Tuesday, January 26, 2016

No Spare Parts

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 that we hold on to because they might be useful someday – 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. Those who remained in the city during the exile 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 – particularly since that meant that some of them would want their land back.

In comes Nehemiah, who has been charged by the Syrian King to fortify Jerusalem, and he finds that – not surprisingly – the influence of foreign wives and children remained. So, when they heard the Word of God and its 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 believed that their wives and children who were not Jews were more at risk with them than they would be without them. The beautiful thing in all of this is the response of grace and mercy that is offered to them. Ezra, the priest, 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. The joy of loving sacrificially – even though it hurts to do it – is what will carry you through.
To those who say that the concept of grace was not around in the old testament, I say look no further than Nehemiah 8. Here we see that 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.

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 body whether we realize it or not. And every part can open or close the whole body to its experience of the life giving force of the breath of God – which is the Holy Spirit, the giver of gifts of grace.

That’s why Paul describes the church as 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 to do that 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 for us – when we get beyond our closest circles – to remember that what hurts you hurts me.

We get so busy. We get so convinced that our way is the right way, and that we are not guilty of causing pain and suffering because we are not trying to hurt anyone. And yet it seems that the Body of Christ that is the church is less and less concerned with becoming involved in the solution to social ills. We become divided over politics rather than interested in what makes for a just society. We assume that all are treated fairly because that is the intent behind our legal code. All the while, what really has the church in North America busy is a competition over attracting a dwindling number of people who might be interested in experiencing God through the language and music that we use to encounter God – even though the language and music we use is rarely used or listened to anywhere outside of the church.

Of course the opposite extreme is to throw everything out and buy a drum kit. While that may work for some, I think what matters most is that we turn to scripture. We need to be grounded in an understanding of God’s expectations and God’s gracious love and God’s calling to experience and explore and express God’s love together.

Even more, we need to take seriously the words of Jesus who walked into the temple and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. Those 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. It was based in a concept of Jubilee that reset the stage every 50 years so that everyone would know that God was God and they were not. 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 these words? These words call us to think about our finances and how they demonstrate our values and priorities. They call us to think about our more personal debts and our need to forgive and be forgiven. These words compel us to live as people released from captivity and blindness. They compel us to do what we can to help release others from the bonds of poverty, or alcoholism, or racial inequality, or whatever keeps them from knowing themselves as God’s beloved.

These words might even make you want to enter the holy places and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I actually saw someone doing that on YouTube the other day – in a coffee house, no less. Maybe it isn’t a traditional place of worship, but coffee houses are definitely centers of community and value in our culture. Anyway, in this one particular venue they have a dancing barista. Actually there is more than one. One of them is just a nice guy who wanted to brighten people’s day. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The one that I think proclaims the gospel is a guy named Sam. He’s a teenager with autism who never thought he would be able to have a job. Sam’s autism causes him to shake and spasm at times. You might think that becoming a barista and working with hot liquids is a bad idea, but his manager saw something else. He saw Sam’s movement as a kind of dance. Instead of expecting him to act like everyone else, he realized that Sam’s movements were connected to expression, communication, and functionality. Part of the lore connected to the story is that Sam even says that he feels that his life has meaning now.

We may not all have opportunities to lift others up like that, but we can all allow the love of God to confront us. We can decide to be guided by scripture in our lives. We can realize that we – the sacred community that is the church – are only as strong as we are diverse. We can realize that the Body of Christ has no spare parts. We can know that we each have a part to play in keeping the church 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. I know one person who recently responded to God’s grace by making an intentional effort to say hello to a woman wearing a burka in the grocery store, and then another who gave a refuge child a bike, and another that fed a man’s family after he mowed her lawn. For you, it might be as simple as bringing in some peanut butter for the U.C.O. or some shoes for Souls 4 Soles, or writing a note or visiting one of our elderly members. Maybe you will become involved in one of our current ministry partnerships like Meals on Wheels or the Wesley Campus Ministry. Better still, God may be inspiring you to encourage us to do something new that this congregation has never done before but really wants to.

Whatever God is calling you to do and to become, be encouraged that God is calling you. Some will be messengers, some truth tellers, and some teachers. Some will work miracles. Some will heal. Some will speak languages yet unknown, and some will interpret. Above all, know that God is calling us to be the Body of Christ and to see redemption taking place. And when we see it, we will hear the words of Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.

Friday, January 22, 2016

We Can Be Heroes

The new year has dawned, and one of the things that strikes me as interesting is how much loss I have seen expressed at the beginning of the year. Not only have there been a few deaths in our congregation and with some of our close members and friends, but there have been a few famous actors and entertainers that have died.

I have never been one for the worship of stars, and so I found it interesting how moved I was when I heard of David Bowie’s passing. Sure, he may have encouraged us to get to the church on time, but I think it was his creative spirit and his encouragement to embrace change that inspired me as a kid. In the midst of that change there was also the claim that we could be heroes – just for one day. Even knowing that our heroics may only matter in the moment we act and with the person we’re with doesn’t stop us from being heroes.

And who doesn’t want to be a hero – or at least, who wouldn’t love to be thought of as a hero? We have a broad notion of what it means to be a hero in our culture. For some, being a hero means taking a courageous stand and becoming an example for others to follow. For others, it means literally laying down your life for someone else. Sometimes we even use the term pretty loosely to encourage someone or to thank someone for helping us when we need it most.

Beyond the basic idea of heroes, you could argue that something about the human experience has always longed for someone outside of our situation to come and save us. I recently read a blog post asking for help in understanding the origins of the superhero myth, and one of my favorite responses was the faithful person who said, “Surely Jesus is a shoo in?”

Of course Jesus is the one we look to as we long for a savior, and through him we have a unique understanding of what God is doing in the world. It is through understanding Jesus as Savior that we reclaim the passionate belief of God’s activity expressed in the Psalms of David, because it is through Jesus that we have an understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit of God.

Now, that may be some fairly familiar language, but I wonder how seriously we take it? I think we can sometimes be guilty of relegating the Holy Spirit to the historical actions of Pentecost (or “red dress Sunday” as my sister used to call it). And I think that is why Paul sets us straight at the beginning of this passage. “Let’s be clear about Spiritual things,” is how he begins. And then he says that no one can call Jesus ‘accursed’. Well, how weird is that? Who would do that?

First off, the word we translate as “accursed” is “anathema” which means separated from God. Likewise, in Deuteronomy it says, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on from a pole.” And so some may have thought of Jesus as being apart from God, and Paul wanted the church in Corinth to know that there is a deeper love – a greater power – than those that crucified Jesus. In fact, it is this idea of a crucified God that is so hard for some to swallow, but it is only through the crucifixion of Jesus that we can fully see the power of God’s love. And God’s love is unending and unyielding.

And it is because of that love that any of us have the ability to believe in Jesus and call him Lord. In fact, the actions of this love – which we may also call the Holy Spirit of God – results in different types of gifts that we may use to develop different ways to do God’s work together. For we have been given gifts to use them to demonstrate God’s unending and unyielding love.

These “charismata” – or gifts of grace – are not like any other. They aren’t limited to our natural abilities or even our desires. They are of God. Surely we can learn more about them and use them more or less effectively, but the point of the passage is that these are essentially “of God.”

Imagine there is a package before you. What is in there waiting to be released, and how do we even understand these gifts at all? Well, the first thing is to remember that this gift isn’t just given to you for you. It is given to you for the good of all, for the common good. And so, the first question is not “What did I get?” or “Where do I put in the batteries?” The first question is “How do I use this with others?”

Most likely your gift won’t work without anyone to share it with anyway. So, do you have wisdom? According to Paul, wisdom is found in the cross, and that means interpreting the day’s events according to that one event. Do you have knowledge? Do you know what is of God and what is not? Knowing doctrine is a good thing, but this is about something more. The gift of knowledge includes the ability to see consistently what is in keeping with the character of God in order to help us reflect the character of God. With accusations of cultural faith being made by Christians about other Christians, we need those who can help us navigate based on our ability to reflect the heart of God.

What about faith? Can you provide assurance in the midst of doubt? So often we see doubt as the enemy of faith, yet God is larger than our questions and often meets us in the space between doubt and fear. We need people who can assure us, even in the midst of doubt and fear. The list goes on with those that heal, and with miracle workers who look at the word impossible and see it – in the words of Audrey Hepburn – as “I’m possible.”

It includes prophets that speak the truth in love, and those who are able to help us discern whether we are more motivated by our own concerns or by the things that matter most to God. It includes those that speak in thoughts and ideas that must be interpreted by others, and we are promised those interpreters as well.

I must confess that in all of this list it is hard not to think, “What did I get?” and then to try to pick out the color and size that best suits me. But God doesn’t work that way. These gifts are given by God for common use, so it’s most likely that you’ll find your gift through our fellowship together. It’s most likely that your gift won’t be seen by you as much as it will be by someone else. More than all of this, your gift won’t be activated – it will have no power source – apart from the Holy Spirit of God.

But don’t worry. These are gifts of grace. There’s nothing that you can add to it. There’s nothing that can take away from it. And what God has given you is enough. It’s enough to make you seek the fellowship of other believers. It’s enough to empower you to contribute to the work of the church to glorify God and to work to restore God’s creation. It’s enough to leave you unsettled over the work to be done, and it’s enough to assure you that you can be a hero – even just for one day – because of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who surely is a shoo in for our understanding of salvation.

If you don’t believe that you can be a hero – or that we have too much against us as a congregation – I want to assure you that your church council, the Session, thinks differently of you. Every year I ask them where they have seen God’s activity over the last year, and every year I have to cut them off so that we can move on to finding new ways to be open to God’s activity. They celebrated our long standing relationship with C.U.P.S., and our hope for future opportunities of mutual support. They celebrated our collections of Peanut Butter for the U.C.O. They celebrated our Advent study, new collections of shoes through Soles for Soles, our new and developing youth ministry, and our partnerships with others to provide meals and compassion to the elderly of our community. They celebrated our relationships through the Presbytery and recent opportunities to contribute to ministry that impact our region and even further into the world. And not only these things, but we talked about the need to remain better connected with homebound members, challenges that we are facing with our building, and our responsibility to use our gifts to reach out into the community and answer the call of Christ to demonstrate love and justice and righteousness!

Yes, this year is off to a good start. At times we will feel overwhelmed, but the important thing to remember is that God’s grace – and through it the gifts we have been given – is enough. And the best way to open that package and use that gift is to gather in fellowship with other believers and ask ourselves what we can do for the common good – not just you and me – for God is in the business of saving all of creation. That includes you and me, and us and them, and all for the glory of God! Amen.

The Work of Christmas

Just when you thought the feasting of the holidays was over, we have come to worship God today and found an all-you-can-eat buffet of spiritual food. Our plates are filled with the promise of restoration, the baptism of Jesus, and the promise of the Holy Spirit – and it’s not even Lent, let alone Pentecost! And even while we load our plate with these delicacies, we know we must save room for the impact of ordaining Church Officers and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is communion.

That’s a pretty full plate, and yet these ideas and experiences are all important for the nurture of our faith. No matter where we are in our walk of faith, we always need to be fed and encouraged – for there is work to be done. We have lives to live for the glory of God, and we have a certain freedom from sin that needs to be experienced and shared in order for it to be real. This is what Howard Thurman called, “The Work of Christmas”.

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart."

It is true that the Christmas season has passed, and with it the work of preparation was gathered into bags of spent wrapping paper. The work of putting away decorations may or may not be finished, but that is not the work of Christmas. The work of Christmas is God’s project of restoration that we are invited into through the baptism of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

That is why our readings begin with God’s promise of restoration for the people of Israel. While the Prophet Isaiah certainly had a particular vision of what it meant for God to restore Israel, we tend to broaden this promise when we hear it. Truth be told, we are more likely to assume this vision means that we will replace them as God’s beloved. For our purposes today, I think the central teaching and the power behind this text is found where God says in v. 4 “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

God is talking to the people of Israel whom God has covenanted to love – and essentially to love them more than anyone else. For God said, “I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” Yet we know that this covenant has been broadened through Jesus Christ so that all may be included. And we see God’s radical inclusion in the story of God’s acceptance of those dastardly Samaritans. The Samaritans were the ones who attempted to set up an alternate temple to the one in Jerusalem – not just as another option, but as the central conduit for God. They were understood as the example of self-serving faith. They were not just “outside of the covenant”. To the Jews, the Samaritans represented the rejection of God’s covenant.

And it is to these people that Phillip went to proclaim repentance and mercy and forgiveness – and even they could understand that! Of course they could. Who wouldn’t? And because of them, we can hear God responding to our fears over those that we believe to be unlovable. And God says, “Yeah. I love them, too.” Because of this story about the power of the Holy Spirit we can hear God speaking to us when we feel unlovable, broken, and lonely by saying, “Yeah. I love you, too.”

We see this love expressed most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And today we celebrate the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, because it is the beginning of our ministry as well. The ministry of Jesus began with baptism, and so our ministry as followers of Jesus begins with our own baptism. Even though we don’t actually “see” Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel, it is clearly the baptism of John that calls for repentance. What’s also interesting is that the Holy Spirit comes afterward, in response to prayer. Likewise, with the Samaritan believers, the Holy Spirit is received through prayer and the laying on of hands. In both cases, it is not the effectiveness of the prayers that cause the action of God. Instead, it is the aligning of their wills with God’s will that allows them to experience God’s active presence.

What’s important here is that the baptism of Jesus starts a new thing. Before Jesus, baptism was a recognition of human actions. After Jesus it has become a recognition of what God has done. Before it was a baptism of water. Now, in the words of Will Willimon, “The baptism of Jesus, is with water and the Spirit as a sign of God's presence and activity…Jesus is the sign of the presence of God. God's Spirit rests on him. The Spirit testifies to all the world who Jesus is…The Holy Spirit permeates the Christian existence, begins the Christian's pilgrimage, and leads us daily, tugging at our lives until they be fully turned toward God.”

So it is with our church officers this day. Today we will elect and install individuals who have been tugged by God to turn more fully toward God. Truly we do this as an expression of the belief that God is tugging on all of us together, and that it is through these leaders that we may come to understand how best to serve God. Electing Ruling Elders to govern our shared life of faith and Deacons to encourage our care of others is what makes us disciples of Jesus who are also Presbyterian. Being part of the PC(USA) anchors us in the reformed tradition of faith, and it extends our ministry to people and places we could never impact on our own.

And so we talk about the Holy Spirit of God as “indwelling” throughout the church and present in our relationships. We see the activity of God through the willingness of spiritual leaders and the work and worship of our community of disciples.

Yes, the work of Christmas has begun, and it is here in this place that we come together to experience conflict and reconciliation so that we can say to the world, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” For we have been baptized – and we offer a baptism – that not only includes the Holy Spirit of God but even the fire of purification.

Maybe you were hoping I would skip that part, but John promised a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that would burn away the chaff – the part of the wheat that was not useful. While it may be that God will separate people individually into those who have behaved or performed well and those who have not, I think there is a more practical application for the idea of the wheat and the chaff. It seems to me that as we grow and age, God constantly removes from us those things that keep us from experiencing God’s presence.

Whether we choose to see it or not, God is in the business of moving us evermore toward a more perfect reflection of God. I don’t mean to say that God is some bizarre, cosmic, narcissist. I mean that we are created in the image of God, and that God is constantly perfecting us so that we may reflect the character of God. So that even you and I can help

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

This is the work of Christmas that has now begun. Our Officers will encourage our work, but certainly it is our great joy to reflect the heart of God together! To that end we are called, tugged, made pure, gathered, and formed by the Holy Spirit as a people of God. Amen.