Monday, March 28, 2011

True Signs, True Wisdom

True Signs, True Wisdom
Matthew 11: 1-19

This is a sermon preached by Professor Greg Carey, Resident Scholar of Trinity Lutheran Church on Sunday, March 20, 2011.

Today in Istanbul a Syriac congregation has gathered – with candles and incense, spectacular robes and art. Worshiping IIRC in Syriac, Aramaic, and Turkish. After worship, hundreds of Syrian Christians will gather over coffee and pastries in their fellowship hall – the one time in the week when they can all celebrate their common heritage and their oneness in Christ.

In an open-air church in the Thai countryside a pastor will preach and lead worship for a congregation of thirty people or so. And he’ll lead the hymns with his beat-up electric guitar.

Last night maybe 2000 people attended a Saturday evening service outside Memphis –one of the church’s five services over the weekend with a total attendance of 7500. Professional level band, with PowerPoint art accompanying the sermon and a pretty effective lighting team to set the mood.

In Atlanta one congregation meets simultaneously in four different locations. The same pastor preaches all four sermons – via hologram! If you were visiting and no one told you, you wouldn’t know whether he was physically present or not.
In Cleveland an African American Pentecostal church is meeting in a rented storefront. People are shouting, dancing and singing before, during and after the sermon – Come on, now! – and they may be there for three or four hours.

Five congregations at worship. Vastly diverse in culture, in theology, in worship tradition. Not one of them strongly resembling Holy Trinity. And, may I ask you, in which of these churches will authentic ministry happen? In which congregations would one see true signs of God at work? Which congregations are home to true wisdom?

John the Baptist, having announced Jesus as the coming one in the past, now sits in prison. And he has a question for Jesus.

In John’s world, prison doesn’t mean a three-month sentence. Prison is there to intimidate, to control, and to kill. When you’re in prison, there’s a very good chance you’ll never leave. John knows all that, so he sends his disciples with a question for Jesus. “Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for someone else?”
We wish we could know what leads John to ask his question. Countless preachers have provided thousands of answers, I’m sure. But John is in prison, he’s heard what Jesus is doing, and he asks, “Are you the One? Really?”

We know John’s question. It’s not so much that we’re questioning Jesus. That’s not it. But we look around, and we see so many presentations of Jesus – so many representations of Jesus. We, like John, want to see authentic ministry. We want to experience the reign of God breaking out around us. We want to know, “By what signs do we recognize authentic ministry?”

There’s this fear that authentic ministry might be doomed. That being faithful to Christ will chase people away because they want bells and whistles, clever Facebook pages and superior coffee. So people are asking whether we must compromise our ministry in order to attract people. A few years ago I was teaching for a meeting of pastors. They’d been invited to break into small groups for introductions. What’s your name, where do you serve, what’s it like? In the group of six or seven pastors, one really stood out – her church was growing! And when she shared that happy fact, she sounded almost apologetic – like the kid who wins an award but doesn’t want to seem too full of herself. That’s the fear, that vitality is a symptom of pandering. How does authentic ministry relate to outreach and growth?
John’s question is our question. One friend swears by their contemporary service. Another says the small group ministry is where it’s at. Another finds Christ by participating in Habitat for Humanity, building homes for poor families. What are the true signs? A big church? Dynamic worship? New members? Spelunking trips for the youth?

We hear these conversations, of course. People agonize over what church to join in a new town. They grow restless in their own congregation, and they grow curious about others. They receive mixed messages from one venue or another about what church should be like. John’s question isn’t exactly our question, but it sounds familiar. How do we recognize authentic ministry? What are its true signs?

Jesus’s answer is simple and direct. The blind see, and the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and good news goes out to the poor. Healing, life, liberation. Where we encounter wholeness and vitality, authentic ministry is on the move. Wisdom, Jesus later says, is vindicated by her deeds.

Such a simple answer, though we Christians often try to complicate it. We get caught up, sometimes, in theological debates and worship styles. Healing, life, liberation. Wholeness, vitality. The signs that God is on the move.
I call it Jesus’ “Blessing Agenda.” As you read Matthew this Lenten season, look for it. What does the Blessing Agenda look like? Jesus and his disciples travel from village to village, announcing good news and performing acts of healing. They gather community, they eat, and they bless. Yes, Jesus has some harsh words for some people – but only for those people who think they are righteous or superior. Not once does Jesus start a obscure theological debate. Not once does he tell sinners to straighten up, the sick and demon-possessed to try harder. Jesus’s agenda is all about blessing people who need blessing. Wisdom, he says, is vindicated by her deeds.

And if we look around, even around this congregation, we perceive true signs. The Blessing Agenda in action. Many of you participate in the Breakfast Fellowship, where Trinity members feed and worship with people who need a good meal and a safe place. Here at Holy Trinity, we worship at 8:30 and 11:00 – and in the Breakfast Fellowship! It’s like a third worship service – just visit, and you’ll sense the Spirit on the move. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

In a recent class for the Academy for Lay Ministry, I saw it. One of our more courageous members – let’s just say a few years beyond retirement – shared something very personal. We were talking about hwo we receive love: is it through kind words, a helpful deed, a nice gift? And this person said, “At this stage in my life, I need touch more than ever.” And you know what? After the class I saw a woman – I was worried what her husband might think! – give this man the biggest hug I’ve seen in weeks. Wisdom, vindicated by her deeds.

Long before I came to Holy Trinity, I’d heard that people sometimes joined the church so they could participate in the choir. Visitors know that our organist, Peter Brown, brings classical music, standard hymns, and fresh liturgical pieces to our worship – but only if you stay for awhile do you see the ministry that’s happening through music here. Diverse voices featured, choir members caring for one another and inviting new people, children expressing their gifts and finding blessing. It’s not just pretty music, though we have that in abundance, it’s music ministry. Wisdom, vindicated by its deeds.

When people actively give care to one another. When we linger a little while longer after classes and worship, when we give ourselves in ministry beyond this congregation – just look around – we perceive true signs. Wisdom, vindicated by her deeds.

It’s more simple than we’d like to admit, Jesus’s answer. Clear and direct. The Blessing Agenda: Healing, life, liberation – that’s where God is at work. Look around; you’ll see it.

But of course it’s Lent. Not the season for simplicity; the season for honesty. For critical reflection. For assessment of ourselves and our world. It’s Lent, and we remind ourselves that Jesus’ ministry is costly. Jesus encounters outright resistance. John languishes in prison. Accusations fly. In Lent, we remember that Jesus’s ministry provokes resistance.

Resistance can come from outside. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous work, the “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington. But perhaps the work that best reveals King’s approach is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In a city where black people could find few decent jobs, where many restaurants and public facilities were closed to African Americans, King and his colleagues demonstrated in the streets. You remember the pictures of children being pounded by high pressure water hoses and police dogs biting black civilians? That’s Birmingham. And King found himself in jail.

And where did King meet resistance? Of course there was the racist sheriff, Bull Connor, and a segregationist city administration. But beyond them, eight white Alabama ministers and rabbis, nice moderates all of them, published “A Call for Unity” that asked King to settle down, get off the streets, and wait for justice.
And what did King say? King suggested that the greatest obstacle to freedom lay, not in the fanatical racist but in the peace-loving white moderate who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” and “who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” The gospel of freedom, King called it, good news to the poor and cleansing for lepers, never lacks for opponents. Wisdom, Jesus says, is vindicated by her deeds.

May we remember that not long ago Glenn Beck told us not to come to Lutheran churches? Well, he didn’t say exactly that, but he did say to avoid what he called “social justice churches.” We’ll assume he didn’t visit the ELCA website, which has its own tab for “justice.” Maybe he would have learned something. True ministry rarely arrives unhindered.

It’s an odd thing about Jesus’s ministry. He takes sides. Jesus takes sides. The righteous complain that Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners: well, Jesus doesn’t come for the righteous. Jesus says, “The poor hear the good news.” Indeed! Obviously, Jesus travels everywhere, and he speaks to everyone, but in Jesus’s ministry systems of power and privilege – even righteousness! – have no place.

But resistance to the gospel need not come from outside. Somehow the gospel challenges us within as well. Gospel is inconvenient, gospel is messy, gospel is demanding. When the blind see, they might just perceive my own hypocrisy. When the deaf hear, perhaps they’ll overhear my petty grumbling. When the lame walk, perhaps they’ll get ahead of me at Stuffer’s or claim my attention in church. We recall that in Matthew it’s the rich young man who falls just short – just short – of the realm of heaven because he cannot part with his possessions.

In his classic, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts a man who enters the afterlife with a hideous lizard on his shoulder. In order to move into heaven, the man must part with his lizard – but he’s afraid. He knows he can’t make it to heaven with the lizard, but the thought of parting with it terrifies him. Will the man, unable – unwilling? – to part with the lizard, choose hell? For the gospel sometimes sparks too much resistance within us.

Well, it’s Lent – we have to be honest. Jesus’s ministry sparks resistance. One day, John’s disciples will return to Jesus. They will bear the news of John’s execution by Herod – and in John’s fate Jesus will see his own. Thousands have flocked to John beside the Jordan, but Herod has locked him up and will behead him. Crowds chase Jesus, as his ministry brings joy and wholeness to many. Still, others plot to kill him. It’s time to be honest: wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. It’s hard to be neutral with the gospel.

Authentic ministry invites all of us. All of us. We’re all invited to the Blessing Agenda.

I invite you to look again at this passage in your worship notes. Most interpreters regard this passage as being about Jesus and John. In fact, most translations of the Bible begin the passage at verse 2 – but look at verse 1. Jesus’s disciples have just gone off on mission. They’re doing the same ministry that Jesus is about! Jesus has sent his disciples to preach and to heal just as he is doing. Wisdom, Jesus says, is vindicated by her deeds.

Consider this invitation: Research demonstrates a vital connection between members’ participation in a church’s ministries and congregational vitality. Where churches are highly involved in ministries of justice, healing, and community outreach, congregational vitality soars. Where members attend worship consistently, participate in study and growth groups, and volunteer in a congregation’s several ministries, congregations thrive. Friends, authentic ministry invites us – not simply to attend and give, but – as we are able – to participate in the living body of Christ.

Churches have so many odd conversations. How do we get this group, or that group, to come to church? How do we reach youth, or young adults, or professionals, or our neighborhood? All these conversations get the invitation backwards: It is we who are invited to authentic ministry. When we demonstrate care, when we get involved in healing, when we take ownership of the Blessing Agenda, Jesus’ words come alive for us. Let’s get it right; it’s not about attracting other people, it’s about responding to the invitation Jesus sets forth for us. The Blessing Agenda.

Friends, we want to see God. It’s a longing that runs deep within us, to see God on the move, getting things done, setting things aright.

Last Sunday my friend Julia O’Brien spoke in the Adult Forum on the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry and his novel Jayber Crow. In that novel a small town learns that one of its sons has died in Vietnam, and Jayber Crow reflects.
For awhile again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power. I wanted to tell Him that it was time for His coming. If there was anything at all to what He promised, why didn’t he come in glory with angels and lay His hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land?

Having thought more about it, Jayber reflects:
He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself. . . . Those who wish to see Him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.

True signs, true wisdom. When we see people finding life, building community, we know God is at work. Where the poor find empowerment, and folks save a seat for the lepers, that’s Jesus’ home. It’s not necessarily complicated. It’s a Blessing Agenda, and we’re invited. Wisdom vindicated by her deeds. Friends, hear and believe the gospel. Amen.

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