Joy in a One Star World: Sermon for October 19, 2014

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

One of the wonderful and yet challenging things about the internet age is that anyone can share an opinion online. That can sometimes be wonderful. We get to hear a lot of new perspectives that way. But, sometimes, there is a lot of perhaps less-than-helpful stuff to wade through too.

A good example of that to me are online reviews. There are a lot of online review sites where you can go and rate things and experiences, usually by doing something like leaving one to five stars. Maybe you’ve heard of a site called Yelp? It’s a site where if you go to a restaurant you can then go there and rate it with, say, “four stars…pretty good”. Or “one star…I got food poisoning”.

I’ll admit, I read those reviews before I go to a new restaurant. But, slowly, a whole lot of other things have started to be reviewed. Like churches. We don’t have any reviews…I checked, but Old South Church in Boston, a church that has existed over 300 years and whose history is tied up in our very country’s has some. In fact, Old South, got a one star review recently. The reason why? A would-be-bride, who was not a church member or attendee, couldn’t have her wedding on the Saturday she wanted. Sorry, Old South…you get one star.

I like reading about other places, like the Grand Canyon, which also has Yelp reviews, including this one star review: “As amazing as the views are, it’s really kind of boring. Every 500ft a new vantage point of the same thing: a really big hole in the ground.”

I mean, technically, I guess that’s true. Sorry, God…good try, but not your best work. One star for the Grand Canyon.

10403016_827092474010019_3062638086161016394_nBut, what does this have to do with this 2000 year old letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he had visited? I was thinking about one star reviews while reading this week’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians. And it’s not because I’m about to give it one star, don’t worry. But it reminded me of those Yelp reviews because I believe it speaks to a tendency that exists even to this day: the tendency to choose the negative over the positive. The tendency to choose complaining and fear over grace and abundance and joy. Or, put simply, the tendency to be a one star voice.

Paul tells the church, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…(and) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In other words, you can be a one star voice. You can choose to be a voice of negativity, or doom and gloom. You can complain constantly without trying to change anything.

Or, if you really believe this Gospel stuff, you can choose another way.

That’s not easy. How often do we not say what is going right? How often do we focus on what is wrong? How often do we choose to magnify what we don’t like, and not lift up what is going right? How often do we choose to be voices that break others down instead of building them up? And how often do we just stand by and not say a thing as we watch someone do that to others?

It’s probably more than we realize. And what we don’t realize is that it doesn’t just impact us. It slowly infects the ones who are gathered around us. And negativity attracts more negativity until all that is left is the negative. So, there is a question for us to ask ourselves as individuals, and also one every church should periodically ask itself: With all the choices people can make with what to do with their time and resources these days, who would want to be a part of something negative? And how much more attractive are we when we are positive? And how much more powerful is our witness to Christ when we rejoice?

So, about right now you might be thinking, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s naive. I mean, someone has to play devil’s advocate. Someone needs to think of the worst case scenario. Someone has to snap us back into reality. You preacher types like Paul, you just don’t get the way the real world works.

Except, Paul did get it. He got it more than we realize. When Paul wrote this letter, this exhortation to a church to “rejoice” and lift up what is good, how do you picture him? At a comfortable desk somewhere? Sitting down with a five year plan that spelled out everything that was about to happen with great confidence and excitement? Relaxing?

Those are fair assumptions. It’s pretty easy to say “rejoice” when things are going well for you. But that’s not what was going on. When Paul wrote this letter about joy, he was in prison. And he was waiting for his sentencing. And he knew it might well be death. He literally was facing losing his life. Nothing was good or comfortable or happy. He was having a one star kind of day.

And yet, he was full of joy. How can that be?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be a one star voice in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can lob your thoughts out like reviews on the internet and you feel better and you don’t really have to do anything constructive after that.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy? I don’t think so. Because I think joy is deeper than that. Joy and happiness are two different things. Happiness is easy, but it’s fleeting. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck. A nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily. At least for a little while. And you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy. Joy is hard. But it’s also deep. It’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down.

Joy was there that day with Paul in that prison cell. And that wasn’t an accident. It was there because Paul had chosen the places where he would put his trust and his faith. And they weren’t in the fleeting things of this world. They weren’t in the things we can hold on to or lose. They were solely in this: God’s love, and Christ’s grace. That’s where his heart was. And so even when everything else in the world was taken away from him, no one could touch his joy.

And so, when he tells us to rejoice, I think he knows what he is talking about. And I think it gives us a pretty good reason to do the hard work of starting to think about how we rejoice, both as individuals and together, and to look at what we lift up as worthy of rejoicing about.

It just so happens that today is an easy day to be happy. We are baptizing a beautiful baby and starting her on her journey of faith. And we are also welcoming eleven new members to our church. I’m happy. I’m thrilled. And, if I might be so bold, I am joyful. I am rejoicing. And I hope you all will join me in that rejoicing.

But, before you do, I want to offer this caution: Choose joy carefully. Because joy isn’t cheap.

Because joy requires something of us. It requires us to constantly re-root ourselves in our faith. It requires us to part and to have a relationship with God. It requires us to stop putting our faith in earthly things and to let go and trust the Holy Spirit. And it requires us, as the church covenant we are going to recite together as we welcome new members states, to “hold fast” to God and to Jesus Christ. Nothing else.

Joy requires faith. And faith is not easy or comfortable sometimes. And, honestly, you can choose happiness instead, and it will come at a much cheaper price.

But here’s the thing: joy trumps happiness every single time.

Remember at the beginning when I was talking about Yelp and that one star review for Old South Church? I’ll let you in on a secret that the bride who posted it probably doesn’t know: They don’t care. (By the way, I’m pretty sure that if the Grand Canyon doesn’t care either, by the way.)

How do I know this? Because neither a church nor creation draw their value from what is easily given or taken away. And, if we are functioning at our best as children of God, neither do we. Instead, we draw our meaning, we draw our joy, not from what we are or what we have or by what others say about us, but instead from whose we are. And the more we remember that God alone is both the source and focus of our rejoicing, the more we find that we can never again settle for anything less than to rejoice.

And so, let’s turn our hearts to the next part of our worship today, the part when we respond to the Word of God. And let’s welcome those eleven new members. Let’s baptize that beautiful baby and let’s make our promises as a congregation to her. Let’s celebrate.

But first, ask yourself this: as we celebrate are you going to be happy? Or are you going to rejoice? I hope it’s always the latter. Because you are a beloved child of God, and you deserve nothing less. Amen.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?