Week in the Word — Be the Church: A United and Uniting People

 

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, August 26  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Be the Church: Being a United and Uniting People”

This Sunday we continue our series from the book of Ephesians exploring what it means to “Be the Church”, looking at what values can be a compass guiding us on the path God has for us as a church in the midst of change and transition.  These values also challenge us not to simply look to serve ourselves but open our eyes all around us, to see those in need in our communities.Today we start with Ephesians 3, beginning in verse 6 I will be using the New Living translation.  Feel free to read along in your own Bible in the translation of your choice, read along on the screen with the translation I am using, or just close your eyes and listen, imagining yourself within the story. However you best experience it, let’s read God’s Word together.

Ephesians 3:6-11 , New Living Translation — be the church“6 And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus 7 By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News.
“8 Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, he graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ. 9 I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning.
“10 God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Let us pray.
Still-speaking God, whose word is heard not just on the lips of those whose face and skin look like mine, nor just in languages I recognize, but who speaks to and with all people, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we can hear and see what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture, Amen.
Before I share what stands out to me from Ephesians 3, I wonder what values of Be-ing the Church you hear in this passage?

In our reading today, Paul speaks about people who had been divided in the past by culture and religion, who now have been brought together through faith in Christ as one people.  He talks about how in that group God will reveal God’s self to those looking for God not despite but precisely because of and through the differences they share. This is why Paul tells us “God’s purpose in all this” — this tearing down of walls that divide people and drawing all in, side by side, as equals, on the level ground at the foot of the cross, “was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all”.  You see, it takes a rich variety of all kinds of people speaking and acting with love and faith in God for the rich variety of wisdom God wants to share  to be fully known. Each person reflects a part of who God is and what God is saying in a unique way due to who they are and where their life has taken them.

In the United Church of Christ we call this value being “One in Covenant, a United and Uniting People” and look to Jesus’ words in John 17:21 as its basis.  On the night before reconciliation-arthis betrayal and death, Jesus prays to his God and our God, his Father and our Father. Imagining the many different people throughout all the world, throughout all history, whom Jesus is about to go to the cross to save, Jesus says “ I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”

Jesus’ prayer is that, through us discovering and growing into a relationship with God like Jesus has, One where like Jesus we and others can know we are God’s children, whom God loves, and in whom God takes delight, we all, and  people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, might learn to lay aside our differences and know each other as one family, one community, not simply by ignoring our differences, but by looking for what lessons from God those differences can teach us and unique gifts they can bring.   We call this relationship with God a “covenant” because, like marriage, it is marriedone built on promises on which we depend. I just was blessed do do a wedding a few weeks ago and I saw two people who’d grown to love each other promise to stand by each other in wealth and in poverty, in sickness and in health, as long as they both shall live.   This exchanging of promises in front of others is what makes a marriage a covenant. Our relationship with God is a covenant too, because God promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to fill us with the Holy Spirit, to guide us, and to go and prepare a place for us, among many many other precious promises. And we promise too throughout our faith journey, most especially at our baptisms , our renewing of baptism when we join the church, and each time we take communion, to trust in God, to try to follow in Christ’s steps, and to love others as God has loved us and gave himself for us in Christ.   

Jesus prays that this covenant relationship, this relationship of promise, will lead us to work to be at one with others, tearing down walls that divide people by prejudice, by hatred, by fear and mistrust.

What are some walls in our society that can divide people based on differences?

I recently heard an amazing story of someone who went the extra mile in devoting himself to this work of being a united and uniting person, living out this value of being the church in an amazing way.   Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, spent the last 25-30 daryl davisyears breaking down walls, getting out of his bubble, and intentionally befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan.  The friendships he has built on this journey have led over 200 Klansmen to realize their hatred of men like Daryl, based on the color of their skin, was wrong, and to give up their Klan robes.
Davis tells the story of the first interchange which led him down this journey:  “I was playing music — it was my first time playing in this particular bar called the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy you all’s music.” I thanked him, shook his hand and he says, “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” I was kind of surprised that he did not know the origin of that kind of music and I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.” That’s what that rockabilly, rock ‘n roll style came from.” He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. I ain’t ever heard no black man except for you play like that.” So I’m thinking this guy has never heard Fats Domino or Little Richard and then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?”
“Well, now I’m getting curious. I’m trying to figure out, now how is it that in my 25 years on the face of this earth that I have sat down, literally, with thousands of white people, had a beverage, a meal, a conversation or anybody else, and this guy is 15 to 20 years older than me and he’s never sat down with a black guy before and had a drink. I said, “How is that? Why?” At first, he didn’t answer me and he had a friend sitting next to him and he elbowed him and said, “Tell him, tell him, tell him,” and he finally said, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“I just burst out laughing because I really did not believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg. As I was laughing, he pulled out his wallet, flipped through his credit cards and pictures and produced his Klan card and handed it to me. Immediately, I stopped laughing. I recognized the logo on there, the Klan symbol and I realized this was for real, this guy wasn’t joking. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting by a Klansman?
“But he was very friendly, it was the music that brought us together. He wanted me to call him and let him know anytime I was to return to this bar with this band. The fact that a Klansman and black person could sit down at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So what do you do when you plant a seed? You nourish it.”


Though maybe less dramatic, the story of our denomination is one of tearing down walls.  In the 1950’s when the United Church of Christ formed, it was through several different denominations joining as one, each saying that their particular favorite doctrines, 150px-United_Church_of_Christ_emblem.svgunique ways of doing worship, and long histories were not as important as loving God, treating each other with respect, and working together to both share the message of God’s love and break down walls of division in the world around them.   They trusted God to work out the details if they committed to joining Jesus in saying “God, make us one, as Christ and you are One”. Even now, because of this, alot of our United Church of churches, including our church here in Pittsboro, include people who grew up in a variety of church backgrounds, and often blend those in their worship.

What was more amazing was how here, in our Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, that unity stood against what prevailed in the culture all around us.  Because of how much work the Congregationalist-Christians who joined the United Church of Christ had already done first fighting slavery, then helping start historically black schools as well as churches in the black community, many of the churches in this area were historically black.   So joining as one denomination meant black church

southern conference gathering

Even today, when the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ gathers for worship, we have churches and leaders from every background due to our commitment to be “united and uniting”.

leaders and white church leaders regularly sitting down together in the same room, eating from the same table, as well as worshipping and preaching at each other’s churches. When that happened it was still illegal in some places here in the south for them to eat at the same restaurant or drink water from the same fountain, and people faced threats from racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan when they sat together across color lines like they did.

Being a united and uniting people means as a church we have to be ones committed to welcoming people across the aisle who are different from us in all kinds of ways — for their culture, their political affiliation, their nation of upbringing, their income or education level, what their family looks like, you name it.   Ultimately each kind of person we meet, no matter how different, is like a bottle with a message in it like we might find swept up in a wave on the seashore: each person has a unique message from God for us, if we will just accept them as they are, embracing their unique gifts & journey, and listening to their story. Living out Christ’s prayer means working to be a place where all are not just welcome but valued, is key to being a united and uniting church.  It also is helping spread that attitude around us into our communities.

 

Let us pray.

Make us one with Christ,

one with each other,

and one in ministry to all the world…

until Christ comes in final victory

and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

 

 

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Week in the Word:Be the Church — Extravagant Welcome

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, August 19  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Be the Church: Being a People of Extravagant Welcome

This Sunday we continue our series from the book of Ephesians exploring what it means to “Be the Church”, looking at what values can help us be Christ’s hands and feet in this world and keep our path steady and straight in times of change and transition, as well as how they challenge us not to simply look to serve ourselves but see those in need all around us in our communities.Today we start with Ephesians 2, beginning in verse 11.  I will be using the Message translation. Feel free to read along in your own Bible in the translation of your choice, read along on the screen with the translation I am using, or just close your eyes and listen, imagining yourself within the story. However you best experience it, let’s read God’s Word together.

be the church“11-13 But don’t take any of this for granted. It was only yesterday that you outsiders to God’s ways had no idea of any of this, didn’t know the first thing about the way God works, hadn’t the faintest idea of Christ. You knew nothing of that rich history of God’s covenants and promises in Israel, hadn’t a clue about what God was doing in the world at large. Now because of Christ—dying that death, shedding that blood—you who were once out of it altogether are in on everything.
14-15 The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody.
16-18 Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.
19-22 That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.

Let us pray.

Still-speaking God, whose voice echoes not just among the people and places we are used to and with whom we are comfortable, but also among those who feel strange and different than us, whom we might be tempted to overlook or exclude, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we can hear and see what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture, Amen.
Before I share what stands out to me in this passage, I wonder if you see any ways this passage points toward how to be the church together?

When I first starting ministering at Hanks Chapel, Beverly Bland told me a story that stuck with me.   Beverly told me about a value she feels we have at Hanks Chapel, as a United Church of Christ church, which is one reason why she worships here, and she told white-onlyme how she first learned it from her mother.   This was back when all over the south “keep out” signs were up everywhere, saying things like “whites only” over water fountains, bathrooms, and businesses here in Chatham County. A curious little one, Beverly turned to her mother as a little girl and asked why only white children could drink that water, go to that bathroom, eat that food, or jump in that pool.

Beverly’s mother bent down beside you with a serious expression on her face.   “Some people believe certain people are better than others for being white, and so black people have to be left out.   But we know Jesus, so we know better. Jesus loves everybody, so everyone should be treated as the same”.

“Keep out” signs like she saw as a young girl, which her mother said their faith as Christians made them disagree with, are not a new thing to our community, nor to the church.

Although people no longer hang “whites only” or “men only” signs up in front of business or in front of churches, we continue to send the message only certain kinds of people are really welcome where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we worship in subtle and not so subtle ways.  

racial disparityLast year a study ran on hiring practices across our country.  It found that the rate at which the color of someone’s skin comes into play when people apply for a job has not changed in almost 30 years.  Today “white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified African Americans” while “[w]hite applicants receive on average 24% more callbacks than Latinos,” which is exactly the same rate as it was in 1989.  Likely, not a one of these businesses explicitly came out and directly said “African and Latin American folks aren’t welcome here”, but their hiring practices show there is discrimination still to be dealt with.

And even though the sign “whites only” doesn’t appear on our businesses anymore, there are tons of people across our country raising their voices against all kinds of people different than them right now — some calling for immigrants to be shipped back even if sends them into violence that could take their life or it splits up their families, some wanting to be able to not serve people at their businesses if they find out who those potential customers love or how their family looks isn’t what they think it should be.

Sadly, too often the church is not the place where all are welcome either.  While fighting for Civil Rights for all American in the days of those explicit “Whites Only” signs across the south, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “It is appalling that the most most segregated hoursegregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”   Too often, the church — where we ought to be people who recognize that our citizenship is in heaven, not in our skin color, not in our nationality, not in our sexuality, not in our political party, nor in our upbringing — doesn’t really live that out. Instead of truly working to tear down barriers that keep folks different from us from feeling welcomed to discover Christ with us, to often we are content to go along with the pattern of the world at large, only wanting to welcome, reach out to, and serve people just like us: whether that is due to the color of their skin, due to the type of music they like to listen to, their lifestyle, whether they are gay or straight, whether they have a good job or are hard on their luck, you name it.

Paul, in writing to the church in Ephesus, knows first hand the ways in which we can have subtle and not-so-subtle “your type are not welcome here” signs in the church.    At one point, he was scandalized by the way he saw true Christianity, at its best, tear down walls between people, and welcome all in. The early church’s extravagant welcome of all, even those who did not believe the right things, did not keep all the laws of the Bible perfectly, and did not grow up in the right families, is why Paul fought it tooth and nail initially, trying to wipe it out before Jesus himself appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.

After Christ appeared to Paul, he realized that the sort of dividing walls the world puts up separating others — based on the color of their skin, based on the way their family looks, based on if they are this political party or that, based on if they speak like us or dress like us — are exactly the sort of divisions Jesus came to tear down.  In fact, Paul is telling us that every kind of wall we might try to set up between us and others because of their difference has been torn down by Jesus. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Any of us trying to put up “you are not welcome” signs in the church or in our neighborhoods are not just fighting against others. We are actually fighting against the One who challenged Paul himself on Damascus Road by saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” about Paul trying to push out the early Christian church.  Like Paul before his conversion, when we reject and push out those who are different, we are fighting the risen and living Christ himself. And let me tell you, that is a fight you cannot win.

Instead of putting up walls to keep out those the world labels too different, the church ought to be the one place where we work to pull down walls that divide, welcoming in all kinds of people.  This is what Jesus modeled in his ministry. In a society where men alone could be taught the Bible, in Luke 10 Jesus allowed Mary Magdalene and other women to mary magdalene washing jesus feetsit as his feet and be taught Scripture to become teachers of Scripture themselves, answering  when challenged “she has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her”. In a society that considered foreigners, especially Romans suspect, let alone a foreigner whose live-in companion was not a wife but a man whom he called “the servant whom I love,” in Luke 7 and Matthew 8, rather than suggesting his family should be broken up and he deported, or that the love these two men shared was wrong, Jesus said to them “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel … many will come from the east and the west,and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”.   And in the community meals Jesus offered that were the hallmark of his ministry, he turned none away, welcoming those the high and holy viewed as too sinful, too far gone, too broken to ever find their way again like tax collectors, prostitutes, the divorced, right alongside his day’s equivalent to deacons, preachers, and Bible scholars. Jesus made a place for everyone in God’s kingdom and at God’s table. All were welcome, whoever they were and wherever they were in their life’s journey.

Jesus embodied extravagant welcome.  To walk in Jesus’ steps, welcoming all people — whoever they are and wherever they are on life’s journey — to be a part of us, to discover Christ with us, and to serve and make a difference with just as they are — is what it means to extend extravagant welcome as a church.

I wonder, what are ways you have seen us practice extravagant welcome as a church?

What are new ways you’d like to to see us explore extravagant welcome in the future?

In closing,  I share the words of Edwin Markham from his poem “Outwitted”, which to me so beautifully expresses the call to live out extravagant welcome:

“He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

May we hear God’s call to draw our circle wider, to welcome all God is calling to God’s table together!  Amen & Amen.

Week in the Word: Be the Church — We Belong to Christ

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, August 12,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

“Be the Church: We Belong to Christ”.

(Before sermon, pass out scraps of cloth)

This Sunday we continue our series from the book of Ephesians exploring what it means to “Be the Church”, looking at what values can help us be Christ’s hands and feet in this world and keep our path steady and straight in times of change and transition,.

Today we start with Ephesians 2, beginning in verse 1.  I will be using the Message translation. Feel free to read along in your own Bible, read along on the screen with the translation I am using, or just close your eyes and listen, imagining yourself within the story.  However you best experience it, let’s read God’s Word together.

jesus on water“1-6 It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

“7-10 Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.”

 

Would you pray with me?

Still-speaking God, whose voice echoes not just in our moments of success, but also our times of deep failure and loss, whose goodness can be found not just when we stand on high mountains of happiness but also when we feel broken, lost, and ashamed, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we can hear and see what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture, Amen.

Before I share what stands out to me in this Scripture, I wonder what speaks to you out of it, especially in terms of values we need to live out to be the church in the world?

Baptism-of-ChristEphesian 2 reminds us that we belong to Christ and so do all people. Living as ones belonging to Christ, who recognize others as belonging to Christ, is a key way we live as Christ’s Body in this world.  

A favorite book of mine starts out “It begins, as most things begin, with a song. In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams … and the animals, how all of them came into the world. They were sung…

“Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That’s the power of songs…

“Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words…” (Neil Gaiman, The Anansi Boys)

In a way, the call to live as ones who belong to Christ is an invitation to this same journey: to discover our heart song, whose music is meant to move our lives.  We are challenged to discover who we are, whose we are, and where we are headed. Ephesians 2 makes it clear there is a different noise all around us, from day one– the messages of the world echoing all around us, telling us we are not worthy of love, are not worthy of God’s best.  The world’s noise seeks to silence our heart songs, until we don’t believe anymore we can have God’s best for ourselves, so we settle for less than what truly fulfills and embrace relationships, activities, work, and choices that leave us at best feeling empty and wanting and at worst are self-destructive and hurtful to others and to God’s good earth.  The world’s distracting clamor leads us to look at others who are different than us as less than us, as ones we can exclude, mistreat, discriminate against. If we let it, this noise can cause us to forget who we are and to whom we belong.

mother-and-child

Yet through Christ, God has broken through this noise to show us a love stronger than our failures, a compassion deeper than the world’s prejudice, a grace without limit that lasts.  By going to the cross for you and me, Jesus shows us that what God spoke over him at his baptism – “you are my child whom I love; in you I am well-pleased” – is also true of you and me, true of each and every person we could ever meet, true of all people in God’s world. God has let us know through Christ that none of us are disposable and forgettable.   Instead each and every one of us are loved and loveable, delightful and deserving of delight ourselves, each with something beautiful and good we can contribute to others and our world. We need not have lived a perfect life first, nor first fit some churchly mold of holy living, let alone lived into society’s skewed image of who we have to be. No. Instead, we are so loved from the beginning, before we have done anything good or bad, so loved regardless of our successes or our failures, so loved simply because we are God’s own. This is what grace means, a gift we cannot boast of having earned or deserved.  These words God’s grace extends to you, to me, to all who belong to Christ – “you are the child whom I love; in you I am well-pleased” — are like a mother’s gaze upon her newborn baby. Such a gaze falls on her little one when they are first born – and, let’s face it, newborns are weak, vulnerable, unable to do anything good or bad yet on their own. That little one in their mother’s arms cannot yet run a marathon or manage a business, let alone earn a PHD. Still that child’s mother already loves them, from their first heartbeat. She delights in that little one, simply because they are her child. We belong to Christ and are loved unconditionally by Him.

To “Be the church” we must accept that we do belong to Christ. We must embrace ourselves as so loved and loveable in God’s eyes, knowing we are a delight to God and others, knowing we deserve love and delight ourselves.  We must recognize this is also true of each person we meet, of all in God’s world.

In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen uses the imagery of the communion table to picture what it means to embrace that we belong to Christ and to begin to move with God’s heart song for us. . In communion, bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared. Likewise discovering our life’s song and living as someone who belongs to Christ involves embracing that we too are being taken like the bread and cup of communion by being welcomed as God’s very own by God just as we are, we too are being blessed as God shows us how we can be a gift to others and the world not despite but precisely through what makes us different, we too are to be broken by answering Christ’s call to love and serve others self-sacrificially like He did, and we too are to be shared through us joining Christ in helping open others up to the ways they too can discover their place in God’s song, their own belovedness as ones belonging to Christ as well.

beloved (1)

To start our journey of living as ones belonging to Christ we too must begin to embrace ourselves as loved without condition, fully and completely.  We must also accept that each person we meet, no matter their past, the ways they are different than us, also are so loved without condition, and offered this free gift of love and new life.  We also must embrace who we and others are as individuals and what our unique journey of life has been as a source of blessing, no matter its jagged edges; and the same with others. Which comes to why I passed out tattered cloths at the start of my sermon.  We often focus not on our and others’ blessedness but on our and others’ list of despites: God loves us despite our failings. God uses us despite our weakness and inability. God calls us despite how unfit we are to what we are called. So often we look at who we are – our appearance, our talents, our life story – as inconsequential. Or, worse yet, wrong. If only, we say. If only I was taller. If only I was stronger. If only I was male. Or straight. If only I had a different job. Better education. A different upbringing. If only I was someone else, essentially… Then we could matter, make a difference, deserve love.

The noise of this world tells us we are disposable, our lives like tattered scraps only fit to be tossed away.  Yet some of the most beautiful gifts I have seen people make are quilts, which are made from such seemingly disposable scraps.  When sown together by a master sewer, the seemingly disposable create irreplaceable beauty. This is how God works with us. God is our master quilter. No one we meet, not a one of us gathered here, no one on God’s earth, is a scrap to be thrown away.  Each of us belong to Christ. And if we but open ourselves to Christ, the Holy Spirit can find the place we fit in God’s quilt that adds beauty and warmth to those in a world that often feels cold and drab. Even your most seemingly tattered part of who you are or of your life story can be used by God to bring help, healing, and beauty to other’s lives and to our world, if you give it over to God.

 

1)     How have you seen us live out this value of recognizing we belong to Christ, and all we meet belong to Christ, in the past at Hanks Chapel?

2)     What are some new ways we can live out this value as a church, you think we ought to explore?

 

Let us pray.  O God, who Makes all things beautiful in its time, thank You that we belong to You. Like a master seamstress, take the scattered scraps of our lives as individuals and a church, making us into a thing of beauty that can help keep us and others warm through the long dark winters of this world.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

 

Week in the Word: Be the Church, Wk 1 — We Listen For a Still-Speaking God

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, August 5,  at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

 

This week we begin a new series as a church called “Be the Church” asking the question of how we can not just go to church but be the church, the Body of Christ, in our be the churchcommunities. As St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

I think we can all agree we have gone through some big changes as a church that leave us asking where we are going in the future and who we are called to be now.

The questions we are asking at Hanks Chapel UCC right now are ones every church needs to be asking of themselves, whether or not they’ve gone through what we have.  Our world is in a huge state of change. Just look at your cell phone. When you hold one in our hand, you have almost instant communication with anyone anywhere, you can access teresa of avila quoteinformation through the internet in a touch of its buttons on almost any topic, and — probably its most useful feature for me when I am driving from house to house in my work with hospice — it can give you directions almost anywhere in a flash.  What a change from the days when all this information required a pile of maps, a dozen phone books, and a week in the library!

When our world goes through such changes, churches have to face tough questions: are our cherished traditions that used to help people find God for themselves still really pointing people to God in the same way here and now?  To survive churches have to go through a kind of “rummage sale”, where they sort through what treasured traditions they need to lay aside since that aren’t helping people anymore, what treasured traditions they need to hold onto because they are still helping people open up to God and others, what ancient practices they need to revive which long ago were moth-balled in their attics but now speak fresh words today, and what new practices and approaches they might need to try which they’ve never used before.  The churches who do this kind of work find new life , touching people in their communities in life-giving ways they otherwise never would, while those churches who don’t do that work usually quit impacting their community and slowly fade away.

The tough journey we have been through is forcing us to do the hard work all churches need to do to remain life-giving in our quickly changing world.  Exploring what bedrock values that stay steady through life’s changes go into “being the church” can help us find and keep our footing through this journey.  The book of Ephesians, which we will be studying in our series, focuses on such values and was written in just such a time of great change and loss in the early church.

I invite you to read Ephesians chapter 1, beginning in verse 3, along with me.  I will be reading from the Message Bible. “3-6 How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.
“7-10 Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.
“11-12 It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.
“13-14 It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.
“15-19 That’s why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
“20-23 All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.”
Would you pray with me?  O still-speaking God, whose voice echoes not just in the pages of the past but right now, in this moment, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart that we might see and know what word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

  • What values that we can lean on through times of change do you hear in these words?

comma stoleEphesians 1 reminds us that we worship and follow a still-speaking God. This key value for us in the United Church of Christ is pictured by the comma on my stole. “Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma, for God is still speaking.”  

Yet Paul makes it clear: he and his churches’ trials are not the final word, nor are ours, because God is still speaking. Don’t put a period in your life where God has only put a comma.  Failure, death, loss, and threat are not the final word for the churches of Ephesus or Paul, even as Paul is beheaded for his faith by Rome and Nero Caesar begins a plan of persecution against the church. Ultimately we’ve seen this same story play out before, haven’t we? Jesus, too, was killed by the powers that be for speaking up against paul chainedtheir abuse of the least of these and, then, too, Christ’s followers thought it was all over.  But that was a comma, not a period. God is still speaking, so to their surprise Jesus rose again victorious over death and the powers of injustice on Easter morning. And, through Jesus, God is still speaking even now, working out a plan bigger than the forces at work against Paul, against his churches, against the poor and oppressed and marginalized in his day and ours, and against you or me — a plan bigger than our troubles, a plan bigger than our worries, a plan deeper than our fears, a plan which God has had for us before the world began, a plan no power in this world can stop.  

Paul’s prayer is that he, his churches, and you and I would be able to put aside such noise, distractions, and fears to truly hear and see what God is saying in our present moment. Since God is still speaking, we know God is not done with us yet.  Since God is still speaking, we know there is good yet to come from whatever trial we face. Since God is still speaking, we know if we but listen, we can discover opportunities each day to make a difference.

Not only are the trials and transitions we face not God’s final word, but neither are the failures of our pasts or the labels others put on us.  It is easy to get caught up with feeling worthless because of how others judge us. It is easy to beat ourselves up for our failures and shortcomings, letting them define us.  Yet Paul challenges his churches, together with each of us not to get caught up with these commas in our life. God is still speaking. And what is God saying? God is reminding us of who God says we are: God’s own children, whom God loved and planned to welcome before the world was made, to whom God has extended a beautiful calling to make a difference in this world, and for whom God has secured a home forever.   

Paul himself already had experienced the power of this still-speaking God to set him free from his failures of the past.   Paul first made a name for himself as Saul, the man who damascus roadpersecuted and planned the murder of Christians relentlessly. Then Christ appeared to him as a flash of light on the road to Damascus saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”.  Christ sent him out with a new name, no longer Saul but Paul, and with a new direction in life. Paul’s experience demonstrates his message that our pasts, the way others have judged us, and our failures, are commas, not periods. They don’t define us or our futures — nor those of others we meet — for God is still speaking.


Finally, believing God is still speaking means looking for God to speak to us here and now, not just in time-worn church traditions or how we’ve always read the Bible before.  A part of why Paul became a persecutor of the church was that when he looked at the words in his Bible, he could only see the long laundry list of rules his time-worn tradition said excluded others, including some of  the very kinds of people whom he saw Jesus and the early Christians welcoming to God’s table. Once Christ broke through Paul’s prejudices and defences, Paul changed. Hearing the voice of the still-speaking Christ, Paul became the loudest proponent for laying aside the letter of the law that excludes in order to welcome in all whom this still-speaking Christ is calling home to God’s family table.

The path Paul laid down with his life and ministry, the path he risked his life for, is a path our United Church of Christ has chosen to follow.  When slave-holders here in the south quoted the Bible saying “slaves obey your masters”, it is the Congregationalist-Christians who later became the United Church of Christ who turned and said “no, God is still speaking” and God is saying together with 2 Corinthians “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom,” all while working to fight to end slavery.  When folks opposed women’s rights to vote or preach by saying “women be silent”, we said “no, God is still speaking,” joining Joel in our Bibles by saying both “sons and daughters will prophesy… on my servants, both men and women,  I will pour out my Spirit,”  fighting for women’s rights in the world around us and becoming one of the first American denominations to ordain women.  And, look, just last week, we had a woman in our pulpit here at Hanks Chapel, didn’t we? Aren’t we glad we have a history of saying “God is still speaking?” When people began to quote verses to bash gay and transgender people, we in the United Church of Christ spoke up and said, no, God is still speaking, and God says with Paul in Galatians, “in Christ, there is no longer male and female”.

To help us think about how we can live out this value, I’ve invited a speaker from one of our sister UCC churches to tell us about some ways they live out this value in the ministries he helps out with there.

Hopefully, even though not all they are doing are what we may feel called to do, hearing how they live out this value will give us ideas about how we can be people who follow a Still-speaking God.

— guest speaker shares-
Keeping our eyes focused on this value, of listening to and following the still-speaking voice of God, will help us navigate this time of change in our church and world.
I wonder, what are ways you have seen us already living out this value of being the church here at Hanks Chapel UCC?
What are ways you think we could live it out in new and different ways as a church?