It’s great to see you again this week. It’s rare for me to have the honor of being up here two weeks in a row – and what a joy it is! Steve, our Senior Pastor, is getting the chance to watch his daughter run at her Cross Country States competition out in Western Massachusetts today. And later today I’ll get to watch my daughter swim at her high school States swimming competition at Harvard, so think of our strong, powerful girls today if it crosses your mind!
Steve, though, will be back up next week with a powerful talk to round out this sermon series. I got a little preview and it’s about both the destructive and saving power of institutions; it’s a good one! As a reminder: one service at 10:30am next Sunday and kids are with us!
Today, I’d love to continue with insights we’ve been sharing in this series called Your Faith Journey at Reservoir. We’ve been highlighting strands of Reservoir’s DNA that ensure an open, Jesus-centered approach to your faith journey. And we are taking a few weeks to talk about this to make sure the ethos of Reservoir—who we are and why we think about faith the way we do —really does shine through.
We’ve realized that it’s valuable to communicate this in a way that doesn’t leave anyone wondering if there is some “catch” attached or trade-off that’s required to feel like you belong in this community (if you want to!)
We hope to communicate that at the baseline, life with Jesus at the center is really, really good news, and it is full of personal invitations and ways to experience that goodness, like spiritual practices. And, as a bonus, your faith journey doesn’t have to be one that you forge alone, but one that you get to share with others in community!
We administered a church-wide survey a few months ago on a Sunday morning with the hopes that we’d get some constructive feedback around where there might be gaps between your desired “needs” and what we were providing, either in services, classes, or other offerings. The survey results revealed some of that—although, certainly not enough voices in that direction to say it was a big theme—but it did reveal that you are mostly a really happy bunch, and that you primarily really value and like each other. You really like being part of this community.
This, too, has been my experience. 16 years or so ago, when we first started coming to services, we orbited around this place pretty hard. Everyone was so kind! And I was so suspicious of this KINDNESS—suspicious that there would be an agenda attached to said niceness, suspicious that there would be a list of “do’s and don’ts” to adhere to, suspicious of the Nutella that was offered at the bagel table in the morning (that was definitely a suspicious , red flag). I was concerned that there was going to be a prescribed way to make sure my own holiness could be formed—a prescriptive way to really belong. Each week I was a little on edge, waiting for the conditions for me to really be welcomed to drop in my seat.
But what we found instead was that the people that make up this community of Reservoir are genuine, don’t put up much of any false front, and are indeed incredibly, suspiciously kind. And so we dared enough to stop orbiting for a second, and land long enough to inspect this kindness at a ground-level, face-to-face. And what we found through so many of you was that we got to meet Jesus face to face.
I think I could shrug at the church survey results and say meh—great. We created this big survey to try to identify our pain points, and instead found out that—surprise—we are all really kind human beings who love and follow Jesus as best we can, and we like each other.
I could look at these survey results and say “Holy Cats!” We are all really nice, kind human beings who love and follow Jesus as best we can, and we love being around each other. And that is really substantial data!
Because here at Reservoir, we don’t have the extra qualifiers, the “do’s and the don’ts”—the set of beliefs to adhere to that allow you to be “really in,” or “really lead,” or “really belong.” What we have though, is Jesus. And we take Jesus pretty seriously! We don’t compromise or divide Jesus! And we also have our unique selves that carry a host of different opinions and perspectives about life, and even on matters of faith—and yet we still want to be around each other!?
I think this survey actually points us to a deeper well of data—that what makes this posture of kindness so piercingly evident is not a result of us all being on the same page about everything, but it’s actually a marker of difference. I know that sounds weird. But I think the kindness you might encounter here in this community is actually a product of an approach we’ve infused into our ethos—one that helps us lean in to one another with goodwill and curiosity even when we disagree. And it’s called the Third Way.
Scott and I both come from faith-filled households. I kept to a lot of the rules-based, FAITH rhetoric that was ingrained in me – at an early age – all the way into my early adult years – without much investigation. By the time Scott and I met – he would have described himself as agnostic – not convinced enough to say that there was no HIGHER power – but convinced enough that perhaps we all should spend more energy on the ground, helping people in the world around us – rather than pontificating/praying/or talking about it…
We had many spirited conversations around faith – in our 3 years of being together before we got engaged. In that time – I would say we both moved fairly substantially in the ways that we thought about God, and imagined what a life journey with Him would look like.
WHen Scott asked for my parents blessing – for us to be married – he talked quite a bit with them, about what a Journey of faith with God, meant to him – that indeed it was more of a journey , more of a relationship – a discovery….. rather than a specific moment in time. My parents probably were more hopeful for the “SPECIFIC MOMENT IN TIME – ANSWER”. This view of salvation – achieved through a very specific prayer – would ensure that someone was definitely “IN” the family of God. .. Because than it would be clearer to grant blessing on a marriage -to-be that was “equally yoked”. (both proven believers).
While my parents framework and the success of their own marriage up to that point – really hinged on a more “sinner’s prayer” type of structure – for true salvation – to “really be in the family of God” – it was meaningful for them to hear of Scott’s open-ness to keep discovering the love of Jesus as he walked along his life.. And understand a bit more of where he was coming from and why….and Likewise meaningful for Scott to hear my parents reasoning for their perspective and belief.
In many ways this face-to-face conversation allowed for a Third Way, where there were differing thoughts about a life with God and the implications of a life with God – would look like. It allowed Scott and my parents a way to not remain in their “Theological” corners – being mystified and judging each other… This THIRD WAY seemed to provide a way forward, even though they didn’t necessarily see eye to eye.
And that really is what the “Third Way” approach tries to help with. It’s an approach to being together in a faith community centered around Jesus. It applies to any disputable matter – over which followers of Jesus, “agree to disagree”. The term was coined by our friend and pastor Ken Wilson, in a letter that he wrote to his congregation ..when they were navigating through the LGBTQ controversy which was proving to be a disputable matter for their community.
It’s worth a moment on what a disputable matter is – and I’ve been helped by theologian, Roger E. Olson – who makes a distinction – to start – between 3 types of biblical beliefs:
DOGMA, DOCTRINE and OPINION.
1- Dogma – is understood as the basics of human faith … statements about who God is and particularly who Jesus is, and his death and resurrection. If you differ on these points, you likely are talking about a different faith than Christianity.
– the other biblical belief is:
2-Doctrine – boils down to what you regard as implications from your dogma. The hot disputes of a given era usually fall into this category. In the example of Scott and my parents.. My parents viewpoint that “Salvation” as a moment in time event – is a key implication of their dogma of who God is. God is perfectly powerful and holy. So my parents believe that we too must achieve such holiness… by saying a specific set of words to prove that holiness. This specific way of salvation- is quite tied to their view of God, to dogma.
*So the key is to see that this viewpoint is tied to my parents dogma, but it is not itself the dogma.. Does that make sense? It’s an implication. It’s doctrine. DOCTRINAL disputes tend to be the things that cause movements or communities of Jesus followers to splinter. It’s why we have 1,000’s and 1,000’s of christian denominations.
And OPINION is everything else. We all have these! Preferences of what makes a good sermon – preferences on what the best worship music is – (while other people have the complete opposite opinion on the same thing!)
And there is nothing wrong with these opinions, even theological opinions – so long as we recognize they’re not doctrine or – DOGMA…and don’t use them as a way to exclude or to harm.
So that helps us – suss out a little more what – A DISPUTABLE MATTER is – that it
Isn’t a matter of Chrsitian dogma,
THat it often brings two biblical (t)ruths into dynamic tension
And otherwise faithful followers of Jesus – disagree over it.
And in some ways I feel like – oh, this is all really helpful – and in other ways I feel like – “oh this get’s pretty complicated, pretty quickly.!”
The disputes of our time are so much more intense and fraught – divisive and woven into all of it are political lines – that affect and harm real people in our midst! How could this THIRD WAY help us in practicality with such huge matters?
I think it’s helpful to go back to the early church timeline and see what followers of Jesus wrestled with….
And I’m going to go back to the earliest version of christian community – BEFORE – the movement of churches springing forth in Acts – to when Jesus called his first disciples.
These earliest followers of Jesus, were an odd collection of humanity that came together. They came together in community to share stories of their lives, to break bread and eat together – and to encourage one another! It sounds so lovely – so straightforward and maybe like a magical era of Christianity? It must have been true that this early era of Christianity was so enraptured by the Jesus that moved and walked among them – that UNITY just naturally outflowed from them?
Did we skip over the part about them being an odd collection of humanity!?
There was a whole lot of difference in the earliest community of Jesus …
The first Twelve followers of Jesus infact – all came from different social backgrounds, they also represented diametrically opposed philosophical and political viewpoints. Matthew, the tax collector was content enough with Roman rule to represent the government in an official capacity. Simon the Zealot, was a member of a group that sought the expulsion of the Romans and the regaining of Jewish independence.
And yet Jesus asked them to become the initial community – the people that would represent and spread more of who Jesus was to others!
And so I think Jesus is giving us a little window into how he regards unity and difference – and perhaps how they are less opposites than we want them to be. . .
It was pretty evident from early on that unity – did not mean the same political views, or that everybody was doing and believing the same thing – singing the same hymns, observing Sabbath, or following the same diet – or reading the same scriptures or telling the same story.
The early followers of Jesus, “YES” put a great emphasis on unity among one another – but they squabbled with one another over what kind of unity they were to have.
Seems clear that even then, different implications of dogma, who they viewed God to be…presented along pretty serious disputable lines… That there was from the very beginning different ways of interpreting the fundamental message – of what following Jesus in our lives should entail – … “What does it mean of our cultural practices? How Jewish are we to be? How Greek are we to be? How do we adapt to the surrounding culture – what is the real meaning of the resurrection of Jesus? How important is the death of Jesus? Maybe it’s the sayings of Jesus that are really the important things….?”
And we see these squabbles continue to play out over time – where diverse groups of individuals and communities – feel so distinct about their way of seeing things – that they’d like everyone else to agree with them.
This is how bounded sets are birthed, right. Bounded sets – where there is a clear “You are in” – or “you are out” criteria. Most often – the ways “in” are from a generous posture. SOmeone has encountered something so good – that they want you to experience it too, just through the exact same steps that they took..
And yet, in that process – what is often overlooked is the way that their particular culture – or political viewpoint, or opinion – become intertwined with God. THat it is now God’s culture, God’s political viewpoint, etc..and that becomes the highest truth.
And that quest for sameness – that picture of UNITY (above all else) – becomes the very catalyst for division.
It wasn’t that long ago that people killed each other over biblical interpretation of baptism. “infant baptism or adult baptism – should we sprinkle, drip or douse…”… and still issues more recent in the church that have been controversial – like
whether and when, remarriage after divorce is accepted, or whether killing in war is the moral equivalent of murder, to what level women in leadership are welcomed – and whether gay marriage is supported or not – ALL of these have been highly disputed matters in faith communities. That still to this day are not resolved.
The apostle Paul, actually has some helpful things to say along the lines of disputable matters. He reflected quite a lot about the difficulties that different cultures have in working through their varying perspectives. “He’s the guy that argued that among Jesus’ most important, most central miracles was “breaking dividing walls” between cultures”… (** Blue Ocean Faith, Dave Schmelzer). . And he writes letters to these diverse churches that have formed – one of them being this church in Corinth…
Here’s what he says in one of his letters, you can read this on your program:
I Corinthians 1:10- 12 (NIV)
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
I follow Paul.. and his way of thinking and speaking of Jesus.
I follow APollos – this Jewish man – who is well versed and eloquent in the scripture.
I follow Cephas – Peter, he lived with and spoke with and ate with Jesus.
I think Paul is saying – “I get it” – I get that you want to follow the particulars of how each of these people depict Jesus. That’s actually ok – Just don’t anchor yourself in this doctrine – don’t see it as immovable dogma. Don’t get violent about it ! OR use your position/opinion as a way to judge others or exclude others from their own view of Jesus’ face.
Because that’s actually what divides Jesus – our stake that we throw in the ground – that we’ll live or die by… versus a more humble posture of .. “well, I’m pretty sure the way Apollos speaks of scripture is the most Jesus-y… than Peter, and I’m going to follow my conscience here – but I’m open to the belief that Peter also knows and speaks of Jesus from his truest vantage point?
Eugene Peterson’s words, in his translation, The Message – of this passage, use a little more direct language – that maybe gets us to the heart of Paul’s message here: “Has the Messiah been chopped up into little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?”
Worded this way – it’s pretty piercing right? It’s worth thinking about where and how we might be doing the chopping? That leads to a pretty splintered picture of Jesus for ourselves and anyone else.
MY STORY continued:
Scott and I got engaged pretty quickly after his conversation with my parents. And equally as quickly set a wedding date for just 3 months away.
Scott’s priest from his childhood church was booked and my childhood church required a fairly extensive pre-marital class, that we wouldn’t have time for – BUT in the state of Maine – you – like here in MA – can get a one-day designation of justice of the peace.
And so we decided to go that route…
We wanted to be thoughtful about who we asked, and ultimately decided to ask my brother if he would marry us. He was at that point contending with which seminary program he would enter into – and so we felt like he would take this role on with a degree of thoughtfulness and reverane.
And he did.
He considered our request.
And then turned us down.
He felt like God wouldn’t bless our marriage – again – revisiting a similar belief that my parents had drawn attention to – that to be a true “believer” there needed to be a declaration on Scott’s end – to this point.
Grrr – I was so mad. And so hurt.
I felt like he was SO WRONG! I mean so, so, so wrong. Not only just made a poor decision – but like FUNDAMENTALLY got Jesus wrong.
And I thought – how will we move forward? How can I look at him every time I see him at holidays – like Thanksgiving and Christmas – and actually care about him?
How can I Bless his pursuits of life – his pursuit of Jesus at seminary and beyond?
The apostle Paul had given a lot of thought to this THird Way approach – even before we read his words in the letter to Corinth. He enjoined the members of the church to “agree to disagree” over disputable matters – which in his time – were likely whether Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, or whether Sabbath observance was obligatory (big deals – because they were the first and fourth commandment issues respectively.)
*”And he called for members of the church to fully accept each other in Jesus, even if some were regarded as gravely mistaken in their beliefs or practices in the disputed matters.
He insisted that they refrain from judging each other, trusting that whatever was on the table – field of concern – was left for God.
And he actually urged them to maintain their respective convictions, honoring those who had differing ones – as long as they were sincerely seeking to move toward Jesus.” – Ken Wilson, *https://www.readthespirit.com/third-way-newsletter/third-way-nutshell-ken-wilson/.
Over the last few decades, I’ve seen controversial issues come not only to my personal, family- life – but into churches – into our community at Reservoir as well….And I’ve seen the value of this Third Way play out. Taking the lead from Paul – and Jesus – it seems we need to err on the side of inclusion – to refrain from judgement – we need to keep people at the table, even in controversial – disputable matters.
The Third Way supports community! Because it doesn’t suggest that we ignore difference … it doesn’t just make a way for those of us who may land on different sides of a disputable matter to hang out in our separate silos and never cross paths.. It actually requires us to enact Jesus’ ministry at it’s purest/most simple form. To invite people – As was true of the first disciples – to share their stories, to share bread with them – and encourage one another … WITH a posture of goodwill and understanding….
I realized with my BROTHER, that I was mostly afraid. Afraid that conflict would blow us up – that I wouldn’t be able to look at him the same way again – Afraid that he would think Scott and I were some sort of false followers of Jesus.
And I couldn’t think of how to sit face to face with him – without this SUBJECT matter (which I clearly thought was JESUS and ME) being discussed, actively. And that we would have to come to the same understanding of what “salvation” and “sin” and “ Jesus” were – before we could truly love each other.
I’ve realized though that the third way doesn’t mean that we have a goal of coming out of a disputable matter BEING ON THE SAME PAGE… I think the pressure to say we have to get to some sort of “agreement” works against really understanding one another. But when we, as people that disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a BETTER understanding of why the other believes what they do – good things come from that and are infused into the fabric of our families and faith communities.
THIS doesn’t come without tension though – because oh, there will be tension.
This is why – I think the kindness of our community – is actually in direct representation of our ability to hold each other’s differences well… because it forces us, in the tension to rely and to trust in the God who speaks and guides. And this releases the pressure on us to be right. And shifts the work to God – where his specialty is to be all powerful and all loving.
My brother and I did not avoid the controversy – but I do think we were both faithful to God through the controversy. There’s ways even today – that I think he probably was wrong in his choice… and I’m sure there’s ways that he would still make that same choice today, and extend NO MORAL APPROVAL for us getting married when we did …. BUT i’m helped by remembering that ….
The gospel – this good news of Jesus – transcends moral approval as the basis for acceptance, belonging, or unity in the Spirit.
As a follower of Jesus – I can see that I am not called to give, demand or receive moral approval from anther.
ANd this is really helpful when I’m sitting at the table with my brother.
We don’t need to seek this approval – because we are all IN Christ – and an undivided CHRIST – who already has received the approval of GOD.
Further along in Corinthians, chapter 3, Paul circles back to the scripture we just read and he says to us:
“ Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Everything is already yours, as a gift – whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all of it is yours, and you belong, already – so don’t divide Jesus in an effort to gain that – rest in the belief that you belong – because you are in union with Christ, who is in union with God. “
And this is what matters, my friends. This is the gift of community at REservoir that you do belong. Already. From the moment you walk in the door – because the table is big enough. God infact is big enough.
Do I BELONG anymore? THis is what bubbled up for me – in this situation with my brother? AM I still accepted – seen in the same way? My brother’s decision and his biblical backing – suggested to me – that I really didn’t belong.. . AND I Could run with that belief – pretty quickly, and start building up walls to protect myself from that perceived ejection. I could have started “writing messages on Facebook or Twitter”, that tells him how WRONG his conscience and theology is. That berates him and judges him for his perceived lack of understanding and breadth of the Scriptures.
But instead, we choose – to sit face to face. And a lot of those questions fell to the sides as I saw the face of Jesus in my brother.
HOW SHOULD WE STAY IN COMMUNITY?
Invite. Engage. Be curious of one another. This seems to be the way in practicality that we stay in community with one another.
FACE TO FACE – gah, could it be true that Jesus’ model of ministry and community – was by being in quality relationships…. Yes quality relationship between unlikely people – and meeting them face to face around a table?
Jesus’ time on earth shows us that he is not afraid to drink and eat! Scholars say that Jesus ate his way through the gospels with these “unlikely people”. Luke’s account in particular either shows Jesus going to a table, at a table, or coming from a table.’ So much so that his enemies accuse him of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ .
It’s in Jesus’ table ministry – that I think we truly learn how to feed one another – and be fed – and that maybe disputable matters are always a course to digest – even where we aren’t accustomed to the taste – in the ones we least expect to learn from…..…
I read something recently that said “Jesus shows us the reality that the pages of the story of Him are filled with [face to face moments] -quiet conversations, with walks in the field, with hands upon weary shoulders, with loving meals around the table. That there were wounds mended, feet that were washed, bread that was broken. And that these moments were as real and powerful and life altering as any tearful worship service prayer. HE absolutely preached on the hillsides and in the towns and in the synagogues – but if that was all he did – we’d have a far shorter New Testament” (Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 99-100). He seemed to have as much reverence for the table as he did the tabernacle”.
Jesus cares about us continuing to meet face to face. Because he cares about us getting the best picture of him possible.
If I demand that someone else think, prefer – interpret or view God in the
particular way that I do- then I splice Jesus – I chop God into tiny pieces that I stamp with my particular brand. AND this move denies the fundamental belief that God was and is a God of the whole world – (not just the world as I see it.)
It takes conscious effort and energy – to build in the trust that the seats at each other’s tables arent’ conditional – aren’t based on agreement, but extended in love. And this is an ongoing work – because we change – our lives and circumstances may suggest different ways of thinking about God – and we have to take the table seriously – so no one is fearful that the chair will be pulled out from under them – as life presents itself.
TURNS out that this does actually hinge on WHAT I BELIEVE about JESUS. … that Jesus sets a big enough table for all of us – ….for the ones that hurt us, the ones who we are convinced are wrong, the ones who may believe that we get Jesus “wrong” ….and trust that the centerpiece of that table is this big – unfractured Jesus. ANd that HE”ll do the great work of making that picture of himself be clear to the people at the table.
THe one who calls people to himself, the one who doesn’t demand that we have the right answer – about anything – EVEN HIM. But the one who shows us again and again that the CENTER OF CHRISTIAN FAITH is not necessarily a book – but A TABLE.
BIG COURAGE & LITTLE COMFORT
As we embrace these big tables. May you ENACT COURAGE. AND VULNERABILITY.as you pull up your chair.
Courage to sit with those we passionately disagree with.
Courage to lean in with a posture of understanding.
Courage to listen and resist the urge to persuade!
It is indeed a heroic effort of vulnerability – I’ve had to sit next to my brother who thinks that my marriage was not acknowledged in the eyes of God – and only with this third way approach – can I gleefully – hold and snuggle his babies – and actively care about his life and his health – and his goals and his overall purpose in God’s kingdom!
It is vulnerable to welcome – and make space for belonging over exclusion.
But I realize that I don’t want to shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. I want to continue to meet face to face with whoever it might be… and rest solidly that the person I might be in controversy with – is still sitting at the mighty, big table of Jesus with me! So that when I meet God face to face some day – our first conversation isn’t about why I kept so many people from the Kingdom of Heaven. (Dave Schmelzer p. 94).
We are a community here – at REservoir – who enjoys being together. (if this Church survey is correct!) Who values this picture of community – a beautiful, motley crew – with wildly different backgrounds and cultures and perspectives and OPINIONS. AND we very much use Jesus’ model this OPEN TABLE invitation ….as the framework, if any of community.
Where people – make it a priority – to gather around tables every week. Where the commonality is not a shared set of perspectives or positions, or a shared conscience … the commonality is that EQUAL WELCOME is FOUND, and BELONGING without contingencies – is apparent.
The 12 disciples experienced something that was so compelling about Jesus – that they would leave their nets and sit around a table together – but still hold on to all their differences – IN THIS I think they were able to see each other fully – face-to-face and in turn see the FULL face of Jesus.
This is the great gift of community.
So I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
May Jesus, himself, be the unifying force, that bridges division and makes way for difference in our lives.
Tip for Whole Life Flourishing
If you find yourself in the tension of differing viewpoints, this week -(MAYBE AROUND THE tHANKSGIVING TABLE) – ask Jesus to help you release the agenda to persuade and embrace the posture of listening and understanding.
Spiritual Practice of the Week:
Reach out to one of the people you named in the question of the day. If you can, reach out in a way that allows for face-to-face connection and invite that person to your table.
This text is the preacher’s prepared text, and is not an exact transcript. Please forgive minor discrepancies that may exist with the recording.