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How High Can We Jump? Living Beyond the Lid

September 30, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2012


James 5: 13-20          Mark 9: 38-50

Over the past five weeks, our readings from the Epistle of James have presented us with a vision of a healthy church. What would a congregation that had absorbed the lessons of the letter look like? They would watch their words, giving careful thought to how they speak with, to and about one another. They would refuse to practice partiality, and would correct imbalances of power within the community; the power of the rich would be checked and the poor would be given an honored place at the table. And not only would words be spoken with care, but wisdom would be found in the practice of peace, gentleness, forgiveness and shared work, for faith without works is nothing but a dead corpse. For the church that is truly alive cultivates virtue, works through conflict, upholds justice (for the poor among them and the poor around them) and would rather suffer with and for one another rather than be divided from one another. In these final verses, through its very practice of prayer, the church demonstrates God’s in-breaking reign as it fosters relationships of dignity and equality among people.

In the gospel of Mark we have a salty church; a courageous church; an assembly of Christ followers who are unfraid to stand up for what they believe.  Who don’t hide themselves from the world, but bring themselves, and God’s desire for justice and well-being, alive into our world.  They are pungent, identifiable, they are out and they stand out in their community, because they witness to God’s love and God’s covenant desire for us to love one another.

A counter image to both James’ vision of a healthy church and Mark’s vision of a courageous church was captured in a short video that I saw for the first time this past week. It is called Training Fleas and was made available on YouTube about five years ago [you can watch it here]. In the video, an announcer says: “Training fleas is really very easy. All you need is a glass jar with a lid. The fleas are placed inside the jar and the lid is then sealed.” At this point, most viewers will gasp and urge the announcer to ‘hurry up’ and put the lid on, as the fleas are quite visibly beginning to jump out of the jar. A flea’s capacity for jumping is really quite astounding. For their size, a flea can jump the equivalent of a human jumping 900 feet in the air. In the video, the announcer then places the lid on the jar and walks away.

After a screen wipe, he continues: “The fleas are left undisturbed for three days. Then when the jar is opened, the fleas will not jump out. In fact, the fleas will never jump higher than the level set by the lid. Their behavior is now set for the rest of their lives.” At this point the glass jar disappears, and the fleas continue to jump within the set confines of the now missing jar, as we are told: “And, when these fleas reproduce, their offspring will automatically follow their example.”

The video was originally a commercial and ended with the tag:

Escape the circus and live beyond the imaginary lid.

It is discomforting to think about the implications for the church. We don’t like to think of ourselves as so set in our behavior that we can’t move outside the confines of our old habits and ways of doing things within the congregation; that we won’t or don’t notice that the jar is gone, the world has changed, the tomb is opened and God has freed us from these old patterns!

The behavior of the fleas is set for life – unless they are disturbed and their habits interrupted. In this there is hope. We claim to follow a Christ who not only comforts the afflicted, but who afflicts the comfortable. We come to worship not only for comfort and strength, but so that God can disturb and disrupt us, and send us back out to the world that God so loves. Making a difference in the world means going outside our doors.  So the change we experience isn’t only in how we treat one another within the congregation, it is about how we move out into the world and live as followers of Christ.

Both James and Mark urge their congregations to “live beyond the imaginary lid.” James does this by encouraging the congregation to demonstrate in its own life together, the covenant values of love, justice, mutuality, truth-telling, and care.  Mark urges Christ-following congregations to “live beyond the imaginary lid” by getting out into the world – a world of controversy, violence, injustice, economic hardship, and uncertainty, where tough decisions must be made.  Don’t play games inside the church or outside in your witness within the community.  Don’t go around and around in circles.  Don’t waste your energy on that which doesn’t build up love.  Both James and Mark are congregational “re-trainers” reminding us that God has already broken the jar in which we have been living; through God’s grace we are freed for new life and a new way of living.  James, therefore, urges us to venture deeper in our congregational relationships and Mark urges us to venture outward in partnership and mission for the sake of the world.

How do we see this change, this new life of freedom and justice and love, being made visible within the life of our congregation as well as outside in our life in the wider world? Here are a few examples within our congregation:

Yesterday your church council went away on retreat. They spent five hours with other leaders in our presbytery to talk about the dynamics of congregational change, the anxiety produced during times of change, and both unhealthy and healthy ways of dealing with change. Keep us in your prayers as we try to put what we learned into practice.

Last spring eleven members of this congregation attended a conference sponsored by GreenFaith, an interfaith organization dedicated to inspiring, educating and mobilizing people of diverse religious backgrounds for environmental leadership. In the past six months, four commissions and the Council have had conversations about what it would mean for us as a congregation to make a commitment to greening our life together, bringing a commitment to earth care to every aspect of our church life (worship, education, mission and outreach, facilities management) as well as into our homes. We are now looking for those who would be interested in serving on a Green Team to oversee this work. Is that you?

This past year the Stewardship Team has incorporated Faith Sharing as a regular part of our worship of God. At least monthly, a member of this church has stood up to share an experience of growth in their faith (Leslie and Phyllis and Norma), a word of appreciation for the care of this community (remember Kelly), or a profound experience of God’s justice at work in the world (recall Will’s participation in the 6 day fast for justice with farmworkers from Immokalee). Each of you, I know, has a story to share. Could the Spirit be nudging you to share next?

And how about outside these doors? Where have we brought our salty witness?

In response to the gun violence and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the past two months, your pastors felt compelled to speak out against the bigotry in letters, sermons and the media; your Church Council offered our church house as an alternate site for a press conference condemning the Islamophobic adds placed in our Metro-North train stations; and when a federal judge ruled this week that Metro-North could not refuse to run a new inslamophobic ad, our church Council put our money where our mouth is and contributed funds to an alternative ad (which will soon appear in our train stations) stating simply: “Love your Muslim neighbor.”

Next week, on World Communion Sunday, as we celebrate the unity and diversity in the body of Christ, we will be joined by a young Muslim woman who is coming to experience Christian worship for the first time. She will stay afterwards to share with our adult education class what it is like to be a young Muslim woman in the United States. This is part of our commitment to not just talk about Muslims but to talk with Muslims.

Last Spring, as a way of remembering and honoring the late Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to caring for the earth and empowering women, our Mission Commission led us into a partnership with the White Plains School District. As part of that partnership we helped plant trees at two public school, sharing the shovels with school children who had read books and written reports and who had given speeches to their classmates about Dr. Maathai. This past Tuesday, Mike Doehring and I helped nine Sisters of Divine Compassion and several high school students plant third “Wangari” tree across the street at Good Counsel High School, a parochial school. This kind of partnership will continue for years to come.

Where else? The summer garden project which our church school children tended in Sara and Will’s backyard is now part of a partnership with the White Plains Youth Bureau; we have renewed our membership in Bread for the World, a national, ecumenical anti-hunger advocacy group which will ensure that even as we continue to meet the emergency needs of our neighbors through contributions to the food pantry, we will also address the systemic problems that make people hungry by lobbying our senators and representatives on relevant legislation; Rev. Henkel is forming worship teams to visit and worship with the two congregations who rent space in our building, Alianza Christian Fellowship and Westchester Community Bible Church, and they in turn are forming teams to worship with us; members of the Westchester Historical Society will worship with us on our next Heritage Sunday in October, and I hope we will return the gesture by attending the remembrance of the Battle of White Plains later that same afternoon at the Jacob Purdy House; Rev. Damico is going to invite us again this morning to use our power as consumers urge Chipotle Mexican Grill to ensure justice for Florida Farmworkers.

James and Mark invite us to “live beyond the lid.”  This is not something that happens over night, but over time.  It takes conscientious retraining and commitment by us.  But it is something that’s happening, right now before our very eyes within our congregation and beyond its walls.  So trusting that God has set us free, the question now is simply, how high can we jump?

Let us stand an sing our commitment with Hymn 369: I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me.

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