Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Aroma of Christ

I am sharing here a message which I have preached on several occasions and which resonates with the emotionally charged climate of this election season, with the stress experienced in so many congregations, and with the Presbytery's challenging discernment on the future of our camp.   The Scripture texts are Isaiah 52:7-12 and 2 Corinthians 2:14-17, 3:12.

“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, 
and brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isaiah 52:7)

Isaiah did not know my college roommate.  His feet smelled SO bad, or maybe it was the antifungal spray he used on his feet & sneakers that permeated our small dorm room. You could not escape it.  It was awful!  But let’s park this olfactory sense of smell for a moment.

The power of Isaiah’s message is visual!  He is describing the joy of sentinels who anxiously watch on city ramparts waiting for word of the battle being fought beyond the mountain, who spot a messenger runner who comes into view on the mountain ridge line bringing news to the folks back home.  “Peace at last!  We are saved!  God be praised!  God reigns!”
How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger.  The feet part is a poetic way of expressing utter joy. Joy like my grandparents knew on Armistice Day at the end of WW1!  Joy my parents knew on VE Day at the end of WW2.  My generation missed the ticker tape parades for returning Vietnam Vets.  We do remember images of people climbing the concrete wall in Berlin, in 1989.  How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news which we cannot produce, but which only God can do?  Yes!  There is a God!  Goodness is stronger than evil.  Love stronger than hate, as the song proclaims.  God reigns!

The people addressed in this passage were a defeated people.  There leaders had been either killed or carried off to Babylon.  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, lying in ruin.  Their understanding of God’s blessing of protection shattered, needing rethought.  The prophets, including Isaiah, had warned the king of misplaced trust in allegiances and warned the people against the mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable.  Now Isaiah proclaims with this poetic messenger character.  “All is not lost, God has prevailed, the victory is won, peace at last, our God reigns!”

We know such a messenger in Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the night before he was assassinated, “God’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.”  We know such a messenger in ArchBishop Desmond Tutu, who in the dark hours of Apartheid, when confronted by supporters of that law, said,  “I’ve read the story.  I know how it ends.  God provides the victory.  We win!”

Martin and Desmond challenged society's controlling narrative with God's story.   They confronted institutionalized oppression of "colored" persons with God's larger, liberating, life giving story. They witnessed to God’s victory won by Christ on the Cross, a victory realized in full on the last day on his return, a victory which gives hope and courage for living in the present struggle.  Theologians call this eschatology, bending the past and future victory to bear on today’s struggle.

But that’s hard and we get more than a little antsy when facing trials, and life is hard.  The Apostle Paul addressing an antsy, conflicted congregation in Corinth writes, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.  Because we have such hope, we act with great boldness.”  (2 Cor. 2:14, 3:12)  Referring to the parade of Roman legions through the city upon return from their conquests.

Maybe we feel more like anxious disciples than bold acting apostles.  Maybe Martin and Desmond are bigger heroes than we aspire to be.  Yet we can relate to that sentinel watching and waiting on the city wall.  We all experience dark moments in our lives when we wait huddled behind our defenses.  When we or someone we know is struck down with an illness, or tragedy, or challenge:  a community is hit by layoffs, an economy in crisis, a race subjugated to poverty, a gender subdued, a people rejected, a struggling congregation fearful for its future.

And there comes a messenger, who knows the news from the front, who knows the end of the story, who has seen a glimpse of the promised land, who comes over the crest of that mountain that separates us from God's blessing with a transforming word of encouragement, love and grace, WHICH GIVES HOPE!  How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of such a messenger, who reminds us that we have this victory, and lives in that reality today: a pastor, an elder, a visiting deacon, a good neighbor who shows up at the right time.  We are a people of hope. We worship God who reigns and provides the victories we cannot produce ourselves.

Now back to that opening thought of smelly feet, and to Paul’s words to a conflicted congregation.  “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him, (Jesus) for we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved.” (2 Corinthians 2: 14-15)

I love that!  We should memorize these verses and daily hold them in our hearts.  Here we move from the Sense of Sight to the even more powerful Sense of Smell.  Here Paul gives the church in Corinth and all followers of Christ a clarifying Identity Statement.  “We are the aroma of Christ of God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (v. 15).  Wow!  And in the verse before it (v 14), he gives a Mission Statement, what they were called to do. “Through us spreads in every place, the fragrance that comes from knowing him."

The faith questions are, do we claim this identity and mission?  What fragrance permeates this sanctuary, this community because of your witness, because of your knowing Jesus?  Is it gagging anti-fungal spray or the aroma of Christ? 
Orthodox, Catholic and Episcopal Christians fill their sanctuaries with incense. The theological ardor of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians often stirs up rigorous debate.  People hate conflict and avoid it as anathema!  But it is a good thing at the right level.  Too much is toxic and community life suffers.  Too little and we stagnate, stuck in malaise and oppression, unreformed.  We are reformed and always reforming, and that stirs things up.  Effective leaders know when to turn up and down the heat for a healthy engagement on the right things.
These are challenging days. The stench of political rhetoric this election season permeates our public space, seeps into our homes and sanctuaries....  It is toxic!   The scent of anxiety, fear and gloom permeate our congregational discourse.  We get anxious when we see we are growing smaller and older…The American culture no longer sends people through our doors.  The community is not there to save the church, so we can feel good about ourselves!!!  God sends us into the community to witness to Christ, to transform the neighborhood with the aroma of Christ's love.  Anxiety and fear are NOT the aroma of Christ.  Rather, Jesus told his disciples again and again,  “Do not be afraid.  Do not fear."  God gives his disciples a mission to proclaim good news, to live in God's narrative, to release the captives, to join in with what God is doing where you are, transforming the neighborhood like salt in soup, like fragrance to a room? Are you passing the sniff test?  No congregation will grow until it does.  
Daniel James Brown, in his New York Times Best Selling Book, “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics,” tells the story of the University of Washington’s crew team, the story of life during the great depression, the story of the contrast between privileged Ivy League students in the east and hard working youth of the west, and the story of the Nazi regime and it’s quest for racial, genetic, ideological purity.  Scattered throughout the book are the most beautiful descriptions of team.  One such moving passage is on pages 178-180. I highly recommend it.  P.J. Fleck, coach of the WMU football team has used the mantra "Row the Boat!" inspired from this story.  Every person doing their part working in together, synchronized teamwork.  One picking of the slack of another.  It's a thing of beauty.  The Broncos are on a transformational journey from a losing 1-11 team three years ago to a 7-0 team this season.  There first 7-0 start of a season since 1941.  
I think there is a reason why this story wasn’t written and published until recently.  We humans are all in the same boat of this planet.  We need to stop trashing it and work together in order to survive and thrive. We Americans are all in the same boat. We need our elected officials to stop grandstanding,
and work together for the common good.  We Christians are in the same boat, the body of Christ, the church, one of the symbols of the church is the sailboat vulnerable on the vast sea.  We need to stop demonizing others we don't understand, and work together. 

Rather, we seem hell bent on bowing to the smelly idol of narcissistic individualism, building altars to the personal interest of me, my and mine, saying to hell with anyone else, if it does not serve “my” interest.  
I wonder when the Christian character in this country will stand up, not so much to demand our rights, but to give off the aroma of Christ? To permeate our public discourse and our congregational life with compassion, justice, love, hope, and healing forgiveness.
Paul makes it crystal clear,  
       “To the one a fragrance (or stench) from death to death,
       to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:16)