Pastor Tony's Sermon May 28, 2017

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John 17: 1-11                   5-28-17       ACCUCC       Rev. Tony Clark

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 

‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Since Easter, I have been grappling in these sermons with what Jesus means to us after his death. In today’s passage, which is part of a longer prayer between Jesus and God, is an intimate look into who we are to Jesus. This prayer, offered just before he was arrested, is not a very frilly or formally crafted prayer. Jesus asked that his life be given meaning by being glorified by God, and then he asked repeatedly, as if he really wanted God to pay attention, that God comfort, guide, and hold those who believed him.

 He asked God,  “Papa, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” That phrase, “That they may all be one,” is part of the official logo of the United Church of Christ, and it was chosen, in part, because we are a denomination formed out of a merger of several other denominations; we are a United Church and we continue to welcome churches from other traditions into our fold. The phrase was also chosen because, as Christians, when we unite in Christ and find a united purpose to fulfill God’s will, justice will be done. We are a Church, United in Christ, belonging as much to the whole body of Christ as individually we belong to God. Our personal relationship with Jesus only means something when we are in relationship with God and each other.

A few weeks ago, Darrell and I met Shanti and a friend to see a musical at the Berkeley Playhouse. I’ve seen the musical a few times before, and I have been telling Shanti about it because it has some music about justice, hope, and taking care of our planet.  The musical is called Urinetown, not a particularly pretty name, and not a particularly pretty topic, urine.

The story is an allegory about a place in the not-so-distant future after a multi-year drought in which a mega-corporation controls all of the water rights, and people must pay for the basic necessity of water. They have to pay to pee, at public facilities that are run by the corporation, Urine Good Company, or UGC, and if you do not use the UGC-owned facilities you can be punished by arrest and banishment to Urinetown, which is really a short step off the very high roof of the corporate headquarters. Of course, because it is musical theatre, there is a corrupt and lecherous senator, a rich uncaring CEO, and a variety of toadies who do their bidding, as well as employees stuck in the cogs of corporate corruption. And then there are the poor, who must stand in line for hours, and come up with $5 to pee, which they can do only during the hours the facility is open.

The musical is an indictment of multi-national corporations that are too big to fail, have more sway with the government than average citizens over the environment, and make us pay for basic rights that they call privileges; as the Corporation claims, “it is a privilege to pee.”  As in all situations where basic human dignity is subsumed by corporate greed, a resistance forms. And because it is musical theatre, the leader of the resistance falls in love with the daughter of the CEO of the corporation, which prompts the big show-stopping number at the end of Act 1.

In that confrontation, the CEO claims that the resistance doesn’t see that the corporation only has the people’s best interest at heart, after all the corporation is working toward a bright future for all. A bright tomorrow. How many times have we heard that from multi-national corporations that are too big to fail? A brighter tomorrow. A world sometime in the future where everyone has equal rights, and the planet is clean, and there is no war. A promise that never needs to come true because tomorrow is always in the future and the promise is always true and, yet, never fulfilled. As Macbeth said, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/… It is a tale/Told by an idiot, / full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”[1]

The CEO spouts the corporate line that the corporation is working toward a brighter future, and the leader of the resistance replies, “We're suffering now/ Such lives of sorrow/ Don't give us tomorrow/ Just give us today!”[2] That line is the plea of the poor all over the world.

The promise of a great tomorrow, a bright future, is a traditional promise of Christianity—if you believe, if you are saved, if you take Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, then you will be rewarded in the future with a beautiful eternal life. It’s easy to find that interpretation in the words of Jesus, particularly the words we heard him say a few weeks ago, “Do not worry or be upset… I am going to prepare a place for you…and after I prepare a place for you, I will come back take you to myself, so that you will be where I am” (John 14: 1-3, GNV). That sounds like the promise of a bright future in those words.

Yet, all through Jesus’ words is a tension that pulls us back to today. The Kingdom of Heaven is near. Give us this day our daily bread. Don’t put up treasure where moth and rust can damage. Do not worry about where your next meal will come from; God will provide. The words that Jesus speaks right before the passage for today are this, “Do you believe now? The time is coming, and is already here…” (John 16: 31-32, GNV). And in the prayer that we heard him speak today, Jesus bends time as if he were an Einsteinian physicist.  “… this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The eternal life is not something we gain at the end of our lives, but it can be now, if we know God today.

Knowing God is not just living in a meditative state of peaceful bliss. It is a union with God and other faithful followers to know the will of God, a communion that aligns our whole being with the source of love so that we love others, not just our family and friends or our neighbors living next door, but also our neighbors in North Richmond and around the world who are crying out, “We're suffering now/ …/ Don't give us tomorrow/ Just give us today!”

Many people who live in suffering and sorrow look hopefully toward the Christian promise of a bright eternal life that is lived after this one in bliss with God, and the Christian church through the centuries has used this hope to keep people in line. The promise of eternal bliss is set in opposition to the notion of eternal hell, not unlike the hell of oppression they are living in today. However, Christianity’s true story, the good news, the Gospel, is not the promise of eternal heaven against the threat of eternal hell, but that God seeks justice today. The stories of our faith, no matter how much sensitization they have gone through, cannot remove the core story of resistance to injustice. From the Israelite's standing up to Pharaoh and being freed from slavery in Egypt all the way through Jesus standing up to Rome, the promise of a bright future only means something when our relationship with God is mirrored by our relationship with our neighbors as we make justice happen today. Christianity fails the emphasis is on a personally pious faith that leads to an eternal bliss rather than the corporate faith which calls us to do justice as a community.

When our personal salvation and life after death becomes so important that we have lost sight of the need of the poor today, and when we give up on solving today’s problems in favor of a brighter tomorrow, Jesus reminds us over and over again that the Kingdom of God is not far off, nor is it something to wait for. It is here, or it could be if we all became united in Christ, one in God. Jesus said that “eternal life means to know God,” the one who hears the poor crying out, “Don't give us tomorrow/ Just give us today!” 

When Jesus prayed for all of his followers, including us, “That they may all be one, just as you and I are one,” he reminded us that our relationship with God is only complete when it includes all of our neighbors.

So, how is our relationship with God? Is it missing anyone?

God, if eternal life means to know you, then let us know you now. Show us how to be one in you, even as Christ is one in you, so that we can do your will and bring your kingdom to come, not at the end of time, not in the afterlife, but here and now. Amen.

[1], retrieved 5-25-17.

[2], retrieved 5-25-17