As much as it feels absolutely great to be back with you this morning in worship, and to feel healthy and engaged, more engaged than I’ve been in 6 months, I must say that time away from writing sermons has been really nice. It’s been good to be a pew sitter and a sermon listener.
I’ve often thought that perhaps the task of writing sermons every week would be less onerous if I could preach extemporaneously. What a gift to be able to preach with a just a few notes. A gift to my time, and from the way it seems to be venerated, perhaps a gift to you.
But, now that I’ve been away from the writing and now that I have heard, again, some extemporaneous preaching, I’m not so sure I want anything to do with it. I think we Christians deserve more, and need more, than the pabulum that is the likely result of trying to preach without a written script. After all, we are not just talking about entertainment here — we’re talking about matters that should be of ultimate concern. Big stuff. In fact, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
And not only that, but those elements in our society that we call the Christian right, these proclivities toward a religion and politics of me, where religion is used to advance my position in society, where personal values take center stage and a wider awareness of the ways of others is steam-rolled, requires that we distinguish ourselves from that.
All Christians agree that God calls them to be honorable members of the wider community and to seek the good of all. The reason I point out the Christian Right in this context is that for the Christian Right, political purposes derive from their conviction that God’s will is focused on salvation through the church, and that God provides the world as a stage for the church’s distinctive mission. I am concerned that we make careful thought about Christianity because that kind of political purpose is at cross purposes with a wider, more expansive conviction that God’s will directs concern to the human community as a whole, and God provides the church as a servant to the beloved community.
If we are to be servants and have as our aim concern for the community as a whole, then we will have to think beyond our own noses.
So, at least until I get a little wiser, or a little quicker on my feet, or a little smarter, I’ll try my best at writing sermons so that what is of ultimate concern remains a concern because it truly is ultimate, not merely interesting because it succeeds at the sound-byte level or the story level.
Now, I may be justifying my own style of preaching here, but my intention is to get us to think about the bigger picture as Jesus presents it in the story from the first few verses of Luke where Jesus is engaged in a familiar battle with the religious authorities. It’s a tried and true story. Jesus does something or says something provoking a negative response and everything hinges on Jesus’ justification. These indignant authorities challenge him: “Do you have the right to do what you are doing? Why do you break the law so?”
You see, do you not, that the challenge to Jesus comes from a position very much like the position I just described as the Christian Right? To be virtuous is to seek salvation from the perspective of the temple, and not from the perspective of a wider vision that would seek the common good, even if it lies beyond convention.
Perhaps because of the familiarity and convention of the story, perhaps because of the narrow-mindedness of the authorities, we have a hard time seeing how challenging this particular story is to the mindset that we have about “our church.” What I want to gently get us to think about is that just because we do not associate with the Christian Right, does not mean that we also do not tend to narrow worship to something Jesus might want to challenge.
Here’s one example: I suspect that you, along with me, have found yourself thinking that if we could just have a few more people in the pews on Sunday morning. If we could just have a more successful pledge drive — I’d rest easier. Jesus, however, rises as a direct challenge that worry about “butts in the pews and bucks in the bank” as a friend of mine put it recently.
Today, if someone gets in an accident and has to go to the emergency room, no clergy person would accost the ER doc and charge her with breaking the law. Today no church member will confront another church member who mows the lawn on Sunday after worship, arguing that he is breaking the law to do no work on the Sabbath. But it is not a stretch, especially on a day like today when many are still away on vacation and our congregation is a bit smaller than usual, to think first about the “butts in the pews and bucks in the bank” problem. And that is just akin to saying, as the religious authorities did in the story from Luke — “Get out of here, you’re bleeding all over the carpet. I don’t care if you’re dying — it’s the sabbath and that is not my worry.” These are misplaced worries, misplaced allegiances. And Jesus says enough.
What I am trying to say is that Jesus challenges any mindset that views worship as a means to any end other than the individual sitting with his or her ultimate concern — whether that is a confrontation or a comfort, a struggle or a release. Jesus challenges that mindset because it makes us smaller people, because it closes the window on love. And when you close the window on love, you stifle the impulse to seek the beloved community. When the choice is made, however, to throw that window wide open, the choice is also made to let in the wind of a passion for justice, the choice is made to seek community where flourishing is held in right relation to the other.
If we are to read and understand the healing stories of Jesus’ then we can only do that today by seeing that these stories have to do with the attempt to address the question posed for us in the Deuteronomy reading — how will you live your life?
The public acts and words of Jesus are recorded and woven together in the form they are for a reason. We call it gospel, because what Jesus did then and continued to do even after he died, was to present a new way of looking at the world. That new way was a way that valued the freedom to live, above anything else — It is gospel, or good news, because it revealed that to risk one’s life for it’s vision, was to discover the real thing — it was to discover that no one idea, no one person, no one government, could make another person or not. It was true freedom.
Of course this freedom came with a risk. And it still invites risk. We are no longer, of course, thrown to the lions. But the discovery of the passion for justice, the breeze of grace which blows in through that thrown open window, will lead you down paths that others may shun; it often has you going against the grain.
I think of the words and actions of the mayor of New York City in his defense of the right of a group of Muslims to build a community center near the Twin Towers site– while he claims only to be upholding the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and association, he has also thrown open a window upon the other — has stretched out concern to the wider human community — wider it turns out than many are comfortable with.
And so we come to the point of this sermon — and I judge also the point of worship — to call you and me to decision. What will you do with this God calling to you to throw open the windows. What will I do? Will you go on living as before, or will you let the worship become for you the life. Will I do as the children promised to do — live as a disciple, which means to live open for surprise, to live open for surprise which is sometimes thrilling and sometimes painful?
Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live. Amen.