The sermon for week September 30, 2012
WHEN WE ALL GET TOGETHER
Mark 9:38-50, James 5:13-20
I think most of us have had the experience of entering a room or coming upon a group of friends deep in conversation until they look up and see you and suddenly the conversation changes or an awkward silence ensues. Sometimes they are talking about you in ways that are not flattering and they hope you havenít heard, but other times it may have nothing to do with you, and that exactly may be the point. They didnít want you to feel left out, so there is that momentary pause and that tiny bit of embarrassment. In such a situation you donít want your friends to feel uncomfortable and your friends donít want you to feel uncomfortable, but the result is, everybody feels uncomfortable, and in truth it is all because everybody cares for everybody else and nobody wants anybody hurt.
To know this kind of empathy, as awkward as the manifestation of it might be, to know such caring, is to know the kind of church the writer of James envisions in his New Testament book. It is a fellowship of caring. It is a fellowship of mutual support. I am going to get back to these kind of awkward moments that occasionally occur when we do care for one another, but first I want to set the context by looking at the more obvious expressions of caring James writes about in his Epistle. First, for James, there are our prayers, which should manifest this spirit of caring. James writes, ďIf any of you are sick, call upon the elders and let them anoint you with oil and pray for you.Ē
Here are a few of the ways the spirit of Jamesí mandate are lived out at Sylvania United Church of Christ. Early, every Thursday morning a group of three to five women from this congregation gather in the Fellowship room and naming names they pray and ask that Godís sustaining presence and healing power might be known in the lives of those for whom they pray. These names come from family and friends and church members and a list provided by the church staff, but they also come from an email prayer chain operated by a member of the congregation and they come from a notebook of written requests, left out in the gathering area and often used by the AA groups that meet in this church. All ways, we seek to pray for one another.
Likewise, on Sunday morning when in prayers of intercession we pray for one another in worship. Or, when a member of the ministerial staff visit a member in the hospital or nursing home. But, there are not only spoken prayers but walking prayers. For instance, it might mean Cathy Hunter, our parish nurse, spending practically a whole day helping a church member, possibly rushed to the hospital, soothing the memberís anxiety, but also working with the doctors and nurses and social workers to determine the best level of care for a church member who has no son or daughter to be at his or her bedside. There are so many ways this congregation offers mutual support and encouragement to one another, and for me, my first witness of it, was in the loving, mutual support I saw between the congregation and the pastor, as each cared for the other, during his illness.
Even prior to prayers for one another, however, there is in James vision of the church another dimension of our being together that not only manifest but helps nurture our care for one another. He writes, ďWhen you sin, confess your sin to one another.Ē What this means is that there must be in our mutual life together, a level of trust and confidentiality and perhaps most importantly an acceptance of one another that enables us to hear each others confession. You canít be yourself, let alone confess your sin to those who you feel will judge and condemn you. You need to know that grace is a possibility. You need to know that deeper than any human failing, you are accepted, you are welcomed, you are loved by a love that celebrates your existence, your uniqueness, your presence with us.
For the writer of James, the image of Christ in a congregation is seen in the acceptance and encouragement the members give to one another, and the opposite of that is the subject of Jesusí warning in the Gospel of Mark. It is a warning against in any way, by our actions, by our demeanor, being a stumbling block to anyone who is not able to find here in our presence, amongst us, the love of God for him or her. If it is because of our biases or prejudices or coldness of heart, someone never realizes amongst us, especially the least advantaged, the most persecuted, who are represented in JesusĎ words as the very young, the children who in that day had no rights or standing, if that someone never realizes Jesus love for her, because we did not welcome, we did not embrace, we did not nurture the awareness of Godís love in that personís soul, Jesus says, ďIt would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.Ē
The language Jesus uses is not of literalism, whether speaking of plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand or spending eternity in hell fire, but it is the language of warning. Jesus is saying, This is how important it is that you donít let anyone feel they are excluded or that they donít have a chance or that they are not loved fully and completely by God in the same way you know yourself to be loved by God. Let everyone hear, ďCome to me all ye that are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Ē Let everyone know, ďFor God so loved the world.Ē
This is your mission, your only mission - encouraging one another, building one another up, praying for one another, and letting everyone know who enters here, they are welcomed, worthy of the same love you give to one another, and I have seen it, in you, in this fellowship, in this community of faith, the Sylvania United Church of Christ, and it is this very same love I was welcomed into as a member of the staff, but now, it is this very same love that perhaps creates for us a bit of an awkward moment when we come together, not unlike what I described at the beginning of this sermon. We are all kind of feeling our way into a new setting and sometimes we donít know quite how to talk about it.
Two weeks ago, in a glorious moment for this congregation, you voted to extend a call to Rev. Sam Buehrer, as the next senior pastor of this congregation. What joy, what possibilities, what hope was expressed in that vote. You have waited patiently, you have worked diligently, you have prayed and lived in anticipation of when this day would come, and it has happened, and now begins the preparation of getting ready, not only for his welcome, but the opening of a new chapter in the life of this congregation, but alas, when that chapter is opened, my place is to be in the paragraph that concludes the previous chapter, which will end shortly before the beginning of the New Year on Christmas Eve, providing a bit of space, so the joy might swell up in you to welcome Rev. Buehrer to this pulpit and this church.
Above all, as that day approaches, I donít want to be the person whose mere presence dampens the expressions of excitement or causes you to change the subject. I want to affirm the excitement. I want to encourage the preparations for his welcome. I want to say, this is what we have all worked toward and hoped for and prayed for. What I cannot say, however, is it is not bittersweet. It is. Iím like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady singing, ďIíve grown accustomed to your face.Ē Yet, isnít this a mark of what a church should be? Isnít this what the writer of James was encouraging in his epistle, that we learn to be people who accept one another, enjoy one another and encourage one another, even if some times there is the awkward moment, or at the end the good bye.
Our destiny was to walk together for a little while. To me, the clearest expression of the meaning of our shared time together was in the Thanksgiving Gathering we had last year and the one we will have this year the week of Thanksgiving.
You will recall the occasion last year. It was held in the Gathering area the week of Thanksgiving. We met in candlelight. We sat around the round tables. The room was packed. We had dessert together. The choir sang. Then, around the tables we shared our reasons for Thanksgiving, particularly our gratitude and remembrances of Bill Chidester, the beloved pastor of this church for 25 years.
We walked that journey together. Now, a year later we will once more gather together, in candlelight, around the round tables, to share our Thanksgiving, our expressions of gratitude, and this year it will be in the joyful anticipation of welcoming a new pastor. There is a Divine, Providential nature to it all, a completeness to it, and awareness of Godís mercy and grace through it all.
And, so, our time together will draw to an end, but it is not as though it is left unfinished. It is completed, and as assuredly as we know, it is God who has written the chapter we lived together, and each chapter of our lives, so we can in faith and trust, await the next chapter. But here is the thing, and perhaps this is what I want you to remember most of all: As long as we are faithful to being the kind of congregation that mirrors the love of Christ to one another, giving and receiving acceptance from one another and encouraging one another, though we may no longer be in the written chapters of each others life, that is not to say we are absent or lost to one another.
I had a friend when I lived in Pontiac, Michigan whom I use to swim with on Monday nights. For a while we truly connected and enjoyed each otherís presence. We were good friends, but different chapters got written in each of our lives and our lives diverged and except for Christmas cards we lost contact. The weekend of my retirement from First Baptist, twenty years later, though partially paralyzed from a stroke and recovering from cancer, there he was with his wife at my last worship service, coming down from Pontiac, affirming a love and friendship that did not die. We may not have always been in each otherís stories, but the friendship for one another, the love is forever. It cannot be otherwise because all love is forever, because all love is from God.
It is what you shared with Bill for 25 years, it is what we shared in the brief moment of time that was ours, symbolized in two Thanksgiving Gatherings, and it is what awaits you in the relationship you will have with your new pastor. Nothing is diminished. All is saved when you live a life that embraces one another and cares for one another, accepts one another and prays for one another. It is the way of the church.
You see why Jesus gave such stern warnings against anyone who would put any impediments in the way of someone coming to know that love, especially the least among us, and why it was so important for James that the church accept one another and encourage one another? It is the visibility of God on earth. It is the way we connect to that which is eternal. It is the way we discover that which last forever, and for all our days, whether they are lived apart or together, and for the next chapter, and all the next new challenges, enables me to say of you , ďI thank my God for all the time I have had and continue to have with you and every remembrance I will carry with me of you.Ē Amen.