Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…

You Don’t Have To…

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On January 22, 2017 we considered the tremendous power that our own desire has over us… and the ways that we are free to choose otherwise.  Our texts included I Samuel 24 and Romans 12:14-21.

This week we will return to our year-long exploration of some of the stories surrounding David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be the greatest King that Israel ever had. When we last saw David, he was in a difficult spot: King Saul was breathing down his neck and the residents of the town of Keilah as well as the inhabitants of Ziph had just thrown him under the bus by telling Saul exactly where David and his men could be found. Just as Saul and his army were closing in, however, there was an attack from the Philistines and Saul had to leave David to attend to that matter of national security.

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

Our reading for today begins with a description of a renewed manhunt by Saul and 3000 of Israel’s elite fighters. They’ve come into the wilderness to put an end to David once and for all. The problem is that David and his men have had time to hide in the caves that dot that part of the countryside. During a lull in the search, Saul ducks into the nearest cave to take care of some urgent business. As fate would have it, the cave that he chooses for his toilet is the same cave in which David and his men are hiding out.

While the king squats in what must have been an extremely vulnerable position, David’s men goad him to action. “Now’s your chance!” they say. “Time to do what you want to this so-called king!”

Emboldened by his men, David creeps up on the unsuspecting Saul and cuts off a corner of his robe. The reason for this is unclear: he may want to toy with Saul a bit, or scare him, or even emasculate him by demonstrating the amount of power he has over the king. But something happens. There is a change of heart. We read that David was “conscience-stricken” and says to himself and his men, “No! I’m not going to do this. I want to – but I won’t! I’m supposed to be better than this…”

David takes it a step further when he calls out to Saul – “My lord, the king”, he says. He tells Saul what he did, and what he wanted to do, and then he says, “But may the Lord be our judge.” In doing so, David casts himself onto the Lord’s care. He refuses to trust either his own judgment or his own sword.

Saul is challenged and humbled by this and takes his army home. At the same time, David chooses not to chase Saul, and he does not proclaim victory – he simply returns to “the stronghold”. I take this both physically and metaphorically. On the one hand, it’s clear that he and his men returned to their hideout – back to the place where they’d be able to defend themselves from further attack. But on the other hand, I think it’s a way of saying that David continued to dwell in the safety of God’s promises to and about him. He did not attempt to hurry God into anything, but rather was content to wait with God until the time was right.

I believe that this part of David’s story contains an important word for Christians in the twenty-first century.

In a general sense, I think that this is a compelling and refreshing reminder that you don’t have to do what you want to do. I mean, here is Saul spending all his time telling lies about David, attempting to kill David not once but time and time again, and generally making life hell for David. He’s interfered with David’s closest friendship (Jonathan) and David’s marriage (Michal). All that Saul has done in recent years is seek to diminish or disable David. And so when David’s men say, “Now’s your chance, boss! Do what you want to do!”, well, David wanted to kill Saul.

But he chose not to do that.

Don’t each of us face situations like that all the time? Oh, sure, it may have been a while since your father-in-law stalked you into a cave in the wilderness with 3000 commandos intent on taking your life, but don’t you know something about having to decide whether or not you’re going to act on your first impulse or wait it out so that you can choose something better?

In many ways, you do this every single day: you decide whether to set an alarm or not; you decide whether to get up when it rings; you decide to jump in the shower, have breakfast, and go to school or work… even when you don’t want to do that. You want to stay up late, eat more pizza, watch a couple more episodes on Netflix, and skip work or school. But most days, you choose to do, not what you want to do, but what you ought to do.

Years ago a woman shared with me how messed up her life had become. She had been deeply hurt, and in an effort to anesthetize that pain, she wound up piling bad choice upon bad choice, which led to doing great damage to herself as well as to those who loved her. After we sat for a while, I simply said, “What would happen if you just didn’t go out like that every weekend? You know, if you called a friend and stayed home?”

She sat for a moment, and then said, “Wait… are you saying that I don’t have to do what I want to do?”

Of course not. As you contemplate putting that post on social media, making that sarcastic comment, starting that affair, eating that next donut, or choosing to give into the despair that you fear may be swallowing you whole… you can remember that you don’t have to do any of those things, even if you find that you would really, really want to do them in the moment. You have the power, with God’s help, to make other choices.

Now, having said that, I find that I am drawn particularly to the exchange that David and Saul have here. Not only does David choose to do something other than that which he really wants to do, but in so doing he claims a significant victory over someone who has wounded him personally and deeply. There are many people in the room this morning who have struggled with pain as a result of someone else’s actions or incompetence. It seems to me that there might be a word of release for us in this conversation between the faithless, yet powerful king and the humble and vulnerable young man who is called to replace him.

When David speaks to Saul, he cries out both to and against the king, and then he declares his freedom from that pain as a defining characteristic of his life. David does not allow Saul’s evil to drive himself into a deeper, darker place. Instead, David points out to Saul – in the presence of his men – the fact that Saul has brought great harm into David’s life, and then he trusts in God to bring Saul’s story to an end. It is not David’s role or responsibility to deal ultimately with Saul. David chooses instead to invest himself in hope, trust, and faith.

I thought about this in connection with the recent sentencing of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist who murdered nine African-American worshipers in South Carolina in June 2015. One of the survivors of that attack, Felicia Sanders, addressed Roof after the judge sentenced him to death. In a burst of honesty and vulnerability shaped by her Christian faith, she said, “Yes, I know you. You are in my head. I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t hear an acorn fall out of a tree… Most important, I cannot shut my eyes to pray,” she said. “I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”

Did you hear that? This brave woman stared the one who tried to kill her – while she was shielding her 11-year old granddaughter from the hail of bullets – and named the pain he had caused her. And then she gave him over to God. After her initial comments, she showed those in the courtroom her battered and torn Bible, the same one she carried to that Wednesday night Bible study. The pages had been cleaned of blood, she said, but the words remained intact.

“You can’t help someone who don’t want to help themselves, and that is you,” she said to Roof, adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was slain in the attack, stared at Roof and said, “Dylann, I was very vocal about you not getting the death penalty… I still don’t want you to die. I want you be to be able to sit in that cell.”[1]

Doesn’t that sound like what David said to Saul? “I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.”

Again, I realize that there’s no one here who has been falsely accused of treason and hunted down by a mentally unstable monarch; I don’t believe that any of us have been put in a situation where we’ve had to lay between our grandchildren and the bullets of a psychopath. But I know you. You have been hurt. There was a parent or grandparent or other trusted adult who abused you in some way. You have suffered greatly at the hands of someone you thought was a friend you could trust. You have been betrayed by a sister or brother or colleague. You have felt the ravages of an attack from an enemy.

What did you do? What will you do?

Let me encourage you first, if you’ve not done so already, to get out of that situation. Put yourself in a place where the evil cannot reach you – hide yourself in a cave like David if you must, but do anything you can to diminish that person’s ability to inflict suffering into your life.

And if you’ve done that, then seek healing for the wounds which have been received. This is not a selfish act – instead, you have the responsibility to care for yourself so that you do not unwittingly become a perpetrator of pain in the life of another equally innocent person.

And in doing that, I beg you to not allow yourself to be consumed by the thirst for revenge – as tasty as that sounds in the moment. Give your pain – and the one who caused it – to God. No matter how much you want to do otherwise, choose to be better than the one who harmed you.

We do that by following in the way of David. After this confrontation, Saul called his army and headed for home. David did not chase after him. Instead, we are told simply that “David and his men went up to the stronghold.” When you have done all you can, then hide out in the stronghold of God’s mercy. Invest yourself in the things that bring life and wholeness to other people.

One of the great truths in this life is that we are not prisoners of our own desires. Each and every moment, we are filled with tremendous want. When you sing the last hymn and get up to leave this morning, you’ll have lots of opportunity to give and receive offense. You do not have to do what you really want to do. You can choose to act differently. Look to God, stay with your community of faith, and hide in the stronghold of grace. Thanks be to God for the gifts that allow us to become better people than we really want to be. Amen.

[1] Quotes from “’Justice Has Been Served’, Families Say to Dylann Roof” in USA TODAY, January 11, 2017.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

You’re Killing Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On September 27 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:21-26, while also reading the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

It’s harder than you think.

What is?

Driving. Parking. Bowling. Growing heirloom tomatoes.

Almost everything worthwhile is harder than you think. Much harder. I know, I know, you’ve seen the YouTube video. You’ve checked it out on the Food Network and Pinterest. And it didn’t look like that the first time, did it? Nope.

What you wanted to do...

What you wanted to do…

What you did...

What you did…

 

 

It’s harder than you think. And don’t even get me started about stuff that really matters, like marriage or parenting.

Do you know what else is harder than you think?

Righteousness.

PhariseesLast week, we talked about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were really, really interested in being righteous (or at least they were interested in being seen as being interested in being righteous). They were so obsessed with this, in fact that they came up with a little score card. Do you remember? They said that the Law contained 248 positive commands (such as “honor your father and mother”) and 365 negative prohibitions (such as “thou shalt not murder”). Righteous living, in that understanding, is simply about doing more of the positives and fewer of the negatives. It’s cut and dried, right?

Don’t go there, says Jesus. If you insist on keeping score with God, you will lose. Every time. If you insist that God measure you up, then every single time you’ll find that you are nowhere near holy enough, pure enough, clean enough to get in on your own merits. If you make God keep score, you will always have fewer points than God.

The next section of the Sermon on the Mount, to which we have committed ourselves to studying this year, provides a number of examples wherein Jesus demonstrates the inferiority of the Pharisaical system. In our reading for today, for instance, Jesus brings up the sixth commandment. “You shall not murder”. The Pharisees thought that the Law was pretty simple – it refers only to the act of homicide. As long as you don’t spill any human blood by intentionally wiping out your neighbor, you’re ok. There are sub-categories of killing your neighbor, such as acts of war or capital punishment, but those were apparently to be handled somewhere else in the Law. The Pharisees stance was, as long as you don’t have blood on your hands, God is happy.

It’s not that easy, says Jesus.

The next six passages of the Sermon on the Mount are a wonderful illustration of the ways that Jesus fulfills the prophecy and the promise of Jeremiah. In that book, The Lord looks back to the giving of the Law and says, “Yes, once upon a time I gave them the Law, and I wrote it on stone.” Like the writing on stone, that Law was concrete. It referred to specific acts – external actions – that were done that were easily observable. That Law was a true/false test filled with yes/no answers.

“But in the days that are coming, when I display the fullness of my intentions, says the Lord, the Law will move beyond the letters carved in stone and be written on the hearts and minds of my people. Instead of measuring only external results, my people will come to see that what I really care about are the inner thoughts and motives.”

Do you see? It IS a lot harder.

abstract-artwork-of-a-angry-man-holding-his-head-paul-brownHave you ever killed anyone? Who, me? No way! I’m good. No problems here. Have you ever wanted to? Did you ever feel like knocking someone’s block off? Um, well, sure! Who hasn’t?

The Law that Jesus has come to write on our hearts reveals the truth that anger or sarcasm or cruelty is, essentially, murder. In my anger towards you, I am killing you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

Anger is always an attack on the brother’s life, for it refuses to let him live and aims at his destruction…Every idle word which we think so little of betrays our lack of respect for our neighbor, and shows that we place ourselves on a pinnacle above him and value our own lives higher than his. The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it seeks to hit, to hurt, and to destroy. A deliberate insult is even worse, for we are then openly disgracing our brother in the eyes of the world, and causing others to despise him… We are passing judgment on him, and that is murder.[1]

In my anger, I lose sight of who you are and who you are created to be. In my anger, I marginalize you. When I make you an object of my contempt, I reject the work of God in you. When I pass judgment on you, insult you, or condemn you – then I myself will be condemned.

Seriously? If that’s the case, then I’m in trouble. I mean, who doesn’t get angry? Isn’t Jesus being a little unrealistic here, telling his followers not to be angry?

There’s a little Good News here: Jesus never says “Don’t be angry”. There is no imperative saying “Thou shalt not be angry” or that it’s a sin to feel anger. And if, in fact, Jesus is saying that anger and insults lead directly to Hell, then 1) we are all in trouble and 2) Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard here.

But what if the point of this passage is not to tell us not to get irritated, but rather an invitation to live into a new way of being? What if instead of scolding us for something that is going to happen five or ten times each day, we can hear Jesus offering a set of practices that will transform our lives – and our experience of anger – and our experience of the other.

In verse 21, Jesus gives us the Old Law – the traditional experience of expectation and consequence. In verse 22, he overlays that with the reality that anger and sarcasm and contempt are just as deadly as an axe or a knife. And then in verses 23 – 26, he suggests a way of transforming our angry lifestyle into something that is more in line with God’s eternal intentions.

In verse 21, there is an imperative, a direct command: “thou shall not kill”. In verse 22, there are no commands – merely an observation (the one who is angry will face the same consequences as the one who kills). But verses 23-26 are loaded with imperatives: leave your worship service, go to the one with whom you are in conflict, be reconciled to each other, offer your gift after you offer yourself, and make friends quickly. What Jesus is doing here is radically transforming the experiences that are connected with anger and violence. Jesus “transforms the person who was angry into an active peacemaker; [he] transforms the relationship from one of anger into a peacemaking process; and [he] hopes to transform the enemy into a friend.”[2]

 Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Do you see? The Law that Jesus is offering here in the Sermon on the Mount is not a new system of threats and punishments that make it even harder to be considered righteous. Instead, he seeks to replace the vicious cycle of anger and retribution, of diminishment and one-upsmanship into a lifestyle that is characterized by the practices of peacemaking and grace.

The Old Law, and the one that feels pretty good, frankly, is easier. You hit me, and I hit you harder. You kill me, and I … er, someone else who thinks I’m a nice guy will come and kill you.

The New Law, and the ethic toward which the sermon calls us, is to live into a new and different cycle. The way to enjoy right living with God is to live at peace with the neighbor. And the way that we live at peace with our neighbor is by being right with God.

In a few moments, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s supper. We’ll commemorate the truth that the One who knew no sin, no brokenness, no alienation in fact became sin, brokenness, and alienation in order that we might have unfettered access to our God and Father. The death of Christ brings us to a place of peace before God and paves the way for peace with each other.

So when I am angry with you – as I surely will be – I am called not merely to heap what might very well be justified scorn or bitterness upon your head. No, I am called to recognize my own brokenness, and the ways that that anger reveals me to be one capable of great destruction. And in that calling, I am invited to engage a practice whereby I refuse to live in that anger, and I refuse to pass that anger on. I am called to reject the cycle of anger and violence that leads to diminishment and fragmentation, and instead claim the forgiveness that is offered so freely to me and pass that same forgiveness on to you.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about whose lives matter. Some who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain law enforcement officers have said, “Hey, black lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

Similarly, there are those who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain members of the community that they are called to serve, and they have said, “Hey, police lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

I do not want to suggest that this is a simple issue, but it seems to me that one of the implications of the Sermon on the Mount is that each one of us is called to look the other in the eye and say simply, “You matter.”

You, who were too drunk to drive, but did so anyway… you matter. You, who keyed my new car last week… you matter. You, who preach all about holiness and integrity and cheat on your spouse… you matter. You, who abused me… you matter. You, who wish me harm… you matter.

This is not to say that the actions on which you decided do not matter; nor is it to say that there are not consequences to those actions. But I believe that Jesus calls us to live through our anger into a life that transforms anger and conflict into justice and peace.

TwoWolvesI have mentioned the story of the Old Cherokee who was talking with his grandson. He said, “My son, there is a fight going on inside of me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger and arrogance and self-justification. And the other is good – he is truth and compassion and peace. It is a terrible fight. And it is not only going on inside of me – it is going on inside of you and inside of every person alive.”

The grandson thought about what the old man had said for a moment, and then replied, “But grandfather – which wolf will win?”

The grandfather smiled and said, “The one that I choose to feed.”

You, of course, will be angry. But you don’t have to feed it. You can choose to transform it.

It’s harder than you think.

communion-cup-and-breadIn fact, you better have communion today to remember that you do not face this struggle alone. You better have communion today and remember that God, in God’s goodness and love, is choosing to feed you. Come to the table. Be fed. And feed that which brings us toward life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961) p. 143-144.

[2] Stassen, Glen and Gushee, David, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003) p. 135.

The Vision Test

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 29 came from John 9:35-41 and focused on the day that Jesus healed a blind man and the conversations that ensued.

I am not sure how Google or FaceBook know what they know about me, but something in my internet history seems to indicate that I would be interested in seeing the recent film Unbroken. It’s the true, or at least true-ish, story of a young World War II Airman who is shot down, survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, is captured by the Japanese, and endures some horrific treatment in POW camps.

I have not seen the movie, but it would seem to me that it has something in common with other blockbusters of recent years such as Life of Pi or 127 Hours. In each of these cases, we follow the story of an amazing individual who is lost from society but who somehow holds on through grit, determination, or even cutting off one’s own arm in a desperate attempt to re-enter life, to re-engage the world on one’s own terms, or to succeed. We like those movies, and even if you are not familiar with those particular films, you’ve seen stories like that – we love to make them into movies.

You have not, however, come across the movie version of the day in the fall of 1975 when the AFS club from Cologne, Germany, was visiting the AFS club in Wilmington DE. During that visit, a beautiful young fräulein named Heike had the misfortune to be smitten with a dashing trombone player from Concord High School as we made the obligatory field trip to Washington DC. We may or may not have been whispering sweet nothings to each other and may or may not have been paying close attention to the announcement as to where and when to meet the bus for the trip home. Oddly enough, we did not get on that bus for the trip home until the police picked us up wandering outside the White House looking for a group that was waiting at the US Capital Building.

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

You probably also never saw a film about the family of four who, after having been lost for hours in a corn maze in Massachusetts, called 911 in a panic. “We came in during the day time and we got completely lost and we have no idea where we are,” the caller told the 911 operator.  “I’m really scared. It’s really dark and we’ve got a 3-week-old baby with us… We thought this could be fun.  Instead it’s a nightmare”. A rescue unit, complete with K-9 dogs was dispatched and located the couple 25 feet from the maze’s exit.

Unbroken, Life of Pi, or 127 Hours? Blockbusters. Field Trip Blunders or Cranky in the Corn Maze? Nobody wants to see those movies.

There is something in us that loves to hear about people who have thrived under difficult circumstances. We love and applaud self-made men and women who have pulled themselves together. All of our best stories about people getting lost have something to do with plucky heroes and stick-to-it-iveness. Even The Wizard of Oz, for crying out loud.

In our worship this Lent, we have been looking at stories of people who came back to Jesus. We’ve met John’s disciples, the demon-possessed man, the twelve apostles, Mary from Bethany, and the seventy-two who were sent out. All of them met Jesus at one time or another, and then left, and then came back. Each of them sought intentionally to re-engage him. They saw him, they knew that he was something special, and so they found him at a later time and presented themselves, their issues, their stories, their needs, or their hopes to him. Does that sound about right?

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

John 9 tells us a different story. The central figure is a man who apparently knows nothing about Jesus. The chapter opens with Jesus and the twelve walking along engaged in a theological discussion about the nature of God, healing, forgiveness, and more. Jesus, apparently wishing to make a point, pulls a blind man into their midst, heals him, and sends him on his way as they continue the discussion.

Unfortunately, this happened to take place on the Sabbath, which created a firestorm of controversy with the religious leaders. These men, who were already angry with and threatened by Jesus, decided that they needed to make an example of him for doing something so offensive as healing on the Sabbath.

And so, for the second time that day, this unsuspecting man who is, so far as we know, simply minding his own business, is drawn into a group of people having a theological argument. This time, the religious leaders demand that he denounce Jesus. He won’t do it.

The authorities drag his parents into it, and we learn that they are afraid because anyone who confesses that Jesus has power will be “cast out” of the worshipping community.

One more time, they go out and find this poor man and interrogate him, only to have him say, “Look, all I know is that I was blind, and now I can pass any vision test that’s offered. I don’t know this fellow. Go find him yourself.” That angers the religious people so much that they drive him out of the congregation.

All of that action happens prior to our reading for today, when, in keeping with our theme for the Lenten season, we see what happens as the man re-encounters Jesus.

The Man Born Blind (Laura James, used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com/portfolio/book-of-gospels/)

So far as we know, not once in this man’s life has he ever gone looking for Jesus, but now, for the second time in as many days, Jesus finds him. And although Jesus has healed the man, he’s also made life a little tricky for him, to say the least. He is no longer eligible for membership in the covenant community – he has been driven away by the leadership.

And yet Jesus, once more, comes looking for him.

This should not be surprising to readers of John’s gospel, because in chapter six Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37). The end result, for this man, at any rate, is that he worships the living God in the person of Jesus. He was not looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus sought him, changed him, healed him, accepted his worship, and embraced this man. A man who, let’s not forget, was not even looking for Jesus in the first place.

So what’s the point here? What are we to take away from this encounter, or, more precisely, this re-encounter, with Jesus?

Well, it strikes me that too often we are content to simply pass people by. If we notice at all, we notice in a way that does not permit any real interaction. “Ah”, we say, “Look at that one. She is so ________. He is too ___________.” And we keep on going. It’s not that we are blind to others or to their situations. We simply can’t – or won’t – see them. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop and engage on a meaningful level?

And sometimes we notice, all right, but then we respond less than admirably. How many religious communities can you think of who are known for or somehow proud of the height of the fences with which they surround themselves and by which they keep undesirables out? Think about the people you know who have been wounded by the church of Jesus Christ – people who are often broken or scarred in some way who experience greater pain at the hands of those of us who are called to serve. There are times when, in our zeal to be “pure” and “worthy” followers of the one who said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” we wind up, well, driving people away.

You know as well as I do that the church can be one of the cruelest places on earth. Christians, I say with some shame, can be downright mean.

I love my daughter for all kinds of reasons, but one of the things for which I am grateful is the way that she sought to include me in a group of friends that she made while she was in college. She found herself gathered with a number of young adults, many of whom had been kicked out of their churches. They were guilty of crimes like being tattooed, or using tobacco, or asking difficult questions… They may have been girls who got pregnant at the wrong time, or who enjoyed the “wrong” music… Ariel invited me to spend time with these young people who loved Jesus, but who had experienced rejection from a group of people that used his name. While I am deeply saddened by the pain that these young people endured, I am gratified that my daughter thought that my presence would be of some encouragement to her friends.

I’d like to share a special word with those who might be present who have experienced this kind of pain from the church – either this congregation or some other group of Christians. Beloved, look to Jesus Christ. Please do not confuse anyone – including me – who has somehow ever done anything that drove you away from the Lord with the person or presence of Jesus. To the extent that anyone – including me – has driven you away from God’s best, we have failed to be disciples, and therefore need to ask forgiveness from you and from God.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we gather today to remember the time that the folk in Jerusalem tried to throw Jesus a party. It did not go well, in part because it ended with Jesus weeping on a hillside as he considers the fact that even the ones who meant best were unable to see him for who he really was. In fact, he said, they were not even sure who they were themselves. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus said… “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

And as we walk through the events of this Holy Week, we will remember the fact that he came to his own people, but they could not accept him. The story of much of this week is that he himself was driven away by those who claimed to have the “inside track” to God. If you’ve ever been wounded by the church, know that you have company – Jesus was hurt by the religious establishment a long time before you were.

Here’s a “spoiler alert” for next Sunday’s worship: he comes back. They drive him away, all right, in incredibly cruel and vicious ways, but they cannot keep him away. He is still looking for those who are willing to be shaped by him and used for his purposes.

This lent we have considered the fact that some people see Jesus and come running to meet him, again and again and again. Heal me, Lord. Take me. Use me.

But others don’t ever really get a glimpse of him, it would seem. Because they don’t see him, they don’t know, and therefore they don’t care.

And, saddest of all, there are many who have laid eyes on the savior, but who have somehow become convinced that they are simply not welcome to be with him. Somehow, these have been driven out.

Today, we are called to remember that we love and serve the Lord our God, who is eager to embrace those who seek him. We are called to point to the one who is willing to turn aside and engage even those who do not seek him and who, in fact, seems partial to those who have been told that they are not worthy of his attention at all.

In that light, friends, let us not give up on Jesus, or each other, or ourselves. May we have the vision to see and to know that Jesus is not particularly overwhelmed with those who heroically make their own way in the world day after day after day, and seems instead to be delighted to simply find people who realize that they are not where they should be.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and while I may never have been stuck in a corn maze, I’m here to tell you that my most common prayer is “help!” And Jesus has always seen me. I have been lost. Many times. And I have been found. Not once, but always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The South Will Rise

Our scriptures for the second week of February, 2015 included John 17:20-26 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Reflections on The Belhar Confession, Black History Month, and the hope that is the church.

I have been in some pretty sketchy places over the years. Earlier this week I was telling my wife about one of the rooms I stayed in on my recent trip to Africa, and I heard myself saying, “You know, once I got used to the rats, it wasn’t bad at all.” I remember taking the youth group into an incredibly seedy fast food joint a number of years ago, and a very disturbed and clearly hallucinogenic patron could not quite make up his mind whether he wanted to order food, throw up, or make a pass at Jessica Prevost, so he did all three of those things. In that order. As I recall, I was not among the finalists in “Youth Group Leader of the Year” that season.

LiveCustomersHere’s a photo of me in another sketchy place. I’m standing at the door to the bus station in Dangriga, Belize. In case you can’t make it out, the sign on the door at the bus station in Dangriga, Belize reads, “Live Customers Only.”

I’ll let you sit on that for a moment. “Live Customers Only.” What do you suppose happened there, and how many times must it have happened, to lead someone to say, “You know what, Luis? I’ve had it. I’m sick of this. Put up a sign. We’ve got to have some sort of policy about live customers only.” Really? How many places in the world is this a problem – too many dead people trying to take the bus? It was a sketchy place.

BelizeBusI hasten to add that I was not in Dangriga for the purpose of visiting the bus station. I was there because, well, I wanted to get on a bus. We were heading into the heart of that country to visit the Central American rain forest – a place of beauty and wonder and awe. And because I believed that that destination was worthwhile, I found myself clutching my sixteen year old daughter a little closer as we waited in this sketchy place, surrounded by broken, but live, people.

February is Black History Month in the USA. It is not a religious observance, per se, but it does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are vis-à-vis race relations in the US, in Pittsburgh, in Crafton Heights, and in our own lives.

And I don’t know whether it’s connected or not, but during Black History Month, Pittsburgh Presbytery will be taking a vote as to whether a document called The Belhar Confession should be included in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. The Book of Confessions is a collection of faith statements written over a span of about 1700 years that helps to shape our journey toward faithful discipleship in Christ. The Belhar document is a statement that was written by a group of South African theologians as that nation and its cultures wrestled against the demon that was the apartheid system of racial oppression, torture, and death.

BelharWorshipService440x180I like the Belhar Confession. I think that it is Biblical, practical, and wise. If you’d like to read it for yourself, there are some copies on the table in the back of the room – it’s just a few pages. Unlike every other document in our Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession is rooted in the global south. Nearly all of our other creeds and statements, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, and everyone’s favorite, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1536 come from the north of Europe. It’s not wrong to have a Book of Confessions that is rooted in one place; it’s just incomplete.

Some of my friends will look at the title of this message and say, “The south is going to rise? Yeah, baby, you know it will…” For many, that phrase evokes echoes of this nation’s civil war, or as some of my friends insist on calling it, “the war of northern aggression.” Saying that the South will rise is another way of saying that the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come back.

You will not be surprised, I hope, to learn that this is not what I mean. When I say that the South will rise, I hear it as a message of hope. Christians with life experiences that are different than mine will gain prominence in the world. As this happens, the global church will be made more complete and will more adequately reflect all of God’s intentions for humanity. When I say the South will rise, I do not mean to imply that the North will fall. All of us can be lifted. The fact that the Belhar Confession is under consideration by a church with roots in Switzerland and Scotland is an encouraging sign that perhaps the South is, in fact, rising.

What can we learn from the Belhar Confession? Well, let’s go back to the bus station in Dangriga. I knew, even before I saw the sign, that I was in a difficult place. Similarly, you don’t need me to tell you that this world is damaged in significant ways. We are surrounded by things that are not as they should be.

The Belhar Confession names some of that brokenness this way:

We believe

  • that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

  • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;

  • that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;

  • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

  • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…

Do you hear what that says about the world in which we live? That it is full of injustice and hatred, oppression and hunger; that there are too many who are orphaned or widowed or captive or poor. The world is not the way that it should be!

But remember, I didn’t go to the bus station in Dangriga in order to visit Dangriga. I had a destination in mind: the rain forest. The bus station was simply the place from which I started.

The Belhar document reminds me that the places where we begin are not necessarily the places for which we are destined. The kinds of brokenness that surround us now are not God’s purposes for his beloved children. God’s intentions, as stated squarely by Jesus in John 17 and Paul in the letter to the Romans, are for God’s people to live together in right relationships, connected truly and authentically with God and with each other.

The Christians in South Africa put it this way:

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another…

  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted…

  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind…

Isn’t that where we want to go? We don’t need to stay where we are – it woudn’t make sense to stay in a place that is broken. Doesn’t that passage describe God’s purposes for the church?

But how do we get there? How do we leave the bus station and get to the rain forest? How do we pull away from the brokenness and separation that surrounds us and grow into the community to which Christ calls us?

4701837-Chicken-Bus-in-Belize-City-1Well, back in Dangriga I got on the bus. Listen to me, beloved: I did not make the bus. I did not drive the bus. I had no information as to the safety inspections of that bus. All I know is that if I was going to get my family to the rain forest, we were going to get on that bus. The bus was a given to be enjoyed (or endured) – an experience with many languages, many children, many baskets of produce, many, um, delicate aromas, many chickens, and a few turkeys. That bus was the means by which I would leave the station and arrive at the rain forest.

Similarly, God has given this world a means in which to leave the brokenness of our present condition and grow into the fullness of his intentions for us. The vehicle in which he intends us to arrive at his purposes is, well, us. The church is God’s instrument of healing in the world.

handsinsandMake sure that when you hear me say that, you understand that I mean the church as it is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not necessarily the institution that sits on this corner and enjoys a tax break every now and again. If God is going to do what God says God is going to do, then it’s going to happen because the church – the whole church, the one church – will point to those intentions of God. And the only way that we can do this is in the strength of Jesus Christ.

Listen one more time to what Belhar says:

We believe

  • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.

  • that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…

Note that the strength and the power that is given to the church does not come through political policy or worship style; it’s not based on skin color or moral purity – it is based in the unity that we have received as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

The church is one. The church is the Body of Christ. We are not supposed to be Christ’s Body, or going to be that Body some day. By definition, the church is one and the church is Christ’s.

In 1982, a group of Christians came to see this in South Africa, and they rejected the sin of their age: an evil system of racial hatred and segregation that had been enshrined not only in the national law, but in the church doctrine. The brothers and sisters in that time and place rejected apartheid as false teaching and repented. That is to say, they changed direction.

Beloved, as we stand on this corner at the beginning of 2015, we confess that like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or Paul writing in a prison cell, or believers living in Capetown thirty-five years ago – we are not where we should be. We have been called to walk towards God’s best for his children. And in this time and this place, I need to say that I will walk in that direction, and that I will walk the only way that the church knows how to walk – with everyone who has been called of God. I can’t go only with the people that I like the best, or with the folks with whom I feel most comfortable. I can’t go only with people who think I’m right all the time, or who speak in a language that I understand flawlessly.

As we seek to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, may we be ever-increasingly aware of the unity that is ours in Jesus.

I get it. Black History month is an artificial construct. It can be downright hokey. But let’s use it anyway. Let’s use these days to learn something of a culture that may not be our own. Let’s listen for stories we don’t know. Let’s consider where there are places that we may need to repent, or turn around, or try again.

It’s not a black thing, and it’s not a white thing. We don’t do this because it’s politically correct, or because it will make us feel all warm and gushy inside. We do this because the unity of the Church is a given; it is essential to the very life and being of the church. We ought to live like that unity is not merely an idea, but a reality; and if we deign to call ourselves the church, we ought to live like the Lord has called us to live.

We may not be where we want to be, and we are not where we are going to be – but God has shown us his intentions. – where he wants us to be. And, so far as I can see, there’s only one bus out of this place, and it’s called the church, the Body of Christ. May we be that body – that living, breathing, very much live body – in this place and time. Amen.