28 October 2007

Sermons and Improvisation

This morning for the second time in as many weeks my computer shut down as I went to print (I also forgot to save the document). When I reopen Word I the document is recovered but without an ending - thus the need for some improvisation.

This week I read where Wynton Marsalis was in the middle of a solo when someone's cell phone in the front row started to ring. Marsalis stopped then began to copy the ring on his sax, then began improvising the ringtone and then segwayed into his previous solo. This morning a man, three pews from the front, began to ask the woman in front of him what was in the floor in front of the man in front of her. There are some things you cannot incorporate into an improvisational piece.

So here is the rough cut of the sermon for this morning. I was trying to go in one direction but found myself going in another while I preached. I was also experimenting with my voice and projection. To my surprise many more people could hear this morning without the aide of their hearing devices.

A little over 430 years ago a young man walked home and got caught in a terrible lightening storm. He fell to the ground in fear of his life and made a deal with God: let me get home safely and I will devote my life to You. Most people make this type of deal all the time, no one actually keeps their promise – this man did. Against the wishes of his parents he ceased his study of law and became a monk of the Augustinian order.

He fretted over just about everything. He fretted over the salvation of his soul, whether he could work his way to salvation, if grace was really enough, and so on. He spent countless hours on the toilet trying to figure out issues. Why the toilet? Well I am sure that it was quiet but when one eats a sparse diet consisting primarily of dairy and dairy created products you are going to spend quite a bit of time there. Many have even surmounted that his bathroom experiences inspired his great theological treatise of salvation: there is nothing you can do about salvation you cannot force it to happen, it just does, and it is a gift.

At the same time this young monk was working in Germany the Pope in Rome was constructing the Basilica of St. Peter. The Pope was also creatively coming up with ways to pay for its construction, you try pleasing Michelangelo! So the Pope sent his greatest salesman out to sell indulgences, a way to pay folk out of hell. He even had a bumper sticker slogan: every time the coffer rings a soul in purgatory sings, the dude was good!

When the salesman came to Germany the young monk was furious; so he sat down and listed all of the grievances he had with the selling of indulgences and with the church. He came up with 95 complaints. He did not set out to create a splinter group but a reform movement to get the Catholic Church back on track.

The young monk was Martin Luther and the movement he is credited with starting is the Protestant branch of Christianity. So it would seem that to read the history of our particular branch of Christianity would necessarily be anti-Catholic. For many years it was. But much has changed between now and then. But we have to recognize the anti-Catholic roots of our faith heritage. Roger Williams referred to the Pope as the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church as the great Satan. So the challenge is always to tell our story for what it stands for rather than what it stands against.

In a remarkable fashion the same is true of our parable this morning. I cannot think of any other biblical story where the literary device employed by the author leads us to such a one-sided reading than the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In this short parable we are led to really chunk it on the Pharisee, it would seem that it is fair to throw any label, derogatory term or smug epithet you want. But should we? Is this religion defined by what we are against or religion defined by what we are for?

I scratched my head a lot over this parable; it threw me for a loop. Not because I think it is difficult – it is pretty straightforward. My problem was its one sidedness and obvious slamming of the Pharisee. It is true that in order for Jesus to make a name for himself he did have to engage in the honor-shame culture of the time. Jesus had to build up a reputation by taking the religious establishment head on and scoring major rhetorical victories by showing them up on numerous occasions. But our parable this morning does not involve a social interaction between Jesus and the religious establishment, it is a parable from afar commenting on an event taking place in the Temple, this is Jesus as Monday morning priest.

What we have going here is religion at its worst, defining itself by putting another down. Could there be something else going on here?

I believe there is.

Stay with here for a moment and let us see where this road may go.

If we take a step back and look at chapter 18 as a whole we find a hodgepodge chapter, it does not read as a well threaded narrative but as a shoddy attempt to make a seam. The chapter is a bunch of independent Jesus stories thrown together, this is Luke’s stone soup or his version of a mad scientists witches brew with a little oil of newt and three squirrel legs. Although the literary quality and flow of chapter 18 may not be Luke’s best work the theological parings do present for us a most intriguing picture.

All of the stories deal with the prospect of religious truth, God’s self-disclosure and religious practices emerging from the least expected: the nagging widow not from the judge; the tax collector not the Pharisee; the children not the disciples and from the Galilean peasant Jesus not the rich young ruler. All four of these stories contain a great element of surprise: do not expect truth about and from God from the usual suspects: religious professionals, agents of the state, those who seem to have been blessed by God with material goods. Expect God also to be creeping in from surprising sources: kids, widows, tax collectors and peasants.

It may very well be that the Protestant Reformation was a mistake, a tragic break in Christian unity. Continuing history will tell whether the great earthquake of the 16th century will be looked on as just a tremor that will be corrected later. Martin Luther wanted to cause a revolution not a new branch of Christianity.

If you are so blessed to have a tachometer on the dashboard of your automobile then you get to see how many thousand revolutions per minute your engine turns. One revolution is measured from the four cycles of your pistons: the intake, compression, fire and exhaust cycle each piston in its cylinder. In a technical sense a revolution is just a spin, to turn around and return to your original position.

A religious revolution is meant to live life fully open to God and return to your original position not the same but greatly changed, to have experienced a metanoia, and then live life forward from that new position. The goal of worship is not to exit through the doors without some small or great change taking place. It would be a great shame if nothing happened or began to happen to your soul; so that you return to your starting place re-newed, re-created, even re-born.

Jesus was after this type of revolution. He could not challenge the powers of the Roman empire mano el mano. But he could challenge and change the hearts of people. He could present a way of life full of dignity, creative personality and love centered on the work and grace of God. This he did with utmost perfection.

No comments: