Community of Celebration

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Sunday, October 29, 2017
Celebration Sunday & Divine Conspiracy, Week 7
Scripture: II Corinthians 8:1-7 & Matthew 7:1-12
Rev. Troy Hauser-Brydon


When I say the word “church,” what comes to mind?

I’m sure for many of us this word draws our minds immediately to place, to a building. Some of you might have a very specific style of building in mind – with a steeple, pews, and an organ – elements all present here. And while buildings are wonderful and useful to ministry, they are not the church.

On another level, the word “church” makes us think of a community of individuals who meet in a particular place, agree to govern themselves in a specific way, and who generally agree upon certain beliefs. We have churches that program in a particular way we like, with youth programs that meet our kids needs, with music programs that match our tastes, and with outreach programs that make us feel like we’re making a difference. While this is getting closer to the meaning of “church,” it still falls short in my mind. It’s mentality is too individual and too consumerist – where church is where I get what I want or what I need. Full stop.

I love the church. I’m called to it, and I am glad to be so. But I wonder if we have accepted being a community with a lower-case “c” when God has so much more on offer for us.

Inner Texture
Our text in Matthew 7 gives three ways that those living in the Kingdom of God (that is, Christians) live with each other in a way that is flat out different than the world teaches us to live. There is depth to these illustrations. They move far beyond basic kindness and being well-mannered into genuine care and concern for each other that is modeled after the God who loves the world. Taken together these verses “illustrate the inner texture of kingdom life with family, friends, co-workers, and ‘next door’ neighbors. They illustrate the kingdom attitude toward those closest to us.”[1] My hope this morning is to give us an understanding of what it would look like for us to move from a lower-case community of faith into something deeper, something more worthwhile, something that far exceeds even your best hopes and dreams right now. Simple, right? This is being a part of the Divine Conspiracy!

Matthew 7:1-12 offers us three illustrations of the way agape – love that most resembles God’s love for us – manifests itself in the kingdom. The final verse, which we all know as The Golden Rule, sums them up, but these three illustrations give a depth to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” that is often missing in our normal application of Jesus’ words. In these illustrations, Jesus is dealing with our impulses to judge, to control, or to manipulate others because we are all prone to use these to make ourselves feel superior or secure. So, there is a warning side to reading these words of Jesus. Taken negatively, Jesus is taking us to task for “the deadly way in which we try to ‘manage’ or control those closest to us by blaming and condemning them and by forcing upon them our ‘wonderful solutions’ for their problems.”[2]

Haven’t we all had some well-meaning person do this to us? I remember planting boxwoods at our home in Troy, Michigan, during our first spring there. We had a couple dozen to plant, so I worked out a whole system of spacing between the plants and in relationship to the rest of the flowerbeds to make sure there was symmetry. (Did you know your pastor can get a bit anxious when things are out of place?) Jess and I worked together on planting all of these boxwoods, when our lovely neighbor walked over, took one look at our work, and declared, “If I were you, I would move those bushes another six inches away from the house.” I just stared at him, while inwardly I thought, “Are you serious? You just noticed I was done with the work and now – now! – you want to tell me I should have done it differently?” Fortunately, I held my tongue, except for saying something like, “That’s a good idea. We just finished, but we may take your advice later on.”

And so you’ll see in these three illustrations that there is the danger of sticking our noses into business that is not ours, but much of the issue will relate to how well we are learning to be Christians together. So, let’s take a look at these three illustrations of agape love.

No condemnation
Jesus begins with these words, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” We’re pretty likely to stop there, since these words can be pretty easy to follow. “I’m OK, and you’re OK,” is a common phrasing in our world today, and while I wholeheartedly believe in acceptance, I also wholeheartedly believe that, quite frankly, “I’m NOT OK, and there’s a good chance neither are you.” We’re all works in progress, and we need to be free within the community of love and acceptance to carry each other’s burdens and to help each other get to a better place. There is a balance to be had here, particularly in a church community, where we have given vows that say we were care for each other and call each other to discipleship in Jesus. On the one hand, I need to care enough about you to be with you as you are, not as I wish you would be. On the other hand, I need to care enough about you to want something better for you than you may want for yourself. There is a balance between unconditional acceptance and the need each of us has to change in the manner of Christ.

For example, if you live in a state of constant bitterness and regret, it would not be loving for us to just accept that as what’s best for you. Or if you are wrestling with pornography or alcohol, it would be terrible if we just ignored this.

Jesus is not against discernment, as is evident in verse 5 where he says, “First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” What is at stake here is a movement towards condemnation. In Willard’s words, “Condemnation is the board in our eye.”[3] When we are loving in the manner of God, we will live with each other in such a way that encourages personal and communal transformation, and it does so in a manner where we sense love and a place of home, while still feeling a sense of conviction because this side of glory, none of us is perfect! Paul writes in Romans 8 that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We live together in the freedom of forgiveness, but we also must challenge each other in the way of Christ. Would that this church be a place that models this kind of love!

Pearls and Pigs
The second illustration is vivid and often misinterpreted. In verse 6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.” We often read this as putting others who are not like us in the position of the swine. Don’t give your nice things to those who don’t deserve them. But this misses the very point of Jesus. He is saying that we should offer things that are useful to others, so if they’re not in position to receive your pearls, keep them to yourself!

Willard puts this so well, “As long as I am condemning my friends or relatives, or pushing my ‘pearls’ on them, I am their problem. They have to respond to me, and that usually leads to their ‘judging’ me right back, or ‘biting’ me, as Jesus said.

“But once I back away, maintaining a sensitive and nonmanipulative presence, I am no longer their problem. As I listen, they do not have to protect themselves from me, and they begin to open up. I may quickly begin to appear to them as a possible ally and resource. Now they begin to sense their problem to be the situation they have created, or possibly themselves. Because I am no longer trying to drive them, genuine communication, real sharing of hearts, becomes an attractive possibility. The healing dynamic of the request comes naturally into play.”[4]

Request is at the heart of the final illustration. When I request something of you, I put myself in a position of humility. You have the power to grant that request or not, right? But when we are learning to live as a kingdom community, honest requests become a part of normal speech and conversation. The request has no manipulation. Willard begins shaping the idea of the request into the language of prayer, for “Prayer is nothing but a proper way for persons to interact.”[5]

Think about how this dynamic has the potential to change everything. When the Nominating Committee calls a person to be an elder or deacon, they wouldn’t need a sales pitch. They would just need to say, “We feel you are called to this, would you consider it?” And the one who heard the request can be honest, too. They could say, “It is really humbling to be considered, so let me pray about it.” Or they could say – without guilt – “Now is not my time!”

Or in this season of generosity, think about how much easier it is to talk about giving and generosity within a community that trusts each other. It ceases to be a sales pitch and turns into a joyful celebration of how we commit to each other for another season of ministry.

Or think about it in terms of prayer. We are always tempted to treat God like a divine vending machine. If I put in the right words, then I get the right product back out. In effect, we treat God as though God isn’t so sure God wants to give us what we need. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Jesus!

The way we interact with God shapes the way we interact with each other. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived openheartedly and openhandedly with God and each other?

Community of Celebration
Friends, it’s Celebration Sunday here at First Pres. We are celebrating God’s blessings to us up to this moment. We are celebrating that we get to commit to do this for another year. With joy, we get to make promises before God and each other that we will be a vibrant church – a living, holy, and active Faith Community (with capital letters, I hope!) in the months to come. When we live into God’s agape love, we see this in how we love each other into acceptance and transformation, through patience, and through faithful request.

This is why I love how Paul handles his conversation about money with the church in Corinth, where he points to poor Christians in Macedonia as an example of people who had learned the openhanded joy of community.

Stan Mast tells it well, “Why in the world would anyone give any money to the church? The church is filled with difficulty, even scandal. Who knows what “they” will do with it? Who knows if “they” are managing things well? “They” often do things we don’t like. Sometimes we’re very unhappy with our own church. So why give to “the church?” Well, says Paul, stewardship begins when you take your eyes off that human institution and fix them upon Jesus and give yourself to him. Generosity flows out of a heart that is surrendered to Jesus. That’s the first reason for the praiseworthy giving of these poor Christians—before they gave their money to the church, they gave themselves to Jesus.”[6]

Friends, on this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I urge you to this end. One of the greatest gifts of the Reformation is the sense that we haven’t figured it all out yet, that the need for transformation is always there. We are the church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God.

God is not done with you yet. God is not done with me yet. God is not done with us yet. We can be better together. We will be better together. Thanks be to God for where we are, and let’s get excited to see where God is taking us!

[1] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy, 217.

[2] ibid., 216.

[3] ibid., 224.

[4] ibid., 231.

[5] ibid., 234.