Sunday, January 27, 2013

One Spirit, One Body, One Church

I Corinthians 12:12-31a

        It might be hard for you to believe, but not all churches are harmonious centers of grace, wonderfully reflecting the love of God both internally and to the surrounding community. Sometimes churches get caught up in a web of deceit and misinformation which hampers their primary mission of living the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose again. A prime example of how a church, with all the best intentions, can end up devouring itself is the church in Corinth.  This church was located in one of the most important cities in Greece. The church had been established by Paul and seemed to be the jewel of Paul’s churches on the Greek peninsula. But very quickly the church began to disintegrate as factions argued over theological issues. In all fairness to the folks in Corinth, the good news of Jesus Christ was in direct contradiction to many of the prevailing ideas in Greek culture. Before Paul had a chance to fully develop the faith and mission of the congregation, Paul had moved on to his next challenge. His leadership was primarily through letters, which were no doubt helpful, but did not provide the day to day guidance which was desperately needed. The church struggled with the identity of Christ, the significance of the Lord’s Supper and most of all, the role of leadership. Members argued over who could be trusted and who was in charge?
        In the twenty-fourth verse of the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul makes a radical statement which I believe still confuses the church today, “God has arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior members.”
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? How would Wall Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue, or even Main Street work without someone in charge? That was exactly the question the church in Corinth was raising. The body can’t function without a head. Someone has to be in charge, someone has to be making the critical decisions, and someone has to be picking up the pieces when everything is going haywire. That is the way businesses have worked in the past and that is the way businesses will continue to survive. Why should the church be any different than a business?
Paul makes three points which question this belief. Certainly institutions have a blue print for success, but Paul questions the idea that the church should even function as an institution. When a church spends all its time on institutional priorities it forgets its purpose for existing. This lapse in memory leads to dysfunction, internal disruptions and eventually death.
Paul’s first point – Who is the head of the church? When Paul left Corinth, immediately there was an argument over who was in charge.  Was it Paul; was it Apollos; was it Cephas? Paul countered this inquiry with this question, “Who was crucified for you?” It seems like a trick question. We all know the answer is Christ.  The first paragraph in our Book of Order boldly states Christ is the head of the church. The real question is what does that really mean in the every day life of the church?
Philip Gulley dares to ask, “What would it mean if Jesus were a model for living rather than just an object of worship?” As I read the scripture, Jesus did not claim special status but committed himself to faithfully living out God’s priorities which included justice, righteousness, forgiveness, compassion, and hospitality. It also seems to me Jesus was committed to helping others do the same. Jesus was constantly accepting the excluded, healing the sick, strengthening the weak, loving the despised, and challenging the powerful to use their influence in a redemptive fashion.
I was sitting with someone the other day and asked what it was he admired about Jesus.  He immediately gave me the standard list of answers and then he stopped, thought a second, and responded, “No one was more humble than Christ. We could all use a little more humility.” I think he is on to something. If the head of the church responds to us with humility, imagine what the world would think if the followers of Christ were more humble in their relationship with other and the world.
This leads us to Paul’s second point. If Christ is the head of the church, who is the number two guy? If we can’t have a head, can’t we at least have a CEO?”  Ministers hate Paul’s response to this question. We like to see ourselves as important. We also like for you to see us as important. You got to vote on my terms of call a few weeks ago. My salary is the biggest single item in our budget. It would seem that I should be the one wielding the greatest influence and making the tough decisions. I guess there is some truth in that yet Paul has a better way.  Being a bit poetic, Paul uses the human body as an example of how the church functions best. Certainly the eye is important, but is it more important than the hand. If all we were was an eye we would see but never act. Paul states all the parts of the body are called work in harmony to accomplish the mission of Christ. The amazing thing is by involving the whole body, everyone is involved in the work of Christ.
Let’s look at this from a practical standpoint. If the dishwasher isn’t working, do you really want me to try to fix it? If you have to think about that ask my wife how handy I am under the sink. What about the church’s spiritual development. Who is more important to our children, the folks downstairs teaching Sunday School for forty five minutes or my forty five second children’s sermon? I love our kids but some really special stuff is happening during the Sunday School hour.
I have been here for a year and I have witnessed your remarkable witness to each other. I am convinced each one of you has been given a gift, a unique way of sharing and serving Christ. It might be Pat Zerkle’s smile, it might be Mary Lee’s hands on a piano, it might be Pat Frink’s announcements, it might be the way you come to this lectern to read the scripture with such adoration. I’ve witnessed your words of encouragement to each other; I’ve noticed your attentive ears that listen to those who are seldom heard; I am overjoyed by the kindness and empathy that flows from your hearts; I observe the little things each of you do without requiring notice or praise.  These gestures, these acts of compassion, are what make a church healthy.  They are what make a church holy. They are what make God smile.  
Finally….don’t you love it when the minister says finally…. Finally, Paul is helping us to realize that part of being a healthy  church is being able to recognize and celebrate growth within the body of Christ. God, if nothing else, is certainly the deity of the second chance. Sometimes church members can be a lot less forgiving than the God who is continually forgiving us. We only remember the sin and fail to acknowledge the growth. One of my favorite stories is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The musical simply enriched my love for the story. As you are aware the story centers around two people, Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and Javert, a policeman charged with enforcing Valjean’s parole. Through the kindness of a priest, Valjean has a conversion in which he rejects his identity as a thief and embraces a life of serving others. But Javert can only see prisoner 24601. His dogma was, “once a thief, always a thief.” Throughout the story he searches for Valjean, determined to bring 24601 back to prison in order that society will be safe from such a man. And in the end, well you know the end. Are we willing to die to keep another from living?
You know what happens when individuals in a church, God’s vessel of grace, forget the very meaning of forgiveness.  You know what happens when individuals fail to recognize someone who has learned to utilize the gift God has placed on her heart. And we know what happens to a church that chooses to be captured by the pains of yesterday rather than celebrating the opportunities for tomorrow.  Why be Javert when we can celebrate the gifts of Jean Valjean? Paul reminded those folks in Corinth that that nothing destroys a church quicker than suspicion and distrust. Fortunately, each day is a new day, each day a new opportunity to see through the eyes of God.
To quote Lee Barrett, “In Christ, we are a unified body. Our organic oneness is a gift of grace. All we need to do is act on who we already are.”     I could not have said it better.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Happens When the Wine Runs Out?

John 2:1-11

I find it really interesting that in the Gospel of John, the ministry of Jesus begins with a wedding.  And if that were not enough, the centerpiece of the story is Jesus turning water into wine.  I asked a good Baptist friend how this text is received in his circles and Ron shared a quote from the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, “I don’t know if Jesus turned water into wine but I’ve seen Jesus can turn whiskey into food and clothing.”
This is a story of transformation.  It is a story surprising us with the good news that there is always time for God to step into our lives and make something out of nothing.  In John 1 Jesus has just gone through the process of choosing his disciples.  He was ready to hit the road and start his ministry.  Jesus knew he was operating on limited time schedule.  There was no time for parties and social events, but his mother asked that he make an appearance at a local wedding.  We don’t know anything about the bride, groom or family involved.  We only know this was a big deal for Mary.  I can’t imagine Jesus wanting to be there.  He probably thought he would make a quick appearance and then head out to more important things.  How was he to know there was no more important place for him to be?
Can we blame Jesus for his lack of enthusiasm?  Guys don’t really understand the significance of the wedding culture. I once made the mistake of joking I preferred funerals to weddings because there was no counseling afterwards.  I quickly found out one doesn’t make jokes about weddings, especially when there are mothers of potential brides nearby.  Weddings are sacred, and like it or not, guys, particularly guys who have daughters, need to understand this.  It starts early when little Janie buys her first Barbie.  As anyone who has had the Barbie experience knows, the doll is cheap.  It is the accessories that kill you.   First and foremost on the list is the “Wedding Dress”, which comes with or without Ken.  I understand recently Ken was dropped from the Barbie line.  But I bet Barbie still comes with the wedding dress.  To this day I believe the moment Barbie entered the Andrews house, plans were underway for the blessed event.  And we guys don’t get that.  Weddings are just a one day event for us.  But for brides, and especially their mothers, it is the experience of a life time, and nothing better go wrong.
So like it or not, Mary expected Jesus to make more than an appearance.  And then, when the party went south, Mary expected Jesus to intervene.  I suppose the miracle of turning water into wine can be explained as a way to keep the host from being embarrassed.  Wedding parties often went through the night and into the next morning.  The party was over when the wine ran out.  In this case the wine appears to have run dry well before nightfall.  Maybe folks crashed the party, maybe the host was unprepared; the reason hardly seems to matter.  Mary’s friend was about to be embarrassed and Mary knew her son had the ability to save the day.  The question was not, could Jesus turn water into wine.  The question was the timing.  Was this the appropriate time and place for Jesus to reveal himself?
Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned 80 year old Buddhist wrote, “When is it ever inappropriate to bring joy into one’s life?  When is it ever wrong to exhibit compassion?  Joy and compassion give hope.  Where there is hope, there is the possibility of an unimagined transformation.”
Jesus took the advice of his mother.  He had the steward fill some barrels with water and with a wave of his hand, turned them into wine that made the previous offerings pale in comparison.  Of the many miracles Jesus would perform, this was certainly the most insignificant, unless you happened to be the host of the party.  His reputation was saved and the wedding was remembered as a celebration of joy.
Nothing is too small for Jesus.  That seems like such an obvious statement. But the truth is usually we reserve the hand of God for the huge moments in our lives.   Thomas Merton helped me realize how important it is to find God in the small things. As you may or may not know Merton lived the majority of his life in solitude in a monastery in Kentucky.  Before beginning his morning chores he would get up before daylight and spend an hour in prayer.  He was asked if he had a prayer list or a ritual that he followed each morning.  Merton replied, “I pray mostly about nothing.  If God is active in the nothingness of my life, think how involved God will be should something happen.”
I think we make a serious mistake when we only involve God in our moments of crisis.  We remember Jesus best when he resurrects Lazarus, or when he heals the leapers, or when he feeds the 5,000.  But what about those times when Jesus was just walking along the road with his disciples shooting the breeze?  What about those moments that seemed insignificant to the gospel writers?  What about those times when nothing was happening?  Were those moments any less important? 
I want to tell you about an old man I meet a few years ago. His name was Eulan Sinclair.  Eulan was a builder. If you could imagine it, Eulan could build it. Eulan built houses, then he built a town. Everyone in the small town in which he lived knew if you wanted it done right, you went to Eulan. He passed those skills and principles down to his son Jimmy. I can say first hand Jimmy made his father proud. But Eulan had one last lesson to pass on to all of us. Not long after Eulan finally decided to get off the ladder and retire, his beloved wife Mary Lee began to show advanced signs of dementia. It quickly became evident that Eulan could not care for Mary Lee at home and so the family took her to the hospital. Weeks after the move, Mrs. Sinclair had no memory of anyone, including Eulan.  Until she died, this man who had been a leader in the community, a man known and respected by everyone, spent each day sitting in a chair on the second floor of Sampson Memorial Regional Hospital beside the bed of his wife. He would go home at night and come early the next morning. Once there he sit and softly talk to a woman who had no idea who he was. He would occasionally stretch his legs by walking the halls and offering hope to folks he barely knew. He inspired nurses, he inspired doctors and he inspired me. Eulan sat there, for four years, until she died, and then he want home.
A couple of years later, when Eulan died, folks still people marveled that this man who stayed busy his whole life took fours years and basically did nothing. Of course that’s not the truth. Eulan spent those four years doing everything. 
Jesus turning water into wine reminds me that Jesus chooses to sit beside us in what might appear to be our most insignificant moments.  In the regular old routine of life, Jesus is there.  When we grab the paper, eat breakfast, and start our regular daily routine, Jesus is there.  When we plow through a morning and the most significant thing might be thinking about what we will have for lunch, Jesus is there.   When the afternoon is so sublime that our eyes grow a little heavy, Jesus allows us to sleep. When dinner is little more than the leftovers, Jesus remains at the table.  And when we decide to turn in early because the only thing on the TV is reruns, Jesus sets the alarm so that we might repeat the whole process the next morning.   
For some that seems to be a life of sheer boredom. But for those of us who marvel at the example of Eulan Sinclair, we remember, “If God is active in our nothingness, think how involved God will be when truly needed.”
Sip each moment of your life, joyfully. It is wine waiting to be transformed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Like Empty Pitchers to a Fountain Full

Luke 3:15-22

        More often than I like to admit, I have found myself standing before a congregation, holding an infant dressed in her baptismal gown. I am accompanied by an elder I have commandeered for my doctrinal discretion.  The mother and father, whose names I can barely recall, awkwardly stand beside me, glancing out at faces that seem vaguely familiar. Behind them are two beaming grandparents, delighted that an age old tradition is being continued as the “salvation” of their granddaughter nears completion.  Cradling the child in one arm, I speak softly to her, “Little one, once there was a child as fragile as you who came into this world. As he grew it was evident that there was something marvelously different about him.  He told wonderful stories about God.  With the touch of his hand the sick were healed. Everything that he did seemed to be done for someone else. But those that followed him turned away. He was handed over to folks who were jealous of his fame, frightened by power, and intimidated by his humility. They killed him. But his life did not end. God reached into the darkness of death itself and resurrected this man we call Jesus. Through this act,  Christ resides with us today. In life and death we are his. Little child, I know you did not understand a word I have said to you, but this day your parents, and all these folks witnessing your baptism have taken a solemn vow to tell you this story over and over again until you claim it as your own.”
        Then I take the water, that cleansing symbol of God’s amazing grace and allow it to drip down the forehead of the child. It evokes a cry, much to the dismay of the mother. Some where deep in my soul I am praying that the parents are aroused by their child’s discomfort. But I know better, I always know better. After the service a dear friend* sincerely approaches me and says, “How can I be spiritually responsible for a child I have never met and in all probability will never meet again.” This truly is the conundrum of Baptism. Sometimes we perform the sacrament hoping it will convert the parents.
        Before I go any further let me state that I am a great believer in infant baptism. It is a powerful moment, celebrating both our death and resurrection to sin and our faith as a covenant community. In the life of the early church infant baptism became what circumcision had been in Judaism, the sign of inclusion in the covenant community. Because we believe, we promise to teach the child the truths and duties of the Christian faith. We Promise, by prayer and example to bring the child up in the life and worship of the Church. The waters of baptism are not some magical potion to insure the salvation of the child. The waters signify a continuation of a covenant relationship which must be nurtured by those who bring the child to be baptized. It is a holy promise birthed from a holy beginning told in each of the gospel writings. 
        Using Luke as our source, all we know about the baptism of Jesus is he got in line with all the other people.  Who were these folks? Why were they there? Bob Brearley writes, “Jesus got in line with folks who had been broken by the wear and tear of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and God.”
        James Weldon Johnson speaks a bit more poetically.
They came,
hearts beneath their knees,
to that lonesome valley.
They came,
like empty pitchers
to a fountain full.”

What a haunting image, “they came with their hearts beneath their knees.”  You would think living here amidst the beauty of God’s creation, our hearts never quite sink so low.  We all know better than that. No matter how many times we look to hills, no matter how often Crawford Mountain turns gold each morning, no matter how many sunrises or sunsets burn themselves into our collective memories, our hearts are still capable of setting lower. Sometimes life just wears us down. Sometimes the routine of life is less than satisfying. Sometimes a disruption in life breaks our time honored routines leaving us bewildered and weary as our heart sinks beneath our knees.
It shouldn’t surprise us that people flocked to John the Baptist. Folks who are lost are always looking for the next moment of deliverance.  What should surprise us, or amaze us, or at the very least liberate us, is that Jesus got in line with those folks. This is the beginning of any theological premise concerning baptism. Jesus gets in our line. Jesus stands in the midst of our disillusionment, in the midst of our sorrow, in the midst of our desperateness and silently heads toward the water. And we, “like empty pitchers to a fountain full”, follow.
When the folks arrived at the water, they were full of questions. “Who is the Messiah?” “Who will save us?” “Who will lead us?” Then Jesus, surrounded by the sins of the world yet void of any self-inflicted corruption, waded into the water and the answer to their question was revealed even before God affirmed their suspicions. This was the chosen one, the beloved.
How on earth did they know? I have a theory. As many of you have come to understand, unless I am properly caffeinated, I am not the most talkative guy in the room. Sometimes during our after worship social time, much to the chagrin of Nancy Neville, instead of working the crowd, I manage to find a corner where I hide, nibble on a cracker, and observe the wonderful chemistry flowing between you. When I am standing in a line, be it the bank or MacDonald’s I am perfectly happy to be in the midst of strangers. Not everyone is like that. Silence makes some folks very nervous. Ever notice how perfect strangers will reveal their life story despite all our attempts to disengage from the conversation? I have been waiting at Ashley’s to pay for my diet coke and folks I never met share how their day is going. I will join on a perfect stranger on the golf course and by the fourth hole I know more than I want to know about their family. Most people view communication as a good thing.
So imagine what it must have been like to be Jesus. He is standing in line, a line filled with frightened and confused people, and he is there because of their fears. They begin to talk, and he was willing to listen. Here was Jesus, in a line full of sinners, headed for the waters of redemption, and they assumed he was one of them. The closer he got to the water the more he understood why God had sent him, not just to this river but to the world in general. So he entered the water. Jesus literally washed himself in the sins of the world and then the heavens opened up, and miraculously all those empty pitchers were filled.
Now they really did have something to talk about. They had something to share with anyone who has ears to listen. God is with us, in our best moments. God is with us, in our worst moments. God is with us, in every moment in between. Jesus takes our empty, broken, confused souls down to the river and hops in with us. The water that flows down the head of an infant at baptism is that child’s welcome into a community of sinners who celebrate their epiphanies’ by sharing the story of the One who is still willing to stand in line with them.  
        When we welcome a new member into the Church we begin with our baptismal covenant. We tell them our story more than once. We believe in God; Creator, Son, Holy Spirit. We feast at God’s table and grow strong on God’s word. We never give up on each other but always, in what we say and do, proclaim the good news that God has come among us in the flesh. Then we invite the new member to step into the river with Jesus. We invite those empty pitchers to be filled with the grace of God. But it doesn’t end there. We tell and retell this story of grace until they themselves are telling it from memory. So my question becomes, if the parents don’t know the story, who will tell it to their children? If the parents don’t bring the children here to be among the story tellers, how will they hear the story? 
        I believe God’s covenant with us is not based on our actions. This belief is founded in my understanding of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. But God does expect each of us to be tellers of God’s story. We are not called to be dispensers of magic potions. We are called to be messengers of grace.  May we all try harder to meet God’s expectations when together, we meet at the river.            Amen.