People of Peace

Berla and I were always a team.

She was about 70 at the time. She was a straight-shooter and told you exactly what she thought, which I loved. And she was funny, and not only could she could make other people laugh, but she also cracked herself up and I can still hear her great big, infectious East Tennessee laugh.

I was in my late twenties, new to Johnson City, TN, fresh-faced, and as green as they come at being a pastor. The congregation I had just been called to serve was Our Saviour’s and they had an evangelism team with a long tradition of visiting homes in the community, knocking on doors, and inviting people to church.

So twice a year, as many people as wanted to were invited to join us after Sunday service, and we would eat lunch together in the church library, divide into pairs, and talk about our game plan. Carl, the chair of the evangelism committee, almost like a coach in the locker room, would give an encouraging speech about the good we were doing and we would head out in our cars to various points all over Johnson City.

The plan was for each team of two to visit an entire neighborhood, one house at a time. If time permitted, we’d move on to another neighborhood.

So, we’d head out, Berla and I. She drove. And when we got to the neighborhood we would pull up in front of a house, we’d get out and walk up to the door, knock and step back so as not to seem too intrusive, and if someone came to the door on that Sunday afternoon we’d say something like, “Hi, I’m Joseph and this is Berla and we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello. We’re from Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. How are you today?”

If we got into a conversation, we’d ask if the person if they had a home church. And if they didn’t have one, we would invite them to worship with us and we would leave a glossy trifold pamphlet that told about our congregation, including our mission statement, service times, and some pictures which we hoped would give people an idea of who we were as a congregation.

Berla and I had a great time and we had lots of time to talk. We talked about our families, about her grandchildren, about football. I didn’t hold back much and I don’t think she did either, but one thing I never told her – my very own partner – is what a relief it was for me when we rang the bell at one of these houses and no one came to the door so that we could just leave the pamphlet in the doorjamb and feel good about being out in the neighborhood and we didn’t have to feel like we had bothered anyone, taken them away from the game, or interrupted their lazy Sunday afternoon. We didn’t have the risk that someone would slam to door in our faces.

But part of what it means to count ourselves as a disciple of Jesus is to be sent out in order to tell the news of the Kingdom and to risk rejection.

My guess is that if we’re honest I am not the only one who would be reluctant to go today and knock on doors in the neighborhood and invite people to church.
But according to Jesus, it’s not only necessary to share the news, it is urgent.

As he spoke to seventy of his followers in Galilee – more than just the twelve now – he sent them out ahead to all the places that he intended to go, and he sent them with a detailed game-plan to follow. Almost like a coach in the locker room, Jesus assured them: “The Harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

You see, these are words of urgency. A harvest in the field, vegetables hanging plump on the vine, with not enough laborers will rot on the vine and end in ruin.

Jesus says giving our witness to him is urgent.

The mission is so urgent, the game plan so pressing, these 35 pairs of friends headed out into the neighborhood are instructed not to take a purse or a wallet, a duffle bag, a pillow or sleeping bag, a phone charger or toiletries of any kind, in order that they won’t be able to depend on themselves.
They’ll have to rely on those they meet.

And as they walk up the driveway and press the doorbell their message is to be Peace.

And if they enter that home, and the household offers lodging – which in the 1st century would have been somewhat more likely than compared to today – and if there was one person in that household who received their peace, they were to stay there and continue their ministry. They were to cure the sick, and proclaim the Kingdom of God, knowing that whoever listened to them listened to Jesus, and therefore heard the Word of God.

But let’s be honest: We don’t live in the first century and no one expects you or me to uproot our lives and become itinerant ministers, knocking on people’s doors and just asking if we can crash in the guest bedroom for a while.

And so, what does it mean now to follow Jesus and share his Peace and proclaim the Kingdom?

I think there are still ways that we do this. There are still a lot of ways that this is our story.

Today twenty people from our congregation are packing up into three SUV and vans and driving to Tarboro, NC, to meet 25 other folks headed down to Tarboro from Maryland. We’ll meet one another and stay at the community center in town where for this next week we will be assisting the United Methodist Disaster Response team that has been working for months to help those recovering from hurricanes and the subsequent flooding that has disrupted so many peoples’ lives.

Today God sends these 20 of us out – albeit with cell phones and chargers, sleeping bags, and water bottles, but just the same, we go trusting that God has called us to give witness to him through the work we will do there.

Our primary TASK will be to respond to the needs of the Tarboro Community in the aftermath of multiple hurricanes, but our primary PURPOSE is to radiate the love of Christ in all we do.

And so, like everyone else headed to Tarboro and the flooded southeast with the Methodist Church this summer we signed this covenant that includes these words: “At times we will want to hurry and get our tasks complete but never at the expense of our purpose. We will make the best of quiet time to rest, get acquainted, and play with the children in the community. We will need to be flexible, adaptable, sensitive, and patient. Compassionate cooperation is the key.”

In other words, we will be people of peace. People of Jesus’ peace.

So sometimes we are sent, like those 70 disciples on the road. But sometimes we’re the houses of welcome, like when we show Christian hospitality to our friends, when we host seedling small groups, super club, or when we welcome traveling musicians and youth groups as we did last month with the group from Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte.

And sometimes, rather than being the ones sent, or the houses that receive travelers we are the ones’ that do the sending: we send seminarians to be formed for ministry, Ginny and Daniel and those before them: we send young adults to serve in Global Mission in South Africa; we send young men and women of faith off to college, we send our youth and their adult leaders to Tarboro, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit to serve, heal, and share the Word.

And God uses our life together to tell about Jesus in lots of ways: our beer and hymns nights, our Lambs Basket and Hope Pantries, when we do a picnic on the grounds with food trucks and invite the community – these are all ways God is using us to tell about Jesus.

The thing is: We actually don’t have an evangelism team, per se.

And this isn’t just because of what humorist Dave Berry says: “that if you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be “meetings.””

I think it’s because our mission is simply to tell about Jesus.
It doesn’t take a meeting to get ready or make a plan to tell about how good God is.

God is always forming us for mission in our life together by gathering us to hear his word, receive his supper, and remember our bath. The Holy Spirit of Jesus – our crucified and living Lord – is alive in this community to inspire us to articulate our faith.

Maybe we write a song about how God is our Rock and our Fortress and gives us peace, maybe we go visit those who are sick and pray with them, maybe we invite a friend to worship.

It takes many forms, but God puts the word in our hearts and upon our lips, and in your daily life, watch how speaking God’s name in a conversation changes things.

Because God when we share God’s word and point to the cross of Christ as the place where all peace comes from, we sometimes might find a door slammed in our face, but we sometimes may be surprised.

One of my standout memories from knocking on doors with Berla is that one afternoon we were on our route and we got to this house that had a “No Soliciting” sign above the door. It was a brick ranch style house and I remember standing out in the heat of that summer day with Berla talking about whether or not we should ring the bell. The sign said: “No soliciting.” Clear as day. Was that what we were doing? Were we soliciting?

Well, it was too hot and we had to make a decision so we went for it. I went up to the door cautiously and rang the bell. I stepped back. We waited. The door opened and it was dark inside and from the darkness emerged a man. He was much larger than me. He was taller and he had physically commanding presence. To be honest with you he looked tough.

I looked at Berla. “Good afternoon,” Berla said.

“Yeah?” He said, like get to the point.

Oh, boy, I thought. But Berla started in “Well, sir, we’re out in the neighborhood saying hello today. We’re from Our Saviour Lutheran Church. How are you?”

He was delighted to talk to us. He was a member of another church and sang in the choir.

Before we left, something in me felt I had to come clean. I told him about how we had seen his “No soliciting” sign and had wondered if we should knock.

He said, “Son, you’re not soliciting. You’re telling people about Jesus!”

So, we shook hands, and he thanked us for coming, and we headed out.

You see God sends us out into the world with the gospel news of his love for us in Christ, but God is already out in the world, like a Father caring for his creation, like a mother who comforts us, he is out there already calling forth the song of joyful praise from all the faithful, and reaching out to those who are still unsure.

In Jesus, God is knocking on the door of the world. Knocking on your door and mine. He has come to the neighborhood to bring his peace, and his love, and joy. Sisters and brothers, rejoice.

Your name is written on the heart of God.

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Faces Set toward the Future

In early 2013, a brand-new sculpture was unveiled on the campus of Regis College in Toronto, Canada. It was a bronze sculpture designed and created by Timothy Schmalz depicting a life-size figure of Jesus Christ as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench, with his face and hands obscured and hidden under a blanket, and with crucifixion wounds on his feet which reveal his identity.

Timothy Schmalz, who is a Canadian and devout Catholic, created the piece as a devotional work, which he titled “Homeless Jesus,” hoping that his sculpture would be installed on the grounds of a church, and so he offered it to two congregations that he was connected to but they both declined the offer to receive the sculpture.

A spokesperson for the first of these two congregations declined, writing to the artist to say that “appreciation for the work among the church’s leadership was not unanimous.” The other congregation complimented the work but declined to receive it.

As is common with sculptures, Timothy Schmalz made casts of the original (exact replicas so that the work can be displayed multiple places), and, finally, one of these casts was installed for the public to view – in was installed at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC.

Reception of “Homeless Jesus” was… mixed.

Some locals in the Davidson community felt that it was an “insulting depiction” of Jesus that “demeaned” the neighborhood.

One Davidson resident mistook the statue for a real homeless person the first time she saw it and called the police.

And another person living in Davidson wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, saying that the statue, “creeps me out.”

After his ministry in his own home region of Galilee, the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up. He set his face towards Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him to the towns and villages, but they did not receive him.

This is a crucial turning point in the story. Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. And immediately we hear people rejected him. They act like they don’t know him, they won’t return his phone calls, and they don’t want to be seen with him.

Previously, when Jesus healed a man living with a possessed spirit that man went away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

When Jesus restored a little girl to life the parents were publicly astounded and grateful.

When Jesus fed five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish they ate their fill and went out to tell their neighbors about this incredible man they had met.

But when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the people confer and send an email back: “Thank you, Jesus, but appreciation for your work among our leadership is not unanimous.”

Timothy Schmalz who created Homeless Jesus admitted when asked that he had in fact intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, saying, “That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.”

And the truth is: the cross is challenging.

You could make the case that the cross is insulting and demeaning, because the cross brings us to a point at which we must admit the sin that causes our suffering and the suffering of others.

The cross confronts us with the truth of our impulses to separate ourselves from our neighbor.

Whether we would go so far as to call the cops on our homeless brother or sister or just quietly hope they don’t get too close.

Whether we celebrate the privilege and power we have over people less fortunate than us or simply do too little to overturn the systemic powers of white privilege and economic advantage we take for granted.

Or whether, like James and John, we would desire punishment and retribution for those not as enlightened as us and want to call down shame and exclusion and fire from heaven on the heads of those people not like us.

But Jesus rebukes all that.

Instead he’s on the move, taking his rag-tag crew on down the road, asking people to join him in the way of putting God and the people God loves so radically first that he hasn’t even thought to call the Motel 6 down the road and make a reservation.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” he says. And after the long day of travel, healing, and teaching, he is maybe looking for just a park bench and a blanket to sleep on.

Jesus shows us what it looks like to put God and our neighbor first as he sets face is set toward Jerusalem and the cross, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus could’ve also said that you can’t put your hand to the plow and look back and be a good farmer.

Because it’s true that, quite literally, a farmer who is plowing with a team of animals has to look forward in the direction of the plow. If the farmer starts looking around to try and play the what-does-that-cloud-look-like-game, or if the farmer starts looking back to admire the work he’s already done, that plow is going to get off course and the field is going to be a mess.

Jesus invites us to look forward to God’s mission of dying to ourselves so that God can live in us and through us for the sake of a world in need and to keep this mission central — so it matters where we have set our face.

On my very first “Lost and Found” youth trip with kids from Epiphany, in the fall of 2014, I didn’t know about the tradition of taking a group picture on the hill at Eagle Eyrie retreat center.

We had pictures of the group and pictures that included everyone in the group but not that picture. On the hill. Faces forward.

After that retreat, when that picture didn’t emerge, Pastor Phillip mentioned that on the next trip we needed to make sure to take that picture. He stressed that a few times, so on the next trip we did take that picture, but as a joke, Mark Schuetze and I asked everyone turn around and we took a picture of the back of everyone’s head and then we sent that to Pastor Phillip.

I don’t know why Mark and I thought that was so funny, but we did. Of course, we also took a picture of our young men and women with their shining faces looking right into the camera.

But it matters which way our face is turned. It matters who we are looking to, and what and who we spend our attention on, and which way we’re pointed.

Jesus sets his face toward the cross for us and for the whole world to set us free from the power of sin, death, and brokenness.

He could have shown us the back of his head, and had a good laugh, and gotten out of town, and found a descent motel to spend the night in, and saved himself the pain and humiliation of the cross but God loves us too much.

Even after he was rejected in Samaria, he went on ahead to more towns and cities to invite, cajole, and reach out to as many people as he could, even if it meant having the door shut in his face. Even if no one welcomed him. Even if he was an offense.

Sharing our faith can be like that. We can have the door shut in our face for saying, “I believe.” But telling about the faith we have in us can also change peoples lives, it can encourage their trust in God, and it can remind them that they have a place as a part of a community that believes.

Timothy Schmalz, who created his Homeless Jesus sculpture was judged and his work was dismissed for a time, but once the word got out, there were many people who were moved by his witness.

In six short years, from 2013 until now, over a hundred casts of his original statue have been reproduced and occupy cities all over the world:

Liverpool, in Ontario, in Scotland, the Dominican Republic, Buffalo, NY, Charleston, WV, and Detroit, MI.

In Oklahoma City, “Homeless Jesus” is installed at a busy intersection where an estimated 60,000 vehicles pass the sculpture daily.

In Denver, Colorado, at the Haven of Hope mission which provides food, shelter, clothing, counseling, rehabilitation and hygienic services to the homeless and less fortunate, all those who enter the building see the sculpture and are reminded they are not alone.

A cast of “Homeless Jesus” has been installed in Washington, D.C., and during his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis stopped there, touched the knee of the statue and spent time in prayer.

In “Homeless Jesus,” many people are able to see the lengths to which God would go to show us his love.

The message is that Christ became one of us, for all of us.

We sometimes tend to see ourselves first as American, Democrat or Republican, White, Asian, African descent, Hispanic, Southerner or Northerner or Mid-Westerner, male or female, we live in this or that section of Richmond, we are a member of this club or that group.

In the cross of Jesus, we are given a new identity.

We first and above all belong to Christ.

To some people this message might be challenging. To the world it might be insulting or even demeaning, but together we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Together we have received freedom as a gift. Now, we can see ourselves primarily as one body in Christ.

We don’t call down fire from heaven on people who are different than us like James and John wanted to, but instead we are a part of a Pentecost people, part of a family who on that first Pentecost had tongues of fire on their heads as the Spirit formed them into a new people.

Today as the Lord gathers around his table, watch the people who walk up and down these aisles to receive the body and blood of Christ. Look into their faces and see a beloved Child of God for whom Christ died and for whom Christ was raised again.

In all our faces, together, the world sees the image of Christ.

In Christ God has made a home for us forever.

Together we live by his Spirit… and so let us be guided by his Spirit.

Amen