George is away on vacation during August. In his absence, Suzanne Sykes has sent a series of 4 sermons prepared on the theme of Paradise. The second one is below.
July 20, 2008
Kanata United Church
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
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The Rev. Suzanne Sykes
Summer is a wonderful season. School breaks and summer vacations give us time to chill out, to relax, to visit, to reconnect with the significant people in our lives. Longer days just seem to lend themselves to long dinners and conversations about the things in life that matter to us. Summer gives us time to reflect to play to explore that winter doesn’t seem to provide.
Summertime is the time we do things with our friends - we have bar-b-ques, go swimming, I explore the villages in the valley, their buildings and art and artists, with a friend of mine - something we never have time to do the rest of the year. Summertime reminds me of how important my friends are to me and how impoverished life would be without them.
Our friends are important to us. In a very real sense, we are who we are because of them. Our parents and families are our principal guides and inspiration when we are young; more often it is our friends who have that role when we are adults. Friends and friendship matter.
Now this would have been a surprising idea in the world of Jesus and Luke and John. In their world everything about you was determined by three circumstances. First was your family, your clan. Second was the state - The Roman Empire to be precise. Third was your gender.
Family determined your religion and your work. If they were Jewish, you were Jewish - no exceptions. If your family worshipped Jupiter, so did you. Family also determined your occupation if you were male, you inherited the occupation of your father. If you were female, it determined who you married. Family and clan determined all the small details of life. And it determined your social status in a world that was rigidly status conscious.
The Roman Empire determined everything else. The policy of Rome when it came to the occupied territories was one of subjugation through starvation. Scholars estimate that 90% of the population was one meal away from starvation. Ensuring that you and your family would have enough food for the day was a full time occupation and a complete preoccupation for most of the nation. It is in this context that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray - give us this day our daily bread - a practical request and a powerful reminder that it is by God’s gracious goodness we live and not by the bread rations of the Caesars.
Finally gender played a huge role in who you could meet, what you could do, where you could go. In Jesus’ world, men and women did not speak to one another unless they were close relations. Yet Jesus treats women as equals, free to associate and learn with men.
These three circumstances - family, state and gender - marked the limits of ones social interaction. It was so complete that the same word in Hebrew means both stranger and enemy. It was so difficult to encounter someone outside of clan or guild, someone unknown, that the logical thing was to assume that strangers were enemies.
Into this world Jesus introduces a new concept - friendship. The principal characteristic of friendships is that they are not determined at birth. Friendships are freely chosen and entered into. Friendship continues because friends decide to remain friends. Friendship is a principal characteristic of the early Christian community. And friendships characterize the nature of Paradise.
If we read the good samaritan story as a story about friendship, it reveals something about the kingdom. The Levite and Priest acted according to the social rules of the day. The man could be identified by his clothing so it was clear he was not of their family or guild. Under the social code of honour they were not obligated to help him - in fact they would lose honour if they did. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews - they were enemies - so the Samaritan had even less reason to help. Yet he does - he freely chooses this relationship. He acts as a friend - as a neighbour as the text says. He freely moves the injured man from the category of stranger to friend.
Jesus tells this story to answer the question of what the kingdom of God is like. And kingdom of God, God’s shalom, God’s reign of peace and justice are all synonyms for Paradise - the realm of God’s goodness and grace. So paradise is like our experience in our best friendships.
The passage from John’s Gospel marks a significant shift in the relationship between Jesus and his followers. They are no longer students and teacher now they are friends. Their position shifts from face to face, leader and follower, to peers and equals, sharing mutual commitments and concerns side by side.
Women are equal partners in paradise. No where is this more obvious than with Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is celebrated this coming Tuesday. The bible says that Jesus freed her from demons. She was the first witness to the resurrection, a teacher and leader of the early church and a friend of Jesus. When Jesus called her friend, when he called the disciples friends, they experienced a bit of paradise.
The church is a community of friends. Friends of Jesus the Christ and friends to one another. In the first centuries, only in church could people encounter each other and treat one another as equals. They worshipped celebrated the Eucharist together - they ate together - as friends. While the world required separation, not to interact, the church invited them to be part of a community of friends and to celebrate this life as part of God’s paradise together. The very act of celebrating together as equals and as friends made that paradise a greater reality.
When Jesus calls us friends he acknowledges that together we are partners together in creating paradise. We are friends working together to bring the original garden paradise to reality in this earth, in our time. We work together to create more peace and justice in the world. We are friends who care for the poor and outcast.
To experience friendship is to experience a bit of paradise. Friendship is the relationship the binds us, one to another, in the church. Whatever we may be in the world, whatever our roles that define us and confine us, whatever obligations they entail, here in church we are freed from them. Here we are equals, we are friends to one another because we are friends of Christ.
So think of that this week. Talk to your friends and deepen those friendships, on Tuesday raise a glass to Mary Magdalene, friend of Jesus and founder of the church, foremother of all the faithful. Celebrate life and the gifts of paradise, here and now in our world, together. Amen.
c. 2008, Suzanne E. Sykes