October 15, 2017 – You’re Putting Me On

How much does sin weigh? Ask Jesus. He bore the weight of a broken humanity – our vulnerabilities, weaknesses and bad choices; our diseases, doubts and afflictions. So God doesn’t distance himself from these things and the people who experience them. This is where God shows up in our lives!

Soon we’ll be putting on our heavy coats for winter. Luther said that Jesus accepts us as we are and “puts on” our humanity, wears our brokenness and bears the weight for us. All this so that we might be healed.

Yet many a church is built on the idea that God loves the winners in the world and then forms “the winners circle.” The prosperity gospel preached by many suggests that if you are a good Christian, you will be prosperous. So God gets linked to winning and affluence, and when we struggle in life and feel like losers, it confirms to us that God must have abandoned us because of who we are. That’s one big reason people stop showing up to church.

But increasingly, people out there in our neighborhoods experience a different twist on this. It’s not so much that they feel like they’re not good enough. They see people in churches judging them as not worthy and this strikes our neighbors in the non-church world as self-righteous, hypocritical and downright mean. Often they’re right! And sensing a lot of bad news coming out of organized religion, they are not attracted at all to what we’re doing.

How can we lead with the good news instead of the bad news – the good news that Jesus accepts us in all our brokenness and “puts us on”? Even people who don’t really fit in around here!

Luther taught that in Jesus, God offers us a “happy exchange.” In this exchange, Jesus’ death wasn’t some sort of penalty or payment. Rather, in Christ, God “puts on” humanity and carries our messy, painful human existence. In return, we get participation in God’s life. Free gift. No conditions to be met.

And as baptized believers, now we participate in the life of God and are invited to consider life from God’s perspective.

Now, rumor has it, our strategic plan is confusing to many. A simple way of understanding it is this: each and every day, say to yourself, “Now that I have been invited to participate in the life of God, what is God up to in the world, and how am I a part of it?” or “What is God up to in my life today?” The faith practices we talk about are always asking this question of discernment. That’s what any committee meeting or board meeting is or ought to be asking “what is God up to and how are we a part of it?” Everything else in our meetings is merely footnotes to that.  And if we’re a part of what God is up to, now we’re putting on our neighbor! Just like God put on us. What is happening in the lives of our neighbors matters to us. Because it matters to God.

That’s what it means to pick up your own cross and follow me, says Jesus. The cross is the weight of forming community with the people around you. Their lives have weight and we bear that weight together. So how do we put on our neighbors, pick up our own cross?

Instead of only trying to attract people to us, maybe we have to be attracted to our neighbors by taking their lives seriously – their hopes, dreams, struggles. More on this in two weeks!

But of course, putting on your neighbor starts with each other. We’re neighbors to each other. Building Christian community means sharing burdens, “putting each other on” in this community that has been gathered at the foot of the cross. None of this means any of us should spill our guts to indiscriminately! But we can share how our lives are going with trusted members in the right group setting. We can pray for each other. We can be honest about our struggles with each other and likely find out we’re not alone.

I’ll never forget our monthly gatherings with confirmation parents at my former church. We were equipping the parents for faith practices at their homes with their families. We had taught them 5 basic practices that can be done in one sitting: sharing your highs and lows for the week, reading a passage of scripture and talking about it, praying for each other and the world, and sharing a blessing with each other. Just like we did during Lent last spring.

So, the parents were trying these practices out with their families during the month. Then, once a month the parents would gather with me while their kids were in confirmation class, they’d check in with each other in small groups and then we’d talk as a large group. In small groups they shared that it was hard to find the time and energy to do this. They found comfort in realizing that other parents were going through the same thing. It was then I decided to confess something about my own experience. I said the whole group, “In our family, all four of us are tired at the end of a long day, pretty distracted and sometimes grumpy. So do we usually get through all 5 faith practices? No way! Some nights, we’ll be lucky to do one or two, if any.” After I said this, I thought, “Great example you are!”

But when I said this, the parents looked kind of surprised, and then they looked relieved. One of the parents said, “That makes me feel so much better, Pastor John, to hear that you have the same challenges that we do in our house.” The whole experience helped folks be realistic about finding one new thing in your family rhythm that opens the door a little wider for God and your relationships, you’ve made progress.

Luther had a term for meeting with each other in groups, wrestling with faith and life, sharing struggles in a caring community. The “mutual conversation and consolation of the saints.” For Luther, it was as important as the sacraments, and it starts with our families.

Hebrews puts it this way: “And let us consider how to encourage one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”

What happens if you base a whole faith community on Jesus accepting us in our brokenness and “putting us on”? A recent mission start is in downtown Los Angeles began with this question: “what if we planted a multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic church in downtown Los Angeles that reaches out to both the skid row residents and the new loft dwellers?”

Many would say this is crazy. It has been noted that the most segregated hour in America is from 9:30 to 10:30 on Sunday morning. Yes, churches talk a good game, but we are usually quite homogenous. But consider that Jesus has gathered a broken humanity at the foot of the cross, offering a happy exchange, regardless of any category of humanity you might find yourself in: economically, racially, politically, spiritually. The divisions we experience are ones we introduce, not Jesus. I give you New City Church in LA, the most diverse church in America, cutting across all the lines we normally set up for ourselves. So there are skid row members and upwardly mobile professionals, educated and non-educated, heterosexual and GLBTQ, and so on. It’s also interesting to note that this is not a liberal church or conservative one, but embraces both and is defined by neither.

The pastor of the church, Kevin Haah, writes, “How did such a community come about? The foundation of our church is the belief that we are all messed-up people living in God’s grace. We constantly teach that our life, worth and identity come by grace…We have become a ‘come as you are’ church…It is so good to be a part of a church that allows messiness to be the norm. In many ways this creates the freedom for people to be themselves and to love one another and be loved as they are.”

It’s no surprise that the kind of small groups that took hold in New City, after they struggled with this for a while, were what they call “grow-and-serve groups.” These are groups where members grow together in their faith and serve the city. They currently have 15 active grow-and-serve groups!

I don’t bring this up because I think Mt Carmel should become New City Church. I do bring it up because it is a church based on Luther’s Happy Exchange, a church based on the idea that Jesus has put us on, invites us to be our broken, honest selves and create a space for our neighbors to do the same. For Mt Carmel, all this means is learning to become more of what we already are in Jesus Christ.

What does Mt Carmel’s future look like when God creates a culture where, more and more, we learn and practice putting each other on? We await the answer as we go on our journey! Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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