Date: September 18, 2016
Title: “Faith for the Here & Now, Not the Hereafter”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 46:1-7; Luke 17:20-24
Today is the first in a three-part sermon series called “Faith for the here & now, not the hereafter”. If all you knew about Christianity was the rhetoric of heaven and hell; if you only heard the songs, the jokes, or the hopes and dreams of the sweet by-and-by, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a faith with nothing more than a future orientation. But Jesus is clear throughout the Gospel record. He did not come just to paint a picture, or to draw us a map to get us from here to the hereafter. He came to invite us into the fullness of life which is possible when we live in relationship with God.
You may remember John Henry Faulk’s story of growing up with his cousin Billy, deep in East Texas:
As 9 year old make-believe Texas Rangers, Billy and I were the scourge of all the bandits, robbers and desperadoes when we rode our trusty stick horses on the range between the kitchen door and the corn cob.
One day, Mom sent us out to investigate a commotion in the henhouse. Cautiously we entered where all the chickens were squawking and fluttering about, and we began to examine their nests. Peering into one of them, a black snake raised its head about six inches from our noses, and all of our make believe heroism fell away as we made a new door in the side of the henhouse.
Now Mom, looking at the gaping hole where once there was henhouse, asked how two of the bravest lawmen in East Texas could be afraid of a harmless black snake, adding, “everybody knows a black snake can’t hurt you.” To which Billy replied, rubbing his aching head and bruised backside…“Yes, Ma’am, but they sure can cause you to hurt yourself!”
Billy was right. When the earth begins to change, when the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, when its waters roar and foam, when the mountains tremble with its tumult…or when any of us is faced with any kind of chaos, trauma, surprise or conflict…all too often our fear overwhelms us. And we blindly run, looking for the door, or even make a new one in our haste to escape! But we only end up hurting ourselves.
When we are so focused on “getting out of there”, it is all too easy to miss altogether the power of getting into here – into our hearts. Someone else once commented that there may be two kinds of people – those who pray their way in, and those who pray their way out.
Life hits a skid, and we are surprised by pain or anger, by fear or hardship. And even those who do not consider themselves very pious people may find themselves hurling up panic button prayers, asking God for help to get out of whatever mess they are in.
But there is another way to be in relationship with God, even in those moments when we are poised for either fight or flight. We can pray our way in. We can pray our way into the awareness of God’s presence – not just somewhere “out there” – but in Jesus’ words, right here, in our own hearts. We can pray our way into the kingdom of God which is in our very midst, which just may be right here within us.
Anne Lamott suggests:
The reign of Christ is significantly quieter than a Jean Claude Van Dam movie. Jesus of Nazareth kept saying the kingdom of God is like things that are hidden and small and easily missed. He also said that the Kingdom of God is within you. Quiet, hidden, small, easily missed. But unmistakably THERE. There, within the image of God from which you were created, is the kingdom of heaven, wanting to be known, wanting to be expressed, wanting to be lived and absolutely lighting up when it hears the real thing. Within it is your beauty, your value, your dignity.
Frank Rogers is a professor at the Claremont School of Theology, with whom I just spent the past two days studying radical compassion and the Way of Jesus. In his book, Compassion in Practice, Frank tells this story about Raul, a man who found he could pray his way in to find the Kingdom of God.
Raul lived with his wife of 45 years on a modest corner lot in South Central Los Angeles. When his wife died of a stroke in her sleep, Raul was grief-stricken. He retired from his job, sought solace from his church, and spent long hours staring at the yard from the porch his wife adored.
Raul decided to plant a memorial garden for his wife. It spanned the entire corner lot and contained flower beds, boxes of herbs and vegetables, tomatoes on the vine, cilantro in bundles, and rows of his beloved’s favorite – prize-worthy roses of a dozen different hues. For Raul, the garden served as both a tender tribute and a second life in his later years.
One morning, Raul discovered that several rosebushes had been demolished. Shreds of blossom and bush were strewn on the ground as if they had been assaulted with a baseball bat. He was certain who had done it – a carload of local gang members had been cruising the neighborhood, driving by slowly and casing it with their cold, vacant stares.
Afraid of doing anything else, Raul simply swept up the mess, repaired the bushes and tended the garden as if nothing had happened. Two days later, another bush was attacked; a few days later, yet another one. Angry and afraid, heartsick and powerless, Raul was beside himself about what to do. On the off chance it would deter the vandals, he sat in stoic vigil at the living room window.
That is when Raul saw the boy. He vaguely knew the story. The 10 year old lived alone with his mother. His father had been gone for years, and his brother, a gang member, was in jail for killing a rival. In retaliation for the murder his brother committed, a drive-by occurred at the boy’s home. His leg was nicked by a bullet. Though scarcely limping any longer, the boy still walked with a cane.
Raul watched him, presumably on his way to school. When he got to the roses, the boy wielded the cane like a weapon and lashed out at one of the bushes. He then started to leave but stopped, noticing Raul at the window. The boy looked scared, as if caught with nowhere to go. Then he glared in defiance and scrambled away.
Raul’s first instinct was to chase the boy down and scold him. His second was to call the police and turn in the truant. But he could not shake the look in the boy’s eyes. It was as if Raul could see it all – the boy’s loneliness, the rage, the terror, the futility, and lacing throughout, the despair that would make a future in gang life all but inevitable. The boy’s eyes haunted Raul until he had an idea….
A pray your way in kind of an idea…
That afternoon, Raul found the boy walking home from school and approached him. He told him he was having trouble with his garden – someone was destroying his flowers. The boy insisted it wasn’t him, that he didn’t know a thing about it. That wasn’t what he meant, Raul assured him. He needed someone to help him protect the flowers and to help him care for them from time to time.
He told the boy he’d pay him, and let him plant his own bushes, and teach him how to grow plants if the boy wanted. The boy was skeptical. Raul offered that they try it for one week. The boy just had to keep an eye on the garden and on Saturday morning he would get paid.
On Saturday, the boy showed up. He stayed the better part of the day. Raul taught him how to tend the roses and helped him plant a rosebush of his own. They harvested tomatoes and cut fresh herbs. At day’s end, they picked a bag full of lemons and made fresh lemonade. It was the best the boy had ever tasted. It was so good, the boy came back the following week and the next.
To this day, James Worthington asserts, the garden has never been vandalized again. He would know – he’s the boy who bludgeoned the roses. And this neighborhood is still his turf. He works there with other young people, running a program that offers them an alternative to the deceptive lure of gang life.
Praying our way into the kingdom of God means looking into our own hearts with compassion and courage. It means finding in this life our true identity in the context of our relationship with God. Praying our way into the kingdom of God means knowing we not only receive God’s love, we are meant to participate in it. It means paying attention and doing something about it when we find out that children and families are sleeping in their cars or under bridges on our streets. It means paying attention and doing something about it when we see someone diminished because of their ethnicity, their religion, their sexual orientation, their age, their economic status, their gender… or anything else. Praying our way into the kingdom of God means living a faith for the here and now, not simply for the hereafter.
The kingdom of God is within us… and we are not an emptiness waiting to be filled, so much as a fullness just wanting to happen. We are the fullness of hope for the hopeless. We are the fullness of peace for the conflicted. We are the fullness of love for the lonely. We are the fullness of freedom for the captives. The kingdom of God is within us and its possibilities overflow, when we are willing to pray our way into this transformative life, and to live our faith right here, right now. Thanks be to God! Amen.