Filed under: Sermons | Tags: declaration of independence, ELCA, independence day, racism
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
We come to worship this holiday weekend with ears buzzing from fireworks, hearts throbbing in time to drums beat in parades, and gratitude for the work and sacrifice of so many who have made our country what it is today. Yet we also know there are descriptors and dreams for our country that have not been birthed into reality.
In 1776, the General Congress signed this dream into its Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These high and lofty ideals hold within themselves a mirror that shines onto their situation and ours.
God will not be mocked. These men penned their vision of God granting rights, even as they could not recognize the equality, humanity, and rights of women, Native Americans, and African slaves. God made all people in God’s image, and while the drafters of the Constitution may not have been able to see all who were included among God’s children, God is not held back by our prejudice. God continues to propel us forward into God’s intended community. Those land-owning white men who invoked God’s name to strengthen their own claim to rights and freedom might have been terrified by what they would perceive as a loss or threat to their power when in the centuries that followed, those rights were also given to blacks and women.
It’s easier to look back and see the faults of our forefathers than it is to examine our own. Yet Jesus calls his followers to first examine themselves before judging others. When we do that, we find that our nation, our selves, have inherited the same blindness to the humanity of others.
When God prepares Ezekiel to speak to the nation of Israel, God prepares Ezekiel with the hard facts: even after all his work, the people might not pay attention or change their ways at all, but they will know a prophet has been among them. The work of a prophet is to uncover truth- to speak God’s truth to a people who don’t want to accept it.
We are like the Israelites, in that hard truth has been uncovered in our midst. The shooting in Charleston is like the speech of a prophet in that it forces our eyes to see that which has been right in front of us. We are confronted with the truth that our nation is not the land of liberty we’ve celebrated it to be. We are not the beacon of justice, on a hill above all others. We have not achieved perfection, but continue to see God’s image reflected only in our own. We remain blind to our own narrow vision, just as our founders were. Racism is not only a thing of the past, but is a blight on our own community today.
Paul, the apostle, writes that God’s grace is made perfect in weakness. Our faith compels us not to gloss over this event- we cannot brush it off as an action of one isolated crazy person so very far- on the other side of the country- from us.
Only by acknowledging our own weakness, our own part in racism: our own jokes, our own fear, our own silence, can God’s grace be perfected in us. God has the power to bring us in to the difficult facing of our sin in order to transform us into the new creation- the new community.
In Ephesians (2), we hear the truth that Jesus has broken down the dividing walls between us. In a beautiful litany Paul declares in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). This is God’s desire for us.
We are not there yet. But our God- the God who brought Jesus back from the dead- the God who created all that is out of nothing- our God has the power and the will to change our weakness. God heals what is broken. God makes alive what once was dead. So even as we cannot imagine changing who we are or how we relate to others, God knows nothing is impossible.
There is no easy path into the new creation. Even when things seem to be going well, healing is happening, community is forming, conversations and conversions – can all be stopped short. This derailment happened even to Jesus.
Jesus experiences the despairing failure prophets face. He’s returned to his hometown after traveling throughout the countryside, healing the sick, even bringing the dead to life, but his community isn’t willing to hear truth from him. His ministry, which has been gaining speed and momentum, comes to a screeching halt among his own people.
When you’re part of a community, it’s hard to see the truth about that system, and it’s even harder for anyone in that system to believe what you say about it. Sometimes you need distance for perspective.
This is part of the reason I celebrate that we are not a theocracy, we are not a Christian nation. We stand alongside the nation, and can look at it, critique it, work within it, and not be under it. Our faith informs the way we interact with the nation, the priorities we have. We also are tested by needing to provide reasons for actions we call our nation to make, reasons that make sense to those who are not shaped by our faith. We are able to formulate those reasons to the degree to which we work to understand and know those whose faith or life experiences differ from our own.
Jesus seems to be so enmeshed in his own community that they cannot accept his new role as prophet and messiah. After such a surprising failure, Jesus doesn’t regroup, stand still, and analyze what went wrong. He doesn’t even slow down, but entrusts the hard work of ministry to his still-in-training disciples. When Jesus sends his followers out, to work his mission in the next towns and villages, he sends them in a very specific way. They are sent with only the clothes on their backs- seemingly totally unequipped. They will be completely dependent on others’ choice to extend hospitality to them.
Think how much that would change your stance as you entered a new community. You wouldn’t be able to stand back, judging others, noting how they are different from you, pausing at a safe distance to decide if you really want to engage. You’d have to jump right in to their experiences.
I don’t think many of us have known that kind of dependence before. You have to give up control, give up power over the situation, and enter the rhythm of your hosts. When you’re a guest in another’s house, you live on their schedule.
When I was a preteen, I’d spend a week or so at my aunt and uncle’s house in the summer. I must have been used to having complete access to the kitchen at my home, or eating at different mealtimes, because one thing I remember is being really hungry by 4pm and then having to wait and wait for something to eat at supper. Their life schedule was different than my own, but as their guest, it wasn’t up to me to change them.
As Jesus’ followers today, the disciples’ way is not the way we go about our ministry. We like to be the hosts. We like to be the ones scooping food out onto plates and handing them over to others, without even really touching. We want to be clearly identified as the ones doing the serving, and avoid identifying with those being served. It’s safer when there are boundaries- we aren’t challenged and we aren’t changed.
But if the prophetic events in our nation have convinced us that the sin of racism is real in even our own hearts, our weakness won’t be exchanged for grace by our maintaining a status as hosts. We won’t be changed if we keep up boundaries and stay a safe distance from the real life experiences of our black brothers and sisters.
Here at Cross, we have the beginning invitation to enter relationship with the people of Reformation Lutheran Church and their neighbors. We can learn from Pastor Marilyn and the people of Reformation, listen our way into their stories, and together discover and dismantle the boundaries between us. We can’t enter authentic, life-changing relationship if we only play the host. We can begin the steps towards entering each other’s villages in openness and vulnerability, so that God can change our hearts and direct our actions.
On the path to the new creation, Jesus died. That’s how hard this work is. The powers that be fight back against attack. Sometimes death and sin win the battles. The story of Jesus’ death is not one of failure. Death could not contain the Son of God. Jesus rose again. There may be days when evil is powerful- when God-fearing people are killed, when churches are burned- but there will be a new day, when relationship and reconciliation are made possible by the powerful God of life, who makes all things new. The vision of community which we have only glimpsed will be made real. In that day, it will not only be for our nation, but all peoples, to rejoice in the love of God and our unity in Christ.
We enter the gospel of Mark to a crowd waiting for Jesus. He’s led the disciples out across the sea through the storm to places they wouldn’t have imagined themselves going, serving people so outside their boundaries, that encountering the storm must have seemed peaceful in comparison. Now they’ve crossed the sea again.
The people Jesus left earlier must have told their friends about his work, and now, as word spreads that Jesus has returned, a great crowd gathers. The Gospel focuses us on two people in the crowd, one, a leader of the synagogue, who has come to plead for healing for his daughter, and the other, a woman, who has searched for healing for years and now takes one last chance with Jesus.
I imagine them both as desperate people, who have tried all other options, and now, as hope is fading, reach out to Jesus.
Jairus, the desperate father, is put on hold while Jesus notices the woman and talks to her about her healing. In those few moments between Jairus’ appeal to Jesus, when he begged for healing that would save his daughter’s life, a world has changed. His daughter died. Someone comes to pull him away from Jesus. There’s nothing left to be done.
But Jesus doesn’t agree. Overhearing their conversation, he says to Jairus,
“Do not fear, only believe.”
Those words ring in Jairus’ ears as he walks back to him home, steps following the path, eyes blind to the world. When they arrive, all those who had gathered to support the family, to help them mourn, respond with derisive laughter when Jesus declares, “the child is not dead, but sleeping.”
The girls’ parents are the only ones who do not.
Any sensible person can see the truth. The child has died, and there’s no going back from that. To follow a man who says otherwise is delusional; foolish.
Anyone who has ever loved someone can put themselves in those parents’ place. If there was one glimmer of hope that the beloved could be alive instead of dead, wouldn’t you hold on tightly? Or if you were to have a loved one who became sick, can’t you imagine spending all your free time on Google, trying to learn more and see if there’s anything more you can be doing? No matter how crazy it might be.
Jeff and I were in that situation around four years ago, when I was pregnant with Laila. We went in for the ultrasound in which they check all the body parts, scanning into the organs. When we got back into my midwife’s office, she said the baby’s heart didn’t look quite right. She moved quickly into assuring us that she’d get an appointment at the children’s hospital in South Dakota, where we’d get a better scan, where they would quickly start looking at options for surgery, even before she was born. We went home with minds and hearts spiraling, unable to process that the baby we looked forward to might not live, or that there might be a long road of medical procedures ahead of us. In the days to come, we searched for answers, looked at heart diagrams, read medical journals.
I share this to say that I know it doesn’t take much, sometimes just a whisper of a possibility that something’s not right, to throw us into desperate search for answers and for healing.
The mourning crowd might have thought those parents had lost their good sense, following this teacher who says the dead aren’t dead, but I can understand. They will try anything. In that moment of fear, the choice to believe isn’t a rational commitment. It’s more like a clutching at any possibility for a better outcome.
Jesus sends those who hold no hope out of the house. He brings the parents into the place where the girl is. He commands, and she gets up, and walks. He tells her family to get her something to eat.
What are those laughing mourners doing all this time? Have they left in a huff after being dismissed by Jesus? Maybe some. But I imagine more are waiting outside. Perhaps peeking in through the open door or window, wondering what is going on- what Jesus will do and how the parents will react.
Do they hear Jesus’ command? Do they catch a glimpse of her rising from her bed? What happens in a few days, when the whole town has seen her out and about, very much alive? What do they think then?
We see an echo of those laughing mourners in our world today. We live in a world in which more and more often people are deciding they don’t need church and they certainly don’t need any antiquated belief system. It’s obvious what is true, and the whole God thing isn’t it.
Just because some people today aren’t choosing to be a part of a faith community doesn’t mean they don’t long for the life, hope, and forgiveness that Jesus brings. None of those mourners wanted a little girl to die. They just couldn’t see any other possibility.
Jairus and his wife are around to see the beautiful miracle of life Jesus brings. Those who couldn’t believe in this possibility were cast out of the room, but I have to imagine that eventually, they too saw the result of Jesus’ work. We don’t hear their story, but some of them must have been moved to faith when they saw that Jesus restores life.
We gather here today as a people who believe Jesus gives life. What have you seen? What have you experienced? What is the life-giving work that Jesus is doing in the presence of us believers?
We’ll take a few moments during our offering for those who wish to share how they have experienced the life-restoring work of God in their own lives.
Part of our work as the Church is to proclaim the life-giving Christ so that people who have never considered faith an option might find their way into relationship with God. I think of the image of those laughing mourners outside the house, with an eye to the crack in the door, watching what Jesus is doing, even as they have distanced themselves. As the Church, we aren’t serving God by only leaving a sliver of hope shining for the world to glimpse. We need windows open, doors open, all invited to step inside and see!
How are we opening the doors so that those who never would have considered Jesus are now seeing the life he brings?
Our public leaders open the doors. The Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, our church, has called on all of us to spend a day in repentance, of publicly declaring that we are also participants in the sin of racism that destroys life. In this public statement, we say to the world, yes, black lives matter, and yes, we in this congregation have lived with privilege to which we are blind, but we believe in the power of God to continue to transform us, to confront us with our sin and raise us up with his love, so that one day, we will live with justice, and mercy, kindness and humility. For those who have written off the Church as aligned with the powers of this world that thrive on oppression and injustice, we show a Church that is not too proud to repent, a church that says, you can be a part of teaching us a better way.
Our work in service opens the doors. We join with more than a dozen local churches as we begin our participation with Family Promise, working with those homeless families who need one more step of support before they can reach a level of self-sufficiency. To those who see the Church as full of petty in-fighting, while not caring about the real needs of people, we show the compassion of Christ, making new life possible.
We have the life-restoring God in our midst. We have faith that casts out fear. This is good, good stuff. It’s time to be sure that our neighbors know this Christ. Open the doors, open the windows, share the story: those who once rolled their eyes and laughed at the foolishness of faith may one day laugh with joy at the amazing love, the complete faithfulness, Jesus has always had for them.
Grace and peace to you sisters and brothers in Christ,
We enter the Gospel of Mark after a chapter full of parables about the Kingdom of God and the life of faith. It describes a Jesus who has been constantly teaching the crowds, and then explaining things more privately to his disciples.
After such a grueling speaking schedule, it’s not a surprise that we would find Jesus asleep as he’s being transported to the next mission field.
It is, however, a bit of a surprise when we realize he’s sleeping through a storm, and even more so when we imagine the wind so strong that it’s sending waves crashing over the side of the boat, threatening to sink it and everyone on board.
While Jesus is sound asleep, the disciples are frantically doing all they can to keep the boat afloat. Remember, the disciples aren’t soft handed academics who are strangers to life on the sea. At least four of them are fishermen, they’ve been on boats since childhood, handling difficult storms and returning safely to home.
They have skills and knowledge. They should have been ok on their own, and certainly Jesus, a carpenter turned religious teacher wouldn’t have been as comfortable steering the boat as they were. But all their ability isn’t enough. The boat is sinking, and all on board are thinking this is the end.
All, that is, except Jesus. He’s asleep.
Finally, the frantic disciples wake him, desperately, angrily shouting, “do you not care that we are dying?”
Then Jesus rises from sleep and acts- the raging wind is no more.
After Jesus saves them, he wonders at them, at their fear and lack of faith, despite having learned alongside him and witnessed his power.
The disciples are awestruck, having seen the power of God revealed in Jesus.
When they set out, the disciples must have thought they had what they needed to take care of themselves, no matter what might happen on the journey. I’m especially thinking of those fishermen among them. They had experience, knowledge, skills passed down the generation. They knew the right way to do things. Their muscles were trained for handling a boat through all kinds of weather. They knew how to chart a course and get there all by themselves.
We’re much like them. On the whole, we are an independent people. We think we can make it through life alone. We may feel obligated to help those who don’t seem to be able to support themselves, but mostly, we buy into the idea that people should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get their lives in shape, make goals and see them through. We shouldn’t need anyone else.
The disciples on that boat were in for a dangerous surprise. This time, their skills weren’t enough. Left alone in their own power, they were surely going to die.
We don’t like to admit to times when we can’t do life on our own. It feels like weakness and failure. But the thing is, we weren’t created to be alone, or to care for ourselves alone. We were meant for connection, and sometimes, humility.
We need Jesus, and we need a community of faith, to support us through the difficult times in life, to locate our lives within a story greater than ourselves, and to give us purpose throughout life.
We cannot do life alone. So does that mean life will be safer when we’re connected with Jesus and with a faith community? What does it mean to face danger with Jesus in the boat?
If the creator of the universe, the one who told the waves how far they were allowed to go in the very beginning, was sitting in your boat, wouldn’t you imagine you’d be safe from any storm? If Jesus is on your side, doesn’t that mean nothing bad will ever happen?
We often think Jesus will protect us. We think if we have enough faith, bad things won’t happen, or if they do, we’ll learn what we have to, we’ll pray really hard, and God will turn our time of trial into something good.
Those disciples in the boat weren’t just pretending to fear for their lives. They did turn to Jesus, and Jesus did save them, but their experience was not without danger.
The raging storms have been strong this week for us. On top of any storms that may be going on in your lives, turning on the news we’ve heard of a local police officer shot nations building weapons stockpiles, the Pope acknowledging the damage we do to creation, and the waves of racism crashing even into a church with a death-dealing blow.
Shouldn’t the church be the safest place to be? How can it be, that a group of people can gather around the Bible and then one of them can pull out a gun and kill those around the table?
Maybe it’s the very question I posed that feeds into this threat: “If Jesus is on my side…” Maybe even us, who try to lead good lives, have a part in the guilt of this violence because we’ve built up an idea that we’re the ones with God on our side, and that wants an identification of those who are not on God’s side. We should wonder if we’re actively teaching our children -reminding ourselves- to picture the whole range of those who are the beloved children of God: so that our image of the kingdom of God includes Black people and Latino people, families with one parent or two fathers, single people without children, those with summer homes and those who live out of their cars…so that we all know and celebrate that this congregation is just a tiny fraction and not very representative of the diversity of the whole of God’s people. If the church isn’t actively fighting against the evil in the world that is racism, or any other structure that directs hate at a people, then we’re stuck on the shore ignoring Jesus calling us to be with him. In the gospel, Jesus is traveling with the disciples to the other side of the sea, where they will continue to be pushed out of their comfortable assumptions of who is welcomed in the kingdom of God.
Jesus isn’t some talisman to ward off danger. He’s not a good luck charm added as an afterthought to our hard work and skill building. Jesus is travelling with us to the other side. There may be times when Jesus seems frightfully powerless or indifferent to the danger we face. Jesus isn’t with us to make our life journey comfortable. Jesus is with us so that we are moved- moved from sin to holiness, from hatred to love, from violence to peace.
In the end, we will discover that not only do the waves and wind obey Jesus, but even death is under his power. Jesus will travel with us through death onto the other side, into life in the new creation, forever.