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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deeply-Committed Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Jesus was walking along the lake, and seeing the fishermen in their boats, he said, “Follow me,” and they did. Easier said than done! Back in January, I met up with a friend in DC. We planned to go grab some breakfast and she wanted to show me her office. Since I was then leaving town and she was staying at work, we took separate cars. She hopped in her car and said, “Follow me!” Easier said than done.

We went across DC in morning rush-hour combined with however many million people trying to get out of DC after a major event. There were accidents all over the place, stalled-out vehicles, and blocked intersections. As we drove across town, she forced her Honda Civic through places it was rude for one car to squeeze through, let alone two, especially when the second has out-of-town tags! Now, I learned to drive in New York and I have no problem being a bit “assertive” and pushing my car into places I need it to be, but even my limits were stretched on that. “Follow me!” she said, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Today is the third in a three-part series of messages on our mission statement. We are taking a good hard look at everything we do here at St. Paul and why we do it. You’ll find our mission statement on the front of your bulletin; let’s turn there together and say it together. The mission of St. Paul United Methodist Church is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago we explored what it means to be a Christian community. Last week we talked about what it means to value all people. Today, we’re talking about being deeply-committed followers of Jesus. May we pray.

As Mark tells it, it was all very simple. Jesus said, “Follow me!” and the disciples did. Jesus said, “I will make you fish for people,” and they all nodded as if they completely understood everything he was saying.

But I wonder if wasn’t more complicated than that. I wonder if the disciples asked where they were going to be following? Or for how long? Or why they should follow him in the first place? I wonder how Zebedee felt when he watched his business succession plan drop their nets in the boat and walk off without even stamping their timecards. I wonder if Simon Peter or Andrew or James or John stopped and said, “He’s going to make us fish for people? Does anyone know what he means by that? Are we going to be gone for just a couple of hours or what? And WHEN are we stopping to get something to eat?”

When Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him, to be his first disciples, we realize that we are being given a glimpse of the beginning of their journey with Jesus. Think of being one of Jesus’ disciples as a journey with Jesus. Journeys, as you know, have a starting point and a destination, but there is a whole lot that has to happen between those two things. For example, I have driven between North Carolina and New York many times. I have a beginning point in mind and a destination, but there are a whole lot of things that happen in between them. I have to head through desolate parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Eventually, I’ll arrive, but I won’t arrive there all at once. It will happen over time, mile by mile, as I close in on my destination.

I think it’s easier and more exciting to become a follower than it is to remain a follower. Becoming a follower of Jesus is pretty easy on day one. Or starting a new diet, or a new exercise regimen, or quitting smoking, or getting organized or any other new venture is always easiest on day one. Starting something is easy, but sticking to it and following through with it is a little more difficult.

Think of the commitment your most significant relationships take. With your partner, your children, your parents, your siblings – these relationships require constant commitment. When the relationship is new, it’s exciting, it’s fresh, it’s a constant adventure. But somewhere along the line, you get used to it. And, you may even begin to get bored with it. That’s where the commitment kicks in.

This is one of the things I stress to couples who are about to get married. A wedding, though it can be costly and somewhat stressful, is easy. But marriage can be more difficult. The wedding is fun—a great big party with all your friends and family, everyone dressed up in fine clothes, celebrating, happy, smiling—that’s just a fun occasion! But marriage—the day-to-day ins and outs of communicating, putting up with weird habits, and learning to place someone else’s needs higher than your own—that takes a lot of work. The wedding is the fun part, but marriage takes work. It takes daily commitment. It takes waking up every morning and saying “Today I am going to treat my partner with greater honor than I treat myself.”

A wedding is great, but you know what’s even better, in my opinion? A third anniversary. After about three years, the shiny has worn off. Things may not be as exciting any more. Quirks that used to be adorable are now annoying. A third anniversary is something that should be celebrated, and a 5th anniversary, and a 9th, and a 14th – these should be celebrated because they are reminders to us that two people have stuck it out through what may have been very difficult, painful, or just plain boring circumstances. I can still remember the party celebrating my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. Papa publicly thanked Grandma for 27 happy years of marriage.

By the way, I don’t recommend that. Members of my family delight in pushing my grandmother’s buttons just to get a reaction, and we all learned that from him. But it was also an honest admission that it wasn’t all wine and roses, but these two people chose to face it together instead of apart. They were in it for the long haul.

Jesus said he was going to make the disciples fishers of people. Now, many of you are probably familiar with catch and release fishing. This seems an odd practice to me. When I was growing up, we didn’t catch fish simply to throw them back in the lake. If you aren’t going to take it home and eat it, why would you want to catch it, torture it by poking holes in its lip, and then put it back in the water?

I wonder if that wouldn’t create a lake full of fish with low self-esteem and bad attitudes. You have to go back to your friends and family with holes all in your lip and explain that you weren’t good enough. They didn’t want to eat you. All your life you’ve wanted to grow up and feed a hungry family, and then you’re caught, they look you over, and throw you back in the water.

Can I tell you something about the way Jesus fishes? Jesus isn’t into “catch and release.” When Jesus catches you, he means business. Jesus cast his net and caught these fishermen up into the kingdom of God, and there was no looking back. And so it is with us. When Jesus catches you, he’s not offering you a leisurely vacation. He’s not offering you a three-hour tour that turns into a fun time on the island with a movie star, a farmgirl in skimpy clothes, and a professor who can make anything out of coconuts. He’s not catching you simply to throw you back into the water. When Jesus catches you, it means that he wants to keep you, that he is committed to you, that he makes an everlasting promise and covenant with you that begs your participation and cooperation.

Think of what happens every time we celebrate a baptism. Baptism marks the beginning of our journey with God, it marks when Jesus walked beside the lakeshore and called our name, it marks the day that we became a disciple of Jesus Christ. God is committed to us, and God asks us to commit to nurturing each other in the Christian faith. And you know what? This is something that will happen daily. Today is not the end of the story! Baptism is the beginning of a journey, a time when God has said “yes” to each of us, and it anticipates the days and weeks and months and years of our continuing to say “yes” back to God. It’s a journey, but by the grace of God, we will commit ourselves to God. We will follow Jesus with everything we’ve got.

Becoming a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ is not a one-time static event. Being a follower of Jesus is something that happens each and every day of our lives as we say “yes” and recommit ourselves to the life offered in Christ.

Friends, when Jesus goes fishing, he’s not into catch and release. When he catches you, he wants you to be a one of his followers, to deeply commit your life to him. He wants you on his fishing crew, casting his net far and wide, a fishing crew that doesn’t only work weekends, or who plays catch and release, who pick and choose among all those who are dying to know God. We don’t have the freedom to decide who gets to be loved and accepted and called by God. We don’t have the leisure to say, “This one is no good. Throw ‘em back in.”

We are a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. That means some things! First, we are a Christian community. Who do we belong to? Jesus! We will make his priorities our priorities, and we will order our life together around the things that Jesus wants us to do. Second, we value all people. We don’t just tolerate, we don’t just welcome, we value the wonderfully diverse and complex ways in which the human tapestry is woven. Third, we are becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus has walked the shores of our lives and called our names, so too do we go and fish for people, catching them up in a vision of the kingdom of God that is bigger and brighter and more glorious than any of us could imagine.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be fishing for people, I want to be the best-tasting worm on the hook for Jesus that I can be. I want to be the best-looking bait in the water. I want everything in my life to be something that will cause people to wonder and explore, and I want them to be drawn to God through my life. But I realize that the only way my life is going to lead anyone to God is if I am becoming a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ.

This is what we do. We find examples of people who are doing what we want to do, who have already arrived where we want to go, and we pattern our lives after them. Not long ago, I was having dinner at the home of some family friends who have been married for over 40 years. The wife loves to play match-maker, and was going through her latest list of suspects for me to pair off with. Then she noticed her husband setting the table “wrong,” (at least to her, it was wrong), and she scolded him up one side and down the other. Without missing a beat, he looked at me and said, “You should get married soon, so you can have the happiness I’ve found!”

The best case for that permanent committed relationship is a happy couple who are deeply-committed to each other. The best case for Christianity is a joyous Christian who is deeply-committed to Jesus. If I am going to fish for people, I want to be the best-tasting worm on the hook for Jesus that I can be.

So what is a deeply-committed Christian? I answer that it is simply someone with a Christlike character. A deeply-committed Christian is someone through whom the love of Jesus shines so clearly that the person disappears and you are literally standing in front of Jesus. Guess what folks? The scriptures teach us that our hands and feet belong to Christ. The scriptures teach us that we are members of Christ’s body. Even the very word “Christian” means “little Christ.” It was a derogatory slur hurled against the early followers of Jesus, because they patterned their lives so closely after his. Would that would we follow him so closely that people would say the same thing about us.

I think about another derogatory slur that was used against a certain group of Christians. A group of students at Oxford University in the 1700s were ridiculed as “Methodists” by their classmates, because of their “methodical” way of studying Scripture and practicing spiritual disciplines. They were deliberate about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ, and they practiced the spiritual disciplines to become deeper and deeper in their commitments.

John Wesley was one of those Oxford students, and in his lifetime, he led the spread of the Methodist movement that eventually spanned the Atlantic Ocean and forever left its mark on all expressions of Christian faith that would ever come behind it. Methodism began as a campus ministry, which, incidentally is one reason why we should pay our Higher Education apportionment. John Wesley stated that the character of a Methodist was one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart. The early Methodists were intentional about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. They took seriously, and so should we, the admonition to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. This is Christlike character. This is the character of a Methodist. This is the character of one who is a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ.

A deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ evidences this Christlike character. Friends, we are called to be such followers. We are called to do the things that Jesus does. We are called to go the places Jesus goes. We are called to follow him so closely, that we are covered with the dust his sandals stir up, so closely that when people examine our lives we disappear entirely and they only see Christ.

What is a deeply-committed follower of Jesus Christ? Someone who is Christlike. Christlike is its own evidence, it requires no explanation. Think of the Christian life as a ladder with Christ at the top. He is the goal, he is the one we pattern our lives after, his is the grace that makes our very existence worthwhile. We are all climbing that ladder, getting closer to him, living our lives in such a way that we might find ourselves a bit closer to him today than we were yesterday. But it’s nothing we brag about, because it is a gift of grace that we are able to be formed in his image in the first place. Part of a Christlike character is humility. Anyone who tells me they are a model Christian, that they are close to attaining Christlike character, that they have almost reached perfection, automatically drops three rungs on the ladder in my opinion. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes the closer I get to Christ the further away I feel. The closer I get, the more I realize how much further I have to go. The closer I get, the more I realize just how dependent I am on his grace. The closer I get, the more I realize that I can’t do it on my own, that’s it not about me, and I’m only there by grace, not by my own efforts or ingenuity.

We are called to be deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus walks the shores of our lives, and he casts his net. He calls each of our names, and he shows us the kingdom of God. But then, he puts us to work fishing for more people, casting his net wider, valuing and welcoming the people who feel the most devalued, offering everyone an opportunity to be reunited with a God who has waited and yearned for each of us to come home. Every week, we people of Christian faith join in prayer for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is our objective! Not to go and be with Jesus after we die, but to be with Jesus now! Not to head to the kingdom of God after we die, but to bring about the kingdom of God now!

St. Paul United Methodist Church must be a place where all people are given the opportunity to become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. If you are a member of this congregation, I ask you to commit yourself to habits and practices that will help you grow in the Christian faith. As members, we have each made commitments to support and participate in the ministries of this congregation through our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. Being a member of this congregation carries with it more responsibilities than it does privileges. In fact, there are no privileges to joining. The entire life and ministry of our congregation is open to you whether you are a member or not. Membership here is a commitment, a commitment we take seriously, and I ask every member here to take their commitments seriously. Many times, we think that being busy is a good mark for how well we’re doing as a church. I don’t want anyone here to be just busy. I don’t want the same people showing up to every activity we do, burning themselves out. We’re not called to be busy. We’re called to make deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.
The first thing I ask you to commit to is regular worship attendance. I ask you to be present in worship every Sunday unless you are sick or out-of-town. If you haven’t noticed, Sunday morning is sort of the main event around here. Someone said to me this week, “I’m afraid to miss church because I feel like I’ll miss something!” Good! I want you to feel like you’re missing out if you’re not here, because guess what – you are!

The second thing I ask you to commit to is participation in at least one activity designed to help you grow deeper in your faith. This could be a Sunday School class, a Bible study, a small group, an accountability group, a spiritual retreat, or something similar.

Now, I also understand that it can be difficult to assimilate into an already-existing group. People may be perfectly friendly, but it’s hard to work yourself into a group that might already have decades of previous history together. If you’re already part of an existing group, listen up, because you’re not off the hook. Within the next year, every Sunday School class or group needs to plan to give birth. Every group needs to be part of starting a new group, where people who are not currently connected can find a place to belong. I want two people from each existing group to commit themselves to leave their current group to be part of starting a new group. Every Sunday School class, Bible study, women’s circle, etc is included in this. We need to be intentional about doing whatever it takes to cast the net wide and fish for the very people Jesus wants us to reach, and that may mean leaving what we already know and are comfortable with. Is the goal of church to simply be a place where everybody knows our name? I’m pretty sure that we’re not here just to have a Christian version of Cheers. This is not a social club – it’s the staging ground for forming people who deeply commit their lives to Jesus Christ. If they are going to make that commitment, we need to commit to providing the places and relationships where that can actually happen.

Jesus continues to walk the shores of our lives, calling each of our names, and inviting us to be caught up in his net. He wants each and every one of us on his fishing crew, casting the net far and wide – touching every person with his love and grace. We can only commit to God because God has first committed to us. That is what we celebrate in baptism, that the grace of God was available to each of us long before we were aware of it or even asked for it. You notice that the baptismal font is here front and center today. Today, we are going to remember our baptism and recommit ourselves to the promises that were made at each of our baptisms. God commits to each of us, and in renewing the vows made at our baptism, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves back to God. After a time of prayer, I invite everyone to come forward via the center aisle, touch the water to your forehead as you remember your baptism and are thankful for it, before returning to your seat via the side aisles. Just as, from time to time, married couples will have a time to remember and renew their vows, so today we are taking the opportunity to remember and renew the vows of our baptism, as a time to remember our commitment to God and the ways we will live out that commitment here in God’s church.

We are a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Today, we celebrate that Jesus has walked along the lakeshore of our lives, calling our names, and inviting us on the journey with him. At the same time, we commit ourselves and re-commit ourselves to joining him on that journey, to join his fishing crew, and to cast his net far and wide until all people, people who are valuable beyond belief, are caught into his net, have committed their lives to him, and are cradled at the center of Christian community.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

All Are Valued - Luke 15

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would have gladly filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Have you ever been lost? Personally, I have never been lost because I always have a map with me, and I always stop to ask for directions. If you believe that, I have some real estate in Florida I’d also like to talk to you about. When I was living in Boone, it was not uncommon to hear news stories about tourists who had gotten lost hiking in the mountains. Any of you who have done this sort of hiking know how easy it is to get lost in the woods. A trail isn’t clearly marked, you think you’re on it, and all of a sudden you realize you’ve been off it for the last 20 minutes. You head back in the direction you think you came from, but it’s easy to get twisted and turned around. Before you know it, you’re disoriented and don’t know where you are, where you came from, or where you need to go. Of course your cell phone doesn’t work because, come on, it’s the mountains. Don’t panic. offers some instructions on how to avoid being lost in the mountains. Step 1: Tell someone exactly where you are going hiking or climbing. Step 2. Travel with another person or group. Step 3. Take a compass and map. By the way, these are only helpful if you know how to read and use both a compass and a map. Step 4: Take your time and study the landscape. Take special note of a particular tree or rock formation. Step 5: Turn around and look at your back trail every few minutes. This will help you remember the landscape on the way back. Step 6: Mark your progress. This can be done with a small cut on a tree or using chalk.

A different question for you. Have you ever lost something that was incredibly valuable to you, whether or not it had any great monetary value? Have you ever lost someone who was incredibly valuable to you? Have you ever been that lost person?

Today’s message is the second of a three-part series on our new mission statement. You’ll find it on the front of your bulletin. Let’s turn there and say it again together: “A Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.” Last week we talked about being a Christian community. Next week, we’ll talk about being deeply-committed followers. Today, we’re talking about what it means to value all people. May we pray.

Here at St. Paul, we will be the sort of Christian community in which all people are valued. Period. I did some of my sermon research over facebook this week, as I do from time to time. I asked for people’s feedback on why some churches feel the right to devalue certain people as well as experiences in which they have felt devalued by a church. Almost immediately, the discussion thread in my status update was hijacked by good friends of mine who wanted to make this a liberal vs. conservative issue. They immediately jumped to contentious social issues and wondered if I was making some thinly-veiled argumentative statement.

The fact that the immediate gut reaction was to paint this question of valuing all people in black and white conservative vs. liberal terms was, in and of itself, troubling. It reminded me once again that our old human biases so often get in the way, and people were more informed by their particular philosophy than they were by Jesus. We like to paint everything in us/them, insider/outsider terms, and everyone immediately jumped to conclusions and began running the same old scripts and attacks against people on the other side of the ideological divide. Friends, this isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is a Jesus issue. I’m not here to encourage you to live slightly more spiritual otherwise normal Republican or Democratic lives. I’m here to get Jesus into your lives and completely turn your worldview on its head. I’m here to get Jesus into your hearts and completely mess up your lives as you realign your priorities with his. Let’s turn to the scriptures.

Today’s reading is the 15th Chapter of Luke. This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.

The Pharisees – the religious people – have been grumbling about Jesus because he is spending time with tax collectors and sinners. He’s spending his time with outsiders, caring about them, building them up, offering them God’s grace and a place in the story of God’s redemption. How dare Jesus care about those sinners! Mike Berry says “Pharisee is Greek for stuck-up religious snob who just doesn’t get it.”

Jesus tells three parables – three stories about lost things and lost people.

Suppose one you had 100 sheep and lost one. Would you not go and search it out, and rejoice when you have found it and returned it to the flock? In the same way, heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God.

A side note here. Church people often use the term “sinner” in a very derogatory manner to talk about people they perceive to be inferior. Would you all kindly do me a favor? Anyone here who is a sinner, would you please put your hand up? Now, if you didn’t put your hand up, kindly raise it now, because lying is a sin!

The term “sinner” has been given some very negative and judgmental connotations. But if we remember the Biblical definition of sin, not a long list of bad things or a judgmental term, then we can also remember that sinners are simply those who are separated from God. So here, when the Scriptures speak of heaven rejoicing over one sinner who repents, it might better be said: God’s family rejoices when one member of the family who has been separated returns to the family. Sinners, then, are not evil people whom God is waiting to punish. Sinners are people created in the image of God with whom God desperately longs for restored relationship.

Then, there was a woman with ten silver coins who loses one. She throws her hands up and says, “Oh well, you win some, you lose some.” Right? Of course not! She lights the lamps and sweeps the house. She looks under the bed and in dresser drawers and in the couch cushions. She goes out to the garage and looks in the car between the drivers’ seat and the door sill, she checked the washing machine and the pocket of the pants she wore yesterday. She turns the house upside down until she finds it and throws a big party with the neighbors.

Don’t you see God doing the same thing over every one of God’s beloved children who are restored?

And then there is this story. This parable IS the Gospel of Luke. A man had two sons. One was a hard worker, loyal, and uber-responsible. The other was a goof-off who asked for an advance on his inheritance. Think about the trouble this caused. His father had to divide half his property, livestock, and wealth, liquidate the assets, and then give that half to his son. The son re-payed his father’s generosity by hopping in his Lexus chariot and heading out of town, where he lived the playboy lifestyle as bachelor-of-the-year.

It was a fun life, but eventually the money ran out. Once the money was gone, so were all the supposed new friends. Gone were the women, the parties, the drink, the food, the lavish condo, and even the Lexus chariot.

But then things got rough. Addicted to his hedonist narcissistic lifestyle, he found his life in a tailspin until he hit rock bottom and the text says, “he came to himself.” He decided to return to his father’s house, and beg for a place among the hired help. He knew he was screwed up, he knew his life was in shambles, he knew that he had disgraced his father and betrayed his father’s generosity and love. So he went, back toward the home he had once known and thumbed his nose at on the way out of town.

Here’s the part of the text I love – words on which the whole story hang. While he was still far off, the father recognized him and ran to meet him. Did you hear that? While he was still far off. I imagine the father, every day since the son had left, longing for his son’s return. Going to the roof of the house, peering off into the distance, hoping this would be the day his son came home. Going to the gate, straining to see far down the road, hoping this would be the day his son came home. Heading to the far corner of the most remote field, looking at the ridge of the hills off in the distance, hoping this would be the day his son came home.

How God longs for such a restored relationship with every one of God’s children. How valuable is every one of God’s children that God so desires to stand face-to-face with each. Oh the lengths to which God will go to see a broken humanity restored to full communion with God!

Friends, we are a Christian community. We talked about that last week. Remember that means we belong to Jesus, which means we need to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities. We need to care about the things that Jesus cares about. We need to care about the people Jesus cares about. We need to value all people.

Imagine the parable of the father and his two sons ending this way: The son came to himself and decided to return to his father’s house. While he was still far off, the father saw his son returning along the road. But then, the father saw one of his own servants approach the son, and tell him to turn around and head back, because he was no longer welcome there.

Given that the father was waiting and longing for his son’s return, how do you think the father would feel toward that servant who intervened and turned the son away? How do you think a father feels toward a servant who says “Too bad, you blew it, and there’s no way your father wants to see you again?”

How do you think God feels toward a church that says the same thing to God’s estranged children?

Many of you know that I lost my mom in June to a five-year battle with cancer. What many of you don’t know is that I have a sister – not the one you’ve met - who is both geographically closest to my parents’ home and the most emotionally distant. The final months before mom died were incredibly difficult as cancer did the only thing it knows to do and we watched mom slowly being taken away from us. During that time, my sister refused to bring her kids -10 and 5 - around to see my mom. On the one hand, I understand that she didn’t want the kids to have unpleasant final memories. On the other hand, I’m still furious with her for keeping them away. My mom needed to see her grandchildren, and those kids needed to see their grandmother. Parents need to be loved by their children and by their grandchildren, and God needs to be loved by God’s children.

We are a Christian community, and as such, we will value all people. We talked about this last week – who does St. Paul United Methodist Church belong to? If we truly believe we belong to Jesus, we will welcome and value the very people Jesus welcomed. The holier-than-thou religious people wagged their fingers at Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Would that they accuse us of the same thing. We are a Christian community, and we ARE a place where all people are valued. Period.

Some worry that such a posture says that we’re all of a sudden soft on sin, that we’re not standing up for Biblical morality, that we’re becoming too accepting and that we need to take a stance against sin. Friends, it is because I take sin seriously that I am convinced we as the church need to value all people. It is because I believe in the Biblical definition of sin – as a condition of separation from God, the loneliest spiritual place any of us could imagine – that I believe we need to be a place where all people are valued. However, if you think of sin as a list of bad things we humans do and think we are justified in keeping so-called “sinners” out, then you and I could not be further apart. Because if you follow such a position to its logical extreme, there wouldn’t be anyone left. Think about it. We’d need to kick the fat people out, because gluttony is certainly named as one of the big no-no’s. Then we’d lose any man who has ever shaved the hair on his face or on the side of his head at his temples – that’s an abomination unto the Lord, according to Leviticus. Say goodbye to anyone who has ever gossiped, too – that’s one on the big list, according to James. And while we’re talking about big gaffs, have you ever noticed how much Jesus talks about money? It was actually his favorite topic, apparently; he talked about wrong attitudes and behavior about money more than any other subject, including the sins we seem to single out and with which we seem to have an odd fascination.

You can see that if we start naming specific vices and banning from the church anyone who has them, it won’t take long before we’ve kicked everyone out, including ourselves. As a Christian community, we are a place where all people are valued. Period. End of story.

Back in today’s scripture reading, that’s the opposite of what one son wanted to do. The son who stayed home started complaining about the other son, about how he had his chance and blew it. Then he begins to whine. “Dad, I’ve been here slaving away for you, and when did you ever throw me a party for all my years of faithful service? When did I ever get to have my fun? When did I get my share? Where’s my portion, Dad – where?”

We think it’s a story about one son who was lost, but in reality, both sons were lost. One was far away, the other was right under their father’s nose, but it turns out that one was just as lost as the other. The son who was angry at the father’s welcome of the estranged son turned out to be just as lost as his brother. This is why we shouldn’t be too quick to point out the sin of another, because in the act of pointing it out, we may, in fact, be just as distant from God as the person we are so quick to judge, if not even moreso.

Will we a place where all people are valued? I certainly hope so. It’s not optional. If you are visiting with us and someone here makes you feel devalued, kindly get that person’s name and send me an email because I would like to have a little chat with them. If you are a long-time member here and someone here makes you feel devalued, I’d also like to have a chat with them.

This week, people shared with me their stories about being devalued in churches, and I was surprised at 1. how many responses I got, and 2. the things over which people were made to feel devalued. Here are a few things:
• A long-time Sunday School teacher was asked to step down
• A pastor ignored a problem and hoped it would go away instead of offering guidance
• A family got up and walked out after a homosexual couple sat two pews ahead of them
• A person struggling with depression was blamed for “allowing demons into their life”
• A single mother was ordered to sit in the back at a fellowship dinner so her child wouldn’t disturb others
• A man with turrets syndrome was ostracized for not keeping his outbursts under control
• A couple who had been divorced and remarried were told “their kind” weren’t welcome

This is unacceptable. If our father is scanning the horizon every day waiting for the return of his children, we have no right to be bouncers in the kingdom of God and tell people they are not welcome to experience the transformative grace of God. We have no right to tell them they are not welcome. We have no right to force estrangement between God and other people. As the church, we must be a place where all people are valued.

Last week, I was the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in our denomination. Adam Hamilton, the senior pastor, told us about his oldest daughter who is currently distant from God. You could feel his pain, as he shared with us, as a father, what it is like to see his daughter so far away from God. I got to wondering, if his daughter were traveling through Charlotte and decided, for whatever reason, to stop in here, would she be valued? Would she be given an opportunity to encounter God through our lives? Adam told us about her. She has a wonderful inquisitive mind. She loves to ask bold and audacious questions. She dyes her hair a new color every week and wears all sorts of off-the-wall clothes. Would she be valued here?

God longs for each child to come home. When those children finally do come home, will we value them?

Here’s what I know. One day, I will have to give an account for my life and ministry. If I have to give an account for my life, I would rather be accused of welcoming too many people. I would rather be held responsible for overcrowding in the banquet hall, for the place being filled with tax collectors and sinners, than for finding out that because I was exclusive or judgmental, some of God’s precious children never made it back home to be reunited with our heavenly father.

If the evidence is going to go either way, I’d rather err on the side of valuing too many people, not too few.

I want each of you to think of someone in your life who is currently distant from God – someone who is close to you – it could be a friend, a family member, a co-worker, whatever. What would you give for a church near that person to intentionally reach out to them, to welcome them, to value them, and give them a chance to experience the grace of God for perhaps the very first time? If you’re like me, you’d give just about anything.

Do you think it’s possible there are people in our community who have a loved one somewhere who is praying for them to be invited back to God? Who is praying that a church in their community will reach out to them, and welcome them, and value them, and give them a chance to experience the grace of God for perhaps the first time? Regardless of how they look or act, regardless of who they hang with, regardless of what they know or don’t know, some church needs to welcome them. I am convinced that we are called to be that church.

Even while we are still far off, God is watching and waiting and longing for us to come home. We are a Christian community, and we value all people.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Christian Community - Acts 2:38-47

(This is the first of a three-part series on our new mission statement at St. Paul United Methodist Church. Our mission is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. On October 18, we will talk about valuing all people. On October 25, we will talk about becoming deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.)

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

At a recent testimony service in a nearby but unnamed church, one elderly lady shared this story:

The other day I went up to our local Christian book store and saw a ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ bumper sticker. I was feeling particularly sassy that day because I had just come from a thrilling choir performance, followed by a thunderous prayer meeting. So, I bought the sticker and put it on my bumper. Boy, am I glad I did; what an uplifting experience followed!

I was stopped at a red light at a busy intersection, just lost in thought about the Lord and how good He is, and I didn’t notice that the light had changed. It is a good thing someone else loves Jesus because if he hadn’t honked, I’d never have noticed. I found that lots of people love Jesus! While I was sitting there, the guy behind started honking like crazy, and then he leaned out of his window and screamed, ‘For the love of God! Go! Go! Go!’What an exuberant cheerleader he was for Jesus!

Everyone started honking! I just leaned out my window and started waving and smiling at all those loving people. I even honked my horn a few times to share in the love! There must have been a man from Florida back there because I heard him yelling something about a sunny beach.

I saw another guy waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my young teenage grandson in the back seat what that meant. He said it was probably a Hawaiian good luck sign or something. Well, I have never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leaned out the window and gave him the good luck sign right back. My grandson burst out laughing. Why, even he was enjoying this religious experience!!

A couple of the people were so caught up in the joy of the moment that they got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I bet they wanted to pray or ask what church I attended, but this is when I noticed the light had changed. So, grinning, I waved at all my brothers and sisters, and drove on through the intersection. I noticed that I was the only car that got through the intersection before the light changed again and felt sad that I had to leave them after all the love we had shared. So I slowed the car down, leaned out the window and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time as I drove away. Praise the Lord for such wonderful folks!!

This morning, we’re talking about Christian community. Today is the first in a three-part series of messages about our new mission statement, even though this mission statement won’t be official until we approve it at our charge conference immediately following worship. Do me a favor – stick around for charge conference and approve this mission statement so my preaching for the next three weeks will make sense. You should also come to charge conference to brag to our DS about what things are like here at the new and improved St. Paul.

You see our new mission statement right on the front of your bulletin. The mission of St. Paul United Methodist Church is to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ. Today, we’re focusing on the first aspect of that – being a Christian community. It’s a phrase that means something different to different people. May we pray.

In today’s Scripture reading from the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of Christian community as God intends. These few verses provide us with a beautiful picture of what church life is supposed to look like. The classic Christian folk song says they will know we are Christians by our love – can’t you just feel the love in the community that’s described? A place devoted to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to breaking bread together, and to prayer. A place where everyone pools their resources, and gives freely and abundantly to anyone among them with need. A place where much time is spent together in worship, and everyone feels at home around everyone else’s table as they do at their own. This is the picture of Christian community – but oh how different this looks from what you find in so many churches.

They will know we are Christians by our love. Instead, we’ve substituted everything else. They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts, or by our bumper stickers! They will know we are Christians by our committee meetings or our building! They will know we are Christians by our fundraisers! They will know we are Christian by our gossip, or by our narrow-mindedness, or by our judgmentalism!

It is difficult to identify so many churches as Christian communities because they have gotten busy doing other stuff. In so many places, all of this other stuff has become more important, is taking more time, and using more resources than any of the things that actually contribute toward being a Christian community. Sure, the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are in there somewhere, but sometimes it’s awfully hard to find it.

Churches drift away from being the sort of radical, intentional Christian community described in today’s text because they forget to keep it central. It’s called mission drift, and it happens in all sorts of organizations, not just churches. Unless the organization is constantly and consistently reminded of its purpose and organizing around it, most organizations will lose sight of what their business is. Churches experience it when we allow some other thing or combination of things to come in and be more important than being a Christian community.

Phyllis Tickle says that every few years, the church needs to have a rummage sale. Every few years, the church needs to take stock of what its doing and why it exists, and get rid of the junk. Too many churches that I’ve seen fail to do this, and their ministry model looks about like their building does – tired, worn-out, cluttered, antiquated. Too many churches begin as movements, have become monuments, and are on their way to becoming mausoleums.

Friends, we have got to be clear about why we’re here. We need to know what our purpose is. We are, first and foremost, a Christian community. I think so many churches fail to grasp this fundamental concept, and that is why so many ministries are floundering the way they are. That’s why the church is losing step in society, and why an increasing number of people, particularly young people, are checking out of churches even faster than the old people are dying off.

We are, first and foremost, a Christian community. I want us to be very clear about what that means, so let me break it down even further.

We are Christian. Everything we do is about Christ. Jesus is at the center of everything we do. If it’s not about Jesus, we shouldn’t be doing it. It’s amazing, though, that in so many churches, Jesus is the last person that some people are thinking about.

I know of one church out in the country that is named for a particular family. I’m not going to name it. After several decades of decline and almost dying, the church began to experience new life. Things started to turn around, and once again that small country church became strong and vibrant again – the sort of place that was making a real difference in the lives of those who worshiped there, and those people were making a real difference in the life of their community.

The family for whom the church was named called the pastor one day because they wanted to have a day of special celebration and recognition during the worship service for some of the departed members of the family. Against his better judgment, the pastor reluctantly agreed. The family began to put together all sorts of plans that were more about bringing glory to their family than to God. The pastor had enough and told the matriarch of the family that enough was enough and that they wouldn’t construct the worship service just to honor her father. She got a little huffy, and said, “You do understand that my last name is the name on this church, don’t you?” The pastor said, “Lady, the only way we’re gonna do it your way is if your last name is Christ.” Sixty years ago, her family had built that church – that much is true. For the last thirty years, her family had almost single-handedly caused its decline, because they thought the church was a monument to themselves, not a living, breathing Christian community. She wanted to make it all about her, and she was really the last person that anyone should have been allowing to dictate the church’s future direction.

We need to make it about Jesus, not about ourselves. If any church fails to make itself about Jesus, there is no way that church will outlive its current membership.

The church isn’t about us – it’s about Jesus! Sometimes, I think we’re sorta like the donkey that took Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. You’d better believe that donkey was feeling pretty special. You know that donkey was starting to strut as they walked through the city. “I am looking good! All these people lining the road, out here to see ME work my magic!” People lining the street, all shouting, “Hosanna!” The donkey was like, “Hey, that’s not my name, but thanks anyway!” We can become like that donkey, forgetting that it’s not about us. In fact, sometimes we’re just the ass that takes Jesus where he needs to go.

I hate to break it to you, but the church isn’t about any of us. It’s about Jesus.

In August, students from ASU were here doing some refurbishment work in our Education Building. One of the students lives in Charlotte, and she brought her 10-year-old brother to help with some of the work. He found out I was the pastor, and while we were painting together, he asked, “Pastor, do you own this church?” My first inclination was to respond, “No, actually, I think this church owns me!” But instead of explaining the complicated way property is held in our connectional system, I just replied, “This church belongs to Jesus.”

Friends, we are a Christian community, and this church belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to any group, family, or individual. It doesn’t belong to any of us – it belongs to Jesus! The driving missional force of everything and anything we do needs to be the things that Jesus wants to do, far and above the things that any of want to do or don’t want to do. The church belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the trustees, the finance committee, the worship committee, the administrative council, or the choir. It belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the pastor, no matter how young, good-looking, or exceptional he is. It belongs to Jesus! Even though he’s sitting right here, it doesn’t belong to the DS. It doesn’t belong to the bishop or the conference, or the denominational hierarchy. It belongs to Jesus! It doesn’t belong to the Blackwells or the Bridges, the Byrums or the Davidsons, the Ferrebees or the Fields, the Hedbergs or the Hinkles, the Jacksons or the Kidds, the Lightners or the Littles, the Neills or the Richards, the Smiths or the Thompsons, the Walkers or the Warrens. It belongs to Jesus!

If, for even a second, we think the church belongs to anyone or anything other than Jesus, we will fail to be the church God desires for us to be. In fact, if we think this church belongs to any of us, we have already ceased to be the Church. We are a Christian community, and we belong to Jesus. The driving missional force behind everything we do should be to do the things that Jesus wants us to do. As a Christian community, let us stand together and tolerate no agenda other than Christ’s, because we belong to Jesus.

Not only are we Christian, we are a community as well. We are a place of relationships. We are a place of belonging. We are a place where strong bonds are built and dense networks are developed.

I know that some have looked at the community described in today’s Scripture reading and thought it provided a formula for strengthening the community aspect of a congregation. But can I let you in on a secret? The elements of Christian community in today’s text are descriptive and not prescriptive. It’s not, “Go out and increase your devotion to teaching and fellowship, break bread more often, and pray together, and then you’ll be a stronger community!” Rather, the opposite is true. When a Christian community is strong, it naturally devotes itself to teaching and fellowship, its members desire to break bread, and they constantly pray for one another. These things are not the strategy to become a Christian community; they are the fruit of a Christian community.

When we enter into community, we enter into solidarity with each other. Sort of like in marriage vows when people promise to take each other in better or in worse, in community we promise to take each other just as we are, warts and all. We come together and we share in the good times and the bad times, but most importantly, we do it together.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ was evidence enough to us that God wants us to live in community. In the incarnation, God moved into our neighborhood. But God didn’t just move into the neighborhood, God moved into the hood. God moved into one of the places of the worst suffering at the time. God was born to an unwed teenage mother, in the middle of a genocide, in a territory under control by a repressive government – the worst, nastiest, scruffiest, other-side-of-the-tracks corner of that territory. God moved into the worst possible part of our human existence, because he so desired community with us. This is the heart of the Gospel! God cared so deeply about us humans that he entered into the worst we had to offer, and he took it on as his own.

Our expressions of the Gospel must have the same sacrificial characteristic.

In community, we come and we build relationships, and we share. We move into each other’s neighborhoods, even the messy parts and the ugly parts and the difficult parts. We confront each other’s needs, and we seek to meet them. The heart of the Gospel is that God moves right into the middle of our lives, and our proclamation of the Gospel needs to take Jesus right into the middle of the places he is needed. This is where lives are changed; this is where Christian communities are formed. They don’t come from master plans or strategic sessions, they come from ordinary people who decide to center their lives on Jesus, and then share life with each other.

As your pastor, I will keep telling you the stories of Jesus and providing opportunities for all God’s people to have encounters with him, because I know that such encounters change hearts from the inside. When hearts are changed, behaviors are changed, communities are changed, lives are changed.

Christian communities happen when our hearts are changed. Christian communities happen like in our text, when the crowd responded to Peter’s preaching and received the Holy Spirit. Christian communities happen when, in the words of John Wesley, we find our hearts strangely warmed. Christian communities happen when Jesus’ priorities become our priorities, and we each surrender our own wills to his, and when we think of our brothers and sisters with more importance than we think of ourselves. To such communities, the Lord adds daily.

Friends, I pray that three months from now there are dramatically more people worshiping at St. Paul than there are today. But I pray it, not because numerical growth is a goal in and of itself, but because numerical growth is evidence that indeed, we are the sort of Christian community God has called us to be. Growth is not our goal. Growth is simply a byproduct of a Christian community, a group of people who continue to grow into the knowledge that they belong to Jesus and to each other.

This is the first and fundamental part of our mission – to be a Christian community. My prayer is that we will continue to have encounters with Jesus that change us from the inside. My prayer is that we will continue to find our hearts strangely warmed. My prayer is that we receive the Holy Spirit in fresh and powerful and dramatically new ways. My prayer is that we will become the kind of community God desires for us to be, that the Lord would add to our number daily, because they really will be able to tell that we are Christians by our love.

We are Christian community. We belong to each other, and together, we belong to Jesus.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Teaching at the Table - Matthew 26:26-28, I Corinthians 10:14-17

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it, gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Len Traubman, a dentist from California, threw a dinner party. During the holidays, he and his wife, Libby, invited 16 people to their home for supper. What’s the big deal? Listen to the guest list. Four of the guests were Arab foreign exchange students who had no place to go for the holidays. Four other guests were Israeli born Jews now living in their community. Two of the guests had been born in Palestinian refugee camps. One of the guests was a Holocaust survivor. Picture this group seated around your dining room table – Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, Israelis, Jordanians, and Americans. Someone asked Len Traubman, “Why are you doing this?” and he quoted the 23rd Psalm: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” And what a table they prepared.

Did you know that the Prophet Mohammed’s favorite dish was yogurt with butter and nuts? The Traubmans served it that night.

Did you know that Potato Kugel is a traditional Hannukah dish? The Traubmans served it that night. Calling the party recipes for peace, the food itself generated discussion about their traditions, their holiday memories, and it began breaking down barriers. Before the night was over, they had all tasted each other’s culture, and these people, as different as they were, connected around the table.

Said Libby Traubman, “There is something powerful about sharing a meal.” I couldn’t agree more. May we pray.

Today is World Communion Sunday. There is something powerful about sharing a meal, and every time we gather at the Lord’s table but especially on this day, we share mystic sweet communion with Christians from around the world and in all times.

There are several aspects of Holy Communion that I would like us to focus on today. The first is that it is a meal of remembrance. You will often see these words on Communion tables – “In Remembrance of Me.” Recall that when Jesus first celebrated this meal with his disciples, it was during the context of a Jewish Passover meal. On the night of Passover, Jewish families gather to share a meal to remember how they were once slaves in Egypt, but how God saved them.

In the context of this Jewish meal of salvation, Jesus takes familiar symbols from the table and reinterprets them. Just as the Passover meal is a way of dynamically remembering God’s salvation of the Jews, so Jesus reinterprets it to make it a meal of salvation for his followers.

We sometimes hear the words, “In remembrance,” and we think of this as some sort of pleasant memory, a nice, sweet, nostalgic feeling. Yet, this phrase is what is referred to as dynamic remembrance, meaning that something happens at the table. We don’t just have pleasant thoughts about a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples once upon a time, in some way, every time we gather at this table and take this bread and cup, we participate in the very same meal as if we were there. It’s not just a pleasant memory that we each have somewhere in our inner selves, Christ is really present to us in ways that are just as real so many years later as they were in that upper room in Jerusalem.

Or, sometimes we hear the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and we approach the meal as if we’re coming to a funeral. Quiet, somber, sorrowful – it’s as if we’re gathering on the anniversary of his death to say goodbye to a dear departed friend, to keep his memory alive in our hearts, so he may live on in our memories. It’s as if someone stands up at the front here and says, “We’re here to remember poor old Jesus, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and got himself killed.”

But the one who we come to remember is still very much alive. The crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Jesus. On that night in Jerusalem so long ago, the disciples ate this meal on one side of the cross, we eat it on the other side of the cross – knowing that Jesus was resurrected. This meal is not a funeral meal – quiet, reflective, sorrowful. This meal is a great celebration – a statement of God’s victory over anything and everything that would separate us from God, a reminder that even the seeming finality of death was not enough to keep us away from God’s love. Holy Communion is a celebration! It’s a party! It’s a reminder that the resurrected and living Jesus continues to eat meals with us. That’s why we Christians use regular, leavened bread in our celebrations of communion. The bread has been raised, a constant reminder that Christ is risen.

But while it’s a celebration, it’s not a free-for-all. It is a time to celebrate in the midst of Christ’s radiant presence, but make no mistake about it – it is a holy time. It is an event like no other. It is not a time to chit-chat with our neighbors about idle gossip, or last night’s scores, or what the kids are going to be up to this week. It is a time to pray, a time to give thanks, a time to sing our songs of praise, a time to receive God’s grace in our lives as we receive the bread and wine, a time to rejoice in the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, but all this is to be done with an eye toward God, respecting the holiness of the moment, and providing an environment that is free from distraction for the Spirit to work among the congregation.

There is another aspect of this word “remember.” Think of it as the opposite of “dismember.” As Christians, we are described as members of the body of Christ. Every time we come to this table, we “re-member” Christ. That is, we get the body back together. Every time we come to this table, we declare our allegiance to God and to each other, that we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, we are one in the bond of love, that because there is one bread, we, though we are many, are one, for we all partake of the one loaf.

This meal is countercultural. This meal brings us together in a spirit of unity and peace when the world is throwing everything else at us to divide us. Several years ago, the Mennonite World Conference put out what it called A Modest Proposal for Peace. “Be it resolved: that the Christians of the world stop killing each other.” In other words, that the very people who gather at this table and declare their unity with one another not take up arms against each other when they have left worship. Weapons, you know, come in many different forms. If you gather at this table, you are making a strong declarative statement of your allegiance. You are proclaiming that the bonds of Christian unity are stronger than all the other ways the powers of the world would divide you. The love of Christ is stronger than all the armies and governments of the world. It is stronger than tribal differences and racial divides. It is stronger than partisan politics and family feuds. It is stronger than our theology or preferences in worship or petty fights over the budget, the carpet, or the programs. If we are going to be a witness for peace and unity in the world, then we must first be at peace and unity with one another.

Have you heard the story about the two blind men who were healed? One day they were talking in church about how wonderful it was to be able to see. One of them said, I remember the day that Jesus reached down and made some mud and put it on my eyes. I went and washed and I could see.” “I know,” said the other. “I was sitting outside Jericho when Jesus walked up to me and said, ‘Receive your sight,’ and I could see.”

“Wait a minute. He didn’t put mud in your eye? He didn’t tell you to go down to the pool and wash? I hate to break it to you, but you haven’t been properly healed.” The other man said, “What do you mean? I can see.” “Perhaps that is true,” said the other, “but it wasn’t done the right and proper way, and is therefore not Christian.” The two kept arguing and finally broke fellowship with each other. They went home and told their families, and their families started arguing about it. The Church ended up splitting up. One group went and founded the First Mudite Church. The other went and founded the First Anti-Mudite Church. And since that day, the Church has been fighting and arguing over things that are about as stupid as mud.

St. Augustine wrote, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” John Wesley expressed it this way: “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.”

Friends, we must have the freedom to explore and develop our faith. Our table needs to be set broad enough to include people with whom we may not agree. It is not our place to bar from the table those who are not exactly like us. The kingdom of God is like a great banquet, one to which all people are invited – one that is for all the people of whom God is especially fond, even the ones we ourselves are not particularly fond of. Not all Christians think exactly the same thing, or vote the same way, or have identical opinions on anything. That’s okay. If our faith is going to be real, we must have the freedom to formulate our beliefs. Christ calls us to unity, not uniformity. Christ calls us to solidarity, even with those who are radically different than ourselves. Every time you come to this table, you make the countercultural declaration that you belong to Christ, and not to any of the petty and small-minded dividing forces of the world. If you come to this table and take its meaning seriously, you come united to every other person who ever has and ever will partake of this meal.

We Christians call this meal by a number of different names. For some, it is the Lord’s supper, reflecting that it was Jesus who presided at this, his last meal with his disciples before he journeyed to the cross. Others call it Holy Communion – “holy” meaning “of God,” “sacred” and “communion” meaning “sharing” or “fellowship.” Holy Communion is literally “sacred fellowship.” The Eastern Church – the Orthodox – call it the “Divine Liturgy,” indicating its sacred and holy nature found in the prescribed pattern of words between priest and people. Others call it the Mass – a celebration as well as a mysterious reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Many have come to call it the Eucharist – literally “thanksgiving,” not just for the gifts and mercies received, but for the gift of salvation in Christ.

It goes by many names, but whatever we choose to call it, Christ is present in this meal, mysteriously present in these elements of bread and the fruit of the vine. Christ is represented in these elements, but get your pencils ready, because I’m going to redefine this term, as well.

The elements of bread and wine represent Christ, but they do more than just remind us of him, or stand in for him, or are a symbol of him. These elements of bread and wine re-present Christ – that is, they present Christ to us yet again. Christ comes to us in this meal – we are assured of his very real presence in ways that are more acute and tangible in this meal than at any other time. That’s why we call this meal a sacrament – it is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and the means by which we receive that grace. That’s one of the reasons communion is so important, because every time we celebrate it, Christ promises to be in our midst, and fill us up with his grace. It is a place Christ promises to meet with us, and such a meeting is something of which we ought to take advantage at every available opportunity. It is not something that is optional in the calendar, or something that should be tacked on in a sloppy or hurried way to an already crowded worship service. On these Sundays when we gather around the Lord’s table, it remains the central and focal point of our worship service, everything we do pointing toward it, the grace of God radiating from this table into every heart present.

Turn with me to page 12 in your hymnals, where you find our liturgy for Holy Communion. There are some things I’d like to point out to you about the way we celebrate Communion.

The first has to do with the word “liturgy.” Liturgy means “the work of the people.” What this reminds us is that worship is our highest and noblest thing to do. Indeed, the Westminster Catechism states that “the chief end of [hu]mankind is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” There is nothing more important that we have to do other than glorifying God, and this liturgy before us provides us a common language when we come together to the Lord’s table.

When we come to the table, we always come at the invitation of Christ. He calls us here. He is the host of this meal. He seeks fellowship with us long before we are even aware of his existence and bids us come and dine. We confess our sin before we come to the table to rid ourselves of any distractions or barriers that would stand between us and God, or between ourselves and our brothers and sisters, so that we can stand together in the spirit of Christian unity for which Christ prayed on the night before the cross.

The Great Thanksgiving is one great prayer, led by the ordained pastor, with the congregation offering appropriate responses at various places throughout. It begins with an introductory dialogue where we name the presence of God among us and declare our hearts to be an offering of praise. It is a thoroughly Trinitarian prayer, recognizing the work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. First, thanks is offered to the Father for the marvels of creation, redemption, and sanctification. This pattern follows an ancient Jewish tradition. Next, at the top of page 14, Christ’s words of institution as recorded in the New Testament tradition are shared. These are powerful words – words with the ability to shape us. The present work of the Holy Spirit is then invoked upon the gathered congregation, and upon the gifts of bread and wine.

This liturgy is not something that we simply go through by rote. You have heard me say and I will continue to say that this is called liturgy, not lethargy, so let’s respond together in ways that are life-giving and not life-draining. Indeed, these very words are life-giving – Christ’s very grace-filled life is offered freely and abundantly to each of us at this table. I will continue to give you big chunks of bread in our celebrations, a reminder that God’s grace is abundant and rich. Around our Lord’s table, there is no place for stinginess, for pride, for our own self-will. Christ is the host, and we are the guests, and there is more than enough to go around.

If you decide to throw a dinner party where you invite different people from across different cultural lines, invite me because I think that’s a great idea. But before we do that, I want to invite you to a meal where we are one with Christ, where we are one with Christians around the world, and perhaps most significantly, where we are one with Christians around the room. Peace begins with the presence of Christ in each of us, and as it spreads from heart to heart, the world is changed. I invite you to join Christ, to join me, to join each other, and to join Christians around the world at our Lord’s table, that we might reach out to the whole world in his name.