Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Sermon: Happy Hen Party Mix

"Happy Hen Party Mix"

Edited transcript of sermon preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
11 May 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter


Day Text: Acts 2.42-47

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


We’re taking a slight detour on our journey through First Peter during the Season of Easter to look at one of the most remarkable texts in the New Testament.  In times when the church is struggling, its fashionable to say, “if only we could be as radical as the ‘early church,’ before it got so institutionalized.”  I agree it’s radical - and I’d love for us to look closely at the snippet today, to see what it has to teach us about our Easter exploration of “practicing resurrection.”    

Generally, when I hear people talk about the early church, I’ve found they’re referring, somewhat romantically, to verses 44 and 45, how they basically started history’s first soviet commune, “holding all things in common,” and selling their possessions to meet each others’ needs.  It’s the kind of hippie nirvana that, St. Francis aside, has seldom materialized in the sad history of God’s church.  But it’s awe-inspiring to imagine: what if we too could simplify?  What if we too could be that radical in our giving and our sharing?

What I’m also interested in, though, is not just that they gave, or what they gave, or whether it was “the first 10% of their income” or whether they were promised tenfold prosperity in return.  What I found beautiful is the community in whose story this radical generosity is practiced.  Such powerful gratitude is possible, Luke seems to say, because of who they understood themselves to be - whose they are, and who they were to one another.

Look at the text with me.  We start off with some standard churchy stuff in verse 42, where they’re learning at the feet of Jesus’ original disciples, praying together, doing the communion thing - all that good “Word and Sacrament” Lutheran-y worship stuff that generally makes church church.  We’re told in verse 43 that some of them were even doing miracles, which helped their PR.  But what’s vital here is that their community is centered around a certain story of who they are together.  Worshipping the God revealed in the Eucharist and in the story of Scripture - hearing stories from those who knew Jesus personally, and passing them on to newer members of the family.  Communities rally around all sorts of stories; this community is practiced at reminding one another who God is, and who they are in God.

Then in verse 46, we are told they take this worship public.  They are in the temple together, every single day, and that they are also starting to meet for meals in their homes.  Maybe they stick around to watch Game of Thrones afterwards, or play Dominion or whatever.  Point is, they don’t just keep it to themselves.  What starts as worship becomes a way of life.  It permeates and permutates who they are in all aspects of life.  Public as well as private.
Which is no small thing at the time.  Because about the only thing to be gained by worshipping a crucified revolutionary as Lord in the midst of an Empire whose leader proclaimed himself the only legit heir to that title…was to paint a bigger target on yourself.  To gather publicly in the temple was basically telling the Romans, “here’s an extra-large bag of lion food for the area, gift wrapped and easy to find!”  To worship in your house, and not in the secret safety of the catacombs, was to say, in effect, “we don’t care if you find us, because we believe our household, and our public lives, revolve around a different Lord - which means that Caesar is not.”

So it’s this community, centered on living out an alternative Gospel, in worship and in every day life - and living it out together, regardless of consequences or even of death - it’s this church that is able to share their possessions, and also, to sell what they have when need arises.

You have to be pretty committed to your Gospel - and to your fellow Gospel-ers - to  give up so much.  So much time.  So much safety.  So much capital.  So much of everything.  

See, that’s what I think is so radical about the early church, particularly against the backdrop of our commitment-phobic age.  Maybe some of you have seen that ATT commerical, where various young adult-ish folks share with almost a prideful glee that “commitment is not for me,” before, strangely, committing to ATT’s no-commitment plan.  We don’t know where we’re going to live, who we’re going to love, or what we’re going to believe even in a few weeks.  So commitment is a pretty dirty, difficult word.

And here are a group of people, so willing to commit to each other - on the basis of God’s story of how beloved people are - that they are willing to sacrifice ownership of goods.  Willing to worship publicly in life-or-death circumstances.  Willing to give extravagantly - and as verse 46 tells us, “with glad and generous hearts.”  They delight in each other.  They have joy in one another.  And that’s what people noticed.

People were willing to give generously of themselves, their time and their possessions, because they delighted in one another, committed to one another, and basically, went all-in on each other.  And that makes it slightly easier for me to be able to talk about hard things like “money and church” and “where we spend our time” and “what kind of commitment do we make to each other” with you today.  Because at the end of the day, its not promises of prosperity or moral arguments about what we should or should not do or whatever that compel us to give.  

Giving, sharing, and supporting happen naturally - in fact, they are done willing, just natural overflowing of our relationships - when we are committed deeply to each other, and learn to delight and dwell richly in one another’s lives.  We give freely to what we most care about, what we treasure, where our hearts are.

Take this (holds up bag): “Happy Hen Treats.”  I was at Tractor Supply yesterday, and of course, my chickens really needed a special treat.  And it’s not just bird seed.  It’s corn and mealworms!  No, really, there are actual meal worms in there!  Because, you know, it says on the bag “PARTY MIX!”  My chickens deserve a party mix.  

Now, you laugh and nod, because if you’ve ever been a pet owner, then chances are, you have purchased something even more ridiculous and more expensive for your beloved creature!  AND, if you are a mother, or a father, or an aunt or uncle or certainly a grandparent, then you’ve also probably spoiled the children in your life, “just because.”  Right?  We do extravagant, ridiculous things for those we love. 

Because we want the best for them, right?  I want my little chicken ladies to enjoy a little party mix in their lives.  I want my kids to go to college if they like and graduate without as much debt.  Because I love them dearly.  I invest in them every day.  I am committed to them.  They delight me.

And I think its a similar dynamic when it comes to stewardship, and the practice of gratitude and generosity, in a radical Christian community.  We want to give to those we love.  And when we invest our time in deep relationships with one another, giving is not really even a question.  Its not an option.  Its a no-brainer.  

But of course, our brains often get in the way.  Along with our desires, and our addictions, our libidos and our egos.  Because even though I love my wife, and my kids, and my dog, and my chickens, and my church more than anything else, I also love myself more than anything else.  I’d love to give freely and generously to loved ones - but I also have lots of things I want for me too.  

And giving means I have to become vulnerable.  Not just that my money or my my time might be spent in ways that I can’t control.  It also means that I might not get what I really want.  If I sacrifice for my kids, I might never have the time to go out and find people with whom to start a band.  If I spend more time at church, I might not get to see every single episode of Game of Thrones as it happens.  If I share my heart with strangers, they might stomp on it, and betray it, and stomp it to shreds.

And see, that’s the rub.  Investing our time, and our gifts, and practicing gratitude and generosity, its a risk.  That’s why its called an “offering,” a “sacrifice.”  Because we don’t get to control the outcome.  We don’t really get to control the in-come either.  Because in church, we don’t just get to be in community with the selected few that we would choose.  We don’t get to set our weekly and monthly and yearly schedule to our own rhythms. We don’g get to pursue only our own interests and desires anymore.  Because we don’t get to choose our own story anymore.

But.  I wonder if that’s why the disciples of the early church seem so damn joyful.  Because I can’t help but imagine that, if they spent that much time together, in circumstances of life and death, that in some ways, the returns they received, the blessings that came back to them, were precisely those deepened relationships which made life worth living and sacrificing.  

I wonder if, in sharing each other’s vulnerabilities and failures, they also received the blessing of discovering how failure and betrayal are not the last words.  How conflict could be a rich source of continued returns in terms of wisdom, and deeper friendships.

I wonder if, in refusing to worship Caesar or their own desires, and instead, clinging to the story of the Gospel of the New Creation, they found that the time and the status they clung to so fervently, evaporated, leaving behind so much free time and free energy and fresh imagination to spend in coming up with creative, life-giving, radical displays of love for one another.

I wonder if, hearing the story week in and week out of a God who sold all God’s possessions, leaving glory and power and eternity behind and giving the proceeds, his flesh and blood, to the poor and needy sinners desperate for love - I wonder if hearing this story, and realizing that they were the ones who were receiving God’s generosity and grace day in and day out - I wonder if knowing themselves as loved and worthy of love and capable of sharing love - I wonder if this is what gave them the patience, the joy, and the generosity, to commit to one another in this life, and to settle for nothing less than a beloved community where all needs were met.

See, that’s the thing.  We don’t “invest” our valuables and possessions in order to collect interest on them later.  We give them away because in doing so, we open up even more space for even more life.  Not just life for ourselves.  But life together.  With the actual people we have actually been given.  The ones who are here.  The ones with whom we get to image and participate in the very life of our relational, Triune God.

We delight in each other because we realize that this kind of life together is truly LIFE together.  It is to be alive.  It is to be living in the pocket of reality’s rhythms.  

It becomes a kind of party mix.  Corn, mealworms, chickens and all.  All of us.  Our darkness and our light.  Our possessions and our poverty.  It becomes a mix of friends and foes, good and bad, life and death, pain and prosperity.  

If we as a church - and if the church in general - would commit to just loving, and discovering, and delighting, and being faithful to the people who are already here - the people God is gathering - rather than worrying about who is not here, or how little money we have, or other aspects of an economy of scarcity - and if we as a church started letting funding follow faithfulness - started to live full of gratitude and delight because we are given a family, a fellowship, a story, and a song to commit to - than I imagine that the rest will follow of its own.  

Just look at the passage from Acts.  We are told “they had the favor of all the people.”  Not because they were hip, or because they were rich, or because they had a compelling demographic marketing strategy.  It was because of how they worshipped.  And how they loved each other in a committed, generous, extravagant way.  

When we give, and when we commit ourselves to joy, delight, and to one another, the rest will truly follow.  And the returns will too.  Our needs will be provided for.  And the gifts we will receive…will be those who come to us, longing to join the dance, and with their own mealworms and corn kernels to add to the party mix.

So practice resurrection.  Love someone who does not deserve it, as the Poet tells us.  And give freely.  Of your stuff.  But also, of your self.  Amen.   

Postlude: Those who stayed to view Brother Sun, Sister Moon after service observed that, as striking as the Franciscans commitment to poverty and simplicity was, even more so was how much they sang together, and supported one another, and cared for those who were in need.  Funding follows freedom and faithfulness.  

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.