Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The church as ambulance base

Matthew 5:1-16
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

John 1:35-51
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

            We’re unpacking different ways of thinking about the church in this sermon series. Last week Susan talked about one of the images we think of most often, the image of the church as a family. We’re all adopted sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. In the church we get to know each other as brothers and sisters and we take care of each other with love.

            This week we’re looking at a very different image, which is suggested but not spelled out in the Bible. The image we’re exploring this week is the church as mission station. In John’s Gospel at the last supper Jesus says he is sending the disciples into the world in the same way God sent him into the world. After he rose from the dead he repeats the same message to the disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The church continues the mission of the first disciples, so at our core we are sent into the world like Jesus.

            Mission means “sending.” We are a community that is defined by mission, defined by being sent. One theologian says it like this: “God’s church doesn’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church.” Another says, “The church exists for mission like a fire exists for burning.” If fire stops burning it isn’t a fire anymore, and if the church stops going out into the world it isn’t really the church. The church’s mission is its purpose. It’s not something we do, some extra thing that is a nice part of the church’s activity; our mission is the whole reason for our existence. The church is meaningless without our mission.

            The church is defined by mission, and the mission of the church is defined by Jesus. As the Father sent Jesus, so we are sent into the world. That means we are called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and invite people to be reconciled to God. We are called to be ambassadors for Jesus, to introduce people to him and to let them know that they are loved and they are not alone. Like Jesus, we are called to be powerless and called, sometimes, to suffer for the message.

            That’s not just a calling for a few of us, the professionals or the religious elite. It’s not a calling just for extroverts or for elders, but for everyone. It’s not an optional, extra credit assignment; it’s a fundamental part of who we are as the church. We have different ways of following that calling based on our gifts and abilities and occupations, but we are all called to mission.

            There are two major parts of that mission we share: there’s the part we do together and the part we do on our own. We have a mission together: Laurelton has a mission on this corner to share the love of Jesus through our words and our actions. We do that through cafĂ© and worship, through Christmas baskets and supper and scripture. We do it through supporting other partners in mission, like Cameron and People’s Ministry in Christ and the Community Food Cupboard.

            The point isn’t getting people into the building; it’s using the building to get the message of love into the community. The point of the building is to give us space to welcome people, space to learn for our mission, space to cook and share fellowship to welcome others and strengthen the community.

We all have a part to play in that by using our gifts and possessions to build up the church for our mission. Maybe you love to cook: come on out on a Saturday and help make breakfast for your neighbors. It’s a great way to welcome people practically to a warm space and remind them that they are not alone. Maybe you like to visit: there are so many people in our community who are hungry for fellowship, hungry for someone to listen to them, desperate to know that they matter. You can do that just by sitting down and listening while you eat breakfast.

We do mission together not only as a congregation, but with the wider church as well. We are not a big enough church to send a missionary to another country, for instance, but together the Presbyterian Church sends many missionaries to countries around the world to share God’s love through Bible teaching, healing, building schools and providing clean water. We take part in that wider mission of the church through our gifts to the denomination and through our prayers for the church around the world. We also take part through going on short term mission trips like Bob, Karen, Karen, Susan, Carl, Linn, Charlie, Sue and Allison are doing this week in New Jersey.

That’s the part of the church’s mission that we do together, and that’s an important part of the story. Maybe even more important than that is the mission we each do on our own. We all spend more time outside the church than inside it. Your main mission is in your everyday, Monday through Saturday, world. The best way to get the church’s message into the world is through you, because you are part of the church and you spend most of your time in the world. The church’s job is to prepare and equip you for that mission.

When I go to work at Rural Metro I start my shift at base, that’s 811 West Ave. At base I check in, get my gear and my truck and make sure everything I need for the day is on the truck. At base we have a big parking area for the ambulances as well as a bay to wash them at the end of the shift. There’s an equipment room where we replace the supplies we’ve used. There’s also a training room to learn and practice skills and a dispatch center where the calls come in. That base is where we go to get prepared for the mission of providing emergency care for the people of Rochester. But our main work obviously isn’t at base, it’s on the road in the city, so we only spend a small part of our shift at base.

The church is a base for mission in the same way. It’s an important place to come to be refreshed and equipped for our mission, but it’s not where we spend most of our time, and it’s not where we do our most important work.

When we come to church we gather to share stories of what we’ve seen in the mission field, new things we’ve learned, new challenges we’ve come across and new questions that our work in the world has brought up. Together we give thanks for the week of ministry, for all the things God has done through us in the world. We praise God in song and prayer for what we’ve seen and experienced. We encourage each other like my coworkers encourage each other for our work and you and your coworkers encourage each other.

We dig into scripture together for new wisdom for our work in the world; that’s our training room. In worship and in education, we bring our questions to the passages and we find new things to try out. My job as pastor is to study scripture and other resources to equip you for your ministry in the world. I can do a better job with that if you actually bring your questions to church. If you tell me what you wonder about because of your work and ministry, I can do a better job figuring out what kind of equipment you might need. Without your insight about your unique ministry and unique experience, I can only guess what will help you.

If we keep the image of the ambulance base, I’m the equipment manager and training coordinator. I’ve got tools and equipment for you, but I need you to tell me what kind of things you need for your mission. Then you go out and live out that mission in the world knowing the church will support you.

Maybe your weekday ministry is teaching kids. For that mission you’ll need stories about Jesus to remember how Jesus reaches out to kids and to others who have trouble in the world. You’ll also need some biblical tools for thinking about how education and justice are related.

Very specifically coming up, there is a special UPT evening on October 17th at Trinity Emanuel about educating the traumatized child. There you’ll meet others who are excited about education and you’ll hear some of the unique challenges of urban education. That’s important for all of us because we are all invested in the city, so we’re all invested in our city’s children. It’s also important because even if you teach in a suburban school with lower rates of poverty and violence than the city, some of your kids bear the scars of different traumas, so those insights will make you a better, more loving, more Christ-like teacher. You will be better equipped for your mission in the school.

Maybe you spend a lot of your time caring for children in other ways. That gives you different opportunities for ministry for which you need equipment. Part of what you do is working with the kids in your care, so like teachers, you need to be reminded that Jesus loves the little children, especially for the times they are being difficult to love. You also have opportunities at the playground and elsewhere to interact with other parents and caregivers. That means you have opportunities to share the love of Jesus with people who might not know they are loved. Maybe some training around faith sharing will help you in that mission.

Maybe you spend a lot of time in a challenging workplace where everyone feels constant deadline pressure. Your mission there as an ambassador for Jesus is first, to do your job well so you can help your team perform. You can also create a better atmosphere by remembering that no matter what happens, God loves you. The more you remember that the more you’ll be able to stay calm under pressure and help others stay calm as well. You can also share love by treating others kindly. You need to be equipped with biblical wisdom on handling stress, or responding to bad behavior in the workplace.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, you are on a mission from God and the church is there to equip and support you for that mission. Our passages give us three different ways to look at that mission. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus pronounces blessings on different kinds of behavior like gentleness, peacemaking, and humility. Do those things wherever you are and you have God’s approval. Jesus also instructs us to be salt and light wherever we go. In little ways and big, at home and at work and at play, our job is to shine the light of God’s light so others can see God.

In our passage from John we see it a different way. We see John, Andrew and Phillip all introducing people to Jesus. It’s not our job to convince someone to believe in Christ, we just help make the introduction. We invite them to “come and see.” People everywhere need to see the truth: that God is love and that they matter to God. We can show them that. We can show them by treating them like precious brothers and sisters. We can show them that by being kind even when it’s unexpected. We can show them by being calm under pressure because we know our meaning in life isn’t what we produce but our being as beloved sons and daughters.

That is our mission: love God and love others. This church, this building, this community is the place we go to get equipped, encouraged and prepared for our mission. Your brothers and sisters are team members and blessed companions. So let’s enjoy the time we have together and get excited to go back out in service. Be peacemakers; be salt and light to a world that is often bland and dark. Serve and love, introduce people to Jesus and do your part to make the world just a little more like heaven. Jesus sends us in his name today and every day.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

different roles, one faith, 9.1.13

Today's sermon talks about Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, but more than that, about the tensions of different identities we share in the light of our faith. It's heavily influenced by listening to the discussion of a likely US military intervention in Syria. So, if you're interested in reading a few Presbyterian resources on that situation they are also linked here and here, the most important one is linked here. The sermon is below:

Acts 21:17-26
17When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. 18The next day Paul
went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. 19After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20When they heard it, they praised God.

Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. 21They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. 22What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

23So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. 25But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”

26Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.

Acts 21:27-34, 22:22-30
27When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, 28shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

30Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. 31While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. 34Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.…
(quick bridge to Paul’s defense)

22Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

Each of us plays different roles in our life. We are parents and children and spouses. We are employees and retirees and Christians. We are Americans and Republicans and Democrats. We are brothers and sisters, friends and swimmers, walkers, readers, workers. We are alumni of East High and East Ridge, Syracuse, Fredonia, Ithaca, Penn State and MCC. We have different roles and influences in our lives.

            For Paul it was the same thing, and like us, sometimes that was complicated. Paul was a Jew and a Christian. He was a Pharisee and an evangelist to the gentiles. He was born in Tarsus, raised in Jerusalem and a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was a tentmaker, pastor and prophet.  

Paul is a man of different worlds. He never stops being Jewish, regardless of persecution. He also holds his Roman citizenship tightly as it gives him the right to speak and be protected. When he is speaking to Roman officials, he talks about his rights as a citizen and how the charges against him have nothing to do with Rome. When he speaks to Jewish crowds he talks about the Law and the Prophets and how they predicted Christ. Even while he is in prison, he continues to be a pastor; in fact several of Paul’s letters were written during his final imprisonment in Rome. So, while as a prisoner he defends himself, as a pastor he also advises communities and coworkers on questions of ministry. In all he does, he seeks, first of all to be faithful to his ministry as an apostle of Christ.

As Christians, we live different roles in different parts of our lives, but in every part of our life we are called to live faithfully. That doesn’t mean that we are inconsistent or hypocritical, just that we do different things based on the situation.

In my role as a pastor, I lead with others, specifically the elders. That means we make decisions together. As a paramedic, I control a scene. A medical emergency is not a democracy; I tell people what to do. If I did that here, most people wouldn’t appreciate it, and if I invited people to share different ideas and vote about how to treat a cardiac emergency, I wouldn’t be an effective paramedic. I lead in different ways depending on the situation, but in every situation I strive to treat others with respect, compassion and love.

I imagine it’s the same for you. You do things differently at work than you do at home. You speak differently with your kids than with your friends. But in that diversity, there can be unity and consistency, because in everything we are called to follow Jesus. That means loving our kids and helping them to learn to be loving. It means doing our job at work conscientiously and treating our coworkers kindly so that even if we don’t talk explicitly about our faith, people can see love shining through.

Paul talks about citizenship in this passage, because as a citizen of the empire, he is entitled to a fair hearing in court. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about being a Christian and a citizen because of news and history. It’s been a blessing this week to hear excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” because this week was the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

Like Paul, Martin Luther King was a citizen and a minister of the gospel. When he read the scriptures, it was clear that God created all people equal and calls us to treat each other with kindness and justice. That faith commitment led King to oppose the injustice of segregation and economic oppression. He spoke for justice because his humanity and his faith told him segregation was wrong.

As a citizen of the United States, King saw his calling and responsibility in the same way. King’s speech from the Lincoln Monument reminded America that equality is in the very foundation of the nation by quoting the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes we need to challenge our community to live up to its own best values, which is what the civil rights movement did. As a citizen, King quoted Jefferson; as a Christian, he quoted Amos, but in everything he sought to be faithful to his calling in Christ. That calling and the struggle for justice and equality continues today for us because it is part of our faith.

Syria has also been on my mind a lot this week, which is especially relevant as we think about what it means to be a Christian and a US citizen. Paul claimed his citizenship to give him the protection he needed to continue to preach. He never imagined that citizens could shape their government. We live in a democratic society, which means we have more political freedom than Paul could have imagined as well as a responsibility to use our political voice faithfully as disciples of Jesus.

That can be a hard thing to do, because followers of Jesus do not always agree on political questions. At last summer’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh I served on the committee on Middle East Peacemaking. Our committee talked about Syria, because the civil war there had already been going on for a year and a half at that point. On this question the General Assembly passed a resolution to pray for Syria and to urge the US and others not to intervene militarily in the conflict. This resolution passed by a vote of 621 to 19 with five abstentions.

Chemical weapons are terrible. The international community is right to condemn and oppose their use in any situation, and we need to find ways to work together to pressure both sides to respect civilian life. It’s hard to stand by and not respond to such a gross violation of human rights, but if we have learned anything from the last 12 years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan it must be that there are always unintended consequences. The Bible teaches that there is a time for war and a time for peace. Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. There may be times that military action is necessary, but Christians should always have a strong bias towards peace.

As citizens and Christians we speak in different ways, but we must always try to be faithful to Jesus. We have the blessing and responsibility to use our voice to encourage love, peace and justice. Faithful Christians disagree on how to handle issues like Syria. It’s not my role to tell you what you should think. I never want this to be a bully pulpit. I’m not an expert on foreign policy or the Middle East by any stretch of the imagination.

One of the blessings of our Presbyterian system is that the pastor doesn’t rule. Instead, my job is to help you think about your life in the context of the faith we share. In this case, that includes sharing an overwhelming agreement in the General Assembly that the US should not intervene in this civil war. Our wider church is speaking for peace today as we spoke as a body for peace a year ago. Our partner churches in Syria and Lebanon have called on the church to oppose military intervention as well as to pray and care for the victims of this enormous suffering.

            What I can say clearly and with conviction is that your faith should be a big part of how you think about what it means to be a US citizen (and how you think about being an employee, parent, spouse and so on).  Our job as Christians is not to change the course of history, though sometimes we will. Our job is to be faithful to our calling regardless of fear, danger and opposition. For me, that means writing to our president and encouraging the denomination to pick up what we have already said about this conflict. I don’t know what it will mean for you; if nothing else, I hope you will be praying for peace and for wisdom for our leaders as they struggle with difficult decisions.

            Paul’s strategy in the last years of his life is interesting. He asks the Roman leader for permission to speak to the crowd and begins what he calls a “defense.” The goal of his defense isn’t to escape death. Instead, it is to tell the truth about his calling, regardless of whether that makes Jewish leaders accept him or reject him. His job is to tell God’s message, no matter what. And this wasn’t the only part of Paul’s calling. Sometimes we get sucked into thinking one thing defines us, or on the opposite side, that we have to do everything. The truth is we have to use our gifts and our time faithfully for our ministry. The question isn’t our success, but our faithfulness. 

            So in the footsteps of Paul and Martin we take our place as voices for God’s love in a challenging world. We take our place as people who live in many roles at the same time, united by faith in a God who loves us and, mysteriously, works all the chaos of life into a story that makes sense. We believe that God comes to us not with overwhelming force but in the cry of a child in a manger, the cry of a body broken on the cross, and the Spirit of love speaking truth through Christians in every age.

As we gather at Christ’s table to share the feast of love, this ancient symbol of the peaceful kingdom to come, we remember our brothers and sisters across history and around the world. We break bread together with scared families in refugee camps and in churches rattled by bombs. We break bread to find strength to live faithfully now in the tensions of life as we pray and hope for God’s new heaven and new earth where nation will no longer raise up sword against nation and we will study war no more.

Come, Lord Jesus; quickly come.