2nd Great End of the Church: The Shelter, Nurture and Spiritual Fellowship of the Children of God

Deuteronomy 6:4-9, I John 1:1-4, February 24, 2013

We're in the season of Lent, a time for Christians to take time to examine their lives and to prepare for our annual reminder of the depth of God's love expressed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This year I'm using The Great Ends of the Church to guide and shape our Lenten practice. And it is a little tricky for a lot of us. We talked about this Wednesday night. Those of us who have taken on Lenten disciplines in the past—like giving up chocolate, or making a commitment to a spiritual or devotional practice—have done those things individually. This year I am hoping that we as a congregation, as a group of individuals, can reflect on and examine how we measure up to the Great Ends of the Church.  Last Sunday, and around the supper table Wednesday, we talked about what it means that we seek in The First Great End to 'proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.' We had a fascinating and lively conversation.  These words that have guided Presbyterians for more than 100 years continue to challenge us.

And I was reminded again how good it is that we believe in studying together. Each of us brought unique experiences to the discussion and each of us understood the inspiring words of this Great End differently. We all came away from the discussion with a richer understanding of why the church exists, and what the church is called to do, because we talked and listened. My hope is that we will all continue to think about, pray about and dream about what this congregation is called to be, and whom we are called to serve, as we journey through Lent.

Today, you'll have a chance to answer two questions that are on sheets of paper in the Westminster Room. The Session and Deacons answered these same questions at their meetings last week.  The questions are "What is this congregation known for?" and "What do we want to be known for?" These questions, and other that will be asked the next two Sundays, really help us see the variety of opinions in the congregation and the various ways that we are, and can be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today's Great End is "the shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God." Again, these are lofty and inspiring words. And we could be intimidated by them, but we should not be. They should remind us and inspire us, do not be discouraged if we fall short of them. Trust the grace that we are called to feel and share with the world as we seek to serve Christ from the heart of Oshkosh. Today's Great End offers us guidance for how Christians are to live together. More than the other five Great Ends, this one pertains to the internal life of the congregation.

One of the images that the church used in its earliest years was the ark.  The ark that Noah built was a safe place surrounded by the chaos and destruction of the flood. The ark was the only bit of order from the original creation that survived. The ark was the one safe place. Imagine how it would feel if we lived in a country where Christians were a tiny minority.  Imagine what it would be like to live in a place where it was illegal to be a Christian. Or where  Christians were regarded as a suspicious, freaky minority.  You might get stopped by the police for no good reason, or people might not want to do business with you, or you couldn't find a doctor who would treat you. This happens to Christians in other countries every day. Some countries tolerate Christians, some are prejudiced against us, some persecute Christians. Imagine living in one of those places. Wouldn't it feel good to leave the hostility of the world behind and gather with other people whounderstand the significance of finding forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ?

A friend of mine moved to England more than 20 years ago. She and her husband have found rewarding, satisfying work and have built a good network of friends. Their life there is good. But every time they meet someone new they have to explain their accents. They never ... quite ..fit...in. And they get tired of that. That's a mild example of what it feels like to be different. They are not persecuted but they are misunderstood. The last time I saw them when they returned to the United States they said it was nice to just not have to explain where they are from to everyone they met.

One of the great things about church is we get to be together. And we don't have to explain everything. We can retreat from the world for about an hour and rest in the security of being in this place, with this group of people. Many people describe the time they spend in worship as renewing, or like getting
their battery recharged. It is no accident that we call the room in which we worship the sanctuary. We're safe here. We can think of this time and this place as a retreat from the world. I think that's a really, really helpful image for us. People often joke about falling asleep in worship.  Last month I was visiting someone in the hospital and he was a little woozy and I told him, "It's all right if you fall asleep, I'm used to it." To be honest, I don't see many people fall asleep in worship, but I think of it as a positive sign when they do, really. People can only fall asleep where they feel safe. A lot of people have trouble sleeping anywhere but home because of this. So I think we get the part of this Great End about the shelter of the children of God.

But the church cannot only be a shelter or a safe haven. We need a safe place to relax and renew, but that's not why the church exists. I am reminded of a saying I saw on a poster years ago. "A ship in a harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."  We can say the same thing about this congregation. We're safe together. We could even think of ourselves as happy together and comfortable. But that's not why we exist. Our time together should be renewing so that we can respond to the call of Christ to be in the world—and to enjoy fellowship not only with one another, but with the living God.

I think it's very interesting that the Old Testament lesson that goes with this Great End is the central, creedal statement of Judaism. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone."  There are lot of ways to translate that sentence, but it gets to the essential unity and uniqueness of the One True God. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, he gave this as an answer, with one significant addition. Deuteronomy says, "You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all you might." I think it's important that we realize that these words are not new to Jesus, he was part of the living tradition of Judaism and answered faithfully from that tradition...but he added something. Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength." [Mark 12:31, NRSV] Note that Jesus added "all your mind." We are called to put everything we've got into loving the Lord. I see the same idea presented in our mission statement on the quilt: "energy, intelligence, imagination and love." The words of Deuteronmy 6:4-9 are so important that to this day Jews post them on their doorways, as a reminder to put fellowship with God first in all things. This is exactly what Jesus does, then add that the second commandment is that one should love one's neighbor as oneself. Both are necessary. Both kinds of fellowship are essential.

Fellowship is a word that only church people use anymore—and it means "fun."  Really "it means fun, communal activities." A few years ago we took a church group to a baseball game in Milwaukee, we called it a fellowship outing. It was, but it also wasn't any different from any group going to a ballgame together.  The part that we overlook too often when we use the word fellowship is that it also means being in relationship with God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. It's not just other people whose fellowship and company we enjoy in the church; it is the dynamic relationship that we are cultivating with the Living God, together with all these other people in the congregation.

This concept of fellowship with the Living God and with other people is what the writer of this morning's New Testament lesson is trying to get us to see.  This person's enthusiasm just leaps off the page. There's an excitement even an urgency in what he's is saying. And he's writing from personal experience. He's writing about what he has seen and heard and touched and experienced! And there's this great desire for him to share the relationship he has with God and Christ Jesus with other people. He even says that his joy will be complete if he can get them to accept and trust the reality of the love of Christ that he has experienced.

That phrase ought to make us pause, "complete joy." What makes your joy complete? It seems to me that for many of us complete joy involves doing something that is satisfying, especially doing something for someone else. The feeling I get when someone really appreciates a gift I've given is like complete joy.

I really believe that it is only with other people, in a group or community that we can know complete joy. And that brings me to the part of today's Great End that I've not mentioned until now, "nurture." To me nurture means helping to grow. Gardeners nurture their soil and their plants. Teachers nurture the students in their classes. A good mentor or a kind boss builds and encourages and nurtures a younger person just starting out. I really believe, however, in the church we need to continually nurture one another—and to seek to be nurtured. Nurturing is something we receive from other people. And it's more than just education. To nurture and to be nurtured are the projects of a lifetime.  We talked a little bit about this on Wednesday night, and I expect we'll talk more about this coming Wednesday.  There's something renewing and exciting about learning new things. And for all the people around the table going to school ended a long, long time ago.  Maybe I should say "attended classes" ended a long time ago. And still among the ten people who sat around one table, there was an excitement in learning from one another, in borrowing other people's perspectives and hearing their experiences that really was exciting and life-giving. Being in a safe place where we could share our experiences, and be honest about our desire to grow in the Christian faith is really a renewing and energizing experience. And it can only happen when we're together. And it happens most quickly and readily when we feel that we're in a safe place to share. And making ourselves open and vulnerable helped each of us to return to the world, to leave the ark and take with us the new life and forgiveness that we know in Jesus Christ. Amen.