Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Travelling Along the Way

Pentecost 6, July 4, 2010
Galatians 6:1-18, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Deborah Magdalene, OSH

When I was a speech therapist in California I travelled from one school to another with my bag of toys and games and my charts of goals and progress notes. I also made house visits. The objective was to teach the parents how to play with their children in a way that encouraged more language and better speech.

I was not always well received. In fact, most often the parents saw me as a free babysitter who would play with their children long enough for them to escape into a soap opera.

But I remember one family who not only stayed in the room to watch me work with their little boy, but offered me food and gifts. This was a very poor family of Hmong immigrants who had been living in Laos for generations after being forced out of China.

The Hmong are a travelling people, used to roaming the mountains because they were systematically persecuted and driven away from any established settlement. They have no written language of their own, and depend upon an elder in the family learning Mandarin so that they can know what is going on in their world.

When Hmong families immigrated to Eureka, California the transition was very abrupt and complicated. But when I was in the home of my one Hmong family they were the ones who offered me their unique hospitality.

They had no furniture, but squatted on the floor and ate from bowls. They raised their own food, including a yard full of chickens, and they were not at all sure about our dependence on indoor plumbing.

Their culture drew me in as my play with their child drew them in. We made an exchange of trust, using pantomime and play as a universal language. I ate their strange food and they learned to play with their child.

Eventually we went our separate ways but the peace they gave me remains with me to this day. I think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

“Go on your way,” says Jesus, “to every town and place that I intend to go.” The operative word in this reading today is Go. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel is always going somewhere. He is on a journey. Jesus is constantly moving toward Jerusalem and inviting friends to either follow him or go ahead of him. It is a grand processional. And it is one that we all know will end in death.

Last week we heard the prologue to today’s reading. Jesus and his followers were moving along the road to Jerusalem when several would-be followers asked to join them.

“I will follow you wherever you go,” says one. And Jesus answers, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, to follow Jesus is to take up a new way of life – a life that is in constant motion, always moving toward the completion of God’s will.

Jesus then asks someone to follow him who says he must first go back and bury his father. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” To walk with Jesus is to join an urgent walk headed in only one direction – we’re going to Jerusalem. We are all travelling together toward Jerusalem. There is never any turning back.
Another hopeful prospect says, “I’ll follow you, but first let me go say farewell.”

And Jesus tells him that if he even pauses to look back he is not fit for the kingdom of God. Keep your eyes on Jerusalem and move, always move, toward the goal in Jerusalem. And what is it we see when we strain our eyes to see into the distance? Well, it is a cross. A transformational cross at is what is waiting for us.

Just as in our processional every Sunday, we move forward in song and harmony behind a travelling cross and toward the cross of our redemption. We are always turning and following the cross, wherever it leads. Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of
God is not a passive, restful place, but a moving processional, gathering followers and building up strength through the love of Christ that we carry within our midst.

Jesus picks seventy of his choice followers – disciples who don’t turn back for anything but move as one unified body with, and for, and because of Christ. He sends them out, as he sends us out, moving ahead of him. This little phrase is extremely important. For the first time in the Luke’s Gospel Jesus is following his disciples. He is following them because they are now preparing the way for Jesus.

And that is our message. Two thousand years later we are still moving along “the way.” We are making way for Jesus, who we know without a doubt is coming. What happened long ago on a cross in Jerusalem was a death to sin once and for all, and the birth of a new way of life. We are walking the new way of life that has never stopped moving since the morning Mary Magdalene ran from the tomb and cried out to her friends, “He is alive!” To be a Christian is to move.

In Paul’s passionate letter to the Galatians he is very clear that we are to invite everyone to join our procession: this new way of life is available to all because Christ lived and died for all. It is an all-inclusive Gospel. We gather up followers from everywhere, and the only prerequisite is the desire to keep moving closer to where God wants us to go.

The big argument that Paul is refuting throughout this letter is whether each new Christian convert needs to become a Jew before he can qualify as a Christian. Now to become a Jew in the first century was a whole lot easier for women than it was for men. Paul was aware that the men who had bitten the bullet and allowed themselves to be circumcised were now bragging that they were the better Christians. This is why he writes so passionately against this kind of bragging.

And it wasn’t only bragging: these newly circumcised converts were also escaping persecution by fundamentalist Jewish Christians. If you refused to be circumcised and yet called yourself a Christian, you opened yourself up to criticism and persecution.

These persecuting Christians were a large group in the early Church. They argued that since Christ first came to his own people, the Jews, you could only become a true Christian by way of Judaism. Those who chose this way began to persecute the growing numbers of Gentile Christians – the ones that Paul dedicated his entire life and ministry to.

Paul argues that it is through our works, not private scars on our bodies, that we will be known as true Christians. We will reap eternal life, says Paul, if we do what is right and never give up. We are to work with gentleness for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

Paul warns us that we are not to brag about what we have borne in our flesh, nor to persecute one another, but rather to “Carry one another’s burdens, [so that] in this way [we] will fulfill the law of Christ.” The only law that we need worry about is the law to love one another as oneself and to love God as Christ loved his Father God.

If we feel the need to boast we are to boast only “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us,] and [us] to the world.”

These are powerful words that still carry a potent message for us today. Paul believes that the only thing we need to worry about is the new creation which Christ birthed into the world through his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Paul says that this new creation is everything to us.

Picture us back in that processional with Christ. We are walking along the way, carrying one another’s burdens. That means we must listen to our fellow travelers with ears that don’t try to cover up the pain or, worse yet, to not really listen but instead mentally rehearse ways to fix real crises with easy solutions.

But it is extremely difficult to carry one another’s burdens when we all have burdens of our own. How do we share our own pain if we are staggering under the weight of other’s painful and heavy loads?

Paul’s answer to this dilemma is explicit: we are all to carry our own loads by testing our own work. This sounds like it is more work, but it is actually the way towards real freedom.

We test our own work by rigorously examining ourselves and by regularly confessing our sins against God and our neighbor. It is only through the act of self-examination and confession that we can let down the heavy burden of guilt on our backs and experience the freedom of forgiveness and new life.

But this is where many of us run into road blocks. I, for example, have huge trust issues. I have inappropriately shared my personal burdens with people who couldn’t listen, or who worse yet, used my confession as a tool to have more power over me.

I had to learn that some people are not safe, in spite of calling themselves Christians. Some that abused my trust were even ordained. This can be very confusing for those of us who are trying to build trust within a Christian community.

But thankfully, truth and wisdom are powerful magnets. In every Christian community that I have ever belonged to I have found people that were worthy of being followed and who could hold a confidence with loving compassion. We Christians are a mixed bag. If others are to know we are Christians by our love then we have work to do in our own communities.

A healthy Christian community depends on our ability to listen to each other and to honor one another’s journeys. We are to bear one another’s burdens by listening to them with compassion and understanding – without trying to hurry and fix it so it will go away. The loads on our backs are eased by being heard with the heart of compassion. We are supported by knowing we are not alone in our troubles.

There are some days when I find this particular part of my Christian call to be next to impossible. Where do I get the energy to support others with this deep sincerity when my own load feels so heavy?

Let’s go back to the Gospel for a minute.

The seventy disciples are sent out in pairs to prepare the way for Jesus. They travel in pairs so that there is always someone there to carry the other’s burden. No Christian should every travel the way alone. We desperately need each other to share and to care for the precious gift we carry together – our faith in a God of Love, who bears our burdens and sets us free.

The only time Jesus tells us to stop constantly moving along the way is when we find a home that receives the peace that we give them. Jesus says, “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not it will return to you.” This is the kind of peace I received from the poor Hmong immigrants.

In the first century, the church began in believer’s homes. They were called house churches. We are allowed to stop the constant travelling, take off our dusty shoes, and enjoy the fellowship of faith when we enter a house of worship.

Like the early church, we listen to our shared story in Scripture. And like them, we confess our faith in Christ, sing His praises, and join together in confessing our sins before we are free to receive the gift of the Eucharistic meal.

The travelers are finally allowed to rest in the knowledge that Christ is within us and among us, nourishing us for the journey that waits for us outside these doors.

We leave refreshed, and nourished with the knowledge that we have a home here. These is where we stop, every week, and share our peace with others who give us back more peace. Peace flowing like a river among us.

But this is not a passive, quiet peace. The peace of Christ is a lively spark that starts us moving again. We are sent out from the Eucharist to start the hard work of listening to each other and offering to carry another’s load for awhile. The journey doesn’t end until Christ comes again.

On this Independence Day we can be grateful that we aren’t persecuted for our faith. We live in a country that was founded on this belief: that all of us are created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As a Christian, I would add to this declaration that our happiness rests in doing God’s will. The road we walk is a difficult road, but our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness depends on knowing that we are trying to please God through our actions of love with and among one another.

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