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Interruptions of New Life

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Interruptions of New Life

A sermon preached by Ben Whaley on May 22, 2011.

It’s a pleasure to be back with this community this morning. I have spent the last two years as a fellow in the Life Together Intern Program, the program run by Arrington Chambliss. In the internship, we fellows commit to living in community, spending ten hours a week in leadership development and spiritual formation training, and serving 30 hours a week in a social-justice based site placement. My placement is Iglesia San Pedro - St. Peter’s Church here in Salem. I work with the Hispanic ministry there, and we primarily serve youth and families of recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic. I had the privilege of participating in a Lenten series with many members of this congregation, and so I’ve been looking forward to this time to be back with you all.
Sometimes I think the disciples are pretty dense. How can they be so blind? Over and over in the gospels, we see the disciples misinterpret and just plain miss the point. For three years, Jesus has led them and loved them, and yet they say they can not see the way to follow him. For three years, he has preached to them and performed miracles, and yet they can not see the Father in him. It’s almost as if Jesus has become too real to them, too normal. His presence has become so much a part of their routine that they seem to forget he is something extraordinary. They are too comfortable with the mundane, and they get tunnel vision. It is this small-mindedness that speaks when they say, “We don’t know the way. We don’t know the Father.”
This tunnel vision can be dangerous. In the reading from Acts we encounter an angry mob who is too comfortable with its own truth. The chief priests in the Acts account are so sure that they know who God is and what God looks like that they are moved to violence - they make Stephen the first Christian martyr - for the sake of not disturbing their view of the world. The high priests are so blinded by their convictions that they can’t see the truth Stephen offers. The disciples are so blinded by their need for certainty that they can’t see the truth of who Jesus is. Their need to cling to their routines leads to pain, heartache, violence.
It would be nice to think that this kind of thing stopped happening 2000 years ago, but it is clear to me that it hasn’t. This fear of change, fear of the new, leads to anger and aggression and fear-mongering in our world today. I experienced a people living with this fear last fall in Arizona where I heard dozens of people – Anglos - speak out with political and social hostility toward Mexican immigrants for no reason other than the change they brought to their society – a different color skin, a different language. I went to join an immigrants-rights organization called Promise Arizona which was responding to the anti-immigration legislation in the state with a Latino- voter registration drive. I went because of the welcome and love I have received from my Latino community at St. Peter’s.
I went with a small team of folks from St. Peter’s and our goal was simple: register as many Latinos as possible. Period. And you know what? We were good at it. We began to compete against other local teams to see who could get the most registrations. We set a new record each day and single-handedly, I registered about 250 people to vote. So I had the routine down - I would approach someone, make my pitch, smile my charming smile, and they’d sign on the dotted line. I would start in English. If they looked confused, I’d try again in Spanish. I moved through people like a machine. And then I met Ernesto.
We were wading through the crowds at a local bus station, and I approached Ernesto as he sat alone on a bench. “Excuse me sir, are you registered to vote?” I asked. He looked at me. He had dark skin, a scraggly beard, and the oldest eyes I’d ever seen. He didn’t answer my question. “Esta usted registrado para votar?” No answer. I thought he must be drunk, or crazy, or both. I started to walk away.. And then he said. “Sit down.”
I looked around. I had a deadline, and there were a lot of people to talk to on the platform.. Ernesto stared at me. I sat. I waited. I suddenly was aware of young I felt, how white I felt, how different I felt. I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking. Finally he said, “I’m 70 years old. I’ve never voted in my life. The way things are going around here, I think I’d better start.” So we filled out the form together. As I walked away, he called me back to ask, “What’s your name?” Ben, I said. “Benjamin,” he said. “That’s a good name.”
On that park bench, Ernesto interrupted my routine. I suddenly remembered that I had come to Arizona to registerpeople to vote, not numbers. Ernesto had seen me, and without realizing it, he had opened my eyes to every person I would register after him. I began to listen to their stories. I began to remember their names.
I learned that it’s possible to get locked into our comfort zones on many different levels – I realized I was exactly the same as those who would de-humanize immigrants if I continued to hold my vision of reaching a numerical goal and failed to connect with the people I met.
It’s this kind of interruption Jesus is offering the disciples in the Gospel today. When we get tunnel vision, it’s Jesus who asks us to open our eyes. This is what Christ did for us in the resurrection. In the resurrection, he showed that the thing that seems the most real in this world, the most solid fact, death itself, is not as real as Christ himself is. In his resurrection, Christ interrupted the routine of our lives forever. In order to acknowledge that resurrection, though, we must be willing to be changed by it.
I had to be willing to be changed by Ernesto. I pray every day that the citizens of this country will allow themselves to be transformed by those who come into it. And I ask you, where is Christ inviting you into life that is more real than the patterns with which you are comfortable?
This kind of change can be scary. When Christ asks us to follow him into new life it is much more comfortable to stay put, to say with Thomas, “Lord, we do not know the way.” But, if we are willing to open our eyes, and our ears, we will hear Christ’s loving voice.. speaking the same tender words of encouragement to us that he spoke 2000 years ago: “You already know the way. I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the way,” Christ says. We just have to be willing to be changed by the journey.


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