Sermon: How Wide is Wide?

“How Wide is Wide?”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 4:7-21 and Acts 8:26-40
May 3, 2015

Choir Anthem: “Your Love, O God, Has Called Us Here”

Sermon Audio

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, designed to share the Good News that Jesus of Nazaareth is the Messiah of god. They are followed by the Book of Acts and the various epistles by Paul and others that are attempts to explain how faith in Jesus began with just a small group of frightened disciples huddled together in Jerusalem but then spread rapidly from one place to another, just as Jesus had told them it would on his last day with them. He had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.   Acts shares several stories of individual encounters that result in the spread of faith in unlikely places and to unlikely people. And in the letters we get a glimpse into various congregations that have particular problems understanding and living out what they have heard and now believe. Under the pressures of their daily lives, the groups are polarizing, with factions taking sides on various issues. So, the letters are mostly about problem solving. And the basis for solving the problems, as varied as they are from place to place, comes down to love for one another that reflects God’s love for them as revealed in Jesus.

Since this is a theme that runs through each of these writings, it shouldn’t be surprising that the same issues trouble us today. It’s one thing to love God; we can work up some enthusiasm for that and get pretty good at it. It’s another thing, however, to love other people. Linus, a character in the old “Peanuts” cartoon strip, summed it up beautifully when Lucy confronted him with his lack of love for mankind. “I LOVE mankind,” he replied; “it’s PEOPLE I can’t stand.”

Linus was on to something and he was honest about it. It is so much easier to “love” or accept or champion a concept, an abstraction, and idea, than it is to love or accept or support any one particular, individual, concrete example of it. The problems begin when the “ideal” meets the “real.” Consequently, as Peter Gomes has pointed out, the sad truth is often that our faith has developed only to the point of knowing how to hate, but not far enough to know how to love.[i]

But according to what we’ve read from 1John just now, loving God and loving neighbor or love the other, are inextricably bound up. We can’t love God unless we love our neighbor. It’s futile; it’s impossible; we are delusional, fooling ourselves, if we think we can, because Christianity is not so much a set of abstract beliefs, principles, or propositions that we give intellectual assent to as it is a relationship—an active, working relationship between us and God and us with each other and the world. Jesus didn’t ask his followers to think about him. He called them to follow him. We are to do as he did, to live in the world and relate to other people as he did. Jesus didn’t just talk about love in the abstract; he did love –with all kinds of people in many different circumstances.

And many of those circumstances involved people at the fringes of “polite” society, those outside the purity rules and the regulations of the law-abiding and pious. He healed many so-called “unclean” people whom the insiders shunned – the woman with hemorrhages whom he calls “daughter,” Bartimaeus, the blind man, the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, the Roman centurion’s servant. Others he teaches, like the Samaritan woman at the well. And to others he offers eternal life, most notably the penitent thief on the cross beside him. Jesus’ love wasn’t kept for high ideals or lofty goals. His love didn’t hide behind the law: he touches the leper; he eats with the tax collector.

Jesus shows us that faith is not about separating ourselves from humanity in an upward ascent toward God, but it is the “joyful acknowledgement” that as we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the heart of God. To love as Jesus did, is not to love in the abstract. Other people do not get in the way, keeping us from finding God; they are the way to God.[ii] Thus, as God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus, so we too are to incarnate that love in our individual relationships with other people.

Because of the uniqueness of each relationship, the Bible doesn’t give us seven easy steps to love. We are just told to use Jesus as our model, and then in each of our particular relationships and situations we are called to love the Jesus way. Sometimes that’s easier than other times because none of us is perfect, all of us are “human becomings,” still a bit needy perhaps, or rude, or stubborn, imperfect in some way. But that does not diminish our responsibility to be loving. Eugene Peterson writes that “Every act of love requires creative and personal giving, responding and serving appropriate to – context specific to – both the person doing the loving and the person being loved.”[iii]

Our reading from Acts that Katie shared earlier gives us one example of what that kind of creative, context- specific love looks like. There is a significant exchange between two men who could not have been any more different. The first is Philip, one of the deacons appointed by the Jerusalem congregation to care for the poor and hungry among them. Later he went from Jerusalem into Samaria, where he shared the good news of Jesus with the people with great success. From there he was led by the Holy Spirit to go to Gaza. As a Jew, he knew the law and traditions, and was familiar with scripture. Philip is an “insider.”

The second is his complete opposite. He is a Gentile, a foreigner, of a different race, rich and influential in his country, highly educated, and he is a eunuch, and as such he was barred from the Temple by scripture, law, and tradition. His gender differences and inability to fit into proper categories made him “profane by nature;”[iv] he simply did not fit; he is an outsider. But that had not stopped him from going to Jerusalem to worship, and seeking God, and now on his way home he was reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. He reads a passage he does not understand just as Philip comes upon him on the road.

Now you might think they would pass each other without any kind of acknowledgement and conversation; they were so very different. But Philip hears familiar words from scripture; he asks – and who knows with what kind of attitude – “Do you know what you’re reading?” and the man answers honestly that he could use some help. So Philip teaches him that the suffering servant described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.

This comes as great good news to one who had thought there was no possibility he could ever be included among the faithful. And so with great excitement he asks, “What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?” Well, nothing, of course, except what the Law says – no foreigners, no Gentiles, no black men, no eunuchs are to be included within God’s exclusive people. But what does Philip do? He does what Jesus would do – he baptizes the man; he touches the untouchable, he accepts the unacceptable.

Now most of the time when this story is told, a lot of emphasis is given to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and his baptism. But this is Philip’s story too. And as such, it is our story too. We are more like Philip than the man from Ethiopia. Philip had to weigh everything he knew from tradition and the law, as do we, and then decide whether he would follow the letter of the law, or do something new, something that Jesus would have done, something that spoke to the heart of the law rather than the letter.

Philip had to decide if the Word of God is only for a select few. He had to decide if the Love of God was only meant for a handful. He had to decide how wide is God’s love and mercy. He decided to respond positively, not in spite of the man’s differences, but because the differences didn’t matter. The man’s excitement, curiosity, and love for God were what counted. So Philip sets aside the narrow confines of the law, and throws open the wide doors of God’s mercy and love.

Later Peter would do the same thing with the gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, concluding “Truly God shows no partiality.”

The love of God is wide and ours must be also. How wide is wide? As wide as necessary to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peter Gomes, The Good Life, 304.

[ii] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 26.

[iii] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 327.

[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” April 30, 2012

Sermon: “We Are God’s Children Now”

“We Are God’s Children Now”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 John 3:1-7
April 19, 2015

Audio for this sermon unavailable.

Last week Jodie made an interesting observation. She said that in all the years prior to joining the United Methodist Church and in the nine years since, she does not recall ever hearing mentioned John Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification, or perfection. There could be quite a few reasons for that. The best possible scenario is that there has been an amazing coincidence – a Guinness Book of World Records coincidence – between Jodi’s vacations and the times when this topic was presented in church. Or perhaps it has been inserted from time to time under other names, and in various disguises – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’! But I think Jodie would have caught on to that pretty fast. Or maybe it’s been hidden, pureed and softened disguised in something sweeter and more palatable, like the way moms sometimes put baby spinach in brownie mix to make the brownies a little bit healthier.

But on the other hand, as I think about the world today, the world as it has always been really, I wonder if it isn’t very, very difficult, and thus rather rare, to find the words, the courage, the right time to attempt to explain or to convince or to convert individuals to the belief and consequent behavior that both asserts and demonstrates our primary purpose in life is to grow in love of God and love of neighbor to the point at which we can say about ourselves, as Paul said of himself, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Frankly, that is a hard sell. People have too many other things to do, too many other issues. They don’t want to hear that right now! How many of the people who call themselves Christians, ourselves included, can say in all honesty that becoming Christlike is our primary goal? And how many people when sharing their opinion about us, first recall our Christlikeness before they remember anything else?

Some years back, David Gushee , a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote about the failure of Christians and of the Church to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. He noted the genocide in Rwanda, a country that claimed to be 90% Christian, where “all that Christianity did not prevent genocide” and in which “a large number of Christians participated.”[i] He also noted in that article that from the time of the Crusades, where Christian soldiers killed thousands of Muslims and Jews in the name of Christ, to the present time our actions have not reflected our words. He cited Christian Germany which was responsible for the Holocaust, South African Christians who were the architects of apartheid, and American slaveholders most of whom were professing Christians. In our own time, we can add our Christian elected leaders and many others who found nothing wrong with torture, and who seem to find warfare the preferred action over diplomacy almost every time.

And that of course does not even include all of the individual failures of people who self-identify as Christians – the things that make the news – like priests abusing children or demonstrators waving signs that blaspheme a God of love by proclaiming that God hates – and the things that don’t make the news – family violence, greed, infidelity, pride, selfishness.

Gushee wrote, “The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structure of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees – they guarantee nothing.”   And why is that? Pretty simple really.

Because not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually following Jesus, has actually made “going on to perfection,” as Wesley called it, their primary goal in life.   There are many powerful influences in our world often at odds with the gospel – social, economic, political influences – that move us more readily to action than does the influence of Christ, and which receive greater loyalty from us when the chips are down. I remember the comment of Clarence Jordan’s brother – Clarence was the founder of Koinonia Farms – and his brother was an attorney and would be politician. He said something to the effect that he didn’t mind following Jesus, but he wasn’t going to climb up on the cross with him. That’s the kind of conflict of loyalties that we all face at some time or another.

It’s pretty obvious, though, from what we’ve read in today’s epistle reading that God wants us to move on to perfection; wants us to become like Christ; wants us to be “entirely sanctified” in this lifetime. That is God’s will for us and for the world. The author of 1John is realistic about the ways of the world, about the presence of sin or rebellion, but he does not despair. Instead he offers the hope that “We are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” It is clearly God’s desire then “to work in us, with us, and on us until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Jesus”[ii] not just when it’s easy and when it won’t be embarrassing, not just when it isn’t in conflict with our other loyalties and priorities, not just when nobody is looking. But all day, every day, rain or shine, hard times, easy times, when we feel like it, and even when we don’t. Maybe especially then.

And that sure doesn’t happen overnight, does it!   We may be God’s children now, but it takes all of our lives to grow into that family relationship. One of the reasons I am a United Methodist is our recognition that coming to faith is not an event, but a progression. Wesley’s own experience, as well as what he understood from Scripture, led him to believe that faith is a constantly growing and evolving understanding of and trust in God, not a one-time thing, not a “get out of jail free” card, or a trophy for display on the mantel. He knew that doubt was to be expected, that there were “degrees of faith,” and that sometimes we could experience what he called a “wilderness state.” Moving on to perfection, “becoming habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor,” and “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked,” is a kind of spiritual pilgrimage where we struggle to understand God and ourselves; where we move from birth to death, from new birth to eternal life, from fear to joy, from doubt to confidence.[iii]

Wesley’s idea of perfection is nothing like our neurotic obsession with perfectionism, of never making a mistake, and of beating ourselves up when we do. Interestingly, Wesley had conflict with those within the early Methodist movement who thought that’s exactly what it was. Some went so far as to believe they would persist in an “angelic-like state” and they began to imagine that they would not die and that they were immune from temptation. Perfection or Sanctification consequently was a regular topic at early annual conferences. And Wesley finally had to write a letter in 1762 to one enthusiast to whom he said, “I like your doctrine of perfection or pure love; . . . but I dislike your supposing man may be perfect as an angel.” “I like your confidence in God and your zeal for the salvation of souls. But I dislike something which has the appearance of pride, of over-valuing yourselves and undervaluing others, particularly the preachers!”[iv] (And now you know another reason why I love John Wesley!)

Those individuals, needless to say, left the Methodist movement shortly thereafter! And Wesley continued to preach that perfection, or holiness of life, was a matter of day in and day out concern and growth in grace, growth which was most likely to develop through fellowship and worship because its essence is relationship – to self, to others, and to God. Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “We are here to be formed over our lifetimes into a community of the beloved — God’s beloved, who are being formed into a people who love God and one another in the way and on the terms in which God loves us. It is slow work. We are slow learners. . . . Love is the ocean in which we swim. So what if many of us can only wade in the shallows and others of us can barely dog paddle for short distances? We are learning and we see the possibility of one day taking long, relaxed, easy strokes into the deep.”[v]

Growing into the likeness of Christ does not mean that we will all be just alike, but there will be a distinct family resemblance. However, just as there is a resemblance within families, so also each member of a family is distinctive and unique. Thus, as we become more like Jesus, we also become more of our truest selves. As God’s children now, we are freed to explore possibilities even with our admitted flaws and limitations; we can say “yes” rather than “no” or “maybe” or “who, me?” and we can give ourselves permission to color outside the lines, to be who we really are – that unique and unrepeatable miracle of God that I’m always reminding you about.

It is always easy to find examples of failure, on a large scale or small. David Gushee had no end of examples in his article. We all know that bad news travels faster than good. And criticism is more frequent than praise.

However, in our own unique and unrepeatable ways, we are meant to have and to express the good news in our lives, and big ways and in small. We do that every time we acknowledge and recognize our faith in God, our trust in God’s grace, our wonder and amazement at the beauty of God’s creation and the mystery of life, our hope that endures through hard times, times of death, loss and sorrow, so that we can trust that that is not all there is, but that joy comes in the morning, and wholeness and laughter are also part of life; our confidence that our world, despite evidence to the contrary, is not headed towards extinction, but towards heaven on earth; and finally, our mindfulness, our awareness that deep in the heart of things is always unconditional and compassionate love.”[vi]

Perfection, Sanctification, Christlikeness doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t just get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll be like Christ today.” It requires patience and perseverance, growth over time in self-understanding and the understanding of others. It requires accountability when we stumble and fall short, and continual forgiveness of ourselves and others during those inevitable times. Moving on to perfection has been described as the slow process of “human becoming,”[vii] of being shaped into the image of Christ, and of finding ourselves one day to be at last like him! May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.

[i] David P. Gushee, “Church Failure, Remembering Rwanda,” The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, 28.

[ii] Rev. Dr. Guy Sayles, “We Will Be Like Jesus,” Day-1, April 30, 2006.

[iii] Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 1995, 321.

[iv] Heitzenrater, 210.

[v] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 322.

[vi] Sayles

[vii] Sayles

Sermon: It’s Only the Beginning

“It’s Only the Beginning”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 5, 2015 • Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

Sermon

Choir Music:

Opening

Anthem

Offertory

Mark’s account of Easter morning is the earliest on record. The women, who had stood by the cross on Friday, go to Jesus’ burial site early on Sunday morning. They are there to do what women traditionally did in those days, anoint the body with spices. There wasn’t time before the Sabbath began on Friday evening to perform this duty, and so Jesus had lain in his borrowed tomb, uncared for, unwashed, unprepared for too long. They’d come now to do at least that for him after the horrible events that had taken place. But they are surprised by what they find. The grave is open. There is a young man in dazzling white standing within, who seems almost like some kind of heavenly administrative assistant explaining why they can’t have a quick word with the boss – “Jesus – no-he’s not here now. You just missed him. But he left a message for you; he wants you to tell the disciples and Peter that he’s gone on to Galilee and will meet them there.” You kind of expect him to say, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Have a nice day!”

But it is no longer a nice day for them; shocked and frightened, they run from the tomb and instead of going to tell the disciples, they run the other way. And Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Finis. Done. The End. Fred Craddock’s response to this version of the first Easter morning is to exclaim “Is this any way to run a resurrection?”[i]

Apparently not, because by the second century, scribes were regularly adding additions to the abrupt ending to bring some kind of closure to the story. If you look at the end of Mark’s gospel you can see both a shorter and a longer ending, where enough is added to make it sound like the other gospels: Jesus appears, the disciples rejoice, and Jesus tells them what they need to do next. These additions seem forced, a little bit too happy, and a little bit too neat and tidy. But we can understand the desire of the scribes to do something with that awkward ending that leaves everything kind of hanging.

But what if Mark meant it to be that way? If we can discount the imaginative stories that surmise he must have been interrupted mid-sentence by some terrible trauma perhaps a heart attack or arrest by a Roman soldier, or that his original conclusion was so shocking that those who’d inherited his manuscript just ripped off the offensive part and pretended that was all there was, we are left with the real possibility that he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of fear and silence for a reason.

What might that be? The women were totally silent. And to my way of thinking, silence is a first appropriate response. There are times, aren’t there, when we are afraid, shocked by what we have learned or seen, when we don’t know exactly what is happening or why, when we can’t figure it all out, and we are aware of how little we really do know and how little we can control. There are those times when silence is required, when we feel overwhelmed and need time to process, to evaluate, to think about what has happened. There will be time to talk later; but first we need to be quiet. Silence can be a good thing – “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist wrote. “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” Luke writes about the birth of Jesus.

Fear is also an appropriate first response. The women have come to the tomb of their good friend who had been executed by the Roman government as a criminal. The disciples had all scattered; they hadn’t even stayed around to watch the crucifixion. Followers of Jesus were few and far between. And they were in a hostile place. What if they’d gone out and started telling the news they’d heard – Jesus is alive again. How long would they have been allowed to get away with that before word would get back to the powers that be? Luke says, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, he had 120 believers. That is less than the membership of this congregation! What chance would they have in a Jerusalem filled with a million or so pilgrims there for the Passover? Of course they’re afraid.

But maybe they are afraid and silent for other reasons as well. Maybe this news frightened them because they had begun to accept the death of the hope they shared earlier because of this friend who had cared for them and taught and shown them more about God than they’d ever imagined, and who had shared with them a dream of the kingdom of God where children had enough to eat, sick people got well, and old people would not worry about who would care for them.

Their hope had come crashing down on Friday when Jesus was put to death and buried. Peace on earth? Dead. Justice for all? Dead. Unconditional love? Dead.   But the young man had said Jesus has been raised; Jesus is alive. God’s hope is still alive on earth. They were scared because in some ways, hope is harder than death. And they were silent because they couldn’t begin to imagine what that meant for them and for the others. They were in brand new territory where death was not the final answer. And if this is how God operates in the world, what will happen next? What might be required of them. Maybe they’d had enough excitement and danger; maybe they wanted to go back home and find some degree of normalcy.

Maybe they were afraid and silent because if Jesus were risen from the dead, then it meant that God had vindicated Jesus and was announcing that a new creation had begun, a new kind of order had been inaugurated. Not the order of Caesar, not the Roman rules that said might makes right, strike before your struck, watch your back, fight fire with fire, do unto others before they do unto you, but a reign of peace on earth, justice, equality, and unconditional love for all.

Maybe they were frightened too because this news was an invitation to participate in this hopeful new world. They could stop living scared because death had lost its grip on them, and without fear, there was nothing holding them back. But how do you do that when you’ve been scared for so long?

Fear and silence held them for a time, but not forever, because here we are today. Somebody finally found her voice; somebody finally overcame her fear. And, we have the same choices. Will we tell or won’t we? And each of us will have a different story because of our different experiences and understandings. For me, I have to say that over the years my faith has changed from thinking that resurrection is primarily about what happens after we die. I was taught as a child that God raised Jesus from the dead and took him to heaven, and because we believe in Jesus, God will do the same thing for us.

But I know now that we can’t simply worship Jesus in our private lives alone, look forward to going to “heaven” someday, and not be concerned about creating “heaven on earth” because resurrection is not all about having a get out of jail free card or an escape hatch from the world to an “otherworldly” heaven. Experience has shown me that resurrection is about so much more than life after death. It is about life before death. And our religion is not simply about going to heaven when we die, but about doing everything we can to enable God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We have received the same invitation that the silent women received on that first Easter Sunday so long ago. And just as it was a new beginning for them, so it is for us as well.

But first, we have to overcome our own silence and fear and replace them with resurrection hope that enables us to envision and work for a world where the old rules don’t apply: A world where the meek do inherit the earth.   A world where the poor in spirit have the only riches worth having, and where among the poor, bread is blessed and broken and given and everyone has enough. A world where the peacemakers know everyone as children of God, where enemies are turned into sisters and brothers and weapons rust and corrode or are turned into plowshares.

There is still work to do; the kingdom has not come completely yet. Death may be beaten, but it isn’t gone yet. Caesar may be gone, but his successors are still in business. Food may be more plentiful in some places in the world, but not yet everywhere. Prejudice and ignorance and animosity have been overcome in many areas, but we know only too well that they can still raise their ugly heads just when we think they’re done.

The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel waits to be overcome by people of every generation, waits for you and for me to overcome our fears, and to share the good news of Easter, to proclaim through our words and our actions : “God’s hope is alive on earth. Though wounded, peace lives. Though killed, justice rises. Though buried, love goes ahead of us to Galilee; there we will see him, just as he told us.”[ii] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Fred Craddock, “He is Not Here,” Christian Century, April 2003.

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Sunday, 2006,” Canon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.