Monday, October 17, 2016

Sermon, "James: Taming the Tongue," James 3:1-12

Sermon 10/16/16
James 3:1-12

James: Taming the Tongue

            Once upon a time I was a little girl going up front for Children’s Time at my little country church in Westernville, NY. I can’t tell you that all the message and lessons stuck with me. But I still remember one very well – the pastor was asking us to guess what the strongest muscle in our body was. We all tried to guess, but were surprised when the pastor told us that the tongue was actually the strongest muscle. So strong, he said, you have to be careful, thoughtful, about the words you say, about how you speak. That message has stuck with me. Now, eventually, I researched a little to figure out – is it really the strongest muscle? It isn’t. It was a bit of a hyperbole. But the gist is true. It’s a small part of us with incredible power – power to build up, to heal, to strengthen, and power to hurt, and tear down, and destroy. How do you use your words? How do use the muscle, the power that you have in the way that you speak? What words are you sending into the world?
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This phrase seems to have appeared sometime in the mid-1800s (1), perhaps meant to be a way to help people withstand verbal mistreatment. But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of consistent bullying can tell you how wrong this little saying is: words are powerful. Immeasurably powerful. Words can do a great many things, and certainly, causing harm is one of them.
            Words are powerful, and have consequences, even when we speak them quickly, thoughtlessly, without much intent behind them. I think, for example, of my grandmother. Her sister told her, when they were children, that she couldn’t sing – she didn’t have a nice voice. My grandmother took those words to heart. They worked deep down into her soul. Decades later, when my mom was a girl, and the family would sing songs in the car on trips, my grandmother would never join in. My grandmother was shaped by those words, which in turn shaped the childhood experiences of my mother. I’m sure my great aunt never imagined that her words would cause such a permanent, lasting feeling. But the words caused hurt. Powerful, the words we speak.
            Words are powerful. When I was in high school, I was part of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries – CCYM – our conference’s team of youth leaders from area churches. We’ve had some folks from this church participate in CCYM over the years and attend CCYM events. At a CCYM event at Casowasco one year, Rev. Rebecca Dolch was our keynote speaker. She had us split into two groups. One group sat in a circle on the floor, and the other group stood in a circle around them. In the outside group, each person had to think of an encouraging word or phrase to share with those in the inside group. And then, as music played, the outside group rotated around, sharing their message in a whisper to each person on the inside group. So if you were sitting on the inside, as people moved around the outside, you’d hear a string of affirmations: “You’re beautiful. I love you. You’re a gift. God loves you. God calls you. You’re special. I care about you. You’re made in God’s image.” Then inner and outer circles switched, and the process was repeated. It is still, all these years later, one of the more meaningful experiences I’ve had – both when I was sharing words of affirmation and receiving them. Powerful, the words we speak.
            I’m guessing that you can remember, if you think over your life, times when words had an amazing impact on your life – some good, some bad. I can remember words spoken to me thirty years ago that hurt my feelings. And thankfully, I can also remember words that made my heart swell with joy. What words do you remember hearing that shaped your life? What words do you remember saying – words of affirmation, or words that caused harm? I’ve been wrestling recently with words that I said about someone that were unkind and hurtful. And indeed, my words, comments made by me without much thought or intent, without much time or energy put into them – led to a series of events that have caused considerable pain. I know I won’t forget. Powerful, the words we speak. In our world today, we produce more words than ever, but more than ever, our words are disconnected from our person – we speak at a distance, through our phones, through email, through text, through facebook. Online, we don’t even have to claim our words, and the power of being able to speak anonymously online seems to have unleashed our desire and ability to say the worst things we can think of saying to hurt each other. What words do you speak online that you would never speak face to face? We must claim those too! Powerful, the words we speak, in whatever medium we speak them.  
             We’re continuing on in our study of the letter of James this week. Nearly half of what James writes in this short letter is tied in some way or another to how we speak, how we interact with each other. Throughout the work he calls for us to speak truthfully, to be careful of speaking judgmentally, to be quick to hear and slow to speak. He calls on us never to speak about each other falsely. And here, in today’s passage, are his most direct, compelling words about how we speak. He starts by saying that not many of us should become teachers, because teachers are judged with greater strictness. Anyone here agree with that? Teachers have authority over others, and certainly in spiritual matters, those who teach others about God and what God is like and how we are called to live – that’s a serious task that requires us to take serious responsibility for our work.
            James says that the tongue, our mouths, our words – they’re like the bit one uses with a horse – a tiny piece that steers the whole direction of the horse. Our tongues are like the rudder on a ship. Proportionally small to the whole – a rudder is responsible for directing the whole boat. The power of our words, says James, is like the power of a small fire, which can burn down a whole forest. Humans have managed to tame whole species of animals, whole segments of creation – but have failed to tame the tongue. The result? “With [our tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so,” James writes. How compelling, how meaningful are our words of praise, our words of thanksgiving, our words of prayer, our words of love, if we also use our words to hurt and harm? How can we praise God and curse what God has created in God’s very image?
            Think about the power of words that shape our Christian identity. We’re bound together by the scripture, words that describe the story of God and God’s people. God created with words. “God said let there be light … and there was light.” We call Jesus the Word too – in the gospel of John, John says that “the word became flesh and lived among us.” The Word in human form in the person of Jesus. I think of the words Jesus speaks. Teaching and preaching. Words that heal, literally. Words that set people free from sin. Words that forgive. Words that challenge. Words of love. I think of the words of our community of faith. The words we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words of the hymns. The words of our sacraments – “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” “This is my body, broken for you.” Powerful, the words we speak.
            So what do we do about it? Knowing our words are so important, what do we do? It’s tempting to think that it’s only what we do, not what we say that matters. But like we talked about with faith and works last week, we can’t really have just one or the other. Our words shape us and shape others. So how do we, as people of faith, become more thoughtful, more faithful, in our speaking?          
            When we need to, we start by using these powerful words: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” These words, offered with sincerity, can change everything. Sometimes I think about all the ways we try to avoid having to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” We say, “I’m sorry, but…” and follow with basically an explanation of why we are not sorry at all. Or “I’m sorry that you got upset with me.” This is another non-apology, basically a criticism of the other party, rather than a sincere admitting of wrong. How about the phrase, “My apologies.” I find myself slipping into that phrase when I’m telling someone that I’m sorry I haven’t emailed them back more promptly. “I’m so sorry. I was wrong.” Words to offer to God and one another.
            We’ve talked a lot about building each other up as the Body of Christ, and that’s another thing we can do with words. I remember as a child attending our church camps, a camp rule was that there were “no put downs.” And if you did put someone down, you had to apologize by giving “two put ups and a hug.” In other words, you had to find two ways to build the person back up that you had just knocked down. How can you put someone back up who has been knocked down by words – your words, or someone else’s? On my desk in my office, you’ll see a big plastic jar, full of little slips of paper. My home church gave that to me when I started my first church. They wrote on index cards words of affirmation, and told me that when I was having a hard time in my ministry, I should open the jar and read some of the words. I’ve added to it over the years, if someone sends me a note that touches my heart. The words on those cards mean so much to me, and they remind me that I am loved and cherished. They give me strength and encouragement. I don’t even have to read the cards most of the time – I can just look at them sitting in the jar, and remember.
            I challenge us to remember that our words are powerful this week – even when we think we’re in places where our words don’t “count” as much – when we’re driving, when we’re interacting online, when we’re anonymous, when we’re speaking with people who are serving us – wait staff, cashiers, customer service, someone who’s kept us on hold for thirty minutes. Let us remember our words when we’ve been hurt, and our first impulse is to hurt back. We are all teachers, friends, in so far as our whole lives are witnesses to the work of Jesus in the world. And so we have a great responsibility. What do our words tell others about who Jesus is, and who his followers are? I hope our words tell the story of God’s amazing love and grace in a powerful and convincing way.
 “Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.” Amen.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sermon, "James: Faith and Works," Jame 2:14-26

Sermon 10/9/16
James 2:14-26                                                                                                      

James: Faith and Works

            Have you ever listened to a person talking on the phone? You can hear only one-half of the conversation. Sometimes, you can tell exactly what the person is talking about. From just one-half of the story, you can figure out the whole. Other times, you might realize that you have no clue what the conversation is about. You know you are missing too much to get it – the part of the conversation you can hear leaves you too little to go on. The worst, I think, is when you’re hearing only part of a conversation, and you are convinced you can understand everything from what you’ve heard, but you’re completely wrong about the conclusions you’re drawing. The part of the conversation you can’t hear holds crucial information, and without it, you jump to all the wrong conclusions.
            I think that’s the kind of situation we’re in danger of running into in our scripture lesson today from the book of James. We’re spending three weeks looking at the epistle of James, this letter that James writes. Who is James exactly? We encounter more than one James in the scriptures. One of the twelve disciples is James, and one of Jesus’ brothers is named James. We don’t hear much about Jesus’ brother during his life, but after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James becomes a strong leader in the early church. It seems the events of Jesus’ last days on earth have such an impact that James becomes a most devout follower of Jesus, an apostle who gives the rest of his lift to sharing the gospel. This letter is written in the name of James, brother of Jesus. Biblical scholars disagree about whether it is James himself who writes, or whether it is someone later who writes under James’ name – a common practice in ancient times if you wanted to sort of ground your writing in the authority of a particular teacher or school of thought you admired. Either way, what we get in this letter is the work of someone meaning to ground themselves in the kinds of teaching we would hear from James, brother of Jesus.
            Another question we need to ask is: Who exactly is James writing to? All the letters we have from Paul are named not 1 Paul, 2 Paul, and so on. For one – there are too many letters from Paul! And second, it is clear in each of his letters who the recipient is. He tells us that he is writing to the Corinthians, or to the Galatians, or so on. James is different – we have only one letter in the name of this author. And also, James has no clear recipient of his letter. In chapter one, he says he writes “to the twelve tribes in Dispersion.” In other words, James is writing to particularly to the Jewish followers of Jesus who are spread throughout the Roman Empire. So this isn’t actually a letter in the same way Paul’s letters were. This isn’t a letter with a specific recipient in mind. Instead, this is like we might read today on the internet when someone crafts “An Open Letter.” People might write an “open letter” in a blog spot or on facebook with a specific target named, but in actuality, the target is everyone the author can get to read the “letter.” This letter from James is basically an open letter to any faith community, any followers of Jesus who will read it.   
            It’s also an open letter that James writes in response to some apparent beliefs of the early churches that were spreading, that James wanted to correct. But without getting the whole picture, it can be easy to misunderstand what James is saying. What we find in this particular passage in James is a response from James to people taking the teachings of the apostle Paul and misapplying them, misusing them, twisting what Paul has said. James writes as a corrective. But we can learn the most about what James is writing about if we know about all the parts of this conversation.
            Particularly in the epistle to the Romans, a letter written to a group of faith communities made up of a mix of Jews and Gentiles, Paul spends time writing about, teaching about one of the topics most dear to him – how the message of Jesus is for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul wants his readers to know a few things: First, the Israelites still have the gift of beings God’s chosen people. To the Jews, God’s law was entrusted. A covenant was made. That’s the story we find in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament – God and God’s people, and the gift of the law to God’s people. Second, Paul wants his readers to know that there is a place for the Gentiles, too, even though they weren’t a part of that covenant with God. They’re a part of the story too. And how can they be part of the story? Paul writes that Jews and Gentiles are both a part of God’s story because it is our faith that brings us into a right relationship with God, rather than our adherence to the law. Paul called adherence to the law our “works.” Paul uses the figure of Abraham in the book of Genesis to show that is it Abraham’s faith and trust in God, rather than any deeds that Abraham had done, and devout adherence to the law, that makes Abraham blessed. In fact, Paul says, if it is just adherents to the law that are truly children of God, then God’s promises made through Abraham are void. It is our faith in Christ that matters, and therefore, Paul concludes, God’s promises and blessings are extended to take all of us in – not through the law, through works of the law, but through faith.    
            Somewhere between the time Paul wrote his letter, and the time James writes his letter, it seems things had gotten very twisted around. Apparently, some people, interpreting Paul’s teachings, believed that as long as you had faith in Jesus, you could call it a day. As long as you expressed faith in Jesus and understood the gift of the cross, your newfound freedom in Christ made everything else ok.
            James disagrees, vehemently. The result of such a black and white conclusion, he says, is that people are cold and hungry and in need with no one ready to help, because they feel they don’t need to – they’re already saved by their faith, and don’t “need” to do good works to be square with God. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
            He continues, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” James continues by citing some passages from the Hebrews scriptures – pointedly, in fact, using the same example of Abraham – to prove his point. Yes, Abraham believed in God – and that belief spurred him into action of carrying out God’s will. Abraham’s faith was expressed and demonstrated in faithful action.
Can we relate? Is our faith alive with good works? To me, it is easiest to understand James’ arguments when I think about love. We might say we love someone, but if our actions are hateful, or neglectful, or hurtful, the person we claim to love probably won’t believe us. They’ll be on the lookout for our loving actions, which will probably be as convincing as any words we say. I think of my mom trying to tell my two younger brothers when they were teens: it was great to hear from them that they loved her – truly, meaningful to her. But gosh – if they would clean their rooms and do the dishes and pick up the living room and put away their laundry simply because they knew it was important to her – that demonstration of love, those works of love – doing chores they found unappealing – well, that would be love demonstrated in action – convincing and compelling.
Or I think of the musical My Fair Lady. Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent. She’s taken on as a project, by a snobby professor, Henry Higgins, to see if he can convince others that she is an upper-class educated woman. Along the way, though, a thoughtful suitor named Freddy Einsford-Hill falls in love with Eliza, and serenades her outside her door. Freddy sings, “Speak, and the world is full of singing/And I am winging higher than the birds/Touch and my heart begins to crumble/The heaven's tumble/Darling, and I'm …” but what he is, we don’t find out, because Eliza, frustrated with the men in her life, cuts him off, singing: “Words, words, words! I'm so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars, burning above/If you're in love, show me!/Tell me no dreams, filled with desire/If you're on fire, show me!” Eliza Doolittle has had quite enough of words. She wants to be able to really see if Freddy loves her. She’s looking for action that supports his claim of love.
James wonders what could be the depth and power of our faith in Christ if it doesn’t evoke a response in us. If we have faith in Jesus, but nothing in our life changes, if it doesn’t change how we live and serve in the world, what does it matter? This might be faith, James says, but it’s dead faith. True faith and that faith expressed in loving, faithful action are inseparable. Full faith, true faith, could never be satisfied to sit back and rest in the face of brothers and sisters in need.
Does that mean we have to earn God’s favor with our good works? Does that mean that if we don’t accumulate a certain number of good deeds, we lose God’s love? Over the centuries, misreading both Paul and James, that’s how some have misconstrued what James is about. We can never earn God’s affection. It isn’t even an option, and any “good works” we do because we’re trying to earn God’s affection may be work but they aren’t very good if being rewarded is our motivation. Thankfully, what saves us, what redeems us, what makes us whole is not our doing, but God’s doing. God’s love and grace is ours, free. What’s up to us is how we respond. God’s grace offered to us is so amazing that it moves us to react! We respond with our faith, our commitment to following in the ways of Jesus. And we demonstrate that faith by living as Jesus lives, walking as he walks – a faith that works to serve others in love, however we can. “[Some] will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” What shows your faith? Amen. 

Monday, October 03, 2016

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens ... When We Gather at the Table," 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33-34

Sermon 10/2/16
1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 33-34

Church Happens … When We Gather at the Table

            Today we’re concluding our worship theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” We’ve been studying 1 Corinthians, both in worship and in Bible Study (which, by the way, will continue, and we’d still love to have you join us in it!), and learning some lessons from Paul and the early church. We started by talking about how we are all important parts of the body of Christ – and though we are many, we are one in Christ Jesus. We were reminded that church isn’t something we can do alone. It can happen anywhere – but only together, only with each other, only when we remember that we need each other. We talked about the passion that Paul had for sharing the good news of Jesus, a passion that let him cross boundaries and borders, getting to really know people, in order to better offer them the gift in Jesus that he’d experienced. Paul called the Corinthians – and calls us – to pour our whole selves in to the task of sharing the gospel – ready to bring church everywhere and anywhere. We talked love. Church can happen anywhere, unless we try to be church without love. Love and action go hand in hand, as we build each other up. We challenged ourselves to increase our ability to love one another by practicing some of the action words Paul used. And now, in a way, we find ourselves back at the beginning. We’re talking about the Body of Christ again. Specifically, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about how they celebrate together in the Lord’s Supper. And so as this particular worship theme comes to a conclusion, it seems only right that we hear Paul’s teachings about communion on a day we celebrate World Communion Sunday.     
World Communion Sunday was started by a Presbyterian pastor named Hugh Thomson Kerr nearly 80 years ago. He wanted there to be a way to celebrate Christian unity and encourage our ecumenical relationships, our relationships across different Christian traditions. He wanted something that would celebrate our interconnectedness. After all, there is so much more as brothers and sisters in Christ that brings us together, centers us, grounds us, than there is that divides us. What better way to symbolize our unity than at the communion table, where we recognize that there is only one body of Christ, even though there is such a wonderfully diverse collection of members that make up that one body?
I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with the blessing of baptizing someone, and there is such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you.” In The United Methodist Church, holy communion and baptism are the two sacraments we celebrate, gifts from God to the church, gifts Jesus called us to practice, gifts through which we can experience God’s grace, gifts that help us deepen our sense of belonging in Christ’s church. Sharing in Holy Communion, then, is an essential part of what it means for us to be church.
Children have some of the best communion theology I’ve heard. They’re smart. They listen. They participate. They learn as they share with us in the sacrament. At my childhood church in Westernville, my grandmother baked all the loaves of bread for our communion services. Often, on Communion Sundays, she would bake me and my brothers our own little loaves of bread to have. Once, Todd, my youngest brother, when he was about 4, was eating his bread in the backseat of the car on the way home from church. And he’s eating the bread, and all of a sudden says, “I’ve got the bones of Jesus back here!” He knew what it was about.
            I think of a family at the church I served in New Jersey. They had a little boy named Tristan, and the parents just didn’t want him to take communion yet. They thought he was too young. And Tristan would come up with his father during communion and instead of bread and juice, I would give him a blessing. But he was visibly disappointed every time. And finally, one time, when he came forward, he looked up at his dad with pleading eyes, begging, without words, to be allowed to have communion. And his dad looked a bit resigned and nodded his permission. And Tristan gave an excited “Yes!” and a fist pump, and received communion for the first time with a face lit with joy. He knew what it was about. I’ve already had lots of children here in Gouverneur ask for seconds at communion. “I want another piece” is not an uncommon statement. And I’ll give you a second piece if you want it. After all, communion is supposed to be a meal, a feast, right? These kids know what it’s really all about. Do we?
Paul was concerned that the new church at Corinth was completely missing the point of the communion meal, and he writes to correct them in some of his strongest words in 1 Corinthians. Remember, I shared with you a few weeks ago that early communities of Jesus followers met in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. And the church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. Worship time happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a full meal shared together, like our worship service and Fellowship Feast all rolled into one. The bread, the Body of Christ, was broken early on. The cup was given after the supper. But the meal, the feast, and the sacrament intricately tied to it, were the primary, central acts of worship.
            Paul is writing to address concerns he has about disturbing practices that have come up in worship and especially in sharing the sacrament. In Paul’s day, like ours, people came from many different economic backgrounds. But proper roles for people according to their classes were more structured. We still have plenty of class differences. But in Paul’s day, when people of all different backgrounds came together to feast and worship – things got complicated. In an early Christian household of a wealthy person, like at the home of Gaius, the host of the Corinthian church, a home would have an open air center atrium, and a room called the Triclinium – a dining room with three-sided couches, and an open side for servants to bring in food. There were places for about a dozen people to sit – to recline actually. Imagine meals taking place while everyone stretched out on lounge chairs. But worship feasts would bring in many more than a dozen people. So everyone who couldn’t sit at one of the dozen seats had to be served their food in the atrium. Guess who got the dozen seats on the couch?
Of course Gaius, the wealthy host, and his wealthy friends. Not only that, but Paul indicates that he’s discovered that those seated in the Triclinium were either arriving before the working poor or slaves who were members of the church, to start their meal early, or actually eating in front of them, first, while the others looked on. And further, food of different quality and quantity was served to the wealthy church members. So Paul says that some members are getting drunk on good wine, while others are going home from a worship feast hungry. Can you imagine, at worship, if we sat according to economic status, and served better communion bread to those of a higher status. Outrageous, right? What a horrible distortion of the beautiful meal left to us by Jesus! But we can’t blame the people of the Corinthian church too much. They were only replicating in their brand new faith community exactly what happened in the rest of the social lives. In the other clubs, organizations, and associations they were a part of, this pattern was exactly how things functioned. You might all be part of the same group, but the societal divisions were still firmly in place.
Paul writes to remind the community what it means to be the one Body of Christ. He is passionate about this. He can’t say enough about how important understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ is. He says that if the Corinthians continue practicing the Lord’s Supper as they have been – well, it isn’t actually the Lord’s Supper at all. You can’t call the practices they’ve engaged in the Lords’ Supper. Paul says, repeatedly in his writings, that when we are in Christ, we are new creations. They are baptism words – in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul means this with a sincerity, with an urgency that I find it hard to even convey to you. In Christ, we are new creations, and we are part of One Body. The power of belonging to Christ was real change in your life and in the world. Real change. Real transformation. For Paul, that meant that your identity, so entrenched in societal standards – your gender, your ethnicity, your status – it was nothing, nothing anymore, because of Christ. Paul wanted the community at Corinth to know that being a Jesus follower meant real, actual, concrete changes in the way you would live in the world and treat other people. If you come to the table together, if you feast together, if you share in the One Body of Christ together, you better expect some real changes in how you live. We are one body in Christ Jesus. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. And we can’t be part of Jesus if we won’t be part of one another, part of every other person in the body of Christ.
On this World Communion Sunday, as we think about what sharing in this meal means to us, I want us to think about what it would mean if every time we celebrated the sacrament, we remembered that if we want to be part of Jesus, we’re part of each other too. Not symbolically. Not to be forgotten as soon as we leave this building, or even just this time of worship. Not to be forgotten when we’re stuck in traffic, or in classes, or at work, or at the store, or confronted with racism or poverty or bullying or divisions, not to be forgotten when we want to put up walls between ourselves and those who are Other. Because of Christ, because we are One Body, there is no one who is Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered? I know I need to remember.
            Today, when I say the prayer of consecration as we celebrate communion, I’ll say, “Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” We, the church, we are the only body of Christ in the world. Christ is alive among us, always, but we are the body of Christ on this earth. So we come to the table, ready to renew our commitment to embody Christ in the world as fully as we can. Seek each day to see with the eyes of Christ, so that when we encounter others, we look with the same compassion with which Christ looks. We are the hands of Jesus, reaching out to all the people to whom Jesus reached out: the unclean, the unwanted, the untouchable, the unloved, the unaccepted – our hands must take theirs. We are the feet of the body, and our feet must take us where Jesus’ feet took him. Among people who didn’t look like him or worship like him or practice the traditions he practiced. Into homes that no one else would enter. Into places where illness and disease left little hope.
We – broken, on our own, but together, Christ’s body – we are the body of Christ in the world. Teresa of Avila, a nun who lived in the fifteenth centuries, wrote this poem that has become one of my favorites:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

When we gather at the table, and when we are sent forth from it, into the world, we are the body of Christ. Amen. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens...When Love Is a Verb," 1 Corinthians 13

Sermon 9/25/16
1 Corinthians 13

Church Happens … When Love Is a Verb

            “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
            Even if you don’t think you know your Bible very well, chances are, you know this passage of scripture – 1 Corinthians13 – the love chapter – even if you couldn’t have told me exactly where in the Bible it was from. You’ve probably heard this passage of scripture read at many, many weddings. I would guess, that out of all of the weddings I’ve officiated in my years of ministry, probably close to fifty percent of them include this passage as their scripture of choice. It’s hardly surprising. Although the scriptures teach us that the greatest commandments are grounded in love – love of God and love of one another – rarely does a biblical author spend any time talking about what love is, how we go about fulfilling these greatest commandments. Paul’s words about love, then, are some of if not the most direct and prolonged writings about love in all of the Bible. Of course it is popular for weddings!
            The downside of this, other than for the pastor, who has more fun putting together a wedding message if you choose some obscure text that no one else ever uses, is first: Sometimes when we know a passage too well, we stop listening to it, and second: If you only ever hear anyone talk about this passage while at a wedding, you’re probably not going to get the same in depth look at the text as you would during a regular sermon or Bible Study. So we miss out on some of the context that helps us really dig into what Paul is saying. Lucky for you though – we’re going to try to change that today!
            Remember, Paul is writing this letter not to two people, not to a couple preparing to start a life together. Paul is writing to a whole group of people – a new congregation – a new church trying to figure out how to exist together, function together, grow together, serve together. So when Paul is talking about love here, he’s not talking about romantic love, although what he says certainly applies. He’s talking about something both broader and deeper. It’s the deep love God has for us. The love of a parent for a child. And the love we’re called to have for one another.
            This passage comes just after the passage we looked at a couple weeks ago, where Paul was talking about how we’re all parts of the body of Christ, and yet one as Christ’s body. Paul had been talking about this because the Corinthians had been arguing over who had the better gifts – that is, who had the talents and skills that were more useful in the congregation. Paul puts a stop to that line of thinking, reminding the Corinthians that all of the gifts God gives are necessary in the body – they’re just different parts of the one body of Christ. But Paul concludes by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” The more excellent way, then, is love. Paul has already talked about spiritual gifts. And now, here, he speaks of another gift: love, which is doubly awesome because 1) Everyone has the gift of love. Everyone. And 2) It’s the best one. Paul says love is the a more excellent gift than all the others he’s mentioned. It is the gift that comes with power and responsibility to use it, and we all have it.  
            Paul’s mini-essay has three sections. In the first, Paul says that you might have great spiritual gifts – but if you don’t have the gift of love, you are just noise. He says you might be a great prophet, wise and knowing. You might have the deepest faith. But if you don’t have love – you’re nothing. He says that you might even be so devoted and committed that you give up your possessions, even give up your life in good works. And still, without love, all that you do counts for nothing. In other words, our skills, our talents, our actions, even our faithful and righteous behavior – none of it matters without love.
            And then Paul goes into this list of all these things that love is, or isn’t: Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, and so on. In our English translation, this list sounds like a bunch of adjectives – words that describe a noun, words that describe what something is like. But in the Greek, every one of these words about love is a verb. They’re all action words, doing words. Love suffers patiently, love hopes, love acts with kindness and mercy, love doesn’t boast, love endures. Paul describes love as a living thing that exists by doing. Just as none of our actions have meaning without love, the reverse is also true. We can’t truly love without action that gives love purpose and meaning. Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s not an emotion. It is a way we interact with God and others. Love must do.
            Finally, Paul says that everything else, all we know, eventually comes to an end – everything except love. In fact, we experience love perfected. Paul says that even the deep love we experience now is like “looking in a mirror, dimly.” Mirrors in Paul’s time weren’t like they are today. The best mirrors offered somewhat blurry, somewhat muddled reflections. Not crisp images. So Paul says that when we are perfected in God’s love, in God’s eternity, it will be like actually seeing ourselves clearly for the first time ever, the way God always sees us, the way only God knows us. Perfect love is when we know fully, and are fully known. The greatest gift of all, Paul concludes, is love.
            So, we seek to love God, and love one another, and we make sure that our actions are full of love, and our love is full of action. Easy, right? Well, there are some people that are just so easy to love, aren’t there? I spent the day with my niece and nephew yesterday. Loving them is so easy! It’s easy to love them, to actively love them, to tell them I love them and show them I love them and help them learn to be loving people. I’m sure you can quickly think of people who are easy to love, easy to love in active, meaningful ways.
But I also suspect that you can quickly come up with a list of people who it is challenging to love. When Jesus commands us to love one another, when Paul writes about how without love we’re nothing, I think we sometimes start to play this mental game with ourselves, hoping God will play along. Well, I love everybody, but I don’t like everybody. “I love you, I just don’t like you very much.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it? I’m sure that I have! But that doesn’t sound like very powerful, deep love, does it? Jesus says that great love is love where a friend will give up life for a friend. Would you give up your life for someone you didn’t like? Someone about whom you would say, “Well, I love you, but I don’t like you?” The love Paul writes about to the Corinthians is something deep, and we tend to want to make his words shallow, stripping them of all their power. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much?” What if God loved us like that? Loving because we’re obligated to love isn’t actually love at all.
Still, how do we love one another? Because even if “I love you, I just don’t like you” isn’t a very deep love, sometimes, it is just exactly how we feel, isn’t it? What pops into my head is that great “unrequited love” balled, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” She sings, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” I thought the words were very profound when I was lamenting over a boy in junior high who didn’t return my feelings. It’s true, isn’t it? You can’t make someone love someone. Love with obligation isn’t love. So what can we do?
            I think, in fact, we can learn to love. We can cultivate love. We can seek to love someone. We can practice it, and get better at it. Last year, a news article from the New York Times was circulating quite a bit, showing results from a scientific study suggesting that – in completely non-scientific terms – two strangers might fall in love with each other by following a certain set of instructions: the pair answers 36 questions in a conversation with each other. The questions are increasingly more personal, beginning with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and ending with things like “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” After that, you and your conversation partner are supposed to stare into each other’s eyes – sustained eye-contact, no talking, for four minutes. The author of the article – she fell in love with the person with whom she tried this exercise. The whole experiment even became the subject of an episode of Big Bang Theory.
            So, do we need to have these sit down, deep conversations with every person we find difficult to love? Maybe! The point is – love like Paul describes is intentional, not accidental. We have to mean to love people to love like Jesus loves. Jesus loved by spending time with people, by listening deeply to people, by hearing their stories and hopes and dreams. He loved by looking with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. He loved by giving himself for others. He loved with purpose.
            I’ve sometimes heard folks recommend to young people in love that they should replace their significant other’s name for the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, to see if they are a worthy candidate for dating. I wonder what would happen if instead, we put our own names in the place of the word love. Make them “I” statements, and see if they ring true. “I am patient. I am kind.” And in fact, if you can pull up in your mind that list of people that you have a hard time loving – you can add them right in, and see if it works: I am patient with Fred. I am kind to Cindy. In some cases, maybe it is a whole group of people we need to think about: I am never rude to people who are voting for the wrong candidate this November.
            To cultivate love, to stretch our hearts to become more loving, to include more people on the list of those we truly love, I think we start by practicing some of those action words that Paul lists. That’s my challenge for you this week: Read through 1 Corinthians 13, and ask yourself: Am I patient? How can I be more patient? Have I been kind? Have been envying anyone? Have I been boasting? Arrogant? Rude? When did I insist on my own way? When was I irritable? How full of hope am I? If we do this, if we are disciplined in practicing these actions, I think we will learn that love only happens accidentally once in a while – but we can cultivate it on purpose whenever we’re ready to commit to this intentional way of building each other up, and building up the gift of love that God gives to each of us.    
            Church can happen anywhere – anywhere that is enveloped in love, anywhere that is reaching out in love, anywhere that is growing in love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When We Run to Win," 1 Corinthians 9:13-27

Sermon 9/18/16
1 Corinthians 9:13-27

Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When We Run to Win

All things to all people. When you hear that phrase, “all things to all people,” you usually hear it with this at the beginning: “You can’t be.” That is, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Thank goodness, right? Who would want to be all things to all people? Usually, we tell this to someone when they’re trying to (and failing to) get everyone to like them, to please everyone. Do you ever struggle with that? Being a people-pleaser? And finally, either you come to the conclusion yourself, or a friend or loved one who is trying to help you get a grip on reality tells you, “You can’t be all things to all people!” You can’t please everyone. Not everyone is going to like you. Don’t even try. It’s a lost cause!
Last week I mentioned the Adam Hamilton book Half Truths, and we talked a little bit about some phrases that aren’t in the Bible that we think are, like “that’s just between me and God.” But sometimes the opposite is true: there’s a saying that we’re sure is just bad advice, and it turns out it comes straight from the scripture. That’s the case with this phrase, I’m afraid. “All things to all people” comes straight from the New Testament, straight from today’s lesson from 1 Corinthians, where Paul proudly proclaims that to proclaim that gospel, he has become all things to all people. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” All things to all people! I don’t know about you, but my initial impulse is to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. How can we live up to such a standard? All things to all people? I can’t do it. Trying to be all things to all people seems like the surest way to burn out of ministry that I can think of. Paul may have had the dedication and the drive, but just thinking about trying to be all things to all people makes me feel like I need a nap! All things to all people. Is Paul really saying what it sounds like he’s saying?
When our passage opens for today, Paul is talking about how he makes a living. We don’t think of it often, but of course, Paul had to have money to eat and travel and get from community to community, where he would go and preach the gospel. Paul notes that people usually get paid from wherever they serve: if you work in the temple, you get paid by the temple. So, Paul reasons, if you preach the gospel for your life’s work – you should be entitled and able to have that work also provide your living. Paul doesn’t do that, though, as he tell us here. He says, “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor I am a writing this so that they may be applied in my case.” We know from elsewhere in the New Testament writings that Paul and some of his companions continue to work as laborers throughout their time in ministry so that they can provide for themselves. And Paul says that he does this, works to support himself apart from his ministry, so that he may have the joy of boasting in the gospel. He wants to present the gospel “free of charge,” and doing so is the only reward Paul seeks.
And then Paul gets to this “all things to all people” part. He says, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul means that he is free because of his new life in Jesus. He’s been set free from this idea that he must work and work and work to earn God’s love and grace, something we can never earn, since it is given as a gift! His life in Christ is what enables Paul to receive the gift – and so he is free. Nonetheless, in order to help others find this same freedom, in order for others to find new life in Christ, Paul is willing to change the patterns of his life.
Paul writes, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
It would be easy to assume that Paul is somehow compromising his beliefs or values in order to get himself “in” with these groups of people. He’s talking about Jews and Gentiles, and his ability to weave into both communities, even though he himself doesn’t really belong to either anymore, but rather belongs to Christ. But I don’t think Paul means that he gave up his understanding or his identity to preach the gospel. Rather, I think Paul means that didn’t assume or insist that others would have to adopt Paul’s ways and Paul’s journey and Paul’s practices as their own in order to become Jesus-followers. Instead of Paul insisting that Jews give up their practices in order to follow Jesus, or insisting that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could follow Jesus, Paul instead simply immersed himself with the people with whom he was sharing Christ. He spent years living with different communities of people, building relationships, learning about them, sharing with them. Paul does this, he says, because he’s in it to win it. That is, his purpose is to share the good news with others, to share the message of Jesus with others. And he wins when others accept the good news and find new life in Christ. That’s his purpose. That’s what’s most important to him. And so he’ll do what he needs to do to win – to help others experience what he has: a complete change of life in Jesus.
And Paul is just following the example of Jesus himself. When Jesus was preaching and teaching the good news about God’s kingdom, God’s reign come to earth here and now, Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him, or for them to become like him. Jesus travelled to where the people were, and ate with them, and stayed in their homes, and spent time with them, all while being criticized by the religious leaders for doing so.
Unfortunately, our history in the Christian church of sharing Jesus with people doesn’t hold up well to the model. For many decades, centuries even, when Christian missionaries would travel abroad to bring the message of Jesus and the good news to people, they also brought with them an insistence that becoming a Jesus-follower also meant becoming a Westerner – that is, someone who would adopt the customs and practices of Europe and North America. I saw impact of this, still evident today, when I visited Ghana in West Africa while I was in seminary. My professors guessed that many of us expected worship services in Ghana to be full of music and customs that were indigenous to Africa – and in some places, that is exactly what we found. Worship that was in church buildings that looked like the other homes of the community. Music that resonated with the musical sounds of Ghana. Worship in the languages of the people. But the first worship service they took us to was in a very European-looking building, where the service was straight out of the Book of Worship of the Church of England, since it was the English who had colonized Ghana in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Even the style of dress was what you would expect to find in Britain, not Ghana. Somehow, we’d given the message that in order to be Jesus-followers, you also had to become like the messenger of the good news! The same thing happened to Native Americans here in the US. When missionaries shared the story of Jesus, it was with the explicit assumption, with demands, in fact, that Native people abandon their own culture and traditions and adopt the practices of missionaries. This is the very opposite of being all things to all people in order to share Jesus in powerful ways, and there is still pain and damage, healing that needs to take place, because of mixing up Jesus’ message and Jesus’ way with our way.
So how can we embody the example of Paul, the example of Jesus himself, as we share the good news? I think we begin by being clear about our purpose. Paul writes about being clear about his purpose. He is a runner in a race intent on winning the prize, not one who runs aimlessly. For Paul, the prize is when others learn about Jesus and commit their lives to following him, to being disciples. The prize is when others experience new life as he has. Not his new life, but their new life in Christ. His eyes are fixed on his purpose.
What’s our purpose? Many times, we talk about wanting to have more people in church – more children, more young people, more families, more people in the pews. I hope for that too. But I hope we are clear about why we would want such a thing. Do we want more people so that we can survive? Continue to exist as an organization? Have more people to pay our bills and serve on our committees and care for our facilities? Or: Has Christ so changed our lives, have we been so transformed by the love of God that we can’t help but want other people to experience what we’ve experienced, and journey with us as we seek to live more fully into the vision God has for our lives? I hope the choice is pretty obvious! And if that’s what we want – for people to have their lives changed because of the saving grace and love of Christ – if that is our purpose, our aim, the prize for which we’re racing – maybe having our eye on the prize can shape how we share our message.
I worry that too often when we invite others to follow Jesus, we’re really inviting them to come be like us. We’d like it if people went to church like we did, and had the same good morals we had, and behaved like we did, and got involved in church like we did, and practiced their faith like we did. That’d certainly be easiest, wouldn’t it? But what if instead of inviting people to come be like us, we instead invite ourselves to go and be with others. Imagine if, for example, we said “to those who struggle with addiction, I spent time in the very places where they struggled to make different choices, in order that I might win them with the good news. To those in poverty I became poor, in order to win those in poverty. To those who felt rejected by the church, I listened to the stories of those who had been hurt and went to the places where they found meaning, in order to win those who had been rejected.”
Church can happen anywhere, but it can especially when you are willing to step into the lives of others, to cross boundaries, to make connections, to pour yourself out for others, as we see Paul do, as Christ did, so that by offering your life, your time, your love to others, you might be able to share what God has done for you, and what God can do for them. How are you willing to share yourself with others, in order to share Jesus? Church can happen anywhere, when we remember our purpose. Not to create disciples like us, followers of our ways, but to make disciples who walk in the ways of Jesus.
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When Many Are One," 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Sermon 9/11/16
1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When Many Are One

            As I shared with you in the newsletter this month, one of my most challenging classes during my doctoral work was a class on ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is a fancy word that means “the study of the nature of the Church.” In the class, we talked a lot about what makes church church. Is it the music? The sermon? Reading scripture together? That we worship God there? Why do we think of some things as church and not others? If you and I get together and sing a praise song, are we having church? For our final project, we had to write a paper explaining our understanding of church. This is what I came up with: “I believe that the Church is the gathered Body of Christ, where the Word of God is proclaimed and enacted, where the people worship, serve, and engage in the mission of disciple-making, both within the church and in the world.” What do you think? How would you define church?
            Even though we love our church building, are thankful for the space that enables us to do so much wonderful ministry, we know that the building is not really the church. We, the gathered people, are the church. Over time, over the centuries, around the gathered people, an institution has been established – we have denominations and boards and agencies and committees and hierarchies and organizational plans. These things aren’t bad – they help us order ourselves to do the work of Jesus in the world. But the institution is not the church. The people gathered together in the name of Jesus are the church. And because the church is where the people are gathered, church can happen anywhere. Church happens here because we’re here together. And church happens when we’re together, working and serving in the community.  
            For the next several weeks, we’ll be thinking about this idea – the idea that church can happen anywhere. We’ll think about what needs to happen, what needs to take place for us to be the church in the world, not just the church in this building. And to help us think about that, we’ll be looking at the book of 1 Corinthians in the Bible. 1 Corinthians is the first of two epistles, letters, that we have that were written by the apostle Paul to the new followers of Jesus at Corinth, a city in Greece. Paul had, according to his letters, helped to “found” the small faith community some time before the writing of his letter. Paul was himself a new follower of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, devoted to the careful interpretation and practice of religious law, and he had been a zealous persecutor of followers of Jesus, until a vision of Jesus calling him to a brand new life totally turned him around.
            Paul, steeped in a life of carefully following the law, became the most vocal advocate of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus – and so Paul reached out mostly to Gentiles – people who were not already Jewish – to share the good news and invite them to follow Jesus. That might not seem like a big deal to us – but Paul was the first to so strongly work for carrying the message of Jesus beyond Judaism.
            So Paul would come to a community, teach people about Jesus, and help them set up what we’d call a house church. New followers of Jesus would meet, for practical reasons, in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The new church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. We’ll be talking more about their worship feast in a few weeks when we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
            These brand new faith communities also needed guidance. They didn’t have anything like set pastors, or a denominational office, or other church leaders they could turn to for clarification or further instruction or support. What they had was occasional letters from Paul, occasional visits from other missionaries, also preaching and teaching about Jesus, and each other. And, like any group of people trying to live a new life and be a new people and build a new thing together, things did not go smoothly all of the time. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are full of instructions about how to live together as the Body of Christ in their new community of faith.
            One of the issues Paul addresses is conflict that has arisen among the new Jesus followers. Apparently, some people – people who have been named as leaders among the community, or people who have particular gifts for ministry or preaching or teaching – some people are seeing themselves or seeing others as holding more important places in the congregation than others. If I am a part of the community but I’m the one responsible for teaching everyone about Jesus, and you are only responsible for making sure our space is clean and welcoming, aren’t I more important than you?
            Paul answers this question with a resounding no throughout Corinthians, and particularly in our passage or today. Paul writes that even though we are many – and we remain many – because of our identity in Jesus Christ, an identity that we share – we are also one. “In the Spirit,” he says, “we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” All our other labels, all the things that separate us from each other, every other identity we claim is supplanted by our identity as members of the body of Christ. It’s as part of Christ’s body that we find our true identity – and our place in Christ’s body is essential, so very important. And so is our neighbor’s place in the body! This passage of scripture is one in which Paul paints an incredibly vivid mental picture for us, as we imagine along with him – what if a body was made entirely of noses, or eyes, or ears? Maybe some part of the body are less “glamorous” than others, and some are more visible than others, but every part is needed – many members, one body.
            Paul goes on to say it goes deeper than just tolerating that we’re all part of the same body. When we’re part of the body of Christ together, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. And when one part of the body is honored, the whole body rejoices together. Paul’s fervent hope was that there would be no dissension – no arguing, no wrangling over places of importance – within the body of Christ – only building each other up, all on the common path of discipleship, all working toward the same end – inviting more people to be part of the body, to experience freedom in Christ Jesus, to be made one in the Spirit of the Living God.
            I think Paul’s words are incredibly important for us yet today. We cannot be the body of Christ by ourselves. The body of Christ is one body, but with many members. Last month we completed a study of Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths, in which he looks at pseudo-religious sayings that people think are from the Bible or reflect the Bible’s teaching, but are really not quite right – half-truths. Here’s a half-truth I hear from time to time: “That’s between me and God.” It’s something people say when there’s a part of their pain, part of their struggle, part of the sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of our journeys of faith that they don’t want to share with others. When people feel a bit too vulnerable, perhaps, to share with others about their shortcomings. It’s just between me and God. But it’s at best, a half-truth. What’s between us and God, according to Jesus, is our neighbors. The greatest commandments? Love God and love one another. We can’t fully love God unless we love one another. We can’t be in a relationship with God that’s vibrant and growing unless we’re also working on our relationships with each other. We’re in this together. We’re accountable to each other, to challenge each other, help each other grow in faith, and lift each other up.  
            For the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting feedback from congregational surveys, about church bible studies, favorite hymns, and more. There’s still time to fill one out! I asked you to share prayer requests and something about your hope for the congregation. And a number of responses – a number of the prayer requests and the hopes and dreams mentioned the unity of the church. We long for the Spirit of oneness in the Body of Christ that Paul talks about.
            So how do we do it? First, as you’ll hear me say again and again in the next several weeks, we build each other up. Sometimes, when we talk about building each other up, what quickly comes to mind is painful experiences when someone else has hurt us, when we’ve felt torn down. The hard part is setting that aside, and focusing instead on what we can do to build up others. Paul tells us that we need each other. Because we need each other to be the body of Christ, we don’t just tolerate each other. We are called to honor each other. As you look around you, who do you see that needs lifting up? Building up? Who needs to know that you honor them, and their unique gifts, their unique role in the body of Christ?
            Church can happen anywhere – anywhere God’s people are together. But it can’t happen alone. It can’t happen when we leave each other behind, when we cut off parts of the body that we have forgotten to honor and cherish. Church happens when we, who are many, are one in Christ. What a witness our oneness could be for a world that is so splintered! So that’s my challenge for you this week – your homework. In your personal life, who needs building up? In your professional life, who needs building up? In your journey of discipleship, right here in this community of faith, who needs building up? What can you do this week to build someone up? I’m hoping you’ll think about it, and then act on it, and then share with me next week – how are you building each other up?
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Let’s go and be the church in the world – and let’s go together. Amen.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Unfinished Business," Luke 14:25-33 (Proper 18, Ordinary 23)

Sermon 9/4/16
Luke 14:25-33

Unfinished Business

Some years back, United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was serving as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He got a call from a very upset parent of one of his students. "I hold you personally responsible for this," he said.
"Me?" Will asked.
The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."
"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," Will said.
"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.
As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail. Will said, "You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."
"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," said the father, meekly. (1)
Have you been introduced to Jesus? Let’s take a look at the Jesus we meet in the gospels today. Our lesson today picks up just after Jesus had finished his dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. In addition to the parables we talked about last week, where Jesus encouraged people not to choose places of honor for themselves, and to make sure to invite those that usually never received invitations. He continues, after last week’s passage, with more parables, all around the theme of the wedding banquet, a metaphor for God’s kingdom, God’s reign. In his next parable, Jesus speaks of a banquet where people are invited, but are too busy to come, and all make their excuses. They would come, but they have to do these other tasks first, they explain. Angry, the host instead invites the poor, the sick, the broken-hearted, just as Jesus urged the Pharisees to do. And the host promises that none of those who were too busy to show up will ever get a taste of the wedding banquet.
It is right after this that our text for today begins, and the theme certainly carries through. Luke tells us that large crowds of people are traveling with Jesus. Just imagine that – everywhere he goes, a crowd goes with him. And he turns to them and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Wow. Jesus’ words today make his words about turning family members against each that we studied a few weeks ago seem pretty tame in comparison. The word here for hate doesn’t have quite the “emotional connotation” that we give it today – a passionate rejection of a person based on negative feelings. Instead, it means “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” to set aside. It “denotes action, not emotion. Jesus’ point is not how you feel about your family, rather, it is about who you will choose if and when it comes to choosing between family and the kingdom.” (2) Even still, it doesn’t make Jesus’ words particularly comforting for the crowds or for us, and he doesn’t mean them to be. When push comes to shove, when you have to choose, do you choose God? Do you turn way from, detach yourself from, set aside your family to choose God? Would that we never had to choose! But if we did… Jesus is saying that coming with Jesus means choosing him above all other things. 
And he doesn’t let up. He says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” For his first hearers, the cross doesn’t yet get tied to Jesus – they don’t yet know that Jesus himself will be crucified. But they were familiar with crucifixions. It was the preferred method of death of the Roman government that was occupying their homeland of Israel. People who crossed the Roman government, who crossed the Empire, would be executed in a brutal, public fashion, in order to create a climate of fear, to allow the oppressive government to continue to keep people in their places. For Jesus to say that discipleship involves carrying the cross, he seems to be saying that being his disciple could get you in as much trouble with the authorities as he always was. Because the message of Jesus, where the exalted are humbled and the first become last, was a message that flew in the face of the powers and principalities. The Roman government and the religious elite didn’t like to hear that in God’s world, the whole social order was flipped upside down, and the poor and humble would be first in line. To be a disciple, Jesus says, means to take a stand against people with power over your very life. Following Jesus means choosing Jesus above even yourself.
Jesus says that if we commit to being a disciple without realizing in advance what that really means, it’s like we’ve started to build a tower, without ever making blueprints and drawing up a list of supplies and figuring out if we have enough budget for it. It’s like declaring war on another country only to realize after that fact that you’re outnumbered 2 to 1. By the time we near the end of the text and Jesus tells us that being a disciple also means giving up our possessions, it barely registers. What Jesus asks is already so high, so much – letting go of things seems pretty easy after choosing discipleship and the cross over all other paths. 
I think somewhere along the way, many churches have gotten a little confused about their message, their purpose. I read so many articles about “church growth,” and what churches should be doing to help their churches grow. Some of them have thoughtful ideas, but so many of them seem to focus on getting people to “like” what you offer so that they’ll choose you. Don’t get me wrong – I do want people to find us to be welcoming, to offer hospitality in the name of Christ. I do want people to find that we’re loving and encouraging and that we build each other up. But frankly, sometimes Jesus’ message isn’t exactly likable. It’s compelling. Life-changing. Life-giving. But easy? Likable? Hardly.
Bishop Willimon, in a sermon on this text, started out talking about The United Methodist’s Church advertising campaign, and asked, how hard is it to sell the difficult message Jesus has to share with us?  He writes, “Jesus clearly, at least in this text, has no interest in meeting our needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values – after all, who could be against [parent]hood, family, and self-fulfillment? Jesus, that’s who . . . What Jesus says just happens to be true because he is the way, the truth, and the life.” Willimon continues, “I didn’t say that he was the way that nine out of ten thinking Americans want to walk. Didn’t say that he was the truth that we think we want or his discipleship was the life we seek. We can’t have a good Jesus advertising campaign because his way is decidedly against the crowd. The only reason why we’re here is not out of our seeking, our wanting. We’re here because, in some surprising way, he has sought us, wanted us, called us to walk a way not of our own devising. And all reason or reservation to the contrary, we believe, despite its patent absurdity, his is the way, though narrow, that leads to life eternal. Forgive me, forgive the church, for sometimes implying that Jesus will make life easier for you, will fix everything that’s wrong with you, will put a little lilt in your voice, a little sunshine in our life. Chances are, he won’t. He can do even better than that. He can make you a disciple. Forgive the church for sometimes being guilty of false advertising.” (3)Our mission statement in the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It isn’t to make United Methodists. It isn’t to make church members or church attenders or church contributors. Those things might happen as a result of our work, and God’s work in us, of making disciples, and I hope they do! But if we had a congregation full of members, attenders, and contributors, and we didn’t have disciples – that’s when we’re in trouble. Disciples are what Jesus is after: people who are ready to turn away from any path but God’s path – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that. People who are ready to risk it all to confront oppression and injustice and anything else that prevents God’s reign on earth from flourishing – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that.
I have many hopes and dreams for us, and I know you do to. I think God is doing great things here. But if I’m choosing, I want you to be disciples, not church members. I’d love if you could be both – but I can tell you that my hope for how we shape this church together, my vision for what we will be is centered on us following Jesus wherever he goes. Sometimes his path is pretty lonely. Sometimes it seems impossibly difficult. He asks us to take a cross with us. Failure seems certain! But we serve a God who picks us up when we fall. We serve a God who walks the road with us. And we serve a God who, again and again, brings life even out of death. Amen.  

(1)   As quoted by Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Sept 10, 1995,

(3)   Willimon, William, Pulpit Resource, lesson for September 5th, 2004, pg. 43