Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, NOvember 26

Hi all--this is the sermon I preached at ECBC Sunday, November 26. The text was from Revelation 1:4-6: "To Him who loved us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father..."

You may have heard the story recently of a young woman named Sarah Culberson. Sarah is a biracial woman who grew up as an adopted child of a family in West Virginia. When she was eighteen, Sarah decided to try to find out who her birth parents were and tried to arrange a meeting. She first found her birth mother’s information, but was disappointed to find out that she had died of cancer. She was devastated and decided to put off searching for her birth father. But a few years later she decided to try again, and worked hard to track him down. She was shocked to find out that her father, Joseph, was a member of the royal family in a province of Sierra Leone, an African nation. Sarah, who is about my age, was a princess–and she never knew it.
Isn’t this what every little girl dreams of when she puts on a Cinderella dress and goes out for Halloween? I remember when Jill and I were at Disneyworld a couple of years back and you see all the little girls lined up in their Snow White dresses, waiting for a chance to meet the real Snow White. It seems like most little girls dream that they are princesses too, just no one can see it yet, no one can know it yet; they are princesses in disguise and one day the truth will be revealed. Except for Sarah, though, it hardly ever happens.
Now, of course, not all little girls dream of being princesses. But every girl or boy dreams of being something. When you’re a kid, you’re fully aware that you’re limited. You go to bed earlier than the grown-ups who sit downstairs after you go to bed and talk and laugh and eat peanut butter sandwiches and drink root beer. You go to weddings and the grownups eat steak and you eat hotdogs. You have to wear what your mother buys you. You know that there are things you just can’t do because you’re a kid.
And so, inside, you dream of being something. A princess, or a baseball player, or a fireman, or even a trash collector. When you are a kid, you are fully convinced that there is something in you that other people cannot see. There is something ineffable that no one else can touch. People might think you’re a kid, but deep down you know that you’re a princess.
As you grow older, your dream becomes rebellion. As you get into high school, you’re even more aware of your limitations. Your body starts to do things it never did before. You start to smell bad, your voice cracks, you start to trip over your own feet far too often; puberty just wreaks havoc on your body. And deep down, you’re a bit embarrassed, and so you become convinced that if you’re going to live out your dreams, you have to get out of this one-horse town. Teenagers all over the world are convinced that the number-one thing they have to do is to get out of this town. There’s nothing for me here, there’s nothing to do here, I’ve got to go somewhere else. The people and the surroundings here will never let you live out your dream, so you’ve got to go somewhere else to make it happen. In that little section under your high-school yearbook, where you’re supposed to write plans and dreams, you say things like, “To go to Colorado and sip wild mountain honey!” or “To go to LA and be a star!” or maybe simply “To make lots and lots of money!”
But you know what? It hardly ever happens, does it? Those plans and dreams hardly ever are realized. That person that you know you are deep down hardly ever comes out. Sure, Sarah found out she’s a princess, but the fact is her story was so exceptional it made the news. If it happened all the time, if everyone lived out their wildest dreams, it wouldn’t be on the news.
So we drift into adulthood. After saying we were going to move to Colorado or California to pursue our dreams, we buy a house a few miles away from our parents in a nondescript suburb and live our lives under iron November skies. After believing with all our hearts we were princesses, who were going to meet Prince Charming someday and have a royal wedding, we end up marrying a good person, a nice person, but a person who leaves dirty underwear on the floor and the toilet seat up; and our wedding, well, it was nice, but it was an ordinary church with a rather nondescript minister and we had our reception at the VFW, music provided by a mediocre tribute band doing mostly covers of Beatles songs. All in all, our lives turn out to be nothing like our dreams most of the time.
And so we adults deal with our deferred dreams differently. Some of us tenaciously cling to our dreams; we tend to be disappointed anew every day that our dreams are not reality. To deal with the disappointment, we numb the pain by creating a false adventure: we drink too much; we have an affair with our hang-gliding instructor, or with a younger woman who makes us feel strong and virile again; we lose ourselves in the world of sports and live through sports; we live our lives through our children and try to get them to fulfill our dreams since they still can. Some of us lose ourselves in our work, creating new dreams like getting a big promotion or a raise; some of us lose ourselves in study, searching for answers that aren’t there; some of us lose ourselves in following celebrities, people we pay to live out our dreams for us. And some of us even deal with disappointment by bursting other people’s bubbles; we remind others that they cannot achieve their dreams, that no one can, that life is not meant for dreamers. But even for these people, there is a yearning that is simply part of being human–a yearning to know that we are more than we can see.
May I tell you that church is a safe place for dreamers? Maybe more than anything else, it is the role of the Christian church to remind people that you are more than you think you are. Adulthood has beaten it out of you, it has forced you to repress those dreams of who you are, it has forced you to believe that dreams do not come true. Oh, but they do come true, and you are more than anyone else here knows–you are more than you know. In fact, you are more than you even know to dream.
John wrote the book of Revelation while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. And he wrote to churches that were in the midst of intense persecution. Antipas, who is mentioned in 2:13, was a Christian martyr that was part of the church at Pergamum, one of the churches John is writing to. Legend has it that he was put inside a bronze idol of a bull and put over intense heat and cooked to death for tenaciously holding to his Christian faith. Domitian, the emperor responsible for this persecution, also was reputedly responsible for having Timothy beaten to death with clubs and even executing his own cousin for converting to Christianity.
You know, watching your leaders be beaten to death with clubs and cooked inside idols has a way of killing dreams. It has a way of making you look down instead of up. It has a way of making you bow a little lower when the Emperor comes around. Watching your friends and leaders die violently has a way of making you not think so much about a man you never met dying and rising again and giving you new life. It has a way of making gathering with the community not quite so important. When martyrs are killed, dreams die too.
It is to churches like this that John writes–churches where people are afraid to dream. And listen to what he says to them: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sin by his blood–and has made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” It is as if John is saying, “Lift up your heads, you persecuted! You are not what the world sees. You are not a laughingstock. You are not to be pitied above all people. You are a kingdom. You cannot see it now, but you are a greater kingdom than the Roman Empire, ruled by a greater king than Domitian. There is something here that you cannot see, there is something that is just beyond the veil of the sky that is every bit as real as the ground you walk on, maybe even more real than the ground you walk on, but you just can’t see it yet. You are a kingdom.
While we are not being cooked to death in idols, while we are not being beaten to death with clubs, our dreams are no less in danger. We cannot muster the courage to believe in dreams anymore, and so we settle for being so much less than God wants us to be, even in our Christian lives. We settle for the Christian life being about following rules, going to church, giving money instead of about change at the deepest level that brings us into real life. We settle for treating church like it were a brand of toothpaste: well, I kind of like this flavor, it works for me, for now, you know, but I could always change if I start not liking it; instead of recognizing that it is a life-changing community and it is those times when it is most difficult for us that it has the most to offer us. We settle for believing that we cannot change, that our hearts really cannot be transformed at their deepest level. Instead, we must just do the best we can with what we got, try to be a better person, because our own effort is all we really have.
We have an impoverished view of the spiritual life; in fact, this is how bad it is. When someone comes along and tells us it could be better, it could be different, we perceive it as a threat. We like our Christian life as it is and we don’t want it to be any different. We have a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome is what they call it when a kidnap victim begins to become emotionally attached to the person who kidnaps them. The name is taken from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, when bank employees were held hostage by the robbers for six days. When they were finally freed, they defended their captors and were quite emotionally attached to the robbers. When a person has Stockholm Syndrome, the abuse warps them so that being captured seems better than being free. They forget the benefits and the promise of freedom and cling to captivity because it’s the only life they know.
We get spiritual Stockholm Syndrome when we forget who we are and fall in love with the things that capture us. We fall in love with behaviors we know are self-destructive and do them compulsively even as we know we are killing our spirits as we do them. We fall in love with ways of thinking that separate us from God. We fall in love with a pace of life that crowds out God and soon we find ourselves totally captive to it, too busy to worship on Sunday morning, much less pray or do anything of service to others during the week. We fall in love with a way of spending money that reflects our captivity to the world, and yet we keep spending anyway, too tapped-out to tithe, too stressed to share with the needy, too captive to consumer goods and services, forgetting that the best bargain we can have is to spend our earthly money toward eternal things. We fall in love with the language of rights, and become obsessed with getting what we deserve, forgetting that there is true reward in laying down one’s rights and freely giving away the things we think we deserve.
If I am describing you, like I am describing me, then you must know that the reasons you do these things is because you have forgotten who you are and you have forgotten how to dream. You have forgotten that there is freedom out there beyond this captivity, freedom in Christ, and so you have learned to think that this dreamless life is all there is.
It is to you, then, that I say this, even as John said it so long ago: You are a kingdom.
Do you hear that? You are a kingdom.
Can you believe it? You are a kingdom.
Those that are in Christ are not mere people anymore. We are not cogs in a machine; we are not merely the waiters and teachers and accountants and executives and lawyers and ditchdiggers and pastors and farmers we seem to be. We are a kingdom. We are a kingdom because God has said it is so.
To truly live the Christian life begins here. It does not begin with good things you do, or bad things you give up. It certainly doesn’t begin by accomplishing great spiritual feats like fasting forty days, and it certainly doesn’t begin by becoming Mother Teresa and leaving everything and going to Calcutta to live with those the world forgets. Before you can do any of that, before you can do anything as a Christian, you have to believe not who the world says you are, but who God says you are. To do anything as a Christian, you have to believe again that you deep down are princes and princesses, that there is something to you that the world simply cannot see. This may be why Jesus says that to enter the Kingdom of God, we have to become like children. Because children deep down believe they are different than anyone will ever know. Until the world pounds it out of them, children know that they are special, more special than anyone knows. Until we realize that in ourselves, we will never enter the Kingdom of God.
And when you believe that you are royalty, you will then fall out of love with the things that have held you captive, the things that have held you hostage. You will have to lose the Stockholm Syndrome. When you know that you are free, captivity will seem hopelessly boring and constricting. When you know that you can be free from your addictions and compulsions, you will see how maintaining them takes such energy and such time and you will suddenly see how good freedom is. You will have to choose the reality that you are free and that you are royalty over the world’s message that you are a slave to the system, or indeed that you are a slave to yourself.
And so, princes and princesses, we are nearing the end of our time of worship. But the Kingdom is not suspended for a week until we get together again. When you leave this place, whenever you go, wherever you go, you remain a citizen of the Kingdom. You are marked with Christ in baptism and you are sealed with his love–you are a child of the King. And everywhere you go, you will see princes and princesses around you. Many of them have their heads bowed low, and walk with a stoop and a hitch, thinking that they are slaves, believing those lies. And a few–you will see them walk a little taller, walk a little prouder. They know that they are royalty. So they are generous, because slaves cling to whatever they have, but royalty knows there’s always more where that came from. They are kind, because slaves might step on each other to get ahead, but royalty knows that the system works in their favor. They are patient, because slaves are rushed and hurried, but there’s no rush for royalty. And those other princes and princesses, there will just be something about them–a certain gleam in the eye, a certain spring in the step–and together you will wink in the Spirit at each other and say, “The King’s coming.” Enjoy your fellow royalty, and for the King’s sake, lift up the eyes of those who think they are slaves.