23 November 2008

With Grateful Hearts


Psalm 100 & Matthew 25: 31-46

Reign of Christ Sunday/ 23 November 2008


Today marks the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It’s the culmination of the year that began on the first Sunday of Advent in 2007. Of all the Sundays in the liturgical calendar, it’s probably the one most ignored, usually trumped by Thanksgiving, which is really a secular holiday (not on the liturgical calendar), although with a religious overtone to it. Yet, there is a connection between the two, as we will see (hopefully) before we’re finished here.


The significance of Christ the King Sunday is sometimes lost on us, I think, is because Americans did away with monarchies a long time ago. To talk about Christ as King is a bit odd for us. We try to make it more accessible by calling it the Reign of Christ Sunday, but even this word is problematic. We get uncomfortable having anyone reign over us. Although, curiously, twice over the last month or so leading up to the presidential campaign, I heard news commentators refer to the “reign” of President of Clinton and President Bush. It was a little jolting to hear these words together.


It’s worth remember that the liturgical year is modeled on the life of Christ. The template of Jesus’ life and ministry become the framework for the ordering of time and space for Christians. The year tells the story of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ – beginning with the promise in Advent, through his birth, death, resurrection, Christ’s ascension, Pentecost, and then finally the Reign of Christ. Everything in Jesus’ life leads to what this day signifies.


The Reign of Christ Sunday was first instituted by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) in 1925, and now commemorated by most mainline churches.[1] The prayers for this day speak of Jesus’ “sovereignty over every age and nation,” and ask of God that “we may be the subject of [God’s] dominion and receive the inheritance of your kingdom.[2] While the birth of Jesus in a humble manger speaks of Jesus meek and mild, there’s also another image of Jesus. My friend, Ian Bradley, might be on to something when in his book God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy, he claims, “Previous ages have perhaps leaned too far in depicting and imagining Jesus Christ as a worldly emperor clad in purple robes and have overemphasised his regal power and triumph. We need to be careful not to lean too much the other way and overemphasise his humility and marginality at the expense of his majesty.”[3]


The Reign of Christ Sunday affirms the majesty, the royalty of Jesus, our servant king, descendent of David the shepherd-king who is the sovereign of the universe enthroned with God and the Spirit, who reigns over our lives with benign power, justice, and grace. This image of Jesus is beautifully rendered in countless Byzantine churches throughout Turkey and Greece. In brilliantly rich mosaics on the inside of their domes over and over again you see Christos Pantocrator, “Christ the Almighty,” who reigns over the all of God’s people living under the dome of God’s benevolent care, where all the sheep and the goats live. There’s a theological reason for the predominance of this image. The Greeks and later Byzantine name for the sovereign or king was Basileus. The term is related to the word basilica, a royal forum for the Roman emperor, later a place where Christians gathered to worship. It’s inside those basilica domes that we find the depictions of Christos Pantocrator.


I’m stressing the use of these words because embedded in the Greek is the profound emphasis of everything that Jesus taught, a Greek phrase that ties all of this together. Jesus came preaching and embodying and offering the basileia tou theou, the very reign of God, the kingdom of God. All the parables of the kingdom of God – the basileia tou theou – include this parable of the sheep and goats, are about Jesus announcing the good news of God’s reign over all the earth, who rules with generosity and grace, justice and joy, in extravagant, unconventional, even startling ways demonstrates for us the way the world is supposed to be, reveals God’s intent for creation, and God’s hope for all the people who live under the dome of Christ’s benevolent reign. God’s kingdom is like a dome covering our lives and the life Jesus calls you and me to is different from the life beyond that dome. Jesus called out disciples from the crowd – which is what the church means (ek-klesia), called out – to follow him, indeed commissions us to extend the reach of God’s reign, to advance the kingdom, to help realize the realm of God. Jesus calls us to expand the dome and invite all people to live in his realm, so that all might come to enjoy the benefits of living under the dome.


The entire parable of the sheep and goats begins as a victory hymn to Christ set in the future, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory...” (Matthew 25:31). It’s why this text is chosen for today. This is Jesus’ parting lesson, the cumulative moment in his teaching ministry. Jesus enthroned in glory sees waves of humanity and he separates the “sheep” from the “goats” which is what a good shepherd does. Now, some might hear in this text a fairly conventional morality tale – those who good deeds are rewarded and those who do not are punished. Therefore, we should all try to be sheep instead of goats. Is this all this story is about? If you think about, how can a goat become a sheep? If that’s all this story is about, if that’s what Jesus’ judgment is about, there’s nothing unique here; similar kinds of teaching may be found in the religious literature of many cultures. There’s more going on here.


Did you notice that both the sheep and the goats are judged? The “twist in this parable is that the sheep had no idea whatsoever that, in their compassion toward people in need, they were providing ministry to the Son of Man, and, likewise, the goats had not a clue that, in their indifference, they were in fact neglecting the Lord of all the nations.” Both groups are stunned. The surprising reply is that whenever they acted – or failed to act – compassionately “to one of the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40), they did so to Jesus Christ.[4]


And so the Christian church is sent out to the world on a vital mission of compassion – to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed will be proclaimed throughout the world,” Jesus said, “as a testimony to all the nations” (Matthew 24: 14).

As a result, the Reign of Christ Sunday point us forward, not toward the world as it is, but the world as it shall be, when even the least of these are cared for because we know that even the least bear the image of Christ. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 10). This Sunday points us forward toward the world the Spirit is groaning to create in us and through us and for us. It points us toward the goal of history, so that we see the purpose of history and the purpose of lives being fulfilled. It’s a world where all the nations of the world are united under God, a place that resounds with the deafening praise of the nations.

To claim this as true is the foundation of our trust and hope in God’s sovereign rule over our lives and the cause for praise and thanksgiving. When we have confidence that someone is in charge over the universe, who reigns with benign power, justice, and grace, when we can trust that despite whatever hardships, difficulties, and pain we are enduring in the end, as Julian of Norwich (1343-c.1416) put it, “and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall we well,” then we can be at rest and peace and discover renewed energy to give of ourselves to each other with compassion. When we stop worrying about the future because we know the future is in God’s hands, something amazing happens – we are free to face the present and free to be present to the needs of the people around us, free to be compassionate and kind and giving.


It was striking on Friday afternoon watching the stock market. It was just barely moving up or down, just lingering there, waiting for direction, some kind of confidence. The moment it was announced that the New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner will be President Elect Obama’s choice for treasury secretary, the market began to rally ending up close to 500 points. Having lost a lot of confidence in Secretary Paulson of late, Wall Street seemed confident in the ability of the Geithner to lead, to provide a way, and the market soared. Not the best analogy, perhaps. We don’t know what kind of job he’ll do. But it speaks to the freedom that comes when we can trust those with considerable power to affect our lives.


To live our lives as Christians knowing whom we can ultimately trust, frees us to be all the more for God and for each other. Knowing Christ’s rule of our lives, knowing that God is sovereign actually lightens our hearts. Do you know what happens then? We’re free to offer up our hearts, our lives, to God with gratitude, thanks and praise. God is in charge, which means we don’t have to be. Even when times are difficult and we are anxious about the future, we claim that the future belongs to God and God is faithful.


Sovereignty. Freedom. Gratitude. Thanks. Praise. Hearts. These are all words near and dear to the Reformed theological tradition. Presbyterians have always stressed these ideas and experiences. It’s reflected in Calvin’s (1509-1564) own personal motto, a motto with an image of a flaming heart placed in an open palm, lifted up and offered to God.[5] Because he was assured of God’s sovereignty over the universe and therefore over his life, in gratitude, he was free to offer up his heart freely to God. And so can you. We’re also free to offer our hearts to the person on our right or left, before us or behind us.

It’s maybe why the author of psalm 100 could pen those ancient words and make such audacious claims in the face of a world where it might appear the very opposite was true. I like to call this the Presbyterian Psalm, to me it captures the joy and praise of the Christian life stressed by Presbyterians (although we’re not alone in this), of worship worthy of the God who is sovereign and faithful and good. We can indeed worship Yahweh with gladness and are eager to come to God’s presence with singing. Yahweh is God. We are not alone. God made us and we belong to God and, as Jesus taught us with his life, nothing can ever change this fact. We are God’s people the sheep (and goats) of God’s pasture.

Therefore as long as we have hearts that beat and songs to sing,

we approach God with thanks-giving

and the presence of Yahweh with nothing less than praise.

For time and time again we know that Yahweh is good;

from time’s beginning until to its end,

God’s steadfast and unwavering,

persistent and inexorable love endures forever, and

God’s faithfulness,

God’s commitment,

God’s covenant,

God’s compassion extends to all generations.

And so the church responds with compassion and service,

provoked to praise and adoration and “Amen,”

with thanksgiving and

gratitude and

Alleluia and more

Alleluias.

And ever longing for Christ’s advent among us,

we forever pray:

Come, Lord Jesus.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Come.



[1] Quas Primas (Latin: In the first) was an encyclical of Pope Pius XI. Promulgated on December 11, 1925, it introduced the Feast of Christ the King. The encyclical summarizes both the Old Testament and the New Testament teaching on the kingship of Christ. Pope Pius XI took as his papal motto: “Christ’s peace in Christ’s kingdom.” (Source: www.wikipedia.org)

[2] Recommended by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and recommended by the Joint Liturgical Group of the Revised Common Lectionary. Cited in Ian Bradley, God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002), 43.

[3] Bradley, 43.

[4] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 284.

[5] Calvin’s motto: Cor meum tibi, offero, Domine prompte et sincere. (My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.)

17 November 2008

Hearts in the Right Place

Matthew 25: 14-30
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 16th November 2008/ Pledge Dedication

We’re talking about a whole lot of money here. Enormous sums of money. Not talents as we generally think of the word, not skills, not gifts, not hobbies or interests. That’s not what Jesus is talking about in his parable of the talents. In Jesus’ world, a talent was the term used for the wages of a day laborer (an ordinary worker, not poor, not rich) for twenty years. That’s a lot of money. For someone in the first century, we’re talking about all the money earned over half a lifetime.

In the parable, the master has eight talents worth of wealth and entrusts it all to three slaves, then leaves and says, take care of it. To one he entrusts five talents, to another two talents, and to another slave one talent. You know how it goes. The one with five talents left and traded up, yielding another five talents. The one with two talents did the same. And the one-talent man dug a hole in the ground and put his master’s money there. After a long time the master returns to settle the estate accounts. The master is really pleased with one who hands over ten talents, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The one who originally had two now presents four. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.” Well, you know what happens to the slave who dug a hole and returned exactly what was given to him. He ends up in outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth.

Now, remember – please – this is a parable, which means it’s a metaphor not to be taken literally. It’s a teaching device Jesus uses to make a point, to shock us and wake us up, it’s meant to disturb us, it’s meant to be troubling. But not for the reasons you might think. If you focus upon the last verse – darkness and gnashing of teeth – that is, you might think Jesus is offering a morality tale: don’t be like that foolish slave, because if you do, that’s what will come of you, so be a good steward. If you focus there, you’ll miss the point.

In the marvelous providence of God, it just so happens that this lectionary reading comes on a Sunday in which we present our 2009 pledge commitment to God’s work here. This is about stewardship, but not as a threat. We find in this parable one of Jesus’ strongest and most direct teachings on the use of money for the Christian. God really cares how we use our resources. We are all like the slaves in this text, the wealth we have received, our savings, pensions, and portfolios really doesn’t belong to us; they’ve been entrusted to our care. Financial concerns cannot be divorced form spiritual concerns. So, we might think reading this story being a good steward is simply getting a good return on God’s money.

But in Jesus’ time that would have been unthinkable. He lived in a zero-sum economy. There was no stock market to invest in, there was no confidence in a growing economy, and there was no anticipation of growth beyond your socio-economic level. He lived in what is known as “Limited Good” world, where seeking more was actually morally wrong. Because the pie was limited and already distributed, an increase in the share of one meant a loss for someone else. Honorable people did not try to get more. Only the wealthy got wealthier, but they used their slaves to do it. And usury, charging interest on loans, was also morally wrong, strictly forbidden by the Bible (Exodus 22: 24; Leviticus 25: 35-57; Deuteronomy 23: 20-21). If we followed that law our entire economy would crumble.

In Jesus’ time, the most prudent thing to do with your money according the Mishna, a major work of Rabbinic Judaism, the normal thing to do with your money – was to dig a hole and bury it. That’s where it would be safe. That’s what they did in the ancient world. Did you read the story this week that a guy with a metal detector struck gold and silver when he uncovered a valuable cache of Celtic coins in a cornfield in Holland, from around 53 B. C. , worth about $220,000. They were placed in a hole to hide them from the conquering Romans no doubt. On Friday morning, I was listening to someone on MSNBC giving financial advice to us during these times of economic woes. He said, go dig a hole in your backyard and put your money there. That was perhaps a little alarmist, but it’s interesting how it reflects what the slave did in this parable. The servant with the one talent did what any noble person would have done. It was the normal, appropriate response. He wasn’t being stingy or greedy.

This is what’s so shocking about this parable. You could imagine the distress he must have felt. “The Mishna say dig a hole and bury it, so I dug a hole!” When the Master returns and rewards the others who from the conventional, even religious standards of Jesus’ time were foolish, we see something new is up. Tables are now turned and his world turned upside down. Jesus’ Kingdom requires unconventionality – the conventional way is not good enough. The safe way is not always God’s way. Although Jesus is talking about money here, this parable, coming late in Matthew’s Gospel, is really a statement against the Scribes and Pharisees, the one-talent-slaves reluctant, resistant to the change Jesus was bringing. They wanted to keep things in place, ever for the status quo. “Any change, any development, any alteration, anything new was anathema to them.” They wanted to keep things in place, take no risks, play it safe and they did so thinking they were being faithful to Yahweh, when in reality they were erecting barriers to the advance of the kingdom; it’s a case when fidelity turns out to be faithlessness. The Gospel is a high-risk venture. Kingdom life is about adventure. Playing it safe or caution is not necessarily a Christian virtue.

The deep ironic message of this parable is that it is possible to limit the reach of the gospel, curtail the kingdom, and hinder the ministry of a church through too much fiscal responsibility. This sounds so irrational and counter-intuitive (but that’s what the Kingdom is like), that’s what the five and two-talent slaves were like. Sure, we have to be good stewards and not be foolish, but this doesn’t mean we avoid every risk and never take chances. Churches are not banks. Our goal is not to save, but to spend, to share. Too much saving creates congregations that are tentative, cautious, even avoiding risks because preserving capital becomes the central focus. When churches function this way, large red flags of warning should go up because the soul of the church is at risk. Michael Durall has written widely on money in the church; from his vast experience working with many congregations he observes, “Churches seldom die of taking risks. They often die of security – not instantly, but eventually.” Healthy churches take risks, they’re not concerned about security, always looking inward, holding on, digging a hole and living in it. Church growth guru, Bill Easum suggests this is one of the key Laws of Congregational Life, “Churches, like people, are healthiest when they reach out to others rather than worry about themselves. Churches grow because they intentionally reach out; churches die because they dwell on their own internal problems.”

The story is told of a minister who, to show his reliance on God, entered the pulpit trusting that God would tell him what to say, without preparing for the sermon, without writing it out. After his prayer for guidance on Sunday, he waited expectantly – and God spoke to him and said – “You’re lazy.”

That’s what the master called the one-talent slave – lazy, and wicked. Because he was unwilling to take the risks the master requires. “Good and faithful” stewards exercise active responsibility that takes initiative and risk. That’s what Jesus is asking of us, every one us, day after day.

But how do we take those risks? What if you’re afraid and generally risk-aversed? That’s what the one-talent slave was. He was afraid. And with this statement we go even deeper into the parable to see what’s also going on in this story. When the master says why were you so lazy, what was his excuse? “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Why is he afraid? Because he says the master is harsh. But how does he know? The other two don’t see the Master that way, do they? Maybe that was his experience with the master. But the master said, if that is how you see me, demanding much, then why didn’t you work my money?

You see, what’s underneath this parable is this extremely important notion: God cares about how we share our resources. How we share what’s been given to us ultimately depends upon our image of God, which is really what this parable is about. You better make sure your image of God is correct. If our image of God is wrong – and it is possible to have the wrong image of God – then our lives will reflect that image. That’s why idolatry is such a serious sin, because we become the god that we worship, we take on the characteristics, attitudes, assumptions, and style of the god we worship. So we better make sure our image is correct, which is why theology and worship matter. Get the image right and it will be easier for us share what’s been given to us and connect our hearts with the One we treasure. The one-talent-slave has no desire to place his heart or entrust himself to such a harsh master. That’s not worth treasuring. But what we treasure will guide our hearts and ultimately, that’s what God is concerned about. Connecting treasure with hearts, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).”

However, the one-talent man has an “evil eye, all he can see is darkness and the darkness is what finally engulfs him.” We reap what we sow. We get the God we worship. That’s the tragedy here for this man and ultimately for us when we choose like him. “The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent man pronounces his own judgment; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in. The story is not about the generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it is about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If one trusts the goodness of God, one can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the grace in life and can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, nonetheless, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.” As Tom Long puts it so well, “There is a kind of theological economy at work. For those who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life under the bed, alone, quivering in needless fear.”

That’s not the life Jesus wants for you or for me. And it’s not the life we really want. So much comes down to our doctrine of God. I’ve seen so much damage done in churches and the psyches of God’s people by the destructive power of a harsh, cruel, demanding, fear-provoking image of God. I’m not sure how it emerges – maybe a childish, moralizing reading of scripture that doesn’t mature with adulthood, the inability to see the image of God through the life of Jesus. How do you see God? What’s the source of your image? Is it informed by the face of Jesus Christ? A God filled with grace and generosity?

An image of a generous God yields generous hearts, hearts grateful for the love received from God’s abundance. That’s an image of God to treasure, value, honor, worship, and serve. Because we don’t have to be afraid, we’re free to put our hearts in the right place. And God is concerned about our hearts – that which what allows our hearts to be whole, confident, and joyful, fulfilled and giving life. When our image of God is right, our lives show it with acts of grace and generosity.

It’s within this context that we offer our financial gifts to the church of Jesus Christ. This is going to be a challenging year for us, given the economy. People are scared and wanting security – understandably so. But I’m hopefully and confident, maybe foolishly, irrationally so – but so be it – because I know the dangers when we give over to fear and search for security. We have to acknowledge these and then go deeper than the fear, deeper than the drive for security, and focus upon God and the deepest desires of our hearts to be found in the joy of the Lord. We only discover the joy of living a generous life because we know the generosity of God. How we share – freely, extravagantly share – what we’ve been given is contingent upon our experience sharing in the love of Christ. What we give to this church speaks volumes about the God we say we believe and trust.

_________________________

Sources:

Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 149-150.
William Barclay, Daily Bible Study Series: New Testament Commentary – The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 357.
Michael Durall, Beyond the Collection Plate: Overcoming Obstacles to Faithful Giving. Foreword by Thomas G. Bandy (Nashville: Abgindon Press, 2003), 86-89.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 383.
Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “God is a God of abundance, not a god of scarcity. …God doesn’t give us just enough. God gives us more than enough: more bread and fish than we can eat, more love than we dared to ask for. God is a generous giver, but we can only see and enjoy God’s generosity when we love God with all of our hearts, minds, and strength. As long as we say, ‘I will love you, God, but first show me your generosity,’ we will remain distant from God and unable to experience what God truly wants to give us, which is life and life in abundance.” Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) on abundance.

03 November 2008

The Great Procession

Revelation 7: 9-17

All Saints’ Sunday/ 2nd November 2008

In a few moments we will gather around this Table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Before we celebrate the meal, we will pray the Great Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (also known as “the long prayer”). The prayer actually follows a strict outline; it has a structure to it with roots almost as old as the church. There are three key components of it (there are others, but want to focus on three): the opening responses are known as the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts; we lift them up to the Lord.”); the sanctus is the portion when we say or sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and perhaps the most important portion of the prayer comes right at the end, it’s known as the epiclesis. The epiclesis is the petition for the coming of the Holy Spirit to be present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, a prayer for the Holy Spirit to connect our spirits with the very spirit of God. It’s the Spirit who makes this ordinary meal into a communion, a divine fellowship.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and others in the Reformed tradition put a lot of weight on the opening lines, the sursum corda. These words transport us in time and space and remind us that this earthly banquet is also a participation in the heavenly banquet. We lift up our hearts – where? Into the presence of God, the presence of Christ. This is his table and when Christians eat and drink in his name, his presence is known among us.

The epiclesis is also significant because through it we remember that it’s the Spirit of Christ who draws us into the presence of God. In fact, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine this Table and this entire sanctuary transported, elevated up into the heavenly realm, mystically participating in the joyful feast of the Lamb of God, mystically present before the throne of God, which John attests in his revelation. In some ways, this table is a link between heaven and earth, a threshold from this world to another, where hunger and pain and darkness are no more and every tear is wiped from every eye (Rev. 7: 16-17). This meal is given to us to bear in mind this truth: that we are never far from the presence of God. When we share this meal we share it with all those who have gone before us into the light of God’s glory. That’s why it’s a joyful feast of the people of God for all those who live beyond death, whether in this world or the world to come. It’s why Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper celebrated on every Lord’s Day in Geneva and why it’s not “just” a memorial meal (as I was erroneously taught growing up in a Presbyterian).
[1] It’s so much more. There’s so much going on here.

It’s the joyful feast of the people of God, for all those who live beyond the power of death, both in this world or in the world to come. It points to this amazing claim of the church, that both heaven and earth are linked together through Christ. And as John saw in his revelation, followers of Christ are part of the great multitude; the countless followers of Christ across time are all part of one great procession, the procession of saints across time on the pilgrimage to the throne of the Living One. Who is in the procession? The saints. And who are the saints? All those redeemed by the grace of Christ. I am a saint and you are a saint, not because our heroic deeds, nor because any of us are virtuous (because we’re not), nor because we performed any miracles. We are saints not because of any good we might have done. We’re not saints because we have faith, but because God is faithful to us, because God has called us in Christ to Godself, to share in the very life of God, and enter on a lifelong pilgrimage to the Celestial City.

We’re part of that great, grand procession of the saints that began long before any of were born and will continue long after we’re all dead. Today, we remember all those who have gone on before us in the procession. Those who blessed us with life, those who suffered and made sacrifices that we might live. Those who loved us dearly and called out the best from within us. We remember those who have paved the way for us, offered a vision. We remember their witness and their love, their commitment to Christ and his church. All those who taught us how to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and embodied that love with their lives, in the decisions and risks they made. We are surrounded by them, by a great crowd of witnesses who urge us on (Hebrews 12: 1), pray for us and hope that we will accomplish through our lives and our loves what they couldn’t do in theirs. They’re ahead of us, led by the shepherd who leads us forward, equipped by the Spirit who allows us to step into the future with confidence and a hope that never disappoints. We don’t walk this way alone.

You’re reminded of this when you walk in to the sanctuary of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD. When you enter the sanctuary the first thing you see is the baptismal font (at the entrance, like in the cathedrals of Europe) and if you look down at your feet you see names, hundreds of names carved in brass on the floor on both sides of the aisle. They’re the names of women and men across the centuries who served the church: Paul, Lydia, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Calvin, Luther, Wesley. Hundreds. The poem on the bulletin cover comes from the dedication of the Pilgrim Pavement in the center aisle of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC in 1935.
[2] These are all reminders that we never walk alone.

I love center aisles in a church and love processions. Look at our center aisle. Can you see them? A faint outline, ghost-like shadows, remnants of memories, of people. Consider what this aisle has witnessed over the years, the processions of saints down this aisle: the countless coming to be baptized; fathers escorting their daughters on their wedding day; children running up to hear the children’s message; people coming forward to renew baptismal vows; processing down the aisle in the choir; coming to the Table to receive the elements of grace; think of the funeral processions, of caskets coming down this aisle and going out; of people walking into worship to experience God’s people and then sent out down this aisle to serve Christ in this world. Think of all the people who labored and gave so that we might worship in this space. The work we do and the sacrifices we are called to make, and the offerings and pledges we make, the generosity of our hearts out of gratitude for all that we have received are all critical for the ministry we do here today because we need to be ready for those who are coming behind us on the great procession. All those coming our way whose questions are not our questions, whose way of living out the faith is not our way, whose vision of what the church can be is not our vision, but we need to be read for when they come down this aisle.

The great procession of the saints cuts right through the center of this sanctuary. I want you consider yourself part of that procession, to believe it, feel it, claim it. Know that you’re numbered among the saints. In a few moments, we will offer the sursum corda – imagine yourself lifted up into the presence of the Lord; when we sing the sanctus, let us sing out with all our heart and strength as if we were standing before the very presence of God – because we are; and when we pray for the Spirit to come, open up your hearts. Then come. Consider yourself in the procession of the saints who know the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, saints above with saints below united at the Table of the Lord.

________
Image: Procession of Saints, Church of St. George,Voronet Monastery, Voronet, Romania. http://www.flickr.com/.

[1] Viewing Holy Communion as a memorial meal was the predominant view of √úlrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, whose approach to the Table came to have wide appeal within Reformed churches.
[2] "Can you hear adown the future,/ Echoes of a moving throng/ Treading down the Pilgrim Pavement/In procession, millions strong?/Can you see their rapt expression,/ Do you hear the choral beat/Of their pilgrim song and psalter,/ Can you mark their sandalled feet/ Slow advancing to the altar,/Toward the candles tall and white;/Toward the focal point of worship/ Where the Pavement leads to Light." Margaret Ridgeley Partridge, "The Pilgrim Pavement.” The complete poem was set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), entitled The Pilgrim Pavement.