Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Truck, A Bar, A Church

Sermon preached April 26, 2009

Text: Luke 24:36b-48

In the congregation of a small town church was a woman named Mildred. Mildred considered herself an outstanding member of the church and community. She also was the self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals and was good at sharing her concerns about others moral failings. Many members of the church did not approve of Mildred’s vigilance or her gossip. However, they feared her enough to maintain their silence.
Then came George. George was new to town and new to the church, when Mildred accused him of having a drinking problem. She told him she had seen his old pickup parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told George, and then several others, that everyone who saw his truck parked there would know exactly what he was doing.
George, a man of few words, stared at Mildred for a moment and then just turned and walked away. He didn’t explain his actions, defend himself, or deny anything. He said nothing.
Later that evening, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house and walked home. He left the truck there all night. A truck, a bar, a church.
What words might we use to describe church people? I hope we would include kind, compassionate, caring, loving, joyful, fair, open-minded, generous, big-hearted. That is often true. But we are also painfully aware from our own experience, and from the experience of others that church people have been known to be narrow, rigid, judgmental, self-righteous. Somewhere along the line some of picked up the idea that to be a Christian, to be a church person is to be that kind of person – a Mildred sure of her own virtue and policing the virtue of others, self-righteous, priggishly perfect, seeing no need of growth in her own life she finds areas for growth in others.
How different a picture we get in Luke of Christians, of church people. Listen again to some of the adjectives used to describe the disciples in this story – startled, terrified, frightened, disbelieving, wondering. These are not people who have it all together all the time, who have no room for growth or improvement. At the same time, these are the exact same people who have the peace of Christ, who are joyful, and who are called by Christ – “you are witnesses.” The picture of Christians, of church people in the twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is a picture of people who are flawed but called.
The good news of Christian faith is that God meets us where we are, accepts us as we are, loves us and calls us in every moment and circumstance of our lives. God meets us, accepts us, loves us, calls us with all our imperfections, with our doubts and questions, with our anxieties, with our hurts.
Yes, God invites us to work on our imperfections. God forgives and seeks to repair the torn places in our lives.
God seeks to give us peace so that we might overcome our fears and anxieties, or keep them in check. God seeks to heal our hurts.
God is with us even as we ask questions, even as we doubt. God invites us to live our questions in ways that help us appreciate the complex beauty and mystery of our lives and of the world.
The good news is that we don’t wait until everything is perfect in our lives to be witnesses for Jesus Christ through words and deeds of love, through offering hospitality and welcome, through care, through working for justice, through compassion, through kindness. I would argue that one way we witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ is precisely through being honest and humble and genuine – not pretending to be people we are not, not hiding behind a fa├žade of self-righteousness.
About a year and a half ago, I preached a sermon in which I talked about how I would like people to be different because they are a part of this church, and one of the ways I hoped people would be different is that they would be more genuine - - - with the capacity to enter into deeper and more genuine relationships. I hope people are freed here to ask their deepest and most probing questions about life and faith. I don’t want people who join our church to be able to mouth pious platitudes that don’t connect with their lives. I want them to be able to engage the language of faith profoundly, deeply with all their heart, soul and mind. If I could take a full page ad out in the newspaper about our church, I might have it say – “Know the Faith? – Think Again.” I want people to be able to think profoundly and feel deeply because they are a part of this church. I believe that being a Christian is as much being a part of an on-going dialogue as it is affirming certain ideas. Christianity is not as much about memorizing answers as it is about asking questions and engaging in a conversation that has been happening since Jesus.
I love the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on living questions. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it live your way into the answer. (34-35, Letter 4) Christians need not have all the answers. We can be startled and terrified and doubting and wondering and live the questions and still respond to Christ’s call to be witnesses.
In the early history of Christianity there were various phases of persecution by the Roman Imperial government. One intense period of persecution occurred in the early 300s, not long before Constantine gave favored status to Christianity with the empire. During this persecution, Christian churches were ransacked and Christian Scriptures were to be turned over to be burned. Some Christians were executed when they refused to do so and some Christians complied. When the persecution ended there was a significant quandary facing the church – how to regard priests and bishops who had turned over Scriptures and other religious objects to the Roman authorities. Donatus of Carthage argued that these apostate priests and bishops needed to go through and extended period of repentance and then be re-baptized. He and those who took his position argued further that the ministry of those priests and bishops who were not re-baptized was deficient. A Donatist bishop argued that the church should be like the Ark of Noah, well-tarred both inside and out. It should retain the good water of baptism and keep out the defiling waters of the world (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 221). St. Augustine, on the other hand argued against re-baptism and for the validity of the ministry of even those priests who had not remained as faithful as they might have. He saw the church as dynamic, a place where growth was possible and needed (222-223). The church has within it imperfect people, sometimes frightened, sometimes with a faltering faith. Still Jesus tells us we are witnesses – flawed yet called. We can be forgiven and freed to do God’s work in the world.
Christians, people of the church are not immune from the hurts and pains of life. We are wounded by hurtful words. We grieve in the face of loss. Healing takes time, and there are not always many times when we feel without some pain, some hurt. Jesus offers us words of peace and we gratefully accept, but the words can take time to penetrate to the depth of our hurting hearts, our wounded souls.
Two 9/11 widows, grateful for the outpouring of support they received after their own loss, started thinking about the women of Afghanistan, who, when widowed, lose status in that society. Because of that, they find their difficult lives even more difficult. These two women raised money and formed a foundation called Beyond the 11th to help Afghan widows. They traveled to Afghanistan to meet the widows they were helping. (Feasting on the Word, 428) Wounded, yet healers. Frightened and wondering, yet reaching out to share love with the world.
How many of you know who Susan Boyle is. Susan Boyle has been all over the internet. She is from a small village in Scotland, in her late forties, and in the words of a columnist from the Los Angeles Times, “unemployed, with frizzy hair, midriff bulge and a figure like a spinster teacher from the 1940s” (The Week). She claims to have never been kissed. Well Susan recently appeared on television, on the British version of American Idol called Britain’s Got Talent. Her appearance has been viewed over 100 million times on You Tube, but not by Susan because she does not have a computer. Susan was called “Susie Simple” in school because of a mild learning disability. So why has she become so famous, so watched?
Susan got on this television show, which allows amateurs to share talent with an audience and three judges. She was everything she has been described as – not attractive by most standards, dressed in a rather plain dress. The judges, you could tell, were not expecting much. Many in the audience were rolling their eyes when she said she was going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical Les Miserables. Then she started to sing and it was remarkable. In the words of the columnist from the LA Times – “her piercingly beautiful voice stunned the slack-jawed judges and touched the hearts of everyone who heard her. If you haven’t seen this, find a computer and watch it. When I post my sermon this week, I will include a link. It sends chills up your spine.
Susan Boyle is, in many ways, a symbol of Christians and church people as Luke describes them in chapter 24: plain, ordinary, sometimes maybe even a little ugly - - - he uses words like startled, terrified, disbelieving, frightened, wondering. Yet they are loved as they are, given peace in Jesus Christ, called even as they are flawed.
Let’s be honest. Our lives are not always beautiful. We mess up sometimes. We wonder and doubt and question sometimes. We are anxious sometimes. Yet God still calls us. Jesus Christ still offers peace and we know joy in that call, the call to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Into our plain ordinary lives, God has placed a song, and the call of God in Jesus Christ is for each of us to sing our song as best we can – even when we are not perfect, even when we don’t have it all together. Startled, terrified, disbelieving, frightened, wondering - - - given peace and joy, called to witness in word and deed to God’s love. Sing out!!!! Amen.

Susan Boyle Video

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