This is a sermon I preached on September 3rd, 2017. The far right protest in Charlottesville that resulted in a man driving into a crowd and killing a woman had just taken place. I was (and am still) wrestling with the question of my Christian faith in light of the Age of Trump.
In our tradition, we read 4 pre-chosen selections from Christian Scripture every week. When I preach, I try as much as I can to tie together the Old Testament readings with the Gospel and the New Testament reading. In general, the gospel reading re-reads the OT reading in the light of Christ, and the reading from Paul tells us ‘what to do’ about it. The readings from this week was the Burning Bush incident in Exodus, Peter telling Jesus not to sacrifice Himself, and Paul exhorting his audience to basically do good things to people (Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-26, and Romans 12:9-21). I’ve included my sermon below. I hope you enjoy!!
What does it mean, in this age, and in all ages, to be a Christian?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
This is a question that has been burning in my mind with ever greater urgency in recent months.
For me, anyway, the headlines of the last few weeks, months really, have been really disorienting. The usual sort of national fervor that is created during an election cycle hasn’t died down this time – everything seems so intense, so filled with rage and misunderstanding, tragedy, and fear. I look out onto my newsfeed and see events like the protests in Charlottesville, the massive counter protest in Boston, the tragedy of Harvey, and now the Nashville Statement. Each event (and so many others) give us a chance to define and express how we respond as people, as Americans, as either Male or Female or Queer, as White or Black or Spanish, as Legal or Illegal. In a sense, each of these events is an expression of one or more of these identities – often in opposition with each other.
What I keep wondering though, is what does my Christian identity mean in all of this? How does who I am as a person of this particular faith, centered as it is around the Eucharist, shape my response?
It is a question I don’t want to ask. It is also a question that won’t lay silent – every attempt to sort of push it out of the way and ‘get on with life’ becomes ruined by the next headline. And I’m getting exhausted by not being able to ignore the question any longer.
So I want to start by putting everyone at ease – or at least – trying to. Here is a promise: I’m not going to attack. That isn’t what this sermon is about. I’m not on the offensive, or the defensive, it isn’t about that at all. This parish has people on the left and the right – my central claim in this sermon is that Christianity exists (is lived out) in a whole different dimension – it doesn’t uphold ‘the right’ and it doesn’t ‘uphold’ the left – it doesn’t even uphold ‘the vanishing middle’ rather… it creates a space for reconciliation.
Reconciliation – Christianity opens up a new way of living, of being, of loving, of existing. Christianity doesn’t answer the questions of the world in ways that we expect or fight for – rather, it breaks the brokenness of the world with the promise of a new life in Christ.
Taken together, the four readings this week help us chart out a possible framework for answering our question, “what does it mean, in this age, and in all ages, to be a Christian?”
Ancient Egypt was an Empire that, by the time Moses comes on the scene, had ruled the Nile Valley for 3,500 years. It was ancient and powerful, full of history, tradition, and memory. The beginning of the Egyptian Empire was (chronologically) further away from Moses than we are from Moses. Egypt had sort of, always existed. It had technologically advanced and well funded armies that kept its borders safe. It regularly sent its armies far into foreign lands and brought back gold, wood, slaves, and fame. The wealth of the Nile Valley was in wheat production – it fed (at a price) the entire ancient world. Among the peoples it kept as chattel slaves, were the Hebrew People. Egypt, like the surrounding weaker nations, was fed by the wealth created by owning humans as slaves. By the time of Moses, the gods of ancient Egypt had been worshiped and feared for far longer (again, chronologically speaking) than any of the great religions with which we are familiar. These ancient gods were powerful and worthy of worship because they kept the powerful and corrupt Egyptian Empire in power. They kept the powerful powerful, and the oppressed oppressed, and had always done so.
That is the setting. In precisely this context, Moses is walking out in the wilderness by the mount of Horeb with the sheep when a bush spontaneously ignites with a fire that does not consume it. Recognizing the acts of the gods, Moses stops and pays attention.
Can you imagine Moses surprise when the voice from the bush says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,”????
This is NOT how gods speak! Moses is a Prince of the Empire, he knows the drill – and this, this isn’t the drill. They go back and forth, Moses doesn’t think it is a good idea at all, but he also doesn’t win the argument. The Voice identifies itself as “The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob” – the god of the slaves – and calls itself, “I AM WHO I AM”.
God identifies himself by what he is going to do – make people who were slaves not slaves. He is going to take an entire race of people who are owned by the most powerful and ancient empire on earth and make them an independent nation.
About 700 years later, in the land that this God took the slaves to, Jesus is talking to Peter and the disciples. The people are once again subjected by a mighty worldwide empire. Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one. He is correct. Peter (and everyone else) expects this Messiah, this new Moses, to lead his people with the power of God.
But this ‘new Moses’ is different from the old Moses. Like the old Moses, he is going to take people who were captives and make them not captives – he says as much in Luke. But he isn’t freeing one race from an Empire this time. This ‘new Moses’ is come to liberate all of humanity from the bondage created by sin and death. To do this, he must lay his life down in order to take it back up again.
Here is the internal logic here: the system of the world works because it can take away your life if you don’t play by the rules. It can even take your life if you do play by the rules. It can take away the life of people in all kinds of ways (you go from having a job to being homeless, your country erupts into warfare and you try to immigrate, you either used a drug, tried to house someone who used a drug (and became homeless) or were accused of using drugs, and ended up in prison. The system takes life and gives life and so we humans fight it by trying to save our own lives.
Jesus steps into this system and gives up his own life – and then takes it back again after he died. And says, “to follow me, stop playing by the system. Take up your cross and follow me – do what I do”. Matthew’s Jesus relentlessly eats with sinners and tax collectors, heals the outcasts and the powerless, the leper, the woman who touched his garment, the daughter of the Roman Centurian, and saves tax collectors. People who aren’t ‘on the road’ to salvation people who ‘aren’t doing it right’ get the special attention of Jesus. Jesus is calling those who would follow him to do likewise, without regard to their own life.
Peter doesn’t agree. Peter says, in effect, “you are going to be the Messiah! You aren’t the one who gets crucified, you are the one who crucifies your enemies! You don’t get tortured, you torture! You don’t submit, you make others submit to you.”
Jesus’ response to Peter, “get behind me satan, you are a stumbling block to me” is the crux of the issue. If Jesus had gone along with Peter, then the two of them would have figured out how to lead a resistance movement. Instead, Jesus says, in effect, “it is precisely this desire to destroy your enemies that i have come to liberate you from. In my body, I will open up a way of being human that embraces a humanity broken by hate and separated by envy, self centered ambition, and the need to destroy in order to survive.”
And to follow me, pick up your cross as well. To follow me, allow yourself to bear in your life the social anger directed against the weak and powerless. You suffer instead of and on behalf of them. Don’t let the world create victims and become wealthy because of it. If someone asks for your coat, give him your garment also, and if they require you carry their luggage for a mile, walk for two. Love who the outcasts (the Samaritan) loves.
Paul brings this back around to the real world we live in. The reading is printed at the end of our bulletin. He says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
So where are we? What does it mean, in this age, and in all ages, to be a Christian?
We Christians are radical, not because of what we believe, but because of who we don’t reject. We recognize this fundamental truth, “to love another person, is to see the Face of God.” This is difficult work. This isn’t singing kumbaya in a circle. This is intentionally acting with the specific humans we know in the world in such a way as to love them. This is standing between the opposing groups in Charlottesville locked arm in arm, proclaiming with our bodies that violence will not happen.
This is the work we do as a church working with low income women in the community and their children. This is the work we do teaching music in urban environment. This is the work of giving food to those who have no food. This is the work of creating a future, and community where there is none. This is the work of being the church.
Being a Christian in this age and in all ages is not about creating a haven for the left, or creating a haven for the right. It is about carefully loving each human we meet with courage, sincerity, and honesty.
It will get worse. As the months drag on, and more events happen, people will be more fearful. We will be tempted to act in our own best interest. We will be tempted to think of ourselves first as Americans, as members of the Empire. It is easy to think only of our own safety, But this is precisely what Jesus rejects in Peter. And it is a stumbling block! The greek word translated here means, “something that is so alluring, that the more you stumble on it, the more you want to stumble on it – even though it leads you astray.” This temptation towards our own safety, this alluring temptation, is, to us, as Satan. Jesus says, “pick up your cross” and follow Him who lays down his life. After all, what will it profit us if we gain the whole world, but lose our own soul?