Sermon Delivered August 26, 2012Psalm 34:15-22
Some things in life are simply unacceptable. People all have their thresholds, though. For example, there are some people who will send back an overcooked steak in a restaurant and some who will not. Everyone has his own reason. Maybe you feel that you should get what you are paying for. Maybe you don’t want to cause trouble. Maybe you want to be helpful by making sure the management and kitchen know the quality of their product. Maybe you’re with a group and you don’t want to hold anyone up.
As for me, I used to be a lot more picky about it than I am now. Part of me hopes that I am not jinxing myself or the lunch bunch [group that meets monthly in local restaurants] today, but I do believe that in this context coincidence is easier to justify theologically than instant karma. God’s love and activity is both bigger and more particular than my sandwich.
I am certain that God’s influence is in all things – even a sandwich, or a conversation, or the choice to act or withhold from acting. And I am certain that the temptation to make choices that are not in keeping with God’s will is in all things – even a sandwich, or a conversation, or the choice to act or withhold from acting.
It is for this reason that the Apostle said, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of [God’s] power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Now, I think it is important to note that the Greek cosmology was one of certain dualism. They believed there were two equal spiritual realities competing for dominance. They believed the mind and the body were separate realities to master or become enslaved to. Certainly the ancient Hebrews believed in right versus wrong and evil versus good, but the concept of God as a prize fighter for the good did not enter their conscience. The tradition of Jesus, and those of his time, is one that understood God’s will to be the ultimate force that moved and shaped all things – even our imperfect responses to God’s grace.
And our imperfect response to God’s grace and the limited nature of a creation that is not eternal sets things in motion that do not look like God’s will. And so the Apostle wrote to Greeks and Jews in community and offered a word of truth. And the truth is that there are spiritual forces set in motion that are not in keeping with God’s immediate will, and we have to deal with that just as we have to deal with being forgiven, with being loved no matter what, and with being expected to love in the same way we have been loved.
The benediction of the Apostle reminds the believers in Ephesus that they have some tools at their disposal. He uses militant language to describe the way their faith can protect and defend them: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God). “Oh, and make sure you have some comfortable shoes,” he says with a slightly paternal tone.
All of these seem very practical, if not particularly aggressive. Being on the offensive always feels good at the time, as long as you are not over-extended. But it strikes me that these are all listed as defensive options with a particular connection to certain aspects of our bodies. We may rise above our temptations. We may put aside our needs and wants for others, but in the end we are a little like the dad I met yesterday at a birthday party who stuck his foot in the pool and decided it was too cold. Of course, when his family and friends got in he was moved by his love for them more than his preferences for pool water.
In some ways, that is the effect of the Gospel. The teachings of Jesus and the reality of his death and resurrection move us to decide that some things which we once thought we just could not do become the things we simply must do. In other words, Jesus messes with our sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
That’s what is happening in John 6. With all the repetition about Jesus as the Bread of Life, you might think that this is the worst example of a classic sales technique. You know the one. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Telling them. Tell them what you told them. If that is what he is after then he’s terrible, because they are leaving him in droves and saying, “This teaching is too hard!”
Not only that, he moves from a teaching that is ultimately corporeal – eat my body and drink my blood – to a reality that is ultimately spiritual by saying, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” It seems like Jesus is chasing them away like some mad drunk. He looks at the remaining disciples and says, “Do you also wish to leave?”
Then Peter speaks and says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Really – they have nowhere else to go? These men who have left family and economic opportunity and Lord knows what else have nowhere else to go? Perhaps. In the ancient days of mariners, upon discovering a new land some would scuttle the mast – cutting it down to limit their options of retreat and force exploration. Maybe they have made similar decisions. Maybe they have redirected their lives in such a way that they cannot easily look for bread from some other hand.
Or maybe they have come to understand what it means to be the church – even for the one who will betray him.
It is here, in John’s Gospel, that the twelve are first set apart. It is here, in John’s Gospel, that the language and the experience of common union with Jesus in mind, body, and soul are expressed. And it is here that we can begin to see what God is offering us through Jesus Christ. God is offering us the chance to see that we – with all of our faithfulness and betrayal – are acceptable.
And that, I believe, is the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we have received it today! If I am acceptable then who, or what, else is? Who, or what, is not acceptable? I think I would be hard pressed to say who is not acceptable in the eyes of God, as I am not God. The question then becomes about the “what”.
We have enough food to feed everyone, but we still have famines – unacceptable. We have more legal protections against slavery and more people enslaved now than ever before – unacceptable. The church of Jesus Christ remains the most racially divided and discriminatory institution in our country – unacceptable. Good Christians are being motivated every day to act based on the politics of fear and anger rather than a theology faith and love – unacceptable.
These are big ticket items, and I wish that I had a simple solution to them. I know some people who do, though. The first person is Erik Wowoh. You may have seen him on the news a few years back. He was rescued from a Liberian refugee camp in 2006 where he lived in squalor after serving as a conscripted child soldier. He was discarded. I have seen his scars myself. In a recent email from his organization, Change Agent Network, he wrote:
I came to the United States, with one hand in the front and the other in the back, which in Africa means naked! I had no passport, no visa, no phone, no address, no job and no one I knew in a foreign country.
After my arrival in the US as a refugee in 2006, within my second year in this country, I was able to put together a 40ft or 18 wheeler size container of supplies including educational and household materials, computers, electronic items, clothing and shoes to be shipped to Liberia to help out.
A year later in 2009, I shipped another consignment to Liberia for which I got a ticket for $800 from the US Government for overload. I had over 80,000 lbs of supplies on Federal highways. It's truly amazing how I came to this nation "naked" and now I am being charged for overload. “Only in America!"
This year's shipment has over twenty five thousand text books and other important educational materials for all levels of learning ranging from kindergarten through university. 150 pieces of used computers, thousands of clothing items, shoes and toys and an industrial generator to power one of our centers in the City View, Lower Johnsonville Community area in Montserrado County Liberia.
Erik has decided that it is unacceptable to let people live as he lived, now that he has received grace, mercy, and restoration. It does not have to be that big a commitment though. We all work within our limitations until God calls us to move beyond them.
Even children know what I mean. There was another birthday party yesterday that proved it to me. At this party a young girl turned eight years old. At this party an eight year old girl decided that she had enough stuff. At this party, an eight year old girl picked two animal shelters and asked for donations of supplies and other things for the shelters instead of presents for herself. Wow. What a profound witness!
As a congregation, we have a pretty profound witness as well. Of course there are times when we feel terribly limited, but I believe that is a good thing. It hurts to feel limited in our bodies and in our ability to effect change. Sometimes it hurts knowing that we cannot keep things from changing.
The good news in all of this is that we are not the ones to create stability or effect change. We are the ones called by God to be a part of what God is doing. We are the ones who have been set apart because we have said, “We aren’t going anywhere because only Jesus has the words of life and we believe that he is present in our common union!”
That, my friends, brings me to the really good part – prayer. If you cannot do anything – pray. If you are doing anything – do it prayerfully. We have all of these defenses against evil – truth, righteousness, and faith – but we have one tool for our offense. Pray in the Spirit. Talk to God. Ask God for the things you believe you need, but do not expect God to bend to your will. Praying in the Spirit – the life giving Spirit – means to become bent toward the will of God.
And I believe it is the will of God for you to know that whatever in the world is unacceptable, you are not it. You are more than acceptable. You are beloved, and so are they. The question of the day is not about the acceptability of persons. It is instead about the need to challenge suffering. Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you also wish to leave me?”
That is the question we must answer when we are challenged by the things we find to be unacceptable. I am hopeful that my response will be like the disciples, but I feel certain that our response as a faith community is just the same. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And through the grace, mercy, and providence of God, so are we – forgiven sinners one and all – as the Body of Christ, broken for the world.
May it be so with me. May it be so with you – Holy Ones of God. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.