Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon: "St. Rosa's Moment"—John 6

For First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich
Has this ever happened to you?

You pray and pray in distress for God to make some kind of provision for you?
The well-being of your family.
Travelling mercies for a loved one.
Job security

You are distressed, and you don’t know what to do… except to go to God. You ask God for a blessing  and wait for help to come.

I remember my first semester in college. I tried to double-major and triple-minor.

The school recommends that Freshman take only 12 credit hours in their first year. I thought I was pretty hot stuff, since I could “do it all” in high school. And so, I signed-up for 21 credit hours. Not a bright idea.

Like a zombie, I walked from class to class without sleep… and without setting aside very much time to build friendships.

I prayed and prayed and prayed for more sleep and more friends, and I kept waiting and waiting for God to grant my prayers.

And then, a light bulb went off. I dropped a major.

All of a sudden, I was eating right, I was sleeping well, I looked healthy again, I was gaining friends, I got elected as a class officer…

My undone life was coming back into balance—because of the grace of God, yes… and because of that inspired decision to make more time for myself.

And sometimes, when God hears our prayer, God resolves our momentary angst… and leads us down an even more complicated path toward a life of faith.

My “sophomoric learning” pales in comparison to the accounts of slavery and oppression found in the book of Exodus, but consider what “John Chapter 6” references:

Imagine what life was like for the Israelites.

They had been praying for decades, for centuries, to be freed from a land that held them captive. They were sold against their will  and born into a life a slavery.

Then, miraculously, God provides. Through the person of Moses, God brings freedom, and the people of Israel are no longer held as captives in the land of Egypt.
Days go by, then weeks of wandering in the wilderness.

They pray another desperate prayer: Lord, we are hungry! Even as slaves, we ate. Should we become slaves again, or did you lead us into freedom so that we lose our lives to hunger?

Their pleas and cries were heard, and the Lord provided manna from out of nowhere, and the Israelites had food for the next 40 years.

That didn’t take away the other needs—their needs of faith:
Like trusting in the One God
Like having to unlearn patterns of slavery and oppression

Now, think about your prayers regarding  
The well-being of your family.
Travelling mercies for a loved one.
Job security
Sleep for a disoriented college Freshman.

God answers your most immediate needs… now what???

Like unsatisfied Israelites, we are often desperate for something more to take place.
Your immediate need is met, but you are left feeling empty inside.
Your immediate need is met, but you are lonely.
Perhaps it is loss of mission and purpose.
Perhaps you feel that God still isn’t “getting” you and your real need.

I am reminded of a story about a civil rights hero who prayed for equality—not just at one moment in history, but she prayed earnestly over a long period of time.
In her wisdom, she knew that manna wasn’t good enough.
In her wisdom, she knew that the Lord was still at work, And she wanted to be a part of it.

Consider that legendary moment in the life of Rosa Parks.[1]

We all think we know her story…

The standard script tells of a woman who became tired of discrimination and injustice,
and “one day” just refused to budge from her bus seat.
An individual with courage accidentally sparked the civil rights movement.

But, there's much more to it than "the standard script" contains.

December 1, 1955, contrary to popular belief, was not an isolated moment in the life of Rosa Parks. 
The complete story of how she reached that day is far more interesting than the simple version. 

Rosa Parks had been a youth leader of the Montgomery, Alabama branch of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

In March of 1955, an African American teenager named Claudette Colvin, a teenager from Rosa Parks' youth group, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.  Claudette, the 15-year-old, was arrested.

The NAACP leaders thought that maybe they were in over their heads,   so they decided not to press the issue at that moment. 

Once again, Alabama communicated that African Americans were less-than. 

The NAACP might have responded by becoming discouraged and complacent, but they, instead, decided to prepare for their equality. 

They needed "the right someone" to refuse giving up her seat to a white person. 
A pillar of the community.
Someone who had done the proper self-work.
In the summer of 1955, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks and others to the Highlander Folk School for a ten-day training session in nonviolent protest.
There she learned of Mahatma Gandhi's commitment to and use of nonviolence in India.
She learned more of the history of the Civil Rights movement.
She met the movers and shakers of the movement and sang its powerful songs, including "We Shall Overcome" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."
After 12 years of working hard as an NAACP volunteer and leader, she had now acquired the skills and background she would need when the moment would come.
And come it did.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, seated in the front row of the "colored" section of a bus, ALSO refused to give up that seat when the bus became crowded and there wasn't enough room for all the white people to sit.
She refused to move, and she was arrested, like that youth group member before her. 
Four days later, the Montgomery bus boycott started, and the Civil Rights movement came to the attention of people across the United States.
Thus, Rosa Parks was no innocent bystander whose whim helped ignite the Montgomery bus boycott. 
No, Rosa Parks made a prior commitment to change her world.
She ingested the body and blood of the struggle of her people
And she embodied message of Civil Rights for all.
Others tried to do what she did, but they did not have the same impact. 
Why not?
Rosa’s is a story of integrity, choice, and evolution.
Rosa Parks did not just become heroic one day.
She started by changing the lives of youth. 

She did not just become heroic one day.
She had to learn about Gandhi and the path of nonviolence. 

She did not just become heroic one day.
She had to gain an appreciation for the struggle of her people and her place in that struggle. 

She made a decision that the trajectory of her life was to create freedom and love. 

Sitting toward the front of the bus was no accident or whim, nor was it done in ignorance of her oppressors.

It was the enlightened result of her personal values. 

She made a decision, and she didn’t back down.

What if the leaders of the NAACP decided to send eager activists out into the world—like that 15 year old from Ms. Parks' youth group—who had no context for that behavior… or even purpose?
Maybe Jim Crow laws would have been on the books longer than they were.
Maybe busses would still be segregated. 

By becoming one in flesh and blood with the Civil Rights movement… this legendary hero  became too savvy for oppressors  who had not yet learned the lesson.

Or in Biblical terms,

The South cried out for equality.

First, God sent manna.
We saw what happened to that young, 15-year-old girl who went to jail for sitting-in.

But then God, being God, worked through a willing vessel who was filled with the Holy Spirit—someone who sacrificed her own well-being—just as Christ had done for the sinful world.

Rosa did not simply rise to the occasion of temporary activism. (That’s also important—but it’s not the point of John Chapter 6.) Rosa Parks made a more lasting impact than that.

Jesus said,
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father,  so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

I invite us to consider what it means to “be one” with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ—to ingest the Body and Blood of Christ  and to LIVE BECAUSE OF HIM.  

Sometimes, it’s not about our needs and desires, but we must be challenged to consider how we fit into the plan that God has for the world.

I would invite us to consider how our own presence—and the way in which we embody our values…
can disintegrate oppression,
transform oppressors,
satiate imperialism,
bring healing to wounded souls,
break-open fundamentalism,
and restore dignity to all life.

If any group of people ever had needs, it was the African Americans of Alabama in 1955.

If any group needs the food and drink of Jesus Christ, AT THIS MOMENT IN HISTORY,
It is the families of the innocent who have lost their lives as “collateral damage” in war.
It is the people of war-torn Syria,
The people of Somalia who continue to starve,
The typhoon victims in the Philippines
The Colorado theater shooting…
The Sihk temple shooting
And last week’s numerous shootings:
Texas A&M,
the Family Research Council
the Louisiana Deputy shooting,
and the 34 miners killed by South African police on Friday.

Lord, in your mercy…

We are moved in faith by such tragedies.

We are often tempted to do something drastic in response…. Or pull the pillow over our heads and cry.

Do you remember what happened when the NAACP felt discouraged because that young activist was imprisoned?

They grieved   AND later, they rose to the occasion.

Perhaps they opened up their Bible to John 6:54 and read that verse: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day!”

We can read this text as some otherworldly Bible verse  or we can see it as counter-cultural insurrection, as it really is.

It is no coincidence that—in the same chapter—Jesus feeds the 5,000. Out of nowhere, Jesus equips his disciples to feed everyone who was in need.

Jesus makes his food and drink available to all people.
And all who partake… become one in purpose with Christ.
And those who thus become one with Christ  have eternal life.

We want our immediate needs to be met. We earnestly pray for the shootings to cease.  But  as the Body of Christ  what is now required of you?

We cannot “just” be outraged.

We cannot “just” be sad.

In faith, we must prepare for action and make the body and blood of Christ available to all who have need.

May we pray boldly to live according to the Body and Blood we have received—that our every action reflects the grace, mercy, and love of God. Amen.