Sermon: Do This…

A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

At my Ecclesiastical Council held back in January, I was asked about my theology of the Lord’s Supper. When I pressed the person asking the question to probe exactly what they were looking for in answer the questioner wanted to know what I thought happened during the Lord’s Supper.  My answer was something along the lines of it does not matter what happens on the table it matters what happens after the table. In other words, I am not concerned about if a change takes place here, among the bread and the juice we have laid out for the celebration today, I am concerned about the change that takes place in you and me. The miracle, if you will, is not in some magic words prayed over bread and wine, the magic, the transformative powers of the Holy Spirit is the miracle when it changes us.

So I have placed the titles of “Do This…” on this sermon today, the World Communion Sunday, so we can focus on what it was that Jesus was asking us to do.  Sure, I believe he was asking us to repeat what he was doing in that upper room on his last night with his Apostles, but I also think he was asking us to “Do” more.

This passage we heard this morning is the first time these words were written.  Paul’s letters are some of the earliest written of the Christian Scriptures; they predate the Gospels by many years. The other interesting part of this is that Paul was not there and it is the first time the words of Jesus were written.

In these words, Jesus speaks about a covenant, a new covenant, a covenant in his blood.

Jesus is saying something like: “This cup is the new covenant, and it cost my blood.”

A covenant relationship is one entered into by two people, perhaps more, but at least two. The old relationship between God and the people was based on the law; there was a condition that the law had to be kept. With Jesus, the new covenant is based on love and not dependent on keeping the law; it is based on the free grace of God’s love offered to all.

But this new covenant goes much deeper than that because there is the “Do This…” associated with it.  So what then is this “Do this?”

As followers of Jesus we believe that we are to imitate his life as best we can in our daily lives. We believe that the bible has been given to us not as a science or history book, but as a guide if you will for how we should live. My personal belief is that this is not to be taken literally but left to us as an example of what we should be able to do.

Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the law, no longer are we bound to obey to the letter of the law now we have the Spirit of the Law that guides us. We are to do what Jesus did, and that is our imitation.

Jesus cared for the least of these and spoke about it often. He does not seek out power, in fact, the only time he is “hangs out” with the powerful is when he is standing before Pilate just before his crucifixion.  He was born humbly in a backwater town in the Roman Empire and had to flee to another country, without a visa by the way, for his life to be saved. It was to the marginalized that he ministered and to the powerful.

Jesus was found with the less desirable of the population, prostitutes, tax collectors, beggars, lepers, women, Samaritans and all the rest. He was reaching out to and ministering to the people that had no place in the temple, they had no seat at the table, and no one was listening to them. He healed the sick, pardoned those that humanity had cast out and in the end, it cost him his life. Make no mistake about it, Jesus was killed by the powerful because he threatened their way of life. Sure, he went willingly to the Cross, but it was those in power that pulled the trigger so to speak.

The Letter of St. James is one of my favorite books of the bible. It is called a Pastoral Epistle or Universal Epistle because it is written not to a particular church, as Paul has written, but to the entire church. James has a lot to say about “Doing This…”

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have worked.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:14-26)

He ends this section with these words:

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

But the words of Jesus sum it up best in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Who are we to minister too?  The least of these. Who are we care for? The least of these. Who are we to consider our neighbors? The least of these.

Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel every day, sometimes use words.” A person’s faith is not contained in a book, a person’s faith is held in dogma, a person’s faith is not even contained in bread and wine. A person’s faith is contained in how they treat the least of these.

Do have concern for the least of these. Do have concern for the poor and needy. Do have concern for the stranger among us. Do have concern for those who look different than us. Do have concern for the widows and orphans. Do have concern for those affected by storms, physical, mental, and natural. Do have concern for those affected by war. Do have concern for those yearning to have the same rights that you and I have. Do be concerned that we are not holding people to the letter of the law when we should be showing the spirit of the law. Do be concerned with and love your neighbor;

Your homeless neighbor
Your Muslim neighbor
Your black neighbor
Your gay neighbor
Your white neighbor
Your Jewish neighbor
Your Christian neighbor
Your Atheist neighbor
Your racist neighbor
Your addicted neighbor

Why?  Because Jesus said, “Do This” in remembrance of me!

The Power to Protest – and Speak Out

By TJ Harper, Associate for Racial Justice for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you. ~ Deuteronomy 16:20

In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to deliver an address at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass was asked to speak about the “celebration of America’s independence” from Great Britain. However, as many of you know, Douglass went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”  Although Douglass had been invited to talk about the freedom of white Americans, he could not do so with a clear conscience; he felt the need to illustrate the hypocrisy of this event, as those people who were enslaved were not celebrating Independence Day. Several months ago, it was said that Frederick Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” One of the things that Douglass has been, and will always be, recognized for is taking a courageous action where others would not; he was not afraid to use the platform he was given to unequivocally condemn oppression and injustice.

The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of God’s unfailing love. ~ Psalm 33:5

On September 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, kneeled during the National Anthem of a football game for the first time, which caused national frustration and curiosity.  During the postgame interview in 2016, Kaepernick explained why he kneeled: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag or a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder [until the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” He felt so strongly about the inequitable treatment of people of color that Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem of each football game in the 2016 season.  Once Kaepernick explained his reasons for kneeling, some people viewed his actions as courageous, while others questioned his patriotism. It is challenging for me, however, to not view Kaepernick’s actions in a similar light to the actions of Frederick Douglass. Kaepernick exercised his constitutional First Amendment right to protest what he believes is wrong.

This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’ ~ Zechariah 7:9 

Kaepernick decided not to renew his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, and instead seek new employment offers as a free agent. However, since March 2017 when Kaepernick left the 49ers, he has not been able to secure employment with another NFL team. Some people thought that since Kaepernick was temporarily unemployed his platform for protest would be destroyed, but that was not the case.  Instead, dozens of other NFL players have knelt during the National Anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick for the past several months. Then recently, incendiary remarks were made at a rally in the South that posed a question to the audience: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**ch off the field, right now, he’s fired?’” As a person of color, this rhetoric is disheartening to me at a time in our country when white nationalists and white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are praised as “fine people” and defended by the notion that “there was violence on many, many sides” (including the counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA). However, people of color who are peacefully protesting by taking a knee during the National Anthem get disrespected.

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. ~ Psalm 106:3

There are things that people of color cannot say, due to fear of possible ramifications. There are places where people of color cannot go, due to fear that their physical safety will be jeopardized. Sometimes when a person of color gets a platform to protest, it is diminished or taken away. As people of faith, we have power to speak out and stand in solidarity with people of color who are being oppressed. We are reminded that our neighbor does not need to look a certain way or have a certain zip code or maintain a certain set of beliefs. We are called to do justice – for all.

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God ~ Micah 6:8

TJ Harper is Associate for Racial Justice Ministries for the Massachusetts and Connecticut Conferences.

Sermon: Tensions in the Wilderness

Exodus 16:2-15

 

This past week there was a lot of talk about the end of the world that was supposed to happen on the 23rd of September.  Well, according to my calendar, today is September 24th, and we are all still here, so I guess they were wrong. The problem with that is since I thought the world was coming to an end on Saturday, I did not prepare a sermon for today and had to throw something together at the last minute, well that is not exactly correct.  Why do we seem to be so hung up on the end of the world?  For generations, people have been trying to “read the signs” to determine when the world is going to end.  But we read in Matthew 24:36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” “Only the Father!”  Jesus is telling us that he does not even know when the end will come, only the Father knows, and he’s not telling.

So here is what I do not get. Nowhere in Scripture can I find a passage that says I need to worry about tomorrow or what will happen in the end. I do find lots of scripture about loving our neighbor and trying to make the place we live a better place and to bring a little bit of heaven right here. But some folks are so willing to follow anyone that they fall for this every single time. Jesus tells us, also in Matthew 24:5 “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.” We are so desperate that we even look to world leaders as the savior and the fixer of all our problems when scripture tells us in Psalm 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”

But it is not just us that do not trust in God look at the people of Israel that we heard about in today’s Scripture lesson.  Moses has led them out of bondage. They had been enslaved by the Egyptians for generations, and finally one has come to lead them out.  Great signs were performed in the name of God to convince Pharaoh to let them leave, and he finally does, the people finally have their freedom and what do we find, they are whinny, ungrateful, little children.

Scripture tells us that “whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron.” This is not just a few folk this is everyone, there was a rebellion brewing here. There were complaining that they did not have enough to eat. They mention the pots of meat they used to have when they were slaves, but now that they have been set free they have no food, they have their freedom but no food, so they complain.  Here is your freedom, but we have no food!

So Moses spoke to God, and God provided. He told them exactly what to do, take just what you need, no more, no less.  Some did, and they had all that they wanted, some took more, and it spoiled.  The problem was, they had no faith.

I think I have shared this story with you before. There was a storm coming, and a man was sitting in his house watching the weather, and the weather people were telling him to evacuate, the man says, God will save me. The government folks say to leave, the man says, God will save me. The rainwater comes, and the water rises so high he is on the second floor of his house, and a man comes by in a boat and says, come on, get in, and I will bring you to dry land, and the man says, God will save me.  The water continues to rise, and the man has to cut a hole in his roof, and he is now on his roof, and the water is still rising. A helicopter comes and drops a rope, and a man yells down, take the rope and tie it around you, and I will lift you up to safety, and dry land and the man says, God will save me. Well, the man dies and is standing at the pearly gates, and God is there, and the man says to God, I trusted that you would save me and here I am. And God looks at him and says, I sent a weatherman, a government guy, a man with a boat, and a helicopter what more do you need?  Apparently, he needed more faith.

We are like the people of Israel at this present time. They were going through a transition, and we are going through a transition. The future is bright but also a little scary we do not know what it will hold. We are standing at the opening of the door but we cannot see past the threshold, and that makes us nervous.  We are people who like to be in control and looking into the future, with no end in sight, makes us nervous and we are not sure how to act. God is saying, it will be okay, I will send you what you need, and we need to have faith that he will do just that very thing. But we have to trust that all will be well.  Will it be easy, nope, it sure was not easy for the people of Israel out there in the wilderness, but they survived.  They got angry and lost faith, but in the end, their faith was restored, once they discovered who their faith needed to be in, not Moses or Aaron, but God.

You all know that one of my favorite passages of Scripture is the story of Peter stepping out of the boat. When I am looking for guidance for one thing or another, I come back to that Scripture, and I think about it and meditate on it. The boat, the water, the storm, they are all metaphors for life, and Jesus is calling us to make bold moves and take steps in faith, and as long as we keep our eyes on Him, all will be well. Peter stepped out and was able to do something that he was not able to do before, walk on water, but the second he took his eyes off of Jesus, the second he started to doubt God’s word, he began to sink. But the story did not end there, even though he doubted, even though he lost faith, Jesus was still there and gave him his hand and raised him up.

Jesus is calling each of us to step out of the boat, get away from what we think is comfortable, throw our foot over the side and do something we have never done before. He is calling us in faith, not by anything that we can do, but to have faith in God, and even if we stumble, and I am sure we will, Jesus will be there to lift us back up. But we need faith and the willingness to throw ourselves over the side of the boat, and take that first step.

Sermon: The Fallacy of Divine Retribution

Last week I stood here, and I asked you to pray for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  This week I stand here, and I will ask you to keep all of those affected by Hurricane Irma in your prayers. At this very moment, in Florida, people are hunkering down as Category 4 Irma, the most powerful storm in recorded history slams into their neighborhoods. I ask you to keep the people of the tiny Island nation of Barbuda in your prayers. I had never heard of Barbuda before the news reported that 95% of the structures on the island have been destroyed and that as of yesterday, the entire Island has been evacuated. Just for some perspective, the population of Barbuda is 1,638 people who are now homeless. This is a dangerous storm that is not over yet.

I have been encouraged by the outpouring of offers to help from the people right here at Bethany. Last week I sent a letter to all of you asking for donations and we will take a special offering today for Disaster Relief, and all week, people have been sending in checks to the office for us to add to what will be collected and blessed this very day.  While storms are still raging, we are doing what we can. We have a plan in the works to assemble kits that will be sent by our partner Church World Service to devastated areas to assist people in cleaning up. The need will be great, and this will not end anytime soon.

But I have also been rather dismayed by the chorus of Christians blaming this on God’s divine retribution and twisting they’re theological understand for some fundraising or political means.  Keep this in mind, people are literally, as we speak, fleeing for their very lives and fine Christian theologians and preachers are telling people this is God’s anger unleashed on them.  Well let me make this clear, that is a load of you know what!

Here are just a couple of examples; One “Pastor” has said that God is systematically destroying America over the homosexual agenda. An on air personality, and devout Christian, when asked about climate change in relation to Harvey said that Houston’s election of a lesbian mayor was a more credible explanation of Harvey than climate change. And just so you don’t think these people are only on the right of the theological spectrum, a Tampa University professor tweeted, during Harvey by the way, that Harvey was God’s punishment on Texas for voting for President Trump. He was fired. By the way, the other two examples I used, they are both still employed.

Now I am not sure where these folks received their theological training, but I was taught that God is love. The pages of the New Testament are filled with stories of love, not destruction. Now I know what you’re thinking, what about the Old Testament there are lots of stories of smiting and what not, sure let’s look at one, the bog one if you will, the story of Noah found in the 9th chapter of the Book of Genesis.  We all know the story, God finds the righteous man Noah, he builds the ark. All the animals come in. The rains come. The earth is flooded. Only Noah’s family and the animals survive.  Now I have some issues with this story but putting that aside for a moment we tend to skip over that last part of that story;

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:11-16

“Never again will I destroy the earth.”  NEVER AGAIN!

That is the 9th chapter of the 1st book of the Bible.  We don’t have to wait long before we hear God say. NEVER AGAIN WILL I DESTROY THEY EARTH! 9th Chapter!

Not enough evidence? Let’s look at a few more.

“For this is like the days of Noah to Me, When I swore that the waters of Noah Would not flood the earth again; So I have sworn that I will not be angry with you Nor will I rebuke you. Isaiah 54:9

But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them; And often He restrained His anger And did not arouse all His wrath. Psalm 78:38

I will not execute My fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, And I will not come in wrath. Hosea 11:9

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last because in them the wrath of God is finished. Revelation 15:1

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

God sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world, and he watched him die.  He could have smited the lot of us, but he did not, he sent his own Son to show us the way and even after we killed him he continues to show us, love.

Our human minds want to find answers to questions about why things happen, and sometimes there is no explanation, and sometimes things happen because of the choices that we or others make. If we put this all on God reduces God to the human condition, and when we do that, God stops being God!

If we think that God punishes us then logically, we have to believe that God is the source of that punishment which is evil and therefore God is the source of evil. But if we read the Bible we see that God is love. If God wanted us to suffer if God inflicted suffering on us, why would he have sent us his son?

Suffering is part of the human condition but it is not God’s divine retribution and to say that is it is to deny that God is love and to say that God participates in evil.

So where is God in all of this? God is right in the midst of it. God is the one in the boat that comes and rescues people. God is in the science that can predict these things to give people warnings to get out. God is with you when you place your hard earned money into the offering plate to assist others. God is in the midst of the suffering bringing us peace and bringing us strength. I have no idea who the God of Pat Robertson is or the God of Jim Baker, but my God sent his Son not to destroy but to love, and that is the example he has left for us.

Prayer in the Time of Natural Disaster

O God, you divided the waters of chaos at creation.
In Christ, you stilled storms, raised the dead,
and vanquished demonic powers.
Tame the earthquake, wind, and fire,
and all the forces that defy control or shock us by their fury.
Keep us from calling disaster your justice.
Help us, in good times and in distress,
to trust your mercy and yield to your power, this day and for ever.
Amen.
The United Methodist Book of Worship

UCC leaders saddened, angered by DACA elimination

September 05, 2017
Written by Connie Larkman

dreamers500.jpgThe leaders of the United Church of Christ will continue to stand with and speak out on behalf of more than 800,000 young people in this country who have applied for and received protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a program eliminated today by the Trump administration.

“The United Church of Christ has a long history, seen in our General Synod resolutions, of supporting and welcoming immigrants in our midst, which is part of our moral responsibility as people of faith,” said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program is a tremendous achievement that has created relief from deportation and work opportunities for nearly 1 million young undocumented people who are part of our communities and our congregations. We are extremely disappointed by the Trump administration’s decision on DACA, but are united in our faith to renew and recommit in this struggle for justice alongside the undocumented community.”

The program, created in 2012 by President Barack Obama, amounted to a work permit and a promise to DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, that they would not be targeted for removal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many of these young people, brought to this country as children, can’t remember any other homeland. They now depend on Congress to act on immigration policy that addresses their future in the U.S.

dreamersvert500.jpgA diverse group of faith, labor and student leaders took to the streets outside the White House today calling on Congress to pass legislation to protect the Dreamers, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the DACA program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said there will be a six-month delay in enforcement and those with current work permits will be able to continue their employment until they expire, with renewals accepted until Oct. 5. But DHS will no longer take applications and will stop processing any new applications as of today.

That directly affects a member of the Shadow Rock UCC community, in Phoenix, which welcomed Jose into sanctuary on the last Sunday in August. He had an application in process, according to the Rev. Ken Heintzelman, church pastor.

“Jose’s attorney said all pending DACA cases will be adjudicated,” Heintzelman said. “We are sad and angry about how this will affect so many others in the near future.”

“This is the time for our faith to launch us into swift, prolonged, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer action on behalf of the 800,000 law-abiding, hardworking, DACA-protected young people, and future DACA applicants in our country,” said the Rev. William Lyons, conference minister, Southwest Conference UCC.

“We call on the United States Congress to immediately introduce and pass legislation that permanently guards the protections and opportunities these hardworking students and workers have received through the program,” he continued. “And we call on every member of our churches, every voter in our land, to overwhelm every member of the U.S. House of Representatives and of the U.S. Senate with calls, emails, and letters supporting ‘the Dreamers’ until such laws are passed. Our calls are consistent with numerous resolutions adopted by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ since 1981.”

Sermon: Spirit Led Life

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21

At a confirmation retreat, the sixty teenagers involved were asked to create a “covenant” that would govern their behavior towards ones another during the course of the three-day event. The room erupted in laughter when one teen shouted, “No drama!” as the first suggestion. Other ideas followed quickly: Do not talk when others are talking. Respect the leaders. Participate fully in activities. Soon the page was filled, and each teen came to sign his or her name in agreement. Over the next few days, both leaders and participants had occasion to remind the group of what they had signed as a corrective to behaviors outside the covenant’s boundaries.

The words that we head read this morning written by Paul to his Church in Rome would function perfectly as a group covenant for any gathering of people of faith.

I do not know much about the craft of weaving, but I do know that the first step in the process is to create what is called the warp; this is the base of yarn upon which the weaver will weave a pattern of weft. What we see here in Romans could act as the warp, or the base to the differing gifts Paul outlines in the previous chapters, and we spoke about last week. This is a covenant that lays the basis for the intricate pattern in the tapestry of life of a faith community. Like the Ten Commandments, this covenant functions as the structure, the core values on which all the activities and ministries of the Church, and of us as individual Christians, are built.

Early on in the days of Church websites, it was important to have a page dedicated to what the individual church believed.  This could be a statement of faith, such as we read today, it could be a point by point list of things and what we believe about them like; baptism, Lord’s Supper, Scripture, Ministry, etc. However, the trend over the last few years is to move away from strict statements about beliefs and more towards what our core values are as a community. What we say are our core values will say far more about us a community than a simple statement of faith. What we believe becomes less important that how we put what we believe into practice and action.

This covenant that Paul puts forward this morning contains everything that we would expect and a few more things that are put there to push us past where we feel comfortable. Paul tells us to “hate evil.” He reminds us to “persevere in prayer,” and to “celebrate with the joyful and weep with the grieving.”  All of these are values that none of us should have any trouble with. But then he throws a curveball at us. He turns his attention away from those that we love to those that we find hard to love.

Paul tells us that our covenant, or core values, should not only be extending hospitality to strangers but blessing, feeding, and refusing to take vengeance on enemies. These very statements may make some of us uncomfortable, but this passage is not a greeting card slogan but a call to what Detrick Bonhoeffer calls, Costly Discipleship.

I think it is safe to say that we were all moved this past week by the images coming out of Houston. Pictures of the complete devastation of “biblical proportions” moved many people to do extraordinary things. Men and women were coming from all over the South to help people they did not even know simply because they were in need and they could help.  Guys with boats, they called themselves the Cajun Navy, came and rescued people stranded in their homes. The owner of a furniture store opened his store as a shelter during the early hours of the flooding, and multitudes of stories.  It seemed that any issues one group might have had with another were washed away by the flood waters.  We say real humanity in action this past week, and it was a good thing. Now the cynic in me just knows that before long we will go back to sniping at each other, but the person of faith in me wants to believe that we will be changed, even just a little, by the outpouring of generosity that we have witnessed these last few days. This generosity cost people time and money, and they did it without thinking of their security and their safety, which is radical love and costly discipleship in action.

We see in the first two verses of the passage today that the tone gets set for the rest of what Paul has to say:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

This type of love that Paul is describing is energetic and profoundly optimistic and is counter to the culture that we live in. As I mentioned last week, the world calls us to do whatever we can, no matter the price, to get ahead of the next guy even if it means lying and cheating to get what we want.

I am a big fan of the TV show Big Brother. I like it for its competitive nature but part of the game is lying and backstabbing, and I think that is why the show is so popular as it shows the real sense of what our culture is calling us too, get ahead regardless of the cost. It should come as no surprise when we see people leaving their homes and going to help others in Texas, this should be as natural as walking down the street, but because our culture is calling us to a radical sense of individualism, we are surprised when we see this outpouring I mentioned earlier.

Paul’s core values that he expresses in the first two verses might best be summed up in a phrase used by Dr. Paul Farmer in the book Mountains beyond Mountains. Dr. Farmer travels the world establishing clinics to treat chronic diseases in areas of severe poverty and inadequate health care. In doing this, he has to deal with not only the medical establishment but bureaucracies and local traditions. His approach is what he calls a “hermeneutic of generosity.”

The hermeneutic of generosity means evaluating people’s actions from an assumption that their motives are good even if, at first glance, one might suspect the opposite. To honor people such as Paul exhorts, which includes, by the way, attitudes and actions such as not being haughty, being hospitable to strangers, and taking thought for what is noble, reflects an underlying hermeneutic of generosity toward those to whom we relate to inside and outside of the church. When presented with this hermeneutic, the teenagers on the retreat included this challenge in their covenant and had cause to refer to it as inevitable conflicts arose during the weekend.

Adopting a covenant including Paul’s exhortation and also a hermeneutic of generosity as core values have an impact on the growth of a Christian community and the work of making disciples. When visitors attend worship for the first time in a congregation that torn by conflict, they are unlikely to return. Growing churches often report that those who join a community after a time of visiting did so because they found in the community a spirit that attracted them by its power of love and hospitality, not just in the way they were treated by church members, but also in the way church members treated each other. Churches are practice fields for living the covenant Paul describes, if we cannot live it inside the church, there is no way we can live it outside the church.

Paul makes it clear that the Christian is called to live a life by a different standard in all parts of their everyday lives. The hermeneutic of generosity is meant to extend to the person driving too slowly in front of you on the highway, the cashier at the supermarket, your coworkers, classmates, family, and even our enemies.

I think we would do well to adopt these verses as our core values here at Bethany not just in lip service and a nice sign, but in our core as individuals. The values of the individual are reflected in the whole so if we each adopt these core values, then the community will adopt them, and change will start to happen.

My Response to the Nashville Statement

On August 29, 2017 a group of Evangelical Christians (you know the ones who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump) calling themselves the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a hate filled screed against anything that they believe is against the biblical view of human sexuality. I will not be posting a link to this document rather I will post a response that is filled with love.

This group of concerned “Christians” was formed in 1987 after, what they considered the rise of secular feminism in the Church and in the United States.  I guess the biblical men were afraid of strong independent woman that they could no longer keep in the kitchen.

The statement says nothing about condemnation of white supremacy, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and was released on the very same day Americans in Texas were fleeing for their lives from Hurricane Harvey.

So my response is this, we shall call it the Quincy Statement:

God loves everyone unconditionally!

End of Statement.

Prayer After a Disaster

Prayer After a Disaster

Gracious God, through your Son you have taught us that nothing in life or in death is able to separate us from your love. Look in mercy on all to whom great sorrow has come through Hurricane Harvey. Help those who are injured, support those who are dying. Strengthen the members of the emergency services and all those who bring relief and comfort. Console and protect those who have lost loved ones. Give your light in darkness to all who despair, and assure them that you hold all souls in life; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.

Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland

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Sermon: Do not be conformed to the World

A Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

There are words, everyday words, whose meaning has changed over time and sacrifice is just one of those words. In the opening verse of the passage we heard read to us today, Paul urges us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice.”  The way we approach this passage today is much different than the way those who were listening to this being read to them shortly after it was written by Paul.

Most of us, sitting here today, have no point of reference for presenting a dead sacrifice to God. Sacrificing animals by way of atonement for sin or as a gift of thanksgiving is so removed from our experience that we have to redefine this term for our present understanding.

When we think of this word, sacrifice, we often come up with negatives in our minds. Parents of athletes often sacrifice time and treasure for their children. Employees are sometimes asked to sacrifice benefits when their company falls on hard times. A heroic soldier sacrifices his or her life for their comrades. Of course, this last example is one of the few times, sacrifice, is used involving the physical body and in this case, can mean death or severe injury.

But Paul calls on us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice.” For Paul, this does not indicate that we are to “take up our cross” in the manner that we will have to die physically in the course of our discipleship, but he also does not rule it out. What Paul is doing is trying body, and living sacrifice to discerning and living into the will of God. Connecting the body in the way Paul has done pushes us past an emotional or intellectual response to “serving God” and causes us to look at the implications for our very bodies when we live out our discipleship to God.

Paul indicates that this may mean we need to do things that will put us outside the norms of behavior for our society, wrapping our minds around what we do day to day in our lives that express God’s will.

The passage goes on to spell out some of those of those expressions. We are called, each according to our gifts, to use our bodies as prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and in acts of cheerful compassion. In verse 3 Paul paints a picture for us that the world does not revolve around us as individuals. “It is not about you.” Paul seems to be saying, “and that includes your body.”

We are all about our individual rights. They are spelled out for us in our founding documents, free speech, freedom of religion, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. All of these freedoms, essential freedoms, involve me, my freedom, not yours, but mine. The world spends a tremendous amount of time telling us how we should live, projects unhealthy body images on young men and women. The world says we have to do whatever we can to get to the top to get the big car, the big house, the 2.5 kids, etc. all the while it is telling us not to care about the person next to us. We are walled off in our cubicles, we sit on the train or the bus with ear buds in our ears, and before the older generation gets all self-righteous, we used to do it with books and newspapers.

So individualistic has the world become that we have no issues with how others are treated as long as we get to do what we want when we want to do it, and how we want to do it.

Friday night I officiated at a wedding of a young couple. They have their whole lives before them. The place was picture perfect, right on the water, the sun was setting behind them, the dress, the tuxedos, the food, the drink, everything had been planned down to the minute.  When I told them that marriage was a sacrifice, I used the word martyrdom, and they looked at me a little surprised. I reminded them that in marriage we no longer live for “I, ” but we live for “we.” We do not lose who we are as individuals but now rather than one person; we are two. Sure, we still have and do the things we like, but tiny sacrifices are made each day, and in an authentic sense we become martyrs for each other, we lay aside what I want for what we want.

The same happens in a community such as church. We, as a community, are on the threshold of a new generation, a reformation if you will. We are in transition and, with the help of God; we have to determine what the direction is that we will take. We have to conform our church body to the will of God, and that means that it is not about what I want, it is about what we want.

All of us have gifts to be used for the building up of the kingdom.  Paul reminds us that we are all part of one body and that if that body is going to function properly, then all of the parts have to work together. Each part of the body works, not to being glory to itself or to meet only its needs, but to ensure the healthy functioning of the whole system. Each of our gifts is be used for the common interest.

A healthy community is a community that can speak openly and honestly about issues that the community has without fear of one another or bullies, and yes, there are church bullies.  A healthy community exists where each person, and their opinion, is valued on equal footing. A healthy community is where one does not need to submit anonymous suggestions in a wooden box, but can speak openly with the leadership of the community and talk about their concerns and their desires.  Discernment comes in many forms, and if we believe that God is still speaking and leading, then we have to listen to every voice because we never know what voice God is going to use. I will remind you that God does not call the equipped, he equips those he calls.

Paul’s instruction to us to not think of ones self-more highly than another ought to help foster an atmosphere where communities may work together harmoniously and productively.

But the opposite may also be true, just as there are those who like to think too highly of themselves there are those of us who might think that their skills and not “good enough” to contribute to the working of the community. Paul’s metaphor challenges us to consider that everyone – every member of the body of Christ in the church – has a gift to contribute to the functioning of that body.

Discernment can be scary, stepping out can be scary, but we do so with faith, and we do so with the knowledge that if we are following the will of God, all will be right and the mission will succeed.

 

 

Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose compassion embraces everyone, gather the outcast and the lost, heal the wounds of fear and distrust, and make us a community of reconciliation that we may embody your merciful love and rejoice in your astounding grace in Jesus Christ. Amen.