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Following Jesus

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In a story from 9/11, can you hear the echoes of Abraham and Sarah and their three visitors? Can imagine being with Jesus in the midst of his rag-tag band?

Today’s Texts – Genesis 18: 1-10 and Matthew 9 and 10, selected verses

Pastor Phil

Those of you who are musical theater fans might know that Come From Away was one of the finalists for best musical at the Tony Awards last Sunday evening. It did not win the Tony, but it has won the hearts of lots of people who have seen it.

I think it’s a musical that Abraham and Sarah might have liked as well. And I think it’s part of the story we are considering today when we ponder what it means to follow Jesus.

Come From Away is the true story of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, and the strangers who appeared in their community on Sept. 11, 2001.

You recognize that date – the date when terrorists crashed two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, another plane into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. and a fourth plane in a field in Pennsylvania. It was one of the most traumatic days in our nation’s history.

And as all this chaos was occurring, orders were given to passenger planes to land right away at a nearby airport. Some 38 planes carrying 7,000 passengers and crew landed at the airport in Gander that day. And suddenly the people of Gander had a lot of unexpected guests.

The people of Gander began to prepare to house, feed, clothe and care for the guests (along with 19 animals who were in the cargo section). Gander was a town of 9,000 people. Now there were another 7,000 in their midst.

Everyone, meanwhile, began to absorb the horror of what had happened that morning in the U.S. The passengers also began to absorb the fact that they were stranded in a foreign land with people they do not know.

The Gander residents  invited the passengers to be initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders at the local bar and they opened up their homes to those they called the “plane people,” regardless of their guests’ race, nationality or sexual orientation.

The travelers were initially taken aback by their hosts’ uncommon hospitality, but they slowly let their guards down and begin to bond with the quirky townsfolk.

In the concluding song of the show – when many of the stranded passengers come back 10 years later for a reunion, one of the townspeople poses this question: “Why are Newfoundlanders terrible at knock-knock jokes?”

Let’s try it. You say, “knock knock” and I’ll be the Newfoundlander.

“Knock, knock.”

“Come in. The door’s open.”

Can you hear the echoes of Abraham and Sarah and their three visitors? There was no hesitation about welcoming the stranger. And in return, they found they were entertaining divinity and they found their lives were transformed.

The same thing seemed to happened to those folks who encountered Jesus along the way of their lives. He was a stranger in their midst and then, as they listened to his words and saw his actions, the way he welcomed in the outcast and raised up those on the bottom rungs – as they witnessed those things – they were transformed.

Jesus was going from village to village, proclaiming good news and healing those he encountered. People could sense the compassion he had for those he met. And then they were ready to go out to expand his work by the way they lived.

So Jesus offered them some instructions. Those were instructions not just for his followers 2,000 years ago. They are instructions for us as well.

Proclaim the good news.
Cast out unclean spirits.
Heal the sick.
Raise the dead – now there’s a challenging one.
Travel lightly. You don’t need a lot of stuff.
Don’t seek riches off your discipleship. Learn to depend on others for food and shelter.
Don’t linger with those who would reject you and my message.
And know that when you proclaim the good news of love and justice, you will meet opposition. You will dragged before kings and governors.
So trust that I will be with you and God’s Spirit will give you words that are adequate to the occasion – if you are open to God’s Spirit.

Let me just focus on a few of those. And let me start with the hardest one – raising the dead.

I know that sounds like the most absurd thing. Yes, I know there are stories out there about near-death experiences and all that. But I don’t have any illusions that I can walk over to Agrace Hospice and bring someone back to physical life after their body has ceased to function.

But maybe we could think about this in terms of how we bring life to places where death seems to be getting the last word:

On a baseball practice field in suburban Washington D.C.
After a traffic stop gone terribly wrong in suburban St. Paul, Minn. where another black life did not seem to matter.
On a light-rail car in Portland Oregon where hatred brought death to two men seeking to show love.
On London Bridge or a battlefield in Syria.

We are surrounded by places where death seems to get the last word. We do not know what to say. And sometimes, when we try to say things, when we protest against the injustices that create a culture of death, we can wind up being dragged before kings and governors, whether it is protesters arrested in Russia or minister being arrested in the North Carolina Capitol building.

How do we bring life in the midst of death? Isn’t that what Jesus asked us to do, after all?

The people of Gander, Newfoundland, showed one way to do that in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

So did those who crossed the normal partisan barriers after the shootings at that Republican baseball practice last Wednesday to embrace one another.

So did those of many races and ethnic backgrounds who embraced the family of Philando Castille last Friday after the police officer who killed him as he sat in his car with his girlfriend and their four-year old daughter was acquitted.

So did those who helped resettle refugees from Syria in our community or who have given shelter to those fleeing violence in their own homes or those who stand up against the hate that destroys life.

It turns out we can raise the dead if we are attentive to those places where death seems to be winning. We can change that.

But let’s go to something a little simpler from Jesus’ list of instructions to his followers. “Proclaim the good news.”

Let people know that we embrace the idea that we are all made in God’s image, infused with dignity, worthy of respect.

Let people know that as followers of Jesus, we understand that the old barriers that separated people – gender, being Jewish or Gentile, Samaritan or Judean, oppressed or oppressor, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation – whatever separated us is melted away by God’s love.

Let people know that the God we believe in is a God of second chances who know that we stumble along the way and that God’s love helps us back up.

Then there’s another message from Jesus. Find ways to travel lightly in a society that is overwhelmed with stuff.

There’s a book that came out a few years ago called Life at Home in the 21st Century. Archeologist and anthropologists from UCLA spent nine years observing and photographing what 32 ordinary, middle-class American families have in their – our – homes. You will not be surprised to learn that we have a lot.

When journalist Beth Teitell wrote about this for The Boston Globe, she said that “American families are overwhelmed by clutter, too busy to go in their own backyards, rarely eat dinner together even though they claim family meals as a goal, and can’t park their cars in the garage because they’re crammed with non-vehicular stuff.”

Sound like anyone you know?

It gets worse if we have kids at home. The researchers found that our country has 3.1 percent of the world’s kids — and 40 percent of its toys.

I don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”

Yes, let’s acknowledge that Jesus and his followers needed places to stay and people to feed them when they were proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, standing against oppression.

Let’s acknowledge that Abraham and Sarah had plenty of flour and cattle and dairy products to share with the strangers who arrived at their tent.

I think there are two things we can do as we ponder that particular instruction of Jesus.

One is to look at ways we can travel a bit more lightly. Do we really need 40 percent of the world’s toys?

The other is to be generous with what we have. People of Memorial UCC – you have been extraordinarily good at that generosity piece. Let’s not lose that in a world that seems to keep insisting that the most important thing we have to do is look out for ourselves. That’s not what Jesus was saying.

What I think he was saying in those instructions to his followers was to be willing to take risks.

Standing with the people of Palestine involves taking risks.
Standing with the immigrants in our community involves taking risks.
Standing with African American brothers and sisters, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter in a nation that for centuries has treated them as if they did not involves taking risks.

Standing in the gap between the politically polarized factions in our nation involves taking risks.

What I heard Jesus say into today’s Gospel is that we need to be willing to take those risks and that we also need to be wise enough to recognize when we need to move on – to “shake off the dust from our feet” and to recognize when we need to stand our ground, to risk being “dragged before governors and kings” because of Jesus.

We do not need to take those risks on our own. We are wisest when we seek to discern the best ways to follow Jesus when we have those conversations with one another.

I think that is one of the gifts that the United Church of Christ brings to Christianity and to the wider world. We are followers of Jesus who believe is listening to one another, who understand that we are in covenant with one another across congregations, across regions and states.

And we are wisest when we seek to discern the best ways to follow Jesus in a spirit of prayer. The wonderful thing about prayer is that we each get to do that in our own way. That need to open ourselves to the divine stretches beyond the limits of any one faith tradition.

In the musical, Come From Away, the morning after the 38 planes landed at Gander, as the 7,000 passengers realized that they would be there for a while, as they worried about friends and family in New York or in Washington or on other flights, some of them began to pray.

The song begins with a tune from the 1960s written by Sebastian Temple with words from a prayer in the spirit of St. Francis:

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring your love;
where there is injury, your pardon, Lord;
and where there’s doubt, true faith in you. 

And then a rabbi from one of the planes starts singing in Hebrew. And a Muslim kneeling on a mat for his prayers sings in Arabic. Soon all three voices are joined with three distinct languages, three distinct belief systems, in perfect musical harmony.

Strangers outside a tent, welcomed in, bringing good news.

A rag-tag group of fishermen and tax collectors, dreamers and doubters following a young Jewish rabbi who offers them new ways to think and act in the world.

Folks gathered in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning, united by the message of that young Jewish rabbi, each seeking to live it out in own ways.

There are so many people in our world, so many voices. We have chosen to follow the voice of Jesus, to seek ways to join our voices with those around us.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are at the edge of the Sea of Galilee with that rag-tag group of people following Jesus. And let’s join together in a song John Bell of the Iona Community inviting us to respond to Jesus’ Summons.