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.



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