Monday, April 23, 2012

Art imitates life . . .

     Every now and again, I use a sermon illustration that really rubs people the wrong way. It might be the use of a great Christian movie such as Highlander or Hellboy, a Christian animated series such as Southpark, a Christian series such as The Big Bang Theory, a good book or series such as Game of Thrones or Hunger Games. It might even be a wonderful Christian game such as World of Warcraft. How do I know? The questions that follow. I will say this about all of us, we have very few bashful people in this congregation. I do have a small confession to make, sometimes I do sit around wondering what the most ridiculous example I can choose from culture to illustrate the lesson that we are reading. Partly I do it because I love the conversations that follow; but partly I do it in light of today’s instruction from the Gospel lesson of Luke.

     Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. We live in an age where the Gospel of Christ has gone forth to all nations. Our very gathering is proof of that. We are not exactly near the ground zero of this verse, Jerusalem. Yet, it is still His commandment to us to take the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name to all. So where do we take this message to which we are all witnesses.

      People over the last few months have noted with despair some interesting statistics about the country in which we live. For the first time in our country’s history, self-identifying Christians no longer make up a majority of the country’s population. Think about that for a second. Fewer than half of all Americans claim to be Christian. It’s a sobering statistic. What’s worse is that sociologists and pollsters agree that the number of people who actually attend church has cut in half in the last 70 - 80 years. Somewhere around 22% of people claim that they have attended church in the last month, down from the 40% in the last seven days in the 1930’s and 40’s. Barely more than 1 in 5 Americans consider themselves to be regular or active attendees, if one understands regular or active to mean monthly. Our mission field, brothers and sisters, is all around us. More than half of those with whom you work, with whom you play, with whom you study self-identify themselves as not Christian. Only 1 in five go to church monthly. Probably, if we are honest about our families, those numbers apply to them as well. Maybe not our nuclear families, but certainly the numbers seem to apply in extended families. The question is not “Should we reach out to them?” or “Do I have to reach out to them?” but rather “How do I reach out to them in a way which glorifies God?” "What is it that I, little old me, have to tell them about Jesus?"    
      Yes, we and those whom we are trying to reach are turned off by those who stand on street corners proclaiming "repent or you are going to hell."  Yes, most of us lack the formal theological training to compose a treatise about isolation in a Facebook world, an encyclopedic answer on the question of evil and free will, and, let’s face it, we are all just guessing when we get specific about the world to come. But, as Jesus reminds us this morning, we are witnesses of these things. Each of us has a unique redemption story. Whether we were evil and willful human beings thumbing our noses at God until some Damascus Road experience in our lives or, thanks to our parents, lifelong members of the Church who have always felt encompassed by the love of God, we each have a story. We have all seen Christ’s ability to redeem all things, beginning with ourselves. So, when we are called to speak to the world about the wonders God has done, we can begin with that best known subject—our very own lives!

     What is even better is that God redeems each one of our lives to His glory. Yes, we are in a slow, in my case I sometimes think I am in reverse, process of sanctification. As we walk in faith we begin to get eyes to see things which He sees, to hear those things which He hears, to understand what those around us need and should be seeking. Like His resurrected body, we are ourselves yet different. What do I mean?

     An easy example is WoW. When I talk about that imaginary world, I know some of you roll you eyes or wonder how on earth I could ever think that God was present in an imaginary world. Truthfully, I would have responded like you a mere decade ago. But ask any one of those in this congregation who play. People in WoW are struggling in real life with deaths, with relationship issues, with school, with bullying, with drugs and/or alcohol, with questions of morality, with questions of meaning. Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like that place you and I call real life. The conversations that I have in that pretend world are uncannily similar to those conversations that I have in this world. Art truly imitates life. But don’t take just my word for it, ask any of those who play.

     Related to WoW is the use of a series such as The Hunger Games. From a theological perspective, The Hunger Games is a simple story which captures the utter hopelessness and isolation that many in the world, particularly teens, around us feel. Heck, the possibility of the United States actually failing probably seems plausible for the first time in our country’s history, so the story represents a potential outcome of that failure. Ever hear anyone in your life or one television question whether the government really cares about their plight? Know anyone who claims that you cannot possibly begin to relate to them because we are, fundamentally, so different? Know any people who go to work mindlessly, worried about survival from day to day, completely without hope or vision for their future?
     I could go on and on with these examples and remind you of God’s teaching, but you and I have the most valuable tool for proclaiming repentance and forgiveness possible—the story of our own salvation! You and I can stand in the breach between the real world and the imaginary world and explain how Christ has healed us. We can reach into the hopelessness, the isolation, and the hurt so prevalent in modern literature, movies, television, and comic strips, and tell of the hope which He gives and the power to make it a reality, the community to which He calls us to share life’s joys and burdens, the healing which His cross can bring. Better still, because of His Resurrection and the one He promises for each of us, we can tell others that these things, all these things in the world are passing away. Yes they are painful. Yes they can take over our focus. But, because we know that we will be raised to a new life after our death, the measures of this life do not apply to us! Even if we seem to be the ultimate victims of evil in this world, still we know, we have witnessed, and we know that He will redeem even our deaths! So go! Share! Proclaim! You are witnesses! And you each have a story to share!

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