Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 13:10-17
Living As We Believe
The prophet Jeremiah and Jesus are both challenging the status quo this morning by representing God’s Good News, without regard to the “rules” that would restrict their behavior. It does not mean that rules do not have value. It simply means that human rules are a poor substitute of the power of God’s love.
This is a tricky concept. How do we establish order and meet expectations, if we cannot limit the behavior of those in the church? These are tough issues, because rules can be spelled out in black and white, but the inspiration of God’s love is a full color assault on our senses. I deal with various levels of this in my current position in the church.
I am off and running without a proper word of greeting. I am the Rev. Chuck Maney, I prefer the title Pastor Chuck when I am serving a congregation. I served this congregation as an Interim Pastor from mid-November of 2015 to May of 2107.
I then served Community UCC of Morton, IL, as their Interim Pastor from August of 2017 through August of 2018. I also covered for the Rev. Kathy Lawes in Prairie Association as Interim Associate Conference Minister while she was on sabbatical from late November of 2018 to March of 2019. In May, when the Illinois Conference called the Rev. Kim Wood to the Acting Associate Conference Minister for Eastern and Western Associations, she had to relinquish the position of President of the Illinois Conference. I serve in that role now.
The United Church of Christ is structured much like a non-profit. The professional staff reports to a Board of Directors, just as your pastor works with and through the Council. In the Illinois Conference we call it the Conference Council. The President chairs that group. In quiet times this position is largely ceremonial. This year we have an Interim Conference Minister, and 2 new Associate Conference Ministers, a third resigned just this week, and a fourth is retiring at the end of the calendar year. So, church order means something special from this vantage point in my life.
You and I call ourselves Christians, as we have responded with our hearts to the love of God we have heard expressed by Jesus of Nazareth. In humility, we would acknowledge that what is true about God that we learn from Jesus, may also be discovered by faithful people in other faith traditions. God’s love and truth has the freedom to seek out a response from all of creation. It is an honor to have our Christianity, a form and tradition of faith tailored to us, and others certainly feel the same way.
The prophet Jeremiah felt the power of God’s love in his life. In humility, he resisted as he was too young and undeserving. That is kind of a joke from God’s perspective. No one deserves God’s love and blessings. God is love and cannot contain the desire she has to love us, right here, right now, ready or not.
I also do not believe that God invented Wisdom teeth and introduced them to the human biology, so that the prophet may speak words of wisdom. I really think that Jeremiah was being poetic when he says the LORD touched his mouth and gave him the words to say.
Many years ago, long before Martha and I took leadership roles in our home church, there was a controversy that resulted in many ugly confrontations. On one Sunday, a parishioner interrupted Sunday worship to harass and denounce the pastor. No one stood up to say the things that should have been said that day. It was clear to me what needed to be said, but I did not believe I had the authority to speak at that time. I still regret that.
Our focus this morning is not to sit in admiration of the bravery of the prophet Jeremiah. We are not being called only to offer worship to Jesus. I am quite sure God with Jesus appreciate our songs and prayers. However, we are called to hear the word of God, and then live it. Our call is to live with confidence in the inspiration of our faith.
The word “angel” means messenger. The prelude was a song called “Voice of an Angel” which celebrates the discovery of God’s word coming out of ordinary mouths. The song was written as a reflection on that Sunday morning when anger interrupted our morning worship. Discovering the words for the moment right at the tip of my tongue, made me aware of the power of God’s grace.
Many things happen in the world, not because God chose for them to happen. God allows us free will, which often feels more empowering than self-discipline, though it seldom produces lasting benefits. But the grace of God, and the power of God’s love is always with us. God does not turn her head and look away when we do evil to others, or others do evil to us. God’s love is there within us.
My friend Ron Colby of the UCC congregation in Spring Valley likes to say that when he steps into any new circumstance, he breathes the prayer, “Jesus, take my hand and go with me.” He is also quick to point out that if he pulls into a spot where he thinks, “This looks interesting, Jesus why don’t you wait in the car while I check it out,” then he might not be doing the will of God.
So how do we trust that what is in our mind is from God and not from our own desires? The answer in the United Church of Christ is that we try to discern God’s will in community. We invite others to think about and consult with us on the things that are on our minds. My sense is that truth, within creation, is like a jig saw puzzle. The piece of the truth that you hold and the piece that I hold, are both genuine. We cannot determine the context without putting our pieces together, and see how it all fits.
When we are motivated by the love of God, we can trust that truth and action are not diluted when they are shared. In fact, our power to represent God’s love becomes more whole, and more holy, when the discernment takes place within the gathered body where each voice is honored as bringing a genuine piece of the big picture.
We see in the scriptures this morning that God is not hung up on sticking with the hierarchy. The distribution of God’s word goes to any and all of God’s children. As we study and pray, and put ourselves in the places where ministry takes place, we learn to live with the confidence to share what we have been given. It is not to claim personal glory, but to empower the entire community. We feel the presence of God best when we are in the community of the faithful.
I want to touch one more idea before we move on. I often speak of a “thin reality.” Since I trust in the power and presence of God’s love, I try to always be mindful to listen for “deeper” insights. Our culture is largely driven by profiteers, all sorts of sins can be overlooked as long as we create the illusion of wealth in that system. I call that a thin reality. In the kingdom of God, lasting wealth is built on the power of God’s love, shared without regard to boundaries, membership, ownership or balance sheets.
We can never dismiss the fact that the bills have to be paid. This is a challenge for the Illinois Conference Council when the Conference Operating Budget endured a loss of nearly $1 million dollars last year. We try not to obsess over the measure of dollars and cents. We seek a balance of prudent choices and clear ministry objectives. We trust that when we do God’s Will, God will provide. We begin with what we have and a generous spirit. Generosity inspires generosity. The better job we do of demonstrating God’s love in the wider community, the more God’s love will grow within the community.
This is success as defined in the Kingdom of God. Any church culture can get caught in the trap of thin reality. We can try to redefine our priorities to let the balance sheet tell us where we should turn and what we should do next. We must listen first for the Voice of an Angel, and a message from God. We have to return to our scriptures that tell us time and again what God values. We must be ready to share God’s power and the word of God’s truth that gets put into our mouths. This past week I was in a training learning to be a professional Coach. One the instructors talked about the feeling when “the Jesus in me leaps up to greet the Jesus in you.” I found that a meaningful and powerful image.
So I have a new song that I call, “Living As We Believe.” It is in the form of a power ballad, which seems appropriate.