Monday, June 23, 2008


Matthew 10: 24-39; Romans 6: 1b-11
******** Congregational Church
June 22, 2008

Back in 1989 the cable channel MTV started a new series entitled “Unplugged”. Rock musicians were invited to play their well-known hits but with a catch: no electric guitars, no keyboards, no special effects—just acoustic guitar, the musician, and an intimate audience. The music was no longer frenetic but had more the pace of a relaxed heartbeat. Musicians had to reconsider their arrangements of songs, to keep the same energy and focus but in an acoustic setting. The song “Leila” by Eric Clapton now sounded like the love song it was intended to be. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with rock n’ roll; in fact I love it. But there are times when it is good to be challenged by letting go of the way things are, by letting go of what we are used to. Often, new life springs forth.

In recent years, especially since the boon in cell phones, Blackberries, ‘texting at the table’, and video games, families have been encouraged to take time to be “unplugged” in another way. Over a year ago I heard a story about families in Lexington, MA who organized one day to be unplugged from the 24/7 of all the craziness. All afterschool activities and homework were cancelled. No civic or religious meetings for the adults. Families were to make a home-baked pizza together, eat it together, play board games or an outdoor sport together, to take a break from the driving to and fro, from the video games, the computer, the TV, the MP3 player, the cell phone, and just be together, listening to one another without the help of electronic devices. This is not for the meek. Believe it or not, this is harder for some than for others. But in my house it’s called Sunday.

What society or culture calls getting back to simplicity, or being unplugged, is what our faith calls dying to self. We all need to be reminded of the backbone of our tradition because some of it is a lot harder than we’d like to think.

Today’s scripture from the lectionary is no exception. This is the kind of scripture, that when its turn comes up in the preaching cycle, causes the preacher to remember that we are not in the pulpit to be popular, funny, or comfortable. To be sure, those things can happen but they can’t be the source we rely upon for our preaching energy. There has to be substance, which comes from God. Scripture like this makes a preacher get out of the way and let God do the talking. We die to self in passages like this and thus are reborn in our connection to the text, to the congregation, and to God.

In fact, in order to understand these passages, especially the one in Matthew, we need to unplug ourselves from our assumptions and our fear. We need to let go of our resistance to sayings like, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell” or “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” or “Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple”.

First, Jesus is not ushering a call that we alienate our families in order that we may follow him. In the Middle Eastern or Semitic perspective a result was viewed as the purpose as well. The division of families was indeed a reality, a result of the Jesus movement within Judaism. The religion of the head of the household dictated the religion of the whole house: spouse, children, servants—everyone. If anyone chose to follow Jesus and to break with this tradition it caused great strife in the household. The thinking was: if families are divided then this must have been Jesus’ purpose.

Second, Jesus was not challenging the least and weakest of claims on our loyalties but our strongest ones, our family ties. He offered himself as an alternative to the best society had to offer, not the worst.

And it is precisely what we think is the best way we can spend our time, our energy, as the church, the body of Christ, but also in our lives as Christians, that Jesus tests our discipleship against. We can easily abandon our failures but can we also let go of our successes in order that we be faithful? Can we let go of what we think constitutes success, of what we think makes for failure? What model of our faith can we look to, to help us with letting go, with dying to self and finding new life?

In Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome he speaks of being baptized into Christ’s death and into Christ’s resurrection. In baptism we are buried with Christ and we are raised with him as well.

We who practice infant baptism have difficulty thinking of a baby needing to die with Christ in order to be raised with him. But in the early Church the practice of baptism reflected this dying and rising very vividly.

Those who wished to prepare for baptism were given instruction about the faith beginning in Lent. Then on Good Friday these converts, called catechumens, were baptized by immersion into the death of Jesus. As they were submerged their old lives were left behind in the water. They emerged as new persons, new creations, and thus were naked, like a newborn baby. They were then clothed in white and given a meal of milk, honey, and soft bread: baby food, really. They then stayed in the empty church, buried with Christ, until Easter morning when they were presented to the congregation as new members in the faith, now being baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It was an incredible experience of death and rebirth.

But how are we to enter into such an experience, we who have been baptized as infants? How are we to die to self and rise with Christ?

One way is through extended periods of silence, as we will practice in a few minutes during this morning’s prayer time. In silence we release all the thoughts in our mind that seek to fill the emptiness. We empty ourselves of our schedule, our list of things to do, our worries, the past, the unknown future, those things that please us, our friends and our families—we let go of all of it. In silence we are filled instead by God, by the power of pure love. In silence we find freedom from all that distracts us: we find Spirit.

When I was in seminary, every year I would go on a silent weekend retreat in Gloucester, MA. The participants could talk during dinner the first night but then after that we were to be silent all weekend long. Meals were taken in a dining hall that faced a beautiful cove inhabited by seals and seabirds. We listened to meditative music as we ate facing a wall of windows with a view of the cove. When we passed each other in the hallway there was no need for greeting each other except by a look or a smile. We respected each other’s space and each other’s encounter with God in the silence. Then Sunday, after the celebration of the Eucharist, we would eat lunch and could then share with one another what the weekend had been like for us.

In the church we are rarely silent. In many churches the prelude is often treated as background music to our conversations, as if we were at a cocktail party. Fellowship is good and has its place in our life together. But when we come to worship it is the time that we become unplugged from our lives, when we leave them at the door because they’ll be waiting there for us when we leave. Worship, and especially silence, is when we are called out of ourselves that we may be in Christ.

We are more than just a body of Christians; we are more than a group of people with a shared common interest. We are the body of Christ; through baptism we have union with the living Christ. Our identity is joined to Christ, taking primacy over any other identity we may have. Through baptism we participate in, not merely reenact or imitate Christ’s death and resurrection.
But our baptism as infants is not our only baptism. John the Baptist said that he baptized with water but that there would be one, Jesus Christ, who would come after, who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit.

Baptism by fire: it’s a phrase we use when we are thrown into a situation and forced to let go of all we think we know and learn anew our dependence on God and on each other. Often I think of these times as Christ leading me to something new, to some awareness about myself or others and to reliance on God’s very real and powerful presence.

In the time of Jesus there was a Jewish sect who called themselves Essenes. John the Baptist was one of them. It is thought that Jesus might have also been an Essene. They left Jerusalem to live in the desert because they believed that Jerusalem had become too worldly. In the early Church we have our own desert fathers and mothers from the 4th and 5th century who sought God through prayer and meditation, patience, poverty, humility, and obedience. These are strange words to us in the 21st century. These monks and nuns “stepped off the world”; they died to themselves that they might find God in a way that would be more real than anything they thought they could experience by living an ordinary life.

St. Francis of Assisi practiced this dying to self in this way: his spiritual companion was Sister Death. Whenever he was troubled or confused or worried or impatient, he would consult Sister Death. Then the trouble or confusion or worry would seem not so important and he would be able to be patient.

The paradox of the believer is this: If we want to live a life that is full we must surrender our lives. As in the words of the Call to Worship, if we want to know how to live, we must learn how to die. The Christian faith began in a way as an act of subversion. Being “unplugged”, “stepping off the world”, being silent, dying to self, surrender, knowing death as a close friend, baptism: all these are acts of subversion to the status quo for they lead to resurrection, they lead to new life; new life not of this world but of the kingdom of God; new life not of the flesh but of the Spirit.

How might this church step out of itself, die to its past and its future, that the present might become alive? What are your failures, your successes, that you need to let go of in order to be faithful? What is it about the Christian faith that confronts the claims of loyalty in your life? How costly is discipleship in this church, in your life? How has this church, how have you, experienced the cross? Does the idea of silence in worship beckon you or challenge you? How can this church walk with death, be baptized with fire, be subversive, that new life, resurrection may come?

In the words of the poet Wendell Berry: So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. …Practice resurrection. Amen.


Andy said...

Do you really spend every Sunday "unplugged"? If so, I salute you.

Cynthia said...

Mostly. No TV. No computer. We only have one cell phone and it's a pay-per-call. Maybe after the kids go to bed David and I will watch a DVD, but that's about it.