On summer supply and being dragged to church

Today was the last day I served a small country church in Cumberland county, MD as their summer supply preacher.  Serving this parish challenged and blessed me (sometimes the challenge WAS the blessing) in plenty of ways!  I got to work on leading worship.  I got to preach every Sunday, and learned a bit about (and was often mystified by) what people hear and respond to in sermons.  I led my first funeral, and discovered what kind of sad but profound blessing there is in walking with a family through grief.

I also found that I learned a great deal about what kind of parish I feel called to.  L.L.C. is a small parish; the congregation fluctuates between about 8-20 people on a Sunday.  These are warm, faithful, generous people who have been members of the community for a long time.  They genuinely care about others: each service begins with an opportunity for prayer requests, and the way that the members of the congregation lift up people both inside and outside of their community is truly a witness to Christian love.

At the same time, this church is dying, and I’m pretty sure that everyone knows but won’t admit it.  It’s the elephant in the room every Sunday when the congregation gathers and can fill only a tenth or a twentieth of the space they once did.  I wish fervently that L.L.C. could have a good pastor to be with them full-time (or even part-time!), to love them and care for them and help them work through this death with dignity, but unfortunately, the congregation is not in a position to make this happen for itself.  And in some ways, I think this makes them cling all the harder to their memories of what they once were.  I remember one congregant telling me how the church had recently been repainted (I suspect it had been decades since the walls had seen a paintbrush before this).  But the congregant was dismayed: “My mother says it doesn’t even look like the same church!”  To her (and her mother), the feel of familiarity in cracked and faded paint far outweighed any benefits of a fresh coat and color.

Unfortunately, LLC is like many other mainline Protestant country churches: there are more people in the cemetery than in the pews.

Lest I begin to sound patronizing in all my seminarian-y, “Look at what I’ve learned about what a church should be” glory, let me also say that this parish has shown me how much I have to understand–really understand, and feel some empathy for–about old family parishes.  This morning, at a farewell brunch, one of the octogenarians of the congregation told me that her family has been sitting in the same pew (“Four from the back, six from the front, pulpit side”) for over 150 years.  I don’t even know what that would be like, feeling like where my butt rested made that kind of statement about my stake in history.  But it was a poignant glimpse into how church communities become about things other than simply preaching God’s word and sharing Christ’s supper.  They can become shrines for community stories.

I love this parish; I feel loved and uplifted by it; I have respect for its traditions and its sense of stability, but serving there has also taught me that I yearn to do ministry in a more dynamic, creative, flexible place.  For that lesson, and for many other experiences, I am very grateful and humbled.

Today was also the first time since I started seminary that my mom’s ever heard me preach!  And it’ll probably be the last time for a while: she’ll be headed down to a call on the Eastern Shore pretty soon, and will have her share of full Sundays!   But for her, and for anyone else who’s curious, this is the sermon she heard me preach:

August 26, 2012

John 6:56-69

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Whew.  We did it!  Today is the last Sunday we’ll be reading from chapter 6 of John for a good while.  You have stayed with me faithfully since the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  You’ve endured through the many exchanges between Jesus and the Jews.  You’ve pondered with me the mystery of this Bread of Life imagery.  And here we are at the last gospel lesson from this sermon series, and you’ve stuck with it.

And to be clear, that’s more than can be said for the people who started out with Jesus, all those weeks ago.  Remember those good old days, back in John 6: (Verses) when the crowds were just following Jesus around, and he couldn’t get away from them without sneaking off under cover of night?  Well, here we are fifty verses later, and Jesus is having trouble hanging on, not just to the hungry miracle-seekers, not just the antagonistic Jews, but to his disciples—the people who wanted to be with Jesus for Jesus’ sake in the first place.  Clearly, this Bread of Life imagery is not for everyone.

And to be frank, I really can’t fault them for their “Hey, now, wait a minute, hold the phone!” reaction to Jesus’ words.  “Eat my flesh”?  “Drink my blood”?  Christians in the early church were sometimes persecuted under the charge of cannibalism because they did profess that they consumed the body and blood of Christ.  That’s the kind of trouble Jesus’ words can get you into.

So the disciples sure aren’t mincing words when they say, “This teaching is hard.  Who can accept it?”  But it’s at this point that the author of John starts playing with words in the way he loves to do.  The word that our reading translates as “teaching” is the Greek word LOGOS.  It can certainly mean “teaching.”  It’s also the word that “refers to the reason or logic behind words.”  And even more especially, it’s the same word John uses when he writes in the opening words of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Though there’s nothing wrong with the NRSV’s translation, this same phrase: “This teaching is hard.  Who can accept it?” could just as correctly be translated as: “This WORD is hard.  Who can accept HIM?”  And John, being John, probably meant it to mean both.  This Word of God, come down in Jesus, is indeed very hard.  Who can believe, looking at this man, a carpenter from Nazareth, trailed by his unremarkable brothers and sisters, that this is God made incarnate?  Who can possibly, when confronted with reality and facts, and logic, think that?

The answer is in our text today: the ones who can accept it are those whom God allows.

It’s at this point in the text, when Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father lets them,” that Jesus begins losing disciples.  I think there’s a profound irony in that.  The people who hung on through the mystery of the bread of life statements, who stayed with Jesus even when he told them that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood, leave when they find out that they’re not in control of their own declaration of faith.  Cannibalism was something they were willing to consider, but the loss of control was not.

And what’s more, look at the guy who responds to Jesus with perfect faith!  When Jesus asks his apostles, “Do you also wish to go away?” it’s Simon Peter who says, “Lord, where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  This beautiful declaration of faith comes from a man who will deny that he ever knew Jesus, not once, but three times.

This is the problem with our declarations of faith.  They can be beautiful, strong, and meaningful.  They can be exactly what we need in moments of doubt and testing.  But they run the risk of setting us up to think too highly of ourselves, as if our faithfulness mattered more than God’s faithfulness.

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard what I think it’s one of the most beautiful declarations of faith in the whole Bible: “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”  But our lectionary cuts out what happens just after the people make their confident declaration that they, too, will serve the LORD.  Joshua does not applaud their discerning judgment or willing hearts, but instead assures them that they will break their promise. You will not be able to serve Yahweh, he says, and Yahweh will not forgive you.  The people must repeat their promise twice more before Joshua records it in stone.  And then, guess what happens?  The people are unfaithful to God, just like Peter was unfaithful to Jesus.

I know—and I’ll bet you know too—people who have been in church but have fallen away.  People who have been baptized but have lost their faith.  People who loved a church community but stopped coming because something changed and the word became too hard to accept—there were many such people who certainly felt that way after the ELCA’s statement about human sexuality in 2009.  And there are churches who are unhealthy, whose people become so jaded that they leave and never look for a new community.  Joshua’s, Peter’s, and even our declarations of faith are powerful, beautiful, and very important—but they are not eternal.  The words of eternal life belong only to Jesus.  Or, to put it another way: we just aren’t as good at being faithful as God is.

I am blessed that my mom is here to hear me preach this morning.  It’s the first time she’s ever actually heard me preach, although I’ve had her read more of my sermons than she can shake a stick at.  Though she has a humble heart and would never pat herself on the back in this way, I suspect there’s a tiny part of her that might see this moment as payoff for the years of tribulation I put her through as a teenager, whining about going to church on Sundays.  Most Sundays I would have been happier staying in my pajamas and watching cartoons, but Mom would harass me until I got out of bed, dressed reasonably, and crawled sulkily into the car.  But now that I’m a little older, I’m grudgingly grateful that she and my dad were so faithful in my spiritual formation, because being dragged by my parents to church every week is the closest thing I can think of when I try to understand how God is dragging us to Jesus.

“I know you resent this now, little Cindy, but one day you’ll grow up and be able to use this moment as a sermon illustration.”

For a lot of people, a profession of faith in Jesus sounds like: “I accept and believe that Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and savior.”  But for Lutherans, our confession echoes Martin Luther’s explanation of the 3rd article of the creed in his Small Catechism:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as she calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.

We might not be able to come to Christ on our own, but once we’re dragged here, what a tremendous gift we receive as we declare our faith: “Now that we’re here, where else could we possibly go?  Where else could we possibly find words of eternal hope, salvation, mercy, and love?”  Only here.  Only in Christ.  He has the words of eternal life.  Alleluia.  Amen.

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