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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Are We There Yet?

World Communion, a sermon for World Communion Sunday, preached Sunday October 1, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


Morning Prayer

Shona and English, adaptation of “A Non-Traditional Blessing” by Sister Ruth Fox

Mwari wedu (Our God who is)

Musiki wedu (Our Creator God)

Nyadenga wedu (Our Heavenly Father)

Bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships. Bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people. Bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war. Bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world.

Muzita raBaba, (In the name of the Father

nere Mwanakomana, (and the son)

nere Mweya Mutsvene. (and the Holy Spirit)

Amen.


Context


Prayer for Illumination

Magdaléna Trgalová, Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren

Holy Spirit, grant us openness and give us understanding of what each one of us needs to receive through Holy Scripture. When we are facing a difficult choice between the easy and the right decision, help us to choose the narrow path.

We also pray for all who are about to set out on an adventurous journey of faith anywhere in the world. Amen.


Scripture Philippians 3:4b-16

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.


7 Yet, whatever gains I did have, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (as) my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.


10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.


13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do consider: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the higher call of God in Christ Jesus.


15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.


Sermon Are We There Yet?

I remember trips to see grandmother. Back then it felt like forever, from Austell, GA near Atlanta, up to Lindale, GA which is near Rome, GA almost all the way to Tennessee. As an adult, it’s only about an hour away. But as a kid, it felt like an eternity, even though I had the whole back seat of mom’s Pontiac Bonneville to myself. There were no such things as car seats or seat belt laws, so I played all over the back seat, the floorboard, and even up in the back window glass. Despite all that freedom, and even though it was only an hour, it didn’t take long, it didn’t take long for me to start asking, “Are we there yet?”


When I was in college, I remember Jill and her friend Kim coming home from a long trip to Kentucky to visit graduate schools. They were in Jill’s tiny Toyota Corolla. After a morning of tours and interviews, they headed back toward Macon, Ga, a serious drive, well over 8 hours. As they crossed into Georgia, they were both going stir-crazy, and they detoured to my house in Carrolton, GA instead. Neither Jill nor Kim could imagine going any further. They were still “not there yet” and they wanted to get out of that car and be anywhere instead of “not there yet!”


I remember driving baby Adam from Montgomery, AL where we lived when he was born to Dublin, GA where Jill’s parents lived. There were car seats and seat belt laws by then. On one trip, Adam just cried. Jill was in the back seat, trying to console him, feed him, distract him, but he was inconsolable. Every scream of his seemed to ask, “Are we there yet, dad?!” And I just about broke the steering wheel, desperately praying in my own head, “Are we there yet?”


We ask because we want to be there. Is it excitement for the destination? Maybe. That wasn’t the case for me to grandmothers. There was nothing for me to do there. It smelled funny, and I didn’t enjoy the cheek-pinching, or the odd foods. Jill was excited to get out of the car, but she still wasn’t home. Adam was calmer when we got out of the car and Attee doted over him, and spoiled him rotten, as grandparents do. But I don’t think we ask this question because of our excitement for the destination. I think we ask “Are we there yet?” because of our frustration and exhaustion with the journey.


No matter the destination, it’s the smallness, the encroaching boundaries around us as we move. We begin to feel trapped. At first, there’s a sense of moving at great speed, but it eventually feels like we are going nowhere fast. At first, the scenery is new and amazing, but eventually, all the scenery begins to look the same. There’s a growing impatience. Any excitement we might have had at the beginning gets harder to hold onto the longer the journey takes. So we ask… Are we there yet?


In this letter, Paul seems to be asking and answering this proverbial question. Paul started his journey with zeal and commitment. If the destination is God, then the path was study and obedience of the law, the commandments. He was circumcised, raised under the law, a member of the people of Israel. He became a teacher and judge of the law, a Pharisee, an aggressive defender of the law against critics, skeptics, and protesters, like Jesus of Nazareth. Paul’s destination was God. His path was obedience, and he was still flying down that road.


Then one day, God struck him blind and asked him why was he on that path of strict obedience to scripture, the law, to the point of judging and persecuting others? Why was he running so hard in the wrong direction? A Christian brother visited blind Saul. His sight was restored, and he turned around and began heading in a new direction as Paul. Paul started including gentiles, the unclean, and women, things that before broke the law.


That’s what real repentance looks like. Saul repented, turned around, took a new name, kept faith but practiced it differently. Kept the institution and scriptures, but read and taught them differently. The old way led to judgment under the law, and the new way led to the grace and love of God in Jesus the Christ.

Paul’s choice is not the normal one.


Plenty of religious people folk resist repenting, changing direction. To do so would feel like a lifetime of faithful religious observance and learning was a waste. There wouldn’t be enough life left if they admit we’ve been going the wrong direction with what scripture says and means, and our life choices or moral judgments against others from those beliefs. That’s why church-going religious folk seldom repent, but just get more aggressive about scripture, about beliefs, about judgments of others, what is right or wrong or acceptable. Religious folk can sound so confident, or arrogant, or belligerent. Its why religious folk,get more frustrated that churches are getting older and smaller, ask “Why aren’t we there yet?”. Eventually, they critique the pastor, wanting to know, “Why aren’t we there yet?”


That points to the other normal choice. Plenty of religious, believing people do change… by giving up on church, religion, faith, even God altogether. Jessica Grose, with the New York Times, has been doing a multi-part series this year on why people are leaving religion. The way I summarize her series, people leave church two big reasons.


One, some leave church because it's hypocritical. If we know God best in Jesus, then why does church judge and exclude so many people, and support politicians who lie, cheat, and steal for power and wealth, instead of following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifical love and service, especially to the least, lost, and alones of our world? Plenty of people repent, change, by giving up on church, religion, or God because of this common church hypocrisy.


Two, some change, give up on church or religion because it's irrelevant. These folk feel too much church talk is about things that don’t really make a difference. They want a transcendent experience of the holy, and church is boring. They want to feel more alive, more connected, more grounded, more loved, more relevant, more needed, more important when at church. But too much at church is just going through the motions, and not really giving them that sense, that feeling, so they repent, change, and leave. Some hop around from church to church, religion to religion, still looking but lots just give up on religious community altogether.


But Paul laid down those things. What once was precious to him, he now considered loss, rubbish. He was now even further from “there yet” than when he had started. But he was finally on a journey with Jesus, and that made it all bearable and beautiful.


Paul could have done either of those, but he doesn’t. In Jesus, Paul sees the hypocrisies and irrelevance of so many of the rules and traditions he staunchly defended. But he doesn’t give up on God or faith or communal religion. Instead, Paul lays down anything, everything he once held about God that doesn’t match Jesus. He’s been running hard and fast down the strict religious road screaming “are we there yet?” But that kind of religion doesn’t get anyone closer to Christ.


The road where we try to earn our righteousness through religion, or faithful obedience to the law, is a dead end. Those who run this road often scream, Am I there yet, and come to the end only to find the question unanswered, unanswereable. The new road though is not about our faith or obedience, but the faithfulness of God on our behalf, and Christ’s obedience even to death on a cross. The old road lies, promising our righteousness is earned for us individually by our individual beliefs and individual actions. The new road sees righteousness as a gift, not earned by anyone, but given by God because God so loves the world that God wanted to give it, and does give it over and over again.


The way of Jesus does not force obedience from anyone, but invites all into the warmth of bigger fuller life that has no end. The way of Jesus doesn’t worry about the destination or ask if I am there yet, but walks briskly beside our Lord, listening and learning from him, and becoming more like him every step of the way.


“Are we there yet, Paul? Have we done enough, yet? Are we at least getting closer?” Paul understood that question from his former life. But the heavenly calling is not an arrival, but the journey itself. No, we are not there yet. But yes, God is already and always with us. Jesus is not a destination, but a pathway before us, and a companion on the journey along that path. When Jesus is our pathway, and companion, we won’t be hypcorits, or irrelevant. We won’t even notice the time. And we won’t ask, “Are we there yet?”


To God be all the glory and honor, now and forever more… Amen.


Invitation


Prayers of the People

From every place on this planet, we turn our face to you, O God. Gather us, all your people, together to pray. In the midst of the forces which would separate us, bind us in your love as one Church, together. Strengthen us through the grace of your people gathered, no matter how or where we gather, with the truth of your presence.


In a world aching to be made new, we cry out with those who suffer the pains of what powers and principalities extract from the world’s poorest. We cry out with those suffering from illness and disease, at whom the world turns a callous glance. We cry out with those stinging from the sins of white supremacy. We cry out with those seeking justice, equality, and peace at all times, in all ways.


In a world stretching toward wholeness, we celebrate with those whose lives bear the fruit of your Spirit and seek to share your call to partnership. We celebrate with those whose efforts are making the world new. We celebrate with all who gather to earnestly seek your transforming work in the world.


Make us a people that grow into the shape of your communion table, where all are welcomed and all are fed. Make us a people who grow your community by practices of mutuality, generosity, and justice. And may we be found to be witnesses, when Jesus returns, to the truth of who we were created to be — people who belong to each other, people who belong to you, O God.


We pray all this just as you taught us, saying … (Lord's Prayer)


Charge


Benediction

Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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