Sunday, June 24, 2012

Quote of the Day

Here is the sermon I preached today at Christ Lutheran Church:

          Before I came to seminary, I worked for a company called Nationwide Medical. One day, one of the owners asked if I'd be willing to put up a "Quote of the Day" on the board in front of the office. This sounded like it would be a fun, so I agreed, and that same day, I put up the very first quote. I can’t remember what it was now, because it was so long ago, but it was probably something that I thought would be inspiring, something along the lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson saying, "If you would create something, you must be something." Some kind of dripping saccharine, super cheesy statement like that, you know, the kind that you normally find on an inspirational poster or something. It was fun; I liked doing it.
This went on for a few weeks, and I would have to find a new quote every day. I started tracking them on a spreadsheet so that I wouldn't reuse the same quote twice, and then I just started collecting quotes from all kinds of places, books, magazines, the Internet, and I added them to the spreadsheet, putting future dates on them so that each day, I would just have to pull it up, and write the quote on the board. After doing this for a while, it started to get kind of hard to find new sources for the daily quote, so I started wondering if there were sources that I hadn't considered yet. And, this naturally led me to think about the Bible.
Now, Nationwide Medical was and is a very secular company in a very secular area, not unlike Marin, so I knew that I couldn't just throw Bible verses up on the board. I had to pave the way, make sure everyone was prepared for it so it wouldn't be a complete shock. So, I started looking at the texts of other religious traditions, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on. For some reason I thought that religions other than Christianity would be less threatening to the non-religious people of Nationwide Medical. I'd sneak a religious text onto the board about once a week, and then after about a month of that, I put up a verse from the Bible. I chose the Old Testament because 2 out of the 3 owners were Jewish and top of that, there were a lot of Jewish people working there, so I just thought it would go over better if I left the New Testament out of it, at least for now. And so I put the Bible verse up, and I held my breath. And at the end of the day, no one had said anything bad about it. So I thought, okay! I guess there was nothing to be worried about.
I got a little more brazen after that. I only waited about a week and a half before I put another Bible verse on the board. Again, nothing happened, and I thought everything was fine. But the next day, when I got to work, the office manager called me into her office, and asked me to close the door.
"I need to talk to you," she said.
"Okay," I replied, sitting down.
"We've gotten some complaints about the 'Quote of the day," she said.
"Really?" I asked. "What are people saying?"
"They're complaining about the Bible verses being put up on the board."
At first I thought she was kidding, because we did joke around with each other sometimes. But then, I realized she was serious. So, I started to defend myself.
"I'm not just putting Bible verses on the board," I said. "I put up quotes from Buddha and Mohammed, too, and the religious quotes that I put up aren't pushing any kind of religious beliefs, they just happen to come from religious text. And, I purposely used the Old Testament because those are the same texts that Jewish people use. And, the vast majority of the quotes are from secular sources, anyway."
"Well, people don't like it," she replied. "They don't want to have religion shoved in their faces when they come to work."
"But, I'm not shoving religion in anyone's face," I argued. "That's the whole reason I've been using lots of different religions. I'm not favoring one over the other."
"It would be fine if you were just putting this up on your desk," she said, "but those kinds of things can't be put up in front of the whole office."
"So, does that mean we're not having a quote of the day anymore?" I asked.
"No, the quote of the day is fine, you just can put up the religious stuff anymore."
I didn't feel like there was anything left for me to say at that point, so I just said, "Fine, I won't put up religious quotes anymore."
She smiled and nodded, and I got up and went back to my desk. For a brief time, I had been given the opportunity to be a source of enlightenment and truth for a small group of people. But, when I got too close to the truth, that opportunity was taken away.
Our New Testament reading today tells a similar story. 2 Corinthians is an interesting text, and there's a lot of debate about it. In fact, very few Biblical scholars believe that 2 Corinthians is a single letter. Most scholars believe it's actually multiple letters, somewhere between 2 and 6, that have been chopped up and rearranged into what we now call 2 Corinthians. The section that our reading is from today is known as Paul's First Apologia. In it, Paul is writing to defend himself from people who are trying to take over the church that he had established in Corinth.
See, it was around this time that the church was just starting to form, and there were 2 distinct factions. One group wanted to hold on to the old traditions, the purity code and the dietary laws. These were the rules that governed every aspect of life, what you could eat, what you were supposed to wear, the people you could associate with, all kinds of things. The other faction, the one where Paul was one of the most prominent leaders, believed that since it is only God's grace that saves us, the purity code was no longer a requirement for salvation, and new converts to the faith should not be forced to adhere to them.
The followers of Paul were being called imposters, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor, and having nothing. And so Paul argues with them. He says, "We are not imposters! We are true!" because they know the truth of God's saving grace. "We are not unknown!" he says. "We are known," because they are part of that community. "We are not dying!" he says. "We are alive!" because they live in the light of Christ. And even though they are being punished for who they are and what they believe, they are not killed, for God was with them. "We are not sorrowful!" he says. "We are always rejoicing!" because they know the joy of God's love. "We are not poor!" he says. "We make many rich!" for through their witness, they are storing riches in heaven. And they posses all that they need, because they have faith in Jesus Christ.
These men that were denouncing Paul were afraid of him. They feared him because he was too close to the truth and he was drawing people away from the traditions of their faction, the traditions that brought them comfort, the traditions that brought them power. These men were not ready to yield that power to a person they perceived as an outsider, someone who refused to tow the party line. And, the more people he was able to bring to his way of understanding, the less influence they had over the followers of Christ. This was a political battle. This was about power, who had it and who didn't. What Paul was teaching, what Jesus taught, was too radical. It changed everything, and it meant that they would have to give up control of their lives and their community to God. This was huge, to think that they were not in control of their destinies, and that other people besides those that looked like them and thought like them could be saved. It was too much, they couldn't handle it, and they refused to believe it. So they had to remove from power those who were trying to share that message.
But, Paul fought back. And, it wasn't easy, but eventually, he prevailed. Now, no one ever said being a Christian was easy. In fact it says right in the Bible that those who follow Christ will be persecuted. And, even though it seems like the ultra conservative religious right are the ones who are doing the persecuting through politics and the media, you have to wonder if it's only because they feel persecuted too, by a society that rejects the base message of what they are trying to share: that Jesus loves us, that God loves us. And so they lash out, drawing their communities in on themselves, and creating groups of "us" and "them." You are imposters. You are unknown. You are dying.
It's easier to follow a set of rules than it is to put our trust in God. And it's easier to be afraid, than it is to share the Good News when people don't want to hear it. After I talked to the office manager about the "Quote of the day," I got really sad. I felt like I was being persecuted for what I believed, for doing something that I thought was good and fair. But, then I realized that I have just as much of a right to not have atheism shoved in my face every day when I come to work, and a "Quote of the day" without equal representation is exactly that. And, so I went back to the office manager the next day and I stood up for myself, and I told her that it wasn't fair to exclude religious text just because some people don't want to see it. And, she agreed with me. But unfortunately, the only solution to the problem was to no longer have a "Quote of the day," and that was too bad, because by then, people had started looking forward to seeing it every day. And it could have been a good thing, a shared thing that didn't push religion, and didn't push atheism, but it was too close to the truth, and some people don't like that.
I like to think that I made some kind of difference working at Nationwide Medical. I didn't always feel comfortable sharing my faith with the people there, because I knew what a lot of them thought about it. I'll never understand why it's okay to question a person's sanity or intelligence because they are a person of faith, but that's the world that we live in. But, everyone there knew that I went to church every Sunday and that I lead the youth group there. And, they knew that the only reason I was going to school was so that I could get a degree that would get me into seminary. And, they knew that I wasn't stupid. They knew me; I was a part of that community, and they knew that I believed in God.
We don't have to beat people over the head with our faith, but it is important that people know that we do believe. We are the body of Christ; we are true, known, alive, rejoicing and rich. No one can hide that. We have to let the light of Christ shine from us so that the whole world can see it and be blessed by it. And, if we let that light shine brightly enough, it will remove any doubt as to who we are and who we belong to, for God is with us and God is in us. Let the world see it. Live for God, as Jesus lives for us. Amen.

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