A few weeks ago, we took our family plus two on vacation to New York City. While there we visited several churches, even paying $42 for the six of us to tour a certain anonymous grand cathedral. While admiring the impressive grandeur of the sanctuary, I zeroed in on a stone fresco depicting Christ’s Easter victory. The artist had left something out! The stone carvers left out Mary, Mary Magdalene, Matthew’s other Mary, Mark’s Mary the mother of James, Salome, Luke’s Joanna, and Luke’s “women from Galilee.” The Easter design left out John’s portrait of Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus, even seeing Christ before he “returned to the Father.” My wife Connie says I can be a little too critical of religious art or theology, but when I stumbled into a plaque in a side chapel,I felt vindicated. The plaque told how in 1905 Gutzon Borglum, who carved Mount Rushmore, was commissioned to carve 20 angels to adorn the entrance of this smaller chapel: “the original plaster casts for the angels depicted them with a decidedly feminine form- until a visiting clergyman saw the casts and complained. It caused a major uproar.” Borgman defended his work in the NY Times, which led to a lot of joking. The plaque concludes, “in the end the anonymous clergyman got his way- Borgman redid his angels to make them less gender-specific.” Was that a micro-aggression, plain-old-aggression, comedy,tragedy, sin,the church, or some mix all of these things?
CS Lewis talks about how our daily decisions shape our future selves and the world: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules, I’ll reward you, and if you don’t, I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or into a creature that is in a state of (conflict) war and (animosity) hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself… Each of us at each moment is progressing into one state or the other.” (adapted from Mere Christianity).Our decisions turn us and shape the future. We lay a foundation, but each decision shapes our life – as on a potter’s wheel, turning our lives towards or away from God. Each decision builds our love for God, justice for neighbors, and harmony with our deepest selves or it misforms the image of God within us.
We choose to slam the door or remain in the room. We hit “send” in anger or turn the other cheek. We strive to learn or stay uninformed. We reach out or retreat into isolation. We rehearse old wounds or release our debtors. We cut off that blinking car or love our fellow drivers as ourselves. We point a finger or lift a burden.We ask for forgiveness or hope they don’t notice. We escape with media or find solitude of prayer. We seek diversion or practice Sabbath. We give or we take. We cherish our sense of self-righteous offense or risk reconciliation for the 489th time. We judge others or we give others to God in prayer. We study God’s Word or live apart from scriptural wisdom. We stand with the oppressed or we overlook injustice. We practice pride or humility. We foster war or peace. We speak healing or utter harm. We collect treasures on earth or in heaven. We serve God or wealth. We welcome strangers or turn away angels unaware. We include or exclude. We welcome or turn away. We serve ourselves or we serve humankind. Each and every decision shapes us. Our lives are a constant turning away or towards the image of God and presence of Christ.
On July 10, 1910, our spiritual ancestors held Belmont’s first worship service – the unseen residual power of our first worship service may still shape us today. As an hospitable people, we began with a guest preaching. Dr. Wilbur F Tillett, the Dean of the Vanderbilt School of Religion, preached what the Nashville Banner described as “a stirring sermon” from Nehemiah. Dr. Tillett concluced: “I trust that however beautiful a temple may one day be erected in this part of the city, the members will always remember that the mission of every one of Christ’s followers is to strengthen the manhood and womanhood of the world.” Take a look at our stained glass windows put up in 1926. Unlike that anonymous NY church, our beautiful Easter window accurately places women at the center of the Easter narrative. Jesus tells us that angels are beyond gender, and our stained-glass tri-colored wings are beyond classification. I love that five of our eight windows feature women: the birth of Jesus, Mary and Martha, the woman at the well, Jesus and the children, and Easter! For the past 90 years, the decisions had about our windows have influenced our lives. Now, I hope if we put up art today, it might be a little less European, but still these beautiful windows have created an inclusive space! Perhaps, Dr.Tillett’s words “ the mission of every one of Christ’s followers is to strengthen the womanhood of the world” spoken over 108 years ago helped shape the decision on the windows, that still shapes us today. If Tillet’s words somehow unknowingly shaped our church for over a century, what do our words sew into the world today? How will the things we do, say, or post make a difference in 108 years?
Jesus spoke of the everyday choices that shape our lives like this: “Everybody who hears the words of this Sermon on the Mount and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.” Friends, we are turning our lives, building our lives, shaping ourselves – decision by decision. I am shaping the future Paul Purdue. You parents are shaping those children entrusted to you – decision by decision. We call this sanctification.
How is your sainthood progressing? Are we simply aiming to just slide into heaven “without any holiness coming between” professing our faith or eternal destination, “faith taking the place of holiness”? (John Wesley’s 5th Discourse Upon the Sermon on the Mount) Perhaps, when we say “I am a Christ”, God will not do a miracle and duplicate Jesus within us through our faith, but more likely, we will take on the appearance and love of Christ decision by decision.
In 1914, our spiritual ancestors laid the cornerstone for our first sanctuary – they made the decision to lay a cornerstone that said: “1914 – Made not after the law of a carnal commandment but after the power of an endless life.” Go see the cornerstone by our four column entrance on 21st Ave. The words come from Hebrew 7:16 and speak of Jesus’ power flowing through a deep indestructible spiritual force which supersedes the law. Does that cornerstone guide the way we build our spiritual church today? Are we made after the carnal commandment, or shaped by a superior spiritual power? The 1927 sanctuary cornerstone reads: “whose foundation is Jesus”. It comes from 1 Corinthians 3:11 (10-16). “Each builder must build with care, for no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ… the work of each builder will one day become visible… Do you not know that you are God’s temple? “ Friends, do you know you are God’s temple? What kind of temple are you building? Are your decisions turning you into a creature of heaven?
How do the words of our baptismal covenant shape us? Are they the foundations that guide us daily, decision by decision? As we leave this holy space, please dip your fingers in the baptismal waters and make a sign of the cross or not, and then take a wet stone or bead from the font to remember the vows you might renew again today. May our baptismal vows guide our decisions, so that decision by decision we turn into the people of God.
Turn with me to page 34 in your hymnal and let us think again about the promises we have made to God and each other. Let us consider our progression towards sainthood and how our daily decisions shape us.
“On behalf of the whole church I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? We do.” How do our everyday words, decisions, purchases or posts renounce evil ways and turn away sinful means?
“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? We do.” How will we use our freedom and our power this week to bring about goodness, establish justice, and end oppression?
“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in His grace, and promise to serve Him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? We do.” Will we keep on choosing to unite our hearts with all God’s imperfect people and serve needs well beyond our own self interests?
According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church, and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? We will!” In every decision, will we remember we represent Jesus – we are making our own image of Christ to someone else?
“Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include each person in your care? With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround each person with a community of love and forgiveness; that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for each other that we may be a true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”
Let us, decision by decision, turn our lives down the the pathway that leads to life. Amen.