“WiiChurch – Better Together”
[WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evens details her love/hate relationship with the church.
She observes, "To be plugged in to a church is to be wired into a highly choreographed, interconnected system of relationships, programs, and events that together produce a society complex enough to put on a decent Christmas pageant."
She goes on, "I have witnessed firsthand how such a network can perform miracles: a month's worth of dinners for a mom undergoing chemo, a driveway full of men ready to haul furniture the minute the moving van pulls in, twenty four hours of prayer and rotating visits during a complicated surgery, fully stocked cupboards for widowers, and hours of free childcare for struggling parents. These are the quotidian signs and wonders of a living, breathing church, and they are powerful and important and real."
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
But I come to this subject today with, what I hope, is a dose of realism. Can I be honest? There are days when the church drives me nuts. Some days it even makes me angry.
At one point in my life, it made me so angry, I decided to leave. I was done. I'd had it. My life, I figured, would be better without church.
But God has a tremendous sense of humor! Look at me now! It wasn't my idea…
And yet, throughout this sermon series I have tried to be frank, honest and even self-deprecating about this church thing. We mustn't take ourselves so seriously that we can both laugh and cry at the sight of our own reflection.
But even so, I remain convinced, by the power of our ridiculously gracious gathering God, that church is important. Because, we're better together.
In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, a group of privileged young men find themselves brought together by a courageous young teacher.
The teacher urges these conformist, parentally dominated prep schoolers to "think for yourselves." They are to be suspicious of both their textbooks and their parents.
But I wonder. Is their teacher offering up a wonderfully innovative message or a dull run-of-the-mill one? Because the call to "be your own person" and "think for yourself" has been the rallying cry for a culture that is convinced that its all about creating our own carefully crafted identity.
Today, telling a youngster to "think for youself," is not particularly helpful advice. They think that is what they are doing, even as they are smack in the middle of bland mainstream mindset. Little do they know that many of those brave ideas, innovative philosophies, innovative concepts have been carefully formed and imprinted on them by powers outside themselves; their bold ideologies are probably more a function of materialistic free-market capitalism than brave assertions of individuality.
A friend of mine has noted that by the end of the movie Dead Poets Society, the boys who are members of the group really are individuals, interesting young men, who are now, for the first time in their lives, thinking for themselves, taking hold of their lives, and being people of character and grit.
But it's not because they are stand-alone fully autonomous people thinking their own profound thoughts. No, they have become strong individuals because they are first formed by a group. Their membership in that group has given them the resources they needed for true individuality. Their membership has shaped them, formed them, and contoured their lives to be more interesting than they otherwise would have been left to their own devices.
In Dead Poets Society, the group enabled them to stand against their ambitions and domineering parents, the inhuman school authorities and the other social forces that were trying to have their way with them. It's a tribute to the power of socialization and the necessity of a truthful, loving group for the nurturing of courageous persons.
In our better moments, the church has always known this. Without a group of friends to sustain us, we are apt to be victims of powerful pressures and forces that seek to influence us in the direction of their own narrow and limited viewpoint.
In our time, you can carefully curate your friends list, and unfollow anyone who says things you disagree with. The result is insular lives, lived in tiny little worlds where you only interact with people you agree with. Our culture naturally fragments us into a herd of isolated units, each detached from tradition, community, history and one another, all the while telling us that we are free.
But that's not the church. Church is hard and at times unappealing because it brings together a diverse group of people. We, gathered here this morning, are not here because we hold certain things in common. We are not the same age. We have not had similar childhood experiences. We do not have similar goals or ambitions. We do not agree on who should be the next Prime minister, or whether rail blockades or teacher strikes are a good idea.
And yet, in our diversity, in the tension of our differences, we find we are inexplicably tied together, because together we have the audacity to proclaim Jesus as Lord.
We believe that Jesus has chosen us, called us, and given us our marching orders. We believe that because of Calvary, we share a future, that is powerful, and yet completely beyond our own abilities to bring about. We believe that we can even call this odd group of strangers our "brothers" and "sisters."
Following a difficult time in Rachel Held Evan's life, she decided to leave church behind. Instead of rushing out the door on Sunday morning, she and her husband did exactly what they thought all heathens did on the first day of the week: sleeping in, making pancakes, sipping dark roast coffee while watching Meet the Press in their pajamas.
Evans remembered, "We'd talk about how the oaks were our cathedral, the honeysuckles our incense, and the river over the rocks our hymns. We entertained the idea of taking up a new hobby – origami, perhaps, or yoga – and start writing poetry again. This lasted for a good three weeks until one morning I decided to watch another episode of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix and the next thing I knew; it was dinnertime and I still hadn't put on a bra. Things can devolve rather quickly."
We may have some very ambitious ideas of what we would do with ourselves if we had a couple more hours on a Sunday morning. But the truth is, without a faithful community calling us forth, wondering where we are when we're away, checking in on us from time to time, "Things can devolve rather quickly."
And here's the thing: that is what church has always been about! Paul writes to his church in Galatia saying, "Carry one another's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ." What is that law? "Love one another as I have loved you." That is, the self-sacrificing servant kind of love.
I don't think there is any other venue or activity where that is the one ground rule. The parents at the hockey rink this morning are working from a very different set of assumptions. The people on their third episode of a Netflix series this morning, are not held to any higher standard. The folks down at the café or walking the dog this morning are not being called to do or be anything other than what they already are.
But that's not how it is here. Here, we are held to a certain standard. A law that we may at times, fall short of. But none the less, that challenges us to be more than we already are.
I started this sermon series, four weeks ago, with a story about a visit I did to a former church goer. She told me that she didn't think you needed to go to church to be a Christian. There are days when I wish it were true. I'm just not sure how it can be. So, here I am. And here you are.
Jesus says, speaking to his followers "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). That's a powerful idea. But here's the thing that we miss in our English Bibles. In the Greek, "You" is not "You." It is, as they say, south of the Mason Dixon Line, "You all," or "Y'all." "Y'all are the light of the world."
When Jesus is busy raising the bar on the Old Testament commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, our English Bibles say, "You have heard it said, ‘Eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you…" but actually it's, "But I tell y'all."
When Jesus is teaching his followers to pray in Matthew 7, he says, "Ask and it will be given to you." But he's actually saying, "Y'all ask and it will be given to you all."
And this translation discrepancy in our Bibles is actually concealing some really good news. Because frankly, I'm not up to this on my own. I don't know about you, but I can't achieve what Jesus is asking on my own. This is not an individual sport. I need you, and you, and you, and all you all, to get this right.
Being a follower of Jesus is not for the faint at heart. It's also not for the one-man-band, because the music is too complex!
The only way for "me" to follow Jesus, is with "we." Because there is nothing natural about discipleship. If it was natural, we wouldn't need "we." And we certainly wouldn't need Jesus promise when he says, "Lo, I am with all y'all until the end of the age." What do I need him for, if it is natural?
Here at church we make a pretty exclusive claim. It's this: we believe that there is no possible way for humanity to know the true nature and will of God, without knowing the Jew from Nazareth, named Jesus. This is not Christian arrogance. It's rather the humble witness that we would not have known ourselves or the world had the church not introduced us to Jesus.
It is our conviction that humanity cannot know what life is really all about through the affirmation of certain lofty human ideals, nor though the embrace of certain programs for human betterment.
It is only by the inconvenience of an odd and wondrous gathering, who make it their mission, to "…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded y'all…" (Matthew 28:19-20).
And so, WiiChurch. Because, we're better together.
Thanks be to God, Amen.