Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical

"Great Gathering Sunday"

I was catching up on FCS sermons online, and I loved the "Great Gathering Sunday" one -- which Molly and Laura Ruth co-preached, Molly's first Sunday back from a three-month sabbatical.

Molly talked about a church camp she attended one week during her sabbatical.
The conference was called “Running the Good Race,” and took as its heart the very scripture we are breaking open today. Naturally, the youth who signed up for it were all very athletic, and expected that they would be spending plenty of time outside, running relays, leaping tall buildings, choosing sides for teams, sweating and burning carbs. The problem is, they got me for a leader. The city girl. Gym in my high school consisted of walking the halls in shorts and combat boots. What crazy person named this conference Running the Good Race? Well, I did actually. I didn’t think they would take me so literally.

I had intended for the conference to be about competition and cooperation as elements of the Christian spiritual life. Does God want us to ‘be our best’? What does Jesus think about cliques and competition, about turning the world into winners and losers? I wanted to explore this with them, because I well remembered what it was like to be 12 or 13 myself—painfully so—and wanted the kids to learn that God had a plan for them, and that God and Jesus evaluate their progress by very different criteria than their peers do, or their coaches, or even their parents and teachers.

I wanted to set them up to get out of the race entirely, so to speak. But this group of kids changed the game on me—when we began to talk about the scripture, they quickly noticed that it didn’t say you should win the race, and it also doesn’t say you should get out of it—it says, what? You should FINISH the race. Just this week I heard about a woman in our church who was on her high school track team. She came in last, every event, every week. And she didn’t care. She didn’t play to compete with others. She played to beat her own time. And often she did. She knew intuitively what Paul meant, when he said he has finished the race.
Molly went on to talk about how one of her goals for sabbatical was to learn how to swim, and with the help of a personal trainer, she did. And then she went to church camp. And there was swim-time every day. And she expected the kids to keep to their cliques, because that's what middle schoolers do. Only they didn't.
Everyone piled into the water, and I started doing my laps, freestyle, breast stroke, back stroke, freestyle. And the kids, who had been in twos and threes, began to come together into fours and fives, and into eights and nines, and finally, finally, all 23 middle-school youth were in the shallow end, together, playing a game of volleyball, every single one of them. Perfect participation. It was only Monday, and already they had figured out how everybody could win.

So may all your people, from all the ends of earth, be gathered into one in You.

My son Rafe and I were the only ones who were not playing with the youth. I was doing my laps, and Rafe was being Rafe in the deep end, until he decided he’d rather be Rafe in the shallow end, and since I was his buddy I had to go with him. I walked down the dock past the volleyball game, agog at this miraculous display of unity and cooperation that had not in any way been mandated by adults; I stared at the girls I’d thought were snobby and the overweight boy, the cool kids and the bookworms, marveling, and then something even more remarkable happened.

They asked me to play with them.

I murmured the automatic response, “Oh no, you don’t want me, I’m terrible, a definite liability.” And they wouldn’t let me be, until I stepped into the game. They made me serve, a lot. And when the ball made it over the imaginary center line, they all cheered, and slapped me on the back, and when I accidentally spiked it into the head of a girl in front of me, they commiserated, and gave me a second try, and no one kept score. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The minister shall be ministered to, and the snob and the nerd shall play volleyball together.

It was holy. And it was FUN.

How often do we hold ourselves outside of things, because we’re afraid if we get into the middle, we’ll be the weak link? We’ll be the reason why it fails? Isn’t it just better to avoid any risk of failure, even if it means withholding from ourselves the joy of belonging?

A few days later, we did an exercise in deep sharing with the youth. Each person in the circle told of a time when they’d been excluded. They told heartbreaking stories of family trauma, of feuds with best friend. And when it was my turn, I was all set to tell my standard story of the gorgeous, popular girl in junior high making me miserable with her bullying. And instead, God said to me, “don’t tell that one. You don’t need to tell that one this time. Tell them instead about how you excluded yourself, for so many years. Tell them how you told yourself for 3 decades that you weren’t an athlete. Then tell them what they have done to change that, by their kindness and their love.” So I told them.

We cast ourselves into roles, sometimes when we are very very young, and then find it darned hard to get out of them. We are the deciders in our own lives, and we decide ourselves into a corner. But God keeps giving us a way out of that corner. God puts the right person into our path, the right volleyball game, and before we know it, we are playing. The indwelling Christ, who has been living in our hearts all along, sees the opening, and takes it.

Even if it’s taken you 30 years to do it: you can change the game, you can rewrite the rules of the race; you can get off the bench and into the running, not to compete, but to feel the exhilaration of being part of something bigger and beautiful, to live up to not just our human potential but our Godly potential. God is waiting to set us free, because we are meant for freedom. One day, as Rafe and I were walking up from Davis Square, I suddenly started to run, out of sheer giddiness. My son, not used to displays of spontaneous exertion from me, started jogging along beside me, his face filled with light. “Mom!” he panted. “Mom! Why…are…we…running? Why…are…we…running, Mom? Is…it…for…the…feeling…of…freedom?”

What a terrible thing, to live your whole life without that feeling of freedom.

The good news is, you are not the person you think you are. You are the person God thinks you are.
She closed with reflecting on the phrase, "I have fought the good fight."
So I have finished the race, and you have kept the faith. There is one more phrase here that God is turning our minds to, the first one: I have fought the good fight. What is the good fight? How is it even appropriate for Christians to talk about a fight, we who are supposed to be people of peace?

Whenever I am stumped about what some part of the Bible might be trying to say, I go right back to the Gospels to see what Jesus was actually doing, and how it might shed light on the rest of the Bible. In this case, I think about the fights that Jesus fought. Every one of the fights that he fought were for somebody else. When there was a fight about him, he didn’t fight—he’d change the subject, or he’d disappear from their midst, or even allow himself to be crucified, rather than fight.

Laura Ruth: But he fought plenty of fights on behalf of others, people in no position to fight for themselves. He fought for the blind, the lame, the poor, for those in prison. He fought for women and he fought for children, he fought for the chronically ill and the mentally ill, and he fought for immigrants from other countries. He fought to keep some things sacred, like the Temple, so that God wouldn’t die on the altar of capitalism.

Molly: The race we race is fundamentally for ourselves. We do it to develop endurance, to build muscle, to feel the feeling of freedom and belonging. But it has a higher purpose. The muscle it builds, God means us to use in the service of others. Because of the gift of sabbatical and the people who were in it, I am now a swimmer who can perhaps save my own life, and, more importantly, may be called upon someday to save someone else’s.

Laura Ruth: The good fight is a fight to be fought for others. Church, it is fall, a time of fresh energy and commitments. What will we do this year? What fights will we fight so that others may be free? We can’t fight every good fight, but what if we fought a couple fights, really well? Can you imagine, if this year every single person in this sanctuary committed their spiritual strength to fight ONE fight that Jesus would have fought? What kind of power will we unleash, if we have perfect commitment, perfect participation, in unleashing the reign of God in this world?

How often do we hold ourselves outside of things, because we’re afraid if we get into the middle, we’ll be the weak link? We’ll be the reason why it fails? Isn’t it just better to avoid any risk of failure, even if it means withholding from ourselves the joy of belonging?

This resonated with me a lot. I recurrently get really avoidant -- not wanting to do any of the things I'm supposed to be doing -- and it's been worse this year than usual, and I was telling my best friend earlier this week ('cause I was really feeling it on Monday) that part of that is a fear of doing it wrong, of upsetting/disappointing people, of failing to live up to expectations, of showing people that I'm not actually as awesome as they think I am/I would like to be.

(I am also a really risk-averse person and want Molly's personal trainer to teach me to swim.)

The good news is, you are not the person you think you are. You are the person God thinks you are.

I talk a lot about how each one of us is a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God (and you are beautiful to behold), but I'm not so good at TRUSTING in God (see above re: risk-averse). "Stubborn, independent baby -- I can do it myself, maybe," to quote a poem my mother wrote about me when I was small. I freely admit that believe in a benevolent Creator because I want that to be true, that I want someone I can hand all of my prayers over to -- but I still hold so very fast to controlling my own life.

I appreciate the reminder that God loves us and wants us to be free.

I also really like the emphasis on the fact that we are called to be strong for those who cannot be strong for themselves.

The muscle it builds, God means us to use in the service of others.
Tags: religion: christianity

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