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Good morning church!
Two weeks ago Su-Lin preached about salt, from Mark 9:50. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” She talked about how we are called to be salty Christians and a salty church, and if you were not present, I urge you to read the transcript of that sermon off our mailing list or website. The salt metaphor is also used famously in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus calls all believers to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. I really love this metaphor, and it is here that I want to pick up from today.
I love salt. Instead of a sweet tooth I have a salty tooth. When I was younger and couldn’t find any snacks around the house to my liking, I would steal a pinch of salt from the kitchen and just lick it while watching my favourite cartoons. Now I just buy lots of Lay’s potato chips. Salt. Sodium Chloride. An essential for life. Have you ever wondered why salt is so important to human life? We all know too much of it causes hypertension, but do you know what exactly does it do in our bodies? Every electrical impulse generated in the nerves of the human body involves sodium. These impulses are called “action potentials”. It is by the exchange of sodium and other ions into and out from our cells that generates electricity. It is something so fundamentally essential to our every thought, feeling and action.
Does that put into a different perspective what it means to be a salty Christian? Who says Science and Religion cannot mix? Su-Lin offered us much on what we should do to be salty Christians and a salty church. It is here that I would like to add on by suggesting what that salt in us should be. The answer is probably obvious from the title: the Love of God.
Now before you roll your eyes and hit the off switch, allow me to explain. Normally, I would never ever go near a topic like that. I’d feel vastly inadequate to talk about something so powerful. But the inspiration to speak on this, and I truly feel it was an inspiration, came after a cell discussion Milo Van, my cell group, had one evening several weeks ago. The topic was Church, and Cynthia was leading. She shared with us an essay written by Henri Nouwen that Jaime had previously shared with her. It is titled “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry”. How many of you have read and remember what this essay says? This article moved me so much that today I beg your pardon as I break from our tradition of following the lectionary to base my message on it instead.
This is an article published by Henri Nouwen in 1995 in a Christian publication called the Leadership Journal. In it the author looks at the attitudes one must have in order to be in Christian Community, and the balance that is required to build a healthy one. He states that church should begin with God in solitude, then creating fellowship and community, and finally going out together as a community to heal and proclaim good news.
Christian discipleship begins with solitude. He writes:
“Solitude is being with God and God alone. Is there any space for that in your life?
Why is it so important that you are with God and God alone on the mountain top? It’s important because it’s the place in which you can listen to the voice of the One who calls you the beloved. To pray is to listen to the One who calls you “my beloved daughter,” “my beloved son,” “my beloved child.” To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of your being, to your guts, and let that voice resound in your whole being.”
It is no secret that we as a church pride ourselves on being intellectually and philosophically sound on our teachings. It perhaps stems from our examination of the six passages used to condemn homosexuality, and our approach to theology is built off that. We dig up Greek, Latin and Hebrew root words, compare concordances, discuss contextual irregularities and argue philosophy. Don’t get me wrong. Robust discussion is fine and good, and often necessary in interpreting scripture. But sometimes the feedback people give is that we’re missing the wood for the trees, and losing a few sheep who come through our gates along the way. We hide behind our intellect and rationalisations, and attempt to deduce with our minds that God loves us. We then say that we know God’s love. But do we truly believe it?
Do you believe it when the Bible says He will feed you just as he feeds the ravens, and dress you just as he clothes the grass and the flowers? Do you believe it when He says that His plans for you are good, to prosper you and not to harm you? Are you secure in the thought that the love of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ? Can you see yourself in the shoes of the prodigal son or daughter, or is it just another nice bedtime parable?
For the longest time I hadn’t the slightest idea what ravens, flowers or grass had to do with my life. I never quite understood what that passage was driving at. The fact is that in a world so focused on productivity and outcomes, a concept like the love of God does strike as a tad abstract. It’s not that we as a church have not been preaching this piece of good news. Our message of inclusivity, diversity, acceptance, rejection of discrimination and marginalisation, is all about expressing the love of God, except hidden behind many big and just as abstract words.
What must we do to earn God’s love? What must we do for the love of God? I’ll bet every one of you sitting here today knows the textbook answer to that question. The unconditional love of God cannot be earned, and cannot be repaid. And you can sit there in the congregation teasing apart the sermons in this church all you want, but the love of God is not something you can convince yourself of.
Henri Nouwen’s point, and one that I believe we all need to hear, is that that love is yours to claim. Just like Indiana Jones pursuing the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade, this is where you need to take a leap of faith. How many of you remember that scene? “You must believe boy… you must… believe.” Rev Nouwen says that “when you are not claiming that voice, you cannot walk freely in this world.” When in your moments of solitude with God, you cannot honestly say “I am His beloved, in me His favour rests”, you are not claiming that love.
With that love “you can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing your identity, because your identity is that you are the beloved.”
“your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness. That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed. When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth. It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.”
And that brings us to the second step in doing church. Community.
What kind of values do we bring to this community? In a society where we are constantly striving to prove ourselves, do we judge and demand the same of others? I know I am the first to be guilty of this, and it has been a journey for me. Ah there Gary goes with his Holy Spirit this and Holy spirit that. Jorg is basing his sermons off oldies again, and who is this Divine Mother Susan and Su-Lin are referring to? There goes Darryl and his lame medical jokes. The thing about growing up with a chip in your shoulder is you tend to get hardened by life. The cynicism then makes it hard to see the good in the things around us. Su-Lin spoke about painful salt scrubs that prune, rejuvenate and refine. Unfortunately more often than not we are rubbed, or scrubbed, the wrong way! We react in defence, protest and indignation.
But we are called to be as iron sharpens iron, one man sharpening another. Iron is strong, but it’s also brittle. Clashing swords end up notched and broken, but used at an angle gives you a sharper edge! Henri Nouwen calls for a community that is based on different principles, the principles of forgiveness and celebration.
“What is forgiveness? Forgiveness is to allow the other person not to be God. Forgiveness says, “I know you love me, but you don’t have to love me unconditionally, because no human being can do that.”
It sounds so simple! But anyone who has tried to live that principle out will know that it’s a tall order. And truth be told, we have it even tougher here in FCC. The concept of inclusivity and diversity that we champion just does not sit well with church life. And it’s not hard to see how our differences often generate friction among us.
A friend once told me his secret to happiness. “I deal with disappointment by not have expectations. If I don’t have expectations, or set them at a level that everyone can reach, then I will never be disappointed.” Had he said this to me just a couple of weeks ago, I would have whole heartedly agreed with him. So zen! Desire is the root of all unhappiness. Such a tempting philosophy, and I’m sure all of us, whether consciously or subconsciously, do buy into it to some extent. Haven’t you felt so weary of disappointment that you decide it’s easier to stop caring? Instant lowering of your blood pressure right? But that’s exactly it! You stop caring! And I dare say that’s not the reaction we’re looking for in a community built upon the love of God. Acts of forgiveness can only be fulfilled when you see the love of God in yourself, as well as in the other person. By seeing it in yourself, you know that you are loved even when you make a mistake, are wronged, or let down. By seeing it in the other, you know that he or she is loved, and deserving of forgiveness just as you are.
In this way, each act of forgiveness, no matter how small, becomes a manifestation of the love of God at work in each and every one of us. It is the only real and tangible way that that divine love can be magnified and amplified. It’s not hard to be nice to one another. Jesus’ commandment wasn’t to be nice to your neighbour. It was to love your neighbour. And to love means not just being nice when things are all hunky-dory, but to be able to forgive each other in times of conflict. Thus each act of forgiveness becomes a gift we give each other. A reassurance that you are loved in spite of all your shortcomings and imperfections. And I my book such a powerful reassurance calls for a celebration.
Henri Nouwen says “to celebrate each other’s gifts means to accept each other’s humanity. We see each other as a person who can smile, say “Welcome,” eat, and make a few steps. A person who in the eyes of others is broken suddenly is full of life, because you discover your own brokenness through them.”
As part of discussing this essay, Cynthia had us do a small exercise. “In the spirit of forgiveness and celebration, write down on a piece of paper, something that you need to forgive among the members of this cell group.” Now this was meant to be an individual exercise to foster forgiveness within ourselves. Not to air our grouses with each other. But forgiveness calls for celebration of that gift, so we decided to take the exercise one step further and openly share. That could have quickly turned ugly. But share we did that night. Being in the presence of that spirit allowed us to be honest, and vulnerable. We gave and we took and we cleansed our systems of any pent up frustrations we had. And that night we celebrated.
That, is how community should be built. Because we love, we forgive, and we celebrate. This is what we mean when we say “Welcome Home”, and when we call this a family. My personal growth after stepping into this church was dependent on the knowledge and belief that, no matter what wrong I did, how much I failed, here was a place I would always be known as a full person and be loved for that.
I used to think we had strange name for a church. What do you think of the name Free Community Church? It used to be just a name to me. Then I learnt that FREE stands for First Realise Everyone’s Equal. Then we preached in sermons about the words free, community and church separately. But this essay really put things into perspective for me. That we are free in God’s love, to build a community out of forgiveness and celebration. So that leaves us with ‘church’ right?
When we talk about ‘church’, the subject invariably conjures up the spectre of ‘ministry’. And then we roll our eyes and say “ah he’s going to ask us to start serving in this and that again”. The curious thing is that when we were discussing this article, the general consensus among us was that we need to stop asking people to serve.
Yes you heard me right. To stop asking people to serve!
Maybe I should qualify, before the rest of the council strangles me. All too often we get newcomers to FCC, and they start turning up regularly. But even before they have a chance to get comfortable in church and in a cell group we start shooing them into various ministries, thinking that that is the best way to get involved with community life. While not wrong, a lot of times ministry turns out to be an enormous black hole of time, and it’s often difficult to immediately start working with so many people you don’t know well.
My point is that we first need to be grounded in the first two aspects of church life before entering ministry. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. That’s why the sequence is so important to Henri Nouwen. Moving from solitude, to community, to ministry. We first need to be comfortable with ourselves, then with the community, before we start serving. And he has this to say about ministry: “Ministry is not, first of all, something that you do (although it calls you to do many things). Ministry is something that you have to trust. If you know you are the beloved, and if you keep forgiving those with whom you form community and celebrate their gifts, you cannot do other than minister.”
I myself had been part of this church for a good 2-3 years before I started serving in various roles. Had I not been able to trust in the good faith we have for one another, to be able to forgive and celebrate, I would not be standing here delivering this message.
Those of you who have been with us for some time will know that FCC is poised for some major changes. We live in perilous times! Susan is stepping down as chairperson, we are planning to invest a large proportion of our reserves in a property, membership is being formalised and the leadership of this church is to be democratically selected. As we will soon begin a series of sermons and sessions on what it means to be a member of FCC, I urge all of us to start reflecting and dialoguing about what our identity as Christians in this church, should be. The level of diversity and inclusivity that we speak of is in reality, not easy to live out. Some of the upcoming changes to our church will be contentious at least to some of us. What then should be the unifying spirit in which we approach all the trials that are to come?
My message today is simple. And it cannot, must not be anything other than simple.
You are loved.
If you remember nothing else I have said, remember this. And I will say it again and again until you get the message. You are loved.
My challenge to you is to claim that love. It is of paramount importance for your freedom. There is nothing else you need to do. Simple know, and believe, that you are the beloved of Christ. All else does not matter. Nothing you do, nothing you are, and nothing of what you will become matters. All it takes is a leap of faith. With that love, can we live out the principles of forgiveness and celebration as a community? Would you like to be part of a community like that? Would you give of yourself to serve a community like that? That is how ministry is born.
Have salt in yourself, and be at peace with one another. Welcome Home.
Additional Reading – “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry”, Henri Nouwen