Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Re-inventing Christianity, Part 3

For the previous parts of this preaching series, as well as its continuation, please head on over to Cam's Blog.

The past two sermons have dealt pretty strongly with the deconstruction of Christianity – taking it apart,like you might take a toaster or a ’57 Chevy apart to figure out which bits are essential, which bits are the bells and whistles, and which bits are the ones that keep the other bits going. Well, today is a turning point in that process. There will be a bit of deconstruction, a bit of taking things apart, and then there will be a bit of construction too, a bit of putting the toaster back together, as it were.

Let’s start with Exodus. Let’s start with one of the most interesting, and maybe the most important stories that we have in the holy and inspired writings we call the Bible. This is where we meet God.

Sure, we’ve seen God before. There are the stories of creation, there are the stories of shenanigans of Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, there are the stories of Hagar and her descendants. There’s a story of a covenant, an agreement of love made between God and Abraham, and yet this story, this story of the encounter of Moses and God, this story where Moses is just hanging out doing his job, and yet gets distracted by God, this is the first story we have where God reveals who God is. God gives us a name. God’s name.

That’s such an interesting, such a powerful thing, but I think sometimes it gets lost. We, nowadays, don’t always associate the true meaning of a thing with its name. It’s like Shakespeare said – what is in a name? A rose called by any other name would smell as sweet. And yet – and yet… In stories both old and new – in ancient tales in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as modern tales of fantasy and imagination – names aren’t just important, they’re absolutely key. Names actually describe traits of the thing named, and if you’re lucky, a name – a single, yet profound word or phrase – actually captures the essence of the thing in question. That’s why people and places are constantly being renamed in the Bible. And here is the first time we see it, with God.

Now, the situation in the story unfolds this way: Moses is given something to do for God, but it’s a decent sized task, even for one who was raised in the royal Egyptian court, as the story goes, and Moses balks in two major ways: One of his issues is that he isn’t a good public speaker. God solves that and gives him a spokes person. But another of his major issues is this: How are the enslaved people he’s supposed to free going to trust him? How are they going to believe him? Why would they follow him? And which god is it, exactly, that’s giving him these instructions, anyway?

To this God offers reassurance, and God gives us… a name. But not just a name – a verbal, a vocal reflection of who God is. The Hebrew has it at “Ayer ashah ayer.” Ayer ashah ayer. I am who I am. I am who I am. That’s pretty profound, if we let ourselves stop to think about it, but it gets better, because Hebrew is not a simple language with exact translations that only carry one meaning, no, no. In this phrase, this simple sentence, there are a variety of ways that it could be legitimately translated, because the tenses aren’t what we would think of as stable and reliable. That is, it also means “I will be who I will be.” And it also means, “I am, that I will be.” And it also means, “I will be who I am.” And it doesn’t just mean one of these things, God’s name means all of them.

And what does that mean? Well, I think it means a lot of things – it may mean everything, actually, but among all of that, it means that God defies definition – I am who I am. Let me say that again: God defies definition. God defies our definition.

And yet, and yet… What is modern religion – and by religion I’ll say, Christianity, and by modern, I mean the last 1700 years – what is modern religion but an attempt to define God. Entire theological libraries have been written in an attempt to define God.

And yet, God has already pointed out, rather early on, and probably more than once, though in Moses’ case, we have a written story of it, so we’ll refer to that instance – God has already pointed out that God is who God is, and that is about as much definition as we can reasonably hope for.

So then, where does that leave religion? Where does that leave Christianity? In a really lovely place, actually, if it can get over its compulsive obsession with further defining God. If it can re-invent itself, getting back to the basics – the basics of being in relationship with God, instead of getting continually being caught up in the attempt to define God – If it can do this, if Christianity can do this, then there is great hope.

And, let me be clear. When I say, “being in relationship with God”, when I refer to Christianity coming back to its own roots in the state of being, and in the action of relationship with God, I not talking exclusively of personal morality, personal piety. I’m not talking just about coming to church every Sunday. I’m not talking just about living a good and wholesome life that our parents and grandparents would have approved of. I’m talking about the two great commandments: Love God – love God with everything you’ve got – your mind, your body, your spirit. And Love Your Neighbor – love them as you love yourself. Love the guy who asks you for a quarter. Love the politician you violently disagree with. Love the annoying person at work. Love them as you love yourself – which of course means that you have to love yourself, too. And not a sort of happy hearts and flowers love – no, no, no. Love as in the strong tie that goads you into respecting and valuing someone even though might not actually feel like do it. Love, it’s the bungee cord that secures you to someone else so tightly that you can’t help but to respect their dignity as a human being, and when they suffer, it is as if you are suffering, and you can’t help but to be bothered by it.

That is what being in relationship with God is. Loving God. Loving your Neighbor. Loving Your Self.

Now, just a moment ago, it may have seemed like I said, “You don’t have to go to church.” Lest this get me in really hot water, allow me to explain. God loves you whether or not you come to this church, or any church. God loves you whether or not you are Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Baptist. God loves you whether or not you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, or None Of The Above. God loves you. That’s sort of what that boils down to. God loves you – and me. That’s not even a question. The question is, How is your relationship with God? How is my relationship with God? And this is where religious communities come in. It’s all well and good to declare that you’re going to go it alone, that you don’t need Christianity or anything else for that matter, that your relationship with God is between you and God – that’s fine in theory. But the practice of it, if we are honest with ourselves, is somewhat sketchier. When you’re going it alone, there’s no one around to encourage, to inspire, and to hold you accountable for what you say is most important to you. A religious community, a church, is the place to come to recharge, and refocus. It is the place, the people gathered, that holds up a vision of that self-defining God, and what it means to be in relationship with that same God.

And so, it is not the case that you have to come to church, or something bad will happen to you. The hounds of hell will not chase you down Monday afternoon if you fail to get yourself to a house of worship at some point the day before. But the flip of that, is that when we don’t intentionally give our time and energy to regularly recharge and reinspire and be held accountable for the state of our relationship with God, like a muscle that does not move, it begins to atrophe – and it’s not always noticeable at first. Like a slacking off from regular exercise – you only really notice it when you start up again, a week later, a month later, a year later. And when your muscles scream at you the day after, you think to yourself – or, at least I think to myself – Gosh, I really haven’t exercised in a while, have I? And suddenly you can feel the difference very strongly.

But in all of this there has been a lingering question that has been in the back of my mind – perhaps yours as well. Why? Why a Lenten series, why this Lenten series? Why bother to try to reinvent Christianity? Why bother to dig deep, to deconstruct, to hold up nice, happy, comfortable practices that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, to evaluate them? If Christianity the way it is practiced in many churches, portrayed in many movies is so bothersome that it needs reinventing, why not just chuck it and become Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim? Why, indeed. I think we all have to come to our own answer to that question. But I’ll share with you the answer that I am coming to – coming to, in that this is still a work in progress for me, and may remain so until I die.

In the grand sense, I think that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side. Each religion, in its historical practices, has abuses, corruptions, fringe elements taking over and attempting – usually with success – to speak for the entire group that they do not actually represent. Each religion has had moments and longer, of extreme ideological idolatry. Christianity is no different.

In the mezzo sense – in that mid-level point between the big picture and my own personal reality – Christianity is the religion and culture that I was born with. I worship the same god of my parents and my grandparents, and I worship that same god in roughly the same way. I find that to be a very powerful thought. I have to forge my own relationship with God, everyone does – in every generation – you can inherit religion, but you can’t inherit relationship – you’ve got to work at relationship, but there is a sense for me that Christianity is what I’ve got, and if it’s broken or mis-represented, then I probably need to help fix it.

And then, there is the personal sense. Whether or not the grass is in fact greener on the Jewish side of the hill, and despite growing up as I did as a Christian, inheriting that from my parents, there is my own personal compulsion: I really dig the Messiah. Jesus, the Rabbi, the Teacher, the Healer, the Prophet – the one who said, it’s not that the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is here, and you need to participate. Jesus, the human who is the closest thing I’ve got to… a definition of God? If I Am Who I Am, walked among us in tee-shirt and jeans, I Will Be Who I Am, would look like Jesus, The Christ.

So, I’m Christian. And me, I’m a priest. But I’m not your average manic street preacher, threatening hell and eternal damnation if a specific formula isn’t observed. And in fact, if that is what Christianity is – then I’m ready to reinvent it. How about you?

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