Last week, if you were here, you know we talked about what it is that completes us—and we determined that what completes us is rising above and outside of ourselves— It’s odd but true. We are at our best, we feel most fulfilled when we are sacrificing our comfort, our money, our very lives for others—even if that other is just a dog, or a couple of parakeets. In other words, we humans are more than just the bodies we inhabit. God has made us for transcendence.
There is a book I recommend to you that is a life changer. It was written by Vicktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. It’s a slim book. Man’s Search for Meaning. That book has everything to do with reaching beyond ourselves. I don’t think I will be spoiling it for you, if I tell you that the premise of that book is that those people who survived the death camps, sanity intact, found a reason for living—and even a purpose for their suffering—in other words for transcending their absolutely horrific life circumstance. That book is religious without being religious, if you get my drift. I brought my copy today if anyone is looking for a good summer read, feel free to borrow it.
Today, I want to take us one step further in our discussion of transcendence, of reaching beyond ourselves, to talk about group transcendence, and specifically group transcendence as it relates to churches. In last week’s scripture reading, Jesus was responding to one man, who had asked Jesus to arbitrate a land dispute. And Jesus says in so many words, “Really? Is that what you think I have been sent here to do? Arbitrate land disputes?” Au contraire! And that is what gets him going on what it is that is truly important—doing the work of God—doing the work of the kingdom. Again, transcendence.
In today’s scripture reading, Jesus is addressing not one person, but a group of people—a group Jesus refers to as “a little flock,” B-a-h. We here at Scottsville Presbyterian are nothing if not a little flock. Jesus tells us, his little flock, not to fear anything, because God has given his little flock, (us) the entire kingdom, which I guess is the whole world, or even more—the whole universe. Apparently, God has already signed the documents for the transfer of ownership—it is ours. The one thing stopping us from taking what is rightly ours, is our obsession with earthly possessions—we have to stop that-- and focus on heavenly treasures. Again, transcendence. Group transcendence.
Now right here we need to consider what is that Jesus could possibly mean by earthly possessions vs. heavenly treasures as it relates to this little flock. Individually of course, we have lots of earthly possessions—clothes and maybe a a bike, a cell phone (this side of the sanctuary) and a car, a house, appliances, like a refrigerator and a stove (this side of the sanctuary). But, if Jesus is truly addressing a little flock, as opposed to an individual, we have to think in terms of what we, this little flock, own in common—and that of course, would be this lovely church building, and all that we have that goes along with this lovely church building—the pews, the bell, the organ, the piano, our endowment fund, you get the idea. These things are very nice, wonderful even, but they just aren’t that important where the kingdom is concerned. They aren’t our treasure in heaven. Jesus says that what is important are our heavenly treasures.
What are our heavenly treasures? Having scoured scripture, I think our heavenly treasure might possibly be faith hope and love—Paul mentions those three in 1 Corinthians. Remember, “And now faith hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” I use that line in weddings all the time, but actually Paul was writing to a church community. He wasn’t writing to two people about to tie the knot. So it’s faith hope and love that exist among church members—in a little flock, that are our heavenly treasures—We need to focus on those if we are to transcend ourselves, if we are to engage in heavenly pursuits.
I have been stretching my brain to think of churches that don’t obsess over church buildings, and other earthly treasures, like pipe organs, and focus on heavenly pursuits. It’s hard, actually. A lot of churches do that—not here, though. Gratefully, not here.
I hit on one church though, that has taken heavenly pursuits to a whole other level. It’s a church I visited maybe twelve years ago. As an Associate Pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia, I led a youth trip to the Mexican border, specifically Nogales, Mexico. One of our stops on the US side of the border was Southside Presbyterian Church—in Tucson, Arizona.
Southside Church is built like a campus—several different buildings with a courtyard in the middle. Nothing fancy. Simple one story adobe (or maybe stucco) structures. Our group of three adults and twelve youth sat on the pavement in the courtyard one summer’s day in 2004. We were met by the pastor, Rev. John Fife, who looked like the antithesis of a man of the cloth. That day he wore jeans, a cowboy shirt, and fancy cowboy boots. He sauntered up to us, and then using some stray cinderblocks for a chair, he sat among us. Rev. Fife said: “When I first visited Southside thirty years ago, I was looking for a church to pastor. Southside is in a bad part of town as you may have noticed (we had). The few members who attended back then, were poor –and mainly poor people of color—Blacks, Mexicans, and Tohono O’Odham native Americans. There was talk about closing the church. I knew this was the church I wanted to pastor. I applied, they accepted.“
Southside had no money. Not even enough to pay John Fife’s salary. But remember as Jesus says in our passage for today, we are not to worry about possessions—and that includes salaries. God provides. Working through John Fife, God actually DID provide. Rev. Fife visited and introduced himself to the pastor at the affluent Presbyterian church in the heart of Tucson. Think big, expansive building and a pipe organ!
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that conversation, I tell you! John Fife explained Southside Presbyterian’s dire financial situation. He asked if First Presbyterian could provide some financial support. The pastor listened unmoved. So John Fife said, “If we close Southside Presbyterian of course our members will come here to worship.” The pastor did not have to think long: “Perhaps my church can provide Southside some funds after all!”
With their financial situation settled, Southside soon became busy storing up for itself treasures in heaven. It happened like this.
In the 1980’s, Salvadoran guerrillas had taken over El Salvador’s government. Former Salvadoran government officials had to flee their country. They crossed over from Mexico to the US. When Salvadoran refugees entered the US, though, they were picked up by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and dropped back into El Salvador. When they reentered their own country, they were imprisoned, tortured, and many, sadly, were executed. Some of Southside’s members were originally from El Salvador. So, it was some of their friends and family members who were being imprisoned, tortured and executed.
Acting on faith and hope that God would provide, and also acting on its love for other human beings, remember first Corinthians, Southside declared itself a sanctuary for the refugees. That little flock set up cots in a Sunday school classroom, and built a couple of showers. Salvadoran refugees stayed there while the church, one among several, devised ways to smuggle them into Canada. In effect, Southside Presbyterian worked with others to devise a latter day underground railroad.
That important work to save Salvadorans, did not go unnoticed by our US government. John Fife and several other area clergy were arrested. The trial made headline news. Rev. Fife lost his case and had to serve five years’ probation. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that the consciousness raising paid off. Our US government reversed its position and granted Salvadoran refugees political asylum.
The ministry at Southside continues. Today the church maintains water stations in the desert, this side of the border, to keep migrants crossing into our country from literally dying of thirst. The US government condones and American border patrols silently bless Southside’s work. As supporters of the movement say, “It’s not illegal to distribute water, if it saves lives.” And it has.
Now here I have to stop talking about Southside. It’s communion Sunday, after all! The point of this sermon is that there is personal transcendence, but there is also church transcendence. And my don’t those folks at Southside walk tall. And my aren’t they committed to the church and to each other, sharing faith hope and love. I noticed that writ large, when I visited Southside.
Looking around the sanctuary—you, we as individuals are very good at personal transcendence. We work at the Food Bank, the Boys and Girls Club, and Meals on Wheels. How am I doing? I am sure I have left out some of the many projects we support. And we all give what we can financially. All of these endeavors lift us up and outside of ourselves—they give us, as individuals, that sweet feeling of transcendence. However, what is it that this little flock is doing—just us?
This week, I attended a special Presbytery meeting to talk about the recent shootings—in Orlando, the police shootings, the brutality against the police, and the Black Lives Matter movement. After we spent some time in prayer, we divided into groups to express our concerns and ideas. In my group, one man offered. “The problem is, there is nothing we can do.” There is nothing we can do! Nothing we can do?!” Where’s the transcendence in that? There is always something to be done. We are Jesus’ little flock, right? We own the kingdom, right? There’s nothing we CAN’T do. If you doubt me, look at Southside Presbyterian.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” Believe it, it is true. Amen
Chinese Proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. We are going all the way to heaven, folks.