When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple,
they were kick-starting his spiritual journey as a member
of a faith community.
When Christi is confirmed today,
she will be taking her place as a member
of this faith community.
To join such a body of believers in the year of our Lord 2014
is a countercultural act.
Most people prefer to figure it out on their own.
Popular spiritual writer, Thomas Moore, has a new book called
A Religion of One’s Own.
It’s is a do it yourself guide to religion
so we can skip the messy complication
of human relationships.
I get it. Church is hard because it has people in it.
Last week a seminary professor I know
shared on Facebook her heartfelt protest against a Church
that was hurting her friend.
She said the way Church people treat other Church people
is why young adults avoid the church like the plague.
She’s right. The downright cruelest behavior I have ever seen
has been in church.
A Methodist pastor was saying to me week before last,
she just couldn’t understand why people do and say things
in Church they could never get away with at work.
We check our guns at the doors of bars
and our manners at the doors of Churches.
Like the seminary professor, she said,
it’s no wonder people don’t want to hang out with us.
We aren’t a safe place.
So were Mary and Joseph wrong to expose their son
to the social perils of organized religion?
Or were the synagogue and temple kinder, gentler places
than the 21st Century Church?
Well, apparently not.
1st Century Jews were divided up into feuding factions:
intellectual Pharisees, high church Sadducees, mystical Essenes,
Apocalyptic Survivalists, radical Zealots, penitential ascetics,
just to name a few.
And except for the Essenes who were too spiritual
to be seen with ordinary Jews,
they were pretty much all there at the synagogue and temple.
It was just as much of a zoo as the Episcopal Church today.
Even so, Mary and Joseph made Jesus a member
of that mixed up faith community.
More remarkable still, we have Christi here today
ready to stand up, take vows, and join this Church.
What is that about?
Why are we still here in the thick of organized religion
reciting “How lovely is thy dwelling place O Lord of Hosts to me”?
After thousands of years of faith communities
behaving in “all too human” ways, we keep doing it.
Maybe we are just gluttons for punishment;
or maybe there is something holy and mysterious at work here.
You could make a good case for the gluttons for punishment theory.
But I’m going to go with answer number two:
something holy and mysterious.
It’s called the Incarnation.
When God became human in Jesus,
God showed us that God lives in humanity,
in the mixed up messy milieu of the human race
with all our frailties, foibles, and faults.
My first Christmas as a priest, the congregation drove me to distraction.
I knew how Christmas is supposed to be done.
But they just wouldn’t do it.
So I called a wiser older veteran pastor and whined
about how my congregation was screwing up Christmas.
He said, “Well, I guess Jesus will just have to be born
in a stable again this year.”
And so it is.
Jesus is always born in a stable. It’s messy.
God shows up in the stable of humanity,
not in the palace of an idyllic spirituality,
not in the Southern Living mansion of propriety,
but in the neurosis, addiction, and just plain orneriness
that make us such an untidy lot.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a net
that was let down into a lake
and caught all kinds of fish.”
All kinds of fish, including the bottom feeders.
Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted
his field with good wheat but there were also weeds.
His workers wanted to pull the weeds.
But the farmer said, “No, we’ll wind up pulling up wheat too.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.”
So here we are, the Church.
A net with all kinds of fish.
A field with wheat and weeds growing together.
We are a mixed assortment of fruits and nuts.
But that makes a pretty good trail mix.
And this, friends, is where God hangs out.
Three decades ago I rediscovered Christianity so I went back to Church.
I was looking for God – not friends – I didn’t much like people.
I thought Church was just something I’d have
to put up with along the way.
Sometimes it has felt like that.
But the truth is I’ve come to love this motely crew.
They have been the human channel of God’s grace to me
over and over.
They have been channels of grace by being good to me,
but just as often by difficult.
Martin Luther said,
“God carves the rotten wood and rides the lame horse.”
We grow here through the slow hard work of relationships,
including difficult relationships.
This is the crucible where we are changed into the likeness of Christ.
Because the church has people in it,
we have to deal with them.
We learn patience and forbearance.
We also learn how to set boundaries
so that the personal foibles of some are not allowed
to wreck things for the rest.
This is where we learn how to tell the truth in love.
We learn how to ask a question out of sincere curiosity
instead of trying to manipulate someone into our opinion.
We learn the difference between being kind and being nice.
In the Church, we practice a balance of wisdom and compassion.
We cultivate the ability to imagine how things look
from someone else’s point of view.
We may even learn to trust each other.
500 years ago, St. John of the Cross said,
“God has ordained that we are sanctified (made holy)
only through the frail instrumentality of each other.”
We need each other’s strength and courage.
We also need each other faults and foibles.
But the goal is that we change, we all change, we change together.
By hard work, by patience and discipline,
we transform ourselves into the kind of community
that attracts people to Jesus instead of chasing them
away from him.
Our salvation happens through this process of change.
And it is not our spiritual well being alone that depends on it,
but the well being of all those lost people
who will never see the face of Jesus except in us,
and the only gospel they will ever read is the one they see
in how we treat each other.