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.   


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