Great Power, Great Grace
Easter II; April 8, 2018
Our Associate Pastor began a long sabbatical this week. The Session placed her on sabbatical in order for her to attend to a number of matters; during the next nine months we will be without her service. The congregation learned of it through a letter, which most had received by the time this sermon was preached. This is the background you need in order to understand most of the sermon.
This sermon will have three phases: first I will talk about the Scripture, then I will talk about our new, temporary reality, and then I will pull both together in some concluding thoughts. As Andy (the Clerk of Session) said in his letter to the congregation this week, you may address questions about our situation to any member of the Session, or to me.
After I read this Scripture, in which Luke describes the common life of the first Christians, I wondered how this differed from communism. All the believers held everything in common. Those who owned property sold it and gave the proceeds to the Apostles, who then used it to see that everyone had lodging, food, and clothing. From each according to ability, to each according to need. That's what it sounds like. And that's what it was.
You may have noticed for yourself where the essential difference between this and communism lies. The abandonment of private property and sharing of all things in communist countries have been imposed by government; among the first Christians it was a voluntary act of self-surrender. They were of "one heart and soul," Luke wrote, and when people are of one heart and soul, they do not keep anything for themselves.
Our spiritual father, John Calvin, made this clear for me, and he pointed out the key to making this happen: faith was preeminent for them. The Apostles proclaimed the Word with great power and the people exhibited great grace because the most important thing about their lives was faith in Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. More important than their relationships, than their work, than their health, or anything else that concerns people: preeminent for them was faith in the risen Christ. Knowing that Christ was alive among them, they were of one heart and soul and they shared everything with each other.
So the obligation for me, as a preacher, is to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power; the obligation for you, as believers, is to believe that Christ Jesus is raised from the dead. As was true for the first Christians, a sign of that is your willingness to share with one another. And I'm thinking not only of material goods, but also spiritual and emotional goods. What makes you rejoice? What frightens you? What do you hope for? Where are your challenges? Where are your victories?
Now, I must address the elephant in the room, or, rather, the gazelle who's not in the room. As you learned either by mail or by grapevine or when I made the announcements this morning, we are without Pastor Sara's services for approximately the next nine months. Some of you fear the Church will fall apart and others just wonder how we're going to manage. One funny story that came to mind as I listened to people fret about it. A fellow staff member at another church told me that a family was preparing for a daughter's wedding, and learned that Pastor Paul would be away on vacation the day of the wedding. "What are we going to do?" they worried. So my colleague said, "Ask Bob to do it." "Can Bob do weddings?" they asked, surprised. Yes, Bob can do weddings. And Bob can do funerals and baptisms.
And Bob does hospital calls, when he knows about it. One of the funniest charges to the congregation I've heard was my own at a previous congregation, when the Elder giving the charge talked about the care and maintenance of your 1956 model Keefer. She said, "Now, although your 1956 model Keefer does come with the balding option, he does not come with the mind-reading option." If you were hospitalized in the past few years and I didn't come to see you, it's a fair bet I didn't know about it. Many of you are used to calling Sara; some of you would call both of us. Please get in the habit of letting me know; you can email me, phone the office, or call my cell phone: the number is in the church directory and has been in the Sunday bulletin every week for the last five years.
Now, I'll admit that I am not Sara. I am not as funny as she is nor as playful. I can't just find the opening note of Thuma mina and start our singing of it the way she can. But I am myself, and I will do my best to serve your spiritual needs, even though you may be disappointed that I'm not Sara.
So, what can you do during this time? Again: communicate with me. I would rather hear something five times than not hear it at all. And here are some other things that occur to me:
Volunteer to help lead worship. I would like one of you to read Scripture and do other parts of the liturgy every Sunday.
Take leadership of a project that is important to you. Is Round Town Mission important to you? Then volunteer to make it happen. Tell Erica Koslosky you want to help with Christian Education. Ask Debby Marsh how you can help one of our ongoing mission emphases keep moving. Pastors are here to preach the Gospel, to teach the Faith, to administer the Sacraments, and to serve the people's spiritual needs. You don't need us, for example, to organize parties.
If you are comfortable in hospitals or nursing homes, volunteer to make some visits. The Deacons are going to work with me to see that these needs are covered, and especially communion for folks who cannot get to worship. Those of you ordained as ruling elders and deacons but who are not currently in active service are the prime candidates for this ministry.
Tell Margo Forsythe you will take video and pictures and post them to our Facebook page. Sara has a gift for promotion through social media and we need for others to handle that.
There are doubtless other things and you will think of them; these are the ones I came up with when I started making a list.
Now, some closing thoughts, in a graduated scale of excitement. First, the ho-hum thought: we will adjust. You have adjusted to major pastoral change before and we will adjust now. Some of you are angry, some are sad, some are bewildered, and there are other responses I'm not mentioning or aware of; but we will adjust.
Something I am truly excited about is that we can learn what we are capable of. Many people have a pastor to be religious on their behalf: I don't have to pray, my pastor does it for me; I don't have to read the Bible, my pastor does it for me. I don't have to feed the hungry, visit the sick, or welcome the stranger: my pastor does it for me. Now we can learn what we can do, what you are capable of, who believe that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.
And that leads to what may be the most exciting thing of all: this will help us learn whose church we are. Are we Pastor Bob's church? Are we Pastor Sara's church? No, we are neither of those. We are the Church of Jesus Christ. Of course, everyone says that, but now we can practice making that our real, daily reality.
That makes me think of another story from my youth. When our Pastor retired after many years, many folks stopped attending worship. I was sad he retired – I wanted him, for example, to be around to do my wedding someday – but I didn't understand why people stopped attending church. I asked my mother, "When Pastor MacPherson retired, did God die?" I didn't understand; I still don't understand; and to her credit, my mother didn't understand either.
We are using the name Presbyterian Church of the Master; if we keep that name or if we set it aside as an important piece of our history, we need to learn as a daily reality who the Master is: not Bob Keefer or Sara Tonje or any other pastor past, present, or future, but Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master