Rabbi and author Harold Kushner tells about something that happened one day when he was lounging on an ocean beach. Two children--a brother and a sister--worked hard to build a sand castle. As they did so, the tide kept coming closer and closer to their elaborate little construction project. But they kept at it.
Then, the inevitable happened. The surf washed the castle away right where the two kids were squatting over it. Kushner expected the kids to get upset, maybe even to cry. Instead, they took hands, ran further inland on the beach, and started in on another castle.
So many of the events in our lives--good, bad, indifferent, are like the tides on an ocean beach. When
they arrive and what
they do are beyond our control. But our reactions
to the events of our lives are
within our control.
Those kids were able to react to what may have seemed a terribly unfair event because they knew they had one another. They could grab each other’s hand and move on. Our difficulties are made more bearable and our joys are made more complete when we can share them with others
A priest loved to play golf. The fall was fading fast and he wanted to get in as many rounds before winter came. So, he pretended to be sick and got another priest to fill in for him one Sunday while he drove to one of his favorite courses about a hundred miles from his parish. One of the angels observed this and asked God, “How can you let this priest get away with this? Not only is he neglecting his responsibilities, he lied about being sick!” God smiled and said, “Just watch.” The priest had the best round of his entire life. The coup-de-grace came when he got a hole-in-one on the eighteenth hole. This was more than the angel could take. “God,” he said, “First, You let this guy lie. Then You let him have a great game on a beautiful day! All that was bad enough. But now, You let him shoot a hole in one!” God smiled again and asked, “Who’s he going to tell about it?” Our difficulties really are made more bearable and our joys truly are made more complete when we can share them with others!
God, in fact, has built us for fellowship with Him and with other people. That’s why Jesus says that the greatest commandment is twofold: to love God completely and to love others as we love ourselves.
October 31 will be Friend Day
at Friendship Church. It’s a day set aside for us to give practical expression to our love for God and for others by inviting our non-churchgoing friends to be with us for worship.
The message and the whole worship service on that day will be aimed at helping newcomers and Friendship folks alike to remember that through Jesus Christ, God can be our very best Friend.
On Friend Day, we’ll be showing our friends that they can face the uncontrollable events of life and they can face eternity when, as the motto of our congregation reminds us, they join hands with God and neighbor.
Our Bible lesson today reminds us of just what our friends must see in us in order to want to join hands with God and neighbor.
It comes from the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. Psalms really is a song book. Each of the psalms was used in worship in Old Testament times. Psalm 133, our Bible lesson, is one of a group of psalms known as the songs of ascent
. These songs were used during the three major Jewish festivals that saw Jewish people and Jewish converts from all over the known world come to Jerusalem for worship in the temple there. The temple sat on top of a large hill known as Mount Zion. Even before arriving for worship, these religious travelers (the proper word for a religious traveler is pilgrim, by the way) began to sing God’s praises as they ascended the temple mount. (A bit like the gathering songs we sing as we prepare for worship on some Sunday mornings.) Psalm 133 is one of the songs of ascent sung by the pilgrims.
Picture the scene. People are gathering from diverse places, people who have never seen each other before and probably will never see one another again. A diverse group of believers ascend the hill to the temple at the same time, people from Greece and Ethiopia and Egypt and elsewhere. And they sing about the blessings of being one in their faith in God. “How very good and pleasant it is,” they sing, “when kindred live together in unity!”
In the remaining two lines of the song, they used two metaphors to describe what their unity was like.
First, they sang, “[Our unity] is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.”
Aaron, you’ll remember was brother of the great leader of God’s people, Moses. Aaron was also the first priest, charged with leading God’s people in worship. As a sign of his priesthood, Aaron was anointed with oil by Moses. Every priest after that was anointed in the same way as a sign of what God wanted them to do and be.
The unity of believers who can hold each other’s hands and love each other is a sign of God’s presence with them.
One of the things that visitors to worship at Friendship consistently tell me as that among the people here, as we sing God’s praises and laugh together and cry together and pray together, they sense that God is here, working among us. One visitor told me that in the love she saw among us, she felt as though she was looking at Jesus, God-in-the-flesh Himself. Our unity is a sign of God’s presence at Friendship Church.
The psalm then uses a second metaphor for the unity of believers: “It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained His blessing, life forevermore.”
Mount Hermon is the highest of the mountains in that region. It’s about 9100-feet tall. Through much of the year, its top is covered with snow, which is why Arabs today sometimes refer to it as “the gray-haired mountain.” Apparently, lots of dew gathers at Hermon’s crest and then runs down. You can imagine how precious that moisture from the top of the mountain is in a desert land. That water trickling down is life-giving. Psalm 133 says that when believers are united, God’s blessings sprout. The unity of believers who don’t need to selfishly get their ways, but have instead given their lives over to loving God and loving others, proves that God is alive and giving “life forevermore” to His people.
When our non-churchgoing friends come to be with us on October 31, I believe that they’ll want to join hands with God and with others if they see our unity and our love. They’ll be attracted by what one theologian has called God’s “magnetic fellowship”: that relationship of love that exists between God and His people and among His people. That isn’t always what newcomers see when they worship at a church for the first time.
Back when I was in seminary, I preached and led worship at lots of churches. Each congregation was different. But one thing I noticed is that the members of every single one described their churches as being friendly, or loving, or caring.” I’m not so certain though, that visitors would have found them to be so. Many of them would have seen that church members were friendly to one another, but basically ignored the people they didn’t know.
A few years ago, Ann, the kids, and I attended worship at an area congregation. We sat about seven rows or so from the back. We walked in and nobody but the official greeter acknowledged us. Nobody shared the peace with us at that point in the liturgy. Afterwards, nobody said a word to us. When we gather for worship on Sunday mornings, it’s so easy for us to spend time talking with the people we know and like best, ignoring newcomers, all the while thinking how friendly, loving, and caring our church is.
On Sunday mornings, you and I should have two priorities. First, to worship God. Second, to connect with another person we have never met or spoken with before.
When we’ve linked hands with God and neighbor, and let Jesus Christ into the center of our lives, we lose our self-consciousness. It gets replaced with God-consciousness and neighbor-consciousness that allows us to reach out to others.
There’s a good reason for that. In Decision
magazine a few years ago, Clark Cothern told the story of inviting a friend, Gavin, to help his pastor and him guide thirty teenagers through an all-night lock-in at his church’s building. Early on, Gavin challenged Clark to a ping pong game in the fellowship hall. It became pretty intense. With the score tied and only three points to go until the game ended, an eighth grader named Tracy grabbed the ball and played keep-way. Cothern writes that he felt irritation, but then remembered Saint Paul’s words in the New Testament book of First Corinthians: “Love is patient...”
He decided to politely ask Tracy for the ball. He and Gavin joked with her. She eventually tossed the ball back onto the table. They thanked her and finished the game.
A few hours later, they were surprised to hear Tracy say that she wanted to follow Jesus Christ. She explained: “I grew up in a family where nobody goes to church. I’ve learned to get attention by making people mad at me. But earlier this evening I saw something different.” She then pointed to Clark Cothern and his friend Gavin: “When I stole the ball from those guys, they didn’t get mad at me. They didn’t fight back. I saw something different in those guys, and right then that I wanted whatever it was they have.”
Our lives can tell the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe that when our friends and neighbors see that through Jesus, God has made all of us---people of different backgrounds, professions, personality types---friends, they will want what we have. They’ll want Jesus Christ in their lives.
So often, our sandcastles get knocked down by the tides of life. On October 31, let’s help our friends see Jesus Christ working in our lives. Let’s help them to see us as we take each other’s hands and move on in the love, power, and goodness of God---inviting others to do the same with us---and then, with confidence and hope, together face life today and life forevermore with God!