Thursday, March 8, 2018

Wedding Sermon, Ephesians 5:1-2, 21-33

It's a great honor to be here to celebrate my friends Matt and Emily. I'm glad that we are all here to share in the witness of their union under God and the beginning of their ministry together as husband and wife. I want to be up front about the fact that I am not, myself, married. So, what might usually be shared from where I'm standing isn't necessarily what will be said today. I'm not going to presume that I can speak into the experience of married life, or hope to give advice with any sense of authority on the matter. After many conversations with Matt and Emily, we came to an understanding about what should be said today. What we want to walk away with is an understanding of their purpose as a married couple. We want to have a deeper grasp on the biblical foundation of their union, and how it will hopefully reflect the greater, mysterious union we have with God. To do this, we will turn to the passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

The passage starts off with a call to be “imitators of God, as beloved children.” This might be the most important part of the passage. Not because of its command to imitate God, but because it outlines the why behind our imitation of him. In his letter to the Romans, Paul goes deeper into this subject, saying that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba, Father!'”

God does not give us his Spirit so we can do more good things or be a better person. He gives us his Spirit to adopt us into his family as heirs of his Kingdom alongside his First Son, Jesus Christ. Before we dig into what it means to follow Jesus or how to be imitators of God, we must understand what it means when we say “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Every act of love, every sacrifice of compassion, and every good thing in our hearts flows out of this love. Not the love that we have, but the love that God has for us. The love that he has poured out from his side over the whole world in the death of Jesus Christ so that we can share in the life of love that he gave as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Without first resting in this love, the call to be imitators of God and followers of Christ becomes a burden of stress on our lives. If our walk with Christ brings more worry than joy, we need to re-examine our spirit to determine why. Jesus says, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It's in response to God's love that the psalmist cries, “let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for [God judges] the peoples with equity and guide[s] the nations upon earth.” God's compassion in how he relates to us-- how he relates to the whole world-- and willingly guides us toward the truth of his love, brings forth joy and celebration. Reflecting on and resting in the love of God draws out worship. That draw to worship should be the driving force behind everything we do. God's love should be the centerpiece of our actions and relationships.

If we accept the Spirit of God, we are children of God. In that Spirit we can continue to walk alongside Jesus by the power of the Spirit to love as he has loved and “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

I want to pause here and share two stories from Matt's life. These stories are both situations that happened in the last four months and are both stories that involve police officers. In November, Matt had agreed to pick me up from the airport. When I came out to the car, I saw a police officer standing beside it with his ticketing book out, but no Matt. After a very brief information gathering conversation, I pulled out my phone to find out where Matt had gone. He and Emily had recently rented a car at the airport and Emily thought she might have left her journal in the rental car. Matt had stopped at the gate to pick me up, and since my plane was just landing, he decided to run in and check if the rental company had found it. So Matt comes running out, and the police officer confronts him immediately, “You do know you're not supposed to park here. That's a hundred and fifty dollar ticket.” Matt explains his situation, which the officer dismissed, “I don't care why you parked here,” he says, “If you're going to park, you need to park in the garage.” Now, I should note, it's at this point, I notice the officer is no longer holding his pen to the ticketing book, but has the book closed. He says something to the effect of, “you better not do this again,” to which Matt replied, pointing to the line of cars behind his own, “well, people are essentially parked here for fifteen minutes, and you don't have a problem with them!” The officer gets defensive, “whoa, whoa, I'm letting you out of a ticket here, and you're going to attack me like that?” Before Matt could say anything else, I decided to jump in, “let's say thank you and get going,” and the conversation did end without a ticket being issue.

The second story actually happened very recently. Matt was out driving and got pulled over. This is a very odd thing, since Matt is probably the most law abiding driver I've ever met. But, it turns out, Matt's registration had expired, and the officer had noticed. Unlike the previous officer, this one did not threaten a ticket or to tow Matt's car away. He was very gracious and kind. Likewise, Matt responding with thankfulness, and even texted me afterward about how great his interaction was with this officer.

When we talk about responding to God's love, grace, and mercy, we need to be clear. Both officers were merciful to Matt. Matt deserved a ticket in both cases, but only one brought Matt to tell others about the good news of that officer's graciousness. The first, though he showed mercy, used his power to belittle Matt and tried to frighten him into obeying the rules. The second, acted in graciousness, giving Matt the chance to respond likewise. God's mercy comes with grace and love. And I think it is no mistake that Paul writes to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” before writing about the marriage relationship of husbands and wives. Without understanding the love of God in Jesus Christ, we can't really know what it means to submit to one another or why husbands and wives are called to relate to one another in this way:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior … Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her … in the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”

Marriage is a mysterious thing. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is an earthly representation of the heavenly truth regarding the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Church. Marital submission shows the disposition we as Christians are to hold in our relationship with Christ, and because of that, how we should interact with one another, since we all are also part of his Body. There is a lot of important imagery here that needs to be broken down. First, because Christians have received the Spirit of God, we are connected by his Spirit to one another. Because it is one Spirit that unites us, we are one by sharing in that Spirit. Our one-ness unites us to form one body by the Spirit of God. So, in relation to the world, or those outside of the uniting Spirit, we are the Body of Christ, his real presence on earth.

The second image is the Church as the Bride of Christ. Sharing in the Spirit of God, which is also the Spirit of Christ, is a deep and intimate unity. The image of marriage is two becoming one flesh. The intimate spiritual bond which makes us the Body of Christ is the same intimate bond which unites us as one with him to be his Bride. In relation to the world, we are his body. In relation to Christ, we are his Bride. In the context of a marriage, these images are brought together.

Matt and Emily are to be bound together as one. There will be no one without the other. From this point on, for all of us here, they will be regarded as one. But there is also a new dynamic to their relationship with each other. As a heavenly image, their marriage represents Christ and his church. As fellow Christians, they are to submit to one another, but as husband and wife, they are to be as Christ and his Church. And while the Church is called to submit to Christ, Christ did not exalt himself, but “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The call to submission for wives comes alongside the call to self-sacrifice for husbands. Submission for Christians should always be inspired by this kind of love. The reason we submit ourselves to Christ is because he has proven to love us to the extent that he would die in our place. We submit ourselves because we know he has our best interest, and because he knows our needs more than we do ourselves. I'm not going to claim that husbands have this same knowledge or this same understanding. But they are called to this same love. They are called to lay down their own interests, and even their own lives, for their wives. Submission means to appeal to the authority of another. The wife is called to submit to the husband as a representation of the Church. The husband is called to imitate Christ's love for the Church, who “emptied himself” of his Godly authority and humbled himself to be on the same level as those he loves. The husband's authority is given so that he can lay it down for the sake of his wife.

Jesus understood this call to sacrificial love, and said as much. In the Gospel of John, he says “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Again, the foundation for following his commandment is that we first abide in his love. Following the commandments of Jesus, loving one another, is really just a practice in learning what it means to be loved by Jesus. When Jesus says that keeping his commandments is abiding in his love, it's because following his commandments helps us to understand how he loves, and how difficult it is to love as purely and unconditionally as he does. In the song of Solomon, we get a reflection on love through the eyes of a young couple. The woman recites that “love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.”

Just as we cannot escape the grip of death once it has taken hold, in the same way, the true and powerful love of God is inescapable and unavoidable. We spend our lives running from death, and many spend just as long fleeing from the love of God. The fierceness of God's love is frightening because it's radical nature calls us to similar levels of reckless abandon. Responding to God's love in his death is to accept that death as our own. Accepting that death means giving our lives over into his hands. To love another person is to give our lives over to that person. It is to lay down our lives for them because our lives are no longer our own.

But there is one thing we can trust when we give our lives over to God. His love doesn't end in his death. Love doesn't only die, but it brings new life. By giving over our lives to God in his death, we are also taking on the new life that he offers in its place by the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Love, as strong as death, is the only power that overcomes the grave.

Matt and Emily are laying down their lives today. They are no longer their own, and their individual lives as they each know it will end. But there is a new life being formed right before our eyes. It is the new life of total union. A physical, visible, tangible manifestation of the spiritual truth that we cling to in Jesus as the Bride of Christ. This marriage is a sign pointing toward the hope that we lay down our lives to obtain every time that we turn our eyes to the love of God. And being the Bride, we still wait for the full manifestation of that love in the wedding celebration that will come on the day he returns to claim us as his own in the full redemption of the world. Today we get a glimpse of what that day will look like. We see the love of God in the love shared between Matt and Emily. The hope to live into that love can only be achieved by abiding in that love. Abide in that love. Find rest for your souls. Put on the seal of Christ, as his own, and find the love within you manifested through the Spirit into joy, made full in him.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Philosophy of Disappointment

I meant to write this awhile ago. In fact, I'd meant to do a lot of things awhile ago. My last blog post came in the middle of July, when I was feeling helpless and unsure of my future. I wrote about giving up and giving over to what's meant to be. The day after posting that blog, I got an email from a Christian high school looking for someone to teach a course on cultural literacy. It would have been a course designed for students to engage with different social issues based on literature produced during a time within that cultural milieu. During the section on social justice, for example, I could have utilized the writings of Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. to engage with the topic. It seemed to be an answer to what I wanted at the time.

Part of my passion is to teach within the church context, and equip others with the Gospel. I also got my bachelor's degree in creative writing. Both of those seemed tied up neatly in a box at a job that would be a five minute drive from my house. I had an initial phone interview with the president of the school, which seemed to go well, and she said she would pass my information along to the principal. At the end of the conversation, she said, “once you meet with him, he and I will get together to discuss salary and putting together an offer.” It was a very encouraging moment for me, and one that renewed my faith in the path I was walking down. It was very hard for me to not put hope in this job opportunity.

Though the principal was supposed to get back to me the next week, many weeks passed, and I had yet to hear from him. I emailed the president multiple times, and she said she would tell him to reach out. About a week or two before the start of the school year, I emailed her again saying I assume they had decided to move on with another candidate. In fact, she said there were two other candidates the principal decided to go with based on experience.

Even before this happened, I knew that not getting this job would hurt a lot. I was still working as a barista at Starbucks, and being given unreasonable excuses for why I wasn't being promoted. I hadn't made much progress in the ordination process due to some outside circumstances, and had a general sense of being out of place. I dropped most of my passions and went into a bit of spiral for a few months. I shut a lot of people out, and came up with excuses to justify doing so. I felt alone, betrayed and ultimately, forsaken by God. I had accepted that my life was void, just a thing to slog through until I can reach the end.

I was working on some music projects at the time, and all of that came to a rather abrupt halt. If my life was meaningless, anything I had to say lacked meaning as well. I couldn't bring myself to care about much of anything, or anyone.

These past few months have been filled with these feelings of being outcast and forgotten, something not strange to my life. I have had very few friends in my life that I could trust truly cared about me. It's hard for me to trust that I'm worth caring about in others' eyes. This has caused me to neglect calling others for help, because I wonder inwardly why I should put the burden of me on their shoulders. Any slight was taken as rejection. And at my worst, I spent most of my time lying alone in my room. Any time I did force myself to go out with people, I remained mostly non-engaged and was gone within an hour.

Ultimately, feeling disappointed about missing out on this job opportunity isn't what happened. If I'm honest with myself, my disappointment was in my ever considering something good could happen to me. I have an emotional disposition to assume failure. I assume any good opportunities will fall through; that I will hurt or burden the people around me and miss my chance at finding any fulfillment. It's very hard to stay motivated in the midst of these disappointments.

I'm at a new job now. One that has consistent hours, good co-workers, and that encourages upward mobility. It's not a job I want long-term and is far from my passions. It does give me time to create a schedule around it for my goals. I recorded rough tracks for my music projects as a starting point. It can be hard for me to remember these positives aspects, though. I know where I'm at is not where I want to be, and it's upsetting that it's taken so long. I feel like I've lost ground in pursuing my passions the past few years more than I've gained it.

I still have moments (or days) of feeling that disappointment and apathy. I have in no way been cured. But, I don't want to believe myself. I don't want to be convinced that my life is empty, or that I can't find joy, peace, fulfillment, and love. I can't believe that God has given up on me. I'm broken, inside and out, and I'm reminded of it constantly. I'm not looking for an answer right now, and I'm not writing this for the sympathy posts that always follow things like this. I just know myself well enough that my tendency is toward disappointment. That disappointment can be self-fulfilling and cyclical, and I don't want to ruin myself. I do want to believe that good things can come. I do want to believe that I can have significant relationships. I do want to believe that I can find fulfillment.

But right now, what I really want to believe is that it's okay when I mess up or when these things don't happen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Philosophy of Giving Up

It's been a year since my last post. It's been about six years since I posted an actual blog. In those six years, I've completed seminary, I've spent most of my time working with different ministry organizations: youth minster at a church, evangelist/missionary at an outreach organization, camp leader in California, preaching, teaching, leading musical worship, and otherwise remaining involved in greater church-related activities, conferences, retreats, and more. For those six years since my last blog, I have mostly used this space for posting sermons and homilies I've preached. I've preached in churches of a couple hundred, and in front of groups of less than ten. I've preached outdoors, in rented spaces, and in decades-old worship spaces. I have, and for and for the most part still do, felt called to preach and teach in the church. That is why I've dedicated two-thirds of my 20's to this.

About a month and a half after I turned 23 years old, I went on a short term trip to Uganda, where I shared my testimony in local churches and led bible teachings for local youth while a medical team taught new practices and operation of donated equipment in the local hospitals. About a month later, I moved from my home state of Florida to Ambridge, Pennsylvania so I could attend Trinity School for Ministry. That's when I started this blog.

I intended it to be a place for reflection throughout seminary, but as my schoolwork mounted, I strayed from that original goal. It became a place for posting my sermons and homilies as I grew in the craft of preaching. There are a few drafts still on this site of blogs yet unfinished, which will probably remain there. I don't know that I have the time or will to go back to them, but I also can't bring myself to delete them. I have a lot of unfinished work saved in my Documents folder. I have even more that I've deleted followed by immediate regret. Giving up on things has always been a problem for me because I struggle with self-doubt. I constantly beat myself up for not living up to my own unreasonable standards. I delete things that are perfectly fine first drafts because I want them to be finished products. I have never preached a sermon I feel confident about having finished. I often feel immediate fears of my sermons having been "too" something, and receiving backlash. Thankfully, the congregations I preached for have all been gracious and kind-hearted.

All of this, I say because when I think about giving up, I worry about the reasons I have for it. When I want to give up, is it because of unrealistic standards? Is it because I'm not strong-willed enough to endure difficulty?

There's a basic economic principle about cutting your costs when discontinuing an investment. If you are investing in research or development of a certain product or good, you can't be caught up in how much you have invested already when deciding whether to continue your investments. A lot of economic failures come from not knowing when to quit. If I have invested such an amount of time or money into one thing should not be a factor when looking forward at the value of that thing. That investment is already gone. There is no added value to the product or good because of that investment. If the product or good looks to have a diminished return, or doesn't look to gain back equal value to what has been put in, it should be discontinued for a more beneficial investment. This is a positive form of giving up. Giving up on one investment for the sake of discovering a new, more beneficial one is good.

For the majority of my 20's and, so far, the entirety of my young adult life, I have pursued one goal. Many factors play a role in that pursuit. One, there truly is a deep abiding passion within me to invest in the work and ministry of the gospel on behalf of the church. I want to preach and teach and study the Word of God. That is unmistakably true. But in my pursuit of ordination, there are other lingering factors with less genuine roots. I don't want to give up. I don't want to be a failure. I have always felt that I'm not good enough, and have had the pressure to prove my worth, especially as it comes to ministry. I came to faith late, at the age of 19, and had a steep upward climb in the learning and development of my faith. Living the right life and knowing the right answers mattered to me because I wanted to belong.

Before I came to faith, I didn't belong. I didn't belong anywhere. I always felt outcast and spent my freshman year of college alone in my room. Once I found this community of people who would accept me, my first fear was of losing that acceptance. I had a fear of feeling left out again for any reason. So I did my best for there to not be any reason I shouldn't belong.

A driving factor in my pursuits up to this point has been belonging. I want to belong. I want to be "one of them." I want to be sacredly set apart, never to be let go again.

I felt that to be serious about my faith, I had to go into ministry. I felt that it was my responsibility to follow through on these things because I have the ability. I turned away from other desires because they weren't purely religious. I stopped pursuing music and writing because they were passions that weren't "Christian" enough. Or they had enough "idol" gleam to them that I didn't trust myself with them. I didn't trust myself, because I never trust myself. I never trust myself, because I never feel trusted by those around me. I never had really close friendships, and that's caused me to keep a safe distance between myself and others at all times.

It's again about proving myself to those around me. I want to prove that I am committed to this thing called Christianity. I want to prove that it's more than just a lifestyle choice, or a way of doing things. I want to show that I truly care, and that I'm truly passionate about my dedication to Christ. I want to prove myself to those who said I couldn't do it. I want to prove myself to those who said I shouldn't do it. I want to prove myself to those who don't know me. I want to prove myself worthy of the calling.

But it isn't about worth. It isn't about failure. I've spent six years dedicated to this one thing because I felt it's what I had to do. I spent six years feeling insecure and unwanted watching others celebrate and move forward who have been Anglican for less time than I've been going through the ordination process in the Anglican church. I grew jealousy over those who have the care and support of a whole church congregation, while I have yet to settle into one. I've felt abandoned hopping from place to place in search of a sense of home, while others are brought into new communities with loving arms. And what does it mean for me now? What is it to me what Christ should have in store for another of his followers?

I have had many things fall through in my process. I have had many life situations fall through. There has been enough happenstance that makes me question the choices I've been making. Too many things that seem to be going right have fallen through in the end. I don't want to keep being on the move. I don't want to jump from group to group acting like I belong.

I over dedicate to things too early, in part because I'm afraid of admitting failure. I'm afraid to let others down even if they don't mean a thing to me or I don't mean a thing to them. I care too much about the opinions of others. It has hurt me, and and will continue to hurt me. It perpetuates my sense of not belonging and distrust.

I also let the expectations of others who want me to pursue ministry define my own will toward it. I don't want to let them down. I don't want to say I've failed them. I don't want to lose my acceptance and belonging. But acceptance and belonging shouldn't rely on accomplishment.

Giving up isn't just about investments. It isn't just about pursuits. Giving up for me is about why I do things. I have passions that have been pushed back out of guilt and shame, because they don't follow a pattern of life that might be unreasonable to expect anyway. Because I associate my love of music with a broken escapism I used to carry, I have tended away from it. But that has been healed, and I don't need to carry that burden. Because I have considered lack of hyper-involvement in the church/ministry as shirking responsibility, I have always taken on more than I can handle. But that should never have been an expectation, and I have been overworked for too long.

Things that I want to pursue, socially, personally, vocationally, don't contradict the religious life. Ultimately, those in ministry tend to feel more lonely and isolated. My belonging cannot stem from being in ministry, only the outward appearance of belonging. And that is what I need to give up.

The outward appearances are nothing. Why should I be bothered by these expectations? God is greater. What do these accomplishments add to my worth? God is greater. What do my failures take away from my value? God is greater. Nothing could add to or take away from the image imprinted on my being.

It's time for a hard reset. I want to be fulfilled and not burdened. I want to be joyful and not weary. I want to turn away from expectation and toward calling.

I want to give up. I want to lay down everything I've been holding onto. Giving up is more than defeat.

I want to accept where I am, even if it is not where I have been going, or where I want to be. I want to reassess my purpose uncluttered by a past of missteps and frustrations. I want to compare myself only to my inherent value and not to those around me. My value is unending because I am part of the great creation of the Great Creator. I am more than that because I am brought into life through death. I give up on creating my own worth. I want to pursue the worth I have already been given.

I want to give up because I need to learn that it's okay. I want to give up because I need to accept that I can't do everything or satisfy everyone. I want to give up because, ultimately, I don't have control anyway. I need to stop paying so much attention to what's going on around me. I need to stop caring about the appearances of things. I want to give up because I'm of no use mentally, spiritually, and emotionally drained. I want to give up because it's the only way I can succeed.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sermon on Luke 14:1-11

This sermon was preached at Incarnation Tallahassee on Sunday, August 14th, 2016.

About halfway through my time at Trinity, I started working with an organization called Church Army USA. Church Army’s mission statement is “to reach the least, the last, and the lost with the Gospel of Christ; and to bring them into the life and ministry of the church.” This mission takes on many forms. In the late 1800’s, when Church Army first started in England, it occurred in pubs and on street corners, where evangelists shared the gospel with those otherwise deemed unworthy. Today, the base in Hartford, Connecticut takes the form of an underwear ministry, where evangelists collect underwear and socks, then give them out to the homeless across the city. They also go to an HIV/AIDS facility, to people accustomed to being avoided to pray with them, and hug them, and tell them that they are loved. They become friends with these people others would call “service projects” or back in the first century, “unclean!”
The Church Army base I’ve been working with is located in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Aliquippa is about a 35 minute drive north of Pittsburgh. In its best days, it was a thriving city whose residents found work at the local steel mill. But in the 1980’s the mill closed, and the city was hit hard. Everyone that could afford it moved out, leaving only the poorer residents behind. Drugs and violence became issues, and racial segregation tore the city apart. A Church Army evangelist came into Aliquippa in the early 2000’s and spent three years in the city talking with the people, asking what they would like to see in the community. They all wanted a place to gather that was safe and friendly. This evangelist decided to start a cafe. I’ve worked for the last year at that cafe, called Uncommon Grounds. At Uncommon Grounds we make sandwiches and sell fresh ground Colombian coffee at fifty cents a cup. If someone can’t afford it, we have different tasks they can do around the cafe to earn a drink or a meal. Everyone on staff is required not only to work behind the counter, but also to spend time in the cafe hanging out with our friends who come in. There are many regulars, some who come in every day. Not everyone orders food, and not everyone wants to help out. But they come in, they talk, they laugh, and they share moments together. Our goal at Uncommon Grounds is to let the people of Aliquippa know, just like at every Church Army base, that they are loved. I am on a first name basis with almost everyone who walks through the doors, some of whom I greet with a hug. We sit together and talk. We open up about our struggles and pray for one another.
On Saturday nights, a group meets at the cafe that call themselves the Church in the Margins. Staff members from the cafe cook a dinner, and open the doors for anyone who wants to come in. There’s no charge to share in the meal, and first time visitors aren’t allowed to help clean up afterward. They eat together, and a question is always provided to guide discussion over the meal. It could be something as simple as “what’s one good thing that happened this week?” Or maybe, something deeper, “what does it mean to love your neighbor?”
Sharing a meal together is one of the most vulnerable things one can do with a neighbor. There have been times that people eat the food but then leave without saying a word. There have been other times where people have criticized the host for not doing something a certain way, or even just for being different. There’s also vulnerability in coming to a meal hosted by someone else. Allowing others to provide for us goes against the way we’ve been taught to act as a culture. We live in a payback culture. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I can’t owe you anything. I’ve sat through many arguments over who will pick up the tab for lunch, usually ending with the ultimatum, “okay, but I’m paying next time.” That’s why people aren’t allowed to help clean up at the Church in the Margins their first visit. And, usually aren’t even allowed to help at all until they have been coming for a month or so. It’s to help instill the understanding that you are allowed to receive love without being expected to offer anything in return.
The reading from Luke has a lot to do with this idea. It’s about honor and dishonor based on the outward appearance. In other words, it’s about deserving or not deserving love. The passage begins with the healing of a man and ends with Jesus giving a teaching on taking the seat of honor at a table. I want to look at these two instances out of order, because I think understanding the issue Jesus is teaching about will help us understand the situation surrounding the man who is healed.
The passage begins, “one Sabbath, [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees.” These Sabbath meals were a big deal to the first century Jews. All of the food on these Sabbath meals had to be cooked the day before, and stored in very specific ways, since it was forbidden to work on the Sabbath day. This means that only those with the resources to keep the food were able to host these meals. Because of this, Sabbath meals became notable times for the social elite to display their wealth. Being invited to these meals was considered a great honor.
Luke writes that Jesus “noticed how [those who were invited] chose the places of honor” at the Sabbath meal. In those times, there was more honor to sit near the host of the meal, so each person deliberated their social standing to decide where they should sit along the table. Not one to miss a teaching opportunity, Jesus tells the guests of the meal, “when you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”
Remember, the Sabbath meals were meant to show honor and prestige to those invited. By giving this teaching, he is essentially telling the people at this meal that they have been doing things backward. He is saying that everything they are doing, the very reason that they are even together that day, is wrong. If you ever wondered why a lot people didn’t like Jesus back then, this is it. He openly criticized and contradicted the traditions and practices ingrained in the lives of those around him.
In this case, he is criticizing a very foundational piece of their society. He is bringing into question the notion that one should be concerned with their standing in social circles. Many of you probably have an Instagram account like I do. Instagram is a social media tool for letting others know how awesome your life is. You can use a photo filter on the food you eat to make it look good. You can take pictures at just the right angle to make it look like you have the perfect hair or the best view. And instead of finding the highest seat, we judge our social status by how many likes and followers we have. If any of you remember MySpace, there was actually a feature where you could have your top 8 friends appear on your profile page. In high school, I remember people actually getting into arguments over where they were on their friends top 8. The problem is that all of these things are based on outward appearance. I can update my Facebook status with something profound, witty, or sympathetic. I can make my profile picture look like a model’s head shot. I can even re-post news stories that make it look like I care about social issues. Without actually doing anything to change my life, I can appear honorable. I can make sure everyone else around me knows that I deserve honor.
The problem with fighting over seats at a meal isn’t that honor is bad thing. Jesus even uses honor as the motivation contradicting this act. He says, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘friend, move up higher.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Honor is a good thing. But if we are so concerned about appearing honorable, we can actually be so caught up in that appearance that we forget to actually be honorable. Jesus, for example, was honorable. And he was at this meal for that reason. But he also went to meals with sinners and allowed prostitutes to honor him with oil. He didn’t let outward appearance keep him from acting with honor. When the deadliest mass shooting in American history happened in Orlando, many Christians double-guessed whether to show sympathy because the victims were gay. And a lot of it was concern with how others might interpret that sympathy. “If I give my condolences to the gay community, others might think I agree with their lifestyle.” Or, “if  I do give my condolences, I have to be sure to qualify it with a statement about these other issues.”
Jesus wasn’t concerned about these things. Concern with the perceptions of others isn’t seeking honor, it’s seeking admiration. Jesus ate with tax collectors and spent time with with sinners. The Pharisees used that to defame him. They said “look at this man who associates himself with sinners and tax collectors! He can’t be a true prophet of Israel!” But Jesus knew that how others perceived him didn’t matter if he was acting with real honor. Real honor is caring for those who need care, no matter how others might perceive it. Many of us, like the Pharisees, miss doing the honorable thing in order to look honorable. But looking honorable is just admiration. Because someone might interpret me as dishonorable, I do not associate myself with dishonorable people. But dishonorable people need God just as much as honorable ones. Dishonorable people need love just as much as honorable ones.
The Church has dealt with these issues of honor since its beginning. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes to them, “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you … For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
The rich, who did not need to work, would arrive to the church gathering early where the Lord’s Supper was going to be served to eat and drink their fill. The poor, who had to work to earn their day’s wages, would then arrive and there would be nothing left. Those who are eating first have enough to provide for themselves. The meal was meant to be a fellowship and communion with one another, but they used it to get drunk and horde the food for themselves. Because they would have been considered ‘honorable’ people, and ‘more deserving’ than their poorer counterparts, they didn’t bother to think about saving enough for those arriving later. The Lord’s Supper became the same thing as this Sabbath meal that Jesus is criticizing. A show of luxury and honor at the expense of the lowly. As a church, we can’t show favoritism or preference. We must choose the lower seat.
There is a risk involved in taking the lowest seat. Yes, there’s a chance that the host will ask you to move into a higher seat of honor, but there’s also a chance that the host won’t do that. Taking the lowest seat means willingly submitting to that risk. Is it okay if everyone here sees me in that lowest seat? Am I willing to show my “lowness” when it has no external benefit for me?
Paul’s letter to the Philippians outlines how Jesus showed this lowness when it says he “emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” If Jesus was worried about his appearances, he would not have died for us. Death is unbecoming. Dying for those who don’t deserve it is even worse. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person,” Paul writes to the Romans, “though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Good News of Jesus is that he was willfully dishonored in the eyes of the world around him. He did not need to prove himself, but took it upon himself to go the the absolute lowest place in his death even though, being very God of very God, he deserved the absolute highest place of honor at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We must be willing to let others go before us, because that is how we love. We love as Christ loved, by laying ourselves down for others. When we create personas on social media or in the world, we fool ourselves into thinking we are setting ourselves up for places of honor.
God warns us in Jeremiah, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches.” These things, however great they might be, cannot bring real honor. They can only bring admiration. If I really want to be honorable, I wouldn’t boast about my great talents, I would use them to help those around me. I would use my wisdom to instruct those who lack wisdom. I would use my might to help those who lack might. I would use my wealth to provide for those who lack wealth. True honor does not need to be announced. Jesus didn’t announce his good deeds to bolster himself. Everything he did was for the glory of God.
Now, I want to look at how Jesus enacted this principle at this very meal among the most honorable guests of the ruler of the Pharisees. “And behold,” it writes, “there was a man before him who had dropsy.” Dropsy is a swelling of soft tissues in the body that is caused by an excess of fluids. It causes deformation, and is obvious to anyone who sees it. The Pharisees were watching him carefully because they were waiting to catch him in a trap. They wanted him to do something they can point to and say, “aha! We knew you were a false prophet!” Jesus reads this in the room, and before he does anything, Luke writes, “Jesus responded to the lawyers and the Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ but they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away.”
The difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is how they interact with a man such as this. The Pharisees, should they even allow him to stay at the meal, would at least make sure that he take the lowest seat. They would set him down where he can be constantly reminded of his lowness while the others fight over who can be most honored. Jesus doesn’t do this. Instead, he allows himself to be associated with this man, bringing himself low. Then, he heals the man, lifting him higher. Jesus is not concerned with his own honor, but with honoring those around him.
After he heals the man, Luke writes, “he said to them, ‘which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?’ and they could not reply to these things.”
This, I believe is the most important verse in this passage. Jesus equates his healing on the Sabbath with anyone who would save a son or an ox on the Sabbath. But not just any son or ox. He says it is their own. “Which of you, having a son or an ox.” They are not simply walking by any trapped child or animal, but their own. Jesus is saying, “you would help your own possession who needs it, and I also must help my own.” When Jesus heals, he does so because we are his. God heals because the love he has for us is the love of a father for his child. A father doesn’t take his time helping his child out of danger. He rushes to his child and pulls that child up with everything he has. God’s desire to bring us healing comes from a place of ownership. He has created us and we are his. If we are God’s, and God’s desire is for us, then where you sit at a table can’t define your honor. How great you look in that Instagram photo can’t define your worth. What those people are saying behind your back, can’t define your purpose.
The passage from Jeremiah continues, “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight declares the LORD.”
Your honor is yours because God honors you. We boast that we know God because he is our source of worth and dignity. He alone practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. He alone is truly honorable. He is the host of the wedding feast for the his Son and his Church. We are invited to this feast, and he has chosen to honor us when we arrive.
Jesus took the low place. That low place is rightfully ours. The man with dropsy had no hope of gaining honor for himself. He was deformed beyond being able to hide it. We need to accept that we are deformed. I can try to hide my sin beneath these layers that I’ve created. Behind my social media accounts. Behind my outward religiosity. Behind my wisdom and might and riches. But if all of those layers are peeled away, it would become apparent that I belong with the dishonorable. I am a sinner. But, Jesus knew that. He took us up from our seat at the end of the table and has said, “move up higher.” If you want to receive that honor, then get up and let Jesus take your seat. You don’t have to search out honor from others. You don’t have to earn that honor with your wisdom, or your might, or your riches. You can’t earn it.  He has lifted me up and made me new. He has freed me from the burden of trying to find my honor anywhere else. Before I could do anything, while I was yet a sinner, he had already taken the lowest place. He died for us. And as he rose again from the dead, he exalts us, if we would just let him sit in our seats of shame.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51

This sermon was preached at South Side Anglican Church on Sunday, August 9, 2015.

We've all done embarrassing things in our lives. A lot of times, these things can be told as stories and laughed off amongst our friends and family. This has always been a struggle for me. Not only because I'm not very good at laughing at myself. A big part of it is that my embarrassing moments are more awkward than funny. In high school, I was a loner. I wasn't good at making friends, and I didn't know how to relate to people when they spoke to me. So, I wasn't one of those cool loners that was so self-contained that he didn't need anyone. I was the weird quiet kid in the back of the class that shook every time he had to speak in public.

One such instance of my awkwardness manifesting itself full swing happened my freshman year of high school. I was in Spanish class. It was test day, so everyone was spending the whole period working out verbs and nouns and endings in silence. When I finished my test, I turned it in, and then sat back down in my seat. So far, so good. But, what I did next, I don't really know why, or what I was thinking. I started singing softly. And I didn't sing a song about being free, or a pop song that everyone knew. I sang a song about committing suicide. I sang Adam's Song by the band Blink-182. I want to make it clear that I didn't actually want to commit suicide. But for whatever reason, I thought while the rest of the class was silently taking a Spanish test was a great time for this depressive anthem. When I finished, I looked up and the teacher as well as a few of the other students were looking at me. The kid sitting in front of me turned around and said, “hey man, don't ever try to be a rock star.”

To this day, I still get anxiety thinking about this moment in my life. I am filled with embarrassment and shame about how awkward and weird it was for me to do that. I still wonder why I ever decided to sing, not just a verse or chorus, but the entire song in that classroom. I wonder how much had to do with wanting attention. Though I never wanted to commit suicide, maybe having others think I did would make them talk to me. Of course that didn't happen. All I got was a kid in front of me telling me I shouldn't ever sing again.

In our reading from John's Gospel, Jesus tells the people following him, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” In response, many complain among themselves, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I have come down from heaven?'”

Those surrounding Jesus doubt who he is because of what they think they know about him. They are using what they know of his earthly life to dispute the claim of his heavenly life. If he was the son of Joseph and Mary, how then can he be the Son of God? If he was born here on earth, how can he be the bread that has come from heaven? These are not bad questions. The problem is not that these questions are being asked, but why they are being asked. The people following Jesus were fine doing so when he was healing the sick and giving them food. But now, Jesus has asked them to do more than just receive these earthly gifts. He wants them to receive the heavenly gift. He wants them to believe in him.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

They are no longer free to come and go as they please among the crowd following Jesus. Jesus is not saying what they want him to say, which is, “whenever you need me, come to me, and whenever you don't, you can go and do your own thing.” Instead, he says, “now that I have fed you and healed you physically, I want you to let me feed and heal you spiritually. But to do that would mean putting your trust in me for all of eternity.”

But we distrust the heavenly truth because we believe earthly lies. The people following Jesus had trouble believing who he is because they saw him only as one of them, a human person with the same physical limitations as any other human person. Maybe they even thought he was a great human person, a prophet with God's favor, but still only a human person. To believe in Jesus as more than that requires faith. We need faith to believe in Jesus because we can't see beyond the world around us. Everything we know is what we see and hear and feel in this physical world. We can't believe a man rose from the dead because people don't do that. We can't believe God can heal us of our brokenness because we know that we can't do it. And what we can do is all we know.

When I think about that day in my freshman year of high school, I'm reminded that I do embarrassing things. I'm reminded of the shame and misery I felt in high school because I didn't know how to make friends or talk to other people and make eye contact. I'm reminded that I'm weak and that I'm weird. When I think about my earthly life, I see that I'm hopeless. I see that a guy can turn around in his chair and tell me I'm not worth caring for just to break the awkward silence in a high school Spanish class. Without knowing whether anything else is out there, our earthly life is all we can know. Without there being something else out there, our earthly life is what defines us.

When we read Jesus saying that he is “the bread that came down from heaven,” what he is saying is that this earthly life isn't it. But we can't believe that there is more unless it is shown to us. A hungry child can't see the full meal on top of the table without being lifted up by it's parent. The child will grumble and complain because of hunger and may even resist the parent's hold because the child doesn't understand the reality of what's up there. In the same way, we can't see the full heavenly life in store for us beyond this earthly life without being shown. We grumble and complain that life is unfair and difficult. We don't see that there is another plane of reality. We don't understand Jesus when he says, “in this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.”

There are two steps in receiving this revelation. First, we need to accept who Jesus is. Then, we learn who we are in him.

The difficulty of the crowd to understand Jesus comes from an unwillingness to believe by faith. Believing by faith doesn't mean believing blindly, but it means believing something to be true that goes against what we have thus far understood. A simple example of this is sushi. A lot of people are freaked out by the idea of eating sushi because it's raw fish wrapped in seaweed, and just saying that should make you wonder why this was ever invented. For someone to try sushi for the first time who has not been raised in a culture that eats it regularly requires faith. Their faith might be in a friend who knows that person's eating habits and knows they will like it. Their faith might be in the person that makes it, knowing that this person typically makes very good food. Their faith might be in the fact that a lot of people they know like eating sushi and so they trust these people's judgments. The point is, that to take their first taste, that person must have faith in one or all of these things. When I say raw fish and seaweed, the first reaction is that there's no way that will be good. But faith can convince a person that it does.

So what is faith in Jesus? For the crowd surrounding him, faith is trusting in the miracles he has performed. He was famous for healing the sick. He actually fed the people in this crowd, over five-thousand of them, with five barley loaves and two fish. Faith for them is trusting that his great teachings on the Scriptures include his teachings about who he is. It's trusting in the character he has shown himself to have, caring for the poor and the oppressed, and spending time with the least of the people. Faith is putting all of this together, and seeing that he really is who he says he is. Faith is putting trust in him because of these things.

Faith doesn't mean the absence of doubt. I can have faith that this sushi will taste good but still have doubts about it in my mind. It's when I first taste the sushi that my faith is realized. Faith is what gives us the ability to overcome doubt. According to the epistle to the Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Having faith in Jesus is knowing that this earthly life isn't it, but he has given us access to eternal life. He says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Faith is the assurance of our hope for resurrection. It is the conviction that not only is there really a God, but that he loves us and “sent his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” We know this is true because Jesus didn't only come and live among us, but he died and rose again. He came so that we can literally have new life. This isn't just a saying, like “I started to diet and exercise and I feel like a whole new person.” This really is a new life; a life we haven't had access to before. This is a life that doesn't die. The one who believes in him will be raised up by him on the last day and never go down again. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, the life that Jesus gives will never go down. There will be no more weeping, and no separation from God.

Our faith is built on this promise. Because Jesus rose again, we can be sure that our faith will not be in vain. And the best thing about it is that this faith is not based on us or our abilities. Faith comes from outside ourselves. For me, that's very reassuring. I don't need to trust in my ability to understand God fully to have faith in his promise. I don't need to trust in my ability to follow Jesus fully to have faith that he will raise me up to new life. I don't need to trust in my ability to be a good person to have faith that Jesus can share his good news through me.

Because the crowds had their minds set on earthly things, they were unable to receive Jesus by faith. God works in ways beyond our understanding. Who Jesus is can only be understood by faith. Our understanding of heavenly things only comes from him because other than him everything else we know is based on earthly experiences. We cannot know heavenly things without experiencing heavenly things. Jesus is the heavenly experience that gives us access to heavenly knowledge. We see his miracles and hear his promise through his resurrection, and believe. We believe even though our earthly minds say it doesn't make sense. The only way to overcome our earthly understanding is through faith in Jesus. There is no other access point to the heavenly reality of who God is and the promise he has made for us.

Knowing Jesus through faith also means learning who we are in him. In the world, it is said that you are the culmination of your experiences. But the gospel says you are God's if you believe in the one that he sent. By the world's standards, the shame of my past is part of who I am and I won't be able to change that. But as it is written, the Gospel tells me that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Especially in this time of presidential races, we know very well how much our past means to the world. Politicians spend millions of dollars to hide or twist the things they've done so that it doesn't come back to haunt them. If it turns out they smoked marijuana in college or spent time in jail for a petty crime, their entire campaign is in jeopardy. The world doesn't want us to let go of our past. If you've committed a felony in your life, getting a job will become exponentially more difficult. If you've hurt a child, where you live will be determined by your proximity to schools and families. I know, for me, the temptation to let my earthly life define me is very strong. Something that happened thirteen years ago still has control over me. There have been nights I can't get to sleep because of it. But that's not who I am. I don't mean because I've matured, or because I've learned from my mistakes. I mean that who I am is not determined by me or this world. Who I am is determined by the one who made me with a purpose. The one who made all of us with intentionality. God created us to be his own. And by accepting that, we gain the freedom of not determining our own worth. We gain the freedom of knowing our worth comes from him and not from anything we do or have done. Then we have the freedom to become what he would have us be in him.

In our Ephesians reading, Paul writes “let us speak the truth to our neighbors … be angry but do not sin … thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” And finally, he says, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.”

The reason Paul can give instructions on how to live godly lives is because we have already been sealed for the day of redemption in Jesus. So now, we can strive for holiness without fear of losing our identity when we fail since our identity is in God and not in ourselves or anything we do. Good works don't add to our salvation, but they help us to live into the redemption that is already our own. Paul says, “forgiv[e] one another, as God in Christ his forgiven you.” We are only able to do these things because we have forgiveness in Jesus. I don't try to be a better person to make up for my past mistakes. I don't try to be a better person to deserve respect or honor. I know my past is forgiven and I know I have all the honor through the Spirit which adopted me as God's own. I now seek after God knowing that he has already accepted me.

When I think about that time back in high school, I know I can't change what happened. But I also know that what happened can't define me anymore. I know that the definition of who I am doesn't come from this earthly life. We have trouble seeing that because this life, so far, is all we know. But I believe Jesus when he says that he is the resurrection and the life. I believe that even now I have a new life free from the condemnation of my past mistakes and even the mistakes I will continue to make as I try to follow God's will. I know that there is a heavenly truth of who I am because of who I know Jesus is. I know Jesus wasn't just born in this earth, but that he dwells eternally in the heavens interceding for me at the right hand of the Father. I know that I am loved without having done anything to deserve it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

This sermon was preached at Mill Creek United Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 21st, 2015.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Audio

One day, Jesus and his disciples were sailing in a boat across the sea of Galilee. Suddenly, as they were sailing, a great windstorm arose and waves began crashing against them and water from the waves began filling the boat. As the disciples hurried back and forth to empty the water and steady the boat from capsizing, Jesus lay asleep on a cushion in the stern. The disciples rushed to him, screaming over the thunderous sounds of the surrounding storm, “Teacher! Do you not care that we are perishing?”

This week, our country was hit by a wave from the exponentially building storm of injustice. A young white man walked into a historical black church and sat down at their Bible study. After they had been together for an hour, this man pulled out a gun and killed nine innocent people from this Bible study. After he was captured, he admitted that his goal was to start a race war in the United States. As this storm rages across our country, black Americans are calling out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

After the disciples called on Jesus, he calmed the storm by commanding the winds to cease and the waves to settle. He asks the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I believe he asks us today, “Have you still no faith?” If we have faith, then we believe when he prays that we may be one even as he and the Father are one. Faith is what unites us as one in him. And if we are to stand in faith, we must also stand as one with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We not only stand with Christians under persecution across the world, but also our neighbors in this country who suffer under the fires of hate. If we have faith, then we must step into that faith as the Body of Christ, his presence in this world, and calm the storm of racial injustice by demanding there be no more and standing beside those who suffer. Let our prayers be for reconciliation and love, that our love will overcome the hate of others, be they ISIS fighters, racial supremacists, oppressive governments, or any other manner of hate in the world. Let our prayers go up in faith and our actions reflect that faith by standing as one, not only in Spirit, but side-by-side here and now, working together to bring unity and reconciliation to our one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “working together with him [that is, Jesus], then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, 'in a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.'”

If we receive the grace of God, we need to also see that grace manifest in our lives. “Behold, now is the favorable time,” Paul writes, “behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

Because now is the favorable time and the day of salvation, we must live into that truth and not take it in vain. When we act in the world, we should act in faith that God has come to be our help. If he has come to be our help, he has also come to help those around us. And as Paul wrote just before this passage, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

So, this ministry has been passed on to us, and is only made possible through his grace which he has given us in Christ. We are his ministers of reconciliation. How can we reconcile others to God if we don't speak the Good News to them? How can we be reconciled with our neighbors if we don't stand by them? We have been reconciled with God. God has forgiven all of our sin through the Cross of Christ. We have new life in him through his resurrection. Now, as we read in the letter to the Romans, “neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And if we want it to be that “no fault may be found in our ministry” as Paul wrote, we must, like Paul, “put no obstacle in anyone's way.” We can let nothing keep others from hearing our message of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not race nor ethnicity, nor income nor school district, nor where they work nor where they spend their nights, nor anything in all of our social statuses should keep them from knowing that love. As Jesus came down from his high place in heaven to be one with us, we should also go out to those different from ourselves and be one with them by the one Spirit who unites us in Christ.

Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians, “but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.”

A major part of how we are to act in response to things such as the tragic shooting from this past week is how we view ourselves. Who are we as Christians? What is our goal? Paul commends himself and his fellow ministers as servants of God. When we call on Jesus as Lord, we are calling on him to rule over our lives. We are giving our wills, our wants, and our goals, all over to him. What we want becomes secondary to what he wants for us. And through his prayer in the John's Gospel account, we know that his desire for us is to be one as he is one with his Father in heaven. To know how to be ministers of God's love in the world, we must know the way of the servant of God. In the following part of this passage, Paul outlines three main “ways” of servanthood.

First, he writes, they commend themselves “by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”

I call this first part “the Way of Trouble.” Paul outlines things we would mostly associate with trouble, but uses them as ways of commending himself to the Corinthians. What he is saying here, is “See the things we went through for your sake!” It's basically the equivalent of your mother yelling, “All those dirty diapers I changed, all your rides to sports practices and school dances, all the dinners I made and paid for.” It's an appeal to what they've gone through for the work of the Gospel to show their honesty and genuineness in sharing it with the Corinthians. Paul and his fellow ministers are willing to walk this way of trouble if it means they are serving God in the process.

What does it mean for us today to walk this way of trouble? What does it look like for us to deal with hardships and calamities? What are the beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger that today's ministers go through for the gospel? Being a minister of the Gospel means walking this way of trouble for those who are in that trouble. It means walking beside them and on their behalf. When we look around us, to our neighbors who are being either mistreated or pushed aside in society, will we stand alongside them, or turn the other way? Are we willing to walk this way of trouble for others and for the gospel?

The next thing Paul writes is that they commend themselves “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love.”

This, I call “the Way of Goodness.” That is, the way of outward acts which show the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit, we see in the letter to the Galatians is “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” By abiding in the Spirit of God, our outward acts begin to take on these qualities. These outward acts of goodness don't do anything for us in terms of our salvation. We aren't saved by them. But as the Holy Spirit moves through us and we see these qualities becoming more present in who we are, they help to witness to the transforming love of Jesus. By the transforming power he shows in our own lives, we are witnesses to the transforming power he can have in the lives of those around us.

Included in this is genuine love. Genuine love is the love that comes from God. It is love that doesn't ask of others, and doesn't hold up a standard to be received. The genuine love of God is available to all, no matter what. When the families of the victims of the shooting this week went to the shooter's hearing, they took turns, one-by-one, speaking forgiveness over him, and even asking him to receive the love of God in Jesus Christ. The greatest witness we have is our love. It is a love that comes from God and doesn't love as the world loves. It can't be taken away, even if it's refused. Even as the soldiers around Jesus spat in his face and nailed him to a cross, he cried out to God, “Forgive them! For they know not what they do.” And even as these families faced this killer, they said to him, “I forgive you,” and called him to repentance so that he could also receive the forgiveness of God.

The third way Paul writes the ministers commend themselves to the Corinthians is “by truthful speech, and the power of God; with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise.”

This, I call “The Way of Blamelessness.” Paul and his fellow ministers show themselves to be truthful, not telling lies or giving false witness. They do not manipulate or mislead. The ministers of God speak the truth in the power of God. The power of God is a power that can overcome all evil and hatred with love and goodwill. We overcome attempts to divide us through violence by coming together in unity and peace. While the world around us carries weapons of destruction and death, we carry in our hands the weapons of righteousness; the Word of God and the shield of faith. Rather than hate, we love. Rather than destroy, we build up. Rather than fear, we stand firm in our faith, knowing that we have a hope beyond this world.

Through honor and dishonor, whether the world around us acknowledges us or not, we are to love one another. Through slander and praise, when others would speak wrongfully of us, we don't give into them, but lean on the love of God. Even the praise of this world is nothing, because no matter how good the world thinks we are, if we don't have favor with God it is meaningless. We should seek the honor and praise of him who is above all things. And he desires that we be one and care for one another as brothers and sisters. Not for ourselves, but for his sake, do we reach out to others in love. If we love God first and foremost, our love for our neighbor should be an outpouring of that same love.

Paul writes, “we are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

Again, whatever might be said about us has no bearing on who we really are. There will always be those who misrepresent us, whether they do so intentionally or not, and we have no power over that. So, our concern shouldn't be for what others think of us, but for how we follow the way of the servant of God. Though we may be called imposters, we can stay true to God's mission of reconciliation. Our call isn't to convince others that we are good people. We are called to love God and love one another through his love. Our concern should be on following God's mission and not on what others might think of us. We should “seek first the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “and his righteousness.” We shouldn't worry about the cares of this world.

Paul concludes in our passage today, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”

Let's not be restricted by our cares for this world. Paul calls on the Corinthians as a father to his children, to open their hearts to his ministry. I think that today, our Christian brothers and sisters in South Carolina, in Ferguson, and in Baltimore also open themselves to us. They commend themselves through hardships and beatings and riots. They commend themselves by the Holy Spirit which unites us to them, and by genuine love. They commend themselves by the power of God shown in their forgiveness and by the Word. We are called to be reconciled to God, and through our reconciliation to him, to be reconciled to one another. How can we be reconciled if we don't stand together? How can we be brothers and sisters if we don't sit together? How can we be one as Jesus and the Father are one if we don't worship together?

The way of the servant of God is a way of trouble, of goodness, and of blamelessness. In this world we will know trouble, but Jesus has overcome the world. So, we can face that trouble the world offers with joy, knowing that our God came down to take our troubles upon himself. Likewise, we should take on the troubles of those around us as servants of God, followers of his good character.

Our brothers and sisters have opened themselves to us. We can turn an act meant for hate to be a foundation of unity and love in Christ. Though the actions of this past week were done to cause a rift, both in our country and in our Church, our response can be the beginning of greater fellowship with one another. Let's be reconciled to God. And through that, let's take the steps to reconcile with one another; to end the cycle of hate in this country and across the world. Let's have faith that Jesus has the power to calm this storm. And let's have faith that power will show itself through love.