Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
October 22, 2000
Jeremiah 31: 6-10 and Mark 10:46-52
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
As a child I spent each Sunday morning in worship. I cannot remember a week passing without worship. My home church was a grand stone beauty built in the shape of Christ's cross - with a vaulted ceiling, curved arches, and classic stained-glass windows. Of all the windows, the ones which stood apart were those in the east transept. We often sat across the sanctuary to the west of these windows which allowed me an entire hour (or more) to study these artworks in colored glass.
In the east transept were the four gospel writers - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - each one seated and looking holy and articulate. Above each saint were stories unique to their own gospel. I wondered how they had written what they had written. I wondered what it must have been like to witness and record and share the stories of Jesus. These translucent authors of faith shaped my imagination of the Messiah in vibrant and evolving ways.
Listening to our pipe organ was one of my favorite parts of worship. I can remember only two sermons I heard as a child, but through the organ I learned the language of hymnody and meter of church's purse of faith. I always felt that all I needed for worship was God's Word read from the Bible and God's Inspired Word sung through hymn texts! I never imagined I would one day be called upon to preach God's Word. But, I listened, I learned, I grew.
St. John's was located on Main Street in my hometown and was known as the church in town which cared for the homeless, the hurting, the poor sojourners of our area. As a seminarian, I helped staff a soup kitchen called Manna on Main Street. The town leaders didn't care for Manna, because they believed it brought poor people to our town. But, in reality, the town fathers were blind. The people who came for bread and soup and fellowship and assistance were local and they were needy. I was always proud that my church was a Good Samaritan serving the main street of our town.
I have mostly been away from my hometown for the last 24 years. I have worshiped many places and in many setting called "church." There was the recreation center in Philadelphia where I worshiped by a boxing ring; the plain, white chapel of Yale Divinity School; and various modern settings for worship at college and here in Columbus. But, late last summer when I came to First Church for one interview for Senior Pastor, I sat in this sanctuary in prayer. With the late afternoon sunshine streaming through the west windows, I felt as if I had returned home. A peace came upon me - a peace that passes understanding. A homecoming peace.
I believe that all of us seek a place to call "Home" - in life, in relationships, certainly in our relationship with God. We seek to discover and live within the peace that passes understanding. We feel as if we are exiles. We feel as if we are separated from the love of God. We simply want to be at peace in God. There are biblical promises and insights which lead us to believe that peace can come in eternal life. But, I believe eternal life should begin on this side of death. Our turning, and our homecoming should find solace in God NOW. The Psalmist sings:
"You, O Yahweh, have turned my mourning into dancing: You have taken of my sackcloth and clothed me with joy!" (Psalm 30:11).
Or in the words of the gospel hymn's refrain:
"Come home, come home, all who are weary, come home!"
("Softly and Tenderly")
"Come, let us go (home) to Zion, to the Lord our God," proclaims Jeremiah 31:6. With glad singing, praise, and shouts of joy, God gathers the blind and the lame, the pregnant women and those just giving birth. And they return. And they come home with weeping and consolation. And God leads them home - home by the brooks of water, home by a path that is smooth and direct. And yet, we know that homecoming is never that simple. But, with God leading, home is ever before us!
More poet than prophet in the 31st chapter, Jeremiah tells how God gathers and brings and restores the people to their homeland. Because of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews have become fugitives, refugees, displaced persons. In this faithful and fateful moment, God recollects the weak and vulnerable ones. God's faithfulness makes possible a homecoming procession of those valued by God whom the nations have devalued. The homecoming throng is deeply moved and overwhelmed with both memory and hope. (Jeremiah 31:9a). (Reference: Walter Breugemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Eerdmanns Press, 1998, p. 284).
The power of this passage is that both the generation which has been dispossessed and the generation newly born return home. From exile to homecoming, they come. The One who "scattered" them now gathers them back together. "This God has the power to move against mourning and sorrow, the mood dictated by exile. In their place God authorizes dancing, merriment, joy, comfort, and gladness."
In the Gospel of Mark, we learn that our God who delivers us home also heals us upon our return. And God points us to the Messiah who meets us in our times and places of greatest need. Enter Bartimaeus . . . In his trek from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus encounters and heals many people. In Mark's Gospel, the last story of healing before Jesus' trial and crucifixion is the healing of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is a man who has nothing. He has nothing to offer. He has nothing to claim. He is a blind beggar. All that he has to give us is his faith. And what a powerful faith it is. Through his blindness, he can see and proclaim the Messiah. Without the gift of eyesight, his faith sight helps him not only see the Messiah, but show the Messiah to others - including the Disciples! While the disciples are blind to the truth before them, Bartimaeus sees the truth of the Christ clearly - and speaks it clearly. When facing Jesus directly, Bartimaeus uses an Aramaic word found only in John 20:16 by Mary when she meets Jesus in the Garden on the day of resurrection. He calls Jesus, "Rabbouni," which is a reverential address meaning, "my master." It is a heightened form of "Rabbi." For Jesus is not only teacher, but master. And with those words, Bartimaeus is healed and Jesus says, "Your faith has made you well!"
Today, our "Rabbouni" is calling us home. Home to healing. Home to peace. Home to our faith-filled community - First Congregational Church. We have gathered once again to feel God's spirit. Here we seek to discern how God is calling us to share freely the gifts God has so freely given to us.
A few days ago, in the late afternoon sunshine I came in here and sat where the light poured through the mostly red glass in the Days of Creation window. I sat with eyes open soaking in the majesty of our gothic beauty (as Bill Boden so lovingly calls our home). I reflected over the past year - a year of tremendous transition. I recalled the peace I felt here last summer. I remembered the feeling of homecoming I felt here. In my hands I held the church directory and in my heart I held each one of you - and I held each friend and newcomer whom God is bringing among us to add a blessing to us. I thought back to the words of the four witnessing stewards. Each one shared their stories - stories of healing which this congregation shared in. Stories of hope for the future. Duan Cannon and Meredith McEntee both told on separate occasions how this community was present to them their beloved ones in times of crisis and struggle. Both told how upon coming here they felt the peace and presence of God. Miracles and wonders. Healing and hope.
You have heard me call First Church "the Cathedral of Grace." I believe this with my entire heart! In John Newton's words from "Amazing Grace," "`tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home." It is my homecoming prayer that I will be part of the ever-unfolding community of grace, here in Columbus' Cathedral of Grace - for years to come. But, the God's grace in this place extends under and behind and around and far beyond this sanctuary! As I sat bathed in the red light of stained-glass last week, I heard the sounds of this great city pulling my mind and spirit out and beyond glass and stone! Sirens, horns, helicopters, adult voices, children's voices at play right outside our walls in the Downtown Play School calling all of us to minister, calling all of us to serve. In the Parish Hall were teens from 12 School Districts across central Ohio studying in the Christopher Program in a place where they could be accepted and where they could learn through alternative ways of education. There were people in other parts of building in Spiritual Direction through the Spirituality Network - who were coming here burned out and feeling the restorative peace of God in the presence of other people! There were staff members working hard on music, on liturgy, on newsletters, on Christian education - all seeking to faithfully serve this community of faith. Yes, I felt both the peace that passes understanding and challenge of Christ to serve, as I prayed here, the other day.
I ask you once again, "Do you feel the spirit?" Is the spirit calling you home? As you pray in the silence of the next few minutes - either alone or with a friend or family member, I ask that you to joyfully consider what your estimate of giving will be for the year 2001. If you a member (and everyone who has been confirmed is a member!) I trust that God has already laid it upon your heart to be giving. What will you give? If you are a friend of First Church considering membership, I invite you to also consider what you are called to present as you as a gift as we step into life together here at First Church in the coming year. If you are guest, I ask you to pray for us. We need your prayers and loving support as we seek to be faithful to God's call to give this day.
In the next few minutes, Deacons will hand out Giving Cards. If you are not with your spouse or partner, your family member or friend, I ask you to go and sit with them now. Please use your "Percentage Giving Chart" as a guide of calculation for your 2001 gift. What is your weekly or annual income? How will you feel the Spirit of God - calling you home? Amen.
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