Even though I love summertime and summer services at 10:00 and the summer choirs and quartets – and actually it feels funny putting this robe back on – I love Kick Off Sunday. The festival, the beginning of Adult Ed, seeing the children in the choirs…and it’s good to see you all! Welcome back.
Wow, it is an amazing time to be church, no?
Faith finds its voice when the world is in turmoil. As Christians we are being honed and sharpened by adversity. The church really gets to stand up for something when people are falling for anything. This is wake up time! It is good to re-claim the faith that shows us how to be a people of God.
The first Sunday of the program year is always a good time to re-claim our mission and to re-set the task that is before us. And it is, as usual, inspiring – to me at any rate – to begin by grounding ourselves in the scriptures that were assigned for this day. I did not choose them; they chose me through the lectionary.
St. Paul and Matthew reflect upon what it means to be church.
There was no church in Jesus’ day, so this is clearly a post-resurrection teaching placed in the mouth of Jesus, but the point is that the church is not a hierarchical business institution. Rather, it is a community of sisters and brothers who hold each other accountable to love.
It is a given that there will be disagreements. We will sin against each other.
And by sin, I mean much more than acts. Here “sin” mostly means feeling divided and separated and tense; we are aware of dis-ease and unrest. This is the nature of sin that leads to specific acts that irk us and hurt us.
We are commanded to love each other – but that doesn’t mean we like each all the time.
We are to get to the root of the sinfulness – the division; which means listening to stories, our own and others; about how we came to be and why we feel what we feel and do what we do and did what we did.
The natural tendency is to cover-up and deny that there is anything wrong. But the divine tendency calls us to crack ourselves open to the truth and to change.
Matthew is encouraging us to engage in face-to-face, and one on one, encounters where we speak our truth in love to each other.
And if that doesn’t seem to bring reconciliation then it is time to sit down with one or two others to help the process along.
In all our relationships we should be practicing this way of dealing with one another. But it is hard sometimes. Because you have to be secure in yourself and trust the other person. I don’t like criticism. I don’t like confrontation. I like people to get along and tell them what they want to hear – just so we can have peace; but that is not the way to peace, that is the way to dysfunction.
Or instead of one-to-one, we triangulate – bring somebody else into the picture instead of doing our own work – or hope that the pastor will take care of the issue; or someone else will take it up.
Thankfully, many of you have witnessed faithful engagement to me: talking to me about the flags out front, or my insensitivities to race, or scheduling, or politics or whatever. This faithful disagreement faithfully encountered always redeems, reforms and refreshes me; it builds community.
On the flight to and from Salt Lake City last week I read Judy Picoult’s new book Small Great Things about an African American nurse and a white supremacist father of a patient. I won’t spoil it for you: read it. It is an important book. But again and again there are face-to-face encounters between characters that are uncomfortable but life-changing and ultimately gracious and I felt after finishing “if only I could be more like that!”
And in Romans, Chapter 13, Paul exhorts the church to wake up and take on its mantle to be the community of Jesus Christ, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” What does that mean but to become like Jesus, to do what Jesus would do – be the reincarnation of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
The only way for this world to know who Jesus is and to see him, is for you and for me, to be Christ in the world. But there is cost in that discipleship, make no mistake.
So at the beginning of the program year we read again that the church isn’t an institution to maintain or the sum of programs, but a living, breathing, transformative community where, yes, we follow the Ten Commandments, but we don’t get caught up in minutiae or policy or administration because the only command that matters is what?
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Because love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)
And in Matthew we know what love looks like: “what you do to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do to me.” When you welcome a stranger, or feed someone who is hungry, or clothe someone who is naked, or visit someone in prison…when you risk your own status and safety because you want to follow Jesus – then you are bumping up into heavenly love and being the church.
And in Hebrew scripture, yes, in Leviticus 19:34 we read: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
We see that there is a higher calling to love. So love is a verb – an action word – it is all about putting your faith into action.
And that is why this week we became a Sanctuary church and welcomed Leonor to live here until her immigration status is sorted out. And I would like to invite her to say a few words to you….
Estoy tan feliz de que vivas con nosotros y formen parte de nuestra familia. (I hope that made sense!) I am very happy that you have come to live with us and be part of our family!
Forest Hill’s mission statement is shaped by three words: Discover, Celebrate and Witness.
We are to help each other discover our spiritual gifts and calls.
We are to celebrate the Spirit’s presence in community – and have some fun together.
We are to witness to what God is doing in our world.
All that is happening in our ministries and Session, with Adult Ed and Faith Leader, Race and Inclusion Committee, Bible and Bagels, and choir and all the small groups and social groups and activities that happen around here, like the festival; with the Pantry, and Labre and our engagement with Greater Cleveland Congregation. We take our mission seriously! When you walk through these doors, you won’t walk out the same.
It is uncomfortable at times but full of grace and no time to take a nap because too much is happening. Who knows what will happen by next Sunday? The Browns might have even won!
If you don’t like what is happening, that is ok – let’s share our truth in love. If you do like what is happening, tell people about it, live it! Let’s build this church together and have a bigger congregation next week then we did this week.
How to be church? Paul and Matthew tell us. Jesus tells us. Speak the truth as it is being revealed to you as best you can and love one another so much that you will be willing to risk the niceties and the politeness in order to become the beloved community worthy of the name of Jesus Christ.