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Nothing But Love
It is good to be back with you all. I love this place. I love all of you. And I love that we get to do church together. Singing with you, praying with you, delving deep into scripture with you, and then welcoming new people into our midst as we dream and work together to make God’s love and justice real…mmmm….there is nothing I love more.
I. Love. Church.
But I will be the first to admit that church, at least what it has evolved into, is really kind of a mess. Not the worship. I love our worship. But if our true purpose is to build the beloved community by the grace of God…if our ultimate calling is to bring God’s kin-dom to earth, transform ourselves through what we do here that together we might transform the world into a more just and generous place… I don’t know…sometimes it feels just a wee bit inefficient.
I mean, when you think about all the resources - time, energy, and money - we expend keeping this historic roof over our heads and me in these beautiful stoles, compared to how much we expend changing ourselves and the world for the better… sometimes it can feel a little out of balance.
Anyone else ever feel that way?
And yet where else can you go to experience the rituals and mysteries of our faith? Your friends and neighbors will join you for book club, but Bible Study ….mmm… probably a bridge too far. And that’s perfectly understandable and probably wise.
We all know how easily scripture can be manipulated and abused to justify the manipulation and abuse of others. We’re well aware of how it has been used through the ages to reinforce the worst in us rather than call out our best.
I love the Bible, but that doesn’t mean I always know what to do with it or what to make of it. And I certainly don’t trust just anybody to interpret it. Scripture may be holy, but it can also be inscrutable, dangerous, and highly offensive.
Anyone else ever feel that way?
And not for nothing, but our rituals can be just as difficult to navigate. We’ll be celebrating communion today and you need to know that this is one of the most precious things I get to do as a pastor.
Holding out the bread and offering it to you by name when you come forward, sitting quietly with God up here and praying for each of you when you serve it to one another, passing the bread from hand to hand to hand - not knowing where those hands have been - as we used to do at Common Ground, bringing this gift to the bedside of someone who can no longer come to church on their own, looking into your beautiful faces as you hold up your cheese-its or cookies or whatever else you are able to scrounge up in your house or your car when you log on for vespers: in all the many ways we have shared this meal I know it has worked to bind us together and deepen our love for God and one another and I love it.
But communion, is not an uncomplicated symbol.
Sometimes I find the violence of the language troubling: “This is my body, broken for you…my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Sometimes with all this talk of breaking and blood, I worry that we’re sending out the wrong message: the message that suffering is not only redemptive but required, the message that someone must be punished in order for the rest of us to be made clean, the message that it was God who needed Jesus to die when in reality it was an unholy alliance between religious and political leaders that killed him for no higher reason than to shore up their power.
Sometimes I wonder if this cup really needs to be full of blood in order to be full of blessing?
But that’s not all. I also wonder why -if the Lord’s supper is meant to be a sign of God’s abundance- we parcel it out in such tiny portions?
If Jesus has come to humble the proud and lift up the lowly, I wonder why is it only the ordained who have the authority to say the words of institution?
I wonder how some churches can limit participation in this rite to members or believers, and still claim to do it in memory of a Jesus who multiplied loaves and fishes to feed thousands, the same Jesus who made a practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus who served the one who denied him and the one who betrayed him and the other 10 who abandoned him before the night was over.
Flesh. Bone. Blood. Bread. I find that Communion can be both exceedingly beautiful and incredibly uncomfortable.
Anyone else ever feel that way?
Well good. Then you’ve come to the right place. If this whole Christianity thing feels messy and uncomfortable and a little bit dangerous, you know what that means? That means you’re paying attention, and I applaud you for that.
Friends, there is blessing and danger here in what we say and what we do; peace and deep discomfort, the potential to deliver us from sin and the very real possibility of rooting us ever more firmly in the evils we claim to abhor.
But if you’re still here in spite of all the mess, discomfort, and danger, than you know there’s a pearl of great price in here somewhere too, and I believe these readings- as messy, uncomfortable and dangerous as they are- can help us find it.
Take our reading from Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” I mean seriously! Two verses into our lectionary reading and we’re already forced to deal with a scriptural allusion that is seriously problematic, scripture that has been used to violently suppress and destroy the lives queer people in general and gay men in particular, for thousands of years.
In spite of the fact - FACT - that the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah - contrary to popular assumptions - (were) greed, injustice, a lack of hospitality for the stranger, and disregard for the poor.
“The fullest accounting of the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah…is (actually) in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet says: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom…”
(And yes, you heard that right, your sister. I think the female imagery here is pretty significant given the way this scripture has been misused, don’t you?)
“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Anna Case-Winters, “Feasting on the Word,” p 318).
In case you’re not picking up what I’m laying down, let me be crystal clear. Ezekiel wasn’t calling out Sodom for her rainbow banners, gay bars, fabulous parades, or trips to Fire Island. Sodom was destroyed for being callous to the suffering of the poor.
And yet if we’re not careful or we simply gloss over it, just the reading of this scripture can cause harm and reinforce hate. Likewise, the verses at the end of Isaiah that associate moral purity with being white as snow or even Jesus’ conflation with himself as a master and his disciples as slaves, are all highly problematic.
In fact, I am sorry if just hearing any of these words from the Bible caused pain for any of you this morning.
If we read verses like these in worship without stopping to name how they have been used to justify violence and slavery, reinforce hierarchy, and fuel white supremacy…we will be doing more harm than good right here in church just going about our business.
So if you felt a pang of conscience as the scripture was being read, if any of those verses caught at your heart, made you question or maybe made you wish they weren’t even there… that’s actually good. That’s not a sign that you’re a bad “Christian.” It’s not a sign of your heart pulling away from God, but a sign of God at work in your heart.
Because you see, the whole point of Isaiah’s warning and Jesus’ teaching is to remind us that all God truly really wants from us is kindness and compassion. All God wants is for us to become just and generous people who help rather than harm. If our religion helps us do that, good. But if not? God wants nothing to do with it.
God has no desire for good little religious automatons who go through the motions perfectly, showing up at the holy places at the appointed times to recite our prayers and perform our rituals. What God wants is for us to “cease doing evil and learn to do good.”
In Isaiah, God is distraught because people are coming to the temple and sacrificing animals believing that it is the blood that makes them clean, the cost of life and livestock that will procure their forgiveness.
And God is angry at the religious institution for egging them on, exploiting their fear, placing an unnecessary burden on the poor who can’t afford to keep giving, and growing fat off their gifts. The religious leaders claim sacrifice must be made if you want to get right with God, but God wants nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.
“Who asked this from your hand?” Not me, says God. “I do not delight in… blood….the blood of bulls, or lambs, or of goats…” This whole sacrifice thing was not my idea, (which really makes me wonder about the table behind me, and you can be sure I’ll be preaching more on that in the future). But for now, hear what God says: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean,” not with blood, but by seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, and caring for the most vulnerable among you.
Friends, what I want you to notice, beyond the call to simply do the right thing, is how quick God is to question our institutions, our rituals, and our understanding of scripture. “The first and most furious critic of religion is God” (Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, p. 319).
And how do we know that? We know that because of the scriptures themselves, which is one reason we need to hold on to them. Yes, religion can become an end in and of itself.
Yes, the church can become more consumed with its own survival than it’s true calling.
Yes, it can sometimes feel like scripture, indeed the whole enterprise, is hopelessly tainted by power and violence and fear… because it is…because we are. These are the evils we’re called to overcome.
But what’s so interesting to me is that the dis-ease we feel in church sometimes, the parts of us that rail against our inefficiency or misuse of scripture - our conscience, if you will - has been shaped by the very same faith we sometimes question.
So my message for you this morning is this: don’t stop. Friends, if something doesn’t feel right, or seem right, or sound right, especially in church, don’t be afraid to speak up, opt out, say, “no.” It’s okay to wonder. It’s okay to dissent. It’s okay to question - vital even - to keep asking if what we’re doing is really working.
The point of all of this is to cease to do evil and learn to do good. Period. What helped us do that once can lose its power, and its okay to say that out loud if it moves us back toward God.
Meanings change. Connotations shift. New wounds arise that must be treated with deference and care. Rituals and institutions can become ends in and of themselves and we don’t want that.
What we want - what I think God wants - is a church where we can be honest about what is helping us build the beloved community and what is distracting us from it.
A church where we can admit where we fall short and dare to say out loud what we truly long for.
A church where we can work together to redeem the old even as we reimagine something new.
A church where it’s safe to question and wonder, try new things and fail and try again some more.
A church that isn’t just good for us, but good for all. Amen.
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