|"Amazing Grace Mural" by 1Flatworld, distributed under a CC BY-ND-NC license.|
Sermon preached on the third Sunday after Pentecost (June 30, 2019) at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis. Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Ps. 77:1-2; Gal. 5:1, 13-25; Lk. 9:51-62
“The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal. 5:14-15)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Early on in my life as a newly converted Christian, I worshiped with a woman who, whenever “Amazing Grace” came up as one of our hymns. would change one of the words.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” she would sing, “that saved a soul like me.”
“That saved a soul,” rather than, “that saved a wretch.”
She told me she didn’t like the word “wretch” because of what it implied about her worthiness, about her standing with God. I don’t begrudge her that decision, necessarily. God knows certain of our fellow Christians have so emphasized human sinfulness at the expense of our belovedness, and the fact that at the creation God called us good, that when an opportunity comes to surface from the toxicity of such an expression of our faith, that it can do one’s soul good to leave a word like wretch behind.
But as a new Christian, I took the wrong lesson from our conversation. Back then, as now, I relied on the members of the church as a guide to living the Christian life. But I was inexperienced enough that I didn’t understand that what this person was telling me was about what she, as one person, needed to do to protect herself from past harm the church had done. The lesson I learned - or thought I learned - instead, was that in churches that valued the leadership of women, and were at least willing to have the conversation about the standing of gay people before God - my own minimum standards for a church I would join - people weren’t wretches, full stop.
And so all this unpleasant judgment business was just some parasitic narrative that had clung like a barnacle to the super-nice warm and fuzzy “love thy neighbor” heart of the gospel.
When you’re 20 years old in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, amidst the first glimmers of hope in the form of effective HIV treatments that removed a simmering dread, with months yet to come before the revelation of Bill Clinton’s Oval Office affair (and with no small measure of compartmentalization of the Rwandan genocide), it was possible to believe such things, that there was no need for a day of reckoning, that there was no judgment due.
But we do not have the luxury of believing such things today, if we ever did.
Beloved, we are beloved, we are created in God’s image, God did call us good. And in our belovedness, in our goodness, God entrusted the world to our care. How have we done? How have we been our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? How well have we let the little children come to us?
Others have said better the things I might say about how we as Christians should respond to the stain of our nation’s response to the migrants seeking asylum on our southern border, and most especially our treatment of the children.
On those matters I commend to you Bishop Jennifer’s message delivered on Friday, and the message from the Bishops of California delivered yesterday. If you can’t find Bishop Jennifer’s letter in your inbox, chances are you aren’t subscribed to the Diocese’s newsletter, and as the bishop’s canon I am duty-bound to remind you that you can find her message and subscribe to the newsletter at indydio.org.
Also today, at 4:00, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette is hosting “Never Again is Now,” an interfaith gathering to resist the cruelty our country is visiting on toddlers, and to call us back to the values America claims to hold dear. Bishop Jennifer and many people of faith and others of good will will be there, and I likewise commend it to you.
We live in angry, dispiriting times, justifiably so, and who knows if we have seen the worst yet? But we are a people of hope, a people of resurrection, a people who know that when the stone of the tomb eclipses all light from sun, moon, and stars, a yet more powerful spark remains.
There is another side to these times.
But who will we be on it?
From the looks of it, whatever side of the political spectrum we fall on, it appears we will all be like James and John, saying to Jesus, “Hey those Samaritans weren’t so welcoming – is it cool if we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
We don’t traffic in brimstone the same way we used to, but the vitriol and the scorn of our present age burn nearly as hot.
The impulse to destroy our enemies and those who do harm to us and to those we love is perfectly understandable, and scripturally supportable, even, if you look in the right places. But Jesus calls us to a harder thing. I’m not talking about making peace with injustice: that’s appeasement, and we’re all too good at it. I’m talking about making peace with people.
How I wish today’s gospel were longer - like three times longer. Because today and for the next two Sundays, St. Luke gives us an extended lesson on making peace. Today, we have Jesus’s scouts sent ahead to a Samaritan village to find a place for Jesus to stay and teach, and the Samaritans in no uncertain terms reject him. The disciples want to take vengeance, but Jesus rebukes them. We don’t quite know what he says, but next week’s reading gives us a hint.
That’s the sending of the seventy, two by two, into all the places Jesus intended to go as he made his way back to Jerusalem. He instructs them to bring the news that the Kingdom of God has come near, and they are to bestow their peace upon those they meet - only, if they are not received hospitably, they are to move on, yet telling even those who reject them that the Kingdom of God has come near. In a curious aside that is left out of the lectionary text, Jesus says that on the day a town rejects them, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” Though with no fire from heaven, no brimstone, no pillars of salt, It’s not quite clear what he means: only that it is clear that the judgment of those towns belongs to God, and not to the disciples who would rain down fire.
And then the next week, a lawyer challenges Jesus - seeking to justify himself he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the parable of the man beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road, passed over by a priest and a Levite, only to be rescued by a man of the very Samaritan people who rejected Jesus just some 30 verses earlier. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus not only reaffirms the expansive notion of neighborliness commanded in Leviticus, but in its placement so soon after his own rejection by the Samaritans, Jesus affirms that alienation and enmity need not be the end of us.
The development of the Samaritan people in Luke’s Gospel from the rejecting enemy to the literal gold standard of a good neighbor is a mystery in some ways. After all, the Good Samaritan isn’t even a real person, but an imagined possibility. But part of the point of that story is to provoke us to seek the good in those who in actual fact or merely our perception are our enemies today.
But the way of making that shift happen becomes comprehensible if we acknowledge that in the aftermath of our sins against each other - whatever the rightness or wrongness of our past actions and positions - that we have all along been looking through a glass, darkly, and on the basis of our faith’s twin treasures of repentance and forgiveness, we can be reconciled one to another by the grace of God in Christ.
Loving our neighbor means loving the one who is nice to us, the one who has wronged us, the one who reviles us, the one we revile, the one we have wronged - all while upholding the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God. It’s a messy business.
And it’s a messy business we can duck. It’s optional, Paul advises, writing to the Galatians. We do have the option to proceed down the spiral of biting and devouring - just be careful, Paul writes, that in the process of devouring one another you don’t consume one another…as if devour and consume weren’t synonyms.
I have faith that the darkness of the present hour is not our end, but on us is whether the character of the time to come is revenge, blame, and recriminations, biting and consuming, or a yet more excellent way.
It is tempting every day to call for a rain of fire rather than reconciliation to God and to one another in the promised reign of God.
Let us not be led into that temptation.
So, beloved, discipline yourselves, be alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. (1 Peter 5:8-9, paraphrase)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.