June 21, 2014

The Worst Kind of Guarantee


Text: 1 Peter 2:20b–21: “But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called....”

have a great offer for you. Really, it may be something you might find useful. I want to introduce you to some friends of mine who get together every so often. We have this place where we meet that we all pay for together—well, it’s pretty old, actually, older than most of our houses, and it costs us a bit to keep it up, but we love being there for an hour or two each week.

When we get together we read from a book that has been handed down through this community for a long time, and we sing two or three songs. Then we have a little coffee and check in with each other before we go home again. It’s really a great group of people—I think you’ll really like them.

But—well, you should know that sometimes people don’t really like this group I’m part of. I mean, like I said, they’re all great people, but—well, they believe in some things that a lot of people don’t agree with. They used to—I mean, we used to be pretty popular. But it seems more and more people just sort of think we’re crazy for reading the things we do out of that book I mention.

So if you do come—and I really hope you will, because like I said I think you will really like these people—and especially if you decide to keep coming, well, you probably should know that sometimes some strange things happen to us these days. I mean, if some of us get together outside our place—I mean, you know, at the Starbucks or the diner or something—and talk about what we talk about here, people sometimes look at us funny. Once, someone even came over to my table and asked us to talk about something else. And folks will often leave trash on the grounds around the place where we meet.

So, I guess what I’m saying is you really will like these people, and they are really good to each other, but if you hang out with them for very long, well, you’ll get a reputation. And you should know that, because it might cause you some trouble. I mean, some of our folks have lost friends because they were part of our group, and a couple might have not gotten jobs when they mentioned in the interview that they spend time here.

But like I said, they’re really great people.

So, that’s the offer.

Over the past few weeks we have celebrated a few real high points in our lives together as community. We baptized Olivia and Arya a couple of weeks ago, and just yesterday Christian Goeselt made a public affirmation of his faith at his confirmation service. That is the thing we ask young people to do in order to become fully adult members of this community, and Christian is the most recent one of us to take this step.

And to those good young people, to all of those people who get baptized or confirmed, or even ordained, this is the deal we make. You will never be part of a better group of people. You won’t find better friends or a more dependable community of people who will always be glad to see you, no matter how badly you’ve messed up.

But there’s a cost, a social cost. People may look differently at you when you come along with this group. You may find your reputation changed. If you call yourself a Christian—I mean in public—people will think they know a lot about you, even though a lot of what they think they know about you is likely to be just plain wrong.

And good luck changing their minds. Because as it turns out a lot of people call themselves Christian, and a lot of them behave in ways or argue for ideas that don’t really have a lot to do with this book we read whenever we gather together again. And they are the ones people think of when they hear you’re a Christian.

These days we often feel disheartened because the culture seems more and more hostile to us. It seems as though we are sailing our little boat into headwinds and high seas. The message we have is actually a very gentle, a very simple message. Sometimes the way Christians react to an unwilling or indifferent culture is to become more severe and more uncompromising, which really only means becoming more like the culture we are meant to challenge and to change.

But the truth is, we started out this way. When Peter wrote this letter to his community, this letter we’ve kept for all these years as part of the book we read every Sunday, the culture around the church was pretty hostile. Christians were pretty much misunderstood. People treated them with suspicion or downright disrespect. They weren’t the most respected, the wealthiest, the most prominent people in town. All they really had was each other.

Peter says to his community that this is what it means to be Christian. He says that if we follow this call we’ve received, we will end up doing the right thing—and we’ll be misunderstood, lumped together with people who misrepresent us, disrespected, and hurt—yes, we’ll be hurt—because of what we believe.

That has to be the worst guarantee in the world. You have to wonder why anyone would take that offer. The world is not a Christian place. It never has been. It doesn’t welcome us. And in those moments where it seems Christianity is in the ascendant, true Christian values can be hard to find.

Christians are called to move the world closer, little bit by little bit, to the vision and hope of God—place where all people have dignity, all people have hope, all people have purpose, and all people have enough.

Christians are called to model among ourselves a community in which the law of love and the discipline of forgiveness are on display for the curious and unpersuaded to see.

We are not called to talk about what’s wrong with the culture and the social order around us; we’re here to prove the case for our vision by creating it here. When we get it right, our reward from the people around us may just be ridicule, or persecution, or disdain. We can get it right among ourselves, and still be surrounded by people who don’t get it or don’t care. A theologian of two hundred years ago called these folks the “cultured despisers.” We are surrounded by cultured despisers these days.

What we have in the midst of all this, what we have—all we have—when the going gets tough and it seems like our work is futile, is each other. We see in the way we make this community together the hope that God has for the world. That is the part of the deal hard to explain, but once you have experienced it impossible to deny. Amen.