Marks of our church: “Work” (Sermon, 4.28.13)

“Marks of Our Church: Work”
John 21.1-19
FBC Lawrence

Work. Why are we talking about “Work” as a “mark” of our church? Work is something we do during the week; work is stressful; work is what pushes us back to this place to find refuge, respite, restoration.  Why are we talking about work?

To put “Work” in our newsletter, on our website, to embrace it as one of our ‘marks’ is risky. It doesn’t sound nearly as inviting as Welcome or Wonder (more on that next week), and it doesn’t sound nearly so church-y as the obvious “Worship.” But you know, it might be one of the most fitting words we could have chosen to help describe what church is all about.

Perhaps you know the good, Southern phrase, “That sounds like work.” Another pastor Imagenotes, when someone uses this phrase it often indicates that what sounds exciting or worthwhile or fun to one person doesn’t exactly motivate the other person to leave whatever they are doing.[1]

I use this phrase a lot – mostly tongue in cheek – and mostly to myself. When I have a brilliant new idea, or vision for something, and then I start to name all the steps to make said idea happen, I pause, shake my head and say to myself – “Meh. That sounds like work.”

You know, it may sound cliché, but the reality is that anything worth doing is work.

Which brings me to Ben Affleck – yes the actor-slash-director. I know some of you have less than wonderful things to say about Ben Affleck’s acting career. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what he said in his acceptance speech at this year’s Oscars.

In a harried moment of naming colleagues and financial supporters, he said this: “I want to thank my wife…. I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good. It is work but it’s the best kind of work and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”[2]

I was watching the Oscars. I don’t generally pay much attention to the minutiae of the speeches, but I was struck by the honesty and tenderness in his words. You expect actors to gush – their speeches to reflect the butterflies and rainbows of the same make and model of the romantic comedies in which they star. You don’t expect them to acknowledge the reality of what it takes to maintain and sustain relationships.

What I also didn’t expect – but maybe should have – was the flurry of negative attention and speculation Affleck received. Some keyed in on his naming of their marriage as work as an indicator that their marriage was clearly doomed.  However, anyone who has ever been in any kind of relationship (so, all of us) knows they take work. Sure, he was talking about his marriage, and there is surely no more significant relationship, and no more significant work, than with the one person we find, fall for, and to whom we choose to commit our lives and ourselves – if we are so lucky.

It can be tempting to approach marriage assuming that the wedding itself is the end. Once we’ve put in the work to get to the altar, and plan (and pay for) the event itself, it will be all downhill from there. That’s the line that Hollywood has tried to sell us, at least.  But many of you are smiling because you know to your core how wrong that is.  You know the infinite ways that saying “I do” is only the beginning of a lifetime of work. (Especially if, and when, you decide to have children.)

And, really, any relationship takes work. Anytime we commit to being friends with, community with, anytime we decide to wrap our lives up in the lives of other people, we are risking ourselves, and we have to commit to working – working to develop intimacy, vulnerability, trust. It is work and it is risk.

I bring all this up because I believe there is no more fitting way to talk about the kind of work it takes to be church. It can be tempting to believe that all we need to do is walk in, sit down, and our work is completed. And maybe for some of us just showing up is work. We took the risk of personal commitment and showed up to church, have joined our lives with a particular faith community, and now we want to rest. We just want to fade in the background.

And in so many ways, in our culture that grows increasingly suspicious of institutions, that offers us so many other ways to stay busy, even to build community – showing up is a type of work.  And for many of us, doing the vulnerable thing of coming clean with our choice to follow Jesus, to come to church, is a significant form of work. I don’t begrudge the effort that takes for some of us. We ought to appreciate this work as well.

But, here’s the rub: it cannot end there. Sure, it takes work to show up. It takes more work to remain church together. It takes work to learn and grow and stay together. It takes work to ask tough questions – wrestle with life’s hard realities, knowing we may ask questions that might not fully find answers.

So, here we are, talking about work, and chances are you’re already weary and tired. Maybe just listening ‘sounds like work.’ To already overworked, busied people, the question persists – why do we need to keep working? Whatever happened to Jesus’ eternal rest, easy yoke, light burden? When do we just get to be comfortable?

We humans are not prone to seeking out hard work. In most things, we seek out easy fixes don’t we? We jump on board fad diets instead of working toward lifestyle changes. We look for the miracle workout – in only 10 minutes you will have the same physical results you can get in hours of tough exertion. In our relationships, too: we are often quick to rule people out, to cut them out entirely, when they frustrate us, or hurt us, rather than doing the work to be honest, be vulnerable, be in relationship. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in our social networking where, with a click of a button we can both “add friends” and “unfriend” the same people.

But none of this is lasting. None of this is life-giving or soul-sustaining. That piece takes work.

And see – church is work – all the things about being church – our welcome and our worship, which we’ve already been thinking and talking about, that takes work. Maintaining and caring for our space – that takes work. Even one of the words we use in our worship – liturgy – literally means work – the work of the people. When we talk about liturgy, we are talking about the holy work of gathering together and worshiping God.

It sounds like work and it is work. It is God’s work. Jesus continues to call us to his work – we are in the midst of writing our own resurrection stories – Jesus is coming back to call us, again and again, reminding us that there is work to be done.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus has already returned and appeared three times – to Mary, to the disciples (once without Thomas and again with him present). For all it sounds, the twentieth chapter of John seems an adequate ending to the story.

And yet there is one last chapter, one last story of encounter. But not just any encounter; the Gospel story today is equal parts call story, commissioning story, and resurrection story.

Imagine the disciples – following a whirlwind week of a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, having their feet washed and their meal served by their Lord, watching him tried, beaten and executed – then heard rumors of his return, and then touched the wounds in his hands and side – they must have been weary. They must have been a little emotionally taxed, overwhelmed by life.

So – after all that, a group of them return to the water. There they are, sitting on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, Peter – always a little impulsive, quick to action – announces, “I am going fishing.” The rest of the disciples, I imagine, shrugging their shoulders, join along. I mean, what else are they going to do, right?

Maybe the disciples were going back to business as usual. After all, by trade, many of them had been fishers prior to following Jesus’ call. Maybe they were hiding out – trying to blend in. Maybe they just needed to take their mind off of everything that had happened – too much to process – so they were just trying to stay busy. I get that, don’t you? When life throws me curveballs, when I am consumed with worry or anxiety, I seek out busyness – things that feel ordinary and routine to keep my mind busy on anything but what I probably ought to think about. 

Whatever reason drove the disciples into the boat to fish that night, matters less than what follows.  They caught nothing – which likely wouldn’t have been a very helpful distraction – and were prepped to call it a night. (Literally: day was breaking, it was time to draw up the nets and find some breakfast.)  And then Jesus appears. Jesus shows up to remind them of who they are and what they were originally called to be.  And he challenges them.

He instructs them to “Cast the net to the right side of the boat,” and they will “find some” fish.  Yeah, I’ll say. They “found” so many fish they couldn’t even lift the net over the boat. It is John who recognizes Jesus first – telling Peter, “It is the Lord.” And it is, of course, Peter who acts first, throws on his clothes, and jumps into the sea running ashore. He leaves the rest of the disciples to figure out how to get the fish in the boat, and the boat back to the shore.

Then we have one of the most iconic exchanges in all of the Gospels.  If you will remember a few pages prior, Peter is asked three times in a row: “Don’t you know that man, Jesus?” To which he replies, emphatically, No. And as we know, upon the rooster’s morning call, Jesus’ foretelling was made complete. 

At the conclusion of John’s Gospel, we have another dialogue wherein Peter is asked three times in a row the same question. This time, though, the questioner is Jesus. Can you imagine what must have been going on in Peter’s head? A few days prior, as Jesus himself predicted, Peter rejected his friend, his teacher, his God. Then Jesus was gone – rejected and gone.  Now he is back, and it would be enough for Peter to try to wrap his brain around that one. And now Jesus is standing on the shore of the lake, feeding them breakfast, and treating Peter the same as always, as though none of the horror had happened.

He asks him, “Peter, do you love me?” To which Peter responds, “You know that I do.” They engage in question and answer again, and the third time Jesus asks, John reports that Peter “felt hurt” – wondering if Jesus doubted for himself Peter’s love (perhaps understandably?). Jesus tells Peter each time: “Feed my sheep.”

The verbs for ‘love’ used here are agape and philos. The significance is that these are both action words. When Jesus is asking if Peter loves him, it’s not about sentimentality or emotional pull, but rather concrete action. And, of course, Jesus’ command is love-in-action. Feed Jesus’ Sheep. In his stead. On behalf of him. Peter as the rock of the church will continue to love and lead Jesus’ followers in concrete and compassionate action. This is what Jesus means in verse 19, when he says “Follow me.”

It is the same call on all our lives. Ultimately, he is calling us to follow him into a new reality. Jesus provides, and invites disciples to contribute what they have – and by extension contribute who they are. He returns once again to call them to work. And being Christ’s Church is work. Following Jesus as a community takes work. It is appropriate that we are talking about what it means to name ‘work’ as a mark of our church in the shadow of his Resurrection.

Our desire to remain unchanged – to seek comfort first – is a desire for a form of death, not a desire for resurrection. The power of the resurrection is that it calls us out of slumber, out of tombs, out of death. Which sounds really nice, doesn’t it? Are we really prepared to follow Jesus not only unto death, but into his Resurrection?

In so many ways we have followed Jesus to his death, building for ourselves tombs – places we can hide, places we can fade into the very terrain and not be found. We do this to remain safe. Yet, that is not our biblical reality. We know the reality of Christ’s resurrection, and it ought to change everything. 

It must change everything, else it changes nothing.

We often think we are following in the resurrection, talking of new life, and yet shaking little of the ways of fear, anger, bitterness, emptiness. But here’s the thing: when we walk around and talk about the resurrection, but still live lives marred by death, remaining in our tombs, we are as good as living corpses.  (Think: Weekend at Bernie’s) As pastor Mary Sue Brookshire notes: “A dead body made to look alive is not a resurrection.”[3]

Not only does resurrection take work – it threatens to change all of who we are and what we do. Parker Palmer talks about this threat:

Bone-deep knowledge of resurrection would take away the fears that some of us presently use to justify our cautious, self-protective lives. Death-dealing fear would be replaced by life-giving faith, and we would be called to do God-knows-what for God-knows-whom. … In the process, we might lose much that we have, perhaps even our lives – and that is the threat of the resurrection.[4]

When faced with knowledge of the resurrection – when faced with Christ’s call to emerge from our tombs – our inclination likely is to respond, “Meh. That sounds like work.”

And it is. Loving other people – feeding Jesus’ sheep – that sounds like work. It is risky work.

The kind of love and action that we are called to if we are going to follow Jesus – in life, death and resurrection – is a love that irritates and inconveniences. It calls us to “bear[…] non-violent witness to a crucified and risen Messiah who continues to say, … ‘follow me.’”[5] And this is work.

The reality of the call of Jesus to feed his sheep, to love as he loved, is that it is risky. It doesn’t offer security because it changes everything.

And it means work for us – because Jesus is still calling us. We are probably more like Peter – denying and staying busy – than Mary or John, the Beloved Disciple, even on our good days. And yet the promise in this piece of the narrative is this:  “the risen Christ still calls, still feeds, still empowers even doubters and deniers for ministry.”[6]

Jesus call is new each day for us – to show up, to keep fishing, to feed his sheep.

It sounds like work, doesn’t it? To keep showing up? To risk vulnerability to create, maintain, sustain relationships? To do the work of Christ’s service in the world – to heed the call of love-in-action?  Here’s the work of church I think that we need to hear today. It is easy to learn about and talk about missions – the work of Christ around that world that touches us on an emotional level, and, in many ways, seems so much more tangible, measurable, maybe even more important. And in many ways this church doesn’t need to hear about the call of Christ to go to work in our community, our country, our world.  We recognize need, and we recognize our call to put Christ’s call to love into concrete action.

What about loving our neighbors who sit not even feet from us in church? This is where the marriage parallel rings even more true – we have joined our lives with this community – and yet, are we strangers who occupy the same space at the same times week after week, or are we working towards realizing God’s call to beloved community? Are we going to put the work into building relationship with one another – risk ourselves and risk vulnerability – and continue to put the work into sustaining those relationships?

Will our church be a church that lives into the threat of resurrection – the threat that Christ changes everything, and calls us to be changed to the core of who we are? Will we make the choice to walk in new life – a choice that happens sometimes even moment to moment?

Here’s the truth – we need each other.  We need each other to do the work. And not just the big, obvious work, like addressing issues of hunger, poverty, injustice. Obviously, as individuals we cannot do that work alone – we can’t even do that work alone as a congregation – we need other churches and organizations, other groups, other gifts and resources.

But besides that, we need each other to do the work of being human, of being in relationship, of being church.  We need each other to help raise our children, to help care for the aging, to help care for our homes, our bodies, our earth. We need each other to help care for ourselves.  Because that too, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he said to follow him and feed his sheep. And that work can only happen if we are willing to take the big and daily risk of being community with one another.  We need each other. We cannot do it alone. 

That sounds like work.

And it is work. It is God’s work. Friends, there is no other group of people I’d rather do that work with than you.

 


[3] Brookshire.

[4] Parker Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring.

[5] Debra Dean Murphy, “Mining for Love,” http://debradeanmurphy.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/mining-for-love/

[6] Thomas Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Year C: Volume 2. p. 425.

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with sighs too deep for words

Morning Prayer, April 21, 2013

Spirit of the Living God we pause in prayer.

With sighs too deep for words we meet you in worship this morning.

It has been a week of heartbreak, of tragedy, of fear. It has been almost too much to bear – too many images, too many stories, too much speculation, too much devastation. We gather for worship seeking many things. Perhaps we seek answers, or healing, or hope. It is weeks like this, O God, that leave us asking Why?, where no hopeanswer will suffice. It is weeks like this that leave us feeling hollow, unsure of how we may be voices of hope and love in a world that has proven itself so dark – so desperately in need of your hope and your love.

We gather together to share our fears and our questions – to know that we are not alone. We gather together as your people – meet us here; draw us ever closer into your Communion.

With sighs too deep for words we pray with all those who are hurting – who have lost a sense of trust in neighbor, or who fear leaving their home. We pray along with those who have lost not just their homes, but their entire communities. May your Spirit intercede and sustain even the darkest fear.

With sighs too deep for words we pray today even for our enemies – faces that have haunted us on the news, forces unnamable, persons who drive us toward fear and hatred. We pray for Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. We seek your peace and your healing, searching to know the truth that we are all your beloved. May your Spirit intercede to bring forgiveness and peace.

With sighs too deep for words we know that tragedy and terror are commonplace in other parts of the world. We realize that events that feel like intrusions into our rhythm and routine are, in fact, rhythm and routine for many of your children in other corners of your creation. May your Spirit intercede where we cannot begin to understand.

With sighs too deep for words we ache to know again the power of your Easter story. We seek to meet you in the resurrection once again today. Even in weeks where the darkness seems to cover so much of our world, fill us with your light. Move us ever forward in your hope. Bear us up to be your love.

With sighs too deep for words we long to meet again in our worship the living Christ – who demonstrated your perfect love, grace and compassion. We seek your Kingdom to be made known, and pray all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

something about running

I’m supposed to be reading about the Holy Spirit, researching for a paper my colleague and I are giving at an academic conference in conjunction with our denomination’s biennial.

But.

I can’t shake this sense of isolation, this sense of unease. I’m pretty extroverted by design, so this tends to happen when I have entire days spent alone, as happened on Monday. And then, when I was sitting at my computer, news started to trickle in about something happening near the end of the Boston Marathon course. It was all convoluted and confusing. Now we know more details, but not enough. Though I only knew second-hand of people running the race, it shook me to my core, and I’m still having a hard time articulating specific reasons.

I’ve been trying to understand this sense of isolation. Running is one way I confront that. Writing is another. So here are some words.

I’ve not ever run a full marathon. I have run nine half marathons, and have my tenth coming up in just over a week. I’ve been at finish lines. I’ve crossed finish lines. I know that experience. I cannot imagine the fear, terror, shock of crossing the finish line as it is turned into a battle zone.

It has me thinking about why this event has left me feeling so hollow – thousands of miles away, separated by degrees from the individuals in the race. But we are not isolated. We runners are not alone. Though, in many ways I run to be truly alone. I don’t have a family from which to escape; I live alone. And yet.  Running takes me at once both fully outside myself and within my own self in ways that transcend whatever chaos or routine surrounds the rest of my moments and days. Running puts me in touch with my body and my mind and my soul in ways that I have not found through stillness or silence. When I try to sit and think, pray, meditate, I get distracted. When I run, I must keep going, and yet the rhythm of feet on pavement, of measured, and yet labored, breath, allows me to hear what’s really happening beneath the surface stress and anxiety.

And yet.

I never run alone. Technically, these days, I mostly run alone. And at other times I have had more consistent running partners. In the larger sense, I do not run alone. I have trained for races with friends and family in other states, and sometimes we run races together. Other times we start races together and reunite at the finish. Either way, we share the accomplishment. We share the exertion. And (most importantly?) we share the feast that follows – often involving eggs and bacon.

As I neared the finish at each of the races I’ve finished I almost lose my breath for the lump in my throat. The sense of accomplishment is almost too overwhelming – but not just for me. I know, to the core of my wearied, weathered body, that I am not alone. All these people – we run together. We run alone, for only our bodies, our spirits, can carry us from start to finish, but we run together.

If I may wax even more philosophical – running for me is church. We, in so many ways, only know our own faith, our own struggle, our own spiritual journey. And yet. We are not alone in the faith together. We do not run alone. We are caught up in each other’s stories and journeys. Running reminds me of this in powerful and profound ways. Running reminds me of my own strength. Running makes me stronger. And this is realized for me most powerfully in the experiences of last miles before the finish line and the joy of the finish line. Whether I run a race pace-for-pace with a friend, or alone, I know that I am not alone. I have done a lot of celebrating and accomplishing in my life, but nothing has felt like quite the sheer joy and emotion of crossing the finish line, and finding the friends or family I love and celebrating and sharing that with them.

I remember the first half marathon I did – through dirt, and water, and rain and muck. After Imagegetting lost and running who knows how many extra miles, the ridiculous sense of relief of finding the finish line could not be marred by the cold and wet clothes we wore.

I remember the Cowtown half marathon, on a beautiful morning in Fort Worth, a year after having my heart broken, felt like a journey come full circle – and might have been the first time I realized I don’t just run, I am a runner.

The Philly half marathon – sharing that experience with a soul sister – and the stack of pancakes as our reward. And later that year sharing with my sister her first half-marathon, and the joy of accomplishment reflected on her face, might have been one of my proudest moments.

The first (and second) times I crossed the finish line of the Bearathon – the toughest half in Texas – with friends, lovelies, who carried me, who carried each other – up and down hills (and onto cups of coffee and breakfast feasts).

I cannot begin to fathom the isolation of those moments being ruptured by violence, attack, fear. It doesn’t make sense; it’s not supposed to.

What remains true is this – is God’s own truth – we are not alone. 

I say all this, I share all this to remind myself.

Morning Prayer, April 14, 2013

 

O Great God of Welcome,

 

You welcomed us into your world – the world you created with care and patience, and the Imageworld you declared Good.  You created a place for us, created companions animal, male, female, for us. You created us, in your image, and welcomed us into relationship with your very Spirit.

 

You welcomed your people into hope, delivering them from slavery and captivity. Through fear and uncertainty, through struggle and bondage, you provided manna, leadership, and peace – the gift of enough for each new day.

 

You welcomed your people into a Promised Land – a land flowing with milk and honey, full of provision, and you welcomed them into Covenant. You welcome us in that same spirit – into new life and new relationship, written on our hearts first. You welcome us by knowing us, intimately, deeply, and in community.

 

You welcomed your people into challenge. Amidst conflict and injustice, through our own perpetuation of oppression and sinfulness, you welcome us to the challenge of new chances, of changing, of revolution. Welcome us yet again as we seek your Kingdom.

 

God, you welcome your people into new life, life shaped by love, faith and grace. In the example set through the life of your Son, we know the power of lives guided by love and compassion. May our welcome not just be in word only, but in radical acts of hospitality.  God, your welcome is to a life shaped by faith – faith in your hope and your Way. May we say no to the powers of death, and yes to the hospitality of faith.

 

God, your welcome is a welcome to grace – to acceptance and love. May our church reflect your love, faith and grace as we seek to reflect your kind of Welcome. Change us, welcome us, to be not merely friendly, but deep and abiding friends, called, loved, and welcomed by you.

 

You have welcomed us into relationship yet again through the gift of your Son. May our hearts, hands, and souls be open to that gift moment by moment.  We ask all this in the name of your Son, Amen.

Morning Prayer, April 7, 2013

Creating God –

Today we give thanks for the gift of music.

For the gift of melody – for song in which we all lift our hearts and voices. We give thanks Imagefor the ways we can sing together words of prayer and praise to you. We welcome the talents and energies of all those who would join voices together to make the beautiful music in worship of you.

For the gift of harmony – for the many parts and descants that add richness and fullness to our song.  In the harmonies we create and absorb today, may we be reminded of the many parts that make up the body of your kingdom and your church.  May we join together in the work of serving and creating alongside you – each person and part integral to the work you call us to do.

For the gift of dissonance, we give thanks. We recognize that things are not always as they ought to be. Even in our music, we recognize the discomfort in discord. May we be reminded of your presence with us, even in moments of discomfort and pain. May we seek your grace in all these moments.

For songs of lament and mourning, we give thanks. We know that in our music we express not just joy and praise, but struggle, grief, and pain. We are thankful that you are present in our minor keys and our cries for relief and of mourning.

For the gift of movement and dance – for the rhythm that calls us out of our complacency, and into bodily response to the music of the world around us – we give thanks.  May our dancing remind us of the beauty of the rhythm of your entire creation. In our footsteps, our laughter, our breathing, our weeping, in the birdsong, the cries of children, and the multitude of other songs that sing out from your creation, may we find the music of your very Self.

May our lives, our bodies, our spirits be instruments for your music – may our lives sing the song of your grace and resurrection. For all this, we give thanks this day and all days.

In our words of prayer may you find our very song of life. Amen.