Sunday, August 27, 2006

August 27 Sermon--"Does this Offend You?"

Sermon Texts
Eph. 6: 10-20
John 6: 56-69

One year ago this week, we witnessed the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history. At least 1836 human lives were lost in hurricane Katrina, and another 705 people are still missing. In my review of this past year’s finances, I noticed that this church gave generously to aid the relief effort. We’ve also had two of our members join a VIM trip to assist in relief and rebuilding efforts. At my church in Western Arkansas, I can remember going down to the motels on hwy. 71 in the days previous and immediately after the disaster to see if any evacuees had made it as far north as Waldron and what we could do to help them. I had no idea what an impact this hurricane would have on my little town in the weeks to come.
After hearing the news that massive amounts of people were going to be brought to Ft. Smith’s national guard base to be housed in barracks, our local ministerial alliance organized to see what we could do to respond to the crisis. Through the community’s willingness, and the help of a local physician of alternative medicines, we were able to turn an abandoned hospital and nursing home into a temporary evacuee shelter that housed 85 former New Orleans residents for 3 months.
Community churches prepared the facilities, we prepared 3 meals a day, we transported people to meet up with loved ones, we took people to the doctor, hosted game nights and social functions, we mourned their losses, we celebrated their reunions and joys.
I remember one week when my friend who was a priest in town held a memorial service for a famous musician and husband of one of our new residents. In the same week, a couple who had not been married before the hurricane decided that if they could make it through this together, they could make it through anything together, local townspeople donated flowers and wedding cakes, and the two were married in the courtyard of the evacuee shelter. We gave the evacuees the gift of hospitality, and in return these people shared their lives with us, brought this little mountain town some more diversity in culture, and helped the people transcend barriers and gel together as a real community. After some settled elsewhere, other evacuees decided to make Waldron their new permanent home and work there.
Sometimes discipleship is something we don’t think we can handle. If you had asked anyone in the town of Waldron if we had the ability or even the willingness to house and care for 85 people who were very different in culture, race, values, etc. for more than 3 months, I think that most people in that town would have said, “NO WAY!” But we did.
Jesus asks his followers, “Does this offend you?” The central theme of the gospel text today is the responses among Jesus’ disciples to his teaching. There was grumbling, disbelief, rejection, betrayal, and finally, confession of faith. We too have encountered teachings and realities that offend us. It might offend our sensibilities of God and love and justice to have witnessed the devastation of the hurricanes on television a year ago this week, or perhaps to experience the trials and tribulations of war. It might offend our belief in God to imagine the tragedies that happen to children every day—and not just to beauty pageant queens like JonBenet Ramsey, but every month in every state, children suffer unimaginable harm at the hands of adults. How can God let this happen? It might offend or embarrass us as Christians when we see other Christians behaving in ways that are thoroughly un-Christian. When Christians act self-righteous or judgmental, or seem oblivious to the ethical demands of accepting Christ as the captain of our lives. Yes, many of us have taken offense. Some people seem to make a living out of taking offense.
We know that as Christians, Jesus expects us to take offense at certain things going on in the world. Jesus asks us to be offended by injustice, by greed, by inequality, by materialism, by worshipping the culture or our nation rather than our God. How do we know when to take offense and when to swallow it and have faith?
When Jesus asks his followers if the strange teaching offended them, he gave them a forward glance of the future. He said, “well, just wait until you see me ascend to where I came from—then what?” In some ways, the difficulties haven’t even begun for the disciples. At this moment, they are merely hanging out with some guy who a lot of people now thought was pretty strange. But soon he wouldn’t be with them in the flesh anymore, and they’d be left with the Spirit and a meal to remember him by. That’s when the going got tough for them. That’s when the divisiveness really began, when they began to be martyred for their faith in this mysterious man.
The Ascension—the “lifting up” in glory into heaven that was bestowed on the most honored prophets of Jesus’ tradition, would happen only after Jesus had been lifted up in shame—lifted up on a cross in mockery and punishment. The crowds wanted to take Jesus by force and make him a king after he distributed the five loaves and two fish and fed 5000—the irony is that the Romans would succeed in taking Jesus by force and making him a king. When they lifted him up on the cross, they hailed him in scorn as the King of the Jews and placed a crown of thorns on his head.
Yes, Jesus knew that more offensiveness was going to occur.
But Jesus didn’t leave us naked to withstand these offenses on our own. Our faith tradition shows us that sometimes the best way to deal with the offensiveness of the world is to have a good DE-fence!
Ephesians tells us that we have been left implements of battle to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the powers of Evil. Though the world may seem like it is closing in on us—though it may seem dark and inhospitable and hopeless, we are to be strong in the Lord’s power.
Harkening back to passages in Isaiah, the writer of Ephesians reminds us to fasten truth around our waste like a belt. We are to wear righteousness like a breastplate. Our shoes should be our proclamation of the Good News of peace.
I remember the locker room of the Arkadelphia Badgers on Friday evenings, how there would be a change in the air when we all got our pads on in preparation for the game. We would feel ready—we would feel excited and pumped up. Some of us would go around hitting things with our shoulderpads, or would walk up to each other and crack our helmets like battling rams on a mountainside. Yes! When we are given the tools we need, our mindset changes. We get in the zone—we put on our “game-face” and focus on the task at hand—fighting to win!
Now, just to clarify: I would put on pads and a helmet like all the other football players before the game, and it did make me feel ready—but unfortunately all I really needed to get ready to do was to go stand on the sideline for about 2 hours.
Yes, I’d walk around the room slamming my shoulderpads into lockers, but it was less about getting pumped up and more because I wanted to do something to justify me actually putting them on. I would crack helmets with one or two of my friends who actually played, but more to help them get amped up—it usually just gave me a headache.
We are given faith like a shield, salvation like a helmet, and the Spirit Sword, which is the Word of God. This last piece of our arsenal calls our attention to Isaiah 49, where God lifts up the Messiah as “the light to all nations,” whose mouth is like a sharp sword.
Yes, sometimes Jesus’ did have a mouth like a sharp sword. His words divided families, they divided truth from fact, they cut a crowd of people eager to make him king into a remnant of believers, who wouldn’t back down just because they didn’t understand. They knew these sharp words held eternal life, and they wouldn’t let go of this wild man—no matter how fierce things got.
I ask God that we have the same willingness. That we have the courage and fortitude to say, “We’ll be right here with you, Jesus,” when the big party is over--When the miracles aren’t as apparent as they are in the high times. I want to be with Jesus through thick and thin—and I hope you do as well. Whether or not that describes you—I want you to know that he is with you through thick and thin. He never gives up on you and he is always willing to take you in with open arms. He wants to share his very being with you. He wants to live in your life and turn your life into something new, something lasting, something eternal.
I want to feel my faith like a shield in my hand. The Greek word here for shield isn’t just the small shield you see gladiators use to deflect blows from a sword. It is the word for the large shield that covers the whole body. The kind that when wielded as a group created the unstoppable Greek phalanx—the Greek military tactic of making a group of warriors into an impenetrable force. This is a good image for the power of community--The power of having faith within a group of people who also have faith. If we have faith together, we are impenetrable.
I look back on my high school football career and regret not having more competitiveness, part of the problem with me not getting any playing time was the fact that I also played in the band. So when everyone else on the football team would be in the locker room during half time, I’d go out in my football uniform and play with the marching band.
Sometimes along the journey of faith, we need to focus on the task at hand. Sometimes we want to do it all—we want to live life to the fullest. The funny thing is, when we fill, fill, fill our lives to the brim, and shortchange our faith life, we don’t end up feeling fulfilled at all. We should instead pour our being into our walk of faith. We should invest ourselves into our relationship with this man who wants to be for us the Bread of LIFE. If we are nourished first by this bread, we may find that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
We have the opportunity today to put on our armor. The men and women we have entrusted with the highest authority in our church have issued an appeal: Fund the rebuilding of the church in the Gulf region. Through your donations today, the United Methodist Church will be rebuilt, clergy will be assigned to areas struggling to be rebuilt and reborn. The infrastructure of the United Methodist Connection today is re-claiming spiritual “power-lines” that went down in a storm a year ago.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you want to leave as well?” Peter, speaking for the disciples, said, “To whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life!” Through your contributions today and in the next couple weeks, we have the opportunity that those words of eternal life are heard loud and clear in a region that needs badly to hear them.

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