Showing up is essential for the blessings...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 27th 2011.  They conclude my series using Ephesians and some of Eugene Peterson's insights from Practice Resurrection.  Next week I will be off to a conference and then a few days in Boston with my honey before the start of Lent. (My good buddy Richard Chrisman will be preaching for me!)  So, please stop by if you are in the area at 10:30 am and join the fun.

This morning’s message is intended PRIMARILY for those who take the way of Jesus seriously. Everyone else may listen in, of course – I promise my words won’t hurt you – but my intention is to speak clearly about the importance of the Church to those who have already made a commitment to Christ in one form or another.

You see, in every age – ours included – there is not only confusion about why God brought the church to birth as the NEW body of Christ in the first place, there is also disagreement as to its continued relevance, right? Someone once said that in any generation there are probably more Christians who have quit going to church – or only show up on Christmas Eve and maybe Easter – than there are believers “who embrace it profoundly, warts and all.” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 11)

• That’s why I want to focus my thoughts today for those of us here who have already decided to follow Jesus as the old hymn puts it.

• We need an honest and humble way of comprehending what God is doing in this strange and gentle thing we call “church” not only for our own faith, but also for helping us shape our lives in the wider world.

For as one old salt put it: if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably get there! And we have been called to get to someplace that has defined shape, form and meaning. All of our biblical texts today are grounded in these words of Jesus from Matthew 6:

Please, do not be so preoccupied with getting that you can’t respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over things that don’t matter, but you know both God and how God works. So steep your life in this God-reality, God-initiative, God-provision. If you quit worrying about missing out, you will find all of your everyday human concerns will be met.

That is what St. Paul wants us to hear in Ephesians 4:

This is something I insist on – and God backs me up, too – there can be no going along with the crowd – especially the empty-headed, mindless crowd that is so popular. They’ve refused for so long to deal with God that they’ve lost touch not only with God but with true reality itself… So let’s be clear: the old way of life has got to go… for we have made a promise to Christ to take on a new being –a God-fashioned life that is renewed from the inside out. So listen… no more lies, no more pretense, tell your neighbor the truth for in Christ’s body we are all connected to each other.

Same thing in Romans 12, too:

Our new identity is shaped like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole – not the other way around – that is the old life. If we lived as a chopped-off finger or a cut-off toe, we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? In Christ’s body, let’s 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.

Now I don’t know about you, but what I hear in each of these passages is an invitation to realize that those who follow Jesus have been called into a body. A unique body, to be sure – the body of Christ - that practices the Jesus life and a God-reality that is different from the status quo. Like I told you last week, God always reveals the sacred in a body of one type or another so we ought not try to be more spiritual than God.

• The “church” is a body and we are part of that body – not the totality – but a living part of Christ’s body in the world, ok?

• And this body is not a collection of individuals each pursuing his or her own agenda because of pain or power; nor a burial society keeping the building open so that we have a place to die; nor a club of like-minded friends nor a museum of out-dated tradition; we are a body working together to give shape and form to Jesus in our generation.

Eugene Peterson put it like this in his commentary on Ephesians:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in a particular place who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection or hanging. The practice of resurrection, however, is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in the resurrection life of Jesus – a life out of death, a life that rumps death – a life where Jesus’ life as the last word. And this practice is not a vague wish upwards but a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life that is a bold alternative to a world preoccupied with death and the devil. (p. 12)

That’s a mouthful, I know, but what he wants us to wrestle with is that first of all the church is a body committed to living the Jesus life in our generation. I’ll say a little more in just a moment about what he means about the practice of resurrection – the embodiment of the Jesus life – but let’s be sure we’re all on the same page, ok?

• What strikes you – or what is your reaction – to the affirmation that the church is a body rather than a collection of individuals?

• This is the first counter-cultural essential so what does this mean to you?

Ok, now there are two more insights I want to share with you based upon the first that are practical and foundational.

• First nobody can practice the Jesus life all by themselves.

• And second most of us have to get rid of any notions of relevance we hold about the church before it can really matter.

People throughout the ages have always wanted to make the church into their own image rather than being reformed into the image of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. That’s just human nature. So what God chose to do in the church is to give us all a place where we can accept human nature as a given and then slowly and tenderly come into contact with both the Holy Spirit and other individuals who can lure the broken parts of our nature towards something more holy and healthy. In this, the church becomes the place where God’s holiness meets human brokenness with grace and healing.

So it is a place of miracles – although it doesn’t look any more miraculous than the place of Christ’s first birth – or death. There is nothing romantic about a frightened Palestinian mother giving birth in a discarded stable in the middle of nowhere. Nor is there anything attractive about a brown skinned, itinerant preacher being tortured and nailed to a cross by an occupying imperial power after being abandoned and betrayed by his family and friends. Sadly, this is still too ordinary and ugly – and just as easy to miss as the blessing found within the contemporary body of Christ we call the church.

Which is, of course, why you have to show up: only those who spend time with the birth of Jesus can grasp the extraordinary within the ordinary realities of that stable. And only those who expose themselves to the excruciating experience of the crucifixion are drawn beyond their own pain into the grace of the resurrection. So what was true then is true now: if we don’t show up, we will miss what God is doing beyond the obvious.

That’s the second insight that cannot be ignored: if you want the blessings of God in their deepest and most profound, you have to show up as a part of the body. Not as a member – although there is nothing wrong with membership – but as a committed participant. You see, just as you can’t enjoy a feast and be nourished by the food and the company if you don’t show up – or just look at it on the Internet – so, too, with the feast of God’s grace: you have to show up.

• You can’t experience the depth of the cannons at the 1812 Overture at Tanglewood if you don’t show up. Sure, you can listen to CDs – or go onto public radio and listen along – but it is nothing like being there.

• Same in a U2 concert – or dancing – or swimming – or loving your grandbaby: you can look at all the pictures, you can Skype and go on YouTube – but it isn’t that same as being there in the flesh.

And the same is true for the body of Christ: you have to show up as a participant to be opened to the holy and human miracles that take place in the most ordinary ways. So let’s be clear: there are three ways of showing up for church – and each level of participation takes you deeper – and creates more potential for blessing. And let me say right out of the gate that I’m not even going to talk about church members who own paper membership but never show up – except for homebound folks – because that whole thing is a waste of our time.

The first way to show up is public worship: this is literally the front door for most of us and involves bringing our physical bodies into the building. At this level of participation, we sing and pray and listen and respond. We rub shoulders with people we don’t really know and greet them in Christ’s name. So worship is where things start to happen – and that’s a beautiful thing – so tell me why do you come to worship?

The second way to show up in the body of Christ is service: the first is celebration, but the second is service. And it might be study in a small group or supporting a ministry; it might involve reading as a liturgist or singing in the choir; it could be helping out in the office or cleaning up after a supper. This level of participation takes you a little deeper than the celebration so can you say out loud how this is true?

And then there is mission: celebration, service and mission - sharing your life and your resources to advance the values and presence of Christ in the world. Deeper still, right – so what does that look like and mean to you?

Three different ways of showing up that honors the fact that people are at different places at different moments of their lives. Sometimes for a young parent, worship is all we can handle, right? And even that is tough – which is different for someone in retirement – or with a different set of needs. What I want to communicate is that each way of showing up has its own blessings and takes you deeper into the human/holy connection with Jesus. So no delusions or judgments or prolonged infancies among us, ok: Showing up – however it happens – is a good thing.

And here’s one thing more: it is only by showing up that you’ll eventually find the grace to let another help you. Help you receive, help you trust, help you discern and understand what God is asking most deeply of your life. We can’t do this by ourselves. Last week I asked you to write down on a card what you understood to be your gift from God – and I’ve put them up as a display right over there – because they are beautiful and tender and real.

But as I suspected, we could go even deeper by sharing our hunches with a few other trusted and wise souls. Because most of the time we can’t really see what our gifts and blessings are in isolation. We need others to name them for us – to give us eyes to see and ears to hear – before we are fully able to connect our deepest joy with the world’s deepest wound. And that is one of the sweetest miracles that can ever take place by showing up and going deeper: discovering and embracing our calling.

If you play it safe – refuse to show up and go deeper – you get what you’ve given: not much. You stay locked in your immature notions of the church. Maybe you’ve heard someone say – or have said yourself – I’m a spiritual but not a religious person so I don’t do organized religion?” I’ve said those words and on one level affirm them, too. Most of the time they mean: “I want to live in a way that is close to God in Christ but don’t want to be like those mean-spirited church people I see on TV who are more hateful than loving, more judgmental than gracious and more hypocritical than humble.” And let’s face it: there are a lot of harsh, broken, wounded, mean, nasty and ugly people in the church. We know this – maybe we’ve even been one of them.

So, like Gandhi said, “If it were just about Jesus, I would be a Christian. Your Jesus I like very much – it’s all those cruel people acting in his name that hurt me.” I get that – and resonate with it – but let’s grow up and go even deeper than Gandhi, ok? Because here’s the thing: the church is NOT God’s advertisement for the Jesus life in the world. That’s one of the romantic illusions we have to give up.

If the church is intended to be God’s advertisement to the world, a utopian community put on display so that people will flock to it clamoring to get in, it has obviously become a piece of failed strategy. And if the church is intended to be a discipline company of men and women charged of getting rid of corruption in government, or cleaning up the world’s morals or convincing people to live chastely and honestly, or teaching them to treat the forests, rivers and air with reverence, and children, the elderly the poor and the hungry with compassion, it hasn’t happened. We’ve been at this for two thousand years and… obviously the church is not an ideal community that people take one look at and ask, “How do I get in?” (Peterson)

The church is a scandal – it is ridiculous – even absurd in the eyes of the world. And yet for some reason, like Christ’s first birth in an abandoned stable or his execution on the Cross, this is where God chooses to lead us from death into life over and over again.

Here, among people I would NEVER invite if it were just up to me – and would never be chosen by others either – is where the Spirit has been called to bring us new life. Here in this body is where God chooses to be revealed:

Here among the broken, hobbled, crippled, sexually and spiritually abused; here among the emotionally unstable, passive and passive-aggressive men and women who have shown up. Men at fifty who have failed a dozen times and know they will never amount to anything. Women who have been ignored and scorned and abused in a marriage in which they have been faithful. People living with children and spouses deep in addictions. Lepers and blind and deaf and dumb sinners. Also new converts and spirited young people who are energetic and eager to be guided into a life of love and compassion and service. Alongside a few seasoned old saints who know how to pray and listen and endure, too… (Peterson)

And you can’t see that on the outside looking in. You don’t get that when you’re trying to solve all your spiritual and emotional questions in isolation or therapy. You can’t grasp this when you think you’re smarter than most of the other people in the pews – or that your pain is unique and special – or whatever.

You only get this blessing – and the most amazing and grace-filled sense of calling, too – when you show up and let the holy and the human take you deeper. I don’t know why God has chosen to work this way, but… that’s up to the Lord.

So, as I ask my holy and human band-mates to come up and share with you one of the callings we have discovered together, I am going to ask you to pray with us about your own sacred calling in the body as we sing this song using the words: Oh, heaven let your light shine down…

Comments

Mary said…
Loved, loved, loved this and passing it on to fellow sojourners :) Thanks, RJ...
RJ said…
You bet, my friend. Thanks.
Black Pete said…
A church is also an antidote to solipsistic spiritual egoism. We need both the private/personal and the collective religious experience in our journeys.
RJ said…
Exactly, Peter, it is almost always the both/and, yes?

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