Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, April 27, 2014

Our Inheritance:  A Burden or a Gift?
[John 20:19-31; I Peter 1:3-9]

            We have some “rich” texts today.  First let’s focus on the dramatic encounter between Jesus and Thomas, who had to touch the nail wounds in Jesus hands and pierced hole in his side to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Aren’t you glad he did that?  Although he’s called “Doubting Thomas” – he secured good scientific evidence that the body buried was the same body which was raised from the dead. Jesus was not just a spirit, he was still human. He ate, he walked, talked and slept even in his resurrected state.
            Jesus was patient with Thomas, as he is with us, addressing Thomas’ need as the first order of business.  He invited Thomas to put his finger in his hands and to reach his hand into Jesus’ side, then compassionately invited Thomas to have faith, saying:  “Do not doubt, Thomas, but believe.”
            Jesus was attentive to each of his disciples’ unique personalities and needs for proof.  Some of us are by nature doubters, until we can see, hear, smell, touch or taste the facts of a case.  God created us with unique personalities & patiently attends to our needs, giving us the clues and data we need to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
            Jesus also challenges Thomas and the rest of us, saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Not everyone needs the “hands-on” proof that Thomas needed.  Some people are quick learners, intuitive. They sense the Holy Spirit in a situation, even when others don’t. The Spirit awakens faith, even when circumstances don’t line up perfectly.
            As soon as Thomas touched Jesus’ hands and side, he affirmed his faith, saying:  “My Lord and my God!”  Have you ever had a moment like this in your life, a holy moment, when you were utterly convinced and fully persuaded that Jesus Christ, or God the Father, or the Holy Spirit was present with you?  This is what Christian faith is all about.  It’s what we mean in the Mission Statement on the front of our bulletins.

We are called to experience, embody,
and enthusiastically share the good news of
Jesus Christ within and beyond our walls.

            The first step of FAITH is to EXPERIENCE the good news of Jesus Christ.  Gospel literally means GOOD NEWS; it’s NOT a guilt trip. If all Jesus has ever brought you is a sense of GUILT, you haven’t yet experienced Good News.  Thomas received the Good News when he put his hands in the wounds of Jesus Christ’s body. It was his “Alleluia” moment, his Easter, his resurrection. His faith was born, because Jesus was the walking, talking, breathing evidence that even death cannot separate us from the love of God.
            Let’s pause.  Please tell someone sitting near you about a “holy moment,” a “good news event” in your life, preferably recent, but if you need to dip into the past, that’s fine. Share one “life-changing” faith experience.  If you don’t know the person’s name, introduce yourself.  [Pause to share…] Thank you for taking time to listen & share. 
“Good News moments” are God’s gifts, glimpses of grace, stepping stones of faith, so when the going gets tough, we can touch & refresh those moments of grace, as if we are holding a stone of grace in our pockets, reminding us God is with us all the time, even when God seems far away.
            Now, let’s look at the passage in I Peter.  This letter was written by the Apostle Peter, or a follower, to communities whose members were primarily Gentile slaves and women, owned by or married to non-Christian men in Asia Minor. The recipients of the letter were at the bottom of the social ladder.  They had low status as slaves and women, but as believers in Christ, they were also violating the practices of the heads of their households. They refused to honor the family gods.  According to one Bible commentator, Elizabeth Johnson, Greco-Roman pagans at that time could tolerate anything except intolerance, and both Christians and Jews were viewed as intolerant because they refused to worship multiple Gods.
            I Peter was written to these Christians to comfort them when they were being persecuted for believing in Christ. The author of I Peter uses a remarkable number of Old Testament references, considering most of these believers were Gentiles, not Jews. The author tells them they are “chosen and destined by God,” “protected by the power of God,” “God’s holy priesthood,” “holy as God is holy” “a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  The author of I Peter is applying these metaphors to people once considered “outsiders,” even “outcasts” – but in I Peter they are elevated and named “the people of God.”  These scorned people were offered “an inheritance” – the same vindication and exaltation that God gave Jesus by raising him from the dead.
            It’s remarkable that slaves and women who received NO earthly inheritance are offered an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” I Peter affirms them even further, saying that even though none of you had ever “seen Jesus,” you love him, believe in him, and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, even though you are also experiencing persecution and alienation from your families, friends and neighbors because of your faith.
            If we have never been ignored, passed over, mocked or ridiculed for being Christian, how do we experience the comfort this passage offers? Although we may FEEL like we are participating in a mainline church, in the mainstream of our culture, there has been a huge SHIFT AWAY from mainline churches to non-denominational churches, because our valuable traditions don’t connect with peoples’ lives. Our hymns were written centuries ago & contain language that has no meaning to contemporary people. Almost every Sunday someone tells me the hymns we sing are difficult, unfamiliar or uninspiring. Since I was raised on them, they DO inspire me, but if a person is not familiar with them they don’t connect.
            It was mentioned in our Bible study this week that a person in her 60s is often called a “young person” in our church family. If our youngest members are in their 60s, we have a problem, Houston!  We do have some absolutely precious children, a few faithful youth and a handful of young adults that worship here regularly, but we are NOT attracting the majority of children, youth and families in St. Pauls.
            Is our inheritance a burden or a gift?  The purple irises blooming beside the Fellowship Hall are a metaphor of our church. Although they are gorgeous, they are also a little scraggly and neglected. Our newest member, Joanne Madore, a Master Gardener and writer for the St. Pauls Review, has noticed these beautiful irises.
            On Easter, only one purple flower was blooming, but when I arrived to work on Tuesday there were a number of new blooms, which caught my eye. I took their picture and began to reflect on this church’s incredible inheritance. We recently sent out a letter asking people to invest in St. Pauls Presbyterian Church, because we have a God-given PURPOSE and CALLING in this community. Likewise, we recognize God may be calling us to a major paradigm shift if we hope to offer a vibrant Christian witness. The demographics of St. Pauls are radically different than they were in the 1950s.
            Though our forefathers and foremothers were on the “cutting edge” – when they left Scotland for the new world, braving what was once a hostile physical environment in the marshes of Robeson County, St. Pauls Presbyterian Church IN RECENT years has been LEFT BEHIND, whether we want to admit this or not. 
We were also cutting edge under the leadership of Rev. Malcolm Calhoun in the 1930s and 1940s, when the church was willing to address issues of social justice and racial inequality.
            In this generation St. Pauls Presbyterian Church has been left behind by vital members, like Dohn and Luanne Caudell, who prefer to worship at First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton, attending an early service with contemporary music.  Even though St. Pauls Presbyterian Church “planted” First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton decades ago, that mission church has left us behind by responding to the needs and dreams of this generation more faithfully. 
Presbyterians in St. Pauls are getting in their cars, when the price of gas is $3.62/gallon, to drive to Lumberton to get their spiritual gas tanks filled. That breaks my heart. Does it break yours?  Tim Young, a committed Christian leader who mentored many young people in decades past and gave us our church van in memory of Alan, is also driving to First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton when the price of gas is $3.62/gallon because he was deeply HURT while serving on our Session. That breaks my heart. Does it break yours?
            This brick building is costly to maintain. When non-members worship here, they marvel at the beauty of our sanctuary.  If you look at the irises on the bulletin cover, they are beautiful, but need some tender-loving-care; they’re scraggly & neglected, like our church’s playground.  We are also ill-equipped for people with special needs, since our facility was constructed before the codes were established for handicap accessibility.  Our “rich” inheritance is becoming a burden, because many committed members are dying or unable to do the physical labor of maintaining this earthly inheritance.
            We aren’t being persecuted like the Christians in I Peter, but we’ve become invisible DESPITE the beauty and excellent location of our facility. Although we are next door to the Middle and High Schools, people drive past to find a church that meets their needs.
            What IS our inheritance?  Is it this building?  Is it our property?  Or is it the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance of our faith in Jesus Christ?  Are we on-fire with Good News?  Is God filling our lives with holy moments?  Are we experiencing God in the day-to-day events of our lives?
            Honestly, I do see God at work here in deep & profound ways. But much of God’s work is still “underground” – “roots are deepening” – as people face their pain, their sufferings, their insecurities, their failures in the light of God’s amazing grace. Although I am privy to the “inner work” God is doing in the lives of church members, I’m still waiting for some of this inner work to break through the soil and BLOOM, like those purple irises.
I’m encouraged by the inner healing, but I’m also discouraged that we’re being left behind.  Duncan McNair wouldn’t expect us to worship using a Gaelic Bible, because it no longer communicates the Good News of Jesus Christ to English-speaking people. Duncan McNair would expect us to be learning new dialects & technologies to communicate. He would expect us to be on the cutting edge, not out in left field.
Is our inheritance a building adorned with over-grown irises, or is our inheritance the IMPERISHABLE, UNDEFILED and UNFADING faith in Jesus Christ, which is always Good News & is always able to adapt, restore, renew and fill us with indescribable and glorious joy?  Let us pray.