Monday, June 25, 2007

The Church as Eccentric Community

A Sermon Preached on the
Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24th 2007

Church of the Epiphany, Sudbury, ON

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be pleasing unto You, O Lord our Saviour and Redeemer. Amen.

John the Baptist is certainly in the running for one of the strangest characters from scripture. True to the form of Old Testament prophets, John was, to say the least, an odd and peculiar person. He looked, and probably smelled, more like someone living on the street than any of us here today. In light of the reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning, where we are told that the one who will come to prepare the way of the Lord is the Prophet of the Most High, we are probably prone to expect something other than what we got in John the Baptist—someone important, well-connected, someone socially stable. But that’s not the way God works…He gave us John the Baptist—a man with animal skin for clothes, and with honey and locusts stuck in his beard; a smelly and grubby itinerant preacher from somewhere out in the wilderness. In a word, he gave us an “eccentric” witness.

Truth be told, we’d probably all rather not have him sitting next to us in church on Sunday morning. I’m sure that we can draw up all sorts of eccentric characters from the pool of our collective memories and experiences—someone who was always a little off-center—whether it’s a co-worker who doesn’t quite fit in, or someone from your childhood who was the class oddball, that weird kid that everybody picked on…or maybe you fell like you are the one of those people always sitting on the outside looking in.

What I would like us to consider this morning is that the church is called to be eccentric, much like John the Baptist was. Just so we’re clear here, I’m not suggesting that we are all called to wear ratty clothes and eat weird things and generally not look after ourselves. But what I do want to do is to play around with this word “eccentric”. What does this prophet have to teach us, gathered here this morning, about the church as an eccentric way of life?

First of all, the word eccentric carries with it the sense of being off center—to be out of center. In this way functions as the opposite of ego-centric: it means living ‘outside’ of ourselves in contrast to living a self-centered life. Karl Barth, the theological giant of the twentieth century, had a picture hung above his desk for his entire life. The picture, copied for you on the front of this week’s bulletin, was Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion scene from his Isenheim altarpiece painted in the early 16th century. I want you to look at it and take it in. Barth was fond of this picture, not for the centrality of the crucifixion scene per se, but rather for Grünewald’s representation of John the Baptist. In this figure of the prophet, with the Holy Scriptures in one hand and the other, with finger outstretched toward the figure of the crucified, we have, Barth claimed, the very vision, the very identity of the church, of what it means to be a witnessing community.

It is the finger of the Baptist draws our attention. Elongated and outstretched, he doesn’t seek to attract attention to himself, but wants our gaze to be cast upon the crucified Lord. John is not interested in himself but in the One who has come to put all things right. John’s disregard for himself was not a product of a self-imposed humility. Rather, John had the task of preparing the way of the Lord and His salvation—it was a job that required taking notice of Jesus and not of himself.

As members of God’s church we are called to the same ministry as John the Baptist. We are called to be witnesses to Christ in our world—not as self-interested people but as selfless ones. Our job is, like John’s, to point to Christ so that the world may know that salvation has come and this requires, to put it rather bluntly, that our egos are checked at the door. The church is not a community focused in on itself, but it is called to be a community centered on others. The church only exists as her true self when she exists for others.

More often than not, the church’s actual posture is one of pointing to ourselves, seeking our own attention, rather than the posture of the Baptist who points away from himself. Our communal life can all too easily slip into self-centeredness when we get caught up with ourselves, with our own individual desires, our own plans, when I want it my way. When we live such a self-centered life, individually and as a community, we miss the boat. We exist for others, plain and simple. When we think that being the church is all about us, that all of this is here for us, we miss our call to be an eccentric, other-centered community. When we live with our egos at the center, with our fingers pointed to ourselves, we blur and confuse our witness. John knew this as we read this morning from the book of Acts, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.” John knew that to be self-centered meant obscuring his witness to Christ. In fact, in the sometimes overwhelming temptation to be overly concerned with ourselves, we block out the image of the crucified, which is another way of saying that we sin.

And this brings me to the second sense in which the church is called to be eccentric, and here I mean it in a more corporate and social sense: Christ calls the church to live, not as an important social club—as a place where membership gets you some sort of credibility amongst your peers, or where you come to feel important or to maintain some sort of status. No, in a very real way, Christ calls us to exist like those eccentric and strange figures in our lives, at the fringes of society, at the outside of the social margin where God’s peace and tender mercy are all but invisible. We live there because that’s where Jesus lives caring for the poor and the hungry, suffering with the sick and the rejected.

We may think that we’re cultured, and well-to-do and important, but we belong to a body where all are welcomed, especially those people who make us uncomfortable, those people who make us shift a little in our sometimes all too comfortable pews. The church is the place where those who don’t ‘fit-in’ in the world are welcomed and accepted. It is the place where we exist as God’s living alternative to a world gone awry—and that’s often an uncomfortable and unpopular place to be.

It’s not easy to live as God’s alternative in a world that worships the idols of capital, the health of the market and the bottom line; in a world that treats people like statistics and holds the poorest of nations in debt; in a world that teaches us to value and protect our own self-interest over that of others, that it’s okay to exploit others in the name of self-preservation. It’s no accident that the New Testament word for witness is martyr—the very giving up of the self—something John the Baptist knew all too well. No, it’s not easy to live as a community that is supposed to embody God’s way of life. It’s not easy to cry in the wilderness, pointing to the crucified, “Here is your God!” The light of the dawn that breaks over us, the light that Zechariah prophesied about in Luke’s gospel is the light of God’s salvation that has come to shine on us and our world. It is our job to selflessly share this light with the world, a world that sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.

So being witnesses to Christ doesn’t mean being prim and proper, important or self-sufficient, least of all does it mean ‘upwardly mobile’ or ‘normal’ or ‘socially functional’. John the Baptist is our great example of what it means to exist as a witness, not because he had it all together (he most certainly did not), but because he was transparent to Christ. True eccentricity, true selfless living in the interest of others in the name of Jesus Christ is what it means to be God’s witnesses. It’s not easy, but that’s what we’re supposed to be all about.

Not because ‘we’ have it all together…we don’t and that’s the point exactly. Living eccentrically means that we’re not just a group of isolated self-interested individuals looking out for number one who occasionally bump into each other at church, but it means living as a community that exists for each other, both inside and outside of the walls of the church. It means life together for others. It means living for others with each other and when we do that we live as transparent witnesses to Christ. We live off-centered, outside of ourselves when we open our doors to all people and invite them to participate in our peculiar and eccentric way of life where self-centeredness crumbles under the weight of God’s redeeming grace, where conflict and bitterness are transformed into living for the sake of others, where the strangeness of God’s love overwhelms the normalcy of our lives, where our inward pointing fingers are turned from ourselves to the life giving cross of Jesus Christ.

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.


D.W. Congdon said...

Magnificent sermon! This is the sermon I wish I could preach. You've done a wonderful job of translating Barth's and Jüngel's theology into something accessible and concrete. Many thanks for this, Patrick.

Patrick McManus said...

thanks David,

I work hard at translating theology into the pulpit. The danger is either aiming it too high or giving them fluff. I've got some more to post and I've just recently accepted an appointment to my first parish so, I'll be posting weekly sermons. Yikes!!