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“Make Space for the Unexpected”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Jeremiah 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


 

Even more-so than we did not see Covid-19 coming, the Disciples and all of Israel and Judea couldn’t see Jesus’ resurrection coming.

Now they foresaw his death.  In the weeks before his death, when Jesus resolved to return to Judea despite his disciples’ warnings not to return to a land so recently hostile to him, we hear Thomas resigning himself to death with Jesus:  “Let us return with him, that we may also die with him.”  The tension is rising.  The conflict is mounting.  Discomfort with Jesus’ identity and power and authority have reached their natural boiling point, and the disciples want to keep Jesus miles and miles away from it.  But Jesus returned.

Jesus returned. 

And he would not be safe.  Not at all.

 

But despite the fact that Jesus had been alluding to his resurrection… despite the fact that many truly believed him to be the Messiah… despite the fact that Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead… no one could begin to imagine what God had in store next.

Death was to be avoided at all cost.
Death marked the end.
Death had finality.
Death was the end of the movement.

And so when Jesus is crucified on a cross, for all to see, many of the disciples hide in fear.  They have given the last years of their lives following Jesus, and now Jesus has gone and gotten himself killed.  Will they be next?

And so, in classic moves of survival, they turn their gaze inward.  They hunker down and button the hatchets.  They tighten their inner circle.  They spend their days in a dark room.  They look back upon their former careers and wonder if there’s still a place for them there.  They start to worry about their next meal.  The fishing begins again…

 

Do you know what it is like to hunker down in fear?

 

And no one – no one – saw a future past that cross.

How could they?
How could they imagine a future never before seen in all the world?!
That Jesus would arise from death’s strong grip?
Flesh and blood?
Asking for a bite to eat??

No one.

Now the Israelites were a nation occupied.  They had been colonized by Rome.  They paid the emperor taxes.  They had known victory and defeat, power and exile.  But most common to their experience was uncertainty, change.  They ever faced threats of annihilation.  They built and others tore down.  Nothing seemed sure.  And the people were antsy.  Some were ready to bring on a bloody war with Rome, a war they surely would not have won.  Others played the system, buying their power with purchased Roman citizenship.  And others still tried to exercise their religious power and authority while ignoring the occupying forces (until they found ways the occupiers could carry out their will…such as in the condemnation of Jesus).  Herod had razed the holy city in order to rebuilt it, bigger and better and mightier, with Roman architecture and Roman authority.

It seemed like everyone else was pulling the strings of this nation.  And the people of Israel yearned for independence and autonomy.  They yearned for liberation and power.

But at the very least, couldn’t they just plant a fruit tree and own it long enough to eat of its fruit?  At the very least, couldn’t they reap what they sowed? 

Could they have control over their lives enough
To know the reward of their labors, their energies, their affections?
To build a house and live in it?

To this nation who has known plenty and known want… to this nation who has known both power and powerlessness… to this people who yearn for something to place their hope in, comes this prophetic word:

“Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.”

What this describes is hope.

And isn’t that what we’re grasping for now?

 

Will our mortgage companies allow us to defer payments?
Will our jobs hold out?
Will all those we love, still be here when all this passes?

Will this pass?

 

We are grasping for hope.

 

Are the efforts I’m taking enough?
Can my body overcome the virus if I catch it?
Can my family overcome it, if I spread it to them?
Will there be enough beds and staff and masks and ventilators if I need medical intervention?

And what is the world becoming?

So many are rediscovering simple joys –
writing letters and postcards,
riding bicycles,
taking long walks,
slowing down,
sitting on porches,
making music,
reading and writing poetry,
calling friends and family,
taking advantage of online tools we’ve had for years yet seldom used.

We are more aware than ever that each one affects us all, for better and for worse.  We are more aware than ever that our life and healing is bound up in our working together, whatever our differences.  We are more open to outcomes we wouldn’t have before considered.

But

Is this the world we want to live in, bound up, each in our own house?
How long can we sustain?
Will new and even designer viruses hijack life, over and over again?
Will we again know the touch of a grandchild’s hand in ours,
the loving embrace of a true friend,
the gathering of the body of Christ?

 

We need hope… hope that we will eat of the fruit trees we’ve planted… hope that we will continue to dwell in the homes in which we’ve labored and loved… hope that our diligent service will be remembered as company’s consider cuts…

Hope that our children will once again gather together to learn and to play… hope that love for neighbor won’t be eclipsed by fear of neighbor… hope that we may once again gather to worship and serve in the community of Forest Hill…

 

It is easy to see our fears.  We practically manifest them as we ruminate on all the ways we might meet our demise or experience loss and pain.  It is easy to worry.  There are way too many things out of our control right now.  It is easy to despair….when we cannot see a path forward.

 

The people of Israel who have followed Jesus from shore to shore, see their hope dying on the cross with Jesus that day.

The disciples who have seen Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, now fear their own deaths.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, breathes her last goodbye to her beloved son.

 

But JESUS returns. 

Jesus comes back.

 

When we could not see any hope, our Lord overcame the grizzly bonds of death and blew us all away, in life after death! 

 

Friends, I do not know your particular fears in this time.  I do not know your particular worries.  I do not know how the waters rage around you.

But I do feel the waters rising.  I know the gravity of fear.  I have known the sting of loss.

 

But JESUS returns.  Our Lord God popped the top clear off of our greatest imaginings and made hope where there was no hope, made life where there was death, made a future of hope where there was once despair. 

 

Let us leave room for the unexpected.
Let us open ourselves to the unimaginable.

Is there room in your mind for a new uncovering of Truth?

Is there room in your heart for God’s expansive love of neighbor…and stranger?

Is there room in your day for meeting someone new.

 

A gift of this dreadful pandemic is the shaking up of our days.  Because it gives us all a chance to re-evaluate and to decide WHAT is important.

 

Without openness,
Without space,
Without humility,
Without intention,
We can miss God’s resurrection power,
God’s word of HOPE spoken over our lives, and all creation.

 

We serve the crucified, yet Risen Christ,
the Christ who returned.

Whatever your despair, make room for the resurrection power of God. 

Make room for hope

“Rescue by Invitation. Are You Ready?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 3:2b-6
Malachi 3:3-7a

Luke 3:2b-6

…The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Malachi 3:3-7a

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.  Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.


 

When Isaiah made this prophesy that we hear John the Baptist later quoting, what do you imagine Isaiah thought of it?  How did he see this playing out?  All those years later when John begins quoting Isaiah in the desert, did John have a vision of what God was doing?

How did the people of Israel hear this prophesy?

 

I hear it in two ways, and I wonder what we are to take away.

First, I hear this call to each of us to prepare the way of the Lord by making the Lord’s paths strait.  In this I hear that familiar call and caution:  to be ready so I do not miss God, when God comes.  We human beings are notorious for cluttering up our hearts and lives with lessor things.  We are notorious for our mistakes and errors.  We insulate our hearts from the touch of of God, shut our ears to the voice of God, close ourselves off from the light of God simply in our stubborn willfulness to go our own way.  And the more we sin, the more we insulate ourselves apart from God.

This is the tragedy in which we find ourselves crying out to God, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!  For indeed, we need God to come and rescue us.  For we are captives to our own sin and the sins of one another.  Against all our better judgement, again and again, we find ourselves in the same spots:  broken and distracted.

 

And so the prophets Isaiah and later John both call for us to wake up to God’s presence.  For God is coming.  The Savior is coming!  And we do not want to miss out, distracted in sin, blinded by defensiveness, numb to God.

Make God’s paths strait.  Prepare the ways of God into our hearts and lives.   Be ready!

 

In the second half of this prophesy, however, I hear a shift.  Instead of hearing it as a directive to us, the listeners, I hear a shift as the prophet begins to state what will happen, what God shall do.  They say,

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

It is as if to say, that God is removing every kind of obstacle SO THAT all flesh shall SEE the salvation of God.   God is doing it, and the prophet speaks to this radical coming of God in which every obstacle shall be removed.

 

Do you hear the relentless love of God?  Do you sense the lengths to which God is going to so that ALL will know God’s salvation?

 

And our second scripture reading today speaks to what shall happen when Christ comes.  It speaks out this truth that none can stand on the day of our Lord – since all have sinned and fallen short – and that Christ will purify and refine us, with fire.  Christ will bear witness against all who do not fear God but rather persist in sin.

But Christ’s fire will purify us until the offerings of our lives and labors to God are presented in righteousness.

I love this verse.  Though the thought of the fire of God is a scary thought, I invite you to entertain another way of imagining it.  The image here is not a raging wildfire.  It is not a firey furnace.  No, it is the refiners fire.  It is fire for a purpose.  The object being refined is not consumed and no more.  Rather it is made more pure.  The excess is burned away.  What remains is fine and beautiful, pure and useful.  In this image, God’s fire is not to smote us from the earth, but to heal us – doing what we cannot do on our own.

And this image shows the persevering love of our God.  It is not a persevering love that tolerates evil and injustice.  It is not a perseverance that sits passively by, ignoring all that steals, kills, and destroys.  No, it is a fierce love.  It is a purifying love.  It condemns sin and evil, all that wounds and breaks.  It is a love that will not let us go and tolerates nothing less than holiness.

 

And God is making a way,

Removing every obstacle,

That ALL might know God’s rescue.

 

But our loving Lord does all this through a vulnerable, little child.

Our loving Lord does all this through a humble carpenter from the back-water town of Nazareth.

Our loving Lord does all this through the invitation, “Come, and follow me.”

 

We are invited.

Not controlled.

Not wiped out.

Not kept down.

…Invited. 

 

“Come, and follow me.” 

 

And yet another invitation comes to us in this scripture verse from Malachi:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.” 

 

God is assuring the people that GOD WILL DO IT.

God will make the paths strait and the mountains level.

God will eliminate every obstacle.

GOD will make us righteous before the throne.

GOD WILL DO IT.

 

Our job is to return.

Our job is to follow.

 

 

“Prepare ye, the way of the Lord.”

The Lord comes. 

Are you ready?

“Christ Be Our Center”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Colossians 2:16-19
Mark 9:42-50

Colossians 2:16-19

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Mark 9:42-50

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


 

This teaching from the gospel of Mark is difficult.  There seems to be no grace.  And if one horrific image weren’t enough, we’re given multiples!

I think this is our cue to take this teaching seriously.  Jesus is speaking about those of us who put a stumbling block in front of another who believes.  And following the listing of dire scenarios comes this analogy about salt losing its saltiness.

I imagine it is easy for any of us to feel pretty good about ourselves when it comes to this matter.  After all, we go through so many motions to love and serve others.  It’s hard to imagine any of us putting stumbling blocks in front of other believers.

But the reality is that we have all probably done this at one time or another.

 

One of our neighbors up the street grew up in this neighborhood and going to this church.  Now she doesn’t go to any church.  With a grimace on her face, she tells of the days when church members were far more concerned about what one wore than who one was.  After her youth she had left and never come back.  At that tender age, she knew that judging one another by our outer appearance and airs was wrong.  She was disgusted by it, and it became an obstacle to her.

Now I imagine if you’d spoken to those church-goers about whom she spoke, they would have said something about showing respect to God.  For a very long time in churches, nice dress was perceived akin to holiness, as though the outside order and refinement reflected an inner order and righteousness.  And if not a reflection of holiness, one’s dress was very much perceived to be a reflection of our love and reverence for God.

While we may now dismiss these ideas, we must acknowledge that they were held by some of the most sincere and devout believers.  I know, because one of them was my mother.  😊

Over time, many churches have conceded that requiring members to dress to the nines was not essential and that it was even an obstacle to many.  And so less and less attention is paid to dress, though the ideas that started it and those habits and admonitions from our childhoods are often still with us.  As we can see, this idea that dress matters, is still with us.

 

Several weeks ago we addressed the question of Christ and culture.  For those of us who have lived most of our lives in a dominantly Christian culture, the lines between Christ and culture are dim and blurry at best.  Is a Christmas tree Christian or secular?  It’s origin was pagan, but it has been adopted and reinterpreted by Christian and secular culture alike.  Singing hymns is something most mainline churches do, but the hymns we still sing today were originally borrowed bar tunes, outfitted with Christian lyrics.  Many of the Church buildings we have inherited are modeled after Roman courts of law.

The lines between the holy and secular are blurry because Christian and secular culture borrow and build on one another.  And we know that God is not contained in any structure or place, but rather we meet God in the world and all around.  So imagining that there are lines between the holy and the secular is conjecture at best.  God is out and about, all around us, in all created things.  But not all things are of equal importance to God.  Through-out scripture we are coached in what is good and what is not, what matters and what does not.

And this particular scripture reminds us that we must take care not to elevate to center anything that is not central.  The cross is central.  Christ is central.  God’s love for the world shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central.

 

But then there are a host of other matters which are not central.  Jesus speaks to this when he says of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)

And like the words of Jesus spoken to the Sadducees and Pharisees from our worship a few weeks ago:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

In the history of the church, more often than we’d like to admit, we have made peripheral or associated things central.  As Jesus said to the religious leaders in his day, “You teach human precepts as doctrine” and “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”

 

And because Jesus has very explicitly made us aware of how very important it is to NOT put any stumbling block in front of another believer, we need God’s help to accurately assess and take stock of where we are and what we are doing.

Those ladies who shamed our neighbor and turned her away from this church years ago based on how she was dressed were likely very well intentioned.  And each of us has beautiful intentions.  But sometimes when we are so immersed in a thing, we can become blind to how we come across to others.  We don’t realize the subliminal and explicit messages we are sending.  Furthermore, we can get so engrossed in our traditions and rituals that we scarce realize when those memories and habits have taken over center stage, eclipsing our very mission and reason for being.

 

But this is not a new problem, for it was occurring even in the early church:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

This issues we fight over keep changing, but the fact of the matter is the same:  we have been putting up obstacles in front of one another, judging and disqualifying others, teaching human ways of thinking, and condemning one another from our earliest days as church.

And it is wrong.

 

None of us is very good at this work of self-examination, but we know that this is very important.  So thanks be to God for giving us the Spirit!  We need God to bring to our awareness those things that have taken center stage, center attention.  We need to know if we are, intentionally or unintentionally, setting up obstacles between others and God – in our words, in our actions and in-actions, in our habits and traditions…  And we need the Spirit to speak all this to our hearts and minds in ways we can hear and understand.

It is our job to ask.  It is our job to listen.  It is our job to pause from all the hurry and “to do’s” long enough to hear God’s still small voice saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

 

We do not want to lose our saltiness.  In other words, we do not want to lose our purpose and reason for being.  We are made to be salt and light for the earth, but we cannot be these transformational agents unless we ourselves have been transformed!  We cannot bring light, unless we are reflecting the light of Christ.  We cannot season the earth with God’s love and justice unless we ourselves are radiating Christ’s love and justice. 

 

And none of this will happen if all our energy and attention is tied up in lessor things.

And in fact it is precisely when we get distracted by these lessor things that we put stumbling blocks in front of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

And so I ask you, in this life we share as church,

What has your time?

What has your worry?

What has your attention?

 

Children will be the first to tell us what is important to us.  They know what steals our precious time and attention.  Without a word, they perceive how important they are to us.  They feel it in the time we give or do not give them.  They feel it in our choices and priorities.

On what do we focus our attentions?

 

We will only be effective as Christ’s body insofar as we are focused on the call of Christ in our lives. 

We need the Spirit of God to impress upon our hearts

the ways we are

and the ways we are not

living into that call.

 

And more and more,

may we BE the church,

sharing the Good News and making disciples,

and growing with a growth that comes from God

as we HOLD FAST to Christ, our center.

“Christ or Culture”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 10:10b
Mark 7:1-8

John 10:10b

Jesus said to them, … “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Mark 7:1-8

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”


In seminary, we read a book called Christ Or Culture by religious scholar, Richard Neibuhr.  While I cannot remember the details of the book, my take-away was that it is a complex thing to untangle Christ from our culture, but that we are each responsible to work on it.

 

The basic gist is that when a people has lived with Christ for some time, the knowledge of Christ gets integrated into the way things are done and vise versa.  Culture gets mingled into our understanding and worship of Christ.  Our traditions, rites, and rituals are all a co-mingling of Christ and culture.

When we’re in our own cultures, it is almost imperceptible which is which at times.  For example, our Christmas trees feel very Christian, though their origin is distinctly pagan.  We have taken things that had no association with Christ and connected them to Christ, so those things acquire new meanings.  Now, Christmas trees are in most churches in America.  Few even think to question their place.

This merging of Christ and culture is honest and natural.  It’s as natural as our own American melting pot.  Made up of people from most nations, our country indeed begins to take on the blending flavors and cultures of those nations.  We take for granted the fact that we can buy Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food on the same block, get our nails done by a Vietnamese shop owner and have our clothes dry cleaned by a Korean family.  Obviously these are stereotypes, but as with most stereotypes, they communicate because there is truth behind them.  My point is that we are accustomed to this blending of very different foods, people, and culture.  It is the natural outcome of our nation of immigrants.

In the same way, when a culture hears the good news of Christ, their own traditions and rituals start blending with the Good News of the Gospel, and in the end, it can be difficult to tell one from another.

All of this is just fine.  Where it has most often gotten problematic is on the mission field.  When well-meaning Christians leave home and culture to share the good news with a people who’ve not yet heard, they, as would any of us, can have quite a time discerning where their own native culture ends and Christ begins.  Since our own cultures are simply our “normal,” they can become invisible to us.  They are the air we breath and the ground we walk on, so to speak.  We take them for granted.  We rarely question them, if we even notice them at all.  But when we encounter folks from another culture and try sharing our faith in Christ with them, our own culture inevitably is also communicated.

Now, this isn’t all bad.  Learning of another culture can be a beautiful and eye-opening thing.  IT gives us new eyes to see the world around us.  Where it has gotten toxic is when culture is mistakenly presented as being part of Christ and one way is presented as the way.

Now, I don’t think all cultural traditions or mindsets are made equally.  Some native traditions are full of the honor and respect we learn in Christ.  Some are filled with domination, cruelty, and the things Christ warns us against.  But when we share the Gospel with another, we need to let Christ be the center and the guide and not impose our culture on others.

This is easy enough to say, but it’s quite another things altogether to do.

How do we separate Christ from the culture in which we’ve come to know Christ?

How do we separate Christ from these walls in which we’ve worshipped, year after year?

How do we separate Christ from the creeds we’ve memorized?

How do we separate Christ from the songs we can sing by heart?

How do we separate Christ from our experiences of Christ in this community?

 

All of these are excellent questions.

And while we cannot answer them all cleanly, it is important that we ask them and keep asking them. 

The reason can be found in the Hippocratic oath Doctors take.  They promise “first, to do no harm.”  And when we impose our own cultures onto others in the name of Christ, insisting that our way is superior to their ways, we can do a great deal of harm to that people.

Now, I know you guys are not missionaries in the traditional sense, so all this talk of Christ & Culture may feel misdirected, but if you are a Christian, you are indeed a missionary because Christ lives in you.  You have the Spirit of the Almighty God living in you, and God’s heart is for the whole world.  God’s love is for the whole world.  And God is pouring out love and light in the world through each of you.

Now you can rightly point out that if you haven’t left your culture, this information is not exactly pertaining to your sort of mission work in the world, but I would argue that in our culture today, Christ is not the center.  And even when we thought it was, it probably wasn’t.  Truly, when cultures have adopted Christ as the main religion, they have often, if not always, done so with covert motives, using Christ to one’s own ends.  And even if motives started purely, the result of aligning Christ with power and regimes is growing corruption of faith for political power and personal gain.

My point is that we live in a post-Christian society.  Most families and people do not go to church.  Many do not claim Christ.  And a great number do not consider themselves religious.  So our experiences may be a great deal different than that of our neighbors.

But we know that God’s heart is for each of them.  We know that God’s love extends to each of them, just as they are, right where they are, many here all around us in this neighborhood, in their houses, running trails, or perhaps in the park just blocks away.

We know that God doesn’t require conformity first, in exchange for love and acceptance, but that God has loved and accepted us first, and we are called to respond in faith, walking in God’s ways.

We are bearers of light.  We have a message folks deeply need to hear.

But we will lose people and do more damage than good, unless we can untangle our own histories of Christ & culture and begin to imagine what Christ is doing in new cultures, in a new people, in the lives of those who’ve sworn never set foot in a church.

Because God IS moving in their lives.

God IS inviting them to come close.

God IS calling, through work and rest and play.

God is reaching out first.

 

It is not therefore, our job to INITIATE God’s work in their lives.

Rather, it’s our job to listen and follow God’s work in their lives.

It becomes a matter of listening for what is profoundly Christ-like in their unchurched lives and affirming those commitments to love and justice, respect and community.  It becomes a matter of listening for what may be destroying life and listening for God’s invitation to wholeness and healing.

So, our children do not have to do exactly as we do.  They don’t necessarily need to sing the same songs or speak the same creeds in order to hear God’s still small voice.  But perhaps when they love as God has loved us, we celebrate the beauty and goodness of their lives.  Perhaps when they undo themselves with poor decisions, we forgive as we have been forgiven and call them to a better way.

In other words, we affirm the love and goodness of God in their lives, listening for God’s lead and following.  And we echo the words of God for all who are suffering in sin saying, “You are made for so much more.  You dear and beloved, just the way you are.  Please do not hurt yourself or anyone else anymore.”

When we truly begin doing the work of separating Christ from Culture, we will find that things and rituals, traditions and nostalgia matter far less than we may have thought.

For as Christ quotes Isaiah, saying to those criticizing his disciples for not following the rituals, “This people honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.  In vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.”

All our routines and rituals are beautiful but only a vessel for the divine.  And without Christ at the center, all of it is meaningless.  For it isn’t what we say, but what we mean that matters.  It isn’t calling ourselves Christians but rather living as little Christs that matters.  It isn’t singing hymns, saying creeds, or even coming to church that is the most important thing.  What matters is following God, day by day.  What matters is loving as Christ has loved, forgiving as Christ has forgiven, doing justice as Christ brings justice, loving mercy as Christ has shown us great mercy.   And none of that requires a steeple or an organ, a pastor or a sermon.

Now all those things can help us a great deal.  We have reasons for doing them.  But these THINGS, these ROUTINES are meant to be a vehicle of God’s presence and power.  These expressions of faith are meant to empower us in the living of our faith.  They are not meant to be obstacles or litmus tests or criteria for inclusion in the club.  Our forms and ways of being church are meant to flow out of vibrant lives of discipleship, and not the other way around.  And when Christ is truly at the center, we may find that there are an infinite number of ways we can follow faithfully – at least as infinite a number as we have one-of-a-kind children of God in the world.  And just as the rituals we follow were once birthed from new vision and ideas, new rituals and traditions are emerging still.

And so may we not be as the Pharisees in the scripture today – criticizing those who do not do as do we do, looking down on those who do not come when we come, …thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But rather, may we recognize that what matters most is on the inside.  And may we each tend to our hearts and minds and spirits with great and loving care.

So that when God moves in new and unexpected people and places and rituals – those outside our circles, who look differently, and live differently, and see the world differently – we might see and hear and follow – ever following Christ, beyond the borders of these walls, of our own cultures and ways, and into new broad vistas of an ever-deepening and living faith.  For our God is calling, calling each one out of darkness and into Christ’s marvelous light.  And that broad place is like nothing we have ever experienced before, transcending all the ways of this world, and all the things we’ve come to know.  Christ alone remains.

 

In an ever-changing world

where church as you may have known it, no longer exists,

where potlucks no longer fill the hall and Sunday School isn’t packed…

May we keep our eyes on Christ.

It is Christ who knows the way;

Christ IS the way.

The landmarks and scenery will ever change,

Our tools and methods and rituals will also change,

but our God remains the same and is ever with us.