Sunday, January 20, 2008

Epiphany 2 - Year A

Pastor Mark Ralls was leaving the church one evening as the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting was about to adjourn. He noticed a man crouched over the hood of a rusty Ford and Ralls introduced himself as the pastor. The man sighed and told Pastor Ralls how long he had intended to “get back to church.”

Pastor Ralls invited him to worship. The man’s face flushed and he launched into the story of his life. It was the familiar string of regrets and loss that accompany addiction. They shared a prayer and said, “Good night.”

As he walked to his car, the man called after him. “Did you mean what you said?”
“About what?” he asked.

"Did you mean that I could come to THIS church?" the man replied.
Driving home, it occurred to him that the man had told him his life’s story as a response to the invitation. It was a polite way of explaining why he couldn’t take Ralls up on his offer. The man felt he wasn’t ‘clean enough’ to be included in their congregation.

Pastor Ralls never saw him again. “I wish my response to his questions had been more direct,” he later reflected. “I wish I had simply repeated the words of Christ. I wish I had said, ‘Come and see.’” (from “The Other ‘H’ Word”)

Come and see. It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Basic. Straightforward evangelism.

But it’s not always that easy. The man from AA couldn’t accept the invitation because he felt he wasn’t worthy, he couldn’t clean himself up enough to show up on a Sunday, he couldn’t be sinless enough to stand with God’s people beholding the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard a lot of stories like that. People who think they’re unworthy of church, unworthy of God.

But usually, folks say that they don’t need church to worship God; that churches just want money and don’t care about people; that there are too many hypocrites in church, saying one thing on Sunday and doing something else on Monday.

And there’s a fragment of truth in all those charges. It’s true, you don’t need to come to a building every week to worship God. All you need is another believer, a bible, a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread and you’re all set.

Yes, some churches ARE more interested in the size of person’s wallet rather than the state of their soul.

And, yes, churches ARE filled with hypocrites, even this one. Find me someone who isn’t. That’s why we live by grace and forgiveness, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit intruding on our comfortable hypocrisy and changing us from the inside out.

But scuff the exterior of those objections; I think you’ll find someone shaking in their shoes. Scared of that the church will cast a disapproving gaze in their direction, scared that God isn’t really a God of love but a God of anger, or if not God, then maybe God’s people. Scared that they’ll be swept up in something they can’t control, and their lives may never be the same again.

Last year we had a hospitality workshop learn how to more effectively welcome new people when they arrive at our doors. What we didn’t receive was how training in how to help people FIND our doors.

On the one hand it seems pretty simple, just like what we heard in today’s gospel reading. “Come and see,” Jesus said.

On the other hand inviting people to church has HUGE ramifications. And people know that. People know that when you invite them to church you’re not just inviting them to hear some good music, listen to some guy in a big white dress shoot his mouth off, or to drink coffee downstairs.

When you invite people to church people suspect that you’re inviting them to experience God. After all, isn’t that what we do on Sunday mornings? Isn’t that why we get up early on our day off, put on a tie or find our cleanest jeans, trudge through the snow, park down the street and walk two blocks to the church?

Because, it’s not as if you don’t have options. Sunday morning talk shows, the epic brunch at the Cheesecake café, the football game, or – hey - even sleeping in. These are all options for you. But you’re here instead.

So why is that? Why ARE you here? You probably all have different reasons. But I’m guessing that you’re here because you’re looking for a Word from the Lord, and this is where you’re hoping you’ll find it.

Maybe, you’re job is sucking your soul through your nostrils and you don’t know where you’ll find the energy to keep on going if this is what your life is like.

Maybe your marriage is being held together by duct tape and you’re hoping that God is still in the business of putting broken things back together again.

Maybe you’ve forgotten your love language, you don’t know how to talk to your kids without raising the decibel level, and you’re hoping God can calm you down, put loving words on your lips, because tender words get caught in your teeth, and all you can do is spit them out. This is where you’ve heard those words before and you’re hoping you’ll hear them again.

Maybe you’ve put Jesus on your tongue in bread and wine and it tasted like freedom and you want to taste freedom again.

Bill hadn’t been to church in years. But when his dad died Bill dug through the closet and pulled out a suit he hadn’t been worn since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup.

Bill grew up in the church so everyone knew him and his family. They knew his money problems, his affection for Budweiser, and his trouble keeping down a job.

As the family was putting together a memorial table at the church, I chatted with a teary-eyed Bill.

“It’s been too long since I’ve been here,” he said wiping his eyes and looking around the sanctuary. “I really need to come back to church.”

I have to admit, I was skeptical. I’d heard that so many times before. In moments of crisis people often say they need for God. But when the moment evaporates so does the need. Or so it seems.

“We’d love to have you back with us,” I said, not really expecting much follow through.

Two days after the funeral I had a knock on my door. It was Bill.

“I just wanted to talk to you,” he said. “My life’s a mess. I can’t seem to do anything right. I lost my apartment last week because I couldn’t make the rent. I’m 46 years old and I’m moving back in with my mom for heaven’s sake. It feels like everything I touch turns to crap and I don’t know how to change it.”

His eyes welled up.

“What can we do to help you?” I asked

“Pastor, there’s one thing you can do. I’d like you to pray for me.”

So I did. Then we sat in silence.

After a few minutes he picked himself up and left. That Sunday he was back at church. Then the Sunday after. Then the Sunday after that. He listened for God’s Word, received the sacrament of new life. God took over Bill’s life.

Bill got a new job and moved out of his mom’s spare bedroom into a new apartment in a growing part of the city. He met a faithful Christian woman and they’re getting married. He’s taken ministry training and serves as lay minister in the church he now attends.

“I couldn’t have changed my life by myself,” Bill says. “This change isn’t just a church thing. It’s definitely a God thing.”

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when God calls people, God bids them to come and die. But as Bill will tell you that’s only half the story. The other half is that God bids them to come and live, live a new life, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, who after all, is the one who does all the heavy lifting.

So, when we invite someone to church, to “come and see” keep Bill in mind, and remember that an invitation to church just might be the start of something new. Does that make our evangelistic task any easier? Maybe. Maybe Not.

But then again, it’s our job simply to say “come and see.”


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism of Jesus - Year A

It’s raining hard. Neo is escorted by a strange group of countercultural misfits. Part geek, part Fashion-TV runway model, they act as if they’re smarter than the rest of the world.

Neo is taken to an old abandoned building under the promise of meeting the infamous Morpheus. Here Neo will be offered some pills from a dark stranger wearing reflective sunglasses – and he will willingly swallow one of those pills.

Morpheus begins by describing Neo’s plight as similar to Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. He says that Neo has the look of one who sees because he is in a dream and about to awaken. Morpheus tells Neo why they brought him here. It’s is chance to learn what the Matrix is. Morpheus asks if he’d like to know.

Neo nods slowly, but without hesitation, as if realizing that this is a turning point in his life, marking a chance forever.

“The Matrix is everywhere,” Morpheus explains. “It’s all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.”

Neo asks what truth Morpheus is referring to.

“That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born in a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison of your mind.”

Morpheus opens a small silver box, takes two pills from it, and tells Neo that mere description is not enough; he must see it for himself to understand. Morpheus leans forward with a pill in each hand.

“This is your last chance,” Morpheus says, “After this there is no going back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up back in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Neo slowly yet deliberately reaches for the red pill.

Morpheus tells him that he is offering the truth, nothing more. Neo grabs and swallows the red pill.

He awakens to find that he was previously in a made up world called The Matrix. All he knew and understood about the world was really mask covering the truth, meant to hold him and everyone else in bondage to a lie. (With help from Organic Church by Neil Cole)

This is the plot to the movie The Matrix.

(If you haven’t seen the movie I encourage you to. It’s one of the great parables of our time.)

I sometimes wonder if Jesus had a similar conversation some time in his life. Somewhere down the line he must have felt like he needed to take plunge and go see his cousin John. He knew that God was up to something.

Then again, it makes absolutely no theological sense for Jesus to be baptized. If he was sinless as we say he was, then he had nothing to repent of. If he was God Incarnate - the Word Made Flesh - as we proclaim, then John was right, Jesus should’ve been the one doing the baptizing.

But I wonder if the point of this passage not Jesus getting wet or God’s voice booming from the clouds, but the point of this story is that Jesus stands with us, poor sinners, to break us free of our bondage to sin, to see the world as God sees it.

Baptism is the red pill where we break free of the Matrix.

Eugene Petersen, writer of The Message, and a whack of other books, says that one thing that drove him crazy as a pastor was when some well-dressed, self-satisfied, self-made success story would shake his hand on the way out of church saying, “That was great, pastor, but now its back to the REAL world.”

Real world, indeed. More like back to the Matrix.

This is a story of God opening peoples’ eyes to the lie that they’ve believed their entire lives. The lie that said they’d never become anything worthwhile, the lie that said they needed to dull the pain of a meaningless life by working longer hours to buy stuff they didn’t need.

Then to go home exhausted, flick on their 600 channels, crack open a beer, and vegetate. Too tired to talk to the kids without snapping at them. Too drained to share their day with their spouse. Too done-in by the thought of going through the same cycle for another 20- 40 years until retirement.

“This can’t be what God wants for my life,” they brood.

So, with blistered feet and anxious hearts, they make their way through the desert to hear what this wild man has to say. Maybe he can offer a way out.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what church is. Especially when we’re thinking about raising almost a million dollars to buy a new church building.

You’d think that, with 4 years of seminary, almost nine years of ministry, countless pastoral conservations, a multitude of meetings, a host of home visits, incalculable communions, and a bevy of books, I’d have the whole church thing figured out.

But I don’t. Every time I think I do John lunges at me from the desert, throws water in my face, and I see the world – and church - differently again.

I lie awake worrying about this. If we truly follow the poor, homeless, backwoods preacher, then shouldn’t our lives reflect the one whose name we bear? Maybe we should be meeting in parks instead of palaces, homes instead of holy-mansions. In the backrooms of bars. Around tables at taverns. At Starbucks.

Many folks say that the church needs to engage culture, to use the tools of the culture to make the gospel “relevant” (a buzzword that just won’t die). We need to speak the culture’s language, they say. Otherwise the uninitiated won’t understand Jesus’ message.

But I wonder how far that goes. I’ve often felt queasy about too many trappings of culture in churches. Multi-media, theatre lighting, cool websites, Passion of the Christ showings.

Does the medium commandeer the message? (It does) Do cultural trappings merely tell the world: see, we’re not so different? Come and join us and you won’t be asked to change. No commitment necessary. Just find a seat, be quiet, and open your wallet to help pay for all this stuff.

(But then again, as per usual, I’m a first class hypocrite having used a culturally relevant movie illustration at the beginning of this sermon)

But when Jesus stood at the river Jordan he was surrounded by misfits and losers - folks kicked out of the halls of official religion. John’s words may have sounded harsh, but he knew the cleansing – the purging - that people yearned for. And John knew what God was capable of. John gave them the red pill and they swallowed it whole. They weren’t looking for a comfortable or inspiring message. They wanted to begin again.

Marilyn got out of prison for the last time at age fifty-eight and she was pretty much a wreck. Her lungs had just about given out and she could walk no more than a few steps without gasping for breath. Her face bore the scars left by boyfriends and fellow inmates.

When she showed up at church the pastor didn’t know quite what to do with her. The problem was, Marilyn not only wanted to come to church, she wanted “to do something.”

As she told it, she had “found Jesus” during her last stint behind bars and now she wanted to make whatever time was left to her count. Since the pastor was not born yesterday, he was somewhat sceptical.

He tried to think of something that would keep Marilyn away from the silver communion ware, the ladies’ handbags, and the sacramental wine. As it turned out she found her own niche.

Not far from the church there was a corner where prostitutes worked. Every evening, rain or shine, summer and winter Marilyn would make her way there with her walker and she would talk to the “girls.”

They laughed at her at first but they soon discovered that there was very little she didn’t know about their kind of life. Some of them began confiding in her; especially the ones who wanted to get off the streets but couldn’t figure out how.

At about three o’clock one morning the pastor got a phone call from Marilyn: “I’m at the pay phone across the street from the church and I’ve got a sixteen-year-old hooker with me who wants to quit. Now what the hell are you going to do about it?” (None of you talk to me like that!)

To make a long story short, that was the beginning of a “transition house” for women trying to leave the streets.

When Marilyn died at the age of 63, the congregation attending her funeral included the mayor of the city, the ladies of the women’s group, several dozen ex-prostitutes and at least as many others who thought that maybe, just maybe, they had a chance too. (extracted from a sermon by John Moses)

Having taken the plunge into our reality, Jesus invites us to take the plunge into his reality. He asks us to believe that what he is about is not an impossible dream but God’s destiny for us. That, I think, is what Marilyn did. That’s what happens when Jesus intrudes on your life. That’s what happens when you take the red pill. That’s what happens when you’re a beloved child of God.