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Communion

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

The memories of Saturday’s Habitat Dedication will stay with me for a while. I think I have attended eight of them over the past ten years. They are always powerful moments, seeing a diverse community come together to work side by side with future homeowners to put a roof over a family’s head. Saturday, I also took home some bodily souvenirs – specifically, three blisters. Between raking and working the sander and the sawsall, I was reminded that I don’t often do this kind of work for sustained periods of time. And even though the rough spots are extremely small, the discomfort takes up a disproportionate amount of my emotional energy today.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

When we read the Psalm this morning, a Psalm attributed to King David, we find the author in a much better mood than the one we read last week. It seems like things are going well for the moment, something he attributes to God, giving glory to the Lord of his salvation. I’m glad for David – I really am. I hope that all of us can read this Psalm at times when we feel at our best and give God the glory. I would also hope that this kind of praise could guide us when we know that others are suffering and in pain. If so, it can encourage us to work beside them so that they, too, could claim the words of this Psalm as their own hymn of joy.

Because when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

It’s a principle, I believe, we know well at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. When one of our members is in distress, we respond, dropping from the roof like care ninjas. We do so not only when those whom we know are affected, but when those whom we have never met are aggrieved. That’s why we build Habitat houses and deliver coffee to Mercy Community Church. That’s why we bring food and fellowship to Journey Men’s Shelter and give groceries away at the Suthers’ Center. And it is why our hearts break when we learn that bullets fly in a Charleston church.

When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Like many of you, my thoughts this morning are tied up in the awful news reports from South Carolina just four days ago. 21 year old Dylann Roof went into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After an hour, he stood up, made racist statements, and opened fire, killing nine worshipers before fleeing the scene.

As has become unfortunate custom in our society, pundits immediately took to the air waves, offering their own take long before any facts were in. There have been calls for gun control, against gun control, removal of the Confederate flag from places of honor in South Carolina, statements on the gunman’s drug use and mental state, framing this as a terror attack, as an attack motivated not by racial hatred but religious enmity…

And while I do think that there is merit to some of these observations, here is what I think we need to hear this morning: when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

I am convinced that Dylann Roof’s attack was, indeed, an attack on faith. I don’t say so because I agree with the talking heads who want to shape their own narrative of religious persecution of Christians in America. Frankly, the suggestion is insulting to real examples of religious persecution taking place, where people really are dying because of what they believe.

No. What I believe is that, when intense racial hatred motivates someone to kill Christians in church, then I do think that something of faith is at stake. If these ideas drive you to murder worshipers, then they have no place in faith. You cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, claim that racial superiority is real. My refrain this morning comes from Paul: “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.” There is no asterisk next to the statement, listing exceptions based on race, or nationality, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or denomination. Just as I cannot put my thumb aside until the blister heals, neither can I separate the body of Christ into different parts because solidarity would be inconvenient.

Two weeks ago, several members of our church shared lunch and fellowship with several members of First Congregational Church, a historic African-American congregation in downtown Atlanta. We had initially been brought together by mutual distress from shootings in Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Baltimore and…and…and…The #blacklivesmatter movement that has arisen has been crucial, reminding Americans that we have not eliminated racism. The harder question is, what do we do about it?

This morning, several members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have answered that question by choosing to worship at First Congregational. Like Emanuel AME in Charleston, First Congregational is an old, historically black church in the downtown of a major Southern city.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a symbolic gesture – but it is something. Here at Oglethorpe, we can, and will, pray for the victims and the perpetrator in Charleston. We can, and will, pray for the church on Earth to look a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven. And yet, when we can still talk about black churches and majority white churches, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

So what do we do?

There is, I think, in our culture, a desire for the quick fix. There must be something we can do immediately to make everything OK. Prayer vigils and marches and demonstrations have been taking place all over the country, a sign of our hunger for a timely response. And that is all good. And yet, the truth is that solutions to deep-seeded problems take patient diligence for the long haul. So, let’s get started.

Think about your friendships. How many of your friends are unlike you? I don’t mean the cousin that votes Republican while you vote Democrat. I mean really unlike you? Different in politics, race, religion, sexuality, age, economics, and so on? Have you, in your own life, sought to cultivate such relationships? Because in the end, that’s really the only way that we can build the kingdom of God, is if we do it together.

God’s desires are not fulfilled when we exist in our own little silos or ghettoes, segmented off in our echo chambers of self-congratulation. God’s desires come into being when the things we thought we knew about the way the world works are challenged and strengthened because we are with those unlike us who are no less or more created in the image of God.

Can you think of someone with whom you can cultivate a sustained relationship of difference? I’m not talking about one-stop cultural tourism; although, if that’s all you’ve got, it’s at least a place to begin. And if you don’t even have that, then spend some time thinking about why not.

Is there a neighbor you’ve failed to meet or welcome? Or a colleague at work you haven’t invited to lunch? What about your activities? Are they all within the circle of sameness? What would it look like to break out, to reach out, to get out of that cycle? Where are the possibilities for making that happen?

If any of this rubs you wrong or overwhelms you at the mere thought, then good. Faith is rarely about doing what comes easy to us. Instead, this kind of culture shock can be the most faithful thing we do. It can be disorienting, but that’s because it points us toward reorientation, shifting us toward God’s vision.

I remember the first time I attended a Greek Orthodox liturgy. I was utterly lost. I had experienced a variety of Protestant and Catholic services, and knew generally what to expect. But none of them had prepared me for the culture shock of Orthodoxy. Fortunately, I had several friends who were patiently willing to explain it to me. And there was one piece in particular that moves me to my core.

As the priest prepares the chalice for communion, he takes a large loaf of bread. A stamp has been pushed into the soft dough, filling the baked bread with symbolism. The priest takes pieces of this loaf, cutting them one by one, placing them into the chalice. First come pieces representing our ancestors in faith. Then come pieces for the prophets, the angels, the saints of the church. And then come the prayers of the people: their joys and concerns, each offered up as a piece of bread, dropped into the chalice of wine, and mixed together.

It is out of this chalice that the people receive the bread and wine. It is as though their prayers, their joys and triumphs, their concerns and defeats, become one with those of the whole history of salvation, culminating in Christ himself. And right there, stamped into the same bread, is this statement of faith: Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory; Jesus Christ is victory. Just as Christ carries our burdens, giving us the victory over adversity we so desire, so we, too, share in one another’s burdens. After all, when one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.

Friends, this life of faith is not the easy path. The good news, though, is that we do not travel it alone. It is all about doing it together, with Jesus at the center of all that we do.

The table stands at the center of our worship, because it belongs to Jesus. And when we are around this table, as God’s people, looking into one another’s eyes, we begin to see glimpses of what God desires.

We haven’t said much about it today, but the word around which we gather is “communion”. It simply means together…as one. And that is what this feast is. It is a feast much larger than this table could ever hold. It is a feast that bridges all of those gaps that divide our world and our society. And in doing so, the hope, the outlandish but realistic hope, is that our glance around this table would open our eyes to all of God’s glorious children.

Amen.

The Lord’s Supper

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

Throughout June and July, as our worship focuses around the table, we are taking a closer look at what it means when we gather here: our practices, our habits, our customs, even our language. I know that we come from many different backgrounds and traditions, which are all, somehow, brought together in the feast. Today, we consider what it means to call this the Lord’s Supper.

There are really two poles around which the Lord’s Supper hangs. And both of them derive directly from Christ’s own words at the table. When he broke the bread, he said, “This is my body.” When he poured the cup, he said, “This is my blood.” And he commanded his followers to do likewise, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For some of our co-religionists, it is the statement about body and blood that is most important. When they gather, and when the priest says the words, the bread and cup are transformed literally into body and blood. For them, there is no scientific claim at stake – it becomes a mysterious, holy, sacred moment when ordinary things achieve unrivaled perfection. Time and space are suspended as the congregation becomes, for that moment, connected with the ancient meal and with Christ’s sacrifice.

I remember attending a Catholic service, where a bishop was presiding over the feast. Among the many who responded to the invitation to come forward was a bee. As the bishop waved it away, he knocked the chalice held by the deacon next to him, sloshing wine to the floor. Priests and seminarians sprinted to the scene, like an Indy 500 pit crew. They dove on the floor, wiping with special cloths and pouring holy water to clean up. After all, this wasn’t just a party foul in need of some Morton’s Salt or seltzer water – sacred blood had been spilled!

On the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who believe that what we do at this table is simply a memorial meal. The real thing happened once, and only once. All we do when we break bread and drink cup is remember. It is a sacred memory, to be sure – but what begins as bread and cup continues as bread and cup and ends as bread and cup. We are here, quite simply, to be reminded of what Jesus did for our sake. But this body and blood stuff? No thank you.

Based on what we have etched into our table here, you might have a guess toward which end of the spectrum we fall. And yet, in historical and theological terms, this is a bit misleading. You see, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was real wrestling going on within the European Church about this whole notion of body and blood. The dominant Roman Catholic Church held fast to this concept of the transformation of the elements, on a real, material presence of Christ.

The leadership of the Protestant movement pushed back with different concepts, which they also insisted came from Scripture. Martin Luther claimed there was a simultaneous kind of change going on. He agreed about the real, material presence of Christ, with a slight nuance. The bread was still bread, but at the same time, it was also body. The cup was wine, but it had also become blood.

Then there were the Radical Reformers, the theological ancestors of the modern-day Baptists and Congregationalists. Not only had they gone so far as to stop baptizing infants, a capital crime in some regions. They also insisted that there was nothing more at stake than sharing a meal together, just as Jesus had done with his disciples.

John Calvin, the theological fore-runner of the Presbyterians, was actually much closer to the Catholics and Lutherans, but with an important difference. He spoke of a real presence of Christ – but it was a spiritual presence, not a material one. The bread stays bread, and the cup stays cup. But Christ is truly present in Spirit when we break and bless. After all, as Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or more are gathered…I will be in their midst.”

My own theology of communion holds pretty close to Calvin’s, that the change taking place is a spiritual one, transforming the elements and those who receive them. At the same time, I draw some wisdom from older Eastern Orthodox traditions. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Orthodox Church had a more limber sacramental theology. There were ancient church theologians who held close to this Catholic notion of transubstantiation, or bread becoming body, and cup becoming blood. And they had contemporaries who sounded much like the Congregationalists, that the meal was an opportunity to be reminded of the ancient meal. As long as you were somewhere in between these two, you were on firm ground. It wasn’t until both Catholics and Protestants headed East to recruit the Orthodox to their side in the debate that their sacramental theology become more rigid.

As far as I’m concerned, I am grateful that I don’t get to set the standards or of what kind faith others bring to the celebration.

After all, it is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus, not Aquinas or Luther, was the one who broke the bread, poured the cup, and uttered the words. Jesus, not Calvin or Zwingli, was the one who suffered, died, and rose again. If the feast is the building, then Jesus is the architect.

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

We can see how central Christ is in all of this in our Scripture lesson from today. The Psalm, attributed to David, is one of desperation. The King cries out to God for salvation. He feels as though he is stuck, sinking, drowning. He is humiliated, ashamed, insulted, rejected. And in that moment, the only thing he can do is cry out – cry out to God, and God alone.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, David comes across as pretty whiny. He is the greatest king in all of ancient Israel’s history – greater than those who have come before, far greater than those who will come after. And yet, he sounds as though he has never been able to catch a break. It can be hard to feel sympathy for David.

Even so, there is something in this attitude that can point us toward faithfulness. We may not be among the pantheon of kings, but few of us have suffered the kinds of suffering that fills our 24-hour news cycle. When we hear about what is happening in other parts of the world and even in other parts of our own city, we get a glimpse of the horrors that others face. For them, this psalm surely strikes home.

And yet, we, too, have experienced pain. Desperation. Disappointment. Loss. Many of us know what it is like to be humiliated, driven as low as dirt. Life overwhelms. Exhaustion sweeps over us. When we try to keep up, it can feel like we’re being pulled under. Those are the moments when our cries become one with David’s: help me, O Lord. Save me. Give me sure footing. Help me to breathe again. Answer me. Turn to me.

And that, my friends, is what this feast is. It is God’s answer to our desperate pleas. I pray that you never experience material hunger and thirst. I hope you never know that gnawing, life-threatening, bodily emptiness, or that your lips and mouths never swell because you cannot get enough water to sustain you. And yet, I am sure that each of us has had and will have moments where we feel caught in a kind of spiritual vacuum. If there is any wisdom in how Calvin understood this feast, it is in the fact that this spiritual void can be just as real, eating away at us from the inside.

And that is why we come to the table to be fed.

After all, it is a Supper. There are material things on the table: bread and cup. They are an answer to our material need for food and drink. And when we share them, when we are fed, they become not only a tangible reminder of the provision God gives us. They also become our salvation, pulling us up from the mud, lifting our heads above the overwhelming waters. They are our spiritual nourishment, filling those real, empty places within us.

And, so filled, we leave the table in order to feed the world in its hunger and thirst. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” it was not a dismissive statement. It was a charge: to face the world and its imperfections head on. We are called not only to recognize the very real, material, spiritual pains that surround us and afflict our sisters and brothers, but to do something about them: to be balm, to be healing, to be embrace.

This past week, as our Mission Committee met, we talked about the various outreach ministries that we support. And in them, there is a common theme: Home. Our Habitat builds put a literal roof over families’ heads. Our partnership with Journey Night Shelter and Interfaith Outreach Home and Mercy Community Church work to be hope and promise for those who have no place to lay their heads. Our leadership in AMIS offers a sense of belonging to the thousands of international students that come to Atlanta. Our support of Thornwell Home works with children and families at risk, both to provide a safe home for those who have none and to bring healing into homes that are desperately hurting.

In each of these ministries, we do not, even for a moment, assume that we are the ones doing them. We know that it is Christ, working through us, that provides this real, material, spiritual hope to those who need a place to call home.

The table is in the midst of a sacred home – Christ’s home. After all, the feast is only the feast because of the host.

I am not the host. You are not the host. This church is not the host. Jesus alone is the host.

And so, we are the guests. It doesn’t matter if you have been to the table 100s of times or never before. It doesn’t matter if you have been to other tables or one table. We are, all of us, guests here. We are, all of us, invited by Jesus to this feast. And so invited and fed, our charge is to make room at the table for all.

Amen.

Feast

Feast

Mural by Sulaiman Mansour, Christmas Lutheran Church and International Centre in Bethlehem, Palestine.

The table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For almost ten years, Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church has had a fluid communion schedule. Rather than holding communion once a month as some congregations do, or having it once a quarter which is the bare minimum Presbyterian congregations are charged to uphold, we have followed the church calendar, celebrating communion on particular feast days. This includes Easter and Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, among others. It has become a way for us to mark the church year by heightening these particular days with a shared feast.

This morning, we begin a new worship series that carries through the end of July. And during that time, we will celebrate communion every Sunday. While worship is at 10am in June and July, whether we are here in the Sanctuary or over in the Chapel, we will gather around this table and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The hope in all of this is that each of us would grow in our understanding of this feast materially and spiritually; how it feeds us materially and spiritually; and how it knits us together as God’s people, so that we would be people of the feast, wherever we go.

As we say often, the table is prepared. Let us keep the feast.

For many of us, gathering around the table reminds us of our own experiences with communion. I am aware that we come from varied backgrounds: high church, low church, no church, and everything in between. Whether it’s processing forward, or kneeling to receive the elements, or having communion served to you on trays, or gathering to sit around a shared table, or no memory or experience at all, I am sure that a wide variety of experience is reflected in our shared history.

When I was a child, the church we attended did not allow children to receive communion until we had taken a special class. And so, on those once a quarter Sundays, seated between my grandparents, I remember the plates and trays being passed over my head, with their untouchable bite-size pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice. My grandmother, never one for playing by the rules, would pass the plastic cup to me after she had finished so that I could taste the little bit of sweet juice that still swirled around the bottom.

One Sunday, a large group of us gathered in Fellowship Hall where the Senior Pastor led us through the meaning of communion. The one thing that stuck that day was his suggestion that we pray after receiving each of the elements. And after that, we were approved to receive. I remember, after eating the bread and drinking the cup, that I would clench my eyes firmly shut, because that meant I was praying hard – really, really hard. What communion meant, in theological terms, was not something I grasped in the least. And yet, it expanded on the simple meaning implied by my grandmother, passing on that taste of juice: I was included.

Since then, I have experienced communion in a variety of ways. In Episcopal churches, Methodist, congregational, Vineyard, non-denominational, high church, low church. I have even received communion in churches where I should have been forbidden from the table, always by the gracious invitation of someone who valued welcome over doctrine.

I have knelt to drink from a shared cup of wine. I have had a wafer gently placed on my tongue. I have sat around a single table, as we passed elements to one another: “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ.” I have had a mix of bread and wine spooned into my mouth. And I am pretty sure that I have had crackers smeared with grape jelly. In all of it, what I have learned is something that I never would have known as a child. While I had been raised to assume that there was only one way to do communion, I had, instead, been exposed to simply one way among many; and that it had simply connected me to this remarkable feast in all of its varied expressions.

I do not consider these practices equal, by any means – at least, not to me. And it is now the element of extravagant welcome that I cherish the most. This, much more than any debate over consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, is what I think this feast is ultimately all about. The bottom line is that the communion table should be a reflection of the tables around which Jesus gathered in his lifetime. Christ sat with people who pushed the boundaries of acceptable first century culture: the sick, the poor, the despised, the marginalized, the hated. He even broke bread with Judas, the one who would ultimately betray him, fully knowing what was to come.

The idea that we could or should set barriers to this table, that there should be hurdles or obstacles, that it should be marked off with barricades and velvet ropes, is something I cannot reconcile with Jesus. That is why we have both juice and wine here, recognizing that there are those for whom alcohol is not a drink of celebration, but a mark of addiction. It is why we have incorporated bread without gluten, because there are those with not only allergies, but debilitating illnesses brought about by wheat. It is why we welcome infants, children, and adults alike here, because ultimately, no matter how much we think we might have learned about the meaning of communion, the most important lesson is that is Jesus who welcomes us, who chooses us to be his guest.

For Presbyterians, our governance requires that a person be baptized before receiving communion. We do not specify the kind or denomination or age, but simply that there have been a baptism. Maybe I’ve got too much of my grandmother in me, but I’m not sure even that requirement holds up to theological or Biblical scrutiny. It is not the Presbyterian Church, or Oglethorpe, or the Pastor that welcomes us to the table. It is Jesus. And I am hard-pressed to remember a meal where Jesus waited to pass the bread until he had verified the baptismal status of all in attendance.

The kind of welcome that Jesus embodies, the radical inclusion of Christ’s table, is at work in the Psalm we read this morning. It is God alone who is seated on high, looking down on heaven and earth alike. It is God who lifts up the poor from the dust, the needy from the refuse, and seats them with the rulers of God’s people. It would be one thing to read this as beautiful poetry, as elegant verse pointing to a heavenly perfection of equality before God. It’s another thing to live this out, to practice this in time and space.

As a child of the Scriptures, Jesus took the meaning of this Psalm to heart. In it, and throughout Scripture, he learned that there was no division among God’s children, that there should be no hierarchy at God’s table. Instead, Jesus took these words seriously to make space for all. And this hospitality threatened the powers that be, those who had a stake in the religious status quo of the day.

With all of the meanings we might bring to this table, I think this is what it is meant to be: a place where we meet on equal footing, where the dusty and refused are made clean and welcome, where the rulers sit, stand, and kneel next to the ruled, where none is considered greater than another in the eyes and economy of God.

If that is how we come to the table, we lay claim to the world as God desires it – not as we would have it be. If we do this, we might become a challenge – even a threat – to the status quo. And I don’t care what your politics are: none of us accepts that the world is perfect the way it is. We may disagree about how it is that we got here in the first place or how we get out of it in the end. What unites us, though, should be our desire to forge this space to welcome the breadth and depth of God’s beloved children. This should a table of righteousness, a table of justice, a table of peace, a table of grace. When that happens, we become people of the feast. And so fed, we feed others wherever we go, extending Christ’s table to the ends of the earth.

My prayer for us, for our summer practice, is that we will reflect on our own memories of the table. And in doing so, that we will be both enriched and stretched as we encounter faithful ways of knowing God and God’s mercy.

Amen.

Engage!

So what now?

Many at Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been taking part in our congregation-wide study Engage, where we spent the last two months taking a deeper look at how our own faith has been shaped by others, as well as the roles we all play in shaping the faith of others. In short, even though it might make us squirm, our subject has been Evangelism: or, how it is that we share our faith with integrity.

In case you haven’t read the headlines recently, we mainline Protestants are on the decline. In the last seven years, the percentage of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Christian has fallen from almost 80% to just above 70%. All stripes of Christians shared in the decline, none more pointedly than mainline Protestants, who went from 18% to 14.7%. In short, the status quo is one in which the American church shrinks.

Though it might be shocking to see these statistics, this really can’t come as a surprise to any of us. Simply looking at our own pews would have given you a hint of this. With summer here, we are more likely to notice the change, when our Sunday attendance is such that we could probably all fit comfortably in the choir loft. And yet, in this context, we are actually faring better than average. Over that same period, our membership numbers and average worship attendance have gone down, but not nearly as much as the national average. Meanwhile, our stewardship participation and giving have actually increased. In any case, we are part of this larger trend of a contracting faith.

I have read more interpretations of the Pew Research data than I care to comment on. Every single one of them tries to pinpoint why it is that Christianity, especially the mainline Protestant “brand”, is shrinking. I haven’t found any of them particularly insightful, as they act more like a horoscope than any kind of analysis, revealing more about the bias of the writer than concrete reality:

“Presbyterians are self-reliant; and yet, we desires relationships.”

“That is so true! They really know us!”

So let me run the risk of adding my own reading of the tea leaves, and put it this way: the status quo isn’t working. More important than that, though, the status quo isn’t faithful. Christianity should be comforting; but never comfortable. Any faith that takes the cross as its central symbol can never be OK with the way things are.

This recent news of decline feels particularly galling because it’s over a period of only seven years. That said, do you know what else is only seven years old? Twitter. iPhone. Facebook. And that’s just in the world of technology. For some of us, these are things that we already take for granted. For the youngest in our community, this is the world they have always known, where phones are things you use to take pictures and movies, look up information, listen to music, watch TV… In other words, we are in the early days of seismic shifts in the world. The fact that Christianity is affected should not be surprising. So what now?

The temptation is to move into panic mode: to implement strategies and throw programs out there in hopes that something sticks. And yet, faithfulness calls us to something different.

Our Scripture today, the first of the ancient hymns known as psalms, sheds light on this. It shares wisdom about the faithful, and how they are like trees planted by streams of water, the psalmist writes. They bear fruit and do not wither. That should be our goal: to plant ourselves, our trees of faith, as close to these streams of living water as we can. It is water, after all, not panic, that gives growth. What I want to encourage us to do is to move into regular spiritual disciplines, practices of being still and knowing God is God, of sitting by those streams of living water, of being well-rooted, grounded, and patient.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the practice of Examen, created by St. Ignatius in the 16th century. It is a daily reflection exercise, a self-examination that asks two simple questions:

  • What gave you life today?
  • What drained life from you?

Over time, this is practice gifts us with recognition of those places where God is at work, those life-giving moments. We learn to live in life-giving ways, like trees of faith planted by streams of living water. It is when we root ourselves in faithful practices, when we come to rely on these habits, that we find ourselves bearing fruit: not just living or surviving, but thriving and feeding others!

And that, I believe, is how we address this crisis of Christianity: not by responding in fear and looking for institutional preservation, but by responding in faith and trusting God’s life-giving presence in Christ.

So what now?

I’m not sure why, but our conversations around our chapel space seem to be a perfect example of this to me.

A few months ago, we bid farewell to Iglesia Cristiana de Restauración, the Spanish language ministry that worked out of our chapel building for seven years (seven years, huh?). They have planted themselves in a new building, where there is room for them to grow and thrive. This left us with the question: what do we do with what is, essentially, new square footage in a community where space is at a premium?

Well, like good Presbyterians, we appointed a study committee. And before we talked about the what, we rooted ourselves in the why. We prayed and discussed and discerned our purpose, and therefore, the purpose of the space. Session then designated the space accordingly, as:

  • daring – that is, that faith in Christ is a faith that always moves beyond what we know;
  • incarnational – a space where our faith can be lived out in tangible ways that our community would recognize;
  • evangelistic – a space that is meant for those who are not yet here;
  • bridging the spiritual and the civic – a space that serves the community’s needs and our central purpose as people of God;
  • flexible – a space intended for multiple uses;
  • quality – it has to be done well, because beauty honors God;
  • maximized – it will be used as much as possible;
  • budget-building – that is, something that will not only be self-sustaining, but would contribute to our financial well-being so as to enhance our mission and benevolence.

What is surprising about rooting yourselves in the “why” first is how it sheds light on the “what”. So the committee generated ideas, sought and received your input, and took all of these possibilities into our many lenses of purpose. And, in good Presbyterian fashion, Session has recommended further study, focused on two possibilities in particular:

  • Designating the downstairs space as a Kindergarten (and possibly an after-school program)
  • Designating the upstairs space as an art/performance space and coffee shop (or a venue rental)

So what now? We research the feasibility of these options and make recommendations to Session accordingly. If you are willing and able to take part in this study phase, please let me know. It’s a short-term commitment. In the meantime, we will use the space several times this summer for worship and other events.

I, for one, am excited about all of this, as it gives us an opportunity to spend dedicated time in prayer and discernment for what comes next – to sit patiently by those streams of living water, to be fed and to feed. After all, what we are about here is to be and do what it is that God is calling us to be and do!

So what now? My friends, it’s time to engage – engage our faith, engage our community, engage one other, engage our God.

May it be so.

Amen.

What needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

In the 16th century, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius changed Christianity forever. He left comfort behind to join the priesthood, establishing the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests.

One of Ignatius’ legacies is the spiritual practice known as Examen. Examen is a daily discipline of reflection designed to develop attention to where God is at work in one’s life. There are many variations on the practice. The one that has come to mean the most to me is one which focuses on two questions at day’s end: What gave you life today? And what drained life from you? The hope in doing so is that, over time, you are drawn closer to those things that are life-giving; and in doing so, you draw closer to God.

It is a practice that parallels with our text from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome this morning. In it, Paul uses the image of baptism, of descending into the water and coming out again, as an image of death and resurrection. Not just an image, though, but an act that binds the follower of Jesus with Jesus. Going under the water, we die to sin. Coming out, we rise, renewed and refreshed, to live in faith and hope.

And for most of us, the journey of faith is not “one and done”; rather, it is one of multiple spiritual baptisms, of deaths and births – some large and some small – that happen time and time again. None of us rise out of the waters of baptism to live lives of perfection. If we do, then we certainly don’t need any of this, since we’ve already got it all figured out.

This leads us back to this daily practice of Examen; and thus our question today: what needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

As Christians, as those who try to follow Christ’s example, we are called to serve others. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be clear, though: we can only love our neighbors if we love ourselves. It is easy to confuse the call to service with a personal desire for martyrdom. But we are followers of Jesus. We are not Jesus. We do not carry the sins of the world. We don’t even carry our own: that’s Jesus’ job!

We can only honor God if we are willing to honor the image of God – that goes for the image of God within others and the image of God that is on our own truest selves.

Faith requires examination. And the purpose of this examination is so that we grow in clarity about what it is that weighs us down. When we do, we also grow in awareness of what it is that the world puts on us and what it is that we pick up of our own accord. Just as there is faithfulness in saying “yes” to things that could possibly make us squirm, there is also faithfulness in saying “no” to things that drain life from us. The thing is that saying “no” is what gives us the freedom to say “yes”.

So what needs to die so that Christ can live in you? What is it that you need to say “no” to so that you can possibly say “yes” to what God is putting before you? What is it that needs to go under the waves so that you can come up renewed and restored?

That’s the essence of our topic today, this idea of weaving the big story with our stories. We have the temerity to believe that our daily lives are sewn into the grand drama of the universe, of God’s creation and redemption and salvation and hope and resurrection. In other words, that Easter morning resurrection was not just a once in an eternity experience. Instead, we should experience that resurrection each and every day. As those things that pull us away from Christ die little deaths, seeds of new life should take root and blossom.

The Sanders have been doing our own version of the daily Examen in our house for a while now. In order to span the generations, we call it “happy sad time”. Each of us shares something during the day that made us happy and something that made us sad. It has become part of our evening ritual every bit as important as brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories, and saying prayers. There are many days that boo-boo’s top the sad list. And yet, the gift that has emerged is a growing awareness of how we interact with the world on a daily basis. It has become our way of figuring out what has to die so that Christ can live within us.

There is, I believe, faithful purpose in practices like Examen. There is also, I believe, practical purpose as well. The paradox of letting things die in order for Christ to live is that, by doing less, we actually accomplish more.

When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we may think we are getting more done. But if we are honest without ourselves, we know that what we do, we do with diminished capacity. We do it poorly. We do it under duress. And we do it with less attention than it demands. If we take seriously our call to self-stewardship, including so-called frivolities like play and sleep, we are actually fine-tuning ourselves toward faithfulness, toward that daily baptism of newness and renewal.

Here’s the hones truth, some good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are only 24 hours in a day. That “to do” list that currently haunts you? It will continue to do so. Whatever it is you have to accomplish, you will always only be able to do so within the confines of the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.

But there’s good news, too. Are you ready? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Whatever anyone else expects you to do with that time, including your own expectations, what God expects of you is to spend that time as stewards of what God has given you! That includes work and obligation, yes. It also includes sleep and rest. It includes joy and fun. It is, in short, an effort to allow our lives to be transformed so that we spend more and more of our time doing those things that give us life.

This past week, my college alumni magazine came in the mail. The first section I always turn to is the alumni news, where I get to see all of the amazing things that I am not doing with my life. Do you know what I’m talking about? How often do we spend time comparing ourselves with others? How often do we marvel at those who have gone on to greatness, and sowing some seeds of disappointment within ourselves in the process?

How much more faithful would it be to focus on what it is that God expects of us? Friends, success is a fraud. It is a false idol. So is happiness, but that’s a topic for another day. As people of faith, we are never called to be successful. We are always called to faithfulness. After all, it is faithfulness, not success, which gives context to our failures.

We are not asked to defy the laws of physics. We are not called to do physical harm to our bodies and psyches in order to please the gods of others’ expectations. What God expects of us is to spend our time faithfully and wisely in order to give glory to God! For us old school Presbyterians, the archaic language of the Westminster Catechism put it this way:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

Our whole created purpose in God’s eyes is this two-fold expression of enjoyment and glory! If we can begin to see our lives through this lens, then the invitation to let things die in order that Christ might live in us might finally grab hold.

Today, we are ordaining and installing elders. In the Presbyterian Church, elders are those we entrust with leadership, wisdom, and discernment. I am very aware that many of our elders and deacons have busy lives. And what we say is that, through the voice of this congregation, God is calling them to these ministries of leadership and service.

I want us to be just as clear about what ordination is not about. We do not ordain elders and deacons so that they can be busier. We do not ordain them to add one more thing to their “to do” lists. If ordination and installation – if leadership and service – are things that drain life rather than give it, then they are not of God. They are not what God desires of us. They are not what God has created us for.

My hope, instead, is that we will live into this vision of letting things die in order for Christ to live within us. So as we absorb the absurd promise that death actually gives way to life, that is when this grand story of God’s purpose really weaves itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Resurrection becomes the moment that smashes our false idols and makes room for Jesus. And when we allow this to happen within ourselves, as we demonstrate that love of self God desires us to know, that is when we can begin to do the same for others, for our neighbors, for those whom God calls us to love and serve.

You see, this grand story, this sweep of God’s history, is not just tied into the lives of those of us here. The bricks and mortar of church buildings cannot limit God’s tapestry. God’s weaving is meant for all created in God’s image. The disaster is that there are so many of God’s children who either think that God doesn’t care for them at all or who believe that God expects more of them than they can ever reasonably accomplish. Our role is to let them know otherwise, and that there are communities of faith that practice realistic, faithful expectations so that the world can look more and more like the one God desires.

So here is my invitation to you today. I invite you to adopt some version of that daily examination, the Examen, in your own lives. I invite you to spend a few minutes at the end of the day reflecting back on the day’s events, taking note of those things that gave you life and those things that drained life from you. I trust that as you do so, you will grow in awareness of those things that ought to die so that Christ can live in you.

I also trust that, as we grow in our awareness of Christ’s presence, we will be able to nurture that awareness in others, to invite them into the astonishing journey that promises life out of death.

Amen.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Our lesson this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. He has been busy traveling and preaching, spreading the gospel as he goes. This particular church, though, is one he did not start. He is coming to visit them, and wants to establish some kind of connection before his arrival. What he doesn’t yet know is that Rome is the city in which he will die.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

It is also important that we remember where Paul came from. He was a Pharisee who went by the name of Saul and, in the early days of the Christian movement, he was one of its fiercest opponents. He oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen at the hands of a murderous crowd. His dramatic conversion came while he was traveling up to Damascus to continue this cruel work.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

All of this, of course, comes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the hope of the world, had been betrayed by those closest to him. He was tried, tortured, sentenced, and executed. And on the cross, he breathed his last before being buried in the tomb.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

The early days of Christianity seem to be most pronounced by their suffering, a reality that continues to shape so much of Christian theology. There are places where this is still true. One need only speak with the families of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians viciously beheaded by ISIS militants to know that this is true.

At the same time, our situation as 21st century American Christians is about as far removed from these kinds of contexts as possible. Our day-to-day existence is relatively carefree. We may be living in a society that is less and less “churched”, but the truth is that this is something we have to face as a minor inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation. Even so, this history continues to shape how we see the world.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

There are many reasons why I am focused on this question of suffering today. The headlines are part of it – while the world is, in many ways, a far less volatile place to be, the 24-hour news cycle has turned up the temperature to the point that anything – anything – is worth spending hours analyzing. Things are happening halfway around the world feel like they are happening to us. If that drove us to compassion, that would be a good thing; instead, it tends to stoke the flames of our fears.

That’s part of it. But the bulk of it is that I have been spending a lot of time lately with families who are going through their own sufferings. Well-meaning people, in their efforts to provide comfort, offer up their own explanations, things that they would be better off keeping to themselves. And it all seems to swirl around suffering, around this idea that God must have meant for their suffering to happen in order for some greater purpose to bloom and flower.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t settle well with me. It bothers me when people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I most often hear it when ascribing horrific things to God.

In my estimation, no one has ever put it better than William Sloane Coffin. For ten years, Coffin served as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, Coffin delivered the eulogy. In it, he delivered these words that have rung in my ears ever since I first heard them:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

You see, here is the thing about suffering. I do not believe that God causes suffering. If that were the case, I would have a hard time standing up here with a straight face, suggesting that worship is a worthwhile activity. Instead, I believe that God is more powerful than suffering, and can take suffering, broken heart and all, to transform it for the sake of the good that God desires.

There is an Old Testament story that illustrates this best, I believe, that of Joseph and his brothers. They are jealous of the attention that their father, Jacob, showers on Joseph. Not only that, they are bugged by the fact that Joseph seems to lord it over them. They plan to kill him, but change their mind at the last moment and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, somehow, manages to rise through the ranks to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes the land of Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking sustenance and, as luck would have it, Joseph is the one who provides for their well-being. “What you intended for ill,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.” In other words, while is brothers were seeking to punish Joseph for his arrogance, God took what could have been misery and was ultimately able to bring good out of it.

That, I believe, is what is at work in what Paul writes to the Church at Rome. He knows that, as a minority community, they suffer. And while God did not intend nor create that suffering, God is able to take that suffering through a process and transform it into something that is ultimately good. In suffering, we learn how to endure. In that endurance, we cultivate character – a character that is, in the end, steeped in hope. And hope, we believe, has the final word.

The suffering of Christ was transformed into resurrection. The suffering of the early church was transformed into Paul’s conversion. And the suffering of Paul was transformed into the growth of the church. This is our hopeful inheritance! This is what the church exists for! This is the church into which we baptize: a community that lives to make hope alive and real in the world.

Friends, there are many out there who have rarely, or even never, set foot inside a church. To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There are many churches that have gotten convoluted in their purpose. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The kingdom of God isn’t there for the sake of the church. The church is there for the sake of the kingdom.” In other words, we are not the perfection God desires. Instead, the church is meant to be the vehicle through which the kingdom is built. Sometimes that building is quite literal, as Habitat homes go up. Sometimes, it is built in the subtlest of ways, in prayers that come in moments of desperation. Whatever the case, we are called to be those builders!

There are many out there who need and deserve to hear this word of hope. In the absence of it, we are fumbling in the dark, creating God in our own image and finding meaning in all the wrong places. Without it, we are vulnerable to bad theologies and empty platitudes that may be offered with the best of intentions, but often do more harm than good.

Instead, when we recognize that God has not given up on us yet, and when we share that gift with others, we begin to sketch the outlines of God’s desires for us in a world where suffering still exists. But rather than seeing as suffering existing for its own sake, can we begin to see it as something we might have a hand in transforming?

After all, suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Above all, though, let us remember this important point: we are not just the church when we are inside this building. If we are, then we have confused the kingdom with the church. As the children’s song puts it, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.” It is not when we enter this place, but when we leave it that we truly become church, called out and into a world that suffers, a world that hungers and thirsts for hope.

And that hope? It does not disappoint; because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, now and always.

Amen.

There may be missteps in the journey of grace; but the destination is still a good one.

Our lesson this morning follows the leaders of the early church as they move through modern-day Turkey, bringing the gospel with them as they go. Paul (who was once known as “Saul”) and Barnabas are the evangelists to the Gentiles, taking the word and promise of Jesus beyond the Jewish sect of Christians and out into the broader world.

As they depart Antioch and enter the city of Lystra, they encounter a crippled man whom Paul, somehow, recognizes as someone who believes he can be healed. And he is. The result, however, is not what they anticipated. First, the crowds are convinced that the gods have taken human form and begin to worship and sacrifice to them. Second, Paul and Barnabas do, indeed, take the opportunity to preach about Jesus; but the crowds pretty much ignore them. Third, our lesson stops short by one verse to what I see as the real crisis: the local Jewish community overwhelms the crowd, forcing Paul into a fate he once forced on others: he is barraged with stones and left for dead. Let’s just say that this day probably did not go the way Paul had hoped.

Have you ever had days like that? Have there been times when you can see the destination at hand, but the closer you get, unforeseen obstacles rise up to block your way? If not, then please leave, because you’re making the rest of us look bad!

I am pretty sure all of us have had those moments – whether in faith or in anything else – where the journey gets tough, to say the least. We know where it is we are headed, but as we approach, we lose footing. We are beset by something unexpected. Unanticipated crises knock us off course.

There are, for certain, missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, the promise is that the destination is a good one.

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story of faith we say we believe. Sin and grace battle it out. And while sin may lurch ahead in the short run, nothing can outpace the outrageous abundance of grace that surrounds us.

It’s there in the story of creation. God makes and calls good. The snake tempts and leads astray…but God stays faithful.

Then God makes promises to God’s people. They forget and throw their weight behind other gods…but God keeps God’s word, sending prophets to encourage and cajole them back toward faithfulness.

God’s people still don’t quite live up to their end of the bargain, so God decides to show up personally. And this Jesus loves, heals, graces, forgives. This perfect mercy, however, is too threatening. Jesus is betrayed, sentenced, sentenced to death, killed, and buried. But God isn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.

The long arc of salvation seems to be marked by this push and pull, even today. God stays faithful, and we are grateful. And then we forget and wander off…but God is committed to this promise, this trust that we are far more worthy than we seem to be able to demonstrate. When we are desperate, we call on God. When things are good, though, that’s when we think we can take a break from God…until things get bleak again. And our personal cycle from faith to distrust to pleading and back again continues.

And yet, if we look closely enough, we can see the key to staying in focus right there in our own fumblings. You see, no matter what, God believes in us. Despite all evidence to the contrary at times, God still believes in us! It’s as if when all we can see is an empty shell, God sees our purest selves and calls out in that still, small voice: “I’m not done with you, yet. There is far more good to be done.” At the times when we find ourselves stranded on the margins, whether by our own doing or by the doing of others, that’s when God comes to us, healing us, restoring us, loving us more than we think we deserve.

Our calling is to take that character of God we know in Jesus and to mirror it to the world around us.

That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas were doing in Lystra. They saw this man who, in all likelihood, had simply become part of the scenery in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this people had stopped even seeing this crippled man, so used were they to his injuries and imperfections. And yet, Paul immediately recognized him and his suffering, saw his faith and desire, and reached out in compassion to love and to heal.

That’s what the church is supposed to do: to see those whom others have stopped recognizing. We are supposed to reach out to those on the margins, to extend a helping and healing and praying hand of comfort and courage. This is why we do Habitat builds. This is why our hearts break when we read of massive earthquakes in Nepal and terrified refugees in Syria. This is why we are so distraught when the world doesn’t go the way it should: because we have that glimpse of God within us and know the world can be a better place than it seems to end up so often. We can sense God’s desire and feel God’s heartbreak for a broken world.

This is our call, friends: to be those instruments of grace, the hands and feet of Christ in a world that sometimes literally crumbles before our eyes. There are times when we move forward. And there are times when we are knocked back, when the missteps seem take over the journey. And yet, the destination is still in God’s hands and is one of goodness.

After Paul is left for dead on the streets of Lystra, he and Barnabas leave for Derbe, where they meet with more success in sharing the good news of Christ. From Derbe, they head back to Lystra, where we are told they encourage the believers. In the end, it seems, despite all evidence to the contrary, their initial work had actually paid off. Even though it first appeared that they had been ignored, and even though their lives had been threatened, the gospel had taken root after all. How? Was it the healed man, becoming God’s messenger and proof of God’s goodness? Was it the crowds who saw Paul lynched, moved to compassion and sympathy? Was it that the evangelists’ words of caution about Zeus and Hermes rang in the people’s ears long after Paul and Barnabas had left?

Whatever the case, despite the missteps and obstacles, they journey continued on toward goodness.

You see, that’s just the thing: what matters, among everything else, is that Paul and Barnabas are crystal clear about what it is that motivates and moves them. When they are greeted as gods in human form, when even the priest of Zeus is convinced that it’s best to break out the sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas remain steadfast in their devotion to God. They do not take the glory for themselves, but seize the opportunity to let the confused crowds know that it is the power of Christ within them that brings this healing. It may not have sunk in at first, but eventually, their witness bears great fruit.

Do we do this?

We might not ever be in the position of bringing a crippled man to dancing. And yet, we might be among those who bring healing to a fractured community. We might be among those who allow a struggling family to celebrate the gift of home ownership. We might be among those who extend a hand of compassion to those who are broken down. We might be among those who reach out in grace to those around whom the world is crumbling. Whatever it is, if someone were to ask us why we do what we do, would we be able to give an accounting? Could we point toward what it is we believe about God’s story of creative purpose? Can we speak to the hope of Christ within us, even when the world seems to be pointing in the other direction?

Friends, there may be missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, no matter what, the destination is still one of goodness. That much is sure. When we draw on our own strength, it is likely we will run dry. But when we lean into each other and God’s strength that knits us together, that is when we are likely to do signs and wonders that point far beyond us and to the God whom we worship, serve, and love.

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