Sermon delivered by The Rev. James Moos, Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries UCC and Co-Executive of UCC/Disciples’ Global Ministries, at Super Saturday on Oct. 26, 2013, Franklin, MA.
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe from corroding care,
Safe from the world’s temptations;
Sin cannot harm me there.
Free from the blight of sorrow,
Free from my doubts and fears;
Only a few more trials,
Only a few more tears!
So why is that we gather today to talk about Risking Vision? Fanny Crosby’s old hymn assures us that we are “Safe in the arms of Jesus.” Where’s the risk? We’ve been set free from corroding care.
Safety is an American obsession. Flying out here, I was watching the flight attendant give the safety demonstration for what seemed like the 10thousandth time. “To tighten the seat belt, pull on the loose strap.” And “in the unlikely event of a water landing, the vest can be manually inflated by blowing into the tubes.” Flight attendants aren’t there to serve us sodas. You can hardly talk them out of a full can anymore. They’re there to keep us safe.
And despite occasional high profile and tragic accidents, air travel is the safest mode of transportation. In fact, your odds of suffocating in bed are greater than dying in a plane crash—think about that while you drift off to sleep tonight. Or don’t. Commercial flight is about as safe as it gets in this world. And if United Airlines can come that close to eliminating risk, surely Jesus has an even better track record.
If you want to take a risk, bungee jump in the Grand Canyon, take up bull riding or eat bacon covered hotdogs. But if you want to be safe, then enter the arms of Jesus. That was exactly the idea the disciples had.
Things had been going pretty well since they started following Jesus. Every need was met. Hungry? No problem, Jesus could feed thousands. Not feeling well? There was no manner of illness he couldn’t heal. And just the other day they were out on a boat when a storm came up. They were about to go under, it was terrifying! Not to worry. Jesus told the wind and the waves to behave, and all was calm. “Safe in the arms of Jesus, free from my doubts and fears.”
Oh but how things change. Now Jesus tells the disciples that they can’t just ride his coattails. He tells them out and proclaim the good news themselves. They’d followed and observed long enough. Now they would apply what they’d learned to real life situations. Learners becoming doers. Field education; I remember it well.
But this going out into the world business would not be easy. Now I travel a lot. And before I go anywhere, I go over a checklist to make sure that everything is in hand. Laptop, reservation numbers, proper attire, passport if traveling overseas. And if I’m preaching, the sermon. So far I’ve done pretty well. I’ve not forgotten anything more serious than my toothbrush.
Except Jesus tells the disciples not to bother with all that planning and preparation. He told them, “Depend entirely on the mercy of strangers.” Going forward the disciples’ wellbeing would be in the hands of unfamiliar persons who may, or may not, provide them with food, clothing, lodging. They couldn’t even take their MasterCards; there was no “Plan B” nothing to fall back on if this hospitality of strangers business didn’t work out.
To my ears this sounds more like foolishness than faith. And Jesus seems to know it. He says, “Friends, I’m sending you out like sheep into a pack of wolves.” Whatever happened to “Safe in the Arms of Jesus?” For those first followers of Jesus, discipleship was risky business indeed.
Sometimes, risk is fine. In the right context it’s considered acceptable, even desirable. Most of the new jobs created in the country are in small businesses. We depend upon entrepreneurs with new ideas who are willing to take risks to get new businesses going. I was in Detroit recently, the birthplace of the automobile industry—though it’s now fallen on some very hard times. Henry Ford had a vision of producing quality cars at an affordable price. It was a risky vision. I hadn’t realized this, but Henry started two car companies that failed before he succeeded with the Ford Motor Company. Innovators know that without a willingness to risk failure, there is no reward of success.
OK, but we’re not here today to tout the virtues of cutthroat competition. We’re here as those who embrace God’s vision of peace, justice and reconciliation. It’s the greatest of all possible visions. Therefore Christian witness ought to be the safest of all occupations. But it’s not.
I recall leading worship as a local church pastor on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks. A dozen years later, those tragic events remain fresh in the memories of virtually all adult Americans.
Like many pastors, I struggled with how to respond both faithfully and sensitively in a worship service filled with tension. I thought of Jesus’ command to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors. It seemed a clear calling. I told the congregation that if we didn’t respond to Jesus’ calling on that day, we likely never would. We didn’t know who the attackers were, but we would pray for them. I chose a prayer that had been found pinned to the body of a Jewish girl who’d been victimized in the holocaust. The prayer was for the redemption of the Nazi persecutors.
In nearly 30 years of ministry, I have never spoken words from the pulpit that brought more pain, anger and controversy than that prayer. Several families left the church as a result. No, God’s vision of peace, justice and reconciliation is not free of risk. It is perhaps the most risky business of all.
It’s a risk that we are called to take as individuals. A few weeks ago I was in China visiting Global Ministries partners. In Nanjing I went to the Massacre Museum. The so-called Rape of Nanjing was an unimaginable tragedy. Over 300,000 people were killed by the invading Japanese Imperial army in a matter of 6 weeks in December of 1937 and January of 1938. The bloodshed actually became sport; killing contests among the soldiers were reported in newspapers. Countless women fell victim to rape, and the city was looted.
Needless to say, virtually all of the foreigners fled the city before it fell to the Japanese army. But a handful of missionaries out of our Global Ministries heritage stayed. Among them was Minnie Vautrin, dean of studies at Ginling Women’s College. Minnie and several other missionaries refused to evacuate; they were motivated by a vision of solidarity with God’s suffering children. It was a risky vision. In fact, they risked everything so that not they but others could rest safe in the arms of Jesus. Today Minnie is remembered, indeed revered in Nanjing for her courage in protecting thousands of Chinese women from rape and death.
It’s highly unlikely that any of us will ever have to make the kinds of decisions that Minnie Vautrin did. But if we as a people of faith capture God’s vision of peace, justice and reconciliation, then we also encounter risks. Risks that affect our life together as a church.
Throughout the whole course of our history, we in the United Church of Christ have listened to the voice of the still speaking God calling us to ever new acts of faithfulness. Again and again we have caught visions of equality and inclusion. We’ve had strong witnesses for racial justice, the equality of women and the full participation of members of LGBT communities in church and society. And while lots of progress has been made in all of those areas, there is still a painfully long way to go in each of them.
The Treyvon Martin tragedy and the overturn of key portions of the Voting Right Act are among the many signs that the journey to racial justice is far from over. And the fact is that the majority of people who call themselves Christian in this world worship in churches where female clergy are not an option. And while there has been much progress since the UCC passed the 2005 General Synod resolution on Marriage Equality, members of LGBT communities still face marginalization and discrimination. In these areas and in many others, God’s vision of justice is still risky and divisive.
The Still Speaking God is now calling the United Church of Christ to a renewed vision of and commitment to the integrity of creation. At our recent General Synod in Long Beach, a resolution urging divestment from fossil fuel companies was passed in order to address climate change. Thank you, Massachusetts Conference, and thank you, Jim Antal, for your leadership. Once again prophetic imagination and evangelical courage have joined together in a faith-based movement for change.
Several years ago I was visiting the South Pacific island nation of East Timor. East Timor is one of the poorest and least developed places on earth. We went to a mountain village to visit coffee farmers. I asked them how their coffee crops were and they said production was declining. When I asked why they said “The weather is changing.”
East Timor is a nation where 80% of the population engages in subsistence farming. They didn’t need Al Gore to tell them that the climate is changing. They live close enough to nature to see it for themselves.
The integrity of creation is another of those risky visions that God is calling us to. Already there’s lots of discussion as to what it might cost us in our pensions and endowment funds. Doubtlessly divestment would cost us. And in taking on another hot button issue we risk divisions in the church. Non-violent civil disobedience on the environment has meant jail time for some.
Safe in the arms of Jesus? The fact is that following the lead of the still speaking God has never been the safe option. It has always involved risk.
In our lesson from Exodus, the children of Israel are delivered from bondage in Egypt and are headed for the Promised Land. This is what they’d hoped for, prayed for longed for; for generation upon generation they’d dreamed of liberation and life in a land God gave to their ancestors. Now the vision was unfolding.
But guess what? First time they get hungry they complain to Moses: “Have you brought us out here to kill us off with hunger? Take us back to the fleshpots of Egypt.” What the Israelites had to learn, what every generation of faithful must learn is that faith has a lot more in common with the deep end of the swimming pool than it does with a warm blanket. The life of faith involves risk.
The world is a dangerous place. There are innumerable risks and hazards. So the smart thing to do is to avoid the hazards, to minimize the risks, to remain as safe as possible. So we drive vehicles equipped with air bags and anti-lock brakes. What football coach says to the players, “Guys, those helmets are so bulky an uncomfortable, let’s play without them today.” Unthinkable! And when I get on a plane to go back to Cleveland, I won’t have a worry as to my safety. I know that the National Transportation Safety Bureau, the Boeing aircraft company and United Airlines have my safety as their number one concern.
But there is no such thing as a risk-free faith. “Safe in the arms of Jesus . . . Free from the blight of sorrow, Free from my doubts and fears.” Sorry, Fanny Crosby, untroubled life is simply not our faith experience. It wasn’t even Jesus’ experience. His embrace of God’s vision led to the cross.
Faith is risky business. But the promise of the gospel is greater than the risk for the way of the cross leads to the resurrection. And the resurrection is our hope that life and justice will prevail. For the United Church of Christ, for the Massachusetts Conference and for each one of us, our embrace of God’s risky vision may not make us safe. But the secure and sure promise of God’s eternal love enables us to embrace bold visions and engage in bold action.
Exodus 16:1-3; Matthew 10:5-16