Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, May 29, 2017

God's Name on Us

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.                                                                                                                                           

I apologize in advance for the next few months or so, if many of my sermon illustrations come from the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Namibia. It’s kind of amazing how much can happen in just a week and a half. Anyway, last week I talked about helping during one of the evening communion services. After communion was distributed, I came back to my seat, where I had left my bag and my worship book, only to find my bag had been moved and my book was gone.

I wasn’t as annoyed about losing my seat as I was losing my worship book. They had only printed so many books in each language to save on paper and costs. English materials were snatched up quickly and hard to come by, which would be a problem for me, being mono-lingual. I tried not to let myself spend most of the rest of the service feeling irritated and sad that my book had been taken, at a Christian conference, no less. Something of MINE had been taken from me. It was very hard to focus on the rest of the service, I’m sad to say. And when I did get another worship book – I scrawled my name on the back in huge letters like a kindergartner as a deterrent. This book is MINE, and no one was going to be tempted to take it from me. That is perhaps not a very Christian attitude to have, either.
Like the “men of Galilee,” focusing on staring up at the sky where Jesus had just ascended into heaven – when all the women present had probably already left to get to work being these witnesses – I was missing the point. I had forgotten that earlier in the service together we had spoken these words together during the opening liturgy, words like: Reconciliation, the gift from God. Wholeness, the gift from God. You don’t need a worship book when you have these words on your heart and a neighbor to share their book with you.

On our last Sunday in the season of Easter, as we wait to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost next week, we again find ourselves in the Gospel of John.  Jesus is still with the disciples on the night of the last supper, the night he was betrayed, looking forward to his suffering and death. During this last meal with his closest friends, where Jesus tries to both explain his upcoming absence and prepare his disciples for it, Jesus prays for them, and lets them overhear.

He doesn’t say - hold that thought, I’ll be right back, and then go off on his own. He doesn’t close his eyes and pray silently. He prays – out loud – in the middle of their conversation – so that they are able to hear him as he prays. This prayer is not private. Jesus WANTS us to overhear.

And during his prayer, he reminds those of us who are listening of two things – the first, which he mentions last, in typical Johnish “Yoda-like” fashion, is that those of us who follow Jesus belong to God, and God calls us his. The second thing, which Jesus mentions first, is the reminder that eternal life is not just about what happens to us when we die. It’s about knowing who we belong to (which is God) and knowing the one whom God sent (which is Jesus). Eternal life is about living into the fact that God calls you “mine.”

Two different Pixar movies come to mind – one that shows us what being claimed by God IS, and one that shows us what it is NOT. God calling us God’s own is NOT like those really annoying seagulls in Finding Nemo - you know, the ones who say to everything in their line of sight MINE. MINE. MINE.  Which is a familiar refrain for many nieces, nephews, and grandkids we all know and love. Only, we never seem to grow out of this phase. As we grow up, we continue claiming and hoarding what we see as MINE. MINE. MINE. The earth – mine. Stuff – mine. Other people -  mine too, to treat as I see fit.

But God does not see US that way. Instead, God’s claim on us is more like in the movie Toy Story, where the boy Andy loves his toys so much that he writes his name on the bottom of their feet. That way, if they are ever lost, everyone knows who they belong to. Andy, however, did NOT know that his toys were alive and sometimes looked at the bottom of their feet for encouragement when they experienced their own toy version of “dark night of the soul.”

I showed a clip from Toy Story at a youth event once, and shared that Andy’s care for his toys is like the love God has for US, and the promise that WE belong to God. The theme for the event, ironically enough was “MINE,” which was written in big letters on the event T-shirt. Later I found out that some of the girls from another church had taken a sharpie and written “God” on the bottom of their feet. As silly as that sounds, I realized they GOT IT. They GOT that God calls them his own and has claimed them and has promised to be with them. They wanted to remember this in a way that made sense to them in that moment. Even if their parents might have been less than thrilled.

So what if WE all lived as if “God” was written with a sharpie on the bottoms of our feet? What might our lives look like? Would they look any different?

This promise – that God has written “MINE” on us – is both a gift and a charge. God is going to be with us no matter what. But it also means that God might ask us to go places that we wouldn’t normally go, places that might frighten or surprise us. We are not just HIS. We are to be HIS witnesses.

On the night before his death, we hear how Jesus prays for the protection of all who belong to him, knowing that they will be called to some pretty scary and surprising places. And again, in the days before the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.” For us, that might mean to be his witnesses in Buckingham, Bucks County, and the greater Philadelphia area, and even beyond, in places that feel foreign or outside of our comfort zone.

A witness tells others what he or she has seen. We, as Jesus’ followers, are his witnesses in all that we say and do. And this is definitely a daunting task. And I can at least say for myself that many times I am not a very good witness. At the worship service that day I felt more outraged over my missing worship book than the fact that other countries that are devastated by our global addiction to fossil fuels, or the women and children around the world who go missing each day to be trafficked. I have not been a very good witness lately.

In fact, sometimes I feel that I am what they call on Law and Order a “hostile” witness. When a witness is not cooperating in the way the lawyers expect, they often ask the judge in a very serious tone: “your honor, permission to treat the witness as hostile.”

Fortunately for us, Jesus will never treat us as hostile witnesses, even though we often DO let him down in our witnessing. Too often we forget that belonging to God is a life-long calling. Too often we forget that the mark of the cross on our foreheads given to us in baptism is always there. When the pastor said the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” God was writing on you a big ol’ M-I-N-E.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter.  It’s also Memorial Day Weekend, and all too soon summer will be upon us, with all the many directions that summer takes us – sports camps, vacations at the shore, trips, family reunions and obligations – and it’s gonna feel like these things OWN you. It’s gonna feel like you are at their mercy, that you belong to the busy-ness of your schedule, and there is nothing you can do about it. Or is there?

God doesn’t take a summer vacation from claiming you as a beloved child. We NEVER stop belonging to God, and we don’t stop being his witnesses, even if we many find ourselves in some pretty scattered places in the next few weeks. Because you can bet that if Jesus says you will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, Jesus is going to be with you, opening our hearts and minds, no matter our destination - whether it is the next continent, just the next county, or even just next door. AMEN

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