Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: "Throwing Stones"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 18, 2014 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60;  John 14:1-14

“Throwing Stones”

Whenever I’m tired, stressed out, or in need of a rejuvenating diversion I turn to the same spiritual practice that I’ve come to rely on for the past 15 years.
I put on HGTV and watch House Hunters. 

The premise of the show is simple.
A realtor shows a prospective buyer three different homes in their desired geographical area and price range, and at the end of the show the buyer chooses which of the three homes they want to purchase.

The popularity of this show lies in its ability to tap into the viewer’s emotions as we vicariously experience the thrill of choosing and buying a home, without actually having to invest the time or the money.

Admittedly, there is a bit of voyeurism involved, as we get to peek inside homes that are typically way outside our price range, and we imagine what it would be like to live in such grandeur.

And there’s a bit of judgment involved, as we roll our eyes at the hard to please first time buyers who insist on having granite countertops and walk-in closets, and at the couple whose idea of “downsizing” is moving from a 10,000 square foot home to a 5,000 square foot home.

Through House Hunters we also discover that happiness and contentment is often relative.
As we watch a family from Texas walk into a huge master bedroom and say, “It’s a little small.”
And then watch a family from New York City walk into a tiny bathroom and say, “It’s so big!”

The biggest enjoyment I get out of this show is watching people who have reluctantly made compromises or lost out on buying the home of their dreams, come to realize that the home they chose was the right home for them after all, and they can’t imagine being anywhere else.

We’re all seeking that comforting, welcoming place that we can call home.

In our gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and I will prepare a place for you.”

We often hear this passage lifted up as evidence of God’s inclusivity, as we interpret it to mean that God’s Kingdom is like a mansion where there is room for us all.

In this age of religious pluralism, this image of God’s house having many dwelling places opens us up to the idea that even those of other faiths and different understandings of the divine presence in our universe have a place in what we Christians would call the Kingdom of God.

This is a beautiful way to interpret this scripture as it makes room for an even bigger God than our Christian forbearers imagined.
In a world where we speak many different languages, have many different cultures, and many different understandings of this spiritual force that is greater than ourselves, a God who created such a world would have to, we would think, have room for all of us and for all of our expressions of what it means to be a loving presence in this world.

It is interesting to note that Christianity itself is a diverse faith with many different understandings of how God’s love is expressed in this world.
We need only to look at the many different ways that we interpret scripture as evidence of that.

The image of God’s many dwelling places, which we would say describes God’s expansiveness and inclusivity is contained in the same gospel passage as the verse that has traditionally been used to describe the path to God as being narrow and exclusive.

It is here that we hear Jesus say:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

What emotions stir within you when you hear those words?

Do you hear a promise  - or do you hear a threat?

Do you feel joy?  Anger?
Or indifference?

These words, uttered by Jesus on the night before he died, were intended to give his disciples hope.  It was a promise that their relationship would not end with his death.
If they sought out God, they would find Jesus.
And if they sought out Jesus, they would find God.
For God was fully present in Jesus’ life and in his ministry.
And Jesus was fully present in God.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” are words offered in comfort….
But these same words uttered by Jesus’ followers over the course of two millennium, have often been offered not as a comfort, but as an ultimatum.
And in that ultimatum, the “good news” of God’s all-inclusive love is lost.

One of the joys and blessings of being a pastor is that we get to walk with people on their faith journeys in all stages of life.

We baptize infants who have no conception of the promises to God being made on their behalf.
We tell Bible stories to young children who imagine God to be a bearded old man in the sky.
We field questions from confirmands and high school students who have tossed aside childhood images of God and have begun a search for a new image to replace it.
We counsel adults who wonder if all the things they’ve been taught about God are true and if organized religion has any relevance in our world today.
And we sit with the elderly in the last days of their lives, when they’ve either made peace with the God they’ve come to know as loving and forgiving, or they’re seeking absolution or distance from the God they’ve been taught is judging and punishing.

What becomes apparent to any pastor – or any one of you who spends time ministering to others – is that people are desperate to hear the message of the gospel – The good news that God is with us always, and that God loves us unconditionally - and there is nothing that WE can do to make this not true.

As Christians, as people of God, as human beings, we need to hear this message over and over again. Because we have such a hard time believing it.

It’s no wonder why, when the prevailing message from Christian churches – in our time and throughout the ages – speaks of God’s love and presence as being conditional and limited.

Jesus said, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
And we say, “But only a few will be deemed worthy of dwelling with God.”

Jesus said, “Grace is a gift given freely by God.”
And we say, “Grace is something we must earn through our deeds and our creeds.”

Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And we confidently pick up our stones and lob them at each other, standing firm in the conviction that our sin is lesser than the sin of our neighbor.

Why do we do this?
Why do we take a faith that Jesus commanded us to open up to ALL and pile on so many qualifiers that it becomes accessible to only a few?

Perhaps because we are so accustomed to throwing stones we don’t know how to live otherwise.
Throwing stones keeps others from taking what we value.
As human beings, it’s hard for us to break away from the mindset that everything that is valuable and desirable must be hoarded or kept only for a select few, because to share it widely means that we have less of it for ourselves.
We do this with food, resources, land, money, power, status, and love.
Why would the prospect of sharing our God be any different?

So while we have scripture texts that tell us that God is big enough for us all, we seek out those texts that help us to shrink God just enough so not everyone will find a home where we’ve already staked out our claim.

 “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me”

We may say that here Jesus pretty explicitly states that only those who come to know him will find a home with God.  But when we consider Jesus’ words in the context in which they were spoken, a different understanding emerges.

These are words offered in comfort to the dear friends and committed followers of a man who is about to die in a horrific and tragic way.
Their lives are about to be turned upside down in a way that they could not even imagine.
So Jesus gave them something solid and strong to hold onto -
the conviction that God would be with them and love them, no matter what.

Jesus told them, “If you know me – and YOU DO - you will know my Father also.”
If they became lost in their pain and their grief and couldn’t conceive of the indescribable and otherworldly presence of God being with them, they need only remember Jesus - The contours of his face, the sound of his voice, the warmth of his presence, and they would know that God was with them.

Jesus told them, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Here he was not speaking to the billions of adherents of a worldwide religion as we imagine him doing today, instead he was speaking to the anxious and concerned men and women gathered around him that night in the upper room.
They were a small group of followers of a renegade Jewish prophet.
Once Jesus was arrested and killed they would no longer be welcome in their home synagogues or in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Their avenue and access to God would essentially be cut off.

Thus, Jesus told them, “No one come to the father except through me.”
As Old Testament scholar, Gail O’Day explains, when Jesus said, “No one” he meant No one of YOU – meaning the disciples and followers gathered in the room that night.
As religious outcasts, the teachings Jesus would leave with them would become their only WAY to God, their only path to truth, their only hope for life.

If we fast forward 60 years after Jesus’ death to the time when John’s gospel was written, we find a community of formerly Jewish Christians who are desperate to establish themselves as being unique and different from the other religious sects.

Jesus’ statement that no one comes to God except through him has moved from being comforting words to his intimate friends to serving as a badge of distinction for the members of John’s community.

It became the conviction of a religious minority who had discovered that its understanding of the truth of God carried with it a great price.
Their faith had gotten them expelled from their religious home, so they would have to carve out a new home, as a distinct people.
John's Gospel expresses "the distinctiveness" of Christians who find their way to God through Jesus.            [Kate Huey paraphrasing Gail O’Day]

Two thousand years later, we still embrace this distinction, as we should, but too many have made it a requirement. And have limited the reach of the good news of Jesus as a result.

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is considered to be on the progressive end of the Christian spectrum, as we have a history of widening God’s embrace to include those who have stood outside the narrow way that others say is the only path to God.
The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the full inclusion of women, and the move towards being Open and Affirming congregations have all resulted in a multitude of stones being thrown our way…both from the outside and the inside.

Each time we widen God’s embrace we get a little more fearful that there is going to be less to go around – because we haven’t yet grasped the message of the gospel – that God’s love is big enough for all of us.

Yet there are so many people out there who are dying to hear this message.
They’re leaving churches and labeling God as irrelevant because they’re not hearing this message.

Now we as inclusive Christians have the opportunity to make ourselves distinct from the others yet again.  By embracing the gospel truth that God’s love and grace is offered unconditionally to all - and by preaching this truth, and living this truth, and believing this truth as if Jesus had spoken it to us himself.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of all the stone throwing.
God is big enough for all of us.
God has a massive house – with many dwelling spaces – I’ll bet there are even some with granite counter tops and walk in closets.

When it comes to being included in God’s embrace, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a regular church-goer, it doesn’t matter if you have doubts, it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure what to believe about Jesus or what to believe about God. 
This is God’s house.

And no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

Thanks be to God.


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