This 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 communities. 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 information 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?
Ephesians 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 their 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 persecuted 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?