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Where are We Looking?

Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:1-10: "After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people,[a] to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them."

At Synod Assembly earlier this month, there was a resolution proposed by a lay member of another congregation calling on our synod to:

“refrain from calling on its members or congregations to organize or participate in protests, vigils…, and marches against the government….”

The resolution further resolved that “we should only call on our members to pray for all elected officials.”[1]

Now, this was not a popular resolution. The clear mood of the assembly was frustration, maybe even anger, at the claims the resolution made about the role of the Lutheran church in our society, and as a result the assembly voted overwhelmingly to not even bring the resolution to the floor for debate.

So, we could just ignore it. This is not the witness of our church. Brush off our hands, and move on. Except, there is a conversation to be had about why the church embraces an identity that calls us to engage in political debate, and even protest at times, and that is a conversation that is informed by today’s texts.

Our first reading from Acts (Acts 1:6-14) today is one expression of the church’s call to actively be in the world, not seeking to separate ourselves, or to keep our faith segregated from the rest of our lives.

“Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:11a) So asked the apparent angels who appeared as Jesus was ascending into heaven from his last conversation with his disciples.

And the obvious answer to that question is “where else would they be looking?” Jesus, in the full reality of his physical body, was being taken up into heaven in a cloud. This is NOT an everyday occurrence – it’s worth a bit of a stare.

Not to mention, this Jesus who was violating the laws of gravity, was their leader. For the past three years they had been looking at him to know what to do. So, again, where else should they have been looking?

The rest of the angels’ speech could even be read as reinforcing this perspective. He “will come again in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11b) So… if you are anxious for him to come back – heaven is the place to be looking for the first signs.

But a colleague this week suggested another way to hear this angelic message, and one that fits much better with the trajectory of the story. She suggested that the angels are offering an encouragement that “heaven will stay with you, even if you start moving; you don’t have to stand here waiting.”

And Jesus’s last words before ascending make it clear that he expects his followers to start moving: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) In other words: “You are not being abandoned. You will have what you need to get moving – in your town, in your region, in the land of your enemies, and to the ends of the earth.”

But what is the point of this movement? What is the content of our witness?

Well, witness to the gospel of salvation must certainly be at the center, but not in an exclusively “looking up toward heaven” kind of way. This story challenges an over-spiritualized understanding of witness that looks only to what will someday happen in heaven. It reminds us that what we do here on earth matters too, and that is part of our witness.

Our gospel reading today offers the same reminder. In his prayer to God the Father Jesus specifically calls attention to the fact that the disciples are still in the world (John 17:11) – and by praying for the disciples, Jesus lifts up not just those who were listening to this prayer, but also all who would follow after, including us (as is made plain later in verse 20).

We are in the world – and this is why Jesus prays for our protection. But I don’t think Jesus is setting up an us-vs-them, “keep them safe from the lures of the evil world” understanding of protection. That would contradict the entire narrative arch of John’s gospel.

We are sent into the same world that “God so loved, that he sent his only begotten son…” (John 3:16)

This prayer of protection is specifically for his followers (and not for the whole world) because we are to go into the world AS WITNESSES TO CHRIST – responding to the needs we see as Christ did. Some of those needs are spiritual needs – as were some of the needs Jesus ministered to. But some of those needs are practical – needs for healing;[2] needs for food;[3] needs for social reform of power dynamics that idolize money and marginalize the weak.[4]

Those were the needs Jesus addressed directly and practically when he was sent into the world; Why should we respond any differently?

Just in the last week or so our world has offered far too many examples of these needs:

  • Needs like the reality that 23 million people – many with serious pre-existing health conditions – will lose access to health care under the Congressional health care reform bill[5];

  • Needs like the 30 million people facing famine and starvation across four countries, in spite of which the G7 leaders failed to take action;

  • Needs like the economic imbalance of a budget proposal that targets billions in tax cuts to the wealthiest while gutting or eliminated programs for the poor;

  • Including deep cuts to the SNAP program that feeds, among others, about 1.7 million Veterans – Veterans for whom, already, Memorial Day celebrations are marred, because their SNAP benefits ran out last week, even at current levels.

These needs are urgent realities of the world we live in – and these needs require more than a spiritual witness. They require a witness of prayer, certainly, possibly even of fasting, but also a witness of advocacy – as our presiding Bishop has challenged our church.[6]

And the Word of scripture challenges us to this witness of advocacy as well – to witnessing to who Jesus was, and to the example he set for us:

  • an example that sees the practical needs of suffering people and responds;

  • an example that doesn’t leave politics at the doors of the church, because it might upset people, but that takes the fight to the money changers in the halls of the temple itself.

  • an example that does not see prayer, alone, as enough; because God has sent Jesus and us into the needy world.

Now, we can and should have conversations about the best way to respond to those needs - my goal in this sermon is not to proclaim any particular political solution to the crises of this world, but we cannot question that our faith calls for an active response, and that our faith must inform what that response looks like.

An old Jewish folk tale tells of a rabbi and a soap-maker who were walking together. The soap-maker said to the rabbi: “What good is our faith? After thousands of years of teaching about goodness, truth, justice, and peace, after all the study of Torah, and all the fine ideals of the Prophets, look at all the trouble and misery in the world! If our faith is so wonderful and true, why should all this be so?”

The rabbi said nothing. They continued walking until he noticed a child playing in the gutter. The child was filthy with soot and grime. “Look at that child,” said the rabbi. “You say that soap makes people clean, but see the dirt on that youngster. What good is soap? With all the soap in the world, that child is still filthy. I wonder if soap is of any use at all.”

The soap-maker protested and said, “But, Rabbi, soap can’t do any good unless it is used!” “Exactly!” cried the rabbi. “So it is with faith. It isn’t effective unless it is applied in daily life and used!”[7]

In our gospel today, Jesus prays for us to be able to use our faith. He prays for protection and for unity for the church, because we are supposed to be moving – we are supposed to be going about the work for which God has sent us.

This prayer for unity is not a prayer for a polite commitment to refrain from talking about politics in church – NO! This is a prayer that we be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

And within THAT vision of unity, we also get the PROMISE on which we can depend when the world looks too big and too broken for us to do anything about. We get the promise of eternal life – an eternal life that happens NOW, not just up in heaven.

For “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Both our call and our promise is “to know God,” the God that we CAN know because Jesus Christ came to earth and walked among us and showed God to us.

We know Jesus – the Jesus who calls us to eternal life, the Jesus who heals us, and feeds us, and frees us, the Jesus who is our eternal life because through him with know God.

And he has sent us as his witnesses to that eternal life, here and now.

Thanks be to God

[1] Resolution “Concerning Political Activism and Calls for Protest.”

[2] See the healing of the official’s son (John 4:43-54); the healing at the pool of Siloam (John 5:1-15); the man born blind (John 9:1-41); and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44).

[3] See the turning of water into wine (John 2:1-11); the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15).

[4] See the cleansing of the temple (John 2:12-16); the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42); the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).

[5] As determined by the updated analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.

[7] Shared in the May 24, 2017 Weekly Witness published by Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey.

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