Mark 2.13-17

Philippians 2.12-17

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times

Second Sunday after Pentecost

 

Gary Dorsey was raised in a fundamentalist congregation in rural Georgia, and as so many refugees from organized religion do, in adulthood he broke free from his church and set out to discover his own spirituality. Among other things, he sampled mysticism, self-actualization, agnosticism, and even tried his hand as a Quaker for a time as well. Besides being a spiritual seeker, he is a journalist, a writer for New England Monthly. Whether by providence or serendipity - and I sometimes believe those words are synonymous - both his quest and his profession led him to check out First Congregational UCC in Windsor, CT. He wanted to write an article about the role of a typical New England church in the wider community; it began as a disinterested, objective magazine article. But after a year of engagement, participation, a mission trip, joining peace vigils in Hartford, and regular worship services, Dorsey found himself drawn in, and became part of that congregation about which he wrote. Towards the end of his story, he comes to terms with his conversion from being an objective observer to a committed participant:

            “The attraction was... almost physical. It was as much a desire to be in a place, as it was to comprehend the mind of God. It was the threshold experience of the church - to enjoy the smells, the sounds, the comfort of the crowd... I was grateful now to know people who celebrated who I was or who I wanted to be, without, thank goodness, my ever having to announce that I was probably there, as much as anything else, out of a need to ease the panic over my own questionable place and status otherwise in the world.”

Dorsey recounts his journey in a wonderful book titled, Congregation: The Journey Back to Church. For anyone who has somehow found themselves embraced by a community of faith but hasn’t quite figured out how it happened, or why it plays such an important role in their lives and in their community, I think Dorsey’s book is a wonderful place to begin.

            In the very first week of my call to the Bridgewater, CT UCC, one of our new church school teachers came into my office with a personal religious dilemma. She told me she didn’t think she was really qualified to teach church school, because her own personal faith was both tenuous and still in the process of being formed. “I don’t feel like I have enough faith, or know enough about the Bible, to be a good Sunday School teacher,” she said. “I don’t think I’m religious enough.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that worry, and it certainly wasn’t the last. It takes different shapes: “I’m not a good enough church member to be a Deacon.” Or, “Me? Lead Youth Group? Those kids probably know more about God than I do!” Or, “I could never get up and speak in church! I have nothing interesting to say!” Well, I have two responses to this: one, that reluctant church school teacher turned out to be one of the better teachers I’ve met - her kids loved her, my kids loved her, and to this day she remains one of Debbie’s and my closest friends; and two, God seldom calls extraordinary people to do God’s work; it’s far more common that God calls ordinary people like you and me, most likely because there are so many more of us to do the work!

“As Jesus sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and the disciples - for there were many who followed him. when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.’”

When the important work of God’s church needs to be undertaken, Jesus does not call the holy to do his work, but rather the common, the struggling, the uncertain, the wondering, the seeker, the curious, the dubious, the ordinary. That is to say, he calls you and me.

A deacon in one of our United Churches of Christ once observed,

            “A lot of people come to church and they don’t really know why they’re there. It’s not like an intentional community where you’ve got to have a reason to go. I think deep down most people are yearning for some kind of connection, and they know they need more meaning in their lives, so they show up at church ‘for their kids,’ or ‘to make a few friends.’ But they’re really coming out of a lot of confusion until something happens that makes things perfectly clear.”

If this deacon is right, and I think there is a good deal of truth to her comments, then there is a deeper reason why people are attracted to church, an inner spiritual propulsion which motivates us to become the church, more than whatever kind of show we happen to put on of a Sunday morning. And even though that deacon’s description has a rather large blank space in it which you probably noticed, a space which wants to say something about an awareness of God and the presence of Christ, we know what she is trying to say, and I think it is still a pretty good description of almost any church.

Many of you probably read my note on Friday about a document titled, “Reclaiming Jesus;” it is a declaration authored by twenty-three church leaders, educators and theologians calling out the dilution of the gospel of Jesus Christ in contemporary American politics and culture. Among the authors are Walter Brueggemann and Otis Moss of the UCC, evangelicals Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, Anglican Bishop Michael Curry, whom you may remember from the royal wedding a couple weeks ago, Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr and United Methodist Bishop William Willimon. (Parenthetically, a bit of churchy trivia: if you’ve ever read the newspaper comic “Shoe,” by Jeff McNelly, then you’re familiar with a character named “The Rev. Will B. Dunn;” Dunn is modeled after Will Willimon.) As you can gather, this is quite the mixture of clergy and theologians who have written the manifesto, as it were, calling on ordinary people of faith, those tax collectors and sinners and seekers and doubters and members of the United Church of Chester, to affirm the centrality of Jesus and his teaching to who we are as people of faith, and to bear prophetic witness over against a culture, and yes, a government, that has made a tacit and unsettling peace with the idols of racism, nationalism, oppression, misogyny, homophobia and general disregard for the other in our midst. People of God, these are extraordinary times, times when these cultural sins against God and humanity have somehow become a socially acceptable default setting. But these extraordinary times do not require extraordinary people to confront them. They only require you and me.

            Paul employs an interesting turn of phrase in his letter to the church in Philippi: he writes, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” I think this is what ordinary people do: we try to work out what God has placed before us – and that necessary dollop of fear and trembling are the simply suitable signs of our humility as we go about that work.

This morning you and I know the feeling behind Gary Dorsey’s words, the “desire to be in a place as much as... to comprehend the mind of God.” These experiences are what lie behind our Sunday morning gatherings and our Sunday evening soup kitchen, our Monday morning Bible studies, our Thursday morning filling backpacks and our Thursday night choir rehearsals. These are the things that build both fellowship and faithfulness and which equip us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling in the thick of a wandering world. And once again, as God moves among us this morning and invites us to taste the nectar of faith and fellowship, as God nourishes us with both bread and spirit for the journey, we know that this is the place that we are both blessed and equipped to be ordinary citizens in an extraordinary time.

            Amen.

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