Advent Through the Eyes of John, Part Two

Zephaniah 3:14-20Luke 1:39-55

What is church? What is church to you? Is it the worship service, an hour once a week of hymn and message? Is it the fellowship of friends, on Sunday and throughout the week? Is it the support of that same community in times of difficulty and celebration? Is it the work of the congregation through its witness, its education, its mission, its service?

Let me put the question to you a different way: when you say to someone, “I’m going to church,” what do you mean? Or how would you answer this question from a neighbor, a colleague, a friend: “What is church?”

For Presbyterian ministers, the question automatically has its own unique spin. Ministers of the Word and Sacrament are not members of individual congregations. Instead, we are members of presbyteries. In my case, that’s the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, a connected body of more than one hundred Presbyterian churches throughout the metro area. And one of the things we know about membership is that they tend to ask you to be on committees.

I actually consider much of what happens on these Presbytery committees to be pretty engaging. I find them incredible opportunities to learn from colleagues, both elders and pastors, throughout the city. And I also hope that by sharing some of these experiences with you that our life together is enriched with challenge and growth.

This past Fall, I was invited to be on a Task Force, a subset of our Presbytery’s committee on new church development. We were asked to answer the question, “Is there a new way of doing church development?” Now as Presbyterians, we’re succeeding fairly well already in two models of church planting. The first is pretty traditional: a population area begins to grow, we send a pastor to gather interested persons, land is purchased, a building is built, and programs start up. It’s how Oglethorpe and countless other Presbyterian churches get started throughout the country.

A second model that has also been very successful is that of the Immigrant Fellowship. There are currently more than forty in the wider Atlanta-area with another thirty looking for a church in which to nest. As we’ve mentioned for several weeks now, we are opening our doors today to the Presbyterian Community of the Resurrection. These and others are fellowships gathered around common culture and common language, reaching out to the incredibly diverse immigrant communities in our midst.

The question our Task Force was asked to address was this: Is there a third way? What about places of urban redevelopment, like Atlantic Station or the proposed Belt Line, places where traditional churches are well in place? And what, in particular, about all those who won’t be reached by those traditional means, either because they’ve only heard of church filtered by the media, by those who claim to represent our faith through the airwaves, or because they’ve had an experience of church which has left them disillusioned, perhaps even damaged? What about them?

On Thursday, as part of this Task Force, we met Jud Hendrix. Jud was an Associate Pastor at a large church in Louisville. He was, by his own admission, struggling in that role. One Pentecost Sunday, he preached a sermon at that church in which he began to raise questions about what it means to be church. He was struck by the vision of the church in that passage from Acts 2, that ancient Pentecost day, and how different church looked to him as a Presbyterian in the urban south.

One of Jud’s members met up for lunch with a friend from another Presbyterian church in Louisville, where another Associate Pastor named Liz Kaznak had preached another sermon on Pentecost. And as these two members began to discuss the two sermons, they were struck by how nearly identical their messages were, how similar the questions they were raising were. A few phone calls later, and Jud and Liz, who knew each other only in passing through the Presbytery, were sitting down over lunch and talking about Church. They were both burning out as pastors of traditional churches. They were both on the verge of leaving the ministry. They were both asking the same questions, both looking for a new way of being pastors and a new way of being church.

As Jud shared his story with us, there was something about his words that was particularly compelling. He said, “There was something of the Spirit at work in both of us, challenging and pushing us. And there was something of the Spirit in bringing us together through that chance conversation of our two church members. Each of us had been nurturing something holy, like a mother carrying the child in her womb. We needed to meet, to encourage and to hear one another, so that this holiness within us might see the light of day.”

Now, I will admit that we pastors spend a good part of our week trolling for sermon illustrations. And I will also admit that when this past Thursday had come, I still hadn’t found one for this morning’s message. But as Jud shared the story of his and Liz’s ministry, of this new way of being church in Louisville, Kentucky, I couldn’t help but think that there was something of the Spirit in it for me as well, as a preacher looking for something to share with you all not only about the way we shape our lives, but also about this ancient meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in our lesson this morning.

We have already learned from Luke that Gabriel has visited both women, telling them of the miraculous news of a child to be born. For Elizabeth, it is a child in her old age. For Mary, it is a child in her youth. For Elizabeth, it is miracle intruding on aged infertility. For Mary, it is miracle intruding on youthful virginity. Mary and Elizabeth are related, we learn. Some traditions hold that Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt. The text calls them cousins. In any case, we can see that there is affection. Mary has traveled a long way, some fifty miles, to be with her cousin, a journey she would be unlikely to make if there wasn’t already some sort of warmth and fondness.

Each of them is carrying this child of miracle; each of them is nurturing this holiness within. Each of their children have been named by Gabriel. Each of these children’s destinies as prophet and Messiah have been made clear long before their birth. Elizabeth will give birth to John, who will be called the Baptist. Mary will give birth to Jesus, who will be called the Christ. And as they meet up in this Spirit-given moment of holy encounter, Elizabeth praises Mary as “blessed among women,” and names her child Jesus as her Lord. And Mary, responding, gives voice to one of the great hymns in all of Scripture: “My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in my God. Because God has looked with favor on me.”

The Magnificat, as it is sometimes known, this song of Mary’s, is her reaction to this meeting with Elizabeth. And in its words, we can see something not only of what God will call John and Jesus to do, but indeed what God intends to do through a dramatic reordering of the creation. The hungry are filled. The lowly are lifted up. Those on the margins are brought into the center of God’s community of mercy and grace. These words of Mary, in some ways, provide a structure through which we can read the rest of the gospel, of John’s ministry of preparation and living in the wilderness, of Christ’s ministry of reaching out to those whom society has rejected.

But the transforming words of the Magnificat don’t end with those around the edges. Mary goes on to sing about the powerful, who are brought down from their thrones. The proud get scattered. The rich are sent away empty. It is an earth-shattering message that, no doubt, threatened those of the day who held power. And it is a song whose radical and potentially revolutionary significance reveals injustices and inequalities up to today. For example, in the 1980s in Guatemala, in that country’s political upheaval, it was even illegal to recite the Magnificat in the public square, so dangerous was its message considered to be.

The point I want to make, though, is that these words of promise and transformation, of justice and mercy, of grace and righteousness don’t come in isolation or completely out of context. Nor are they simply a response to God’s actions in Mary alone. Instead, they are the reaction to this encounter of holiness, the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, in whom God is already at work, these two who are nurturing something of the Spirit within.

Which all brings me back to the story of Jud and Liz, back in Louisville. After several careful years of discernment and study, both with each other and with the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, they became co-pastors of Covenant Community Church. The church has been going strong for six years now, and is continuing to grow. But listen to its shape. The “church” has no building. Its weekly worship service is held in the sanctuary of another Presbyterian church. And the worship service itself, while important, isn’t the central act of the community. They hold numerous events in the public square, part of their commitment that this church would find itself entrench in the world in which we live. Jud invites folks to discuss theology and various issues at a local bar. Liz does the same at a coffee shop.

And the place where Covenant Community Church makes itself clear as a different way of being church is in a series of gatherings that they call “intentional communities.” These are groups of folks centered on a common interest, particularly one that reaches out, such as getting involved in refugee issues, or responding to homelessness, or caring for the sick. They gather together in a common covenant, sharing in a common ministry that serves the world in the way of Christ. They support the ministry financially, and they care for one another in times of grief and celebration. It is from these communities of covenant that Covenant Community Church gets it name.

And other things are happening, as the members of this community continue to respond to the calling of the Spirit, to the nurture of holiness within each of them. None of this is anything that Jud or Liz would have been able to predict. None of this fits neatly into a model which is easily replicated. But that initial encounter on a Pentecost Sunday ten years ago, between two people in whom God was already at work with a sense of restlessness, has led to an incredible movement of faithfulness. And in that movement, new ways of being church continue to evolve. The world is being changed. And those who might have never been reached otherwise are embracing a new way of being that is intentional, communal, and transformational.

Friends, I want to suggest to us this morning that there is something of holiness in this story for us as well, something that teaches about the essence of church. We are a people brought together not just for an hour on Sunday. Rather, we are invited to share something of our lives with one another not only through gathering together, but also through reaching out, through service, through covenant and promise. And in each of us, I am convinced that God is already at work, nurturing something of the Spirit. And it is in the encounter with each other, like that ancient encounter between two cousins or a modern encounter between two disillusioned Presbyterians, where we find who, where, and what God is calling us to be.

I do believe that there is something in this for us to learn about how to be church in the urban South. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not telling you that your pastor is disillusioned or wants to sell the building. But I do want to say that we must be open to that which God is nurturing within each of us, that holy calling which will find its full expression in our encounters with one another. I am asking that we, through this season of Advent and beyond, would be open to that nudge of the Holy Spirit within each of us, and within us as a church, listening for that push of the Holy Spirit to transforming ways of being a community called to live in the way of Christ.

I’m convinced that this is part of what we celebrate today as we welcome Pastor Carlos and the Hispanic Fellowship. I trust that there is something of holiness in all of this, where God is already at work in Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, where God is already at work in the Presbyterian Community of the Resurrection. Today we come together in this encounter of common worship and common fellowship, recognizing that we share a common future as people of God.

I am asking today that we would be open to these encounters, sharing with one another what it is of God that is being nurtured within us. What will they bring? I can’t pretend to know. What will they say to us about what it means to be church? I could only guess. But I do know one thing: they are likely to change the world.

sermonsMarthame Sanders