SERMON ~ 04/02/2023 ~ “What Is Church?”

04/02/2023 ~ Liturgy of the Palms ~ Sixth Sunday in Lent, A.K.A. Palm Sunday ~ Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11 ~ Liturgy of the Passion ~ Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

What Is Church?

“The crowds— those who went ahead of Jesus and those who followed— were all shouting, / “Hosanna to the Heir / to the House of David! / Blessed is the One / Who comes in the name / of the Most High! / Hosanna in the highest!” — Matthew 26:9.

I think most of you know I am ordained in the United Church of Christ and I am a proud graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary. As you also know, Maine is a rural State as those things go with a lot of very small churches.

Back in the 1950s a professor at Bangor Seminary wrote a book the title of which was Send Us a Pastor— Any Pastor Will Do. That title came from the words contained in a letter with that plea. The letter was sent by a small, rural church to that professor.

Indeed back when I was at Bangor, the seminary got a lot of requests from churches for students to supply preach and even be their pastor. 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.

Now, to fill a pulpit for a pastor on a Palm Sunday is not usual. Normally a settled pastor preaches on Palm Sunday no matter what, no substitutes. But this happened because the pastor at the First Congregational Church in Belfast had a family emergency.

Now by Maine standards Belfast is not a small church, so it was also unusual a Seminary student would be a substitute. This is how it happened.

Someone from the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ called me on the Thursday evening before Palm Sunday. The question posed was could I help out the Belfast church by preaching there in three days, Palm Sunday. I immediately said, “yes,” since it seemed to me if a church asks a seminary student for help it’s wise to at least try to help.

So… Friday morning the parish secretary called. The first thing she did was apologize because the bulletin was already printed. But, she said, it can be reprinted.

I asked what was in the bulletin, the readings, the sermon title, the hymns. She said the Palm Sunday readings were being used, not the Passion Sunday readings, the hymns were fairly familiar 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 those readings, hymns and that sermon title. No need to reprint.”

Why? The Palm Sunday readings and the title When Is a Church Not a Church? lead to a basic question: what is a church? Did the people processing with Jesus qualify as church simply because they had gathered and praised Jesus?

You see, 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. This is a meeting house. And we are all sitting in and we are worshiping in a meeting house, not a church.

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

Indeed, in another passage in Matthew Jesus says (quote:), “…where two or three are gathered…” So even where a small group gathers there can be church.

But what is it which really makes any gathering of people a church? After all, 37,000 people gather in Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. My bet is some of those folks are filled with what might be described as religious fervor and actually do think that is church.

Indeed, sometimes baseball stadiums are even referred to as cathedrals. But does that mean those 37,000 people are church, true church?

Again, 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 the Most High! / Hosanna in the highest!” church? Were they church? (Slight pause.)

I want to suggest those who shouted on the road had it right about church only in 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 praise of the Messiah. In that sense it’s worship, a little like a hymn of praise at any church service.

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

First yes, gathering with an understanding that Jesus is the Messiah and praising God is a vital aspect of Christian 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. So again, these are the three parts— first, worship with understanding.

If the worship with understanding is real, genuine, then next, proclamation should not just follow but should logically follow from true worship. And last action— once action is added to the mix then these three 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.)

So, 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. (Long pause.)

This is a poem by Ann Weems. The title is Between Parades. The words of the poem are 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.


04/02/2023, Palm Sunday
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, 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;s 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’s 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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