Not Against Flesh and Blood (Sermon for August 26, 2018)

Most of you know that Mariah and I have a dachshund named Hildegard. A while ago, we started having a little problem with her: she started refusing to go for walks. She would be fine in the fenced-in yard, and she was willing to step out into the rest of the yard and maybe even walk around the house a little bit. But, once we got to the sidewalk, she would tuck her tail and shake and sit down and refuse to move.

A trip to the vet ruled out any medical problems. And we know that Hildegard has had some scary run-ins with loose dogs in the neighborhood… and fireworks over the summer… and loud noises like motorcycles and backfiring trucks.

So now we’re taking a behavioral approach. Hildegard thinks that the world outside of our fenced-in yard is scary, and we need to do the long hard work of teaching her that it is not. Or, at least, of giving her the resilience to overcome that fear and go for a walk.

Today’s reading is from the letter to the Ephesians. Our reading a couple of weeks ago was also from this book. In that the sermon I gave then, I told you a few important things about this letter… but I thought a refresher might be in order.

So, four things:

First, this letter is almost certainly not by Paul, even though his name is right there at the beginning. It’s probably by an anonymous person who followed Paul and who wanted to borrow some of Paul’s credibility for his own letter.

Second, this letter was almost certainly not written to the church in Ephesus, even though its name is right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, sent from church to church, with each sender writing the recipient’s name into the letter: to the saints who are in Ephesus, to the saints who are in Laodicea, to the saints who are in DeWitt.

Third, this letter by an anonymous author, passed from church to church, is sometimes very wrong. And fourth, it is sometimes very right.

In today’s passage, the author takes a moment to recognize the struggles that his audience faces. For the the early church, these struggles included conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and challenges in figuring out who they were and how they lived and what they believed.

For us, two thousand years later, these struggles are different. In some parts of the world, our Christian friends and neighbors are persecuted and threatened. In some parts of our nation, our friends and neighbors — Christian or not — are marginalized and oppressed. And even in this relatively privileged congregation, we face loss, illness, loneliness, and heartache.

Struggle is real… every one of us is facing our own version of a big world beyond the fenced-in yard.

When Hildegard faces her world beyond the fenced-in yard, she does it as a dog, and dogs don’t think the way that we do.

Hildegard doesn’t think in abstractions. She doesn’t think about walks-in-general, or other-dogs-in-general, or parks-in-general. She can’t have one good walk and think that’s what walks are like.

And she doesn’t quite have the same kind of episodic memory that we have. She probably can’t quite remember the time that a dog ran out from a house and started a fight with her… at least, not in the same way that I can.

She might not even know that the world outside the fenced-in yard is scary; she probably doesn’t think to herself, “I am now in the world outside the fenced-in yard and bad things have happened here and they might happen again.” Her knowledge of the world, I think, is deeper in her bones. She steps into the world beyond the fenced-in yard and she is just scared. It’s a brute fact.

We are different.

When I am afraid, I can sit down and think about why I am afraid. When I am upset, I can sit down and think about why I am upset. When I am angry, I can sit down and think about why I am angry.

And, if I think through those things and work on them — by myself or with a therapist — I might be able to overcome them. I might be able to go through my struggles and come out the other side… different, but whole and healthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, when we sit and think about our struggles, we find someone to blame. And Lord, there are people out there who will tell us who to blame for our problems.

There are people in our families and communities and churches who will tell us who to blame for our our struggles. There are people in the paper and on the radio and on the television who will tell us who to blame for our struggles.

There are people who will tell us to blame our family members. There are people who will tell us to blame strangers. But the message is consistent: “Here is the cause of your problems… it’s their fault.”

There are people who try and push us apart from each other… who want us to believe that our struggles are against each other.

Hildegard doesn’t see the world that way. She doesn’t blame her struggles on that dog that got loose or those people who set off the fireworks. She just knows that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is a world of struggle.

And the author of Ephesians doesn’t see the world that way. He knows that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, I know, we’re good modern twenty-first century mainline protestant Christians and good sensible practical Iowas. We don’t usually talk about cosmic powers and spiritual forces. We are too level headed for that. But I think Hildegard might know something we don’t. And I think the author of Ephesians might know something we aren’t always aware of.

All of us — all of us: you and me and everyone — are subject to forces that we do not understand and that we might not even be aware of. Some of those are wonderful, like that pull to help a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Some of them are terrible, like those unconscious biases that push us to be suspicious of people who are too different from us.

We don’t always know why we do things… and, sometimes, the things that we do are the wrong things. And that’s true for all of us. And that is the key.

You see, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against our family or friends or neighbors or strangers. You see, all of them are caught in the same struggle that we are. All of them are having to endure the world beyond the fenced-in yard. All of them are subject to forces that they do not understand and may not even be aware of. All of them are going through what we’re going through.

And the only way to help them through that struggle — the only way to help them through that struggle; a struggle that they might not even know they’re engaged in — is to love them. The only way to get through this world of struggle is to love each other.

The author of Ephesians wants us to be safe in this struggle. He wants us to put on the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and — the metaphor rapidly losing steam — the shoes of whatever will help you proclaim the gospel.

And he’s not wrong. The world is full of struggle. But…

The thing about a suit of armor is that only one person can fit inside. And truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit and the gospel aren’t like that. We’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Enter the house of God. Not just the house, but the mansion of God. A great mansion with hallways that stretch on forever, with room after room after room, with space for everyone. This is the beauty of that gospel that holds within it truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit: it is big enough for everyone. This is the beauty of God’s love: there is more than enough to go around.

Hildegard is scared of the world beyond the fenced-in yard. And there are reasons for her to be scared. There are forces she does not understand. Some of them will try to hurt her. Some of them won’t try, but will hurt her anyway. And the only way through that fear is for Mariah and I to show her that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is also full of treats and scritchies and love.

The world that we live in is a world of struggle. For all of us. And the only way through that struggle is for us to share the assurance that we have and to show each other that this world is also a world of love. That it is mostly a world of love. That it is intended to be entirely a world of love.

That is the call… to take up this armor and share it around until it is something more, until the world is full of the gospel; until the world overflows with the presence of the God who is love.

Visioning Update

Many of you know that First Congregational United Church of Christ is going through a visioning process right now. Over the last couple of months, Pastor Chris and Mark Ohnemus (our moderator) have been interviewing the members of the church council. Now it’s their turn to do interviews (and your turn to be interviewed)!

Over the next couple of months, members of council will be talking to members of the congregation to discover what your fondest memories are, what you think the core values of the church are, and where you imagine the church might be headed. Your answers to these questions will help us discern the vision of First Congregational UCC and set our course for the future.

Here are the questions you will be asked:

Tell a story about a time in the life of the church that was a high point for you. What was the situation? Who was involved? What happened? What was the experience like for you? How did you feel?

Without being humble, what do you value most about yourself? As a person? As a member of this church?

What do you value about this church?

What do you think is the core value of this church?

Thinking about the situation you described and the values you’ve listed, how do you imagine those being lived out in the everyday life of the church?

Once the council turns their interviews in to Pastor Chris, he’ll make them anonymous and then go through them to tease out common themes. Once we’ve discovered these themes, there will be conversations with the congregation to narrow down our vision.

Thank you so much for your help in this process!

Bible Study Begins on September 5

Pastor Chris will begin leading a Bible study at First Congregational United Church of Christ on September 5, 2018. We will use the time to explore the Abraham cycle of stories in the book of Genesis. The study will be held after confirmation, so we will start between 7pm and 7:15pm.

Here is the tentative schedule of readings (some of these may look like a lot, but they really aren’t):

  • September 5, 2018: Genesis 11:27-31, 12:1-20, 20:1-18
  • September 12, 2018: Genesis 13:1-18, 14:1-16, 18:16-19:38
  • September 19, 2018: Genesis 15:1-21, 17:1-27, 18:1-15
  • September 26, 2018: Genesis 16:1-16, 21:1-21, 25:7-11
  • October 3, 2018: We skip this week!
  • October 10, 2018: Genesis 22:1-19
  • October 17, 2018: Genesis 24:1-67
  • October 24, 2018: Genesis 23:1-20, 25:12-28

Please join us!

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom (Sermon for August 19, 2018)

We held worship in Fellowship Hall today as the work on replacing carpet in the Sanctuary continues. We hope to have recordings again next week.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

That’s not from our reading today. It’s from our call to worship. It’s from a Psalm. The psalmist sings that he will praise the Lord. He sings that the Lord’s works are great; they are full of honor and majesty; they are faithful and just. He sings that the Lord is renowned for her wonderful deeds; she has provided food to the people; she has sent redemption.

And he sings that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

And that sounds terrible. The Lord is my savior. And this makes it sound like God has plucked me out of the abyss and I am hanging from a string as thin and fragile as a spider’s thread, and that I am afraid, because if I do the wrong thing… he might just… let go.

And that would not be a healthy relationship. If you ever find yourself in that kind of relationship — a relationship where you are afraid that, if you do the wrong thing, your partner will hurt you or kill you — get out. That is abuse. That is a dangerous place to be.

That goes for religion, too. If that is the fear we’re supposed to have — if that is the beginning of wisdom — then God is a monster. And, as Christians, we do not believe that God is a monster. We know — from scripture and from experience — that God is love and that perfect love casts out all fear.

And yet, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

In today’s reading, David is dead. He has gone to sleep with his ancestors. And his son, Solomon, now sits on the throne.
Now, Solomon is a good kid. He loves God. He walks in the statutes of his father. He offers sacrifices. And in a dream one night, God appears to him and asks him, “What should I give to you?”

And Solomon shows God… his fear.

“You have made me the king of your people,” he says, “and I am young, and there are so many of them, and I have no idea what I am doing.” And you can hear it in his voice. He is afraid. He wonders how he is going to live up to this responsibility.

I am forty. I have reached a point in my life where I know two things. First, there are a couple of things that I am really good at. Second, there are a bunch of things where I’m just faking it and hoping no one notices. And I’m starting to suspect that this is just what adulthood is like. And, sometimes, that’s scary.

And a while ago, I started thinking about all of those adults and authority figures who I knew growing up.

I started thinking about those elementary school teachers who seemed so old, but who were probably, like, in their twenties. I started thinking about my parents. My parents were in their thirties when I was born. I even looked up one of my college professors who I really admire. And when he was teaching me, he was younger than I am now.

And while I believe — I really believe — that all of these people had some things that they were really good at… it seems like they might have also been faking some things and hoping no one noticed. And it seems like they might have, sometimes, been afraid.

Because that just might be how it is for everyone. We’re all a little confident, and we’re all a little afraid. We all understand how Solomon felt… at least a little bit.

But this is a different kind of fear. It isn’t the fear that someone will hurt us or punish us. It isn’t the fear that we’re dangling from a spider’s thread, and if we mess up, God might just… let go.

It is a fear that we are ill-equipped for the life that we face. It is a fear that we will hurt someone we care about. It is a fear that is, in a strange and mysterious way, born out of love.

That is the fear that Solomon has: the fear that he doesn’t have what it takes — that he doesn’t have what he needs — to be a good king.

So he asks… “Give me… an understanding mind to govern your people; make me able to discern between good and evil.”

He fears God with a fear born out of a love for God’s people. And he asks for wisdom.

I once read that persuasive writers and speakers project certainty. People who are convincing sound sure. They state opinions as though they were facts. They avoid qualifiers like “I think…” or “I suppose…” We’re all faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices. And if you really want to keep people from noticing, project certainty.

But know: there’s a price.

Solomon asked for wisdom because he feared God; because he was willing to say to God, “I don’t know if I can do this. I am only a child, I don’t know how to go out or come in.” And there is power in that admission. There is power in saying, “I am not certain. I’m faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices.”

There is power in saying, “I need help,” to God. Because when we say that, God might just help. And there is power in saying, “I need help,” to each other. Because when we say that, our friends and neighbors might just help. And we might not have to fake it, anymore.

When Solomon asks God for wisdom, God responds by giving him wisdom. And there’s something interesting happening here.

When Solomon asks for wisdom, God responds by saying, “Because you have asked for this — and not for a long life, or great riches, or for the death of your enemies — I will give it to you… and, on top of that, I will give you riches, and honor, and a long life.”

And it looks a lot like this: if Solomon had asked for those other things, God would have said, “No.” But, because Solomon asked for wisdom — because Solomon said, “I need help,” — God gave him what he asked for and more.

God is generous. When we are vulnerable before God, God gives us what we need and more.

And, I think, in general, so are we. When we are vulnerable before each other — when we say, “I am doing my best, but I’m a little scared and I don’t know exactly what to do,” — we turn to each other and offer each other those three magic words, “Let me help.”

And when we help each other, when we become the hands and feet and heart of the Lord Jesus Christ who saves us all… and when we accept that help, when we become the outstretched hand of the marginalized Christ who is the least of these… then we will have wisdom and insight and knowledge. And, even more, we will have riches and honor and abundant life.

Because, it turns out, if we give up on the idea that we have to fake it and hope that no one notices, if we give up on the necessity of foolish certainty, if we admit that we are dependent on God and on each other… then we can grow in God, and have all that we need and more.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the fear of the Lord isn’t some fear that we’re hanging over an abyss by a spider’s thread and that if we mess up, God will just… let go. We know that God doesn’t do that. God has redeemed us and rescued us and saved us. Because God is love.

Period.

The fear of the Lord is that admission that we can’t do this by ourselves, and we don’t want to fake it, and we don’t want to hurt the people who we care about… and we know that we are called to care about everyone. And it is when we admit that, that we can turn to God in prayer and ask for what we need: minds that can discern the difference between good and evil, hearts that can choose to choose the good even when it’s hard, and spirits that can ask for help.

Because knowing that we cannot do this alone — and that we are not, in fact, alone — is the deepest wisdom.

Life, Together (Sermon for August 12, 2018)

We held worship outside this morning, so there’s no recording today.

As we have established in earlier sermons, I am a nerd. Almost every week, I get together with a group of friends and we play… well, not Dungeons & Dragons, but a similar game. For a few hours, we play characters who are wizards and thieves and warriors, who are elves and dwarves and halflings, who are fighting dragons and defeating evil sorcerers and saving the world.

And what it all comes down to is this: we sit around a table and work together to tell a story. And because we are working together to tell a story, one of the first things we have to do is decide what kind of story it is. Are we telling a story of epic high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or are we telling a comedy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail? After all, if some of us are telling one of those stories, and some of us are telling the other, no one will have any fun.

So we ask: for the next few hours at this table… who are we going to be? And I want to be clear: that’s a different question from ‘who am I going to be… or what are my aspirations?’ Who are we, as a group of friends telling a story together going to be?’

And that’s an important question. At some point, you’ve probably worked on it yourselves.

We ask it when we talk about workplace culture: who are we, as a business, going to be?

We ask it when we go through things in romantic relationships: who are we, as a couple or a family, going to be?

We ask it when we go through a church visioning process: who are we, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

We ask it when we go into a voting booth: who are we, as a city or a state or a nation, going to be?

Not just ‘who am I going to be?’ but ‘how are we going to live together?’

And that might be one of the most important questions we can ask. We are creatures of community. No matter how much we like alone time, we don’t do well in isolation. And in order to be happy in community, we have to ask how we want to be in community. All of us. How are we going to live together?

Today’s reading is from a book in the New Testament that we call Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. And, if I can put on a different nerd hat for a minute, that’s a terrible name for this book. For two reasons.

First, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul, even though it has his name right there at the beginning. It was probably written by someone who followed Paul, who admired Paul, and who wanted to add some of Paul’s credibility to his own letter. He wanted to say something like, ‘this is what Paul would tell us.’

Second, it almost certainly wasn’t written to the church in Ephesus, even though it has their name right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, meaning that it was sent from church to church to church, all around the ancient near east. And that little spot at the beginning would be filled in with different names, depending on the church that someone was sending it to.

To the saints who are in Ephesus… to the saints who are in Laodicea… to the saints who are in DeWitt.

It was personalized and it went viral. And the author was asking that question: who are we, as people who live together in this world, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

And while I don’t what to downplay the importance and authority of a book of the Bible, the fact that this was a viral letter written by an anonymous author can be helpful. Because, like a lot of people who try to say who we are called to be with certainty and clarity, the author writes out a lot of rules. And, sometimes, he is very very wrong about who we want to be and who we are called to be.

“Wives, submit to your husbands,” he says, “slaves obey your masters.” And, of centuries, we were those people: people who treated women as second class citizens, people who owned other people. We were once people who quoted this book to justify oppression. And, while we’re not out of the shadow of that history yet — while we still have a long way to go — I think that we’ve made some progress.

But, just because the author of Ephesians is wrong sometimes doesn’t mean he’s wrong all the time. And, in our passage today, I think that he has some things exactly right.

Our reading today is a list of rules, a list of ideas, a list of ‘try to be this way’ statements. And I’m only going to look at one, one ‘try to be this way’ statement that I think our anonymous author gets exactly right: “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

In general, I’m a pretty calm person. I’m pretty steady. I’m not led by my passions. But, I admit, there are things happening in the world today that make me angry.

Right now, there are children in detention centers near the border. They and their parents trekked for hundreds of miles in search of a better and safer life. They were arrested and separated. And some of those children will never see their parents again, because their parents were deported, and they don’t have a way back to their children.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people to separate children from their families and keep those kids in detention centers.

Right now, there are schools planning their active shooter drills for the coming school year. And there are people working to make things so that, if you can afford a 3-D printer and download some files from the internet, you can print an untraceable and almost undetectable gun in your own home.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people whose children have to be afraid that someone will print a gun at home and then show up at their school.

Right now, and I mean right now, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C., in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, later today.

And that makes me angry… because I really don’t think we should be a people where voices of hatred and oppression are accepted and amplified.

There are things happening in the world today that make me angry. There are things happening in the world today that make you angry. And that’s okay. There is a place for anger… and there is especially a place for anger in the service of love for our neighbors.

And, sometimes, when we are talking about how we are going to live together, we are going to get angry… and, sometimes, that anger is going to be appropriate, it is going to be necessary, and it is going to be righteous. There are times for civility and there are times for incivility. Anger is not always wrong.

But…

We are angrier than we used to be. Maybe not you, and not all the time, and, hopefully, not in this sanctuary or at each other… though we are a church and a community and a family… and those are all places where anger happens. But, out there in the world, in general, we are angrier than we used to be.

And there is a difference between being a person who gets angry in the service of righteousness, and being an angry person. There is a difference between being people who sometimes get angry when we talk about how we are going to live together, and being people who live together in anger.

And I think that the author of Ephesians knew that.

“Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

When the author of Ephesians wrote a letter to the saints who were in Ephesus… and the saints who were in Laodicea… and the saints who are in DeWitt, a town he had never heard of in a land he knew nothing about… when the author of Ephesians wrote this letter, the Christian community was small and persecuted and a little bit at war with itself. This was a community of Jews and Gentiles from across the Roman Empire and there were disagreements about how they were going to live… together… as one body.

And I have no doubt there was anger. And bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice.

And they needed that reminder — and, sometimes, we need that reminder — that anger is okay, but sin is not. That after the anger there is a call to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving.

Because God was kind and tenderhearted and forgiving towards us.

As a church, we are entering a season of visioning. We are asking how we are going to live together. And while it might not seem like it, as we discover a vision together and live into that vision together, there may be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I hope that anger is in the service of righteousness.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

As a nation, we are entering a season of campaigns and elections. We are asking how we are going to live together. And I guarantee you there will be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I pray that anger is in the service of justice.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

And here is the thing: when my friends and I sit down together and enter a world of thieves and elves and dragons, we know that we are telling a story together. And that story only works if everyone at that table has a voice… and if everyone at that table is having fun.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from having fun — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can work to love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone has fun.

And when we come together as a community — as a church, as a city, as a nation — we know that we are living a life together. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone is being loved.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from loving or from being loved — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone is loved.

And I believe — I really believe — that if we recognize that we are all in this together, as one body, then we can live the life that we are called to: a life rooted in the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We can be imitators of God, beloved children. By the grace of God, may that be so.

Blessing of the Backpacks!

School starts on August 23! In preparation, we’ll be having a blessing of the backpacks on Sunday, August 19, for students, teachers, and anyone else who would like to have their backpack or other school gear blessed. Please bring your backpack, messenger bag, bookbag, rucksack, knapsack, kitbag, or whatever to worship at 9:30am on that Sunday and we’ll bless them during services.

Support the DeWitt Referral Center This Month

August is one of First Congregational United Church of Christ’s months to support the DeWitt Referral Center! Please help us stock the pantry by bringing non-perishable food items and leaving them by the coat rack (or where the coat rack would usually be). There is a special need for jello, pudding, peanut butter, peas, tuna, Hamburger Helper, brownie mix, and cake mix.

Thank you for supporting the DeWitt Referral Center and making sure that people in our community are getting the help they need!

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