Sermon: "Serving the Kool-Aid," July 19th, 2015

This sermon was given as part of a joint service of Comox Valley United Churches, including Cumberland and Comox United.

July 19th, 2015
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Peter 2:2-10

"Serving the Kool-Aid"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

First Peter. Not a text that is read often in worship. Not on the greatest hits of the bible list. But here it is.

Peter (could be the apostle, the well-known disciple of Jesus, could be someone else) writes this letter to encourage a group of churches struggling to be faithful in a context and culture that sees them as backwards, irrelevant, and even dangerous to the society in which they live. Nestled in some of the most modern, well-educated places in the world, economic powerhouses and centers of commerce and culture, there is little room for backwards, superstitious traditions, weird stories and even stranger ways of living. There isn’t quite full-blown persecution. But it’s more like the community is on the receiving end of slander, anger, and general suspicion from the people who live next door and down the street. The community is disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond their control and is trying to survive as a minority in a culture that seems alien, suspicious, and even hostile to them and their way of life.

We, might not live in the fear of persecution, open anger, or public discrimination. But there is a sense that faith communities like ours are odd, out of step, they just don’t fit in to the cultural landscape like they used to. A minister in south Chicago tells a story his congregation holding a beer tasting and barbecue in his backyard one fall in celebration of Oktoberfest as a way to reach out to the community. Things are going well, then one guest asks the minister how all the people here know each other. And the minister replies, with a little nervousness, “we know each other from church.” The man looks at him sideways. “Church, eh. Well,” he smiles, “I’ll drink your beer. But I won’t be drinking any of your Kool-Aid.”[1] You might have had the same experience, maybe fear of embarassment. Trying the hide the Koolaid so your guests, friends, neighbors, coworkers, don’t see it and somehow judge you as a one of those Christians. Many of us are simply growing up suspicious of all traditional institutions–political, economic, not just the church. But how do we survive as communities of Jesus in the midst of a culture that has changed so drastically that we’ve ended up at the fringes of our neighborhoods, rather than the center? Faith was once taken for granted. Now it’s on the sidelines, a suspicious activity. And so we often find ourselves lost, and find our communities in danger of fragmenting, disappearing in the face of pressures far beyond our control. Where do we go next?

As one of those “young ministers” in the church, the question I’m asked the most is: “How do we fix it?” How do we attract people to our churches? And Peter’s probably the last guy anyone wants for a minister, especially a church that’s trying to figure out what to do next. Because Peter doesn’t offer any easy solutions or techniques. He’s so... impractical. The congregation asks, “what should we do?!” and he says “Like newborn infants long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” We sometimes imagine that there might be a right infant formula, or technique that we might be able to invent to solve our problems. Change the music, change the God language. Become more liberal, or become more conservative. Find the right program to meet people’s needs. But here that would only be a substitute for the real thing. And for him, the real thing is a sense of longing... a sense of hunger for spiritual milk to grow in to salvation. It’s a weird suggestion. How do you tell people to be hungry?  I think he’s reminding his people, he’s reminding us to remember what’s at stake here. The hard work of changing lives. And for that there are no easy solutions or techniques.

Not only that, but success might not look like success at all. Big church, solid budget, overflowing Sunday school. Public prestige and influence.

“Come to him,” says Peter, “come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.” He’s talking about Jesus. Jesus is the living stone. What’s more is that Peter says that God is building a temple with this stone at the corner. He uses this image of God constructing a new temple on mount Zion. The builders look at this stone, see it as useless and toss it to the side. Jesus, the living stone, is rejected–by his friends own people, his own culture, his own society, and put to death by the powers that be. Rejection, suspicion, being marginalized by our culture might be one of the harder things for us to deal with. There was once a time when the Prime Minister of Canada would consult the Moderator of the United Church before major policy decision. And now people just think we’re passing out Kool Aid.

The reason why this image is so powerful is because Peter’s people are used to rejection. Though Jesus is rejected by his culture, he’s chosen and precious in the sight of God. While the builders reject him, God chooses him as the solid foundation of the new temple. Jesus was rejected by his culture, they have been rejected by theirs. Jesus is chosen and precious by God, they are chosen and precious by God. Though we may be rejected by our culture, we too are chosen and precious in God’s sight.

And what’s more… God seems to have a completely different criteria for measurement than the builders do, we do, or the world does. Success might not look like success at all.“Come to him,” says Peter, “like living stones.” Like Jesus, he says, “let yourselves be built in to a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God in Jesus Christ.” I imagine one of those human pyramids that cheerleaders do. A spiritual house being built by God. This is temple language, this is the temple that he’s talking about. In Israel, God’s dwelling place is the temple, where God’s presence can be encountered. The Celts would call it a “thin place” where heaven and earth intersect. God is building a beloved community to take up residence.

But God isn’t just building us in to a house to hang out in. Peter says the living stones being built into a temple for God are also the priests inside the spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices. Our word priest comes from the Latin pontiff, meaning “bridge.” A priest in the temple is a bridge-person. A bridge between God and humanity, where God can be met and encountered. In the temple a priest is a conduit for the energy of God. And whereas in the Jerusalem temple, this happens through a sacrifice, here Peter says the sacrifice is actually our lives. Our lives are being built in to a dwelling place for God, but also a bridge between God and the world. Through our relationships. Through our vocations, our jobs. Through our care for one another and the least of these in our neighborhoods and our beloved Comox Valley. God is somehow met in and through us. We are transformed so the world can be transformed. When people see our lives, and our life together as a community, they are to somehow encounter God. When they are meeting us they are meeting God.

I can tell you, that, as somebody who wasn’t raised in the church, who didn’t know the story. Who walked in to a church one day almost by a fluke, someone who was completely suspicious, always worried, always telling myself, “well I’ll hang out with them, I’ll drink their beer, but I won’t drink the Kool-Aid.” What drew me in wasn’t the right theology or the right ideas. Though I think theology and ideas are important. It wasn’t the right political causes or actions. It was the fact that I encountered a community, a people where the story of God, the story of God’s work in the world, was somehow made real. The Word made flesh. Living stones you could touch and see, and when you did, you could feel the energy. Now I’m the one who presides at the Lord’s table serving the Kool Aid.

So, brothers and sisters. Remember this–in these strange and difficult times we now struggle through in doubt and suspicion. Remember that we are here to witness changing lives, of being nourished by spiritual milk, and growing in to salvation. Remember that success does not always look like success. It is often hard to see success when you’re standing on this side of the cross. Yet, even in the midst of trouble, sorrow, and rejection, remember, too, that God is building a beloved community with you as living stones, firmly planted on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, the living corner stone. You are the ones chosen for this high calling of priestly work, ambassadors of Christ to a world in need.

Come to him, as living stones
though rejected by mortals
chosen and precious in God’s sight
Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people
Once you had not received mercy
but now you have received mercy

Mercy for you, mercy for us, and abundant, endless mercy poured out through us for the whole world. And for this, thanks be to God.

[1]Kool-Aid is a reference to the infamous Jonestown Massacre. "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is now a figure of speech commonly used in North America that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure. From David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier.