Monday, August 29, 2011

a few jarred frogs (sermon for Pentecost 11)

It’s good to be home. Really good to be home.

I know, I know...I started last week’s sermon that way, too. But then it occurred to me that some of you weren’t here last week, and maybe you’re thinking I’m just back from vacation and that I look especially good this week, especially rested from my two weeks ago two weeks vacation, and far be it from me to turn down a well-intentioned compliment. And besides, it’s still true:

It is good to be home. You’re looking good, too. Not quite so dry as last week. And that’s a good thing.

I want to tell you about a harrowing social experiment: a two-year old’s birthday party. This past Friday morning, Rebekah and Annie and I celebrated Annie’s birthday with an invitation-only front yard, Walmart-special, blue plastic pool, swim and picnic party. It was fantastic. We like to party, to celebrate one other, but Rebekah and I are old-school in this respect: the rule is one invitation per year being celebrated. So two friends this year: Lilly and Mateo.

To some parents (but mostly to people who haven’t yet become parents) this rule sounds severe: only two friends?? Isn’t that a lame party? But we didn’t make the rule up, we only decided that the books we read and the parents we talked to were on to something: namely, that the one-invitation-per-year-being-celebrated guideline has an uncanny ability to track with children’s natural social development.

After all, Annie and Lilly and Mateo sat in the same pool, but they didn’t really play with each other, so much as they played alongside one another. They aren’t there yet. Parallel play, because concepts that we take for granted like sharing and turn-taking and kindness, much less higher forms of social etiquette, well, they’re still working on those.

It’s not that the children can’t - to borrow Paul’s phrase from Romans - live peaceably with one another. It’s just that they’re on some of the more modest, beginning steps of what that peace is, what it looks like, and where it might one day lead them. One day, I can imagine Annie and Lilly and Mateo serving their communities as agents for peace, champions of love, leaders who remind people that the world has been reconciled by Christ and that the victory is God’s; that is, one day, I hope the party gets bigger. But it’s important to remember, I think, that the small steps are more connected to those latter steps than sometimes we give them credit for. Sometimes you can’t get there if you don’t start here. Sometimes it’s enough just to get in the pool with two friends.

I share this because I think that sometimes the Scriptures we read here on Sunday can be so lofty in their vision and so demanding of their hearers that instead of imagining the more modest, beginning steps, we become either easily discouraged or entirely dismissive of the call that has been placed before us.

That would be a mistake.

So, for example, Peter tells Jesus that he doesn’t want him to die, because Peter understands that if Jesus is called to die, Peter might also be called to die, and Peter’s not ready for that. We hear that, and it’s not just that we are like Peter and don’t want to die for our faith; no, more than that, we can’t imagine what that would possibly mean. The message, on the surface, simply doesn’t have any practical overlap with the lives that we live as lower to upper middle class Americans. Now maybe we shouldn’t give up on our being able to imagine what it would mean to give our lives for our faith, but the fact that we can’t imagine it now is a bit of a barrier to even putting our toe in the water.

You see the problem: the higher the calling, the less it seems to apply to us. But we need a high calling. What’s more, in Christ Jesus, we have received a high calling.

But where would I start?

So, just for fun, let’s pull out the reading from Romans, because it’s a very high calling we find there. Lots of short, imperative sentences. Do this and do that. The good news is that, as Paul goes, the sentences are easy to understand. The bad news is that, the sentences are easy to understand, and they’re straight to the point with difficult things. Most of us will have trouble figuring out how to start.

Some examples: “Let love be genuine; hold fast to the good; love one another; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord.”

“Rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; keep praying.”

“Give what you have to the saints and welcome the strangers.” (That’s stewardship right there; he’s talking money.)

“Bless those who persecute you; rejoice with the rejoicing and weep with the weeping; hang out with the poor folks” (paraphrase)

“Don’t have a big head.” “Feed your enemies.” “Don’t repay evil with evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all.” And then the kicker, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all.”

Oy.

Now, a part of us loves these words. They ring true to our souls. But it’s such a very, very high calling. Maybe for someone else.

So here’s what I did. Do you remember how in science class the teacher would announce that the coming Friday would not be a lecture, but a lab instead? Your chance to dissect a frog or fight with your lab partner over the chance to jab at a rat with a dull and very used knife? Well, rather than try to explain Paul’s sentences that really don’t seem to need much explaining, I found some jarred frogs in some of the writings of the Christian tradition to share with you this morning. They don’t talk about Romans 12; they embody it. They won’t quote Paul, but they will ask you to remember him. They are examples of beginning steps - what the pursuit of Christian holiness might look like from a blue plastic pool at a front yard party.

Call them attempts at application.

The first frog comes from the book called “Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals,” and it’s called Offering a Sacrifice of Praise:

'There is an old saying many Christian use: “Offer the Lord a sacrifice of praise,” referring to Hebrews 13:15. In many circles this notion of a “sacrifice of praise” almost becomes a cliche. (Perhaps because worship does not often come at much cost, especially compared with the sacrifices of saints who’ve gone before us.) But when we worship with folks from various traditions, there are times when we may hear a prayer that uses language we might not naturally use or sing a song that isn’t really our style. That is part of what it means to be a member of a community as diverse as the church is. And perhaps that also helps shed some light on why it might require some sacrifice for us to give up ourselves.

'When a song isn’t working for you, consider praising God, because that probably means it is working for someone else who is very different from you. Offer your worship as a sacrifice rather than requiring others to sacrifice for your pleasure or contentment. There is something to the notion of becoming one as God is one; it doesn’t mean that we are the same; it just means that we united by one Spirit. After all, we can become one only if there are many of us to begin with. Liturgy puts a brake on narcissism. Certainly, there is something beautiful about contemporary worship, where we can take old things and add a little spice to them, like singing hymns to rock tunes or reciting creeds as spoken word rhymes. But liturgy protects us from simply making worship into a self-pleasing act. So if a song or prayer doesn’t quite work for you, be thankful that it is probably really resonating with someone who is different from you, and offer a sacrifice of praise.'

What do you think? It kind of smells of chloroform. Maybe we should put it back in the jar. An application of love that we already practice, by virtue of Sunday worship. With room for you and me to embrace it more deeply. Not that it’s too hard, only that it’s so close. So simple. So true.

One toe in the water.

Are you game for another jarred frog?

From the same book, a few smelly embodiments of the life we pray God has given us; that is, some things we might try:

1. Join a Bible study led by someone with less formal education than yourself.
2. Visit a worship service in which you will be a minority. Invite someone to
a meal after the service.
3. Attempt to repair something that is broken. Appreciate the people who
repair things for you on a regular basis.
4. Go to a city council meeting. Pray. Speak as the Spirit leads.
5. Keep the Sabbath holy. Rest one day a week this year - don’t answer the
phone or the door, and don’t use the internet. Do something that brings you
life that day.

Nothing fancy. The calling is high, but it’s not fancy. It’s ordinary days – your ordinary days - touched by an extraordinary Savior.

Some church traditions imagine the sanctuary, this space, and this moment, the Eucharist, as the doorway, the gateway to heaven. The place where heaven kisses earth. The calling is high, but it’s not out of reach because God in Christ Jesus has reached down to us.

For you and for me, the high calling starts here in this encounter with Jesus, and the love of the high calling kind continues out from this place with the next, earthy, dirty, God-loved person you see, the next one you come across. And continues with the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that. Let love be genuine.

A high calling, for sure, but not out of reach. Difficult, but not complicated. Never more complicated than how love finds us: Christ alive to us in the simplicity of water, oil, and bread and wine.

Love one another, and when it feels hard, don’t be discouraged. When it feels lofty, don’t be dismissive; don’t blow this off. Seek Christ in your day to day encounters. The very, very small things. It’s important to remember that the small steps are more connected to those latter steps than sometimes we give them credit for. Because sometimes you can’t there if you don’t start here. And sometimes it’s enough just to get in the pool with two friends.

Let love be genuine. Seek Christ, and find him. Let the Great Pool, even the waters of your baptism, relieve your trepidation, awaken and encourage your soul; may they always sustain you, and from time to time re-start you in this very great adventure called the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

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