Horses on Parade XII

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2012 James 2: 1-17, Mark 7:24-371


Might we stand together for a moment of silence and prayer…God of grace and glory, God of hope and peace, God of thunderstorms and earthquakes and all the peoples of the world. Help us this day to remember that you are our refuge and strength, and that because of your justice and mercy, we shall not fear. Help us to remember that in life and in death we belong to you. Help us to remember all those who died now 11 years ago, in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Help us to remember those who responded so valiantly, and those who yet mourn. Help us to remember that in our broken world, you call us to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We pray for the peace of Rochester. We pray for the peace of every city, of every home, of every heart. As we gather here in this place at the start of a new year, we invoke your presence, your Spirit, your power, to bless our gatherings and departings, our serving and celebrating. And we ask you, O God, to silence in us any voice but your own, and into that silence invite your word to reside in all its power and truth. For the sake of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and Bread of Life. Amen.

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The “XII” part of “Horses on Parade XII” is easy to explain and hard to comprehend. A dozen Rally Days for me must mean that Rally Days come more often than birthdays, but that can’t be quite true.

In 2001, Third Church participated in Rochester’s “Horses on Parade,” perhaps the only church to do so. We had a big horse, “Horse Chess-Nut,” in our front yard. I made the case then that I still make, that our participation was a reminder to us and our city and broader community that we are a public church, connected to the world beyond our walls in important ways. That is still the case, perhaps more than ever as our community’s needs increase and our call to serve is renewed.

But if there was a subtitle this year, it would be “A Year of Feasting.” Last year was “A Year of Connections,” focusing on community life through our inReach work. This year will be “A Year of Feasting.” Someone wondered if next year therefore would be “A Year of Dieting.”

A Year of Feasting, a year of feasting on faith, will take on many facets. Not just more eating, though that may be the case – that is, more opportunities for groups large and small to gather around table to break bread and connect.

But also more feasting on what you have articulated you want to feast on – prayer, Bible study, smaller group gatherings. The bulletin and newsletter and website and email and Facebook are filled with info. A new Sunday 9:30 profile that will include our traditional seminar and add a small group Bible study and a blog discussion group meeting at Bruegger’s Bagels. An insert in this morning’s bulletin lays it all out. On Sundays, beginning next Sunday when we return to our worship schedule of 8:30 and 10:45, you may come to the chapel anytime between 10:00 and 10:30 for a time of prayer. On Tuesdays at 8:15 come to the parlor for an encounter with the Psalms. And on second Fridays, beginning this coming Friday, come to engage important questions of faith and make community connections.

Details, as I said, are everywhere, but I cannot overstate my hope that you will deepen your involvement.

And I cannot overemphasize my hope that you, all of us, might take up the mantle of inviting people to join us. The term I’ve learned recently is “brand evangelist.” It’s not a church term, but a marketing one. If we see a movie we like or eat at a good restaurant, and we share that experience with others, we become brand evangelists. Might we do the same for Third Church? Not converting anyone or shoving anything down anyone’s throat, but simply sharing our experience. Studies show that that’s the best way to welcome people in. Welcome them to these new offerings, or welcome them to our ongoing opportunities: volunteering for outreach, or music (welcome back choir!), children’s programs (featuring our new “Feasting on the Word” curriculum), youth, and so much more. Invite those you know to a low-threshold event: Meals with a Meaning or the East Avenue Grocery Run in November. Come to the feast and invite others to join us.

So a component of “A Year of Feasting” is programmatic, our diverse and robust menu of offerings for participation and service. But it goes deeper than that, of course. It must. What we are invited to must be undergirded by a vision of who we are, who we aspire to be, who God is and calls us to be.

The image of a feast works well as we imagine this community and its vision. We experience the bounty of this place, and all it represents, overflowing abundance, and we are called to share it. You will, this year, time after time, hear words like bounty and abundance. That is true every year, but a year of feasting will provide a focus, a lens by which we consider not only what we do, but ponder who we are and called to be: each of us, all of us, a community called to delight in the bounty of faith and called to share its overflowing abundance with all in need, a “feasting church.”

We are called to be a feasting people, to be reminded that our core theological values – those big words with bigger implications – words like hope, grace, justice, reconciliation, love – especially love – are gifts shared with us without measure and without condition. A feast. A banquet table overflowing. An all-you-can-experience rhythm of gathering and departing, where we partake without limit and where there are no limits as to who can receive. No limits on welcome. No limits on justice. No limits on hope. No limits on peace. And certainly no limits on love.

This image will inform how we think about worship, about education, about our children and youth. It will inform how we think about outreach – sharing what we have – food, shelter, education, time, energy – with those in need. And at its core, it will inform how we think about ourselves, about faith, even about God.

Our culture is not sure about feasting, about abundance. It has crafted a well-honed message of scarcity, that some have and some don’t, whether resources or power or acceptance. The gospel says otherwise.

And the church itself has a somewhat spotty record. Religion, and American religion especially, has insisted that some are in and some are out, that there are limits to the church’s hospitality, perimeters and parameters set around God’s love. Every church controversy has in some way been a debate, sometimes becoming a fight, about limits. Scarcity. But that is not the gospel.

If the culture is not sure and religion is not sure, I am sure. I believe in abundance and its promise. I believe that our task is to RSVP in the affirmative. Yes, I will show up to this feast, to this banquet, to this party – and not only that, I will pledge to share the bounty of this feast with the people God loves and a world in need. I will embrace the vision and promise of abundance and reject every rumor of scarcity.

It is a consistent, persistent biblical message. Manna in the wilderness for the wandering Israelites. A cup running over in the face of the valley of the shadow of death. A few loaves and fishes feeding a multitude, with leftovers, even. Bounty. Abundance. God, Jesus, the Spirit, offering more than we could need or ever ask for.

We experience it this morning. In Mark’s gospel, twice. A Syrophoenician woman confronts Jesus. As she does so, SHE reminds HIM of the promises of abundance. And her daughter is healed. A deaf man, presenting himself to Jesus in faith.

There is certainly an abundance of healing, but it seems to me there is an even greater abundance of compassion. Like so many gospel healing stories, the point seems to be not what, not how, but who, and why. Jesus heals the outcast and neglected, a powerful and poignant reminder of the nature of the kingdom of God, the community of Jesus.

And our brief portion from the epistle of James, some of the most well-known and disputed words in all the New Testament. Our forbear Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw,” a letter worth next to nothing, in large part because of these few verses this morning. I get the point, to be sure, but respectfully affirm James’ place in our sacred text. It provides an ample feast of faith.

There can be no partiality, we hear, in the church, no favoritism. And even more so, the poor of the world are often the richest in faith. That’s a reminder to those of us who have, and a reminder to those of us who have about those who do not – whether material things or faith – and what really matters. It is a reminder of the truest and deepest nature of the feast, which is love, always love.

And then the famous words – “faith without works is dead.” Theologians have argued that James is asserting that unless you do certain things you cannot be saved. “Works righteousness,” it is called, in opposition to the affirmation that we are saved by faith through grace. We have not and do not believe in works righteousness, that there is no word, no prayer you can utter, no action you can take, no check you can write, that would earn you God’s favor.

But faith without works is dead, not to earn us God’s favor, but to respond gratefully to a God who has already acted graciously to us.

What James is saying, according to Beverly Gaventa, is that faith cannot be real or true if it is indifferent to human need. What is at stake here, Gaventa writes, “is not some algorithm by which salvation is attained or faith is proved.” But because God has reached out to us, we, because of faith, reach out to our neighbor. (Texts for Preaching, Year B, page 501)

Our works – our acts of kindness and compassion, our prayers – are forms of thank you. Preach the gospel, the old saying goes; use words if necessary. Act. Respond. Give. Share. Love. Not earning merit, not collecting extra credit points to get our heavenly tickets punched – but to say thank you, thank you for an abundance of grace, a bounty of love.

Theologian Brian Gerrish wrote a fine book on John Calvin’s eucharistic theology, Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Gerrish helps us understand that when Calvin – our theological anchor – sought to illuminate the Lord’s Supper, he was helping us to understand who God is. What happens at the table, the offering of life-giving food, represents what God does, and who God is, the one who offers life, the host of this transformative feast.

Calvin writes this: “(In this meal) we are both spiritually fed by the liberality of the Lord and also give (God) thanks for (God’s) kindness…the Lord recalls the great bounty of (God’s) goodness…lavish liberality…spiritual food, sweet and delicious…(as) all the delights of the gospel are laid before us.” (Grace & Gratitude, page 19)

All of life is the Lord’s Supper, a communion meal. That is the promise on which we feast – spiritual food, delicious, abundant, enough for all of us and more than enough.

And to be shared, with those who are ill, hungry, searching, with all those – including ourselves – in spiritual need.

It might be difficult for those of us facing grief, or job loss, or depression or addiction or rejection. Where is abundance, we might ask. Look around and discover, discover compassion and the support of faith, the support of this community. It is not magic, nor will it make bad things go away. But it is real and it is strong and it is abundant.

The faith on which we feast. The vision around which we gather and the calling that sends us out. Political but not partisan. Evangelical but not ideological. Counter cultural but not anti-culture.

It is all we need. It is all we ever need. And all that we need we already have.

Like those before us: a woman whose daughter is hurting, a man who cannot hear, a church struggling with hospitality, we RSVP, show up to encounter Jesus, and all is transformed. Our task, our simple, profound task, is to sit down at table, give thanks, enjoy, and make sure there are plenty of open seats.

A year of feasting, a pilgrimage of bounty, a journey of abundance. There is room, for you, for me, for all of God’s children. Amen.

 

 

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