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April 16, 2017
The Reverend George Anastos
Sermon Part I: “Burying Jesus”
It can be argued that the Church died when, according to Dietrich Bonheoffer, “We discovered the trick of being religious.” We’ll come back to this.
One and a half years ago I received an email from a colleague. Jim was the Director of Music in a very large UCC church and he gained that position not only due to hard work but also because he was exceptionally gifted. He wrote to tell me that he had just given the church two weeks’ notice. He was leaving. He was leaving not only that particular church, he was leaving The Church altogether. When he visited some months later he related that he just couldn’t swallow all the pretentiously pious gobbledygook anymore. He didn’t believe what the church was saying, and he did not believe in what the church was doing. He was tired of choosing music with trite theology. He was tired of burning church issues such as whether the minister should wear jeans on Sunday morning in order to be hip to younger people. Trite theology and pointless church arguments. It was killing the church. It was killing him. He had to get out and begin living again.
I get it. And I bet you do, too. Dietrich Bonheoffer certainly did. In his lectures and sermons he offers a bitter indictment of the church for having ‘buried Jesus in a repelling heap of religiosity. . . .’ For having buried Jesus in a repelling heap of religiosity. Now there’s an image. The church that suffocates Jesus with bad theology, buries him in a repelling heap of religiosity, then dresses up a severely edited and sanitized memory of him in doctrine and creed and ritual. Well, it is certainly safer that way. Worshiping the memory Jesus is a heck of a lot easier than following the teachings of Jesus. In the four Gospels Jesus says, “Follow me,” eighty seven times. Eighty seven! I bet you can guess the number of times Jesus says, “Worship me.” Yep, zip. And although Jesus never asked to be worshiped, but instead followed, tell that to the Christianity:
O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love. . . .
We worship and adore You,
Bowing down before You, . . .
We Worship You, Oh Precious Savior Lord and Friend
We’ve to come to honor you as king. . . .
Jesus might have said ‘Follow me,’ 87 times and ‘Worship me,’ zero times, but that does not seem to have stopped the church from doing a lot of worshiping and a questionable amount of following.
Bonheoffer was a minister in the Lutheran Church in Germany, writing and preaching during the years that Hitler was in power. He was eventually executed by the Third Reich. To say he was sickened and disgusted by the church’s meek acquiescence to Hitler is a bit of an understatement. In a lecture he delivered at the University of Berlin in 1933 Bonheoffer condemned the legalized repression of Jews. Just because an unjust government passed a law saying discrimination was legal did not mean it was right. “The church,” writes Bonheoffer, “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society.” But the church did not act according to its unconditional obligation. Instead, he noted how churches piously continued to honor Christ inside their walls with worship but not outside their doors with witness. What was worse was that the Church reduced the infinite God to its own finite articulation of god and thus it became hopelessly locked in worshipping a Christ replica of its own desire for privilege and safety.
Ouch. Worshipping a Christ replica of its own desire for privilege and safety. When Constantine famously dreamed of a cross and heard the words, “By this symbol you will conquer,” the church transitioned from a marginalized community that that loved and followed Jesus to a centralized institution that theologized and worshipped Christ. That is putting it a little too simply, I realize. But it has its own fundamental element of truth. The Church learned to bury Jesus in its religiosity, worship Jesus with doctrine and ritual, and sideline Jesus as it rose in privilege and power through the world. The Church’s failure to stand against Hitler, or that fails today to stand against any power structure that oppresses any group is evidence of a wimpy church, a feel-good church, a tame church, a domesticated church that safely worships a replica of its own lust for privilege and which denies the One in whose name it is gathered. It is a church that has discovered the trick of being religious. In burying Jesus in a repelling heap of religiosity the church has succeeded in burying itself.
Scripture Lesson John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Sermon Part II: “Resurrecting the Church”
In burying Jesus in a repelling heap of religiosity the church has succeeded in burying itself. Can the church rise as Jesus rose?
“The church lives,” Bonheoffer wrote, “The church lives not by its purity but in its impurity—the church of sinners, the church of repentance and grace, the church which can live on through Christ, and through grace and faith.” Bonheoffer wrote those words to the ecumenical church in 1935. This is more than just theory, everybody; it is more than just the thoughts of an individual theologian 82 years ago. This is the reality of who we are and the reality of the foundation upon which we build. “The church lives not by its purity but in its impurity—the church of sinners, the church of repentance and grace, the church which can live on through Christ, and through grace and faith.” I have been here twelve years now and you all have learned, repeatedly, that I am not perfect. And, I hate to break it to you, but I have learned that you’re not perfect either. And because of that, through that, with that, we have learned to be a church: a community of repentance and grace. We have learned to love each other, forgive each other, walk with each other, minister beside each other. We have each had to let die our individual images of the perfect church, so that from that tomb God could raise this imperfect church. Here we are, a church of sinners, of repentance and grace, a church that lives on through Christ, in faith and with mission, a church that exists, in its impurity, to follow Jesus. Here we are.
Here we are. A church. Full of everyday healthy/broken people walking together to follow the way of incarnate Love on earth. And in that walking it is obvious that the church is not called to be a haven from the world, but rather, like Christ, a presence in the world. Let me say that again: The church is not called to be a haven from the world, but rather, like Christ, a presence in the world. The shape that that takes transfigures from generation to generation as the world’s exigencies shift and as the church responds. As the great Unitarian hymn says,
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
So here we are today in worship. Worship. After all I said previously about the church’s sin of worshiping rather than following, you might think that worship would be the last thing I would ask us all to do. However, and paradoxically, it is the first thing I ask us all to do, always. We worship not to escape from the world and the Way of Jesus. We worship to have the strength, vision and perspective to be sent into the world to be the face of Jesus. And yes, that requires taking seriously what that means.
Taking seriously what that means. In Part I of this sermon we noted that the Church learned to bury Jesus in its religiosity, worship a sanitized memory of Jesus with doctrine and ritual, and sideline Jesus with pious platitudes. The Church that does this a wimpy church, a feel-good church, a tame church, a domesticated church that safely worships a replica of its own desire for privilege and which denies the One in whose name it is gathered. It is a church that has discovered the trick of being religious. Taking seriously what it means to be sent into the world to be the face of Jesus, however, means being a church that has guts. It means being a spiritual community that has the guts to love what God has created and to protect that creation—the environment—to work for its healing (Psalm 8). It mans having the guts to work for racial justice because in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female (Galatians 3:28). It means being a church that has the guts to welcome and embrace the immigrant, for as the bible says, “You shall treat the immigrant as one of your own citizens. You shall love the immigrant as yourselves, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). It means having the guts to welcome, and weave into the fabric of our community, the LBGTQ community because every person, every person is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). It means being a church that has the guts to work for the reduction of gun violence for scripture is clear that we must be peacemakers (Isaiah 2:5). It means being a church that has the guts to try, however imperfectly, to be a faithful community that follows Jesus. It means being a church that has the guts to practice worship not as an escape from the world but as nourishment to be sent into the world. It means being a church that has the guts to listen and then the guts to live, not in its purity but in its impurity, not in its perfection but in its imperfection, and ultimately to act when it hears, “Follow me.”
Yesterday I had the privilege of being with our student intern Alix Wright as she went before the UCC committee that would accept her into the ordination process. (News flash: Alix Wright was accepted yesterday in the UCC’s ordination process.) During that meeting church member Phil Thompson, one of the best theologians in this congregation, was asked to lead the group in spiritual reflection. He summed up his thoughts on Holy Saturday with this question. “Christ is risen. Now what?”
Now what? Having discovered the trick of being religious and burying Jesus, we can also discover the guts to walk out of the tomb and follow the Way of incarnate love. He did not say, ‘Worship me.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’ Out of the tomb we go.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Bonheoffer, Dietrich; Thy Kingdom Come: A Prayer of the Church for the Kingdom of God on Earth (Dein Reich Comme); November 19, 1932.
 Bonheoffer, Dietrich; The Church and the Jewish Question; April 1933.
 ibid; page 147
 ibid; page 82
April 16, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Burying Jesus / Resurrecting the Church
April 2, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – The Lazarus Church
March 26, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Who Sinned?
March 5, 2017 – Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith – Sermon
February 26, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Making Our Way Down the Mountain
January 29, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Meeting Head On / It Starts With Us / Seeing With New Eyes
January 8, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – O Rest Beside the Weary Road
December 24, 2016 – Rev. George Anastos – The Giver, the Gift, and the Gifted