Sermons That Work

It Is Not That God’s Church…, Proper 16 (A) – 2011

August 21, 2011

It is not that God’s Church has a Mission, but that God’s Mission has a Church.

It is Peter’s day – the day he is renamed by Jesus. No longer Simon, but Peter. Which in the New Testament Greek makes for a kind of pun – for the word for “rock” is petra, while Peter is Petros. Petros is petra – the rock, the foundation upon which Jesus builds his church.

We say “builds” because we know His church is still under construction in so many ways. The church is always growing, changing, under construction, searching for new, more nimble, more creative, more flexible ways of being God’s people. Each time a new member is added to our rolls, each time a person is baptized, we must be prepared to be called to new and different ways to “do all in our power to support one another in our life in Christ.”

A life which Saint Paul asserts is quite different than that of the world around us. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul does not envision a people focused only on our own lives. We are those people who trust that being in the right places at the right times – the places where God promises to be – God will transform. Our hope is not that our resolve will hold, but that God’s resolve will hold.

Consider the book The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittester, of the Order of Saint Benedict. Benedict lived a long time ago – just some 400 years or so after God in Christ walked this earth as Jesus. He tried to get away from the world – a world of Empire marked by power, wealth, violence, aggression. He tried to live in a cave, but others heard of his special gifts in finding a way to live with God so that he was coerced to join and lead a community of like-minded followers of Jesus. Benedict encouraged a disciplined approach to community life, work, study, and prayer. Some thought his methods too difficult and tried to poison his wine. Benedict was onto it, made the sign of the cross over the jug of wine, smashed it on the ground, forgave them for what they had done, and moved on to found a number of monasteries.

Benedict eventually put his ideas about how to know God down on paper, The Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with the words, “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” After just a few moments of reading Benedict’s Rule and Sister Joan’s reflections upon The Rule one feels that she or he had time-traveled back to that cave on the cliffs overlooking Anio to listen to the voice of a fellow traveler whose wisdom draws one closer to a place where God can have at us and transform us.

It is like bird watching – although bird “watching” is something of a misnomer. Watching and looking is not the primary skill necessary for seeing birds; but rather, listening is what leads the eyes to see that solitary magnolia warbler or indigo bunting. Bird watching is an apt metaphor for the spiritual life as Benedict imagines it: listen carefully with the ear of your heart, and God stands ready to show you the way.

Another book offers further insights into a life with God: Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love. It is a book that also has its origins in Italy, and it takes a look at how the architecture of a particular church, Saint Agnes’ Outside the Wall, expresses the very essence of what it means to join with Peter and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It examines every detail of what makes a church, a church – a living expression of God’s will – what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. Visser explores how the center aisle invites one to understand the Christian faith as a journey, a pilgrim journey from the world outside in to the sanctuary of the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We move closer and closer to the Tabernacle of the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus, God incarnate.

And she writes of how it is a church, not just a pile of rocks by the side of the road, but a living reminder returning us to those times and places where we met God along the way – those mystical, privileged experiences of the Holy. She is careful to distinguish that a church is not so much meant to induce such moments of epiphany as to acknowledge the experiences its visitors have had. It is a collective memory of such spiritual insights and mystical moments.

And with the obvious signs of the cross, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross, we are reminded that in order to live, we must die to self – choose the transcendent over the immediate present. The call to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a call to look outward toward others and toward God. Only then can we know what it means to be fully alive. It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. And we are that Church, the Body of Christ.

The church in bricks and stone and wood and glass tells this story and invites all who would be Christians to continue this story, so at the end of the day we are sent away: Ite missa est – “Go, you are sent!” From which we get the word “mass”: to turn our lives toward others and toward God. To complete the work we begin in here, in actual fact we must return to the world beyond our doors. We are to live with other people and love them, just as we are to live with God and be loved by God. God’s Mission has a Church.

In another time and another place, Charles Moody wrote a song, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” that seems, due to recent events, to be more relevant today than ever:

Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting too far from the shore

Drifting too far from the shore
You’re drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting too far from the shore

It is all meant – Benedict’s Order, Paul’s Letters, this church, the gospels, Moody’s song – to make us ask ourselves: Are we willing to continue God’s story, be transformed by that story, and so become active participants in God’s transformation of the world in Christ Jesus?

Or have we drifted too far from the shore?

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Christopher Sikkema


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