Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: How Lovely

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016, Pentecost 23C
Psalm 84

How Lovely

I am going to confess something to you. There are times when I get distracted, even to the point of losing my place in the middle of a sermon, if I make the mistake of looking out the windows of this sanctuary during a service.
This distraction can come in several forms. It is on occasion prompted by seeing somebody arriving after the service has started (to which my attitude is “better late than never”). Sometimes a bird or a squirrel might appear outside and catch my eye. Passing traffic can on occasion become a distraction. It hasn’t happened too many times yet, but the arrival of a storm outside can do the trick. Or sometimes these windows are windows to distraction simply because it’s a beautiful day outside.
I think, though, that such distractions might well be possible in virtually any sanctuary that was built and set aside principally for the act of worship. While in this sanctuary it is the openness of these window-walls, in others it is stately architecture or stained glass or the sheer antiquity of the place itself.
And yet these seeming distractions might also be the things that drive us more deeply into worship, if we think about it. The interior and exterior architecture of great ancient cathedrals serves to lift the mind and soul ever upward, straining for even a glimpse of the presence of God, while also amplifying the sound (remember, we’re talking about buildings built before microphones) so that it resounded throughout the space and could be heard by the gathered worshipers. Skilled composers learned to write music that took advantage of such acoustics.
For us, on the other hand, the window-walls bring the world into worship with us, so to speak – from the glory of God’s creation visible around this space to the ongoing suffering of the world, brought into sharp relief when a police car or ambulance passes by with sirens sounding. Those things for which we praise God or lift up prayers of intercession are not far away from us in this setting.
While the theology of the Temple of which the psalmist writes in today’s reading is different from our Protestant theology about church and sanctuary, there are things to which we can relate in this psalm about a pilgrim’s love for that place of sanctuary and worship. On one level Psalm 84 can be read more or less straightforwardly, reflecting the yearning of those Israelites making their regular pilgrimage to Jerusalem from remote parts of the region. While we don’t necessarily experience verse 3 of the psalm in a literal sense, the nearness of creation in our particular setting isn’t far from the psalmist’s sense of all of God’s creation finding a home in the setting of worship.
And that setting of worship, that realization of God’s presence in the place and act of worship, becomes a source of strength that sustains us at other times,  whether the Temple-era pilgrim making the sometimes arduous journey to Jerusalem described in verses 5-7, or us modern Christians just trying to get through another week. We are reminded of the presence of God in this place in order to remember the presence of God with us wherever else we might be in the week to come. The sanctuary is not an idol, or a confined space where God is hidden away from the world, but it is a place where we are refreshed in the worship of God and reminded of the presence of God even as we go out from this place.
And actually, those verses about finding a refuge aren’t that far off, either. Of course we know what goes on in this sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but think about what else happens on this patch of land during the week.
There’s a lot of singing that happens, between a Sunday morning service, our choir’s own rehearsal time on Wednesday nights, and the two community choruses that rehearse in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Throw in the music that Bill Chestnutt’s square-dance group dances to on Monday nights, the hymn festival that’s going to happen next Sunday afternoon, and special occasions around our major liturgical holidays, and this church looks and sounds pretty musical for its size.
Of course, that’s not all that happens here. Our children are getting an education in scripture and church and being followers of Christ on Sunday mornings, and when we can get enough of y’all adults together we do that too. Sometimes meals are prepared or collected for St. Francis House or Family Promise guests. Sometimes we are having meals together. Some nights a Girl Scout group is meeting, taking part in a program that helps shape and prepare them to be the leaders and citizens of tomorrow, if we’re lucky. And on some nights there are people, members of our community, who are meeting in therapy sessions or AA meetings, fighting some of the hardest and most painful battles any human being ever has to fight, and finding the refuge in our church building to do so.
How lovely indeed is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.
Of course, every now and then we get reminded that having this distractingly lovely sanctuary and all of the physical property here is hard work and gets expensive.  All of a sudden we’re having hurricanes again in Florida, and this lovely glass around us suddenly becomes something to worry about. Even without a hurricane accidents can happen, as that pane to your right that was broken a few weeks ago reminds us. Air conditioning (a non-negotiable building feature in this part of the world) sometimes fails, or a dying tree has to be removed before it falls on the building, or one of the sinks in the kitchen gets clogged with hair (true story; I wish I was making that one up), and that’s work and expense. Keeping up a church building is hard.
I have a few colleagues in ministry who are in settings where ownership of a physical property is not part of their work. On occasion (like some of those events noted above, or during the session meetings where those events have to be discussed), I envy them. Usually not, though. For one thing, even if its showing its age in some places, this is a good building in an interesting location that might just be a major opportunity for serving and doing Christ’s work in God’s world as Gainesville continues to change and evolve as a city. For another thing, we really wouldn’t be able to do or host a lot of things that we listed just a few moments ago without this place. In a sense, we are ministering through this place, and I at least would hate to lose the capacity to do that.
Next week is our Sunday for making our financial commitments for the support of the church for the forthcoming year. In these stewardship campaigns or pledge drives (I guess that sounds more like NPR or PBS, doesn't it?) or whatever various churches call them, one of the things they tell you is that you’re not supposed to talk about the physical building as a part of your campaign; that somehow people get turned off if you talk about mere buildings and meeting rooms as part of what we support as a church. I guess I used to believe that, but I don’t think that makes sense anymore. This building isn’t an idol any more than ancient Israel’s Temple was meant to be, but it is part of our life as a congregation and gives us opportunities to worship, to gather, to have fellowship, and, yes, to minister that we would not have without it. And if keeping the air conditioning working or fixing broken windows or even unclogging strangely clogged drains is part of what it takes to extend that worship or that ministry that we have in this place and time, then it seems to me to be worth the effort that so many of you put into keeping the place working, and worth our financial efforts to keep the place working too.
No, it isn’t the Temple that so provoked the psalmist to such yearning, but it is a kind of home for us, and a place in which God is present and working in us and through us and sometimes even despite us. It is a providence that does require some work of us. It’s an opportunity that does require some discernment and prayer on our part to understand how best to put to use. And it is a place where we are reminded of the God Who is with us in all places, when we remember to listen. So yes, it’s part of our stewardship of what God has given us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#401 Here In This Place (Gather Us In)
#417 Lord Jesus, Think On Me
#403 Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty
#741 Guide My Feet

Man, look at all those windows -- I don't stand a chance...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: Written on Our Hearts

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016, Pentecost 22C
Jeremiah 31:27-34

Written On Our Hearts

Hope is one of the most elusive things we humans ever try to describe.
The poet Emily Dickinson was rather fond of hope as a theme in her poetry. Perhaps most famously she wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of hope many times, even if the word itself was not always apparent. Particularly striking is the terse sentence “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
This is an important point about hope; it’s not really at its most valuable or important or even noticeable in times of ease and comfort, but stands out in sharpest relief in times of adversity – or, to cite another quote attributed to Dr. King, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Again, Jeremiah is writing to exiles in today’s reading, those who were carried away to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem. You will remember in last week’s reading Jeremiah gave the exiles the surprising and counter-intuitive counsel of God to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.”
The problem was, that Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet delivering messages to the exiles. Furthermore, some of those other prophets were giving messages that were directly contrary to the word God gave to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah had already come into conflict with one such prophet, a man named Hananiah. You can read in chapter 28 of this book how Hananiah directly challenged Jeremiah in the Temple, prophesying that the exile would be broken within two years. Hananiah not only ended up being proved wrong (the exile ended up lasting seventy years), but also ended up dead for his intransigence.
Nonetheless, there were still plenty of prophets about who sought to tell the exiles what they wanted to hear. Hananiah’s two-year exile story refused to die with him. As a result, Jeremiah has to deliver a hard message to those exiles, one which would not be popular and would likely be opposed and rejected by many of them, their ears still attuned to the words of those false prophets and their promises of a quick fix, overthrowing the hated Babylonian rulers and restoring the now-broken kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the peace and safety the exiles remembered (in spite of all evidence to the contrary).
Amidst what looks like bad news, though, Jeremiah is in fact preaching a word of hope, to those whose perceptions have not been so distorted by years of idolatry in Israel and Judah or by the words of those false prophets. It wasn’t an instant-gratification kind of hope, not by a long shot. Indeed, many of those who were taken into exile would not live to see Israel and Judah’s return from exile in the seventy years Jeremiah proclaimed. All of that building houses and planting gardens no doubt seemed a bitter pill to swallow for those who knew their days would end in this foreign land, even if they took to heart God’s instruction through Jeremiah.
But the scripture we read for today stretches the idea of long-term hope to an extreme. Through Jeremiah’s words, God is preparing the people of the covenant for something much farther into the future, even in the midst of their current struggles.
You might have noticed, if you were reading this scripture in your pew Bibles, that the layout of this text as it has been edited for this publication gives away something about it, something that is different. It is set apart from the surrounding text by being rendered as ordinary prose, rather than as more lofty-sounding poetry. We’re being tipped off that the tone is changing here—while much of Jeremiah’s text has poetic quality and content to it, this bit of instruction is blunt and direct. It’s also set off by that repeated introductory phrase “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…”. If nothing else we are being told to pay attention, even if our minds have wandered somehow at this point. This is a Thing That Will Happen; listen up.
The first portion of this scripture seems odd, unless we consider that Jeremiah’s words are overturning a long-held belief in Temple-era Judaism about how sin rippled out from those who committed it, to the point that later generations would “be punished” or suffer for the sins of their ancestors. No longer, says Jeremiah; your sin is your own responsibility, and you alone will bear the consequences.
It is the second half of this passage, though (introduced by another “the days are surely coming…”), that signals something quite new to Jeremiah’s hearers.
I wonder how many of you have seen a painting, or probably a reproduction of that painting, which depicts a very pale, long-haired Jesus standing at a door and knocking. Clearly the painting plays off the verse from the book of Revelation:

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

It’s pretty familiar to us, but would have sounded quite alien to Jeremiah’s hearers or readers. Images of God coming into an individual’s heart, while common from that Revelation verse and numerous gospel hymns, would not have made sense at all in Temple-era Jerusalem. “God’s people” was a communal concept, not an individual one.
Furthermore, if we read Jeremiah’s proclamation correctly (particularly around verse 33), that Revelation passage doesn’t really capture what Jeremiah is telling his listeners or readers either. God’s instruction through Jeremiah speaks of God’s law as being written on “their hearts.” Not “your heart” or “his heart” or “her heart”; their hearts. While there is more of an individual dimension than perhaps the covenant people might have ever experienced before, it is still the community, the covenant people together, for whom this covenant is written. It happens to God’s people together. It happens in the community. And it happens entirely at God’s doing.
We modern Christians tend to get hung up pretty often on the individual nature of faith (rendering Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, for example) and forget that where that faith is forged is here, in the community, in the people of God, in the body of Christ.
Of course, if we’re honest, we just might have to admit that Jeremiah’s prophecy seems to be yet forthcoming. We don’t always act or talk or live like people with God’s law written on our hearts. We are still easily seduced by the false prophets of our day, whether they be the false prophets who promise you that “you can lose five pounds a week with no dieting and with no exercise!” or the false prophets (frequently religious leaders these days) who push all our buttons by telling you it’s somebody else’s fault that your life isn’t exactly the way you want it, and promise to fix it for you by punishing those people.
The world out there can hardly be blamed for being uninterested in the church when the church seems more venomous and hateful than just about any other part of society. Really, who needs that? If all the church is going to do is make people more hateful and even violent, it’s no wonder nobody wants in.
We have a lot to do, friends. We in the church, the big church, have really given very little evidence that God’s law is written on our hearts, or that it’s a good thing if it is. But think about it; think about what that would mean. Jeremiah’s readers would not be thinking of God writing on our hearts with a really nice pen-and-paper set with elegant penmanship. Remember how they knew the law to have been written first; carved into stone tablets, written by no less than the finger of God. Not an easy thing, not something that could be washed away. Not like writing a note to yourself on your palm because you don’t have a piece of paper; more like being tattooed, or maybe even being branded. Being marked by God in such a way that it can’t be washed away or rubbed off. Being marked indelibly, permanently. Possibly even painfully – tattoos hurt, I’m told, and I can only imagine the pain involved in being branded.
To be marked or branded in such a way is to be so in thrall to God that those false prophets all around us can’t sway us. To be marked that way is to be unmistakably in service to no one or no thing that is not God, no matter how much it wants you to think it is God. It is to be so unswerving in our following God in Christ that the world out there would just have to stop and look, desperate to know more.
Yeah, there’s a long way to go. But this is our hope and God’s promise to us. We might want to examine ourselves in light of this hope, just in case there’s a world out there watching. Because there is.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

 Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#645            Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above
#45              I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes
#53              O God Who Gives Us Life
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon: Seek the Welfare of THIS City

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016, Pentecost 21C
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Seek the Welfare of THIS City

I’m going to tell you all a little secret. I don’t want you to take this wrong, seeing that I’ve been here in Gainesville a little less than two years at this point. Actually I don’t feel that bad about saying it, really, because I know some of y’all have a similar experience to which you might be able to relate.
I miss Lawrence.
Mass Street (short for Massachusetts). Man, I loved Mass Street.

No, Lawrence is not a person (I'm not talking about missing Lawrence Welk). Lawrence is a place, the city in Kansas in which Julia and I lived while I was teaching at the University of Kansas. It’s a quintessentially cool college town. It has an amazing variety of restaurants for a city its size, representing a wealth of different cuisines. It was beautiful in the fall. (I miss fall, too.) I was working in one of the best public-university schools of music in the country, with great colleagues and outstanding students. The cost of living was pretty reasonable. We had a good church.
...ah, the ol' workplace...

I should hope you understand that is not meant as an insult to Gainesville to say that I miss Lawrence. (I even got it in writing. See? hold up shirt)
...and yes, I did hold up a shirt pretty much exactly like this.

But truthfully, I also miss Richmond. There are things I miss about West Palm Beach as well, and I even miss Tallahassee. (Now that’s probably the one to get Gainesville folk on edge, I guess.)
In short, I am as prone to nostalgia as anybody. And I know many of you are too – I’ve overheard some of y’all talking about the things you used to be able to do in places where you lived before, and even in the churches you used to attend when you lived in those places in the past. And you know what? At root there’s nothing wrong with that.
In our cases, for the most part, our leaving those places was voluntary; you weren’t rounded up and hauled away from your old hometown and deposited in the enemy capital of Gainesville, I’m guessing. In other words, your nostalgia is not like that of the people of Israel and Judah who had been carried away to Babylon, the ones to whom Jeremiah writes in today’s reading from that book.
This reading falls somewhat in the middle of the readings we’ve done so far; the exiles to whom Jeremiah writes here are the “first wave,” taken some years before the final conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. The king here mentioned as taken, Jeconiah, was the next to last king of Judah, predecessor to the short-termed King Zedekiah mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, but a large number of Jerusalem’s people have been taken captive and held in Babylon, and to those exiles Jeremiah is writing a letter, a prophetic letter at that.
The “nostalgia” felt by these exiles is of a different quality than what I was acknowledging earlier; after all, I could pull up and move back to Lawrence if I really wanted to (although I might be doing so without my very happy Florida-native wife). These exiles can’t do that. They are in every significant way being held prisoner, even if they aren’t being held in a prison.
You hear some of this anguish and frustration in Psalm 137, some of which might sound familiar:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

To be honest, the tone turns a lot darker after that, particularly by the time you get to verse 9 of that chapter. But here the sadness, the despair, the lament of the exiles is expressed in both beautiful poetry and great emotional depth.
Now, we know Jeremiah is capable of lament, and capable of pronouncing harsh judgment. But that’s not what happens here.
Instead, Jeremiah (relaying the word of the Lord) tells them to build houses.
Build houses and live in them,” he says. “Plant gardens,” he says, and eat what grows in them. Let your sons and daughters get married—encourage them to do so. Live there. Be there.
Now a few verses down, starting in verse 10, Jeremiah relays God’s promise that God’s covenant children would indeed return to Jerusalem, which indeed does happen. But in the meantime, the Lord is quite specific: live where you are.
And even more, in verse 7:

…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Your well-being is tied up in the well-being of the city where you live, says the Lord. Pray for it, the Lord says through Jeremiah. Seek what is good for this city – THIS city, the city where you are.
Notice what God doesn’t say. There’s nothing about overthrowing it – a rebellion would probably be little more than a good way to die, but God doesn’t order that. No being separate or withdrawing. Live there. No trying to turn Babylon into some clone of good ol’ Jerusalem. But also no “giving in” – don’t fall for the idols of that city, the way you fell for foreign idols even in Jerusalem. Live there. Maybe even pick up those harps and sing again.
Now it might seem less than obvious how this applies to us. As noted before, we aren’t exiles; we don’t have to live here. We can move. We can leave Gainesville.
But think about that nostalgia we were talking about earlier, back at the beginning of this sermon. That was mostly about individual nostalgia, me remembering living in Lawrence or Richmond or wherever, or you living where you might have lived before you came to Gainesville.
But nostalgia can happen communally as well, and sometimes that kind of nostalgia can be a problem. Churches are particularly prone to this, I fear. I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this; we pine for a time when the church was full – not just this church but all the churches were full-up every Sunday and maybe even twice on Sunday. I have no idea if that’s how it was here, but I’m going to guess that’s how we remember it. We remember how you couldn’t really get anywhere in this town if you didn’t belong to the right church, for that matter.
We look around and the city is not what we remember. We remember when we knew everybody who owned the restaurants or shops or businesses or manufacturing or anything of importance in the city. It was comfortable, and we liked it. It’s not comfortable now, and we don’t like it.
That kind of nostalgia can become its own form of exile. It’s not a familiar place anymore, and we don’t understand why there are Jamaican restaurants or Israeli restaurants in town, with food that’s too spicy. We don’t understand how the university got so unbelievably big and takes up so much space in town and creates so much traffic.
We also don’t remember that the simpler time for which we might get caught pining was Hell for some of the folks who lived here then. Hell for those who weren’t the right color, or the right religion, or the right gender or the right sexual orientation or the right income level or even just from the right family. One person’s paradise is too often another’s torture chamber, and regrettably that hasn’t changed as much as we would wish.
But it was comfortable for us, and we liked it, and we don’t recognize the city around us now and we pull back and take ourselves into exile. And we might just be guilty of tolerating or even encouraging all kinds of vileness and hatefulness and unchristlikeness, as long as it’s directed at what we’re uncomfortable with. And through Jeremiah, God tells us to STOP IT.
Seek the welfare of this city – THIS city. Not the one we nostalgically conjure up in our minds, but this city, the one we live in now, with all of the diversity it entails. Six thousand – six THOUSAND international students just through the university, plus I don’t know how many faculty. People who profess religions we’ve never heard of before, or none at all, and don’t feel particularly conflicted about it, and might even run for office. People who at this point don’t even know we exist.
And God is just as surely telling us that our well-being is bound up in this city just as much as the well-being of the Jerusalem exiles is bound up in the well-being of Babylon, as horrifying as that must have sounded to them.
Part of what we are doing in the various missions and outreaches we support as a church in this community is just exactly this – looking after, as much as lies within us, the welfare of Gainesville or Alachua County. Only when things are better for those in Gainesville or Alachua County is our lot going to be better, God says.
Build houses, plant your gardens and eat what grows in them, and seek the well-being of this city of Gainesville. Our call is to find out what that means. But that’s another sermon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#49            The God of Abraham Praise
#54            Make a Joyful Noise to God
#351          All Who Love and Serve Your City
#432          How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord

THIS city...

THIS city...

THIS city...

...and (ugh) even *this* city.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sermon: Out of our Brokenness, Out of our Hope

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 2, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26

Out of Our Brokenness, Out of Our Hope

The first funeral I ever attended, or at least the first I remember, was in the church in which I grew up, when I was about fifteen years old. It was for a boy in our congregation, about a year older than me, who had been killed in a particularly horrific car crash. I can’t say that I knew him that well or that we were the best of friends, but I knew him well enough and we got along fine, all of which only magnified the shock for me.
I would say that it was a terribly emotional experience, but for the most part it wasn’t. One of my great weaknesses is my fear of my own emotions, and that was something that instilled itself in me from a very early age. So as best as I can figure, I somehow walled off that part of myself for that funeral, and busily preoccupied myself with examining an experience that (again, as best as I can remember) I had never seen before, and how it was different from what usually happened in that sanctuary on Sunday morning.
All the flowers. So, so many flowers. The casket placed at the front of the sanctuary, directly below the centrally-placed pulpit, open. The procession into the sanctuary, much more formal than one ever saw at that Southern Baptist church. The overflow of people, even more than on an Easter Sunday.
The service order was slightly different. The sermon was much more subdued than usual from our pastor, who despite being pastor of a relatively large downtown church in a small town, aspired mostly to be an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone country preacher. And then the procession at the close of the service, again very different from the usual Sunday morning, was where I was finally undone.
My emotional guard was finally wrecked at the sight of the boy’s parents.
I knew them well enough to see, even at my callow age, how their utter grief was undoing them even at that moment. He was their only child, you see, and he had come relatively late in life. I had never seen the father look so beaten, so crushed, so … old. And the mother – normally a very proper Southern lady – was inconsolable, weeping without reservation and unable to make it down the aisle of the church to its back door without help from the preacher and other gentlemen of the church.
I suspect most of us have been in the place of that father and mother, weeping and mourning without consolation. But I also suspect many of us have been in the place where I was in that funeral, keeping emotions carefully locked away until they could no longer be suppressed in the face of the inconsolable sorrow of others. I doubt most of us have ever been in the place of the two speakers we hear in the two readings from Lamentations today.
To grasp the state of the Jerusalem of Lamentations we might need to go to Aleppo, the city in Syria that has been utterly devastated time and time again in the seemingly endless Syrian war, in which parties ranging from the Syrian regime to Daesh (what some call Islamic State) to Russia and others have sought to take it over or drive out others, leaving a city that is virtually no longer a city, but a blasted and ravaged ruin. We might need to hear and see the plight of those trapped in this blasted and ruined city, with no place to go to escape the ruin and no country in the world willing to accept them as refugees. We might need to see a truly hopeless situation to understand what the Daughter of Zion is singing in that first chapter of Lamentations. Even in the third chapter, where a tiny bubble of hope comes through, the hopelessness is still palpable.
Most of us have never experienced anything quite like this, like the ruined despair of Daughter of Zion, Jerusalem personified, altogether ready to blame God for their suffering no matter how many times Jeremiah (the presumed author of Lamentations) had warned them against their idolatry and sinfulness. I certainly cannot claim to know all of you well enough to know that for sure, but it doesn’t seem likely.
We still know ourselves to be broken, though, if we’re honest. We know, if we’re really being truthful with ourselves, what it is to be like my friend’s parents, no reserves left to cope or bear up under the grief. Most of us have been there, and if we’re honest we don’t kid ourselves that we’re ever truly very far from being in that place again. A death or grave illness for a loved one, a career reversal or loss, any number of other events that might lay us low and reveal to us our insufficiency and helplessness and (if we’re paying attention at all) our utter and complete reliance on the grace of God even to function.
We are actually marking two special occasions in the life of the church universal and this particular church, events that might not seem to have much in common. It is World Communion Sunday, in which we mark how the church, for all its diversity and even fractiousness, is still united around the table of the Lord; we are also marking in this congregation the beginning of our campaign to support the ministries and mission of this congregation, seeking to commit to the stewardship of our resources (yes, including financial resources, but also our physical resources and our time) in order to continue seeking out how to do Christ’s work in this particular corner of God’s world. To be honest, for a while there I was rather disturbed at feeling the need to connect those two events, particularly in the midst of a series of sermons from the weeping prophet Jeremiah. How in the world do all those elements make sense together?
Well, duh, preacher.
It is this very thing – our knowledge of our brokenness and utter reliance on God’s grace – that lies at the heart of both of these things.
We are driven to this table – we need this table – because we need God’s grace. We don’t come to the Lord’s Supper to congratulate ourselves on being such good Christians. Or if we do, we’re doing it wrong. The table is about our need for God’s grace, most strongly shown in the life of Christ, the healing and teaching and living and dying and living again that is our reason for being the church. Coming to the table is not about our lording it over others, reassuring ourselves that we’ve somehow “earned” God’s grace (pro tip, folks: that’s not “grace.”). The very act of the Lord’s Supper is all about the fact that we share with all the church the utter brokenness and need for grace that is the Table’s message and gift to us, the thing we share with sisters and brothers in the faith whether in Cuba or Colombia or Curacao or Cameroon or Cambodia. We way mark this particular Sunday as World Communion Sunday, but anytime we come to this table we share the inexplicable grace of God with the church in all the world.
But our stewardship is also rooted in this knowledge of our need for grace. It’s a bit like coming to the table; if we’re giving of our time or our money or of anything because we are convinced we’ve got our act together and we can be so benevolent as to give the church a hand, we’re doing it wrong. It is out our brokenness, the unshakable knowledge of our utter helplessness before God and need for God, that we give of ourselves or our treasure. We don’t give because we are convinced we’re going to save the world, or even fix our town; we give because we know the only One who can, and we simply want to be ready to be used for God’s purposes.
We don’t have to know the experience of conquered and ruined Jerusalem, the lamenting Daughter of Zion, to know our own brokenness, our own need for grace. We don’t have to be amidst the devastation of modern warfare to know how close we are to despair and utter grief without the sustaining of our Lord, and even sometimes with it. We may not be comfortable with it and certainly not comfortable admitting it, but we know it. But it is in that knowledge that grace can move in us and move through us, healing us and using us to heal. Whether at the table or in the offering plate, may we be ever coveting the grace of God to move within us, and then to move through us, for the healing of a broken world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#317            In Christ There Is No East Or West
#203            Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#508            Come to the Table
#526            Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ

The devastation of Aleppo. You don't have to experience this, though,
to know what it is to be broken.