Wednesday, June 29, 2011

the summer of lovingkindness

So I've been reflecting this summer on that compound-ular word found all throughout the Scriptures (or at least after Myles Coverdale coined the word in 1535): lovingkindness. And not just because the player formerly known as Ron Artest is now Metta World Peace. Love and kindness are two words whose marriage is not obvious, and that the fact that they can be married has everything to do with the Gospel, that's been the thought. Love, which is assumed to be an inward disposition, such that one person can assure another of her love, even while they're far apart and love has nothing to "show for it"; kindness, which in practice is an explicitly outward behavior, such that one can be accused of being kind "even when you didn't mean it." But put the words together and you have a meeting of the inward disposition and the outward expression. Love that acts, and acts that love. Faith, that is, belief with intention, and action. Jesus, being and living out of his being God's Love for the world. And how can it be otherwise? On second thought, maybe it is obvious, this marriage of love and kindness. The confusion would be how we came to imagine one without the other in the first place.

Pentecost t-shirt follow-up


Group pics didn't happen, but the shirts came in and added a uniquely uplifting element to our Pentecost worship. What a generous and creative gift!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Follow-up to 'Witness'

The day after the Witness sermon was preached, a parishioner stepped forward with an anonymous $500 gift to provide 80 Pentecost-red t-shirts for the following Sunday (this coming June 12th). What an amazing act of creativity and generosity. Pics will follow. Grateful for your prayers in the meanwhile: Come, Holy Spirit!

Can I Get a Witness? (sermon June 5, 2011)

Let us pray.

Gracious God, heavenly Father, we thank you for this good, new day, and for gathering us together around your Word. Pour your Spirit on us that we have may ears to hear and eyes to see when Jesus says to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." We ask this in His Name.

Amen.

In game 7 of the NBA’s Western Conference semi-finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder staged a promotion called a ‘blue-out’, the goal of which was to put the sellout crowd - all 18,203 fans - in new, blue Thunder t-shirts, thereby creating a sense of camaraderie among the fans and also, the thinking went, an overwhelming home-team advantage for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It worked.

Promotions like these are relatively new to professional basketball - the last few years or so - but not to other sports. The Aggies of Aggieland, for example, have been staging maroon-outs for years, only they haven’t had to coordinate it. The youthful exuberance of college athletics somehow results in 80,000 fans spontaneously showing up on game day, one place, one time, wearing just the one color. I’d be remiss not to also mention here Duke’s all-blue Cameron Crazies. The greatest fans on earth.

The pros want the same effect, and, the thinking goes, if they have to give the t-shirts out free, you know, to grease the wheels a bit, in order to tap into the hidden college madness within, they will. The professionals are eager for ways to engage the fans with all the enthusiasm of college, and it’s working.

This got me thinking. If it can work for college, and for the NBA, why not for the church? I mean, what church couldn’t use an infusion of university gumption, get-go, and excitement?

The only question: what to put on the shirt?

Now, when you see a promotional t-shirt, you see the best summary of what the group thinks it is about. Get to the point. Nobody wants to have to read your shirt like a book. They’re not getting too close to you or staring you down. Print it big and keep it short. When Christians think of the ‘get to the point’ of the Christian faith, we frequently remember the Great Commission of Matthew’s gospel: go and make disciples of all people. But today’s reading from the book of Acts, Jesus’s last words before his ascension, is no less a good summary or ‘get to the point’ of the Christian faith. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

I know, I know, still too long for a short, but something we could work with?

Hmm.

We are all witnesses. That Nike slogan resulted in this abbreviated version on a t-shirt.

And at least in Cleveland, it remains as popular now for burning as it was once upon a time for wearing.

We are witnesses. If you wonder what you are, what we’re about, that’s it. I like that. Now, good news and bad news. Good News, just like the NBA arenas, you’ve got a little something waiting for you under your seat. Bad news, we can’t afford t-shirts.

Pull it out. Fish around if you have to. Hold it up.

[For those reading this online, printed pages reading "We are witnesses" with a cross had been taped under the pews - over 100 of them, with the generous help of the youth.]


Take a look at it. You will receive power, the Holy Spirit, says the Lord, and you will be my witnesses to all people.

What do you think? What does that mean? Witness as bystander? Witness as passive observer? Witness as one with a story to tell? Lots of good questions to ask.

We are witnesses.

For the next couple of minutes, I want to explore these three words as clues to what it means to be the church.

Let’s take the first two words first: we are.

This is the heart of why they give out the shirts: to form a we. You and I form a we every time we gather around the Gospel to share the bread and the wine, as we receive and become the Body of Christ.

The words we are are the answer to the question: what is church?
We are.

Not the priest, or the ones with robes, or the highest giver, or whomever else: all of us, together. The people is the church of God.
Who is the church: we are!
We are witnesses.

This is why we don’t talk about going to church. You are the church. It’s not semantics, it’s the truth! Church is the People. And the People is Church. It’s why when someone asks you to share a prayer request with the church, they already have! You might choose to share it with the church office, or the church’s prayer team, but there is no more real a representative for the whole church together than you. You matter. You count. You stand for us. And we are God’s witness. You are the real Church. And all of us who are Church are partners with God.
There is a story told about what happened in heaven when Jesus returned from his earthly ministry. Jesus returns in glory to heaven. All the angels gather round to give the Son of God a high five and a pat on the back. Everyone is pretty fired up at first. As the excitement dies down a bit, the archangel Gabriel, who was so involved in announcing Jesus’ birth, speaks up.

“So what happens next?” Gabriel asks. "What's the plan?"

Jesus explains, “My disciples take over now. They’ll spread the Good News to the whole earth so that everyone will come to know that God loves them and wants a relationship with them.”

“You mean those fisherman, that tax collector, and the scruffy bunch at St. Christopher’s that you’ve been walking around with?” Gabriel asked with more than a little concern creeping into his voice.

“Yeah, those guys,” Jesus answered. “They’ll take over now. The Holy Spirit is with them. They’ll do great.”
There was a long pause. Then Gabriel asked tentatively, “What’s the backup plan?”
Jesus looked Gabriel in the eye with compassion and confidence and said, “There is no backup plan.”

So one of you shared with me the other day your joy in your deeper understanding that this is your church. Not just where you go, but really yours. Belonging to you. Absolutely true, and a great joy to know. And I told you that my next prayer for you and, here, I mean all of us, will be for you to hear God as he points to you, to us, and say with just as much joy, “And that is my church.” You are God’s church. Together, we are witnesses to the Good News of salvation in Christ Jesus.

So the first two words call us all to the action, and the action is this: to be Jesus’ witnesses.

Let me ask you: what does that mean? How and when do you do it? When are you witnesses?

You are witnesses when you gather on the Lord’s Day, in holy worship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, not neglecting to meet, but by your presence and practice encouraging one another.

You are witnesses when you notice and speak to the ones that most folks don’t notice or speak to, whether it’s someone absent from our assembly or the waitress at the restaurant or the clerk who checks your groceries.

You are witnesses when you say “I’ll pray for you,” and then, because most Christians know that that is really code for “we’re done talking,” ask if you might pray for them then, there, now.

You are witnesses when you work together, even with Presbyterians.

You are witnesses when you stand with those who suffer, the poor and friendless, even when you can’t do anything to change the suffering. When all the cozy words have left.

You are witnesses when you forgive one another, and ask for forgiveness. You are witnesses when you celebrate one another’s gifts, ask for each other’s help, and thank God out loud for the gift of this fellowship.

You are God’s witnesses in all of these things, and you are doing all of these things. We are witnesses. (How I wish I had t-shirts.) We are God’s witnesses. Do not forget this, and do not be discouraged. It’s the greatest job on earth, and, what’s more, you have help, even the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit, the power, of God is God’s Love given to you, working in and through you.

Amen.

Partners in Love: a homily/conversation with Debra Dean Murphy

“Any idiot can face a crisis - it’s day to day living that wears you out.” Anton Chekov

One of those statements that you don’t think much about until you hear it. When you hear it, it rings true. So true, you don’t hear it so much as you feel it.

Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s day to day living that wears you out.

The saying is true of all life, and the Christian life is no exception.

When we were children, maybe, we had dreams of a singular cataclysmic moment that would put us to the test, when we would be pushed against the ropes, a clear moment in time when we’d know that all of life was meant for ‘now’. This moment. And after that moment, if we survived it, we’d go back to life as usual. The moment of a super-boost of sorts, like when the hero finds her loved one trapped under the car and summons an other worldly strength to free him. Or when the soldier enters the climactic fight for which all his other days have been mere training and draws the sword.

No doubting that God meets heroes in these moments, but then, the moment’s gone: the battle passes, the car is lifted, a new day dawns. The foxhole may be a good place to find faith, but where do you keep it when the foxhole clears? After the war? What need for God now? And there’s laundry left unfolded on the couch. And you’re there, all alone in the room. Or a baby pulling urgently at your pant leg.

Crises will happen, but what of the life lived day to day? Can the Gospel equip us, equip you, with the strength to persevere in those times when it doesn’t look like anything much is going on? And if there isn’t much going on, in what are we to persevere? And behind all these questions, I suppose, this one: does God keep a real, living, interest in our ordinary days? These are the questions of our readings this morning. They’re my questions, too.

As is our custom from time to time, I’m inviting a guest into the pulpit this morning, a fresh set of eyes with which to approach the gospel and these questions. Debra Dean Murphy is an Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She likes books, movies, music, art, and politics, and she likes to think and write about how religion intersects all of these arenas - thus her interest in speaking just now. Her work is a contemporary one, written in the shadow of the moment that didn’t happen - the end of the world that was prophesied a week ago Saturday. She writes today about how we are to understand and respond to the closeness of God on days the world doesn’t end.

Her reflection is on this Sunday’s readings and is entitled: The Close-at-Hand God.

[You can read Debra Dean Murphy's excellent piece here.]

Some summary thoughts:

God is close at hand, the Kingdom of God is at hand; that’s the Gospel of Jesus; and the task of the followers of Jesus is to bear witness to the love that has been in their midst. We bear witness to God's love, staying near to the world in love, because the Spirit stays close to us.

We started with questions, I end with just a few more:

What does it mean to be a partner in love?

How does God's love shape how you know what love is?

How does God's love, the presence of the Spirit, strengthen your love for others?

We are called not to withdrawal from the world, but to be an active love for the world. What is the world in which you live? Who are the main players? Your family? Your coworkers? The folks you don't know well but you usually run into? Is there one place in your world that you can imagine expanding in love this week?