Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome.
GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.
I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.
Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.
Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.
These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.
In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.
God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.
HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.
Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
The Paul of our letter today does not have any comment on Holy Communion, and he only references our other sacrament, baptism, in passing. However, he passionately and at length urges us to put on some kind of “armor of God.”
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
I’m not a military historian. I don’t know anything about armament. But during Bible study last week I learned something new about it from Katie Tschopp, our office administrator: The shields of the Roman empire, shields that would have been familiar to this Paul, were designed not just to protect the individual but multiple people at one time. So, the shield of faith Paul asks us to carry is not only for ourselves, but those near us, too.
There were a lot of oooos and aaaas in the room. I asked Katie if she wanted to preach on this, but she declined. Which means that had I not mentioned it now, only a handful of us would have been enriched by her knowledge.
I can do an on-the-spot explanation of Holy Communion but these few minutes I have on Sundays are woefully insufficient for trying to convince any of you—old timer or new comer—just how real the armor of God is, let alone learn anything from you about your experience of it.
Our job as a community of Christ is not to say how we are different than other Christians or how we might be better. Nor is church a spiritual dispensary, a consumer product from which we demand good service then walk away from if we don’t get the flavor we quite prefer.
Christ’s church is the place where we train ourselves to his cup and hold each other accountable to the vows we made at the edge of Creations’ water.
That all takes time, conversation, and presence. So, these one-hour services will never be more than an exercise in preference and tradition, without the hours that come before and after and in the days in between.
Maybe we don’t need to get rid of all of this to do right by God in Christ, but we certainly need to add to it.
LET’S ADD TO IT
As you saw in the newsletter last week, I’m working with our leadership on how to provide opportunities for all of us to be together for learning and prayer and song every Wednesday, from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. starting in September. Being a church old-timer, or even a trained pastor, does not mean having all of the answers. Although Jesus’ Way has a beginning in him, it goes on from him without end. There is always yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word and each of our individual lives.
So, I invite you to, with as much passion and urgency as Paul, come to one of the Bible studies, and bring your kids to one of the Wednesday clubs or to youth group. Take part in the choir for a while. Go to one of the fellowships. Ring the peace bell.
It isn’t just that we pick up the shield of faith for ourselves and for others, but that we also need others to help us pick it up.
Whether you are new or old, young or old, say yes as often as you can to the opportunities to learn not just be in the church next to each other for one hour on Sundays but what it means to be the church with each other every hour of the week.
THE TIE THAT BINDS
And that’s kind of what I told our young trend-bucking member about Communion last Sunday: Jesus set this table 2,000 years ago. We continue to set it with Jesus to remind ourselves that we are always in holy Communion with God and billions of other people, across preferences, across traditions, and even across faith.
Because Jesus didn’t risk everything to build a church. He did it to show us that the breastplate of Caesar will not protect us from the piercing sword of evil. That the shoes of the cobbler will be worn to thin rags if we are not walking toward God’s peace. That the belt of the tanner speaks only of style and commerce, unless it is woven with God’s truth.
Jesus risked everything to warn us away from taking sanctuary within walls and to seek it, instead, in faith and by way of God’s power that can move us even when we don’t want to be moved. That is the tie that binds us and that is the message worth living for every hour of every day.