Sunday, August 12, 2018

Live in love

A Sermon preached on Sunday, August 12, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Once again, God delivers. We are celebrating a Baptism this morning, of Hannah Lore Kl√∂ckner. The readings we heard this morning are not specially chosen for baptisms, and yet they fit perfectly, at least one does. Which one do I mean? Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel, putting away falsehood in Ephesians, or Jesus’ bread of life sermon in John? I’m thinking of Ephesians, but the other two also have something to say to the occasion. If we blend out all the gruesome details of Absalom’s defeat by the army of his father, then one thing remains: the unconditional love of a parent for their child. I just hope that Hannah does not get up to quite so much mischief as Absalom did. And the passage from John’s gospel is all about the Eucharist, the second great sacrament. Baptism brings us into relationship with God through Jesus. The Eucharist sustains and grows that relationship. To receive Jesus, the bread of life, helps us become like him.
But it is the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that I want to focus on. This is Paul teaching them, and us, what it means to be a baptized person. According to Paul, in verse 24, so just before the section we heard earlier, in Baptism we “clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” And what we heard this morning is what that new self should do or not do. These are the rules for anyone and everyone who calls themselves “Christian.” They are not about that person’s individual relationship with God. They are all about our relationship with one another.
We started our service this morning with the special baptismal acclamation, also taken from this chapter of Ephesians, that there is one Body and one Spirit; one hope in God's call to us; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all. All of Paul’s advice is focused on the one body. Anything that builds up the body, the community of all believers, is good. Anything that threatens or impairs that body is bad.
Paul begins by highlighting the importance of speaking the truth. We belong to one another, we owe the truth – always tempered by love – to one another. Lies and deceit are like poison for the body of Christ. Our message is always good news, not fake news.
Then he turns to dealing with anger and we heard that lovely phrase “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph. 4:26) When we discussed this passage at our Bible study on Wednesday, one member of the group said that this had always been something she and her husband practice, always to make up after an argument and before the day is over. And they have been married for a long time, so it works! It is necessary too within the Christian community. We will disagree, often passionately, and may even get angry in the course of an argument. Paul actually says, “be angry.” He knows we can’t avoid it at times. Jesus demonstrated righteous anger too – just ask the Temple traders! But when we are angry, we are often driven to say and do things that we regret. We must put them away before they grow and take on a life of their own. That is what Paul means by, “but do not sin.”
In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus is being attacked for not strictly adhering to the dietary rules, he famously says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15) And he goes on to explain, “for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” (7:21) deceit, envy, and slander. I hear echoes of this in Paul’s teaching: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up …. so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29) We build up with words of praise and thanks, and we build up with words of constructive criticism.
We must simply always behave as those on who have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, as I will do to Hannah later in the Baptismal ceremony. This mark indicates who we belong to – God in Christ – and is a constant reminder to behave in a manner appropriate to that calling.
After all the negatives, don’t do this and don’t do that, Paul finishes off with some positive statements about being a baptized Christian: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (4:32) Kindness and mutual forgiveness are the very essence of Christian community, in fact according to the theologian Tom Wright in his commentary on this passage “kindness is one of the purest forms of the imitation of God.“[1] And that is Paul’s final piece of advice. In all you do, imitate God as you have experienced God in Jesus. In Paul’s words, “live in love, as Christ loved us.” (5:2)
We want Hannah to speak the truth, to be angry when it is justified, but to still stay in relationship, to speak only what is useful for building up others, what we call the good news, to practice kindness and forgiveness, and to live in love. How will she learn these things? I’m sure she has been listening very attentively to all I have said this morning, but that will not be enough. She will learn through imitation. And that is where you all come in. First and foremost, the parents and godparents who will promise, “by your prayers and witness to help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ.” But not just. Everyone here will promise to do all in your power to support Hannah in her life in Christ. If we want Hannah to behave as one marked as Christ’s own forever, and if we want to bring others to Christ, then we have to show her and them the way. Christianity is about practice, about putting faith into action. The Baptismal service and the promises we will shortly say together in the Baptismal Covenant are just that: first they describe what we believe in, and then they cover the actions that must result from our faith and as we follow Paul’s call to be imitators of God and God’s beloved children.

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul: The Prison Letters, p.54

Sunday, July 22, 2018

God's Dwelling Place

A Sermon preached on Sunday, July 22, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
When you are still in the middle of a capital campaign and busy spending money on renovating a building – very visibly right now – you wonder if God is really on your side when all the readings seem to indicate that God is not overly fond of physical buildings or of houses for God.
First we heard how God asks David via the prophet Nathan: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day.” (2 Samuel 7:4) Nor it seems, does God want to live in one that day either. Then, in the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear that in fact it is the people, and not some wooden, stone, or red brick building who are the dwelling place for God. And finally, as if to add insult to injury, when Jesus wants to gather his disciples for a time of much needed rest and prayer, he calls them away to a deserted place and not the local parish synagogue.
So, shall we give this place up and just use a tent in the garden? No, it would be much too cold in the winter, though of course to make sure that this building is also not too cold in the winter, we do have to complete and fully finance our heating project! The other reason is that if we look at the readings more closely, God does not actually reject buildings as such. He just tells David that he is not the one called to build him a house, that will be his son Solomon’s job, because other types of “houses” and “households” are more important at that moment in Israel’s life: The house of David, the dynasty he will found to lead Israel and that through David’s descendant Jesus will expand to include the whole family of humanity.
But these passages are important and salient reminders not to idolize our buildings. Remember, this is not the church, we are! The people are the place. The proper home for God is in our hearts and in our lives. Paul writes that joined together in Christ we form or will grow to form God’s dwelling place. (Ephesians 2:21) Let us take a closer look at how this particular dwelling-place is constructed.
The first thing to note is that strangely and quite unlike any physical buildings it has no walls, nothing to keep people out or in. When Paul says that we are no longer strangers and aliens (2:19) – or perhaps immigrants and refugees to use a modern equivalent – he means that all people are now included. The house or household of David has been expanded through Christ so that all people will “have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:14) Paul was of course referring to the hostility between Jew and Gentile, because that was his context. But we can expand this further. The new humanity Jesus creates in himself is for all peoples.
The second thing – and this appeals to the science fiction fan in me – God’s dwelling-place exists out of time and out of space. Not only are we no longer outsiders, but as “citizens with the saints” we are joined to all who have gone before us and who already form the eternal household of God. This is not just about you Ephesians, Paul says. And for us too it reminds us that God’s house is much bigger than this single church, or for that matter the Church, or this world and this life.
Thirdly, it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Not literally of course, this is not a mafia movie script. When we talk about the apostles as a foundation, we often use it as shorthand for the church being built on the faith of the apostles, so on the teaching they handed on, and on the historic creeds. And it is true that without the apostles and their witness as recorded in Scripture we would not know about Jesus. But I think that Paul also means that we must base our lives on the apostolic and prophetic deeds and actions.
In the passage we heard from Mark’s Gospel, the disciples, called apostles for the first time, have just returned from being sent out by Jesus. “The apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.” (Mark 6:30) At the beginning of chapter 6 (Mark 6:12) they “went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Or in other words, they and we are sent to tell people about Christ in the hope that they turn to him. And we are called to bring healing: both physical and spiritual. Our society is not well, fear and hate are gaining ground. But we have the cure and that cure is Jesus.
Prophets, the other element of the foundation, are those, like Nathan, who tell the people and the powerful not what they want to hear, but what God wants them to hear. Building on their example, our job is not to reinforce existing prejudices but to introduce God’s counter-narrative, which built on sacrifice, and selfless love as embodied in Jesus Christ.
Finally, we learn that “Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone” of the building. The cornerstone (or foundation stone) is the first stone set in construction: all other stones will be set in reference to this stone and so it will determine the position of the entire structure. Nothing then is more important than Christ Jesus. Our relationship with him, our adherence to his teaching, and our willingness to follow the path of his life is what determines whether we as a community, not just as individuals, form a holy temple in the Lord. We are the living stones that make up God’s spiritual dwelling-place and we take our direction from God’s Son. He both holds us and brings us together.
Of course, there are physical spaces where we feel God’s presence. We have been worshipping God here for over 150 years and that leaves traces. One priest wrote about her church as having “walls varnished by prayer and a floor bathed by baptisms and flowered with wedding petals and funeral lilies. Thousands of outstretched hands have received the Body of Christ at the altar. Of course God is present.” [1]
Physical buildings are neither good nor bad in themselves. They are good if they support the community in their mission. Physical buildings are bad if they become the sole focus of the community or something that people use to hide in and to keep the world out. God likes to move about and we make a mistake if we think that we can keep or restrain God in any particular space. Remember what God says to David: “I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. I have moved about among all the people of Israel.” (2 Samuel 7:6-7) And don’t forget too that the word apostle, our foundation, means sent forth. God wants us to go out into the world and to bring our loving, liberating, and life-giving message!
I think our church’s four visions take this into account and strike the right balance between Paul’s blueprint for a spiritual dwelling-place and our need for a physical home:
Our church is a place where we welcome others and worship. It is where we teach and pray and seek fellowship: where we deepen our relationship with one another and with God. It is a resource that we offer, with ourselves, to support local concerns. Our fourth vision is perhaps the most important and apostolic: The church building is also the place we leave when we go out into the world to “act as a beacon of hope, embracing the stranger with openness, kindness, and acceptance and bearing witness to our faith by our lives and actions.”
God dwells in all our hearts, not exclusively in Christian ones … we just have to help others discover this joyous truth.

[1] Sallie Schisler in