Sunday, August 15, 2010

A dangerous faith

Rahab was told to tie a scarlet cord from her window (Joshua 2).

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
August 15, 2010

Some years ago Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and author, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock woke him at 3:00 a.m. The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling.

He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything was closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He went in and sat down at the counter. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, "What d'ya want?"

Well, Tony wasn't so hungry anymore, so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he said, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulped his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replied, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman said, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"
"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"
"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A cute kind of smile crept over the man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he said, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turned to the kitchen and shouted to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife came out. "That's terrific," she said. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they made their plans. Tony said he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turned out to be Harry, said he'd make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back. He had crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorated the place from one end to the other and got it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. Tony had everybody ready. They all shouted and screamed "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she totally lost it. Then she was sobbing and crying. Harry, who wasn’t used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake." So she pulled herself together and blew them out. Everyone cheered and yelled, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!" But Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asked. Looking at Tony she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

So Tony got up on a chair and said, "What do you say that we pray together?"

And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her life with God. Tony recalled, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

When he was finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

Harry thought for a moment and said, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

That’s the kind of church Jesus calls us to be, the same one that lists Rahab the prostitute as a hero of the faith right after Moses and before those of Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel in the reading from the book of Hebrews. Jesus said, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the righteous will.” Jesus was a dangerous man. He broke the religious laws of his time to show forth God’s radical love, compassion, and forgiveness. He ate with those considered unclean, he healed on the Sabbath, he spoke with women and included them in his inner circle. He said the last would be first and the first, last. Grace would be given to all, the just and the unjust. If we were rich we were to sell all we had and give it to the poor. We were to love our enemies and pray for them. We were to deny ourselves and take up our own cross.

A friend once said in a sermon, “It isn’t the unbelievable, fantastic stories in the Bible that make me feel uncomfortable. What really makes me squirm is precisely that which I do understand, what I can fathom, what I am certain is true. The stories and the words of Jesus cut like a knife in order to purify and heal, to bother us into eternity. God is the great Botherer, to save us from drowning in the Red Sea, from burning to a crisp in warfare with our brothers and sisters or with our own selves. If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered for the right reasons.”

Jesus made folks angry and aroused their passion. He not only comforted the afflicted but afflicted the comfortable. We think of the peaceful shepherd carrying his sheep, but he also carried a sword of division that would break the most precious peace, that of family. If it is one thing we try to preserve with all our might, it is the peace of our families: those at home and those at church.

In polite company we stay away from the four taboo subjects: religion, sex, politics, and money. Even in church we manage to do this. We have told ourselves that unity in the church means no fighting or disagreements. I am not advocating a knock-down, dragged-out fight, but we all know that in marriages and families, keeping our disagreements and our opinions to ourselves in the name of peace and unity only leads to misery.

In the church it can lead to quiet, comfortable, so-so faith that neither attracts newcomers nor energizes steady members. Our faith is meant to be fuel for the engine that drives the kingdom of God. Discomfort, passion, and being bothered by Jesus can fire up a sense of mission and purpose in the church.

In the first version of the movie “The Karate Kid”, Mr. Moriyagi told Daniel, “Walk on one side of the road, fine; walk on other side of road, fine. Walk in the middle of the road—squish! Like grape. Same thing with karate: you do karate, yes, or do karate, no. You do karate, so-so—squish! Just like grape.”

It is the same with believing and following Jesus, wherever we are in our journey. Whoever we are, whether we are an agnostic, a seeker, or a whole-hearted believer, we are to do it with decision, passion, and drive, even if it might lose us a few friends and more money than we think we can afford to give, even if our families wonder about us, even if it might cost us our comfort zone. We will make mistakes. We will feel pain. And we will be alive, fully so.

In today’s world, what would Jesus be doing to stir people up?

For all those folks who want to be able to carry a gun to church.

He’d be cleaning up the beaches on the Gulf coast AND working with BP, forgiving them, praying for them, helping them make restitution, prodding them on to make justice-filled policies. He’d be weeping and raging over the American empire we’ve become, driving us out of our malls and superstores and away from our computer screens and into the cities where violence and poverty enslave our fellow Americans. He’d tear down the borders, walls and fences between us and Canada and Mexico, our neighbors. He’d be picking up trash on the highway, on the beach, and in the park. He’d move in next door to a recently released sex offender and invite him over for a meal. He’d invite a homeless person to live in his house, give her the best room, and let her stay until she was on her feet again. He’d protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan AND he would stand with every last U.S. soldier, every last Iraqi and Afghani civilian AND share a meal with a group of insurgents. He’d buy a big house in a great neighborhood with good schools and open it up to homeless kids and teens. He’d be CEO of his own company with all the stock options, big benefits, and salary but only so he could give them away to his employees and work in the mailroom and drive the delivery truck and get the coffee every morning. He’d take red states and blue states and somehow make purple.

Ultimately, Jesus’ sword of division brings us together, not around our own rallying points but his. Jesus breaks our illusion of peace by pulling our attention away from our addiction to our own point of view and our fear of conflict. Jesus demands our undivided attention.

Each week we read names and nations and situations that need our attention in prayer. As I look at the list there is not one item that bothers me or makes it difficult for me to pray. What if the church also had a so-called ‘enemies list’: a list of persons and situations needing prayer that would be a struggle for us. Jesus said that we were to love our enemies and pray for them. Who would you have difficulty praying for?

As a church, what is your comfort zone? Where are you being challenged to step out in faith? What is it about Jesus’ message that disturbs you, bothers you, and afflicts your personal and collective conscience? What is it about Jesus that presents a crisis, a moment or occasion of truth and decision, in your life and in your life together? Think about what has been bothering you recently as a church, as person of faith, and ask yourselves, “Is this worth spending our energy, my energy on or is there something more important? Is this about me and my will be done or is this about Jesus and God’s will be done?” As my friend said, “If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered by the right reasons.” Find what it is about Jesus that fires you up and gets you hot under the collar and then follow that.

Let us dare to believe in that One, our Savior who came with a sword to cut us loose from our chains of comfort, our bondage to the ways things are, our “peace at any price”, that we might be set free, that we might have power to imagine something more wonderful and life-giving—even a church as dangerous as one that gives birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. What makes this church dangerous? Yep, I’d join a church like that. How about you?

The "Agnes" story is from Let Me Tell You a Story by Tony Campolo, (c) 2000, published by Thomas Nelson.


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