New Creation: Temple of the Living God

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 6:14-7:1

This Sunday we conclude the New Creation sermon series by studying the last image that Paul uses to describe persons who bear within their bodies the effects of Christ’s resurrection.  Paul says that we are the temple of the living God.

II Corinthians 6 is not the first time Paul uses this image or name to describe – and encourage – the faithful.  In I Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

We are the spaces – within our bodies – within our hearts – we are the spaces that God has chosen to dwell.  From the time of Moses God has claimed all humanity as God’s people.  From the time of the prophets God has confirmed God’s desire to make God’s home among God’s people.  And from the words of Paul we turn with great urgency and expectancy for the fullness of the resurrection – when God’s temple will be complete – when in resurrection we will be made complete.

As we wait for completeness, we become more aware of our incompleteness.  But incompleteness does not translate as worthlessness.  In our passage for this week Paul asks a series of questions, one of which is, “What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?” (II Cor 6:15)  Beliar, one of the various Jewish names for Satan, means worthlessness.  One might quickly retort that Christ has no agreement with Beliar – that Christ has no agreement with worthlessness.  While they may not have agreement, I do believe they share a relationship.  

The relationship is that Christ transforms worthlessness to worthiness.  This is the gift of unending grace that we receive.  Christ became sin who knew no sin.  Christ became worthless…that we would become the righteousness of God.

When I travel one of my favorite pastimes is to visit worship spaces – “temples” if you will. These temples – especially across Europe and Central America are treasures. So masterfully crafted, so ornately decorated, so completely…empty.  For the most part these worship houses have become dormant – “sleeping giants” within the landscape.  For whatever reason what was living and vital within them has gone out. Some might say this is an indication of decline. However, I say and truly believe it is a testament to the true temple – the temple we are and very necessarily the temple we bear with us every place we go.

My fear is that we, too, have become dormant.

We do not become a temple by occupying a temple just as we are no more a car by occupying a garage. We do not become at all. Christ becomes in us. God dwells within us. And we who have been dormant sleepers awaken to new life.

Temples are sacred spaces.  Temples are the spaces where the sacred and the secular meet – temples are the spaces where the secular is refined – restored – resurrected.  Temples are not buildings with steeples and stained glass windows.  It’s like the hymn continues to sing – the church – the temple – is the people.

We are the sacred.  We are the worthy.  We are the space in which God chooses to dwell.  We are the effects of God’s amazing grace.

We are the temple of the living God.

Prayer: “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone; chosen of The Lord and precious, binding all the church in one; holy Zion’s help forever, and her confidence alone.  To this temple, where we call thee, come, Or Lord of Hosts, today!  With thy faithful loving-kindness hear thy people as they pray, and thy fullest benediction shed within its walls alway.”*  Amen.

*”Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 559.

New Creation: Servants of God

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 6:1-13

This Sunday I have the privilege to be joined in worship leadership by one of my dearest friends, The Rev. Dan Dixon.  Dan is the pastor serving Mt. Gilead UMC in Sharpsburg, GA.  Brenda – Dan’s beautiful wife – will also be a guest at Reeves UMC on Sunday.  I am so excited that they will be in town and that we will get to spend some much needed time together.  They make my heart so happy!!

Throughout this week’s Scripture passage Paul uses the first person plural pronoun we – As we work together with him; we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain; we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way.  But who is this we?  

Remember – although Paul is the writer – or attributed writer – of most of the New Testament passages, he was not working alone.  He had associates.  He had partners in ministry – together he and they were the helpmates of Christ in the Kingdom.  His partners were men, women, Jews that became Christian, Gentiles that became Christian, folks that had similar walks and upbringing as him, and folks whose walks were as unknown to Paul’s as Adam’s house cat.

They worked near one another – as near as one another’s breath – and then they also worked with great distances between them.  Whatever the circumstance, they served with joy.  They embraced their commission as servants of God and servants in the Kingdom as Paul says, “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger (II Cor 6:4b-5).  Whatever came their way they knew they had one another and they knew they had Christ.

As we continue serving in the Kingdom today I believe that we continue the legacy and live into the example of Paul and his friends, of Christ and the disciples.  A life of ministry can be very isolating – in a vocation where you are surrounded by people, pastors can feel so alone.  It is in these days that I am most thankful for my colleagues in ministry – both near and far – that I can call on for support.  Dan is one of those colleagues.  We met the first day of seminary – two nervous students that found themselves in an Old Testament Lecture wondering what the heck we had gotten ourselves into – but no matter what we got into – then and now – we have each other.  We have Christ.  We have incredibly supportive spouses and partners in ministry in Brenda and Andrew.  We have mutual friends – like The Sara(h)s.  We have friends known only to one of us and not the other and then we have friends that were only known to one of us that have become mutual.  All of these friends, colleagues, beloved ones – they constitute my we – our we.  And it is beautiful.

One of my favorite affirmations of faith is The Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada.*  It affirms, “We are not alone; we live in God’s world; we believe in God; we trust in God; we are called to be the church; we are not alone.”

That first person plural pronoun – it is intentional.

We are the servants of God.  We are in this together.  And it is beautiful.

Prayer:  “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing; he chastens and hastens his will to make known.  The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.  Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.  Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining, his kingdom divine; so from the beginning the fight we are winning; thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be thine.  We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant, and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.  Let thy congregation escape tribulation; thy name be every praised!  O Lord, make us free!”**  Amen.

*”The Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 883.

**”We Gather Together,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 131.

New Creation: Christ’s Ambassadors

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 5:11-21

Our Scripture passage for this week contains (what I think) is one of the most well known Scripture verses across Christendom – So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: see everything old has passed; see, everything has become new! (II Cor 5:17)

In this verse I am most captivated by the implied relationship between that which is old and that which is new – the implication being that one cannot be wholly new if one is still firmly grasping that which is old.

In my first appointment there were many ladies in the church that kept monthly “ditch” bags.  For each day in any particular month these women would go through their homes and place an item in the “ditch” bag.  If during the course of the month they did not have a reason to retrieve a particular item, then they ditched it!

When I asked how they felt about all their “ditching” many were overwhelmed and relieved.  Overwhelmed – because they had so much stuff to “ditch” they continued the process for years at a time.  Relieved – because their firm grasp on old things loosened to the relief of release, which enabled them to receive something new.

What newness were these ladies receiving?

  • The newness of simplicity.
  • The newness of doing all they could to order the affairs of (and clean out!) their temporal lives in preparation for their eternal lives.  These ladies believed this would be a great and lasting gift for their loved ones.
  • The newness of availability – with less stuff to tend to the ladies gained both a healthy perspective on how much time they spent tending to their former items and a greater availability to pursue new interests, strengthen relationships, and apply themselves in the service of the Kingdom.

These ladies focused on releasing the materially old to create space for the new that God would reveal.  Following my introduction to the “ditch” bag idea I have adopted my own practice of regular ditching.  I’m not quite to the level of an item per day every month, but I am always on the look out for those things that can be given new life beyond my grasp, which in turn gifts me the kind of newness akin to what those sweet church ladies received.

But is ditching only for the physical and material?  What about mental ditching?  What about purging those ideas, feelings, and memories of hurt, failure, and sin?  I have no doubt that Christ can make us new even if we choose to hold a firm grasp on misgivings and shortcomings of old, but why would we want to hold onto them?  Why do we hold onto them?

One of my favorite bands is Jars of Clay and they sing a beautiful almost haunting song entitled “Worlds Apart.”  The bridge of that song sings,

I look beyond the empty cross forgetting what my life has cost

So wipe away the crimson stains and dull the nails that still remain

So steal my heart and take the pain, take the selfish, take the weak

And all the things I cannot hide.  Take the beauty, take my tears.

Take my world apart, take my world apart.  

I pray, I pray, I pray take my world apart.  

In other words – mental ditching.

In hearing these words sung I am reminded of the incredible power of Christ – that he indeed can take worlds apart – that he indeed can take my world apart and redeem and give me the strength to ditch that physical and mental stuff that holds me hostage in the old thereby withholding me from the joy of the new.

I am in Christ.  I am a new creation.  I know this knowledge in my head.  I celebrate the days when this knowledge sinks immediately into my heart.  I confess I still have the days where it takes longer for my heart to feel the assurance my head knows so well.  The presence of those “longer” days is evidence that further faith development is needed and in that faith development Christ will take my old world apart and invite me to be a more complete resident of his new and reigning Kingdom.

Prayer: “Hasten the joyful day which shall my sins consume, when old things shall be done away, and all things new become.  I want the witness, Lord, that all I do is right, according to thy mind and word, well pleasing in thy sight.”*  Amen.

*”O Come and Dwell in Me,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 388.

New Creation: New Bodies

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 5:1-10

My friend Hugh Hollowell is the pastor of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina.  You may have heard of Hugh as he and his church received national media coverage towards the end of last year due to what was affectionately (?) called “Biscuit-Gate 2013”.  You see, Love Wins’ is a ministry of presence and pastoral care for the homeless and at-risk population in Raleigh.  During Biscuit-Gate the city of Raleigh tried to arrest the staff and volunteers and Love Wins Ministries for distributing food to their homeless and at-risk brothers and sisters.  The city of Raleigh is now working with Love Wins in providing space for and fostering dignity among the persons that are fed – physically, spiritually, and relationally.  It’s truly beautiful and an example of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.

Thank you, Hugh, for all the ways you and your staff serve these our neighbors.  And thank you, friends and members of Love Wins, for your patience with the rest of us as we slowly and continually learn what it means to actually be church.

As I read the Scripture passage for this week my mind quickly moved to Hugh and the friends he serves.  I wondered how someone who experiences homelessness on a daily basis would read and interpret a text that talks about leaving an earthly home for a heavenly home…when they are without an earthly home all together.  No physical structure exists for them and if one does it is on a temporary basis until another roof can be secured.  Is this passage even relevant?

So I asked Hugh.  And his answer is powerful.

He said initially this community would interpret this passage as “other-worldly” – as in “things will be better when I die.”  Hugh’s challenge – and I would wager his delight – is to transform this interpretation.  I would call the initial interpretation as “escapist theology” – I have to get away from here to get to there because there is better than here and I will be happier there.  Hugh wants to craft this interpretation into something new.  Hugh wants to expose the community he serves to a liberation theology – that God has a preferential and special compassion for the poor (which clashes harshly with the message his folks consistently hear)  and that liberation is essential to salvation as salvation applies to the whole person, not just his or her spiritual needs.

From what are the folk that Love Wins Ministries serves being liberated?  The idea that they are less than.  The idea that they have to accomplish X Y Z ad infinitum to have worth.  The idea that they have to endure only hardships in this life and once they get to the resurrection, life will be better.

No, my friends, no.  You are more.  You are worthy.  You can experience the goodness of the resurrection, of the house built with eternal hands and not human ones, right now.

How many times will Hugh – will I – will you – have to say these words?  Affirm this reality for those in our lives who continue to doubt?  Continue to question?  Perhaps until the time that we all enter into that heavenly dwelling place.  But that is our task.  To teach one another, to be present with one another until these lessons are written entirely, wholly, completely on all of our hearts.  Then the time of teaching will have ended because we all will know.

We do not have to flee this place or wait an undetermined about of time for things to get better.  What we have to do is tune our eyes, tune our behaviors, tune our hands in rhythm with the movement of our God to reveal the construction of our heavenly home within our midst.

It is hard to do.  It is necessary to do.

And it is our joy to do.

Prayer: “O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand; where hate and fear divide us, and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us, and heal our strife worn world.  Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease, when hatred and division give way to love and peace, till dawns the morning glorious when truth and justice reign, and Christ shall rule victorious o’er all the world’s domain.”*  Amen.

*”O God of Every Nation,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 435.

New Creation: Treasure In Clay Jars

[My apologies, The Sunday Stiletto Readers!  It has been a crazy busy week so I am very much delayed in posting this blog.  I hope you enjoy and look forward to the next posting in a few days!  Blessings!]

Sunday’s Scripture ~ II Corinthians 4:5-12

Some of my fondest memories growing up are from the time I spent in United Methodist Youth Fellowship.  While I was in high school I had the privilege of serving in the Youth Praise Band – I strummed the bass, sang, and dabbled a little in guitar.  One of the first songs I learned to play was Trading My Sorrows by Darrell Evans.

The bridge of Trading My Sorrows sings and elaborates upon a very important part of this week’s Scripture passage from II Corinthians 4 – “I’m pressed, but not crushed; persecuted, not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  I’m blessed beyond the curse for His promise will endure and his joy is gonna be my strength.  Though the sorrow may last for the night His joy comes in the morning!”  The tempo and drum beat would drive through the first two sentences, drop out around “though the sorrow may last for the night,” and then build again to ring in God’s joy that arrives at dawn.  This section was always my favorite.  I couldn’t help but smile when I sang it.  I couldn’t help but revel in the assurance of God’s promise.

The rest of Evans’ song is profound as well.  The verse sings, “I’m trading my sorrows.  I’m trading my pain.  I’m laying them down for the joy of The Lord.  I’m trading my sickness.  I’m trading my shame.  I’m laying them down for the joy of The Lord.”  The chorus affirms “Yes Lord!” I will do these things – I will lay them down and claim your joy.

In studying this week’s passage and reflecting on this song, I am aware that this passage speaks about and song sings about sufferings.  Sorrows, pain, sickness, and shame are sufferings and cause sufferings in this life.  Both admit that life is not a bed of roses.  Both recognize that there are thorns (if you will allow the metaphor) and, at times, those thorns cut deep.  Suffering is part of the human condition.  For people of faith, suffering is also part of our faith experience.  Having faith does not make us immune from suffering.  If anything having faith probably leads us to more questions about suffering – leads us to ask why.

Asking why is not a fissure in our faith.  Asking why does not challenge or weaken our faith.  I think asking why is a sign of faith – a sign of faith seeking understanding within our relationship with God.

As Christians we can ask why sufferings occur.  The answer is because there is evil in the world.  God did not create the evil.  God is not the cause of the evil.  I believe much of the evil that causes the suffering we experience is the result of individuals or systems of individuals abusing God’s good gift of free will.  So what do we do about our suffering?  Or more to the root, what do we do about the evil?  We respond to it with compassion and charity.  We transform it with justice and accountability.  We imbue it with empathy, love, and hope.

My biggest challenge is to lay down sufferings.  When I am asked about my day, more often than not, I quickly jump to my sorrows.  I carry sorrows for such a long time.  Doing so deprives me of joy and shields me from the beauty of God’s mercies that rise each morning with the sun.

I need to lay down my sufferings.  I need to claim God’s joy.

Yes, Lord.

Prayer: “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside.  Great is thy faithfulness!  Great is thy faithfulness!  Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”* Amen.

*”Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 140.