I want to say again how much I appreciated those persons who participated in the service last week on Laity Sunday; those who took a leadership role, offered prayers, and shared a witness of their faith. It is these stories; these excerpts that shed light on what it means to follow Jesus in real time in the here and now. If you are were not here you can go onto our website and download and listen to each one.
One person was so moved that he said to me on his way out the door: “I joined the church in the 90’s and went away for a lot of years. I’ve been attending for quite a while now whenever I can but this was the thing this morning that has drawn me back” – even as he apologized that no sermon of mine had actually been so compelling. He went on to say that hearing the witness of “ordinary” people, what they go through, what they experience, made him want to renew his membership and get involved with this church. And he’s here this morning making good on that word; happy to renew his membership and be part of the fold once more.
As much as anything, these witnesses are, for me, a reminder of the real business of the church: why we do what we do and why everything matters. While we are always looking to add new members to our ranks and I give God thanks and praise for each one added, our ultimate goal, our real purpose and business is to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and to nurture people in the faith.
Did you realize that it is quite possible to be a “member” for decades, to sit on the pew and never have a meaningful relationship with God? It is possible to serve on committees and boards; to teach and lead; and represent; speak on behalf of others about what goes on inside and around this building and do all kinds of things completely void of faith.
But as we were reminded last Sunday, the “Church” can and most often will disappoint us. It can be a wonderful place but it is also capable of great harm; for the Church is made up of humans like us; humans who bring all kinds of problems and issues; all kinds of agendas and even on good days, during our most lofty moments, we can leave another in crisis mode if we put our trust in the wrong place. Isn’t that not right? That’s why so many of us have come from so many other places searching for that space where we feel most at home; where we feel somewhat “safe”; somewhat at peace with ourselves and others.
Sometimes, people say “I come to the church because I’m looking for friends and community.” And that’s a good thing; there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
And it is an important element of gathered life but friendship is not enough. It’s not enough because inevitably, there may very well come a time when friends and buddies want to go one way but your conscience and your understanding of what it means to be God’s child might dictate that you must go another way. And it can be lonely when you stand alone or outside of the crowd. It can be lonely and disappointing but you must follow your own heart and your own mind.
When we talk about faith, we talk about being grounded in something beyond ourselves; journeying with God over time and seasons; muddling our way through ups and downs and coming out on the other side better and renewed. And it takes time, you see. It takes time and practice and experiences. It takes mistakes and getting it wrong and opening ourselves up in order to understand the mysteries of life and one’s own self; it takes growing up and maturing to understand that there is often bad news before there is good news; divorce and disappointment before good fresh love and readiness for something new. It often takes diagnosis and health scares before we appreciate the healing of one’s mind and spirit as well as the body; that there often mistakes and doubts before there are good lessons learned and blessed assurances come what may. It takes darkness and chaos before recognizing a glimpse of light and beauty.
When we stand firm in our faith, we pledge and give because we know that stewardship is part of faithful discipleship; it’s not a hard sell. It’s not predicated on what someone else does. It’s not even predicated on what you think we can do but on what we will trust God to do because we understand the necessity of it all and our place in ensuring that the ministries of the church are sustained. We don’t need a lot of letters and appeals. Filling out a pledge card comes every year around this time. We pray and ask God for wisdom and discernment and we make your pledge in faith trusting God to help us make a way out of no way.
We give our time and we make room to serve because the needs and concerns of others are important to us. We understand that it’s not just about what we say, but we must also act so that the injustices of the world can be righted somehow. And it’s part of our responsibility that others enjoy the basics of life – healthcare, housing, equal pay, fair and respectful treatment.
We hear the words of the Apostle Paul calling to us this morning: Stand firm in your faith. Not in your membership; not in longevity; not in your positions or opinions but in your faith. Stand firm even in the midst of doubts and anxieties, stand firm.
Paul sits in a prison cell under the threat of death, but he writes this love letter to a community in stress to the church he loves. Stand firm. Can you hear his words this morning? I can hear them.
He sets forth the difference it all makes, a charter for the Christian life. Why bother at the end of the day?
Paul says, “Rejoice, in the Lord, and again, I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”
It sounds so simple, and yet, in our fast-paced, hectic, anxiety driven world, we know that worry and doubt; and anxiety are all too often, our constant companions. For most people, they walk around with us every day all day long. They go to bed with us and keep us from sleeping at night; keep us from meaningful relationships. They greet us when we pick up the telephone and by way of email, text, and social media. Sometimes, don’t you get tired of it all?
We tell ourselves all sorts of things: “If I were only married, I would be happy.” To which some married people say – “yeah, right!” And other married people – certainly not all – but some married people think to themselves, “if only I were single again; free to do whatever I want and go wherever I want to go.”
We tell ourselves that if we had more money or a different job or prettier clothes; if we lived on a different street or in another neighborhood we would be happy. Sick people say, if I only had good health. And healthy people say, “if only I were thinner or whatever.” That state of happiness always seems out of our reach; over there somewhere in the distance far away. But what if it’s not? What if it’s closer at hand? Here and now with whatever we have and where ever we are? That is not to say that we should not strive to improve ourselves or our surrounding but perhaps there is a level of contentment that is not predicated on things or time or space.
Here is what I propose: peace and contentment are a way of being and have as much to do with our faith as anything else. They are not defined by isolated incidences or circumstance and it is certainly not about being problem free. There is no garden of bliss and yet, I believe, that fundamentally, we have more to say about our state of happiness than we often allow. How we embrace life and live it out gives us a sense of joy that cannot be easily taken away.
This is what I also know for sure: when we go through certain things and we survive them. Or our loved ones survive; when we are not able to hold ourselves; we realize that there is a life force that is holding us and has been carrying us all along; and it changes everything. Things become clearer. Our joy becomes a priority. And we refuse to throw it away on things that don’t really matter.
Some years ago, I was meeting with a lovely young couple about to embark on a new life together as husband and wife. They selected this passage from Philippians as one of the texts to be read at their wedding. It has stayed with me over the years as a framework around which all of us, not just newlyweds, might build our lives together. You can see how it is a clarion call for us to be our very best selves.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Imagine the kind of life we would have if we decided from this day forward to let the virtues of truth, honor, justice, and purity direct our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Imagine the kind of life we would have if we maintained reciprocal pure thoughts and good will toward one another – each striving to out-do the other in what is pleasing and commendable. I believe that it is possible, with God’s help. Paul reminds us that these high and noble values will ensure excellence in life and in faith; a guarantee not just for ourselves but for one another. It’s not about being perfect; but it is about having a standard for one’s own life and an awareness of one’s own worth and faith.
Stand firm, my brothers and sisters. All other ground is sinking sand.
 Philippians 4:4-6
 Philippians 4:8