I used to watch South Park. For those who are unaware, South Park is an adult cartoon that may be terribly offensive to some, actually many. The show revolves around a group of children dealing with sexuality, immigration, gambling, faith, school and every other controversial issue the writers can think of. I will admit that there were times that things went too far for me and I turned it off, but most of the time I laughed hard and walked away thinking a little more honestly and deeply about life.
I would probably still watch South Park, but in our recent move from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan we decided to leave TVs behind. I don't necessarily recommend the program for anyone and I definitely discourage children from watching it, but I think the church would benefit from an infusion of South Park mentality. What makes South Park so powerful is that it can deal with the big issues of our time with humor and critical honesty. When an episode ends, I feel revealed for my complicity in the problems of our day but I'm laughing so I don't feel quite so defensive.
That is some of what should happen in our communities of faith. As Lutherans, we get all excited about an idea called "Law and Gospel." Every worship should be an experience of "law" where we can look at ourselves honestly and see our brokenness for what it is. We all think we're pretty nice folks, but sometimes we need to step back and realize that we are pretty nice folks who feel pretty free about trashing our neighbor, ignoring the needs of others, despising this or that group.
We are pretty nice folks who struggle with our finances, our relationships, our selves. A community of faith should be a place where people don't appear to be perfect with silicone smiles; they should be a mess. Church is a place where people may be open and truthful about their struggles and sorrows without all the defensiveness. Church is a space where people are free to take responsibility for their own regrets and mistakes without blame or making excuses. If afternoon talk shows teach us nothing else it is that we need sacred spaces for people to deal with the brokenness of their lives.
Every worship also should be an experience of "Gospel." This is the holy laughter and joy that comes from knowing you are loved desperately and deeply. Gospel means good news and it is the freeing and joy-filled news that you are claimed and loved by God. People live differently when they know they are loved. They can relax and enjoy life.
Our communities of faith need to giggle more. We need play and humor to be a regular diet of faith. The great gift of humor and play is that we let our defenses down; we become vulnerable to a love that transforms us. The great gift of the gospel is that it opens us up to listen to the law, to actually hear and think about our complicity in the brokenness of our lives and the world.
One of my favorite South Park episodes is the one where Cartman thinks he is dead and his soul is trapped on earth until he sets all his relationships right. He spends the whole episode trying to reconcile his relationships and it is absolutely beautiful until he realizes that he's not dead and goes back to being nasty, mean and cruel. It's a better sermon than I could ever preach on forgiveness, death, and the power of sin.
We need a little South Park. Our communities of faith should be places where brokenness and good news collide. Too often we try to make them into sanctuaries for people who would like to judge the rest of the world while their own lives are a mess. May we have the grace to know that we are loved and the humor to look deeply into our brokenness and realize our need for grace that makes us know that we are loved so we may look deeply into our brokenness and ... see you on Sunday.
Tari Stage-Harvey is pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.