Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Church Alive

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 9, 2007
Year C / Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

It’s interesting to note that the time of year that used to be known as “back to school” time and the threshold of fall, is now better remembered as the season of 9/11 and Katrina. “Cruel April” was the month that the poet T.S. Eliot picked on in the past century, but perhaps in this century we might say, instead, “cruel August” and “cruel September”. When members of this congregation add our personal losses, the sense of “cruel September” becomes even stronger. Four years ago today we lost our friend, Elden.

What makes us human, in part, is our ability to remember events and to put values on those memories. The birth of Michael Holmes, for example, on this September day some 20 years remains an occasion for sacred joy in the Holmes household and in our church family.

If what makes us human is our ability to remember events and to put values on those memories, what makes us people of faith, in part, is our ability to robustly imagine God in all of life’s event—not as a causative agent, not as a divine puppeteer manipulating life’s events, but as a rich presence in whom we may dwell and to whom we may turn, with confidence whenever nature or human cruelty seem to conspire against us. As the Psalmist reminds us: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in every generation.” (Ps. 90:1)

The people of the early church largely believed that no matter how much God was for them, that the world was essentially against them. Life on earth and the chapters of the book of life were limited. Time would soon end with a thunderclap, they believed, and God’s eternal reign would begin. We will, of course, note that it was a dangerous time, in general, but it was a particularly dangerous time to be a follower of Jesus.

People of every age have tended to view the “brokenness” of the world as something that would surely receive a “divine fix” of some fashion or another. The Greeks in their tragi-comedies portrayed God has a “divine machine” that would swoop in when all seemed utterly lost to set it all right again, once and for all. The prophets of Israel viewed God as a kind of cosmic developer who would raze the old broken world and throw up a shiny new dwelling place for God’s people.

I never fail to be shocked how many people today still take that kind of simple, mechanical view of God’s involvement in history and the belief that God will one day “soon” slam the door and fix the mess.

This past Wednesday, our group of local Pacific Coast Baptists that lunch together monthly heard our friend LeAnn Flesher talk about a book she has recently written. Dr. Flesher is the professor of Old Testament at our seminary in Berkeley. Her book examines the phenomenon of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ stupendously successful “Left Behind” series of books. She said that what they envisioned as a novel on the end of the world is now eighteen volumes that have sold over 60 million volumes worldwide and made their authors fabulously wealthy men.

Left Behind purports to be a fictionalized account of the Biblical view of the end of the world, including the rapture when faithful Christians get pulled out of harm’s way while the rest of the not-quite-faithful-enough, or the worship the wrong God, or the love the wrong gender of people … all get pulled into horrible wars and violence. Ultimately, in this scenario, God cleanses the earth of its unfaithful human occupants, the “damned”, sending them into eternal torment, while the shiny happy good Christian people live happily ever after with their blond haired, blue-eyed Jesus. OK, that’s not quite fair, but it’s not far off.

Left Behind may be gripping as fiction, but it’s dangerous as theology. The novel is unceasingly brutal in its portrayal of what will happen to all who do not follow Jesus—and this Jesus is no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” … this is Jesus as an angry avenging angel … this is Jesus played by a governator named “Ahnold”. A typical passage in one of the later books reads: "Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and a yawning chasm opened in the earth, stretching far and wide enough to swallow all of them. They tumbled in, howling and screeching, but their wailing was soon quashed and all was silent when the earth closed itself again." If it is non-Christians on whom Jesus vents his wrath, it is especially the Muslim, non-Christians who seem to get the worst of it.

Nicholas Kristoff, writing in the New York Times, says: “If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of [“Left Behind”]and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture,” and, Kristoff says, in effect, it’s time to recognize the dangerous fundamentalist implications in thinly veiled religious tracts such as these.

Is Jesus as a cosmic Rambo the vision of Jesus that emerges for you when you read the Gospels? Is it possible to imagine LaHaye’s and Jenkin’s distorted image of Jesus doing anything but pouring more fuel on the already hot fires that burn among the peoples of differing faiths in our world.

During the week past, I seem to keep returning in my thoughts to the passage that was given a bit of short shift in last week’s worship. Because it seems that the author of the Book of Hebrews, whose 13th chapter we read from last Sunday, was very much aware of the kinds of distortions that could occur when times got rough. The church to whom the author of Hebrews was writing believed that they were living in the “last days”. But the belief was distorting their faith and their behavior, the belief was corroding the church.

Very often, in the midst of life’s more difficult times that the temptation to give in to our fears, or live out our prejudices or act on our baser instincts grows stronger.

When we give in to fear, there is the temptation to secure ourselves at all costs, doing everything we can to make life safe and risk-free.

In more settled times of our lives, our prejudices can lie dormant, remain unexamined and hide behind polite veneers. But fear can force our prejudices to rear their ugly heads and threaten to control us.

Fear can cause us to forget the lessons we’ve learned and to forsake the better instincts of our Christian faith. Values of all kinds can erode and fail when fear takes over and prejudices are uncovered.

This post-9/11 era has been marked by a huge public and national struggle between civil liberties and national safety. A “safety at all costs” mentality threatens many of the freedoms that are the great hallmark and heritage of our national life. Racial and religious profiling is on the rise, xenophobia—fear of others who are different—is on the rise, the rhetoric of “us vs. them”, “good” vs. “evil” is on the rise, hate crimes are on the rise. We rush to secure our borders as though the greater threat was beyond us and not within us.

In the early church, we may take the Apostle Paul’s words, written to the Christians in Corinth, as descriptive of the kind of difficult existence early Christians faced. In 1st Corinthians 4, Paul described his state of existence as: “hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, 12 weary… reviled … persecuted … slandered … like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things.” We can imagine that all who sought to be the church in that time and to maintain any kind of public witness could expect a similarly difficult existence.

And so it was for the community to whom the author of Hebrews wrote: a community that expected Jesus to return to rescue them at any moment … any moment now … just … any … moment … now. The focus of ideas and sympathies and energies that can make any community strong and purposeful were being drawn and away and eroded by the difficulty of their existence and their overweening confidence that it would soon end.

And as a result,

· community was coming apart at the seams,

· those beyond the community—strangers—were viewed with suspicion,

· hospitality flagged and failed,

· committed relationships were squandered and lost,

· sexuality became abusive,

· compassion and sympathy for others was failing,

· materialism and greed was threatening to become the ethos of the community,

· and God was being pushed to the periphery and out of their minds and their common life.

It seems the author of Hebrews does not challenge directly the belief of the immanence of the end of the world. He simply recalls the church and the people to living faithfully in the midst of difficult times. “This is what it means to be the church” he seems to be saying.

To be the faithful body of Christ in a highly imperfect world, the author suggests:

· is to hem the fraying edges of community with mutual care, to not forsake the sacred fellowship into which they have been bound together.

· it is to welcome strangers—the unfamiliar and the different, as though sent by God, it is to practice the same hospitality that has been offered graciously by God to us

· it is to keep the bonds of love in one’s primary relationship strong and alive and intact, and it is to reserve the great gift of sexuality for one’s highest human commitment,

· it is to nurture one’s capacity to feel and sympathize and have compassion for another—putting yourself in their place, walking in their shoes, standing behind their bars and knowing the pit of hunger in their stomachs.

· it is to get it in the right order that we are to love people and use things. It is to resist putting our trust in mere stuff, willing, instead, to risk everything on God and on God's promise not to leave us or forsake us.

This is, in part, what it means to be the faithful body of Christ in a highly imperfect world. This is, in part, what it means to be the Church Alive in the World.

So here we are … 6 years after 9/11 … 4 years after a painful, personal loss … 2 years after Katrina … here we are living in a highly imperfect world … and living, many of us, disabused of or surgically separated from the belief that God is going to, any time soon, “rescue” us. And, like the author of Hebrews writing within the context of his own very imperfect world, we have a strong concern to resist the breakdown of community and community values within and beyond the church.

An article was published in the Contra Costa Times this summer and it noted the great struggle that many churches like ours have to maintain their membership, much less grow. The two Presbyterian congregations that took their lumps in the article are smallish, theologically progressive, socially active congregations like us and are pastored by two close friends of mine. I took great joy in needling them after the article came out. But let there be no doubt that the era in which we live is hard on communities such as ours and theirs. In the years covered in the article, both congregations had suffered serious membership declines. In that same article in the Times, there was also mention made of large, booming Presbyterian congregations … these are, for the most part, theologically conservative churches … yet very modern and affluent in their worship spaces and in the electronic gadgetry they use to facilitate worship. These are congregations that reek of success, and indeed they are—at least in the ways that seem to matter to them. Now I do not, at least in this sermon, mean to cast aspersions on these large congregations. I simply note that our differing values as churches seem to directly influence how many people choose—or don’t choose, as the case may be—to beat a path to our respective doors.

Well, we are not a Presbyterian church (“Thank the Lord”, I hope you’ll tell Roger I said quite loudly). Yet we are subject to the same corrosion and corrosive influences as both our Presbyterian friends as well as the church to whom the author of Hebrews wrote.

We are a unique American Baptist congregation. We are proud of our Baptist heritage, and deeply respectful of the Baptist principles that are a part of our birthright. By claiming such historic giants as Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King, Jr. in our family tree, it means that we think that the church ought to be loving meddlers in the challenges our society and our world face. Speaking truth to power and taking the gospel to the seats of influence are important to us … as is serving in quiet, humble and compassionate ways, serving those who suffer, serving those to whom Christ has sent us.

We are concerned, also, about wholeness, whether the wholeness from the heart of God that speaks of Shalom in our world or the wholeness that is latent in each human being. Fragmenting energies abound that seek to drive us from each other and to drive our inner selves apart.

The good news is that there is … well … “good news”. There is restoration in God’s wings … God’s energies of “de-fragmentation” and reconciliation are alive in our world. The Good News is that God loves the world … loves, not hates … loves the world so much that God would spend all of God’s own being to give the world the Shalom and the Wholeness that it longs for, that it needs, that it is dying for a lack of.

We do well not to live in ignorance of these things … of God’s love … and of the many creative and daring ways that God’s love can be made manifest through us … and … sometimes in spite of us. Our heads and our hearts need to be equally engaged in deepening our awareness of the ways of God and the ways God would use us.

But we are not lone rangers on the dusty trail that leads to Shalom. Yet individualism is rampant … the rugged determination go it alone … the “I’ll do it my way and you can take the highway” singers of sad songs of separation. Like coals in a fire, we burn brightly with God’s love and the message of Shalom when we burn together. Pull us apart, and we can barely stay warm. Push us back together and we’ll set the world ablaze with a new sense of the justice and the hope and the peace that it yearns for … and deserves.

You may not be aware of it, but I have just reiterated the full meaning of the S.H.E.L.L. acronym with which I hope you are familiar:

S is for “Social Justice”

H is for “Healing”

E is for “Evangelism”

L is for “Learning”, and

L is for “Life Together”

And I think that these five things, these five emphases, still summarize pretty well what it means to be this church, still summarize our sense of ourselves in the world as we work out our discipleship to Jesus with “fear and trembling”. As with the re-worked clay pot in the potter’s hands, in this morning’s reading from Jeremiah, God’s lines are on us and within us. And yet we have not finished our journey or our work. God is—if we will allow it—seeking ever and always to melt us and mold us and fill us and use us—as we sang it last Sunday in the round.

We may not do well to maintain the belief that God is the “civil engineer” of our world, but we do do well to maintain and deepen the belief that God is the “architect” of our souls and our becoming.

This is the message of Psalm 139 – that is God is profoundly tied up, mixed up, wrapped up, tangled up in our whole existence—from before our birth, throughout our whole life and into the mystery that is beyond life. Tomorrow at Dana’s mother’s memorial celebration, Dana herself will read from Romans 8 where Paul reminds us so powerfully that: “nothing can separate us from the love of God …”. Nothing.

So, Paul says … to the Christians in Rome, but no less to the Christians at 200 La Casa Via who are Shell Ridge Church … Paul says: “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

The Church Alive … by the power of God, in the ways of Christ, by the leading of the Holy Spirit. May it be so in this time among this people. Amen.

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