Sermon of the Week
A Kirk with Purpose: Experience God’s Love
Keywords: Day of the Dead, Everyday Saints, Unity in Christ, Election 2018, Christmas Eve Follies, Starbucks Christmas Blend, Purpose Statement.
All Saints Day, in our tradition, falls on the first day of November.
Some see that as the day after Halloween.
If this time of year is best captured in your mind’s eye
By the mental image of a fun-sized Hershey bar,
that might be how you see it.
And I don’t judge you. I get it.
Yummy yummy chocolate.
Some cultures observe this time as Diá De Los Muertos, the day of the dead
Where ancestors from the past are fondly remembered.
I spent a Day of the Dead in one such culture, back in 2010,
and was amazed, walking through a Guatemalan cemetery
that was just packed with people,
flying kites and enjoying picnics
decorating the tombs of their ancestors with flowers.
Still others, those who actually set specific people apart
and call them saints, or holy ones,
through a process called canonization.
They look to All Saints Day as a time to lift those saints up.
They save the day after that, the second of November
For All Souls Day, the day they lift up everyone else,
family members and loved ones who aren’t with us any more.
For us, All Saints Day kind of has elements of all of all of these,
A day of remembrance for faithful departed,
but also a celebration of the holy people all around us.
The idea of Saints, for us, is a broad term:
the glimmer of holiness that we see in others
because of the love and the grace,
the fire for justice and the inspiration for reconciliation that God plants in them.
We are all saints, just as we are all sinners.
Life is messy,
and we work on ways for the holiness of God to work through us, even so,
through choosing the good
insisting on the right,
taking the more loving way.
We misuse this term if we insist on perfection in our saints, it seems to me.
There are no perfect people.
And we don’t insist that the saints in our lives perform three miracles,
just that, through them, we see the gracious and wonderful works of our God,
people in whom we catch a glimpse
of that more perfect world
God intends for all of us.
This First Sunday in November feels like a day
where we are turning the page and starting a new chapter.
Maybe its because it’s a new month
and the leaves are finally starting to fall
and we know winter is coming.
We set the clocks back an hour last night.
and they have all the Christmas goodies up on the shelves at Target already.
Starbucks is now selling Christmas Blend.
On November 1st. Two months early. Can you believe it?
Maybe that’s it.
Maybe its because it is All Saints Sunday
and every year, when we remember those people who formed us in the faith
and who showed us the way to love,
we’re reminded that those things always drive us forward to a new day,
that the saints equip us to live in this world of ours
with eyes of faith, hearts for service, hands and feet to do God’s work.
Maybe it is because many of us are experiencing bated breath
waiting for Tuesday finally come and go:
A big election for our nation, not to mention for Kansas and for Missouri.
Who will our leaders be? What constitutional changes will be made?
Will we wake up Wednesday more hopeful, or more jaded?
More willing to engage our neighbors, even those with whom we disagree,
or less so?
A time of community healing, of justice,
or a time of further division and tribalization?
Or maybe it is because November always evokes for us thoughts of Thanksgiving
rooted, even for us city folk, in the time of harvest on the farm,
gathering in all the grain and the produce that the earth has provided,
giving God proper awe and amazement for such bountiful provision
so that we can’t help but exclaim “thank you!”
It’s probably all of the above,
and maybe some other things that are stirring your spirits this Sunday Morning.
Every year, about this time,
we also turn to thoughts of community:
what brings us together in the church.
Why are we here. What is our purpose?
I was talking this week with a friend of mine
who was the pastor of a Presbyterian church for 13 years,
before he left that work
to go run an organization
that helps the church be more inclusive and more welcoming.
He started talking to me about the first Christmas
after he stopped working in a church.
Pastors spend Christmas Eve preparing for worship and leading the community
and he had not had the chance to go worship as an ordinary guy in the pews.
He was the kind of guy who LOVED everything about Christmas in his church.
The greens that decorated the sanctuary,
the candlelight, the choir singing meaningful carols, the quiet of a December night.
He made it sound like his church was the most beautiful place ever on Christmas Eve.
[And I thought “Sure, but have you SEEN the Kirk?”
I think I kept that comment to myself.]
But now he was going to experience it from the other side.
He was in South Dakota with his partner
and they were getting ready for Church with their family.
Family dinner was fine…but it ran a bit long.
His nieces weren’t super excited about doing this right now.
Their minds may have been on opening presents, he said,
but they rolled their eyes and got themselves ready.
So very slowly, my friend said.
They got a late start.
it had started to snow, which was beautiful
but by the time they got to the church…
the western south Dakota equivalent of a megachurch…
the parking lot was already full.
So they parked across the street, in the overflow lot
and had to slosh their way across the snowy street to get to the sanctuary.
But they got there.
The sanctuary was already full.
So the seven of them got seats in the lounge in the back
which was fine, but you could barely see the screens in the sanctuary.
You could hear them playing the music though
Silent Night, on electric guitar and drums,
which, he said, was somewhat ironic. Silent night. On electric guitar and drums.
Oh, and Away in a Manger,
which wasn’t working out either, at the volume and tempo of that band.
He realizes that some of that is just about style,
but really, he likes some of that music too,
and this band was just too, well, earnest.
There were skits up on the chancel that he couldn’t really see,
and a sermon that was rather partisan, not in a good way:
in a way that would have had half of the family stand up and cheer
and the other half to raise a fist in anger
and most of it you couldn’t hear anyway
because their chairs were positioned near the coffee bar
so that the scripture readings were interrupted
with the occasional sound of milk foaming
and the barista calling out “double peppermint mocha”.
Finally the service, which all the family agreed was an unmitigated disaster,
ended with “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice.”
Yes, up tempo, with too many drums.
They actually sang “good Christian Men, Rejoice,” it was that sort of church,
but the women sang anyway.
And what they all sang, together, was this:
Good Christian friends, rejoice
with heart and soul and voice;
now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
And then it hit him.
The story we tell
is of a baby being born into a world of conflict.
A world where government is at odds with the people,
where religion frequently failed,
where conflict and poverty and injustice were part of daily life.
It’s the story of a pregnant woman,
whose own personal future is uncertain,
wandering for days or weeks only to find that when it is time for her to give birth
there isn’t even indoor space for her.
Into that world, Jesus was born.
No place for someone called a prince of peace.
It’s a story of what is basically an unmitigated disaster, except:
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!
Slippery parking lot and grumpy nieces and loud interrupting baristas:
Christ was born for this.
hopelessness hiding in plain sight in pews and pulpits,
difficult memories, worry about the future: Christ was born for this.
Christ was born for this!
And so too, church, were we.
So too were we.
We seek to be a church with purpose
Not any purpose: God’s purpose.
Called by God, equipped by God, sent out by God.
A church with purpose.
But God came into a messy, chaotic world,
a world not unlike our own,
and came to give us salvation and hope and a future together.
That means our purpose is to be about that same work
to engage a chaotic world
with a way of life that brings about
love and justice
peace and reconciliation.
If we are the body of Christ in the world
and Christ was born for this
then so were we.
It is that drive to be everyday saints,
through whom the world can see and experience God’s love,
particularly in those messy and chaotic and stressful moments
which seem to come every single day lately:
–One more shooting in school or synagogue
–One more fight on capital hill
–One more effort to divide us politically and socially and culturally.
The church was born for this:
to say NOto all of that division
to say that we find our unity,
not in what country we are from
or what language we speak most fluently
or the color of our skin
or the people we vote for as our leaders.
No. We find our unity in Christ Jesus
and in the God to whom he points
the one who made all of us in her very own image,
the one who, according to Isaiah,
makes for all peoples
not just my people, but all people,
a feast of great food and drink,
and who lifts the pall of stress and chaos that is over the nations
and who will wipe away our tears and will replace them with joy.
Christ was born for this!
We were born for this!
By now most of you are aware
that the session appointed a task force
that we’re calling the Church in the Twenty-First Centurytask force,
and they’re looking at all sorts of things
related to our congregation,
how we can deepen our faithfulness and focus our energies,
maybe collaborate with other congregations
and try some new outreach to connect better with the world
and in these ways, reach a new generation for the sake of Jesus Christ.
One of the things they did this summer
was to look at our church’s mission statement and vision statements.
Did you know we had a mission statement and a vision statement?
Its ok. Most people didn’t know, either.
It wasn’t that they were bad statements. They weren’t.
They were fine.
But they weren’t serving their purpose of unifying us under a common agenda.
So we drafted a new one, and instead of calling them a mission statement
or a vision statement, we called it a purpose statement.
What is our purpose?
Why are we here?
What in the world are we doing?
Here’s what we said:
The Kirk welcomes all to experience God’s love as seen in Jesus Christ,
Through worship, authentic relationships, and meaningful work, together
And we promote peace and justice in the world.
If you run into a friend at the supermarket
or at work or at school
and you wanted to explain to them what we are all about,
this is one way to do it:
The Kirk Welcomes All to Experience God’s love, as seen in Jesus Christ
We start with welcome: as Jesus started with welcome,
an invitation to experience God’s Love as the heart of all we do,
God’s love in Jesus Christ.
We do that through concrete activities:
–We worship, together.
–We build relationships.
–We work in meaningful ways.
And that leads us to promote peace and justice in the world: because of Jesus.
Into this chaotic, crazy, not-everything-going-the-way-it-should world,
into that world: Jesus was born
into that world: the church has an opportunity,
to show the world a different way, a more excellent way.
Jesus’ way. The way of welcome and love, of justice and of peace.
I think of the saints in my life
who lived for that still more excellent way.
The people who lived with integrity and principle,
who chose love over selfishness,
who welcomed people that were often turned aside by others.
People who sought to have a glimmer of God shine through them
so that, when the days turned dark and cold and windy,
there would always be hope and possibility.
I invite you to think of those saints in your life, too.
I still think of their names:
Elsie and Wayne and Rhein and Sylvia
and Lois and Norma Jean and many many more.
Some of them family, some of them churchy people
some of them good friends
some of them people that I just knew for a little bit.
All of them committed to being God’s people
in this messy, chaotic, strange world of ours.
People who loved me without condition or expectation.
People who found ways to help everyone experience God’s love.
Today is All Saints Sunday.
Today we think about our purpose together,
the purpose that all saints adopt too:
the very purpose of God.
May we, dear Kirk
claim this way of life as our very own.
Christ was born for this, and so were we,
to be an expression of Love for all.
May we live up to the best examples of this,
that we see in the lives of the saints,
and may we be the saints
that tomorrow’s generation turns to and says,
you know what,
they helped me see and experience God’s love too.
May it be so.
This story was recounted by the Reverend Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, in a Keynote presentation at our 2018 Covenant Conversation event in Boise, Idaho, November 2, 2018.
Image: From the 2018 Diá de los Muertos festival at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.