This sermon was preached on April 17, 2016. it is the second in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.
We face six big choices as a church. Here is the second of them.
“Choosing Fun Over Drudgery”
Well, it has been a bad week for harsh, judgmental, joyless religion.
The pope was in the news again this week, with his latest document from the Vatican–“Amoris Laetitia” — the Joy of Love, and it was a lot about….well, sex! And the coupling of sex with joy and family life.
Here is the place where we pause to remember the comedian George Carlin, who would have had a field day with this Pope, who is continually surprising us. After all, for most of my Catholic extended family members and almost all of my Catholic friends, sex is more intimately connected with catholic guilt than joy! George Carlin used to say that he was a Roman Catholic “until I reached the age of reason.” For Carlin, that happened sometime in the eighth grade, when all his probing questions about faith were answered with, “well, it’s a mystery.” Of course, as a lifelong contrarian, Carlin also wondered if it was O.K. for a vegetarian to eat animal crackers.
Timothy Egan, a former Catholic himself, wrote a wonderful article in the New York Times this week, in which he spoke of the Amoris Laetitia a setting the tone for the continuation of the Pope’s quiet revolution. Egan pointed to the title of the document, noting that it’s not called the Job of Love, the Duty of Love or the Unbearable Burden of Love. Instead, the pope implies that there’s considerable fun to be had in human relationships. You can even find in its 256 pages a mention of the “erotic dimension” of love and “the stirring of desire.” Yes, sex. The pope approves of it, in many forms.
Egan goes on to say that, while skeptics were disappointed that the latest apostolic exhortation did not change church teachings regarding Catholics who are divorced or in same-sex marriages, the document signals the end for one particular kind of medieval millstone — Catholic guilt, especially in regard to sex.
Egan observes that the new teachings from the Pope seem to be intended to transform the judge from a harsh judgmental institution to a place of genuine compassion, a church that seems to have decided that it needs to speak to the everyday lives of modern people who don’t believe that they should be constantly reminded of their inadequacies. The pope even offers tips for how to keep “the passion” alive in marriage. In short, the Pope speaks of the joy of the erotic life, when it is properly ordered.
As a lapsed catholic, Egan marvels at how far his church has traveled, from the days when Catholic doctrine featured an exhaustive list of enumerated offenses. Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
The old message was: If you break the rules, you’re condemned. Shame, shame, shame. The new message is: Welcome, for forgiveness is at the heart of this faith.
“Sex is a marvelous gift from God,” Francis wrote. “The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy.” Those living less than ideal marital unions are no longer vilified as sinners to be scorned.
Later in the week the Pope was in the news again, made an emotional visit into the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis on Saturday. The pope took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria, including six children, back home with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane.
The 12 people taken to Rome were three families whose homes had been bombed in the Syrian war. At a critical moment in the continung refugee crisis in Europe, when European attitudes are hardening against refugees, the pope’s actions were striking and a visual reminder of the power of love over hate, and joy over fear.
“We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution,” Francis said, during his visit to the refugee camp, where he was joined by leaders of Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, in a sign of Christian solidarity.
“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf,” Francis said. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”
Francis showed reporters two drawings given to him by children in the refugee camp. One showed children drowning in the sea. The other showed the sun crying.
“The children have these things in their minds, and it will take time before these memories go away,” the pope said. “If the sun is able to cry, so can we. A tear will do us good.”
“Welcoming the stranger is the heart of the Christian message,” said Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in New York. While Francis is often seen as a progressive pope, Mr. Camosy said, he also is “pushing a more traditional understanding of what Christianity is all about.”
Exactly. Pope Francis is simply trying to follow Jesus, and do what Jesus would do in this situation. And have some fun while he was at it. The Joy of Love. Look at the picture of the man on the cover of your bulletin (above). Does this look like a man who is burdened by the job of leading tens of millions of people? Is this a man too busy to smile at a child, or to cry when given the art work of a refugee child? People of God, the most serious tasks in life require the lightest touch. Our life is Christ ought to be a matter of joy not a job.
Even serious tasks like fundraising can be fun, as our young choir members are showing us. In the days of the civil rights movement, faced with all the dangers and the daily reality of violence, men like CT Vivian and Martin Luther King kept laughing and shaking their heads at the absurdity and the sadness of the world, while never losing their ability to stay focused on the task at hand. Friends, serving God is a joy. We should never allow anyone to rob us of our joy.
Are we raising money? We can choose fun over drudgery. Are we meeting for small group discussion and bible study? We can choose fun over drudgery. Are we praying and working for social justice in our community and in our world? We can choose fun over drudgery. The joy of the Lord is our strength!
Last week a small group gathered at my house for pizza. Pretty soon people were sharing their visions for what they wanted to see in their church. Someone said, I would love to have a quiet space where I can just sit and be still and feel the presence of God. We thought about that. Various spaces in the building were discussed. Suddenly it occurred to us that there is ALREADY a small chapel that could be used for this purpose. We started to imagine that space lit with candles, art on the walls, maybe the door opening onto a small peace garden, making use of a gifts from the Oleson family.
Others wanted to talk about how to celebrate the new boiler being installed, and how to say tank you to the kids and the parents of our ECC, for hanging in there with us and being patient with us. So we threw a party for them, complete balloons and yummy cookies and smiles for all.
The kingdom of God is a party! Jesus is the good shepherd. You in the flock are invited to the party! And there are others, outside, who need to be invited in. Because jesus has other sheep, still outside the fold. What good is a church if it does not serve its community? What good is a church that does not welcome the stranger. It has ceased to be the church when it loses its authority to welcome, to show hospitality, and to share our common humanity with joy.
Friends, this is the good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.