This is possibly the last sermon I will post. I've been thinking about beginning to preach more from notes than from a manuscript.
Just last Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in a place that – before Tuesday – I had no idea existed. I think it’s probably a well-known place to people of a certain age (that is, significantly younger than I am), and from its advertising, it is one of the best places to have fun in the Twin Cities. The place is called “Pump It Up!” I was there to help chaperone a number of our Vacation Bible School children for a field trip. Perhaps some of you are wondering what kind of fun you have a t a place called “Pump it Up”. I at first thought it must be some kind of body-building experience, but in truth it is a kind of gymnasium full of inflatable sports equipment, from bouncy slides to basketball courts, obstacle courses, and what they call “bounce houses.” I witnessed children of all ages throwing themselves into the equipment, bouncing as high and as hard as they could, running back and forth between play stations with big smiles on their faces.
For about an hour the children could play as hard as they wanted to, jump as high as they wanted to, with as much energy and enthusiasm as they could muster – without any danger of serious injury. Everything is bouncy, but that means everything is padded too. There aren’t any hard surfaces to run into. And for extra measure, there were a few spotters wandering around the area as well, keeping an eye out for sparrows, making sure everyone was following directions, making sure all of the landings were soft ones. So everyone played fearlessly – because they knew no matter what they did, they could not really get hurt. And I caught myself thinking, wouldn’t it be great if life could be this way? We could set to the tasks, the responsibilities, even the fun of our daily lives with no hesitations, no worries, no fears, because we would know that our landings would be soft ones.
In truth, we have been given no such guarantees, have we? That’s clear from our gospel lesson today: a curious mixture of hope and warning, of promise and peril. Jesus speaks frankly to his disciples about the dangers that go along with following him. He tells them that as he will be mistreated, so they will also sometimes be mistreated; as he has been misunderstood, so they will be misunderstood; as he has been opposed, so they will sometimes be opposed. It will not be easy this life of being a disciple. They will need every bit of courage they can muster to live the kind of life he is calling them too – a life of welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the grieving, and standing with the poor. They will need every bit of courage they can muster to live the life he is calling them too, because, let’s face it, this life will also involve sometimes not just welcoming the stranger, but being the stranger, not just feeding the hungry, but being hungry, not just healing the sick, but standing in need of healing themselves. They will strengthen the weak, but sometimes they will BE the weak ones. They will shelter the homeless, but sometimes they will be homeless wanderers themselves.
And it also seems that, to start with, there are a lot of things that Jesus is not promising them. He’s not promising them safety for one thing. He’s not guaranteeing that they will never be injured when following him. And he’s not promising them financial security either. I’m not saying that disciples won’t be secure: there are just no guarantees. He’s not promising that they will never be forsaken or abandoned by their friends or family. And He’s certainly not promising that they will never fail or fall down in their discipleship.
I’m reminded of a story about St. Teresa of Avila, famous 17th century mystic and nun. It seems one day that she was on her way to a meeting somewhere. The road she walked on was muddy, and as she went on her journey she prayed, as she often liked to do, that she would not fall into the mud. But wouldn’t you know, even while she was praying, she fell into the mud. Teresa scolded God then, for letting her fall and get dirty. God replied, “I treat all my friends this way.” To which Teresa replied, “No wonder you have so few of them.”
As Jesus calls his disciples, even today, there are many things he does not promise, many things he does not guarantee. He does not guarantee our safety or our success. He does not guarantee soft landings, with no possibility of injury. He promises a life of service, a life of meaning: but he does not guarantee that everyone will be happy with us when we stand up for him, when we do justice, do kindness. He does, however, exhort us to live fearlessly. “Do not be afraid!” he tells us. But how can we ever manage it?
In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation in the midst of a deep depression. He said at that time, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He meant of course, that our worst enemy is fear itself – worse that our fear of failure or abandonment, worse than our fear of danger or injury. Fear can keep us from going forward when we most need to; fear keeps us from doing important work that needs to be done. When we act out of fear, we fail to see a vision of the future. We only see possible nightmares.
Recently I’ve been reading a children’s book I picked up on vacation. It’s a book mainly about the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, and it gives fascinating facts about immigrants during the time from 1892 to 1924, when Ellis Island was closed. For example, did you know that from the 1820s until 1924 nearly 35 million people came to America from other countries? They picked up and left everything they knew and many of their loved ones and set out for a new land, a place they had never seen before, a place they had only heard about. They endured hardships, hunger, sickness sometimes on the long journey here. They overcame the fears that must have entered their minds: how? What gave them the courage to endure and to come here? I’ll tell you what: it was hope: they had hope that in America a new life with new opportunities awaited them. Perhaps they heard that the streets were paved with gold. Perhaps they heard that in America everyone was free. Perhaps they heard that in America there was work for everyone. They came because of their hope for a new life, and this hope overcame their fears, and gave them courage to endure.
It’s true; there are many things that Jesus does not promise us: he doesn’t promise us success or riches, popularity or security. But he does promise us life: the best life, the only life, a new life in a new kingdom. And he gives us a vision of this kingdom as well: it is a kingdom where the poor will be lifted up, where the hungry will be fed, where the lame will leap for joy, where the dead will rise, where even sparrows will be valued and protected. And it is our hope for this promised new life that overcomes our fears and gives us the courage to follow Jesus and to live for him.
But as if that were not enough, that is not all that Jesus promises us.
I was struck by the stories of those immigrants, the ones who were so brave, who came here hoping for a new life. They had crossed an ocean and left much behind; they had overcome their fears – but upon arriving, do you know what their greatest fear was? Their greatest fear was that they would be examined and found not worthy to stay, and be sent back. And you know, some of them were turned back – because they were too poor, too sick, too old, couldn’t read.
Jesus promises us that he will never turn us away – no one is too old, too sick, too poor. If even a sparrow, the lowliest of birds, falls under God’s watchful eye, how much more do each of us? That is the meaning of Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your father.” You may not wear the best clothes, and you may not know the best people, and you may not live in the best house: but you are one of God’s treasured people, and in God’s eyes you shine. And you may consider yourself discouraged and bedraggled, rundown and worn out, but God considers you a beloved child, a star, of more value than many sparrows.
The children know the secret: they live fearlessly, jumping as high as they can and as hard as they can for as long as they can. They live fearlessly, believing that as long as they are loved, they can never really get hurt. And in a way that is the truth. For in the end, not even death can separate us from God’s love.
So do not be afraid. Jump as high as you can and as hard as you can for as long as you can. Run through the obstacle course. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, Jesus promises eternal life and love to you, and to all sinners, strangers – and sparrows. Not one of us falls to the ground apart from him. And he will never turn us away from his gate. AMEN