“Complicated” by Rev. Stephanie Cooper

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Listen to the sermon from Sunday, April 15, 2018, titled “Complicated” by the Rev. Stephanie Cooper.

Last winter, Ashley and I bought our first home.  And when we were looking at this particular house, the icing on the cake was that our neighbors had some old raised beds built in their backyard.  Score!  Gardening neighbors!  At least while we got our backyard in order– which needed some “getting in order”– we at least could hope for some fresh veg from the neighbors yard.

Soon after we moved in, we watched as they slowly began to take apart the raised beds.  They had clearly been there for quite some time. The wood was beginning to rot, dirt spilling over the sides. And board by board the walls of the raised beds came down.  The old wood discarded.  And one Saturday morning as I stood in the kitchen sipping on my coffee, I watched as the neighbors slowly brought new pieces of wood into their backyard.  Pieces by piece, the new wood was piled up and bent over with drill in hand, new raised beds were constructed.  Right over the place where the old beds stood, new beds were raised up in their place.

After a morning of sweat and work, the new beds were in place.  The neighbors stood in accomplishment admiring their work and I stood in my kitchen, still sipping coffee.

Sometimes, we have to deconstruct things to construct something new in its place.

If you weren’t aware, there is a little bit of a language nerd in me.  The words deconstruction and destruction are separated by that one little prefix “con”, which makes all the difference in the world.  Destruction and Deconstruction are not the same thing. Destruction is reckless: it’s annihilation, elimination, eradication, full loss.

Deconstruction, on the other hand is “to take apart”, “to search out and examine each piece”, “to remove faulty parts”, and “to purposefully find the weak points.”

That one little prefix “con” holds all the meaning.  It means “with” or “thoroughly.”

So when you take this word “destruction” and through con in the middle of it- you get this thorough un-building or an active un-building.  Not destroying but deconstructing.  Looking at all of the parts and examining them to see which is faulty and which is not.

And sometimes, deconstruction is just as important as construction.

Over the past six months we have had a parade of guest preachers step into this helm.  And it’s been interesting because each of them, in their own words, have talked about the impending change coming for the big “C” Church (the Church universal).  Some say the church is dying.

The epidemic of churches closing their doors isn’t something you can ignore.  It is happening all around us. The Barna Research Group and Gallup have tracked and studied this trend and it is unlikely that this comes as a surprise to any of us gathered here.  More and more pews are empty and the hairs on the heads of those who are gathering is turning grayer and grayer.

I’ve even heard this sanctuary called the “big empty room”.

And so we in the church ask questions like:

  • “Why aren’t people interested?”
  • “What are we doing wrong?”
  • “How do we attract young families?”
  • “How do we get more people to come to church?”

Is the church dying?

Last spring I gathered with denominational leaders from across the spectrum to discuss this very concern.  Why is church in such decline and what, if anything, is there to be done about it?

The folks at the Texas Methodist Foundation and Harvard Institute are throwing tons of money at this question.

But maybe we are asking the wrong questions.

There is this concept in Eastern philosophies that finds its way into several forms of martial arts.  It’s this concept of when a force or a motion is coming at you, you do not try to stop or block that power or momentum with force– but instead you take that power and the momentum of the incoming motion to turn it to use it for your advantage.  So instead of just blocking a punch, you learn techniques to use the force of your opponent for your own advantage.

And there are some in the church who are approaching this question about the churches death in that same manner.  Instead of saying things like “we need to stop the decline of the church”, they are instead saying things like “God is in this mess and this chaos and perhaps God is actively deconstructing the Westernized church to construct something new and beautiful and relevant in its place.”

I almost called my sermon “Why’d ya have to go and make things so complicated.”  I don’t how many of you remember that Avril Lavigne song from the early 2000’s angsty teenager Stephanie just dug that song. Because in a light-hearted sense, that’s my question to the church. Why did you have to go and make things so complicated? Because when we get down to the root of it, is this faith complicated?  Or have we complicated it?

Our scripture text this morning captures what is going on right after the Jesus has been crucified.  There are rumors that Jesus has risen from the dead and that some of the disciples have even seen him and interacted with him.  And as they’re talking about these things as they walk the road to Emmaus, and a stranger comes and asks them what they’re talking about.  The stranger is Jesus but they don’t recognize it is him until they unwind at the end of the day and break bread and drink wine around the table.

And then again later: Jesus appears to his disciples and says “peace be with you.” They think it’s a ghost and are terrified. Jesus asks “Why are you troubled?  Why do doubts rise in your mind?”  And once again after sharing a meal together (a lot of life happens around the table), Jesus tells them: “You are witnesses to all of these things.”

You are witnesses to the resurrection.

That simple truth that we’ve all experienced at some point in our life– that resurrection happens all the time all around us– that is the Good News.  That is the Gospel.

Do you believe it?

And here we are some 2000 years removed from this interaction between Jesus and his disciples and we have had 2000 years of ritual and creeds, traditions, breaks from those traditions, set of beliefs, about the right way to be a Christian all piled on this Good News.  We get bound up in these questions and faith statements about who’s in and who’s out.  You have you believe in a literal resurrection.  Or you have to be silly to believe in a literal resurrection. You have to believe, you can’t believe that…  We get bound up in so much of that that we choke out that soft whisper from the Spirit.

Do you feel it?

Now questions are good.  I’m not saying that you need to adopt a blind faith, but has the church complicated the gospel message?  Have we institutionalized this wild radical message of God’s inclusive love for all: this forgiveness of sins, this second chance, this grace, this living into the truth?

Maybe we have some deconstructing to do to free this caged bird.

Because the beautiful part of all of this is that the Spirit of God is moving all around us within these walls and outside of them.  The Spirit of God is already ahead of us hovering over the waters urging us to come follow her to see what we might build together for the sake of the gospel.

This faith isn’t complicated.  But we, like the disciples, can get so bound up in our questions and doubts– and more often than not our fears– that we make it more complicated than it is.

And we feel it in our own lives too.  We overcomplicate things.  And our lives can get so tightly wound into a knot that we don’t know how to get back to the basics.  And I find I feel most tightly bound by my own complicatedness  when I am trying to control things and bind them up out of fear of the unknown. I work really hard to try to tell the Spirit where to go instead of letting go, opening up, and unwinding to follow the Spirit where she would lead.

In John’s gospel Jesus says, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That is the resurrection.  That is what we are to bear witness to.

Where in your life have you been given grace when you didn’t deserve it?  What in your life was buried in a tomb and then three days later was risen from the dead?  Where has love won out against improbable odds? Where have you felt the Spirit of God guiding you?

This faith: this thing to which we are invited to bear witness to is not so complicated.

2017 was a difficult year for my family.   Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of good that happened in 2017, but one of the things that made it difficult was that our dog Kudjo spent much of the year dying a slow death from cancer.  On top of the spinal disease that was impeding his ability to walk, last April Kudjo was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that would eventually kill him.

For 6 months we watched has his health slowly declined.  Death was imminent.  You could smell it in our home.  We did everything we could to keep him comfortable, but eventually we had to make the difficult decision about his quality of life. And on September 20th, we said goodbye to our sweet, huge, cuddly dog. Pets become like family to us and for those of you that have lost a pet, you know that coming home to that empty house is hard.

But meanwhile, all wrapped up in the same time and space and dust matter, on September 4th, just days before, a little angel was being brought into the world. Unbeknownst to us, a sweet puppy Barret would come into our lives in renewing ways; not only to help in our healing, but with her own unique love, energy, and fullness of life.

And it was out of the chaos of hurricane Harvey that Barret made her way to Austin.  Her mother was found wandering the streets of Houston after Harvey, pregnant with 12 puppies.  She was put on a bus with 100 other dogs and made her way to a foster home in Austin where she would eventually give birth to our sweet Barret.

Little did we know what the universe was up to.

As the Ecclesiastes writer reminds us, for everything there is a season.  A time to be born, a time to die.  A time to tear down, a time to build up.

As those who witness resurrection all the time, may that be the simple truth we proclaim.  May we listen for that still small voice and have the courage to begin the process of deconstructing our faith and processes, carefully examining each piece and listening for the voice of God in it to see what should stay and what should go so that we might be freed to proclaim the gospel message.

Did you hear?  Jesus has risen from the tomb!  And you, my friends, are witnesses to these things.

Thanks be to God.

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