Last week, I began my sermon with a baseball metaphor. In observance of this transitional season, when the sports are changing, today I’d like to tell a story from football lore. It was July of 1961 and the 38 members of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended in heartbreak. The Packers had blown a lead and lost the Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers had been thinking about this brutal loss for the entire off-season and now, finally, training camp had arrived and it was time to get to work. Coach Vince Lombardi’s plan for training was to re-establish the fundamentals. Lombardi walked into training camp, held up a ball, and said: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
I want to do something a little different today. In the spirit of Blessed Vincent of Green Bay, I’d like to review some fundamentals. I do not want to preach on the lessons, per se, but do a little pastoral tending for our hearts.
It has been said that a preacher should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. As the news seems to worsen, and the world feels more chaotic every day, we feel shock and grief, helplessness and loss. Disaster and violence—caused by nature and by human beings—these things are pressing in on us. There is no end to the questions we ask ourselves and each other. I have these conversations every day, as do you: what is happening? How could these things happen? What has come over us? What’s to become of us? What can we do to make a difference?
The questions are exhausting and so is the struggle to answer them. When things are hard…when the world is overwhelming, and we can feel our own hearts beginning to harden…it is good to pause and remember who we are and what we are to do. As my favorite theologian, Jackson Browne, says: “There’s a God-sized hunger underneath the questions of the age.” When I feel overwhelmed, it helps me to boil things down to basics. I think that two of the fundamental questions are: “Who are we?” and “What do we do?”
We are the body of Christ, a part of God’s great and powerful network of love. This is our identity, this is who we are. And what do we do? We Gather. We Pray. We Serve.
First: Gather. We come together as a community—we are here today—to remind ourselves that we are God’s body on earth. We bring our hard hearts and our losses and our joys…we don’t come here to be churchy. We bring our authentic selves. As the Eucharistic prayer says, we bring our selves…our souls and bodies to this place.
Our worship has a pattern. And every time we come together we are following this pattern: we gather, we hear Scripture and some kind of elucidation of it, like a sermon or a discussion. Then we confess, come to the table to be fed, and then go out to “love and serve the Lord”, to do the work God has given us to do. And then we come back and do it all over again. This is our pattern, we make it our habit. We gather to remind ourselves and one another that God is with us. The kingdom of heaven is here, among us, and we draw strength from gathering. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, and it means “assembly,” it does not mean “building.” From the earliest days, the “church” has been understood to be the people. Us.
Now, when I say one of the fundamentals is to gather, I’m not speaking only of “going to church.” I am saying we need to be with others…stay together…get together. Have dinner and lunch with people you love around tables and on patios and in living rooms. All meal fellowship is Eucharist. The faith is not some intellectual exercise, it is a practice of inviting God into our despair and into our joy. The faith is a practice. Good habits get us through bad times.
Unlike what you hear from some Christians, the practice of the faith is not a matter of being “saved” once and for all, and it is certainly not about one day arriving in heaven. The Apostle Paul tells us today that it is a long race, “I am straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.” We do not have any expectation of arriving. Our work is to press on toward the goal. And by the way: Your faith is not supposed to make your life easy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something.
My second fundamental is this: while we are pressing on, we Pray. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his wonderful “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life” says this: “Prayer, as I understand it, is not a matter of begging or bargaining. It is the act of inviting God into our lives so that, with God’s help, we will be strong enough to resist temptation and resilient enough not to be destroyed by life’s unfairness.” We pray—whether with words or silence or music—so that we will be changed, and soothed, and strengthened. I sent a note this week to the parish, inviting you to pray the psalms of lament. This is a worthy practice these days. God understands lament. Every prayer that goes something like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??” is just as valid as any other prayer, and maybe more authentic. Anne Lamott says there are three main types of prayer: “Help, thanks, and wow.” Be authentic in your prayer. God can handle it.
Theologian Jim Wallis says: “When I was growing up in my Christian world, I was told the greatest battle of our time is between belief and secularism. But I now believe that the real battle is between cynicism and hope.” Prayer—even something as simple as sitting quietly and opening your heart to God—gives us hope, reminds us not to despair.
Which brings me to my third and final point in our review of the fundamentals. (The first were Gather and Pray.) The third is: Serve.
I have pointed this out before and will no doubt do it again because it bears repeating. We pray at the altar that God will “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” We gather and we pray so that we are strengthened to serve the world in God’s name. And by “the world” I mean “all of it:” our fellow parishioners, our families, friends, neighbors, those who are alone. People we love, and people we hate. Every little kind act is a building block. Random acts of kindness, planned acts of kindness. Say a word of encouragement to someone. And be kind to yourself: look for good news, spread good news. Every small thing you do for someone else helps heal the world. A Rabbi from the first century of the Christian Era said: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
We come for strength and renewal, so that we can go out to do the work God has given us to do. The dismissal at the end of our service is not just a nice turn of phrase. It is a charge, an exhortation: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. God is not a guy who lives in buildings, or on a cloud somewhere. God is also a verb: a moving, loving force, and we are charged with spreading that love and being a part of that force.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, another time when everything seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. Bishop Temple said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” In other words: get out there and help heal the world.
Slow down. Remember to breathe. Turn off the news. Our practice of the fundamentals matters. We gather. We pray. We serve. What you do matters. It does. We don’t ever get there. Not in this life anyway. This life, this faith, is all about straining forward and pressing on. And we encourage ourselves and each other to keep going.
Let us pray. O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.