Saturday, January 26, 2013

What It Means to Be a Christian, Epiphany 3C Sermon

What follows is a sermon draft I'll be preaching during Jazz Vespers tomorrow at Saint Peter's Church, where I currently serve as Vicar.  It reflects on all three lectionary readings for tomorrow, Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-101 Corinthians 12:12-31 and Saint Luke 4: 14 - 21.  It's honestly one of my weaker ones in a while I think, so I'd love some input.  Thanks for reading!

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately, and especially over the past week, thinking about what it means it to be a Christian, particularly in the rapidly changing, sometimes exciting, but often discouraging, times we live in. And I’ve been dwelling on this question for two main reasons: First, upon hearing that Saint Peter’s was cited for its strong post-Superstorm Sandy relief efforts in the most recent issue of The Lutheran, I decided to pick up a copy. While I was happy to see Saint Peter’s mentioned in the storm-relief article, I was pretty bummed after the reading another article, entitled “The Shrinking Church,” which discussed the rapid decline of Lutheran churches all over the country. I’ve also been thinking about what it means to be Christian recently because of Barack Obama’s inaugural address. In the address, he not only boldly supports preserving the planet and advancing gay rights, but also cites faith in God as reason for doing so. In a time where many Americans, especially younger ones, have come to identify Christianity with irrelevance at best and bigotry at worst, the President’s words couldn’t have been more encouraging. To sum it up, stuck between fear of decline and hope for the future, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a Christian.

And it was amidst such thinking this past Wednesday night while reading the three possible Bible passages for this Sunday’s sermon that I realized we needed to read all three of the passages tonight. We needed to include all three, and the Saint Peter’s staff needed to graciously include all three in the bulletin at the last minute (thank you!), because when juxtaposed with one another, each Bible passage illustrates one of the three ways most folks, I think, view their Christian faith in our contemporary world. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to need three volunteers to hold up one of these signs [EACH WITH A BIBLE VERSE], in order to sort of help organize what we’re talking about.

Thank you all very much for volunteering, and please know that what I’m about to say by no means represents the holder of each sign… So first we have the Nehemiah 8 folks, and by that I mean those whose view of faith is based off an easy to make misinterpretation of the passage. In Nehemiah 8 Ezra reintroduces the Torah to the post-exilic Jewish community rebuilding Jerusalem… and everyone promptly gets upset about having all these new rules. Ezra, along with Nehemiah, then begins to explain while the Torah is an amazing gift from God. Nehemiah 8 contains some profound lessons, but it’s easily misread to mean that the most central aspect of being a person of faith is following the rules, not sinning, or something like that. Now, sin is very a real thing, and the Bible definitely has some good advice about how to live our lives, but there’s a problem with the view of what it means to be Christian.

First, since the Bible was written over many hundreds of years for many different types of communities, many of the “rules” in are somewhat ambiguous, if not outright contradictory. And since it’s not possible to perfectly make sense of everything in the Bible, we can’t help but making up our own interpretation at times. And then, if we think we’re doing a great job of following whatever rules we make up, we in turn can’t help but look down on others who don’t follow those rules and thus we end up just sort of being downright mean to others. On the other hand, we might end up thinking we’re horrible at following the rules, and we end up living a life of despair that God hates us, or that we’re wholly bad people or that we’re going to hell, to use a predominately post-Biblical term. Looking at it from a different angle, this view of what it means to be a Christian only leads us to worship ourselves, and maybe the Bible, rather than God Herself.

So, now we’ll move onto the second popular view of what it means to be a Christian, the one reflecting a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 12. In this passage, Saint Paul writes to a diverse, urban congregation in Corinth that’s experiencing a great deal of conflict, telling them that we’re all one body in Christ, despite us all being different parts of that body. It’s a really good and powerful message, but can also easily be misread to mean that the central aspect of being Christian is to just be nice to everyone and to sort of stick up for the little guy in whatever you do. Now, this on the surface sounds a whole lot better than what the Nehemiah 8 folks over there are doing, but let’s dig a bit deeper. On the one hand, if we think we’re succeeding at being nice to people all the time, perfectly welcoming folks into our communities, its really easy to get cocky and really difficult to take a critical look at what were doing, and in turn its really easy to make some very big mistakes. On the other hand, we might think we’re failing all the time because we’re not helping others enough, only to end up downtrodden and hopeless. In the end, the second view of what it means to be Christian ends up looking a whole lot like the first… we only end up worshipping ourselves, rather than God.

Now much of the time, all of us either end up holding view number one or view number two… it’s profoundly in our DNA as people to fixate on what we’re doing… we simply can’t help it. Luckily though, we have a third view about what it means to be a Christian, a view that clearly shines through our Gospel reading today from Saint Luke, a view that reminds us that it’s not about us at all, a view which is very, very good news. Returning to his hometown, Jesus goes to the synagogue, picks up the scroll of Isaiah, and reads the following: [ASK VOLUNTEER #3 TO READ].
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then, giving the first sermon of his ministry, Jesus simply states, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Much like what follows this Gospel story, the good news might not always make folks happy, it might stir things up, it might startle people, but that’s what the good news is: the profound notion that it’s not about what we’re doing at all, but rather about all the amazing things God is doing through Christ. And just think about how good that news is… it means that we don’t need to be perfect, it means that we are loved, and it means that we are forgiven, no matter what.

So, when thinking about what it means to be Christian in this place, in this city, in this most exciting but discouraging of times, while we can’t help but standing up and caring for our neighbors because of how much God loves us, know that it’s not really about what we’re doing at all… it’s about a God that loves us, a God that cares for us, and God liberates us all from whatever may oppresses us, through Christ.

Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

No comments:

Post a Comment