Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Advocate

This is the sermon I would have liked to preach. The one I delivered was slightly different because I decided to come out of the pulpit and go from an outline. It was a good first attempt, though not the standard I hope to attain. I guess we "press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of" us. Also if anyone saw this recently, I have edited the typos.

“The Advocate”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
First Presbyterian, Dalton GA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
Mother’s Day
May 13, 2007

Scripture Texts:
Acts 16:9-15,
John 14:23-29

Today is Mother’s Day, and I find it highly appropriate that our texts today speak of God’s active presence in our lives as an Advocate sent by Christ himself, and of a strong woman who helped found a church in one of the crucial ports of call in ancient Macedonia. Psychologists tell us that our parents, each in thier own way, help form a base impression of who God is and how God operates in our lives. And so, those of us who have been raised by good Christian women have a special reason to rejoice this day.

And now I am going to do something that is totally out of my comfort zone. (Steps out of pulpit moving to floor.) Its probably going to be out of yours too. I want to embrace the idea of Soren Kierkegaard that in the theater of worship involves the whole congregation as actors on stage before God. In order to do that I am going to start us off with a little mental exercise that I like to do called word association. Here’s how it works. I will say a word, and I want you to respond with the first word or phrase that comes to mind. The first word is Peanut Butter… (responses like jelly, bread, sandwich) Great! Next word is Ice Cream… (Chocolate! was voiced loudly with evangelical fervor) Excellent. Next word is Banquet… (Chicken, party, food) OK, the last word comes from our scripture, Advocate (friend, helper, attourney).

Thanks! Now, I know its not very Presbyterian to respond during the sermon, so I will be sure to let you know that I’m not just being rhetorical the next time I want a response. So, the Advocate, in Greek this word is Parakletos. According to my lexicon, that form of the word was commonly understood as passive, but was translated actively by the community that shared John’s gospel. That set me to thinking. Is the Advocate, or the Holy Spirit, an active or a passive presence in our lives?

Here’s what I mean by passive: helper, force that empowers. Zoe and I have been reading in her “Toddler’s Bible,” which I will admit is a paraphrased version. She is fascinated by the story of the cross. The text in that story reads, “Jesus died to take away our sin. He wants to be your savior. Will you ask him to?” Now, I’m reading this with her thinking, “What’s a three year old going to know about sin and salvation?” And do you know what she says? “Dear Jesus, will you be my helper?” If we love Jesus, we keep his word. God’s action expects our action.

So that’s passive. What about active? How about an Advocate who stands in your place and intercedes for you? The obvious place for this is in regards to sin and judgment, but the best example of this I’ve ever seen was from a duck, a mother duck to be exact. I was on a canoe trip on the Potomac, and a duck flew right over head and landed awkwardly in the water a little closer than one might normally expect, but not too close. It seemed to struggle and was obviously aware of us. As we got closer it attempted flight and made it about as far away as it had been before. This happened three more times and each time the duck became more obviously lame. Just as I hoped we might rescue the poor thing, it took off effortlessly and flew a perfect loop over, around and behind us to the hallow of a tree at the edge of a bank. No sooner did it arrive than five yellow chicks came bobbing out of hiding, squeaking and clamoring to fall in lock step with their protector.

The third use is similar to the last and that is advocacy that is more transactional or legal. Not in the sense of getting this for that, but more along the lines of a broker or a lawyer. Though a different form of the Greek is used to describe legal advocacy than the one in today's text, scripture certainly affirms that through Jesus Christ the Judge is the Redeemer. The one with the authority to condemn is the one who intercedes. That’s the tricky part. There are no closing costs or out of court settlements. We do not keep God’s word so that we will be loved, we do it because we are. Keeping God’s word can be costly, but only as result of grace, not as a payment for it.

So, with all of this passive, active, and transactional stuff in mind, I want to know if you think that God’s advocacy in your life is more empowering or more directive. Let’s have a show of hands… (majority was weighted to those who said empowering). Thanks be to God that you are both right! And for those of you who did not raise your hands, we now know that you are the ones who are the most aware of this!

That’s what I want us to explore: the character and nature of the Advocate, and the character and nature of us as Postmodern, Postresurrection, and Postpentecostal Christians in Dalton, GA. Let’s look at what Jesus said. If you love me you will keep my word, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home with you. Now that sounds pretty transactional to me, and this time not in the legal sense but rather much like bargaining. However, if you look down a verse he says, "these aren’t my words but God’s." In other words, “I’m not trying to bargain with you, I’m telling you how it is. I’m describing the character of those who love me and the benefits they receive.” Further still he repeats the opening line of this chapter by saying, Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And adds to it, “Do not be afraid.” Just after he has told them in the previous chapter that one of them will betray him unto death! But he has also promised the coming of the Advocate, the pouring out of God’s Spirit as promised in the prophets.

So, and this is not rhetorical, how then do we describe the character of the love expressed in Christ’s advocacy? Knowing he is going to die. Knowing that his death will open up the relationship between the Creator of all that is and the one aspect of creation referred to as God’s very image? (Responses: all giving, unconditional love) Knowing that God loves us in this way, should we not have some level of expectation that God is involved in our lives in an active participatory manor? That leaves me with the question of the relationship between God’s guidance and our response. Somehow there is no question for a duck on the Potomac, but we don’t have a mother duck that is quite so obvious!

What we do have is scripture. And today, we have the example of Paul and Lydia to follow. Paul has a vision of a man he’s never met asking for help in Macedonia. Of course today we all envy such a vision, even though we would surely go see a therapist if we had one like that. Anyway Paul sees the vision and he goes. He knows the what and the why, he just needed to know where. And when he gets there he doesn’t say, “Hi, nice prayer group you have hear, but I’m looking for a man about yea high with brown hair, brown eyes and a dimple on his chin.” No, he seeks those who are aware of their need to know God and be known. He proclaims the gospel and receives them in the name of Christ as sisters and brothers.

Then there’s Lydia. All we know is that she sells purple cloth and that she worships God. Well, actually we know that she was rich and moved in circles of royalty because purple clothe was almost worth its weight in silver at that time. We also know that she was in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude. She was with others seeking a knowledge of God, she was there at an appointed hour for prayer, and she was not troubled or afraid. Her heart was open to receive what God offered her through Paul. Her natural response was to receive what was being offered and then to offer all that she had to others. This attitude of hospitality as a response to grace is everywhere in the early church, and Saint Benedict even suggested it had a sacramental function. Some scholars even suggest that Lydia and her hospitality may point to something even greater. Her name, for one, may not have been Lydia. The region of Thiatera was known as Lydia before the Roman occupation, and it may be that she represents something from beyond the kingdom of this world. Add to that the fact that she was meeting with others outside the city gates, and we have a person who at least symbolizes the fact that God’s activity often takes place outside the walls of human institutions like synagogs and churches.

And what about us? Do we have any households who have become wealthy selling flooring to the wealthy? Of course we do, and thanks be to God for their generosity! For we live on the other side of this event. As postmodern thinkers in the northwestern hemisphere of this ball of goo we traveling around the sun on we are conditioned to believe that we can define our own reality. As Christians who live after the resurrection we know that trying to be in charge is the human tendency that Christ died to save us from. As believers who live two thousand years after Pentecost, we know that Jesus didn’t just die and rise to demonstrate God’s love but also to make clear our understanding of God’s presence in our midst!

So Lydian Woman, Child of God, Man or Woman of Dalton, what do you represent? When people hear that you are from Dalton, do you become a symbol of something outside the bounds of the kingdoms of this world? If not I’ll tell you how they can. Be like a duck. Be like Lydia. Be like Paul. Don’t let your hearts be troubled by denominational issues, immigration issues, or the perceived lack of resources in a congregation as blessed as we are. You see, even though the celebration of Pentecost is a few weeks off, the Spirit of God is with us here and now.

If you have yet to truly believe that salvation is available to you and that God is with you in your suffering and celebrations, now is the time. The next step is to draw in those you have the most immediate influence over. Beyond that, an open heart and an attitude of hospitality will open you to the most amazing opportunities to respond to God’s grace. But you know all this. That’s why you built the Recreation Place and why you encourage friends and colleagues to come worship with you. That’s why I see people of various ages serving this church in a variety of ways not as volunteers, but as Christians responding to God’s grace. God is active in our midst, friends. Our openness to God naturally results in our own salvation and the offering of hospitality that leads to that of others. At the end of the day, that's the nail we hang our hat on. And to God be the glory.


Though no direct quotes were used, information from the following websites influenced my thoughts:
http://www.theolog.org/blog/2007/05/blogging_toward.html
http://www.watton.org/wftk/teaching/lydia.htm
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