Sunday, January 26, 2020

We'll Still Be One Body in Christ

We love our friends on both sides of our various religious and political differences.  Our unity is best expressed in our persistent love and cooperation more than in the singularity of our institutions. Whatever our organizational structures, we share a common mission to let the light of Christ shine through us, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to extend the healing power of God's love to everyone we meet. Our relationships are reshaped when we take our faith off the paper and put it into practice.

“Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.” (GNT) or as many of us are familiar from the King James Version, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19 KJV)

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on January 26, 2020.

Today is Ecumenical Sunday in the United Methodist church and other ecumenically minded denominations. And it culminates the week of prayer for Christian unity when so many denominations pray that somehow we can all be more unified as the body of Christ. We affirm our unity in the body, that all believers are members of the household of God and of the body of Christ. Even those that believe that they're the only ones and the rest of us are not. We still believe they are even if they don't believe we are. That all who place any faith at all in Christ are one body in Christ.

And one of the great heartbreaks I guess should tell you that many people have had over the centuries was the brokenness of institutions and inability of institutional Christianity to unite as one. That's with evermore growing denominations joining numbers of churches. And independent churches and various denominations. And part of that I think is where we might think of churches breaking up and starting new churches being like a divorce. And that's always pretty painful imagery. But if we think of it instead of family members starting a new family and still being connected by brothers and sisters or children or grandchildren and all having their own households within that household. I think that it's a little more comfortable and it might be a little more realistic for what has happened in the church. Because I don't see any way that all the denominations could all come together as one institution again. Certainly not in our lifetimes and hadn't been in several many generations of other lifetimes, too.

Bishop Sally Dyck of the North Illinois conference wrote a nice article about this the other day about thinking of Jacob and Esau and how they were one family, but they just couldn't get along at all until finally they separated and went their own ways. ["Road to Reconciliation" by Bishop Sally Dyck] And then they came back together and were able to rejoice that they were still one family, but they had their separate households and lived their separate lives the way that they thought was best.

Right now we celebrate this Christian unity at a time when there's been several proposals laid out for our denomination to vote on in May, for the delegates to vote on in May. And most of them are about some way of dividing the denomination up into at least two other denominations or dissolving it altogether and just starting something else all together. The one that has the most traction seems to be right now anyway or gaining the most support is the "Protocols for Separation" which would leave the United Methodist church just as we are. That would remove all the language that is non-inclusive especially for LGBTQ. That would all be removed from our discipline and we'd all be free of the things that we all stand for. Here would be the denominational position, it would be a completely inclusive denomination. [See "Comparison of GC2020 Proposals," UM News]

Well, a lot of people don't like that and of course as evidenced by the last general conference and then what this protocol for separation would do is that those churches and even conferences, if it was a whole conference, clergy persons, everybody that would like to leave them and form a new denomination then they would be permitted to do that and take their local church property with them and form a new denomination. And then of course we have a lot of denominational assets that we've accumulated over the years. And so those rather than breaking any of those add up, the denomination would provide financial assistance to the new denomination. The United Methodist church would provide the financial assistance to the new denomination in forming that. And that would be in lieu of trying to figure out how to divide up all of our institutions and organizations and all like that that we have.

So, we would still have UMCOR and the Board of Missions and the United Methodist Communications [all the General boards and agencies]. All that would remain there. And so that's the one that has really gotten a lot of traction because we would like to see The United Methodist Church move forward as an inclusive organization, instead of being non-inclusive or continuing to have this argument between people. Others would like to start over in a denomination that is not inclusive and we would help them do that would be pretty much the way that that goes.

And if we would look at that the way, you know as siblings who have two different ideas about how they want to live and so they move into form their own households, it's maybe a little less painful and more realistic view of what that would be like. And I like to think a lot of times of our church as the United Methodist tradition when John Wesley was an Anglican minister and he never did leave his denomination in forming the Methodist Church. He ordained ministers to begin the Methodist church in America. But he stayed a priest in the Church of England. So, that's more like being a parent denomination than spouses not getting along or something. It's more like one denomination sort of giving birth to another. And then we took on certain characteristics but then we took on our own as well. And before that, the Roman Catholic church and before that, the Universal church.

And yet through all of that, different people have had different ideas about how things should be done. And there have always been people forming new groups. Some countries used to try to force everybody to be a member of one church and that still didn't work because people would be dissidents to that and they would start their own groups anyway. And so to me it's more important that our unity be not in having the same organization and the same institution, but that we all have the same love and the same Lord. 
[There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:5-6).]
And a lot of times some of that gets lost in these other arguments and sometimes they can be recaptured by stepping back from each other a little bit and refocusing on the love of Christ for one another. Because we all, whatever the issues are in religion or in politics, we all have friends on both sides of the issue and we love them. And so many times in politics and religion today we think it's hard to express our love for one another when we're at odds with each other so much. So, if we can give each other a little space, I think that'd be good.

So, that's kind of the lens I've been looking at this passage of scripture through this week or so -- everything going on TV. We just sang our song about the story we have for the nations. ["We've a Story to Tell to the Nations," by H. Ernest Nichol, 1896].   It seems like how can we ever get that message across with all this going on in the church and in the politics and then the world around us and everything. How do we ever get that message? We've seen, I think throughout history of the church that we at our church don't have to get the message to everybody. We at our church get the message to the people that we come into contact with. We love our neighbor, we love our community, we love the people that are in our lives. And we demonstrate the love of Christ where we are. And then they in turn where they are and others in turn where they are. And so it kind of ripples around like that. And other groups are doing the same thing. And they're in all these different denominations.

Part of the reason why I made the title of this "We'll Still Be United in the Body of Christ" is that if our denomination does break into the two different denomination, if some leave and form another one, we'll probably both still be members of the World Methodist Council where there's about 128 [80] other denominations that have done that in the past couple of hundred years of Methodism. Many of them active right here in our community of churches that were Methodist and then for the various reasons started their own denomination. We'll still be a part of that, we'll still be a part of different other types of church councils and groups and associations. We will still be a part of the Body of Christ. We'll still be loving Christ and it's still in mission to the world and still trying to spread the scriptures and the message about Jesus.

And that's really what makes us one more than anything else that we do. There's the song 
We are one in the spirit,
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.
And they'll know we're Christians by our love,
By our love.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love.   (Peter Scholtes, © 1966)
So, in this passage of scripture, the Bible talks about the light of the world and as Jesus begins preaching and refers back to the prophecy that, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). And when Jesus came in then to the world and John describes him as the light of the world. And when we go back to the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, that's how creation began, "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis 1:3).  And there was the Psalmist who wrote, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105). Then when Jesus began to preach the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he delegated that, he assigned that, he actually transmitted that light through us to the world, when he said, "You are the light of the world." If we just think of Jesus as the light of the world, only then that kind of limits what he was trying to do. He was trying to pass that light on to each of us, so that everybody who comes into the light and believes in him becomes a part of that light.

In fact, when he was talking with Nicodemus early in his ministry, in John chapter three --Say that verse 3:16 with me real quick -- 
For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish,
but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Well then he went on to say, 
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:17)
And then he goes on to say that the only condemnation is that light has come into the world, and some people preferred to choose darkness over the light.

Christ is showing us that there isn't any condemnation in the light. The light is here. Step into the light and see what is true and what is right. And then you'll be the children of the light unless you choose not to. Unless you choose darkness. Unless you choose to turn a blind eye. Unless you choose to not see what's there. Then you will be free. You will be living in the light. So, that then it becomes the condemnation [the choice of darkness instead of light]. And he calls us to be not only people who step into the light, but that through us our [Christ-] light will shine. 
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. 16 In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
(Matthew 5:14-16 GNT).
So then like I said, I was kind of looking at that through the lens of ecumenism and of church unity and everything. And it's like what we need to always be doing is continue to stand for what we see is the right as we have done. If our message doesn't seem to be getting through, then say it again. If the light isn't shining bright enough turn it up a little bit. The dimmer switch might be turned down. Turn that up to the bright. Somehow intensify the light because when they see the light, then you know, like this guy that stayed up all night wondering where the sun went and finally it dawned on him. We just have to let the light shine brighter and trust what Jesus says. The light penetrates the darkness. The darkness can't put the light out. Darkness doesn't penetrate light. Light penetrates darkness. And so it just keeps spreading the brighter that our light shines.

And then we share this commission. We share the commission of letting our light shine regardless of what our beliefs are, let that light shine. We share the commission to go make disciples of all people. Circling back again, in the World Methodist Council, one of the most prominent and powerful institutions within the World Methodist Council is the Foundation for Evangelism. And it's been a powerful witness over the years of all the different denominations that have formed out of Methodism, coming together for Evangelism to reach out and tell them the good news of Christ and to preach the gospel and encourage the preaching of the gospel.
And even with the differences that we have, we come together to do what John Wesley said when he sent those first people over to it. He said, "Offer them Christ."  "Offer them Christ." And that's our real central job regardless of what we feel about other things is to offer them Christ. Everything else is important. It's important that we take our stands that we take and that when we see the light, we've stayed in the light and don't get drawn out of it by people that haven't seen the light yet. But then they think that they're doing the same thing. We just have to kind of work through those things. But in the meantime, we're called to make disciples. That's our great commission. To help people come into saving knowledge of Christ. And when they do, Christ will lead them where they need to go. And so we're united in that. We're united as disciple makers.

These people that just started out as his disciples, the people that he sent out were few in number, but look now throughout the world. We're spread all over the world and the gospel continues to reach out and people come to know Christ in very personal ways. I think this right here is where in this passage ends up that after calling his disciples and after referring back to the light of the world, prophecies and all, but then he starts healing people. And that's part of our commission as disciple makers, as followers of Christ, is to spread the healing power, the healing touch of Christ. 

And a lot of times, when we're really putting our faith into practice and we take it off the paper and just put it into the way we relate to each other, a lot of things changed on that. Our faith gets reshaped and our understanding of the words themselves get reshaped in it when it takes on actual life and actual people that we're connected with. And the people that we know and love, then that helps shape our understanding of what Christ was doing. And what he calls us to do is not just an institution or even a congregation, but as each as individuals and each as people who love one another in Christ. And healing is a big part of that.

Sacramentally we anoint people with oil and lay hands on them and pray for them to be healed. And that's a big part of the message of healing. But he also said if somebody is thirsty, give them a cup of water. Whoever gives somebody a cup of water will not lose their reward. And so it's in our three General Rules that have been passed down to us from the beginning of Methodism. First do no harm. And that is also the medical profession's number one rule. Whatever we do don't cause more trouble, don't make it worse. And a lot of times that seems like it would be common sense. But then a lot of times isn't our first reaction if somebody wants to start an argument is to throw something back at them? Well then doesn't that just make it worse? .Then they throw something and we do and then we're embroiled in arguments and everything? And it's causing more harm than good. It's like pouring gasoline on fire.And we can always say, "Well, we have a right to this." We do but then again, it's still going to cause more problems. So, what we're really trying to do if we're healing is to first not do anything that makes it worse. 

In the church lot of times what happens is that we start throwing Bible verses at each other. And then we start finding a Bible verse that backs up our side and they find one that backs up their side. And pretty soon then we're just accusing each other of not even believing in the Bible. And accusing each other of not loving God or even believing in God because if you really were a Christian you wouldn't do this or that. And sometimes it's gone to a lot of extremes over the years about if you were truly Christian you wouldn't do whatever. And it would be something like way out that doesn't have anything to do with it. I don't want to name one because somebody might say, "Well I was the one I was thinking that."

But you know, Jesus did say that the mark of our faith, of our being a true disciple of him, is that we love one another. And the more we can zero in on that, then the more we can maybe not do so much harm and finger pointing and accusing of other people. It's like I have friends on both sides of just about any issue you can come up with and I want to stay friends with them, but sometimes it's hard. I've been unfriended by some lifelong friends. Unfriended on Facebook over things that I took a position on it and stuff and it's like, well, you know what I mean? It's kind of funny in a way, but it's kind of painful in a way, too. There's not a reason when we love Christ and we love one another, there's not a reason to be able to work things out somehow. And even if it's creating different organizations, then that's what we need to do or whatever. But we need to love one another through it all.

And so not doing harm is one big way that we can administer healing to the whole world, by not contributing to the hurt. 

And then our second General Rule is to do good. And sometimes there's not a lot we can do. Sometimes there's might be only a little we can do. It might be that cold cup of water, it might be a wash rag on their head when they're sick. Or it might be just a smile or a handshake or a note or just any small little act of kindness that we can do might spur a little bit of healing. Any kind of encouragement and a good word. And in our relationship with other Christians that have beliefs and practices that are different than ours, we can be interested in what that is and why they have those beliefs in practice would be affirming of the ones that we then touch us. Especially the ones we have in common. But also of the ones that might be different. Something in a way that we wouldn't do it but if we can just have an understanding there and an affirmation of their faith in Christ, I think that goes along the way.

Sometimes it's only just a little bit. Sometimes it's only prayer. But yet prayer changes things. Prayer changes us and changes the world and sometimes it gives an opening. Sometimes we find in our prayers like it gives us an opening. We might pray for Lord open the door for this relationship, open the door for this next step that we need to take. And then out of that prayer we see at least maybe our next step. Something that we can do. So, that is an important part of our healing is that we take the next step. That we pray and that we look for opportunities to do something good.

And then the third of the General Rules is to stay in love with God. As an expression, use the means of grace. Attend to the ordinances of the church, all of that different ways of expressing that. Staying in love with God. Just keep going to church, keep loving one another, keep worshiping, keep reading the Bible, receive the sacraments, pray at home and have your Bible study. Go to Bible study and do the different things that strengthen your faith and give other people an opportunity to become a part of the faith community.

All of this. Just like us being here today and worshiping together. We're sharing the love of Christ among us and we're meditating on his word and we're singing the hymns. We're not shaking hands because we don't want to spread anything around right now, you know, but we'll start shaking hands again when everybody's not sick anymore. Then we'll go back to big hugs and everything. But we're creating community among us and it's an opportunity for other people to be a part of it if they would like to. It's an opportunity to share the word of God and the love of Christ among us and then take that out into the world.

And so that's what Christ calls us to and... Again, I'm looking at this passage through the eyes of the unity of the church. These are the things that unite us. These are the things that make us one in the Spirit. And that's what Christ calls us to. A unity that transcends any differences that we have and allows us the freedom to be who we are and to encourage each other around us to be our full selves, our best selves. And holds us together, keeps us moving forward in Christ. And so the invitation, I think for us today is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Keep firm in our beliefs, in the affirmations, the stands that we take and the direction that we're going. Remember that we are right where God wants us to be and to praise God for how that affects the world around us. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Sin of the World

The spirit of the Lamb is our spirit, taking away the sin of the world. Not just our individual sins, but our institutional sins -- the sins of our families, of our congregations, of our denominations, of our communities, of our nations -- Jesus challenges, forgives, and takes away the sin of the world.

Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. John 1:29b

Today is Human Relations Sunday. Next Sunday is Ecumenical Sunday. So in conjunction with all of that, the sin of the world comes up. It affects the relationships that we have with each other, with everybody else in the world.

Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on January 19, 2020.

We are against sin, right? That is a standard thing as a church. But then there's always a lot of a conversation about what that means. Historically, people have had all different ways of trying to deal with the sin. Because sin itself, the hurt and the pain of that brings people to being at odds with each other and with themselves and with God. So when Jesus stepped onto the scene, began His ministry, He did so as John went up to Him saying, "Behold the Lamb of God."

The Lamb of God had a big significance to the people then as it does to us now. One image and one prophesy that comes to mind was the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before pointing to that generation of people and everybody in between and then everybody after down to us in this room. When you compare the Messiah, the Savior, the Lamb that was being led passively to its slaughter. Isaiah 53:5 encourages us all to remember that 
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
So that's what it means to be the Lamb of God, a gentle, loving creature, passive and docile and yet in the Lamb of God is the power to take away the sins of the world. 

There's a lesson there I think the Bible is trying to communicate using that imagery. The world is full of imagery that could have been used besides animals. There are a lot of animals that could have been been used besides the lamb. But throughout the scriptures, Christ is held up as the Lamb. So if we reflect Christ in our lives, then that's one of the the associations we might think of for ourselves, the Lamb spirit, the spirit of the Lamb is our spirit, the spirit working within us, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

There were a lot of sacrifices people used to make in hopes of just having the punishment of sin staved off. But when John began preaching and baptizing, he said that he was baptizing for the remission of sins. He was calling on people to come and join together in letting sin recede from our lives and from the world. That became like the focal point of our whole faith, the forgiveness of sins. Christ demonstrated to us His plan of salvation was that sins would be forgiven, that God would forgive our sins and we would forgive each other's sins and we would forgive the sins of the people around us. When we do that, the sin is gone.

One of the beautiful things I think about in our service every week is a moment, a brief moment just to face ourselves honestly. We only really have enough time even when we stretch it out a little bit sometimes to just recognize and affirm that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," (Paul), the joys that God has for us. We give pause to do that and hopefully in that pause, we encourage each other to take up pauses like that throughout each day because every time, the Bible said,  "if we confess our sins then God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins," and "to lead us into everlasting life" is one of the ways we say it in our rituals. That's what God wants. He doesn't want to hold anything against anybody. He doesn't want us holding anything against each other.

He doesn't want us holding anything against anybody else in the world. He doesn't want them holding anything against us either but other people might need more of an example. We're the ones that can give that as the people of the Lamb, the people of Christ, to extend the forgiveness to everybody around us that Christ offers to us. We often talk about that, about things and about how even from the cross and without anybody confessing their sins there, He still forgave them. He still said, "Father, forgive them. They don't even know what they're doing." They didn't even know, but He still forgave them. That's a challenge for us, to be able to extend proactively our forgiveness and not because it's our right to hold a grudge, but because we are in the business of forgiving sin.

We're in the business of helping people know that their sins are forgiven. We assure them. We offer that assurance of absolution. It's sacramental in our lives to be able to tell somebody that we care about, or strangers, that their sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus, starting with us as a demonstration. But anybody can do that. Anybody can "not hold" anything against somebody else -- or they can hold something against them, but which one is actually the reflection of Christ? And which one do we choose? So "behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." Charles Wesley in his hymn ["And Are We Yet Alive"] wrote,
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.
Having our sins forgiven doesn't mean we can't do them all over again or do something worse later or something hopefully "less worse." But trying to do better is our goal, to "go and sin no more" (Jesus). But we still have questions and wrestle with things about what we should do or shouldn't do and everything. But in the moment, let's just say in the moment, from the moment we receive that assurance in our hearts by the Spirit that our sins are forgiven until the next time we do something wrong, which might be pretty quick. But no matter how quick it is, there's a whole space to that. There's a moment that we have been cleansed. So why not get those moments frequently through the day?

The more often we face ourselves honestly, then the more often we receive that assurance and have more opportunities to start again and do better each time. 

And then John said, "Who takes away the sin of the world." A lot of times when we're talking about confession and forgiveness and all that, a lot of times our mind tends to -- religious people's minds do this -- tend not to confess our own sins but each other's sins. That's not what it's saying, confess each other's sins and the Lord will forgive. Confess your own sins. "Go take the log out of your own eye before you try to take a little splinter out of somebody else's" (Jesus).  It's not about confessing other people's sins. It's about confessing our own.

But it does involve other people in this life. It's the sin of the world that the Bible was talking about that John said, "taketh away the sin of the world," not just my sin or your sin or somebody else's sin. It's sin in general. 

It is the sin that we're a part of in all of our associations, in the church, the sin of the church, in the community, the sin of our community, in our government, in our other institutions, organizations, families. 

When you think about it, the sins of the world, the most serious sins of the world are the ones where things that we wouldn't think of doing ourselves as individuals but we are a part of an organization or a government or a nation or something that puts it into law, makes it a part of the way that organization operates, the way that system runs that causes hurt to people, causes some of the gravest concerns that we have, suffering, war, and poverty and oppression and discrimination.

On and on that kind of a list could go that are corporate sins that we might not want to do ourselves but yet we can be a part of that. We don't really have a lot of control over it. Most people don't have even a vote or a voice in many of the matters that we're a part of. But we do have a little bit. We have a great amount that we can confess it ourselves and look at our role in it and see if there's anything we can do about our own personal role and that kind of thing and make what kind of stance we can, use our voice, use our prayers, use our whatever capacity we have, our vote or whatever that we do have. That's the part, I think, we're accountable for, not accountable for how other people vote but on how we vote. Not accountable for what other people stand up for or stand against, but what we stand for and we stand against, what we pray for and what we pray against.

We can all pray. If we are people of faith then that's part of our faith is that we believe that God will take those prayers, use them in many ways that we can't even imagine. But one of those ways is to open our own path to where we can maybe take another step after that, step into. When Jesus talked about the final judgment, He provided an image for the final judgment that really most other places in the Bible don't provide. His was a judgment of the nations and He said that the Son of Man will come in all His glory with all the angels and divide everybody up into two groups according to how they treated Him and each other (Matthew 25). That list that He gave the nations, He said this was the nations, which includes the people in them, which includes us individually.

But in His teaching and example, Jesus pulls us out of just thinking about sin as individuals and just what we're able personally to do wrong, but what we do wrong together. A lot of times I think the emphasis goes to that individual part. We don't want to forget about that, but in the context of the fullness of humanity and our part in all the decisions and all the actions of humanity, do we have a part? 

It's in the interest of institutions to want us to just think about personal sins, like if we said a bad word, how you dressed or wore your hair or something like that, keep everybody focused on that. Keep our mind off of the bigger picture, then we wouldn't be voting against whatever they're voting for or wouldn't be standing against things that we should be standing against because we're just thinking about our own personal spirituality.

When Jesus speaks of judgment of the nations, He brings that into full view. "Inasmuch as you have done unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you've done it unto me." Not just you personally, but you all as a congregation, as being a nation, as a religion, as humanity, nations and states and counties. What we do is all under the scrutiny. That's where God wants to take away our sin and for it to all recede, be pulled back, and be replaced by love and goodness and forgiveness and joy, peace, prosperity, all the things that God wants for us and for everyone. 

So that's something for us to pray about, isn't it? "Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. In the name of Jesus. Amen.