Sermon Delivered May 20, 2012 – Easter (7B)Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
As we begin to wrestle with these texts today - with their claims of exclusivity and condemnation - I’d like you to consider the idea of belonging. What does it mean to you to belong? Who, or what, do you belong to? Most of us have so many allegiances in our lives that we sometimes feel that we are in the midst of a competition, or perhaps we are being competed over.
We live somewhere in the midst of family considerations, Doctor’s orders, financial obligations, the needs of our friends, and - heaven forbid - even the opportunity for relaxation and enjoyment. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the people, places, and things that belong to us and the people, places, and things that we belong to.
Belonging certainly implies ownership, indeed “to be the property of a person or thing” is one of the definitions of belonging prescribed by www.merriam-webster.com. There is a lot more to belonging than that, though. Other definitions include:
1. a : to be suitable, appropriate, or advantageous <a dictionary belongs in every home> b : to be in a proper situation <a man of his ability belongs in teaching>
2. a : to be the property of a person or thing —used with to <the book belongs to me> b : to be attached or bound by birth, allegiance, or dependency —usually used with to <they belong to their homeland> c : to be a member of a club, organization, or set —usually used with to <she belongs to a country club>
3: to be an attribute, part, adjunct, or function of a person or thing <nuts and bolts belong to a car>
4: to be properly classified <you belong in the genus and species of homo sapien>
Somehow, in spite of the great possibilities for nuance in the English language we have boiled the idea of belonging down to make it synonymous with ownership.
Somehow, we have decided that belonging is not about mutual submission but instead it is about power. If you need proof, just turn on the radio and listen to any number of sappy, codependent, love songs found on any station and every genre.
Somehow, in spite of our hubris and pride, God still breaks in and breaks down our defenses.
Once upon a time there was a group of 5 year old boys playing on a hill behind a concession stand at a park while their older brothers were playing t-ball. On one run down the hill, one of the boys tripped and collided with the concession stand - knocking him out cold. One of the kids goes to get his own mom who scoops up the fallen child, brings him to his mother, and says, “Is this one yours?”
The woman graciously received her child and rushed him to the E.R., where he woke up dazed and confused - but unharmed. Each of them overjoyed to belong to the other. Each of them found ways to assure such an event would not happen again. Each of them, in their own way, was transformed by the experience of risk, longing, and resolution. Each of them continued to experience grace, mercy, and providence every day.
In fact, the boy - now a man - and his mother sat discussing our texts on her porch just a few days ago, and they (or should I say we) realized that these familiar and comfortable texts are not as familiar or as comfortable as we might want them to be. The Psalm is certainly a nice assurance, assuming that you are among those who meditate on the law of God with every waking breath.
Even so, it makes some pretty bold claims that are fairly difficult to see sometimes. Particularly I am talking about the idea that the faithful will be necessarily prosperous, and the wicked will be driven away. Tell that to the young woman with postpartum depression. Tell that to the amputee soldier with PTSD. Tell that to the couple who have worked, and saved, and lost it all! Tell that to anyone who has ever struggled to survive, and they might just tell you that God seems to be helping those who help themselves. And what kind of God is that?
God is, of course, not limited to our experience and understanding. In fact God is particularly beyond our ability to fully experience and to fully understand. That is what makes God, God. God is holy. God is separate. God is other. And yet, God has said to an oppressed people, “My name is I AM.” And yet, God’s activity is as simple as watering a tree.
Last night, Zoe and I talked about this passage and the way in which God’s word is like water for the tree. Of course trees cannot move, but we can. And through the proclamation of John we understand Jesus as the word made flesh, the divine logos, the fullness of the law - the water for the tree. Through the proclamation of those in John’s community, we see that there are those who have moved away from the fountain of life. These proclamations were written about a generation after the resurrection, and scholars will tell you that things were not much different than they are now.
There were debates over the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the spiritual or physical nature of the resurrection, and probably even over the flowers, paraments, and pew covers. Well, maybe not that last part, but they probably did have some conflicts over the hymnal since those who were not Jewish didn’t always understand the Psalms. Like I said though, not much has changed.
Don’t believe me? Just watch for bumper stickers. Eventually you will see one that says, “No Jesus - No Peace” on top and, “Know Jesus - Know Peace” on the bottom. While I bristle against the exclusivity of that claim, there is a lot of truth in it.
The fact is that we do need to be able to point toward the new reality that God has ushered in through Christ Jesus. We need to be able to look deeply into the dark places of our own souls and proclaim the light that we have been given - the light that leads us out of self doubt and delusion. For this is the light that leads us out of our vain attempts of claiming ownership of God and instead leads us toward the mutual submission that God is constantly inviting us into. For that is exactly what the God of the universe has intended for us, to be in a relationship of mutual submission where God will spare nothing - not even his own son - to make the nature of our relationship with God known to us.
Let me be very clear in saying that God is not subservient to us. Even though we pray with great demands and we make exclusive claims about our individual salvation, God does what God does because it is what God does. And, fortunately for us, what God does is to love us. What God does is to sanctify us. What God does is to use us to announce the kingdom that is both present and yet to come, and that kingdom looks like a place where people know without a shadow of a doubt that they belong. They belong categorically. They belong because they are valued. They belong because the testimony of God, which is Jesus - love expressed through mutual submission - leads to eternal life, is written upon their hearts just as it is written upon yours and mine.
Do you know that? Do you believe that the testimony of God is written upon your heart? I once heard a story about a little girl at the Doctor’s office. The Doctor was well versed in children’s behavior, and as he looked up her nose he said, “I see Elmo!” and she giggled and said, “No, he’s on TV.” He looked in one ear and said, “I see Mini Mouse!” and she giggled and said, “No, she’s on my panties!” He looked in her other ear and - needing to recover and knowing the family from church - he said, “I see Jesus!” The little girl said, “No, silly, he’s in my heart!”
Somehow that becomes harder to believe the older we grow. Perhaps it is because we’ve had more time to make mistakes. Perhaps it is because we have had more time to be hurt or disappointed by others. Perhaps it is because we put the thought of having Jesus in our hearts in the category of childish ideals.
Yet we are told that we will be known to God because the testimony of God that Jesus offers salvation will be written on our hearts. Do you want to know how you can tell if the testimony of God is written on your heart? It makes people mad. In fact, someone, somewhere will hate you for the fact that you are here to express the opportunity of mutual submission with God. Hatred is not the result we want, but it is always a possibility if you are truly Christ’s disciple. Someone, somewhere will expect you to follow certain political perspectives or condemn you for the ones you hold. Someone, somewhere will tell you that God would never consider becoming vulnerable because they know for a fact that God cannot and will not do that. Someone, somewhere will tell you that salvation has nothing to do with the here and now and everything to do with the there and then - and somehow their version of there and then looks an awful lot like a cleaned up version of the here and now.
And I will tell you that here and now is where sanctification, salvation, and eternal life begin. It begins with the gift of belonging to God - both individually and collectively - in mutual submission to grace and mercy and the terrific claims they place on our lives.
I met a woman last week that I think demonstrates this idea of mutual submission pretty well. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado, and she was a speaker at the Festival of Homiletics last week in Atlanta Georgia. Her congregation describes itself as a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient - future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination. If none of those words mean anything to you, just know that they have been a gathering point for those who have not felt welcome or who have been downright excluded from the church and the Christian faith.
One of the issues her community has faced as it has grown is that a group of young professional suburbanites began to come - oh the horror - and she had some genuine concern for those who felt outcast by a similar group in the past. They held a church meeting, and a young gay teenager stood up to say, “I’m glad that there are people coming to our church who look like my parents, because it is good to know that I can trust people like them to love me - since I know that my parents do not.”
And suddenly the testimony of Jesus was written upon their hearts by a child the church would reject. And suddenly I became aware of what it means to belong. And suddenly the statement that Christ has no hands, or feet, or arms to embrace but yours and mine gained deeper and clearer meaning. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation or political agendas or worship styles. It has everything to do with asking Jesus to let me into the Kingdom by opening the doors for someone else.
The Kingdom of God is a place where all may enter in, where all may be transformed, and where none of us are in control. The Kingdom of God is here - inside each of us. The Kingdom of God is a place where you belong, and so do they - whoever they are. The Kingdom of God is waiting to be revealed - but not inside these walls. The Kingdom of God is both present and yet to come. We long for it. We look for it. We expect it, and we celebrate it when we experience it - both here and now, and there and then! And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!