Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: "Touching Grace"—Mark 5 and Amos 5

It was a typical day at the nursing home:
As a chaplain, I am entrusted with such a sacred job. I get to be with people at their most vulnerable and talk about the elephant in the room—death.
And so, there I was, heading to the room of a patient.
I head down the carpeted hallway, which smells like mothballs and vegetables. I washed my hands, and I started to enter the room.
Just then, a woman, who was not on hospice and therefore was not my patient, said “You-hoo!!!”
So I look down, and there’s a woman in a wheelchair, as many nursing home residents are.
“My, you’re tall!”
I get this a lot.
“You must be a doctor!”
I get that a lot, too… I have no idea what she’s thinking.
I reply: “No, I’m actually a chaplain.”
“A who?”
“A chaplain.”
(Reverent) “Oh, a priest! Would you pray for me?”
And just like that, because I stopped, a rather silly conversation turns into something sacred.

It was a lot like that with Jesus as he was crossing to the other side of the sea in his boat.

He had just finished calming the storm and casting out demons, and he even told the young man not to tell anyone of the miracle he accomplished… but word got around to the other side of the sea before Jesus could even land the boat.
There he was, docking in a place that smelled like fish and wood… tying his boat to the hitch and carefully maintaining his balance while stepping out.
He washes his hands and heads up the shore.
Just then, a man says, “You-hoo!!!”
And then he says, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”
And just like that, because he stopped, a mundane moment turns into something sacred.
So he heads over to see the man’s daughter.

But then, another interruption. This one was also severe.  This one pointed to a problem which had existed for years and years and years… and went unaddressed.
The person carrying the weight of this burden tolerated the problem for years… until it reached a point at which she could no longer live with it.

I’m going to pause right here.

Because we are at exactly this point in American life right now.

Here we were, in the heat of the Presidential campaign season… and then massacre after massacre after massacre happens… and then suddenly, the national dialogue shifts to a problem that we have been tolerating for years and years and years… until it reached a point at which we could no longer live with it.
Suddenly, last year around this time, Facebook newsfeeds explode with fights about the Confederate Battle Flag. Since that time, there are fights about gun ownership and gun safety… and accusations that the nice people who die because of gun violence deserve to die because they were unarmed.
Then the news channels try to make the shootings about mental illness if the shooter is white, or terrorism if the shooter is Muslim, or thuggery if the shooter is black.
What does this say about how we view white people?
What does this say about how we view Muslims?
What does this say about how we view black people?
What does it say about us, that we tolerate such bias in the media?

And the nation is dividing along partisan fault-lines, and grownups are bullying other grownups:
For not uniting within the party.
Or, for supporting “that other party’s” candidate.
Or for committing the “thought crime” that the “minor party candidate” might actually be the better option than any of the above.
Or for standing on principle.
Or for being complicit in the atrocities committed by a major party candidate simply by supporting them.
Or for declaring that one is not going to vote.
Riots, fissures, toupees, and pantsuits.
And hate.

In other words, it has been a very painful year for this country.

And now, as people of different affiliations, gathered here in this auditorium, we are obliged to grapple with our differences.

We are angry, distraught, confused, troubled, scared; we feel powerless… and perhaps that is why people are fighting so hard against gun violence, as a church.
Most of us live in a community where private schools and luxury vehicles are common. We benefit from living on this land, which was not ours to take from the American Indians, yet we remain here. Yes, this is our home now, but this is not ours to have.
Often, ministers read poems at the end of their sermons, but I want to share this with you in the middle of my sermon, because we’re going to need to unpack it.

---

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE
By Tess Baumberger.

Innocence does not die at once, in that first raptured thrust.
It dies in each small seduction, in every subsequent acquiescence.
American innocence did not die in that bright flashing terrorist act,
it dwindled breath by breath, in great and tiny acts of terror:
It died with every smallpox blanket sold to an Indian village,
with every arrogantly greed-wrested acre,
with every language and culture that disappeared,
it died on the Trail of Tears.

It died with every African shackled and torn from homeland, family,
with every auction block sale of humanity,
it died in the Middle Passage.

It died with every civil rights activist beaten or killed,
with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers
it died in Montgomery and Selma and Little Rock.

It died with Roosevelt's refusal to accept Jews fleeing the Nazis,
it died with every black man sent first to the front lines
it died with two atomic weapons dropped upon Japan,
One hundred and seventy thousand lives lost in two great flashing instants.

It dies with every chemical weapon developed,
with every nuclear test, wherever it happens,
with every bomb or jail built instead of a school.

It dies with every KKK rally and every single lynching,
with every man searched by police because he's black,
with every man beaten by officers,
with every child who witnesses or perpetuates gang warfare,
it dies with every racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic joke.

It dies with every bombed synagogue, mosque, temple,
with every black church burned,
with every abortion clinic bombed,
with every hate-filled word or deed.

It dies with every sweatshop built on a poorer country's soil,
with every product bought, made by a political prisoner,
with every homeless person,
with every starving despairing child.

Oh, innocence never dies at once, only delusion does.

---

Just… wow…
May we open our eyes to our past delusions.

So where is hope?
The Gospel is a good place to look.
Because in it, Jesus stops. //
(Faster) Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl, but he stops in his tracks and wonders who touched him.
The disciples were like, “Jesus, I mean, come on, there are a thousand people here glorifying your name, and you’re worried about one of the hands that touched you?”
Then the woman who had been bleeding for years and years and years came, in fear and trembling, and laid herself down at His feet.
And Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Friends, it is in times like these that we notice the bleeding, the hemorrhaging, the growing pains, the hurt, the strife.
We are aware of how people are unfairly targeted.
And just like Jesus walked through the crowd of people to do something miraculous, we were on the verge of great things as a religion.
And then Newtown happened.
// Some Christians / kept / on / walking / by.
// But we. Are. Not. That. Brand.
And just like people were proclaiming the reign of God on earth and looking to God, so too people are looking to the Christian Church at this moment in history.
They are wondering: how are the Christians going to conduct themselves after Charleston? After Ferguson. After Newtown?
And just as the woman threw herself at the feet of Jesus, so too, people are throwing themselves at the Christian Church—in fear and trembling—begging to be loved. Pleading for compassion and mercy. Waiting for the hand of Jesus to be extended to them.
I’ll tell you who: it’s every group mentioned in the poem from earlier.
It’s not just Black and White relations. In the same way that Jesus had a thousand people clamoring for his attention and proclaiming the reign of God, there are dozens of groups that Christians need to show the Love of God to. Every group that is marginalized. That is our mission.
Let me ask you this: who is in need in this community, and are they in this room right now? What groups are in the news recently, and is this church doing anything to welcome them in this sacred place?
No? Then what are we even doing here?
The Gospel message is clear: when they come to us, and touch the hem of our garment, we bless them.
Even if we are busy trying to do something else, we bless them.
Even when it is not convenient, we bless them.
Even when it is not expedient, we bless them.
We are called to leave our comfort zone to bring healing to the wounded… and to associate with everyone we meet along the way, outside these church walls. That is our earth-bound duty.
I hope we make it easy for people to feel welcome in this church, and to graft onto the branch of our church other under-represented groups and races that seek spiritual refuge here. What great faith they have to come to our congregations and stay a part of our communities!
It will always be difficult to choose to walk in God’s way. But that’s what we were created for.

We are now at war with North Korea, apparently. And many of us are dubious. Quizzical, even. The rest of us are frightened, and rightfully so.
The issue here is not whether this church will align with the political left or right—but rather, “how / will / we / love?”
Will we be so task-oriented and so insular, focusing on the church budget and the paint on the walls… or will we take the “both/and approach” of Jesus?
We need to work on the budget… yes… and we need to love LGBTQ+ people.
We need to take care of the paint on the walls… and we need to reverse generations of oppression of women.
We need to make sure the flower committee and coffee hour crew serve effectively… and we need to decry politically-motivated violence done in the name of God.
This is our model for ministry.
We do our thing, and we love individuals and groups in the way that Jesus loved them.

How did Jesus love individuals and groups?
He loved sinners and tax-collectors… by dining with them.
He loved lepers—who “non-lepers” avoided on the streets—by gently laying his hands on their cheek.
He loved prostitutes… by speaking to them in broad daylight and saying “great is your faith!”
And, each time he did one of these unremarkable acts, he made himself an abomination in the eyes of Levitical Law—abomination meaning only ceremonially unclean. He knew he would lose his standing in the rabbinic community by touching lepers, touching bleeding women, dining with sinners, and consorting with prostitutes. But he did it!

So what if people tell us we are bad Christians for loving the LGBTQ+ community? It’s what we are commanded to do!
What if people shame us when we support refugees? We are called to love all people and to raise them from the dead—just like Jesus did for the little girl.
And back to the original illustration: what if people say we’re just too radical when we challenge peoples’ notions of racism or privilege? That we’re over the top for suggesting the Charleston Massacre was racially motivated, and that this points to s systemic problem?
There’s a phrase my generations says: “haters gonna gate.”
And they will. The question is, are we going to be obedient to the “good news” of Jesus Christ, or will we be controlled by trying to please religious zealots who just don’t get it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to be called an abomination—ceremonially unclean—or any other name if it means I am being obedient to the Gospel of Jesus.
Here’s what the Lord says, according to Amos:
21“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24But // let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Let this narrative be our compass. As we go out into the world from this place,
We’ll build a land that is more loving.
We’ll build a land that is more gentle.
We’ll build a land that is more compassionate.
We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Our touch of grace becomes an act of the Divine—through us.
And if people just don’t get what we’re up to, just remember that phrase, ‘haters gonna hate.” Cuz they gonna. Ah, but our gift is love.

Hymn: "We'll Build a Land"
We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.
We’ll build a land where the captives go free,
Where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

Refrain: Come build a land where sisters and brothers
Anointed by God, may then create peace:
Where justice shall roll down like waters,
And peace like an ever flowing stream.

We’ll build a land where we bring the good tidings
To all the afflicted and all those who mourn.
And we’ll give them garlands instead of ashes.
Oh, we’ll build a land where peace is born.

Refrain

We’ll be a land building up ancient cities,
Raising up devastations from old,
Restoring ruins of generations
Oh we’ll build a land of people so bold

Refrain

Come, build a land where the mantles of praises
Resounding from spirits once faint and once weak;
Where like oaks of righteousness stand her people
Oh come build the land, my people we seek.

Refrain

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