May 2, 2021. Sermon Title: Called to Serve in Our Context (Here and Now)

First Mennonite Church

May 2, 2021

Called to Serve in Our Context (Here and Now)

Texts: Jeremiah 29:4-14; 1Peter 2:1-12

The logic implied in my sermon title for this morning seems obvious. We can only be in one place at a time and we only have one life to live, thus our every interaction or inaction takes place where we are, here and now. But when I talk about serving in our context, there is more than the spatial or geographical location involved. There is the social, economic, political, technological, cultural, etc. environments that are part of where we live and where we should serve. For instance, what is the social make-up of Paso Robles? If God is calling us to serve in a city where approximately two out of every five people we meet on the street speak another language than ours, how prepared are we to fulfill our calling as a church? If our friends and neighbors are using technology for everything, buying, selling, discussing issues, personal communication, and so, how prepared is the church to engage with them?

I always remember that rainy day out by the banks of the Rio Hondo, the river that divides norther Belize and Mexico. My brother and I went fishing that day and after arriving at the river bank the rain started to pour down and wind was blowing fiercely. So, we decided to go back home, but we did not want to trace our way back from where we came. So we took into the jungle in a direction, which we thought should lead us to the main trail. But after walking for 45 minutes, we were surprised to find ourselves coming back to the river bank again. Somewhere we made a U-turn without realizing it. But the worse part of that was that we had no idea which direction was north or south. That was because we were used to come to river from east, but then it seemed as if we had come to it from the west.  The feeling of being lost was awful. Doubting ourselves if with every step forward we were going farther in the wrong direction was just scary.

The feeling of being lost is a terrible feeling.

Generally speaking, I wonder if the Christian church knows where it is in the world. And that is the scariest position we can be in. How can we serve, how can we show others to the Way if we do not know where we are? How can we give the good news of Christ, if we are not sure how this good news will make a difference? Therefore, in order to be able to carry out our divine calling we must find our bearings first.

Where are we today? What is the landscape in which the church is located today? Let us do a brief historical review, from a theological perspective.

A great part of the Christian church’s identity has been derived from the general notion that somehow America in the Promised Land. This idea of living in the Promised Land is not only held by Christians, but even by people outside the church.  Since its foundation, Americans believe that this is the land of milk and honey, a land of great potential, of hope, of fulfillment and satisfaction. Americans, inside and outside the church have the notion that they are a people who have the greatest potential to enjoy life, security and happiness. They believe that they live in a place where there is freedom and where they can pursue and have what they desire. Consequently, the church being part of that people often saw that their faith had helped them achieve such goals and dreams, with even greater success. Church people succeed because they are careful in how they use their money, take care of their families, and live their lives. Therefore, in many ways, Christians have been, for a good time, examples of what it is to live in the Promised Land. They have enjoyed the benefits of living in the Promised Land. And just as it happened with Israel, it has happened here too. The Promised Land instead of becoming a resource of blessings to bless others, it was plundered. The enslavement of Africans, the relocation of Native Americans, and more recently, the exploitation of cheap immigrant labor, among many other abuses, were all tools used to plunder the land. Today, social media giants plunder the information of their willing users for marketing purposes.  

What many Christians have not realized or are not willing to accept is the fact that the world, as they knew it some decades ago, is not the same anymore. The signs are all over the place. Christians are a minority group, nowadays. Today, secular influences have overpowered the religious and the non-religious population has outnumbered religious living in America today. The liberties and privileges Christian enjoyed have been pushed to extremes by those who now make the majority. This place does not feel like home anymore, especially to older Christian people. Christians now feel like aliens and foreigners in their own towns and cities. They are no longer the hosts, but the guests. And that is very difficult for many to accept. But because many Christians still think they are guests in this land, they still want to set the rules. They insist the world should adhere to their principles and customs. And that is precisely why the world—the larger society, resists heeding what Christians are saying. It is very much like what would happen if a tourist tries to impose his cultural practices in the place he or she is visiting. The locals will resist and even resent the idea of a foreigner telling them how to go about with their lives.

Precisely for that why the words of Jeremiah and Peter are more relevant than ever to the reality of the church today.

When Jesus called his disciples to be the light and salt of the world, Jesus knew how dark and corrupt his world was. Jesus knew how dark and tyrannical the occupying Roman presence was in Palestine. He knew how indifferent they religious establishment was, especially to those in the margins of society. Thus, he also knew how vastly different his followers would be to those who did not know him. Jesus knew that his followers will bring a fresh air of hope amidst the corruption creeping everywhere. Jesus was certain that those who loved him would also give of themselves to others out of their integrity and love for him.

The world into which Jesus sent his followers was not rosy, friendly, or welcoming. He made it very clear to his disciples when he said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). Jesus’ followers, you and I, should be aware that the world we are being sent into is not one of fluffy teddy bears, but one of ravenous and savage man-eaters. 

Therefore, it is ironic when Christians whine about the condition of the world. When we say, “Oh the movies!” “Oh, the politicians of today” “Oh, the media these days!” we should remember that the world is the world. Whining about the world for what it is, is not funny but worse than that, ludicrous. To blame the world for not having light or salt, is to expect the impossible, according to Jesus. To expect the movies to give us moral guidance is worse than being naïve. Could we be so spiritually immature to expect politicians to show us how to love the neighbor, how to live with integrity, and how to be selfless in service? Are we kidding ourselves when we expect the media to divulge unbiased truth?

According to Jesus, we are to be both wise as serpents and innocent as doves. That is, despite the muck that reaches to our neck, just as it does to everyone around us, there is something about Jesus’ followers that the muck does not stick to us. And we do not go about mucking everywhere we go. Despite the corruption that stinks like death and is creeping in everywhere, the follower of Jesus exudes a particular freshness in speech, actions, and intentions that is beyond themselves. Despite the venom that is spewed from the highest chambers to the darkest alley, Jesus’ followers have a curious ability to keep their heart pure and filled with love. There is in them a sense of tranquility and a mysterious kind of innocence.

God has called us to serve him and world, here and now. We are not called in a void, but in a specific context. And that context is foreign to us, in the sense that we are strangers and aliens in the words of Jeremiah and Peter. Let us hear again what they say:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:4-7

Peter says:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. 12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

When it dawns on us that we are no longer the majority, but a minority in the midst of a secular society, when we realize that we are in exile and not at home anymore, we would begin to approach the world with humility. We would no longer approach the world with preponderance but with humility. We will desire to share our values by example and not by imposing laws. We would open our hearts to learn and not pretend we know all the answers. Even Jesus did that. How many times did he not ask the question, “What is it you want me to do?” In his book, Jesus Is the Question, Martin B. Copenhaven[1] tells us Jesus asked 307 question and only answered three questions directly.

I have visited many countries. And there have been occasions when I even had to ask how to eat a meal set before me. When you are an alien, first you want to respect the culture and that takes patience and grace. When we came to Paso Robles, almost 16 years ago, although we had lived in the US for some time before, we had many question on how to go about doing certain things.

When we realize that we are foreigners and aliens, as Peter says we are, we will understand that God is giving us an opportunity to share the newness of his message to world that does not know God. Our faith will meet new shores where we could live it out authentically. God is giving us an opportunity to be like missionaries in a foreign land. We will want to make connections. We will be willing to learn why people live the way they do. We will so eagerly want offer the world something that is also foreign to it: love, understanding, mercy, a word of wisdom, even if taken to be foolishness, but above all, we will offer ourselves.

This week, if you happen to have an encounter with someone who is not a believer, try to be open to know that person beyond his or her name. Let them smell the fragrance of Jesus in you. Let your light shine. Be the salt that brings flavor and preserves life.

Let us hear once again the words of Peter:  Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God. Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] Martin B. Copenhaven. Jesus Is the Question. Abington Press, Nashville, 2014