Sermon: Thanksliving: The Heart Of The Church
Scripture: Matthew 16:14-18
Date: November 22, 2015
I am thankful for the church. Now in this day and age that is not always the popular thing to say. You see, almost from the very beginning, there has been this major misconception about exactly what the church is. For most today, when you ask what the church is, they think of an institution and their minds are going to go to a building. Down through the centuries people have built magnificent structures and we’ve called them the church. And we have developed the culture of “going to church”. Are you going to church, we ask. Or did you go to church? We’ve set the church apart, like a school, or a place of work, or the store, or the gym. It’s a destination among many destinations in our life. But if Peter or Paul or the other Disciples would have been asked if they were “going to church”, they wouldn’t have known what that meant. To them, church meant anywhere the people gathered for worship and prayer and to help others, to be in community together. The Book of Acts doesn’t talk about structures, it talks about people. Wherever they gathered to do life together that was the early church. Jesus never intended for the church to be an institution or even a building for that matter. He meant for His church to be a community. “Upon your faith, Peter, I will build my church.” To further illustrate what Jesus was talking about, we need to remember the context here. These words were spoken in the region of Caesarea Phillipi, which was the Pagan territory to the north of the Sea of Gallilee. Jesus had gone there to escape from Herod, who had just killed John the Baptist. It was farther from the Temple in Jerusalem than any Jew was supposed to go. Caesarea Phillipi was also the place where the Jordan River began to flow as a Spring from a cave. And at that cave mouth an ancient temple had been constructed some centuries before to the god of the underworld called Hades. It was known as The Gate or The Gate to Hades. By the time Jesus and the disciples came to that spot, the temple had been longed abandoned and was now in ruins. And so presumably when Jesus made this statement, He was pointing to that crumbling Temple to a false God, and said, “I am building my church on faith, and it will never crumble like the gate to Hades.” And so when I say that I am thankful for the church, I am really saying that I am thankful for the people of faith, down through the centuries until this very morning. And when Thanksliving becomes the heart of the church, it is our witness, or testimony, our profession of faith. And this wonderful facility, is just a tool through which we profess our faith to our community and our world. And when we join the church and support the church, we are joining and supporting a community that envisions the day when Jesus will establish His church in the heart of every human being. That’s what Jesus Christ in every life means. Perhaps Paul expressed it best when He wrote in essence that the work of the church will not be complete until “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” And so Thanksliving is supporting the faith community with my unceasing prayers, constant presence with one another, my gifts to those in need, my service for the Lord. And Thanksliving becomes my witness. That’s what the writer of Acts is talking about when he describes the church in this way. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. You see when generosity and Thanksliving became the witness of those early Disciples, the Lord added to their number daily. Thanksliving is contagious discipleship when it becomes the heart and the witness of the people who are the church.
And so I would say that I am thankful for the church because I am thankful for all the people that have come into my life because of the Church. And there have been so many who have blessed me down through the years.
James Bennett was one of those. James Bennett was a little odd. He was one of the first people I met when I went to one of the churches I served. He was small of stature which was accentuated because he walked as one who was bent over by the weight of years. He talked in a high squeaky voice that always sounded a bit agitated. No one ever called him Jim or Jimmy or even James for that matter. It was always James Bennett. For awhile I thought that Bennett was his last name, but it was his middle name, or perhaps the extension of his first name. I never saw him at church or in town or at home without a tie. He had no family. I learned that his mother had been a rather well known local evangelist before it was popular for a woman to be a preacher at all. Though she was not a Methodist preacher, years before the church had adopted her as their own. And when she died, the church became the caretaker for James Bennett. He had no visible means of support. The people in the church liked to talk about how for years James Bennett had delivered the afternoon paper on his bicycle. He would pull a little wagon behind his bike that would be filled with the papers and ride all over that small town no matter what the weather was. Everyone who had lived there very long knew James Bennett. The people in the church considered James Bennett to be the church’s mission. When events at the church were planned, there were always provisions that needed to be made for picking up James Bennett. When there were meals, extra food was always prepared for James Bennett. Even after he could no longer attend church, the first plate of food at the church pot luck was prepared for James Bennett and someone always took it to him while the food was still hot. And if there were any leftovers, an ample portion always went to James Bennett. And I learned that some of the ladies in the church regularly took him meals throughout the week. As long as he was able James Bennett was there every time the doors were open. And his ministry was counting. No matter what the event, he would meticulously count the number of people there. In fact, he would walk down the center aisle in the middle of the service, and stand in the front and count the people, making his way back up the aisle as he did so. Not too long after I arrived at the church, James Bennett’s health began to decline. He began to miss church more and more. But he never missed the TV broadcast on the local cable channel. And soon became to weak and frail to come at all. Because James Bennett would never talk about himself, he would never say what was wrong, but the word on the street was that it was lung cancer that eventually moved into his throat. It became increasingly difficult for him to talk, but every time I went to see James Bennett his first question was about the numbers. I don’t think he was ever convinced that anyone else could do the counting without him there. About three years into my ministry at the church, James Bennett died. I was surprised by how many people came to his funeral, though there was no one there to count. Several months later, I got a call from the attorney who handled the churches legal work who told me that James Bennett had named the church in his will and he needed to come talk with me about it. I figured that he probably had given the church things like Bibles and other items that he had gotten from his mother, so imagine my amazement when the lawyer told me that as close as he could figure that James Bennett’s estate was worth about 100,000, all in cash and CD’s and he had left it all to the church. He had attached a note to his will which he wanted everyone to see, saying that the church was the only family he had and how grateful he was for all that they had done for him in the name of Christ. When I think about how thankful I am for the church, for the faithful people, I often think about the witness of James Bennett. And when I think of the church coming from the heart of Jesus, I remember how the church cared for James Bennett
Thanksliving reflects the heart of the church.
And I think about Jim. Jim was a member of the church that I was serving at the time, and in fact had once been choir director, but before I started at the church he had gotten mad about something and never came to church anymore. He ran a store in town and I would visit him occasionally to let him vent his continuing anger towards “the church” (which turned out to be towards a couple of people who weren’t in the church anymore) and I would always close our conversation with an invitation to come back, though I knew he probably never would. And he would always thank me for stopping in and then say that his church was sitting in his recliner on Sunday morning at 10:00 watching Pastor Wayne Smith on television. But one morning I discovered that Jim had had a major heart attack in the night and was in the hospital. So I went to see him and when he saw me come in the door he seemed a little surprised to see me. “What are you doing here?” “Well,” I said, “I heard that you were in the hospital, and since I doubt that Wayne Smith is going to come and pray with you, I thought I would.” So I took Jim’s hand, and he gripped it tight, and I prayed, and then with a tear in his eye, he thanked me for coming. I wish I could tell you that Jim came back to church after he got out of the hospital. He didn’t. Too embarrassed I think. But he did get involved in the Baptist Church. Jim thought He could be a solitary Christian, that he didn’t need the church, until he did. And what a blessing that God used me to call him back. And ever since, Jim has been my reminder that there is so much more to the church then what happens here on Sunday morning. And he is my constant reminder that there are so many like Jim, who have gotten hurt or mad by something or someone in the church. Because the church is not perfect. We are imperfect people serving a perfect Lord as best we can. When someone told the great preacher Henry Ward Beecher that he wouldn’t join his church because there were too many hypocrites in it, Beecher replied, “On the contrary. Come on in, there is always room for one more!” One writer says this:
The church isn’t perfect – but it is still the only instrument God has for getting His work done in the world. When we leave the church it means far more than dropping out of the country club or resigning our lodge membership. We are leaving the Body of Christ. And it is Christ who is hurt, Christ’s work in the world that is hindered, by our absence. Once in awhile I hear people say: I can be just as good a Christian without the church. But Jesus never said that. He said the branch can not live by itself, cut off from the vine. To say that one can be just as good a Christian without the church is about as sensible as saying one can be just as good a child without a family.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once said: The New Testament knows of no solitary Christians.
I am thankful for the community, the people that is the church, and so my prayers for, support of, and participation in becomes the greatest witness of the faith I have in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that we are to love one another as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. And that in Christ’s church there are no distinctions. Whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Christ.
And I am thankful that it is the church that provides me with the opportunity to worship and serve God. The church does not exist for us but rather it exists for God. Always has. The Psalmist said that God inhabits our praise. He did not say “Peter because of your faith, I’m going to build you a church.” No, He said, “Upon your faith, I’m going to build MY church.” The church exists for God. It is His church. Not mine. Not yours. And He deserves our all. When we pray, we should pour out all we have on this altar. When we sing our praises, we should sing with everything we have. Our praise should be constant. Our worship should reflect the love we have for Christ. And when we give, we should give all that we have. Not just a part of our lives but all of our lives. Christ intended His church to be a community through which we can live a Christ like life. In Luke’s gospel we find an illustration of this in the story of the widow’s mite. This is how Luke tells it: And Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” The rich put their gifts, maybe even their tithes, into the treasury, but this woman put her whole self in. Everything she had.
That’s thanksliving that is at the heart of the church. When Thanksliving is the heart of the church the church is filled with those who are striving to give all they have. I am thankful for the church because it has given me the avenue through which I can lay down my life for the one who laid down His life for me. And though I am striving towards that goal, I have a long way to go. Because I still give my gifts to the church and not my everything. Paul describes this journey when he writes to the Philippians in the words of The Message:
And that’s about it, friends. Be glad in God! All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally. I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.
It’s then that Thanksliving becomes the heart of the church.
And then I am thankful because the church has always been there for me. In fact, as I have reflected this week on the church, I have realized that if you took the church out of my life there really wouldn’t be much left. Every important thing that has ever happened to me has happened through the church. Soon after I was born, my parents brought me to the church and a minister sprinkled water on my tiny head and I was Baptized. I was claimed by God as His own and became a part of the community of faith. It was in the church when I was in third grade that I sang a solo for the first (and last time) and realized that it was okay to make a joyful noise in front of the Lord. And it was in the church when I transitioned from third grade to fourth grade that I received my first Bible (this Bible). I have treasured it all of these years and though I don’t think I realized it then, I now understand that that was the beginning of my love affair with the word of God. When I was thirteen I was confirmed as a member of Christ’s church. And the promises that my parents made when I was Baptized came to fruition. I belonged to Christ’s church. It was in the church, under the teaching of many wonderful Sunday School teachers and preachers that I was taught how to live as a child of God, what it meant to be a disciple. And it was in the church that I answered to call to follow Him. It was to the church that I came to marry the love of my life and begin a forever life of love and joy. It was in the church that I stopped running from Christ and answered the call to be a minister and began an incredible life of ministry and service and blessing. It was to the church that Karen and I brought our baby girl for Baptism, beginning the circle of life in Christ all over again. And it was to the church that we brought our fathers when they passed from this earth and committed them to eternal life, and then last January my mother. And when my days on this earth are done, it will be the church that I will be brought and placed back into the arms of God. If you take the church out of my life, there wouldn’t be much left, really. And yet, in comparison, I give so little in return. I am thankful for the church that has given me life. A blessed life. A life of Thanksgiving. Thanksliving is living that life.
Some of you may remember the great Vaudeville performer, Eddie Cantor. In the middle part of the 20th Century he was one of the most popular entertainers of stage, and radio and movies and eventually TV. In the 1940’s Cantor had a radio program every Sunday night in which he would sing and have guests and he would always end the show with a funny story. Well one night he ended the show with this story. He said:
Usually I end my show with a funny story but I am not going to do that tonight. Because something happened to me this week that I just have to share with you. As is my custom, one day I was walking home from the studio and I got caught in one of those sudden storms that occasionally blow off the ocean and hit Los Angeles. And, oh, it was a terrible storm. The wind blew so hard that tree branches were falling all around me. It became as dark as night. Only the flashes of the lightning all around me illuminated my way. And I feared for my life. But then during one of those flashes of lightning I saw across the street a little house with a covered front porch. And so I hurried across the street and found shelter from the storm on those nice people’s porch. When the storm let up I hurried the rest of the way home because I knew that my wife, Ida, would be worried about me. When I got home I told Ida my story, and she said to me, “Eddie did you knock on the door and thank those people for providing you shelter from the storm?” I was embarrassed that I had not thought to do that. “What do you think I should do?” I asked. “Well,” Ida said, “if I were you I would leave early in the morning and go to the corner market and buy the biggest box of chocolates, and take it back to that little house and thank those people for providing you shelter from the storm.” And so that’s exactly what I did. But when I arrived back at the little house, I saw for the first time that it was not someone’s house, but there was a plaque on the door that read, All Saints Lutheran Church. And I knocked on the door, but no one answered. Now I’m a Jew, and I have never been in a Lutheran church in my life and wasn’t sure how the Lutherans would feel about a Jew in their church but I figured this once it wouldn’t hurt. So I opened the door and stepped inside. And as I made my way to the front I said: “Hello, hello. Is anyone here?” But no one was. And so I turned to make my way back out to the street, but as I did I saw on the back wall a large painting of Jesus Christ. And so I stepped over to the picture and looking into the face of Jesus I said out loud: My name is Eddie Cantor and yesterday there was a terrible storm in this town that I was caught in. I feared for my life until I found shelter on the porch of your house. And I just came this morning to say thanks. And then I looked at the box of chocolates in my hand and looked back at Jesus and I said: I brought this gift for you. But you don’t want my gift. I know what you want. You want my life. And I promise you from one son of Abraham to another that for the rest of my life I will never do anything to dishonor your name. I stood there for a few more moments and then I made my way out the door back into the street. When I got home I told Ida what had happened and I said: You know I think Jesus spoke to me. Oh I don’t mean I heard His voice but I felt like He spoke to me.” And Ida said: What did He say to you, Eddie? What did you hear? And Cantor paused for a moment and then he finished: I’m sure He said: That’s ok Eddie. My church has been on the street corners of this world for 2000 years providing shelter from the storms of life. And we’ll be here to the end of time.
I am thankful that the church has given me shelter from all of the storms of my life and I am thankful for those who have gone before us to make sure that this shelter we call St. Luke has been here for the last 40 years for all of those seeking shelter from the storms of life. And now it’s our turn. Today, we, you and I are called to be the church. Won’t you join me in giving not just our gifts, but our whole life to Jesus Christ.
That’s Thanksliving that is at the heart of the church.