21 April 2011

Sermon for Maundy Thursday - "Belonging in Love"

God uses the church to show the world what God’s reign looks like.  The church observes Holy Week to remind itself of the full story of Jesus Christ, the one who we follow, worship, and adore. 

A few years ago, the congregation I served prior to being called here read through Mary Hinkle’s book Signs of Belonging: Luther’s Marks of the Church and the Christian Life during our Lenten services of Evening Prayer.  Dr. Hinkle wrote that each of the marks (God’s Word, Baptism, Holy Communion, forgiveness, ministry, worship) are “public pointers to the work God does on earth to gather God’s people together and make them holy.”[1]  Notice the things that are missing from this list:  bridal showers, property committees, coffee and bars, meatball suppers, potluck dinners, wedding planners, lock-ins, singles groups, membership rosters, work groups, council meetings…  Too many people think that these things, good though they may be, are the marks of the Christian community.  Have we traded God’s vision of the church for one that is less demanding of us?  Have we traded the mission of Christ, with its difficult commandment to love one another and be servants to one another, for a mission to serve only those who meet our standards and our criteria?  Have we traded God’s expansive vision for the church, where the community weaves new elements seamlessly into itself, for a narrow, blinded vision that finds subtle and not-so-subtle ways to discourage and reject those who don’t belong?  What are the divisions under which we sin tonight?  Where is our community fractured?  What are we doing to heal those places where we are broken?

What does the story of Jesus’ suffering and death reveal to us about the nature of the Christian community?  It reveals to us the fact that this community, unlike any other, is formed and shaped by the service and suffering of its leader.  And communities that are not shaped and formed by the service and suffering of Jesus Christ are not Christian communities, no matter what name may be on the building.

Dr. Hinkle writes:  “When I moved to North Dakota, I was initiated into life on the prairie with stories about the danger of blizzards.  Anytime after the autumnal equinox, I was told, it was unwise to venture away from home without a blanket, matches, a candle in an empty coffee can, and some chocolate bars in the back of my car…As one woman was telling me about the survival kit and its contents, she related how her daughters never paid any attention to their parents’ concerns when they left home in the winter.  They would drive to far away high school basketball games with no survival gear in the car.  Their recklessness frustrate their mother, but their dad had said, “The girls aren’t careless.  They’re just carefree.” [2]

Are we being careless OR carefree as people of faith?  Traditions and set procedures can be comforting, even helpful, but they can also stifle and smother opportunities for mission.  “We’ve always done it that way” can become a means by which idol worship takes place.  Budgets and buildings can be adjusted, even rebuilt, but the chance to make an eternal difference to someone is often a once-in-a-lifetime affair.  Are we choosing the safety of what we know over the opportunity to proclaim God’s kingdom where it has not been proclaimed before?  Are we choosing to maintain those things we love over the opportunity to proclaim God’s love to a world that desperately needs it?  Have we chosen the cheap grace of familiar consolation over the costly grace that stirs us to action that may be uncomfortable, even dangerous? 

What does the story of Jesus’ suffering and death reveal to us about the nature of risk?  It reveals to us that we are called to risk boldly for the sake of our neighbor.  It reveals to us that God is most glorified when God’s children love as their Savior loved:  to the end.  It reveals to us that even if death will be the result, we are called to risk our lives for the sake of others.  Sometimes we’re called to follow the advice of Mike Yaconelli in his book Dangerous Wonder:  “Jump first.  Fear later."

A Christian congregation is not a sanctuary from the world, but a window on what God, in the body of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is doing in the world.  That reign is characterized by risk, by relationships that are redefined in Christ and renewed by forgiveness, by motley groups of people singing praise to the Lamb, and by love that overcomes evil with good. 
The reign of God is found under the shadow of its greatest symbol:  the cross of Jesus Christ.  “The Cross is the shadow where we belong,” writes Dr. Hinkle Shore.  “What a strange symbol to have at the center of our faith!  A cross.  A daily reminder of God’s dawdling to grant justice to God’s [chosen and anointed Son].  What a strange symbol…unless justice is something different from what we expect.  In the cross, Jesus gives us our clearest picture of God hidden and silent.  But also in the cross – and this is the paradox – Jesus gives us our clearest picture of God’s true self, and of God’s way of bringing about justice.  God, our sovereign God, the creator of heaven and earth, the God who is greater than all – God does not, in the service of justice, reach for a bigger hammer.”  God, in the person of Jesus Christ, picks up a loaf of bread and a cup of wine.  God, in the person of Jesus Christ, wrap a towel around His waist and kneels to wash His disciples’ feet.  “God, in the person of Jesus Christ, picks up a cross.  Jesus lays down his life for friends and enemies alike, and when he does that, Jesus shows us that God’s justice is inextricably bound up with God’s own suffering love…God does not attempt to save the lost by destroying them.  God seeks and saves the lost by remaining connected to them with a love strong enough to resist evil in all its forms.”

“Love like this is harder even than the work of nurturing a sense of righteous indignation or of ‘shutting off’ our feelings toward one another.  Christians confess that the clearest visual evidence of that deep, tenacious, evil-resistant love is the weakened, crumpled, dying figure of Christ crucified.  The mark of the church, the piece of visual evidence pointing to the Christian church on earth is that – sometimes in small ways and sometimes in grand, dramatic ways – evil continues to be resisted by means of love.” [3]

You belong here – because under this particular cross Jesus invites you to become part of His church on earth.  Maybe you thought you came because of the choir, or the coffee, or a social statement, or someone sent you a letter, or you thought the pastors were cool, or your girlfriend is here – whatever you thought the reason was, the truth is there’s a deeper calling involved.  Tonight the body of Christ gathers around the world to remember its loving Savior, it’s Lord and King, who formed a community with his love even as that community betrayed him and left him to suffer alone.  God’s vision of the church is this: a community of believers gathered under the cross in love for one another and the world in which we all live.  That’s it.  Everything else is up for grabs, made to fit whatever the needs of our immediate context might be.  

We are called to shape our communities of faith around whatever the love of God asks us to do.  Wash feet.  Feed the hungry.  Build houses.  Sing.  Dance.  Make pizza.  Laugh.  Whatever you do, do it in love.  This love creates our belonging together.  This love, commanded by Christ, calls us to form genuine community that is shaped by mutual confession and forgiveness.  This love, commanded by Christ, calls us to risk where we have often preferred to play it safe.  This love, displayed by Christ in the giving of himself, in the serving of others, and in his faithful suffering on the cross, is both promise and power.  It is a promise of rebirth and renewal where sin, death and destruction try to drown us.  It is a power to evoke rebirth and renewal in others when we, like our Lord Jesus Christ, humbly bow to his command:  “Love one another…do this in remembrance of me.” 

[1] Signs of Belonging:  Luther’s Marks of the Church and the Christian Life, by Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore. © 2003, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis. p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 87-88
[3] Ibid., p. 81.  Dr. Hinkle Shore’s original text reads, “One of the marks of the church, one piece of visual evidence…” 

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