Living the Dream of God

October 7, 2007

A Sermon Preached at St. James’ Austin, Tx

Proper 22C, October 7, 2007

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be aligned with your love, O God, our courage, our healing strength, and our freedom.  Amen.

At the seminary they say that a good sermon is about 12 minutes long.  Well, I think I’m going to fail by that standard – you only get one first sermon after all, and I’ve got 37 years of pent up good news to proclaim in this tiny space!  At any rate, get comfortable, and please let me know later if I have fallen, by nature of being in Austin, into preaching a “longhorn sermon.”  They say that’s when you have a point here, a point there, and a lot of bull in between.

This past summer, my parents, my children, and I took a vacation to some of the great national parks of our country.  In planning the trip, I had thought, “When else will I have such a long summer vacation to enjoy a leisurely trip around the great natural landscape of our country, to enjoy the creation and instill some wonderful memories in my children – maybe even a reverence for the earth and the environment.”  That was my hope, anyway—that we could see Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Sawtooth Mountains, Mt. Rushmore, the Rocky Mountains, and revel in the glory of God’s wonderful world.

Of course, what I failed to realize is that the perpetual cries of my children, the “are we there yet?” and “I’m done looking out the window.  Can I play my video game?” or —  my favorite — “Brian looked at me!” – that these things have a tendency to reduce my ability to peacefully commune with my Creator.  I think I first came to this realization when, at our first national park, Grand Teton, I was with my son and daughter, and trying to instill in them a sense of awe for the majesty that surrounded us.  I crouched down to them, pointed, breathed, and said, “Look at that giant and beautiful mountain over there.  What do you think about that?”  I waited dramatically for something profound, just knowing that the calmness and perfection of the scene in front of us would grab them, that they would see the essential beauty embedded in all things that stream from the Creator, that are bound to each other in the Spirit, that are made known to us in the Logos, the Christ.

My son looked at the peak and said, “It just looks like a big rock to me.  Can we go get my video game?”  Sigh…  Well, there’s always next year, I thought.

                The gospel according to Luke is one of my favorite four gospels.  I like Luke because it is generally regarded as the most inclusive gospel; the author intends to show us a picture of God whose embrace reaches to “all nations.”  In the Adult Forum a few weeks ago, we talked about how in Luke’s gospel Jesus provides an abundance of fish in Simon Peter’s nets after he is called.  Compare this to, say, the gospel according to Mark, where Simon Peter leaves his net when he is called.  For Luke, following Jesus opens up new possibilities; for Mark following Jesus perhaps requires a sacrifice.  I’ll take Luke, thanks very much.

I must say, though, that when I picked up these scriptures to begin preparing for today, I had a little bit of my son’s experience at Grand Teton.  The slave and master language was not particularly helpful for me for understanding what more we need to know about God, at least on my first read.  I am leery of any theology which proposes self-sacrifice or that justifies suffering at all, and my first read almost seemed to imply that we should just “shut up and take what we’re given.”  It almost seemed to say “be a slave; submit to the plantation owners and like it.”  That logic was used once, abysmally, as a reason to bring the gospel to slaves in this country.  Thank God it did not work out that way!  I can’t accept that as a valid reading of scripture.  It might be useful for the powerful masters in their transformation to servants, but it certainly isn’t universal.  As I read in a book by John Groody, “Preaching humility to the powerless is enslaving, while preaching humility to the empowered is liberating.”[1]  If I were going to use the language of my son about my reaction, I would say, “That just looks like a big rock.”  Not worthy of a second glance.

                Fortunately, seminary is giving me the tools to listen more closely to the text, and looking a little more deeply I hear the author of Luke differently.  I think it is perhaps most helpful to view this passage about servanthood in light of a later passage.  Reading now Luke 22:24-27   24 ¶ A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  25 But he said to them, “The kings of the nations lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.               

                I think when we read this a quite different picture of our passage emerges.  In this second passage, Jesus changes the conversation.  Remember that the expectation for the Messiah in the first century is as one who will come in with “guns a blazin’”—he will come in as chief master, if you will—as a benefactor to physically throw out the Roman empire and restore Israel.  Nobody is expecting a Messiah who will come in as a servant.  Only a very few people in this time are people of privilege.  Jesus is not one of them—he’s the antithesis of the common expectation of “Messiah.”  Jesus comes in, as we see in this second passage, as a servant.  Jesus is critical of those who ask for power, for those who want to climb to the top of the established hierarchy in the world.  Jesus identifies himself with a different imagined reality—a flattened power hierarchy.  He identifies with the Kingdom of God.  Asking the audience to be servants and to like it, then, isn’t so bad.  He’s asking us to be like him.  He is calling us to live into the Kingdom—into this dream of his because the very story of his life—the story of our salvation—requires it of us in our ongoing transformation.

But articulating that dream, much less living into it, is not easy.  And that is the point of our call to servitude.  Jesus calls us to a discipleship that he himself takes on as human.  He calls us to a new level of humanity as he himself redefines what it means to be human.  He seeks nothing less than for us to work to transform the human race into the human family.  By taking on human form, he shows it is possible.  By suffering death at our hands, he shows what can happen in a world that is far from there yet.

But even then, God responds.  God does what God always does and creates life from death, God goes about the business of restoration in the midst of destruction.  And so we too are called to be co-creators with God in that ongoing restoration.

That’s the wonderful thing about the story of Jesus—in his life, death, and life from death he brings freedom, justice, and equity everywhere he goes, always envisioning a new reality, always upsetting the apple cart, always unafraid of the consequences, and always surprising us with the revolutionary nature of the God who loves us – all of us—more than we can possibly imagine.  I had the good fortune to hear Archbishop Desmund Tutu a few years ago in my home parish speak on just this subject—describing this purpose of Jesus.  Using his tiny body to convey such big and radical ideas, the Archbishop said, “This [human] family has no outsiders.  Everyone is an insider.  When Jesus said, “If I am lifted up, will draw…”  Did he say, “I will draw some?”   “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others?”  He said, “If I be lifted up, will draw all!”  All!  All!  All!  – Black.  White.    Yellow.  Rich.  Poor.  Clever.  Not so clever.  Beautiful.  Not so beautiful.  All.  All.  It is radical.  All!  Saddam Hussein.  Osama bin Laden.  Bush.  All!  All!  All are to be held in this incredible embrace.  Gay.  Lesbian.  So-called straight.  All!  All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.”[2]

Isn’t that a wonderful message?   It is so filled with hope.  It is so filled with love.   It is so—well, it is so Christian.  Desmund Tutu has painted a dream of God for us—in fact he has a whole book dedicated to flushing out this reality and describing how we might live into it.

Where we go from there is up to you and to me.  What in the world are we to do in response to such a being, such an overflowing outpouring of grace and abundant love?  As for me, I do not think the story ends.  I think we continue in that story.  I think we get caught up in the eternal ongoing drama of Easter, happening every day.  I think the story continues to unfold, as we crucify each other.  I think it continues to unfold as God shows us that good continually triumphs over that evil—whether or not we are around to see the triumph.  And that is the source of our hope—that we are called to work as the Body of Christ in this world working for the dream of God, knowing that we might not be called to see the triumph but the eternal peace of God comes from the daily service of working towards that end— that we live up to our full potentiality of living into our created goodness.

Sister Joan Chittister has a quote that puts it this way:

                “How does a person seek union with God?” the seeker asked.

                “The harder you seek,” the teacher said, ”the more distance you create between God and you.”

                “So what does one do about the distance?”

                “Understand that it isn’t there,” the teacher said.

                “Does that mean that God and I are one?” the seeker said.

                “Not one.  Not two.”

                “How is that possible?” the seeker asked.

                “The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and the song.  Not one.  Not two.”[3]

I believe we must listen for the note in the song we are called to be—to let the God within us shine forth so that we may be a beacon of hope, strength, and courage, in the world.

Verna Dozier says, “Tell me not what you believe, but tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”  The problem I first had with our passage this morning was that I first got caught up with what I believed.  Our call isn’t to do that.  Our call is to focus on our response—how we live out given God’s willingness to come and live among us – God meeting flesh in the wonder of the incarnation — so that we can continue to pose questions and attempt answers in shaping the ongoing story of salvation for generations to come.

In today’s complex world, “What’s in it for me?” is a question our culture wants us to ask when making decisions.  “What’s in it for me?” is, to me, one of the least fully human ways of responding to an ethical decision.  Pastor Martin Niemoller of Hitler’s Germany learned that lesson the hard way.  He said, “In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then they came for me – and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.”[4]

                Edmund Burke put it this way: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”[5]

It seems to me that radical hospitality – or rather not practicing radical hospitality –  is at the very root of such a triumph of evil.  The desire to sit idly by while a stranger in our midst passes us by – or worse, while a stranger suffers —  is a tempting human response.  Just how radical can our hospitality be?  Certainly we can welcome those who come into our building on Sunday mornings.  I wonder if that is all it means.  Could there be more?  What other strangers in our life—in our world—do we block out of our everyday thoughts, our everyday existence—because it is inconvenient, because it would just require too much effort to be of service?

The recent events in Myanmar have been amazing to me.  The monks protesting against the dictatorship there, facing violence and death, have little pragmatic chance of victory.  They protest fuel costs, but somehow I doubt very much that they drive cars.  But they pressed on in the face of death.  They were fueled by something outside themselves.  What an amazing addition to our story, this human family.  I wonder how we will add to their journey ourselves.

Looking back over our story, our long tradition of human questions and responses that have come before us, perhaps we can see what Martin Luther King Jr., saw: that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[6]  We, as finite humans, are limited in our view of that long moral arc of God’s universe.  Sometimes we see the crucifixion, but fail to hope for the resurrection, the hope of the Kingdom of God, the “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” of the prayer our Lord taught us.  We get stuck in slavery, and cannot imagine emancipation, but it comes.  We get stuck in the holocaust, and cannot imagine the liberation of Europe, but it comes.  We get stuck in Apartheid, and lose hope of a free South Africa, but the reality emerges.  God just keeps on resurrecting, and he does it even when we lose hope.  The resurrection does not eliminate the horror of the crucifixion, nor should we attempt to make light of it.  The suffering in the world is real, it is present, and God weeps with us.  But the resurrection gives us hope that it will end.  That’s the point—we must not lose hope; the resurrection is the hope that feeds our discipleship.  We come to this table every week to hear that story over and over again, and be fed in community with Jesus so that our strength may flourish to continue the work of the resurrection, and to stimulate our imagination to see a new imagined reality—to see the dream of God.

In that imagining, we have to ask, “What is God’s—and thus our—ultimate concern?  And how does that shape our life?”  Too many times, at least in my life, I realize that I find a disconnect, and that what shapes my life on a daily basis is not my ultimate concern—what really matters most.  My daily decisions may be driven by Safety.  Security.  Success.  Many times as I make my daily decisions about how to live, I have to work to be the note in the song I am called to be; I have to let God’s deep peace which transcends these passing values overtake me.  That, to me, is a prime consideration in redefining servitude.  That is the business of transformation.  We come back to this table every week because we forget and need to be reminded, we need that new life, we need constant resurrection ourselves if we are to be agents of resurrection in the world.  This is important stuff.

My friends, we are the body of Christ!  We are the hands, the arms, the legs, the hope, even the dream, of God.  That is our call.  In a world where fear consumes, where war rages, where illness has no cure, where polemics and distrust is the first order of business in these “culture wars,” where children are left behind, where people among us are forgotten, where “they” are never “us”, we are called to be the Body of Christ – a beacon of hope and agent of transformation in the world.  We are called to be as Jesus was: servants, not masters, changing this world altogether with a different imagined reality; a new dream made incarnate.

 [pause]

You know, on my vacation in Yellowstone National Park, during our whole trip, my son had been looking for a bald eagle, or a “balden eagle” as he would say.  I was afraid that we were going to be out of luck on that front—while we had seen so many buffalo and elk that they had started to be uninteresting and almost a nuisance when they were blocking the road, we had not seen any “balden eagles.”

And do you know something about bald eagles?  Did you know that when you look inside those giant nests of theirs, they are very carefully constructed – they are layered.  When a mother eagle builds her nest she starts with thorns, broken branches, sharp rocks, and other things that don’t seem, well, “nest-like.” But then she lines the nest with a thick padding of wool, feathers, and fur from other animals, making it soft and comfortable for the eggs. By the time the growing birds reach flying age, the comfort of the nest and the luxury of free meals makes it really hard for them to want to leave. That’s when the mother eagle begins “stirring up the nest.” With her strong talons she begins pulling up the thick carpet of fur and feathers, bringing the sharp rocks and branches to the surface. As more of the bedding gets plucked up, the nest becomes more uncomfortable for the young eagles. Eventually, this and other urgings prompt the growing eagles to leave their once-comfortable abode and move on to more mature behavior.[7]

We too, eventually get urged to leave the nest.  We are given the gift of freedom, of free-will.  It is a gift with a risk, to be sure.  How will we use it?  Will we soar high in the air, letting the wind take us where it will?  (You know, in Hebrew wind, ruoch, is the same word for spirit.)  Or will we sit stubbornly in the nest, complaining about the thorn in our side, refusing to budge and wondering why the food has suddenly disappeared?

In the words of one of my favorite songs- it mysteriously came on the radio while preparing for this, as a matter of fact- and a part of it goes like this:

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance.
It’s the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance.
It’s the one who won’t be taken,
who cannot seem to give,
and the soul afraid of dyin’
that never learns to live.[8]

 But of course the climax of the song is that deep within us lies a seed – Bette Midler calls it a seed for a rose, but Luke calls it a mustard seed, that will—if we allow it to be melted and grown by the warmth of the sun in the sky, or perhaps the warmth of the Son of God, will be able to move mountains.  Each of us has that seed, and each of us is a part of a song, a dream.

In Yellowstone, on our last day, whether due to some cosmic predestination or natural coincidence I do not know, we were driving out of the park and we spotted something.  “It’s an eagle!” my mom cried out.  And you know what?  My son put his video game down and looked out the window, eagerly.

Thanks be to God.

j


[1] Groody, Daniel G.  Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

[2] http://www.allsaints-pas.org/sermons/Desmond%20Tutu%2011-6-05%20And%20God%20Smiles.pdf

[3] Chittister, Joan.  The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages.  Crossroad: New York.  P. 64.

[4] http://www.beyondinclusion.org/pdf/Prop22Ba.PDF

[5] Ibid.

[6] King, Jr. Martin Luther.  “Our God is Marching On.” Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.

[7] Today in the Word, June 11, 1989.

[8] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bettemidler/therose.html

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