Follow me on Twitter @revbrock

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Promise Part I

The Promise Part I
An Exploration into the Wilderness of Faith
A Sermon Delivered at Madison Chapel
March 4, 2012

It’s funny which struggles are the hardest during Lent. Lesley and I have, for the last six years, given up several things recommended by the church fathers and taken on extra focus on prayer and family devotion. This year, expecting our first child, we’ve decided to forego her dietary restrictions so as to not jeopardize her nutrition. I have tried to maintain the Lenten obligations that I have in years past – no red meat, no alcohol, and no celebrations – wrongly assuming that doing so would be harder because I would be alone in these restrictions.
These “usual” restrictions have been difficult so far, but no more so than last year. I do not really believe that hunger was the real struggle for Jesus in the wilderness, either. We see from the Gospels that the real struggle was one of authority, where Jesus was confronted with being obedient to the will of his Father over his own desires time and again. He could have supplied bread for himself; he could have supplied bread for every person on earth. However, submitting to the authority of the Father he denied himself and “took up the cross” of hunger and struggle.
In this Lenten season I, too, am struggling with authority. Now I’m not in the wilderness alone and deciding whether or not some pebbles would make good croutons; I’m struggling through a different sort of temptation. I am more and more convinced that my own discipleship and my own theology has become more important than the very Spirit of God that I pray dwells within me. In short, I feel the need to rethink the way I do Church.
What should a church be? Not necessarily THE Church, that is, the collection of believers, the Body of all those confessing that Jesus is Lord, but rather my church. What is the true vision of the faithful followers of Jesus Christ meeting for work and worship to teach and learn? This Lenten season has convinced me of one thing, at least: my ecclesial heritage is as much of a handicap as it is a helpmate.
I am well aware of the theological and ecclesial blood that has been spilled in the last century of Baptist life in the South. The Premillenialism of Frank Norris in the ‘20s, the Genesis controversy of the ‘60s, and the Broadman Commentary publication of the 70’s all fed into what happened to what was until then the cooperative fellowship among similarly-believing Baptists around here, namely the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. Walter Shurden has adroitly documented how all of this played out at the convention level over the last thirty years, and I am indebted to him for helping me catch up.
I say that I had to catch up because I was, by the grace of God and the stern determinism of my Pastor/father, shielded from the fray at the First Baptist Church of Saint Francisville, Louisiana. When I went to Truett seminary, I confess that I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so…angry. I later learned that many of my professors had been disenfranchised or outright fired in the fundamentalist takeover, and that Baylor (and thereby a new seminary) had resisted the movement and had become something different.
“Something different.” There’s a terrifying idea in the life and times of Baptists in Mississippi. There are thousands upon thousands of people in churches all around us this morning who simply do church the way they do out of habit and ignorance, or maybe out of fear. You see, doing anything differently might be a little too much like following Jesus into the wilderness. It might be a little too “unsafe” to think that we could not be defined by what convention we aren’t or what polity we don’t have or what we don’t believe about women or about the Bible. What is unsafe is the God who shows up out of the blue and takes people to a new, dangerous country. Let us look at one such event and how it might help us find a place to rest in the wilderness.
The Lectionary has placed before us the story of God’s original covenant with Abraham, a promise that Paul would later interpret as the first formal act of faith in the community of God’s people. When presented with God’s in-breaking of a new reality Abraham was confronted with some very stark realities that didn’t seem to have alternatives: God was promising a child to the old man and his barren wife, and more than that, this son would be the progenitor of an eventual inheritance of nations. Who could blame Abraham for doubting this new God? Here was his wrinkled reflection and track record of frustration with getting Sarah pregnant – after all, there was Ishmael…. But God singled out this relationship, this woman, this man, this time, this child, this family, this generation…it was Sarah or nothing; it was faith that this newly-revealed God would follow through on this promise.
Paul uses this moment in the Scriptures to combat the status-quo of his own generation. He was one of those who had been thrown out of the seminaries and pulpits of his day because he had encountered the undeniable truth that God was not going to sit idly by and let the static Law with its layers of interpretive chains produce generation after generation of people who missed the point. Paul was one of those exiled, pressured, and excluded because of his encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul has seen something even beyond this transforming encounter – he has seen the inclusion of the Gentiles in the family of faith. Surely this can’t be right – surely the people of God will maintain the racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries that had existed since Sinai! Scandal upon scandal – the same God who had reckoned Abraham’s steps out in faith as righteousness was now opening the door to all peoples.
Paul talks of this revelation, saying “for this reason it depends of faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham…In the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” There’s the key – it is God who completely changes the paradigm. It is God who can pull off the creatio ex nihilo of Abraham’s journey, of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of faith, and, I believe, the life of a church.
Mark Forman has argued that Paul’s use of the Abraham story in Romans 4 is intended to offer comfort to the Christians living under the counter-narrative of Roman rule. He sees the Christians living under Caesar as a community in exile, as though they were an outpost of Christian conviction surrounded by the religious status quo that thought they were just a little too progressive. Just as Caesar made promises of peace, hope, and stability, the Christians knew that God’s promises in Christ Jesus were far beyond whatever Rome could offer. Paul, Forman argues, reminded the believers that the promise to Abraham, namely that he would “inherit the world,” was “to evoke the issue of which groups of people have a share in the world to come, and in doing so he invites his audience to critique the current social, economic and political situation and by implication to reflect on the causes of the disparities which exist. For Paul to use the language of inheritance is to refuse to allow the imperial narrative to be the only story by which the Roman Christians are shaped.”
Was it to be the world that Rome created that determined the lives of Christians? No. Was it to be the rules of apparent barren-ness that would determine the future for Abraham and Sarah? Certainly not.
I would dare ask, in this season Lent, when we are driven into the wilderness to be tempted, and tried, and pushed, who are we going to be? Who will define this congregation? What function of the Body will this little congregation perform?
I suspect that in our community, and beyond it in our region, there are scores of people who are waiting for a church to be something different, something revelatory, something prophetic, something poetic, something damaged, something healed. I believe that there are people like me, who, after having been driven into the wilderness where there is more doubt than compact certainty, are waiting for some glad someone to come along and say “yes, I’ve wept by those waters before. Let me sit with you.”
But the momentum is so strong to see church the way it has been in this area for so long. The ossification of doctrine and worship leaves churches and believers as brittle and wooden as the pews they sit in. Someone needs to be the church of the God who can say to Old Man Abraham, “trust me.” Some church needs to extend the bandaged hand of the faithful to those who have been crushed by the crosses they take up daily.
This is not a call to arms, but a call to mature, sober evaluation of God’s leading on a group of people. I think that Brian McLaren has rightly argued that the nature of the church is not monolithic – we do not need to all return to the first century paradigm, nor do we need to all be Catholic or Baptist. Rather, the diversity among congregations allows for people to find a faith community that allows them the best environment for growth and exploration of the Faith. He says of the “new” kind of local congregation, “it is a space in which human beings, formed in Christlike love, cooperate with the Spirit and one another to express that love in word and deed, art, and action.
In the little village of Le Chambon, France, a local congregational minister decided to resist the Nazi pogrom against the Jews by actively sheltering Jewish refugees in the town. His vision of the church was a community that helped, that made a difference that resisted evil with good. Philip Hallie, who recounted the amazing story of these villagers, says of that pastor, “[He] gave his aggressive ethic to them [the villagers] by giving them himself. Aside from the distinction between good and evil, between helping and hurting, the fundamental distinction of that ethic is between giving things and giving oneself. When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and by making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks – and even sometimes obedience – as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded – in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become…fruitful. What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other.”
How much we need such a church, one that gives of itself and expects nothing, not even doctrinal fidelity in return. The life of the church our community needs is one that welcomes the messes of life and consistently offers the hope of Christ Jesus through word and deed. I believe that there are people in churches and neighborhoods all around us that are waiting to exhale, to question, to seek and to find. The church Mississippi needs is not another “plant” in a new community, but rather a congregation that is honest about its need for God’s constant interaction and revelation. It is a church that looks at the world to which it has been called, that ultimate wilderness of trial, and with the eyes of a withered old man says, “Let’s go.”
So here I sit in Lent. It turns out that the struggle in my soul isn’t about how hungry for steak I am, or how much I could really use a beer when I get done teaching 7th graders how to do algebra. The real struggle is how I am going to be faithful to the God that is so much bigger than the church will let him be. My struggle is about just how much I can trust this new and constantly-being-revealed God that’s been there the whole time. I wonder just how far he can take me.

No comments:

Post a Comment