The Anger Will Set You Free

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk comes out of your mouths, but only what it useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of the church. While Christians are gearing up for the joy of Easter morning, pastors like me try to slow everything down so that we can take stock of everything that happened the final week before jumping to the empty tomb.

Some churches embody this patience with dramatic performances. They’ll get actors to play all of the characters including Roman centurions guarding the tomb. And some are crazy enough to even bring a donkey into the sanctuary as a way of remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem.

Other churches will slow down the week with special music and scriptures. Every night there will be time for reflection and prayer as a choir leads the gathered people through a few songs, and specific individuals will read the stories aloud from Jesus’ final week.

I got the great idea years ago to preach the entirety of Holy Week in a 15-minute sermon.

This meant that I committed the important details between Palm Sunday and Good Friday to memory as I attempted to guide the congregation through a time of encounter and contemplation. I was as passionate as possible, marching up and down the center aisle frantically waving a palm branch like the crowds who gathered outside of Jerusalem. I set up tables by the altar only to flip them over with as much force as possible to frighten the congregation just like Jesus did at the temple. And even at the end, I got out a hammer and knocked on the pulpit to really bring home Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross.

After the service ended, while I was saying goodbye to the community of faith, more than a few people said the same thing to me. “You sure sounded angry today Pastor, is everything okay?”

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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

There is little truth in advertising. In fact, most of advertising is built on selling us a lie. If you buy this car you will finally find the fulfillment you’ve been looking for. If you go on this vacation, your children will actually love you and respect you. If you take this pill you will shed the extra weight you’ve been carrying around.

But Paul, Paul is a terrible advertiser for the church. While we are quick to make sure people know we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, Paul tells the truth. The church in Ephesus is filled with all sorts of bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. So much so that Paul has to tell them to get rid of it all!

Who in their right mind would like to go to a church like that? Who wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Yeah, I want to try that community of selfishness, and greed, and anger!”

Paul doesn’t mince words. The church of Ephesus is messed up. They’ve got tons of problems with no easy solutions. They’ve got to drop a lot before they can pick up their crosses. The Ephesians would have to give up themselves, their need to always be right, their need to feel superior, their grudges and bitterness. They’d have to sacrifice it all if they wanted to be God’s church.

They’d have to start looking like us! Because we’re perfect aren’t we? From where I stand I see a room of beautiful people, filled with nothing but love and joy and hope. I see people with perfect families, and overflowing bank accounts. I see people without fear and loss. I see perfection!

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin.

What is the truth?

Let us at least admit that we are far from perfect here. We, like the Ephesians, are filled with bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice. They might not bubble to the surface often, or even in church, but deep down we know its there. We know the people we’ve maligned, we know the bitterness we feel toward other, we know the wrath that can show up when we least want it to.

But the anger, what are we do to about the anger? Paul, in this passage alone, tells the Ephesians to be angry, and then later to put away their anger. But anger isn’t always, or necessarily, a bad thing.

Jesus was angry all the time in the gospels. As fully God and fully human Jesus could not not be angry. When he encountered the Pharisees looking on those at the margins of life, Jesus got angry. When he saw what was happening inside the temple of Jerusalem, Jesus got angry. When Peter raised a sword in the garden, Jesus got angry.

And whereas other might caution us against adding fuel to the fire of others’ anger, Jesus’ anger is a lens into the divine desire for a different reality.

Paul cautions the people of Ephesus to avoid conflict, which is a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. But he also knows that conflict is at the very heart of who we are. And, in particular, when we are bold enough to speak the truth.

Because the truth, the hard and unavoidable truth, is that we’ve got plenty to be angry about.

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We’re angry that it’s been a year since the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA and it feels like nothing has really changed. We’re angry that people in our community don’t have food to eat, or clothes to wear, or beds to sleep in. We’re angry that people are treated as less than whole because of the color of their skin, or their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation, or their country of origin.

And we should be angry!

            Being angry isn’t a problem; it’s what we do with it that is.

We can be angry about what happened in Charlottesville, but the people marching and chanting about death to Jews and death to blacks are angry too. They’ve let their anger manifest itself in the violence and degradations of entire populations.

We can be angry about those who are suffering in our community, but there are people who are angry at those who are suffering for no reason other than the fact that they are suffering! They’ve let their anger manifest in selfish ways that belittle people for choices made on their behalf by communities who abandoned them.

We can be angry at all the people who are xenophobic, and sexist, and racist, and homophobic, but those people are angry too. They just let their anger out in horrific ways against people without caring about who they really are.

The line between anger and wrath is slim and mysterious. There is good anger that propels us closer to the divine will, anger that gives us the courage to speak out against injustice in our midst, and anger that provides the strength necessary to imagine a different way of being.

            But there is also anger that propels us closer to violence, anger that encourages us to see the other as other instead of as brother, and anger that justifies a hatred and violent way of being.

There’s a hymn that’s been around since the sixties and is filled with all of the cliché charm made possible by a Christian people in the sixties. It’s called They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. And for as much as the hymn paints this hopeful image of the church, a church where people walk hand in hand, and work side by side, it’s a far cry from what the church actually looks like.

            The hymn sounds a lot like the terrible advertisements we see that promise us an impossible world.

And I really wonder how many people outside the church know Christians like us for our love… Because, sometimes, we Christians appear to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around. There are times where Christians like us relish in any opportunity to stir up and perpetuate conflicts rather than resolve them.

            I think, if we asked people outside the church, what they know us for isn’t our love, but for our anger.

So then, who in the world would want to join us? Who in their right mind wakes up on a Sunday morning and says, “Gee, you know what, I think I’m going to join those angry Christians at Cokesbury. Maybe that’s just what I need”?

            Why do you keep coming here?

We are an angry people, we Christians, and that’s okay. We worship a Messiah who spent most of his earthly ministry being angry. But our anger, like Christ’s, should not send us into despair or violence. Our anger, like Jesus’, sends us to an even stranger place: telling the truth.

And while Paul might call upon us to tell the truth to our neighbors, no doubt a worthy venture, maybe we should start a little closer to home. Perhaps the person who needs to hear the truth is… me and you.

It is so easy to hear this text from Ephesians, and imagine the other people in our lives that it seems to describe. We can immediately conjure up someone in our minds who is too bitter, too wrathful, and too angry. But the text is also about us. It’s definitely about us. There is no one for whom these words to not represent a profound challenge and a holy opportunity.

The time has come for the truth, for us to take a good hard look in the mirror and accept who we are. We can even be angry about it if we so choose. But then the anger, that raw energy, can be focused into better places, while Jesus starts working on us from the inside out.

You see, that’s why people keep coming to church even when they know it’s filled with angry people. It’s because they’re angry too, and on some level they know that the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, they are like seeds within us sprouting into new life. They know, whether they can articulate it or not, that the church is the place where they can bring their anger, where they can be angry, and the anger will set them free.

People don’t join churches because they are open hearted or open minded, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. People commit their lives to the work of the church, Christ body in the world, because Christ is revealed in this place! Jesus is what makes our anger intelligible and applicable. Jesus takes our pent up frustrations with the world and with ourselves, and he flips them over like the tables in the temple to say, “Follow me!”

            God in Christ doesn’t make our anger disappear, church is not the salve that fixes our ailments. But it is the place where we discover how anger is the beginning of a revolution of the heart, anger is the catalyst that reshapes the possibilities we believe about the world, anger is what Jesus felt as he made his way to the cross.

            So, it’s fine if those outside the church will know we are Christians by our love. But maybe it would be better if they knew us by our anger. Amen.

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Incompatible

Ephesians 4.1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Can’t we all just get along?

So asks the woman in her Sunday school class, so asks the friend of his neighbor wearing the Make America Great Again hat, so asks the father of his children fighting in the back seat of the car.

Can’t we all just get along?

You don’t need to hear it from me to know that, at our cores, we can’t really get along. We resent our neighbors for the dumbest reasons, we berate our children for raising their voices after we first raised our voices at them, and we drive through town day after day with clenched fists as we hear the news over the radio.

Sure, getting along in the world might be a forlorn possibility. Maybe our differences in opinion, our polarized political proclivities, and our desire to speak more than to listen will always prevent unity in the world.

But the church should surely be a place of unity, right? If nothing else, can’t we be the place where we just get along?

I passed 15 different churches on my way here this morning. 15! That alone answers the question of whether or not we can get along.

This part of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is absolutely breath taking: One body, one spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. I can hear Paul crescendo-ing these words in the locker room we call the church. It is the pep talk of all pep talks about what it means to be who we are.

But the more I read it this week, the more I wondered, when has the church ever felt like this? I can’t speak toward what this church was like before I arrived, but I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a church that felt like what Paul’s talking about. What Paul describes sounds more like a wedding, or a giant party, focused on one particular thing where great pluralities of people can join together in oneness.

In contrast, the church often feels like the place where we are supposed to gather for one, but the plurality is precisely what holds us back.

Most of us tend to think we know best, we insist on our own way, and we are intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. We stand on pedestals of our own making looking down on just about everyone else. And even if we are “tolerant” of the differences, that’s because we are the ones with power! No one wants to be tolerated! We want to be loved and heard and cherished and respected.

Do you all remember the time Jesus traveled into town and gathered everyone together to hear his earth-shattering proclamation? “The kingdom of God is near, and the time has come for toleration!”

Yeah, me neither.

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Paul does not say the mission of the church is to tolerate the behaviors of others.

            Paul says the church is called to be one.

But can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be one by just being nicer to each other?

There is a tremendous difference between loving one another (like Christ), and being nice. Being nice often means being quiet, and not calling out the behavior of others. Loving like Jesus however, often means speaking up and actually calling someone out.

            Easier said than done.

Paul pokes and prods our human tendency toward division and schism by using the word “one” seven times in two verses. We can all imagine the divisive energy that must have been present in Ephesus for Paul to write these words, because those types of arguments are still very much a part of the church today.

The sevenfold emphasis on oneness is at the heart of the great challenge we call the church. How do we find unity in our plurality? Unity, to be clear, is not uniformity. Jesus does not want the church to be a factory where random parts are brought in and perfectly congruent products are shipped out.

And so, as the church struggles toward, or around, the kind of unity that God has already created in the church through Jesus Christ, a unity made possible by the three-in-oneness of the trinity, a question arises: Where have we dug our trenches so deep that we are no longer able to experience this God-given unity?

The line that forms after worship is one of my favorite, and least favorite, things about the church. I love the intimacy that can be found in our narthex as I overhear conversations about the prayers, and the hymns, and even the sermon. I relish in the opportunities to hear feedback about what we all experienced together. And every once in a while I receive the greatest compliment a pastor can ever hear: “I heard God speak to me today.”

But, of course, the narthex can also harbor the resentments that percolated during the service. A wrong word, or phrase, or reading, or hymn can stick with us and boil over when we finally have a chance to let it go. I see the same arguments and disagreements manifest over and over again in small and subtle ways.

A few months back I was observing the strange space that is the narthex following worship, when a new family walked up to shake my hand. They had recently moved to the Woodbridge area and were looking for a new home church. They expressed their joy with our worship and how welcomed they felt. And though we talked about a great number of things, our conversation ended with the father saying, “But we really need to know your opinion about homosexuality, and this church’s opinion about homosexuality.”

Since then, it’s happened three more times with three different families.

And in every one of the conversations it was abundantly clear that however I answered the question would determine whether the family would come back the following week or not.

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As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. In some churches this means that pastors prevent openly gay individuals or couples from becoming members of the church. In some churches this means that pastors refuse to baptize or offer communion to anyone who is openly gay. And it means that in all churches an openly gay individual is not supposed to be a pastor, and that pastors may not preside over same sex unions.

As it stands the United Methodist Church believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

There are, of course, some churches within the UMC who ignore the language and do whatever they can to welcome those who are gay, and because we, as a church, are not united in our theological convictions about those who are gay, the church is struggling to find a way forward.

There are those who want the language to remain and for stiffer penalties to be enacted against any pastor or conference who violates the tenants of the incompatibility of homosexuality.

Maybe they want uniformity.

And there are those who want the language to disappear all together and to be fully inclusive of anyone who is gay.

Maybe they want uniformity too, just of a different flavor.

And there are those who wish to remain in the middle, they want a church where people who believe it is incompatible, and those who believe it is compatible, are able to sit down in the pews together to worship the living God.

            Maybe they just want everyone to get along…

The language surrounding the incompatibility of a human being in Christian teaching is strange and wrong. To say that who someone is makes him or her incompatible with what we do as the church is oxymoronic in a way that is indescribable. So much of Jesus’ ministry, and Paul’s too, was founded upon finding people who were once told they were out and showing them how God in Christ brings them in. The message of Jesus is one where we are made one, regardless of any other identification.

And the incompatibility of Christians, at least the way some use the language, is now also applied to those who believe that individuals are incompatible. Some will use places of power and privilege to say that those who are gay are incompatible. But others will use similar places of privilege to say that if you believe someone is incompatible, then you are now the one who is incompatible with Christian teaching!

The infighting within our denomination about identity such that some are in and some are out, that some are compatible and other are incompatible, is antithetical to the Good News made manifest in Jesus Christ.

            Friends, no one is incompatible with Christian teaching. No one.

            Or, perhaps better put, we are all actually incompatible with Christian teaching. Not because of our sexual orientation, not because of who we love, but because we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Paul begs, truly begs, us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we were called. And we will never be worthy. None of us.

We, like Paul writes, are so tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, we are moved by trickery. We look out at whatever the other is, and we are so quick to pull out the label of incompatibility.

            But it is in using that label we become the thing we so label!

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Here is the truth spoken in love. You and I, all of us here, we are broken and battered disciples. We are incompatible with the one born in the manger and delivered from the tomb. We have grown apart and ignored the call to grow into him who is the head, into Christ. It is Christ who joins all of our incompatibilities and knits together every ligament of our greed and our sinfulness and our judgments and builds us up in love.

Hear Jesus as he speaks to us throughout the centuries, hear his voice in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. He is not just being nice and asking us to be a little kinder, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Jesus didn’t get killed for saying we ought to love one another. Jesus got hung on a cross for calling out the sinfulness of the world and the sinfulness in you and me; The shouts of “crucify!” came because the crowds knew that the message of Jesus would disrupt the power dynamics in which they were most comfortable.

Even today, Jesus speaks to us and disrupts what we think we know about who is in and who is out. Because the truth, the hard truth, is that none of us should be in. None of us.

And yet, this meal, what we call Christ’s communion, is offered to all, as surely as Christ is for all, as surely as all of us are not divided in him, but all of us belong together and brothers and sisters.

All of us are poor sinners and all of us are rich through Christ’s mercy. In our incompatibility, we are made one. Amen.

Comprehending The Incomprehensible

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“Tell me about your prayer life…” has got to be some of the most ridiculous pastor lingo I’ve ever heard. I mean, who else would ask someone a question like that? I am rarely, if ever, happy about my “prayer life.” I consistently feel like I could be a better prayer, that I could spend more time in prayer, and that I could get more out of prayer than I usually do.

And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how I learned to pray in the first place. Maybe prayer is like learning to read. I know that at one point in my life I didn’t know how to read, and now I do, and I’m not really sure about the magic that made it possible.

Tell me about your prayer life… How would you feel if I asked that question, right now, right here in the sanctuary and made you stand up to answer? Exactly.

And yet, for all of the difficulty and frustration and confusion that surround prayer, it might be the most important thing the bible has to offer us.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father and I pray. Paul here in Ephesians is no longer offering sound ethical advice, he’s not providing visions for the organization and structure of the church, he is simply describing his prayers. For the church. For us!

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I think, like reading and so many other things, we learn how to pray by observing other people pray.

Maybe you pray like Paul… You get down on your knees and you use all the right language to elevate the divine qualities of God. You earnestly yearn for the people around you that Christ might dwell in their hearts. And that, above all, you pray for the world to know the breadth and height and depth of Christ’s love.

Or maybe you pray like my buddy Will: Woah God, how great was the weather today? Thanks! I mean, like, really awesome stuff. The way you had the clouds moving and the Sun! The Sun! It was like just bright enough but not too bright. You know what I mean? Of course you do! You’re God! Well, anyway, thanks.

There is no wrong or right way to pray, though there are certainly things that are better to pray for than others. The point isn’t so much how we pray, but that we pray at all.

Years and years ago I was helping a church in North Carolina and one of my responsibilities was visiting some of the older and retired members of the church. Many of them were what we call shut-ins, in that they could no longer make it to church for worship or fellowship, but they still felt very connected to the church.

So I would bring a copy of the latest bulletin and sit down with someone for an hour for nothing more than a conversation, and we would always end our time in prayer.

One of my regular visits was to a retired pastor, and he was easily my favorite. We got to know each other pretty quickly, and every time we got together he would offer me a sage piece of advice regarding my future vocation in the ministry. He told me story after story about his successes and failures. He told me what passages to avoid in the bible, and he even told me about the time a police officer had to drive him home after a funeral wake because he didn’t know the punch had alcohol in it.

Anyway, one afternoon I went to go visit him and our relationship had grown to such a degree that I regularly walked into his room at the retirement home without knocking. And as soon as I stepped through the threshold I saw him kneeling by his bed in a posture of prayer.

What a holy sight to behold! This man, after all the years of praying and serving the church, was still just as dedicated to communing with the divine. But the more I took in the scene the more uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to just leave without saying anything, and I didn’t want to just keep standing their awkwardly by the door, so after a minute or two I decided to join him by the edge of the pray and start praying too.

            I slowly crept across the room and lowered my knees to the floor and centered myself before I overheard the prayer of the retired pastor… he was snoring.

And, of course, I tried not to laugh, but then again I found myself at a loss for what to do. What would happen if he woke up while I was trying to slide out of the room? What would he do if he opened his eyes and saw me kneeling on the floor right next to him? I decided to very gently rub his back and he immediately opened his eyes and said, “Amen!”

Tell me about your prayer life…

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus because he was filled with joy that all followers of Jesus Christ are part of God’s family. No longer is there “us” and “them.” There is no “insider” or “outsider.” All have been made part of the new family in Christ Jesus. And Paul’s response to this profound revelation is to get down on his knees and pray! He knew that trying days were ahead, that it would not be an easy thing for the church to accept, the incomprehensibility of a new family made up of all, and he knew that he could not give the church what it needed to be sustained by himself.

The church relies on God, not itself.

That’s a tall order in today’s world and in today’s culture. We are told from childhood to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can be anything we want to be, and that it’s all up to us. But the message of the gospel is in fact the opposite. You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can’t be anything you want to be, and it is not all up to us.

We cannot do this thing we call life on our own. And we certainly cannot pray on our own.

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Paul prays for the church to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is no easy thing! But Paul prays that we might comprehend the incomprehensible WITH the saints. It is something we can only do in community, and not in isolation.

The more time I spent with the retired pastor, the one praying in his sleep (or sleeping through his prayers), the more I learned what he was really like. Because for the first few months he was what I would call his Sunday morning self, the person he used to become on Sunday morning for everyone that once showed up at his church. He was able to keep the smile for the hour we were together and send me on my way with what felt like a benediction.

But after a couple months I saw behind the curtain and I learned about his loneliness, his broken family, his fears and failures. I encountered who he really was as I discovered his inner self. And the hardest discovery of all was learning that he felt as if he had moved beyond the love of God.

The great theme of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the fact that there is no nation, no tribe, no family, and no person who is beyond the love of God. This may sound obvious, but it can be very difficult to believe. Particularly if you’ve lost the community, or family, or church that helped to make that love feel manifest.

Even on our best Sundays here at Cokesbury, we, the gathered people of God, bring together a myriad of secret hurts, private humiliations, and lost hopes.

After only being here for a little more than a year I can stand behind this altar and look out at the truths many of you have shared with me. I see the broken families and the betrayals, I see the terror and fear about unknown futures, and I see the pain and loss of people who used to sit in these pews. I know so many of the secret shames and private failures that are contained in isolation and I know that the ultimate fear is about what happens if any of it gets out.

And yet we keep showing up. We keep carrying our own weights and disappointments. We put on our Sunday selves, we keep the smile for the hour we are here and then we are sent away with a benediction.

But what would happen if we revealed our truth to the church? Now, I don’t mean we take turns standing up at the front and airing out all of our dirty laundry. But think with me for a moment… how could this church change if we treated it like the church Paul prays for, rather than just a place where we hang out for an hour on Sundays?

Paul prayed for the church to know, above all else, the love of God in Christ that surpasses all knowledge. Paul prayed for Christ to so dwell in our hearts and minds that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul prays for us to imagine the unimaginable, to know the unknowable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible.

If we pray for our church, if we pray for Cokesbury like Paul prayed for the Ephesians, then we do so by praying for a communal experience of the love of God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then we pray for the church to come to grasp the truth of grace; a truth that is utterly massive and beyond all earthly reason.

            God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so it is for that reason, that we bow our knees before God the Father, and we pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that we may be strengthened in our inner beings, that Christ may dwell in all of our hearts, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray for the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

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We pray this so that all of us might know that no one, NO ONE, is beyond God’s love. Not even us. Amen.

Expecting The Unexpected

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Words are important.

What we say often shapes what we believe and, perhaps even more importantly, it shapes how we behave.

Take the common words we all offer together after the scripture is read in worship: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. We say those words week after week, and if you’re like me, you don’t really think about what we’re saying.

But those words are really important, and they say a lot about what we think theologically.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have eternal life. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.

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But what about those difficult text from the bible? What are we supposed to do, or say, or believe about the scriptures that make us uncomfortable? Should we be thankful for something that makes us squirm?

But Jael took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the tent peg through his skull, until it went down into the ground and he died. (Judges 4) The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission (Timothy 2). The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God?

What are we communicating to young people, or those individuals who are new to the faith, when we say we are thankful for God’s Word when perhaps we’re not?

Additionally, words mean different things to different people based on a variety of different contexts. What you can say to one individual, and how it is received, is not the same as what you could say to someone else.

I have a long habit of adapting words to particular contexts and individuals. For instance, during vacation bible school, when dozens of young children are in our building, I’m not breaking out the bible stories about tent pegs being driven through skulls, or rules about genitalia, or verses about women’s subordination. Those kids, like the scriptural story today tells us, are like Samuel and they do not yet know the Lord.

Similarly, if I’m teaching a Sunday School class to seasoned Christians, I’m not going to just talk about how nice it is that God loves us. It’s true, but that kind of simple affirmation alone doesn’t challenge us to be any better than we were before we heard it.

The church is supposed to be a supple and open avenue to God’s ways in the world such that we can delight and rejoice when God moves outside of our expectations and reaches people where they are rather than assuming that they’ll figure it all out on their own.

That’s one of the reasons that we keep coming back to do this strange and wonderful thing we call worship. For Samuel it took God’s calling in the night three times, and the wisdom of a mentor, to help him know that God was encountering him. For some of us, it takes a lifetime of Sundays before we hear it.

Of all the stories in the bible, this one, this nighttime calling, might have the most ominous beginning: The Lord’s Word was rare at that time. This meant there were few prophets, decent sermons were all but gone, and the Lord seemed to be nothing more than an idea. And yet it is precisely at this time when the Word was rare that God intrudes and upends expectations.

When we have communion we, like many Christians, are invited to the table, we confess our sins, share signs of peace, and then share the bread and the cup together. While you all line up in the center aisle and make your way toward the altar, I will adapt the words I use as I offer the body of Christ. For some of you, well seasoned in your faith, I can say the words that have been said for centuries: “The body of Christ, given for you.” But for others, saying something like this only produces more questions, and so I will adapt the words, and instead I might say something like, “The gift of God for you” or “This is Jesus” or “God loves you.”

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A few months ago we had a fairly typical Sunday service, the sermon was around a B- quality, the hymns fit well with the theme of worship, and then we moved to the table. We said and did what we always do, and then we feasted. I offered the body of Christ to all who came forward and there was a young girl who I’d never seen before, and when I tore off the bread I said to her, “God loves you.” And then I kept serving everyone else.

When our service ended, the young girl’s mother shook my hand on her way out of church and then she said words I’ll never forget, “That’s the first time my daughter’s ever had communion. Thank you.”

And I couldn’t help but think, “What if that was the first time she ever heard that God loves her?”

Years from now I can imagine that girl graduating high school and entering college. Though fully endowed with a message of faith and love here in this place one Sunday, she never steps foot in a church after that day for one reason or another. High School is tough for her as she wrestles with her identity and wondering if life is about more than what she has experienced. The good grades never feel good enough, the friendships never feel close enough, and no matter what she tries it always seems like something is missing.

So without really knowing why, she applies to some university, and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new chapter will be better than high school.

Sadly, it’s not. College life for her is filled with even more people, and she feels less and less connected. She falls through the cracks of campus life and spends far too much time alone in her dorm. She still believes that life must get better but she’s not seeing any indication of it. One night, however, her roommate invites her to a campus ministry service. She reluctantly attends, and is truly underwhelmed by the experience.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Gospel, whatever that means. She sits and listens attentively but she knows that she’ll never come back. But right before the service ends, the pastor brings out a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately, the girl is brought back to that morning when she walked down the aisle in this church when she heard a bearded man wearing a long black dress talking about communion. While her mind is flooded with memories from the past she makes her way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out her hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus while the pastors whispers just loud enough for her to hear: “God loves you.”

But, sadly, I can imagine that even after that profound moment of the past catching up with her future present, the knowledge of God’s love doesn’t stick. The girl continues through school and eventually meets her husband. They get married shortly after graduation, and move to a new city for work. Years pass, and even though all of the things on the outside look perfect – she has a few children, a steady job, and a home – she still feels like something is missing.

She tries to find fulfillment in her life: She joins young professional groups, she volunteers at the local soup kitchen when she has time, she even helps start a community garden. But nothing seems to fill the void she feels.

One day, however, a neighbor invites her and her family to the local United Methodist Church. She laughs while responding about how her mother dragged her to a UMC one Sunday morning when she was a kid but the neighbor is persistent and she eventually agrees to go to worship.

The woman sits with her family in church on Sunday morning. She stands when she is supposed to, sings when everyone else does, she even bows her head and mutters some version of a prayer under her breath. She listens to the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and too repetitive. And then the pastor moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ offers without price. The pastor says, “This table is the one true place we can find who we are and whose we are, because in the bread and cup we discover grace. We are living in a time when the Word of the Lord is rare – but at this table you can hear God calling, because here you find the God whose finding you.”

With tears welling up in here eyes, tears she cannot explain, the woman walks forward. She remembers that day long ago at Cokesbury UMC, she remembers the night in college when she walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as she stretches out her hands the pastor whispers just loud enough for her to hear, “God loves you.” And for the first time she believes it.

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One of the hardest things in the world to accept is the fact that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we, more than anyone else, know what we have done and what we have left undone. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we believe that we are unworthy of the love of God we so often hear about in church.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it takes more than a simple affirmation from the pulpit, it takes more than hearing it whispered during communion, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard for the message to sink deep in every fiber of our being. We need to hear those words over and over and over again but they are true and remarkable and difficult.

When the Word of the Lord was rare during Eli and Samuel’s life, no one was expecting God to do something like call upon a young boy in the temple. The call completely disrupted his life not with peace, but with a call to disturb to the peace.

Why a kid? God does not call the equipped, God equips the called. God bypassed the expected and seasoned possibility of Eli, and went instead for the untrained and immature Samuel.

God does whatever God wants. But this story, this calling, is also about more than that. God loves upsetting our expectations.

God loves loving us, even when we do not love ourselves. Amen.

Flashing Forth Flames of Fire

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?

I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.

So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.

What would you say?

The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:

The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.

Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.

Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.

Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.

            But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!

The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”

Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.

Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.

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The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.

And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?

Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.

In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.

But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.

I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.

            And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?

After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?

The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.

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The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.

            They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.

            Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

            Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.

            There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.

We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”

Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.

We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.

We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.

If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”

And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.

God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.

When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.

Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.

            And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.

The Whole Truth

1 John 5.9-13

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

We all sat uncomfortably in the sanctuary on a Sunday evening listening to our youth director wax lyrical about the importance of witnessing. I can remember shifting around in the wooden pew while struggling to figure out what in the world she was talking about.

Witnessing? When I heard the word my mind immediately jumped to the “DUM DUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM” found at the beginning of every Law & Order episode. Witnessing, to me, sounded like what you did when you saw something terrible happen.

So we listened and listened until she announced that it was time for us to share our testimonies. And testimony was another word that, to me, sounded more relevant in a courtroom than in a sanctuary. But she slowly pulled out a microphone plugged into the sound system, backed away, and waited for one of us to testify.

In many churches, testimony occupies a powerful place in worship. Preachers and lay people will tell others about how God has changed their lives.

But for a privileged group of young high school students, our time of testimony sounded a little more like this:

“A few weeks ago, I was really worried about passing a test that I didn’t study for, so I asked for God to help, and like, I actually passed.”

“I remember really wanting a new baseball bat when I was younger, and I guess God had something to do with it when I opened one on Christmas morning.”

One by one we listened to these rather trite and cliché renditions of all that God had done for us. And after each person finished, the microphone stood there before us waiting for the next witness.

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The last person to go was a girl in my grade who usually remained totally silent during youth group. She participated with the minimal amount of effort, and kept coming back every week even though it looked like she hated it. She slowly made her way forward and then very quietly said into the microphone: “I don’t really know what to say, except that I don’t really have any friends. But being here, with you, talking about God, it makes me feel like maybe I could have friends.”

To this day, I can remember seeing the solitary tear running down her cheek, and I can remember the silence in the sanctuary after having actually experienced a testimony.

Testimonies, at least as they are experienced in church, are those times when we are given the opportunity to name and claim what God has done for us. And, of course, some will always experience God through a good grade, or a wonderful sunny afternoon, or a perfect Christmas present. But real testimonies, the whole truth that points to God’s wonder in the world, are based on the location and experience of marginality. Proclaiming the truth as we see it functions as a catharsis and healing for those sharing, and those receiving. In testimony we share our burdens together.

I knew relatively nothing about that girl in my youth group prior to that night. We had gone to elementary school, and middle school, and even high school together, but it was only on the other side of her three-sentence witness that I actually took the time to get to know her.

I learned about her struggles at school and the bullying she experienced. I learned about medical problems, and high anxiety. I learned all sorts of things because she took the first step in proclaiming the whole truth of her life.

In greek, the word for witness is MARTYRIA, its where we get the word for martyr. Christians bearing witness to their faith have often suffered for doing so. Because they are willing to point toward God as the source of their being, they have been punished and even killed. And so, today, we say things like “There’s a war on Christianity!” In other places in the world this is undoubtedly true, but here in America it is not. So much of what Christianity has become is made to feel normative for the rest of our culture. Few of us, if any of us, will ever be persecuted for our faith.

That’s not the kind of witness, the kind of testimony, that John talks about. The witness John talks about is the kind that could change everything about everything.

It requires a vulnerability that leaves most of us frightened.

Today is Mother’s Day, which to be honest, is one of my least favorite Sundays in the year. Don’t get me wrong though, I love mothers. I love my mom, I love my mother in law, I love my wife who is the mother of our son. But many of us forget that motherhood is not normative for all women. Just as Christianity is not normative for everybody in Woodbridge.

I can’t tell you the number of women who have told me about the pain they’ve experienced in churches on Mother’s Day. Women without husbands or children are implicitly, and even sometimes explicitly, made to feel less than whole because of not being a mother… in church! And, because it can be so uncomfortable, they usually don’t tell anyone about how it makes them feel. Instead, this is just a Sunday they avoid church.

It is difficult for them to bear witness to how they have been made to feel, it is hard to testify to the truth of their experience, because it is often disregarded. In a world and culture ruled by heterosexual white males, anything other than that paradigm is often made to feel less than worthy.

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That is why testimony, true testimony, comes from the margins of life, from those often made to feel less than. That is where the true power of God’s grace is made manifest. It is good and right for us to listen to those from the periphery of life (basically to people unlike me!), because they are connected with God in a way that is closer to the incarnation than we often realize.

The testimony of God is Jesus Christ. In order for God to bear witness, in order for the divine to speak the whole truth about reality, God became flesh in Jesus Christ. It is the incarnation that is the testimony of God.

God bears witness; God tells the whole truth. In the people Israel God spoke toward the wonder of a people banding together for a different way of life. From the covenant with Abraham to the declarations of Moses to the anointing of David – God witnessed to the whole truth of divine power.

And the history of God’s witness culminates in the testimony of and to the Son – Jesus the Christ. All along the way God places the divine witness alongside human witness, it is why we still stand and share our stories of God even today. This is only possible because of God’s willingness to be humbled and made low.

Sometimes we drop the word “incarnation” without confronting its stark and bewildering truth – God is humbled to the point of joining humanity – the Son journeys to us from the far country and becomes one of us. There is nothing quite so profound and disturbing as knowing that God, all mighty and all powerful, saw fit to take on flesh and dwell among us.

The whole truth of the incarnation, the testimony of God, is made manifest in Jesus who drank the same dirty water, and walked the same dusty roads, and slept in the same fragile places as human witnesses. God came to the margins of reality, and lived among the margins in order to draw attention to the truth of the cosmos.

This is no message about being a better person, or tapping yourself on the shoulder for any number of good deeds. No, John beckons us through the sands of time to ponder the difficult truth of Jesus – Our God joined the condition of his creations – God became a creature.

And like all testimonies – all truths that encourage us to reconsider the world around us – it can be accepted or rejected. But God will not hold back, God does not withhold God’s self from dwelling among us, God does not withhold difficult and challenging words about the nature of reality, God does not refuse to speak to us.

God testifies! We know the story of God, we know God, because we know Jesus. Jesus is God’s witness in the flesh. Jesus, in fact, is the greatest witness in the midst of all other witnesses. And yet, in Jesus’ greatness we also discover the lowliness and the humiliation of God. We discover the great divine paradox that strength is found in weakness.

Jesus, the incarnation, the divine testimony, chose to drink our dirty water, and walk our dusty roads, and sleep in the same fragile places as us. Jesus chose to live and minister at the margins of life. The Son of God entered the far country of our existence – faced our greatest fears and experienced our greatest losses.

            Jesus suffered and died.

            And the Son of God brought to us eternal life.

The whole truth of God’s testimony is that God gives us eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is that simple, yet truly profound witness that gives us the power and the courage to speak our whole truth regardless of the consequences. It is what empowers a teenage girl to enter into the truth of her own suffering and express a yearning for friendship. It is what gives voice to too many women who are made to feel voiceless. It is present in all who speak from the margins of life, because in Jesus we discover that this life is not the end!

And it is this, the whole truth, which might be the most important thing you will ever hear; more important than any earthly human testimony. All of scripture, all of John’s words, all of Jesus’ life are offered to us so that we might know we have eternal life.

Because when we know, deep in our bones, that we have eternal life, we can begin to speak the whole truth into this world here and now, and everything can change.

When the young mother met the new preacher, she was skeptical, but she was a good Christian so she kept going to church every week. However, after a couple weeks of pretty terrible sermons, she decided to assemble her children on the porch on Sunday afternoons for their own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, and then she would come up with a sermon that connected with the text, and they would conclude with another psalm.

Word about the services began to spread through the local community and people started asking if they could attend. This went on for weeks until over two hundred were regularly gathering in her side yard, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.

The woman’s name was Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley, and this happened in the early 1700s.

At the time women we largely forbidden from speaking in churches, or leading services, or even from reading. And nevertheless, she persisted. It was because of her rigorous commitment to education, and theology, that our church exists today.

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Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ disciples made a great deal of trouble when they redefined what it meant to be a community of faith by including women – it upset the tradition of the time and it’s what got them persecuted. In fact, the first churches recorded in the New Testament met in homes, often overseen by women.

And so, it is in the great irony of this world, that women are often treated as less than whole, whether in the 1700s or today, and yet without them none of us, and none of this, would be here.

The whole truth of God’s grace is that power will always be found at the margins of life: God choses the low to bring down the mighty. God chooses the ordinary to make manifest the extraordinary. God came to us in Jesus, and everything about everything changed forever. Amen.

Knee-Jerk Love

1 John 4.7-11

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

Love has got to be once of the most misused and misunderstood words in our entire lexicon. Think, if you can, about the last time you used the word – perhaps you said it to a family member this morning, or maybe you used it in reference to the breakfast you consumed, or the movie you watched last night, or even the way you feel about this church.

In our daily live we drop the word “love” like it’s going out of fashion – Oh I love your outfit! You’ve got to watch this new show on Netflix, I just love it! There is no restaurant on this planet that I love more than Chic-Fil-A!

We love to love love.

And, more often than not, out love is directed away from what’s essential and toward the things that do not actually provide life. It has become far easier to express our love for meals, and experiences, and even God than toward our families and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

That might seem and sound strange, but it can be pretty easy to love God. God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food! God does all kinds of nice and wonderful stuff for us. And because we’ve relegated God to some realm beyond, we can talk about God in this place and use words like “love” while acting as if God isn’t even in the room.

Our world is terribly confused about love.

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Perhaps it’s so confused because love can be so convoluted. We read from 1 John that love is the hoped-for and normal response between people and the Lord. Love is perfected in God, and God is perfected in human love. This love, whatever that actually means, calls us to see the sacred and holy not in God alone, but also in each person whether we think they’re worthy of love or not.

            It is in the loving of the other that we, and they, are made both human and holy.

And this is at the heart of it all. We can talk about how much we love God because God loves us, but without loving our fellow human beings, we cannot know God!

Let that sink in for just a moment – without love for one another, we cannot know God.

And love is difficult! Differences in nation, religion, gender, generation, sexual orientation, race, they all have these unspoken rules and guidelines about who should be included in the loving circle of comfort. However, those same rules and guidelines also tell us implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, who is not worthy of love.

But we’re here in church, so we must be doing something right. Otherwise, why else would we gather early on a Sunday morning to day-dream about God? We could take the time right now to examine the evil people in the world, as opposed to those we love, and explore what it would mean to change our behavior toward them. But that’s no easy task, and that’s not really what John is talking about.

Love is this: Not what we can do, but what God can do through us. We know love, and we know God, because God was, and is, willing to love us even though we do not deserve it. God sacrificed God’s own Son, for us, in spite of us.

That is love.

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Therefore the act of loving the other is not so much about conjuring up in our minds the most evil person in the world and deciding to love him or her, but instead looking a little closer to home at those who produce a knee-jerk reaction in us.

Do you know what I mean when I say knee-jerk reaction? It’s that almost involuntary feeling we experience when we experience something outside of what we are comfortable with.

You might consider yourself a modern person, but how do you feel when you see two men or two women kissing in public? You might imagine that you have a pretty cosmopolitan view of the world, but how did you feel the first time you saw items in the grocery store listed in a different language? You might even think you’re a pretty racially progressive person because you attend a church that looks like this on Sunday morning, but how would you feel if this is what your home looked like on Sunday afternoon?

Those are knee-jerk reactions.     

Just over a year ago my family and I drove up to Woodbridge to start looking at houses. We searched online through our parameters and eventually had a list of homes we wanted to see in person. The very first house was in a nice neighborhood, not too far from the church, and when we pulled up in front of the address we immediately started to imagine ourselves living there. We walked around the front yard while we waited for our realtor, made comments about the trees and expressed our delight in the thought of our son playing in the front yard.

When our realtor finally arrived he walked briskly over to us and said, “I’m glad you two have a list of other homes to see cause you’re not gonna like this one.” I said, “Wow, I appreciate the wisdom, but I’m curious, what is it about the house that make it so bad? Is there something wrong with the roof? The foundation? The air-conditioning?”

All he said was this, “Come back here around 4:30pm and take a good look at the type of kids getting off the school bus. You don’t want to live here. Why don’t you let me show you some nice places in Stafford? I can get you into a nice neighborhood where you won’t have to worry about any of those types of people.”

Those types of people.

He had a knee-jerk reaction toward that which was different from himself. When he looked around the neighborhood and saw different skin pigmentations, he made an assumption that it was not the place for us, because presumably it would not be the place for him.

And that man is no different than any of us here this morning. For some of us it’s race, for others it’s class, or economics, or sexuality, or religious convictions, or political persuasions. We all have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to the other in our midst.

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Hopefully some of us are self-aware enough to already know where and who those types of people are for us. It won’t take us long to conjure them up in our minds, and we still experience that knee-jerk of confusion, frustration, and even anger.

For others of us, it will be a little harder. Whether it’s because we think too highly of ourselves and imagine that we have no judgments of others, or because we sit in places of privilege and we are never made to feel less than ourselves by others, or we haven’t taken the time to address our sinful and harmful feelings toward others, it can be very difficult.

Love is a very difficult thing. And again, I’m not talking about the love any of us have for our families or friends or spouses, but the love that we are called to have for the very people who draw forth knee-jerk reactions in us. Love is a very difficult thing.

And yet, and yet, God loves us. And not only that, God is love.

The Greek word for love here in 1 John is AGAPE – it is a love that gives without expecting anything in return. It is a form of love that is sanctified and sacrificial. We might even call it unconditional love. And that’s what God is, AGAPE.

God is not the love that we often experience in our regular daily lives, a love that is contractual, a love in which “I’ll do this if you do that.” That’s is not AGAPE.

God is love, offered freely to us, the very people who have no reason to deserve it. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

We are the beloveds of God. We are those who receive the impossibly possible love of the divine.

God is love. God is AGAPE. Dare we say anything different? In this broken and battered world ruled by impersonal forces, ruthless principalities, and extremely complicated issues, some might want another gospel. We might want church to simply be a place where we can gather to feel better about ourselves. I know of no better way to feel joy than to know that God loves me, even me, in spite of me.

Yet, to proclaim this thing we call church as anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion and love and grace for all is to betray the gospel.

God as love, as AGAPE, pushes us to love everybody. And we cannot scare people into acceptance, or terrify them into tolerance. That will only result in a tepid version of reception that has almost nothing to do with love. It will result in a world still ruled by the powers and principalities. It will result in certain people not wanting anything to do with certain people.

In the church, in the fellowship of God with God’s people, there is little room for those who nurse grudges, who seek revenge, who assume superiority, or care little about the needs of others. Mercy and forgiveness and love are at the heart of God, and therefore they are poured on us!

            We are God’s beloved, we are God’s AGAPETOI.

True AGAPE love, the very nature of God, is loving the very people who create within us a knee-jerk reaction. Christ died for the godly and the ungodly. God gave of God’s self for us and for all. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, all of humanity has been bound together by a love that will not let go: A love for the beloved. AGAPE for the AGAPETOI.

In each of your bulletins you will find a very special piece of paper. It is special because it is blank and because it is for you and you alone. All of us are going to take a few moments to prayerfully consider the people who produce knee-jerk reactions within us. We are going to contemplate the people in our lives, not far away and removed, but people we regularly encounter who make us feel uncomfortable, and frustrated, and angry.

And then we’re going to write it down on the piece of paper, and fold it in our hand. We are going to hold onto the name or the type of person tightly in our hand, we are going to grip it tightly until we need to let it go. And then we will. Amen.

 

(During Communion each congregant was invited to drop their paper in a large and clear baptismal bowl, the paper is specially designed to dissolve in the water such that we can experience how, in baptism, all of these false identities have been washed away.)