Today’s theme seems to be listening to and obeying God, but what a bunch of confusing readings we’re given. Everyone is having trouble; it seems doing God’s work is risky business. Poor Amos; he’s not a prophet, he’s just an ordinary shepherd and farmer eking out a living when God tells him go to King Jeroboam and tell the king he’s doing wrong. What Amos says goes against what the king’s priest is saying and he decides to make Amos pay for his comments. Amos gets accused of conspiring against the king and no good can come of that. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.
The Gospel retells the story of John the Baptist and King Herod. John came to Herod to say “hey, it’s wrong in the eyes of God for you to marry your brother’s wife.” Most kings don’t like to be told what they can and cannot do, so Herod has John thrown into the dungeon. Herodias, formally Herod’s brother’s wife, now Herod’s new wife, liked what John was saying even less then Herod did and she wanted John dead. Eventually Herodias gets her way by taking advantage of a situation and John is beheaded; all for speaking God’s word.
Then as if by some cruel joke, we’re given our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; where Paul basically tells us that Christ has made known to us the mystery of God’s will. I must have missed that memo, because God’s will remains a mystery to me.
Two things I do know is that God’s will is not always easy and can be risky. I know that God never promised we’d have an easy life by following Him. In fact we’re clearly told by Christ to take up our cross and follow Him. Not really a way to gain followers. Don’t you think we’d get a whole lot more followers if we knew life would be easier? No, we’re given a poor carpenter’s son, raised in poverty as our leader, who eventually gets crucified, telling us to take up our cross and follow Him. Crazy? Maybe not.
I think I want to change today’s theme to the counter-intuitive nature of salvation!
We are called by Christ to die with Him each day; to take up our cross and follow Him. If all we knew about Christianity was from today’s readings, we might not ever let anyone know we are children of God for fear of losing our life or being severely ostracized. Fortunately, we know the rest of the story. We know of God’s love and how He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, to die on a cross for our sins and raised Him from the dead for our salvation. We know that God can do marvelous, miraculous, things. He can take sadness and turn it into joy; He makes the weak strong, and gives sight to the blind. Only God can do His glorious work through people as flawed and sinful as us. And we’re no different than the people we read about in the bible. We come from a long line of sinners. Now that is not an invitation to continue sinning, but rather permission to follow Christ no matter what you have been through. No matter how unworthy you may feel; no matter how unholy you are; no matter how unloved you think you are; God loves you and cares for you.
I’ve been to a lot of places in my life; mostly for work. I’ve traveled to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and Mexico as well as many places around the US. One year I traveled so often, I filled up my passport with stamps and had to have new pages sown into it. I can speak a little bit of several languages; I can ask for a beer in 4 different languages and more importantly I can ask for the rest room in 4 languages (5 if you count American Sign Language). I’ve eaten things I don’t care to remember, some cooked, some even dead. I’ve tried to learn something about all the different cultures I’ve seen. But no matter how different we are, I’m constantly amazed by our similarities. No matter where I go; people smile when they’re happy, yell when they’re angry, and cry when they’re hurt.
This struck me one particular weekend. I was in China for work, wanting to be home, not having a very good trip. The project was not going well, we were late, and the company I was visiting was not cooperating; they were the reason we were late and the reason I was in China. Things were so bad that my trip got extended from one week to two weeks. I had to stay through the weekend, missing my middle son’s acting debut, with nothing to do, but feel sorry for myself. And I am really good at feeling sorry for myself. I certainly practiced a lot that weekend. Anyway, I was sitting outside the hotel, reading; nowhere to go and nothing else to do. After a time a little boy sat near me with his mother. I smiled politely and said “ne how” in my best Mandarin. She smiled back and said nothing. I tried to say “good day,” but wasn’t really sure I got it right.
Before long the young boy starts to get restless. He was bored and wanted to play. Mom wanted him to sit still. I think she was concerned he would annoy me, but he just couldn’t sit any longer. The next thing I know, he’s working his way closer to me. His mother pulls him back. I try to tell her that I don’t mind, but she doesn’t understand, so I just continue reading. The boy comes closer to me again and mom pulls him back again; I just smile. Soon the young boy runs next to me points to a flower and yells…in English, “what’s that?” and quickly runs back to his mother. I point to the flower and say “flower.” He smiles. He returns and points to by book and asks, “what’s that?” “Book” I answer.
We continue like this for some time:
“What’s that?”, “bench”, “what’s that?”, “grass”, “what’s that?”, “hair” He had pointed to his head not mine. All the time I’m smiling, he’s laughing, and I notice his mother is laughing too. Laughter is the same all around the world especially the laughter of children. All of a sudden I notice that I don’t feel so lonely.
This boy had taken a big risk going against his mother’s wishes (never a good idea kids; don’t try this at home). He didn’t know anything about me, but he was curious. I may have been the first American he’d ever seen. He had no idea how I’d react. His mother was taking a risk as well. She was running a big risk that she would offend me; a major no-no in the Chinese culture. She knows nothing about me, doesn’t speak my language. I could have tried to hurt her or her son. Yet here we were; together for some reason.
God was there in that moment. God had taken my sadness and turned it into joy. God had used this child to show me His love. Did this little boy know he was doing God’s work, or was he just an innocent child? Did he know he was taking a risk or was he just playing? I’m not sure. I’ll let you decide for yourselves. I’m just glad he did.
The boy’s mother wanted to thank me, but didn’t know how. She reached into her purse and gave me several coupons for the local McDonald’s. I guess she thought I’d appreciate some American food. I thanked her, “shay shay” I said and put the coupons in my book. I never used then, they meant too much to me.
That little boy taught me so much that day. I finally realized that everyone everywhere laughs the same. We all smile the same, we all feel pain, joy, loneliness, and love. We’re really more alike then we are different and we’re all God’s children. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and God calls us to love them all. God calls us to take a risk and love as He loves us. Not to love just the easy ones like the laughing children. We’re also called to love the neighbor whose dog uses our yard as an out house. We’re called to love Democrats and Republicans. We’re called to love people different than us even if they hurt us, steal from us, or just make us uncomfortable. It’s hard, but that’s what we’re called to do. And that’s not all.
We’re also called to be people of God and to show we are people of God, by sharing His love, to the praise and glory of His name. This doesn’t mean we do this when it’s convenient, or safe, or when we feel like it. We are called to do God’s work all the time even when it’s risky to do so.
It’s hard; I know it’s hard. Go back to the readings and you can see how hard it is. Amos, the disciples, and John the Baptist all took risks to do God’s work. It’s hard to do God’s work, but we are called to do it with joyful hearts for the glory of God.
God’s work is risky business, it’s messy, it’s difficult, and even painful sometimes. God is pushing us out of our comfort zones and it’s scary out there, but that is where we will experience God’s loving grace and forgiveness. That is where we meet one another in community. God’s work can be hard work, but sometimes it’s child’s play, like my little friend back in China. A little boy who may never know how much he taught me about God’s love. While God’s work may seem baffling and mysterious to us sometimes, it is always glorious.