NOTE: It took me a long time to write this week's worship notes, but they are finally done. I'm going to give them to you plain and simple today - without much art - because apparently blogger is doing some maintenance and will be disabled for a bit. We'll see...
My earliest memory church – and its life-giving community in Christ – involves music. I know that comes as a huge surprise to you, but it really is true. Sometime about second grace, my parents decided that we needed to get back to church, so we wound up at First Congregational Church of Newtown, Connecticut.
• I got my first Bible there, I later interviewed there while we were courting one another during the search process and I’ve had a few friends serve there, too.
• At any rate, in second grade, when my family showed up, the elementary school children were working on a version of “Jesus Loves Me” and I was thrown into the mix.
• We practiced for what seemed like forever – probably only three weeks – so that when the first Sunday after Labor Day rolled around, we could sing it in church.
I still have some recollection of both how big that Sanctuary looked to me back then, as well as how happy the people looked when we were singing. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure why everyone looked so happy – we weren’t the best children’s choir in the land – but I can still remember looking out and seeing real joy in people’s eyes. So, even though I couldn’t tell you why, I knew it felt good – and involved music and Jesus – and I didn’t really need to know a whole lot more.
• Jesus loved me – his people seemed pleased when the children sang to the Lord – and there was a place for everyone – young and old – in that big, old New England Congregational Church.
• Not much has changed for me over all those years…
Oh sure, I’ve gone to seminary – been ordained into Christian ministry for almost 30 years – and done my doctoral work, too. I’ve raised a family in the church – been divorced and remarried in the church, too – and served five congregations in pastoral ministry. But mostly I’m still that kid singing “Jesus Loves Me” in church trusting that in God’s own way and time – which is almost a total mystery to me – God will work all things out. Like we often say in the United Church of Christ: whoever you are – and where ever you are – on life’s journey, there is a place for you among us.
For you are invited here – encouraged here – welcomed here to become your best self as you give glory to God. As that wise old theologian, Karl Barth, is reputed to have said after being asked, “After all of your writing, is there something you want the world to know?” To which he said, after pausing and smiling, “You bet… Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Today I want to talk with you about God’s invitation. We’ve started this year’s Stewardship campaign which some people hate – and other fear – and most merely tolerate. Because, you see, most people think of the stewardship campaign as just fund-raising.
• And to be fair, that is partially true: every year it takes almost $60,000 to keep this place open, heated and in reasonable shape.
• It takes another $150,000 to pay the various salaries and benefits and insurance – to say nothing of our mission and ministry. So, yes, there is some fund-raising taking place during the campaign for that is just a fact of life.
But raising money is not ALL of the campaign: fundamentally, what we are doing is considering what God’s invitation to us means – and making some decisions about what we’re going to do about it. So let me suggest to you three insights about God’s invitation to us that you may have not considered.
First, Christ calls us – each of us and all of us – to live beyond the lowest common denominator of our culture. Jesus invites us to live beyond the bottom line – the bare minimum – what is often either the easiest or the least costly approach to people, problems and real life. You see, the way of Christ is NOT just about being nice. Being nice has its place, to be sure, but when Jesus tells us that we must pick up our Cross to follow him, he wasn’t just talking about manners and being nice.
He was inviting us to live beyond the lowest common denominator of existence – which is quite a counter-cultural notion. Back in Tucson, there was a young father named Paul who got very, very angry with me one day at church council when I said, “Look, the time has come for us to start emphasizing what we can give back to the Lord rather that just what we can take from church.” To which he exploded: “No, no, no, no, no! The church exists to help me and my family – I don’t have time to give back much beyond our small contribution – so stop talking about this giving back and sharing crap… or I’ll quit.”
• Now, you need to know something about your pastor: don’t ever threaten me or try to hold your membership or your financial contribution hostage with me, ok?
• Not only will I be all over you like white on rice about how unfaithful to Christ Jesus such selfishness is, but I will also out-stubborn you on this one because holding back money or time as a bribe is an insult to the one who gave his life for us on the Cross. End of discussion - next question - please!
Well, as you might imagine, at first I was stunned by Paul’s corrupt notion of the church. He was operating out of a cultural understanding that sees everything as a commodity to be bought and sold. He believed the church was to provide a service – at the lowest possible cost – and if he wasn’t pleased with his service, then he would go elsewhere just like he would at a restaurant or gas station. He was – and probably still is – trapped in a lowest common denominator understanding of the church.
Much like the Pharisee in today’s story from Luke who celebrated his accomplishments – which for his social group were the lowest common denominator of the day – it was all about getting the most and spending the least – which has NOTHING to do with the way of Jesus and his love. Small wonder the Lord tells his disciples: both men got what they prayed for – one asked for nothing and got it – and the other accepted his emptiness and prayed for grace and was filled with the love of heaven. First, Christ invites to live beyond the lowest common denominator, ok?
Second, God invites us to live beyond our fears. What does the prophet Joel tells the broken-hearted and wounded souls of Israel?
Fear not, Earth! Be glad and celebrate! God has done great things.
Fear not, wild animals! The fields and meadows are greening up.
The trees are bearing fruit again: a bumper crop of fig trees and vines!
Children of Zion, celebrate! Be glad in your God.
Fear not – another counter-cultural invitation – don’t you think? Every where I look – or listen – there are fear-mongers at work to manipulate:
• It would be easy to pick on the politicians right now – it is election season – and fear and anger are flowing almost as fast and furious as the special-interest money.
• But religious leaders exploit our fears – as do bankers and credit unions in this economy – and way too many others.
So let me ask you: what does Scripture teach about fear? Does anyone recall the teaching that perfect loves casts OUT all fear?
• What does the angel Gabriel say to Mary when the young virgin is startled by the Lord’s invitation to give birth to the Savior? Fear not… What about the song of the angels to the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve? Fear not once again…
• What does Jesus tell his disciples in the upper room before the horror of Good Friday? Fear not, I am going away for a while but where I go, you shall come, too. So fear not…
• And to Mary on the other side of Easter when she is grieving in the garden and doesn’t recognize the Christ of the Resurrection? One more time: fear not!
And what was true then is still true today: God invites us to live beyond our fears into the hope of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
And third, God’s invitation to us is always to live beyond ourselves: do you remember what St. Paul’s favorite name for the church was? The BODY OF CHRIST! Not the hyper-individualized expression of faith that is so popular today – not the cranky curmudgeon of Christ – or the obsessively childish or adolescent notion of Jesus either. Rather, the body of Christ – the inter-related, inter-connected, living, breathing, loving, hope-filled and forgiven body of Christ.
God decides who gets what and when. You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works 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 and 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… A body isn't just a single part blown up into something huge. It's all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, "I'm not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don't belong to this body," would that make it so? If Ear said, "I'm not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don't deserve a place on the head," would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.
We are one body – Christ’s body – not MY body or your body –but Christ’s body called to give shape, form and expression to the resurrection in our community. And that is what God’s invitation is all about: the Lord takes us beyond the lowest common denominator of our culture, beyond our fears and beyond ourselves into the love of Jesus. And here’s the thing: it takes a life time of practicing this to live into the invitation – I’m not kidding – a whole life time and I am just as frail and confused about living into this invitation as anyone else.
At church council last week, we were talking about some of the ways challenges we have faced as a congregation when one member asked me, “Did you ever feel discouraged or disheartened in your ministry with us?” So I told him what I have shared with only a few: “Oh my God, yes – from right after our first Christmas all through that first Lent I kept saying to Dianne, “I’ve made a mistake – I’m going to give them my letter of resignation.” It was a tough time – for a lot of good and some bad reasons – but it took its toll on me and I was thinking I should throw in the towel.
Well, that caused a certain awkward silence at council (as you might expect) which prompted Jon to ask, “So was there a clear moment when you had a change of heart?” To which I said with equal gusto, “Oh my God, yes – on that first Palm Sunday” – and let me explain…
Somehow or another given all our planning, the communion liturgy for Palm Sunday had been left out of the bulletin. I really still don’t know who was to blame, but it happened. And after a series of discouragements during the previous months, I came to worship that day very, very frustrated. Jennifer Kerwood and Sara Milano were going to set up communion but when I got here I said in a totally defeated voice, “Oh never mind. Somehow it got left out of the bulletin so let’s not make waves today.” I have to tell you that both women STARED at me like something out of invasion of the body snatchers until Jennifer sputtered: “WHAT are you talking about? You’ve been teaching us about not letting go of the little crap and celebrating the big picture. Come on man, get with it and practice what you preach!”
I reluctantly said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do communion – after the regular liturgy” – but I can tell you that my heart wasn’t in it and during the morning announcements I said as much. Then, during the passing of the peace, Bobby Hyde said to me, “Let’s do communion around the table, ok? It’s so much better that way.” To which I probably whined some sad sack, “Yeah, sure, whatever…”
And at the end of worship, I remember saying, “Ok, after the postlude those who would like to stay for communion” – expecting it would only be 10 people – “can join me up here around the communion table if you like” and sat down. I closed my eyes and listened to the organ postlude before glumly walking up to the table thinking this was going to be yet another disappointment. And nearly EVERYONE in church that day – 85+ people – joined me around the Lord’s Table – to CELEBRATE communion. To BE the Body of Christ. – to claim the Lord’s resurrection and live into the invitation that God shares with us in love.
And that’s when it hit me once again: this invitation is NOT about ME – or you – or you or you – it is about how God has invited all of us beyond the low expectations, fear and our self-centered obsession into Christ’s grace. I have a picture of that Sunday and keep it on my computer to remind me again and again that God doesn’t’ give up on us but keeps inviting us to dream dreams and claim visions. And THAT is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.
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