with the Sermon on the Mount. They would remember that Jesus said not to give to the poor in a way that others will see - for praise on earth is the only reward they will receive.

Certainly keeping our good deeds secret is one way we can participate in the will of God, the active presence of God, the very Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hearing that almost makes me question Paul’s claim to the Thessalonians. Paul seems to say, “Hey! Remember how wonderful we are - how hard we worked and how much we loved you.”

And as bold and self serving as that may sound, I believe Paul was yet bound by the words of Jesus (which he neither heard nor read) that said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

With Jesus as the interpretive lens for Paul, his words remind me of something my father had on his desk. It was a simple piece of paper that said, “People will forget what you say. They will forget what you do. They will remember how you made them feel.”

So Paul reminds us who we are as the church, and through the Gospel of Christ his words become a signpost pointing to where we have been and where we must go. His words, then, are no longer about what he has done. His words become a plea to remember anything they have done together that points toward the active presence of God.

Considering the 136 year history of this congregation, there is much to remember about the things we have done together that point toward an awareness of God’s presence. Truly, that is what we are committing to today.

We are committing to accept, maintain, and expand the covenant of our common unity in Christ. We are committing to individual lives of response to God’s grace. We are committing to be taught by Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and to know and participate in God’s will through mutual submission.

That last part is the hardest - that whole last shall be first thing. I used to have some kids in a youth group that would always fight to be last in line. It was cute, and a good start - but a little misplaced. Being humble with the expectation of blessing is not really being humble. True humility is like true love. It befalls you. It chooses you. It becomes you. True humility is not a means to an end. It is an end that begins. It is the doorway to becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves.

And so today we will make commitments to God and to one another. The money is just a symbol of that commitment. It is an important symbol - but the commitment of the soul is what matters.

I think that is why this is one of my favorite services of the year. I used to be intimidated about all the talk of money, but now I know that it is about something else. It is about being connected. Connected to God. Connected to one another. Connected to ourselves in our inner most being.

Funny thing about that band, The Commitments. In the movie they split up because they could not suffer their own egos. In reality they stayed together and have been on tour ever since. It seems that they touched something real in their expression of resilience in the midst of pain and suffering.

I believe that is what God does through the church. God offers us something to hold on to, to be held by, and to respond to when all the world seems to demand more than we can give. In the end it is not our commitment that saves us. It is God’s. When we get that - when we really get that from nose to toes - everything else is simply a response to the grace of God in which we live, move, and have our being.

In a few minutes we will all have the chance to come forward with our commitments, our tithes, and our special offerings. This is the one time of the year when I am reminded of the church in Ghana, where they dance their offering down the aisle with joy and praise. This is our chance to say it now and say it loud, “I follow Jesus, and I am proud!”

May we do so in all humility and faithfulness - hoping and trusting that through the church we may experience, explore, and express the very presence of God in our midst! All praise and glory be to God, now and always. Allelujah! Amen.
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