How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place !
Psalm 84, Philippians 1:27, 2:1-13
June 10th, 2012
How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord. My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Happy are those who live in your house…Let me be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.
These walls and this room have been God's dwelling place for us, our spiritual home together for the past 23 years, and for some of you much longer than that. This has been the place, and these have been the people, through whom we have experienced the grace of God. Certainly the church exists to do more than comfort us, and to make us comfortable. God’s Word rightfully challenges us and confronts us with all that needs changing in the world. But on a very profound level, God welcomes all, stranger and friend, to this sanctuary, where we have experienced the love that is strong and that never ends. This has been our dwelling place.
I have been privileged to be a doorkeeper in this house of the Lord. These doors have been flung wide to the world, to those who are hungry, curious, hurting, seeking, joyful, needy, and generous. I have stood at the door on Sunday mornings and watched the flow of people coming in and out. I have officiated at 98 weddings, at 156 funerals, at 119 baptisms, and confirmed 70 young people into this family of faith.
On the humblest level, I think of myself as a doorkeeper, privileged and blessed to be a minor servant in the courtyard of God's realm. I have been given a space on the edge of holiness in which to work and to live.
God does not, of course, reside only here in this particular church, or in this particular family of faith, or in any one place or doctrine. We know this, and yet we still celebrate with great joy having a church home, a place where we can come to meet God, and to hear about Jesus, week after year, year after year. The church is also, of course, more than a place. The church is the PEOPLE: the ever-changing, gathered, imperfect, love-dazzled people of God.
John wrote in one of his letters: “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us.” (John 1:4:12).
This is one of the ways faith works. We recognize God in the faces of our pastors and teachers and our mentors. Many of you have seen God in my face, and heard Jesus in my voice. Some of you have known no other minister as well, or for as long, as you have known me. In fact, you might be forgiven for wondering how you will find God, without the familiarity of my face and my voice. John’s letter affirms what we have experienced-- that the unknowable, invisible God, is made known and made visible by our love for one another. As for God's love being perfected in us, and especially in me, I am quick to admit that perfection has eluded me. If you have seen and known God in me, it has been despite my imperfections.
There is so much I want to say to you at this time of parting. One of the main things is that the trust you have placed in me rightly belongs to God. The love you have felt from me has its true source in God. The blessings that have flowed through my hands will continue to flow from the open hand of God. In the mystery of life in the church, there are many paradoxes, and if you know me, you know that I love paradoxes, for they often contain the most profound of truths. This is the central paradox of ministry: My particular gifts, personality, and labors are unique – and yet they partake of a universal love which only God can supply. If I have done my job well, I have led you to a place where you can see beyond my face, and hear beyond my voice, the God who is still speaking.
Paul wrote to the Philippians church words that connected their love for him with their life together in his absence.
Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
And I have to stop and comment there, for if there is one thing the United Church of Newport does not have, it is one mind. One of our greatest strengths has been our ability to respect and care for one another, even though we hold different political and theological views. We haven’t always talked openly about controversial matters, but I think we have modeled a way of life in community that is much healthier than the pattern of the world around us. We haven’t had one mind, but very often, we have had one heart. We have treated each other with respect and humility as sisters and brothers in Christ. Along with feeding half the county, perhaps this is your call as a church. You are uniquely situated to bring this sensibility out into the wider world.
Paul continues to explain what he means when he asks the church to be “of one mind.” In human terms, it’s impossible. What makes it possible, what gives us a template to follow, is the mind of Christ:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death….
Humility lies at the core of our authentic life together; the humility of Christ, and the humble service so many of you offer without expectation of reward or fanfare. It is humility that helps us to listen to one another’s stories, and that leads us to find new ways to serve. And here comes another paradox. The ultimate humility of Christ leads to his ultimate exaltation. His is the name above every name, the shining presence before whom the whole creation bows in wonder.
On a much lesser, human level, this is also true for us. When we find, as Frederick Beuchner put it, “the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger”,
then God both humbles us and exalts us. Jesus calls us both to costly obedience, and to a place in the kingdom of light.
Today is a day for rejoicing, a time to celebrate all that we have been and done with and for one another. But let it also be said, that this path is not all fun and games. Jesus asks us to give us our privileges and to serve the outcasts and the poor. Jesus calls us to personal transformation. The gospel dares us to give up all the props, both material and psychological, to which we cling, and to turn in utter dependence on God for our strength and security. Jesus asks us to give sacrificially, to love the unlovable, and to change the world! And we are not there yet--- not as individuals, nor as the church.
But Paul did not lose hope, and neither do I. He knew that this soul work is ongoing and lifelong. Jesus is the only one so far who did it perfectly. We cannot always see our progress from day to day. But over time, we can look back and see how God has been at work among us, slowly transforming us, enlarging our hearts, showing us each next step in our spiritual awakening. At the UCC conference last week, we were asked to share in small groups what our faith and what our church meant to us. One person said, “Faith gives me the hope that I might become a human being. And the church, well, the church strengthens my faith.”
We grow in faith through close relationships with people who challenge us and love us. And it is also true that in the end we stand alone before God, each of us with the responsibility to “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. ” There is no less at stake than whether or not we will become human beings.
I have traveled a part of the way with each of you. Now we must travel separate paths. But, like Paul, I know that “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” You have all the tools you need to be the church. You have amazing gifts for service. You will hear the voice of Jesus in new ways, and you will see the face of God in new faces. God is at work with you, and that goes on…..and God takes pleasure in all of it.
I have been crying a lot the past few weeks and I am not normally a weeper. I’ve tried to figure out why exactly I keep tearing up. Of course I will miss you, but it’s more than that. The best I can figure out, I cry because I feel so deeply, that I could have done more. I could have done better to love you and to care for you, and to embody the amazing invitation of Christ to fullness of life. I could have done more. But after all, we are aiming at a target we can never reach.
The other reason I cry, is because I know, on an even deeper level, that my life, that our life together, has been good enough. This goal—of being people shaped and sent by the love of Jesus, is a worthy goal. It is worth striving for. It’s worth giving 23 years of one’s life. Even achieving it partially yields great joy. And so I cry, these days, whenever I hear Scripture, because I suddenly realize: It’s true! It’s real. Jesus is here and now. The church goes on and on. Amazingly, blessedly, wonderfully, we have been a part of what God has done, is doing, and will do…. now and forevermore. Amen.