04/10/2022 ~ SERMON ~ “What Is Church?”

04/10/2022 ~ The Liturgy of the Palms ~ Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40 ~ The Liturgy of the Passion ~ Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49 ~ Used: Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11 ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxjyzAWt6_c

What Is Church?

“When they reached the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples joined in and began to praise God loudly, joyfully for all the display of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!’” — Luke 19:37-38a.

I have already said this here so many of you know it. I am a proud graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary. As you also probably know, Bangor closed as a seminary.

But it remains a vital part of spiritual life in Maine as the BTS Center in Portland with programs which strive to equip faith leaders, both ordained and members of the laity. You can treat that last sentence as an advertisement; please check out that web site.

And as you know, Maine is a rural State with a lot of very small churches. Back when I was at Bangor many churches could only afford to have a seminarian come preach. These days that need is often filled by students of the Maine School of Ministry. You can treat that last sentence as an advertisement also; please check out that web site.

Here’s one more item I have already said here: as a student I did a lot of supply preaching. In fact, once I even filled in for a settled pastor on a Palm Sunday.

To supply on a Palm Sunday is not usual. Normally a settled pastor preaches on Palm Sunday no matter what, no substitutes. But because the pastor at the First Congregational Church in Belfast had a family emergency I wound up subbing on a Palm Sunday. And by Maine standards Belfast is not a small church.

This is how it all came about. The Maine Conference Minister called me late on the Thursday evening before Palm Sunday and asked for a favor. (Here’s a life hint: when a Conference Minister asks a seminary student for a favor the response should never be “no.”) The favor? Preach at Belfast in three days, on Palm Sunday.

So… Friday morning the parish secretary called. The first thing she did was apologize because the bulletin was already printed but she said she could reprint it.

Then she let me know what was in the bulletin. The Palm Sunday readings were being used, not the Passion Sunday readings, and the sermon title was “When Is a Church Not a Church?” Much to her surprise I said, “That’s great. Let’s go with it. No need to reprint.”

Why not? The Palm Sunday readings and the title When Is a Church Not a Church? lead to a basic question: what is a church? Contrary to popular belief a church is not a building.

As I am sure you know, in the Congregational tradition the building in which we worship is not called a church. It’s a meeting house. You’re all sitting in a meeting house, not a church.

Among the many reasons for that distinction is we understand the people gathered are the church. And that is the real and true meaning of the word church: people.

Now in the Gospel called Matthew Jesus says, “…where two or three are gathered…” So even where a small group gathers there can be church.

But what is it which really makes gatherings church? After all, 37,000 people gather to see the Red Sox play baseball. And my bet is some gathered in Fenway do treat that as church. Yeah.

Sometimes baseball stadiums are even referred to as cathedrals. But does that mean those 37,000 people are church, true church? (Slight pause.)

What is church, really? What is it about people gathered which makes a gathering a church? Were those who shouted: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” church? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest those who shouted on the road had it right about church in only one sense. You see, the reason shouting the One who comes in the name of God is right, is that this was or at least seemed to be a worshipful proclamation of the presence of the Messiah. In that sense it’s worship and a little like a praise hymn in any church service.

But I want to suggest what makes church, what makes two or three gathered church, is not just one thing, not just gathering and praise, not just worship. Church takes at least three things.

First yes, gathering with an understanding that Jesus is the Messiah and praising God is vital because it is an aspect of worship. To that extent, the gathered crowd qualified.

But the second step is those gathered then need to share this good news with others. These are the first two parts of being church: worship and proclamation.

Third and last— and this is where those who first praised Jesus and then abandoned Jesus clearly and totally missed the boat— third and last when it comes to what makes people gathered church is follow through… action. What action?

Feed the hungry, clothe those wearing tatters, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, the dying, console the distraught, stand in solidarity with the outcast. These three parts— first, worship with understanding, next, proclamation and last action, are what makes church.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan says this: “In the Hebrew Bible God never says ‘I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.’ God says ‘I reject your worship because of your lack of justice.’” (Slight pause.)

How can we be church? The Word of God needs to be… heard. The Word of God needs to be… shared. The Word of God needs to be… acted on.

This is a poem by Ann Weems. The title is Between Parades. It’s in the bulletin if you care to follow.

We are good at planning!
Give us a task force
and a project
and we are off and running!
No trouble at all!

Yes, going to the village and finding a colt,
even negotiating with the owners
this is right down our alley.
And how we love a parade!

In a frenzy of celebration
we gladly focus on Jesus
and generously throw our coats
and palms in the path.
And we can shout praise
loudly enough
to make the Pharisees complain.
It’s all so good!

It’s between parades that
we don’t do so well.
From Sunday to Sunday
we forget our hosannas,
Between parades
the stones will have to shout…
because we don’t.

Amen.

04/10/2022, Palm Sunday
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I once had a conversation with a young pastor in their first call. That pastor said to me ‘It’s a pastor’s job to preach the Gospel.’ I said, ‘No. It is a pastor’s job to be heard preaching the Gospel. There is a difference.’ As to action, there is saying attributed to Saint Francis which sums up the action to which we are called as church. ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary.’ And maybe that is how the Gospel is really heard— through action.”

BENEDICTION: God has written love within us, on our hearts. We are empowered to live according to that love through Jesus. In Christ, we can together experience God’s presence. Where Christ leads, let us follow. Where God calls us to service, let us go. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, the love of Jesus, the Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, this day and forevermore. Amen.

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