Last week, in the middle of the sermon, I asked a simple question. I asked each of you to pause and see if you knew Memorial UCC’s mission statement. If you are visiting us, or are new to our faith community, you might have seen the statement posted on our website. If you have been a member, or a friend, for any length of time, you might remember something about “ever-widening circles.” But, can you repeat the entire mission statement? And if you can – does it still resonate with who we are as a congregation?
This year we will have an opportunity to prayerfully reflect on how we hear and respond to God’s Word today, and in the years ahead. Listening to this morning’s scripture readings and delving into the words of this “God Who is Still Speaking” in 2018, there is an underlying, repeated sense of astonishment. Prepare yourselves, for throughout the upcoming year, many of the scripture readings we will be immersed in will come from the book of Mark. Professor Emeritus, Ted Jennings notes that the author of “Mark tells the story in the way you’d tell an action story, (one) that makes people smile, grimace…(and presents) a sense of humanity (that is) engaging for (the) audience.”
For this is a story that pulls us rapidly into a variety of settings. Jesus continually crosses boundaries. If you remember, last week we were along the Sea of Galilee, hanging out with fishermen. God intruded into the lives of those called: the brothers Simon and Andrew, James and John. A week ago Saturday, Diana Butler Bass tweeted that, “What is not so well-know (about the Jesus’ call to the fishermen) is how deeply political this passage is. Fishing was one of the most miserable jobs in the ancient world. Ancient historians said that its status was barely above that of a beggar. Fishermen were usually part of kinship networks, where families struggles together to catch enough to pay the onerous and regressive taxes placed upon them and have a pittance left over to live” (Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, 1/20/18). There, in the story—on the shore—God intruded.
This week we find ourselves in Capernaum, hanging out in the synagogue with all those gathered about. Here, in Mark’s retelling of the story, Jesus crosses unexpected boundaries—twice. First, unexpectedly, he grabs the attention of those at the synagogue that day. People were drawn to this Jesus, the teacher. Who was this man “teaching with authority”? And then, unexpectedly, Jesus calls out. He calls out to a person on the edge. An individual he should have avoided. The one… like those with physical challenges, sensory differences, paralysis, blindness, bleeding conditions, leprosy…the people that those in power saw as “less than”… even “more than less then”… the children, the women, the widows… the multitudes from which the men with power, money, and/or education turned away. Crossing a cultural boundary, Jesus sees—and then calls out to—the person others labeled “unclean.” Theologian Belden Lane notes that, “repeatedly (Jesus) invites his listeners into the disturbing (and liberating) reality of his message through an unanticipated experience of place… People confront limits they were reluctant to face… Here a new community takes shape, a community formed in brokenness, constituted on the edge…” There, the people “were astounded.” The unclean cry out, “Jesus, what have you to do with US?” There, in the synagogue, God intruded.
It is here that I will leave you here with a bit of suspense – for where will Jesus lead us next week? Who will we be hanging out with? How will God intrude? A hint might be found in today’s snippet from Deuteronomy. Now, I admit that there is always a caution in looking back at ancient texts as a foreshadowing of the life of Jesus, yet I can’t help but wonder, what might be embedded for us in the words from Moses? For there, in the text, the Hebrew work “shema’” appears three times. This is a verb for “you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15), recalls that Moses “has listened” (vs. 16), and warns that there will be those that “will not listen” (vs. 19) to God’s still speaking Word. God intrudes. Will we listen?
This circles us back to our mission statement. I invite you into these Words, this space in which we can vision. Listen. Witness. This space in which God intrudes. Memorial UCC—
We are a community of faith called by God, to
1. gather for worship and
2. reach out in ever-widening circles as a witness to God’s all-inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and
3. to act out God’s grace and mercy in deeds of teaching, healing, reconciling, nurturing, and feeding those who are hungry in body or in spirit.
I think that this is important enough to ask you to listen to those words once again:
We are a community of faith called by God, to gather for worship and reach out in ever-widening circles as a witness to God’s all-inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and to act out God’s grace and mercy in deeds of teaching, healing, reconciling, nurturing, and feeding those who are hungry in body or in spirit.
Expanding on this commitment, I invite you to each answer these questions in your own heart, and in our collective hearts-
• What does it mean for you, for me, for us today that on our website, we proclaim publicly:
“This is a place for all — male or female, young or old, gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor, healthy or not…” That “we are an open and affirming congregation, which means, in our official language: ‘We welcome persons of all ages, races, sexual orientations and church backgrounds to participate in the life and ministry of our church’ ”?
• What does it mean for you, for me, for us today when we proclaim publicly, again—on our website—that:
“We are a place where all people struggle together to understand God, Jesus and our lives.. (that) We are a place where people wrestle together with questions, doubts and new insights even as we all strive to live out Jesus’ teachings…(that) we affirm the preamble to the constitution of the United Church of Christ (which states) the responsibility of people in each generation (is) to make this faith their own “in (the) reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression and in purity of heart before God” ?
• What does it mean for you, for me, for us today when we proclaim publicly:
“As much as we treasure our church community, we are deeply committed to the community around us… We are a community that is deeply engaged with the wider community…” those outer circles (and that) “We also are a community where people do a great job of looking out for each other in the midst of life’s struggles” … those inner circles?
• What does it mean for you, for me, for us today when we proclaim publicly that:
“Underlying all of this is a continual effort to nurture our spiritual lives… (that) our Sunday worship strives to create a place where people can experience a connection to God as well as to each other. (In what ways do) we look for opportunities to help people individually deepen their connection to God and to tap the spiritual resources they have within them? ”
What does it mean?
Richard Puckett notes that the reading from Deuteronomy this week, “… promises to the people that God’s ongoing care for them is found… in the simple fact of God’s word… (And that) the role of faithful people is to listen—not simply to hear, but to listen thoughtfully and courageously. By learning to recognize and trust God’s true word, the people learn to trust God’s own self.”
Hear God’s true word. Trust God. As we continue in worship today… which I believe includes yes… worship… but also that business stuff of the church, the Annual Meeting, I ask you to be alert to the ways in which God is intruding. Here. Now. In our visioning. In our listening. In our witnessing.
If you are visiting us today, you are welcome to stay and listen. Be a witness. Members and friends of Memorial UCC, today begins our visioning for the future. I encourage you to become familiar with our mission statement. Does it still resonate with who we are as a congregation? If so, in what ways is the Spirit leading us to grow more, inside and/or outside, of this faith community (and/or on social media)? Where is the work of the church today? How is the work of the church? If the mission statement causes you some pause, where might be our growing edges? The boundaries that we need to cross? Know that our “role (as) faithful people is to listen—not simply to hear, but to listen thoughtfully and courageously.”
Let us, this day, hear the ways in which God is present. Let us listen thoughtfully. Let us be open to God intruding in unexpected ways. Let us be… astounded. And let us be… courageous.
~ Pastor Kris
(reflection on Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28)