A House of Prayer for All Peoples
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Exodus 40:34-38; Revelation 22:1-5; Matthew 18:15-22
First Presbyterian Church – Lake Crystal
Rev. Randal K. Lubbers, Pastor and Teacher
PRESENCE, PROMISE, AND PRACTICE
Every year the president gives “The State of the Union” address, and most governors give an annual “State of the State” speech. This, like I said last year, is like a “State of the Church” sermon. And the State of the Church is very, very good, because Jesus has promised to walk with us, and “he’s got the whole world in his hands”—the little babies and you and me and all of us together and—yes—the Church:
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the word;
from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
We can be confident the church is in good hands because we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church and the head of the body.
Graham Standish writes, “Many denominations, churches, pastors, and members have become mired in a series of worthless arguments in their attempt to diagnose why ”…their churches are in decline. Too many, he says, “…think the problems have to do with theological positions, styles of worship, or availability of programs…” †
As we have talked about before, church is not about programs!
But, then, what is church about?
Standish says, ”What I have consistently noticed in almost all thriving congregations… is that what makes the difference is the extent to which the community is open to God at its core.”
I am convinced First Presbyterian Church is a place where people are open to God.
Many churches aren’t. Standish describes them this way: “They let the will, ego, and purpose of the dominant voices in their congregation, whether the pastor’s or that of a few strong members, drive the agenda. Instead of seeking God’s call and purpose, they argue over who is right and wrong. Declining churches tend not to be open to God’s presence. They worship, meet, and engage in ministry and mission, but their sense is that God is in heaven, we are on earth, and all that matters is doing good deeds. The congregants have no sense that Christ is in their midst, and that this presence of Christ can bless them and make their churches places of love…. These churches have no awareness that God’s grace and power can work in their midst. They have no awareness of the Holy Spirit. They are unaware that when we become open to God, God’s Spirit flows through the church to make miracles happen.”
At First Presbyterian Church, God’s Spirit is flowing through the church to make miracles happen.
I sense these miracles almost every day.
Personally, I can’t help but think of the miracles in the life of my own family.
And I know you, too, can think of your own daily miracles…
the sight of your kids walking to school,
the feeling of gratitude for
an unexpected act of love,
the joy of giving,
the healing touch of God—
physical healings, emotional healings, spiritual re-births—
the guiding hand of God showing you the way.
Even as I wrote this sermon, I was amazed at how the scriptures (suggested for this week of prayer for Christian unity by an ecumenical group in Ireland, perhaps as long as a year ago) related so wonderfully to church unity and, yes, even to this Annual Report for our local church.
Exodus talks about Presence,
Revelation is about Promise,
Matthew invites us to put faith into Practice.
Presence, Promise, and Practice
In the passage from Exodus, the presence of the Lord is seen and felt in and around the tabernacle “before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” They can point to the clouds and the fire and say, “Look, there, the Presence! It’s real. God is indeed here!”
In the passage from Revelation, there is a promise of healing and hope. A promise that reaffirms our confident hope that “things aren’t always going to be this way”—
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.
And in the passage from Matthew, we are encouraged to put the Presence of God and the Promise of God into Practice. The promise of Presence is given to those who practice mutual love in community—to those who put love into action in a very real, very concrete way: by forgiving each other, by living together even when differences arise, by resolving conflicts in peace.
Exodus says, Yes, there was a day when the Presence was so powerful we could see it.
Revelation says, Yes, there will come a day when Christ will be all in all… God has promised it.
And Matthew says, Yes, even in this broken and sinful world, we are called to put our faith into practice…
We are called to live in the Reality of the Promise and the Presence of God.
Like the children of Israel, we too have a tabernacle where the presence of God is in and around and the glory of God shines brightly; it is the tabernacle of our own lives, and the tabernacle of the life in the body of Christ, the church, and we can see the presence of God at each stage of our journey.
How often didn’t we see it in 2005?
In 2005 we ordained new and younger people to the offices of elder and deacon, we baptized babies and young people of many different ages, we heard professions of faith from adults and teenagers, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper more often than in the past, and our average worship attendance increased by over 7%.
In 2005, we cleaned out our clutter—not because we needed the money, but because we needed the space. We gave it all away during the community garage sale day, taking donations for Katrina victims. We used the extra space to expand Sunday school, we increased the number of teachers and students, and we started using an exciting new curriculum.
In 2005 we increased our budgeted giving to missions by $5,000 and went beyond even that $5,000 increase in special offerings for disaster assistance related to the Tsunami & Katrina & Christmas Joy & improvements for the nursery &c. In addition to thousands of dollars in special offerings, our total regular offerings increased nearly 13% over 2004.
In 2005 our coffee-time expanded from a summer-time-only event to year-round, we served over 100 free meals at the second annual free Thanksgiving Day Feast, a new pictorial directory was published, and we were awarded the Grand Prize Trophy for fund-raising as bell ringers from the Salvation Army.
In 2005 we wore red on Pentecost and the confirmands wore new white robes, we unveiled new banners on Easter morning, and bright new white and green paraments later in the year, we were led in congregational song by a new singing group, and we swayed and clapped while singing Soon and Very Soon.
But most importantly, in 2005, more important than any specific activities…
In 2005 the light of compassion and caring continued to shine more brightly than ever—
we prayed and rejoiced in God’s mercy
when people were healed,
we prayed and wept
through our trials and sufferings
and when the earthly lives of saints were ending…
We responded with visits and cards,
prayers and hot dishes,
encouraging words and shoulders to cry on—
The grace of God filled the tabernacle in thousands of acts of compassion for persons in need of prayers and service and healing and love… within our church… and beyond.
How often didn’t we see the glory of God—clouds and fire—surrounding us?
Yes, in 2005 we not only expected to experience God… we did.
We heard God knocking at the big old doors at the corner of Prince and Crystal Streets...and we opened them wide!
And now, going forward, I sense a strong and powerful unity of spirit… I sense the Spirit speaking through the church—not just the session, but yes the session; not just the deacons, but yes the deacons; not just you, but yes you—speaking through the church and to our church:
We are to be a place open to God.
We are to be a house of prayer for all peoples.
We are to be a place united in mutual love… love so amazing and so divine that when someone sins against us we don’t claim our rights against our sister or brother and we don’t talk behind her back but we do the hardest thing in the world and talk it over face-to-face, one-on-one… at least to start with… at least we try… and what a miracle this is!
And yes, we are to be a place where God’s Spirit is flowing through the church to make miracles happen… every day… in every life… in the lives of the person not here yet… in the lives of those searching and suffering persons to whom God is calling us to reach out and touch!
We are— and we long to continue becoming—
a place where the Presence of the Lord is seen and felt,
where people say, “Look! Over there! It’s real! God is here!
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 “The Church’s One Foundation” by Samuel J. Stone, 1866.
2 N. Graham Standish. Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power. Copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. All the Graham Standish quotes in this sermon are from this wonderful book!