Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Messengers

August 10, 2014
Ordinary 19A
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church


How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn.  It’s from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul.  Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version serves as a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately.  Even so, the original German text here has nothing about “feet” in it, which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literalist about such things.
The verse that Mendelssohn appropriates here, and which appears in today’s reading, is dropped into the oratorio after the dramatic moment in which Barnabas and Paul are set apart – by the Holy Ghost, no less – for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  It is of course a key moment in Paul’s career, as the book of Acts describes it, and even if this verse is pulled in from Romans, it does serve well its dramatic purpose. 
Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7.  In that context the statement is elaborated a bit:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation. 
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace.
Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time.  Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.”  From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent?  It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion.  It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.
Of course it isn’t all peaches and cream.  Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent.  He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1] 
It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state).  The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]

Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.”  Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as citizens from many other parts of the Roman Empire.  Still, he grieved over the rejection by Israel of the Messiah, one of their own.
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace
As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here.  Many of those churches who use this passage expect that, once this new pastor is ordained and installed, he or she will then take care of all the proclamation duties, allowing them to sit back and, well, be off the hook from that scary and maybe embarrassing business of (shudder) talking about religion.  It’s scary because people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us.  We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore.  It’s embarrassing because we live in a world, and in an American society in particular, which has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”  Just this week the rather infamous neo-Calvinist preacher Mark Driscoll was asked to step aside from the leadership of Acts 29 Ministries, an organization that he founded, because his association was bringing disrepute upon the organization due to his own errors in behavior and preaching.  To be honest, it’s perfectly fair to be reluctant to be seen in such a light.
And yet the messengers are still needed.  And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.
We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines this week as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa.  Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with no known cure.[1]  Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly has become an object of derision for certain American commentators, who apparently believe it’s his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and not put himself in danger.  But even a physician can bring a message of peace.
We might look at the people of Grace Presbyterian Church, in El Paso, Texas.  As thousands of refugees fleeing violence and murder in Central America – some children with parents, many children alone – the members of Grace Presbyterian were challenged by their pastor to step up and help provide for the needs of those detainees being redirected from south Texas to other locations due to the overwhelming numbers and lack of facilities.  The Grace Church members, working with a local shelter and a Catholic charitable group, began to take on the task of feeding, gathering donations, assisting at shelters, and perhaps most remarkably, listening to the stories of horror and deprivation the refugees had experienced.  After not only their travails in fleeing from the violence in their home countries but the spartan and difficult conditions of makeshift processing centers set up by US Customs and Immigration, the refugees were at first confused by the hospitality shown them by the El Paso churches and groups.  “Here you were good to us,” some of the refugees said, remembering the concrete floors in the detention centers in south Texas.  “Why did you care so much about making us feel safe?”   
It might be easy to imagine that Grace Presbyterian is some kind of large, well-staffed, and financially secure church to be able to take on a task such as this.  On the contrary, three years ago there was no Grace Presbyterian Church; it was instead three separate churches, each on the brink of collapse, who merged with each other despite their differences for the sake of survival.[2]  Even a shaky, querulous church can be full of messengers, bringing the gospel of peace to a group of refugees who had known nothing but violence and fear.
We can look to some of our own.  Many of you might have heard Ruth Brown describe her experiences working in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.  Our congregation also supports educators, like Jeff and Christi Boyd in the DRC, Grace Yeuell working with US military bases in Germany, or Richard Hamm at a university and seminary in Korea.  We might see those names on the back of the bulletin every Sunday.  Messengers, bringing a gospel of peace.
We might look at each other.  Whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of CARITAS, or helping maintain a community garden on the grounds of the church.  For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking.  Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”; “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10”; and then those feet, those beautiful feet in verse 15.  Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe.  Our witness is embodied.  We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do.  The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the cold or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus name.  Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it. 
The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ.  Our witness in staying together, being not merely in our neighborhood but being part of it, our welcome to those that others, even other churches, declare unwelcome – this is a gospel of peace.  To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us – not just the preachers, is not optional; it is inevitable. 
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace,
The gospel of peace.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" (311)
"Take My Life and Let It Be" (697)
"How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord" (432)

[1]Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” (Accessed August 8, 2014)
[2] “Grace for Refugees from Central America,” (Accessed August 8, 2014).

NOTE: In case you're not familiar with it, the Mendelssohn chorus can be heard here.

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