Monday, August 29, 2016

August 28, 2016 People...You Gotta Love Them!

Earlier this summer I was part of a conversation that turned to the foibles and frustrations of people.  We’ve all had those conversations, haven’t we?  It might be about people in general or it might be about one person in particular who makes our lives difficult.  In the course of the conversation someone made the comment, people…you gotta love’em!  I liked that phrase, and tucked it away as a future sermon title.

This morning, we return to the topic of love, as presented in the book of I John.  We return to the topic of love for two reasons – one, because Jesus talked a lot about love.  Love was the foundation of everything he did and everything he said.  And secondly, because the Bible talks a lot about love.  This morning’s Scripture text speaks very powerfully about love.

For our text we turn to I John 4:11-21 –

11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.
14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.
16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.
17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.
18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

To be honest, I would feel a lot better if John hadn’t gone from preaching to meddin’.  In this passage, he’s really meddlin’ in my life, and I imagine he’s meddlin’ in yours as well.  Like Jesus, John doesn’t offer any outs on who we are to love.  We might find some individuals who are objectionable, but John doesn’t, and Jesus didn’t either.  Jesus, you’ll remember, went so far as to say we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44 – But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you).  While John doesn’t mention our enemies, he does offer this very blunt declaration – Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

As John speaks very plainly and succinctly about love, I will attempt to do so as well.

1.  Love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.
I know that is a weird sentence and probably violates at least several rules of writing, but it is true – love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.

What I mean by that statement is this – love is not hard.  If you love someone, you just do.  I can tell you that from the first time I saw Tanya, it was not hard for me to love her.  I didn’t have to talk myself into love, I didn’t have to reason myself into love, and I didn’t have to be convinced I was in love; love just came as naturally as breathing.  I always loved my parents, I always loved my siblings, and I always loved my extended family.  Love is easy; it just comes naturally to us.

That’s the good news.  But there’s always some, maybe not bad news, but we’ll call it less good news.  The scope of Christian love is not limited to those for whom we have a natural affinity and love.  Love is to include all people.  And there’s the rub.  Sometimes, it’s hard to deal with people, but then I remember that, sometimes, I’m one of those people.  That’s why this is such a tough passage.  It is blunt and to the point.  In short, declarative sentences, John challenges us with the reminder that we are to love others. 

When I had my first semester of Greek and we began translating, this is the passage to which we first turned.  Dr. Henry Webb, my professor at the time, said about the passage, and I quote, it’s easy.  I found that to be more than a bit ironic.  In terms of structure, language, syntax, and grammar it is an easy passage.  In fact, in terms of style it reads very elementary, as though John was writing to a group of children.  But in terms of content, it is not easy, is it?  It may be written with short, simple, declarative, sentences and an elementary structure, but it is an immensely challenging message.   

What is easy about this passage?!  Nothing.  There are days when I really wish John hadn’t written this.  Am I alone in feeling this way?  Don’t leave me hanging here; someone nod their head please!
Love is the toughest easy thing we will ever do.

2.  John is asking us to live up to our words.
I was reading some research the other day by the Pew organization.  I think they do outstanding work and I take to heart what they have to say.  Some of their recent research has to do with church attendance, and I found their discoveries to be fascinating.  While many people assume that church attendance across the board has been declining, the Pew research found that for 25% of Americans, their involvement in church has actually increased, as well as their religious commitment.

One of the themes found in their research was also the extent to which Americans distrust institutions, which includes religious institutions, which includes, of course, churches.  I think that reflects a desire for authenticity.  People want to see that the lifestyle matches the message.  Honestly, sometimes there is too much of a gap between the two.  The message, and the way the message is demonstrated in the lives of the adherents can have, sometimes, a very wide gap.

People often forget our words.  Words are important, but in many ways, it’s our actions that really matter.  Perhaps there are times when we simply talk too much. People take notice if there is a gap between our words and our deeds, our proclamations and our character, our preaching and our living.  Maybe we should talk less, and act more, especially when it comes to love.  Anyone, after all, can say they love another person, but it is ultimately our actions that prove whether our words are true.

The phrase, preach often; use words when necessary is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  While we don’t know if the phrase originated with Francis, it is a very good piece of advice.  I think that, in some cases, churches have spoken more than they have acted.  I am not one to undervalue the importance of words, but words alone are not going to make a difference in this world.  Deeds, and actions, are of vital importance.  The world would be a far better place if the words I love you were always accompanied by actions that demonstrated their truth.

In verse 20 John says it in very direct, plain language – Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

John uses the language of family at the end of this passage – using the words brother and sister, and in doing so, he is encouraging us to close that gap that can exist between our words and our deeds.  Such language can help to close the gap because we will not give up on a family member.  We might have our moments – and all families do – but there is a commitment to family members that demonstrates the bond of love that should exist.  Families stick together.  I am the second of five children.  I have an older and younger brother and two younger sisters.  My older brother, Ed, and I always got along very well.  It was probably because I did what he told me to do.  He would tell me what classes I needed to take, or give me other instructions, and I followed his advice, which was helpful.  I tried to do the same with my younger brother, Matt.  I often told him what to do, but he didn’t listen to me as I listened to Ed.  He and I argued a good deal and had our share of conflict.  For many years I worried about him, because when he was a teenager he decided that he was done with church and anything to do with faith.  For decades, it appeared to me that he would never return to church, but he had a spiritual reawakening and began studying for the ministry.  He preached his first sermon in October of 2008 at Castleman’s Run United Methodist Church, and there was no way I was going to miss it.  He preached a great sermon, and I was proud of him, and proud to be there that morning, and thought about how our bond of family held us together over the years.  If we had only been friends, we would have no doubt drifted apart many years ago, but our family tie kept us together.  That is what love should do.

3.  Love is always the greatest good because it lifts us and pulls us to be our best selves, the people God has created us to be.
In several of the verses John makes the connection between our love for God and a love for others.  Love ought not only to pull us toward God; it ought to pull us toward others as well.  Love ought to remind us that if someone hates, we will not hate in return.  If someone is cruel, we will not be cruel in return.  If someone plots and schemes to hurt us we will not plot and scheme in return.

I have a story that illustrates this principle.  In the previous congregation that I served we had a member name Scott.  Scott was a very special young man.  When he was born, he had some very serious health challenges and the family was told he might not survive more than a few days.  He did, but the family was warned he might only survive for a few months.  After he continued to survive the family was told it might be best if Scott was institutionalized.  But the family kept Scott at home, and in many ways Scott thrived.  Though Scott never developed beyond the mental capacity of a five or six-year-old, he was able to go to school and, in many ways, Scott was very insightful and very smart.
Because of his health problems Scott made frequent trips to the hospital.  During one of his stays in the hospital I went to visit with him one evening.  It was a busy evening of visitors for him, and at one point there were ten or twelve of us in his room.  It was enough people that Scott decided we could become a choir and sing a song for him.  None of us were very enthusiastic about the idea, as not all of us were good singers and we didn’t all know each other.  Becoming an impromptu choir in a hospital room is just not one of those things that people are enthusiastic about doing.  But Scott was always very insistent, and we realized that we might as well go along with him, so we decided to sing Amazing Grace.  As we began, I think we all assumed we would just sing one verse, but by the time we finished the first verse the atmosphere in the room had changed; it had become a worshipful moment and we continued to sing, verse after verse, all the way to the end.  Scott was able to take a group of visitors to his hospital room and turn them into a choir.  Scott passed away at the age of 42, and he left a tremendous legacy of love.  I will never forget that evening in his hospital room, and when I think of it, it reminds me of how love brings out the best in each of us and it binds us together.
We often bemoan the fact that our country is so divided.  We often bemoan the level of violence in our world.  Yes, we are divided.  Yes, we live in a violent world.  But there is an answer – love.  That may sound simplistic, but it is the only real answer.  Nothing else has worked.  It’s time we try love.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

August 21, 2016 Having A Good Heart

How many gardeners do we have here this morning?  I am so sorry that you can’t find a better hobby.  I am not a gardener.  I think my reticence about gardening came from my early experience at I learned at an early age that I was not much of a farmer.

My family moved to our small farm in West Virginia when I was five years old.  The farm was only a few miles outside of my hometown of Wellsburg, West Virginia.  Previously, our home was on the banks of the Ohio River, where we were flooded on several occasions.  I think that my parents wanted to find higher ground after the floods (it’s not hard to find higher ground in the mountains of West Virginia) but I suspect it was really because my father wanted to farm.  In the mountains, however, it’s hard to find enough level ground to farm, which means there would never be enough farm income to support a family.  My father, then, worked in a steel mill to earn enough to raise a family, while my siblings and I did a lot of the work on the farm.  We grew two large gardens, and I spent many a summer day on the end of a hoe, digging weeds and promising myself that I would never have a garden of my own (a promise I have kept, to this day).  When Tanya and I married I told her I would be happy to do anything she asked, with one exception – I did not want anything to do with a garden. 

Though I was not a very good farmer, or gardener, I did grow to understand farm terminology and, certainly, analogies to farm work.  I’ve always enjoyed the Parable of the Sower, from which our message comes this week.  Anyone who has ever worked the soil will understand the comparisons that Jesus makes.  This morning, we are considering the four types of soil of which Jesus speaks, which are analogies of the different types of the human heart.

Luke 8:4-15 –

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
His disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
     though hearing, they may not understand.’
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

We are people who take very seriously the importance of caring for our hearts.  I have had a few medical issues related to my heart over the years, and when something goes wrong with your heart, let me tell you – it will get your attention in a well, heartbeat.  I’ve carried a copy of my EKG in my wallet for a number of years.  My doctor told me that I have an abnormal EKG – abnormal is normal for me (I tend to hear that a lot).  I can’t help but wonder, though, if I arrive at the emergency room, unconscious, in an ambulance, is anyone really going to go through my wallet to see if I have an abnormal EKG (actually, after one of our worship services, a nurse told me that, yes, the hospital personnel would indeed go through my wallet in such a situation in order to discover whether or not there were any conditions of which they should be aware.  I thought that was nice to know).

While it is important to care for our hearts, it is also important to care for our hearts in a spiritual sense as well.  We don’t, however, have the advantage of connecting a high-tech test to measure the spiritual health of our hearts, but in this parable Jesus describes four types of soil, and compares each type of soil to a condition of the human heart, and he gives us a way to measure the spiritual health of our hear.

1.  The Seed That Fell Beside the Road.
I am not a cynic, but I could be.

When we consider the condition of our world and all of its ills, the struggles of humanity, and the violence and hatred, it is easy to become discouraged to the point of allowing our hearts to grow cynical and hardened. 

When Jesus talks about the first type of soil he refers to the seed that falls beside the road and is trampled under foot.  Between the rows of crops were paths and right of ways where the ground was worn down and hardened by wear and the seed could not manage to penetrate that hard soil.

There are a lot of people who are beaten down by the wear and tear of life.  These are people who have become hardened by life’s difficulties and their hearts have grown cold and bitter.  Just like the hardened pathways, their hearts have become hardened and the good seed of the gospel has a difficult time penetrating their hearts.  They have suffered loss or been through difficulties that cause them to close off their hearts, to become distant to other people, and they make a choice – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously – not to allow themselves to be hurt again, and they close off their heart and it grows hard, callous, and unresponsive.

The difficulties and struggles of life can harden our hearts.  When we’re young we are idealistic and believe we can change the world and we’re ready to take on any challenge and we don’t need faith to move a mountain because we can pick that mountain up by ourselves and move it somewhere else – do you remember feeling this way?  But life’s realities start to settle in on us, and that idealism and hope starts to slip away.  We are hurt by what happens to us as we move through life and we find we can’t solve every problem in the world so we start down the road to disillusionment.  I know ministers who have started out with the intention of changing the world and when realities started to sink in they close off their hearts and it hardens because of the hurt they suffer in dealing with people and the problems of people.  I know people who used to have the most open hearts but now they are closed off because of the wear and tear of life.

There have been times when I have felt myself consciously closing off my heart.  Because of a time of struggle or other difficulty I could feel my heart become like that hard, beaten down path.

2.  The Seed That Fell On Rocky Soil.
Jesus says this is the kind of soil where there is just enough soil to allow something to grow but not enough of a root system to give it adequate nourishment to survive.

There is rocky soil, which doesn’t mean you always see the rocks, as they are just below the surface.  There is a thin layer of soil that is not deep enough to produce any kind of mature or worthwhile crop.  And when you have shallow soil that does not allow for any root system to develop the crop quickly withers because there is no support system, there is no way to get adequate nourishment and sustenance. 

Years ago, at another church, we were preparing to remove some shrubs that grew alongside the sanctuary.  We thought we could just pull them out of the ground with little effort.  They didn’t come out as easily as we had hoped.  We kept increasing the machinery we used to pull them out.  We used a tractor and a chain, but the back wheels of the tractor spun on the blacktop and would not budge those shrubs.  Next, we used a backhoe, hooked up a chain, and then put down the feet of the backhoe in the pavement.  When he drew the bucket back the roots of those shrubs were so deep, even with those feet down, the backhoe was pulled across the pavement.  Those were some deep, tough roots.

It is so important to be rooted – to be connected – to something.  When Jesus talks about a faith that exists for a while but then fades away during a time of testing he is talking about a faith that is not rooted to anything.

We are, in our society, becoming more and more a rootless people.  The old bonds and ties that used to exist are passing away and with their passing there is a loss of a support system that helped people to weather the difficulties and struggles of life.

The church, the body of Christ, provides a rootedness that connects us to something beyond our own life that is absolutely essential to a faith that is growing and alive.

Shallow faith turns people into spiritual consumers rather than servants, it’s a faith that reduces everything down to a few slogans or a few things to be against rather than what we are for.  But a deeply rooted faith is one that blossoms into maturity, it is one that will sustain us through difficulty, and it is one that will keep our hearts open and loving.

3.  The Seed That Fell Among the Weeds.
Some years ago I was working on flower beds around the house and I cleaned them out, sprayed the ground with weed killer, put down a cover to keep any weeds from growing, put some decorative rock down, added clean topsoil, and then sprayed weed killer again.  And guess what I grew?  Weeds!
There is the essence of the problem I have with yard work.  No matter how hard I work I have never been able to grow a good stand of grass.  Lawns need to be fertilized and treated and seed sown every year; there’s a multitude of things we have to do in order to have a nice, healthy lawn.  Isn’t it amazing, though, that nothing is required to grow a nice stand of weeds?  I can grow the best crop of dandelions and weeds by simply doing nothing.

The third condition of the heart that Jesus describes is when we life and love are choked out by what he calls life’s worries, riches and pleasures (verse 14).  Worries will certainly do that.  And riches and pleasures fall under the category of distractions.  But there are a lot of distractions in life, and many of them are very good distractions.  They are good things, worthy of our time and consideration.  But they are not the best things in life and should not crowd out the best things.  The greatest enemy of the best in life, says William Barclay, is not the worse; the greatest enemy of the best in life is often the second best.
(The Gospel of Luke, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, by William Barclay, page 100).

One of the greatest dangers in life is not that we pursue things that are unworthy or bad, but that we allow necessary things in life to rise to the level of the greatest importance.  Everybody needs to earn a living, but is earning a living all there is to life?  No.  Everybody needs recreation and entertainment in life, but is recreation and entertainment all there is to life?  No. There is, unfortunately, a strain of faith in our society that is very puritanical and wants to remove all the pleasures and enjoyments out of life.  They don’t need to be removed; they just need to find their proper place and their proper role in life.

It is very easy for life to rearrange our priorities, even without us noticing.  Have you thought about your priorities lately?  Are they aligned with what matters most to you?  Do they reflect your spiritual priorities?

4.  The Seed That Falls Into the Good Soil.
Jesus said this seed produced a crop a hundred times over.  That’s a pretty good return.  This is an encouragement to remember that the gospel still takes root in lives and when it does it results in an amazing return.  This is an encouragement to not despair.  There are times when we wonder if what we do makes any difference – it does.

I read once of a group of archeologists who discovered some seeds in an ancient Egyptian tomb.  Out of curiosity they planted them to see what would happen.  Guess what happened?  Some of them actually grew.  Isn’t it amazing there was still life in some of those old seeds?

What matters here is not how well the disciples understood the message or how well received it was by the crowds either then or now, but the power of God’s work to bring transformation.

A healthy heart doesn’t just happen.  A healthy heart is, first of all, my responsibility, and I must work at it.  It’s easy to assign blame for things elsewhere, but it is my responsibility to work at growing a healthy heart and spirit.

Do you identify with any of the types of soil of which Jesus speaks?  Do you feel worn down by life?  Do you feel as though you have not put down any permanent roots, especially spiritual roots?  Do you feel as though the many responsibilities and chores of life choke out some of the more important matters of life?  Do you feel as though your life is bearing good fruit?  How healthy is your heart?  Which soil represents your heart?

Having a good, healthy heart is important, but not just in a physical way, but also a heart that is healthy spiritually.  Does your need a check-up?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

August 14, 2016 Unity

I am continuing to follow what I have referred to as connecting points upon which to build my messages.  This week, my message us titled Unity, which is a word that I have heard so much lately.  Throughout the summer people from around the community and among my network of connections have asked to speak to me about unity and, specifically, finding unity.  A few weeks ago our community held a Unity Rally, which I didn’t get to attend, but I thought it was a good idea.

What an interesting word unity is.  But what an often ill-defined, murky word it is.  What does the word unity mean to you?  If ten people gave an answer to that question we would probably have ten different answers.

And that is the problem with the word unity; as much as we talk about unity, we rarely define what it means.  We say we need more unity in our community, we need more unity in our nation, we need more unity in our world, we need more unity in our politics, we need more unity in our family, and we need more unity in our church.  But what, specifically, do we mean by that word unity, and how do we achieve what we might define as unity?  How can be united if we don’t define what it means to be united?  Don’t you think unity should be, well, unifying?  What an irony that we don’t always find unity on the meaning of the word unity!

I think that the word unity has devolved into what we might call a “catch-phrase” or “slogan,” which are words or phrases that are often used, but without any real understanding of what a person means when they use those words or phrases.  At some point, those words and phrases enter our language in significant ways, but without any kind of agreement on their meaning.

For our Scripture text – or texts – this morning I want to read two passages.  The first comes from John chapter 17, which is part of the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper.  The second passage comes from Luke’s gospel, where the twelve apostles are listed by name –  

John 17:22-23 –

22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—
23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Luke 6:12-16 –

12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:
14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot,
16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

I selected these texts because one of the final desires expressed by Jesus before his crucifixion was that his followers would be one, which means to be united.  The list of the twelve disciples reminds us that, as a group, they were very different people, and yet they were able to find unity because of the mission and purpose to which they were called.

I want to define unity this morning with three words, but first I want to very quickly say a few words about what is not unity.

Unity is not uniformity. 
The twelve disciples were so different from one another.  One worked for Rome (Matthew, as a tax collector) and another was dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome (Simon, a Zealot).  Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen.  As such, they were small businessmen, and it is highly likely that Matthew was their tax collector.  If so, and considering the level of unfairness that was a part of the Roman-imposed taxation system, there would undoubtedly have been some hard feelings.  Peter, James, and John formed what we might call the “inner circle” of Jesus (they were taken up the mountain with Jesus to witness the Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-9 – After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” and taken further into the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, as recorded in Mark 14:32-33 – 32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.) while the others remained more on the fringes, perhaps leading to some measure of jealousy.  And, on at least two occasions, James and John sought to find places of privilege and power by gaining seats to the right and left of Jesus (Matthew 20:20-18 - 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.  21 “What is it you want?” he asked.  She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  “We can,” they answered.  23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”  24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” and Mark 10:35-45 – 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  39 “We can,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”)  In spite of these instances, there was a unity among the disciples, proving that unity does not have to come under the guise of uniformity. 

To be united, we do not have to accept a code of uniformity.  People often ask me, for instance, is your church conservative, moderate, or liberal?  My answer is, yes.  We are all three and more.  We don’t all think the same and we don’t all believe the same, and guess what – it’s fine!  We don’t have to be the same.  We can be united in spite of our differences!  Uniformity is not required!

There are such rigid orthodoxies in our society, and it is getting harder and harder to cross the lines of those orthodoxies.  We have our various camps and those camps don’t mingle and mix very well.  It’s as though the ground in between is shrinking and we must constantly choose sides, picking a camp in which we will live and shun the other camps.

Yesterday’s March to Recovery was a marvelous example of unity without uniformity.  Scanning the crowd, it was obvious there was a great deal of diversity among those who attended the March.  It was a common purpose that brought together very diverse people in a sense of unity.

Uniformity is not found in a creed.
I get asked a lot of questions, and they generally fall under one of several categories.
Some people ask, what do I have to believe to be part of your church?  I have to confess, I don’t really understand that question.  That is, I don’t understand why such a question must be asked.  We do not have a creed, we do not have a statement of faith, and we do not require anyone’s ascent to a particular theological doctrine or dogma.  It’s not that beliefs are unimportant, but we do not require anyone to ascent to a creed, because creeds invariably contain human opinions that are imposed upon others and, as a church [that is, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)], we simply don’t believe it is proper to impose one person’s opinion upon another person.

The closest we come is to say that we gather around the confession that Peter made when asked by Jesus who do you say that I am, and Peter answered by saying you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  We don’t need anything beyond that confession.

So, the three words I want to use to define unity are these – love, grace, and ministry.  Those three words defined the ministry of Jesus, they defined the ministry of the apostles, they defined the early church, and they should also define our ministry as well.

We talk about love all the time in church.  I have preached several messages on love in recent months.  But we cannot talk too much about love, as it is so badly needed in our world.

But love, and its opposite – hate – are two words tossed around too easily these days.  They are words used so casually that, after a while, they begin to lose impact and meaning.  The word hate, for example, is too often attached to people who disagree with us.  We far too quickly claim some people hate when they simply disagree with us.

To say I love you is a really big deal.  A really, really big deal.  I appreciate that you sometimes tell me you love me, and if you have, you might have noticed that I probably responded with some hesitation.  Perhaps I shuffled my feet, mumbled something, and then changed the subject.  I’ll admit that I’m kind of funny about responding when people tell me they love me – outside of my family – because I don’t know if I will always do what love both asks and requires.  It’s not that I don’t love you – I do! – but I want to be sure that I mean it when I say it in return.  Please don’t misunderstand me; I do not at all doubt you.  It’s just that I want to be sure that when I tell someone I love them I mean something more than simple reciprocity – you love me, so I’ll love you in return.  You’re nice to me so I’ll be nice to you.  Love doesn’t need something in return to be true love.
Jesus was about love, so we must unite around love.

Can we pass a law this morning?  It’s a law that I guarantee will be upheld by every court in the land.  Let’s make a law that says this – don’t take to social media to air your differences, your criticisms, and your grievances.  Don’t go online and criticize your friends, coworkers, spouse, siblings, etc.  When you are tempted to do so call me, and here’s what I’ll do – I’ll bring a hammer and come and beat your phone, computer, or other device into tiny bits and pieces.  And don’t get another one until you promise to keep your disagreements off of social media!  And when I say social media I mean any form of communication that allows us to air our differences or disagreements with someone without speaking to that person.  A plain old landline phone is one of the original forms of social media. 

Don’t feel singled out; we’ve all done it.  Don’t do it because it’s not grace.  In fact, it hinders grace and keeps grace from doing its work.  We need to speak words of grace and we must bathe our actions in grace as well.  Our world needs more grace.

When we read the gospel we find that Jesus demonstrated grace over and over.  One of my favorite stories is the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10 – Jesus entered Jericho(A) and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.  When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.  All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”  But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”).  No one in the city of Jericho seemed interested in demonstrating grace to Zacchaeus, but Jesus did.  Zacchaeus had defrauded people in the course of collecting taxes, but the grace he was offered by Jesus changed his life.

In John 8:2-11 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery (At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”).  Talk about grace!  While surrounded with a crowd of angry, judgmental men, ready to stone her death, Jesus stays calm.  He reaches down to write something in the dirt (what it was, I have no idea).  Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet, as I imagine the only sound was that of stones and rocks being dropped to the ground, and of sandal-covered feet walking away.

I also love the story of Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30 – Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.  Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”  19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”  28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.)  It was a well-known practice that the Jews and Samaritans would not have dealings with one another, and even the disciples were surprised that Jesus would speak to the woman.  But this is, again, Jesus demonstrating grace.  He would not allow himself to be bound by the prejudices, boundaries, and limitations of the day, and neither should we.

Jesus was about grace, so we must unite around grace.

I vividly remember two phrases printed on the front of the bulletins in my home church – enter to worship…depart to serve.  The words serve and ministry are synonyms; they mean the same thing.
Service, or ministry, is such an important word in our culture today.  It is a sign, I believe, of how deeply embedded Christian values are in our society that everywhere you turn there is an emphasis on service.  I remember a young man some years ago who was applying to colleges.  His test scores were amazingly high, with an almost perfect score on the SAT and an ACT score well above 30.  He assumed most colleges and universities would be very welcoming to his application, but many of them gave the same response – where are your service hours?  Colleges and universities are looking for applicants with a demonstrated track record of service to others.  Similarly, businesses encourage – and seek – employees to be involved in community service projects.

We often speak of coming to church, and that is accurate.  But we must remember that church is not a destination as much as it is a beginning point.  We come to church, not as an end in itself, but as a place to begin in our ministry and service to others.  The word church is a noun, but it is also a verb.  We come to church, but then we go forth to be the church.

I think it is safe to say that the reason some churches become engulfed in conflict and unhealthy behavior is because they are too inward looking, when they should be looking outward.  If we stay in our buildings, looking at one another rather than at the needs of our surrounding communities, we begin to pick at one another and criticize one another.

Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry.  Jesus was about ministry, so must unite around ministry.
So this is unity – gathering with purpose around love, grace, and ministry.  Let us go forth in that unity!