Face to Face

Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year 1
Sunday, January 27, 2008
texts: Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:12-23

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

How do you speak of God?
How do you experience God?
Where do you go to “be with” God?
In the late medieval era,
at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation
sparked by Martin Luther’s concerns about the workings of the church,
the church and its people inevitably looked up to find God,
    their necks bent backwards in a holy gaze toward the heavens.
People looked to heaven, and to the majesty of the church,
    for God’s presence.
God was up there, far off, above the clouds, or behind the altar,
    accessible only through the sacred mechanisms of the church.
Luther and the protestant reformers, however,
    suggested that we straighten out our necks
    and look a little lower than the horizon,
        to concern ourselves not with the complications of a distant God,
        but with the intimacy of an incarnate, imminently present God,
        a God of the cross who comes to us every day, face to face.

Today we continue to search for God,
    we continue to ask ourselves how we see, how we experience, how we encounter God.
The psalm for today writes of a desire to see God face to face,
    and the Gospel text tells us of Jesus calling his disciples in a simple,
        face to face encounter.
What does it mean to see God face to face?

I don’t know if it happened quite like this,
    but I can imagine the scene,
    in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico,
    where a group of high school boys from Northern Virginia
        did what had been unthinkable a few years earlier.
“C’mon, follow me!  Check this out!”
The other boys were tired, but curious.  What did he see up there?
With weighty packs on their backs and blisters on their feet,
    pebbles rattling in their hiking boots
    and their skin sore with the dual action of sun screen and bug spray,
the band of Boy Scouts congregated at the ledge and gasped in awe.
They found themselves at the edge of a precipice
    with a breathtaking, wide-screen-worthy view of the burnt red Cimarron Mount Range,
    a range whose peaks pierced purpling clouds as the sun descended in the sky,
    and which are home to the hawks that circled above and the elk that herded below.

These eleven boys, who a few years ago were labeled as misfits
        for their unruly behavior, bickering, and obstinance  –
        as new Boy Scouts they once laid down in the trail in dramatic protest
            refusing to go any further on a simple two-mile hike–
    well, in those mountains of New Mexico they were nearly complete
a shared and unique trek toward Eagle Scout.
    You may have seen the article in last Saturday’s Washington Post.
But more important than any achievement,
    they were together on a life-defining journey from boyhood to young adulthood,
    sharing views and vistas, but also memories and meaning.
From mountaintop outcroppings to eveningtime campfires,
    midweek meetings and service projects,
    celebratory high fives and inevitable arguments,
    trips to camps and detours to Dairy Queen,
    this is a group of kids who shared life together – the ups and the downs –
        face to face, heart to heart, side by side.

The article in the Post draws an interesting contrast between Scouting
    and the many other – perhaps much cooler – options available to young people today.
"Scouting has rarely been cool," the article tells us.
"But in a world of iPods, traveling soccer clubs, 24-hour cable television and Wii,
Boy Scout oaths and three-finger salutes seem more than a little dated."

There truly are so many other ways teenagers can spend their time,
to form their identity,
        to have fun.
Video and computer games,
    traveling sports teams,
    social networking websites,
    numerous school-based extra curricular activities,
    and of course other community groups, including religious communities.
Oh, and let us not forget school, part-time jobs, and family.
And so, with all that is available to young people today,
    why would eleven boys in the same Boy Scout Troop
commit so much time and energy, blood, sweat and tears,
so much of themselves
to the – let’s be honest about it – not entirely cool world of scouting?
Wouldn’t they rather be listening to their iPods?

I’ve never been a Boy Scout, but I think what the Boy Scouts offer,
    and what became so meaningful for these boys,
    are the intense, intimate, authentic, and raw face-to-face relationships
    that are forged in the formative process of scouting.
Like any extracurricular activity, the Scouts is a task-driven experience.
There are levels of achievement and concrete steps to get there.
But as important as those tasks are, those tasks are performed with others, in community.
And so, at the end of the day, I think the tasks become less important than
    the personal connections themselves, the relationships that are created
in a long-term experience like the Boy Scouts
– relationships with the other youth,
and with the adults who serve as Troop leaders.
For in these long-term relationships,
formed in shared experiences of growth and learning and living –
    formed in the uncommon face-to-face intimacy of our iPod world –
the young people also get to know themselves and their place in the world.
It’s that face-to-face quality of scouting, I think,
that makes it so powerful for those eleven young Eagle Scouts from Falls Church.

Face to face.

Starting tonight here at King of Kings,
    our congregation will come face to face with people and a reality
that all too often our society would rather ignore.
It is the first night of our week-long commitment
to serve some of the County’s homeless population by
providing meals for those who sleep at a government facility in Falls Church,
    and to welcome others into our own church, to sleep in our Fellowship Hall,
        where they can be warm and safe.

Fellowship hall.
The word fellowship connotes a friendly relationship, a companionship.
There’s a sharing that takes place when we fellowship with others.
    Think of all the classes, events and meals –
the face to face experiences that you’ve shared in that Fellowship Hall.
Just in these past few months that space, that Fellowship Hall,
    has been host to large adult Sunday School classes,
    new member’s gatherings,
    preschool lunch parties,
    Sunday Night Live family-style dinners,
        and weekly dinners with the Confirmation youth,
    weekly meetings of an AA group,
    a festive Octoberfest, and at least two Christmas dinners,
        a baby shower (thank you very much!),
    a two-day scrapbooking event,
        Yoga,
and much, much more.
Add to that, now, a temporary shelter for the homeless.
And so in one sense, this week will be no different for our Fellowship Hall than any other week.
For here in our Fellowship Hall this week,
    people will share in the God-blessed companionship and friendly relationships
        that we call Fellowship,
    just as we do any other week.
But for the members of our church who spend the night here voluntarily,
    and for those guests who will stay with us because they have no other choice –
two sets of people who otherwise might not have met
in our economically segregated society –
this will be a boundary-crossing,
relationship-building,
fellowship-sharing,
face-to-face experience.

The Christian faith is a face-to-face faith,
our God is a face to face God,
our church is a community where we come face to face with each other,
with God, and with the World.
As much as some folks might try to make Christianity into a holier-than-thou to-do-list –
    and yes, there are some definite to-do’s in our faith –
Or as much as some might try to turn Christianity into an excessive exercise
in holy knowledge and learning –
    and yes, there are some definite things Christians should learn and know about
        our faith, it’s tradition, and the Bible –
Or as much as some might try to distort Christian churches into slick small businesses
    peddling spiritual products of self-improvement and feel-good sentiments –
at its core our faith is a face-to-face encounter –
with God, with other Christians, with the world.
Look at the Gospel today.
Jesus approaches Peter and Andrew and he offers them a simple invitation –
    Come, follow me.
There ain’t much grandeur in this encounter.
No enticements, no glitz, no market-tested limited-time offer.
There wasn’t a cool website,
    snazzy multimedia, or even a nice brochure.
Nothing of the sort.
This was a simple, straight forward, no frills encounter.
Don’t think that we can explain this simplicity
simply by the fact that Jesus walked this earth 2000 years ago,
before all those trappings of modern marketing were even dreamt up.
If you’ve read your Bible you know that the ancients sure knew dramatic flair.
In the passage prior to today’s reading from Matthew chapter 4,
    the Devil comes face to face with Jesus,
    tempting and taunting him in with grand showmanship.
“If you’re the Son of God,” the Devil challenges Jesus,
    not unlike a bully on a playground,
    “then prove it.”
The Devil offers three juicy tests to Jesus –
    he tells Jesus to turn rocks into bread,
        but Jesus refuses.
The Devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple,
    and he tells Jesus to jump,
        for surely God will save him.
But Jesus refuses.
And then the Devil takes Jesus to the highest mountain,
    shows him all the world,
    and offers to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world,
        if only Jesus would bow down and worship him.
But Jesus refuses, of course,
    frustrating the Devil and sending him away packing.

It is then in stark contrast to the Devil’s dramatic attempts to appeal to Jesus
    that Jesus makes quite a different invitation to the disciples.
Come, follow me.
    No offers from the tops of temples or mountains,
        no promises of greatness or riches or power.
    No.  Just a simple face to face invitation to follow Jesus into a new way of life,
and, indeed, into a new life altogether.

I think the church is at its best when we recall that face to face simplicity,
    when we realize that no amount of marketing tools
    or attempts to appeal to an attractive demographic sector
        will be the holy grail of church growth.
The Holy Grail of the church’s work, dear friends, is in the face to face nature of our faith,
    when we gather with others, face to face, for Bible study and prayer,
    when we reach out to others, face to face,
to share the peace or perhaps a donut and coffee,
    when we serve our neighbor face to face,
and see in their face the image and presence of God,
    when we come to this table or pass by that font,
        to behold the promises of God that come to us in amazing simplicity.
As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:8,
    we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God
        but also our own selves.
This gospel of God, this message that we proclaim and that we seek to live,
    it is a Way of Life that cannot simply be captured in print or projection or pixels,
    as wonderful as those tools are.
No, dear friends.
We share the Gospel when we share ourselves.
This Gospel is the stuff of life, the stuff of relationships, the stuff of a face-to-face God
    who comes to us to be with us, to look us in the eye and love us,
    a God who calls us to turn our faces not to the heavens,
        but to the world,
        to our neighbor,
        for that is where we will find God.
Face to face with the world.  Face to face with each other.  Face to face with God.

Amen.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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