Discovering New Love and New Mercy
I was an assistant pastor in the Chicago area before going overseas as a missionary. When the senior pastor went on vacation, I was the one on-call for pastoral duties. In my first year there I got a call from a local funeral home needing a pastor to conduct a service, so I agreed. I did not know the family or the woman who died. As we spoke together I told them that I was sorry for their loss. One of them replied, “Oh, we lost our mother long ago; she had alzheimer’s disease.”
Some of you have been in their circumstances; you know what it means to journey with a parent whose memories fade away; it is a difficult journey indeed.
We know who we are because we know our own story. When we meet people and introduce ourselves, we select bit of our story to tell them; we compare notes with them about the bits of the stories they tell of their history; we look for places of overlap: “You had knee surgery? Me too.” It is our common memories that bind us together.
How would we tell the story of our church here in Gulf Shores? Would we begin 53 years ago when this church was founded? Should we begin with the early Presbyterians who came to the new world from Scotland? Should we begin with the Reformation in the 16th century?
This Sunday is significant for this congregation for a number of reasons. This is the Sunday on which we are celebrating the Reformation in which the Presbyterian Church was born. On October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg church door, and thereby initiated a process of reform that would spread around the world.
Exactly 500 years ago, in 1509, John Calvin was born. He was the Reformer whose written work, especially his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” gave definition to the Reformed Theology, which is the theology of the Presbyterian Church today.
Our story as a church, in other words, the definition of who we are now, includes that time of Reformation which was a time of new openness to the Spirit, new attention to the words of Scripture, and new commitment to faith in God through Jesus Christ. They left us with a legacy that gives shape to our identity today. The motto they handed on to us is this: “The church, reformed, always reforming, according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”
All Saints Day
This Sunday is also significant in the life of this congregation because it is the Sunday of All Saints in which we remember and give thanks for the men and women who have now finished their race and have gone on before us to be with the Lord.
As we look back on the life of this congregation and of the Presbyterian Church, we can decide how we tell our story. Do we tell our story with a sense of nostalgia or even sorrow at what has been lost to the past, or do tell it as a celebration of the sacred memories of lives lived in faithfulness to God which helped to bring us to where we are today? We are people of memory: stories of our people, the people of God in the past help give shape to our identity in the present.
We read a text from the Old Testament prophet Haggai which is powerfully important to us today. In his day, the people who had been exiles in Babylon had returned to the Promised Land. They had come back after 70 years – the vast majority had been born in exile. Their only knowledge of the the beautiful city of Jerusalem and the magnificent temple Solomon had built were from the stories their families told. Perhaps they expected things to be easier in their generation, or to get better faster – who knows? – but in any case, they were not going well. There was frustration at the difficulty and cost of re-building. Priorities had to be made; budgets were tight.
The question is, what do you do when the money is tight? We need to look at this story, part of our story as believers, and learn from their experience. When those people chose to leave their center of worship in ruins while they built their own houses, the prophet asked them: how is this working for you?
4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
When the values of the community are distorted, there is no sense of well-being – even in the paneled houses. All the sowing, eating, drinking and clothing just left them feeling empty.
They desperately needed to review their story, starting not just with the past glory days of Solomon, but further back, to their founding story; they were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt. They became a people in the land of promise because God redeemed them “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
Their story was not a glory-days lost story, it was a redemption story! Telling that story would enable them to honor the God of their redemption by getting priorities straight as they re-built their society in the land. Even if it took more than one generation, their responsibility in their generation was to build the place where future generations could meet God.
Our story is similar: we are not here to tell a tale of lost glory days of the past, or even of present hardships: we are here to tell a redemption story and to build for a future that may not even be completed in our time on this earth so that future generations can meet God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is another powerful story we need to hear, from our family’s past: it is the one we jumped into the middle of when we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. That story was about Paul’s two year effort to take up a collection from the gentile churches that he founded on his missionary journeys to take back to the mother church, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Paul wanted to show, in the dramatic way that money can show, what those new Gentile Christians believed; that the two vastly different peoples, Jews and Gentiles, were actually one in the body of Christ – all of them redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messiah; God’s son.
Paul knew the “law of the harvest.” With words remarkably similar to the words of the prophet Haggai, Paul spoke of financial gifts in terms of “sowing and reaping.” There is, he teaches, a direct correlation between the quantity sown and the quantity reaped; sow much, reap much; sow little, reap little – the “law of the harvest.” When God who redeemed us is honored by our priorities, then we experience blessings that far outweigh the investment.
We are a people of memory: a people who know who we are because of how we tell our story: ours is a redemption story. We are here today because of a steady stream of faithfulness.
- We have been blessed by the people we remember today who this past year went home to be with the Lord.
- We have been blessed by the courage and dedication of the people who 53 years ago founded this congregation.
- We have been blessed by the generation of people who established the Presbyterian Church in the difficult conditions of the new world.
- We have been blessed by the courage and faithfulness of the Reformers of the 16th century, Martin Luther, John Calvin and many others.
Our story is a redemption story: we are people who have been redeemed by God’s great steadfast love and mercy, shown most dramatically through Jesus Christ.
Now, in our generation, it is our responsibility to build the church for the sake of future generations so that they can discover God’s love and mercy. We do not give to the church like a charitable contribution, based on how much expendable money we have left after all the bills are paid. Rather, we are people who know the law of the harvest: that we will reap bountifully when we sow bountifully. We believe that the God who redeemed us is honored when we give back to him the first 10%, the tithe of our annual harvest.
Our story is a story that is not afraid, even in difficult circumstances to assert boldly:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”