Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
Melchizedek would be a forgotten biblical figure had it not been for the author of the letter to the Hebrews drawing our attention to him. This was the priest and king of the city Salem of the Jebusites in Canaan which centuries later would become Jerusalem. When Abram with all his family and servants and animals arrived in Canaan, he was considered suspicious by most and actually had to do battle with some.
King Melchizedek, who worshiped at the altar of El Elyon (“the Most High God,” one of the names used for Yahweh in the Psalms), is the one person identified in Genesis who is came out to welcome them. Melchizedek recognized in our spiritual ancestor one keeping true faith with God, someone who would bless by his example of trust in God all the generations that came after him. Melchizedek had the eyes and the sensibilities to offer tribute to Abram. He presented an offering, and Abram, after being blessed, offered tribute back to Melchizedek, a tenth of all that host of creatures and things he owned.
Therefore, for us Christians, thanks to the ruminations of the author of Hebrews on the subject of that ancient Jebusite priest-king, we see a Gentile – arguably like ourselves, one who worshiped the same God as Abram the Hebrew – showing hospitality toward our “father in faith” very like the hospitality we seek to extend to Jesus in our hearts and which he, then, offers back.
Different from our own hospitality, at least in the way we usually think of it, Melchizedek was taking a huge risk. He was alone among his people and the other rulers of that region in his esteem for Abram the transient, Abram the homeless, Abram the immigrant. When Abram returned Melchizedek’s hospitality, this would only have sharpened all those others’ suspicions. But Melchizedek the priest-king of Salem recognized in Abram one who served the same God he served, one who like him sought to draw together heaven and earth into a new and abiding order.
And in the Christ we recognize someone in a unique position between heaven and earth – someone who was so immediately like and unlike us – that all humanity might know in him our God who identifies with us, claims common cause and common purpose with us. To be born and grow, learn and live, bless and warn, love and heal, suffer and die, these together form the calling of the Christian. These courses are the courses of perfection, completeness, these the milestones and touchstones every human being endures. Jesus, of course, accomplished these without fault or error … and alone. As the Hebrews author observes, Christ made the perfect offering, the perfect gift.
We Christians, on the other hand, utterly human, cannot presume to achieve a perfect giftmaking. We are far too flawed, broken, messed up. We have to depend on one another to complete our dreams, our hopes, and the world’s needs. We cannot make a perfect gift individually. So, that has become the purpose of the Church.
There was a theology, or – really an ecclesiology, an understanding about the Church – that Paul conceived, so that we might not lose our dream, our hope, and so that we might not abandon our purpose in the world. He imagined each of us to be an organ or an appendage of the Body of Christ. It’s the reason we are called church members; we are each one a hand or foot, eye or ear, and on and on throughout the human body, none able to do without all the others.
And every time a new church has been birthed its people have been reminded of two
things: First, each of us is a priest who serves under Christ the high priest. God calls priests into being, those who seek to bring together earthly things with heaven. Hence, that saying in Hebrews which is a quote from Psalm 110, “You are a priest forever … ” And hence the beginning of our Covenant, “We who are called of God into this Christian community … ” We have the power to bless and to curse; as Jesus says in the gospels, “What we bind on earth is bound in heaven; and our power extends to so much else between earth and heaven. I am not exaggerating here. I am not speaking in platitudes. We must take our power seriously.
Secondly, each one is an indispensable part, no one of us better than the others, all of us learning from one another, all of us broken in some way and requiring repair and assistance just as we endeavor to be there for others. As that brilliant poet, songwriter, performer, and theologian Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”
Some might presume that they are superior to their brothers and sisters, the way the barZebedee brothers did, but they would be wrong about that. Those who presume to be first will find that they are last, and those in the last position whether they are comfortable with advancement or not – will have to come up to the front. Ours is a world in which little children are exalted over grownups, poor over rich, and weak over strong … because all of us have to work together for the successful embodiment of the good news we bring to the world as the Church.
And now that I’ve said that, I thought I should use you as an illustration. Here, let’s examine how we are doing in answering our priestly calling and activating as the body of Christ – First Congregational Church.
In 2017, we spent a total of about $595,000. We actually spent more than that, but the excess was for concerts and Benevolence giving and other things funded from out of church assets designated for those purposes.
The five-ninety-five worked out to be about $9,000 more than we’d budgeted for ourselves and $17,000 more than we took in, but we had some funds left over from prior years, and that made our overspending possible.
We had a paid staff of twelve people, including the nursery caregiver and the custodial assistant who worked only a couple of hours a week. The rest of the staff worked from fifteen to forty hours a week, and I worked close to sixty hours a week, except for the three and a half months I was on vacation and sabbatical.
As in most years, our staff compensation represented sixty-five percent of our total expenditures. Another twenty-five percent paid for the upkeep of the building and the operation of our institution. We spent four percent of our expenses on Christian Education, Parish Life, and Executive Ministry programs. We gave away seven percent of our expenses to Mission Partners like Gateway 180 and Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Partnership and Webster Rock Hill Ministries.
These numbers tell you many things about our faith community. They tell you that we value our staff and the work that they do. They tell you that we have been handed a legacy by previous generations of a building that requires a lot of money for its maintenance and care. And they tell you that we care about others and want to have an impact on our world.
What these numbers don’t tell you is pretty important too, though.
Although we only put four percent of our expenses into programming in 2017, volunteers of the church- office workers and Sunday School teachers and Habitat for Humanity staffers and memorial reception hosts, First Friends and Special Friends and Brown Baggers and Parish Care providers of food, Lady Elect and Monday Morning Men and Journeymen and Practicers of Faith and Youth Trippers and Innkeepers for Room at the Inn, and on and on.
Consider the hours logged by all those and the lives blessed.
In my first week back from vacation, this year, we conducted together three memorial services with receptions, and provided spiritual comfort and support to a member and his family after his heart stopped and got restarted. Then, we made meals for sixty people, gathered ourselves for worship and Sunday School, and took communion. That was all in a seven-day period from Monday to Sunday! Think of the human resources that required, the hours easily a hundred of us logged in order to act as priests in Melchizedek’s order, bringing together earth with heaven!
That was our gift. We probably didn’t even consider whether we were giving a perfect gift, but I’ll tell you something: Those who were on the receiving end probably were inclined to think that’s what our gift was.
You are the body of Christ, a priesthood of believers … you who are called of God into this Christian community.
Now, that may sound to you as though those were a particularly busy seven days, or that they must have been unusually active for us. But there isn’t a period of a week to which I bear witness in this place and among you that isn’t spent similarly. Customarily my vows of confidentiality would prevent me from mentioning to you all we do. But given the common knowledge among you of all that went on between July 29 and August 4, well, that just happens to be a week I can talk about publicly. And the stuff I have to bear in confidence reveals how much more we did that I coordinated with another church’s staff and a faith-based institution also, that week.
Every day, every week, every month, every year, First Church offers others welcome and safety and sanctuary, recuperation and renewal and strength, connection and embrace and affirmation, understanding and love and joy. And we share it all, costly as it is, because that is our purpose. That’s what God has called us to do and to embody.
Like Abram arriving in a strange land with all that he owned, people come here – suspicious to most, doing battle with some, weary of the world and worried for their future. The Church, this church, is there for them. But as with Christ so it is with us, there is an offering to be made and made perfect… for the sake of the world and all those Abrams in it.
I’ve reflected with you about what we spent in 2017 and how our income came up a bit short. I’ll share with you that 2018 is looking kind of similar. And next Sunday, it will be time for us to make our commitments for 2019.
I’ve observed to you what we were capable of, in just one seven day period, this year, because of your generosity in finance, in time, in skill, and in spirit. The office was enabled to facilitate communication and to coordinate care, you pastor led and served and counseled and planned, and people in need were blessed and filled. Please, be considering our calling and your gifts, perfect and imperfect, and of what through them we all make possible, in God’s service and as Christ’s own body uniting earth and heaven.