Seventh Monday After Pentecost
July 24, 2017
Sisters and Brothers called Grace Community,
Grace and Peace in Jesus Christ our Lord!
It would be difficult in one letter to express the last six weeks. Just the opportunity to get away for this time of extended Sabbath was in itself a gift of grace. The gift of time allowed me to rest, reconnect, and reflect. It was more needed than I realized!
I pray that this letter finds you well and that you have taken some time in the last six-weeks to do some of your own reflection on God’s call in your life and in our life together.
While away I prayed for you “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), gave thanks for you and asked God to show me ways that we could be a more faithful community of disciples and that I could be a more faithful shepherd.
It is an ancient practice in the church for pastors to write “pastoral letters.” These letters were meant to connect, teach, challenge, and inspire. At their best they are a conversation starter and have their best effect when studied by small groups around the church. We are familiar with some of those pastoral letters because the best of them are part of our New Testament.
During my sabbatical I became more familiar with the pastoral letters of one of my saints and Christian forefathers Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador (seehttp://www.romerotrust.org.uk). During a difficult time in the church and in his country he used pastoral letters to teach, inspire, and bring hope to the communities within and outside the church in his day.
As I read I felt a call to such a practice. We are blessed that we are not living in El Salvador in the late 70’s but we still have challenges that I think call for a continued conversation about our identity and our call “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
What is this “time?”
- A time in our Shreveport community where crime rates and racial tensions are increasing, educational opportunities decreasing, and apathy prevailing.
- A time in our country where divisions seem to be growing, truth seems to be serving only the powerful, and insults are taking the place of dialogue.
- A time in our denomination where we seem to be mimicking the world, not listening to each other, questioning the work of the Spirit in those that we disagree with, and continuing to marginalize people due to their sexual orientation, gender, and/or race.
- A time in our hearts where many of us feel anxious, silenced, pushed to our comfort zones, and isolated from those who are different than us.
- A time in our minds where we don’t know what to do, what to say, where we rather hide, ignore, and/or procrastinate than deal with what we see around us.
It is for such a time that salvation came!
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke 1:78-79, NRSV
This letter will be divided in three parts. In part one, I’ll speak a bit about my own call to conversion and how that call connects with my call as pastor. In part two, I will remind us of our call as the church, the church as the community of disciples. In part three, I’ll share some challenges that I see in living out our call. These challenges will be confessional in nature for I believe that they are the challenges that many of us struggle with as it relates to our living into discipleship as individuals but more importantly as the community of the baptized.
A Call to Jesus, A Call to Lead the Body of Jesus
When I was born, in the midst of much pain, disappointment, and tension, my parents gave me to God. They made promises that they would raise me in the way of Jesus alongside and in the community called the church. They were young, broken, and struggling but they made the commitment even when the church was not open to them because I had come out of wedlock. The church turned their backs on them but they knew that God had not.
Again and again in my life I saw the ways that God guided us along the way. There were many moves, many difficult decisions. Then there was our move from Puerto Rico to Louisiana with a new language, a new culture, and a new way of life.
Yet as my father said to me in a letter written over 20 yrs. ago:
“You have displayed great perseverance and tenacity when facing adversities. You have not allowed yourself to be overcome by discouragement, language barriers, or prejudice. I know that changes are not easy for you. Nevertheless you were not overcome by the many changes you went through. You turn the ‘problem of a change’ into ’the challenge of a change.’ “
I was able to persevere, to face the challenges because at each point of transition the church, the community of believers, became the place of solace, of hope, and of love. The place that reminded me of my identity as God’s own, no matter what messages I was hearing, what discomfort I was experiencing, and what challenge lay before me. This has remained a reality to this day!
The pastoral life is an extension of my call to be a disciple of Jesus. A person that lives into the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 and the sermon on the plain in Luke 6. I see myself like blind Bartimaeus who hears Jesus standing before him asking: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:46-52). Discipleship then pushes me to a life of daily conversion, surrender, and examination. A daily call to be like Jesus in all that I am and all that I do.
Discipleship is impossible without the body called the church. We are disciples, together; a disciple belongs to the body called the church. This is messy, complicated and often uncomfortable, just like life together in other areas of our life. Yet it is only together that we can grow in love of God, self, and neighbor, only together that we can learn to wash each other’s feet and the feet of the world (John 17:1-26). Only together can we grow the fruit of God’s Spirit within us so that we can be more like Christ.
“[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Ephesians 5:22-23, NRSV
Our discipleship calls us and empowers us to use God’s given gifts for the building up of the body called the church (Ephesians 4:12) so that that body can be Christ in the world, healing, restoring, freeing, welcoming, and forgiving (Matthew 25, Matthew 11:2-6, Mark 6:7-13, Mark 8:34-38, Luke 4:18, Luke 24:46-49, John 20:19-23, and many more!).
Why do I say all of this?
This time away has reminded me that I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus. That I am a part of the body called the church, called to be like Jesus and to tell others about Jesus. I am called and empowered by my baptism to do what Jesus did: heal, restore, free, welcome, and forgive. In doing those things I live into the greatest commandment of loving God, self, and neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28; Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18).
As a disciple of Jesus I’ve been reminded too of my particular call within this community. My call is no different than the call of each of us: God’s stir in our hearts to use our gifts, graces, and abilities for the building of the body for the work of the kingdom of God. In my case I am honored and thankful to be an overseer-pastor/teacher among you. I am also thankful for my deep call to be a peacemaker in my life as a disciple and as overseer-pastor/teacher.
It is my prayer and call to lead you into being God’s people in the world by proclaiming the good news of Jesus each week. I also live into my call by teaching you the story of faith, the way that Christians over time have understood the message of Jesus, by praying with you and teaching you to pray, by gathering you around baptism and Holy Communion (signs-acts in our life together that are avenues for God’s grace among us), and last but not least by gathering you around celebration, lament, confession, and remembrance.
At my best I am discipling you to see the risen Lord in the everyday of life, to hear your own unique call for the building of the body so that the body can be an agent of the kingdom, and deploying you as the visible presence of Jesus in the world.
Often in the midst of our calling we get distracted, we forget why we do what we do, and we lose our connection to the source, Jesus the Christ. I was there, more deeply than I imagined when I left 6 weeks ago. This time away has helped me renew my call and has encouraged me to live into it boldly, courageously, humbly, and filled with hope!
I am convinced that Grace Community is a unique congregation, a unique community of the baptized in Shreveport/Bossier. We are an eclectic, diverse, and growing body that has as its founding mission to “restore lives and transform seekers to servants.” For twenty-five years we have been at this work and I believe that we have made a significant difference on behalf of the kingdom of God.
But the work is not over. Some of the hungers and needs of twenty-five years ago are still real in our city today. A hunger to be welcomed, especially those that are easily forgotten, ignored, or judged; a hunger to be loved and to love others, especially those who are different than us, those who have different stories, cultures, and ways of life. Finally a hunger to serve, to make a difference in the world, to make sure that everyone knows that their lives matter, to use our gifts, graces, and abilities in a way that transforms all around us.
I’ve said it before but I’ll remind you:
- We welcome ALL because Jesus called us to: Matthew 9, Matthew 11, Matthew 25, Mark 2, Mark 10, Luke 9, Luke 14, John 3:16-17, Acts 16, Acts 21, Acts 28, Romans 12, Romans 15, Hebrews 13, Galatians 3, 1 Peter 4, and many more!
- We love ALL because Jesus called us to: Matthew 5, Matthew 7, Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 6, John 3, John 4:7-8, John 13-15, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4:2, 1 Peter 4, 1 John, and many more!
- We serve ALL because Jesus called us to: Matthew 10, Matthew 25, Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-18, Luke 10, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:4-8, John 20:19-23, and many more!
All of this is about a hunger for reconciliation, for peace, redemption, and a new way. A hunger for salvation!
As I prayed, paid attention, experienced joy, and faced challenge I kept on hearing an invitation to surrender, to lean on the Lordship of Christ in my life, to let go of my anxieties, fears, and desire to control. Instead to preach boldly, to lead humbly, to teach you to pray, to model hospitality, to practice confession, to practice Sabbath, and to “trust in the slow work of God.” (Teilhard de Chardin)
God is calling us to be the church, the community of disciples, the community of the baptized, the community of those who are together practicing holiness, set apartness, so that the world (ALL people (kosmos), see John 3:16-17) can get a taste of a whole life, an abundant life, a flourishing life. We are the ones who have been called by the Holy Spirit to “give light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). This is difficult yet exciting work because this is what it means to live into our identity.
Sin, Forgiveness, and Renewal
There have been seasons in my life when the last word I wanted to utter was sin and I certainly did not want to hear it! As I have aged and seasoned as I pastor I have become deeply committed to the word and to what it means in my life, in the life of the community of the baptized, and in the life of the world.
Sin is missing the mark, the absence of wholeness, integration, and peace. Sin is a condition of the created order; it keeps us captive, focused only on ourselves, and causes division between us, our true selves, the other, and even God. The power of sin is personal and communal, individual and structural. It is humbling to be reminded that we “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) but that reality should not keep us from the call towards holiness, towards a life that daily walks further from sin and more deeply into the love of God.
I say this because I think the church (not just Grace Community) is struggling with sin and a need for conversion. I wonder if we’ve become self-centered? Have we settled for less than a life of deepening relationship with God and neighbor? I wonder if we have chosen comfort with our own sin, spiritual immaturity, and worldly desires over the struggle and freedom that is life with God? I wonder if we realize that our life together, our life worship, study, fellowship, and service is about growing more deeply in love of God, self, and neighbor, not about friendship, socialization, or networking? Have we made our encounter with Jesus our own private experience instead of an experience that moves us beyond ourselves and connects us with others?
I think our challenge as God’s people is to recover our identity as the body of Christ, as Christ-self for the life, the joy, the healing, the peace, the restoration, the forgiveness, the redemption, the salvation of the world!
I believe that we more than any other community of the baptized in Shreveport/Bossier are ready to be the kind of community that Jesus instituted. The question is how do we live into that call where we are? Where we live, work, and play?
I believe it begins with learning to pray. Not just speaking to God but listening to God. Becoming a people who mean it when we say “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven;” A people who learn to hear God’s voice for their life and for our life together (John 10).
How can we help each other continually learn to pray?
As we learn to pray we learn to worship. Theologians have told us that worship is for “the glorification of God and the sanctification of all that is.” As we continue to worship together as a community, as we bring our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, as we gather and rehearse the story of faith in word and deed, in preaching and table, we again grow more deeply into the love of God.
How can our worship form us more deeply in the way of Jesus?
As we pray in private, as we pray together in worship, we are then empowered by the Spirit to be God’s people, to be God’s presence where we live, work, and play. We are literally “sent out” to be Jesus in the world!
How can we support our need to learn to be like Jesus in the everyday of life?
In these ways we practice continual conversion, continual forgiveness, continual renewal, not just for us but also for neighbor.
So we’ve been called, empowered, and formed for “such a time as this.” As we pray, worship, and go into the world we have an opportunity to be agents of salvation. We have an opportunity to live into God’s call for the church, to our own discipleship and to do so so that the world (our neighbors) can experience the love of God.
This work takes sacrifice, as Jesus himself told us “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” Matthew 16:24 (NRSV). We together working out our “own salvation with fear and trembling” Philippians 2:12b (NRSV).
We do so by the power of the Holy Spirit we together experiencing our own restoration, our own transformation, our own growing in faith, maturing in faith, our own becoming servants, no longer seekers.
I can’t wait to see what God does through us as we grow as disciples, as we make disciples, and as we make the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, restoration, renewal, forgiveness, wholeness, new life; a kingdom that transform our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and enemies. A kingdom that makes Shreveport/Bossier a more just, peaceful, loving, integrated, whole, healed, and saved place. The great commission of Jesus through us, the people called Grace Community.
Peace & Love,
P.S. I cannot wait to see all you this weekend! Invite a friend as we celebrate together!