For the record, last Sunday Dr Perry stood here in the pulpit and made a crack about one of the Republican presidential candidates. So I figure I can pretty much say anything this week and not offend you as much as he did.
Let us pray…
‘So’ the squat, Speedo-clad old man sitting next to me in the lounge chair said.
‘So, is foreskin really that interesting?’
I turned my head, ‘Uh, excuse me?’
With his hand, he gestured at the book in my lap and the three others on the little round table between us.
Not long ago, Ali and I took the boys to Wintergreen for a holiday. That morning, after I’d gone running, Ali went to get a massage and I took the boys to the indoor pool.
The pool was crowded. I sat down in one of the lounge chairs poolside to keep an eye on the boys and to read.
Others were reading too. I counted three different people around the pool reading three different editions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a mother and daughter in workout clothes were reading The Hunger Games, an elderly couple were sitting at a table near the soda machine sipping coffee and reading on their Kindles, and an Indian man with a mustache in the hot tub was studying Joel Osteen’s newest cliche: How to be Happier Seven Days a Week.
And there I was: sitting poolside, still wearing my too-short running shorts, reading four different commentaries on the book of Leviticus, everyone’s favorite Old Testament book, the one filled with regulations about circumcision, sex and shellfish.
I’d brought the commentaries with me to prepare for this sermon series; I was reading about the Jubilee commandment, which God gives to Moses in Leviticus along with all those rules about sex, foreskin and bacon.
Only, when the old man sat down and saw my books, Jewish economic principles weren’t the first thing that leapt to his mind.
‘So, is foreskin really that interesting?’
He had thick gray hair that was wet and that he’d parted to one side with his hand. He had a large, round belly. And he was wearing black Speedo bikini briefs that looked like they may have fit him during the Gerald Ford administration. I mean- they were so small that his swimsuit combined with the mention of the word ‘foreskin’ made it frightening for me to look at him.
‘Excuse me?’ I said.
And he gestured at my not one but four books on the Book of Leviticus, as if to say: ‘One book might be alright but four is absurd and maybe obscene.’
‘Are you like a rabbi? I’m Jewish and looking at your beard- I thought maybe you’re a rabbi but I’ve never seen a rabbi in shorts that short before.’
You’re one to talk, I thought (in love).
‘No, I’m not a rabbi’ I said and tried to leave it at that.
‘You must be a priest then’ he said.
But just then Gabriel, from the deck of the pool shouted ‘Daddy watch’ and did a cannonball into the water and the guy next to me said: ‘Well, I hope you’re not a priest.’
‘No, I’m not a priest’ I said and no more. And he just stared at me, waiting for me to fill in the blank.
‘Would you believe I’m an architect?’ I asked. He grinned, not sure if I was putting him on.
‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I confessed, feeling defeated.
He nodded neutrally. Then he reclined back in the chair, and I thought if only Ali would be done with her massage right now I’m home clear.
Maybe a minute passed while I pretended to read.
And then the old man sat back up and said: ‘You want to know what the problem is with you Christians?’
And I held my breath and let it out slowly, all the while thinking to myself: Yes, yes please tell your problems with Christians. I’d love to hear your criticisms while I sit here in a hot, humid pool and represent all Christians everywhere. I’ll take it to our annual meeting.
But instead, in my best pastor’s voice, I said: ‘It would be fascinating to hear your perspective.’
Then I braced myself for what I was sure to come.
That the problem with Christians is that we don’t do the things Christ did. That we care more about being saved than being servants. That we put a higher premium on converting individual hearts than we do on changing the world.
But what he said wasn’t what I was expecting.
But I think maybe it’s what I needed to hear.
I’d originally planned on preaching a different sort of sermon. I even wrote about half of it, but then I decided it wasn’t the sermon you needed to hear.
I’d planned on preaching about how the prayer we pray week in and week out is a deceptively radical prayer. It’s actually a Jubilee prayer.
I’d planned on showing you how the Lord’s Prayer- it’s the spoken form of Mary’s song; it’s Jesus’ inaugural sermon put into prayer form.
I’d planned to preach about how to pray for daily bread is really to pray for manna, daily rations, which is, for all of us who are the world’s wealthiest citizens, to pray for a paycut.
That to pray for daily bread is to say to God: ‘Give me what I need so what I don’t need can be given and used for those who need more than me.’
I’d planned to challenge you. To show you how the word we normally pray as ‘trespass’ (as in ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’) in the prayer as Jesus teaches it, the word is ‘debt.’
And before you go and spiritualize it into oblivion, you should know that in Hebrew and Aramaic the word is debt: this-worldly, monetary debt.
I’d planned to challenge you too with how in Luke Jesus sets it up as cause-effect, quid pro quo, as in: ‘Forgive us our sins, God, because we’ve forgiven those indebted to us.’ As in, if we don’t then God won’t.
I’d even planned to point out to you that the word we translate as ‘forgiveness,’ in scripture actually means ‘release,’ ‘free.’
In other words, what we’re really praying is: ‘Free us from our sins, God, just as we’ve been freeing the poor from what binds them here on Earth.’
When they ask him how, this is what Jesus tells them to pray for.
That when he tells us to ask and seek and knock, he doesn’t mean we should ask and seek and knock for whatever we want or whatever we think we need.
He means we should pray for the Kingdom, for Jubilee, for Mary’s song to be made complete. We should pray for it with the persistence of a neighbor who won’t stop banging on your door.
That’s what it means to pray in Jesus’ name because it’s the sort of prayer you can’t just pray. It’s the sort of prayer that forces you to go out and do too.
That’s what I’d planned on preaching. For many of you it would’ve been the sort of sermon you expect to hear from me.
But I’m not sure it’s the message you needed to hear.
The old man in the Speedo didn’t say what I was expecting him to say.
He sat up and turned towards me. ‘The problem with you Christians is that you’re all so shy about Jesus. It’s like you’re embarrassed to talk about him.’
I was the one who sat up then. I put my book down, and I told him how I’d expected him to say that our problem was how we only cared about getting others saved, that we cared more about the life to come more than the lives of the poor in this life.
But he shook his head and waved me off. ‘Sure there’s Christians like that I guess….fundamentalists. But I don’t really know any those except those guys on TV. The people I know are regular Christians: Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists. And none of you know how to talk about Jesus. You might as well be Jews- we could use the numbers.’
A moment or two passed and then I asked him: ‘Are you saying Jews are less shy?
‘Hell no. We’ve got no idea how to talk religion, but we don’t have to. I was born a Jew, but you all- you can’t be born a Christian, right? Christianity requires people telling other people about Jesus, isn’t that how it works?’
‘I’ll bet you get stuck in conversations like this all the time.’
‘Well yeah, but usually not with guys wearing bikinis.’
Chapter after chapter in his book, The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns assaults the reader with statistics:
26,575 kids die every from impoverishment
1/4 kids is morbidly underweight
20% of children born in Africa will be dead by their 5th birthday
While in the US we spend over 1/4 of all healthcare expenses to keep ourselves alive in the last year of our lives.
The numbers are intentionally overwhelming because Stearns wants to provoke those Christians who’ve forgotten that the Gospel isn’t just a personal relationship with God it’s a participation with Christ in the world he came to redeem.
Stearns’ message is a good one. Frankly, it’s one United Methodists expect to hear from pulpits like this one. But I’m not sure it’s the message you need to hear.
Stearns’ book is aimed primarily at conservative, evangelical Christians. That’s not most of you.
You all do feed the hungry. The NTFFH fund generates thousands to keep people out of homelessness. Over 100 of you each year sacrifice time and money and comfort to join hands-on mission teams.
Of course, it’s true that we could always do more.
But I’m not so sure the hole Stearns points out in his book is the hole in our Gospel.
If I were to rewrite Stearns’ book for an explicitly Methodist, Mainline Protestant audience, then I’d assault my readers with a different set of statistics. For example:
In the past decade-
UM worship attendance declined by 10%
Professions of faith declined by 20%
Confirmation Students dropped by 25%
The majority of UM congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year.
At their present rate of decline, UMW will cease to exist in a dozen years.
At its present rate of decline the UMC will disappear in 42 years.
A UM congregation just 10 miles from here that 10 years ago had over 200 in worship on a Sunday morning today has less than half that and is only months and inches away from closing.
If the hole in the conservative evangelical Gospel is the message of Jesus.
The hole in our Gospel is Jesus.
As United Methodists, we know how to serve others in his name, no problem.
We know how to pray in his name.
We just don’t know how to use his name. In conversation. With other people.
Many of you would be quite hesitant to ask someone- who wasn’t your child- to believe in Jesus.
Many of you would be quite reluctant simply to speak of Jesus outside this church.
Many of you would never dream of sharing with someone else how Jesus has changed your life (if he has).
And you don’t know how to suggest to someone that he could change theirs.
You would never expect Dennis and me to do all the cooking for R.O.C.K every Tuesday and Friday. You would never expect Dennis and me to cover all the shifts at the Hypothermia Shelter. You would never expect Dennis and me to go to Guatemala by ourselves and do all of Aldersgate’s service work for you.
But many of you and many United Methodists around the country expect that very thing from their clergy when it comes to talking with other people about Jesus.
And the numbers should make it obvious that to the extent we’re unable to speak in his name, to make new disciples, we diminish our ability to serve in his name.
The bitter irony is that ultimately the poor fall through our hole in the Gospel too.
The disciples ask Jesus how to pray in his name after they’ve returned from being sent out by Jesus, two by two, to serve and heal and teach in his name.
Richard Stearns is right: the whole Gospel is that the Kingdom of God has come near to us to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives.
But that Kingdom has a name, a very specific name. And, yes, it’s a name above every name but like any other name you can only learn that name, the name of Jesus, the way you learn any one else’s name: by having someone introduce you.
And it shouldn’t be that hard!
If Jesus is as real as you or me, born of Mary, a real flesh and blood person; if Jesus is risen, as alive as you or me, then it shouldn’t be hard to speak of Jesus like you would anyone else in your life.
It shouldn’t hard.
It shouldn’t be hard for you to say to someone, say like an old man with a frighteningly small bathing suit, say through fogged up glasses: ‘Well, I met Jesus when I was a teenager and not a day’s gone by that he hasn’t irritated me, annoyed me, confused me and surprised me. I’ve seen him transform lives, and I absolutely believe he can heal everything that is broken in this world.
I offer it to you, in Jesus’ name. Amen.