Sermon Delivered on 10/28/12Psalm 91:9-16
About a month after coming to First Presbyterian I made the observation that mowing the grass was similar to confession because it is a way of keeping order by getting rid of excess and taming the weeds that would destroy. Bruce Turner has never agreed with me on that point – given his practical perspective that the grass and the weeds are simply obnoxious realities one must deal with no matter what. I still maintain my position, although my own lawn rarely reflects a sense of priority or repentance.
Even so, I must say that I actually like yard work. There are so few other things in life that offer an instant return on your investment. Some of you know that I have been struggling with that kind of thing with Sam’s soccer team. In fact, last week my facebook status noted an unexpected return with this update: I’m pretty sure someone just replaced my team with a group of boys who know how to pass the ball. Our team’s journey continues, and they did a little better this week – albeit against a team that was missing a few players.
All of us have highs and lows like these at times. All of us have situations where we feel like we have put everything we have into something with no idea how it is going to work out.
That is what sets us apart as a species. We are able to consider a multitude of outcomes and make choices that limit those outcomes to a reasonable set. You can call that hope or faith – or even just the ability to reason – but in the end we are defined by our ability and desire to take risks.
Few greater risks were taken than those by the first disciples of Jesus. In a recent article in The Christian Century magazine, Lee Canipe, suggests that may have been the perspective of James and John. They left everything to follow this itinerant Jewish Rabbi who seemed to offer the very presence of God. He spoke the scriptures into being in a way they had never heard before. He healed people. He acted with authority over the sinful and demonic, and he called even the religious leaders into repentance. Surely this was the son of God – though he routinely told people to say nothing of it.
Maybe James and John were out of line – after all their quick tempers gained the nickname, “sons of thunder”. One thing is certain. They believed in him. They believed that death would not hold him, and they believed that they were going to be with him in the coming kingdom. They believed he would have prominence in the kingdom, and they wanted to know if the sacrifices they were making were worth it.
This is one of those times I imagine Jesus smiling – smiling with all the complexity of deep and abiding love for someone who just doesn’t get it. I think Jesus smiles at me like that sometimes. Usually it is right after I have done or said something with the most faithful intentions possible that has gone exactly the opposite direction of the way I intended it to. But, that is why we are a community of grace and forgiveness.
The world around us expects results directly related to our investments. The world around us especially affirms those investments that give the greatest return for the least effort. The world around us has never said it directly, but it stands in opposition to investments such as the church. Just look at our economy over the last 40 years and compare it to the growth and development of the church – Catholic and Protestant alike.
Today is dedication Sunday, and it is the day in which we bring forward our pledge cards and make a public statement that we plan to invest financially in the church. That is a rather crass way to say it, but it is the truth. Although today is typically a day that pastors give a stump speech for the church’s finances in order to guilt you into increasing your pledge, I’m going to have to disappoint you by not doing that.
You have received letters noting the totals needed to support our budget and the building fund. You have heard, quite artfully, from Chuck about the opportunity of faithful giving to support the vision and mission God has set before this congregation. Most of you have, no doubt, heard the “rising tide carries all vessels” speech more times than you can count – if not here then somewhere – and I would guess that most of you have your minds made up as to how (or if) you intend to pledge.
I’m not afraid, or ashamed, to talk about money, but I think we all know that the church needs money to function and that God loves a cheerful giver. None of this is in question.
The question being asked of us today – with these texts on this day – is about the return we expect on our investment. The answer we receive to that question is found in the sacraments. Jesus says, “Can you drink from the cup from which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they reply, “We can.”
Jesus quickly reminds them that even though they will share in the cup and the covenant of death and life eternal, only God gives positions of honor. In Hebrews, we are reminded that Jesus did not choose his position. It was given to him in response to his reverent submission. Far from earning anything or manipulating the outcome, Jesus expressed the will of God in a way that required him to let go of control – even to the point of suffering and death.
This is the point that I often find hardest to bridge the gap between emulating the disciples and admiring them for their heroic faith. James, the son of Zebadee, is – by the way – the first and only of the twelve to be recorded as a martyr in the New Testament.
So, as we consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus we can hardly do so without wondering what kind of death we might also be called to. We can’t all be martyrs, can we? Otherwise the church would never have made it a generation. Yet we drink from this cup and we baptize with water to demonstrate death to sin and birth to a new quality of life – and we use words and phrases like reverent submission to describe it, even though we don’t always know what that looks like.
My 7yr old soccer team has been teaching me what it looks like. After 6 games of being shut out by more than 5-0 every game, one player told his mom that – even though he was sad about loosing – what really mattered is that he has a team to be a part of. Another boy told us that the only way to lose is to stop trying. And yesterday, Sam told me he knows that we will win some more games because he can feel it!
What if the church acted that way? What if we approached our resources from a standpoint of abundance rather than scarcity? What if we based our sense of identity in belonging and encouraging others to feel that they belong, too? What if we became known for our desire to try new things – even if we think they might fail – instead of recounting what we have tried that did not work?
It might look like a church that gave birth to one of the most resiliently underfunded non-profits you can imagine during a hurricane that has impacted our community for more than six years. It might look like a church that invests the use of its people and space in ministries that do not benefit its own members. It might look like a church that is open to changing even the few programs it offers in hopes to be more hospitable to others.
It might look like you. And even though we may be sad over what we have lost – members, prestige, resources, even the potential use of unused stuff – we are a congregation. We are a congregation of believers in Jesus Christ, and we are filled with grief and hope. We are moved and formed by eucharistic thanksgiving!
Note that I did not say “family,” as we often say. A family has little choice in who they are related to – except in the case of individual covenants. A congregation has every choice. Today we received new members into our congregation and baptized their child. This was an act on behalf of the entire church of Jesus Christ, and every one of us made a covenant to receive them, to support them, and to be in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ with them.
Come to think of it, I think you all have a pretty good idea about what reverent submission looks like. I think we have a pretty good sense of the risky business of being the church! Of course, what really matters is what God thinks. My hope and my trust is that – even when we aren’t quite in sync with what God thinks – God smiles upon us with love and delight while we work it out in our common union. For we are a Eucharistic fellowship that is filled with a delicious cocktail of obnoxious limitations and hope filled relationships. May God be glorified as we drink deeply from this cup and share in the baptism of Jesus – now and always. Amen!