Scripture - Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (idea of story and re-storying our lives after that of the gospel)
This morning we’re going to be spending some time with Paul’s story as he tells it in the first couple chapters of Galatians. I’ll summarize it for you but I really encourage you to read it - it’s in your bulletin insert for your reference. The gist of the story is this: Paul - the one who was zealously persecuting the early church on behalf of the Jewish authorities - receives this mission to preach the Gospel message to the Gentiles - non-Jews. He has this experience and instead of talking about it with the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem, he goes off to Arabia for three years before going to Jerusalem to spend some time with James and Peter. He then continues his ministry.
Fourteen years later, he goes back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus and shares with the other apostles what he’s been preaching. Titus comes along as a kind of proof-of-concept that Gentile converts don’t have to be circumcised to follow Jesus. Paul’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles was affirmed, Peter’s mission to spread the Gospel among the Jews was affirmed - everything seemed just fine.
Yet then Paul recounts a confrontation he ended up having later with Peter in Antioch, where Peter - a Jew - didn’t participate in all the Jewish customs around food when he was hanging out with the Gentiles...until James - also a Jew - had sent some of his faction to town and then Peter quickly distanced himself from his non-Jewish friends. Paul called him out on it with this killer line, paraphrased from The Message, “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
This is the backdrop to where we’ll pick up in verse 15 of chapter 2. We’ll continue with The Message. Paul writes,
Galatians 1:13 - 2:21 (The Message)
15-16 We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
17-18 Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
19-21 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
There was a video going around Facebook in a few of my moms groups a few weeks ago - it was a video of a 10 month old baby who was born partially deaf hearing his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to the use of hearing aids. His expressions ranged from delighted smiles and giggles to shock and bewilderment and back again as his mother repeated “hi” and “hello” to him over and over again. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the whole way you experience the world change in an instant and you realize that there’s more depth and richness than you ever thought possible.
That’s basically what happened in Paul’s conversion story, where he was opened up to this whole new world and had to reinterpret everything he thought was familiar.
One of the things I admire about Paul’s story is that he was able to recognize that it was Jesus speaking to him - when he had that dramatic moment on the road to Damascus. I have to be honest and say that I always wanted that kind of direct clarity and certainty in my conversations with God. God tends to speak to me in a lot more subtle ways - no voices or flashing lights or dreams or visions - mostly it feels like a lot of detective work and putting pieces together...sometimes a dash of what I call holy anxiety where I know I have to do or say something and it comes out of the blue. Sometimes I think that getting the neon signs from God might make things easier. Maybe not.
He shares his story with the Galatians to remind them that the old way doesn’t work - that you can’t rule-follow your way into a living relationship with God. For Paul, if you are interested in pleasing people by how virtuous you are, or in trying to do good in order to make God happy, or in trying to get it right by following all the Jewish laws and traditions -- following Jesus isn’t going to get you there.
His experience of Christ broke down all those old categories for him and it led to a new understanding of his own religious tradition. It led him to a new interpretation of old stories - stories about who God is and what God wants for the world, stories about who is in and who is out, stories about what it means to live in light of God’s kingdom. These are the stories that have shaped his religious faith for generations, stories that were a part of him from childhood - stories that became fresh and new in the light of Christ. It also led him to being part of the new chapter of God’s story. It revealed a whole new way of being in the world that meant he could never go back to life as he knew it before Jesus.
In God Unbound, Elaine Heath recalls a conversation with Wendy Miller, author and spiritual director, about the stories we live. I had the good fortune to study under Wendy Miller during the Gateways to God program at Rolling Ridge a few years ago - and this is truly the heart of her approach for discerning the spirit of God at work. The question Wendy posed was “which story are we living?” She continued with, “we pause from time to time, especially when we need discernment about a decision, and we ask ourselves: Are we living the Gospel story or living the world’s story?”
Are we living the Gospel story or are we living the world’s story? Are we operating under the rules the world tells us are important, are we living out of fear and anxiety, are we drawing boundaries around who is in and who is out, are we driven by our ego or by trying to please others -- or are we living the Jesus story - motivated by compassion and forgiveness, seeking to heal and restore, driven by what would be life giving to others, responding to the freedom and grace offered to us in Jesus?
This approach to discernment relies on our familiarity with the stories of Jesus and allowing those stories to speak to us in the midst of our various life situations. As we consider our lives and meditate on the narrative, we invite Jesus to be present and find ourselves incarnating the love, compassion, grace, and presence of Jesus in our own lives and to those around us. This gives us the opportunity to re-story our lives again and again around Jesus - allowing us to see the ways Christ invites us to be in the world.
The encounters we have with Jesus may not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s, but they are no less transformational if we are open to all that Jesus has for us. In re-centering and re-storying our lives in the narratives we find in the Gospels, it helps us pay attention to what God is up to, to sense the movement and work of the spirit in our lives....in our communities...and in our church. It allows us then to follow his lead and invitation, to trust the wisdom and direction he gives us, and to give ourselves over again and live by the Gospel story.
What would it look like to invite Jesus into the story of our church? What would it look like to consider the struggles we currently face...the fears and anxieties we have about the future...the memories of the past...the hopes and dreams we long for...the grief we carry of people who are no longer with us...the decisions about our identity and relationship with the United Methodist Church...what would it look like to invite Jesus in to all of that and notice what he says or what he does? What would it look like to invite Jesus to live again in this congregation?
Jesus takes our stories, our traditions, our hopes and dreams, our very selves - and transforms them into something new. We live inside the story that God is writing, following Jesus as our guide. We are freed from our old stories, the old narratives that try to sway us from the freedom and grace that are found in Christ. May we continue to fix our eyes on him - that we can live the Gospel story in all things - and share God’s love wherever we are. Amen.
Scripture - Galatians 1:1-12
1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - The First Song of Isaiah (FWS 2030)
I remember my first flute lesson in college. I had been playing the flute for eight years at this point - all through middle school and high school. For never having taken a formal lesson and learning through my own practicing and what my band teachers had taught, I was pretty good. Through some miracle, I hadn’t learned too many bad habits, I could read music pretty well, and had some decent technical proficiency and thanks to singing, decent breath support. There wasn’t much I had to unlearn.
So when my flute teacher handed me a piece of music full of whole notes on it I thought it was a walk in the park. I played through the notes as they were written without too much thought. She asked me to play it again, but this time paying attention to the beginning and ending of each note. The next time through, she wanted me to pay attention to my embouchure - the shape of my lips - and change them slightly on each note to hear how the tone changed. The third time through I was to pay attention to my breath. And so on and so forth. The next set of exercises was to make sure I had my scales down cold - not just memorized with my mind, but know them on an instinctive level ....down to muscle memory.
I had to go back to the basics to pay attention to the fundamentals - because any flaw in tone production, technique, phrasing - will show up as you work your way through the basics. By getting these things right, or by continuing to work on them and practice them, your playing will improve overall. It’s not easy work. It’s not even very exciting work. But it’s important work.
This is the heart of what Paul is getting at in this letter to the churches in Galatia - get back to the basics of the Gospel. He dives right in with fiery admonishment - they are perverting the message of the Gospel of Jesus that Paul preached among them.
By making new believers in Jesus undergo Jewish initiation rites before being able to participate in the life of the church.
In the beginnings of the church, there were no real distinctions between Christianity and the Jewish religion. This small sect of the Jewish faith called themselves followers of The Way, and it was attracting all kinds of followers - both practicing Jews and those who were not. In other words, Jews and non-Jews alike were drawn to the Way because of how they saw people living their faith together. Paul was one of these early followers of The Way who felt compelled to share this Gospel message specifically among non-Jewish people. We’ll hear a bit more about Paul’s story next week.
The issue that early followers of The Way had to wrestle with was this -- some early leaders of this movement believed that in order to properly follow Jesus, non-Jewish people would have to first become Jews and become subject to the same laws that Jews practiced -- especially around circumcision, dietary laws, and other Jewish customs. Paul was in a different camp - that Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and came to save all God’s people to a new and different relationship with God so that Jews and non-Jews alike could live in freedom - freedom from the evils of this present age, freedom from being bound by rules and regulations, freedom to live as human beings beloved by God without the weight of the Jewish tradition.
Paul makes it clear that he received this message by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ - not mediated by humans, not something he learned about in a book - but something he experienced straight from the source. Not only does Paul root the Gospel in his own revelation of Christ, he roots his mission to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles as one given by God as well. Paul claims his apostleship not from human authority, not because he was sent by any person or persons, but from Jesus Christ himself. He argues that in this, he’s not trying to win approval from others, he’s not trying to advance himself or appease others - because, let’s face it - preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen; Jesus, an executed criminal, a prophet disgraced and rejected by many of his own people, doesn’t win anyone popularity points. As Dan Clendenin who writes at Journey with Jesus notes, “To the Jews [Jesus is] a scandal and to Greeks he's foolishness.”
What Paul knows in his bones - and what he desperately wants the Galatians to remember - is that the Gospel is not bound by traditions of the past, but transforms them in the light of the risen Christ. And to put conditions on the love and hope that are freely offered in Jesus perverts the Good News that we are freed from sin and saved into a new life with God.
Elaine Heath in God Unbound writes this: “Paul neither rejects nor disrespects his tradition but comes to see it in a new light. Non-Jews are just as beloved to God as Jews, he realizes. People need not follow all the rituals of the Hebrew tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
I’m going to do a quick word substitution in part of the above quote.
“The unchurched are just as beloved to God as the insiders. People need not follow all the rituals of the Christian tradition to experience God’s love and salvation fully. Jesus the Messiah has come for all people.”
For me, that hits a lot closer to home. I can sit and nod along with the conclusion that Jesus loves everybody and that God’s love and salvation are there for everybody, and thanks to Paul we don’t need to follow all the ins and outs of the Jewish law to accept the reality of what Jesus has done for us. But when it comes to the stream of tradition that we stand in - traditions that have shaped me in my experiences of God, traditions that hold meaning for this community, traditions - it challenges me to consider what is truly at the heart of all those things that hold importance for us?
For Paul - and for us - it’s the gospel. God’s love and forgiveness and freedom from sin for all in the name of the risen Christ, and the ability to live into the fullness of that Good News as individuals and as a community. Back to the basics.
In Health’s own wrestling with Paul, she notes that “Paul convinced me afresh that a great tradition lies behind our traditions...Paul’s vision in Galatians does not threaten the true gospel, which proclaims the tradition behind the tradition. It only threatens a church that subsumes the gospel to institutional priorities, doing so in the name of tradition.”
We live in a time of great cultural shifts, of deep division, of rapid change. The effects of that are felt keenly in many congregations across white American Christianity with declining membership, dwindling budgets, and decaying edifices. It is difficult to grapple with the eroding and changing of the traditions we have inherited because many of us have found meaning and comfort and strength within those traditions. The danger comes when we fail to hold space for the ways the gospel is incarnating itself outside of our expectations and familiarities.
We’ve seen this here in our congregation. Many of us remember a time when people came to worship on Sunday mornings because it was the thing to do. Pews were fuller, there were more programs that reached out to youth. The Parish House was a place of community-wide fellowship. This place hosted graduations, Christmas parties, and so much more. But the culture has changed, more than just people finding other things to do on Sunday mornings. When people talk about connecting with God or about their spiritual experiences, they don’t talk about buildings or programs...they talk about nature, about connection with others who are seeking God in their lives.
It reminds me that the heart of the matter is how we engage with the great tradition - to love the tradition behind the tradition - to place ourselves in the unfolding story of the gospel and to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit in to see what God is doing - both within and beyond this church - and how we must be a part of it. What we did in the Parish House for January and February - not only in worship but also in eating together - is a part of that journey and the beginning of the conversation that God is inviting us into - of how we take the tradition of this church - one that has been on this island for over two hundred years - and see the heart of a community that has pursued faithfulness to God in every generation and ensure that there is a community for a new reality, a new set of people, some of whom are within these walls...and many who are not.
We can take hope from the ways Paul helped expand the views of these early Jewish Christians when it came to their perspectives of God, neighbor, tradition, and mission. And we can do this as we pay close attention to our understanding of the basic Gospel message and how people are experiencing God’s action and movement in their lives.
As Elaine Heath reminds us: “The church belongs to God. The church is God’s idea, not ours. Our vocation as the church involves our participation with God so that we can give this world a glimpse into God’s great heart of love. To take up our apsotolic vocation today we have to come to terms with this reality: The God we love, the God revealed in Christ, is much bigger than we knew. God has never been bound by our theology or our traditions. It is now time for us to see the unbound God.”
May we have such faith that as we recommit ourselves to the gospel - as we get back to the basics - we will see and experience the ways that we are a part of a much bigger story and movement of God’s work in this world - and that we may be enriched and enlivened by it together. Amen.
Scripture: Matthew 14:25-33; 1 Corinthians 16:13-14
25 And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
13 Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.
The Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
You’ve heard of the term safe space. An environment where people feel….safe. Comfortable. Where you can participate and express yourself without fear of personal attack or retribution. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? We all want places like this in our lives. Places where we can simply be without having to justify ourselves...places where we don’t have to worry about feeling uncomfortable...places where we can feel nurtured and supported in a risk-free environment...a space that maybe feels like a warm hug, letting you know that everything’s going to be alright.
It’s a really popular concept in college and post-graduate classrooms, particularly when the learning material might feel threatening to some students. The idea is that the classroom can be a safe space for exploring difficult material. People can hold a variety of opinions and experiences and feel safe enough to share them without feeling attacked by another student’s opinions and experiences….and that others can challenge those thoughts. Learning, then, can happen without risk to one’s core self, without emotional or psychological harm, without discomfort. It’s a very well-intentioned concept, and one that was part of the framework of many of my seminary classes.
We like to think about it in relation to the church as well. Church is a safe place to be and belong. All are welcome whoever they are and wherever they come from. You can be yourself, express yourself without fear, and feel comfortable doing so. It’s a place free from hurt and harm. It’s a place that is warm and welcoming. Nice. Friendly. Loving.
The church inherently is not a safe space….because our God inherently is not a safe God. The church instead is a brave space, where we show up for God and one another and risk vulnerability and encounter for the sake of our own transformation and that of our communities.
The Bible is full of stories of people meeting God and God pushing them out of the safe spaces of home...predictability….familiarity - for the sake of a promise. Sometimes that journey is a physical one: Our very first story in the Bible - Adam and Eve, where God drives humankind out of literal paradise to face the harsh reality of the world - and promises to be with them as they go. Abram and Sarai - God takes them from their homeland to a new land where they can establish themselves and their children. Moses - God pushes Moses outside of himself and his own insecurities to lead God’s protesting people out from slavery. Sometimes the journey is an internal one - Elijah as he’s fleeing for his life - searching for safety - finds God in the silence and is propelled back into the world. Paul - encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus - and his whole worldview changes as God tasks him with bearing the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. Mary - carry a pregnancy as an unwed mother. Esther - reveal herself as a Jew to her husband the king who just ordered all Jews to be killed. The early Christians facing ridicule and persecution for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord instead of Ceasar.
None of this is safe stuff.
But it is brave stuff.
The Bible is also full of stories of God reminding people of God’s promise of presence, even in the face of difficulty. God encourages Joshua as they are heading into the promised land, telling him to be bold and steadfast. The prophets reminded the Israelites again and again to find their strength in God alone. Jesus calling out to Peter to walk on the water, even in the midst of his fear and doubt. And Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. That isn’t advice for the faint of heart - it’s an invitation to be brave in facing the challenges that life in community brings.
A safe space asks nothing of us. It requires nothing of us. Brave space, on the other hand, demands us to be present and to show up with our full selves and hold space for others to show up as their full selves too - because as we seek to follow God together, as we look for where the Holy Spirit is moving in our world, as we try to live this Jesus life with one another - it’s going to make us uncomfortable. It’s going to upset the status quo.
But that’s where growth happens. That’s where we learn and change. Transformation doesn’t happen in the safe spaces...because it’s hard to do things differently when we’re comfortable. It’s hard to see the need for change when things look OK to us. It’s when we are out of our comfort zone that we can begin to see the world around us in a new light - when we encounter the experiences of others that are different than our experiences...when we begin to think and reflect on why what someone said or did made us react with unease...when we look at the world as it is against the world as God hopes and dreams it might be - it requires us to be brave and to acknowledge and celebrate the bravery of others.
If we are truly about God’s transforming work in our lives and in our world - that doesn’t happen when we are safe; it happens when we risk encounter, it happens when we are willing to make mistakes and learn, it happens when we are willing to be vulnerable ourselves, it happens when we can trust that others can hold that space for us...and when we trust that God is in the midst of that as well.
One of our core values is “Community” - and we understand that to mean that we seek to be a place of belonging and a harbor of mutual support and interdependence. We strive to share together, help and reach out to one another, grow in faith together, and live together in light of God’s love.
A harbor...a harbor is certainly a safe space to weather a storm, to shelter a boat, to perform maintenance and repairs...but it’s not a place to stay. Boats, if you are really going to use them - for work, for recreation - have to leave the harbor to face the waters...it’s a risk, to go leave the sheltered space of the harbor, but you can’t stay there forever.
The church as a brave space means that we are able to share our true selves with one another and to hold space for those with thoughts and opinions and experiences that are different than ours. The church as a brave space means stepping in and naming the realities that others want to deny - about our climate, about our community, about ourselves. The church as a brave space means sitting in the uncomfortable spaces with others on their journey toward wholeness or as they mourn and grieve - not to try and fix or smooth things over, but simply to be present. The church as a brave space means moving from merely “what I need” to “what to we need together.” The church as a brave space means not being worried about our survival, but concerning ourselves with making the places around us more loving and compassionate. The church as a brave space means following after the God who continually asks us to do the things that seem impossible, scary, beyond our ability...and who goes with us every step of the way.
The church is not a safe space. The church is a brave space.
Our God is not a safe God, but one that promises to be with us, no matter what.
Being about God's work in the world requires showing up - for God, for one another, for ourselves - and doing the hard work of love. That's brave.
My prayer for us as a church is that we listen for what God is asking of us...that we listen for what God wants for this community...and decide to be brave together...to move out of the harbor into the waters where God is leading us on. Amen.
-- Need a couple volunteers:
(puzzle pieces face down - have 2 minutes to see how many pieces you can put together without turning the pieces face up)
Get the volunteers to share:
- What was that experience like? [get responses]
Do you ever feel like life is a little bit like that? That there are all these pieces and sometimes they fit together and sometimes they don’t and sometimes you think they *should* fit together…
...and sometimes maybe you feel like you are connected and the trajectory of your life makes sense it’s all hanging together in the right way
...and sometimes maybe you feel like that one puzzle piece that’s out of place...you’re not sure of where you fit, not sure what the picture even looks like and how you are a part of it all.
I want to offer these words from Scripture to help guide our reflection today - they come from the book of Romans, chapter 12, verses 3 - 13. This comes from The Message.
Scripture: Romans 12:3-13 (The Message)
3I'm speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.
4-6In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't.
6-8If you preach, just preach God's Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don't take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don't get bossy; if you're put in charge, don't manipulate; if you're called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don't let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.
9-10Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
The Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
I love jigsaw puzzles. I don’t have the opportunity to do them much nowadays for obvious reasons - but growing up there would always be at least a thousand piece puzzle on our dining room table that we’d pick at from time to time as a family - putting the edge pieces together first -- because we’d want to create a frame for how everything fit together -- and then filling in the middle bits...maybe by color...maybe by random luck...and we’d use the picture on the box as a reference point for how everything was supposed to fit together.
If you take a look at a puzzle piece - one single piece - it’s not that much to look at, is it? Bits of color...funny edges...you can’t really tell what it is supposed to do or how it is supposed to function. It’s just one piece in a box of many other pieces….disconnected and separate.
But what happens when you put it in the right place?
[put two or three pieces together]
The picture becomes clearer. The piece makes more sense. The piece no longer becomes one bit with funny edges...but part of a whole. It needs to be connected to other pieces to give a clearer picture of how it fits in the larger picture...what it is supposed to be doing...what it’s purpose is.
I think we’re a bit like that, too. Each of us is unique (funny edges, bits of color) - and we have gifts and talents -- but it’s only in connection with other people that those gifts and talents make sense. It’s only when we’re working together with others that our gifts and talents can make a difference. Paul in this passage we heard from Romans talks about it as parts of the body functioning together to create the body of Christ -- which isn’t just a metaphor. It’s an image of people working together to show a living, breathing, Christ to the world. There’s a part in God’s kingdom we play that no one else can play, and it’s only when we are in community when we get to play that part to its fullest potential and that our lives have God-filled meaning and purpose.
What would happen if this piece decided it wanted to be another part of the picture?
[get responses...there’d be something missing, things wouldn’t work correctly, picture isn’t complete, etc]
God needs each of us as we are -- each of us is important to the building of God’s kingdom. We don’t have to worry about being something we’re not, we don’t have to worry about doing someone else’s job, we don’t have to try and fill someone else’s role -- which is such good news...if you’re good at hospitality, live fully into that...if you are good at teaching, you don’t have to play host...if you are someone who is naturally generous, you can give to your hearts’ content -- all we have to do is live out our part, trusting that others are doing the same, and that God is the one who is bringing all of it together into something beautiful so that our world is more filled with love, more filled with hope, more filled with peace. And we do this together -- as a community, working with one another, to make God’s kingdom more real here on the island.
So I want us to think about these pieces and the parts that we play in making God’s kingdom here on earth.
What part do you see yourself playing? It can be something specific - like being kind to the people you meet on the ferry, or bringing different people together around the table for a meal, or caring for people when they’ve had a tough day. It can be more general - like being a cheerful giver, or volunteering. It can be something related to what you do for work, or your own personal sense of calling.
Whatever it is, take a moment, and jot it down on the back of the puzzle piece that [someone] is handing you. Put your name on it too.
What we’re going to do is going to get a little bit better picture of the ways that we as a community are building this kingdom, piece by piece, playing the parts that we are gifted and called to play. So when you have your piece ready, come on up to the front, and put your piece on the board here, and if you’d like to share a bit about what you wrote down, that’s great -- if not, don’t feel like you have to.
The image that God is making is God’s kingdom - and each of us is part of the puzzle. Every time we use our gifts, every time we love from the center of who we are, every time we trust that everyone has a part to play no matter who they are or where they come from -- every time we recognize our interdependence upon one another -- we are growing deeper into the community that God has for us - and deeper into a kingdom life together.
As we read the scriptures and hear stories of the early church, this was what really excited the people who watched those first Christians -- the way that they loved one another and worked together, shared food and homes together -- and shared this common mission to their surrounding communities. In this, priority was given to the community over the individual because it is only in community that the gifts of the individual make sense. It’s only by seeing the greater picture that any one piece can carry out its function.
Each of us is a piece of God’s puzzle. Will you connect with others to use your gifts and to help complete the picture that God is making? Will you allow God to place you in situations to make God’s kingdom more real? I pray that as we go forth this morning, that it may be so for us - that we may use our gifts to be Christ’s body in this world. Amen.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Word of Life. Thanks be to God.
This week I went on to Instagram - an app that allows you to share pictures with your followers - and decided to search the images that are tagged with #blessed. There were 120 million images. Those of you with phones and Instagram - take a moment to do a search - and I’m curious as to what you’ll find.
There are tons of images - mostly selfies - with comments like “so many reasons to smile” #blessed. “Nothing is worth it if you aren’t happy <3” #blessed. “I couldn’t have asked for a better day!” #blessed “You can have it all.” #blessed.
There’s a tendency in our culture to equate being blessed with material expressions...the more stuff you have, the more blessed you are. And we all know that that isn’t right. Yet we also tend to equate being blessed or feeling blessed as an emotional state akin to gratitude - we’re told to “count our blessings” when we’re down as a reminder to be thankful, we feel blessed when we consider the gift of family and friendship and community, or when we think about living in such a beautiful place.
People in Jesus’ day would have had similar ideas of what it means to be blessed - there was a prevalent understanding that those who had wealth and power were those who had been blessed by God, and those who were on the bottom of the societal food chain - the lepers, the poor, the outsiders - were not the recipients of God’s favor.
So what Jesus is doing in this passage here is taking those notions of who is and isn’t blessed by God -- and complicating that idea for the crowds - much like he does in the next few chapters (where he says, “You have heard it said this….but I say to you...something a great deal more complicated and nuanced”)
What Jesus focuses on here in this passage called the Beatitudes isn’t blessing as it pertains to stuff or as it relates to a state of gratitude or emotional well-being. It’s a statement of God’s nearness or presence - that God is near to the meek, to the poor, to those who mourn, that God is near to the merciful and the hungry, that God is near to the peacemakers and the pure in heart and the persecuted. God’s presence is revealed in those who are these things - it’s a statement of reality...not a statement of how you should be or how you need to act to get in to heaven.
I can imagine Jesus looking out on the crowd...people who were mostly from the edges of society...those for whom life was hard and demanding, who were close to the daily struggle of life...and handing out blessings upon those he sees around him. (Maybe a bit like Oprah...instead of saying, “and you get a chariot and you get a chariot and everyone gets chariots,” it’s “and you get a blessing and you get a blessing!”)
Author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has this to say about the Beatitudes:
“What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. What if these are not virtues we should aspire to but what if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive –what if it’s performative? …meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself. Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”
Because those for whom life is hard now - the nearness of God’s kingdom brings hope for a different reality, a different way of being, and a different way of relating to one another...and that’s good news...the call for us is to recognize what God is doing among those who our culture has written off.
Nadia Bolz-Weber continues - and reimagines what the Beatitudes might look like if Jesus were here today - who might God be especially near to in our day and age...who might be the blessed ones? And here’s what she has to offer:
Let’s take this one step further. What about here...among us...among those on our island? Who are those that God is especially present with? Who are those who are blessed as we think about our friends and neighbors here on Chebeague? The ones that Jesus would point out and notice if he were walking around today?
Get into groups of 4, take some paper and pens, and make a list...take a few minutes...and we’re going to write our own interpretation of the Beatitudes for our island.
Let’s say these Beatitudes together.
Blessed are those who work for a kinder way
Blessed are those who can’t ask for help
Blessed are those who volunteer tirelessly
Blessed are those who keep our town moving
Blessed are those who keep moving in the face of mourning
Blessed are those who feel lonely
Blessed are those who have a serious, chronic, or invisible illness
Blessed are the soup servers
Blessed are the commuters, young and old
Blessed are our children
Blessed are those who serve our town
Blessed is the church family
Blessed are those who keep quiet
Blessed are the troublemakers
Blessed are those who keep it all together
Blessed are those who are hungry
Blessed are those who struggle with addiction
For God is near to them all.
Now here’s the Spoiler alert - Jesus is walking around today -- Jesus walks around in us as the church...Body of Christ isn’t just a metaphor we use, and we’ll talk a bit more about that next week. Jesus didn’t just speak these blessings, he embodied them - feeding those who were hungry, lifting up the lowly, restoring humanity and dignity to women and those who sold out to the empire and those who were segregated from society because of disease. We’re invited to embody that same way of living in the world. We are a blessed people because we understand God’s nearness to us, that love and grace are ours without reservation, without having to do anything to earn it, that we are already participants in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim. The invitation for us is to let others know that they are blessed too. That God is near to them, too. That God is near to those we’ve mentioned - - .
So this day, remember that you are blessed. Maybe even #blessed. You are...and so are you...and you. And so are those who are out in our community right now. Go forth this week to live a blessed life - one aware of God’s nearness and presence with you - and to share the news of God’s nearness and presence with others. Go forth to be a blessing...because the kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.
I had this love/hate relationship with art class in elementary school. I think largely it had to do with my tendencies toward perfectionism. I would have this vision of what I wanted to create and somehow it never translated well into reality. I would get horribly frustrated - also because I have a tendency to compare myself to others - and wonder why my artwork wasn’t as good as my friend Katie’s or Meghan’s. My still life would look horribly….lifeless while theirs looked like fruit you could pick up and eat off the page. My color explorations - where we’d learn about adding and mixing colors and whites and blacks - would churn out colors like muted olive green and mucky brown while they would get sunset hues and rich blues. My self portrait looked monstrous...theirs looked like themselves in a mirror. I would turn in my work feeling dejected and resentful because I didn’t think it was any good.
Except -- when it came to clay. Because with clay, if you don’t like how it looks….you can smoosh it and start again. And again, and again.
One of the earliest images that Scripture gives us of God is God as potter. Yes, the first chapter of Genesis we see this God as cosmic creator, the brooding Spirit hovering over the formless void, the planet flinging, mountains-raising, oceans-filling Almighty, All-powerful Being who seems separate and distant from creation as it is spoken into existence - though this is the first story we read if we flip the Bible to the first chapter of Genesis.
Yet if we continue though to the second chapter, we find a story of a God who is right in the thick of things as creation springs to life - a God who brings forth streams to water the ground, who dips hands into the red dust covering the Earth (the Hebrew word for this dirt is adamah), makes clay from the water and the soil, and forms the first human - Adam...literally soil creature...and breathes life into this being. Scholars believe that this story is actually the older of the two creation accounts - coming from an oral tradition where tales were told around campfires, passed on from generation to generation to wrestle with the big questions of life. This is a God with dirty hands, who visibly expends effort to create, who is not far removed from the fruit of God’s labor. It’s an image of God as a sculptor...a potter...an artist. Whereas the first creation story rings with the majestic music of the spheres, the second creation story exudes earthiness and groundedness - a vision of a God in process working with creation, who guides and shapes and molds us...and who breathes into us the Breath of Life.
I really like this image of God as Potter...a God who is continually in the process of shaping creation -- who works with us and in us -- molding us, shaping us, guiding us. Creating a sculpture or a pot out of clay takes patience and attention - to smooth out the rough edges, to tease out the air bubbles, to center and recenter the clay when it wobbles off the wheel. You can’t really mash and twist the clay - every action is deliberate.
As I think about God as the Potter and us as the clay, I think about how God doesn’t bully us into shape. God doesn’t force God’s will upon us….which isn’t to say that sometimes God working and creating in us is always easy or pleasant. God’s movement in our lives sometimes means we face hard truths about ourselves or are asked to do difficult things - but all of it points to God making beautiful things - works of art - with our lives for the sake of God’s holy and transforming work in the world.
And when we stray...when we falter...God doesn’t take us off the wheel and throw us in the trash...but God takes us….centers us...and creates anew.
God is always at work in us -- God is always creating us...forming and fashioning us...we are all works in progress.
Consider a moment - what is God creating in you right now? How is God shaping you...or, perhaps, where do you yearn for God to work in you?
We have some play dough here….[hand out lumps]....take a few moments prayerfully thinking about that question….what is God creating in you right now….and as you pray…form a symbol of what that might be with the play dough….or even just feel it in your hands...let us consider that question together.
Anyone want to share? Come forward and place your creation on the altar.
I pray that we continually be open to the work that God is doing in us in every part of our lives - even the parts that maybe we prefer God to stay out of. I pray that we let God fashion and form us more fully as God’s people - set apart for the work of being witnesses of God’s great love for us and for others and for this island. I pray that we work together to remind ourselves that we are a people on a journey….people in process...that God is working in us...and that there is no part that is free from God’s transforming touch, from God’s patient and steady hand, from God’s reshaping power so that we may be willing to go forth to participate in the healing and mending of a broken and hurting world.
Let us continually invite God to shape and mold us. To be the clay in God’s hand, who creates us - recreates us -- into vessels for God’s holy work. Amen.
Scripture - Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:39-56
Isaiah 35:1-10 (The Message) -- The heading is “The Voiceless Break into Song”
1-2 Wilderness and desert will sing joyously,
the badlands will celebrate and flower--
Like the crocus in spring, bursting into blossom,
a symphony of song and color.
Mountain glories of Lebanon—a gift.
Awesome Carmel, stunning Sharon—gifts.
God’s resplendent glory, fully on display.
God awesome, God majestic.
Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”
Blind eyes will be opened,
deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness,
streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis,
thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink,
and barren grasslands flourish richly.
There will be a highway
called the Holy Road.
No one rude or rebellious
is permitted on this road.
It’s for God’s people exclusively--
impossible to get lost on this road.
Not even fools can get lost on it.
No lions on this road,
no dangerous wild animals--
Nothing and no one dangerous or threatening.
Only the redeemed will walk on it.
The people God has ransomed
will come back on this road.
They’ll sing as they make their way home to Zion,
unfading halos of joy encircling their heads,
Welcomed home with gifts of joy and gladness
as all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night.
Luke 1:39-56 (The Message)
39-45 Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened--
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
What makes space sacred?
One of my favorite questions to ask people who I meet here on the island is what their connection is to Chebeague. Why have they chosen to live or summer or vacation here. There’s a whole range of responses I get - grew up here, friends or family lives here, the idea of living on an island seemed interesting, there was a place available when I was looking for a seasonal home; there’s a huge range. But there are two threads that often come up as people share with me what drew them to this place - one is connection; that there is something special about the people or the land that speaks to them and that’s why they stay….and secondly that they felt like this was a place that could offer them healing…that somehow, living here after whatever difficult situation in their life brought them to these shores would bring restoration...wholeness...healing.
This week we’re talking about sacred space - and I think there’s metaphorical and literal meanings in that. We heard read aloud today this joyous meeting of Elizabeth and Mary - two women whose pregnancies create space for joy to enter and transform our world. They carry this with them physically with their pregnancies; they actually make space within themselves as John the Baptist and Jesus grow within them -- and they make space with their lives. They share this moment together when Mary and Elizabeth meet and Mary bursts into this song of joy - known as the Magnificat. It’s a song that sets the framework - creates the space and tone - of Jesus’s ministry, of this transforming work that God will be about in the world.
Mary’s song - and our reading from Isaiah - are full of freedom and grace. Courage for fearful souls. Energy and strength for the weak. A banquet for the hungry. Nourishing water for the parched. Clear sight and opened ears for the blind and deaf. Mercy from God. Being remembered by God. Protection from evil, gifts of joy and justice. This is the work that God is about - this is Jesus out in the world, preaching and healing and revealing God’s kingdom - humbling the powerful and humanizing the invisible - creating a space in this world for God’s hope to enter in.
Creating sacred space here on earth.
Several weeks ago, Allen Ewing-Merrill was here to preach - and he talked for a moment about the Lord’s Prayer. He mentioned how so often we all say it the same way with breaks at the same point every time. I have no idea how or where that started but you can go to just about any church setting and it will be said the same way. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. But that’s not how the sentence reads. The sentence reads, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Thy will be done on earth. Sacred space here and now. God’s kingdom here...just as it is in heaven.
Think for a moment about the different spaces you inhabit...home...workplaces...community spaces...church...are those spaces feeding and nurturing the freedom and grace that we heard from these passages this morning? Are they places that point to God’s transforming work? Are they sacred...or do they have the potential to become so? What can we do to support the unfolding of God’s kingdom in those places?
I want to share a little story about this from this past week, to show that making sacred space doesn’t have to be a grandiose venture; sometimes it’s as small as a shift in attitude or in intention.
Michael had a bit of - something - at the beginning of the week. Low grade fever, congestion, tired - nothing terribly alarming but also clearly he wasn’t feeling his usual self. Tuesday was the worst of it - he was clingy, sad and miserable, and all of us in the household were a bit worn out and dragging that day. Normally in our household division of labor, Tuesday is my day to work and Ben’s day with the kids. But Ben also needed a bit of a break because even though he’s feeling better with his chronic illness, his health isn’t something we muck about with. So I gladly stepped in when he needed to take a breather, figuring that Michael would hang out on the couch quietly while I took the time to go through my extensive to-do list. After all, it’s Advent, leading up to Christmas, one of the busiest times of year for *everyone* but particularly for pastors.
But no. His clinginess continued. Wanting to be in my lap, whether I was sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table. Wanting me to talk with him or read to him or sing with him. I was feeling so frustrated because I needed this time to get stuff done and all I could think about was how I was going to manage the rest of the week, how I was going to prep for worship and make sure the pageant happened and work on the discernment session at the end of the month and getting everything in line for Christmas Eve and…
...and all of a sudden, I realized that I was creating sacred space for my kid, who wasn’t thinking of anything else but that he needed his mom to help him feel better. And even though I had all these “important” things to do - that didn’t matter in this moment for Michael, who felt safe and secure, loved, held, and carried. Creating that space for Michael was one of the most important things I could be doing right then. I was reminded in that moment of how the idea of making space has actually informed a lot of my parenting -- like when kids come home from school and melt down at the end of the day, it isn’t because they are wanting to punish you, it’s because they are in a space where it’s OK to feel and share negative emotions. And that sacred space is created when people know they are loved and welcomed for all of who they are - when grace and forgiveness are practiced, and when courage and vulnerability are celebrated.
Author and professor Joseph Campbell has this great quote: “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” That can be true in our homes - and I think it’s true for many who have made their homes here on the island - that there is something about this place, there is something about this community - that allows us to find our selves over and over and over again. There’s something that exists in the space between us, something that the landscape speaks to, something in the rhythm of this island that is sacred. Not all of it - to be sure - those of us who are here know the island has its problems and imperfections - but that’s true of us as people, too - as we talked about last week, about being sacred people, faults and all. Sacred space is all around us - and we’re invited not only to extend that sacred space to others….but to embody it ourselves...to make space within our hearts and within our lives for Christ to enter in and shine forth from us.
So I invite us to find that sacred space as we draw nearer to the birth of Jesus - to spend time in those places where you can find yourself - your true self as God’s beloved child - over and over and over again. Where God’s freedom and grace in your life can be nurtured - and where you can do that for others….where you can be a part of the unfolding of God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven….and where you can make space for others to join in as well. Let us create that space together as we sing our next song together - Sanctuary.
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I'll be a living
Sanctuary for You
Scripture - Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38
Matthew 1:18-25 (The Message)
18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.
20-23 While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:
Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).
24-25 Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.
Luke 1:26-38 (The Message)
26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.
He will be great,
be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever--
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”
35 The angel answered,
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.
36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Then the angel left her.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
(Loved, Cherished, Valued, Worthy, Beautiful, Holy, Sacred, Blessed, Treasured, Precious)
Mary and Joseph - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. The twelve disciples - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. John and Charles Wesley - ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God. Those of you who were at last week’s discernment session heard other names mentioned as well - people like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Richard Allen -- all ordinary people who did something extraordinary for God.
It’s easy to think of these people - and others in the Bible like King David or the Apostle Paul or named throughout Christian history, like Saint Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa or Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr. - as sacred people; We think - of course they are holy - and we ascribe that holiness to the fact that they must have been extra special or worthy or somehow more loved by God than the rest of us. After all, they are still remembered today - some even generations later. Some may have changed the course of history, the ripple effects of their life still felt today.
But the truth is - God doesn’t love Mother Theresa - or Mother Mary - any less or more than God loves you or me. There’s nothing more special about them as people in their inherent worth as children of God. What does, however, set them apart - what allows us to easily see as sacred people - is their willingness to say yes to God - their willingness to make God’s love known - their willingness to usher in God’s kingdom.
There’s nothing special about Mary and Joseph - first of all, Joseph is mentioned because he was engaged to Mary and decided to marry her anyway despite already being pregnant - cooperating with God’s command to not be afraid to take her as his wife. Joseph says yes to God. As for Mary, we have all these assumptions that she must have been especially pious or meek and mild - when in actuality, do you realize how much guts it takes to say yes to being an unwed mother in a society that stoned women for such behavior? That takes courage, boldness, grace - but she isn’t more special than any other person. What makes her worthy of notice is that she says yes...she says yes to the angel. “I am the Lord’s servant, Let it be with me just as you have said.” She decides to bear this holy child for God’s bold agenda of a kingdom of righteousness and peace, of love and hope for all.
There is truth when we say we are all loved equally by God - that we are all God’s children. The person you see in the grocery store, the homeless panhandler in Portland, the children you see at the mall, the bank teller who cashes your check - even the person you sit next to in church. However, what makes you and me sacred isn’t merely our belovedness, but our willingness to be used by God - to be present for someone who needs company, to stand up for those who are hurting in our world, to advocate for the poor or the hungry, to cross the lines that divide us to love and listen to those with whom we disagree -- and when that happens, when you open yourself to God’s love to take root in your heart, when you offer yourself to God’s use in the world, you realize that maybe there isn’t this division of people after all - that even those who we would label as “Other” - those who are very different from us or those who are marginalized by our society or those whom we unintentionally tend to devalue….that their belovedness makes them sacred too as we see God’s love for humankind reflected within them.
One way to understand this is through the Christian practice of icons. Icons aren’t merely religious artwork or pictures of saints - but icons bear witness to the reality of God’s presence with us in the mystery of faith. Much like some of us experience God’s presence with us as we contemplate the sunrise or when we walk through the woods - or how some of us feel close to God after a conversation with a friend - icons serve as a means for experiencing the Kingdom of God and as a way for us to be present to that kingdom.
As we consider Sacred People in this season, I’m reminded of the story of Ryan Klinck, who is part of the Missional Wisdom Foundation - which is an organization that is reenvisioning forms of Christian community - experimenting with monastic models where people live together in urban or rural settings and share prayer and ministry together or supporting churches using community development models for neighborhood enrichment, and so much more. The work of these communities often takes people out to the fringes - the fringes of their neighborhoods, their comfort zones, their previous experiences -- and it is there that they encounter God and partner with what God is already doing out in the world.
Ryan Klinck lived in Bonhoeffer House for several years - a house in East Dallas that lived and journeyed alongside people who were homeless or homesick - and many of these folks lived in community together - sharing a house, sharing resources, and being in ministry with one another and their neighborhood. As he was living and working there, he was beginning to see the divine goodness in his homeless friends and their giftedness and began to wonder what it would look like to see his neighbors, friends, and people in his community as saints. He did this because so often the world overlooks those who are homeless - beyond just bypassing them on the street, there’s a tendency to devalue their gifts, their stories, their wisdom - devaluing their very humanity. So Ryan and his friend Josh decided to show the world and lift these folks up to say, these are saints, just like all of us are called to be saints - and invite people to see them as God sees them.
He took pictures of his friends - many of them homeless, others who were living in the house - and his friend Josh turned them into icons - you can see on the screen - as a reminder that we need each other to be transfigured into sainthood.
Because here’s the thing - when we start to see ourselves as beloved children of God, as people worthy of God’s love even despite all our growing edges, our mistakes, our sins, the things we don’t have together in our lives - if God loves us even with all our faults and failings and we are willing to say yes to God, imperfect though we are…..if there is sacredness and holiness in that….then that sacredness extends to others who are also imperfect...and also beloved.
We recognize each other as sacred people -- that doesn’t mean we have it all together, it doesn’t mean our lives are perfect -- but it does mean we are willing to encounter God in the other, we are willing to say yes to God’s life of hope and love, we are willing to usher in the presence of the kingdom by being open to the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. But that starts with seeing ourselves that way.
To help us with that - we have a mirror here. I was talking with Deb when we were putting together the bulletin on Thursday and she mentioned that she didn’t like the bulletin image - and I asked why, and she said “because nobody likes looking at themselves in the mirror.” So you can blame Deb for giving me the seed for this idea. It made me think about how so many self-help books or programs have you do self-affirmations in front of a mirror - like “I am a strong and capable person” or “I can do hard things” or whatever else it might be. And there’s value in that because it helps change our perception of ourselves. What I want to suggest, though, is that even though we say we know that God loves us personally and that we are people of sacred worth...do we really believe that on the deepest levels of our being? Do we truly acknowledge our own belovedness, our own worthiness, do we believe we are sacred people - not in spite of our imperfections, but as human beings on this journey toward wholeness and union with God?
So as you are led - come forward and take a look in the mirror. It doesn’t have to be a long look - but when you are there, take one of these markers and write one of the words we have up here...loved, cherished, valued, sacred...there are a whole bunch. And then take another look - maybe repeat that word a few times to yourself silently or out loud - as a way of reminding yourself that you are a sacred person -- and that together - we are sacred people on a journey with God to usher in God’s love and peace in this place and beyond. Come forward as you are moved to do so.
I’m reminded of a sentence in our welcoming statement. It reads, No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are loved and a child of God. These are words we all need to take to heart -- for others, yes….but also for ourselves...that we are sacred people together.
I want to close with a quote from Desmond Tutu, archbishop of South Africa, who talks about this beautiful word from the Bantu language - Ubuntu. It roughly translates as “I am because we are.” He says, “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity and for recognizing everything and everyone as sacred.”
May we in this season recognize everything and everyone - including ourselves - as sacred -- so that in our belovedness, we may make God’s love known in our lives for the sake of God’s glory...for the sake of others who need to be reminded of their own sacredness...for the sake of this world which God loves so much. Let us be willing to be used by God for this time...this place...and this people. Amen.
Scripture - Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 3:1-12
Romans 13:11-14 (NRSV)
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Matthew 3:1-12 (The Message)
-2 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
3 John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy:
Thunder in the desert!
Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
4-6 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey. People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action. There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
7-10 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
11-12 “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”
Several months ago, before Genevieve was born, Ben and I were trying to figure out how to manage Michael’s sleep - he’s never been a great sleeper and one of our goals before welcoming Genevieve into the world was to improve his sleep - namely him being able to fall asleep more independently and...having him not wake us up at 5 in the morning. To help deal with the latter, we purchased an “OK to Wake clock”. We bought an owl. You set the time for when it’s OK for your kid to get out of bed. When you squeeze the owl and it’s before the set time, it turns orange, and it plays a little “Go back to sleep now” song and some lullabies. Squeeze the owl after the set time, it turns green and it says “Time to wake up!” and plays some happy wake up music - and that’s Michael’s signal that it’s OK to get out of his room and wake us up (if we aren’t already awake). This OK to Wake clock is the best thing ever and has saved our sleep on more than one occasion (well, at least until Genevieve came along!)
In the Christian life, the season of Advent is like our “OK to Wake” clock. It’s the green light that says, “it’s time to get up now” - because Christ is coming and the kingdom of God is here. For that matter, John the Baptist was like the “OK to Wake” clock for the Jewish people - urging them to live the kingdom life now. His urgent message of repentance drew people to the Jordan river for baptism to wake them up so they wouldn’t miss out on what God was about to do in Jesus. Maybe more than an “OK to Wake” clock - John the Baptist was like an alarm clock, that you couldn’t hit the snooze button on, alerting people that the time to change hearts and lives wasn’t some day in the future, but was here right now.
This is the life that the early Christians lived - this perpetual alertness to what God was doing - because they watched and waited for Jesus to come back and they believed that that day was soon. This is what Paul means when he writes, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
It’s OK to Wake now - get ready because God’s kingdom is here.
In Advent, we prepare ourselves and get ready for Christ to come again; for Jesus to be born anew on Christmas, to come once again into our hearts and lives. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes my preparations for Christmas have little to do with waking up to the reality of God’s kingdom in our midst and more to do with whatever Christmas “emergency” has caught my attention. I mean that in the sense of how easy it is for me to find myself caught in the trappings of Christmas because they are things that my time just seems to flow towards without conscious thought - following the blaring sirens to the tree lot, to the mall, to the parties and concerts, to the kitchen in a baking frenzy, to church, to the craft fair, to home again to decorate and oops, I’ve forgotten to mail out Christmas cards again and I’ve forgotten that I really have a choice about how to spend my time in getting ready for Christmas - and to do so in a way fully awake and expecting Christ around me rather than drifting through the season half-asleep to the true meaning of this season.
So perhaps instead of Christmas emergencies - the trappings that pull us toward the perpetual to-dos of festive anticipation, we should think of preparation for Christmas as a time of “emerge-agency” - a time to celebrate and welcome our ability to order time according to what we find sacred and a gift, instead of where the sirens are or whatever feels most urgent or whatever we find distracting or draining.
We get to choose - we get to choose to construct our time in a way that allows us to see our preparations as holy and sacred. We get to have agency and not merely be swept along by the busyness of this season. We get to choose whether we get ready for Christmas half-asleep or fully awake and present to what God is doing in our midst.
Being awake may be something as simple as taking 5 minutes of silent prayer at the beginning of the day. It may be choosing to donate extra food to the food pantry or clothing to Goodwill in a reverse Advent calendar - where you add one item a day to a box for donation. Being awake may be about lighting a special candle in your home as a reminder of God’s presence with you or to remember that each task done in preparation for Christmas can be a sacred one. Being awake for you may be about letting go of certain obligations to focus more on being present to God or to others - visiting or calling those who have a hard time making it out, baking extra cookies for neighbors, offering a helping hand to other people in their own preparations for the season. It could be about working to forgive someone or loving someone who you find difficult to love. Being awake means participating in the things that make up God’s kingdom, it means changing your perspective, it means living a kingdom life, one that is green and blossoming, as we heard from our scripture this morning - not living life as if we were deadwood ready for the fire.
You may have noticed the paper watches in your bulletins. Take those out - and take out a pen or pencil. Think about what takes up your time and attention during this season - especially those things that seem like “emergencies” and write them down on the watch. When you are done, put them on your wrist.
Does everyone have them on?
I invite us to take some time for silent reflection - on the ways God is inviting us to be awake and ready this season - on the ways God wants us to use our time in ways that draw us toward the sacred and holy - on the ways that we can order our time so that it is life-giving and holy.
As you are moved to do so - come up to the front -- take off your watch and offer it here and exchange it for one of these bracelets - as a reminder to be awake - as a reminder that we can choose to spend this season in ways that are life-giving and meaningful...and that we can choose to find the sacred in all things.
[start playing Be Still and Know….as folks are starting to come forward, we’ll start singing it together….]
Let us pray. Thank you, God, for the Emergence of our sacred gifts of Agency in this Holy season. In all the upcoming “nows” we will experience, grant that we may wisely order and inhabit your sacred gift of time - with each other, our families and friends, and with all the many needs that cross our paths. Enable us to resist the pull of the all demands upon our time, drifting from one thing to another, but keep us awake and ready for you. In the name of Jesus, for whom we are getting ready, we pray, Amen.
We’re in the middle of our stewardship campaign, where we’re taking some time to remember and to be thankful for all of the resources that God has given to us, and talking together about some ways that we as a community can increase our giving as we seek to be faithful stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us.
Generosity isn’t about obligation; it’s about a way of being in the world - it’s about having an attitude of gratitude, and living out of God’s abundance for us. It’s a matter of the heart - responding to the outpouring of God’s blessings upon us and wanting to be able to bless others. And one of the ways we develop that attitude is through practice and by continuing to find ways to step out in faith...and by understanding that what we have - our time, our talents, our treasure - aren’t ultimately ours to do with as we please. We use what we have been entrusted with knowing that it all belongs to God.
That’s what we talked about last week with our introduction to Stewardship and the story of the One Speckled Hen. A brief synopsis - in case you don’t remember - is that a father and his daughter happen across a speckled hen one day. They try to find her owners, but no one in the neighborhood laid claim. So they decide to take care of her for her rightful owner. In the process, the hen lays eggs, which get traded for chicken feed, a cow, and a sheep - and because the hen doesn’t belong to them, they decide the eggs don’t either...and neither does the cow and the sheep.
The hen’s owner eventually comes back - and when offered the rest of the animals, let the father and daughter keep everything else, taking back only his chicken - Matilda.
The father and daughter acted to take care of the hen - and the rest of the animals - knowing that none of it belonged to them.
Stewardship in the church is the same - we take care of our time, talents, and treasure - knowing that none of it belongs to us.
We’ll talk about how that relates to our finances next week.
This week we’ll talk a bit about our time and how God wants us to use it through this church for the building up of God’s kingdom.
James 2:14-26 (The Message)
14-17Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
18I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, "Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department."
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
19-20Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with something lifeless on your hands?
21-24Wasn't our ancestor Abraham "made right with God by works" when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn't it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are "works of faith"? The full meaning of "believe" in the Scripture sentence, "Abraham believed God and was set right with God," includes his action. It's that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named "God's friend." Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
25-26The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn't her action in hiding God's spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up lifeless. Separating faith and works makes you lifeless.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
How much time does it take to follow Jesus?
Time. It’s the one thing we all have to manage - we all have the same 24/7 to work with - but it’s also the one thing that many of us seem to have not quite enough of. I’m feeling that pretty keenly right now as I try to get back in the flow of work and home with Genevieve (who all I want to do sometimes is stare at), and Michael (who craves attention and playtime) and balancing the bare minimum of housework with other to-do list items and time quickly runs out.
And this is how much of the world works, right? We live in a world with competing priorities - there are always demands on us and on our time between family and work and friends and our own needs. We are under pressure to attend to this need here, that event there with our schedules full up to overflowing with tasks and projects and meetings that sometimes, it’s a blessing that we can just sit and stare at Netflix for a couple hours. It’s easy to find ourselves with more things to do than we have time to spare, and so we prioritize - making time for the things that are most important to us.
With this way of thinking, it’s very easy to treat following Jesus the same way; it becomes something that we fit in to our busy schedules. We make time to go to church on Sunday, we may find an hour to study the Bible with others, we may even make time to pray each day or intentionally be with God. We may even - sit on a church committee. I mean - isn’t that the ultimate expression of discipleship? (Actually, I take back the slight sarcasm there, because sometimes there is true sacrifice involved with that).
But really, how much time does it take to follow Jesus?
Following Jesus isn’t something we give up an hour or two a week to do. It isn’t something that can be contained into any sort of time frame. It’s not something we can tick off our checklist of things to-do. Following Jesus is a lifestyle, not something we fit into our busy schedules. it’s something that permeates everything we do, something that’s part of every moment, that takes the 24/7 we are given and transforms it into God’s work in the world.
Because following Jesus encompasses all of our life, what we do with our time reflects how important following Jesus is to us.
Now this isn’t to say that you have to give up your job or your family to follow Jesus in some far off place or that you need to go home and read your Bible for six hours each day (but if that’s what you are feeling called to, more power to you) -- but it is to say that each moment we are given is an opportunity for us to live in a way that reflects what God wants for us and for this world. It encompasses how we act when we’re at home, when we’re with our families, when we’re on the ferry, when we’re at work or wherever we are - and it especially encompasses how we are as a church together and the work God has for us to do through this church to be in ministry with others.
If we say we follow Jesus, then that needs to be true in what we do.
I’m particularly struck by the passage we heard from James this morning. It’s the way Eugene Peterson articulates the famous “faith without works is dead” passage. Verse 19 and 20 go like this:
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with something lifeless on your hands?
We say “yes” to God, we come to church and sit back and profess that we’ve done our duty, that we’ve given our time to God. But saying “yes” to God, believing in what God has to offer us through Jesus -- it isn’t enough. God wants all of us, time, money, gifts - all of it. And when we fail to express our faith through the way we live and the way we spend our time, we end up with something dead - a faith that is not alive...a faith that isn’t real at all, that barely exists, a faith that, as James puts it, even the demons have.
Faith is made to be put into action. It demands to be seen and lived out. Faith can’t be seen just by going to church every Sunday or by sitting on a church committee. Faith can’t been seen just by putting a few bucks in the offering plate when it comes around, or by planning the next church fundraiser. Faith must translate into works - in to how we live, how we treat other people, how we spend our time working for God’s dreams for this community and for this world. That’s something we do as individuals -- and as a church community together. If we as a church community say that we have faith, but that doesn’t translate into ministry to and with our community....then what we do together doesn’t matter...then we are dead and lifeless.
As we think about how we use our time in service to God’s kingdom, part of stewardship then becomes about how we use that time in service to God’s kingdom through this church - not just about what we do in our day to day lives.
This week, you all should have received your Stewardship Commitment Card and Stewardship letter - and if you didn’t, we have extra copies for you here. On it is a line about supporting the church with your time. How is God inviting you to be a faithful steward of your time - how can you be a part of making God’s hopes and dreams real for this island through the work of this church? How can this congregation be a part of making this island a place of greater peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness, mercy - a place that lives and breathes the redemptive work of God that we find made known to us in the love of Christ?
Perhaps it’s an invitation to work more closely with the kids who are part of this church. Perhaps it’s an invitation to start a meal train ministry through this church for new families or people who are going through a difficult time. Perhaps it’s an invitation for the church to educate others on this island about the impact of climate change and what we can do to be faithful stewards of God’s Creation - this beautiful place in which we live. Perhaps it’s a ministry centered around how we have hard conversations with our friends and family. Perhaps it’s even about ministering as a church to those who can’t rake their leaves. Free community meals. Making mittens and hats for those who don’t have them. Support groups for people who are grieving. Working for affordable housing on the island. There’s so much that we can be about here as a church - and I know that many of us here on the island give so much of ourselves to so many different groups and non-profits...but if we here as a congregation are about following Jesus - striving to live as he taught and lived - then having a collective witness to that fact is important...in the words of James, Separating faith and works makes you lifeless.
Be in prayer these next couple of weeks about the ways God is calling you to give of yourself through this church - your talents, your treasure, and your time. For this is the way that we will show the life that we have together in Christ - a faith that is alive and growing - a faith that is known by what we do together to serve our community and our greater world. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.