Sunday, November 26, 2006

This is an unusual Sunday. Most years, the First Sunday of Advent falls immediately after Thanksgiving weekend. This time the secular and sacred calendars aligned to give us one Sunday in between—a Sabbath day that is poised in the meantime. I can't help but think of today as a gift—an opportunity to reflect on the changing of the days; another chance to give thanks; a moment to anticipate the season of anticipation. Next week the sanctuary will begin a slow transformation through the weeks of Advent. We'll add more signs of Christmas each Sunday, as the days and our hearts grow closer to the arrival of the Christ child. But this week the sanctuary is still in a state of ordinary beauty. As our brother James proclaimed, every good and perfect gift cascades from the Father of Lights. And so today I thank God for the abundant gift of light that flows through the windows of this sacred space, and celebrate what the brilliance of this room reveals about the gospel.

This sanctuary is filled with light. Many worship spaces are dimly lit—and some wear their shadows well, giving worshipers the benefit of a solemn umbrella under which to pray. I prefer the radiance of sunlight, even if sometimes it means the rays reflecting from the cars in the lot blind me if we forget to close the door. For me, the gift of light is a great visual reminder of God, and God's creative power. The book of Genesis envisions that before God spoke anything else into being, God crafted the gift of light. The tall, transparent windows cut into the walls of this building invite natural beauty to surround us as we gather to worship. God is the Source and Creator of all light, and in this place, we can gather within his abundant and luminous grace.

Like many buildings designated for Christian worship, our space is blessed with beautiful stained glass. The four primary stained glass windows along the north and south walls depict the four gospel accounts from the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew is symbolized on your right toward the front of the sanctuary; the artwork shows the Law of Moses and its New Testament fulfillment, the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel of Mark is represented beside it, illustrating the cup of Christ's suffering. Directly across from Mark, on the South Side of the Sanctuary is the window signifying Luke's testimony to the good news. In that window, Jesus is depicted sharing his gifts of teaching and healing. Finally, in the window closest to the pulpit, is the window memorializing the Gospel according to John. It celebrates the victory and eternal life that is made real through the Word made Flesh.

What these four windows do is transform ordinary light into kaleidoscopes of the gospel. The light that streams through these windows is strikingly beautiful, rich with color. And though they shine with the same light that flows through the clear glass, the light that they capture is deeper, more focused. One of my favorite theologians describes Jesus Christ as a pure reflection of God, as if by looking at Jesus we see God in focus. These windows remind me of that lovely interpretation. The light from the stained glass is concentrated, just as the light and love of God is concentrated in Christ. And through these gospel windows, we recall the teaching, preaching, healing, suffering, and victory that God shared with creation through Jesus Christ.

Just as the wealth of clear light reminds me of the Creator and the stained glass gospel windows evoke the Christ, the lightly colored panels of glass along the sides of the sanctuary walls quietly stir the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. These windows are subtle, a far cry from the bold hues of the windows below. Yet they still transform the light into delicate shades of yellow and blue. To me, they proclaim our responsibility to look at the world through the lens of the gospel. They beckon us to celebrate that our lives are colored with grace and shaded by God's redeeming love.

And then there is another font of light in this room, a steady shine that is not refracted through the windows or cultivated in an electric bulb. It is the light that is reflected through those who have heeded the Psalmists' cry to worship the Lord with gladness and thanksgiving. It is the light of Christ that has found a home within the hearts of the faithful. When we gather as a congregation to lift our voices in praise of the Father of lights, our spirits shine like the sun. This image is doctrine in the Christian Quaker tradition, a group that I spent some time with before I found the Disciples of Christ. Quakers believe that there is a light within each child of God, a brilliant glow of spirit within our souls. It is the Spirit of God, harbored safely in our hearts.

I first saw this with the eyes of faith when I was a teenager at church camp. During the closing worship, each camper was given a candle to hold. As I looked around the campfire at each flickering light, I suddenly understood that these candles only mirrored the light that sparkled from within. I trusted that Christ dwelled as a light within the hearts of all who accepted the gift of his love.

As Christians, we are created and called to reflect God's grace with our lives. The faithfulness of one Christian multiplies the light of Christ more fully than all the stained glass windows in all the cathedrals of the world. Without a doubt, the most important reflection of God's light within this space is the one that emanates from the pews.

The philosopher Alexander Papaderos tells a story about how he came to know that he was called to reflect the divine light of God.

"When I was a small child during World War II, I found several broken pieces of mirror on the road where a soldier's motorcycle had been wrecked. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine -- in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get the light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

I kept the little mirror, and as I went about growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. But, as I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light -- truth, understanding, knowledge -- is there, and it will only shine in dark places if I reflect it."

In the coming days, the daylight will wane. Nights will become longer, and days will shorten into the winter solstice. And yet even as the light fades, we will join with other Christians to celebrate the Advent of a light that does not change with the seasons. May we reflect this light today and always, multiplying it with our praise, our songs of joy, our acts of generosity, and our constant thanksgivings to the source of all goodness and mercy. Amen.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

John 17: 20-14

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world." (NRSV)

I did a little experiment this week. I ran a word search on my sermon files to find out how many times I talked about community since I've been a member of this community. The word "community" came up in 25 sermons. That is just to say that if your instinct is to roll your eyes and wonder if I haven't already preached about this before, you have good instincts. I have, and I will again. It's not that I don't recognize and value the importance of personal expressions of faith. I simply cannot imagine personal faith that is not lived out within the sacred space of Christian community.

For me, faith is rooted in relationship. Most Christians understand that there is a mysterious and beautiful relationship at the heart of God. We praise a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a paradox of three in one. The biblical witness continually points to relationships. Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments focus on the relationship between God and his people. And both testaments use a lot of holy ink on human communities— families, tribes, nations, kingdoms, and finally the church.

Our scriptures not only portray communities as they are, but they are also rich with hope as they imagine reconciled relationships between God and the varied creatures of his dominion.

The passage we heard today from the Gospel of John is just a brief piece of a much longer prayer. Jesus has a lot to pray about the night of his betrayal. He enters a deep communication with God, lifting up not only his own fears and faith, but also his concerns for the men and women who believe that he is God's word of salvation.

He prays for his Disciples, and then he prays for us—for we are part of those future Christians who believe in him through the testimonies of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Jesus prays for the church, the community of the faithful who bear the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel. He doesn't pray that the church will be wealthy, or well respected, or theologically orthodox. He prays that the church—that we—may all be one.
If we are to be honest, this is a difficult message to hear. The church is broken. The forefathers of our Disciple tradition were keenly aware of this. They believed that the lack of Christian unity was a great crisis in the Body of Christ. They were appalled that Christians denied one another access to the Table of the Lord's Supper. The Stone-Campbell movement tried earnestly to restore the Church to unity by emphasizing the simple practices and beliefs of the New Testament. It is no small irony that the movement has suffered not one but two fractures on account of differences of religious opinion.

The unity of the church is tested when Christians question the faithfulness of other Christians on account of theological differences. And it is tested when pride is valued more than unity. Most of us have probably heard more than enough about the public fall of the evangelical leader Ted Haggard.

This week the Daily Show, a comedy program that revels in lampooning the headlines, ran a clip of one prominent evangelical leader after another denying that they had anything to do with Ted Haggard, despite the fact that many had worked closely with him through the National Association of Evangelicals, the organization that Haggard led until last week. Without comparing Reverend Haggard to Jesus, the denial of his colleagues in ministry certainly echoed the words of Peter.

Instead of demonstrating difficult though honest unity to the world by condemning Haggard's breach of trust while standing by him as a colleague and friend, many Christian leaders simply denied that Ted Haggard had ever really been an important part of the Christian community to begin with.

It's easy to point out when other people are damaging the unity of the church. It isn't so easy to turn that lens on our community and ourselves. When Jesus prayed for those who would believe in him, he longed that unity would prevail not only between communities of faith, but also within each community of faith.

I met a woman studying to become a minister in the Mennonite tradition a few years ago. She spoke of the first time she attended chapel at her non-Mennonite seminary during the first week of classes. She was startled and uncomfortable to realize that part of the worship experience included receiving the bread and cup of communion. She explained that in her community, members celebrated the Lord's Supper together perhaps only once a year, and then only after a long and searching process of reconciliation among the members of the fold. Receiving Communion without that process, let alone with Christians she barely knew, felt like a cheapening of God's grace.

As a Disciple, I used to think that the only way of keeping Communion central and significant is to gather around the Table each week. Yet my Mennonite friend reminded me that Communion is to be celebrated by a unified and reconciled church. Though it was a rare occasion in her tradition, the Lord's supper was as central and significant as could be. It meant that broken relationships had been restored, old hurts forgiven, and open arguments resolved. Though my friend eventually participated in the Eucharist meal at her seminary, I know that she receives the gifts of bread and cup most deeply when she shares them with the fully reconciled community of her home church.

I pray that as individual believers and as a congregation, we can embrace the reconciliation and forgiveness that is recalled at the table of our Lord each week. We are never going to be perfect. Relationships are full of struggle. All communities encounter conflict, but the healthy ones address it with boldness and humility.

For conflict to truly be resolved, and not simply swept under the carpet, we must take responsibility for our own actions. When I was at church camp in high school, our counselors encouraged us to make amends before the camp community celebrated the Lord's Supper. I remember waiting for a fellow camper to come apologize for hurting my feelings earlier in the week. He never did, yet I was so wrapped up in my sense that he owed me an apology that I did not search my own heart to consider if I had any bridges to rebuild.

The unity of the church is not something to consider only when a clear sign of disunity arises. To be a faithful and welcoming community that is in loving union with one another and with God, that polar star of Christian unity must always be held in sight. We must take Jesus' prayer for unity seriously and personally, and continually seek God's help in answering that prayer.

For we do not simply have on our shoulders the well-being of our own beloved community of faith. The unity of the church is the clarion witness to the mysterious and beautiful unity between God and his son Jesus. When we are a united church, a forgiving community, a reconciled people, we give glory to God. And when God is glorified by the citizens of his holy Kingdom, the world will know of his love and his grace. Just as we sing in that great hymn of peace, let it begin with me. Let it begin with us. Let it begin. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Numbers 21: 4-9:
"From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live." (NRSV)

They didn't expect to linger so long in the wilderness. When the Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt, they thought that things were going to get good. Their God had delivered them from the slavery, and they had set off into the sunset with freedom in their blood and prosperity on their minds. But their journey stalled out in the wilderness, year after winnowing year.

The book of Numbers recounts how poorly the Israelites took to their long desert stay. They complained. A lot. They usually leveled their grumbles against Moses, but this time around they spoke against God as well. Their grievance is almost comical. Not only do they not have any food, the food is bad. They murmur that they might have been better off in Egypt, wistfully wishing they could trade their freedom for a more appetizing meal plan.

The Israelites aren't simply whining. Their impatience and frustration is twisted into a complete lack of trust in God. They have no sense of his providence, no faith in his care. Despite the grace they have experienced, they have lost confidence in God.

What God does seems harsh: he sends snakes to infest the Israelite camp, snakes that terrorize the whole tribe and kill everyone who is bitten. This punishment is a pun. The Israelites pine for Egypt, and God offers them a potent reminder of the idolatrous poisons of the land they had left behind. Snakes, in Egypt, were the symbol for a popular goddess. The Israelites want a little taste of Egypt, and God provides.

As soon as the Israelites repent, God's anger gives way to mercy. As a response to Moses' prayer on behalf of his people, God instructs him to make a fiery serpent.

That bronze serpent became a tool for salvation. It literally saved people from dying of their wounds. That's a powerful object. Jesus referred to the bronze serpent when he spoke with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, saying, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in me may have eternal life." Though the story in Numbers comes across as foreign, God is doing what God has been doing ever since his beloved Creation turned away from him: making a way for people to be saved from their sin. This is a familiar story, a story we know well.
The people must have rejoiced. Despite all they had gone through, despite the fact that there were probably still snakes roving their encampment, God had heard their expression of repentance and responded with a tangible source of salvation. This installment of the Israelite saga in the wilderness is effectively over; the next verse has them setting out for another leg of their journey.

And now we're going to fast forward a couple of centuries. The descendents of the original wilderness tribe settled in the promised land, fought in many battles, established a kingdom, split into two nations, and experienced the ups and downs of life as God's chosen people. Their story is pretty fascinating; I definitely recommend reading the book. As each generation gave way to the next, the culture and context of the Israelites and Judeans changed. And what do you know—the bronze serpent Moses made in the desert stayed with them. So let's listen to our second scripture reading today, 2 Kings 18:1-6.

"In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.

He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. It was called Nehushtan. Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses." (NRSV)

The plot thickens. What was once a source of salvation for their Israelite ancestors had become an object of idolatry for the Judeans. They certainly knew the origin of the bronze serpent. They knew that it had a lot to do with the survival of their tribes, back before the comfort of a stable civilization and Kingdom. And so they celebrated it as an object worthy of worship.

I would imagine that King Hezekiah's decisive action to destroy the national religious treasure was not very popular. Who was he, this young whippersnapper of a king, to crush such a holy relic? Didn't he know that God had worked through that bronze serpent to save the tribe of Israel from death?

King Hezekiah was a faithful leader; the text of 2 Kings tells us as much. He discerned that something had gone very wrong with his kingdom's relationship with the bronze serpent. He did not deny that it had helped his ancestors survive the wilderness. But he recognized that as the context of God's people changed, it no longer served a purpose. They were no longer under siege by poisonous snakes. Not only had the talisman ceased to save the people. Because it had become an idol, it actively did the opposite.

Some of you may know that I attended a conference last winter that was sponsored by Disciple Home Missions. The goal of the gathering was to give pastors and lay leaders an opportunity to learn about congregational transformation and revitalization. We had time to talk about the churches we serve, as well as hear from pastors who have helped congregations that seemed to be on the brink of closure to become vital, growing congregations. The most inspiration speaker I heard was Pablo Jimenez, who preached on these passages we're considering today. Reverend Jimenez is the former head of Disciple Hispanic Ministries, and he's currently serving on the staff of the Christian Board of Publication. He drew surprising connections between the biblical story of the snakes and the state of many contemporary congregations. He understood the bronze serpent as a metaphor for ministry. He reminded us that ministries are supposed to be "instruments for the salvation of people", conduits for the healing spirit of God to reach his children.

"Ministries," he proclaimed, "are supposed to lead people out of sin, leading them to salvation. [They are] supposed to help people change their lives for the better, providing opportunities that most people cannot reach on their own."

Just as the bronze serpent served a very real purpose in a specific time and place, responding to the life-and-death needs of the Israelites when they were in the wilderness, ministries are also bound to a particular context. The church, as Christ's hands and feet on earth, has the responsibility to pay attention to the needs of the people in our community and develop ministries that respond to the joy and pain of the here and now. The preacher sent a jolt through the room when he stated it plainly: "When ministries do not change, they become mere religious relics, just as the bronze serpent became a relic after the Children of Israel reached the promised land, leaving behind the desert and its fiery serpents."

I doubt I could have made that connection myself, which is why I'm so grateful for chances to hear prophets like Reverend Jimenez preach. I do think that many congregations suffer from the bronze serpent syndrome. And one of the most common bronze serpents in many churches is the memory of the glory days, when new buildings were constructed to accommodate the many families that joined up to participate in Christian Endeavor and Sunday School. The cultural climate that encouraged people to participate actively in communities of faith gave congregations a wonderful opportunity to be in ministry with lots of people. Like South Bay Christian Church, most Disciple congregations used to be significantly larger then than they are now. That didn't mean they were any more faithful to the gospel. The context around us has changed. The neighborhood is different, and the world is different. Yet so many Christians believe that the best way to be church is to be big.

Christian communities throughout the centuries have mostly been small. For every magnificent parish cathedral, there have been many more humble house churches. Yet somehow, so many congregations like ours have convinced themselves that just because supersized communities of faith were once engaged in ministries that led people to salvation, that's the only way to do it. Instead of looking around and realizing that they are no longer ministering in 1950s America and learning how to respond to the needs of God's children in 2006, so many congregations have all but stopped participating in life-giving ministries because they are worshipping the bronze serpent of the past.

I'll tell you some areas where I think we, as a community, have joined King Hezekiah in crushing the bronze serpent. This congregation is generous with its resources. You could have locked up the keys to the Fellowship Hall, guarding the wonderful memories of the worship that took place in that building. Instead, this congregation moved to share that space with another congregation that is ministering to Korean-speaking Christians in life-saving ways. The greatest gift that congregation gives us is not a monthly rental fee; they bless this campus with their passionate witness for the gospel. Another movement away from the bronze serpent syndrome is the Come and Be Fed outreach. I've mentioned that ministry in sermons before; it is a powerful illustration of this congregation's commitment to hands-on ministry on behalf of the poor.

But I'll tell you one thing I learned at that conference: congregations that are dying tend to close off their greater communities. They are so intent on keeping up the institution that they completely lose sight of the mission that Christ gave his Church: to serve. Come and Be Fed shows that South Bay Christian Church is paying attention to its community and actively developing ministries that obey God's commandments to love and to serve.

As a congregation, we must resist the temptation to worship the bronze serpents, whatever they are. That isn't to say we shouldn't honor the victories of the past. The oldest church in my hometown of Stow, Ohio, is a Disciple congregation. Last month they celebrated their 175th anniversary. Of course a great deal of attention was given to where the church had been. Yet in the newspaper article about their anniversary festival, the pastor of the congregation emphasized that the point was to know where they'd been so they would know where they were going. He told the press, "We have a rich history here and we want to celebrate and uplift the people who have worked to keep this church in this community. We want to relive some of the past as a way to help deepen our commitment to ministry and outreach."

We must continually evaluate our ministries to be sure that they are still tools for God to work salvation. If we recognize that our ministries have become religious relics, we need to transform them. We need to be the congregation we are now, not apologizing for our smaller size, but finding ways to grow in faithfulness and commitment to serving God's children. We are only less of a congregation if we allow yesterday's serpent to poison today's mission. There is work to do, and God is calling us to move forward on this journey with hope, courage, and trust. Amen.