December 13th, 2015
A couple weeks ago, I did one of the strangest things I have ever done as a pastor. I went to a Supper Club, which is what it sounds, except that it was curated and organized by start-up and attended by other start-up people. There were six of us, and we were asked to speak about on demand communities, and how communities changed us. I was the only one who wasn’t there as part of a business. And at one point someone asked me to explain what the church community was and why it was special. And I said something like, “Well, it’s an ancient community. We’ve been meeting for thousands of years.” And they wanted to know more about that, and then they wanted to know what kind of people we were and I said, “Well, you know, we’re a bunch of horrible sinners who get together to see if there is any meaning to life and to see if we can connect to God.” I thought that sounded great, until I actually heard it come out of my mouth. Imagine trying to tell someone where you’re going on a Sunday morning—“Well, I’m just going to go hang out with a bunch of horrible sinners and see if we can find any meaning in life and connect to God.” Your friends would probably say something like, “Well, have fun in your giant Russian novel! Hope you can keep all the miserable patronymics straight.”
The conversation swirled around a bit, and it was good one. We talked about accountability and authenticity and how that relates to community, and somehow it got back to me and I found myself saying again, “Well, we’re a bunch of horrible sinners who are trying to find meaning in life and connect somehow to God,” And indeed, one of the people there, a writer and former teacher, who was also into self-help and some kind of thing like life-coaching, said, “Stop saying that! You’re not horrible sinners. You’re awesome people trying to be even better!” I remembered Luther on his deathbed, writing "We are all beggars, this is true." So, I just said: “No. That’s not what we think at all. I’m sorry.” If I had remembered, if I had been a better pastor, I would have said something like, “There was once a man sent from God whose name was John, and he baptized people in repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he called to the people, saying, ‘You brood of vipers!’ And we all have slithered to baptism at the sound of his call.”
I realized then how profoundly strange our church’s message is. We live among an obsession for physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness. To them we proclaim Christ crucified for all people—to the living we proclaim a death. We live in stratified society, torn apart by class and race, literally shot through by fear and hatred, and so many people tremble every day on their way to death. To these people we proclaim Christ living—to the dying, we proclaim life. To those outside and inside the church, people who have found meaning outside the church’s embrace or in it, and to those who still search for meaning, we proclaim Christ’s coming and eternal presence that continues to burn us with Holy Spirit fire—to the sure and the searching, we proclaim repentance. O you brood of vipers, who told you to flee from the wrath to come? We are not awesome people becoming more awesome, we are the living and the dying, the sure and the searching, the sinner and the believer in holiness, all of us called together by the one who baptizes with fire and winnows away our darkness and our sin from our bodies and our souls—Jesus Christ. To every moment of our lives, Jesus stands as a contrast, calling us further in to his death, his eternal life, his coming again.
That night, there was a lot of Instagramming. I noticed because when the lasagna came out, so did everyone’s phones. And when the cookies came out, so did everyone’s phones. And at one point, somebody took a flower and placed oh so casually next to a plate of lasagna and snapped a photo—the whole conversation stopped, and I realized just how out of touch I am to a whole way of life in our world—a way of life that worries about its presentation, its authenticity, its reputation online, the representation of a made self to other selves, and the worry about fitting into that self when people meet. And I knew the people around me were all good people, people who were trying very hard to make their way in the world, and doing a much better job of it than I think I am. But yet, I didn't want that life. I wanted prayer, and the struggle that comes from coming to the table with a stranger over and over again, of being welded by Holy Spirit fire into a community that stretches from the dead to the unborn. I wanted the church that rejoices in her Savior. Because once you have tasted that community, the community formed by the Holy Spirit into the body of our crucified God, you know everything else is a pale imitation.
Now I don't want to make it seem like I am opposed to phones and Instagram and online communities and start-ups. It's just that I don't feel comfortable in that world yet. But even in that world, even when everything stops, over and over again for a turn before the camera, something happens when we slither into church, all of us poisonous old sinners. We come here knowing and believing that God knows us completely. Here we are unfiltered, until God filters our sin and our confusion out of us. Or rather, until God removes the filters of our sin and confusion from us and cleans us and polishes us until we shine as God truly meant for us to do, and we shine in the grace of God in light no photograph can capture. And we rejoice to hear the truth of ourselves--and we rejoice to hear that the truth of ourselves is our being made one in Christ Jesus. We rejoice that we slither here, because here Christ himself comes to meet us and gives us his life.
When Paul wrote Philippians, he was in jail. He was suffering. He thought it was likely that he would be killed. And yet he tells the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, again rejoice. And he said this because he knew a truth that the world did not know--he knew Christ. The Lord is near, he said. The peace of God surpasses all understanding--the mystery of God was filling their hearts. In a couple short weeks, we will be singing "Joy to the World"--or this afternoon, if you come to the Christmas Festival. The joy is that God stands among us sinners and calls us to repentance, and makes our lives new, not just once, but every day, and forever. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack