Drama in the Early Church: Choosing Joy in Philippi

Scripture: Philippians 4:8-13

Over this summer I’ve been talking about a lot of ways that the Church—big C—has its issues.  I think there can be a certain comfort in looking back at the early church, which we often idealize, and realizing that to some extent it’s always been that way—that the Church has always been made up of messy, broken, sincere, complicated people who don’t always exemplify the life that Jesus taught every second of every minute of every day.

There is no such thing as a perfect church.  From the very beginning of the church, Christians all over the world and in all times have been losing faith and finding it again, excluding certain people or groups of people and telling them they need to change, giving in to the sins and struggles of the surrounding culture, fighting over silly things, fighting over not so silly things, breaking up and getting back together.

But that image of the church is also an incomplete image of the church, which has also, for two thousand years, been feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, struggling for justice, comforting the grieving, sending people into war-torn countries to work for peace, and showing people what abundant life looks like.

There is no such thing as a perfect church.  But there are some pretty great churches, and I think while we all might make Jesus facepalm sometimes, we also often make him proud.

Today we make our last stop in the series on Paul’s letters in the little city of Philippi in Macedonia.  The church at Philippi, like all the rest, was not a perfect church.  They, too, had members who were at odds with each other over God knows what.  They, too, struggled to keep the faith in the midst of a hostile world.

The church at Philippi was not a perfect church.  But it was a pretty great church.

Of all of the churches Paul writes to, this is one of the most loving, intimate letters we have.  “My joy and my crown,” Paul calls them.  “My beloved.”  He writes in gratitude for their partnership in ministry with him.  “I thank God every time I remember you,” he writes, “constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.”

It’s a known as a letter of joy, mostly because Paul says joy so much.

The Philippians are even great at stewardship—they’ve taken up a collection for Paul, apparently a very generous one.  Paul says thank you for this in his very Paul-like way, in the passage we heard: at the end of the letter, and basically telling them, “It’s not like I needed it or anything.”  Still, it was a pretty great thing to do.

And still, even with this strong faith making itself evident in their lives, life was not all sunshine and roses for the Philippians.

First of all, the city of Philippi was a Roman city.  The people who lived there Italian expats and Roman citizens who enjoyed all the rights that went along with that.  They were also Roman loyalists.  They worshipped Roman gods, and they worshipped the emperor.  Caesar is Lord, they said.

And the Philippian church was a small group of people who dared to say instead, Jesus is Lord.

You can imagine this didn’t make life easy for them.  We don’t know exactly what it was the Philippians were up against, but Paul talks about not being intimidated by their opponents (1:28) and how God has “graciously granted [them] the privilege of not only believing in Christ, but suffering for him as well” (1:29).

Second, their leader is in prison.  Paul is writing to them from prison, probably in Rome or maybe Ephesus, and he honestly doesn’t know whether he’s going to live or die.  And neither do they.  What will become of this fledgling movement if they lose their leader?

Harassed, threatened, worried, tired: in circumstances like these, the Philippians have two choices.  They can throw in the towel, or they can stand firm in their faith despite it all.  They can give in to despair, or they can choose joy.

The joy that rings throughout this letter is not automatic because everything is wonderful.  It has to be chosen.

No one knows that better in Paul.  Sitting there in prison, not sure what’s going to become of him, he can still write these words: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

He adds, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Paul, through all of it, has learned to choose joy, and he hopes that his beloved Philippians will, too.

I have to admit that this is a very convicting passage for me.

Joy is not always the choice I make.  Granted, I have never been in prison, never seriously felt my life threatened, never seriously harassed or persecuted for my faith.   My life, by all accounts, has been easier than that.

And yet there have been times in my life when I wished I had more than I did, that money didn’t seem so tight, that I was in a different place, that I was someone else.  There have been times when everything has seemed to go wrong and, for a while, I have given into despair.  There have been times in my life when I have doubted my call.

In the worst of some of those moments, I’ve seen people post on Facebook these cute sayings about how life is all about perspective, bloom where you’re planted, all that sort of thing, and I’ve actually gotten angry.  Like how you feel is just entirely up to you and it’s your fault if you’re sad.  Like happiness is as easy as just telling yourself the glass is half full.

It’s not.

And yet—there is something in me that does believe that joy is a choice.

I had a hard first-ever year of ministry as I got used to new responsibilities and new challenges in a place where I didn’t really have a strong community or a lot of friends yet.  My friend Elizabeth had a hard first year of being a lawyer as she got used to fourteen-hour days and no weekends. At some point around the end of that year or the beginning of the next, Elizabeth seemed to get better, though there were still hard times, and not much had changed.  “I realized,” she told me, “that I don’t need to have everything I want to be happy.”

It’s good to have friends who can share that kind of wisdom with you.  That changed things for me, too.

For Paul, it’s certainly not just a matter of perspective.  It’s not a matter of convincing yourself that jail really isn’t so bad, or hunger really isn’t so bad, or that being in need isn’t really so bad.  It’s not about convincing yourself that not having a job isn’t so bad, or the job that you do have isn’t so bad, or losing someone isn’t so bad, or being lonely isn’t so bad.

It’s also not a matter of optimism.  Paul isn’t getting through this by telling himself that for sure they’re going to let him go and it’s all going to be OK.  “It is my hope,” he says, “that…Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:20-21.)  Maybe the Philippians will suffer similar fates; Paul doesn’t tell them that they won’t, he just tells them to rejoice anyway.  Joy doesn’t come from believing things are going to turn out in any particular way; it comes from trusting God no matter how they turn out.

“I’ve learned the secret,” Paul says.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

The joy that rings throughout this letter, through both faith and fear, through both hunger and fullness, through both imprisonment and freedom, is the joy that comes from knowing that God is bigger than all of it.  That God loves us and journeys with us and suffers with us through all of it.  That Christ gives us the strength to endure all of it, and that in all of it, we have a chance to glorify Christ through how we respond.

It’s funny how that’s a verse—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—you see a lot at races, on the shirts of Christian runners, as if it’s about the ability to achieve a lofty goal.  Really, it’s about the ability to give up control over your circumstances, and in any of them, choose joy.

A week or so ago, the country tuned in as Jimmy Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer and that it had spread to his brain.  That’s scary news for anyone, even when you’re 90.  Who knows what exactly lies ahead or how long you might have?

But most of all, what everyone has been talking about is the grace with which he’s facing whatever comes next.

“I have had a wonderful life,” he said at a press conference last week.  “I’m ready for anything and looking forward to a new adventure.  It is in the hands of God, whom I worship.”[1]

Last Sunday, he was back teaching Sunday School in Plains, Georgia, just like always.

This same kind of wisdom was echoed recently by a perhaps less likely source: Stephen Colbert.  In an interview for GQ he talked some about his Catholic faith and how he lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was just 10.

“It was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said, “and by her example, I am not bitter.  By her example.  She was not.  Broken, yes.  Bitter, no. … It was a very healthy reciprocal awareness of suffering, which does not mean being defeated by suffering. ….’You gotta learn to love the bomb.’  Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10.  That was quite an explosion.  And I learned to love it. …That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage.  It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”[2]

Maybe it’s not always possible to love the things that we most wish were not the case.  But maybe it is possible, despite those things, to give thanks; maybe it is possible, despite those things, to trust in God’s presence; maybe it is possible, despite those things, to decide we have what we need, and choose joy anyway.

I’m not going to claim I’ve learned the secret, but I hope I’m still learning, little by little

And the people who give us that example: they make me want to be part of the church.

The beautiful church, which for millennia has been excluding, but welcoming; fighting and feeding, tightfisted and generous; inward-looking but opening arms outward; doubting and wavering, and standing strong in faith when it counts, and pointing people out of all this mess toward something bigger, and loving when others wouldn’t have loved, and trusting when others wouldn’t have trusted.

Saints who looked all of life’s problems and sadness in the face, and chose joy, because God was with them, and that was enough.

That’s enough.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/20/politics/jimmy-carter-cancer-update/

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2015/08/colbert-reveals-how-faith-has-kept-him-grateful-in-new-gq-profile.html

Advertisements

Drama in the Early Church: Freedom, Forgiveness, and Philemon

Scripture: Philemon 1:8-21

In his memoir Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells a story about confession that has always stuck with me.

He went to a small hippie college on the West Coast, and every year this college had a festival on campus.  In Miller’s words, this is how the festival usually went: “Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked.  Friday night is mostly about getting drunk, and Saturday night is mostly about getting high.”

One year he and some of his friends were talking about ways to strengthen their Christian presence on this very non-religious campus, and they decided that this festival would be a great place for a confession booth.

It started out as a joke, but then it became real.  Some of Miller’s Christian friends liked the idea.  Others were afraid the students might burn the whole thing down.

“Here’s the catch,” one of his friends said, describing the idea to the others, “We’re not actually going to accept confessions.  We are going to confess to them.  We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry.  We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, [and] we will ask them to forgive us.”[1]

Sometimes, when we’re talking about church drama, we’re not just talking about carpet colors and which kind of cheese to buy for the funeral reception.  Sometimes, there is real sin and evil for us to contend with as a church.  And sometimes, it is our own.

In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church was on the brink of a split.  Some people, mostly in the North, said that Christians shouldn’t own slaves.  Some people, mostly in the South, said slavery was pretty OK.  It all came to a head over a fight about whether a bishop in Georgia who inherited a slave was required to free that slave.  General Conference that year voted to suspend the bishop until he did.  The southern part of the church said General Conference didn’t have that authority.

People arguing on both sides used the Bible to support their arguments.  Pro-slavery advocates pointed to the many non-condemning references to slavery in the Old and New Testaments, and to instructions like “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” from Colossians and Ephesians, two of Paul’s disputed letters.  (Col 3:22; Eph 6:5.)  Abolitionists might have quoted Luke 16:13: “No man can serve two masters.”

And on both sides, people quoted Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Philemon is one of those little books toward the end of the Bible that today we rarely hear from and that, to be honest, I had to look up how to pronounce.  It’s so short it’s not even divided up into chapters—in fact, what Bill read was most of it.  It’s a personal letter from Paul to a church leader, not even to a community.  And yet for better or worse it managed to become a key player in the culture wars of yesteryear.

This little letter tells the story of two men named Philemon and Onesimus: one master, one slave.

Philemon was a Christian, back in the time of Paul when churches met in houses, and a church met in Philemon’s house, in the city of Colossae.  Since this was back in the day when whole households were baptized together, possibly including slaves, perhaps Onesimus had been baptized too, though it’s unlikely it was his decision.

One day, Onesimus ran away.  He had lost Philemon some money, and Philemon was sure to be angry.  Onesimus ran all the way to Paul, who had baptized Philemon’s household, and who was in prison at the time.  Even in prison, he was sure Paul would be able to help and protect him.  It was with Paul in prison that Onesimus first heard and believed the gospel for himself.

At least, that’s one way this story might have gone.  As always, it’s hard to reconstruct exactly what happened when all you have is a letter from and to people who already know.

We don’t know for sure, for example, that Onesimus ran away.  It might have been that Philemon actually sent him to Paul to help while Paul was in prison, or with some kind of delivery.  And we don’t know for sure that he had lost Philemon’s money.  There is some mention of money, but it might just be that Philemon is losing money by not having Onesimus around to work for him.

Here’s what we do know: A church meets in Philemon’s house and Paul is in prison.  While Paul is in prison, Philemon’s slave Onesimus shows up.  Paul would like him to stay, whether for Onesimus’s own good or for Paul’s.  But, not knowing whether Philemon would give that the OK, Paul sends him back on his way, carrying a letter.

“I’m sending him back to you,” Paul writes to Philemon.  “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the Gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you…so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother….So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

(Of course Paul does it in his very Paul-like, very unsubtle way: “I’m not saying you OWE me anything, you know, except for your whole salvation.”)

Clearly Paul is asking Philemon for something, but the question is, what?

Is Paul asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away, or for whatever led to his running away, and to let him come home with no fear of punishment?

Is Paul hinting that it would be super if Onesimus showed back up again to work with and/or for Paul permanently, this time with Philemon’s blessing?

Or could Paul be suggesting that Philemon should welcome Onesimus back with open arms, as an equal brother in Christ and a free man?

If you’d like to decide for yourself which one seems the most likely, I invite you to read it for yourself.  Like I said, it’s very short.

But regardless of what Paul is asking for, from a modern-day perspective, I think what we would all really like for Paul to do is to just come out and say, “Hey Philemon, guess what.  God’s not such a fan of slavery.  Probably shouldn’t do it.”  If Paul had just said that, maybe we could have avoided some painful history.  (Maybe.)

But Paul doesn’t say that.

And so while abolitionists may have clung to Paul’s instructions for Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as “no longer a slave,” literally or spiritually, the pro-slavery side was quick to point out that Paul, who had the power to free a slave, instead sent him back to his master.

It is not the only time the church has sinned and called it holy.  And it’s not the only time the Bible has aided us in that, as we have looked in it for reasons to confirm our own prejudices.

But when we do get past those prejudices, especially as a culture, we may ask, what do we make of God’s word then?

I hope it goes without saying that I love the Bible, and what I find in it is a wonderful mixture of wisdom and inspiration and comfort and challenge and conviction and grace.  But what do we make of God’s word when it gives us guidelines regarding the institution of slavery, or assumes that women are the property of men, or that we should remain silent in church?  What do we make of God’s word when it seems to promote things like genocide of our enemies?  Those aren’t easy questions, although I ALSO hope it goes without saying that the correct answer is not, “God must be OK with genocide.”

In this case, in this letter, at least, the ambiguity that makes it problematic is also what gives us the possibility of something better.  Paul sends a slave back to his master without telling him outright, if at all, to let him go.  But slave or not, Paul also tells Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother, in a world in which that was not done.

Read in one way, it’s embarrassing.  But read in another, it’s kind of revolutionary.

Not in a big splashy way, of course.  Not in a turn-the-whole-world-upside-down-all-at-once kind of way.  But revolutionary in a right-where-Philemon-is, right-in-the-time-he-lives kind of way.  It may not sound that revolutionary now, but it was revolutionary then.

If you read other references to slavery in the Bible, you will find those Old Testament laws regarding slavery, and you’ll read those parts about “Slaves, obey your masters.”  You’ll also read in the Ten Commandments that you’re not allowed to make your slaves, male or female, work on the Sabbath.  And you’ll read the next part in that Epistle: “Masters, be just and fair to your slaves.”

From a modern sense of justice and fairness, kind of falls short, doesn’t it?

But for the time and place in which it was written, it’s kind of revolutionary.

And I can’t help but think, if God was revolutionary back in the day, when the Bible was written, why shouldn’t God still be revolutionary now?

And maybe what God keeps calling us to do, in the Bible and since, is to be a little more revolutionary.

In the spring I had the opportunity to speak at the Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies, the mosque where some of us have attended iftar dinners during Ramadan over the past two years.  My assignment was to talk about “Love in the Christian Tradition.”

I sat there with my blank document open in Word and thought, well, that’s broad.

It was really hard to figure out how to talk for 10 minutes about something that’s the point of everything.

What I said in the end, though, is that the love that Jesus demonstrates, the love of God that Jesus embodies and preaches here on earth, is a love that consistently breaks down barriers.  It’s the kind of love that compels him to break bread with people labelled outcasts and sinners—when that wasn’t done.  It’s the kind of love that challenges us to pray for our enemies so that they’re not our enemies anymore.  It’s the kind of love that makes him take a drink of water with a foreign woman of ill repute at a well in the light of day, and makes him let another woman anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair.  When those thing weren’t done.  It’s the love of a parent who welcomes home a child who has taken everything and run away.

It’s a love that breaks down even the barrier between divine and human, that would die rather than retaliate in violence, and that finally breaks down the barrier of death itself.

And it’s a love that makes Philemon and Onesimus brothers.

It’s revolutionary.

And when we come across these problematic texts in the Bible, I think what we need to do is look for God’s revolutionary spirit shining through even the sins of a certain culture and time—and there are sins of every culture and time.

My question for you is, if God’s revolutionary, barrier-breaking love in that time and place meant welcoming a slave as a brother, what does it mean for you, where you are, today?

Who would it be revolutionary for you to love, and how?

I’m not just talking here about being nice to people, or even being kind.  A nice, kind Philemon might have meted out a just punishment to his slave, or possibly even spared him.  A nice, kind Philemon would not have welcomed his slave as a brother in Christ in opposition to all the social rules that existed to maintain order in society.  I’m talking about the invisible barriers that exist between you and other people—social, economic, political, even barriers of hurt and anger—that could stand to be knocked down.

And I’m not just talking about love as in a general sense of goodwill or empathy towards people.  In one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s books she talks about how when she first got to college, before she was a Christian, she met a group of Christians who were going around evangelizing and some of them told her, “I love you!”  And Taylor, who had just them, after all, asked, “Why?”  The girl she asked said, “Because God loves you!  Because God loves everybody!”  “That was not enough for me,” Taylor wrote.  “I didn’t want to be loved in general.  I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved.”[2]

Who would it be revolutionary to love, in particular?  Like God loves?  Like Paul asked Philemon to love Onesimus?

An image that sticks in my mind is of Pope Francis washing the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner on Maundy Thursday several years ago.  And all the people who grumbled—because she was Muslim.  Because she was a woman.  And because she was a prisoner, when before, popes had washed the feet of priests.

Who would it be revolutionary for you to love?

You know, I’m not trying to defend every problematic thing in the Bible.  There are still parts, written in the context of a certain place and time, that promote things like the subjugation of women, even sometimes of genocide.

I also believe that taken as a whole, it is the story of God breaking down the barriers we set up to loving both God and our neighbor—one heart at a time.

And I believe that story allows us to trust that God, through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, is still breaking down barriers today.

Maybe some of them are yours.  Maybe some of them are ours.  May God open our eyes and our hearts to see.

[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p. 116-118

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 103

Redeeming Our Own Stories

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe (August 16, 2015)

Scripture: Romans 12:2-8

“Do not conform any longer to the standards (values, beliefs, thinking, behaviors, ideas, etc) of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.”

I want to talk to us about redeeming our own stories. Each of us represents a unique story. And everyday your life’s story is being written, either by you or somebody you have given permission. I always try to imagine listening to my eulogy at my funeral. Will people say that I was a good man? That I fully lived, loved and cared to the fullest. That I gave it my best shot? Or will they make up a story, sugarcoat it, and polish it enough to comfort or please those present?

Sadly, all of us have stories that are messed up. They lack authenticity and are full of confusion. There is not a single story that has not allowed external influences – characters, plots and twists that negatively impact the overall outcome. Paying attention to your story is serious. It’s serious because the quality of your life is greatly determined by the story you repeatedly tell yourself. We become what we believe.

Not all hope is lost, however. Haven’t you heard the good news? The gospel (good news) of Christ has dynamic power to save anyone who has faith, and totally yields to the will of God. Christ died to rewrite our story. Therefore, we don’t have feel empty and hate yourselves or our life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.”

The Christian life is a life marked by inner transformation that manifests in our conformity to God’s will.  When you accept the gospel of Christ and believe in the gift of salvation, through either confession or baptism, the Holy Spirit begins to work in your inner life to reveal God’s perfect will for your life.

Unfortunately, many Christians live lives of quiet desperation. We get frustrated with personal ambitions, because we have not yet discovered God’s perfect will for our lives. It is often easier to see and believe God’s ability to save others, and change their story, but hard to see ourselves as recipients of God’s blessing. This is because we do not  understand God’s perfect will for us. Until you know the truth, the truth will not set you free. It is not the existence of truth that brings freedom, but the acceptance of it. It is not enough to simply know of Christ, you should accept Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life to fully experience his liberating grace. This knowing is relational. There is a personal experience to salvation and it cannot always be generalized.

Let me ask you a strange but profound question. Which YOU did you bring to church this morning? Is it the old you, or the new you? Is it the private you, or the public you? Freedom demands authenticity . In order to be free, I’ve got to be me. Not the me you want me to be, or the me I want you to think of because I’m afraid of what you’ll think of me. I’ve got to be me. The me that God intends.

In our scripture reading, Paul instructs the Roman Christians not to conform any longer to the standards of this world. In paul’s time, we know from church history that Christianity was not the major religion and the church had gone through periods of persecution. And, Paul was formerly part of it. So, Rome was a mix. There where tensions among Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians that impacted the Church’s mission. Most tensions centered on shifting cultural values and traditional practices. There were issues about what to eat, how to dress, and how to observe special days. There were issues of circumcision. Besides, this was a church that Paul had not founded or visited.

More serious theological issues involved Jewish Christians questioning the validity of salvation among Gentile Christians. On the other hand, some Gentile Christians entertained the idea that, because most Jews had rejected Jesus, God had also rejected them.  Therefore, Paul had the task of ironing out these issues by insisting that there is one gospel for all humanity. And that the gospel is incompatible with worldly standards and thinking. So, for one to truly experience the freedom that comes through the gospel, they must resist conforming to worldly standards and renew their mind.

Today, our world is not very different from Paul’s.

At the national level, Christians are in conflict with each other. We have Christians who align themselves as conservative and progressive. Churches have split over views on homosexuality. Tensions over race have boiled over – resulting in some black clergy splitting with the white clergy over #Black Lives Matter movement. Mega churches and small churches both accuse each other of not being either authentic or blessed. Violent religious extremism also paints a bad picture on all faith traditions, giving atheists more reasons to justify their position.

On a personal level, many Christians are living in the shadows and are afraid to be themselves.   Many have been judged because they are divorced, or never been married. Others feel judged because they have no children. Young people experience low self esteem because nobody has shown interest in dating them. Or that they seem to always attract losers. Perhaps You feel inadequate because you can’t afford to retire or go on a vacation. You don’t feel blessed because you don’t have car, a house, or a job.

More often than not, our lives are a reflection of the stories we believe about ourselves. These stories are either our own interpretations of life or external suggestions that others make to us throughout our lives. Our happiness or lack of it depends on these internal stories. Your inner story has the capacity to greatly influence the world around you. Dominant thoughts are responsible for how we feel, and how we feel determines how we act. And, the more we act this way, the more our character begins to conform.

Most of us are celebrated as babies. We are called cute, sweet, pretty and all. Everyone wants to hold us and smile at us. We are given gifts we don’t need. Everyone goes out of their way to meet our needs. And our self concept is healthy. But somewhere along the way things begin to change for some of us. We learn that our friends come from wealthy families. – That our school is not in the best neighborhood. We learn that we can’t go on vacation like other families. That we are not as good looking, or the most popular.

We learn that we look somewhat different and not everyone wants to associate with us. As such, we begin to craft our stories to make sense of this dilemma. Sometimes we begin to believe other people’s opinion of us. – “You are a woman you can’t be a priest or lead a church.” You are black; you can’t own your own business, because nobody will give you a loan. These descriptions may sound familiar to you:

  • You are not that beautiful
  • You sound funny, you have an accent
  • You are too short , Your are too tall, you are too young or too old, You are retired
  • You are fatherless, you are an orphan
  • You are not married, You are divorced, You are a widow
  • You are not smart, you have no college degree, your school doesn’t count
  • You are too fat, too weak, you are stupid, you can’t think
  • You are not good enough, you are a failure
  • You are too poor, you are homeless, you are an addict (once an addict always an addict)
  • You are disabled, you have a mental illness
  • You are not woman enough, or you are not man enough

Story of Daniel and his son Michael (Article from Washington post – June 19, 2015)

A huge piece of my emotional puzzle fell into place last week. For years, I had a story in my mind that my dad did not pay much attention to me when I was growing up. There was a lot of evidence I could marshal in support of this story. After he released the Pentagon Papers to many newspapers, in 1971, he devoted himself full-time to activism. By the time I came around, in 1977, he was immersed in the global movement for nuclear disarmament. He was often away for long stretches of time, and we didn’t spend a lot of time together during my childhood.

One of my clearest memories as a boy was waiting for dad to walk through the door after a long trip, off saving the world. He would always bring me a stuffed animal, which made me ecstatic. I was proud of what I saw as his heroism. And I was proud to have the greatest stuffed animal collection of any of my friends. Yet there was a bitter sweetness to this delight: Why did I have so many of them?

Over the years, I had come to my own peace with his choices about where his focus went. As an adult, I greatly respect the work he did throughout my childhood. Even then, though I only had a child’s understanding of it, I had the sense he was up to big and important things. I was proud of daddy. But as a young boy, I longed for time with and attention from him as well.

At lunch with my father last week, he shared information with me that changed my understanding of that time. My parents have been married almost 45 years, and from my vantage point, it has always looked like a happy marriage.

At that lunch, he told me that, despite loving each other deeply, they had a very challenging marriage for about the first 15 years of my life. They managed to keep this hidden from me. He said there were times when he just couldn’t take any more of the challenges, and was ready to leave.

But he stayed, because he just couldn’t bear hurting me by leaving. He had already divorced once in his life, with two children, and he didn’t want to cause that pain again. They went on, after that period, to have decades more of a wonderful marriage, and they’re still happily married today.

—–

We can see that sometimes we go through life silently frustrated by stories we create, regardless of whether or not they are true.

So how do these inner stories affect how we relate with God?

We often blame God for the circumstances in our lives. Thus, we begin to relate with God from a negative perspective. Instead of us giving thanks and rejoicing in worship, we are consumed by guilt and anger towards God. We offer half hearted prayers because we don’t really believe that God cares much about us. Instead of seeing God as loving and caring, we accuse God of favoritism because we see others enjoying what appears to us as a better life. These inner stories even affect how we see the gospel. We lose confidence in the gospel message and are ashamed to publicly convey our beliefs. We become secret disciples.

Yet, Paul was able to declare, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. As it is written, “the righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17).

We cannot experience the full freedom of the gospel until we reject our temptation to conform to the standards of this world and renew our minds. Then, we will be able to discern and know the perfect will of God. Your story doesn’t have to end on a sad note. In fact, God wants to redeem your story.

You may ask; how then do I renew my mind?

Let me give you four strategies to renewing your mind and redeem your story. First we must begin with the understanding that only God can redeem our lives. We are powerless on our own without the help of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must ask God to help us.

  1. Meditative Prayer. Meditative Prayer is thoughtful prayer. It is not all spontaneous, “shoot from the hip” kind of prayer. By thoughtful, I don’t mean silent prayer, be a use you can be silent and still have your mind filled with confusion. But, I mean literally thinking about what you are praying. Intending every word that comes out of your mouth. It includes being aware of what God is saying to us through the Bible and the Holy Spirit. — When the bible says do not conform to this world, it signifies our capacity and responsibility to do it. God won’t do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. We need to learn how to pray according to the word of God, and also obey God’s word. God responds to a prayer of faith. Meditative prayer is also thinking positively about you, and your situation, in relation to God. Keep certain versus in mind as you pray, such as, Genesis 1:27 “you were created in God’s image and likeness.” Romans 8:1 “there is now no more condemnation to all those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.” Psalm 23:6 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” You need to find versus that will carry you in different times.
  2. Confession of God’s Word. God’s word has creative ability to recreate your life’s story. Matthew 4:4 gives us an example of how Jesus overcame the devil by declaring “it is written, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Begin to declare by faith divine victory over sin and any negative influence in your life. “You have been blessed by God with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph: 1:3). Begin to see yourself as God sees you and say it loud. I am blessed. I am not a failure. I will live and not die. By his wounds I am healed. No weapon formed against me shall succeed. Don’t be afraid of what other people will think. There is power in confession.

It is by speaking that God created the universe. Joel 3:10 says ‘let the weak say I am strong.” It’s not a lie. It’s a declaration of faith. Don’t go around looking for blessings, you are already blessed. For as a person thinks in their heart, so they are. “God calls those things that are not as though they were.” Proverbs 18:21says, “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue.”  We become what we believe.  The more you say it, the more you impress it in your subconscious mind. The mind is the gateway to your spirit. It is the most dynamic gift that God has given to us humans. The mind has the greatest influence on your life. Use it to redeem your life’s story.

  1. Put your Faith to Work – begin to act like the person you desire to become. James 2:14 says, “Faith without works is dead.” What this simply means is that if you truly believe, you will act on it. You cannot afford to be indecisive. Affirmations are illusions if they are not backed by corresponding actions. Use the power of your imagination to see yourself as God sees you. You are not a victim of circumstance. “You are more than a conqueror through Christ Jesus. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. No death, illness, divorce, failure, homelessness, addiction or mistake can separate you from God. The only way to build your faith is by repeatedly doing that which you desire to see. Go ahead despite your fears. God’s grace is sufficient.
  2. Guard your Heart (Mind) – Proverbs 4:23 says “Above all else, guard your heart with all diligence, for it is the wellspring of life.” What does this mean? The quality of your life will be determined by your dominating thoughts held repeatedly in your mind. This is the secret to happiness. It has very little to do with outward possessions, gifts or appearances. It has nothing to do with your job or your lack of money. True happiness springs from a grateful heart. When you look at what God has done for you. All the things that could have killed you, but God protected you from. All your family and friends that love you. Surely you have something to be thankful for. Some of us know that we did not come this far by our own wisdom. Had it not been for God, I could have been dead, in prison, or completely lost my mind. I owe it to God to say thank you for saving my life.

And so, like the Psalmist in (Psalm 34) I will say:

1 I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.

2 I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

3Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.

5Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.

6This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.

7The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.

8Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

That’s the good news. That’s the power of the gospel. That’s your story. You were not created to fail. You will survive. You were not created to be sick and miserable. You were not created to be laughed at. You were not created to blend in. It is in our uniqueness that we find God’s creativity. All of us are custom created by God.

You were wonderfully created to be different. Not to conform to the standards of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Do not let the struggles of your life dictate the direction of your story. Have faith in God. It doesn’t matter how bad your past has been. Your future holds so much promise. God is able to turn your test into a testimony. Your mess into a powerful message.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

How do we redeem our own stories? By refusing to conform to the standards of this world, and renewing our minds — through Meditative prayer, confessing God’s word, putting our faith into action, and guarding our (hearts) minds from negative influences.

Amen.

Drama in the Early Church: Quarreling Over Opinions in Rome

Scripture: Romans 14:1-6, 13-17

Since the subject of this summer sermon series is church drama, I asked some of my friends about the silliest church disputes they had ever encountered or been a part of.  Here are some of the things they said people fought over (keep in mind that this was only scratching the surface):

-Whether the chairs in the sanctuary should be lined up perfectly straight, or facing in a little.

-Whether the kids were eating too many donuts at fellowship time.

-Whether to have fruit with the donuts at fellowship time.

-Whether Creed was a Christian band and whether it was OK to bring their albums on church trips.

-What sort of cheese to have at the funeral receptions.

-Which fried chicken restaurant to get the fried chicken from for Homecoming.

-What kind of fake flowers to replace the fake flowers with.

-Whether the kids were using too much toilet paper.

As one person put it, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

At my last church, we had an American flag in the sanctuary, like a lot of churches do, though we don’t here.  Some people would have a heart attack if you ever took the American flag out of the sanctuary, because that would make you a traitor.  Other people really hate having an American flag in the sanctuary because where does our ultimate loyalty lie, anyway?  So at my last church, every once in a while, the American flag would just disappear.  It would typically show up in one closet or another a few days later and someone would dutifully move it back.

Sometimes we, the church, fight over silly things.  Sometimes, of course, we fight over not-silly things.  Sometimes one person’s silly thing is one person’s real Kingdom issue.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The early church sometimes fought over silly things, too, and sometimes it fought over not-silly things, and sometimes it was probably also hard to tell the difference.

So I’ll let you judge for yourself.

Today our journey takes us to Rome and to the early church there.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is kind of different from his other letters, because he’s never actually visited the church in Rome.  He’s hoping to, one day.  He knows a few of the people who are part of it, from other places.  But he’s never been there and isn’t intimately acquainted with what’s going on there, either, like he is in say Corinth, where people are routinely keeping him updated.

That’s probably why Romans tends to be one of his most highly theological letters—the letter that inspired Martin Luther and John Wesley to take grace seriously.  Instead of counseling his community on specific issues as their pastor, Paul’s preaching a sermon on the whole salvation story in this sweeping and beautiful language.

But Paul does know the kinds of problems the Romans are wrestling with, because hey, it’s the church, right?  So he’s aware, for example, that there’s tension between the Jews and Gentiles who are part of this new Christian community.  You remember that when we talked about Galatians one of the big questions of the day was whether you had to first convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to be Christian, and some of the church leaders thought yes, but Paul was pretty adamant that you did not, and that if you did, maybe you didn’t even understand God’s grace at all.

In Rome, the situation seems to be that Emperor Claudius had kicked Jews out of Rome in 49 CE, and a mostly Gentile church had taken root there.  But Emperor Nero later allowed the Jews back in, so among others, the Jewish Christians are back in town and the Gentile Christians don’t really know what to do with them.  The newcomers may share their faith, but they practice it differently.  They observe different dietary laws and different holy days.   And perhaps they are not made to feel extremely welcome.  Paul spills a lot of ink telling the Gentiles this grand story of salvation made available to all people—but that begins and ends with God’s chosen people, the Jews.[1]

Paul does address several more specific situations that might arise from this tension, that seem to follow closely the situations he addressed in Corinth, like people bragging about their spiritual gifts, and whether or not it was OK for Christians to eat meat.

So that’s where we come to the church dispute of the day, and this great line, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”  (As a vegetarian, I take a little bit of offense there.)

Going back to the same story in Corinthians 8 can help us understand what’s going on here, because again, in Corinth Paul’s addressing very specific situations, and in Romans he seems to be talking more generally and theologically about things they might be dealing with.  In Corinth we learn some specifics: some people are eating meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods in pagan Corinthian temples.  They say, what’s the big deal?  Those gods aren’t real anyway, so why shouldn’t I enjoy a nice barbecue now and then?  Others are shocked, shocked that they would do this.  They grew up worshipping idols and eating the meat sacrificed to them, and for them, becoming a Christian meant distancing themselves from that as far as possible.  This is the stuff of three hour church council meetings, people!

In Rome, given the Jew-Gentile tensions, it might also be that we’re talking about keeping kosher.  Jewish Christians would have observed certain restrictions on the meat they could eat.  It would have had to be killed in a certain humane way, and quite possibly not as a sacrifice to a Roman god.  But the Gentile Christians don’t see any reason to worry about that, and they think the Jewish Christians are silly for even bringing it up.

Eating meat may seem like a kind of silly thing to fight about in church today, but again, what’s silly to one person is a real Kingdom issue for another.

What’s a church to do?

Well, says Paul, actually it’s pretty simple: “those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. … Let all be fully convinced in their own mind. … Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block in the way of another.”

It’s a surprisingly live-and-let-live message, for Paul.

It’s not just that Paul’s agnostic on the issue.  He actually has an opinion.  He doesn’t think it matters if you eat non-kosher meat.  He doesn’t think it’s unclean or immoral.  He doesn’t think Gentiles have to follow Jewish dietary laws.  It’s simply not theologically necessary.

But Paul just says, “It’s not worth fighting about, people.”

Everyone else is so sure they’re right and so ready to stand their ground  and stand up for their meat-eating freedom and Paul just says, “What is this doing to the community?”

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself,” Paul writes, “but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  If your brother or sister is being  injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  …Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.  Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”

Not a Kingdom issue, people.

Let it go, people.

In the end, it’s more important to be compassionate than to be right.

Oh, but that is really hard to remember sometimes.  Especially when, you know, you’re pretty sure you’re actually right, and your opposition is clearly a huge idiot.  It may be especially hard to remember as primary season begins.

But wonder if we took this idea to heart how it might transform our conversations and even our arguments, not just in church, but with people, in all sorts of places and on all sorts of issues.

Amid all the controversy going on lately regarding the Confederate flag, I read a story that a friend shared on Facebook from NFL player Benjamin Watson, who is black.  Watson said he moved to South Carolina as a teenager and was shocked by how prevalent this image of the Confederate flag was—on shirts, license plates, everywhere.  It was jarring to him, but as he got to know people, he began to realize that the symbol meant a lot of different things to them, and not everyone who flew the flag or wore the t-shirt was a horrible white supremacist.  Still, as a black person, that flag meant something in particular to him.

Watson said there was one white guy on the football team who was especially welcoming to him when not everyone else was.  One day he went over to his new friend’s house, and there on his bedroom wall was a big Confederate flag.

Watson said, “I remember the lump in my throat as I briefly attempted to convey in the most non-condemning way, what the flag represented to me and many others like me.”

His friend told him back that it wasn’t meant that way, that it was meant to be a symbol of heritage, not racism.  They left it at that.

But next time Watson went over to his friend’s house, the flag was gone.

“He didn’t have to,” Watson said, “but because he cared about our friendship, because he cared about me, he empathetically removed the offensive banner on my behalf, and maybe for the first time heard how painful that symbol could be. That day was a turning point in our relationship and today; Frank continues to be one of my best friends.”[2]

His friend didn’t have to take down his flag.

But after all, it was only a flag.

When we talked about this passage in small group, Lindy told me that she knew a pastor in China who served a very conservative congregation that didn’t believe in going to the movies.  Well, this pastor didn’t see anything wrong per se in going to the movies.  But he didn’t go, because it would have been a stumbling block for his congregation.  It would have not been a helpful thing to their faith.

He could have made a big stink about how it’s only the movies and he only went to PG movies anyway and he had a right to go and you people need to get out more.

But after all, it was only the movies.

Which of your ongoing conversations and arguments might go a little differently if you were less focused on what you were entitled to as your inalienable right, and more focused on how it would affect someone else who God loves?

I admit that I am challenged by this passage and sometimes don’t even know what to make of it in the context of some of our real-life, modern-day, big-Church disputes.  Sometimes we fight over the little things, but sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes when the church splits, it’s over slavery.  I’m not convinced that the right thing in 1844 would have been to say, “Well, I think slavery is wrong, but it’s going to really hurt the church if we keep fighting about it, so I’m just going to let it go.”

Today the issues that threaten to spit the United Methodist Church are church-sanctioned same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay people.  I know there are people who just wish both sides would let it go for the sake of the unity of the church.  But, it’s not exactly what kind of cheese to serve at the funeral reception, is it?  Maybe some things are actually worth fighting about.

Remember what Paul said to the Galatians who thought you had to be circumcised to be Christian? Clue: it wasn’t, “Oh, well, I’m willing to give up my earnest conviction for the mutual up-building and harmony of the community.”

But even if that’s the case I think Paul has some things to teach us in this passage.  For one thing, we should pick our battles.  Whether it’s with each other, whether it’s with people in our denomination or in other denominations, whether it’s with our friends or our family or people online or who we meet on the street, we should always ask ourselves: is this a Kingdom issue?  On a scale of funeral cheese to slavery, where does this fall?  What does either of us or anyone or the whole community stand to gain if I keep up this fight?  What do we stand to lose?

One of those things that John Wesley probably never said but is often quoted as saying is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  It’s a nice quote even if he didn’t say it.  But of course the church never can seem to agree on what counts as essential, and apparently hasn’t been able to for a good couple thousand years.

But in all things, charity.  That’s the other thing I take from this Romans passage.  Maybe pagan or kosher meat wasn’t worth destroying a community over, but maybe sometimes things are worth the fight.  But maybe even when they are, how you fight matters.  The good of the community still matters.  Other people’s different experiences and perspectives still need to be taken seriously.  You’re still required to love your opponent, and treat them the way you’d want to be treated.  In no case is what you are personally entitled to or your personal need to be right actually the most important thing.  If that gets to be what it’s about, give it up.

Paul tells us, “That person right there you are fighting with is made in the image of God.  That person right there you are fighting with is someone Jesus died for.”

And that’s what matters most here.  And so we do our best to walk alongside each other in faith, instead of putting stumbling blocks in the way.

From church to Facebook, we sure do fight about some silly things.  And some not so silly.  And some that are silly but seem not silly.  And some that are not silly but seem silly later.  And we don’t always know the difference.

But no matter what, here we are—as a church, a denomination, family, friends, community—and for some reason, God has given us each other to love.

So in everything, be fully convinced in your own mind.  Do what seems right.

But in everything, always, love comes first.

[1] New Oxford Annotated Bible: Introduction, The Letter of Paul to the Romans

[2] Part of this story quoted in http://www.tidewaternews.com/2015/07/06/confederate-flag-sparks-debate-in-western-tidewater/