The First Congregational Church, Columbus
November 14, 2004 - 24nd Sunday after Pentecost
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister
Dedicated to all the war veterans in this congregation and in our families who have served this nation in war and peace time, in thanksgiving for Ginny and Paul Leidheiser, Sr. and their marriage and always to the glory of God!
Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21: 5-19
Michael Kirby left Glanworth, in County Cork, Ireland, in search of America. Apparently, he felt his fortunes would improve if he traveled far from home to the land half a world away. This summer, it was to Glanworth that Michael's great-great-granddaughter, Susan Sitler, returned with her husband and children to discover what he had left behind. Glanworth is a small, and humble farming community on the high plains in the northeast section of County Cork. Once we found the town, the ruins of a ninth century church, surrounded by a sinking cemetery, drew our family home.
The church in ruins was once a cathedral of grace for Irish Catholic farmers. Burned and razed by British Protestants, the place where priests had celebrated The Eucharist now serves grass to highland cattle grazing in the chancel. Wildflowers and prairie grass fill the nave instead of God's faithful people in prayer. At night one will see no beams and thatched roof, only vast constellations rising far above in the night sky. Crosses are gone. Only tombstones remain in the surrounding church yard that has fallen prey to time and in which the plots of the deceased from generations past are now sinking into the earth. It is quiet here. Only the wind through the cracks in the walls, remind one that the Holy Spirit once blew through this place. Stones no longer stand upon each other. The only thing standing is a remnant of a once holy temple where Michael Kirby was baptized, confirmed, and cared for so many years ago.
In Luke's Gospel today, Jesus told the people who were adoring the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, and its noble stones and offerings, "that the day will certainly come when there shall not be one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Luke 21:5-6). Shaken by thoughts that their beautiful Temple would be destroyed, the people questioned Jesus as to when and how? Rather than answer directly, he said, "Take heed that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name, saying, `I am he,' and `The time is at hand.' Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and rebellions, do not be terrified, for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once" (Luke 21:8-9).
The end of time. Biblically, we often think of the end of time as something coming - something wicked, something frightful. In the long history of the world that has followed Jesus's admonition, for all too many, the end of their time came long ago. In places hallowed by God and people, stones were pulled down, walls destroyed, altars shattered and lives changed forever. For Jews in Jerusalem, the end of Temple life came only 40+ years after Jesus spoke these words. For Catholics in Glanworth who suffered persecution, it must have felt as if the end had come all at once. For Christians in Europe, it must have felt like the end of time when the walls of their ancient cathedrals were blown apart in aerial bombings by friends and foes. In generations since, churches in the American south have been burned and bombed by racists across generations, and in Iraq and Palestine, sisters and brothers in Christ whose simple, often nonviolent faith, has bourne witness for thousands of years have seen their houses of prayer razed and bulldozed to the ground. Not only churches lay in ruins. Temples, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist shrines and houses of prayer have been laid low by people across time in the name of God.
Through it all, Jesus' words ring true. In spite of nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, and earthquakes, famine, pestilence, terror, imprisonment, and great signs from heaven coming down to earth, Jesus promises deliverance. Through it all, he calls his followers to bear witness for God. These are not dusty words spoken to long gone listeners. Jesus is calling us to trust in our hearts that answers will come in the face of our worst nightmares. This is his promise: "By your endurance, you will gain your souls" (Luke 21:19). He calls us to have enduring vision! In the face of days that seem like the end of time as we know it, you and I need to trust that God's enduring vision given to us through Jesus and others who reflect his light, will gain our souls.
I know there are days when you wonder if this can be so. Even Mother Teresa of Calcutta, saint of the 20th Century, had such days. Near the end of her life, Mother Teresa was traveling with a novice and found herself stuck in an airport with no flight. She melted down. Yes, this saint of Christian faith had a meltdown in the airport waiting area. (You are in good company my friends!) She said, "I am so tired of problems. I have given my life to the service of people and all I get in return are their problems and more difficulty. More challenges. More problems. I am sick and tired of problems!" The young woman turned to her mother superior and asked, "Mother, would it help you if you were able to see each problem as a gift from God some of these gifts are small, some are great?" Mother Teresa looked into the beautiful eyes of her young and inquiring novice and responded, "Yes! I must see each problem as a gift from God. When the toilets are running over, it is a small gift from God to move water to our people in new ways. When bombs are dropping on innocent victims, God's gives us a great gift to minister to the suffering in their hour of greatest need. As Mother Teresa moved to the end of her days, she always perceived her problems as gifts from God, some small, some great. Perhaps if you see the problems of your life as gifts from God, you too will respond with enduring vision which will gain your soul!
Faced with persecution and peril 700 years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to the people God's vision of a new heaven and a new earth. In the eyes of God, God would create a new Jerusalem as a joy, its people as a delight. No longer would they be trapped by weeping and distress. Through Isaiah, God proclaimed that a new day would come for a city cast in darkness. This new vision was one for a vital and renewed community of faith! We need such a vital and enduring vision today. We need it our individual lives, our congregational life, and community reaching all the way to steps of the White House and Capitol!
Juxtaposed to the church with vision is the church in the ruins - which has no enduring vision. I have witnessed both churches firsthand. I have seen churches in spiritual ruin, in which buildings are still standing, but people have become anxious. Such churches have, in the words of Anthony B. Robinson, become vulnerable to the anxiety that set them in a downward cycle and creates more fatigue and anxiety. In such a vicious cycle, congregations feel like they are getting nowhere and the frustration of this, leads to depression in the body of Christ.
I have also seen churches with virtuous cycles. By the grace of God, they find a way to enter with holy boldness into God's presence. As in the letter to the Hebrews, they proclaim, "Let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water." You see the difference? A virtuous cycle begins with a sense of confidence and hope in what God has done and is doing, as opposed to the cycle of anxiety in which folks worry about what we must do.
The Letter to the Hebrews repeatedly juxtaposes the priests of the old rite with the priests of the new rite. The old priesthood is characterized by relentless, repetitive and often ineffective activity. Like rats on a wheel, the old order works itself to death. However, Christ has a different way. He offers for all time a single sacrifice for sins, and then sits down at the right hand of God.
In the vicious cycle, the saying goes, "it is all up to us." In the virtuous cycle, the saying goes, "it is all up to God." So, what will help us live in vital cycles and relinquish the vicious cycles? In the words of Stephen Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." In other words, when we trust in God to give us the gift of vitality, all things will work together for good. Now, some of us are control addicts. We have to manage everything in our lives, in the church, all the time. This means, if it doesn't work out my way, than the other person must take to the highway. This attitude shows little to no trust in God or fellow Christians. A vital congregation (and person!) Lives by another set of rules. The rules for the road of vital congregations is not control but confidence in God's grace and love.
Anthony Robinson offers this story of a church with enduring vision. This church decided to focus on, what Robinson calls, "the vital few." They found the vital few things that they did faithfully and effectively. They identified Sunday morning at Second Church" as "the vital few." They believed that did Sunday morning really well. They had two services of worship. They had a strong teaching ministry for adults and children, and they focused on hospitality and fellowship during that morning time each week. Their pastor said of them, "we discovered that if we get Sunday morning right, everything else seems to take care of itself. Or at least flow from that." She added, "I love Sunday mornings at Second! There is so much joy!" The boards, committees, and council of the church are going well because of the infectious enthusiasm of Sundays at Second Church. (Anthony B. Robinson, The Christian Century, November 2, 2004, "Vicious Cycles," pp. 8-9).
Robinson concludes, "This vicious-and-virtuous-cycle phenomenon rings true for our personal lives as well. When high anxiety hovers around me like a toxic cloud, I am longer creative or productive. I work faster and harder, but often the only thing I have to show for it is a case of simmering resentment" (Ibid,p. 9). How true! How many of you find yourselves resentful - here at church, in your workplace or home? Do you hear yourself saying, "A few of us do all the work!" "So many people around here never do anything!" This is an early warning sign for a church and a people on the edge of ruin - spiritually, and perhaps physically.
The prophet Habbakuk wrote that as people of faith, we need to write the vision, make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it (Hab. 2:1-2), for where there is no vision, the people perish. Let us look back - and forward - to the future. Let us find and affirm our sense of shared vision. What is it that we do well? How can we affirm this vision in vitality and hope? How can we, like Mother Teresa, see the small and great problems as gifts that God given us for transforming the world in which we live? How can we, like Isaiah, trust God to create a new Jerusalem in joy and delight, and a people who have turned from weeping to rejoicing? How can we, like Jesus, have an enduring vision in which our vital cycles of faith which are hope-filled and justice-filled and grounded in a God who in is intent on guiding us to an enduring vision which gain our souls? Amen.