God is on the line!

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This is the text from a sermon I delivered on August 21, 2016 to members of my home church, Zion United Methodist Church, where I was baptized and confirmed. The collage above is of my church and I’m standing with my two former pastors, the Rev. Jennifer Bailey (who confirmed me) and Pastor Rodney Fightmaster, who blessed me before moving away in 2007. 

We all know the fabled adage from our childhood: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But to the child who has been bullied, the couple whose marriage is falling apart, the friend whose trust has been betrayed, words can and do hurt. In fact, words can cause lasting damage. A person may never fully heal from the wounds inflicted by some words spoken or shouted at them in the course of their lifetime, no matter how many years may pass.

It’s true, words can be destructive, but they can also lift us up when we are down, inspire us when we need that little boost to realize our full potential, heal us when we are broken, comfort us when we are lonely, sad, or afraid, and even make us laugh or smile, when we least expect them to. Words and the emotions they elicit are powerful.

Today’s reading from the Old Testament comes from the book of Jeremiah, a book that bears the name of one of Israel’s major prophets. The prophets served a vital purpose for their time. Prophets were called to be God’s literal mouthpiece, to nip at the heels of power by reminding Israel’s often fallen and wayward kings that God’s authority – not theirs – is everlasting and supreme, and to speak unpopular and even abrasive words to their fellow Israelites in order to inspire them to turn away from idolatry and other sinful behaviors.

We know that Jeremiah prophesied for approximately 45 years, beginning in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, around 627 BCE, and ending four years into the Babylonian Exile (a period of immense political suffering and persecution that stretched for nearly 70 years) around 582 BCE. In today’s reading, God says to Jeremiah that the mission of his prophecy will be “[t]o uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” As with the other prophets like Isaiah, Jonah, Micah, and Zephaniah (to name a few of my personal favorites), Jeremiah was called by God to be a “divine agitator,” to beckon his people to turn away from sin and to embrace a renewed life of holiness founded on God’s covenant.

At the heart of God’s covenant was and is love. My sisters and brothers, if we know anything at all about God is it quite simply that God is love. At the heart of God’s promise to Abraham to make God’s descendants as numerous as the stars was love. God’s assurance to Noah to never again destroy creation was sealed in the sky with a rainbow, serving as a reminder to us that God’s love is always enduring and never failing. It was a blazing fire of passionate love that consumed the burning bush, which called out to Moses to set God’s beloved people free from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule in Egypt. Love parted the bitter waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk to freedom on dry ground. Love rained down as manna from the heavens, which nourished God’s people while they wandered through the desert for forty miserable years. Love led the Israelites to the Promised Land as a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. It is with love that God says to each and every one of us today, just as God said to Jeremiah, “[b]efore I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” And it is love that liberates us from a life of sin and death if only, by grace, we bow at the foot of the cross, surrender our hearts and our minds and say “yes” to Jesus’ promise of eternal life.

Church, let us never forget what lies at the core of our faith: God’s love, which is available to all, sets us free! Where there is God, there is freedom for everyone; justice reins, mercy and compassion are unending, and grace is everywhere healing, renewing, transforming, perfecting, and sanctifying! In God, there is no fear, no hate, no division, no loneliness. God is always on the line, if only we take the time to listen to that still, soft whisper that wants to have an ever-closer relationship with each and every one of us. And being in relationship with God, learning from Jesus, and following the direction of the Holy Spirit changes us.

In his book The Evidence for God, Paul Moser, a philosopher of religion and former professor of mine who teaches at Loyola University Chicago, states that human beings – those of us here gathered today at Zion Church – that we are the greatest proof for God’s existence. Imagine this for a moment. God is a morally perfect being worthy of worship. Jesus, the fullest revelation of what it means to be both human and divine, shows us a unique way of living in the world. And when we follow Jesus’ teaching by loving our enemies and those who persecute us, turning the other cheek, practicing humility, and following all the other really countercultural teachings that are hard and often irrational to do, we begin to attain what our beloved father of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, called “Christian Perfection.” It’s the idea that even though we will never be perfect as Jesus Christ is perfect, we should not cease trying.

And when we do good deeds for want of nothing, Paul Moser states that we become the very evidence for God’s existence. In other words, God uses us, brothers and sisters, to make God’s presence known and felt by the world! And that means that God is on the line calling each and everyone one of us to lead an extraordinary life in ordinary ways.

Pastor Rod, a man of God who I admire so much and who has done a fine job shepherding this church for over a decade now, has told me that this church has been blessed with a spiritual awakening and a call to discipleship. Awakening and discipleship: this is what church is supposed to be! A church is not a building, open only for but a few hours on Sundays. We are missing the point if we think that what happens here on Sunday is what makes us a church. What makes this church is you, the people. And we will be known as a church by what we say, what we do, and how we treat everyone we encounter outside these walls every day of the week. It was the people in this church who nurtured my calling to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church at a young age. The support and blessing I received as a youth from people like Corky and Bob Tarr, Pat Reincke, Ruth and Bud Weber, Robyn Hughes, Sandy and Ron Henkel, Elnora and Norville Humphrey, Dick and Nadine Kitz, Martha Seymour, Marty Kraus, Charlie Caudill, Patty Prowse, Ruth Holt, and so many others made a lasting impact on my life. The seed was planted here at Zion Church and it has been growing ever since. And I ask for your continued prayers and support as I begin this journey to ordination.

How we live our lives begins with the words we speak to others. Words that affirm or words that deny. Words that lift up lives or words that tear them down. Words that destroy injustice or words that perpetuate hate. Remember what God said to Jeremiah about the power of words: words can uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow, build, and plant. The people we choose to be, how we act in the world, and how we treat others puts God on the line every single day. How we love and live outside these walls will have a lasting impact on people’s understanding of God, this church, and religion altogether.

Far too often, churches have been consumed with fear, have atrophied for lack of spiritual imagination, and been restricted by adherence to a rigid moral legalism that constricts the vital, beating pulse of the Holy Spirit. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see, once again, that the Pharisees are rigid, moral legalists to their own detriment. They accuse Jesus of breaking a law that banned Jews from working on the Sabbath, when he heals a woman. In their narrow imagination, they see Jesus’ act of healing to be a violation of the law because he is technically working on a day of rest and worship. But Jesus snaps at these Pharisees and calls them hypocrites, stating that even they mindlessly break the law when they give water to hydrate their animals on the Sabbath. The lesson here is that we must extend radical hospitality, compassion, mercy, and love to those we may not agree with, to those who may not look, sound, smell, or act like us, that we must open our hearts, minds, and doors and be bold enough to do the right thing, even if it pushes us to our limit and makes us uncomfortable in the process.

Jesus gives us a new morality: it is better the break the law and even be wrong, but be motivated by love … than to follow the law and be right, but be motivated by fear. With an awakened spiritual imagination, mercy, compassion, and love triumph over fear and no law can stand in the way of God’s love. This is perhaps best-illustrated three chapters earlier in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We should not hold adherence to an earthly law in higher esteem than fulfilling our duties to the most supreme law of them all: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

*****

Now, of course, this is easier said than done.

For many years, even when I was faithfully worshiping in these pews here at Zion Church, I’ve had the ambitious goal to read the entire Bible from beginning to end. And it was a deeply pious Southern Baptist woman from the mountains of East Tennessee who gave me this goal at very early age. Every summer, as I would make my annual pilgrimage with my Momma to her hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee, the first place we would often visit would be my great Aunt Janie-bell and her sister, Eloise’s, house. And as soon as we got to their home, I’d walk past her bedroom and marvel at her well-worn King James Version Bible, which was always open on her bedside table.

Jane Mitchell may not have the expensive education I’ve been blessed to receive, but she knows more about God’s Word than I’ll ever know. This woman has such respect for the scriptures that she reads them every day. As a kid, I so deeply admired her for having read the Bible by herself and I decided this year would be the year I’d do it, too. So, I made but one New Year’s resolution this year: read the Holy Bible from beginning to end in 2016. And, friends, what a journey it has been; my faith has been renewed and strengthened.

But reading the Bible can be intimidating and, as much as I hate to say it, there are some rough patches that are pretty boring. And it can get discouraging and frustrating. Which is why I recommend the “One Year Bible,” a Bible that is broken down into 365 daily readings. As long as you can set aside 15 minutes each day and keep up with the daily readings, you can get through the entire Bible in one year’s time. Now, 15 minutes a day is not a big commitment for yourself or for God, but I’ve found that if you don’t get in a routine and do it at a set time each day, the business of life kicks in and before you know it, the day is over. The best time for me to read the Bible is on my daily morning commute into the office on the DC subway.

If you ever find yourselves in our nation’s capitol, there is something you should know. The subway is no fun place to be. It’s overcrowded, underfunded, downright dirty, in major need of repair, frustratingly slow, hot and humid, and always-delayed. And there is something else you should know, an unspoken but very important rule: when riding the escalators in the subway stations, you always stand on the right side of the escalator so those who are in a rush or just don’t like piling up on the slow-moving escalators can hustle down the left side.

I’m not making an excuse for any impatience on my part, but my daily commute from my apartment in Washington to my office in Arlington, VA takes a total of 45 minutes over the duration of 14 different stops including a transfer from a green or yellow line train to a blue, orange, or silver line train … all to travel just a measly five miles across the Potomac River into Virginia! Combine this intense commute with an overcrowded, underfunded, downright dirty, in major need of repair, frustratingly slow, hot and humid, and always-delayed subway experience and, well, you’ve got yourselves a powder keg of extreme frustration that’s liable to explode with even the slightest prompting.

Like most big cities, it’s a dog eat dog world on DC public transportation, with people always in a rush to catch their train and having little to no patience for anything that gets in their way or slows them down. So maybe you can imagine my own frustration one day as I was transferring from a green line train to a blue line train at L’Enfant Plaza (one of the busiest metro stations in DC). I was already a sweaty hot mess and probably running behind because the train I just got off of was running a little late, so it was very important that I make this transfer in as little time as possible.

And just as I began my descent on the escalator to catch the blue line train on the lower platform, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a train that was fast approaching the platform beneath me. As I began to pick up the pace so I could be sure to catch the next train, all of the sudden, the escalator traffic I was descending with ground to an unexpected halt and there I was, standing on a slow moving escalator, watching my train pull up to the platform, the doors of the train open … and then close … and then, go figure, the train sped away from the platform just as I was getting off the escalator.

I swiftly identified the culprit, a middle-aged woman, and called out to her from behind, “Excuse me!” Surprised that someone was speaking to her, she turned around and looked at me. I wonder what she was expecting I might say to her, but instead of saying something nice and friendly, I said to her in a very frustrated tone of voice, “You’re supposed to stand on the right and walk on the left… and because of you, I just missed my train!” She shook her head and looked at me with sadness in her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks a lot.”

And less than one minute later, another train was approaching my side of the platform to take me to my destination. I was relieved to be whisked away from that woman into anonymity, but also embarrassed because not even a minute had passed between the train I missed and the train I had boarded. In the long run, her breaking the “stand right, walk left” rule had not really impacted my commute into work at all.

I cannot say definitively the impact my words had on this woman. Maybe she was a tourist, and our brief encounter left her with a bitter taste in her mouth by how she was treated by cold city people like me. But what if just an hour before, she had learned that a loved one had died, or she had just gotten news of a diagnosis, or a pet was sick, or she had been hurt by a friend. And what if my words only served to further break down her spirit.

What made matters even worse, I was holding my “One Year Bible” in my hand as I said those words to her. I was in the middle of reading my daily scripture while on my morning commute. What a bad representation I was for Jesus Christ and for God’s love at that moment. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, a lesson I learned that I share with all of you so we can hold each other accountable on this journey of love and “Christian Perfection” were are on.

Zion Church, God is on the line, every single day because of the words we choose to speak to others and the actions that follow them. And God is on the line calling us to be proof of God’s existence, calling us to live our lives in love. We are called to speak words that give life and words that give love. Our actions will bring people closer to God or they will drive people away. The words preached from the pulpit and how we act as a church – including the words we speak to others – have implications that will last a lifetime. Lives are literally on the line. Jesus calls us out of a narrow, legalistic mindset and to let love, mercy, and compassion have the final word.

We are called to be the light of God’s love shining throughout our world. Even in the midst of darkness, may our lives be lived in such a way that radiates the brilliance of God’s love. Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here may our lives tell God’s story. Jesus, light of the world, shine upon us. Set us free by the Truth you now bring us. Shine, Jesus, shine! Fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit, blaze. Set our hearts on fire. Flow, river, flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy. Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light!

And thanks be to God for that light! Amen.

+ CMJ

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