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Sermon for Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mourning Jerusalem

Luke 13:31-35
At that time some Pharisees said to him, “Get away from here if you want to live! Herod Antipas wants to kill you!” Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow; and the third day I will accomplish my purpose. Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn’t do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem! “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned. And you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the LORD!’”

Let me tell you about two people I have met in my life. I met one in a tropical paradise, the other at a blistering Boston shop. The first on a warm, sunny Christmas Eve. The second on a rainy March morning. What caused their differing attitudes I won’t pretend to know. There may be a host of reasons why the second person was so bitter, and much sympathy might be garnered by each one. But that isn’t the point, right now. Edification is the point, a Latin way of saying, “building up.” The power to build up other human beings or else to tear them down, no matter how humble the circumstance nor how quick the meeting–that is the power possessed by each member of the Body of Christ, and it’s a mighty power indeed.

Christy and I were on our Honeymoon. Bermuda at Christmas. I still remember warm breezes blowing palm trees festooned with Christmas lights. People were getting out of work early in Hamilton on Christmas Eve, and the streets were alive with excitement. We must have looked like tourists, as hard as we tried to be inconspicuous. Perhaps it was me looking at a map and feverishly pointing eastward that gave us away. We stood in the business district. A man walked up to us. Not imposing, but friendly. His presence wasn’t menacing to us paranoid New Englanders, because he was at peace. He said, “Hello. What are you looking for?” and a smile flicked across his face. He was no chill stranger, although neither of us knew him. When he spoke he looked directly at us, without fear or embarrassment, with neither judgement nor haughtiness nor threat. Just a smile. It’s as if everyone else on the frenzied streets disappeared. He was there just for us in that particular moment.

He was a Bermudian of African decent, balding, middle-aged, slightly over weight. A banker. He pointed us in the right direction. He mentioned other points of interest. Then, out of nowhere he asked, “Do you two have plans for Christmas?” Christy and I looked at each other, Yankee paranoia kicking in again, and we suspiciously said, “No.”

“Why don’t you plan on coming over to my house for Christmas dinner.” He offered. “No pressure, but I’m sure my wife and family would love to have you.” He gave us his number and address. After a few hours of contemplation, we accepted the invitation. The next day we called a taxi and spent Christmas day in his beautiful home overlooking a silver ocean, with great food and friendly conversation. This man did not solve our problems. He didn’t save us from disaster or fix some great problem. Nevertheless, he did something extraordinary. He took a risk. He walked up to some naive strangers on the street and shook our hands. He built us up. He edified us. We never spoke or talked to each other again.

I was silently praying that I would never have to see the second person again. I have mentioned him before. He was the general manger of a propeller repair shop in South Boston. The building smelled like hot metal and grease. Morris was smeared in dirt. His face was ragged. An inch of ashes clung to a cigarette that seemed attached to the corner of his mouth against all laws of nature. “What do you want?” He growled. “I’m here to apply for the job.” He looked me up and down, and walked away, shaking his head as if in disgust. The shop owner came out with desperate apologies. I wanted to run away at that moment, but we needed the money. So I took the job. The months ahead proved Morris to be the bitterest, most foul-mouthed, insulting person I ever met. I was put in charge of grinding the welds of off newly-repaired inboard propellers. Mind you, I never touched a power tool in my life, and I was being trained to make $500.00 propellers look like new. Morris was always looking over my shoulder. Let’s just say, my successes were not celebrated, but every failure, and there were many, was talked about for days. “How could you be so stupid? Were you born screwing things up or is it an acquired ability? Give me that grinder you moron and watch me do it again.” I spent hours looking over his shoulder in utter boredom, wondering when he would strike next. I found little consolation in the fact that he treated everyone this way. I never knew what to say until I went home at night and fantasized my revenge. Every time Morris opened his mouth, I stood frozen like a mouse pretending to be invisible to a prowling cat. Except for one thing: I smiled. Morris would get ready for another verbal volley, and I would look him in the eyes and grin, letting his words burst upon me. Then I would return home at the end of the day demoralized, smeared with shaft grease and bronze dust and adding a few new phrases to my lexicon of “Profanities I’ve never Heard.”

And it wasn’t just that Morris was the nastiest person I had ever met. He was pathetically sad. Empty. And his sadness had made me sad. Those early days at the propeller shop broke me down.

The Bermudian’s life spoke of a certain truth. Morris’s speaks to another. What truth does your life speak? You may say, “Speak? How can I serve the Lord? I’m not important. What I do is so common and of little consequence. Anyone can do what I do.” But I say to you: Every time you meet another human being you have an opportunity. It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things. Either you will build her up or tear her down. Either you will acknowledge that he is, or you will make him sorry that he is– at least sorry that he is there, in front of you. You will create or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s own property. They are made, each one of them, in God’s own image.

You may say, “I don’t know what to say in order to share my faith with others.” And I say to you: There are no useless, minor meetings. There are no dead-end jobs. There are no pointless lives. Swallow your sorrows, forget your grievances and all the hurt your poor life has sustained. Turn your face truly to the human before you and let her, for one pure moment, shine. Think her important, and she will suspect that she is fashioned by God.”

As always, we Christians look to Jesus to show us how to do it. Jesus knew what it felt like to be demolished. In today’s text, he suffers the agony of spurned love. He knows of a day when the crowds will cry “Hosanna!” cheering him on with waving palms as he enters the city on a donkey. Jesus also knows that these same crowds will take the love he offers and spit it back upon him as they jeer him down his road to death. How interesting that in the face of his own demolition, Jesus edifies. Listen to what Jesus does the week before his death. It’s told in Matthew 20. As Jesus and the disciples left the town of Jericho, a large crowd followed behind. Two blind men were sitting beside the road. When they heard that Jesus was coming that way, they began shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” “Be quiet!” the crowd yelled at them. But they only shouted louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” When Jesus heard them, he stopped and called, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord,” they said, “we want to see!” Jesus felt sorry for them and touched their eyes. Instantly they could see! Then they followed him.

Jesus sees the world as it is. He sees pain. He hears the cries of people who are isolated, cut off, and alone. Jesus reaches out to those who have been pushed aside and he reconnects them to community. He goes beyond our tragic history of exclusion and our outdated hostilities and liberates people with his compassion. Yes—take note of what Jesus does just before he dies. He touches the blind and reminds us that all people have access to the healing love of God. He weeps for his people in the city of God and reaches out to those who will reject him. He longs to protect and enfold everyone, even those who make themselves his enemies–even those who wait in Jerusalem with a crown of thorns, steely cold nails and a cross.

The tragedy of failure doesn’t end with there. We have also been offered restoration. The healing hands of Christ are there for us. And we repeatedly reject the offer. God has blessed us thousands of times, and what do we do? We often take them for granted; we fail to appreciate how valuable God’s blessings really are. We minimize them and we treat them as if they’re worth next-to-nothing. We sometimes even complain about God’s blessings senselessly, failing to realize what our lives would be like without them. We may even deny the fact that our blessings come from God—in a twisted, distorted way of false pride, we take credit for them ourselves. So, in a sense, God’s love is lost on us. Christ laments over our rejection of the love that he so consistently offers to us.

One could say that to live a life of faithfulness to Christ is to experience the hurt and pain of lost love; to lament in grief and sorrow over the world’s sad state of affairs. Out of that attitude of sorrow comes our commitment to build others up. When we see a world that rejects and denies the power of love, we can be living reminders of the people God loves. You know who they are? The surly boat propeller repairman who inhales the bitter ashes of life and blow their angry smoke on others. Do you know whom God loves? The rejected and despised, the prejudiced and those who challenge our prejudices, the disappointed, the insecure and the lonely, the violent and the hate-filled people of the world. Do you know whom God loves? Us – every one. We all belong to God. We find ways to encourage and build others up because God’s love never gives up. Not on you. Not on anybody

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus’ life spoke a story compassion. What truth does your life speak? How we respond to others is never inconsequential.
How do you say hello? Or do you say hello?
How do you great strangers. Or do you greet them?
Are you so proud as to burden your customer, your client, your neighbor, your child, your parent, with your tribulations? Even by attitude? By crabbiness, anger, or gloom?

Demolition!

Or do you look people in the eye and grant them friendship and peace? Does the truth that Christ is living in you edify others–reach out and grab them with love?

~~~~~~~~

Morris and I became friends. All I can say is I never followed through on my revenge fantasies. I just kept smiling that dumb smile of mine. Every morning I would go to work and say, “Hi, how are ya’ ?” After a year or so, Morris’s defenses began to fall. He even began to smile back as he called me a moron.

So don’t forget to smile upon others, and encourage, and shine with love, even to the one who is a pain in the neck. You never know. Your smile, your kind words ...your encouragement might just reveal the face of Christ. You might bring some healing. And you might just find that as you show compassion, you will find some healing and liberation as you walk along the way.

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