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2014 04 13 (8.0 MB)

2014 10 12


Practical Courage for Community
October 12, 2014
For First Mennonite Church of Denver
Copyright Vernon K. Rempel, 2014

Bible reading:
I Thessalonians 3:6-13
(adapted from NRSV – vkr)
 6But [my coworker]Timothy has just now come back from visiting you, and he has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.
 7For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. 8For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord Jesus.
 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
 11Now may our God who is Mother and Father to us, and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Spirit of God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may God strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God when our fellowship with Jesus and all the saints is made complete.

A picture of God
In a TED talk by educator Ken Robinson,
 Ken tells the story of a
  girl painting a picture of God:

“I heard a great story recently, I love telling it, of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson, she was 6 and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, "What are you drawing?" and the girl said, "I'm drawing a picture of God." And the teacher said, "But nobody knows what God looks like." And the girl said, "They will in a minute.”

Robinson is making a point about
 how intuitively and fearlessly creative children can be….

But of course the other connection is:
 how are we fearlessly and creatively
  drawing pictures of God for each other?

How are we showing the face of Christ,
 how are we exhibiting fruits of the Spirit,
  how are we making plain in our lives
   the character of God?

Not that’s not easy.
 Because needless to say, it’s possible to have a lot of
  approaches on God’s character from the Bible,
   let alone from the whole world of religions today.

Are we talking about a God who drowns
 all of humanity in a Noah-flood?
  Are we talking about Yahweh the warrior
   who brings down the city, it’s walls
    and inhabitants young and old
     at the city of Jericho?

Are we talking about the God of Leviticus
 who makes rules so that women end up being
  more restricted and more unclean than men?


And then from the world of religion
 is God someone who commands bombers
  either terrorist or F-16?

Is God someone who blesses one race
 or sexuality or religion over others?

Does God love capitalism best of all?
And so on.
 So drawing a picture of God is a
  bit of a fraught exercise.

Paul gives us part of his God-picture in our
 text for today.

He writes to his beloved friends in Thessalonica:
 “May the Spirit of God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

So in this picture, God is of the character
 of someone who supports love,
  abundant love, not tight-lipped
   parsimonious love.

And Paul continues:
 “And may God strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God when our fellowship with Jesus and all the saints is made complete.”

Here, God is interested in holiness,
 and so then we may investigate that as well.



A few notes about holiness.
 In the Hebrew/Jewish ancient story
  holiness has to do with bringing
   liberation to slaves and creating a home
    for a homeless people
     in the midst of a cruel land.

An instrument of this liberation
 is an extensive behavioral and liturgical code
  that creates such a cascade of requirements
   in the book of Leviticus.

Perhaps it can all be summarized this way:
 if you want to stay free, keep your nose clean.
  Be responsible and attentive.
As if God is saying, you’re going to
 have to be organized in the land that I will give you.
  You can’t just live any old way.
   You will need patterns for living.
And there is always the matter of justice
 because your parents were wandering Arameans,
  so don’t imagine that you are self-made.
 Help the stranger and alien, the widow and orphan.

But does God really want people to be killed
 for all the stuff it said that were supposed
  to be killed for in Leviticus?

Certain sexual relations, disobeying parents,
 adultery, blasphemy, magic,
  going near the temple when it is being moved
   and you are not a priest.

When God asked for patterns,
 the priests and leaders really went to town.
  Really went to tabernacle….

And so holiness for Paul becomes disconnected
 from some of Leviticus:
  he prays with Gentiles,
   refuses to make clean and unclean food an issue,
    It’s about relationships, he says.

He even challenges circumcision,
 one of the core rituals and marks
  of his faith.

He becomes very embittered about this,
 calling the leaders who are demanding circumcision “dogs”
  and wishing they would damage their own bodies,
   instead of asking for circumcision for Gentiles.

Paul wanted to draw a picture of God.
 As the girl said,
  “they’ll know what God looks like in a minute.”

The Thessalonians and others
 needed this picture,
  needed the community that flowed from
   the picture of God that Paul was drawing:
A God who commands abundant love,
 who offers abundant love,
  a God whose holiness is about creating
   a new community of real sharing
    and joy, not 500 rules.

Paul moves away from focus on purity in the book of Leviticus,
 to a new focus on redemptive love,
  on adoption into a new family,
   on grace that gives the law with all its purity talk
    it’s true purpose and destiny:
     Redemption and love for all people.


Our Picture
I want to draw a picture of God with my life and words.
 So do we all, I think.
  We want to draw a faithful picture of God.
   People need to know what God looks like.
People need community, even if they don’t know it.
 Because we’re not created for isolation.
  We’re not wired for isolation.

Our hearts long for friendship,
 the warmth and wonder of a shared table
  where good food is shared
   by trustworthy people who we love.

That’s the best, isn’t it?
 Pouring the water and the beer,
  Roasting the vegetables and grilling the brats.
   And offering it to each other,
    with full hearts.

Dan Wessner in our Adult Education series
 for this Autumn season,
  has been inviting us to think about
   what our First Mennonite Christmas story
    would look like.

We hope to have something in that way
 to present on December 14 – an adult pageant, perhaps?

This is another way of saying
 that we may want to draw our picture of God.
  Because we need to see it.
   People need to see it.



Just saying the words Ferguson, Ebola, Palestine,
 Sudan, immigrant, service economy
  quickly lifts up are daily awareness
   of the need for the world to have
    a good and beautiful drawing
     of the face of God for all people.

Go ahead and draw
And they will in a minute.
 If we can just let courage into our hearts,
  rather than fear,
   the courage to go ahead and draw.

If we can just give ourselves to delighted love,
 instead of to blame and retribution,
  and carrying grudges

If we can find our way to generosity of spirit
 and graciousness in love
  even as Paul spoke to the poor urban
    about an abundant love of God.

No one knows what God looks like.
 They will in a minute.
  They will in a minute.

In his TED talk,
 Ken Robinson continues to note that
  all kids are artists
   But then we become fearful,
    we sanction each other.

I’m not sure if it’s more adults in our lives
 or other kids,
  but wow do we learn the importance
   of conformity and productivity.

The industrial revolution,
 from which our educational system sprung,
  is still alive and well in that regard.

The internet may be doing a lot of things,
 but it isn’t keeping us from shaming each other
  into conformity.

The anonymity of the internet just allows more spewing,
 no more of that good old western ethic of
  “if you have something to say to me,
   say it to my face”

Now our culture rejoices and revels in anonymous
 communication and retribution and vitriole.
  It’s a strange thing,
   because it brings no real joy or relief.

It’s like firing bullets into the air.
 But hey, at least I’m firing bullets.
  People get mean, resentful, we lash out.

Paul writes, “For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith.
 The love of the Thessalonian community,
  and the picture of God that Paul is drawing,
   is not being undertaken
    in a pristine friendly environment.

It’s real life with all the ups and downs,
 all the emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges.

The challenge is this:
 how do we remain artists as adults?
  How do we retain our imaginations
   even with the slings and arrows
    of outrageous fortune
     flying around us?

And to draw a picture of God, 
 we so much need our imaginations,
  so much need an intact and joyful creativity.

What I have found is that I need more love in my life.
 And not just practical love, but
  love that is genuinely delighted,
   joyful and fun.

But that love doesn’t take place
 or come to be in a pristine environment now,
  anymore than it did for Paul
   and the Thessalonian community.

And so I have been learning how to border that love,
 and hold it, and find safe places to let it grow,
  places that step out of the usual run of things
   in order to listen more deeply
    and speak more truly.

Places to step out of the competitive
 and anxious and fearful energy
  that even pervades our table fellowship,
   parties, cocktail hours,
    water cooler moments,
     and coffee breaks.

I have found that I need spaces with people
 in which we say to each other:

I will offer welcome and I commit myself
 also to receive welcome.

Where we say
 We will not advise, correct, fix, or set each other straight,
  but rather we will listen, and listen well.

I need a regular place in my life
 where I can explore expressing my heart’s
  fears and hopes

where these will not be brought up to me later on
 for reexamination or consistency or conformity
  or critique – a place of friendly confidentiality
where we agree to simply hold each other’s thoughts
 rather than working on each other

A place where the pace of speech and silence
 are measured and gentle.

A place where, as Parker Palmer puts it,
 the wild animal of our souls may show up,
  if we stand at gentle attention
   long enough.

Because our creative, imaginative souls
 get sent to the woods by life.
But if we are to see that true picture of God
 in our lives, the picture we want to draw,
  we need some practices that let it come forth
   from the woods,

so that we may once again bear witness,
 to the first and beautiful
  and God-given gracious
   drawing of the face of God
    for each one of us.


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