The EmbRACE Study / 02

This is our second post in our monthly church-wide study called EmbRACE, a repentance and study on race, society, and culture. You can find the first post here.

Revisit our foundational calling.

As we start our second study this week, we must not forget the foundation for bearing with one another in love from the first study. We will come back over and over to remember it is Christ who has brought us together. So no matter how different our views may be, we are called to strive to bear with one another for the sake of the gospel. Before you begin on any “hot topics” we must remember to recommit ourselves to the gospel and to one another.

Separation, Assimilation or Embrace.

From our second EmbRACE sermon, there was a calling on us to not give into two typical ways that society tends to deal with diversity: (1) separation: maintain a “negative peace” by minimizing the likelihood of conflict, (2) assimilation: require that those who are different conform to a particular way of life. Instead the gospel calls us to embrace one another because of our differences and celebrate them. The end of all things points to worship by “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9).

In John 4, Jesus enters into a private (1-on-1) conversation with a Samaritan woman. The text highlights how taboo this was in the dialog and the framing of this conversation (for example, see v.8, 9, 27) By entering into this situation, Jesus put his reputation at risk — even his disciples were confused. But through his actions, Jesus shows us that our confidence in the gospel frees us to move boldly into unpopular spaces. As we follow Jesus, we are called to count the cost while looking at Jesus. For “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44). The cost may be high, but Jesus assures us it is worth it. Jesus calls us to associate with the lowly, to seek the sheep who have wandered off, to embrace the outcast and, in so doing, find God more fully. As we seek to live out this implication of the gospel to embrace the other, we become more like our perfect savior who came to seek imperfect and sinful people like ourselves.

Can the church be a place where we recognize and welcome people and trust that the Spirit will do his work in those who he calls to himself? It could be that even those who we’d consider the last to come to faith will ultimately teach us much about our loving God. This Samaritan woman, because she was welcomed by Christ who dared to break social and cultural norms, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel of John. “In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Samaritan ‘woman at the well’ is called Saint Photini and, as Eva Catafygiotu Topping writes in Saints and Sisterhood, she ‘occupies a place of honor among the apostles. In Greek sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries she is called “apostle” and “evangelist.” In these sermons, the Samaritan Woman is often compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to surpass them.'” (from The First Female Evangelists)

It is my hope that our church can grow in our love and capacity to welcome those who are different. That we would not let our doubts about how receptive or unreceptive we can be hinder the work of the Spirit among us. May God expand our hearts to love as Christ has loved us.

The EmbRACE Study / 01

It is a repentance

This week, our church will be starting a monthly study on racism, systemic injustice, and white supremacy. We’ve called this study EmbRACE: a repentance and study on race, society, and culture. Now it is first called a repentance because we do not study this as a an external subject; we recognize from the start that talking about race in America requires that we acknowledge, not just to study the problems out there, but also in here — in ourselves: the narratives we grew up with, our ideas of power, our ideals of beauty, our assumptions about the world.

Striving for unity in Christ

Our first study this week may seem only tangential to the hot issues in our national discussion, but for us it is foundational. While public discourse is becoming increasingly divided and antagonistic, that should not be the nature of the church. God calls us to unity, bearing with one another in love — the love that we have through Christ. As we move through the various studies, and as our nation continues to grapple with the issues, we will likely find new ways to demonize those who seem to be the enemy. We will find new depths of anger or despair, but the gospel calls us to resist becoming self righteous and seeing ourselves better than others who may not share our views. The gospel calls us to a robust, deep, and enduring love. It calls us to be like Christ, to listen well, to bear with one another in love, to outdo one another in showing honor.

This is difficult, yet we must pray for strength to live into it as we engage in these studies. It is my prayer that as we go through this series of study, we will strive to keep a repentant posture even as we fight for justice. It is in this posture that we recognize that our strength is not in our outrage or zeal, but wholly in Christ.

Cheap Worship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the term “cheap grace,” a fallacy in our faith where we think of grace as “the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” Alternatively, he urges the Church to pursue costly grace: “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field… It is the pearl of great price… Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” In essence, Bonhoeffer calls us to not take our discipleship — our following Christ — lightly. There is a costly sacrifice involved; a regular offering given. We are not to treat our discipleship as something that can be discarded and picked up whenever we want — it is costly!

David modeled this kind of costly discipleship in his worship. In the very last chapter of 2 Samuel, David is called to worship the LORD on a particular plot of land belonging to Araunah the Jebusite. But this plot of land was a threshing floor, not a place with an altar for worship. Araunah, recognizing that David was the king, happily offers the land, sacrificial animals, and additional worship supplies to David for free so he could build an altar and offer a sacrifice. But David would not accept this offer from Araunah; he says to him, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” So David pays full price for the land (he would not accept any kingly discount!), builds an altar, and worships the LORD.

But this example should lead us to examine ourselves today: Is our worship costly? or is it cheap?

By now, most of us have already fallen into new patterns for worship; we’ve adapted to Zoom and virtual/remote worship. But I think it is worth our time to pause and consider how we have been shaped by these new norms.

One of the great losses we have with Zoom worship is the lack of a practiced corporate identity. There is an essential togetherness that is present when we are physically together. We sense one another. We hear one another’s voices — both in liturgy and in song. We notice when people stand up, sit down, raise their hands, drop a water bottle, rush out with a crying infant. We notice when people are distracted (and if we’re honest, we also notice when we are distracted and attempt to hide our feed-reading and double-tapping from those around us — we know we shouldn’t be doing it!). Whether we realize it or not, just by “going to” church, we are active participants in one another’s spiritual formation — encouraging one another, just by our presence, to engage and be attentive to our God; through our actions, we are saying to one another, “We’re worshiping together.” We inherently (we don’t have a choice!) “give up” our individual rights when we meet in person. But all this is lost on Zoom.

When we attend virtual service, we have a level of autonomy not present at an in-person service. Rather than having to give up our individual rights, we get to keep them. We don’t have to get dressed. We don’t need to travel or even leave the house. No one notices our silence if we abstain from liturgy or song (we’re supposed to mute ourselves!). We don’t have to been seen. Mics on mute; cameras off. Worship at home is easy! There’s an intoxicating power that comes from being able to turn a worship service to God on and off.

I recall early in the pandemic I was in a gathering of ministers and lay leaders from around the city where our main speaker was so overjoyed at the convenience or in-home worship! He started going on and on about how we need to adapt to the times and move on with technology and the future! He even went so far as to say he hopes things stay this way; “Look at all the people you can now reach!” “There’s so much untapped potential on the Internet!” I believe this thinking is seriously misguided; it incorrectly postures us into thinking that worship should cater to our comforts and conveniences. It forgets that when God called us to himself, he called us to belong to a people. When we attend a worship service, it is not a service to worship ourselves.

There is a voluntary giving up of our comforts so that we can direct one another to worship Christ. Honestly this isn’t that costly compared to other times and places. But in our culture and society that elevates individualism above all else, it is not an easy thing to give up. My hope is that it is the least we can do as we try to discipline ourselves at home to embrace our corporate identity as a church. May we practice giving up for one another that we may point one another to worship God. Every Sunday morning, may we have a heart like David: may we dare not offer to God that which cost us nothing.

Postscript: If you’re curious, that piece of land that David bought from Araunah the Jebusite shows up again in scripture. This costly piece of land is the site upon which David’s son, Solomon builds the Temple to the LORD. David’s faithful and costly worship becomes the foundation — literally — upon which all of Israel and Judah worshiped the LORD.

Sing to Your Soul

These days we find ourselves locked at home, physically disconnected from friends, family, and community. It’s been difficult. Challenging. Our work is strained. Our relationships are tested. We’re managing — or at least trying to. We’re making the best of our circumstances.

But Sunday Worship is the time for the church — even if we’re scattered on Zoom — to reset. We gather to realign ourselves to the truth of the Gospel when all week long we may have aligned ourselves with other goals: scarcity, loneliness, helplessness. But one thing we lose in this day of online virtual worship services is the real feel of the community encouraging one another in the Gospel. This is especially apparent when we gather to — online — to sing.

How easy it is to watch the singing on the screen rather than participate.

It might feel awkward to sing in our apartments, especially if we’re just one of a handful of voices — every out-of-tune note or early-entrance-become-solo clearly heard by all. Maybe we think it’s easier just to listen to those in the call singing. But don’t give into that. Sing!

Surely, I can remind you, “God cares about it.” Or I can tell those of you who are parents, “Your children are watching and learning about worship from your example.” These are both true. But I’d put forward to you that…

Your soul is listening.

There’s a well known refrain in the psalms (scattered throughout Psalms 42 and 43) that goes like this:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Here the psalmist is ministering to his soul. This part of us is really all of us. It is in our soul — our very being — that we are united with Christ. But our souls are “prone to wander” as the hymns put it. And now, when all is stripped away from daily routine, our souls are raw. Every grim announcement and every sliver of hope tugs our souls this way and that; they toss us to and fro in the stormy waves of our present situation.

So as we gather tomorrow to worship; resist the temptation to sit idly and watch. Sing! Remind your soul where our hope lies. Remind your soul that even if all gives way, there is a sure Anchor that keeps us steady in the waves. It’s the Anchor that we can never lose because He holds onto us.

Sing! So your soul will not despair.

Sing! They your soul may know the Hope that keeps us even now.