Sermon for August 22, 2010
Brothers and Sisters, I stand before you today to proclaim, I have been to the mountaintop!
Well...technically we only went halfway up the mountain, and then down into the "batcave," where we shimmied along a ledge and then squeezed through a crevice named "Fat Man's Misery" and then back outside again and over "Tadpole Rock," before we finally came all the way back down to the Jones/Finley/Espy cookshed for dinner.
But brothers and sisters, I can stand before you today to proclaim, I have been...to campmeeting!
You see, I grew up hearing about campmeeting from my best friend John Wahrmund. Remember the scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest's friend Bubba is describing all the different ways to cook shrimp, and he goes on and on through several scenes and late into the night? Well it was kind of like that every August when John got back from campmeeting: "And then at campmeeting we did this, and at campmeeting we did that, and campmeeting is soooo amazing, and there was this girl at campmeeting, and oh yeah, you would have loved the part of campmeeting when we...Sometimes we wanted to tell John to put a sock in it, but inside we were all secretly jealous of this apparently wonderful, harmonious, and spirit-filled place John went to in the middle of nowheres-ville, Texas. It wasn't just when he came back -- John went to camp meeting for just one week every year, but talked about it that way year-round. And it wasn't just John, either. Chances are, if you've known someone who's been to campmeeting on a regular basis, you've heard the same story. So what is this thing? This...camp? This...meeting?
According to the centennial history of the Bloys Cowboy Campmeeting published a decade ago, a Presbyterian minister by the name of William Benjamin Bloys was sent to West Texas in 1878 by the home missions board of the Presbyterian church. It didn't take Brother Bloys too long to figure out what most of you already know about West Texas: It's pretty big. And pretty empty. Still. And if your ranch is a three-day trip away from the nearest church, you probably won't be a very regular church attender. And if you're a cowboy with little formal education, the polished sermons of seminary-educated minister, looking down at you from an ornately carved pulpit, in a big stained glass box, probably wouldn't have much to say that you could relate to anyhow.
So at the suggestion of a Mrs. John Z. Means, Reverend Bloys, in October of 1890, organized the first of what would become an annual get-together in a grove of oak, pine, and cedar trees nestled among the Davis mountains--Skillman's Grove, it was called. In the early years, ranchers, their families, and even most of the ranch-hands would make the journey to Skillman's Grove in covered wagons and would pitch their tents around campfires. Brother Bloys would preach three services a day standing on an Arbuckle's coffee box underneath a giant oak tree. The people worshiped God in a wide-open sanctuary fashioned by the Creator of the Universe. And for at least one week out of the long, hard working year -- it was their Sabbath. It was church.
Or was it? Bloys Cowboy Campmeeting was one of several camp meetings that sprung up all across America in the nineteenth century. According to Winthrop Hudson's History of Religion in America, the camp meetings were part of the larger movement known as the Second Great Awakening. They were especially associated with the Methodist church, although (like the Bloys campmeeting) the very first camp meeting in the United States was started by a Presbyterian minister, James McGready, in June of 1800 in Red River Kentucky. Unfortunately, according to Hudson, "many Presbyterians were disturbed by the camp-meeting extravagances they had helped foster." Decently and in Order has long been a motto of Presbyterians, and camp meetings didn't look, sound, or seem like...church. They didn't follow the rules. Hudson notes that "within a few years, camp meetings had become almost a Methodist preserve."
I am pleased to report that Reverend Bloys, from the beginning welcomed all Christian traditions to his campmeeting, and that tradition still carries today, with families (and ministers) from Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Disciples of Christ traditions forming the majority of participants. Just for the record, and in the ecumenical spirit of Campmeeting, I have invited some Baptists and some Methodists to join us in worship today!
But I want to go back to this idea of what is or isn't "church." I'm told that the same accusation has from time to time been leveled against the Bloys Cowboy Campmeeting as well: "You don't meet every Sunday? You can't call that church." You don't share a common belief on how a person ought to be baptized? That's not church. You hold your prayer meetings under a tree? No way can that be considered church."
This is nothing new. In fact, it's the same issue at the heart of today's scripture reading: Jesus sees a woman in need, he heals her, and the rulers of the Synagogue respond? That's not church! We know what church is; we know what's allowed and what isn't allowed. Hey, somebody go get the Book of Order: OK...teaching in the synagogue? Check. Prayer? Check? Untying your ox or donkey? Check. Healing a crippled woman? Nope, sorry, Jesus. Oh wait, here it is: That's classified as a para-church-weekday-low-priority-non-authorized-procedure. You'll need to fill out form 1086-B, Jesus, pending approval of the worship committee, the mission committee, and the special task force on appropriate male-female interaction. Oh yes, and we'll need you to sign this medical liability waiver form, too. Now please go to the back of the line...
We Presbyterians -- probably Baptists and Methodists, too -- we Christians are so often like the rulers of the Synagogue: We genuinely try to please God by preserving the church -- the decency and order of the church; the building and grounds of the church; the doctrines of the church; the traditions of the church. These things are not altogether without merit. They have their places. But we forget that God does not need us to preserve God's church. God needs us to look up from our hymnbooks and rulebooks and yes, even from our Bibles every now and then and actually see the hurting woman standing in front of us who needs the church to be the church for her -- even if it isn't scheduled in the bulletin.
One hundred and ten years ago, Reverend Bloys looked up and saw a need. The church that fit that need didn't look like the one the home missions board sent him to plant. But this summer, when my family and I had the pleasure of experiencing campmeeting at the invitation of my friend, John, we saw 2,000 people gathered together in the name of Christ, worshiping together 5 times a day, across denominational lines, across county lines and state lines. I watched individuals who were neither preachers nor teachers stand up and testify to the love of God at work in their families, in their jobs, and in their communities. I don't know what church is "supposed" to look like, but I'm pretty sure I saw it there in Skillman's Grove.
Truthfully, I don't think there are many who would argue today that the Bloys Campmeeting isn't church. It's had one hundred and ten years to prove the point. If we want to be true to the spirit of campmeeting; if we want to follow the teaching of today's scripture reading, we must ask ourselves where Jesus is at work in the world today...especially in ways that don't fit our definition of what church ought to be. Because if we're not looking up, not looking around us at a rapidly changing world, or if we are looking (unbeknownst to us) at the work of Jesus but saying, "You call that church?" Chances are, Jesus is looking right back into our well-ordered, well-preserved buildings, and saying to us, "You call this church?"
I do not mean to say, of course, that Jesus isn't doing some pretty amazing things within the walls of some pretty traditional churches, including this one. But throughout history, including the Old Testament and the New, God seems to have a preference for gathering unconventional people in unconventional ways, and in unconventional places: Several hundred-thousand runaway slaves guided through the wilderness by a cloud and a pillar of fire, gathering around a movable tent nobody's allowed to sleep in? Shepherds, kings, angels, and livestock gathered around a baby in a manger underneath a really bright star? Seriously? You can't make this stuff up. A bunch of cowboys and ranchers in covered wagons out in the middle of the West Texas desert listening to a guy standing on a coffee box under an oak tree?
Yesterday evening, a group of Mexican Christians across the border in Juarez gathered together on the international bridge to pray, and to hold up signs with scriptures painted on them, and to talk to people crossing the border in both directions. They went because in a time where fewer and fewer people in Juarez are frequenting shops, restaurants, and even churches, approximately 50,000 people still (legally) cross the international bridges every day. Over in the United States, we bury our faces in the newspapers and television reports, so all we see is the poverty and the violence in Juarez. Do we see Jesus? Would we recognize him even if we did? Over 250,000 people have left Juarez, but I don't believe that Jesus was one of them. So where is he? Where is the church in Ciudad Juarez? Look up! Yesterday, church was on top of the the international bridge. Jesus was on the international bridge.
Sometimes the place doesn't even look like a place, let alone a church. For the past year, I have gathered regularly with a group of Presbyterians online, in a three-dimensional, digital, virtual reality program called "Second Life." We meet every Sunday night for prayer, and every Wednesday night for discussion, each of us represented by virtual avatars that look like something out of a video game, in a virtual building at the foot of a virtual cross. But we are not a "virtual" church. There are real people behind the avatars, real relationships, and very real prayers. I believe that a very real Jesus gathers with us. What's more, there are over 100 million people who participate in virtual worlds and the number is growing fast. How many of them will hear the gospel message when they log into the virtual world? Like the woman in today's scripture, many are hurting and in need of what the church has to offer...what Jesus has to offer. Will we look up and see them? Or will we repeat the age old echo: That's just a game--it's not really church. Who will be their Reverend Bloys?
After Jesus calls out the rulers of the Synagogue, the scriptures tell us that they are embarrassed, or put to shame. Shame and embarrassment are byproducts of pride, which can be a dangerous thing. But pride is not entirely a bad thing. I am proud of my son and my daughter as I watch them grow. As a teacher, I would tell my students to take pride in their work. My friend John and all those who have been a part of the Bloys campmeeting over the years have much to be proud of, and long-time members of First Presbyterian church are understandably very proud of the history and heritage contained within these walls.
It is only when we misplace the source of pride that we bring about our shame and embarrassment: I am not the one who makes my children grow. Nor is the great success of Bloys campmeeting the product of Reverend Bloys, or my friend John, or any of its participants. And First Presbyterian Church does not belong even to the people who labored to build it, but rather to a God who is still building churches, still gathering people together in strange and unlikely places that are sometimes hard to recognize. But if we open our eyes, look up from our hallowed institutions, and see our savior at work -- well there are two other responses in our passage besides that of the rulers of the synagogue. The woman who was healed praised God. And the crowd? "The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing."
Brothers and sisters, the God of Reverend Bloys, and God of the Bloys Cowboy Campmeeting is the same God at work today in the world around us. Let us open our eyes! Let us join again in what God is doing! And let the church--whatever it looks like--rejoice! Thanks Be to God!