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Preserving God’s House

February 29, 2016

“Preserving God’s House” Genesis 21:1-3, 8-21; 1 Peter 2:4-10 © 2.28.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Keeping up, preserving, buildings as old as ours presents a challenge with wear and tear and maintenance, but as far as I know, they are in no danger of falling down any time soon. Fortunately, unlike other churches in the presbytery, we haven’t had to deal with walls and foundations that are crumbling nor have we had to spend vast amounts of money for structural repairs.

But even if something catastrophic like that should happen or if another tornado should come through this area and level our sanctuary, First Presbyterian of Amory would not cease to exist. For as important as buildings may be, you and I are actually “God’s house.” We heard it in the text this morning: “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 

Whatever we do to keep up this sanctuary and our other properties, it’s essential that the spiritual house of God be preserved also, in order to carry out mission that benefits the community. We are here, being built into a home for the Spirit daily in order to live out our calling.

The Heritage Room in the Annex contains a number of items from the past, like hymnbooks, photos, offering plates, session minutes, and even a piano. And of course yesterday is kept alive through the sharing of memories and stories. God keeps his spiritual house filled with life in many ways and in many situations as well. The situation, the set of circumstances, I want to focus on this morning is the wilderness, which, as we will see, is where we live right now.

The wilderness is place of scarce resources. For that reason, life is at risk, and death may come when the unexpected happens or when what is necessary for survival simply runs out. In the wilderness, the true character of a person is sorely tested and revealed; heroes and leaders are made there, shown worthy or discredited through their decisions and their ability to improvise. The wilderness may be a desert, a barren arctic waste or the middle of a city or a town. Wherever the location of the wilderness, whoever tries to survive there is on the margins, frequently lonely and stressed and frightened. That’s true for a community, a couple or an individual.

I trust you can see the parallels with the typical experience of a church with small membership that’s been around for awhile. I’ll leave it to you to discern whether any of these apply to us, but they are common in my experience with congregations of about our size and below and our age and beyond. Here are some ways such churches remain on the margins, at risk. Offerings are enough to pay utilities and insurance and hire a preacher of some sort, whether a seminary student, a ruling elder or a teaching elder for the service on Sunday. Funds may even allow for a part-time paid musician. The truly well-off in this category of churches can afford staff being present one other day or more of the week. There are modest gifts to benevolences. Somebody may have provided an endowment or a capital fund through a bequest to help with any repairs to aging buildings. Everybody knows everyone else, and there is a good deal of caring for needs. Especially when there’s a crisis or a special event, folks pitch in to help out. But on the other hand, nobody is willing or able to serve on the session.

So the community survives, and may even thrive off and on, but life is hard and day-to-day, week-to-week, and the church is one big expense, one death or departure of a key person away from its sure demise. No one talks much about long-term or plans for the future, because the future is not guaranteed, and it’s hard to see beyond the cracking walls and dwindling numbers. Everything is at risk, so people focus sometimes on what are trivial matters in the big scheme. But because there is no big scheme, their importance is magnified several fold. And from time to time, everybody, but especially the leaders, feels like the community has been forgotten by the Powers-that-Be in the presbytery, left to survive on its own while bigger, more important matters are attended to. Cries for help are spoken into an empty, uncaring, bureaucratic sky.

But it is precisely to people and communities in such dire straits that God comes with preserving grace. Consider the case of Hagar and Ishmael. They are cast out by Abraham in a reactive decision to placate his jealous, paranoid wife. He gives them just enough provisions to survive for awhile, no doubt to assuage his guilty conscience. With such food and water, they will either die or they will have to find other resources. Why not give them enough food, water, guidance, and other provisions to make sure they get somewhere safe to start a new life? Hagar and Ishmael are victims. Who will help them?

The conversation between God and Abraham gives a clue that all is not lost. Ishmael will be the father of a great nation. So the reader knows something must happen to preserve at least his life. But Hagar and Ishmael don’t have a clue about any of this when they are sent out. When the resources run out, Hagar has no choice; she puts the child out in the elements for him to die of exposure. She is no longer able to care for him, but she doesn’t want to see when he’s gone. She’s been forced by Abraham and his reactivity and weakness into this untenable place of emotion-laden triage.

But the Sovereign One says: “Do not be afraid. I will make a future for you.” That’s not a empty claim. With his acknowledgement of cries, the Preserver gives resources. In the case of Hagar and Ishmael, there was water, making life possible again. Renewing. Refreshing.

God gives water to the spiritual house, the community of faith, he preserves as well. I mean baptism and its attendant call to ministry. Baptism is the assurance of the presence of the Spirit, the imparting of gifts for the work ahead. As I’ve said many times, all of us are ordained in baptism and endowed and empowered for the up-building, the sustenance, of the community and for serving our neighbors, witnessing to the love of God as we live with faith and hope.

But if God preserves his spiritual house and gives gifts, so also must his people, the saints, persevere. In Reformed theology, we always talk about God’s action first. God is preserving his church and will keep on doing so. He comes to us first in grace to hear and to provide. But faith that receives such bounty has to be active. We need disciplines, practices, missions and ministries that keep us open to what God may do and engaged in carrying out his will in the place where we live.

Hagar and Ishmael didn’t simply sit down in the desert and make their home there, waiting on more supplies. Indeed, “God was with” the boy, and he grew up. As I said, such gracious presence to preserve is always the first word and the sustaining word. But Ishmael “became an expert with the bow.” And “his mother got him a wife from the land of Egypt.” Ishmael by discipline acquired the skill set that would enable him to have food on the table and to feel secure. As an expert with the bow, not only would he know how to shoot it, he could make bows and arrows of the highest quality. He could teach others. He could sell his weapons. He was sought after perhaps as a guide for hunts or a trainer for armies. So he made a living, turning his misery into manna.

For her part, his mother returned to her roots in Egypt to get her son a mate. She discounted with that move Abraham and Sarah and decided not to accept their construction of reality. It would be Egypt, her heritage, that would guide Ishmael, not that of Ur to the east or Canaan to the north. It would be Egypt he would think of fondly when he held his wife or heard the cooing of his first child. Hagar took action to ensure her son’s line would continue, outside the influence of his father Abraham. She would assume control of his destiny.

If a small church is to persevere while being sustained by God’s grace, every member needs to become as disciplined and enterprising as Ishmael. I mean each one is to be an expert in some essential wilderness survival skill, then share his or her expertise. There can be no spectators, no bystanders.

In 2008 and 2009, there was a reality show called “The Alaska Experiment” on the Discovery Channel. On that program, people who had never fished before for anything tried to catch salmon. Folks who had only cut cheese on a board or sliced a banana had to cut down a tree with a handsaw and make firewood. Men and women who frequented the drive-thru tried to can fish. Why they went into Alaska without even an orientation or a basic course is beyond me. It made for good reality TV drama, I guess, at least for the two seasons it was on.

Watching that show, my very outdoor-capable brother-in-law Jeff said: “I would go out there, but I’d make sure everybody on the team had an essential skill.” He was right. And in similar fashion, we can’t try to survive in today’s ecclesiastical wilderness without every member having some skill to share. Every church, small or large, needs to insist that everybody contribute something. But the leadership also needs to help members discover and use their gifts. So, one might not be able to teach church school, but can develop a great website. Someone else engages in weekly mission work, while the member across the aisle can comfort the grieving or write encouraging notes. Another knows how to organize an event, while her friend can make tasty food. Someone homebound can pray daily, maybe even over the phone with a friend. Still others contribute fundraising skills, property maintenance, a warm welcome to guests, an ability to help others see the big picture or importance of the small details. The list goes on. But with the whole community working together, the church can survive, even thrive.

So Ishmael reminds us that we need survival skills. But Hagar brings us full circle. We want to ensure that our heritage is preserved and guides us for many more years. And as I’ve pointed out, that’s what the Egyptian slave was doing in her choice of a wife for Ishmael. To be rooted these days is counter-cultural. Everybody wants to tear things down. People drift around. Nothing lasts. But to persevere in preservation under God’s care is a statement that you and I will not be defined by others. We are who we are; our place in history and in this community is valuable. Whatever big things other congregations may be doing, we need not question our worth or try to define ourselves according to standards that don’t fit us well. Instead, we keep true to our mission, our vision, our values. Do what we are called to do, what is possible to do, with the resources we have been given. Staying rooted and grounded in his heritage is one way God made of Ishmael a great nation. And that’s one key to being a great church, whatever the size.

Ishmael lived all his life in the wilderness. And so will we from this day on. One reason is that in today’s Christian environment in America, to be reasonable, loving, thoughtful, scholarly, confident, and/or hospitable is to be unusual, on the margins, in the minority, threatened with extinction. The reality we witness every day is a Christianity that pays little attention to the teachings of Christ, such as in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, its adherents are full of vitriol, hatred, fear, and ignorance. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In fact, as the Bible says, people will go from bad to worse. It’s going to be harder and harder to humbly proclaim a message of justice, peace, and compassion in the midst of the shouting of posturing preachers, pundits, and politicians, the reactive and angry social media posts, and the general atmosphere of negativity we all are forced to breathe. And young people seeking meaning will lump all Christians together, no matter what the message.

Another clue that our future will be in the wilderness is the lack of resources. This congregation has never, as far as I know, depended on help, financial or otherwise, from presbytery and beyond, but even should we need such support in the future, I doubt it will be forthcoming. Instead, the situation of scarcity in the Presbyterian Church will be with us from now on. Here is a line from a recent report of the presbytery’s Administration and Stewardship Committee: “It is clear that the Presbytery of St. Andrew’s current expenses can no longer be supported by the current income streams.” This presbytery has seen a $100,000 reduction in support of its mission over the past five years. Greg Goodwiller, our exec, will now be developing a plan with the board of Presbytery for him to work less than full time. Campus ministries, like the thriving one at Ole Miss, will have to find other means of funding. We can expect Presbytery leaders to come calling on our session asking for help. So we need to commit to do whatever we are going to do today and tomorrow without anyone’s assistance, but rather with our offerings, memorials, and bequests.

We are and will be in the wilderness. What you can do, as can I, is decide, make a choice, to live with creativity and skill and imagination in this environment, right here, right now, and tomorrow after tomorrow, trusting God to preserve his spiritual house, and yes, even his physical one. And like Hagar and Ishmael, turn what could be misery into a miracle.

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