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, March 08, 2015

The curious incident of the Christian accused of being nice

**  It's been a long time since I've actually posted a sermon - or anything, for that matter!  Hopefully I'll get around to catching up on all that lost time.  In the meantime, here's today's!


Lent 3B
John 2:13-22


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Earlier this week, I went into the city to see a show.  You’ve probably heard me talk about how much I enjoy the New York theater scene.  But really, it’s almost moved beyond anything that could be called a hobby, into the realm of full-on addiction.  I follow the news coming out of the theater world pretty closely.  I try to stay abreast of what shows are coming and when, and I try to see everything that I can (or at least everything that I can get discounted tickets to!).  I even read the published list of “Broadway Grosses” each week - a collection of raw data for every show on Broadway - how much money it took in, how many seats it sold, what percentage of its capacity sold, etc., etc.

So, the fact that I made it into the city to see a show is pretty unremarkable.

But, as I was leaving the theater, and making my way back to the train, I happened to bump into a friend of mine who does a lot of work on Broadway.  I called out to him and we chatted for a few minutes while we were walking along in the same direction.  Knowing me like he does, he knew why I was in the city without my even having to volunteer it, and he asked me what show I’d gone to see.  I told him that I’d been to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  He asked what I thought about it, and I offered effusive praise - which it definitely deserved.  It was one of the most engaging and visually beautiful plays I’d ever seen.

He sort of paused for a minute and said, “Oh, that’s such a Christian response.”

I asked him what he’d meant by that and he said, “well, you like everything.  You’re a priest.  Y’all always have to be nice.”

I assured him that that wasn’t the case - that I see plenty of theater that I don’t care for, or that’s poorly produced, and that I’m not at all afraid to say so when I do encounter it.  He asked for an example, and on the spot, I couldn’t think of anything.  So the exchange ended when he had to cross the street, with me unable the defend myself as an occasionally ornery Christian!

It was funny how that exchange sat so heavily on me in the days that followed.  I thought about it a lot.  Why did it bother me so much that I was accused of always being nice?  Isn’t it good to be nice?  Why did I get defensive about being a nice Christian, in particular?

The truth of the matter is, I think we Christians get a bad rap for being too nice.  And I do sometimes get a little defensive about it.  Moreover, I think we’ve internalized this bad rap a little too much, too.

Who ever said Christianity was just about being nice?  Who ever said Christianity was about not making waves, or behaving as the dominant structures of society said we should behave?

In reality, the example that Jesus set for us is just the opposite.  It’s true that Jesus was often compassionate.  It’s true that Jesus was kind to children and the elderly and the ill and the bereaved.  He helped them whenever he could.  But that wasn’t all that he did!

In the Gospel lesson that we’ve read today, we hear one of the classic stories of Jesus, the troublemaker.  Jesus certainly didn’t always follow the rules, and the story of his Passover tantrum in the Temple is a prime example.  But it’s nowhere near the only example.  Jesus was always disrupting the powers that be.  That’s why they wanted him dead.  It wasn’t just some mysterious, metaphysical fulfilling of prophesy.  It wasn’t just God’s plan.  It wasn’t just the necessary atonement to satiate God’s wrath.  Despite whatever you believe or don’t believe about any of those theological concepts - the truth is, the vehicle for the crucifixion was more of a sociological concept than it was a theological concept.

Leaders often fear other leaders.  The establishment always fears the germs of opposition and tries to squash them before they can take root and spread.  The powerful will always resist the efforts of the oppressed to gain equality.

There are countless examples of this truth throughout history.  The story of Jesus is just one - but it’s one that informs our faith and action even today.  Just yesterday we celebrated the 50th anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when protesters from across the country came together to show the strength of the oppressed to their oppressors.  They were people of faith and action who knew that it wasn’t enough to sit on the sidelines and to smile our way into some polite fantasy of what freedom and victory might look like.  They knew that they had to stand up, and they had to break the rules, and they had to ruffle some feathers.  It wouldn’t be enough to keep sweet and to hope for the best.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to stomp and claw our way to “the best” - whatever that would end up being.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to turn over the tables of the status quo.  Like the Christ who went before us, we would have to disrupt oppression.

Like the Christ who went before us, it wouldn’t be easy, or calm, or nice.  It’s almost never easy, but it’s almost always necessary if any real change or social growth is to happen.

I’m reminded of the prayer that Bishop Gene Robinson gave at President Obama’s first inauguration.  Among a shocking litany of other petitions, Bishop Robinson asked God to “bless us with anger - at discrimination at home and abroad…”

Righteous anger - the kind that comes from confronting hypocrisy and injustice - is, indeed, a blessing.  A blessing we all too often shirk.  But it is a sign of being Christ-like, if, sadly, not often enough like most Christians.  It’s certainly more Christ-like than any superficial attempts at shallow niceties.

Through these weeks of Lent, so far, we’ve been talking about changing our perspectives - about shifting the ways that we view the world, and our place in it, both as individuals, and as the community of Christians at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

How might our perspectives shift if, as our Lenten discipline, we abandoned our attempts at being merely nice, and instead, focused more fully on being Christ-like: even when that’s hard; even when it’s not the most popular thing?

I think one of the reasons that churches have been struggling so hard through the past few decades is that people have actually started listening to us.  They hear what we preach and what we sing and the lessons that we read and study, and too often they see that we’re not living faithfully to those precepts of our faith.  They know that being Christian is about more than painting on a smile, and they become exasperated when they think that that’s all we know how to do.

I think if we were better at shifting our perspectives to a truer understanding of the Gospel and the one whom that Gospel teaches us to pattern our lives after, we’d look a little more honest to those people outside these walls, and perhaps a little more attractive, as well.  It would probably be unpleasant sometimes.  We’d probably have to turn over a few tables here and there.  It certainly wouldn’t be as easy as painting on a smile.  But it would be truer to the faith that we proclaim, and that integrity would inspire us and those around us.

The people we encounter on the streets would probably still expect us to be flat caricatures of niceness.  But what would it mean if we showed them how dynamic we and our faith could be?

It might be scary, but Lent is a time to face those fears.  How else could we walk with Christ?  Amen.

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