Benediction Online

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Inner or Outer?

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Luke 7:1-10

I struggled with today’s sermon because there are two different possibilities that called to me.

The first possibility was to consider the “foreigner”. In today’s first reading, Solomon has built a temple for God whose presence, signified by the Ark of the Covenant, has been living in a tent. Now he has built a temple to be the house of God forever, and the reading is part of his prayer of consecration. It’s quite a long prayer in which Solomon asks God to show favor to the people of Israel and forgive them when they sin. We only heard the section in which he asks that God will also hear the prayers of foreigners who turn to him and pray towards the temple.

The second reading is the very beginning of the book of Galatians. We’ll be hearing from this letter several times in the next few weeks. Paul wrote to the people of Galatia about the vexed question of whether foreigners had to become Jewish in order to be Christian. Some people were saying you had to convert to Judaism in order to be part of Christ but Paul was adamant that God’s grace is freely available to everyone through Jesus.

Then in the gospel reading, Jesus is speaking through intermediaries with a Roman centurion – an officer in charge of one hundred men. Jews usually had as little to do with Gentiles as possible… There were Gentiles.  And there were Jews.  The Jews were God's chosen people.  And the Gentiles were not.  Jews ate clean food.  Gentiles ate unclean food.  And God only knew what other detestable things Gentiles did.  Yes, there were good Gentiles, like the centurion.  They believed in God and they tried to follow God.  But they were still Gentiles.  The law said that a clean Jew, who observed the law, could not enter the house of an unclean Gentile who did not observe the law.  The law also said that while an unclean Gentile could enter the outer court yard of the temple, the Gentile could not go inside the temple.  That was the law.  That was the natural order of things.[1]

But Jesus was heading towards a Gentile’s house. And that Gentile stopped him, saying that he did not need to come – he could just say a word and the slave would be healed. Jesus responded that he hadn’t found such strong faith anywhere in Israel.

Gentiles, foreigners, are a big issue in this country but we call them immigrants. When things go wrong it’s easy to blame “immigrants” with their different ways and different languages. It’s easy to say that they’re taking the jobs, that they’re causing the economy to tank, even when the evidence is quite the opposite. Especially here in California we need migrant agricultural workers and migrant workers in our hotels and motels. Where would the hospitality industry be without them?

There is an important immigration bill in Congress right now. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t include gay or lesbian households. But it may be the best that we can do right now to try to improve a system which leaves people trapped miles away from their families for years; which allows workers to be exploited and made to work in circumstances no American would put up with; which makes desperate and hopeful people try to cross the border despite the possibility of injury or death because there is no accessible, legally agreed way for them to come.

Jesus didn’t avoid immigrants. In fact in today’s reading he holds one up as an example of faith. Paul went so far as to say that in Christ there is no longer Gentile and Jew. In Christ all ethnic divisions disappear because we are made one through our baptism.

As Christians we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. That means treating people of every ethnic group with respect. It means trying to help those who are injured by our system. And it means working to change the system so that there may be justice for those on whom we depend for our food and our prosperity. There’s a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church next Sunday evening to start organizing a local faith lobby to work towards making sure that an immigration law is passed by this Congress which is fair and equitable.

So that’s one possible sermon. I could also talk about how we all experience ourselves as foreigners from time to time and how as a faith community we can be sensitive to those who are different. I could mention that it’s always easier to talk to people we understand and people who we know well, but that God calls us to step outside our comfort zone and connect with those who are quite different from us. And that includes here, today, during coffee hour.

The other way I could go is to focus in on the centurion’s statement about authority. He said “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." The centurion saw Jesus as having the authority to heal his slave, but also being under authority himself – under the authority of God.

I wonder whether we are willing to be under the authority of Jesus, whatever that means and whatever it takes.  The Methodist Covenant prayer says:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
Rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Some people have declared this prayer just too pessimistic, but I think it’s a helpful corrective in this time when we tend to think that if we follow God and maintain our spiritual practices that everything will work out happily. Now we know that everything will work out because we are held in the hand of God, but it may not work out in the way we hope and expect. Crises happen. Life threatening illness happens. Horrific violence happens. Disappointment and disillusion happen. Asking for God’s blessing and walking in her paths does not necessarily lead to worldly success or even comfort.

Rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

Now that really is putting yourself under God’s authority, letting go of the need to be seen as successful, letting go of expectations that God’s blessing will mean a happy upbeat life, just trusting that ultimately your greatest fulfillment will be in following Christ even when it doesn’t feel good.

So those are the two sermons I could have preached. One focused on our call to follow Christ in the world, working to bring God’s reign on earth; and the other focused on our inner journey, our spiritual formation.

I couldn’t choose, because both are equally important. And both are equally easy to slough off. It’s easier to stay home than to go to a meeting or rally. It’s easier to watch television than to write to our representatives or the local paper. It’s easy to think that Congress is so stalemated that there’s nothing useful we can do. It’s also easier to go to church on Sunday and say grace before meals than it is to deeply dedicate oneself, to put oneself under the authority of God, to surrender fully to Spirit.

And I think that both are equally important messages for us to hear. There is no either/or – the Christian life is one which holds both inner work and discipline in balance with outer work and service.

Here at St. Benedict’s we are much better at talking about social justice than working for it. We do many things to help people in need, but we have a really hard time focusing on actual change which would make our society fairer and better for all beings. I also know that I am better at thinking about spirituality than at practicing a deep consistent inner discipline, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Yet it is that deep commitment, that turning ourselves and our lives over to the authority of Christ that fuels our ability to demonstrate the reign of God in our world.

In the silence before we affirm our faith, let us each take a moment to commit or recommit ourselves to the authority of Christ and to our active involvement in bringing God’s reign on earth.


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