The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith: It’s Up to Us
In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit.
My Friends, there are times when the church and all of us who call ourselves Christians need to be reminded of our identity and our purpose. Times when we need to be reminded that our job is to carry on the mission that Jesus himself began. Because we live in the time between the Ascension and the second coming, when it is up to us to do the work that Jesus came to do. As St. James reminds us, we are expected to be doers of the word and not just hearers only. Unfortunately, this truth is easy to forget.
Not long ago, I came upon a powerful reminder of our work as Christians. I was wading through social media, and I stumbled upon the text of the welcome sign that used to hang outside Coventry Cathedral in England and perhaps still does. It reads: We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well- heeled or down-at-heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers. We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven’t been to church since Christmas 10 years ago. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit moms, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like organized religion. We’re not that keen on it either. We offer welcome to those who think the Earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to the cathedral. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids or got lost in the Ring Road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters and you.
As soon as I read this I thought, yes, this is what the church is supposed to be. Yes, this is the kind of welcome, openness, and hospitality that Jesus expects of us. We can’t forget that the church isn’t here just to be a pretty place to visit, and we aren’t Christians just to say our prayers and try to secure a place in heaven. Jesus left us with work to do.
Our Gospel for this morning is part of a long prayer that Jesus prays to his Father in heaven on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion. Here Jesus prays for his disciples, his followers, and his friends. He prays, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from this world.” In other words, he says, Father, I have revealed to them your identity, I have literally shown them by my life what you are about. Now they know. Now, in me, they can see you. Protect them with your Holy Spirit and don’t let them forget. Jesus, through his love, his teachings, his self-sacrifice, revealed to his friends the true nature of God, the identity of God. The same identity our Psalmist talks about this morning when he says that God is – the father of orphans, the defender of widows, the giver of homes to the solitary, the one who brings prisoners to freedom and makes provisions for the poor.
Unfortunately, if you look at the history of Christianity since Jesus prayed this prayer, the sad truth is that we haven’t done a very good job of remembering, of living as the God of love taught us to live. No, for all the good Christians have done, our history is full of some horrible things we inflicted on others in God’s name. The systematic persecution of Jews for more than 1,000 years, Jesus’ own people, all in the name of God. The destruction of countless native Americans and their cultures all in the name of saving them. The complete twisting and defiling of the good news of Jesus Christ to defend and ordain the institution of slavery. The support and cover the German church gave to the policies and practices of Hitler and National Socialism. The horrible ways in which the church has treated, and in many cases continues to treat women and our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. And when we aren’t behaving badly, in ways exactly opposite to the ways of Jesus, we are often so caught up and consumed by arguments about doctrine, that we forget that our faith is ultimately about doing and not just about believing – about living as Christ lived in the world. The truth is – it has been quite easy for us to forget.
The other day I watched an extraordinary documentary on YouTube. It’s called “The Hong Konger,” and it tells the amazing story of Jimmy Lai’s struggle for freedom in Hong Kong. I recommend it to you. Have you ever heard of Jimmy Lai? Lai was born in Canton, China in 1947. At the age of 12, seeking a better life, he made his way to Hong Kong as a stowaway on a boat. For years he worked as a child laborer in a garment factory for a wage equivalent to $8.00 a month. Over time he rose to the position of factory manager and in 1975, after investing everything he had in Hong Kong stocks, he was able to buy a bankrupt garment factory. From that one factory, he built a chain of retail stores called Giordano, which at one time had more than 8,000 employees and 2,400 stores in 30 countries. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in China, Jimmy became a staunch advocate for democracy and free speech. A devout Catholic, Lai used more than $100 million of his own money to start a newspaper, Apple Daily, to promote and protect free speech in Hong Kong.
Over the years, Lai became the heart and soul of the prodemocracy movement and a constant presence during protests that sprung up all over Hong Kong. Through his faith, Lai was able to discover the moral purpose of his life. He said, “Whenever I’m in crisis, I feel I’m going to be okay. I live in grace. This is what faith gave me.” “If I suffer for the right cause, it only defines the person I am becoming.” Though his home was firebombed, all his businesses and personal assets frozen, Lai never fled the country or backed down. “I owe freedom my life,” he said. “If they make me a symbol of resistance, whatever suffering I suffer under them will be a wonderful message for the world to pay focus here” (in Hong Kong). In 2020 Jimmy Lai was arrested, and he may well spend the rest of his life in a Chinese prison.
As modern Christians, we are caught in a paradoxical time between times—between the first and second comings of Christ. In this two-thousand- year stretch of transition and waiting, we have been called to carry on the mission that Jesus himself began. We are not to stand by idly looking up to heaven. No, we are supposed to join the Jimmy Lai’s of the world doing the work Jesus gave us to do. In his final prayer, Jesus pleads with God for protection for the disciples and for us, that we might not forget, that we might continue to follow in his footsteps.
During this in between time we can’t forget that if Jesus is going to be active in our world, then it must come from us. We are it; we are all there is between the hope of the good news and the devil who prowls around looking for someone to devour. So, ask yourself this question – what do you want your legacy to be? As David Brooks says, what do you want your eulogy to say? Either what Jesus proclaimed is true and right and good or it isn’t. If what he said was just pie in the sky wishful thinking, if he was just some itinerant preacher full of idealistic nonsense then forget about it, go on your way and God bless you. But if in fact, we see in Jesus a little bit of who God is, if the things he said and did are good and righteous and holy, if they are deeply connected to the truth, then what could be more important than to love our enemies, to love our neighbors, to forgive, to care for the poor and the sick, to protect the weak and the lost, to stand up for what is good and right and true? If these things are from God, then what else is there worth doing in life? When it all gets counted up in the end, what else matters? Amen.
 Information on Jimmy Lai comes from the film Hong Konger, and Wikipedia.