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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Thanksgiving Sunday

November 18, 2018

 Hints of Heaven

Micah 6:6-8; Romans 12:9-21

            On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered Emmanuel AME Church to attend a Bible study in the church basement.  It was being led by Myra Thompson, who was a candidate for ordination to ministry in the AME Church.  He was welcomed by the group and invited to join them, sitting quietly through the study of Mark 4.  As the meeting was closing, he pulled a .45 caliber Glock from his fanny pack and began to open fire on the circle of church members, killing nine, including Clementa Pinckney, the forty-one-year-old Pastor of the Mother Emmanuel Church and a State Senator from South Carolina.  Roof apparently intended to ignite a race war by his actions but “instead of war and hatred, Emmanuel erupted in grace.”  Church and family members reacted with grief to the murder, but they also offered words of forgiveness and compassion for Roof.

            Time Magazine did a cover story on the power of forgiveness.  Nancy Gibbs, the then Editor of Time, and an active Christian, wrote, “Forgiveness is a kind of purifier that absorbs injury and returns love.  It’s not really about the offender at all.”  She called her article, “The Quality of Mercy,” drawn from Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:  “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath.  It is twice blessed.  It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

            The response of the good people of Emmanuel AME Church was the Christian faith, and the Christian Church, at its very best and finest.  I still remember our President singing Amazing Grace from the pulpit of Mother Emmanuel at the public funerals.  And days later, a symbol of bitter division and hurt since 1961 when it was placed atop the State Capital, the Confederate flag, was removed by a conservative Republican Governor from the State House grounds.  All of this happened because of the power of God’s love demonstrated by the members of Emmanuel AME Church.

            The church is called to be “the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven in the world.”  This is the sixth and last of The Great Ends of the Church.  For six weeks in worship, we have reflected upon The Great Ends of the Church: (1) The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (3) the maintenance of divine worship; (4) the preservation of the truth; (5) the promotion of social righteousness; and (6) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. 

            This last one is probably the most important, and yet the very hardest to do.  Finally, exhibiting the kingdom of heaven is God’s doing, not ours.  It is the work of the Holy Spirit.  But it also happens when we obey and are moved and motivated by God’s word.  When we “do justice, love kindness (or mercy) and walk humbly with God,” the kingdom of heaven is exhibited.  When we “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” the kingdom of heaven is exhibited.

            Actually, what I have learned is that when things are at their worst, the church, this church for sure, has a way of being at its best.  I thought about this when we gathered to worship and hold onto each other at Patricia Jorgenson’s funeral this past fall.  This place was filled with love.  It was palpable.  It was the same a few years ago when we gathered to grieve and hold onto each other when Robert Burch, Tate Ramsden and William Richardson each died so tragically, so young.  I could name ten or twenty other such occasions when death and grief and love and the hope of the resurrection have turned this sanctuary into “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

            When we attend to God’s Word, when we have the courage to live by it, the Church is transformed into a powerful exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  There should be something different about us because we belong to Jesus, because we know God’s grace, because we ourselves have been forgiven.

            Poet and pundit Arthur Benson said, “People who deal with life generously and large-heartedly go on multiplying relationships to the end.”

            Adam Grant is a thirty-seven-year-old Professor at Penn’s Wharton School of Business.  He is one of the most popular professors at Penn because he is so generous with his time and attention offered to his students.  In his book, Give and Take, Grant says there are three kinds of people: Givers, Takers and Matchers.  Most of us are matchers.  We keep score – we give in order to get back.  We often give in a calculating way, to have our own needs met.  But matchers give – even if they do so for a mix of motives, and out of fear of protecting themselves.

            Others are takers.  Takers are often attractive, even dynamic communicators.  But behind the appearance of giving, they are always “on the take.”  You can all think of takers, though Grant is right when he says that some takers can fool a lot of people for a long time.  I think of Bernie Madoff.  But takers are finally about themselves.  “What is in this for me?” is always what takers are asking.

            Then there are givers – those who give not to get or gain, but those who give because they have learned that it is the most blessed and meaningful way to live.  Adam Grant says that these are the people who change the world.

            As I read his book, I could not help but to read it as I read everything – as a Christian.  And I kept thinking that the heart of Christian faith, the power of Christianity, is giving.  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”  Jesus calls us to be givers – all of us!  The call of Jesus is the call to be a giver, to be generous in giving your time, your talent, your treasure.  Jesus said in Acts 20, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  In Luke 6, Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.  Condemn not, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you, good measure, shaken down, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back”  (Luke 6:37, 39).

            When the Church gives, when Christians are generous, we see hints of heaven … we glimpse the very heart of life itself!

                                                                                    Amen.

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