(1 Corinthians 12: 27, 4, 12-27; Isaiah 25: 6-9)
Today, Grace and I are beginning a sermon series that will take us from today, All Saints Day, to Christ the King Sunday, the week before Advent. We’re excited about the theme, which is, “This is what I love about……” We want to talk about four things in the Christian faith that we love – and not just as pastors, but maybe more importantly as people of faith. It was tough to whittle it down to just four, but in the end we came up with: the church, the Holy Spirit, Faith, and Jesus.
And I want you to know that, by design, these sermons are going to lean a little more to the personal – not “revealing” personal, but personal in the sense of the two of us speaking from our heart instead of just our head. You’re going to hear more from Steve and Grace the fellow sojourners in faith than Steve and Grace the preachers.
You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot of stories in these sermons. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our Bible, after all, is a collection of stories; the fabric that, when woven together, makes up the tapestry of faith.
So on this Sunday morning, on All Saints Day, I want to tell you what I love about church. And in order for me to do that, I have to go back a ways; back to some of my earliest memories of church, where the love for it first began.
My first memories of church were worship. The vastness of the sanctuary, not unlike this one, in fact. The eight or so pews in front of where we typically sat, almost always lectern side. The fact that there were always three other Lindsleys with me – Mom, Dad, brother. Pretty much all or nothing every Sunday morning, and the Lindsleys didn’t miss many.
I loved singing hymns in worship. The tunes became like old friends to me the more we sang them. I remember sometimes just to be silly, I’d sing the hymns as they were grouped together on the page, rather than skipping from stanza to stanza to say on the same verse like you were supposed to. I’m not encouraging this practice, I’m just saying that I thought it was a pretty rebellious thing to do at the time.
I remember the baptisms. At White Memorial Presbyterian in Raleigh, with over 4500 members, we literally had a baptism every Sunday. It wasn’t until I left home that I realized this didn’t happen everywhere else. For me, baptisms were a regular part of weekly worship, like scriptures and anthem and sermon. Thing is, they never got old. Fascinated I was with the ritual, the words, and a baby welcomed into their new church family. I imagine I saw close to 500 baptisms before I graduated from high school.
I remember communion. Back in the day, the denomination said you couldn’t take communion until you went through confirmation. So for a large chunk of time, the tray of little crackers and cups of juice got passed over my brother and me. I wondered – what would it be like to finally, one day, take communion? I remember the few communions after confirmation, when my younger brother was the only left out Lindsley. Then I remember a change in our denomination that said anyone could take communion – and my brother, still years away from confirmation, joined us. I remember resenting that a little bit. Most of all, I remember realizing at a young age that, while I didn’t always understand communion, what was more important is that God did.
What I also loved about church were the sermons. It was Dr. Pickard who climbed the pulpit stairs most Sundays in my growing-up years. His sermons were consistent in construct – a brief unpacking of scripture; and then three points, always three points. Never four! Just three. I remember listening week after week and wondering how in the world he could come up with something new every Sunday. As I got older, I’d be listening to him preach and simultaneously constructing my own sermon in my head. What would I say, how would I say it? Would I ever consider doing that for a living? I wondered…….
I remember this little thing Dad and I used to do in worship. During the offering, as the choral anthem would move into “Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow,” our organist would play this seamless transition, effortlessly blending one song into the next. My Dad and I would try to guess that exact point when the first song ended and the second began. Maybe it was a key change; maybe a switch in tempo or feel. Sometimes we’d agree, many times we wouldn’t. It was fun and it was father and son engaging the music of worship.
Worship is what I loved about church; but it was always more than what could be printed in a bulletin. Worship as a group of gathered people, sharing in the joint experience of liturgy and words and symbols and song. And I loved those people. All those sitting in front of us, beside us, behind us, back in the balcony and up front in the choir loft. New faces and familiar faces, week after week.
What I loved about church and those people was the fact that they had made a promise to me, so I’d been told – a promise when I was just a baby to love me and care for me; and in their own way help me to see Jesus in them and in this church. The idea of people making a promise like that to me as a baby blew my young mind. Where else in the world does something like that happen? Where else do a group of people make that kind of promise and then live it out every single week, every single year? I had a family of 4,499 other people. I didn’t know all of them, but they knew me. That’s church. I love that.
As I got older I learned that it wasn’t always easy being church. I remember an associate pastor who was with us for a little while, and then one day wasn’t. Something had happened that meant he couldn’t stay. I remember my Dad was clerk of session for ten years straight – ten years! He’d come home from session meetings and I could tell from his demeanor whether it was an uplifting one or a challenging one.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church is all about the difficulty of being church. There’s a reason he had to tell them about the body of Christ and its many members; about unity amidst diversity. Because they were not unified. Disagreements, discord, strife. Different people seeing things differently, and letting those differences become roadblocks rather than bridges.
What I love about church is what Paul tells the Corinthians: that there’s a difference between unity – everyone being together – and uniformity – everyone being the same. Paul was trying to help them understand that their calling was not to be a uniform church, but a unified church – and to let their differences be the glue that held it all together instead of barriers that kept them apart.
Paul loved those differences, the diversity, despite the challenges they occasionally presented. Paul knew that differences were essential for a thriving church – as was the commitment to dialogue and leadership and most importantly compassion. Unity in the midst of diversity. Hands AND feet, eyes AND ears; all special in their own way, all bringing their own gifts to the greater good.
A body, is what Paul chose to call it. I imagine him writing his letter, trying to find just the right image to employ. A body, yes, of course! Something we are part of, but not something we are the total of. Depending on each other, knowing full well there are others depending on us. Putting our gifts to use, knowing that someone else is doing the same and bringing something we cannot. All parts of the body, working together in their own way for the greater good.
Because amazing things can happen to you in this body. For me, it was the room of my church’s long-standing DCE, me sitting in her office chair, seeking guidance and wisdom. I was trying to discern if I really wanted to go to seminary and do the whole ordained ministry thing. Martha was sitting across from me, knitting. And without looking up, she said very matter-of-factly: So I wonder if you’ve ever thought about the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Not a seminary, but a master’s degree for educators and youth workers. I had not thought about it, but I started thinking about it then. I ended up going to that school, which sadly is no longer around; and while I did eventually wind up at seminary, that first step was key in me discerning what I loved so much about church.
It is in this body that we learn how deeply connected we are to people, even those who are no longer with us. I remember Pete, one of our associate pastors who I connected with during my college and seminary years. Pete was married to a beautiful wife with four precious daughters under the age of 9 when he learned about the brain tumor. He handled it with such grace, such generosity – even as he wrestled with saying goodbye, even as I wrestled with saying goodbye to him. So many shared conversations about life, ministry, family, calling, church. I remember driving home from Atlanta where I was in seminary to attend his funeral in Raleigh. I cried like a baby the whole way, because that is what church does to you – it connects you with other members of the body in powerful ways that you don’t realize until the moment when you do.
This is what I love about church, back then and to this day – the feel of worship, the sense of sanctuary, the faces and lives attached to you through something that is not at all you. Words from the pulpit and words from casual conversations in the narthex and fellowship hall; words from ministers and laypeople alike because all words mean something.
This is what I love about church – children climbing Montreat creek rocks, youth spending a Sunday evening making Halloween gift bags for church staff, just because. Adults taking their baptism vows seriously by committing themselves to the upbringing of the next generation in official and unofficial ways. The mystery person who polishes the brass when it needs polishing, even though everyone knows who that mystery person is. A congregation stepping up to the vision for a new year with energy and enthusiasm.
This is what I love about church – the body of Christ, many members, unity in the midst of diversity. Not always easy, but always faithful. Because it’s not about us. It’s about God, the Author of all our stories combined, who desires to co-write new ones with us, who desires to write our collective story together. The body of Christ, alive and vibrant and living out God’s mission in transformative ways.
This is what I love about church!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the name of the God who has called church into being, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people said, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.