Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sermon: "(NOT AN) Accidental Christian"

"(NOT AN) Accidental Christian"

Preached at: South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Third Sunday in Easter
14 April 2013

Day Texts: Acts 9.1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5.11-14
Luke 21.1-19

-This is one of those week’s I’m really thankful that the Bible is not just a rule book, or a formula for being “a good person.”  Because just think of the absurdities that would come of it!  “If you want a really good fish fry with Jesus, then do the following: 

  1. Stay up all night fishing and utterly fail to catch anything.  
  2. Perform A) while naked with your friends.  
  3. Get dressed before swimming to shore when Jesus shows up.”

-Yikes.  Incidentally, I’m totally intrigued by the fact that Peter starts off naked, but then, strangely, puts his clothes back on in order to swim to shore.  And then he totally goes into Beast Mode.  Swimming all the way to shore - in his clothes! - and then, when the boat arrives, he somehow hauls ashore a net filled with large fish.  By himself.  A net that the others couldn’t budge together.  

-This is the same Peter who, as you may recall, who earlier in his career as disciple-least-likely-to-succeed, tries walking on water.  And sinks.  The same Peter who is told “get behind me Satan!”  The same Peter who, only days earlier, had betrayed his Lord and friend, not once or twice, but three times.  

-Maybe the truly offensive thing about taking this passage as a formula for redemption would run more like this:
  1. Utterly fail.
  2. Be completely unworthy.
  3. Be called again by Jesus to feed His sheep.
-That’s far more offensive than a little nudity on the sea.  As offensive as our other star today, St. Paul, being called as the apostle to the Gentiles.  In spite of being a mass murdering jihadist for the Jewish authorities.  In spite of being, well, kind of an asshole, even after he is blinded and restored to sight.  

-But see, that’s the God we have.  And that’s the Church God’s called.  Murderers like Paul.  Cowards like Peter.  Doubters like Thomas.  Power-mongers like the Sons of Zebedee.  This little boat of fishers is a veritable rogues gallery of rejects.  This little boat is the first in God’s fishing fleet, the church.

-That’s offensive.  And so often, we are right to take offense at this completely insane experiment called “church.”  Because even a cursory glimpse at even the most favorable volume of church history reveals a deeply troubling prospect.  We don’t need to - nor could we - recount the vast litany of utter depravity and horrible attrocities committed by the sheep of Jesus and Peter.  The sex abuse scandals.  Murder of heretics.  Interdenominational warfare, whether physical or theological.  Exclusion, enslavement, exploitation, subjugation and violence.  Makes people’s claims today that the church is “hypocritical” kind of look like little foibles comparatively. 

-There is no denying that the church is messed up.  And let me be clear: none of this is right.  The church needs to be held accountable.  WE need to be held accountable.  And the church needs to repent and be saved.  The gates of hell may never prevail against it.  But they sure as hell seem to have scaled the walls and set fire the peasant villages.

-And yet, I’m kind of tired of apologizing for the church.  I’m tired of hearing sermons that start out with promises like, “we all know that THOSE OTHER Christians (usually conservative and evangelical) are hateful, but WE are not like them,” or, “unlike some OTHER liberals, WE are biblical and orthodox;” or “if only THEY knew how to be open and accepting and progressive.  Just like US.”

-See, I’m tired of Christians acting like, somehow, we’re any better than Peter and Paul.  Sick of somehow trying to distance ourselves from people who do really awful things.  Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we aren’t that different.  We may not have the power or influence to cause damage on such massive scales.  But last time I checked, we were all sinners.  Last time I checked, that’s what makes it the church.

-Last time I checked, Jesus calls complete assholes, like Peter, and Paul, because Christ came to save sinners.  And too often, we set ourselves up as somehow distinct and separate from our brothers and sisters in Christ, almost always, based on some standard we have invented.  We read a few issues of Sojourners or Brian McLaren, and suddenly, we are experts on who is not socially active enough, or who is more judgmental than we are.  We go to a few Bible studies, and suddenly, we know that our conservative or liberal opponents somehow are way off, and that only WE have the right answer.

-In our rush to somehow maintain an image of the church or of ourselves that makes us look “not like those people,” I think we miss out on so much more. We miss out on the Gospel.  And on our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Even if their names are Fred Phelps, or Julius II, or Ted Haggard.  Or Matthew Nickoloff.  Or you.

-See, it makes me think of that recent country song by Brad Paisley that’s caused such a stir lately.  It’s called “Accidental Racist,” and in it, Paisley sings a duet with rap artist LL Cool J, trying to convince his black conversation partner that, no matter what his confederate flag t-shirt meant a century ago, today, it’s just a sign of southern pride.  Absurdly, Cool J responds, “if you forgive my gold chains, I’ll forgive the iron chains.”  Pretty good deal for Paisley.

-But the song is about distancing.  Paisley can distance himself, not only from facing his own racism, but also from the failures of his family and people in the past, claiming, “I’m not THAT kind of Southerner.  If my t-shirt makes you feel oppressed, it’s your problem. I’m only accidentally racist.”

-And see, whether we admit or not, I think the church is like that too.  “We’re only ‘accidentally‘ church, but forgive us for having crappy ancestors, and we’ll let you off the hook of the Gospel.”  Or, "we're not that kind of Christian.  We love Jesus, but we're only accidentally associated with his followers."    

-But brothers and sisters, we are not accidentally Christian, anymore than we are not accidentally racist, hypocritical, bloodthirsty, or, in a word, sinners.  This is the Church.  Love him or hate him, Fred Phelps and his bigoted Kansas posse are our brothers and sisters.  We cannot say “we’re not THAT kind of church.”  We are.  There is only one church.  And it is the communion of saints.  Who also happen to be lousy sinners.

-We would not be here tonight if you were not a lousy sinner too.  If we weren’t aware, at some level, of our deep need for a word of grace and forgiveness, for a force bigger than ourselves to save us from ourselves.  Trust me, I wouldn’t be here, and neither would you, on this little ship of fools, taking us to the island of misfit toys, unless I was eff’d up.  Unless I was like Peter.  Or Paul.  Or Freddie.

-But Peter, and Paul, and Fred Phelps too, are the reason Christ has come.  Christ lived among them, making them his friends.  Christ died, at their hands and by their failures, and Christ died, descended into hell, and rose again, in order to call them to receive the promise and the truth. The truth that, as Paul would later write in Romans, that “Christ died to save sinners.”  And to make us into something new.

-I’m not ashamed of the church, though often, I am ashamed of her actions.  But the only way the Gospel of Jesus Christ truly is good news is if the church is in fact made up, not of those who have by their own efforts and virtue achieved some form of enlightenment.  It only works if its the church of Peter and Paul.  If its a church of sinners.  But sinners in the hands of a gracious God.

-And just look at what this God can do.  He can take the murderer, Paul, and take someone bent on ethnic cleansing and purification, and use him to be the chief apostle to the Gentiles, the outsiders, and as passionate an advocate for radical inclusion as has ever been seen.  

-And God can take Peter.  Let’s hear Peter’s story again.  Peter is naked on the boat.  And he hear’s Jesus voice.  And he realizes he is naked.  Sound familiar?  Like that first man, that first sinner, Adam, God’s call makes him aware of his vulnerability and imperfection.  Yet, this time, Peter is not ashamed or afraid.  Yes, he still gets dressed to swim ashore, but this time, when God calls, Peter responds.  Urgently, eagerly.  The barrier of shame between God and humanity is slipping away.

-And remember, the last time Peter jumped in the water after Jesus, he sank.  Now he is an olympic caliber swimmer.  The failures that terrified and embarassed Peter are gone.  This is a new man, no longer in need of miracles or looking to impress Jesus and the others.  He just swims.  Enters the waters.  All the way to Jesus.

-And then, of course, the end of the story.  When Jesus asks Peter three times to profess his love.  Mirroring three times of denial.  Restoring Peter to relationship.  Not ignoring the failures and the faults of the past.  But, it almost seems, stripping him naked spiritually, so that, facing his failures and faults so un-judged and named and then transformed, Peter is recognized as fit to feed the sheep.  Because, as my mentor Nadia preached at my ordination, “only a forgiven sinner can preach the Gospel.”  And care for broken too.

-That’s who we are.  Peter’s story is our story.  Sinners, lost on the waters, called in spite of our utter unworthiness, to face the Love of Jesus, and so be made fit to feed the lambs of the world.  The church may never live up to its billing if we are waiting for it to become perfect.  But if we are looking for it to be a place where broken things are being made new, well, then its good news.  Then grace is true.  Then, we can have hope.

-So go.  Be sinners.  Let us face our nakedness and shame and failures.  And yes, let us claim even the most horrific bastards in God’s family and the greatest brokenness we’ve perpetrated.  Let us not accept them as the final word.  But let us see them as the promise that, indeed, none of us, no human being, is accidentally beloved of God.  

-That’s the church we have.  You are that kind of Christian.  That’s the naked, offensive truth.  And that’s hard.  But it’s also really, very, truly, Good News.   


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sermon: "The End of the Binge, or, Jesus is My Time-Lord and Savior"

"The End of the Binge, or, Jesus is My Time-Lord and Savior"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Fifth Sunday of Easter
28 April 2013

Day Texts: Psalm 148
Revelation 21.1-6
John 13.31-35

"The end of the binge is the beginning of the story." -Jonathan Franzen


Caveat: I understand the irony in a sermon about time being the longest I've written in awhile.  During service it clocked in at 15:30.  That being said, the following is a transcription of that proclamation, which seemed to be the most well-received in awhile.  So there it is.  Enjoy it.  You've got time:)  

-SO. Here’s a phrase I bet you’ve never, ever, EVER heard, here in Rochester, or anywhere else.  Here goes: “Well, you know, I’d love to get together, but you know, I’m just so busy right now.”  Ever heard it?  It’s like the communal chorus of our collective life here, the theme that carries us all along day in and day out.  

-”It’s so busy right now.”  Even when we’re not actually doing anything, it feels like we’re still compelled to say “I’m just so busy,” if only because we so often feel busy.  All the time.  Even sitting still.  Even with so much going on in our heads.  So much information entering our lives.  So much happening.  And so we feel a sense of urgency, even anxiety.  Even when we’re just chillin’ - we’re busy.  

-But how fitting, at least, in light of today’s text from the Apocalypse of John.  When we hear that Jesus is the “Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  Jesus is related inextricably with time.  He is the master of time.  Perhaps there’s a sense in which we could even call him a...TIME LORD?  

-For those of you who aren’t Doctor Who geeks, that’s what the time-traveling do-gooder bow-tie sporting hero of the show is.  And so is Christ.  Jesus is our Time Lord and Savior.  The Crucified Lamb is also the ruler and the God of Time.

-Now don’t worry, we’re saving a “Doctor Who-charist” for November, when the 50th Anniversary special comes out.  But Jesus-as-Time-Lord - its really not a category I think about very much.  Jesus is the beginning and the end.  He holds all of space and all of time in his scarred hands.

-Now, in troubled times like ours - times of bombings and explosions and rumors of wars and of church closings, like our predecessors Peace Lutheran did this morning - I do hear quite a lot of talk about Jesus as the hope of new beginnings.  Before he unveils his Time Lord nature, Jesus says, “Behold I am making all things new!”  And in an age of unprecedented technological progress and unspeakable horrors, it’s natural to long for the newness resurrection promises.  To move on from past atrocities.  

-Novelty’s like this way of life for us now; new experiences, moving every couple years, fresh starts, new jobs, the latest Apple products, the most recent episode.  A new church perhaps.  Or a new cause, to help make the world, and ourselves, better.  Jesus as Alpha is welcome news indeed.  And not just to those of us in Rochester hoping that this the week the Spring sticks around.

-But what of Jesus as Omega?  Jesus is the End.  Not just the beginning.  But the final note.  See, God in Christ Jesus through the Spirit did not only shape the world and create human beings in God’s image and breathe into them the breath of life.  God in Christ Jesus also brings the story to its conclusion.  Before we get “a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem,” we face the hard truth that “everything old has passed away.”  That Jesus is also an Ending.

-And that’s hard to face, right?  I mean, even Doctor Who struggles with ending.  Often when he’s about to regenerate and get a brand new life, the version of the Doctor who’s about to die really laments having to pass away.  He has to go through a painful transformation to become someone new, as well as to continue on as somehow the same.  There is a sense of loss and grief.

-And if we’re honest with ourselves, I wonder if we too share this deeply paradoxical relationship to endings.  Yes, we want newness.  But we also struggle with how to stop.  How to end.  We don’t just watch an episode.  We binge and mainline them, five or six at a time, only stopping when our retinas spontaneously combust.  We drink craft beer after craft beer, as if the fact that we are drinking good beer from our basement or brewery instead of Labatt’s somehow makes it less of a precursor to alcoholism.  So we just have one more, and it’s ok.  Or, we keep signing and signing up for cause after cause, because Metro Justice, and St. Joe’s, and South Wedge Mission, and Grow Green, etc etc are all so worthy, and in spite of how many times we save the world...we have this urge to save it again, lest we stop feeling useful or needed.  

-And at least for me, and maybe you too, its so hard to draw a boundary.  A limit.  To accept an ending.  And suddenly, we are so busy with compulsions, addictions, and schedules so full of doing things we ultimately don’t want to do, that we find we are without the time we so deeply crave to pursue the things that we do want.  Connection.  Intimacy.  And relationship.  A sense of place and settledness.

-See, I wonder if, in our basic human fear of endings, and of missing out, I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to embrace endings.  Perhaps our constant questing after novelty has led us to fear losing something new, while also avoiding ending that old thing that’s keeping us from the new thing.  Which, if we’re honest, is actually, usually, something quite old.  Something lasting.  And important.  And real.

-In this networked reality of compulsions and addictive thought processes and nihilisms and proxies, eroding our minds and stunting our spirits - well, that’s where, for me, Jesus as Omega - Jesus as Ending - that sounds like really good news to me.

-This past weekend, I had the privilege to worship at one of our sister mission starts, another Lutheran church in Brooklyn started by my friend Ben.  It’s called Parables, (they’re the ones we stole the idea to do the art night with Bogs during Lent).  The purpose of the event on Friday was to communally create folk hymns for use during worship.  Pretty awesome. 

-As we talked about music and reflected on this text from Revelation, one of the musicians in the group noted how important it was to have beginnings and endings.  Music is as much knowing when to stop as it is to start; as much about intentional silence as it is improvised notes.  Its the ending of a song that makes it a song.  Makes it something we can then remember, and hold on to, and cherish, and sing, and share, and pass on.  Endings give form.  Endings make singing possible.

-We’ve all heard a speech, or a story, or even a sermon where we’re thinking “if only that had ended five minutes ago, I might have remembered the good stuff he said?”  Right?  Never here, of course!  It’s the limits, the boundaries, that enable us to recognize, to consider, to enjoy.  To realize that pauses, and silence, and ending, are as much an art as saying, playing, and starting.  That’s what gives shape to songs, and poems, and even relationships.  Knowing where I end and you begin.  Suddenly we have something to share, rather than it all blending together.  

-And see, Jesus the Omega, Jesus the Time Lord, Jesus teaches us how to end.  He points us, in fact, to our truest and best end.  And that end is not us, or our compulsions or our desires.  It is Himself.  And through Him, to God.  And to one another.  

-And the means to achieving these ends is not a mediating technology.  It’s relationship.  It’s that great commandment at the end of our Gospel today.  “Love one another.”  And love God.

-Jesus is the ending, the Omega, first of all, because in the cross of Christ, Jesus has shown us the ending of all human endeavors to avoid endings.  The holes driven into his hands and feet by the nails are like periods, declaring, “it is finished.”  It’s not an option people.  When you avoid ending - when you try to prolong yourself or your desires or pleasure or power beyond their endings, it ends like this.  With death.  And, when you face human sinfulness, human fear, human scarcity, human idolatry, human complusion - all of these are here forth done.  This where they end.  With me.  And the cross.  

-But Jesus also shows us THE Ending.  Of the story.  Of the world.  The true end towards which we’re all traveling.  Towards a new heaven.  And a new earth.  The Ending which is also a true Beginning.  The Omega which is truly and forever Alpha. 

-See, in this ending, everything passes away.  The Old Jerusalem and its temple, the divine center of the universe, is gone.  These structures which mediate our relationships and our experiences that we thought were eternal and inevitable?  Gone. The old earth, with all of its beauties and wonders and all of its warfare and damage, is gone.  Even the old heaven, with all of our old hopes and dreams, is gone.  It is ended.  And Jesus, not any effort of human progress, no loaded schedule, no networking, brings it about.

-But notice what does remain.  What remains are the people of God.  And the trees that are for the healing and reconciliation of all the peoples together.  And the Time Lord, standing among his countless companions of every age.  What remains, in the end, to begin the new creation, are relationships. The people.  Our being-with God.  Our being-with each other.  Our being-with our enemies.

-And if what remains in the end are our relationships. and not how many hours we’ve logged on facebook, or volunteering, or playing Halo, or even watching Doctor Who - if our Omega is the Alpha, a new beginning freed of the old compulsions, centered on Jesus, a time when every tear will be wiped away and reconciliation, not distraction, is the name of the game, then I wonder: how does this challenge us today?  

-If God is truly shaping a reality in which “God will dwell with God’s people,” and people and relationships are the everlasting center, then what, in this time between Alpha and Omega, needs to die in our every day lives?  What might Jesus be declaring an Ending over, what is he begging and inviting us to stop, so that we might receive the gift of time to live for what is truly beloved in God’s heart?

-See, one thing I think Jesus has promised is that there will always be time for faithfulness.  And in particular, Jesus, the Lord of Time, will always give us enough space between the Alpha and the Omega to fulfill His commandment: “love one another.”  

-Because when we are loving only ourselves, time seems to disappear, seems to become scarce.  There is never enough.  But when we endeavor, trusting the promises and commandments of God, to place people at the center of our lives, to say NO to that which enslaves us and YES to that which is eternal, then we will discover, again and again, that life suddenly becomes very long, very fecund, very abundant, very real.  Because we are drawn into loving those things that Jesus loves. 

-And maybe you’ve had a taste of that.  That time when you unplug and step back.  Or you take time to have breakfast for a friend.  Or to pray and sit in silence in the midst of an urgent time - take time to be present to how God is busy in the world, and not just ourselves.  And suddenly it feels like those five short minutes of stillness stretch into an almost unbearable eternity.  Or that short conversation you tried to sneak in finds its ending two hours later.  And so much life has happened - life can be so long and full, when we follow faithfully.  

-God promises: there will always be enough time for the things that God loves.  And who God ultimate you.  And me.  And people.  And the creation.  God loves people so much that God is willing to end even the heavens and the temple, so that relationship may last forever.  

-And it will feel like an Omega.  An Ending.  A loss.  The old heaven and earth, the promise of infinite information, endless stimulation, and excessive intimacy, will have to go.  We will have to say no to certain things in order to say yes to others.  And we’re gonna need each other to make ourselves actually do it.  To be courageous enough to accept God’s gift.

-But as author Jonathan Franzen once wrote, “the end of the binge is the beginning of the story.”  The Omega of the old creation is also the Alpha of the new.  We will discover new depths of space and new dimensions of time, within ourselves, our world, and our God.  God has given us all the time in the world for one another.  God is making God’s home here, among us, among mortals.  Among people.  It’s there we’ll find the time, the intimacy and the love for which we long.

-See, that’s the song worth singing.  The ending worth accepting.  The beginning worth pursuing.  We will live fully in this presence, where the world, our place in it, and our time, will be truly occupied.  In a way that is worth cherishing.  In a way worth committing to.  In a way that can only be a gift.  And the best is yet to come.