Friday, January 23, 2015

Anything Good?

Sermon preached  January 18, 2015

Texts: John 1:43-51

            One of my favorite poets is the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.  A few times I have mentioned how I heard him on Minnesota Public Radio in the mid-1990s, a broadcast of a 1996 reading he gave at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis as part of their Global Voices series.  He read a poem then called “Keeping Going.”  After reading the poem he shared that he had considered entitling the entire book from which this poem comes “Keeping Going” but that he thought that might give a reviewer an undue advantage.  Yes, there’s that poet and he just keeps on, yeah, yeah, yeah.
            This morning’s sermon title could give critics an undue advantage.  “Anything Good?”  Was that sermon anything good?  Can anything good come out of his sermons?
            Nathanael asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
            This pressing question is now asked of the church itself.  Can anything good come out of the church?  The question may get asked when we read about the clergy sex abuse scandal that continues to rock the Roman Catholic Church.  Can anything good come out of the church?  The question may get asked when stories of clergy misappropriating funds make the news, as they seemed to regularly for a time when televangelists seemed to fill the airwaves.  Can anything good come out of the church?
            It can be easy to distance ourselves from those kinds of over the top scandals.  More problematic for the church, and more deserving of our attention is when the question, “Can anything good come out of the church?” gets asked because there is a sense that the church is significantly flawed at its core.  In 2007, researchers for the Barna Institute, which studies church trends, published the results of work they had done with young adults who had disengaged from the church.  Among the their findings: 91 percent of young adults who were not involved in church described Christians as anti-homosexual, 87 percent described Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent described Christians as hypocritical.  Among other reasons young adults disengage from church, or never engage with it: isolationism – the sense that the church demonizes everything outside the church including music, movies, culture and technology; the church is anti-science; the church is not a safe place to express doubts and ask questions.
            Unfortunately, wonderment about whether anything good can come out of the church goes even further back.  In a sermon at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted:  We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’
we stand in the most segregated hour of America. (A Testament of Hope, 270).  A few years earlier, 1963, while in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King wrote to a few of his fellow clergy who were encouraging him to tone it down, to wait with more patience.  He responded powerfully in his “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.”  I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.  Of course there are some notable exceptions.  I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue….  But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church.  I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church. (A Testament of Hope, 298)  King was disappointed because these clergy seemed to have a sense that “there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills” (296).  King did not think so, and wrote a profoundly moving defense of the need for creative, nonviolent action, now.
            We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights….  But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored
people so mean?"; …  when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. (292-293)
            Many in the church continued to ask him to wait.  Can anything good come out of the church?
            Of course it can, but Philip’s response to Nathanael is instructive.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.  Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
            I think that for too long the church relied on guilt, shame, fear and social pressure to get people to be part of it.  No matter how disappointing we may have been, we told people that they were in trouble with God if they didn’t show up – guilt.  We told people they were not very good people if they didn’t show up – shame.  We told people that they would go to hell if they didn’t show up – fear.  We depended on a social sense that respectable people have a church.  Of course, the church was doing this for our own good, because we really do want to be good and respectable people who don’t have God mad at us, so mad that he may send us to a pretty grim place.
            But because we overused such things, and have not always lived up to our best selves, some wonder, “Can anything good come from the church?”
            The appropriate response is “Come and see.”  Come and see.  We are human beings here who grapple with every side of the human condition. We are trying to grapple with the human situation, though, in light of God’s love and grace.  We are people who have some good news to share about that love of God – it’s for everyone.  We are people who are trying to care more deeply for this world that God loves.  We think Jesus helps us do all this.
            Come and see.  We will mess up sometimes, and have to ask for forgiveness.  We are people who take the Bible seriously, and if you do that, you soon realize that a degree of humor and humility is essential.  The stories of the Bible are stories of folks who often get it wrong when it comes to God, and God never gives up on them – or on us.
            Come and see.  Sometimes we will get it right, this love of God, this Jesus way.  We care for and about each other here.  We seek to offer each other a community of love and forgiveness.   We pray for and with each other.  We offer prayer shawls.  We visit the sick and those who can’t get out much anymore.  We cry together in grief, and we celebrate together in joy.  We come together to feed others, to share food, to support community ministries like CHUM.  We bake cookies for the incarcerated.  We pick up trash on the highway.  We read together and ask tough questions together.  We sing and make some wonderful music together.
            Come and see.  Sometimes we will get it right, this love of God, this Jesus way.  Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about getting it right as “the beloved community.”  “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the beloved community” (140).  Commenting on his own time, King wrote, “Here and there churches are courageously making attacks on segregation, and actually integrating their congregations.” (479)  Did you know that at one time in the Methodist Church, all the predominantly African-American Churches, regardless of geography, were in their own “central jurisdiction.”  That changed when The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church united in 1968 forming The United Methodist Church.  Sometimes we get something of the beloved community right.
            We will not be perfect at it, but I want us to be a “come and see” kind of place.  I want us to be a place where people can see that we are making our way on the Jesus way, that we are seeking to known and live the love of God.  Can anything good come out of the church – well, come and see.  We are not perfect, but we seem to be on to something here.
            As I wrap up, let me frame this just a little differently, with a song.  Bonnie Raitt, “Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About”
Let’s be a “come and see” kind of place, that leaves people talking – maybe saying that we laugh just a little too loud, stand just a little too close.
            Let’s be a come and see kind of place.  Let’s give people something to talk about.  How about love?  How about a God of love who makes a difference in our lives, helps us make a difference in each other’s lives, and helps us make a difference in the world.  Let’s give them something to talk about.  Let’ give them something to come and see.  Amen.

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