31 October 2011

SERMON TEXT: Victors United

Sermon text: Revelation 7:9-17

Even though I am the pastor of a Presbyterian Church no one gave me tickets to the World Series this year. Imagine that. Now if we were living in the 1950s or 1960s a Presbyterian pastor would have been more likely to be given those tickets. You see, back in those days Presbyterians had some clout in society. When the President of the United States wanted to hear the concerns of the religious community in America, he would want to speak with leaders from the Presbyterian Church. In contrast, very few people in our pews can tell you name of the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Practically no one outside the PCUSA could name the moderator. The Presbyterian Church USA has lost influence in the culture. We have very little clout these days. No one comes knocking on our door wanting to know what we think. So we have self doubts. We have nagging questions. Are we still playing on a winning team? Do we have a chance of making it to the spiritual world series? Or should we put down our spiritual bat and gloves and go home and forget about it? These questions are answered by our text this morning.

Before dawn's early light my family and I met the rest of the little league team at a service station on the edge of town. We filled up our tanks and prepared ourselves for the long drive to Atlanta where we would compete in the Little League world series. We had won our state championship but how would we compare to championship teams from other states? As we joined the convoy leaving town, I put the little white headphones from my iPhones in my ears and listened to a spiritual song. It started with our reading from today in Revelation 7:9-10:

"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

As our caravan pulled out of the gas station and onto Highway 6 East in Mississippi, I felt connected to all the other families from all over the country who were starting out on a similar journey to Atlanta that morning. The big drive had begun. We were on our way.

The hotel in which we stayed in Atlanta was not an expensive hotel. It was not in the best part of town. It was clean but not fancy. An Indian family ran the hotel. There was some dissension about the hotel among the team. Some of the folks on the first floor did not feel safe there. They did not feel comfortable. Others of us who were more accustomed to the smell of Indian food liked the hotel. Before the tournament ended, we all moved to a larger, fancier hotel. That did not help us win the game but it made some of the folks feel safer and more comfortable. God's purpose in life is not always to make us feel more safe and comfortable. In fact, sometimes God's purpose is to make us feel less safe and comfortable. This may challenge us to greater growth. The great players in the World Series this week did not hone their skills by practicing what they were already good at. They had coaches that pushed them to develop skills and get better at doing what they were not good at doing. Such pushing beyond our comfort level is what improves their skills and makes them great players instead of just good players. That is the difference between playing in the world series and playing in a little league tournament in Atlanta. The skills of the world series players have been fine tuned by always being pushed beyond their comfort level. God does that to us in our inner lives as well. We find ourselves facing challenges that we feel unable to meet. The old saying "God never gives us more than we can handle" is true. And sometimes we wonder just how far God can push us before we break. That is how spiritual growth happens. That makes us better players. That makes us a better team.

God's standards for us are way higher than we thought. God is not satisfied with mere Sunday worship attendance. Jesus himself was never much impressed with worship attendance. One of his biggest fights with religious leaders came when he was passing through a wheat field one sabbath day. His disciples were hungry so they picked some wheat from the field and ate it. When the religious leaders saw this they felt outraged because picking wheat was considered work and you were not supposed to work on the sabbath day. In our congregation today are folks who grew up in a time when neither work nor play was allowed on the sabbath day. Strict Presbyterian parents required that children be silent and still all day Sunday. If they had to do something they could read the Bible. Other than worship attendance, no other activity was allowed on a Sunday morning.

The Rev. Ted V. Foote, Jr., pastor of the Texas A&M Church told the story of his grandparents generation in central Texas. They had ordered a shipment of special wood to build their sanctuary. The wood arrived on a Monday and they rode their horses out to pick it up. One of the men delivering the wood said it was a good thing they were able to ride all day Sunday or they wouldn't have gotten there on time due to the rain. The Presbyterian elders told the delivery men that they would have to make another delivery of that order and under no circumstances were they to move the wood on a sabbath day for this was holy wood to be used to build a sanctuary. They paid for that wood and took it back to their community where they divided it up among themselves to build barns and outhouses. They would not use wood that had been moved on a sabbath day to build a sanctuary.

The pastor said today in his community not so far from where his grandparents had lived there are many activities on the sabbath day. Presbyterian elders in his church today have no problem with shopping on the sabbath or having their children play soccer on the sabbath. Yet they still have a sense of propriety at that church. This was recently expressed in a community worship service sponsered in the sanctuary of their church on a Sunday afternoon. It was a service in which many different religions participated included Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. It was a memorial service for the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. The pastor said on that day he couldn't help think about the difference between the community of a hundred years ago and the community there today. All the difference races and religions gathered under one roof in a solemn memorial service. He said he thinks Presbyterian elders today still have a good sense of propriety and what is right as we live out God's calling for us in this day and age.

Worship was serious business for those Presbyterian elders of old. So it is in our text this morning. In Revelation 7:11-12, we read:

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!' 
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
'Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.'

The church universal depicted here has overcome the world. We are part of the church universal. Thus our victory over death is sure. Even though the outcome is sure, we may lose some tournaments along the way. The Batesville Blaze  little league team did not win that tournament in Atlanta. We won some games and lost some games but each player got better. We improved our skills. We created some lasting memories. For a week we learned what it means to belong to a tight nit team. There were arguments among team members about who should get more playing time and who was going to pitch. There were fights over whether the boys should be allowed to go swimming on the afternoon before a big game in the evening. We couldn't even agree on which hotel we should be staying in. Even so, when the first pitch was tossed in each game we pulled together and rooted for our team. We all stood together for a common goal. We were on a on the winning team. That is how it is in Christ's church. We have fights. We have disagreements on little things that sometimes become big problems. Yet we are working together for a common cause of glorifying God by making disciples and meeting human needs. This God project in which you are involved is destined to succeed.

Today, on this All Saints Day, we remember our team members who have gone on to the Big League. They are now on God's home team in heaven. We will join them there one day in the World Series of the ages. In the meantime, we will play in a tournament here in Meyerland, in Westbury, in Houston. We won't win every game. We may not even win this tournament. But we are honing our skills for the Big Leagues. We are preparing for that World Series in the life to come. They say practice makes perfect but that's not really true. Proper practice makes perfect. How we practice is the key to our growth. We must push ourselves beyond what we think we can do. We must work on those skills that do not come naturally. Skills such as how to worship God, how to participate in and lead a small group. We will continue to work on treating one another with patience. We will show more loving kindness to the people who irritate us. We will work on controlling our tongue and what we say and how we say it so that we build people up instead of tearing them down. We will do our daily devotionals to cultivate more love, joy and peace in our lives and in our community. In the end, ultimately, we will win because we are playing on the winning team. With God as our manager, Jesus as our pitcher, and the Holy Spirit as our coach, there is no way we are going to lose the World Series in the skies.

Such is the vision presented to us in our text today from Revelation 7, which concludes with an image of our team, the home team, in our white uniforms.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, 'Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?'
I said to him, 'Sir, you are the one that knows.' Then he said to me, 'These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

Here is the encouragement of this text and of this All Saints Day. Our people are taken care of. The players who have gone before us into the Big Leagues - into the church universal - are being taken care of. We have a future in heavenly places and in that future our success is ensured. We have a place on God's roster. God will never give up on us. Our retirement plan is ultimately secure. As the revelator closes it out in our reading today from Revelation 7:16-17:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'

We live with the confidence that as children of God we are on the winning team. So let's focus on building our individual skills so we can contribute to the success of the team. Team work is the key to victory in this life and in the life to come. We are only as strong as our weakest player. Go with the confidence that this is a championship team. Our success is sure. So let's stay focused and let's stay hungry. We are on the winning team. We will win the cosmic World Series. You can count on it. It says so right there in the Bible. Let's act like the winners we are. Show respect for your team mates. We will win not because of who we are but because of WHOSE we are. We belong to God. We play on Christ's team. The Holy Spirit will ensure our success. Go with the confidence of children of God on this All Saints Day.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035 on October 30, 2011.
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