Tuesday, July 17, 2012

community is complicated (a sermon)


There is music and dancing and great joy as David leads the people of Israel to Jerusalem – the place God has designated for the holy temple and a home base for the chosen people who have come through the wilderness and into a kingdom of their own. And so a parade forms around the Ark of the Covenant, the cart that carries the sacred word of God and the very presence of divine authority.

It’s an ancient marching band of noise as royal David dances around like a fool and inspires others to do the same. They have much to be thankful for – including this faithful, new king who uses his power to point to God’s glory and grace instead of himself.

And then the lectionary leaves out a big, important chunk – right in the middle of this story. And you guessed it: they left out the confusing, violent part that makes us question God’s power.

On the road to Jerusalem, Uzzah and Ahio were in charge of guarding the cart when the oxen pulling it stumbled. The Ark tipped and teetered. And then it fell toward Uzzah, which put him in a lose-lose situation. According to the Torah, touching the holy Ark meant death. But Uzzah couldn’t bear to let the Ark fall off the cart. And so he reached out to steady it. He made a decision that reminded everyone about the wideness of God’s power – that it’s both incredibly merciful and incredibly dangerous.

So Uzzah gets zapped dead on the spot(!) and the parade fizzles out for awhile while King David figures out what to do next. Maybe he suddenly regrets never having read the passages in Exodus and Numbers that gave detailed instructions for the big transport. Maybe he’s grieving or second-guessing or hesitant to move forward. In a moment, his worship changes from foolish dancing to pensive discernment. So they mourn and pray and decided to take a break on the journey. They tuck the Ark safely into the home of an Israelite until God says it’s time to get moving again. But that instruction to keep moving forward doesn’t erase what’s happened. The dancing is different this time. The cart is careful and only the trumpet makes music when they enter Jerusalem.

I don’t blame the lectionary for leaving out these tough verses about God’s power and our struggle to obedience in complicated circumstances. It makes this ancient story awkward and challenging. But we can’t hear the whole story without that truth. We can’t welcome the Israelites to Jerusalem without also remembering how hard it was to get there. We can’t honor the power of God without recognizing how complicated it can be to believe and dance and welcome. Because all of these good things happen in community. And sometimes community is complicated.

In only a few months at Zion, you've shown me your deep identity regarding hospitality. Zion's mission statement hangs right here on the wall and I confess that I read it quite often. And I’m most influenced by the complicated beauty of the third pillar: We welcome diverse individuals. And do we ever!

All week long I am in awe of the diversity we welcome. Different languages. Different places of origin. Different income levels and sexual orientations and ages and expressions of faith and passions and abilities. We recognize all kinds of gifts in every single person who joins this wide community and busy building. And we don't just welcome in theory - we don't just open our doors and hope they come in and wonder why they don't - they COME. And often that wide, real welcome makes things harder and messier and more sacred than anything else we do here.

And while there are hymns about the joy in hospitality, the ease of inclusion, and our call to be people of YES, our experience of welcome is not always one filled with lyres and harps and tambourines and foolish dancing. Because when God’s power to heal in community is more complicated than simply, “Come on in, you’re welcome here,” the oxen can stumble and the cart can teeter.

We can hesitate, misinterpreting our call to hospitality as a call to be everything to everyone. We can worry, walking on egg shells, trying to control the uncontrollables. We can get really, really exhausted in between wilderness and the promised land, protecting something so sacred and central and familiar that we take it’s power for granted and instead hold our own hands up as if they hold that power – as if we can keep life from being messy and Arks from toppling over all by ourselves.

Many of you know that a few weeks ago these kinds of things came together in an intervention with a member of our very own community. He is loved by Zion and people here pray fervently for health and balance in his life. But in recent months, his unhealthy behavior has saturated the whole culture of Zion, interfering with the safety and worship of other members.

And while it’s much easier to avoid a confrontation and it seems much more inclusive to deem any firm boundaries out of line with that third pillar up there, it was time to name the truth and the hurt and the mess. It was time to admit that Zion cannot be his only place. We cannot enable forever, calling it merciful love or the Christian thing to do.

So instead we were honest with each other and about the wide power of God. We confessed the greatness of our love for him and our love for a healthy and safe Zion. And then we built new boundaries he thanked us for…because, “no one has ever cared enough to do this – to say all this and to want me get the help I really need”.

We were all moved because this was, ironically, the widest welcome he’d ever received – to be given consequences and told the truth. 

Still, that didn’t make it easy. And it certainly didn’t make us feel like dancing foolishly with instruments of praise. There was great pain in that moment of complicated community and the underbelly of “All are Welcome”.  We were marked by that afternoon, awash by the problematic grace that calls us together into these tricky relationships that are Church.

We’re a bunch of imperfect people who point to the one who is perfect…and for that, there will always be criticism. There will always be shortcomings and second-guessing and wondering. But we do know this much:

We’re fooling ourselves when we think God’s authority and might can be tamed by our steady hands or the decisions we pretend are black and white. Because the true power is God’s – wider than our strength (which exhausts) and our patience (which thins) and our boundaries (which get hazy and compromised).  God’s power to love and save is both beautiful and dangerous, rushing into the grey areas of life, to protect and preserve us, to free and forgive us.

And it calls all people together so we don’t have to go it alone or hold all the cards or be everything to everyone. There is great comfort in joining the parade on the way to Jerusalem. On the days when this call gets complicated and the dance changes and the marching band fades into the sound of just one trumpet, we remember the boundaries, the rules, the Ark that got us this far…and then we put our trust in the wide grace that fills the gaps between all that danger and beauty.

All that grieving and dancing. All that opening and breaking and mending.

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