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Sermon – “With Us” – June 30, 2013

Sunday, June 30, 2013 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

With Us 1 Kings 8: 22, 30, 41-43; Psalm 86: 1-10; Luke 9: 46-50

The first Sunday in the month, when I was sitting here on my little built-in seat listening to the Old Testament lesson being read, I began to think, “I’ve written the wrong sermon.” The scripture told about King Solomon dedicating the Temple he built to God, how he prayed for God’s blessing Israel, and attending to their prayers, and reliably being there for them– and then included the foreigners and others who would be attracted there by the reputation of the God of Israel–that God likewise would be there for them, and hear their prayers, and bless them. Listening to that double prayer–for the house of God to be a blessing for its own congregation and to be a blessing for strangers who would be drawn to it by what they had heard about what God can do, I thought, we could do that same thing. Every place of worship serves its own congregation and, in many ways, people from outside the congregation. It is appropriate to remember that the existence of a house of God has this double nature, and thinking about Solomon’s prayer reminds us– because Solomon deliberately declares this– that the house of God is just that–not the possession of any particular group of people, but a place people of faith build to, through worship and ritual and all the attendant elements of a life of faith, make contact and connection between the creator of the cosmos and anyone who comes seeking God’s presence.

I’m not Solomon, and I am not going to make this a prayer. Joining a prayer takes a different disposition and a different level of energy than hearing a sermon, and even with the words in front of me I didn’t think I could pray this long, let along have you pray with me this long. I’m going to talk about all the things we could pray for, here, today, if we began to ask God to bless all the people and all the ministries associated with this place.

We could begin right where we are now, with the worshiping congregation. We could bid God inform the preaching, energize the singing, give focus and faith to the prayers, both the collective and private prayers. Sometimes someone comes to church and through the experience of the worship hour that person feels like he or she has been addressed, spoken to–that the words of a hymn or a thought in the sermon or a phrase in a prayer seemed directed right at them, or captured where their spirit was. We could pray for that immediacy of connection, and that sense of renewed identity as a person of God achieved through worship, to occur more often, and bear fruit more surely. In Solomon’s prayer in the Bible he emphasizes the responsiveness of God– that God hear prayers, and satisfy the hopes and needs of those calling upon God. We could add to that, for our own sakes as a worshiping community, that God’s spirit lead us to being more responsive ourselves, more intentional in our efforts to praise, and to pray– more vital in our expectation, more of an inspiration to those who worship with us. Public prayer is a team experience, and it is enhanced when the individuals engaged in it worship more wholeheartedly.

Those who worship here also are the source of almost all the persons who take advantage of the educational opportunities the church offers. Sunday School, Bible Studies, discussion groups, all are an occasion for prayer. It’s not just gaining knowledge or sharing ideas, either. Relationships grow in learning. Dialogue and discovery are quickened by God’s spirit. We could pray for all those who teach and study to be grounded in prayer, and aided by God’s attention.

Some people serve here with music. We could pray for the choir and the organist and for our collective singing. That’s another avenue by which God moves people, and motivates, and reassures. Music is part of the human experience which operates on a different plane that ordinary speech– it can impart beauty, delicacy, grandeur, solemnity, confidence, the artistry of genius and the integrity of devoted expression.

Music also provides us an opportunity to pray for God’s touching people who do not worship here, because people come here for music at times when we are not worshiping. It’s a beautiful place to make music, and in recent years the existing occasions of recitals and concerts drawing people into the church have been increased by visiting choirs. They come because they feel this space blesses their singing, and allows their hope to be a blessing to others to be more effective, more sonorous, more beautiful.

There are occasions and rituals here which serve us and which sometimes serve those with whom we are not directly connected. Parents come to dedicate children. Usually that comes from within the church family, but sometimes we discover we are the closest thing to a church home for those whose instincts about God make them realize that the gift of a child born to them is an occasion for the greatest seriousness of purpose and the largest expression of gratitude. Rituals like that bring in additional persons. Grandparents and aunts and uncles and family friends come to witness parts of church life featuring the children. That’s true for events like dedications, and it’s true for Sundays on which the children sing or perform skits or otherwise lead in worship.

The church baptizes, and that’s not only an occasion for the person professing faith, it’s a time when a wider circle of those who care for the person come into the orbit of the power of the God on whom we call. The place of the baptistry, front and center– the great wooden doors, the drama of the cross silhouetted against the bare wall of the open baptistry– all of that reminds us that official decisions for discipleship are the core of the purpose of the church. Of all the things we can pray that God help happen, none is more important, and none so completely bridges the distinction between insider and outsider, as baptism unites persons to the church community.

Weddings give God an opportunity. Now, people aren’t always very consciously religious in their approach to a wedding, though they sometimes have a seriousness of purpose which may have more to do with God than they are aware– but we should pray for people who are married here. They may come for the architecture or because this is a walkable distance from the reception but that doesn’t mean that God can’t use the opportunity to stir something in a person’s soul. I got a letter a couple of years ago from a young woman whose wedding was performed here– oh, at least eighteen or twenty years ago, thanking us for letting her, a nonmember, be married here– grateful for the hospitality, for the openness, for serving that need at that time, and letting me know that she and her husband and kids were active in their church where they now live out of state. Hadn’t heard from her since the wedding until then, and haven’t heard since, but it’s a reminder, that sometimes a willingness to be useful, a neighborly instinct to cooperate, a traditional function in one of life’s big deals plants the seed of seeing something in the possibility of church which eventually grows into faithfulness.

Church isn’t just about who and what comes into this space. It’s also about what goes out. We could pray for the mission giving, for the efforts to support charitable work, for the volunteer efforts and personal undertakings informed by our faith. Whatever we put our heart and our hope into we also can ask God to bless, and increase. We could pray for everyone who comes to church with a heart for service, with a hope to share the gift of their time or their ability, looking to find meaningful work for God or to make a contribution to the community, that God help those people find chances to give, and encourage them. Again, there are many roles people undertake as members of the congregation to try collectively to do some good, and there are others with no direct connection to the worshiping body of the church, who still, because of the food and clothing programs, or because of the self-help groups we host, are given occasions to offer their service through a connection to this place.

We might well pray to God and say that though the ongoing and familiar nature of many of these ministries and these meetings makes us think of them, when we do think of them at all, as business as usual, that they are here because at some point people consciously sought to serve God by serving neighbors. At some point the decision was made that giving a group of people seeking a place to meet together for their common benefit was an outreach of the love of Christ. The self-help groups we host have their own resources and approaches, but as most of them call on a higher power, we can pray that God bless their efforts..

We could pray for God’s hand and help upon the Food and clothing programs, on the volunteers, and on the clientele. That doesn’t exhaust the ways this church offers an interface between God Almighty and God’s children–it has its ongoing effect in the lives of those who have once been a part, but moved away– it has its significance in the lives of those who don’t practice their faith outwardly, but identify with this church’s posture of service and seriousness of purpose– but it is important to remind ourselves, as Solomon reminded his people at the Temple, that our God is the world’s God, and our place of worship not only an opportunity for us, but for others to be blessed. Most of all, we remind ourselves that life is not just what we make it, but what God can do.

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