Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pointing the Presence of God

[Sermon I didn't preach on September 25, because my wife was in labor.  My deep thanks to the lay readers who stepped in and preached this sermon for me.]

My dad used had a sign out front of his old church in South Bend, Indiana.  The sign wasn’t particularly special: the name - St Michael and All Angels’ Episcopal Church - and service times, but then - this is what excited my dad - three blank lines that he could fill in with whatever he thought a passerby driving down Ironwood Road at fifty-plus miles an hour on her way to somewhere else might find interesting or uplifting or even mildly distracting, such that the next time said woman was firing down that direction, she might think for a second about pulling off for a pit stop with Jesus. 

It was a challenge he relished.  A fun game on the side.  One week, though, in the winter, it was too cold with a couple of feet of snow piled up outside, so Dad sent my brother and me to put the white letters trapped in their clear plastic squares up on the sign.  We tromped off in the snow.  Problem.  The squares already on the sign, the ones we needed to take down, were frozen on good, so we had to put some elbow into it, and when they finally came loose, they had some momentum, if you know what I mean, and they shot off like rockets, a good fifteen yards, and cut through the snow like a hot knife through butter.  And more snow falling fast.  We didn’t find those letters again until spring.

You’ve seen these signs.  You can even generate your own online for kicks.  Three lines.  And I’ve seen folks go for broke in any and all directions: the crass, the corny, the well-intentioned.  Some feel like gimmicks.  But a good process to take because for better or worse, signs make you think about what it is you have to share. 

And once the car has pulled off Ironwood, that is, the interested or distracted individual is now on your campus, church signs don’t become less important.  A kind of essential hospitality, pointing you to where the action is.  I once circled a church building twice on foot before I found an unlocked door with any kind of indication as to where it went or what I’d find there.  I felt a little bit like Joshua at Jericho.  Let’s just circle ‘round a few more times, I thought, and blow some trumpets.  Just get on with it.

And while these signs, hospitality signs, don’t bear the creative pressure of the roadside street signs - they’re just pointers, arrows - they still make you think about what it is you have to share. 

For this reason, the most memorable signs I’ve seen in churches aren’t for the new folks.  They are reminders to the folks who already attended.  Not because anyone was forgetting where the restrooms were, but these were signs that kept the people thinking about, kept calling the people back to, what it was they had to share.

So one church I visited had a sign as you left the parking lot.  Not for the ones coming in, but for the people going out.  “You are now entering the mission field.”  A reminder that on Sunday they received food for the journey, and that Monday through Saturday was the journey.  The wandering, the purposing, the serving, the loving, the being, the growing, the real task of discipleship. 

Another church had a reminder sign placed just about the doorway as you entered the worship space: “Expect a miracle,” it said.  Expect a miracle.  And I knew a priest who inherited that sign.  He was tempted to change it: “Lower your expectations,” he wanted to say.  But he knew that the sign wasn’t about him.

Expect a miracle.  Not of your pastor.  Not of yourself.  But of God.  I like the sign because signs are reminders of what you think you have to share.  And this sign was a pointer to God.

It may sound too simple, but I think that sometimes the best way to point to God is simply to expect him.  Expect a miracle.  Expect God’s presence.  To behave in ways that only make sense if God has shown up, too. 

Like bowing as you come up to the altar.  A simple example.  A good thing to do, reverencing the presence of God.  But only if God is present.  Otherwise it’s a superstitious twitch.  Other things that only make sense if God is present, I think: mercy and generosity.  That is, giving and forgiving.  These are actions that allude to a deeper story, the story of Christ crucified and risen; lives that have felt and received the immeasurable goodness of God.

Sometimes the best way to point to God is simply to expect him.  To behave in ways that only make sense if God has shown up, too. 

I like to imagine our lives as little signs on the edge of the street whose actions point to the mystery and reality of the living God at work in our lives and in the world.

Of course, if my life can be a sign that points to God, it goes without saying that the sign becomes secondary to the thing it points to, the presence of God.  In business they have a saying, “Don’t love your product, love what your product does.”  So what I love about bowing is not the angle of my head relative to the altar, but the presence of the One my bowing acknowledges.  What I love about forgiveness is that it points to the presence of the God who has forgiven me. 

Anyway...

In the gospel this morning, the religious leaders get stumped by Jesus when Jesus asks them about John the Baptist.  Who sent him? Jesus asks.  John.  If the leaders say, “eh, he’s just another guy,” the people who mob them in their anger.  If the leaders say, “God sent him,” they know that Jesus will ask why they didn’t follow him.  Jesus exposes them: the religious leaders don’t actually believe that God is sending anyone these days.  They’ve gotten so good at waiting, they’ve stopped ever looking for God to show up.  They are signs without a point.

And Jesus comes singing, “The Kingdom of God is come near,” and this is Good News for the folks who don’t know better, who are expecting a miracle, who are reaching out for the Kingdom, but the ones who do know better are left with the sheer duty of it all, trying to keep the promises that it seems God won’t, or maybe can’t, keep.

It’s a kind of unholy religion the religious folks in the gospel are maintaining: trying to cover for the God who appears to be shirking his responsibilities.  With no expectation that things will change.  Keeping a polished front, without connecting, like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, to the one who now says he is the Messiah.  Like the spouse of the alcoholic parent, the chief priests keep the house clean and make excuses for God - he’s probably working late, I don’t know why he missed your game - covering, protecting, enabling an absentee god that’s really an idol of their own making.  Nobody is expecting a miracle.  Nobody thinks God will show up.  They don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. 

And I wonder if that ever still happens. 

If keeping the signs ever becomes more important than the One the signs were made to point to. 

Cursillo groupies ask a question of each other each time they get together: when, in the past week, did you feel closest to Christ?

That’s their way of trying to keep the signs of their lives oriented to the One they were made to point to.

But even with questions like this, we sometimes get turned around.

Like the child who came to church every single Sunday - a streak of more than two years - with a determination that would rival Cal Ripken Jr.’s, and every time he thought about how this made him better than the ones who didn’t come quite as often.  Or the man who didn’t come as often because he was convinced that this showed how he wasn’t caught up in the self-righteous games of the uber-religious.  He’s not an institutional sell-out like the rest of ‘em.   Or the acolyte who studied the way to light the candles without messing it up but didn’t even try to forgive his younger brother for his pounding him last weekend.  Or the member whose tithe had become a badge of honor such that she could keep herself certain that no one was as invested in the life of her church or the Kingdom of God as she was.  Or the priest who had decided that self-help psychology was probably of more use than the Gospel because, while psychology was of less long-term benefit, at least it didn’t always require his embarrassing God to show up.

All of them, in their strange ways, keeping the signs, but not pointing in clear ways to anything of lasting value.

So here’s the question for us, for you: what in your life is of lasting value?  What in your life is of lasting value that does not depend on your self and your relative accomplishments - that is, your being better than others at something - and your needing to keep up a good front?  This is the place of forgiveness and mercy, receiving the kindness of God. 

Rebekah shared with me that a Catholic friend once said to his Episcopal friend that he thought it was interesting that Episcopalians take Communion while Catholics receive it.  I hope not, but that’s the question:

In what ways are you pointing to God, not by your merit, not polished, not fixed, but broken, simply by expecting to meet him?  Receiving the gift that is God.

We religious folks are the quickest to miss it - that’s what Jesus tells us.  But it’s not too late.  He’s still here.  Not going anywhere.  Ours is an open invitation to join the tax collectors and prostitutes - if they’ll have us - the ones who are enjoying their inside joke with Jesus: that sins are forgiven, that lives are made new, that fear and control are being replaced by God’s kindness and grace, the joy of the Kingdom.  That in the Kingdom of God, all signs point to ‘yes!’ 

That’s the best thing about signs.  Signs call you back to the thing you have to share.  O! to be made a pointer to the presence, the Kingdom, of God.

Amen.

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