The "E" Word

Isaiah 40:21-31Mark 1:29-39 I Corinthians 9:16-23

There is a connection between what we do, who we are, and who we are called to be.

Many of you have been part of the conversations that we’ve been having over the past few weeks. Some of you have hosted gatherings in your homes as we meet in fellowship to discern together what God is calling Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church to be. I have found the discussions enlivening and exciting, and if you haven’t yet been part of one, there are more gatherings coming. I look forward to our time together then.

As I’ve listened to you describe OPC, several common themes have emerged. By far the most familiar is that of describing OPC as a family. “I come to church, and people know who I am,” one person said. “It’s so friendly. We really care for each other.” One parent, talking about their search for a church home, said the final decision was really rendered by their children. “Can we go back to the church with all the grandmas?” they asked. There is something special about our fellowship and community here at OPC, and it is something to celebrate. When I was asked on my Pastor Information Form to describe my vision of church, I wrote, “the faithful church is one where children are part of the worshiping community and adults are part of life-long Christian education.” It has been my experience that the unique intergenerational fellowship that the church can so wonderfully represent is notably absent in most congregations. As I listen to your conversations, it is this aspect of our community that is a cause for celebration.

For our youth, in today’s society, there is less and less interaction with adults as their lives face more and more programs, sports, activities. For older adults, there is less and less interaction with young people, as families are more scattered and our culture becomes increasingly focused on the excitement of youth. In this context, the possibilities for intergenerational fellowship that OPC represents is not only unique, it is downright counter-cultural. We are blessed with this reality, and we thank God for this.

We are not perfect, of course. In our intentional ministry to take care of one another, there are those who slip through the cracks and feel forgotten. Despite our stewardship of resources and characteristic generosity of giving, our financial picture remains difficult: as a community, we need to increase our income in order to meet the costs of doing ministry in 2006. And change is always tough for churches, adapting to the challenge of ministry in a changing world. Do you know how many Presbyterians it takes to change a light bulb? “That light bulb? My grandmother gave that light bulb to this church!” As a community of faith, we do indeed celebrate the good gifts we see in our midst, always giving glory to God as the ground of our being and the source of our blessing. And we honestly confront the brokenness in our lives as we seek to be reconciling agents of God’s healing. As we continue these conversations in homes, we imagine what it is that God is calling us to be. And as we discern God’s vision for our ministry, your Session is responding to the challenges that lie before us, finding new ways to engage our membership, our community, and the world in the ministry to which we are called.

With all of this, though, one puzzle lingers before us today: there is nothing about intergenerational fellowship that is particularly Christian. Of course, our fellowship takes place in the context of church membership and involvement. The central act of our life together is Sunday morning worship. We read Scripture and sing hymns of praise to Christ. The cross of Christ and the Lord’s Table have central place in our weekly gathering. But intergenerational fellowship itself could be done in the context of any number of faith traditions or without faith at all. And many churches also worship on Sunday morning, but look very different from us. Some send their children out of the worship service altogether. Others end up segmenting their community into generations, largely through worship styles, and end up following a pattern that looks a whole lot like the culture at large.

My hope is that the uniqueness our fellowship, like all that we do, is not an end in itself. If it is, if we gather as young and old and in-between simply for the sake of gathering, we will lose the very blood that gives us life. Instead, our life together, all that we have and all that we are, must be rooted in our faith, in the kind of community that we are called to be around this table. There is a connection between what we do, who we are, and who we are called to be.

This is part of the message of the gospel story from Mark, where Jesus is at Andrew and Simon’s house in Capernaum. He has just come from the synagogue, where he has been teaching and very publicly heals a man with an “unclean spirit.” His fame as a miracle worker and faith healer has already spread, so much so that by the time night falls, the whole city has come to the door of the home to be healed. Jesus then, characteristically, wanders off alone early the next morning. There is a rhythm to Christ’s ministry, this intense engagement followed by intentional time in prayer and reflection. But this solitary time rarely lasts long. When the disciples find him, they let him know that the crowd is looking for him – and not in a good way. His healings have created quite a stir, and are threatening the status quo. Not only do they need to move on for the sake of safety in order to continue the ministry he’s begun; Jesus also needs to clarify what it is that he is there to do. He is not simply a magician, or a healer. He is the Holy One of God, the Messiah. It is, as Christ says, time to leave Capernaum and “proclaim the message.”

These two pieces of Christ’s ministry, the healing and the preaching, are intertwined. Neither one is sufficient alone. His miracles are similar to dozens of other itinerant healers of the time. And his calls for faithfulness are no different than other Messianic pretenders. But the uniqueness of Christ is that they are brought together inseparably, bound together inextricably in his ministry, and finally form a perfection intersection in the cross itself. And there, the good news is proclaimed loudly that we find in it our deepest healing, our purest forgiveness, our perfect reconciliation with one another and with our God. And as we contemplate this mystery, we recognize the call to us as a community: there is a connection between what we do, who we are, and who we are called to be.

This ethic, too, lies at the heart of our reading from Paul. The apostle continues his letter to the church at Corinth with a word about his calling and his ministry. There seems to be some question on the authority of his ministry among the Corinthians, particularly as it relates to financial issues. Paul reminds the early church in this cosmopolitan city that he has never asked them for funds. Instead, he says, it is preaching the good news that is his reward. But more than that, it is a commission, a stewardship with which he has been entrusted. It is, at its core, that “e” word we Presbyterians tend to shy away from: Evangelism. The word itself simply means sharing good news. For Paul, it is the beginning of all that he does – sharing good news, proclaiming, evangelizing. The end is the salvation of God’s precious children, brought into the holy fellowship of grace and mercy offered by Christ’s healing cross.

For Paul, everything he does is in order to “proclaim Christ and him crucified.” This message is far more important than any cultural trapping of Jew or Gentile, or any religious constraint of law or lawlessness. He is willing to risk appearing culturally confused in order that his audience would find him contextually relevant. For Paul, evangelism shapes what he does, who he is, and who he is called to be.

What I’m trying to say is: we have something good here at OPC. The intergenerational fellowship of our community is a gift from God. It is, I believe, rooted in who we are called to be. It is shaped by Paul’s vision of a church where boundaries are broken down, where Jew and Gentile alike are worthy of the gospel. It is rooted in Christ’s ministry, where who we are and what we do is inextricably bound to what we proclaim, Christ and him crucified. The worst thing we can do with this gift is to hoard it. It is a precious commission, a stewardship entrusted to us. We cannot be selfish. Woe to us if we do not share it with the world!

And when we do, we will draw the world into the blessed fellowship of this table around which we gather. And in this fellowship, we greet not only one another, but find that Christ is in our midst as cross and table, as bread and cup, as savior and friend, as that wondrous good news we share.

sermonsMarthame Sanders