Within this morning’s scripture readings come at least two important messages, one from God, and one from Jesus. And though our understanding of the Trinity might cause us to argue that Jesus and God are one in the same, their messages come from different times, and from different aspects of the Trinity.
In our Hebrew scripture passage, we have the story of Abraham, following God’s instructions to the letter, and very nearly killing Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But God stops him at the last moment, and instead provides a ram for a sacrifice.
Our gospel lesson has Jesus trying to describe his relationship with the one who sent him, and his efforts for this passage conclude with his telling us that even offering a cup of cold water to the little ones will be rewarded.
In one passage, God is telling us that child sacrifice is no longer needed in order to show faithfulness. Eventually, God will tell us that animal sacrifices are no longer necessary either. Isn’t it interesting to see God, the one we think is unchangeable and all-knowing, change God’s mind over time?
And thank God for Abraham and Isaac, that God decided that child sacrifices were no longer necessary. We wouldn’t have Christianity if we didn’t have Isaac, and this part of the Abrahamic story.
So our first passage reminds us of what God doesn’t need from us. The second passage helps us understand what Jesus expects from us: simple hospitality and empathy. Jesus tells us that simply offering a cup of cold water to the littlest among us will be rewarded by God. Now, if you ask me, this seems like a very low bar…maybe a starting point. But don’t you think we could do better than cups of cold water?
Of course we can! We can offer bread, and soup, and protein from our collection of food offerings on communion Sundays! We can offer free reading materials for those who stop in to our offices, a gentle and patient ear for those who need comforting.
Think how wide the possibilities are if the bookends we have to work with are: moving on from the ancient ways of honoring God, and offering cold cups of water to thirsty children. And, it seems to me that there are a lot of other ways we could demonstrate our love of God and our love of neighbor beyond offering cups of cold water.
And in the listing of those things, we will find our purpose, our goal, the things that will define what it means to be One Worshiping Community. What we won’t find in scripture is the instruction to serve ourselves. What we won’t find in God’s Holy Word written in the Bible, is a commandment to serve only ourselves to keep our heads above water as a faith community. No, it is becoming more and more clear to me over time that congregations like ours will need to become focused on others, focused on our neighbors, on serving those in need around us in order to survive.
And most of the writing done on vitality in modern congregations stress that unless a congregation turns it focus outward, toward the world in need, it runs the risk of experiencing decline.
So what are we to do? Start setting up water stands outside our building on hot days, and offer cold cups of water to the thirsty? In a word, yes! But the whole cold cup of water is, in fact, a metaphor, a metaphor for whatever we can do for whomever appears to us in need.
We no longer need to sacrifice children to the Creator God, and offering cold water is an easy way to show God we are faithful, and that we love God. So somewhere in between the two actions will be our niche, our connection to the world outside these four walls, our connection to our neighbors in need. It won’t be enough to ensure that we have a worship service, or communion, or hospital visits, or pastoral counseling, or even Bible study, because those things just serve our own needs…we will need to work hard at figuring out what our community needs, what we can realistically offer the community, and then find a way to actually do it! If we build on some of our strengths, if our foundation is based on the things we can do well, then our actions will have integrity and spirit.
And by the way, while our congregation is working on ways to stay connected to our community, while we are working on ways to be relevant to the people around us, there is some important work we can be doing inside our own spirits: who among us couldn’t benefit from exercising our empathy muscles?
The current state of the world is filled with cynicism, antagonism, blame, and disrespect. And so while we spend some energy contemplating how God wants us to act in the midst of the community in which we live, we each could probably stand to examine our own relationship to the cold and uncaring world we have enabled. We can find ways to reverse the disrespectful way in which our neighbors treat each other by living our faith even in the way we treat others. Doesn’t Jesus call us to be the opposite of what the world has become?
For my other job, the one serving the NY Conference of the United Church of Christ, I manage the mail that comes in: checks to be deposited, requests from pastors and churches for assistance, invoices for all sorts of things. And all that mail comes to a Post Office Box in Solvay, on Milton Avenue.
Very often, as I am entering the building, I hold the door for someone either going in, or going out. What’s sad is that nearly every person for whom I hold the door looks surprised. As if they can’t figure out why on earth would someone hold the door for them? A simple gesture of kindness these days catches most people off-guard, just for a second, and then they smile and say thank you. How cool would it be if they left the Post Office and then held the door for someone later in the day? Or committed some other act of kindness for someone else?
If each one of us committed to finding one way to show empathy or respect or kindness to a person we don’t know, or have judged in the past, if we vowed to show patience to one person we have gotten frustrated with in the past, we would be making big strides in changing the way we use our empathy muscles. To me, it’s so obvious, Jesus was the epitome of empathy. So, as followers of Jesus, why can’t we show empathy to those around us who likely receive very little? It’s almost as easy as pouring a cup of cold water, and we don’t even need any cups, or any water!
So while we continue to need to be the church, to find ways to keep our budgets balance, our doors open, our worship happening, to keep serving communion, to doing the things we do as a congregation, I believe one of the keys to our staying alive and thriving in the future is a transformation: from focusing on survival to focusing on using our resources to serve our neighbors in need. Finding one way to express empathy or kindness toward another person is just the first step in a journey toward loving our neighbors. Let’s try that for a while. Amen.
On Easter Sunday, we heard how Mary went to the tomb, early in the morning, and discovered that the tomb was empty. She ran to tell the disciples, who in turn, ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Peter, and another disciple eventually looked in and found only the cloths that had been used bind the Lord’s body. Not knowing what else to do, they went home.
Mary, though, stayed. Stayed longer than the others. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two angels, and they asked her why she was weeping. Outside the tomb, she encountered Jesus, though at first she thought he was the gardener. She knew it was Jesus when he said her name.
Last week, we heard how the disciples were all gathered together except Thomas, and though the door was locked, Jesus appeared among them. He said ‘Peace be with you’, and they knew it was Jesus. Later that week, again all together, this time with Thomas, Jesus appeared to them a second time, also saying ‘Peace be with you’. Jesus encouraged Thomas to put his finger in the holes in his hand, to put his hand in the hole in his side. When Thomas did that, he knew it was Jesus.
Today, we heard how the disciples were traveling on the road to a place called Emmaus. On the way, they encountered a stranger. Their conversation turned to the recent crucifixion of Jesus, and the stranger talked about scripture, and how it was all related. When they had reached their destination, they invited the stranger to stay with them, and when they sat down to eat, when they broke bread, they knew it was Jesus.
If those of us who struggle to be the church in the 21st century hope to know Jesus, scripture gives us a few hints on how we might make that happen: we’ll have to wait around the empty tomb long enough to encounter Jesus, or we’ll have to be patient to wait until he speaks our name, or we’ll have to gather together enough times to share his peace with one another, saying ‘Peace be with you’ to each other, or, we have to be close enough to Jesus to put our fingers in the holes in his hands, or put our hands in the hole in his side, or we have to gather to break bread together.
The community that the writer of John’s Gospel was trying to reach was in a tough spot: they were cut off from their Jewish brothers and sisters due to their belief in Jesus as the son of God. They were cut off from their Christian brothers and sisters because of their particular way of being community. The author of John’s gospel was writing to a community that needed desperately to be reassured of their place in relationship to the sacred, in relationship with Jesus.
Oddly enough, the community that wishes to continue to be the church in the 21st century needs desperately to be reassured of our place in relationship to the sacred, needs desperately to be reassured of our relationship with Jesus.
So what are we to do? We need to be the church. We need to do what Mary did, and stay around long enough to encounter Jesus. We need to do what the disciples did, and gather often enough to share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others. We need to do what Thomas did, and get close enough to Jesus to touch his wounded hands and side. We need to do what the disciples did, and break bread together so that Jesus will be known to us, too. All these things are about being the church. About gathering together, about being present and ready for the presence of Christ. And they don’t seem that difficult!
But if we don’t gather, if we aren’t patient outside the tomb, and we go home, we’ll miss Jesus. If we don’t gather, if we aren’t together to pass the peace of Christ, or if we aren’t close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, we’ll miss him. If we don’t break bread together, we’ll miss him. And if we miss him, if we continue to try and be the church without gathering, what will we be?
In my home church, growing up, I remember interviewing a parishioner as part of my confirmation process. I had to ask a series of questions about their faith, their participation in the local church, and possibly, the wider church. When I asked about attendance, he told me that during the nicer weather, he worshiped at the altar of the 18 links.
Since then, I’ve had parishioners tell me that they will often worship when camping, fishing, doing laundry, going to the beach, skiing, or hiking.
And these things can very much bring us closer to the sacred, and they very well may be enjoyable and even spiritually fulfilling. But they won’t bring us to Jesus. To do that, we’ll need to be together.
Here’s an interesting thing: on the ancient maps, there is no place called Emmaus. In Hebrew, its meaning is something like ‘deep longing’. So in our scripture today, the disciples were on the road to ‘deep longing’, and were joined by Jesus, who was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Perhaps the answer to the steep decline in the health of our churches these days isn’t in recreating the successes of the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and 70’s, but instead lies in recreating the early communities that literally and symbolically feared for their very existence, and gathered together as much for protection and support as they did to worship.
Regular gathering for worship, regular gathering for passing the peace, and regular gathering for breaking bread together seems like a pretty good recipe for seeing Jesus.
Fairmount members might remember this story, but I’m going to tell it again: A little over 20 years ago, I became acquainted with a middle-aged couple named Tim and Cheryl. Cheryl was a special education teacher nearing retirement, and Tim was a retired auto worker who also happened to be blind. I had been bitten by the cycling bug, I loved riding my bike, and often, my conversations with Tim revolved around cycling. He told me that as a teenager, at his school for the blind, he had been taught to ride a tandem bike. He knew how to keep his balance, even though he could not see. We cooked up a plan to find a used tandem bike so that we might ride together. When we told his wife Cheryl, she looked at me like I was crazy, and she said, ‘Gary, are you trying to see Jesus?!’
I suspect what she meant was that another way to see Jesus is to be near death, which makes a lot of sense to me, but that seems like an awfully dangerous way to see Jesus. It seems a lot safer to just gather regularly, pass the peace of Christ, and break bread together, don’t you think?
The Johannine community, the group of faithful that the author of John’s gospel was trying to reach, didn’t worry about how many members they had, they worried about the quality of their interactions with each other, and with Jesus.
We could take a page out of their playbook: if we became more concerned with the quality of our faith interactions, and worried less about how many people are in the pews on Sundays, we just might survive these difficult times.
Focusing on our ability to live into our hopes, live into our faith, as opposed to living out of our fears, might just bring us to our Lord and Savior. Using Mary and the disciples as a template for our own faith practices may open up new ways for us to see Jesus. I still would like to get Tim on a tandem bike, just to see if we could ride together, but that’s just me. I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker…
We are an Easter People. At the very heart of our faith, at the very core of our understanding of our faith lies the process of death and resurrection. Jesus teaches us in his own way about the seed that must die and be buried before it can grow into a plant, our own seasons show us that after the death of winter, plants find new life in the spring. Over and over again, repeated cycle after cycle, there is death, and there is resurrection.
So why do we fear the coming death so much? When will we be able to accept that we won’t experience new life, resurrection, for the church until the old church dies away? When will we trust that the cycle, the process, is both natural, and necessary?
Gathering in Christ’s name to pass the peace, to worship God, and to break bread together puts an emphasis on our relationship with Jesus, and not on our survival. These things help us to see how the church can be stronger in order to do the things Jesus calls us to do for and with our neighbors, and even our enemies. It can also show us how trying to meet our own needs through the church can get us on the wrong path. Ironically enough, our survival will be guaranteed if we could focus on being the church again, for the sake of others, and be worried less about the church that meets our own needs.
It’s beginning to look like the church of the 21st century is more of a means to live out our faith than a way to serve ourselves. Like the disciples on the road to ‘deep longing’, the church of the future will be part of a journey, not a destination. When we try to make it a destination, we risk losing sight of Jesus.
On our own collective journeys of deep longing, if we are patient, if we can wait by the empty tomb long enough for Jesus to call us by name, if we can share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others, if we can be close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, if we can gather to intentionally break bread together, Jesus will be known to us, and we will be doing the work of the 21st century church. Let’s get to it. Amen.
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