Psalm 119:1-9; Mark 8:27-37
The First Congregational Church, Columbus
September 14, 2003 -- 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
Several years ago I had an opportunity to take a workshop on preaching from William Willamon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He is a rather folksy man, but with deep insight on what it takes to communicate God's Word in today's world. He tells this story about a small church in the rural South:
"It is early on Sunday morning. A bright sun beams its first rays upon Bethel Church. A pickup arrives. A man gets out, unlocks the front door of the little church and enters. He is George Smith. Every Sunday at this time George comes to the church, turns on the heat or opens the windows according to the season, then returns home for breakfast before time for church.
"Sometime later a car arrives and Mrs. Lucy Thompson enters the church and goes back to the adult Sunday School room behind the sanctuary. As usual she places her lesson notes on the lectern, arranges the ten chairs in a semi-circle, then sits down to await the first class members.
Her wait is not long, for soon two more cars roll into the parking lot, and the Johnsons and Tates enter the church. About 10:00 a station wagon rumbles into the lot and six or seven young people, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, get out of the car and enter the sanctuary. Four more cars arrive in rapid succession, bringing the number of people now at church to about twenty-four.
Finally the minister, who is shared with another church twenty miles away, pulls into the spot saved for him by the door. The Sunday School classes now end; worship begins. It is Sunday once more at Bethel Church."
What Willamon describes is repeated across our country week after week in almost unlimited variation. It takes place in sparsely settled areas. It occurs in sprawling suburbs. It happens in teeming cities. It involves just a handful to as many as several thousand. It is made up of whites and blacks and people with all shades of skin tones in between. It's held in English or Spanish or Korean, and maybe with even a little bit in Latin thrown in.
It's the church at worship, just as we have gathered here today, and it is the most visible way a congregation manifests its calling. This is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do. And the reason for all this goes back to our scripture lesson for the morning.
The incident described in Mark's gospel is really a turning point in Jesus' ministry. It marks the time and place where his disciples, those closest to him, first recognize him openly for who he is.
"Who do people say that I am?' asks Jesus. The disciples answer by telling him what they have heard from others.
"Well and good, but who do you say that I am? You who are with me all the time, you whom I teach as we walk from town to town, you who sleep at my side, who do you believe me to be?"
Simon Peter steps forward. Whether he speaks only for himself, or as spokesman for all, he responds to Jesus' question by saying, "You are the Messiah."
You see, the Messiah had long been predicted among the Jews. Others before Jesus had been speculated to be, or even claimed to be, that long-awaited one from the Lord, but none had ever proven to be so over time. The Anointed One was still awaited.
Throughout Mark's gospel Jesus avoids titles in his early ministry, but now the time has come. Circumstances have changed. It is right to reveal who he is in the light of the role he accepts, so he begins with his disciples.
"Who do you believe me to be?"
"You are the Messiah," Peter both discerns and affirms.
In Matthew's account of the same story we have Jesus adding, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. And I tell you, upon this rock I will build my Church." This is the same one he is about to chastise because the disciple is not willing to let Jesus be the Messiah, even though he correctly recognizes him for who he is.
What Jesus puts into motion by accepting this title "Messiah," translated "Christ" in Greek, is a following and not a structure. What he initiates with Simon and his disciples is people-based and not building-related. That is surely what Jesus intends when he plants the seeds of the Church that day; yet, this understanding begins to undergo slow changes almost from the start. In a sense it has been corrupted, and this is the legacy we inherit.
When speaking of "church," what immediately comes to mind for most people is place: the mental image of a building. And isn't that the case for most of us as well? Isn't that how we, too, picture church?
In its original intention the church is people and not bricks or boards. It is portable and not stationary. Where the people are, it exists. Of course the place where the congregation meets is not without some importance, but that is always secondary in its identification. It is significant to remember that Jesus built his church upon a person and not on a spot of ground.
Back in January of 2000 this congregation was still in interim leadership. John Gantt had ably and faithfully taken over the helm of First Church which, in many ways, was not unlike a ship adrift. John lovingly, with strength of personal faith and clarity of vision, helped us to regain a sense of who we are and where we were going.
Then John completed the time he had promised to us. Our new minister was called, but had yet to arrive. So Rev. Don Yaekle was asked to be the "interim" interim, to fill this gap. For those last couple of months Don pastored this church, but one Sunday-- two weeks before Tim started-- he had a family obligation. So for that Sunday there was need for a "substitute interim interim." And that was the first day I ever preached in this sanctuary.
I had become part of First Church while at the Ohio Council of Churches. So that winter day was the first time I ever stood here, obviously having no idea that a year and a half later, I too, would come from out of the congregation to minister in a new way with all of you.
On that Sunday I challenged us all to consider the question of our identity as a congregation apart from this building. What if, for some disastrous reason, we no longer had this structure. Who would we be without it? Would we hold together or break apart? Would we be seriously weakened or would we still be able to function and grow? Would it be the worst thing that ever happened to us or, perhaps, might it prove to be the best thing in the long run?
As much as we love this magnificent building at the corner of Broad and 9th, it is not First Congregational Church. The best that we can say is that it houses First Church. What holds it together is not its stone walls, but the bonds of a people with their God. Ultimately it is not impressive because of its vaulted ceiling and furnishings, but because it reaches out in faithful witness and compassionate service. The rock upon which we are built has nothing to do with footers or concrete, but on the many generations which have preceded us and who made Jesus' love real and tangible in this community.
Over our front doorway you'll find these words: "Enter to worship. Depart to serve." A good thought, certainly. But I think if it would have been left up to me to chisel something for passersby to see, I would have chosen these words: "This is not the church. The church is inside." You see, it's what's inside that counts. All the rest is outer shell, as beautiful as that may be. Truth is there are a lot of beautiful shells around where there is no life left within, congregations that have all but died inside and left a hollow structure behind. These are simply monuments to what was once a vital church, but now no longer exist.
We trace our roots back to Paul, then to Jesus himself. The heritage which comes down to us has been handed on from person to person for two millennia and, hopefully, we will hand it on to our children, and our children's children, and it shall have no end.
The work of the Church has been entrusted to us to interpret, shape, and communicate to the world in which we live. That's a big responsibility for humanity, and I wonder sometimes if Jesus didn't overestimate our ability and resolve. But if it is to survive and grow, the Church must have strong people today as in the past. It will require the best of our imagination and ingenuity to take eternal truths and have them speak to 21st Century people.
You may be able to find numbers on our building, but First Church is not a street address. Instead, it is in a schoolroom where our members teach young minds with a sense of loving concern. It is in hospital rooms where our members use special skills to help others in critical need. The Church is in law offices or courtrooms where members bring a strong concern for justice and equity. It is in homes where family life is celebrated and cherished.
The church is us, whoever we are, wherever we go. It is the rock of Christ upon which we build our lives, and the solid place by which others may find and build their lives as well. Here we seek our meaning as we come into a greater awareness of the spiritual presence and power that surrounds us. Here we find fellowship and support as we meet other seekers along the journey of life.
Look all around you and you'll see the church. Then look just a little farther and you'll see the place where the church worships. It's important not to get the two mixed up. We must know ourselves as Jesus intends us to be.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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