Making Way for the Kingdom – 06/20/2021

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

Sermon Text

The greatest obstacle to people accepting the Love of God is often the Church. Now, some may quibble with me that anyone who is obstructing God’s work is not truly acting as “the Church,” but I disagree. I am still my mother’s son, even when I do something she raised me better than to have done. Yes, we in the Church, even at our most faithful, can obstruct the grace of God which is meant to freely flow upon all the earth.

The Corinthian Church has, by no intentional design of my own, frequently appeared in our Sunday and Wednesday services. The draw of this congregation to our modern eyes is that they dispel any notion of the early church as being perfect. They are not holy beyond belief, not united in mind and heart. They are as divided and unsure as we are. Yet, like us they are full of faith in God – constantly seeking to do what is right even in the moments they are utterly unsure. There is no pretense of perfection, only the reality that we know about ourselves. The reality that we have room to grow.

The Corinthian Church was struggling to define itself, working not only against pressure outside it, but within it. A group of teachers had arrived from Judea claiming authority that was greater than Paul’s – maybe even than any other apostles. These teachers carried letters of recommendation and were sure to list what exactly made them qualified to assume this position over others. The continued conflict in Corinth built upon previous questions of Apostolic authority which began when some people favored Apollos or Paul, one over the other.

Paul returns again and again in 2nd Corinthians to the idea that he and the other workers of the Gospel are not to be identified by anything but the results of their work. The grand gestures of the “super-Apostles,” were empty shows of boasting and their actions worked to split the faithful again and again. Paul counters the well-manicured image projected by his opposition with the reality of Christian living. The true believer is like an earthen jar that carries treasure, they are like a tent easily torn down. The power of Christ – not the vitality or mystique of its bearer – is what makes an apostle authentic or compelling.

The shift in Paul’s writing from re-establishing the authenticity of his work and the work of his peers toward specific instructions is found in our reading for the day. Paul calls on the Corinthians, once again, not to be lost in factions or prestige, but to rejoin the wider communion of the faith. Paul looks at the grand displays that have defined the Corinthian dissenters and refutes them with the troubles he and the other gospel workers have faced. The defining characteristics of evangelism is not praise and accolades, but in trials and tribulations.

Paul would not have done anything exceptional through this comparison, not compared to his other writings. What sets this apart is his discussion of the grandstanding of his opponents as “[an] obstacle.” The word he uses here “προσκοπη” (proskope) is used here in distinction to the similar word, “σκανδαλον” (skandalon) which we usually translate as “stumbling block.” The latter is usually used to describe something difficult, but inherent to a thing. Some parts of our faith – whether they be the crucifixion, the resurrection, or some point of doctrine – can act as “stumbling blocks,” that people struggle to get over. In contrast, an “obstacle,” is something erected specifically to keep people from accessing God’s grace. The obstacle that he cites here, the one epitomized by his Corinthian opponents, is one of prestige and opulence.

There is much about our lives that, if we live into what Christ asks of us, may seem off-putting to the world around us. Sometimes this will be a matter of simple disagreement, other times it will precipitate into very tangible consequences. For Paul, this meant all the various struggles he had cited in this text. These and many more indecencies have been suffered by the faithful throughout history. Many, today as well as then, follow Paul and before him Christ to the ultimate sacrifice of their life for the sake of the Gospel. For those who face persecution, it is clear how they can choose between respectability and sacrifice. Yet, for us today where we stand – in a comfortable place in a comfortable church – how do we live authentically into our faith so that we do not become an obstacle for those who wish to enter into it?

As we have discussed before, the solution is not to seek out or manufacture persecution. The solution is to be willing to give away the abundance given to us by God (something we will discuss in depth next week,) and to remove any pretense we hold of being above other people. The only things, says Paul, that anyone has any right to be proud of in their ministry is the things they have sacrificed in order to serve God. The indecencies Paul lists made him a pariah to many, he gave up any status he may have had, all for the work of the Kingdom.

When I think to those I know who are not part of the Church, it is seldom the Gospel itself that keeps them from the pews. I would go so far as to say that many people never get so far as truly hearing the Gospel even when it is spoken to them. Are they blocking up their ears? It would be easier if they were. Instead, I believe that we who have received the grace of God have become obstacles to those who might hear of it and receive it. We are obstacles in the incongruity of our high calling and our usual behavior. We are obstacles in our love and worship of a poor, homeless Messiah that somehow has not softened our hearts to the poor and unhoused among us.

If we wish to fully live into the grace filled love of God, then we must not be an obstacle to those who might also receive God’s grace. To “receive Grace in vain,” can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the superficial receipt of God’s grace – an appearance of holiness but nothing more. Secondly, an ineffectual reception of grace – we are saved “but only as through fire.” We do not grow and we do not share the Gospel meaningfully with those around us. The Gospel becomes an empty thing, a badge of honor, and old trophy collecting dust on a shelf.

The transformation required for us to truly know the fullness of the Gospel is to welcome discomfort as a colleague and friend. We must be willing to form tangible connections to the world around us. We must not desire to be respectable or proper in the worldly sense. We must be authentic, holy, and down to earth. We are not rulers or nobility; we are slaves of the Gospel. We serve God only so much as we are willing to shed our benefits in life and hand them off to others.

Paul here has made it plain to us, ours is not a life of fame or glory. It is love lived out anyway it can be. The power of God is given, not for us to become mighty, but for us to make much of Jesus. Our wealth belongs to the poor, our time to the needy, our visitations to the sick and the lonely. Only if we can remove the impression so many have of the Church, the great obstacle that is our conduct, will the Gospel come freely into the ears of all. We must not live as a social club collecting members in order to be more prominent. We must live and share the Gospel, we must make disciples through love and forgiveness, and we must look to God for spiritual guidance. If we keep to that, then God will truly make fruitful the Gospel we so often render inert. – Amen.

Growing the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/13/2021

Mark 4:26-34

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Sermon Text

            The vision which Christ gives us of the Kingdom of God is powerful. Like seeds, it finds its home where we would not expect. Like wheat it grows up out of nothing into a full bloom. Then, from that one singular plant, many more may be born. The reduplication goes on and on, a harvest of one batch producing – not only fruits – but the means for another harvest entirely. Lest the image of wheat proves too specific for us, Christ paints the picture another way. The Kingdom of God is like a tree that, born of something small, spreads out and makes itself large – providing shelter to all that seek it.

These two images are not the only way that Jesus gives us insight into how God’s kingdom grows, but they are often the ones we bring to mind. The idea of the mustard seed in particular sticks with us. It was so compelling an image, that Jesus uses it elsewhere to describe our individual faith. The miniscule seeds of mustard, the fledgling trust of God we demonstrate through faith, these things whisper to us and show us something deeply relatable. Parabolic speech has this advantage for us, we seek after images more readily than words. We cannot say definitively what the Kingdom of God is, but we can say what we it is like.

The deep mystery of faith is that it seemingly works independent of our attempts to grow or squash it. It is grown in us by the grace of God and nurtured by the environment around us. Though we certainly have some part in its growth – some of our greatest backsliding can happen surrounded by Saints and other times we simply stumble into holiness unwittingly. Spiritual growth can come from discipline, but it seems that God holds something that catalyzes our growth. The grace which we receive is the beginning and end of our Spiritual journey and without it we are like grass that withers, trees that never grow beyond saplings.

The personal understanding that we form concerning growth must also be made plain in our communal ethics of the same. If we wish to see the Kingdom of God expand, mature, and shelter all the world, we must not see faith as happening only in our hearts. The work of faith is communal, the Kingdom is defined by a people called to be together and work toward the same divinely appointed end. We have to seek the Kingdom together, because definitionally it is not a monolith. No, the Kingdom is found wherever the Spirit is at work, whenever the seed is planted and permitted to grow.

The seed which is planted is the believer, having received the word they are thrown into the world to go forward and grow. As they mature, they produce fruit, the nutritive aspect of God’s kingdom is made clear. The believer not only brings about other believers but supplies the earthly needs of those around them. The hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the lost find comfort. Grain is grown to sustain life and so the Kingdom meets the needs of those within it. As we grow together, we ought to care for one another. If we cannot do this, we will wither away.

A division emerged in the 1900s in, mainly American, theology over whether the business of the Church was in saving souls or helping the poor. Jesus was clear – it is in both. We cannot tolerate starvation and poverty and we cannot blame the victims of either for their situation. The Kingdom is the grain that sustains all people – it gives the word of God for the soul and tangible aid for the body. To neglect one calling of the Church for the other is to forget how high the expectations really are. Like wheat we must produce abundance, but like wheat we must not keep that abundance to ourselves where it will perish. We must send our bread upon the waters that it may return us after many days.

Yet, the kingdom is not just a place for nourishment, nor is it kept to a single location. Whereas the first parable of today’s scripture can be read to mean that we individually must grow up together and work to produce a harvest, the second casts the entirety of God’s kingdom in a different way. The Kingdom is described, not as multiple seeds, but as a single seed. From this one seed grows the massive sheltering presence which gives a home to all who seek it. Jesus speaks this parable early in his ministry, when the disciples are few. The Kingdom has potential to grow large, but at present Jesus looked out at a handful of early members. The small seed had been planted – now it would only be a little while before it grew.

The last message we shared together spoke of the danger of schism, but here we see Jesus lay out the wonderful alternative to breaking apart. Jesus asks us to imagine a tree, and from that tree many branches spreading out to cover the earth and give shelter to those beneath it. The ideal of differences in the church is that, even if it causes us to part ways, our differences should not stop us from accepting one another. The rise of ecumenical dialogue over the past sixty years has led to a resurgence in our understanding that Baptists, Methodists, and any other denominations are not truly separate – but all answer to one God.

We are beginning, fragile though our understanding is, to see the branches we stand upon all have one source. If we look at our personal convictions and expressions of faith, we can likely see how we ended up where we are. I could not be a presbyterian – I will not ever be convinced of Calvinism. Likewise, I could not be a Pentecostal, the fire of the Spirit does not burn in that way within me. Yet, though I am thoroughly Methodist, I can acknowledge God’s ownership of both groups. I can look to my time working in the D.C. Baptist Convention and to my time attending a Pentecostal Church, and my Presbyterian colleagues and see the Spirit shining through them. We share one source, and if we could only acknowledge that we would accomplish much in this world. I sit on my Methodist branch, another soul on a Catholic one, but our roots are in Christ alone.

The radical nature of this of this is not relegated to denominations or even congregations, we all have unique features as individuals that can bring people in to be sheltered by God’s love. Think of the labels you apply to yourself. For example, I would describe myself as a nerdy alt-rock fan who can best describe their personal aesthetic as “Eldritch Prairie Home Companion.” I like reading, British Murder Mysteries, and science (mostly chemistry honestly.) My politics include – actually no, my manuscript here just says, “Best not get into that on your way out.” So I’ll trust my past self and move on. Still, you get the point. We are all called to be part of the Church and as a Church, as a charge, and as a denomination we offer chances for people to meet God and know God’s love in ways we would not if we all alike.

Now, today we have discussed how these two parables can give us insight into the growth of the Church. On one hand we grow into a source of material and spiritual help to the world, by being that source of help. On the other we grow by being diverse and allowing diversity of personality, viewpoints, and even certain points of doctrine to give shelter to all who seek after Christ. Both these perspectives are dependent, at their root, on God’s grace. If we do not thoroughly apply ourselves to depend on God, then we will go adrift.

Jesus casts the growth of wheat as a mystery. Like the farmer, no one can look at the Church and instantly know what caused it to be as it is. The best laid evangelism and discipleship programs can be overthrown by chance and the most haphazard attempt at service may be the most fruitful. The only definite steps we can take is to live as Christ taught us to. If we do this, then growth will come. Let us feed all the world and let us shelter all manner of people. Let us pray earnestly for God to bring growth to the seed that has been scattered from the hand of Jesus. Let the Kingdom grow from something small to something great. Let God be blessed this day and always. – Amen.

Uniting the Kingdom – Lectionary 06/06/2021

Mark 3:19b-35

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sermon Text

As is often the case, there is much in our scripture we could discuss. Gathering as we are in celebration of Holy Communion, it seems appropriate that we should investigate the most consistent thread throughout this Mark reading, the idea of unity in the Church. A united household is the only one capable of surviving conflict. This unity testifies that the Spirit of God is good, and that our lives together are defined by the will of God we live out and share with one another. God has called the Church to stand united against evil in this world. The question for us today is whether or not we are united as the Church, and if not, if we can become united.

The story of Christianity is like any history we might survey. It is not often that we can identify true “good guys,” or “bad guys,” within it. Though we certainly try to see a Hegelian spiral of successive narratives, with us standing as victors at the end of that story, history is a human science. The raw data of the past is scattered through the prism of personality and what caused a thing to happen, let alone the goodness of that thing, is difficult to figure out.

In the early days of Christianity there were distinct schools of thought regarding faith. These were usually defined by which apostle or what minister began the church the various groups were a part of. We know Paul and James differed from one another in how they taught about the Gospel, as did Apollos. In Asia Minor the apostle John taught a faith that at times seemed alien to that of the other apostles. Yet, all stayed united by the reality of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. The early conflicts within the Church were focused on people who challenged either of these tenets and that threatened the unity of the Church.

The focus on unity began to degrade over time. With the Edict of Toleration, the emperor Constantine set a precedent that would make Christianity the eventual religion of the Roman Empire. His reign, and that of his successors, eventually lead to a Western shift in the faith. Rome had become one of the major centers of Christianity and political and creedal divisions eventually led to the first major split in Christianity – the Great Schism of 1054. Now Christianity was split along two major factions. Conflict would further splinter Western Christianity as various Catholic factions grew up alongside nation states.

The Protestant reformation solidified these informal separations. Now every country, except those that remained Catholic, claimed their own church. The various churches would then split again, and again, and again. If we were to drive even down the main street of our own town, we will see the evidence of this fracturing. Even Shenandoah Junction, as small as it is, has three churches from three denominations, on each of its three main corners. The house of God is divided, can it hope to stand?

The root of our divisiveness is not unlike what we see in Mark. We see other Christians engaging with God in ways we do not agree with or understand. Perhaps we blame leadership for acting one way or another. Legitimate disagreements are sometimes behind these conflicts, but we historically have the initial impulse, in the midst of struggle, not to try and come together but to threaten to leave. The scribes who saw Jesus did not understand Jesus and so labeled him as evil. Why? Because it was easier to write off him off as a dissident than to figure out what God was doing through his ministry. It was easier to leave him there and fracture God’s people, then come under a banner of mutuality.

The nature of the Church is such that when we disagree on even the simplest matter, we are able to convince ourselves that our side is not only correct, but that the cause we stand for is the difference between salvation and damnation. “The other side” must be in league with the devil because we are clearly in the right. Priests of the opposing faction are labeled as demonic and their leadership as antichrists. We see all wicked things in them and all goodness in us. Whether we divide over matters of Calvinism and Arminianism, sacramentality, ecclesiology, meat eating during Lent, or whatever else may motivate us to part ways, we see ourselves as heroes and the other side as villains. More than that, we will employ our most effective tool to try and persuade the opposing side that they should reconsider.

One of the reasons we default to leaving one congregation to go to another as the Church is because we know it has such a strong effect on our community. People begin to question if they too should leave, the trust the community had built up begins to fracture, soon everything is in question because the community has confessed its willingness to implode if its demands are not met. Oftentimes the damage is done, one group leaves, another stays. Both are dismayed to look at their opposing faction and find out that God is still working the Gospel through them, even as they continue to label them as in league with Satan.

In our division and our accusations, we commit a grand sin. We label those that God has called to serve the world as demonic, and in so doing we accuse the Spirit. Not content with weakening the Church through our actions, we grieve the Spirit directly. Think of all the churches you have known, with rare exception God uses them to do good. With rare exception the Spirit finds a way to take sinners like you and me and make them instruments of peace. I would go so far as to say that it is the schismatic that is the greatest threat to Christianity – more than most any other worldview or disposition.

Jesus defines the family of the faith as anyone who does God’s will. There are plenty of people I know who do God’s will whom I disagree with. Sometimes this disagreement is intense, the issue along a binary, and yet both those who agree with me and disagree with me are servants of God doing what they can to bring about God’s will on earth. It is only in threatening to leave, to destroy the unity of Christ, to end rather than continue these conversations, that we do damage to the Church.

The United Methodist Church is planning to split. That is a wretched thing. We have the chance to do it gracefully, but in setting out detailed plans on how we will split, we have admitted defeat. The Global Methodist Church will not be magically cured of its problems, nor will the Post-Separation United Methodist Church, or any of the other denominations that fracture off of this latest implosion. If we believe our present solution, which is that all parties take their ball, stop playing, and go to their respective homes will fix anything, then we are fools. A house divided cannot stand, and the actions we take over the next few years will divide the Church still further. When the dust settles, when will still have not grown and all our troubles are still there, even if every congregation changed church signs, will we then acknowledge that schism has never saved a single soul?

We gather soon to take the body and blood of Christ. We remember our savior who died for us. We were baptized in one baptism to be a part of one body in worship of one Lord. Can we find in these accidents of bread and wine an unmistakable and unbreakable substance? One savior, for one Church. A Church that is in the world presently broken, divided, and standing but by the grace of God. Let us repent of our divisiveness, let us stand together even in conflict. Let us praise the work of the Spirit even and especially in those Christians who think differently than us. – Amen.