Luke 24.13-35 14 April 2002

"The Enduring Goodness of the Church"

A sermon by Dale Rosenberger, Former Minister

The First Congregational Church, UCC, Columbus, Ohio

I begin with the parable of the starry-eyed bachelor, the tale of a man who married a little later in life. A staunch backer of marriage, he was always praising couples he admired. Eventually, he met the woman of his dreams and proposed. Things went well at first. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty. He described her as "all he ever hoped for in a woman." All marveled at the marriage made in heaven.

Sadly, this bliss was fleeting. Gradually, in day-to-day living, he began to notice imperfections in his wife. She was beautiful, even stunning, when they went out. But then he observed how often she wore this bulky sweat suit when she was puttering about the house. She was also intelligent, an authority in her field. But whenever they spent the evening at a dinner party, and conversation meandered in many directions, he noticed she had serious gaps in her knowledge. She was witty as well. She could hold people in rapt attention with her stories. But after hearing her anecdotes several times over, he began feeling less than enchanted.

Slowly, and to his surprise, this former bachelor found himself cooling to his wife. Marriage turned out to be so much different than he had thought. Going out on Saturday nights was one thing. But marriage wasn't like that at all. Marriage is stale corn flakes for breakfast because the one who used them last neglected to seal the package. Marriage is sleeping next to someone with untrimmed toenails who is territorially ambitious. Marriage is arguing about how much to spend on a refrigerator, the in-laws piling in from West Virginia, the grotesque lamp sitting in the parlor. Yes, the former bachelor still believed in love, whatever that means. He still yearned after the perfect partner. The catch was in what he experienced.

I start here because in this 150th anniversary year it is my intention to praise the enduring goodness of the church. But before I can, we must make this stop. For the parable invites all of us to disabuse ourselves of our noble, abstract ideals of what the church should be, or what anyone or anything should be, for that matter.

People are fascinated with Jesus. But they feel that he married far beneath his station with his bride, the church. People see themselves as deeply spiritual. But they look at the people of God and observe all manner of types, some stellar many needful. And they don't want to love the people whom Jesus loved. With our starry-eyed, idealistic images of what we think God should do, it is easy to criticize. But the faithfully mature response is to appreciate the church as we known and experience it. That is why I am here and that is what I propose to do. I dedicate my sermon to everyone who has hung in there and stood by the church.

Here we are, two Sundays after the highest and holiest miracle that our Christian faith proclaims: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our resurrection with his. Look what God's incomparable grace hath wrought! How did God respond to humankind killing the only innocent and most holy person ever to walk this earth? By wiping out the whole bloody lot of us? No, God takes forgiveness and mercy a quantum leap forward, and he deepens his love for us by making it death-proof.

What kind of grace is this? Not one that loves in abstract ideals and projects how the other should be. Frankly, God would have given up on us long ago were he loving us for how we should be. No, this is a grace that loves in the concrete and all-too-human reality here and now. This is the grace that has animated Christ's church for 2,000 years. And it is this grace by which God shall redeem the earth.

"The church is a gift of God which we cannot claim," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God to be constantly taking its temper-ature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases." Bonhoeffer is right. We owe the church more than we know. And it is in a week-to-week walk of gratitude that the true nature of the church is fully revealed to us.

Because the church is always actual people in a real place--like all of you here at 9th and Broad St.--it affirms that we cannot know God in the abstract. We cannot really believe in God without following God, without seeking out God's people, without getting caught up in the movement of God's reign. Faith is more than at-traction to dewy ideals and spiritual fancy. It is a whole-souled response, a self-giving, a way of life, a manner of being in love lived by Jesus, who chartered us.

Yes, indeed, Christ's church is about being in love. But it is more the love of a seasoned marriage than the bubbly, effervescence of short-term romantic whims. Christians are the ones who show up in communities where disciples are forged. And at first none of those disciples appear so worthy of what God will make of us.

This is one of the things that I have always loved about the church of Jesus Christ here known as First Congregational, Columbus. It is not easy to meld Christian community out of umpteen zip codes. But you carry it off, swimming upstream against all of the demographic trends of urban America. You never bolted to the `burbs when everyone else did. You are clear in your mission. God has called you to center city. None of you come here by accident, because it is easy, because you fall into it. It is a decision you must make again every Sunday. You drive by cafes, soccer games, people out for a genial walk, even other churches, just to be here. First Church, Columbus looks so established, like it has been here forever. But it also has this deeply counter-cultural side, as any church worth its salt should. You rather like that about yourselves, don't you? So do I. My sermon is for all who have served God in this church for 150 years now. For faith to be faith, it happens among a particular imperfect people whom God leads to a specific place that never feels like we have come as far as we wanted. Christianity is not a home correspondence course. It is not a private moral day-dream. Sorry, but you can't get baptized or take communion in your den through a TV tube. No wonder televangelists rail against the evils of what they call "churchianity". Is it not by mistake that the New Testament depicts the Christian as set within a family, a household, a colony, a flock, a race, a body and a nation.

You taught me much about what it means to be the people of God. You showed me much of the enduring goodness of the church. When you called me as your Senior Pastor, I was 29 years old. But several of you took me under your wing and helped transform a fresh-scrubbed rookie into a minister of Christ's church. If I were to name names of those who made me a minister, we would be here till our 300th. But of the many who did, if I were to name one group, it would be the African-Americans of this church. I am talking about the Julius and Flo Swaffords, the Ervin and Ruth Reeves, the Cleo and Helen Spears, the Dorothy Cromarties.

It was not as though you were oblivious to my weaknesses. For standing in such a high and exalted pulpit tends to make our weaknesses more obvious, not less. But your respect for the office of ministry let me grow and occupy it. You intuitive-ly grasped that it takes time to rise up and seize a charge as great as leading a church in living out the gospel of Christ. You gave me that Christlike gift of grace.

Why did the African-Americans here especially nurture my leadership? Perhaps because for black Americans the church is not a dreamy castle off in the mists of possibility. It is not ideas to tinker and toy with. It is not romantic and unrealistic. It's all too grounded in how things are right now. For Blacks rather the church is a specific people, facing constant struggle, seeking to find their way back to God.

The enduring goodness of the church is rooted in the actual communities who hang in there through both joy and struggle doing their level best to love as Jesus loved. That includes loving the fresh rookies, the not-always-attractive, the not-always knowledgeable, and the sometimes-repeating-themselves people whom Jesus loved. Recently, Amy Hunter wrote of our Gospel text on Cleopas and his friend unwittingly accompanying Jesus on the Emmaus road: "Its image is of God and a church that walk alongside human confusion, human pain, and a human loss of faith and hope. Emmaus invites us to expect God to find us" where we are Emmaus runs counter to ecclesiastical starry-eyed bachelors and bachelorettes.

I hope this means you extend to Tim Ahrens the same grace you extended me. You will not go wrong, offering him that grace. For Tim must fill this exposing pulpit every week. And I am certain that God has sent you Tim and not another. As Christ's servant, he has a real sense of the enduring goodness of the church. That is why Tim works so hard, cares so much, and gives so much of himself. Honor him, by letting him lead. For God did not send him here to poll the best opinions of civilized humanity, and then follow you. God sent him here to lead out of another divine place of God's precious grace seeking us exactly where we are.

Many refuse to believe it. But the church of Jesus Christ mediates a grace that is unlike any other favor or blessing. I want to close with a story that evokes that Christ-like goodness and describes why it cannot be experienced anywhere else. Recently, a new member of my First Congregational, Ridgefield, Connecticut church asked me a question. Karen has a friend who is pregnant with a baby suffering severe congenital malformations. What should I pray for, Dale? She asked me. That the mother lose the child, and release her guilt and failure? Or that she might keep this poor shadow of a healthy child, and make the best of it?

Such a question begs for a story, and not the platitudes and clichés that any direct answer will inevitably become. This story is from a small Catholic parish. A couple in their mid-50s had been admirably serving as foster parents for children born to mothers with AIDS. They would care for these children as long as they lived and throughout their dying as well. In one particular case, however, one of their foster children was tested at age two and found not to have the HIV virus. The mother of the child had recently died. The couple quietly determined that they should give this child up for adoption. When the wife announced that decision to the church's Altar and Rosary Society, she heard a surprising answer.

They told her that she and her husband needed to adopt the child. After all, they said, the child had been baptized in their parish. So the responsibility for raising that child belonged to the whole Church, and specifically to that parish. When the foster mother protested that she was too old, the people responded that they would help raise the child in tangible ways. When she further protested that they would be too old, if even alive, to be able to support the child through college, the people responded that the Church would support--including financially--the child throughout her life, including college expenses. Realizing this child was not only a gift to them, but also to the church, the couple adopted the child. It is surprising what lofty grace the church is capable of narrating into our lives. Not just our high-flown theological synods either but even humble Altar and Rosary Societies.

What should Karen pray for? That God would raise up a church so holy that people who feel lost can find an alternative community when it matters most. Becoming such communities of grace is the church's frontier in a new millennium

God pours out his mysteries of grace into the oft-broken vessel of the Church. For in the church a grace gets mediated that we cannot experience by ourselves. It is the grace of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. We are entrusted with this grace, to live it, to share it, and to proclaim it. We are stewards of sacred mysteries. We pass them along until the glad day when what we glimpsed on Easter is established in all places and times. Despite its sporadic obtuseness, the Church knows more about God than we do. Despite its agonizing scandals, it is holier than we are. Despite how we would have preferred to save the world, it is the instrument God's choosing. So the goodness of Christ's church endures. I thank and praise God for your goodness and for all you do to bring Easter alive. Amen.

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