Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dear Mom and Dad

*a letter preached at St C's, October 31, 2010*

Dear Mom and Dad,

Shalom! Thanks for the letter.

It’s been almost three years now since that sweltering evening in the synagogue when I first heard him preach. Can you believe it? What a sermon - it still makes me shudder to remember those words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he sat down. You could have heard a pin drop as we waited in suspense. Finally - finally, after what felt like Eternity before us - he spoke - he spoke the words that I’ve been chasing ever sense. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What did that mean? I remember asking Matthias. He said he wasn’t sure. Neither of us were. And yet I have never been so certain as when I heard him say those words.

I know I hurt you when I left; still I’ll never forget that you did let me leave. You kissed my forehead and hid your tears and said you’d pray for me and Matty. You know I pray for you.

Following hasn’t been easy. Jesus isn’t much for staying put! And the crowds only grow more raucous; I think even Jesus is wary of that. One day some clowns lowered their friend through the ceiling in order to get his attention - to get past the crowds. The man was paralyzed. Jesus was smack dab in the middle of teaching, but he didn’t seem to mind the theatrics of the men who loved their friend. The joy of the healed sometimes begins with the friends of the sick.

I don’t think, when it started, that I imagined becoming a friend of the sick.

Some days I blush at the circumstances, how wrong it must look on the outside - even as I marvel at how gloriously right it is on the inside. I’m not gonna lie - Jesus doesn’t hide from a really good party with some really bad people. All the rumors are true. He doesn’t call them bad, though; he calls them sick. And of course, this tour began as a healing tour for sick folks; as it turns out, Jesus just has a pretty broad definition of sick folks. I think he has a mind to heal us all, if he could. So there we are.

The other day he sat us all down in a field. A lot of us - the sick and their friends. He starts talking, preaching, and it’s not all that different from the first time I heard him: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” But later he adds something new that up until then had been lost on me. He said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” He went on to say, “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

Love your enemies. Some Pharisees had tried to stop a healing the other day, because it was the Sabbath. At first I wondered if he wasn’t talking to them. Now I wonder if he wasn’t talking about them.

Love your enemies...expecting nothing in return.

I wonder what I’m expecting in return - that is, what I hope comes out of this. It’s amazing, for sure, the healings, the friends, the words that sustain us. Most days, though, I don’t know where we’re going. The way is good but the destination unclear. I wonder if Jesus himself knows how this all ends.

Matty told me the other day that he overheard Peter and Jesus rattling on about taking up crosses and losing one’s life. Peter didn’t want to talk about it, and it’s a rare day indeed that finds Peter lacking for words, God love him. I wonder what Jesus meant. That seems like pretty drab talk from the life of the party.

Lately the wandering has seemed less random. To be sure, we’re a vagabond crowd and never too busy to be interrupted. But that we know we’re being interrupted is itself a sign that things have changed - for the first time, Jesus seems to know where he’s going: he’s going to Jerusalem.

I don’t know how to say this, Mom, Dad - I’m going with him. I’m not so naive that the importance of Jerusalem is lost on me - the city that kills the prophets. I’m not looking to die, but following Jesus has become a habit, a training - truly the habit of my soul. I can conceive nothing other.

The other day, Jesus told us not to be afraid of losing our belongings on this adventure with him. He said, “Don’t be afraid. It gives God great joy to give you the kingdom.” Then he told us to give the rest away. I guess his thinking is that you can’t lose what you don’t hold onto but the fact remains that you no longer own what you give away.

Like this man, Zacchaeus. Another party we weren’t supposed to be at. Jesus saw him in a tree (in a tree!) and invited us - the whole gang - over for the afternoon. Now Zach makes bank. His house, his place, was incredible. He’s also a head tax collector. And he knew he was sick.

So we’re sitting around after dinner - dinner was fantastic; almost as good as your homemade matzohs, Mom! (almost) - and out of nowhere, Zach says he’s giving half of his belongings away to the poor. I laughed out loud - I thought he was blowing smoke, trying to impress the man who called him down from the tree. But then he went on to say that he’d pay back the folks he had cheated - four times over, even named names (it was awkward) - and it hit me that this man wasn’t just looking for attention - he had been paying attention. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Well, the Pharisees tried to stop this party, too. The Pharisees thought that Zacchaeus being a sinner made Jesus a joke. Zacchaeus thought that his being a sinner made Jesus his hope. Zach was willing to give up his stuff if it meant being closer to Jesus.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget Jesus’ answer to Zacchaeus; he looked Zacchaeus in the eye. Twenty-two of us together in that room, but he was staring holes through poor Zacchaeus. Not through him, into him, with a love that was unspeakably tender. He said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a Son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus climbed up that tree because he was short and he wanted to see the Good News. Who knew that the Good News wanted just as badly - or more! - to see him? Zacchaeus thought he was looking for God. And all the while it’s God who is looking for him! For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Even Zacchaeus. Even me.

Tonight, as I write this letter to you, the sky is clear and bright with stars, and the campfire shadows dance a sinister, smoky dance. Tomorrow, we sojourn to Jerusalem, and the campfire shadows know it. Jesus left to pray a while ago, and his face looked oddly different. Still him, still tender, still true, but determined in a way I had not picked up on before. One gets the sense that the importance of Jerusalem isn’t lost on Jesus, either.

He’s asked us to give up a lot to follow him. I get the sense tonight that there is nothing I have given that he won’t, in the end, give up, too, and more. He’s not like us - he’s not sick like us. But God, how he loves us. The sick and the poor. The rich and the strong. The deluded and clear-minded. We ones who need God.

I think he has a mind to heal us all, if he could.

I love you. I miss you.

Peace be with you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My Best Sermon

[Sermon preached at St. C's on October 3, 2010. The title is meant to be ironic in a self-deprecating way. This will make more sense five sentences from now.]

In 2001, Time Magazine named Stanley Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian.” That a secular magazine was even presenting an award by that name got the attention of many people, both inside and outside of the Church; but how did Stanley react when he was singularly recognized from among his Christian peers as the best of America’s theologians? He kept it short. “Best,” he said, with a hint of annoyance, “is not a theological category.” Best is not a theological category.

Well, the outside world was flummoxed. A little put off. Are you kidding me? they asked. In a world of weekly power rankings among college and pro football fans, fantasy sports, DOW and Nasdaq indices, CNN’s Top Ten Heroes, how many American Idols, and ever-growing Facebook friend-counts, what sense does it make to play modest? Why deflect the attention of a world that, let’s just say it, isn’t always interested in things that smell like church, but at least knows celebrity when it sees it? Time magazine comes knocking, for goodness’ sake play by their rules. But he didn’t. And, in Stanley-like fashion, he didn’t stop talking.

After saying that best is not a theological category, Stanley went on to say that he wondered if he wasn’t being lifted up as a high standard so as to keep people from feeling obligated to listen to what he had to say. That is, we can admire the best theologian on his best podium from a distance. Not unlike reality TV. Hold them up and be amused, be entertained.
I wonder if you ever find yourself caught up in games of best. Best parent. With the very best children. Best project manager. Best barbecue this side of San Marcos. Best boss. Even best church, I guess.

It's an instinct built into us. I think of Garrison Keillor's signature sign-off: "That's the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average."

Notice, we’re not talking about being the best you can be - that’s a sort of neurotic, internal pressure that has its own set of challenges; but we’re talking about being the best that anyone can be at any particular thing. Best, in this sense, by definition, is always being better than - better than your friends and certainly your enemies. That’s the start of the problem, I guess, for Christians. Best is a relative status. Best is privilege and, in a world like ours, hints of entitlement, even if you've earned it. Best is separation from the rest of the pack, isolation - exactly the kind that Stanley Hauerwas feared. Best gets caught up on itself, and so best can’t be understood against the backdrop of the one who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
 he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death—
 even death on a cross.

I think the two-part reminder that best is not a theological category and that this is because Jesus took the form of a slave for us helps us approach this morning’s lesson from Luke’s gospel.

Jesus is talking to his disciples about the life of faith. And after briefly suggesting that they don't have any faith, he offers this less-than-inspiring charge: "So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.'"

In other words, don't hold your breath waiting for that 'best Christian' gold-trimmed nameplate. Or the super-duper stewardship servant highest-pledge prize. Or even the never-missed-a-Sunday shiny gold star. It's just not coming.

Evidently, the goal for the Christian faithful is not to stand out from the pack - like the best of the best - but to serve the pack, to minister to the Body, with the humility and love of Christ. Or as one Christian puts it, "the reward of the life of faith is the life of faith." The reward of the life of faith is the life of faith.

Can I just say how disappointing this is?

I remember, as a kid, one Sunday when our Sunday School teacher asked for a volunteer from the class to perform some menial chore (putting up some chairs or something like that). There was that awkward couple of second when my buddies and I all looked at one another with an 'it's your turn' expression - a glare, really, is what it was. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders and piped up, "I'll do it...I guess." My teacher was unimpressed: "Don't be so joyful about it, Jonathan," she said.

Don't be so joyful? I was indignant! Didn't she realize that if I didn't do it, nobody would? Hadn't she noticed the lackluster response of the group to her asking for help? It's not like folks were lining up. It would have been nice, I thought, to have been appreciated. It would have been nice to have been held up as an example; to have had others exhorted to follow my lead. To have felt better appreciated. "Don't be so joyful," she told me, sarcastically. I had expected joy from her, at the sight of my noble sacrifice. She had expected joy in me, because that's what the life of faith is.

The reward of the life of faith is the life of faith.

Let me ask you: How are you experiencing the life of faith?

As joy? As strength? As competition or burden? As gift?

Let me ask me: Am I finding joy and regular opportunities to seek and serve Christ in each person, in every encounter, of my days? Or do I serve under the weight of my guilt, secretly wondering when it will have been good enough - when I will have been good enough - for God and His judgment? Am I offering myself out of a sense of abundance - loving others in response to God's overwhelming, unsurpassing love for me? Or am I waiting for God to take notice of the gift that I am to this church and the Kingdom?

"So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.'"

Do I resent the ones who do not help out, don't show up (at least as much as I help out and show up). Or do I help out and show up with unbridled anticipation, a great expectation for how God will encounter me here? With a joy that receives the chance to serve Christ in His People as God's gift to me?

Because that's the whole Gospel - the really Good News: that God so loved the world that he sent His only begotten Son; that this Son came among us as one who serves, and that His Kingdom will have no end. The point is not more guilt. (As an aside: in my four years and counting of ordained ministry, I have been humbled and saddened to see the extent to which guilt drives so many of us either away from the church or in our understanding of ministry. Too many of us serve because somebody has to and no one else will. There is no joy in that kind of service. End of aside.) So the point is not more guilt. The point is that not being able to impress God has it's advantages, precisely to the extent that we are reminded that the Kingdom does not depend on us, and that, exactly because it doesn't, we can serve Christ in His Kingdom, without any fear of failing.

When was the last time you lived without fear of failing?

So me, on my better days, I look with both eyes for hints of the Kingdom that doesn't depend on me. Some days I have to strain harder than others; but He's there. He's always there. And just as surely, God is here. May that news be our joy, such that we seek it, pursue it, long for and embrace it, praise God when we find it, not because we should but because we can - because this is the freedom of faith. And such a freedom begins our life in the Kingdom, for "Lo," Jesus says, "I am with you, even to the end of the age."

The reward of the life of faith is the life of faith.

How are you experiencing the life of faith?


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