Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Sermon - Belonging Always Precedes Believing

April 21, 2013 – 4 Easter C

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

It’s been a strange, sad week. By the time I heard the news that there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon, it was almost time for Vestry. Although I wasn’t dismissive of the tragedy, a full day without any time in front of the television or a computer screen meant that I wasn’t able to absorb the impact that the bombings would have on our country. Then, as the days unfolded, I—like almost everyone—became increasingly obsessed with the incident. I listened with a deep emotional connection to reports of the injuries and deaths. I watched and waited for news of the perpetrators and stared intently at the television when the video clips were released by the FBI. All day on Friday, while the citizens of Boston were hiding in their homes, sheltering in place, I left the news on in case something exciting enough to pull me away from my Friday-routine happened. I live in Alabama; I had that luxury.

On Thursday morning, I woke up and read of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Actually, I saw a video of it first—that clip of the man in the blue jeans sitting in his car and filming the flames just as the explosion ripped through the air, turning over his car, and leveling buildings all around. Instantly, I thought of Boston and wondered which tragedy would be more devastating. A conversation at Theology on Tap later that night revealed mixed feelings among our parishioners. Some of us were touched more deeply by the threat of terrorism, while others felt especially vulnerable to an accident in a manufacturing plant. Ultimately, of course, there is no way to compare the significance of disasters. Body counts and reconstruction costs can’t convey the real loss we all experience when things in the world go wrong.

All week long I’ve been interested in how people deal with incidents like these—tragedies that happen in far-away places yet leave their mark here at home. With a terrorist attack, are we supposed to stop everything and give it our full attention in order to honor the suffering of our fellow Americans? Or are we supposed to go about our lives, refusing to allow the terrorists to disrupt our routines any more than necessary? I felt mixed feelings when I saw a news channel show an entire hockey arena singing the National Anthem in an overwhelmingly patriotic display. In this time of national vulnerability, was that populist appeal only supposed to boost ratings, or was it intended to boost morale?

On Friday, as I listened to NPR, I heard a story of two senators that really grabbed my heart. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas reflected on a visit he paid to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. I don’t have to tell you that these days senators from Texas and Massachusetts don’t really agree on much. As the commentator made clear, these two elected officials represent opposite poles of a widely divided electorate, yet Cruz focused on what held them together. He talked about how strikingly similar Warren’s sentiments were to his own as each dealt with disaster in his or her own state. And that’s the message that has carried me through these last few days. I don’t have a lot in common with Bostonians or the residents of West, Texas. I don’t always gush at sentimental displays of patriotism, and I often disagree with the politics of senators from all states. But, no matter what I believe, I’m still an American and a human being, and that’s what unites me to those who suffer in Massachusetts and Texas.

So why can’t Christians be the same?

One winter, during the celebration of the Dedication of the Temple, which we now call Hanukkah, Jesus was walking through the portico of Solomon. Some of the religious authorities came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus looked at them wistfully and said, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” And why didn’t they believe? Because, as Jesus said to them, “You do not belong to my sheep.”

This story comes in the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry. For quite a while, he had been explaining to the people where he had come from and why God had sent him. But he wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. As the Feast of the Dedication would suggest, his interrogators were hoping for a political and military leader—one sent by God to overthrow the Roman occupation. But Jesus came to preach peace, and his words fell on deaf ears. So no matter how hard the religious authorities tried to make sense of this Jesus of Nazareth, they were not able to recognize him for who he really was.

But the same can be said for us.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? How can we make sense of a messiah who came to save the world but died trying? What does it mean to believe in a king whose crown was made of thorns and whose throne was a hard wooden cross? We say that Jesus came to deliver the world from sin and death, but sin and death still seem to reign in places like the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the factory floor of that fertilizer plant. We’re supposed to believe in a God who is all-powerful and all-loving yet who watches tragedies unfold every day without reaching down to stop them. How are we supposed to make sense of that? How are we supposed to believe?

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Being a Christian isn’t about believing the right things or making sense of who God is and how he works in the world. Being a Christian is about belonging to Jesus. It’s that simple. It’s about hearing him say to us, “You are mine. You belong to me.” We can’t follow Jesus until we recognize that we belong to him. Belonging always precedes believing. Jesus’ isn’t asking us to figure everything out before we can call ourselves his disciples. He’s claiming us for his own and asking us to believe because we belong to him.

We don’t have to be able to make sense of weeks like this one. As Christians, we aren’t supposed to understand why these things happen. But we are supposed to know that, no matter what occurs, we belong to God, and he will never forsake us. God is with us in the midst of our tragedies. Nothing can separate us from his love. And that’s the place where belief begins. It starts when we know what it means to belong to Jesus. He chooses us before we choose him. No one stands at the front door of the church and turns away any who aren’t able or willing to profess the Christian faith. Instead, we open wide our doors and welcome any who come in because in Christ God has called each of us by name and made us his own. We are Christians—not because of what we say or what we believe. We are Christians because we belong to Jesus. Amen. 

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