Psalm 121

Mark 6.6b-13

Looking In, Looking Out – I

Second Sunday in Lent

Paul Indorf sent me an article this week from the web site beliefnet.  The title reads, “Is Your Church Headed Toward Progressive Christianity,” and I thought, “This might be helpful;” after all, I think it’s fair to say we are a progressive Christina church, and maybe the article has some ideas we haven’t thought of yet.  Sure enough, the first sign that a church is progressive is when it focuses on people in need, which we do, and on the importance of caring for, and safeguarding God’s creation.  Check and check.  But after that things went a little sideways.  “One big sign your church may be headed toward progressive Christianity,” the writer continued, “is if they stop believing the Bible is the literal word of God.”  And I thought, Literal?  Hmmm,,, Do they mean the literal words of the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament, the Aramaic words that Jesus spoke, the Latin Vulgate, or any of the hundreds of different and occasionally contradictory English versions published since 1611?  The writer doesn’t say, she just thinks this is a bad idea.  Another sign that your church might be progressive is the notion of collective salvation, which the writer says means we cooperate with a group – like the congregation – so that God’s blessing can be made available to all.  This sounds like a pretty good idea to me.  But again, this too is apparently a no-no.  As is the practice of the preacher interpreting the Bible.  So while I’m reading and saying to myself, Yes, we are definitely a progressive church according to the article, it is becoming clear that this is not a good thing.  The sins of the progressive church, many of the things you and I take as givens – biblical interpretation, a variety of versions, universal salvation, begin to cascade down the slippery slope of degradation.  Let me hasten to add that Paul did not send me the article because he agreed with it, but because he thought I might find it interesting and somehow work it into a sermon some day.  And when I finished the article, all I could think of was Professor Harold Hill of the Music Man, trying to convince the parents of River City that their children are on the road to degradation symbolized by the community pool hall:

“Friends, either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge /or you are unaware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community… /Mothers of River City!  Heed the warning before it’s too late! / Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption: / The moment your son leaves the house, does he re-buckle his knickerbockers below the knee? / Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? / A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? / Is he starting to memorize jokes from Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bag? / Are certain words creeping into his vocabulary? / Words like, ‘Swell?’  And ‘So’s your old man?’ / If so, my friends, you got trouble right here in River City!”

Substitute the bogeyman pool table for Progressive Christianity and you’ve got the article from beliefnet.  A couple weeks ago I spoke about how others see us from the outside looking in; if they see us as the kind of progressive church the article warns against, I’d say we’re doing a pretty good job as people of faith.

While I was reading through our UCC Lent Devotional this week, I was struck by two recurring ideas, and I wonder if you noticed them as well  The first is from the pair of articles from Wednesday and Thursday, Donna Schaper’s about the overfunctioning church and Vince Amlin’s about the Feel-Good Church.  Neither was very complimentary, and when I read something like this, I’m hard-wired to wonder if my own church experiences any of these behaviors.  You’ve already read the devotions, so I’m not going to recap either of them, but I think the prayers that follow each meditation are telling:  Schaper’s prayer is, “May your church become lees grumpy, Sabbath God.”  And Amiln’s is “Deliver us from negativity masked as care.”  When we look inward, when we look at ourselves as a church, what do we see?

One of the things I see is a church where I cannot give one of my favorite Children’s Messages of all time.  It is a message I was able to give in my two previous congregations; in fact it was so memorable people still talk about from time to time; in Bridgewater, adults who were children when I was there still remember it, and some of the adults in Beverly liked to tease me about it long after I gave it.  But it is a Children’s Message I cannot give to the United Church of Chester – not because of the makeup of congregation, but because of the design of the church.   The point of the message is, what do other folks see when they look in at our church?  People remembered the message because I gave it from outside a church window literally looking in at the children, and at the congregation - and told the message from that point of view.  In Bridgewater and in Beverly all I needed was a small step ladder to reach the window, and I stood on it as I spoke.  But as I walked around the outside of our church I realized I would probably require, not just a ladder, but multiple extensions, a harness and a waiver from OSHA.  But the point was simple:  what do people see when they look in at us?  Do they see a congregation that focuses on people in need, and on the importance of doing what we can to protect creation, as even that beliefnet article admitted we should?  Call me biased, but I think we do.

Yet if all we do is look inward, we only see half the picture.  A window works both ways, right?  What do we see when we look outward?  This is where a second pair of devotions led us this week; both Friday’s piece by Talitha Arnold and yesterday’s by Marilyn Pagán-Banks take this morning’s Old Testament reading, the 121st psalm, as their inspiration.  As Charlene read this morning, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  At first blush it sounds like a psalm of creation, the glory and grandeur and majesty of the hills and mountains.  But if you followed along as Charlene read, you may have noticed that the psalm is titled, A Song of Ascents.  There are fifteen songs of ascents in the psalter, Psalms 120 – 134.  These are songs, or hymns, which the Hebrew people sang as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the High Holy Days.  They are pilgrim songs, traveling songs, wayfaring songs.  They are songs of people on a journey, and we can hear that journey in Psalm 121.  The pilgrims can see the hills off in the distance:  I life up my eyes to the hills from where my help comes.  As they travel, God will keep their footsteps certain:  He will not let your foot be moved.  They will find comfort and safety, even in the desert:  The Lord is your shade at your right hand  – the sun shall not strike by day nor the moon by night.  And God will be present, not only in the present journey, but in every journey God’s people undertake:  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.

So yes, the outward look presents us with the glories of God’s creation:  the mountains and hills and rivers and trees, and, this being Chester, the vultures and the squirrels.  But sitting here at the crest of the hill on Route 148 also provides a prime vantage point for watching the cars and trucks and buses and bicycles and pedestrians go by – in other words, people going places.  People on a journey.  The pilgrimage of life, if you will.  What are we to make of all those people going places?

A week from tomorrow Debbie and I head to Florida to take in a couple Spring Training baseball games in Ft. Myers, and while I haven’t actually begun to pack, I have made some mental notes for what I want to bring.  Near the top of the list is this shirt – it is the only green Boston gear I own, and we will be at Jet Blue Park for a game on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.  The reason I don’t want to forget it is because exactly three years ago we were also at Jet Blue Park on St Patrick’s Day, and I think I was the only person in the stadium who forgot to wear green that day.  This year I will be ready.  Of course, I’ll also want to bring a swimsuit, some sunscreen, shorts and the like, and the mental packing list begins to expand.

This is in direct contrast to this morning’s reading from Mark, a story about Jesus sending the disciples out on a journey.  “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals (which made going through TSA a lot easier for them), and not to put on two tunics.”  In other words, Jesus sent them out with little more than what they were already wearing.  So much for my mental packing list.  But he had a very clear reason for this; the disciples were to rely on the kindness and the hospitality of strangers as they traveled.  And wherever they were welcomed they were to remain; where they were not, they were to shake the dust off their feet as a symbol of reproach and move on.

So when we look out our church windows, one of the things we see is people going places, pilgrims on a journey.  They may all be going someplace different, but as we’ve heard many times before, it isn’t so much about the destination so much as it is about the journey.  And Jesus’ instructions to the disciples constitute a question, if not a challenge for us:  will the traveler, the sojourner, the pilgrim and the stranger find hospitality among us?  Will they find sanctuary?  Will they find safety?  Will they find a place to rest their heads and a warm meal? Will they find welcome?  The beliefnet article got a bit of it correct:  focusing on the needs of others is a vital part of the ministry to which Jesus sends us.  But does biblical literalism put food in the stomach of the hungry?  Does individualized salvation provide a place to sleep for the night?  Is believing the right thing more important than doing the right thing?  I think beliefnet fudges the question on this.  When we look out these windows and see a pair of eyes looking in, will those eyes see a place of refuge where their needs will be met and their cares comforted? 

Remember, we too are on a journey, and if we take Jesus’ words to heart, it is a journey that ought not be encumbered by the material things of this world.  Because it’s not just us - there are a lot of good people out there who will provide us with hospitality, with a warm welcome and a warm meal, with a listening ear and an understanding heart.  We know this is true – most of us have already experienced it at some point in our lives.  It isn’t just these windows that work both ways; generosity and kindness and holy love in the name of Jesus Christ do as well.

Amen.

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