Sermon for September 16th, 2018
My apologies, but there is no audio file this week due to a technical problem.
I was skimming through my regular online news magazines this week when I came across an article that had a headline that was just too good; I had to read it:
Goat yoga is a poor substitute for religious observance.
Who wouldn’t want to read that? Well as it turns out, the author, who is Jewish, was lamenting the fact that many reformed or liberal synagogues, in an attempt to lure young people to worship, had begun promoting these “non-traditional” services. Many of these services were shaped around one or more political themes or incorporated elements of ritual such as glow sticks or goat yoga (whatever that is) into their celebration of the high holy days. The author, who I hasten to point out is very young, younger than me probably, was responding to an article that he saw in the Wall Street Journal describing these synagogues. He also very rightly pointed that many liberal churches have resorted to similar tactics to try and draw in new members.
Well as soon as I clicked away from that article to take a scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw an online video posted by a friend of an interfaith service at an Episcopal Cathedral in another diocese, with giant tree people processing down the aisle (if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy, they all looked like Groot). I thought to myself: “Oh Lord, Have mercy.” But I wasn’t surprised. It’s the kind of stunt I have come to expect from some of our churches, and I understand why some churches do it. It’s because actual religious observance can be a really hard sell sometimes. Stunts are more exciting than regular prayer and scripture study, and they usually get you more free publicity.
It isn’t always easy to get the average person on the street excited about fasting, or daily prayer, prayer that is about giving honor to God and not just petitioning him for something. It is so much easier to get people worked up over the latest political buzzword or scandal than it is to get them to be actually in love with God. People will use Jesus’s name to try to promote their own agendas; they will follow him if they are convinced that he is headed in the direction that they already want to go, but convincing people to listen to him simply because he is he Messiah, the son of God, that’s a lot harder.
But here is what the author of the goat yoga article points out: those churches and synagogues that are resorting to stunts and that only find purpose in political activism, they are in fact struggling to survive. Many of these publicity stunts and liturgical theatrics are being done as an act of desperation; they are being done because those communities desperately want to seem relevant to the world outside; they desperately want to be the cool kids on the block.
Well, here is what I remember from school: the cool kids were never the ones that desperately wanted to be your friend no matter what; the real cool kids, the ones people really did want to be friends with were the ones who had this quiet confidence in themselves; they were the ones who did their own thing and didn’t feel the need to be popular. Desperation to be popular is never a good look on anybody. It’s not a good look on a religious community either. Stunts may attract attention, but it is actual religious devotion and observance that gains followers.
It is easy to appeal to people’s worldly interests in an attempt to bring them in to church, but in the end if the church isn’t directing their thoughts and their devotion toward God, then what do people need it for? People may show up to a stunt out of curiosity, and they may get worked up over one particular cause or another, but we humans, we can’t stay angry or excited all the time. When the stunt is over and we have moved on to the next crisis or cause, where is the room for God in our lives then?
There was a professor of Jewish Mysticism, Abraham Heschel, who said: “religion is an answer to ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.” If you just want to hang out with people that vote the way you do, you don’t need to come to church. If you just want to make a difference in this world, I could direct you to any number of institutions that do a better job than we do; but, if what you desire is to live in relationship with the creator of this world; if it is the answers to ultimate questions that you seek, that is when religion has the answer; that is when the Church has the answer.
Peter had the answer.
When Jesus asked him “who do you say that I am?” Peter had the right answer.
“You are the messiah,” he said. And he was right. But the moment Peter heard that this would mean Jesus’s suffering and rejection, he didn’t want to hear anymore. Peter wanted Jesus to be a solution to his problems, he didn’t want him to add to them. Peter didn’t want to see Jesus die, and he certainly didn’t want to face death himself. Peter rebukes Jesus; he pulls him aside and he probably said to him: “look Jesus, nobody is going to want to follow us if you keep on talking this way. You need to change your message and focus on the issues that they are concerned about.”
Jesus’s response to Peter stings: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Had anyone else said those words to Peter, he probably would have just walked away; he could have gone home and gone on pursuing his own interests and causes, but because those words came from Jesus, he couldn’t. As strong as Jesus’s rebuke was, Peter can’t just turn and leave. He stays and he follows, because he recognizes that this man is the messiah. Maybe this messiah isn’t telling him what he wants to hear, but his devotion and love for him won’t let him walk away. He has a relationship with the son of God, and that in the end means more to him than a simple solution to any of his problems. It means more to him than just being right about one issue or another.
Peter would go on to do amazing things in this world. He heals the sick, is a powerful preacher, he helps to organize the early Christian communities and founds probably the most powerful organization in the history of the world; he is able to do all of this because he was willing to put his devotion to Jesus, before his own sense of self-righteousness. He was able to hear Jesus’s rebuke and not turn away. He was able to let Jesus change him and his way of thinking.
Devotion to God should absolutely affect the way we look at and treat the world he created. Our love for God should absolutely influence our love for our neighbors. The Epistle of James was spot on last week when he questioned if the community was really devoted to Jesus if they were willing to ignore what he said and taught, but the ability to recognize that Jesus has the answers to the small questions, the ability to recognize his authority, comes from recognizing, like Peter, that he is the answer to the big question; the ultimate question.
Causes and stunts can never and will never be a substitute for genuine religious observance and devotion, because genuine religious observance and devotion are an answer to the ultimate question. They are what allow God to change us and shape us and to live in relationship with us. You can go and feel self-righteous anywhere, but here, in church, our challenge is to know and appreciate the righteousness of God. Our challenge is to follow Jesus so closely, and with such respect, that when he inevitably rebukes us for setting our mind not on divine things, but on human things, our love for him will not let us walk away.
Stunts and gimmicks may get you attention, but when it comes to making followers of Jesus Christ, there is no substitute for genuine devotion.