Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"Roll Down Justice - Welcome: A New Jerusalem" 4/16/17 (Easter Sunday)

4-16-17 Sermon “Welcome: A New Jerusalem”

   Have you ever been just flat out rejected? 
Maybe for a loan, or maybe a job for which you applied? Perhaps you were rejected when you tried to join the military, or a club of some kind. Maybe you were trying to buy a house and the seller rejected your offer. Or, hopefully not, but maybe you were proposing marriage and he or she said, “no.”
   Probably none of us have faced this kind of rejection though:


   Those are some powerful rejections, and with the NBA playoffs about to consume the next 3 months of our lives I thought I’d get you primed for it. 
   But seriously, as many times, or as many ways, as any of us have faced rejection in our lives, none of us have faced the kind or level of rejection that God has experienced. This happened over and over again between God and the people of Israel. The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of God’s unrequited love. At Sinai in the wilderness, while God is trying to define their developing relationship the people are busy forming a golden calf. Later, as God sends the people into the promised land, they refuse, saying they couldn’t take the land from the people there. It happened again at Ramah, when God sought covenant to be their only God - God would be their God and they would be God’s people - but instead they demanded Samuel give them a king. It happened when Solomon chose many wives over devotion to God, which led to the division of the kingdom. It then happened in both the divided kingdoms, Israel and Judah, when the people failed to keep God’s commandments and worshiped Baal instead of God. Over and over again, God extended God’s love, and Israel slapped it away like Charles Barkley in the paint. 
   And we do it too. God calls us into a life of love, fellowship, and relationship and we initially say yes; but then we wander off, seeking our own desires, our own ambitions, our own fulfillment. We may return for a while, but the lure of our desires is too strong to resist, and we reject God again. Our rejection is rarely intentional and is often filled with sorrow and regret; yet like Peter denying Christ after saying he would never do that, we profess our love for God, then turn away and act as though we’ve never met. 

   You see, we don’t know what to do with God’s love, it’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced. 
The third verse of the Jeremiah passage for today talks of God’s everlasting love, a love that exists before our existence and beyond our existence; a love that is not dependent upon us, on who we are, or what we do - 
it’s a love that defines the very nature of the God who is love. This love both causes and sustains our very existence. God’s everlasting love is the foundation of all that exists. And that kind of love can be a bit frightening.
   God’s love, everlasting and foundational, is often not shared, or not returned when poured out on humanity. God’s love is unconditional, but human love is certainly conditional. As much as we try to profess unconditional love for our spouse, our children, we cannot begin to love on par with God. God’s love is spontaneous and unmotivated; human love seeks to gain something, it covets something, even if it’s just affection. Because God’s love is so unlike human love, we’re incapable of responding adequately to God’s love, if at all. God created us in love, and continually seeks us, calling to us, inviting us into relationship - but often we reject it nonetheless.
   Sometimes, though, rather than rejection, it may be that we’re  unable to recognize true love like this. Human love almost always comes with strings attached. Rarely does someone love us for being ourselves and ourselves alone; more often they love us for things we can do or that we bring into a mutual relationship. When we finally experience a love that seeks nothing in return, it may frighten us, so we may reject it rather than risk being hurt. Rejection is a painful thing; to be rejected over and over again would be unbearable. 

   But that’s exactly what we put God through. 
It’s no wonder we can’t fathom the love of God, because as humans, we wouldn’t keep trying. God continually extends God’s self in love, and we repeatedly reject God. We may not betray that love with our words, but we often do it with our actions. Often, this form of rejection carries with it the natural consequences that disobedience brings. Disobedience results in punishment for sin. Some perceive that punishment as coming from God. Others, though, recognize it as being the natural consequences of the act of disobedience itself. 
Regardless, the result may cause us to wander in a wilderness of our own making for a time. 
But even then, God tries to woo us back into a loving relationship that, if we would just accept it, we’d never want to reject again. In the midst of our self-made wilderness, God seeks us, finds us, calls us, and extends the offer of love and relationship again, and again, and again. The tension is never resolved, but love always wins. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

   Our feature song today, “Welcome,” sings that invitation, that desire for relationship. 
Now, there are different ways we can hear this song. The easiest is for us to hear it as an invitation from the church to those who are not part of the church. At Crossroads we certainly extend that open and inclusive invitation to all! But what if we imagine these words of welcome, of invitation, coming to us from God, how would that sound to us?

Let’s walk together for a while and ask where we begin
to build a world where love can grow and hope can enter in.
To be the hands of healing and to plant the seeds of peace,”

   I hear that as an invitation from God to be in relationship, the desire to walk together reminiscent of the line from the beloved hymn…“And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…”
   And it continues, “and ask where we begin to build a world…”
   That’s partnership, God and us working together, building a world where, the song say, “love can grow and hope can enter in.”
   That’s God’s vision for earth, for humanity, for all of creation. And we get there, the songs says, “by being the hands of healing, and by planting the seeds of peace…”

   I love this song as it is, but thinking of this song in this way adds more depth of meaning, as it weaves together with our scripture readings today. Jeremiah 31 says,
At that time, declares the Lord,
    I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.
   God’s vision is to be in relationship with ALL people, even as they’ve rejected God again, and again. 

And then Jeremiah says,
the Lord appeared to them from a distance:
I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.
    And so with unfailing love,
        I have drawn you to myself.
Again, I will build you up,
    and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.
Again, you will play your tambourines
    and dance with joy.

   “I have drawn you to myself” is sort of like the line from the refrain of the song, “welcome to this place, you’re invited to come and know God’s grace.”

   The refrain in a song is that part which is repeated after each verse, that carries and reinforces the main message of the song. The refrain of our “Welcome” song goes:
welcome, welcome to this place,
you’re invited to come and know God’s grace.
All are welcome, the love of God to share
‘cause all of us are welcome here,
all are welcome in this place.
    “This place,” if heard as an invitation from the church, would mean this church, this congregation, this group of people, who are extending the invitation to come and share the love of God with us, here. When heard as coming directly from God, though, “this place” is the place of everlasting, foundational, unconditional, eternal love of God that welcomes us into God’s grace regardless of where we’ve been, regardless of what we’ve done. 
It extends a welcome exponentially greater than our rejection of God. 

   The next verse, rather than relating to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, though, more closely recalls the Gospel story from Holy Thursday. 
“Let’s talk together of a time when we will share a feast,
where pride and power kneel to serve the lonely and the least,
and joy will set a table as we join our hands to pray,”
   When I hear this in our Easter context I picture Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table to share in the Last Supper. And it calls to mind the events of that evening, as John’s gospel records them, as Jesus wrapped a towel around himself and began the humble act of washing his disciples’ feet. “Pride and power kneel,” the lyric says, “to serve the lonely and the least.”

  In Advent, leading to Christmas, a familiar hymn implores, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here…” That song is a prayer, a plea, for God to free captive Israel from their exile in Babylon. The first Sunday of Advent begins a new year in the life of the church. Easter Sunday, then, is the day on which the year turns to celebrate the ultimate release of our captivity to the exile of sin and death, in the resurrection of the One sent by God to free the captives, give sight to the blind, make the deaf hear, and to reveal God’s everlasting, eternal, unconditional love for all of God’s beloved children. The passage from Jeremiah, written while Israel is still mired in the deep, dark depression of their exile, lays out God’s promise to do just that.

   But you’re probably wondering, why focus on this seventh century BCE curmudgeonly old prophet Jeremiah on this most holy day of the Christian year? I’m guessing you didn’t come expecting to hear about a 2700 year old prophecy, you came expecting to hear about a stone rolled away from a tomb, angels, earthquakes, and a risen Jesus Christ. That’s where this journey leads, I promise.
   This prophet, who was called by God as a very young man and was reluctant to take up the call, spent nearly his whole life attempting to relay the challenging and hopeful words of God to a people who were undergoing the greatest crisis of their nation’s history: the decline, destruction, and exile of Israel. Jeremiah witnessed all of this in his forty years of active ministry, watching the temple collapse under the merciless onslaughts of the Babylonians, witnessing the murder of King Zedekiah’s sons and the blinding of their grieving father. How could one live through those events and retain the hope of a future with God? 

   Likewise, how can we live in a time of terror and greed, filled with deep uncertainties, shot through with economic, social, and political upheavals, images of wars and rumors of wars, famine, pestilence, starvation, and violence flooding the nightly news, and still come to celebrate and find hope in the risen Christ? 
Well, perhaps the prophet Jeremiah has something to teach us after all. Because while the people of Israel were eventually freed from their captivity in Babylon and were “rebuilt,” as the prophet said, in the Promised Land, God had a bigger vision. God’s love knows no boundaries of time or place. 
And it is God’s vision and everlasting love that are revealed most fully in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

   The gospel writer Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection provide identical words of reassurance, which, when read together, seem to wrap the entire gospel narrative in those words: “Do not be afraid.” According to Luke those are among the first words the angel Gabriel utters when he tells Mary that she has found favor with God and will bear a son named Jesus. Later, at Jesus’ birth, they’re the first words offered to the shepherds in the field: “Do not be afraid.” 
  And in our passage today from Matthew, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary find the tomb of Jesus empty and the earth shakes, an angel reassures them: “Do not be afraid.”
  And when the women leave the tomb to tell the disciples what had happened, Jesus meets them on the way and after greeting them, says “Do not be afraid.” 
In fact, EVERY time a person in the bible encounters an angel, those words are spoken.
  When was the last time someone said that to you, and did so with authority? When was the last time someone said that to you and you believed it?
   As children, when a thunderstorm or nightmare woke us up crying, the words of comfort from our parents, “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” came as great comfort to us. But that seems like a long time ago.
   As adults, our fears are more complex than the easily provable absence of a monster under the bed, and reassurance more difficult as well. As adults, we live with an increasing sense that there is much to fear: loss of health, loss of income, even fear of death itself. 
And younger adults are not exempt: fear of crushing student loan debt, fear of job loss or of not finding a job, fear of starting a family in difficult economic times. 
When grown-up fears are stirred by such enormous realities, it can seem as if words of reassurance are nowhere to be found.
   In fact, as adults, we know enough about how the world works that when someone tells us not to be afraid, we can become suspicious. On a recent airline flight we were experiencing a slightly bumpy ride, when the flight attendance came over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed that we’re experiencing an unusual amount of turbulence today, but let us assure you that there is no reason for concern.” Well honestly, I wasn’t concerned until she made that announcement. What made her feel the need to tell us that?
   As a pastor I spend a portion of my time in close proximity to illness, even death. Many of you are, or were, in the healthcare field, and you did the same thing. Others of you are, or were, teachers, so you spent much time with children who are easily frightened by many things unknown or uncertain. And when we’re confronted by fear, loss, and uncertainty, we want to offer words of assurance, but sometimes they aren’t there for us. Our words are unsatisfactory. Ultimately, even doctors don’t have the authority to say “Do not be afraid.” Doctors don’t know the future. They don’t have the antidote to uncertainty. They cannot accompany a patient down every road. None of us can.

   Nevertheless, that’s what the angels come to say - in scripture and, occasionally, in our lives - “Do not be afraid.” It’s how you know you’re being visited by an angel. Who else can say “Do not be afraid,” and do so with authority, but angels and Jesus? Jesus can - and does. Several times in the Gospels Jesus says, “Fear not.”
   When the angel says, “Do not be afraid,” or when Jesus says, “Fear not,” it’s not assurance that nothing can go wrong, because in life often things DO go wrong. It’s not assurance that everything turns out for the best, because, if we’re honest about it, it doesn’t. Rather, it’s the assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever the day may hold, God has the power to strengthen and uphold us; that whatever we must face, we don’t face it alone; that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love; that ultimately God gets the last word; that in the end - and sometimes even before the end - God’s love is triumphant. Love wins. 
Only God can offer such assurance, and that’s why, in the end, only God, or one of God’s messengers, can say, “Do not be afraid,” and say it with authority.

   It’s not the words that are said that matters. 
Rather, what matters is the source. Soren Kierkegaard illustrated the difference by observing that when a theology student says, “There is eternal life,” and God’s own Son says, “There is eternal life,” the words may be the same and equally true, but there is a critical difference: only one assurance is said with authority.”
   The words, “Do not be afraid,” take strong root in the hearts of the characters of this Gospel story, because they accept that these words come from the only one with the authority to give such assurance. There’s only one who can offer such words in the face of life’s uncertainties and before the certainty of death, and do so with authority: the one who showed that death has lost its hold. 

And so the final verse of our song says,
“Let’s dream together of the day when earth and heaven are one,
a city built of love and light, the new Jerusalem,
where our mourning turns to dancing, every creature lifts its voice…
   “Let’s dream together of a day,” hearkens back to Jeremiah’s vision of the people returned from exile, dancing and singing, or of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem only a week ago, the people dancing and singing. 
The image of a New Jerusalem is not imagining some future life after death, it’s talking about this life, about God rebuilding that which is broken in this life, in our world, in us. In the midst of the despair that this world can bring, this is God’s ongoing invitation to come back into relationship, to come back into the everlasting, eternal, unconditional love of God, in which all of this can happen here and now.
   The same invitation God extends through the prophet is given to us as well. “Let’s dream together of a day when earth and heaven are one.” 
The prayer Jesus taught his disciples, says of God’s vision, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 
It’s not about waiting, it’s about bringing to reality here, what is already done in heaven. Come back - forgiveness, relationship, new life, a city built of love and light - new Jerusalem is available to us, NOW! 
That is the invitation God extends over and over. 
That is the work God calls the church to do, the kind of people God calls us to be. That is the message the church is called to spread, the invitation we are to extend on God’s behalf. Any other message, is not of God. 
Any other message is not Gospel.
   So what are we afraid of? Why do we reject such total and absolute love being offered to us? And why are so many so hesitant to share God’s message of love with others? Is it because we don’t understand it? 
Is it because we think we can keep it to ourselves? 
Is it because a God who IS love just seems too good to be true? Well, it IS too good to be true by human standards, but it’s true of God nonetheless!

   Fear not! God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, turns our mourning into dancing. This is the invitation God extends to all of us. This is the invitation that the church is compelled to make to those who haven’t known this amazing unconditional kind of love in this life, in this world. That is our job - that is the mission of those who claim to follow Jesus Christ.

   When we hear this song as an invitation from the church, it’s a powerful message of openness, inclusion, and love because the church is the body of Christ in the world today. But when we also hear it as coming from God, it’s all that and more, because it comes with the authority of the God of all time and all places, the God whose love is so expansive, everlasting, foundational, and eternal, as to be beyond what we can even perceive. Yet there it is. For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s Son, that whoever trusts in him would have eternal life. For Jesus came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

  So, who needs to hear this message of welcome?
Who needs to know that they’re welcome as a Child of God, as part of the Beloved Community, as part of the answer to fear, death, destruction, prejudice, violence and oppression? 
As followers of Jesus Christ we are Easter People! 
We are God’s Messengers of Hope!
So let’s sing together for all those who need to hear us singing…

(invite all to sing)
singing welcome, welcome to this place,
you’re invited to come and know God’s grace.
All are welcome, the love of God to share
‘cause all of us are welcome here,
all are welcome in this place.

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