Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sermon: "What Would Jesus Pray?"

Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
May 20, 2012
Seventh Sunday of Easter – Ascension Sunday

“What Would Jesus Pray?”

John 17:6-19

The world is changing.
For most of us the world that we grew up in as children and the world we’re living in now are vastly different. And that’s true for us whether we’re 80-years-old, 60-years-old, 40-years-old, or even 30-years-old.

If you’re under the age of 30 you may not be able to fathom living in a world that did not have cell phones, 800 TV channels to choose from, and the Internet, where the information contained in a billion libraries is right there at your fingertips.

Those of us over 30 may be prone to fits of nostalgia when we hear that most people in their twenties have never used or even seen a typewriter, a rotary phone, or a vinyl record album.
Meanwhile, my 86-year-old mother is still baffled by the VCR, as it continuously flashes 12:00 at her from across the room.
Things are changing so fast that the technologies we’re using today will seem antiquated in just 5-10 years. An editor at a Laptop Magazine recently compiled a list of things that will be hard to find or obsolete by the time his newborn son enters middle school.
Wired internet connections, computer hard drives and keyboards, landline telephones, movie theaters, DVDs and compact discs, and dedicated digital cameras and video recorders are all being replaced with multi function hand held devices like smart phones and instantly accessible media stored on a cloud on the internet.

Technology aside, we’re living in a world that has hit the accelerator in regards to change - as we cope with increasing choices and decreasing attention spans, increasing population and decreasing resources, and an ever widening gap between those who have power and wealth and those who do not.

How do we even begin to keep up with a world that is changing so fast?
This is a question that many of us in the church have been asking of late –
in this church and in churches across the country and the world.

With a few exceptions, most mainline Protestant churches like ours are wrestling with dwindling attendance, dwindling resources, and dwindling relevance in the wider culture.
Our churches are bleeding.
They’re bleeding money, bleeding people, and bleeding energy to those things in our lives that hold higher importance.
And while those of us who love and value our faith communities form committees and have discussions about what kind of band-aid to put on our churches to control the bleeding, the world continues to change around us.
People continue to drift away or drive by our historical buildings without ever feeling the need to stop and take a look inside.

Now let me stop right here and assure you that this is not a stewardship sermon.
This is not a sermon that is intended to nudge you into digging a little deeper in your pockets to ensure that 15, 10 or even 5 years from now, we will still have a viable and vibrant UCC church community here in Amherst.

And this is not a sermon that is intended to prod us change-fearing folks into adapting to the culture around us. I assure you that there are no immediate plans to install video screens in the sanctuary or throw our 18th century hymns out the door.

And despite the bleak picture I’ve just painted of the current state of our churches in this ever changing world, this sermon is not intended to amplify our anxiety or get us to act by tapping into our individual and collective fear of what is to come.

This sermon is not about any of that.
So if you’re feeling anxious right now, I invite you to take a deep breath, and relax.

This is a sermon about prayer.
It’s about the prayer that Jesus prayed to God on our behalf just before he left his disciples and left this world.
And this is a sermon about discipleship.
It’s about what it means to be a follower of Christ in a world that is always changing and always challenging us to maintain a foothold in both THAT world and THIS world -
The world of scarcity, and the world of abundance.
The world of fear, and the world of courageous compassion.
The world of self-preservation, and the world of sacrificial love.

When Jesus had his disciples gathered around him on that Thursday evening before his death, he knew that the time for teaching and training had come to an end.
The twelve men who sat before him and the many followers who had come to know him were about to have the rug ripped out from underneath them big time.
In 24 hours, their leader would be dead, their loyalties would be questioned, their lives would be threatened, and the money that had been flowing freely to support their cause would trickle down to almost nothing.
In 24 hours the world would close in around them and their response would be to hide away in a locked room and keep the world at bay, until the resurrected Jesus came to them and coaxed them back out.

Jesus had already given the disciples a prayer to sustain them through this challenging time - The Lord’s Prayer:
      Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
      Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

But as a parting gift Jesus also offered a prayer FOR the disciples.
On that Thursday night, Jesus prayed to God in their name:
Father, these are your people.
You gave them to me and I have cared for them and now I give them back to you for you to watch over. 
They know everything you have given me is from you.
I am not of this world – this world of fear and scarcity and selfishness - and as my followers they too are not of this world, but they must continue to live in this world even when I am gone.
I’m not asking for you to take them out of this world but to guide them and protect them as they do your work and live as truthful and grace filled people in your name.

Jesus prayed this prayer not just for the disciples who sat before him on that Thursday evening, or for those who would witness his resurrection and gather to see his final ascension into heaven 50 days later.
Jesus prayed this prayer for us – for all who come together and gather in his name.
Because he knew that being a disciple of Christ would always be a precarious balancing act. It will always be about straddling the divide between the world that tempts us to give in to fear and self-preservation, and the world that calls us to act out of love, and a sense of abundance.

In this world where the Kingdom of God is both here and not yet here, there will always be a tension between the church and the world that contains the church.  
The church is intended to be an enclave, a recreation of the Kingdom of God on earth, a foreshadowing of what is to come, a place where we actually live and behave as if the Kingdom has arrived and all barriers have been eradicated between us, and there is enough to go around for all.
But in the outside world this Kingdom does not yet exist, so there is a constant push/pull going on inside of us as we struggle to live in both worlds at the same time.

And it is so hard for us to maintain that balance.
Jesus told his disciples: "The world will hate you as it has hated me."
Hate is a strong word, but here it is an appropriate word.

A world that is built on a foundation of fear, distrust, and scarcity is one that benefits those who have learned to manipulate those fears for their own gain.
If you plant a group of Christians in that world, Christians who really act like Christians and seek to live out of love and abundance rather than fear, then you now have a group of folks who can’t be manipulated by those fears, and they, like Jesus, come to be seen as a threat.

This is not an easy path that we’ve signed up to follow here.
We may come to church for the fellowship, or the music, or the children’s program, but what we’re trying to accomplish here goes far beyond all of that.
We are world straddlers building a community based on love in a world that is dominated by fear. God calls us to live differently in the world.

The disciples locked themselves away because they feared they were not up for the challenge of being seen as outsiders who threatened the status quo.
Jesus prayed to God to give them the strength to carry on in his name.

In many ways our designation as outsiders has not changed.
Over the course of 2,000 years the church has had times when it has become the status quo, most often when it has adopted the ways of the world rather than challenged them.
But the church has also experienced many lean times as well, when folks tire of the incessant balancing act or find that the church is not challenging them enough and they begin to look elsewhere for ways to live out God’s Kingdom in the world.

The world is ever changing. And the church is ever changing. 
But fear not.
The church is not dying. It is evolving, just as it always has.
What form it will take next we cannot say from where we are standing right now. 
But like the disciples, as we huddle in the locked room wondering what we’re called to do next, and who we’re called to be as God’s people, we have Jesus’ prayer to sustain us:

Creator God, as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. Sanctify them in the truth. I speak these words so that they may have my joy, made complete in themselves.