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I watched a movie recently, called Thanks for Sharing. The movie was about addiction and the miraculous work done by people in 12-step programs. Miraculous because it changes lives. Work because it’s not easy – it’s the hardest thing that these folks have ever done in their lives.
And, as I watched the movie, I realized that the significant part of the 12-step program, the most important thing… is that these people have surrendered any notion that they are in control of anything and are at the mercy of one another’s commitment to each other.
In their darkest places, they call on one another. And, they are there for each other. Answering the phone at all hours of the night, racing across town at a moment’s notice… to save their friend from slipping. Because they know that, in helping someone else from slipping, they are saving themselves from the same fate.
As one of the characters, new to the program, remarked to her new friend after he had shown up for her in her dark moment, “Y’know, as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”
It’s transformational… to be that vulnerable and yet that powerful at the same time. To be that invested in someone else’s liberation. To know that we need one another so much and yet know that just showing up for one another is the most powerful, the most liberating act anyone in this world could ever do.
In today’s gospel reading, we have a strange and iconic encounter between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus asks the disciples, these people who have been following him and calling him rabbi, Jesus asks these followers, “Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Both titles, one a Hebrew title, the other a Roman title, are royal titles, describing a ruler or divine leader. The Messiah, of course, meaning the anointed one. And Jesus announces that his church will be built upon this foundation – the foundation of Peter’s faith. And he will give that church the keys to the kingdom.
I think it’s important to understand that the definition of “church” here, is not how we define it 2000 years later. It’s not this massive institution and it’s certainly not this building. The word in Matthew’s gospel that is translated to the English “church” is the Greek word ekklesia, which is a word that means “those who are called out.”
It’s like that children’s rhyme – Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open up the door, here’s the people.
It’s the people part. This is what Jesus meant when he was talking to Peter. This is the Body of Christ. This is ekklesia. The people called out to do God’s work in the world. God’s work of liberation.
It’s why we have a dismissal at the end of our worship, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.” What we’re really saying is, let us go forth and get busy with God’s work of liberating one another. Because this is what it means to be the church.
And, as a community, St. John’s has discerned a call to a particular mission – the Body of Christ moving in concert at this time, in this place, with these resources. Now, I’m the first to say that Mission Statements are meaningless unless they give us a clear sense of what we are called to do as a group of people, unless we know them well enough that they inform our imagination of our congregation’s ministry.
So, we have been saying a special Collect for Mission since the Feast of Pentecost to call upon God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us for this mission. We have new t-shirts that reflect the 4 basic tenets of our mission – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving. And the Mission Statement is printed in our bulletin every week.
We are called to know all our neighbors and be a bridge of God’s Love; connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving each other and the diverse community of Kingston. We will do this by:
- Sharing our physical space and resources
- Being stewards of the arts
- Advocating for social justice
- Participating in inclusive and intergenerational worship
- Affirming everyone has a place at God’s Table
And to be formed as the ekklesia, those who are called out, it matters that we come to church, that we have a place to be called out from. It matters a lot – especially right now because there are forces at work in our culture that are truly evil and that, to be blunt, require exorcism. Hate and bigotry have no place when God has formed us all in the very image of God.
But more than simply coming to church, I think it matters that we understand our directive “to be called out” from this place and we take it to heart. I think it matters that we leave worship, we leave this place, and we remember our baptismal vows – to pray, to worship, to forgive and repent, to love, and to strive for justice.
I think it matters more that we truly grasp, that we read, mark, and inwardly digest the responsibility we have to one another. To show up for one another, to liberate one another from the darkest places of our lives.
And Paul tells us today, in his letter to the Romans, “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. Do 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.”
And Paul goes on to tell us that we have been empowered, not to be God but to surrender ourselves in service to God so that God may act through us. Because we are called as Christians, to recognize our vulnerability and our power. We are called as Christians, to show up for one another.
And here we are centuries later, the church. The people who are called out. The Body of Christ. Who do we need to show up for? Who are those who are experiencing their darkest moments? In your heart, where are you being called?
- Is it African American people, Jewish people, gay people, immigrants… anyone currently being targeted by hate groups across the country?
- Is it Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum from the ongoing war like so many of our own ancestors came here?
- The suicidal veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder?
- The hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly girls, who are sold into slavery every year?
- The young person, one of so many, who is addicted to readily-available opioids?
- The homeless person? The bullied kid? The bully? The criminal in prison?
The list is endless, even in a culture as wealthy as ours… or, perhaps, because our culture is so wealthy… we have an endless list of “others” – those who are left out, an endless list of people who we believe are just on the short end of the stick. Who just need to work harder.
But Paul tells us not to be formed by the culture but to be formed by the Gospel.
Whether it’s a belief in karma or the prosperity gospel, sometimes I think we believe if God wanted them to be better off, God would have made sure that happened. And, so we leave it to God instead of taking a place in someone else’s life.
Or, worse, we believe that we are in control of our own destiny… and we have no responsibility to anyone in our lives but ourselves. And, if these “others” could just take control of their own destiny, if they would just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they would also be doing ok. That’s the cultural ethic, right?
And Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”
In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, the beginning of the Moses narrative – the midwives defied the law in order to serve God. Sometimes that’s what’s required.
This is why 12-step programs are so miraculous. Because these people have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, coming to recognize the liberation in surrendering their power and taking responsibility for one another. Because these people know what truly dark places are. Because these people know, “as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”
My point is this, my friends: We are Christians. We believe that the Son of Man is the Son of God. We believe the incarnation actually matters and the power we have to show up for one another as incarnate beings actually matters. We believe that God works through us and that we are called out as the ekklesia, as the church, to be of service to one another.
I had a professor in seminary named John Kater. He preached a sermon that still sticks with me. He said our call as Christians, is to stand in the crossroads. To stand where we can see both the broken state of the world and the blessed Reign of God – at the same time. We are called to stand here and witness and to participate in reconciling the one with the other.
Because we have decided to follow a person named Jesus who commissioned his followers to be the Body of Christ broken for the world. And we have willingly taken on the mantle of disciple.
So, we are called to actively participate in in the liberation of one another’s lives. Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that we will do greater things than he ever did. So, what are we waiting for?
It’s an enormous task, I know. It’s an endless list, as you know. And sometimes it’s all we can do to get through our own day. But Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world…”
Because you are called to ministry as a baptized member of the Body of Christ. You are called to carry on the work of Christ in this world, to make God’s mission of liberation a true possibility. To show up for others in their darkest places.
So here it is: don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture of all of it, just focus on one thing as an individual person. We have a mission as the community of St. John’s. And we have leadership that will drive us through the living out of our common mission.
But as an individual, you are called to a particular ministry wherever your heart beats. What is it that brings you to your knees? The idea of working with prisoners, with refugees, with kids?
What is it that breaks your heart wide open? The possibility of changing the way we view the mentally ill or the treatment of women or fighting white supremacy?
What would make you feel powerless if you were in someone else’s shoes?
This is where you start.
This is where liberation always starts – love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is where you stand as a witness in the crossroads, where you can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.
And this is there you offer yourself to your brothers and sisters.
This is where you offer yourself as a sacrifice to God.
This is your ministry.