Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Three Simple Questions: Who Are We Together?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Corinthians 12:12-31:

For the past two weeks we have been seeking to answer three simple questions posed by Bishop Reuben Job in his book by the same name.  Those questions are, who is God, who am I, and who are we together.  Of course those are anything but simple questions and we started with what I thought was the hardest, and really is the building point, who is God.  What I said was that God is love, which is an idea of God found throughout scripture and everything else that we might think about God can build from that point.  Because God is love, that also means that God wants to be in relationship with the creation and most importantly, at least for us, God also wants to be in relationship with each and everyone of us because we are all children of God, which led us into our second question, Who am I, and that is that we are children of God and we are made in the image of God.

We remember that we are children of God each time that we perform a baptism or remember our own baptism.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that whenever he was feeling unsure, or feeling attacked, or having doubts, all he needed to do to reassure himself of who he was was to say, “remember you are baptized,” and when he did so he remembered that God had called him by name, just as God calls us by name, and that he was a child of God.  But when we recognize and remember that we are children of God, we must also recognize and remember that everyone else is a child of God as well.

Bishop Job says “When we claim our full inheritance as children of God, then we are able to see clearly and to know in the depth of our being that when we look at another human being, we are looking at a sister or brother who is God’s beloved child, just as we are…. Our identity is not something we create but something that is given by the God who made us, leads us, sustains us, and loves us.  We can, however, give up our own identity and inheritance.  When we forget who we are and begin to see others as anything less than beloved children of God, we are giving up our identity and our inheritance as children of God.”  Whenever we stop seeing others as children of God in their own right, as being loved by God, then Bishop Job says we give up our own inheritance and identity as children of God, because when we do that then we stop following Jesus’ example and injunction to love others as God has loved us, which leads us directly into answering today’s questions which is who are we together.

When we accept Christ and are baptized we enter into the body of Christ, and not only are we reconciled with God but we are given the ministry of reconciliation, to be reconciled with each other.  Last week when Landry was baptized not only did she take her own vows of baptism, but we also took vows on her behalf.  We vowed to “proclaim the good news and to live according to the example of Christ, and to surround” the baptized, not just the ones receiving baptism but all of us, “with a community of love and forgiveness,” and then we pledge to “pray for them that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”  And when we make that pledge, we make it together, the same as others undertook exactly the same pledge for us when we were baptized.

Baptism is not an individual event, it is not just between that person and God, it is a community event, just as being a Christian is not an individual enterprise it is a community enterprise.  We walk this journey together as the body of Christ.  I have said before that I don’t believe that you can be a deeply committed Christian and not be involved in a faith community of some sort or in some way.  You simply can’t.  Jesus says, “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am amongst them.”  Every Sunday when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we do not say, “My father, who art in heaven,” what do we say, “Our father.. give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The Lord’s prayer is a communal prayer, not an individual petition.  The earliest creedal statement of the church, known as the Nicene Creed, does not say “I believe in one God,” it says “we believe.”  We believe, we are, we do, give us, forgive us, this is a community and communal exercise we are in as Christians together.

As Tilden Edwards said, community is “what everybody wants, but almost no one is able to sustain well for long.”  Any time a group of people get together there are bound to be conflicts and issues, regardless of the people.  We want to live in harmony and get along, but that’s simply not possible, and that is exactly what Paul is talking about in today’s scripture reading from 1st Corinthians.  Apparently, many in the Corinthian community had come to the conclusion that speaking in tongues was the greatest of the spiritual gifts and that everything else was less important, and so Paul wants to combat this type of thinking.  God has given each and every one of us certain gifts and graces, and we are, in Paul’s belief, all gifted.  We are like the children of Lake Wobegone, we are all above average.  Paul is telling not only the church in Corinth, but us, that not only do we need to be unified, but we also need to be diverse.  That, I think is what we often miss in our calls for unity in understanding who we are together.  In order to be seen as one, we often try to crush out our differences and in doing so, we overlook the nature of creation and the necessary differences that not only make us who we are, but make the body of Christ operate effectively.  Sometimes we put aside who we are because we don’t feel that what we have to offer is important or significant, and other times we put aside who we are because we are told that what we have to offer is not important or significant.

In order to function properly, in order to be the body of Christ, all of us are important.  All of us are vital.  All of us are needed. And all of us are gifted.  I want you to look at one of your fingers.  Now unless you are one of the incredibly rare people who are born without fingerprints, that pattern in unique to you.  If I have your fingerprint I can identify you specifically, and if I have a sample of your DNA I can match you instead of the other approximately 6.7 billion people on the planet.  If our fingerprints and our DNA are utterly unique, why would we possibly ever believe that we are not marked individually in our spirits as well?  Imagine, God has created a system in which each of us is uniquely different in our DNA and fingerprints and in our spirit print.  None of us pray alike, think alike, talk about God the same, or have the same relationship with God than anyone else.  And if you accept that as true than you will understand how important you are for the body of Christ.

But, this is not individualism the way we typically understand it, in fact our uniqueness flies in the face of our normal understanding of individualism.  Our spirit print, our gifts, are not given to us in order to build ourselves up or for our own private edification.  Instead they are given to us in order to help build up the church.  Our gifts are not for ourselves, they are given for the unity of the church, and each of us has to give of them in order for the church to be effective and whole.  Unity is not found in the diminishment of gifts, unity is found in the flourishing of gifts, in the recognition that all gifts come to us from God, and therefore are all important and all equal.  If all our gifts are not being seen and utilized than there can be no unity.  Look at the gifts that Paul outlines today, and this is just one of several lists of spiritual gifts that Paul talks about, but they are all outwardly focused.  While faith might be personal, it is never private.  The ministry of the church is for all of us, and all of us are necessary.

We cannot all be ears or eyes or hands, nor can we say that those parts are unimportant because we are not those things, or try to say that other things are unimportant or even unnecessary because we would rather not have them around.  Even the armpit is important.  Sure it’s stinky and we try and mask it and cover it over, or not talk about it at all, but the armpit is extremely important.  Imagine trying to raise your arm without your armpit?  You simply cannot do it.  All of us play a role in the body of Christ and every part is just as important as every other part for the successful operation of the body, and as we all know when even just one part goes wrong the entire body is impacted, but that when one part is helped, or healed, or allowed to function properly that the entire body is helped and healed and allowed to function properly.

Charlie was a standout football player in the state of Missouri when he was growing up.  But not only did he stand out on the athletic field, but he also excelled in the classroom and was accepted to the United States Naval Academy, where he also excelled, graduating near the top of his class.  After graduation he became an officer in the Marine Corp and served on the front lines of the first gulf war, we need to stop having wars that have sequels.  While he was in Iraq, Charlie was awarded several decorations he came home to his small town as a hero.  Everyone was proud of their boy and couldn’t say enough things about him.

But as happens with many soldiers, Charlie came home with some issues that were not properly dealt with and he began spiraling downward into mental illness and he began committing violent crimes, which ended him up in jail, where his mental issues only proceeded to get worse.  He lost an extraordinary amount of weight, he chewed off the tips of some of his fingers, and then gouged out one of his eyes with his own hands, and ended up in the psychiatric unit at the prison.  Every week Charlie’s parents, Bill and Barb, would visit him, and would sometimes bring the pastor of their Methodist church, Scott Chrostek.  But Charlie was no longer known as the great athlete or war hero, he was now known for the crimes he had committed and what he had become in prison.  He was Charlie, the one who used to be that, but who is now this.  He was not talked about as much and certainly was not heralded as the person that others should emulate or people they wanted their sons to be like.

After serving several years in prison, Charlie was released into a half-way house near his parent’s home and he began coming to church with them, and then he asked the pastor if he could begin serving as an usher.  Rev. Chrostek said he was got scarred, and wondered how people would respond.  How would they feel about seeing Charlie serving in this position. And what would they see, after all he didn’t look great, he was missing some of his fingertips, and one eye was gone, what would people do?  But Scott said yes, and the next week Charlie was handing out bulletins.  Scott still said he was so afraid of what might happen.  The first few people through the door, kind of smiled and took their bulletins, and then as more people saw him they sort began to brighten up and say “hey Charlie, good to see you, how you doing,” and Charlie thrived in the role.  He began to put on weight, he began wearing nicer clothes, he got his hair cut and eventually began taking some courses at a local college.  Remembering that we are an Easter people, Rev. Chrostek said “this is what the resurrection looks like.”

Today, Charlie, with the help of his parents, owns 34 acres outside of town where he raises sheep, and he invites people to come out and help sheer the sheep, and he teaches children about how to turn the wool into yarn and then turn that yarn into everyday objects.  Charlie is a shepherd who tries to pass on to some of the kindness and compassion he has received from his brothers and sisters in Christ.  But, Rev. Chrostek also wonders what would have happened if the congregation had responded differently?  What if the congregation had lived into all the worst fears that he had for them and for himself?  What if they could not push themselves beyond their boundaries to see Charlie as a child of God, a hurting child of God, and instead only saw him for what they saw on the outside, or for the terrible stories they had heard of who he had become.  He doesn’t believe that Charlie could be the person he is today, his resurrection story would not be a reality, without the support and love he received from his church community.

As United Methodists we are called to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world, but in order to transform the world we must also transform ourselves.  We must first recognize that we are children of God, to be willing to take up that mantel and call, to take up our crosses as Jesus says, and then we must be willing to see everyone else as a child of God as well.  “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation,” Paul says in second Corinthians, “everything old has passed away… all this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:17-18)  As baptized people we are brought into reconciliation with God and we are also give the ministry of being reconciled with each other.

Who are we together?  We are the body of Christ, being transformed together, becoming new together, sometimes being resurrected together, and working to transform the world together.  The power of the church resides in each and everyone of us.  The only thing that keeps us from being the people who God called us to be is ourselves, because God has given us the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit we receive what? Power, the power to accomplish the things that God has called us to do.

In Ephesians, Paul writes “I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God.  Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience.  Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.  You are one body and one Spirit just as God also called you in one hope.” (Eph 4:1b-4)  or as Bishop Job says, “Prophet and saint remind us that saying ‘Yes’ to the invitation of Jesus to ‘Come, follow me’ brings costs and rewards far beyond our wildest expectations.  One of these rewards is the assurance, satisfaction, and pure delight of the awareness of living in Christ’s presence as we follow where he leads.  As we become companions of Christ, we naturally find ourselves at prayer, worship and service, just as he practiced so consistently.”  In deepening our relationship with Christ we will automatically find in prayer, worship and service with others, just as Jesus did.

Who is God?  God is love and because of that God wants to be in relationship with us, God loves us and beckons us to come home.  We are made in God’s image and we are children of God.  Who am I? I am a child of God and you are a child of God, and who are we together?  We are brothers and sisters in Christ seeking to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world, while being transformed ourselves, while living into the call that God has given to us as part of the body of Christ.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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