Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
November 26, 2000
II Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
To begin her book, The Preaching Life, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor describes a trip she took to northeastern Turkey in 1991. There in the Kachkar Mountains, on a stretch of land between the Black and Caspian seas, the kingdom of Georgia flourished between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. During this relatively brief ascendancy as a Christian kingdom, Georgia was like a Camelot, with strong benevolent rulers carving out a culture which was prosperous and fair. Two hundred years later it was gone, torn to pieces by neighboring tribes. Now, some 800 years later, there is a kingdom of mountains, pines, and rushing streams, with a smattering of farms and villages, but only the shattered remains of Byzantine cathedrals and public buildings (Which had been adorned by artists imported from Constantinople).
One afternoon, Barbara and a handful of other trekkers ventured into the middle of nowhere. Turning a bend, she beheld the outline of a ruined cathedral. She writes:
It was a huge gray stone church with a central dome that dominated the countryside. Grass grew between what was left of the roof tiles and the facade was crumbling, but even in shambles, it spoke to us. The whole group fell silent before it, looking around for permission to enter, but no permission was necessary. It was a hull, a shell. No living thing remained inside and we were free to explore. Arriving at the main portal, I stepped through and was swallowed up by the sheer size of the space inside. Very little of the roof had survived, but the massive walls still held frescoes with the shadows of the biblical scenes on them. There were lambs of God carved on the stone capitals and medieval saints with their faces chipped away. Some of the best stones had been plundered for other purposes, but those that remained testified to care and expense that had been lavished on this house of God. (B.B. Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass, 1993, p. 4).
She poked around and found evidences of campfires on one side of the chapel. Another part had been turned into a garbage dump, where rats were prowling for scraps. In the transept she heard sounds of children and returned to find them playing soccer on the green lawn which now covered the central nave, while a couple of sheep grazed in the altar area. In the dome above what had been the communion table was a fresco of the Christ, with arms outstretched, presiding at the Eucharist. Sitting down under what was left of his embrace, Barbara sat down to survey the ruins of the church.
This is the land that gave birth to the Apostle Paul and where he found the fertile soil for the sowing of Christ's gospel in Ephesus, and Galatia, Clossae, and Nicaea. For the first thousand years of our faith, here is where the jewels of Christendom once stood. Now stripped of their altars, fonts, and crosses, these great churches are now museums for tourists, mosques for the mostly Islamic people, or simply ruins of an ancient faith no longer practiced for the last 800 years.
Barbara continues, "I imagined my own parish in its place; the beautiful wooden rafters rotted out, the ceilings collapsing, shards of stained glass hanging from windowpanes," (p. 4) the altar, the cross removed and sold to some museum or pawnbroker. Such a thing is not impossible. That is one learning from the ruins on the Kachkar Mountain hillside. "God has given us good news in human form and even the grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we are going and why." (P. 5) We can never take our freedom, our ministry, or the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God's presence in our midst and bring our best gifts to serving God's presence in our world, we may find ourselves in generations to come ushering, not for Sunday worship, but as attendants at a museum of cultural history or pulling a stone of the rubble to remember what once was "our cathedral home."
Now some of you may find this venture of "futuring" depressing and/or unnecessary. Others may find it a waste of time on "Thanksgiving Weekend" (of all days to reflect on cathedrals in ruin!). I suggest to you that it is a faithful reflection posited from the heart of our Gospel text and our Hebrew scripture text today.
Today is the last Sunday of the church's year, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday. And, as you know, we count time differently in church than in the world. We mark time beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, which is next Sunday, December 3rd. In today's texts, we lift up Christ as the Way, the Truth, the Life of God in our lives. In John 18:33-37, we enter a few lines of the entire text of the Gospel of John's trial of Jesus before Pilate. For the chapter length trial stretching from John 18:27-19:16, the gospel writer engages an intricate dialogue between Governor Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth - the declared "King of the Jews." In the midst of this exchange, Jesus says, " . . . for this reason, I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (18:37). But, Pilate, responds - almost in an existential way - "What is the truth?" (18:38a) as he leaves Jesus' presence and goes to tell the Jewish leaders he finds no fault in Jesus.
Yes, what is the truth? We all answer this question, either tacitly or actively each day. Each of us have "life commandments" (if you will) that guide our version of "the truth." We demonstrate who our Gods are, who our models are, what our truths are by what we do with the hours given to us each day. Our little "T" truths become larger than life. In fact, we often lose touch with the big "T" truth in the process. The truth we have been given as followers of Christ is that, as we were baptized into Christ, we have been united with him in all things for all time. Claimed by him, named by him, and living in him, we belong to His truth - that is - "That God loved the world so entirely, that God sent the Christ into the world to heal the broken-ness of the world." (John 3:16). The key to this proclamation Truth in Christ Jesus is that God loves the world - not the church in the world - but the world! The world, in all its humanness, all its nuttiness, all its beauty, and all its pain! The world is loved so completely by God - that we have been given the gift of Christ who lives, breathes, and embodies the totality of unconditional love! To believe this Truth is to enter into the reign of Christ in the world and for all time. But, we must remember that other people of other faiths, have other Truths of God. While I do not believe their Truths for my life and faith, I also believe their truths have validity when given those Truths embody God's unconditional Love. Often, Christians have gotten all warped and anxious about those who do not believe the Truth of God's love as we come to know it in Christ Jesus our Savior. Rather than seeking and living into the fullness of this Truth to love the world, too many Christians have gotten sidetracked into the Judgment business! Rather than living the embodiment of Christ's love to others, too many Christians seek to play a God - not only to play God, but to play a God whose judgment precedes the coming of Christ and the Reign of Christ. That is, a God of Judgment. By doing this, the Truth of God's word is lost and the power to live God's word is rendered useless.
For, the God of Judgment is not the God who sent His Son into the world to Save the World. You need to look no further than the Christ himself to see this. In the face of his own crucifixion, Jesus doesn't judge Pilate. Jesus finds no need to judge Pilate. He simply loves Pilate and offers him the Truth of God's Love. With that offering, Pilate chooses, for whatever reason, to turn away from the Truth.
I find it curious that the Hebrew Scripture text from II Samuel 23:1-7 also addresses the question of what happens with love and power misused. King David certainly has misused his power and his office, and for this he suffers greatly. But, through confession, he is forgiven by God and goes on reign with justice. We encounter him here, at the end of his days examining his life. In 23:3-4, he says, "when one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the presence of God's love, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, he is the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth." With these poetic words, he exits as one, though scarred by misdeeds, is healed by God's love - also a testimony to the truth.
But, I return to Jesus' words which still challenge me. "For this reason I was born . . . to testify to the Truth." I return to Barbara Brown Taylor's words which still haunt me: "God has given us good news in human form and even given us the grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we were going and why."
We stand at a crossroads in the history of First Church and in all mainline Protestant churches today. The strengths of First Church and the mainline denominations have been for centuries - an emphasis on social justice, on God's transcendence, on reasoned faith delivered from high pulpits (most not this high!). But, in the words of Dr. John Shelby Spong, recently retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and renown preacher, "Christianity must change or die." We can no longer simply deliver great sermons from great pulpits while ignoring the simple human longing to draw near to God. We have this grace in human form in Christ Jesus, a presence of God who is personal and powerful and intimate and healing and yet so often we are don't give people this Jesus. We don't connect the head with the heart, the body with the soul. By failing to do this we losing our voices. No, we are denying Christ's voice to speak and Christ's Truth to Live.
Two months of Sundays from today, we will hold our 149th annual congregational meeting. January 28, will be a monumental day in the life of this church. We will vote in goals for the future. As you know, over the last five months, 41 of us on the Listening Team have been listening and recording the words and feelings of almost 500 people in this congregation. What are your passions, we have asked? How might we more fully become the church Christ is calling us to be in the future?
These questions and your answers have been very much in my heart and mind. I have drafted from your thousands of ideas, a long range plan entitled: "Forward in Faith." Now in its third draft, is remains open to revisions and improvements. But, more than anything else, it is a call to love one another and to love our neighbors as ourselves. You can amend, delete, edit, scratch and debate the plan - but I hope and pray, it adopted in some form at our congregational meeting, January 28, 2001. And I hope and pray that it becomes a living testimony to Truth for years to come - a blueprint - if you will - for our moving forward in faith in the new millennium.
It is true that we as Christians must change or die in this new millennium. We can either become the church in the world which God loves or the church in the ruins of forgotten purpose and forsaken truth. I believe we are becoming a testimony to Christ's truth of unconditional love. I believe we are on the path to being a living, breathing, vibrant Cathedral of Grace, not a museum of Columbus' religious history.
Our task is to both expound and live into the uniqueness and vitality of our Christian faith. We recall, what Pascal called the misery and the dignity of humanity, and we should try and relate this double dimension to our future living of faith. While defying the rationalism of his day, Pascal said, "(The philosophers) can tell me about man's dignity, and they drive me to pride, or about man's misery and they drive me to despair. Where, but in the simplicity of Christ's Gospel will I know about the dignity and misery of man?" Spoken in the 17th century, those words may guide us to mission, ministry and mystery of a future we have yet to fully know. I invite you to sit in the embrace of the outstretched arms of Christ, arms which reach to us, not only from the blue stained glass soaring above us, but the ruins of cathedrals long gone - calling us to receive his unconditional love and share his love with others. This is the truth to which I invite you to testify - a truth that has and will for all time - embrace the dignity and the suffering of humanity. Thanks be to God, who reigns through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
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