Sermon for Proper 8A/Ordinary 13A/Pentecost +2, Micah 7:1-7 & Matthew 10:34-42

 Recipe: One Cup of Water

Proper 8A/Ordinary 13A/Pentecost +2

Micah 7:1-7

Matthew 10:34-42

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Almost everyone knows that Jesus preached a sermon called the Sermon on the Mount.  If you know anything at all about it, you probably know that the Beatitudes come from that sermon (“blessed are the poor in spirit…”).  You may even know that the Lord’s prayer is also a part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.  The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five of such teachings of Jesus in Matthew.

The second is less well known but it is the source of the text we read today.  We call it the Missionary Instructions (or Discourse). Jesus was sending his disciples out on a mission of healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God: these are his instructions to them for that mission.

We believe that we share that mission.  We believe that we too have been sent out on a mission today, to our times, just as those original disciples were sent out.  So these are our instructions as well.

Our Mission

As a congregation, we have a “mission statement” which says that we are people who will focus on “Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s Love.”  Our mission is all about “loving God” which we do in prayer and songs of praise in worship together – and what we do in personal daily devotion at home.

“Growing in faith” is why we believe so strongly in life-long Christian education.   For us, bible study is not a quint past-time; it is a crucial part of understanding who we are and what we are to do in our lives. We do not believe there is any such thing as a one-hour a week Christian.  We don’t believe we will ever stop learning and growing in both our knowledge and in our willingness to take personal risks of faith to put that knowledge into action.

Our mission is about “Sharing Christ’s love” in word and deed, because we have been sent out by our Lord Jesus to do just that.  The only question we have is, what should that mission look like in our day?  We can see the way the disciples put Jesus’ mission into action in their times, but we live in quite different circumstances.  So how are we to be in mission in our world?

This is why we read the gospels and study Jesus’ instructions, as we are doing right now.

Understanding one story through another

We are doing something very similar to what Jesus did with his disciples.  We are looking at the story of Jesus and understanding it in our day, just as Jesus often reflected on the story of Israel and applied it to his day.

That is exactly what is happening in this Mission Instruction text we read today.  So, I believe the best way to approach it is to tell three stories: the first is Israel’s, the second is Jesus’ and the third is ours.  We will see incredible similarities, and I believe, also a powerful challenge to us.

Israel’s story

First Israel’s story.  It begins with the prophet Micah.  He lived in times when people were deeply divided, and international politics were

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tumultuous and scary – sound familiar?  His little nation of Israel, now divided into two smaller nations, was threatened by the mighty Assyrians whose appetite for gobbling up smaller states was insatiable.

As Micah looked at Assyria’s forward march towards his nation, he had no sense that the Lord would spare them, especially the Northern kingdom from demise.  Why should He?  They had become a nation without justice.  A nation without righteousness.  A nation in which trust between people had collapsed and worship was corrupted.

Here is how he described the situation:

2 The faithful have disappeared from the land,

and there is no one left who is upright;

they all lie in wait for blood,

and they hunt each other with nets. 

3 Their hands are skilled to do evil;

the official and the judge ask for a bribe,

and the powerful dictate what they desire;

thus they pervert justice.  (Micah 7:2-3)

Justice perverted. Bribes taken by officials – there are no new ideas – perhaps they were trying to pass gambling legislation? (It’s an Alabama-insider reference).

A Community without Trust

Micah continues with further description of the breakdown of his community; instead of a community of covenanted relationship, it was a community without trust.

5 Put no trust in a friend,

have no confidence in a loved one;

guard the doors of your mouth

from her who lies in your embrace; 

6 for the son treats the father with contempt,

the daughter rises up against her mother,

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

your enemies are members of your own household.

It sound like the old Soviet Union in which you had to watch what you said, even at home, lest someone rat you out to the authorities.  Even husbands and wives were suspicious of each other.  That sounds like a living-hell to me.

Jesus’ Story

I hope you already recognized the echoes of Micah’s description we heard in Jesus’  words to his disciples.

“36 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

So when Jesus looked at the circumstances of his day, he borrowed from the story of Israel – Micah’s prophecy – to describe a parallel situation.  Bad times were coming and he knew his country would not be spared.  This time, not the Assyrians, but the Romans were the ones with the big appetite and the teeth of steel to devour smaller powers.

Now we can see why Jesus said those very odd sounding words about bringing division – even within families.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,

and a daughter against her mother,

and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

People within your family might be committed to the head-long rush to violent uprising against Rome rather than embracing the Kingdom of God as Jesus was teaching.  If so, choices would have to be made.  You could not have it both ways.

Our Story: the risk of welcome

So, in such a context, what are disciples of Jesus to do?  What are our missional instructions?

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The first word is risk.  That is the word that stands behind the word “welcome”.  Let me re-phrase Jesus’ words, then explain why.

40 “Whoever [takes the risk to] welcome you welcomes me, and whoever [takes the risk to] welcome me welcomes the one who sent me.  41 Whoever [takes the risk to] welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever [takes the risk to] welcome a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;  42 and whoever [takes the risk to] give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

We have heard on the news that in Syria, the government is arresting and imprisoning doctors and nurses who are trying to save the lives of the un-armed protesters who are being shot in the streets.  To bring healing is to take a serious risk.

Often people who bring comfort and relief do so at great personal risk.  To welcome a Jew like Anne Franke into your attic in Holland was to take a huge risk.    To welcome a disciple of Jesus who was preaching that Jesus, not Caesar was Lord, was to take a risk.  Even to offer water to a fellow Christian could put you at risk.  (Could we ever be at risk in this way today?)

So Jesus promised that those who took the risk of welcome would receive a reward as well.

And now to our story.

Days of Division: asking the wrong questions

We too live in deeply divided days.  This is the context of our mission.  The debates about the role of government are shrill.  The debates about the way out of our economic crisis are profoundly polarized.  The issue of immigration is about as hot as it can get.

As disciples, in other words, as followers of Jesus, we are called to risk.  We are called to be the people who perhaps ask other questions than those the politicians debate.

Who is thirsty?

Rather than asking “what is the role of government?” we should be asking, “Who is thirsty and needs water?  What are they thirsty for?  Where

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can I get the water that is needed?  How can I get it to the people who need it?  Who are the ones right here in Gulf Shores and in Baldwin and Mobile counties that God is calling us to help?

Maybe the thirst they have is for companionship because they are isolated by illness or advanced age, unemployment, addiction, or some other isolating condition; maybe the water I could give is a phone call or a visit.

Maybe the thirst they have is for basic toiletries because they are literally homeless and have no soap, toothpaste or shampoo.  The “water” they need is what we are collecting right now for the homeless ministry in Mobile.

Maybe they are thirsty for God’s love – and yet, their life experience has turned them off to the church.  So it could be that we have been called to bear witness to the God that loves, forgives, and welcomes all people, even sinners like ourselves, through our Lord Jesus.  Saying so may represent a huge risk in our eyes.

Maybe addressing real thirsts instead of sitting around debating the role of government may led us to risk misunderstanding by the “you are with us or against us” crowd – but we will take that risk.

A new risk in Alabama

There is one more risk I want to leave you to think over.  What if it is no longer legal in Alabama to give a cup of water to an illegal alien?   Is that a risk we are called to take?  Whose agenda gets to answer that question?

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Matthew 28:16-20

 

Genesis 1:1–2:4a

Matthew 28:16–20

 

The Trinity: what you need to know before lunch today

This year, Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day fall on the same day. There is something completely mysterious about both the Trinity and

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fatherhood. Have you known of people who grew up without their biological father? If they believe he is still living, some go to great lengths to find and meet him. They want to know what kind of man is he? What of him is inside of me? It’s as if we believe we need to know our fathers in order to fully understand ourselves. I wonder what your father was like?

I’m one of the blessed ones; my father was there for me from day one until I left home to marry and start a new family. I’m one of the doubly blessed ones: my father worked hard all of his working life, he taught me right from wrong, he taught me, by example, to be considerate and helpful around the house, to be honest and fair, and most of all to love my Father in Heaven.

God as Father

It has been easy for me to think of God as a loving Father in heaven because I have been blessed with a loving father on earth. I am aware that for many people whose father on earth was absent, or abusive, or unhelpful in other ways, have an obstacle at this point. Their own experience of a father makes it difficult for them to imagine a good, loving, kind, just, fair, father in heaven.

There are a few places in the bible which open the door to picturing God in feminine terms – God is pictured as a mother bird, gathering her young under her protective wings. God is lady Wisdom who calls to all the people to abandon their foolishness and follow the path of the wise who do what is right. And so the door is open to us to think of God in both senses, as fatherly and motherly – though if we were thinking clearly we would know that God must be more than either male or female, but for us, gendered humans, we cannot imagine what that would be like.

But back to that mystery of fatherhood, there is something essential about knowing God as father, even if we fill out the picture by thinking of his mothering qualities as well. We are like children – even adult children – for whom knowing our father is an essential quest. There is a longing, a hunger, an empty place in all of us that is God-shaped (as Pascal famously said). For some mysteriously deep reason, we need to know our heavenly Father in order to know who we are in this world.

Creation

And so, on Trinity Sunday, we plunge into the mystery of the Trinity beginning with God the Father. I hope you noticed all the attention we have already given to Creation this morning. We read the creation story from Genesis. We read from Psalm 8 a hymn of praise to God the Creator. We know God as Father who creates. Whatever else may be true about me and you, whatever else may be said of us to describe us, to define us, to say who we are, the truest thing that must be the first thing said is that we are made by God, our Heavenly Father – and as that children’s story puts it “God don’t make no junk.”

If Creation is awesome – if sunsets on the ocean are glorious – and they are; if sunlight streaming through clouds fills us with wonder – and it does – how much more so should every human being fill us with amazement. As one Psalm sings:

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139).

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The balance and complexity of our organs, our senses, our minds – should provoke profound worship and praise of our Heavenly Father Creator’s depths. “Look at the birds of the air” Jesus said: “are you not of more value than they?

We could never be the kind of people who despise the body or who think that our goal is to be free of it so that we can be properly spiritual. Rather, we were made to glorify God in our bodies, as scripture says (1 Cor. 6:20).

Affirming the Trinity means that we affirm that God made us, as we are, for a purpose; to love and serve him in our physical bodies. He fathered us.

Every Human

And this brings us naturally to the next thing we must know before lunch today: that every human being on this planet shares all of the things we have just said are true for us. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world,” as the song says. We might add, Serbs and Croats, Jews and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats: all people are of inestimable value to God the Father who made them.

Which is why it is such a scandal when humans whom God has fathered suffer needlessly, especially when they suffer at one another’s hands, or when they are hungry, or excluded. Knowing our Father as our – and as everybody’s – Creator, provides us with a mandate to look after each other on this fragile little planet.

God as Spirit

When we affirm the Trinity, we affirm that God is Father, and God is Son and Spirit. Most people have no trouble thinking of God as Spirit. To think of God as being everywhere, without a body, just being there as a spiritual presence presents no difficulty for us. The Creation story in Genesis begins with God who is present spiritually, as breath, or wind (which is also the word for Spirit) blows over the waters of chaos at the dawn of time to produce order and abundance. Last week was Pentecost Sunday on which we focused on the role of God the Spirit in our lives and in the church today, so let’s move on to consider the role of the God the Son on this Trinity Sunday.

Paradise – Paradise Lost

I love the way Trinity Sunday begins with creation, because when we consider God as Creator of a good, perfect, fruitful, blessed physical world, we can see why God entered our world as a human. The Creation story is a story of paradise – humans and God, together in perfect harmony. But then it becomes a paradise-lost story as evil corrupts God’s good design. The whole rest of the bible’s story is a long journey towards paradise-regained. God was not going to create a perfect world, watch evil corrupt it, then walk away. The biblical story tells of God’s repeated rescue operations on behalf of the humans that he made and loves.

The Rescue Operation God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and promised that through them he would one day bless all the families of the earth. God sent Moses to lead Abraham’s children, the Israelites, out of slavery and eventually into the promised land. Through many exiles and returns from exile, God’s rescue operation unfolded.

Finally, at the climax of the story, God put on human flesh and entered our world to accomplish the final rescue. God the Son: Jesus Jesus came,

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not just to teach us moral and ethical truths, though he did that. Jesus came, not just to teach us new ways to think about about God, though he did that too. Jesus came to accomplish the rescue mission that God had in mind ever since evil spoiled his perfect Garden. He came to rescue us from the power of evil itself. Jesus was crucified as all the powers of evil did their worst to him. Jesus suffered on behalf of his people to finally, once and for all, rescue us from the power of evil. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, the firstfruits of a huge harvest of resurrection that will one day include us as well.

Final Words

Now we are able to see what Jesus meant as he spoke his final words to his disciples. In our text from Matthew we read the scene from that moment in which Jesus says,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

God’s rescue operation includes the whole Trinity, and it includes us. Jesus won the victory over the powers of evil by his death and resurrection, but now we have the mandate from him to proclaim the good news of that victory throughout the world.

Making Trinitarian Disciples

We do not do that by making converts, we do that by making disciples; followers of Jesus. People who will be baptized as the sign of the new covenant, in the name of the Trinity; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. How is a baptized person to become a disciple, or a follower of Jesus? By learning. We have been given the mandate by our Lord to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” How should we live, as Trinitarian Christians? By focusing our lives on exactly the mandate that God, the Son gave us. Our whole lives are oriented towards this objective: how can I more fully “obey everything” Jesus commanded”?

Today, when will I have the opportunity to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, offer my cloak to someone? Today, whom can I see who is

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hungry and needs food, thirsty who needs a drink, in prison and needs to be visited; in whose face will I see Jesus? What situations of suffering will I encounter on the road? Even if everyone else is walking away on the other side, how can I be used by God to be an instrument of healing?

These are what Jesus taught us, and these are the commands that baptized, Trinitarian disciples seek to obey. As people who have been baptized in the name of the the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the best way in which we can celebrate Trinity Sunday is to remember the teachings of Jesus so that we can become more faithful in obeying them.

On Trinity Sunday, let us remember that Jesus taught us:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

Sermon for Pentecost, Year A, June 12, 2011

Joel 2:26-32

Acts 2:1-21

Time for a Deep Breath 

When we gather together for worship, we believe that God is present among us.  God’s Spirit is here.  (pause and consider this)  God’s Spirit, right now, is here.

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The Spirit in the Lord’s Supper

When we receive the Lord’s Supper, as we will in a few minutes, we believe that God is present in a special, powerful way, in the bread and in the cup – that we are actually communing with the risen Christ who is present, by means of his Spirit.

In the words of N.T. Wright, this is a meeting point of heaven and earth – God’s space and human space, together in one place.  As much as God was with Adam and Eve in the original garden, God is with us, by means of his Spirit.

The Spirit in our Prayers

When we pray, we try as best we can, with our frail human words to connect directly with God.  We believe he listens and even invites us to pray, but we sense  the difficulty of knowing exactly what to say.

Some of us feel it so strongly that we feel we cannot pray aloud where others could hear us.  But scripture assures us that Christ, by his Spirit, actually “intercedes” for us – that is he helps make our feeble attempts at prayer make sense to God (Rom. 8:26).

The Spirit in the Scriptures

When we read the words of scripture, we believe that the Spirit is working in us to awaken us in a new way to God’s voice.  The book of Timothy speaks of scripture as “God-breathed” as if God exhaled and the words fell on to the page.  It’s a beautiful image  – and of course the word for “breath” is the word Spirit.

The Spirit’s Ongoing Teaching

When we, as a community of believers, ask for guidance, we believe that God does  help us by means of his Spirit.  Jesus even called him, the “Spirit of Truth” whom, he promised, would lead his disciples in to all truth.

We believe that the Spirit is still at work, in the church, leading us in to truth.  Sometimes he has a hard time breaking down the walls of our prejudices and our cultural assumptions, but he keeps working as we keep listening.

Slavery

It took a long time, but the Spirit finally led the church to reject slavery, in spite of strongly entrenched beliefs about races and enormous economic interests in keeping slavery legal.  God’s Spirit finally broke through.

Jim Crow

It took an even longer time for the Spirit to convince us that all forms of discrimination are wrong; that you do not have to own someone as property for you to enslave them in unjust structures of oppression.  Jim Crow was just as wrong as slavery – even if a bit more subtle.  Separate but equal was always a lie – nothing even close to “equal” was ever intended or produced.

Women in ministry

After an even longer time the Spirit led us into the truth that women are as gifted for ministry as men.  Our church is blessed enormously by the Spirit-led ministry of women.

Ordination

I believe (and I know some of you differ) that the Spirit has led our denomination to tear down other barriers to ordained ministry as well.  The prejudices of the past against people who are different are crumbling in our day.  I believe this is a sign that the Spirit is at work.

The Spirit breaks Barriers

All of this is so predictable; when the Scriptures discuss the coming of the Spirit, these kinds of barriers are obliterated like leaves at the mercy of a leaf-

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blower; the mighty wind of the Spirit eliminates barriers.

Joel’s prophecy

The prophet Joel spoke of the natural human tendency to stratify people by age, gender and social class that the Spirit was going to make irrelevant:

28 I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

your old men shall dream dreams,

and your young men shall see visions. 

29 Even on the male and female slaves,

in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Acts and Ethnicity

The Book of Acts can hardly contain itself as it gushes out the description of the huge ethnic variety who were hearing the Spirit-inspired witness to Jesus Christ as the apostles preached on that Pentecost morning:

‘And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

It is so natural, so human, to construct walls, to build barriers.  It seems that we have this in-born need to make a little circle around “us” and make sure we keep out “them”.  We humans are willing to go to war and die for these little circles of distinction.  Our species is willing to commit genocide, fill up mass graves, and walk on the other side of the road in the presence of human suffering for the sake of these “us” vs. “them” distinctions.

But the Spirit is able to break down these barriers and make miraculous unity happen – and we are witness to the Spirit’s activity in our own time.

The Spirit’s Work in Us

We began by reflecting on the fact that the Spirit of God is present, right here, as we gather in Church.  But these sanctuary walls do not contain the Spirit.  It is true that the Spirit is powerfully present when the community gathers together – but it also true that God’s Spirit powerfully indwells each of us individually.

Yes, in that sense, we are all walking-temples.  What is a temple, after all, but a place in which God’s presence dwells?   God’s Spirit dwells in each of us, making each of us a dwelling place, a temple, of God.  (see I Cor 6)

The Spirit Creating Fruitfulness

Why would God choose to dwell in such frail, fallible, creatures such as us?  Because from the beginning God created us in his image, and he is now at

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work in his creation to redeem every part of it that evil has corrupted.

We were made to live with God in close-communion, like the story of the Garden of Eden so poignantly pictures.  Everything that was messed-up by our willful choice of evil, but God was never content to abandon us to our self-destructive fate.

God is still at work, putting back to right all the ways the world went wrong.  He is at work in each of us, by his indwelling Spirit, re-creating us in his image.

Fruitfulness seems to be what happens when God’s Spirit is present.  In the first Creation story, God’s Spirit blew across the waters of chaos and formed a bountiful, fruitful world.  The same Spirit who indwells us is still creating fruit in our personal lives.   What kind of fruit does the Spirit produce?  Galatians tells us:

22…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, and self-control.

Evidence I See of the Spirit

I see the fruit of the Spirit at work all over this congregation.  I see the Spirit at work producing the fruit of love, for example, in so many ways.  I see the Spirit producing in us a love for our winter family; we embrace them all with open arms and welcome them here – and then we are blessed by their love in return!

I see the fruit of the Spirit at work in the love that we show to each other when we suffer.  We pray for each other, we call, we write cards, we make food, we visit each other in hospitals and at home – the Spirit is at work in us in all the ways we show love to each other.

I see the Spirit at work in us in the love that we show to people in need, even when they are not a part of our congregation and never will be.

Christian Service Center

Twenty years ago the Christians of this area came together to establish the Christian Service Center; we celebrate its anniversary this Thursday.  What a typical Spirit-thing it is that the barriers that once existed between denominations have been obliterated.

The Center is staffed by an all-volunteer force of Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, non-denominational people, Baptists – and others.  This is the fruit of the Spirit at work in our hearts!

Does the Holy Spirit really indwell each of us, making us walking temples?  Yes; and each of these signs of the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of love is evidence.

The Challenges of the Spirit

I believe that on Pentecost Sunday, we are left with two challenges because of the present work of the Spirit.

The Internal spiritual challenge

The first challenge is internal: if the Spirit of God is in me, what kinds of fruitfulness does he want to produce in me?  How can I cultivate the soil in my life to allow the fruit of the Spirit to grow in me?  How can I water and tend the garden of my own spiritual life in such a way as to experience an abundant harvest of spiritual fruit?

Anyone who has ever gardened – whether flowers or vegetables – knows that gardens take nurture, attention, discipline, and tending.  Our spiritual lives are no different.  Prayer, meditation, scripture, worship, all of these are the common garden tools of the spiritual life.

The first challenge of Pentecost is to be intentional about growing the fruit of the spirit in your life.  What would you have to do differently to make that happen in your life this week?  Take the challenge.

The External spiritual challenge

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The second challenge of Pentecost is external.

Where are the barriers that the Spirit still needs to blow away?  Where are the limits of my compassion?

Where are the lines I draw between the people I feel obligated to love and care for and those I feel free to ignore?

Where is the border of my comfort zone?

That is exactly where the Spirit of God wants to work.

I need to take a deep breath and allow the Spirit to push me to care –

  • for homeless people,
  • for addicts,
  • for people with AIDS,
  • for Hispanics,
  • for Arabs,
  • for Muslims,
  • for gay people,
  • for criminals
  • for all the people of the world.

The Pentecost challenge is to push the circle wider and wider, until no one is standing outside of it.

God is present here, now, by his Spirit!

Let is take a moment in silence to invite the Spirit to challenge us, right now.

 

Sermon for 7th Easter A, June 5, 2011, John 17:1–11

 Does Jesus Get What He Wants?

John 17:1–11 

I want to tell you about a story I just heard this past week on one of the cable news networks (on Al Jazera/English).

Krishnan’s Story

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The story takes place in southern India and starts with a man named Krishnan who comes from a wealthy family.  According to the ancient caste system, Krishnan is a Brahmin – the highest caste.  Krishnan was well educated; he studied to be a master-chef, graduated from a prestigious school, and had an excellent job all lined up in a  Five star hotel in Switzerland.

But before he left India, one day he saw a sight that horrified him and changed his life: an elderly man, abandoned, mentally ill, was at the brink of starvation, right there on the public street.  I wish I could tell you the whole story, but for brevity’s sake I will only say this:  Krishnan abandoned his career and started cooking food and delivering it, every day, 365 days a year to his city’s abandoned, mentally ill homeless people.

He cooks food in the morning then goes out in a little van to the alleys and ditches where they live, hands them food and bottled water, speaks with them and touches them.  This is completely radical.  Many of these people come from the untouchable caste – Brahmin caste people literally do not touch them.  So, understandably, his family was originally upset by what he was doing.  It was a shame for a Brahmin to touch those people or work in such a menial way.

Honoring the “Shameful”

But Krishnan helped them to see that it was not a shame to help people live, but an honor.  His family did come around, and now is proud of him.  His mother says that normally a mother teaches her son, but in this case, her son has been her teacher.

Krishnan’s story is amazingly like the Christian story.   Not just that Christians do  things like feeding the hungry, ministering to the weak and abandoned, but something deeper.  We celebrate as most honorable something that had been considered the ultimate shame.

Honor in Jesus’ Prayer

In the text we read, Jesus is in the upper room where he has just shared the last supper with his disciples.  This is his prayer.  Right after the

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“amen” they will all go out the door, down across the small valley, and up the other side, to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be betrayed and arrested.  Jesus knows this is coming and how it will go: he knows a crucifixion awaits him.  His hour has come.

So he begins his prayer, saying it out loud:

1After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come;”

His next words are remarkable.  Facing the shame and humiliation, the suffering and agony he is about to experience, how does he characterize it?  Listen to his prayer:

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,”

In other words, Jesus prays, “Father, honor your Son so that the Son may honor you,”

“Honorable” Crucifixion?

How in the world could a shameful crucifixion be honoring to anyone, ever?  The answer is that it is the final, ultimate, climactic act that sums up what Jesus has been teaching all along.   That God loves the world  and every human being who ever lived  so much, that he is willing to do the utterly unthinkable for them: to die for them in the worst way.

Jesus’ death on the cross is not a single sacrifice – one among many, even the most significant one – it is the last sacrifice!  It ends forever the notion that God wants people to think of him as a hungry, sacrifice-consuming divine carnivore.   Just the opposite – God is family; he is Father.  He is God, yes, fully so, but also, father.

“Holy” + “Father”

This is so amazing – that when Jesus prays, he can keep these two truths about God together. God is both glorious – completely God-like,

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un-seeable, powerful, awesome, fearful, who, as the bible says, “lives in unapproachable light;” and at the same time in the same breath Jesus keeps calling God “father.”

This is the huge, world-changing, game-changing truth that Jesus came to reveal.  The God of glorious holiness is our source of life.  In fact, coming to understand and embrace God as “father” instead of distant, angry, out-for-blood avenger, is life itself, as Jesus prays to his father, (with some word-clarifications):

2you (father) have given [me] the right and the power, on behalf of all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given [me]. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only genuine God, and Jesus the Anointed one whom you have sent.”

So, instead of being the greatest humiliation and shame a person could suffer, the cross becomes the greatest act of loving self-giving, and so finishes Jesus work of showing who God is, as he says in prayer:

4I honored you (father) on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”

Now that the last hour, the last scene in the drama has begun, Jesus can think of it as complete.  He continues his prayer, turning his attention to the future for him, when he returns to his father.

5So now, Father, honor me in your own presence with the honor that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

When I watched the story of Krishnan’s work with the mentally ill homeless people of India, I saw so much suffering.  The poverty there is so intense.  The suffering is so brutal.   And of course the way these poor mentally ill people are treated by others makes their suffering even worse.  They are abandoned, or they are chained up like animals.  There is a world of evil; we live in it; it lives in us.

But Jesus’ prayer shows us that he is not disgusted or repulsed by the evil world we  inhabit, rather, like Krishnan, it honors him to come and touch us, to break bread with us to give life to us.  Jesus expects God the Father to honor him for his work.

Prayers for Us

Jesus will leave, physically, but the disciples will stay in this world of dangerous evil.  For that reason, Jesus continues his prayer, turning his attention to us saying,

11I am coming to you, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Why would we need to be protected?  Perhaps because Jesus expects that his disciples – you and I – will be out there in the same world of evil that

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he lived in, getting close enough to touch people like he did, breaking bread with people of all sorts, like he did.

It is out there with the people who others want to keep a safe distance away from that we are vulnerable and need God’s protection.

But perhaps the protection we need is not only against external threats, but also against internal ones.  Maybe we need God’s protection against the kind of misplaced pride that would seduce us to look at anybody as beneath us in dignity or value.  Perhaps we need God’s protection from the evil of feeling superior.

Notice that Jesus prays for our unity as well, “that they may be one, as we are one”.  Nothing would kill our ability to be effective in ministry to the world of evil than disunity among ourselves.   Imagine how powerful our ministry in Jesus’ name against the evils of our day would be if we worked together.  This is clearly what Jesus wants for us, what he prays for us.

Barriers to Involvement

I have been thinking about that powerful story of Krishnan.  I find it amazing that a Hindu person, not a Christian, felt compelled by human compassion to reach out to those abandoned mentally ill homeless people.

But it leaves me with a sobering question: why were they there?  Why are they still there?  Why are the streets of India home to abandoned mentally ill people?   Are there no Christians there?  Well, it is India; so perhaps not.

But then I think of the homeless people in our own country – many of whom are there because of serious mental illness.  Why are they abandoned to the streets?  Is it shameful or honorable to touch them, to feed them, to get them medication that can help them, to treat them with dignity?

In India the caste system is a huge ideological barrier that keeps people from feeling compassion for others.  Can we claim the excuse of any ideological barriers between us and the people whom Jesus called, “the least of these brothers of mine”?  Krishnan, for reasons of his own, was able to transcend that barrier.  We Christians, on the other hand, have powerful incentives right in the heart of our faith to find honor in ministry to those in need.

We know this is what Jesus wants: this is what he prays for.

Does he get what he wants?

Who would stop him?

The video story of Krishna Narayanan comes from the program: “India: Eat, pray, give” from the “101 East” series on AlJazera.net

Krishna has established an organization called “Akshaya’s Helping in H.E.L.P. Trust.”  To learn more or to donate, click here.