A Sermon for Covenant
“The State of Our Union”
2 Corinthians 4:1, 6-11
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
September 8, 2013
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
It began on a Saturday. It was the first time I walked our labyrinth, the second time I’d stepped foot on this property. It was love-at-first-sight for me. The morning after my interview with the pastor search team I wound my way through the labyrinth and tried to pray a prayer of surrender, “Lord, this is a place I want to be, but Thy will be done.”
Now here we sit, two years later, and my feelings haven’t changed a bit and my prayer is essentially the same, “Lord, this is a place I want to be. Thy will be done here.”
A lot of other stuff has changed though. We have less people now, than we did then, for one thing. And most notably for me personally, I’ve undergone some trauma and a major life transition from married to single. Your lives have changed too—sometimes for the better, but some changes have just been plain hard.
It’s been good and it’s been ugly, and that’s the way life goes most of the time. Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this church in those two years:
You are a courageous people. You have created a space here where we can be real and vulnerable. I know this because I’ve been very vulnerable in the last year and you’ve given me a safe haven to be me. That is a courageous way to be in the world, and not all that many people choose it. We are more accustomed to putting on performances instead, judging our neighbor and hiding our own selves in shame, and all too often this falseness happens most in a place like the church.
Frederick Buechner makes the comment about Alcoholics Anonymous that an alcoholic can be just about anywhere in this country and know there will be an A.A. meeting nearby where they will find “strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it.” Then he says, “This is what the Body of Christ is,” or, should be.
And yet sometimes in the church we’ve come to expect a certain sanitized politeness. Instead of finding strangers who are not strangers, in the church you can find people you’ve known for years turned into strangers, neighbors into aliens. Which might explain why one of my favorite moments as a pastor getting to know someone is the first time they cuss in my presence, because most people are extra careful about language around a preacher, so once you’ve let loose a curse word in front of me, that’s when I know the barrier is down. We are friends and we trust each other enough to say what we think and leave the filter behind. I’m not talking about being inappropriate or letting loose with gossip or forgoing respect and dignity. I just mean that if you are a human in this broken world, then there are times when only a four-letter world will do, and if you cannot speak honestly to a pastor, then why should we bother with religion at all? If this is only a place to cover-up, not a place to be real.
I guess it might sound like I’m saying, I know this place is the real deal on account of the language I hear, but what I am really saying is that you are a people of courage because you let people be where they are, and the pastor is no exception—you allow her to be herself too—and that is a rare find in an age where we idolize perfectionism and performance and product. You are a courageous people.
Another thing I have learned about this church: You are a truthful people. You can be trusted. I trust you, as a whole body and as individual people. During my first year at Covenant, I sensed that you could be trusted—you all let off a good vibe. But now I know it. I can trust you. Trust you to care for me, and for others. Trust you to be kind. Trust you to extend compassion. Trust you to journey with those in pain. Trust you to speak the truth and to hear the truth with grace. You are a truthful, trustworthy people.
You are a patient people. You don’t push or prod or meddle or work yourselves into a fuss. You wait things out. You wait on God. You refuse to hurry, and once again, this is a rare find in an age of fast-paced production like ours. This may seem like the least effective thing we do around here, the waiting, the slowing down, the waiting some more. Not just the silence in the worship service, but the waiting for things to get done, the waiting for people to sign-up, the waiting to know what to do next. It can feel like a fine line between intentional contemplation and aimless dawdling. But it is a line we walk with patience and slow-growing wisdom, and it is walking this line that we encounter again and again the call on our lives to TRUST, to relax into a timing we would not choose for ourselves but will carry us through all the same, and to accept the pace of our neighbor without judgment. You are a patient people.
Along those lines, you are also a gentle people. Ever so gentle. You’re never mean. You’re never cruel. You are delicate with the wounded. You have a soft touch when handling pain. Again, I know, because I’ve been the wounded one. I don’t speak as an outside observer—I speak as somebody you have helped to heal. For example, gentle may not be the first word that pops into your head when you think of Lynette—we mostly know her as funny and feisty—but in this last year, I have known her tenderness amidst my pain, and I think of her as this church’s Mama Bear. Likewise, I could name every single one of you by name and beside your name list a way you’ve shown me gentle care. You are a gentle people.
You are a giving people. I think of sharing with you about my friend who needed help, and you jumped to her aid. I think of Jenny and I raising money for Moldova and seemingly like magic, we had all we needed and more. I think about Carolyn showing up on my doorstep one morning, dropping off a potted plant to brighten my day, and then just like that, she was on her way. I think of how I have quietly watched you care for others—bringing dinner when someone is sick, calling to check in on each other, refusing to talk badly about one another. You are a giving people.
And you are a loving people. Maybe love is a way to sum up everything else I just said, or maybe love is the name for the heartbeat or the oxygen that fuels us. I have known you to be a loving people. As Scripture says in that familiar passage: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Which makes me think the reverse is true too: if you do not speak in the tongues of men and angels, if you do not have the gift of prophecy and cannot fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, if your faith has yet to move any mountains, and if you haven’t given enough or suffered enough to brag about, BUT YOU HAVE LOVE, maybe that is enough. Maybe love is enough.
And the description of love is this: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” YOU are a loving people.
You are a courageous people.
You are a truthful people.
You are a patient people.
You are a gentle people.
You are a giving people.
You are a loving people.
And there is nowhere, nowhere, nowhere I would rather be than right here with you. I’ll just tell you, I don’t have a clue why we are shrinking as a church when we are so awesome. I meant that seriously. It doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. I also don’t know why things in our personal lives and things out in the wider world continue to go wrong. I don’t know why we never seem to heal ALL the way, why we keep getting hurt and feeling pain and losing our way and running out of steam, why it is we can’t get everything to line up just so. I don’t know. I don’t know.
But I know this: We’re getting the important stuff right around here. We are encountering Christ in one another around here. We are sticking up for one another rather imperfectly but beautifully around here. We are holding onto faith—sometimes by a thread and sometimes on behalf of someone else—but we’re always holding on around here. We are practicing love and integrity and honesty and forgiveness around here—and that doesn’t mean we always get it right, but we keep practicing the same things that we might make possible the incarnation of God in this place.
I’ve given this a whole lot of thought and prayer, and I’m certainly no expert, but I do not think there is some big thing we are missing, some strategy we need to put in motion or some new concept we need to adopt. I think we are right on track to wherever it is we are going. And no, it’s not a worry to me that the destination is a little unclear. I imagine the disciples felt that way nearly all the time.
Mother Theresa once said, “God does not require us to be successful, only that we be faithful.” It seems to me that we may never be “successful” by the world’s standards, or even by the average church’s standards, but that was never the real point, was it? I recently heard a Jesuit priest who does gang intervention in L.A., comment that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to be effective, but it cannot be the machine that drives us. We are better off “the more we stay anchored in our own fidelity, rather than outcomes.” That sounds absolutely right to me, to dive into our own fidelity.
Here we are, back once again at a New Beginnings Sunday—for me personally that carries a lot of weight and significance this time around. This year is truly a New Beginning. And in many ways, things are changing and will continue to change. But the good stuff is here to stay and the Call of this year on our lives is to dive in to what we already have. To dive in to our fidelity. To give thanks for these blessings and to strive to be good stewards of them. To continue walking this path we are already on, to see the good God has already enacted, and to embrace with abandon the Great Love that is already ours. Amen.