Friday, February 05, 2016

No Offense

“Have you ever noticed that when someone says, ‘no offense’ it means that they want to say something offensive.” I was reminded of that last Sunday by one of our youth. Not because she said, “No offense.” but because she made the observation about that phrase. Her comment reminded me of some other disclaimers, such as, “I’m not trying to be mean,” or “I’m just saying.” All of these are phrases that can sneak in to our vocabulary and mask the true nature of our feelings, our beliefs, and our fears.

Fear is a very real thing that we all have to manage and live with. It has been described as a monster in the closet or under the bed, and when we do not recognize how fear motivates us then we can become its prisoner. We become the monster. We lose the ability to become motivated by love.

I think that’s why scripture tells us, and characters like Jeremiah, over and over again not to fear. Of course, especially in Jeremiah’s case, God never says it will be easy. God tells the Prophet not to let his age get in the way, and we love telling this to youth. I’ve heard it all of my life, and I’ve used it too. Don’t say, “I am just a boy (or just a girl).” God has something in mind for you to do! But we forget that what God has in mind can put you in some very tight spaces. God even tells Jeremiah that God will put words in his mouth that will “pull down, destroy, and over throw,” but God will also give him words that “plant and build up.”

Now these commands were given to a particular Prophet during a particular time – so we have to be careful with how far we generalize – but it’s not unreasonable to believe that God might put words in our mouths that have the same power, even if on a smaller scale. And not only that, if we hear God’s invitation to speak – whether it is with words or actions – and we refuse to do it, we just might be the ones to be uprooted. For in verse 17 God says, “Do not break down before them or I will break you before them.”

So, how do we know what is of God and what is of our own fears? How do we know what is born even out of love, but becomes rooted in fear? How do we know what to say, and when to say it?

The answer, of course, is love – not romantic or sympathetic feelings, but truly selfless, self-giving, and “other” honoring love. And it makes us vulnerable.

In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

He went on to define four different words used in the original Greek text of our Bible that we have mushed into our concept of the word love. The first is “storge,” which is also empathy. It means that we feel as the other person feels. The second is “philia,” which is friendship – or maybe even kinship. The third is “eros,” which is erotic or sensual love. And the fourth is “agape,” which is love in its purest form – love that finds its meaning in the act of loving.

Agape is the type of love that Paul describes to the church in Corinth, and – while it certainly is the kind of love you need in a marriage – he was not talking about the love between two life partners. He was talking about the kind of love between a people who follow in the way of Jesus.

These people – this church in Corinth – needed to know that none of their accomplishments mattered unless they were done in love. And love that is truly of God was only realized in conflict, or in the absence of certain needs. Why else would he need to tell them:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Love – real self-giving, agape love – never ends because it is of God! Its end is its beginning, and it is the basis for everything that can be and all that remains through time and history. Love is about essential things that benefit all of God’s creation. Love echoes in the trees and it finds its fullness in you and me as agents of the one true God. Love can disturb us. It can dismantle things that we hold sacred, and it usually puts us at risk even as it offers us our salvation together.

I think the risk factor of loving is what Jesus had in mind in the synagogue when he reminded the crowd that God had a nasty habit of loving people who were outside of the covenant. The first was a widow who sheltered Elijah. The next was a Syrian General – quite literally a mortal enemy. If not to acknowledge the risk of loving, why else would he have said such things to his elders? It would be as though a child that grew up in this church stepped forward and said that we were no longer acting like a people of God. The words of Jesus seem rude and harsh – even unloving. In fact, his words were so insulting that they moved the crowd from praising him to wanting to kill him! Sound familiar? But it was not time for that – not yet. This story happens at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and so it acts as a kind of mission statement for Jesus.

It’s his way of saying, “Look. This is what I am here for. I am here to show you what salvation looks like. I am here to demonstrate that it is not all about you, and I am here to teach you that loving as God loves is not an exclusive practice. I am here to offer you salvation from your own limitations, and salvation does not look like you think it does. It does not look like fairness. It looks like release from suffering, and it looks like suffering for and with others.”

It looks like agape. But how do we do it? We can’t just let the streets be filled with violent criminals, but we can take prison reform more seriously. We can look at institutional practices that create a self fulfilling prophecy between homelessness and incarceration. We can look at our school systems and ask serious questions of our legislature about spending. We can look at our community and finally start wrestling with the question of who is our neighbor and how do we target a mission field in a way that encourages and inspires faith and breaks down the barriers between them and us. We can start to think less about being a physical asset on the corner of University and Johnston and more about becoming a mission outpost in a world that is constantly changing and yet consistently crying out for salvation. We can do all of these things – and more – and we will, with God’s help.

I can say this with confidence – not just because we’ve done it before, but because I believe in a God who acts in us and through us when we open ourselves up to God’s self giving love. And how can we do that? A member of Session offered me some wisdom the other day that I think interprets the Gospel pretty well. Like the example given by Jesus, it  from outside of our tradition. Many have attributed these to of an Indian Mystic from the early 20th Century named Sai Baba. [Further study reveals that this might have entered the public realm though through a poem called "Three Gates" written in 1835 by Beth Day and said to be "after the Arabian"]

Her words of wisdom were that before speaking or acting, we consider whether or not our words or actions are kind, necessary, and true. And lastly – and I would say essentially – do they improve upon the silence? Is it kind? Is there any compassion in your words or deeds? Are they self-serving or do they benefit the greater good? Is it necessary? Does what you feel compelled to do or say have to be said or done in order to effect change, protect the innocent, or create space for justice and restoration? Is it true? Does what you have to say reveal the truth or simply your perspective? Does what you have to say or do improve on the silence that would be there without your interruption?

For even if we move mountains and build great cities, we still need clean water. If we do not have love in our hearts for everyone and everything, then we are just noise and static. And love is risky. But the reward is worth it. For it is in faith, hope, and love that we abide – but the greatest of these is love. Amen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

No Spare Parts

Have you ever had one of those moments when it was confirmed deep within your soul that what you were doing was wrong? I don’t mean simple mistakes. I’m talking about realizing that some of your actions – or even patterns of behavior – are entirely disconnected from your values. All of us have some moment like that – some dark night of the soul – if we live long enough, or at least I hope that we do.

Otherwise we may never see ways to correct our imperfections and truly become what we have been created to become. Otherwise we might live our lives like a spare part and never know it. Most of us have drawers full of those little parts that we hold on to because they might be useful someday – an extra screw or one of those weird little rubber things that went to a shelf, or a desk, or something.

The Israelites in today’s passage were certainly confronted with the idea that they had been less than useful to God. They even wept when they heard the law. Still under Assyrian occupation, some of the exiles were beginning to return. Some of them had been land owners. Some of them had foreign wives. Those who remained in the city during the exile were mostly the illiterate laboring class. Their identity as a people of God had become more cultural than theological, and they were not making it easy for the displaced to return – particularly since that meant that some of them would want their land back.

In comes Nehemiah, who has been charged by the Syrian King to fortify Jerusalem, and he finds that – not surprisingly – the influence of foreign wives and children remained. So, when they heard the Word of God and its explanation they realized that they were doing some of the same things that got them in trouble in the first place.

They wept – not because God was so terrible, but because they believed that their wives and children who were not Jews were more at risk with them than they would be without them. The beautiful thing in all of this is the response of grace and mercy that is offered to them. Ezra, the priest, said to them, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Enjoy what is good. Share with those who have nothing. The joy of loving sacrificially – even though it hurts to do it – is what will carry you through.
To those who say that the concept of grace was not around in the old testament, I say look no further than Nehemiah 8. Here we see that the law of Moses is not a means for God to push us around. Nor is it a tool to define and determine what God is going to do and say about this or that, or about us or them. The point of the law is the sweet knowledge that God is with us, encouraging us to love as we have been loved.

But what does that look like? Well, it doesn’t look like the spare part drawer. It looks like a body that has no spare parts. It looks like a body that is not just a collection of parts but is the sum of its parts. Every part matters, no matter how small.

And so it is with the church. Every part matters. Every bulletin board, every handshake, every open space in a pew, every warm body, every active committee, every hit on our website, every prayer in your home, and every soul (man, woman, or child) that comes through these doors seeking an encounter with God Almighty – every part of the body matters to the whole body whether we realize it or not. And every part can open or close the whole body to its experience of the life giving force of the breath of God – which is the Holy Spirit, the giver of gifts of grace.

That’s why Paul describes the church as a connected body in which every part affects the whole. And here’s the hardest and the most beautiful verse in that whole passage about the Body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

It’s not so hard to do that when we are sharing joys and concerns in worship. It is even more beautiful and rich when we do it during the Agape Prayer Lunch on Wednesdays. It is, however, pretty nearly impossible for us – when we get beyond our closest circles – to remember that what hurts you hurts me.

We get so busy. We get so convinced that our way is the right way, and that we are not guilty of causing pain and suffering because we are not trying to hurt anyone. And yet it seems that the Body of Christ that is the church is less and less concerned with becoming involved in the solution to social ills. We become divided over politics rather than interested in what makes for a just society. We assume that all are treated fairly because that is the intent behind our legal code. All the while, what really has the church in North America busy is a competition over attracting a dwindling number of people who might be interested in experiencing God through the language and music that we use to encounter God – even though the language and music we use is rarely used or listened to anywhere outside of the church.

Of course the opposite extreme is to throw everything out and buy a drum kit. While that may work for some, I think what matters most is that we turn to scripture. We need to be grounded in an understanding of God’s expectations and God’s gracious love and God’s calling to experience and explore and express God’s love together.

Even more, we need to take seriously the words of Jesus who walked into the temple and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. Those were loaded words that had to do with a flipping of social order and the forgiveness of debt, and even the healing of blindness and the release of prisoners. It was based in a concept of Jubilee that reset the stage every 50 years so that everyone would know that God was God and they were not. And as crazy as all of that sounded, Jesus went a little further and said, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What would it look like to live like we believe these words? These words call us to think about our finances and how they demonstrate our values and priorities. They call us to think about our more personal debts and our need to forgive and be forgiven. These words compel us to live as people released from captivity and blindness. They compel us to do what we can to help release others from the bonds of poverty, or alcoholism, or racial inequality, or whatever keeps them from knowing themselves as God’s beloved.

These words might even make you want to enter the holy places and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I actually saw someone doing that on YouTube the other day – in a coffee house, no less. Maybe it isn’t a traditional place of worship, but coffee houses are definitely centers of community and value in our culture. Anyway, in this one particular venue they have a dancing barista. Actually there is more than one. One of them is just a nice guy who wanted to brighten people’s day. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The one that I think proclaims the gospel is a guy named Sam. He’s a teenager with autism who never thought he would be able to have a job. Sam’s autism causes him to shake and spasm at times. You might think that becoming a barista and working with hot liquids is a bad idea, but his manager saw something else. He saw Sam’s movement as a kind of dance. Instead of expecting him to act like everyone else, he realized that Sam’s movements were connected to expression, communication, and functionality. Part of the lore connected to the story is that Sam even says that he feels that his life has meaning now.

We may not all have opportunities to lift others up like that, but we can all allow the love of God to confront us. We can decide to be guided by scripture in our lives. We can realize that we – the sacred community that is the church – are only as strong as we are diverse. We can realize that the Body of Christ has no spare parts. We can know that we each have a part to play in keeping the church open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through this body.

I can’t say exactly how that will look in your life. I know one person who recently responded to God’s grace by making an intentional effort to say hello to a woman wearing a burka in the grocery store, and then another who gave a refuge child a bike, and another that fed a man’s family after he mowed her lawn. For you, it might be as simple as bringing in some peanut butter for the U.C.O. or some shoes for Souls 4 Soles, or writing a note or visiting one of our elderly members. Maybe you will become involved in one of our current ministry partnerships like Meals on Wheels or the Wesley Campus Ministry. Better still, God may be inspiring you to encourage us to do something new that this congregation has never done before but really wants to.

Whatever God is calling you to do and to become, be encouraged that God is calling you. Some will be messengers, some truth tellers, and some teachers. Some will work miracles. Some will heal. Some will speak languages yet unknown, and some will interpret. Above all, know that God is calling us to be the Body of Christ and to see redemption taking place. And when we see it, we will hear the words of Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Amen.