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This sermon was prepared for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN and delivered on Sunday, August 9th, in both the chapel and sanctuary services.  Audio will be available at presby.net… soon. 

17 So I’m telling you this, and I insist on it in the Lord: you shouldn’t live your life like the Gentiles anymore. They base their lives on pointless thinking, 18 and they are in the dark in their reasoning. They are disconnected from God’s life because of their ignorance and their closed hearts. 19 They are people who lack all sense of right and wrong, and who have turned themselves over to doing whatever feels good and to practicing every sort of corruption along with greed.

20 But you didn’t learn that sort of thing from Christ. 21 Since you really listened to him and you were taught how the truth is in Jesus, 22 change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. 23 Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit 24 and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness.

25 Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor[a] because we are parts of each other in the same body. 26 Be angry without sinning.[b] Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.28 Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God. (Ephesians 4:17-5:2, Common English Bible translation)

***

I want to talk a bit this morning about a recent animated film about feelings. Any guess what film that might be? Nope! Not Inside Out, though that was a contender. Definitely worth watching, in my humble opinion. No, the film I want to talk to you about is Song of the Sea. Perhaps a wee bit less familiar…

Image from the movie Song of The Sea. Song of the Sea tells the story of Ben and his little sister Saoirse - the last Seal-child - who embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea. The film takes inspiration from the mythological Selkies of Irish folklore, who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land. Song of the Sea features the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, David Rawle, Lisa Hannigan, Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny. Music is by composer Bruno Coulais and Irish band K’la, both of whom previously collaborated on The Secret of Kells.

Image from the movie Song of The Sea. Song of the Sea tells the story of Ben and his little sister Saoirse – the last Seal-child – who embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea. The film takes inspiration from the mythological Selkies of Irish folklore, who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land. Song of the Sea features the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, David Rawle, Lisa Hannigan, Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny. Music is by composer Bruno Coulais and Irish band K’la, both of whom previously collaborated on The Secret of Kells.

Early in this film the young Irish boy at its center loses his mother rather mysteriously just as his sister emerged from her womb. Before she died she told him countless Gaelic stories and painted pictures of these stories on the wall, she taught him ancient gaelic songs as well. He was so excited meet the child in her womb. She assured him he was going be an excellent big brother. But living in a lighthouse accessible only by boat with a grieving father and a needy younger sibling, and no mother with her glorious stories and songs was not a recipe for a happy childhood. And it seems there were many messages in this boy’s life that told him it wasn’t o.k. to feel his feelings. His father’s emotional life was numbed, and on the hardest days he took the boat to the pub. And he had a grandmother who explicitly forbade him to cry. So it seems that the only feeling he felt was anger, all the time, and all of it was directed at his young sister— he aggressively acts out seething resentment towards this little girl who loves him fiercely. One of the gaelic myths that his mother told him was the story of a giant who suffered a great loss and cried so many tears he created the ocean. The giant’s mother, an owl witch, wanted to protect him from pain and so cast a spell to take away his feelings, and thereby turned him to stone. She then tried to protect others in the same way, turning countless fairies to stone throughout the land. There is a moment in the film when the boy meets the witch and realizes his mother’s story was true, and the witch, for a moment, tempts him with the promise of no more feelings. But a strength in him allowed him to resist and ultimately he and sister restore feeling to the witch, her son, and all the hardened fairies bringing life back in abundance.

Both Song of the Sea and the more familiar Inside Out suggest beautifully that to be alive and healthy you have got to feel all your feelings, even the uncomfortable or negative ones. Perhaps it’s time to renew movie night. I want to share both of these films with you— more fully than words alone allow.

Both of these films came back to me as I mused on our reading for this week. One verse in particular screamed at me— “Be angry without sinning. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” Or as it is put in the Bibles in your pews “Be angry, but do not sin; do net let the sun go down on your anger.” The way it is translated in both these versions it sounds like this is a command “Be angry!” It’s not really a command; it’s more like an assumed condition— you’re going to be angry, so here’s some guidance for how to live with your anger. But it was jarring, to me, to find an exhortation to anger in the midst of a whole bunch of teachings on what the new life should include. True confession. I don’t have an easy relationship with anger. Many adults, I think, and maybe kids too, major in particular emotions and minor in others— we have our comfort zones, and our discomfort zones, in the world of feeling. Given my complicated relationship with anger, I seized on the fact that later in our passage the author of the letter says to put away anger, along with other destructive behaviors. But I kept coming back to this earlier verse—“Be angry without sinning. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” I think the anger to be put away, is the anger with sinning— the anger the destroys self or others, anger that tears down rather than builds up. The feeling of anger itself… cannot be completely put away.

Even people who may feel anger quite easily and naturally can get messages, especially in church, I think, that this is an inappropriate feeling. In fact, sometimes it seems to me like we somehow get the impression that only positive emotions are welcome in church. I’ve heard so many stories of the wars that can rage at home in the process of trying to get everyone ready and out the door for church and then the smiles plastered on all the faces when we walk through the doors. I’ve heard people tell stories of avoiding worship for over a decade because every time they step into a worship service they are transported to funerals of loved ones and they can’t stop crying. And crying in church seems to them wholly inappropriate. So often within church walls someone will tell me that everything is fine, when their tight faces and raised shoulders tell a different story.

When the author to the Ephesians discusses the new life they are to be living, transformed from their earlier gentile ways, he doesn’t assume that everything will be happy, happy, joy, joy henceforth. He assumes that sometimes, in the life of faith, especially as that life is lived in human community, you are going to be angry— because you’re going to get hurt. It’s part of being human. Coming into relationship with Christ doesn’t take that away. In fact, Jesus himself got angry… more than once. We have it on record. According to that record, Jesus didn’t just get angry— he felt deep sorrow. He wept. He grieved. He was irritated. He was tired. He laughed. He felt a wide range of human emotions— I suspect he felt them all. And it even appears there were likely times when he struggled with his feelings and acted on his feelings in hurtful ways. But for the most part, Jesus seems to feel his feelings and act in love— whatever his feelings might be. He acts in ways that build up community around him, that build up individuals around him. He uses the energy of his feelings to bring positive change to the people he meets.

There are things in this world and in each of our lives that are not right, things that are not fair, things that make us angry. And there are certainly things in the life of a church that make us angry. Certain people rub us the wrong way. Particular changes irk the heck out of us. Sometimes its even songs—certain hymns just hit us in the wrong spot. Sorry. Yes. Anger is a natural part of church life, as are all the human emotions. We are a human community, the body of a human, not just a divine savior. A body that feels things. But we don’t only feel. We also think. And much of our scripture reading this morning suggests that we need to change the way we think in order to live with our feelings in a way that builds up rather than tearing down. And one of the foundational shifts demanded in our thinking is a refusal of dishonesty. One of the features of the old life we are to leave behind, is that it is driven by deceitful desires— I take this to mean, lies that we tell ourselves, particularly lies about the way that certain earthly pleasures will ultimately satisfy us. I get this partly from the description of lost gentiles as those who have given themselves over to doing whatever feels good. A line from a pop song came to mind— If it makes you happy, then it can’t be that bad. But in fact, a lot that temporarily makes us happy leads us nowhere good— it doesn’t bring joy, contentment, peace… when the momentary pleasure passes, an aching longing takes its place. But I also think that there are other lies that we tell ourselves, particularly lies about the appropriateness of feelings… lies that we have to stop telling in order to truly live. Once we tell the truth to ourselves, then we can follow the admonition in our passage to “tell the truth to our neighbor” and further to do what last week’s passage suggests “to speak the truth in love.” Rather than pushing anger down— lying to ourselves “I’m not angry.” Or “I’m not allowed to be angry.” Or “I’m a bad person because I’m angry.” These are all lies— rather than suppressing anger, or any feeling, grief, sadness, joy— we need to feel it, and admit we feel it, and then decide how to appropriately express this feeling— in a way that will build up rather than tearing down.

I remember a moment when an elder in my first congregation lived this process beautifully. She had had surgery and no one visited her. She was relatively young and healthy, but she had told people this was coming— and everyone forgot. Rather than stew about this, she spoke her sadness and her anger at a session meeting— not accusing or blaming or pointing fingers. She just let her faith community know she was hurting. And she expressed that she hoped something like this would never have to happen again in her church. She may have let the sun go down on her anger for awhile, but she didn’t let it fester. She spoke her truth in love. And the community was helped to be stronger and healthier thanks to her willingness to feel her feeling and share it in love.

Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. This is anger with sinning. Anger we cling to becomes bitterness. Losing our temper hurts people around us. Shouting brings shame. Shouting brings fear. Shouting breeds anger for anger. And slander… oh, what a terribly destructive thing to do with our anger.

But thanks be to God, we have other choices. We can’t choose to never be angry, but we can choose to be angry without sinning. Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ. We can resolve to always be kind, no matter the intensity of our anger. We can remember when we have been hurt its often hurt people who hurt people— and we can have compassion for the one who has wounded us. By choosing kindness and compassion, we can forgive as we have been forgiven. We imitate the God of forgiving love. We can do this and more because we have been loved; we are loved; we have the love of God within us.

We are a living church. We are a church that feels, all sorts of feelings, and that loves through all that feeling. We will not unconsciously act out nor turn to stone, but we speak the truth in love, building up one another and Christ’s body in this world. May it be so.

Thanks to Kevin Sanderson-Doughty and D. Jay Koyle for their assistance with the birthing of this sermon. 

Song of the Sea. Directed by Tomm Moore. 2014. Belgium: Big Farm and Norleum studios. Available for viewing now through Amazon Instant Video, You Tube, Google Play, and Vudu.

Sermon prepared for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, Indiana and preached in all three Sunday morning services (chapel, bridge, and sanctuary) July 5, 2015.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (Common English Bible)

I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. 3-4 I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses.

If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.

I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. 10 Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.

winton2014

An amazing man died this week at the age of 106. In the words of the New York Times, “Nicholas Winton, a Briton who said nothing for a half century about his role in organizing the escape of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, a righteous deed like those of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, died on Wednesday in Maidenhead, England. He was 106.” He saved 669 children? And said nothing about it? Through all sorts of complicated and dangerous processes he got all those children on trains headed out of Nazi occupied territory and helped them to find homes in safer countries. He put his own life in danger repeatedly to save these children. He interacted with families making the agonizing decision to put their children on trains and send them away, likely never to see them again. And he surely suffered when the last train (the eighth train) he arranged to leave Prague, the train carrying the largest group of children- 250 in total- never made it out. Hitler invaded Poland and sealed the borders. All 250 of those children likely perished in concentration camps. But 669 got out, thanks to his efforts. They call themselves Nicky’s kids and have over 6,000 descendants among them. And he never said a word about this, even to his beloved wife whom he married over a decade later. Late in his life she found an old photo album attesting to the work he had done, but he was hesitant even then to talk about it. He told her to destroy the documents because no one would be interested. She opted, instead, to give them to a Holocaust historian, and, as you might imagine, many, many were interested.

In light of our scripture passage this morning this story truly stands out. It’s a strange passage. The sort of passage that makes brows crinkle, chests sigh, minds wander. We picked up reading in the midst of what some call Paul’s fool’s speech. Paul has gotten reports from his co-workers who have delivered earlier letters to the Corinthians (there were surely more than two— more than one embedded in the book we call 2nd Corinthians even) that the situation in Corinth has deteriorated. There are alternate apostles there who have won great favor among the Corinthians and who have managed to systematically discredit their founding apostle— calling into question his worthiness and his credentials and presenting impressive accounts of their own credentials to shore themselves up as they run him down. So in chapters 11 and 12 Paul is defending himself against these attacks; he may be trying to save face with the Corinthians.

But he has a funny way of saving face. He starts out, in 11:22, acknowledging rather petulantly that he is, like his opponents, a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham. But he doesn’t elaborate on his rather impressive credentials in this regard. Instead he elaborates on all the suffering he has endured. It’s a pretty impressive list— if you’re impressed by catalogues of woe. And then, where we picked up he turns his attention to sharing revelations and visions; it is likely his opponents claimed to have rapturous spiritual experiences. Paul was not inclined to speak of such things even though he appears to have had experiences like that himself. We can see his unwillingness to talk about it in the strange way he does so— he speaks in the third person “I know a man in Christ” speaks in third person about a first person experience. And he tells the Corinthians absolutely nothing useful about this experience. We can gather he had a direct encounter with God in God’s glory 14 years before the letter was written. Might have been in the body, might have been out of the body. Doesn’t know. God knows. Heard things he can’t repeat. Or rather this man he knows had this encounter and heard things he can’t repeat. It was Paul who had this experience, but he distances himself from a testimony to an encounter with glory. He comes back to directly talking about himself to speak about the thorn in the flesh, some persistent form of suffering from which he strongly desired to be rid. He believes he received this thorn, whatever it was, in order to keep him from being conceited, overly puffed up. He refuses to brag about his encounters with glory. He will only boast about suffering, weakness. The one direct revelation he shares is a powerful, but paradoxical word from Christ to hm “My grace is enough for you; power is made perfect in weakness.” The recollection of which triggers him to make another short list of his sufferings— for the sake of Christ— and to claim “When I am weak. Then I am strong.” Paradox again. That’s what he offers in self-defense. Strange credentials.

When you feel under attack, undervalued, discredited, mis-represented, undermined… is this how you would respond? Aren’t we more likely to trot out lists of accomplishments, lifting up the shiniest truths about ourselves in defense against the onslaught? Paul had started churches all over the Roman Empire by the time these charges were being leveled against him. He had raised significant funds for the poor church in Judea. He had done more than any other individual in the early church to foster the growth and spread of the Christian Church. He had successes about which he could truthfully brag. He had shiny truths he could trot out. But he says he wants no more credit than what people see in him and hear about him. And what folks are seeing and hearing is a mixed bag. And Paul is o.k. with that because if people see him as weak and flawed, then all the success that he has been privileged to foster— all that glory will go to God, which is where he thinks it should go. The power of Christ rests on him when he brags of his weaknesses because he is thereby testifying to his dependence on power beyond himself to accomplish anything in this life. The only credential Paul thinks matters when it comes to validating oneself as an apostle of Christ is complete dependence on Christ— even to the point of patterning one’s life on the sacrificial life that Jesus lived.

The question was raised in Men’s Bible Study on Wednesday whether if our prayers were to be answered and this congregation were to grow again and every Sunday were like Jazz Sunday (something we might particularly be wishing for on the typically low, low Sunday of a secular holiday weekend), should we not brag about this? Would this not be a sign of God’s favor upon us and our faithfulness to God? It might be. We might experience it as resurrection and of the amazing power of God at work among us. But we might also begin to pat ourselves on the back or give undue glory to particular leaders among us and we might forget that whether we are big or small, we are utterly dependent on Christ’s mercy and grace. Even the biggest churches are weak and dependent on the power of Christ. And perhaps the biggest churches are most at risk of forgetting what matters most. Then again, it sure seems all churches, all humans run this risk.

This is part of the reason we have sacraments. Every time we share in Christ’s feast, a humble feast, one might even call it a weak feast— a bit of bread, a bit of juice— it gives us an opportunity to remember that we are beggars for grace, dependent in every moment on nourishment from God in Christ in order to continue to live as servants of Christ. And perhaps if we keep coming back to this table, we’ll become more comfortable, perhaps even joyous, living sacrificial lives for the sake of Christ— and not finding ourselves puffed up about this, not even needing to tell anyone about it, willing to burn the evidence even. Christ’s grace is enough for us. Power is perfected in weakness. That the church is spread throughout the whole word 2,000 years after Paul wrote these sputtering words is testimony to power that comes to the aid of human weakness. That those 669 children survived and have over 6,000 descendants to show for their survival is a testimony to power that comes to the aid of human weakness. May the life of this church be such a testimony, too.

Sermon written and preached for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, Indiana.  Delivered (some version of it anyhow) in the chapel and sanctuary services on Sunday, June 7, 2015.

2 Corinthians 4:13-15, Common English Bible
13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke.[a] We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.
Last week we asked worshippers in each worship service to answer the question “What need in the world (or our surrounding community) weighs heaviest on your heart?” Many, many answers were submitted and we are grateful for each submission. Tom, Susie, Pastor Rebecca and I read through each one as we worked to prepare the exercise for next week’s worship service.  The needs identified ran the gamut from global to local. There were a few that came up repeatedly.  In the mix were a few cards expressing grief over the decline of this church.  We are not what we used to be.  Many in this room remember very different circumstances— circumstances that led to the building of this glorious building… and then filled it, regularly.  Many Christians in the United States are feeling exactly the same way.  Some of you have forwarded news article about the latest pew research which shows the radical decline in Christianity and rise of the “nones”- not Roman Catholic sisters— people with no religious affiliation at all.  And lest you think this is just a mainline Christianity thing, the pew study that’s generated so much buzz demonstrates decline in Evangelical Christian churches too.  The Church in the United States, and really the whole of the western world, is in decline— our church is no exception.

This isn’t pleasant.

But it isn’t, necessarily, disastrous.
I’ll unpack that in a bit.  But first I want to note that in a church anxious about decline the last verse of our reading this morning, as translated by both the Bibles in your pews and the Bible from which I read, talks about grace increasing to benefit “more and more people.”  I think this phrase is probably a magnet for us. When we hear this, I suspect, it reinforces our inclination to think that where grace is present numbers boom— like on Pentecost, right?  The Holy Spirit shows up and 3,000 get baptized that very day. More and more people… that’s what many of us, on some level, are hoping for.  More and more people to fill these pews.  More and more people to come to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.  More and more people.  Yes, God, please.  Send us that.

But I’m not sure that the Greek actually says anything about more and more people.  The second half of verse 15 is very difficult Greek-  scholars cannot agree how it should be translated.  Most of our Bibles— including the one from the which I read and the one in your pews, both of which are usually close translations of the original languages— get really loose when they come to the second half of 2nd Corinthians 4:15— adding words, making interpretive leaps.  I don’t blame them.  I happened to have a New Testament scholar visiting one night this week and we sat down with this verse together— and he eventually said— “Yeah, you just have to decide.  It’s open.  It’s not clear.”  I don’t really want to get into the nuances of what’s tricky in the Greek— and all the different translation possibilities— it’s not necessary and it’s a bit beyond me actually… but I learned from my scholar friend that both the intensification of “more” to “more and more” and the word “people” are not literally in the Greek— they are supplied by the translators.

Enough Greek.  My friend urged me to remember the context and to consider where the emphasis lies.  So let’s do that.  In the preceding verses, not just the two we read, but the first 12 verses of chapter four, Paul is talking about the suffering that he and his fellow ministers of the Gospel are enduring— some might have used the persecution and suffering they were enduring to discredit them and their ministry— suggesting that if they were really aligned with God, they would be thriving, riding high on glory. Paul suggests that this not how the power of the Gospel works.  God desires for light to shine out of darkness.  God brings life out of death.  This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who spent his whole life dying— only to be raised to eternal glory after he died.  Paul suggests that the more frail a vessel for doing God’s work, the better (fragile, common, clay pots…)— so there can be no confusion about who owns the power that is being exercised.  He suggests that Christ’s ministers carry Jesus’ death in their bodies so that Jesus’ life can be seen through them.  Verse twelve reads “So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

Considering this context, it seems that the emphasis is less on the more (more people or whatever), and more on the grace. Grace being power that shines through weakness, love that rescues from death.  Grace being salvation in spite of… Despite our unworthiness, our sin, our weakness— God claims, names, and saves us.  That is grace.  Life that springs from death.  Grace.

Paul and his fellow ministers were gripped by grace.  Their lives were turned upside down by grace.  They were blessed with a confidence in God’s saving, life-giving power that allowed them to endure all sorts of calamity… and to keep speaking their faith. Here’s the thing about grace…when it grips us, when we feel the enormity of this gift, we want others to feel it too.  We can’t help it. When we feel as though we have been snatched from death in spite of ourselves, we want others to be snatched from death too.  It’s not a private, secret gift.  It’s a gift that compels further giving.  It’s always been this way.  That’s why despite this season of decline and many previous oppressed, beleaguered, apparently disastrous seasons in 2,000 years of Christian history… the church has persisted, and spread, and sometimes even grown.  Paul and his fellow ministers looked forward to being raised into the presence of Christ with the Corinthians.  Their faith compelled them to bring life giving witness to others, for the benefit of others… a private audience with Jesus would have felt like failure to them.  Suffering, even dying— not failure.  Failing to speak their faith for the benefit of others… just to avoid suffering and death… failure.

I think that speaking faith sometimes looks (and sounds) like what I’m doing right now.  But I think sometimes we speak louder in actions.  When we find ways to stand in solidarity with the dead and dying, that God might bring new life— we are speaking faith.  If we can worry less about how many people are in our pews and more about how many people outside these walls need an experience of grace I think we’ll be on the right track.  And finding one or two or even three significant mission commitments that position us to serve our neighbors, humbly certainly, but faithfully— speaking our faith because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with others… others whom we serve in his name.

Tom, Stu, Pastor Rebecca and I went to a workshop last fall in which we heard about a church that had been in a long and steep decline— they were down to maybe 12 members.  A few of those members showed up to a workshop much like the one we attended; they showed up feeling discouraged and hopeless… they were sure they were dead, done, and gone.  But they decided, since they were dead anyhow, they had nothing to lose.  So they started a tutoring program for neighborhood kids.  They didn’t expect to grow.  They just thought they should use what they had to benefit others in need.  They focused on extending grace for the benefit of others— in spite of their apparently desperate circumstances.  And their church came back to life.

Sometimes decline results from unfaithfulness— forsaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ for some earthly standard of glory.  Sometimes.  Sometimes decline results from faithfulness— making decisions informed by the Word of God that are unpopular in the world today.  And sometimes it has nothing to do with us really– with our faith or unfaith–  businesses leave town, communities change, people die…  Let’s worry less about why we have declined and more about what this moment means to us right now. Friends, we may be better positioned today to experience and to demonstrate the grace of God for the benefit of our community and world because we are less aligned with power and privilege and earthly glory than we once were.  In days of old, we could feel rather proud of ourselves. But today if we succeed, it’s clearly because of God, not because of us.  And because this church belongs to God, and not to us, I am not discouraged.  I know God’s grace is present here and that we will be bearers of grace to a world that we all know desperately needs it.

The resource in addition to scripture that most significantly influenced this sermon was a conversation with Dr. SungUk Lim, a fellow, recent graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion.

The story at the end was told by Kennon Callahan at a workshop on 12 Keys to an Effective Church offered by the fabulous Center for Congregations here in Indiana.

This post on church decline was also an influence.

And I think this post, that I read some time ago, provides background influence, too.

Sermon written for First Presbyterian Elkhart, for delivery in the chapel and the sanctuary May 31, 2015

50 years ago an amazing movement began in a rural community in France. But as is often the case, the beginnings of this movement were rather humble. A very tall, very smart, very privileged Canadian man welcomed two men with disabilities, who had been institutionalized, to come out of the institution and live with him in a simple house that he had built— a house lacking even running water.

This man was just a bit younger than I am now; he was 36 years old at the time. Yet he had already had two careers by then— first as a British and Canadian Naval Officer, a career for which he had begun to prepare at the age of 13. Then as a philosopher/teacher/academic. But through all his years of military service and then academic life he kept feeling like there was something more or something different that he was supposed to be doing. This man’s name is Jean Vanier. I suggested he was privileged because his father was a Canadian diplomat who eventually became Governor General of Canada. Jean was born in Switzerland and educated in elite institutions in multiple countries. But even in the midst of his privilege, he was exposed to extreme suffering when he assisted his mother in caring for survivors of a Nazi concentration camp in France in 1945. Perhaps this planted the seed of spiritual longing that eventually bore fruit, 20 years later, when he invited Raphael and Philippe to come and live with him.

jean vanier

When Jean made this invitation, he did not do so because he was an expert in care for people with intellectual disabilities. He did not do so even because he had a family member with such a condition. He did so because he was exposed to the plight of people with intellectual disabilities and the deplorable conditions in which many such people were living and the wounds and needs of these people would not let him go. Jean, though highly educated, highly skilled, hadn’t the first clue how to share life with people with disabilities. Initially he cooked for them, badly, I’ve read. Eventually all three residents of the house shared the housekeeping chores together. This little home was named L’Arche- The Ark—safe haven for the vulnerable. Jean came to realize that it was less about doing for the men with whom he was sharing his life and more about being with them, learning from them. In a few years time the community grew radically when the 30 residents of the town’s institution all became part of the community and young people from around the world were attracted to come and share life there too. And some of these people, after a time in this community that Jean, Raphael, and Philippe began, moved on to begin other communities like it in different parts of the world. There are now 147 L’Arche communities, spread over 5 continents, over 5,000 members.

Jean-Vanier2

This is just a bit of Jean’s story, and the story of the movement he helped to birth. I share it today because I perceive resonances with the prophet Isaiah’s story, whose call story we just read. We don’t know that much about the prophet Isaiah, but we know he was a man who had access to elite circles— he had direct access to Israel’s kings. We know he was a “sophisticated poet with an educated grasp of Israel’s traditions” (Tull, 1091 OT). I think it is safe to say he was a privileged man. But I think it is also safe to say that he was a spiritually seeking man. He made his way to the temple where he was granted a vision. Quite a vision, no? A vision of the divine king, seated on a gigantic throne on high, the hem of whose robe filled the temple– hence my sense that it was a gigantic throne; the temple was a big place.

And then there were the six winged creatures flapping about, shouting to one another, shouting so loud the massive door frame of the temple shook.   I’ve never paid much attention to those creatures, but this week I took a closer look at them and it turns out they were somehow serpent like, winged serpents… serpents, though, who are capable of using tongs… so they must have had arms, hands…. so perhaps they were reptilian… something like the dragons of mythology. These creatures were “stationed around” the Lord high on the throne, the Lord Isaiah describes as the king, the Lord of heavenly forces. It seems these creatures were part of the king’s heavenly forces. And it sounds as if they would have been a formidable army. Six winged, armed serpents, who shout so loud that the temple shakes… and were they the source of the smoke that filled the temple?

Isaiah’s initial response to this vision is shame and perhaps fear “Mourn for me!” he cries “I’m ruined!” He decries his unclean lips and the unclean lips of his people. He did not feel worthy of divine visitation. He feared his destruction as his unholiness met up with the holy of holies. But then he receives a word of forgiving grace as a hot coal is placed on his lips to purify them. After this Isaiah hears the Lord speak. What he hears are questions- “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” It seems to me that Isaiah was overhearing a question posed to the heavenly forces— to the seraphim— the winged creatures stationed and swirling about the throne. The Hebrew and Greek word for angel means messenger— God is frequently depicted in scripture as choosing to send heavenly beings to bear messages to humanity. It was a hard gig carrying a message in the ancient world. Having divine powers would have been an asset. Surely no one is going to mess with a six winged, armed serpent. But it is Isaiah who volunteers. He doesn’t even know where he will be sent or what the Lord needs him to do. But he’s there. He’s had the vision. He’s been forgiven. He raises his hand and with lips still burning he says “I’m here; send me.”

Other prophets in scripture are called by name and directly invited to the work God has for them. And often we hear a bit of protest from prophets in their call stories. “Not me. I can’t. You can’t mean me.” But here… Isaiah confesses, but does not protest. And he volunteers for divine service even though his name is never called. Is he qualified? Probably not. Is he tough enough for the gig? Who knows? He just didn’t let the moment pass him by and trusted, I think, that if God was sending, God would equip. And he went on from there to speak a convicting word, God’s word, to powerful men, condemning arrogance and teaching that “God’s care extended especially to the people without wealth, who stood outside the halls of power” (Tull, 1091 OT) This is not unlike Jean Vanier who left an ascendent military career, and then an ascendent academic career, and built a humble house into which he welcomed in two men with intellectual disabilities— though he hadn’t the first clue what he was doing in doing so. Both Jean and Isaiah saw injustice around them, brokenness around them, needs around them— and knew they needed to do something.

Isaiah and Jean paid attention to tugging on their hearts, to visions they were granted, and overcame any sense of unworthiness or ill-preparedness and dedicated their lives to the service of God. Pastor Rebecca and I, and members of the newly formed serving commission, are hoping that this congregation will do the same— that we will tune into the tugging on our hearts, and work together to do God’s work in this community and world, particularly on behalf of those whom Jesus called the least of these. You are in God’s house today. You have received assurance of God’s forgiveness of you. You are hearing God’s word. Whether you’ve heard a direct call or not, whether you have clear picture of what God might want you to do… I believe that each of us has longings in our hearts that are instructive. And that is what we seek to identify today- longings that might inspire us to step up, even if we haven’t the first clue what we’re getting into.

This whole month we are focusing on service or mission in our worship together. And in two weeks we will build an exercise into our worship time to help us discern God’s call to us in this time and place. And we begin that process today. In your bulletin you will find an index card with a question on the top of it. “What need in the world (or in our surrounding community) weighs heaviest on your heart?” For Jean Vanier, over 50 years ago, it was the deplorable treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. But what is it for you today? What do you see on the news that will not let you go? What wakes you up in the night? What brings tears anytime you read about it? Is it climate change? Or abused or neglected or simply poor children? Or immigrants? Or unemployment? Or hunger? What is it? Let’s take 3 minutes in silence to answer the question on our cards. Then we’ll sing and pray together. Then we’ll place these cards in the offering plates— and we’ll use them to prepare the exercise we’ll engage in two weeks. So that God’s tugging on our hearts leads to our action together making a difference in the world around us.

here i am, send me

Resources in addition to scripture that were cited in or significantly influenced the writing of this sermon:

Tull, Patricia K. “Isaiah Introduction” in the CEB Study Bible, Ed. Joel B. Green.(Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2013), 1091 OT- 1094 OT.

I am grateful to this on-line posting for helping me make the connection between Jean Vanier and Isaiah 6.

Two excellent resource for learning more about Jean Vanier and L’Arche are: http://www.jean-vanier.org/en/home; http://www.larche.ca/en/jean_vanier/

I am also grateful to Megan McMurtry, ABD candidate for a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Vanderbilt University for a text chat that helped me get my head around the winged creatures and arrive at a focus for this sermon.

And as ever am grateful to D. Jay Koyle for his assistance with final revisions!

Image Sources–First Jean Vanier image; Second Jean Vanier Image attributed to Catholic IrelandHere I am, Send Me image

While packing up for our southward journey, I found a notebook with notes from orientation on August 22, 2008. Wish I had revisited these frequently… Credit to Dr. Jimmy Byrd…

Hints for getting through:

  • Take care of health
  • Think of your work here as a job, not as a whole life- around 8 hours a day- not every waking moment
  • Think less about grades and think more about quality of work overall
  • Avoid incompletes- do the best work you can in the time available to you- if taking three seminars can think 1 paper per month, not leaving 3 big papers till November
  • Take at least a page of notes on every book you read
  • Compare self to scholars at dissertation stage, NOT to scholars in their prime
  • COMMUNITY, NOT COMPETITION!

This week I am returning to the University where I spent the better part of the last seven years in order to participate in commencement… to walk… to receive a hood and a diploma.  I am now (at least) seven hours away… every other such ritual in my life has come within days or weeks of completing a degree program… while I’m still living in student housing… on or near campus.  I somewhat doubted the value of the effort of going back.  The defense, it seemed, was the true rite of passage.  I had a bit of a party the night I defended.  But I resolved to go back if my dearest friend from this journey would be walking too (and as we defended the same week, she is!) and a friend pointed out the value that will reside in my daughter seeing me graduate and my parents wanted to bear witness… so we’re going.

And a wise woman told me I should take some time this week to reflect on what this means, to let it soak in, to feel the weight of the accomplishment– and to celebrate it.

This is actually a pretty hard thing for me to do.

So I want to do some writing to help me with this.  I want to remember what brought me to this point.  If you have walked some or all of this journey with me, please feel free to add to my rememberings.  What precisely is in this Ph.D.?

  • Several years of discerning and wrestling with call… before even applying
  • lots of conversations with mentors… before even applying
  • researching programs– finding only two that felt like a fit– one accepted one student a year, the other two…
  • reading books by the theologians at the schools to which I intended to apply
  • cramming for the GRE- first standardized test taken in YEARS
  • taking the GRE- doing well enough to let it go and not take it again
  • crafting and editing (with the help of many) a statement of purpose and a few other application pieces
  • assembling binders for my references so they had samples of my work, cv, etc.
  • saying goodbye to my first congregation– “so you’re going so that you can prepare to teach people how to teach people like you’ve been teaching us… you should go!”  so said one parishioner
  • relocating to the south– while six months pregnant
  • starting french class the day after we closed on our house
  • taking the bus to campus many days
  • passing my french language exam
  • reading ahead before classes began because I knew I needed to finish the semester early– baby coming…
  • sitting in my first Bonhoeffer class feeling like I was stepping into a conversation that had been going on for thousands of years and I had only been privy to 30 seconds of it
  • flushing like crazy during some presentation in that bonhoeffer class
  • getting all my papers for the first semester submitted before Thanksgiving….
  • teaching myself German and working with an amazing professor on a guided reading while I adjusted to motherhood
  • passing my German exam
  • so many colloquies– with fellow theologians, with members of my fellowship program
  • so much vocational reflection
  • three years of coursework
  • so many papers…
  • serving as a teaching assistant repeatedly
  • grading so. many. papers.
  • consulting with students about their writing, their beliefs, their lives…
  • intimate seminars with just a few students and amazing professors
  • re-working an M.Div. curriculum with colleagues and presenting our work to the president of the school whose curriculum we re-worked
  • so many books and articles skimmed or read or picked apart
  • reading or writing while family played… in all sorts of interesting places.
  • developing a plan for exam prep in a five month period– and after five months of 6 long work days every week (framed with running and yoga)– taking and passing all five of my comprehensive exams– just before my deadline for doing so was up (fall of my fourth year)
  • massive celebratory post-exam road trip to AAR in San Francisco and Thanksgiving with sister in Portland
  • drafting a proposal
  • having a stimulating conversation with my committee that helped to sharpen my project and sent me running on my way
  • submitting first AAR proposal– accepted– presenting first AAR paper
  • submitting an article for publication– rejected– realizing the work it would take to get it where it needed to be too much in my dissertation season
  • applying for fellowships– rejected.
  • working with a dissertation writing group
  • researching and writing the dissertation– probably thousands of pages of drafts along the way… two chapters a year for three years… 313 final pages.
  • submitting drafts to colleagues and mentors for critical feedback
  • providing feedback on colleagues’ writing
  • mentoring students who started after me
  • visiting a couple of prospective externship schools
  • being inspired at one of these schools to think about how to teach theology to multiple intelligences
  • dealing with extended uncertainty and no shortage of disappointments/discouragements
  • re-locating for an externship a bit further north at a school I didn’t visit first…
  • designing and teaching my first solo class
  • delivering a few two hour lectures
  • learning how to use Prezi in lecturing and other teaching settings
  • feeling, just a year ago, that I would never graduate… that this would never be done
  • revising, revising, revising
  • attending to seemingly endless minutia— thinking many times that it would never be done
  • accepting a call– and having six weeks to finish my second draft before work began
  • getting it done with two weeks to spare
  • working the week after Christmas to move my revisions along
  • setting a defense date
  • submitting my final draft a day early
  • defending my dissertation in fairly rigorous 2 hour conversation
  • hearing “Congratulations, Dr.” from professors I respect
  • receiving so much excited joy from my new congregation when I returned from the defense
  • forming lasting friendships with colleagues and mentors

There was a lot more in these seven years… but… wow.  Even this is pretty substantial… Worth celebrating?  Yes.

This sermon was the final sermon in a Lenten series on spiritual practices, preached today, Sunday, March 22nd, at the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN.

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We have arrived at the last week of our Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices. Thus far, in worship, we have tried on self-examination and confession, slowing or simplicity, taming the tongue, and hospitality. And this week we pick up the practice of compassion. Compassion— the word is compiled from two Latin words for suffering and with— Suffering with. And attending to the roots of this word goes a long way towards helping us to understand what the practice of compassion involves— whenever we attend to the suffering in the world around us, and stand in solidarity with those who suffer, seeking to enter into the pain of our neighbors and work with them towards the passing through of that pain— we are practicing compassion.

Our scriptures tell us repeatedly that Jesus’ life and ministry was marked by compassion— even when he sought to get away from the crowds, to get some rest, when the crowds would find him he would look on them with compassion and teach them, heal them, feed them… again and again he reached out and touched the untouchables of his day; he changed circumstances which had made people outcast in their society, reintegrating them into society; he met people where they were and helped them pass from death to life.

Next week in worship we will focus on the last week of Jesus’ life— we will work our way through a remembrance of the story of his passion— his suffering and death— from the high point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the low point of his death on the cross and burial in the tomb. Many would say that, in fact, Jesus’ death on the cross is the high point of the story. For on the cross Jesus, our compassionate savior, the manifestation of a God who suffers with us, is lifted high for all to see. If the various instances of Jesus’ life and ministry showed Jesus engaged in compassionate acts for individuals and even for crowds… on the cross we see Jesus’ compassion for all of humanity. Jesus suffers with us… that he might open a way to life beyond suffering.

I realize that I run a risk by jumping straight to no less than Jesus Christ, son of God, God with us— as chief exemplar of the practice of the week. Many of us may be inclined to say “Ah well, it must be too much for me… he is perfect. I am imperfect. Maybe I can take a pass on this practice…”   But… by virtue of our baptism, we have been made one with Christ— we have been incorporated into the earthly body of Christ— his ministry is now our ministry. Ours together— mind you— no one of us alone can carry on the ministry of Christ. All of us together, with all the baptized Christians across time and space, together we share this work.

Our scripture reading this morning is from a portion of the letter to the Colossians that focuses on the Christian life— both what it is not, and what it is. We read today just the positive teachings about what Christian life should look like. Or, to use the metaphor of the passage, about the clothes that Christians should wear. A striking outfit of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… an outer coat of love. Before we take a closer look at these clothes, however, I’d like to zero in on the first few words of the passage— “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”— before telling the Christians of Colossae what they are to do, this letter reminds them who they are. They are chosen, by God; they are set apart in this world as vessels of the divine; they are loved. This is who they are. Chosen, Holy, Beloved. And that’s who we are too.

I spent some time this week thinking about being chosen. The first image that came to mind is of a shy infant or toddler taking a shining to me— perhaps playing peek a boo with me, or flashing a smile at me, or reaching out for me— this is an incredible feeling. You can’t MAKE a baby pick you. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, ah the warm feeling. Maybe babies don’t do it for you… maybe you’d be happiest if a baby never picks you… maybe for you you remember being asked to dance, or play on a team, or serve in leadership, or get married… Each of us has some experience of being chosen in this life and can tap into the special feeling that comes with being chosen. But always when I think about being chosen, I remember times when I have not been chosen… and how lousy that feels. Last one picked in gym class, standing on the wall all night at the school dance, rejected for this or that school or job… surely we’ve all had that experience too. Some time when we were passed over… and it hurt. A lot.

Yes, being chosen— it’s a powerful… and somewhat fraught human experience. I think sometimes when we’re chosen we can get a bit puffed up— we can begin to feel better than— we can become cocky or smug. I think it is not an accident that the list of Christian virtues that follows on this statement of Christian identity directly challenges this very possibility. We are chosen not so that we might be lords over others, but rather so that we might suffer with others, be kind to others, be humble, meek, patient… like Christ, who, as another letter in scripture reminds us, though he was in the form of God did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…

We are chosen. We are holy. We are beloved. Therefore… we will humble ourselves; we will seek to grow in compassion and mercy right here in our own church family; bearing with one another even when we have legitimate complaints against one another— forgiving as we have been forgiven. I think, actually, forgiveness itself is a great act of compassion. Often we are able to forgive when we realize that the one who has hurt us is him or herself a hurting person.

After I drafted this sermon on Thursday afternoon, late that night when I was getting ready for bed, an old friend reached out via Facebook messenger. She had had one of those days that rocks you to your core, that leaves you doubled over with tears— days when it’s easier to type than to talk. Her abusive father, from whom she has been estranged for years, is now dying. He has sent messages to her through her siblings that he wants her to come see him. But until Thursday she could not. Prior to Thursday, for weeks, months, years… she has been praying for her father, lighting candles for her father… she noticed that she had moved from wishing that he would hurt as badly as he had made her hurt, to realizing that he must have already been hurting as badly as he had made her hurt, and that certainly, now, in a very painful dying process he is suffering profoundly. And she prayed for the peace of his soul, prayed that he would rest with Jesus. But she just couldn’t bring herself to go see him. What if he hurt her again?

But on Thursday, after the long, faithful process of lifting her enemy, her father, to Christ, she found the strength— she is certain it came directly from the Holy Spirit— the strength to drop her guard and go to his bedside. When she arrived he was in and out of consciousness. But when he realized she was there, he told her that he was sorry, so very sorry, and he hugged her, and he cried. She hugged him back and told him that she knew he had had a hard life and that she has been praying for his soul. Her sister later told her that when later in the day he said that he had a dream that my friend had visited, and then heard that it wasn’t a dream, a look came over his face that she had never seen before. Her sister saw a peace in her father she never thought she’d see. My friend heard words she’d never thought she’d hear. She felt love she never thought she’d feel. And she found that at last her bitter resentment that led her to wish her father ill was gone— she was weeping at the end of the day because he was suffering, not because he had caused her to suffer.

The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ, gave my friend, and her father, a new wardrobe on Thursday—   dressed them in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience… and above all else love… It’s not like that encounter happened in an instant, well, it did… but it grew from years of practice that preceded it— years of formation in Christian faithfulness, within the body of Christ, the church… years of compassionate praying for her enemy… years of stripping off the old clothes and being fitted for new.

I am confident that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. I have had so many confirmations of that in recent weeks. I sense that the Spirit of Christ is moving among us, flitting about like a personal stylist in a fine boutique, assembling Easter outfits for each of us— pulling compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, gratitude off the racks and passing them to us to try on for size. I’m certain that the Spirit is wrapping each of us in love. We are, afterall, God’s chosen ones… holy, and beloved. The Spirit of God is joyfully re-clothing us, making us into new creations. O friends, what good news, how can we keep from singing?

The story shared near the end was shared with the permission of the woman who told it to me. I promised to maintain confidentiality when sharing it.

Image from here.

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