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.
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