Sunday, April 25, 2010

Faith the Size of a Twig

Sheepscott Community Church April 25, 2010

Acts 9: 36-43

John 10: 22-30

Faith the Size of a Twig

Jon and I were walking through our woods down by the Sheepscot River last week. He remarked on the fact that there were several winters’ worth of wood already on the ground, what with windfalls and those trees dropped by the weight of snow and limited root systems. If we were living in medieval times, he said, the floor of the forest would be clean of wood, the way we see it in documentaries and other films made in England. Everywhere looks like a park. The reason? Peasants would scour the woods for fallen branches to use for their own firewood during the cold, wet, English winters.

A few years ago I mentioned a divorced friend of mine who was raising four young boys. She was hard up against it one winter and was nearly out of firewood. A praying woman, she cried out to God for some relief across the board, but especially in the moment for some firewood. When she next looked out the window, she noticed, and you might say “saw” for the first time that the ground of their four acres of pine woods was littered with winter-fallen wood and branches. A resourceful mom, she and the boys were out there over the next few days getting all of that wood into the cellar. It was not a long-range solution, but it did keep them warm for some days while she came up with a longer term solution.

Lord, give us eyes to see. Remove the scales from our eyes as you removed the scales from Paul’s eyes. Give us as church eyes to see what resources we have right now that we can capitalize on for the good of the church and for the glory of God.

I would say the principle resource of our lives together as church is the people themselves. But there are so few of us, all cry out in unison. What can so few do in the face of supporting two church buildings, and the various programs the church supports: education, music, a minister’s salary, etcetera.

By way of an answer, I call your attention to this morning’s first reading from Acts. Imagine being in Peter’s shoes. The Christian community of Joppa sent for him, where he was visiting nearby in Lydda because one of their number, Tabitha, which translates Dorcas, had died. She was always doing good and helping the poor, and when Peter was shown upstairs to where her body was laid out, the women of the community showed him the robes and other clothing she had made while she was with them, and these testimonies were delivered with copious weeping at the loss of their beloved Dorcas.

Peter ushered all of them out of the room so that he was alone with the body. Can you imagine how he must have felt? He may have thought, Okay, I knew it was going to come to this at some point, but I hadn’t expected it so soon: raising a dead body. Peter had sense enough to get down on his knees and pray before he attempted anything. He knew from whence came the power to do whatever was of value. Only after prayer did he turn to the woman and say, “Tabitha, get up.” And she did. She opened her eyes and sat up, and Peter helped her to her feet. Then he called in the weeping widows and presented her to them. The scripture says, “This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.” Notice it doesn’t say, “Many people believed in Peter.” No, although they knew and respected Peter as the head of the church in Jerusalem and a close companion of the Lord while he lived, they all knew from whom the power to raise the dead came. And Dorcas had been dead, not sleeping.

We have a few elements here to consider. Peter knew that he had no power in him except the power that came from Jesus Christ, and him crucified and raised up. He had things in proper perspective. He knew when he got down on his knees that if that woman was to be raised, it was God, the author of life and death, who would do it. Peter was only doing what Jesus told them to do, which was, what he, Jesus, had done. How many times have we heard that? Do for others what I have done, what I have shown you. Peter was in fact one of those who had been present when Jesus raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, head of the synagogue,. You remember that story? How Jesus was ridiculed by the professional mourners outside the house of Jairus when he said the girl was not dead but only asleep? He said to the child what Peter in essence later quoted, “Talitha koum, little girl, get up.” And she did, and Jesus asked her parents to give her something to eat.

Peter was only doing what he had seen the Lord do. Let me rephrase: He was allowing the power of the Spirit of God to be expressed through him and his faith in just this way because it was what the situation called for and was indeed in obedience to Jesus’ command to do what he had done. And it was a good thing, was it not? A child restored to her parents, a woman restored to her community. And God glorified in the process, not to mention the faith of those around the incidents built up immeasurably by what they had seen. That name of Jesus was some powerful name.

And still is. Praying in the name of Jesus can open doors that have been locked for centuries. The power of the name. It can raise up and lay down. It can multiply a few pieces of bread and fish to make enough to feed five thousand people. What is needed is faith in that name, which is above all others. We are told that upon hearing the name of Jesus, one day every knee above the earth and under the earth will bend.

So what does that have to do with us, you may rightly ask. First, we are at least a nominally Christian church, hopefully trying to live beyond that label of nominal to living in and with the internalized Spirit of the raised and living Christ. Second, like that first community of disciples, we are few in number, but we have faith in God and in ourselves as followers of the Way that Jesus laid out. Third, we few at this time are thinking and planning how best to use our resources to maintain our churches that we may have a structure where the people of the community can continue to come together to worship and to have fellowship.

As I noted in the opening announcements, the Board voted to have our mission statement printed on the front of the Order of Service. It reads, “The Sheepscott Community Church is a church that welcomes all. Its purpose is to provide for the spiritual and moral growth of our members. To whoever will come, the church opens wide its doors and offers all a free place to worship.”

That’s a noble and good sentiment and one that we need to work to bring to fulfillment. It deserves our focus and reflection. Following our meeting on April 11 when Ted Smith led us in a preliminary self-evaluation, it became clear that we the people of the church are the primary asset or resource of the church, and we are what we have to offer the community. That has ever been so. Last Sunday we capitalized on that resource and breathed life into that sentiment by gathering for what we hope will be a weekly coffee and fellowship in the vestry following the service. At such a gathering, we can get to know each other better, and get to know and welcome visitors from the community who stop by to check us out. And this happens over coffee and cookies. We build our community and become a place where people want to come. You can’t manufacture that magnetism. It grows spontaneously out of human interaction and the joy and pleasure we take in each other’s company under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God, who is in our midst, and in whose name we gather.

And the reason we have that fellowship following worship, when others might join us, the reason for bringing people in, is not to cover the cost of painting the front of this building but to share what we believe is the word of God and the sacramental life of the Christian community. As Jesus conveyed in his parable of the lilies of the field, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be given to you as well.”

We need to continue to build up our own community in faith, and have joy in the building. If it’s drudgery and simply duty that impels us forward, and joy is absent, we are not going to attract others. It is loving community that attracts. That is what will enable this church to continue as a light on the hill, a fire in the valley. I think we ourselves are the wood strewn on the ground whom God has gathered up to be fuel for the fire. We in our turn have the opportunity to gather up other wood to keep that fire burning. First, community. And coffee and fellowship is one way to realize that community; and then the increase, and it is God who will give the increase. We only have to be listening for Jesus’ voice to discern what he is saying, what he wants for this church, for us who are the church, which brings us to the gospel.

How do we know his voice? From today’s gospel, when the Jews in the Temple at the feast of Hanukkah asked Jesus to tell them outright whether he was the Christ, he said, “I did tell you, but you did not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”

Let me remind you here that it has been only a few weeks since the Passion, and there we heard the priests and people say in Luke 23: 35, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” In Mark 15: 32: “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” And in Matthew 27: 40, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!” The people and the preists laid out the case of what they say will make them believe that Jesus is the Christ. In other words, be the God made in the image of what we say God is. Pride is the dead center of this position and typical of us human beings who will dictate to God what the correct time frame for action and way of action are. We need to tread carefully in this area of listening to God and what God wants for us, for this church, for this community, for this world.

So, I ask again, how do we know his voice so that we may know how to proceed? We know it by the absence of confusion we feel, when we hear it. When do we hear it? In prayer, from others in our everyday life whom we trust and whom we know to be well-disposed. We hear the voice of Christ in scripture, in liturgies at significant times in our lives: christenings, marriages, deaths and funerals, every Sunday. We know when we are hearing the voice of God, and we can trust that about and in ourselves.

And again, we will know Christ by what he does. “The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”

Our fellowship together is a great opportunity to hear the voice of the Lord, to hear about the miracles of God in our own stories as we share them. I don’t know what the Good Shepherd will say to you, but I do know that you’ll know it’s he speaking, when he does, by the way it feels. And yes, there are some times when we need to trust our feelings. Listen for the voice of the Lord in the scripture, in the music today, in your neighbor’s story, in a memory that calls us to see something in a new way, with the new eyes I spoke of earlier in relation to the young mother seeing the wood all over the ground and realizing that was firewood enough for the immediate future.

There are people enough in this church to embody the living Word. Where two or three are gathered together... That living Word, which can be ambiguous in its expression, is what we need to listen for and listen to. Like the people in the gospels of the Passion, we would like to hear and see plainly and clearly who the Christ is, not to have this consarned ambiguity, where we have to think and consider and try to discern the loving voice, the unseen loving presence at the center of our lives. That’s why we have church, so we can pursue and worship this living presence together, helping each other, and call it into our midst to empower us to live as Jesus did.

Call us firewood, call us gatherers of firewood, call us makers of coffee and drinkers of coffee, call us storytellers and listeners to stories, but in any case, call us, that we might be community together. Amen.

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