“The Nature of God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Memorial Sunday, May 28, 2017. 

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 18

It is not uncommon or even surprising that after not too long on this wilderness journey from freedom into freedom, we become weary. We have already seen mirrored in Israel’s exodus from Egypt how quickly we can become weary of the challenges we face from a world that opposes us; but this morning we see in Moses how we also become weary within ourselves, frustrated when this new-life journey begins to lose its original energy and urgency.

Moses is tired. He has been journeying with these people now for three months, and he has faced every challenge that they have: he fled from the Egyptians, hungered and thirsted in the wilderness, and fought against the Amalekites; he has been living on manna and quail only, just like all of God’s people. And Moses has handled the added stress of leading God’s people through these challenges, working to model for the people courageous faith and radical obedience to God while enduring their constant complaints. No wonder Moses is exhausted! We can see how God has been using all of these challenges and difficulties to draw Moses into deeper relationship with Himself for the sake of the God’s people, but we also see in these verses how weariness and frustration has driven Moses away from fellowship with God’s people.

Christ has made us a community of grace and truth to sustain, encourage, and challenge each other on our new-life journey.

As this episode opens, Moses finds comfort and encouragement in the company of his family. Moses finds his soul refreshed when his wife, sons, and father-in-law come to him in the wilderness. Jethro, his father-in-law, makes a clear effort to ask about Moses’ wellbeing, listens to Moses’ testimony of the powerful grace of God at work, and rejoices with Moses in all the great works that God has done for Moses and His people.

We have been given an incredible gift in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: we have been made to share in Christ’s righteousness, we are assured of eternal life to come, and we are brought into mystery of abundant life in the present. This is Easter’s good news for our whole lives!

But as we receive that righteousness and new life, and strive to persevere in it, we tend – like Moses – to focus solely on our relationship with Jesus, and think of our relationships with each other as optional, because those relationships with other Christians are often inconvenient and messy. The world wearies us, yes, but so do our conflicts with other Christians. And so we believe the lie that we should be able to walk this new-life journey alone, that it would be easier alone.

Like Moses, there may be moments when we are nearly overcome by our weariness, our isolation, and our frustration. But we need other Christians – those who are in Christ as we are in Christ – to support us and encourage us. Christ did not die and rise again to save individuals; Christ’s mission is the whole world, and He has always been at work to build a new community in the world for the sake of the world. So Christ has set us on the new-life journey together; it would be the worst kind of foolishness to attempt to live the fullness of new life that Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, without the help and the support and care of the community that bears His name.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s people are “called out” of the world, and united to one another.

As that new people, we are defined both by our relationship with the world around us, and by our relationship with the God who calls us. Moses saw this so clearly, that he named his two sons as reminders of that identity:

Moses named his first son “Sojourner.” Like Moses, God’s people are sojourners in a foreign land. We are not at home here. Just as Israel was not at home in Egypt, or in the wilderness, we do not belong in the world as it is now. We must not side with the forces and factions of this world. We must not define ourselves by the world’s categories. The Greek word for “church” is EKKLESIA, which literally means, “called out ones.” In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been “called out” of this world and its patterns.

As resurrection people, however, we are to be in this world as a seed of what the world will become. God created the world good, and created humankind in His own image, but sin has marred the world and all its creatures. People can still look at creation and see the fingerprints of its Creator, but only as “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and only with the help of the Holy Spirit that is continuing the mission of God through us. Part of God’s unseen purpose for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and through the wilderness is that the world would hear about this strange people, and the incredible things that God was doing for them, and come to believe that God was the God above all gods. The Church is the new creation of the Spirit, made to bear not just the name, but also the image of Christ in the world. We do not belong in this world, and yet we the Church are placed within the world as a sign of the resurrection that awaits all things, the newness of life that will come when Christ returns to finally and fully restore and reconcile all things to God our Father.

Moses names his second son “God’s-Help”. Like Moses, we must daily remember that God is our help. When this new-life journey through the world seems to turn to wandering, and the mission becomes too big to bear on our own, we remember that we have the Maker of heaven and earth on our side. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Even when we bear immense burdens of grief or worry or conflict, God stands ready to help us. The power of Christ’s resurrection has been placed within each of us through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Where Israel had the presence of God among them in the cloud, we have that same power and presence within our very bodies! The assurance of this is graciously given to us in the waters of baptism! This incredible gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit comes to us and is made ours in the sacrament of baptism, where God enacts His promises to us, and seals them to us.

God alone is our help. But, like Moses, as we grow in our relationship with God, we come to discover that God’s help comes to us through the gracious words and actions of others. God has sown His Spirit within me, and within you, and within all who are in Christ Jesus; that “participation in the Spirit” (Philippians 2:1) unites all of us into Christ’s body; and that Spirit is bearing its fruit in us, and equipping us with gifts for the building up of the Church in our mission to the world. Just as we can see how God gives us His help through those who love us and care for us, we also must be ready to be God’s help to those who are hurting, weary, or anxious.

As God’s people, we all serve each other using our unique gifts, as living reminders of God’s grace to us, encouraging each other in resurrection unity.

Moses is comforted by his family, but Moses is drained and burdened by the people of Israel. As God’s chosen mediator to His people, Moses is called to bring God’s Word to God’s People, and to bring the cares and concerns of God’s people into God’s presence. But somewhere in the wilderness, Moses lost sight of that calling, and instead he has fallen into the habit of hearing and bearing Israel’s cares and concerns himself, all the while becoming more and more emotionally distant from and drained by the people God has called him to lead. Jethro sees clearly how this is not good for Moses or for Israel, how they will wear themselves out with this. He confronts Moses about leading alone, and challenges Moses to share that leadership with the people, according to their gifts, so that Moses and all the people could fulfill their unique callings together.

We who are in Christ are called to live this new life together, and Christ has taught us to live together in mutual encouragement and hard-won peace, in such a way that demonstrates the risen Christ to the world around us. Christ himself prayed this for us:

“I do not ask for [my friends] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me. The glory that You have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and You in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me.”

John 17:20-23

The unity of the Church in the world proclaims Christ to the world; but the opposite is just as true: the division of the Church hides Christ from the world. If Christ Himself prayed that we, His body on earth, would be one, how can we imagine that Christ is pleased when we hold ourselves away from each other, whatever the reason? Friends, we are strong in Christ together, because we each have been given gifts to build up, encourage, and support each other on this new-life journey. Do not give up or turn away or distance yourselves from each other, when God has specifically joined us together in Christ. And strive to work out your unique calling and gift for the life of the church, and use it to build up the body. God is at work in the world for His mission, and it is an incomprehensible mystery that God chooses to work for His mission through us, His people.

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“Victory From God”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:8-16

Our new life in Christ sets us against the grain of the world.

In Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we are given sure proof of God’s great victory over sin and death, and of our freedom from everything in us that is bent towards sin and death. We are free, journeying to freedom.

But our enemy wants us back. The grave will not give back its dead without a fight. Our past selves will strive to keep their hold on us. The Amalekites were devoted to the destruction of God’s people, Israel. In the same way, there are forces at work in this world that resent and resist the freedom that God has given us! The grain of this world – that God created good – has become warped toward death in rebellion against its Creator. When Christ willingly offered himself up to death, and then conquered that death in his resurrection, we became new creations with Christ, set against the grain of this fallen world. The very grain of the world resists us as we journey into freedom in Christ, along with the more aggressive rebellion of our own sinful selves still kicking and screaming to exert themselves, and of “[our] adversary, the devil,” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Take heart, Easter People: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Israel had faced the wrath of the Egyptians and the terror of the Red Sea, impossible hunger and incredible thirst in the vast wilderness, and now the attack of an ages-old enemy. And God gave them the victory.

The victory that is ours in Christ’s death and resurrection is ours now, but we know that our enemies are still at work. God defeats the Amalekites here, but the Amalekites continue to attack and torment the Israelites for generations. Christ’s hand is on the throne, and He reigns absolutely, but the enemies of sin, self, and the devil are not yet fully defeated. And so we are called to battle.

God’s victory frees us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence.

When God calls His people to fight, he calls Moses to the top of a nearby hill to pray, interceding for Israel with arms outstretched. We saw last week how God invited Moses to make himself vulnerable, exposing himself to the anger of the Israelites, and God did the same, making Himself vulnerable and open to Moses; and the Israelites were saved. We see the same thing this morning: Moses vulnerably displays his physical weakness in this challenging posture of prayer. And when he can no longer hold his arms up himself, he asks for help. And in this simple act of vulnerable prayer, the Israelites are saved.

It is one thing to practice being fully vulnerable to God in our prayers when we are alone; it is another thing altogether to practice being fully vulnerable to God in prayer with others.

We resist and reject vulnerability as a people, and consequently, we are more anxious, more alone, and more addicted than any other generation ever. We experience the world as more terrifying, more divided, and more hostile every day, and our natural reaction is to defend ourselves, or to numb ourselves, or to close ourselves off. But God has already conquered the world in Christ. God calls us, then, to live into that victory against the grain of this world, against the grain of our own sinful selves, and to experience the reality of His complete victory in the most unexpected, surprising way. Rather than barricade ourselves in our homes or our church, and take up arms against the world, God calls us out of our self-made security, and invites us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence. That’s what we see Moses doing here; and, even more, that’s what we see Jesus doing his whole life with us on earth.

If Christ is truly alive, and if Christ is true to his word that he is with us where two or three are gathered (Matthew 18:20), then any time we are with each other, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ, who knows our whole hearts. When we hide from each other, or posture with each other, or close ourselves off from each other, we also close ourselves off from Christ. This must not be. When you pray with others – the church, a small group, your family, a few close friends, or as a couple – you enter into the presence of the Risen Christ together. That same Christ has died to set you free, and has risen from the dead as a guarantee of your complete freedom from sin and shame. When we pray together with that victory of Christ in our hearts and minds, our prayers take on a new quality. We can pray boldly, with courage and confidence, without fear or doubt or reservations. We can also pray with quiet humility, recognizing that Christ is on the throne, and we are not; we do not know best what we need, and we do not know best what others need, but God who knows us and loves us does, and we can humbly bring ourselves and each other into Christ’s presence, trusting that God will continue to take care of all our needs according to His great wisdom and power.

As we practice this kind of prayer, our hearts and lives change from the inside out. The more we become aware of the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, praying always on our behalf, and the more we join our spirits with Christ’s Spirit in that kind of quiet, confident, vulnerable prayer together, the more we will become the new people that Christ is calling us and leading us to become: a people for his own possession, a people who reflect his presence and purpose to the fallen, groaning world, and a people of priests, bringing not only ourselves into God’s presence, but others as well, others who need to experience the God’s power to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ.

Therefore:

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:13-18, The Message

“Enemies”

A Prayer for Seminarians, at the Start of a New School Year

Lectio: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Meditatio

This week is the first week of classes at the seminary, and the first “first week of classes” I will not be attending in 20 years. It’s strange. I love school, and I excel in that environment, so I am sad to not return. At the same time, I graduated in May: I have achieved what seminary has offered, and the skills and education that I have received have a purpose, a trajectory, an end — ministry. I am somehow finished with formal preparation, and I stand on the verge of entering formal (read “full-time, ordained”) ministry. I am ready and excited and anxious and retrospective.

As I read Paul’s instructions to the Christian communities in Rome, I can’t help but hear them as instructions for the Christian community I am leaving behind (and, of course, the Christian community I will soon be leading).

city of godOratio

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God-in-Unity,

Let love reign at Western Theological Seminary this year. In classrooms, offices, and library study carrels, let love for you, love for one another, and love for your Word and your people guide and go before faculty, staff, and students.

Proclaim your Good News every morning in Mulder Chapel, through the voices of middlers and emeriti alike, so that all members of the Western community might outdo one another in holding fast to what is good, and persevering through the weekly tasks of readings, papers, grading, and meetings. Send your Spirit upon them all, so they do not lag in zeal, but serve you diligently. Let them rejoice during breaks, be patient during exams, and persevere in prayer for one another always.

Thank you for all those who have been involved on summer maintenance crews, and who are eagerly working to provide housing to new students. Protect and provide for those who care for the buildings, for the internet and other technological resources, and for the coffee in the bookstore. In your hospitality toward them, move the students, staff, and faculty to extend hospitality to the strangers who frequently share this space.

And in those moments when frail human love fails — when blessings turn to curses; when hospitality is withheld; when institution comes before individuals; when grades are a tyrant, rather than a servant — go before and go between those who are hurt. Interpose your grace, that all may receive it, and give it to one another, and forgive one another. Raise up advocates and counselors and listeners, who might rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Let your love guide the members of the body of Western to live in harmony with one another, and live peaceably with all.

Where Satan sows the temptation to be relevant, to go along, to be popular, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the font is filled each morning. Let assimilating and conforming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must surrender their differences to belong or be valued.

Where Satan sows the temptation to perform, to compete, to impress, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the bread is broken each Friday. Let posturing and presuming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must claim to be wiser than they are.

Where Satan sows the temptation to oppose, to malign, to be against, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the cup is poured each Friday. Let gossiping and demonizing cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must repay anyone evil for evil.

Surprise Western Theological Seminary with these sacraments, where the wrath of God pours out against all enemies to unity and love in small, simple ways. Overcome the subtle and secret evils among the community with your good gifts.

For all of these things, and for all the ways you stand ready to lead and love Western Theological Seminary, we pray with thankful praise and eager anticipation. In our Lord Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Contemplatio

Reading Romans after Watching “The Giver”

Lectio: Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Meditatio: “Members One Of Another”

The Giver (2014) PosterMy wife and I went to see “The Giver” this past weekend. My junior high education was incomplete, as I had not read this book in 7th grade, and so I spent all last week reading it beforehand, and found that I liked it far more than I thought I would. I anticipated being bored, mostly because the dystopia genre is getting pretty tired. But this turned out to be a pretty fascinating story, told simply and honestly.

As I read and reread Paul’s letter to the Romans, I am reminded of what should have been a utopia in Lois Lowry’s book. The community has a real sense of its unity and interdependence, and each person’s role is clearly understood to foster unity, rather than threaten it. But in the end, utopia sours for Jonas (the protagonist, assigned the role of “Receiver of Memory”), as he discovers — remembers? — that their unity is really “Sameness,” and all major differences (races, religions, colors, languages, expressions, even climates) had to be sacrificed to achieve this unity.

The community was made to conform in order to preserve “Sameness.” Paul has in mind a unity far more costly and far more precious than mere sameness, when he calls the Romans to “be transformed” into “members one of another.” It can be tempting to hide away in like-minded enclaves, in a world so fragmented. We go to those places or churches or internet sites where we know we can find people like us, who like what we like, who like us. We avoid or ignore the “other,” in order to feel secure. Paul, and Lowry, challenge this cheap, easy understanding of “unity.” A unity without differences is not unity, after all, but only “sameness,” and is somehow hollow and colorless.

It’s hard work to be “members one of another” with those who are different: with people who have more or less money than you do; with people who pursue different ideas of “the good life” than you do; with people who grew up — and raise their children — to have different values than you do; with people who look or think or act or love differently than you do. This is hard work, and often feels impossible. There are few places anymore where we naturally come near such differences, in a world so fragmented. But the hard work is made easier when we hear Paul’s invitation: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are not called to become like others, or make others like us. We are not called to sameness. We are called to Christ-likeness. Renewing our minds, being transformed, following after Christ, all point us away from the dividing lines we so often fixate on. This is hard work, but all the heavy lifting is done by the Holy Spirit, once we start looking the right way.

Oratio: “Unity, Purity, and Peace”

At the end of The Giver (at least, the film adaptation), Jonas leaves the community, in order that they remember the memories they have been hiding in their “Receivers of Memory,” “back and back and back.” Jonas, no longer a member of his community, finds home. Christmas carols drift from the warmly lit cabin. It’s a pretty hopeful ending. Jonas discovers over the course of the film that feeling and experiencing and giving love is worth all the pain and conflict that such vulnerability has come with.

I attended my friend’s installation into the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament this afternoon, and the congregation he will be serving promised “to labor together in obedience to the gospel for the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, the unity, purity, and peace of the church, and the welfare of the whole world?” This is an echo of the promise they — and everyone in my denomination — make individually when they publicly become members of the local church. How are we laboring together for “the unity, purity, and peace of the church”? The recent fervor for “missional churches,” or “communities on mission,” or whatever jargon your church is using to get people to do more, is all well and good, but if it comes at the cost of training people in righteousness to live together in unity and peace, then it misses the mark. How are we working toward answering the prayer Jesus prayed?

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23).

Contemplatio

Lord, make us one, as you and the Father and the Spirit are one. Grant us peace in the midst of all the changes and transitions and differences and conflicts that plague your world. Draw us to seek the deep purity that comes from hearing and obeying your Word, rather than the cheap purity that comes from sameness. Let the world see moments when we bear each others’ burdens and forgive each other and give grace easily, and see you alive on earth again. And bring us home again in your kingdom, where love and grace and hope thrive and flourish, and create new life every morning. Amen.