Sunday, August 15, 2010

Uncomfortable Words

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 15, 2010

Year C, Proper 15: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80 1-2, 8-18
(Hebrews 11:29-12:2)
Luke 12:49-56

Uncomfortable Words

Well, I don’t know about you, but I was hoping we were going to hear something a little more upbeat today. It’s an emotional day – we have a baptism at the 10:00 service, which is always an occasion for tears of joy and wonder – and sometimes shrieks of anger as water is poured over a baby’s head. And, as most of you are sick of hearing about by now, today is my last day as your curate. Tomorrow morning the movers arrive and Sue and I begin a journey into our exciting and humid future in Florida.

So, I admit I was hoping for something a little easier, a little lighter, a little more comfortable today. In our Rite I service we continue the very old Anglican practice of saying scripture verses known as the “Comfortable Words.” Now, one of those would have been great today. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Much better, right?

But, instead we get uncomfortable words. We began with a rich passage from the Prophet Isaiah, what’s called “The Song of the Vineyard.” The prophet compares Israel to a vineyard. God did everything God could to nurture Israel and expected it to produce good fruit.

We’re told that instead Israel produced “wild grapes.” And so the prophet tells us that God will withdraw God’s protection from the land and it will be destroyed. Uncomfortable words.

Of course, this song isn’t about growing grapes – it’s about human behavior, or misbehavior. It’s about how we respond to the great gifts God has given us – the gift of life itself, this beautiful planet, our families and friends, the Church, the ability to love and to create. It’s a song about how so often we take these beautiful gifts and warps them into something horrible.
The prophet writes that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

And that sums up much of the human story then and now, doesn’t it? From the senseless murder of a hard-working restaurant worker and family man just a few miles away in Summit to the senseless massacre of ten medical workers in Afghanistan, still today God expects justice, yet sees bloodshed. Right now, at least 80% of the world is living on less than $10 a day. Still today God expects righteousness, yet hears cries.

Bloodshed and tears are still the status quo for much of humanity.

The life and mission of Jesus was about challenging that bloody and tearful status quo. In his parables, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is like the father who can’t wait, who runs out to welcome the prodigal son who has returned. God is like the shepherd who is willing to go out and search for the one sheep that got away.

In his teaching, Jesus reveals what God is really like. Jesus went around teaching people to love their enemies, to forgive seven times seventy times. Jesus went around telling people to give away their possessions. Jesus went around telling people that we are to show mercy to the outcast, the outsider, the bloody near-dead man lying by the side of the road, even if that means risking our status or even our lives.

In his vision, Jesus reveals what God is really like. Jesus went around telling people that the kingdom of God was coming near and in God’s kingdom blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, the weeping and the hated. Jesus went around telling people that the kingdom of God was coming near and in God’s kingdom woe to the rich, woe to those who are full, woe to those who are laughing and spoken well of.

In his actions, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God is not impressed or intimidated by the powers of the world. God is not satisfied with the ways of the world. God is always calling us something better, to the transformed world Jesus called the kingdom of God.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals what God is really like. God still loves us even when we reject and rebel against that love – and despite what the world thinks, love is stronger than death itself.

Jesus knew very well that challenging the status quo would rock the world. And so it’s not the meek and mild Jesus we heard today. It’s the totally honest and realistic Jesus. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Uncomfortable words.

As some of you remember, for a long time in our country, going to church, being a Christian in the most superficial sense, was simply what people did. It was part of the culture. Being a Christian was mainstream, normal. There was very little cost – beyond paying one’s pledge – to being that kind of Christian.

In the past few decades the culture has changed, and at least in our part of the country churchgoing is not so normal anymore. (We’ll see about Florida!) But, there are now many young adults who have no experience of church, have only the haziest understanding of who Jesus is, of what Christianity is all about.

Back in the 1970s the people who created our prayer book had the insight to recognize how the culture was changing. The Church realized it had to be a lot more explicit about what it means to be a Christian. The Church had to be a lot clearer about the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Church had to underline that Jesus upset the status quo and so we are called to upset the status quo, too. The people who crafted the prayer book realized they needed to include some uncomfortable words.
And they put those uncomfortable words in what may seem an unlikely place – the baptism service. But, if you think about it, it makes sense. In baptism we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and given the grace, the strength, the power to continue the work of Jesus right here and now. And that work will make us anything but comfortable. So, here are the uncomfortable words, the uncomfortable questions, the uncomfortable challenges of the Baptismal Covenant:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Even when it’s inconvenient, even when we don’t feel like it, even when people think we’re weird?

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Do we resist that status quo of the world? Do we resist when the culture tells us profit above all, cut corners, nobody will ever know, look out for number one? Do we resist peer pressure in the office, or in school, or even in the emails and text messages we receive and send? And if we mess up are we courageous enough to confess, dust ourselves off, and try better?

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Do we live our lives in such a way so that when people see us they say hey, maybe there really is something to this Christianity stuff?

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Is there anything more counter-cultural, more upsetting to the status quo than loving your neighbor as yourself and respecting the dignity of every human being?

Uncomfortable questions. We can’t do any of this alone, of course. And that’s why in the Baptismal Covenant, we respond to each uncomfortable question with, “I will, with God’s help.” Or as I heard someone once say, maybe “With God’s help, I will” would be a better response.

But, if we’re open and willing, with God’s help so much is possible. I know that’s true because over the past three years here at Grace I’ve seen so many people take these uncomfortable words so seriously, not counting the cost. I’ve seen in countless, often small and nearly invisible ways people living profoundly Christian lives – loving wholeheartedly, giving generously, setting aside prejudices, joining together in prayer and work and fellowship. I’ve seen people live out the uncomfortable words of Jesus.

So, in baptism this is what we sign up for – or more often – get signed up for. If we take seriously continuing the work of Jesus, then, with God’s help, we will offer uncomfortable words, we will live uncomfortable lives, and we will challenge the status quo. If we take seriously the uncomfortable words of Jesus, with God’s help, together we will transform the world into the vineyard God always intended it to be, the vineyard God dreams of still.