One voice... making a choice for community

NOTE: This week in worship I will continue a series of conversations about our emerging mission statement which reads: In community with God and each other, we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and share compassion. Last week I encouraged the community to trust that God will provide - and to be careful about too much complaining during our transitions - because "murmuring" deadens us to the still small voice. This week I hope to share ideas about how to live and mature in Christian community. Specifically I want to underscore the practices of sharing compassion in humble service and looking for opportunities in our ordinary lives for times of gentle service as keys to getting over ourselves. We shall see...

Some of you know that my theology of the church is rather simple: it comes down to two parts – the two wooden beams that make up the Cross, actually – and I have come to believe that the Cross tells us all we really need to know about church. First is the vertical beam – our personal and even mystical relationship or connection with God – that nourishes and challenges us from the inside out by grace.

And second is our horizontal connection to the Lord – the cross beam – that we sometimes call community, fellowship or koinonia: it, too, is a way of meeting the Living God and being nourished and challenged by the very heart of Christ Jesus. Both beams are essentials for the Jesus life for you can’t have a Cross with only one or the other; and the Cross always points to the counter-cultural wisdom that shapes Christian spirituality at its best:

If you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.

When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on th
e status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
(Philippians 2, The Message)

This morning, therefore, I sense we are being called to consider what it means to be Christ’s community formed in the image of the Cross. Our emerging mission statement tells us that that “in community with God and each other we gather…” and let me say that again: “in community with God and each other, we gather…”

+ Not, we sit all by ourselves and meditate – although that has merit.

+ Not we believe that religion is all about our own, personal spiritual needs – even though they are real and matter deeply to God.

+ And not we gather among people on Sunday because it is an obligation or some mildly sweet and nostalgic holdover of a former and gentler era.

No, we sense that we have been called by God to gather together in community – as the horizontal beam of Christ’s Cross – trusting that as we become servants to one another and the world in the image of Jesus, we become part of God’s kingdom of transformation and healing that has no end. In a word, we gather together in community to become one with Jesus. Which is totally counter-cultural in our marketplace-on-steroids context that asks us to evaluate everything we do according to the bottom line and seduces us into living like we are the center of the universe: that is a part of the mystery of the Cross, too.

And while I suspect that living into the horizontal beam of the Cross has always been challenging, in an era that has so forgotten its manners and commitments to the common good as ours… let’s just say that it is no wonder people treat the church like a club or a civic organization: we have forgotten – or maybe never knew – that at its heart the church is the living body of Christ in a new form.

Are you with me on that? Do you know what I mean when I say that the church is the living body of Christ in a new form? There are three central Bible passages that are helpful and perhaps we should briefly consider them: Matthew 25: 31-46, I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.

All of these passages – and more, to be sure – underscore what it means to live and meet God within the horizontal beam of the Cross. First is that section of Matthew that I think every church member should know backwards and forwards because it is the answer to our final exam: when did we see you, Lord?

When I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, homeless and you gave me a room, shivering and you gave me clothes, when I was sick and you stopped to visit, and when I was in prison and you didn’t leave me alone and forgotten. Whenever you did this unto one of the least of our sisters and brothers, you did it to me.

Did you get that? Our horizontal connection is NOT limited to those who are the official and historic members of the congregation – and it has nothing to do with how much or little a person puts into the collection plate. No, the first insight into the horizontal beam of the Cross of community has to do with hurt and need: when did we see thee suffering, Lord…? Whenever you saw one of the least of my sisters and brother, you saw me, too. This is lesson one in what it means to meet God within the living body of Christ.

Lesson two and three come from St. Paul who puts it like this:
You can easily enough see (what I am talking about) by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body. It's exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

In other words, everybody has a part to play – great and small – everybody is needed in the living body – and nobody is more important or valuable than another. And then Paul gives us our marching orders for serving God in the body and meeting Christ through community:

Each one of you gets meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. And the body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't. So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Was that clear? There are three components to living together as the Body of Christ and meeting God in community: caring for those in need with compassion, doing our part as servants rather than control freaks and finding time everyday in our ordinary lives to practice giving to others rather than taking.

Now let’s be honest: I’m not saying this is easy – we’re talking about the Cross – but it is simple and clear. To be the church – to live the Jesus life in community – to act as the living body of Christ in the world demands compassion, humble service and practice… lots and lots of practice.

One of my favorite stories of the Baal Shem Tov, father of the Hassidic movement in European Judaism, tells of the master’s students questioning him about the wisdom of another teacher. “Every year we travel many miles to learn from you, Rebbe” they said. “And nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?"

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest Hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?" "Yes! Yes, of course" the hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them." "Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Then ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds… and if he has an answer, he is a fake."

It takes practice to meet Christ in community – small acts of compassion and forgiveness many times each day – which is one of the reasons I have come to consider music one of the ways to practice entering the body of Christ. Singing can be prayer for me as some of you know – it is both a deeply mystical experience and a way to learn how to live – and there is a song we’ve been playing with called “One Voice” that makes the teaching of Jesus and Paul clear. See if you grasp what I mean as we share it with you – and you can join in, too – as the Spirit leads, ok?

What did you hear – or get – or experience in that prayer/song? To me that song is neither performance nor secular: it is a sacred discipline that makes visible one of the ways we can practice meeting God’s grace together in community. I think it is what Jesus was telling us in this morning’s parable of the two brothers: one said he would go do his father’s work and didn’t and the other said he was too busy but later changed his mind and did the labor but both children, it would seem, have some issues, yes?

Given the Palestinian context, you see, both sons would have dishonored and insulted their father: one said he would obey but didn’t while the other publicly challenged poppa but later repented. Do you see where this is going?

It is a story about doing God’s will in community – about changing not just our minds but also what we care about and are most concerned for – it is, you see, fundamentally a story about practicing the horizontal commitments of the Cross in community.

It is our song “One Voice” that recognizes that all of us are singers in the band – soloists and choir, rock’n’rollers and classically trained – tax collectors and prostitutes alongside church council and charter members – those with membership papers and those who just showed up not knowing entirely why they are here accept that they ache for a taste of God’s grace.

To be the body of Christ takes practice – a change of heart and a change of mind – a conscious commitment to compassion, humble service and daily practice. With it, Jesus says, God’s kingdom will be within and among us but without such practice we will be sent empty away. So let those who have ears to hear, hear the sound of one voice... making a choice for community.


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