The church as strange and wonderful – Sermon

Mark 3:13-19 (Briarwood, February 2012).

One of the best things about the Christian church is the strange people who make it up.

In the 5th century there lived a man called Simeon Stylites.  He believed the best way to find quiet and peace for prayer was to climb up to the top of platform on a pillar in the desert and stay there.  We are told we stays 37 years.  Simeon the Stylites‘ feat makes it into the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for longest time on top of a pillar.

Now that is one strange situation.

John Ortberg, a Presbyterian pastor in California, wrote a book for study in church groups with the title, “Everybody’s normal till you get to know them.”  That’s not a bad book to be used in the Christian church.

There is a woman, part of a church, who has a list of all the children ever baptized in that there since she started going.  Every year on their birthday this woman sends each child a card.  With a Bible verse in it.  And a prayer for them.  And a happy birthday.  Now isn’t that odd?  Someone who might find the time to do something like that? Isn’t that wonderfully odd.

The fact of the matter is that the Christian church has been a strange place with strange people right from beginning.  Jesus, when he’s putting together his gold medal team, those he’s going to invest in throughout his ministry and who will become the backbone of the early church;  Jesus, he goes ahead and hand picks a whole lot of strange people.

12 of theme.  At the top of the list is Peter.  Jesus nicknames him the Rock.  If he were around today, we might confuse with a professional wrestler.  The rock.  Petra.  Peter.  But Peter doesn’t seem like much of a rock.  In fact, at times, he seems down right soft.  Peter tries to stop Jesus from taking the hard road up to the cross.  When Jesus does, we know, it’s not him who backs Jesus up, but follows at a distance.

Then there’s James and John.  The brothers.  Jesus calls them the sons of thunder.  And that could well be because of their tempers.   They didn’t have a lot of patience.  Later in Mark, they go on to tell somebody off because they disagree with him.  Jesus has to step in.

And the list of strange choices of people goes on, until the 12th.  Judas Iscariot.  Named after a group called the sicarri – who were assassins.  And, he kind of was.

What a strange group Jesus chooses to be the foundation of his church.

And that is what the church is today.  It’s an unusual community.  Even surprising.  And the reason is because of Jesus.  He could have done things a little less…flashy.  Could have lived his life in a way that was a little more normal.  But Jesus does crazy stuff.  Things that are very strange.  Out of the box.  Come on we say to Jesus, you might have been a little more normal.

But normal, friends, doesn’t really have a lot to do with the church.  And the church doesn’t have a lot to do with normal.  Because the Jesus we follow is far from it; and the God we call our God is too.  Jesus, calls 12 people, to join with him in mission;  and to be sent out, to proclaim the Gospel and to heal.  This strange calling all hinges on the mission of Jesus.  The mission of God.  And as the church, we are caught up in that mission.  How it is carried out is never predictable.

Which is why people like Peter with his weaknesses – and James and John with their tempers – and you and me – are part of it.

Friends, the heart of it;  the most strange and wonderful thing about the church isn’t its people, but God’s mission in Jesus.

This is a God who is reaching out everywhere, in unpredictable and strange ways.

Two theologians wrote a book in 1989.  Went to the fourth edition by 1990.  Burned through seminary curricula.  Flew off books shelves.  And it wasn’t because the book had an easy message.  But it was because the book captured something about God’s mission and about what that means for the church.  The book is called, Resident Aliens.  In the book, they argue for the strangeness of the message and mission of God in Jesus.  They say this: “Whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.”

Tom Long, tells a story about the church and God’s mission.

5th avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, is a famous and centrally-located church in that city.  Its neighbours include Ambercrombie and Fitch.  The University Club, and Tiffany’s.  Its there right on 5th avenue in the middle of all kinds of power and prestige.  Long knows the current minister there, and the story goes that for years homeless people had been sleeping up under the great arch over the front door.  Sheltered there from the wind and cold.  And for years the Presbyterians of 5th ave would have to step over top of them on a Sunday morning to get into church.  That was where the relationship it ended.

But just a few years ago, something changed.  The congregation of 5th avenue decided they were going to start to offer food and shelter to those sleeping on their doorstep.  Hallelujah, we might want to say.  But there’s more.

Turns out the store owners on that prestigious street were not happy with the type of clientele this church was serving and attracting.  More and more homeless people, in fact, began to show up on 5th avenue.  The whole thing eventually ended up in court.  It was argued to the city of New York that church wasn’t licensed help the homeless.  Wasn’t licensed for an overnight shelter.  And the church was in and out of court several times.  In the middle of it all, police would show up at 5th ave Presbyterian and enforce what the court decided.  Eventually thought they church won the court battle and carried on.  Hallelujah, we might want to say.  But there’s more.

Now 5th avenue Presbyterian has money.  But all this back and forth in the courts was happening around the time of the 2008 financial meltdown.  The minister would meet with the church officers, and they would say, well, if one more shoe drops, we’re going be in trouble.  And things continued on with the shelter, then more court costs.  And other challenges  The minister would meet with the church officers, and they would say, well, we’re OK now, but if one more shoe drops….  Then more costs.

Until one day the pastor of that church was getting a little worried.  He remembers one afternoon praying in his study.  He remembers praying, Lord, we are trying to do your work here in New York and carry out your mission to those in need, and we’re doing OK, but please, don’t let another shoe drop, or we’ll be in trouble.  As he prayed this, his phone rang.  The secretary said the police were at the front door of the church and had to speak with him.  Deflated, thinking, O know, what do they want this time, he went down to meet them.  Two officers stood there & they said to him, Pastor Black?  Yes.  The New York City Police have just raided a factory across town and we’ve seized 700 pairs of boots.  We thought you could use them here.

Seven-hundred pairs of shoes.

Friends, the mission of God in Jesus, is what we are caught up in in the Christian church.  And that God draws all of us in.  And God’s Kingdom – it’s a place where strange and wonderful things happen.

Seven-hundred pairs of shoes.

As we come to our Annual General Meeting this year.  We’re going to come with an arm load of reports.  We’re going to come making motions and taking votes.  But we’re going to come together as a church.  As part of the Church around the world and in heaven.  And that means, by its very definition, and from the very beginning,  we’re coming together not for ourselves or to meet our own needs, but for mission.  Because it’s by the mission of God in our lives that we call ourselves beloved by God, even part of the church of Christ;  it’s by the mission of God in Jesus Christ

And this mission of God to the world is rooted in the love of God for the world.  St. Paul – one of the strangest of all Christians and yet called by God and drawn into God’s mission in the world – says this to the church about God’s love, which is where everything begins:

God,  who is rich in mercy

out of the great love with which he loved us

even when we were dead through our trespasses

made us alive in Christ

by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him

in the heavenly places in Christ.

and later,

I bow my knees before the Father

from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name.

I pray that, according to the riches or his glory

he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner Spirit,

and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,

as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend

with all the saints

what is the breadth and length and heigh and depth,

and to know the love of Christ

that surpasses knowledge

so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us

is able to accomplish abundantly more than

all we can ask or imagine,

to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus

to all generations

for ever and ever.

Amen.

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