“If the clear truth of Scripture tells us anything it tells us that following Jesus rattles cages and rocks boats and disturbs the peace.”
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, September 10, 2017, by Susan Russell.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Amen
So sometimes I get emails from folks who want to explain to me about something they call “the clear truth of Scripture” — a concept they clearly think I slept through in seminary. The process usually involves isolating some poor, defenseless passage of Scripture and weaponizing it to shame, blame and attack someone else … you can undoubtedly conjure up the list of usual suspects … and then culminates with a variation on “what kind of priest are you, anyway?”
The answer is that I’m the kind of priest who really meant it when I solemnly declared at my ordination that do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation. In short, I’m the kind of priest who actually does believe there is clear truth in Scripture.
However, one does not discern the clear truth of Scripture by cherry-picking one passage, isolating it out of context and then holding it up in an end zone or outside somebody else’s church or posting it as a Facebook meme and saying — “See: The Word of the Lord!” As 20th century theologian Terry Holmes famously warned: Scripture apart from reason can be dangerous because (and I quote:) “It becomes the mirror for the misdirected person to project his or her own opinions and give them the authority of God.”
Instead we look at the texts in context and then consider what word they have for us today — now — in this moment — collectively and individually. And — because we are part of a prophetic tradition — we remember that our response to what we hear must always have two components: to comfort the afflicted … and to afflict the comfortable. So, church … did you hear anything in our ancient texts that resonated with the challenges that we face on this second Sunday of September 2017? Anything at all?
Some Sundays, it seems, the Clear Truth of Scripture is clearer than others. And that was certainly the case with the lessons we heard this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is clear that the God who created us in love and then called us to walk in love with God and with each other expects us to walk in love with all our neighbors — drawing no distinction between citizen or alien; native or immigrant.
That clear truth is not something recently cooked up in some blue state think tank — it echoes loud and clear down through the thousand years between Exodus to Malachi — and resonates as well in these words from Paul’s Letter to the Romans we prayed at the beginning of this sermon … love does no wrong to a neighbor. Any neighbor. Period. Full stop. EOM.
As we gather this morning with our hearts still breaking for the 800,000 young people who saw their dreams shattered with the suspension this week of the DACA program we claim that clear truth of scripture as our own … and align ourselves not only with all those who stand for love, justice and compassion in the face of hatred, judgment and exclusion … we align ourselves with the ancient words and clear truth of our historic faith. In the words of our Michael Curry and Gay Jennings — the presiding officers of our own Episcopal Church:
For those of us who follow Jesus Christ, our Christian values are at stake. Humane and loving care for the stranger, the alien, and the foreigner is considered a sacred duty and moral value for those who would follow the way of God. We stand with the Dreamers and will do all that we can to support them while we also work for the kind of immigration reform that truly reflects the best of our spiritual and moral values as people of faith and as citizens of the United States.
And as horrific as this week’s assault on our core American and Christian values has been, make no mistake about it: it is but the latest movement in a symphony of systemic oppression.
Watching the news this week I was struck by the parallel narratives of disaster preparedness for communities in harm’s way — some preparing to survive torrential rain and the threatened storm surge with sandbags, shelters and evacuation orders and others preparing to survive deportation raids and the threatened rupture of their families with marches, rallies and know-your-rights clinics.
It seems to me that we are living through a season of Category 5 storms queuing up to assault our nation … and that some of those storms are not being covered by the Weather Channel. Instead they are fueling the destructive forces of white supremacy and nativism with the increasing heat of fear, hatred and bigotry as surely as the destructive forces of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been fueled by the increasing heat of the oceans warming because we have failed in our stewardship of this fragile Earth, our island home.
In 1934 Christian pastors, theologians, and faith leaders faced a gathering Category 5 storm in the call for German nationalism and the rising tide of anti-Semitism and racial hatred. Their response was a strong rebuke entitled The Theological Declaration of Barmen.
Not unlike that era in Germany history, the recent hesitation by the president of the United States in unequivocally condemning the clear exhibition of fascism and white nationalist sympathies in Charlottesville, as well as other long held manifestations of white supremacy such as white privilege and white normalcy, calls for a response from the Christian community. The Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy is such a response. Inspired by the Barmen Declaration, it represents an unprecedented gathering of Christian faith leaders from across the United States calling for a return to the liberating work of the Gospel and a rejection of racism and colonization. I was honored — along with our rector Mike Kinman and bishop Jon Bruno — to be among the principal signatories on that declaration released last Tuesday. We will link a copy of the declaration from the website, but let me read to you from its introduction:
This declaration was inspired by the events in Charlottesville, but it was equally inspired by the events of Tulsa, OK — and Wounded Knee, and Manzanar, and Birmingham, and Delano, and Laramie, and Ferguson, and Oak Creek, and Standing Rock. Our task here is twofold–to acknowledge and repent of the Church’s complicity in perpetuating white male supremacy in all of its forms and to hear and to heed the call to return to the truth of Scripture, fully revealed in the person of Jesus.
We publicly declare that what we hold in common in this confession is threatened by the festering infection of Eurocentric white nationalism and white supremacy. Fueled by flawed interpretations of Old Testament purity laws and conquest, churches and denominations in the United States have been deeply shaped by and at times created to sustain European purity and colonization of land, people, and culture. The colonizing spirit declares the self to be uniquely fully human—to have the exclusive right to rule the world. It’s strategy is the creation of racial and gender-based human hierarchy—forsaking God for the idols of domination and control. Eurocentric Christian churches have often been the prime creators, carriers, sustainers and protectors of this malevolent force, which manifests overtly in acts of racial and gender-based violence and covertly in systems, structures, principalities and powers, both beyond and within the walls of the Church.
We reject as false doctrine any other claim on our lives—whether contrived of state or reason—that violates Jesus’ ethic of the equal and inestimable dignity of all people, each created in the very image of God and as such equally created with the divine call and capacity to sustain, protect, and serve the world.
Strong words. Powerful words. Controversial words. Afflict the comfortable words.
Of course I read the whole thing before I signed on. But here’s where they had me:
Acknowledge and repent of the Church’s complicity in perpetuating white male supremacy in all of its forms and to hear and to heed the call to return to the truth of Scripture, fully revealed in the person of Jesus.
They had me at the clear truth of scripture. They had me at unambiguously grounding this prophetic statement of solidarity and challenge in the Gospel proclaimed by the radical rabbi from Nazareth whose commitment to the clear truth of scripture that love IS the fulfilling of the law nearly got him thrown off a cliff after his first sermon in his hometown and eventually led to the cross, the grave and the resurrection.
Because if the clear truth of Scripture tells us anything it tells us that following Jesus rattles cages and rocks boats and disturbs the peace.
Lori and I got to see Hamilton last week. It was every bit as awesome as I hoped it would be — one of those rare experiences that it is impossible to overhype. One of the recurring themes in the show are these words that could arguable be tagged “the Gospel According to Aaron Burr:”
Talk less. Smile more.
Don’t let them know
what you’re against
or what you’re for.
Now, I’ve been listening to the original cast album on my iPod for months … it really has been my resistance soundtrack since early November.
But on Sunday night sitting in the Pantages Theatre I heard those words again for the first time as a stark reminder of all the times those on the margins — women, people of color, immigrants and queers — have been told to talk less. To smile more. To not rock the boat. To not stir the pot. To not afflict the comfortable.
The Gospel According to Aaron Burr is hardly something to be confused with the Gospel According to Jesus … but sometimes the church … to its shame … has appeared to do precisely that.
It has failed to speak up and stand up in the face of oppression and its silence has created complicity.
It has pasted on smiles of welcome for all while participating in systemic exclusion for some.
It has not let the world know what it’s against or what it’s for … and then been stunned to find itself dismissed as irrelevant.
Make no mistake about it: if Jesus had talked less and smiled more — and had not let anyone know what he was against or for — there would have been no Good Friday, no resurrection and no Easter.
Remember that “I’m sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves” part? Remember “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law?” That’s not somebody on social media talking about the most recent dust up between their relatives on their Facebook page … that’s Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke talking about the cost of discipleship — of what it means to follow Him and to live out the Gospel in this beautiful and broken world — and calling us to go and do likewise.
And in Matthew’s gospel this morning we hear Jesus challenging us to talk more … not less. To have courageous conversations with members of our own communities in order to right wrongs — to heal wounds — to maintain relationship. To reclaim the clear truth of Scripture — that we are called to live in alignment with “Jesus’ ethic of the equal and inestimable dignity of all people” — and to remember — to always remember — that love does no wrong to a neighbor; for love is the fulfilling of the law. Amen