Filed under: Uncategorized
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Every year, our health benefit provider encourages all the clergy to do some sort of activity to make us healthier, and thereby cheaper to insure. Usually these activities try to tackle some sort of unhealthy habit by substituting a new one. They say that after six weeks, you’ve developed a new habit. It takes that long of consistently doing something before our previous pattern can be re-written.
Sometimes we live in a rut. Our way of living, of acting and reacting, get comfortable, and we get stuck. We keep doing the same things over and over again, and they become a habit. It’s hard to get enough momentum to break out of the rut we’ve worn.
When we open the Bible, we find God’s people in the ruts they’ve created. We meet a God who breaks into our routine to bring us into a new way of being. We find people much like us, who struggle with their own habits, their own assumptions of the way things are. And we can wonder if God might be about to bring us up into something new, too.
From the Old Testament, we meet the prophet Jonah. Jonah’s job is to speak the word of God to people. Rather than the prophet’s usual job of speaking to God’s people, this time the prophet is sent to those people- people who aren’t God’s people. He’s God’s messenger, but when we meet him, he isn’t willing to carry God’s message. God wants Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that God is about to destroy them because of their sin. Jonah has no desire to preach to the people of Nineveh. He has no desire to give them the opportunity to repent. He sees no reason God should care about those people whose very way of living, very identity, makes them “not God’s people.”
Jonah has worn a rut of hatred towards the people of Nineveh. People in his culture believe the people of Nineveh are bad people. They are sinners, they do things wrong, they live horribly. They deserve punishment.
When God changes God’s mind and goes back on his word that punishment is coming to the Ninevites, Jonah is so angry, he wishes he were dead. Jonah can’t imagine living in a world where those people are forgiven. He can’t imagine God would care so much about them.
The book of Jonah ramps up the imagery. All the hyperbole in the story can make it laughable- but even as we chuckle over Jonah’s “I’m so angry I could die”- we catch ourselves wondering if we might not have worn our own paths of hatred or prejudice. Who is it we can’t imagine God caring about- who’s not worthy to be a part of our community of chosen people?
Who are our Ninevites? Maybe you, too, can’t imagine living in a world where those people are forgiven, a church where those people are welcome- Those blacks. Those complainers. Those gays. Those elders. Those feminists. Those conservatives. Those disabled. Like Jonah’s community, we’ve made a habit of lumping people together with one identifying factor and summarily deciding they are bad people. Those people.
Or maybe those people have specific faces. They are the people who have done something against you. What hurts do you relive over and over again to wear a pathway towards quick judgment? Easy anger? Your memory wears a grudge.
Imagine a soft road, maybe a country gravel road after a rainstorm. The cars and trucks that drive over it leave behind a rut where their tires have compressed the ground. The next cars that follow will likely follow in that path, and it will be difficult if they have to turn out of it, because they have to break out of the lip that’s formed. This happens to us, too. Our brains actually work like this. We make connections in our brains. The more often we make those connections, the stronger the connections become and the faster the connection is.
So if you have a certain judgment of a person or a group of people, and you keep thinking that way, it becomes easier and easier to associate that person and that label. Or if you have had a bad experience with someone, and you keep reliving that experience and telling yourself how horrible that person was for wronging you, it becomes much more difficult to see anything good in that person.
How can we possibly escape from this well-worn path of sin? God alone has the power to pull us out, into a new way of living.
Other books in the Bible encourage us into the new now. First Corinthians and Mark both have an urgency to their words. They are meant to shake us out of our habits to see that God’s kingdom is here, now, and we’d better get moving to live like we’re ready for it.
Through First Corinthians, we glimpse the urgency of the early church. People believed Jesus was returning at any moment. When Jesus declared that the kingdom of God had come near, and then promised to return after his death and resurrection, people believed him. The end of the world as they knew it was at hand. So, all those things that occupy our time, that use our resources, that affect our emotions, and use our energy might as well be cast aside- they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Everything that identifies a person is set aside, except for their relationship to the community of faith and to God. All that matters is being prepared to welcome Jesus and to live into the new kingdom God is creating.
These readings challenge our historic church. People have been gathering here at Cross for 137 years. That’s a history in which we’ve accumulated a lot of “we’ve always done it this ways.” We can get into a rut of thinking that the way we’ve always done things is the only way it can be done. There’s some safety in that- we know it works, or at least it works enough. We know how to do it. We know our place- what our role is to make it happen. It’s “tried and true” – no need to wait and see if it will “stand the test of time.” At a time when so much in our world seems to be changing so quickly, people want to have stability at church. We want it to be comfortable.
But making us comfortable isn’t what the Bible shows us as God’s goal. Think about Simon and Andrew, James and John- they had pretty much established their life path. Maybe not the easiest work, but it was comfortable in the sense that they knew they were fishermen, they had trained for it, they had an idea of what their future was going to look like. Then this Jesus comes up to them, calling them to be a part of his ministry, his bringing the kingdom of God- and they leave behind their known life to follow him. Jesus inspires a response. The disciples are able to leave their daily routine to be about new work.
Sometimes God enters our lives and changes our course. At other times, our lives change course, and God uses us in our new place.
As college students return for spring semester, you may feel like you have to figure your life out- and if you fail life is over. As other approach mid-life, or a sudden change in career, you can feel uncertain as to what is next. As elders set aside some tasks, you can wonder about your purpose. God uses us to carry on the proclamation of forgiveness, welcome, and love. Wherever life finds you, Jesus is there, and Jesus needs you to join in his ministry.
When we encounter God, we will change. We will change because our natural way of being is stuck in sin. God works to break down ways of thinking that exclude.
Our tendency is to hold on to grudges, to push different people away, and to maintain the status quo even when it’s not life-giving. That doesn’t mean that connecting with God has to be feared because of its instability. God is constantly faithful. It’s that faithfulness, that grace given to you, that will slowly and surely change you. God’s love will make you more loving. This is the promise God speaks to you through the scripture. The more you become familiar with the Bible, the clearer you will hear that. Even though our known way of worship or society has and will change, God’s power to give life, meaning, and forgiveness does not. The world may shift, God may reveal new ways of being, but still, God will forever act in love towards you and all creation.
Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
What’s the point of church?
Or more precisely, why do we have to have a congregation?
Since the beginning, the people of God have gathered together, and since that very beginning, there’s been trouble.
Especially in smaller churches, we like to quote the gospels, saying, “where two or more are gathered” Jesus is with them. But another parable that might hit home is “it takes two to tango.” There’s no friction when you’re alone. Only peace when you sit alone in your sacred space, reading what you want, praying what you want, believing what you want, finishing when you want.
It’s hard to be together as a community. We might wonder how much we have to hold in common- or how little we can hold in common, before our differences break us apart. Even though statistics say that the church hour is one of the most segregated hours of our week, we know that being a congregation means sitting side by side with people who don’t live, work, believe, or act the same way. Surely it would be a lot more uplifting to simply practice our faith alone!
To do it all on our own makes sense in our American, individualistic culture. But it isn’t the culture God wishes to form. The Greek word often used for the Christian community is ekkelsia- the called out ones. We are called out, brought out, of our solitary lives, of our closed cliques, of our personal choices, to be the people of God together. Congregations are a necessary unit for the people of God.
Three functions of the congregation come out in our readings for Sunday. Of course there are many others, but these three are as good a place to start as any. The community disciples, fosters accountability, and speaks truth.
The community makes disciples.
We hear the core phrase of discipleship in action from John: “Come and see.” With those three words, the movement of Christ-followers begins- and it snowballs from there! Jesus first utters these words, but then they are repeated on Philip’s lips, and you can imagine this invitation echoing throughout a town as they begin to see the miraculous things Jesus is doing.
“Come and see” is an invitation to an encounter. It’s the method through which the church grows. One person meets Jesus, thinks he has something to offer, and invites another person to meet Jesus for herself. That person gets to know Jesus, recognizes the power of God in him, and invites her neighbor to meet Jesus for himself. Pretty soon there are crowds following Jesus.
Today, the community continues to disciple in this way. Some of you are here at Cross because you had a friend who invited you to “come and see” their congregation- a place where they had encountered Jesus. The community makes others disciples, other followers of Jesus, by inviting people to experience Jesus as part of the community who gather around Jesus.
First Samuel offers another image of discipling. Samuel lives, works, and trains under the priest Eli, in the temple. Eli is a mentor to Samuel. Eli teaches Samuel everything he knows about being a priest, including how to recognize and respond to God’s voice. At Cross, we disciple through mentorship in formal ways with our youth: in Sunday School and through Prayer Partners. But even as adults, you disciple through your faithful living and sharing your stories- those moments of recognizing God- with each other. It was so beautiful to hear a witness to those who have discipled during the Thankoffering service this fall. Sunday School students are probably more eager to write thank you cards to their teachers at the end of the year, but we adults would do well to recognize those who have helped encourage us in faith. You might be surprised by the people who have been strengthened through your witness.
The second function of the community is to hold people to account. That might sound a little more strict than our experience, so think of it as: we help each other live as the people of God. What we do doesn’t buy our salvation, but it does reflect on the community and on God.
The church in Corinth, about which we read in First and Second Corinthians, was a church like so many others: deeply divided and conflicted. They had a hard time figuring out how to live their faith. They had a hard time learning to be a community together, often trying to separate rich from poor, powerful from weak. They didn’t know how much their community should look like any other gathering in their culture.
That’s the issue we hear about in today’s selection. You might imagine Paul’s stern voice: “It might be that normal gatherings at Corinth have prostitutes, but that’s not what you people of God are about.” Or to us: “Maybe other bachelor parties end up at the strip club in Lebanon, but not ones whose marriages are blessed here.”
Basically, the message of First Corinthians is that the church exists as a community of people helping each other live as people freed from the binding role of the law, while ensuring that their actions reflect the love and care that is due all creation. Just because Jesus has saved you and you’re going to heaven, doesn’t mean that you make this life hell for yourself and others. This life matters. When we’re faced with so many choices of how we’ll live, what we’ll do with our time and our resources, how we’ll choose what is right, the community can become a place of discernment. We give each other wisdom. We remind each other of our call to live as Jesus, for the sake of the world. We gather for fun that is life-giving rather than damaging. We provide opportunities for each other to live in joy and service for the sake of a world we know God loves.
Finally, the community speaks truth. Back to that story from First Samuel. So often we use this text as a reflection on how we hear God’s voice, and an encouragement to respond to God’s call. But did you catch what God told Samuel to do? This kid has to tell his teacher that God is angry with the way he and his sons have been living, and punishment is coming their way. Samuel is reluctant to tell this all to Eli, but Eli shows his faith and his wisdom by asking for God’s word.
One of the most sticky and difficult roles of the congregation is working through issues together. When complaints arise in our congregation, or when an issue in our culture touches the way we live, we wrestle together with it, through God’s presence and God’s word. This is so hard to do! It’s one of the most counter cultural things we can do as a congregation: to choose to deeply listen to the experience and wisdom of another, to set aside our own emotions, and to pray side by side with those with whom we disagree, trusting that God will show us God’s will. In other instances, it might mean that we hear some way our actions are hurting others. It is so difficult to hear someone else speak of our failures, and to have the courage to say I’m sorry, and to try to change. The beautiful thing about a congregation is that our worship included a time in which we all declare our sin. Not one of us is perfect- and we’re not afraid to say it. We say this truth about ourselves, so that we can experience reconciliation, healing, in our relationships with one another, just as Jesus has given us reconciliation in our relationship with God.
These are just some of the functions that the gathered community of Christ-followers performs: things that couldn’t happen if we practiced our faith in isolation. But the answer to the why we have Christian community is simple. Jesus forms community. Through his ministry, and especially on the cross, and in his resurrection, Jesus brings people together. Jesus makes one what was once divided and multiple. (“Through (Jesus) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” Col 1:20 Ephesians 4:4 “There is one body and one spirit”
It’s not up to us to decide if we have enough in common to hold us together, Jesus has decided to make us one. What Jesus wills is accomplished.
As we look forward to our annual meeting: remember that the business of the congregation serves God’s purposes in the world. Our business: our finances, our structure, our building- all these things exist to serve in the mission of God. They aren’t goals in themselves. Congregations, communities of people called out of their daily lives and into relationship with each other and God, are a part of the way God is working in our world. Cross has been a faithful participant in this work. But it’s not the only place, and maybe not the only place you’ll be nourished. We’re called to steward this community for this season, listening to hear where God might call us to work, always seeking for how God might use us today.
The congregation is a glimpse into God’s kingdom, here and now. When we gather around the Table, we are feasting in Jesus’ presence. Your tablemates are people God has chosen and claimed, forgiven and died for. The unity of our community, despite our diversity, is a reminder Jesus unites us with people of all nations and times. This is the place where God comes to us: through water, Word, wine and bread. Let us give thanks for the gift of this community.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
During this holiday season, people get together with friends and family, some whom they’ve known for years and years. The other week, I went back to Racine, to celebrate a friend’s upcoming marriage. There were people there I hadn’t seen in fourteen years. You may have been reunited with people you haven’t seen in many more years than that.
This reuniting got me thinking- how do we recognize people?
Do you prepare for a reunion by scanning through the old yearbook? Do you prep your spouse to introduce himself in hopes of having that person with whom you spent your entire school career say his name?
Is it what people wear or what they’re doing? When you’re used to seeing someone dressed up for church and then you bump into her at the grocery store in their cap and sweats, does it take a moment longer to place her?
The beginning of the Gospel of John introduces the Word of God, and identifies this Word as Jesus Christ. In these early verses, the gospel lays out the problem: the Word of God isn’t recognized. Even though the creation- all people- should have known Jesus was the Word of God, had come from God, and was the one in whom they had been created and given life- they didn’t recognize who Jesus is. Not even the people who were looking for Jesus knew him for who he is.
Jesus doesn’t appear as his people expected, so they missed out on recognizing him. They missed out on knowing him because they couldn’t believe that Jesus really was the one sent from God.
We carry around an image of each person we know, and it’s jarring when the person in front of us doesn’t match. This can be incredibly painful, as in the first time I visited my grandmother in the nursing home after her stroke and saw her body drastically changed. It can lead to laughter, as when I came home to a new haircut and Laila declared, “you look strange!” Mostly, it’s just confusing, when we think we know what someone is like and they end up being different.
That was the problem for the people of God. They had this image of God- this image of the messiah, the one God would send to save them- and it didn’t look like a baby born in a manger, or a carpenter’s son, or a roaming teacher with a ragtag following of disciples. God certainly wouldn’t look like a criminal, rejected even by his friends, dying on a cross.
We’re at an advantage to those who lived what the gospels record. They didn’t have the whole story, written for the purpose of showing us who Jesus is. Still, I wonder if there might be some identification challenge waiting for us. The gospel declares, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11). These words hang as a warning and judgment to us. Could it be that we might still be in danger of not knowing the God who comes to us?
How can we grow into people who recognize and accept the God who comes to us?
If the problem of the original people of God was that their image of God didn’t allow for them to equate Jesus with God, then we ought to start with our own images of God. What does God look like to you? What does God do or not do?
If you’ve never thought about it before, it would be good to spend some time in prayer this week, considering how you image God. What has founded that image? Is there fear or judgment? Love and acceptance? Human features or a blank canvas?
We live in an age when more people identify as spiritual and not religious. Sometimes that comes from a place of being hurt by the institutional church, or not wanting others to dictate their faith. For some, this reflects our deeply individualistic culture, in which we have a right to believe in whatever kind of God we want. God is big enough to encompass many images.
Not every image of God, or place in which we might think we’d find God is equally valid. Christian community and history help us claim worthwhile images of God. The Bible tempers our vision, shattering images we’ve drawn of God that look too much like ourselves and our own priorities. Still, the Bible isn’t our God. No matter how much we study, memorize, or otherwise pour over our Bibles to try to find the answers to our greatest questions or direction for our lives, we cannot pin God down to its pages.
Scripture points to God, but does not fully contain God. God- the Word of God- is greater than the words on the page. The Word of God is alive. The written Word of God, the preached Word of God, are expressions of God, but the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the primary Word of God, through whom God is most fully revealed.
If we’re looking for God, we need to begin with Jesus. Jesus shows us who God is. If we’re trying to find Jesus, we need to begin at the cross. On the cross Jesus shows us most clearly who he is: the One who comes for you, to heal you and bring you back into relationship with God, no matter the cost.
The cross is the place where God is revealed. Yet even there, God is hidden, hidden behind our expectations of who God is and how God acts. God is hidden behind our fear to face our own death and sin. As we look at the cross to recognize the Word of God, we can also want to divert our eyes. It’s hard and yet beautiful to accept that God would choose to suffer for you. But if we can open our eyes, we will see a promise of love.
Once we have recognized Jesus on the cross, we begin to gain a clearer sight. We recognize God is one who tears down all walls, breaks all boundaries, and shatters convention and expectation in order to love and give life to us and to all creation. We see the Word of God working through those people around us who continue Jesus’ work. We hear the word of God when words of reconciliation and healing are spoken.
We also begin to glimpse the answer to that big question: where is God when we can’t seem to find him. On the cross, Jesus definitively declares: “I am the God who comes for you, who remains with you even to the depths of despair, and who will bring you into hope again, as I have been brought out of death.” Even when joy, hope, and health seem far away, Jesus is near. One day, Jesus will bring life that will never end.
Whether known or unknown, recognized or ignored, Jesus comes. One day Jesus will be known, will be revealed, and we will no longer wonder if we have seen him correctly. Until that day, may your eyes be open and eager for sightings of God. Hold tightly onto the image of the one who has come for you, has gone through suffering for you, and has been brought into new life in order to bring you with him. Jesus on the cross is your guiding image. Recognize Jesus in places of hope, in moments of selflessness, and in acts of love. Jesus longs for you to be aware of his love, and to remember his work of creating and redeeming you. May you have the joy of recognizing this one who has come for you.