Blessed Be the Continuum of Endeavor

Sermon: Blessed Be the Continuum of Endeavor

Texts: Mark 13:1-2; Matthew 5:5-16

Date: November 18, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

The United Methodists of Paradise, California will be getting together later today at their sibling church in Chico, California. There is not much information on their website about this gathering; it just says it will not be a service but a time for everyone to get together after the Camp fire. The website doesn’t say whether the church is still standing in Paradise; it does say the community Thanksgiving meal has been cancelled. I expect the church must be at least damaged since the whole town was said to have burned down to the infrastructure.

My home church is a different Paradise United Methodist church (in Western Montana) so I feel a kinship with this California congregation. How much heartache the people of that congregation, our siblings in Christ, must be experiencing—along with all the members of all the religious communities in that devastated town. I imagine the last time that Methodist congregation worshiped together in their pretty wooden building it would have been unthinkable that by the next Sunday church and town could be gone. We invest so much time and money and affection on our church buildings that it’s hard to imagine they may not be around forever.

The disciple who was agog at the temple where Jesus and he were sitting probably couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t be around forever. It was truly grand. According to the 1st century historian, Josephus, the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’s day was an awe-inspiring wonder. Newly reconstructed by Herod the Great, the temple’s retaining walls were composed of stones forty feet long. The temple itself occupied a platform twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who gazed at them in bright sunlight risked blinding themselves. Hard to imagine it would ever not be there. But Jesus foretells its destruction. Not one stone will be left on top of another, he says. He is foreseeing change where the disciple is seeing permanence.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that there will come a day when this beloved old building will be gone. I hope that day does not come soon; I hope this sagging shack of flesh I inhabit will disappear from Earth before Eagle Harbor Church does because I quite like this somewhat battered building and I don’t really want to witness its demise. It’s been here 122 years so far, longer than any of us, and long may its floors creak and lights shine! This building provides a suitable shelter for our congregation and for so many other groupings of people who come in out of the rain here. Let me name some of the other assemblies who gather here regularly: The Madrona School with its hundred or so students and its faculty and set of families. Two Alcoholics Anonymous groups and an Overeaters Anonymous group. Five of the seven month-end Super Suppers hosted by faith groups of the Interfaith Council. The Climate and Energy Forum. The Men’s Oatmeal Club. The Transfriending group Ann Lovejoy started. The Coast Guard Auxiliary. The Quilt Guild. In addition, there are occasional piano recitals, plays, concerts, the annual CROP Walk, various social occasions like big birthday parties, non-profit board meetings, movies, lectures, etc. Just this week we were able to host the group trying to get some traction on racial equity here on the island when their meeting place fell through at the last minute. Our being good stewards of this building undergirds a lot of good stuff in this community.

We can take pride in our building and appreciate all that goes on within these walls. Yet it’s good to remember that it’s really rather temporary, this building. One day not one slab of lumber will be left upon another. We don’t know how it will happen—by disaster or decay or desertion. I’m not trying to be gloomy; I want to shift our focus, as Jesus did, to what endures when what is temporary falls apart. In Mark’s gospel, the temple scene precedes a passage called the “little apocalypse,” a vision of end times. The chapter includes this verse: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” [Mark 13:31]

Surely the Sermon on the Mount is among those words that endure when other things on earth like church buildings pass away. The Sermon on the Mount is a concentrated collection of Jesus’ sayings that appears in slightly different versions in Matthew and Luke. We read a portion today because our “What Shall We Bring?” stewardship theme materials cited the verse about disciples being the light of the world to champion gifts of presence. The poetic passage known as the Beatitudes is a particular jewel in the treasure chest of the gospels. These words have been handed down from generation to generation as an expression of what Jesus’ followers could expect.

Even these beautiful words would not endure, however, unless they had become a blueprint of sorts for discipleship and actually affected the way people led their lives. The word needed to become flesh in order for it to endure—followers of Jesus’ Way needed to take these words into not only their ears but into their lives for them to live on, to endure. It’s marvelous to think of all the generations of disciples all over the world who have been shaped by Jesus’ words, marching to the beat of this different drummer we call Jesus Christ.

I ran across a phrase that aptly describes this enduring community shaped by Beatitudes who show up as salt and light for succeeding generations: a “continuum of endeavor.” It was in a quote by James A. Autry in a book of spiritual practices I own in which James is reflecting on community. “In the oldtime religion of my youth, we believed that through the ritual of what we called ‘The Lord’s Supper’ we communed with the saints, with all those who had gone before. I was struck with this old image at a retirement dinner as the retiree invoked the names of company people long dead and spoke of them as if they were just on some kind of sabbatical. He talked of what they had taught the people who had taught him, and how he had tried to teach others who were now teaching the beginners. As he spoke, we realized that a true community has no limit in time. He made us feel the extension of our community of work, into a time long before us and into a time yet to come. As if the work exists in and of itself, and we come and go from it in a kind of continuum of endeavor, in a kind of communion.”[1]

The communion of Jesus’ disciples–from the first invitation to fisherman on a beach to become fishers of people to the present day, when folks are still being led to align themselves with the Christ’s teachings and Christ’s people–is a continuum of endeavor. It’s an endeavor to make real the Kin-dom of God on earth, to make the Word flesh, full of grace and truth, right here, right now. That’s what endures while church buildings come and go.

Do the Beatitudes prescribe or describe this enduring continuum of endeavor to make the Kin-dom of God real on earth? Are the Beatitudes rules or promises? Professor Alyce McKenzie thinks they are both prescriptive and descriptive. She writes, “Scholars like to debate whether the beatitudes are commands one must obey to enter the kingdom of God or statements of the blessings available to those who trust in God. The answer is yes! They are not entry requirements we must meet for God to accept us. They describe the state of joyful response God enables in us when we actively accept God. Each beatitude is a gift that calls for our response. Each beatitude combines elements of both promise and challenge.”[2] Those who shape their lives around the values implicit in the Beatitudes will be urged to swim upstream of worldly wisdom and live a different way—always a challenge. And they will find themselves blessed by being in a right relationship with God—a promise.

I read a sermon by Rev. Jorge Lara-Braud who referred to his native tongue, Spanish, to give perspective on this challenge/promise way of life. He says,

“In Spanish the word [blessed are you/happy are you] is translated bienaventuranza, literally “good adventure to you.” We all know that adventure means risk, the courage to defy the odds, the refusal to play it safe. Listen, then, to how the Beatitudes would sound if we turn them into bienaventuranzas and if we paraphrase a bit: Good adventure to you whose hearts are genuinely with the poor: you are under God’s protective rule. Good adventure to you who are without power: the whole world shall be yours. Good adventure to you who are hungry and thirsty for justice: your cup will be filled. Good adventure to you who look for truth with singleness of heart: you shall see God. Good adventure to you who work for peace: you shall be called children of God. Good adventure to you who are persecuted for the sake of justice. You, too, are already under God’s protective rule; rejoice, be very happy, when others say evil things about you falsely because you are mine. God is preparing a great reward for you. Don’t be surprised, prophets have always been an endangered species.” (Trans. by J.L-B)[3]

Being salt and light for the world is a good adventure! However, it’s not a solo adventure. I appreciate the way the Beatitudes are written as plural challenges, plural promises, plural adventures. That is, they do not seem to be addressed to the individual, although there is individual discipline involved. They seem to be addressed to the whole community of disciples, calling out to “they” and “those.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. We’re in this together. As Rev. Dr. McKenzie says, “The Sermon on the Mount is not the historic record of a great speech, nor is it a series of philosophical abstractions. It is a code of behavior for shaping a community of faith in ways that call conventional wisdom into question, subvert the status quo, and intend eventually to re-shape it. The goal is not social disorder but the eventual formation of a new community.” The new community is nested within the worldly community, a part of it but also apart, distinctive. It’s California in Trumpworld, or something like that.

We need each other in this community. We need each other’s support and encouragement as we join the continuum of endeavor to make the Kin-dom of God on earth real. We need communities of accountability and affirmation. We need education and coaching as the old ones teach the new ones the wisdom of Jesus’ Way. We need to be present to one another. The gift of presence celebrated in our bulletin insert today is a gift indeed; it makes a huge difference to just see each other’s faces, to give and receive gifts of service. I have really felt your solidarity with me during these weeks of my broken leg slowdown—cards, letters, emails, offers of food, visits, rides, loans of walking devices, patience, accompaniment. The presence of my community of faith during this mild trial has meant so much. I know many ways you have been there for each other in times of joy and sorrow, and for every demonstration of loving solidarity I am aware of I am sure there are 100 or 1000 others I don’t know about. Presence matters.

The presence of the church nested in our wider community matters. I mentioned earlier the many assemblies of folk that gather here because we are taking care of this building. For every human encounter we know about taking place under this roof there are 100 or 1000 others of which we are unaware that are making the world a better place. Our presence here and now on the corner of Madison and Winslow Way matters—even if it won’t last forever.

Our presence as people on the good adventure of Christian faith matters in all the ways we carry our Kin-dom values outside these walls. Whether or not multitudes of people join us on the good adventure of Christianity, showing up in all the places we show up as people shaped by love and justice makes a difference. We are the only gospel a lot of folks will ever read.

I love this story told by preacher Tony Campolo. “Joe was a drunk, miraculously converted in a street outreach mission. Before his conversion he’d gained a reputation as a derelict and dirty wino for whom there was no hope. But following his conversion to Christ, everything changed. Joe became the most caring person at the mission. He spent his days there, doing whatever needed to be done. There was never anything he was asked to do that he considered beneath him. Whether it was cleaning up vomit left by some sick alcoholic, or scrubbing toilets after men had left them filthy, Joe did it all with a heart of gratitude. He could be counted on to feed any man who wandered in off the streets, undress and tuck him into bed, when he was too out-of-it to take care of himself. One evening, after the mission director delivered his evangelistic message to the usual crowd of sullen men with drooped heads, one of them looked up, came down to the altar and kneeled to pray, crying out for God to help him change. The repentant drunk kept shouting, “Oh God, make me like Joe! Make me like Joe! Make me like Joe!” The director leaned over and said, “Son, wouldn’t it be better if you prayed ‘make me like Jesus?'” After thinking about it for a few moments, the man looked up with an inquisitive expression and asked, “Is he like Joe?”‘[4]

Joe is the light of the world. So am I. So are you. Blessed be the continuum of endeavor to keep the light of the Kin-dom of God burning and shining all these years, a light that will never, God willing, be extinguished. Beloved, let’s do our part in this enduring continuum, shining where we are and passing the light to the next generations.

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[1] Autry, James A. Quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, ed. New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 477-78

[2] McKenzie, Alyce From

[3] Lara-Braud, Jorge From

[4] Campolo, Tony From

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