The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Inextricable Community (or, You are Not Alone)

Easter 6A
John 14:15-21

In the name of God. Amen.

It’s an ongoing joke among preachers who occasionally give “children’s sermons”, that if you ask any question during the course of a children’s sermon - no matter the question - the answer you are likely to receive will be “God”, “Jesus”, or “love”. The funny thing about this reality of the life of the preacher is that it’s very often correct. The problem only comes up when you’re looking for something else: who built the ark? Why did Judas betray Jesus? Who helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea? Sometimes we’re just not looking for God, Jesus, or love!

But the thing is, very often, kids seem to have gotten it right. Perhaps we’re teaching them something in Sunday School after all!

When you’re faced with a question about the Bible or about our life as Christians - particularly about God and Jesus - the answer is, very often, love. That’s the message of Jesus in the gospel lesson for today. And not just love, but love in community.

I was laughing with a friend earlier this week about the writing in John’s gospel. Sometimes its poetry is simply so moving. But then there are those other times… Sometimes John seems so wrapped up in making a logical argument that it’s hard to cut through the web of words - as if he’s so trying to cover all possibilities so much that hardly a shred of clarity of what he means can slip through!

Like today for example: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

It’s like John is trying to cover all the possibilities. But in leaving no relationship unmentioned, he almost muddies it all!

But what is John talking about? I am in the Father and the Father is in me and I am in you? The description sound like those Russian nesting dolls, but as if they were nesting both ways - the larger dolls nesting inside the smaller!

And that’s kind of what it is, I suppose.

The message of Jesus in John’s gospel is the message of inextricable community. The communal nature of God lives in the community of God’s followers. And the loving nature of God lives in the love of the community of God’s people.

The message of Jesus is a message of community.

One of the challenges of this text in the English language is that there is no grammatically correct translation of the plural “you”. Of course, in the South, we have “y’all”, which better conveys what John’s Jesus is talking about here, but among most English speakers, “you” can be either singular or plural.

The problem with that is, it leaves a pretty essential part of the message to interpretation.

When I was in seminary Bishop Croneberger taught a course on Episcopal polity to the Episcopal students at Drew University. Early in the course he asked us what we thought the “central unit” of the Episcopal Church was. Most people guessed that it was the parish - are we not a collection of parishes? A few people guessed that it was the General Convention - the source of our laws and governance. But Bishop Croneberger taught that the central unit of the Episcopal Church is the diocese. As a church, we are essentially a collection of dioceses. It is the dioceses that make up the General Convention and the dioceses that create the parishes.

Similarly, we might ask ourselves, “What is the central unit of Christianity?”

I think Jesus would say that it’s “you” - but the plural variety. More accurately, “Y’all”.

The problem is, our culture has trained us away from any inclination toward hearing “you” in its plural form. We have been conditioned to think individualistically. We have been conditioned away from community. When we hear “Christ is in you,” we tend to hear it more as “Christ is in me,” not “Christ is in us.”

It’s true that Christ is in each of us. But the fullness of Christ can’t be understood that way. Our only hope of approaching an understanding of the fullness of Christ is in understanding it through community - through the aspects of Christ that are beyond ourselves, and complementary to the bits of truth that each of us brings.

One of my favorite shows on television is “Good Eats” on the Food Network. In it, Alton Brown, the show’s host, explains the science behind why cooking works the way it does. On a episode that I watched recently he explained why salty and sweet flavors go so well together. It’s really amazing - very often, sweet flavors naturally come with bitter flavors. One answer to this dilemma is to make something sweeter - to try to mask the bitterness. But, he explained, salt has the ability to block the bitter receptors in the tongue. As such, a little salt hides the bitterness making sweet flavors stand out all the more. Neither salt alone nor sugar alone can create a flavor as complex and satisfying as the two paired together.

That’s the way it is in community. Together we create a complexity that more closely mirrors the reality of God than any of us could alone. Our sweetness and our savory-ness, and yes, sometimes even our bitterness, all come together. They work together and they complement one another and sometimes even counteract one another.

Christ does not leave us orphaned - we are not alone. The Spirit of truth lives in us. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let not your hearts be troubled

Easter 5A
John 14:1-14

In the name of God. Amen.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

One of the secrets of preaching - at least as I’ve seen it - is simply to spend time with the words. I usually start the process of writing the sermon for each Sunday after church on the Sunday before by simply reading through the texts and thinking about the words almost as if I’d never heard them before.

Throughout the week there are many other steps in the preparation - from the more spiritual side: praying about the congregation and where we are and what I think we need to hear, and thinking and praying about my own life and where I am and what I think I need to hear; to the more practical side: reading commentaries, and doing exegesis, and making notes, and sketching outlines. But in reality, the single thing that helps me to prepare to preach each week more than anything else is just sitting with the words - noticing which ones stand out for me, noticing which ones take on the quality of prayer in themselves.

This week it was this simple, familiar opening line: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

It became like a mantra to me - repeating that short, simple phrase over and over again as I went about my daily tasks.

Part of why these words are so familiar to so many of us is because they are very often the words read at funerals. They’re designed to give us comfort in times of uncertainty.

And it’s not just that the choice of them is by design, though it certainly is. But even Jesus’ intention here is to give the disciples comfort in what is about to become a time of great uncertainty for them. This is the beginning of what is known among biblical scholars as “the farewell discourse” in John’s gospel. It’s where Jesus begins the process of saying goodbye before his crucifixion.

But we’re still in Easter, right? Point a), didn’t we already lose Jesus a few weeks ago on Good Friday, and point b), isn’t the point of Easter that we don’t really have to say goodbye?

It takes a little teasing out. It’s true; we’re still celebrating the Resurrection and our belief that Christ overcame the bonds of death. But it’s also true that Easter is almost over: just two more Sundays after today. And then it’s Pentecost - when we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to inspire and strengthen the church that follows Christ. But just before Pentecost, is the Ascension: when Christ was raised again, this time to reign over all with God the Creator.

So today our cycle of readings give us the first whispers of a goodbye: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

There have been times in my life when I’ve heard these words with less grace than I do today. Perhaps it’s because my heart is not particularly “troubled” right now that I can allow them to wash over me with a sense of peace. But there have been times, and very likely will be times again, when these words would strike me as jarring - perhaps even dismissive.

If your heart really is troubled, you don’t particularly want to hear, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” It would be like saying “there are plenty of fish in the sea” to someone who is going through a difficult breakup, or “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” to someone who feels decidedly weaker during a challenging time in their life. Whether or not those statements are true in a given situation, in times of crisis they really don’t help.

But today, Jesus’ words don’t strike me as trite or cliché. They strike me as words of reassurance from a trusted, old friend.

It’s true that in just a couple of weeks it will be time to say “farewell” to Jesus again. He’ll still be around, of course, but in a different way than we’ve probably become used to. The Easter times in our lives always seem a little too short-lived. At the end of them we invariably return to a kind of “life as usual”. But it has to be a new kind of “life as usual”. After confronting Easter, life is never quite the same as it was before.

For the past week or so, Christianity has been in the spotlight once again. Sadly, that’s almost never a good thing. When it’s not because of scandals or infighting, our spotlight seems to shine to poke fun. Some time ago, a fundamentalist man in California decided that he’d figured out when the end of the world would come. It would be yesterday, he said. It seems that people are nearly always predicting the end of the world, but for some reason, this time the rumors took hold and the popular culture paid attention.

Lots of people had fun with it. I’ll admit, I did a little, too. But now, in the wake, I find myself almost sad. Not that I was hoping yesterday would be the end of my earthly life - I really still feel like I’ve got a lot left to do here. But I’m almost sad, because once again, Christianity has become the subject of ridicule by some of the people in the world who most yearn for the messages we try to share with the world when we’re at our best: the messages of love, and of community, and of concern for those regarded as “least” in the world. I’m sad for all those who pinned their hope on a false prophesy instead of on the very real and living love of Christ as it can be known in even this world. I’m sad because I fear it may lead to crises of faith that most of us can’t possibly fathom among those who most wanted to believe.

But in another way, it’s like Easter all over again. As I heard a friend say over the weekend, “I, for one, am not sorry to rise and find the flawed world still turning this morning. I am grateful to the predictors of The End for inviting us all to look up and around today, with an extra bit of wakeful reverence for just how truly beautiful the imperfect can be.”

That’s really what it means to “let not our hearts be troubled.” It’s not trite or cliché. It’s not a denial of imperfection. It’s peace in the face of inevitable imperfection.

The world is not perfect. And every time we see that again, and moreover see that “it’s not the end of the world” just because the world isn’t perfect, it’s Easter again. Every time we “look up and around with an extra bit of wakeful reverence for just how truly beautiful the imperfect can be,” it’s Easter again.

It may be time to start saying goodbye to the Easter normal, but Easter is always within reach. It’s just a matter of reaching out for it.

The world may not have ended yesterday as some had believed it would, but perhaps if this week inspires a little more “wakeful reverence” a part of it did - at least for a while. If so, then we all have reason to let the troubles of our hearts rest. At least for a while. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

There's no way around it

Easter 4A
John 10:1-10
Acts 2:42-47

In the name of God. Amen.

There seems to be no way around it.

Each year in the Easter season, the First Lesson each Sunday is from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Have you noticed the change? Throughout most of the year the first lesson that we read each week is reserved for a lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (or “The Old Testament). But in the Easter season, we read three lessons from the New Testament instead of our usual two.

I’ll admit that it’s one of my favorite times of year.

You may remember from Palm Sunday that I talked about how we’re not just passive observers of the stories of history, but that we are active participants in a faith that still lives today. It is, perhaps, easiest to think that way around Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, but it’s true all year - not just on Holy Days. We are still active participants - even now.

As we struggle to embrace the wild ideas of new life in this still-celebrated Easter season - particularly now: in a wider culture that can’t seem to hear it - the corresponding experiences of our sisters and brothers from centuries ago in the time of the Acts seem particularly relevant. How much more must they have felt strange and outside their culture than we do?! How much more must they have felt the pressures of a culture that wanted nothing to do with the joys of resurrection that they were uncovering?!

Yes, there’s just no way around it. In these first days after that earth-shaking first Easter, we turn to our ancestors of the earliest days of the church to hear how they found a way to live with their new reality - because we are still searching for how to live with ours.

The short answer for how they found a way to live with their new reality was this: they stuck together. In what would come to be called “the church”, they began their lives as Christians by banding together. They learned early on, and through the teachings of Jesus, that they were stronger together.

For many years I’ve used the metaphor of music to describe my relationship with the church. These days it seems fashionable for people to talk about being “spiritual but not religious”, or to talk about their faith as it’s practiced individually. People often speak with pride about how they “don’t need to church to believe in God.”

In response to such conversations I often talk about how I experience music: I love music. I can feel moved by beautiful music like almost nothing else. And though the performance of a single voice can be powerful - whether instrumental or vocal - and though it can even help me to better experience God, it is never as rich as when it’s combined with other voices in a symphony or a chorus. The voices join in complementing and contrasting lines - often even in outright dissonance - to provide a richness that no one voice alone could convey.

That’s the way the church is to me. As beautiful and moving as individual faith is for me, it’s all the more moving when joined with other voices - in harmonies, but even in dissonances. Together we capture what I believe to be a truer picture of the reality of God.

And that seems to be what our forbearers in the earliest church seem to have discovered as well.

The stories from the Book of Acts seem almost fantastical to most of us in the church today. Throughout most of our lives we’ve felt the slow drip of decline in the church. We’re in a season of history in which the church is having a crisis of recognizing and conveying its relevance to the wider culture in which it finds itself.

But when we read from Acts we hear stories of thousands who are converted to the faith after hearing a single sermon! Even today’s lesson closes by saying, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” In a church - not just our parish, but the church as a whole - that sometimes feels like it’s fighting for its life, and perhaps even its soul, words like this sound pretty attractive.

But how did they get there?

Well, there’s no way around it.

They didn’t get there through slick advertising campaigns or give-aways. They didn’t get there by hiring praise bands or singing the hymns that everyone wanted to hear. They didn’t even get there by hiring a preacher that made everybody feel good.

They got there by being the church. “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

There’s simply no way around it.

In the Gospel lesson today we hear lots of imagery about gates and gatekeepers. I’ll admit that that’s not my favorite imagery for the faith. Too often in the church we concern ourselves with gates and gatekeepers at our peril. We see the church as something to be hoarded and protected - keeping it separate from those we see as outsiders. But that’s not the point of the gates and gatekeepers in Jesus’ image here. Jesus leads those who will follow outside the gates.

There are those, we’re warned, who do not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but who try to climb in by another way. But the truth is, there is no other way.

That’s what those followers of the early church knew. And it’s what we, of the church today, would be wise to remember: there’s no way around the secrets of a successful church or even a strong personal faith. Many may try to climb in by another way, but the true path to a successful and thriving church was outlined for us in the Book of Acts - the story of the first successful church - and we reaffirm it each time we renew our own baptismal commitment: we are called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There’s your recipe for a strong church. If we all commit to devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to our common fellowship, to the breaking of bread - both in fellowship and in sacrament, and to a genuine and heartfelt prayer life - if we do all of that, and not just on Sundays, but all the time, then we will be a strong church. There’s simply no way around it.

May this be our Easter promise: that we recommit ourselves to the basic elements of our faith that so often seem lost or buried; that we reject all the false promises of shortcuts, recognizing that only a living, day-to-day practice of faith will truly make us strong; and that we remember that we can only do it together.

That’s what the first Christians learned and there’s still no way around it. Amen.