24 C 2016: Domesticated Christianity

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Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Good morning.

You may not feel this way,
being the folks who are listening more than speaking,
but preaching is a relationship,
especially with a resident preacher
instead of supply clergy.
The more and deeper your knowledge of me
and the broader and more intimate my knowledge of you,
the better the preaching will become.

That is why the first year of preaching
is the most difficult for you and me.
You do not know how to take some of the things I say
and I don’t know how you will hear them;

I don’t know what matters most to you,
and you don’t understand what passions drive me.
So like fine wine,
if we are kind and nurturing of one another,
we will age well together
and the preaching relationship will too.

Allow me then, to share a small memory.
It is an image from my childhood
in Grace Episcopal Church, in Muncie, Indiana.

Grace is a small, dark, Tudor style building.

Very small, not like Trinity Geneva.
The wooden pews, wainscot, beams and accents,
are darker than the wood you see here –
it is almost black.

The whole of Grace Church,
sanctuary and parish house,
could probably fit in this nave and chancel.
Grace Church can probably seat 100 people,
maybe 125 cheek-to-jowl.

All the windows are stained glass
like the blue one up yonder;
only they are not massive, panoramic windows.

Instead, the windows of Grace Church are smaller,
more narrow,
and more intense.
Composed of smaller pieces
of ruby, cobalt, and autumn gold
their colors seem even more intense against
its darker interior
than in this great and airy space here.

Like many old Episcopal Church buildings,
Grace smelled musty, like old books.
Filled with decades of old 1928 prayer books,
it wasn’t unusual to sneeze as you opened them.
The people of Grace Church,
as I remember them anyway,
were as constant and predictable
as the droning cadence of the way priests used to recite Morning Prayer.

When I was five or six
I would slouch down in the pew
and engage my imagination
in elaborate pretend scenarios
to keep from going absolutely bonkers with boredom.
Sometimes, for example,
I was a spy hidden in the pew on a dangerous reconnaissance mission
and collecting information on the adults around me.

Certain families always sat in certain places,
just like some of you.
Particular families always sat up front on the left –
not in the very first or second pew,
but one or two removed.
They wore mink and long dark cashmere coats
with very clean shoes that shined
(the way mine were supposed to, my mom would scold).

Behind them were the professors and their families,
in coats and ties and dresses
but somehow not quite as crisp as the up front families.

My family sat in the middle on the right,
which provided an unobstructed view
of the front left section.
The minister’s family sat in the very front row,
his children in a stair-step formation
from oldest to youngest.
As you might imagine they were the most entertaining
because there was always veiled shoving and hitting going on.

This was the late Eisenhower/early Kennedy era,
a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting –
the perfect image of domesticated Christianity.

For some people, that is still the standard
to which Church should aspire to return –
1950’s and early 1960’s Church.
It was before the strife
of the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements
that drove asunder the establishment church.
It was the very picture of domesticated Christianity
that had happily taken its place as a pillar of the culture
through which assimilation and socialization took place.

Even so, and still,
there was a strained tendon of tension
pulsating the heat of a potential fire
underneath the veneer of proper order,
class, and segregation.
I was a witness to it,
and perhaps you were too.
It was Jesus.

Even a bored, restless five-year old boy
could feel the heat of Jesus.
It was only a feeling;
I could never have named it back then.
It was a wordless intuition generated
by the distance between
what our hero-prophet said,
as expressed through those odd
Elizabethan words each week,
and the crisp, clean, and well-mannered adults
sitting properly and noticeably inattentive
as the Gospel was read.

If there was a nasty, bulbous-nosed
and agitating widow,
like the one from Jesus’ story
demanding justice from one of those families
up front on the left,
I never saw it.

Granted, I was only five years old
so there were likely all kinds of things going on
in that Church that I never saw or knew anything about.
But I did know this much:
the dirty,
illiterate peasant named Jesus,
who railed and rattled and aroused
was replaced
by a well-mannered,
and serenely gentle young man…
a guy that any parent would have been happy
to have date their daughter,
(same sex dating was not mentioned in those days)

Even though the prince-and-pauper switch
of one Jesus for another,
was done completely and thoroughly
through art, music, language, and Sunday School lessons,
their mistake
was in continuing to read the Gospel stories.
Even though the King James’ version of the Bible,
which took the first century
Greek equivalent of pigeon English
and smoothed out its sharp edges and awkward syntax
in order for it to conform to the sensibilities
of educated European upper classes,
the real Jesus still bled through.

All of which is a warm childhood memory way
of saying that the Christianity we have been handed
is a highly domesticated version
of the rigorous and raucous one
that relentlessly rises up
from the pages of the Gospels
like some smacked-down superhero
returning to do battle with the bad guy.

There has always been a wrestling match
between that radical first century Judean peasant
and the well-educated upper class Euro-American culture
that has often used Christianity
as the sheath for enjoying and preserving
its artistic achievements
like architecture, music, and liturgy.

It is a basic and painful conflict
between the perspectives of Biblical people
who lived on the margins and experienced
powerlessness and violence at the hands of empires,
and imperial Roman and Colonialist European cultures
that read those stories about biblical people
as they raped other indigenous cultures
in the name of Christianity.

The language of worship and theology
that has been practiced in popular Christianity –
whether conservative Evangelical,
traditional Roman Catholic
or Mainline Protestant –
is a kind of domesticated religion.
But pasteurizing religion is nothing new.

Every civilization,
from the Roman Empire to the new China
to Nationalist India,
have engaged in the domestication of their religions
in order to incorporate and support
the values and idols
of culture and nationalism.
The heroes and prophets of the world’s religions,
if they were allowed to roam free through the centuries,
would wreak havoc on the social forces
of order and control.
Jesus, for example,
is highly subversive.
Biblical Christianity is subversive of imperial culture
no matter who the emperor is
or which brand of government runs the show.

Where we would prefer refinement
the Bible is course.
Where we would add gentleness
the Bible is militant.
Where we would use reason
the Bible is outrageous and miraculous.
Where we would prefer a high-toned culture
the Bible speaks in vernacular.

The heat of that tension
boils just below the surface
of everything we do as “church.”
It would be too much for us
to cut open a large hole
and let the lava pour forth,
but we should always be boring smaller channels
to allow the heat to escape
and remind us
that the façade we have constructed
is just a façade;
and the spiritual wisdom available to us
is always a barely restrained chaos
waiting to be released.

That is the ominous yet promising image
I would like us to have in mind
as we glance at the last promise
of the Baptismal Covenant.

This is the last week
of a five-part series on Christian spiritual practice
as described by the Baptismal Covenant
that is printed on the cover of your worship guide.
In describing Jesus and the Gospel as I just did
we already have a clue to the dangerous opportunity
evoked by the fifth promise:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being?

Will we?
Will we be part of a struggle
for a more equitable distribution of resources?
Will we?

health care,
and employment –
will we be part of a struggle
to change the way we do things in this country and around the world
so that these basic resources are more equitably shared?

You see, there is a subversive tension in that promise
because it may go against our own self-interest
and it may interfere
with our political and economic values.

Will we be part of a movement
that struggles for peace?
Will we?

Domestic peace,
so that women and children and men too,
need not fear for their safety
because of abuse.

Gun violence peace,
so that no one need fear being shot
on the street or in their home,
at a concert or movie or school.

Political peace,
so that discourse between factions and candidates
is not violent, abusive, or aimed at stirring up
the darker angels of our natures.

Battlefield peace,
where violent coercion is the principle method
of doing business between nations
or resolving disputes between factions.

Will we practice peace-making?
Will we?

Will we respect the dignity
of every human being?
Will we?
Will we acknowledge our prejudices,
and look at our own bigotries,
and hold up our own hatred
and our suspicions
and our fears
so that we can move through them
on our way to treating everyone with dignity?
Will we?

So we see that this promise of our baptism
is grounded in the Jesus we never really knew,
the one that is undomesticated
and was considered dangerous enough
to be sentenced to death
by means of State terror
because he was subversive to empire.

These promises of our Baptismal Covenant
are a description of what it looks like
to be a partisan of that Jesus.
The Jesus who is a little scary
because he really and truly is a prophet
of the God of Abraham and Sarah.

In conclusion,
for the series as well as for today,
let us note one more thing about the Baptismal Covenant
that is not a promise.
To each question asked,
“Will you…?”
the response is,
“I will…with God’s help.”

“I will,” is the strongest affirmation
in the English language –
both present and future tense.
But “with God’s help”
is also an acknowledgment
that we are incapable by ourselves
to fulfill the promise.
We are insufficient;
we are incapable of fulfilling these promises.
As with anything truly important in our lives,
we are utterly insufficient unto ourselves,
to actually do what we say we intend to do.
We must have God’s help.

I also think that means
God’s help working through the community
not some supernatural zapping
that allows us to overcome
the limitations of our humanity.

“I will with God’s help,”
means that with other people
and in the fabric of spiritual community,
we will find a way to get it done.
We won’t be perfect,
we won’t always make it happen,
we won’t be able to meet
all the demands of each promise.

But with God’s help
in community,
we will.

Our baptism is not about heaven and hell;
we are not saved from anything in our baptism
other than a life of destructive and meaningless

Instead, our baptism is about being ministers
sent by God
to serve the love of God
in community,
and so create life on earth
as it is in heaven.
That is our mission
should we choose accept it.