Sunday, July 23, 2006

God's Place

2 Samuel 7: 1-14a; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56; Ephesians 2: 11-22
given at a United Church of Christ in southern Fairfield County, CT
July 23, 2006

Last week on a PBS station I watched a program that explained string theory in such a way that even I could understand it. It is yet another extraordinary attempt, in a long line of many, to explain the universe in one unified theory. The narrator began by talking about the four known dimensions: length, width, height, and time. String theory is about the fifth dimension and the possibility of other dimensions. The fifth dimension is thought to be an electromagnetic field or force, a texture running through the tapestry of the other four dimensions. The trouble is there are five different string theories; how do we know which one is true? Also, if there are five ways of conceiving a deeper reality, then there are probably more.

Even though I love to read and hear about the new physics, how poetic and sublime it can be, it still sounds like the same business that King David is attempting in 2 Samuel: trying to put the ineffable in a box. David, once a nomadic shepherd, then a warrior, is now settled in a fine house of cedar while the Ark of the Covenant, thought to be the very real Presence of God, resides in a tent. The prophet Nathan gives God’s blessing to David’s endeavor without first consulting the Almighty. What ensues sounds almost like a prelude to the Book of Job, when God spoke in the whirlwind, asking Job just where was he when God created the heavens and the earth: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” God then goes on to make promises, everlasting ones, to King David, thus also, to the people of Israel.

But then God declares: “…the Lord will make you a house”. This house is not made of cedar but of descendants, a dynasty, created of flesh and blood, and through them God will establish a kingdom that “…shall be made sure forever…” (v. 16). The house that God would build does not have walls but persons who would serve God and God’s purpose, which cannot be contained by a ruler or nation, or for that matter, Church, denomination, or other entity.

Imagine you are one outside the Church, looking in. You would see differences in structure, organization, worship practices, role of clergy and laypeople, and so on. How would you know which one is the closest to the truth? Usually when ‘church shopping’, persons find one that is comfortable to them.

J.B. Phillips, in his pithy book Your God is Too Small, writes that the most disturbing thing about churches to the outsider is “the spirit of ‘churchiness’ which seems to pervade them all. They all seem to [one outside] to have captured and tamed and trained to their own liking Something that is really far too big ever to be forced into little man-made boxes with neat labels upon them. … ‘If there’s a God at all,’ [the one outside] feels… ‘then [God’s] here in the home and in the street, here in the pub and in the workshop. And if it’s true that [God’s] interested in me and wants me to love and serve Him, then He’s available for me and [everyone else]… If God is God, God’s big, and generous and magnificent…”, unable to be put into any kind of box or label.

If we are looking for God and God’s work of love through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then we also need to allow our church, our community, to be uncomfortable; a church that doesn’t always have all the answers but is willing to wrestle with the questions; a church that acknowledges a God who challenges us as much as comforts us; a God who dies and lives again as well as lives; a God who is unpredictable as well as the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; a God who is poor and homeless, with dusty feet and one set of clothing but rich in compassion.

When we look at Jesus the Christ we see where God’s place is. In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus and his disciples try to get away for a while. The disciples have returned from their mission in two’s of healing the sick and calling for repentance. They have also just heard of the death of John the Baptist. Jesus and his disciples are tired and hungry and he calls them away to a deserted place by boat. But a crowd of people, who had heard what Jesus and his disciples had been doing, recognize them by this and hurry ahead on foot, arriving ahead of them, greeting them as the boat comes ashore to this deserted place. Even though Jesus is tired, he has compassion for them and begins teaching them many things.

When they come to Gennesaret, again people recognize him, not by face, but by his compassion. They come from the whole region, bringing the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was, whether village or city or farm.

God’s place is in the deserted areas, in places where people seek out compassion and guidance. God is where there is suffering, wherever healing is needed. God is in the village, the city, the farm. God is wherever the outsider is; indeed, through Jesus the Christ, God is the outsider, living beyond the system, off the grid. God travels, is on the loose, cannot be pinned down, or as written in the book of Exodus, God will be what God will be.

We take great comfort in knowing that wherever we are, God is; that there is no place we can go, there is no situation we face where God is not. In the 23rd Psalm, the one most favored, most read, we feel at peace when we read the words “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” We cannot escape God’s love and grace. Without a doubt, this is Good News.

Yet the reverse is also true: wherever God is, there we are called to be. This is the flipside of the Good News, the side B that doesn’t get much play. Though we cannot pin God down to any one point of view, to any one political party, to any one side, God calls us to be where God’s people are in need. With God there are no walls to be built, only walls to be torn down. Perhaps we cannot be in Lebanon or Israel, in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Darfur or in Kenya, but we can be where God is with our prayers, with our conscience, with our calls to senators and representatives, with our contributions to Church World Service, Our Church’s Wider Mission, One Great Hour of Sharing, and Neighbors in Need.

We can be where God is when we help those in need in the community and in neighboring towns. We can be where God is when we tell others about our faith and invite them to church. We can be where God is when we welcome strangers in our midst as friends. We can be where God is when we work on a mission trip, when we teach Sunday school, when we serve a hot meal in a soup kitchen, when we hammer nails on a Habitat house. We can be where God is when we work for clean water and nourishing food for all people, good schools, care for the elderly, and health care for everyone. We can be where God is when we recognize and honor the image of God dwelling in every person.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of bringing together the circumcised, the Jewish Christians, and the uncircumcised, the Gentile Christians, which was no small feat; not unlike bringing together Palestine and Israel or Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites; not unlike bringing together opposing sides of passionate people dedicated to their point of view. Through Christ the walls of hostility are brought down and all are reconciled to God, creating a new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.

God is peace; therefore, God’s place is where there is war, violence, discord, and strife. God is justice; therefore, God’s place is where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, hatred, discrimination, and abuse of power. God is love; therefore, God’s place is where there is fear, for love casts out fear. And where God is, we are meant to follow.

Our God is on the move, thus the Church, the people of God, needs to be on the move as well. The Church is the Holy Spirit moving within us; it is the community of faith sent just as much as the community gathered. What walls need to come down in your life together and in your personal life that you and this congregation might be God’s dwelling place in the world? What is the foundation upon which your church is built? How does your congregation make a connection between what happens within the walls of your church and what happens beyond them? Where is God calling this community of faith to give witness to the love and grace of Jesus the Christ?

Thanks be to God that we have been made a house, a dwelling place for God, with hands and feet and hearts and spirits on the move. Thanks be to God for Jesus the Christ, in whom we are a new humanity and reconciled with one another through the cross. Thanks be to God for the Spirit, through whom we have access to God’s power to bring down the walls of hostility, who calls us out of ourselves to be where God is. Amen.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Psalm 85: 8-13; Ephesians 1: 3-14
First Church of Christ, Cong’l, *******
July 16, 2006

Chosen. What a powerful word. Think about what it means to be chosen. You have been chosen. It feels grand to be chosen, doesn’t it? Well, if it’s something good, yes. Remember back in elementary school, when teams would be chosen for kickball during recess? It felt great to be among the first ones chosen; it was humiliating to be chosen last. You knew what kind of player your friends thought you were based on when you got picked for the team.

There are so many wonderful opportunities to be chosen: a part in the school play or local amateur production, class president, singing the national anthem at a ballgame, graduation speaker, prom date, friendships, relationships, the one who wants to marry us, scholarships, teaching fellowships, awards, job interviews, promotions, college applications and essays, sports and academic teams, a published book or poem. It’s thrilling when we are chosen, when we are needed, accepted, desired, wanted, required. It’s as though our purpose in life has been suddenly illuminated for that brief instant and we think “Wow, me?” or “I’m glad you finally saw the light of day!” We know ourselves to be joined in creating something special, which may not have been the same if we were not a part of it.

There are times we’d like to think that we’re important, that somehow our corner of the world hinges on our participation in it. Then we are chosen for something we’d rather not do and the measure of our importance conveniently shrinks. Sometimes our talents are matched perfectly to the chosen task; often we can be chosen to do something for which we feel wholly unqualified and we wonder just who is in charge.

When we are chosen for something in the church we oftentimes feel the latter: feelings of inadequacy, that we’re not the right person for the job, they should find someone who is more faithful, who knows more about the Bible, who is a better public speaker. We may wonder if God’s hand is really in our being chosen. What can God be thinking, asking us? What plan does God have in mind?

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul tells us that God is thinking about grace and has been doing so since time immemorial. Grace has been the plan all along. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children though Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Even though we are made in God’s image, even though we are of God’s creation, we are in need of adoption because we rejected this image, this creation when we sinned against God and chose our own way. God gave humankind free will and we did not choose God and the way of love. But before the foundation of the world, God adopted us, chose us in Christ, even before we had an opportunity to reject God.

Any of us who are parents know what it means to choose our children, to choose that they will be ours, no matter what, long before they are born, whether they are born to us or to their birth parents. We know we will never stop being their parents, come what may.

Recently, a longtime friend of mine, Andy, wrote in his weblog about when he was adopted, or as his parents told him, chosen. He writes, “My mother explained that after the adoption process was complete (a two + year process) my parents were asked to ‘select’ their child. Apparently there were ten babies, all chosen to match up with my parents heritage, who were ‘available for adoption’ and my parents were asked to choose their first child from this group. Now, I was a goofy looking child. I was cross-eyed and had ‘creative’ hair that went wherever it wanted to. I've seen the pictures. Believe me, it's true. Goofy goofy goofy looking child. How they chose me I figured that I would never know. So one anniversary I finally asked my Mom, ‘If I was so silly looking, then how come you chose me?’ And my mother smiled and said, ‘We chose the baby that needed the most love.’” And each year his family would honor (and still does) the day that he and each of his siblings were chosen as well as the day they were born.

But not all adoption stories are so happy like my friend Andy’s. In some cases children do not attach or bond themselves readily to their new parents, no matter how much they are wanted, no matter how much they are sought after. If they are at an older age, they may be afraid that they will be abandoned again. They have difficulty trusting anyone. They believe that they don’t really belong, that they aren’t anyone’s son or daughter. They act out their anger with their parents, their siblings, their teachers, with anyone they might feel tempted to be close to. It can leave parents at their wits end, knowing they have done everything to tell their child that they love them and that they are wanted.

But we can’t give back our children, nor do we really want to. All any parent can do, when their child is in pain, whether adopted or not, is love that child even when they don’t deserve it; especially when they don’t deserve it.

It is this grace that God offers us, each one of us adopted as God’s child, as the apostle Paul puts it. And it is God who does the choosing, not us. We do not choose who is adopted, who is among the chosen; God is the chooser, the ‘decider’. And through the life of Jesus the Christ we see who God chooses: the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the weak, the forgotten, the oppressed, the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, those who are pure in heart, the poor in spirit, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus didn’t hang out with, or make himself out to be one of the insiders, the winners, the eloquent, the brightest, or the star. He traveled with and lived as one of the outsiders, the losers, the plain-spoken, the simple, and the ordinary.

Are we with those whom God chooses in Christ? Are we with those whom this world rejects, yet God chooses? Like the story of the sheep and the goats, about feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, as if we were serving Christ himself, we all score as goats. Even though we, the apparent insiders, live apart from those whom God chooses in Christ, still God chooses us too. Even so, God chooses us too. Not only chooses us but lavishes on us the riches of God’s grace, forgiving our sins and redeeming our lives, and calling us sons and daughters of grace. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…so that we might live for the praise of his glory.

This kind of choosing shows us at once how insignificant and how precious we are. We are chosen not for greatness in the eyes of the world but chosen so that we might live for the praise of Christ’s glory.

Jesus the Christ is called the ‘only begotten son of God’ because he did not turn from God. He did not have to be adopted into God’s family through grace because Jesus was faithful to God and God’s way of love for all people. And it is through this Chosen One, through this particularity, that God reveals infinite grace and chooses us. When we sin, when we choose one kind of person over another; when we choose to live separate from God and God’s love and power to heal, when we behave in such a way as to think we don’t deserve love, it is especially then that God does love us and adopts us, chooses us once more to be children of love and grace.

One of the slogans of the Still Speaking campaign is: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We, who have been chosen by God and God’s grace, cannot deny anyone God’s choosing of them in Christ. If you’ve seen either of the ads, both are about how the United Church of Christ doesn’t reject anyone. I’d like to see an ad that shows what it means to be chosen, that illustrates the power of being chosen by God’s grace to transform lives and congregations. There are some who have suffered abandonment from the world, who have been orphaned from their family of faith, yet they desperately want to belong to a community that accepts them as they are, who would adopt them as they are, just as we, who were once orphans, who were not a people, have been adopted into this family of faith and now know ourselves as belonging to God.

In response to being chosen by God, how might we live for the praise of Christ’s glory? In your life together as a family of God, what would bring glory to Christ? Who is missing in the family of faith, the Church universal? Who are the chosen, the adopted children of God’s grace not present, not welcomed? Redemption was God’s plan all along; not just for some but for all. When we come together to worship, our gathering is incomplete. The family is not whole, thus, neither are we. For that reason, we are chosen to be sent into the world, to seek out our adopted sisters and brothers, to extend God’s grace to all people, giving the Good News that we are all children of God, chosen by God before the creation of the world. Amen.