[This sermon was
presented at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Worship
Service in Cincinnati, Ohio, on the evening of July 6, 2018. It
was live streamed and the sermon was projected as the Sunday morning
sermon at Creekside on Sunday, July 8, 2018.]
Good evening, sisters
and brothers. I hope you can indulge me in a few words of thanks.
First to Brother Enten Eller who is doing all of the live-streaming
from Annual Conference. I am one of only two people who can call
him Brother Enten in a strictly biological sense: we are children
of the same parents, Vernard and Phyllis. Enten is 20 months older
than I am; we have been competing for air time for more than 50
years, so it’s especially gracious of him to facilitate this
message tonight. I’d also like to thank friends from N. Indiana
District and Creekside Church who have made the trip here, and those
who have been holding me and this message in prayer.
Creekside is a small
-- or not-so-small, depending on your perspective -- congregation:
Sunday worship is typically 75-80 people. I want to tell you about
a few folks who are part of my church. I won’t be using their
actual names, in part because they are modest and I want to provide
them a bit of cover, but I hope that you will also recognize people
like them in your own congregations. Darren started coming to Creekside
about 4 ½ years ago. No one invited him, he just slipped
in quietly one Sunday in January, and kind of melted away after
the service. Like snow in January, he was back the next Sunday and
fortunately for us, almost every Sunday after that. Darren was pleasant,
but quiet. We learned that he was not really a new friend, but an
old one: he had grown up at our previous iteration as Elkhart City
Church, left as a young man and returned decades later after some
challenging life experiences. Darren attended for a few months before
we figured out his gift: Creekside was hosting a district-wide auction
for Nigeria Crisis Relief and we had rented a huge tent which was
set up outside on the lawn. We put out a call for folks to come
on Friday evening and move chairs out to the tent for the auction.
Darren was the first to show up and one of the last to leave. But
we knew he was something special when he returned unasked early
on Saturday morning and started moving all the chairs back inside,
because it pouring rain. It rained all day. We never did use that
tent. Darren has served us in many ways since then, but never as
a worship leader or in the choir or in planning worship.
Renee, on the other hand,
plays a regular role in our worship services. Renee is someone who
creates harmony -- not only because she has a beautiful alto voice
and is a skilled pianist who knows a wide repertoire of traditional
and contemporary music, but things just seem to go better when she
is involved in them--not just because of her preparation and attention
to detail and hard work, but because of her spirit. Not only has
she has never been unkind to me, I have never heard her say an unkind
word about anyone. Emails and conversations with Renee nearly always
end with a word of blessing from her: enjoy this beautiful day;
take care of the heart of you; or wishing you peace for your spirit.
I’m telling you
about Darren and Renee because of a Greek prefix. You’re probably
familiar with it -- you certainly are if you’ve had joint
replacement surgery or paid for braces for yours or someone else’s
teeth. The prefix is “ortho,” and it means “right,”
in the sense of “correct.” It’s important to note
that “ortho” is never self-referential: it implies correct
alignment with an ideal standard beyond ourselves: this is true
of orthopedics and orthodontia, where bones and teeth are aligned,
as much as possible, to an external standard for optimum strength
and function. This idea of an external standard also applies to
other orth- words. In church settings we might talk about ortho-doxy,
which right-belief or right opinion. This too is alignment with
a standard beyond ourselves: right belief is not the same as believing
Brethren have historically
been suspicious of orthodoxy. The Brethren movement was birthed
at a time when Christianity was focused on establishing orthodoxy
by forcing folks to subscribe to creeds: making them say what they
believed, so that the unorthodox could be weeded out and punished.
Some members of the Christian family have “orthodox”
built right into their names -- Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox
churches -- but as far as I know, there is not a single Orthodox
Church of the Brethren.
Brethren tend to be more
comfortable with orthopraxis -- that is, right practice or right
behavior. We love service organizations, disaster relief, work camps
and other ways to put our faith into action. We have taglines which
say we practice another way of living, and that we’re continuing
the work of Jesus.
I’m not here to
disparage either orthodoxy or orthopraxis, but I would like to invite
a third member to be in harmony with this duet. It’s an ortho
which I’ve heard less about, but which we cannot afford to
neglect. It is orthopathy, right emotion, or right feeling. Again,
right feeling is not the same as feeling that I’m right: orthopathy
is right disposition in relation to God, which is bound to have
some effect on our relationship to other people. I like to think
of it as having our hearts in the right place. And here’s
why I think we need to scoot over in the pew and make room for orthopathy,
and invite orthopathy to sit at our delegate tables and in worship
here at Annual Conference: it’s because of this parable which
you heard read tonight. Feel free to turn to Luke 18 if you have
your Bible with you.
It’s a parable
which Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Pharisees
were not bad people -- on the contrary, they were the keepers of
orthodoxy and orthopraxis for the Jews; a responsibility which the
Pharisees took very seriously. The Pharisee in our parable is no
exception; he is better at orthodoxy and orthopraxis than other
people, and he’s willing to remind God of this, just in case
God had lost track: the Pharisee thanks God that he’s not
like other people -- especially that tax collector -- and goes on
to list his orthopraxis of fasting and tithing. Impressive. Surely
this parable is not suggesting that orthopraxis is wrong, or even
unimportant. But where our Pharisee has shot wide of the mark is
orthopathy: his heart is not in the right place. How do we know
this? Because of the way he talks about his neighbor. The tax collector
is a fellow Jew: he wouldn’t be allowed in the temple otherwise.
Then as now, tax collectors were not universally beloved. He may
have been a Jew, but a tax collector worked for the Roman occupiers
and he probably did quite well for himself, too, at the expense
of hard-working Jews. That kind of collusion was despicable. And
yet. And yet, it is the tax collector who is justified, and not
the Pharisee. Why is that? Orthopathy. The tax collector understands
the correct relationship to God: Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner;
his heart is in the right place.
Worship begins when our
hearts in the right place; and if our hearts are in the right place,
worship never ends. Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Christianity
is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined
in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” Worship
includes orthodoxy and orthopraxis, but it begins with orthopathy.
Even if f we believe the right things and say the right things and
fast and tithe, if we sneer at our neighbors or belittle them in
the temple or in the parking lot or on social media, we are not
justified. We have not rightly embodied this parable or the words
of Jesus Christ.
I grew up in a household
which had more Bibles than people -- by at least a factor of 2.
If my family had ever been called upon to swear on a stack of Bibles
-- we would have affirmed, but we’d have been equipped. I
sat and “read” the Bible before I could read, and my
second-favorite Bible was the one which had the words of Jesus in
red letters. I was fascinated by how the first two-thirds of the
book was black text, then there was a smattering of red, and then
suddenly there’d be pages and pages which were almost entirely
red: Mathew chapters 5-7, John 14-17, and Luke 11-19, which includes
About the same time as
those pre-reading days, there was a series of jokes going around.
They all began with the same question: What’s black and white
and red all over?” Answers included an embarrassed zebra,
a penguin with a sunburn, and a man in a tuxedo who has forgotten
his dress shoes -- you get the idea. There was a tricky answer which
was a telephone book: because it was black and white and read all
over. Get it? (If you don’t know what a telephone book is,
ask someone over 30) I thought of that question as I contemplated
this theme of Living Parables. If we are embodying the words of
Jesus and allowing ourselves to be shaped and brought into correct
alignment with the Bible, than our lives are the red-letter edition,
and we are an open book for our neighbors to read. A living parable
is someone who is black and white and read all over.
Before you decide to
applaud or condemn my characterization of the Bible as black and
white, let me say a bit more about what I mean by that. In the ancient
tradition, scholars characterized the holy writings as black and
white. The letters on the page were black, and the white within
and around the letters was the space where the Spirit could move.
We must have both letter and Spirit if we are to be living parables.
If you take a page of type and condense it so that there is no space
between the letters, you will have a text which is illegible, unreadable.
If you take a page of type and make it so expansive that it’s
just a white page with a few marks, it will be unintelligible, meaningless.
My favorite Bible as a child was the Good News Bible which included
the spare and graceful line art by Annie Vallatton. It takes skill
to bring an image to life with line and space--I know, I’ve
tried -- but It is only by thoughtful and artful practice that we
achieve a balance of letter and Spirit so that the Word will truly
live in us and be read all over.
I want to end by going
back to Darren and Renee. You remember Darren and Renee, right?
Two years ago November, a man came to the door of the church early
on a Tuesday morning. He was clearly distressed -- he was so embarrassed
and tongue-tied that he finally handed me a piece of paper on which
he had written the details of his situation. He was supporting his
wife and two teenage daughters, as well as his parents who were
seasonal farm workers who had just moved in with him at the end
of the season. He had recently lost his job, and that morning his
wife told him to leave and not come back until he could support
his family. He liked landscaping: was there anything, anything at
all that he could do at the church to earn enough money to go back
home? I wasn’t sure -- I knew the lawn didn’t have to
be mowed in November--but I called our Property Team chair, and
soon afterward Darren arrived. I knew it would be OK. Darren worked
alongside this man for the rest of the day. I don’t think
they talked much; I’m pretty sure that orthodoxy never came
up in the conversation, but in the manner of guys doing physical
work outside together on a cold day, they were in fellowship by
the time I took lunch out to them. They certainly got a lot done.
Was that worship? I believe it gave witness to continuing the work
of Jesus in a genuine and unselfconscious way. Darren was read all
over whether he realized it or not.
I got a call from Renee
last year, also in November. I wish I had saved the voice mail she
left, but this is nearly word for word what she said, “Hi
Rosanna! I found a song that I think we could use for Christmas
Eve. I can play it and sing; it picks up the theme of Incarnation
that we’ve been talking about, and I think it would be perfect.
I’m leaving soon to come for Worship Team; I’m going
to stop at Starbucks on the way. Can I get you anything?”
There is so much that’s right about that I hardly know where
to start. I’m not saying that having your heart in the right
place means you have to buy coffee for your pastor -- maybe your
pastor doesn’t like coffee -- but worship is more than finding
the right music; worship is even more than being able to play and
sing the right music; worship is letter and Spirit and grace. Worship
is having our hearts in the right place so that the words of Jesus
live in us and we are black and white and read all over.
Sisters and brothers,
we have the opportunity -- the responsibility -- to be living parables
as we worship this evening, as we discern and discuss and deliberate
for the rest of this Conference, and as we leave this place and
encounter the strangers and friends whom God places in our path.
May God bless you and keep you as we bless the Lord and bless one