Week in the Word: One at Baptism and the Table

hanks chapelThis is the message I preached on Sunday, September 2nd,  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: One at Baptism and the Table”

This Sunday we continue our series from the book of Ephesians exploring what it means to “Be the Church”, looking for 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 be the churchus 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 4, beginning in verse 1. 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 4:1-16, New Living Translation

Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. 4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.

5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 one God and Father of all,
who is over all, in all, and living through all.

7 However, he has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. 8 That is why the Scriptures say,

“When he ascended to the heights,
   he led a crowd of captives
   and gave gifts to his people.”

9 Notice that it says “he ascended.” This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world. 10 And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

Let us pray.
Still-speaking God, whose word echoes not just in the flashy fireworks of miracles that shake our hearts, nor just the pages of Scripture, but who speaks in every ordinary bird and bush, in elements as simple as water, bread, and cup, and in each person sent along our path, 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 4, I wonder what values of Be-ing the Church you hear in this passage?

 

There’s something about certain sensations that always bring us back home, reminding us of who we are and where we came from.  I bet if I asked each of you, you could name something. For some of you perhaps it is the smell of sawdust reminding you of your another family reuniondad’s carpentry table; or the feel of a spring breeze through the leaves reminding you of a family reunion each spring; or the taste of a pecan or apple pie cooked just right which reminds you of your momma or grandma’s best home-made masterpiece, or the sight of leaves changing reminding you of an autumn trip with family to the mountains.  We each have something that calls us home.

I was reminded of mine shortly after beginning serving here.  A few Sundays into preaching here this Spring, I joined the Sunday School and was shocked to find ladybugs crawling on me during the lesson.   That Sunday was a tough one for me — I came ready to preach, but a relationship important to me hit a rough spot, and I was worried it would distract me.   But having ladybugs all over me reminded me of my mother who passed last summer. I remember suddenly in a moment, leaning down with her as a little boy, getting my knees and hands muddy in helping her in her garden as she had me help her plant and water all kinds of plants.  And, of course, gather up lady bugs that she would have me sprinkle on her flowers and vegetables, telling me to always be kind to lady bugs because they were good luck, guarding her garden from all kinds of insects that could harm them. In that moment, it was like momma was wrapping her arms around me, telling me “I’m proud of you, boy.  And you’ve got this”.

Whenever I see lady bugs I remember I’m Franny’s boy, raised by this woman who loved ladybugto be close to the earth, loved to make things with her hands, and loved to add beauty to the world.   And whenever I bite into a fresh garden tomato, I remember the taste of the tomatoes she grew and feel I am, for but a moment, returning home, reminded of who I am and whose I am.

Sometimes we deeply need this kind of reminder.   When Paul writes to the church of Ephesus, how much he and they need to be reminded where they come from, who they are, whose they are, and where that means they are headed!

As Paul reminds us, he writes in chains, on his way to be executed.  If there is ever a time you might begin to question who you are and where your life is headed, surely your journey to your beheading is that time!  No doubt the Christians in Ephesus were shaken by this news too.

Paul encourages them and, through them, each of us, that when life shakes us and makes us fear we might become distracted and lose our way, to connect back with who we are, whose we are, and where we are headed.  Paul encourages them to remember their own calling from God and how it ushered them into one Body of Christ, one Spirit of God, one great hope for this life and the next, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. In the United Church of Christ we talk about this call to remember where we have come from, whose we are, who we are, and where we are going, in terms of living as people “one at baptism and the table”.

anabaptist baptizinJust as having those lady bugs falling all over me that one Sunday here reminded me what it meant to be my mother’s youngest boy and all the faith she had in me on a day I needed such a reminder, so as Christians we bathe ourselves with water and have the name of God — Father, Son, and Spirit — spoken over us at the start of our Christian journeys, as a way of claiming who we are in God’s eyes: God’s beloved children, in whom God takes delight; ones for whom Christ came, for whom Christ died, ones whose lives have been made new through his resurrection, ones called to be his hands and feet, his body, in this world by working to share his love in word and deed, and working to help find healing for all that is hurting and broken in God’s world.   Martin Luther, who helped start the Protestant Reformation, used to say “Remember your baptism”. Luther challenged people, whenever they wash their face in the morning, to pause and remember it, because doing so called to memory these essentials of who we are and who we are called to be. “Remember your baptism” invites us all to recognize our baptism is our Baptism-of-Christcommissioning to do God’s work. It is not just ordained pastors with titles and degrees who have a calling but each of us have callings we live out too: in our day to day jobs, our care for our families, our care for friends and neighbors, our social activism. Our baptisms have given us our own ministries in those moments and contexts, our own callings no one else can answer yet which we live out whenever we do such seemingly ordinary earthy work and care for the glory of God, and in ways that point others to Christ’s love and build justice and compassion in our community.

Similarly, just as the taste of fresh plucked tomatoes reminds me I am this son of a woman who liked to live close to the earth and fill God’s world with beauty, so when we fresh tomatotake bread together we have broken and drink from a shared cup together as we do each communion, we are reminding ourselves of the very same truth.  We are reminded too, in that bread and cup that even when we feel broken, and our life feels poured out and near empty, we remain Christ’s Body, God’s hands and feet in the world. Each of us, no matter how seemingly weak, broken, or different, have a part to play in God’s work.

These practices call us to lay aside those distractions that keep us from living into who Christ has called us to be , so we can embrace again who Christ says we are, asking afresh how to walk as Jesus walked.  They call us as a community to lay aside our differences. We can become so caught up in our differences in backgrounds, in whether the other person who sits next to us in the pew works the same kind of job as us, went to the same kind of schools as us, talks like us, shares our skin color, shares our politics, dates or marries the kind of person we think they should, or has a family that looks just like ours, that we forget that they, like us, also share this same calling.   Baptism and communion call us to quit quibbling about these differences, to lay them aside, and instead roll up our sleeves together, busily doing the work of being Christ’s Body in this world, loving and serving others, and working together for the healing of all that is broken around us.

I think it is important to notice, too, this Labor Day Sunday how these practices also call us to pay attention to the earth and the struggles of working people.   A part of what was revolutionary about baptism when Jesus and John the Baptizer first began to baptize people is that water falls or flows naturally and freely from God’s good earth.  Instead of common-working-people-2having to go to a temple, paying costly for fancy sacrifices or rituals, now God can be reached by the least financially successful as freely as they can dip into the water flowing in the creek out back.  And the bread and cup we bless is the common meal shared by rich and poor alike; and also is a gathering of the fruit of honest work: the grain and fruit of the wine grown in the soil of God’s good earth, the fruit of the labor of hands in the fields that plant, water, harvest, prepare, until it is ready to go to our table.  In these ways, it is also a reminder of our connection to each other, and to God’s earth, and our call to care for each of these well.

What are thoughts you have about how people can live out this value of “being one at baptism and table?”

Any further thoughts about ways we have been living out this value?

About new ways we can live it out?

I invite you to close our sermon time with these traditional words of prayer for communion, as our prayer:

Grant that, being joined together in You, we may attain to the unity of the faith and grow up in all things into Christ our Lord. And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that we together with your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth where we are often scattered into one in your kingdom, especially here on this your good earth but also ultimately when we are all gathered home to you on resurrection morning.. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

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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.

 

 

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?

Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 3 — Rebuilding after Loss

hanks chapel easter

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 22,  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.

Psalm 40

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;

   he inclined to me and heard my cry.

sinking 22 He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a]

   out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock,

   making my steps secure.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,

   a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear,

   and put their trust in the Lord.

 

4 Happy are those who make

   the Lord their trust,

who do not turn to the proud,

   to those who go astray after false gods.

5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,

   lovingkindness-picyour wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

   none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them,

   they would be more than can be counted.

 

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

   but you have given me an open ear.[b]

Burnt offering and sin offering

   you have not required.

7 Then I said, “Here I am;

   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.[c]

8 I delight to do your will, O my God;

   your law is within my heart.”

 

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance

   in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips,

   as you know, O Lord.

10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

   I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness

   from the great congregation.

 

11 Do not, O Lord, withhold

   your mercy from me;

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness

   keep me safe forever.

12 For evils have encompassed me

   without number;

my iniquities have overtaken me,

   until I cannot see;

they are more than the hairs of my head,

   and my heart fails me.

 

13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;

   O Lord, make haste to help me.

14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion

   who seek to snatch away my life;

let those be turned back and brought to dishonor

   who desire my hurt.

15 Let those be appalled because of their shame

   who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”

 

16 But may all who seek you

   rejoice and be glad in you;

may those who love your salvation

   say continually, “Great is the Lord!”

17 As for me, I am poor and needy,

   but the Lord takes thought for me.

You are my help and my deliverer;

   do not delay, O my God.

Still-speaking God, open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, that we might see and know what words you have for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

The last two weeks we have been exploring God’s message to us in times of grief, loss, and trauma as we journey together to heal and rebuild our lives and communities after loss.   We’ve focused on the message of the Psalms, which include model prayers that grief cyclewalk through the whole journey of loss and recovery. Our first week we looked at a psalm or prayer of orientation written from a point where the Psalmist was in a state of grace before suffering and loss, and we discussed the lessons such prayers teach us when we are going through loss ourselves, losses that make their easy optimism ring hollow.  Last week we looked at a psalm or prayer of disorientation, written from a point in which the Psalmist felt life had become unravelled and they were drowning in their overwhelming experience of grief. We explored what that prayer teaches us about our times when we, too, are overwhelmed by the experience of grief and loss.

This week we turn to Psalm 40, a prayer or psalm of reorientation, written from a point when the person praying has finally begun to find their footing and embrace life again after loss.  While we found last week that the experience of grief and loss can feel like sinking into deep waters in which we are drowning, here we see what follows when you begin to lift out of this into a time reorientation, when you can rebuild after grief and loss.

  • What does this Psalm teach us about the process and perils of rebuilding life again after loss? (allow discussion)

First, I want you to notice that, just as the experience of grief and loss was overwhelming in Psalm 69, so to the Psalmist, the experience of embracing life again can also be overwhelming.   The Psalmist feels as if they have been lifted out of a sinking pit, which had offered no hope of rescue — a fitting image for how grief and loss can feel. Now, he or she feels exultation and freedom — having been brought by God out of their painful peril to a position Job 36:16 calls a “spacious place where there is no cramping”.

One of my favorite poets, Rumi, pictures what this spacious place without cramping can feel like in his poem, “ A Great Wagon”:  “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty open door 4and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”

Through our experience of grief and loss, we can feel our life seem to narrow, to shrink, feeling powerless over our lives.  Then as we make our first stumbling steps to embrace life after our loss, we can feel ourselves begin to open up again. We can start to see all kinds of opportunities and possibilities we would not have expected before.  It is like walking into an open field after feeling lost in dark woods that were crowded with trees and thickets. This too can be overwhelming, for often when life opens up into this open space, this field, it does so in surprising ways, where our old sense of “right” and “wrong” don’t fit, where we have to learn our way again, as for the first time.

In my own life, I experienced this as I began to embrace life after being widowed.  My identity had been as husband, first in terms of a partner to my late wife and then in terms of her caregiver.  After she passed, I felt I lost a part of who I was. I was not a building-home-construction2husband any longer. As I began to embrace life again, it was an adjustment to face what it meant to live life fully now as a single person, without her there, neither as my partner in life nor the sick person I cared for.  Even when I began to be able to feel happy again after that sadness , sometimes it threw me off guard. I even felt guilty that I was having these moments of joy without her in my life.

  • What have been people’s experience of this?  What surprises lay in your own path of rebuilding after loss for them?

The Psalmist also teaches us that, just as the journey through grief is one God does not intend us to do alone, neither is the journey of rebuilding after loss.   We still need to reach out to God and others; and those of us who have supported others through their initial time of loss and grief still need to be available as a support to them through their  times of rebuilding, not assuming they’ve arrived.

The fact this Psalm is a prayer means, by definition, the one praying it is reaching out to God.   Like the others Psalms we have read, it is recorded in our Bible and this alone shows its words were not just prayed alone by the Psalmist in their own home, but prayed with others who heard him or her and wrote down their words.  That the Psalm mentions them sharing their story of deliverance with “the congregation” shows even talking with others who support you about your journey to recovery is so important.

It is easy to assume in our success-oriented society which tells us to “just man up, just move on, just get over it”, that the need to lean on God and others only comes when we are deeply hurting, and ends as soon as we begin to rebuild our lives after grief.  But all saints 2even as our life begins to open up, it can still be hard to know which way is up or down, as we learn who we are on the other side of loss. Whatever your loss, do not be surprised if you find, though you eventually begin to have more happy days than sad, you take a while to fully embrace the new identity you have after loss, and feel a little flummoxed or overwhelmed by the options that lie in front of you — and so need support.  It is important to still be willing to reach out to God, friends, others, and realize it is ok for even these positive experiences that come as you embrace life again after loss to be a bit overwhelming.

Because of this, when you  are supporting someone else through their grief journey you need to realize that even as they begin to open to life, they still need others to support them. Even the new good things they experience on this side of their journey can be overwhelming, and even the steps forward embracing new life can have an element of uncertainty which your friendship and support can help make easier for them.

The Psalmist shows us that embracing life again after loss can brings a changed or renewed vision of life.  We see this when the Psalmist talks about rejecting the false promises of idols or false gods and proud people who promise more than they can deliver.   This experience of loss can lead us to reconsider what really matters and leads to a deep, rewarding meaningful life. In the face of sickness, death, divorce, loss of a job, breaking up of a family or a church, God can use these experiences to help you see life more clearly.

In a book on this process of loss and renewal called Falling Upward, Christian writer Richard Rohr puts it well: ““Sooner or later, … some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present richar rohrskill 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 preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey. 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. … ‘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”.

Loss, failure, and grief then can open you up to new ways of looking at and living into your own life.

These new values and way of looking at life that come when we truly engage the work of grief can lead you to start to see yourself and what has happened to you as somehow fitting into how God is working in your world in a way you can better accept it and see where you fit into the rhythm of life again.  This is why the Psalmist says God has opened their ear, and helped them see themselves in God’s scroll. The opening of the ear is the image of wax being flushed out of our ear so we can hear better. Pain has a way of clearing away the distractions if we let it, helping us to more fully connect with what God jewish prayeris saying to you through your life. Finding ourselves in God’s scroll is a symbolic way in the Psalms of talking about finding ourselves in  God’s plan or purpose. Our embracing life again comes in part through coming to see ways what has happened, what it is doing in our lives, and we ourselves are somehow a part of how God working out God’s plan in our lives, so we can trust God and life again. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to believe that what happened was good or even that God planned or caused it, but it means learning to trust again the promise of Romans 8 that God is working all things out — even what you have been grieving– for your good and the good of others.  And though you may not ever be able to say why your loss happened, you may begin to see ways it taught you lessons, ways it opened you to new values, opened you to new people, or opened you to new opportunities you never would have before.

This process often leads people  to make life changes, which have at their center not simply holding onto what has been but embracing life as it is present right in front of you.  This is part of why the Psalmist says God does not want or desire sacrifices. Sacrifices and religious rituals can easily become the kind of bargaining that, though natural in times of grief, can long term hold life back.  If you will just do this for me, God, I will change my life in some way– I will give up this or embrace that.  Such bargaining is usually aimed at halting or turning back the clock,  ways of dealing with grief that can leave us stuck if it becomes habitual.  Ultimately as we heal from grief, we make changes aimed at living out the new values our grief journey has taught us, embracing the life that is in front of us, and opening us up to new lifegiving possibilities.  As I mentioned last week, some of the choices we make while in the bargaining mindset of grief which can keep us stuck: to travel, to exercise more, to eat more healthy food, to learn a new hobby or take a new class, to get involved in church or spirituality, to start new projects or new relationships, or even to work out problems in relationships or communities with which we’ve connected — can be the very same choices we might make as a way of moving on and embracing life. But now we are doing them to open ourselves up more to our lives: to the joy, challenge, and opportunity of each day, each moment, and each person, in ways that fill us with more joy and life.  

The Psalm also makes it clear embracing life again does not mean you do not struggle or hurt anymore.  Rather, you are learning how to deal with this hurt, and to integrate what has happened into your own life in a way that helps your move life forward, rather than staying stuck or going backward.   This is why the Psalm abruptly turns from gratitude at grief patternbeing freed and having embrace life again to again expressesing again despair, loss, and helplessness. Grief does not ever completely leave, even after you’ve embraced life again.  There will still be places you go that always bring a stab of pain. There will always be moments on some days and some days you have in each year that bring up memories that shake you and might bring tears. The Psalmist’s example shows this is normal and not a sign anything is wrong.   

I close with words by Jurgen Moltmann: “For a long time I looked for you within myself and crept into the shell of my soul, shielding myself with an armour of inapproachability. But you were outside – outside myself – and enticed me out of the narrowness of my heart into the broad place of love for life. So I came out of myself and found my soul in my senses, and my own self in others. . . When I love you, my God, I want to embrace it all, for I love you with all my senses in the creations of your love. In all the things that encounter me, you are waiting for me.” Amen & Amen.

 

A Week in the Word: Grief and Recovery, Part 1 — Blessed Beyond our Brokeness

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, July 8,  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.

Psalm 113

1Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD. 2Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore. 3From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised. 4The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. 5Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, 6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!

 

Would you pray with us?

May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our hearts and ears of our minds so we might see and hear what word God has for us in these words of Scripture.  Amen.

griefMany of us have gone through significant losses, changes, and griefs.  And our church too has gone through loss, haven’t we? The next three Sundays we will be exploring a message from Scripture each Sunday which speaks to our experience of grief.  Next Sunday, July 15th, we also will have Ann Ritter from UNC hospice sharing some about grief and recovery briefly at our 10 AM service, with a class on grief and recovery in our fellowship hall at our 9 am Sunday school hour.

Our Scripture today and the Scriptures we will read the next few Sundays come from the Psalms.  The book of Psalms is included in our Bible as a collection of model prayers, which can help us find words to pray when our emotions run so deep words are otherwise hard to come by.  When we turn to the Psalms, we can find that we are not alone in our sorrow and loss, anger and sadness, numbness and confusion, even our joy and gratitude. When we pray the Psalms, we pray together with others who have also felt all these same emotions.  In the Gospels Jesus also prayed the Psalms. So, when we turn to them to express our deep joy or deep grief and sorrow, we can remember that we are not alone. Not only do those who prayed them before us stand with us, but so does Jesus. In Jesus we have a mediator with God who was tested and tried just as we are, yet without sin.  Jesus has felt and understands whatever you are going through. And in Jesus, God stands with us, ready and willing to walk the full journey with us.

Because of this, of all the books of the Bible, the Psalms most clearly reflect our journeys from loss and grief to recovery and rebuilding.  United Church of Christ Bible scholar grief cycleWalter Brueggemann says the prayers in the Psalms generally fall into 3 categories: 1) prayers from points of orientation, when those praying them are at a point where they were untroubled by trials and their faith innocent and unshaken; 2) prayers from moments of disorientation, when it is harder to understand where God is working, so those who pray them feel shaken and unsteady,  and their normal easy answers sound hollow to their ears; and 3) prayers of reorientation, from times after loss when they begin, with God’s help, to rebuild their lives and faith. Each week during our series on grief and recovery we will look at one of these types of prayer, asking what it teaches us about the grief journey.

This movement of prayer in the Psalms mirrors almost word for word our journey of grief, loss, and rebuilding after, doesn’t it?  Like the Psalms do, we often begin our grief journeys in times when things make sense: we have someone we love by our side, a job we enjoy we can show up at everyday, a community that makes sense to us, our physical health.  In such moments we have no question about it: God is on the throne, in God’s good heaven and all seems right in our world. Then we feel the rug pulled out from sinking 2underneath us through our experience of loss – whether through losing someone we love through death, through experiencing illness or some disabling condition, through going through a breaking up of a partnership or marriage, through us losing a job, through having to support someone we love through such a time, or through changes that  bring painful loss in our community, church, neighborhood, and family. Often it is hard to understand why these things happen. We question. We search. We wonder. Our normal answers we have turned to for comfort in the past are no comfort any longer. They echo hollow in our ears. We wonder where God is, how God can be in charge if such hard things have happened. For a long time we may not know which way is up or down. Then, as we slowly begin to walk again, sometimes limping at first, through our journey of grief, bit by bit we find our way again and, with the help of God and of others, begin the painful work of rebuilding our lives again after our loss.

Our reading today, Psalm 113, is a clear example  of prayers of orientation. It is a prayer First spoken from a time of grace before the kind of losses that might lead you to feel life unraveling & certainty becoming shaken have happened.

In Psalm 113, the one who prays knows and has no difficulty seeing that God is enthroned securely in God’s good heaven, looking down upon all of us like one might see the landscape for miles and miles around from a Jesus in Heavenmountaintop, so they know God can look out and see all the affairs of our life.  There is not an area of our lives that they feel God doesn’t see or intervene in to bring blessing or overturn injustice. Unlike some psalms of orientation which suggest if we succeed, it is always because we’ve followed God well, and if we suffer we must have sinned, Psalm 113 clearly recognizes that suffering like poverty or childlessness happen and are not God’s judgment on you for some failing of your own, but rather struggles all of us can face that may be no one’s fault.   Yet it’s clear the one praying is not struggling now. Psalm 113 tells us these are struggles from which God can and does set people free. Here God is the one who always stoops down, leaning down from God’s height in heaven high above where God could choose to go untouched by our struggles to right each wrong. God chooses instead to be touched by our pain and dive down into our less than perfect lives, rolling up God’s sleeves to tirelessly work to make all things right again when they have gone wrong.  God is the one who lifts the poor out of their poverty each time, and again and again puts the childless into families, helping them build home and family where none existed. God will not stop until every wrong is righted. The Psalmist knows we can trust injustice will not stand but for a moment, and believes God will set all things right if we just reach out to God. Every injustice will be overturned and all set right if we just reach out and take God’s hand, this Psalmist says.

Psalm 113 reflects an easy, childlike faith that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, with nothing falling through the cracks.  Its words are ones we want to be able to say Amen to, but which it might be hard to say Amen to in our darkest moments. Its words remind me of true-isms we often say in church in the face of life’s problems: Don’t dying child 2worry about the future, because God is already there.   God won’t put any more on you than you can bear. Trust God’s plan, because nothing happens God didn’t plan. God did this for a reason. Have you ever heard these said to you when you were suffering? If so I bet you can admit though sometimes they helped, there other times that they were very hard to say Amen to, right?

Such sayings – like Psalm 113 —  make the most sense when we ourselves are not struggling with situations that seem to fly in the face of their message.  When we feel clear which is the right path to take, with no grey areas, when our family is faring well and our job is steady, then it is easy to believe God is sitting on God’s throne in heaven, seeing everything, keeping everything well-ordered.  When life does not feel it is unraveling around us, these prayers are easy to say. It is easy then to believe God has our future under control, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, and that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.

As we will talk more about next week, our experience of loss, trauma, and grief can shake up our hold on these simple comforting beliefs.   It can unravel the easy answers we have been taught over the years. Suddenly we might be able to look at our lives and say “I’ve been following God’s Word as best I can all these years, but I don’t see God bringing any deliverance despite my prayers, nor see how God can be seeing this from heaven and still letting it happen.”   Elsewhere in the Bible, we find the righteous man Jsitting in despairob said as such, when his life fell apart around him and his deeply spiritual friends quoted the same sort of true-isms we often say in the church and are often quoted in psalms or prayers of orientation. Deep down Job knew what our experiences of grief and loss teach us: that ultimately such words, on their own,  leave out a big part out of our picture of God’s plan. During his time of suffering, trauma, and loss, Job cried out to God in ways that made it clear it was hard for him to see God as sitting on God’s throne, seeing every part of his life, righting every wrong as Psalm 113 described. He cried out because of that to God and all who would listen, even though his friends worried his crying out meant he was losing his faith. Yet by the end of the book of Job, we find God answers Job, but not in the way Job or anyone else would have expected.  And God lets us know in God’s answer to Job that Job was not in the wrong, showing us when we find these easy answers from prayers and Psalms of orientation, from churchy trueisms, sounding hollow when we are in our pain, that does not mean we have lost our faith or lost our way. Everyone can go through such dark nights of the soul.

When we go through loss, trauma, and grief, we like Job can have a hard time seeing God as still on the throne, and our lives as taken care of by God in the way Psalm 113 describes.   Even though we might pray words like Psalm 113’s which proclaim that God reverses the situations of the poor and oppressed, we can begin to wonder how long we will continue to see injustice, have unanswered prayers, or wade through what feels like a deep and abiding darkness. If that is where you are, know you are in good company. It is not the final word nor does it mean you necessarily are losing your faith though it may feel like it.

With that backdrop, is there anything we can we gain from reflecting on these prayers of orientation, prayed originally from a state of innocence and grace, that can help us in those dark times when their words sound hollow?  I think there are.

First, such prayers remind us of the original blessing we have which predates our loss and cannot be taken from us, no matter how painful the experience we face.   Theologian Matthew Fox says that often as Christians we are too focused on original sin, which is the many different ways we become quickly broken by life from the start, tending us toward this or that sin, damaging us deeply before our choice or our say.  In over-emphasizing Youre-Not-Brokenour brokenness and original sin, Fox says, we Christians often fail to recognize we also begin life under an original blessing:  When God made all life, what did God say about it? God called it good, very good! This Good, very good, applies not just to all creation but also to you and me, to each and every one of us. Scripture says every person whom God made is made in the image of God and yes that includes even you and me.  The Psalms tell us in Psalm 139 that we can praise God because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made.

What a promise!  However we become hurt or broken in our lives, however we might lose our way, sin, or fail, this original blessing cannot be broken.  These words remain true of us. We each remain ones full of potential and hope, ones who can reflect God’s image in a way no-one else can.  We each continue to be worthy and of worth in God’s eyes.

Our experience of grief and loss can leave us, on the other hand, feeling washed up, worthless, and no good.  We can feel broken beyond repair. Yet what we have gone beloved (1)through, however painful, does not change who we are: children of God who in Christ are called God’s very own, ones whom God loves, and ones in whom God delights who also deserve delight ourselves.   This is who God says you and I are and nothing, absolutely nothing, can change that. This original blessing rests on us and it that which prayers like Psalm 113 remind us of.

Such prayers also can act as a lifeline in the midst of difficult times.   I see this time and time again in my work as a chaplain. People will say to me, “chaplain, I do not see where God is here in this situation. Chaplain , I don’t understand how God can allow this, and oh the pain I face! Yet I won’t give up. I know whom I have believed.  Yet,” they say, “I will trust this is in God’s hands, though it take all I have to do so. I will believe God can work good for me and others out of my pain. I know God will make a way when there seems to be no way.” These folks who are suffering cling to the reality that is truer than the true-ism but which these trueisms point to. Such words become a seed through which their future of a restored faith and a rebuilt life can grow, that future which can lay ahead for them and us, sprouting up on the other side of pain and loss

With July 4th having come right behind us this past week, there is an example of this in our nation’s history.   When the founding fathers wrote all men were were created equal by God, born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were those words automatically treated as true for all people?  No, in many ways these words were words of orientation too. Those words in fact seemed originally to only to apply to a select few people whose lives were comfortable

amistad

One example of the abolitionist work of Congregationalist-Christians was their rallying to help with the legal work that freed those enslaved on the Amistad.

and made sense. And yet they included in them the seed of something better, an original blessing which made something better possible through what it pointed to.  Many of the Congregationalist-Christians who helped start many of the churches which later became our United Church of Christ , including our own Hanks Chapel, pointed out, that as a nation we were acting like these words weren’t really true — that instead some men are more equal than others – particularly white men with land. They said we were acting like they alone were deserving of freedom — while women and people of color could be mistreated: with Native Americans’ land being stolen and handed over the white settlers, and black folks from Africa being sold as slaves.   These Congregationalist Christians pointed back to our founding fathers’ words as a rallying cry, a call to live out the full promise of our country – let us truly treat all equal, all as having inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That rallying cry led our Congregationalist-Christian forefathers and mothers of faith to fight for the rights of Native Americans, for the end of slavery and fair treatment for all, and eventually even for the rights of women to vote. It martin luther kingis their a cry which Dr. Martin Luther King and others made their own when they lifted up cries for justice and freedom for people of color in the Civil Rights movement.  In words reminiscent of Psalm 113, Dr. King both told the nation that the check of this promise included in the words “all are created equal” was past due for people of color, women, and many others and also that it needed to be fulfilled because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. In other words, King and others trusted we would ultimately learn to treat all people as equal because the God of Psalm 113 would lift up the oppressed, marginalized, and cast aside to stand on equal footing. Both those words penned by our forefathers and the words of Psalm 113 included the seed of the promise of freedom for all, pointing to a blessing God wanted to offer that could not be over-ruled by those who tried to bend it to keep some people from sharing in the full blessings of freedom.

Just as these words of our founding fathers included a seed from which freedom for all could grow, so these prayers from before our loss, from places of innocence and a state of grace, are important because these include the seeds from which our rebuilding or recovery may come after loss.  Just as “all men are created equal” has a deeper richer and meaning in our country following our fight for Civil Rights, so on the other side of grief, the words of prayers like Psalm 113 take on new and richer meaning. Again and again through the experience of grief and recovery we may return to those promises that God will work out all things for our good, bring blessing out of heartache, walk with us on our journeys which previously sounded hollow and begin to see ways they are still true now, if not in the way we would originally have expected.  Though we may not be able see any truth in these words in this moment in our grief journey, we might see truth in them further on in our grief journey as we look back on it, more healed and steadied.

In closing, let me share the words of Henri Nouwen from his book Here and Now: Life in the Spirit, which express the value of these kinds of prayers— “My friend’s joy is storm cloudcontagious.  The more I am with him, the more I can catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds.  Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with the clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.  Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day”.

The original blessing pointed to by such prayers from our state of grace before our loss, prayers like Psalm 113,  are like this sun which keeps shining through the dark clouds of our pain. Though they may be hard to glimpse now, their words echoing hollow in this moment, the blessing they point to continues to shine and cannot be eclipsed by any pain and darkness. In time we will see and discover it again, even if it is hard to imagine in this moment.

clouds

May God open our eyes, during times of clouds and darkness, to get glimpses afresh of the sun of God’s original blessing of us and ongoing presence with us that shine out through the clouds and darkness that surround us!

Amen & Amen.