The Gospel According to Seuss (sermon 12/13/15 – Third Sunday of Advent)

horton hears a who

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.- Philippians 4:1-9

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They gathered together in the cramped little room that evening after their day’s work was done. It was their custom to set aside their other worries and responsibilities, and to come together this particular evening of the week, from the youngest to the oldest, and to enjoy a common meal together. Each of them brought something to share, in terms of both food and of themselves. Joining together in the ups and downs, sharing their joys and encouraging those who were facing troubles. Eating, drinking, laughing, crying, and especially praying together. Trying to work out more and more how to live as followers of Jesus, how to live with one another, and especially with those who weren’t part of their own group of Jesus-followers.

Sometimes, they were excited to receive a letter from another group, from another city, and sometimes even from one of the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem; maybe even on rare occasion, from an apostle. And tonight was just one of those nights, because they’d recently gotten a letter from Paul – the Paul, the famous persecutor of Christians who’d had a vision of the risen Jesus and who’d become a great leader in the church. Paul, the single most important voice in sharing and spreading this faith in Jesus outward from Jerusalem and into the non-Jewish world. Paul, the man who had actually started their own little group, the very first Christian church on the entire European continent, and who had returned to visit with them at least twice since then.

So as they gathered together that night, they wondered what he’d written to them. They knew that word had gotten to Paul about an ongoing dispute between two members of their own group. Both of them working hard for the good of the group, for the good of the faith, both of them much beloved… but there was this disagreement between them. It’s funny, they thought; it always seemed like the strongest disagreements occurred between the people who had the most in common, whose actual differences were the smallest. So they wondered, what would Paul say about all this?

Paul did offer his thoughts about their disagreement, asking for cooler heads to prevail, asking that they find common ground through their common faith and common desire or God’s goodness to shine forth in the world.

As part of that advice, Paul tells them, very strongly, to always rejoice in their faith in Jesus, no matter what. They thought it was odd to get that advice from Paul, since he had written these words while he was in a prison in Rome, about to be put on trial for his life, and when everyone knew that this was all but guaranteed to turn out badly. You would have thought that Paul was the least likely person to hear this kind of advice from. And yet, even from his own bleak vantage point, he told them: rejoice in the Lord, always.

There will be times in all of our lives when we’ll feel like there isn’t much to be joyful about. We might feel discomforted by unrest or some kind of friction or turmoil in our lives. We might feel like we’re in a situation where a bad outcome is every bit as guaranteed as Paul’s was. We’ll see the news and hear ignorant, crazy, dangerous words from various people on the world stage and wonder if there’s any reason to feel any joy at all. Still Paul calls us to rejoice always, and it’s that joy that we especially think about today.

One thing that Paul didn’t tell that house church of about 55 people or so in Philippi was that, just because they were followers of Jesus, difficult, maybe even terrible, un-joyful things wouldn’t happen to them. Quite the contrary, actually, just as he likely expected would soon be happening to himself. He didn’t try to cover over the less than joyful parts of life with butter cream frosting to make them more palatable, portraying them as God’s will, or God’s judgment, or God testing their faith, or some other similar nonsense. He told them that even in the joyless times, maybe especially then, they needed to keep reaching out to God, who in some mysterious way transcends the bad things while also still being there in the midst of them, alongside us. Paul didn’t offer them, or us, some cotton-candy promise that in response to their prayers, God would make everything better; he just tells us to keep praying, to keep reaching out and calling out to God. It’s advice that almost makes you think of all the little Whos living on the speck of dust in the Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who,” all yelling out at the top of their lungs, “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!!!” and eventually being heard, and saved. In telling the Philippians to always rejoice and keep calling out to God in prayer and supplication, for a moment it almost seems like Paul is proclaiming the Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.

But then again, he really isn’t. Because in our case, because of the message of Advent, the greatest, most joyful of news, the news of God-with-us, when we call out to God at the top of our lungs, we hear the quiet voice of the one born in the stable saying “There’s no need to yell; I’m right here beside you. Always have been; always will be. I’m here, walking this journey with you and supporting you no matter what might come. We’ve got this, together, you and me. As hard as it might be, trust me. Hold my hand. I know how this all ends, and together, we win.”

Because of the message of Advent the message of God’s entering the world to be with us, whatever may come, we can have hope. We can have peace. We can even have joy. And we can all say

Thanks be to God.

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Weak Strength (sermon7/5/2015)

Rembrants-Paul

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

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He was bald, bow-legged, with a strong upper body but short even by the standards of his own time, with one big, bushy, caterpillar “unibrow” over his eyes, and he had a particularly large nose. That’s how a writer described the apostle Paul not long after he’d died. Over the course of his life, he’d been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, and even though you could say public speaking was his job, people commented on how he didn’t have a voice particularly well-suited for the task. Beyond all that, Paul talks in the passage we heard today from Second Corinthians about some unspecified “thorn in the flesh” that had dogged him throughout his days. Clearly, Paul wasn’t going to influence people based on his own personal appeal.

And yet, in ways large and small, often for the better and sometimes less so, this one individual who had so few of the tools of charisma and leadership in his tool belt shaped the Christian faith more than anyone other than Jesus himself.

It seems to be a pattern that God uses a lot – calling people to do something beyond their own strength. Calling them from a place of weakness to accomplish something they seem on paper ill-equipped to pull off. You see it time and again throughout the scriptures and the history of the church. The greatest things in the Kingdom of God have been achieved by people in positions of weakness, who had to rely solely on their faith and trust in God, and not in their own security or strength.

We’re worshiping outdoors today for a few reasons. The first is just to enjoy God’s creation this holiday weekend, to enjoy its beauty and the special feeling of fellowship and connectedness that we have with one another and with all of creation. Another reason we’re outside is to make an easy transition between the service and our picnic today. But another reason we’re out here is to serve as a reminder that the church isn’t the four walls that we usually gather in, insulated from the world outside, but instead, the church is constantly called by God to be out in the midst of things in the world – always moving outward to be the agent of God’s love to all the world. That’s the whole purpose, the whole reason for the existence of the church. These four walls are meant to be a base of operations, a place of spiritual nurture and development, renewal and encouragement, in order for us to get right back our here. This is where the church is called to be.

That can be an unsettling thing. We understand the rules, the traditions, the way things work inside the walls. We have a sense of strength and security in there. Even if we tweak the Order of Worship once in a while, for example, or we move a hymn here or there, we can still be pretty confident of what’s going to happen, and when, and how. We can build up a perception of our own strength and security in the comfort of our walls. But as unsettling as it might be, as weak or uncertain as it might make us feel, God keeps leading us out here, where, as someone once said, where anything can happen and usually does. God keeps calling us into those places where we have to rely on God and not on our own supposed strength and security, our own planning, or our wits, or our traditions, or our finances. God keeps calling us into this weakness. It’s an inseparable part of our faith. It’s in that place where our faith deepens and grows. It’s in that place where God empowers us, through our faith, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, the care for the lonely, to work for justice – for freedom and liberation for all of God’s people.

We’re actually very lucky this morning. We’re outside our walls, enjoying the breeze, and the birds, and the shade of the trees, by our choice. But this morning, there are at least eight predominantly black churches in this country who don’t have the option of being inside their walls this morning. Churches whose buildings have been destroyed by fire over the last two weeks since the tragic killings in Charleston. Some of these fires may have been accidental, but at least several of them have been ruled arson. Whatever the cause, these congregations, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are worshiping somewhere this morning outside of their walls, too. They’re experiencing a moment of real weakness. And in this moment, they’re having to draw from their own faith and trust in God’s words to Paul, that as bad as things may seem, God’s grace is sufficient for them – and for us – and it’s when we feel the most weak, the most vulnerable and insecure, that we’ll end up seeing and feeling God’s love and work within us.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we lost our building, like those churches did? What would we do? Would we rebuild? If so, what would we build? How would it be different? How would it meet the needs of the mission we see for our church? Would the new building, whatever it was, enable us to see other aspects of our mission that we hadn’t seen before? And that leads to the next question: If thinking about how that hypothetical new building led us to see some new or different aspect of the church’s mission, how do we know we shouldn’t be finding some way to accomplish that same thing now, without any fire, without any new building?

The truly good news that Paul discovered in the midst of his own weakness about God’s love and provision is truth for us, too, when we might feel weak and not in control of things in our own lives. Regardless of whatever you or I may be feeling helpless about, God has promised to provide grace sufficient for us to get through it – without us having to put too much emphasis on creating our own supposed strength, or security, or having to impose our own control over things. Jesus himself told us not to over-stress about those kinds of things; that to do so is itself something sinful and indicative of a lack of faith and trust in God. In the counterintuitive way of the Kingdom of God, worrying too much about our strength ends up making us weak, while accepting our weakness and trusting in God ends up making us strong.

Whoever we are, and in whatever circumstances we’re in, God loves us, and will provide for us, and will give us the guidance and strength that we need to do what God has called us to do. That was good news for Paul. And it’s good news for the members of the Mount Zion Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, as they meet somewhere this morning while the smell of charred wood is still thick in the air. And it’s good news for us this morning, too, as we sit here in the breeze, with the birds, in the shade of the trees and the shadow of our walls.

Thanks be to God.