Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28, 2013 - Easter 5C

In the name of the Risen Lord. Amen.
            Evangelism. It’s a word that makes us rather uncomfortable, doesn’t it? If I tell you that we’ll be forming a group to foster the work of evangelism at St. Francis and in our community, you’d get more uncomfortable than you do when I preach about money and stewardship. We hear the word evangelism and we think of a theology that is often deficient, harmful, and hypocritical. Evangelism reminds us of shady televangelists, colonialism, and closing the blinds and hiding behind the sofa when you see the young men wearing white shirts and black ties walking down your driveway. I had a conversation a few months ago with someone about evangelism and while they understood the need for it, they suggested that perhaps we find a different word to use, perhaps something less uncomfortable and politically charged.
            But the message this morning is that evangelism is our calling, and it is time for us to reclaim that word and the values that go along with it. Throughout this sermon, we’ll consider how evangelism is misunderstood, and how we might better understand it, and therefore be able to claim our evangelical calling. And unless you’re reading this on my blog, you can’t tell that the word evangelical in this sermon has a lower case “e;” I am not speaking about what the media would consider being an upper-case Evangelical Christian, but rather, our calling to follow Jesus and share the Good News. In fact, that’s all that evangelism means; in Greek, it means “good message.”
            Evangelism is not about conversion, it is not about saving souls, it is not about bringing in more young families to the church, it is not done as a duty, or as a means of obtaining cheap grace in which we are made right with God so that we can then live however we see fit. Instead, evangelism is about hearing the narrative of God, proclaiming your role in God’s ever unfolding drama, and listening to the story of others.
            Our scriptural lens this morning is the reading from Acts. This is one of most compelling and powerful stories in all of Bible. Peter is in Joppa, near modern day Tel Aviv, and is being criticized for his ministry and eating with non-Jewish members of the Way, people whom we would call Christians. His critics saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, of the Jews, for the Jews, and by the Jews. They were suspicious of outsiders joining the Way. And so Peter begins to pray and has a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, and on that sheet where non-kosher animals and he was told to “kill and eat.” Immediately, he says “no!” Perhaps he thought this was a test. Peter was a good Jew, and keeping dietary laws was important to him. This was non-negotiable for him. In Bible, things happen three times to Peter, so it happens two more times. And then he gets it and he relays the message “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” They all understand that the Way was open to everyone, as the Holy Spirit descends upon and fills us all.
            This was an extremely radical move for the early followers of Jesus. They went from being a small group of followers, to a worldwide movement without borders. No voter identification cards required; all are welcome to participate in following Jesus. They thought they understood their mission, they thought the story of God was the story of Israel, but they now saw that the story of God was about all of Creation.
            And in this movement, the real need for evangelism emerged. The Gospel was now being proclaimed to people who perhaps were unfamiliar with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People who had never seen the Temple in Jerusalem were now invited to be baptized into the Body of Christ. And so the story of God needed to be told. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they claimed their rightful role in the story of God as main characters. And the same is true for us. We are all characters in God’s unfolding drama. There are no extras in this drama, we all have important roles, we are all lead characters with speaking lines. We might do some work behind the scenes from time to time, but the spotlight is on us. And right now, our world needs to see more Christians thriving in that spotlight instead of fumbling through their lines so miserably.
            The first thing that we see in Acts is that God’s Spirit blows in new and unexpected ways, and the Spirit moves in a way that touches us all. In Revelation today, the one seated on the throne says “see, I am making all things new.” There is a constant Creation going on. The Spirit continues to move and continues to demolish boundaries that we have set up. The work of evangelism is paying attention to what new things God is doing in our lives, and linking that movement of the Spirit with God’s larger story for all of Creation.
            And the second lesson from Acts is that there is no one who is outside. The Gospel is for the whole world. In our reading from John, Jesus tells the disciples in his farewell dialogue that “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He reminds them of the love that he has showed towards them, and tells them that one day soon, he won’t be around to show them that love, so it will be imperative that they keep his love alive amongst each other. And this is part of evangelism as well, loving each other. And if you love someone, you will want to know about their story, and you will share your story with them.
            What all of these lessons this morning point towards is the fact that God is moving in the lives of others. Evangelism is about trusting that truth. God’s Spirit moves in everyone; God is doing a new thing through us all; God loves us all. And much of the fear and trepidation around evangelism is alleviated if we can trust that.
            Evangelism is not about taking God to new frontiers, as God is already there. Doing the work of evangelism isn’t about telling people something that they don’t already know; it is, rather simply, helping people to be aware of those things that they have felt. If we truly believe that each person is created by God, that each person is loved by God, that God longs for all of Creation to be in harmony, that God’s Spirit moves among us all, then evangelism is helping people to recognize and name that. Evangelism though becomes scary when our trust waivers, when we lose sight of the fact that God is already moving in their life, when we forget just how good the Good News is.
            And our world needs more Good News right now. But let me suggest that evangelism is about you and me, and not about the propping up of the institutions of religion. The religious landscape of our culture is changing. And many people are meeting this change with fear and denial. Some people are proclaiming that we’ve simply lost our way and need to get back to affirming things such as the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection as simple fixes to declining church attendance. Others will say that we need to transform ourselves to meet the needs of the culture, so more and more coffee shop style churches are popping up. When I was on paternity leave, I visited one of these hip, young churches and let me tell you, it was the most self-serving and shallow attempt at worship that I’ve ever seen. I won’t go into it now, we can talk more about that later if you want to hear more. But there are “experts” everywhere trying to diagnose the problems of the Church and recommend remedies.
            Evangelism, understood properly, though reminds us that we already have everything we need. We have God’s story, as told through Scripture and the lives of faithful people throughout the generation. And if we spend some serious time in prayer and reflection, we can be aware of our own role in God’s story. And if we trust that God isn’t just moving in our lives, but in the lives of our neighbors, and family, and coworkers, then we can share our story with them. And not just share our story, but perhaps more importantly, listen to their story.
            What evangelism so often gets wrong is that people assume that evangelism is about telling their story more than it is about listening to the story of the other person. If evangelism is about God’s story, we should be yearning to learn more about God. Earlier this month, there was a great anniversary that sadly wasn’t as widely celebrated as it should have been. April 16th was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. writing The Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is one of the most powerful pieces of Christian witness ever written, and part of what I enjoy so much about that letter is that it gives a very powerful insight into the story of God in the life of Martin Luther King. And if you ask me, it is worthy of being called scripture, right along with St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Corinthians, or Ephesians.
            Earlier this week, one of our parishioners, Ryan Mails, met with Bishop Curry about his discerning a call to ordained ministry. And as I worked with Ryan on the initial stages of the discernment process, what I loved the most was hearing about how God was moving in his life. And in hearing Ryan’s story, I learned more about my own. When I learned how God moves in Ryan’s life, I couldn’t help but wonder, “what if God moves in my life in the same way and I just wasn’t paying attention to it?”
            There is no one size fits all story out there. CS Lewis, speaking about evangelism, said “it is right to be concerned about the salvation of our loved ones, but we should not demand or expect that their salvation should conform to some readymade pattern of our own.” Remember, God does new things. When we listen in evangelism, we learn not only more about God, but we learn about how God might also be moving in our own lives.
            Evangelism is also about finding ways to take bold steps, knowing that there are no boundaries to God’s Spirit, to show people that they are a part of God’s story. One of our parishioners recently told me a wonderful story about their efforts in evangelism. She was at an urgent-care clinic on Good Friday, and a man came up to the window, upset that they wouldn’t take his out of state insurance. And he’s particularly upset that the billing department was closed that day. Neither he, nor the receptionist, knew what holiday it was that caused the billing department to be closed. And so he sat down. And this parishioner asked him “May I tell you about Good Friday?” And he agreed. So she told him the story of Good Friday. And after she told him about the crucifixion, he shouted “what’s so good about that?” But she continued to tell him the rest of the Easter story and he concluded “well, that is good then, isn’t it.” Now this parishioner is self-admittedly, not the person you’d expect this story to be about, and said that evangelism is far outside her comfort zone. But she said to me “all I can do is listen, share what God can do, and share what God has done in my life.” Amen. I couldn’t say it any better myself.
            Evangelism can be a challenge, especially for those of us who were trained to not discuss religion or politics in public, for those of us who are introverts, or don’t particularly enjoy talking about deeply personal matters with strangers or mere acquaintances. Evangelism though becomes possible and powerful when we trust two things, first that God is already moving in their life; and secondly, that what we have to share is indeed Good News, news so good that it would be selfish to keep it ourselves, news so good that it compels us to share it, news so full of gratitude and wonder that it drive us to be evangelical.
            And I hope that you can see that this isn’t about filling pews. A bishop recently remarked that “when church people start talking about putting people in pews [or bringing in new families] they are speaking the language of decline. If our focus is to receive the life God has given to us, and live that transformed life, then the question of evangelism will take care of itself.” It’s really a question of going to church versus being the church. When you go to church, you come to receive religious goods and services, you come to be fed, you get your needs met through programs, and you expect trained professionals to lead you. But when instead we trust that God is moving in our lives, we can instead focus on being the Church. And when we are the Church, we are people on a mission, we gather to worship, not be fed. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say “I didn’t get anything out of that service;” my response is “good, you weren’t supposed to get anything about it. Worship is about God, not you.” But if we view church through the lens of a consumer, we expect to get something out of our investment. Instead though, when we are the church, we learn out to feed ourselves through the Word of God, proclaimed during worship, and through the community that gathers.
            Evangelism simply doesn’t work if we’re just trying to get people to come to church. Membership campaigns don’t work, and are quite frankly counter-productive to genuine discipleship. This sort of evangelism forces to focus on having strong Sunday School programs, lovely music, and a pretty campus not for the glory of God, but to make ourselves appear attractive to others. It’s a false evangelism, it tells the story of us instead of the story of God.
            Instead, evangelism is vibrant when we focus on being the Church. When we plant our roots deep within God’s story and then spend enough time in prayer to clearly articulate how we, both as individuals and a community, are living as a part of God’s story, then we are living as the Church. People these days aren’t looking to join something else- we’re already busy with associations such as homeowner’s boards, civic groups, scouts, PTAs at school, we really don’t need add just another membership to lists. But studies and surveys consistently show that we, as a people, are deeply hungry to belong and to have meaning.
            And our belonging is found in the story of God and our meaning is found in being the Body of Christ. You have a story that I want to hear. You have a story of God moving in your life that our world needs to hear. I’ve said enough in this sermon, so I won’t share my story now, but perhaps we can listen to God’s Spirit speaking through us over a cup of coffee sometime. As the refrain from our Psalm this morning say, “praise the Lord.” In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be gathering a group of parishioners to consider evangelism more deeply at St. Francis. We’ll meet to discuss how we might better know God’s story, how we might encourage deep listening with others, and how we might be able to articulate and boldly proclaim our place in God’s story. And it is my desire that this group will facilitate the work of evangelism throughout our parish, and into our lives, our homes, and our city. It is my prayer that in owning our stories as part of God’s, that we might be the Church in a world that deeply needs more sharing of Good News.
            The book of Acts is the story of evangelism. It tells the story of God’s Spirit leading followers of the Way into new truths. And the acts of the faithful aren’t confined to the book of Acts; your action is part of the story. We see that there are no boundaries to God’s grace and love. The work of evangelism is to trust that this same Spirit is working in the lives of everyone whom we encounter, and then sharing with them our Good News and listening to theirs. Might we heed the words of the great hymn – “tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April 14, 2013 - Easter 3C

Almighty God may you guide us to seek the truth- come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.

This morning our focus will be on our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, specifically the conversion of Saul, the persecutor of Jesus’ followers, to St. Paul, arguably the greatest of all the messengers of the Gospel. In the chapter just before this one today, Saul oversaw the stoning death of St. Stephen. And as our text today begins, we read that he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” On his way to Damascus, he encountered the Resurrected Jesus and things were never the same for him, or the world, again. After seeing Jesus, scales covered his eyes until he was baptized a few days later.

And I would suggest Saul was blind before those scales covered his eyes. He was blind to the Truth of the Gospel. He was blind to the grace of God moving around Palestine. He was blind to the new thing that God was doing. He was a devout Jew and zealous defender of the faith. The disciples were seen as enemies of both Rome and the Temple, as they were followers of Jesus, whom had been put to death in order to silence his message. But it seemed that killing him did not work. There were reports that he was risen, and there was new vigor among his followers. Saul was so convinced of what he believed about the world, that he was blind that what was happening before his very eyes. And so this morning, I want to raise the question of our own blindness.

I recently attended a lecture called “Preaching Without Apology.” One thing that was discussed was the need for preachers to get out of the way of the Gospel in sermons and instead let the truth of the text speak for itself. There is no need to explain the Gospel and assume that it is too obtuse to understand. And there is no need to give the Gospel a more pastoral and comfortable tone, as that is a betrayal of the text. As Christians, we really need to have a dialogue about the future of the Church and our own discipleship. And it’s not an easy conversation, nor should it be. To be honest, I have some trepidation about preaching this sermon because I don’t know how it will be heard, but I know that it needs to be heard. I take seriously that opening prayer, asking God to lead us to truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, and lead where it might. The 17th century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, once said “I don’t preach what people want to hear, I preach what, on the day of judgment, they will wish they would have heard.”

Look around and you’ll see we have a problem. There are stories in every journal and news outlet about the rising tide of atheism and indifference towards religion. And statistics back up what we all, in our gut, know is happening. Older generations are hanging onto their faith, though often for unknown reasons. And younger generations are staying away. I’m 29 years old, and there are only a few people in this congregation that are within a decade of my age in either direction. Our budget is tight ever year, and more parishioners are buried from this church than are baptized. And we’re in the Bible-belt. In the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast regions of this country, churches are becoming museums.

And it’s a problem for which we have no one to blame but ourselves. Christianity simply isn’t worth living or dying for in most of the instances where we find it. We have so perverted and betrayed the Gospel that we have soured the experience of discipleship. Much of the shallow and apathetic faith we find today is akin to desecrating the graves of the martyrs, who died for the greater Church. I’ll let you decided to what extent this does, or does not, apply to you personally.

Stanley Hauerwas has remarked that atheism is not the greatest enemy of Christianity, rather sentimentality is. Our greatest enemy is within; it is complacent, passive membership as the norm instead of radical discipleship. CS Lewis, writing as a demon in The Screwtape Letters, says “it will be an ill day for us demons if what most humans mean by ‘religion’ ever vanishes from the Earth. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighbourhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.” And it happens on both sides.

Evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity is a problem. The belief that the world was created 4,000 years ago in a literal seven days is simply idiotic. And I’m not going to apologize for it any longer. It makes absolutely no theological or rational sense. The Body of Christ is not called to be a homophobic, war-crazed, weapon-toting, people who claim that they are somehow saved while others are destined to hell. It’s simply wrong at best, and the work of the anti-Christ at worst.

But Evangelical Christianity is simply the other side of the same coin of Liberal Christianity, which is just as worthless. Liberal or progressive Christianity has legs comparable to a wet noodle. We have fallen captive to the idols of hospitality, and finding “the” historical Jesus, so that we can tame Jesus to suit our own needs and desires. Liberal Christianity spends too much time apologizing for the Gospel instead of proclaiming it. The Gospel has been diluted and betrayed in the name of not offending people. Jesus did not die on a cross so that we could say “Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my opinion.”

Both liberal and conservative Christianity have forgotten that God created us and not the other way around. On both sides, we claim to know the mind of God, we make judgments in the name of God, and we ostracize those who do not agree with us. The Gospel has been co-opted for the agendas of the right and the left. The Gospel needs no defense, it doesn’t need to be made more palatable, nor does it need to be sharpened. The Gospel needs no explanation, and it doesn’t need to worry about aligning with our political views.   The Gospel is its own interpretation and its own politic. And it loses its edge when we domesticate it to our purposes or interpretations.

The Gospel is a matter of life and death, but do we treat it as such? Bishop Curry recently remarked that it would be better to have an incompetent airline pilot than an incompetent preacher, because the pilot can only take down a plane of a few hundred people; but a preacher can, often unknowingly, chip away at the Kingdom of God for years. The Gospel is about peace, justice, mercy, and Resurrection, and if our world doesn’t have more of that, we will know more death. The Gospel is about the life of the world, and so when we lessen its impact, we indeed are talking about matters of life and death.

Once Saul encounters the risen Jesus, he goes to Damascus and is baptized by Ananias. His baptism completed his transformation from Saul to St. Paul. He went from being a persecutor to one of the persecuted. St. Paul endured much on account of his baptism- in his own words, he writes that “Five times I have received lashes, three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; and many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”

But St. Paul would go on to write that “Therefore we have been buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” His baptism allowed him to endure all that he did, and he did it gladly for the sake of the Gospel.

Consider what the Sacrament of Baptism looks like in most churches. We fill the church with people who have no idea what the discipleship is about because they aren’t living it. And we baptize babies for people whom we know that we’ll never see again. We placate ourselves by saying “well, we’re sowing the seeds of faith.” That’s lazy and irresponsible. Jesus doesn’t tell us to “sow seeds of faith,” he says “make disciples.” And so people stand up front and make empty promises, all while wearing the cutest little outfits that they can find. And then after the service we stand up front and smile for the pictures and then enjoy a nice brunch afterwards.

Baptism is serious business; it is, quite literally, about life and death. Baptism is preparing us to be martyrs, which we are all called to be. Let us remember that Jesus makes it quite clear that “all who wish to follow me should deny themselves and take up their cross.” As Dietrich Bohoeffer put it, “when Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.”

When we baptize a child, the mother and father smile and are filled with joy, which isn’t a bad response to start with, but it should go deeper. Their stomachs should also be churning; they should be scared to death for their child who is taking on the death of Christ in Baptism. They are being prepared to become a martyr for the Kingdom of God. The way a parent sees off their child when they are shipped off to war should evoke a similar feeling to when our children are baptized. Baptism should, quite literally, put the fear of God in us and scare us to death. Our baptismal gowns are meant to be our burial shrouds. St. Paul understood this, as evidenced by his many sufferings. But, just as we’ve made the Gospel a comfortable message that allows us to keep living the life we choose, we have done the same to Baptism.

And for these reasons, Christianity is in decline, because it simply isn’t worth it. On the religious right, a rather weak straw man has been created for the secularists to poke fun at. Look at those idiots, they don’t believe in dinosaurs, or global warming. Or they support war and follow the Prince of Peace. That Gospel doesn’t hold any water. That Gospel isn’t worth dying for. And on the religious left, faith has become trivial. Faith has become what feels right, what feels good. We embrace inclusivity at the cost of losing our identity. And we become hypocrites who say the Creed while crossing our fingers. That sort of faith is lighter than a feather. That Gospel isn’t worth dying for either.

Bonhoeffer writes about cheap grace and costly grace in his work, The Cost of Discipleship. He writes “cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” And he contrasts this to costly grace saying that “it is costly grace because it costs us our lives, but grace because it gives us the only true life.” It makes no sense to pay for the worthlessness of cheap grace which is too often found filling our churches, and it is not surprising that so few are willing to pay the radical and high price of costly grace. But perhaps that is because so few people know the true value of costly grace. Not everyone has had such a tangible experience the power of the risen Lord as St. Paul did.

And if Christianity and discipleship, as it is most often understood and lived out, isn’t worth dying for, then it certainly isn’t worth living for. Martyrdom makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? I know it does me. But do we really practice a faith that is worth dying for? For too many Christians, the answer is “no.” And so it is no surprise that Christians don’t actually live their faith either, because why should we bother dedicating our entire life to something for which we are unwilling to die?

And this is where the Resurrection comes in. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central tenet of Christianity, and the most often misunderstood. Jesus did not die and raise from the dead to give us eternal life, but that is how we often understand the Resurrection. And if we stop and think about it, it’s a rather narcissistic and masochistic view. It puts us at the center of the Gospel instead of God. And it assumes that God needed some sort of bloody sacrifice to satisfy the divine cause of justice. If God wanted us to be immortal, God could simply have it be that way. But Resurrection is not about the immortality of our souls. Instead, the Resurrection gives us the power and courage to stare at the face of death, and not blink. The Resurrection allows us to be martyrs without fear. A poet once said, “I will die, but that is all I will do for death.” The Resurrection enables this.

Now remember, the Gospel can stand on its own. We don’t need to explain the Resurrection. What matters is that Christ is risen, period, full stop. And so when we die, either literally or metaphorically, as we seek to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, we can have faith and confidence that death will not be the end of us. Through our Baptism into the life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, we are given boldness and grace to stare into the face of death and laugh, asking “is that all you’ve got?”

And this Gospel, the Gospel of defying death, of seeking to further the reign of God through peace, reconciliation, love, justice, and mercy is worth something. And that, my brothers and sisters, is worth dying for, and it is worth living for. The Gospel of the Resurrection of Jesus is worth our life and our death.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that Christendom would be fixed if we could just be more orthodox in thought, because that is not at all what I’m saying. In her book, Christianity Without Religion, Diana Butler Bass writes of the importance and transformation afforded us through orthopraxy; that is, actually practicing our discipleship. The early disciples indeed knew the Gospel, that was not the issue, but living it was. And many of them understood this Gospel because tradition tells us that all of the twelve were killed for their actions of faith.

Bass suggests that we ask ourselves not “what do we believe,” but “how do we believe?” She reminds us the origins of the English word “believe” are found in the word “belove.” What you love, you believe. Thought and intellectual assent doesn’t matter as much. Again, CS Lewis writing as a demon says “let them do anything but act. No amount of piety in their imaginations or affections will harm us if we can keep it out of their wills.” Faith is a matter of the heart and the will, of the hands and the feet, and less about the brain. What you believe doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you believe. Don’t worry about what you believe about the Resurrection, but focus on how you believe it.

What I am suggesting is more than simply reclaiming the middle ground of the Anglican via media somewhere between the religious left and right. I am not suggesting that if fool ourselves into believing the literal words of the Creed that all will be made right. But we must give up the idol of fully understanding the Gospel. Instead, the Gospel is about beloving that Christ is risen, and our response to that miraculous happening. We must decide if the Gospel and the Resurrection of Jesus is a nice little story, or is it something to live, and die, for.

For Saul, it took a radical conversion. Even Ananias struggled with it, as he couldn’t believe that the evil Saul was the vehicle of God’s grace. To live the Gospel, we must be willing to be surprised by God, just as Paul and Ananias were. As Hauerwas notes, “the Resurrection is the reconfiguration of all we know, have known, and will know.” Paul, who at first was blind to the Truth of the Gospel, became instead blind to the niceties, practicalities, and comforts of the world in favor of focusing on the Gospel. Paul and Ananias were given the grace to see the new thing that God was doing, and we pray that we might have grace to do the same. I know that this is a tough task, but certainly it is one worthy of dying for, and therefore, worth giving our life to.

This is the message of Easter. Easter is not about proving the literal Resurrection of Jesus, or explaining it in such a way that our modern minds can accept it metaphorically. Easter is the event that needs no explanation and no apology. Easter shouts in the face of death that the Lord is risen indeed! This Gospel gives us something to live, and die for, in the pursuit of God’s continually coming Kingdom. Our Baptisms have empowered us for our martyrdom in the following Jesus as disciples, that we might not be blind to the grace of God all around us. Let our battle cry be loud and strong this day, and every day. Alleluia, Christ is risen!