Happy Birthday! Church!
Pentecost Sunday— June 4, 2017
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN
Last Friday morning Caroline and I headed off for breakfast with Linda and Paul Schelin. We have a birthday club and that day actually was Linda’s birthday. We were meeting at the the Longfellow Grill on West River Parkway in Minneapolis which is next to the Mississippi river.
I turned on the GPS and followed it, until, until, until I thought it was wrong. I turned off 35E, and headed West on 110 and started up Highway 55 near the Minnehaha Falls. And then, And then I was lost.
Well I did find the West River Parkway and we found the Longfellow Grill. On my way home I followed GPS and it was much shorter and quicker.
Moral of the story: 1) don’t ride with me unless you want to get lost. 2) even though we know GPS isn’t always right, we still need to rely on some guides for our journeys in life.
Welcome to Pentecost Sunday, and our celebration of those who guide us in our Christian journey!
Happy Birthday Church! You know that “Church” is a favorite word for me. In Greek it’s “Ekklesia” and it simply meant some kind of political assembly or a gathering together of people with some shared interests. It just had never been connected with a group of people sharing a religious story though until Paul or someone in the early church, started to think of themselves as “Ekklesia.”
It’s a singular noun that can mean a particular gathering of people, a building, and yet it also bears the concept of many different peoples, literally all over the world. What’s most important is that “church” means “Story.”
And it means body. Paul tells us that we are collection of people with different stories all drawn together because of one story, who are to be unified by that story as we share a common life together.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
So today we are welcoming many new members to the Lutheran church of the Cross. Might we even call ourselves the Lutheran Ecclesia of the Cross? Well probably, we’d do so, if we wanted to confuse people.
But there it is: the word “church” in our title. This is a good Sunday to reflect on what it means to belong to “a church.” In our liturgical year this is also called Pentecost Sunday, drawing a name from a Jewish festival, which is approximately 50 days since we celebrated Easter.
So what does it mean to be “Church”? Well it means to be the continuing story of Israel. Ecclesia,—church— has its roots in Judaism. So all of us who are brought into this Jewish story, whether by birth, by baptism, or as some of you are doing today by acceptance of membership in the local church. As we are brought into this story we remember things that happened in Palestine, Egypt, Jerusalem, and in Galilee. As one theologian has said, “The Exodus of the people of God from Egypt is our Exodus as well, the ancestors of Israel are our ancestors; Israel’s memory is our memory.” [Page 240, Does God Need the Church?]
At the same time, this church and its story, constitute a new family on the face of the earth. It’s important to remember that when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, at what we call the Last Supper, with its clear allusions to the Passover meal, he was not eating it with his own genealogical family, which would’ve been customary. He chose his ragtag group of disciples for this mean. They are the same ones, who according to Acts surprised everyone by speaking the gospel in a variety of languages.
Thus the question from those who are gathered and who were surprised. We heard, “amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?””
Church almost by definition means speaking out and inviting in. So our mission, shared with churches in all places and all times, is grounded in the story of Israel, focused most clearly around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a story that calls people from the world, to share a way of life, and certain convictions about the way that life is lived, that speak profoundly and sometimes prophetically, maybe always prophetically, about the way life is meant to be lived.
One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, says that through baptism we are “…made part of God’s counter history, counter kingdom, counter community.” And then he adds, “Moreover, we believe as we are made a people of such memory we offer the world a history not destined to repeat her murderous past.” [Page 168, In Good Company]
Church is thus the place that gives us a story to live. Notice I didn’t say a story just to tell. But it is a story lived with others, and clearly others that you might not know otherwise.
My friend, Hugh Magers, an Episcopal priest from Texas, who I worked with on occasion leading some conferences, loved to tell the story of Edna, an elderly member of Redeemer Church in Eagle Pass Texas when he was its pastor.
He said she was probably about the poorest member of the church. This is about 30 years ago. She lived on Social Security, $234 a month. “How do I know that?” He asked. “Well, she tithed. She gave $23 to the church every month.”
And she had a most special ministry. She polished the brass plaques in the church, which honored all the founders of the church, and some church leaders from the past. And that church was still composed of many of the descendants of the founders of the church, who would not stoop to polish the plaques, because they were too good for it. So Edna did what no one else wanted to do.
But every now and then Edna would have an idea of something the church needed to get or to do. And she would go to the vestry, the church council, and because those descendants sat on it, no one ever turned her down. And one day she had an idea that the church should start to offer a lunch, one day each week. She said if they would offer a lunch to the community she would wash each every pot and pan and all the dishes.
Well the vestry approved her idea, and when they started this lunch program the day school children of the church we’re coming. Then lots of business folks showed up every Friday. It was, it turns out, a source of evangelism.
And Edna never had to wash a dish. Those descendants washed those dishes, too embarrassed to let Edna do it.
You see when to take this biblical GPS story as your story, you cannot be the same again, not that you’d want to be the same as you once were. Here we make commitments to each other, that aren’t written in some contracts with mutual obligations and requirements. This is a story that is a journey trod by people like Abraham and Jacob, who had no idea that they would become the people they became. And they never wanted to go back, either.
You see in church we don’t stay the people we once were. Yes we go in and out of the world, that draws us back at times, but coming here, where the Edna’s of the world live, you get changed. Thank the Lord for this.
And here we meet one another when the road gets tough and really difficult. We’ve just had three funerals here in two weeks. That’s a lot of bars offered at each reception. But more than that is the embrace of those who’ve experienced a grief that will not just pass away. So we walk with one another into the darkest valleys of life; for we are the hands, the heart of God. We are the body of Christ. Unified through baptism to be Christ for one another.
And the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we also celebrate on Pentecost, is that agency of God that brings us to discern the call to serve. If the Spirit does nothing else it challenges the presumption of “individuality”— just be yourself and do your own thing. It is the Holy Spirit I believe that turns our narcissistic, self-embodied story inside out. So that we see “others.”
To those we are welcoming let me warn you, but know this warning is actually an invitation. In the life of the church we all called to be vulnerable to each other. We need the story of the other brother, the other sister, no matter what it is that they are bringing here.
And Jesus told his disciples what they could do with those other stories. Especially if “forgiveness” was required. They were commissioned, as we all are, to offer forgiveness to one another.
And then at the very end of the Gospel, what we heard this morning, the same one where he breathed the Holy Spirit on them, Jesus said, “Whatever sins you retain, they are retained.”
The Greek word for something that is “retained” is “krateo”. From it we get our word “crate.”
So whatever sins you crate, you get to keep. It’s your crate. And whenever we start to harbor the sins of others, and carry on our remembrance of wrongs, it eats away at us. Drives a wedge in community. And it’s there, until, until, as many in the world of recovery know, its there until you take the 5th step and beyond. To ask for forgiveness and to give it.
A final word to our newest members. May you find this to be a forgiving community. Where you are always welcome no matter what.
May you find yourself making some commitments to serve and to give that help you define more and more what it means to belong to the church. (We will ask each other for those kinds of commitments.) The
May you find here real peace and joy. Worship that inspires. Study that challenges. Mission enterprises that lead you to greater service and in which you get your hands dirty, or maybe like Edna you polish some silverware, or get them really clean because you washed a lot of dishes. Such is Church.