Resurrection

iphigenia

We
are coddled.

She
watched her husband and several children
hacked to death with a machete.

She grieves.
Her remaining children are fatherless
missing limbs
also by machete
a living “lesson” from the perpetrators to never forget
that this could happen again.

Yet instead of nurturing vengeance
instead of nurturing bitterness
she looks the murderers and maimers in the eye
and says,
I forgive you.
You have shattered my life, but you will not shatter my spirit.”

She is able to say this, and believe this,
because she received a gift from the church.
The gift of truth and reconciliation.
A process that brings deep awareness of hurt and injustice,
yet extends the transformative power of forgiveness.
A real power that takes the tattered pieces of a fractured reality,
and makes hope rise again.

Yet here in America,
we are coddled.

We have conversations about hypothetical scenarios
of robbers who come to steal possessions, and maybe life.
We have constitutional amendments that justify our beliefs
about what we would do to those perpetrators.

We don’t believe in forgiveness.
We don’t believe in hope rising from the ashes of death.
We don’t believe in resurrection.

We do not receive the gift from the church
of truth and reconciliation.

We baptize our hatred,
we baptize our justifications
we marginalize the teachings of Jesus,
we call our beliefs and justifications
Christian.

Yet,
try as we might,
marginalize as we do,
stories like hers never go away.

They bubble up from seemingly hidden places,
searing stories of a Christianity
that is not defanged, declawed, spiritualized into oblivion;
unlike ours, her Christianity looks a lot like Jesus.

Giving
Loving
Judging
Forgiving
Weeping
Transforming.

We are coddled, lost.

We can be Christian again.

It is not hopeless.

God resurrected Jesus.

God can resurrect us.

Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

RCL screenshot

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

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All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.

The Work of the Holy Spirit in Transformation

The following is an audio recording and transcript of a sermon for and with our church community, Vineyard Central, on June 17, 2012.  The sermon dwells deeply in Romans 7:7-8:16.

It is this passage from the letter to the Romans that puts verses like 7:6 (“But now, dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code”) and other like passages in context.  So much evangelical theology is built on verses like Romans 7:6 to the detriment of the church, I believe, because we don’t let Paul speak for himself.  Even more important, we don’t put Paul’s theology under the Lordship of Jesus, and we take pieces of Paul out of context, and elevate what we think Paul believes to be on par with the words of Jesus.

All the above thoughts lurk in my head often, and they informed the formation of the sermon.  The sermon is intended to address several questions that arise from the life of discipleship:

Why is it that Christians are so afraid of the simple commands of God, so worried about the possibility of “legalism,” that we avoid teaching clear commands of Scripture?

Why is God’s law so maligned in our understanding of discipleship even though Paul says “I delight in God’s law” (Romans 7:22)?

Why do we focus on “grace alone,” when Paul clearly joins with Jesus (“For the Son of Man…will reward each person according to what they have done” [Matthew 16:27])  in multiple places to say, “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2:6) and “if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13)?

Why, when we speak of the Spirit’s role in transformation, do we tend to speak in broad generalizations that in practice enable each person to make of the Spirit what they will?  Does Paul really set the Spirit up against written or spoken commands?

All of these questions led to four main thoughts in the sermon:

1.  God’s law is very good, and there is no gospel without it.

2.  The Spirit walks in step with the command of the Father and the gift of the Son, not apart from them.

3.  We have not been set free from the command of God to live in a state of grace alone.

4. The life of discipleship is not primarily a series of vague ideas that we get to shape ourselves, but primarily a concrete divine command followed by a human “Yes.”

Click on this sentence to listen to the sermon.

Below is the sermon transcript (my spoken thoughts deviated at times):
(Intro: How reflection times vary at VC based on situation/Scriptural passages/etc)

(Read Romans 8:1a) In some ways, I’d like the desire to begin with Romans 8 to serve as a teaching moment that hopefully will bear fruit over the course of our time this morning. As Christians, we have a strong desire to dwell primarily in places like Romans 8, “Oh yes, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Yes. Yes. I love that verse. And isn’t it just so true? We are not condemned.” But, if we value our spiritual and physical health, we should recognize that Romans 8:1a doesn’t stand alone. Plus, isn’t it just wrong on a literary level to start reading at “Therefore”?

So, we’re going to appreciate Romans 8 and the Holy Spirit as agent of transformation in a bit wider context, just including some of Romans 7. Now, if you’re familiar with Romans 7, you already know we could spend our entire time this morning in the intricacies of what our apostle Paul is trying to communicate about law, life, sin, death, and desire. I’m going to attempt to catch some of the core message of Romans 7 and how it enables us to see Romans 8 more clearly. And I want to start in Romans 7:7, which gives us enough context that we can digest this morning, and go from there.

Romans 7:7-8:16
7 “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not!”

I’d like to stop here for a second. There’s at least a small group of us this morning who might sum up our past encounters with the letter to the Romans by saying “Law= bad. Gospel = good.” And no matter how kindergartenish that sounds today, in some corner of our brain, we still believe it. But Paul simply asks the question, “Is the law sinful?” And he answers it, “Certainly not!” And if the law is not sinful, that implies that the law is “Good.” More on that as we progress here.

“Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”

I’m just throwing this out there, but I think Paul just used a rhetorical ploy here when he said, “Once I was alive apart from the law.” Because if it’s true that we’re alive apart from God’s law, then Paul should pack it in and quit writing to the church there in Rome. Every specific statement he makes, or any reference to God’s commands he makes from that point on will lead these poor people down the road towards death!” Again, for us one-verse quoters, we could make hay with this verse.” If I was alive apart from the law, then the law must cause death, so the law, again, is bad!” What Paul is addressing here, most specifically, is what we could call a state of naïve ignorance. The law is God’s command; God’s concrete, practical word that gives guidance about what to avoid and what to pursue. Apart from hearing from God, we are hopelessly caught in the clutches of a very sad ignorance. We believe we’re living in a wonderful state of freedom, but we’re really bathing in the seas of confusion and darkness. That’s why the law brings such a shocking, heart-wrenching move to the life of a new follower of Jesus. Coveting, for example, comes very natural to us. It is the waters we swim in in our culture. We want what others have. Heck, we even have it enshrined in our declaration of independence, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What if our wife, our job, our living situation, our bed, our stove, our coffee isn’t making us happy? We get another one! 20/20 on ABC is airing an interview with John Edwards’ mistress Rielle Hunter this Friday. As much as we’d like to demonize this woman, she wanted what would make her happy and pursued it. Who are we to stand in the way of her happiness, if we she is to pursue it?  And apart from the statement, “Do not covet,” how can we stand in her way?

So we hear this declaration from an authority other than us, “Do not covet,” and if we believe with the smallest shred of faith that that authority is true, we have to deal with what has been spoken. There is no turning back to our prior ignorance.

“Sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting…when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”

I’d like to consider some of the different facets of how sin springs to life in response to a command. Coveting is good place to start. God gives a clear word. We at least care a little bit about what God says, so we’re at least somewhat affected by the command. How do we respond?

One way to respond is to separate between big and small things, “Well, God means don’t desire to steal a neighbor’s house from under them, but maybe there’s some wiggle room when it comes to his smaller possessions.” God anticipated this more incremental form of disobedience in the command in Deuteronomy 5. Not only should you not covet your neighbor’s wife (a big possession). You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or ANYTHING that belongs to your neighbor.” I love how comprehensive this is. It’s as if God anticipated how crafty and scheming the human heart is in response to a command.

Another way to respond is to separate the outer and the inner. “Well, God means I shouldn’t outwardly pursue someone else’s possessions, but I can still kinda want it on the inside.” Jesus addressed this very clearly in his ministry, teaching that carrying a desire on the inside is no different than expressing it on the outside.

One of the most ancient and practiced human responses to God’s command is to call it vague and subjective when it is practical and clear. (repeat because of centrality)  Our response to the clear commands of God is (without quibbling, without philosophizing, without separating inner and outer, without protesting or grumbling) to obey. Comprehensively. And we quickly find this to be a paralyzing reality, as Paul moves on to confess,

“22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

So Paul moves on from stating not only that the law isn’t sinful, but that he DELIGHTS in God’s law. So not only does the author of Psalm 1 before Jesus meditate on God’s law, but here a disciple of Jesus finds delight in the law of God. This is after the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is the apostle proclaiming grace.  He DELIGHTS in God’s law!  Would that change our perspective on Paul if we let that sink in a bit?  That’s a powerful statement!

And the pain that is dripping from every word of this paragraph is not the pain that comes from seeking to obey God when convenient, or when God’s commands seem to come more naturally. This pain comes from a person who clearly desires to renounce everything he once believed to be true and to follow his new Master, no matter what the cost. And this person, Paul, finds this pathway to be soul-crushingly hard. Paul has found how deep his human selfishness, how dark the depravity of his heart really is. He does not say he is totally depraved, but he gives a picture of just a small glimmer of light in a deep darkness. Keep in mind that he delights in the law of God! There is something in God’s command that awoke a joy, a desire in him, that had long lain dormant. And he wants to feed the flame of that joy so deeply that his sinfulness cuts him that much more painfully. Paul introduces a second law here. God’s law is good and right. But there is another law at work in him; the law of sin, that seeks to place him in chains. That is the law Paul is opposed to, not the law of God.

And now we reach chapter 8;
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what the sinful nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the sinful nature is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the sinful nature is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.”

I proclaim to you, brothers and sisters, that here where Paul rejoices in being released from condemnation, not a single time…Not. One. Single. Time…does Paul speak negatively about the law of God. He mentions that the law is weakened by the sinful nature, but the law of God remains, the authority of God that stares human claims at independence in the face and scoffs, the command of God is VERY VERY GOOD. Paul simply adds in that in some mystical way, in the gift of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, we have been given a way out of our confusion and pain. We have been empowered to fully submit to and fully obey God. And we are governed by the Spirit, not left to govern ourselves. We have a master, and it is not ourselves, our personal perspectives. And it is most certainly not our experience. And the Spirit walks in step with the command of the Father and gift of the Son.

The assumption that Paul brings in this passage is NOT that God redeems people in their sinfulness and covers them in grace forevermore no matter what follows. Keep in mind that the heart-wrenching pain expressed in chapter 7, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am!” That pain, that anguish, is being experienced by a follower of Jesus AFTER having been empowered by the Spirit to battle against his sinfulness! Paul has not been delivered by Jesus to a life defined only by victory. No, Paul has been delivered to realize that he has a battle to fight! To use another metaphor, when we are delivered by Jesus at our moment of conversion, we have NOT reached the finish line. Instead, we have just stepped up to the starting line and begun to race.

The assumption that Paul brings into this proclamation of deliverance is the responsibility to actively battle against our sinful nature. We have not been set free from the command of God to live in a state of grace alone. We have been set free to revere the command of God, to cherish it, to seek it, and grace empowers us to make progress toward it. This sub-passage is all about orientation; are we oriented toward God? Are we listening? Is our self-will chastened? Is our desire to blunt the command of God kept in check?

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what the sinful nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs —heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, IF indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I suspect when you heard verse 13, if you are like me, you were a bit uneasy, “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

Aren’t you being a bit dramatic there, Paul? Do you have to cast the picture in such stark black and white categories? I’m more comfortable with the shades of gray conversation.

Yes, we would prefer our leaders to keep their words of instruction comfortably vague.
We would like to make truth into what is most palatable for our tastes.
But the life of discipleship is not primarily a series of vague ideas that we get to shape ourselves.
It is primarily a concrete divine command followed by a human “Yes.”

And MAN I felt uncomfortable with that IF in verse 17. We are heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ IF indeed we share in his sufferings. There’s another troublesome passage in the New Testament that states that “Jesus learned obedience through suffering.”

If the Son of God learned obedience through suffering, how can we suggest our pathway could be any different?

Vineyard Central is a Christian community that deeply values beauty, that deeply values individuality and diversity. In such a community, we learn to listen more closely to one another, to be challenged to see God in one another’s perspective, to believe that we haven’t fully arrived at the truth and can find it in one another through a shared life together. In this community, I am reminded I must live my life with a chastened approach to truth, believing I have never fully arrived, and if I ever believe I have arrived, you will remind me that I haven’t.

All of those things I value.

Yet it is tempting to make the whole thing about sharing different perspectives, valuing one another’s voices, and finding the truth somewhere in the mix. We cannot rest in that place primarily. We cannot primarily see the kingdom as a good idea for us to think about for awhile; a different perspective that causes us to slow down, or causes us to be surprised again by the beauty and love of God. We must not primarily access the kingdom through a good conversation with friends, even Christian ones.

No, we must primarily access the kingdom through falling to our knees and declaring that we are lost and that we need God.

This declaration of need is not a declaration of the need to see things differently, to consider things from a different perspective. It is instead a declaration that we are hopelessly lost, that we are deeply selfish and depraved, that we are so captured by the darkness that we no longer know what the light is. It is a declaration that because we are so lost and confused, we cannot construct our own meaning of life, cobbling together what works.

In summary,
I am not the authority.
We are not the authority.
God is the authority.
At times, God has spoken in mystical ways that require us to consider different points of view as we seek to live truthfully.
In many ways most of the time God has been bluntly simple. And our responsibility is to sit on our knees before God, listen, and do whatever needs to be done to fully obey that command until we die, without quitting, without drenching the command in cheap grace. The Spirit joins us in that lifelong struggle, empowering us to change; sometimes in big quick ways, but most of the time in small, uncomfortable ways where we learn to rejoice in small victories and lament the many failures and the slow pace of change.

This is the gospel. It requires all of us for a lifetime.
It must consume us, or it is not the gospel of Jesus.
It must transform us, or it is not the gospel of Jesus.
We must be different than our surrounding culture, or we do not follow the gospel of Jesus.
It is worth it. It is good news. It is painful. It is what we are created for.

Amen.

Sermon, 2nd Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 4th, 2011 Vineyard Central Church Norwood, OH

Main passages: Isaiah 40:1-11 Psalm 85:1-13 (though the RCL suggests Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, which I make an object lesson in the sermon)

I think the best place to begin today is with Isaiah 40, to do the best we can to walk into the world of the author, to observe, listen, and consider what we may encounter.

As obvious as it must sound, the first thing we notice is that this is Isaiah 40.
If we sat down and read the Book of Isaiah from beginning to end in one sitting, we’d notice there is a distinct difference in tone between chapters 1-39, and chapter 40 on. The first 39 chapters give a strong message of Israel’s unfaithfulness, unwillingness to follow the way of God. The prophet reminds them multiple times that this has not gone unnoticed by God. He uses the voice of God to say piercing things,

“’I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.”

The first 39 chapters read as a testament of the prophet using every literary device, every means of persuasion possible in an attempt to bring Israel to their collective knees, to consider their way of life, to repent, and to live differently. Along the way, a very clear portrait of God emerges that is uncomfortable and necessary for Israel to hear; and uncomfortable and necessary for us to hear today along with them.

God is not aloof, is not ignorant of what is going on. God has been patient for a very long time, hoping (desperately so), that the people he redeemed would turn back. But eventually, because God loves them, because God has called them to be a light to the nations, his anger boils over and he shatters their society, drives them into exile at great loss of life, loss of dignity, great cost. God does this, and he does this because he loves them.

So this is the immediate context we hear Isaiah 40 in today. And because the tone is so different and the way the narrator talks about God’s judgment in the past tense, longing for restoration, most biblical scholars believe Isaiah 40-55 were written about a hundred years later than the first 39 chapters. This was a common practice in the Jewish community, to continue the tradition of a prophet, to write in their name, with the community affirming the words over time as valid and truthful.

And so, Isaiah 40 gives a message of hope, “Comfort, comfort my people…speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

The prophet uses strong language here to give his hearers hope. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

This is Hebrew apocalyptic language. It’s used time and time again in the Scriptures. “The heavenly bodies will be shaken, the sun darkened, the moon turned to blood,” one passage says. “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth,” another passage says. “The wolf will live with the lamb,” says another. The writers don’t actually mean that God hates mountains and valleys and wants everything level, don’t actually mean that the sun will cease to exist, or the moon drip with blood. They don’t mean that God’s going to throw the universe in the trash and start over from scratch.  And they don’t mean that wolves are going to suddenly cuddle with cute little soft lambs.

All of those passages are the Hebrew way of saying, “God’s going to do something big again. God is going to make things right. The powerful will recognize their relationship with the weak, and they will live in community again. God will make things right.”

The prophet continues: “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field…the grass withers, the flower fades. (but the word of our God will stand forever)”

These words remind the hearers of their mortality, and raise awareness of how quickly we forget the restoration of God and return to our old ways that we find more comfortable. “So remember that you are like grass, here today and gone tomorrow,” the prophet reminds us.  And our faithfulness, while beautiful and full of sweet aroma like the flowers of the field, is not the center of reality.  The strength of human effort is downplayed. But the intent is NOT to empty the possibility of human faithfulness, to diminish the impact of serving God. No, the intent is to exalt God, to give glory to the eternal God, which draws us to fall to our knees, adore Him, and confess over and over again, “God, you know better than we do how we were created to live. We are confused, our minds and hearts are darkened, twisted by selfishness and rebellion.”

With this emphasis established, the writer can shift back again to comfort, “Bring good news,” he says. Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him…he tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.”

God has been wrathful and condemning in his great love, and God will be gentle and compassionate in his great love.

That is a significant lesson that the Israelite people needed to hear, and we need to hear in our day as well. It is a reminder of the full love of God, which includes the full spectrum from the most gentle, affirming touch all the way to ripping entire societies apart in their unfaithfulness; death, pain, and the displacement of millions of people.

Our second lectionary passage of the day is an important object lesson that brings this issue into full focus. So if you would turn to Psalm 85 with me.

I want to say two things here about the lectionary with this being one of the readings for the day. First, I love the sense of unity felt in the use of the lectionary, knowing that millions of brothers and sisters are reading the same passages and praying together with the same themes. I love that as the Earth turns and we all experience Sunday over a 24 hour period, we are reading, praying, and thinking together on similar themes. This is a great gift. But I feel extremely frustrated at times with the lectionary because those who set it up have a knack for seeking out comforting passages and omitting, avoiding sharper passages. Sometimes, it’s hard to read their intent, other times, I’m sure I read into their selections something that isn’t there, and other times, like today with Psalm 85, it is SO OBVIOUS.

(Make a quick skim read of the Psalm and take a guess at what the Lectionary folks omitted)

When manipulating the passages so obviously like this, one has to ask, what is their purpose? I had seen this pattern before in the Lectionary and wondered when it was brought together; who shaped the passages for reading? Is this pattern several hundred years old? I wasn’t surprised to find after a bit of research that the Revised Common Lectionary was brought together in 1994. That date is telling. I also wasn’t surprised to find that the RCL was an ecumenical effort (Catholic and a variety of Protestant communions), and one of the markers of ecumenical works tends to be an appeal to the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on.

Maybe more important, though, is the wider issue of belief. One of the most distinct beliefs across our society that’s been in vogue for at least the last 75 years or so is that if God loves you, he would never do anything that brings you pain, would never hurt you. And if that was the Biblical message, that would be well and good. But it’s not.  The Biblical message is that God loves us deeply, relentlessly, desperately, and that God will stop at nothing to bring about his kingdom.

It also seems to me that the most comfortable people of the world are the ones who love to read the Jeremiah 29:11s of the Scriptures over and over again. This also fits with the shapers of the RCL being Western, powerful people. Yet those in the world without power, being crushed, used by wealthy empires to maintain their way of life; it is those people who cling to passages on God’s judgment on sin. Why? Because those passages give them an outlet for their pain, gives them questions they can ask they didn’t know they had, channel their frustration to show them how to pray so they don’t become embittered and hopeless.

We need this reminder most here in Advent
. Because the people on the eve of Jesus’ birth were NOT comfortable. They were occupied by the most powerful military in the world, taxed into the ground, with the system of taxation carried out by wealthy Hebrew persons grinding their fellow citizens into the ground. The people of Israel were groaning, suffering, longing, and Jesus’ mother Mary (one of those marginalized people) didn’t offer words of consolation to comfortable people:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1:51-55

So, I want to emphasize how desperately we need to hear the part in Psalm 85 that the Lectionary-shapers omitted. It is a voice of pleading, of weeping, of desperate humility, of throwing oneself at the feet of God, of looking unseemly, not-together.

“Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

How does the psalmist, speaking for Israel, plan to respond to God? “I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants- but let them not turn to folly.” Another way to say that last sentence is “God promises peace to his people- his faithful servants- IF they do not turn to folly.” Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him. There is much wrapped up in those two last sentences.

When God’s people fear him, value him, cherish his authority and voice above all other voices, obey and act on that voice, and do it together; wonderful things result.

And then comes this beautiful image, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The LORD will indeed give what is good.”

There’s a conversation that often comes to mind for me when thinking of the tensions described above. It involves one of my heroes, Clarence Jordan, co-founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia, in conversation with his brother, Robert. Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan (later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court) to ask him to legally represent Koinonia Farm. Robert responded to Clarence’s request:

“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lost my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

“We might lose everything too, Bob.” Clarence said.

“But it’s different for you,” Robert responded.

“Why is it different?” Clarence said. “I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes. What did you say?’

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be- the cross?”

“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not ON the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”

“Well, now,” Robert said defensively, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t HAVE a church would we?”

“The question,” Clarence said, “is, Do you have a church?

So, like Clarence and Robert, we are presented with a couple options in our life. Do we choose a genteel Christianity that says all the right things, that goes out of our way to read comforting passages that avoid responsibility and reinforce our way of life, that stops short of a willingness to give of ourselves with all of who we are? Or do we choose a Christianity that follows Jesus and obeys him, willing to be stretched, and willing to be broken, willing to care enough about the brokenness of the world that we are driven to our knees in prayer?

This world is very, very sick; but SO full of potential for healing and joy.

May we turn our gaze off ourselves and towards our Creator.
May we have the courage to come to terms with and embrace the full spectrum of God’s love.
May we be shaped by this love to pour our lives out in service to God, to play a role in the healing of God’s world.

Amen.

Cats, children, boundaries, and the life within

“Indy!  No!”

I utter this phrase multiple times a day.  Indy is our cat.  Indy does not like boundaries.  Indy needs boundaries (and continual reinforcement of them), so he can interact with our environment in healthy ways.

I have seen households where cats are not given strong, reinforced boundaries, and I’ve seen households where cats who previously had boundaries had those boundaries relaxed, and I’ve seen cats in the latter regress in behavior back to a selfish baseline that existed pre-discipline.  A chair in our living room bears battle scars from the training process for our Indy.

“Indy!  No!”

I reinforced Indy’s boundaries this morning as he tried to drink the water I had just given to our basil plant.  Today, I did not feel the need to give a more strong quick reminder through a bump on his nose or a stinging of his backside.  He got the message right away today, and his look of guilt showed me he knew what he was doing.  Other days, after a verbal rebuke, he gets an insolent “I’m going to do whatever I want right now look” and proceeds to not care what we say.  He cares pretty quickly when the left hand of justice reaches for the spray bottle of water or reaches out to spank.

Today, like other days recently, my thoughts shifted to reflecting parenting afterwards (a wife 14 weeks pregnant with an already proportional little human being inside will do that to you).  I quickly recalled my knowledge of children, which is fairly extensive, and a reminder that you don’t have to be a parent to have a deep enough experience with children to have something to say about their capacity to know and understand right and wrong, self-giving and selfishness.

You see, children (and adults too) are more like our dear little Indy than we would like to confess.  We like to think human beings are a higher order being than other animals, that we have a greater natural capacity to know what is good and to choose it.  For a well-trained child or adult, this is certainly true, being made in the image of God and all.  But a child who has not received rigorous, intentional, loving discipline is nearly exactly like our cat. They don’t know what is healthy or unhealthy, they need to be reminded that “Dirt water is not sanitary, and the water is intended for the basil and not for you, thankyouverymuch.”

Children without boundaries strongly reinforced look like the vast majority of people in our culture; drifting aimlessly through life, driven primarily by their own desires and curiosity; which upon very basic reflection are driven in large part by selfishness.

I’d like to spend a little time below showing how my perspective is shaped by my Christian commitment because I think it is of vital, central importance to understanding human beings and specifically children.

Scripturally, we are told that humans are created by God, in God’s image, and therefore because our Creator is so innovative and compassionate and intentional, we have a built-in capacity to know what is good and eventually to run towards it.  This is our created identity, which we should identify as an identity built into humanity a long, long time ago.

Humanity since our creation has displayed, however, a history of desire, of innovation, of creative capacity gone amuck.  We have taken the powerful created identity given to us and twisted it to serve our purposes, which are bent toward selfishness.  As a result, generation after generation after generation for millenia have built human societies, religions, and perspectives of the world that have enshrined greed, selfishness, and self-determination as virtues to be pursued, not vices to be avoided.  Geneticists tell us that our genetic heritage as people is, yes, relatively stable, but also yes, deeply impacted by environmental conditions and social pressures.  The most cutting edge geneticists today suggest that the impact of the surrounding environment on the human organism are deep enough that they penetrate even into the building blocks of our genetic code.  To reinforce, our environment doesn’t just affect how different parts of our genetic code express themselves, our environment changes our genetic code.  This happens normally over multiple generations, yes, but this does not make this reality any less real or meaningful.  This research is interesting because it reveals a significant parallel between genetics and Scriptural teaching.  Practically, the upshot is the following.  The Scriptures teach of a great rebellion of humanity against our Creator.  This great rebellion has been so deeply embodied and pursued that the “natural” state of humanity is now rebellious, dark, and selfish.  The Apostle Paul put it like this in the letter to the Romans,

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

– Romans 1:21, 28-32

Do you follow the contours of Paul’s thought?  We knew God, but we forsook God’s wisdom and knowledge about us, so our thinking became futile and our foolish hearts were darkened.  We have become filled with every kind of wickedness.  We are full of envy.  Although we may have some awareness that we’re functioning in unhealthy ways, we not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.  What is implied in every stage of Paul’s thought here is a process.

A number of theologians have paired this Romans passage with the beginning of Genesis to describe what they see as a “fall,” to show the story of Adam and Eve as some irreparable break that made humans immediately disgusting in the eyes of God.  Beyond the fact that this interpretation denies that the creation story is a poem (not rigorous human history about an actual event) it also is a refusal to let the story speak for itself.  Theologians, because of the beliefs they bring to the story, twist the meaning of the story to fit their understanding rather than letting it speak to them on its own.  The story is one of rebellion, yes, but it is also one revealing God’s compassion, and humanity’s ability to choose the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again) over our own ideas and pathways.

When one accepts the above interpretation of the story of creation, the Scriptures explode with life in ways we had not had eyes to see before. We find horrific and beautiful repetition on these themes of rebellion, God’s compassion and discipline, and choosing the pathways of God again (and again, and again, and again).  The Scriptures are not about the futility of human beings and our inability to be holy, primarily; but instead are about the rebellion of human beings and the lack of desire to be holy.  This lack of desire is heavily affected by generational rebellion, by a long line of ancestors who valued their way more than their Creator.  This is why God reminded the Israelites in Deuteronomy

“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children…Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

-Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 39-40

Do you hear the words I bolded above?  Be careful, do not forget, teach, remember, learn to revere, teach, acknowledge, take to heart, keep.  Why?  So that it may go well with you and your children.  The exhortation here in Deuteronomy is an acknowledgment of the darkness, the rebellion, inherited confusion of the people.  But the exhortation does not, does not say “You are unable to change, and must only cry out for forgiveness and God will forgive.”  The writer of Deuteronomy does not settle for that lesser, sad perspective that Martin Luther proclaimed as gospel.  No, the writer(s) choose to call the people out of their inherited habits into a new way of inherited habits that are intended, generation by generation, to bear witness in thought, word, and deed to a different way of being in the world.  The  Israelites are to live this way “so that it may go well with you and your children” in way that calls all who observe back to what they were created for.

So, the Scriptures talk about created identity (1).  The Scriptures talk about choices to deny and twist that identity (2).  The Scriptures show the generational quality of those choices (2a), where people become darker, become filled with wickedness, become envious.  And the Scriptures show a God who continually calls people out of that darkness(3), to embody practices and habits that lead them back into the light (3a), to become filled with goodness, to become self-giving, to choose to kneel before God to listen and obey.

So, geneticists and the Scriptural community agree; we are who we are most significantly because of a pattern of living that we have inherited from our ancestors from our present parents all the way back into primordial history.  What we desire is “borrowed” from those who shape us.  In other words, there isn’t a single thing we desire on our own.  What is most natural to me is that way because of the culture surrounding me.  And if I discover that what has seemed to be natural (violence and sexuality are two central things that come to mind) is in fact unnatural, I must commit myself and my children (and if my children follow, their children and children’s children) to the pursuit of what is natural.  Along the way, we affirm that some of those desires will not feel natural until multiple generations have pursued the life given by the authority of God.

All of the extended thoughts above have been a prolonged riff in support of the same theme I stated above:  our children (and our cats) don’t know what is good and right to do and be by themselves.  Our children need boundaries, they need the strong word of their mentors and parents, and they need further reminders beyond words from time to time that shock them out of their complacency and worldview to consider another (i.e. spanking, and other essential tools).  The more I think on this subject as we steadily march toward parenthood, the more the need to have a solid commitment to all of what I have said above is revealed.  However the intricacies of parenting work out (because every child is, in important ways, unique), I must remember, I must remember, I must remember to “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.”

Teacher, author, and theologian Stanley Hauerwas understands the importance of tradition, habit, and strong communal remembering in a powerful way.  It shows up over and over again in his thoughts.  A story of Stan’s interactions with a couple seems most fitting to conclude,

Stan was walking across the Quad at Notre Dame one morning when he spotted some friends, a married couple, both Jewish, walking nearby and joined them. Knowing that they had a son about to be of age he asked, “When is the Bar Mitzvah?” The couple replied, “Well, we are not sure. We want Jacob to decide for himself that he wants to be Bar Mitzvah’d. He hasn’t decided yet.” Stan retorted,“So, there have been 5750 years of Jewish history, Jewish suffering, so that this twelve year-old can make up his mind? Could he have a mind worth making up if he does not know his parents stand for something?”

Amen brother.  May we stand for something, and shape the desire of our children toward their Creator.  Along the way, may our children shape our desire toward our Creator.  When we practice this shaping together, we bear witness of a way of life worth living, a life patterned toward our ultimate joy and fulfillment.  May it be so.

An excerpt from this morning’s sermon at Cincinnat COB

“Humble Yourselves, Discipline Yourselves, Be Steadfast”
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

…we have no reason to fear what even the most powerful empire in the world can do to us or the most well-placed bullet because we get to bear witness to a powerful love.  It is this awareness, this belief that has led followers of Jesus into the darkest, most violent places on Earth to proclaim and live the transformative message of Jesus and the way of life he redeems us to.  Or, it has led followers of Jesus into parts of our society that aren’t necessarily desirable, has led us to desire healing and hope in places of brokenness.

Believing this message should, I emphasize should lead Christians to look at their society around them, searching for places and relationships of brokenness that we can then move towards, engage with; instead of separating ourselves from, insulating ourselves from brokenness.  Unfortunately, the pattern of response to brokenness in Cincinnati, like many cities, is people abandoning, leaving behind, running away from darkness because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, insecure, stretched, or frustrated.  People move into an ever-increasing ring of suburbs to find a place of security, leaving behind communities falling apart.  We then build beltways and interstates that keep us from having to see and engage those communities on a daily basis, and they slide into our subconscious; only coming up when we are forced to detour through them.

Precious few churches choose to obey the courageous call of Jesus to seek out places of brokenness and put down roots there.  This community of Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and our community Vineyard Central have attempted to be faithful to the call of God in this way.  But it has been rough going, for us and for you.

For one thing, we’ve found that we don’t have the tools to be able to handle pain and brokenness very well, because we’ve been shaped by a gospel of pain avoidance.  Several weeks ago, I heard a story from a man named Scott Dewey that connects with this truth.  Scott is a follower of Jesus, and Scott caught a vision to move to the slums of Bangkok, Thailand with his wife.  There are any number of preventable diseases there in the slums that primarily result from unclean drinking water.  Scott wanted to solve those problems, and bring hope to the slums.  So they said, “Here I am Lord, send me” and they went.  Three years later Scott rolled over in bed one morning and said to his wife, “Melanie, I can’t do this any more.  There’s too much pain here.”  After three years, they hadn’t solved the unclean water problem and Scott had been crushed by the pain and darkness of life in the ghetto.  Scott, however, chose to reflect on his thinking instead of just abandoning the place, and he came to one crucial awareness.

They had entered that neighborhood to do ministry for people there.  They had come with a gospel they believed provided hope.  And Scott realized as he thought about the pain and darkness crushing him that the people who had lived in that ghetto all their lives had a greater capacity to deal the with the pain and still find little cracks of hope than he did.  Scott found out that the gospel and the community he came from was one that was not familiar with pain, did not seek out pain, struggle, and brokenness and therefore he didn’t have the resources to deal with the pain there in Bangkok.  What Scott learned was that the people he had come to minister to were in fact ministering to him in how to live with pain and suffering.  What Scott learned through them was a fresh understanding of the gospel that does not bring hope through avoiding pain but through embracing it and finding God in the midst of it…

Link to full text here.

An excerpt from the sermon to be shared at Cincinnati COB…

Since Jesus prayed centrally, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and Cincinnati Church of the Brethren’s place on earth that you have chosen is Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, with Wendell Berry ringing in our ears, beyond all the sexy ideas about mission and growth; maybe the most important, most essential quality of your work as a congregation is actively and thoughtfully learning the stories of the people here in Walnut Hills, gaining the trust of the people of Walnut Hills, and seeking to follow the Lord as Shepherd for this place. It’s letting our mission be determined by our place, and committing to a place for an extended period of time, intentionally being present in a way that deeply listens, invests, and prays for God’s will to be done in our place.

Our Vineyard Central church family in Norwood is struggling through this very issue too. We have a sexy phrase that we’ve created and put up on our website: “Practicing resurrection in West Norwood and encouraging it everywhere.” Now, if we want to move beyond the sexy phrase and listen to the wisdom of Berry, practicing resurrection IN WEST NORWOOD means establishing west Norwood as the focus of our ministry. We have said West Norwood will be our place. In order for this to have a practical reality, we must spend a significant amount of time in West Norwood. This does not necessarily mean we have to live there, but it does mean we need to deeply invest there.

A number of us, because we want a more natural flow to this commitment, have moved into the neighborhood; in theory, because living IN WEST NORWOOD means we will more easily practice resurrection there. But we find a significant barrier comes up whether we move in or not: we don’t know the people here, we may not share the same desires as the people here, we don’t know the story of the community, the story of the people, we lack the connection needed. We don’t know the place where we are.

Full text of the sermon here.