Sunday, November 21, 2010

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

Sheepscott Community Church November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Luke 23: 33-43

In the Vicinity of Sheepscott Bridge

As I have mentioned before, Jon’s father was a Unitarian minister. On the top of the parish’s order of service each week were the words, “We gather for the worship of God and the service of man.” I think we here at the Sheepscott Community Church gather for the same reasons, with only a nod to gender correctness, which would make it, for the worship of God and the service of humankind.

These are our unifying principles, as we come from a number of different traditions, as I pointed out at the beginning of the service. When I look around the church, I see Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians––displaced from New Jersey––Unitarians, displaced from the Midwest. There are those who were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, Episcopalians, maybe a Lutheran or two, and the group of so-called “unchurched.” But they’re not really unchurched, are they, because here they are with us, we with them, one worshiping body. And most welcome you all are; if you’ll look at the mission statement on the front of today’s bulletin, where it appears every Sunday, you can read for yourself that we open wide the doors for anyone and everyone to worship here freely.

How can any worship, that potentially comes from so many different directions be unified and how can it have any depth of transforming meaning if it tries to be all things to all people? And does it? Federated in 1947 by the union of the First Congregational Church of Newcastle and the Sheepscot Methodist Church, the Sheepscott Community Church self-identifies as being in the Christian tradition. I believe we can answer the question of unity in diversity by recalling the line from this morning’s gospel––the seemingly ironically placed gospel of the crucifixion of Jesus on this Feast of Christ the King.

The line that suggests unity in diversity is what was written on the placard and affixed to the crosspiece of Jesus’s cross. The Roman custom was to write the crime of which the crucified was accused and either drape it around the presumed criminal’s neck, or, as in Jesus’ case, attach it to the crosspiece. What it said on his placard was “This is the King of the Jews,” in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as I read from the pulpit bible. That it was written in the three languages spoken in that area at that time was an eloquent expression of Jesus as a King for all the peoples, not the message the Romans were trying to convey, but one that can be construed theologically after the fact.

What kind of a king was Jesus? Apparently, in the world’s view, a powerless king, a weak king, a king for fools, who was mocked with a crown of thorns and a reed for a scepter. The writer Frederick Buechner considers the kingdom of such a king. “If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

And I think that is why we gather here by the river on a Sunday morning, and why generations before us have also gathered here in the vicinity of the Sheepscott Bridge. Out of homesickness we come together from different directions on the theological as well as geographical compass, to be that kingdom, one of unity in diversity. For my money there is only one ticket for full admission to this kingdom of God Buechner speaks of, and that is forgiveness––asking forgiveness for ourselves and offering it to others. Ooh, that last one is a tough one, but Jesus showed us how to do it when he said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” The prayer he taught to his disciples, which we ourselves just prayed, includes the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Listen to what you’re saying there. We need to forgive others, no matter how deep the hurt, no matter the reasons for the hurt, and God will forgive us in just the same way.

That kind of forgiveness is creative and has nothing to do with the worthiness or unworthiness of the one forgiven. It is creative in the sense that it gives itself to human need, that out of chaos can come order, out of evil good, no matter how much one might get hurt in the process. That is what creative forgiveness does and what we need most of in our community church, what all groups need the most of in order to continue as effective agents for good. It is the Christ kind of creative forgiveness. Father, forgive them. They don’t have a clue.

If the purpose of our coming together is the worship of God and the service of humankind, we also build up our relationship with God and with our fellow human beings as a result of the worship and service. This community church is not simply a place we go to, it is something we are part of, and have an important part in, a kingdom of God in miniature, if you will. As Buechner proposed. “The kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know.” That happens in fellowship in our community church, whre we need to keep forgiving each other.

We become better people because from week to week we acknowledge that there is someone and something more important than we are, and we act out of that. Our model is Jesus, whose teachings we hear about in scripture and whose selflessness we can imitate. Nothing namby-pamby about that selflessness. Jesus knew who he was. He was a man among men, and he spoke right at and through hypocrisy and self-importance. He lived among sinners as a model of forgiveness and empowerment of others, who though broken by life, were transformed through his nonjudgmental love. We can choose to follow that same model in our worship, and in each other’s company both in service and over coffee and cookies on Sunday morning.

For some people, this talk of Christ as King, and of throne and cross has no meaning. And yet a church where people can come together to acknowledge that we have common concerns, common weaknesses and the opportunity to join together to support and help one another, that does have meaning. Both groups are welcome here, and neither group is more loved of God than the other. God meets us where we are, in and on the ground of our being. There, in time, He will reveal Himself as we can best understand because what God is after is relationship with you, with me. For some of us, happily, Jesus is the facilitator of that relationship.

The God whose very habit is to stand up in the midst of the ruins of sacred things, of ancient and timeless precedents, and call them newly into quickened being is in our midst, doing just that. No less than God was with the Ladies in the area of the Sheepscott Bridge when they raised that $16.00 to buy this bible in November 1864; no less than God was with the committee of people who had a vision of reorganization of this church and put together the mission statement seven years ago; no less than God was with Rev. Mary Harrington, who left this earth on October 26, this year, but not before telling stories that inspired. As we appreciate yet again this Sunday these flowers from Mary’s memorial service, which her family asked be used in the church in commemoration of her life, I’d like to share in conclusion a story Mary told me.

She enrolled in Starr King Theological School on the West coast in mid-life to prepare for ministry in the Unitarian Church, of which she was a lifelong member. But she wanted a safety school, so to speak, and was at an open house at another seminary to hear and see what she would need to make the best decision when the time came. She was waiting in line to gather information and the woman in front of her struck up a conversation, (Mary was very easy to talk to.) which conversation quickly turned to the woman’s son, who had serious substance abuse problems with all the thorns that go with those problems.

The mother had bailed him out of jail again and again, and nothing changed. She had seen him through drug rehab programs, but nothing changed. She concluded her lament with, “Well, I guess I can always pray for him.” Mary wondered aloud why prayer is always the last resort. “Why would it not be the first thing we do?” she asked. “What if prayer is all we have?”

What if prayer is all we have? Prayer is what we do and give and have here at Sheepscott Community Church. It is what we can offer each other. Whatever we believe or don’t believe, we as caring human beings can come together in this place consecrated for worship to be in each other’s presence and so, in the presence of God. There is no hierarchy here of thought or idea or person. There is only humility and gratitude for the great gift of life we all share and the challenge of what we will do with that life, no matter what stage we are at. By God’s grace we help each other to learn how to give, whether out of our lack or out of our abundance.

Keep in mind that as a community church, we are here for and do represent the larger community before God. We take seriously the responsibility to care prayerfully and practically for all those in the community of Sheepscott and towns in the area, as we are able, and to care as God leads for flood and now cholera victims in Haiti, political refugees around the world, the hungry in North Korea. We are one family of God, who act as we are led, individually and as a group, gathering strength and inspiration to do that from our Sundays and service days together.

What do we do next? We love each other, forgive each other, pray for each other, and serve each other, always keeping the model of Jesus in view. We are the Sheepscott Community Church. Amen.

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