The Cross is the Direction of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2013
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2013
Jeremiah 23:23-29 Psalm 82 Hebrews 11: 29-12:2 Luke 12:49-56
The Cross is the Direction of Christ’s Holy Resurrection
One time in a church conference, I was telling people about all the suffering we were going through. It was down in Coney Island and we were having it really rough. There were over 500 hundred fires a summer, owners burning the roofs out from over their four story tenements in order to collect the insurance money just ahead of the inner city blight that would make them lose it all. Our church was broken into 46 times (counting the number of times they hit our buses). Twice somebody broke all the glass reflectors and many windows of our church bus. In one burglary, someone broke a hole through the wall of the church office, crawled over the desk, changed the whole office into a foot of rubble, even stole the seal of the church that dated all the way back to 1900, and more. (You know, with the seal coming out of a lion’s mouth) Someone stole my festival make, silver bell trumpet from the sanctuary, while I was bus-driving the Spanish congregation to the church. Running frantically to the board-walk, it made no sense, because two million people were in Coney Island that Sunday and where could one begin to look for the thief?!
In that conference one of the missionaries asked me, “What happened to rejoicing in your suffering?” My spirit was so low, that it was scraping the ground, so first his remark did not affect me the way it should have, because I’m a complainer by nature anyway. But then I thought about Paul and Silas locked into stocks while sitting in jail after having been beaten, and beginning to sing hymns and praise the Lord. I thought of other disciples who thanked God that they had the grace to suffer the way their Lord Jesus did. And I tried it and what I discovered is that rejoicing in your suffering is very best way of coping with the suffering and for getting through it!
It was our first day of Vacation Church School and Day Camp and I was driving our 60 passenger church bus loaded with children and staff to the church. When we got there someone had broken in, broke every lock on every door, used a crowbar to break open the organ, and we found all kinds of loot outside that he hurriedly left there in order himself to get away when we came. But I had allowed a huge bus to park in our parking lot, while the singing group that was touring with it went down to enjoy the rides in Coney Island. When they came back and noticed what happened, they had our whole school sit down in the sanctuary, they set up their amplifiers, audio equipment, like you might see in Carnegie Hall, and played and sang a concert for us that lifted us up, so that we realized, we had never had
a first day of VCS like it in all our 14 years! One crook had sought to bring us down, but God sent six members, six angels of that singing group, and I don’t even know who they were, to lift our spirits and set us all rejoicing. When they left it was no trouble sweeping up all the glass and door handles and assessing all the damage and repair we needed, because God overcame all our suffering, by letting this band start our hearts rejoicing!
Our little St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, your namesake, tried to start another fire in Coney Island, the fire of God’s reign, the fire of the Holy Spirit, turning hearts bent on evil to those filled with love and hope, and as you see, the fire that Jesus came to bring to the earth, had not found much kindling wood in Coney Island. But we had fourteen Vacation Church School and Day Camp programs and when the children returned from their outing singing in the bus, the whole neighborhood could hear the children singing their wonderful songs: “His Banner over Me Is Love,” “I’ve Got Peace like a River”…Do you want to learn one?
[We sang “His Banner over Me is Love” with all the signing.]
Yes, and there was the wonderful song: “Shout it from the Mountain-Tops, I want the world to know, the Lord of Love has come to me, I want to pass it on!” I guess I think of Vacation Church School, because this is the time we always ate, drank, and slept VCS because it was so much work, from 6:00am when we had to get the buses to late at night when we finally got all the kids, our precious cargo, back home to their Marlborough and Coney Island projects. We would say, “If the program was going right, you could feel yourself grow!”
Sometimes when my wife Nora and I told stories to people about what we went through, we would laugh so hard the tears would stream down our faces. I realized that I needed a rest and relaxation vacation before the program, because if I did not take one, invariably my back would go out after the program and I would have a week of sheering pain.
You would be surprised by how much help and strength the Holy Spirit would give when we were doing that mission as the church. A White faction in our congregation left the church. The treasurer slammed her keys down on the table and resigned as of immediately. The pastor was supposed to evangelize in the White side of the church, in Brighton and not in the projects. But a faithful third of our membership was Caucasian, a third Black, now we say, Lutherans of African Descent, and a third Hispanic. Our second service was all in Spanish and because they were Puerto Rican, our Colombians and Guatemalans would not attend, even though they could not speak English!
The White people stayed with us. In Oakland I served St. John’s in East Oakland and Bethlehem in West Oakland, and here in progressive Oakland the churches are all Black except for one or two White members. What’s wrong with this picture?
When in the seminary, being very ashamed of being German and the antisemitism and our history with the Holocaust, I determined I would minister against prejudice, bigotry and racism. I started with Les Schulz in Cincinnati, in an area called Over the Rhine where there were race riots in the late sixties. I came home after harrowing experiences, because I had to deal with my own prejudice. I had grown a beard and when I got home, my father, also a minister, was furious that I was working among the Blacks, said I was a pastor and not a deacon and I experienced a rather sound rejection and that from my whole family.
When you try to bring reconciliation, somehow you get rejected. Like a commentary said, “if you want some conflict, work for peace.” Now we are like this, society is like this: compare the case of a little child. It will have a cut and you will want to treat it and the child will fight with you so you can’t get at it and if you don’t treat it, it will only get worse. So often we have to hold the arms and legs of a little child, so the doctor can have it hold still enough to touch and treat the deep cut. Sure it will hurt, but if you don’t allow the hurt that will bring healing, then it will only get worse.
My little son Mark was hit by a bicycle passing on the sidewalk as he got out of our car. He needed to have it treated. Did we have to hold him down! And instead of stitches, they stapled the long and deep cut. “Pop, they used a staple on my head!” He was outraged. Of course, it is now funny and we laugh. And we are like that to, things go wrong in our society and even in ourselves and we don’t want to go through the pain that is involved with healing. No pain no gain. Like doing the little exercise that we can manage so that we become more healthy. The pain and the division is just what we go through to avoid the greater suffering that takes place if we do not take care of the problem.
So you see the sword that Jesus brings is for the sake of healing, for reconciliation, for peace. But it is often like going through fire to do that ministry. It is like receiving the baptism of suffering. And that means that we can
“Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”
because we can also place our cross squarely on our shoulder blades and carry it following after Jesus. And Jesus becomes a Simon Cyrene for us, carrying the cross for us, saying, “It’s not heavy, he’s/ she’s my follower!”
A funny thing I read in the online commentary: “How can so many pastors be burnt out, if they’ve never been on fire?” We don’t live out of our own strength, but out of the strength of God’s grace, God’s inexhaustible strength, and pray for the Holy Spirit to use us for God’s purposes. And we pray that God will use us as torch-bearers for the wonderful new order that Jesus pronounced to be near at hand and that it come not in spite of and against us, but with us and for us. So if your life is going in the wrong direction, go through the fiery ordeal of getting it right. The division you cause will bring unity, the conflict you cause will bring peace, the pain you cause and also go through will go a long way in overcoming untold future suffering for many. When we visited the Holy Land with a group of our church, an Israeli soldier was our bus-driver. He said, “The only good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian!” I remember back in elementary school how our teacher said pioneers used to say that about the Native Americans. Let’s pray for John Kerry trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians together!
Now about predicting the weather versus telling the signs of our times, sometimes they have all these polls that are hard to take much stock in. Is our government going in the right direction? And so and so many, such a percentage will say: “It is not” and others will say, “It is.” Is your life going in the right direction? Is our society, is this congregation, our church? Jesus says that we have little trouble predicting the weather, but we don’t seem to be able to interpret the signs of our times. It is easy to see that in Russia they chose prosperity over democracy and now they are regretting it, because things are going badly with Putin. Over here are we choosing security over democracy and will we have hell to pay later? In our church are we choosing comfort over the real challenge that it means to follow Christ? Will we pray to Christ to give us the strength to go through the suffering to direct our lives on the right course?
Like in our family we were very anti-Semitic and I was determined to not be that way. Well, there is one conversion to Jesus, but there is another to overcoming our bigotry, another to become a listener, when we’ve always been a talker, and another to activate ourselves to do the real mission of Christ in this time and in this place. Our society is in a very dangerous place and we have to make our witness or the night could come where we can no longer work. 10 million people have experienced foreclosures since the Great Recession, how many millions are unemployed with little prospect of employment? We have what over two million incarcerated and what is going to happen to us? Our church has to make a witness!
In the assembly of our church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the body just elected a new presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and that is exciting, but we can’t depend on presiding bishops, bishops, pastors, deans, or even ourselves as committed Christians. We have to rely on God’s grace, depend upon it completely, and see the wonders that God will accomplish through us and then sing, “I long for you my friend, the happiness that I’ve found!” And you’ll be saying this while wiping away the tears from your eyes. “I’ll shout it from the mountain-tops! Hey, world, I want the world to know that the Lord of Love has come to me and I want to pass it on!” Amen.
 40 adults or 60 children could fit into that bus, a 1966 GMC. We drove it so long until it was going sideways.