Make Me a Servant

“Let us Pray: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden.  Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by inspiration of your Gospel, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Our main scripture lesson today comes from the Book of Genesis, the first book of both the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Torah.  Genesis is a book of beginnings. It records God’s creation of the world, of the creatures that inhabit it, and of the first man and woman.  Genesis also recounts the first temptation, the first sin, the first offerings, and the first sacrifice. And finally, Genesis recounts the origin story of the first Hebrew, one of the first men called into a special FAITH relationship with God:  Abraham.  Given that today is a day of firsts, a day of new beginnings, and a day when a new chapter opens in the life of Historic St. George’s, it is appropriate that we begin with God’s calling of Abraham – whom I call God’s first “missionary.”  Abraham as “missionary”?  Let’s try to unpack that thought.
In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22, verses 1 through 14, we find ourselves towards the end of Abraham’s long life.  To this point, Abraham had left his homeland, the Ur of the Chaldeans, and traveled extensively around the lands of Canaan (or modern-day Israel). He and his household wandered through the desert to a land that God promised to Abraham and his offspring. 
God promised Abraham no less than three different times that Abraham will have descendants, and that they will be countless in number, and that they will become a great nation.  This despite the fact that Abraham was nearing 100 years old and his wife, Sarah, had been barren her entire life. 
God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled in the birth of his son Isaac, a miraculous birth given that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was also of advanced age and skeptical about whether God would make good on his promise.  And so Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah – a miraculous child upon whose shoulders were born the hopes and aspirations of the entire Hebrew people. 
In today’s Scripture reading, God tests Abraham in the most heart-breaking ways:  God sends Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, up to the mountains of Moriah, and to sacrifice him as a burnt offering.  The story is quite familiar.  God called Abraham, who responded “Here I am,” or “Here I am, Lord.”  Abraham travels for days with his son and his servants, to the offering place.  Abraham binds Isaac and sets him on the pyre or wood.  At the crucial moment, God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand, already clenched as it was around a knife that would slay his only son.  And, speaking through the angel, God says,”Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:9-12). 
While some theologians would disagree with me, I read this story about how God tested Abraham, and how Abraham passes that test, as one of the first “missionary” stories in the Bible.  Like the New Testament Book of Acts, where Luke tells the story of how God first sent the twelve apostles (Acts 2:42-47), and later, how God then sent the [seven] more apostles in mission to the Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:3-7), and finally how God sent hundreds more into the mission field.  Each of these apostles from the first to the last were sent to proclaim God’s word, to do works of kindness, and to lift up those who are left aside by society, as it is said in the Book of Deuteronomy -- the widows, the orphans and the strangers.  Each of these New Testament missionaries, just like Abraham, answered God’s call.  Like Abraham, every missionary in the Bible responds to God’s calling by responding in their hearts, “Here I am, Lord.”  Here I am to do your work, to carry out your commandments, and, if necessary, to lose my life in honor and remembrance of your greatest sacrifice for mankind.  
“Here I am, Lord.”  Abraham answered God’s call.  And I too, have responded to God’s call:  “Here I am, Lord” to do your work from this pulpit, from this Church, and from this City.  As we will sing later we say, “I will go, Lord.  If you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart.”  And the Lord has led US, the members of this congregation – to be missionaries in the fields of the Lord.  RIGHT HERE.  RIGHT NOW. FROM THIS DAY FORWARD.
 And, like Abraham, we too are blessed – honored by God to preach his word to all nations, to do the work that builds God’s Kingdom on Earth, and to hold God’s people (YES.  ALL OF GOD’S PEOPLE) in our hearts.  Yes, we are all God’s missionaries.  As God the Father sends his son Jesus Christ, and as the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit, we too are sent.  RIGHT HERE.  RIGHT NOW.  FROM THIS DAY FORWARD.
    Yes, we are sent by God to do his will in the fields where we find hopelessness, despair, sin and death.  But where do we start?  Where do we go to bring the love of Jesus Christ to the widows and the orphans of today, and most importantly in this day, and in this climate, the stranger?
    In its recent study of our City called “Philadelphia: The State of the City – A 2016 Update,” the Pew Charitable Trusts published its annual findings about the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia.  Here are some of the 2016 highlights:

  • Philadelphia has over 400,000 residents who live below the federal poverty level, which translates into 26% of Philly’s population.  Overall, Philadelphia ranks third among America’s 10 most populous cities in terms of population falling below the poverty level.  Pew calls poverty, “arguably Philadelphia’s most daunting and intractable problem.”
  • While showing recent gains, Philadelphia currently has an unemployment rate of 7%, which exceeds the national average of 5.0% unemployment.  Again, Philadelphia lags behind other major cities in providing living wage jobs to its citizens.
  • Pew also criticized Philadelphia’s current rate of high-end residential housing growth, which it says is leading to social friction over gentrification, the lack of affordable housing units, and the persistent problem of homelessness.  We see homelessness underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge and on the entrance ramps to the bridge.  We see homelessness three blocks away in Franklin Square.  And we see homelessness along the riverfront in neighborhoods from Society Hill to Fishtown to Northern Liberties.
  • And while this Old City neighborhood has one of the lowest crime rates in Philadelphia (15th out of 22 districts), within a half mile radius from this Church we find neighborhoods that experience the highest violent crime rates in the City, places like Port Richmond, Kensington, and Frankford, each neighborhood experiencing over 1,000 violent crimes per year.  
  • These are sobering statistics.  And yet, if you dig deeper into the data, more troublesome trends are emerging in our home town.
  • In its most recent Vital Statistics Report, published this year based on 2014 data, the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Health published key statistics about the overall health of Philadelphia.  Here are some statistics of note:
  • While some health statistics such as life expectancy and infant births are improving, violent crimes (especially homicide), are among the top 10 leading causes of death among all Philadelphians.  Indeed, the number one cause of death for 15 to 24 year-old Philadelphians is homicide.  After an historic low in 2013, Philadelphia’s murder rate has been increasing in each of the last two years.  

The Philadelphia Vital Statistics report goes on, but it is easy to extrapolate from these data sets that Philadelphia today is facing crises that plague many big cities today:  violent crime, gun deaths, homelessness, poverty and unemployment.  
This is the mission field that the Lord has presented us.  As the Psalmist writes in our second scripture reading today, our mission field cries out, “How long will you forget me, Lord?”  “How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart, daily?”
When God calls us to fight these social ills that are encroaching upon us -- will we say, with Abraham, “Here I am, Lord”?  Will we say, with the Psalmist, “We have trusted in God’s faithful love” to lead us in bringing God’s salvation to this mission field?  Will we take on this mission field which has extended from the doorway of this great Church for the last 247 years?  
As for me, I say, “Here I am Lord.”
In closing, we must remember that this week we will celebrate Independence Day -- the Fourth of July -- when we as Americans remember the courage and the sacrifices made by our forebears – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, not to mention Betsy Ross and Dolly Madison – who were present at the birth of a new nation.  These great men and women met during the HOT summer of 1776 (we know a little about HOT summers here at St. George’s!).   Together, they built a new nation based on the Enlightenment ideals of human liberty, freedom of thought, equality, religious toleration, and the rule of law.  
Within three or four blocks of this very spot, our forebears crafted an experiment in democracy, which came to be known by the likes of Jonathan Edwards, paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew 5:14, as that “shining city on the hill.”  A nation which has served as a beacon of hope for many generations of immigrants, refugees, and those seeking a better life for themselves and for their families.
And yet, sadly, this dream of a better life for immigrant families, families fleeing war and oppression, and families who come to this nation hoping to worship God in their own manner, is rapidly under attack.  In United Methodist Churches in this very Annual Conference, from Norristown to Allentown to Kennett Square to Philadelphia, undocumented Christians are being deported by the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency (or “ICE”).  These deportations are very often without the benefit of due process, and very often without the prior knowledge of their families.  
As our colleague, Pastor Robin Hynicka of Arch Street UMC, said recently on “60 Minutes,” we are Christians – and as Christians we must show the radical welcome of Jesus Christ to the “strangers” in our midst – just as the Samaritan showed radical welcome to a stranger, and just as Jesus Christ showed radical welcome to tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers.  As Christians, God calls us to practice a radical welcome – even if such radical welcome challenges a federal government that places fear over love, mistrust over hospitality, and political expediency over community.  
For many, despite its challenges, Philadelphia has become that “shining city on the hill.”  As a self-described “Sanctuary City,” Philadelphia is refusing to comply with federal policies that can lead to deportations of hard-working undocumented Americans, many of whom have paid federal and state taxes for decades.  Sanctuary churches like Arch Street are placing themselves at risk by standing up for refugees, political asylum seekers, and undocumented persons.  
In this new chapter of our lives as a congregation, we must ask ourselves what it is that God is asking us to do.  Together as we are in the love of Jesus Christ.  RIGHT HERE.  RIGHT NOW.  AND FROM THIS DAY FORWARD.   May it be so.  Amen.