Week in the Word — Grace Greater Than Our Groaning


hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, November 25th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

Grace Greater than our Groaning

 Today we conclude our series from the book of 2 Corinthians, turning to chapters 11 and 12.

I invite you to read along with me, as I read 2 Corinthians 11:25-12:10, in the New International Version.  Feel free to read along in this same translation, which will be on our screen and in our pew Bibles; read along in the translation of your choice in your own Bible; or quietly listen at your seat, imagining yourself in the midst of the story of Scripture.  However you best hear God’s Word, let’ turn to it together, looking at 2 Corinthians 11, beginning in verse 25.

“25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

“30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

“12:1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

These are the words of God, for the people of God. May God speak through them to us today, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

stretchI can’t speak for you, but the last few years I’ve face a few things that truly stretched me, things I would not have chosen on my own, yet couldn’t get out of – situations and choices that brought me to my limit, face to face with my own vulnerability and inability, which brought me to the end of myself and my own power.

Paul here describes how he has faced such limit situations.   And he has had no end of them: being beaten within an inch of his life, attempts to execute him through stoning, threats to life and limb in his travels to share the gospel at the hands of criminals along the road and opponents to his message, natural disasters, hunger, and hard work all have stretched him, pushing him to the limit.  Paul concludes by describing a mysterious “thorn in the flesh”, likely an illness that afflicted his body, which debilitated him, slowing down his ministry, and leading others to question his faith: if God were truly on his side, wouldn’t God heal Paul as God had healed others when they prayed?  Paul’s experience with these struggles in his life and what God taught him through them, particularly his experience of this thorn in the flesh, speak to our experience of such times that stretch us to our limits in our own lives.

What your limit experience like this might be varies person to person.  What stretches one person another shrugs off. For some it is experiences of persecution like Paul faced worryfor his faith  and ministry, perhaps discrimination for standing for your faith or for your background be it your race, gender, sexuality, disability.  For others it might be, like Paul, an experience of illness that, despite prayer, seeking doctors’ help, trying to be healthy, you see no end of in sight.  It might be a perceived failure – at work, in a relationship that mattered, in projects of your own or even in the church that seem to fall apart despite your best efforts.   It may be fallout from other’s failures in your life.

What are examples of such limit experiences have seen stretch people, whether yourself or others,  forcing them to see their own vulnerabilities?   What are lessons you see Paul’s words teaching about such experiences?

The first thing I think Paul would let us know is that struggle, loss, and even experiences that feel in the moment like failure, are not things we can avoid but instead we have to face into as part of our lives.   As I’ve explained earlier, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul is countering some preachers who had rolled into the church in Corinth in the midst of its own set of trials and his own, claiming a kind of victorious living: saying since Jesus rose from death and since Jesus performed miracles, we can expect if we just live a faithful enough life, we won’t have to struggle.  And if we do struggle, clearly we don’t have enough faith.  But, not to worry,  like huckster preachers of any day, if folks just pass the hat and give them a few dollars, these preachers who’ve strolled into Corinth can tell you the way to that victorious living by faith.

Yet Paul knows the promise Jesus gave which these preachers want to omit – the promise in this world you will have trouble which our Bibles place in the Gospel of John.  There is a reason Christians read the parts of Isaiah scholars call “suffering servant” poems as about Jesus: he not only warned us that in this world we will have trouble, which we cosmic christ 2cannot get out of, but he modeled it, living faithfully with trouble.  Jesus suffered, he was persecuted, he was betrayed, tortured, and killed all before the resurrection that gives victory.  And it is that suffering and death, as much as his resurrection victorious over death, that allows Jesus to add to his promise in this world you will have trouble the other side of that promise:  fear not, I have overcome the world and I will not leave you orphans, but I will come to you.   Ultimately resurrection victory and new beginning it offers are God’s promises, yes, but we do not get there, cannot experience resurrection victory without crosses as well; without some struggles, some pain beforehand.  And often the victory we are given is not side-stepping that pain or being rescued from it, but discovering new life within it, the lessons we can learn passing through it.  Often the only way past our trials is by going through them, to the other side.

One of my favorite Christian authors, Richard Rohr, puts it well:  “Sooner or later, … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply crichar rohrannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone, as Isaiah calls it; or to state it in other language here, you will and you must ‘lose’ at something. This is the only way that …God… can get you to change, let go of your egocentric [or self-centered] preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey [to spiritual maturity]. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute…

“There is no practical or compelling reason to leave one’s present comfort zone in life. Why should you or would you? Frankly, none of us do unless and until we have to. . .

“Any attempt to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for. So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise. … [for] ‘God comes to you disguised as your life,’…

“So we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say… We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for awhile, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide. It is the necessary pattern. This kind of falling is what I mean by necessary suffering, … In the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again — but on a new level.”

The image of the cross is what pictures this reality in the Christian faith, but in Buddhism they picture this with the image of the lotus flower.  Buddhists say that when we reflect lotuson the beauty of the lotus flower, we have to also remember what makes it grow: the rot of dying and decaying matter that fertilizes it.   That life and beauty also involves a loss; and true joy comes not in running from the struggles in our lives, or pretending like suffering won’t happen, but by facing into them and asking, what good or beauty can grow out of them?  How can I grow, learn compassion, serve, care, and become my best self through this difficult experience?

This brings us to the second lesson Paul would have us learn in our times of suffering and struggle, our limit situations where we face into the end of our strength, our wisdom, our ability, to get where we need to on our own: if we are open, looking and listening for God in the midst of our struggles, we can experience God in a new way through that struggle.

The poet Rumi pictures this looking for God as being like the tearing down of a house, a painful, troubling process.  Yet, in tearing it down, one finds treasure: true gold, hidden rumi quoteunderneath the last bricks and stones that are moved.   Though the struggle you might go through might feel like the house around you, where you have felt secure is being torn down, there is a promise that, through this experience, if you will look, you can find pure gold, which can shape you into just the person you are made to be, and give you the resources for what comes next, after.

We see Paul keeps this attitude in his struggles, continuing to seek God’s face in each of them, both asking for deliverance or, barring that, God’s word to him in the situation he faces, which can make his path clear.   In that seeking, Paul is told, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

A part of why we can know this is possible is because, as the Message translation puts John 1, in Christ God “moved into our neighborhood”.  God became one of us, as we will celebrate during the Advent and Christmas season, putting on flesh and blood and bones, being tempted and tested just as we are, to show us that in every temptation, trial, and test we face, we are not alone, for through Christ “God is with us”.  This is why the Psalmist, long before Jesus’ coming, said to God in prayer in Psalm 139, “You hem me in behind and before,   and you lay your hand upon me… If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  And so, whatever situation we face, however dark or light, we can know God stands with us, ready to guide and teach us, able to give us strength to pass through it, and the wisdom to know the way.

This promise Paul receives, “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness”, reminds me of the words of an anonymous poet, who wrote:

“I asked for strength that I might achieve;

I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy;

I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of others;

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I had asked for,

but everything that I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered;

I am, among all people, most richly blessed.”

I know some of you, like me, can relate well to this poet’s experience.

In our reading, Paul compares his times of trials with his experience of somehow, through the Holy Spirit, glimpsing while in this life what heaven where God is and where we join God in our life after, is like– being caught up to the third, or highest, heaven.   Despite this amazing experience, ultimately it is by opening up to God’s grace through his trials, his struggles, his weaknesses, his limits, that Paul learns the most about God and is best prepared to make a difference for God in the lives of those around him, not through seeing the vision of heaven he describes.  God’s grace is also sufficient for us, able to enable us to stand in the midst our our limit experiences, which make us feel like we might come tumbling down.  It is these same trials and struggles that we want to discount or walk away from which can teach us the most about life, shaping us more and more to have the character of Christ.

I wonder as we conclude, do any of you have examples in your own life or the lives of others who have inspired you, of how struggles, trials, or limit experience have opened you up to a deeper and more full life with God?  Are there ways our experiences like this as a church can teach us, opening us up to God’s brighter future?

Let us pray.

Loving God, we thank you that you surround and carry us in our joys and our trials, lifting us up, giving us strength, and opening new futures for us.   Help us, like Paul, to see your presence even in our times of trial, learning what each moment has to teach us.  Amen.

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Week in the Word — Gratitude: the Gift that Gives

hanks chapel

This is the message I preached on Sunday, November 18th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

Gratitude  — the Gift that Gives

cornucopia thanksgiving sunflower

Our Scripture reflection comes from 2 Corinthians 8:1-15:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

 

8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

 

10 And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

 

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

 

May God open the ears of our minds and eyes of our heart, so we might see and know what God is saying to us in these words of holy Scripture.  Amen.

 

One of my favorite authors, Mary Oliver, when overwhelmed by her gratitude at God’s gifts in her life, asked what to do with her gratitude.  She writes,

“My work is loving the world.

sunflowerHere the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

 

“Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

 

“Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart

and these body-clothes,

a mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is

that we live forever.”

 

Mary Oliver sees her work – and ours – in the midst of the gifts all around us, as being to stop, to notice, and to live with gratitude.

Paul too asks us to consider what we do with our gratitude in today’s reading.   Paul focuses on gratitude in three ways – first, noticing the goodness which God gives us – the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich.   Not content to be high and lifted up, untouched by our suffering and struggles, God in Christ became as we are, suffering,

EthiopicFootwashing

tempted, dying, so that in each of those experiences of life, we can know God knows, loves, understands, and can turn such experiences to goodness.  Through that sacrifice, we are free to be rich – rich in God’s forgiveness, rich in knowing God’s presence, rich in knowing God is always with us, God will bring us through, rich in knowing we have a place stored up for us both in this life and the next, forever with God. Such a generous, welcoming embrace by God to us calls us to be thankful and pay it forward, by providing just such a generous openness to others.

 

Paul also focuses on the gratitude for what we have, talking of the “plenty” God gives us in earthly goods of food, home, wealth, friends, and family.  Paul quotes a text about the miraculous giving of manna, bread from heaven, which God gave to God’s people when they travelled through the desert from Egypt to the Holy Land in their journey from the Rmoses-wandering-in-the-desert-2-immigranted Sea, reminding us that the plenty God gave was not to be hoarded by a select few, but shared generously with all.   Paul tells us this example means our plenty is not to be just hoarded for ourselves, but shared also – passing on that blessing to others, paying it forward.  Paul makes it clear that, just as none went without when such sharing occurred in the desert journey to the Holy land, so if all shared in this way with each other as their act of gratitude, there would be more than enough for everyone.

 

Finally Paul’s call to giving flows out of gratitude because of where it is directed.   The collection Paul is calling the church in Corinth to give to is in order to help the first Christian churches in Palestine, including many who walked with Jesus personally in his ministry.  These first Christians made sacrifices that made it possible for the good news of God to spread in the face of persecution, struggle, and trial.   Without their faithfulness, Paul would never have heard the Gospel; without their forgiveness, Paul would never have been welcomed after resisting the Christian message.   The faith they have in Corinth where Paul is writing came from the sacrifices of those who came before them.

 

Sadly, those original churches came on hard times.  Many struggled with poverty already, and the Scriptures describe a famine that came on Palestine, pushing the poor and struggling of the community supported by the early church there to the limit; and the church’s resources to the limit.   This collection for these first churches shows the gratitude of those walking with faith in Corinth for those who came before them, for the sacrifices that made their faith possible.

 

offering 2These words challenge us to think about what we are grateful for – what gifts from God we receive through Christ’s grace and offer of himself on the cross; what gifts from God we have right now in terms of money, food, home, shelter, family and friends; and what gifts in terms of those whose love, sacrifice, and example allows us to be where we are as well.

 

Yet this invitation also gives us a challenge in another way.  Though Paul is grateful for the sacrifices of the church in Palestine, his relationship with them became strained.   The book of Galatians, which we have been reading in Bible study, tell of how some from that church critique Paul’s churches for being too liberal, not forcing people to obey the laws of the Bible strictly enough, with these churches fearing Paul is losing his way.   In both Galatians and 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about some sent from those churches who come in and disrupt the churches Paul founded.

 

Also, though this collection does help the poor and struggling in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, ultimately it is Paul’s journey to the Holy Land to deliver this collection  which will begin the series of events that lead to his arrest, trial, and execution at the hands of the Roman empire.

 

These two facts suggest that we need to realize that gratitude, giving, and sharing are not always about how the other views us, nor even the outcome.  Sometimes we may express gratitude and share with others, and it not be appreciated in the moment.  Sometimes we may give, share, and serve and the outcome not have the results we seek.  And yet, expressing gratitude, and paying our thankfulness forward by giving, sharing, and serving others is worth it: for it is an act of worship to God, and a part of walking faithfully as God’s children.

 

Week in the Word: The Cost and Call of Discipleship

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, November 11th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

The Call and Cost of Discipleship

 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, NIV

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.2 For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. 3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.  11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12 We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13 As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.

 

early editionIn the 1990’s there was a TV show called Early Edition.   On Early Edition, through some fluke of fate, a man named Gary in Chicago begins to get a copy of the newspaper one day early: a copy describing events that hadn’t yet happened.   Each episode he struggled with how to respond to the knowledge of what the future holds, and what events in the news he should work to help prevent and what events he should help along.  In a very real sense, he lives as if a part of the future already, knowing a bit of what the future hold ands aware of how his daily choices can work to make the world a better place if he lets them.

This is a good backdrop with which to look at our reading from 2 Corinthians today.

Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.”.  The Biblical prophets like Isaiah were treated by Jews and Christians alike as a kind of  Early Edition, since they imagine what kind of world we Trnava - neo-gothic fresco of prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Danielwill have when God pulls back the veil, reveals God’s self to us fully, and all people begin to live with God at the center of their lives.  The prophets said things like “Many nations will go and say: “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord,   to the house of Jacob’s God, so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths!” … They will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;  they will no longer learn how to make war.  All will sit underneath their own grapevines, under their own fig trees. There will be no one to terrify them; for the mouth of the Lord of heavenly forces has spoken.”  Hearing such words, was like holding this early edition, an advanced copy of the news, telling them and us what God would some day bring.   Paul’s first audience would wonder when prophets like Isaiah are quoted, just when such healing and new beginning could happen, hoping for God to show up soon or send a messiah to bring it to pass.

In the light of the violence of the last few weeks – the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in New York, and the mass shooting just this week in Thousand Oaks, CA, among others – pittsburgh_treeoflife_synagogue_102918upi_leadyou can see where this longing for a time God will set things right, God will end the violence, God will turn weapons into work tools, could be so very attractive.   You can see where people would respond to such “early edition” prophecies of what God hopes, dreams, and longs to bring about as the prophets describe, by saying as the Psalmist did, “How long, O Lord?” and as Isaiah later did, “If Swords-into-plowsharesonly you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Paul’s answer here in is not just thoughts and prayers alone, with only  waiting and wondering when God will act for us.  No, instead he says “Now is the time of salvation.  Now is the time of God’s favor”.  Instead of passively praying and waiting for God to act for us, Paul calls us  to accept that God already is acting and working to bring this reality to pass.  And that prayer for us needs to involve not just waiting and watching, but also rolling up our sleeves, and joining God in God’s work.  The challenge Paul makes here is to realize now is the time to take God’s hand, now is the time to begin to walk with God, and now is the time to begin to join God in the work of making all things new.  This is what Paul has spent the last chapter of 2 Corinthians saying.  In chapter 5, Paul has told us God has already started the work of mending or healing our world, through reconciling us and all creation through Christ.   Paul draws on the language of the prophet Isaiah there to say something new, God’s future, is already breaking in – if anyone is in Christ, they are part of a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come.   And we are told here and now, right now, to become ambassadors of this new creation, calling all people to find their place in God’s setting right of the world.

When Jesus called the first disciples in the Gospels to leave the life they’ve known and follow Him, this is what he was calling them to do: to begin to live as if they had a part in making God’s future, which God dreams for and longs for, to make that reality happen here and now.   This is why Jesus’ preaching is summed up by saying both “these words are fulfilled in your hearing” after quoting some Early Edition words of Isaiah in his first sermon in Luke, and also “the kingdom of God” which is God’s dream for our future “has come near.  Repent”, or change your life accordingly, “and believe” in the Gospel of Mark.

By saying “now is the day of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation,” Paul joins Jesus in saying what Mahatma Gandhi later  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” now.

This is part of why Paul describes himself, those ministering with him, and the church then and now “co-workers with God”.  Ultimately, God’s dream –whether for an end to gun violence by weapons being turned into work tools you can farm and garden with, or for an end to racism, homophobia or sexism by all people from North and South, East or bonhoefferWest, being gathered equally as brothers and sisters at God’s table, or an end to pollution and the healing of God’s earth, or even healing coming to your family, your marriage, you name it –God’s dream does not come simply by you or me praying and waiting for God to work, doing nothing more.  No, we are called to also pray by working together with God.  As God leads, we are to join God in God’s work of healing broken hearts, our own and others; healing broken relationships; changing patterns that hurt others in our lives, families, and communities.  We each have a part to play.

Yet though this call to be a fellow worker with God, in God’s project of setting right what is broken in our lives, our families, our communities, our world, is what it means to really follow Jesus, it is not easy.  It may mean causing waves, it may mean facing resistance from others, it may not always make things easier right away, in this moment.  In fact, working to change, heal, and make new here and now may mean some things get harder before they get easier.

The Church in Corinth, to whom Paul is writing, has had a group of preachers stroll into town claiming that following Jesus would do just what Paul is denying: it will make life easier, bringing health, wealth, comfort, and prosperity here and now.  It make life easier, like magic, without a cost.  But Paul knows this is not true.   There is a cost to following Jesus, a cost to joining Jesus in the adventure of working to set the world right.

Jesus himself, when he spoke up for God’s dream of a better world and called people into a relationship with God by grace, found people resisting him tooth and nail, to the point that the powers that they tried and executed him as an enemy of the state, hanging him on a cross on Good Friday  As UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann often says, Rome didn’t crucify Jesus for being a nice man.  No, it was for making a stand,  for working to change the world, when they were invested in how things had always been.

jesus before pilatePaul, too, had faced persecution and trials, which he describes in brief here.  He had endured sleepless nights, hunger, shipwrecks, people threatening his life for proclaiming the way of Jesus which not only can set the heart free and prepare us for heaven, but also which can change the world here and now.  For those invested in how the world has always worked, Paul’s words are a threat, as the message of Jesus always is.  And so Paul faced persecution and resistance again and again, just as Jesus did.

Isn’t this what we see when Christians work to make a better world place today?

When Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and others spoke up against racism  and up for equal treatment of people of all races and backgrounds, they were arrested and at times abused for that stance, though for them it was following in the footsteps of Jesus.

When Desmond Tutu did the same work in South Africa, he was called a trouble-maker and a law-breaker, even while he was clear he was simply following and preaching the teachings of Jesus as a minister of the Gospel.

When Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke up against the abuses of NAZI Germany against Jews, gays, people with disabilities, and many others whom they persecuted and killed, ultimately his stand got him thrown in prison, where he was executed by the state for choosing to follow Jesus.

These are examples of people whose commitment to the Gospel leads them to stand against unjust laws and patterns of oppression in our society at large.  Some of us here need to listen to the news, listen to our neighbors, pay attention to the signs of the times, and ask the question: how can we too stand for Jesus today?

Beyond such highly visible ways of standing for the Gospel, there are many less flashy ways we can join in the work of Jesus to help ourselves & others draw closer to God, as well as to change our own lives for the better.  As we do so, even there we can face rgreat cloud of saints behind preacheresistance.  We should go with the flow, voices in our lives will tell us, doing things how things have always been done at our workplace, even if how things have always been done hurt or mistreat others.   We should not rock the boat in our families, voices in our life can echo, even if things are going in ways that keep our eyes off Christ.   We need to stay with how things have always been at church, in the community, in the neighborhood, even if they are not working any longer, voices in our life can echo.  I’ve even known people trying to recover from alcoholism and drug abuse who found people close to them talk down about them for trying to get their life back together again.

Such resistance is not just from others, but also from within.   It can be hard to work to change our lives, to change our old patterns of relating, Even when we know we need to change, the status quo can be comfortable and hard to let go of.  It can feel like an uphill battle, but if, at the end of the day, it gets you, gets us, closer to God’s call and dream, it is worth it.

This call to join God in working to make God’s dream, God’s kingdom coming here in our lives as in heaven, more a reality in our individual lives, our communities, our families, our church, and our world, can pave a rocky path for us.

My challenge for you, for me, for all of us, this week, is to open ourselves up to hearing the Word of Christ, to letting God touch our lives, so we can dream again, seeing the possibilities that are in reach if we just stretch ourselves a bit and seeing our part in working together with God so that God’s dream can be more fully known here and now.   And for us to embrace the fact such a call may bring resistance.   Yet to take heart, for Jesus promised not only that in this world we will have trouble, but to promised that he has overcome this world.  Amen and Amen.

 

Week in the Word: Building Wider Tables, Not Higher Fences

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, November 4th,  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.  We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.

 

Building Wider Tables, Not Higher Fences

Some of you met my friend from my mission trip last week at our Loaves and Fishes service.  He is a member of a Spanish/English bilingual worship service at another United Church of Christ and he helps organize their annual mission trip to Central America, which I was blessed to join in this September.

Emapcentralamericavery year his small Spansih/English bilingual service raises the funds to send people to work in struggling parts of the world working among those whose rights are regularly trampled underfoot, even though many among its members face discrimination every day here in our country for where they were born, their color of skin, and how they speak and some face a real threat of being sent back to Central America, despite having worked In North Carolina for years and having families here.

Their pastor, a friend of mine, grew up in Honduras.   At worship each Sunday, he celebrates communion and when asked why he offers communion each week, he will talk about the example of Jesus who, when given a choice, opted not to build higher walls and fences to keep people who were different out, but instead worked to widen his table, dinner-table-lwelcoming all people to discover God’s Kingdom.  The choice to build walls and fences to keep out the other is based on believing that there is not enough to share.  The choice to make room for more chairs at the table is based on the Good News modeled in Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes with just a few loaves of bread and fish: in God, there is more than enough for everyone, so we can open our hands & hearts to share, knowing God will provide.

Recently this pastor saw this Gospel value come face to face with politics here and now.   Earlier this year he had to fly home to rescue some of his family from danger, after his uncle was shot in the rising violence in Honduras.   He returned visibly shaken by what he saw there, but thankful to be able to secure safety for some of his family.

Yet shortly afterward, the eyes of the world have turned to my pastor friend’s home country, as a caravan of Hondurans affected by this same violence fled seeking safety, hoping to be welcomed as refugees in our country as his family had been.   Right now that crowd of frightened, scared for their life, people are seeing quite a reaction from many in our country.  Some, moved with compassion by their situation, want us to make room at our table, finding a way to respond with help and aid.  Others are frightened by a group of people who look and speak different than them headed our way, and are want to turn them back or even arrest and deport them in mass, even though many of them face violence and death, as my pastor friend’s uncle did, back in Honduras.

the borderThough there are different reasons why people might have such different responses, one reason is whether they embrace the philosophy at the heart of my friend’s ministry: in the face of people who are different and in difficult situations, do you we raise a higher fence to keep those others out or do we widen our tables so there is more room?  In a way our Scripture today deals with just such a question: do we raise higher fences, or build wider tables?

We continue our series exploring the book of 2 Corinthians today.  Today we will be continuing in 2 Corinthians 5, beginning in verse 11, heading to verse 21.  I invite you to read along in your Bible, with the words on the screen, or simply to close your eyes and listen, imagining yourself in the story.

 

2 Corinthians 5:11-21, New International Version

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

May the Holy Spirit open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what words our still-speaking God is saying in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

Does anything stand out to you in this passage?

In our reading today, Paul seems to be answering people whose response to those who are different is to lift a higher fence, because they believe that God also has this response, building walls and fences to keep out those who do not live up.  Paul says, God does just Multicultural Jesus 1the opposite.  God is the one who tears down every wall that divide us from God and each other, working tirelessly to give all people a place at God’s family table.   And God does not just do this for our own benefit – though it surely benefits us! — but in order to challenge us to do likewise, becoming ones who tear down walls, making more space at the table.

Paul writes these words while he and the church in Corinth are facing trials that shake them.  While Paul is away in the midst of his own ordeals, a group of preachers roll into Corinth claiming such trials as his and the church’s come from lack of faith and obedience to  God, particularly obedience to laws of Scripture which Paul has taught the Corinthians are no longer binding, since Jesus has brought us into a new covenant not of law but Spirit by his death and resurrection.   To these preachers God is one who lifts high fences and walls, not having enough room to share grace, forgiveness, and love for all people but only for a select few.

Paul knows what it is to believe such a thing.  Before Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus in a blinding light asking him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul had believed the same thing about God – and out of that belief, persecuted the early church, fearing the way in which they followed Jesus’ example of tearing down walls and fences that divide, and welcoming those who seemed “not holy enough” to Paul to find a place at God’s table.

What Paul discovered when Jesus reached out to even him, a man who had fought Jesus’ message tooth and nail, was that God was not One just waiting to catch us doing wrong, like some angry teacher with a tally sheet waiting to toss us into an eternal detention hall if we get too many bad marks.   No, God was the One who came to us, even while we were running from God or fighting against God.  God is the One who tears down every wall – as Jesus did by going to the cross for you and me, even while some of us had no thought of God in our hearts yet.  God is the One who in Jesus is there on the cross crying out “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing” and extending that same  offer of forgiveness even to the thief dying beside him by saying “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise”.damascus road

Jesus came, lived, and died, , not just for holy people, or good people – not just for those who know their Bible well or who have been to church their whole lives, not even for just Christians, but also people of other faiths and no faith yet at all– not just for the put-together and the in-the-know but for everyone, each person, for the whole world, for you, for me. In him, all of us have died to our old lives and in him we all can become new creations, making a fresh start in life.  None of us have gone too far or done too much.   All of us can turn a new page and begin again.  As Psalm 103 promises, God in Christ separates our failures, sins, and broken pasts as far away from us as the East is from the West, empowering us to breathe free again, change our lives and be transformed.

I wonder, do you any of you have stories of such transformation through God’s love in your own life, or in the life of someone that particularly touches you?

If any of you feel you have wandered off, feel your past and failings are too much, God would want you to hear: I am not putting up a wall to keep you out.  I am not lifting fences higher to keep you out.  Instead I have opened a door no one can shut.  Instead I have made a place at the table for you, too.  And if you will but listen, will but hear my voice echoing throughout your life, calling you back home again, and come to me, you will find my arms wide open to you.   Answer this call, reach out to God, and accept the welcome God freely offers.

reconciliation-art

Paul not only offers the promise of God’s limitless forgiveness to each of us, letting us know the lengths God goes to tear down walls and fences that keep us out, to welcome us home at his table.  He also challenges us to go and do likewise.   Paul tells us you and I are to be Christ’s ambassadors, Christ’s representatives who go out proclaiming a reconciliation for the whole world, a reconciliation found in not viewing people anymore by human standard, but instead in seeing them with the eyes of God, embracing them with God’s forgiveness and love.   We too are to be ones who tear down fences and walls excluding those left out by our world, while working to also widen our tables to welcome more, even if it means setting new chairs.

What might this look like?

Desmond and Mphobo Tutu offer one example in their book THE BOOK OF FORGIVING:  ‘At the age of twelve, Bassam Aramin watched as another boy his age was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. In that moment, he felt a “deep need for revenge” and joined a group of freedom fighters in Hebron. Some called him a terrorist, but he felt he was fighting for his safety, his home, and his right to be free. At seventeen, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops and sentenced to seven years in prison. In prison, he only learned to hate more as he was stripped naked and beaten by his prison guards. “They were beating us without hatred, because for them this was just a training exercise and they saw us as objects.” While in prison, Bassam engaged in a dialogue with his Israeli guard. Each thought the other was the “terrorist” and each equally denied being the “settler” in the land they shared. Through their conversations, they realized how much they had in common with the other. For Bassam, it was the first time he recalls feeling empathy in his life. Seeing the transformation that took place between him and his captor, as they recognized their shared humanity, Bassam realized that violence could never bring peace. This realization changed his life. In 2005, Bassam Aramin cofounded a group called Combatants for Peace. He has not picked up a weapon since, and for Bassam this is not a sign of weakness but of true strength. In 2007, Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier as she stood outside her school. Bassam says, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and nonviolence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”’

In his book Tattoos on the Heart, pastor Gregory Boyle of Los Angeles tells another story of widening and making more room at the table rather than raising the fence.   In 1986, Boyle was placed as pastor in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles.  Over-run by gangs and drugs, bombarded every day by violence and intimidation, Boyle Heights was a frightening place for many.  In such a situation, it would be easy to call out to “raise the fence higher”, keeping out of his church the young people becoming caught up in gangs.  Instead Gregory reaches out to them intentionally, mobilizing his church to help them find alternatives to gang life.  Ultimately people stepped forward to even offer counseling and job training to those who respond with gratitude to this loving outreach, wanting to change their lives.  The end result is Homeboy Industries, “the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world…which “offers an “exit ramp” for those stuck in a cycle of violence and incarceration. The organization’s holistic approach, with free services and programs, supports 10,000 men and women a year as they work to overcome their pasts, re-imagine their futures, and break the inter-generational cycles of gang violence.”Pastor Gregory’s choice to lead his church to not react with fear and raise up a higher fence, but instead find a way to broaden their table and welcome young people caught up in gangs to find a place in it, is a powerful example of the difference we can make when we join God in making this choice, leaving a legacy of changed lives and relationships.

What might be ways we can live out this call in our community and relationships as individuals and as a church?

May we hear God’s call, accepting the forgiveness and welcome God offers; while joining God in tearing down walls for others and welcoming them in, to find their place with us at God’s family table.  Amen and Amen.