Tuesday, 26 January 2010 16:57

January 24, 2010 Sermon

“Following the Light”
Matthew 4:12-22
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 24, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Exactly one week ago today in this very same time zone, I preached a sermon in Spanish.  Maybe I shouldn’t say I preached a sermon as much as I fumbled around in my broken Spanish and our sister church was polite and forgiving of my meager words and ideas.  And just like last time I preached at Second Baptist Church of Leon, when I sat down I noticed that my shirt was drenched in sweat.  Heat? Nerves? The gravity of our situation?  The need to say a word or two in the aftermath of the hurricane that hit Haiti?  The responsibility to capture all of the themes and images of our week together?  It all weighed upon me, and I literally sweated it out.

Art was the fitting metaphor for the week.  Leon’s buildings have murals on their walls depicting their struggles and their hopes.  We heard musicians sing songs of hope and joy.  We saw dance troupes perform.  And when the teachers needed to explain a new concept in which they had been trained, they often demonstrated it through art and drama.

We had painted several murals throughout the week on the walls of their school building which adjoins their church building.  Some local artists helped us with a primary mural which was designed by our sister church.  The mural has a rainbow over two mountains.  Under each mountain is a hand and the two hands are grasping each other.  Above the mountains and under the rainbow is a bird and below the mountains and the hands is a sea of water.  They told us that the rainbow represents God’s commitment to peace.  The bird represents the Holy Spirit.  The mountains and the hands represent our two nations and our two churches coming together.  The water represents baptism and the waters of creation.  They also said the mountains could represent Nicaragua, the land of volcanoes.  The water could represent Minnesota, the land of lakes.  Draped over each arm is a flag—one of Nicaragua and the other of Minnesota.  For dramatic effect, both flags are clearly dragging into the water.  It seems like a depiction of the rivers of paradise, don’t you think?


The secondary murals were in the classrooms and we had no artists helping us.  So Pastor Teodoro and I picked some Bible verses for the walls and we painted pictures augmenting the themes.  We had a rainbow room, we had a nature room, we had a music room.  The problem was that I paint no better than I write.  Anyone who has seen my handwriting knows what a mess I make of things.  I remember the first time I realized I needed glasses was when I couldn’t read a note I had made in the margin of one of my sermons.  I tried to convince myself that it was my eyes that were the problem.

Anyhow, I noticed how I painted outside the lines most of the time and had to modify my design to fix my mistakes.  This sounds a bit like life, doesn’t it?  We modify things all the time for the times when we step outside of the lines.

I won’t bore you with the entire sermon, but my point was that the life of a faithful person includes drawing inside and outside of the lines.

The Gospel is full of examples of Jesus drawing outside the lines of acceptable religion.  He was someone who welcomed the outcast.  He turned over the tables of the moneychangers.  He healed on the Sabbath.  He welcomed women into his inner circle when doing so was frowned upon by the religious muckety mucks.  He took scripture and turned it around to say things like, “you have heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus made plenty of statements in his Sermon in the Mount that turned upside down the traditions and mores of the people of Israel.

When given a choice between the lines of traditional religion and cultural acceptability, Jesus constantly drew outside the lines.  When the lines served only to keep certain people in power and keep certain people as untouchable, then new lines need to be drawn.  And that is what the church is all about.  I quoted Micah 6:8 saying that the real lines are defined by God. Micah said “what does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”  That scripture is now painted on the wall of one of their classrooms, in Spanish.

We saw new lines being drawn in our lives as we experienced incredible hospitality and as we experienced life amongst the people of our sister church.  At the beginning of the week the lines were clearly drawn.  Each of us stayed with host families, none of which spoke much English.  Some, but not all of us spoke Spanish.  And with the exception of Shirley and Katie, each home had at least one Spanish speaker among the visitors.  Our family stayed with Pastor Teodoro, his wife Mercedes and their two children Marlon and Giovania.  Their home was simple and about 10 feet wide and maybe 50 feet deep.  Mercedes ran a little shop out of the front of her house and people stopped by to buy a bottle of pop or a piece of bread or whatever else she had in her little display case.  They gave up their rooms for us, gave us the choicest places at the table and showered us with great food, fresh fruit and at the end, many tokens from our trip there.  Mercedes told us about how excited 6-year-old Giovania was for our arrival.  She got up early on Sunday morning January 10th, got dressed and woke up her parents saying “the cheles are coming the cheles are coming.”  Chele is a slang term for people with lighter skin than theirs (it comes from the word for milk, leche.  Get it?)  Apparently she had been talking about the cheles for a long time.  By the time we left, we were no longer cheles. They told us that we were members of their family.  That we had a home in Leon.  That we were in their prayers all the time.  Together we drew a new line that included all of us.  That’s what the relationship is all about.  Sending money down is a good thing, but it also keeps the lines clearly drawn.  There’s still an us and a them.  Being with them and they with us blurs those old lines and we become knit into the fabric of each other’s lives.

We were invited to the home of Pablo, Olga, Miguel and Melanie.  They were the family that hosted me six and a half years ago.  They had been dealing with some health problems which made it hard for them to get to church.  Olga’s mother was in the house, with her foot up and suffering diabetes and age.  When we walked in, Olga gave us hugs and we soon realized that she was crying.  She told us that their family had been praying for our family for years.  They showed us the picture of our children that I had given them six years ago, holding a place of prominence on their shelf.  We looked at their family photo albums, updated them on our lives.  Olga gave us a large bag of gifts, and little Melanie kept giving Amanda and Rebecca little carved key rings, balloons and even some welcome bottles of cold soda pop.  We gave them updated pictures.  As we gathered in a circle for prayer at the end of the visit, the tears flowed freely and we realized that when you come to live in someone’s home, if even just for a few days, you are not just a visitor, you really are family.  And God has drawn us in together.

When we draw with God’s hand, we make new lines.

In creation, we see God hovering over the tumultuous waters.  And out of that chaos, God speaks and creation begins.  God starts drawing lines and the story begins.

And chaos seems to be reigning supreme in this world.

The earthquake in Haiti rocks us to our core.  We have heard of loved ones who have lost their lives.  We are all no more than one relationship removed from someone whose life has been cut short.  All of a sudden the landscape of our lives and our commitments look different in its aftermath.  We are once again reminded of the fragility of life, of how important our moments are for who knows when our number is going to come up and we are called home.  We look at our already fragmented lives and our financial hardships and we say, “How long, O Lord, How long?”

I find that people are looking at ways they can be of aid to Haiti.  I also see people looking at the political history of Haiti with a critical eye and wondering if US policy might have exacerbated the poverty and lack of infrastructure, especially how Port Au Prince was so overcrowded with people fleeing the poverty of the countryside in hopes of finding a way to eek out a living in the urban slums of the capital city.  Any town designed for 300,000 that swells to a million and a half is in trouble long before an earthquake.  Now, out of this chaos, I hope and pray that people’s creativity will be tapped as much as our heartstrings and purse strings.

If the Gospel is anything, it is a story of God redrawing the lines of this world so that people can find healing, fulfillment and life.  I hope and pray that this comes eventually to the people of Haiti

Jesus came onto his ministry scene at the time of John the Baptist’s arrest.  It was his time, his Kairos.  Today’s scripture says that when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he left home and made his home by the sea of Galilee in the town of Capernaum.  This was the ancient territory given to Jacob’s sons Zebulun and Napthali.  700 years earlier the northernmost areas of Israel, Zebulun and Napthali were conquered by the Assyrians.  The prophet Isaiah promised that their shame will not last forever.  One day a new messenger will emerge from their land.  This new leader will bring light to those caught in the gloom of despair.  Those who felt forgotten would see and feel and smell and taste the hope of God once again.  The brutality of their past will be exposed and they would be a part of this new community.  This means upsetting the status quo—drawing outside the lines.

Isaiah said, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region of the shadow of death light has dawned.”  And Jesus began spreading the same message as his predecessor, John, ‘repent for the realm of heaven has come near.’

There was no great first sermon like in Luke’s gospel.  There were no eloquent words calling out the rich and the poor.  All that’s recorded of what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry are ‘Repent for the realm of heaven has come near’ and ‘Follow me.’  Somehow these words were certainly compelling enough for people to leave behind their livelihoods and come follow Jesus.

I think that it’s no accident that Jesus chose fisherpeople, people who struggled with tangled nets.  He told them to leave their nets, those things that ensnared them.  Jesus gave them a more compelling option.  “I’ll make you fish for people.”

When we were in Managua on our second day, we visited the shores of Lake Managua.  We were told that there was over 40 tons of mercury in this large and brown-green lake thanks to companies like Pennwalt who used the lake as a dumping ground.  We imagined that no one would fish there.  But on that windy afternoon, we watched a crew of people rig up and untangle a net struggling against the wind and the waves and the tangles to get the net set to catch some fish.  They struggled with this for a good hour as we watched.  If they caught fish, we wondered who would be poisoned by the meat.  We wondered if the fishermen who dove in and struggled to attach the nets to a buoy would get sick from the raw sewage in the lake.

Just untangling the nets is enough to leave fishing behind for a better option.  Can you imagine doing that every day for a lifetime?  Peter, Andrew, James and John jumped at the chance for a better option.  And yet, sometimes we get so tangled up in our nets that we cannot struggle loose.  Maybe this was why Jesus said, “repent” too.

Think of what ensnares you.  What entraps you?  What keeps you immobile?  What decisions are you avoiding?  Is there some truth that has been gnawing at you?  Is there some stumbling block to your living a fulfilled and faithful life?

We visited the Nemagon Camp in Managua, hearing again the story of the plight of these banana workers.  We wanted to let them know that we had written letters on their behalf.  We wanted to hear about the updates on their case.  They told us their stories, but then paused to look us in the eyes and say, “In the name of God, do something.”  They wanted us to convene a meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.  Because a group from the Baptist Peace Fellowship arranged such a meeting last year, they expected us to do it again.  Only this time they wanted a meeting that would only be between Ortega and them.  Last year, the meeting had been with many people and although they attended the meeting at our invitation, they did not feel that their demands were addressed.  Now they demanded of us to use our influence, our presence to make it happen.  When we hesitated, they said to us “With God, it is possible.  Isn’t that what you say?”  It was awkward.  They were clearly tired of being the poor people on display for the cheles to see.  I thought they would be thankful for our letter-writing campaign.  They were, but they were also tired and desperate.  We took our pictures and got into our nice bus and drove off, but not without pondering our place in the hierarchy of need and privilege.  Later that evening I reflected to the group that I find myself stuck between my delusions of grandeur and my illusions of powerlessness.

Peter, Andrew, James and John did not become disciples until they dropped what ensnared them.  Only then were they truly able to follow this one who brought light.

Last Saturday, we traveled to the Pacific Ocean and had a wonderful day at the beach.  We ran in and out of the waves.  We picked up shells.  We soaked up the sun’s rays.  And we also recognized how relatively easy it was to communicate with our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters.  The tentative standoffishness and awkwardness had dissipated.  We joked with each other.  We watched over each other’s children as they played in the waves.  As the sun began to set, pastor Teodoro gave a short reflection and thanked us for coming.  He said we were like the big brothers and sisters who had reunited with them at long last.

Dick Myers from Rochester rightly responded that he was not sure who was the big brother and who was the little sister.  But one thing was clear.  Some of the nets that had kept us from each other, those lines that had ensnared us and kept our worldviews comfortably narrow, were no longer there.  What was in their place was a commitment to imagining a community separated by distance, but not heart.  Separated by language and culture, but not prayer.  Separated by seeming opportunity, but not imagination of the spirit.  And I heard anew the words of Jesus on the lakeshore saying “follow me.”

The words of the hymn came to mind, which will close our service this morning.

Jesus, me has mirado a los ojos.  
Sonriendo has dicho mi nombre.  
En la arena he dejado mi barca
Junto a ti buscare otro mar.

O Jesus, with your eyes you have searched me.  
And while smiling have spoken my name.  
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me.  
By your side I will seek other seas.

And I was not the only one who felt the wind in my face, heard the lapping of the seas on the shore, saw the faces of our sisters and brothers from both countries and imagined that I was glimpsing a snapshot of paradise.

And as the sun set over the ocean and we watched that light fade from yellow to orange to red before finally disappearing into the waters, I found myself recommitted to following the light.

There are more stories to tell.  More examples of faithfulness that might give us life and hope and help us to draw outside the lines and draw with God’s imagination.  All Jesus asks is that we leave behind what ensnares us and follow.

Follow the light.  It will not lead you astray.  
Follow the light.  It will lead you home.  
Follow the light.  And you will likely come home different.