Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sermon: "Be the Change You Want to See"

Scripture Intro - Luke 18:1-8

Here Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a persistent widow and an unjust judge.

There’s a reason why Jesus, and Jeremiah, and Isaiah before him, had so much to say about widows. In the socioeconomic structure of the ancient world, widows were located very close to the bottom.

A woman who had no husband typically had no money, no property, and no power. 

And if she had no father or brother or other male relative to take her in, she likely lived on the street surviving on whatever scraps she could find there.

The word for 'widow' in Hebrew means 'silent one' or 'one unable to speak.'

But the widow in Jesus’ parable doesn’t accept her lot in life. She refuses to remain silent. She persists in seeking justice and in the end she receives it, even from an unjust judge.

With this parable, Jesus poses a question to his disciples: 

Would our loving and compassionate God be any less responsive to our persistent cries for help?  

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
October 16, 2016 – Family Worship – Mission Sunday
Luke 18:1-8

“Be the Change You Want to See”

One of the wonderful things I get to do as part of my ministry here in Amherst is go on our Senior High Youth Group mission trips.

If you’ve ever been a chaperone on a mission trip (or gone on any trip where it was your job to keep a large group of youth moving safely through an unpredictable environment) then you know that the greatest challenge on these trips is this:

To make sure you come home with the same number of kids you left with.

When navigating down busy city streets, the adult chaperones typically deploy themselves in and around the group.
One or two stay at the front to lead the way.
A few hover in the middle to make sure no one steps in front of a cab or gets caught crossing a street when a light is about to change.
And a few stay at the back acting as sweepers  – making sure no gets distracted by a store window, stops at a street vendor, or otherwise gets left behind.

The hardest part of urban navigation is getting that long train of teenagers to go in the direction you want them to go. 
Many times I’ve been at the back of the pack yelling, “Turn left!” as the entire group inevitably turns right. 
For weeks after we get home, every night I have ‘mission trip dreams’ where I lose the whole group in some unfamiliar city and we spend the entire trip trying to find each other.
I hate those dreams.

In 2013, we took our Senior High Youth down to New York City for a week to help serve individuals and families in need in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries.

After our first long day at our worksites, we managed to get our group of 27 teens and 4 adults into the 42nd Street subway station.

Getting a group this size on and off a subway train is whole other challenge.

You have to teach the teens to wait for the people to get off the train first, and then have them move as fast as they can to get on the train before you hear the dreaded voice from above say,  “Stand clear of the closing doors."

On more than one occasion I found myself ushering the last teen onto the train while the doors began to close in front of me.
One time I had to pry the doors open with my bare hands.
When they say adrenaline can give you super human strength, they’re not kidding.

But on this particular day in NYC, the trains were running late.
As our group filled the subway platform we encountered a homeless man collecting spare change in a paper cup and quietly singing the classic soul song from the 70’s, Lean on Me.  

We watched as seasoned New Yorkers pushed past him and ignored him as you’re apt to do when you have someplace to get to and you’ve learned to tune out the multitude of people with cardboard signs begging for money wherever you turn.
You almost have to, or you’d never get where you were going.

The man singing in the subway that day had a wonderful voice, and as soon as our teens heard him singing several of them began to sing along with him.
Before we knew it we were all singing – all 31 of us - belting out the chorus of Lean on Me - as the New Yorkers and tourists alike did double takes and tried to figure out what was going on.

Then something amazing happened.
Other people standing on the platform began to sing with us - even the jaded New Yorkers. People began to record us with their cell phones.
Soon we were surrounded by a ring of strangers all singing,
“Lean on me,
when you’re not strong,
and I’ll be your friend,
 I’ll help you carry on.”

And the man’s empty paper cup began to fill and then overflow with change and folded bills.

Afterward the man thanked the teens profusely - saying over and over again, “God bless you all.”

One of our sophomores, who was all of 15 at the time, reflected on this experience afterward and said,
“We’re from Amherst, NH we didn’t know how to be New Yorkers.
We didn’t know we were NOT supposed to sing with a homeless guy in the subway or even acknowledge his presence as we walked by. 
We didn’t know we were supposed to ignore him.”

The widow in our Gospel reading this morning was used to being ignored.

As a woman who had no man attached to her she was used to being overlooked, dismissed, and treated as if she didn’t have a voice, as if she - and her pain - didn’t matter.
But she didn’t let the dismissive behavior of others deter her.
She never stopped acting as if she did matter.
She continued to put herself in front of that judge day after day,
until he finally relented and gave her what she was seeking – Justice.

Luke shared this parable from Jesus with his readers because they were beginning to think that they didn’t matter.

When Luke wrote his gospel, Jesus had been gone for almost 50 years.
Where was the triumphant return of Christ they had been told to expect at any time?
Where was the coming Kingdom of God they had been promised?

Instead of celebrating their liberation and victory over oppression, suffering, and death, they were still being pressed down under the weight of it –
all of it.
At the time, the followers of Jesus were still a tiny minority.
Many of their strong and vocal leaders had already been stoned to death, crucified or beheaded.
James, Steven, Paul.

Like the widow in Jesus’ parable, those who were left to carry on Christ’s message continued to pray to God to end their misery and grant them justice.
They prayed that God would turn the world upside so the last would be first and the first would be last, and poverty and hunger and oppression would be no more - just as Jesus had promised.

How long, O God?
How long must we wait?
How long must we endure?
This was their prayer.
This was their song.

Of course, as we know, God does things in God’s own time.
And while the early Christians kept looking over their shoulder and sleeping with one eye open, waiting for Jesus to return, eventually they came to understand that an immediate rescue wasn’t in the cards.
If they wanted to experience any lasting change in their world they’d have to go about building the Kingdom of God to the best of THEIR OWN abilities, bolstered by the belief that God was leading them, every step of the way.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that says,
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

It’s a wonderful quote, but Gandhi didn’t actually say that.
What Gandhi actually said is printed on the cover of today’s bulletin:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

Let’s all read it again, together:

We but mirror the world.
All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.

In other words:
Change yourself and change the world.

Today is Mission Sunday.
And all the different ways we have to serve our community and serve each other that we’re going to hear about during and after today’s service would never happen if everyday ordinary people didn’t seek to change.
To change their behavior, change their priorities, change their hearts. 

Instead of going out on Saturday night a single woman chooses to spend the evening serving meals and folding sheets at Anne Marie House.

Instead of coming home after a long hard day and collapsing in front of the TV or shuttling the kids to 3 different practices, a family chooses to head over to End 68 hours of Hunger and pack bags of food for children.  
And instead of spending the day puttering around his garden or workshop, a retiree chooses to deliver Meals on Wheels, or volunteer at a community supper, even when the “tired” part of retirement becomes a daily struggle.

Our teens go on mission trips and choose to spend a full week serving others because they want to change the world for the better, but the biggest change happens within them when they sit down with the people they’re serving and listen to their stories.

They learn that people become homeless or go to food pantries or seek assistance for a myriad of reasons.

In Tennessee, we met a man who was suffering from chronic depression who masked his pain with alcohol and was unable to hold down a job.

In New York City, we met a woman who had two masters degrees and spoke 3 languages, but she and her children had to flee her abusive husband with just the clothes on their backs, and now she was working 3 jobs just to feed them.

In Washington DC, we met a man who lost everything when his wife died of cancer – his job, his home, his kids - when hundreds of thousand of dollars in medical bills mired him in debt and tore his family apart.

What surprises our teens and our adults the most when we listen to these stories – is that most of the people seeking help have jobs, or receive food stamps or some other form of assistance.
But it’s still not enough.

We have need for Anne Marie House, and End 68 Hours of Hunger, and Meals on Wheels - and all the other organizations that serve as partners in mission in our community and in our world - because of complex issues and deeply entrenched systems that we’re unlikely to dismantle or fix anytime soon.

Still, we come before God and cry out,
“How long must we wait, O Lord” 
knowing that God leans towards justice
and trusting that God is re-creating our world in God’s own time.

In the meantime, our teacher, Jesus, calls us to continue to be the change we want to see in the world.
To continue to make room in our lives and in our hearts for those who have no voice and no power.

To not mirror the actions of the unjust judge and turn a deaf ear to those in need.

On this mission Sunday, I leave you with this:

     Who is the better mirror of Christ?

Is it the cynical city dweller who walks past the homeless man and prides himself for not being taken in by a con artist or a sob story?

Or is the naïve 15-year-old who sees a man in need singing in the subway and stops to sing along with him,
and inspires others to do the same.

“We but mirror the world.
If would could change ourselves,
the tendencies in the world
would also change.”

Thanks be to God