I want to begin by thanking Pastor Pam for the honor of being here once again. I served here at Faith-Lilac Way a few years ago now. And you know. I’m not really used to being asked back somewhere. So this has already been a blessing to me. Just the invitation.
And to return to a congregation that is doing such lively ministry is a joy. The senior housing was in the planning stages when I left. The Home is wonderful to see. And the ministry to the folks there. Your ministry to future leaders of the church. I have spent a little bit of time with your vicar, Joe Orner. You’ve whipped him into shape and how impressive he is! And, of course, Pastor Pam. Her leadership, her heart, her love for God, and for all of you. Every time I’m with her, she gives life and light.
So I rejoice in the opportunity given to me to preach this morning to help you celebrate your 75th Anniversary. You’ve also given me an Anniversary Gospel reading which, if anything, reminds us of both who we are as Christians and what it is our world so badly needs.
Now, many of you have traveled. And maybe some of you have been to Rome. There’s the Vatican. There’s the Colosseum. The Forum. The Temple to Jupiter, the chief god of ancient Rome. The Pantheon. Then there is the best thing. The gelato stores!
But there’s even more of these than gelato stores. When you visit Rome today. On the top of just about every single building, you find crosses. Everywhere you look there are crosses! You might say, “That makes sense. The Pope lives there! Of course there are crosses everywhere!”
But there is something to think about. If we could go back in time to about 64 or 65 A.D. Before the Pope was even there. The Emperor Nero has just set fire to the city of Rome to clear some space for his new palace. He needs a scapegoat. And he decides he’s going to blame it on this new Jewish group from Palestine called “the Christians.” So he announces that the Christians started the fire and sends his people throughout all the city, rounding up Christians. He has a thing called, “Nero’s Circus.” It wasn’t really a circus. It was basically an arena. And Nero is persecuting the Christians. Using them as human torches. Letting them be torn apart by dogs. Making sport out of it.
Imagine for just a minute we can go back in time to about 64 or 65 A.D. when all of this is going on. And you were to tell these persecuted people: “Did you know that one day the city of Rome will be decorated everywhere with crosses? And these crosses won’t be wooden crosses. There will be crosses on everything from buildings to walls to highways to signs. They’ll be everywhere! And these crosses will not represent Rome. These crosses won’t even represent crucifixion. These crosses will represent one single crucifixion of one Jewish man. The one you worship. Jesus Christ. One day all those temples in the city. They’ll be tourist attractions. The day is coming when no one will worship Jupiter. The day will come when Christians will make pilgrimages to Rome to visit where Nero’s Circus currently is, where your brothers and sisters are being put to death. But instead of an arena, there will be a cathedral built in memory of Peter, the fisherman, who was the leader of a movement called Christianity.”
Can you imagine what would run through their minds? They would look at you like you’re a fool! They would say, “No, Rome is forever! Jupiter is forever! Yes we believe in Jesus and we believe he’s the Savior. But his movement is a small movement. We’re only one of several dozen, and there’s no way in the world that Rome would ever surrender to this movement.” And yet, within three hundred years. Within three hundred years. There are crosses everywhere. Everywhere.
The question is: how did Rome finally give in and recognize that this group, the Church, was here to stay? The answer matters! Because we’re living in a time of leadership crisis. And we have an opportunity as Christians. We have a message the world desperately needs to hear. How did Rome finally give in? They gave in because of churches like Faith-Lilac Way. And people like you. Who understood who they are.
Who are we? We spend a lot of time these days talking about. Working out. Identity issues. Family identity. Gender identity. Job identity. Ethnic identity. Religious identity. Which means that one of the challenges today is figuring out exactly who we are and then how we’ll spend our lives.
It used to be that identity came as an inheritance from your family. Who told you clearly who you are and how you will be spending your life. My great grandparents on one side were 3rd and 4th generation farmers who each inherited the farm from the generation before them. No one asked the upcoming generation if they wanted to be a farmer. None of them took vocational aptitude tests that scored high in agriculture. They didn't even ask themselves if they would be fulfilled as farmers. I'm not even sure if they knew what that word meant. It was just their inheritance that they received from home.
But no more. Now home is something that you leave to decide for yourself who you are and what you will do with your life. For the last couple of generations. Maybe three. We've been giving our youth pretty much the same advice. “Be yourself.” “Follow your own dreams.” “Do your own thing.” “Chase your own star.”
And the way you do that is by making choices. We’re so big on choices these days! Anybody who has parented the last two generations knows that all the advice is about helping Johnny make good choices. So when Johnny throws a rock through the window. Rather than running out and stopping him, what you’re supposed to do, is bring Johnny in, show him the window, the rock, and say, “Now Johnny, was that a good choice?” And Johnny, who is a smart little boy, says, “I'm thinking no.” Right. Good.
We now tend to see life, and our understanding of identity, as a self-construction. We choose. Choose a school. Choose a major. Choose a job. Choose a community. Choose a church. And if you don't like your choices, just choose again. Which means that if you're unhappy, it's simply a matter of your choices. You can make yourself happy. You can find fulfillment. If you just choose better. And one of the results of this is that people can spend all sorts of time. Using up their lives. Constantly making choices. Hoping that they will eventually choose their way into a life that they really like.
Now choosing is not a bad thing. And inheriting a job. Is not necessarily a good thing. I really don’t think I was cut out to be a farmer! But what has happened is that we now tend to assume that people inherently know who they are. And what they want to do with their lives. And some sense of having a higher calling. Is lost.
And that’s what Paul was getting at in his letter the Galatians. Reminding them. “You are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus…..There is neither Jew nor Greek. Neither slave or free. Neither male or female.” Paul wasn’t saying nationalities and gender and social status don’t matter. What he did mean was that we no longer primarily identify ourselves by those things. They describe us; they do not define us. Our identity is not something that we inherit from our grandparents. It's not something we assemble; we self-construct as we currently think. No. We have a higher calling. That’s where you begin. Your identity, Paul says, is who you are baptized in Christ. God has called you. And when we remember that. We know how to spend our days and our lives.
Jesus put this identity question in a different way in the Gospel. He gave us two word pictures to tell us who we are. “You are the salt of the earth.” “Salt is a preservative. Without salt, the earth rots. By this one thing, all people will know that you’re my follower: how you love, how you treat, how you appreciate, how you care for one another.” “That’s new and that’s different, and if you’ll allow it to, it’s going to take hold. You are the salt, the preservers of the earth.” And then Jesus said: “Not only that, you are the light of the world.”
Now. I know there are some who say, “I don’t want to be the light of the world. I just want to go back and raise my family and go to heaven when I die.” Jesus said, “No, I don’t know who taught you that. You don’t have the option to be invisible. You followers are visible. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
Those that translated this in Greek didn’t use the word “built.” They used a little Greek word that is more like “placed,” because it was intentional. “A city placed on a hill cannot be hid.” If you’ve been to that part of the world, you know it’s hilly. There aren’t many trees. And they built towns on hills, and they built them out of white limestone, and you can see them from miles and miles and miles. The sun reflected off of them. At night they lit their oil lamps and you can see for miles and miles around. And Jesus said, “Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, that’s what you are. You are like a strategically placed city. That’s why you’re the light of the world. You have been strategically placed.”
We might say to that: “No! No! No! I’m not strategically placed. I live in Robbinsdale and I don’t really want to be here. I’m stuck here. I’m not strategic.” Or you say, “Light of the world? No, I’m not. I’m a freshman. I can’t even find my locker most days. I have no influence and nobody knows my name. I’m not strategic.” Or, “Light of the world. You have to be kidding. I’m in this job I don’t want to be in. I’m not a strategically placed light on a hill. I’m stuck with a bunch of people I don’t even like.” And to each of those people Jesus says, “No, if you’re my follower, you’re light! It may seem random to you, but you are strategically placed.”
When I was a young pastor. I was always intimidated by making hospital calls. And it wasn’t that I had a hard time visiting the people who were sick. No. The intimidation was from all those people in the white coats. The doctors. The nurses. The technicians. They had these official uniforms. They had their names written right on here. They had stuff around their neck. They had things in their bags they could use to poke you. Put fluid in you or take it out of you. It all said: “This is about serious business here. I’m a doctor. I’m a nurse.”
And I always felt. When one of them walked in the room. That I was kind of in the way. One day when I was sitting there with one of my parishioners in the room. Not having any of those serious things. I was sitting there with a Bible and a prayer that I had rehearsed in the car on the way over to the hospital.
A nurse walked in. Immediately feeling like I was in the way, I just jumped up and headed for the door. The nurse says, “Where are you going? Aren’t you this man’s pastor?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yup. I just…. I just want to let you do what you ‘gotta do.” She says, “I’m gonna do what I gotta do. You do what you gotta do. You’re the one.” She said. “You’re the one. Who is supposed to bring a little bit of heaven into this room.” “That’s right.” “That’s what I do.” “Why would I trade that in for a stethoscope?” “That’s what I get to do.” That’s what you get to do, too. You are the light of the world. You have the power of the God’s Spirit to bring a little bit of heaven to your part of God’s world.
We have a great, life-changing. Eternally true. Story to live and to tell. A story about a God who is dying to love us. Love everybody. And the world needs to hear it. I think that’s why there is so much interest in Mr. Rogers again. Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor. Who accepted all comers who came on his show. He met everybody with grace and in love and respect. It didn't matter who you were. He told everyone they were special. It didn't matter who you were watching that TV screen. It was you he liked. And we see that now and we say, “Wow, that's amazing! We want that again.” Mr. Rogers should be way retro now. Those cardigan sweaters. Now everybody wants him.!
How did Rome finally give in and realize that this group the Church was here to stay? It was because thousands of individual Christians lived a bit like Mr. Rogers. In local Christian gatherings. Witnessed to the risen Christ by sharing their wealth. Feeding widows and orphans. Caring for the sick and the children. Gathering for meals and teaching. There's nothing heroic here. Just the simple offering of gifts simply for the benefit of one another and for those outside the community. And yet in these very simple acts, God moved with remarkable power. Miracles were performed. The sick were healed and the dead were raised. And life was transformed. This was so powerful that it brought the swift attention of Rome. People suffered. But like a steady dripping water on a rock, the Christians persevered and persisted. It wasn't easy. But their perseverance paid off.
And today. 2000 years later. We’re still here! Every time you pick up a map and see names of cities like, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Francis, St. Bonifacius. Jesus’ influence is so enduring that we name our children after his friends—Paul, Peter, Mary, and John. And we name our dogs after the rulers of his day; like Brutus and Caesar and Nero.
They’re all gone and we’re still here. Living. Proclaiming. That God has prepared a future not just for us but all Creation. Creation will be made new by the power of God in the life and death of Jesus. As much as it may seem from the news that the world is in pain and struggles and evil runs freely. In fact, the world is in a waiting room, waiting to be fully redeemed in Christ. Even in difficult times, God is leading us somewhere better even when we can’t see it now.
Meanwhile, there is much to be done. So many needs to be met. So many opportunities to be seized. There is enough for everybody here, and the work of this church will never be done until Jesus comes. That is good news! For not only does it mean that we will always have something to do, but we will always have something worth the doing.
So, Faith-Lilac Way. Happy 75th Anniversary! And let us pray that we take on the work he has given us and make it our own, and let us carry on bravely, gloriously, full of joy. For Jesus has not left you a grim inheritance, he has left you a new opportunity, a fresh adventure, a promising future. You. You. Are His salt and light in the world. Jesus is not retreating, he is leading us, and forward we go into that great day that is His. For that we all give thanks to God.
Sermon by Reverend Mark Nelson