Monday, May 5, 2014

Sermon: This Story is True, or, "Westeros Withers, and the Bronies Fall..."

"This Story is True, or, 'Westeros May Wither and the Bronies Fall...'"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
4 May 2014
Third Sunday of Easter


Text: 1 Peter 1.22-2.3
(second sermon of a season-long series and study of 1 Peter)

22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 

24 For
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls, 
25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 
That word is the good news that was announced to you.

2:1 Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. 2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.


Grace Mercy and Peace is yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

There’s plenty of good stuff to chew on in this week’s passage from 1 Peter.  I love verse 22’s invitation - command, really - to “love one another deeply from the heart.”  Eugene Peterson translates it in the Message thus: “love each other as if your life depended on it.”  We could spend a few decades trying to tease out just what that means for ourselves, our community here, and in our lives in the world.

But what also caught my eye this week was the next verse, 23: “you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.”  It’s followed by that beautiful poetry about the grass withering and the flower falling, and the Word of the Lord enduring forever - familiar especially if you grew up Baptist or Methodist, where it’s often used as a prayer before reading the Gospel or the sermon.  Gorgeous imagery.

Now, a caveat: St. Peter is not talking about the Bible here.  He’s not telling us that we just need to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, or that the whole thing is literal, or that if you just read your Bible for fifteen minutes a day, then you’re “really” born again.  That’s not “the Word.”

Rather, the Word Peter is extolling with poetry and joy is the Gospel.  The Good News (see verse 25b).  First and foremost, the Word is nothing and no one other than the person, Jesus Christ.  Incarnate and accompanying.  Crucified and resurrected.  When we celebrate the Word that makes us new, we’re not talking about your theory of the inspiration of Scripture.  If you are, worship that theory.  We are talking about the King of the Universe who makes things new.

The Word is also the story that we tell about this King.  It’s the proclamation.  It’s the Gospel.  See, back in the day, a Gospel proclamation was an announcement.  Usually, it was imperial.  The Romans would conquer your kingdom, and then a herald would roll into town, set up in the public square, and say, “Good News!  You are all now part of the most glorious empire that has ever existed!  We have graciously allowed you to be a part of it - so pay your taxes and don’t rebel or we will crush you like worms.  Have a nice day, welcome to the club!”  Essentially, you’ve got a new story.  You’re now part of a new history.  Rome’s history.  You have been assimilated.

Which makes Peter’s utter commitment to the Word, the Gospel, of Jesus, all the more striking.  Because it’s not just theology or theory or a call to Bible Study.  It’s a radical political statement.  It’s a different Gospel than what the Empire proclaims.  It’s a revolution.    

Because our stories tell us who we are.  When someone asks you about yourself, you generally tell a story.  "I'm Tim, and I'm from Gates, and I've lived here my whole life," or, “I am Ser Jamie Lannister, called Kingslayer, of House Lannister, son of Tywin, etc.”  When Rome proclaims a Gospel over you, they are telling you who you are.  You belong to Rome.  Your life is about Rome.  Your value is created by Rome.  Your future is Roman.  

So when Peter says, “you have been born anew through the living and enduring Word of God,” he’s making a similar proclamation.  He’s serving as a herald - a witness - to the Kingdom of God.  He is essentially telling the people of the early church that everything they have been told about reality is a lie.  That Jesus, the crucified Lamb is King.  Which means that Caesar is not.  Which means that nothing else, and no one else, gets to tell them who they are.  Except for the God of grace and mercy and love and peace revealed in the resurrection of the Christ.

It’s such a mind-blowing declaration that even the Matrix movies are tame in comparison.  Because it means that we are called to radically reimagine everything we ever knew about ourselves.  Or thought we knew.  It means, truly, that everything old has passed away.  That everything is a new creation.  That this story, this Gospel, this “Word of God,” is either insanely, beautifully true - that all of humanity, all of creation, is most certainly and irrevocably GOOD…or else, the way of the Empire continues.  

Now, we are a generation that loves stories.  Not all of us may be convinced that the Empire is such a threat anymore.  After all, the story we often tell of ourselves, whether we admit it or not, is that because we have been born between a certain latitude and longitude in the Western hemisphere in a certain union of states at the turn of the century with paler hued skin and a modicum of wealth, that we are entitled to freedom and are exceptional in the history of humanity.  Which is, of course, another way of saying that we are in fact the Empire.  “American” just sounds nicer.

But we have other stories to.o.  We believe other Gospels that help give shape to our lives, and offer us hope.  Some of you saw an article I posted this week about “Bronies.”  That’s a short-hand for “Bros” and “Ponies,” as in, a geek community of young adult males who are communally obsessed with My Little Pony - a cartoon about pastel-colored talking ponies (sometimes with wings).  Grown men who build motorcycles, fix your computer, and manage your finances, who also put on rainbow wigs and cardboard wings and make Trekkie conventions look tame.  True story.

What’s striking about the Bronies, though, is not the wigs.  Bronies get together because the stories that they share and love help create for them…a community.  Something about telling those stories, dressing up and acting those stories out, living into those stories, and communing around those stories, creates for them a sense of belonging.  Of escaping loneliness.  Of having a common bond and goal to live for.  In short, it creates for them a sense of identity.  My Little Pony is, for this group, a powerful Gospel, and an attractive alternative to Empire.  

Now I actually really admire the Bronies.  Just before coming to church today I was at the park on Culver Road flying kites with my kids, and to our great delight, across the lake, we saw LARPers, Live Action Role Players, dressed in armor and actually SWORD FIGHTING!  I don’t know who was more thrilled - Tai Tai or me!  AND, when we went over to talk to them, they actually invited us to come see them at Highland Park…and told me they always have extra armor and weaponry if I ever wanted to join them and give it a try!  Sold.

Because whether you are into knights, or you’re a Trekkie, or a Whovian, or you watch Breaking Bad, or whether you are a member of the Democrat or Republican parties, or part of a Christian denomination, then to an extent, you’re no different than a Brony!  We get together with friends to binge on television shows, or to insult our political opponents, or to dress up in robes and call it “church” because our stories tell us who we are, and who we are together.  Our stories are alternatives to the dregs and downfalls of living in the Empire.  Also, of being the Empire.  

We are tired of living in an age where we are measured by what we accomplish and by what we can produce.  Tired of living in a society where we some people are told that because their story includes having ancestors who were once enslaved by our ancestors, they do not deserve access to decent schools or a minimum standard of living.  Tired of living stories where, because we drank too much at that party and dressed too nicely, of course we deserved to be assaulted.  Tired of being told that unbridled greed and competition and destruction of the world could possibly be called profit.  Tired of the story in which this is all there is, and modern scientific people simply cannot reasonably believe in magic or mystery - let alone a Creator or a cause.  

We are tired of living these stories.  And so we choose new ones.

Maybe some of these stories are your stories.  Maybe you’ve been told that you are defined by the ways you have failed to live up to the Empire’s standards - or to your parents’, or your school’s, or your partner’s, or God’s, or your own.  Maybe you’ve participated in stories where people and societies are arranged around irony and sarcasm and envy and slander, instead of “loving one another as if our lives depended on it.”  Maybe you too are tired of being told this is who you are.  And so maybe, you’re a Brony, or a Whovian, or an Alcoholic, or just plain lost.  

But there is a difference between these stories and the Word of the Lord that Peter tells us is the very foundation of our identity and our reality.  Because unlike all these other stories, this one is true.  

This one is true.  This story says that you, and every single human being who ever existed, were created by a Loving God, as an utterly unique, irreparable act of utter devotion and delight, and that nothing can change that.  That when people refused to believe that they were made good and delighted in and beloved by the Creator, and continued to make up other stories for themselves, and even started living these stories by killing off and hurting and enslaving people with different stories, that God intervened, again, and again, and again.  That God came in God’s own person, putting on our story, sharing it with us, LARPing as one of us, even allowing Godself to be killed by us, because God would rather be with us and tell us we are good, than kill us back or destroy us with His sword of fire.  

And that this God turned that fiery sword, not on us in vengeance, but upon Death itself, and on the forces of injustice, and of sin, and of selfishness, and of Empire, and said, “it is finished.”  That this God rose again.  And this God has proclaimed, “behold, a new creation!  I declare it Good!  My Gospel is my risen body, my Gospel is my Word, and my Word is Love, and that is the final, the only, and the truest Word that will ever be spoken!”  This God declares to you today, in the sacrament of God’s body and blood, this simple, life-changing story: you are Mine.  Nothing can ever change that.  And no one else gets to tell you who you are.

I’d like to think that Doctor Who could do that for me.  I’d love it if playing Magic the Gathering could resurrect me into a new creation.  I’d be delighted if being a part of a political party could ultimately change the world and me.  But they can’t.  They are simply not true in the same way that this Gospel is true.  Dressing up in a cloak, or a robe, or a suit and tie, does not make that story any more able to redeem the world than if we showed up in a t-shirt and jeans.  Because the grass withers, the flowers fade, and all flesh, all stories, all the glory we try to create…it will fade away and fall.  

But the love of God we have in Christ Jesus; the reign of God which proclaims “love one another as if your life depended on it!”; the kingdom of love where every single human being is valued totally and solely on the basis of the fact that they are God’s beloved children for whom Christ died and resurrected; this is not one story among many.  It is the story.  The story by which all other stories are true.  It is the story by which we know the truth about ourselves.  And the truth about all of reality.   Not because we have to believe anything about God.  But because God has continued to believe in us, and has acted on our behalf, and has loved us with an everlasting love.  Whether we like it or not. 

And brothers and sisters, I share this with you tonight, at the outsert of a season of focus on “practicing resurrection,” because, ultimately, before we know what it means to love one another deeply from the heart, we must first hear how God loves us deeply, from God’s heart.  You can be a Trekkie and be a very good person, and probably do a lot of justice in the world.  Or even a Democrat or a Republican for that matter.  But its not about what we do. 

As witnesses, as heralds, as minstrels of this story, this Gospel, this Word, we are called to proclaim this news.  We are called, to an extent, to remind the world of who we truly are.  We belong to God.  We live in the Kingdom of God.  Each human being is a citizen of this kingdom.  Which means we don’t get to kill other citizens of this kingdom.  Or segregate some of these citizens into ghettos or suburbs.  Or slander them.  Or envy them.  Or exclude them.  Or exclude ourselves.  That’s not who God is.  Which means, that’s not how reality really is either.  

One final story in closing.  This past Friday, I was honored to preside over my first funeral service, for one June Kelly.  June died on Tuesday.  She was a member of Peace Lutheran, the church who gave us this building for our mission.  For the last decade of her life, she lived in various care homes, struggling with dementia.  I’d never met her.  I tried calling other Peace members to find out about her.  I was struck that almost no one from Peace had ever met her either.  She had moved to Canandaigua long before they arrived.  

BUT.  Every single member of Peace knew her name.  They knew who June Kelly was.  Because, almost to a T, every single one of them said, “yeah, I know June.  We said her name, every single week in the prayers, as we asked for her healing.”  Grace was loved, and known, and upheld by people she’d never met.  She was part of the family of God.  That’s her story.  I didn’t need to know about any of the good things, or the bad things, that she had done in life.  I knew enough to celebrate her.  Because she is one of us, and we are one of her’s too.  Because she belonged to a story in which, week after week, she was named, and remembered, and prayer for.  She is part of a story in which we are remembered, and named, and prayed for, and beloved.  

This is a story of retirement homes, and solitude.  A story of moldy smelling funeral homes and the lifeless body of an old woman.  A story of complete strangers awkwardly standing around a grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery, trying to think of things to say.  It’s not a magical story like My Little Pony or Doctor Who or the United States of America.  But at her grave, we poured sand upon her casket in the shape of a cross.  We prayed.  We remembered her.  We told her story, and our story.  We told the story.  A story, that for June, continues on.  Because we knew whose June was.  And is.  And will always be.  

We are not called to be “good people.”  We are called to be “God’s people.”  Which means, simply, to love one another as if our lives depended on it.  Which means no one and nothing else gets to tell us who we are.

The grass withers and the flower falls, but the story of the King of Love endures forever.   Because this story is true.  


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