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This Week’s Sermon – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-16 – In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

“Mary Had a Baby” Sermon Series
#2 – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Luke 2:8-16

We continue our sermon series this morning looking at a few Christmas-related African-American slave spirituals, and listening to what they can teach us, people on the other end of the spectrum, about celebrating Christmas. How can looking at the birth story of Jesus through someone else’s eyes help us appreciate that magnitude of what happened on that holy night? During a season in which the Christ child easily gets buried under piles of wrapping paper, what did this story mean for people who didn’t take it for granted?

One of the things that makes spirituals so fascinating was the role they played in communication among the slaves. This was a group of people who didn’t have the freedom to talk openly with each other, so they had to come up with creative ways to share information without alerting their masters. The slave owners underestimated the spiritual and intellectual gifts of the slaves, which let the slaves’ imaginations run free even while they were in servitude. Realize that Christianity wasn’t the slaves’ chosen religion; it was forced upon them by their Christian masters. But the slaves were incredibly resilient. They devised songs that on the surface appeared to be solely about their newfound faith in Jesus, but were actually a type of Morse code, where the words carried double meanings. The slaves tricked their owners into thinking they were harmless and happy, easily adapting to their new religion, when they were actually planning their escape.

In the “Death and Eternal Life” section of our hymnal, number 644 is the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, I ain’t got long to stay here.” That song may sound like it’s about going to Heaven, but it was actually used as an announcement, like a conductor calling “All aboard!” for a departing train. When the slaves were in the fields singing “I ain’t got long to stay here,” they were preparing for an escape attempt.

Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” were signal songs, which communicated that a certain event, like an escape attempt, was about to happen. There were also map songs, which gave specific directions for the escape. The most famous of these is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Now, if I heard that song, I would have no idea what the drinking gourd was, much less how to follow it. For the slaves, the Drinking Gourd was the Big Dipper constellation, which had as a part of it the North Star. This song is a travel itinerary, telling the slaves that when winter arrives it’s time to follow the North Star to freedom.

One of the purposes of our song today, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was to remind the slaves to follow the star that would lead them to freedom. Listen to the verbs in the song: Rise up, follow, take heed (or listen), and leave. It’s a call to action for the slaves embedded in the biblical story of Christ’s birth. But the song has several other layers of meaning that helped the slaves celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ.

For the most part, slaves were not allowed to read, especially not the Bible. Plantation owners feared that if the slaves read about how Christ promised salvation from sin, the slaves would also want salvation from slavery. So, instead of passing on the tradition by reading the Bible to each other, the slaves told the stories, much like the Israelites orally passed down stories for centuries and centuries before the Bible was written as a way of preserving their religious history.

“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was one of the ways the slaves would pass down the Christmas story. The singer would sing a line of the story, “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,” and the rest would respond, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Then the next line of the story would be sung, and the crowd would respond. This could go on for awhile as the full story of Christmas was told. That’s how the story of Christ’s birth survived and provided hope to a group of people without access to the Bible.

But did you notice there’s something a little off about this story? When I was in seminary, my grandfather liked to tease me by testing my biblical knowledge. Every time he saw me he’s said, “Let’s see what you’re learning in that school. How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” I would play along and respond, “That’s an easy one. He took two of each animal.” And he’d smile and say, “Nope, nope, nope. Moses didn’t take the animals on the ark; Noah did!” And I’d smile and say, “You got me again, Paw Paw!”

We have the same kind of mashup taking place in the retelling of the Christmas story in this song. As we know the story, who followed a star to find Jesus? It wasn’t the shepherds. It was the wise men who saw the star in the East and followed it to the Christ child. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories.

This was not caused by biblical confusion. There’s a strategic repositioning taking place here that would have been empowering to the listeners and singers of this song. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bring lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom the slaves could relate. If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. The shepherds themselves were often indentured servants of a landowner, hired or forced against their will to care for the livestock. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they didn’t really have a home, and they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion.

The slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves. This song is not only sung by them, but about them: “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Through the juxtaposition, the slaves became the wise seekers looking for the gifts Christ had to offer, following the star to the place where salvation and freedom could be found.

Of course, on any journey that leads to the Christ child, things have to be left behind. For the shepherds, it meant leaving their sheep to go to Bethlehem. The Bible is full of these kinds of stories. Abraham is called by God to leave his homeland and start out on a journey to an unknown destination. When Jesus called the disciples, they left behind their homes, their families, their traditions, their land, and followed him. The slaves knew what this was like, except they were forcibly removed from these things in their home countries and sold into bondage. They knew that the cost of freedom might be leaving behind parents, children, people who were too young or infirm to make such an arduous journey to freedom. The slaves knew that in order to find freedom, they would have to take heed of the angel’s word and leave some things behind.

The song called the slaves to take their place in a long line of people who gave up things to follow God. The reality of faith is that there is a cost associated with following Jesus, or at least there should be. If you find having faith to be easy, you’re probably not doing it right. True Christianity constantly calls us to leave that which is familiar, to move to a new place spiritually as we follow Christ. “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is a rallying cry for the slaves to move faithfully from the familiar to freedom.

There are two commands that are repeated over and over in this song. The first is to “Rise up.” When I picture the slaves at work I see them crouching or stooping or bent over in the fields. This song is a call to rise up, to stand up, to take a stand against their oppression and to actively pursue freedom, no matter the cost.

What would it mean for us to “rise up” this Christmas? For the slaves, rising up was a dangerous move that could cost them their lives. Thankfully, we don’t face such extreme consequences…and yet, are we still afraid to rise up? I give so much credit to those who are now rising up against sexual misconduct. Real change is happening because of it. What could we accomplish if we chose to rise up against predatory lending, against scams aimed at the elderly, against systems that perpetuate racist policies or seek to keep people divided? When we as Christians choose to rise up against something, we make a difference. But it starts with having the courage to rise up in the first place. How could you let your faith rise up this Christmas? Who needs you to rise up for them in our world today?

The second command is to “follow.” It’s sung five times in the chorus alone. “Follow.” For the slaves, it meant following the North Star to freedom. What does it mean for us to follow? It doesn’t mean you have to pack up your house and move. But it does mean we may have to pack up some negative thoughts or behaviors that separate us from God. Following Christ means walking in his footsteps, even when it means we walk away from comfortable, familiar situations into the great unknown of faith.

A few weeks ago I followed Christ, in the form of my friend, Liz, to the Hope Center at lunch time. We donned our stylish hairnets and spent an hour serving chicken noodle soup and mac and cheese to the clients that came through. I had about 100 other things I could have been doing at that moment, things that really needed to be done. But people also need to eat and, I would guess more importantly, be looked at in the eye and treated with respect. Where will you follow Christ this Christmas? If it’s somewhere you’ve already been, somewhere you feel completely comfortable, then it may not be far enough.

This Christmas, my prayer for us is that we learn from this song about the importance of courage in a life of faith. We have been given a star to follow, but we can only follow it if we rise up, take our eyes away from our immediate surroundings, and see ahead of us where God is calling us to go. It probably won’t be a place that’s familiar. It may not even feel safe. But it’s where we’re going to find Jesus in this world.

Rise up, shepherds, and follow.

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Mary Had a Baby

SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-38 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

SERMON
Go, Tell It on the Mountain! Sermon series
#1 – Mary Had a Baby
Luke 1:26-38
Dec. 3, 2017

Well, it’s that time of year again. Advent is probably my favorite season of the year. I love the to see the sanctuary fully decorated, as if it put on it’s best outfit to show off for God. I love the traditions that go along with this season: Christmas caroling for the neighbors, baking Christmas cookies, putting up our Christmas trees, sitting in mall traffic, cussing at the strands of lights that won’t work, complaining about how materialistic our culture has become. Tis the season to be angst-ridden!

Christmas is also the season that reminds us that we here in 21st century America have everything at our disposal. There’s virtually no luxury we can’t have, no freedom that we don’t enjoy. The irony of this time of year is that while our culture seduces us with all the things we don’t know we need but have to get, the Christmas story reminds us of what we truly need and already have: the goodness and mercy of God shown to us through Jesus Christ. When dealing with something that is both as familiar and as distorted as the Christmas story, there’s a tradition I try to live out each Advent: I try to see the Christmas story through someone else’s eyes, preferably someone much different than me. If I look at the same thing over and over, I miss the details, the nuances, the qualities that make something unique. But looking at something through fresh eyes can give you a new perspective on something you thought you knew.

This year, with the help of a book by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, we’re going to view the birth of Christ through the eyes of the people who were enslaved in this country. We have so much, and soon we’ll be getting more. What did Christmas look like to a group of people who had virtually nothing, with no promise of getting anything?

Jesus said in mission statement in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives.” That’s a passage that slaves took very seriously, and the birth of Christ each year meant the renewed promise of freedom. While the rest of their year was filled with unimaginable cruelty and oppression, the slaves had much to anticipate as Christmas approached, and they saturated their songs with the hope of freedom the Christ child brought with him.

This is true of many of the slave spirituals. There are over 6000 known spirituals; we have 27 of them in our Chalice Hymnal, like “Wade in the Water” and “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” These songs are unique in the history of music. They blend together African aesthetics and rhythms and European Christian vocabulary and musical influences. They also proclaim a resilient spirituality of survival forged in the slave ships and plantation fields. Slavery was often times justified using scripture, which forced the slaves to reinterpret basic Christian principles like obedience and freedom. How was obedience to God different from obedience to their master? What did freedom through Christ mean when you were shackled together? The theology of the spirituals gives us a clue to the slaves’ perceptions of a God of mercy, justice, and love in a world of cruelty, injustice, and racism.

For the slaves, Christ was their hope for liberation, not just physically, but spiritually, and each Christmas was a reminder that their hope was grounded in something and someone real. We hear that in today’s spiritual, “Mary Had a Baby.” The song recalls some of the basic elements of the birth story: a baby is born, given a name by his mother, placed in makeshift crib. This is not some made-up fairy tale; in fact, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it this story. Babies were born every day. In many ways, this was a birth like every other birth.

But it was also a birth unlike any other birth. There’s a call-and-response element to the song that is a prominent feature of African-American worship. We learned this last month when Chris Dorsey preached here. He told us that in African-American worship, the congregation would respond with “Amen” when they agreed with the pastor and “Lord, help him” when they weren’t sure what he was saying. I have to tell you, I’ve preached a few times in an African-American church, and I heard a lot more of “Lord help him” than I did “Amen.”

In our song today, the call goes out, “Mary had a baby,” and the response is, “Oh  Lord!” which conveys a deep sense of appreciation and awe. The legend goes that, right before he died, Steve Jobs’ last words were, “Wow. Wow. Wow.” That’s the weight that the phrase “Oh Lord” is meant to carry. It is a response of reverence to a genuine miracle.

As Christmas approaches, we may find ourselves saying, “Oh Lord” in a very different tone, probably in the direction of store clerk or disgruntled driver. But for the slaves, each and every year, this was a miracle that carried with it the hope and promise of liberation. “Oh Lord!” It’s a response of gratitude, not only for Christ, but for the miracle of birth itself. I remember vividly the first time I saw both of my daughters. Is there any response more appropriate to the birth of a child than “Oh Lord!”?

Childbirth during the time of slavery was a great danger as well as a great joy. We forget that in many parts of the world, childbirth remains a major cause of death for mothers. Birthing was dangerous for slave women because many complications could arise, and there were no doctors or medical equipment around to help. When Leigh and I were expecting our first child, we chose to be taken care of by a midwife, who encouraged us to have the baby in her home. But we were adamant about having the baby in a hospital, because you just never know what can happen. Mothers during slavery didn’t have the luxury of such choices, so each pregnancy was fraught with fear. The harsh reality was that not every pregnancy led to birth.

And even if it did, each newborn child brought with it profound but very real questions. Would they survive? Would they be abused? Would they be sold to another owner? Would they ever know life apart from being someone else’s property? The future of each child born into slavery was uncertain. But each baby that was born also fueled the hope ignited by the Christmas story. The slaves would look at each new baby and ask the question: “Is this the one? Is this our Moses, the one who will bring us out of slavery? Is this the one through whom God will bring salvation?” For the slaves, the birth of each child echoed the birth of the Christ child. Every baby born was a reminder of the promise of emancipation made by the one who came to proclaim freedom to the captives.

The last line of each verse may seem out of place with the rest of the song: “The people keep a’comin’ and the train done gone.” Trains were a new reality in the emerging industrial age of the early 1800s. This new mode of transportation connected places that had previously been isolated. In other words, trains represented a way out. For that reason, train imagery figures prominently in the history of the African-American people. There’s the Underground Railroad, which took passengers from station to station on their way to freedom. There were the real trains that ran through tunnels built by legendary heroes like John Henry. Even in the midst of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Impressions were singing, “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’. Don’t need no ticket, just thank the Lord!”

For the slaves, this line in the song was a somber reminder. Winter, and Christmas in particular, was one of the best times to attempt an escape. On many plantations, Christmas was the one time of year when everyone was allowed to relax, and their masters were preoccupied with the festivities of the season. In order to make the escape, slaves had to be on alert and at the designated meeting place on time. They couldn’t afford to be late, or the train to freedom might be gone by the time you get there. “The people keep-a comin’ but the train done gone.”

This may feel about as far removed from our lives as we can get, but I believe this is a spiritual warning for us, as well. Now, let me be clear in saying we can never, ever understand what it was like to live as a slave in this country, and so we have to be careful about equating that situation with our own. In the letter to the Romans Paul says repeatedly that we are “slaves to sin.” Mary’s baby represents freedom, salvation, and deliverance, and the hard truth of life is that every single one of us has something to which we are enslaved that keeps us from giving ourselves fully to God. Jesus Christ has come to liberate us from whatever holds us captive: negative relationships, unhealthy behaviors, our own pride or greed, the seduction of our materialistic society. What keeps you from moving closer to God? Is it a lack of time? Faulty prioritizing? Do you feel unworthy of God’s love because of thoughts or behaviors? Do you feel like you’ve moved too far away from God to return? Whatever holds you back from a full relationship with God, Christ has come to break the chains and set you free.

But if we’re not careful, Christmas will pass us by once again this year, and we’ll have missed an opportunity to worship at the manger. If we don’t pay attention, the miracle of Christmas will get buried in gift receipts and wrapping paper and our chance to truly celebrate Christ’s birth and give God glory and thanks will be gone. Is this the one? Is this the year we make Christmas about Christ first? Is this the year we let Jesus proclaim freedom for us, when we surrender our pride and follow him to a new life? Or will the true gift of Christmas remain unopened? It’s going to happen again this year. Mary is going to have a baby. It’s a birth like any other birth. And it’s a birth unlike any other birth. May our response be nothing less than, “Oh Lord!”

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We Are the Disciples sermon series – A Movement for Wholeness

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 28:16-20 – 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

SERMON
We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
#5 – A Movement for Wholeness…
Nov. 19, 2017

Today, we finish up our sermon series on who we are as Disciples. I don’t know if you have any better of an idea of who we are now than when we started five weeks ago, but I hope you at least have a greater understanding of the creative thoughts and core values that drove our founding fathers and mothers to start this movement that became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If you’re still not quite sure how to describe us Disciples…well, you’re not alone, but maybe today will help.

Our first four statements looked to the history of our denomination and why we were founded. Today’s statement looks at who we are today, and, more importantly, who we are called to be in the future. The statement, printed on the front of your bulletin, says, “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” It was crafted by a group called the 21st Century Vision Team, which was called together in 2006 to help our denomination put words of definition to our actions and faith practices, so that when someone asks about us, we have something substantial to say.

The challenge in writing such a statement is putting it into action, getting it into the hands of the individual congregations who make up this denomination. Because we are not governed in a top-down, hierarchical format, we don’t have a Pope or a Bishop who can say, “Here, take this statement, this is who we are, no arguments.” Each congregation is responsible for interpreting and living out the statement in their own context. We’ll try to do that today for Crestwood by breaking the statement down into four key words: movement, wholeness, table, and welcome.

Let’s start with movement. Are the Disciples of Christ a movement? Is Crestwood a movement? Initially, I’d answer “no” to both those questions. When I think of a movement, I think of a loosely organized, somewhat unstructured collection of people who shared beliefs and come together to achieve common goals. The second part of that sentences fits: we share beliefs and we seek to live out those beliefs in common ways. But are we loosely organized and unstructured? If you think so, I have a couple Administrative Board committee sub-groups I’d like you to serve on.

That’s ironic, because when we first started as a denomination, we were exactly a movement, moving against the splintering factions and exclusionist leadership that ruled churches in that day. So, how can we recapture that fluid core of who we are as Disciples of Christ? For me, it starts with scripture. Have you ever noticed how often someone in the Bible is told to move? God comes to Abraham and says, “Go!” Abraham says, “Where?” And God says, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered.” God comes to Moses and says, “Go!” Moses says, “Where?” And God says, “I’ll tell ya, but you’re not going to like it.” So Moses heads off to Egypt to confront the Pharaoh. And after his resurrection, as he’s about to ascend to Heaven, Jesus says to his disciples (and us), “Go! Make disciples of all nations.”

Do you see the pattern here? To be a believer in God means to be moving. I’ve said before that we are not called the Standers Still of Christ or the Loiters of Christ; we are the Followers of Christ, and that statement implies movement. That’s very important to note, because what’s the opposite of movement? Stagnation. Stuckness. Complacency. I don’t remember a passage where God says, “Abraham, stand still! Don’t move! Don’t do anything!” The Bible is full of calls to go, to come, to move, to leave, to seek, to embody the promises of faith through action.

But there’s a difference between purposeful and purposeless movement. God doesn’t call Moses to walk in circles around the burning bush; that’s movement, but it has no purpose. Instead, when people in the Bible are called to move, they are called to move toward something. That brings us to our second word. We are a “movement for wholeness.” What, then, should be our goal as a movement for wholeness? What does wholeness in the kingdom of God look like?

We answer that question by turning once again to scripture, where a vision of God’s kingdom is spelled out in numerous places. I think of Isaiah 2, which says that in God’s kingdom, God will settle disputes and those in conflict will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. I think of Isaiah 65, which says that in God’s kingdom, the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more. Everyone will live out their lives to the fullest, the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and no one will harm or destroy. I think of Jesus’ many parables that start off with, “The Kingdom of God is like,” and then go on to talk about a mustard seed which grows to provide shelter for many, and a bit of yeast which causes a whole loaf of bread to rise. He says the kingdom of God is a place were lost coins are found and lost sheep are pursued and lost children are welcomed home. He says the kingdom of God is a place characterized by the innocence of little children, where sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes are all invited to eat at the great banquet table, to satisfy themselves with God’s overflowing abundance of goodness. This is what the Bible says the kingdom of God looks like, and that is wholeness for which we are to strive, one interaction and one conversation and one show of love at a time. This is not about dogma or doctrine; this is about helping make other people whole. If we’re doing something other than that, we’re working against the kingdom of God.

For us as Disciples one of the main places we experience being made whole is at the table, our third word. Obviously, the table is fairly important to us. We didn’t just put this piece of furniture here because we needed a place to set our candles. There’s a reason the table is literally central to our worship experience. Someone once said that a Disciples of Christ worship without communion is like taking a shower without turning on the water. And so, we do it weekly – communion, not taking a shower.

There’s something sacred about sharing a meal together, isn’t there? We often talk about eating with someone as breaking bread together. In fact, the word “companion” literally means “to share bread with.” When we eat together, we are not just a group of individuals gathered at a table; through the act of sharing space and nourishment, we are companions, sharing in the gift of love and grace given to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

That’s what this table does. It takes the complex divisions our world has created and breaks them down into their simplest form – one human sharing a meal with another human. That’s why we pass the trays. Don’t look now, but you may be sitting next to someone you just don’t like. I said don’t look! But when they hand you a tray of bread and a tray of cups and share this meal with you, the two of you become companions, whether you choose to live that way or not.  It’s one thing to think critically of people whose behaviors or beliefs or Facebook posts are so different than ours. It’s quite another thing to share a meal with Carlos or Stephanie or Ihsan, to hear about their struggles and their families and their faith, to put a face and a name and a story on our points of division. Through sharing a meal, our enemies – real or perceived – can become our companions.

But before we can break bread with them, they have to know they are welcomed, which is our fourth word. Notice, it’s the only significant word that is said twice, as it brackets and informs our understanding of the table. And it’s the only action verb, the only thing we’re called to do in our statement: to welcome others as God has welcomed us.  The other words say who we are, but this one says what we do.

Why do we do welcome others to the table? Is our motivation to get people to join our church? Notice, the Identity Statement doesn’t say, “As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table so that we can hand them a pledge card and sign them up for a ministry team.” Hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church members. It’s not about meeting institutional goals. As the Identity Statement says, we welcome because we have first been welcomed. It doesn’t say what’s supposed to happen as a result of our welcome; that part is up to God. All we are called to do is let people know they are welcome.

But we are only getting half the picture if we believe that we are the only ones with something to offer when we welcome others. When we join together at the table, making room for the guests among us, we not only offer them a blessing, but we open ourselves to be blessed by them. I want you to think of your favorite person in this church, the person who has made a real impact on your life. Now, realize that at one time or another, that person was a first-time guest. How would this church be different if they didn’t feel welcomed here and decided not to come back? The next person who visits us may be a messenger from God, sent here to have a tremendous impact on Crestwood, and we are called to make sure they know they are welcome here. Yes, our church has something to offer guests, but I believe guests have something to offer us, as well.

We make room at the table for them because God has made room at the table for us. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen said, “Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.” Some of our guests may come only once. Some may visit while they are passing through. Some may decide Crestwood isn’t the right fit for them. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to create the space and trust the Spirit of God to do the rest. Our responsibility is simple: We welcome all because God has welcomed us.

Who are we? “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” We are on the move, seeking to make connections with others as we welcome them as companions and share a life-giving meal with them, honoring their intrinsic value as children of God. As a denomination, as a church, as individuals, can this be our identity? Can we be a movement for God’s kingdom in this fragmented world? Can we throw open our arms in welcome, becoming companions with others as we make space for them? This is who we are called to be. May God give us the courage to live as if this true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We Are the Disciples sermon series – Christians only, but not the only Christians

We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
Christians Only, but Not the Only Christians
Nov. 12, 2017

Today, we’re continuing our sermon series on learning more about who we are as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is a challenge, even for life-long Disciples. We often define ourselves by who we’re not, rather than by affirming who we are. We’re using some of our foundational statements to help name and claim our identity. So far, we’ve talked about “unity is our polar star,” “no creed but Christ,” and “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Today’s phrase is “Christians only but not the only Christians.” In linguistics this is known as an antithesis: a statement that sets two opposites against each other. For example, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is an antithesis. So is, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And so is the sentence, “A church committee is a body that keeps minutes and wastes hours.” That one hit a little too close to home.

So, today’s phrase, “Christians only but not the only Christians” holds in tension what it means to be a Christian and how we are to think of ourselves in relation to others. Although I couldn’t find a true origin for this phrase, the conventional wisdom says it goes back to the early 1800s, as Disciples were trying to figure out what they believed and how that jived or didn’t jive with what other Christians believed. In other words, how do we claim our distinct identity over and against other Christians around us, and yet not be over and against the other Christians around us?

That challenge hasn’t gotten any easier in the last two hundred years, has it? In fact, it’s gotten exponentially more difficult for two reasons: first, churches have continued to split, with each new group believing that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. I don’t know of any new denomination that began with the premise that they could be wrong. The whole reason they split off was because those other people were straying from the true faith. There are roughly 39,000 denominations in the world today. So, either 38,999 of those are wrong and one is right, or none of us have a monopoly on the truth.

The other challenge to claiming our distinct identity is that we are so much more aware of other ways of believing. That’s what has led to so many denominations, because different people interpret and live out their faith differently. The Baptists are linked to a certain form of baptism, the Lutherans were founded by Martin Luther, the Presbyterians are governed by a presbytery, the Quakers…like oatmeal. I read that on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

But this diversity of beliefs doesn’t stop with Christianity. Think about this: there used to be only two religious symbols available for the headstones of deceased soldiers: the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David. Now, there are 39 different religious symbols offered. With so many other ways of having faith, what does it mean today to be Christians only, but not the only believers?

Let’s start with the first part: “Christians only.” This one ties directly into the statement about “no creed by Christ.” What this means is that, first and foremost, we call ourselves followers of Christ. The sole object of our worship is God as shown to us through Jesus. One of our founders, Alexander Campbell, wrote, “Who is a Christian? Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to the measure of knowledge of his will.”

Well, dang. Based on that definition, I’m not a very good Christian. How about you? I’m guilty of doubting Jesus’ identity, of not repenting of my sins, of disobeying Christ’s teaching. I wish this statement had said, “We are bad Christians only, but not the only bad Christians.” So, this part of the statement is a work in progress for me, and maybe for you, too.

What makes it even more challenging is that what it means to be a Christian in our world today has been seriously polluted since Campbell gave his definition. What makes a person a Christian today? Going to church? Giving an offering? Wearing a cross necklace? Saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” It’s hard to say. The label “Christian” has been co-opted by our culture and by some of the more boisterous mouthpieces who claim to speak for Christians. I’ve often found myself wanting to say, “I’m a Christian, but not one of THOSE kinds of Christians.” So maybe this statement should be updated to say, “We are followers of Christ only.” Still doesn’t mean we’ll get it right, but at least it clarifies who we are called to be.

The second half of this statement is most fascinating: “not the only Christians,” which I am amending to “not the only believers.” This makes sense, since unity was one of the driving forces that led to the creation of our denomination in the first place. We recognize that, while we are followers of Christ, we don’t have all the answers, and there are others out there who believe differently than us, but that are just as faithful as we are. I appreciate the humility in this statement. As a writer once said, “Always entertain the possibility that you may be mistaken.” Boy, how different would our world be if we lived by that mantra?

There would be some of our brothers and sisters who would balk at the inclusivity of this statement. Some churches feel confident that they’ve got it right, and everyone else needs to get on board with them. This was explained to me very well by one author, who said, “The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity.” In other words, I am who I am because I’m over and against who you are.

The beauty of “not the only believers” is the space it creates in our faith for the diversity of others. Think of this statement as a circle. “followers of Christ only” is the center point of the circle, the anchor that holds us in place. “Not the only believers” is the perimeter of the circle, and the space in between is where we invite into our lives those who believe differently about God, or who believe differently about their understanding of God.

So…how big is your circle? Who’s inside? Who’s outside? That’s a tough question, right? We don’t want to let so many people into our circle that we lose sight of our center point. A lot of people have that fear. If we start saying that legitimate people of faith include Muslims and Hindus and…gasp!…Methodists, then we’re going to lose our anchor, because our faith will be threatened by these other ways of knowing God. If you don’t believe like me, you’re a threat to me. Is that a legitimate fear?

Well, let’s ask an expert, shall we? Several times in the Bible, Jesus lifted up people as examples of faith who were NOT the Jewish religious leaders of the day. In fact, they were even Jewish. In one example, Jesus praises a Roman centurion, who probably worshipped the Roman gods, saying, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” In another example, Jesus praises a Samaritan woman. In another, he speaks highly of a Roman publican and a Gentile. Jesus drew a pretty big circle, and yet his center point of God was never threatened. If Jesus recognized the legitimacy of the faith of these non-Jewish believers, we’d do well to extend the same grace to non-Christian believers.

Theologian Paul Knitter puts it this way: “The religious communities of the world can and must form a ‘community of communities’ – a community in which each tradition will preserve its identity and at the same time deepen and broaden that identity through learning from, appealing to, and working with other communities.” That’s a move from saying, “I am who I am because I’m not you” to saying, “I am who I am because of you.”

The call of this statement is really two-fold. We are called to witness with confidence to our understanding of the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and we are called to experience solidarity – with-ness – with people of other denominations and faiths, worshipping with each other, honoring each other’s beliefs, and working together toward a common good. Witness and with-ness.

Far from detracting from our faith, I think this actually honors the spirit of faith that God imbued in each of us in the first place. From the very start, having faith was an invitation to believe God was at work in the wider world, beyond the parameters of denominations and human-drawn lines of divisions between believers. After all, I bet every single one of us could name a non-Christian who, through the way they live and love and serve, are more Christ-like than a lot of Christians we know! I believe the best hope for our world today – and don’t we need hope? – is to move away from dogma and right belief – what’s called orthodoxy – toward an integration of diverse religious expressions that manifest themselves in helping and serving each other – what’s called orthopraxy.

This doesn’t mean we have to give up Jesus. Quite the contrary. To celebrate the other expressions of God in this world – through other denominations and other faiths – is honoring Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, not separated by our differences, but drawn together by the common belief that we are all children of our Creator God. This isn’t watered-down Christianity; it’s a way of belief that fits the diverse world in which we live.

For us, Christ is central to our understanding of who God is, and as followers of Christ, we are called to worship him – followers of Christ only – and then follow his example of hospitality, welcome, and love – not the only believers. It starts here, in this place. As one writer said, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” So, we come here to practice love, to practice grace, to practice generosity, to practice breaking bread together, so that we can go out there and live it out. We come here to witness so we can go out there to live out our “with-ness.”

We are followers of Christ only, called to worship only the one we call our Savior. That means not worshipping all the other things in our lives that demand our allegiance. And we are not the only believers, sharing this planet with so many others who live out their faith in distinctive, authentic ways. So many people these days want to emphasize differences, drawing lines of division and exclusion. How would our church, our denomination, our world be different if we practiced drawing circles?

 

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We Are the Disciples Sermon Series: #1 – Unity Is Our Polar Star

SCRIPTURE – John 17:20-26 – 20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[f] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

SERMON
We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
#1 – Unity Is Our Polar Star
Oct. 22, 2017

One of the things that excited me about moving to Lexington eight years ago was returning to an area of the country where people knew the denomination I served. During my eight years of serving in a northern suburb of Chicago, I only met a handful of people who had ever heard of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). People would ask what I do for a living, I would tell them, there would be a long, awkward silence, and, if they were still around, they would ask, “So, what…um…flavor of church is that?” I would say we were part of a denomination called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there would be another long, awkward pause, and they would ask, “That’s not a cult, is it?” I would assure them it wasn’t, and then invite them to our next goat sacrifice potluck. Actually, I’d give my 30-second elevator speech on who we are, which is really hard to do when most people who are Disciples don’t know who the Disciples are.

Understanding what it means to be a Disciple of Christ starts with tracing back to the roots of our denomination’s genesis. In this sermon series, we’re going to look at some of the statements which guided our founding fathers and use them as guideposts for understanding why we were created, who we were back then, and who we are today.

Today’s statement is, “Unity is our polar star,” which was a direct refutation of the state of the church in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Our denomination was the result of the combining of two different movements, one led by Thomas Campbell, and later his son Alexander, and the other by Barton Stone. Thomas Campbell started his ministry in Scotland, and he was dismayed by the level of fracture and division he experienced in his native Presbyterian church. At one point, there had been so many splits within that denomination that you could be a Seceder Burgher Presbyterian, a Seceder Anti-Burgher Presbyterian, an Anti-Seceder Burgher Presbyterian, or an Anti-Seceder Anti-Burgher Presbyterian. Then, there was a further split among New Lights and Old Lights, which I don’t think had anything to do with the kind of fluorescent bulbs they used in the sanctuary, but knowing how churches work, it wouldn’t surprise me. So Thomas Campbell ended up serving the Old-Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. His business cards were printed on poster board.

Campbell came to America and ended up leaving the Presbyterian church because they were denying communion to people the elders deemed unfit to take it. Campbell was fervent in his effort to bring more unity to the church, because that what he believed Christ wanted when he prayed in John 17, “that they may all be one.” Thomas was joined by his son, Alexander, and while living in Pennsylvania, they started a movement called simply, “Christians,” because there should be no divisions within the body of Christ. In 1809, in his important “Declaration and Address” document, Campbell wrote that, “the church of Christ upon this earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”

Meanwhile, down in Kentucky, another Presbyterian minister named Barton Stone was struggling with the same issue about the divisions in Christ’s church. Stone was so upset that he left the Presbyterian church, writing a “last will and testament” of his local group of churches, that said in part, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.” He formed a group with the biblical name “the Disciples,” with following Jesus being the only requirement for membership.

So you have the Christians in Pennsylvania and the Disciples in Kentucky, and both groups shared similar beliefs about the importance of unity. So they liked each other on Facebook and exchanged a few text messages – I’m a bit fuzzy on this part of the history – and decided they should join their movement together. Unity! So in 1832, on Main Street in Lexington, Ky., “Raccoon” John Smith of the Christians and Barton Stone of the Disciples shook hands and shared communion, uniting these two movements. Stone said that day, “let the unity of Christians be our polar star.”

Well, unity sounds great on paper but is hard to live out among human beings who have actual opinions, which the movement found out very early on as they tried to settle on a name. Christians or Disciples? Both sides made their arguments with neither side willing to budge. Hence, we are the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Where there is not consensus, let there be compromise.

The irony of having unity as our polar star has plagued us in our history. When our group was created in 1832, it was in direct opposition to the growing denominationalism that was splintering the church. In 1968, we gave into the reality that if it walks like a denomination and quacks like a denomination, it’s a denomination. In that year, we stopped calling ourselves a brotherhood and acknowledged that we had become the very thing we were created to oppose.

If that’s not proof enough that biblical unity is difficult, this denomination which has unity as its polar star has suffered two splits in its history. One split created the Churches of Christ Acapella, and the other created the independent Christian churches. Unity may be our polar star, but we haven’t done such a good job of following it.

That’s the paradox of unity: the more committed you are to it, the harder it is to live out. When we decided to call ourselves a denomination in 1968, in a sense we were admitting that the true unity of Christ’s people is not an achievable goal. We will never be one, as Jesus had prayed. Instead, our focused shifted from trying to unite with others to working with others to do Christ’s work. We Disciples have an organization called the Council on Christian Unity, whose goal it is to forge partnerships with other denominations and other faiths to witness to God’s love and grace in this world.

It feels like unity shouldn’t be this hard. Aren’t we all on the same team? Don’t we work for the same boss? And yet, not only has the body of Christ divided into thousands of denominations, but churches split and congregation members are at odds over all sorts of political, social, and theological issues. That’s why I think Jesus prayed for unity, because he knew how hard it would be for us to achieve. So, how are we doing? Is Crestwood united, as Jesus prayed that we would be one?

Well, that depends on what you mean by “united.” On our American currency, you’ll find the phrase “E plurabus unum.” You know what that means, right? “Out of many, one.” We are made one by virtue of being citizens of this great country. Doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. Doesn’t mean we have to like each other. Our oneness is not up to us; it simply is, by virtue of where our citizenship resides.

The same is true of our unity as believers in Christ. Unity is not an achievement to strive for; it’s a gift we’ve already been given. We can’t gain unity, but we can choose to live like it doesn’t exist, letting ourselves be divided by things that are inconsequential compared to the love of God that unites us. But we have already been given the gift of unity through our faith in Christ. Doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. Doesn’t mean we have to like each other. Our oneness is not up to us; it simply is, by virtue of where our spiritual citizenship resides. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are “Eplurabis unum.” Out of many, one.

Here at Crestwood, we are one in the midst of our differing beliefs and ways we live out our faith.  Unity is a shared witness, not an intellectual agreement. I know a church here in Lexington that requires all its members and anyone who uses its building to sign a document stating they adhere to certain beliefs and teachings. But I didn’t hear Jesus say that unity is based on believing the right things. Instead, he said that we are one as believers because he and God are one. We are united by God’s love for us, not our ability to check all the right boxes on our spiritual inventory.

Well, if we are already united through Christ, we’ve got some work to do to change people’s perspectives about what it means to be one with each other, and that change has to start with us. Joan Brown Campbell writes about unity, “The ‘many’ who must become ‘one’ speak different languages, come from different cultures, worship God in many different ways, and are separated geographically – yet are united by a communication system that gives us the play-by-play of war as it happens. We are united to mothers and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, to factory workers in China, and to the people answering our questions from the call centers in India.” If unity is still our polar star, and I believe it should be, then we have to acknowledge the human limits we have placed upon it. If unity were up to us, we’d only unite with people we like. The work of unity starts by admitting our unity has boundaries, and then having the courage to cross them, in Jesus’ name.

As impossible as it may seem to claim the unity we have been given by God, there is a way forward that we in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) can claim as our source of hope. It’s the table. The table is the place where we are welcomed, in all our glorious, messy diversity – to sit down and share a meal next to someone that we might never associate with otherwise. When we hold the tray for someone, we are uniting with them through God’s grace and generosity. But we’re not only uniting with them. Through the bread and the cup, we are united with all who profess belief – and all who aren’t sure what they believe. When we take communion, we proclaim once again that unity is our polar star, guiding us to seek and celebrate our commonalities in a world that highlights differences. Communion for us is, as one pastor said, “the world in a wafer.”

Sometimes this concept of unity seems unreachably far away. But Deitrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality in which we may participate.” Unity highlights the fact that, if we are going to make it, we have to acknowledge and celebrate the interdependence that binds us together as human beings. I am connected to you. You are connected to me. And we are connected to those around us, those like us and those not like us. If we forget that connection, then those not like us become Others, and the body of Christ once again fractures. To claim that “unity is our polar star” is not to claim we all have to be and believe and behave alike, but to say with confidence and compassion that we are the one body of Christ, bringing together our diverse gifts and voices and ways of believing for the purpose of glorifying God and making God’s will known. It seems like, in our world today, we have forgotten a very a simple fact. There is no “them”; there is only us. E plurabus unum. Thanks be to God.

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This Week’s Sermon – Do It Yourself

Philippians 4:4-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do It Yourself
Phil. 4:4-9
Oct. 15, 2017

Our garage has a loft in it. It’s a nice benefit to have, because it gives us a space to store all of our junk, instead of storing it in our basement. Actually, we have junk down there, too, but now we can have more junk and still fit both cars in the garage. Score! The only problem with our loft is that it’s about ten feet off the ground, and there’s no easy way to get to it.

So, I decided to build a wooden ladder for it. What qualifications do I have to undertake such a project, you ask? Well, let me share with you my extensive resume. I’ve been on several church mission trips, including one where I cut out a window space in the wall of a Habitat home. The construction supervisor was very impressed with my window-cutting skills, and said it would have been even better if I’d cut the window into the correct wall. I hope the family living there appreciates the extra natural light I provided for them.

Let’s see, what other qualifications do I have to build a ladder? (Pause) Yeah, that’s about it. But I did what any budding handyman does these days. I Googled it. It didn’t look too difficult, and I had the right tools, and I got to use my power saw. Vroom vroom! So, I bought some wood and some nails, made a few cuts, pounded some boards together, and…ta da! We now have a ladder to our loft. To this day, I am the only one in my house who will set foot on that ladder. Leigh will say, “Where are the Halloween decorations?” I’ll say, “They’re up in the loft.” She’ll pause and say, “Um…I’ll let you get those.”

There are a lot of things I’ve learned to do myself. Unclog a dishwasher. Tune up a lawnmower. Make toast. Hey, it’s a start! And each time I do something myself, I get encouraged to try more. Isn’t that what the big hardware stores want us to do? Think about their slogans: “Let’s Build Something Together.” “Never Stop Improving.” “You Can Do It. We Can Help.” “Who Needs All Ten Fingers?” I think that place went out of business.

Doing it yourself is in the DNA of our country, which was founded by a group of rugged individualists who only needed one finger to tell the king, “No thanks, we’ll do it ourselves.” And they did. They endured rugged terrain and harsh weather, they built houses and businesses and whole industries, the tackled unsolvable problems like interstate highways and air travel and get both peanut butter and chocolate into an ice cream. We Americans have a long history of being able to do it ourselves.

Which gets us in a lot of trouble, doesn’t it? Because there are some things we can’t do ourselves. And yet, we’re not good at admitting that. We think it shows weakness, that it makes us less than human. So, we trudge forward, thinking we can fix that broken relationship, thinking we know better than the doctors what will help our loved one, thinking if we just try hard enough we can pull ourselves out of that depression. Because isn’t it up to us to never stop improving? Isn’t that what gives us value as human beings?

Paul knew differently than this. Paul knew that life will throw some problems at us much thornier than building a ladder. Paul knew that sometimes we will face situations in which we can’t do it ourselves, and even Googling it won’t light a path forward for us. And, Paul also knew that when that happens, our typical response is to have anxiety about what’s going to happen, because it’s out of our control. “Let’s worry about something together.”

Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He isn’t writing this from some ivory tower or a library filled with fine leather-bound books and smelling of rich mahogany. He’s writing it from a Roman jail, probably not long before he was executed. So yeah, Paul knows a little something about worrying and life not going according to plan. And yet he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Paul then reminds the Philippians that the Lord is near. This probably means something different for us today than it did for them back then, and remind me how incredibly flexible the Bible is as a living document. The prevailing belief in Paul’s day was that Jesus was coming again at any moment to vanquish the Romans and usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, Paul didn’t have to worry about rotting away in jail because Jesus could drop in at any time. Why worry when the Lord is near?

Two thousand years later gives us a relaxed perspective on the Second Coming. That doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t coming again soon, but the thrill and urgency of that promise have worn off a bit. So, for us, “the Lord is near” is not a promise about what might happen, but about what has already happened. When the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Jesus Christ went from being a person to being a presence, a presence that surrounds us and infuses us and inspires us. Christ is with us everywhere we go, from down into the pit to up a homemade ladder and all the other scary places in between. Why worry when the Lord is near?

Whether we believe that or not is often reflected in our generosity. If we don’t believe the Lord is near, and that our own security and happiness is completely up to us, then we’ll hold on tightly to what we have for fear of losing it. But if we believe the Lord is near, that it’s not up to us, then we are free to release our grasp on the blessings we have so that they can be shared with others. As you think about your giving this morning, are you giving out of joy, trusting that the Lord is near?

Because of Christ’s presence, Paul reminds us, we aren’t called to do it ourselves when it comes to navigating the winding roads of life. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We have been promised by our Creator that we are not alone, and all we need to do is turn to God with our fears and our worries. And what happens when we do that? Paul says in the next verse, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Now that’s even a better answer than Googling it! When we don’t try to do it ourselves, but instead lean on God, our reward is peace. That doesn’t mean our problems are solved or our prayers are answered in the way we want them to be, but it does mean that we will find peace in the midst of our struggles. Can we live in peace in the midst of this crazy, conflicted life? We can do it, but only if God can help.

But we know us, so we know we will still get distracted by the challenges life throws at us. And we know we’ll still try to do things ourselves. And we certainly know we’ll get frustrated and angry and resentful toward God and toward each other. Just as we have the capacity within us for God’s peace, we also have the capacity for acts of great evil and destruction. And sometimes the difference between the two is determined by where we choose to focus.

There are plenty of things in this world that can drag us down into despair. Each week presents a new tragedy, a new natural disaster, another unspeakable act of evil. It’s overwhelming. It’s paralyzing. For those of us who like to do things ourselves, we feel completely helpless to do anything at all. What do you do when Las Vegas happens? When Puerto Rico happens? If we let it, it can consume us, distorting our view of this world and eclipsing the goodness and grace that still exists around us. We trust that the Lord is near, but sometimes he feels awfully far away.

So, knowing the human tendency to want to do something, Paul does gives us something to do.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Want to do it yourself? Start by making sure your mind is filled with these kinds of things. Paul’s not saying that if we think about these things, everything else will go away. He’s reminding us there’s more to this world than what we hear on the news or see on Facebook. The Lord is near. Therefore, we need to balance the darkness that clouds our minds with the light of Christ that shines through. We need to make sure we’re not losing sight of the goodness and grace around us.

I read several different translations of that list and want to share a few of them with you. Just listen to how these words of Paul are translated. One of the words Paul uses is “true.” That also translates as “honest” or “honorable.” But one translation says, “that which has the dignity of holiness upon it.” Some of our thoughts are worthy of being called “holy,” others aren’t. Are our thoughts characterized by things that have the dignity of holiness upon them?

Another word Paul uses is translated in our pew bibles as “pure.” I also found it rendered “attractive” or “winsome.” But here’s the one I liked the most: “that which calls forth love.” Do our thoughts call forth love? Or do they call forth something else?

The last one I want to point out is what our bibles call “worthy of praise.” This was also translated as “fair-spoken.” But what grabbed me was this: “things which are fit for God to hear.” Where is our attention focused these days? How are we responding to the hatred and fear around us? Are we matching evil with evil, hate with hate? Or do we dwell on things in our mind which are fit for God to hear?

Thinking about these things is not a one-time event that we accomplish or get right. It’s a process. Some days we’ll do better than others. Some days our thoughts will be pure, others not. Some days our thoughts will be admirable, others not. Some days our thoughts will have the dignity of holiness or will call forth love or will be fit for God to hear, others not. That’s why Paul says we are to put these things into practice. The word “practice” implies we have to do it over and over again in order to get better at it. That’s something God can’t do for us; we have to do it ourselves.

Let’s not forget that “Rejoice” is a scriptural command. Paul says it not once but twice, a command to find joy in the midst of this worrying thing called life. This is not a command to ignore the realities we face, but to see God at work in the midst of them, to find the things that are pure and true and beautiful in a world of impurity and falsehood and ugliness. And our hope is the more we practice, the closer we get to God’s peace. We may never fully get there in this life, but in this unstable world in which we live, isn’t the idea of God’s peace worth the effort? Let’s be honest, life is hard, and we can’t do this ourselves. Thankfully, we don’t have to. The Lord is near. May we think, may we love, may we give as if we believe that is true.

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Leading the Way

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:13-16 – 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

SERMON
Leading the Way
Matthew 5:13-16
October 1, 2017

Is the world a ruder place these days? It sure seems like it to me. When we lived in Chicago I thought the general rudeness I experienced was a consequence of cramming that many people in one geographical area and then dumping a ton of snow on them. But I’ve noticed a spike in rudeness even in the friendly town of Lexington over the years here. It must be the case all over the country, because the evidence backs it up. A recent telephone poll by the research group Public Agenda found that 79 percent of the people surveyed said that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem today. The pollers said the other 21 percent of callers hung up on them before they could even ask the question.

Some of this increased rudeness is intentional. You can see it in the way people treat service workers like servers and hotel staff. Some of it is even perpetrated by Christians. Friday I was driving on New Circle Road and I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Honk if you love Jesus.” I was able to read it so well because the person driving had just cut in front of me without using their turn signal. I bet they think I really, really love Jesus.

But some of our rudeness is unintentional. We don’t mean to be rude, but our focus is in other places. As I was going into the drugstore this week, I held the door open for a lady who was chatting away on her cell phone. She didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge my act of chivalry. No big deal. But I watched as she made her way into the store, went up and down several aisles, picked up a few items, took them to the counter, paid for them, got her change and left the store – all while still talking on her cell phone. Was she intentionally disregarding the human beings around her? No, I don’t think so. Was her behavior rude? You bet.

I think this human behavior is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd listening to him that they were salt and light. These passages come near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Jesus has just given the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the world’s underdogs, and he’s about to launch into a reinterpretation the laws of Moses for this new era – “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”. But in between, he wants to remind the people listening that they have been put here on earth for a specific purpose, and he uses two very interesting metaphors to do it. As we kick off our Stewardship Campaign today, these metaphors can be instructive as we consider how we can lead the way in being God’s people in our world.

First, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” In modern times, that phrase has come to mean someone who is decent, dependable, unpretentious, and uses their turn signal. While that’s an admirable way to be known, that’s not what Jesus meant. In Jesus’ time, salt had several important uses, and by calling his followers “salt,” Jesus was drawing on the meaning of those utilitarian functions.

First, salt was a purifier. We soak wounds in salt water because, while it burns, it also cleans and refines. The presence of salt has cleansing, purifying power. As salt, we are called to do the same. As one writer said, we are called to have an antiseptic influence on those around us. The word antiseptic literally means “against infection.” Something that is antiseptic is free of destructive or disease-causing bacteria. As salt, we are called not to be infected by the diseases around us – the diseases of greed, hatred, judgment. We are called to be the healing agent in the world around us. In a world of horn-honking and cell-phone-induced apathy and Twitter rants, we are called to be different.

Salt was also used as a preservative. When stored with food, it would prevent bacteria from causing the food to decay. Because there was no such thing as freezers or shrink wrap, salt was crucial to helping provide food for people over a long period of time. Similarly, we pledge our faith to a story that is 2000 years old. Not many things that are 2000 years old are still relevant today. And even this story could die off if we let it. So we are called to preserve it, not only by telling it each Sunday, but by living it each Monday. We are salt when our faith is active, alive, relevant, informing everything we do or say, preserving the living gospel that is each one of us. One of the things our monetary gifts accomplish is they ensure this story continues to be told.

The last use of salt that Jesus draws upon here is as a flavor additive. When added to food, salt draws out its natural flavors and enhances the dining experience. By calling us salt, Jesus is saying that our job is to enhance the living experience by drawing out the divine in the world around us, or as one writer said, “We are to serve as kingdom seasoning.” We bring out the God flavors wherever we go.

One important thing to note about salt as a seasoning: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Have you ever been to a meal and heard someone say, “Wow, that’s some good salt! What brand of salt is this? I’ve never tasted something so…salty! We’ve got to get this salt recipe!” If salt is doing its job, no one notices it, but instead, notices the flavors it evokes. If we are doing our job, we are not drawing attention to ourselves, but to the love and mercy of God in us. As the salt of the earth, we are to purify, to preserve, and to provide flavor. How are we making God known around us? How are we using our gifts to draw out the God flavors in this world?

Jesus then goes on to call us the light of the world, a light we have by virtue of being God’s children. He says since we have this light within us, the last thing we want to do is hide it. That highlights one of the dichotomies of this metaphor. Jesus warns about hiding a light under a basket, but if you do that, one of two things is going to happen: either the light gets extinguished, or the basket catches on fire. Neither are desirable results! A light can’t help but shine. It’s what a light is supposed to do. Jesus doesn’t say, “Try really hard to be the light of the world,” or “Here’s how you become the light of the world.” He says, “You are the light of the world.”

We lose the nuance in the English translation, but in the original Greek, the emphasis in this sentence isn’t on the word “light” or “world”; it’s on the word, “You.” Jesus isn’t whispering this like he’s sharing a secret. He’s shouting it like he’s making an announcement. “YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.” He’s probably doing this because he’s speaking to a group of outsiders and outcasts who struggled to believe they had any value, much less the power to be salt and light.

“YOU are the light of the world.” You already have the gift you need to shine. It’s not a question of if you have it, but if you choose to use it. If we are to live the light that is within us, it should shine everywhere and in everything we do: in the way we treat the clerk at the counter, in the way we drive our cars, in the language we use, and in the way we spend and share our money. We should not only be Christian in the church, but also in the store, the schoolroom, the kitchen and even – gasp! – on the golf course, in Rupp Arena, and on Facebook. This Christian stuff is not always easy, is it?

And yet, even as we are called to let our lights shine so that others may see it, the end goal is not to draw people to us, because it’s not our light. No one kindles their own light. This light we bear is not ours; instead, it is a reflection of the Christ within us. We are not the source of the light, we are the windows through which the light is seen. Just as salt doesn’t draw attention to itself, so the light inside of us isn’t meant to be used as a spotlight shining on ourselves, but as a flashlight guiding the path to Jesus. “Let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

“Before others.” Notice also that Jesus didn’t say, “You are the salt of the church” or “You are the light of the congregation.” The nouns he uses – “earth” and “world” – imply that our mission field extends as far as the east is from the west. There is no place we go, no place too remote or routine or secular, where we are not called to be salt and light.

Sure, there will be times when we don’t live up to this calling. There will be times when we’re feeling particularly unsalty or lightless. We may excuse our behavior by saying, “I was having a bad day when I said that. It was just a little thing.” But little things add up, don’t they? The little things we do and say add up to who we are. And if we strive to be salt and light in the little things, then we are prepared to be salt and light in the big things.

Today, we are asking you to begin contemplating what your pledge will be for 2018. Your monetary gifts are what make the ministries of this church possible. Your generosity allows us to be salt and light as we build homes for Habitat for Humanity, as we provide space for Alcoholics Anonymous and Parkinson’s support groups, as we educate our youngest and care for our oldest, and as we provide worship space for all. How will your pledge add seasoning to our ministries? How will the gift you give light the way for someone else to connect with God?

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether how strongly we believe or how faithful we are. You are salt and light. Whether you’re a life-long Christian, a seeker, an agnostic, a fence-sitter, a new believer…doesn’t matter. You are salt and light. The decision isn’t whether or not you want to be. The decision is what you’re going to do about it.

The next time you have a chance to help someone, will you be salt and light? The next time someone starts to tell an offensive story, will you be salt and light? The next time someone wrongs you and asks forgiveness, or even doesn’t ask for it, will you be salt and light? The next opportunity you have to bring out the Kingdom seasoning and reflect the love of Christ, will you be salt and light? Before you write that post, before you share that rumor, before you make that hand gesture, stop and remember…YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world. With our words, with our actions, with our pledges, let’s lead the way in being salt and light to others.

 

 

 

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