Tag Archives: PCUSA Book of Order

Apostolicity; a.k.a. Sent Out

A Sermon for 3 July 2016

A reading from the gospel of Luke 10:1-11 and 16-20. Listen for God’s word to us.

“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” . . . Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’ The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

In 2011, the PC (U.S.A.) did a major re-configuration of the part of our church’s constitution called the Book of Order. In the process, a new word was learned by many. O, it wasn’t a new concept in the history of the world or in the history of the PC (U.S.A.). It wasn’t even something new added to the Book of Order, really. Just moved in order to clarify a few things about why we exist as a denomination. Thus it came to be that tucked into a new section of the Book of Order called the “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity,” we find a new-to-many-of-us, yet ancient word: apostolicity. I’m going to read in entirety point d of F-1.03 that explains it all, so get ready. F-1.03 is the third Foundation of Presbyterian Polity. The principle named “The Calling of the Church.” Here the marks of the church are presented: from the unity of the church, to the holiness of the church, to the catholicity (or universality) of the church, to point d, which reads as follows: “The Apostolicity of the Church. Apostolicity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the gospel of God’s redemption of all things and people. Because in Christ the Church is apostolic, it strives to proclaim this gospel faithfully. The Church receives the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ through the testimony of those whom Christ sent, both those whom we call apostles and those whom Christ has called throughout the long history of the Church. The Church has been and is even now sent into the world by Jesus Christ to bear that testimony to others. The Church bears witness in word and work that in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God’s new creation, God’s kingdom drawing the present into itself. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms the Gospel of Jesus Christ as received from the prophets and apostles, and stands in continuity with God’s mission through the ages. The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions. The Church seeks to present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance, acceptance of Christ alone as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples. The Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist: making disciples of all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; sharing with others a deep life of worship, prayer, fellowship, and service; and participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-17, F-1.0302.d).

It’s kind of a mouth-full. And a whole lot of what we are to be about. But the why is pretty clear too: “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God sends the Church into the world to share the gospel of God’s redemption of all things and people.” And a little later we’re reminded again: “To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God’s new creation” (Ibid.). God sends us – the Church, in Christ and by the power of the Spirit. Why we do what we do and how we do it is because God sends us. We’re not to huddle up here together. Rather to be a part of the church is to be sent – beyond ourselves and one another – sent out into the world to share with whoever we find out there the good news of God’s love for us all. We hear it in “The Apostolicity of the Church.” God sends us because people need to know that: “in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world” (Ibid.). It is very good news and God desires for the whole world to hear it. Thus: apostolicity – the sending out. It is a very important mark of the church.

Apostolicity may be a fancy, new word for many of us. But it is not new at all according to the gospel of Luke. Here in the gospel we get another story in which Jesus is sending out those who have heard and received his message. It happened in Luke chapter eight when he re-stored the Gerasene man who had been tormented by a legion of demons. After Jesus healed him, he sent the man back to his home to proclaim how much God had done for him (Luke 8:39). It happened in Luke chapter nine when Jesus told his chosen twelve disciples that they were to go out. They were to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal those afflicted (Luke 9:2). And now in Luke chapter 10, Jesus brings in seventy, assigns them a partner, then sends them out to go together to bring peace to whoever will receive them. They are to restore to wholeness any who are sick and are to tell of the reign of God that has begun in a whole new way among them! (Luke 10:9). After his own death and resurrection, the story will continue with the ascending Christ sending out any who will listen. All who hear and receive the good news of God’s favor. And then, at that first Christian Pentecost, the Spirit of God will be in every last one in order to fulfill Christ’s charge to go out to live beyond their little circle in ways that reflect exactly what Christ has reflected among us: peace, hope, forgiveness, new beginnings, unconditional love, un-earned favor! It is news every last one in this world needs to experience! . . . And so: apostolicity! We are sent.

For a long time we seemed to think it was just a special few. Perhaps you’ve been part of a congregation at some point in your journey that supported what we in the Presbyterian Church now call mission co-workers. Years ago, we just called them missionaries. Many thought of them as the ones like the first disciples who heard and answered a call. To exotic lands they would travel – the ends of the earth even. Our missionaries were intent to bring good news to people who most often were very different from them. Our mission co-workers still are intent to bring good news to people all over the world – to folks who typically are quite different from them. But the job’s not just for them. The gospel of Luke has shown that pretty clearly. If being sent out was just to be for some, ones like the first twelve disciples sent. If apostolicity was just for them, then we wouldn’t have this story of Jesus again sending out folks – this time seventy and side-by-side in pairs. Nor would we have heard of that earlier occasion when the restored man of the Gerasenes is to go out to tell good news. As a matter of fact, if apostolicity is just for the first special few; then we might as well turn to chapter one of Acts of the Apostles, grab a scissors, and cut out that whole book from our New Testaments. And perhaps most of the rest of the New Testament too. Apostolicity, however, is a mark of the whole church: mission co-workers, pastors, and every last professed disciple of Christ too. In fact, one commentator concludes that “the number seventy implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Elaine A. Heath, p. 214). After all, the harvest is plentiful. And as another commentator has written, such a plentiful harvest “calls for a large work force to reap the crops before they spoil” (Ibid., James W. Thompson, p. 217). Every last one of us is sent out – sent out by God to proclaim, through what we say, what we do, and how we live; we are sent out by God to be good news for the people all around us each day.

I don’t know where I learned a song that captures this well. Simply enough it’s called “Sent Out in Jesus’ Name” and it’s one of those catchy tunes that gets your toes-a-tapping. It goes: “Sent out in Jesus’ name, our hands are ready now to make the earth the place in which God’s kingdom comes.” That part gets repeated then a bridge takes the singers to the words: “The angles cannot change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love, of justice, and of peace. The task is ours to do, to set it really free. O help us to obey and carry out God’s will” (Source Unknown). . . . It’s something to think about. That God’s will – God’s hope, God’s prayer, God’s plan is for us to roll up our sleeves to change a world of hurt and pain into a world of love and justice and peace. It may not be an easy one, but it is our task to do – by the power of the Holy Spirit, as one’s alive in Christ. We are sent out in Jesus’ name – hands ready, hearts on fire, souls 100% committed. All that’s left is to pray God’s Spirit helps us to obey as we seek to carry out God’s will.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

 

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

Open

A Sermon for 6 September 2015

A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.

“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).

If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).

If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston, achurchforstarvingartists.com, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!

And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).

It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.

This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

God’s Mission

A Sermon for 26 July 2015

A reading from the gospel of John 1:1-14. Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humankind, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

           

Today we are launching a new way for the session of this church to be organized. It’s a way that takes seriously the reason why this church exists – to be a community growing in Christ through worship, study, and service. It’s a way of being organized for ministry to ensure ALL are In Ministry at least in some way. Large or small, one thing or as many as your plate has room for; the AIM is for every person to be about at least one piece of the collective ministry of this church as a way of growing in your walk behind Christ. And before these new teams and every one of you, we must remember to keep to the difference this church seeks to make in the lives of one another and those of the surrounding community: To support each other and those of the surrounding community through life’s challenges for the grace of God to be experienced by all. It’s not like this is really anything all that new for this congregation – in terms of the reason why you exist and what difference you are trying to make in people’s lives. From all I’ve heard and seen, you’ve been shooting the arrows of your ministry towards this target for a very long time. It just might not have been as clearly articulated as it is now. And isn’t a clear target a lot better to aim at than one that’s just fuzzy or moving or not at all there?

It all reminds me of the beautiful new section of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order. Part 2 of our denomination’s constitution. This one’s just out this month. The 2015-2017 edition. Ok: truth be told, the new section of which I speak isn’t all that new. You may or may not be aware that in 2010 this part of the PCUSA’s constitution underwent a radical revision. Book of Order section F was created. . . . It’s not that everything in F was entirely new. Much of it had been in our Book of Order for years – since the days of John Calvin himself. It just wasn’t quite as organized and clear as it now is. It flows from that which we believe to know of God and God’s purpose from scripture. And it’s called section F: The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. The core of what we believe and value and resolve to do because of the God we have come to know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. . . . All this may be old news to you. You already might have fully digested and put to memory section F. But on the slight chance that you missed this radical revision to the Book of Order, I want to be sure you’re aware. Partly, it seems my duty to you during this time of pastoral transition. Partly, it seems a gift to keep us grounded and inspired as this congregation sets off intentionally to live according to the reason why you exist and the difference that has been discerned that you seek to make in each others’ and those beyond this membership’s lives. . . . All that we’ve been up to these past several months is not just for your Pastor Nominating Committee to be able to complete the paperwork needed for the search. It’s because of what we hear in the gospel of John and also in The Foundational Principles of Presbyterianism. There are four key principles in the new section F, so I’ve created a four-part sermon series for this summer. Don’t worry, we’ll space them out a little between now and Labor Day. But for now, listen to a reading from section F, Chapter One: The Mission of the Church. This one’s entitled: God’s Mission (F-1.01). Listen: “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation. The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.”

It’s beautiful. I love it! Because #1: God has a mission! . . . The opening to the gospel of John tells us about it too. “In the beginning was the Word – and the Word was with God and the Word was God” . . . “and the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14). Because we needed life – the light of all people! As verse 5 states: it’s a light that shines in the darkness of our lives never, ever to be overcome! That’s God’s mission. Simple. Beautiful. The transformation of all things and all people! That we would be the children of – not just the creation of – but the precious, related, intimately connected children of God who are busy reflecting to the whole creation the very same mission of our heavenly parent.

One way to think about this is in the first essential tenet of Reformed Theological faith. Hopefully you know this one: the sovereignty of God! It’s the belief that it all begins and ends with God and it is THEE quintessential Reformed idea. That God is #1. The Alpha and Omega. The initiator. The One from whom all flows. . . . Why do we baptize babies who can’t understand one iota about God’s grace? Because of the sovereignty of God. Why do we welcome all to the table of our Lord – no matter who or how they are? Because of the sovereignty of God. God initiates it all – a plan to create us all. To love us all. To be with us all everyday and throughout eternity. God is the One that works to transform us all into the blessed creation God intends us to be. God has a mission – a purpose. A work on which God never shall give up. It’s God’s mission into which we are invited. Foundation #1 of Presbyterian Polity reminds: We are invited to “participate in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, “offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ” (F-1.01).

It has been said that Christianity is “a demanding, serious religion. (And that) when it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Joseph D. Small, ed.; Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church, Introduction, p. ix). We know that. Because Christianity is about what God wants – not us. It’s about God’s mission and God’s invitation to enter into a life of glorifying and enjoying God now and forever as we live in covenant fellowship with God by, like Christ, “announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom. By bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and by proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation! That is the mission of transforming the whole world through the goodness of God’s love! (F-1.01)

There’s a wonderful song of the Iona community of Scotland. It’s called “The Summons.” It’s our invitation into the mission of God. The words of the song are: “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me? Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me? Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me? Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?” (Glory to God; The Presbyterian Hymnal, 2013, #726, Text by John Bell and Graham Maule, © 1987; WGRG, Iona Community, [admin. GIA Publications, Inc.])

It’s a lofty summons indeed, from a God that’s in the business of re-making you and me and the whole wide world – all things new!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

7 Sept. 2014 sermon — Matt. 18:15-20

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
______________________
 

7 September 2014 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 18:15-20 (NRS)

 

I can’t go into all the sorted details, but last week when I was gathered with about a hundred other pastors at a conference in Montreat; I heard a whole lot of stories about churches in the middle of major fights. One of them had to do with disagreements over denominational matters, but most of them came down to people who really couldn’t find a way to get along. Small churches, mid-sized, and large ones too that to one degree or another are tearing each other apart. The worst I heard was ruling elders having shouting matches at each other in the parking lot after session meetings, though I’ve actually attended session meetings where the elders and pastor on their feet around the table were pounding fists and shaking fingers at each other. You should know that I was an outside guest at such meetings and not the pastor doing the pounding. . . . Most all of the church fights I heard about last week were among good, God-fearing Presbyterians. Just like us: well-educated, successful, family folks who could not get along. Some of the stories sounded totally justified to me. I mean, if the church I was a member of, without any input from us, went off and changed not only the time of Sunday worship but also the style of it; I think I might be ready to throw a few punches. If my beloved music director suddenly was fired; I’d go to battle. If the pastor who had held my hand through life’s traumas, whom I had come to love and trust completely, suddenly was being charged with something outlandish like taking two full days off each week; I just might have a few choice words for the accusers. We’re the church. Everyone says it’s not supposed to be like this. But the truth of it is, sometimes – actually far too often these days – it is.

You all know that. Because whether it’s been during your tenure as a member here or somewhere else, conflict happens. Some of you have told me of the difficult days for HPC during the 1980s. I actually learned last week that many congregations of the South experienced very similar difficulties when a particular experience-driven spiritual gifts movement was sweeping the nation. I guess it was something in the water or something but suddenly certain folks were having these ecstatic spiritual experiences – which are not bad in and of themselves. The problem comes when those who have them seek to make them the norm – especially among frozen chosen Presbyterians – and begin judging themselves better than those who haven’t yet been caught by the Spirit in quite the same way. It can be incredibly divisive; as it was in the early church we read about in the epistles, and as I understand it was here for those around at the time. It feels like overnight a major eruption has happened and good church folks are locked in battle with one another. . . . Church fights. Conflict sets in that rages far beyond a simple problem like what to have for dinner tonight.

I also heard again last week about the levels of conflict. We don’t have to look too far into the world to find evidence of these. Someday we’re bound to experience such things if not in life together in the church, then perhaps in our families or neighborhoods or nation. Some of us might be embroiled in it right now. The gospel of Matthew wouldn’t have recorded Jesus’ words about conflict between people if Jesus expected we’d never experience it. We might as well get prepared for when we come across it. So let me tell you about it. . . . Level one conflict is a simple problem – like what to have for dinner tonight. Or what color to paint the sanctuary ceiling. Level two’s a disagreement: one party insists that Thai food far outweighs the merits of Italian. Level three’s a bit more intense: who makes the best Thai. Coalitions begin to form. Personal attacks are had. Everyone assumes they know each other’s motives. Level four’s flight or fight. The objective is to break relationship – hurt, punish, humiliate the other. Folks start questioning motives and attacking the integrity of others. This is when churches so often move to fire the pastor thinking if that pastor is gone, everything again will be all right. Of course, it rarely is that simple. And then we get to level five. The conflict is intractable. We call it out and out war, where the objective is to destroy each other. The conflict now has taken on a life of its own and cannot be stopped. Though at this stage it’s often ambiguous what the fight is all about, the parties typically believe they are defending an eternal cause. They cannot; they will not back down. The sad thing is, this kind of level five conflict has been on the rise in churches. It’s a killer for clergy and members alike. The sooner we can recognize what’s going on among us, the greater chance we have to guard our life together from exploding out of control as it does at such high leveled conflict.

The best thing to do is advice not that far from Jesus’. Get the parties to sit down together. See if they can begin to understand what each other wants and what lies underneath the wants of one another. We’ve got to get each other out of our reactive lizard brains into a more rational state of respect and open listening. If at all possible, the church can surround all the sides and call them to different behavior. If you really want to know more about it so that you could travel to somewhere like Israel or Iraqi just to give it a try, you can read more about it in the book Getting to Yes where I understand this form of Principled Negotiating is outlined.

It sounds a little bit like Jesus, doesn’t it? At least according to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 where he seemed to be laying out his rules for life together as the church. Step one: recognize the sin against you. Before you pick up the phone to call person 3 about what person 2 did to you, seek out person 2. And as we know these were the days before email, instant messaging, and texts; go to person 2 in person. It would be great, wouldn’t it, if that could be the end of it. If you could just come to me to say, “Pastor Jule, when you said that crazy thing in class the other day, it really hurt my feelings.” “Or Pastor Jule, when you did or didn’t do what I was hoping for the other week, I was left feeling very under-appreciated.” Wouldn’t that be awesome?! We could sit down together and have a rational conversation about what I did or said and what that meant for you – how it hurt you or made you angry and why, because of what need of yours was going unaddressed. We’d shed a tear or two, have a prayer together, and before we know it be feeling so much more closely connected because we were able to hear the deep needs of one another. Hopefully we’d be laughing by the time we saw each other to the door and appropriately hug it out as we departed. Now, I let all my best friends know that we only can have such a conversation when we’re both ready for it. Not when I’m dog tired at the end of a long day, or when my mind is pre-occupied with a zillion other details. It’s fair to request such a conversation, but I find it helps if both parties are in a state of being able to be truly open to one another. Of course, I statements always are best. And I don’t mean like: “I think that you’re a jerk!” But like: “I am hurt when I’m not listened to because it feels like I’m not important.” Or “I don’t like hearing harsh words because that kind of anger scares me.”

Maybe it won’t always work. Which is exactly why Jesus puts forth step number two. If the first attempt breaks down, take along another church member. Now, we have to be smart in these days of frequent litigation and accusations that could ruin a person’s life. But if the problem isn’t one involving the abuse of power, taking along a few other listeners is a great idea. We don’t want to create a sense of ganging up on someone. The others are there merely to listen. Witnesses who can hear out each others’ side. And if that doesn’t work, it’s time for the fault to go public. Tell it to the whole church so that together we all might be able to bring the other’s behavior back in line – which is always the point of such confrontation. Treating another like a Gentile or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting them off – this was Jesus speaking. The one who went out of his way to show an extra dose of compassion to Gentiles and tax collectors. He expects the same from his church.

I realize this might sound a bit like a very dry lecture inspired by our Book of Order’s “Rules of Discipline,” which is why I think the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome come in handy. “Owe no one anything,” he writes, “except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). When we can do so in a respectful way, it’s most loving to have a direct conversation with each other about the ways we have hurt one another. I’m not talking about bringing along your laundry list of all the ways the pastor has been failing to meet your expectations and getting ready to fire away, but sitting down with each other – in love – to give and receive the truth needed. It’s loving to take responsibility for our own feelings and faults instead of blaming everyone and everything else. It’s loving to work out a way together to live compassionately with each other on our good days and on the days when we sin against one another. Being merciful to one another because, in the wise words of our Home Book Club author Jim Dant: “if everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, I assume that includes me. And if you and I are both sinners, then I can’t stand against you – we’d be fighting. I can’t stand over you – I’m not your judge. I won’t stand below you and be humiliated. I only feel comfortable – Christ-like – standing beside you, walking with you, struggling with you, and gratefully allowing you to do the same for me. Practicing compassion. Trusting God to do what only God can do” (Dant, Finding Your Voice, pp. 160-161). . . . When we live like that, we fulfill the law of love. We show forth the God of mercy to the whole wide world. May this be our way today, tomorrow, and forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)