Sunday, October 26, 2008

Community Building 101

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The small town in Kenya where I did my work as a student pastor was also the home of an African Orthodox Church, a congregation of the Orthodox tradition like Greek or Russian Orthodox churches we may have heard about. One day my mentor and I stopped by on some church business, and I had the opportunity to look around the sanctuary while they talked. As I looked at the icons, pictures of biblical personalities or saints that line the walls to guide and focus prayer, I noticed they were all signed in the bottom corner, but not with the artists’ names. Instead they said: “Given by the missionary society of Thessaloniki.”

I don’t know why, but it was so cool to see that! I mean, I know Thessalonica is a real place, but I guess I am used to seeing it in a Christian tourism booklet as a stop on “Journeys of Paul” tour as opposed to a real town, with real churches, with real ministries even to this day.

But long before their missionary society could send liturgical artwork around the world, some of Christianity’s first missionaries made their way to the Thessalonians. The church in Thessalonica was founded by Paul, and his first letter to them is actually thought to be not only the earliest of Paul’s letters in our Scriptures, but also the earliest of all the writings that can be found in our New Testament. It was likely written about 50 years after the birth of Jesus, or about 17-20 years after his resurrection.

Paul’s stay in Thessalonica was not as short as some of evangelistic stops. He actually settled down for a little while, practicing his trade and receiving financial help from Philippi, about 95 miles away. Eventually, though Paul was eventually forced out of Thessalonica, probably for teaching about a king other than Caesar. Unable to return, Paul sent Timothy to the church, who returned with a positive report. The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written a few months after Paul’s departure in response to that report.

While his work in Thessalonica was not Paul’s first work of evangelism, good news-sharing, it’s not like the next town over had a church up and running either. When the Thessalonian Christian community ran into confusion, or doubt, or trouble in their life or in their faith, it’s not like they had the next congregation over in the presbytery to call upon for help or a witness. Yet even without his immediate presence they were able to continue on in the faith. Paul’s praise of them in other parts of the letter tells us this is the case.

However, at the same time in this letter Paul is also addressing some doubts that have come up about his motives, although whether they are doubts of the church or the surrounding community we can’t be sure. But doubts are doubts and we all know that once those thoughts have been planted if not in our heads or hearts even just near our heads and hearts, it’s hard to just shake them away.

The Thessalonians are trying to live this new faith, to make sense of their new beliefs and relationship to a new God for the most part on their own. It was one thing to live this way when Paul was there, when there was someone, something, an energy, an excitement driving them forward in the Spirit. It’s another when Paul has moved on and the novelty has begun to wear off.

Without their leader, their founder anxiety starts to set in. Can we do this without him? What are we doing anyway? What if he was just trying to scam us, get us to love him, feed his ego? Without something (or in this case someone) to unite them, the fabric of their community starts to fray a little around the edges. They didn’t completely fall apart or anything, remember Timothy’s favorable report to Paul. But the edges started to get a little fuzzy; a little uncertainty started to crop up in their communal voice.

I can’t help but remember that this Sunday marks the one year anniversary of my family’s first “public” visit to _____, my first Sunday worshiping with you and preaching among you. I’ve been here “full-time” for 10 months now, and it has been a blessing to work with a growing congregation, in a growing community, with dedicated members committed to welcoming others. It’s a joy working with the staff you put into place before God even called me here. Ministry is thriving, I think. We have been running on the excitement of our new relationship, and the new page in the book of this particular family of faith.

Yet even in our excitement and our movement forward, or maybe because of it, we need to hear God’s Word through Paul in our church. It’s a warning almost, maybe more of a friendly reminded. The body of Christ can’t run forever on adrenaline.

Be assured, just like the Thessalonians, we are in NO WAY coming apart at the seams. I wouldn’t even go nearly as far as saying we’re anxious about who we are what this is all about. But at the same time, I don’t want us to even be tempted to go this direction. And when questions begin to arise about who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing, I want us to be able to answer them thoughtfully, prayerfully, guided by the Spirit and Word of God.

Our fabric, too, could begin to fray at the edges if we lose sight of our unifying purpose, if we forget or maybe even refuse to discover the reason we have been planted in this place in this time. Paul is not our unifying purpose. I am CERTAINLY not our unifying purpose. Even you, our congregation, are not our unifying purpose. The gospel of Jesus our Messiah, the good news of God’s love, is what we are hear for – not flattery for building up ourselves or others, not greed for accumulating wealth or status, not bragging rights, nor praise from the city around us. None of these are our unifying purpose. None of these are our mission, our call from God.

Living and sharing the gospel of Jesus our Christ, that is our purpose and our call.

Unless we keep that at the center of our life together, at the center of the community we are continually building, the years of ministry and witness that have come before us WILL have been in vain.

Let’s be honest - - how many of us who were born and raised Presbyterian (I’ll only pick on us, since I, for the most part, fit in this category) got even just the slightest bit uncomfortable when I said that – “sharing the gospel”? I ask because I can admit it myself. Even as I spoke them, even as I typed them, I got a little bit nervous about what that means. It’s not language that has been used in our churches very much, probably to a fault. Or when we do say it, “sharing the gospel” has referred to missionaries of “ours” that we send to “them”, people in some other land, people who look very different, live very different, and sound very different than we do. Sharing the gospel is what someone else does, somewhere very far from here.

But Paul talks about sharing the gospel in a very different way. Certainly he was once in Thessalonica as that missionary who came from very far away to share the gospel with very different people, but his letter is to the church that continues on. His words, his encouragement, his urging in the faith is to people who are living the faith he shared not around the globe in places unknown, but in their homes, in their community, in their regular, everyday lives. And as people of faith, however new or however tenuous, they are people who are called to care a they have been cared for, to nurse others as they have been nursed in the faith, to share themselves as Paul shared himself with them, to share the good news of God’s love as it has been shared with them

Paul tells us this sharing is what builds the community of anxious, nervous part-believers/part-doubters/part-wonders into the community of brothers and sisters in faith, brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s sharing the knowledge and experience of the gospel, sharing the knowledge and experience of the love of God, it’s loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, it’s loving our neighbors and ourselves, that draws us together in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I think sharing the gospel makes us nervous because we think there’s supposed to be some certain way to do it. We think there are right words to say to someone. We think we’re supposed to walk up to strangers and just start telling them what we know or what we’ve heard or what we believe. But the gospel isn’t captured in a particular set of words. The gospel is a formula of statements about Jesus and what he did. The gospel is good news. The gospel is a story about love, the love of God in Christ Jesus, the love of God that overflows out of God so freely that when we receive it, when it comes raining down on us, we just have to love ourselves and others as God has loved us. We have to share it and let it rain down on others to keep it from having been given to us in vain.

What we share when we share this gospel is not a checklist of beliefs, a list of doctrines, or creeds formalized millennia or even just decades ago. What we share when we share this gospel is a piece of ourselves that has been loved by God, piece of our lives, a piece of our faith that witnesses to the love we know in Jesus.

It may sound daunting, even scary to be this kind of evangelist (another one of those words that makes us nervous), this kind of good news-sharer, but the encouraging word of Paul’s letter is that this kind of sharing happens within intimate, well-tended relationships.

It happens when we tell friend or a neighbor we are praying for them in their daily living. It happens when we look into the eyes of those we serve at Grace Place or at community meals. It happens when we share an afternoon of fun, creativity, and laughter with our friends from Bridge like we did yesterday at Trick or Trunk. It happens when we make commitments to each other, to God, and to the church promising our time, our money, our energy, and our witness in the service of our Lord. It happens when we meet in small groups for prayer, when we deliver handmade prayer shawls, when we visit the sick or the elderly or the lonely in our community, holding their hands, and witnessing with our presence as much as our words.

Sharing the gospel doesn’t require graduate work in theology. It doesn’t assume we’ve all taken a class on the six steps to effective evangelism. Sharing the gospel means sharing ourselves, with all our doubts and all our imperfections, and all of the love of God that has been poured into our lives. When this kind of evangelism, sharing the love we know with the people we know, is our unifying purpose, then all we have received has not been in vain. Then we are building our community in Christ.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Five

Will I ever blog a regular blog again?

Here's today's Friday Five from RevGals courtesy of Singing Owl:

This post is about locations. My husband has lived at 64 addresses in his life so far (16 with me) and he suggested the topic since we have moving trucks on our minds.

Therefore, tell us about the five favorite places you have lived in your lifetime. What did you like? What kind of place was it? Anything special happen there?

1. Right here - upper Midwest, Twin Cities area. I've only been here 10 months now, so I haven't actually done a full fall/winter cycle, but I'll take ANYTHING for the gorgeous summer we had. I love the leaves. I even love snow. I love the hills. I love the water. This is my #1 so far!

2. Lower Midwest/Plains. That's where my first call was, and it's where I met my husband, had my children (so far), started my "real" adult life (seminary after college didn't count). I learned about farming, experienced the cycles of the earth, enjoyed real season.

3. Atlanta. Seminary. I LOVED the city. I LOVED the variety of life and activities. I even sort of loved traffic. Time stuck in a car with NO OTHER responsibilities. Songs to sing and books to listen to!

4. Virginia. College. The setting was picturesque and the people were the best. It's really all about the people - - my life's best friends.

5. Maryland - Don't remember much. We moved to Florida when I was 7. But I knew seasons and I knew I loved them.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Friday Five

I've been such a slacker with the blog lately. Not good. Here's Friday's Five even though it's Sunday. It was a fun easy one!

Songbird at RevGals writes:
Well, Gals and Pals, this weekend we'll be rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and that has me thinking about coinage.

1) When was the last time you flipped a coin or even saw one flipped in person?
I cannot even remember. It's been AGES!!!

2) Do you have any foreign coins in your house? If so, where are they from?
Lots of foreign coins around here. Ghana, Kenya, Hungary, Germany, some Euros are the "for sures".

3) A penny saved is a penny earned, they say. But let's get serious. Is there a special place in heaven for pennies, or do you think they'll find a special place in, well, the other place?
Hell. Weighing down the purses women are doomed to carry forever.

4) How much did you get from the tooth fairy when you were a child? and if you have children of your own, do they get coins, or paper money? (I hear there may be some inflation.)
I can remember getting a quarter or fifty cents for my earliest teeth, but it moved up to paper money by the time I lost my last one. Molars were bringing $5 or so. My last tooth brought in a $20, though, because the tooth fairy made the mistake of digging through the wallet in the dark. I definitely knew better by that time, and there was no way I was giving it back!

5) Did anyone in your household collect the state quarters? And did anyone in your household manage to sustain the interest required to stick with it?
My husband has collected them, but he ordered the set each year so they come automatically. We don't dig for them through our own change. I think it's silly, but it makes him happy. Whatever.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Keep On

Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

In reading that passage from Philippians I feel like I have just been through the grand finale of the 4th of July fireworks. Does anyone know what I mean? I feels like Paul was writing this whole letter, and throughout the letter he sent up a few big and beautiful theological and faithful rockets. We all oohed and ahhed over their beauty. We picked favorites of the new ones and wished we could see them again.

Then in the grand finale they all came rushing back at us, all at once. The bright purple sparkly one, the circles that faded from red to green to purple. The shimmery white ones that fills the sky with a thousand falling stars all at once. The favorites from the night all come back at us in quick succession or even all at the same time as we just lie back on our blankets and try to absorb it all.

In reading these final exhortations from Paul’s beautiful letter to the Philippians it feels like a bombardment of virtue, a grand finale, I’d say, and it’s beautiful to listen to. Beautiful to listen to, but frankly it’s sort of hard to say with a straight face right now.

Rejoice in the Lord? Is Paul kidding? Does he know what is going on around us? Think about things that honorable and commendable? He obviously didn’t look at the same newspaper I have this week. I’m not seeing a whole that is worthy of praise on the front page of my papers or in the reports on my TV lately. Fraud is the news of the day. Alleged misconduct. Investments tanking while executives are at spas. War continues. World hunger intensifies. Warming threatens. Attack ad after attack add after attack ad. Ads attacking that the other candidate has more attack ads.

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to rejoice about, or pure things on which to focus our thoughts and energy.

And its not just the secular world around. The church isn’t always much better. Worldwide within the family of Christ there is passionate arguing. I like to think it comes out of a place great faith and discernment, but when I am honest about my own gut reactions, my own participation in the in-fighting, I can tell that’s not always the case. Just like in the secular world, in the world of Christianity, of denominations and sects, of a wide spectrum of theology, of seemingly contradictory beliefs about Jesus, his call, his mandate, his love, his grace, his teachings, in the world of we who call ourselves disciples, even here:
instead of gentleness, I see attacks;
instead of peace, I see turmoil;
instead of purity, I see corruption;
instead of justice, I see greed;
and above it all, I see the one thing that Paul urges us to avoid - - WORRY.

We sure are worried these days, aren’t we? It seems to be a natural response. Appealing to genetics or evolution or anything outside of ourselves we might even try to say we’re wired to do it. How would a species survive if parents didn’t worry about their well-being enough to worry about their children? If nations didn’t worry about leaders, if churches didn’t worry about theology, if congregations didn’t worry about membership, we try to justify it, these things might cease to exist we say.

There are a million and one things about which we worry: Are my parents getting the care they need?
Is my retirement fund secure?
Will my kids be able to pay for college?
Will my family stay healthy?
Will she come through surgery OK?
Will my scores be high enough?
Will his faith be strong enough?
Is the denomination going to divide?
Will I be accepted?
Is the stock market going to recovery?
Is the war going to end?
Gentleness, praise, and honor. These things we may not be so sure about, but worrying - - that’s something at which we excel, something that even seems necessary for motivation. How would we survive if worry didn’t drive us to action?

If anyone had something to worry about, it was Paul. We have heard some snippets of this letter to the Philippians over the last few weeks, but I haven’t focused on the letter itself, where it comes from and who it’s going to. Paul wrote this letter to the church he launched in Philippi, a city on the northeast coastline of modern Greece.

At the time of his writing, Paul is sitting in jail, having been thrown there by the Roman authorities essentially for treason. In their eyes, Paul has been running around the Roman Empire advocating for another king, claiming that there is a lord other than the emperor, other than Caesar. He’s been imprisoned for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is in charge, Jesus is the ultimate ruler of this world, not the one who rules from Rome. For these statements that threaten loyalty to Rome, Paul has been thrown into jail by one of the most brutal, authoritarian, and controlling powers the world has yet seen.

The Roman prison system was MORE than a little different than ours. Captors were simply that. They felt no responsibility for the safety, comfort, or health of their inmates. In fact, Roman prisoners weren’t even fed by their captors, but depended on their own supporters, family, or friends to bring them food to eat and water to drink. That’s one thing when you’re incarcerated close to home, but presents an entirely different set of challenges when you’re a thousand miles from home.

And that’s exactly where Paul find himself. Stuck in prison, far from home and most of his family and friends, Paul is in prison with a limited network of support. If anyone has ANY reason to be worried, you could say Paul has at least one or two. But here he is telling US not to worry about ANYTHING. It just doesn’t seem possible.

Recently I was talking to an old friend of mine about the church she found when she moved to California a couple of years ago. Her church, like many churches, is worried about the future. The congregation and its leaders worry about things as noble as proclaiming the good news to those who seem to need it the most, those disconnected from the church. The pastors preach their concern on Sunday morning. The committees take up the worry in their ministries, trying to combat it with things that will welcome their neighbors and reach out to the community.

A night not too long ago the church held a Fall Festival to kick off the new ministry year. My friend took her children, four of them ages five and under, but her husband wasn’t feeling well, so he didn’t go. She gracefully shuffled her children to the hall, found a table and seats for all of them, tried to keep the older ones sitting nicely while she carried four plates of food back, all while balancing an 8 month old on one hip. She reported to me that not once in her evening did someone, anyone, not a fellow member of the church, but even more disappointingly not one of the pastors preaching hospitality and welcome, simply lend a hand.

She wasn’t looking for money. She didn’t need a noteworthy sacrifice. Just a little help and then, maybe, she told me, she wouldn’t have gotten up and left so early. She told me, “I thought the point was that we are called to carry on.”
Even in the hard times, even when the church is being labeled irrelevant, even when there seem to be fewer and fewer people looking to us for the answers, we’re supposed to carry on and minister. In doing that we will WANT to share what we receive with the world. Worrying about the future, about membership numbers, about finances, won’t get the good news out, but, God willing, our love for one another can.

Paul, the one with EVERY reason to worry, if anyone has ANY reason to worry, tells us not to waste our time with it. Worrying helps us look no farther than our own belly-buttons, while the gospel of Jesus Christ, the scope of his mind and his vision, extends so much further than that. God promises through Isaiah that the banquet set by the Lord will be for ALL people. Israel has been in exile, a shroud of death, despair, worry cast over them for generations, but God promises to wipe away all their tears and the tears of the world. There’s no need to worry, and when we’re released from our worry there’s a feast for the nations to enjoy.

Paul, the one with EVERY reason worry, if anyone has ANY reason to worry, reminds us over and over in this letter why we need not worry:
“The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
“I know that through your prayers and the help of Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”
“I press on to make the goal my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”

There’s no need to waste our time worrying because the one who can solve all of this has already promised to do the job - - in fact, he’s already begun the work! Our worrying is not a part of the solution, but only blurs our vision, makes us blind to task of living the gospel, the GOOD news, in this present moment. As Paul sees it, the only way out of this cycle of worrying is believing our way out. The only way to climb out of the downward spiral of stress and panic over the things we see in our world, our family of faith, our lives, is believing that there is better way, and even if we can’t believe, we need to act like it anyway!

In high school, while I had always been a classically trained bass player, I was invited to join the jazz band. Completely unfamiliar with the music, but intrigued by the challenge, I accepted. The first few weeks were fun, a small ensemble, a fun rhythmic, moving line, this bass player’s dream come true. I started to learn the music and the tradition, and began to fall in love.

One day, though, Mr. Sanders handed out a new piece of music. My hand immediately shot in the air. “Uh, Mr. Sanders! Something’s wrong here! My notes are missing!” New to the world of jazz charts, and unfamiliar with the music the next level up, I had no idea what to do with this strange collection letters, chord markings, and a slashes for notes. I went into a panic. I felt incompetent, unqualified, totally in over my head. I worried that I would get the beat wrong, the notes wrong, the chords wrong. I worried that I’d let the rest of the band down. I worried that my cover would be blown and everyone would see I really didn’t have a clue about what I was doing.

Mr. Sanders simply said, “You know the basics. Just play what you know, and it will be right.”

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned.” That was Paul, not my band instructor. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. The focus isn’t on solving all the crises in the world around us; the focus is on doing what we can, ministering our way out of worry, giving and thanking our way out of scarcity, trusting our way out of uncertainty.

Keep on playing the scales, reading the chords, moving to the beat, rejoicing in Christ, following the commandments, loving our enemies, rejoicing in Christ, praying with thanksgiving, seeking the mind of Christ, rejoicing in Christ, trusting in God who is near. Did I say rejoicing in Christ, yet? Just checking. Paul says it a few times, too.

Not one of us has added a day to our life by worrying. Not one of us here has paid a mortgage, cured an illness, made peace, ended hunger, aced a test, or saved the entire tradition of faith in Christ by worrying. So we can spend our time staring at our belly-buttons worried about what is to come, or we can accept that not one thing will be solved this way, and instead stay focused on the mind of Christ – whatever is honor able, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything worth of praise. These are the things we can do.

God didn’t worry about what it might do to the divine reputation to enter into the human story as a human being. God didn’t worry about whether it was believable or palatable. Jesus didn’t worry about the challenges he might face or the humiliation he might endure or the pain he might suffer, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And in his humility, in his obedience, in doing what he knew to do, God also highly exalted him.

The worries of this world have already been challenged, and the answer is here. Our hope is in Christ Jesus who wipes away tears from all faces, and comforts the nations. Keep on doing the things that we have learned and the God of peace will be here.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Whole Story

I'm finalizing my bulletin for Sunday, and my text for preaching is Exodus 20, the ten commandments. In good (but often lost) Reformed fashion I want to have the congregation recite/read responsively the law instead of having me just drone them on and on. It'll be a little break from the story-telling I've been doing, but it might be time for that.

I'm struggling with the text. Surprise, surprise. I don't think most of us, myself included, actually read these from the actual Bible very often. There's some tough stuff in the actual Bible - some stuff about a jealous God, a punishing God, a God who will not acquit. I didn't intend to make this the subject of my sermon, but I don't want to ignore it. I don't want to cut it out and not be faithful to the text, but I also don't want it to be a stumbling block when we're reading and worshiping this Sunday.

The Presby Book of Common Worship has "The Law of God" listed in its Preparation for Worship section, but it's not the whole thing. In the citation column it says Ex. 20:1-17, but it really sticks just to the commandments and not the "editorial" pieces where there are tough pieces.

Not sure what I'm going to do about this, but I'm wondering how to be faithful to the text, and responsible in leading worship, and a teaching pastor, and a preacher with integrity all at the same time. Hmmm.....