A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 3, January 25, 2004, dedicated to my family - Susan Sitler, Luke, Daniel, Sarah, and Thalia - who have spent too many days and nights of their lives without me and yet who love me unconditionally nevertheless, to Phil Stichter and the Search Committee which extended the call to me as Senior Minister as I joyfully begin my fifth year of ministry at First Church and always to the glory of God!
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 8-10; I Corinthians 12: 12-31
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Have you ever found yourself asking, "Why am I here?" You may have been in a certain place or a certain relationship. You may have been traveling for work and stuck in a hotel room in some far away place wondering "why?" - Why here? Why now? Why me? Your question may have arisen related to a church (hopefully not First Church) or a place in which you found yourself on a spiritual quest? "Why am I here?" is a question that all of ask at some time in our lives.
I found myself asking this question on a steamy hot evening last August. For some unknown reason I had agreed to coach girl's soccer. Although I had played soccer 30 before, I had never coached soccer. I had never coached girls. So, with a smile, a soccer ball, several pages of drills copied off a website by Susan, a field with no lines and markings and no clue as to what I was planning to do, I took the field along with eight girls who would soon would grow to 12.
After 30 minutes of running and kicking, Emily asked if we could "talk," You know, she said: "get to know one another . . . " I had never stopped a practice to talk before. So, I told them all to get their water bottles and return to the center of the field. We sat down and spent about 10 minutes relating to one another as curious parents watched from 50 yards away. They must have wondered about my new training techniques. Later that night, I received an excited call from one mom who told me her daughter had never had a chance to "talk" at practice before!
Following our final practice before the season opener, Sarah suggested that our name be "The Hurricanes." It was our top vote-getter in the election of team names. It was now Hurricane Season - in Worthington and in the south Atlantic, so one girl thought we should mention the actual names of Hurricanes when we cheered. Out of respect for hurricane victims and coastal homeowners, I diverted that thought. In a league where other teams are called Stars and Blue Birds, the Hurricanes were about to do battle the best.
With 8 of 12 girls having never played soccer before, we took the field for the first time with most of our players not knowing the dimensions and the meaning of the field lines. We were still "talking" about the lines when the other team (I believe they were called The Destroyers) were lining up - looking twice as fit and twice as fast. Like lambs to the slaughter, The Hurricanes took the field against a team that had not lost a game since birth. They knew how to pass, how to tackle, how to defend, how to shoot, and they even had a goalie with gloves. They drove down the field effortlessly. They scored at will. At the end of the game it was 8-0 - which is sort of like 56-0 in football.
As the girls came off the field, I greeted each one with a smile and a hug. After our post-game talk and snacks, and after they had all gone home, I sat down on a bench by the field. I prayed for God's strength to help the Hurricanes through their final five games. I also asked God, "Why me? Why am I here?" By season's end, God provided me help and strength for each game, and everyone saw tremendous improvements. We ended up - 0-3-3. We even won a few scrimmages. Then on a Sunday in mid-October, Hurricane Season ended. With the end of the season, I still wondered "Why am I here?"
As fall turned to winter, and the Hurricanes turned into Tornados (our indoor soccer team's name) I still wondered. In the stillness of prayer, I discovered that I was there to find the child within me again. I was there to be with Sarah. I was there to see the sunsets on fall evenings at practice and to see the leaves turning on cooling Sunday afternoons. I was there to love these young girls. I was there to encourage them, to cheer them on, to give them hugs, to listen to their stories, to bandage their knees, to help them through their season of new beginnings.
Right after Christmas a few of the girls told me they received new soccer balls (and they are colorful!). One, who had never played soccer before, told me - "Coach, it's my favorite gift!" At school the other day, one of the girls, as star of the week, took me over to her "Star" board where it says "Favorite Sport" and she had listed "Soccer" - a sport she had only begun a few months before. I am honored to call these 12 amazing girls, "my team." I am honored to coach them in one small way through this short passage of their lives.
I wish the questions and answers of faith were as simple as the questions and answers of coaching (which are complex enough!). I wish I could tell you logically and categorically why you are here, what your purpose in life is all about. I wish I could tell you as Church what your purpose as church is all about. I know that some of you believe that I can do this and I should do this. But, I can't and I won't because I believe the answers to questions like "why am I here?" lie in our hearts and in texts of scripture. I can point you to your heart and to the texts, but you need to discover your answer. I can suggest some reasons, but you need to test them and find out if they are true.
You must sort out the hows, the whys, the wheres and wherefores, and the whens, with the help of God. And even then, the truth of your life, may not come into focus even as you walk through the maize of questions and answers. It may not come into focus until the end of days, or until - as Mitch Albom suggests in his fine new book: the five people you meet in heaven - until the beginning of eternal life. In my life, I know the passages I have traveled have almost always become clear only on the other side of the mosaic, the malaise and the conflict I am encountering.
In today's Hebrew Scripture lesson, Ezra is confronted by a "why am I here?" moment. He is involved in what I call the Nehemiah Project. He is the priest in charge of inspiring the people to remember their faith and keep it holy. As he stands in the square at the Water Gate in the old city of Jerusalem, he begins the prayers, the rituals, the ceremonial allusions in front of a section of the wall that is rebuilt. To this city beginning to find hope again, to a people beginning to believe in themselves once again, Ezra speaks of the law - which is in its nascent stage of textual development. And they all say, "Amen." They lift their hands in prayer and supplication. They follow his pronouncements of blessing.
What is so amazing here is that Ezra is on the streets. He is not in the temple. He calls the city street scene a sacred place. He tells the people not to weep or mourn. He calls them to rejoice in the Lord and the texts of sacred scripture. "Wake up!," He is saying. "Look around you! See what is good and beautiful and true about this city of God! Open your eyes! Rejoice in what the Lord has done through you! You have begun the project of reconstruction. The walls are going up again! The temple is coming back to life. The city, which once was in ruins, is being reborn. Do not lose heart! Do not forget how far you have come in a short period of time!"
As one who stands in the place of Ezra - calling forth devotion and worship, prayer and supplication from a faith community - I can relate to this scene and these words. I feel at times that our focus too often gets diverted by money talk, budget talk, and scrutiny of everyone and everything related to giving and receiving. In so doing, I feel like we miss too many opportunities to worship, praise, celebrate, serve and find joy in one another and in our God. We miss too many opportunities to sit down in the middle of a field on a hot summer evening and "talk."
We are here to pray. We are here to grow in faith. We are here to celebrate God's renewing work among us and within us. We are here to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We are here to grow in love of Christ and one another. Looking around, we become aware that we are not finished! But, imagine how God feels when God looks around at the same project called First Church! Do you think God is testifying, too? "I am not finished, but with a lot of love and much needed devotion from the lovers, all things will work together for good!"
Ezra reminds us why we are here. We are here to glorify God and praise God's holy name! We are here to witness in the city to what great things God is doing in our lives. We are here to celebrate the victories thus far and get back on the Nehemiah Project of rebuilding our city and each one of ourselves!
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is confronted with a "why am I here?" Moment. The people of Corinth have forgotten who they are as a community of faith. They have lost track of what really matters and what spiritual gifts they bring to the community. They have also established (unbeknownst to them) a pecking order or a caste system in their church. At the bottom are the slaves, then the recently freed slaves are in the middle, and the slave owners are at the top. There are the rich who have placed themselves in leadership and the poor who the rich have placed in the membership.
But Paul points out that this is not the order God has made. God orders and puts things together by spiritual gifts. He names a few of his total list of 26 spiritual gifts here in I Corinthians 12. He says there are those with certain spiritual gifts for apostolic leadership (read missionary zeal and spiritual community leaders). There are others who are gifted preachers. Others still are gifted for teaching. There are the wonder workers who are able to create order out of chaos. Still, others are gifted in the healing arts. Others still are gifted for helping the poor, the widow, the orphans, and the newcomers. Still others have spiritual gifts for administration (in the Greek the word literally means piloting or steering the ship through rocks and shoals to harbor).
Paul finds that the problem in the church is that those gifted in one area are trying to do the work of those gifted in other areas. The helpers are trying to tell the preachers what to do. The apostles, who are cut out for visionary leadership, are trying to be administrators. The healers are trying to teach. I think you get the picture. It is, as Paul says, like the human body with the foot decrying his role and deciding instead he wants to be a hand; or the ear getting undone about not being an eye. Face it. It doesn't work. When we try to be something we are not gifted to be, it only adds to spiritual decline, frustration, ad chaos. I know this personally.
Paul points out the better way. He draws a picture of the unity of the body of Christ set in proper proportion and function. The body parts aren't jealous of one another. They do not covet each other's functions. Nor do they desire to do each other's work. In fact, they become so invested and involved in their function that they don't even have time to criticize or judge unkindly the work of the other. Like the old Spiritual proclaims, "I feel good, good, good. I feel good, O yes, my Lord! For there is something about working for my Jesus that makes me feel good! Good!"
We, at First Church, would do well to follow Paul's teachings as the body of Christ on Broad Street. Let's realize and actualize and internalize a few of these major teachings.
First, we need each other. We cannot be isolated and out of communication for any length of time. We cannot neglect our own work in the church, and we may not criticize or judge the work of others. If the church is to be healthy, we need to find our calling within the body (and if you haven't see me! I will assist you!) And then we need to follow our calling. Second, we have to respect each other. In the body there is no question of relative importance. Any limb or organ which fails to work throws the entire body of our sync. We need to honor and work with each dimension of our life together in Christ. Third, we ought to sympathize with each other. If anyone part of the body is affected, all the others suffer in sympathy because they cannot help it. This goes beyond the walls and the membership rolls of this place. We need to reach out to our neighboring churches, synagogues, and mosques when they suffer - as we did when the Islamic Center was destroyed several years ago.
"Why are we here?" asks Paul. We are here to figure out what our spiritual gifts are. We are here to share our gifts with others. We are here, not to do the work of other body parts, but to glory in the work God has given us! Through it all, we must remember: we need each other. We ought to respect each other. And, we need to sympathize with each other.
It is not just Ezra and Paul who have "why am I here?" moments. One day, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus has a "Why Am I Here?" moment, too. At the moment when the scroll in unraveled, Jesus rises to read. He turns to Isaiah 61:1-2 and reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor who I have been sent, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to free the captives, and proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." As he finishes, Jesus sits down.
As he sits, our greatest teaching on "Why we are here" comes to light. As disciples of Christ, you and I are here for no less than living into our baptismal anointing. We are here to be prophetic in our witness to those who are left out of the wealth, locked into the prisons, blind to world around them - physically and spiritually - and oppressed in every manner of ways. We are here to be witnesses of no less than the resurrection of life!
I don't know about you, but I feel like this is road map. Now, I am not going to give you the street map today! I encourage you through prayer and supplication of your spirit to put together your own personal map quest! You need to figure out, through the power of God and the anointing of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ, what the street map of your life will look like.
That is your assignment as one called Christian. And I will be here for you every step of the way! For now, we're headed for our annual meeting to do a little figuring out together, why we are here!
As for me, I know a few things about why I am here. I know that Hurricane Season in coming once again. I know Samantha and Anna have new and beautiful soccer balls. I know Tori loves soccer more than any other sport. I know Bo is still learning English and plays the game with fury. And I know my daughter Sarah gives the best hugs in the world. And as the coach, I know I am simply happy to be here. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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