Sunday, April 24, 2005

Face Time (Easter 5A sermon)

A sermon preached on Easter 5A,
Sunday, April 24, 2005
at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI
by the Rev. Jason A. Fout

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

“Organized religion is about judgment, rule, guilt, fear. Spirituality is about freedom from the above.” This rather bald contrast is drawn by prolific best-selling author Deepak Chopra. He offers popular three-day seminars in which he promises to teach participants “how to attain ‘the miraculous and the spontaneous fulfillment of your desires.’”*

That is quite a promise. You can see why he’s so popular. Especially these days when life seems so hectic, anxious, busy; when contentment seems elusive and security is a thing of the past, it’s easy to see how things like Chopra’s day spa for the soul can attract so many. But I wonder if this is truly the best way to go. In fact, I suspect there are some rather serious problems with it.

I’m not entirely sure that I know what Chopra means when he talks about organized religion – most days, my religion feels pretty messy and jumbled. Many times, I wish it were a little better organized – neat, clean and tidy with an easy answer for everything. But it’s not.

What Chopra means by ‘organized religion’ of course, is a church – or perhaps a mosque or a synagogue. He seems to have an aversion to groups of people – and especially to the seemingly inevitable disputes which arise between people and the messiness of living together with others. But he really misses something, because this is the nature of living face to face.
Continue reading Face Time

This distinction that he draws between spirituality on the one hand and religion on the other is common these days. We might hear someone say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It’s that same sort of thing. Robert Bellah wrote about this back in the 1980’s in his book The Habits of the Heart. There we meet someone he called Sheila. At one point Sheila says, “I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” ** This sort of personal spirituality is another example of what people mean when they say they are “spiritual, not religious.” It’s internal, personal, and private, not subject to the vicissitudes and politics of most of what we consider public.

There are some very real and even dangerous problems with this private, personal, generic spirituality. The biggest problem with it is that its god is faceless. Or perhaps more precisely, this god is not faceless, but rather has only our own face. Promotional materials for one of Chopra’s seminars encourage participants to “give attention to yourself, the greatest act of self-love.” *** One gets the impression with Deepak Chopra, Sheila and others that in the end you are simply left staring in a mirror at your own face.

The church, sadly, is not one to miss out on a trend. Some segments have really jumped on the bandwagon here. A great deal of preaching, on television and in megachurches, has to do with me: a new me, a successful me, a powerful me, a fulfilled me, a purposeful me. Or as Anglican bishop N.T. Wright put it, having scanned through the catalog of a Christian publisher: ‘page one, how to be a happy Christian, page two, how to be a good Christian, page three how to be a good and happy Christian, page four, how to be a good, happy and successful Christian, just on and on and on.’’’ ****

The problem here with this is that it makes the Christian faith all about me, as if God were a tool that could be used for better living. Now certainly at times the church has allowed or encouraged self-hatred as a means to sanctity. We need to be clear that that’s wrong. If God loves us so much he sent his son for us, who are we to hate ourselves? And yet, if we become preoccupied and focused on ourselves, we miss the faces of those who merit our love, namely, God and our neighbor

This morning’s gospel presents a very different way of looking at things. We heard part of a long section from John called the farewell discourse. At one point, Philip says to Jesus “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” This is great. Philip seems to gets it. It’s as if he is saying “I’m not going to settle for halfway, half best, half baked. I want to see God. That’s real satisfaction.” Jesus’ answer might have brought Philip up short, but Philip was asking a good question.

But what Jesus says is most instructive. To find God, he doesn’t tell Philip to look within. He doesn’t tell him to withdraw from other people and meditate. Jesus doesn’t even tell Philip to gaze into Jesus’ soul. No: Jesus says if you want to see God, look at me, look me in the face.

Part of what we mean when we talk about God as Trinity is that in Jesus, God the Son took on human flesh, so that when we have seen Jesus, we have seen God. In a very real sense, our God has a face.

Not only that, Jesus says to Philip that if you don’t believe that he is in the Father, then believe because of his works. When the gospel of John mentions “works” in this way, it refers to Jesus’ miracles. This makes it all the more surprising, then, that Jesus says that those who follow him will do his works, and, in fact, will do greater works than these.

But we shouldn’t be distracted into wondering how we, his followers, are going to do miracles. The whole point of miracles is that they are signs which point to God. And the signs which point to God are the works of Jesus. When we as his disciples, driven and empowered by the Spirit, do the works of Jesus, then our lives become signs which point to God. So as Christians when we embody the love, the healing, the patience, the reconciliation, the transformation, the self-sacrifice, any and all the works of Jesus, then we become signs of God.

Friends, as Christians we are constantly faced with the other. When we come up against the face of Jesus, this risen familiar stranger, we see the face of God. And the works of Jesus always draw us to the face of another: the stranger, the alien, the one who troubles us, who keeps us awake at night, the one who we are responsible for. And we are drawn to those the world considers faceless: by loving them, we give them a human face. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must encounter the other’s face: their integrity, their brokenness, their dignity.

All of which is to say that the sort of faceless spirituality that focuses on the personal and private is far too shallow to do justice to the complexities and demands of our world, much less be faithful to the call of Christ. As Christians, we cannot turn away from the face of Jesus, the face of God, or the face of our neighbor.

We also can’t turn away from the faces of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians aren’t lone wolves who strike out on their own with a mission from God. After all, this is only another way making it all about me. No, as we heard in our reading from First Peter this morning, the church is something altogether different. The letter uses all kinds of different images to describe what the church is to be: The church is a spiritual house made of living stones; it is a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people. Each of these is a collective – a race, a nation, a people – and each one is social and public. It would be meaningless to talk about a nation that was purely personal; a person’s race that was private wouldn’t be a race at all. And maybe by using different images, Peter also means to imply that this new creation, the church, would itself contain all sorts of differences. Even while we follow the same Lord, in whom we are one, we have unity-with-difference.

All of which means that our faith is like an ethnicity: it binds us together with a lot of other people, many of whom we wouldn’t have chosen to be with. When we are faced with these others we didn’t choose, it also means that we have to engage in the difficult and very messy process of learning to live together and love each other. Living with others, we will almost certainly not attain, in Chopra’s words, ‘the miraculous and the spontaneous fulfillment of your desires.’ We might rather find that it is our single-minded pursuit of our private desires that is part of the problem in the first place, one of the greatest obstacles to living with and loving our brothers and sisters. Living with them will take much more than that. It will take being patient, being fair, listening well and expressing ourselves clearly, bearing with one another, and in all things, loving each other.

Friends, this is hard work. We in the Anglican Communion know about the vicissitudes, messiness, and politics of having to live with each other. Yes – we certainly know that much. Even with the Spirit at work in our midst, it can feel like we as living stones have been sealed in a rock tumbler, bouncing off of each other, being worn smooth. It’s painful; but we trust the in the end it will be beautiful. And truly there’s no other way, for it is in the face of that other that we encounter the face of our neighbor, the face of Jesus, and the face of God. And we dare not cut ourselves off from those. Amen.

* Quotes in this paragraph taken from Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church. By Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow. Brazos Press: 2002. P. 32.
** From Habits of the Heart, 1985, Ucal Press, found online at http://www.robertbellah.com/lectures_5.htm
*** Budde and Brimlow, p. 33.
**** Gower Street interview, part 7.


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