- January 29, 2012
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Isaiah 25.6-10; Mark 2.13-22
Russ Dean, January 29, 2012
Several years ago, a friend introduced me to Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence, and I have been thoroughly convinced. Every 500 years, Tickle says, the world gets a face lift. Political, economic, social, and ecclesiastical systems, for reasons unknown, experience gale force winds – and these disparate forces come together in a period of upheaval that inevitably feels apocalyptic. It isn’t the end – or at least none of the previous “great emergences” has been – the world and the Church will weather the storm, but not before giving birth to systems and world views and philosophies heretofore undreamed of.
There was Jesus – and the Christianity that changed the world. Half a millennium later the Roman Empire crumbled, and in another 500 years Roman Catholicism was born out of Eastern Orthodoxy. (Or Orthodoxy was born out of the mother church in Rome. It depends on whom you ask!) Five centuries later Martin Luther nailed a letter of complaint on a church door in Germany and the Protestant Reformation began. And according to Phyllis Tickle the winds of change are blowing again. We have felt those winds, in a housing collapse at home and financial meltdown abroad, an Arab spring offering democracy throughout the middle east and a Church in global crisis – not from Islamic terrorists but from another division within, namely, a separation over how to read the Bible. A host of social questions issue into what has been called “the culture wars,” but you can caricature that division on the face of two issues: abortion and gay marriage. These two issues are representative of a divide, perhaps irreconcilably deep. Perhaps a new Christianity will emerge as a result. A “Great Emergence,” the next sequel.
But last week at Sir Edmund Halley’s English pub, Dr. Gerardo Marti, a sociologist from Davidson College who specializes in American Religion, told a table full of inquisitive Baptists that Tickle’s theory is, well… bunk. Devoid of substance. “No way,” he said. That’s an artificial construct that she made up to sell books. (He loves Phyllis Tickle, he insists – “You just want to take her home… she’s so nice!” He just doesn’t agree that God swoops in every half-millennium, like clockwork, to roll out the next chapter of the world’s history.)
The sociologist – who is a great, great, great nephew of the Cuban revolutionary hero, Jose Marti – may be right. Maybe in every age… in any century or decade or year… at any given moment, in any given place… a revolution of some kind is taking place. Gerardo said if you did your homework you could find “great emergences” at any interval you looked.
Either way – and the good professor agreed – the Church is in the midst of upheaval. The winds of controversy are blowing – just as they were in Jesus’ day. And if Jesus were here today, I think he might handle it like he did in his day. He might say to his disciples, “Let’s have a drink and talk it over!” And just like in his day, the properly religious would have sighed in righteous indignation. No, I’m not trying to be crass. I don’t want to glamorize alcohol as our culture does. We have too many alcohol-related problems as it is. But as I look at the life of Jesus, where he taught, how he entertained, with whom he associated, why he drew such attention from the religious crowd… It is not out of character to suggest that if he were here, Jesus might be a frequent guest across the street at Sir Ed’s – always with a crowd of ears. A crowd of rag-tag disciples, eager to learn.
We live in a confusing and frustrating time. There are tensions threatening every corner of peace. We do seem to be in a particularly fragile moment, with so much to worry us, from so many angles. But Dr. Marti is obviously right: about what point in human history, could this not be said? So the 21st century followers of Jesus ought to ask, as did his first ones: How did Jesus
respond to crisis? How did he lead? How would he lead us?
I think Jesus would lead us, again, to an upper room. Maybe a second-floor hall at an old, uptown hotel. If the biblical narratives are accurate, there would be good food, and there would be good drink. There would be a gathering of friends, and there would be spirited conversation all around. If you elbowed your way through that scene, you might overhear only snippets of the dialogue: “And she said, ‘One time… and you called a therapist!?’” And you would hear raucous laughter erupt – at least from the corner where the Baptists were sitting.
If it sounds to your ears like my theoretical, “if Jesus were here,” just spilled over into reality… you would be right. I’d been reading Isaiah and Mark, and thinking about Jesus sitting with unexpected people and gathering in unexpected places – those places where preachers shouldn’t be seen on a Saturday night. So as Amy and I walked into the Dunhill Hotel in uptown Charlotte last night, I knew I was walking into a sermon illustration! Jesus said the kingdom of
God is like… a wedding banquet! He said this because this is what they told him. His parents. Those men at the Temple who became his teachers while mother Mother Mary looked frantically for her boy. His rabbi said so. And his mentor, John the Baptist. Jesus said, “With what shall the Kingdom of God be compared?” (see Luke 13.18) And they all answered, in turn, but in unison, “The Prophet Isaiah said there will be a great banquet…”
This idea flourished in first-century Judaism. It became known as the Messianic Banquet, the Great Feast. It was often compared to the exuberant celebration after a wedding! And it came to bear eschatological overtones – one day, that day, in that “great, getting’ up morning,” as the Black preacher might say it, God will set the table for us. God will spread the feast before us. God will fellowship with us. On the Mount of Zion, the place of the Holy City, the site of the Temple, on that day, the food will be sumptuous and the wine will run free. The idea wasn’t new to Jesus’ contemporaries. They had heard the scroll of Isaiah read just as he had. And they were waiting for that day. So real was the thirst for this Day of the Lord, and all that it would bring, that their tongues watered. The idea wasn’t new. The imagery of this feast had fed the appetite of ancient Israel for more than 500 years. What was new… and what most weren’t prepared for (how could they not have been prepared after 500 years!?)… What they weren’t ready for was for someone, someone who looked just like them, to sit among them and say: This is it! This is the banquet. This is the celebration. This is the Kingdom of God. Right here. With Erin and Brett. At the Dunhill!
In a world of hurt. In a season of anxiety. In times that caused many to look to the sky with anxious eyes, Jesus called a band of unconventional followers to lead an unconventional movement. While so many others fretted themselves over keeping the conventional rules, learning the conventional wisdom, Jesus said… the Kingdom of God is at hand… Let’s
Celebrate! In her commentary on the text, Pheme Perkins says, “Jesus defends [his actions] by insisting that the conventional rules do not apply.” We would do well today to follow his unconventional lead.
Our world no less than Jesus’ world, is filled with anxiety. Wars-without-end and an economy which can’t find a beginning and a fractured, broken government and a planet perhaps tottering on the brink of ecological melt-down and religious incivilities between, you know, the religious elites and the narrow-minded fundamentalists. What should we do? Jesus said we ought
to celebrate. Invite some friends over. Splurge for the filet mignon. Break out an extra bottle.
This won’t make the problems go away. And the idea isn’t to bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is hunky-dory. But worry will get us nowhere. Jesus said that, too. In this perpetually anxious world, learning to celebrate a little more freely may be just what we need to feed in us an image of what can be. Maybe sharing in a kingdom that looks like a wedding party will help convince us that this is the reality God intends – not just for some eschatological “one day.” But for today. Not superficial happiness. Certainly not drunken carousing. But sharing in God’s kingdom, already among us, can teach us of abundance… lavish generosity… the medicine of laughter.
And learning to celebrate may also feed our courage to be unconventional, which is needed in our anxious times just as much as it was needed to shake up Jesus’ uptight world. A British pastor named William Russell Maltby boiled discipleship down to three things: Fearlessness. Happiness. Trouble! “Jesus promised his disciples… that they would be entirely fearless.” Being convinced that God is with us, that the Kingdom has already arrived, should do that. As the Psalmist said, If God is with us… who can be against us!? (Romans 8.31) What are you afraid of? Why?
Being a disciple of Jesus also means being “absurdly happy.” Absurdly – because the fears and anxieties are real. Happy – because faith is real, too… and faith will not disappoint us (Romans 5.5), because it is built on hope. Hence the celebration. Are you happy? Really happy? Why not?
Being a disciple of Jesus also means “getting into trouble.” Too many of Jesus so-called followers have none of these characteristics. Too much of the Church is characterized by great fear. Fear of illegal immigrants and Islamic terrorists and activist judges and the homosexual agenda and liberal education. Too much of the Church still fears God. I don’t mean respects or reveres God, I mean that too much of the Church’s theology is still based on the fear of divine power, not on the joy of divine love.
Too many of Jesus so-called followers express no obvious contentment with life. No deep happiness. No intrinsic joy. Too much of the Church’s theology has convinced Christians that this life is about struggle and sacrifice – that joy is just for heaven. Or, as Dr. Ken Chafin once said it, “Too many Christians are ready to die, but aren’t ready to live yet.” Maybe Kool and the Gang had it right, after all, when they said in that 1980’s dance song, “There’s a party going on ‘round here. A celebration to last throughout the year.” (I asked Anne if she could find a nice arrangement of that for our choir, and we looked for something in maybe a baroque setting, but came up empty-handed!) There are struggles. Sacrifice will be required. But those should deepen our joy, not take it from us. If Christian truth is any truth at all, it will teach us that God is With us. And if this does nothing else for us, it should give us a sense of deep and abiding joy – come what may in this world.
And too many of Jesus followers have no idea what it means to “get in trouble” with Jesus – which may just mean that many aren’t really “followers” at all. Jesus was fearless, and he was happy, and he certainly stirred up a lot of trouble. Some things never change in this world, and the longing for easy answers through conventional wisdom is one of them. But “conventional rules” have never moved our world forward. It has always taken visionaries, revolutionaries, dedicated disciples, committed to unconventional truth to do that. Are you stirring up trouble? I hope so!
What your anxious world might actually need most, ironically, paradoxically, may be a little stirring up. Maybe you need to express your concern about the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in this country. The haves and the have-nots. May be you need to stake your claim where Jesus staked his – with the least of these among us (Matthew 25). This may not be welcome language in the break room of the office, but Jesus said, “Follow me.”
Maybe you need to speak out against an amendment that will come to referendum in May, which would further alienate homosexuals in our families and churches and communities, put children at risk, and re-introduce discrimination by law into a state which has already known this injustice, an amendment which would ask the State to defend the Church. Maybe you need to reaffirm your Baptist values by standing against all of those possible outcomes.
There are plenty of places to stir up a little trouble in this world which has always longed for the false peace of convenient wisdom. The paradoxical truth of Jesus’ Way is that only unconventional wisdom and unrestrained courage will bring unconditional unconditional shalom. Real peace.
It will take new wine – and new wine skins. New ways of thinking and acting and being Christian in a world that is ever-evolving. And this is as it should be, for scripture reminds us: God is [always] doing a new thing (Isaiah 43.19).
I don’t know where you need to speak. When, exactly you need to a stand. How, specifically, you need to respond. But I do know why. The world needed the uncomfortable challenge Jesus brought – and it needs yours – because we don’t know what kind of world is emerging right before our eyes. But the example of Jesus would instruct his disciples not to ride the tide, fearful of where it is taking us – but to lead by following his unconventional Way.
And all along the way, let us celebrate, for God is with us.
May it be so!
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