Monday, April 14, 2008

Easter 4 - Year A

“That just blew my mind!” shouted the young woman. “Turn around I need to look at that again.”

The pastor looked down to see what t’shirt he was wearing. It’d been since high school that he thought he owned any t’shirts that could be considered “mind blowing.”

The offending t-shirt was from the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist Campus Ministry. Not exactly the risqué material that folks usually see during the summer. Considering what people wear – or don’t wear - on their bodies these days, it seemed odd that she stopped a stranger to comment on a church shirt.

The shirt had words written on the back – the words that “blew her mind” “Serve the world” alternated three times with “worship God, with arrows connecting them like a recycling symbol, creating a circular motion.

“Worship God…Serve the world….Worship God…Serve the world…Worship God…serve the world.” It was more than she could take. It blew her mind.

“I just don’t see how you can do both,” she said. “The way I see it, if you worship God you can’t serve the world because the world is too tempting; it’s too evil. It’s nothing like how God wants it to be.”

What do you say to that? Especially in the middle of the candy aisle at the 7-11? He did his best, saying that service to the world is a demonstration of our love and God’s love for the world and everything that Jesus died for. He tried to explain that loving God and serving the world are linked because that’s what Jesus did. We serve the world because God loves the world. Even when it’s sinful. Even when it’s nothing like God wants it to be. But there are limits to convenience-store theology.

But he realized that the “mind-blowing” slogan on the t-shire was really a question about the gate that Jesus talked about in today’s gospel reading. How much of the world do we risk encountering knowing how much evil and death there is in the world? How high, strong, and impenetrable do we want the gate to be in order to protect us from the world? How can we live in the world without letting the world claim us; without letting it determine who we are and what we do?

Those are questions that I struggle with. Not because I see the world as inherently inhospitable to God and what God wants to do in the world. But because the question of Christianity’s relationship to the rest of the world hasn’t been really been answered.

Within Christianity, you get both extremes and everything in between. On the one hand you get fundamentalist Christians who, like the woman in the convenience store, see the world as evil and depraved. “The world isn’t to be served,” they would say. “The world is to be resisted.” And they pray for the day when God will destroy the earth and all evil doers before lifting the righteous into heavenly bliss.

On the other hand, there are Christians who see the world as essentially good, and use the trappings of culture to get the Christian message across. Christians who live pretty much the same as non-Christians, except they might read the bibles, pray, and go to church on Sunday. But are personally, deeply invested in the world’s workings.

And there are those in between. We all ask these questions, whether we know it or not.

Some say that pastors shouldn’t use secular counseling techniques with people because they’re not ways healing people used in the bible. But these same peoples don’t have a problem with using secular accounting and auditing methods to administer finances.

We’ve been wondering how to welcome new people into our family of faith, to make our church more friendly and warm, hoping that our worship is accessible and easily understood. Yet I don’t know if we realize that our worship vocabulary can’t be easily translated into non-church language, which will inevitably exclude some people who will wonder if we’re speaking a foreign language – which, I guess, we are.

So what IS our relationship to the world? For me, that is a hard question. And I think part of the problem is that Jesus was giving us mixed messages.

Jesus turns over the tables in temple, driving out the money changers, wreaking havoc at the centre of Jewish life and faith. But he also healed the Roman soldier whose ear was chopped off while he was trying to arrest Jesus.

Jesus stood in obstinate silence in front of Pilate, suggesting unspoken hostility toward those pagan Roman oppressors, yet expressed amazement at the faith of the tyrannical Roman guard whose son Jesus had healed, a guard who was probably never going to renounce his Roman religion and become a Christian.

And when backed into a corner and asked point blank if it is lawful and good to pay taxes to that disgusting wretch, Caesar, whose god-like image was stamped upon every financial transaction, Jesus had the opportunity to lay it all out on the line where he stood in relationship to the powers of this world. Instead he gave a non-answer. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” H’uh? You’ve muddied the waters so thoroughly that nothing seems clear.

So, which is it, Jesus? Are we to embrace the world or reject the world? Are we to be salt and light for the world or are we to challenge its idolatry? How do we remain faithful in a faithless world? Jesus doesn’t seem to know what he wants from us.

All he says is, “I am the gate.” Not a lot of help, is it? Gates do a lot of things. They keep people in and keep others out. What does he mean that he’s a ‘gate’?

But Jesus is a gate that swings open and stays open. That’s not much of gate. It’s not keeping the good guys safe, and it’s not keeping the evil ones out. But maybe that’s the point. The gate is open because he wants us to go back and forth, in and out. To be faithful is to go from side to side, from Jesus to the world, knowing the threats, but doing it anyways. Because we can’t be faithful Christians without the being threatened by those things which aren’t of God.

Jesus wants us to be safe behind the fence, but also wants us to go back into the world, where it might be dangerous, where we might be lured away by other voices. He wants us to be citizens of heaven and tax payers on earth. One foot in each world, on each side of the gate. Sometimes two feet.

And Jesus knows that the danger is not so much that we’ll be putting ourselves at risk as much as he’ll be risking inviting the thieves and bandits through the gate.

Maybe that’s what he wants. He is the gate that leads to abundant life. For thieves and bandits as well as for us. Through the gate is forgiveness and transformation. Through Jesus, through the gate, we can worship God AND serve the world.

And may God blow their minds through us. Amen


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