The Mess in the Middle

mess in the middle

Yesterday finished the Christmas season and today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Since I have no doubt that you did not decorate for Christmas until the third Sunday in Advent, you are now free to take down your Christmas decorations. (Right!)

The point of this season is to celebrate that the message of the Gospel is spread beyond the borders of Israel. It is a celebration that Jesus Christ is the true Light, not just of the Jewish, people but of the World. The magi that we read about in today’s Gospel were perhaps the first Gentiles to worship our Lord revealing, as Peter will preach in Acts, that He is Lord of all.

And yet many in His day wanted to hide the light under a basket. They did not want the light of God to go out to all people. They wanted instead to keep their religion parochial. They didn’t want to break from their traditions and that is why the Apostles were regularly challenged, beaten and imprisoned for preaching the good news.

Things are not all that different today. Folks may not beat up or imprison preachers, at least not here in America, at least not yet, but there is still that resistance to spreading the Good News beyond our comfortable borders. In fact many churches put their light under a bushel by being content just to meet budget and have programs within their walls, without real concern for what is going on out there in God’s world.

Years ago I came across a wonderful exception, St. Martin in the Fields in London. When I went to their website I found their mission statement and their charter. It was so good that I want to take a moment to read it to you. Here is their ten-point charter.

  1. We believe in and proclaim both the mystery that is God, whom we partly know and partly do not know, and the human need to worship.
  2. We believe in and proclaim the person of Jesus Christ who distinctively reveals the nature of God and the meaning and purpose of life, and who calls us to follow him through the death of the cross to the place of Resurrection.
  3. We trust in the Holy Spirit who prompts liberty, beauty, truth, love and joy against the waywardness of human nature.
  4. We are committed to using the Bible in a way that takes account of all truth and relates it to the real experiences, both good and bad, that people have of life.
  5. We are committed to a Church that conveys the Christian revelation in signs and symbols, particularly in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
  6. We are committed to exploring the meaning of the Kingdom of God and to making connections between what we profess and the way in which we live and work.
  7. We draw inspiration from our patron saint St Martin who, by cutting his cloak in two, demands that we look both at the resource that we create and possess, and the way that it is shared.
  8. We are committed to taking all people seriously wherever they might be at their particular point of understanding, while at the same time sharing with them whatever insights may have been gained by our relationship with God.
  9. We acknowledge the destructive power of human sinfulness, and we welcome gratefully the forgiveness that God offers to those who are prepared to turn to the truth.
  10. We are committed to identifying and affirming what is good and identifying and opposing what is evil, and living as best we can in the mess in the middle.

What I hear in this charter is a church that is not hiding from the world but engaging it, a church that does not pretend to have all of the answers but at the same time is bold to profess what they know to be true, particularly about Jesus Christ. I especially love the vision given in the 10thpoint that they will affirm what is good, oppose what is evil and live as best as they can in the mess in the middle.

Doesn’t this capture the Christian life? We are citizens of heaven but we are living here in the world. We are sinners whom God declares to be saints. We need a new hymn to the tune of “I’m looking at the man in the mirror” entitled,“I’m living in the mess in the middle.”This is where and how we let the light of Christ shine in the world.

I believe that it was in the 1980’s there was this teenage kid from India whose mother declared him to be the latest incarnation of God. The kid came to America and a friend of mine went to one of his appearances in Florida. Hundreds and hundreds gathered to worship him so they erected a great open-air canopy around a golden throne so that the people could come and pay him homage. For his grand entrance he came across a lake on a speedboat and once enthroned people stood in line to offer him gifts and receive his touch.

What a contrast to Jesus who is the REAL Son of God! First of all Jesus didn’t need a boat to get across a lake because He could have walkeed it. But He also didn’t sit on a golden throne so that people could come and worship Him. He went from town to town on foot, He preached on hillsides and stayed in people’s homes. He ate with sinners. He was not like royalty popping into the pub to have a pint with the locals and then wisk away to his castle. He joined people where they were… right there in the mess in the middle.

If this was Jesus’s m.o. for doing ministry then doesn’t it make sense that we understand that our baptism points us in the same direction. Baptism does not take us out of the world, rather it calls on us to engage the world. It does not make us perfect, it does not make us better than other folks, and it does not even ensure that life will be any easier. What it does do is free us from the mastery of sin so that we can follow Jesus and, in terms of the world, become a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. Our baptism empowers us to live in the mess in the middle.

But we must be clear that living in the mess in the middle is NOT the same as having a tamed, reasonable and balanced religion. That is what Jesus called being“lukewarm.”It is possible to be passionate about our faith and do so without claiming to have all of the answers. The two are not contradictory.

One concern that I had after 911 was as folks learned more about radicalIslam, that secularists would paint all religions with that brush.  For example I came across this line in an article in USA Today. “The World Trade Center stood as the material expression of reason and reality. It fell by the material expression of faith and mysticism. To win this war we must ignore the fraud of religion and discover the philosophy of reality, reason, individualism and capitalism.” (USA Today, Tuesday, December, 2001 , p 14A). In the magazine Cigar Aficionado a writer described the terrorists as “God drunk”and said that the solution for this kind of evil is a joie de viethat has us focus on daily pleasures of the flesh.

These writers were calling for a lukewarm religion if indeed they were calling for any religion at all. But they have missed the point. The terrorists were not drunk with God, they were drunk with hate. They did their evil in the name of religion but that does not mean that religion was to blame. As we are told in the Epistle of James in the Message, “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived…Real religion… is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (The Message, p. 567). The antidote to religious-driven terrorism is not more secularism; the antidote is true religion, or more precicely the Light of Jesus Christ. Sure there are nuts, who in the name of Jesus have instigated mass suicides unspeakable things but the answer for them is not to become more lukewarm in their faith. The answer for them is to meet the real Jesus in whose name they are doing these evils.

Here are the extremes to avoid so that we can live with the mess in the middle. One extreme is by joining a false religion and let them do the thinking for you. The other extreme is to immerse yourself in the material world ignoring the spiritual realities. But there is no real life in these two options. We were created to wonder and think and wrestle with truth, which cults and false religions do not allow. And we were created with a spirit to know and worship God, which no amount of materialism can provide. Jesus lived victoriously in the mess in the middle and He is the only one who can show us how to do the same. There was nothing passionless or lukewarm about Him and yet He stood out as clearly different from the Pharisees who claimed to have all of the answers or the secularists of his day who only cared about what they will wear or eat or where they will live.

Here is a sad post script.  I recently went back to the website of St. Martins and the strong charter has disappeared. In it’s place is a mission statement entitled “Who We Are” and there is not one mention of Jesus in it. It’s opening sentence is  St Martin-in-the-Fields is a unique configuration of cultural, charitable and commercial initiatives rooted in the life of a vibrant Church of England congregation.”That sounds to me more like a description of the BBC than a church. In just a handful of years it appears that they have lost their way. Let that be a cautionary tale for us.

So let us use this season to renew our commitment. Let’s take a closer look at our own lives and the life of this parish to see if we are engaged in the world or hiding from it. Let’s be purposefull about letting our light shime. Let’s renew our commitment to join Jesus in the mess in the middle.


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