The sermon for week November 18, 2012
In his memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson shares a letter from one of his congregants, Judith. Judith, an artist, had recently started attending Eugeneís church, and she wrote that her friends donít understand why she attends church or what sheís getting out of attending.
Judith wrote, ďI am feeling raw and cold and vulnerable and something of a fool. From the way [my friends] look at me, I donít have much to show for my new life. I canít point to a life mended. Many of the sorrows and difficulties seem mended for a time, only to bust open again. But to tell you the truth, I havenít been on medication since June and for that I feel grateful.
When I try to explain myself to these friends I feel as if I am suspended in a hang glider between the material and immaterial, casting a shadow down far below and they say, 'seeóitís nothing but shadow work.' Perhaps it takes a fool to savor the joy of shadow work, the shadow cast as Iím attending to the unknown, the unpaid for, the freely given.Ē
Have you felt this way when you have tried to describe to your friends what coming here is like? I sure have. I was knocked back when I read what Judith wrote. I love her image of the hang glider--being suspended between the material and immaterial worlds. And what you can point to is just the shadow of whatís really happening. Our two scriptures for today highlight the material and immaterial benefits of church attendance.
I will start with the material benefits which I see in Exodus.
In our Exodus text, we find the stories of Bezalel and Oholiab. Two men who were given the gifts to design the worship space for the Israelites in their wilderness journey. The art of working with metals, wood and cloth takes a lot of training. To keep the spirits of the Israelites up as well as to keep them connected to their God, Moses is given the names from the community who will share their gifts.
My assumption here is that every single one of us is gifted in some way. Whether it be the spiritual gift of prayer, hospitality, leadership, mercy or discernment, or a more practical gift of working with wood or metal, writing or playing a musical instrument. The church can serve as a testing ground for these gifts, not only to discover them, but to hone the gift as well. Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Whitney Houston discovered and honed their singing voices in their churches before becoming multi-platinum selling artists and internationally known celebrities.
Bezalel and Oholiab brought skills and talents to their worshipping community. And we all bring our skills and talents here. Are you good with finances or music, or do you like wood working, sewing or knitting? Many of you are already involved and employing these gifts to the service of our community, and thatís totally cool! Thanks! And if you have a skill set and aren't involved, today, Pledge Sunday, is a time to pledge those gifts toward the work of the church. Or pledge to learn a new skill from someone else here. Attend that small group youíve been meaning to go to but never have quite made it. And if your gift is giving money, your tithe goes toward supporting these ministries here at the church.
HOWEVER! There is a sin to be wary of here, a great temptation for all of us. And that sin is to focus ONLY on gifts, the utility of our giftedness, and not on who you are as a person
Euguene Peterson wrote, ďThe Church is a community of faith formed by the Holy Spirit. Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function--what it did: build buildings, become successful, change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things. But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently nonpersonal. A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are.Ē
This struck Peterson as a violation of the inherent personal dignity of souls. Instead, Peterson envisioned a church where relationships are primary. The church must be a household of hospitality.
So while the Exodus story lifts up gifted congregations that donate time, talent and money, it is wrong if we just focus on that. If we just treat people as means instead of ends. We must treat one another as Children of God and believe in the words that no matter where you are on lifeís journey, no matter where you come from, here is a place of welcome. Here is a place of hospitality. A sanctuary for all people. A place of communion between people of different races, political parties, and faith backgrounds. We, children of God, differently gifted, don't always come together to ďdoĒ something. Thereís also something to just being in community.
Well-meaning Christians will tell us that the bible and religion can help us train and put ourselves in charge of life, will bring us happiness and bounty. So many go out and buy a bible, adapt edit and sift, summarize it. And use it for their personal advancement. Itís not about that! Itís about getting involved in the story of Godís salvation of the entire world, of all peoples. It puts God in charge of life. A complex, loving, full-of-grace God. And this knowledge will bring happiness, but also sorrow. This participation in Godís story gives you material benefits, like Judith not being on medication for a while, but it also provides lots of immaterial benefits.
If Exodus provides our practical and material example, Luke provides our immaterial example.
Itís hard to quantify and put into words what church attendance gives a person because it is different for each person. For some, itís the fellowship, for others itís the challenge of the sermons and educational programs, yet for others itís the sanctuary and place of quiet away from the noise of the world. And yet for others itís the mission, the helping and loving the neighbors. Thereís something intangible about being in community. When you take differently gifted people who use gifts in a community, put them into meaningful situations such as small groups, worship, choir, etc, and focus them, shake them together, it shakes us up and wonderful things happen.
Thatís what Jesus is saying when he says, ďA good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.Ē
We will get what we put in. Yet when it comes back to us, we might not always recognize it, it might not be something we can point to or explain to our friends. We just feel different. We just ARE different from this place. Part of it is discovering, honing, and sharing our gifts. And part of it is something else, something intangible. A calmer, simpler life. A wider and broader perspective. More compassion.
To put this another way, Jacquie Kirkendall sent me this email from Florida. She writes: ďA Church goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and he complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. íI've gone for 30 years now, and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can't remember a single one of them. So, I think I'm wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all."
This started a real controversy in the Letters to the Editor column. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher:
"I've been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know thisÖ They all nourished me and gave me what I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!" (Kirkendall)
When you bring your pledge forward, remember that what you put in you will get back. Not in some simplistic transactional way. Your pledge is a tangible symbol to your commitment to this worshiping community. It states, ďI am here. I support, believe in, and commit to this community.Ē What you get back will be the intangible things like friendships, a deepening relationship with the divine, and the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.
We are about the work of God in the world. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we donít. Sometimes we can point to it, sometimes we can only stutter and stammer about it. Sometimes we remember what a sermon was about on Monday, most often we donít. Tangible and intangible. Material, worldly and practical meeting and mixing with the immaterial, spiritual, and philosophical.
And so let us be thankful for being in this community. For all that it offers us. For all that we offer one another. And to God from whom all our blessings flow. Amen.
Kirkendall, Jackie. Email from the week of 11-12-2012.
Paterson, Eugene. The Pastor: a memoir. Pages 254-256, 272.
Quoted in audio
Daniels, Lillian. ďSpiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring MeĒ