Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
This last week, at the memorial service for Ed Scheu, I read a few excerpts from the collection of speeches of William Sloane Coffin, The Heart is a Little to the Left (University Press of New England, 1999). Molly Scheu had said she would like something of Bill’s read at the service but she left the selection up to me. I had the happy task of leafing through Bill’s several books to find something to read. I found these words in the preface to his book, “Everyone is in danger of succumbing to what de Tocqueville called ‘paltriness of aim.’ All too frequently we become as ants on a log, arguing with each other as the log approaches the waterfall. Today the currents of history are indeed churning into rapids and waterfalls. If we are to be equal to the times in which we live and to the greater problems the future will bring, we had better learn to scorn trifles and strive to be far more imaginative and more generous in spirit.”
Ants arguing on a log headed for a waterfall – it’s a better image than the more cynical metaphor - rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It has seemed to me that there is a lot of arguing going on these days among the ants – frustrations, irritations, short fuses here and there. I’ve asked around among some of my clergy friends here across the country and they tell me they think they’re seeing the same thing. It’s as if, since we feel so powerless against the really huge issues of our day - issues like the recession and job loss and genuine financial strain in households, a gushing, polluting puncture wound on the ocean’s floor, and a seemingly endless war that devours children and spits them out with post-traumatic stress disorder – we feel so powerless against those issues, we pick away at the things over which we might actually have some influence. Should a halfway house for newly released prisoners be built in Hartford? You call it art – I call it junk – get that thing out of my sight. Really? Casino gambling to pay for education? Why do we always have to serve apple juice? Can’t we branch out a little? Too much music, too little participation, too many meetings, too few meetings, why didn’t you…? Couldn’t you at least…? I don’t mean to be critical but…
Luke tells us in today’s gospel story that Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem. He was ready, one might say, to go head to head with the powers and principalities – the political ones, the religious ones, and the social ones. He turned toward Jerusalem, that dangerous city, and he expected his disciples to be there with him. As they were going, Jesus and his followers, the cost of the confrontation became increasingly apparent. Jerusalem would be the defining moment in the nascent little movement. It would be the place where the radical and heretofore inconsequential events and followers would face their greatest trial. It would be a magnificent triumph or it would be a tragedy. Either way, Jesus was ready. I’ll come with you, said one disciple. Be prepared, Jesus responded. There will be nowhere to rest along the way, no place to lay your head. Another disciple said he would follow directly, but first he wanted to bury his father. One of the harshest of Jesus’ replies came back - “Leave the dead to bury their own dead”. Another disciple wanted to say goodbye to those at his home. Jesus replied a third time, if you put your hand to the plow and look back, you are not fit to enter God’s realm.
The disciples weren’t trying to avoid the Jerusalem confrontation – at least not in the obvious way I would try to avoid it – just one more row in these mittens, just one more load of laundry, just one more email. I suspect that the disciples also knew that this could be the beginning of the end for their Messiah. The requests they made were about bringing things to a close before embarking on this next journey to Jerusalem. One disciple was anxious to go along but without realizing how difficult the journey would be. Another wanted to carry out the emotionally and culturally significant rituals of respecting the dead by burying his father. Another wanted to acknowledge his pending absence by saying good-bye to his loved ones. Maybe only Jesus knew how high the cost of discipleship would eventually be and so, for him, even these significant requests were unimportant against the responsibility God had placed upon him, to confront the abusers of the faith and the oppressors of the faithful in Israel. In other words, compared to what was ahead, the need to bury one’s loved ones or say good-bye were simply not urgent. It’s time to go, he told them. Now.
Over the past months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of a church like ours. Why do we exist? Why do we expect people to become members? Why do we get together on Sunday mornings for worship, gather for meetings, plan programs, print bulletins and newsletters, sell coffee, pray, develop policies, putter around with this old building, raise money for salaries, pensions, insurances, fuel oil, and crayons? In a very small but enormously insightful book by H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, Niebuhr, with several colleagues, embarked on a study of theological education, seeking to determine whether the theological education of the 1950’s adequately prepared one for ministry. The beginning questions were asked – what is the church for which seminaries are preparing its students for leadership? What is ministry? Those first chapters are the ones that interest me most, of course, and while the book is, in many ways, outdated, the definitions of Church and Ministry offered in its opening chapters are some of the best I’ve ever read.
Ministry is the process by which a people engage in the experience and expression of the love of God and neighbor. “In the language of Christianity love of God and neighbor is both ‘law’ and ‘gospel’; it is both the requirement laid on us by the Determiner of all things and the gift given, albeit in incompleteness, by the self-giving of the Beloved. It is the demand inscribed into infinitely aspiring human nature by the Creator; its perversion in idolatry, hostility and self-centeredness is the heart of human tragedy. Love of God and neighbor is the gift given through Jesus Christ by the demonstration in incarnation, words, deeds, death and resurrection that God is love—a demonstration we but poorly apprehend yet sufficiently discern to be moved to some faltering response of reciprocal love. The purpose of the gospel is not simply that we should believe in the love of God; it is that we should ourselves love God and to recognize that the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparably related.
We are always in danger of speaking of God without reference to those God loves, those who, in turn, love God. We are always in danger of speaking about religion or love of God as something other than ethics or the love of neighbor. “
Well, back to the arguing ants on the log – I’m fairly certain their arguments aren’t about how to better love their fellow ants, or how to celebrate the upcoming tumble over the waterfall’s edge. The ants aren’t working out the details of best funeral practices or the emotional need to say farewell to those ants still on shore.
By the time Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, he had come to realize that loving his neighbors – the lepers, outcasts, Gentiles, Samaritans, adulterers, tax-collectors, the demon-possessed, the rich young rulers, the bleeding women, the obtuse, impulsive, and skeptical – loving all these was going to require confronting those powers that kept them oppressed, exploited their ignorance, and ruled them with fear. Loving God was easy for Jesus. Loving all those sheep, while not as easy, was still within the realm of possible. After all, pity can feel a lot like love. But Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem when he could clearly see that loving God and all those sheep was not about pity. Rather, love required direct action against the builders of the electric fence, the owners of the pasture, and the government that kept the whole system in place and running smoothly. And I’ll tell you, once you see that, once you realize that love isn’t so much an emotion as it is a way of living, it’s really difficult to love God without doing something to change the way those God loves are being treated.
By the time Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem, he had narrowed his purpose down to one. If we were to think of the purpose of the church and its ministry as that same one purpose Jesus embraced, I wonder what our church would look like. How would we act? What would we do? That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Amen.