Thursday, February 21, 2013

Unity and Diversity

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Sermon audio can be found here for up to one month.

Have you ever had one of those moments when it was confirmed deep within your soul that what you were doing was wrong? I don’t mean simple mistakes. I’m talking about realizing that some of your actions – or even patterns of behavior – are entirely disconnected from your values. All of us have some moment like that – some dark night of the soul – if we live long enough, or at least I hope that we do. 

Otherwise we may never see ways to correct our imperfections and truly become what we have been created to become. Otherwise we might live our lives like a spare part and never know it. Most of us have drawers full of those little parts – an extra screw or one of those weird little rubber things that went to a shelf, or a desk, or something.

The Israelites in today’s passage were certainly confronted with the idea that they had been less than useful to God. They even wept when they heard the law. Still under Assyrian occupation, some of the exiles were beginning to return. Some of them had been land owners. Some of them had foreign wives. The old guard of the city were mostly the illiterate laboring class. Their identity as a people of God had become more cultural than theological, and they were not making it easy for the displaced to return.
In comes Nehemiah, with some authority from the occupying King, and he finds that – among other things – they are selling some of the returning exiles back into slavery! So, when they heard the Word of God – I’ve always wondered what passages were read to them – and the explanation they realized that they were doing some of the same things that got them in trouble in the first place!

They wept – not because God was so terrible, but because they realized how terrible they were! The beautiful thing in all of this is the response of grace and mercy that is offered to them. Nehemiah said to them, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Enjoy what is good. Share with those who have nothing – foreign or local it does not matter, even if you tried to sell them last Tuesday. The joy of loving as you have been loved – even though it hurts to do it – is what will cary you through.

And the poetry of the Psalmist echoes in our souls with a deep and furtive, “Yes!” Because the the law of Moses is not a means for God to push us around. Nor is it a tool to define and determine what God is going to do and say about this or that, or about us or them. The point of the law is the sweet knowledge that God is with us, encouraging us to love as we have been loved.

But what does that look like? Well, it doesn’t look like the spare part drawer. It looks like a body that has no spare parts. It looks like a body that is not just a collection of parts but is the sum of its parts. Every part matters, no matter how small.

I was reminded of this idea by my car not too long ago. A while back I had a problem with my the air flow regulator in my car. Well, I got the replacement part home and found that – not only had I lost one of the screws that held in the original – the new one did not come with screws. Eventually I found a replacement screw in my spare part drawer, but it struck me that so little a part could affect so large a body. Even more importantly, it was the flow of air – something entirely intangible – that truly mattered.

And so it is with the church. Every part matters. Every bulletin board, every handshake, every open space in a pew, every warm body, every active committee, every hit on our website, every prayer in your home, and every soul – man, woman, or child – that comes through these doors seeking an encounter with God Almighty – every part of the body matters to the whole of the body whether we realize it or not. And every part can open or close the whole to its experience of the life giving force of the breath of God – the Holy Spirit.

That’s how Paul describes the church – a connected body in which every part affects the whole. And here’s the hardest and the most beautiful verse in that whole passage about the Body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

It’s not so hard when we are sharing joys and concerns in worship. It is even more beautiful and rich when we do it during the Agape Prayer Lunch on Wednesdays. It is, however, pretty nearly impossible to for us remember that what hurts you hurts me when we get beyond our closest circles. At least it feels that way to me.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I make it that way in my mind because of the way the church in North America seems to be competing over a dwindling number of people who are interested in experiencing God through weird language and music that most people do not use or listen to anywhere else. 

Maybe it would be easier if I took seriously the words of Jesus who walked into the temple and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. These were loaded words that had to do with a flipping of social order and the forgiveness of debt, and even the healing of blindness and the release of prisoners. And as crazy as all of that sounded, Jesus went a little further and said, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What would it look like to live like we believe those words? It might make us think about our finances and how they demonstrate our values and priorities. It might make us think about our more personal debts and our need to forgive and be forgiven. It might make us decide that we can and must find a way to live as people released from captivity and blindness. It might make us decide to do everything we can to help release others from the bonds of poverty, or alcoholism, or whatever keeps them from loving as they are loved.

It might make you want to enter the holy places and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I saw someone doing it on TV the other day – during the X-Games, no less. Maybe it isn’t a traditional place of worship, but sporting arenas are definitely centers of value in our culture. Anyway, after every event, all of these adrenaline amped snow boarders and trick skiers and snow mobile daredevils waved logos in front of the camera for cash from sponsors. All except one. 

Olympic Gold Medalist, Kelly Clark, had one logo that stood out above the rest. It simply said, “Jesus. I can’t hide my love.” Turns out that she is also a philanthropist and has a foundation that offers opportunities for underprivileged kids to grow and be challenged through the sport of snow boarding.

Now, we can’t all do things like that, obviously, but we can allow the love of God to confront us. We can decide to be guided by scripture in our lives. We can realize that we are only as strong as we are diverse. We can realize that the Body of Christ has no spare parts, and that we each have a part to play in remaining open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through this body. 

I can’t say exactly how that will look in your life. It might inspire you to make some Easter baskets for needy children, or contribute to the renovation of the nursery, or any number of things that are going on here or any number of things that have been here before. Better still, it could be something entirely new that God has never done here before but really wants to.

Whatever God is calling you to do and to become, be encouraged that God is calling you.  God is calling you to be the Body of Christ and to see redemption taking place. And when you see it, you will hear the words of Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.
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