Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brick by Brick: Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28

Dear friends, I'm so sorry about the late posting of this week's sermon. The past week or two have been a whirlwind. The passages from this week are Psalm 127 and Hebrews 9:24-28.

You may have noticed that there aren’t any dead sheep in the sanctuary this morning. Take a look around and you won’t see a single dove, goat, lamb, or bull – dead or alive. None of us brought in sheaves of wheat or grains to burn in church. We Presbyterians don’t call anything up here near me the altar. We have a pulpit and a lectern from which to proclaim the Word of God. We have a Communion Table around which we celebrate God’s grace in our lives. We have a baptismal font and pitcher to remember the grace we find together in baptism. We’ve got a big old cross up there, with a ledge for our offerings – we put our offerings at the foot of the cross, not on an altar. And notice that the cross is empty. Jesus isn’t dead. We don’t worship a dead guy.
Sometimes this whole area is collectively referred to as the “altar area” or the “altar” but it’s not really an altar. None of these elements up here are an actual altar. An altar is where we make sacrifices and praise Jesus we don’t have to do that any more. The author of Hebrews tells us that we have a new high priest – Jesus. We no longer have to sacrifice the lives of animals to cleanse us from our sin.
Blood represents life, which is why it was used in the old temple rites. The animal’s death didn’t cleanse the people, but the animal’s blood, it’s life force is what was cleansing. But we are cleansed once and for all by the life, death, AND resurrection of Jesus Christ. Can I get an amen?
The author of Hebrews uses some unfamiliar language, language of sacrifice and priests – things that are foreign to us. But the reason they are foreign to us is that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all those things, so we don’t have to worry about them in the same way on Earth any more. And I’m really glad about that because I’m pretty squeamish and I can’t imagine how terribly things would go if I had to paint the front of the sanctuary with sheep’s blood.
            It can be hard to translate the point of this from the strange unfamiliar language of Hebrews into today’s church. And in fact, there is more than just one point here – the imagery is rich and full, but it’s hard for us to fully process. We are so far removed from the days of altars and sacrifice and blood that it just seems bizarre to talk about. But the point that Hebrews is making is not just about blood and sacrifice and religious rites and ceremonies. It’s bigger than that.
When we say we are saved by the blood of Jesus, we’re not just talking about the one moment on the cross. We’re talking about the entirety of Jesus’ life. Including Jesus’ current reign on the throne in heaven. When we talk about the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we’re not talking about some bloodthirsty God who demanded that somebody die because somebody messed up. We’re talking about the fact that God wants so much to be with us that God came to earth as one of us, knowing full well that it would result in death. But wanting so badly to be with us that death didn’t stop him.
We want to be with God too. At least I’m assuming that most of us in this room do. We build our buildings and programs and mission efforts and pray that God would enter them. We truly want God to be here with us in the temple that we’ve built for God’s presence to dwell in. And then we’re disappointed, we feel rejected and alone when God doesn’t seem to show up or the mission or class or service seems to fall flat or taper off in spite of past successes or it doesn’t turn out quite like we expected it to. We like to critique things on the human level in those cases. . . how could we have made that even better, how could we have been more sensitive or economical or organized or whatever so that God would be honored and show up. What did we do wrong that it lost momentum? How could we have worked harder to make this thing work? We feel like maybe God doesn’t want to be with us or that we’re not good enough at our efforts to please God.
            Jesus did not and does not come into human efforts, though. “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one.” Anything we can put together is a copy at best. All the dead sheep and blood and cleansing that was done by people in the tabernacle and in the temple was a copy – a shadow of the really real reality of heaven and of God’s one true temple.
            The priests of old had to offer sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. Once a year on something they called the “Day of Atonement,” they had to enter the holiest space in temple – a place only they were allowed to enter and only on that day – to atone for the sins of the people for the whole year. Over and over and over. Day after day after day. Year after year after year. Because it was just a copy.
When Jesus came, he came not to participate in the human model of the true heavens and earth, the true model of salvation, he came to turn it on its head and to welcome us into HIS TRUE temple. When we talk about the saving sacrifice of Jesus, we’re not talking about something that we can invite God into or something that we take to God. We’re talking about God loving us so much that GOD CAME DOWN AS A PERSON – a mortal, flesh and blood person who was still God – so that we could be invited into the true temple.
            Friends, I can’t thank you enough for your continued support when I go away on my Company of New Pastors Retreats. As you saw in the spring and I hope you see now, I come back feeling refreshed and back in touch with God. I truly believe that I’m able to be a better pastor and friend to you all when I come back. And I appreciate your support of my new and Carla’s continued involvement with the Kairos weekends.
You guys, I saw God work last week on both of those retreats. OH MY GOODNESS, did I see God work! And it wasn’t because the mentors on my new pastors’ retreat managed to replicate God’s work enough that God showed up. It was because they were open to allowing God to usher our group into the real not-of-this-earth temple that was set up for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, they looked for where God is and went there, rather than trying to lure God to us. At the Kairos Outside weekend, the testimonies on the last day were mind blowing. I joked with a few of the ladies that the next time I’m hard up for getting a sermon together, I was going to call them to just come share their stories. And while there was a lot of organization and planning and meeting with the leadership team to make the weekend happen, God didn’t show up because we made such a great replica of what God’s work should look like. People’s lives weren’t changed because we’re just that good. God showed up and changed people’s lives because in all that planning and organization and meeting, it was constantly and very loudly proclaimed that this is all God. God was the one planning and setting it up. We were just the worker bees who were given the privilege of working in God’s temple.
When you build a house, there are two primary groups of people involved – there are the people who design the house: primarily the architect. There are also the people who do the physical labor: the contractors – brick layers, framers, roofers, etc. When they are building the house, the contractors don’t get to make on the fly decisions about where a bathroom is going to go. Can you imagine if you walked into your new bathroom to find that the contractor had second guessed your color choice and tiled the bathroom in an entirely different color than you and the architect had agreed on?  Friends, God gave us an exciting job – we get to be part of building the Kingdom here on Earth – of pointing people to Jesus. But we’re not the architects.
This sounds difficult, I know. But think about the freedom in this. We don’t have to come up with things that are good enough for God to endorse and decide to be involved in. We just watch for God pointing to the meeting place. We don’t have to figure out how to come up with programs and Bible studies and classes that are close enough that God will move in them. We just have to look around us and pay attention to where God is moving and meet God there. It’s freeing when it’s not about making our work good enough, but to jump into the exciting work that God is already doing.
I will leave you with a couple questions to mull over and pray about. These are important questions to think about as we look to enter into God’s temple, as we think about where to be and what direction to point in as a church. As we think about how to be a vibrant community and about how to keep this old building in one piece for future generations, as well as how to fill this old building up with future generations, there are key questions to ask ourselves. Talk about these together and in session and deacon meetings and in committees. Bounce some of them off of me or one of the elders. As we look to the future of this church and how to preserve it for future generations, these are the important questions that will keep things alive and exciting and growing spiritually (not that growing in size is a bad thing, just that spiritual depth is more important).
You all know Liberty borough better than I do. And I don’t want you to answer these questions based on what has worked in the past or where God moved last week or last year or last decade. I’m not discounting where God has worked in the past or saying that what worked in the past doesn’t or won’t work now, just that God doesn’t work in one way for all time in the way that we’re comfortable with.
Who is here in this sanctuary today and how is God speaking to them?
Who lives here around us and how is God speaking to them?
What are the needs in our congregation that as brothers and sisters we should be helping meet?
What are the needs in our neighborhoods and how do we help those in need see that God loves them and meets them where they are?
Where can we see God moving in our church right now today?
Where can we see God moving in our community right now today?

Ask Yourself and God:

Who is here in this sanctuary today and how is God speaking to them?
Who lives here around us and how is God speaking to them?
What are the needs in our congregation that as brothers and sisters we should be helping meet?
What are the needs in our neighborhoods and how do we help those in need see that God loves them and meets them where they are?
Where can we see God moving in our church right now today?
Where can we see God moving in our community right now today?

A Prayer

Almighty God,
You are truly great and worthy of all praise and thanksgiving.
Thank you for coming to us, Jesus Christ, our Lord, once and for all so that we might be able to enter into your true temple.
Help me to see where you are at work in this world so that I might be part of the worship that happens in that true temple. Help me to step out of my own way to see where I am trying to force your presence into my work.
Show me where you are at work and present so that I might join with you in ministering to the world around me.
Give me energy, creativity, compassion, and imagination to serve those around me and to help you build up this church brick by brick.
Give me a spirit of expectation so that everywhere I go, I go there knowing that you will move rather than simply hoping that you might.

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