First in a series of sermons on a proposed new mission statement at Northaven United Methodis Church, Dallas, Texas August 6, 2000
“We, the children, youth and adults of Northaven are called to be a community urgently devoted to the God whose gift is love and whose demand is justice.”
Salt and _______.
Day and _______.
Sodom and ______.
Ben and _______.
Those are obvious.
But how about…?
Love and ________.
What are the possibilities? It could be HATE, as indicating the opposite of love. It could be WAR, as in the famous quote [“All’s fair in love and war”] from the little known F.E. Smedley.
Or it could be JUSTICE. If we’re looking for a word that goes alongside love in the context of our life together at Northaven, I’m convinced it must be justice.
Our story from the Gospel of John gives a hint about the connection between the two. There’s been a miracle, however you want to account for it. Five thousand have been fed from meager provisions. If you can locate the person who was responsible for that kind of action, you probably want to stay tuned for what might be coming next.
That’s precisely what the people did. They used their best Sherlock Holmes technique and deduced that something unusual had happened. They had seen the disciples get in a boat. They had seen that boat shove off without Jesus in it. But now both the boat and Jesus were gone. Brilliant sleuths that they were they figured they better go investigate.
Sure enough, when they got to the other side, there was Jesus. They scratched their heads and asked, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
Jesus, having the ability to get to the bottom of things faster than a speeding bullet, wasn’t about to engage them in small talk about how he had gotten from one side of the lake to the other.
“You didn’t come over here because you were amazed and grateful that everyone got enough to eat,” said Jesus. ” You came over here because you want to reserve a spot on the gravy train.”
“OK, OK, “they said, “have it your way. We want in on the gravy train. So how do we do it? Just tell us what we have to do so we can be around the next time five loaves and two fish get made into a banquet.”
“OK,” said Jesus, “you asked! In order to stay around, you have to believe in me.”
“Fair enough,” they said. “What are you going to do to convince us that we should believe in you? The old folks around the fire at night told us about how our ancestors were hungry and Moses just rustled them up some food they could just pick up off the ground. Are you going to do something like that? We can get into the Moses thing. We could go for that.”
“Moses didn’t give them that bread,” said Jesus. “God did, and what God gave them went far beyond calories.”
“Whatever, Jesus,” they said. “Just give us this bread.”
“I’m it,” said Jesus. “God sent me to fill you up with everything you need.”
“Well, I guess we’ll be seeing you later,” they grunted as they walked away. “Can you believe this nut case? `I am the bread of life.’ Who does he think he is, Pepperidge Farm Man?”
The reason this is such a great passage to begin this sermon series is that it represents one of the key dilemmas of the Christian life, and certainly the life of the church. The folks by the lakeshore want kind of a spiritual GPS (global positioning system). It’s kind of like they’re saying, “Just tell us where to be, when to be there, and how many tables to set up, so we can be ready for the goodies.”
Jesus answer to them, even though disguised in the thick theological language of John’s gospel, is blunt. “It’s not just about showing up at the right place and the right time. It’s not about being groupies and waiting for a chance to get backstage. It’s about believing.”
This is huge. It’s huge because of the number of people in the Christian world who think that believing simply means assenting to the truth of certain things. It’s the SAT track to heaven. You get the answers right, you get in.
You’ve heard versions of this. The most extreme form is hearing someone say, “I accepted Christ as my Savior and so I know I’m going to Heaven.” It’s kind of like saying that the only thing that’s important in this life is to make sure you get a good seat in the next life. Friends, if that is the Christianity you want to be a part of, I must tell you that you will not find it here. Or, at least, if we adopt this tenet of the mission statement, we would be explicitly saying that there is ever so much more to this life than just making sure that we won’t need air conditioners in the next life.
We aren’t saved by being right. We aren’t lively, devoted Christians because we’ve got all the answers and everyone else doesn’t. We’re saved because God loves us, even though God knows exactly what we’re like.
Believing in God isn’t about memorizing the doctrinal right answers. Believing in God is about being overwhelmed by how good God is. Believing in God is about being overwhelmed by what God has done and is doing. Believing in God is about being amazed every morning that the sun rose again, and that we drew breath all night long without having to give a thought to it. Believing in God is being nourished by stories from the Bible and a hundred other sources about how things seemed bleak, hopeless, and desperate, but somehow our forebears knew that they were not alone, that they were under-girded by arms that never failed. Thus we are privileged to be devoted to the God whose gift is love.
But gratitude for the gift of love is shallow and meaningless if it’s just my self-centered celebration that I get something good and to heck with everyone else. Jesus said to the folks who tracked him down across the lake, “You didn’t come here because you’re grateful. You came here because you want another hand-out.” Maybe another way to hear Jesus in this story is that he is saying that there’s enough for everybody, but not enough if some folks think they deserve more. So it doesn’t mean a lot to be devoted to the God whose gift is love if we are not also devoted to the God whose demand is justice.
There’s a satirical Web site called “Billionaires for Bush and Gore” that has some chilling slogans.
1. Vote for Bush (or Gore)… Because Inequality is not Growing Fast Enough!
2. Let workers pay the tax, so investors can relax!
3. We’re bi-partisan-We Buy Republicans and Democrats!
4. They pander to you, but they answer to us!
We are people who are called to represent, believe in and work for a vision of the world which views the subject of this satire with utter seriousness.
I deeply believe that our mission statement must start with this unequivocal affirmation that we are called as a community to be devoted to the God whose gift is love and whose demand is justice. Love without justice is nothing more than sentimental charity. Justice without love is nothing but retribution. Neither befits the God who becomes exhausted on our behalf everyday yet greets us each morning completely refreshed.