Third Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 55:1-9
Matthew 16:13-21

A couple of weeks ago, I got on the elevator with our 4-year olds from the Day School.  Susan Varghese, daughter of Anna Matthews who is a member of our church, looked up at me with beautiful shy eyes and declared, “I saw you at church yesterday.”  “Yes, you did sweetheart because you’re a member of our church!” I replied with great joy.

To which Henry, another 4-year old, offered that “I like my church because we have doughnuts.”  Wow!

Refusing to be outdone, our Penny Trapchak, daughter of Liz Sweeney, chimed in that “I love my church because we have cupcakes!” Alrighty now!

It was a brief but delightful conversation and the 3 of them gave new meaning to the “elevator speech.” I learned that the real key to successful church in the eyes of young children boils down to: donuts, cupcakes, and likely anything sweet even at the risk of disapproval from their parents.

Seriously, I want to commend you parents, grandparents, and guardians for teaching your children and insisting that they have a good start in the church. And I also express my gratitude to our Sunday School teachers Julie, Carl, Liz, and staff for making sure that the seeds of faith are planted so early in life.

Like many of us, at least myself, going to “church” as a child was a constant in our household. It was not optional and no bribery was necessary.

“Church” not only represented the place of worship, it was also where our identity was crystallized, history was rehearsed, traditions were established, and fellowship shared in a loving community. Grandmother was there, aunties and uncles, cousins, neighbors, and friends and we tended to one another. When someone died, we all stopped by and brought something. Or if someone was sick, their names were called in church and they were prayed for.

Church was where we learned how to make personal connections to God and the world.  Those Easter speeches and Christmas pageants, singing in the choir and ushering, and Saturday clean-ups days taught us early on that Church life really mattered.

As an adult, I have come to realize that the ritual of actually going was in itself an act of faith – a yearning for something beyond ourselves that could be shared with other people with hopeful expectation that somehow, someday, justice, peace, and righteousness would prevail. That God would make a way somehow.

Was it perfect? No. Did people disagree and complain about things? Yes, most certainly. But there was something about it that has held the reign for me all these years later.

This morning we celebrate the 182nd anniversary of this church. One hundred and eighty-two years is a long time. A lot of pastors and a lot of people have come and gone.

In 1837, when Park Avenue Methodist was being birthed, Martin Van Buren was president of the United States and there were only 26 states in the union.

Slavery had “technically” been abolished in New York State but was still rampant in other parts of the country.

History is important for it reminds us that we, as a body, have come from somewhere. And even more importantly, it reminds us of the significance of staking our claim and living out on faith on the issues of our day.

Why are we here? I’m guessing, like the children, some of us have our sweet treats.

Over the years, I have heard adults express loving the church because of the people they have met along the way; friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Some have said: I love the outreach ministry, serving at the Saturday Community Lunch Program, or the rummage sale. The choir and music are fantastic, Derrick is amazing and every now and then, an occasional – the sermons are good too.

All of these are good and wonderful responses. And my guess is that it is difficult to narrow down to just one thing in particular. But at the heart of “Church” is spiritual transformation and growing relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and other people. Friendships, good music, sermons, fellowship that never leads to transformation are nothing more than any gathering of people.

When we think of “Church” in spiritual language, we refer not to the building but to the people or the assembled; or the Greek word, ekklesia: the body of Christ, the people of God, the organized group that re-presents Christ to the world. There is the universal Church- capital C – in which we belong with other believers throughout the world and there is also the local church – small letter c – meaning us, this body.

The apostle Paul in writing to the Church in Corinth said: “For as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”[1]

God continues to enter the world through human flesh every day and somehow that happens in and through us – individually and collectively. The church at its best is when we listen to the voice of God calling us the beloved: forgiven, claimed as God’s own. And we listen also to that same voice saying the exact same thing of all our brothers, our sisters – every single one – all claimed by the same Creator. God enters the world through human flesh every single day.

It’s a scary proposition, I know. And that’s why we need to keep returning to it over and over and over. There are so many distractions, so much in us that needs to die so that we might make room for this truth to live inside of us, but just imagine. Just imagine if we could somehow take it in and live it out how good it would be.

We are capable of great good and great harm at the same time. Within the same institution – great people good and noble and at the same time inwardly focused, imperfect, broken. Into such vessels God is made incarnate, alive, and present. It’s complex.

The great miracle is how we have survived so long. That’s how I know there is something beyond all of us.

I hear the words of Jesus speaking to the disciples in our gospel lesson. Jesus asked: “Who do people say that I am?” And they said: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus pushes further, “But who do you say that I am?”[2] I talked about this a few Sundays ago but it’s worthy of repeating.

It’s possible to hang around Jesus, hang around the building, be in the midst of it all, but still not know. Simon Peter answered rightly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus replied: “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you … And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”[3] Jesus said I give you the keys to the kingdom and whatever you lock on earth will be locked in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Peter thinks he knows the answer and responds well. But like us, he struggles to live it out.  I dare say that Peter fully understood his own words any more than we do.

Still, Jesus commends his truth: “Peter, the gates of hell shall not prevail against my church.” I take courage in this hope. For though Peter does not understand, he still belongs to the Church. Though he denied Christ, he still belongs.

There are times when it seems to me that the gates of hell are conspiring against the Church – every denomination, Protestant and Catholic. We seem to have lost our moral footing. Everywhere we turn there is something that seems to discredit the faith: divisions and strife, sex abuse, lies and deception in high places and yes, I live with the guilt and shame that people continue to be hurt in the Church that I love.

Our bishop reports that 138 churches in the New York Annual Conference worship 25 people or less on Sunday morning – that’s one third and probably worse than that.

It breaks my heart to hear faithful members of own staff say that if they didn’t know better and were to come up out of the subway at 86th & Lexington Avenue and saw the United Methodist Church sign, they would walk on by. They would not take the risk of thinking Park Avenue would be anything different from all those delegates who voted at the General Conference against the full inclusion of our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters. We have work to do. And it might be risky work, but necessary, nonetheless.

We are in the season of Lent in which good things die and are resurrected into new life. We are in the season that encourages us to give up things that we no longer need to carry in order to make room for something better.

This is the season of hopeful possibilities that only come through sacrifice, clarity, and awareness of who we really are and who we desire to be.

In good church, the question is not what can I get or what’s in it for me? But we ask: what can I do? How can I help to make things better? And we bring that completely and with great resolve.

I want to invite you, encourage you to find your way home. Find your way to Christ, the solid rock. All other ground is sinking sand.

Hear the invitation this morning: come home. Come to this strange way of being together; this strange and mysterious unity that binds us together and mirrors the image of God.  And may God have mercy upon us all.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12-13
[2] Matthew 16:13-15
[3] Matthew 16:17