Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Saturday, May 18, 2013

May 12 Sermon: Channeling Rob Bell

Grace and peace to you from God our Father from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I’m a really big fan of Rob Bell. He’s the one who produced the NOOMA videos you may have seen. His is also a brilliant writer and preacher, and his books remind us why God still matters.

So when I saw recently that he had a new book out, I couldn’t resist. It’s called “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” which is great because the title is long and slightly confusing, sort of like the prayer we just heard Jesus pray a moment ago from the Gospel of John. And also like the Gospel of John, Bell is a master at taking things and experiences that on the surface seem to have nothing to do with one another and making them into more than the sum of their parts. Bell says to us, “Look at this…” “Now look at this…” “Now check THIS out…” “And now look at the whole thing…” And you’ll never think about those things in quite the same way again.

In this way, today I’m going to try to channel Rob Bell and the writer of the gospel of John. I’m going to tell you about monkeys, then I’m going to tell you about Lutherans, then I’m going to tell you about one of our shut-ins, and at the end, hopefully we’ll have learned something about Jesus and ourselves in the process.

In his new book, Rob Bell describes a fascinating study of the brains of monkeys done in the 90s. Italian scientists wanted to know what happens in the brain when the monkeys experienced something pleasant, like being fed a treat. They observed that, when a monkey ate a peanut, the pleasure centers of their brains lit up like a Christmas tree. Well, duh. That’s not exactly rocket science, right. But they also discovered that the same parts of the brain also lit up… when the monkeys watched the scientists eat a peanut.
What the scientists did affected the monkey’s brain. …

And our brains are wired that way too, wired for connection. For example, have you ever yawned when someone else did? Have you ever felt the rush of elation when your favorite sports team wins a brilliant victory when you yourself have not thrown a single pass or swung a bat even once to help them? Have you ever felt like you’ve gotten more out of an experience because you were with someone enjoying it right next to you? This is how God created us, for connection, for oneness.

But we don’t always act like it, do we?

When I was in seminary, I remember reading a very long and complicated article on the history of the Lutheran church in the United States from eighteen hundred to the present day. I know, really fascinating stuff. It went something like this: these two groups formed a synod, but later a small group left and joined this other synod, which after a while split into two, but a few years later rejoined, and teamed up with another synod, but soon after another group left and formed their own group, who joined up with this other group, who later split….

And on and on this went, for pages upon pages, decades upon decades. I still remember that article, because it taught me one thing – human beings, yes even Lutherans, find it difficult to get along with one another and love to have conflicts over the littlest things.
And if you keep going back in the history of God’s church on earth, you will find schisms and splits and fighting and conflicts, going all the way back to the early church, all the way back to Jesus’ own disciples.

When Jesus is praying for the unity of his followers, for them to all be one, you have to wonder what in the world he was thinking. Peter seems to suffer from chronic “Foot-In-Mouth” disease, Judas hands Jesus over to the authorities to be killed, and after the resurrection Thomas refuses to believe until he sees it with his own eyes.
Within a few years of Jesus’s resurrection, different factions were embroiled in conflict over things that we would now find very strange – like whether or not to become a Christian you had to become a Jew, or whether or not Christians could, in good conscience, eat food sacrificed to idols like Zeus or Athena.

In our day and age we are caught up in our own conflicts, such as the inclusion of those who are gay/lesbian/transgendered, the ethics of abortion and women’s reproductive rights, just to name a few of our current hot-button issues. Things can get pretty nasty between those of us who claim to follow the way of Jesus.

Jesus had to have foreseen that we really struggle to get this “oneness” thing. But still he prayed for his disciples… and he prayed for us to, for those of us who have believed through the words of Jesus’ followers down through the ages. He prayed that we would all be one, just as he and God the Father are one. Because God is Love, and oneness is the sign of this love.

The ultimate expression of that love was when Jesus, who was one with the Father, became one of us. This makes the question posed in the well-known song by Alanis Morrisette very easy to answer. “What if God was one of us?” Well, he would be born of poor parents and grow up to teach love and peace.  He would heal the sick and feed the hungry and talk to the outcast. He would pray for his followers, even when he knew that the moment the “amen” left his lips he would walk out the door and into the garden, right into the waiting arms of Judas.

Jesus became one of us so that we would become one with one another. And though we are still far from fully living into this calling, every so often God gives us glimpses of what this can look like, if we are really paying attention.

Many of you may remember Mavis Baker. She hasn’t been around in a while, at least physically – about eight years ago her husband died and not long after that she went to live in Hamilton at Care One. Unfortunately she often has trouble being present mentally as well. Her long-term memory seems fine, but she no longer has a firm foot hold on the present – whenever I visit her she often speaks about her parents and husband as if they are still with us.

The last few times I’ve visited her, I have brought her communion. Now whenever Pastor Egan or I bring communion to someone, whether they have had a long illness or are just unable to come to worship, we use the communion liturgy found on this leaflet. And as you can see, these have been well used over the years – this one is creased and has bent corners, but is still in good working order.

Mavis noticed the creases and the bent corners, as I got her wafer and wine ready. I told her that these had been well-loved, because these were used whenever we brought communion, to the many people who had been visited over the years.

Mavis looked thoughtful for a second, and then smiled a big smile. “Well, I’ll just think about how by holding this, I’m holding hands with all those people.”

That day, we all were holding Mavis’s hand, and every time we come together to celebrate Holy Communion, she is holding our hands too. But what if we lived the rest of our week, outside of this building, as if we were still holding Mavis’s hands?

In this prayer on the night of his betrayal, Jesus is flipping the script on us. May God daily give all of us the strength to be the answer to his prayer. AMEN.

1 comment:

  1. What a great sermon. I love the anecdote about the woman you visited!