Friday, February 17, 2012

Say What?!

Sermon preached February 12, 2012

Texts: II Kings 5:1-14; Mark 1:40-45

Prolific Christian writer Philip Yancey, author of such works as What’s So Amazing About Grace?, The Jesus I Never Knew, and Prayer once wrote a book entitled Soul Survivor: how my faith survived the church. Ouch – how my faith survived the church.
Here’s part of Yancey’s story. I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church. One church I attended during formative years in Georgia of the 1960s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: “New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental…”… Later, I came to realize that the church had mixed in lies with truth. For example, the pastor preached blatant racism from the pulpit. Dark races are cursed by God, he said, citing an obscure passage in Genesis…. In adolescence it [this church] pressed life and faith out of me…. I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church. (1, 5)
This is the fourth out of five sermons on important themes in Christian faith, significant questions people of God who follow Jesus ask. At the end of last week’s sermon about Jesus, I asked this - And where do we Christians believe we should most clearly hear the tune of Jesus, lord of the dance? A place called church. Say what?! Church – the place where we are to hear the tune of Jesus most clearly?
This is an amazing, audacious claim for an institution that has often fallen short, gotten it wrong, disappointed, even been wounding. Idiotic and/or hurtful statements have been issued from church pulpits – the inferiority of darker skinned people, the subordination of women, the exclusion of people because they have been divorced. The church in the world should be humble and honest. If we cannot admit to our own sometimes sorry history, why should anyone take us seriously when we try to speak a more truthful word?
The church in the world should be humble and honest. We should also always be calling ourselves back to our center, calling ourselves to remember who we are and who we are called to be. The Apostle Paul writes about the church, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (I Corinthians 12:27). Just think about that for a moment. It should evoke a “say what?!” Think about what this means. Here is how pastor and author Anthony Robinson puts it – “We are his body in tangible form, continuing his life and his ministry” (What’s Theology Got To Do With It?, 160) Wow! As the church, we are keepers of the story of Jesus as the Christ and we write the next chapter.
A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)
We remember the story. We tell the story. We add to the story. As the church we are the body of Christ, continuing his ministry of compassion – a ministry of healing, feeding, welcoming, and inviting growth. For Christians, Jesus is the side of God turned toward us, the face of God – and it is God’s work we see most clearly in Jesus. A couple of weeks ago, in an earlier sermon in this series I said, God as love offers meaningful forgiveness, a freeing power, a healing touch, a light that shines, a centering perspective, the warmth of home. God as love sees our beauty and desires that we see it too. God as love wants to work with us to make the world more beautiful. And we see that most clearly in Jesus, in his work of healing, feeding, welcoming, and inviting growth.
So we tell not only the stories of Jesus, but the stories of God’s healing love from before Jesus, like the story of Naaman. It is a rich story which speaks not only of God’s healing love, but also of God’s welcoming love and of our human ability to get in the way, get ourselves in a pickle. Naaman is powerful and privileged, but even the powerful and privileged need healing sometimes. The way he will find it is to pay attention to someone on the margins – a servant of Naaman’s wife. God often speaks through those on the margins. Naaman complicates his own healing process, almost giving way to a pride that will prevent his healing. “I thought that for me [Elisha] would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprosy!” Again, he needs to listen to his servants. Sometimes the healing work of Jesus done through the church happens in very ordinary ways. Our wounds are healed through the gradual process of praying and worshipping and working together in community.
As the church we are the body of Christ, continuing his ministry of compassion – a ministry of healing, feeding, welcoming, and inviting growth. We remember the story. We tell the story. We add to the story. The church is not primarily buildings or budgets or organizational structures. The church is people. The church is mission. Where the church has lost its way through the years it has sometimes forgotten that we are mission and we are people.
Church is mission. We add chapters to the story of Jesus. We continue his work of healing, feeding, welcoming, inviting to grow. In our denomination, The United Methodist Church, we has said this in this way – “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…. The heart of Christian ministry is Christ’s ministry of outreaching love” (Book of Discipline, para. 120, 124)
Church is people. Church is mission. It is about transformation in our lives and in our world. There is inner and outer work here. Where the church has lost its way through the years it has sometimes forgotten one or the other side of this work of transformation. Again, quoting Anthony Robinson, those who “have resources and gifts [for service] also have needs – for grace, for healing, for change, for God in their lives” (Transforming Congregational Culture, 69). He argues that we in the church need to see ourselves as “receivers who give” (72).
Church is people. Church is mission. Not all the pain and brokenness and lostness in the world is out there somewhere. We have some in here, in our own hearts and souls and lives. We, too, are beautiful people in a pickle who need the God of love who heals, feeds, frees, welcomes and invites to growth in Jesus. As disciples of Jesus Christ, gathered into the body of Christ we are being healed offering healing. We are fed, body and soul, and offer to feed. We are welcomed by God and into the family of God, and we welcome others. We continue to grow, and invite others to grow in grace, in faith, hope and love. We seek to grow and invite others to grow into the fully alive human beings who are the glory of God (Irenaeus).
Church is people. Church is mission. Church is the body of Christ, keeping the story and adding to it. We seek to be the transforming touch of Jesus in the world. Say what?! Say this – we are trying to live into who we are. It is a process. It is a journey. We have stumbled many times along the way, but because of that we are here for all who have stumbled, felt broken, need forgiveness, been lost. Yes, we have failed at times to live up to our identity as a Christ-formed community, but we keep on because the love of God keeps moving forward, the transforming power of Christ is not yet exhausted. We are on the way together, and about that sense of journey I will have more to say next week. Stay tuned. Amen.

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