September 5, 2021 – “Grateful to Be Together” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Introduction

We are continuing our series about gratitude. Last week we talked about the power of gratitude – it is called the mother of all virtues because it greases the wheels for other positive things in your life. This week we are grateful to be together. I believe the last 18 months have shown us the value and power of being together – safely. And I know my sabbatical time was another different experience since I wasn’t here to be with you.

But I have heard great things about how connected y’all were during my sabbatical! I saw those tremendous pictures of the concert Mary put together. I got a good report from the game night that Karen and Melissa and Kate and the Christian Education committee put together.

And I heard great things about the leadership of Carol and Lynda. If you remember, we commissioned Lynda and Carol in prayer right before I left for sabbatical. And I want to bookend that now. Lynda and Carol would you mind coming up here to the front? By the way, they didn’t know this was coming.

As we commissioned you in prayer at the start of the sabbatical, I now want to offer prayers of thanksgiving and blessing over you at the end of it. If you are were blessed by the leadership of these two capable women during my sabbatical, would you please stand as we pray for them?

Holy God, we are so grateful for the servant leadership and compassionate hearts of Carol and Lynda. I know I was greatly blessed knowing that the church was in capable hands. I have heard from so many who were also blessed by their words, their care, their leadership, their decisions, their presence over the summer. I pray that they feel the gratitude of this church, and I pray that they hear your words telling them, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Amen. Will you join me in thanking Carol and Lynda for their leadership?

We invested in being together over the summer. We will continue to focus and invest in that this fall. Now let’s hear some of the value of being together from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.

Sermon Reading: Hebrews 10:19-25

19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The Power of Being Together

I’m sure you saw the photo on the cover of the bulletin. The photo shows worshipers in the remains of a Catholic church in Haiti just last Sunday. The most recent earthquake destroyed many buildings, including many churches. And yet, there they were on Sunday, gathering together. Even if they had to meet outside next to their ruined church. Even if they had to share fold-out metal chairs. Even if their own homes and lives were disrupted. Even if they were hungry like so many in Haiti. Even with all of that, there they were last Sunday, gathering together. And I bet they’re gathered today as well. Maybe even right now.

What is it about the followers of Jesus gathering together that is so powerful? What is it about the followers of Jesus gathering together that so feeds our souls?

Our text today gives us a few highlights. It says, “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.” What does that mean?

In the Jewish Temple there was a place thought to be the place where God was most manifest and present – the Holy of Holies. That was only to be entered by the high priest once per year. And yet in our text today it says we have the same access to God every day that the high priest received once per year.

This would be like having the assurance that, should you decide to show up at Buckingham Palace, the Queen would drop whatever she was doing to have tea with you right then – no RSVP needed and no questions asked.

It’s like one of the guys from my brother’s high school basketball team who would just show up unannounced inside our house, eating our food. Our text says, trough the blood of Jesus, that’s the kind of access we have to God. Have the full assurance of faith because Jesus gave you a key to the house.

When we gather together as followers of Jesus, we enter with confidence into the presence of the Living God. You might have to wait in line for hours to get a five second autograph from a Broncos player, but today you’re in the presence of the Creator of the Universe with no strings attached!

Our text then goes on to talk about our hearts being sprinkled clean. OK, you know I love to do poll questions during my sermons, so get your arms ready. Raise your hand if you are confident enough to admit that you disappointed God somehow, some way this week. Any takers on that?

Sinners! Oh wait, that’s all of us 🙂

We need our hearts to be cleansed. We need it every week (and probably every day). And when we gather together, we have confidence that such cleansing is offered freely through the blood of Jesus. You can buy all the Clorox wipes and medicines you want, but nothing other than Jesus will be able to sprinkle your heart clean.

Our text then goes on to say, “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” This is the same idea of the song I sang right before the sermon. God was faithful and powerful when Jesus calmed the storm. God was faithful and powerful when the Israelites marched around Jericho and the walls fell down. God was faithful and powerful when Jesus decided to die for us when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. God was faithful and powerful when Jesus rose again from the grave on Easter. And our God is still the same.

When we gather together, we get to remind each other of the times when God has been faithful and powerful and merciful and loving and present. Because our God is still the same. When we gather together, we get to remind each other of the times when the Holy Spirit gave us insight we didn’t possess, the words we couldn’t fathom ourselves, the name of someone who needed us, or the people sent to us at the right time. Because our God is still the same.

When we gather together, we restore our hope by reminding each other of God’s faithfulness in the past. Do you have a story like that? Do you have a moment like that? Do you remember God’s presence or power or faithfulness in your life? Because our God is still the same.

I’m going to go a bit out of order here. I’ll come back to verse 24 in a moment, but in verse 25 our text says, we should not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Another benefit of gathering together is encouragement.

If you are feeling low, sitting alone and stewing on your thoughts is probably not gonna help. Even for introverts. It’s hard to encourage ourselves. That’s where gathering together is needed. And when we gather as the followers of Jesus, we can encourage each other from the strength of what we’ve already talked about today: the faithfulness of God, our unwavering hope in Jesus, our ability to enter with confidence into the presence of our Creator, our hearts that can be sprinkled clean.

A couple of weeks ago, on a day I was feeling a bit down, I received a random verbal prayer from my friend and brother in Christ, Pastor Mutimwii in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. He recorded himself praying for me, for my sons, for my wife, for our church, for my spirit for several minutes. That connection with a follower of Jesus encouraged me more than anything else.

And let’s pause there to make a couple of points. First off, Pastor Mutimwii and I spent a day together a few years ago, but we have not physically seen each other since. We can still gather together as followers of Jesus. When I talk about being grateful to be together, I don’t exclusively mean Sunday morning worship. That’s the most obvious one, of course, but that’s not the only way I’m grateful to be together.

I’ll be starting a monthly book club starting next week at 9am at the Sunday school time. That’s a way to be together. I’ll be restarting my men’s Bible study soon. That’s a way to be together. We have our Shabby Sheep women’s groups. That’s a way to be together. We have our women’s circle meetings. That’s a way to be together. Serving side-by-side is a way to be together. And some of us can feel that same connection by phone or video or a recorded voice across the continents. There are many ways to be with the followers of Jesus. Sunday morning isn’t the only way.

And we learned that over the last 18 months. Even when we weren’t in the sanctuary due to COVID, we had outdoor meetings, at-home Communion deliveries, phone calls, Zoom Bible studies, outdoor coffee meetings. Maybe those weren’t your favorite, but they still achieved many of the same results mentioned in our text from Hebrews.

And that brings me back to Pastor Mutimwii and the Presbyterian church in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. They have not been able to gather in any kind of group for about five months. Their country and their community were already in deep trouble economically.

Add five months without gathering, five months without encouragement, five months without restoring each other’s hope, five months without income for him as the pastor. His church has struggled. He has struggled. His family has struggled. They need our prayers for encouragement and unwavering hope – and for Jesus to do something unexpectedly good for them.

I share this for two reasons. First off, I really do want us to pray for Pastor Mutimwii and our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe. Please put it on your personal prayer list this week. I told him how to access the video of this worship service, so turn around and wave to the camera up in the balcony. Pastor Mutimwii and fellow Presbyterians in Zimbabwe, First Presbyterian Church of Littleton is praying for you!

Second, I want us to remind ourselves of our reasons to be grateful, because we can be together. We talked about this last week. If you spend your time listing all the ways we’re still not back to “normal” yet, you’re poisoning your heart. Put your mind instead on the reasons to be grateful. We are together. Even if many of us have masks on, we are together. Even if we spread out more than we normally would, we are together. Even if there are adjustments to our process here and there, we are together. Not everyone can say the same. So I encourage you – be grateful that we are together. Stew on gratitude, not annoyances. Everyone will be better for it. It’s a better stew!

After the worship service in the ruins of his church building in Haiti last Sunday, one of the congregants said, “When we gather, we sing together, we pray together, we eat together. It allows us to face the challenges of life. But when we can’t do that, then we’re not in a good situation.” That’s gratitude for being together – even when things are far from normal.

Changed By the Community of Christ

And now I’m going to slide on back to verse 24 like I said I would, and we’re going to change gears here. Up to now, I’ve mostly listed things that just kind of happen by natural faith osmosis when the followers of Jesus are together in some fashion. But that’s not all we are called to do.

Verse 24 says, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” What a fascinating choice of words! What comes to mind when I say, “provoke?” When my brother and I fought every day growing up, my parents might wonder who started it, who “provoked” the other one. Nations sometimes quibble about who provided the provocation for a battle.

And that negative connotation is almost exactly the same in the original Greek word, too. Maybe you could even say “annoy!” Shall we “annoy” each other to love and good deeds? That’s even weirder!

On my first Sunday as the acting children’s director in Austin, I was a bit nervous. I like to have everything organized and ready to go and on time – preferably early, actually. And when I’m nervous, I get more detailed, more organized, more regimented. So I had everything set up for the incoming 60 kids. But there was one problem. There weren’t any kids yet. I was twenty minutes early, everything was ready to go, and I had nothing to do but wait. I hate waiting.

So I paced around waiting for them to arrive. One of the other leaders watched me pacing around and told me something like, “You’re gonna scare the kids with all that pacing.” I mulled this over for a second, sat down, and prepared my heart and my smile for their arrival. That person provoked me to being a better children’s director by saying that.

One of the purposes of gathering together is to help each other follow Jesus better. Not just refill our spiritual tank. No, sometimes we need to actually fix the spiritual car so it runs better. That’s really hard to do solely on your own.

I have shared before that I have wide, but not infinite, bounds when it comes to differences within our faith in Jesus. And one very important aspect to me is that someone has felt challenged to change. If your faith has never challenged you to change any part of your life, you’re not reading enough of the Bible. There’s a lot of love and acceptance and forgiveness and grace, but there’s also a call to live the life God imagined when he made you, and that’s challenging. It’s helpful to have others who can “provoke” you to love and good deeds.

And that part is really hard to do in Sunday worship. When was the last time you talked to your pew neighbor during the passing of the peace and provoked them to love and good deeds? Never? Not once? Yeah, not gonna happen, right? But I’ve done that in small groups. I’ve done that in classes. I’ve done that in 1-on-1 meetings. I’ve done that in Bible studies.

If you’re not connected with some kind of group where people know you well enough to provoke you to love and good deeds, you’re missing out on an essential part of our faith. Jesus said he is the vine and we are the branches. When we have that connection, our branch thrives and lives and grows. When we are disconnected, we wither and die. If you tear off a branch and throw it on the ground, it dies. Unless it’s a weed, in which case it magically grows new roots and multiplies like crazy. Why do only bad things reproduce that easily?!? That’s on my list of questions when I get to heaven. But I digress.

It comes down to this: connect…or die. Connect and grow…or die and wither. There are a lot of options in our bulletin this week, but if you don’t know where you want to connect, talk to me or Pastor Carol. The nice thing about a church our size is that you can get personalized service! Connect…or die.

Children in Worship

The last thing I want to highlight today is the impact of children gathering together with other followers of Jesus.

When I was growing up in the church, I know I went to Sunday school, but I don’t really remember it. I remember the pastor’s children’s sermons. I remember singing hymns, which is how I know so many to this day. I remember my parents making me memorize the Lord’s Prayer before I could take Communion. I remember singing in the children’s choir. And I remember drawing on the bulletin during worship. Not surprisingly, I drew robots. But my lame-o parents said they couldn’t have weapons, so yes, that’s a “flashlight”, Mom, not a laser!

Being in worship for years made me feel at home in worship. Hearing the hymns for years made me know the hymns. Hearing the prayers for years led me to memorize the prayers. And yes, even though I was drawing robots with “flashlights” I was listening, too. A perfect example of this effect came last week. One of the kids who was in worship with us last week drew a picture of a bear, and he said it was a grateful bear! Fabulous! He was listening! And it’s a great picture!

OK, time for some more sermon polls. No hands needed, but you can give me a verbal Amen if you agree. If you want kids to feel at home in worship, give me an Amen. If you want kids to know your favorite hymns, give me an Amen. If you want kids to learn the Lord’s Prayer, give me an Amen. If you want kids to hear the choir, give me an Amen. If you want kids to feel like they’re part of this family of faith, give me an Amen. They have to be with us to do that.

That’s what we’re going to do starting next week. Yes, Sunday school is still there for kids, but it’s going to be at 9 just like the adults. Kids are going to be in worship. They can stay with their families. They can join Melissa and others from the children’s ministry at the back of the church if they want. Melissa has some fabulous ideas for integrating the kids more into worship. One week they might help with the offering. Another week they might bring the Communion elements up. Another week they might share prayers. And EVERY week you can make them feel welcome and at home and part of this spiritual family by learning their names, greeting them by name, celebrating their presence, and demonstrating the love of Christ.

I’m trying to provoke all of us to love and good deeds here. Every time you learn a kid’s name and greet them by name? You’re part of their discipleship journey. Every time they come up for a children’s sermon or singing and they see your smiling, supportive face? You’re part of their discipleship journey. Every time their parents feel at home and supported and welcomed? You’re part of their discipleship journey. So choose to be a part of the discipleship journey. It’s not hard. It happens over years. But everyone can take part in these small ways.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, it is truly a wonderful thing when the followers of Christ gather together. Maybe that’s on Sunday for worship. Maybe that’s a Sunday school class. Maybe that’s a mid-week Bible study. Maybe that’s a book club or women’s circle or walking group. Maybe that’s serving together. Maybe that’s on Zoom or the phone or recording prayers to send across the world. When we are together, the Spirit of the Lord is, too. We must connect…or die. I am grateful that we can be together – in many ways. And I hope you are, too.