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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON JANUARY 27, 2019 The Place of Honor Psalm 84; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 Somewhere along the way, I formulated what I not-so-humbly describe as the first lesson of ordained ministry: every young pastor must learn, in his or her first call, to love the congregation he is called to, rather than resenting it for not being the church he wanted. Do you know what I’m getting at? New pastors typically are young, idealistic, and opinionated about the church. Maybe I should simply admit it of myself: I went into my first call, a church of 175 members in a town of 1400, expecting to bring the kingdom of God within a period of seven to ten years, twelve at the most. I was going to teach the Bible so well that everyone in that church could tell the whole story from Genesis through Revelation; I was going to make them such good Presbyterians that we would break records in contributing to denominational missions; and, just for kicks, we were going to break down the walls of racial separation, uniting in worship and mission with a predominately-black church in the same town – all that in seven to ten years, twelve at most. But, while we did improve our teaching of the Bible, and we did increase our giving, and we did initiate a partnership that continues to this day, we fell just a little bit short of bringing in the kingdom. And I learned a lesson that I not-so-humbly call the first lesson of ordained ministry: if you’re a pastor, you must learn in your first call to love the church you are called to, rather than resenting it for not being the church you wanted. This is a lesson, I think, that Todd Jones learned long before I met him. One of the things about his ministry that stood out, from the very beginning, was the way in which he so deeply valued every person and every group in our church. He just has this way of making you feel like the most important person in the room, even though it is full of hundreds of people. I said to him on Sunday evening, at the officers’ dinner held in his honor, that I will always remember the way he cited St. Augustine at most baptisms: “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Todd in his inimical way exemplified that conviction. Todd demonstrated, as a pastor, the kind of honoring of each person, and each group, that he believes is true of God. He didn’t waste any time wishing this church were different from what it is; he spent his effort loving this church and each of its members as honored parts of the body. You know, you have to be part of this church to appreciate just how diverse a body it is. People on the outside don’t realize that we have a spectrum of belief represented every Sunday. Of course, from where I sit, I see that most clearly in the Sunday School program. We have twelve adult classes, from the June Ramsey Class to the Discipleship Class, and everything in between. We have biblical literalists and biblical modernists. We have lifelong Presbyterians and new Presbyterians who used to be Church of Christ or Baptist or Methodist or Roman Catholic. We have under our own roof, essentially, an ecumenical church. And every one of us, and each group within, is a valued, honored part of the body. Todd lived that out so well that last Sunday, we all gathered to honor him, to express our appreciation and love, and to stand and applaud him. I daresay that together, we have experienced what it means truly to be the church, the body of Christ. We have learned by experience that being church is a blessed thing when all the members are honored, when no member says to another, “I don’t need you.” Last Saturday, many of us gathered for the examination of incoming deacons and elders. That examination includes a chance for new folks to demonstrate what they’ve learned over several months of training. We gather in groups of about eight in the classrooms of Oak Hill School, where a pastor and an elder ask questions such as “What is the church Reformed, ever being reformed?” And incoming officers respond and discuss important convictions that Presbyterians hold. The answer to that question? Our church has believed that we can never grow lazy about our life and ministry, never assume that God is done with us, and never take our cues on where to go outside of the Bible itself. The complete phrase actually says that the church is always being reformed according to the Word of God. It’s like reading a passage of scripture for the umpteenth time, and you see something that you never noticed before, and marvel. You keep going back to the sacred text because you trust that in some miraculous way, God speaks to you through it in a way that is unlike any other. And the church isn’t in the business of evolving or changing according to the latest market research. The church lives by reading and hearing the Word of God, which constantly calls and invites and prods us into a fuller demonstration of God’s good will for us. Now, that can get spoken in a way that sounds mighty stodgy. One of my professors said it in such a stodgy way that I still remember it, twenty-eight years later: “The job of a Presbyterian congregation,” he said, “is to listen.” It also can be said in a more winsome way, as another of my professors did. She said, “Every time a preacher steps into the pulpit, there is a sense of expectation in the congregation, a hope and an eagerness that in the words of a sermon, God is going to speak to them.” And, I would add, we expect that God will speak a word that makes us new and shapes us more nearly into the people we can be. We know that God loves us, we know that God has good purposes for us, and we trust that God is working in us as we become the church he wants us to be. You see, it helps to read the Bible, because without it, we forget that there is something more to the church than what a person can see. The creed says it: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church….” We believe in the church because it is something God creates. If we used just our eyes, we would see bricks and mortar, or age and income or political convictions. We have to read scripture to believe that the church is what God says it is: the body of Christ, or the Temple of the Holy Spirit; or the Bride of Christ. Those are the words that Paul uses to describe the church. They’re all metaphors, clearly. They’re three ways of trying to describe the indescribable union between heaven and earth. The relationship that God has with the church is a covenant. It’s created by God’s promises and sealed in Christ’s blood. It’s not the kind of relationship that can be ended with the stroke of a pen. That’s why we read scripture to see the true church. So, in First Corinthians, Paul says first that the church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the place on earth where God dwells most potently. Think about the pilgrim’s words from Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord!” Can you imagine saying that about the church? Well, last Sunday, for me, would be one of those times. When we all stood as one to applaud Todd after his last sermon; when we gathered around him and Connie as we laid hands upon them and prayed for them; I was filled with gratitude and awe at the depth of feeling we have in this place, for this church. We meet God here in our midst. We share joy and sorrow. We greet babies and say farewell to grandparents. We hear the words of assurance God knew we needed, and words of challenge we’d rather not hear. And we marvel at what God does through us – the lives redeemed, the work accomplished, the relationships healed. In Corinth there was a problem with church factions. Apparently, members of that church played favorites and distinguished themselves accordingly. Some members said, “I belong to Paul.” Others said, “I belong to Apollos.” Still others said, “I belong to Christ.” It’s funny, Paul didn’t approve even of people saying “I belong to Christ.” I get the feeling that such a saying implied that while the speaker belonged to Christ, other people didn’t belong to Christ, and Paul wouldn’t allow it. So, secondly, Paul said, “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Everyone in the church belongs to Christ. The difference between a church with factions and a united church is the experience of honor. A united church knows that Christ dwells in the body, and every member is honored. That, I believe, is what you and I have experienced together for all these years. God loves each of us as if there were only one of us. Every member is loved. Every group is treasured. And third, Paul says that the church is the bride of Christ. Granted, he says it not in the Corinthian letter, but in Ephesians: husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her. Christ has made a covenant with the church, a promise that can’t be canceled by the stroke of a pen. It’s not like a legal contract or a political constitution. You can’t compare Jesus’ relationship to the church to that between nations or between businesses. It’s a relationship founded on love. Craig Barnes says, “If the church is the bride of Christ, then Jesus is married to both Rachel and Leah – to the church he wants and to the church he has to take.” Do you recall how Jacob fell in love with Rachel, but her father demanded that Jacob marry her older sister, Leah, first? It’s a wacky story, but it still tells us something profoundly true. Barnes reminds us that metaphorically speaking, “every married person has two spouses. There’s the person you thought you were marrying and the stranger who came with that person.” And he adds, “It’s a great description of how Jesus receives the church.” “It is striking,” he says, “that by the end of the Jacob narratives Jacob appears to have embraced Leah. When Rachel died the family was in transit, so Jacob bought a piece of property by the side of the road, buried her there, and kept moving. But when Leah died he had her buried in the family plot where he would eventually have his own bones placed. Maybe this means that he had come to embrace the spouse he was given more than the one he wanted and had to leave behind. “Jesus doesn’t love just the church of his dreams; he also loves the church he gets, which is not so dreamy. His vow to the church, sealed on the cross, proclaimed that God was dying to love us as we are” (The Christian Century, 03-30-16). Do you get the sense that all of us have become just a little more like this, through the years? Do you get the sense that our experience of being known and loved as we are has empowered us to know and love others, as they are? “Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned in his little book Life Together that nothing is more dangerous to authentic community than our dreams for it. We will always prefer our ideal to the reality God has given us” (quoted by Barnes). It’s the first lesson that a young pastor must learn, to love the church God has given you instead of resenting it for not being what you wanted. And, I suppose, it’s the lesson that we all have to keep learning throughout our lives. By the grace of God, and with a good example from our now-retired Pastor, we have experienced it. We have lived the reality that the church – including this church – is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Bride of Christ, and the Body of Christ. It is, by the grace of God, the place of honor. Everyone is known. Everyone is treasured. Because God reveals himself here; God unites himself to us; God joins us together as one.
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