Today's Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
The last two weeks I’ve gotten a taste of what some of the great recording artists of all time must have gone through. Artists like Tina Turner, the Grateful Dead, and Cher. In other words, I’ve been doing my own version of a Farewell Tour.
And during this tour, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with colleagues, former parishioners, and friends, and reflect on my first seven years of parish ministry. The opportunity to reflect has been priceless – for through these conversations I’ve gained an enhanced sense of clarity about who I am and how I minister. Some of the insights I’ve gained have mostly to do with my quirks, and I won’t bother sharing those with you. A couple insights I’ve gained, however, have to do with my practice of ministry and the way it affects the communities I’m in ministry with – so I thought it might be helpful to share one of those insights with you to help you see how my ministry has shaped this community.
Last Wednesday, I sat down for coffee with a colleague of mine who has known me since I first arrived in Denver ten years ago. We talked for nearly an hour, before I asked her a question that produced a provocative observation; I asked her, “As someone who knew me before I officially entered the ministry, what about my ministry has surprised you?”
She thought carefully for a few moments, and then said: “When you came to seminary, I knew you had a long history of activism working for a variety of causes. I guess the thing that most surprises me is that you didn’t do more advocacy or missions work in your ministry.”
I could feel the pace of the blood in my veins start to pick up a little as I started to get defensive. I found myself starting to pull together facts to bolster my defense. Thankfully, before I spoke, I had the sense to slow down and take a sip of coffee. And in those moments, I had a chance to sit with what my colleague had said. Before I knew it, my response to her observation had changed completely.
“You know, I think you’re right,” I began. “Had I been engaged in the practice of ministry when I was younger, I definitely would have been more engaged in advocacy and missions work out in the world. But something changed in me in the days leading up to the start of my ministry that affected the way I practice ministry.”
“And what was that?” my colleague asked.
“The guess the way I see church.”
And with that I launched into a long monologue. Now I won’t give you all the details that I shared with my colleague, but I will give you a couple highlights.
I started by talking about my mission involvement with local churches when I was in middle and high school. I talked, for instance, about how my local church was involved in supporting a program called the Union Gospel Mission: a shelter for people in our community who were homeless – many of whom wrestled with substance abuse issues. Two things stuck out about my experiences there. First, I remember thinking to myself: “When churches provide meals to the homeless, why did they force the homeless to sit through a worship service before they could eat?” That didn’t seem very Christ-like. And second, I remember wondering, “If our church cares so much about these vulnerable people, then why don’t we have any of them in our church?”
No one ever answered those questions.
Fast forward six years to my college days. I was taking a sociology class on deviance, and we were exploring the dynamics involvement in situations of domestic violence. For a project that I was given, I was told that I needed to interview a person who had been affected by domestic violence. I spent several days calling domestic violence shelters trying to get permission to talk with someone affected by domestic violence. My requests were denied. Finally, one day when I was sitting at the lunch table in the cafeteria telling a classmate about my problem, she said: “I suppose you could interview me.” She went on to tell me about an abusive relationship she had been involved in throughout high school. She had attended a local church that took clothing and money to a local domestic violence shelter, but sadly that church never made her feel safe enough to talk about her own experience of it.
Fast forward another six years. The state in which I was living during my twenties had a ballot measure that would have established English as the only language used by the state government. Several religious leaders and religious organizations I knew were up in arms – decrying the attempts to marginalize our sisters and brothers from other cultural backgrounds. At one of the rallies, I asked a colleague, “So what does your church do to include other languages in the life of your community?” “Nothing,” the activist replied. “So English as the only language is okay in our local churches but not our government?” I replied. My colleague remained silent.
Those three experiences taught me an important lesson about the way many churches (and the people inside those churches) approach activism and mission work. That lesson can be summarized in eight simple words: “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s no wonder so many people outside the church look at Christians as if we are all hypocrites.
By the time I entered seminary, I made a promise to myself. I promised that when it came time to do activism and mission work, I would do them a little differently than most. Instead of seeing the mission field outside the walls of the church, I would see the mission field as being within the walls of the church. And I did so for this reason. I thought we inside the church better get our act together first – before we started trying to help others. In other words, I took to heart the sentiments contained in this morning’s passage from Ephesians.
So with that, I began a ministry here at Mountain View whose focus was built upon the words from today’s passage.
“Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps…”
“Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk…”
“Be gentle with one another, sensitive…”
“Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you…”
This meant our process as a local church was different than most. During my time with you, we didn’t win any denominational awards for giving the most money or volunteer hours to a mission project. Nor did we make the front page of the newspaper for being activists aligned with a particular cause.
But we did accomplish something else. First, we began to treat each other in a more Christ-like fashion. And secondly, the composition of this church began to change. We went from being an extremely homogenous group to a much more diverse body.
And as I thought about those changes, I realized that perhaps we had done some good advocacy and mission work after all.
Friends, as we move closer toward these days of transition as I leave and you receive first the pulpit supply person and then your interim pastor; I want to leave you with the culminating words of this morning’s passage: “Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with God and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. Christ’s love was not cautious but extravagant. Christ didn’t love us in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.”
If you embrace those words to the depths of your souls – first with one another, then with others – I guarantee that the ministry of this church will thrive. Even better, the ministry of this church will reflect the one in whose name it ministers.