Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Agents of the Gospel

Luke 21:5-19
Agents of the Gospel
James Sledge                                                                                       November 13, 2016

I attended what was then known as Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, now called Union Presbyterian Seminary. Like me, most of my classmates were Presbyterian, but a sizeable minority came from other traditions. One of these was a young pastor already serving on the staff of a large church in a denomination that didn’t require its pastors to have a seminary education, but encouraged it.
One day in class he shared something that was creating a faith crisis for many in his congregation.  A young child had a serious, life threatening disease. The congregation had rallied to support the family, providing meals, caring for the other children so the parents could spend time at the hospital, and so on. They had also organized a prayer campaign. People signed up to ensure that someone was praying for this child at all hours of the day.
The members of this church put a lot of stock in prayer. They used phrases like “prayer warriors,” a term you rarely hear in congregations such as ours. Many of them were convinced that if they prayed faithfully and diligently, truly believing and trusting in God, the child would be healed. But the child was getting worse.
When my classmate shared this, the church staff had begun to discuss how they were going to handle the child’s imminent death. What were they going to say to those who had responded to the call for prayer warriors, who had trusted that God would intervene? How were they as the pastoral staff going to help people hold onto faith when an article of that faith had let them down?
I suspect that most of us have had, or will have, moments where the things we count on fail us. Even for those who are not particularly religious, there are objects of trust that are presumed to provide happiness, meaning, fulfillment, hope, etc. People may or may not equate such things with God, but when they fail to produce what was promised or hoped for, it can create a kind of faith crisis.
I’m sure there are people here today who had hoped, even trusted, that America was on a path to becoming more tolerant and welcoming of diversity. We had elected our first black president, twice, and would soon have our first female president. Many were sure that America had made too much progress to elect someone who engaged in openly misogynist behavior and whose rhetoric inspired racists. But for those with such faith, Tuesday’s election was devastating, threatening deeply held articles of hope and faith.

For Jews in the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was a sure and certain sign that God was with the people of Israel. Even for the Pharisees, who considered the priests who ran it corrupt, the Temple represented God’s tangible presence. For Jesus to suggest that the Temple would be destroyed was to speak of the devastating loss that would most certainly create a crisis of faith.
And so it no surprise that his disciples assume that such an event would have apocalyptic implications. It would herald the end of the world as they knew it, perhaps an end to this age that would usher in a new one, the day promised by prophets. But Jesus warns them about jumping to conclusions. Do not listen to those shouting that the world is coming to an end, he says. Wars and all manner of turmoil and disaster may arise, but do not let that distract you from your work. Even when you face persecution and death, stay focused on your work.
Over the centuries, Christians have often been fascinated, even obsessed, with finding timetables and formulas in the Bible, something Jesus repeatedly tells us not to do.. That is not our focus, he says. When things get difficult, this will provide occasions to show that you are my disciples. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
Jesus’ words are not addressed to first century disciples only. They are directed at us as well. All of us are regularly given opportunities to testify by our words and actions that Jesus is Lord. And moments of crisis and difficulty only make this more so.
Regardless of who you voted for in the election, there is no denying that this presidential campaign has emboldened people who hate. It has stoked people’s fears to a degree I’ve not seen in my lifetime. But we are disciples of the one who is the embodiment of God’s love, and our scriptures tell us that God is love, and, There is no fear in love.
Opportunities to testify, to bear witness that we are followers of God’s love made flesh, are all around us, and the turmoil following Tuesday’s election only multiplies such opportunities. But too often, we’ve reduced Christian faith to believing a few things, being “good,” and going to church now and then. Testifying, witnessing, these are not things we’re good at, but that has to change.
When Jesus walked the earth, he was often to be found with those on the margins. He showed God’s love to sinners, prostitutes, the poor, foreigners, oppressed, and those considered unclean. He touched those he wasn’t supposed to touch and broke bread with those despised by good and proper people. And so he testified to God’s love that does not honor the boundaries humans embrace, God’s love that seeks the welfare of all.
As the church, we are called to be Christ’s body, his living presence in the world. We are called to be agents of his gospel, his good news for all. And so we must be with those he was with and care for those he cared for. We must testify by our lives to the love of God that crosses boundaries, that does not give in to hate, that gives itself and risks itself for the other, especially those who are weak, hurting, forgotten, or in danger.
That is the calling of each of us. No matter whether you’re Republican or Democrat, no matter who you supported in the election, Jesus is your Lord, the one whose ways you are to live by and show to the world. And so when we see people who are threatened, hurting, or in fear, we must reach out to them. And when we see agents of hate, no matter their party or creed, we must find our voice and challenge them, without resorting to hate ourselves.
Jesus said that the most frightening and difficult times create opportunities for us to testify. In this moment, in this time of uncertainty and, for many, fear, how will our words and actions declare that we are agents of Christ’s gospel, that we are faithful followers of the Lord of love?

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