Wednesday, February 12, 2014


This is from a few years ago, but as our Standing Committee begins a process of visioning for the Church in Nevada, I thought this might bear remembering.

Today’s lessons challenge Christians to engage the world.
In Jeremiah, God tells the young prophet
         that he isn’t here by chance.
God has created him for a purpose.
         “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.
          And before you were born I consecrated you.”

So God had a mission in mind for Jeremiah.
But  the nature of the mission was a bit of a surprise.
God said, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
By “the nations” he means the gentiles.
Jeremiah the Jew was to proclaim God’s message
         not to the chosen people but to the gentile world.

Fast forward 800 years to our Gospel lesson.
Jesus has just told the synagogue in his hometown
         that the Holy Spirit has anointed him
         “to proclaim good news to the poor,
                  release to the captives, . . .
         and to let the oppressed go free.”

The hometown folks have said, ok that’s us.
Do something for us.
But Jesus said he was sent to those outside.

He reminded them God did not send Elijah the prophet
         to a good Jewish widow to bless her,
                  but rather to the widow of Zarephath,
                  a foreigner in an enemy land.
The prophet Elisha did not heal any good Jewish lepers.
Instead he healed an enemy soldier from Syria.
That’s when they ran Jesus out of town.

The people wanted something different from religion
         than what  Jesus had to offer.
We need to look at that carefully
         because a lot of Christians are looking
                  for the same thing the people of Nazareth wanted
                           – not what Jesus has to offer.
Jesus doesn’t come to fix our problems
         so we can get on with our own life projects.
He comes to give us a new life project – a mission of mercy
         to a broken world.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer
         practiced what Jesus preached.
He was safe in America during World War II
         but he voluntarily choose to go back to Germany
         to support the part of the church that opposed Hitler.      
He died by hanging on April 9, 1945 in a concentration camp.

Bonheoffer called Jesus  “the man for others.”
He meant Jesus did not make his decisions for his own success.
Jesus gave himself for the world around him.
As a follower of Jesus, Bonhoeffer did the same thing.

In last week’s gospel lesson
         we saw that Jesus was not about himself.
He was about the poor, the outcast, the prisoner,
         the handicapped, the oppressed.
In today’s lesson, we see that his mission is not for the benefit
         of those near and dear to him, his family and friends.
Jesus had never heard the proverb “charity begins at home.”
The reason he never heard it is
         that Sir Thomas Browne did not compose it until 1642.

Even Sir Thomas did not say it was the truth.
He said “’charity begins at home,’ is the voice of the world.”
For Jesus, charity did not begin with himself
         or even with his own people in the synagogue.
It began with outsiders, the folks he did not know.

So what’s that got to do with us?
We are the Body of Christ in the world today.
St. Augustine said,
         “Christ died that the Church might be born.”

St. Theresa of Avila said,
         “Christ has no body now but yours,
                  no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
          Yours are the eyes through which he looks
                  compassion on this world.
         Christ has no body now but yours.”
If Jesus was “the man for others,” that makes us,
         what Fr. Jim Beebe at St. Patrick’s calls,
                  “the Church for others.”

Fr. Bill Cowans sent me a riddle this week.
“What’s the difference between the Church and a yacht club?”
Both use nautical terms. Nave is a word for ship.
Yachts are powered by wind
         and we are powered by the Holy Spirit.

The Church is a lot like a yacht club with one basic difference
         – its reason for existing.
The yacht club exists for the benefit of its members.
The Church exists for the benefit of others
         – the people who don’t belong.

Most religions don’t work this way.
Most religions are about how we can escape
         from the world’s hardships and struggles.
Most religions try to pray and meditate their way to serenity.
They form sanctuaries from stress.

But Christianity leads us deeper into the heart of the world,
         with all its pain and travail.
The person who represents the Church in Scripture and in legend
         is Saint Peter.
The legend of Quo Vadis is set in Rome at the time mad Nero
         was slaughtering Christians.
The story goes that hundreds of Christians were escaping
         the persecution along the Appian Way.
Old Peter was in the midst of them hurrying away
         from Rome, the deadly earthly city.
But then he met Jesus on the road,
         only Jesus was going the opposite direction.

Peter said, “Quo vadis. Domine” – “Lord where are you going?”
The Risen Lord answered, “To Rome -- to be crucified again.”
So Peter turned and followed Jesus back to Rome
         where he too was crucified.”
Maybe that’s just a legend.
But Dietrich Bonheoffer is history.
And isn’t it really the same story?

Theologian John Douglas Hall tells us the moral
         of the Quo Vadis story.
He says,
         “Faith in . . . Jesus Christ . . .
                  is a journey toward the world.”
But Peter represents the Church.
He shows us our natural tendency to turn our back
         on the world as he turned his back on Rome.
It is our natural tendency to turn inward,
         to become a mutual support society.
We should support each other.

But Jesus leads us back into the world.
That means proclaiming the good news in word and deed.
There are people around us who cannot hear the gospel
         in the ways other churches present it.
God has entrusted them to us.
They are ours to invite, to welcome, and to befriend.

It would be so much easier to sell the brand of religion
         that says if you get your mind right and say the right prayer,
                  God will make you rich and happy.
That’s not what we have to offer.
We have the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is to follow Jesus
         with his way of compassion
         into a world we might prefer to escape.
We want to run away, like Peter.
But Jesus says the only way out is through.

Our way of salvation is the way of caring.
It is participating in the world with wisdom and grace
         that transforms us into the likeness of our Lord
         and prepares us to be with him in eternity.

Following our Lord into the world may sound
         like a dramatic, heroic thing
But it’s really very simple, very ordinary.
It takes two basic things.
The first is to look at everyone we meet
         with the compassion of Christ.
We set aside our judgements
         and look at people, all people,
                  as beloved children of God,
         to befriend them and care for them
                  as our brothers and sisters.
The second is to to claim the name of Jesus
         wherever we go.
We don’t have to preach at people.
We don’t have to tell them what they ought to do.

It can be as simple as mentioning where we worship
         and saying a word or two about how it helps us.
We don’t have to twist anyone’s arm or give them advice.
We can just admit our own faith,
         confess that we pray,
acknowledge that the sacraments nourish our souls.

When we go into the world
         with the mercy of God in our hearts
         and the name of Jesus on our lips,
                  we are following the way of the cross.
It is a simple way, but not an easy one.
Befriending this world can be costly.
Look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St. Peter.
It is sometimes a hard way,
         but it is the way to everlasting life.