Sunday, January 21, 2007

“Wholly Holy People” - A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Wholly Holy People”

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
January 21, 2007

Most of you know that not too long ago I spent a year working on the pastoral staff of a UCC church right outside Washington DC. I must say that I think Washington is a great place, and I really enjoyed my time there. Some people, though, find Washington—or I should say, more specifically, the people in Washington—rather irritating. “The first thing anyone ever asks you,” they say, “is ‘what do you do?’” That is, ‘what’s your job, your position?’ In the minds of these Washington detractors, nobody seems to care about anything other than if you can get them somewhere or do something for them because of your job or position. You are what you do—your job—apparently.

Now, I’m not sure I entirely agree with this criticism—I seem to think that “what do you do” is a fairly natural social icebreaker in many situations, a typical (although by no means required) bit of polite conversation. But that is not really my point here. Rather, I wonder, ‘How do you know who you are?’ Are you your job? Are you a name on a driver’s license? Are you simply a money-spending, stuff-consuming machine, as our whole culture of advertising and shopping and, often times, throwing-away would have us believe?

Over the past few weeks, I must confess that I have found myself spending a bit of time on the internet, looking at various people’s weblogs (or ‘blogs’) and profiles on “social networking” websites like MySpace. It is interesting to me what people do on these personal webpages and profiles to create and show a sense of their own identity. It begins with their answers to the stock getting-to-know-you sort of questions: where do you live, what are your hobbies and interests, where did you go to school—that sort of thing. But then, there’s often more. People personalize their pages with music and video clips and personal journal entries. There’s the endless personal survey responses, where folks reveal everything from what they ate for breakfast to … umm … probably some things they don’t expect their mother to be reading. And then, my favorite, are the little “quiz” responses—what the results were when they took the “what ice cream flavor are you?” quiz or the “which horror movie stereotype are you?” quiz.

So, anyway, all this is to say that there’s a lot of effort that seems to go into figuring out just what sort of image one wants to portray to the next random internet user that wanders by. But I’m not sure that knowing what flavor of ice cream some random survey has determined that you are really says much about your true identity. I mean, I’m guessing that no one started weeping when they heard that one.

We, of course, know of a people who wept when they heard who they were, when they were reminded of their true identity. All the people—men and women and all who could understand—stood in the square by the Water Gate and wept when Ezra and others read and explained the law to them. Now, in this passage from Nehemiah, the writer is not talking simply about ‘the law’ like we think of a legal code, but rather about what the Jewish tradition calls ‘Torah’, the books of the law, which correspond to the first five books of our Christian bibles: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And so, these people, a people that had been taken away to exile, they wept as they were reminded of the stories of who they were and where they came from: of God creating all humanity in the image of the divine; of God choosing them, the children of Abraham, as a chosen people to be a light to all the nations; of God breaking the chains of bondage and bringing them into freedom from their slavery in Egypt. And surely there was probably some legal code in there too, but a legal code that showed them a way to live as a people set apart, chosen and loved and freed by God—a legal code that called upon them to forgive debts and release captives in the jubilee year, the year of God’s favor. And the people, all the people, they wept as they remembered who the chosen people of God that they were, as they remembered the ways they had failed to live into that identity, as they saw before them the opportunity for a new start at living as the people God called them to be.

Being reminded of who we are is a powerful thing. I remember being at a large gathering of Christians in Philadelphia a little over three years ago, the second “Witness Our Welcome” conference. The first evening, our somewhat rag-tag group of people, brought together because we knew the disdain of society and the rejection of the Church, we sat in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on the city’s famous Rittenhouse Square as another group that called themselves Christian protested our gathering, in fact our mere existence, outside the church doors. And as we gathered in that magnificent space that evening, the Book was opened, and the Word was proclaimed, this time from 1st Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of [God] … Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people. What more wondrous Word could be spoken to such a group? What more wondrous Word could be spoken through their own books of the law to the Israelites returning from exile? Indeed, what more wondrous Word could be spoken here, in this place, to you, to me, to us?

And perhaps as wondrous as that Word itself is how that Word is proclaimed. The Book is opened in the midst of all the people, before all the members of the body, the men and the women and all those that might understand, those more honorable and those less honorable. All the people gathered in from exile to hear again exactly who they are and whose they are—the whole people made into the holy people and the holy people becoming whole people once again.

Moreover, this is the assembly that we form here, Sunday after Sunday. We gather together, all of us, returning home from the exile that we live day-in and day-out, coming to find who we are. Sure, there may be only some 200 or so of us in this particular room, but we gather around this Word proclaimed together with Christians across the street and around the world. And like at the synagogue in Nazareth, we find Christ among us, fulfilling that Word as it is spoken and heard. And that one we find among us, anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives sends us out to prepare ourselves as a feast to share with those who have nothing prepared.

At the Water Gate in Jerusalem, a community gathered, the Book was opened, and a people heard themselves and the promises of God anew. At a church in Philadelphia, a community gathered, the Book was opened, and a people knew themselves and the promises of God anew. In a synagogue in Nazareth, a community gathered, the Book was opened, and a people saw the promises of God fulfilled in their midst. So maybe, like those folk in Washington, who we are is about what we do. Or maybe something even more than that. Maybe we do what we do as a sign of the One to whom we belong, the One in whom we know ourselves to be whole people and holy people—and in doing what we do, we find that One, that solid rock upon which we are built, standing in our midst fulfilling ever again the promises of God.


Sermon ©2007, Matthew C. Emery. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

At least someone in the media gets it!

All I can say is, Wow, I haven't seen the secular media weigh in this well on the issue in a long, long time (if ever)!


Friday, January 12, 2007

The cat is out of the bag. It is about sex, after all.

The breakaway parishes in the Episcopal Church make all the right noises about their struggle for theological orthodoxy, biblical purity and traditional Anglican values. Cut through all the verbiage, and their issue is sex, specifically homosexuality in the church's leadership, with a side order of bias against women.

The clergy in Truro Church and Falls Church in northern Virginia led their flocks out of the American Episcopal Church last month. In an extraordinary expression of self-righteousness, they aligned themselves with the Anglican Church of Nigeria and created a jurisdictional nightmare. They joined a renegade mission of the Nigerian church called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America that now boasts 21 parishes, according to The New York Times.

The group is under the insensitive direction of Nigerian bishop Peter Akinola, who reads Scripture literally and claims it says what he wants it to say. He equates gay leadership in the church with "a satanic attack." Akinola supports a bill in Nigeria that would make any public expression of homosexual activity a crime punishable by five years in prison. He wants to bring his prejudices to this country. To that end, he has consecrated an American priest, MartynMinns, rector of the Truro Church, to be a bishop in the Convocation. Minns will work under the authority of his Nigerian master in the vineyard of the American Episcopal Church.

That is the height of ecclesiastical arrogance borne of mind-numbing hubris. Bishops of different jurisdictions do not muck about in another bishop's territory, but this sanctimonious crowd observes no such niceties. They alone, they claim, know the truth and read Scripture accurately.

The great danger in all this — apart from the disgraceful treatment of homosexuals — is the growing power of bigots to use the Bible to condemn those who are different. Christians have long done that against Jews, blacks and women.

They use their religion "as a fig leaf to cover their naked prejudice," said the Rev. Peter Gomes, preacher to Harvard University who is a black, Republican, Baptist, gay minister.

His simple presence would make Bishop Akinola and his American minions apoplectic. His words condemn them.

(Steve Gushee, Staff Writer)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"What a Guest!" - A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“What a Guest!”

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
January 14, 2007

Those of you who were here two Sundays ago likely remember the somewhat unusual sermon preached that day. In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, we heard about Jesus at age 12 in the temple, sitting among the teachers listening and asking questions. And so, in some sense creating a sermon together in our midst, we did likewise, sitting among each other as teachers, listening to one another and asking questions that lay deep on our hearts. There were many good questions that we shared in that time, many of them the sort of questions for which the only answer is a lifetime of living the journey of faithful exploration, discernment, and discipleship.

Questions usually have multiple layers. For instance, when someone asks “why did God let this happen?”, there’s almost always a deeper, more critical question lurking underneath it; that is, “how can I go on now that it has?” We like to hide those more vulnerable places, too afraid to even ask about our true yearnings. Or sometimes, the questions we ask reveal the doubts and anxieties we have ourselves.

One of the questions shared two weeks ago is just such a question, I think. As I recall, it went something like “how can Christianity compete in a world with multiple major religions?” Or, bringing the scale down a little bit, many people today ask about how the mainline Protestant churches—churches like ours: a part of one of the historic denominations of this country, rooted in historic traditions and practices, and yet vitally open to differences in theology and beliefs and faith—how can mainline-liberal-progressive churches like ours survive in the midst of the so-called competition from our more charismatic conservative-evangelical counterparts? That is, how can Church Street [our congregation] compete with Colonial Village [Heartland Community Church]? Even for all the very respectable pragmatic concern behind questions like these, I’m inclined to think that they’re not the real matter on our hearts. Or at the very least, that there is something deeper behind them.

What might that be, you ask? I think rather than surviving or competing against others, we want to know that there is new life possible here. We want some sign that our faith has not been in vain, and that indeed a living, vital relationship with God can be had. We seek to see that these vessels we call church—this path of belief and practice, this community of people—that these are still good and still have purpose, and that these can still bear the presence of God to us and others. With our anxieties and doubts combined with the trappings (or sometimes the baggage) of our traditions and history, we might just be a bit like empty jars at a wedding feast.

It’s a little interesting when you look at this story from the Gospel of John to see what the author spends their time telling us about. For the first few verses, they zip right through with plot—there’s a wedding feast in the town of Cana, Jesus is there with his mother and his newly called disciples, the wine runs out, and Jesus and his mother get in a little tussle about what to do. (This latter piece will have to be for another sermon.) And then, having zipped right through all this, in the middle of the story we find the author of John spending an awfully long time telling us about … jars, of all things. How many there were (six), what they were made of (stone), how big they were (20 or 30 gallons each), and what they were for (the Jewish purification rites). In pausing here, on something seemingly insignificant, we see a little glimpse into how Jesus works. He takes something old and solid and good—remember, just last week we heard of Jesus going through a Jewish purification rite himself—these old, solid, good things he transforms into the vessel for the gift of something new and wonderful, and does so in abundance; I mean, 120 to 180 gallons of wine is a lot of wine. I must note, here that, while for us today we see wine can have a dark side that people sometimes must struggle with, the people first receiving John’s gospel drew upon many images from the Old Testament and from their culture of wine as the sign of rich, abundant new life. And so, the miracle here is not simply that water was turned into wine, but that Jesus takes old, solid, good things that stood empty and waiting and makes them into the bearers of new life, and new life in abundance. What a guest!

And so, what about us? Is there new life to be seen here in this old building, in this solid community of people, in the midst of good things created for purposes of perhaps times past? Well, is that not what we’ve already seen? Have we not seen the Spirit, the continuing presence of Christ, in the creation of our unique Congregationalist and United Church of Christ traditions out of a past that wasn’t working anymore? Do we not know of the Spirit calling out to the church to open itself to women and gay people and persons of color—and seen ourselves rise to that purpose? Have we not heard of the Spirit calling to out to a congregation to open its doors to it’s community and provide a safe place for neighborhood children to gather (that would be us, you know)? The story goes that St. Jerome, the early church father who translated the Bible into Latin, was once asked whether all of that wine got consumed at the wedding feast. His response? “We are drinking from it still.” Indeed, right here, in the story of this denomination and this congregation, the festive drink of new life has flowed abundantly.

The Spirit still calls to us today, asking this old stone jar to be re-dedicated to bear the fruits of new life. And like the apostle Paul looking upon the church in Corinth, I look out among us and see a treasury of gifts to be used in the service of this task. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophesy, discernment, even miracles—these gifts are here, among you—each of us having been given something by the Spirit. In Corinth, there was an ongoing debate over which gifts were the best, and Paul wrote to tell them, ‘No, even those gifts that some of you seem to think are least important—all of them are gifts of the Spirit, and thus all of you have something to offer in the service of God.’ All of you. All of you.

Having been so abundantly gifted by God’s Holy Spirit, we cannot help but be standing ready for Christ to be the guest among us, transforming us to new purpose, calling upon us to bear new life ever again. But wait, there is something more that happened at the wedding feast that day. Remember that chief steward? What was it that he said? Oh, yeah—at this wedding, the best wine had been saved for last. What makes us think that it will not be so with the new life that we shall bear, too?


Sermon ©2007, Matthew C. Emery. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Holy Spirit: It or She (or He)

So at the moment, I'm working on writing tomorrow's sermon. I decided to actually write out a "sermon purpose statement" this week, which is something that I do think is a good idea to do (as my preaching professor Dow Edgerton recommends, along with folk like Fred Craddock and Frank Thomas)--although I must confess that I probably only end up actually doing it about a quarter or a third of the time.

The form of sermon purpose statement I'm using goes something like:

- To those who... (who do you take the people you're preaching to be)
- I want to say... (what do you want to say--the message itself)
- I want to do... (what do you hope the sermon will do)
- So that... (what is the response you hope to generate)

In working on the final piece ('So that..."), I first wrote:
the community might place their trust in the abundant Christ, in order that they might be open to the working of the Spirit and its various and diverse ways of working

But then, I looked at it and changed it to:
the community might place their trust in the abundant Christ, in order that they might be open to the working of the Spirit and her various and diverse ways of working

Anyway, all this is to say that I am a little amazed at what an effect the difference between the Spirit as "it" and the Spirit as "her" made in my own perception of the statement, my own imagery, my own feeling about it all. I think the biggest difference is in the personal vs. impersonal, and not about male vs. female ('he' vs. 'she'), although I must admit I've never much thought of the Holy Spirit as a "he"--only an 'it' or a 'she'.

Food for thought!

Oh, and for those who are curious, here's the complete sermon purpose statement:

Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:1-12 (Many gifts, one Spirit) and John 2:1-11 (Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana)

  • To those who are: feeling anxiety about change in the congregation, and about the place of ‘traditional’ mainline Protestantism in the world/church
  • I want to say: through the abundance of Christ and the varieties of the gifts of the Spirit, new life is possible (likely, in fact) through the ‘old’ vessels of this community
  • I want to do: affirm the gifts of the Spirit already present in the community, affirm the ways that God/Christ has already in the past worked ‘miracles’ of transformation and new purpose
  • So that: the community might place their trust in the abundant Christ, in order that they might be open to the working of the Spirit and her various and diverse ways of working

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Through the Waters" - A Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Year C

“Through the Waters”

A Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, RCL Year C
Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
January 7, 2007

I don’t think Phil was very happy with me. When I finally happened to see him yesterday--after probably more than three weeks of no contact--he was looking a little down... Not at all perky... The zest of life zapped right out of him. No words were exchanged in our brief little encounter yesterday, but none were needed. After all, Phil’s appearance alone said it all: “look at me... when you forget to give me water for this long, what do you expect a little guy like me to do but turn all wilt-y and brown?”

Of course, “Phil” is my houseplant, a philodendron that I’ve owned for not quite two years now. And, I must confess that I am not very good about keeping him watered. Maybe it’s because he sits off in an area of my apartment that I don’t necessarily walk by every day. Maybe if I had more houseplants--something I’ve thought about, as I think they would make a nice addition to my apartment--maybe if I had more than just one, then I’d be more likely to think about it. Maybe if I kept some sort of watering can out on my kitchen counter, maybe that might remind me.

Well, anyway... Observations about my houseplant gardening skills aside, what happens when we forget about the water? Now, I think it wouldn’t be too likely for us here in this building to forget about water. I mean, in just the four-and-a-half months I have been here, we’ve had a pipe burst that flooded our dining room and a roof leak here in the sanctuary that damaged part of our pipe organ. So there’s been water to think about a plenty.

But, then again, I wouldn’t think that the Israelites would forget about the waters either--the people who God led out of Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea, God’s chosen people whose promised land lay across the Jordan River. Surely they wouldn’t forget about their journey through the waters and covenant God made in carrying them through. But, years later, we hear The Prophet preaching to them after they had forsaken that covenant. The new life they were given as they passed through the waters now stands withered away, brown leaves on dead branches.

But The Prophet proclaims the promise, God’s vow offered anew. ‘Cross the rivers, and I will be with you. Wade through the waters again, and I will raise you up. You may not know whether they are the floods of trial and terror or the pathway to freedom, but do not fear, for I have redeemed you.’ So The Prophet reminds the Israelites in exile of the message that the waters carried all along: ‘new life’, ‘the promise of the covenant’, ‘you belong to God.’

[pause (slight)]

Even with our recent overabundance of water flowing around this building, I believe that ultimately we too need reminding of the waters. We need to taste the cool sip of a refreshing drink in the desert heat. We need to feel the strange tingle of droplets, like that fine mist on a spring morning, like that touch that the baby coo-s at when the pastor’s wet hand comes near. We need to remember how good it is to wash ourselves off, to watch the sweat and muck of our lives disappear down the drain.

We need to remember that in the end the waters don’t depend on us. The faucet will pour forth water no matter who it is turning the spigot. The rain will come no matter how dirty or clean your car is. Even the prisoner--or perhaps especially the prisoner--is given water to drink. Are you old? These waters have washed over you. Are you young? In these waters, you too have passed through the river to the promised land. Are you rich? Are you poor? Are you white? Are you black or Latino or an immigrant? Are you gay? Are you straight? Are you a pastor? Are you a lay person? Are you differently-abled? Guess what--it doesn’t matter, the promise still calls out from the waters, for you too are baptized.

But there is something more here. We remember the waters, yes. But we also remember who is in the water with us. Glistening wet, hair dripping onto the sand, we find Jesus, right along side us and all the people. We remember and tell again this story from Luke, the account of Jesus being baptized, not only because we need to remember the waters, because we want to recall the fact that we are baptized. No, rather we tell the story--this story--of the One who wades into the water with us. John the Baptist warns of one who comes with power and might, Spirit and fire, and instead we find Jesus joining the ranks of the sinners who have come in repentance. The one who is supposed to come as our judge is the one who joins with us in our journey through the Jordan.

This is the “dirty little secret” that we have to share with the world. Jesus has stood beside us and all the people. When we pass through the waters, God will be with us. The Beloved One has chosen us. All humanity belongs to God, the One who calls us by name and loves us. And over this river of living water, the voice of God’s promise still rains down from heaven.
So, I think it’s a good thing we have this ‘watering can’ right here, so we don’t forget about the water.


Sermon Copyright © 2007, Matthew C. Emery. All rights reserved.

Quote for the Day #2

"The truth of God is not limited to any cultic speech or vocabulary (ours or theirs). It is equally at home and equally difficult everywhere. ... Speaking of the truth of God, therefore, is not somehow speaking of a special truth at applies to a special realm and that is sayable only in a special language, to be understood by those with special training, and communicated to those with a special status, for whom it promises some special future."

--W. Dow Edgerton, Speak to Me That I May Speak: A Spirituality of Preaching (Pilgrim Press, 2006), p. 100.

Quote for the Day

"It is precisely in the tension between the seemingly impossible news of the gospel and ordinary life that Christian existence moves. Even the most atonishing claims and promises of the gospel must be held in relationship to ordinary life, and it is there in the contradition that both ordinary life and the gospel are what they are."

--W. Dow Edgerton, Speak to Me That I May Speak: A Spirituality of Preaching (Pilgrim Press, 2006), 46.