Friday, February 07, 2014

Pussy Riot and the Prophet: Sermon for February 9, Fifth After Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

This week I was wrestling with three problems. First, one of you members had asked me a theological question: "Why aren’t we adding more books to the Bible, and how come we don’t have a Third Testament after the Old one and the New one?" Good question.

My second problem was trying to make a sermon that would speak to the new elders and deacons we are installing today as well to the whole congregation.

My third problem was that my sermon wasn’t going anywhere. By Thursday morning all I had was a moderately interesting lecture on Biblical themes that was all head and no heart. I got up from it to start my breakfast and I said to Melody, "I can’t get this week’s lessons to talk to me."

And then as I was finishing my omelet and listening to Morning Edition on NPR I was caught by a story. It was an interview with two members of the Russian protest punk band Pussy Riot. They had been at the Barclay Center in a concert for Amnesty International.

Well, I’m not fan of punk bands and this band’s name made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like what they had done that got them in trouble two years ago in Moscow. They entered the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior and right in front of the altar they staged a provocative musical protest. Of course they got arrested and convicted of hooliganism and put in prison for two years—actually a labor camp. That was terrible, of course, and it’s not their cause I did like. They were protesting the loss of free speech under Vladimir Putin and also the Orthodox Church’s collaboration with Putin’s government. But I didn’t like them desecrating a church. Any church.

Well, I got converted. As I listened to their story on NPR, all of a sudden our lesson from Isaiah 58 came to life. It’s like they got their protest strategy right out of Isaiah, as if God were saying, "What to me is your magnificent cathedral? What to me is your beautiful icon screen and your altar? What to me is your glorious liturgy and your fasting twice a week? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?"

The conflict between the freedom of the Gospel and the yoke of organized religion that we hear of in Isaiah 58 is also the conflict between the Lord Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5, and between Martin Luther and the Roman hierarchy during the Reformation, and in every single church today if we honestly examine ourselves. I represent organized religion. I keep asking you to serve on this committee and that, and devote your time and money to the cause of this old church, and maintain this building as a sacred place, and follow our liturgy, but does this all truly serve the freedom of the gospel?

I was so taken by the story on NPR that I posted the link to it on my Facebook page. You might recognize the voice of the interviewer, David Greene. He interviewed the two band members who had just been released from their two years in the labor camp. They were Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, along with their interpreter. He said to them, "You are both mothers, and you both have young children. If you had known what your punishment would be, would you have done this protest? Do you have any regrets?"

It was Masha who answered: "This might be hard to understand, but I am actually grateful to the leadership of Russia for providing me with this experience of being in jail. I think I became a freer person as a result, and understood many things that will now enable us to work on fixing this prison system." David Greene sounded surprised. "You feel ‘freer,’ you say, what do you mean?" She said, "Freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably or dishonestly or dishonorably, freedom as in life."

I could have been listening to Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks. Or the Apostle Paul. And now the epistle lesson was coming to life. I could hear the freedom in it, the radical freedom of the Apostle Paul when he came to Corinth. You see, the Corinthians were prosperous and sophisticated, but he did not tailor his message to their expectations. He did not calculate for his success. He was free of what might impress them. He decided not to know anything among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I could hear the freedom in that, because of what Masha Alyokhina had said.

Even in the labor camp those two young women were free. Their story judges all our talk of freedom in American when you consider what we use our freedom for. "Don’t tread on me." For so much self-indulgence and individual independence. Their freedom is for the cause of justice in their land and their greater service in dangerous places. Freedom does not reduce the sacrifices in your life, it just changes that for which you sacrifice. Like with Jesus Christ, and him crucified. The Lord Jesus said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." He means the righteousness not of obeying the rules or even keeping clean, but of getting on God’s bus, of siding with God in what God is doing in the world, as in Isaiah, as in the prophets and the Torah, as the Kingdom of Heaven has its way within the world.

I know I do get sentimental, but I believe that on Thursday morning I was spoken to by God. Not through NPR. I’m not that much Park Slope. But through the Bible as it was conversing with the morning news. The great theologian Karl Barth said that a preacher has to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And that is the third testament. That’s the answer to your question.

This old Bible that we have is sufficiently rich and relevant to engage with freshness all the other words around us in the air, and in your magazines and meditations. God still speaks, through the harmonies between the gospel and the news, or in the contradictions between the prophets and the book you are reading, or in the interplay between the epistle and you just heard on the phone. The third testament is the Bible’s conversation with our culture and with your mind and your life.

In just a few moments I will be asking five of you if you believe that you were called by God into your sacred offices. It’s a problem. Can you believe that God was behind it when you were contacted by someone trying to fill some vacancies in the interest of organized religion? Was God behind it on Thursday morning that I happened to  make my omelet at 8:15 AM instead of at my usual 7:45?

You can’t know for sure, and there is no proof. It would be nice to just hang it all on God. But you can’t, and you shouldn’t, because the point is your freedom even when God calls you, that you answer the call in freedom, and you have to make the choice, and you take responsibility for your choice without being able to prove it. As Masha Alyokhina said: "Freedom as responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom for choosing to act honestly and honorably, freedom as in life."

I am asking the five of you to do what seems to be rare in organized religion. Please keep this 359-year-old monument to organized religion open to the freedom of the gospel and therefore a light for the world and a city on a hill. Guide this congregation to be a communal conversation with God, a living third testament, the conversation between this old Bible and every latest thought and motivation. With your bodies and your emotions. With politics. With science. With literature. With painting and art. With breaking the bonds of injustice and sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house.

I know that’s what you want, what you have heard, what you have seen, that’s why you are here, that’s why this congregation has elected you. God has given you the Spirit of wisdom that you may serve this congregation in doing these good works, so that this part of Brooklyn might see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.

You all have so much freedom here. No one forces you to do anything, except the IRS. You will not be put in jail for using your free speech. Be worthy of the gift that you enjoy. You have so much freedom in this church. Your freedom is for responsibility. And your chief responsibility is to love. I want you all to love these elders and deacons. And I want you to love them because God loves you.

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

The NPR link is here:

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