SCRIPTURE – John 10:7-10
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Plastic Jesus Sermon Series
Sermon #1: Spiritual Surbubia
August 14, 2011
Leigh and I spent the first four years of our marriage living in apartments. It wasn’t a terrible existence. The places we lived in were somewhat bigger than a bread box and the roaches were potty-trained. But from the moment we got married, we both had a dream: to own our own house.
That dream became reality once we moved to the Chicago area in 2001 after I graduated from seminary. We bought a 3-bedroom, 2 ½-bath house on a corner lot in Hainesville, a far northern suburb of Chicago. Once we settled into our house, met our neighbors, and found the nearest grocery, a strange, warm feeling came over me. It was a feeling of arrival. We had made it. We had escaped the hand-to-mouth existence of cheap apartments and part-time jobs; we had graduated to the suburbs. And that felt…well, here’s what writer Eric Bogosian said, “If you say the word ‘city’, people have no problem thinking of the city as rife with problematic, screwed-up people, but if you say suburbs, there’s a sense of normalcy.” I finally felt…normal. House. Minivan. Brown picket fence. Basketball goal in the driveway. A Walgreen’s on the corner. Comfort. Security. Convenience. We had joined the normalcy of suburbia.
But the longer we lived here, and the more we got to know the people around us, the more I questioned if we were really normal. Some of you may have had that question cross your mind about us, as well. What I mean by that is I questioned whether or not, as Christians, normal should be our goal. Was Jesus normal? Was his goal comfort, security, and convenience?
That’s what I hope to explore with you in this series called “Plastic Jesus.” We are all susceptible to the curse of complacent Christianity, no matter who we are or where we live. The characteristics that I identified with the suburbs – convenience, security and comfort – are actually threats to our spiritual life. How do we keep ourselves from settling into our spiritual comfort zone so deeply that we replace the real Jesus with a plastic Bobblehead model that simple nods yes to all our requests?
So let’s start with this question: Is it an oxymoron to talk about a spiritual suburbia? After all, it is in the suburbs where churches seem to be flourishing. While urban churches struggle to keep their doors open and meet the needs of those around them, the suburbs have spawned the likes of Willow Creek and Saddleback Community Church and Southeast Christian in Louisville. Far from fading away, the churches in the suburbs seem to be exploding.
So on the surface, faith seems to be alive and well in suburbs across America. But going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car, so deeper questions need to be asked: Has the comfort, security and convenience of the geographic surburbs taken up residence in our souls, as well? Author Eric Sandras, who’s book is called “Plastic Jesus,” laments the fact that he has found himself “living in a spiritual suburbia with nice sidewalks and picket fences around my Christianity.” He says Christianity is supposed to be an adventure, but we expend a lot of energy keeping our Christian doctrines all clean and form-fitting, our appearances buffed up, and our lives organized around practices, meetings, and the occasional church function. That doesn’t sound like much of an adventure.
But do we really want adventure in our faith? To the contrary, our lives contain a lot of evidence that what we want most is comfort and security. Our existence and our culture revolve around risk management. We like adventure as long as it’s confined to a theme park ride or a vacation. But when we’re home, we don’t want adventure; we want assurance. We want insulation from adventure, relief from risk. Think about it: we have dual side airbags, elaborate security systems, and home insurance, life insurance, car insurance, flood insurance, fire insurance, earthquake insurance, and faulty insurance insurance. Not that there’s anything wrong with insurance, mind you.
And from God, we want Hell insurance. David Goetz, in his book “Death by Suburb,” says we have a contractual arrangement with God: I do good works, God blesses me. We go to church, we give money, and we do all the right things – in the hope that God will never put us in a position where we actually have to trust him. We pray and plan and organize in an attempt to protect ourselves from life to the point that when life doesn’t go as we plan and tragedy strikes, we wonder where God went wrong.
This has always been the temptation of the people of God – to tame him. God’s active presence in our lives increases mystery; we desire to remove it. We try to bring Christ down to our level again, but this time not to bring the kingdom of God, but to enhance the comfort of our spiritual suburbia. Sandras says we treat God like the cosmic pizza man. We call out to him, but only open the door only halfway and limit just how close he can get to us in order not to feel uncomfortable. We sometimes think his only job is to deliver to us what we are asking (preferable in 30 minutes or less). That is comfort and security and convenience; that is spiritual suburbia. But that is not the life we have been called to live.
The goal of spiritual suburbanites is not to live a Christ-like existence; it is to maintain a certain quality of life. And we expect God to help us do that. Yet we lose the ability to be useful in God’s hands when we become afraid to lose the success we have achieved. Author Marva Dawn says it more pointedly: “The Good News is no longer life-changing. It is life-enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; he changes them into nice people.” Nice people. Is that all Jesus is calling us to be?
Now, what’s wrong with being nice? Nothing, of course. It’s nice to be nice. But being nice isn’t equal to being Christian. Jesus wasn’t always nice. Sometimes he was demanding and controversial and an iconoclast. Sometimes he challenged authority. Sometimes he even – gasp! – did things that were unpopular or went against the cultural norm. If that’s who Jesus was, then who are we? Or better yet, who would our lives show we’re following – the real Jesus or a plastic one?
I think this question of what kind of Christians we are formed to be is at the heart of our existence. Because I believe, deep down within our soul, we know something is wrong. Is it a surprise that the most accurate TV portrayal of the suburbs is called “Desperate Housewives?” We know there is something more. We are desperate for the something more that Jesus offers. Jesus says, “I have come so they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants us to have a full life. Is this it? Does a full life mean a full schedule, a full credit card, and a full medicine cabinet?
We are good at living lives full of appointments and activities, but that only produces breadth. Isn’t one of the biggest dangers these days “spreading myself too thin”? We have breadth, but we lack depth. We are so spread out that we end up with a shallow spirituality, with no means or guidance on how to go, not farther or faster, but deeper.
What I hope we can do together in the next several weeks is explore some different things we can do together to go deeper. Much of what we experience in spiritual suburbia throws up roadblocks to doing that. The cacophony of noise discourages silence, the incessant scheduling stifles Sabbath, and the subtle but pervasive competitive spirit leaves no room for humility. How do we keep ourselves from seeking comfort, security and convenience in our faith?
We have two choices. One choice is to escape, to flee, to throw off the shackles of our spiritual suburbia and live in a tent eating plants and washing our clothes in a creek. Escape? How can we escape a mortgage, a lawn that needs mowing, and a full calendar of school plays and parent-teacher conferences?
The other option is to realize that Jesus is here with us. But he doesn’t look like we think he should look, or even how we want him to look. He’s not comfortable, he’s not safe, and a life lived in Christ is not convenient. We have become convinced that there are more important things to pursue than a deep, meaningful relationship with God. But the power of Jesus lies in offering us a better way, of moving us from desperation to transformation. Christ offers us a full life, a deep life, a life lived in him, if we are willing to move beyond just being nice. We don’t need to escape our spiritual suburbia; we need to develop the kind of life that helps us find Jesus there.