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Sunday, May 18, 2014 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
The Sermon from May 18, 2014
The Centennial of the Sanctuary
Shannon Kershner’s first Sunday
preaching as Pastor of Fourth Church
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 31:1–4, 15–16
Whether the expenditure which has been made here shall prove justified,
time alone can answer. And the answer will be in terms of service,
the lives lived here, and the spirit that shall go out from here
and enter into the life of the community.
Thomas D. Jones
Chair, 1914 Fourth Church Building Committee
Now, rumor has it that when Elam Davies first arrived [in Chicago to serve as pastor here], he told the press that though he was quite anxious, he was much less anxious than the committee that recommended him to be the pastor! I don’t know about the PNC with whom I was honored to work and how they’re feeling this day, but I sure understand Dr. Davies’ anxiety. Yet any anxiety I am feeling this first preaching morning pales in comparison with what the disciples must have been feeling with Jesus on that night. After all, though the disciples did not fully realize it yet, it was the last night Jesus and his disciples would have together as a small community, a family, if you will.
Immediately before our text for today, we watch as Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, bends down, and washes the dusty feet of his disciples. He even washes the feet of the one he knew would deny him, Peter, as well as the one who would betray him, Judas. That action in and of itself might be our first clue of God’s vast hospitality for all, including even deniers and betrayers. For even though in that day and time washing someone’s feet was an action assigned to servants, Jesus was bound and determined to do it himself for those he called friends. Perhaps he wanted to show them what Love looks like, what Love does for one another, what Love gives on behalf of each other. And perhaps Jesus also wanted them to know he was calling them, those who are his followers, to be that kind of Love, that kind of hospitality, not just for each other, not just for those who gather in 100-year-old sanctuaries on Sunday mornings, but for all God’s children, including those who never step foot inside a church’s walls.
Yet even before the disciples’ feet are completely dry, before the water is emptied from the basin, Jesus changes gears and spends precious time speaking of hard things—betrayal, suffering, death. And you wonder if, as he did that, if he did what many of us do whenever we talk about hard things: Did he avoid eye contact as he told his friends that one of them would betray him, a move that would certainly lead to his suffering and death? Did his voice drop off when he told Judas to go ahead and do what he needed to do? Did Jesus’ stomach churn as Judas slunk off into the night and the door closed behind him? I can imagine all of those things happening with Jesus. The Gospel writer John tells us that on that night, Jesus was troubled in spirit as told his disciples, his family, all of those hard things to hear and to bear.
There was so much ahead of him, and he knew it. Jesus knew he had stirred up the political leaders with his refusal to play the games of the empire as well as with his insistence on eating and drinking with the cast-offs, the left-outs, the silent ones, teaching them that though they ranked low on the hierarchy of political power, they were very valuable in his eyes. And the empire knew that kind of teaching and empowerment can lead to a revolution. Jesus was a threat to the system that worked quite well for all those in charge. And by that night, Jesus also must have known he had set the religious leaders’ teeth on edge, as well, with all his teaching about the kingdom of God, as well as his own embodiment of God’s reign demonstrated though his miracles and his healings—the sick man by the pool, the man born blind, his friend Lazarus, and many more.
So surely on that last night with his friends, as Jesus washed their feet, as Jesus spoke of hard things, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that by challenging “the way things are” with just about everything he did and said, trouble—suffering, death—was inevitable. It was to be a part of the story of how God’s Love Made Flesh would unfold. So yes, as John writes, Jesus was troubled in spirit, I am sure. I personally think the Synoptic Gospel writers—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—were a bit more on target when they talked about Jesus being deeply grieved as he looked clear-eyed to all that was ahead of him. But John softens it a bit in his account with “troubled” language. And who knows, perhaps Jesus himself was trying to soften his own fear or unease in front of his disciples.
Yet the disciples must have sensed something was afoot. They had been with him for so long. They had seen the way he lived out his ministry. They had watched as he came head-to-head with the leaders of both the state house and the church house time and time again. They were hearing the rumors too. They knew the shadows were growing thicker. And, as all good friends do, they must have felt Jesus’ troubled spirit, his heavy grief about what was to come.
So don’t you wonder, then, what they thought when Jesus said those words? Don’t you wonder if they did an emotional double take? For though these words of John 14 are familiar to those of us who have spent time at memorial services and in hospice rooms, they were brand new to the disciples on that night: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe into God; believe also into me.” Frankly, I am surprised Peter did not speak up like usual, saying something like, “What do you mean ‘do not let our hearts be troubled’? Trouble is all we’ve got right now.” But if he did say something like that, John does not tell us.
Rather, John wants us to focus on the rest of what Jesus had to say: words about the Father’s house and an abundance of dwelling places and how he, himself, was preparing those spaces, because where he was, there they, we, would be also. And sprinkled all throughout these poetic promises are pictures of relationship, of generosity, of vast hospitality, of promised presence. Now, I know those of us who have grown up in church have heard, and I have probably preached, that these promises from Jesus are about what is to come—about life after death—about this spatial kind of heavenly home. And that might indeed be what Jesus intended.
And yet, as we inhabit these words today, I wonder if there is more to it than only a promise of the sweet by-and-by. According to Rolf Jacobson at Luther Seminary, in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the term “Father’s house” is much more than a place in space and time to lay down one’s head at night, a shelter for the body. Rather, the Father’s house is more about one’s kinship group—those from whom you get your identity (www.workingpreacher.org podcast, 12 May 2014). The Father’s house is where you find those who care for you and for whom you are expected to care. In Jesus’ day, the phrase “Father’s house” was not as much about a space as it was about an identity—a homecoming, of sorts. As we would say in the South, your Father’s house tells you who your people are. It is where you find your full home.
And I don’t know how you hear that, but I find that insight breathtaking. For with that in mind, we hear Jesus saying, “Look, because of who I am and because of all I am about to do, I am here to tell you that you have a dwelling space in my Father’s house.” “Because of who I am and because of all I am about to do,” Jesus is saying, “you have a new kinship group, a new identity. “Because of who I am and what I am about to do,” Jesus promises, “you have this whole new home—one that is in God, God’s very self—a home where you are sought and received and loved and valued and welcomed fully, no matter what.” “Because in my Father’s house, in God’s household,” Jesus says, “there are many dwelling places, an overabundance of dwelling places, far exceeding your imagination and expectation. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you . . . and all y’all are invited to come with me and through me and in me and find your people, your home, right here and right now. For where I am, there you may be also.”
And lest we forget, Jesus was saying this—he was promising this new relationship, this new identity in God’s household—to the people who were just about to betray him, to deny him, to forsake him. He was promising this new way of being in the world to those who would soon cower in fear behind locked doors because they would be unable to remember what he had promised about the end of his story being Life. And let’s be real: Jesus was not gullible. Just as he was clear-eyed about his future, he was surely clear-eyed about those disciples too. He is surely clear-eyed about you and me.
And yet, still, in the Gospel’s great nevertheless, he tells us that in his Father’s house, in God’s household, because of who he is and what he absorbed as God’s Very Self, there are many dwelling places. And all—even the betrayers and the deniers, those who feel lost and those who feel found—all are invited to find their home, to find their people, to see whose they are, to know and to abide in their God each and every day, no matter what. And that promise, my new friends, is nothing but pure grace, extravagant grace, breathtaking grace. We have not earned it. We do not deserve it. We cannot buy it. It is pure gift. And it is also our reality.
Right here and right now, because of who Jesus our Christ is as God’s Love Made Flesh, we are abiding, we are at home, not just in this wonderful 100-year-old sanctuary, but in God. By coming in Jesus, God made a decision to take in firsthand everything about what it means to be human—even brokenness, suffering, death—so that we would trust that nothing we do or experience is outside of God’s sacred presence. So we would see and know and feel that no matter what, we are at home in God’s household, right here, right now. And furthermore, we have been given a new people—each other. A new family for whom we are to care and who will care for us. Yet that new family is not just the people in this vast space. We are to see our people as all people, for in our Father’s house, in God’s household, are many dwelling places, lest we think we get to decide who makes the cut. God’s household is way too big for that, and that’s not our job.
So here is what I wonder: As we move together into this new century, who needs to know this? To whom are we being summoned to share this good news of God’s hospitality for all people? Who would be set free by knowing that no matter what, they are at home in God even when, especially when, the shadows have grown thick and trouble is all they know? Is it kids in our fifty-year-old Tutoring program who need to be reminded in whose beautiful image they are made? Is it the young and very busy-looking professionals I’ve seen walking around these past couple of weeks, who pause for photographs in the Garth, who take pictures of our church’s building? Is it the guests who will come to dinner tonight in Anderson Hall or the clients who will make their way into the safety of the Counseling Center upstairs?
Or is it you? On more days than not, are you able to trust that because of what we see in Jesus, God’s Love Made Flesh, you, too, already inhabit one of God’s dwelling places, you already have a place in God’s family, God’s household? You, who have it altogether on the outside while still feeling sometimes like you are playing dress up on the inside; you, who really just want to live a faithful life but who feel pulled in all directions; you, who feel like things are going well in your world, like you are doing what God hopes you will do; you, who can no longer lift your head because your hope has drained out and faith feels like an old dream: Do any of you need to be reminded that you, too, are already at home, already fully loved, fully claimed, fully known? That because of what we see in Jesus our brother and Savior you already have, already inhabit, one of God’s abundant dwelling places in God’s very self?
Who are those who need to know their identity as a beloved child of God? And how can we tell that good news in a compelling way, for it must be heard? The world is so hungry for it. We are so hungry for it.
So as I have said to all the congregations I have previously served: “People of God, welcome home!” For that is the promise Jesus offers us. And that is a piece of what we will be about as we live, worship, and serve together in this faith community called Fourth Presbyterian Church. We will be about trusting that promise for ourselves and then spreading that welcome and that homecoming out from beyond this space so that all people in this busy, beautiful, hard-edged, no-nonsense, sometimes wonderful and sometimes scary city might find their kinship here. Might find their home here. Or, rather, realize and know they are at home already in the One whose household has many, many, many dwelling places. Amen.