In reading over the texts and working with our youth as they prepared today's service, I couldn't stop thinking about the December Christmas pageant. I guess it's because today is Good Shepherd Sunday - I don't have a lot of sheep in my life, but at the Christmas pageant - well, then we have sheep! We have sheep and a donkey and, if we have enough kids, maybe a camel.
The sheep in our pageant are usually the littlest ones - the ones that, in some ways, need the most shepherding. They haven't been in the pageant before. They're not sure when to walk in. They aren't sure of the story, or what their part is in it. But we bring them - again and again - and after a few years as sheep, they graduate to donkey, to shepherd, to angel.
Many of our children and youth leading today were raised in the church. Many of our adults were too.
Parents, grandparents, godparents, guardians, family - by them our children are brought to church like the first shepherds carried the first lambs to the first Christmas manger. And these little lambs we call the children and youth of LCCR bleat through the hymns, and trot up and down the aisles, and fight with their siblings and friends like baby goats butting heads. But we bring them, and we welcome them - even squirming, fussing, kicking, bleating.
Some of you know that, as the Children's Education Associate, one of my less official tasks is to help children and youth transition from classrooms for education to the sanctuary for worship. This is always a time fraught with excuses, and a little bit of whining. "I'm tired. My sister woke me up early. I was up late last night. I'm not going to church. I'm waiting for my parents to come get me." (That last one works when you're six, but I send sixteen year olds to worship on their own.)
And every now and then, one of these precious lambs and sheep of the church of Christ will ask me outright:
"Why do I have to go to church?"
One of my less official tasks is to answer that question.
So: Molly, Jake, Grace, Kayla, Abby, Alex, Audrey:
what I am trying to tell you when I teach, and what I tell you all this morning, is that no one can answer that question but you. I hope all of us have the start of an answer to this question - to why do I have to go to church. I know that I am still working out my answers now. So today I will tell you why I am here, in the hope that my answer to the question helps spark answers for yourself.
I am here because coming to church is an act of rebellion.
Coming to church is a rebellion against culture - culture that says:
The most important relationship is the one that gets you noticed.
The way to find your value is to count how much money you have.
You are beautiful if others admire you.
You are powerful if others fear you.
The most important person in your life is you.
The church - at its core, and at its best, says :
The most important relationship is the one we have with our neighbor.
The way to find your value is to understand your life as a baptized child of God.
You are beautiful because you are made in the image of a beautiful God.
You are powerful when you are weak.
And the most important person in your life is who we are, as a community,
gathered in the presence of God, in the hope of Jesus' resurrection, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today we read about the early church of Acts - the church of signs and wonders, of all things held in common, of glad and generous hearts, of daily new members added. A church that centered itself in the Spirit. I'm just finishing my finals after my first year of seminary. After a year of studying Scripture and church history, I will tell you something: this is not the whole history of the church. The history of the Christian church and the narrative of the Bible is this: God is with us, always loving us, continually calling us to love each other - but in our Scripture and our history we also see the many ways we have fallen from that love.
A lot of Scripture and church history is theological battles - believers against other believers, drawing lines about who was out and who was in. Much of Christian history is a history that said there were people who were unimportant or unacceptable, who were not worthy or welcome, who were not called or welcomed to lead the people of God.
The poor. The very young and the very old. The weak and powerless.
The oppressed and the ones without influence. Women. Widows and orphans.
Non-white. Non-English speaking. Disabled and handicapped. Deaf and blind.
Quiet and shy. A little too loud.
The uneducated. The sick. The tired. The suffering. The abused.
Gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and intersex and and queer and questioning.
The stranger. The doubter. The agnostic and atheist.
The people who, for whatever reason, were kept out of the body of Christ.
But over and over again, in Scripture, in our history, and in our present day lives, God breaks through our boundaries to bring all into the family of God. God rebells against the lines we draw, against the lie that something can separate us from the love of Christ. God insists that when the shepherd calls our name, nothing can prevent us passing through the gate. God insists, against all realities and against all odds, that we have the opportunity to have life, and have it abundantly.
And I see that insistence in our life here at LCCR. For me, coming to LCCR is another act of rebellion - rebellion against our sometimes painful Christian history. So I come for the wildness of our our passing of the peace - crossing borders, getting out of our comfort zone. I come here for the unity in our communion - for the moments when we are fed together. I come for the stories of our past - for Scripture and history that testifies to God's presence and love for us. I come for those moments when I so clearly hear the gospel and see the movement of the Spirit, for those moments when we rebel against the thieves of life, for those moments that spark my imagination and vision for what the church has been and can be.
We are all brought here,
carried like sheep on the shepherd's shoulder.
We all butt our goat heads against the lies of culture and history,
and we wonder like wide eyed baby lambs at the beauty of our past and the hope of our future in God.
Because coming to church is an act of rebellion.
And we come through the Gate that was opened for us -
the Gate that is the One who knows our name,
the Gate through which we come in and go out,
the Gate where we find green pastures, still waters, a welcoming table in the midst of hate -
the Gate which does signs and wonders among us -
the Gate where we find life, and find it abundantly.