Stay in the Machine
This is a morning of celebration. First of all, it is Pentecost, which Christians remember as the birthday of the Church. When Jesus appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room after his resurrection, John's Gospel tells us that, just as God once breathed life into Adam, Jesus breathed on the Disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit. About 50 days later, on Pentecost, God breathed on 120 of Jesus' disciples and it felt like a mighty wind. With 120 filled with the Holy Spirit in front of thousands of onlookers, Peter got up to preach, and 3,000 more believed. There was now a critical mass of believers. It wasn't just Jesus and his friends anymore. In three powerful steps, the Church was born.
And so, on this birthday of the Church universal, we celebrate three events that are very specific to the life of this particular part of the Church...the life of St. John's. We celebrate a baptism, which marks the very beginning of Christian faith. We celebrate confirmation, which is the time when young people make their very first public profession of faith. They were baptized as children when parents and other sponsors decided for them that they would be raised in the church, just as the Watford family did for Mackenzie this morning. Now these children are older and able to make decisions for themselves.
Since February they have been meeting with me, learning what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a United Methodist. They learned about John Wesley and they traveled to other churches and the synagogue to see what worship is like in those places. They talked with their parents and they met with their mentors, all as part of a process to help them decide whether or not they wanted to claim the name Christian for themselves and whether or not they were comfortable enough with United Methodist tradition and belief to join this local church. They have said "yes," to both of those questions, and we celebrate this milestone in the Christian walk that they began at baptism.
While parents and mentors and all members of this congregation still are responsible to help the confirmands on their faith journey, as of this morning, they also bear some responsibility themselves. They will need to consciously keep up the daily practices of faith in order to stay on the path they have chosen. They will need to make hard choices when friends want to them to join in something that goes against the will of God or when it seems hard to keep up with prayer and Bible reading. This day they have chosen God and God will never drop them; but whether they walk away from God or continue walking with God is now up to them.
An artist named Kent Nerburn tells about going to a monastery in British Columbia in a little book called Small Graces. He writes, "I had gone there to create a sculpture for the monks, and in order to invest the work with a spiritual presence that would resonate with their hearts I had chosen to live by the rules and dictates of their lives.
"The abbot in charge of the monastery was a harsh man, disinclined toward compassion and the human touch. He watched me struggle with the austere rigor of monastic life and the constraints within which the monks conducted their daily affairs.
"One day he came over to me and said, with no explanation, Stay in the machine. It will clean you out.
"At first I did not know what he meant. The comment was so flip, so casual, and so out of character, that I almost thought he was teasing or chiding me. But day by day I began to understand.
"I rose with the monks, chanted with them, worked when they worked, prayed when they prayed. Gradually, the simple rituals of their daily life, the gentle repetition with which they lived their days, began to focus my being and fill me with peace.
"By the time I had finished the sculpture six months later, my spirit had deepened, my heart had cleared, my eyes had opened. I was by no means a monk, but I was a believer in the power of their ways. By following their appointed rituals, I had become a deeper and wiser person. I had stayed in the machine. It had begun to clean me out."
The truth of that experience can be verified by the third group we are celebrating this morning, those who joined St. John's in 1952 or earlier. Those who are able are with us this morning. They have stayed in the machine. I'm sure every one of them can tell you that staying in the machine is not an easy thing to do, even though we do all we can to be sure that the church is a more personal and welcoming place than any machine. Still, in 50 or more years of church life, things have not always been easy.
I'll bet every long-time member has been through at least one pastor they were sure would kill the church and at least one whose leaving they thought the church would never survive. They have seen all the incredible difficulties and raging emotions involved in leaving a beloved church building and moving to a new building on a new site. They have cried at the funerals, danced at the weddings, and cooed at the babies being baptized. They have served on committees and resigned from them, they have taught Sunday School and volunteered in the nursery. They were new members once, some of them joining at confirmation like the young people this morning, others coming as adults from other places. They pledged their prayers, their presence, their gifts and their service and they fulfilled their pledge. We celebrate their faithfulness.
What our elders have done is what we wish for every confirmand and for every new member. But let me be clear to remind both the brand-new and the long-time members that it is not the Church per se that will deepen your spiritual life and allow you to walk more closely with God. If you only engage the Church, then a 50-year reception is all you will earn. The whole purpose of engaging the Church is to lead everyone, young, old, and in-between, to a living, personal, ever-growing relationship with God.
If you just engage the business of the Church when you come and don't practice the disciplines that it mandates when you are at home...well...enjoy the cake. We gather here every week to be a supportive community for those seeking to live a Christian life, and as we have been saying for several weeks, living the Christian life is about how you handle every minute of your day, not about how you handle an hour on Sundays. It's about how you eat and sleep and talk to your friends. It's about how you work and how you play and whether other people feel better or worse after spending some time with you.
When you stick with those things, those are the things that will clean you out. When you have practiced walking with God every day for fifty years or more, any effects of age will be completely transformed by the beauty shining from within, just as has happened with many here at St. John's. Church membership by itself is not going to do it, but it is the place to start, because we need community. We need other people to hold us accountable and we need other people to help us up when we fall. We need other people to show us what the love of God is like when we forget, and we need other people so that we can learn to love others through thick and thin.
It's Pentecost. Happy Birthday to the Church...you are 2002 years old today! As birthday presents we have given you seven bright new young people whose lifetime is fresh before them. We have also given you a memory book of the precious saints who have held up this local piece of you for 50-plus years. Happy Birthday, Church! Thank you God!
Sermon © 2002, Anne Robertson