Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Better Life – a sermon

I'm thinking of starting my own TV show. I've got it all figured out because I've watched enough of those big mega-church shows and those self-improvement shows. First off, I need a big stage and a big auditorium. Then I need some fashionable furniture on the stage, a bunch of potted plants, and maybe a clear-plastic lectern. Add a wireless microphone, and I'm good to go. Then I can do workshops and write my self-help books to supplement my show. Could be a gold mine.

I figure the audiences will start flowing in after awhile once I start my new show – because I've been checking out the formula – the magic things that these folks say which bring them in so effectively. What they promise is a better life.

Say what you like about these shows and the mega-churches, but they do understand this. They understand that countless people are not satisfied with their lot in life – that they are looking for something more. In truth, they understand what people are looking for in life. I am quite serious.

One of the funny things is, what people are looking for in life does not really have that much to do with money or power or prestige. At our deepest core, what we want, what we long for is three things: Purpose, Acceptance, and Connection.

We want to know that our lives mean something, that we are here for some bigger purpose than to merely eat, sleep, add to the population, work and die. We need this sense that our lives matter. (St. Francis is an extreme example of this: He gave away everything and lived in utter poverty so he could care for the poor. We are not asked to go to that extreme.)

We also want to be accepted. We need to know that, despite our obvious failings, all is forgiven, and we can still find acceptance into whatever community we think is important. (The Martyrs are an extreme example of this: In order to prove themselves worthy of God's grace in the early days of the church, many volunteered for martyrdom even when it was easily avoidable. We are not asked to go to that extreme.)

Which brings us to number three: we long for connection. By God's own design, even those of us who cherish our "alone time" need to be connected with others. (Monks and other religious communities are an extreme example of this. They live in a community dedicated to God's worship and service in a way that is wonderful and, thank goodness, not expected of the rest of us.)

I figure I can make a TV show that includes purpose, acceptance and connection as well as the next self-improvement guru.

On the other hand, maybe I don't have to go to that extreme. Maybe that is what we at St. James' are here for – have been here for all along. Maybe what we have been doing at this little congregation on the Hudson River is exactly what we have been called by God to do: To help people understand how very important their lives are in God's eyes; To help them (which is to say to help ourselves) understand how welcome we are, how accepted we are in God's Kingdom; To help them know that they are part of this community and that the connections they – and we – long for, both with other people and with God, can be found here.

So what if we don't do it for a huge TV audience. We don't need to. We've already shown over and over that a small community like ours can do meaningful, important ministry. We have already shown that we understand God is not just interested in perfect people – but in US, just as we are. We ARE a community of love – just think back to Friday night's potluck – what a joyous and affirming occasion for us. And we are learning to become more loving of each other and ourselves.

Of course, I've watched enough of those TV shows to know that there is always the appeal for money. BIG money. I have a mailing from one of those shows that promises God will answer your prayers if only you will place your hand on the TV during the show and pray – and then send in a check for $50. And that's when I get lost. I've seen others that ask you how much you really love God, and then suggest that the amount of your check will let God know how much.

And I think to myself – No, I don't need a show like that. I don't need a place where my meaning comes from what I can pay. I don't need a place where I am accepted for a price.

St. James' is not a club. Yes, we have expenses, and yes, this is the Stewardship season where we talk about it. But when we talk about the "Fair Share," – as you will see in your stewardship letters that will arrive in the mail this week – it is an invitation to participate in the Kingdom. It's an invitation to look at our church and see God's purpose – which is to know God's love through Christ and to share. It's and invitation to look at our church and see God's acceptance – like the tax collector who said, "God have mercy on me, a sinner", and that was enough. It's an invitation to look at our church and see God's community in the flesh.

Each week, when I come to church, I have the privilege of looking every single person in the eye when they come up for communion. THERE is where I see God's love, God's grace, God's presence. I doubt I'll ever see that in the lens of a camera. That's why Liz and I pledge to this wonderful congregation – because we long to be part of the creative work of God, to make this church an active, joyful partner with God. A partner, mind you , that has been around for nearly 200 years – a heck of a lot longer than any self-help show.

I invite you to open your stewardship letters this week with a new sense of anticipation. Prayerfully read the words that so many of your fellow parishioners have written, and then pray over what God is inviting you to do. Your salvation does NOT depend on how big a pledge you make – or even if you make one at all (God knows there are enough of us for whom it is a struggle just to put bread on the table, and to them God says "come and be part of it all"). There are, in God's vastness, MANY ways to be part of the Kingdom and to make real contributions to that Kingdom. Oh, and one additional way you can be involved is to fill out the enclosed survey that will help us become a stronger community.

But for those who can give financially, that stewardship letter is your invitation to participate in a particular way.

We've been asking ourselves over the past few weeks: Why Church? Certainly, to practice following Christ. But in doing that, what we are really doing is asking God to give us a sense of purpose, acceptance, and connection. In practicing how to follow Christ, we are practicing that better life we long for. I don't need a TV show to understand that for me, that better life is right here. Amen.