In this word

(A sermon for Pentecost 13A – September 7, 2014 – Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20)

There are a lot of rules in baseball. Some of those rules are basic: the number and positions of players, the arrangement of the field, the number of innings, and the fact that you need at least one more run than your opponents to win the game. Some of those rules are very complicated: there’s an infield fly rule, and that interesting animal the ground rule double, and this year in major league ball, there’s a new rule about catchers not blocking the plate when a runner is coming home.

In Little League, kids are always discovering new rules, usually in the midst of playing the game. Some things you don’t practice for, like what to do when you are running the bases and the ball hits you. I only learned the answer to that one yesterday, when we came to Will Cole field here in New Cumberland for my 9-year-old’s game yesterday. The Upper Allen Red Birds were up to bat, and our Boy’s best friend was on 2nd base when a teammate hit the ball hard. The ground ball met the runner’s feet halfway between 2nd and 3rd, and the runner was out. The runner was out. The ball was dead. The batter was safe and got credit for the hit.

I want to tell you, the collected mothers and grandmothers were offended by this. Why is *that* a rule? He didn’t do anything wrong, after all. He ran at the right time. He didn’t ask to be hit by the ball. Other times when the ball hits you, you get to take a base! What is the logic behind it?

After we got home, just to make sure, I looked it up in the official rules of Baseball. You can find the definition of a dead ball in Rule 5, including the way it becomes dead after touching a runner, and you can follow that up with Rule 7 about the times a player is out.

It’s all covered in the rules, designed to cover all eventualities with the fairness of consistent practices.

(Well, except for the subjectivity of umpires who can’t see a strike zone the right way, but I know better than to argue balls and strikes.)

There are a lot of rules in churches, too. I spent some time this week reading your Constitution and By-Laws – no, really! I did! I made notes and underlined things that surprised me. I am coming to you after 25 years on the Congregational side of the United Church of Christ, and after serving five UCC churches in Maine as either settled or interim pastor, as well as being a lay leader and a student pastor before ordination, I have read a lot of by-laws. They lay out the rules for the local church, the ways we organize ourselves for ministry, and the expectations we have for and from one another. Maybe most people have never seen them, but they set the ground rules, offering clarity about things like terms of office and the roles of officers and what happens if someday there is no such congregation anymore.

Pastors appreciate this.

Pastors appreciate this.

Some of the churches I served in Maine had been around for 200 years. The churches and their original organizing documents dated to a time when the local Congregational Church provided town discipline. Their leaders had the power and the responsibility to discipline members of the community for drunkenness, adultery, theft and a variety of sins. But you wouldn’t find that in their by-laws today. The old rules had been revised and amended and updated and tossed out for a fresh start long before any current members were even alive. Sometimes they need new sections to cover new language, new situations or new understandings. But whether old or new, historic or modernized, by-laws are rules designed to make things clear.

(See me later and we’ll talk about some of the things I found in yours!)

There are a lot of rules in the Bible. Just like the rules of baseball or the by-laws drawn up by a church, the various commandments we read in scripture were designed to help us do a better job living together in community. We could start with the Ten Commandments, as Paul does in today’s passage from his letter to the Romans. They give us guidelines for being in relationship with God and with one another. Put God first, don’t worship other small g-gods instead, and don’t take the name or the power of God lightly. The rest of the commandments remind us to treat other people with respect, to honor their worth, to be faithful.

Jesus gives us rules, too, and in our passage from Matthew, he points to the complexities of human relationships and urges us to set things right. It’s a four point plan for relating to people who give us trouble.

1) Tell the offender in private.
2) But if that doesn’t work, have a conversation in front of witnesses.
3) But if that still doesn’t work, share it in the community that ought to matter to both of you.
4) And if that doesn’t make the other person get with the program, only then can you can stop trying.

It’s a rule of second and third chances. It’s a rule of love.

Churches have lots of rules, and the ones that lead to conflicts that need such complex untangling are often the unwritten rules. It doesn’t take 200 years or even 60 years to develop a list of things we’ve always done a certain way. It takes one Communion service that goes well, or the death of one person who means a lot to everybody, or an unexpected moment of joy when a baby laughs during a baptism or a child reads scripture in a clear voice, or even a hilarious mishap. As soon as a community feels bound together by deep feeling, the unwritten rule-making begins. I think we make the rules to re-create the feelings.

I’m almost sure to do some things differently than you’re used to, and I hope you’ll come to me and tell me how you feel about them. I want to hear what you love about this church and what you believe God wants for you. If I stand in a different place or say the prayers a different way, and it feels like trouble, employ the four part plan Jesus gave us. And if you like the changes, who knows? They may become new unwritten rules.

(I am hoping for the best here.)

Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)

The Roman Christians were converts from pagan religion; they were just beginners at living by the rules Paul knew so well from the time he was a child. He reduces their complexities to one basic truth: if we want to live by God’s law, we need to love each other.

A view toward the table.

A view toward the table.

It doesn’t take 200 years, or even 60, for a church to become the sum of its rules, written and unwritten. I am just beginning to learn yours. Soon we will gather around Christ’s table. When I was interviewing with the Spiritual Council, and later when I met with the staff to start planning our work, people asked me what I thought about having Communion once a month. I affirmed that it was the practice in other churches I have served, and as long as that has been yours, it’s fine with me.

The conversation ended there, but I want to name the possibility that you have had many more conversations with one another about how often – or simply how – Communion is celebrated here at Faith. That is going to be true of many other things we talk about during this time of intentional interim ministry. We have many things to learn about each other, and many stories to tell, and many differences to discover. I don’t know if the exchanges were straightforward or full of hidden meaning to be uncovered later.

I do know this. The table is a place we gather, whenever we do it, to remember Christ’s great love for us.

I hope his love will be our rule of life together, spoken if unwritten. In this word, love, we find all the rules for healthy community. In this word, love, we find a guide for our interactions. We find a reason for being Christ’s people in this time and place, in this word, love.

All age liturgy for Noah’s Ark (Narrative Lectionary Year 1, Week 1)

Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks

Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks

Call to Worship

One: We come together to read the old stories.

Many: We are looking for God’s word to all people, long ago and today.

One: Some of the stories we remember from Sunday School.

Many: The Lord said to Noah, There’s gonna be a floody floody!

One: Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Many: Get those children out of the muddy muddy!

One: Children of the Lord, let us worship God together.

 

Prayer of Confession

Holy One, you made the Earth and all that is in it. We give thanks for the sky and the seas, the mountains and the valleys, the trees and the flowers, the birds that fly and the fish that swim and all the animals that walk or crawl or creep on the land. You called on human beings to care for Creation, to serve you and praise you by loving all you have made.

We don’t always do it well.

We remember the story of Noah, and a time when people forgot to take care of the Earth and each other. We ask forgiveness for the ways we fail to love your world with our whole hearts. Help us to do better, one step at a time, just the way Noah built the ark one cubit at a time.

Left behind, from Peter Spier's "Noah's Ark"

Left behind, from Peter Spier’s “Noah’s Ark”

Assurance of Pardon

The Lord said to Noah, “But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” God made a covenant with Noah, and God keeps a covenant with us. No one will ever be left behind again. Come into the ark of forgiveness, beloved Children of God!

Passing the Peace

In the Ark of this church, we are one family of faith. Sometimes it feels like close quarters! That’s all the more reason to greet one other with a sign of God’s peace. The peace of Christ be with you.

Children’s Time – Have someone lead “Rise and Shine”

First Reading Genesis 6:18-22 (including Litany of Animals)

Reader 1: Hear the words God spoke to Noah.

Reader 2: Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

Reader 3: For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.

Reader 4: But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

Reader 5: And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.

Reader 6: Of the birds according to their kinds –

Chorus of Kids: Robins! Sparrows! Flamingos! Ducks! Geese! Chickens! Eagles!

Reader 6: …and of the animals according to their kinds -

Chorus of Kids: Dogs! Cats! Cows! Bunny rabbits! Groundhogs! Deer! Giraffes! Tigers! Lions!

Reader 6: of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind –

Chorus of Kids: Snakes and Mosquitoes and Bears and Honeybees! Elephants and Kangaroosies-roosies!

Reader 6: …two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.

Reader 1: Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. This is the word of the Lord.

Congregation: Thanks be to God.

Second Reading     Genesis 9:8-15 (consider doing some kind of display of a rainbow to accompany v. 12)

******************

Earlier this summer, I thought I might be writing weekly Narrative Lectionary liturgy, but as other projects and an Interim Ministry job arose, I had to let that idea go. I did create this all-age liturgy for Kathrynzj’s congregation (their version has a joke about the Eagles and the Giants, a football rivalry that plays out in their lives together), and when I write other special things for their use, I will gladly share them. I’ll be in the Revised Common Lectionary, though, and I can’t keep up with both on a weekly basis.

To the Quarry

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

My quarry was the American South of the mid-20th century, a racially-mixed city where I grew up in a neighborhood so oddly quaint that it felt more like the setting for a 19th century novel written by a maiden lady with keen skills of social observation. My childhood memories skew to the excessively genteel. I can see my mother sitting at her desk, writing thank you notes, and have few memories of my father not wearing a necktie, unless he was playing tennis or in his pajamas. We lived in an old city, and both sides of the family had been there for many generations. One of my grandmothers was President of the Historical Association and an avid preservationist. Therefore I almost cannot help looking back and pondering how we all got to where we are.

There are a lot of influences in each of our lives that form us.

  • Location – where were you born, and how did the climate and the environment impact you?
  • Ethnicity and Nationality – what are the cultural influences that mattered in your early life?
  • Religion – what stream of faith formed you?

Isaiah wrote these verses for a people returned from exile in Babylon to take up living in Jerusalem again. Their faith tied them to a location their ancestors had left behind unwillingly, but by this time not only had that place been changed by years of occupation, the people coming back were not the ones who left in the first place. “Returned” is a term that applies to their race, but not to the individuals making the trip. They went back to the location of the Temple, the place where God could assuredly be found – but the occupying forces had destroyed the Temple, too.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn – look to the ancestors, says Isaiah, and to the way God dealt with them. Abraham was only one person, but from him came many. The heritage of the returned exiles included many people who felt like they lived at the end of the line, but God delivered them. Isaiah wrote a word of encouragement:

This land may feel unfamiliar, but no matter how complicated things seem, God is with you.

Look to the Rock.

Peter, the gospels tell us, grew up by the Sea of Galilee. He worked beside his brother, Andrew, casting the nets and supporting their families. He grew up in a family-oriented time, but he left both boat and family to follow Jesus. All the gospels suggest he had a strong, impulsive personality. When Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter never hesitated. “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus called him the Rock; “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church.” We remember Peter for his denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but we also remember that he went on to lead the early church, preaching and teaching and eventually being crucified himself.

Look to the rock from which we are hewn, to the quarry from which we were dug.

My childhood home may have been quaint and genteel, but it was also segregated. The African-American women I knew were all maids in our neighborhood. The one I remember best took care of my brother and me. No one thought it was strange for me to call her by her first name, Catherine. The one man of color I knew worked at my church; he was the janitor. No one thought it was odd for a very little girl to call him by his last name without a “Mr.” in front of it.

That’s been on my mind the past few weeks, as we’ve watched some terrible scenes unfold on television, scenes of armored vehicles on the streets, cell phone video of what amounted to an execution. I don’t like to see these things when they take place in Syria. I hate to see these things when they take place in our country.

I wish that scenes of violent oppression and stories of racial prejudice were ancient history, or at least as far away as my childhood. I was sheltered from the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement – the violent reaction of white people, my people. I could hide behind the memory of the times we made sure to visit with Catherine after we moved away, because it’s a true story, and I could tell you about how my mother was one of a minority of white women employing help who bothered to do the Social Security paperwork, but the truth is we lived in a segregated and oppressive time and place, where the drug store counters and the water fountains had signs saying who could use them and who could not.

And what do we have now, fifty years later?

We have armored vehicles on the streets, deployed against our citizens. We have flash-bangs and tear gas canisters being used on our citizens. We have a church being raided in an American city – an AMERICAN city – for the sin of offering protestors first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.

We see scenes that look like the gates of Hell.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It’s too easy to read the gospel lesson this morning and pretend it refers to some far-off confrontation between metaphysical powers or imagine it as an apocalyptic IMAX summer blockbuster with Biblical figures instead of comic book characters.

The truth of these past two weeks has been a grindingly every-day hell. It’s as horribly ordinary as the delay of the first day of school, or a trip to the convenience store interrupted by a shooting, or a deadly walk home on a residential street. In big cities and middle class suburbs and small towns there is hatred and fear and cruelty. Mistrust feeds on mistrust. People get righteously angry. People speak painful truths. People do things we wish they wouldn’t. People on all sides do all these things. We – collectively – commit the sin of treating God’s beloved children as “other.”

Even without the tear gas, it’s hellish.

If it feels unmanageable to you, you’re in good company.

Listen to these ancient words, from Psalm 138:

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138:7-8, NRSV)

The Israelites coming back from Babylon didn’t know how they were going to manage in Jerusalem. Peter had no idea how to be the person Jesus claimed he would be. I grew up and through many awkward relationships with African-American classmates and co-workers before I could be a real friend to any of them. I’m pretty sure most of the faithful sitting in churches this Sunday morning have a feeling we ought to be doing something about racism, but just don’t know where to start.

I don’t like to use “we” here. I want to say “they” and make it someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem. We are afraid we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or we tell ourselves these things only happen far away from us. We could turn our heads away, but the trouble is, we read Isaiah this morning.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

We want to be those people, don’t we, to have that kind of persistent faith? That quarry from which I was dug had some pretty faithful people in it. They couldn’t shield me entirely from the unconscious racism of our culture, but they could point me to the rock from which we were all hewn. God is that rock, a God of steadfast and enduring love for all people. God is that rock, who loves all people *so* much that God became one of us to make sure we knew it.

Peter knew. He knew God was in the world, even before the world was ready to know it.

That’s how every new movement starts. Someone listens to God, even before the rest of the world is ready. Someone puts it into words. People start to listen. The world begins to change.

We can see it some places. But we aren’t all the way there yet. It seems like it should be simple, but when we turn on the TV, there they are again, the fiery gates of Hell, in the middle of a neighborhood.

Greater St. Mark church (snagged from Brian Merritt's Facebook page)

Greater St. Mark church (snagged from Brian Merritt’s Facebook page)

In that neighborhood, the raided church continues to offer first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.

We can do it in any neighborhood when we open out with healing and nurture and community for all beloved children of God. That’s the way to be Christ’s church, founded on a rock, hewn from the quarry of God’s steadfast love.

The gates of Hell can never prevail against it.

*******

(Today’s readings here and here.)

No color line (a prayer for pastors)

I sleep with a preacher
who didn’t sleep much last night.
It’s a familiar feeling
from the last time,
and all the other times,
times when the news holds headlines
that shake our comfortable worlds.

We need shaking, Lord.
We need it so we don’t forget.
We need it so we speak up,
remind ourselves
and tell others
that all people are
Your beloved children.

There is no color line
in Your commonwealth of Love.

I read the news this morning,
and the Times says
the young protestors
will not listen to their elders.
The paper says
there is no respect
for leadership.

Eric Thayer, New York Times

Eric Thayer, New York Times

But I wonder how much longer
we can preach non-violence
when we see the fruits,
when we see the way the strong,
the armed, the militarized,
treat the undefended.

I wonder why we wonder
when no one listens to preachers.

Give us courage
to say the things
that need to be said,
to walk the walk
that needs to be walked,
to live the lives
You call us to live.

Help us, please,
for Christ’s sake. Amen.

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