Wednesday, June 29, 2005

1st Sermon at Waldron

Happy Father’s Day, Indeed!
Today’s lectionary scripture is not exactly my ideal for a first sermon, especially on a Father’s Day like today—my first Father’s day. The themes are obviously difficult, and I’d rather not start out my ministry preaching on the idea that Christ brings a sword instead of peace, or that we are expected to love Christ “more than” we love our family. These topics are tough to digest—However, I believe in working with the lectionary. I have found it to be a tool that allows for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now, certain scriptures are lacking from the lectionary (and it is somewhat surprising that today’s scripture is not lacking from the lectionary.) To be quite frank—this piece of our Gospel—what we call the “Good News” doesn’t sound very “good” at all, does it? Jesus sounds a little hard edged doesn’t he? Eugene Peterson, who has translated the Bible into modern English writes, “I have not come to make life cozy, I have come to cut. Make a sharp knife cut between son and father, mother and daughter, bride and mother and law. Cut through those cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.” Now I know what you’re thinking. For all those who claim that Jesus was a married man, this is a perfect foil to their claims—who else but a single man would call the bond between a bride and mother in law a “cozy domestic arrangement?” Well,

This passage disturbs me to some extent. It goes against our cultural norms. Many in the Christian faith believe the guiding expression of our religion is “family values.” You hear this phrase quite a bit. I believe in family values too—as you can see, I have a very newly expanded family, and I value those two people with my own life. If you’re like me when you hear this passage, you may say to yourself, as I did, you may say “Come on now—I’m supposed to love some man who lived 2000 years ago who I wouldn’t even be able to speak with if I had a chance to meet him—I’m supposed to love this man more than I love my own son or this woman who I’ve chosen to spend my life with? Look here Jesus, just because you didn’t get a chance to have a wife and children doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for the rest of us!” What do I make of this commandment, and why does it sound so unlike the Jesus I know and love? Here he is, the prince of peace, telling us he hasn’t come to bring Peace to the world, but instead the sword.
As one of my professors in seminary liked to say, “Lets walk around in the ambiguity of this for a while.” It’s okay—we practice a paradoxical faith. Perhaps we can celebrate the grayness of our place in the world and be honest about it instead of trying to convince ourselves there is always a right or wrong. Easy answers in a black and white universe may be the most pleasant way to convince ourselves that we’re AOK with the world and with God, but I believe it is a distraction from the truth. If we’re lulled to sleep by our own faith, we will miss the mark every time. I don’t think that is what you are asking for either. I believe this church is accustomed to living in the tensions, living in this gray world of ours. I think this honesty about our place in the world is much more conducive to a genuine faith than the viewpoint that we can be absolutely right about something.

What is it that we are supposed to harvest from this vine in this day and age? It was no doubt written by a Christian community that faced a lot more strife and adversity because of their faith than we do in this day and time. Matthew remembers Jesus giving this speech during what some call the “missional” commissioning of the disciples. Jesus has unfolded the “fishers of men and women” invitation to the point that he is starting to forecast some pretty difficult obstacles to the emerging church. Christ knows that this love he is preaching about is dangerous to the world. It is not simply a fluffy, heartwarming experience—it is a radical inclusiveness that may feel like pinpricks on our spine. The message that we carry may indeed put us on the outs with our family, our community, and so on.

As a Danish philosopher from the 19th century named Sooren Kierkegaard observed, the moment Christianity starts becoming comfortable in society, that is the moment it needs revitalization. Christ’s message is one of forgiveness, of compassion, of the real abundance of simplicity. The message that we find so often in this culture is one of retribution, of distancing ourselves from the afflicted, and of the hollow abundance of consumerism. Indeed Christ brings a sword. Christ will not stand by while we amuse ourselves to death by affluenza. If peace is a satisfaction with the status quo, then Matthew is correct in saying Christ does not bring peace but a sword.
Paul picks up on the absurdity of our faith walk in his treatise on death to Sin and Aliveness to Christ. In Romans, Paul demonstrates that everybody is under the power of Sin. Yet, generally in Romans, when Paul mentions Sin, he is not talking so much about sin as an individual act of disobedience or bad behavior. He is talking about Sin as a cosmic power.
In other words, he is talking about Sin with a capital "S." Sin, as a cosmic force, is a tyrant that rules over the believer like a despotic monarch. Sin with a capital "S" is what creates sin with a little "s."
Eugene Peterson communicates this idea by speaking of our death to Sin and aliveness to Christ in terms of leaving one land and starting a new life in another land.
Instead of being alive to this tyrant, in Baptism we are dead to it. Being dead to this ruler, we are instead Alive in Christ to God. Instead of being wanted Dead or alive, like the posters in the Old West, We are wanted Dead and Alive by God! Can there be anything more black and white than “dead or alive” These are mutually exclusive terms aren’t they? However, Paul sees a need for us to live in the gray area—We are to be dead and alive.
Unfortunately, Sin has left its mark on every life. Sin’s signature is death. But the Good News of Romans is that there is a way to break the curse of Sin, and ironically, it is through death.
In other words, we must fight fire with fire. Sin rules over us like a tyrant, and it brings death. The only way to break free from the death of sin is through death— dying not in the natural realm, but in the spiritual realm. Dying in the spiritual realm for Paul is represented by baptism. Baptism is a powerful symbol of dying to Sin. Romans 6 is Paul’s reflection on the ethical implications of baptism. Baptism equals death.
Listen to Paul in Romans 6:3: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" In Romans 6, Paul reminds his hearers of the significance of their baptism.
To be baptized by the Spirit into fellowship with Christ is like a spiritual Fourth of July. Baptism into Christ is Independence Day. Baptism into Christ is understood as that moment when we break free from the hostile power of Sin, no longer being held captive by its seductive power.
Paul says that after we have been buried with Christ by baptism into his death, we are dead to Sin. Now, I want to be crystal clear on a point. To be dead to Sin does not mean that we never again transgress. It should, however, mean that we will not be dominated by Sin. As long as we are in the flesh, we are prone to making mistakes— mistakes for which we can sincerely seek pardon. However, once we have been baptized into Christ, Sin no longer should have dominion over us. Sin should no longer rule over us because now we have divinely-bestowed authority.
As we mature in Christ, stumbling blocks after a while should start becoming stepping stones for us to move up in Christ. But in order for this to happen, we must be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. As Paul says in verse 4, when we are alive to God in Christ, we will walk in the newness of life. When we are dead and alive, life is definitely new in us, because in the Christ’s country, life is completely different.
Christians who are dead to Sin and alive to Christ don’t live like they did in the old land. There are new customs in the this new country. As Peterson translates, “When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace--a new life in a new land!” As the old hymn goes"What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought, since Jesus came into my heart."
If we take seriously Paul’s words in Romans 6, every day there should be a funeral in the life of the Christian. None of us have been completely conformed to the image of God, but every day, we ought to lay to rest something that is not like God, which hinders us from having a closer walk with God. Paul says, “Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to us…and God speaks our mother tongue, and we hang on every word.”
Paul knows being crucified with Christ sometimes tears you away from those comfortable places we know and love. Christ comes to cut like a surgeon. The cancerous infection of Sin is removed from our lives, and our lives become truly alive. As this sword divides us from the old tyrant of Sin and death, our lives are cut loose and freed for God. Freed to open our eyes to God’s kingdom, which is all around us as Jesus says in Luke 17:21. In our newly minted lives in Christ, we have the capability to not only see this kingdom, but to share it—Not only to hope for it but to enact it. As we witness to the beauty of this new life in the shining presence of the Light—it emerges within us for the world of Sin. I believe this church knows what it means to be a beacon to the old world. Through our food pantry, through our hospitality to several community groups who show exploration, hope, and recovery to our community, through our interest in being a reinvigorated ministry for our neighbors through the igniting ministries project, through our Bible studies and prayer circles, we are in the process of refracting the light of the kingdom of God onto this beautiful area of land we call Waldron Arkansas. Christ called it a sword, but it sure looks like light to me.
Now into all this amb, God injects a bit of surety. I say a bit of surety, but this small truth is big enough to stake our whole lives on. In the midst of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar’s shifting sands of a crumbling family, God injects some bedrock or God’s provides some bedrock. It says in the Scrip that God heard the cry in the wilderness and God said, “do not worry. I will create a great nation for Ishmael.” In Jesus’s frightening missional speech which warms us of the perils of discipleship, and flips our conceptions of his purpose like he flipped those tables in the temp. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” In the confusion of Paul’s revelation of our death and life (look at scriptures – You are alive in Christ??), the perfect simple truth that gives us meaning in the midst of a life of grey is this: God loves us! Though we do not fool ourselves with the notion that life in this world as a Christian is black and white, we have a real, tangible proof for the existence of our hope in the Kingdom to come. God loves us and God loves the world. Sometimes this love is like the lap of Jesus for the children, and sometimes this love is like a drawn sword to our idolatries. What is sure is that it is love.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:18 PM

    That is a powerfull sermon, Nathan. I am glad that I was able to be there in absentia. grandpa