Old friend

I can’t remember why
or even when
not exactly

It has been so very long now…

More years have passed
than I even imagined I would live

Now more old
than old friends
after half a lifetime
creating lives, growing up
chasing dreams, making do

Almost forgetting
just how tightly
laughter and music
the energy of shared joy
can bind the hearts
of the young at play.

Was it because I moved?
And then you moved?

It has been so very long now…

And all that time
Like a loose thread in my pocket
that I only notice when it gets caught between coins
you have been along for the ride

Just there enough
that I knew you
after all these years

Just there enough
that the laughter and singing
come easily
and joy
can’t help but follow
after all these years

I can’t remember why
or even when
Not that it matters, old friend.

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Charley, Harvey, Irma and Me

Today, we are waiting for Irma.
We’ve been waiting and watching for the last few days.  And I’ll be honest, I have alternated between being ok and being scared shitless.

I am not, by nature, prone to worry or anxiety. And I’m pretty highly skilled at diverting nervous energy and/or ignoring any fears that are creeping in so that I can focus and work a plan.  But I have some physical manifestations of stress that let me know when I need to pay attention to that inner world a little more.

I want to sleep.  A lot.  And when it’s really bad, I get a rash on my ribs that is almost like shingles. That rash popped up yesterday. And so it was time to name what’s going on.

Back in the summer of 2004, we decided to sell our first Florida house and build a newer home that was big enough for Mom to move out from Texas and join us. We were scheduled to close mid-August and house-sit for a friend until the new house was finished around the first of October.  That meant packing for a move and an extended stay, making all the decisions that come with building a new home, and staying in communication with Mom about all of it from half a continent away. Stressful enough.

But then, the week that we closed and moved into our temporary summer home, Hurricane Charley ripped right across Central Florida.  Right over the house.  And while Charley was much smaller than many of the storms we have seen since, the rain and wind was intense and lasted most of the night.

It doesn’t take effort at all to remember exactly how I felt that night.
And how it felt to wonder when the power would come back on.
And how hard it was to keep our kiddo from freaking out when we experienced two more direct hits, moved into the new house, and started attending a new school (between storm breaks).

By the time Hurricane Season was over, I was a wreck- emotionally and physically. But we had to get back to work and keep moving forward.  It has been quiet here since, until last year when Matthew gave us a scare. But he wobbled out to sea enough that we were spared all but a couple of hours of wind and a few lost shingles.

So I didn’t really realize how much I had shoved aside and not dealt with until I started seeing my friends post about their experiences as Harvey rolled into Southeast Texas.  I literally couldn’t read about the sound of wind or the water coming in, or even how worried they were, without my own heart rate rising. I had to limit my engagement until the storm stopped and the (horrible) extent of the damage was clear.

And now, here we are, waiting for Irma. Right now, for as ginormous as she is, we’re in a pretty good place. We’ll have some serious winds and a fair amount of rain, but not for nearly as long as our neighbors in South Florida or on the gulf coast.

So…a year older and maybe slightly wiser, what am I going to do differently this time?

First, I’m doing something Brene Brown calls “embracing the suck”.  Actually feeling the feelings that I don’t want to feel, rather than running past them. When I sit with the feelings, I can untangle what they really are.  Then I can deal with the concerns and fears I can actually do something about, and I am aware of the (yes, totally reasonable) fears that will only go away once the storm is past.

Second, I went running. Not walking, but running.  Yesterday, I did my usual interval workout- a shorter walk interspersed with running. Today, I was just going to do a short walk, since it looked like rain was about to start.

At about half a mile, though, I felt like a little running, so I thought maybe I’d do another interval run. But as I ran the back half of that first mile, I knew that today was different.

I needed to keep running.
I needed to see how long I could sustain a pace that was faster than usual.
I needed to know that I could persevere, not just physically but mentally.
And so 1 mile became 2 miles.
And 2 miles became 3.
And three miles became 3.6.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I could.
Because I have transformed my body over the last 18 months.
Because I have transformed my mind over the last 18 months.

Yes, I am stronger and leaner and more fit than I have been in decades. My running intervals added up to just under half of the 10-mile race I completed last weekend. But the hardest part of getting stronger and leaner has been mental – taking on the habits and lies that used to keep me in bed or on the couch.

I ran a full 3.1 miles (a 5K) after that half-mile walk.
Because I believed I could.

I know today that I am mentally strong enough to push toward big goals,
to believe that yesterday’s personal best doesn’t dictate today’s
to face challenges that have nothing to do with running, walking, biking or swimming.

I can do the hard things – like lead my congregation, face conflicts head on, make decisions I’d rather ignore.
And wait for Irma.
I will be ok this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow, when the worst of the storm is here.
I won’t like it (because who would???)
I’ll be scared.
But I will be ok.

A handful of things

It really stinks sometimes, being the kind of person who needs lots of words to find her way to the thing she wants to say.  I mean, most days, I don’t get around to that kind of writing because I’m busy getting announcements and sermons and newsletter articles and emails and other time-sensitive stuff out the door.

So, rather than wait for the “Now I can get that whole post out of my head” moment, here are some things I am thinking about, experiencing and… now… sharing.

I was alone on eclipse day, staring up at the sun with my safety glasses on, thrilled to be able to see even the 80-whatver percent coverage we got. I finally hunted someone down so that we could “wow!” at it together as we shared the specs.  A couple of days later, I was driving across town, listening to the RadioLab podcast that had audio recordings of people as totality occurred.  And I realized just how much we need events like this to connect us to one another in moments of awe.  I literally wept as these people I didn’t know described an event I couldn’t see… because they were so overcome by what they saw that you could hear it in their voices. Young and old, all over the country.  Awe is contagious and evocative.

 


 

Yesterday, I stopped to pick up some coffee on the way to work.  A group of people walked into the shop as I was leaving and the last guy stopped to hold the door and let me out.  I said thanks, to which he replied “No problem, have a great day.”

I smiled again, “You, too,” and I walked on toward my car.  Can I just tell you how much it made my day for him to call after me, “You look beautiful today”?  Not because I had dressed up (because I hadn’t).  Not because he’d ever seen me to make a distinction about yesterday’s level of beauty (he was a total stranger).   It was just a random kindness.  The world can use more of that, for sure.


Does anyone else ever have the problem of their ears folding over in their sleep?  Clearly a side-sleeper issue, the ear between my head and pillow sometimes gets tucked in on itself and the pain will actually wake me up.  Weird.


A couple of folks lately have described me as Type A, which sits kind of funny.  I’ve never seen myself as “driven” so much as determined. That’s a good thing, mostly, since it keeps me from giving up on hard stuff (or boring stuff). But it’s got me thinking I need to explore the way my overdeveloped sense of responsibility interacts with the athlete in me who learned you “leave everything on the court”.

 


 

I have other thoughts on Harvey, the Nashville statement, and big stuff in the world, but I’m fighting my allergies and have a church newsletter to get out the door. So… this will have to do for now.

Meanwhile, what kinds of things are you thinking about these days?

Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

Stay Thirsty- Sermon on Communion

Primary texts –  1 Samuel 21:1-9 and  Mark 14:10-31
The assigned Old Testament reading this week is obviously quite- well, interesting.  And as much as I enjoy taking time to give context to our scriptures…  I really just want to point out a couple of things about this odd episode in the life of David, which happened as he was running from Saul.

First,  the bread of Presence mentioned in the story isn’t quite the equivalent of communion bread.  The Holiness code called for what is sometimes translated as showbread to be kept on the altar. It is described as twelve cakes or loaves baked from fine flour, and arranged in two rows or piles on a table standing before God.

Each loaf was baked with specific ingredients by the Kohathite clan. They were  stacked along with the frankincense on the altar, in a way that seems reminiscent of the stacks of stones left in various locations as memorials to moments when God was uniquely engaged with humankind.  

The bread would only be left on the table for a week, replaced with new fresh loaves each Sabbath.  The priests were allowed to each the bread once they were removed, as long as they did so in a holy place. After all, this was holy bread.  Set apart for a purpose

And so, when David seeks to take the bread with him, he is asking for the priest to bend the rules, perhaps break a few. Ahimelech did help David and his friends, providing 5 loaves.  He was later summoned into Saul’s presence, and accused of disloyalty for assisting David, based on the information of Doeg the Edomite.

This is a complicated story – as most stories involving David are…He was not a priest… and yet, he was set apart. He was chosen by God. He needed bread, but he lied… he wasn’t sent by Saul. He was there because he was on the run and he was hungry

The only food that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence. There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, and Ahimelech was- as a priest aware of every letter, every jot and every tittle of the law. Ahimelech also knew the Law was given to further life, and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict.

Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring the Pharisaic traditions that put preserving religious ritual above helping the hungry. Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin rather than leading to freedom according to the law of love.

I think that is part of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.

Everyone was familiar with the words to be spoken.
The order of the questions.
The answers.
The foods they would eat.
It was passover.

And passover is all about family.
And being family for those who are far from home or whose family is no longer with them.
It was comforting and familiar to recite the story together
To eat the symbolic foods
To drink the symbolic wine

The middle portion of our reading from Mark is familiar.  They are one version of what we call the “Words of institution”  The words that recall how this sacrament was instituted, came into being.  If I had my way, I’d change that nomenclature…

—  Tell story of attempting to memorize WOI for Dr. Shaffer’s class —

The assignment – memorize and demonstrate for the prof… Struggling to get the words right.  All week, I would try to get it right and forget/freeze every time.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard them hundreds of times in my church-going life, should have been easy…  But there I was, standing in front of classmates in an unfamiliar church, hot dog bun in hand.  Hopelessly stuck.  Finally Dr. Shaffer says to me.  It’s ok.  Just tell the story.

Because that’s what the words of institution are – the story.
The story of that night when they were gathered together.
The story as remembered by Mark. And Matthew. And Luke.

The story that Peter and the others must have told Paul – Or perhaps he heard it while he was blind and the Lord spoke directly to his heart… But Paul gives us in his letter to Corinth a testimony of what had been passed on to him, so that those who heard the letter might bear witness, too.

I added a few verses this morning… before and after. The part of the story in which Judas betrays him.And the part in which Jesus warns Peter that he, too, will fall away…

You see, it’s important to understand the human context in which this divine promise, this new covenant as Luke and Paul describe it, is being made.  Jesus is 100% aware of the betrayal and denial that is coming. He cannot and will not stop them, any more than he would avoid the pain and death that is looming.  

This is the world in which he lived.
This is the world in which we live.
Sinful, broken, not-yet-God’s Kingdom,
Not yet fully reconciled and awaiting an upgrade to the Resurrection Operating System

But Jesus loved those people gathered at the table.
Loved them like family.

And because he offers forgiveness in his broken body
BREAK THE BREAD

And because he offers forgiveness in his spilled blood
POUR THE JUICE

We are one family.
Claimed and adopted by God

Baptised into one church
Sharing one communion
Proclaiming his saving life, death and resurrection until he comes again.

Knowing that very night that some of his family would fail him, Jesus still bears witness to God being with us – all of us.

I could talk at length about the myriad ways theologians have argued and written about the sacrament….

There were the reformation era debates about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or just plain memorial.  Is Jesus really in the bread, in the room? How do we square that with his being ascended???  

For the record – Jean Calvin’s response is the one most Presby’s cling to: It’s a mystery, but we can trust that the HS is in us and with us. And that power allows our hearts to be in the presence of Christ as we celebrate the sacrament  

Argue over who can preside.
For us – generally an ordained MOWAS

Argue over who can partake and when.
Baptized… or at least being raised in the community of faith 
and learning what it means to participate. There’s that whole letter vs Spirit of the law thing again

I could talk about the way coming back to the table again and again is like sanctification, whereas baptism reminds us of justification – once and done.

But I want to talk about what it means for our hearts, for our lives
The how then shall we live part.

It starts by thinking about what a family meal means.
Gathering- family, bonus family (guests)
Remembering – meals past, people here and gone, good/bad convos
Celebrate- holidays with rituals and traditions
Nourish – eat, feel full hearts and bellies

Have people who brought dishes tell their stories…
Prompt Questions

  1. What did you bring?
  2. Who taught you how to make it (maybe you just watched)?
  3. What memories does it bring to mind…
    • who do you think of?  
    • What table does it remind you of?
  4. With whom do you most want to share this?

Food – especially comfort food…  It’s all about Love
Family
Coming together
Being nourished heart soul mind strength

Tell story about Pork Pie becoming part of my history when married into New England family.

Take bread to everyone as tell story about Monkey Bread, Mary Helen, hospitality, love.

Talk about the Smell of Grape Juice

  • Takes me back to family filling all the communion cups in the vestibule
  • First communion
  • Watching the Table –  the men and women who helped raise me along with parents standing, praying, telling the story in those words
  • Tell the story of Sarah Bell – frail, ravaged by stroke, barely able to swallow… but when she tasted and smelled communion… countenance changed, face relaxed, mouth formed words “Our Father”…

She was, in those moments truly present. With us, with God.
I was, in those moments, in the presence of God.
And when I stand at the table and smell the bread and the juice…
I remember… I am with the saints from my past and present.
I am loved…  I am thankful.
I am in the presence of God.

As the cup is passed, smell the juice, dip the bread, allow yourself to experience the mystery of the presence of Christ for you.   TAKE CUP TO PEWS FOR INTINCTION

That is what this table should mean… to us.
We should walk in, see the bread and the juice and stomachs growl
Because we are hungry for that company, fellowship
Because we are thirsty for the stories that remind us who we are
Belonging to one another – blood relatives, thanks to the blood of Christ.

Stay hungry, dear ones.
Stay thirsty.

Stay Wet – a sermon on baptism

This week and next, we’re going to take some time to talk about the sacraments that are central to our lives as a community of faith: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Today, I’d like us to start by reading Psalm 46 – a glorious reminder that God is not just with us. And not just for us. God’s presence is so powerful it is akin to a place – a safe place in which we find refuge from all that is evil.   Psalm 46

And now we will turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church that apparently needed a strong reminder about what it means to live in a complicated world in light of the lavish grace of God. In the selection we read today, he addresses one of the questions that we still wrestle with…

If God’s grace is so big, so healing, so cleansing…  What does that mean about following the law?  Or following Jesus? If, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, should we just keep on sinning and leave the forgiveness up to God?

Listen for the Word of God from Romans 6:1-11

Like Psalms 23 and 91, also psalms of assurance and confidence in the Lord, we don’t hear a guarantee in Psalm 46 that life will be easy just  because God is with us.  Rather, God promises to remain with us, no matter how dark the valley gets or how difficult the troubles that surround us. The writer of this Psalm has clearly been there… experienced that… and has earned faith enough to share this truth.

When he writes about mountains shaking such that the seas roar and foam, the reference is less about natural disasters than the cosmic forces that would seek to tear God’s creation apart. Forces that – because God is present – we need not fear.

The writer knows what it looks like when political powers and principalities are doing the shaking, seeking to unseat rulers and nations. To bring chaos. In our time, he might have written about terrorist threats and actions.  

Whatever the turmoil, we are told, God offers a point of stability that shall not be moved.
God is our help.

The writer knows the folly of placing one’s faith in any power but the Lord’s.  God’s presence is the genuine source of refuge, of strength, of comfort.
Of salvation.

God’s presence is the source of restorative waters… rivers that offer joy and gladness. Rivers, that in the person of Jesus, will be called living waters, waters that assure that we never thirst.

The psalmist tells us that it is in the city of God where the rivers and streams make the hearts glad.  The city of God  is where the baptized are gathered. Not a literal city, so much as, well… a church.

Where the baptized are gathered, the Spirit of God is present.
And thus  the church- the gathered body -is also a place of healing and hope.
A place of refuge.

Over and over again, from creation to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, images of water evoke God’s care and God’s presence. It is no wonder then that approaching the waters of baptism requires more than instructions for completing a ritual.

Understood more fully, and more communally, baptism is not simply something that is done, it, too is a place.  A refuge to which all are called. A refuge to which all are re-called

And as we noted in our reading through Ephesians, there is but one baptism.  There is no special baptism for those who had been near, and no alternate baptism for those who had been far off…

One baptism for all….
Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, men and women, old and young.
All.

All who hear and whose hearts respond to the news of God’s great love for them.
All who believe that God’s grace is greater than any sin.
All who belong to the family of God are invited to repent and be baptized.

And then, from the moment we are baptized into a community of faith, we are called and equipped by God in the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of Christ, to live worthy of the calling to which we were called.  

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the early church, including those meeting in Rome and Ephesus were dunking churches.  OK – technically, that would be baptism by immersion. But you know what I mean.

I grew up in a tradition that required full immersion, as opposed to the way we baptize from the font here. Which is still more splash than sprinkle, but not all the way in…

Anyway, chances are good that like John the Baptist, other Jewish prophets and rabbis would have used a river or lake to baptize. The person would walk into the water, repenting of their sins, receive a blessing and be immersed into the water.

Down into the water
Down into death
Up into the air
Up into new life.
Into the water dry and dignified
Out of the water looking like a drowned rat.

And in that baptism moment, they were changed.
Not just outwardly in their dripping robes; they were no longer who they had been.

Paul would like us to see this as a direct comparison to what Jesus experiences in the time between Good Friday and Easter morning.  Jesus went into and through death to life.
Resurrection life.

Because of that journey, the power of resurrection becomes evident in the body of Christ in two ways: Baptized followers of Christ celebrate his victory over death. We trust that we will live with him forever. And baptized followers of Christ share in his victory over sin. We can and will live holy lives right now.  In this world.   

That is the power of resurrection: the power of grace for the individual, the community and the world.

In Paul’s view, it is the power of resurrection that makes the idea of a sinful baptized person a laughable oxymoron. It is a silly contradiction in terms.  Paul essentially says,  “You are dead to sin.  Stop acting as if you are even capable of sin.  Live like you know who you are.”

Perhaps you have experienced one of those moments when a friend or neighbor or even family member has said or done something awful… Told an egregious lie, destroyed a relationship… Committed a crime and was arrested…

And because that act was so out of character, all you could think to say in your shock was “That is not like him at all.”  Or “she’s a better person than that…”  

Confronting them directly, you might ask… “Who are you?” or “I don’t think I know you any more…”  

Well – a baptized person is a whole new person.  A person that the powers of darkness no longer recognize. And a baptized body of believers looks nothing like the rest of the world.

This is true for all of us, no matter how long ago or how early in our lives that baptism happened.  Even if you can’t remember the water touching your skin or who was there, you can remember your baptism. At least in the way that is most important to our community of faith being a refuge from a sinful world.

You can remember your baptism by remembering that you belong to God, you are adopted into God’s household.  

No longer enslaved by sin, no longer enlivened by sin’s power, you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  We are empowered – for all of life – by the Holy Spirit.

Let me say that again – through the waters of baptism you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  And that is very good news indeed!

What do you think of when you hear those words.. Dead to sin?

At one point, I thought maybe it meant being a perfectly sinless human.  Which of course, I was completely unable to pursue. For one thing, I am not a very good perfectionist, and being perfectly sinless would require me to make the right decision on how to think and act and speak and move through life a bajillion times a day.
Seriously.
Never going to happen.

But I think now that Paul is really talking more about an operating system. Like the underlying software that allow our phones and computers and other digital tools – to function properly.

So, my old operating system – the old human part – was really glitchy. It was an old version that was created with all good intentions but became corrupted somehow.  That old human OS was a mess and caused me to experience the world – and thus respond and move through the world – in ways that failed to honor God. The hate and fear that leaked out of me was more a reflection of sin than faith, hope or love.

New life in Christ – living as a baptised follower of Jesus –  is like getting a whole new operating system installed.

In this OS, there is no spirit of fear, only the Holy Spirit.  There is no darkness, no hate.  No glitches.  Just a solid platform because there is grace… so much grace. Grace in such abundance that it leaks out of me, leaving a trail of joy and generosity and kindness and love.

When I function using that operating system, and that system alone, the one that runs on grace… my experience of life and the world is changed completely:

I can trust that God is with me, that God’s Spirit indwells me.  

I have entered a whole new Kingdom in which Christ is King and I am living in him.  

And… because we are not baptized into a one to one relationship with God, but into a huge pre-existing family, a giant network of followers of Jesus, we experience that new Kingdom in community.  

Together.

Like the Israelites passing through the river into the promised land, you and I have passed through the waters into a promised life of abundance.
A place of refuge.
A place where we can stay wet…
Practically swimming in God’s grace.
Together.

All that grace? Paul doesn’t really think it’s an invitation to moral anarchy – where we sin more and more and more so that we might experience greater and greater depths of grace.

No… Paul is all about the kind of transformation that comes when we know who we are and who we belong to.  The kind of transformation he experienced and then witnessed in countless others.  

But here’s the thing… understanding baptism as participating in the death of Jesus means that there is a lot of resurrection life to participate in as a baptized believer.

It won’t be perfect… After all, we live in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ.  Rather than erasing our capacity to sin completely, our baptism OS puts sin in check.

The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit allows us to create and maintain boundaries, so that our lives reflect the Law of Love: Love for God and love for neighbors.  All of our neighbors.  And access to resurrection power means we have the capacity to get better at living as a community that exhibits faith hope and love to the world.

In that sense, baptism is a process, a journey toward Christlikeness.

A life that is grounded, shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is motivated by and directed by that same Jesus.  Who has defeated sin forever. So, our new way of operating and experiencing the world means we can no longer tolerate, much less cooperate, with sin.

In other words, our faith provides an understanding that new life with Christ is an assurance of salvation beyond death. AND an understanding that this assurance is lived out in discipleship… a life that is dedicated to God in this time and this place.

That means giving all of our lives over to God.
Day after day after day.
Moment by moment by moment.
Facet by facet.

And even with a shiny new operating system… that can be hard.

C. was telling us in a session meeting last month about a baptism story in the book he was reading  about stewardship.  The author was writing about how we sometimes hold back a part of our lives, a portion of our resources, and pretend that it isn’t God’s- that we’ve somehow earned it on our own and can reserve it.  

That might mean holding back a certain percentage of our income we don’t want to give, a particular behavior pattern that we don’t want to change, or a grudge we don’t want to stop holding… you get the idea.

How is that related to baptism?  Well, the author points back to this story from the era of Charlemagne.

You may or may not recall that Charlemagne was the most powerful European ruler in the Middle Ages, leading the Franks to rule most of Europe. He converted to Christianity, which was the beginning of what church historians would call an era of Christendom.

Perhaps as a means of assuring God was on the side of the Empire, Charlemagne expected his soldiers to convert and be baptized into the church.  The soldiers would go down to the river en masse to do just that.  

But by some reports the baptisms were a little unusual.

When it came time to be immersed, they would hold one hand up out of the water, so that it would remain dry.  Yes- it was their sword hand, the hand they wanted to be able to use in battle to kill as needed. As if to say.. I’ll let you change every part of me, I’ll give over all me… except that part…

Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s solid ground, theologically speaking. But I can see how that logic works.  And if I’m honest with myself, search my heart a little, I must confess there are things that I have left dry.  Or perhaps allowed to dry out.

Rogue apps, connecting back to that old operating system.   

There are sins that this faithful believer can’t seem to shake, still needs to confess, still hasn’t trusted God enough to transform.

Shall I go on with those sins, so that grace for me might increase?
No… and here’s why.

I am not alone.
You and I belong to each other, just as surely as we belong to God.  Just as surely as the aches and pains of my little toe matter to my digestive system, my sin affects you.

Not just each of you, but all of you.
And our life together in Christ.
Our health and witness as the Body of Christ.

And the reverse is true.
Your sins matter to me.
And my health.

And it goes far beyond these walls…
Far beyond the membership rolls we keep.

The sins of all who claim membership in the body of Christ,
All who are brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family,
All who are baptized…  no matter how wet or dry they seem to be…

Their sins matter to us, too.
Because we all belong to each other.

The events that unfolded this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as I was putting these words to the page, made it really hard for me to claim some of our brothers and sisters. I watched and wept and wondered… 

How much of your heart do you have to hold out of the water to be able to spew such hatred for the Jewish community?

How much of your heart must stay dry to consider people less than human because their skin is brown or black?

How much must of your heart must one give over to hatred to openly choose symbols of intimidation and death used by the Nazi party and the KKK?  I mean… these folks didn’t feel a need to cover their faces! 

And how are we to respond?  

Knowing that yes, there is grace enough, even to cover sins so proudly displayed by torchlight…

How are we to faithfully respond?

I have to start by remembering that those hate-spewing protesters matter to God.
Just as dearly as the Jews matter to God.
Just as dearly as African Americans and immigrants and women and all of us matter to God…
Despite their evil, sin-filled chants.  

And because my operating system is grace-powered, they all must matter to me, too.
The ones spewing hate and the ones they despise.

All of them matter.
All of them belong.
All of them are a part of us.

And – against all logic- I want to invite them back into the waters…

I want to go up and ask…
Do you remember who you are?
Do you remember whose you are?
Do you honestly believe that this is the calling to which you were called? 

That’s when an uncomfortable truth hits me…
I, too, desperately I need the waters of baptism.

My sins are no less harmful to my relationship with God, no less harmful to my relationships with you and others in the Body.

And so I long to be back in the water.
Not just a little damp, but soaking wet.
Holding back NOTHING.
Nothing of mine, nothing of ours.
ALL IN.

Which of course, makes me think of Peter… in that moment when Jesus was teaching the disciples what it meant to be a servant by washing their feet.

And Peter – God bless him- He was having none of it. He knew it would have been much more appropriate for him to kneel down.  For him to be washing his rabbi’s feet. Because in his heart, Peter knew that Jesus was so much more than a teacher or friend.

But Jesus made clear that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
And Peter relented.  
And then, in his own inimitable, always passionate way,
Peter took it even further: 

Wash all of me, then, Lord.  Not just my feet… all of me.
Wash the dust off my feet, sure.
But there is all the dirt and muck that my heart has picked up along the way.
The words I’ve spoken that soil my mouth.
The silence I’ve kept when your children needed an advocate.
The selfishness and self-centeredness that leads me to treat others as less than. 

Like Peter, I cry out in these difficult times, Wash all of me!
That I might be a better servant
Wash all of your children… Head to toe
That we might be more faithful followers
That we might make a difference in the building of your kingdom

And then that OS kicks in, reminding me that the waves of grace have already washed over us. That Christ has already done the work.

I remember who I belong to.
I remember that God is and will be my refuge and my strength.
I remember my baptism and am thankful.

Remember, dear ones.
Remember your baptism.
Remember who you are.
Remember who we are.
Together.

And be thankful.

Armed and Ready

A final sermon in a series in Ephesians.  Hat tips to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s conversations about Wonder Woman and the gospel on the Blue Room Blog and Teri Peterson‘s description of the Roman soldiers’ shield and her listing of the church’s calls to action. 

From about the mid-point of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has been talking about what it looks like to live a life that is “worthy of the calling to which we are called.”   How to live in a way that honors our adoption into the family of God and builds up the community of saints, all so that we might be part of God’s work of reconciling all people and all of creation.  

In this discussion, he moves from a reminder of our unity being an outflow of our shared identity in Christ to some more specific guidelines for this new way of being God’s people, of being church. But instead of pointing to the myriad rules and rituals of the law, the law that he had once pursued as a Jew, Paul keeps it simple.

You’ve been made into new people… Live like it!
Speak truthfully… you can’t be connected if you can’t trust each other.
It’s fine to get angry, but don’t hold onto that anger – not even overnight.
Our words should build each other up and offer each other grace.
I love the bit about thieves no longer stealing. It’s not just about honesty for Paul…
he says…  
let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (4:28) Which tells those of us who would not be considered thieves that a portion of our work and resources ought to be shared, as well.

Basically, he says, we are to be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)

In addition to these instructions for us as a church, members together in the Body of Christ, Paul makes clear that the same ideas apply within our own households.  The mutual love and respect, care and love, the mutual sharing of grace and building each other up  that reflects God’s triune nature in a healthy church…

All of that ought to be on display at home, too.

That goes for Parents and children, husbands and wives, slaves and masters (let’s translate to bosses and employees)… And Paul could easily have included teachers and students, officers and enlisted soldiers, leaders of all sorts and their committees or teams.

Our work lives, our home lives, our religious and recreational lives… no matter what aspect of our day to day living you can think of… all of it should reflect our call- our identity in Christ – before any other label we might claim. Because every facet of our daily lives is a portion of our calling- loving people into relationship with God and one another. Assuring that all people experience the salvation they need… here and now.

And then, before signing off, Paul has one last set of instructions.
Listen for the Word of God from
Ephesians 6:10-20

It probably won’t surprise many of you that I went to see Wonder Woman the first opportunity I had.  I’ve been a fan of most of the comic book movies released in the last several years.  But this one was special. It wasn’t until Wonder Woman that a woman superhero was the lead character.  

It was amazing to see this character on the big screen, especially how long it’s been since she was featured in the TV series starring Lynda Carter. Or the Justice League cartoon that I grew up watching.

I promise, this isn’t just about comic book stuff… I’m coming back to Paul’s instructions to us.  But before we go there, I want to give those of you who aren’t familiar  just a bit of Wonder Woman’s backstory… At least the movie’s version.

Wonder Woman begins her story as Diana, a princess raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira. She is taught that their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. In fact, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and that when Ares is defeated once and for all, an era of peace will reign. And that defeat will happen at the hands of an Amazon.

Fate brings Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans during World War I, to the shores of Themyscira, as well as a few of the Germans who were trying to kill him. After he is rescued then captured by the Amazons, he is questioned.  About his identity and the war.    

When Steve describes the conflict as “the war to end all wars,” that’s all the invitation Diana needs to leave the safety of her island and take on Ares— and thus, she believes, to defeat war itself.

And maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but this pastor couldn’t help but think about this passage from Ephesians as our heroine gathered the various tools she would need as she left her home to live into her calling.  

See, even great warriors like the Amazons need more than a mission and determination. Diana’s warrior armor includes has a breastplate and belt, a shield, some serious combat boots, bracelets that are indestructible, the lasso of truth and a sword that is sharp enough to cut even atomic particles into smaller pieces.  

—-

Paul and the Gentile readers of his letter to the Ephesians would have been really familiar with the armor worn by Roman soldiers. After all, as newly welcomed members of a minority sect of Judaism, they were a minority among minorities in the Roman empire. And because they were now living in the way of Jesus, their choices were counter-cultural enough to be obvious. And, as you may recall from Paul’s own pre-conversion story, some Jews were willing to persecute members of the early church.  Sometimes by turning them over to the Romans.

So, when Paul begins to describe armor… the full armor of God as he calls it, they know exactly what he is describing and why a soldier would need each piece.
The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth.
The breastplate covers the core of the body.
Shoes provide more protection from weapons and terrain than the sandals typically worn
The shield is defense against flaming arrows.
And then, of course, the helmet to protect the head. But is also provides an easy way to identify a soldier’s rank, function and unit.

Outfitted in armor like that, the Gentiles would be armed and ready for most any kind of battle. But as people who are resurrection people… people who are empowered by a Spirit of love and called to a life of reconciliation in the service of God…Paul wants them and us to be ready for a different sort of battle.  

We’re not talking about a war against flesh and blood warriors…   

We are talking about a war against the principalities and powers that keep this world from being as it should be.

We’re talking about the forces of sin, the reality of our separation from the Holy One.

We’re talking about our own desires for what does not feed or nourish God’s creation, including our own well-being.

There might well be times we are fighting for our lives, but the battle Paul envisions is the battle for our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength.

We’re talking about fighting against those things that cause division and pain and sorrow within the body. As well as those wounds that the Body of Christ inflicts upon the world beyond our walls  

The enemy Paul describes in verse 12 as  “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That enemy threatens from within and outside of ourselves.

Just imagine taking on and defeating that enemy!

If we can be prepared for war with that enemy…  then we would be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that  “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.

We would be fighting on the side of God’s will being done… On earth as it is in Heaven.

Now we’re talking about a war to end all wars.

—–

When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”

That seems like a throw-away line. A cliche way to keep a character from sounding too noble.

But then Diana and Steve head toward Europe and the front lines of the war. Along the way, they come to a village being held captive. Everyone is suffering, including the women and children. Diana desperately wants to help, but it appears hopeless.  

The space between the German and the British soldiers has become a No Man’s Land… a battle-scarred stretch of land between long trenches filled with men shooting cannons, rifles and machine guns at the other side.  It was too dangerous to try to cross, but the land was too valuable for either side to abandon.

They were in a stalemate.

Steve and the others in their team tell Diana that they must keep moving. After all, they have a mission to pursue, a specific and important contribution to make to the war effort.  And she was looking for Ares.

“Let’s stay focused” they say. “We can’t save everyone.”

But Diana refuses. She can either do nothing (even if just for the moment).
Or she can do something.  

And so she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. No longer wearing the cape that has covered her armor, Diana becomes Wonder Woman— she becomes worthy of the calling to which she has been called.

Bearing only her armor and shield, she steps out onto the field. She draws all kinds of enemy fire. But her armor can withstand it. And as she stands firm in the middle of the field, putting herself on the line, the others behind her take heart. First Steve and their team follow her and begin to fight. Then the other soldiers finally see there REALLY IS HOPE. And they storm the field.  Soon they are able to claim No Man’s Land and retake the village, extending that hope to the civilians.

Diana had the courage to stand firm behind the armor she had been provided.
This selfless act was enough to turn the tide.  

—-

It’s interesting that the armor Paul describes is designed to help regular folk like us to stand firm. It’s not armor for aggressive action.

In fact, coming right after those household codes calling for mutual care and love, it should be clear that standing firm does not require a person to hurt a neighbor – or a sibling in Christ – in any way.

The armor is meant to empower believers to withstand (stand firm against) the evils surrounding and threatening us. And to stand firm against the presence of sin and evil that we carry within us. It empowers us by providing coverage.

Its very nature is defensive.  Believers are girded in truth, faith and peace, the Spirit through the word, and finally in prayer for their defence and strength.

While none of us are superheroes or demigods from mystical islands, we all have access to the greatest power in all creation:
The Power of the Creator.
The Power of the Savior
The Power of the Holy Spirit.

As we persevere in prayer, we are connected to God’s resurrection power.

You might have noticed I’ve used a lot of WE language here.  That’s because Paul’s words calling upon believers to stand firm… they are plural. All of y’all… stand firm.

Unlike Wonder Woman taking on the whole line of Germans in No Man’s Land, or Don Quixote tilting at all of his windmills… we do not take our sword and shield out into the world alone.

Paul’s original readers would have known something about those Roman shields that I didn’t know until recently. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. And together, they become impenetrable.

As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, all of us are shielded by the faith of others, as well as our own.

Did you notice that there was no armor for the back or sides… just the breast plate? That’s because turning back is not an option, the only option to stand firm.
Together.

And that is not the same thing as doing nothing.

It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do, or as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.

And stand firm we must.

When the powers call for violence, the church must stand together for peace.

When the powers call for silence, the church must stand together and speak for those who are voiceless.

When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the church must stand firm for justice.

When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, the church must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

Together.  As a body.

I don’t know if you saw the story in the news about a month ago…it happened at Panama City Beach

Six members of the same family, including a grandmother who had a heart attack, were rescued after getting caught in a riptide. Three other people who had attempted to help were saved as well.

They weren’t saved by one heroic person.
Or even by a couple of super-skilled lifeguards.

Dozens of people on the beach created a human chain… linking arms and holding tight…  so that they could reach almost 100 yards into the surf in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s how the Guardian reported the incident:
Derek Simmons, an Alabama native who recently moved to PCB, quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group. Simmons said he was enjoying a family picnic on the beach when they noticed people in a group on the sand close to the pier, some pointing into the water.

“We thought it was a shark; we have a ton of those,” said Simmons.

“We walked down to see what was going on and I asked the guy furthest out if everything was OK. He said: ‘No, those people out there are drowning, I can’t get to them because the current’s too strong.’

“I said to the guy: ‘Let’s try to get as many people as we can to form a human chain.’ If you know about ants, you know when one’s in trouble they form a chain to help it. My theory was, let’s get enough people, we’ll get out there and pull them in and everybody can finish having a good rest of the evening.”

At first, he said, people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide.

“We were yelling at the beach, we need more people,” he said.

Then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group, which included a young family with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater.

The couple first handed the children, Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah, to the end of the chain, which by then had grown to about 80 people, and returned to help their mother Roberta, 34.

“She looked the most in trouble when we first got there,” Simmons said. “So that was the third one in, then the fourth and fifth.”

After about an hour in the water, he said, they were exhausted but able to rescue the last of the group, a nephew of the Ursrey family and an unidentified couple.

And do you know what Mr. Simmons said afterward?  

“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,”

Faith, hope and love abide.  And were on beautiful display that day.

Over 80 people, most of them strangers… standing in the waves.

If any one of them had decided to do nothing… or just quit at any point during that hour or so it took to bring those people back to shore… Things might have turned out differently.

I’d be willing to bet almost all of them were praying in some fashion or other… sending out thoughts of encouragement and hope.

This passage about armor – all of Ephesians really – is a call to prayer – shared, corporate prayer that is passionate and articulate in its desire to see the world transformed
To see lives saved.
To experience hope.

And this letter is a call for embodied, corporate resistance to evil whenever and wherever it is revealed.

This letter is a call calls for us to be church… to be the Body of Christ

This letter is a call to be ready for the power of God to be unleashed, and to be the hands, feet, voice, face and heart of Christ…
in a world that is drowning.
In a world that hungers and thirsts for the love and grace we are called to proclaim.

May we answer that call on this day.
And every day.
Armed and ready.

United and Equipped

We are going to zoom ahead in the letter to the Ephesians a little bit, bouncing past what our Bibles denote as Chapter 3. You’ll notice one of the first words in our passage today is “therefore…” which means that our writer is about to shift gears.

The first portion of the letter has focused on doctrine… a reminder of what Paul had taught the Gentiles and what they together have said they believe about God, what they believe about the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and what they believe about their own adoption by faith through grace.

He reminded them that Christ came and proclaimed peace to those who were already near to God (the Jews) as well as those who had been far off (the Gentiles. The Ephesians themselves.  Us).  

And that because we are all siblings in and through Christ, there should be no walls between us.  No false separation based on human requirements.
No enmity based on traditions or long-standing segregation.

The reconciling, saving work of Christ was and is to bring us near to one another, near enough to be the bricks from which Christ builds a temple in which the God who created all of us and adopted all of us is worshipped and glorified.

Paul tells a little of his story, being careful not to make it all about him… and then he prays one of the most beautiful prayers I can imagine praying over a congregation…  I’m going to share it with you now, because it is one of the prayers I return to as I pray for this congregation.

Ephesians 3:14-21

Paul wants them to know… really really know… how completely and truly God loves them.  How completely God loves you. And me. Even as he confesses that we humans are fundamentally incapable of imagining the full power of God and all that God has done and is able to accomplish.  

Even the resurrection power on display in Christ is but a fraction of what our God is capable of…   

Let that sink in for a moment.

That is the power of the force of love that is at work for us.
That is the power of the the force of love that is at work in us.

You can see why Paul offers a prayer for our growth as members of a community of faith that seeks to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Because as Christ-followers, you and I have access to God. You and I have been invited… no, called… into the work of God here and now.  

We have been called into the work of Kingdom-creating, of world-reconciling.
The work of transformation.

This understanding of what it means to be the church is so much bigger than getting together on Sundays to pray and sing. This call is about leading a life – together – that is worthy of the new life we’ve been given as children of God.    

Here’s how Paul turns the corner and begins to address the question: How then shall we live?  

Listen to the word of God in Ephesians 4:1-16

—-

Honest and truly, this is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture. There is some powerful poetry here, calling us to unity.  Powerful enough that it’s really hard to miss out on the main idea.  

The ONE main idea.

But Paul being Paul, there is also some word play that isn’t totally poetic. The first part of that first couple of sentences have some repetition that we bears digging into a little bit. That pairing of called and calling is intentional, and it is important in making the connection between what we believe and how we live.

Paul is asking us to keep in mind the relationship between our being called – being chosen – by God and our calling – our assignment in the world.

No longer aliens and strangers but called and claimed by God, we Gentiles are now inextricably linked to the chosen people of Israel those who were already in.  Not that we had anything to do with this… of course. It was all God’s decision, God’s plan from the beginning. We were on God’s mind at the moment of creation.

Now, as a result, we who understand that love, we who have become aware of the gift of grace that called us home to God, we who are among those faithful saints, we all have callings…

We are to lead lives marked by humility, love and patience.
We are to lead lives that reflect the peace of Christ and the glory of God.
We are to lead lives that connect us to neighbor and community.

You see, God, who is active in every corner of creation, uses us… the called… to make sure that in every corner of creation, people are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, protected….   

We are the way that love shows up.
We are God’s plan.
We are the means by which salvation arrives in the form of humble service to those in the greatest need…Whether that need is for healing, friendship, advocacy or a hot meal.

In the book our Tuesday night group is reading together, Eugene Peterson says that if we are going to unlock this critical passage of the letter, we need to understand another bit of word play in that first sentence.  It’s a metaphor that Paul creates with the the word translated into English as WORTHY.

In the greek, the word is axios, which is the name for a set of scales.This particular set of scales is formed with a crossbeam balanced on a post, with pans hanging from either end.

Here’s how you might use the axios. Let’s say you have a known value… like a pound of lead. You could place that lead in one pan and then measure out a pound of another item… like flour… by pouring it into the other pan.

When the known weight (the lead) and the other item being measured (the flour) reach an equilibrium, a balance, they are axios… of equal worth.

They are worthy.
They have the same value, which in this case is the same weight.  

Flour and lead are nothing alike, but once they can be axios.  Paul’s statement is showing us that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s calling can be balanced – axios – with our human lives.  When we walk in the way of Jesus, live as transformed, resurrection power people, we are in balance – axios – with God’s calling.  

This means our calling can’t simply be a job or an occupation… even one as churchy as minister of word and sacrament… Or filling any other functional role within the church.

Our calling is so more than that!

Just as Jesus was sent to walk and eat with followers, to heal and feed the crowds, to laugh with children and cry over lost friends and celebrate at weddings, and well… bring the very presence of God into human life, our calling as Jesus-followers extends into friendship, into family life, into citizenship, into every aspect of the human experience.

All of which will most definitely require all the love, humility and peace we can muster.  

Because… have you been around people lately?
No… really…

Thursday morning, I had finished riding my bike and walked to the pool to cool down and stretch a bit. As I was putting on my goggles and headed to the steps, I heard a lot of noise coming from the corner… clearly some kind of kerfuffle was starting up. It was loud enough I wandered to where I could see.

There was no actual crash… just horns honking, doors slamming and a cloud of blue smoke drifting skyward as they let loose with some of the foulest language I’ve heard in a long while.

It was quite impressive, I must admit, and I’ve heard some pretty skilled cussers in my time.

But I’ll be honest… after 2-3 minutes of the heated exchange, they got back into their cars, and I was more than a little thankful that it ended with tires screeching and rude gestures flying rather than a gun or two going off.

I’m pretty sure that we would NOT categorize that interaction as having been Spirit-filled.

There was not much in the way of bearing with one another, maintaining unity of the Spirit or speaking truth in love on display.

To be fair, I have no idea who they were or what they believe. Or don’t believe.

And I’m pretty sure neither of them checked for Fish Stickers or churchy slogans on the other’s bumpers to see if this was an opportunity to help a brother grow up into Christ.  

But it was not an unusual situation these days…
People are angry and on edge.
And it’s hot, which doesn’t help.

As I cooled off in the pool, I was thinking about the ways that we almost crash into each other here… within the confines of the work we do as a body.  And we can find ourselves letting loose – though perhaps with less colorful language – as we unload the anger and fear and anxiety and other wall-building bricks that we’ve been carrying around.

After all, we’re still human.
Adopted and forgiven, yes… but still fallible.

And… here’s the crazy thing.

Some of that frustration and anger and all those other difficult emotions we experience in our life together

Some of that is a direct byproduct of the very way we are being pulled together as a body.

You may very well have noticed that we are not all alike.
We have different gifts and skills.
We have different perspectives and experiences.
We even come to the table with a pretty wide range of beliefs, which is pretty typical under a Presbyterian umbrella.

All of which is good… we need arms, toes, noses, elbows and all the wondrous variety of parts required to create a whole body. But all those differences make the unity that we are called to as a body…

Well…  it’s hard.  Especially if we try to get there in our humanness

That’s why Paul reminds us in this passage that we are called to a unity that is created by and grows in love, God’s love.

It is not based in our unanimity or even in similarity.
It can’t be.

The mystery of God revealed in Christ resulted in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles – definitely distinct groups. And they remained distinct groups… Equally loved and valued by God. Axios.  

Much the same way the flour and lead balanced on a scale are still very different substances… and yet axios.

There is and always will be a rich variety in the wisdom of God. Thus there is and always will be a rich variety in the people of God. All those distinctions we love to point out and use to exclude… Not a problem in God’s axios.

And thus to be worthy of the calling to which we are called, our lives must display a unity that goes well beyond tolerance. It must be rooted in the connections created by the Spirit, which are given and shared at the font in baptism.
One baptism.

Paul never assumes that the distinctions between groups and individuals within the body will cease, but that the work of the Spirit will allow a diverse church to grow together as a body.  No matter the source or complexity of that diversity…

Life together in the Spirit will yield the fruits of the Spirit, even as the gifts needed by the body become manifest.  And in the same way our adoption into God’s family is a gift of grace (not our work), we do not and cannot attain or earn the gifts of the Spirit.  But we can count on God’s generosity… knowing they are given for the equipping of the saints…for the building up of the body, so that all who follow Jesus might grow from childlike faith into their mature calling and unique contributions to the life of the community.

And remember, Paul says that we mature in our faith, not by calcifying in our beliefs or by checking off the lists in our doctrine, but by becoming sure of our identity in Christ.  

No one can come in and tell you that you are not worthy or somehow less worthy than they are. There are no second-tier believers, any more than there are second-tier churches.  

There is one body (made up of Presby’s, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, and all manner of baptists, lutherans and I could go on and on).

And that one body is empowered by one Spirit.

There is but one Lord, one faith

And one baptism (which can look like sprinkling or dunking or splashing)

There is but one God, the one who called and claimed and sends us out.

Just one.  

We are one manifestation of that body within these walls, which is part of the larger body we confess in the Apostle’s Creed as the one, holy, universal and apostolic church.

In order to be about the business of equipping the saints, who are to be about the business of living their calling to love their neighbors, we need to believe that – as the psalmist describes – we are a body that is wonderfully and fearfully made. Every joint and tendon, every muscle and nerve, each one of us, equally beautiful and absolutely essential, connected and ready to do its work when called upon.

Earlier this week, I came across an article from Inc magazine by Michael Schneider.  As happens pretty regularly in my brain, I ended up reading it through the lenses of this week’s scripture.

About halfway in, I thought to myself… If Paul were in the corporate coaching world today, he might have used the team analogy in his letters, rather than all that body language.  It also struck me that he would recognize the Spirit at work in some of what these Google researchers found about teams that do their work well… Teams that function worthy of the work for which they were hired.  

See, a few years ago, Google wanted to figure out how to create really good teams.
Really efficient teams.

Being a data-driven firm, they started gathering data. Researchers interviewed over 200 people and studied 180 teams to analyze 250 different team attributes. Two years in, they still couldn’t come up with the algorithm that would create the perfect team.

That’s when they started considering some of the intangibles…  which is when things get interesting for folks like me who aren’t aiming for a profitable company, but want to see a healthy culture in a church context. The research revealed that group norms play a big part in the success and failure of teams.

Norms are things like traditions and expectations, the shared rules that govern how people relate to one another when they gather to work or to play. Sometimes these rules are openly acknowledged and taught, but not always.  Some norms are remain unwritten and are just understood or caught.

They identified 5 key characteristics – each connected to those norms – that made for successful teams, at least as defined by Google.  

The first couple make especially good sense in almost any setting.

  1. Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles within the group. This is not so far off from  our Presbyterian norm that expresses our desire to see things done decently and in order.

The next two are where I started thinking… Yeah… this sounds like people who are maturing together in their callings as Christ-followers

  1. Meaning. The work has personal significance to each member. Not that the work makes the person significant… but that the work is meaningful in that person’s life and in the way they view their place in the world.  We’ve might be in trouble if our experiences and work together for God has no significance or meaning.
  1. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good. The work goes beyond taking care of us and our own…It connects us to the needs of the world beyond the team, beyond the church…

Now- this last one gets to the our very human tendency to create barriers to strong relationships within the body. And to build up walls between us and the people not yet reconciled to God.

  1. Psychological Safety.

Chances are good over the years you’ve been in a meeting… whether a congregational meeting, or a committee, session or trustee meeting and – out of fear of rejection or not wanting to look foolish – you have held back your ideas or questions.

This can happen when we’ve heard stories of other people being shut down or when we have witnessed others taking heat in similar situations. Frankly, it’s unnerving to feel like you’re in an environment where everything you do or say is being judged.

But imagine a different way of being.
A community in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask questions without fear of judgment. A group culture where everyone can let down their guard and feel known and valued for their unique contribution.

That’s psychological safety.
That’s being a sanctuary from the world.
That’s being the church.  

Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful in their projects.

Paul believed that churches should be filled with people who interacted with humility and gentleness, and with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  

Which sounds an awful lot like a church with a psychologically safe environment,
A church whose members who were less likely to leave,
A body more likely to trust and believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things through the diversity of its members and their diverse gifts and passions.

And ultimately, this sounds like a church that would be creatively and wholeheartedly connecting with and serving the people in their corner of creation.

All because they are growing up in the knowledge of who they are, who they belong to and how to live more fully into what they believe.

I so want to be part of that church…. How about you?

 

Demolition and Renovations

In the opening portion of Ephesians, we were greeted with the most amazing news:  the good news that we have been adopted into God’s family.  

We belong.    

Not just to God, of course, but to one another.  Because as siblings, all of us are family.

We belong.

Not just some of us.
Not even just the us we see right here in this room…

God has always – from the very beginning – desired to see all of humanity, all of creation even, gathered up in harmony with one another and in loving relationship with God.  

All knowing that we all belong.  

Also, Paul tells us, when we come to understand who we are in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are also bound to God and one another in a work of reconciliation that is cosmic in scale.

But understanding who we are in Christ is at the heart of understanding how we can belong to God. That’s why, as we move into the second portion of the letter, Paul digs a little deeper into this concept.  

First, we need to know that our belonging to God has absolutely nothing to do with us;  it has everything to do with Christ.

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

God’s grace is so lavish that it transforms a creation gone astray into a new creation, one alive with the resurrection power of Christ.   

That, my friends is who we are.  

We together are the new creation, a body that is at once broken and restored, fallible and forgiven, messy and beautiful. A body that has been redeemed so that we, too,  might reflect the character and nature of God as we move through the world.      

Like the original recipients of this letter, we are gentiles.  Our only way into the family- into the covenant people of God – is through the work of Christ.   Bearing that in mind, listen for the word of God in Ephesians 2:11-22…

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually  into a dwelling place for God.

You might recall from our readings in Acts this spring that the conflict surrounding the practice of circumcision was really important in the move to truly welcome gentiles into the Jesus way of knowing and following God.

Some of the apostles and many other observant Jews in the early church believed that one must first convert to Judaism to become a follower of Jesus.  That process included, for men and for any male children in the family, circumcision.

Paul and several others who ministered among and alongside gentiles argued that with Christ as the fulfillment of the law, this ritual and physical symbol was no longer necessary.  Baptism in water and evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in one’s life was sufficient. The key to one’s belonging is a conversion of the heart.

But – as you and I know – traditions die hard.

Paul uses some architectural metaphors in this passage to help the church understand the damage this kind of conflict does what could and should be unified faith communities.

See – in some places of worship, there were literal walls that kept gentiles  separated from Jewish worshippers. They could only enter so far into the building.  If Jesus-following communities met in those spaces, these walls would naturally create division, segregation.

Paul believed that too many communities found themselves segregated by the lingering discussions around circumcision.  You can see from our passage today that the word circumcision was used as a shorthand for which group one belonged to.  It could even be used as an epithet, spat out in that particular tone that makes it very clear who the speaker believed was “in” and which group was “out”.  

You might imagine, then, that the division and separation wasn’t limited to gatherings for worship.  It is difficult to be in relationship with someone- much less to gather for meals and fellowship or to serve others in mission alongside someone who thinks of you as being wholly other. Someone who despises you. Someone who has decided they just can’t or won’t trust you.

This letter to the Gentiles is a critical reminder to them – not just the Jewish believers, but the gentiles – of their full adoption into the family and just why it matters.

Yes, at one point they were far off. But now?  

Just look at what Christ has done! I mean… Check out these verb phrases-

They have been brought near
The two groups have been made one
Christ has broken down the wall (the one that represents the hostility between them)
He abolished the law, creating one humanity, and making peace
Christ reconciled both groups to God in one body, putting to death hostility
He came and proclaimed peace

The work of Christ Paul points to here is salvation.
It is absolutely salvation… but not for a heavenly eternal future.
This is salvation here and now.

Honestly, this is the reconciling work of Christ that we are most likely to overlook in our zeal to move people toward a personal relationship with God.

This is the work of Christ that reminds us of the good news for right here and right now:
The news that tells us It doesn’t have to be this way.
The work of Christ tells us
My kingdom can come here on earth
My will can be done.
In and through you.
Life in the Body – my church-  isn’t meant to be this way.

Christ has come to break down the barriers between us, so that we might be one.   

Now, I know that this might make some of you uncomfortable, but I’m going to ask you to help me make this a little more tangible. And it’s going to require some moving around, including for me…

Now… the reason this letter still resonates across generations is the very reason we still need Jesus.  We are not yet the people God created us to be.  We are not yet sanctified, nowhere near perfect. And so, we still find ourselves divided.Not over circumcision, mind you.  

But we can name some significant conflicts that have dogged the church. There have been battles and still are battles in the church over the ordination of women.  As deacons or elders, even as ministers.

I polled some of you over the past week, including our Bible Study group, and it wasn’t hard to come up with a couple dozen things – concepts, issues, ideas… that can cause conflict and division in any congregation, even one as small as ours…

This is where I built the wall, reading off the words on the bricks, asking for examples, agreement, consensus that there is truth to these issues being an issue…

This is what we do.
We build walls.
Unconsciously,  I think, for the most part.

But not always. 

Sometimes, we choose to build walls or allow gaps to become chasms.
And when we build them up high enough… We can’t see one another any more
We can’t reach one another to hold hands

And as we get comfortable with the idea of being on one side or the other…
We choose to withhold our love.
We withhold our gifts.
We withhold our money.
We withhold ourselves.  

Just the other night, we caught a rerun of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. As usual there’s a complicated setup… but the central conflict led to both Raymond and Deborah withholding intimacy from each another, all while trying to tempt the other to say “yes” first.  

They start out acting flirty, wearing provocative pjs… but pretty soon, they’ve moved to t-shirts and boxers, reading books and flat out snoring with the lights on…

After almost a month, Ray breaks the silence at the breakfast table.  I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but it went something along the lines of…

Ray: Look at you… I know what you’re doing.
Deborah silently eats her cereal
Ray: Don’t play coy… you know what you’re doing.
Deborah raises an eyebrow
Ray: Oh Come on… I can’t take it any more.
Deborah: What are you talking about?
Ray: It’s been 26 days…  I’m tired of pretending. How are you ok with this?
Deborah thinks a moment, then remembers:  “Oh that!  Psshh… I forgot all about that.”

I forgot all about that.

Now, this is a TV show – a sit com… so of course there was a cute and happy resolution

But that response- I forgot all about that.  

Honestly? It pierced me.  It pierced my heart.  Because it is so true.

We start out by playing a game.  A manipulative game…
We hold back so that we can get someone’s attention.
So that we can hurt someone else.
So that we can get our way.

Deep down, we want someone to call our bluff.
To move toward us, seeking some kind of  resolution.
But then it goes on too long.

For Ray and Deborah, the lack of intimacy became a new pattern.

In real life… this is how marriages, friendships, even congregations fall apart

When we choose not to talk about what we want or need, even just to get someone’s attention… Just for a short time.
A new pattern can develop and then calcify
A brick gets added to the wall.
Relationships suffer.

And while any relationship loss is worth grieving and working to fix, our relationships matter on an extra level. Because when relationships within the Body of Christ suffer, our witness to the world is diminished.

John’s gospel records that beautiful priestly prayer, in which Jesus prays that we – the generations of followers that he trusted would come after the men and women he knew personally – people like us!

Jesus prayed that we would be one, so that others might see our love and know that God sent Jesus out of deep love for all of us.

I don’t like this wall.
I really don’t.  Do you?

This is where people agreed and even asked if I want them to knock it down. No… because that’s really not our job.  I kicked the lowest brick subtly as I make clear it’s not my or anyone else’s job who is in the room.

Christ has broken down the wall.

Christ has broken down the wall and is here to break it down again and again.
Every time we come up with new bricks and begin to stack them up. .

Because only Christ has that power.  The power to transform.
The power to love us into being one family.
One body.

This is where I hang the poster from the table, placing the cross at the center.  The quotes and the heart are to reinforce for us the centrality of peace and love in the life and work of Christ. I begin moving the bricks from a pile of rubble to create a  new structure on either side.

See, the wall that Christ has destroyed is constantly being recycled. Building on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus himself as the cornerstone, we are transformed and then joined – in Christ.  Peace and love transform our hearts and actions, so that we now become the bricks – living stones – in a new structure.  

A sanctuary from the conflicts that would divide.

A temple.  A dwelling place for God.

All to the glory of God.  

Absolutely essential to all of this is love.
God’s love imparted to us through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Love for one another that defies logic.
Love that defies cultural expectations and norms.
Love that flows directly out of the love that God has lavished upon us.

See – hearts that are at peace are able to love.
The peace of Christ is found in Christ himself.
He is our peace, and thus he is our capacity for love.  

And truly, love is the only thing that can overcome the myriad bricks we stack up and separate ourselves into us and them  

Jesus was pretty radical in his focus on love as key to connection with God. He not only taught the primacy of love, he modeled it.  

Theologian Brian McLaren writes  The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else. [1]

He goes on to consider how closely Paul follows Jesus’ teaching… Early in his life, Paul (then known as Saul) had no time for this kind of love talk. He was a religious-correctness man, not a love man.

To guard the purity of his code, he was even willing to kill (Acts 9:1). But Paul was converted, deeply converted, and he migrated from religious correctness to love. In fact, in his writings he not only echoed Jesus’s radical proposal but made it even more explicit.

There were nearly nine hundred rules identified by his religion, but you could trade them all up for this one, he said (in Galatians 5:6) “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love”. [2]

It’s not that this is new concept in Judaism… Love was part of the Jewish tradition from the get-go.  Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy when he spoke of loving God as the first and greatest commandment. What he and Paul were saying is that love is the most important part of the tradition.   

Faithfulness matters.
Obedience matters.  

But without love?
Well, Paul told the Corinthians that without love, nothing we say or do matters.

Love knocks down walls
Love heals.
Love forgives.
Love trusts.
Love overcomes.
Love shelters.
Love rebuilds, remodels, renovates
Love unites.
Love can and will make us one.  

Love brings peace.

Now, with all that in mind, look at your neighbors. And as an act of worship, let us once again offer one another the Peace of Christ this morning.

 

—-

NOTE Brian McLaren references are thanks to the daily email from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation dated July 17, 2017:
[1] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (Convergent: 2016), 41-42. Please visit brianmclaren.net to learn more about his work.
[2] Ibid., 44-45.

Psalm 150- a Musical Maelstrom

Today’s Psalm is the last in our series.  It is also the very last psalm in the book.

This is when I kind of wish we worked out of scrolls… I can just imagine reading through the first 149 psalms, having rolled the paper from one side to the other… and now we are have hit the very end of the roll, the edge of the page, so to speak.

We would have read through psalms of lament, psalms of ascent, psalms of thanksgiving and trust, psalms that expressed anger and hope, fear and joy…

And then, we get to what is the finale… the benedictory response to the whole book of songs: Psalm 150.   Listen for God’s good word for you today:  

1 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

So, there you have it…  your “The End” of the psalms. Though it’s not really an end, so much as call to begin… or to continue praising God.

The psalter actually ends with a call to praise.  A fairly extended call to praise, in fact, especially when you notice what is missing.

In each of the psalms we’ve looked at, the writer has included an attribute or action of God as the reason for giving thanks. The why behind the choice to offer praise or to entrust the present and future to God.

Here, we are just called to praise. All of the “why” – well, it’s just assumed.  

And so this call to praise becomes an invitation to take what we have already learned, to recall what we have already sung,  and then to go out into the world… singing, dancing, praising the Lord in our daily lives.  

While we can and do find settings of the psalms to sing or to pray responsively…. In fact, the hymn we started with this morning is a really fun setting of Psalm 150… By and large, the psalms aren’t meant for corporate worship. At least not worship as we know and experience it most Sundays.  

They are meant to be the songs we each sing Monday through Saturday after we have all gathered on Sunday to remember and to proclaim who God is and what God has done for us.

So when, on a Tuesday we find ourselves neck-deep in the muck and mire of life, we can believe that God hears our cries of lament. We sing or say “Lord, have mercy”, knowing it is more than a colloquialism, it is a prayer of the heart.  A prayer that will be answered in God’s time.

And when some Thursday finds us experiencing joy or we are wondering at the wideness of God’s grace in our lives on a Monday, we are ready to sing a song of praise, “Thank you God!”

And when we have the faith to persevere through a particularly uphill Wednesday through Friday – not because we are naive, but because we have already experienced God’s presence in the toughest spots –  we are ready to sing “I trust you, O Lord; you are with me.”

In all kinds of time and in all manner of places,  as our eyes are open to see God’s face, God’s hands…the psalms invite us to bear witness, in prayer and praise, to publicly make visible the invisible hand of God.

In particular, psalm 150, with its call for every living thing that breathes to praise God unabashedly, with music and dance, is a reminder that praise itself abides above and beyond everything else, even above and beyond a reason for praise.

It is a precise summary of the most valuable lesson we can gather from the poetry of our spiritual ancestors… Praise God  – no matter what, no matter why.  

All prayer (including lament) leads to praise. It is the movement of the Christian life.

Eugene Peterson writes of this movement of the Psalter toward praise, passing through all the other songs we sing.  He was thinking particularly of the last five psalms:
This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile.

Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs…. Not every prayer is capped off with praise.

In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, and shouting “Encore! Encore!”

And so, when our prayers find their way to praise…

What does that look like? What does it sound like? If we have the why sorted, what does the psalm say about how to praise?   Basically, think the opposite of what we stereotypically think of as Presbyterian- the opposite of decently and in order…

Let’s look back at what happens in Psalm 150… With each verse, the worship grows more and more intense. The the praise seems to get louder and louder:
first with trumpet (v. 2a),
then with lute and harp (v. 2b);
next with tambourine and dance (v. 3a),
then next with strings and pipe (v. 3b);
then again with clanging cymbals (v. 5a),
then with “loud clashing cymbals” (v. 5b).

With each additional instrument listed, the crescendo of praise grows louder, less controlled.

From this… what do we learn about how are we to praise the Lord? Well, some would say that we learn to praise God according to God’s being.

Think about how we experience the Lord’s surpassing greatness in the world…
God’s greatness is a mighty rushing wind,
the roar of a lion,
the millions of gallons of water rushing over Niagara Falls,
the flash of lightning followed by the crash of thunder

And so, how do we, created in God’s image, reflect that glory back in all its noisy, physical grandeur?

I want us to go back one more time to that listing of instruments… but this time, I’d like Stephen, perhaps you can help us hear and create something like that sound – the cacophony created when the following instruments are mixed: Can you creates the sound of trumpets on the organ?  Now let’s add something like a lute… the harp… a string section…
I can add this sound for the pipe…
Now – who’s got our tambourine and other shaking instruments? How about some cymbals… clanging chimes and bells?

Let’s get all of that going together…

Seriously – This is no ordinary composition of sounds. And we don’t even have any really loud clashing cymbals.  To the ear, especially a trained ear, the choice of instruments defies logic.  But you sure can’t miss it.  It is a musical maelstrom… a storm of sound that is beautiful in its power.

The greatness and glory of our Lord also defies most human organizational logic. And you have to admit that God’s capacity to make and then calm a storm – it is difficult to miss.

Psalm 150 suggests we cannot hold back and demurely return the praise due to our great, passionate and powerful God.  It will take all manner of sound.

Sometimes I walk across the bridge over 441 to get some fresh air or pick something up for lunch.  While I walk, I’m especially aware of the the sounds around me. The saws going at the lumber yard, the busy parking lots and and streets produce a fair amount of people talking or shouting, horns honking, and all manner of music coming out of windows…
Then there’s the occasional hawk or peacock screech, and do you know how loud all those squirrels can get?

I’m sure you can imagine a similar illogical combination of sounds in your neighborhood…   

Is it possible for that every day, quotidian cacophony to be a means of praising the Lord, too? Can we hear all that commuting noise as giving thanks for having good work to do, for the provision of a car and air conditioning on a hot day, for the joy of music (even the sort we don’t like!), for being healthy enough to walk outside and experience creation, even for the gift of life…

Commentator Shauna Hannan points out that praising the Lord requires many sounds; even sounds that are not traditionally considered worshipful. Psalm 150 is then, a reminder that praising the Lord will not be a silent endeavor.

This idea should not come as a surprise, since the one we praise is not silent; after all, God spoke all of creation into being.  

Psalm 150 also invites us to praise God through the movement of our bodies.  The physicality of who we are and how we were made. We are invited to praise God with tambourine and dance… like Miriam and David and many others in scripture and beyond.

During my tenure here, we’ve not seen anyone offer liturgical dance as worship during a service. I have seen and participated in liturgical dance over the years, and it can be a truly inspiring art form, moving the dancers and the viewers to worship.

But even without dancers, we PresbApopkaterians still move. You got in here, of course. And we’ve already more than one opportunity to sit and stand and move around. We greeted one another in the passing of the peace. And perhaps some of you were feeling sassy enough to move a bit as we sang and played our instruments this morning.

Even as I joke about how staid we can be as Presbyterians, I do hope that you feel that freedom to move as the Spirit leads you… to worship God wholly and authentically. To clap or sway and allow your body to be part of your praise is to honor the reality that the Word also became flesh- walking, singing and dancing among us.

And as he left, Jesus commissioned his followers to be just that, his words, his commandments lived and made flesh for all time – his ministry embodied here on earth.

Thus the highest form of praise and greatest gathering of worship is for the church to be the church- to be the living, breathing, singing, dancing, giving all the glory to God – Body of Christ.

We will be thinking more about how that works over the next few weeks in our study of Ephesians.  What it means to be the Body of Christ is a recurring theme in the apostle Paul’s writings.  We see this effort to live for Christ in community tied most directly to worship in his letter to the Romans.

Listen to this exhortation from chapter 12:1-8

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Paul is not advocating here – any more than he does elsewhere – that this sacrificial worship is a accomplished by obsessive and slavish adherence to the law, so much as understanding the grace of God as embodied in Christ, and seeking to live more like him out of gratitude.   

We must pursue this Christlikeness individually – as Paul reminds us to present our bodies in 12:1; and now he reminds us that we are one body in Christ with many members (verse 4).

4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

In other words, we belong to each other….

6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:
prophecy, in proportion to faith;
7 ministry, in ministering;
the teacher, in teaching;
8 the exhorter, in exhortation;
the giver, in generosity;
the leader, in diligence;
the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Paul is working from ideas he introduced earlier in this letter. The revived body and the renewed mind that result from union with Christ allow believers to present their bodies, not to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but to God as living sacrifices; and Christ enables believers to employ a mind fixed not on the flesh, but on the Spirit, in order to discern what kind of deeds are pleasing to God.

Paul’s list of gifts helps us see what builds up the body of Christ (the church) based on the presentation of the living bodies of sacrifice. The list helps us to see what it might look and sound like, if we, together live more and more like the Christ we follow.  As believers use their gifts for the sake of others, they are to act according to the “measure of faith” that God has given to each one.

Looking only at the first two verses, we might conclude that worship is adequately performed through our corporate liturgy, preaching, and music.  These are the very things we are doing today; things we do pretty well.  

The good news is that these practices are not wrong; But Paul would say that they do not reach far enough… Worship must be full-bodied.

Worship is what happens in community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ.

The quality of our worship is not measured solely by what happens  Sunday mornings, but also by what happens when we are together Monday through Saturday. When we gather as a body to play or watch movies or make cards or pray  or study the scriptures… Or make decisions about our future…  

And the quality of our worship is measured by what happens when we are out and about in our larger community,  taking the word of God, making it flesh among people who need to see Jesus.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons said, “The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.

Glory of God is humanity fully alive
Humans come fully alive when we know who we are
That we are God’s people – the Sheep of God’s field

We humans are fully alive when we know we are never abandoned
That we have been and will be redeemed from the pit
That the work of Christ is done, that salvation has come

We humans come fully alive when we recognize that the power to save,
the resurrection power that lifted Christ from the grave- that power is alive in us.
It is the heartbeat, the rhythm at the center of the musical maelstrom that is the body of Christ at work in the world…As messy and illogical and noisy as that work can be…

Humans are fully alive when we enter God’s gates with thanksgiving in our hearts and fill God’s courts with praise

God’s glory is most beautifully and completely on display in our lives
when we bear witness to all that God has done,
Are being mindful of what God is doing,
And tell others of our trust in God to continue to be at work in and through us

The glory of God – the worship of God – is you fully alive.
Tapping into the resurrection power that brought you into the fold to begin with.  

The glory of God is You,
fully engaged in the work of the Body, building one another up

The glory of God  is You
singing boldly, praying fearlessly, loving tirelessly, praising wholeheartedly.

The glory of God is You – right up to your very last breath, praising the Lord.