Friday, March 16, 2012

The Church is Not God

March 11, 2012
(Year B)

Exodus 20:1-7 – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – John 2:13-22

Today’s Gospel is so familiar to us and we, more often than not, take it with a smile or a smirk, thinking, “That’s right, Jesus, you show them.”  Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple seemed good and right, but to the first Century Jew (especially the Scribes and Pharisees) this was the height of blasphemy and an attack on the very life of the Temple and its sacrificial system, not to mention a key component to the support system of the Temple and it priests.  To put this in a framework we can identify with, suppose some righteous soul, taking the Gospel at its word, came through the Farmers Market turning over the tables of the sellers or driving away the crowd with a whip as they sat down for a great meal at the Annual Auction.  Hmm. That would not go over very well, methinks.  We would call the police and have them arrested. 

But, as the Gospel says, will zeal for God’s house consume us?  What might be going on in the mind of God, presuming that God is sitting in on a Vestry meeting as we discuss the budget for the next year, or if Christ was eavesdropping on a Diocesan Council meeting as it was planning for the expenditures of the Diocese for the new year?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I was a parish priest for forty years.  I know the challenges of maintaining the structure and operating realistically in today’s world.  I know the struggle of keeping your head above water and not being overwhelmed by the cost of keeping the ship afloat.  In my entire ministry, I never had a parish that there was not a huge task to meet budgets, pay decent salaries, pay the light bill and all of the other “household” expenses of the church. We had to hold all sorts of fund raising projects, hopefully keeping in focus what this is all about.  Nevertheless, I know all too well how easily we become so distracted by the struggle that we can, and often do, lose sight of what is our primary vocation.  I have said to every congregation I have ever served that I thought that I had heard Jesus muttering, as he looked at the contemporary church, “No, no, that is not what I meant!” 

On the other hand, I am convinced that there is truth in the fact that this is not first century Palestine, but 21st Century America with a totally different set of needs and issues.  The community of faith, that we call the church, is going to look differently today than two thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, and, maybe, even what that community looked like when I was ordained over forty-eight years ago.  But, have we worked ourselves into some sort of trap whereby we have to struggle to preserve what was, in our imagination, the “good old days” that may not have been all that good; or have the “shakers and movers” of the church and society really found anything that is that much better; or have we simply gone off-course and lost sight of the priorities that God has set before us? 

The bottom line question for me this morning is: “Does this Gospel have any significance or relevance to us and to the church of the 21st Century?”  I believe it has a profound lesson for us and a highly significant and relevant point to be made to our church and all Christian churches today.  By taking the point of the lesson to heart, we are being asked to raise the question, “Who are we as a church, as a people of faith living in community with one another; who and what is our mission?” 

Jesus tells us, when he speaks of the “Temple” being his body.  The church has always said, even if it did not understand, that the church is the Body of Christ. The presence of Christ in the world is made known, seen, and heard through the community of faith, this company of believers who re-present Christ to the world.  Jesus, the revolutionary, the compassionate zealot, who created the disturbance in the Temple precincts that day, is the incarnation of the mercy and the holiness of God.  If then, we are the Body of Christ in the world today, then the mercy and holiness of God lives in the hearts of all those who are of the household of God.  God dwells in us – you and me – and God desires for us to live fully in the compassion and grace of Christ and be an invitation to all others to come and be an integral part of the Body.  And to enter into the Holy of Holies at the center of our life together we must always seek to remove the obstacles that obscure our vision and block our access to God, just as Jesus drove out the sacrificial animals and the money changers from the Temple that week of Passover.

What we, the institutional church, has done is rather than allowing Christ at the heart of the church, we have allowed the church, its survival, and its comfortable place in our society of today to replace the heart of God.  I have often reminded my congregations that the church is not God – please do not confuse the two.  The church of our creation has too often become our own secret society or club which often bears little resemblance to the heart Christ.  With every good intention and every desire for the good, we may have lost the vision of Christ and replaced that vision with our own methods of survival in a secular world.

Is the church, for us, the body that points us to God or has it become an end in itself?  Is the church a place where the faithful gather to celebrate our life together in God or has it become a place of distraction and self-absorption – is it about God or is it about me?

The call is clearly to remove the obstacles that stand between us and God – to seek to discover God at the center of our life together, just as God is at the center of the Incarnate Lord.  We are called primarily to be a community of prayer.  More than simply coming together to say our prayers, we are a community of prayer which means we live in an awareness of the presence of God in our lives, in the lives of everyone we meet, and at the center of the life of all creation, and we celebrate that life of union with the Holy One.

Then, celebrating God at our center, we begin to ignite our desire to be like Christ, whose Body we claim to be, and live our life together with new and vigorous zeal of commitment to the mission of Christ.  We are called to be a prophetic community of faith, daring to be an invitation to others to be a part of this family of God and to share in the mission of Christ.  This may well mean that we must take risks, to make what amounts to a counter-cultural commitment to the mission of Christ to reach out to everyone: to care for the sick, the poor, the outcasts, the lonely, the elderly, the young, the fearful, the confused and the distracted.  We are called to be Jesus’ voice in this world which is running amuck – just look at our present political rhetoric, the rampant anger and hostility between people in the nation, in the world, and even in the church – a world that is starving for the sound of reason, decency, and mutual respect. If we are truly the church God wants us to be, we will be a reconciling, loving, inclusive, and renewed community of forgiven, thankful, grateful – eucharistic – people.  If we are genuinely placing God at the center of our awareness as a community of the faithful, we will begin to discover the reality of the presence of the Holy One in everyone we meet.

As the Body of Christ, we are called to live this life together with others, supporting and serving one another, offering our praise and worship, welcoming everyone into this fellowship of hope and love.  The more we seek to know God, the more we want to take up the cross and follow Christ, the more we work to serve each other, the more we will truly be the Church. It is here, in this sacred Body, that we promised in our baptism to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

In order to follow him, we need to remove the barriers and distractions, the self-importance and the greed, outgrowing the survival mentality that condemns the church to mediocrity and eventual death, and boldly and with courage transform our life together so that we may, indeed, become who God would have us be.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Cost of Discipleship

MARCH 4, 2012
(Year B)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 – Romans 413-23 – Mark 8:31-38

Being a disciple of Jesus was not for sissies, Peter found out in the Gospel account today.  Jesus was telling him that he (Jesus) must greatly suffer, be rejected by all of the officials and important people of their society, and that he would be killed.  While he said he would rise again after three days, what Peter mainly heard was the suffering and death of this man whom he loved and for whom he had given up everything to follow.  In Peter’s usual blustery way, he declared that he would never let that happen and he rebuked Jesus for even thinking it, much less saying it. 
Then Jesus said a remarkable thing to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  Then Jesus said to everyone a remarkable and scary thing, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, the those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Whoa!  That is not what most had bargained for and, I suspect, a number who were following Jesus left about that time.  It seemed there would be a high price, a great cost, to being a disciple of Jesus.  This is a feature of being a Christian that today we pretty much ignore and try to look the other way.  We are sure that being a Christian is about being good, moral, kindly to others, patient, generous, and showing up at church every Sunday.  Those are most certainly good things and important to our lives as Christians.  Jesus would not disparage such behavior, but Jesus is calling for something more, something more weighty and challenging, and, often, far more difficult.  You can even be a very nice and caring person without believing in Jesus or even God, but we really cannot faithfully be a follower of Christ without being a person of conversion: your heart must be where God’s heart is, as well as your hands and your feet.  This takes great courage.  It is far easier said than done.  I have not gotten it right, yet, but we begin with our desire.  Our desire to follow Christ, to take up the cross lies at the heart of discipleship.  To do it it right, to take seriously the words of Jesus in the Gospel today, there is a price to pay.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German theologian and pastor, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, wrote in his great book, The Cost of Discipleship, about the contrast between “cheap grace” and “costly grace:”

           Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.  We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means a grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate . . .

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again . . .  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs us our life, and it is grace because it gives us the only true life . . .
Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I have a confession to make:  I was not sure that I believed that Jesus’ yoke was easy or his burden light.  I did not understand that assurance from Jesus until one memorable day many years ago in Costa Rica.  When I was first ordained I went to Costa Rica as a missionary and I was there for six wonderful years.  I was at one of our missions for a couple of days and was staying in a small little room at the back of the church.  One morning, I opened the shutter to see a teenage boy across the way hitching up a team of oxen to pull some huge mahogany logs from out of the edge of the jungle.  He placed a large heavy yoke across their necks and tied it to the oxen.  He then connected a large chain from the yoke to the logs and started beating on the oxen to pull the heavy load.  The oxen strained and pulled against each other and made all sorts of unhappy noises as the boy continued beating on them.  About the time, the boy’s father came running out of their small house and he pushed the boy aside and he tied the heavy yoke to the oxen by lashing it to them so tightly that I thought he would pop their horns off.  Then an amazing thing happened.  The oxen settled right down.  With a very light tap on their rumps the oxen pulled the huge log out of the field towards the lumber mill like it was a match stick.
Watching this scenario, it all dawned on me about what Jesus meant when he said, “My yoke is easy.”  By attaching the yoke so tightly, instead of it being a burden it became a source of strength and power.  That is what Jesus meant when he said, “Take up my cross.”  When we attach ourselves so closely and tightly to the cross of Christ, then in place of it being a fearful burden, the cross becomes a source of great strength and power.

This is the great invitation to follow Christ.  To so bind ourselves to him then, even in our own weakness and flawed humanity, we are infused with the power and grace of Christ and we make our journey towards God, serving God and God’s people and creation with Jesus’ obedience and courage.
Being a Christian means that our desire is to be like Christ (even though we are far from fulfilling that desire) and to seek to live a life with new and , at times, countercultural commitment to his mission to bring others into this family of God: to care for the sick, the outcasts, the poor, the elderly, the lonely, and the fearful in such a way that they know the grace and love of God.  This can be a lonely and confusing task, but being a follower of Jesus means that we embrace this loneliness.  As God came to be fully human in Jesus, so we too, understand what is means to be fully human through Jesus.  This is where we find glimpses of grace.

How do we even begin such a journey?  We begin with a life of prayer – not just the saying of our prayers, even though that is how we start – but living in an awareness of the presence of God in our lives and in the lives of every person.  We seek to see and know the power of God in all places.  We live this life together with others of faith as we support one another, together we offer worship and praise to God, and we live as grateful, thankful, eucharistic people.  With that foundation, we reach out to everyone in the world around us, caring for and loving one another, seeking peace, working for justice and the well-being of others.
We began Lent with a reminder that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.  But even in the reality of our limitations and our mortality, we have been empowered by the cross of Christ to be like him.  Yes, to be like him!  Leave behind our fears and our notions of inadequacy and take up the cross and follow him in order to become who God would have us be.  The more we know God, the closer we come to Christ, the more we become ourselves.  There is true freedom in what Jesus asks of us – the freedom to draw near to God, to love and accept one another and ourselves, as well, without constraint.

Let us always ask, and listen, “where is Jesus asking me to follow him in my life today?”  Perhaps it is time to take that step of faithfulness, of vulnerability, of be being loved by God, of living and sharing the Good News, to reach out in love and compassion to everyone, and to know that in this body we call, “the Church,” there are no outcasts.  Here we are trying to serve Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being.