This past Saturday I flew into San Francisco to preach at the installation service of Paul Fromberg as rector at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal church. It was a beautiful experience all the way around.
Before the service...
Here's the sermon:
(texts were feast of St. Mark)
So Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
I bring you greetings today from the people of God at House for All Sinners and Saints; a Lutheran mission church in Denver Colorado. We are a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. At least that’s what our website says. It’s an honor to be with you.
A few years ago on a bright Tuesday in March I was driving to seminary and I found myself stuck in traffic on I-25. Sitting in a dead stop on the interstate I stared up into the clear blue Colorado sky and thought “What the hell am I doing? I don’t believe a word of this stuff. I mean, It’s a fairy tale”. But then in the very next moment I thought “except…throughout my life…I have experienced it to be true.” I experience the gospel to be true even when I can’t believe it. And honestly sometimes I believe the gospel even when I don’t experience it. And I suggest to you today that this is why we have and need Word and Sacrament.
People of St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal church, this is why you have called your brother Paul to be your rector. It may seem that you called him because you need a good administrator or because you need a strong leader to take you into a vision of a preferred future for your church. That’s all well and good but what you need, my brothers and sisters, is the Gospel. Charge him with that: putting Jesus in your ears and mouths and eyes. His charge is not to be a professional Christian on your behalf. He is not charged with being a quivering mass of emotional availability on your behalf. He is not charged with doing good works on your behalf. He is charged with preaching the gospel and presiding at the table. He is charged with none other than putting Jesus in your ears and mouths so that you might believe the good news and continue to share it with others. That you might experience this thing to be true.
Why? so that you might be free. Free from the bondage of sin. Free from the abject lies of salvation through good works, or salvation through political correctness or salvation through just trying harder or salvation through self-care, or…brace yourselves…salvation through liturgical fabulousness.
So, good people, when you have exhausted the efforts of climbing higher to God through piety and virtue and self-improvement and social justice and beauty I pray that Paul might feed you the very gospel of Christ. And if you, as we all inevitably do, try and appease the God “up there,” may he tell you of a God right down here, who loves you madly, deeply, messily. May he tell you of St Mark’s gospel which says:
And at once, as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.'
May Paul continue to scandalously proclaim to you this love of God which tears open the heavens and overflows into a muddy river full of sinners. Only in Mark’s Gospel do we get the Greek word Scizomai here anemically translated torn apart. But see scitzomai is not nearly as polite a thing as “torn apart”…to say as Mark does that the heavens were scitzomai is to say they were Ripped in an almost violent manner as to not be repairable. God - so desperate to be with us --comes in flesh and blood and enters a muddy river full of sinners. God – so desperate to give God’s self to us tears, rips, rends open the heavens as though to say I will not be confined to your so called “up there” any longer. I will not be known as the God of vengeance: I am gonna love you no matter what. This is the God who offers an insistent yes to all our polite little no thank yous.
In a muddy river full of sinners God tears open the heavens to bring the good news. God says “YES: you are my beloved” . But be warned, the crazy beautiful love of God isn’t a winning the lottery kind of Good News. The gospel of Jesus is more of a muddy river full of sinners and Baptizers with questionable fashion sense kind of good news. The gospel of Jesus is actually more wilderness than sandy beach, it’s more crazy desert men than respectable religious types. It’s more dinner with whores and traitors than award banquet. And if there are any “Church growth consultants” present let me assure you: This is not the kind of thing that sells very well. You can build an entire television empire based on the so called prosperity gospel – pawning off greed as righteousness and telling folks that Jesus makes you rich - but there isn’t a whole lot of demand out there for “Jesus bids you come and die.”
But dying ..is the business of the church—dying to our individualism and sense of specialness and fears, so that we can become new people, beloved new people, with life in Christ. this is the good news. Because in the dying to self that comes in repentance there is a small Easter for all of us. There is resurrection.
What you do here every week in church--your liturgy and the Word of God and the sacraments and repentance and forgiveness and Christian community and being changed by the stranger--- this is the means by which we have resurrection. My worship professor at Luther Seminary asked his students on the first day of class: What is it we do in worship? “We praise God”, one answered. “We gather around Word and Sacrament” said another. “We pray for the whole world” someone else said. And after we had exhausted the obvious Dr. Teig said, “We raise the dead”.
We come here where the dead are raised and the demons cast out, for it is we who are drowned in that muddy river full of sinners and over and over we are raised to new life in Christ- filled whether we believe it or feel it – filled with God’s love which has replaced our brokenness. Here in this place we have Jesus stuffed in our ears and mouths so that we might experience this thing to be true. So that we might again believe the good news that we are the beloved of God. Which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I might mention comes with a fairly hefty workload. And so today, people, you are charged with taking up Jesus’ work, and proclaiming the good news, carrying it forward to all the rest of the sinners and saints you meet. St Gregory’s church, beloved of God, is given a blessing and a commission. You are given new life.
And Paul – if there is one thing this fresh, young, smartalec preacher can say to you - a much…muuuch older priest - it is this: We Christians are a forgetful people. Never assume that just because your people leave here on Sunday believing the gospel that when they return an hour or a day or a week later that they still believe it. Don’t assume that if they once experienced this thing to be real that they still do… Put Jesus in their ears and mouths and don’t ever stop. And receive the living Christ from them as well, let them stuff Jesus into you, because you are as forgetful as the rest of us.
I tell you this because I have experienced it to be true. But I had forgotten it all by this morning. So I hope you have some Jesus for me at that table.