Saturday, September 17, 2011

Set Free for a Reason: Reflections on what it means to be Christians

I've been out of commission for a couple of months, but wanted to share the following reflections on what I did on my May vacation. Be blessed!

Set Free for a Reason
A sermon preached at First Community Church, Medford, MA, June 5, 2011

For the last three weeks, I have been on an amazing journey, both physically and spiritually. It all started when I got on an airplane for Washington, D.C. I’d like to tell you just a little bit about my trip this morning.

I went to Washington, D.C. for a couple of events that were co-sponsored by my denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches. The first of these was the seventh biennial conference for People of African Descent, Our Friends, and Allies – P.A.D., or simply PAD, for short. It was my first experience of the PAD conference, and I came away with a new appreciation of this thing we call “church”.

The theme of the conference was “Loving Ourselves into Liberation”. The conference invitation had an additional line for friends and allies: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let’s work together.” I was entirely ready to accept that invitation as an ally. Still, I was not sure whether I would feel comfortable at this gathering.

It didn’t take me long to find out whether or not I would fit in. From the moment I entered the conference area, I was greeted by volunteers and staff who welcomed me as if I had always belonged there. I felt loved, respected, and affirmed – by colleagues that I have known for years, but also by people whom I had never met. And as I later found out, this was indeed by design. Everybody who walked in the door was valued.

As I listened to the speakers, to the preachers and the music in the worship services, as I joined in the prayers and the singing, I began to receive one consistent message. I began to realize that the conference was about much, much more than simply being a safe space. The deeper purpose of the PAD conference, it seemed to me, was no more and no less than the deepest purpose of being church. We had come together in that place to recognize that we were loved by God, that we are important to God, and that God’s love has set us free from any feelings of unworthiness. And we were commissioned with taking that recognition home with us, in order that we might be the living embodiment of Jesus. We were sent out so that we, in turn, might be God’s liberating love to those around us. And this, I believe, is at the very heart of what it means to be “church.” We don’t just believe in the message; we are the people who carry the message of God’s love.

As we move from Easter to Pentecost, we remember the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven that is told in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Luke tells us that Jesus told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait to “receive power”… and then Jesus was taken up into the heavens. As the disciples stood watching where Jesus was gone, they are suddenly joined by two others – angels – who ask them, “Why are you just standing here? You heard what Jesus said.” Jesus has trained his replacements, and they in turn trained their replacements, and so on down to us. Jesus has not called us to simply stare at the heavens. Jesus sends US out to continue the message – a message of God’s love, that sets us free from whatever ails us.

The Christian church, as a whole, likes to say that in Jesus, we have been set free from our sins and our failings, and we have been set free from the dread of eternal punishment, because of God’s forgiveness. This is a cherished foundation of Christian faith; but there’s so much more to it! The knowledge of God’s love for us has the power to set us free, here and now, from every kind of shame or worry or fear. In the words of one of the prayers from the conference, we are: God’s beloved; deeply loved; richly gifted; highly favored; and abundantly blessed. Whenever we are troubled, we can count on this assurance.

This is a big deal. It may be a bigger deal for some of us than for others… can I tell the truth here? In the world outside this building, all of us are equal in theory, but still not always in practice. Some of us are treated as “not normal”, or are “othered”, or are treated as “less than”, on a regular basis, maybe even on a daily basis. Our world isn’t perfect yet. But the assurance of God’s love and favor can be an antidote that keeps us from internalizing the negativity that is too often thrown at us in the big wide world. God’s love sets us free from believing the hurtful things that ignorant people say about us and to us.
And for all of us, the assurance of God’s love has the power to set us free from any fear, self-doubt, or worry. No matter how bad things may get, God is with us. No matter how many things fail in our lives, we are God’s beloved. No matter how much we hurt, we don’t have to give in to despair, because God believes in us. We have been set free; and this is a gift that Jesus calls us to share.

The Gospel of John devotes three whole chapters to tell about Jesus’ last words to his disciples. In the passage we read today, Jesus is praying for the disciples – for us – because we are being sent into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world. We are being sent in order to tell of, and live out, God’s love for each and every person. To bring healing and mercy, as Jesus did. We are not called to brag about how God’s love sets us free from fear; we are not called to congratulate ourselves because we are beloved by God. We are messengers. Couriers. The big brown UPS truck. We have a message to deliver.

In times of crisis, we understand that blessings are given to us so that they can be shared. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s horrible tornadoes, I found myself remembering my neighborhood in Omaha when the 1975 tornado hit. When the all clear had sounded, and folks were able to come outside again and take stock of the damage, people who had chain saws used them to cut broken limbs off of the trees in their yard. And then they did the same for neighbors who didn’t have chain saws. Neighbors who had gas ranges made coffee for families like ours who had all-electric appliances. Families like mine, whose houses were still standing, collected blankets and clothing for those whose houses had been demolished, and whose possessions had been carried off by the wind. So we know what it means to share.

Jesus is sending us, his disciples, to do the same thing with God’s love. We have been set free, and we have been set free for a reason. This week, may we remember to show God’s love, and respect, and welcome, to everyone we meet, so that they, in turn, might know that same freedom. For all of us are… God’s beloved. Deeply loved. Richly gifted. Highly favored. And abundantly blessed. AMEN.

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