Sunday, August 23, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Gift of Many

“There is one body with many members”
Psalm 138; Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8

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We are in the midst of our Rewilding the church series, reflecting on what church is about when it’s all stripped away. 

I don’t know about you, but it is exhausting work, this stripping away. I know I’m not alone. We have all been in this space of change, loss, and lament.  This work is necessary in any loss and grief journey. We experience the depth of painful loss and change.  A space of naming through tears and words,  experiencing the disorientation of the uprootedness, feeling the anxiety and stress of the jolting impact, standing in the shock of the magnitude of what has transpired, and allowing that which grounded us to lay before us while we catch our breath. 

Our neighbors have a yard that they have been rewilding for a long while.  In front of their house is a huge tree that fell down at some point. Instead of clearing it away they allowed it to remain.  It has been long enough now that the huge log is beginning to decompose and blend back into the landscape surrounding.  In fact it isn’t noticed driving by.  You need to either slow down or stop to see it.  What surrounds it now are ground cover and trees that have transitioned from sapling to young maturing trees.

We certainly have been feeling the impact of the pandemic much like a fallen tree. How we worship, gather, and operate is different.   I looked back and saw we started live-streaming our services on March 22.  We are one day more than 5 months in which we have been worshipping together in this new way. Our ecosystem of relating changed rapidly and now is beginning to feel vaguely familiar whether we like it or not.

I would describe our location on this journey as one in which we are in the beginning stages of looking up and around. We are beginning to ask, “What and who are we now that we are here?”

What has occurred to me as my eyes gaze over this scene is that we are not alone. As spoken of in our Romans text, God’s grace and members of this body remain intact.

Sure our landscape has changed, but as Phil spoke last Sunday and defined worship as the alignment of creation with God’s purpose, when we are in sync with God’s purpose of shalom, harmony, the ecosystem of our lives one with another is worship.

Paul speaks of this in the Romans passage as our full-bodied worship, that which happens beyond church walls, as in the way we interact and serve the world around us.  Where “each member’s identity and essence becomes intertwined with the other.” Where our worship is a kind of embodied gifts-sharing; a place where each gift is valued and each member uses their gift on behalf of the body as a whole. This body and its members are to be aligned with God through the renewing of the mind and not by conforming to this world.

The Isaiah text was written to a community of people in exile.  It calls the people to listen, look, and remember from where they came.  This voice challenges those experiencing the exile to not be conformed to the world in seeing devastation and destruction of a people but remember where they came from; “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth. (Isaiah 51:1b-2a).”

In remembering and listening, their minds were to be transformed and renewed to see and hear that God’s steadfast love will live forever;
the heavens will vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment
    and its inhabitants die like flies.
But my salvation will last forever,
    my righteousness will never fail. (Isaiah 51:6)

Unlike the Israelites in exile who were living from a place of defeat, we have lived in a legacy of a Eurocentric telling of history where Anglos settled and established a patriarchal white order that was termed manifest destiny.  It was believed that Anglos were bringing civilization, democracy, wealth, individualism, political power and independent self-rule to an ungodly place and peoples. The language can make it sound like the settlers were the saviors.

The downfall is that when we look with the eyes of Jesus, we see that this way of rule has dehumanized indiginous, black and brown people groups. It has valued the wealth of a few rather than the thriving of the whole.  It has valued individual rights over a collective good.

Nevertheless, we are products of this way of life and our theology and image of God have been influenced by it.  We are tempted to worship “blessings,” health, wealth, and possessions, instead of God.  We are tempted to dehumanize those who do not “believe” as we do. We are tempted to use power over instead of empowerment at the grassroots.  We are tempted to impose our own image of God onto others instead of looking for where God already is present.

What does it look like to be transformed by the renewing of our minds when our minds are so immersed in a certain narrative?  Perhaps we need to be doing a bit of looking back to look forward like in Isaiah.  We need to look, listen, and learn anew from Jesus, from the people of Israel who experienced numerous exiles, from present day people groups who have lived the life of exile (African Americans, Indiginous peoples, Refugees, Asylum survivors). As we learn from others, we begin to see a fuller picture of the body of Christ. One that sees and engages every person as a child of God, to be valued, respected, and honored.

When we engage with one another in this way we worship God.  We become a living testimony of the gospel.  We become a part of a living and breathing ecosystem of God’s salvation story.  Our living becomes less about our own self and more about God’s glory and ongoing story.

It is comforting to know that we are not alone.  We are in this together offering our gifts one to another that sustain one another and offer true worship to the Creator of us all.

How might the act of remembering the story from which we have come inform where we go?  What are ways we can be transformed by renewing our minds in God’s spirit? How can we practice our many gifts together in our present reality?

Again, perhaps we need to look back to move forward.  One of those ways is to confess that we have been a product of conforming to this world and once again are in need of God’s grace.

Let us join in the confession together.

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