Sunday, April 27, 2008

Audio from April 27

I think we have all the kinks ironed out and that the audio should be good-quality now. Thanks for your patience--enjoy!

Sermon from Sunday, Apr 27

You may have noticed the little quote I ran on the back page today. It is from a catholic high school teacher in New York City, who writes, “The seniors I teach would cringe at being called holy. The very word secretes poisons like “uninteresting,” “sexless,” “goody-goody,” “unsophisticated”—hardly the path to popularity.” And I think, by and large, this is true. “Holiness” is not really something most people aspire to these days; in fact, “holiness” is most often thought of, even by church folks, as a negative characteristic. If you were to talk about someone and say, “She just acts so holy all the time,” or “He’s so holier-than-thou all the time,” you wouldn’t be paying that person a compliment.
And yet there is throughout the Bible an undisputed call to holiness; there is a call for the church to be a holy people. So part of what I want to do in this sermon is to talk about what that means. We have all kinds of preconceived notions about what it means to be holy, but behind all of those preconceived notions, what does it really mean that God wants us to be holy people? That is the question that I want to unpack a little bit today.
To dig deeper into this question, we’re looking at 1 Corinthians 5:1-8. For those of you who have been gone for a couple of weeks, we’re now in the third week of a twelve-week sermon series on 1 Corinthians. The reason I’m preaching such a long series on that book is that there are many similarities between ancient Corinth and modern Exton. Corinth was the kind of town where people came to live for a few weeks, or a couple of months, and then moved on. It was located at the intersection of two major trade routes, one a sea trade route going east and west and one a land trade route, going north and south. So people would come, conduct their business and return to their homes.
Paul understood that the church in Corinth had strategic importance; a church that was strong in Corinth had the potential to strengthen the church all around the world. If people came to the church in Corinth and saw the people living a vital relationship with Jesus, they would be able to meet Jesus in a new way and then take that encounter with them when they went to their homes or to their next port of call.
It’s my vision that this church take up the mantle of the Corinthian church. Because of where we are located, we will constantly know a number of people coming in and going out. I mentioned last week that 74 people have become regular attenders for some period of time at our church during my 5 ½ years here, and yet about 60 or so have left during that same time. And lest you think this is just something about me, I heard last week from the previous pastor of the church, who told me that during her estimable pastorate, 90-100 new people joined the church, but almost as many left. This is simply part of the reality of this church, part of our location in this town in this county at this time. So if it is true that in the last 20 years 200 or so people have become a part of this church’s life only to leave, I want those 200 people to change the world because of what they encountered in this little church, just like the Corinthian church potentially could change the world.
So it is important to study this book, because this was Paul’s advice—prompted by the Holy Spirit—to the church at the crossroads. Last week, we looked at how Paul encouraged the church to be spiritual. By this, he did not mean that everyone should hole up by themselves and read the Bible and eat only bread and water; rather, instead, he meant that people should look at the world as Jesus saw it, and think about the world as Jesus thought about it. So we talked about our need to be spiritual; if we are going to be a positive influence on the world as a church at the crossroads, we need to be a spiritual people, to recognize that God’s Spirit lives in us and to look at the world with the eyes and mind of Christ.
This week, we move on to chapter 5 in the book and we see a very interesting situation that was happening in the church at Corinth. This was tabloid material here—a man was found to be living with and involved in a romantic relationship with his stepmother. Now, many interesting things happen in churches from time to time but I must say I’ve never encountered this in a church (at least to my knowledge). It goes without saying that this was highly irregular and sinful behavior by Biblical standards. And yet, Paul says, the church did not repudiate this behavior or discipline the members; instead, we read that the church was arrogant, that it was almost a point of pride among some church members that this was occurring in their church. There was boasting going on about this, that this was a church that was very tolerant of such things.
Now, we live in an exceedingly sexual culture so it is not surprising perhaps that we tend to focus on the sexual side of this. We are overwhelmed by the ickiness of it all. But beneath the ickiness there is of course more at play than the romantic relationship between consenting adults. Beneath the ickiness factor is a real concern that Paul has for the church. At the root level, Paul is concerned that the church is looking too much like the culture outside the church. There is nothing that separates the church, that makes it any different from any other club that people might want to join.
Now, this might not surprise us if we consider the culture of Corinth. In a small-town church, where the church population is pretty much stagnant, a church can have a very strong sense of identity. Because very few people come into the church, and very few people leave the church except when they die, a church’s ideas of right and wrong can stay pretty much the same for decades, even centuries. Now, to be honest, having seen churches like that, I think it would drive me crazy. But—when you are a church at the crossroads—the problem on the other end of the spectrum can happen. Because so many ideas flow in and flow out, it can be difficult for a church to maintain any shared sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. Think about it—what kinds of things shape the way we understand the world? Our generation—when we were born affects the way we view the world. Our upbringing—how our parents brought us up impact that. Where we grew up—what part of the world we grew up in—also impacts how we see the world. Many of those small-town churches are largely dominated by one generation from one part of the world with one way of being brought up by parents.
But churches like Corinth and Exton don’t have that luxury. Because churches like Corinth and Exton constantly have people from all over the world, young and old, who were raised in all different ways, and these people are in and out all the time! So it can be difficult to have any sense of shared identity across all of these lines. This is not to say it’s impossible, because it’s not; and anytime we see a shred of shared identity, you can see how beautiful it is. I get glimpses of that every so often, when I see you—even though we’re all so different—laughing together or working together, or serving God on a ministry team. I get glimpses and I love it. But the fact is, it doesn’t come easy for a church like Corinth or Exton because there are so many barriers to be overcome.
In fact, Paul is concerned here that because the work of cobbling together a common identity is so hard, that the church has taken the easy way out and has adopted the same standards as the culture around it. In essence, because it was too hard for all these people to come together to some agreements about right and wrong, they have said, “Anything goes.” This is the root cause that Paul is concerned about most deeply; that they look too much like the culture around them, because that’s just the easiest thing to do in a church at the crossroads. This case of the man romantically involved with his stepfather is perhaps an emotional or sexual outgrowth of that root cause; later on in the book we will see financial and social outgrowths of that root cause, as the rich and the poor were at war with each other. There are also legal outgrowths of that root cause, as church members were taking each other to court. Regardless, all of these things were outgrowths of the same root cause: because the people were so different from each other, they stopped doing the hard work of defining themselves and instead just adopted the social standards of the culture around them.
This was a temptation for the church at the crossroads then, and it is a temptation for the church at the crossroads now. Because our population changes, it is difficult for us to say what exactly being Christian is, because our shared ideas are constantly changing. So it is tempting for us too to adopt a “lowest common denominator” mentality; it is tempting for us to simply be nice to each other and leave it at that, not talking about difficult issues, and not really defining what it means to be Christian here.
Paul had a difficult word for the church then and to be honest, it is a difficult word for us, too. He said, “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
To understand this image, you have to understand Passover (which has just recently occurred). To prepare for Passover in an observant Jewish household, even today, the kitchen must be ceremonially and ritually cleansed of all yeast. This dates back to the event that inspired Passover, the day the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. As the story goes, the Israelites had to prepare their bread without yeast because they had to be ready to leave in a hurry, so there was no time for the bread to rise! And so, over time, the lack of yeast became a defining mark for the Jewish people, a kind of national calling card. Yeast began to be talked about as a kind of impurity that must be removed for the people of God to be the people they were called to be.
So what Paul is doing here is saying, “Look, the presence of this evil among you is compromising your character! I know that it’s hard for you, at the crossroads—I know it can be difficult to adopt different standards than the rest of the world. But the fact that you are acting just like the rest of the world means you are capitulating to the world! Tolerating this evil is making you all impure because you are settling for being less than you could be. Because you insist on being like the rest of the world, you rob yourself of the power to say something different. If you are going to be God’s hands and feet to change the world, you cannot be identical to the world; you cannot share the same priorities and the same outlook as the rest of the world and then hope to somehow magically be different from the rest of the world when it counts. You need to be different.”
This brings us back to our original topic for the sermon, which is holiness. This is the essence of holiness—to be different, to be set apart. That hymn we sung, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is a hymn that affirm just how different God is from us, how “other” he is, how God’s ways are not our ways, to paraphrase the Scripture. God’s call for his people, then, is to imitate him in this, to not settle for being just like the world but to aspire to be different from the rest of the world. The world needs people who are willing to think different, who question the assumptions that undergird our culture. The world needs people who are not sold out to the same goals that the rest of the world is sold out to.
We often hear the call to holiness as a dreary sort of thing, uttered by dreary-sounding pastors who are angry at the world. Let me tell you instead about a book I read this week, called The Holy Way. It’s by a woman named Paula Huston. The book is, in part, a story about her life. She talks about her life as a university professor; it was a stressful life for her, with near-constant deadlines. She talked about her home, how it was noisy, music playing all the time, the phone ringing off the hook. She talked about her addiction to romantic love, and how it led her into an affair that destroyed her first marriage. She talked about her need to have what she wanted when she wanted it, which led she and her second husband into massive debt that took forever to pay off. All the while, she is attracted to a simpler life, but feels it is just not an option for her. But she goes and spends a few retreats—sometimes day retreats, sometimes weekend retreats, an occasional longer retreat—at a Catholic monastery about 2 hours from her home. These monks, she believes, just have it lucky because they get to live this simple life.
But in the course of her retreats and spiritual focus, she begins to realize that the monks are not where they were by luck—they were there because they made choices that enabled them to live in a simple way, in a different way, in a holy way. Further, she realized that her life was complex not just because modern life is doomed to be complex, but because she had chosen for it to be that way. Sometimes she chose it consciously, sometimes she chose it unconsciously, but she realized that her life was a rat-race because she chose for it to be a rat-race. And so she decided to start living in a different way, in a holy way. This doesn’t mean she sat by herself with the Bible all the time, although she did do a fair amount of Bible reading. More than that, though, she made lifestyle changes that allowed her to live differently. She turned off her phone—not her cell phone, but her phone phone. She let voice mail pick it up and checked voice mail every so often and returned calls as needed. She talked to the university where she worked and cut back on her courses by 1/3 because she realized that she was using a lot of the money she was making on things that only served to make her life more complicated. She woke up early in the morning to be silent with God, to listen to the silence so the noise did not dominate her life. She set down rules in the family governing music that would be listened to and what volume it would be listened to at.
In short, she stopped believing she was a victim of this big, evil modern world we live in; and she started realizing that God’s Holy Spirit gave her power over that world, to choose where to let it in and where to keep it out. In a later article in the Christian Century, she wrote, “We are blocked from becoming who we are meant to be by a horde of small habits.” In other words, God wants us to realize—individually and as a church—that we have this great and high calling, that we are not just victims here to help each other cope with medical crises or financial difficulties or aging parents or indifferent children. We are children of God. But we are blocked from realizing that because the world is too much with us. We are blocked from becoming those people because of this horde of small habits, choices we have made, choices the world wants us to make, addictions to food, to attention, to lust, to consumer products. As long as we have no sense of ourselves as holy, as different, we are at the world’s mercy; and so we must start by remembering that we are holy people, that we are set apart.
You may have noticed that this morning’s sermon is entitled “A Peculiar People.” That is a phrase found in the King James Bible, three times in total, but two of them are particularly important. One is in Deuteronomy 14:2, where Moses is looking over the people of Israel and reminds them in the old English, “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself.” Moses wanted to remind them that God was giving them the Promised Land because they were peculiar, they were different, they were set apart, they were holy. Then, in 1 Peter 2:9, Peter uses the same language to talk about the church. He wants the church to remember that just as Israel was the chosen people, the church is chosen by God too—chosen to demonstrate to the whole world what a relationship with God looks like. Peter says to the church, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” It is the same message given to the people so long ago—God has given you this great gift, this calling, and you in response must be a peculiar people, you must be different, you must be set apart, you must be holy.
And my message for this church at the crossroads is that we too must be holy, we must be set apart, we must be different—we must be a peculiar people. Truth be told, some churches have an easier time being peculiar than others. I’ve seen some pretty peculiar in my days. But my vision for this church at the crossroads is not that people will come in and say how relevant we are, how witty we are, how easygoing we are; I want them to see how different we are. I want them to see how peculiar we are, I want them to see a people living a holy life, free of the things that dominate our anxious world. Let’s be peculiar together!