SERMON – August 11, 2013


Proper 14, Year C

For years, the Lutheran historian Martin Marty used to publish something called “Context.” He was a scholar whose ministry was to get up every morning at 4:45 and spend three or four hours reading dozens of newspapers, magazines, journals, and books. He would clip stuff, then put together the clips, then publish them in print and online. He provided fodder for tens of thousands of desperate preachers every week, including this one. By the end of his career it is estimated he aggregated over 4 million words. I have hundreds of clips in my computer that I got from Martin Marty that he got from somewhere else. Here’s one:

I encountered Gaylan Gunn first in a clip from the “Sun”, a west suburban Chicago newspaper, which had a headline that went:”Teens choose beloved janitor as their baccalaureate speaker.”

It seems that the senior class at Waubonsie Valley High School asked Gaylan Gunn to address them. Gaylan Gunn is African-American. Waubonsie Valley, and most of the students at its high school, are not African-American. Jason Elster, class president, and himself a Jew, who did not know about Gunn’s faith, trusted the janitor to say and do the right thing, even after Gunn told Elster he would have to go pray to Jesus before he could accept the invitation.

So, Gunn went into his broom closet, where he cried and prayed, and then came out to say “yes.” Elster says, “We wanted Mr. Gunn because he is a good man, hard-working, personable, and highly respected” by all the students. Gunn prepared his speech on “making right decisions.”

Gunn earned a B.A. in Career Development. But after he graduated drugs and alcohol made his life into a shambles. He was a drifter for many years. He never worked in the field of his education. One day he saw his best friend gunned down in the friend’s home, right in front of his two children. Gunn’s reaction was to eventually make a commitment to Christ. He went on to became a husband, a father, and a school janitor. God asked him to do some errands, and he’s been doing them ever since.

He can admonish while he sets examples. He talks to students having problems, like smokers, class-cutters, and cussers. He says “When kids do things deliberately, like kick holes in walls, or stuff paper in the toilets just to aggravate me, that’s when I go to the Lord. And then I go back to the students.”

Why does a college educated man continue to work as a janitor? He smiles as he answers: “God is not into high-echelon people. Only those who are truly humble can do his work.”

I don’t know how the baccaluareate service turned out, whether he was eloquent, or whether he stumbled. But I do know that the Gaylan Gunns of the world achieve in their own way what many of us high-echelon folk manage only to talk about.

From today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews

Now faith is the assurance of things you hope for, the conviction of things you can’t see.

And a few lines later in Hebrews, speaking of father Abraham,

Therefore, from one man, and him as good as dead, descendants were born “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

It’s a simple sermon today folks. It’s the simple truth that brings us here week after week. Three sermon points. The story of faith is about this: low echelon people doing courageous things based on promises they’ll never live to see kept.

Let me say that again. It’s about as eloquent a thing as I can ever share with you:

The story of faith is this: low echelon people, doing courageous things based on promises they’ll never live to see kept. People like Gaylan Gunn, people like old Father Abraham. Perhaps, people like us. That’s the story of faith, that’s the glory of faith, and that’s the possibility always laid before us.

Low echelon people. In the Old Testament and Epistle lessons today we are reminded of the Father of it all, Abraham. He and his wife, old, childless, nomads in the desert of modern day Iraq. The scriptures let us know that there is nothing particularly noble about this man. He is not more righteous, or brave, or wealthy, than any other ordinary man of his day. Indeed, the description of him in the book of Genesis is of a decidedly ambiguous man.

But suddenly, one day, this old man hears the voice of a strange desert God promising him the impossible. Children. Land. A future. All Abram need do is pluck up everything. His entire retinue of livestock and servants, his wife. Leave his home and strike out for an undisclosed destination. This strange God known to no one else simply says “take my word.” And so, Abram does it. Does this outrageous and reckless thing. So outrageous is it that his old, barren wife, Sarah, reacts in the only sensible way: she laughs at them both.

Abraham, this low echelon man, embarks on an outrageous and mapless journey with an unknown, slightly dangerous God. And at the end of his life, at the end of his journey, he is still a nomad. The only land he owns is a burial plot for his wife. He has one son from his wife Sarah, and one estranged son from his wife’s servantwoman. That’s not exactly stars of the heavens or the sand of the seashore. He bet all his chips on this strange God’s promise, but has very little to show for it.

Abraham: a low echelon man who does something outrageous because of a promise from God that he’ll never see kept. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

A casual read of the Bible reveals that same story again and again. The stories of the saints reveal that story again and again. Men and women setting out on journeys, embracing tasks, living lives, that for all the world look strange, even loony. I mean really, who in the world would REMAIN a school janitor in modern day America if they had the ability and credentials to be something else. Gaylan Gunn, Abraham, Jesus, Theresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King, even Martin Marty, sitting in his study clipping newspapers.

People like this don’t make much sense in this world we live in. They do what they do because God promised to be with them, and to make their work for God mean something. They bet their lives on the thing hoped for, they live their lives in the conviction of things they cannot see.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” says Jesus in the opening line of today’s gospel.

Do we believe that promise? Do you? Do I? Do you believe it enough to bet your life on it? I struggle with that, and I know I’m not the only one in the room. Abraham bet his life on that promise, and here we are today the sand particles, the stars he was promised.

Jesus and his disciples bet their lives on that promise, and here we are today witnessing to it still.

Here we are, just as unlikely, just as unworthy, just as low echelon as they were. Some of us, like Abraham, as good as dead. Here we are, like Abraham, invited to depart on a journey without a certain destination. Here we are, promised by Jesus that we will be given a kingdom we will likely never see.

What an outrageous story it is we listen to each week. What an outrageous life we are invited to live. What an unlikely promise we receive.

But it keeps being true. It keeps being realized. In the Abrahams, in the Gaylan Gunns, God’s promise keeps getting kept. In people no different than you and I, low echelon kinds of people, the drama keeps unfolding.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. In faith, then, let us low echelon people do some courageous things because of this incredible, ancient, and wonderful promise.


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