The Heart of Christ in the Heart of Loveland: The Heart That Gives Life
The First United Presbyterian Church
“The Heart of Christ in the Heart of Loveland: The Heart That Gives Life”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 14, 2018
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
15 If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.
16 And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
17 Therefore say: Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.
18 When they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.
19 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
“Jerusalem is the pot and we are the meat.” In a vision, Ezekiel is transported to the city of Jerusalem, where he hears the officials, the leaders, sowing fear and suspicion. The Babylonians had already hauled of part of the population, including Ezekiel himself, and they were closing in to finish the job of destroying the holy city. These officials expected Egypt to come to their aid and therefore encouraged the people to stand and fight. It was not the time to build houses, not the time for a settled peace. This was a time for war. “Jerusalem is the pot and we are the meat.” We are about to be cooked in our own stew.
But others in the city opposed this idea. They hoped that if they surrendered to Babylon, their captivity might be less harsh, and they might soon be able to return to their homes. Prophets like Jeremiah were proclaiming that this was God’s plan, and that they should abandon hope of help coming from Egypt.
The conflict between these factions had turned violent, and the war faction had “filled the streets with the slain.”
In Ezekiel’s vision, God says that the warmongers are not the meat in Jerusalem’s pot. They have already served up the meat, in the form of all those they have killed. And so God will take them out of the pot. They will be slain at the border of Jerusalem, and the city will be destroyed. Their single-hearted focus on preserving the city will eventually be its downfall.
In the Corinthian church, Paul is addressing division, fear, and suspicion within the Christian community. The church community had turned on each other. There was infighting. The fear of persecution was ever-present. Christians were taking each other to court, turning each other into the Roman authorities. In their zeal to preserve the “true church,” to purge from it any unrighteousness or troublesome elements, they were tearing the body of Christ apart. Ears and feet, eyes and hands, were all attempting to go their own way.
This all may sound uncomfortably familiar. Fear of each other, blame and victimizing, scarcity and division have come to define our media, our politics, our conversations, our lives.
It has even come to define the church. I actively avoid other pastors during stewardship season, because they are full of fear and wrapped up in scarcity. Most of them are in the red for the current year and are terrified there won’t be enough pledges to sustain next year’s budget. Membership is declining. People don’t attend or participate like they used to. Sermons strike fear into the heart of the congregation. Give. Or else. The pastor will leave. The programs will be cut. The church will fold. Pastors blame the mega-churches. Or travel soccer. Or vegans. Anything to keep the church alive.
The church, just like that remnant in Ezekiel, just like the church in Corinth, loves to play the victim and is obsessed with self-preservation.
Ironically, this self-absorption, this obsession with maintaining the remnant, maintaining our purity, maintaining our principles, maintaining our institution – this is exactly what drains us of life.
All of Israel’s prophets, Ezekiel included, railed against Israel’s failure to care for the vulnerable, its greed and cold-heartedness. They have hearts of stone, unable to love God or others. The Christians in Corinth are jealous and greedy, neglecting the poor in the Lord’s Supper and accusing one another of wrongdoing. And this is tearing the body apart.
Like Narcissus, gazing at his own beloved reflection to the exclusion of all others who need his love, we wither and die when our greatest concern is keeping ourselves alive.
So that is why for the next three weeks you won’t hear me talking about how much the church needs your money to keep afloat. No sermons about preserving our historic building or continuing our dignified Reformed worship. No talk about how important it is to maintain an institution promoting positive values or teaching sound doctrine.
No, I will not be preaching about keeping this church alive, because, first, as we have seen from Ezekiel and the church in Corinth, that kind of thinking is precisely what will do us in. And second, this church has no interest in staying alive. This church is all about giving life.
God speaks through Ezekiel to the Hebrews in exile, promising to be a sanctuary for them, promising to gather them back to the land of Israel. God says that all the garbage that made them stone-hearted, divisive, disobedient, will be cleaned up, and their hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh, hearts that can love God and others faithfully.
When we come to worship here each Sunday, it isn’t so that we can admire our historic pipe organ or read unison prayers from our freshly printed bulletin. We come to worship because this is where we experience the sanctuary of God – physically, of course – but also as a spiritual sanctuary, a place where our souls are given rest and restoration. We come to worship here because this is where we prepare ourselves to be returned to our homeland, the kin-dom of heaven. We hear and experience those promises here. And, each week in worship, we spend some time in confession, letting God clear out all the garbage that makes us stone-hearted, divisive, and disobedient. We worship here because God can use this time and this place, each and every week, to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, hearts that can love God and others faithfully.
We are not interested in keeping our worship alive. We know, we have experienced, that our worship gives life.
When we serve our neighbors with this church, we don’t consider what project will appeal to the young folks or make us feel good about ourselves. We do the stuff that is not a lot of fun and actually makes a difference.
We provide a sanctuary to start up fledgling non-profits like a soup kitchen and homeless shelter, and then we support that ministry’s transition to a home that fits the need so that it can grow and thrive. We work with unaccompanied young people to help mentor them into safe and secure housing, knowing full well that this is the toughest group to motivate and work with. They have so much garbage to deal with and so little resources to draw upon. We do the hard work of advocating for structural changes in our society to address the big challenges we face as a community. We challenge stone-hearted governments, institutions, companies, and all the powers that be to have a heart of flesh.
This is not the kind of service that preserves institutions. But it is the kind of work that requires us to work together as one body. It requires ears, and eyes, feet and hands. And it requires a lot of heart.
We are not interested in keeping our ministries of service alive. We know, we have experienced, that our service to our neighbors gives life.
When we come to this church for nurture, it isn’t so that we can see our friends, and feel smarter about the bible, and connect with the community so that everyone knows we’re nice people. We aren’t here to maintain relationships or have all the answers or preserve a social club.
We nurture one another back to life when grief and hardship, despair and illness, injury and exile have taken our breath away. Whether it’s a meal, or a hug, or a card, or a kind word, or simply our presence, this church nurtures one another in life-giving ways.
But our nurture extends well beyond the walls of this church. We share the good news we’ve experienced and learned about here with our neighbors in downtown Loveland, nurturing compassion, justice, and peace in and with our neighbors. In the Loveland Downtown Partnership and on Second Friday nights, through the Art Hub Camp and the Loveland Studio tour, at the chili cook-off and rummage sale and Christmas Tea, we extend God’s sanctuary out into the street, we bring those who have felt exiled from the church back to a place that feels like home, we nurture new life in this community.
We are not interested in keeping our ministries of nurture alive. We know, we have experienced, that nurturing others gives life.
Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal priest who was instrumental in supporting the development of Alcoholics Anonymous in its early years, wrote a poem called “I Stand By the Door.” It begins:
I stand by the door,
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men [and women] walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…
So I stand by the door.
Let us stand by the door, the big, red, historic, welcoming, imposing door of this church, so that we can help others find it. So that we can help others find their way to life-giving worship, nurture, and service. Let us stand by the door.
Through our gifts of time, talent, and yes, right at this time of year we are talking about treasure, we are not keeping this church alive. We are giving life. First on Fourth is the Heart of Christ in the Heart of Loveland, giving life to one another, to our community, and to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.