... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Easter 5 Year A
Message May 18, 2014

God our Fortress: Church the Barn

Text: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

While not expressly evident at first glance, all the readings for today are connected by the themes of faith, trust and covenantal relationship. And as we look at these themes I hope we can come to see what implications reside in them for us as individuals and as a faith community. Some of you know that I spent eight years in the reserves as an officer and despite the fact that I was not engaged in combat duties, still had to go through all the drills, all the marching and all the various exercises. Others too in non-combative roles had to go through the same training and often asked ‘why?’ Of course the usual answers included such things as esprit-de-corps, familiarization with others roles or duties, physical fitness and so on. Yet behind all of this and not expressed was the element of trust and relationship. Whether as a member of the armed forces, a hockey team, a football team or a church community we all need and depend on one another to be effective, to live out the aims of the group or to fulfill our vocation. Without trust without the relationship everything else breaks down. We can easily imagine what might happen in battle if the soldiers could not anticipate their comrades’ moves or directives. Likewise if the football team has no idea what the quarterback intends, how can the rest of the players block, guard, or be prepared for a pass or a fake run! Trust allows for people to work together toward a common goal with confidence and without fear.

And Scripture is replete with examples and those examples deal with the higher goals and ideals of existence – good vs evil, reliance on God over against reliance on self, and God’s faithfulness as compared to human unfaithfulness. From the story of Adam and Eve where curiosity and self-reliance ended in downfall through the stories of the chosen people, time and time again we are regaled how humanity sought after self-determination, self-promotion and self-indulgence only to end up in the maze of despair and the pit of defeat. Against this back-drop of human depravity God chose a people, set them apart, and made a covenant with them. Israel’s journey in faith was to be a beacon for all humanity. And despite their many failures, their story showed the continual turn back to God as a source of strength, a haven for protection and a release out of danger.

The psalmist in today’s psalm expresses this reliance on God so poignantly – In God there was refuge and deliverance. Protection from the forces of evil, the wiles of the devil or the snares of the enemy could be relied upon in God’s covenant and in trust one could put one’s life in God’s hands. That witness to trust occurs later in the psalm as it does in a vast majority of the psalm and also in the 1st reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Stephen a man of good standing and filled with the Spirit was one of seven selected to be ordained by the apostles to minister to the general population. Despite his good works or maybe because of them, there arose antagonism with some who belonged to the synagogue and they instigated a campaign of false witness against him, baiting him and eventually inciting a mob to put him to death. Yet, in his last hours of life Stephen testifies to God’s faithfulness as a refuge a deliverer of the innocent. And like Jesus, Stephen did not engage in retaliating efforts but prayed to God for their forgiveness that they might come to know God in and through Jesus.

The author of 1 Peter likewise encouraged his audience to realize their covenant which God had established thus creating them as a people. “Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people: once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” A change has taken place: individuals have become related, non-believers have become believers, victims have become rescuers, and naysayers have become witnesses. But more than this, a new edifice has been built. With Jesus as the cornerstone a spiritual house called “Church” (capital C) has been started – a community of faith-filled believers committed to Christ and tied inextricably by a covenant with God. Unfortunately that building is not as solid as the ideal concept would have us believe. The reason is that while the cornerstone of the foundation is secure solid and dependable, the other stones are flawed, insecure and much less dependable. That is why we still need God and why we need one another.

If you don’t see this, the lesson from John 14:1-14 ought to wake us to the reality of our situation. Thomas and Philip both of whom have been with Jesus since the beginning of his ministry are shown to be lost and still unaware of Jesus’ true identity and worth. Thomas states, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” and Philip asks that Jesus “show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Disciples with first-hand knowledge and experience of and with Jesus didn’t get it! And we some 2000 years removed think we know it all! No likely – it is and continues to be a struggle to know and understand ‘Church’. We wrestle with what church is, what its mission is, and what it is to do. We like the disciples are full of troubled hearts. We come with the burdens of the day, the angst of the world and the concerns of life. We have the troubles of the uncertainty of the here and now, and the brevity of time which robs us of so much. And so we endeavour to cope with what we know and with what we find comfortable. Yet we cast aside that which can force us from our woes and heavy hearts. We forget about trusting God and coming to the renewal place of church. Church is supposed to be the shelter of life – the barn where sheep might find rest for the night, warmth from the cold and a place for the detection and treatment of ills before heading back to the pasture the next day.

Unfortunately the barn is also the place of greatest vulnerability if not protected or vigilance is not exercised. Predators seek out the barn as a place for easy prey. Countless stories are in the records of child molesters who join congregations in order to become Sunday school or youth workers so that they get their pick to satisfy their own desires. Elder abuses, bullies swindlers con artists, all “flock” to the church in the hope of easy pickings. However as Church and as believers in God we must trust in the Spirit to discern – not just the wolves from the sheep but also the sheep which need protection from each other. We need to be able to nurture and care for the vulnerable and to be pastoral to those who overstep and yet which are not wolves. The call to be ‘Church’ is not easy – it is the epitome of trust and relationship: trust in God and one another and relationship both with God and neighbour. Can it ever become what is the ideal? Never by our own endeavours or strengths, unlikely with human codes of conduct and laws; but yes in God’s power and in God’s time. Until then we are called to trust God, to become a community of faith-filled and faithful flowers and to minister to each other and the world at large, so that God’s glory might be made manifest and humanity who has been called as stewards of creation might grow into that calling fully matured.

May God ever be our refuge and Church our support.