Monday, July 09, 2007

Hospitality, Heroes and the Human Heart

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at First Baptist Church Austin...

When Roger first assigned me this project and suggested in a very mentor-esque fashion that I preach from the Lukan narrative, the following occurred. I opened my Bible, read Luke 10, said out loud to myself, “Christians can step on snakes and not be hurt?” and instantly regretted that I hadn’t planned out a brilliant sermon series of my own.

After my anxiety level returned to its natural resting point of medium-high, I re-read the scripture again, and again and again.

Sometimes I amaze myself at my naivety when reading the Bible. Upon the first reading of a text and especially of a story I haven’t read in a while, my instinct is still, after seminary, after college, after 29 years of life, my initial instinct is still to take everything literally. The disciples cast out demons? Jesus saw Satan fall out of the sky? I can step on a scorpion and not have to go to the hospital? You’d think I was 8 years old.

But then I return from literalist la-la land and what I learned in my English classes about literature and my Religion classes about Biblical context returns to my previously panicked mind. Look at the context, find the metaphors, understand the language, learn the symbols, seek the meaning of the story. Invite the Holy Spirit to move between you and this sacred text.

Soon I realize that 70 is a symbolic number frequently used in the Bible that recalls older texts and Jewish beliefs, and so when 70 people went two by two (does that strike a bell?) into the cities to prepare for Jesus, I learn that Jesus sent out reliable, humble, intentional people to testify about God. 70 people may also represent the 12 disciples who Luke changes to 70 to remind his readers that everyone is called and everyone is called to go – even to the Gentile nations. All are loved by God and all are called to go. Those followers of Jesus, whether there were twelve or 70 or 72 or 25 or 94 were sent to offer a witness to what they had experienced, to represent – to be Christ to the people he would soon be traveling to see.

As Luke tells the story of their preparation and journey, he uses rich, meaningful metaphors and similes bound to please any English teacher. Imagery like
• lightening that in a flash streaks from the sky toward the earth and disappears – so quickly was Satan defeated by Jesus,
• images of traveling on a journey – shoes and wallets and dusty feet – and the necessity of leaving unnecessary baggage behind,
• evil in the world characterized as harmful, poisonous reptiles – evil that ultimately cannot defeat you,
• a book in a far away place that no man or woman has ever seen with names of the redeemed listed on it’s sacred pages – the assurance God gives that we are loved,
and so on and so on.

And the story begins to unfold.

Followers of Jesus, disciples perhaps, or messengers are sent out by Jesus to prepare cities for his arrival. He’s going on a journey, teaching and healing and bringing life where death reigns. But he can’t do it alone. So he sends his disciples ahead of him, throughout the countryside to warm people’s hearts to the Good News. Before they go though, Jesus gives them some instructions. They are to be intentional on their journey, not to spend a lot of time worrying about etiquette or frivolous chitchat. They’ve been sent with a purpose and a sense of urgency they they’re encouraged to stick with. They’re to travel light for people who accept Christ will accept them into their homes and provide for their needs. But, Jesus also warns the messengers of what they may experience – rejection often comes with truth-telling and good, subversive, reconciliatory works are often unappreciated. Don’t be surprised when doors are closed and you are dismissed. Let God handle such places, he tells them. Communities that are open to hearing about Christ and being healed will welcome you in, feed you, house you, Jesus tells the disciples, but inhospitable cities must not even be thought about twice. If they reject you, let them go, walk away, and don’t even look back. Shake it off and carry on. Bring the good news to a listening ear and an open heart. And so the disciples set off.

However, Jesus’ messengers return rejoicing at the ways they were able to bring healing to communities. You gotta hear this, they say to Jesus. But Jesus laughs and tells them not to be surprised by the good things they can do in his name, for God has already defeated evil, Satan has fallen, and Goodness really does win. They throw high fives, flex their muscles, and share stories about demons and illnesses and healing and peace. But Jesus warns them again, this time redirecting their rejoicing. Jesus tells them not to get excited about the great things they are able to do in the name of Christ, but to marvel instead that God has chosen to love them.

God has chosen to love them. All that stuff about hospitality and heroic deeds and traveling and healing and returning and rejoicing and the story ends with God loves them?

How about “Good job guys, you did it!” Or, “I love you guys, you worked so hard in my name – thanks.” Or even a slap on the old back would be appreciated.

But Jesus says, and I believe this is the heart of the text, “Your heart belongs to God because God has chosen you. Rejoice in God.”

But I taught Sunday school for forty years!
And I mentor at an under-privileged school every week of every school year!
I make good money to support my family so my kids can have an enriched life!
I’m a social worker and I work everyday with the homeless! Didn’t Jesus say to love the poor?
I go to Deacon’s Meeting every single month and I don’t even complain about it!

I – I – I

“I have made you and you are mine,” says the Lord God. “That is where your worth lies.”

And once we realize that, then we realize that secondary to that promise is the promise that we can do great things in the name of Christ.

And there are great things to be done. We are still in the process today of preparing individuals and communities for an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Jesus said to heal the sick and so we write our Congressional representative to be active toward treatment and prevention of AIDS in Africa. Jesus said to tend to the needy, so we make dinner for our friends who are going through divorce and listen to their anguish and assure them of a peace that comes in Christ. Jesus said to provide for the marginalized and so we tip our servers well when we go out to eat. Jesus said to care for the poor, so we participate in mission trips to the inner city, the gulf or Juarez, building houses and building relationships. Jesus said to take care of the widows and orphans so we write checks to victims of Katrina, Rita, and the tsunami of 2004. Jesus said to love one other and so we invite our friends to church, because everyone needs to belong, everyone needs to believe and everyone needs to hear that they are loved by God.

And we’re back to the essence of the story. What we do is contingent on who we are, and we are chosen by God.

Two sisters only 14 months apart in age were worlds apart in personality. The younger was constantly on a track to be seen, to set herself apart from her older sister, to be different. If her sister wanted to go to the playground, she wanted to go to the pool. If her older sister chose to play tennis, she chose to play the drums. However, when they were in middle school, their differences took a drastic change. Their father died and while the older sister channeled her grief into homework and their youth group, the younger sister decided that since life would not give her what she wanted, she would go in search of it herself. She quit going on youth trips with her sister and slept through not just the sermon every Sunday, but the whole church service. She started drinking the summer before her 8th grade year, and by the time she was in high school, had sampled her fair share from the drug world as well. Cocaine became her drug of choice and since her dad had left her mom plenty of money, she could afford it. She’d ask for advances on her allowance and when her sister complained, she starting making up stuff that she needed for school: extra books, cheerleading outfits (even though she had dropped off the squad), new shoes, none of which she actually purchased. She moved out when she was 18 and though she told her mom she was taking classes at the community college, she had never even applied. Her sister begged her to come visit her at the university, but she never did. At Christmas of what should have been her freshman year in college, she asked for money as her only Christmas gift: the money her father had left her in the will. Her mother just sat silently while her older sister went nuts, protesting that the money was supposed to pay for college, for their weddings, for their future. But the younger sister was stubborn and nagged her mom until she gave in. She took off the day after Christmas and with the exception of one hang up phone call from a 213 area code, her mom and sister didn’t hear from her again. Her older sister on the other hand, went on to graduate with honors, got a job in publicity for a big name firm and married an oncologist. She was 8 months pregnant when her mom called, “Your sister’s home.” On the car ride to her mother’s house, all she could think about was her younger sister. Where had she been? Why hadn’t she ever called or emailed? Did she know what an embarrassment she was to the family? Did she know that their mother had spent two months trying to find someone, anyone in Los Angeles who had seen a girl at the payphone around the corner from Starbucks? Tears well up in her eyes. Hot angry tears. Where had she been? When the older sister arrived at her mother’s house, she rushed inside ready to hear an apology, an apology for missing her wedding, for missing grand-dad’s funeral, for leaving her alone to support their mom, for doing god only knows what with their dad’s money; she gasped. Her mother and younger sister were sitting at the kitchen table laughing and drinking champagne. Champagne the older sister had brought back to her mother from her trip to New York. “What are you doing?” she asked her mother in shock. Her sister looked terrible. She was skinny, too skinny, and wearing an old Chicago Bears tee shirt with the sleeves ripped off. And she stunk. Their mother looked from girl to girl. From the narrowed eyes of her oldest child, her daughter who had been with her through thick and thin to her baby girl, eyes blood-shot from the three day bus ride home. As different as they were, she knew the hurt each daughter felt. “You girls used to ask me when you were little who I loved more. Every time I would ask you back ‘how could I ever choose between my two beautiful girls?’ And it’s still true. I’ve loved you equally, from the moment I discovered I was pregnant with each of you to this moment now.” “But why?” the older daughter asked, incredulous at her mother’s behavior. The mother replied, “Because this sister of yours was dead but has come alive, was lost but now is found.”

God loved us first. It’s not about the prodigal children or the righteous older siblings. It’s not about how many people they healed or how many demons they cast out. It’s not about Sunday school attendance or how many nights we volunteer a week. It’s about the love of God.

Don’t rejoice because you’ve made the decision to follow Christ, because you bring healing to the world, because you did something meaningful with your life. Don’t rejoice because of the great things you can do in Christ’s name, the great work you can accomplish in God, the empowerment you’ve received through the Spirit. That is all good and wonderful and keep on working, Jesus says, but it’s not time to strut your stuff as a Christian. Take joy that you are chosen by God. Take comfort that you are loved by God. Take time to thank your benevolent God. Evil has not triumphed; Goodness has prevailed. God is good and has chosen you.

And truthfully, for all the good we do, we’ve got plenty of bad that we’ve swept under rugs and hidden in the closet. That bribe we took, that hasty word we gave, that grudge we held, our pride in being right, our stubbornness at having things our way, the objective way we treated others, the manipulative way we pulled strings, and the list just goes on and on and on.

But so does God’s love.

So does God’s love.

Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life. Rejoice because God loves you.

Again I say, rejoice.

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