Preparing Many Places for People in THIS World, Sermon 05.22.11

Preparing Many Places for People in THIS World, Sermon 05.22.11

Acts 7:55-60 and John 14:1-14

I hesitate at even guessing at the Gospel writer’s original intent, much less what Jesus meant or actually said. There are so many ripples in the wave of transmission, I wonder if we can ever really know?

Maybe, as faithful people, we just trust the Holy Spirit: reading the text with spiritual openness, together as a community of faith, we can discern, draw out God’s meaning for our day.

Usually figuring out where the Lectionary planners intended to lead us is easier. When one looks at the readings they group for each week,
the themes usually stand out boldly– why they felt this Hebrew Scripture should be paired with this Gospel; how the Psalm and the Epistle also add to the picture.

But today the lectionary planners are pointing a different direction than I’m heading. They’re looking towards heaven with their selections:

~Stephen, reflecting Jesus’ passion, choses a faithful martyrdom in forgiving opposition to the hateful ways of this world.

~And Jesus– he’s not just leaving; he is going ahead… making a place, that in our time, we too may follow him into heaven.

The lectionary texts are pointing us to the next world, but when I read them last Sunday night, I heard a reminder how Jesus’ concern for us is consistently “this-worldy.” The Spirit’s urging my hearing, let’s hope! …That Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven, but still our calling– at least in the meantime— is to make this world a place for every ONE of God’s children!

I like John Ordway, the pastor of Palo Alto Presbyterian Church’s insight about the Lord’s Prayer– he summarizes its movement as: Bring “up there” down here!

Or the Battle Hymn’s wonderful line: “As Christ died to make us holy, let us live to make all free.”

Of course, this-worldliness beckoning me… the command I heard– to make something of the time God gives us in this life– I can place that too.

It’s been a hard week to ignore all the hoopla over Harold Camping’s, let’s call it “unique” reading of Scripture. Camping dismisses the church, all churches, because each has its own dogma (or teaching) and hermeneutic (or interpretive principle for understanding Scripture and the tradition). He believes that Bible has a calendar hidden within it. He believes in predestination: that God’s predetermined when the world will end and who will be saved. If all the churches are apostate, Camping believes, the Bible is all anyone needs– personal Bible Study. Oh, um, and listening to his Family Radio programs.

All things considered, it’s pretty amazing that in a time when more mainstream, dare I say “sensible” church voices can hardly get a hearing, such an odd-man-out prophecy could demand so much airtime and copy space.

Maybe the real news story wasn’t his rapture science, so much as that such a campaign could be mounted at this “late date.” …That a enough people in our general population could actually take this seriously, accept his forecast, and make some disastrous personal decisions because of it.

It shows you what die-hard believers…
and a 22-million dollar radio network,
and a miilion dollars of savvy marketing can accomplish– even these days.

Officially, my position on all apocalyptic fervor is “intentional understanding;” incredulousness might be easier, but i’ll stick with my line:
“Heck, we’re are all afraid of something!”

Still as I wrote yesterday–afraid that I sounded a bit like Judas Iscariot rebuking Mary for anointing Jesus with the costly nard (I guess that’s my confession of fear!)– “can you imagine what could have been accomplished if all this time/energy/money was directed towards a faith emphasizing God’s concern for THIS world?”

Beloved, each of us needs to work out with God our own understanding of the faith, our individual theological worldview, what we believe about the here and now and the hereafter.

But our tradition offers some broad sketches: Yes, the promise is that God’s love in Jesus will take care of us for eternity. But it’s not an either/or proposition– this life or the next. Garnering God’s care for eternity doesn’t mean you have to let go of believe God cares about you right now.

I used to have a parishioner and good , Abbie, who’d always ask, “What’s a lifetime compared to eternity? She meant, we should put up with deprivation and suffering in this life, for the perfect reward awaiting us in eternity. Abbie’s faith has seen her through some real trials. And there is a certain logic to her equation: I mean, 75 or 80 years, even 90 or 100 years of trouble do sort of pale in comparison to eternity beyond the reach of all suffering.

Only problem is: it’s not what Jesus promises. In fact, ultimately, such an interpretation of the faith, Abbie’s explanation of suffering undermines the both Divine grace and love.

God gives to us freely, not what we deserve or earn, but the goodness that God desires to pour out on us because God loves us.


God loves this world and us, as we are right now, far from perfect or finished. Abbie’s solution to the problem of evil and suffering, which are all to real in our world, doubt that God can effectively care for this live, and for us in our mortal existence.

Remember, last week I had us use Psalm 23 as our Affirmation of Faith?
I said, I thought it was a shame the church mostly rehearsed its promise at funerals, as if God only shepherds us through the valley of the shadow of death, in the passage from this life to the next.

Our passage from John 14 is another text frequently heard at funerals.
But is Jesus ONLY our Way from this life to the next? Isn’t he our Way and our Truth and our Life also in this world, in all our present predicaments?
All the way down to the needling little anxieties that trouble our earthly days. My secret self-doubts; you private fears.

Isn’t that why God sent the Christ into the world, not because the world is condemned or unredeemable, not because our lives here don’t matter, not because the world is to be “thrown away,” cast off for something better. But because God so loves the world, because God so loves each of us, as to go to all lengths to save the world and all of us.

Beloved, in its fullest scope, the Gospel of John does not focus on those who leave us– which ones they are, where they go or how they get there. Isn’t that the preoccupation of those who have already given up on this world?

Rather, John’s Gospel– as well as the other 3– are Good News for those people who are “left behind.” In chapters 13-17 Jesus is providing his final instructions to the disciples. Not for their endings, but for a beginning. They are the ones who will form the Church. Yes, he is leaving them, leaving much for them to do.

Not so much, if you read the whole, about how to get into heaven– as if life is reduced to some interminable college application process– so much as how to get through life. How and why it matters, not just in our day to day living of it. But how it matters to God. This life, this world, you and me, and every last human being– that’s what Jesus is leaving us to handle…

Jesus knows it is not easy to navigate this world, but, nowhere, really, does he apologize that, apparently, that’s what he is leaving for us to do. Nope, instead, right after today’s reading, he promises us more help in the Holy Spirit– that we might never be alone, that we might even accomplish more in his name.

Jesus is going a way to bring his disciples a long… not only in eternity,
but so that we’ll do better in this life too. Because in Jesus, we have seen God and God’s way is opened before us. And now, all the disciples are going to share in God’s presence– just as Jesus and God have shared an in-dwelling. The disciples are to continue to do the work of Jesus. There’s not just a place for all of them in heaven, there’s room for everyone in his church too– all are called, anointed, empowered, NEEDED, each with a contribution to the corporate work we are to accomplish.

Imagine that: we need each of us to possibly do what God wants of us. I’d go so far as to say we need even more that are already helping… Because we are to make a world with room enough for all. Because that’s who and how, maybe even why God is.

God cares about the school kids who aren’t getting the education they deserve.
And God cares about the people who can’t find work. And the underemployed. And those who’ve waited so long they’ve given up looking for work.

God cares about those who are locked up in jail.
Even if they did something all of us would say warrants incarceration.

God cares about those trapped in their addictions. Or some captivity of their own making.

God cared about Osama bin Laden.

God cares about all those people we’d rather condemn, forget or overlook.
Or already have.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is a promise for each of us. And it’s a call for all of us too. About giving ourselves and caring for others. That’s the way. It’s the truth. Real living– despite all the world’s suggestions to the contrary. It’s no on out in the cold. Making a place for everyone.

In the face of Mr. Camping’s rapture science and campaigning for the end times, two different campaigns approached me this week, for our church’s support.

There is before city council legislation to require all employers in the City of Philadelphia to provide employees with sick leave. Currently, 2 of 5 employees, mostly lower income laborers, do not have sick days as part of their compensation. (Almost 4 out of 5 restaurant and hospitality workers are without any sick leave.)

Folks, I’m not talking about having health insurance provided through work.
I’m talking about: after working a certain amount of time to earn the right to earned time off for a sick day, without risking your job, or forfeiting pay.

It’s about allowing people to get sick sometimes, to let workers get better,
or to care sick family members, especially important for single parents.
It’s about taking measures to strengthen public health as well.

No, it’s not the apocalypse. Nor the great tribulation. But to a worker with the flu, or for a parent with a sick child, it’s a big difference.

God cares when you are sick. God wants you well. God cares for your family members. That we can care for our children or our parents. God cares down to the least compensated worker.

Shouldn’t the church use whatever influence it has to support sick leave, isn’t it about seeing Jesus and ministering to him when he was sick?

I also go a call from Will O’Brian at Project Home about amendments Councilman DiCicco has proposed to the Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance.
Currenly, that ordinance mandates offering social service assistance before a homeless person is arrested for being disorderly on the street. These amendments essentially reverse that commitment and move towards criminalizing homelessness.

For all our ministry to homeless folks. To all our homeless neighbors and friends. To homeless members of this congregations… don’t we owe our voice and experience and “weight” to stand against these amendments? To call on our government and our society to treat the homeless among us as the precious people they are in the sight of God?

No, it’s not the rapture. Nor for most of us the end of the world. But to a homeless person on the street interacting with the police… For the police themselves… These amendments will be a regressive step backwards.

And, I believe, God cares too for every last person, up to and including those huddled in doorways and other shadows for not having any other place to be. No matter how hard it might be to help them.

Shouldn’t this church use whatever influence we have, our relative power, to support our homeless neighbors when they are losing ground towards finding their place before impending new policies?

Old First has what is called “a controversial issues policy” which is has a good intent– to make sure we inform everyone here of issues facing us as people of faith. It wants to avoid divisions within the church.

It asks for a serious, congregation-wide deliberation before this church can take a stand. The question of earned sick leave, which is new to us, might be a good example of our needing to spend, dedicate some time to an issue. But with our ministries to the homeless, with our witness against the degradation of people because they don’t have homes, do we really need to wait before raising our voices, taking a stand, acting for justice on the threat to our homeless brothers and sisters?

We cannot simply move, as a congregation, on either issue, despite the fact that the timelines of such issues are often so short that the length of time required by our process effectively prevents us from any meaningful involvement in such causes.

I ask again, couldn’t this community find a way to act meaningfully, helpfully, to be a good neighbor– somehow building on the precedents of justice and concern for the most vulnerable?

But God cares. And I think God cares when we don’t find a way to make more room for every last one of God’s children in our church community, neighborhood, city and world.

In fellowship hour, you will have a chance to sign up in favor of earned sick leave and against arresting the homeless without the offer of social services. Not as a church. But as individuals. If your faith calls you to be there for these neighbors, take, at least, beloved, the time and effort it takes to seek out Margaret Rohdy for the latter and go to the Wellspring table for the former. And raise your voice. Take a stand. Offer a hand up to neighbors with a specific need.