Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Demands or Delights?

This sermon was preached on August 29, based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

Trying to be a good Christian can seem exhausting sometimes. There are all the rules to follow: the ten commandments that Moses receives, plus that new commandment about loving one another that Jesus gives before he dies, among all the other lists of rules and laws and instructions. It’s tiring trying to learn them all, nevermind to try and not break any. Then there are all the people in the media who are telling us that most of the things we’re doing or thinking or may think soon are damning us all to hell. So if you believe them, you become exhausted from the fear of God’s—or a commentator’s—wrath and trying to make people change. If you disagree with them, you spend your energy being angry with them and on trying to make people see that they don’t speak for all Christians. Of course all of this gets paired up with exhaustion from guilt—whether its’ from breaking a rule or being sinful or not working hard enough to fight for justice, that guilt can be heavy.

Some of you may remember a sermon I preached not so long ago in which I spoke about the word “should.” I think this passage, if one is not careful, could easily lead us down the path paved with shoulds, the guilt-inducing feeling of “something should be happening, and it’s not” (or, in the case of injustice being done, things that should not be happening, but are). Now, this is not always a path to avoid. Too often we don’t want to feel the guilt so we ignore the problems around us altogether. Remember the bent-over woman from last week? Sometimes we need a little nudge to pay attention. Those guilt-inducing shoulds can often lead us into action

In my web browsing this week, as I visited multiple sites geared toward preachers, many were taking this angle with these two texts. Now, clearly these other preachers are all serving churches very un-like our dear First Church, because they were gearing up to preach about radical hospitality, and forgoing the love of money and being content with what we have, remembering those who are imprisoned, and inviting those on the margins to banquets instead of people with high societal standing—with, of course, the underlying message that those are the things that should be happening, and are not—or not enough. Obviously, that message doesn’t apply to our church, right? Ahem.

Anyway…I started taking notes about my thoughts for this sermon, heading in the same direction as these other preachers. This type of sermon generally gets me fired up. I feel like I am following in a great tradition of prophetic speech, from Isaiah and Jeremiah to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marian Wright Edelman. I get fired up to do God’s work and light a fire under other people’s…seats to do the same. I get energized, and it’s generally not very positive energy. It’s usually more a righteous anger, a frustration with systems which keep people from being free to fulfill their full potential as God’s creation, a lamentation that even now, many millennia after prophets first began telling people that God’s wish for Her people is justice, and mercy, and righteousness, that we still allow and take part in the oppression of others…a burning desire to make things different. This is where I thought the Spirit was taking me, along with many other preachers around the world.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. (Now, there’s a good idea for a musical!) I re-read the texts and my notes and I found myself really, really happy. Gleeful. Giddy. Excited. Because all a sudden, instead of seeing these words as a mandate of what we are supposed to doing or a scolding of how we should be practicing our faith, it became clear that these words are also a blessing. Instead of demands, I saw them as delights.

We get to practice a faith which tells us to continue in mutual love. Dr. King encouraged this when he said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is usually the part of the quote with which people are familiar, but he went on to say, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”[1] Another person also explains this beautifully. She is an Australian Aboriginal woman named Lila Watson, and when meeting with mission workers, she told them, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” What an amazing idea, that our liberation is bound up with others’, and vice versa. We depend on each other. Yes, that means we have some responsibility towards others, but that also means others have responsibility towards us. Yes, it means putting energy into loving others, but mutual love means that we receive just as much love back.

We get the privilege of showing hospitality to strangers, and possibly even meeting angels! The writer of this letter is probably referring to Abraham, who welcomes three strange men to his home, feeds them and lets them wash, and they turn out to be messengers from God who bring the news that Sarah will have a baby. We could also stretch this a little, based on Matthew 25, to say “some may have entertained Christ without knowing it.” Even if we don’t meet angels, though, we get to meet someone new. Take a moment to look around the sanctuary at the people gathered here. Every single person in this church was at some point—and maybe still is—a stranger to someone else here. Our friends, our significant others, our brothers and sisters in this family of Christ, were once strangers to us. This is not just a “do this,” but also a “you shall receive.” We don’t need to know you to pray for you. This church has been praying for a 2-year-old girl named Rylie since January, and not one of us has met her. That’s Christian hospitality. Recently some members of the church who don’t come very often were ill and needed help with meals. Not many of those who cooked and delivered the meals knew the couple, but they were happy to do so. Think of all that has been done for total strangers in Louisiana and Mississippi in the five years since Hurricane Katrina hit. How amazing is it to know that these are things we get to do because our faith calls us to it?

Forget feeling guilty. While we certainly need to work on its implementation in this world, let’s celebrate the fact that at Christ’s banquet, all are welcome, and we as followers of Christ get the privilege of telling those who are on the margins, those who most need God’s love, those who feel most excluded, that they’re on the invitation list. In fact, they get VIP status. We get to be like Ed McMahon, except instead of going just to people’s homes, we go everywhere, but especially to homeless shelters and soup kitchens and afterschool programs and detention centers and prisons and hospitals. And instead of a big check, we present grace and a place at the table. How awesome is that?

Is this all easy? No! Of course not! But not much worthwhile is. Think of peace talks, getting people out of gangs, raising a child, accompanying someone at the end of life, sustaining a relationship, finding a cure for a disease, standing up for what’s right. Welcoming the stranger, remembering the prisoner, inviting the marginalized to the table, all that makes us vulnerable, and that’s scary. Ooh, but here’s where that happiness comes in again, because that writer of Hebrews reminds us of God’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God will never leave us or forsake us. I think that’s worth repeating one more time: God will never—NEVER--abandon you. You are never left on your own. This promise then gives us the confidence to say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Sounds an awful lot like Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

So not only do we get to do and say and be all these great things as Christians, but our faith also assures us that God accompanies us through it all. So, maybe trying to meet all the demands of being a good Christian is exhausting sometimes, but other times—many, many other times—it’s exhilarating and uplifting and inspiring—breathing life into us. We get to be a blessing to others, and in turn are richly blessed. Let us lift up our praise for such delights, and let the whole church say, “Amen!”

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, as quoted in John Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, New York: Random House, Inc, 2007, p. 203.

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