"Reality Christianity" Sermon Series Begins

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Date:  September 7, 2014

 Title:  “Reality Christianity:  The Big Loser”

Preaching:  The Rev. Donna Pritchard

Scripture:  Matthew 16:21-28

            Aloha! Today is – as you surely know by now – “Rally Day” here at First United Methodist Church of Portland. It is that day when we say “welcome home”, and Sunday School, fall programming, all kinds of things kick into high gear again after a barely noticeable summer break.

             Our theme for this year’s Rally Day is an Aloha Luau…hence, all the Hawaiian shirts and skirts, the kikui nut lei, the special lunch, the Hawaiian language call to worship, and the like. So it is Rally Day today. And it is also the first of a month-long sermon series which uses the imagery of reality television to speak about faith… a series which Rev. Jeremy and I are calling “Reality Christianity”.

             Now, in the interest of full disclosure and total transparency, I probably should tell you right up front that I am not a fan of reality TV! Given a choice, I will usually either change the channel or turn the television off altogether, rather than watch any of these shows. I think of my comic-strip friends Frank and Ernest, and one of my favorite strips in which one of these dumpy little characters is lying on a couch in the psychiatrist’s office. He abruptly sits up and with obvious consternation on his face, says “Back in touch with reality? Don’t you have anything better?!”

            Of course, all too often what is billed as “reality” in these shows is little more than overly scripted hyperbole, where people exhibit outrageous behaviors as if they were the norm. So I’m with you, if you find the genre a little hard to take, or if you prefer to get your reality in the real world. And yet, for all their shortcomings, Reality Television shows do provide a helpful image to get us thinking about Rally Day. Not just Rally Day for First Church on a hot and sunny Sunday in September (you can tell school is back in session – just check out the 90 degree reading on the thermometer!). Reality television can get us thinking about Rally Day every day, and what it might mean to welcome one another home as we welcome God home, as God welcomes us.

            Aloha, ohana! Hello, family! Hang onto your boogie boards, grab your snorkel and mask…because ewe are diving right in this morning with The Biggest Loser. Now for those of you who have been living under a rock somewhere, The Biggest Loser is a show which debuted on NBC in 2004 and is still going strong. The show features obese people who compete to win money by losing the highest percentage of weight, relative to their initial weight. Each season the show starts with a weigh-in and then the contestants are grouped into teams of three. The teams work with trainers who design comprehensive workout and nutrition plans and teach them to the contestants. During each episode, various challenges and temptations are featured, and every week ends with another weigh-in to see which team has lost the most weight. One by one, contestants who are not big losers are voted off the show until they end up going head-to-head, one-to-one to see who will win the big money – and presumably, the new life that goes with being crowned the biggest loser.

            No, my friends… I haven’t completely lost my mind. There really is a connection here to faith. You see, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided that becoming the biggest loser requires five things which are absolutely essential to the life of faith as well.

            First, it requires honesty. Before you even make it onto the show, you have to be willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror – without your rose-colored glasses on. You have to be able to make an honest assessment of your life as it is in order to move into life as it could become. So it is with the life of faith. Christianity demands that we take a good, hard look in the mirror, that we see ourselves as we are, in order to imagine ourselves as we might be. We might find ourselves echoing Frank and Ernest’s plaintive cry as we search around for something better… but until we can acknowledge our own reality, we cannot hope to transform it into God’s reality!

            The second thing we need in Reality Christianity is a willingness to be coached. People who actually watch The Biggest Loser tell me that from time to time, contestants lash out against the trainers, feeling too harshly judged or too severely tested by them. But the ones who make it through more than a few episodes are only able to do so as they are able to listen and learn, and willing to be coached.

            Certainly this was true for Jesus and those first disciples. Throughout the Gospels we read about Jesus teaching them and correcting them and coaching them toward a new way of seeing the world, a new way of understanding life and a new way of experiencing God. They were willing to be coached, and we must be just as willing. Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poem which she entitles “Mysteries, Yes”:

            Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.

            How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs.

            How rivers and stones are forever in allegiance with gravity,

            While we ourselves dream of rising.

            How two hands touch and the bonds will never be broken.

            How people come, from delight or the scars of damage,

            To the comfort of a poem.

            Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.

            Let me keep company, always, with those who say “Look!”

            And laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.

            We have to be willing to be coached, to not have all the answers, and to know that is exactly okay.

            Next, biggest losers and reality Christians must be willing to do what seems impossible. Time and again, Jesus asks us to reach beyond our self-imposed limitations, to go beyond our comfort zone, and to do the things we think we cannot do. Time and again, faith asks us to believe like the little red engine of storybook fame who believed I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!, until we discover that indeed, we can!

            When Jesus tells his first disciples that he is going to suffer and even going to die, that seems impossible to them. Peter, always the first to react, cries out, “God forbid it, Lord!” And Jesus responds to Peter by telling him essentially, “Peter, you need to get out of your own way…” Don’t set your mind on human limitations, on what you think you cannot accomplish, or what you think is impossible to do. Set your mind instead on God’s unlimited possibilities.

            Now honest self-assessment, and a willingness to be coached, and to risk doing what seems impossible… all of this would not be possible for any of us without a supportive community. The Biggest Loser contestants have friends and family members, fans and crew members alike telling them “yes, you can!”, encouraging every step of their transformation. And so do we – for isn’t that what it means to be a church, at least in part? Isn’t that why we celebrate our Rally Sundays, and experience such joy when we come together?

            Finally, all of us who would be biggest losers – in faith as in life – we must have a focused vision. We have to keep in front of us the picture of where we are headed, and the hope that we will get there. And here’s the thing…when Jesus says “Deny yourself”, it is really important for us to recognize what it is we are denying. I do not believe Jesus wants any of us to deny our identity, and certainly not our humanity. But we are called to deny the self that wants to be separate from God and from others. We are called to deny the self that does not feel worthy of God’s love, and the self that thinks it is more worthy of God’s love than anyone else. We are called to deny the self that thinks it can do life all by itself, and the self that is turned in on itself, and the self that has lost faith in itself.

            For we are ultimately called to lose the lives which keep us from living the life God has in store for us…which allows us to become, if you will, the biggest losers of them all. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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