2.12.23 Sermon Transcript "Abide, Imitate, Exemplify"
We gather this day, concluding a series on our mission statement We often summarize that. I even had shirts made up when I got here, saying Know, Grow, Serve, Share. It's well done.
But our mission statement goes deeper than that.
We do those things. We know, we grow, we serve, we share - in order to exemplify Christ. That's what we're talking about today. We've heard three scriptures that kind of approach this from different places. The Psalm going up to the temple, defining who could stand in God's presence, “those who are pure of heart.” Paul's writing, wrestling with what it means to eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol. What are the rules? What are the boundaries? How do we ensure we are acting purely? And Christ's call to love one another, to do as he has done, to call us friends. What does it mean to exemplify Christ? As we begin to explore that, we will sing our hymn of preparation: “Of the Father's Love Begotten.”
I am convinced that God has a tremendous sense of humor. I think I'm living proof of that. We installed our new Bishop yesterday as a Conference and I mentioned that its traditional to wear red Ordination Stoles for such a ceremony. I didn't go to the ceremony. I had too many things going on here after being away and having spent a week last week interviewing candidates for ordination. I've been thinking about my own journey a lot.
When I was first sensing a call to ministry, I thought I was too old and I did some talking and I did some rationalizing and I looked at the process and I laid it out in seminary and residency and all of these interviews and I thought, you know, maybe…. maybe if I could be done by the time I was 45, it'd be worth it. I've told you a little bit about my wandering journey, Lutheran and Episcopalian and Catholic and agnostic and then socially Methodist and then serious about it. A lot of my formative experiences were at an Episcopalian Church named Saint Alban’s and as you go through the process, some of the people I interviewed last week, they're approaching what is called provisional status. In my day, it was called probationary status and I always kind of liked that because your social media would be filled with “congratulations on getting probation!” and people were like, um…..well, what? I thought you were a good guy.
So, recently, we changed it to “provisional” which probably solves a lot of things - but I kind of miss, I'm kind of glad my class was probationary. But by whatever term, we go through the process and a lot of my seminary friends, couple of years ahead of me had been held up in the process. They'd interviewed for provisional status and they've been told not yet. You need to work on this. You don't quite have that worked out and a lot of them had just graduated seminary and they were told that. It's like, what do I do now? You know, how do I learn more about that?
So, seeing that experience, I went, okay, I'm assuming they're going to tell me that. I want to be able to take a class. If they say, work on your theory of atonement, I want to take a class from Dr. Chun. Not work it out on my own. So, I went fairly early in seminary to apply for provisional status and then they approved me. Okay. Oh, okay. What do I do now? Well, finish seminary. Long story just to say, I go to Annual Conference that year as one of the probationary candidates and they set the calendar and their ordination service and the day of the Ordination service when my status would become official, I discover it was the feast day of Saint Alban.
God has a tremendous sense of humor! So I go on through the process and I finish seminary and I go through residency and about that time, you may recall, we're doing this weird thing where Kansas West and Kansas East and Nebraska are all becoming one Conference and so the schedule changes. The week that we have always done the annual conference is no longer the week. They move it up into May. And I get the schedule and the ordination service is May 22nd of 2013, my 45th birthday!
God has a tremendous sense of humor! So ever since I've been looking for those little nudges, those little coincidences, those things that kind of help say, you're on the right path here, that you are following the lead of the Spirit.
I believe God sets those things in our path and they're subtle and they can be explained away but they happen. I tend to work on sermon series… Ideally, three to 6 weeks out. I'm really working on details for the service, collecting the images, narrowing down the themes, saying we're going to talk on that and not on that. Believe it or not, I do try to narrow things down. And I was collecting images and I'm thinking about this series, Know, Grow, Serve, Share, Exemplify and I'm wrestling with what I'm going to say about exemplify and I ran across this image. It's called “Word of Life” and it's… it's a huge mural and it's Christ standing at the center and it's all of these Christian figures throughout the ages and it depicts how we come together as the church. I read about it and I think – Uh, that's a great example for exemplifying. I put it in my file. And I didn't recognize the mural and I didn’t really pay attention to the date.
I'm guessing some of you did recognize it. See I'm not much of a college football fan. I went to Wichita State. We cut football my sophomore year. I don't know what college football is. I wasn't trained in that.
But if you've ever watched the Notre Dame game, you know that mural. It's on the side of the Hesbergh library at Notre Dame and it's better known as Touchdown Jesus. Incidentally, for a decade, Notre Dame had been losing to Michigan. They put that that mural up. They beat Michigan for the next six years in a row. Just saying…
But this image of Christ at the center. I just was fascinated because I hadn't really clued in today's the Super Bowl and here I here I’ve got Touchdown Jesus as my cover image. I didn't plan that, folks. But it's kind of, that's kind of cool. I like that. I I laugh at things like that. it brings some joy into the planning process.
We put Christ at our center. We can have a lot of fun. We can wear our jerseys. You may notice I'm running around with a Chiefs jersey on today, under my robe - but ultimately what we are called to do is exemplify Christ. All that we do should ultimately be sharing Christ's love and grace with the world. We follow a long line of tradition. People who had different ideas, different understandings, who sometimes fought with each other but together, make up the church. Seeking to clarify, to draw us closer, sometimes to set boundaries, sometimes to realize that those boundaries have been set too firmly, to continually adapt, to know, and to grow, and to serve, and to share, to exemplify Christ to imitate Christ, to dwell in, or abide in Christ, to demonstrate Christ to the world, to illuminate, to represent, It's a… it's a jersey that we don't take off. Not if we're serious about our Christian discipleship.
Everything that we do should ultimately draw ourselves and others closer to Christ. We should, as Christ says in our reading from John, “bear good fruit.” We recognize that we only bear good fruit when we are connected to the vine. God is the source of our life and the image Jesus uses here is not accidental. He's making a claim. He says, “my father is the vine grower.” My father is in charge of the vineyard. I am the vine. You are the branches. We are connected. You do what I do. You represent, you illuminate, and you bear fruit. On behalf of… because of… your connection to me.
That which doesn't bear fruit. is removed. That which does bear fruit is pruned. That it might bear even more, better fruit. “Abide in me,” Jesus calls and that image is not accidental.
All through the Old Testament. The image of the vine and vineyard is a symbol for Israel, for the people of God. And here Jesus is saying something slightly different. I am the vine. My father is the vineyard owner. My father is the one who tends the vine. I am the vine. You are the branches. He's making a claim that the people of God are larger than the boundary that they had understood. And that faith is more dynamic than the limits that the traditions had set.
It's not just about we (indicate: small group of insiders) are God's people. It's that we (indicate: large group, inclusive) are God's people. That our God is the God. That Christ is at the center of all things, holds all things together, and makes everything possible. We Wesleyans talk about it as prevenient grace. It happens before we're even aware of it. It's nothing that we earn or do. It is because of God's love that everything we do is made possible and God us to do what God does. to be conformed to the image of God by the working of Christ's spirit for the transformation of the world. We do that in this passage, Christ says, when you abide, when we abide in him, when we dwell, when we recognize that we are intimately connected, that our life source is the vine, that we are called to bear fruit. That we dwell in the house of the lord.
These metaphors, these images describe a relationship that is more than we can possibly communicate… to dwell, to abide, to be filled with, to breathe in the spirit, to breathe out the spirit, to be people of God, not as an exclusive claim but as an inclusive claim, as an invitation, not a place of pride or privilege, but as a service, a sharing out of humility,
Our reading from 1 Corinthians is sometimes a mysterious one because it's not our fight. We don't really care where our meat comes from. You know, the grocery store, all nice and wrapped and labeled. Somebody else is ground it up and inspected it, cut it, and prepared it for us. Where it comes from isn't our concern.
And yet, in the ancient near east, in the first century, for Christians, it was a huge concern. What does it mean to be the people of God? What does it mean to worship properly? Can we eat meat that has been sacrificed to a false God, to an idol? Can we exist in Roman society if we don't? Where do we draw the boundary lines?
In Roman society, almost everything was politically and religiously involved. Everything was a means of worshiping one or more Gods of the Pantheon. You couldn't exist in civil life without participating in these rituals. And yet, we and our Jewish brothers and sisters have always been called to worship one God, to not bow before false idols, to not worship false idols.
Is eating meat that we know has been sacrificed a problem? Even though we know that those other “gods” don't really exist, what is the line? Jews had already worked this out. There was a clear line. We have a kosher diet. We do not eat the lifeblood and we do not eat meat that's been sacrificed to idols. How did they exist in Roman society? They were a known group and they had an exemption. If you were an active participant in the synagogue, if you were overtly Jewish, Roman society had created a niche where they get to play by different rules because of their weird religion.
But Christians were no longer considered Jews. We didn't get the exception. So, we had to wrestle with this anew. What does it mean to be Christian in Roman society? And Paul writes, I think, persuasively, “don't worry about it.” Doesn't matter. Eat what's set before you. Don't worry about that stuff. We're getting lost in the messiness instead of focusing on the main thing. “So, whatever you do, whether you eat or you drink, do everything you do for the glory of God.” Christ, crucified, and risen. That is what we are proclaiming with all that we do. We should be so joyful, so filled with humility and service that people come to know us as Christian because of what we do, not the way we do it.
But - Paul says - this is where it gets really tricky. Not everybody has this understanding. Some folks who are newly converted are still worrying about this. So, if you're a guest and someone makes sure to tell you, hey, this was sacrificed to an idol – in that case, for their conscience, don't eat it.
Wait, I gotta govern myself by their conscience. I want my freedom!
Do you hear it? Ultimately, this is still what we are wrestling with even to this day. Where are the boundaries? When do we assert our independence and our freedom in Christ? When do we echo and imitate that humility and take on and serve and make sure that we're not offending others? Paul writes that he doesn't offend Jew or Gentile. Some of you are taking up New Testament in 40 days challenge and we're going to read Paul's letters and you're going to see he offends some people! Even as here, he claims he doesn't. He works not to, but sometimes, he has to take a stand. When do we discern the right time to draw a boundary? When is the right time to surpass or eliminate that boundary? It is a constant call of wrestling. We don't worry about whether we eat meat or not in part because our society has been so thoroughly Christianized in our lifetimes that we don't face that kind of threat - but we wrestle with all kinds of other boundaries. How do we include everyone? How do we enforce reasonable boundaries? How do we avoid blessing that which is not good? How do we avoid causing harm?
This is what Paul is wrestling with. And he calls us in every decision to imitate Christ. To imitate himself who is imitating Christ. Our challenge. We should be living our lives in such a way that we can say, that we can invite people who do not yet know Christ to imitate us, confident that we are imitating Christ. That's bold. That's bold. Am I living that way? Is every decision I'm making truly pointing people to Christ? I'll confess to you right here. Nope.
I fall short and yet that is the goal that we should so reflect Christ's light and love so that people would be on the right path by imitating us. We're not done. We are called to do what's right even when it's not easy. Even when we disagree with one another about what's right. Some of you saw me running around this morning before I put on my nice professional holy robe on. I'm wearing a Chiefs jersey underneath. I wrestled with that all week. Is that an inappropriate thing for a pastor to do? Yes and no. But I have an out. I'm wearing this particular Chiefs jersey as an illustration. It is the jersey of an offensive lineman named Duvernay Tardif. He played in the Super Bowl after the 2019 season. He was a crucial piece of that Super Bowl win. And that same year, he graduated medical school! He's one of only four people who have ever graduated medical school to play in the NFL.
And then you all remember after the Super Bowl played in January of 2020. By March, our world had turned upside down. Duvernay Tardis had not yet finished his residency so he's not officially a doctor yet or wasn't at the time - but he felt called to go and volunteer and so he spent 2020 as an orderly in a Toronto hospital. Meaning, he didn't play in the NFL that year.
Quite frankly, had he played, the Chiefs might have done better in the next Super Bowl because we were desperately short of offensive linemen. But his higher calling, his training, his passion, was to serve people So, he volunteered as an orderly. They couldn't employ him as a Doctor yet, and the residency program was on hold – so he was an orderly. He couldn't collect his NFL salary - but he knew he was doing what he was called to do and the day he made the decision to sit out the 2020 season is when I went out and bought the jersey - because that's what I want to represent. That kind of talent and passion and selfless giving.
Unfortunately, he was then traded to the Jets the next year… but these things happen… but how do we live out our call? How do we make choices? How do we have fun and celebrate what is good and avoid what is harmful? You know, one of the conversations I think those of us who are Chiefs fans need to be having right now is: how do our traditions and our mascot affect others? I personally think you can defend the Chiefs as a name… but I don't think we can defend the tomahawk chop at all. How do we live out our fandom in ways that don't offend and even more in ways that don't demean or appropriate or make light of others' lived experiences? Where do we find that balance? Where do we make sure we honor and celebrate and uplift, not stereotype, objectify and demean? And as a Chiefs fan for a long time, I went, oh, well, we're not as bad as the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins – and we got rid of that overt cartoon logo…. and I deflected instead of wrestling with, what does it mean to use certain symbolisms and are we, am I, as I live out some fun - and as I do that, on my own path – is it helping or getting in the way of inviting people to know, grow in, serve and share Christ? Is the way I practice my fandom exemplifying Christ. Let me tell you, it’s caused me to rethink some things…
That doesn't have to be heavy-handed or deprive us of fun - but it does have to be intentional. Our mission is to share the good news, good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I love talking about the death and resurrection of Christ. About the hope that Christ gives us. That the tomb is empty!
We are just about to transition into Lent, to prepare ourselves for Easter. To tell anew the story that the tomb is empty. That death and suffering and sorrow do not have the final word. That in him is life and life abundantly for all people.
I got to look at our mission statement. We talk about resurrection. About Christ being revealed in the breaking last week. But living out, sharing food living out transformation that goes beyond this lifetime and our reality and our finitude but calls us to the wholeness of God's creation. One of the things I like about our mission statement is it's not just about death and resurrection. It's about the LIFE! How did Jesus live his one precious human life?
Well, he washed feet. He upset expectations He challenged and equipped and sent. He fed not just his people, but those his people would exclude. Jews and Gentiles. He didn't ask for a checklist of their worthiness. He had compassion. He noticed. He created. He equipped. He sent. He showed more was possible with our resources than we think is possible. He went and saw the woman at the well… Numerous people who were outcast by his Jewish society, by other societies. Jesus saw and equipped and sent. He healed mind and body. Next week, we're going to look at one of my favorite stories from the gospels. The healing of a man with a withered hand. Jesus knowingly, intentionally, and deliberately heals this on the Sabbath. It's not life or death. But it is compassion, and it is life.
It’s about wrestling with deep questions. What is the Sabbath for? What are our boundaries and our rules for? And when do things that we do even for the right reasons become stumbling blocks to others? When we get so hung up on our traditions that we lost the plot, that we forgot the point that our traditions were supposed to make.
We talk about knowing and growing in and serving and sharing Christ. It's a good mission statement and it leads us I don't think we talk about this enough, to exemplify the love of God revealed in Christ. That is our calling. To be a community through which people see Christ. Experience the love of God. We don't do this by ourselves.
On the screen and on the altar is my ordination stole and, I think I've told this story before here but it bears repeating. Seven-year process. All of those wonderful God moments. Saint Alban's Feast Day, my 45th birthday. Lots of other little nudges telling me I was on the right path but even with all of that, sometimes we get a little full of ourselves. And I will admit, that annual conference in 2013, as the Bishop laid hands on, as I received this stole that I had worked so hard for so long, at least part of me, it had kind of become a little bit about me.
And I experienced one of the most precious gifts of grace and presence that I ever will. A man who is now a part of my great cloud of witnesses, he was, then a retired Elder named Mark Conard came up to me at the reception and like many other people… “congratulations. Good job. Pumping the candidates, the new ordinands up. We have accomplished something truly remarkable. But he also reminded me it's not about us.
And so he gave me this blue stole that is also on the altar. He'd had it handmade by friends and ministry partners of his in Zimbabwe. The process of making this stall took months. So, he had to place the order to have one for every ordinand before he was even sure who the ordinands would be. He'd been at this for some years. He had them handmade in Zimbabwe. The leaf prints you see there. It's a dye that they make from natural resources to dye that stole and then they do layers and submersions to get the imprints of the leaves and the depth of color. They to make the variation and the pattern. Then they hand paint, the cross, and flame, our United Methodist brothers and sisters living and working in Zimbabwe, in Africa, and Mark had them do this for each of these classes and pray over us by name. This is the stole that was being made for Christopher Eshelman before Christopher Eshelman was even sure he was going to be ordained. Is the gift of the church.
It is not about me. It is always about us - being connected to the vine, being connected to one another, embodying abiding, imitating, and exemplifying Christ. I will forever cherish both of these stoles and the lessons in dedication and effort and humility and connection that they teach me. I'm wearing a third one today. I purchased this one in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Cross, a traditional cross, the symbols of communion and abundance. Of loaves and fishes. I was able to purchase this from a Palestinian Christian in a market in Jerusalem because another group of people, Masons, gathered together and sent me on that trip. Through no doing or effort of my own at all. They equipped - not for myself but for our shared ministry and witness. They put me in a place where I could walk in the paths that Christ had walked. That my faith could be deepened. That I could be equipped to share the stories with more first-person experiences. I didn't earn that. Not at all.
And so I bought this stole as another reminder that we only do this together, that we do this in Christ, that we are called to exemplify Christ in all that we do.
None of us, individually, can truly invite others to imitate us or even to imitate Christ but collectively, in all of our differences and diversity, we can. We don't do it ourselves, we always do it connected to the vine, to Christ, bearing good fruit by his Grace. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God.