For the Common Good sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11   

I spent some time on Friday following one of the heritage walks downtown in the Civil Rights district. If you’ve been downtown at all, you’ve probably passed and read some of those signs that mark significant events and places in Birmingham’s Civil Rights history. Though there are currently four separate march routes that spread across several blocks each, I’ve always read individual signs by happenstance, usually through my car window as I’m stopped at a red light.

I had never followed a whole path before. So Friday – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actual calendar birthday –  I decided to make the time to not only walk through Kelly Ingram Park, but also to trace the route that covers the Selective Shopping campaign, the economic resistance that led to peaceful protest and violent response.

Foot soldiers and firehoses. Pickets and police dogs. Even though we know the history – some of you lived through it – it never ceases to hold new lessons for us. It is a part of who we are and who we will become. It is a part of our context. Walking that whole path brings a vivid sense of our city’s history and of how that continues to shape our journey forward as we seek – or not – common ground and the common good.

This letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians is born of another specific context and it speaks into that context. It’s one of a series of letters – only 2 of which have been preserved – from Paul to a congregation that he had founded some years before. Much of the letter consists of his pastoral responses to their questions.

He’s giving them practical advice about being church together in that time and that place and with those people. Corinth in this era is a big, bustling Greek port city with a diverse population. The people of Corinth were trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the middle of a busy urban area and in the middle of the call of their daily lives. In the hearing of this passage you can probably already begin to imagine how it might apply it to the life of our times.

The conversations we have in this church are always in a specific context too. We are looking at the challenges of finding and getting used to a new pastor. We bring the busy-ness of the past week and the anticipation of the week ahead of us. We come with the awareness of endless political squabbling, bloodshed in both distant lands and here in our own city, water from the tap in Flint, Michigan that has been unsafe to drink for more a YEAR and HALF and somebody’s just now doing something about it. We’ve got the passing from this earthly life of some of our most loved cultural icons. And we come together this night on the eve of the day that asks us to remember the life and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s our context too. This is what we share, our common life.

Paul is trying to help the Corinthians deal with what’s going on in their shared life. The problems we confront today are both similar and different. As I read the passage from Paul and thought about this holiday weekend and all that’s going on in the world, I started thinking about these words of civil rights activist, scholar, friend and biographer of Martin Luther King, a man by the name of Vincent Harding.

Harding describes one of our problems in this way – and it’s a danger that is so concrete in this time in our country – he says “For you know and I know so many people who believe that the comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.”

Often we look at what we CAN’T do. Or if we look at what we can do, we think somehow it’s not good enough. It’s not important enough. WE are not enough. And when we get stuck in that place, we fail to see what we have to give. We get so wrapped up in our shortcomings and self-doubt that we don’t risk sharing our real and needed gifts with one another.

If we can’t be and do everything, we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s safer to do nothing. We might not take the risk of offering ourselves into a society that has been known to shred people body and soul. Or we think if we give of ourselves we’ll give it all up. There won’t be anything left. We don’t have faith that God is at work in the world and that the world can be transformed through God’s abundant love. We don’t have faith that God is at work in us and through us.

What this passage makes clear is that all of our gifts and talents are important – and are needed. Pick the metaphor that works for you: the puzzle comes together when we all put in our pieces; the painting takes its final form only when we each add our brushstrokes; the choir sounds right only when all of our voices join in. That’s a just a start on the metaphors.

But whichever image you hold in mind, Paul is telling us that the church and the world recognize and need our diverse gifts. That’s a joy. And that’s a responsibility. Paul does not – because Jesus does not – give us much space to stay out of everything. We might want to hide.

And to be clear, we’re all allowed a day on the couch or some time spent staring at the TV. If we don’t pace ourselves, it’s going to be hard to keep at it. But our world needs us. Our world needs people to bring the love of God into our common life, for the common good. Because our culture hides our fundamental interdependence from us. We need something beyond ourselves, but we don’t always see it that way.

Hear the words of Dr. King. At Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he preached, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

To create what King calls a person-oriented society, we have to honor and nurture the gifts of ALL people. We must see the beautiful diversity that God has put into this world – diversity among our humanity and among our ecosystems – as our treasure here on earth.

A people-oriented society affirms that there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit;

That there is a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One;

That there is a variety of outcomes, but the same God is working in all of them;

That to EACH PERSON is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Each person. Each. Person. For the common good. Even as we strive to find the courage to share our own gifts in this world, we must also look for the gifts in others.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in following the example of Jesus.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in the active witness of THIS church.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in making Jesus’ love manifest in a world where the dominant cultural narrative going on 50 YEARS after the death of Martin Luther King is STILL one of

commercialism,
racism,
sexism,
ableism,
heterosexism and homophobia, and
hatred of our neighbors disguised as so-called patriotism.

We all know there’s evil. A lot of it resides in our systems and structures, in the ways that they protect the powerful and sacrifice the powerless. And sadly it resides in people. Some people are so damaged by this world that all they can do is spread that pain around. It leeches out of them and separates them from their own humanity and from their capacity to bear witness to our shared humanity.

That, my friends, is what sin looks like. And we live in a world that profits off of sin and death and despair. But the Gospel response to that is not MORE SIN and MORE DEATH and MORE DESPAIR.

The Gospel response to that is life and connection and the use of our own gifts and valuing of the gifts of others. We strive toward a world where no one is an outcast, no one is stranger, right? In the name of Jesus Christ, we seek to heal the wounds of sin, the pain of separation, the damage that we human beings do to one another and to the earth.

We are called in our diversity to make compassion and justice a reality, to create a world where we do not damage the hearts and minds, the souls and bodies, of one another. That is a world in which the love and example of Jesus Christ indeed reigns supreme.

There is work to be done – maybe more work than ever – and that work is the task given by the Gospels to us all. If we listen to Paul, however, we realize that we do not all have to do it the same way. We just have to pick up our God-given gifts and use them to make the love of God manifest in a world that so desperately needs it.

We are NOT working for what theologian Holly Hearon calls “the false peace of the status quo”. We are working together – we MUST work together – for a world where God’s justice and God’s love are made real for each and every soul and for all of Creation. That is the common good.

The world feeds us shallow commodified consumer-oriented relationships. It draws us to mute – or not so mute – idols that will lead us astray. It sparks in us not only the desire to judge one another, even over the most trivial things, but a sense that we are ENTITLED to judge one another, even over the most trivial things.

It teaches us that we NEVER have enough and yet lures us with the promise that that next purchase, that next THING we acquire will fulfill us, will make us content.

True contentment can only come from being

right with God,
right with ourselves, and
right with one another.

There’s no way we can achieve that all the time. But in relationship with God and with one another, we can make that our intention. It can be our compass point.

And when we do this right, we all carry one another all along the way.

We all use whatever gifts we bring, whether it’s the widow’s mite or Mary’s attention or Martha’s hospitality to contribute to the common good.

In this congregation there are healers and there are prophets. We have wisdom in discourse and the word of knowledge among the people here. Among the people here in this room right now. And we got a lot – a LOT – of faith.

In this place, there are community organizers and artists. There are people who build and people who teach and people who feed. There are caregivers and financial stewards. Some of you create safe spaces and others brave spaces. We need both.

In this place, there are people whose work contributes to the well-being of the vulnerable and often marginalized among us – children, the elderly, those with mental illness, the poor, the immigrant, LGBTQ people. There are people who show up and put their shoulders to whatever needs to be done wherever they are, day in and day out.

And it may be that some of y’all have miraculous powers. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Claim your God-given gifts with the humility and confidence that comes of knowing that you are a child of God. Then use them in ways that are small and ways that are large to make this world into a place that honors that of God that dwells within each person.

That is the common good.

We’re not all good at everything – and everything is not all about us, but this church has always been a place where the boundaries of community are porous. We don’t circle up and make a big deal about US and THEM.

The lines between us sitting up here as a church congregation and the world out there – that’s always a thin line here, one that allows us not only to see the pain – and the beauty of the world around us, but to use our gifts for the common good.

Let us do that work.

Amen.

Which Christmas? sermon: Colossians 3:12-17

It’s a pleasure to be here among you this morning and to be working with the words from this epistle.

Colossians is a complicated text in a number of ways, but the Scripture for this week, right here in the heart of Christmas, offers us some really useful words as we look to make sense of where we are in this moment.

And where exactly are we?

Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, that time of hope and expectation, is over.

Christmas the Consumer holiday is over. Now we’re into the After-Christmas sales. I’ve heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus enough times for at least another 11 months. Maybe for twice – or three times or ten times – that long.

Christmas the family holiday is over, for better and for worse. Some people are still fellow-shipping, still traveling, but a lot of folks have begun to make their way home or at least are making preparations to do so.

Christmas the long weekend this year is about over.

BUT

Christmas the Christian observance is still with us, right?

A child was born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the inn. According to the Christian calendar, this is the Christmas season. The good news is made manifest among us. Jesus is born into the world. That event happened on Christmas Day and because of that, as this Scripture holds before us, the Word of Christ, rich as it is, can dwell in us.

It’s a moment of opportunity, yet it’s all too easy in the busy-ness of the season to let this moment of opportunity slip by us.  The great poet WH Auden puts the risk to us this way:

Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

That’s the risk of the present moment.

Do we contain Christmas too much?
Do we make it into a single moment defined by our human standards of a holiday?
Do we make it about the presents that come in boxes instead of the presence of Jesus in our world?
Do we skip too quickly to the next thing?

We don’t have to. The Christian calendar gives us 12 days.  Christmas lasts until we mark the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Here in the United States we have often failed to pay attention to that. But in doing so we missed something important and I’m glad to reclaim it.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world in the form of a migrant baby.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as a helpless infant in a time of empire.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as an embodied rejection of our material concepts of power and privilege.

This is the good news, the Christmas Spirit, the mystery –  this improbable reality that the prince of peace was born in a stable.

It takes more than a morning crowded with wrapping paper and excitement and ham to figure out what that good news means for the essential question of how I am to live? And how are we to live together? We need some time – and we need it each year because the quiet steady voice of God is easily drowned out by the noise of our culture.

The 12 days of Christmas give us that chance, that opportunity to take this transformative moment and put it to work in us.

We’re on day 3. Can I interest anyone in some French hens? That’s where the song comes from, right?

Okay, maybe those are hard to come by in Birmingham, but we can still find gifts of this day and of the remaining days of Christmas. We can work on this question of how to live Christmas.

The period of Christmas takes us from 2015 into 2016. It binds the old calendar year with the new.

And how does it carry us forward?  What can help us to mark this ongoing Christmas season in our own lives, this sacred time?

The text today provides useful instruction. In a passage that precedes our text, we hear these words:

What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator.

For the month of December, we had our Christmas sweaters, didn’t we? Reindeer socks and Santa hats.  Maybe you go for the garish or maybe you have that one item that fits perfectly and feels so good. One look at it when you pull it out of storage reminds you of all the season has to offer, so that when you put it on, it fills you with delight.

But now that we’ve left those other Christmas’s behind, we start to pack those clothes away. The passage from Colossians we read today tells what we could wear for the rest of Christmas. Hear it again – clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together.

How’s that for a Christmas outfit? Think about wearing these things. You get out of the bed and – because of Jesus’s presence in this world and in your life, you put on heartfelt compassion. You put on kindness. You put on humility and gentleness and patience.

What if that were to be our uniform as Christians? Every single day. When you wear something it touches you all the time. You feel it. It goes with you all day long. It’s a part of your identity.  It’s a visible marker of who you are.

These days I have to get up each morning and figure out if it’s going to be 35 or 75 degrees on any given day. You know what I mean, right? And then I’ll get the right clothes out.

But no matter what the weather is outside, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whether you are going to the grocery store or to a book club meeting, if you’re going to work or to a wedding – you can clothe yourself in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and love. No matter what.

It’s important to say this – that doesn’t mean we let people run all over us. But it means:
if you speak truth to power, you do so from a place of love;
if you call out the meanness of the world, you do so with humility and kindness;
when you face the community-breaking miseries of institutional racism and structural poverty and ingrained homophobia and ableism, you confront them clothed in the wisdom and peace that comes from knowing Jesus in your life. We are called to instruct and admonish one another wisely.

If we keep working with that Scripture, we learn more. We hear the call to forgive and to dedicate ourselves to gratitude, the call to sing joyfully to God and to let peace reign in our hearts. This takes practice. This is active work and often difficult work.

But if we make it our practice, if we make it the work of this moment, if we use this time of Christmas to focus on these disciplines, we begin to live into the sacredness of time – not just at Christmas, but all the time.

Jesus Christ was born into a world of fear and poverty and great distance between the powerful and the powerless. Does that sound familiar? And furthermore we live in a world of feuds and fights, of death and destruction, of shootings and storms.

I don’t know about you, but on Christmas night I was wondering if somebody pulled up the wrong story. It wasn’t supposed to be the Ark story. This was supposed to be about Jesus, not Noah.  But we are not in control all the time, are we? That’s part of the stark reality of living as human beings.

There are so many things that are out of our control.
But how I treat someone else is in my control.
How we treat one another is in our control.
How we live our time as sacred time is in our control.

So which Christmas do we carry forward? We remember the joys – and the limitations – of the consumer Christmas. We treasure the moments of the holiday celebrations with friends and family and church family. And in these 12 days of Christmas – the heart of the Christian observance:

let us put aside our old selves and live new in Christ
let us clothe ourselves in heartfelt compassion and love
let us forgive
let us allow peace to reign in our hearts
let us dedicate ourselves to gratitude
let us permit the rich word of Christ to dwell in us
let us sing joyfully to God

and whatever we do as we go about our daily routines, let us remember that we are formed in the image of God – and so is everyone around us. Jesus was born among us. Let us each carry that good news into the new day.

 

Trinity Sunday sermon: Romans 5:1-5

The very first sermon I preached, which I just came across in some papers –

I want to talk about this passage from Romans and I want to talk about today being Trinity Sunday — we’re going to see if we can tie these in together a bit.

I’ve been known to start in the middle of things and that’s what we’re going to do here. Right here in the middle of these words from Paul’s letter to the people of the early church in Rome, where the going was rough at the time.   Let’s go back over it – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – which does not disappoint

That sequence sounds pretty good – but does it always work that way? It it inevitable that we move from suffering to endurance to character to hope?  I’m thinking it’s more of a choice as to whether it goes that way or whether we get stuck somewhere.

As I look around this room, I see lots of people who have suffered. I don’t even know all y’all that well, but I know every single one of you has faced some sort of suffering in your life. I’m a pretty fortunate person myself, but I know I’ve suffered. Everybody suffers – black/white, rich/poor (yep, odd as it seems, I’ve known some incredibly miserable rich people), young/old, gay/straight, single/married, Democrat/Republican. Sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes the causes are completely out of our hands. Regardless, it’s suffering.

Now remember where we are going. Suffering leads to endurance, right? Except sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. It just feels like suffering.

But if we are to believe this – and let’s hold onto it for now – then from suffering, we learn endurance. Let’s talk about endurance. You hear about people running marathons and such. They call these endurance events. They are not sprints. They are the long haul — and it takes all the strength you can muster. Endurance like this is not passive. It takes fortitude. It takes all your strength.

So our suffering can produce endurance. We can get stuck in suffering.  Or we can get stronger. Life is an endurance event. We find our strength. We know suffering, but we also know how to endure.

And where do we go from there: suffering produces endurance produces character.

Now that’s an interesting turn. Character’s where we stop looking inward so much and start looking out. Specifically we start look out for one another. If we make that step, we become people who don’t just think about our own selves. Character means we take that strength and we share it.

Then what comes next – anybody remember – say it with me – suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope.

Let’s start in on hope by making a distinction. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. We can thank the philosopher brother Cornell West for speaking of this distinction. Optimism is this belief that everything is getting better. Well, we all know this world look mighty bleak a whole lot of the time. All we have to do is look around – look near, look far. Whew. Hard to be optimistic when you see all that suffering.

But hope is BIG. Hope takes us out of all that bleakness and opens us to the possibilities for grace, no matter what happens or is going to happen. Those graces may be big or they may be small, but one thing is that they are there. Our job is to be open to them.

So suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope.

But HOW do we do that? How do we go through all these things and not get STUCK along the way? How do we actually get from suffering to hope?

Well, today – this Sunday – reminds us of how that works. For that we skip from the middle of our scripture passage to its beginning and its end:  from the beginning – “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

And from the end – “ God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – that has been given to us.”

So we’ve got God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That works well for today, Trinity Sunday: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, right? Or some may prefer God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.

That’s going to be our how. But this concept of the Trinity can be a tough thing to get your head around. The notion of God in 3 persons confuses many a believer and many a non-believer.

The very first semester of my freshman year at college, I heard that a world famous theologian was going to teach a class. He was visiting from Germany, a renegade Catholic by the name of Hans Kung. He’d written several books about this thick. Well, I was a history major, but here I am in my first semester of college and I figure I better not miss the opportunity to take his class.

I’d never actually heard of him, but the student newspaper said he was famous, so I sat in a big lecture hall with a whole bunch of other students for a class that met on Monday nights all semester long. Three hours each class. He had this serious German accent. They put him in the fanciest lecture hall on the campus — in the business school. The seats were really comfy.  I had classes all day long on Monday, so by Monday night I was about ready for a nap. So . . . I don’t actually remember a lot about what he said in that class.

But — although this was more than 20 years ago, I still remember the time Dr. Kung talked about the Trinity. He said — true words — that it is a tough concept — and one that his friends from other religions really struggled to grasp. So he had decided that the best way to explain it was this:

God the Father, the Creator, is God above us.
God the Son, Jesus, is God beside us.
God the Holy Spirit – we were just talking about the Holy Spirit with Pentecost last week – is God within us.

So God above us, God beside us, God within us.

That, I’ll argue, that kind of presence – that’s how we CAN go – if we choose – from suffering to endurance to character to hope.

From God above us, we get a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. That comes to us in a lot of places. For me, it’s often outdoors, out in the woods. It can be when we hear music. We sure know how that works in this congregation. It might be standing on your front steps or in the library or in the grocery store. It can happen anywhere when we know we are in the presence of God.

For God beside us – we think about the real presence of Jesus, who walked here on earth and who walks with us through each day. We see God embodied in the presence of the people around us – in what Jesus calls the least of these and in the faces of the people we know and, though it’s hard, in the people we want to cuss out in traffic. In everybody we encounter. God is in every single one of them, beside us every day. So we find God among the people around us, even when it’s hard.

Now God within us – the Holy Spirit breathes life into every one of us, every single day. The Quakers are especially good at reminding us of this. They say that there is that of God in every person. So God is in us. So with this knowledge – that God is within you, all the time, in the Holy Spirit – even when you are emptied out by suffering, let that Spirit fill you.

And from these things – God above you, God beside you, God within you – you can know that HOPE that St. Paul is talking about. Hopping back into the middle of that passage for just a moment – then we HAVE ACCESS TO THAT GRACE IN WHICH WE STAND. Don’t miss that line. We stand in hope and in grace. God above, God beside, God within.

Amen.

Show It By Your Good Life sermon: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you?
That’s quite a question. No pressure, right?

Who is wise and understanding among you?

James’s letter is quite the fierce treatise. James is interested more interested in conduct than in doctrine, in how we behave toward one another more than what we profess to believe.

Faith is demonstrated by action.

These passages we’ve read tonight are a continuation of ongoing reading that Christians around the world are doing from the book of James. James wrote his letter in an ancient world to long ago Christians, but I’ll argue that James’ message without question speaks into the circumstances of our lives today.

One theme that’s clear in this letter is that that our words can get us into trouble. Anybody know something about that? Anybody out there NOT ever have their words get them into trouble?

That too often we curse rather than bless. That’s from earlier in this third chapter.

And James would also tell us that too often we live out a LIFE that curses rather than blesses.

We hear the temptations in this passage here – we’re tempted to bitter envy, boasting, selfish ambition, falseness. Partiality and hypocrisy. Murder.

There’s lots of ways to murder things. This could be pretty literal, but we also crush the life out of all sorts of hopes and dreams and ideas and sparks of goodness and creativity all the time. This doesn’t have to be just those folks who actually pull out a gun or a knife. Dispute and conflict. It’s all around us. It’s within us.

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show it by your good life.
So what does a good life look like?

In looking to answer this question, I’ll suggest tonight that we can take the words of James on three useful levels – or at least three useful levels and we’ll talk about 3 of them tonight – our relationships with others, our relationship with the society around us, and our relationship with our very own self. That’s one thing I think we can learn from James and his fierce call.

‘You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.’
We covet money or power or some balm to our ego. Our culture teaches us to always want more.

To never be satisfied.
To want shiny new things.
To want the last word.
To want things our way.
To aim to have it all.

And since I want it all and you want it all and Ed wants it all and Joyce wants it all – well, we might just have to have words. And once I start having some words with Ed, it might get a little ugly. And I might lose but then I’ll try again. And I might win. And then when I win, I might feel quite pleased with myself and my rightness and my righteousness. I might do a happy dance when I get my way.

And the thing here – is that even if I happened to be right, even if I happen to be reaching beyond the shallow and the material and I am actually right, RIGHT in big capital letters, if I am up in your face and proud of myself for it, that’s sounding awfully earthly.

That’s not sounding like the fruits of the spirit. That’s not sounding like what God teaches us.

If I am treating you like an object for me to pour my whole bucket of pride at being right over, James is telling me I’m doing something wrong.

We can tell it like it is.
We can speak truth to one another.
But how we do it matters as much as what we say and do.

It’s like me hollering at my daughter – now this a total hypothetical, of course —
“KID, why are you so GRUMPY?!! Just CUT IT OUT AND be NICE, OKAY???
Just a hypothetical, right?? Doesn’t work so well though, let me tell you.

James reminds us of the gentleness born of wisdom. There’s never a call not to speak the truth, not to set boundaries, not to hold people accountable. Truth, boundaries, accountability. Those are important. But HOW we treat one another – the words we choose, the ways we engage with one another, the compassion we show – whether it’s to the people you live with or the people you work with or the people you go to church with or the people you pass by at Walmart or the people you talk to on Facebook.

James points us toward a higher standard of relationality. To words and deeds that are worthy of one another and of our call as Christians.

The second place we see this is in our relationship to our whole culture and society. I think we have to be careful as we hear the call to be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, and good fruits.

This is not a call to simply be perpetually sunny, blissful and joyous and utterly oblivious to all of the problems in the world. I mean, do we think James is instructing us to just kick back and bliss out in kindness while the powers and principalities of this world arrest brown children for bringing clocks to school?

Are we feeling peaceable while loving couples are denied their legal right to marry by someone who claims to speak for OUR faith?

Are we willing to yield to those who mine tar sands and dump slag into waterways and protect their fossil fuel profits in the short run while ignoring the desperate need of billions of people for climate security, for basic clean water, shelter, food, and medical care?

Our actions give life to our faith.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

Being peaceable doesn’t mean we don’t speak truth to power. It means we act from a heart of love, a soul of faith, and a brain that helps us discern the difference between the culture-driven, ego-fed motivations of bitter envy and selfish ambition, discern the difference between those things and the vision of God’s justice and mercy and love.

So we speak into the public sphere. James is big on the accountability of the rich. He has fierce words for those who care only for themselves and their own pleasures and not the needs of the community.

And we speak into that space in our own time. As Christians, we must add our voices to amplify the call from those at the margins, whether they are Black, Brown, transgender, refugee, disabled, old, poor, gay, Muslim. If we speak neither with our actions, nor with our words, we fail to be the DOERS of the word that James calls us on behalf of God to be.

But – and here’s the key –

We must not seek conflict for its own sake.
We must not take pride in our righteousness.
We must not rejoice in our disputatiousness.
We must not glory and gloat or be ugly and mean.

We need to see God in all that we do.
We need to hear God in all that we do.
We need to take our God filter and let our words and our deeds flow through that filter out into the world.

This is every day. Daily life. The world around us. All that we do and all that we are. Our words and our deeds give life to our faith.

And how do we do it?

Who is wise and understanding among you?
A
nd how in the world did they get that way?

Ultimately – and now this is where if you were my Grandmama taking notes on the back of your church bulletin, this would be number 3 – these teachings give us an aspiration for ourselves. This is about how we ourselves are formed and what we have inside us.

My friends, we make that way by walking it. We can’t think ourselves into it. We have to do it.

It is about the practice of it on a daily basis, so that we are ever in the becoming. Our actions give life to our faith.

We will be known by our fruits. We will be recognized by our behavior. This happens in the life of the everyday. James holds before us patience, kindness, wisdom, and prayer.

We speak this into being. We turn toward the light of the Holy Spirit. Submit yourself therefore to God. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

This is active. This is real. We are moving. This is not words that we speak and sing HERE and leave behind for next week. If you remember it – and remembered to put it on in the first place – as you leave here, you unclip your nametag and leave it behind. That is NOT what we do with our faith. We are called to live it out every day.

What we are nurturing is that connection to God right inside of us.

So we can understand this demand from James into right relationship with others, right relationship with our society and culture, and right relationship with our own spirits. Honesty, joy, authentic expression, humor, beauty, the fullness of mercy, gentleness. If we practice our faith, if we walk that walk, and we talk that talk – even when it’s so hard – we will continue to come into right relationship with ourselves.

Loving God and loving justice does not mean that we will not be angry. In fact, we’ll probably be angry a lot. But there’s a difference between being angry – even rightfully angry – and speaking from a place of anger. We can be angry – at everything from the bill collector to Donald Trump to traffic to the horrific patterns of violence in our world.

This, however, is where I think James’ words are so valuable – on a personal, human, trying to live everyday level – what does it mean if we accept that anger, but don’t speak from it? Can we acknowledge that as Christians we are called to speak from a place of love and mercy and gentleness?

So we know the anger and the frustration, but before we open our mouths to speak and move our bodies to act, we feel the presence of God in our lives and in our bodies. We live that faith – so that when we open our mouths and move our hands and feet, we speak wisdom and understanding. We speak from a deep well of faith-born kindness, wisdom, and grace.

According to James, there is no separation between faith and practice. It is our actions that give life to our faith. The words we speak, the way we interact with one another, the choices we make, and motivations we bring.

THAT is who is wise and understanding. THAT is how we can live and speak a blessing rather than a curse.

Blueberries and the Love of God sermon: Romans 8:26-39

So I said last week that we would be taking on these passages from Romans as sort of a 2-part endeavor. We left off with a call for living in hope – a holy sort of hope that’s not dependent on our being optimistic about the state of our world

Which is a good thing, right? Because it’s not like this week has been a whole lot brighter. We’ve still got those things I mentioned by name last week – children fleeing violence in their Central American communities, bombs killing civilians in Palestine and Israel, grieving families and a stunned world coping with the Malaysian plane’s downing – and this week we add in some other air disasters and plenty of other ongoing wars and those specific seering things in our own lives. Those are still with us.

But even when we can’t put our burdens or our blessings into words, we’re still called to that hope in God, through God.

So that’s where left off last week here in the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the people of Rome. We’re going to pick up from there.

We’re going to get there first by way of a story.

I love blueberries. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate so many that it’s  amazing that she didn’t come out with a blue tinge to her. I can eat them by the handful and then another handful. Well, last week I took the kiddo to camp –  up in the mountains there is a sign we’ve passed over the years. A pick your own blueberries place. I noticed it again as we drove up. After I dropped her off, I had some time. The weather was cool and cloudy, which is good and rare blueberry picking weather. It was a weekday, so I figured it wouldn’t be too crowded. Enh, why not stop?

Now it had been raining – that’s an important point in the story. It had rained pretty hard for a bit. That was actually good for me. I had one of the dogs with me, so having it cool & cloudy, post-rain, meant I didn’t have to worry about her staying in the car. It’s hard to pick blueberries and hold a dog leash at the same time.

The sign said it was ¾ of a mile off the main road, so I went  bumping down this deeply rutted, muddy dirt road. ¾ mile is a pretty good ways on a bad road, but I finally got there without losing my oil pan. I pulled in as some other folks were leaving. They cautioned me about the chiggers. I’ve learned to keep bug spray with me so I was good there.

The place had an old shack with gallon jugs sitting out, a box where you could drop in your money. $8.00 gallon. I left $10. I figured I’d eat at least $2.00 worth while I was picking –  and long row after long row of blueberry bushes. Are you with me? Can you see it?

I walked in a couple of rows. Lots of folks only go that far, I figured those would be picked over). And I started picking — up, straight ahead. And then – then I looked down at the ground. And I saw there were all kind of blueberries on the ground. A few were rotten, but most of them were perfectly good – and in fact, perfectly ripe. They’d mostly been knocked off by that hard rain that had just passed through. So there were all these wonderful blueberries down on the ground where they were going to go to waste. We had blueberries up high and blueberries down low. But these blueberries on the ground, they would get overlooked, stepped on, squished. By everybody who comes along and just looks up and right in front of them. They were going to go to waste. And that was a shame.

Now some of y’all might have figured out where I’m going with this. We have a culture where a lot of people end up on the ground. Our society treats a lot of people as disposable. This is especially true of folks in certain categories – this came up last week too, some of this living by the ways of the world, the ways of the flesh. IF you are poor. If you are black or brown. If you are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer. If you have a disability. If you are old or if you are a child. If you don’t speak English. If you are a woman. If you are any of those things or several of those things, you have a greater chance of being considered disposable by the world that runs on money and power and imposes its definitions of what’s considered preferable.

Plenty of people knocked to the ground. Overlooked. Without value. Disposable.

Now if that’s where you were thinking I was going with this, you’re right. And you’d be right to guess that I knelt down and picked up a bunch of those blueberries there on the ground – and felt a little self-righteous about doing so.

But there’s a little more and it’s important.

What I discovered as I picked blueberries off the bushes was that if I wasn’t careful, I would knock some other berries off too – knock them right down to the ground.

And it got even worse.  I noticed that even when I WAS careful, I still ended up knocking some down.

It’s easy for me to be a part of the problem too.

So here we are – called to a holy sort of hope in a world that treats a whole bunch of people (people like some of us in this room) as disposable – in a world of war and pain and cruelty. In a world of famine and peril and persecution. In a world of the sword.

It’s the way things are done. We have all of this against us. All of this done through us. At times done in our name and by our own hand.  If God is for us, who is against us?  Paul asks. The fact is that our own material world works against us all the time. The ways of the world even make us work against ourselves and our brothers and sisters in life. I knocked some of those blueberries to the ground myself, didn’t I?

And then Paul says: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. And I say really? Really? I mean really? All things work together for the good? Really?

Somehow we have to get from there to here – from discarded people –  from good fruit of the spirit, good fruit of MANY spirits that’s left overlooked, disposable, discarded and we have to go from there to ‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’

That’s our holy hope – that IS where we are going to end up. But let’s figure out how to get there – because we all need to get there together.

We understand what our culture teaches us – the way of the flesh, a path of death, a path of trampling on others – and often getting trampled on ourselves. A path of failing to see the richness of the folks on the ground.

But here is literally our saving grace – God is for us. God. IS. FOR. US. God wants us to live out God’s path of love, which we SEE INCARNATE in life of Jesus – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, — Paul is pure poet here — nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is counter-cultural. It is not the way of the world. It is not easy. But, Paul says, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  We have help – and love – even when we don’t have words.

I barely even have to preach this – PAUL preaches it himself.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are being accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, — Paul says No — in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

So nothing separates us from the love of God. That love is all over that blueberry patch. Right at eye level, way on up high, right down at the knees, and definitely, surely, certainly, there on the ground. It is a single, constant, never-fading, never-ebbing love.

It is there for us, not just for us to take – but to let flow through us. Nothing can separate us from it. But we have to let ourselves see it. We have to feel it for ourselves. And then we are called to share it.

Let’s talk about this notion of calling for a moment. We’ve got those who are called according to God’s purpose.

Brothers and sisters, we are all called. Every one of us. We are called to live in this love. To be more than a conqueror – there are plenty of conquerors in this world of ours. God wants us to transcend the conqueror goal and reach for something better.

The specifics may vary, but each and every one of us has a call. We are called to dwell in the spirit of God’s love. We are all called to walk in the path of Jesus, however that makes itself manifest in our own lives.

When we live that out, when we take that idea deep inside ourselves and we let God work in us and through us, then we are participating in all things working together for the good.

It will not necessarily be easy – it can be difficult to swim against the culture of the death of the spirit. God may justify us, God may call us in a spirit of adoption, but God didn’t exactly make it easy for Jesus, now did he? – he did not withhold his own Son. We may not have to follow that call into death, like Jesus did or thousands of early century Christians did, but we can expect some challenges along the way.

But none of that, none of those challenges, none of it can separate us from the love of God. There’s the hope. There is the goodness.

Before we are done, let’s make sure we’ve got it.

There’s a passage we read last week, chapter 8 verses 24-25. – Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We come back to this place of hope, this place where we hope for things unseen. And you know what? I CAN’T SEE how all things are going to come together for the good. Talk about unseen. . . But hope that is seen is not hope, right? Things that are proven don’t require faith. So I can live in the certainty of cynicism – there is plenty of visible evidence to support that assessment . I can be persuaded by the voices of death in our culture that it’s okay to treat people as disposable. I can give up on goodness.

Or I can tap into God’s ever-present, ever-abiding love, that love from which we cannot be separated. God calls us there. God calls us to be so infused with that love that we believe, even though we can’t see it, that all things will come together for the good.

And here’s the thing – we have no way to know. People live and die each day, people get stepped on and crushed by the ways of the world. It can be pretty awful to witness and worse to live through. But I can promise you this. If you pattern your life after that love, suffused with wisdom as you pick it up along the way, your spirit will experience that goodness. I’m not talking about heaven. I’m talking about here.

That spirit, that goodness is God within each of us. There will be rough moments, but if you live in and through God’s love – which is accessible to us all – then you. will. experience. God’s. goodness. The ways of the world — the troubles and the travails — they will not vanish. But You will know God’s goodness within yourself, no matter what is going on in the world around you.

God does not waste anything or anyone. God engages what is best in our spirits. No matter what, you will have that. No matter what, you can live in the fullness of responding to God’s call. And. that.is.good.

More Than Skin Deep sermon: Romans 8:12-25

There are multiple sermons in this text — and they can’t all be preached at once, so tonight I will focus on the parts that have been speaking to me. We will leave the rest for another time.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

WHAT THIS IS NOT ABOUT — this is not about hating our bodies. That is not what’s going on here. Back in the time of the early church, there was a thing called Gnosticism. Now Gnosticism separated out the soul and the body and said the body was evil. It made this dual way of looking at things where one was good and one was bad This is not about rejecting our bodies.

If God intended for us just to be spirits or souls, what’s the point of even having a body? No, our bodies are our home for fully engaging the world.  We are here to literally embody God’s love.

There’s a whole lot more to talk about on that topic, but it’s not really quite the point here. But it’s so important that I didn’t want to not take on the topic just for a minute.

So what is it saying, this part about the flesh?

Well, what is flesh? We think skin, right? This is our flesh.

You know the expression skin-deep? shallow, skimming the surface. Below the flesh, we have muscles for movement, bones for support..

That’s what we are supposed to avoid — living skin-deep. Just touching the world in the most shallow way, where in a good rain or a shower it’ll just all wash away. We don’t want to just live skin-deep. We’re looking deep, into muscle and bone. It’s how our spirit moves. That’s what muscles do, right? It how we support our spirit, right? That’s what bones do.

thin-skinned
skinflint
light-skinned
thick-skinned
having skin in the game

To live according to the flesh is to live a superficial life, a life of of rebelling against God’s call to go deeper. It’s reveling ONLY in the human condition. That is not enough. We have to go deep into God’s spirit and into our own.

Okay, so let’s keep going . . .

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

A SPIRIT OF ADOPTION — that sounds pretty cool. God CHOOSES us to be GOD’s children. CHOSEN. I am chosen. You are chosen. You are chosen. Every one of us — every one of God’s precious children. Not enslavement, but being born into the family of God. Being born into the body of God.

So, in this spirit of adoption → we are heirs of the divine. ALL of us. We are ALL heirs of the divine. All of us. That means we are all (ALL) brothers and sisters. ALL of us.  Doesn’t matter your

age
skin color
national origin
sexual orientation
ability status
economic status
or even your religion
ALL.

Heirs of the divine.
Fellow children of God.

So when we keep Central American children in cages on the border, we are caging our brothers and sisters. The 50 children or teenagers die or are injured in gun violence in this country EVERY DAY are our brothers and sisters.

We are all heirs. Everyone of us. Now we are not all exactly the same. You noticed that, right? Some folks are taller than others. Some are blacker or browner. Some are better at math. We speak different languages, have different cultures. It’s beautiful. I’m an only child, but all I have to do is look around to know that brothers and sisters are not all identical twins. We’re different, but we have all received the same spirit of adoption.

You know, Paul doesn’t even know the people he’s writing too for the most part. He’s never been to Rome. These folks are strangers to him. He is preaching a grace that transcends our immediate circles, that transcends our man-made borders. Romans preaches an impartial God, a God of all. A God who values all. And calls us to live our lives deep in the body of Christ. In the muscle. In the bone. Not just skin deep. We’re talking deep down.

Okay, what else we got?

I consider that the sufferings of all of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that while the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is in a state of eager longing — in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. We see that bondage all the time – in the earth. And we see here the connection between us and all of creation.

Glory.

Even when we don’t have words:  groaning.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Hope and patience.

In a week where 268 Palestinians and 2 Israelis were killed as Israel and Hamas pounded each other, where 298 died in violent flames when the Malaysian airliner was shot down, where anti-immigration rallies wanted to ‘Make Them Listen’, where whatever difficulties arose in your own lives — because there isn’t a soul in this room that doesn’t have some troubles of their own – and they can range from minuscule to mountainous. This is what we see around us.

The professor and prophet Cornell West reminds us that there is a difference between hope and optimism. There are many, many reasons that we may not feel optimistic about the state of the world – or even about our own lives.

But that must not rob us of hope. That hope is what we have all been called to live into. We let it sit deep inside of us. We have to know the hope of the path of Jesus in our blood and in our marrow. Because if we just let it sit on the surface of our skin, all that mess of the world will wash it away.

And when we pattern our lives after Jesus, we have access to that hope. We can have it our bones – our bones that hold us up. We can have it in our muscles – in what moves us. We can have it in the blood that flows all through our bodies. We can embody hope for a world that so desperately needs it.

That kind of hope is holy.

Insider/Outsider sermon: Philippians 3: 4-14

So here we have the apostle Paul in a really interesting letter. The people of Philippi are Roman citizens. They’re Gentiles. They’ve been supportive of Paul. And for the most part this is a pretty happy letter.

Now Paul can be rather irritable in some of the Epistles. Like in Galatians, he’s flat out angry. But in this letter, there’s a fair amount of talk of joy. He’s examining how we create a community where people gather in faith to equip themselves to live out this incredible message of Jesus, this vision of justice that Jesus embodied.

Paul’s in jail while he’s writing this letter. This is years after the death of Jesus, whom Paul never actually knew. Christianity has spread among small communities of people and Paul is giving them counsel. He actually sees the potential for good to come out of the whole situation because the word is spreading about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Paul has hope. He is in the empire’s jail, but in his own fashion, he has hope. He’s always improvising. Not a big doctrine guy. He deals with the problems of the moment, in the greater service of the promise of Jesus message.

When we get to these passages, however, Paul does give voice to some frustration. We don’t know exactly what’s been going on, but it sounds like some people have been imposing conditions on participation in the vision of Jesus.

They’re saying you have to do this to be sacred to be a part of the group- it probably has somehow to do with circumcision and other elements of traditional law. Paul is frustrated because here they are, missing the point.

They are taking their eyes off of what’s important – making manifest Jesus’ dramatic justice – and worrying about who belongs.

Isn’t that what we so often do? Wherever we have a community, we have some people who are going to create boundaries, right?

You belong.

You don’t.

And you???

Well, we know there’s something ain’t right about you.

Jump through this hoop. Hmmm . . . . Insider. Outsider.

(I do have to say – this church does a mighty good job of avoiding that – maybe better than anywhere else that I’ve ever been a part of. But even we have to watch ourselves about it. And we sure all have to watch it when we get back out there in the world).

So here’s Paul — If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

He’s listing his credentials here – his qualifications to be counted for insider status. From his past life, before he fell out on the Damascus Road and found Jesus. He’s got all the right stuff. Listen at all this again:

circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

His. resume. is. tight. Flawless according to the ways of the world – the flesh, the culture, the law. You got a condition. Paul can meet it.

But then –

whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Here it is.

All that other stuff isn’t the stuff that matters.

Here when Paul is talking about flesh, he’s talking about the human ways that we divide ourselves. These traditional laws, our customs, our institutions, these hoops we make people jump through.

That’s the stuff that these early Christians were using to draw lines between themselves, to impose conditions on participation. And Paul is saying No. All of this stuff falls away.

What matters is a path of following Jesus. Those are earthly distinctions and we just need to keep our focus on God’s justice.

For Paul, faith means imitating Jesus. It means trying to live the life Jesus lived – one that stared in the face of the Roman empire and in the face of religious authorities devoted to self-promotion, to the preservation of their own power.

It is NOT a life without suffering. It’s life that leads straight to the cross. There is brokenness all along the way. But to get to the resurrection, to get to the promise of God’s vision, the enactment of God’s vision? You have to get there by way of the cross.

For the early Christians, that often meant a real cross. This is the church of the martyrs. These people were dying on behalf of Christ dying because of their loyalty to the messiah’s vision. Paul’s like, if that happens, you’ll be with the messiah.

And while we’re here, we’re going to keep the faith.

We keep that in mind as we deal with the empires of today. We are not typically called to literally die. But following in the path of Jesus – setting aside the conditions and definitions of our world and culture – this is not easy.

It is an empire of commercialism.

We commodify and we discriminate.

We bomb – how many countries have we bombed just in the 21st century?

We set conditions on belonging – white enough, rich enough, thin enough (but not too thin), young enough, straight enough.

We’re going to decide if you have an able body or an able mind.

Or you know what, you might just be so rich and white and ornery that I believe you ought to be excluded. Yeah, that sounds about right.

But No.

Paul isn’t saying anything goes. He’s calling people to live their lives in imitation of Jesus. But no one gets judged by some arbitrary markers of belonging assigned by the world.

Paul is trying to help the Philippians nurture a sense of community – to establish relationships with one another that enable them to follow this path of Jesus with insight and courage. It is an active path – one that we can follow – there are no preconditions that keep us from belonging. We belong because we walk the path. And we see our brokenness. And we see the brokenness of the world around us. The sacred is everywhere we look. We just have to look. Holy ground is all around us. We just have to realize that’s what it is. And we have to keep going. This faith of Paul is one of movement, of action. It’s not stale belief or tired platitudes. It’s active.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Finding the sacred is an active path. We do it together. We push back against commodification and conditions of our contemporary world and continue forward together.

Sunday morning – 6-7 am – radio program on WBHM called With Heart and Voice – program of sacred classical music – lot of chamber music and pipe organs and lilting vocals – I love that stuff – wake up – listen – trees outside window – changing light – right after that – news program called Weekend Edition – some of y’all might listen to it – go from this rich beauty, this deep sense of the sacred – wham – right into the problems of the world – but you know what – it’s all sacred.

There are no conditions that make one thing sacred and not another.

The sacred is personal devotion and public justice. If you follow Jesus you will find both heaven and hell right here on earth. It is a part of the Christian journey.

This table is sacred in part because we come around it together. On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus blessed this table for all of us. ALL of US. No conditions. It is a meal for all. This is World Communion Sunday, so today we all share the reverence of the Spirit as a part of a worldwide, incredibly diverse community of faith. We join with our brothers and sisters around this table – and in this church the table is open to all.