St. Paul’s Congregational Church
August 23, 2020, Matthew 16:13-20, Psalm 138 – 16A
Maybe some of you watched some of the Democratic National Convention this week as I did – there were many impressive aspects to it, yes, but nothing touched me as much as the opening prayer led by Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and leader of Nuns on the Bus on Thursday night. At the same time all week I’ve been thinking about our gospel passage today: the renaming of Simon, Jesus’ question, Simon’s response, and Jesus’ blessing in his announcement: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” I’ve also been thinking about St. Paul’s – our ministry – how and when will we re-gather for worship – our outreach to a hurting world – our legacy to the generations that follow us here in this church - what transformation must we experience as we move into and through an uncertain future.
This prayer brought all my thoughts together: it’s fitting on so many levels: her opening statement was this: “Tonight marks an important next chapter of who we will become as a nation” – I add the words: who we will become as a church. She continues, “So I speak to you with a sense of urgency and hope, knowing the difficult work ahead, grounded in my faith. The very first paragraph of the Scripture that informs the three Abrahamic traditions tells us: The Divine Spirit breathed over the waters of chaos and brought forth a new creation.
Encouraged by this promise that a new creation can come from chaos, she invited us to pray: so now, please join me in prayer as I use her words, slightly adapted, and ask that you hear the challenge to us as both nation and as church:
O Divine Spirit!
During the weeks and months ahead, stir our hearts and minds that we might fight for a vision that is worthy of you and your call to honor the dignity of all of your creation.
A vision of who we are as a people, grounded in community and care for all, especially the most marginalized.
A vision that cares for our earth and heals the planet.
A vision that ends structural racism, bigotry and sexism so rife now in our nation and in our history.
A vision that ensures hungry people are fed, children are nourished, immigrants are welcomed.
O Spirit, breathe in us and our leaders a new resolve...that committed to this vision, this new mission and ministry promise we share here at St. Paul’s - we will work together to build a community grounded in healing, fearlessly based on truth, and living out of a sense of shared responsibility.
In the name of all that is holy, O Spirit, bring out of this time of global and national chaos a new creation, a new community that can, with your help, realize this new promise that we affirm today.
With profound hope, let we the people say: Amen
On this rock, I will build my church: so says Jesus to Peter. What is Jesus saying to us today, right now, in the midst of chaos, as we have an opportunity to participate in a new creation, a new community? What do you think it means when you hear someone say, “That’s church at its best?” Have you experienced that? What did it look like. How did it make you feel?
So often, I’ve experienced church at its best during Vacation Bible School weeks! Through worship, teaching, service, and play together we learn what it means to become a new community – it happens on the lawn, in the Fellowship Hall, in the sanctuary – places of real life. It happens when children help each other with art projects, clean up their messes, share their animal crackers, hold hands on the stairs to keep each other safe, when they play soccer, sing their hearts out “All God’s Critters Have a Place in the Choir”: and even when they don’t agree with each other! A new community is born: church at its best.
Others may experience this new community at a worship service like Tenebrae or Christmas Eve or like our 125th Anniversary Service; a confirmation Sunday or a special baptism or even a funeral for someone we love. Or even at an ordinary Sunday worship when a piece of music, a prayer, a scripture reading touches us. Or when we gather on a hot Saturday morning to clean up our memorial garden and our yard. Participating in the CROP walk on a rainy, cool day like it was last year. Coming together to help at the Food Pantry or clean up from the Yard sale. To taking the time to call or text folks we haven’t seen in our church life for a while, to write notes, send birthday cards.
On this rock I will build my church.
What rock grounds St. Paul’s?
What rock grounds you?
We can learn from Peter, can’t we. He’s a great role model – he’s so like us. He doubts, he messes up, he irritates the other disciples and probably Jesus at times, but he’s always there struggling with what it means to be a disciple. Every once in a while he says something very profound without realizing it. This passage relates one of those times – the question Jesus asks is, “Who do you say that I am.” And Peter answers it – he gets it. I get so much encouragement from Peter – he’s so real – a person who goes from getting it, questioning, even to denying knowing Jesus three times that awful week.
Because it’s Peter standing there when Jesus looks him in the eye and says, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Almost feels like Jesus is talking to you and me, doesn’t it.
When Peter was called as a disciple, even his name changed. Seems like that’s a clue about the breathtaking transformation that comes with serious and intentional discipleship – everything changes. It has been and always is a joy to see this change take place in our children, in the confirmands and in every person who has taken time out of a busy life to serve, to respond to God’s call.
Who do we say Jesus is? What does it mean to build a church? What is this rock anyway? What rock grounds you?
Money is no rock, is it. At least not one that can totally fulfill our call as disciples, as church, add a permanent meaning to our lives. Yes, money is essential to our existence –but it’s a means to an end, isn’t it – not the end itself.
We’ve all had the experience of walking with people as they deal with the serious illness of a family member, or they mourn the loss of someone dear – we’ve walked that path ourselves too, hopefully surrounded by others as well – - and hopefully, isn’t it true that when we get down to basics, we come back to the rock that has supported us our whole lives, whether we realized that or not. We come to realize that God’s love and care is really the only rock that lasts – the community of God’s people, the church, will sustain us all the days of our lives. That’s sure what I want for us all to know. It makes me a little sad that for some people it takes a tragedy to realize that – but sometime, somewhere, a seed was planted that comes to fruition when times get so very difficult. They come home to the church – to the community that nurtured them when they were younger, to the God who has always been with them.
What grounds you? What enables you to maintain a perspective on the very gift of life itself when the world around you seems to be crumbling, overwhelming?
Week by week we come together to worship, often with high expectations, high hopes, to experience something we can’t find in our solitary lives, in our lives from Monday to Saturday. The business – the mission – the ministry - of the church is relationship – putting people in touch with each other and with God. And how do we do this: we participate, we reach out, we become deeply entwined with a spiritually grounded community, built upon the rock. And the presence of each and every one of us matters.
On this rock I will build my church.
What’s the rock? A spiritually grounded community, a community built upon the rock that works together – works together to spread the love of God through our outreach and genuine hospitality and a love for one another. Friendship, mutuality of purpose, an abiding care for one another. That’s the difference between being the body of Christ or simply being a religious club. What’s your feeling about your experience here at St. Paul’s Congregational Church?
We’re called to serve each other, right here at St. Paul’s and where we spend time apart - no strings attached, no questions asked, no judgment – we’re called to love each other - we need each other to keep us on that rock, that sure foundation – we need each other to walk through the questions of who is Jesus anyway. Jesus calls us into the Body – we can’t do it alone. Nor are we meant to.
We walk together in all life’s joys and sorrows. There is no burden that can’t be lightened by sharing it, no pain that can’t be eased by breathing together with a brother or sister in Christ. The rock will hold us all up.
We don’t all think alike. We don’t all believe the same things, nor do we express our beliefs in the same way. The challenge for each of us is to really hear each other, and to appreciate each other even when we often think and live quite differently. Hard to do? For sure. But as we do this together, we get to shape a community around the inspiration of Jesus, intentionally walking into each other’s lives, strengthening the ministry and mission of this church, and hopefully transforming the world around us.
A church firm in its belief that the love generated by this community is greater than the sum total of the love from its individual members. Like Peter, we’ll mess up, we’ll turn away, we’ll irritate each other, but we’ll also “get it”, perhaps in small pieces but small is not insignificant. Let’s celebrate that and each of us do our part to both give and receive that unspeakable love and grace offered to each of us. Don’t overthink it but thank God for the opportunity to be transformed, to ground ourselves, and to plant ourselves firmly on the rock that never shifts, never changes, especially needed these days as we’re facing a rancorous election season, a pandemic that won’t quit, violence in the streets, and looking at the very future of our church. Let’s share this journey together.
Let us pray: O God, sometimes when we consider our weaknesses, when we ponder the huge challenges that lay before us as a church and in our world, we wonder why you believed that we could be your faithful disciples. O Spirit, breathe in us and our leaders a new resolve...that committed to this vision, this new mission and ministry promise we share here at St. Paul’s - we will work together to build a community grounded in healing, fearlessly based on truth, and living out of a sense of shared responsibility. And, blessed Lord, give us the grace to believe in ourselves as much as you believe in us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.