The sacrifice of grace…
…the grace of sacrifice
October 1, 2017
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient even unto the point of death on a cross.
Grace can be found in many forms. The grace of God shows up sometimes when we least expect it and beckons us to a deeper understanding of our faith and of the meaning of a holy call upon one’s life. Such has been the case for me over the past several months and in particular over the last couple of weeks.
I have been blessed to have had my understanding and my way of thinking challenged by the grace of God as I have sought, along with the Council of our church to discern our pathway forward in ministry.
And for some time now I have tried carefully to navigate my way through the difficult maze of current local and national events, the socio-cultural norms of our congregation, and the increasing visibility of other issues begging for attention regarding deep and persistent injustices affecting so many in our community and country.
And the call the Council has been voicing of late is to somehow find a way to engage the congregation more fully both in the ongoing ministry initiatives of our church, as well as in understanding how it is the congregation might be able to help in sustaining and participating in those ministries. And underneath the fellowship we share and the spiritual oneness we often enter into as a part of God’s family…behind the strength we receive through our ministry of music or the hearing of God’s word…aside from the comfort we gain in asking and receiving answers to prayer…it seems that there is often an underlying apprehension regarding the financial resources we have, or feel we have to continue to do the work of our Lord in this place. Be it the announcement of the weekly success of the thrift shop or the mention of the newly finished and unbudgeted roof on the Fellowship Hall, or even the persistent appearance of the odd prayer request in the bulletin that the Lord somehow assist us in bringing about the ability to hook up all three of our buildings to the Town water and sewer systems…there is a sense that we operate pretty close to the line in terms of resources and expenses.
And probably every one of us has heard of a church in similar circumstances being forced to finally make the decision to close their doors due both to a lack of funds and a dwindling membership, including the Episcopal Church right next door to us. In short, in spite of all that we hear of and see of God’s real work amongst us, there is also a certain unease regarding the future.
And it is that setting and circumstance that the Spirit has been pouring grace into of late…at least from my vantage point. And our passage today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a great starting point to begin to hear how it is we are supposed to be, and the image to our community which we are supposed to reflect as a part of the family of God gathered here. Paul pleads with us through his words to the church in Philippi to be of one mind and one purpose, to share the love of God deeply with one another and to find ways to imitate our Lord by emptying ourselves in the service of that same love extended to others. He calls us to be unselfish and to think more highly of others than ourselves, to become in effect ‘others-centered’ individuals which is quite contrary to the theme of modern western culture.
The church of our God must be about the will and purposes of God if it is to survive in this day…both the institutional church as a whole, as well as individual congregations such as our own. Aside from those few churches that have a large membership and perhaps endowments to support their ministries many churches are similar to our own, small in size and limited in resources. However, I firmly believe that any church that is dedicated to reaching out in love and compassion to their community and in seeking to address and engage the needs within their community will be supported in their efforts by the Holy Spirit.
I firmly believe and profess that the Lord will provide for the Lord’s work to be done.
Now that does not always mean that everything on our wish list will be acquired or fulfilled, but rather that if a church is committed to ministering to a particular community, and if their efforts reflect the love and grace of God that Paul reminds us is our calling, then that church will have everything it needs to accomplish the will of God made available to them. The key is to be committed together, and to truly be of one mind and one heart in seeking to be a compassionate and healing presence here in our community.
But how are we supposed to do that? And how are we to know what it is that God desires of us? How are we to know exactly which issues we are supposed to be engaged with? How do we choose what it is that we should be devoting out time to? Well for starters we need to be willing to accept whatever it is that the Spirit asks of us rather than simply going after the ‘low hanging fruit’ of easy, low risk involvement.
Doing the work of God’s kingdom is not simply about ‘build it and they will come’ or ‘make it nicer looking and more will notice’, but rather about being willing to go out and to really begin to work on issues that may not be popular, that in fact may be offensive to many. It is about being willing to get down in the trenches of injustice and real need within our own community. If we are willing to trust in the Lord’s provision, then we also need to be willing to trust in the Lord’s guidance which may lead us into areas or opportunities for ministry we may never have thought of or may not really be all that excited about.
‘This is how they all will know that you are my disciples’, says Jesus, ‘If you have love, one for another’. This is the singular defining mark of our calling. We must be willing to become known as those who follow after our Lord Jesus by the way we care for and love one another. There is no other way to truly share the love and grace of our Lord other than by authentically doing so.
And so, into this place of uncertainty of late the Spirit has kept sounding the call to become yet more involved…to seek to feed more who are hungry, to clothe more who have little, and to witness the love of God visibly and openly, both with each other and in the community through which we walk and in which we live. To be willing to reach out and to extend ourselves whenever a need is presented to us, to listen carefully for every whispered and even unspoken request for prayer, to offer friendship, along with a listening ear and a willing shoulder to lean upon. The Spirit is calling us to demonstrate a newfound willingness to reach even deeper, way past our previous comfort zones into advocacy for the poor and the sick, into active support and a willingness to stand in solidarity for justice and equal opportunity for all of God’s children, for every one of our brothers and sisters.
No longer will the Spirit be content to allow us to pick and to choose those areas or openings for ministry that are ‘comfortable’ or that ‘fit neatly into our perception of what we feel our resources are’, but rather, we must be open to stand in the gap in new and much more challenging ways, trusting in the Spirit’s protection and in God’s sure and promised provision. We are called to reclaim the name of our faith, and to make it mean something far more than it has come to mean of late. We are called to bring it back to a place where it truly reflects the love and compassion of our Lord rather than some extreme cultural collection of views, beliefs, and understandings that support a worldly system fully opposed to the needs of the poor and fully opposed to compassionate regard for and generosity towards every child of God who is currently forced to dwell in margins of darkness and of fear.
There is simply no room in the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed for the increasingly warped representations of our faith that teach prosperity for the rich and willful ignorance of the huge injustices currently running rampant over the lives, hopes, and dreams of so many. There is no place within Jesus’ vision of the kingdom for unaddressed poverty, entrenched racism, sexism, or religious-based persecution. The call of the Spirit upon all who seek to follow after our Lord is to reject this deadly distortion of the true calling of God upon our hearts to love and to care for one another, to consider others as better than ourselves, and to have one mind and one heart in Christ Jesus. No longer are we allowed to sit by claiming neutrality or ignorance of underlying issues while the world rages on all about us…if we are to be a witness of God’s grace than we need to stand up and be one. Regardless of the cost, we must follow our Lord even if that pathway be the path of the cross.
Last weekend, I was privileged to listen to a preacher and theologian who currently teaches at Union Seminary down in NYC. Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes was the keynote speaker and preacher at a Synod event of our denomination down at Stony Point Center on Friday and Saturday. And aside from his dynamic style and his ability to draw on his Brazilian heritage, Claudio had a message that resonated deep in my heart. His talks were centered around the sacraments of our faith and most notably on the sacrament of the Lord’s Table which we are going to celebrate today.
Claudio shared that the sacrament in which we remember the last supper our Lord shared with his disciples is sacred only as it motivates us to participate in the ongoing work and mission of our Lord. In other words, it is not just a thing we do once a month, but rather it is an event that both reminds us and calls us to action in service to our Lord and to our community. The sacrament is a point of communion with our Lord in which we are given the gift of grace and then asked to take that grace with us, being sure that it is shared in a way that begins to make a difference in the world around us. It is not just bread and wine to remind us of a dinner long ago…but bread and wine offered to us that simultaneously calls us to sacrifice on behalf of our brothers and sisters in need.
As the bread is broken and the wine is poured out in sacrifice, as it is received and taken in, so too are we then broken and called to be poured out in service to our community. The sacrament of the Lord’s Table becomes holy as it is given life through our actions on behalf of love in service to one another. It is a starting point, a renewal point, and a reminder that our purpose here in the sacrament is to be equipped to minister in love in the name of our Lord. The Lord’s Supper is a point of contact, an opportunity for the Lord to speak truth to power within our hearts and to encourage, even impel us to go forth in service of truth and justice.
And to that end, the Council voted recently to celebrate the sacrament twice each month. And while at first I was concerned that doing so might cause the sacrament to lose its meaning in repetition, that was before the Spirit changed my heart and allowed me to see the grace inherent in the Council’s decision. I am now so excited to begin to look for the meaning the Spirit has in mind for us as we share in this new opportunity. And I am sure that we all will be challenged anew each time we are given the opportunity to listen for how it is we are supposed to let the broken bread and poured out wine empower us and lead us into being a loving force for change here in our community. Come let us celebrate the Lord’s grace among us!