Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lent 4B March 18, 2012

At St. Andrew's Bessemer City NC Lent 4B March 18, 2012

Bishop Dan Martins of Springfield in southern Illinois recently wrote this, “In meeting with parish leaders who are very anxious about a long pattern of decline, I find over and over again that the conversation quickly drifts back to "How can we get more people to come to our church?" And I keep telling them, "That's the wrong question." The "right" question is, "What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?" Yes, that's an oversimplification. But it's a much more fruitful enterprise than trying to screw up the courage to invite my Sunday-sleep-in neighbor to come to church with me.”

          We used to see the cross shaped signs along the road, “Jesus is the Answer.” Jesus is the answer, the final answer to all human questions, but I have to admit that when I saw one, I was tempted to ask, “And what’s your question?

          And that reminds me of the old story about a mother whose young son asked her one afternoon, “Mama, where did I come from?”  Mother took a deep breath and proceeded with the birds and bees talk. The boy looked increasingly confused and finally broke in, “Johnny says he came from Raleigh. Where did I come from?” 

          We need to be sure of the question before we offer an answer. But we have an answer, Jesus is the answer. And as Bishop Martins says, we need to know the real questions about life our family, and friends, and neighbors are asking. "What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully.” 

          The Church has a long history of seeking to meet human needs. The first hospitals were church founded and church run. The retired Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore is the new head of the Order of Hospitallers, founded by the Crusaders  a thousand years ago for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. It is now a fund-raising arm of Catholic charities. An early Episcopal Bishop in Utah founded a hospital in Salt Lake City. Its sale endowed the diocese. I spent a seminary summer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas

          The Church has been active in education. The european university system was founded in the church and church run from the 13th through the 18th centuries. A large number of church-related colleges and schools continue. Valle Crucis conference center was one of a number of late 19th and early 20th century church founded schools in the Appalachian mountains. Many social service agencies were church founded. Episcopal and Lutheran social services have had  remarkable ministries with refugees though much of their work is now financed by government.

          We still do what we can, but now mostly in support. When I was in Shelby during a recession Redeemer funded a monthly lunch for parishioners out of work where we encouraged one another. Churches offer meeting space to community groups. Almost all the Al-Anon groups I know of meet in churches. Some churches offer various kinds of direct help to people in financial need – food pantries, clothing closets, and the like.

          But Bishop Martin’s question remains, “What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?”  When I get up in the middle of the night I have less trouble going back to sleep. Yes, I remember the things I have done and left undone and I feel again the guilt and shame, but I remember that I am a forgiven sinner, that by his death and resurrection Jesus has set me free from sin, guilt, and shame. I can pray, and sleep more peacefully.

          But others deal with guilt and shame in other ways, some by denial, some by blaming others, but without reference to Jesus.

          In our Old Testament reading we have the strange story of Moses and the bronze serpent, “and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” I don’t pretend to understand how that worked. We can all appreciate the people complaining. Some of us have done some complaining, and eating nothing but manna every day could get old fast. And many of us have worked in environments with snakes in human form. Remember John the Baptist calling the people who came to hear him, “You brood of vipers!”  The point of the story is that God acted to heal the snake-bit people.

          Jesus made reference to this healing in his night conversation with Nicodemus. Just as God acted to heal the snake-bit with the lifted up bronze serpent, God acted to heal the equally deadly disease of human sin as Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die.

          Evangelistic sermons for many years have begun by helping the listeners become aware of their own sinfulness and the deadly spiritual consequences of that sin. I remember some years a training program in evangelism that told us to ask people, “If you died tonight where do you think you’d wake up?” I know my own answer to that question. The Prayer Book burial service says “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother N.; and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.  Amen.”  I live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ. I am a member of the body of Christ by baptism; I am spiritually fed by Christ’s sacramental body and blood in Holy Communion; Jesus enlightens my mind and feeds my soul as I read God’s word written; he keeps me in spiritual fellowship in his church.

          Jesus is the answer to the basic questions of my life. And I trust he is the answer to your basic questions as well.  But I’m still chewing, and being chewed on, by Bishop Martin’s question, “What keeps my neighbors up at night, and how would knowing Jesus allow them to sleep more peacefully?"  And I hope that question chews on you and that you’re working on your answer. Amen