Every now and then I think about Elsie McCullah.
Elsie was a Saint of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis,
the church that formed me as a teenager
the church where I sat in an old oak pew
and listened to ancient stories
and pondered humanity and its relation to God
and drew spaceships on my bulletin to stave off boredom.
Don’t worry kids, I was you once.
That small, urban, diverse congregation led me through confirmation class
and encouraged me to push, to struggle, to wrestle
and, ultimately, when I was ready, to join them
as an official “adult” member.
At age 13, or something like that.
Elsie didn’t walk with me through any of that, really.
She was already too infirm in her final years
to attend church very often
but she lived in an apartment complex
down the street from the church
and the first summer I spent in Saint Louis,
newly transplanted, as I said last week
from monochromatic Iowa,
Elsie was warm and friendly and instantly loved me,
Details are fuzzy, as are some memories of mine from childhood,
but I remember spending time in an art class with her
in that apartment, nursing home kind of place
and having lunch in her apartment, where she fed me an avocado salad.
She was warm, and gentle, and maternal.
She showed me that I was home:
home in a new home, home in a new school
home in a new world
home in a new church.
I don’t know much about her as a person, really.
I came to know her much too late in her life,
and I was much too young to get the importance of history to relationship
of asking more about her and her family and her past
her loves and her struggles and her failures
and her sense of God’s love throughout it all.
No matter, not ultimately.
Elsie was a saint to me.
And even though she died not that many years later
when I was still a child really
in the first part of my adolescence
those gifts of welcome and care
have been with me my whole life.
It might feel like, everywhere you turn,
this church thing we’re doing this morning gets a bad rap.[i]
You might read about how the word “church”
is almost as well received as the word “US Congress” these days
in opinion polls, particularly of younger folk.
They’d be right, honestly.
Too many churches have given up deep conversations about things that matter
for flash and spectacle,
Too many congregations have adopted code words and phrases
that only insiders understand
words like transubstantiate, hermeneutic, perichoresis
and trust me, as a lover of words, and a lover of theology
I love words like that
but who likes to sit through a discussion
about things no one else understands?
Too many churches put all their focus on upgrading their coffee bar
the seating or the lights
that they take their eyes off of the community that God gave them to love
just outside their door…
Too many communities of faith focus on such trivial things to fight about—
whether you should say “merry Christmas”
instead of “happy holidays”
or faux-drama about those Duck Dynasty boys
feeling oppressed about their prejudice
or what have you,
while “every day we see a world suffocated by poverty,
and hunger: and in the face of that stuff,”
the silence from those merry Christmas churches is deafening.
Too many churches SAY that they love
but their love doesn’t really look like love:
not to those who see the way of Jesus a bit differently
not to those who have rough edges, a few tattoos, vote a different way
not to those who don’t care about our hymns.
You read the opinion polls about “church” and it makes sense,
I thank God that Westminster wasn’t a thing like that.
Well, we assumed you needed to dress up a bit,
they could have done that better
but, come to think of it,
no, that’s not true.
There were folk there who couldn’t stand a tie
who couldn’t afford a suit, who were more comfortable in jeans.
There were people who tested the ‘come as you are’ attitude there
and they were loved.
I know this, because I came as I was
and I was loved: by Elsie McCullah
and the Dablers
and the Shaws
and the Dibolls
and the Williams
and a host of other saints
who countered each and every one
of those modern misconceptions about church
through their love and care,
not just of me, but of a host of others too.
So I thank God that Westminster wasn’t like that.
Nor was First Presbyterian Church of Grinnell
or First United church of Oak Park
or any of the churches that were formative, life giving, healing for me.
And while I fear that far too many churches ARE just like that
what are we to do about it, other than live differently,
live into the life of sacrificial, abundant,
overflowing love Jesus wants us to live?
Yes, “church” may get a bad rap, but
our job isn’t to worry about that, about those places,
but to be the Kirk God wants us to be
and thus to take our place among the unseen, unheralded communities
that are oasises of hope, of caring, of living water
in the parched desert of this community, right here.
So today we’re transitioning from Genesis to Exodus
from the story of God’s relationship with the family of Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob and Joseph,
to the story of how Israel becomes a Nation
a people centered around a purpose.
We, as the Kirk, seek to be a people centered around a purpose.
This is also a Sunday we’re welcoming new members to our congregation
celebrating their growing connection to the Kirk
asking God to bless our friendships and our faith together.
Membership in a church is a funny thing, these days.
It is a public expression of faith, of trust,
in God, in Christ
in us, as people who are gentle and responsible enough
to form relationships worthy of forming
It is a statement that, somehow, God is moving and shaking around here
in ways we see, and ways we don’t yet understand
to inspire love and mercy and service among us.
Membership means we commit to a formal concern about our being-together
the quality of our relationships, of our time
tending to the call to support our work through volunteer hours and money
and cooking casseroles for shut ins
and helping dream of ways we can love, just love,
the local school kids or the homeless at Cherith Brook.
Don’t get me wrong, here.
All are welcome here.
And membership isn’t a way for us to separate people from each other.
We’ve had people who have found this a place to be home
for two, three, four decades,
without becoming members
and they are no different than any other.
Even so, while there are ways we celebrate those relationships too,
today we celebrate those who find joining our membership
to be an important part of their own faith journey
just as we as a Kirk find it an important part of ours.
I read a meditation about this passage from Exodus by
David Maudlin. He described there the importance of “God’s Ungallant Heroes.”[ii]
We all know and love God’s gallant heroes, he says.
For example, those who have a good grasp of these biblical stories
might think Jesus’ disciples Peter and John before the council
called the Sanhedrin
who risked their lives for it.
Or, Maudlin says,
we might think of the selfless martyrs of the faith
a Polycarp, who refused to renounce his faith before his governor
or a Sir Thomas Moore, who died a traitor’s death
because his conscience
would not let him sign the Supremacy Act that made
Henry VIII the head of the church in England.
Right, those might not resonate so personally with you either,
but then he mentions Martin Luther King, Junior,
and Rosa Parks
who stood tall in the face of injustice and evil and systemic racism.
I’ve thought a lot about THEM these last two weeks.
By Gallant, Maudlin means heroic, brave, standing-out.
Big personalities who made big stands.
Then, Maudlin argues, there are ungallant heroes,
those who work quietly, behind the scenes,
through subtlety, or pretext, or just normality
to do something deeply important.
“One that comes to mind” he writes
“is Oscar Schindler.” Some of you here might remember the movie about him
and his list.
“His efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust were both noble and good.
Outwardly, though, he made a pretext of supporting the Nazi war effort.
He had to, of course.
If he had taken a public stand and denounced the evils he saw,
he would have simply disappeared and saved no one.”
“We meet more such heroes in our biblical story” Maudlin continues.
“First, we meet Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives
who disobeyed Pharoah’s order to kill newborn [Hebrew boys].
They did what was right.
No one can deny their courage,
for they put themselves in danger by their actions.
When questioned, though, they offered a lame excuse
one Pharoah may have seen through.
They were in no position to stand up to Pharoah.
That would not have saved lives.
So they kept a low profile…and did what was right…
[and] God rewarded them.
Second, we meet Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses.
When Jochebed could no longer hide her baby,
she placed him a specially prepared basket and floated it on the river—
surely an act of desperation.
When the baby was found, she became
the nanny for her own son through deception….
and she, too, was rewarded.”
“These women” David Maudlin rightly says,
“are heroes—God’s heroes.
They did not make a grand scene…
They [simply] did what was right, despite everything….
Our goal, our calling, is to …stand for what is right [too]”
Maudlin is much more concerned than I am
with overt versus covert actions of faith.
The point is the mercy that God inspired in each of these examples.
As Paul described in our reading this morning from the letter to the Romans,
there are different gifts, different callings,
different ways we are called to respond to particular circumstances.
The point is that Shiphrah and Puah—the Egyptian midwives,
were moved with compassion—for children!
For helpless, endangered children!
They were brave. They were impassioned. They were called to act with purpose.
Their hearts broke for where God’s heart breaks,
and they moved to do something about it.
God moved them to mercy. And through them, Moses lived!
These ancient stories.
They nurture not only us individually, but us as a community.
They inspire us through the power of God’s movement
in the midst of the Hebrew people,
and in the way they formed Jesus Christ, the one who inspires us to serve.
I’m not sure I know a better calling
than to be a part of a community of people
who are moved to experience God’s breaking heart
and who are moved to love and to serve as Christ did.
That calling can be informal, loose, exploratory
or it can be formalized, celebrated, ritualized
the stuff of covenant and promise and public commitment.
Either way, it is a pretty awesome calling.
“Church” may get a bad rap, but I get so excited about it,
by the possibilities, by the potential.
I learned that from Elsie McCullah, one of many
who loved me into community.
Who have you learned that from?
Who were the people who saw you and were moved by God
to show you mercy,
to show you love, to show you acceptance?
More importantly, perhaps,
how might we be asked by God to do something similar?
Who is the next person God is asking us to love?
What is the next hurt that breaks God’s heart
that God wants us to address?
I thank God that for this chapter of my life,
all of you are people who are in relationship with me,
so that I can grow in faith and love with you
and that you can grow in faith and love with me.
And, at its best, that’s what being part of a church is all about.
Someone tweeted this week,
something that stuck with me for hours and hours:
“I used to believe that prayer changes things,
but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
I think that’s a good description of what happens in church when it works right
what we pray will happen here among us,
as we build a Kirk that is loving, genuinely loving
that is serving, through word and deed
not serving the trivial, but serving things that matter
that is community minded, building our community by
engaging the community outside our walls
that worships deeply, that studies faithfully
that engages head and heart and mind
so that we can be the change we wish to see.
Let us be centered around THAT purpose:
a church community minded; loving and serving
a church that seeks to pay forward God’s amazing love
a Kirk that welcomes all to God’s story
so that it can become our story
and we can help God change the world
for peace, for love.
Let it be so. Amen.
[i] See for instance John Pavlovitz and his blog post “Church, Here’s Why People are Leaving You. Part 1.” at http://johnpavlovitz.com/2014/08/15/church-heres-why-people-are-leaving-you-part-1/ (accessed 8/24/14)
[ii] Charles Bugg, Ed. The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2002, August 25, 2002 “God’s Ungallant Heroes.” (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001) 295-297.