Thursday, August 18, 2016

A dangerous faith

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 14, 2016

We bring swords
that you turn into plowshares.
We bring expectations of peace
and you meet us with swords.
help us.

      Once upon a time, Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and author, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock woke him at 3:00 a.m. The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling.

         He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything was closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He went in and sat down at the counter. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, "What d'ya want?"

         Well, Tony wasn't so hungry anymore, so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he said, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

         As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30 in the morning, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulped his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replied, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?"

         The first woman said, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

         Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

         "Yeah," he answered.

         "The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

         "Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

         "Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

         A cute kind of smile crept over the man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he said, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turned to the kitchen and shouted to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

         His wife came out. "That's terrific," she said. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

         So they made their plans. Tony said he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turned out to be Harry, said he'd make a cake.

         At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back. He had crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorated the place from one end to the other and got it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

         At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. Tony had everybody ready. They all shouted and screamed "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.

         And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she totally lost it. Then she was sobbing and crying. Harry, who wasn’t used to seeing anyone cry in his establishment, gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

         So she pulled herself together and blew them out. Everyone cheered and yelled, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

         But Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

         Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

         "Oh, could I?" she asked. Looking at Tony she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

         She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

         So Tony got up on a chair and said, "What do you say that we pray together?"

         And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon in Honolulu, a crowd of prostitutes at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her life with God. Tony recalled, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

         When he was finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

         In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

         Harry thought for a moment and said, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

         That’s the kind of church Jesus calls us to be, the same one that lists Rahab the prostitute as a hero of the faith right after Moses and before those of Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel in the reading from the book of Hebrews. Jesus said, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the righteous will.” Jesus was a dangerous man. He broke the religious laws of his time to show forth God’s radical love, compassion, and forgiveness. People thought he was a drunkard and a glutton because he ate and drank with those who behaved that way. 

         He healed on the Sabbath, he spoke with women and included them in his inner circle. He said the last would be first and the first, last. Grace would be given to all, the just and the unjust. If we were rich, we would be sent away empty; we were to sell all we had and give it to the poor. We were to love our enemies and pray for them. We were to deny ourselves and take up our own cross. And as unbelievable as it may sound, this was the sword that Jesus wielded, that divided family members one from another.

         A friend once said in a sermon, “It isn’t the unbelievable, fantastic stories in the Bible that make me feel uncomfortable. What really makes me squirm is precisely that which I do understand, what I can fathom, what I am certain is true. The stories and the words of Jesus cut like a knife in order to purify and heal, to bother us into eternity. God is the great Botherer, to save us from drowning in the Red Sea, from burning to a crisp in warfare with our brothers and sisters or with our own selves. If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered for the right reasons.”

         The prophetic voice, if it has any power, must bother us. It irritates us and arouses our passion. The prophetic voice comforts the afflicted, but it afflicts the comfortable. It’s the lectionary reading we’d rather not use in worship. Indeed it does make us squirm, like when we’ve been sitting too long. It rips the covers off our comfort zone and wakes us up. It’s the sword that cuts through our illusions. 

         The prophetic voice comes from obscure corners and unexpected people. Prophets are edgy and rarely well-behaved. They’re part of the disestablishment; they’ve been exiled from the popular kids’ table. When we say “God is still speaking,” these are the folks God taps.

         Who are the great and small Botherers of our time? Right now, today? 

         Malala Yousafzai


         Traci Blackmon

         Martin Luther King Jr.

         And yes, Donald Trump (keep reading)

         We who are white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle- to upper-middle class have had more than ample opportunity to have our say, and it has been dominant. But what have we done with our privilege but to ensure our place at the table? We hunger for the progressive voice and nod our heads vigorously in assent when hear it, but what about the hoarse radical crying out from the margins or agitating from within our own ranks? I’m thinking of Wally McCurdy who was a much-loved yet persistent thorn in the side of this congregation.

         In the 59 years of the United Church of Christ we have a long tradition of lifting up our prophets, our truth tellers. But in the years since the popularity of social media, we often convert these edgy folks into rock stars, inadvertently domesticating their message and their voice into something like pop music or siren song. 

        It’s time for we who have privilege to get quiet and finally listen, really listen, to the pain of others whose lives are so very different from ours. This pain can sound like anger, fear, grief, depression, desperation, resentment, powerlessness. It expresses itself in violence, in riots, in massacres, self-destruction, political rallies and protests, and hair-triggers. There is truth being told in this pain, the pain of living in an empire, but as we have witnessed it can also be easily manipulated and channeled when it has not been heard by those who have the power to change the way things are but instead ensure their place at the table.

         The Church needs to remember its roots in disestablishment, that it was born in the pain of empire, and broadcast that truth-telling voice loud and clear. We need to own our role of John the Baptist, that voice who cried out from the margins of his own time, who pointed to one who was even more of an outsider, who was crucified as a criminal. 

         When the Church is not loud enough, it can lead to comfortable, so-so faith that neither attracts newcomers nor energizes a congregation. Our faith is meant to be fuel for the engine that drives the kingdom of God. Discomfort, passion, and being bothered by Jesus and the pain of others can fire up a sense of mission and purpose in the Church.

         As a church, what is our comfort zone? How are we being challenged to step out in faith? What makes this church dangerous to the status quo? What is it about Jesus’ message that disturbs us, bothers us, and afflicts our personal and collective conscience? What is it about Jesus that presents a crisis, a moment or occasion of truth and decision, in our lives and in our life together? We need to think about what has been bothering us recently as a church, and as person of faith, and ask ourselves, “Is this worth spending our energy, my energy on or is there something more important? Is this about me and my will be done or is this about Jesus and God’s will be done?” As my friend said, “If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered by the right reasons.”

         God wants all of us at the table: at the tables of power and decision and policy; at this Table where we are reminded of the cost and joy of discipleship; at that universal table where all people gather in peace. But most of all God wants us at the tables we are reluctant to set and sit at. Let us dare to follow that One, our Savior who came with a sword to cut us loose from our chains of comfort, our bondage to the ways things are, our “peace at any price”, that we might be set free, that we might have power to imagine something more wonderful and life-giving—even a church that gives birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. Yep, I’d join a church like that. How about you? 


We are Church.
We are that sword that can cut through the darkness.
We are that table where all can have a place.
We are that grungy dive that hosts birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.
We are not the prophetic voice but we have been called to hear it, listen to it, and make it loud enough for all to hear, to bother the world into eternity.
Let us go forth to be the Church in our communities and in our lives. Amen.

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