Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Get With The Program

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2016
I Cor. 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

When I was a boy, I knew I had crossed the line when one of my parents would say, “You need to get with the program!”  I wasn’t always sure what the program was, but I knew I had better find out really quick!  There is always a program, and there is always somebody trying to make sure we follow it. 

This isn’t always a bad thing.  Part of the program for me was learning not to run out into the street without looking both ways first, learning how to do my own laundry, and learning to tell the truth.  We all need a program, a set of rules, a culture to internalize until we have the wherewithal to self-regulate.  Sometimes, we do need to get with the program.

But, sometimes, we need to be willing to pay the price for not getting with the program.  Recently, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, the chief bishop from each of the 38 Provinces of the Anglican Communion, including The Episcopal Church, gathered to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.  They voted to suspend The Episcopal Church from participating in any decision-making related to doctrine or governance of the Anglican Communion for three years, because we refused to get with the program of excluding same-sex couples from the sacrament of marriage.  Being unwelcome at committee meetings seems a small price to pray for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the sacramental life of the Church. 

Even so, it is tempting to want to get with the program.  It makes us feel safe.  It makes us feel like we are part of the in-crowd.  It makes us feel in control of our lives.  When other people refuse to get with the program, it can make us feel really anxious.  Religion too often is reduced to “getting with the program.”  But it isn’t about conformity to rules.  Authentic religion is about commitment to relationships.  The program has to serve people; not the other way around.

This is why Jesus drove the religious and political establishment crazy.  He refused to get with any program that diminished the life of anyone or undermined our sense of connection with them.  His program was to challenge the dominant program, to undercut it at every turn for the sake of real human beings. 

Jesus announces his program, quoting from the prophet, Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[i]

Jesus celebrates his relationship with the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, those who are excluded or marginalized by the dominant program of the day.  They, too, can experience the “year of the Lord’s favor,” the liberation and life promised to all of God’s people.  And that favor is available here and now.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  God’s favor is not restricted to those who get with the program.

God’s love, embodied in Jesus, undoes our programming, risking everything for the sake of relationship, for the sake of reconciliation.   It can be hard to let go of the safety and familiarity of our programming, to allow this love to transform us.
Dennis Linn relates how he came allow this love in.[ii]  Linn is a pastoral counselor, who tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had attempted suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to him if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”

Pastor Linn tells how he personally believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn’t want to tell that to this struggling mother. Instead, he asked Hilda what she thought. But Hilda was trapped in that same idea of a punishing God. “Well,” she replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Again, Pastor Linn didn’t want to admit he agreed with her so he tried another counseling tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son’s arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “He feels so lonely and empty.” So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, “I want to throw my arms around him.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda saw God step down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embrace her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.  What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.   Even more:  God loves us unconditionally.  

To which, I would add, we can love God only as much as the person we love the least.  Jesus’ program is about continually pushing us beyond the conditions we place on love until God’s favor is available here and now, to each and all.

St. Paul gives us the beautiful metaphor of the body to help us understand this love.  We are all united in one body – the Body of Christ.  We cannot be whole unless we love each member of the body, unless we recognize our mutual dependence upon one another.  In fact, 

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.[iii]

This love turns our programming upside-down.  We have to let go of our ideas of who is in and who is out, of who is worthy and who is not.  It is the poor, the prisoner, the outcast, the most inferior members, who are to be honored most, so that we may suffer and rejoice together.  We need to let go of our our ideas, our programs, so that we can get with Jesus’s program. 

Pope Francis expressed this sentiment beautifully in a speech he made last year to a global gathering of community organizers:

We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people... Commitment, true commitment, is born of the love of men and women, of children and the elderly, of peoples and communities… of names and faces which fill our hearts. From those seeds of hope patiently sown in the forgotten fringes of our planet, from those seedlings of a tenderness which struggles to grow amid the shadows of exclusion, great trees will spring up, great groves of hope to give oxygen to our world.[iv]

God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most, and we can love God only as much as the person we love the least.  When we gather around this table each week, we are reminded that we have been baptized into the Body of Christ.  We recognize the Body of Christ, not only in the sacramental bread and wine, but also in the holy bodies that receive it.  It images a feast where all are welcome.  It is spiritual food to strengthen us for loving service.  The only way to get with the program – with Jesus’ program – is to love and love and love some more.  Amen.

[i] Luke 4:18-19; quoting Isaiah 6:1; 58:6; 6:2.
[ii] The following story is from Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn, Good Goats: Healing Our Images of God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 8-11.
[iii] I Corinthians 12:24b-26.
[iv] Pope Francis, Address at Expo Fair, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 9 July 2015, accessed at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.

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