Who We Are
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Philippians 2: 1-13. Focus on Who We Are As People of God!
I had my wife read my sermon because frankly this is a big Sunday for me and for those who helped put this whole thing together and I wanted to really sell you on this church even though that’s not the right word. And I wanted to do that because I really believe in this church and it’s people. But my wife told me something that is so true – if you want to sell people on what you believe in then you need to speak from your heart.
You need to share not sell, which is what I hope this sermon will do, the third sermon that I have written for this Sunday, more than for any other Sunday including Easter, this sermon that is from my heart and my mind. I hope you will want to come back to find a larger more divine meaning to life. A meaning that encompasses everything, especially your fears and misconceptions but something that leads to hope and healing.
I want to tell you about this place that Dotty and I call home. I want to tell you about the people and something of the life and ministry of this parish. I have been privileged to be connected to a community of people and to share intimately in their lives – from birth to death. Where nothing is spared. That’s what I want to talk about – this place we call the community of faith. And by that I mean that interdependence of people, culture and history – the way we have come to watch out for one another and to make real the vision of Paul that in Christ there is no separation between east and west, male nor female, Gentile or Jew. A place where all the barriers that separate us come down.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said of Sunday morning that it was the most segregated hour of the week. But I would ask you to look around and you will see that is not the case here. We do not claim that this is because of our own doing. In fact, just the opposite is true. It wasn’t our doing but God’s doing that has grown this church in this place and time.
What we do claim is this – that we embrace what God is doing in our midst. In other words, we have enough sense not to get in God’s way when God is bringing change and opportunity. Some churches fear change. They fear changing neighborhoods. They fear the loss of what was. And while we also feel the losses of people we have lost to moves and death, we also see God bringing new life here.
Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all people.” And that is what we are about this Sunday and every other day of the week. We want to nurture people in the Christian faith because we who are trying to live by it have found that it offers us those things that can never be taken away. Things that are intangible and real things like – faith, hope and love.
What has been life-giving for me are the connections that I have made here. Through a confluence of soul and body, word and flesh, where thoughts become deeds, where people’s lives and livelihoods are intertwined; where you might not always like your neighbor but you know that you need each other.
This church where our children learn about our Biblical ancestors and about those who call this place home, where we live out of a faith that is creating a generous spirit among our people, a spirit of giving and of acceptance for where life has taken us. But this is also a place that will transform you into something even more glorious than when you first came, this place where young and old grow up side by side, this sense of place that is becoming harder and harder to find today, but still exists here.
180 years ago Hackensack was a self-sufficient place, there was work for everyone, small farms produced food, woodlots and river mills generated enough cash to purchase what could not be had locally. Neighbors helped out when they were needed and local institutions like our church gave a larger frame of meaning to life.
Today life is not so simple and is much more global. Hackensack is no longer a self-sufficient place, there isn’t work for everyone, small farms have been replaced by suburbs and shopping malls, and people still come and go, but what remains the same is the fact that neighbors still help out when they are needed and our church still gives a larger frame of meaning to our lives.
I have learned much from this community. When I first came here many of you were unaware that I suffered with clinical depression, though I did not keep it a secret. But what I found in and from you was healing and a chance to be myself, which is the greatest gift anyone can give you, acceptance and patience in who you are becoming.
And without a doubt and amazing at it may seem, but especially if I’m having a bad hair day, or I’m agitated, when I walk through the doors of this church my spirit is immediately lifted! You have accepted me. You have listened to me. You have lifted me up rather than put me down and you have done the same for others too.
But most of all you prayed for me and taught me that the same types of healing that are described in our scriptures still happen as a result of your prayers. We have come to see that the people we lift up are healed from both disease and disaster. We come to see that people who were once strangers have become close friends. We have come to discover that we are not alone here. We are not immune from life’s fears and frustrations, but we have come to see that together our faith as a community is stronger than our individual struggles and our joys make all that more meaningful.
This takes place to be sure here on Sunday mornings, but it also takes place in our weekly meals throughout the summer months and throughout the year. It takes place during car rides to nursing homes and hospitals; it takes place in countless kitchens over coffee and conversation and by the bedsides of the dying and in the celebrations of those we baptize.
It takes place because we care and through it all I am always reminded of our purpose, which is to nurture that which will never die – this thing we call faith and hope always offering us a chance to begin again, but most importantly this thing we call love – a task given to all of us that knows no end.
And we know about this because we have lived it in this wonderfully human place we call our spiritual home. And through it all we have come to find that the Lord is our dwelling that the Lord has been challenging us to an ever more inclusive fellowship, to learn how to love as Jesus loved, to advocate for the poor in spirit and the poor in pocket-book. To bind up the wounds of those who have been hurt by careless people and careless words, to speak about God’s justice not just our notions of what is right and wrong, or good and bad.
And most importantly to learn the language of grace, which is a second language for most of us, and a language that can only be learned through forgiveness. We know about this because we have been called to practice it over and over especially when it has been frustrating to do so – but because of it we have also been blessed, and because of that we can be a blessing to others from all walks of life – real people with real problems who have found this a place where they can be healed and made whole.
Like a woman in our Thursday Bible study that realized for the first time that forgiveness does not mean being a doormat – a simple revelation, but a life altering one too. This is not our doing, but God’s. This church is a blessing to me but the fact that so many of you are here is a testimony to the blessing that it can be for you. I hope you will come to call this place, built upon the strengths and weaknesses of its people, home too.
As the Apostle Paul shared of his ministry and could easily be said of mine – “I planted, you watered, but God gave the growth. Christ has made this church a sure foundation. Let each of us learn to build upon what Jesus started some 2000 years ago.” Amen