The Politics of Jesus

Matthew 2.13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” 

Questions. Questions. Questions.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!” 

That’s not why we come to church. 

If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.

Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.

One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 

Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?” 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

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On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”

Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed. 

For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”

This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.

He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.

And people lost their minds.

How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!

There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.

But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.

Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.

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A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.

A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.

Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.

Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.

In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do. 

For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story. 

And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.

King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2. 

Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land. 

Or, in other words, they become refugees.

As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.

The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak. 

And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be. 

It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian. 

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions. 

For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized. 

Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.

When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should. 

When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.

When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.

But it is a Kingdom. 

And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.

In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. Amen. 

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 145.1-8

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

 

People outside the church love to talk about its faults and failures. For instance: Church organizations were able to mobilize and respond to the recent devastation in Texas and Florida before FEMA or the Red Cross, but whenever the Church is in the news it has to do with a failure to keep track on money properly, a scandal involving clergy, or a denomination’s vote on something like homosexuality.

Last week I shared some stories about a recent wedding I presided over, and I told you about how effusive some of the people in attendance were with their praise. There is something strange and mysterious about a wedding that leads people to speak in deeply honest ways. Perhaps it’s the fact that love is in the air, or that reunions are bringing people together, or the free alcohol. However, what I didn’t share with you last week were the negative comments from other people.

“I don’t think you’re gonna have a job much longer preacher. You know the church is dying right?”

            “How can you support a system that is so archaic and out of touch with reality?”

            “You seem like a nice guy but I think the church is more responsible for evil in the world than good.”

It’s easy to pick on people outside of the church who are so harsh and judgmental with their language. It’s easy to pick on them because they’re not here, they don’t know what God is up to, they don’t know what the church is really like.

And for as much as people outside of the church love to talk about its faults and failures, people inside the church might be even worse.

I went to my first clergy meeting for the Alexandria District this week and I was struck by how somber so many of us were. Throughout the time of our gathering there was far more negativity than positivity, and at some point it felt like the whole point of the meeting was to get preachers together to complain about people like you.

            What’s right with the church?

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A few years ago I was given a copy of sermon preached by a man named Zig Volskis in 1987, the year before I was born. In it he attempts to answer that very question, “What’s right with the church?” Zig, like me, was frustrated with all of the negativity surrounding the church and instead he wanted to focus on the life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig preached that as a child he would have responded to the question with: the church bells and music. They both represent the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and communal response. The music of the church reassures the people that God is the one in control, even is the world claims the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. He believed the best thing about the church is that it endures. Empires come and go, even church buildings are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ always endures. With all its blindness and plundering, for all its inability to faithfully use its enormous resources properly, the church has sought to minister to human needs in thousands of different ways. And, for untold numbers of persons, the helping hand of the church has been a lifesaver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for church, bring to the church your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make the church better.

And with that he said: Amen.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about Zig’s sermon, and in particular our willingness to overemphasize the negative rather than addressing the positive. And, I’ll be the first to admit – The church does have problems. From this Cokesbury here in Woodbridge to the great universal church, we have problems because, at its heart, the church is filled with people like us: broken, flawed, sinners.

I could take time to bring up poor management, or fiscal irresponsibility, or personal judgments. We could spend weeks talking about how we’ve failed as a church, we could spend weeks talking about how we need to get better, but in so doing we would fail to recognize all the things that are right with the church.

But the psalmist, and the witness of scripture, chooses to focus on the things that are right. I will extoll the Lord, I will meditate on the goodness of God, I will declare the greatness of God. Every generation will share with those who follow all the splendor and majesty of God.

The psalm we have today is like a hymn, something to be declared by the entire congregation. And if you look at it, and really read through each line, it is so over the top with declarations of God’s glory that it sounds like the kind of love letters middle school students used to leave in each other’s lockers.

The love and praise the psalmist has for God is not something that can remain bottled up and hidden away. There is a quality of God’s grandeur that evokes a response, it pushes us to bring forth our gladdest praise and declare from the rooftops about the mighty works of God.

However, most of us are uncomfortable with wearing our faith on our sleeves. We don’t know quite what to make of religious displays of affection. We can’t even imagine standing up in church to talk about what God has done for us.

This psalm, these words about God, they are an invitation to remember what God has done for us, and shout it out.

I love asking people to tell me about sermons they remember from the past. Such as: Have you ever heard a sermon on Psalm 145? Can you remember the preaching from when you were a kid? Can you even remember what I preached about last week? The truth is that most of us remember very little, myself included!

I think back on what it was like to be raised in the church and I can’t remember any sermon I heard. There are a couple phrases that continue to bounce around the grey matter between my ears, but I don’t remember anything more than that. But you know what I do remember? I remember the people who got up and talked about how the church had changed their lives.

I remember sitting as a child at the altar and listening to a man in a hospital gown talk to us about how the church visited him when he was in the hospital after finding out he had cancer. I remember the woman who wept from the pulpit as she was thanking people for attending her husband’s funeral. I remember the older man who was baptized in front of the whole church who then shared his story about how he lost everything in his life, and then found everything when he started coming to church.

There is a profound power in being reminded, again and again, of what God is doing in the world and in the church. There is something good and right and true about sharing stories of what is right with the church. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

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I’m going to go first, as an example, but then I want to open up this space and this time for you to share what you think is right with the church.

Shortly after I arrived here at Cokesbury, I was working on a sermon in my office when a bunch of people came in through the door and kept walking past without saying a word. I mean I was the new guy and they didn’t even both to check on me. And they call themselves Christians! I found out later they were the Prayer Shawl team, and that they had work to do in the conference room.

I sat in my office for a while, pretending to work, but what I was actually doing was eavesdropping. I wanted to know what they were really up to, I wanted to know what these ladies were really like, I wanted some gossip.

But I was disappointed. Instead their conversation was filled with affirmation for one another, and they worked and worked and worked.

You want to know what I think is right with the church? Our prayer shawl team. They gather together and have created a beautiful community designed to make the community more beautiful. They work to give away everything they’ve created to be a blessing to others. And they do so with abundant joy. Each of their shawls, and all of the squares in our bulletins today are seeds they are casting into the world, and because of their work and God’s grace, those seeds will grow to bear beautiful fruit for God’s kingdom.

So, now its your turn: What’s right with the church?

 

There are few things in this life more joyful than discovering how our lives are caught up with the great and enduring story of God’s wondrous works. As we share what’s right with the church we discover how connected we are with one another. As we listen to what’s right with the church we rediscover the faith and the fervor of the psalmist within each and every one of us.

So to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come anyway, and help us make the church better. Amen.

Devotional – 2 Thessalonians 3.13

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 3.13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

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This election cycle has been exhausting. The endless torrent of sound bites blasted through the television, the revelatory number of click-bait articles on social media, and the overwhelming amount of animosity between neighbors with differing political signs in their front yards have left most of us feeling weary and worn. I don’t know if this is a common thing for pastors to experience during presidential election cycles, but I’ve had more people than I can keep track of show up at my office telling me which candidate God wants me to vote for.

Many have already cast their ballots, but the majority of Americans will gather at the polls tomorrow to make their choice. Churches, schools, and other local community buildings will be filled with all kinds of people; people who are exercising their right to vote for the first time, people who feel they are being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who will vote according to the party line regardless of the names attached to the positions, and people who believe that this election is the most important in the history of the United States.

Sadly, there are some for whom the foretaste of power has given them the bravado to stand outside polling areas to intimidate other voters. Whether the shout at the top of their lungs, or physically approach particular individuals, they will do what they believe is right in order to secure what they believe is right. Sadly, this election cycle has led to the bombing of political offices and the burning of black churches. Violence and fear still reigns supreme in this country. Sadly, the anger and animosity percolating in the country will not come to a peaceful conclusion when all the votes have been tallied. Many will be just as angry, if not angrier, if their candidate loses.

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Friends, in this time of great strife and division, do not be weary in doing what is right. Do not forget that the people who we disagree with politically are the very people that Jesus calls us to pray for and love. Do not forget that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God is really in control regardless of who wins the election. Do not forget that though we may not think alike, we may certainly love alike.

If you are in the Staunton area, I invite you to gather together at St. John’s UMC at 7pm tomorrow evening. As the polls close and the pundits proclaim early victories on the news, we will be in the Lord’s sanctuary feasting at the table. We will listen for the Spirit and ask for God’s will to be done. We will pray for our politicians, whether we voted for them or not.

What’s Right With The Church? – Sermon on Philippians 4.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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What’s right with the church? Easy sermon topic… I thought. I was having lunch with a some friends a few days ago when I casually mentioned the theme for our worship service this week, and shared with them my desire to accentuate the positive aspects of communal Christianity. I realized that this sermon was going to be very difficult to write when I asked them to share their ideas about what the church is doing right, and the table remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. What’s right with the church?

Two weeks ago Sue Volskis walked into my office before our lectionary bible study and in addition to the crossword puzzles that she so graciously gives to me, she handed over a manuscript. The title read: “What’s Right With The Church; a sermon by Zig Volskis; May 17, 1987.” She had been going through some of Zig’s things and found a sermon about the state of the church that he had preached the year before I was born. Whatever I had planned to do for the rest of the afternoon was placed on the back burner and I dove straight into his writing.

It is a beautiful sermon, and I wish that I could have been there to hear it in person. Instead of focusing on all the negative elements of church life, of which there are plenty, Zig dedicated the sermon to looking at the positive and life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig proclaimed that as a child he would have responded to his question with the church bells and music. They both represented the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and music. The music of church reassured the people that God was the one in control, even if the world claimed the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. The first and foremost thing that is right about the church is that it endures! Empires come and go, churches are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ endures.  With all its blindness, and plundering, for all its refusal to use its enormous resources, the church, nevertheless, has sought to minister to human need in a thousand different ways. And for untold numbers of persons the helping hand of the church has been a life-saver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway. Amen.

On Monday morning I read through our scripture lesson for today, part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and I kept hearing Zig’s words in my mind. Paul, like Zig, could have listed all of the things wrong with the church and then implore the people to be better. He could’ve listed their sins and talked about the importance of temperance and self-control. But he didn’t. Like Zig, Paul instead calls the people to focus on the goodness in their church lives. Let your gentleness be known through your living. Remember that the Lord is near, and don’t worry about the trivial moments of life but instead go to the Lord in prayer and the peace of God will guard your minds and souls. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

This is not a call to ignore the negative, nor is it a command to turn a blind eye to the problems of church. Paul is instead offering the church a way of understanding the world through the beauty and joy of what church can be.

Take it from a young pastor – there are plenty of problems in the church; from here at St. John’s to the global church. Churches are broken because they are filled with broken people. I could stand up here this morning and outline the depth of our depravity, I could talk to you about the problems facing the Middle East, we could talk about the Ebola Crisis, I could share with you the remarkably inappropriate comments I heard other clergy make this week about homosexuality. We could spend our church service focusing on all the negative but we already do enough of that.

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It is nearly impossible to turn on the television, open a newspaper, or get online without being bombarded with the problems of the world. And if the media is so inclined to mention something about the church is it almost always a controversy or a reminder of our brokenness.

So today, I want us to be different from the world. I want to follow Zig’s example, which is to say I want to follow Paul’s example, and talk about what’s right with the church.

I never had a choice about being a Christian. There was a never a time in my life where my family was not part of the church. Some of my earliest memories are of Church services, living nativities, and sitting at the altar during children’s messages.

As a kid I would have answered the question by saying the church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a weekly basis hearing about the incredible stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News with young people? For me the church has always been fun and I therefore had no reason to choose something else to do. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and decisions, is a reminder that (unlike the popular American perspective) the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us (Willimon, What’s Right With The Church, 35-36). We like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

What’s right with the church? The church is the place where people discover and live-into the reality that God has gone looking for them. I might experience God in the middle of the woods, or in the loving embrace of a friend, but church is the place where I learn the language to articulate those experiences. My eyes are opened by the church regarding how to experience God in this place, and in the world. The community of faith proclaims the Word so that we can absorb it, and live it out in the world. The people who gather as Christ’s body reach out to us in love through God’s will to call us in.

As I got older I might’ve answered the question by saying that the church’s music is awesome! Whether singing the incredible hymns from the hymnal, or wailing on the drums during a contemporary worship service, I have always loved church music. The words and tunes that we rely on every week articulate the faith of scripture and the value it plays in our lives.

I love those moments when I find myself whistling a tune, or mumbling through the lyrics of a song only to realize that it fits perfectly with my present moment. Sometimes the music of church gets the better of me and my emotions runneth over. Some of you might not realize it, but I stand behind this pulpit when I sing the hymns, so that, just in case I start crying, none of you will see it.

The music of our church is awesome because it can bring us to tears, bring smiles to our faces, reignite the flame of faith, and give us goosebumps. I love the music of church because it is so unlike the music we hear Monday through Saturday; it encourages us in our faith.

While in seminary I might’ve answered the question by saying the church is a radically alternative community. This place in unlike anything else you can experience. The church at its best is a place where everyone can belong regardless of anything else in your life.

Paul calls the church “a colony of heaven.” We are like an island of one kingdom in the midst of another. We exist communally because we could not survive on our own, we need others to help us stay accountable to the grace that God has poured on our lives. We work through our faith and live together in harmony as an alternative community where the world, for us, has been turned upside down.

We are a strange group of people who are more focused on others than ourselves, we believe the first will be last and the last will be first. In this alternative community we are habituated by love for love. In baptism we take vows to raise children in love and faith, in marriage we take public vows to help the new couple remain accountable to God and one another, in funerals we offer honest and truthful words about someone’s life, death, and promised resurrection.

But if you asked me today, right now, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: it’s incarnational. In the incarnation God took on our human flesh in Jesus Christ to be both fully God and fully human. Our church is incarnational. We gather together to hear the Word of the Lord and let it become flesh in the ways we live our lives.

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The church is the fundamental location for discovering and receiving the peace of God. This peace is something that is beyond my ability to describe with words, but it is a peace that the world cannot give; money cannot by it, nor can we earn it through social positioning. The peace of God comes from God as a gift, peace which surpasses all understanding. It is a comfort that soothes every fiber of our being, while at the same time electrifies our existence into something new, bold, and incredible. In church we confront the living God who first breathed life into us, who walks along the paths of understanding with us side-by-side, and will stay with us no matter what.

The incarnational church refuses to be moved by the expectations of the world, and instead remains committed to the love of God in our daily lives. We who have been Christians for any reasonable amount of time can remember others who have lived before us a life that was full of incarnational joy, people who heard the Word and let it become flesh in their lives. We are better, stronger, and fuller Christians for having known and watched such fellow disciples. And now we have the same opportunity to be a source of incarnational joy and life to others with whom we come in contact.

What’s right with the church?

In spite of its obvious corruptions and imperfections, it is the church that reminds us about the love of God that will not let us go, as it points us toward the true home of our souls.

So, let me say to you who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world.

And let me say to you who are not so sure about the church: You will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. Help us open our eyes to the way the living God is moving and speaking in the world so that we can continue to be the body of Christ for the world.

There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway.

Amen.