Sermon – 11/02/2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Saints Who Have Witnessed to Us

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. And all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be exalted.” — Matthew 23:11-12.

The New York Conference of the United Church of Christ sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter. It has reminders about dates, notices about meetings— the usual stuff for this kind of missive.

Each week there’s also a message from one of the Conference Staff called My Thoughts. But mostly our Conference Minister, the Rev. David Gaewski, is the writer.

This week David reflected on the idea that it takes a mixture of humility and gall— ego— to be a preacher. The gall part, the ego part, is obvious: it’s presumptuous to even consider the possibility that God might use you as a conduit of the Word.

The humility part comes from the thought that any preacher should be aware those in the pews are members of the Priesthood of Believers. When standing in a pulpit, David wrote, the preacher is in no way standing “above” the congregation. There is both humility and wisdom in recognizing ministry which is shared.

Now, the term ‘Priesthood of all Believers’ embodies the idea that everyone can be mediators of God’s grace, mediators of God’s healing, mediators of God’s forgiveness, mediators of God’s justice, mediators of God’s love. This is the ministry found in the pews. (Slight pause.)

On a very different but perhaps equally interesting note, I was proselytized this week. Someone tried to convert me to Christianity, or at least their brand of Christianity.

How? Often while I have lunch, I read. I do a lot of work related reading just to keep current. But the reading I do at lunch is purposefully not work related. It tends to be about some other interest I have.

I was in one of the local fast food joints Tuesday and I sat reading for a time. When I finally stood and was nearly out the door a man and a woman who appeared to be in their eighties waved me over to their table. They asked what I was reading.

I held up the book, Innovators. I offered an explanation. “It’s a history of how what we call the modern computer started to take shape in the 19th Century and continues the story to its evolution to the machines we have today.”

Well, my assumption was they had some genuine interest when they saw me reading intently and that’s why they stopped me. I was wrong. Why? Because after that explanation, they asked if I had read the greatest book ever written.

I dodged a little. I said, “That depends on what you mean by the greatest book.”

The woman said, “Why, the Bible, of course.”

I said, “Look— I’m a pastor. I’ve read Scripture in the original languages.”

The woman nodded and said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Clearly what I said either was not heard or did not register. These two were on some kind of remote control because the man handed a tract to me. In bold letters the front page asked, “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”

I said, “That’s an interesting question. But it’s not a question about God. It’s a question about you.” Again, clearly what I said either was not heard or did not register. I realized there was a tape playing in their heads. There was no stop button on that tape.

“Don’t you want to see your friends in heaven?” the man asked.

“Christian tradition has it,” I said, “that to be in the presence of God is so glorious, we will not notice anything else. And I am late and I really need to go.”

I headed toward the door. The woman called out, “I just know you want to spend eternity with your friends!” (Slight pause.) Yes, that really happened. (The liturgist says something which the pastor then repeats.) Linda says you can’t make that stuff up. (Slight pause.) [1]

These words are from the work known as Matthew: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. And all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Slight pause.)

In March 1994 I was a student at Bangor Seminary. But I had already preached at a number of churches in rural Maine and many of those churches had asked me back.

Our Associate Conference Minister, Sue Ingham, heard about that. And then something happened and Sue found herself in a bind.

The preacher scheduled to lead the Palm Sunday service at the church in Belfast, Maine, had to drop out on Friday morning. The church called Sue. Sue called me.

“There’s only one problem,” she said. “The bulletin is already printed, so the sermon title is set.”

“What’s the title?” I asked.

“When Is a Church Not a Church?” she responded.

“I can work with that,” said the ego in me. (Slight pause.)

Well, we all know the Scripture on Palm Sunday is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. And we all know Jesus is acclaimed by the crowd.

And we all know five days later a crowd that probably contained many of the same individuals who were in the crowd acclaiming the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, are shouting “Crucify.” (Slight pause.) When is a church not a church? (Slight pause.)

I have said this many times. Churches, synagogues, mosques— so called communities of faith— are not theologically gathered communities. They are sociologically gathered communities. Like people worship with like people. There is no way around that.

Paradoxically and equally, no community of faith is made up of cookie cutter people— a group totally determined by sociological similarities. We are all dissimilar in different and even in significant ways— from income to education to family of origin. But still, in any congregation, there is always some strand of sociological DNA which holds a group inexorably together.

Hence, the challenge for us is, while we must admit to and identify the agonizing reality of that sociological DNA, we, the church, must not be simply a sociological gathering. The challenge for us is to be church. The challenge for us is to identify a strand of theological DNA which binds us, makes us one, makes us whole. The challenge for us is to be saints. [2]

This is clear: both when that crowd waves palms, seemingly to praise God, and when that crowd shouts “crucify” seemingly to mock God, it is unlikely those crowds are held together by theological DNA. Even in the First Century of the Common Era, it’s much more likely those crowds are held together by sociological DNA.

Indeed, identifying a strand of theological DNA was the challenge for the crowd on Palm Sunday and was the challenge for the crowd on Good Friday. And based on the results, they failed that challenge. So perhaps the challenge for us, still today, is to identify a strand of theological DNA which inexorably binds us together into church.

All this begs the question: what is a saint? (Slight pause.) I can guarantee this: when there is a tape playing in your head that does not allow you to hear another person, that is not theology influencing you. It’s sociology.

When a preacher is unaware those in the pews are members of the Priesthood of Believers, when that preacher thinks in terms of standing “above” the congregation, theology is not at work. Sociology is.

And just like those who lived in the early First Century of the Common Era, we who live in the early Twenty-first Century of the Common Era need to grapple with humility. Why? None of us is better than anyone else before God. None of us is better than anyone else before God.

All of us need to be in relationship with those around us. All of us need to be in relationship with those around us not because of sociological reasons, not because those around us might be like us and we find that inviting.

We need to be in relationship with those around us so we can act as a Priesthood of Believers, so we can act together, empowered to be mediators of God’s grace, mediators of God’s healing, mediators of God’s forgiveness, mediators of God’s justice, mediators of God’s love. This meditation— this is the ministry found in the pews. This is the ministry of the saints. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
11/02/2014

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “It seems appropriate to me that the 200th Anniversary Litany we used today was based on the Beatitudes. [3] After all, those who were among the first saints who heard those words still witness to us today and those words still witness to us today.”

BENEDICTION: Go from here in the Spirit of Christ. Dare to question that which is false and that which holds us captive. Count it a privilege that God calls upon us to be in covenant and to work in the vineyard. And may the peace of Christ which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the love, knowledge and companionship of God the Creator, Christ the redeemer and the Holy Spirit the sanctifier this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] It needs to be noted that as the pastor told this story there was much laughter.

[2] At the start of the service, after noting it was the day after All Saints Day, the pastor said this: “…contrary to popular belief, a saint is not someone who possess a special kind of devoutness, but someone set aside to do the work and the will of God and we understand ourselves as a priesthood of all believers, that means we are all saints.”

[3]
CLOSING LITANY —

LITURGIST:
We come now to a time where we strive to honor our 200th Anniversary. Today we shall offer a prayer. This litany is among the prayers labeled among the closing prayers for a service in The White Ribbon Hymnal, published in 1892. While The White Ribbon Hymnal was never designated a Congregational hymnal by any publisher, to say it did not have a significant part within Congregational Churches would likely be inaccurate. Why? The White Ribbon Hymnal was the hymnal of the Women’s Temperance Movement. To say the Women’s Temperance Movement did not have a significant part in Congregational Churches would simply be inaccurate. This litany is certainly an interesting communal prayer to offer toward the end of a service. Won’t you join with me in the Prayers labeled as a Closing Litany found in the bulletin.

ONE: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Realm of Heaven.
MANY: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
ONE: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
MANY: Blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
ONE: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
MANY: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
ONE: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,
MANY: Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Realm of God.
ONE: Blessed are ye when others shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
MANY: Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
ONE: Blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her by our God.
MANY: Blessed are they that sow beside all waters.
ONE: Blessed are they that do the Commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life and may enter the gate through the city.
MANY: Blessed are those servants whom, when our God cometh, are found watching.
ONE: May the Christ be with thy spirit.
MANY: The Eternal God is our refuge and underneath us are the everlasting arms. Amen.

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