Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling”

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling
Date: July 28, 2019
Scriptures: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

“We know through painful experience that
freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Let us pray:

God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.

I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.

I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.

I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.

I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.

The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.

Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.

When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.

People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.

I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.

It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”

It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?

The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.

One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.

When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.

I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?

I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.

What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Let us pray…

Seeing Stereoptically

I recently was certified as a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation #39. As a result, I can now read whatever books I would like to read! So, I went back to a book that one presenter Dr. Amy Oden wrote and found a book in her footnotes. As a result, the first fun book I am reading is “Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. What is fun about studying church theology? I can spend two years in this book without being rushed… What a luxury!

Today, I started reading a book I chose to read! In the preface to Caferro’s book, I found the following statement: (preface, paragraph 3)

Of course, the different avenues that lead to early Christianity give us differing visions of what it was like. But they supply different views of the same thing. We cannot oppose, say, popular to official Christianity; instead, we must seek to use the two angles stereoptically to gain a deeper imagination of the early Church.

Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. (preface, para. 3)

Ordinarily, I skim through the preface of a book; however, this statement caught my attention. Caferro is discussing a comment in Cult of the Saints by Peter Brown. According to Caferro, Brown suggests in his book that “more can be done by attempting to understand the cult of the saints from other points of view.” Caferro points out an inference that “no one approach is correct, but that there are many valid ways of gaining an understanding of the early church.” (ibid)

This quotation caught my attention because it holds a truth that seems worth noting in our day and age. The other day I was discussing the tension between dueling viewpoints in a post called “‘This is my song’ and John Chrysostom.” I noted that there was a tension between my love of the song and the lessons I am learning through studying early Church historical figures.

Can you understand this light entirely by only looking at one side?

Caferro’s quotation is interesting because it provides room for thought. What if the tension reveals a deep truth? What if there is something to be learned about looking at the tension from different angles? What if we can lessen the tension through intentionally looking at the challenge stereoptically?

For many years I had a far more dominant eye because of a condition called keratoconus. One eye could see clearly so I learned to drive and function with what was effectively monocular sight. I had no depth perception because of effectively having one functional point of view.

When I received a corneal transplant, I was almost immediately thrown for a loop. After several years with one point of view I could suddenly see with both eyes. I had depth perception for the first time in years. The result was amazing. I had to take the time to learn to see with both eyes again. When I moved past that tendency to have monocular vision to having true binocular vision I could suddenly see the world in a deeper way.

What if we were to consider that many of the challenges we may face in church culture are fewer issues of diametrically opposed ideas and instead people viewing the same situation from different angles? What if instead of trying to conquer the opinions of others, we accept that they may see something differently? What if seeing together might give each person a new perspective with more depth and clarity?

None of these ideas are new ideas. These ideas are as old as time, but it is still good to remember good life lessons when we have the opportunity.

Let us Ramble: Stilling hunger

I was not hungry as I began my devotions this morning. A parishioner had a bumper crop of hot peppers which she recently shared with me. I was not hungry for food at all as my stomach was filled with an omelette that was stuffed with spicy goodness.

I was not thirsty as I began my devotions this morning. I had an ethically-sourced cup of coffee which sated my thirst quite nicely. The cup of coffee was a good cup of coffee with strong flavor.

I was neither hungry nor thirsty as I began my devotions this morning, but that state of being changed as I spent time in reflection. I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen as I was working through my favorite devotional book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants.” This quote from Henri Nouwen is sourced by the Guide as coming from “Reaching Out”:

“The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.”

As I came out of the reverie, contemplation, and depths of my devotions, I found myself wanting to share this quote with others. There were deeper matters in my devotion this morning, but this was a word I felt needed to be shared for a simple reason. I am not certain the world sees the church in this light.

A Powerful Pair

My devotional and one of my Bibles

 

I grew up in a northern home in a house that was very Protestant. My mother had been Roman Catholic but had become United Methodist when she married my father. We went to a United Methodist Church every Sunday and were taught things like “God loves all people.” There were moments when my family struggled with racism, but I do not believe that is a unique situation. On the whole, we were taught that the church was open to people of all races and ethnicities. My general thought process was that if God welcomed people of every variety into the family, shouldn’t we? Even in the extremely European communities where my family lived, seeing someone of another race was not the kind of thing that made one exclude and hate, so much as just being the kind of thing that made you say “Oh, hey. That’s different. Whatever.” I was not the most enlightened of kids, but at least I was not malicious. I was more ignorant than anything else.

When the time came to be educated about the past of our nation I remember reading stories of the activities of the KKK with horror. I was not just horrified about the way that people treated the “other” in these stories. I was offended by someone burning a cross as a symbol of hatred. I was furious that they would try and use a symbol of love and inclusion to threaten people! The behavior I was learning about was simply unacceptable.

I saw the church as a place where God’s love leveled the playing field of life. I saw the church as the place where we could look beyond our differences and find community. I saw the church as a place where even ignorant kids like me could find a home as we grew. I was absolutely horrified by what I learned. I began to ask questions of youth leaders and my good friend Jim Patterson who was an elder in an urban Presbyterian Church invited me to think deeply about what united us with different people.

In college I studied with Dr. Middleton who brought a global perspective to my theology, although it was still very much a western perspective. When I went to seminary I studied African religious history and African American religious theology. I was enthralled because the words I was reading were far different than those in my own heart. I literally read “Stony the Road We Trod” to my daughter as an infant on the day she was born because I did not want to fall behind and because she liked the sound of my voice as she napped against my chest. I read, I pondered, I made friends, and I tried to know more and more about how the Bible looked to people who were not like me.

For me, the church had become a place where I could safely challenge my own assumptions, grow deeper in my faith, and help the world to become a better place. When I hungered for knowledge, there was almost always a wise colleague or friend who could help me go deeper. When I thirsted for righteousness, there was almost always some place I could go to work towards a better world. When I had a need to belong, to grow, to work, to live, and to be a part of something greater than myself, the church was there to push me forward.

I do not think the world sees the church in the same way, especially when sometimes the first exposure people have to Christianity is images of burning crosses, abortion protestors with horrifying pictures, or bullhorn wielding “prophets” telling everyone they are going to burn in hell. Not everyone is lucky enough to have been nudged into the path of knowledge, faith, and blessing which I was blessed enough to find in my own life.

I am hungry and thirsty. The coffee still takes care of my natural thirst and that omelette is doing remarkably well at holding off my hunger, but I am hungry and thirsty for other things. The world does not see what a blessing the church can be in the midst of life. I want people to see a world where the church can be a place more concerned with community than regulations. I want people to see a world where the church is more concerned with bringing good food to the table than in meeting the budget so we can have fancier napkins. I want people to know that the church exists to be a blessing. All of our lives are made better each time someone joins in at the table. I wish people understood the power of the church fully active and empowered. Indeed, Irenaeus, the glory of God is humanity fully alive in Christ.

Let us Reflect: Purpose

What does it mean to have purpose? How does someone define purpose? What does it mean to be successful in ministry? I ponder this as I sit and listen to Rev. David Gaewski speak to the state of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. I ponder success as I listen to the good news that the Conference has created 20 newly affiliated congregations. I ponder success as I listen to words about a course correction around sacred conversations around questions of race and white privilege. I ponder success as I wonder about the variety of voices around the room. I wonder about the folks who are present and the folks who are not with us today.

I wonder about these questions and more as I ponder the alteration of the mission statement of the New York Conference. The new statement reads:

“Our Mission: ‘United in Spirit, and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.’

Our Vision: ‘United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.’”

Rev. Gaewski has invited us to consider the question “How can we make disciples of Christ and how can that take place in our context?” Rev. Gaewski speaks of a movement of evangelism into (in my own words) a movement towards deeper discipleship. We are invited to be seeking the well-being of folks for the betterment of the world. We are invited to do these things boldly.

As a United Methodist who serves in this context, I find myself moved deeply. The UCC is seeking to be bold about inclusion. The UCC is seeking to be bold about loving everyone. The UCC is seeking to be a church that seeks justice for all people. This is a bold mission to undertake.

Is this different than the United Methodist mission? Is the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world radically different than a vision of being united in Christ’s love with a just world for all? Well, yes. These are different goals with different purposes.

Is it better to speak of justice or to speak of transformation? Is it better to be bold about loving everyone or about making disciples of everyone? I serve in a place where both missions have a role in the life of my congregation. I don’t know that I could or should decide, but I’ll be thinking about these sorts of questions.