Message preached on
June 18, 2017
(this message did not get recorded)
“Jesus held a briefing session and sent out the twelve.” That’s how one translation of Matthew’s gospel put it. He held a “briefing session.” I like that. Of course, not everything is said in a “briefing session,” is it? Just the essentials. Sum it up. Get to the bottom line. Make it clear and concise. Cut to the chase. In so doing, be brief.
Ever notice how “briefings” today are rarely “brief?” If they are short in length, they tend to say very little of substance, or speak in a language only those with special training can understand. Sometimes, unfortunately, a doctor “briefing” the family of a sick person may uses term which fly over the head of those who need to know what is happening. A lawyer’s briefcase is stuffed full of legal briefs - papers which, if read by a layman, would make absolutely no sense, and run on for page after numbing page. A sermon, which - it could be said - is a “briefing session” of sorts, runs on and on and on and sometimes is so convoluted and full of theological language that when God’s people respond to it with “What shall we do now?” (see Acts 2:37-39) they have arrived at that point because they have been confused, not convicted. I said it so you didn’t need to.
One of my frustrations with our denomination’s Annual Conference is that the “statements” which come out of it, voted upon by all the delegates, are often quite the opposite of “brief.” In response to a question about some matter of faith or practice, we so often try to say too much… Now, I know life is complicated. I don’t wish us to provide simplistic answers to issues that require much more. Still, isn’t the Annual Conference of our church somewhat of a “briefing session” for God’s people, when we seek to hear the instructions of Jesus and then be sent forth by him?.. Isn’t that also what this “brief” time we share together every Sunday is all about? Whenever we gather in Jesus’ name we listen, that we might be “briefed” by our Lord and sent forth into the world.
Did that sound a bit different? It should, for it comes from the “Cotton Patch Version” of Matthew’s gospel, in which a fellow named Clarence Jordan took the words of Jesus and transplanted them into the land and time in which he lived. A Southerner by birth, a Baptist by persuasion, this simple man fought for the civil rights of all God’s children during a very turbulent era in our nation’s history. The cooperative farm he started in Americus, Georgia, joining together blacks and whites, seems a tame experiment now, but back in the 1950's and 60's it encountered great opposition. Koinonia Farm still exists, by the way, just down the road from President Jimmy Carter’s home. One of Clarence Jordan’s disciples, a fellow named Millard Fuller, later began another similar cooperative effort - Habitat for Humanity.
Addressing the needs of his own neck of the woods, and his own day, Clarence translated what Jesus had to say to his disciples the first time he sent them out on their own to continue his work. Listen to the “Cotton Patch Version”* of it:
Let me tell you, 40 years ago, translating the instructions of Jesus in that way was a dangerous thing to do. Those who preferred a segregated and unequal society weren’t too pleased to hear themselves called the “deluded racists of the nation,” to whom Jesus might call forth his disciples to go and speak the truth. Of course, we know that Jesus actually was talking about his fellow Jews, whom he called “the lost sheep of Israel.” It was to these people that our Lord originally directed his disciples. That was their calling at that time. However, Jesus sends forth his disciples in every day & age. Now, we aren’t planted in the soil of the American south in the mid 20th century, as Clarence Jordan was. Nor do we live in Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago. To whom might Jesus be sending us today to share the message that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” or, as Clarence put it, that ‘THE GOD MOVEMENT IS HERE’ ?
I recall a time when one of our dear sisters was led by God to “preach.” Oh, I doubt that’s what she would have called it, but that’s what it was. You see, there was a need for something to be said that would get certain individuals to stop relating to each other in the harmful ways they had in the past, and to start walking a new path together. The “past” is a tricky thing, you know. We say and do things that get remembered, and then we can’t seem to let them go. These words and actions become a barrier that separates us, and the wall grows higher and higher as the years go by. That was true of these persons to whom God was calling our sister to go.
Mind you, she didn’t literally “go” to them. In fact, her “journey” didn’t leave her own home. But make no mistake about it, she did “go” to them. She laid aside her own luggage and traveled light - right there in her own home. In so doing, she was able to pay less attention to what she was carrying with her and more attention to the One who was walking with her every step of the way. That’s the case when it comes to sharing what God calls each of us to share. Our arms easily get tired with the load we carry and we begin listen to our own voice crying out how heavy it all is. Our own tired voice has a tendency to drown out the voice of our traveling companion, you know.
Anyway, our sister was able to let go of some pretty heavy luggage and travel light. In the process, events sort of just happened to bring these persons to her at the right time. Each of those persons was at an inter-section where they could choose to turn away from or toward each other. The red light above them was of their own making. Who would take the first, fearful step into something new? It is hard, as I said, to set aside the past.
A bold action was required. Some tough words needed to be spoken. But which words exactly should they be? Our sister wondered what she would say. Until the moment of saying them, she hadn’t a clue. But when the moment arrived, her traveling companion provided the words. And those words were exactly what was called for. What did she say? Well, if I told you, that would be giving it away. And besides, the words she used then are not for every situation. If you, for instance, would try to take and use them elsewhere, they might not fit. Let’s just put it this way, she told them - “the kingdom of heaven has come near” or, ‘THE GOD MOVEMENT IS HERE.” God is on the move, don’t miss it. Put the past behind you. Step out. Turn.
And you know what? They did! They turned. Not immediately, of course. Mind you, they didn’t like the words at first. That’s often the case, folks. What God whispers in our ear for us to say is not always appreciated. Sometimes our message - what God nudges us to say - just needs to be spoken and left at that. When we do so, we need to stop worrying about what will happen next. If good things occur right away, wonderful! Run with it. If not, let it go. Dust the sand off your feet and move on. You are not responsible for how others respond to God. You are only responsible for your own footsteps as you listen to your traveling companion.
We witnessed a God-moment this week. It followed a nasty event, in which a deranged man with a gun opened fire on a baseball practice in Alexandria, VA. In and of itself, it may not have made national news had it not been for the fact that this was a practice for an annual game between Republican and Democratic congressmen and women. Representative Steve Scalise was left critically injured.
Two days later the game took place at Nationals Park, in front of almost 25,000 fans, which is more than the attendance at five of the twelve regular major league games played on Thursday. Now who won and who lost is not as important as the fact that these people played together. It sounds strange to say, but a current trend in DC is that Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate hardly know each other. They rarely socialize.
And we wonder why there is such a divide in our country at present. Is this failure to interact on a social level in Congress a reflection of what is happening in our country, where conservatives only connect with conservatives, and liberals only get together with liberals? If so, that’s a sad state of affairs.
However, I mentioned that there was a God moment in all this. After the shooting, the Speaker of the House, a Republican, said that what happens to one happens to all. The Democratic leader followed it up by noting that together they are a family. Many sat side by side in the stands, regardless of party. At the end of the game, the Democratic coach, whose team won, handed to trophy to the Republican coach, to be placed in the office of their wounded representative, until he recovers.
Now, the God moment is not this photo-up gesture. The God moment is what might come of it. Will persons from both parties start crossing the aisle, interacting with the opposition? – which (by the way) is what our constitution is built upon. Will there be more people doing the same thing on the local level, going to those with whom they deeply disagree and talking things through? I believe it could begin, in fact it must begin in the church.
Amazing things happen when we travel light and listen, my friends, as evidenced by the true story I mentioned earlier of our dear sister. I hope I haven’t been so brief in my telling of her tale that you didn’t hear the good news behind it, the “healing” that took place, the “demons” that were cast out along the way. Believe me, it happened. I witnessed it with my own eyes and ears.
There are demons to be cast out along the way of whatever comes of the present God moment. A viciousness exists that needs healing. As even the conservative Southern Baptists this week confessed, there is still racism - in our country and in the church - that needs to be expelled. Along the way, our proclamation is clear: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” THE GOD MOVEMENT IS HERE.
As disciples of Jesus in this soil, we are called by him to go and show and tell that God’s realm is so close it’s just bubbling up all around us. What words should we use? I think we worry too much about the words, needlessly. What matters is that, when we go, we travel light enough that we can spend less attention on the pain in our neck from carrying all our baggage and more attention to the voice of the One who is with us always, to the end of the age. Listening is the power behind speaking the truth. Before we speak, we listen. “What you are to say will be given to you at the time, for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” That’s according to Jesus himself (Matthew 10:19-20, Mark 13:11, Luke 12:11-12). Of course, he was referring to moments when his followers would be persecuted for what they said and did, after he sent them out. People don’t always appreciate the truth, do they? Regardless, the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:16-17, 15:26-27, 16:13) will provide the words. Just keep listening.
That’s all I need to say, probably in more words than necessary. Even so, brothers and sisters, be briefed. No, go and show and tell.
the Cotton Patch Gospel, by Clarence
©2016, (revised from 2002)