October 26, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Ruth 1:1-9, 16-17, Matthew 22:34-46

Statement of Identity and Purpose

What if this happened to you… What if you were just going through your day, getting things done, moving with the rhythm of routine, when you get confronted by the questions: “In just a few words, who are you? Really. What is your life for?”

Now maybe this question delights your soul and unlocks your creativity. Ooooh. I know! Let me you tell you my life in a haiku. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of question you don’t care for at all. However it makes you feel, I’m pretty sure we have all been asked this at some point. I’m pretty sure these are exactly the questions that will not leave us alone. Who am I? What is my life for…

When I hear this demand, I wish my first response were to come up with a catchy haiku. But honestly, I want to ask, “How is it possible to articulate my life in a few words?” I feel defensive like it’s a test. I feel like there’s a tendency in our culture to reduce everything down to a headline or a top ten list. We want our deepest truth to come in soundbites and elevator speeches, bumper stickers and status updates. How can you take something so massive and nuanced, so complex and holy — like your life— and distill it into one hundred and forty characters? How is this fair? How is this even possible.

Well, this is exactly the challenge we faced last May when our church visioning process reached the point of crafting our Statement of Identity and Purpose, a few words that proclaim who we are and what our life is for. Until this point, most of our visioning process involved gathering and interpreting information. We held small group conversations and interviews with homebound members. People shared their best memories and their brightest hopes for this church. The Visioning Leadership Team poured through pages and pages of notes and formed fourteen statements expressing our identity. Then we had an all-church event in which more ideas were generated and we voted on the fourteen statements, identifying our top seven.

Now on this springtime Saturday, our mission is to take seven provocative proposals and craft a sentence or two that gets Church of Peace exactly right, that anybody could look at and say, “Oh that is so Church of Peace!” And as with any creative process, the further we got into it, the more possibilities emerged. We worked with the image of a rock. Church of Peace is like the cornerstone, or like the firm foundation. We worked with the image of a tree —a church with deep roots and sky-reaching branches.

Nineteen of us sat around tables in Fellowship Hall —engineers and poets, teachers and technicians, and we remembered what we always knew. You just can’t summarize the whole story of our church into a single sentence, but we might find a few words that open a door, a sign that says “You can go in here.” Our task is not to explain the whole of who we are, but to invoke an experience, to invite a person to come and see.

Turns out, we can do a whole lot with a few words, especially when we care more about getting it right than getting it all. You may have heard the famous story rumored to have been authored by Ernest Hemingway. It is exactly six words. It goes: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”[1] For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

So what is Church of Peace, United Church of Christ? Now we have something to say. A sentence that holds an entire story, a commitment announcing who we are and pointing toward what we mean to do.

It’s not a test nor a slogan; it’s much better than that.

When each of us must come to terms with who we are and what our lives are for, we don’t owe anyone a lengthy explanation, an overwhelming assessment of our gifts and goals, or a complicatedly-scored personality inventory. Instead, what might work well is to claim a commitment.

Look, this is who I am. This is what I need to do. We know who we are by who we love.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is teaching in the Temple in the days leading up to his crucifixion. Here he faces questions from groups who are trying to trap him and get him in trouble. Last week, we heard two test questions — the Pharisees ask him about paying taxes to the emperor, and the Sadducees ask him to sort out marital rights in the resurrection.

If you’re keeping score, it’s Jesus two, Sadducees and Pharisees zero. The third question comes today. A Pharisee lawyer thinks he has the perfect test: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Yes there is a right answer, we’ll see if you know it. Yes please Jesus, kindly sum up our whole faith into one sentence. And Jesus doesn’t miss a beat: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Then Jesus comes back at them with a question of his own. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Do you even know who I am… The Pharisees hazard a guess, “Maybe the Messiah is the son of David?” (Now in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is born in the lineage of David.) But Jesus comes back at them, “By the Spirit, David calls him Lord, so how can he be his son?” The Bible says: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any questions.”

Do they even know who Jesus is? Do they even know themselves? I wonder. And I can’t help but wonder if this is why Jesus bothered to take their test in the first place. Maybe it’s not that important that he answers their question correctly; he still gets condemned and killed. But I think it’s very important that Jesus speaks the truth to these Pharisees, and the truth he has to tell them is love.

Of course we know we’re supposed to love God, and each other, and even ourselves. This pair of greatest commandments could seem like instructions to follow, requirements to fulfill. It could seem like Jesus is demanding that we conjure up feelings of love in our heart whether we want to or not. How do you make yourself love someone? How do we begin to love ourselves?

This is where the biblical context is helpful. Often in the Bible, love does not mean generating a feeling of tender affection. Love is something to do; it is the action of claiming commitment. There’s a great Hebrew word for this, chesed which roughly translates as a fervent commitment of loving kindness.

Indeed, this is how Ruth loves Naomi. So in this story what happened was a famine. First Naomi’s husband died, then her two sons died, leaving her with two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. This is when Naomi decides to go back to Bethlehem where she came from, the place where she knew who she was. And very appropriately, she sent her daughters-in-law back to their people. They all wept aloud, and Orpah went home like she was told.

But not Ruth. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God…” (Ruth 1:16).

Look, this is who I am. This is what I need to do, because this is who I love.

When Naomi saw Ruth’s determination, she said no more to her. Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who had no further questions for the Lord.

Now on this Reformation Sunday, we remember that the church of our ancestors emerged out of protest. Ever since, we are reformed and ever-reforming. Today we remember the hymn written for this church nearly twenty years ago. We remember the Statement of Identity and Purpose that we signed and blessed in June. It hangs in the narthex by the door like a sign that says, “You can go in here.”

This Statement is a page in the history of our church, but it will not be our vision forever. It is the commitment we claim, so we know who we are, as this neighborhood changes around us, as members die and move away and new members join.

Like water that carves out the rock, we all experience transition. Our lives are shaped by crises and the changing of circumstances, by cancer, and depression, and falling in love, by starting a new career and finding your family. You might be writing application essays for college, or getting promoted, or getting ready to die. In these most tender times, we all face the questions that go: Who am I? What is my life for?

If this is what the Pharisee lawyer had asked, I think Jesus would have given the same answer. Who we are is love. Love is our dust and our destiny.

Love is our dust and our destiny, what we’re made out of, and what we’re made for.

When we choose to claim love as our authenticity, this is how we know who we are and what we need to do. This is how we know God.

For everyone seeking clarity and asking the holy questions, Who am I? What is my life for? May I suggest this for a Statement of Identity and Purpose…

I will love the LORD our God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength.

I will love my neighbor and my enemy, every terrorist, every little baby, the people in this neighborhood, this changing church… I will love myself.

This love is who we are. Amen.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_sale:_baby_shoes,_never_worn

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