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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sermon from May 29, 2011 + The Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)

“No More Orphans”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

A couple weeks ago one of the comics in the StarTribune had a series where an extended family was watching the Disney movie Dumbo. And one of the mothers watching commented on the consistent theme in Disney movies, the absence of mothers. With four children, spaced about 8 years apart top to bottom, Mary and I spent a good number of years watching Disney films, and Hannah’s birth coincided with the revival of Disney and a run of some very good movies over the past two decades. But after awhile we noticed the same thing about these movies – missing parents. From The Little Mermaid to Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast to the recent Tangled, for the heroes and heroines of these movies at least one and often both parents were missing. And the first generation of great Disney movies had its share of orphans, or partial-orphans, too – Dumbo, Cinderella, Snow White, Bambi – who can forget Bambi? As a matter of fact, most of the fairy tales I loved to read as a child, and still enjoy, have the same characteristic. The young protagonist often is on their own in the world, without parents to guide, protect, love and embrace them.

It seems clear from the way these stories, new and old, have captured the imagination of children and parents alike for centuries, that the idea of being orphaned strikes a deep chord in the human heart. If we are to think of an obstacle to put before a young character in a story, something to be overcome, time and again human storytellers have started with the loss or absence of caring parents.

And to that reality in our human hearts, that we can think of nothing harder for a child than to be without parents, Jesus speaks these words today: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” And even for some of us who are no longer children, that is a powerful, powerful promise. That the gift of the Holy Spirit of God will fill our hearts and minds and be present with us; that even though Jesus is returning to heaven, he will not abandon us.

For any of us here who have lost a parent, or parents, to death, we cling to these words for life.

For any who have seen the death of a treasured mentor or teacher, the same reaction is there. For any who have felt abandoned in life, alone, not belonging to anyone or any family, again, it’s the same reaction. Joy, to learn that we are not orphans. That we belong to God in Jesus.

And the promise is fulfilled, right now, as we are in this room. Look around you – Jesus spoke the truth. We are not abandoned. Ever since I’ve come to Mount Olive a constant theme I’ve heard from members here is that this a place of welcome for them, that even though many here have not felt welcome, a place to belong, in other parts of the Church, here they have.

You are a part of this family, this house of God, this body of Jesus. In this place, today, the Spirit is moving, living, giving breath to us, hope to us, love to us. In this place Jesus is – Jesus is. We are not orphaned – we have each other. And we have the Lord. You belong here – if you’ve been here for five decades or five months, it’s the same. Member or guest, it matters not. Here you belong. And here we meet God who has not abandoned us.

Paul says the same thing to the Athenians today – and claims a kinship with them as well. He quotes their own philosophers and essentially says, “You are not orphans, because we are God’s children together.” That’s what he means anyway, when he tells them that they and all people are the offspring of this God, the one they didn’t know before, who created all things. “We” are God’s offspring, he says – as their philosophers also had said – but then includes them with him as children of the unknown God he is making known to them. We are inseparably linked to the Creator who loves us, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul says, and all of us are in this family, all of us belong. I can’t think of a more important message for us to hear, or a more important message for us to share.

You belong to God – and all belong to God. This is our joy, our hope, our life, our reason for being. And in a world of dispossessed peoples, of homeless people, of broken families, of centuries of war and oppression, of disconnects between peoples and nations and even neighbors, a world filled with orphans, this is the hope we have that desperately needs to be shared.

St. Francis of Assisi famously once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

I have long felt this important – that our actions speak louder than words. But as I look at Peter and Paul today, and consider the desperate need for people to know they belong to God as beloved children, I wonder if we might need to look at the other side, whether we might need to remind ourselves of that second part, the using of words.

I was reminded once by a colleague who grew up in a tradition other than Lutheran that from an outsider’s perspective we Lutherans preach dramatically with our actions. We are in fact people who live out in our lives the Gospel we know. We may not be comfortable talking about the Good News, but Lutherans definitely have a history and a pattern of living God’s love, embodying God’s grace. Around the world, and even looking just at this country, from an agency like Lutheran Social Services which has an enormous impact on this country far greater than our numbers would indicate, to Mount Olive folks who tutor neighborhood children or serve neighborhood meals, we proclaim God’s love for all.

It’s good to know from folks who come to us from other traditions that they see this in us and see us as a blessing. And if we had to choose, living a life of love and service is far more significant than speaking a good line without action to follow it up. But do we have to choose?

We may not use words as much because our theology is so grounded in grace and trust in God’s love that we don’t have the fear some Christians have of not reaching people in time. There’s a famous story about the early twentieth century evangelist Dwight Moody. He stated his calling in this way: “God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can!’” Someone once came up to him and criticized him for how he did his work, saying, “Sir, I do not appreciate your way of doing evangelism.” Moody is said to have replied, “Sir, I much prefer my way of doing it to your way of not doing it.”

Our theology differs from Moody’s, and that shapes how we do or don’t do outreach. But we at least need to ask ourselves, “Are we doing it at all?” Lutherans don’t see ourselves as having lifeboats, saving souls in a sea of destruction. Rather, we believe God has the whole ocean, that God’s hands support all things, so that no one is ever outside God’s grace and care.

And that’s wonderful – but because we don’t have an anxious theology as Lutherans, it can feel a little bit as if we have no reason to speak the Good News to anyone, to invite anyone, to seek out anyone. And we need to consider how we speak this good news so that the world might know it belongs. Might know that in God there are no more orphans. What a difference it would make if Christians were the ones proclaiming that all were God’s children, all loved, all welcome in Christ, instead of having the reputation of being exclusive, judgmental, and certain of our status as the only loved ones of God.

Peter invites us to do this today, to always be ready to speak of the hope we have, but to do this, he says, with gentleness and reverence.

And Paul’s example today in Athens in our reading from Acts is powerful for us, and worth considering. Paul basically does what Peter advises. He first walks around the city, getting a sense of who they are, how they worship; he listens to them, in effect. If you read a few verses before today’s reading you see that he’s deeply distressed by all the idols.

But he doesn’t harangue or scold them – he takes it as an opportunity to honor them. “I see how extremely religious you are,” he begins. He treats them with respect. So he listens reverently – getting a sense of their faith and desire for God – and speaks reverently – honoring who they are with his speech.

But he also is gentle in listening and speaking. His gentle listening is seen in his ability to identify them as fellow children of God, even in the midst of all the idols which are shocking to him. And he preaches to them, but in language they all recognize and know, finding words they can understand and to which they can relate, instead of forcing them to understand things his way. This speech is full of literary references from familiar Greek authors. He uses their words, their images, their understandings, and from that begins to tell them about Jesus, his resurrection, and the life God has for them. And he claims that they and he are one, all belonging to God together.

And that is what we have to follow, this model. A willingness to listen with gentleness and reverence, and then to speak with the same gentleness and reverence to the other, respecting our neighbor as the presence of God in our lives, and loving them as Jesus loves us. From there, Jesus promises, the Spirit will help us with the words we need. All we are asked to do is share the hope that is in us.

It’s a joy to know we belong to God, that we are sisters and brothers here together, that we are no longer orphans.

But if we keep that joy to ourselves, it becomes rotten, and sterile, and not worth anything. On several occasions in the New Testament, a writer explains that the reason for sharing the Good News is to make the writer’s joy complete – recognizing that without sharing this hope we have we have no reason to hold it ourselves. That our joy will only be complete when all know this Good News for themselves.

Think what it would be for you, for me, if we saw everyone, everyone – near and far – as beloved sisters and brothers, fellow children of God with us. What it would be like if we truly believed that there were no such things as orphans with God and we were bound and determined to live this reality and speak it as often as we could. This is our call, that we share our Easter hope and so make our joy complete, and God’s joy.

I don’t know who you will meet this week or next, but I pray you will bring this hope with you, and share it certainly by your actions. But also that you will be open to finding gentle and reverent ways to speak of this hope, too. There are no more orphans in this world – all belong to God as beloved children. It’s time we started letting people know this wonderful news.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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