Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Messengers Needed

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 13, 2017, Pentecost 10A

Romans 10:5-15

Messengers Needed

How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace

How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace

The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn, yes, the same composer of “songs without words” from last week’s sermon. This is from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul. Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version is a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately. Even so, neither this English version nor the original German text here in the oratorio has nothing about “feet,” which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literal about such things.

Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7. In that context the statement is elaborated a bit, clearly influencing the text of the oratorio:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

 Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation.

How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace.

Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time. Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.” From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent? It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion. It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” or “minister of word and sacrament” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.

Of course it isn’t all joy. Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent. He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1]

It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state). The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]

 Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.” Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Still, he grieved over the rejection of the Messiah by the “people of Israel,” rejecting one of their own.

How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace

As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here. It’s scary because, as Paul learned, people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us. We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore. It’s also embarrassing because we live in a society that has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”

Maybe you’ve had the experience of “billboard evangelism,” driving up or down I-75 or the Turnpike to the sight of all those billboards from 1-855-FOR TRUTH or the one that literally aims to “SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOU” (complete with flames around the word “hell”)?

Or maybe you’ve just been keeping up with the news this week. Perhaps you’ve seen how a pastor endorsed a potential nuclear attack against North Korea, leaving not just South Korea, but the island of Guam as well, contemplating the potential for being caught in nuclear crossfire. This pastor did so using scripture – Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in fact. We’ll get to that Chapter 13 in a few weeks, I promise.

Or maybe you simply watched in horror as events unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. Hiding an act of terror behind a claim of “free speech,” hundreds of “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazis” (really, why don’t we just call them racists and Nazis?) marched into that college town in an act of intimidation that (absolutely to no one’s surprise) turned violent, including a gruesome act of one such participant running down with a car a number of anti-racist counter-protesters not just once, but twice. These are not messengers of the gospel of peace, or of good news of any kind. Hatred is not gospel, and cannot be in the same room with it.

Maybe it’s because of all this bad evangelism that the messengers of the gospel of peace are still needed most desperately. And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.

We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines a few years ago as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus then raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa. Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with then no known cure.[i] Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly became an object of derision for certain American commentators at the time, who apparently believe it was his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and gotten rich and fat and not put himself in danger. But even a physician can, at times, bring a message of peace.

More historically, we could look at Mr. Rogers. You know, the guy with the neighborhood, the one on the bookmark that might be a pew near you. It was in the 1960s that Fred Rogers (who was, yes, an ordained Presbyterian minister) began his television show for children, and you might remember the 60s as an era fraught with conflict in American life, from the escalating war in Vietnam to backlash against the Civil Rights Movement at home. In that setting and time Mr. Rogers deliberately and decisively moved to make his show, his time with the children of the United States via public television, a time for not only teaching but showing peace, both in the skits with the various puppet characters learning the folly of war and in his relations with the human characters on the show as well. (Ed. note: for more on this aspect of his work see this book.)

Maybe one of his most vivid illustrations came on a hot summer day, when Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a small pool. As the neighborhood policeman, played by Francois Clemmons, a black man, walked by, Mr. Rogers invited him to take a break and cool his feet in the pool as well.[ii] This aired on PBS in 1969, a time in this country when such an image – white feet and black feet, in the same small pool – could get somebody shot or hanged. (I’ll trust you to compare that image with yesterday’s pictures.)

Even yesterday in Charlottesville those messengers of the gospel of peace were present. In a local church, praying and singing and praising God, or standing arm-in-arm at the entrance to the park where the racist rally had been scheduled, refusing to be moved, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” were dozens of clergy from around Virginia and elsewhere, including many of my seminary classmates and friends, people that I am prouder than ever to know. Standing in the face of hatred straight from the pit of Hell, they sang the gospel of peace.

How lovely are the messengers who preach us the gospel of peace.

We might look at each other here in this church, whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of Family Promise or St. Francis House, or providing a home for a possible Korean worshiping community here in Gainesville. For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking. Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10, but then those beautiful feet in verse 15. Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe. Our witness is embodied. We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do. The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus’s name. Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it.

The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ. Our witness in staying together and continuing to come together as a congregation, being not merely in our community but being part of it, our welcome to those that others – even other churches – would declare unwelcome; this is a gospel of peace.

To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us, is not optional; it is inevitable. The only question is, what kind of messengers of the gospel of peace are we?

How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace.

How lovely are the messengers that preach us the gospel of peace.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #644, Give Thanks, O Christian People; #462, I Love to Tell the Story; #741, Guide My Feet

Sung benediction here.

[i] “Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” http://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/02/health/ebola-kent-brantly/index.html (Accessed August 7, 2017).

[ii] “Walking the Beat In Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Where a New Day Began Together,” npr.org, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/11/469846519/walking-the-beat-in-mr-rogers-neighborhood-where-a-new-day-began-together (Accessed August 7, 2017).

Nazis

This is no gospel of peace, nor are they messengers of it, no matter what they may call themselves or what “churches” may endorse or support them. Period. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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