Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 25, 2019
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
Earlier this month, a group of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth from Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the United States gathered at Camp Allen in Navasota for two of the summer programs of Jerusalem Peacebuilders. As most of you know, the Houston office of Jerusalem Peacebuilders — or JPB — is right next door to the Rector’s study here at Palmer. It’s work is connected to our witness to God’s love.
JPB’s presence is important both to me and to our congregation. It’s also important for the real world in which we live, especially here in Houston, because JPB helps us, like it does these youth, know our own tradition more deeply and learn how to live with and love our neighbors who are different from us. To be invited to share with someone else what Christianity is and to describe for them what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus is a good thing. It forces us to say the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” aloud. Those are words we need to repeat not only to strangers but also to ourselves.
Rabbi Steve Gross is a friend of mine here in Houston and a friend of this church, and he represented the Jewish tradition at JPB this year. At the beginning of one of his talks to these young people, he placed an empty cardboard box in the middle of the room. It was the kind of box that’s often filled with printer paper, so there was a lid on it that could be removed easily. And after he did this and had also introduced himself, Rabbi Gross said to everyone in that room:
What if I told you that God and the answer to everything you ever wanted to know about God was in that box? If those things were really true, would you open it up and look inside? Tell me why you would or wouldn’t open it.
That’s a really great way to start a conversation about God and about our fears and our beliefs and, yes, our hope as people of faith. Now I’ve seen Rabbi Gross do this before, and it’s fascinating what people will tell him. But I’m most fascinated by the fact that someone will inevitably say exactly what I’m thinking the whole time:
I’ve seen the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I know what happens when you take the lid off. I’m not taking the lid off.
As many of you surely remember, the Nazis try to harness the power of the Ark of the Covenant in that Indiana Jones movie. But when they remove the lid from the ark, they’re all horribly melted away.
While that final scene is extreme in its presentation and not suitable for young children, and while it does what all of us do when we’re in charge of religion — placing people neatly into categories of good and evil so that only the evil people will be completely wiped off the face of the earth just before the credits roll, it does touch on something deep within us. And it’s genuinely scary, because if that’s how we think we want the universe to come to an end, if that’s what’s really inside the box, what does it mean if the dividing line between good and evil isn’t out there but in here, inside each of us, running straight through the human heart?
Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews picks up on some of this. It takes us back to Mount Sinai, back to the very place where the Lord spoke to the children of Israel after bringing them out of their bondage in Egyptian slavery. They’d been set free not to go their own way but to become God’s chosen people and a blessing to all the nations the earth. But what was this encounter at the mountain going to be like — an encounter between the Source of holiness and men, women, and children like you and me? Moses ascends the mountain on behalf of these folks like us, and the author of Hebrews imagines Moses, a sinner, being so terrified to be in God’s presence, to stand near the box, so to speak, with the top slightly ajar, that he says,
I tremble with fear.
And the truth is that there are people here this morning — maybe you — who came into this church with fear, as though you’re standing in the very spot where Moses stood on Mount Sinai. You see the chasm between God’s holiness and your own. To you the author of Hebrews writes of another mountain. This is Mount Zion, which represents in this letter “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” There we’re surrounded not by terror, but with grace. There we find not trepidation, but mercy and forgiveness. There we come face to face with Jesus, who embraces us.
What’s been melted away, so to speak, is the sin of the world. What doesn’t remain in that embrace is whatever is separating you from God — your stony heart, the grudges you grip tightly, your indifference to human suffering, a desire for mercy only for yourself and judgment — nay, double judgment — for everyone else, your [fill in the blank . . . whatever it is]. And that happens not because you are hated, but because you are loved. And it brings not death and destruction, but life and a new creation. What remains, what cannot be shaken is Jesus’ love for you.
And because of what Jesus has done for you and for me, we can, as the author of Hebrews said earlier in his letter, “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” So we can stand in this church, each of us, with our imperfections, with our many mistakes, and know there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like wideness of the sea.
Here you can find rest in the arms of a loving Savior, in spite of what you thought God was like, in spite of what other people — what even, or especially, people in the church — think you should be like. Here you can find an embrace when you feel unloved or unlovely. The lid is off the box, not because you dared to take it off, but because Jesus, raised from the dead, smashed it to pieces and is taking you by the hand and leading you home. You are held in that grace not only in death but also in life. And the love you share with others on the way home comes from God.
There’s a story I think about a lot, one that I’ve shared with many of you and perhaps shared from this pulpit somewhere along the way. It’s an experience that a friend once described to me years ago. She found herself sitting in a circle of chairs in a room, and she told me they were discussing God’s mission. And they went around the room, taking turns to describe for everyone else how they were participating in what God is doing in the world. Some had probably been on mission trips, or led retreats, or prayed without ceasing. Others had spent countless hours volunteering to help people who were living in poverty. A few, I’m sure, were important leaders in their churches and other groups throughout the wider community.
Now there was one woman in that circle of Christians — in that circle of church folk — whose spirit seemed more and more defeated as those voices came around to her. And when it was time for her to speak, she said something like this:
I hear these incredible stories, and you have no idea how much I wish, how much I pray, that I could participate in God’s mission like y’all have done. But I can’t because my mother has been so sick, and she has no one else to care for her but me. And this has become my whole life, and I am so tired, and there is nothing left over for me to give back to God.
Friends, that poor woman had been participating in God’s mission all along. And she had given everything back to God — everything — like the widow whom Jesus once saw put her last two mites, her last two coins, into the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. And although she didn’t know it, although she couldn’t see it, she was standing on Mount Zion, close to the heart of Jesus, and Jesus’ love for her was the same love that overflowed into her care for her mother.
And everyone who was sitting in that circle of chairs with her was on that mountain too. Each person in that circle — just like each person here today — was and remains forever a child of God. On this Rally Day or any other Sunday, what others seem to be doing or not doing for God’s mission, from our very limited perspective, isn’t something for us to judge. We’re here to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and to listen, with the love of Jesus, to the stories of the people around us. When listening to them rather than judging them, we can help one another catch a glimpse of Mount Zion. And when that happens, hopefully we’ll realize that God’s love surrounds us, and always has. And that same love spills out into the world around us daily in a million different ways, proclaiming “mercy” and “forgiveness,” often without using words. But it all starts here in our own hearts.
This I believe.
1 BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:21.
2 BACK TO POST Hebrews 12:22.
3 BACK TO POST Hebrews 4:16.