June 26, 2016 6th Sunday after Pentecost YR C Stephanie Payne
“May the words of my mouth and thoughts of my heart be pleasing to you oh Lord my rock and my redeemer”
My name is Stephanie. I’m the daughter of Tom and Doris Payne who usually worship here at Church of the Resurrection on Sunday mornings.
I currently live in South Central Los Angeles where I serve with an inner city ministry called Servant Partners. Your church has been very generous to support this ministry financially and through your prayers, for which I am so grateful. Fr. Brent invited me to come speak this weekend to share some stories about my work in South LA and to give some reflections on today’s readings.
In today’s gospel story Jesus is on a mission. He has his face set toward Jerusalem, and is single-mindedly focused on arriving there. He knows he is heading to his death and that his followers will be persecuted. Because his current focus is so imminent and costly, he only wants followers who will also be single-minded in their mission. He tells them:
· “You will be homeless. You will not even have a pillow on which to lay your head.”
· He says, “My death is imminent. No, you cannot go home and care for your father in his old age until he dies and then come to follow me. By then it will be too late.”
· He says, “no, you can’t go home to say goodbye. If you look back now, you are not fit to be my follower.”
There are many places in the gospel stories where Jesus shows care and honor to his family and tells his followers to do the same. So it can’t be that he is communicating that caring for and honoring family is incompatible with following him. But there is something unique about this time in which the two good things (of family and following Jesus) are in conflict and those who wish to follow Him must make the wrenching decision to choose the greater of two good things. Forsaking family. Forsaking his father, even on his deathbed. Forsaking even the simplest of shelter and comfort.
There will come a time in the life of any true Christ follower when we must choose to forsake what is good, in order to devote ourselves to what is better – that is, obedience to Christ.
Jesus was single-mindedly focused on his mission – even to forsake his own life, in order to devote himself to what was better – that is, obedience to his father.
Jesus’ single-mindedness at this point in the story was the culmination of his greater mission, which he stated at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke:
“….to preach good news to the poor. …to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
From this scripture – which was Jesus’ statement of his mission – we learn that his work was holistic, including:
- Preaching good news for the poor
- Comforting those with broken hearts, and
- Giving freedom to those who may be bound or captive
What I and my organization are attempting to do in the cities where we serve is that we would continue the mission that Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth, to preach good news to the poor; to comfort those with broken hearts; and to give freedom to those who are bound or captive
My friends Aaron & Ema work with Servant Partners in the Philippines. In obedience to Jesus’s invitation for them to follow Him, they’ve chosen to forsake the comforts of a middle class life in Maryland in order to live in a slum in Manila and to pastor a church there. Aaron tells countless stories of the good things they’ve had to relinquish in order to live there, like running water, and physical health. The slum where they live has open trenches through the community that act as sewers. And 1 in 4 people in the slum have tuberculosis. In fact, at one point Aaron and his entire family were diagnosed with latent tuberculosis and had to receive months of antibiotic treatment. Aaron acknowledges that, statistically, by living in the slum, he has probably shortened his life by up to 10 years.
But to him and to Ema, it is worth it, to be able to pastor his church in the slum with authenticity and integrity. Aaron says, “by sharing a location with the urban poor, [our lives] are displayed for the community to observe. Ema and I have experienced that our neighbors watch us not only at our best, but also at our worst. We become real people, rather than untouchable priests, angels, or saints… We are able to serve as living examples of followers of Jesus, who try to respond to our shared struggles as Christ would have us respond.” (p. 29, Thriving in the City) Because of their presence and intimacy with neighbors in the slum, they have been able to support members of their church in starting businesses, being the first in their families to graduate high school and go to college, and walk with friends coming out of lives of drugs and gang violence. This is good news to the poor.
When I think about bringing comfort to those with broken hearts, I think about several of my neighbors in South LA – women who have lived through broken marriages, abuse, and who have fled war in their home countries.
One of the women I work with had a past of really bad relationships with men. She moved quickly from one man to the next, letting them use her sexually. When she became a follower of Christ she put those things behind her and has been in a process of allowing God to heal her broken heart. However, after several years, she still struggled deeply to be able to experience God’s forgiveness for the decisions she had made in her past relationships. One afternoon I had the opportunity to pray with her. God led us through a meditation on the story of the prodigal son. My friend imaginitevely placed herself in the story as the son (or in her case, the daughter) who returns to her father in repentance, and experiences the father running to her in forgiveness and celebrating her return. In her mind’s eye, she experienced God restoring her to a position of honor in his family. She shared that the time of prayer was really helpful to her in knowing the character of her father who frees her from her brokenness and welcomes her home wholeheartedly.
This is the healing and comforting of broken hearts.
Lastly, Jesus says that he came to proclaim freedom for those who are captive.
There are SO many ways that people from my community are held captive – both literally and figuratively. Most literally, there’s the mass incarceration of black and Latino men across the US – in a massively disproportionate number to white men. These are men who grew up in my neighborhood in South LA and in neighborhoods like it
The women I work with – many have experienced being stuck in abusive relationships and marriages. Some are trapped by mental illness or in generational patterns passed down through traumatic experiences in life.
One of my next door neighbors is a 7-year-old boy. He has so many things going against him. His dad was abusive and then abandoned them to marry a younger woman in his home country. He’s rarely around, but recently he was, and I heard my 7-year old neighbor calling out to him over and over and over, “Daddy, can I have a hug?” It was heartbreaking that he had to ask, and that clearly his dad was not responding to him. His mom comes to our women’s group, and is taking steps toward more stability in her life, but she is stressed out all the time and, unfortunately takes her stress out on her kids by acting impatiently and yelling at them. It’s heartbreaking but understandable. She never had a mother and was abandoned by her father at age 15. She spent the rest of her childhood in foster homes and the homes of family members. She never had a stable or good model to learn good parenting from.
My biggest fear for my 7-year old neighbor – more than incarceration – is that he would grow up to be an abusive or absent father as well. I pray that that doesn’t happen, but God needs to do a real work of freeing him and his family from the legacy of abandonment by their fathers, in order for him to do something better. His story is still in process.
Jesus was on a mission. He had his face set toward Jerusalem – not because he wanted to be homeless or to forsake his family, but for the Joy that was set before him. Jesus was single-mindedly on a mission and He invites us to join him, because of the joy that is set before us when we proclaim God’s good news of health and physical safety to the poor in a Philippine slum, when we comfort those like my friend who are living with broken hearts, and when we come alongside and release those who are held captive by dysfunctional justice and family systems.
What is the best thing that Jesus is calling you to?