Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sermon for September 21, 2014

The Secular World & The Modern Moral Order

When the Pharisees learned that the Sadducees could not argue with Jesus’ answers to them, the Pharisees met together. One Pharisee, who was an expert on the law of Moses, asked Jesus this question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the most important?” Jesus answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” Matthew 22:34-40
In a London school, a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and the student is fascinated by this amazing story. When the teacher concludes the story, risking his friends’ mockery, he raises his hand, and thanks her for the story. One thing disturbs him however, so he asks: “Why did they give the baby a swear–word for his name?”

One Sunday in Oxford, a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative arts project at the church. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks, “What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!”

These stories depict a British culture in which the Christian story is unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms of life don’t intrude on most members of society. A few years ago, neither would have been believable, but today there are numerous signs that the era of Christendom is fading in the West. In his book The Secret Servant, Daniel Silva observes an old stone church in stately Amsterdam. He writes, “It’s a church without faithful in a city without God.” It could be said of many cities in Europe. In Great Britain, only 4 percent of the children are involved in church. If the Church of Scotland continues to shrink at the present rate, it will be extinct in 2033.

But that can’t be the case in America, right? Isn’t he church in America still a thriving centerpiece of our culture?

Actually, all Protestant churches, whether mainline or evangelical, have been in decline since 1955. They all made a small rally in 1974, but have been in slow decline ever since. Over the past ten years, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans Episcopalians, American Baptists and UCCers have lost thousands upon thousands of members. And the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's second largest denomination and a long-time indicator of church growth, reports a national decline in membership for the fourth year in a row. According to the National Council of Churches 2012 yearbook, the direction of membership decline remains very stable. That’s a polite way of saying that churches which have been declining in membership in recent years have continued to decline.

At the same time, Christianity is still the largest worldwide faith practice. People go to church and are transformed by the communities. People connect to God, their neighbor, and their personal faith. Religions live within this dual reality. Churches have always lived in some sort of dual reality – trying to understand how to be faithful in the midst of the dominant culture.

Many of us feel a sense of loss — a grief over what no longer exists and a sense of discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity is unsatisfying. Church programs that once worked are now ineffective. In this time of loss and change, we can feel anxiety, anger, desperation, and a rush for answers or programs or people who will take away our pain and take us back to the time when life was better and easier. We want the one program that will revitalize our church, bring in new members, and put money in the offering plate. We want the denomination to do something. But none of them seem able to do what we want or need.

In terms of the American religious landscape, we can see that many people are pulling away from religions that promote hatred, violence, intolerance, and bigotry. Especially when it comes to Christianity, many people do not want to associate with a religion that is seen as chauvinistic, closed, and superstitious. And the concept of God is actually being questioned by more people. Research shows that more Americans have retreated into our minds and closed ourselves off to belief in a transcendent God. Where once, we may have seen ourselves as part of a seamless cloth, a tight knot social body, we are now becoming just a collection of individuals with individual experiences, individual perceptions, and individual constructions of reality. This means, if we want to make sense of our chaotic, harmful world, less people rely on outside forces like God. Social and political arrangements are no longer givens. There is no God-given social order. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it ourselves.

It’s not just atheists and agnostics who believe this. Some social critics argue that Christians have become disenchanted. Americans worship a scaled-down God and a pre-shrunk religion that can be rejected without consequence. God is just too easy to ignore these days.

Let me highlight two trends to make my case here. Trend number one is the increase of civil religion. Civil Religion says, “There is a God who created the world, looks down on America with a big smile, has blessed us more than any other nation, and thinks our values are one with his values (I’m being intentionally sexist here). The God of civil religion wants to expand our influence around the world, wants us to be good to our friends but helps us defeat our enemies, and expects us to love our country as a way of loving God. Particular to American civil religion is the belief that the highest moral authority is the individual. My personal happiness is the highest good. The good of the individual always trumps the good of the community. President Obama has tried to redefine American civil religion in some ways -- to broaden it. Consider his Second Inaugural address. He called Americans to action.
“Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.” 
President Obama’s public God is a pluralist in step with our times; a personal spirit, the relational presence of inclusion, community, empathy, justice, and service. Civil religion presents a God who can function in the public square to bind Americans together with a larger sense of meaning and purpose.

A second trend is called Moral Therapeutic Deism. The term was invented by sociologists who study the religious commitments of today’s youth. Researchers wondered why most of today’s youth – the so called “Millennials,” in their teens and 20’s – find it so easy to shrug off faith. They identified a religious trend they called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  The belief system goes something like this: There is a God who created the world, looks down on us from heaven with a smile. God wants to bless us, wants us to be good to ourselves and kind to others. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self. God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. The bottom line: feel good, be happy and secure, and know peace by playing nice with other people.

It doesn’t sound bad. That’s the point. It’s actually not just a teenage phenomenon. Moral Therapeutic Deism is preached from some of America’s most popular pulpits. Consider the words of TV preacher Joel Osteen in his book Your Best Life Now:
“You can hold your head up high and walk with confidence knowing that God loves you unconditionally. His love for you is based on what you are, not on what you do. He created you as a unique individual— there has never been, nor will there ever be, another person exactly like you, even if you are a twin— and He sees you as His special masterpiece! … You may feel unqualified, insecure, or overwhelmed by life; you may feel weak, fearful, and insignificant, but God sees you as a victor!” 
Those are all Osteen’s words, including the God-is-a-He language.

I don’t mean to sound too judge-y here. I believe some of this stuff. My point is to raise the question – how did we get here? Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, say, 500 years ago in Western society, while in 2014, many people find this not only easy, but even inescapable?  How did American religion become a faith of humanists? When did we all become such skeptics? We live in an age and time where there is no longer one true faith evident in all times and places. Our religion sometimes feels more like a leisure pursuit than something vital; “You play golf, I go to church. To each his or her own.” Believer and unbeliever are in the same exact predicament. Christian faith is at a loss as we watch the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence. We have lost something and there is no going back to find it.

And I’m just wondering, what’s the point? What’s the point of faith? What’s the point of coming here to worship as often as you do? What’s the point of doing what we do here unless our religion fills us, directs us, and sustains us, and marks us?

Here is the challenge. For all its niceness and politeness, for all its empowerment and self-help inspiration, Moral Therapeutic Deism cannot withstand “shipwreck.” “Shipwreck” is H. Richard Niebuhr’s term for the shattering of self that often happens when life hits the rocks. If the only purpose of religion is to help us feel good and do nice things, then religion is irrelevant when life hits the rocks.  In times of shipwreck, feeling good about ourselves and being nice are unthinkable. If this is all religion is for, then shipwreck naturally convinces us that God is either make-believe or impotent.

So, I’m wondering what it would take for our faith and practice here at Christ Congregational Church to help us and our neighbors explore the boundaries of the religious landscape, especially as feelings of living in a wasteland intensify. What do we really, I mean really, need? Because we are still figuring out how to live a life of faith within this emerging world. How can we navigate these uncertain times and move forward with our story of hope, even in the midst of life’s shipwrecks?

1. We need to focus on experience over intellect. Don’t get me wrong. We still need intellect. But even more than intellect, we continue to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, and to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world. That’s the point of the greatest commandment in Matthew’s Gospel, right? Love God first. Love neighbors second. Less ego and individualism and more honoring the sanctity of every single human being. We realize that if part of our human family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy. Especially when it’s our enemy. Faith practice can thrive when we treat everybody, without exception, with absolute compassionate justice, equity and respect. Churches are relevant when we restore compassion to the center of morality and religion and insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.

2. We need to remember that Christians are not called to avoid suffering. We are actually called to move towards it. When Christian communities embody the rhythmic dying-and-rising cycle of nature, we participate in a process of transformation that leads to new birth. We affirm that Christ does not merely glue our shattered selves back together; Christ makes us new. Resurrection is our defining hope and our persistent song.

3. Most of all, we cannot, we must not, keep doing things just because they are familiar and traditional. It’s not just that the church has changed. Or the culture has changed. The whole context has changed. It is time to open our eyes and see our surroundings with new understanding. Our response to the changing religious scene cannot be to burrow, ostrich-like, into the sand of familiar church culture. It also means we can’t afford to focus on the things that usually take up most of our time. How many times have we focused on complaints?
  • The music in church is too loud or too soft.
  • The preaching is too emotional or too academic.
  • The pastor is too unavailable or too hands-on.
  • The building is too ornate or too bland.
  • The liturgy is too crusty or too unusual.
  • The ethnic mix is too homogenous or too diverse.
  • The mission is to inward-focused or too outward-focused.
  • The congregation is too big or too small.
  • The sermons are too long or… no that’s it – they’re too long.

These times insist that we focus on a different set of questions.
  • How can we do ministry from the center to the margins?
  • What does it mean to me a church of immigrants, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home?
  • Can we renounce privilege in favor of plurality? 
  • Can we be one community among equals?
  • Instead of trying to control society, can we become witnesses once more?
  • Can we tell our story and live out its implications, allowing people to rediscover our transforming faith on their own?
  • Most importantly, what does it mean to move from maintenance to mission, from institution to movement?

This is the place where we can learn about the deep value of love and forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption, the renewal of families and the power of neighborhood organizations. This is the place where we can learn about worship and recognize that something deeper is needed in our life. This is a place where our spirits can be rooted as we experience the relentless stress of a global community. This is the place where we learn to build a sense of community and break down the isolation and polarization of life in D.C. This is the place where we support each other as we experience the demise Christendom and affirm the liberating decision to be a Christian. This is our opportunity to be the church that God intended us to be: the caring, creative, counter-cultural, critical, and Christ-following people who bear witness to new life. If you are ready for adventure, this is a great time to be a member of the church. We face an exciting time that can help our congregational enter into the changing times and the new life that is coming with it.

James K. A. Smith, How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
Harry Kiely & Ira Zepp, One Nation, Many Gods: Confronting the Idols of American Empire

Sunday, September 7, 2014

2014 Summer Sermon Series: Laws for Living

Here are links to this Summer's sermons at CCC, all in one handy place:

Sermon for September 7, 2014

Peacemonger or Peacemaker?
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:15-20
Scott Peck noted that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck called the most common, opening stage of building community “pseudocommunity.” In pseudocommunity, everyone pretends that they really know each other, even though they actually know very little about each other. In pseudocommunity, people assure themselves they have no conflicts. In pseudocommunity, people mind their manners no matter what they might be thinking behind a polite smile. Conversation stays general: “How’ve things been goin’ lately?” “Good, busy. And you?” “Yeah, me too.” Intense opinions aren’t shared publically, but at the “meeting after the meeting” in the parking lot. Pseudocommunity is a bland world of pretense where no one’s feelings get hurt in public. It’s a trade-off: some truth for a shallow peace.  It’s boring, but at least it feels safe.
Peudocommunity is the only stage of development that many communities will know – probably because the way to true community involves some pain. Peck says that the group must travel through chaos and emptiness to reach true community. On the journey, people need to know it’s safe to let go of their manners and blurt out their prejudices, opinions and judgments. It means people need to let go of what is not needed in order to make room for something new.

Matthew 18 is Jesus’ assault on pseudocommunity. Jesus knows that living together in true community means there needs to be conflict. Healthy conflict. Yes, there is such a thing! Healthy conflict is the responsible exploration of our differences. In fact, we can thrive on differences of opinion, differing approaches to life and different ways of thinking. It is possible to learn what makes us different from one another and then recognize how these differences can be used to serve God.
As we think about our core values here at CCC, we affirm that we are a congregation of people who want to listen attentively. We seek others’ opinions and understand that differing values do exist within our church family. We seek to deal with disagreements positively, communicating with others in direct, caring, and responsible ways. The good news for us today is that while disagreements can hurt, disagreements can also bring us together. Remember that next time you are locked in a conflict with someone. Conflict can be healthy.

We have all be taught certain methods of passive conflict resolution. For instance, do you have a problem with someone you know? Does this person have bad manners, bad hygiene, or annoying habits? How about those inconsiderate neighbors with noisy pets? Wouldn’t you love to tell off your tyrant boss without her knowing who did it? There used to be a website called For $5, Sincere Suggestions would send a politely written letter to notify people about their problems while you will remain completely anonymous. The sender would just choose a topic, fill out the information and an anonymous letter would be sent right away.

I don’t recommend this approach, of course. If we have something to say about someone, than we should say it to that person’s face. But some of us were taught that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. So instead of being honest, we find a third person to do the hard work for us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar, or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.” So let’s do everyone a favor. If we have a problem with someone, we deal directly with that person alone. Many of the worst conflicts in churches happen because at some point someone had the opportunity to say, “Can we talk?” to another person, but they didn’t and now things are worse.

In today’s Gospel reading, we get some very practical advice on how to handle it when we think someone in the church sins against us. We should approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and if at all possible, privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to reconsider without losing face – and you have room to save face if the other person points out ways in which your behavior contributes to a negative situation. Jesus encourages quiet conversation between people. It’s not just a prelude to a juicy public drama. The first quality of conflict and communication is to face a person one-on-on without dragging others into the dispute. There may be time to involve others later. However, the initial confrontation is always personal, private, and sincere.

Sometimes we get mixed up and become peacemongers instead of peacemakers. That word – peacemonger – was used by Edwin Friedman who was a Rabbi and therapist in Bethesda.  Friedman said that what often passes for peacemaking is actually peacemongering.  Peacemongers are more concerned about good feelings than progress. They don’t want anyone to be upset. If something causes a person some degree of pain, peacmongers will change plans to try to make everyone happy. Peacemongers have no backbone.  They are not willing to endure pain — either their own or someone else’s.  They just want everyone to feel good. 

For example, suppose a family has decided to go out to eat dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant.  They are together in the car, all of them anticipating a great meal. Then, the six-year-old announces that he does not want to go there.  He wants to go to McDonald’s.  The parents try to reason with him. They explain to him that he can get something good at the Mexican place. The child escalates to energy and has a tantrum, shrieking because he doesn’t want to go to the Mexican place. In an attempt to compromise, the panicked parents say, "Let’s just go to KFC. There is a McDonald’s next door.  We can stop in for a Happy Meal on the way?" Now the entire evening is changed because the parents wanted to avoid the pain of dealing with a screaming child instead of going on to their original destination.

How many times have churches and other organizations altered and changed good things they were doing because a person complained and announced loudly that he or she was unhappy? How many times have we changed plan to feel at peace again? But there really is no peace. Speaking for myself, I resent it. When I modify plans in an attempt to satisfy a few unhappy people, they are usually not pleased with the new plan, either. When I go out of my way to make people happy, those I’m trying to please usually don’t notice it, don’t appreciate it and may actually feel like THEY are the victims. So, accommodating unhappy people does not make them happier. It just gives me a backache.
Peace-mongering does not solve anything. It certainly does not make unhappy people happier. Peace-mongering promotes anxiety. Peacemongering favors pseudocommunity. It rewards false harmony and good feelings over process and honesty.

Peacemakers are different.  Peacemakers love people who might complain, and they work hard to stay connected with people.  But, they do not limit growth because one person does not care for a particular program or project. In other words, Mexican food may not be your favorite. That’s OK. But, this is what we are going to do tonight. Let’s enjoy the evening and make the most of family time even though this is not your favorite place.

Let’s make this very practical. Here are the steps to deal with any conflicts we have here at CCC.

  1. Look at yourself, first. Knowing that mutual forgiveness is the air we breathe, knowing that Christ gives the community the wisdom it needs to interpret Scripture, when someone wrongs us, I first look in the mirror and examine my motivations for wanting another person to change. I need to be in touch with my own brokenness before I ask someone to examine theirs.
  2. Have a one-on-one. Instead of going behind a sister’s or brother’s back and complaining to others of what they have done or said, meet with the other person directly, privately, face to face. If we really intend to heal a relationship without giving a guilt trip, we might start with a simple, “Can we talk?”
  3. Bring mediators. If that private talk doesn’t create a ceasefire, then Jesus advises that two witnesses be brought along for a second meeting. They are extra eyes and ears to help understand what is going on – mediators to help us see various degrees of right and wrong. And if those two or three discern that someone is in the wrong and refuses to make it right, the whole church may be brought in to discern and compassionately appeal for restoration.
  4.  Stay Close. After all this has been tried, if there is no peace, Jesus says the offending sister or brother is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector. Some people interpret this to mean exclusion. Eliminate the offensive person. I don’t like that interpretation. I think it means stay close. It means the church treats people like Jesus treated people – people like Gentiles and tax collectors: giving them food, eating with them, helping their family members, and inviting them to be part of God’s new community of love and justice.
Jesus offers one last promise: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus assures us that whenever we wrestle together with these things, whenever we struggle to determine how to follow community values with gracious love, Jesus will be there.
We humans are always going to be in conflict in some form or another. Our goal is to be peacemakers. Peacemaking is not the absence of conflict. Peacemaking is a way through conflict. Peacemaking is the presence of Christ in our midst. Peacemaking means addressing conflict and injustice actively – not running away from it – using nonviolent methods. So remember, words can hurt and words can heal. Disagreements can tear people apart, or they can help us work together for a shared future. The choice is up to us.


Sermon for August 31, 2014

Laws for Living: #8 Peace with Love
Christ gave each one of us the special gift of grace, showing how generous he is. That is why it says in the Scriptures,
“When he went up to the heights,
    he led a parade of captives,
    and he gave gifts to people.” Psalm 68:18
When it says, “He went up,” what does it mean? It means that he first came down to the earth. So Jesus came down, and he is the same One who went up above all the heaven. Christ did that to fill everything with his presence. And Christ gave gifts to people—he made some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to go and tell the Good News, and some to have the work of caring for and teaching God’s people. Christ gave those gifts to prepare God’s holy people for the work of serving, to make the body of Christ stronger. This work must continue until we are all joined together in the same faith and in the same knowledge of the Son of God. We must become like a mature person, growing until we become like Christ and have his perfection. Then we will no longer be babies. We will not be tossed about like a ship that the waves carry one way and then another. We will not be influenced by every new teaching we hear from people who are trying to fool us. They make plans and try any kind of trick to fool people into following the wrong path. No! Speaking the truth with love, we will grow up in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body depends on Christ, and all the parts of the body are joined and held together. Each part does its own work to make the whole body grow and be strong with love. ~Ephesians 4:7-16
This is how author James Baldwin tells the story:
The joint, as Fats Waller would have said, was jumping. During the last set, the saxophone player took off on a terrific solo.  He was a kid from some insane place like Jersey City or Syracuse, but somewhere along the line he had discovered he could say it with a saxophone.  He stood there, wide legged, filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” and again—“Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?”  The same phrase unbearably, endlessly, and variously repeated with all the force the kid had. The question was terrible and real.  The boy was blowing with his lungs and guts out of his own short past; and somewhere in the past, in gutters or gang fights…in the acrid room, under the smell in the precinct basement, he had received a blow from which he would never recover, and this no one wanted to believe. “Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?”  The men on the stand stayed with him cool and at a little distance, adding and questioning. But each man knew that the boy was blowing for every one of them.
Just admit something. Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”

Yes, I mean you. Me, too. We all walk around with a big sign on our chests that asks, “Love Me?” No one really wants to hear this. It’s embarrassing. It’s humbling. So let’s cut right down to the reality of the matter: however mature we feel, however at home with ourselves we may believe ourselves to be, there is a little kid in us who never quite grew up and who waits for the slightest opportunity to squeeze some praise and acceptance from another person.

Just admit something. Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.” We want to prove ourselves. We want to be recognized. Esteemed. Valued. It’s a perfectly natural and valid desire. We hunger for adoration and need to be sated. We feel rejected and want to be acceptance for the unique and diverse individuals we really are. We want to be seen and heard, treasured and understood. Ultimately we want to be loved.

Admit something. Everyone you see, you say to them "Love me."

Those words actually come from the poet Hafiz. Hafiz was a Persian mystic and poet-seer who was known as “Tongue of the Invisible.” He lived from 1325 –1389. In Islam, hafiz means one who has memorized the entire Qur’an by heart. Throughout his lifetime, the poet Hafiz not only memorized the Qur’an, he also wrote about 5000 poems, which express a seekers longing for union with the divine. He wrote this:
Admit something. Everyone you see, you say to them "Love me."
Of course you do not do this out loud; otherwise, someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon
     in each eye that is always saying ,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
Why is it that we sometimes struggle to acknowledge openly to the people who mean the most to us that we love them? Why do we hold back from letting others know we are happy in their presence, that our lives have more meaning when they are around, that we are better people when we are together? If we are honest with ourselves, we are often unable to love the people in ways we want to. And I’m not just talking about spouses and partners, kids and parents. I also mean the cashier who is taking too much time to ring out customers while chatting with the person in front of you at the checkout line. I also mean the driver who has grabbed the parking spot you were eyeing. I also mean the tech-support assistant in Bombay who doesn’t seem to understand your accent. Why can’t we say what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?

Have you ever noticed the mood of people as you walk down a busy sidewalk? Sometimes people make lots of eye contact and offer friendly smiles. They nod hello. Strangers stop to chat. On other days no one offers eye contact at all. People look closed off and unavailable. I used to wonder what the difference was, why on some days people were open and friendly and other days they were cold and shut off. I finally noticed that my perception depended on me, my mood of the moment. When I felt happy, when I radiated positive energy, people responded in kind. When I closed down myself down, people closed themselves to me.

The poet Hafiz is always singing about love. But he does not mean love that the insecure child inside of us is begging for. That kind of love is need. The kind of love that interests Hafiz is that which can only begin when the wanting ceases. Of course we want to connect to each other – to touch and be touched, to offer and receive affection, to feel the warmth of another. We also want a love that connects beneath the words, beneath the skin, right down to our heart and soul. We want to know the taste of loving and being loved in our very essence.

So, when can we just get to it, and do what Jesus said, and love one another? How can we make peace with love?

Making peace with love has nothing to do with pampering your ego – taking bubble bath, getting a message, or reviewing positive affirmations before bed. I have no problem with any of those things, but they don’t help us make peace with love. The Apostle Paul’s school of thought puts suggests another way: We must become like a mature person, growing until we become like Christ … Speaking the truth with love, we will grow up in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body depends on Christ, and all the parts of the body are joined and held together. Each part does its own work to make the whole body grow and be strong with love. In other words, get in touch with your uniqueness. Celebrate the wonderful person you were created to be. But don’t let it stop there. You and I are not whole until each of us, with our unique gifts and personalities, come together to form an entire body, with Christ as the head. We are not complete without each other.

Now we know a body could never function well if the different parts didn’t like each other, right? In another of his letters, Paul reminds us that the body can’t work if different members go on strike. A physical body isn’t healthy if one part says it doesn’t need the others. The same is true for the body of Christ. We are not whole and healthy until we are unified. That is love.

A broken heart fills the entire body with throbbing loneliness. That’s love. A smile fills up the entire body with happiness. That’s love. One person’s joy makes the entire body ecstatic and another’s pain makes the entire body catch its breath. That’s love. Each one of us is vital to the well-being of the whole. Even when your particular uniqueness and gifts go unseen and unheralded, the whole body would suffer without you.

Love says, “I need your presence in my sorrow. I need your assurance when I am sick. I need your hope when I am discouraged. I need your warmth when the world grows cold. I need us, as members of a body, as a community, to find unity in our good and compassionate God.”               

What is every other eye in this world dying to hear? Can we meet the world’s insistent plea for love with bright orbs in our eyes and full moon language that speaks sweet words of belonging? Imagine, just imagine, what grace it would be, if we were able to mumble through trembling lips, what everyone we meet wants to hear: “You fit. I am not whole without you. I love you.”

Baldwin, James quoted in Creative Brooding by Robert A. Raines.New York: Macmillan, 1966.  48
Housden, Roger. Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Again and Again. New York: Harmony, 2007. 107-117.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

A Journey and a Return After this, the Lord chose 72 more followers. He sent them out in groups of two. He sent them ahead of him int...