Sunday, May 28, 2017

Resisting and Loving the World (a sermon from John 17:1, 6-19)

Did you notice how often the word “world” appears in this passage?

v. 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”
v. 9: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.”
v. 11: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me”
v. 14: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.”
v. 15: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
v. 16: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
v. 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

That last statement is the one I want to focus on today. Luke says the Holy Spirit will turn Jesus’ followers into witnesses. Here in John we are told that as the Father sent Jesus on a mission to the world, so the Christ sends us to continue his work.  

I have said on a number of occasions that words and phrases and stories in the Gospel of John are multi-layered and often convey several different meanings. “World” is a key word in this Gospel that has both positive and negative meanings. John says that God sent Jesus into the world to save the world – that is, to heal and liberate the world, to restore and transform the world. God so loves the world and that includes the people who make up the world and the systems that operate in the world.

What do I mean by “systems?” A system is a collective and corporate network of individuals and organizations that are formed for some purpose. We are part of numerous systems – business systems, educational systems, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, and various other types of social systems. A system becomes more than just the individuals that are part of it. A system takes on a persona of its own. And no system is absolute. A predominately good or just system has some corruption, and a predominantly evil or unjust system has some good. For example, even in the pervasively evil system of Nazi Germany there were some good people who secretly tried to save lives.

In his award winning book, Engaging the Powers, the late Walter Wink describes how blacks struggling against apartheid in South Africa realized that freedom could not be gained simply by replacing the white leaders with black leaders without changing the system. They named the evil and injustice at work in their society “the System.” So when the police, who were instruments of the unjust authorities, were at the door, those on the inside would warn, “The System” is here. When they watched the evil propaganda on television they would say, “The System is lying again.” Walter wink calls this “the domination system.”

Now, what I am about to say is important so please hear me. Regardless of whether we are talking about individuals in the world or the systems that make up the world, God wants to save the world. God wants to heal and transform individuals who live in the world and make up the systems of the world, and God wants to heal and redeem the systems themselves. God cares about the systems that operate in the world as well as the individuals who make up these systems.

So how does God do that? How does God go about saving the world? God calls out a people to be Gods ambassadors and agents of redemption and reconciliation. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me so I send you.” God sent Jesus to save the world and now the living Christ sends us. This is why Paul calls us Christ’s body. We are called to be the body of Christ whom God speaks through and works through to save the world.  Paul clearly understood the implications of this when he wrote to the Corinthians and said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:19, 21-23). Are you hearing what he says: “that I might save some.” He didn’t say, “So God might save some.” No, he says, “So that I might save some.” Now, I know Paul can seem a bit-over-the top and sometimes he is. He was over-the-top religious even before he met Christ. He was over-the-top in a destructive way. And it may sound a bit arrogant for Paul to claim to be some kind of savior. But I think Paul clearly understood that if God was going to save anyone, if God was going to heal and restore and transform anyone, God would have to do that through human agency. This is why he calls the church the body of Christ. Paul understood his role. Do we?

We are called to save the world – to heal and redeem the world. I know that’s pretty heavy stuff but there is no getting around it really. Jesus left and the Holy Spirit is sent to empower us to be his witnesses – to do the work of Jesus and be the body of Christ. So how do we function as Jesus? How do we serve as God’s prophets, God’s teachers, God’s reformers, and (Are you ready for this?) God’s saviors? How do we go about saving the world?

The biblical tradition emphasizes two major approaches. First, as representatives of Jesus we engage in works of mercy like Jesus. Sisters and brothers, I think that for the most part you do that as well as any church I know. You work in the soup kitchen. You volunteer to build habitat homes. You volunteer and donate to the women’s shelter. You work in the food pantry. You care for and help neighbors in your community who need assistance. We have a great reputation in our community for engaging in works of mercy.

But, did you know that we also engage in works of mercy when we help people discover who they are in God and in Christ and when we help them become who they are through their discipleship to Christ. We are doing works of mercy when we invite people to become connected and committed to Christ through our church community. A lot of Christians call this evangelism, but I simply call it a work of mercy. And we could stand some improvement here couldn’t we? I am preaching to myself as well as you as I always do. We all could be better at inviting others into discipleship.

Now, why is this a work of mercy? When a person is connected and committed to a healthy faith community like ours that person is more apt “to experience and express God’s unconditional love” which, according to our vision statement, is what we are all about. When a person is connected and committed to a church family like ours in discipleship to Jesus that person is more apt to move beyond his or her little self and become part of a larger story and work, which Jesus called the kingdom of God.

The late Fred Craddock told how his mother was the one who took him to church, and how his father wouldn’t go. His father complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the pastor would call, and his father would say, “I know what the church wants.  The church doesn’t care about me.  The church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge.”  That’s what he would always say. Sometimes they would have a revival.  The pastor would bring the guest preacher to visit and sic him on his father.  His father would say the same thing, “The church doesn’t care about me; it just wants another name and another pledge.”  Fred said he must have heard that a thousand times.

But then there was the time when his father became seriously ill. He was in the veteran’s hospital and was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat and said, “It’s too late.”  They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. Fred flew in to see him. His father couldn’t speak and couldn’t eat. Fred looked around the room. There were potted plants and cut flowers on the windowsills, and a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. Even his food tray had a flower on it.  And all the flowers and cards were from the folks from the church—the very church of which his father use to say, “They don’t care about me; they just want another name and another pledge.”

Fred read one of the cards. His father couldn’t speak, so his father took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side a line from Shakespeare.  He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”  Fred said, “What is your story, Daddy?”  His father wrote, “I was wrong.” We are called and sent to engage the world in works of mercy in order to heal the world, redeem the world, and liberate the world, in other words, save the world.

That’s the first thing. That’s one side of the coin. We engage in works of mercy, because works of mercy are works of Christ. But there is another side to the coin. And this second type of engagement and involvement with the world is just as important as works of mercy. We represent Christ in working to save the world by engaging in works of mercy and we represent Christ in working to save the world by doing works of justice. By justice here I mean restorative justice, redemptive justice, social justice, not retributive or punitive justice. I think it’s very clear from the biblical tradition (and many others have pointed this out as well) that doing works of justice involves three primary tasks.

The first task is to resist the domination system. Resistance is the first task. Resisting evil. Resisting conformity to unjust systems. Paul told the church at Rome: “Do not let the world, the domination system, the unjust systems of the world, squeeze you into its mold.” Even though every one of us is part of the system and to some degree complicit in the system, we are called to resist the system when the system is characterized by injustice and evil. This can take many forms.

We might joint an action group. We can march. We can write letters and make phone calls. We can write a letter to the editor. And something that all of us can and should do is be  informed about political candidates so that our vote is a vote for justice.

Resistance can be as simple as refusing to allow the system to name us and tells us who we are. The late William Sloan Coffin in his book Letters to a Young Doubter, says that when he was chaplain at Yale it was natural that seniors bound for graduate school would come to him for letters of recommendation to such highfalutin schools as the Harvard Law School or the Columbia Medical School. He might write something like: “In all likelihood, this candidate will be in the bottom quarter of your class. But surely you will agree with me that the bottom quarter should be as carefully selected as the top. And for what should you be looking in the bottom quarter if not a candidate who will seek the common good rather than personal gain; who will strive to be valuable rather than successful, and to make a difference, not money?  As this candidate embodies these virtues, I consider him or her eminently qualified for admission to your outstanding school. Do take her/him?”

Coffin says that invariably when he would show this letter to the student the student’s feelings would be hurt? The student would say, “How do you know I’m going to be in the bottom of the class.” Coffin would say, “Well, all the evidence is in isn’t it?” And the student would say, “Yes, but you didn’t ‘have to tell them.” 

Coffin writes, “You see what was going on? Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate in the ninety-eighth. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Then he says this – the clincher: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!” That is the power of the system to tell us who we are and to control our lives. The system can be a college or school, a political party, or a religious group, or some professional agency, or even a club or organization. Who are we listening to? Who is telling us who we are?

So the first task of engaging the world with works of justice is to resist the domination system. The second task which is inseparably connected to the first task is to confront and challenge the domination system. Clearly these two tasks go hand-in-hand. In the era of civil rights led by Dr. King resistance and confrontation took the form of nonviolent civil disobedience. And those who engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience were prepared to suffer for their resistance, and often did. This work can be dangerous

The Hebrew prophets often spoke truth to power. Remember Nathan confronting David, “you are the man.” Sometimes the prophets even performed dramatic symbolic acts to challenge the powers that be. Did you know that Isaiah walked naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem for three years preaching against entering into military alliance with Egypt. He warned that Assyria would conquer Egypt and carry them off barefoot and naked as prisoners of war. Jeremiah shattered a clay jug in the presence of the leaders of Jerusalem warning them what lie ahead if they continue their present course. On another occasion he wore a wooden yoke around his neck warning Israel not to join a military alliance against Babylon. When Jesus cursed the fig tree Jesus was performing a dramatic symbolic act warning Israel of what was to come from the powers that be.

Jesus was, among other things a prophet in the Hebrew tradition. He was more than a prophet, but he was clearly a prophet. He confronted and challenged the falsities and untruths of the powers that be. His many healings were certainly works of mercy, but when he did these works of mercy on the Sabbath they also became works of justice. By healing on the Sabbath Jesus challenged Sabbath law and a religious system that favored rules over mercy. When Jesus led a rag-tag bunch of his followers into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was in essence leading a peace march. This was no spontaneous happening. If you remember, when he sent his disciples after the donkey he would ride into Jerusalem he gave them very specific directions where to go to find it and what to say. This was all pre-arranged and planned. This was a staged peaceful procession into Jerusalem intentionally coinciding with a very different kind of procession entering from the opposite side of Jerusalem. At the very time Jesus led his peace march into Jerusalem Pilot would have been leading a pompous and powerful march of Roman soldiers into Jerusalem to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount in order to curtail any thought of uprising or insurrection during the Jewish festivities. What a contrast. Jesus was declaring God’s kingdom to be a kingdom of peace, not violence – a different kind of kingdom.

And then, of course, when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, an act, which according to Mark’s Gospel, sealed his death, Jesus was protesting Temple religion. Scholars debate exactly what about the Temple religion Jesus was protesting, but no Jesus scholar doubts that it was a planned protest, not a spontaneous expression of anger. Jesus clearly confronted and challenged the domination system of Judaism, and in more subtle ways, the domination system of Rome.

This brings me to the final task in doing works of justice, which the first two tasks of resisting and confronting point to. The third task is to heal and redeem the unjust systems of the world which we are part of. This is important. Because it’s not just about resisting. And it’s not just about confronting and challenging. The resisting and confronting is for the overriding, overarching purpose of saving. Deconstruction prepares the way for reconstruction. We don’t overcome the world by destroying the world. God doesn’t overcome the world by sending the world to hell. God overcomes the world by saving the world, by healing the world, by redeeming the world. God overcomes the world by redeeming the world from the “hells” we have created. God doesn’t create hell, we do – by our lust for power and position, by our pride and ego, by our prejudice and violence. We create the hells, God saves us from them by means of human saviors, human agents and ambassadors. As Dr. King said, we don’t want to destroy our enemies, we want to turn our enemies into our friends. This is what God wants and God sends us out to do it. Let that sink in for a second or two. For whatever reason, we are God’s plan to save the world. Can you believe that? What was God thinking? In light of everything I can see, it’s a pretty pitiful plan. But that’s it. There is no other.

When Jesus said to Pilot, “My kingdom is not from this world” he was not saying that his kingdom is in heaven and not on this earth. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Heaven is doing great. Here on earth is where we must pray and work to see God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come. What Jesus was saying to Pilot is that his kingdom, God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and lust for power that characterizes earthly kingdoms like the one Pilot was part of. God’s kingdom is a kin-dom pervaded by mercy and justice.

So then, are we up to it? Did you realize that when you joined the church you were joining an effort to save the world? Probably not. If the world is going to be saved, we will have to do it. Certainly with the grace and love and compassion of God. Certainly with the Spirit of Christ. But the works of mercy and the works of justice required to save the world has to be done by you and me.

Our good God, we are not up to it – this extraordinary thing you have asked us to do. In fact, if we are honest and courageous enough to face our own demons, we have to confess that we ourselves still need saving in so many ways. We need a Christ size vision and a Christ like compassion and love. We are going to need a lot of courage and hope and inner resolve. Fill us with the grace and truth of the Christ that we may be his voice and his body in the world. Amen.





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