What Is This Beloved Community About?, Old First Sermon 09.23.12

What Is This Beloved Community About?, Old First Sermon 09.23.12

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37

Last Saturday, we had a leaders meeting — the Elders and the Standing Leadership Group chairs and Directors, etc., coming together to try and make sure we’re working for the same thing… helping the church to head in the same direction. At least that’s the goal and the hope!

Sometimes, our reality is much humbler… when we find ourselves odds with one another. In those situations, we’d feel lucky settle… be happy just to make sure we know what each other is up to — a little understanding — that we can consider how it might affect us all.

The genius of our decentralized governance — I like to call it “mission structure,” how we organize ourselves to serve — like the UCC itself, is also it’s challenge: people and groups are freed up, let loose to minister creatively and responsibly. In this morning’s Adult Forum, Bob Schneider talked with us about the “untied church of Christ.” Coordination and communication, however, aren’t natural strengths of such freedom!

Working to compliment one another’s efforts. Making sure that the others who need to know know… those are the challenges when once a community or organization has rejected top-down or clearly localized decision-making and authority. We’re sort of a cross between an octopus and a hydra, all these heads and all these arms. But with a big heart.

A friend of mine says that from an organizational development perspective, the UCC’s best self-description may well be “we’re protoplasm: the complex, semi-fluid, translucent substance that constitutes the matter of life, but without cells…”

I don’t remember the topic at last Saturday’s meeting, but the inimitable Ms. Steiner said — and this is word for word because I typed it as fast as I could on my blackberry:

“That’s WHY… church is so… churchy.”

Now there’s a quotable quote from an AP English teacher recognized just last year as one of the finest.

She was referring to how church can be sort of clumsy. Not always the most efficient social engine or group of people, coordinating their efforts, staying together, covering great distances fast, managing to throw off unimaginable produce at a rate like unto God’s own abundance…

Beloved, church isn’t always easy; or even an agreed upon project. Imagine, if I asked each of you right now for your answer to “most basically, what’s church really about?” I bet we’d have 3 times as many people we have in church this morning. And how many different, how many conflicting responses we’d come up with. The cross between a hydra and an octopus — all arms and legs moving around according to so many different understandings (but with a big heart)!

BECAUSE, Julie added a minute later, “church is unlike pretty much every other community we’re part of. We’re trying to do something different.”

Amen, wise sister.

She even went so far as to say, “What we’re trying to do with the church now is even different from how church used to be. This part I didn’t get as an exact quote because my fingers couldn’t keep up on the blackberry, but her explanation was to the effect: we’re different today from how church used to be when there was more central authority making decisions and the greater unanimity that comes of that.

I thought to myself, “she just preached next Sunday’s sermon.” It’s the point of the James and the Mark passages. (If you can’t tell, I think very highly of my colleague, might even accord her, after AP Teacher of the year, some sort of homiletic prophet status!)

We mostly live in communities organized around who effectively claims to be the most important.
Some central authority that tells the rest of us what’s right.
Talks down to us, you might say if you are really UCC and insistent on…

At it’s worst, such organization is sort of like the big head of Oz
yelling at us.
We’re expected to fall behind
whoever’s perfected the “me first” chutzpah.
Who’s the quickest and most effective when it comes to a fight.
Who can exercise the most power over.
Or excise the most demands from.

We live in a world of tit for tat. “Reciprocities” would be the nice word.
A world where you don’t need to worry about welcoming someone
if that person can never return the favor.
A world where we’re always sizing each other up:
“Is an effort or even a person worth my time?”
“Will there be sufficient return to warrant my investment?”

We stop seeing the people themselves,
we’re so fixated on what they can do for or to us.
And if there’s no possible quid pro quo,
then we hardly see a person at all:
you can almost say a person can’t be said to exist unless they have something to offer you.

We’re used to… what makes sense to us
is paying attention (hear the idiom in that one? “paying attention”)
to those who have the most resources,
whether that’s defined by power, popularity or material wealth.
Because they have something to give us.
And yet they demand recompense for whatever they offer.
Yes, the rich get richer,
the haves, get more.
the rest of us, the 99%…

But church isn’t supposed to be like that at all.
It’s not about any “real politic” or power plays,
not about seizing or winning.
Church doesn’t have “haves” and “have nots,”
at least if that means whose will is dominating whose.

Instead, we’re here to do something much harder really.
Together we’re supposed to first identify and then together realize God’s will.
That’s why church is so often churchy.

But when we can even begin to get close to God’s will, a whole new way of living emerges.
The whole way the community is organized is immediately transformed.
No one is more important here than anyone else.
Not the longest term member.
Or the biggest giver.
Or the person with the most power elsewhere in the world.
Or the squeakiest wheel.
Or the biggest trouble-maker.
Or even the most hurting.
Church isn’t about who’s richest.
Or who’s the most conniving.
It’s not finally EVEN about who’s most spiritual or faithful.

All those worldly hierarchies around which we build the pyramids of this life
are flattened once we stand before God.
I heard a preacher point out once, “We tend to associate tall men with power and authority.”
I think this is related to a candidate looking Presidential, or not.
But the preacher continued and cut off all our stereotypes, by noting that “even the tallest man is short before God.”

Because God’s love reverses all that we know,
‘upside-downs” how we expect hierarchies to work and people to operate.
No one is more important here than anyone else.
No matter what you accomplish.
Or how you much you fail.
Regardless of what you give or how much you need.
Everyone matters.

Right there, it’s already a new, different world.

If you want to be somebody, accept that you are nobody.
If you want to earn your life, let it go.
When you feel any will to dominate, then serve.
If you wish to live, you have to die.
Instead of getting even or grabbing what’s yours, you are to show mercy and share with others.
Instead of allowing our sights to remain set lower, we are to look up.
Instead of glory, we live more fully when we focus on suffering, humility…
that it is “of dust we have been made and to which we all inevitably return.”

Beloved, here at church, we’re all children in a strange, new and different world.
Church is where we’re learn to play,
are engaged in play-acting
that we might learn, grow up and mature into responsible adults.

And we often don’t quite get it.
We play our roles badly.
Mess up. Fall out of character.
Get frustrated and grab or hit.

So Jesus offers illustrations to help make his teaching clearer.
Think for a moment about the visual aids that Jesus employs:

Mustard seeds.
Widows mites.
A Grain of Wheat.
A broken piece of bread
The Eye of a Needle.
A lamp on a stand.
A cup poured out.
Dogs eating crumbs under the Table.
One Lost Sheep.
The no-good Son.

The commonality of his illustrations, if there is any, is in being ordinary, every day, even insignificant.
The promise of his illustrations — and I think there is much — is that Christian life can be lived well, faithfully in each of our lives, in the little things, daily.

This time for his “object lesson,” he points to a child. Not for the little girl’s adorableness, but because children in Jesus’ time hardly counted, didn’t matter.
No child welfare.
Or WIC.
Or Aid to Families with Dependent Children,
much less public education,
or “women and children first” in the society of Jesus’ day.

Those all come later, and
one might be able to make the case,
those later developments started with Jesus
redirecting our attention and care to those
who otherwise might be overlooked because they’re unable to care for themselves.

Church, it’s easy to perceive Jesus welcoming “one such child”
as a sweet vignette in hight relief to this talk of suffering and death.
We can see Jesus tenderly cradling that unnamed child.
Appealing to soft hearts buried deep under the tough exteriors…
his first rough, everyday sort of followers; working men from the country.
Appealing to our soft sides too.

But Jesus grabbing the kid and throwing her into the center of his lost disciples wasn’t doing something sweet. There’s no sentimentality in this scene. Rather he’s confounding, troubling, like that crucifixion he keeps alluding to. Telling the disciples they need to be like children is at best disconcerting, and more likely provocative.

Imagine Jesus telling you if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you have to like an IV drug users or a prostitute (or whoever you or our society feel comfortable putting down).

So here goes Jesus again. Another boat-rocking paradox.
Upending his followers expectations and hopes about why they’re in their disciple lives,
about where their Master is leading them,
about what it’s going to mean to walk with Jesus into his coming glory.

Jesus says, “if you want to find your way to the top
— he doesn’t really seem to condemn rank and privilege out of hand…
Instead, he just redirects:
the top is the bottom
the first is last,
and we’re to identify and find our place with the lowly and the least, the despised and the despicable.

I’m not sure we usually get it any better than the first disciples.
That’s why church is so churchy.

As they were charged with caring for children and all the others on the margins of society who don’t count — the old, people who are handicapped, the sick, the illiterate, those cast out as unclean…
As they are called to attend to dirt poor peasants, redneck farmers, nasty shepherds, impossible widows, runaway slaves, the chronically unemployed, threatening foreigners, illegal immigrants, unrepentant prisoners, the most difficult homeless…

Pretty much the same folks that are pushed aside in our society today, until we hardly notice or feel we have to care for them. Like those without proper gov’t. i.d. who we’re disenfranchising, moving them en masse over to the “folks who don’t count” column.

Jesus says all these and the little children are all already full-fledged citizens in the realm of God.
So, church, notice and respond accordingly.
So doing would not just be right by them.
It’d also begin to transform our world.
And be good for our souls.

To not only acknowledged our world’s “children”, but spend time with them.

Not to imitate them —
for they are pretty much as human as the rest of us
which means — as I suspect Yajeh and Adam are being reminded downstairs right now —
they can be “noisy, clinging, destructive, self-centered, and surprisingly cruel.
Jesus never said to imitate them, but to value them.

If it takes time, invest it.
Look for the people who don’t get noticed.
Care for those who don’t count in the circles you run in.

Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way (though I’ve adapted her description in light of some of the discussions the elections have engendered):

26 inches tall,
limited vocabulary,
not the broadest worldview or a very good thinker.
unemployed and expensive
zero net worth,
totally dependent and unable to make good decision for their own survival or well-being.

Nobodies

But Jesus just pointed out, “Nobody, but God’s agent!”
Eternally precious.

Welcome to church….