We live in a culture of excess and extreme. We have invented entirely new forms of competition that encourage people to risk life and limb for the glory of a trophy, endorsements, and bragging rights. We have game shows that place people in situations they would not wish on an enemy. We hold contests that elevate talented individuals to the level of gods and encourage those who are desperate for attention to do things on stage that make you wonder if they just don’t have a momma to embarrass.
In some ways it seems like the coliseum of Rome is alive and well, except that people enter it all too willingly – and when they can’t get in they can still create their own version on the internet!
Yes, we are a culture of extremes – and we are bought and sold into slavery by the idea that we are always and forever in a position of need. We need the latest technology or else we simply cannot communicate or even handle the most basic of functions. It’s no longer as simple as keeping up with the Jones, because the comparisons are not limited to our neighbors. The true comparison is between the person you are now and the person that you could be if you had the right car, house, clothes, mobile device, etc.
Being a town so enmeshed economically in the oil industry, our economy is perhaps more extreme than many other parts of the country. Anyone who has been here for a while can recall times of boom and bust, and this congregation has a history of losing key leaders to the capricious corporate gods that move employees like chess pieces. Additionally, there are always people passing through town in search of work as though the promises made to laborers for jobs in California in the Grapes of Wrath are still being made in South Louisiana. Lafayette is a town of economic extremes, and we sit in the cross roads of the past and present holding a sentinel watch, helping where we can, and hoping for something better.
The church is not immune to this culture of extremes, either. Our congregation stands with a deep history, limited resources, and a strong desire to do the things we used to do. We are also trying to shed the weight of guilt over the loss of past identity and forge ahead to discover what God is calling us to do and to be today. With us in the coliseum of competing centers of worship are the gladiator strength mega-churches, the perfectly sized and terribly attractive program congregations, and the congregations of zombies and vampires that are desperate for new brains and new blood (and are also terribly resistant to change).
And as we look to scripture to help us understand how to be more faithful in all that we do, we get the example of the perfect church. Wouldn’t that be nice? Everyone shared everything in common. They sold all of their possessions, and no one lacked for anything. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of! Everyone was devoted to the teachings of the Apostles – devoted! That means they centered their lives and practices around the understanding they received. These concepts of grace and mercy and forgiveness were all new to them. I think that may be why it can be so very hard for us to live the faith we profess. We know this stuff like the back of our hands. It doesn’t confront us. Our relationships are entrenched. The stories of Christmas and Easter become enough to get us through the year, and the concept of discipleship becomes associated with more fundamentalist Christians that often use the term to say, “Just agree with us, because we’re right anyway.”
The reality is, of course, that no congregation is perfect. Whether it is an independent congregation, a close-knit house church, a connectional Presbyterian congregation that seeks to be a part of something bigger than itself, or even the First Congregation of Jesus Followers in Jerusalem. Absolute sharing of resources is simply not sustainable. Relationships open places of weakness and vulnerability, and people will naturally choose to protect themselves and those they love.
The good news is that our relationships also offer places to experience grace and mercy and restoration! I think that is one of the reasons that growth is so important to the church. New relationships create new opportunities to make mistakes, to step on toes, and to be confronted with the parts of discipleship that we forget about between Christmas and Easter. Telling our story – and hearing the stories of others – helps us to hear the gospel in a new way. Seeing the gospel come alive in the lives of others helps us see how it might be revived in our own lives!
Just the other day a Pastor friend told me of a new family in her church that had little to no church background. After hearing a sermon on reconciliation and forgiveness, the husband went home and called his estranged father that he had not spoken to in 20 years! Wow! Now, I can’t tell you if the hurts have been mended. There are usually too many variables in the lives of others to know for certain how things like this shake out in the end. The important thing is that there are people in our community that need to hear the gospel of forgiveness, and – more often than not – I am one.
More often than not, when I see the gospel being experienced in your life, it makes me want to find a way to experience it more deeply in my own. That’s why letters were written in the tradition of Peter’s teaching – to encourage believers to know the opportunity of the good news of Jesus Christ!
And Peter begins with something along the lines of, “You got troubles? Cry me a river.” In his tough love approach, he seems to be OK with people being punished when they deserve it. More than that, the concern is not about punishment. The concern is about standing up for what is right, especially when it puts you at risk to do it. In fact, negative consequences seem to be more of a promise than a threat. Following Jesus will naturally put you in conflict – at some point – with powers that claim to be right, although their righteousness is more personally motivated than divinely inspired. That happens in every social institution – government, businesses, financial institutions, and even the church.
It’s interesting that Peter says that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross,” but he also describes our calling as one that involves suffering like Jesus did. Becoming free from sin allows us to see and to do what is right, but it does not protect us from harm. If anything, it may make us more vulnerable!
That’s why the words of Jesus as the good shepherd are so important to us. They demonstrate the length that God will go to in order to demonstrate love and the comfort that we can have – even in these vulnerable and often prickly relationships. First is the fact that whoever sets themselves up as gatekeepers, Jesus will come and draw us out. Next is that we will know it is Jesus because of his vulnerability and honesty.
Interesting thing about shepherds in an agrarian society – sheep are heard animals that have to get out and graze. Even today, there are shepherds that will take their sheep to grazing pastures that may be a day or two away from the shelter they are kept in. In order to protect the sheep, the shepherd will find an enclosed outcropping of rock or shrub, and then the shepherd will lie down for the night in the open space and become the gate.
Jesus is the gate to our common unity. Jesus is the one who demonstrates love and forgiveness. Jesus is the one who brings life in abundance! That word, abundance, can also be translated as “excessive.” Although we often talk about having more stuff than we need, a theology of abundance is really about having a life of excess – life that is so full that you have more than you need or want.
That doesn’t mean having more stuff. It doesn’t necessarily mean redistributing our stuff in ways that are more equal, although it doesn’t mean we can’t. A theology of abundance means knowing that there is more to life than what you can experience alone. It means knowing that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It means believing that the limitations of this world do not define us, even if we must endure them for a time.
Although I want to boast that a life of faith involves extremes that go beyond the culture of excess that we create and swim around in, I have come to believe that they are apples and oranges. The excess of our culture is about transcending limitations through power, dominance, and influence – because the thief is selfish and bent on destruction for personal gain – but the excess of life that we receive through faith transcends the limitations of power through a more common union with God and with one another.
All of this leads me wonder if abundance is not so much about striving to be the perfect congregation as it is about recognizing our imperfections. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor and author who recently described her congregation and its relationship to visitors this way, “This community will disappoint them. It's a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I'll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them …to decide if they'll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don't meet their expectations, they won't get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community's failure, and that's just too beautiful and too real to miss.” She goes on to say, “Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.”
Wow. Can we be that confident in the grace of God? I hope so. For we are an imperfect congregation of imperfect followers of the perfecter of faith in the God who creates, redeems, and sustains life in all its fullness. To that God be the glory, now and always, amen.