Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Good to Great to Good

Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b‐14
John 12:1-8
Sermon audio is available her for up to one month

Just as there is an entre genre of literature devoted to self help, there is perhaps an equal amount of information available for institutions that feel a need for redevelopment. There are books to tell you how to find the Tipping Point between ideas and fads. There are books that tell you how to work smarter instead of harder. There are books that tell you why some organizations are simply good, while others are great.

Our staff is reading one such book, Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins, and one thing has become clear to us. No matter how effective we can be at doing i’s and crossing t’s – no matter how decent and orderly we do our work – nothing matters without a clear sense of mission and shared priority throughout the congregation. Nothing we do matters without a clear understanding of who we are as a community of Christian disciples.

Now, one might think that the question of idenDty as a community of Christian disciples is kind of redundant. And in another day and time it might have been. People came to church by brand affiliation. People came to church because it was a place of connection and the role of the church was central to community, and although some people still come to church for these reasons – that simply isn’t the way the majority of people connect and commune anymore.

The good news is that those were not really the purposes of the church anyway. God never said, “create institutional effectiveness.” But God did say, “I’m the one who brings people out of slavery.” God did say, “Don’t define the future by the past or even by what you expect to do or become – for behold, I am doing a new thing.”

I don’t think we like hearing that. I don’t think we like it because doing a new thing means loss of the old thing. Loss is limitation, and if there is anything we do well as human beings, it is to spend our waking days trying to transcend our limitations. And that’s a good thing! That’s how we put a man on the moon. That’s how we have cured diseases. But it is also how we set ourselves up for failure by holding on to habits and attitudes that give us the feeling of control but the experience of limitation.

I once had a friend tell me how to trap wild pigs just by feeding them. It’s not as simple as building a trap. They’re too smart for that. What you do is build a short fence and place feed in front of it. After a few days of feeding them you build another fence to create the second side of the pen. About a week later you build the other; then in a few
days you build the front and leave open the gate. After they have been coming in and out for a few days you can simply close them in.

People are, of course, much smarter than pigs. We build our own pens. We wall ourselves up, and we close ourselves in. And then we expend all our energy on maintenance. And yet, God is still doing new things. And yet, God is still calling us out and into something greater than our wildest dreams!

That’s what it was like for the Psalmist. The writer of Psalm 126 might as well have said, “Can someone pinch me so that I know this is real?” And not only are we reminded of God’s surpassing grace, but we are assured that even those who mourn will be comforted. Even the losses we experience are a space, albeit unwanted space, where God plants seeds of redemption and hope!

Nobody wants to lose, but life is a constant process of gains and losses. And if we let ourselves be defined by what we do not want to lose, then we begin to lose the option of choosing the things that truly are important to us. That’s what Paul was talking about when he offered his resume as the Hebrew’s Hebrew. He wrote, “If anyone has a reason to be confident in the flesh – I have more.” Then he proceeds to tell them exactly how and why he has more credentials than most, and that none of his credentials is worth a thing – in fact the Greek much earthier on this – calling them no better than dung.

That’s how highly he prizes the knowledge and experience of God’s love through Jesus. Anything in his life that does not point him toward or move from a life defined by the hope of the resurrection is harmful and wasteful.

In our Gospel passage today, Judas is set up as the foil to illustrate how deep this goes. Clearly there is not a shared vision here about the purpose and nature of the community of believers – even before the crucifixion – so we can take some solace there for our own imperfections. Jesus is being honored at a dinner party by some of his closest friends – including Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead – and there’s stingy, thieving Judas right beside him.

John’s gospel is the only one who names Mary as the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet, and – though there is much debate about the character of their relationship in scholarly circles – I will leave that discussion for the classroom. What matters is the level of intimacy and understanding between them. What matters is the knowledge that following Jesus and attending to his needs are going to cause us to be in some uncomfortable places, doing some uncomfortable things.

And that is what moves us from good to great. True greatness is not defined by the best return on the investment, balanced budgets, and well trimmed shrubs, but instead it is defined by how deeply we are moved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. True
greatness is deeply and particularly connected with how we identify – and how easily we are identifiable – as a community of Christian disciples.

There is, however, another shift beyond a movement from good to great. I was talking with a friend the other day about the modernized twist on Sherlock Holmes that was recently produced by the BBC. In this version, Sherlock Holmes self‐identifies as a reformed socio-path. His deductive powers are so extreme that he has lost a sense of compassion and become somewhat disassociated with some of the basic qualities and relationships that make us human. And in an interesting twist, Holmes is sometimes wrong because his base assumptions lack a basic sense of humanity. So his work as a detective and his associations and relationships are not only a good use of his skills, they are an attempt to become more human. In one of the episodes, when Inspector Lestrade of the Scotland yard is asked why he puts up with Sherlock, he says, “Because Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we're very very lucky, he might even be a good one."

God created us and called us good. In our vanity we try to deny that as often as we can, and we separate ourselves from God like wild pigs in a pen. Yet God continues to claim us and to love us into something greater than we can imagine. If we just stop right there, we can feel pretty good about ourselves. We can claim our identity as members of a faith community and wear it out like civic pride. But if we stop right there, who do we look more like – Judas or Mary?

There’s one more little kicker at the end of this story. Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” I do not believe Jesus was dismissing the poor. Far from it, he was introducing the idea that our relationship with the poor is an indicator of our relationship with God. We do not have Jesus in physical form, but we can see each other as incarnations of God – limited and flawed though we are. This does not mean that we are supposed to give handouts that encourage dependency. It means that part of our calling as followers of Jesus is to be in relationship with the poor. Truly, whether we know it or not, we are in a relationship with the poor by association. It is simply a matter of how intentional we are in that relationship. It is simply a matter of whether or not we are willing to see those less fortunate than ourselves as a means to attain our own humanity.

Beloved of God, know this – we were created as good, and by God’s grace we are truly great. And one day, by the providence of God, we might even be good again. Amen.

New Beginnings

Joshua 5:9‐12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16‐21
Luke 15:1‐3, 11b‐32
Sermon audio is available here for up to one month.

In the congregaIon I served before coming here the officers and staff all received an assessment of gifts through a company that specialized in organizaIonal dynamics. Many of you have probably done something similar if you work in a management capacity with a large firm or corporaIon. It was very insightful, and I think it helped us all understand each other’s motives and perspecIves.

Without boring you with the details of it, one thing that I learned about myself (that everyone who has had a five minute conversaIon with me already knows) is that I am a change maker. What I did not realize at the time is that most people are more interested in consistency than change. Not only that, but change without purpose is really very self serving. So, there you have it. That is my Achilles' heal exposed. That is the disgrace that God rolls away from me again and again.

Finding ways to make changes that are moIvated by God’s will that others can also live with is the new beginning that I seek. I tell you this because I believe that the scriptures today are telling us about the need for confession before God and the new reality that we become a part of once we recognize the arms of God that are already embracing us.

You see, new beginnings do not look like we think they do – or like we want them to – because for something to be truly made new it can only be made new by the maker. Sure, we may fashion things into new purposes. We can build things and say, “We made that.” But for something to be truly made new it takes a change from the inside out. It takes transformaIon and metamorphosis. It takes the will of God to inspire and to unleash what is already inside.

I think that is why I love Paul’s words to the church in Corinth. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creaIon: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliaIon.” Wow. There is so much to take in this passage!

I actually spent a whole summer in 1999 starIng everyday by reading and praying over this passage. I was leading river trips on the Shenandoah for Camp Glenkirk. Every day on the river we would look for larvae that began life underwater and later rose in the air to remind ourselves of the way that forgiveness sets us free from self absorbed lives hiding under rocks and conditioned by sin. We would talk about the waters of bapIsm and the new life of the flying insect released from captivity.

Every river trip started with the same speech about how to care for the river, their equipment, and each other. They were taught how to read the current and avoid getting snagged on the rocks because the river was low and the probability of getting hung up on rocks was high, and they were told that they had two choices 1) get mad at each other or 2) find a new way to love.

The river trip became a metaphor for the church, and we soon found that every day was a new opportunity to be transformed through frustraIon and into love. Every rock became a chance for a new beginning. Every bug became a symbol of grace and new life.

None of these were the new beginnings that any of us had in mind, yet they were the ones God provided for us to enjoy. I think that is why the idea and experience of starting over with a new beginning is so terrifying. It is a change that we do not initiate and a process we do not control. This congregaIon has entered into a new process – one that is actually called New Beginnings – and some will say it is just another self study, or mission study, or something to make us feel better (or worse) about ourselves.

And any of those criticisms might be true – if that is all we want it to be. If we don’t want to get burned again by getting excited over things that others do not support, if we feel like we’ve already done everything doable with the same results, if we don’t believe we can do anything more than what we are doing – well then, that’s all it will be.

But if we are willing to see ourselves as a part of something larger than our individual limitaIons, if we are willing to believe that a new beginning does not look like we expect, if we are willing to confess our limitaIons to God and to listen for God’s calling to something that is truly different than we expect, want, or believe to be possible, then we might be on the road to becoming something new. “See, everything has become new! And this is from God”

And it all starts with confession. The confession of the Prodigal Son states, “Father I squandered your wealth. I am not worthy to be your son, only take me as a servant.” The Prodigal Father’s confession states, “My beloved child, all that I have is yours.” And the Prodigal Brother’s confession states, “Why don’t you love me like you love him?”

In Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal, the author reflects on hours of meditaIon in front of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, and he found himself in all three characters. He found in each character a wastefulness and recklessness. And most importantly he found a God that makes all things new through demonstrating the same forgiveness and love that we are to put in pracIce. Here’s what he found more specifically:

“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures— and to avoid the many temptaIons to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.

Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”

That’s what the waters of baptism represent for us. That’s what larvae, and rocks, and all of creation sing about. Come to think of it, most of you know that there is a river that flows deep underground right under the front porch. Some time back the foundation was secured, but the question is – do we see the potential for drastic change as a threat or as a promise?

That’s what we need to wrestle with as we talk in our small groups and as we discern God’s presence together. We don’t need to come up with dynamic programming. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to be open to the thing that is within us that God is yearning to transform and make new – the thing that is already inside of us waiting for the will of God to inspire and to unleash.

Congregations who have embraced this process have done things that range from feeding the homeless to opening a coffee shop that doubles as a worship space on Sundays. Whatever we do, we cannot expect the program to save us. Only God will do that.

So, as we continue in our journey toward the celebraIon of the crucifixion and the resurrecIon of Jesus, let us conInue to look deeply within ourselves, to confess our need before God, and to be moved and formed by the embrace of the one who is constantly making all things new. Amen.