Friday, December 14, 2012

Senior Sermon, December 14, 2012

Hiya folks.  So at VTS each senior gets one chance to preach at the Noonday Eucharist.  Today was my day.  While I didn't quote from this text, I feel I should credit the overall arch of this sermon to Henri Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son.  I highly recommend this book, Nouwen is insightful and I think a lot of what he goes through is relevant to so many of our lives.

Matthew 11.16-19
16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Games have rules.  This is something that I learned as a child.  And if you don’t follow the rules you can ruin the game for everybody.  I know for me at least when I was a child, following the rules of a game became all important, you could not change the rules because that would be tantamount to cheating, the worst of all sins.  You learn quickly enough that the games that children play are preparation for the lives they will live as adults.  Life is like a game, it too is filled with rules, rules that we are promised will even the playing field, rules that at least seem to make the game the same for everyone.  There is nothing more frustrating than someone who won’t play by the rules.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ compares his opponents to children in the market place, children complaining about their playmates,  “You are supposed to dance when we play the flute and mourn when we mourn, these are the rules and you are not following them.”  Of course those rebellious rule breakers are none other than John the Baptist and Jesus.  Both of these men are found to be offensive in their own unique ways.  John the Baptist was an ascetic; he lived out in the wilderness, wore ugly hair shirts and ate a disgusting diet of locusts and honey.  That guy was a weirdo.  But he was nothing compared to Jesus, who seemed like he could be really cool if only he would stop partying with all of those losers.  The world had set standards of conduct which John and Jesus did not live up to.  Neither of them could satisfactorily fit into polite society, and what was really infuriating is that they didn't even seem to care.
Neither of them was dissuaded from their paths by other people’s impression of them.  They just did not  care how they appeared in the eyes of others. Jesus in particular was not dissuaded by the shocking accusation that he was a drunk and a glutton; it did not stop him from spending time with tax-collectors and sinners.  

Sadly the world hasn't really changed much.  We have certain standards of dress, standards of speech, standards of conduct.  The societies in which we live have both explicit and implicit guidelines in place that regulate how we live our lives.  

A big part of this is appearance.  We can’t help but to judge the world and the people in it by how it all looks.  We are constantly told that we have to look the part.  It is drilled into us that without the appropriate clothes, home, and car no one will ever find us attractive or be willing to give us a suitable job.

This does not just apply to the secular world.  If anything it may be worse among Christians.  We certainly seem to have so many more reasons to judge each other than the secular world does.  Even in Church you have to look the part.  After all, without a full church, a big endowment and a beautiful liturgy how will we ever be able to be a shining light of Christ in the world?   

Of course we know that this isn't true, we know that at our core - appearances don’t matter, but do we live that way?  And more importantly, do we treat each other that way?  It is so easy to get caught up in ‘how things should be’ that even though we may know we should let our judgments go, we can’t. 
The problem is that our judgment of the world around us is so wrapped up in our understanding of virtue that we cannot destroy one without uprooting the other.  So often in our attempts to nurture our virtuous selves we also windup nurturing our resentment towards those who are not similarly virtuous. 

I know I am guilty of this sort of behavior year round, but I have become particularly aware of it around this time of the year. You see, I have spent so many years trying to have that perfect, yet seemingly elusive, Advent experience.  I know that if I could just get Advent right it would make Christmas that much more magnificent and beautiful.  And every year I think to myself why can’t other people observe the season of Advent in the right way?  How am I supposed to reach a place of stillness with all of this chaos and Christmas music?  And every year all I wind up getting out of Advent is frustration and indignation.
Unfortunately though this is something that infects all of our lives, this judgment disguised as virtue.  Those little questions that nag at us, like “why can’t they get the liturgy right?” “Why can’t she dress like an adult?” “How can he possibly think he is suitable for the priesthood?” Again and again we turn our judgment outward, allowing ourselves to become obsessed with how we think things should be, and we wind up missing the moments that truly matter.  We wind up playing music and dancing when we should be mourning, and weeping when we should sing.

So how do we break free from our false notions of righteousness, from our resentment and judgment?  I think there is a clue in the last verse when Jesus says, “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
This wisdom is not in us, not while we spin ourselves in circle, chasing our own tails.  All of our rules and virtue do not seem to be able to save us from ourselves.  No, this wisdom belongs to Christ and it is only when we stop in our tracks and look to Christ that we can get an idea of what that wisdom may look like in our own lives. Christ vindicated wisdom on the cross, releasing us from our worldly bonds, turning many of the rules that we live by on their head, and for this reason freeing ourselves from our own expectations and anxieties may be the hardest thing we ever do.  But once we do, once we let go of trying to make the world conform to our own rules, and instead conform ourselves to Christ, then we can find the relief and gratitude that comes from surrendering ourselves to God.