DifferenceMakers Sermon 13 March 2016

Making a Difference Spirtiually and Physically

Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon March 13, 2016 on John 12:1 - 8.

In 2014, a movie came out about the life of Eugene Brown starring academy award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. Thirty or forty years ago he would have seemed an unlikely subject for a motion picture, because he was a criminal felon. Eugene, who now lives in Hickory, was in and out of prison for one thing or another. In 1969, he was arrested in a failed bank robbery for felonious larceny and sent to Trenton State Prison in New Jersey for twelve years.

In a CBN interview that I watched online, Brown says that he did his time playing chess. His life turned around when another inmate taught him to apply the game to life. After one game, Eugene said, “Oh, man, I lost.” The other inmate replied, “You never lose. You’re either learning lessons or teaching lessons. Chess is the only game that can’t be won; it can only be played, just like life.” That inmate changed Eugene Brown’s life.

After he got out of prison, he got a job as a High School janitor. The principal asked him one day to fill in as detention monitor when the monitor quit without warning. Detention was a tough place. Kids were even selling dope there. Eugene restored order, teaching the teens how to play chess. He was fired when it was learned that he was a convicted felon.

Eugene then bought an old house and started the Big Chair Chess Club to teach young people, who live in the impoverished part of Washington, D.C. how to play chess. The club’s motto is “Think before you move.” He wants young people to avoid the impulsive mistakes that landed him and so many others in jail. Chess helps the kids develop discipline, critical thinking, and planning. Chess is really a tool for teaching important life skills. Thousands of young people have benefited since Eugene started the Big Chair Chess Club in the 1980s.

When asked the reason he was portrayed in a movie, Eugene said, “The only reason this movie was made. The only reason I’m here was an ancestral blessing. It’s from my great, great grandmother who probably prayed for us, my grandmother, my mother. So, this is all those people that prayed for our family, for me.”

An inmate in Trenton State Prison changed Eugene Brown’s life. He in turn has changed the lives of thousands of others. This is the story of our faith, how we make a difference, one person at a time. The only reason I know about Eugene Brown is because Becky Smith told me his inspirational story before our mid-week Eucharist Wednesday.

Today we conclude our sermon series on Difference Makers. In this series, we have looked at how we can make a difference in our community. Today we learn that we make a difference spiritually and physically one person at a time.

In our Gospel, Judas Iscariot complains that the costly perfume Mary uses to anoint Jesus’ feet should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus’ answers, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me" (John 12:7-8 NRSV). This verse is sometimes understood as a reason to dismiss the needs of the poor. In December 2014, when Governor Rick Perry was questioned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Texas, he replied, “Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion.”

While there is scholarly debate, when Jesus says “you always have the poor with you,” he appears to be alluding to a passage in Deuteronomy that says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'’ (15:11 ESV). Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus’ concern for the poor. He teaches in the Parable of the Talents, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’” (Mat 25:34-36 NRSV). Instead of dismissing the poor, Jesus, in today’s Gospel, stands in solidarity with them, including himself among them as he nears the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus though is also concerned with those who are in need spiritually. According to the Friberg Greek Lexicon, the Greek word translated in this passage as “poor” also means “those who were in need of God’s help.” Billy Graham, in his commentary on this text, emphasizes the importance of reaching out to those who are in need spiritually and physically, saying, “Ask God to show you ways you can help those whose lives are crushed by poverty. In addition, don’t forget the greatest poverty of all–which is poverty of soul. Is Christ the center of your life, and are you seeking to tell others about the peace and joy He brings to all who open their hearts to Him?”

While people tend to distinguish between reaching out to those in need physically and spiritually, in reality they are inextricably intertwined, because we humans are spiritual and physical beings. The French Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhad de Chardin says, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”

The intimate connection between reaching out to people spiritually and materially came home to me Wednesday, when I met a friend of Pat’s, who Pat had invited to our after school tutoring ministry. As most of you know, this ministry serves elementary school children, who live in the impoverished Alta trailer park down Highway 42.

What you might not know is that the reason Pat is at Grace is because Kathy invited her. They knew each other through a Yoga class. Pat had attended a small, country Methodist church that had closed. Pat now is active not only tutoring but also working in the BackPack Buddies ministry that provides food for Cooper Elementary School children. Her husband Jack now serves on the Vestry, our governing board. Jack told us at our Vestry retreat the other weekend that he had not been active in a church in many years. When I talked to Pat’s friend Wednesday, I asked her if she attended a church; when she said that she didn’t, I invited her to attend Grace one Sunday.

While our society distinguishes between the material and the spiritual, the two are really mixed together. A person who needed a church home ends up serving the poor and a person who comes to serve the poor needs a church home. Every Sunday, we encounter the truth of the interconnection of the spiritual and the physical, when we share the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine that is also the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ, who himself was an ordinary man, with the same physical and emotional needs as each of us, but who was also the son of the living God.

The truth is that if we want to make a difference, we need to reach out to someone, one person, who is in need, whether spiritual or material, invite someone to church, participate in our farmworker camp-in-camp ministry, because who knows how the person you touch will make a difference for someone else.