Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mutants, and any who would call upon His name . . .

     Father, you have a minute? — The head poked in as I was working on material for our Wednesday Bible study class.
     He came in, plopped down in the chair and asked if I knew what was wrong with his church.  More specifically, he wanted to know if I knew what he could do about his pastor.  Like you are now, I was intrigued.  What could have happened to make him get so upset about his church and pastor?  I soon had my answer.
     So, this weekend, we celebrated the birth of the Church.
     I nodded and told him we did the same.
     He asked how we celebrated it, and I told him that we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in about a dozen languages.  He seemed to think it was acceptable, as they read from the book of Acts this weekend as well.  
     That’s a bit weird, but the Apostles did it, so I guess it’s ok.  Guess what we did.
     I told him I had no idea.  Truthfully, I was surprised that his church had read from Acts on what we call the Feast of Pentecost.  Their service usually consists of only one reading, four or five songs, some extended prayers, and a long sermon.  There is no liturgy and no lectionary.  They have no real understanding of connectedness like we do with dioceses and provinces, and even a worldwide communion.  They pray for the missionaries they sponsor, but (at least this guy) have no understanding of companion dioceses.  They function very much according to the selections of the pastor.
     He talked about the songs and readings and then he got to his problem.  I think our pastor has been waylaid by the Devil.
     Truthfully, I was a bit surprised.  In our “serious discussions” about St. Alban’s and his own church, he had decided we weren’t quite as bad as the Roman Catholics.  Mind you, his church got worship right.  Celebrating the Eucharist, having so many readings, having services with no music, letting non professional clergy be so heavily involved (or, gasp, lead), and using pre-written prayers—those were just some of the examples of our problems.  Having heard the praises of his pastor for a couple years and no hearing him accusing that same pastor of having been possessed was absolutely shocking to me.  So I asked what happened.
     Our pastor preached on comic books.  Can you believe that?  Can you believe what God must be thinking?  We usually do a great job on Sundays, but our pastor used comic books to explain God!
     Before I go any further, let me explain his body language.  He was clearly anguished by what had gone on this past Sunday.  For two years he has politely, but firmly, reminded me how good his pastor is and how good his church is.  Whenever someone comments at meetings about overhearing a Bible Study or trying our church, he seems to be quick to point out to me that those interested in worshiping God ought to be coming to his church.  We are nice enough, but we have some problems, at least in his eyes.  He was so anguished that I could only shrug in silence and wonder.  I wondered if I should really freak him out and talk about my sermons that had used Hellboy or South Park.  Heck, I thought I could ask him if he could think of a good scriptural reference that might make use of the human cent-i-pad.  Part of me figured that I could glide in well below his pastor and make things alright by comparison.  But, as I said, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they had celebrated Pentecost.  So I asked which comic book.
     He could not remember which one, but it was the one about the group of heroes.  So, I asked if it was the Avengers (I had to describe the Avengers).  I asked if it was the DC Universe (btw you have not experienced a difficulty in communication until you have had to try and explain the difference between the Marvel and DC Universe to someone unfamiliar and uninterested in comic book lore!).  He decided after a few minutes that those groups were too big, so I tried the Fantastic Four.  Again, they did not ring a bell with him, and I found myself wondering how heretical this sermon must have been if he could not remember the demonic stars of the sermon.
     Frustrated, he explained what he remembered.  These comic book heroes were sometimes united by somebody to fight for America.  Often they fought among themselves.  They had all kinds of problems and wanted nothing better to fit in with regular people, but they were cajoled, pushed, and pleaded by their leader to save the country or world whenever they were needed.  Somehow, someway, my pastor thought this was how God worked with us.
     It was not too difficult, given what he had told me so far, to figure out a better than decent sermon illustration for Pentecost.  So I took the plunge.  I told him that superheroes were certainly good sermon illustrations sometimes.  At times, we want heroes.  We want someone who can do the supernatural, who can right wrongs and protect the weak.  That’s part of the appeal of comic books.  Pastors can certainly use heroes as subjects of comparison and contrast to our Lord.  Pastors can also sometimes use our desire for a hero to point people to our Lord.
     My interloper was was dubious.  We watch superhero movies because we want their powers.  We want to be able to fly like Superman.  We want to be able to reflect bullets or missiles like Ironman.  Heck, we even want their alter egos.  Batman and Ironman are rich as all get out.  That Green Lantern guy flies fighter jets.  They all have wonderful lives.
     “You must not be paying close attention to their stories,” I offered.
     What do you mean?
     “Have you never considered Superman’s loneliness, especially in light of his love for Lois Lane?  And what of Batman’s understanding that he must be a symbol because a man can be corrupted?  Or Ironman’s trying to figure out what all happened in NYC and the night terrors?  Green Lantern is really just a green version of Maverick in Top Gun.  Both are trying to live up to their fathers.  Thor’s love will die in the blink of his eye.  There’s all kinds of issues with these heroes.”
     Are you watching the same movies as I am?
     “I was just wondering the same thing as you described why the movies appeal to us.” I replied laughing.
     You pastors.  I don’t know why you see the world the way you guys do.  Superhero movies are just stories.  They are meant to entertain us.
     “The Gospel is just a story, a love story.  It is meant to remind us that our Father in heaven loves us.  What we are trying to do when we preach each week is to give comfort where it is needed, teaching where it is needed, uncomfortableness where it is needed, and all that with a reminder that God really does love us and want good things for us.”
     Maybe, but using some guy who traded his fingernails for razor blades and is now seeking to find where he belongs?  That just isn’t good for God, and it sure doesn’t reflect kindly on the Apostles.
     “Wolverine and the X-Men,” I announced.
     “Your pastor preached on Wolverine and the X-Men,”  I stated confidently.
     You know the story?
     “Some.  I was never into X-Men like I was some of the other heroes, but, thinking about it . . . X-Men is a perfect modern illustration for the coming of the Holy Spirit and empowering of the Church.”
     Seriously?  You think my pastor was ok to do this?
     “OK?  It’s kind of a brilliant use of stuff in the news.  He is trying to explain what is going on in Acts using the movie series or the movie out in theaters now.  Good preachers have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
     So, you think you could use this, what did you call him?
     “The guy with the razor blades is called Wolverine.  The whole group of mutants is called the X-Men.  And, yes, like I said, it could be a good sermon illustration.  I think it could give several illustrations.  I’d have to read up on the lore a bit more, but yeah, I think it works.”
     How do you figure?
     “One, they are all mutants.  Each has been given a special power or ability.  Storm controls the weather.  The cyclops dude shoots a laser beam out of his eye.  One girl sucks the life out of those whom she touches.  Magneto manipulates metal.  Some go invisible.  Some change colors.  The list is pretty long, but I do not know all their names.”
     How is that like Acts?
     “Each of us, by virtue of our baptism into Christ’s death and Resurrection is promised at least a gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Now, admittedly, I had to explain some of what goes on when we are baptized.  He just thought it was forgiveness of sins and assurance of eternal life.  I pointed out how each of those present spoke in a different language, in fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy.  As far as I know, no two mutants were alike either.  “But the story of the X-Men lends itself to several facets of the coming of the Holy Spirit, not just the powers.  Most just want to be “normal,” to blend in with humans.  All face scorn because of their identity.  Some are rejected by their families.  And most, if not all, have to be convinced by their leader that they must help those who scorn them.  Sound familiar?”
     A bit.
     “They are, of course, always in the minority.  The father figure, though I have a hard time seeing him off the bridge of the starship enterprise (he did not get the Picard reference at all), is the one responsible for trying to order them and their talents for good, for creating a sense of belonging between them all, and for directing the battle against evil.  This ringing a bell?”
     He nodded.
     “Plus,” I went on, “we could preach on the whole idea that we are mutants.”
     How so?
     “God created us, male and female, good.  Then what happened?”
     Even and Adam sinned.
     “Right!  And we lost that relationship with God.  We marred the beauty and good with which He created us.  You might say we mutated a bit.  Now, God is trying to draw us back into right relationship with Him.  He is offering the love we seek.  He is offering the peace that we seek.  He is offering the hope we want.  Yeah, the X-Men would work just fine.  For all their superpowers, the X-Men all have the same anxieties as you and me and the Apostles.  Remember, that wonderful story you heard this weekend, it was mostly about fishermen from Galilee.  It would be the modern equivalent of a hillbilly or redneck standing up and speaking with authority in DC, telling Congress and the President what the Founding Fathers meant or wanted.”
     We laughed at that, me more so because he had no idea I was from West Virginia and have been known to take a couple politicians to task.
     “But that idea of a mutant goes further.  How many people meet Christ and then want nothing more than to go back to their old way of life, of blending in with the world?”
     The parable of the seeds on the path and rocks and soil?
     I guess I never really thought about superheroes the way you do.  
     So, you don’t think the Devil has gotten control of my pastor?
     “I have no idea.  I did not hear the sermon; I only heard what you told me.  I have only met your pastor a couple times, and I would never claim to know him well.  He seems nice enough, but I got enough to worry about around here without sticking my nose in his business.  You have always told me how much better your church is than mine, so I have always assumed you judged him a better Christian than me.  If you are asking me if one can preach on the X-Men and not offend God, then I would say absolutely.  And, in case you think I was heretical, you recognized much of the story from your study of the Bible.  So, if I am heretical, you may not be too far behind.”
     I won’t say he went away happy.  I would say he is not as convinced that his pastor was possessed, or maybe he just thinks the same demon got us both.  We celebrated this week the Feast of Pentecost.  Churches around the world read the story from Acts and reminded themselves of the gift of tongues.  We at St. Alban’s even had parishioners praying the Lord’s Prayer in about a dozen languages.  A lot of time, churches misplace their emphasis on the gift of tongues, as if gifts of the Holy Spirit are rankable.  In some places, tongues are considered the single proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  My conversation with this particular gentleman reminded me, however, that the gift of tongues extends far beyond mere languages.  Each of us gathered here this week possess unique backgrounds, unique interests, unique passions, and a different circle of friends and family.  Each of us has been uniquely prepared for the work God has given us to do.  Sometimes, that work requires that we speak into the “tongues” of others.  I think, given our friend’s discomfort, that is precisely what that other pastor was doing.
     Jesus told a lot of farming and fishing stories.  Why?  That was the people with whom He was working.  You and I, however, have a different audience.  We may share some of the agrarian background that our counterparts of two thousand years ago, but there are new illustrations, new methodologies, and even new scales or size of farming.  Similarly, there are even new languages for which you and I have been trained as translators.  Ever read a youth’s text?  Ever read a text sent to yourself?  Ever pay attention to Facebook?  To Twitter and its 140 characters?  How about Instagram?  Perhaps I am already years behind the curve where you have gone ahead.
     One of the amazing joys of Pentecost is that God has promised to equip you with whatever you need to glorify Him.  He has already given you the gift of understanding and speaking within the mission field in which He has planted you.  Look around.  Some of us speak the military language of honor, duty, and courage with authority.  Some of us speak as teachers or instructors.  Some of us speak as fans of music or film.  Others of us speak as knitters or sports fans or cooks.  Some of us speak like those with a little more seasoning under our belts.  Some of us speak with the enthusiasm of youth.  Each one of us, though, has been prepared and anointed for a task not unlike that which we have read in Acts this week.  Each of us has been given a voice and a shared experience to witness to others in our lives the saving grace and love of God.
     We rightly spend a lot of time discussing our need of a Savior.  As I shared with my visitor, we all recognize on some level that we are mutants, that we are marred by our sins.  We are all, on varying levels, Prodigal Sons and Prodigal Daughters.  The promise of Pentecost, brothers and sisters, is that we are already redeemed and already part of a kingdom far more encompassing that those Apostles could ever have imagined.  You and I and all who call upon the name of the Lord are already redeemed.  These gifts which the Holy Spirit bestows upon us are like the pledge of the Eucharist.  How do I know I am His?  One way is by recognizing His gifts in our lives.  As we grow in our relationship with Him, everything about us is transformed.  We begin to see with His eyes, hear with His ears, understand and will with His heart, and even to speak with His voice.  The human being cannot help but be transformed by an encounter with the Living God.  As our remembrance of this day reminds us, we cannot help but be filled with awe and wonder and joy.  We cannot help but express the mundane in ways that praise the redeeming Lord.  That expression is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit’s gifts.
     Brothers and sisters, I cannot begin to speak to all the Spirit’s gifts in your lives in just a few minutes.  Having travelled with you now for eight years, I have learned many of your stories.  I have listened as you have shared, as you have suffered, as you have celebrated, and as you have questioned.  Best of all, I have heard that joy of the redeemed in your voices.  Pentecost is that time when we remind ourselves that the world needs to hear our voices and our stories and the hope He offers.  The world needs to hear that there is a home prepared for all mutants who love Him.  Amazingly, He has chosen you and me to be one of those heralds of His grace.  Pray that each of us embraces the tongue He has given us and proclaims His wondrous deeds in our lives!


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