Elements of Worship: Relationship

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.  Part 5 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 5:23-26.

I saw a thing online this week that was kind of funny and cynical all at the same time:

“Marriage: Betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever.”

Kind of harsh isn’t it?  It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  That hasn’t been my experience of marriage (for the most part).  Marriage isn’t supposed to be like that.  I think most of us would probably agree that any person who takes that sentence as his or her main idea about marriage is probably pretty confused about what love really is.

Then again, I think it’s more than fair to say that you and I live in a society that, as a whole, is also pretty confused about what love really is.  The evidence you can gather in a single hour of primetime television or pop radio would be more than sufficient to demonstrate what I’m talking about.  We might all laugh at the idea that marriage is “betting someone half your stuff that you can put up with them forever” but there are some other fairy tale proverbs out there that people in our society buy into hook, line, and sinker without even thinking.  At no time of year is this insanity more apparent than Valentine’s Day.

For example, when two people are in a relationship (let’s just assume they’re young) and one of them says to a parent, “Mom/Dad: how will I know when I’m really in love?  How will I know when I’ve found the one?”  What do people usually tell them?  “You’ll just know.”  What kind of malarkey is that?  I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide about asking Sarah to marry me, I was a nervous wreck!  I didn’t know anything!  On the one hand, I had this great relationship with someone I really cared about.  On the other hand, I was so scared that I couldn’t even see straight.  And it’s not like one outweighed the other or one canceled the other out.  Love in one hand.  Fear in the other.  Both existing in the same place at the same time.  “You’ll just know”?  There was no “knowing” about it.  Just a choice: Love or Fear.

Here’s another crazy one that you hear sometimes: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Who in the world came up with that?  Well, I did a little homework.  As it turns out, that line comes from a 1970 movie called Love Story.  The main character (whose name just so happens to be Barrett), played by the actor Ryan O’Neal, says it at the very end of the movie.  What I find particularly funny is that this same actor, Ryan O’Neal, was in another movie called What’s Up, Doc? With Barbara Streisand.  Barbara repeats the line and Ryan O’Neal, in a beautiful moment of self-parody, responds, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”  I couldn’t agree more.

If anything, real love should make us more ready to say “I’m sorry.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  It’s a choice that we make once, accepting the reality that we will have to make that same choice again and again for the rest of our lives.  A big part of choosing love over fear (in marriage, church, work, or family) involves our willingness to seek and offer forgiveness when things go wrong.  It’s easy to talk about love when everything is going great, but it’s something else entirely to love someone when everything has gone wrong.  The process of seeking and offering forgiveness is more broadly referred to as reconciliation.  Reconciliation is love in action.  It’s what happens when the rubber meets the road in real life and real relationships.  Anyone who has really experienced it can tell you that reconciliation is the single most miraculous event that can happen in any human relationship.

I have a hunch that that’s why the ancient Jews and Christians zeroed in on reconciliation as their primary metaphor for describing what happens in the relationship between God and creation.  They called it redemption or salvation.  The early Christians thought of this relationship as taking place in and through this person named Jesus.  Jesus was more than just an inspirational philosopher to them.  They saw something unique in him that they identified with the God of their Jewish ancestors.  This identification was so strong that the early Christians would say that to look at Jesus was to look at God.  If you want to understand what God is like, they said, just look at Jesus.

They used all kinds of poetic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus: it was like being healed from a sickness, raised from the dead, or freed from captivity.  It was like being blind, and then being able to see.  It was like being hopelessly lost, but then finding your way again.  These were all valid metaphors for describing their experience of the relationship between God and creation that was happening through Jesus.  But the mental image they used most often was that of reconciliation.  It was the most amazing and miraculous thing that could happen between two people, to be at odds with one another and then make peace, so it made sense for that idea to quickly rise to the top and become the dominant metaphor for describing what was happening in their new and growing relationship with God.

This was and is a beautiful thing.  Christians to this very day tend to think of their relationship with God in the same way.  The only problem is that, when forgiveness and reconciliation becomes the only metaphor for describing our relationship with God, it can easily become twisted into something it was never meant to be.  The sole emphasis on forgiveness as a metaphor for salvation led, over the centuries, to an obsession with guilt and sin.  Salvation, they thought, was all about getting your sins forgiven.  In other words, it’s all about getting back on God’s good side so that nothing bad will happen to us after we die.  Christians began to think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  Theirs was an unhealthy obsession with guilt and fear that, I think, led to a gross distortion of who God is and what salvation is really all about.

I don’t think we’re “sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  I think our ancestors in the faith took the most beautiful moment in a human relationship and applied it to their relationship with God.  If we’re going to recover reconciliation as our primary metaphor for salvation, I think we need to let go of our baggage of guilt and fear.  We need to remember that reconciliation begins with God, whose love is unconditional.  Our trust in that love is what gives us the strength to be honest about who we really are and what we need to work on.

That’s why we confess our sins at the beginning of worship each week.  It’s not about guilt and fear; it’s about honesty and trust.  Knowing that we are loved (no matter what) is the key to owning up to our faults.  We have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of.

As this great love gives us the power to make peace with ourselves, we are also commissioned and ordained as peacemakers in the world.  Once we have experienced that love for ourselves, we are called upon to pass it on.  Have you ever noticed how the passing of the peace in our service is supposed to happen right after our prayer of confession?  That’s no coincidence.  We receive God’s love and then we immediately give it away.  Love begets love.  Grace begets more grace.  Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Jesus took the idea of reconciliation quite seriously.  For him, it even trumped the importance of a worship service.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  This call to peacemaking and reconciliation is so important that Jesus was even willing to interrupt a worship service for it.  Real love should be able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”.  This is love in action, not just feeling.

It’s worth mentioning that this peacemaking is not always easy.  It gets complicated.  Nowhere is it more difficult than it is for those who find themselves in physically or psychologically abusive situations at work or home.  The call for forgiveness can too often be manipulated by abusers who merely want to maintain power over their victims.  “C’mon,” they say, “can’t you just forgive me?  Don’t you believe in forgiveness?  What would Jesus do?”  They might even quote scripture to back up what they’re saying.  If you’re dealing with that kind of person: get out of the relationship.  You can’t work toward forgiveness and reconciliation if you’re still in a position where you or others are in danger of being hurt.  You can’t forgive that person until you’re safe.  Get to safety first, then work on forgiveness.

What’s more is that forgiving does not mean forgetting.  I don’t know where “forgive and forget” came from, but I can guarantee you that it’s not in the Bible.  God would never want you to put yourself or your dependents back into a dangerous situation.  Sometimes, the best way to forgive is from a distance.  Don’t put yourself in jeopardy.  Make peace in your heart as best you can.  I promise you: it still counts.

Real love is able to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”  Real love is a choice, not a feeling.  Each week in worship, we re-enact a powerful ritual of redemption.  In our prayer of confession, we are empowered by God’s unconditional love to honestly face ourselves (warts and all), trust that we are loved anyway, and then go back out into the world as peacemakers and agents of reconciliation.  God is not concerned about guilt and fear-mongering over what particular sins you may have committed last week.  The quality of our relationship with God is measured by the quality of our relationships with one another.  One surefire way to measure the actual quality of our relationships with one another is to look at how willing and able we are to say things like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” to one another.  This is love in action.  It raises us above our culture’s twisted ideas about love and brings us back to a place where we can experience what real love between people is all about.  And that, of course, points us right back to God’s infinite and unconditional love, in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Elements of Worship: Service

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.  Part 3 in a series of 5.

The text is Matthew 16:21-28.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org.

Star Trek's George Takei (Mr. Sulu). Image by Gage Skidmore.

Did you know that there’s a civil war going on in our country right now?  I’m serious.  There is.  It’s been happening for over thirty years.  Unlike the last Civil War, this one isn’t between the North and South.  You might be thinking, “He means the war between the political Right and the political Left.”  Nope.  Black and White?  Nope.  Haves and Have-nots?  Not even close.  Right now, I’m talking about the bitter divide that exists between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans.  The geeks and nerds community is a house divided against itself.  My fellow Americans, this cannot be!

I feel so torn in this conflict.  The fight between Star Trek and Star Wars runs right through the center of my own heart.  I dream of one day being beamed aboard the starship Enterprise so that I too can “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  At the same time, I also fantasize about trained as a Jedi by Obi Wan Kenobi.  How can they ask me to choose sides between these two epic artifacts of science fiction lore?

Fortunately, there is one person out there who has issued a call for “Star Peace” and it’s none other than George Takei, the original Mr. Sulu on Star Trek.  He’s calling for a “Star Alliance” of fans from Star Trek and Star Wars who are willing to put aside their differences and fight the real threat to good science fiction: Twilight.  You may have seen the Twilight books and films being advertised in recent years.  For those who haven’t experienced it, Twilight, in George Takei’s own words, is all about “Vampires who sparkle and mope and go to high school.”  In Twilight, according to Takei, there is no “sense of heroism, camaraderie, and epic battle… There are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had… In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’”

Now, I don’t actually care if people like Twilight.  So why am I telling you this?  Why am I taking time out of my sermon to drag you down this wormhole into the darkest depths of the nerd kingdom?  Because I’m very intrigued by the way in which Mr. Takei has criticized Twilight.  Let me give it to you again in his words:

Gone is any sense of heroism, camaraderie, or epic battle.  In its place we have vampires that sparkle and mope and go to high school… there are no great stories, characters, or profound life lessons to be had in Twilight.  No.  In Twilight, the only message that rings through loud and clear is: ‘Does my boyfriend like me?’

What Mr. Takei is saying, in so many words, is that good stories are always bigger than the people in them.

As it is in science fiction, so it is in real life.  Imagine those who live entirely selfish lives with no connection to anyone or anything other than that which maximizes their own personal profit.  The thrill of financial stability lasts for a little while, but wears thin eventually.  Who can’t think of tabloid headlines depicting any number of celebrity scandals brought on by conspicuous consumption and wanton indulgence?  Despite its material benefits, I think most of us can agree that such a life does not sound ultimately appealing.  Something deep within us longs to be part of a bigger story than that of our own little lives.

We’ve been talking about the Elements of Worship these past few weeks at our church.  On the first week, we talked about the Word of God as an Element of Worship.  Last week we talked about Prayer.  If you missed either of those sermons, you can listen to them on our website at www.fpcboonville.org.  In coming weeks, we will discuss Sacrament and Relationship as Elements of Worship.  This week, we’re talking about Service as an Element of Worship.

“Service” is a word that we use a lot.  If you go out to a restaurant where the staff is friendly and the refills keep coming, you’re probably going to say, “Wow!  This place has really good service!”  And what will you do next?  You’ll probably leave a bigger tip.  Isn’t that interesting?  A waiter brings his whole self to work, welcomes customers with genuine personal warmth, and people just naturally respond with generosity.  Remember that point because it will become important later.  Here’s another example: When a person is a soldier or sailor in some branch of our country’s armed forces, we say that she is “in the service.”  In other words, she dedicates her whole self to the cause of national defense by risking her life in a combat zone.  We tend to respect that, don’t we?  A lot of people wear yellow ribbons that say, “Support the Troops.”

In the same way, when we talk about service as an Element of Worship, we’re talking about more than this one-hour-per-week ritual that we do on Sunday mornings in this building.  We’re talking about more than the cash we fork over in the collection plate.  We’re even talking about more than the time and energy that so many of you tirelessly volunteer for our various church projects during the year.  Just like that waiter or soldier, real service happens when you offer your whole self to something bigger than you.  Service, as an Element of Worship, is a self-offering.

As Christians, we see our self-offering as connected to and growing out of the self-offering of Jesus.  His life, death, and resurrection provide us with a lens through which we can come to understand what it means to give ourselves as an offering.

First, his life.  Jesus gave himself as an offering in two ways.  He offered himself to God and he offered himself to others.  These two ideas cannot be separated.  Jesus believed that God is Love, therefore you can’t love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving your neighbor as yourself.  If you try to do one without the other, you’re going to end up very confused about what love is.

Jesus’ commitment to love (in this dual sense) got him into trouble on more than one occasion.  He exposed the hypocrisy of the powers that be.  He threatened the security of religious and political authorities in ways that no terrorist ever could.  Leaders in the public and private sectors alike were so frightened by what Jesus stood for that they even temporarily put aside their mutual hatred for each other in a grand conspiracy to have him killed.

Under these circumstances, no one would have blamed Jesus for mounting a defensive strategy in order to ensure his own survival, but that’s not what he does.  It says in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Jesus walks straight into the belly of the beast, knowing full-well what the beast is about to do to him.

Jesus was not so caught up in his own ego that he wasn’t willing to offer himself.  He knew that his personal story was part of the universe’s bigger story.  Sure, he could pick up a sword and fight for his own survival, but he knew that survival isn’t everything.  His fellow Jews were fighting for their survival every day and, ironically, it was killing them.  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he said.

So, instead of the path of survival, Jesus opted for the path of self-offering.  He lived his life of love as an offering to God and others.  When that love brought him into conflict with powerful forces that wanted to kill him, he walked the way of the cross and let them do their worst.  But that’s not the end of the story.

What happens next is the best part.  We celebrate it every year at Easter time.  The offering turned into a miracle.  Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, three women found an empty tomb.  And an angel asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!”  This is where the big story really gets going.  Death itself starts to unravel like an ugly old sweater.  The powers that be were vanquished by the power of love.  Christians remember this event annually as our most sacred holiday.  We celebrate it weekly in order to remind ourselves of what we really believe in.  As Christians, we don’t believe in survival; we believe in resurrection.  That is the true meaning of service (self-offering) as an Element of Worship.  Jesus taught us that.

What does this look like for us?  That’s a great story about Jesus, but how can we live lives of self-offering and resurrection today?  Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  The way of the cross is a path, not just for Jesus, but for all of us as well.  We who claim to follow him must decide whether we will choose survival (like the world) or resurrection (like Jesus).

When we choose to follow the way of the cross, we become part of a story that’s bigger than us.  We say that we are willing to jeopardize our survival for something more important.  It’s a dangerous move to make, but if we move in faith, we see miracles.  I once heard someone say that, until you find something worth dying for, you’re not really living.  Are we really living?  Are you?  What are you willing to die for?  What is this church willing to die for?  When we find an answer to that question, we’ll learn what resurrection is really all about.  Like George Takei was saying: there we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  There there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

I heard a story this week from Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the senior minister at All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK.  He said their church made a rather controversial decision several years ago.  They decided to take all the money that came into the church through their collection plate (about $20,000 per year) and give it away.  People were scared because that’s a lot of money.  The church depended on that money for their operating costs.  But they decided it was the right thing to do, so they amended their budget and went for it.  In that first year, rather than the $20,000 that usually came in through the collection plate, they raised $150,000 and gave it all away.  Now, you might say, “That’s great, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t meet their budget.”  Actually, according to Marlin, they did meet their budget that year.  They even took in about 10% more than they needed.  “Generosity begets generosity,” Marlin said.  Remember what I said about the waiter?  When somebody serves from the heart and offers him/herself, aren’t you just naturally inclined to leave a bigger tip?  Generosity begets generosity.

Let’s find another example, maybe one that’s a little closer to home.  I’ve mentioned this already, but I can’t help bragging on you folks again.  You remember this past Christmas Eve, right?  We heard about a crisis in our community where the county government was cutting funding to daycare programs.  Hundreds of kids were being affected and some of the most reputable and affordable daycare agencies were in danger of closing.  And the elders of our church voted unanimously to take the collection from Christmas Eve, our single biggest worship service of the year, and send the whole thing to one of those struggling daycare agencies.  Did you know that, with what came in that night, our little country church was able to cut a check for $1,000 to Thea Bowman House?  We’ve never taken up a Christmas Eve collection that big!  Generosity begets generosity.  Did you know that there are people in the community who noticed what we did and decided to join our church because of it?  That’s resurrection in action.

One more story about you folks.  Last summer, controversy was in the air as New York state was making a decision about legalizing same-sex marriage.  I drove down to Albany that week and stood in the halls of the state capitol building.  I saw the crowds of people shouting and holding signs with Bible verses about hellfire and damnation.  During that time, our little church took a stand.  We stood up and said, “All God’s children are created equal: black or white, male or female, gay or straight.”  At a church supper only two weeks before that happened, one of our own long-time church members came out of the closet to us at a church supper.  He shared his story with us.  And I remember the first thing that anybody said, after a long silence, was, “Well, God don’t make no junk!”  Our church took a stand.  We made a statement that this is a welcoming church.  We told the world that this church is a place where the law of love trumps the letter of the law.

Sure, it was a controversial thing to do.  It still is.  Our survival instinct might tell us to keep quiet and not rock the boat, because we don’t want to lose church members to controversy.  But you all chose resurrection instead of survival.  Did you know that people in the community noticed what we did?  On the very next Sunday after the legislation passed in Albany, a news crew surprised us during our morning worship.  They had TV news cameras set up right here in the sanctuary.  People heard about our little country church and said, “What?  A church that accepts and welcomes gay and lesbian people?  A church that believes that God loves everybody?  We’ve got to check this out!”  In the past few months, families have driven in from as far away as Utica to visit our church.  We didn’t lose people by being controversial, we gained them!  That’s resurrection in action!

And let me tell you what: we’re going to keep doing it.  We’re going to open the doors of this church so wide that the whole world will know it’s welcome here.  There are a lot of churches in Boonville, but there’s not very many where people can go and know they’ll be loved and accepted no matter who they are.  But people know they’re welcome here.  This sermon is being played on the radio, so even more people will know after this week.  I know it’s controversial but I don’t care (and neither should you).  Just like Jesus, we are offering ourselves to God and our neighbors.  We are choosing resurrection over survival.

When we go downstairs after worship today, we’ll be hearing our annual reports from all our different church committees.  We’ll be voting on this year’s budget and deciding our thoughts together for 2012.  As you look at the paperwork and hear the reports, I want you to remember what service and self-offering are really all about.  I want to invite you to look past your ego-driven instinct for survival and look to your God-given faith in resurrection.  That, more than anything else, will make a difference for the future of our church.  Like George Takei was saying: here we will find heroism, camaraderie, and epic battles.  Here there are great stories, characters, and profound life lessons to be had.

Here is a video of George Takei’s call for Star Peace: