Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sunday's Sermon: You are not Alone

1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
This passage from John follows up on what we talked about last week.  “I will ask and God will send you another companion who will be with you forever.  This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.  You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”  Again, people of faith actually SEE things that the rest of the world can’t or won’t see.  People of faith actually RECEIVE gifts that the world can’t because it can’t or won’t receive them.  As people of faith, we experience God and the gifts God gives.  Today we are talking about the gift of an ever- presence Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.  That experience of God, that choice to see with eyes of love, that choice to see the blessings that surround us – that experience changes the way we see the world, and the way we interact with the world.
       When I look at a stranger, I see a child of God, a beautiful creation and that changes the way I interact with that person.  When I hear a song on the radio, I hear messages from God, and that changes the way I receive the music and words – I receive them in a spirit of listening for God’s voice and being blessed by the constancy and steadfastness of God’s presence.  When I take things in such as bread and grape juice, I feel that these are gifts from God, reminders of God’s presence, and that fills me with gratitude.  When bad things happen I can see them as the blessings of opportunities to grow in my faith, grow in my patience, grow in closeness to God and God’s people.  When good things happen, I can experience living in the joy of God with God rejoicing too.  Living a life of faith is different than walking each day as if we were ALONE.  And living as people of faith means recognizing that God not only never leaves us alone, but calls us to stand with one another as well – to be advocates and companions to those around us.  When God calls us to love even our enemies, to love our neighbors as ourselves, I think God is especially calling us to stand with those who cannot see, who do feel “orphaned” in the world, and who do not feel God’s Advocate living within and around them.   Through standing with people who are feeling that isolation and aloneness we can help them feel God’s love, we can bring them to God’s love.
       His name was Tim. He had wild hair, a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans, and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was brilliant.  Kind of profound and very, very bright.  He did not begin college as a Christian.  Across the street from the campus was a well-dressed, very conservative church. They wanted to develop a ministry to the students but were not sure how to go about it.. One day Tim decided to go there, just to see, just to check it out, almost as an anthropological experiment, he wanted to see and understand what these people did on Sundays and why.  He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.  The service had already started and so Tim started down the aisle looking for a seat.  The church was completely packed and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Tim got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet.  People were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick.  About this time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making her way towards Tim.  The deacon was in her eighties, had silver-gray hair, and was wearing a beautiful, lovely dress. A godly woman, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly, she walked with a cane and, as she started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn't blame her for what she was about to do.  How can you expect a woman of her age and of her background to understand some college kid on the floor?  It took a long time for the woman to reach the boy.  The church became utterly silent except for the clicking of the woman's cane.  All eyes were focused on her. You couldn't even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t even preach the sermon until the deacon was finished. And then the congregation saw this elderly woman drop her cane on the floor… With great difficulty, she lowered himself and sat down next to Tim on the floor, making the decision to worship with him and by doing so to show him that he won't be, that he isn’t alone. Everyone choked up with emotion... When the minister gained control, he finally said, 'What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.'  The truth of that came in the form of Tim returning after that service, weekly.  Converted by the love of an elderly woman who made the decision to act as Jesus acts – being with people, no matter who they are, where they come from or where they are going.
After last week’s sermon, I ended up in several conversations with people about those who don’t attend church but say they are people of faith.  Well, maybe.  Maybe they really are people of faith.  But I tend to think people don’t come to church for a couple reasons and one of them is that again, relationships with God take time and work and people simply don’t want to put that time and work in.  Coming to church means taking your faith seriously, taking time to actually work on your relationship with God.  That takes commitment to the real thing and it is a practice that as we here know feeds us, feeds our souls, and invites us to see and experience God at a completely different level.  That kind of commitment also holds us accountable, something people who are not part of church communities may feel uneasy with.  Being part of a faith community helps us to build our faith around sound principles.  It is interesting to me that there is a movement towards people attending non-denominational churches.  The thinking is that these churches are somehow not “tainted” by the dogma built up in our denominations.  But to me, these churches are opportunities to dive into a cultish experience.  Our grounded, sound denominations have worked through their stuff.  They’ve had time to develop, to mature in their faith, to be grounded in practices, beliefs, and understandings that again hold us accountable and make it much harder to go spinning off into dangerous religious tangents.  The practice of showing up weekly invites us into scheduled time with God.  That doesn’t LIMIT our time with God.  We can add more and more time through our prayers, our study groups, our faith disciplines, conversations with other people.  But it means that at least one time each week we will be talking and in conversation with God.  It also means that we have that time each week to remember, again, that we are NOT alone.  The Advocate, the Spirit that Jesus sent is with us, always.  And it is in the strength of that connection with God that we also stand with one another in our faith and in our commitment to love as Jesus loved, to follow in the Way of Jesus, to be his people.
       A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.  After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.  It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.  The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.  In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs.  After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation.  As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead.  Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.  He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.  As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said with a tear running down his cheek, 'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I will be back in church next  Sunday'.
Jesus has sent us the Advocate.  Jesus has also sent us one another.  We are blessed to be in community with God and with each other.  Our call then is to spread and share that community with others.  Amen.