Sunday, March 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Code Red"

Acts 14:8-18

8 In Lystra there was a certain man who lacked strength in his legs. He had been crippled since birth and had never walked. Sitting there, he 9 heard Paul speaking. Paul stared at him and saw that he believed he could be healed. 10 Raising his voice, Paul said, “Stand up straight on your feet!” He jumped up and began to walk. 11 Seeing what Paul had done, the crowd shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have taken human form and come down to visit us!” 12 They referred to Barnabas as Zeus and to Paul as Hermes, since Paul was the main speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was located just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates. Along with the crowds, he wanted to offer sacrifices to them. 14 When the Lord’s messengers Barnabas and Paul found out about this, they tore their clothes in protest and rushed out into the crowd. They shouted, 15 “People, what are you doing? We are humans too, just like you! We are proclaiming the good news to you: turn to the living God and away from such worthless things. He made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them.[a] 16 In the past, he permitted every nation to go its own way. 17 Nevertheless, he hasn’t left himself without a witness. He has blessed you by giving you rain from above as well as seasonal harvests, and satisfying you with food and happiness.” 18 Even with these words, they barely kept the crowds from sacrificing to them. (Common English Bible)

Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship, Week Six

Twitter is an amazing thing.  For those of you unfamiliar with this technological bit of wizardry, Twitter is a social media platform that allows anyone to follow anyone else—so if I want to follow my favorite athletes, actors, and musicians, I can (and I do).  But I also follow my friends and colleagues, and they follow me as I try to live out what Shakespeare once said: Brevity is the soul of wit.   It is also the soul of Twitter, with its 140-character limit on all tweets.

But such a limitation does not prevent some truly funny stuff from happening there.  Last fall, a worship pastor put out an open call to his colleagues, asking them to dish on the most embarrassing mistakes they ever made while leading worship, appending to it the hashtag #worshipheresy.  And so in honor of our awesome praise team—since I hung out with them all last night at their jam—these are just a few of the many, many responses that came back to him:

My dad used to sing, “gladly, the cross-eyed bear” but it sounded right to everyone else.

Just caught myself singing, “banana in the highest” to myself in the shower.  Not quite right.  Must be hungry this morning.

I once prayed for God to give a guy “aides.”  When you say that word out loud, nobody pays attention to the letter e.

And this is my personal favorite, from a poor worship pastor singing the Chris Tomlin classic that we sometimes sing here, “How Great is Our God:”

I sang, “He craps Himself with light” during How Great is Our God.  Mixed “wraps” and “crowns.”

…and I can repeat that tweet verbatim because it’s not a bad word, craps is just a dice game people play in Vegas, right?

This is a sermon series that we are wrapping up today, and it has taken us all the way up to the brink of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  We have walked piece-by-piece through the various elements of our worship service, but now we talk about the stuff that never appears on the PowerPoint or in the bulletin: the inevitable screw-ups that can, and will, happen!  We left off last week at the partaking of holy communion, and Pastor Dan writes about his first communion at this church, after taking the bread and wine that he was told was the body and blood of Jesus Christ:

When I finished, I realized that I was supposed to hand the cup off to (my friend) Randy.  The problem was, I couldn’t make sense of what the lady had said to me when she passed me the cup.  I knew I was supposed to repeat her words to Randy, but I couldn’t remember any of them.  So I just handed Randy the cup, shrugged, and didn’t say anything.

Randy dipped his cracker in the cup.  When he was done, he took the cup and held it out to the woman on his left, hesitating for a moment.  He knew he was supposed to say SOMETHING to the woman, but since I hadn’t said anything to him, he was stumped.  So he looked the person in the eye and with great confidence handed her the cup, saying, “Here is the Cup of Wonder.”

I knew those were the wrong words, and when Randy said “Cup of Wonder,” the tension of the entire experience just overcame me and I burst out laughing…We knew that what we had done was wrong, or at least highly inappropriate, and I felt bad about it, but it was such a strange experience for both of us, we really didn’t know how to respond.

Murphy’s Law, the axiom that anything that can go wrong will, in fact, go wrong, had to have been written with pastors, preachers, and tellers of the Gospel in mind.  I mean, there is really no other way for this story from Acts 14 to make sense otherwise.

Paul and Barnabas are off preaching in the city of Lystra, in modern day Turkey, which, ever since the days of Alexander the Great three hundred-some years ago, was Hellenistic Greek in culture, which meant that Greek was pretty much everybody’s first or second language, that Greek customs prevailed in social interactions, and that there were many more worshippers of the Greek pantheon of gods, of which Zeus was chief.

Paul miraculously heals a paraplegic, and the passersby, witnessing this extraordinary act, assume him to be the Greek god Hermes incarnate and, by using their super-awesome powers of deduction, conclude that Barnabas must be Zeus (never mind the fact that in Greek mythology, Zeus mostly took human form in order to diddle attractive women, not to heal crippled beggars).

Paul and Barnabas, to their immense credit, immediately protest the tributes and offerings that come their way by way of fervent worshipers.  Because, I mean, how many of us would at least want some of that kind of treatment, like Tulio and Miguel in that Dreamworks cartoon The Road to El Dorado?  But then again, as those two characters sing, “It’s Tough to Be a God.”

It is especially tough for Paul, because if we were to keep reading Acts 14, Luke conveys to us that, in fact, Paul ends up getting stoned (no, not that kind) and left for dead at the city outskirts.

Now, we should probably count ourselves lucky in that regard.  A mistake or miscommunication does not come with it a probable death sentence.  I screw something up in my sermon, and I am confident that y’all won’t take me out back and shoot me.  One of our elders messes up the communion prayer, and I don’t have a buddy named Boris with a full set of pliers and wrenches to call in.  It does not work like that here.  It cannot work like that here, and not just because it simply would not do for the pastor to have a hitman-for-hire in his (nonexistent) rolodex.

It’s because the whole business of being church, of worshiping and praying and breaking bread together, is always going to be inherently messy.  Because the church is a human institution (albeit divinely guided), there will always be human error and human frailty in even the best and most well-meaning of churches.  In other words, there will always be someone who will accidentally drop a bomb in a worship song or who will thrust the chalice at you, boldly proclaiming that it is the Cup of Wonder.  It really is inevitable, as sure as either death or taxes.

And here’s the thing—once you accept that inevitably not as an excuse for the mistakes themselves but as a way of moving on from them, it becomes way, way easier to actually go about the business of being church and making disciples and calling people into right relationship with God.  That is not us lowering the bar; that is us humbly recognizing our strengths and our weaknesses.

And we do have weaknesses, believe me.  We may not like to talk about them, we may not like to acknowledge them, but they are there, and they have to be there, because otherwise there is no point to any of this at all.  To say that we have no growing edges is to say that there is nothing left for God to teach us.  We may chuckle at the Biblical comic relief furnished by the hoi polloi of Lystra, but truthfully, they are probably closer to who we are than Paul and Barnabas.

But while we might get stuck in the mistakes and the messiness, that is where God thrives.  It is why Jesus tells the Pharisees in Mark 2, “I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners.”  God isn’t in the business of calling and redeeming people who get it right all the time already, God is in the business of calling and redeeming people who are perpetual screw-ups and who, in turn, commit perpetual screw-ups.  We are finite, but God can work wonders with our finiteness.

And so, like many of my sermons in this series, this is a message that really does transcend the bounds of worship, because we goof up outside of this one hour a week we spend together.  In fact, I am willing to bet that this fear of goofing up is a reason why some—perhaps most—of y’all are nowhere near as comfortable sharing your faith with others as you would like to be.  Well, here’s the bottom line: back in the good old days of New Testament Israel, the worst thing that could happen is that you would get mistaken for a pagan king of the gods and later stoned and left for dead.  If that doesn’t happen to you, you’re ahead of the curve.  We can, do, and will make mistakes…but that doesn’t keep God from calling us time and again to offer His Gospel.  Let us do so, then, not in spite of our mistakes, but because of them.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 2, 2014

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