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Sermons

The Gospel for Those Who Have Everything

January 17, 1999, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42;

The Gospel for Those Who Have Everything! I simply couldn't resist. The vision of this title from the sign on Madison Avenue was simply too tempting to let pass. Is there a gospel for those who have everything? Or, to be more pointed still, is there "good news" for those who have everything?

By now you have excluded yourself from among those addressed by the title. After all, you don't have everything. I mean, regardless of how much you may have, it isn't EVERYTHING! So perhaps it is time to narrow the scope of the subject. Paul is writing to the church he founded in Corinth several years earlier. Corinth was the second largest city in the Roman Empire, the capital of Achaia, and a prosperous center of commerce, culture, arts, philosophy, not to mention being filled with every possible religion, plus all sorts of other diversions. In other words, it was a modern New York City -- they had it all. Paul is writing to people not unlike you and me.

Paul reminds them of who they are by quoting to them their mission statement. "To the church of God that is in Corinth, those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours."1

To the church of God. That word "church" has been with us so long we may well forget what it means. What comes to your mind when I say the word "church?" It doesn't refer to a structure or a building, certainly not to a denomination, or other corporate organization, not even to a theological movement like Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic. Church; the word at its most basic level means "assembly." That group of folks in Corinth who responded to Paul's preaching became an assembly in that city. They continued to come together even after Paul had moved on to Ephesus, from where he was writing this letter. Why did they continue to come together? They knew themselves to be God's people, and among God's people when they gathered. Of all the things you thought about when you thought about coming here this morning, is that one of them? Did you think of yourself as preparing to gather with God's people in New York City, or more specifically still, God's people at MAPC? For that is what you have done. That is who we are. You are seated among God's people. In fact, you may just be one of them!

How can we tell? Paul says they are those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints...." What does it mean to be sanctified in Christ Jesus? Behind the word "sanctified" lies the Latin "Sanctus" which means "holy," or "set apart." We have been set apart in Christ Jesus. Set apart; the basic nature of the church is to be different than the rest of the world around us. One way of expressing this is to say that we are to be "in" but not "of" the world. But one needs to be careful with that image lest we too quickly see ourselves "above" it all. An incarnational theology demands a more dynamic understanding of what it means to be "set apart," an understanding which emerges when we understand the purpose of our "set- apartness."

The church is set apart on God's behalf. The purpose of this assembly exists beyond itself. The goals and objectives, to use the jargon of strategic planning, exist beyond this assembly. This is not a self-help group. Nor is it a voluntary association gathered around some commonly agreed-to activity or purpose, like rearing children, listening to good music, cleaning up the East Side, promoting education, eradicating hunger, poverty, racism or other forms of injustice. We may well participate in many of those activities on a day to day basis -- and in fact we do each of those things I have just mentioned right here -- but that is not our primary purpose. Paul reminds us that our primary purpose is to be God's people, set apart in Christ Jesus. The Church of God at MAPC.

That not only means that we are not our own, but also that we are not on our own. There are two dimensions to this reality. The first is that God is among us. Sometimes that is so obvious that we need not speak it. Often, within this time of worship, we know it. But it is well for us, from time to time, to simply say that to one another, if for no other reason than to keep that truth clearly before us. We are God's people and God is in the midst of us. We are not on our own. The second dimension to that reality is that we are not the only ones to be so called by God. We belong to a larger community that extends beyond this place. There is, after all, another community just two blocks south of us, at St. James Episcopal Church. They too have been called to be God's holy ones in this city. We share that with them. And of course, there's St. Jean Baptist over on Lexington Avenue. They too have been called to be God's holy ones in this city. Then there are the many other Presbyterian Churches scattered throughout this city, Fifth, Brick, First, Central, Jan Hus, Rutgers, wherever you find people in this city gathering to call on God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, there you will find an extension of yourself, there you will find God's holy ones. To these Paul speaks a word of blessing: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace to you and peace. Week after week I stand before you with hands raised and pronounce such a blessing. Have you ever thought about what that means? After all, it is more than a symbolic action. Some of you bow your heads when I do it. Others of you look up, both boldly and expectantly, awaiting that moment when my eye catches yours, and our lives connect as though you have felt the touch of my raised hands. It is a blessing, an invoking and imparting of God's power upon you. As surely as I mark each one baptized with the sign of the cross, it is a marking you again in God's name -- more than once I have been tempted to make the sign of the cross over us -- a reminder that we are being sent out to do Christ's work empowered by God's Spirit.

We do not go from this place and into the world to be God's people sustained by our own resources. We go empowered by God's Spirit. Paul tells us that to participate in this community is to be a people upon whom God's grace and peace rest. Do you participate in this community? You are one upon whom God's grace rests. You are a bearer of grace -- God's grace. Are you a member of this community? You are one upon whom God's peace rests. You are a bearer of peace -- God's peace. Do not ever leave a worship service anywhere and say you have gotten nothing out of it. For always, everywhere this word is spoken -- Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ -- there those gifts have been given.

But there is more to it than that. Paul reminds the Corinthians, as I would remind us, we are a people upon whom God's grace rests in such abundance that in every way we have been enriched. We have everything we need. And frankly, that is better than having everything! Who of us would know what we would do if we had everything! And, in fact, once we begin to think about that very long, who of us would want that burden? No, the point is we have everything we need to do what God has called us to do here on the corner on Madison Avenue and 73rd Street.

This is so true that I almost do not know where to begin by way of illustration. For three or four years we have been talking about what to do in this sanctuary, the church house and Phillips Buildings. The very worn carpet in here is but a symbol of the worn infrastructure of these very well used buildings. As the planning continued the price kept going higher, and people began to fear it would not be possible -- $10, maybe even $12 million dollars? Where would we get such resources? Better than a year ago the Trustees urged the Session to take advantage of the way in which God had recently blessed us with growth in our endowment. They encouraged the Session to set aside two million as seed money to begin the renovation of this building, even before a financial campaign to support construction could begin. In the discussion which followed, the Trustee who had made the recommendation and who was its strongest supporter was even bold enough to suggest that within a year we would not even know the two million had been taken. Believe me, there were lots of rolled eyes, and knowing smiles that flashed around the table at that comment. Still, the Trustees agreed with the recommendation. Session responded to the Trustee's leadership, and the work began last spring. We have been thrilled, startled, and blessed by what was begun there. At the same time, people have been making plans for the rest of this campaign called most appropriately, The Fund for Renewal.

Last week you heard Caroline and David Johnson announce that the Henry Luce Foundation has promised us a grant of two million dollars to assist us with the work that needs to be done. Later that day, the Session met with architects and the Building Committee to learn of their recommendations for the next phase of work with its $5.4 million price tag. If approval were given, the work would begin immediately following Easter Day of this year. On Monday evening our Trustee Investment Committee met with our investment advisors to talk about their extraordinary performance this last year. I was only sorry that the Trustee who had predicted that the two million would be made up in less than a year was not present at that meeting to hear his prediction confirmed. To use a phrase he often uses, "It was delicious!" It is extraordinary how God has blessed us as we have responded through the disciplined used of our endowment and through the increase of our own stewardship. That's another sermon illustration, all in itself.

Last Tuesday evening the Trustees and Session met for their annual joint meeting. Normally it is a time when the two groups rather aggressively hash through the proposed budget for the new year, often disagreeing about priorities. This year's meeting had not only the budget, but the recommendation for the $5.4 million second phase building plans, no easy agenda. But as the evening unfolded and the reports were made, I found myself again marveling at the resources God has given us. I am not just speaking about the financial resources, but the people sitting at the table. You've heard me say this before, the extraordinary thing about serving here is the opportunity to work with such gifted people who are so willing to give of their time, their skills, their talents and their treasure to serve Jesus Christ in this place. I couldn't help thinking of this morning's text: "the grace of God that has been given [to us] in Christ Jesus, for in every way [we] have been enriched in him."

The budget was adopted quickly and without much difficulty. When it came to the question of the building campaign, the issues were not "Where will we get the money." There is a sense that God is at work in this and will, by encouraging each of us to find ways to support the campaign, provide the resources necessary to accomplish what needs to be done. No, the concern was not about money. You know what the concern was about? What would this campaign do to our ministries which depend upon the space? How were we going to continue to worship? How were we going to be able to continue to feed the homeless on Thursday evenings? How were we going to be able to provide a senior luncheon on Sunday? Where would the some 200 people who gather in the Parish Hall on Saturday evening for AA meet while the construction makes that space unusable between Easter and Labor Day? Those were the concerns. As the evening continued, solutions were explored and the report approved, I knew precisely what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the church in Corinth that they were not lacking in anything. They had everything they needed. I came away from Tuesday with a sense that enormous strides had been made, and wonderful things were about to unfold as we renew our commitments to being God's people in this place.

But Paul does not end there, and so neither can I. Paul says that God will strengthen [us] to the end. Here is the good news for those who have everything -- God is faithful. As we give ourselves to serving Jesus Christ, as we give of our resources, as we give of our time, as we give of our talent, God continues to bless us, pouring out grace upon grace. I will be the first to acknowledge that the time between Easter and December will be a challenge. We will worship in spaces we didn't think were possible for worship. We will feed people out of kitchens we didn't think able to prepare such meals. We will meet in places we hadn't thought of meeting. And those of us, who can, will walk stairs while each elevator is being renovated, so that those who cannot climb stairs can use the available elevator. But through it all, God will be at work in us. We will know his grace and live in his peace as we live in this fellowship of his son.

LET US PRAY.

  1. 1 Corinthians 1:2

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