Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jesus: A Revolutionary?

Sheepscott Community Church August 29, 2010

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Jesus: A Revolutionary?

I almost never read the sports section of the newspaper, except to check the Red Sox standings, and occasionally a feature will catch my eye, as one did last weekend. A two-sport athlete for Villanova University donated his bone marrow to save the life of a very young girl stricken by leukemia. His marrow was a perfect match.

The athlete is Matt Szczur [See-zer], and the sports are baseball and football. His coach Andy Talley established the marrow donor program in connection with the university’s football team 20 years ago after hearing a radio program that publicized the need for donors for all types of deadly diseases. Talley makes participation as much a routine part of the football program as helmets and knee pads.

Nearly 20,000 potential donors have been tested and entered into the national registry because of Coach Talley’s effort. Two previous Villanova players were matches, and Szczur makes three. A simple swab on the inside of his cheek in freshman year with the statistic of there being a one in 80,000 chance he would be a match, and Matt Szczur turned out to be a toddler’s best chance for a normal life span. As Szczur said, “Just to experience something like that to help save a life––I’d do it every day of the week.”

When Talley found out that the timing of the donation might interfere with the football playoffs for which Szczur was quarterbacking, his comment was, “Saving someone’s life is a lot more important than a football game.” In this context, if a person had only one prayer to pray, he or she might well ask for a sense of proportion––think a life vs. a football game––even a small measure of that sense of proportion which both Coach Talley and his star quarterback Matt Szczyr exhibited.

Rabbis have always had a saying that the best kind of giving was when the giver did not know to whom he was giving, and when the receiver did not know from whom he was receiving. That is the case with marrow donation, and most organ donations as well. After a period of a year or more, there could be exchange of information if the involved parties so desire. It’s also true of donations we make to the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, the Salvation Army, CHIP––whatever your charity of choice. We don’t know what individual persons particularly benefit, but God does, and God knows it is for good that we do this.

I am not so subtly leading into one of the messages in today’s gospel, which is not to invite to your party or your dinner those whom you know will respond in kind. The best kind of invitation is that which expects no response, which is done without self-interest. All well and good for the saints among us, we might say, but get real. Who among us is going to go out into the fields and hedgerows to bring in the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind of today’s gospel, knowing they can never return the favor? Who among us, indeed? Before I try to answer that question, let me clarify that Jesus is not saying don’t invite friends and family, but rather, don’t invite them exclusively. He often used hyperbole to make a point.

Not to beat a dead horse, but we do invite the larger family of God to dine when we host the community supper once a month. I’ve said it a hundred times, if I’ve said it once, that the rewards for that work are not monetary or tangible but of the kind that give the greatest satisfaction and last forever. But in our everyday lives, how can that happen more often? I think that we all probably have good instincts about this. When we recognize a need, if we have the mind of Christ about it, we will know how and when to fill that need. We won’t have to think about the end of whether to relieve the need, but only about the means, the how to do it.

What do I mean, “the mind of Christ,” and how do we go about getting such a mind? This is actually a pretty simple concept, but I’m going to ask you to focus as I try to explain. You often hear the term, deciding for Christ, I’ve decided for Christ. I would offer a different term: yielding to Christ. That dispenses with the fiction that we are in control and have anything to offer, and it raises up the specter of our own poverty when we stand before God. When we are willing to recognize that we are nothing and have nothing that is worth offering, when we have internalized that sense of true poverty of spirit, which is in essence repentance, and are willing to admit it before God, then do we begin to have everything, to be potentially useful in every way, to be available to joy we have not known heretofore, when we were striving to be good and to carry the world on our shoulders like Atlas. It’s a heavy load, let me tell you.

The true character of the person who is renewed in the sense of having yielded to Christ, of having the mind of Christ, shines forth, and the glory is not to the person, but of and to the Creator, to the Spirit of the One who is the Motivator, Savior, call it what you will. This is becoming one with the mind of Christ, by desiring it and letting go of our plans of how our world will be saved, or our corner of the world. Don’t misunderstand me. It is necessary and important to do good, to try to live a good life, including in each other’s company as we are this morning, but know, remember that the greater good, indeed the greatest good is possible through us as we allow the Spirit of God in us to have that One’s way.

To yield to the Spirit of God. I can almost hear the protests: No! No! Anything but that! It isn’t just two-year-olds who have tantrums. What will it look like if I do this? Will I have to stop drinking? Smoking? Dancing? Other things? We don’t give up our individuality or expressions of it. Along the way to the milestone of a yielded spirit, we may think that cigarettes, or some other thing, things that aren’t necessarily good for us define us. Of course they really don’t. They are simply distractions from or pleasures in this life, depending on how we look at them. But they are merely the poorest of reflections of what the good life really is.

A yielded spirit, that place where we exercise our free will, is a God-consciousness that becomes unconscious the longer we live in it and with it. When we turn away toward our own agenda after being in that kind of consciousness for a time, we have an immediate check in the Spirit, I call it, that lets us know we are heading off track. We can also call it conscience, for that is what it is, and we all have it. I note that we can also make callous our conscience by not paying attention to those checks in the spirit.

Contrasted with the unselfconscious way of life we can experience when we are one with Christ, is the self-consciousness that characterizes the man of Jesus’s parable in today’s gospel, who takes the first seat at table and thereby makes it clear what he thinks about his own importance or at least of how he wants to be perceived as important. He opens himself to humiliation, for if a more important person comes to the dinner, the first man would be asked to move to a lower place.

Jesus suggests to his hearers that they take the lower place from the get-go, and then the host may invite them up higher. In a way, that seems no less jockeying for one’s importance, but perhaps Jesus is offering a practice of humility. What we practice can become a virtue as it becomes internalized, and so, an unconscious way of being. We can actually reach the point in our own spiritual development whereby we automatically go to the lowest place because we know what and who we are before God. We don’t even have to think about it.

All of that isn’t meant to make you feel bad. It’s an exercise in the proportion I was talking about earlier. In fact, rather than making you feel bad, it is like putting down the weight of the world, as I also indicated earlier. We are what we are: human beings, which is to say, sinners, people who make mistakes; people who are clumsy, greedy and self-seeking, and God loves us just as we are, before we have changed, before we act differently.

It is that unconditional love that makes everything possible. If we think of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as an expression of the punitive God of justice whom the Israelites needed as they pushed other tribes aside on their way into the Promised Land, if that is the punitive God of justice, we recognize the God of love and mercy in the New Testament as revealed in the life of Jesus. For those who profess Christianity, Jesus fulfills and also supersedes the earlier revelations of the Old Testament. When we can take in, when we can receive that unconditional love, can actually accept the truth of what I am saying here, there lies freedom. There comes the power to become what and who we are capable of being, not acting out of fear of punishment, but out of love for ourselves and others that enables God’s will in the world. How can we do that? By watching and listening to Jesus, a model of the loving life. Then can we enjoy partying down at the end of the table, whether or not we ever get invited to go higher up. The love of God releases us from our own Babylonian captivities, whatever form they may take, so that we can return to the Promised Land to fulfill the promise of our lives.

Then we don’t simply tolerate but actually enjoy the company of those who are considered less than, because, thanks be to God, we have come to the understanding of our own poverty. That understanding makes true relating across all lines of race, class, religion, gender, abilities, wellness or sickness––makes relating across all those lines possible, and fun. We are all part of the same family of God, no one more imporatnt than another, and hospitality to all members of that family, which Jesus recommends to us, can fill the earth with love and be a foretaste of heavenly joy. It brings us into a deeper friendship with God––not a bad place to be and excellent company.

I would also call your attention to Jesus himself, who never refused anyone’s invitation of hospitality. We often see him at a dinner, a banquet, a wedding feast. In today’s gospel he is at a Pharisee's house for dinner, where the gospel tells us they were watching him, a hostile group that wanted him to make a mistake, to break the Law perhaps by one more of those healings on the Sabbath. Jesus knew how the Pharisee felt about him, but he accepted the invitation anyway. To the very end of his life––think about “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”––from the cross––to the very end he never abandoned hope for human beings that they might change. He was ready to go the extra mile by accepting the invitation that would put him directly in the line of fire. One thing that Jesus teaches us by that example is that we will never make our enemies our friends if we refuse to meet and talk with them, maybe even break bread with them.

I am reminded of Senator George Mitchell as the State Department’s special envoy to the Mideast at this time, who has apparently been instrumental in getting Israel and Palestine to agree to sit down at the negotiating table this week. We probably all know that Senator Mitchell’s quiet diplomacy and sheer doggedness, his refusal to throw in the towel, enabled the peace process in Northern Ireland to go forward so that now there is shared government there after centuries of dissension and killing. Yes, the resistance has reared its head a few times, but peace, which is what the majority of the people want, seems to be holding.

It remains to be seen whether Senator Mitchell will be able to see the same kind of success with the two Middle Eastern parties, but like Jesus, he is willing to try to bring them together to talk, to sit at the same table and get to know each other, if not as friends, at least as enemies who respect each other’s right to coexist on this planet we all call home, in this family where most of us recognize God as the parent of our spirits, by whatever name we address that One.

Coach Andy Talley and his quarterback Matt Szczur stepped forward in their roles to contribute to making life better for one little girl suffering from cancer. George Mitchell has worked toward the same goal of making life better for many, by bringing a measure of peace on earth, and potentially saving lives by saying yes to the time and to the call on his gifts for diplomacy. If we yield––not decide for, but yield to the guidance of Christ, to the invitation to be one with the heart of God––in the same way, what good might we not be capable of enabling on this needy, turning planet we all share?

In case it isn’t completely clear to you yet, I would note that Jesus is revolutionary in his thinking and teachings. He was so in his time; he is so now, and I do speak of him in the present tense, because he is alive in the spirit. The body did die, but the spirit lives and is present to us at all times. Here and now. Call out. He will answer. Recall the line from Deuteronomy, which is quoted in the reading today from Hebrews: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” And from Psalm 118: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Amen.

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