Sermon from Sunday
June 3, 2012
Starting as the new rector of a church is stressful. I have no shame in admitting that. This whole week I have been adrift in a sea of emotions, ranging from joy and happiness to fear and trembling. But this anxious period in my life is nothing compared with my high school senior prom. The whole month leading up to the prom I was a complete basket case. Now, I don’t mean to brag, but merely to state a fact: I was the homecoming king at my high school. So I thought that finding a date for prom would be easy. And oh how I was wrong.
Not one, not two, not three, but four different girls turned me down when I asked them to be my date. My puffed up ego took a pretty serious hit. And the worst part was that prom was approaching, and I had to get a tux, even though I didn’t know who I was going with. So I dutifully went to the tuxedo place, rented a tux, not even knowing if I would have a date to prom.
I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. And that phrase alone describes all too well the church as we enter the twenty-first century. We are all dressed up with nowhere to go. We can have all the right committees, we can have the perfect programs, we can have an amazing staff, yet still not know where we are going. We stand in a precarious position, we live in a time when Christendom is over, and once again the Church is a minority in a pluralistic world.
The prophet Isaiah lived during a similar time. Internal and external pressures were fostering fear and anxiety throughout ancient Israel. He too stood on the threshold of a new era. Yet something peculiar happened to Isaiah. God called him. God sent him. The foundations of the Temple shook, the seraphim resounded with glorious praise, and Isaiah beheld the glory of the Lord. Then God and Isaiah spoke with another; God called, and Isaiah responded. And off he went.
Sadly, our passage from Isaiah ends too early. After Isaiah boldly agrees to this call, God goes on to describe how exactly how Isaiah will fail. The people to whom Isaiah speaks will hear, but they will not understand, they will see, but they will not perceive. Their ears will stop up, and their eyes will become blind. Isaiah will fail. He will fail.
This refrain of failure is taken up by Jesus. All too often we hear about Christianity leading us to a successful life, a life full of blessings and privileges. We are told that if only we love Jesus more, then we will be prosperous and triumphant. And I stand here this morning to tell you that is a lie.
Following Jesus does not mean that we will be happy or successful. It does not mean that our lives will be hunky-dory or that everything we touch will turn to gold. We are to take up the cross and follow him. And following Jesus means that we are going to fail, just as he failed.
Our Lord’s vision of creating a new Israel, of calling back the lost sheep of God, failed on Good Friday. Jesus was brutally executed by the Roman government as a political activist. His vision of God’s Kingdom crumbled as he opened wide his arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross. So cruelly do we see how Jesus was not successful, triumphant or prosperous.
As you know, Maggie and I are new to Houston, the city of the Astros and the Rockets, clear references to NASA’s influence on this city. Maggie and I even ate a local Mexican restaurant that served a “Space Shuttle burrito.” And it seems that wherever you go and NASA is mentioned you see that famous quote from the Apollo 13 mission: “Failure is not an option.”
I believe that these words should be uttered and prayed by Christians every day. Because failure is not an option – failure is our way of life. Isaiah failed to communicate God’s message. Jesus failed on Good Friday when he was crucified by Pontius Pilate. I have failed in my ministry, I have failed people I love, and my guess is that I will continue to fail them. I failed to find date to prom. More than that, marriages fail. Our finances fail. We fail to get that new job. We fail to get into the college we want. We fail to be the people God calls us to be.
As Christians, we cannot shy away from these dark moments in our life. We have to unashamedly inhabit the despair and the brokenness that permeates our lives. The only way to salvation is through the cross of Christ. And the only way for us to be healed from the sins and miseries of this world is to look at them in all of their ugliness.
Because it is then, and only then, when we see and know the darkness in our lives that we can see the light. And that light is the light of the resurrection. Only through the darkness, the misery, and the cross of Christ can we experience the light, the joy, and the wonders of God. Failure is not an option – it is our way of life. Jesus’ triumphant resurrection only makes sense because he was first crucified. The Church’s outreach and mission only makes sense when we have first understood that we too must be crucified in order to be raised again.
This probably is not the sermon you expected from your brand new rector, yet that is what I have to say, and what I have to say is the Christian story. The issue today is that the church in the twenty-first century is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Why don’t we know where we are going? Why is it that the Church has the perfect tuxedo ready for prom but doesn’t know who to take as a date? Because we are scared. We are scared of the very thing that we must do – and that is to fail. A program or a ministry may fail. An idea or a mission opportunity may not go as we hoped. We may be mocked and ridiculed; we may be crucified for some hare-brained scheme that we concoct. But that is okay. Only by being crucified can we put on the tuxedo and delight in the grand celebration that is not prom, but the Kingdom of God.
You may be wondering what this sermon means for my ministry here at Holy Comforter, and for the future mission of this church. First of all, it means that we are going to take risks. As a church, we sin when we do not take risks for God’s Kingdom. These risks may be challenging and difficult. They will require all of us, including me, to be uncomfortable and vulnerable; because the cross of Christ is neither comfortable nor safe.
But most of all, what it means for my ministry at Holy Comforter is that this church will be full of joy. Because failure and death and misery do not have the final answer. God has the final answer by defeating the worst of our enemies, even death, on that bright and glorious Easter morning. We will take risks. We will fail. We will be raised again. And through it all, we will be joyful in the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are all dressed up and ready to go. With Isaiah, with Jesus, and with all the saints we now stand before the glorious presence of God and say,
“Here are we Lord. Send us.”