Extravagant Community

I cringe when I hear Christians respond to the “spiritual but not religious” by extolling the importance of community. Yes, we all need community for spirituality. We are social creatures. 
But, while there is truth in this response it is based upon an unproven assumption. That is, that the “spiritual but not religious” lead the lives of hermits never talking with friends about their faith journeys. The community-defensealso assumes that community must take an organized form. It does not.

They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:35 NRSV Photo by Tim Graves

More troublesome about the community-defense, however, is that it allows followers of Jesus to avoid our own failings. Too often churches are not places of community. Community is about caring for one another in deep ways. It is about assuring that everyone has their basic needs met. The reality is we spend more time worshiping consumerism and capitalism than we do sharing with our neighbor–even those within our churches. 

Too many churches have within their midst those struggling in very real ways while others live in relative laps of luxury. Aside from this being contrary to the teachings of our purported savior, the attitude of the relatively wealthy community members disturbs me. In my experience, when help is provided it comes with strings and pettiness. We reflect the resentment of a culture that elevates rugged individualism to idolatry.

Within this context of blaming the victim, we operate not out of extravagant love but out of begrudging duty. We do not believe that Jesus fed the whole crowd with a few loaves and fish. We fear that if we give too much to someone, even someone within our own community, there will not be enough for us. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12: 29-31 NRSV (Read in context.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  Acts 4: 32-35 NRSV (Read in context.)


Trustworthy God of Abundance,

You give extravagant,
   undeserved grace.

We give out of love,
   limited by our human fears and worries.

Help us to trust in your abundance,
   help us to love you as you love us.

Help us to give lavishly to others,
   within the koinonia,
   and to the whole human family.

Amen  



Good Soil Among the Rocks

‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Mark 4: 9 NRSV
 
In our too-human rush to judgement, we can miss the central point of the teachings of Jesus. In the parable of the sower, Jesus emphasizes the receptivity of the soil – of our hearts – to hearing the Good News of love for all. He does not suggest the sower should withhold seed. Rather, he describes what we see all around us. Not all seeds or love we share take root. 
 
Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to plant seeds of love extravagantly. We may fear there is not enough love, withholding seeds from those we deem unworthy or bad risks, but this is not what Jesus teaches. It is not our role to pre-judge others and withhold our love-seeds from the rocks. To do so, is to assume that we know where the Realm of God will take root and blossom. Sometimes the seed planted among the rocks, finds good soil where we least expect.
 
Photo by Tim Graves
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Mark 4: 1-9 NRSV (Read in context.)

Ready & Waiting for the Adventure to Come

     When Isaac was little, we would withhold information from him. It’s not that we wouldn’t tell him eventually, it’s just that he would bug us if he knew things too soon. Maggie got a huge bonus from work one year and we decided that this was our one opportunity to take the kids to Disney World. What a mistake it was to tell Isaac ahead of time! For two months, he would wake up everyday and ask, “Is today the day?” Isaac was always ready for the adventure to come. 
 
     I’m a lot like that, too. I guess that is why I understood and empathized with him. Once I have a sense of what is going to happen, I’m ready. Let’s go! This may be the reason that my future ministry is revealed like the peeling of an onion (See Onion Peels on the Treadmill, Sept. 27, 2010). This impetuous desire to get on with the show may be why the Spirit has been slow to reveal things to me.
 
     My Call, which I tried to talk myself out of, required God to be direct and clear. As I was traveling I-77 to meet with my Regional Minister to discuss my Call, I was quickly convincing myself that I’d made it all up. It was then that I heard a voice, not in my head nor through my ears, but a voice all the same. “I need you.” That was it and I knew my days of running from God’s call to ministry was over.
 
      But I still didn’t know what form it would take. As I began seminary I was very adult about it. When asked what I thought my ministry would be like I would respond, “I’m just listening and praying to see where God leads me.” In June of this year, however, after much prayer I had a “Holy Spirit” moment. It was at communion that I received what I believe is a shove toward new church ministry in the Northwest, specifically Portland. One more peel of the onion fell to the floor.
 
     Now, I’m not saying God made a mistake in revealing this glimpse of my direction. What  I am saying is that at times I feel a lot like Isaac. I feel a lot like the boy with the blonde curls and brown eyes who would wake up each morning and ask, “Are we going to Disney World today?” I’m anxious–really anxious–for the adventure that God is calling me toward. I draw energy and perk up when I talk about it. I smile and am animated. 
 
     No, I’m not saying God made a mistake in revealing this glimpse of my direction. My adult brain knows there is much left to discern. There is much left to be revealed and there are preparations that need to be made. Maggie and I still have a house to be sold, our possessions to give away, and I have to finish seminary. But sometimes I wish I could just walk away from my fishing boat leaving all behind like Simon, Andrew and James (Mark 1:16-20). Sometimes I wish today were the day.
 
God,
 
You are the blood 
   that flows through my veins. 
 
You are the air
  that connects me with others.
 
You are the arms of friends,
   as we hug after time apart.
 
You are the calm,
   that comes as my skin melts into my lover’s embrace.
 
God, you are the breeze,
   which reliably and gently guides me forward.
 
You are the bird that chirps,
   reminding me to find the joy in this moment.
 
God, you are the past, present, and future.
   You are in all of creation if we but open our eyes and ears.
 
Help me to hear you,
   and do your will in the now and the later.
 
Help me to see you,
   in the green mountains of West Virginia,
   and the snow capped peak of Mt. Hood.
 
Help me to see you,
   in the eyes of those I’ve grown to love here,
   and in the eyes of those who I’ve yet to meet there.
 
Help me to be your healing embrace,
   for in a fragmented world as your loving realm unfolds.
 
Amen

Trust the Spirit (A sermon concerning children)

Four-year-old Dominic wandered into the kitchen where his grandmother sat at the table. He immediately saw her red eyes, the clumps of damp tissues, and the photos of Grandpa Wally strewn about the table. 
 
“Grandpa Wally is ok, Granky. He misses you but God’s hugging him.” At that, Dominic hugged his grandmother.
****
The Jewish people hadn’t had self-rule for a very long time. They were patiently waiting for God to keep God’s promise and restore Israel to them. Yet, it was hard and keeping their people and their faith was increasingly difficult. Their children were tempted by the strange ideas of the Romans who oppressed them. 
In much the same way, the early Christians of Mark’s church were striving to keep their budding faith in a world that preached earthly power and worship of many gods. So, Mark was concerned about church cohesiveness and sustainability. He knew that the family, that strong marriages and children brought up as followers of Jesus were essential to survival as a people, as a church. 
And so, when Mark tells the story of the Disciples barring the children from Jesus, he places it immediately following two discussions in which Jesus criticizes divorce. You see, a church facing persecution couldn’t survive if families were splitting.
This is one traditional way of understanding this passage. Understanding who Mark was writing to as his early church faced a culture that was not filled with followers of Christ, and many think faced persecution, is important to our faithful understanding of scripture.
Another, way that folks have preached and thought about this passage, and its similar ones in Luke and Matthew has to do with the nature of children. Children tend to be more innocent than adults. Most children haven’t had the tragedies, or the daily trials, or the time to unlearn who God is. So, unlike adults, they tend to be more open-minded, more full of wonder. And, so, in this traditional interpretation Mark is implying that Jesus wants us to be more open-minded and full of wonder at the magnificence of the Divine, of God. This interpretation focuses on Jesus’ admonishment that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 15b NRSV)
I can’t really argue with this interpretation either. It is a valid understanding of the gospel with much truth in it. Still, I think there are other ways to look at the text. When we open ourselves to the Spirit and ask different questions, there are indeed other ways to hear the voice of God through the gospel. Recall that after the resurrection, before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the disciples that, “‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’” (John 14: 26-27 NRSV)
Friends, that is indeed Good News. Not only do we have an abundantly loving God who sent the Son… Not only do we have the Son who was ignored, persecuted, and finally killed at our own hands, and who overcame death when he rose three days later… Not only do we have the Father and Son, but when Jesus ascended into Heaven our abundantly loving God provided the Advocate. The Holy Spirit is here to guide us and to continue to teach us. Jesus knew there was still much for us to learn.  Do we Trust the Spirit to guide, remind, and to teach us?
Let’s consider now, what does Mark tell us about the nature of children? What does the Holy Scripture tell us about children and their relationship with God, with the Divine in Jesus? When the disciples sought to stop the children from bothering Jesus, when they sought to be gatekeepers of faith, and restrict children from being in direct relationship with Jesus, “he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.’” (Mark 10:14a NRSV) 
So, from Jesus, we learn that children are to have unfettered access to God. Children do not need a gatekeeper to decide whether they are worthy, or well-behaved enough, to be in relationship with the one true God. When we Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind, we allow children to be with the Divine in ways that make sense to them.
Yet, often we use Children’s sermons to interpret the stories of our faith in cutesy ways or as entertainment for adults. And when we insist that children sit still and worship in ways that are meaningful only to adults, we are functioning as gatekeepers. 
When we control children’s experiences of God, we become the disciples speaking sternly to the children, preventing them from knowing God, keeping them from a personal relationship with Christ. When we control experiences we’ve forgotten to Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind us. 
 
But what else can we learn from the Jesus and the Children story? Notice that the children want to be with Jesus. Parents aren’t forcing them to go to church, ahem, to Jesus. Children have a relationship with the Divine when they come into the world and it is up to us to support that relationship. We also learn in this passage that Jesus values children. It could even be argued that he has special place in his heart, a special place in the Kingdom–for children.
“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14b-15 NRSV)
 The Divine Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that he desires a relationship with children, unfettered by gatekeeping adults. From the perspective of his first century followers this was radical. Children were important for carrying on the lineage, or for labor, but they were far from important members of society. In an era without hospitals or prenatal care, it may even have been necessary emotionally for mothers and fathers to withhold attachment to their children until they reached a viable age.
Children as special? Children as important? Hardly.
Then here comes Jesus who says children have the keys to the Kingdom. Our Lord and savior really was a pro at turning conventional wisdom on its head! But this shouldn’t surprise us, the God of Israel, Elohim, the God that we still worship today, had the same habit in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament. God has a way of using unlikely people in unlikely places for God’s purposes.
Recall that God used a Hebrew woman, Esther, to save the Jewish people. Recall that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife was used by God to assure that God’s promise to make many nations of Abraham’s children through Isaac became a reality. When Rebekah made sure that responsible Jacob received Isaac’s blessing she Trusted the Spirit to guide her.  
And remember that not only did God promise in Genesis to make many nations of Isaac’s offspring, God promised to do the same with Ishmael, Abraham’s son born of Hagar the slave woman. So while we are descended from Isaac, our Muslim sisters and brothers are descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. So, in an era when we have folks demonizing Muslims, we should not be surprised when Jesus turns our ideas about who is worthwhile, about who is beloved upside down.
Likewise, in our Old Testament reading today, God calls Samuel–a boy, an unimportant child, to lead God’s people. God uses children for the purposes of the Kingdom. Perhaps, this is because they still Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind them about the Divine will.
When Samuel hears the voice in the night he is at first, confused, and at the behest of Eli, an adult, he responds to God. So, while God uses children, adults who Trust the Spirit to guide are also indispensable in the march toward the Kingdom of God on earth.
****
A ten-year-old boy woke from a nightmare on the top bunk of the bed he shared with his younger brother. He was frightened. Terrified really. He’d seen too many images of 9/11 on the television and had dreamt a plane was heading toward his city. Fortunately, someone in his church had taught him, had modeled for him that prayer works. So this boy, this ten-year-old child, prayed to God. 
 
“Help me to not be afraid.”
 
As an adult this boy, reports that he felt an immediate calm come over him. His fear was lifted and he was able to fall back to sleep assured that his faith in God, that his Trust in the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind was well-placed.
 
*****
So, God desires a relationship with children and children seek after the Divine, striving to maintain the closeness to God that they came into the world with. And we are needed to help. As adults we’re crucial, essential, and necessary in God’s plan to help children grow in their faith. At times, as we each travel on our own journeys of faith, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating. Our children are leaving the church in the twenty-first century in record numbers. 
Yet the Good News is, our extravagantly loving God is also a dependable God. The Holy Spirit remains with us today. Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind us.  
What do we need to do to help children maintain their relationships with the Divine? What are we called to do to help our children grow in their faith of our extravagantly loving God?
First, we need to model faithful behavior. We need to pray with, for, and in-front of our children. We need to talk about our own questions about God. God is not afraid of doubts, or questions. Doubts are the active Spirit luring us in our own growth in faith. When we Trust in the Spirit we know that we are up to the task.
Second, we must allow unfettered access to God. We need to provide appropriate worship experiences for children. Children need experiences that hold meaning for them, and that are developmentally appropriate. Children need experiences that are open to the Spirit’s guidance, teaching, and reminders.
Patsy and Jan and the Sunday School teachers are working hard at providing educational experiences for our children but children need worship, too.  It is the rare child under eight or ten, or twelve who worships best in our adult worship services. And, it is the rare child who–when provided a holy place of unfettered access to the Divine, doesn’t truly worship
When we bar children from the Lord’s Supper, we’re being gatekeepers  keeping children away from Jesus. When we expect bodies that are made to move to be still, we’re blocking our children’s path to Jesus.
But when we modify our worship service to be fully inclusive of everyone, including children. When we appreciate small voices and those who listen while rolling on the floor beneath the pews. When we do these things we are flinging the open the gate to Jesus.
Some churches have significantly changed their community’s worship to be fully inclusive of children and their worship needs. Others have chosen to provide a worship space and experience geared directly for children. Our sister churches in Logan, Parkersburg, and New Martinsville have taken the second approach by adopting the Children Worship & Wonder ministry.
Either way, when we provide that place, that time, that space… When we Trust the Spirit, the Spirit will guide, teach, and remind our children.
Finally, we need to be a community of Jesus followers who respectchildren and make them feel welcome. Frankly, we do a pretty good job with that. Our kids seem pretty comfortable among us. Yet, we can always do better. 
We need to be open to children’s ideas about the Divine as they construct meaning, as they learn about God within a loving environment. We must guard against becoming like the disciples and acting as gatekeepers when children express unorthodox, nontraditional ways of characterizing God. This is how children learn. 
Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind our children. We mustn’t let our own understandings and perceptions of God separate our children from a personal relationship with Jesus. When we hear our children questioning, we know they are learning. We know they are engaged with the living God.
When children say things that surprise us, or shock us, or worry us, trusting the Spirit allows us to respond with “hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” When we’re asked questions which we find hard to answer, trusting the Spirit allows us to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or “I wonder.”
When we raise our children in a community of faithful people who Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind each of us along our journeys of faith, we will raise children who have strong relationships with God, who seek to do God’s will, and who are always growing and learning in their faith. 
*****
The six-year old boy asked his mom, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
“In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
Later that day the six-year-old asked again. “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
 
Mom replied “In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
That evening the six-year-old was asking his dad, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” just as his mom walked into the room.
 
“Why are you so concerned about when your sister will talk?” asked the Mom.
The boy looked his parents in the eyes and replied, “I want to talk to her about God. I’m starting to forget.”
*****
When we raise our children in communities of faith that allow questioning, that allow children unfettered access to the Divine…
 
When we model faithful living and habits and tell the children the stories of our faith then the Spirit will be able to do the Spirit’s work.
Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind our children. God will not disappoint us. Amen
 
*****
This sermon was delivered by Tim Graves on Sunday, September 12, 2010 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Wheeling during the Light a Candle for Children 40 Days of Prayer for Children leading up to the Interfaith Children’s Sabbath in October, many sermons.

BS: The Great Sin of the Modern Church

“That’s why I have no use for the Christian church,” the twenty-something said with a powerful passion. “They beat up on people.”  A 29-year-old father of two preschool aged children expressed his disdain for organized religion with a bumper sticker that read “Faith is a Journey Not a Guilt Trip.” A twenty-something IT specialist perhaps summed up the feelings of a generation when he said about church, “I’m just sick of the bullshit!” I have no desire to argue with these children of the eighties and nineties, who like so many of their generation, have no desire or use for the church. Despite my love of Christ’s church, in fact because of my love of the church, I too am sick of the bullshit.
Sadly, there are too many people in too many churches who have a stranglehold on decision making and control. These individuals make and interpret decisions based on the need for institutional survival, at best, or on their own petty interests at worst. This is the bullshit, the millstone around our children’s neck (Mark 9:42), that has chased our children away. It is the great sin of the modern church. 
The survival of the institution called “church” is not the concern of Christians. Our only appropriate concern is furthering God’s kingdom, that is of following Jesus faithfully. If the institution of any church body helps us to follow Jesus, its survival matters. If the church does not help us to follow Christ, the institution called “church” should fail. 
Following Jesus faithfully means striving for the kingdom (Luke 12: 31) by focusing on the needs of the least of these (Matthew 25: 34-45) rather than seeking after personal power. Followers of Jesus turn power over to the Divine and strive to prayerfully discern God’s will for Christ’s church. They seek the guidance of the One as they make decisions through prayer, quiet time with the Divine, and through regular scripture study. Faithful living manifests as an active faith that permeates our personal and corporate actions. Yes, we will fail at times, we will say the harsh word, or worse, but when we do we will admit our failing to one another, honestly seek reconciliation, and forgive one another. As God’s people, we are not called to prop up an institution, we are called to be the Beloved community.