Sunday, October 12, 2014

a ridiculous parable

Sermon 10-12-14
Manassas CoB
Matthew 22:1-14
“Invite Everyone You Find”

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Let me just tell you that story again. It’s a strange one – in approximately 17 different ways – and maybe it will help to hear it again.

Jesus is talking to a crowd, including both his disciples and the chief priests and Pharisees, and he’s telling parables. So, maybe it’s helpful to know a little background: In Matthew’s day, Christians were not an entirely different religion than Jews. Jesus was Jewish – he spent time in the temple, he argued with the priests, he knew the religious system. And his disciples were, likewise, Jewish. The earliest Christians were a sect within Judaism – Jewish people who were trying to interpret their religious landscape to include the amazing story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

So when we find Jesus standing around Jerusalem telling parables – stories with some kind of metaphorical point – he’s not just a preacher on the street corner trying to convert some heathens. Jesus is telling these stories within his own religious community, talking to the priests and his friends, telling stories with symbols and metaphors that he can assume everyone listening already knows. So here we are. Jesus is in Jerusalem, telling stories to the Jewish community.

And this is the story he tells:

The Kingdom of Heaven might be compared to a King, who throws a wedding banquet for his son.

(Oh, right – everybody listening would have known that a “wedding banquet” was code for “how it will be in the end times.”)

The banquet was ready, everyone had gotten their invitations, and so the King sent his servants out into the town to tell everyone it was time.

But no one came.

So the King sent out more servants, armed with the delectable details of the party – the meal is ready! The fattened calf has been ceremoniously butchered and prepared – we’re talking some supremely delicious pit bbq, here. Come on! You’re the guests! It’s a party!

But the guests still refused to come – a few went out to the fields to work, others went back to their storefronts, going about business as usual. No one paid attention to the epic party happening down the street at the royal family’s palace. Except, here’s a weird part, other guests grabbed the messenger servants, beat them up, and killed them.

What?

The King was, understandably, angry. Having had his servants killed, he went into retaliation mode and sent even more servants out to kill the people who had killed his people, and then he set the entire city on fire.

(So, pause, because a city on fire would have meant something very particular to all the readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel: Jerusalem was the center of the universe for the Israelites, the place where The Temple had been. In the year 70 A.D., the Roman army had burned Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the temple. That single act of destruction had and continues to have incredible repercussions for Jewish faith and life and politics, but suffice it to say that here, in Matthew’s Gospel, written not too long after that, including an angry King who burnt a city to the ground would have aroused a visceral reaction.)

So, having burned the city, the King said to more of his many servants, “Okay, fine. No one that I invited to the party is coming. What. EVER. There’s still all this food! My son is still getting married! We’re going to party with or without those people. Go out into the roads and the backwaters and the hidden places and invite everyone you find.”

So the servants did that. They brought back all kinds of people – the text says they brought back both good people and evil people. The party went on.

But when the King came into the banquet hall and saw all those people enjoying his son’s wedding banquet, his glance happened to land on this one guy who was dressed a little inappropriately – he had no wedding robe. “Friend,” the King said, which – in Matthew, calling anybody “friend” signals that something big and problematic is about to happen; it’s what Jesus calls Judas at the last supper when he knows Judas is just about to betray him. The King was NOT attempting make nice with this underdressed wedding guest. Instead, he asked him, “Friend, how’d you make it through the door without the right kind of clothes?”

The under dressed man was speechless. He had no response – remember, he’d been found on the side of the road and randomly invited to this spectacular party. And so the King summoned his servants (that guy had a LOT of servants) and commanded them to bind up this guy, throw him out – into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And then the parable ends with a neat and tidy little aphorism: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

Ooooookay.

First of all, how often have we heard that little aphorism – many are called, but few are chosen – and in how many contexts? How many of us knew that it originated in such a bizarre biblical parable? It sounds like the tagline for some epic superhero blockbuster. It isn’t. It’s the conclusion of an odd little parable from the Gospel of Matthew about a vindictive King.

Second of all, what in the WORLD does this parable MEAN for US?

There are similar versions of this parable in other gospels. Luke tells the story with absolutely no mention of the angry King – just the command to invite unexpected people who can’t repay the generosity to your feasts.

It’s fairly clear what Matthew meant the parable to convey in the world he was writing for. In a muddle of religious identity, where the temple had been destroyed and Jesus’ followers were trying to figure out where they fit within the ensuing mélange of religious practice, Matthew tells this parable for two reasons: first, he wants to remind the religious leaders of the day that they are ignoring an invitation to something BIG (aka Jesus as Messiah). But he’s also reminding his fellow early church-goers that even if they’ve joined this particular religious movement, there are still some pretty steep expectations placed upon them in terms of what following Jesus is going to mean.

Both of those things make sense in Matthew’s context.

But what does this parable mean for US? Our context is not Matthew’s context.

So, what does this parable mean for us? Which character are we supposed to identify with?

Are we Kings, who ought to be inviting more outsiders to our parties?
Are we invited guests who need to learn the etiquette of a proper RSVP?
Are we unwitting bystanders who get lucky when the invited people don’t show up?
Are we inappropriately dressed, clueless about how to celebrate and about to get thrown out on our rear ends?
Are we some of the legions of the King’s servants who are constantly running to and from the palace inviting everyone we find to this big party, whether or not they come?

There is plenty of good news in this parable, weird as it may be.

But what, exactly, that good news might be for us, together, here and now, is not immediately obvious. In situations like this, I become increasingly grateful fall back on Brethren tradition. Borne of a time of religious tumult maybe a little similar to the time of Matthew, our tradition insists that scripture is best interpreted when sisters and brothers gather together and read the Word together.

We don’t appoint any religious authority to interpret scripture for us. We claim to be “non-creedal,” that is, we have no code of beliefs that anyone is required to sign onto before joining us. Instead, what we’ve got is something much more difficult – no creed but the entirety of the New Testament, as interpreted by the gathered body with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

What that means is that no one – no preacher, no district executive, no bishop, no theologian, no professor – no one is going to swoop in and tell us what this parable means. What it means is that we are responsible for reading the text together, for trusting that God’s good news of salvation and freedom is present, for waiting patiently for the Holy Spirit to show up in our midst and reveal herself to us in even these weird old crazy kingdom stories.

And the great part is, we already know all this! I cannot tell you how many people I have heard tell me some version of this surprised story: “You know, when we started all this pastoral transition process and the beginning was those Vital Ministry Journey bible studies, I could not understand why we had to sit around and READ the BIBLE together instead of just getting on with it already and hiring a new pastor! But then my group started to meet and you know what? I LIKED it! We really clicked, and I really enjoyed reading scripture with those people.”

Just this week, I’ve heard several people talk about how they wanted to do more of that kind of thing – reading scripture together in small groups.

Reading scripture, together, is such a simple thing. And it is so, incredibly, mysteriously powerful.

What did you hear in this parable?
Did you hear and feel convicted that we are to invite everyone we find?
Did you hear and realize that you’d been feeling a tug toward celebration here in this place?
Did you hear and sense God calling us to risk our lives for the good news like the servants in the parable did?
The beauty of this gathered body is that all of those hearings are real, and respected. But the challenge of the gathered body is that in order to practice real discernment, we’re required to share our convictions and our hearings with one another. We get to do the hard work of listening to one another, sorting and sifting through our interpretations together, put them up against all the spiritual and institutional and exegetical wisdom we hold collectively, and listen to what – in the midst of all of that – the Spirit is convicting us to be and to do, together.

I do not know what this parable from Matthew means for us. I’ve spent all week trying to figure this parable out – with Jr. High youth, with Pastor Chris in the office, gleaning the insights from Wednesday night bible study, even resorting to Facebook, and I still don’t know what this parable means for us, today.

But I do know this: I LOVE exploring scripture together. I love exploring scripture with YOU. This is how we listen for what God might be calling us to do – we gather around scripture and invite the Holy Spirit to grant us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Maybe – just maybe – all this richness of scripture – the parables and poetry, gospel and grace, family legends and apocalyptic fables – maybe THIS is one kind of banquet, a feast we’re all invited to. Maybe we ought to RSVP our acceptance, and show up when we hear the reminder to join the party. Maybe feasting on the word is a real thing, and maybe we are in danger of missing out.

The food is ready and the table is set. We are all invited. Let’s rejoice in that abundance and feast, together.





Wednesday, October 01, 2014

NuDunker Follow-Up: Worship & Submission?


Last week, the NuDunkers had a Hangout conversation around the topic of worship & authority. Unfortunately the last ten or so minutes of our chat got cut from the stream & recording, but have no fear: I am here to re-cap those lost moments for the world! First, here's the video:





The video ends during a discussion about how to call and form leaders who wield authority in worship in good and nurturing ways, and I was just about to share Monica's comment, which was:

I'm thinking about quality of worship from some of the panel comments. We have some conversations at Bethany about "good" worship. It's about as squirrely as good art. Who is able to judge good vs/bad worship. Do we just know good when we see or experience it? I agree with Dana's blog, that sometimes the best worship includes interruptions, includes the new reader that stumble over words, etc. 

Who judges whether worship is good or bad? In conversation about how to call leaders, and making space for other voices, we began to talk a little about what it might mean to call and include leaders in worship whose style or theology or culture or preference might be very different from our own. What would that mean for creating worship services or experiences with cohesive structure or theme? Whose responsibility is it to invite, to form, to hold a thing together?


Then, Brian returned to us and we realized that we weren't online anymore. Alas! So many questions, so few answers.


One piece of the conversation that has had me thinking for the last week is about the authorities that are always present in worship, whether explicit or assumed. I rail against external authorities attempting to assert themselves onto a communal situation, but was grateful for the reminders from my sister and brothers of the reality that we are always worshipping something, that authority and power are constant dynamics, that the question is not IF we ought to have some authority in the way we are worshipping but WHICH ONE.

And, when we start thinking like that, I start wondering which authorities are already governing our worship as people of God, which authorities we are obligingly (if unwittingly) submitting our worship and ourselves unto. So I started a list:

The Market - we talked a bit about consumeristic assumptions of worship in the Hangout.
Our Emotions
The Holy Spirit - one would hope.
Tradition
Pastoral Preference
Architecture
The Lectionary
Institutional Power Structures
Our Intellect
Furniture
A Sense of Propriety
World Events



What else? What governs our worship? What authorities are in play when we gather together?

And, I suppose, the next question is: how do those authorities function? Do they play nice together? Are they in conflict? Which ones should we be wary of? Which ones should we work harder to submit ourselves?










Tuesday, September 23, 2014

NuDunkers: Worship & Authority

This post is part of a NuDunker conversation happening this Thursday, 9/25, at 10am EST. For more info, and to join us via YouTube stream, click here

And because every NuDunker Hangout aggravates my bookshelf envy (those brothers of mine have some serious reading chops, y'all, and somehow manage to include their personal libraries in full view of their computer-screen cameras, allowing their video chat avatars to be oh-so-scholarly and wise while my office walls are pitifully bare and I cannot seem to erect a desk anywhere near a bookshelf background), here's a selfie with some books. Just to prove that I do, in fact, have them. Also, yes, those are crayons. And maybe a board game. It's youth ministry, OKAY?



I know people who are good at doing worship. I went to seminary with them. I’ve worked with them. These people are creative and motivated and under the impression that when an idea arrives, the next logical step is to turn it into a reality.

I am not one of those people. I appreciate worship. I have ideas. Some creative spark makes its way through me in other ways. But creating worship elements, arranging blocks of liturgy in meaningful ways, figuring out the logistics of how people might act and sing and encounter Jesus through the movements of worship is just…not my thing.

For one, I’m not such a huge fan of formalized worship practices. I like RITUAL, and SACRAMENT and ORDINANCE, sure. I think there’s a reality larger than our own that breaks through in those moments, and that we as followers of Christ and people intent on living as created and contingent beings have both the responsibility and the joy of creating space and time to do those things together. But my personal preferences lean toward the casual and spontaneous rather than the standardized and suited-up. I’d much rather sit around a fireplace with BVSers wearing sweatpants than stand in the pulpit wearing heels. I’d jump at the chance to emulate an un-programmed Quaker meeting in place of those unwieldy conference worship services that I helped to plan this year. This rocking chair church in Floyd, VA sounds pretty much like the worship of dreams. But that’s mostly a style preference. Some people are just fancier than I am.

More importantly, I don’t believe that I, as an ordained church leader, ought to be the only one making decisions about how an entire community celebrates its life together. First of all, I am boring. I only think about a few things. I like particular scripture, and certain hymns, and I am a creature turned, perhaps more than most, toward repetition and habit. Worship planned week after week by a single person is BORING. Second of all, my Brethren ecclesiology insists on a communal hermeneutic – we work together, pray together, read scripture TOGETHER in order to discern God’s voice breaking through to us. Why – WHY – should this be different when we gather to worship? Why do we assume that when we enter a sanctuary that the only person with the right to speak is the ordained person? Why do we entrust the shape of our communal worship to only a few when we insist in other parts of our life together that each one is gifted, that each one brings a piece of Christ, that each one is necessary to discerning God’s will for the body?

Last summer, I went to Sunday morning worship at a congregation other than my own. Part of the service was a piece of music played by a developmentally disabled teenager accompanied by his adult friend. The two walked up toward the pulpit, the man sat on a stool with his guitar, the boy stood behind his drum set. After strumming a few random chords, the man looked up from the strings, a strained look on his face. The boy was getting anxious, wringing his hands, ready to jam. “I can’t remember how it starts,” the man said aloud. The congregation chuckled a bit, and I heard a few people start humming different notes under their breath. Finally, a woman toward the back held up her phone and pushed “play” on a YouTube video of whatever song they were trying to play together. “Oh, right, right!” the man nodded. The woman returned her phone to her purse, and the duo up front launched into a beautiful, loud, chaotic, off-beat rendition of the hymn.

As they crashed through their song, I couldn’t help grinning. It was gorgeous. That this congregation made joyful space for everyone – young and old, differently-abled and forgetful; that they could shout out help from the pews when the ones up front couldn’t get started; that the help could come in the form of a youtube video played at full volume on an iphone; that all of this transpired without a single apparent notch of anxiety or discomfort from anyone present there in worship; that the mistake and subsequent cooperation WAS worship…all of this made me proud, comforted, convicted.

This is not something that would happen in my current congregation. We’re larger, more formal, less shout-it-from-the-pews than that congregation is. We worship together in a different way – more structured, more scripted, more practiced, more professional, more vetted. Sometimes, this is just necessary. And sometimes, it enables a worshipful mood in ways that the clumsy joy of chaos does not. There’s a bit of personal preference at work, generational divides as well as cultural ones. But often, buttoned-up worship styles leave me longing for more openness, more mistakes, more help from the pews, more reality.

And that’s why we need more people participating in the planning, writing, creating and leading of worship. We need to hear all the voices – old, young, strong, weak, high-pitched and low, from the front of the sanctuary and the back, the tiniest old lady rasp and the shrill newborn cry, the voice dripping with confidence and the one shaking with nerves, even the voice of that one guy who sits outside the sanctuary gazing in from the narthex, the balcony-whisperer and the overpowering choir alto – we need to hear them all. That means, I think, that those of us with the authority to plan and lead worship are responsible for finding ways to incorporate as many voices as possible – to pay attention to who’s doing what, to watch out for the poets and the dramatists, the ones with stories to share and the ones who are tentative and frightened. Authority in worship means making space – for all of us to speak up.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

a severe lack of enemy-love

Sermon 8-31-14
Romans 12:9-21
"Called and Sent"
Manassas Church of the Brethren

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[e] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[f] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[g] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


There was so much goodness and grace that happened at National Youth Conference that it’s hard to pick out the best moment. It could have been all those swaying-together-in-worship songs;
or averting my eyes while all our youth climbed, untethered, to the very top of a tall climbing wall to get a fantastic group photo;

or the realization that the majority of the preachers for the week were WOMEN;
or the exuberant joy of thousands of people dancing to Mutual Kumquat;
or the classic youth group bonding activity of forcing someone (ahem, NICK) to consume some nasty dining hall concoction that you’ve created out of leftovers;
or the afternoon I took an hour off and headed with our friend Christine Engelen (who lives in Fort Collins, now) up into the hills, where the view to the East seems to stretch, flatly, all the way to the Mississippi;


or the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of embarrassing selfies we sent zinging all over the shuttle bus on the way back to the airport;
(the MOST embarrassing ones have been omitted for posterity's sake)

or the thrill of being invited to be one of the anointers during an evening worship service, looking person after person – especially our own youth - in the eyes and proclaiming that they are beloved, created and called;
or the evening when, walking into my dorm room for the night, I heard someone shout my name and turned to find four of our kids sitting at a table, bibles open, reading and sharing scripture together – and they invited me to join them;
But maybe the most enduring moment, the one where I felt God’s spirit on the move most powerfully and the one that I hope we who were there can keep alive, was during Jarrod McKenna’s sermon on the last evening.
Jarrod is an Australian leader, speaker, and community builder. He and his wife, Teresa, started the New Home Project – an outreach ministry that invites recently arrived refugees and immigrants to live with them until they can find their feet in their new home. And Jarrod, while not born or raised into any kind of Brethren faith, has been completely converted to the ways of our Anabaptist heritage and Pietist practice. He told the story of his friend, Kai, who left a life of street gang violence and joined the church there. Kai, having learned from Jarrod about our practices of footwashing and trine immersion baptism, decided that he wanted to stop fighting and killing his enemies, and start washing their feet. He decided he wanted to be baptized – dunked three times – and begin living the enemy-loving way of Jesus.
Jarrod told this story and said, “and that inspiration – that came from YOU LOT.” The way Jarrod describes our unique combination of Anabaptist practice and pietist spirituality is a strong emphasis on lived obedience to the commands of Jesus WITH an equally strong sense of the real presence of God always here amongst us.
When Jarrod ended his sermon, he issued a challenge. He challenged anyone who was feeling stirred to live this particular call to the ways of Jesus – a sense of real presence, a desire to obey Christ’s commands, the impulse to practice enemy-love – to stand up and join him on the arena floor. Thousands of people stood and joined him. The sense of God’s presence, and the desire of these NYCers to follow Jesus, was palpable.

Photo: Nevin Dulabaum, for the CoB

I think Jarrod was taken aback at how many people stood and came forward. He wasn’t anticipating the response, but he, too, was moved by what was happening. And his next words were perfect. “One of the beautiful things about your tradition is that you insist that discipleship is never a solo journey, but that it takes a community. If you are serious about this, you will need the people next to you…I want to thank those who are taking this seriously enough that stayed in their seats. You might actually understand what we’re actually asking of you more than some of the people that came forward. And God’s not done with any of us. So thank you for your courage.”  He prayed for us. We prayed for each other. And this moment of commitment – to practice obedience in the light of God’s presence, to live Christ’s way of enemy-love – this was, by far, my favorite moment from NYC. It’s how all that Dunker Punk stuff you may have been hearing about started.

 ______________________________________________

The scripture passage from today – Romans 12 – has a lot to say about loving enemies. Paul is writing, like we talked about last week, to the Christians in Rome. He’s giving them instruction about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire. So the second half of this chapter is something of a list of Things Good Christians Do.
First, he says, you’ve got to learn how to treat one another in the church. Love one another. Outdo one another in showing honor. Be zealous! Be ardent! Serve God and one another. Care for those among you who are in need. Offer hospitality to strangers.
And then, Paul says, here’s how to live among people who are not YOUR people. Those people who persecute you for your faith: bless them. If the people around you are rejoicing, rejoice with them! If they are weeping, weep with them. Don’t pretend to be extra special. Do not repay evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. If your enemy is hungry: feed them. If your enemy is thirsty: give them something to drink. Don’t get sucked into the empire’s culture of polarization, political bickering, winning by force. Don’t stoop down to that level – overcome evil with GOOD.



This is HARD. Loving enemies is HARD. When I read this passage and think about people I know who have successfully practiced enemy-love, I appreciate Jarrod McKenna’s reminder that those who didn’t stand that night really might have been the ones who understood how hard the challenge is.
One person who seriously committed his life to enemy-love was Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’re looking for some ideas about how to follow Christ in the center of the Empire, his sermons rank right up there with Paul’s letter to the Romans. In one of those sermons, preached in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, King sums up the enemy-love of Christ this way:
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, "I love you. I would rather die than hate you." And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.
One of my favorite writers is Sarah Vowell. She wrote a newspaper article a few years ago about celebrating Martin Luther King Day, explaining how King’s great civil vision was drawn explicitly from the ways of Jesus. She quotes that sermon and then says:
Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Paul, in our text for this morning, is reminding the Roman Christians of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Your job, he tells those Christians in Rome, is to love your enemies. And Sarah Vowell is RIGHT: This IS the most beautiful, strange, impossible and radical thing a human being can say.
I think we all know something of how hard it can be to love our enemies. In fact, I know this congregation to be a place where we try – really hard – to be a place where the usual dividing lines of our culture, the lines of politics and ideologies that function so often as enemy-creators, don’t hold so much power. Sometimes, that’s because we avoid talking about serious things we disagree about. But most of the time, it’s because we take seriously Jesus’ commands and Paul’s instructions to love one another here in this place. I’ve heard multiple people say, in just the last week, how grateful they are for this church, a congregation that functions like a family especially for those whose families are far away. I also heard from someone this week that the way they’d describe this congregation in one word would be: GRACIOUS. That’s a high compliment, y’all.
This last year and a half, we’ve spent a lot of time working on our life together in this place. Some of that work has been about responsibilities: who plans worship? Who unlocks the building? Who’s responsible for keeping a watch on the finances? And some of that work has been about relationships: What do we do when we disagree? What does it mean to be a deacon? How do we care for each other when someone is sick, or sad, or lost?
This has been good, important work. I expect it will continue. Paul reminds the Roman Christians to rejoice in hope, patient in suffering, persevering in prayer. Surely we’ll need that advice as we move together into this new way of being a congregation together when Chris begins as our senior pastor this week.
But Paul didn’t write to the Romans just to give them advice on how to live together, and Jesus didn’t preach the Sermon on the Mount solely as a primer in community living. Paul is talking to Christians in Rome – Christians faced with living the way of Christ in the midst of an empire and a culture bent in almost opposite directions. This command to love our enemies doesn’t stop when we leave this sanctuary. We are called – individually, yes, but also as a body, as a community, as a congregation – to pray for those who persecute us, to feed our hungry enemies, to overcome evil with good.
I am not sure what that looks like for us, here, in this place, but here are some things I’ve noticed about this place recently:
When we went to House of Mercy during VBS with the Jr. Highs, we learned that 13,000 children in Prince William County aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
Just a few weeks ago, Jan Hawkins and the people at SERVE shared school supplies with 2,000 families who couldn’t afford notebooks and pencils.
This summer, at the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings, our leaders and our neighbors have been engaged in heated discussions about the presence and support of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant kids from Latin America being housed just down the road at Youth for Tomorrow.
Two weeks ago, a man was killed – 2 miles from here – by gang-related violence. This was Manassas’ first homicide in 2014 – a man killed at the hands of his enemies.
I am convinced that the conditions that allow for each of these things to happen here, in our town and in our county, are created by a severe lack of enemy-love, a belief that we have permission to stop loving when we reach some invisible boundary – of family or race or nationality or socio-economic strata or comfort. Those boundaries don’t exist. Our call is to love over and through every boundary, to love even those who we think of as our enemies.
And I’m also convinced that this congregation, in particular, has both the gift and the calling to share what we know and what we’ve received about loving our enemies.
It’s here, in scripture – in Paul’s letters and in Jesus’ teaching, in the prophets and in he gospel.
It’s here, in the example of Jesus, refusing to condemn anyone, by welcoming sinners and tax collectors and centurions and prostitutes and immigrants and minorities and criminals into his circle.
It’s here, in our own Brethren tradition that has formed us into a gracious people, people who serve, people who respond when need arises, people who invite others in, people who KNOW that following Jesus is beautiful and strange and impossible and peculiar.
And it’s here, in this place. We have been called into this beautiful, strange life with Jesus. And we are sent out into the world to share that life in all its beauty and in all its strangeness.
I am excited about what’s going to happen here in these coming months. I’m excited that Chris is starting as our pastor, and I’m excited that fall is here and we get to hang out together regularly again in Sunday school and at CAN on Wednesdays (Starting September 10!).  And I am also excited because I feel God moving among us, forming us into Christ’s people, into Christ’s church. I still can’t see the whole of what that means for us, here in this place. But I keep getting glimpses. Are you excited? Can you see the possibilities? Do you feel God moving among us, too?

May it be so. Amen.