Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon: Don't sweat the small stuff

Browns Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2014, Ordinary 24A
Romans 14:1-17

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

I remember a strange experience from early in my college days.  I was at a picnic dinner on campus, sponsored by the school’s campus ministry office, with a nice spread of all sorts of good food.  Plenty of fried chicken, a grill putting out hamburgers and hot dogs as fast as possible, a station to make whatever kind of sandwich you could imagine, and my first introduction to what the server called a “low country boil.”  I looked in the pot and saw mostly shrimp and potatoes – of course there was other stuff too, but shrimp and potatoes looked just fine to me.  In the spirit of trying new things I took a bowl of the stuff and was pleasantly rewarded. 

Oh, yeah, corn and sausage too.

A fellow freshman, a girl I had met a time or two thus far, was passing by and stopped to look in my bowl.  I told her what the server had told me about and said that it was really good.  She looked again and said, “It does look really good, but I can’t eat shrimp.”
My first thought was, “Allergies?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t eat it for religious reasons.”
Now I was not the most worldly-wise young man at this point in my life.  I had a vague idea, though, that shrimp might be one thing that was considered not kosher.  Since the picnic was open to persons of all faiths, and I had noticed that there was a decent-sized Jewish student group on campus, I offered that guess next; “Oh, um, are you Jewish?”
Her response was “Oh, no, I’m Baptist, our church just doesn’t eat shrimp.  Or scallops.”  Which was lost on me, since then I didn’t even know what a scallop was.
But I was confused, and my face must have said so.  I was raised Southern Baptist, and all I could think was that I’d seen plenty of Southern Baptists eat plenty of shrimp in my lifetime.  But rather than press the question I let it go and stuffed a large chunk of potato in my mouth to stop myself from saying anything.   So she went on and explained that her church’s pastor taught that a true Christian actually ought to keep the dietary laws found in Leviticus and occasionally in other parts of the Torah.  I nodded and said “Huh?” a lot until the subject finally changed, but I didn’t stop with the low country boil.
This experience (and a couple of others later, when I had changed colleges and majors and ran into another Baptist church with similar leanings) always comes into my head when I encounter any of Paul’s writings on the subject of eating and differences in eating between what he unapologetically calls the “weak” and the “strong.”  He has to deal extensively with such questions in his letters to the Corinthians and also to the Galatians, and the subject comes up again in this letter to the church at Rome, chronologically the last of Paul’s letters.  What is, to be blunt, the big deal about what people eat and don’t eat?
In the cases of the churches Paul is teaching, more than we might expect.  In these cases disagreements over what is proper or not proper to eat reflect a deeper division in the churches, one that shows up more than once in Paul’s career.  You may remember from the book of Acts that in some churches there were Christians who believed that a Gentile convert had to become a Jew first before becoming a Christian, or at least go through circumcision – a stand which Paul opposed strongly.  Others did not necessarily argue that Gentiles had to go through a two-part conversion, but nonetheless believed that they should observe certain Jewish practices that some early believers had carried over into Christianity.  You might also remember a substantial discourse in 1 Corinthians about whether it was proper or acceptable for believers to eat meat that had been offered to idols, which was often re-purposed at the nearby market.  If you couldn’t know if the meat for sale had been offered to an idol before its sale, well, if that was a rule you held, then you didn’t eat meat. 
These are the background incidents to Paul’s instruction to the Romans.  Scholars disagree on whether this was a problem in the Roman congregation itself or whether Paul was simply recapitulating the issues that the Romans might have heard about from some of their members who were familiar with Paul’s missionary career.  Either way, Paul is at pains to make sure the Romans understood two things: (1) Paul himself had no dietary qualms at all – he did not refrain from eating meat or observe any such dietary restrictions, and even referred to those with such qualms as “weak”; and (2) getting bent out of shape with each other over such choices was flat-out wrong.
It’s easy to make light of a passage like this one, with its grave concerns over issues we moderns put behind us a long time ago … or have we?  It’s still possible for church members to get bent out of shape over food, and not just whether the pastor tried Aunt Louise’s world-famous potato salad at the potluck dinner.  Vegetarianism is about as popular these days as it has been in my lifetime, and one can find strained relationships among Christians (among ministers, even) over the question of eating or not eating meat, or over not eating meat or not eating any food product derived from an animal in any way.  Though it doesn’t necessarily happen often, disputes over whether or not to eat meat still have the power to create friction in the church or in the world more generally.
Still, Paul has bigger fish to fry, so to speak.  There are two big takeaways in Paul’s instruction to the Romans that have larger application than to just food disputes.  These quarrels in the church, in Paul’s view, lead to two major infractions on the part of one party or the other: passing judgment on one another (and thus usurping a role given only to God alone), and causing one another to stumble.
This passage makes it clear that Paul has no tolerance for judgment against the non-eaters, even if he considers them “weak”.  As early as verse 3 in this passage Paul puts forth the bluntest argument against such judgment; God has welcomed them.  You’re going to say God is wrong?  Of course, that usually isn’t how the one party views the other, is it?  One party somehow manages to convince themselves that God really doesn’t welcome the others.  They’re impure.  They’re wrong.  They’re evil.  And we need to throw them out. It’s amazing how many people are willing to do God’s job on God’s behalf. 
Paul goes on to point out in verse ten that God ultimately will do the judging.  He can’t be much clearer: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.  He then goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah, and reiterate that “each of us will be accountable to God.
We also see the problem with this kind of judgment as Paul continues; it is not only the sin of sitting in judgment on one another’s observance (as if usurping God’s role wasn’t bad enough), but to Paul, the truly offensive part seems to be “to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”  Here the burden really seems to be put on the “strong,” not to put a stumbling block in the way of the “weak” by, say, loading up on idol-offered meat in their presence. 
Now it’s a little odd to read this from Paul.  This is, after all, the same Paul who had some utterly devastating things to say to and about those in the early church who insisted, based on some of the same Jewish practices that served as foundation for abstaining, that new converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised.  The things he says about them in his letter to the Galatians (and about the Galatians who fell for their spiel) were anything but polite or gentle.  They were, in some cases, quite vicious.  So what’s the difference?
In this case it’s not too hard to see.  Requiring circumcision of new converts was a way of putting a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of those converts, in this case a rather painful one.  In the case of the meat/non-meat factions, the stumbling block works a little differently.  For the “strong” to flaunt their particular practices before the “weak,” perhaps with a bit of ridicule included, was to pressure the “weak” to violate their consciences.  As Paul puts it in verse fourteen, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”  In Paul’s mind, anything that causes a brother or sister to stumble is not loving.  Love, which has been the main theme of the two chapters before this one, does not do wrong to a neighbor, even if that wrong isn’t “wrong” in your own conscience.  If Paul hasn’t made it clear enough yet, verse fifteen is unequivocal; “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
To be sure, this works the other way round.  The non-meat eaters have no business putting stumbling blocks in front of the meat-eaters in Paul’s estimation.  The “weak” don’t get to torture the conscience of the “strong” either.  In this case, the conflict can often be in the form of imposing rules or burdens on fellow believers that have nothing at all to do with the grace of God or the love of Christ.  William Loader, an Australian theologian, puts it this way:
Paul shifts the focus from honouring or dishonouring scruples, including those enshrined in scripture. Instead he puts Christ at the centre. Christ "rules" - to use a popular modern term. Christ is the point of unity. Paul's Christ is not standing there with a rule book ticking boxes, but with the marks of the cross and the mind of compassion. Love for people, valuing them, transcends differences on things like food and observance of days.

You would expect, with this kind of instruction, to find the “weak” and the “strong” to fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other in accommodating the other.  Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that the church too easily falls short of such a goal, rather each side holding on to its “scruples” to the point of open war.  And these scruples can be over things of extremely small importance; the size or shape of a communion table, whether the pastor wears a white or black robe to preach, and even smaller trivialities.
Maybe the most damaging thing about this kind of petty quarreling is that when we get caught up in it, we fail to be aware of or to bear witness against the big stuff.  Look around the world.  Our headlines show us people – leaders, even – who parade their racism openly, even shamelessly.  The poor are blamed for their poverty, labeled as lazy or devious or criminal without regard to how many jobs they work to try to support a family on a minimum wage.  Christian leaders fall into these very same behaviors.  And we can’t get over the cloth on the communion table.
To the degree that we are so caught up in our minute scruples that we let raging injustices pass without a word of witness against them, we have separated ourselves from any kind of witness that connects to Christ.  We usurp God’s role as judge, we cause our sisters and brothers to stumble, and we let the abominations of the world go unchallenged while we bicker over miniscule things, the things that no less a figure than John Calvin would call “inessentials.”
Let us not be those people, sisters and brothers.  We have each other not to be scolds and nags and judges, but fellow members of the body of Christ.  We need to be joined together in love and grace to be a witness in a world that does not welcome our witness.  As Paul finally says of the kingdom of God, it is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It is on us to lay aside those scruples that are a hindrance to our fellow followers of Christ, lest that righteousness and peace and joy pass us by while we’re arguing over the dinner table.
For righteousness, peace, and joy that transcend our judging, Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon: Living in Love

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2014, Ordinary 23A
(Psalm 149) Romans 13:8-14

Living in Love

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, at the minimum, a challenging chunk of scripture from which to preach.  Not that it isn’t worth the challenge, but its length – the longest of Paul’s letters to be included in the New Testament – means that with a writer and thinker like Paul, there’s going to be some convoluted structure involved, and topics you thought had been dropped chapters ago suddenly crop up again in unexpected places and take on wholly unexpected meaning and significance.
Something like that is what happens here in this last portion of chapter 13.  It is a good idea to remember here that after a long stretch of wrestling with Jewish law and its inability to eliminate sin – indeed, its susceptibility to sin itself – and a seeming digression on the ultimate fate of Israel, Paul has finally turned to the practical application of all his discussion of sin and law and salvation.  That was where we picked up two Sundays ago, beginning with chapter 12 and its remarkable two-verse introduction:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We have followed that track the past two Sundays, as Paul spelled out for his Roman readers what it looks like when we live together as the Body of Christ, living sacrifices, transformed by our minds being renewed.  Maybe you remember some of those characteristics; not thinking too much (or too little) of yourself, all of us bringing our particular gifts to bear in being the Body of Christ and using those gifts together with one another.  Last week we picked up on how it looks when that Body relates to each other with the world watching (loving one another un-hypocritically, showing honor to one another, being ardent in spirit, rejoicing in hope and enduring suffering with patience, taking care of one another’s needs, showing hospitality to strangers) and how that body relates to the world itself (with a strong emphasis on not taking vengeance on those who do us wrong).
Now because I’m sticking with the lectionary for this trip through Romans I end up skipping the first portion of chapter 13.  This passage, in which Paul discusses the proper comportment of believers towards the civil authority under which they lived – that is, the Roman Empire – is omitted from the lectionary, most likely because preachers don’t like to deal with it (don’t let any preacher tell you otherwise; as a lot we’re scared of it).  There’s reason to be leery of these verses; they have been sorely abused and misused by tyrants to justify their tyranny and to intimidate believers in their midst to go along with it.  Make no mistake: this interpretation is an abomination against scripture.  I am obviously not preaching on that passage today, so you may count me among the cowards if you wish, but let me make this much clear; any interpretation of the first seven verses of chapter thirteen which runs counter to everything else Paul has said in Romans up to this point, especially what has come before in chapter twelve, is a flat out misreading, whether deliberate or not. 
At any rate, by verse eight Paul has pivoted again and is about to drop a powerful three-verse conclusion on his readers and listeners.  In this concluding point Paul pulls off not only a summation of the whole instructional passage he’s just written, he manages the neat trick of bringing back something that had been left behind many chapters ago, and actually doing so in a way that works! If you’ve ever had any kind of extended writing or teaching to do, you know that’s not easy.
I’m not going to ask you how much you remember from the sermon I preached the first time I was with you in this congregation.  No, I really don’t expect you to remember, since I myself had to look it up.  It was on July 6, and the reading was from Romans 7.  In particular the scripture included the lament Paul poured forth about how even though he loved the law, his own flesh – his own sin-bound human nature – continued to live in sin and to be bound to sin, such that even the law itself was used to keep Paul mired in sin.  The whole passage came to a head with the exclamation “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? 
What we have before us today, all these weeks and chapters later, is the moment when Paul finally returns to the law, and shows his readers and listeners what it looks like to fulfill the law – not merely in rote reading or checking off do’s and don’ts, but in fulfilling the law.  And the key that unlocks that door, Paul says, is love.
It looks like a strange formation at first, as Paul begins by instructing the Romans to “owe no one anything.”  This does seem odd until one sees that verse 7 has wrapped up that section on relating to government authorities with the instruction to pay those authorities what is due to them.  From that statement about what Paul says we owe those in authority, it becomes natural to pivot from there back to what we owe each other, which sounds like it’s going to be “nothing.” 
Paul isn’t through, though; the verse continues “owe no one anything, except to love one another,” which is one of those simple-sounding statements that only blows apart everything about the way we live.
How does that work?  Now, of all times, Paul goes back to the law.  His own history with the law, remember, was particularly colorful.  As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” he told the Philippians.  Advanced in Judaism beyond many of my people of the same age … more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” he told the Galatians.  Don’t forget that in chapter 12 he told the Romans “not to lag in zeal.”  But Paul’s zeal led him to become “a persecutor of the church,” as he also told the Philippians, no doubt with much pain and grief at the memory.  
Now, though, when he brings up the law, he does so in connection with love, because love is the way the law gets fulfilled. 
The love of God for fallen, sinful humanity is why God would not allow that fallenness and sin to keep us from being restored.
The love of Jesus, expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, is what destroys death’s power over us, allowing us to be restored.
And the love of the Holy Spirit enables us to receive that love from God and in turn live in that love with and for one another.
Pastor and author Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

Wherever people love each other
And are true to each other
And take risks for each other,
God is with them and for them
And they are doing God’s will.

In this case Paul brings up four specific commandments of the Ten that form the core of old Hebrew law: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet” – and sums them up with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  If that last sounds familiar, it’s because it is; Paul is going to no less a source than Jesus himself, apparently, as recorded in Matthew 22: it’s what Jesus calls the second great commandment, after loving God with heart, soul, and mind.
It makes sense, after all.  The four commandments Paul quotes are involved with relationships, and Paul has been instructing the Romans on how the Body of Christ relates to one another and to the world.  Now with the words we first heard from Jesus, Paul brings the law into fulfillment in love in a brilliant stroke: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 
But in this stroke Paul does something else fascinating and challenging: he re-writes the definition of “neighbor” to include every possible relationship partner he has discussed already – both our fellow members of the Body of Christ and those living in the world outside of the Body of Christ are now swept up in the overriding word “neighbor.”  Just as before, even Paul, zealous follower of the law, ended up in sin, now any follower of Christ – any member of the Body of Christ, living sacrifice, transformed by the renewing of his or her mind – fulfills the law living in love towards the “neighbor.”

Warning: loophole not found

You might recall one of the parables Jesus told, touched off by the question “Who is my neighbor?”  In that case, the difficult parable Jesus told left the questioner with no choice to acknowledge a Samaritan as the neighbor of the man set upon by thieves – even if the questioner couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”  Now Paul has already instructed the Romans about blessing their enemies and not cursing them, and not taking vengeance on another, and Jesus’s parable makes it clear that hereditary enemies are still “neighbors.”  For Paul’s Roman hearers and readers, “neighbor” could include both members of the Body of Christ and others not followers of Christ.  A Roman citizen could suddenly find himself shifting uneasily as he considered the possibility that his slave was now to be thought of as his neighbor.  An anti-Roman zealot might be chastened to realize that his neighbor was the centurion against whom he struggled.  There were plenty of possibilities for such upsetting of the social order in these sweeping words from the apostle who himself had been transformed from enemy to neighbor, even if God had to slap him blind for a while to get him to understand.
So who is that uncomfortable neighbor for us?  What are the barriers we build up against others that are swept aside in this commandment to love, in this call to be transformed by the renewing of our minds?  Let’s face it, we modern Americans are pretty good at building walls between us.  The walls might be border fences, or high-grown hedges with a brick wall hidden within, or simply miles separating us from any other habitation.  The ones we keep out might be members of another race, another religious group, another Christian denomination, or (especially in contemporary USA) another political party.  Or they might be in a whole other country.
Agnus Dei is a traditional text in Christian worship, dating back to very near the beginnings of the church itself.  In 1956, for the dedication of the Basilica of the Annunciation in the city of Nazareth (yes, that Nazareth), a young Arab composer named Yusuf Khill was asked to create a tune for that traditional text to be used in that dedication service, the tune we sang earlier in the service.  That request tied the Basilica to the community around it; not only Arabs, but also Palestinians and Israelis who had chosen to follow the way of Christ in a land already challenged by religious strife.  Those Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Israeli Christians, fellow members of the whole worldwide unbounded Body of Christ; those are our neighbors too.
A Reformed Christian missionary by the name of Tom Colvin served for years in a fairly remote northern region of Ghana, ministering to those in a land where Christianity was also a minority religion.  He found success in communicating to his listeners by setting the ideas he wanted to teach them to traditional tunes they already knew.  The years of effort to learn the language, to become a part of the community of the Chereponi region, and to gain the trust of the citizens enabled Colvin to find a language and a tune, that we will sing at the end of the service, that taught a provocative lesson; that neighbors are a gift of God, not merely to live next to or to be friends with, but to serve – even to the point of being down on their knees washing each other’s feet, turning old worldly relationships upside down.  These are our neighbors too. 
For neighbors to love and serve, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): Brethren, We Have Met To Worship (396), Holy Lamb of God (Ya hamalallah, 602), My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?, 821), Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love (203)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Living In the World

August 31, 2014, Ordinary 22A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church
Romans 12:9-21

Living in the World

So, have you heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge?
You know, that thing where you film yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, then post the video to Facebook or some other social media with a challenge to three or four other people to do the same thing, along with making a donation to the ALS Association?
What has become one of the most phenomenally successful online fundraising efforts ever apparently started with one young man, a former college baseball player, who was stricken with the disease.  As his own body deteriorated,  he came up with the idea to challenge some of his old teammates to contribute themselves and also to challenge others to do so; it’s not exactly clear why he chose dumping a bucket of ice water on a person as the means of challenge, but it does seem true that athletes – the original target of the challenge, and a bunch typically keen to show off their toughness – seemed to find it irresistible.  Over time the challenge spread beyond athletes to other celebrities, and then to the public at large. 
The challenge has literally raised so much money that the ALS Association is having to think about a strategy to spend that money most effectively.  As of August 19, more than $15.5 million dollars had been raised in the last month, compared to $1.6 million in the same period one year ago.
One might think that this would be regarded as simply a success story, if a rather unusual one.  One might think that for however brief a period of time, people across many walks of life had been motivated to pull together and take action, if a rather silly action, against one of the crueler and more devastating diseases to ravage the human body.  On the other hand, if one really pays much attention to how human beings really behave, one probably figured the backlash was coming.
Why is this disease any more important than any other disease?
How can you waste time with something so frivolous when people are dying in Ferguson?  (Or Gaza, or Ukraine, or any number of other places?)
How can you waste good clean water like that when so many people in so many places don’t have nearly enough water to live? 
Never mind the non sequitir that each of these represents.  (The latter reminds me of how when I was a child I was upbraided for not cleaning my plate when there were children in Africa – it was always Africa, for some reason – who didn’t have enough to eat, and how it never seemed to help when I volunteered to send my meal to them.)
What is most striking and dismaying about each of these is how, even when there are so many bad things out there in the world – abusive police, bombing innocent civilians instead of going after actual terrorists, one country invading another and lying about it, hideous diseases wreaking destruction on countless people, a deteriorating planet – people somehow decide that it is more important to attack other people who are trying to do good things rather than keep attention focused on the evils that need to be opposed.  Another example can be found in the story of a handful of graduate students at North Carolina State University, who are working on a nail polish that, when dipped in liquid, can alert its wearer if a well-known type of “date rape” drug has been slipped into the drink.  Rather than any kind of positive acknowledgement, the project has been roundly denounced – not by men, but by women who somehow see it as an insult, or irreparably flawed, or somehow insincere in the intentions of its developers. 
The Apostle Paul would be thoroughly baffled by the whole ice-bucket phenomenon, to be sure, but he’d recognize the backlash, and be grieved about it.  It’s exactly the kind of thing he warns about here in one of the maxims that make up this second part of the twelfth chapter of Romans.  After the previous instructions – which still apply here; we are still under the mandate to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – Paul now begins to lay out, in a series of maxims, what it looks like to live in that condition, to be a full-fledged part of the body of Christ.  They almost look like the kinds of do’s and dont’s more characteristic of the un-regenerated mind, as we also discussed last week; here, though, Paul is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Beginning with the simple maxim “Let love be genuine,” what follows is a series of the characteristics of genuine love, having to do with first how we, the body of Christ, live with one another, and then moving to how we live as the body of Christ before the larger world. 
Genuine love (Paul uses the Greek phrase αγαπη ανυποκριτος, which might be more literally translated “love without hypocrisy.”  It’s a phrase that crops up several times in the New Testament, and not just in Paul’s letters.  To describe this un-hypocritical love, Paul describes the way a community that lives in such love acts towards one another; hating what is evil and clinging to the good, instead of the other way around, loving one another and vying to outdo each other in showing honor to each other rather than tearing each other down, being ardent and zealous in doing these things and in serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, living patiently, being persistent in prayer, contributing to the needs of the community, and welcoming strangers to the community with hospitality and grace.
This makes up the “internal” part of this list of maxims, but Paul is also aware that even these internal behaviors, or the lack thereof, are also visible to those outside the community.  Others see how we treat each other, and are going to be quick to judge if we are tearing one another down, or pursuing the things that are not good, or letting our own live in poverty and neglect.  Paul knew that the Roman congregation hearing this letter lived in a city with its own idols, so to speak, and it was the example closest to the seat of the Empire of what was then known, if at all, as an obscure and curious sect of Judaism.  Paul is concerned about how the Roman congregation acts within its larger context of the seat of empire, and will address them about how this love works in that context.  But Paul is also concerned with the witness they give by how they treat one another, and wants to be sure that they know what it means to live in un-hypocritical, non-destructive love towards one another.
Before we move on to those external characteristics, though, be sure to notice something about these internal effects of un-hypocritical love; they are active.  It isn’t enough to avoid tearing one another down; it’s the work of un-hypocritical love to build one another up, to show honor to the other, praying persistently and frequently, overtly caring for the needs of those within the community, reaching out actively to the stranger in the community; even the image of clinging to what is good suggests an almost physical quality of activity.  Un-hypocritical love isn’t a quiet thing; it stirs us up to doing good towards one another in observable, potent ways.
As we move ahead you’ll notice that the same is true for those behaviors of un-hypocritical love towards those outside of the congregation.  In a couple of cases Paul goes to the trouble of pointing out the passive or non-acting possibility of behavior, only to go beyond it and mandate a more active response that un-hypocritical love requires. 
Verse fourteen: to those who persecute you, do not curse (passive response), but bless them (active response).
Verse sixteen: do not be haughty (passive response) and do not be wise in your own estimation (another passive response), but associate with the lowly (active response). 
Verse seventeen: do not repay evil for evil (passive), but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (active, more or less). 
Verses nineteen and twenty, in a rather more complex way, display the same dynamic.  Beginning with the passive, refraining position – never avenge yourselves – Paul cannot resist slipping a bit of theological and scriptural instruction – for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” – before coming to the active response that un-hypocritical love requires:
No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. (12:20)

And finally, verse 21, restating the previous verses: do not be overcome by evil (passive), but overcome evil with the good (active).
For Paul it is important for the Romans to understand what this un-hypocritical love, this living in the body of Christ, this renewed mind means.  It is not an excuse to pull back from the world and go into isolation.  It does not allow for the ordinary strivings and battles in which the un-renewed mind indulges.  They don’t get to outdo one another in seeking honor for the self.  They don’t get to tear one another down or puff themselves up.  And they don’t even get merely to refrain from doing ill to one another or to the world.
No: the un-hypocritical heart goes out of its way to do good, and to do so not in a hidden or invisible way.  It builds one another up.  It blesses those who assault you, persecute you, trouble you.  It demands that you live at peace with all, as far as you have any control of the situation.  It actively rejoices with the rejoicing, and weeps unashamedly with those who weep. 
And remember, all of this instruction is still all about living in the body, about being transformed by the renewing of your mind, about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.  And all that we are seeing today will carry over into Paul’s next points, found for us in the thirteenth chapter of Romans. 
You see, it all goes together.  It is no accident that Paul uses such as strong word as “transformed” back in verse two.  The Greek word there is the same from which we get the world “metamorphosis.”  The change is that significant. 
And that change matters, because that’s how we live together as the body of Christ.  And it also matters because the world is watching. 
As noted before, at the time Paul is writing to the Romans, the empire doesn’t really have a grasp on what these “Christians” actually are.  They still look like a sect of Judaism to the empire.  But over time Christians did start to take on a particular identity, not because of any particular edict on the part of an emperor or because of any great speech or sermon given by anybody in the church at Rome.  Rather, these Christians began to stand out in Rome and in the Empire because of what they did. 
People began to notice the way they gathered together, singing songs to this Jesus they worshiped and also sharing food.  People began to notice that, unlike most Romans who would half-heartedly acknowledge whatever idol or Caesar was put before them by the Empire, no matter what their beliefs were personally, the Christians wouldn’t do that, instead reserving their homage for this Jesus alone.  And they noticed that when Roman families, as was the custom, would leave an unwanted infant in a remote place out of doors, to die of exposure, those Christians would pick up the infant and take it into their homes, to be raised as one of their own. 
You see, when we get it right, the world notices.  And they also notice when we get it wrong, and have a great time letting us know about it.  When our life in the world fails to show transformation, the world will let us know about it, and then they will ignore us.  But when our lives show that transformation, that renewed mind, that un-hypocritical love, the world cannot help but notice, and wonder. 
For love without hypocrisy, within and without, Thanks be to God.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus (PH 403)
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart (PH 326)
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult (Hymns for the Family of God 399)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An update in which there is really nothing to update

Still here.
I really could end this post with that little two-word combination.
Still here.  Still in Richmond (or more precisely, northern Chesterfield County).  Still searching.  Still playing the dating game.
It's hard to know how much movement there has been on any given front.  I have a few contacts still in what I shall call the "not dead yet" category, after Lancelot's trusty squire Concord in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie.  At the minimum I know I'm still under consideration, or in some cases have been asked for more information.  That's something.
In some cases I've been asked for more information or even had an interview via phone or Skype.  I can only speculate that in some cases, due to the time that has passed, that I've been passed over.  In some cases, perhaps not.
What is a little different from before is that I am doing a good bit of preaching.  If you actually read this blog regularly, you (1) are very rare, and (2) have probably noticed those sermons popping up each week.  I have actually had the pleasure of preaching pretty consistently out of Romans this summer.  Clearly I'm messed up in the head, but it has been a pleasure to follow out a train of thought in my preaching over several weeks, even though in some cases I've had to adapt to the fact that I've preached these sermons in different churches.  But I did take that course on Romans back in 2013 (right after surgery...painful thought, that), and I've wanted to follow up on that challenge ever since.  One preacher supposedly has said that no preacher should preach on Romans until after age fifty; well, I'm forty-nine, so close enough.
At this point most of the rest of 2014 is booked with supply-preaching engagements.  (These engagements do come with the caveat that if I need to go away for an interview/preaching engagement for a potential call they may have to be cancelled.)  This is a good thing, for the experience and for the fact that it cuts down on the time I have to brood about the ongoing call search.  After all, I am fulfilling a call, or at least part of one.  I am preaching the Word, and hopefully getting better at doing so.
What does happen in this in-between space is that I start to think.  Think about what this call might yet look like.  Nothing that I would call doubt has really crept in at this point.  But I have had to engage in a lot of wondering about my capacity for discernment.  Do I have it in me to back away from an opportunity that is not really congruent with my call?  Do I have the capacity to know when to say "no" if that's what I need to do?  Or to say "yes" if my initial reaction isn't necessarily to do so, but the call becomes clear?
How much do I give credence to opportunities that do not come in church-pastor form?  I find that I actually miss my work at the Virginia Interfaith Center last year as an intern.  Does this mean I should open up a front for searching in faith-based advocacy?  Or is my deeply-experienced call in preaching and liturgy still the more compelling and needed call to seek?  Sometimes I think too much.
In the meantime there are still other bits of writing to do, for others or for my own interest.  There are baseball parks to visit!  I managed to make trips to see minor-league games in Durham, NC (Bulls); Salem, VA (Red Sox); Norfolk, VA (Tides); and an indeterminate place in northern Virginia that hosts the Potomac Nationals.  I am still willing to seek out my moments of peace even in time of stress.
And of course there is the regular reviewing of the opportunity list, in case any new churches are seeking a minister of some sort.  I have expanded my search a bit, as there are now some associate pastor positions that seem truly general in nature, as opposed to thinly-disguised searches for a youth pastor or children's minister.  (I am happy to support those ministries to the fullest, but I am not the person you want in charge of them.)
And of course there is the very real possibility that PNCs (pastor nominating committees) actually read this blog.  I've known it to have happened at least once.  Does that make me more circumspect?  Actually, I hope not.  At this point in my life I am far too old and experienced to go trying to make myself into something I'm not in order to "get a date" with a church.  If that means my search ends up going longer than it would otherwise, well, that's probably for the best, as much as it might add stress to my life right now.
One thing I have definitely realized is that I have not kept music in my life nearly enough.  Three weeks ago I went to an evening "musicale" at a church in Richmond.  Now it might be just because Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 in E minor was on the program, but I realized that for much of the last year I had been like a starving man who had been refusing to eat.  I did have a couple of singing opportunities over this spring that I had not expected, including at Union's baccalaureate service.  But still, I just haven't been spending time listening to music, hearing music, especially feeling music on that spine-tingling mind-exploding level that I need.  Hence, during this interim time, I'm spending time to try to make up for that somehow.  Maybe I'll finally take up that exploration of Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard I've been wanting to do for three or four years.  Or something else, I don't know.  But for now, I'm dropping this blog entry and going to another concert.

It isn't completely unrelated.  Barber was Presbyterian, you know.  Sort of.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Living In the Body

August 24, 2014, Ordinary 21A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church

Living in the Body

Two years ago today I underwent a colonoscopy that led to a diagnosis of rectal cancer.  (Lest this become a point of distraction throughout the rest of the sermon, I should point out that after a year of radiation treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy, I have been “clean” for a little over a year now.)
Cancer is a bit of a headline-grabber, but I’ve also had some other maladies and physical difficulties in my lifetime.  I’m somewhat prone to kidney stones.  My right knee has not been right since my childhood.  Perhaps oddest of all is that I have, in the traditional sense of the word, no balance.  About twenty-two years ago, either due to a severe inner ear infection or a slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, I suffered damage to some key nerves in my inner ear system.  It’s complicated enough that I have trouble describing it, but the easiest way to describe the effect is to say that the signals coming from the right side say I’m moving in a straight line, but the signals from my left side tell me I’m veering left, and my brain can’t reconcile the mixed signals.  After some weeks of rehab I can get around and stay upright using mostly my eyes and my feet to keep my balance, but sometimes I have to wait a little longer when a movie is over, for the lights to come back on.
All of this is to say that I have some experience with my body not working so well.  One of the things I’ve experienced on those occasions is that when one part of the body isn’t right, it isn’t just that part of the body that is affected.  No matter how well-targeted modern chemotherapy might be, my whole body felt lousy while I was being treated with it.  And if you’ve had kidney stones before, I don’t need to tell you that your body doesn’t want anything to do with anything until that thing is gone.  For all of those strange maladies I’ve had, though, there are times when the one thing that can make my whole body want to shut down and quit more than anything else I can think of is an ingrown toenail.  That tiny, almost forgotten appendage can make me feel miserable all over when it gets uncomfortable.
It’s hard to believe that Paul didn’t know something about this when he introduced the metaphor of the church as body into his letters, including here in the twelfth chapter of Romans.  It’s a metaphor he used in more than one letter, emphasizing different aspects of its meaning in different letters to different churches.  In writing to the Corinthians, a much more fractious and troublesome congregation, Paul emphasizes the insufficiency of any one part of the body on its own, in such rhetorical questions as “If the whole body were an eye, where is the hearing?”  and facetious exaggerations such as the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:14-26]
Paul’s Roman audience, while experiencing some mistrust in its membership, isn’t nearly so difficult as the Corinth church, so Paul takes a slightly different and less drawn-out tack with his metaphor of the body.  One example is his use of “body” as a point of discussion on multiple levels.  Initially Paul addresses the individual believers in Rome with the injunction to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.  Here the focus is on individual bodies.  Each believer is charged with living – not merely thinking or believing or meditating, but physically, bodily living – in a way that the very being of each individual is worthy of the holiness of God. 
I don’t know about you, but that is a daunting ideal.  For one thing, it is far more than checking off a list of do’s and don’ts could possibly hope to accomplish.  It is living not merely good, not even merely pure.  It is living holy.  And to me that’s seriously daunting.
But Paul is not through with body metaphors.  In verses four and five Paul makes the jump from individual bodies to the collective body, sometimes known as the church – or, as it is also known, the Body of Christ.
In a short form of his longer discourse in 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces the idea that the church, as “body of Christ,” is assembled and organized in a way similar to the human body, in that each member of the body has a specific function to perform.  Just as the eye is good for seeing, and the hand for grabbing, and the lungs for breathing, so each member of the body of Christ is gifted with a particular ability or gift needed to enable the body of Christ to live.  Verses six through eight are a far from comprehensive list of the gifts individual members of the body of Christ bring to the body; ministers minster, preachers preach, givers give, compassionate people bring cheer, and so on.  Paul could have gone on much farther, and did so in letters both to Corinth and Galatia. 
But Paul also slips in another dimension of body membership, in verse 5: “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another”.  Here is that interdependence of each of us on one another writ large.  The eye may be good at seeing, the hand at grabbing, and so on, but the hand will have no luck in grabbing that coffee mug first thing in the morning if the eye doesn’t do its job in spotting it, or the legs and feet can’t get the body across the room to where that mug of coffee is waiting to be picked up and consumed.  Each part of the body has a job to do, but it can’t do that job without the help of other members of the body. 
And so it is in the body of Christ, the church.  The preacher can’t preach without a congregation.  (Or I suppose a preacher could preach without a congregation, but then people look at you funny on the street corner.)  The gifts each member brings to the body only work in cooperation with each other.  Otherwise we’re just a bunch of individual bodies, something decidedly less than a church.
But wait.  Even here Paul is pushing the metaphor just a little bit further.  We can talk about members and gifts here in our own individual church, but Paul also challenges us to think even more broadly.  The body of Christ is not limited to the members of Meherrin Presbyterian Church, or of First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where I come from, or any one individual church.  The body of Christ is all of us churches, all together. 
Now to me, this is where things get really complicated.  There are churches out there that, frankly, do things I find appalling.  There are Christians out there, fellow members of the body of Christ, that make me frankly want to go and hide when they start flapping their gums in dishonest or hateful ways.  And yet, and yet, and yet “we, who are many, are one body in Christ”, and Paul doesn’t seem to have any “out” for us here.  The body of Christ has members in Israel and in Gaza.  The body of Christ has members in Ukraine and in Russia.  The body of Christ has members in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the St. Louis County Police Department (as much as my mind cannot comprehend this).
How does this happen, if we are all one body?  How do we end up so far apart, so willing to oppress, so at each other’s throats?
Part of the answer is in verse three, I think.  Paul, in what is an easy part of the passage to miss, instructs his readers “not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” in accordance with what faith God has assigned to us.  Here is where things get rather self-indicting.  My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others.  Each one of you might come with a similar or different set of “gifts” that could, if not careful, become an excuse to “think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think”.  Rather than to exalt ourselves and our attributes too much, our task is to “think with sober judgment” in seeing what gifts we bring to the Body, and what gifts we rely upon others to bring, and what gifts we need others and their gifts to help us bring to the Body. 
To be clear, “sober judgment” is not an excuse to think too little of ourselves either.  It is not our place to belittle the gifts we are given or to claim that they are somehow not important to the Body.  Sometimes “sober judgment” means stepping forward when nobody is expecting us to do so, and bringing our gifts to the Body that perhaps no one else has seen in us.  It might sometimes mean that we step back and let another take up a task that matches to their gifts more readily than ours. 
Whatever it means, it is a daunting task.  Perhaps even an impossible task, unless we have taken the command in verse two to heart.
Our first call is nothing less than to “be transformed”.  And not just any old kind of transformation.  Be very clear here; our call is to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. 
Our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Meherrin or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation.  Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8. 
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind cannot do.  A renewed mind cannot live in fear.  It certainly cannot wallow in the fear and suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us.  A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts.  A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods.  A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed, the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them. 
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do.  Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “  It doesn’t happen of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves.  Only in turning away from our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God.  We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 
And then, only then, do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ.  Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church’s One Foundation (PH442)
Take My Life and Let It Be (PH341)
Blest Be the Tie That Binds (PH438)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Messengers

August 10, 2014
Ordinary 19A
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church


How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn.  It’s from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul.  Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version serves as a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately.  Even so, the original German text here has nothing about “feet” in it, which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literalist about such things.
The verse that Mendelssohn appropriates here, and which appears in today’s reading, is dropped into the oratorio after the dramatic moment in which Barnabas and Paul are set apart – by the Holy Ghost, no less – for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  It is of course a key moment in Paul’s career, as the book of Acts describes it, and even if this verse is pulled in from Romans, it does serve well its dramatic purpose. 
Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7.  In that context the statement is elaborated a bit:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation. 
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace.
Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time.  Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.”  From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent?  It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion.  It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.
Of course it isn’t all peaches and cream.  Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent.  He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1] 
It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state).  The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]

Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.”  Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as citizens from many other parts of the Roman Empire.  Still, he grieved over the rejection by Israel of the Messiah, one of their own.
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace
As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here.  Many of those churches who use this passage expect that, once this new pastor is ordained and installed, he or she will then take care of all the proclamation duties, allowing them to sit back and, well, be off the hook from that scary and maybe embarrassing business of (shudder) talking about religion.  It’s scary because people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us.  We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore.  It’s embarrassing because we live in a world, and in an American society in particular, which has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”  Just this week the rather infamous neo-Calvinist preacher Mark Driscoll was asked to step aside from the leadership of Acts 29 Ministries, an organization that he founded, because his association was bringing disrepute upon the organization due to his own errors in behavior and preaching.  To be honest, it’s perfectly fair to be reluctant to be seen in such a light.
And yet the messengers are still needed.  And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.
We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines this week as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa.  Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with no known cure.[1]  Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly has become an object of derision for certain American commentators, who apparently believe it’s his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and not put himself in danger.  But even a physician can bring a message of peace.
We might look at the people of Grace Presbyterian Church, in El Paso, Texas.  As thousands of refugees fleeing violence and murder in Central America – some children with parents, many children alone – the members of Grace Presbyterian were challenged by their pastor to step up and help provide for the needs of those detainees being redirected from south Texas to other locations due to the overwhelming numbers and lack of facilities.  The Grace Church members, working with a local shelter and a Catholic charitable group, began to take on the task of feeding, gathering donations, assisting at shelters, and perhaps most remarkably, listening to the stories of horror and deprivation the refugees had experienced.  After not only their travails in fleeing from the violence in their home countries but the spartan and difficult conditions of makeshift processing centers set up by US Customs and Immigration, the refugees were at first confused by the hospitality shown them by the El Paso churches and groups.  “Here you were good to us,” some of the refugees said, remembering the concrete floors in the detention centers in south Texas.  “Why did you care so much about making us feel safe?”   
It might be easy to imagine that Grace Presbyterian is some kind of large, well-staffed, and financially secure church to be able to take on a task such as this.  On the contrary, three years ago there was no Grace Presbyterian Church; it was instead three separate churches, each on the brink of collapse, who merged with each other despite their differences for the sake of survival.[2]  Even a shaky, querulous church can be full of messengers, bringing the gospel of peace to a group of refugees who had known nothing but violence and fear.
We can look to some of our own.  Many of you might have heard Ruth Brown describe her experiences working in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.  Our congregation also supports educators, like Jeff and Christi Boyd in the DRC, Grace Yeuell working with US military bases in Germany, or Richard Hamm at a university and seminary in Korea.  We might see those names on the back of the bulletin every Sunday.  Messengers, bringing a gospel of peace.
We might look at each other.  Whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of CARITAS, or helping maintain a community garden on the grounds of the church.  For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking.  Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”; “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10”; and then those feet, those beautiful feet in verse 15.  Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe.  Our witness is embodied.  We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do.  The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the cold or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus name.  Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it. 
The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ.  Our witness in staying together, being not merely in our neighborhood but being part of it, our welcome to those that others, even other churches, declare unwelcome – this is a gospel of peace.  To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us – not just the preachers, is not optional; it is inevitable. 
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace,
The gospel of peace.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" (311)
"Take My Life and Let It Be" (697)
"How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord" (432)

[1]Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/02/health/ebola-kent-brantly/index.html (Accessed August 8, 2014)
[2] “Grace for Refugees from Central America,” http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/7/28/grace-refugees-central-america/ (Accessed August 8, 2014).

NOTE: In case you're not familiar with it, the Mendelssohn chorus can be heard here.