Monday, April 25, 2011

The Adventures of the Post-Relevant Church

My wife, Dr. Monique, and I have great conversations. One day recently, as we discussed my recent Contra Factum post on collared evangelism, she said something that jumped out at me: "Welcome to the adventures of the post-relevant church." Wow, what a phrase. It hit precisely the right note.

So, yes, welcome to the adventure.

The evangelicalism that I grew up in was concerned with 'relevance.' We had to make the Gospel relevant to our culture in order to fulfill the great commission. In college, this concern metamorphosed into a preoccupation with 'context.' The context determines everything, we thought, and it even gives us the incentive to frame the Gospel story in completely different ways, even in ways that our fathers and mothers in faith might be unable to recognize. See, for example, the growth of the megachurch movement, or the absence of the cross from many seeker-sensitive churches, or the equation of worship with emotional experience.

What I realized going to seminary is that evangelicals share the concern with relevance with their sworn enemies: the liberals. They both agree that the Gospel has to be translated into a new key in order to be relevant to the world. They only differ on the amount of 'translation' they are comfortable with.

The problem is that neither camp has done relevance well. When you step back from both the evangelical and liberal attempts to contextualize the Gospel and really look at them, you can see how severely dated they always already are. We in the churches are always find ourselves about 15-30 years behind the curve. That curve is being established in the classrooms of Ivy League universities and the halls of power, not in the Christian popular press.

The crux of the issue is that 'context' and 'culture' are moving targets. By the time that we can publish the book on being relevant to the culture, it has already moved on. As soon as we think we've become relevant, we find ourselves irrelevant again because that to which we calibrated ourselves has already changed.

So what are we left with? An adventure: the adventure of the post-relevant church. We have to stop allowing our churches to act like self-obsessed teenagers; instead, we need to embrace the fact that context just happens. It happens every moment of every day, and it is only in the faithful response to the context in which we actually find ourselves (not in the context imagined for us by the think-tank in Michigan) that the real adventure happens.

We can't catch up with the culture. All we can really do, as Andy Crouch says, is be culture-makers ourselves. Our work is to create a context, to create a space in which God may be found, and to invite others into it in order that they might become relevant to it and therefore relevant to God. (This is the meaning of Baptism, is it not?) In other words, we can only be relevant by being a little strange, by keeping our own council, and by showing hospitality to people who find that the Gospel we proclaim is the scent of life and not the stench of death.

What does the post-relevant church look like? I don't know yet. I think it will probably look different everywhere that faithful men and woman struggle to fashion themselves in the image and likeness of Christ. For me, I think this will mean wearing a collar, introducing myself to strangers, and inviting our parish's neighbours into the life of Christ's Church through Baptism. It will mean talking about sin and grace and encouraging active participation in the sacramental life. It will mean forgetting about myself for a while and just allowing the church where I find myself to be the church that it is ... and the church that it will become. In other words, this is un-self-conscious Christianity, unconcerned with 'relevance,' just concerned with being alive in Christ wherever he has put us.

In this adventure of the post-relevant church, I think we will find that relevance, like context, just happens. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

SERMON: Jesus Delays

Oregon Scientific RM313PNA Self-Setting Projection Alarm Clock with Indoor Thermometer, Blue
Date: April 10, 2011
Text: John 11:1-45
[Introduction] I have a confession to make: I hate my alarm clock. Now, there are some specific features that I enjoy. With one button, I can change the timezone. With another, I can easily set the alarm. It has both an up and down arrow, so if I want to set my alarm earlier than the previous day, I don’t have to scroll through 23 numbers to get back to the hour before. The best feature of all? It shines the current time on the ceiling. It’s invisible during the day but at night when my wife and I are laying without glasses in the bed, it’s just bright and big enough to be readable. That’s what I love about my alarm clock.

What do I hate about it, then? It wakes me up. I like sleeping. My dreams are sometimes the most peaceful part of the day. My alarm clock very rudely steps into that refreshing and relaxing state and yells at the top of its lungs, “Get up!” as it beep, beep, beep, beeps. That’s what I hate about my alarm clock.
[Page 1] Quite unlike my alarm clock which is always on time, in our Gospel passage today Jesus is late. Early on, he gets the news that his dear friend Lazarus is ill. Lazarus’ two sisters Mary and Martha had sent the word. They wanted him to come. They knew that if Jesus was there, he could make everything better and restore Lazarus to health. Instead, Jesus does one of the most frightening and confusing things in the Bible: he delays. “Accordingly,” we hear in the passage, “though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Even though Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he does not rush to their aid. He delays. Why?
We could hear the passage and think Jesus was weak or afraid. Given the way Jesus breaks down weeping (weeping so hard that the people point at him and gawk) it could be that Jesus is just too weak to face the pain of his dear friend’s sickness. Or, maybe he is afraid. Lazarus’ town Bethany is just a little over three kilometers from Jerusalem, and the disciples object, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Maybe Jesus delays because he needs to build up the courage to face a possible death. He was human after all.
Alternatively, maybe Jesus wasn’t weak and afraid. Maybe he was callous and capricious. Jesus seems to know that something is up here. He says to the disciples, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4). A little later, we hear in the story, “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe’” (vv. 14-15). All of a sudden, Lazarus seems like a tool that Jesus uses to glorify himself. This seems to imply that Jesus is glad Lazarus dies because this way the disciples will believe. What does this make Lazarus then, some kind of collateral damage? Is his death nothing more than a means to an end, a necessary evil in the fulfillment of God’s good plan? Jesus is divine after all. He could see the whole picture. Maybe he is callous towards his friend’s pain and death, using it to his own ends.
Whether Jesus is weak and afraid or callous and capricious, either way, he does the most frightening thing imaginable. Even though he has the power to heal in his hands, even the power to heal from a distance (!), he delays. He does not go to Bethany. He lets Lazarus die.
[Page 2] Since early times, Christians in desperation and despair have prayed, “Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come.” But all too often in our experience, Jesus does not come. For some reason, he delays. It is a terrifying experience to know that Jesus could step in and fix it (whatever “it” is) but doesn’t. What kind of Lord is it who allows his creation to continue suffering, continue spiraling out of control, continue giving into hate? What kind of Lord is it that stands at a distance while the world he created suffers from its sickness and dies?
We don’t know most days. So in response to Jesus’ delay, we doubt, hurry, and scramble. We doubt the goodness of a Lord who stands at a distance. We scramble to fix the problem ourselves, rushing to resuscitate the world before it passes away. We start to believe that if Jesus really is absent, then maybe we can find some other person to take his place. Maybe we can find another Christ to stand in for Jesus of Nazareth and fix the world.
Throughout human history, we’ve done this over and over again. In the mid-20th Century, in the face of a severe post-war economic depression, the German people rallied around a Christ of their own. They put their hope in him. Jesus was not coming, it seemed, so they thought they could retake their former power by force. The Christian cries of “Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come” were twisted into the militaristic cries of the Third Reich. These people trusted other people with complete power in hopes that they could resuscitate the world, but they instead set out on a path that resulted in the slaughter of millions.
Jesus’ delay has effects in the history of nations, but it also has profoundly personal effects. When you and I sit alone in our houses, our cheeks wet from tears caused by Jesus’ seeming abandonment, we know what it must have been like to have been those two sisters who called to Jesus in their distress and were not answered, those sisters who mourned the death of a brother that their Lord could have saved but instead for some reason chose to delay.
[Page 3] What those sisters do not know, as they summon and wait for the Jesus who delays, is that Jesus’ love will raise Lazarus from the dead. They know that Jesus loves Lazarus. When they send word to him, the message reads “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). But they cannot comprehend the height, width, and depth of Jesus’ love. In their minds, love means rushing to aid. In their hearts, they believe that when they cry “Maranatha!” that the Lord Jesus is supposed to come quickly. But Jesus’ love, they will find, is something entirely different.
Jesus’ love is confident. When Jesus hears the news about Lazarus’ illness, he turns immediately to his disciples and tells them that Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death (11:4). Instead, God’s glory will be shown through it. A little later, when Lazarus’ illness has swallowed him up in death, Jesus says to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (11:11). Jesus is confident that his love for Lazarus will win in a fight against that non-love, that anti-love that is death.
But, Jesus’ love is also compassionate. He does not accept Lazarus’ death with the stoic determination of a movie military commander who sacrifices the lives of his unit for the completion of a higher objective. Even though Jesus’ love is confident in how things will turn out; Jesus’ love also breaks his heart. When Jesus comes to Bethany, first Martha approaches him and then Mary. He receives them both and begins to teach them what it is that what he is about to do will mean. But when Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and through choked tears says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32), Jesus’ heart breaks. His spirit is greatly disturbed. His face contorts with pain. He cries out, “Where have you laid him” (11:34)? When he starts walking towards the tomb of the man he loved, he breaks down and begins to weep (11:35). He arrives at the tomb ‘greatly disturbed’ (11:38).
Confident yet broken-hearted, Jesus chokes through his own tears, saying, “Take away the stone” (11:39). When Martha questions him, he turns his swollen eyes to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God” (11:40)? And Jesus prays to the Father, thanking him, allowing the people around to see that there is a relationship of trust between them, one that will empower him to do what’s next. And Jesus now, with eyes puffy and snot drying in his beard, confidently raises his voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
And that is precisely what Lazarus did.
[Page 4] When my alarm clock goes off precisely on time every morning, my brain starts to work. It tries to incorporate the beep, beep, beep, beeps into the fabric of whatever dream that I am dreaming. My brain tries to tame the alarm into something that is a part of my dream world; it tries to make it something that I can ignore.
But, I can’t. Eventually the sheer otherness of the alarm shatters my dreams and brings me startling awake. It’s 5:00 am. It’s time to go running. I am left with a choice. Do I ignore my alarm and retreat to the safety of my dreams? Or do I embrace the real world and walk into the day?
I don’t know if Lazarus had the choice when he heard Jesus calling from the door of his tomb, but we do. When Jesus calls us (“Christian, come out!”), we can get up and start walking in the light, or we can choose to remain children of the darkness, those people who prefer to believe the world’s destructive illusion instead of its illumined reality.
But, one thing is for sure. The life we are living before we hear Jesus’ voice calling, that life is the entombed life, the life of death, the life of the dream world. Jesus’ voice, when it calls us to new life, is painful. It disrupts our slumbering selves. It for the first time snaps our eyes open in shock, in disorientation, in sheer incomprehension.
But if the voice that calls us is the same voice that called Lazarus from the tomb, then we can know that it is the voice of love. It is not the voice that we expected, because we expected God’s love to be the thing that rushes to fix us, that rushes to heal us, that rushes to meet our needs. But, instead, when we hear the voice, we hear it as a voice that has delayed. It did not come when we expected it, as part of our dreams, but as something that intrudes upon and sometimes shatters them. Even though it seems to us like the voice is delayed, it has come precisely at the right time, precisely when God would have us get up and walk out of our tombs into the light of a brand new day.
Jesus’ love called Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ love calls us into newness of life. Jesus’ love is the reason we gather here this morning. Jesus’ love is what we will soon receive, memorialized, in our hands and in our mouths. Jesus’ love that led him to a cross, that led him through death to a resurrection, that love is the love that is God Himself, God Almighty, God the one and only. He is the One that we adore, that we worship, that we love. Even when he delays, we cannot put another in His place because He alone is the one who loves us enough to call us by name and rouse us from our sleep. He alone is the one that we worship, here in this place and now and forever, world without end. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spiritual Malpractice

It's been one of the joys of working in Toronto to have spent time with people on the edges of the church's life. A common thread in their stories is that they used to go to church but then something happened. Usually that something had to do with a minister's behavior. Brow-beating, yelling, being pretentious - you know the lot. Eventually, a phrase surfaced for me to describe this constellation of bad behavior:

Spiritual malpractice.

Doctor's are often accused (and sued) for malpractice. We who acquire the professional degree for ministers, the Masters of Divinity, should also be on the look out for our own malpractice. Wikipedia's definition goes like this:

Malpractice is a type of negligence in which the misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance of a professional, under a duty to act, fails to follow generally accepted professional standards, and that breach of duty is the proximate cause of injury to a plaintiff who suffers damages.

Misfeasance is doing the right thing wrongly; malfeasance is doing the wrong thing; and nonfeasance is the failure to do the right thing. There are many areas in which clergy practice can veer into malpractice. Consider the minister who preaches nothing but sin and never quite gets to grace. (Both liberals and conservative do this far too often.) That's an example of both misfeasance (doing the right act wrongly by never moving from cross to resurrection) and nonfeasance (not doing the right thing of preaching resurrection). Or consider the minister who doesn't provide for the education of the congregation (nonfeasance) or the minister who abuses authority by absolutizing his or her own power (misfeasance). The examples abound.

Talking about spiritual malpractice under all three headings is important because there is very real and damaging spiritual malpractice propagated against parishioners that has nothing to do with sex or money (common examples of malfeasance). It is also important because it gives us a way to name someone's negative experience of the church as an anomaly. Using this language allows us to say that spiritual malpractice, while certainly common, is neither the norm nor the ideal of the Church's life.

The other thing that using this language does for us is remind us that ministers are professionals. We have duties and obligations placed upon us by our profession, just like doctors, lawyers, and business people do. The clerical vocation may be more than a professional one, but it is not less.

In other words, clergy need to be at the very least good functionaries.* We need to know our duties and to do them well. Again, we are more than mere functionaries, but we are not less. If we do not take our mundane responsibilities seriously, how can we be expected to treat our spiritual ones? To avoid spiritual malpractice, we have to start with the mundane, to learn to keep our promises, and to treat people with the respect and care they deserve.

*I have a feeling that both 'high-church' and 'low-church' ministers would react negatively to the language of 'functionaries' for the same reason: clericalism. Whether you believe that the priest is an ontological superhero ('these hands were made for chalices not for calluses') or that the minister has a 'spiritual' vocation that frees him or her from administrative responsibility, the case is the same. Ministers tend to think of themselves more highly than they ought.

Monday, April 04, 2011

SERMON: Living Water

Date: March 27, 2011
Sermon Text: John 4:5-42

Photo by Willam Mittelsteadt
[Introduction] I've heard my whole life that I should get 8-10 glasses of water per day, that drinking water was good for me, that it would make me healthy and strong. I learned this week some of the reasons why water is important for life. It does things I never thought about. It lubricates our lungs. Without water, we couldn't convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. It also helps our digestion. It keeps things, ummm, moving from the mouth on down. But, most interesting to me at the moment because of my family's history, water helps the kidneys get rid of the toxic material that builds up in our bodies. The kidneys collect it, and without water, those toxic things sometimes dry up and harden into kidney stones. Water helps our body remove the poison we carry in our bodies. Water is important to life.

[Page 1] In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus needs water. He sits at a famous well in the Jewish no-man’s land of Samaria. The noon sun beats down on him. He is tired out by his journey, sitting alone while the disciples rush into the neighboring city of Sychar to get food for themselves and for their weak Rabbi. He is so thirsty that when a woman appears carrying her jug to draw water alone in the noonday sun, the first thing he says is, "Give me a drink."

The woman recognizes the oddity of the situation. Here is a Jewish man sitting by the well. Jews don’t normally go through Samaria. On top of that, she’s a woman. Why would a man address her like that? She boldly asks Jesus, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?"

Jesus nods with respect. Not many women would talk back in this way. But, instead of repeating his command, he engages her in conversation, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink', you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." Now this gets her attention. The woman came to the well to get water, after all. In the dry places around Sychar, she and her people had to draw water from deep in the ground to survive. It was hard work. There was no 'living water' which is what they called streams, brooks, and rivers. There was no living water from which they could easily draw. There was only the day-in and day-out return to the well.

The Samaritan woman is intrigued, so she sets her water-jug down and asks him where to get this living water. But Jesus sees deeper than the woman’s thirst and answers the question that he finds buried there: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." Jesus put his finger on something: the woman was not only physically thirsty; she was spiritually thirsty as well. She knew the hard life. She knew what it was like to be used and abandoned. She knew what it was like to be ostracized by her community. (Only outcasts gather water alone.) The thirst she felt in her mouth and throat every day only masked the deeper thirst. Like someone weak from a long journey baking under the noonday sun, her whole being yearned for something else, something greater, something that would satisfy.

[Page 2] We, too, suffer from that deep and hidden thirst. It hides just below the surface and expresses itself as a desire for other things. We feel bored and feel the need for entertainment. We feel like our lives lack meaning and feel the need for worthwhile causes. We feel guilty for all the things we can’t fix and feel the need for self-recrimination and self-flagellation. These are all normal feelings to have, all normal antidotes to try. We think that with the correct habits, the proper administration of alcohol, glossy entertainment, and distracting games, we might have found the solution as we return again to the wells of our choice. We think we might have found a way to satisfy our thirst.

But, I think that just like the Samaritan woman, we have to acknowledge that the true nature of our thirst is hidden until Jesus comes to meet us at our well, at the place we repeatedly go to satisfy ourselves. Jesus asks us for a drink there, and we engage him in conversation. He points out that there is something higher and better than the small, shallow well to which we keep returning. And in that conversation, our eyes are opened to that deeper thirst.

I think we’ve all had experiences that resonate with this. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I work at the church, and it is not uncommon for me to pilfer a couple of cookies in the afternoon. That leaves me feeling great. I’m not hungry; I could go for hours, I think. That is, until I walk into Nell’s office for our small group and smell the cooking food: pasta or Indian food or chicken. Assaulted by the smell of real food, my stomach rumbles, my skin flushes, and my knees go weak. My body had been hungry all along. The cookies were a thin veil placed over my body’s need for real nutrition. When confronted with the real thing, the cookies seem like a mirage. They were attractive but ultimately did not satisfy.

And when Jesus comes to meet us, he uncovers that deep thirst under our perceived needs, that deep hunger in us, just like he did for the Samaritan woman. He uncovers a thirst we did not know, a deep, hidden thirst for God.

[Page 3] "Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’" (John 4:13-14).

In our readings today, there were two instances of being thirsty and being led to living water. First, in Exodus, the children of Israel, thirsting in the desert, come to Moses and ask him to give them water. "Give us water to drink," they say (Ex 17:2). In response, Moses appeals to the LORD. The LORD sends Moses to a rock at Horeb and says, "I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink" (Exodus 17:6). When pierced with Moses’ holy staff, the rock gives living, running water in the desert and satisfies Israel’s thirst.

Second, with the Samaritan woman, Jesus repeats the pattern. "Give me a drink," he says to the woman. When she appeals to the Lord about how to get this water, he tells her that he, the Messiah, will give Living Water in the desert to whoever asks. This water, unlike the flowing water that came from Moses’ rock, unlike the water that could be drawn from Jacob’s well, this water will be the water of eternal life. Not only will it satisfy the thirst of the woman, it will cause a deeper well than Jacob’s to spring up within her. Jesus himself will satisfy her thirst.

Both these patterns of thirsting and living water are taken up later in John’s Gospel. We find it in John 19 where Jesus is dying on the cross. When he realizes that his journey is now complete, he says out loud, to fulfill the Scripture, "I am thirsty." It is noonday, just like it was at the Samaritan well, but there is no one to engage him in conversation, no opportunity to say the words "Living Water" or "Eternal Life." Instead, knowing that all has been accomplished, he bows his head, says "It is finished," and gives up his spirit.

The leaders didn’t want to leave the bodies up on the crosses, so they sent the Roman soldiers to break the legs of the crucified ones. When they found Jesus already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, the Scripture says, one of the soldiers took his holy spear and pierced Jesus, God’s Holy Rock, in the side, and at once blood and living water poured out. Having taken on our thirst, having taken on our death, the living water that will well up in us to eternal life is poured out from his side. Jesus’ own life is the Living Water, and he has come to satisfy our thirst.

[Page 4] There are many images of water in the Bible. Noah and his family survive it in the ark. The people of Israel cross out of slavery and into the Promised Land through it. And all the images of water in the Bible coalesce around the central act of Christian Baptism, a mystery that we celebrated a few weeks ago for little Jasiah. Baptism doesn’t save us. God saves us, as Chris preached last week, through water and the Spirit. Whether faith comes first or faith comes later, it remains the case that those who find Christ’s living water welling up within them are either those who have been baptized or those who are being driven inexorably by Christ’s Spirit towards baptism. Coming under the water is the outward sign of the inward and spiritual reality of God’s saving grace. Baptism either completes what faith starts or starts what faith completes. Either way, it is the direction we move if we want to know this living water, quenching our thirst, welling up within us to eternal life.

This means a few things for us. First, if we drink from the Living Water, if we find ourselves washed in it, we will find our deepest thirst quenched. If we come to the water of life, we will suddenly be free from the need to seek out other ways to satisfy our deepest longings. We will no longer have to find cheap entertainment or petty diversions or harmful habits to distract us. We will have welling up within us the source of eternal life and from that source we will draw for the rest of this life and for the life to come.

Second, this baptismal life means something else as well: we are commissioned and sent to be labourers in the harvest. Jesus says, "But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour'" (John 4:35-38). The Samaritan woman ran into the city and told everyone what Jesus had done for her. We are commissioned to do the same.

So, I challenge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus Christ, to examine yourselves in this Holy Lent. If there are any among you who find yourselves drawn to Christ, be baptized. Be cleansed by the water that flows from Jesus’ side and take your place as God’s adopted son or daughter. If you are already baptized and yet find all this talk of living water new and strange, consider a renewal of your baptismal vows and enter again into the life of grace. If you know the living water and find it welling up within you, get confirmed; let the Bishop put his hands on you to commission you to the life of love and service.

If you find this morning God is moving you towards baptism, renewal, or confirmation, please let us know in some way. You can come talk to me or Fr. Ajit; you can reach out to a friend; or you can indicate your interest on the ‘Welcome to St. Matthew’s’ cards in the pews in front of you. Fill them out and drop them in the offering plate when it comes by.

But, whatever the case, don’t hold back. Jesus Christ himself, the Living Water, poured himself out for us, for you. He loves you and wants to lead you into newness of life. He wants to feed you with his own bread and wine. Come to the river of Living Water that ever flows from him.

In name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.