Sermon preached November 21, 2010
Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 19:1-10
November 29, 1978 I attended a concert at the old St. Paul Civic Center. It was a phenomenal concert by Bruce Springsteen. He and the E Street Band played with incredible energy for over two and a half hours. I was reminded of this in a couple of ways this week. This week, Springsteen released a CD of material recorded during this period of time – “The Promise.” There are songs on there I heard in concert that night. I was also reminded of that concert while watching a Springsteen concert Monday night while walking the treadmill. With winter comes the treadmill, and often, for me, with the treadmill comes music – sometimes concert videos.
The video was of a concert from London in 2009. Springsteen is thirty years older than when I heard him in concert - I guess I am, too – but this concert was energetic, joyful, exuberant. It evoked fond memories of that concert long ago.
And I was thinking, shouldn’t church be like that? What if every week worship was like a rock concert, or, if you prefer, a celebratory symphony, maybe with the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Shouldn’t worship be something like that? Shouldn’t our church experience be something like that?
Maybe, but there are limits to the comparison. I really enjoyed myself thirty some years ago in St. Paul, but what impact did it have on my life? I listen to other Springsteen music, and often buy it when it comes out. I know some of the songs well, enough to sing along with them in the car when they are playing. “I wanna know if love is wild, babe, I wanna know if love is real.” The other night, when I was getting off the treadmill, a great song came on the video, and I continued my exercising dancing around for a bit. So Bruce Springsteen has affected my buying habits, and helped me stay in better shape, but my life is not significantly different because I am a Bruce Springsteen fan.
And see, that’s where the church is up to something else. The church is about a significantly different life. The church is about change, about transformation, about messing with your life, with my life, with the world. We hear it again and again. The language in Colossians may be a bit strange, but it is about change. It is about lives being “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred… into the kingdom of” Jesus. Christian faith and the church are about redemption, forgiveness, strength, patience joy, reconciliation. They are about being a part of what God is doing through Jesus.
Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103). The Christian life, he writes “is about ‘being born again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’’ (126).
Diana Butler Bass, in Christianity For the Rest of Us, which many of us have been and are reading (and this is the final sermon using that book as its jumping off point), writes, “Transformation is the promise at the heart of Christianity” (281). She uses the image of the tourist and the pilgrim to make her point. Being a tourist means experiencing something new; being a pilgrim means becoming someone new. Pilgrimages go somewhere – to a transformed life (216). She argues that a vital Christian faith and a vital Christian church in this day and time needs to be a pilgrim church, helping people along a continuing journey. But the transformation of the person leads to seeking to make a difference in the world. “Changing the self empowers the pilgrim to change the world” (217).
Between Marcus Borg and Diana Butler Bass and the New Testament, another person also claimed that transformation is the promise at the heart of Christian faith and life – a man named John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley argued that at the heart of the Christian life was the movement toward Christian perfection. “Perfection” can sound ominous, but here is what Wesley meant by Christian perfection – by perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our attitudes, words, and actions (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection, 1767)
To be on the Christian spiritual journey, to be a Christian pilgrim, is to be open to being changed, transformed, in the direction of love. It is the work of God’s Spirit within us, but it is jointly our work. We are co-creators with God of our lives, and so the Christian journey is not a journey toward a destination but without a map. We have a map – Christian practices. Christian faith and life is practice, and a vital Christian faith and church in our day and time will include a renewal of faith practices discussed in Christianity For the Rest of Us: hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, and beauty. And in the end, is change, transformation, growth in love. We are shaped by practices, and we need to shape those practices so that they are indeed helping us grow in love. Along the way, I hope there are some moments of joy and exuberance, like a good concert, but concerts are more tourist events, and we are on a pilgrimage.
We are on a change journey, like the man of short stature, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, thus considered a collaborator with Rome. He had become rich through his work, something that would not have endeared him to those in the society in which he lived. But Zacchaeus was on a journey – literally and spiritually. He kept trying to see Jesus, or have Jesus see him. He ran to get the best place to see-be seen, even climbing a tree. Not very dignified for a rich tax collector! But Jesus sees him and extends hospitality, calling him by name. He receives hospitality from Zacchaeus, scandalizing those who considered Zacchaeus religiously unworthy. Jesus not only associates with Zacchaeus, he welcomes him deeply into the community of faith – “he, too, is a son of Abraham.” For his part, Zacchaeus’ life changes. He practices hospitality. He practices healing – giving to those in need. He practices justice, righting any wrongs he may have done. Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Zacchaeus.
We are on a change journey, like Sara Miles. I came late to Christianity, knocked upside down by a midlife conversion centered around a literal chunk of bread…. Eating Jesus cracked my world open and made me hunger to keep sharing food with other people. (Jesus Freak, xi) Miles set up a food pantry at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, set it up around the church altar. It was an important part of her Christian spiritual journey of being transformed in and toward love. In the thrilling and difficult years after my first communion, I kept learning that my new Christina identity required me to act. Simply going to church offered no ethereal juju that would automatically turn me into a less smug and self-righteous person. Time and again, I was going to have to forgive people I was mad at, say I was sorry, be honest when I felt petty, and sit down to eat, as Jesus did, with my betrayers and enemies: the mad, the boring, and the merely unlikable. (xii) Got any change? Yes, we do, just ask Sara Miles.
Thirty-two years ago this month, I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert, and one of the songs he played that night contains these words. I believe in the love that you gave me, I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me (“Badlands”)
In the end I believe in a faith that raises me up, in a hope that saves me, in a love that transforms my life. As Christians we believe in a faith that raises us up, in a hope that saves us, in a love that changes us. We are on a journey of transformation, on a journey of change. We seek to live differently here. We open our lives to being changed. We are inspired to change the world. Got any change? Yes, we do – and if you are interested in a changed life, there is always room here for more pilgrims. Amen.
Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands"