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Based on the scripture readings:
Psalm 146
Mark 12: 28-34

2003 November 9
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Why Are You in Church?

Two weeks ago when we celebrated a baptism, I came into this pulpit and asked what we are going to do together to make sure that this church is visionary and relevant and God-centered years from now when today's babies are considering whether or not to be confirmed. Today, in the midst of several people who have chosen to join this parish, I want to ask: what are we now? What does the Protestant Church offer, and why do we join it? And in order to do this, I am going to compare us to Fenway Park, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a fictional insane asylum character. Now, stick with me for a minute because I do have a meaning in my method. And it is largely based on questions that I have been asked.

Here is what I mean: in almost every new members' gathering, I say some of the same things, and I hear some similar questions. What I say offers a description of Protestant essentials. And they are the Bible, the Trinity, and especially something about Jesus and something about salvation and forgiveness and all that being grounded on faith and grace and not works. And what people usually ask is, what is the Trinity? What do we see in the Bible? What do salvation and grace and faith mean, anyway? Which is nice because it shows we are on the same wavelength.

A seminary education takes at least three years. Our new members gatherings cover several hours. I have about fourteen minutes here, and I am about to explain the Trinity, the Bible, and our mission. Please hold your questions until after the Benediction.

The Trinity is like Fenway Park. All right, not really, and in fact there are even better analogies or metaphors, but you'll remember this one. Because Fenway has three bases or three outfields for one identity, and Christians say that God has three dimensions, too, all part of one whole. Traditionally they are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Creator, Christ, and Connector. Why can't we just have one God like the Unitarians or thousands like the Hindus? Because our people, Hebrews, Jews, Jesus, disciples, and Church founders all experienced God in several ways but not thousands of identities. Because they long knew God as creator and creative, as transcendent and distinct, as mysterious but giving, and that is one whole face, some say, for God. In our benediction we speak of the love of God. Our summary Back to top description says, "God is love." And all this is sufficient to describe what faith calls one complete person.

But our people also experienced God in Jesus. And this makes us different. They said God was really in human Jesus. God lived with us in Jesus, suffered with us in Jesus, touched us in Jesus, and healed us in Jesus. Jesus was a Jew. Never forget that. Yet Jews around him began to say that they were learning new things about God from him so their sense of things changed, even as Judaism itself has changed over the millennia and should always be considered our sibling as people of God. But Christians do say, as in our Benediction, that in teaching, serving, and even suffering and triumphing, Jesus brought forth something about grace that didn't happen in any other way. He was uniquely touched, or anointed, by God. And that was a complete revelation or person, too.

Finally, while God may be transcendent, and Jesus may not be specifically materially obvious, we still sense God with us. That's the Holy Spirit. The benediction calls it fellowship that we sense, but the Greek word also means communion and community. There is something going on here that is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, and that's the Holy Spirit. It's a complete thing, too.

St. Patrick picked up a clover in Ireland and said, "See: three parts of one whole." I point to a baseball diamond that is complete with three bases and a place called home for us, but a scholar named Jurgen Moltmann has a deeper idea. He says, "It is only from the perspective of a Trinitarian God that we can claim 'God is love' because love is never alone." He says, "A triune God is a social God, rich in internal and external relationships." And because of the relationships within the fullness of God, he says, we can see a way in to God. That is, if Jesus can be a child of God, can't we be children of God? Indeed, we learn about community from the existence of a trinity.

So how are we like Jehovah's Witnesses? Well, I don't know a lot about them. But I know this. They believe they hold something important and it is the scriptures. So this was my way of saying what we have as Christians and what we value as Protestants is the Gospel. Not just the Bible but the Gospel. It distinguishes us from strict Unitarians or Moslems or Back to topAtheists, though they may be nice people, all.

So what is the Gospel? Again my two-minute explanation. The Gospel is the God-inspired or God-given essence of how we live together, serve the world, heal things that are broken, and engage eternity. It is the core, the summary, the kernel of our New Testament writings. It is not the words but the way. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Blessed are the poor. You serve God whenever you serve the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. You reflect God whenever you reach out to the exile, the cultural outcast, the hopeless. And God is with you in all of this. God gives us words and ways and energy and even freedom from death and its fears. God loves peace: put away your sword. God loves prayer and community and people who give. That's the Gospel. There is more to it, but there is not anything else like it. No other assembly of ethics is its equal for its enormous demands and its shocking essence of forgiveness. No other compilation has one foot in divine shoes and the other in the swamps East of Eden. No other so upholds joyful life while facing the suffering of reality. We have the Gospel. And we do not hoard it, but it immerses us in blessing and challenge, opportunity and mystery.

We're not exactly like Jehovah's Witnesses, but ours is a light not designed for places under bushels. The Gospel is why to come and why to join.

Finally I bring you an image for membership taken from a film I saw in 1976: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I haven't seen it since then but the image has stayed with me. Jack Nicholson, the lead asylum resident, hates his confinement. And he is not a compliant boarder. He wants out. And he tries everything to get out, even to liberate others. Now all through the film the characters are walking around this big piece of marble: I can't remember if it is a fountain or a table or a statue. But it is consistentlyBack to top obvious that if it could be thrown through a window, folks would be free.

Well, Jack tries everything to get away and in a near climactic moment, after a speech about dangers within and beauty beyond, he goes to this marble thing and tries to lift it. He struggles, strains, fights to lift this object of opportunity, and it doesn't move an inch. Everyone looks at him like he is crazy. And after his failed attempt he says, "At least I tried."

Church is the place where we try. On behalf of ourselves, on behalf of our neighbors, on behalf of our God. There are a lot of apparently immovable objects in our society and in our world, even in our parish. But they may be tools for our liberation. They may be opportunities to serve. And I don't cite that movie to remember that Jack couldn't lift the marble and just to revere his attempts, but also to remember that someone else came along just after him and picked up the rock and went forth to new life. That's why we're here.

You can study the Trinity, the Gospel, and the mission of the Church your whole life and still not reach the end of any subject. So in a way I should apologize for trying to describe them so briefly. But I am delighted to remind myself why I am here and what gives us identity and strength. I am delighted to say that there is a reason why we are here, and we do have a gift from God that presses us to activity.

The next time you drive by Fenway, or entertain a Jehovah's Witness, or see a movie about liberation or hope, remember that you are part of all this. And that God is calling for your engagement right now. And God is here with you in community forevermore. Amen.

The ideas from Jurgen Moltmann come from The Triune God:  Rich in Relationships
2000 The Living Pulpit, and found on Pulpit.Com

Copyright 2003 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission. to top

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