Ironic sermon title given that I have more or less retreated from the world to 17 acres on Whidbey Island. Nevertheless….
Road map for today’s sermon:
On the virtual trip to Colombia in September, we heard a reflection on a passage from scripture every day, each time from a different person. On our last day, September 26, a fellow named Juan from Justapaz chose this passage from 1 Thessalonians. The phrase that seemed to resonate the most for him was the part where Paul told them to live in certain ways “so that you may behave properly toward outsiders” (4:12). Juan said the Thessalonians thought that everything happening inside the church was good, and everything outside the church was bad. He said the church members lost touch with the outside world. But the Apostle Paul is saying we must continue to be loving both with each other in the church and also with those beyond the church walls. Juan advised us to remember Jesus’ witness: love our neighbors, take care of their needs. According to Juan, many churches in Colombia tend to be inward-looking, not active in the community. The Gospel asks us to bear witness to hurts in society and help those hurts to heal. Continue to bear witness. The world needs a Christ who stands with the people. Unlike those inward-turning churches, the Catholic and Mennonite churches we were working with were indeed reaching out into the communities in tangible, life-giving ways that we have been sharing over the past two weeks.
This reflection on 1 Thessalonians came on our last day. On another day we heard this passage from Mark 3, about Jesus choosing to heal the man with the withered hand, right in front of the Pharisees, right in the synagogue, and on the sabbath, no less.
For the reflection on the passage from Mark, we heard from a man named Giovanny, who founded a peace and hope organization. He asked, Have we chosen death over life? And he unpacked this passage along these lines. He said that Jesus’ responses model three ways for churches to respond in the world:
Giovanny said it’s the heart that must be transformed. When we learn about people around the world who are suffering, we open ourselves to transformation. Giovanny works with elderly Colombian women who are victims of violence. Many have been victimized countless times. They have been displaced from their land and deprived of their culture. Many who were forced to move to urban settings are displaced again. Giovanny works with them on reconciliation, truth, and memory—their stories. Often these women want to help others who are suffering. They suffer, but with the love of Jesus they find a path to forgive and then to restore others. Giovanny says the realm of God makes possible the impossible. The message of Jesus opens a way in the struggle for hope and change. Justice and life must prevail over death and despair. The Pharisees—the teachers of God’s law—choose death. They harden their hearts, ignore the suffering man, and ultimately plot to kill Jesus. They would rather cause his death than find open-hearted life and transformation for themselves and those in their community.
This Global Ministries virtual journey to Colombia was called a mission pilgrimage rather than a mission trip. A pilgrim goes on a journey hoping to return a different person. Pilgrims have no illusion of fixing the world but travel for transformation. And transformed people transform others.
Miguel de la Torre, a theologian, writes about hopelessness. He says it prepares you to move into a new understanding, a new hope for a better world. Because Colombians have been living with violence and chaos for over 50 years, they’ve given up on old systems and are then freed to envision new society, reconciliation, and justice. They choose life, even in the midst of death.
The U.S. is addicted to violence as a way to solve problems. Our foreign policy is based on violence and domination. But we Christians are followers of Jesus. We choose life in this world, even in the midst of death. Eduardo Galeano, a writer from Uruguay, says, “Many little people, in little places, doing little things, can change the world.” Ordinary people from Justapaz and Ciederpaz, and the peace and hope organization that Giovanny founded, are working with people pushed to the margins. They are working on healing, wholeness, reconciliation, reparations, and visions for a hopeful and thriving life for these people.
This is powerful stuff. In our group discussion that day, these comments came up:
The workers with Justapaz and Ciederpaz, the pastors in the Catholic and Mennonite churches in these villages, they are all following Jesus’ example. When the paramilitary groups want to maintain an oppressive grip on these villages, these peace builders come up with a different plan. It puts their own lives at some risk. It pushes the government to pay attention, to show compassion, to care for people it would rather forget.
We can continue to support Global Ministries and the work of Justapaz and Ciederpaz in Colombia. But we can also continue to look around our own communities and take on the work of justice and peace right where here in the United States. And here’s where this “Building the Realm of God” moment comes into our worship. This is our chance for you all to share how you are feeling called to this work, whether it’s something the church is working on as a congregation, or just something that calls to you as an individual. Last week we heard from Roland, Kathy, and Peter about the work they are doing to turn people out for this election. They are talking to their friends and neighbors. They are writing postcards to ex-felons in Florida to let them know how to register. They are texting people in Texas who don’t have a strong record of turning out to vote. And we’re going to hear from Jane Doggett shortly about her own work on the election.
All this work will make a difference. Because we’re hearing about other efforts to suppress the vote: “cleaning” the rolls of people of color, requiring voter ID, making available only one voter drop box per county in Texas, making ex-felons in Florida pay off all their prison fines before allowing them to vote, and on and on. It’s intentional. Every vote counts. Every registered voter who actually votes—every vote that gets counted—that’s a victory of democracy no matter what political party or what candidate you vote for. It is one way in which we work to make freedom ring.
Of course there are lots and lots of other ways; that one just happens to be front and center these days.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people in our community knew who we were at Prospect, thought of us as the little church that could? If they know our building because they’ve been there for a film on climate change or a concert or a candidate forum—or hey, a worship service. They see the “Be the Church” banner on the side of the building, the rainbow banner out front, and they have an inkling of what we’re about. Maybe they talk to any of us, and they understand that this can be a safe space for them if they happen to be LGBTQ, or if they are struggling, or if they think science and faith are having a great conversation, not a war.
But it’s up to us to spread that good news. It’s up to us to dare to heal on the sabbath or to speak out against injustice and oppression, even when it’s coming from our own government. We get to follow Bishop Tutu’s example of greeting the day with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other so that we can see where God is at work in the world and where we might be needed. “Many little people, in little places, doing little things, can change the world.” That’s us.
I love something that happened in worship last week. I had told the people sharing in the “Building the Realm of God” time that they should aim to take about 3 minutes total. And they tried to be brief, but three minutes is really short. And then some of you asked questions. And then someone else shared about another project to get tools to people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. And then a bunch of people said, “Wait, I have a whole bunch of tools you could have—how can I get them to you?”
In that moment I recognized the temptation to feel a little like the Pharisees in the synagogue. Hold on, hold on, we’ve passed the three-minute limit; we need to move on. But what was happening was that Jesus showed up and said, “This is the essence of what church is supposed to be about. We turn people out for elections. We restore the vote to the disenfranchised. We give our tools to people trying to build ways to protect their communities from COVID-19. We reach out. We are present in our community, whether that’s Capitol Hill or the whole country.”
Jesus is always inviting us to be listening for where the needs are, to adapt, to be fluid and flexible. That’s how God is: flowing, vibrant, connected, alive. When we refuse to speak up for truth, to change how we do things in order to meet new needs, we can become rigid. Churches die that way. I’ve heard it said that the seven last words of a dying church are “We’ve never done it that way before.”
So thank you for all the ways in which you spread the good news. Thank you for daring to reach out when you see the need. And I challenge all of us to grow ever bolder about building the realm of God—and telling people about it. Not to brag, but to invite others to do the same.
The needs are great. They are all around us. We can’t fulfill them all ourselves. But we can do something, and whatever we can do helps to build God’s realm. Whether it’s villagers in remote northwest Colombia or our own neighbors, we can be attuned to needs and flexible in response. We can feed the hungry at Community Lunch and also work systemically on the causes of hunger. We can work to lower our own carbon footprints and also advocate for meaningful legislation on climate change. We can read books on how to be an antiracist and also participate in rallies and community-building efforts to address the racism in our midst. And in so doing, we ourselves become transformed into God’s people, the people who say yes to God’s invitation to be the change that is needed, to be healed and whole, to be transformers of this world. May it be so. Amen.