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Sermon Transcript 10.15.23 "Therefore: Responding and Rejoicing"

My mission statement as a pastor, my understanding of my role, is to help people find their path and share their journey. That's it… oh, there's lots more to say, much of which we just did say in the Apostles Creed, but it really is about finding your path and sharing your journey. And it is a great joy when people's paths align and people express that they would like to become member of the congregation that I'm serving, because it's always about a lot more than me. It's about the relationships of the congregation. It's about the ministries of the congregation. It's about finding place and purpose and saying “yes! This is where I belong.” It's a pretty big step and it is an affirmation of who you are as a congregation that people visit, that people decide they want to join. I've said a couple times recently that congregations that are thriving also need people who haven't done that yet. Constituents we call them. That for whatever reason… family tradition perhaps, their membership is still somewhere else or they're still figuring out what it means to be a member at all, but they're active in participating. Because it's really about who will show up and do the ministry, share the word, bear witness, share prayers and presence and gifts and witness and service in all of the myriad different ways that we are called to respond and to rejoice in what God is doing in our lives, individually and together!

We heard from First Peter today and it quotes the psalmist – “the grass withers the flower fades but the Word of the Lord stands forever!” Like grass, we are temporary, we are finite. As important as what we do is, we won't last forever. No ministry lasts forever. No building certainly no life. We are finite and yet God's word is infinite… eternal. By becoming members of the church, the body of Christ - of which we are one very small part and representation as United Methodists… as we are even more microscopically small in this particular congregation in Fort Scott Kansas of the United Methodist Church. We become a part of that Eternal Word that eternal Body. We take a small step towards becoming more like Christ - to finding our path to sharing our journey.

Yesterday in much of the country there was an eclipse of a type that is sometimes called the Ring of Fire. If you happen to be right in the right geographical area and the clouds part in just the right way you see the Moon move in front of the Sun in such a way that we only see the aurora of the sun – a ring. A friend of mine down in Texas got this picture. We of course had clouds here and we were off the geographic line so we would have seen a partial eclipse if the clouds had gone. I had some friends that were complaining that you know they had been promised an eclipse and they couldn't see the sun… I said the sun *was* blocked! What do you want… it was blocked! (laughter) Heck our Eclipse was longer than theirs (laughter) Not quite what they were after I guess. But it got me thinking about light and how we see the world and our place in it. How we connect with God. We are an Easter people. We gather as Christians. We gather as United Methodists, because we believe in the mystery of Resurrection. We believe that the Word became flesh; that Jesus is fully human and that Jesus is fully God… and yes that's beyond our categories and our understanding… but that is the center of our faith, made clear when we celebrate at Easter, that the tomb is empty. As the song we sang at the opening proclaimed “every day is Easter!” Every day is Resurrection. We are part of this eternal life beyond time and space and I like these images of Resurrection where the tomb fills with light. I don't personally think it's historically accurate had I been standing there, but symbolically, metaphorically, spiritually… Christ is the light that is coming into the world. The darkness cannot overcome the light. When we see fully - light that is both particle and wave, beyond our full comprehension all we can say is what we experience and when we talk about light, I go back to Genesis. In the beginning, God said let there be light and God separated the light from the darkness and it was good. And God goes about creating separating the waters and creating the land and the birds and the fish and the creatures on land and it is good – but remember the fourth day? The fourth day God says “let there be lights in the Heavens to mark the seasons and the festivals…”

When we think of light,. .we think of the sun. If we take Genesis 1 literally, the sun isn't created till day four, so light is something more than this small star that we orbit. Through much of Christian history, what I just said would have been scandalous. The Earth is the center of the universe. The Sun goes around us! The church literally burned people at the stake for saying other than that and now it seems like such a trivial thing why would we even debate it?

We on Earth clearly are not the center of the universe and yet the light is with us and the light is good. As we continue to grow in our understanding of galaxies (plural) of stars and suns (plural) much, much larger than the one our small planet orbits… as we grow in our understanding of the genetic code and the atomic structure of all of life of all of creation - we respond. We rejoice! We stand in awe of God who transcends our understandings and who is yet with us, offering us a gift an inheritance that is “imperishable undefiled and unfading.” the grass fades, the flowers fall but we are a part of something eternal, because God wills us to be. God holds all of creation in the palm of his hand. God loves us and offers us eternal life. Oh, life is hard sometimes, the world is so desperately broken… we face trials that seem insurmountable Financial. Physical. Emotional. Spiritual.

The author of First Peter, one of the last letters written in the New Testament, sees these trials as test as the refiner fire as the opportunity to burn away the chaff and the impurities, that we might become ever more precious, ever more perfect. If we respond to our trials with faith, then it becomes a process of refining. I think that's a very helpful way to look at things - doesn't make it right, doesn't make it fair… still often leaves us like Job, screaming in anger and agony… and yet it can redeem even the worst of what happens. But it becomes a dangerous theology when we apply it to others “oh, well your suffering doesn't matter…” No, we are called to mutual love. We are called to fellowship. We are called to carry one another's burdens, to alleviate the suffering of others – and to understand that God can make a way.

The letter talks about our faith, not because we have seen, but because we have experienced the love of God. We haven't seen Jesus face to face, but we have experienced Jesus – often through other people, through the community of the church. Oh we get it wrong, very often the church has hurt people… and yet generation after generation, people find their path. They share their Journey. The church is transformed into new ways being.

I had us read from Paul's letter to the Ephesians in part because, in that town there is basically no Christian presence now. It's one of the letters of the Bible and yet the church is no longer present there. The society has changed. The times have changed, people moved and yet the church is doing just fine. We in the United States bemoan the changes in our culture that have caused us not to be at the center of our society like we were in the 50s when everybody wanted to belong to a church. I was once on staff at a church that's great story was it had been founded right before Christmas and the pastor that founded it in this neighborhood went door to door and said there's going to be a worship service and 400 people showed up and that was the beginning of the church. It was the culture of the time – and part of if was just the new church was closer than the farther one it was easier to get to, so of course the neighborhood turned out and I don't want to belittle their faith, but when we're going through the motions, culturally I don't think that's what Christ is really calling for. When we're using the labels and the name but we're not actually doing what Christ calls us to do… I don't think that's really faith and so we're struggling right now because for a long time we were the benefits of culture and now maybe the culture has turned. All the more opportunity to be refined. To Proclaim! To share our prayers and our presence and our gifts and our witness and our service.

To be the body of Christ for the world when it's not as easy when it's not as comfortable. We put up our hands. We hold out our hearts. The scripture says “therefore prepare your minds for action.” It's not about escaping this broken world. It's about living like Christ in the midst of it - to becoming Christlike, to bearing the wounds of others, to enduring the suffering with others to seeking Justice and wholeness - to love one another to love even our enemies!

Now everyone we meet is a neighbor, some are strangers or even an enemy and God call us to love them. Not an emotional feel-good kind of love, but a willingness to work for their good - for a mutual good. The scriptures are about love. The greatest of these is love. God is love. We are called to mutual love, not just to those we like, not just to those that like us , ut to this broken world that Christ knows so very well.

There's a letter I've been reading the last couple of weeks it is not scripture but it's from about the year 130. It is perhaps the earliest example of written Christian apologetics (outside of Scripture) that we have and that is a phrase that makes my skin crawl sometimes because much of apologetics I find overbearing and coercive and not very Christlike, but this example from around 130 is written by a Christian, apparently of some standing, that has been asked to explain who these weirdos are that are turning towns upside down that are challenging the ways of Empire.

It is a fascinating letter because what the author - and we don't know for sure who the author was - but the author attempts to explain Christian values without quoting Scripture a lot.

oh you'll hear echoes of it if you know the Scriptures, but if you don't hold faith already, if you don't hold the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative, then quoting them doesn't really do any good because that's not a source that a nonbeliever would readily respond to, so instead, using logic, using reason, using experience is this letter… it's very Wesleyan theology I think - not that that existed at the time, but this is the kind of approach we take. The letter begins “Most excellent Diognetus, I see that you deeply desire to learn how Christians worship their God. You have so carefully and earnestly asked your questions about them. What is this God they believe in, the form of religion they observe and lets them look down upon death. Why do they reject the Greek gods and [other] superstitions alike. What about the affection that they have for one another? and why has this new group and their practices come to life so suddenly even now? I welcome this desire to you….” and it goes into a prayer. “I implore God who enables us both to speak and hear to grant to me so to speak that above all I may hear that you have been edified and so to and to you so to hear that I who speak may have no cause of regretting for having done so.”

I find that a most useful paragraph. As I seek audaciously to preach in times such as these, I watch the news and I say: “I'm supposed to stand up and talk about hope and rejoicing?” I visit people whose burdens are just overwhelming with health problems and uncertainty and broken relationships, and I I'm supposed to preach about hope and rejoicing?” Oh Lord! May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you… that’s my prayer.

My constant prayer since I had the audacity to go to the DS and say “I think I'm called into Ministry” is “let me be the pastor that this time and place needs.” A few months ago I shared I was in a clergy Covenant group and with a counselor and we were talking. Mark Tisdale is his name, he's a church consultant. He's a Baptist and he said to us: “do you know that the church has a Savior?” and we all nodded… yeah. We know. We were talking about the challenges of our places and the cultural shifts and attendance and budget and all of these problems. Mark was like “ no... no… do you know that the church has a Savior? and we nodded and then he says and “it's not you!”

oh yeah, it's not me. It's Jesus Christ.

The church has a savior. The world has a savior… and we are called to participate in what God is doing in the world.

This letter goes on it talks about the soul. What the soul is of the body, Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet it is not of the body and Christians dwell in the world, yet they are not of the world. Christians dwell as in corruptible bodies looking forward to an Incorruptible dwelling and yet called to action to love here and now.”

Then about three chapters later… “For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things — by whom He made the heavens — by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds — whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe — from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed — whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, allowing the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject — the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein — fire, air, and the abyss — the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us. For He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing?”

We find echoes of scripture, certainly, as is appropriate, but we primarily find a witness of faith in words the audience can relate to. An explanation, an invitation. Joy permeates this letter. We don't know what the effect of the letter was. We don't have a record of whether this Diognetus was transformed, if he ever joined a church, but we have this witness and we have evidence that while Christianity was still illegal, without power, without official status, Christianity was being known and what attracted people was love, was service, was meekness.

Now sometimes we misunderstand the word meek. It comes from an old Norse word (mjukr) meaning gentle, but a fuller understanding really is from a Greek origin: praus, which is translated as “strength under control.” Strength under control, that's what it is to be meek; to be like obedient children; to be willing to bear witness. Ancient Greece war horses were trained to be meek: strong and powerful, yet under control and willing to submit. Meekness is not about being doormats. It's about harnessing the power that is within us and using it, not for our own good, but for the good of others. To be meek is to be Christlike - not coming in as a tyrant or controller, but coming in service, in humility, in love.

Yet too often, instead of being refined we, the church, have chosen to build idols, to seek power and control and glory for ourselves. Oh, when we do it in the guise of worshiping God we use the language of faith - remember a few weeks ago in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises that everyone… everyone who seeks will find and asks will be answered, but not all who say “Lord, Lord” will be recognized. There's a difference between going through the motions, as I did for so much of my life, and actually asking and actually seeking, actually kneeling in prayer actually being willing to change, to go deeper. Being willing to be transformed in heart and mind and action.

These are difficult times to be a Christian. I preached a few weeks ago about an ethics class I took in seminary and had to write about Christian ethics and about my understanding of what it meant to be Christlike; particularly in the context of nonviolence. There had just been a horrific mass shooting in an Amish community and the news was full of the mourning, but also the Amish Elders publicly proclaiming forgiveness. We were assigned a paper around that. One of the things I was wrestling with is: they knew that the perpetrator had been locked up for life. He had like 30 life sentences. This guy was never getting out of jail… so force was used… just not their force. They didn't have to do the work of restraining, of confining, of correcting, of judging, of punishing. That was necessary – but the system, the police and courts did that part. Not the Amish community. How does forgiveness shift when we don't have that distance and protection? What is nonviolence if we outsource use of force? I wrote in that paper about wanting to be nonviolent yet believing that sometimes a bully needs a punch in the nose. I still wrestle with that. We live in a world shattered by multiple wars. I think most of us think Ukraine has the right to defend itself against the Russian invasion. That the appropriate response is force. After 9/11, most of us thought we had the right to defend ourselves and that an appropriate response, if a Afghanistan would not give up the leaders of al- Qaeda, we had the right to use force there and despite misgivings, I don't know that I can argue with that logic. Most of us believe this morning that given the horrific actions and words of the leadership of Hamas, deliberately targeting civilians and festivals, taking hostages - that Israel has a right to defend itself. I believe that's true, but I also believe that war is sin. Because War represents a failure of justice.

The Reverend Doyle Burbank Williams, writing about the use of Revelation in times such as this how people trot out “ah, this is the sign… this is the sign… Williams says “"War is always a sin. Always. I understand that there have been instances in human history where not opposing an evil would have been a greater evil, but I am enough of an idealist to believe that had we acted faithfully far earlier for justice and compassion that the need to respond warfully may have been avoided. All this is to say that there is nothing about the war in the Middle East that God wants or approves of. It is all sin. I do not believe that God ever uses human lives to enact some kind of theological stratagem. The innocent lives taken in this conflict are not God’s will, and God is weeping at the tragedy of it all."

When I had the privilege, in 2016, of going to Israel. We kept having this experience, especially on the bus, where the tour guides would talk very, very effusively about something out on one side of the bus. Really, really call our attention to that and usually it wasn't much to see and I noticed there was a pattern… that if I looked out the other side of the bus… there was often quite a bit to see and it was usually ruins or Palestinian Villages that had been bulldozed… and we didn't want to talk about that or look at that. Again, what Hamas has done is evil. Full stop. And yet for a variety of reasons humanity keeps dividing and creating apartheid states and creating a level of desperation that makes groups like Hamas powerful. I don't have a solution to the Israel/Hamas War. I don't have a solution to Israel and Palestine. I recognize that Hamas' official line is not only the State of Israel but all Jews should be killed and that is a kind of evil and genocidal intent that must, must be resisted… and yet I also see that too often, our God, our idol, is violence. Our only solution is violence. It's cracking down, it's making more weapons…at some point we have to find another way.

Thomas Merton wrote: “Merely to resist evil with evil by hating those who hate us and seeking to destroy them, is actually no resistance at all. It is active and purposeful collaboration in evil that brings the Christian into direct and intimate contact with the same source of evil and hatred which inspires the acts of his enemy. It leads in practice to a denial of Christ and to the service of hatred rather than love.”

What would it look like to be meek? To have self-control. To radiate joy and peace, not from a position of power, but from a position of weakness. Of suffering with… of seeking wholeness of others. To being Christlike in such a way that people like Diognetus noticed and inquired and wondered what all these people were doing with so much love that worlds were being Transformed?

This day we celebrate because three people have found their path here at First. They have joined our church. We know the church is not a building. Church is the Gathering of people, the church is the prayers and the presence and the gifts and the service and the witness of everyone who identifies with that particular congregation. The church is the work of congregations together in such a way that the world sees not us, but Christ. To be the church is to become loving as Christ is loving. I don't have simple answers for how to do that in a broken and divided world, but I firmly believe that that is our call. That the words of our mouth, that the actions of our hands and our feet, be acceptable to God and reveal light and love and grace to a world that so desperately needs it. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God amen

(addendum) There's one line, or key point, I left out of the sermon that's going to bug me if I don't share it, which is: It seems hopeless, but in my lifetime Northern Ireland and South Africa seemed hopeless. It takes transformed minds, committed to nonviolence, willing to see things differently. We worship a God who makes ways when there seems to be no way and if we put that God first, instead of our Idols of gold and violence, we will find peace and wholeness. God will make a way.


The grass withers, the flowers fade, but we are called to be light and salt for the world. Go forth and be light. Share God's love and grace and mercy in all you do and God will make a way. Thanks be to God. Amen.



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