Sunday, February 26, 2017

Help! There's an Elephant Sitting on the Baptismal Font!

Preached on Sunday, February 26, for the people of Ascension Lutheran, Towson MD.

This is an unusual Sunday for me because I’m not preaching directly on the text for today. Instead, I’m feeling compelled by the Spirit to address our context. That context is the nexus between the Sermon on the Mount, entering the season of Lent, and the negative drain of the world around us that is sucking us into a downward spiral of us against them.

For the past four weeks of the Epiphany season, we’ve been in The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about how God’s Reign is a counter-cultural experience that Jesus calls us to be a part of.  It differs radically from the values of the world around us in the way we treat one another, ourselves and even those we perceive to be our enemies. 

Week after week we’ve heard Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and you have respectfully listened in as I’ve wrestled with those words out loud from the pulpit. And week after week, while we’ve made our way through the Sermon on the Mount, there’s been a big ol’ elephant in the middle of the room, sitting right on top of our baptismal font. Have you noticed it?

Now, I don’t mean to use that image in the political way. The elephant is not the GOP. The elephant is the thing that we’re all aware of, but it makes us so uncomfortable that we choose pretend it doesn’t exist.

The elephant I’m referring to is the divide between us regarding partisan politics. I know some of you cringe when you hear the word politics from the pulpit, but to ignore politics is to ignore what’s going on in the world around us. And when we ignore what’s going on in the world around us, what we do in this place becomes completely irrelevant. 

I didn’t think it could get worse than it was during the presidential campaign, but over the past few months, the political divide in our country has grown wider. I’ve had this sense that it’s become the unspoken subtext of every sermon I preach. I don’t even bring it up, and many of you assume I’m talking about it. Especially as we’ve been cracking open the meaning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. 

But Jesus teachings are never about endorsing a political party or a specific candidate. They are about turning away from the ways of selfishness, violence and injustice, and toward the Reign of God, which is where Jesus tells us true life is found. 

Face it, if the world around us followed the teachings of Jesus, it wouldn’t be in a such a mess.

But here’s the thing. We’re Jesus people here. We may not always get it right, but we’re a part of this community because it is our hearts’ desire to follow the way of Jesus. 

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and that includes us, that other people will know we’re his disciples by the love we have for one another. Think of our congregation as a little love laboratory. We’re practicing love with one another so that we can also share that love with people outside our community. In other words, if we don’t get it right here, we’ll never get it right out there…

I know that many of us have trouble with conflict. We may choose to avoid it, or deal with it sideways, rather than head on. As followers of the Jesus Way, that’s not how we deal with conflict. We don’t just ignore it, or agree to disagree. Because when we do that, we may be okay on the outside, but we’re harboring evil in our hearts. 

That’s why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not enough just to refrain from murdering another person if you’re thinking the worst about them in your heart. 

Jesus teaches that when we’re at odds with one another, instead of trying to stick it to them, we turn the other cheek, we go the extra mile, we pray for them. And then there’s that part about making peace with one another before we bring our offerings to God. Within our community, we’re always about the business of reconciliation. We can’t seek a right relationship with God when we are in a wrong relationship with one another. 

As followers of Jesus, that means we have to deal with the elephant. We can’t march on through the season of Lent as if it weren’t there. 

Some people in our congregation support the policies of our President, some of us support some of his policies, and others have trouble seeing how he’s capable of doing anything good. Some of us are cheering his leadership, and some of us are scared to death. That is what it is, and we aren’t going to change it. But what’s of concern for our community is not the way we think and feel about our president, it’s the way we think and feel about one another. 

We all share the pews on Sunday mornings. We raise our voices in song together. We exchange the peace with one another. We eat and drink at the same table. And we do all this while we avoid looking one another in the eye. 

There’s an elephant in the room when we gather together. And it’s not going to go away until we address it. 

Christ calls us to be reconciled with one another. The way to reconciliation is not by avoiding conflict, or agreeing to disagree. The way to reconciliation is through understanding. We need to listen to one another. We need to feel free to express ourselves, knowing our words will be respected and received in love. We need to open our minds and our ears – listening to those who don’t see things the way we see them. 

Right now, our world is so polarized that this seems impossible. But we’re set apart from the rest of the world. We’re a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, God’s little love laboratory on York Road. Because we’re in Christ, we can do something the world is incapable of doing. And we can model what reconciliation looks like, as a shining City on a Hill. 

So, I’m challenging us to be reconciled with one another as God’s people. Choose to do something during the Lenten season to better understand those who seem so far away from you right now that everything within you is telling you that you need to remain as far away from them as possible. 

Lent is not about giving up chocolate. It is about reconciliation-- restoring relationships. Our relationship with God, our relationships with one another.

·         We can repent of our demonization of others.

·         We can have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with someone we’ve been avoiding.

·         We can seek forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged.

·         Most of all, I hope we can grow in our awareness that, within Christian community, it is always more important to be loving than it is to be right. 

Now, some might be quick to tell me that people in Baltimore don’t do that. Or people who grew up in your family don’t do that. But I will be quick to say that how we were raised, or where we’re from, or the way we’ve always done it is completely irrelevant. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is exactly what we do.

To help with the process, next Saturday morning at 10, we’re offering an opportunity. We’re going to have a time for listening and understanding.

Our time will be structured. There will be guidelines. You will have the opportunity to say as little or as much as you feel moved to say. The purpose of our time together will not be to argue or to convince others that we’re right and they’re wrong. The purpose is reconciliation. It is to a time to listen and to understand. We will never agree about everything. But you don’t have to agree with someone to understand where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with someone to love them. 

We can faithfully live out the life Jesus is calling us to embody, and strengthen our community for the sake of the work Christ calls us to be about in the world. It’s the only faithful way to remove the elephant from our worship space so we can get our baptismal font back.

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