Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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One of the ministries of the congregation which I serve is a deep involvement with the Anglican Diocese of Bor in southern Sudan. The Sudan is the largest nation in Africa and perhaps the poorest. The southern part of Sudan is populated by a great number of Christians who are often under tremendous persecution. A few years ago there was a peace conference, sponsored by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and we were able to send a representative from our congregation so that we could participate in some small way to the bringing about of some healing to that nation. Christians there are literally being persecuted--in some cases being killed--for their belief.

Persecution of Christians, and, unfortunately, Christians' persecution of others, is not particularly new. The history of our church, especially the very early church in its Mediterranean phase, knows of many instances of tremendous persecution. We Americans are lulled into believing that this doesn't occur any more. I can vouch for you that I have never been persecuted for my faith. I've had a number of people whom I know and love disagree with me. A number of people think I'm slightly bonkers because I believe the way I do. A number of people have told me so. But I have yet to have one person say to me, "I want you to deny Christ," much less somebody say to me, "I will hurt you unless you deny Christ." Not one person has ever said to me, "You should deny Christ," with one exception--my own ego. This is where the denial of Christ takes place.

Unlike the people of the Diocese of Bor and of other places in the Sudan, we are not threatened to deny the basic tenets of our faith. We are not threatened to deny our God. But all too often, without our knowing it and in ways that are so subtle they pass our understanding, so subtle they make us even think they are even virtuous, we find ourselves constantly denying Christ. The only one asking me to do so is my own self. In my little world, I think I am at the center. I deny Christ. In my own little world, I think I am the agent of redemption. I deny Christ. I get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and usually work myself somewhat ragged until 10 o'clock at night, thinking I am very important. Sunday after Sunday, Christ challenges me back. Sunday after Sunday, I am confronted with his demand to be Lord. Happily and truthfully, he is never moralistic or judgmental. The Gospel of John makes it clear that he came not to judge but so that we may have life. As I am confronted by Christ today in the midst of my own egotism, I'm not hearing a word that says I am wrong or evil but simply I'm out of date. I'm behind the times. I'm not with it. Christ has come into the world, and Christ is the center of the world. Christ is the world's true light, its captain of salvation. Christ is Lord, whether I acknowledge it or not. Christ is at the center of my life, whether or not I play unrealistic and silly games when I pretend otherwise.

St. Paul says clearly and definitively, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." Reconciliation has occurred. It is real. And when I put myself in first place, I'm simply behind the times. The times have changed. Jesus, the Christ, the embodiment of God, is really in charge. Yet I want things on my terms, according to my world view, so I resist. Sometimes I resist simply by ignoring it. Some people resist--mildly--simply by the wonderful act of staying home on a Sunday morning and communing with the New York Times by a nice fire with a good cup of tea. Some resist by fighting it and turning to other philosophies and patterns of life. Some simply forget that they have ever heard of Jesus and his Gospel. But I resist--and this is the most dangerous resistance of all--by being religious.

Today's Gospel, and so much of the biblical witness, speaks about redemption and healing, often physical, always spiritual. My rebellion comes in the form of thinking that I am the agent of all of this. I know that I'm not the Messiah. I am not the Savior. But I begin to believe that I am the one who is going to rush into the middle of a messed up situation and make things new. And, God, you're gonna help me do it.

This was made clear to me recently when in a gathering of clergy, I made the statement that it was my job to reform the congregation which I serve. Where things were amiss, I was supposed to bring about constructive and redemptive change. I was charged--so I thought--by God--to see to it that a ragtag group of people became the Body of Christ. A wise colleague simply asked at that point if there was anybody in the room who had an Alcoholics Anonymous book, and we found one. He turned to the twelve steps and asked me to read Steps 11 and 12--the final steps in recovery. Here's what I read:

Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Simple as that! First, get close to God. Second, share the benefits and blessings of that closeness with others. "That's all you're being asked to do," said my colleague. No more, "I'm gonna do it and people will admire me and people will say I'm competent and I'm a good leader, and people will acknowledge me as your servant, Lord. Thank you, Jesus!" That silliness, that egoism, that rebelliousness is over. Get close to God. Share God's grace. My own agenda and my own idea of what is needed in any situation that needs healing are based on a very limited understanding. Don't approach things, my friend was saying, until you work these two steps. Get close to God. Share God's grace. Without these very basic steps, one's life becomes off-center and even one's religious impulses--especially one's religious impulses--can become distorted and even demonic.

I am reminded of a wonderful man I knew a number of years ago. This guy was a real reformer. He probably thought he was the re-incarnation of Martin Luther or someone. He knew the Gospel's essence and was furious with every denomination under the sun because each of us in different ways betrayed that essence. So he bounced from church to church with his reforming zeal, would fail, become despondent and angry, and then move on, inflicting his righteousness on some other congregation, some other denomination. But then he had a conversion--I'm not sure at all when and how it happened. "From now on," he said, "I'm not gonna reform anyone or anything. I'm simply going to try to bring a little more of the love of God into the world."

I wish I could be that way when I grow up because that's sort of what it means to be grown up, to be mature in one's faith, to be able not to be on a crusade because I know what is best, but simply to say, "Lord, you know what is best. Can I bring a little bit more of your love into the midst of this situation? Amen." By the way, Amen, as we've been told, means so be it. But what the heck does so be it mean? Amen really means Oh, Yes! Yes, with all my heart! Our American religious culture has an image of muscular Christianity, of "I'm going to solve the problem, and God will help me to do it. Jesus is with me on my quest, and the Holy Spirit will keep me up." That is the way I deny Christ. That is the way I deny truth. Others do not force me to do this. Only my own ego forces me to do this. We have met the enemy and he is us.

But, today, as every Sunday, I'm confronted by God's Word. I'm called back. John Calvin, the great theologian of the Reformation, in the very first sentence of his massive work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, says there are two things that constitute our knowledge--God and ourselves. Those are the two things that we really can have access to understanding. Sin, as a friend of mine has said, is usually a matter of attention deficit disorder. And so, therefore, as I come Sunday after Sunday, to place myself before God, and if I place myself before God honestly, I learn more about who I am and I begin to understand self and I begin to understand love, and I begin to understand relationships and prayer. God is in control. And as you pray today for friends and loved ones, as you pray today for peace in our time, as you pray for your own life, the situations in which you find yourself, your own confusions, if you take anything away from this sermon at all, take this: Lob the ball into God's court. Let God work in the situation and be ready to serve the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

Step 11. Get close to God.

Step 12. Share God's love wherever you are. Oh, yes!

Let us pray.

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

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