Tuesday, February 24, 2015
In today’s epistle we hear Paul’s iconic line about “being all things to all people.” Concerning his strategy for sharing the good news of Christ, he says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win them… And to those outside the law (meaning everyone else) I became as they are. I became all things to all people, so that I might share the gospel’s blessings.” From this we can conclude that Paul experienced something powerful that he saw as worth sharing… and that he believes context matters. For he took steps to reach out to people in ways they would understand… unique to their concerns.
Taking our inspiration from Paul, we are challenged to go and do likewise—to find evidence of that same transformative and reshaping presence of Christ in our own lives, then share that with others in ways that actually connect with what people care about… with the lived challenges people face. So today I'd like for us to take a look at our context, so we can respond with faithfulness.
Now, there are many ways one could approach this topic, for context has many layers. We could talk about class, gender, geography, race, and more… But, for today’s purposes, I’d like to zero in on just what it means for us to carry the gospel of Christ out into a world filled with so many other Christian denominations and religious traditions. For, in my experience, navigating the sheer number of faiths out there is one of the most common hurdles holding people back from getting more deeply involved with a faith community. And this makes sense because never before have people lived amidst such a wash of creeds, philosophies, and faiths. And all of this lends today’s moment in history a unique and exciting flavor… But also it presents some new and formidable challenges.
This wash of choices extends far beyond matters of faith… for think of how complicated a trip to the grocery market can now be. Some stores carry over 150 types of salsa! There’s a psychologist by the name of Barry Schwartz who studies the effect all these choices have on our thinking… and I’d like to share some of his findings, because I see them as relevant to understanding today’s context. As an illustration of our predicament, Barry likes to show a cartoon depicting a mother goldfish in a fishbowl with her baby goldfish. And realizing that her baby is growing up, the mother says, “Now that you’re getting bigger, I want you to know the world is your oyster. You can go anywhere you want or do anything you want to do.” The irony of course is that, inside the fishbowl, they’re trapped and actually rather limited.
This, however, is not so for us! For as Barry points out, our fishbowl has been shattered! Never before has humanity had so much access to so many products or possibilities. The world truly is our oyster! And this is something that conventional wisdom celebrates, but Barry sees as actually detrimental. He claims when people are given more choices, we often respond by freezing up; as if we’re waiting to understand all our options before making a decision. He cites a study that shows how employees at companies with fewer retirement plan options actually make use of their benefits, while those with more possibilities put off enrolling and wind up losing out. Barry calls this phenomenon “choice paralysis…” And I can’t help but wonder if this somehow plays into the landscape of today’s religious trends.
Even when we do finally make a decision… we’re less satisfied with it. Barry tells a story of how he went to buy some blue jeans and the clerk asked, “Well, do you want straight fit, relaxed fit, skinny fit, boot cut, stone-washed, acid-washed, button fly, zipper fly, and on and on he went…” After all this, feeling dazed by the myriad of choices, Barry responded, “I just want the kind of jeans that used to be the only kind you could get!”
That day he left with the best fitting pair of jeans in his life… But he says he also felt less satisfied with his purchase! He explains that with so many customizations and possibilities, his expectations had been raised… and he wanted nothing less than absolute perfection! And while his new jeans were great… they still could have been better…
This is our context—a shattered fishbowl—a world of daunting possibilities that are ultimately unsatisfying… if we don’t narrow our focus! And this… is the mission field that we live in and are called to serve. We’ve all heard the statistics about how fewer people are involved today in churches and faith communities. And as insiders, we’ve even felt some of the anxiety surrounding this. But, at the same time, how many of you know someone who is genuinely hungry to encounter something transcendent and life changing… and life giving... and yet they hesitate to act… and avail themselves to what God has for them? Like a college freshman who has yet to declare their major, we wonder spiritually without direction...
But, in the story of the church at Corinth, we find hope… For today’s words about “being all things to all people” – which I see as about knowing our context and responding according – these words were not spun in a vacuum. For Corinth knew struggle. They had known conflict. And one could even say that it was precisely in those hardships that they acquired their deeper knowledge of God.
Remember in last Sunday’s epistle we heard that there had been an ongoing controversy about whether or not it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Remember some in the community, those from Jewish backgrounds, were okay with it. Because from their perspective, since the meat was offered to gods that didn’t exist, it was fine… and not tainted. But, for many of the Gentiles who’d grown up worshiping those gods, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t sit well with them, now that they followed Jesus.
So, in steps Paul, who reminds them that, as members of one unified body, whenever matters should arise that threaten their harmony, their first allegiance was to one another. For Christ calls us to lay down our wants and wills for the good of another—just as Christ modeled for us and did for us.
Here I see the age old lesson “be careful for what we wish for.” Because, if we truly want to encounter God, we should be forewarned that change will be required us. For change is the currency of transformation... For those of us wondering how we can share stories of our faith with others, we need only to look back as far as the last time God called us to change… and to share that experience.
You see, Corinth’s real lesson for us today, and for our surrounding culture, is that knowing and encountering God happens in committed community… and not when roaming around like so many spiritual Lone Rangers. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but church life is messy… But it’s in that mess that we most encounter ourselves, our brokenness, and become awakened to those places that we most need to invite God into.
And so I see the antidote for today’s cascading choices and hunts for perfection is commitment… and the acceptance that God doesn’t need perfection to work in our lives… God only needs willing hearts. Hearts that will bind themselves together in a world of Lone Ranger pilgrims. Or as Barry Schwartz’s puts it, “we need to put ourselves back in the fishbowl… willfully.” For by spreading ourselves a mile wide and an inch deep we avoid the possibility of encountering anything of great depth.
In Paul’s context, he found it necessary to “be all things to all people.” But in ours, perhaps the greatest gift we can give this world is the example of our willingness to persevere together, in spite of all the possibilities, our imperfections… and messiness, and even our limitations… Our commitment to each other and the God made known in Christ can stand like a beacon in this world… for there is a hunger for depth that only dedication can satisfy. And like our Christ who poured himself out for this world, we are called to give ourselves over more fully to God and each other with each passing day.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2014, following a live nativity performance.
Much like all the characters in the story we just witnessed – the wise men, the shepherds, and even the unruly animals present on this holiest of nights – we too have been drawn to one place by a light – the birth of Christ Jesus, the Light of this World. We too have, in some way, been magnetically pulled in to witness the mystery that lies at the center of this drama. And just as the original cast came together, each with their own unique concerns, so too do we who are gathered here this evening have our own reasons for coming… We come for the hope and transformation that’s found in the birth of God-with-us!
But, none of us can fully understand our need for this hope OR the significance of Christ’s birth, unless we first pause to hear the rest of this story we’ve just witnessed. For, yes, it is true that there is a cuteness and familiarity to the first Christmas—with all its angels, and swaddling, and cuddly barnyard animals—but… there also was a harsher side to the world into which Christ was born.
For, much like the world we know, it too had real people, who experienced real pain and struggles. And they also had to contend with violence, corruption, and prejudice. And we catch glimmers of this when noticing just why it was that Jesus’ family was traveling to Bethlehem in the first place. For Jesus’ people were being taxed and controlled against their will by Rome’s invading armies! And so, as is true of much of human history, we see that the setting of this first Christmas was neither serene nor without its challenges.
But it was into this darkness that Christ’s light first beamed! And, I think, knowing of these struggles can help us understand why the Magi, shepherds, and even the animals sought refuge in Christ’s light… and maybe a little about why we too draw near. Maybe we can even see some of ourselves in the concerns of these characters... For instance, I envision the Magi as society’s “successful people” – those who commanded respect… maybe rode the Lexus of camels, if you will... They suffered no want for food or fear of being thrown to the streets. But… they also would have been familiar with the emptiness of mere outward success.
As Jim Carrey, the famous actor is quoted to have said, “I wish everyone could get rich, famous, and have everything they’ve ever dreamed of… so they would know that it’s not the answer.” The Magi would have understood this… for they were intimately familiar with their own still lingering hungers for fulfillment – for the desire to connect with others… and ultimately.. God. And so the Magi ventured out, following the promise of this mysterious light.
Next came the shepherds—our story’s blue-collared heroes. They worked hard, thankless jobs that still left them teetering on the brink of ruin. They knew, first-hand, the stresses of living in this broken and sometimes brutal world… of having to sacrifice luxuries (or maybe even meals), so their children could receive medical care. The shepherds are they who hunger for relief… and for justice in this world. And so the shepherds, at the angel’s bidding, also set out to follow this promising, yet mysterious light.
And lest we forget the animals, who remind us of all the other creatures we share this planet with, we see them too draw near. For they represent our struggling environment, damaged by human excesses… and from them we hear cries for temperance and God’s restoration.
The truth is, on any given day, we can find ourselves identifying with any or all of these characters—the Magi, shepherds, or the sheep—but with Christ and his birth into this world, we find all our longings simultaneously gathered together and fulfilled. For Jesus is our long-awaited salvation and hope! He lies at the source of this light and satiates our every need! And the clues have been there… right in front of us.. all along… for we find Jesus, this little baby, not-so-subtly laying in a feeding trough!
As if saying to us, “I’ve only ever come into this world to be consumed! Not looked at, admired, or enjoyed from a safe distance… but to be taken in, digested, and to become part of each one of you!” Tonight we encounter this truth at the source of this light that’s drawn us all together. And in this mystery of a God who came to be with us as one of us, our prayers for wholeness and healing are answered, as are our hopes for true communion with each other AND peace for this world!
Tonight we see that, despite our various situations, Jesus is the hope that meets us where we are! He comes to us despite our world’s condition. He is the light that dispels darkness… by laying down his life for ours.
And we then are challenged to go and do likewise… to be this for others. We are drawn together so that we can be sent out.
And when we go… when we do so… when we take those steps—like the magi, shepherds, and even beasts who went before us—we discover that God’s mystery and promise will be there burning brightly within each one of us… to faithfully light our steps along the way!
Monday, December 22, 2014
Monday, December 8, 2014
Today’s gospel swings open and we find ourselves standing face-to-face with a man whose image is disarmingly stark. It is John the Baptist, or John the Forerunner as he is called by the Eastern Church. He greets us from the center of this second week in Advent, petitioning us to prepare ourselves for God’s imminent arrival. Because of John’s special significance for this season of anticipation and preparation… and the fact that his shadow still looms so large for us today, I’d like to take a few moments to look closer at this figure, before considering his message and its meaning for us.
John is remembered perhaps as much for his almost dangerous looking appearance as his role in Christ’s unfolding drama. He is described as roaming the wilderness, while clothed in camel’s hair, with little more than a leather belt about his waist. We can tell this left an indelible mark in the memories of the gospel writers because rarely in scripture are we given descriptions of people’s fashion sense… or lack thereof.
When depicted in paintings or icons, John appears predictably wild, with lots of hair… all bunched up… protruding in every direction. His eyes burn with fervor, while simultaneously conveying a heart that truly cares about the welfare of others. One glance and we know that John was not one to shy away from saying difficult things, especially when someone’s greater good was at stake. And, if we had time to delve into other stories about John, we’d find that this holds true… for he was always speaking out against injustice and calling people to repentance.
His startling outward appearance reminds us that looks matter—they are a means (albeit not the only means!) for communication. And this is especially true when considering icons or scripture! So, whether we like it or not, what others see when they look at us does help them understand some about who we are. And so, John doubly inspires us to take a reflective look at ourselves… first with his message of repentance, but also by his strange means of wearing it. And so, let us linger for a moment on the oddities that are John’s clothing, diet, and where he made his home.
John is often referred to as the last of Old Testament prophets… and his “camel’s hair get-up” would have hinted at this in a not-so-subtle way… To his contemporaries, his appearance would have immediately brought to mind associations with the prophet Elijah, who also wore camel’s hair… and made it the “industry standard” for any would-be prophets!
John also roamed the wilderness, which not only symbolized a place of challenge and utter dependence upon God, but also underlined connections with his people’s history and struggle. This gave him “street cred” with those he sought to awaken.
Everything about John screams dedication. He was “all in”… “gung-ho.” Unlike smaller pelts which required time spent sewing them together, a camel’s pelt could be quickly slapped on and secured with a belt, so he wasted no time primping and preening. His menu of locusts and wild honey was simple, while conforming to Jewish dietary laws, so he spent no time hunting or gardening. John simply ate whatever was “at hand,” for he was a man with a mission.
And that mission, not unlike the angel Gabriel, was heralding the coming Messiah—Jesus, the long-awaited savior who would baptize not with mere water, but the Holy Spirit! And so this heralding is exactly what John is remembered for. It’s why, in icons of the Eastern Church, John is often depicted as having angel’s wings to further emphasize his role as Christ’s messenger. John’s life was a trumpet’s blast sounding the message, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Words that rang out in our reading from Isaiah, that John so aptly re-appropriates. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” Words that are both at once comforting, but also motivating—disturbing, but also hopeful… But what do these words mean? For how does one prepare to receive the Living God? And how are paths made straight?
And so, just as our outward appearance can reveal things about us, so too can inward looks at ourselves. But such searching is so often the very thing that we love to resist! Especially during this month’s busyness, with all its parties, shopping, and trying to get the family Christmas cards in the mail on time! Setting aside time for prayer and reflection can appear far down on our list of priorities.
But… if we’re serious about wanting to prepare ourselves for Christ’s Advent… if you long to experience Christ anew in this coming year… if you hunger to truly understand what it means to make straight God’s paths… and if you’re inspired by John’s “all in” fervor and want to engage life with the same heralding vigor… then we are encouraged to set aside some time this Advent season for searching. What will God show you? Has any complacency crept in? Are there distractions to be dealt with? Any distortions of God’s perfect image within you that God wishes to set right? Or belief structures that have outlived their usefulness? (P)
What are the things that would prevent you from experiencing Christ’s birth with newness in this coming year? And how might God, even now, be laying the groundwork for a new season of harvest that lies just beyond you field of sight? Today, John reminds us of the importance of engaging our inner lives and health with the same vigor and care that we exercise outwardly… with our friendships… and our work… John reminds us to ask ourselves the question of whether or not we are putting this sacred season, to good use… Are we preparing the way for the Lord and making straight God’s path?
Today, the Church remembers John the Baptist for his role in proclaiming the good news of the coming Messiah, but also as one who, through his Old Testament styling’s, links Christ to God’s historic revelations throughout human history. John then looks forward foretelling of how Christ will usher in an age of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. In this way, John helps us look to the past, the present, and the future—to see the God who was, who is, and who is to come.
And in doing so, we are invited to consider the same for ourselves… How, from our lives and experience, do we account for the God we’ve known, we know, and the one yet to be revealed? And how are we preparing ourselves to greet that newness which awaits us, so we can with reckless abandon and fervor herald whatever hope is revealed?