Transposing Feasts or Leap Frog Sundays — not sure what we should call them: but last Sunday, Earth Day Worship outside was wet and a washout. So we celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday instead.
Today, I worried it’s be too cool for worshiping outdoors in the shady front courtyard. So we jump ahead again and grab what the UCC designates for May 6, Immigrants’ Rights Sunday.
Next Sunday, we’re here in the Sanctuary hosting the Chalice Choir, the youth choir from St. John’s Lutheran in Nazareth, PA, where our former pastor Geneva’s sister is the music director.
When can we have Earth Sunday and our outdoor worship? The next Sunday is Mother’s Day. We do have one free Sunday before Pentecost Sunday which is on Memorial Day Weekend.And June 2 we have Confirmation. We have to fit in in Choir Sunday, as well as time to recognize our Graduates’ and some recognition of all of the good work of our Sunday School Sunday…
There’s a lot to do at church. And Old First is an especially gracious, even flexible congregation. Still, we try to get all this in an hour of worship, more or less… Have you noticed, by the way, I’ve been doing what I can to try and keep our worship within an hour and ten minutes? And we’re accomplishing it sometimes! I am doing my part, but, friends, I’m not the whole church– I can’t do it alone… I count on your help keeping the service focused, moving…
Now I don’t like when the weather adds a wrench to our plans. But I do like when other things come together: Nancy Donohue had asked me to help schedule Adult Forum today. I invited Jorge Salazar from the New Sanctuary Movement to come speak during the first hour about his experience and the challenges facing too many “Dream Act” young people who grew up in the U.S. but were born elsewhere.
When I saw the weather forecast for this morning, and flipped ahead to see May 6 is the UCC’s immigrant rights Sunday… voila’! God pulls together what we don’t even foresee! As the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Arizona’s Immigration Law SB1070… As detention and deportations continue… What does our faith suggest? As a Christian, where do you stand? In light of the cross, how do you understand the issues, what do you believe, how do you act?
I know, some of us, even at Old First, feel ambivalent about what can feel like overtly political issues coming up in church. It sometimes doesn’t feel so spiritual to find ourselves in all the messiness, quid pro quos, compromises and frustrations of the body politic. I understand that.
But what good is a exclusively spiritual experience, “pure church,” if it doesn’t speak to the rest of our lives? There’s always the question of relevancy. Do any of us have enough time these days to get up early on the first day of the week, if what happens here doesn’t relate to… add to… our real lives and the real world out there on those other 6 days?
Old First demands a relevancy dealing with theological topics too. We’re not a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” sort of congregation. As a denomination, the UCC tends to be pragmatists. Some fault us for theological carelessness. A colleague from a stricter or more dogmatic church reprimanded me the other day for welcoming unbaptized people and non-Christians to the communion table. I just responded that Jesus welcomed Judas; I think he’d understand that we are welcoming family of other faiths and visitors who are trying to see what faith is all about. We’re just not all that worried about philosophical fine-points of theology, dogma and teaching. We tend to be “roll up your sleeves” and “get your hands dirty” Christians who practice a real-world ‘service Christianity.’ Because that’s how we understand Jesus to have been. Our test is: will it make the world a better place?
I was showing some tourists the church this week. They were trying the front doors as I walked across the front courtyard. I admit I try sometimes to look like I’m just cutting through and have absolutely nothing to do with this place, much less keys! But they saw me, and somehow guessed. “Could you show us the church?” I opened up, talked to them about our history, showed them the gravestones, led them through the historical explanations downstairs.
Our peripatetic congregation: building anew when the needs arose. 3 buildings on this property, Then a new property in North Philly. And then to West Philly. Only to end up here again at 4th and Race, in the old building, but a differently-understood ministry. I like our story. Our history. It’s a great illustration of how church needs to change over time to keep up with serving the real world God calls each new generation to make a difference in.
They were impressed. Until we got upstairs in the Sanctuary. They were interested in the doors on the pews. Noticed the bird. But not that we need a fresh coat of paint! They liked the history, the feel. Wondered about the organ.
That when it happened. When they noticed the flag. I thought my tourists were going to plotz. Perhaps it’s our place in the nation’s most historical square mile. Or some perceived disrespect for our neighbor, Betsy Ross. But they were offended. Wondered if we weren’t being disloyal. Couldn’t figure out how we could be Christians and not have the flag up front and center. Our patriotism was suspect. I was suspect. The flag, in their minds, is as an affirmation of true faith.
I was suddenly happy they hadn’t recognized the rainbow flag leaning next to the mural about our mission in the lower narthex.
I tried, church! Offered the theological explanation. Reassured them we were thankful for our nation. I mentioned freedom of religion, but skipped over separation of church and state. I said something about being free to be faithful, even prophetic. Ok, I left out the part about, as Christians, our feeling it part of our calling to critique our nation when it fails to measure up to the standard our faith calls us to!
But I did get out, that “church can’t really be considered to be national.” They demanded to know what I meant. I stammered, “Neither the state, nor the church, ultimately, eternally, in God’s eyes, will count for all that much. They are the context or the stage, passing realities, on which what really matters will or will not happen.”
I didn’t go so far as to admit I don’t think this land is really even U.S. territory. You don’t need a passport to come here of course, because the church is God’s, above all nations, everyone is welcome on sacred ground of our Creator where no one has a greater claim than anyone else.
I don’t think I won any converts in this sanctuary on Tuesday!
I have a friend who’s also a pastor. He says he can put up with the flag in the sanctuary, as long as it’s lower than the cross, so when one looks up, the cross is clearly predominant. Because, beloved, here in church, as Christians, the cross is our hope, a symbol for God’s love that’s greater than any nation. God’s love that is shown to us in Jesus, and that’s even greater than the church. Our remembrance of his willingness to give of himself for our well-being.
When one day we meet our maker, we won’t be rewarded for our nationality. But we might be questioned about our nation’s behavior. How saw ourselves as different or better than others. How we used more than our fair share of the world’s natural resources. How we made more mess than even our number could excuse. We might be ask about why we protected our borders. Or for how high we tried to build walls, figuratively and physically, between our nation and its neighbors. Even between ourselves and our neighbors. Beloved, there’s no extra credit in heaven for how ethnically pure our population is.
I can imagine Jesus affirming us this way: “I came to you as a Mexican, and you gave me work. I showed up as an African, and you welcomed me. I arrived scared, hurting, with no place to call my own, and you became my home…”
Likewise, despite any membership certificate, or memories, or favorite pastor, or personal congregational history we may treasure, we won’t get anywhere in eternity because of what church we belonged to.
Instead, whoever welcomes us across the final frontera, what will matter is how gracefully we crossed the borders of this world. Did we bridge the divides that separate us as human beings? Which walls we tore down? What divisions and brokenness we healed?
For in Christ, there is neither Greek or Jew, nor male nor female, nor slave nor free. All our boundaries and distinctions, the specifics of being an Ethiopian or an American or Chinese. The differences of being a eunuch or marginalized in any other way, of being an unauthorized Phillip or an undocumented Phillpe are passing. What really counts — ultimately — is finding ones calling to go to the other and to build the relationships by which one shares and becomes one…
We will not be judged for how well we followed the temporary and sometimes unjust laws of any or all temporary nation-states, with borders that will, from the perspective of eternity, seem awfully fluid and moveable.
No, we will be judged on how well we followed the way of Jesus Christ. “…In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
This, beloved, is the truth and the life to which we are called to swear our ultimate allegiance. Not some flag. Or our nation. He is the vine and we are the branches. But if the branches do not bear fruit, what good are they?
Beloved, the power of God gathers in and brings together. It’s the spirit that motivates humans to create communities and common futures. We see it in the human spirit that drove the first European settlers to the shores of New England. And in the natives who helped them there. In the German immigrants who found this church as they sought well-being in Pennsylvania.
It’s what called Dorothy and Farley here from Liberia. And Renaldo from Jamaica. And called Mexicans who wash dishes in Old City restaurants. And the Irish woman who cleans rooms at the Holiday Inn. And the college-educated Albanian who was driving my taxi Friday night. The same spirit that led Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery. That mighty human spirit that will travel great distances and endure great hardships to be free. It’s the gift God built into us. It’s distributed equally and without partiality in the hearts of all God’s children.
It will always triumph, ultimately, over narrowness, cruelty and division… as long as we who believe are willing to stand up, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, brothers and sisters, for their dreams, for their families — no matter the color of their skin, the appearance they make, the sound of their accent, the place of their birth, or the road they have travelled.
“Do this to the least of these and you do it to me.” Or in the words from Leviticus inscribed on a bell a few blocks away: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” Amen.