by Angel Figueroa
There are times when I look at the lectionary texts for the coming week and groan because I don’t see any possible way to make them apply to the modern day. And then there are the times when I look at the text and groan because I have no idea how to narrow it down because it applies to ALL THE THINGS. Today is one of the latter times. We are in a moment of crisis like few in the history of our country. We are in the midst of of a global pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. The country is embroiled in a moment of racial reckoning; Philadelphia has erupted in protest after another black man, Walter Wallace, Jr., was murdered by police Monday night. And, of course, there is the elephant (and donkey) in the room, a contentious and polarized presidential election. It seems like almost too much to take in all at once.
I find it fitting that the first reading assigned is from the Revelation to John, perhaps the book of the Bible most prevalent in the popular imagination. Part of the reason it is so prevalent in the popular consciousness is because of how terrifying much of the imagery is. Yet it is passages like this one that are the heart of what was revealed to John at Patmos. The title of the book suggest one of it’s primary purposes. It reveals, or unveils, the true state of the world. To use the words of Martin Luther, it calls the thing what it is. It lays bare the demonic forces that rule over this word, using powerful visceral language to do so. The Book of Revelations is horrifying, but only because the depths of the evil it points to is just as horrifying.
While the Revelation to John is full of great horrors, that is not all there is to it. In the midst of all the horror and despair it shows, there is still hope. Death and destruction rule the world, but there is a savior who will be victorious over it. And that savior has a name, and it’s not Joe Biden, or Donald Trump or *insert your favorite politician here.* Only Jesus has the power to bring about the reign of God; a reign of justice, equity and the peace that passes all understanding. Only Jesus has the power to slay the beast that lays siege to this world. And only Jesus is the water of life, the source of life everlasting.
While we humans are not the source of life and salvation, that doesn’t mean we should sit on our asses and do nothing. Jesus might be the only one with the power to defeat evil and death, but we have our part as well. When we came to the font, when we were washed by word joined with water, we were washed with the water of life and we became part of the very Body of Christ. We are given the gift of life everlasting, but we also become part of Christ’s mission to bring about the end of death and chaos.
As Christians, especially in the American context, we do this several ways. We believe in a democratic society. We are members of a society where effectively, all citizens are rulers of the nation, and we rule most directly through our control of government officials. So we must examine our consciousness and vote for the person we believe will most likely advance Christ’s mission of justice and equity. And once we do that, we need to work to remind them of the reason we voted for them and to keep them accountable. But that is not our only work. We are also called to proclaim the reign of God, and fight back against the deceitful voice of the Devil.
For that is exactly what Jesus was doing at the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are often one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel for those who are not Christian. But within and outside of the Church they are all too often misused. They are treated as demands instead of the affirmations that they truly are. In a world where the poor, humble, and meek were considered cursed and abandoned by God for not being successful by the standards of the Empire, declaring them to instead be blessed was a radical act.
In the world we live in, declaring Black Lives Matter while society treats them as disposable is a radical act. In the world we live in, fighting for nobody to be hungry while society declares only the worthy deserve to eat is a radical act. In the world we live in, claiming our non-Christian neighbors as beloved cousins and fellow children of God is a radical act. In the world we live in, lifting up our female, trans, and non-binary siblings as leaders while society says that only cis-gender men’s voices matter is a radical act. In the world we live in, love and equity are radical values. But since we have been washed with the living water, it is because they are radical and against the ways of this world that they are our values.
By Rev. Allison Johnson
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Love your neighbor as yourself. I wonder how often we’ve heard these words, spoken them ourselves, and lifted them up as what it means to be a Christian. While the importance of these words is obvious, as Jesus lifts up this commandment as one of the greatest, it seems we’ve watered down this phrase into a call to simply be nice. Don’t rock the boat. Smile at people. Avoid conflict. Turn the other cheek. Let things go.
Using Leviticus as a lens through which we interpret this commandment, we see that loving your neighbor is more than being nice – it is a call to holiness. What do you think of when you hear the word holy? What do the people in our ministry contexts think of? Sexual purity? Proper attire at church? Refraining from swearing?
Leviticus 19 can be split into three sections, and the section we find ourselves in emphasizes obligations to other people. The call to holiness is shaped by obligation to others. Perhaps this is not where our mind drifts when we think about holiness. For Israel, to be holy as God is holy is the call to be distinct from the Canaanite culture. To be God’s holy people meant to actively navigate the boundaries between the culture and being in covenant with God. To be holy is a call for Israel to live out their end of the covenant and be a blessing in the world.
The small list of commands in Leviticus helps us begin to navigate how the people of God are called to be set apart from the culture, whether it be Canaanite culture or the American culture in which many of us find ourselves. Judge with justice. Don’t show partiality. Don’t gossip. Don’t profit off of the blood of your neighbor. Don’t hate anyone, and if you do, confront them about it. Don’t seek vengeance. Does this seem nice to you? Does this seem like holiness?
These commands lift up the well-being of others; they are a call to genuinely value the humanity of the people with whom we are in community. Loving one’s neighbor in this way is love that is active; love that is a verb and not a feeling. Loving your neighbor through the lens of God’s holiness is about being set apart for the sake of others. It is not about personal gain, individualism, selfishness, or violence that we see being valued in our current culture.
These commands – the call to be holy – move us to confront evil within ourselves and the evil in our midst that harms our neighbor.
Do not profit off of the blood of your neighbor. What do you classify as the blood of others? What if it’s taking someone’s life? But maybe it’s more than that. What if it’s hurting them with your actions? What if it’s hurting them with your words? What if it’s hurting them with your silence? What if it’s hurting them by not standing up for them when they need you? What if it’s that you won’t take a risk on behalf of another? What if it is the harming of others through our prejudices? What if profiting off of the blood of our neighbor meant seeing them as competition rather than a beloved part of God’s family? So, what if this command is a call for us to avoid harming others, but also a call to actively live in such a way that benefits them?
We are not called to be holy because God needs us to, we are called to be holy for the sake of the world, that others might experience God’s blessing through us. That others may experience abundant life, too. That is why God gives us the law, so that we can dwell together the way God had intended.
We are indeed set apart; not because we are better than others, but because God desires wholeness for the world. And God is silly enough to think that we could help bring that wholeness to others, that we could be a part of others experiencing God’s justice, mercy, liberation, grace, and radical love.
So, echoing the words of Martin Luther on this Reformation weekend, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
How are we being called to be set apart – different – in order that others may experience wholeness? How may this command to holiness be set apart from values we see in our culture? How can we be bound to our neighbor? Remember, people of God, in the words of Martin Luther, “God does not need your good works. But your neighbor does.”
Rev. Carla Christopher
Oh, how often do we feel the sharp sting of sarcasm when a sly tongue lashes out at us? Whether it is a family member with a backhanded compliment or a co-worker with a sarcastic aside, there are many names to describe this type of gilded assault. “Microaggression” or “passive aggression” are good examples but they both contain a very telling word; aggression. Even when we coat it with padding to make it more intellectual, more palatable, less uncomfortably confrontational, to be deliberately unkind or flat out mean is an attack. To say something meant to entrap or intended to highlight another’s area of struggle or challenge is an attack. In our reading we see that attacking another is not the way of Jesus, even while holding each other lovingly accountable and maintaining self-care based protective boundaries is.
In today’s passage Jesus is verbally attacked in a charged conversation that was likely harmless in appearance to an uninformed passerby. Pharisees, ("in a sense, 'blue collar' Jews, specializing in the application of priestly laws to non-priests and opposed incorporating Hellenism into Jewish lives") are joined by Herodians (“a party that favored the dynasty of Herod and stood for the Roman connection who cared little or nothing for religion and normally were bitterly opposed by the Pharisees,” according to Bible-Studys.org) to put Jesus in a bit of a trap. Jesus is asked about the payment of taxes knowing that if he decrees that money should be given to God over government he will be called treasonous and if he calls for resources to go to government over the needs of the people he will be denounced by the priests. The dialogue is rife with sarcasm and meant to set up an impossible situation that will make Jesus look a fool. Ironically, when we hear about microaggressions today it is usually the most marginalized among us who are targeted; sly remarks aimed at those speaking English as a second language, or a poor woman holding up a grocery line to pay for necessities with a food stamp card. If you break the new golden rule of reading the comments below virtually any marginalized-person centering article posted on social media, you see contemporary examples. Couched as "devil's advocate" or "intellectual" responses, there is only the thinnest veil disguising these deliberately provocative and hostility inspired remarks for what they are - traps.
Instead of playing into the aggression or repaying injury with insult, Jesus cleverly avoids this trap by saying that both God and the emperor should be given what belongs to them. I like to think it’s because Jesus has the same high school counselor as I did, or at least a mentor who gave similar sage advice. Ms. Fran took me aside when I was tempted to react with anger, respond with insult, or rise up in aggression, and she told me about ‘results oriented thinking’. “You are here for a reason child, don’t let anyone distract you. You have bigger fish to fry.”
As I type this, we are heading into certainly the most controversial election season of most of our lifetimes. We are struggling as a country with the most faithful response to a pandemic. I get it. As a pastor and a justice advocate, I’m in the thick of it too. The temptation may be to give in to anger or frustration. It may be to react with disengaging and shutting down. As hard as it is my siblings in Christ, I am asking you to remain focused in this season. We have important work to do my friends. Alongside Jesus, we are called to talk to those willing to listen, to sidestep those who are not, and above all to remain focused on finding creative and dynamic ways to teach and serve the most vulnerable among us. When we refuse the distractions of those trying to get us off our game, as the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus here, they often ‘leave us and go away.’ God is infinite. We are not. Pick your battles. Fight them well.
We would like to note that, as Christians and as preachers, we must always be careful to not fall into anti-Semitism when speaking about the Pharisees. In fact, we must work to counter the generations of messaging we have received that the Pharisees were evil. They were, really, a lot like us: faith leaders trying to get people to follow God, as they understood God wanted them to, in a time that was quite dangerous for them. This reading is one of many that can land in the territory of, "Pharisees are terrible and also Jews are terrible." At this time of rising anti-Semitism, it is imperative we unlearn a lot of what we have learned about Pharisees and teach our people new ways of thinking about them, the people of Israel, and Jewish people in general. To learn more, head to this fantastic resource from Showing Up for Racial Justice.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Looking over the readings for this week, all I see are social justice angles one could take. How many golden calves could we confront when speaking on the lesson from Exodus? Whiteness? Nationalism? Patriotism? Using the reading from Isaiah this week, we can speak of a God who is refuge to the poor. Philippians gives us the opportunity to lift up women in ministry and also talk about the lack of opportunity for BIPOC and trans women in persistently white denominations -- or we could talk about the values of truth, honor, and justice. The words of the gospel this week give us space to talk about who is invited to the feast and what it means to respond to that invitation. In light of the many options the readings provide this week, I want to take this opportunity write to you, dear preacher, words of encouragement and challenge.
I extol you, beloved sibling in Christ, to be brave and bold in your proclamation of the Word this week and every week after. We are in crisis in America. We are, in fact, living in a failed state. Not failing, failed. We are on the eve of an election that could be the final step in our national descent into fascism and totalitarianism. I realize many people believe I am being hyperbolic when I speak this way, or that I am wildly off base. If that is where you are, I encourage you to read this, or this, or watch this - pieces by people who have lived through the rise of totalitarianism or a failed state, or to listen to those who have long experienced oppression at the hand of our systems (or listen to the podcast It Could Happen Here). Those of us who do not experience oppression at the hands of our own nation seem to have a faith in the eternal possibility of the United States and in our systems, a faith that often rivals our faith in the eternal goodness of God. This faith is blind and, frankly, undeserved.
It is certainly tempting to not speak into this moment, or to speak into it with such fear of offending our people that we say nothing at all. After all, we are incredibly stressed out and adding the stresses of angry parishioners or the possibility of losing our jobs to the stresses of living through a pandemic in a failed state in which we are on, like, step 15 of the march towards fascism, feels like too much.
But what if I were to tell you that the words you preach each Sunday can either build supports for the police state, for white supremacy, for anti-trans violence, for fascism itself OR can help to tear down those walls to help build a new future? What if I told you that the sermon you preach this week, and the weeks thereafter, are building the future for future generations? We are, after all, co-creators with God in this world. Ever since Adam named the animals in the Garden of Eden we have been participants in the world, creating and destroying. What world do you want to create? You, dear friends, are builders of the future. It is a heavy responsibility, and in these times it is frightening, but it is one we must bear, in spite of consequences.
We have created a golden calf in persistently white churches that appears benign but is, in fact, deadly. We have taken nice words and pretty liturgy and fluffy music and passive aggressiveness, melted it down, and made an idol of comfort. For generations now, white people have come to church to hear that we are good people, to be told we are loved and covered in God’s grace, and have nothing about how we live challenged. Those of us in confessional traditions confess each week by rote memorization, are forgiven, but are rarely actually called to honest repentance and atonement. I believe that, out of all the things killing Euroentric Christianity in the United States, this might be the greatest problem. This idol of comfort keeps us from being able to confront the giant problems of racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, violence, greed, and hate that fester in our nation and in the hearts of our people (and in our own hearts). As preachers, our desire for comfort renders us frozen when faced with the task of challenging our people.
We have models for challenging people. The people following Moses were uncomfortable. The prophets made people uncomfortable. Jesus made those in power uncomfortable. Paul pissed people off (to be fair, he frequently pisses me off). If we want to comfort our people, which is something people *also* need in these times, we have the comfort of the knowledge that God is always with us. God never left their people in the wilderness. God continued speaking to the prophets even when they tried to run from her. God’s love for us is so great that God decided to experience this terribly uncomfortable human life, to speak up for those on the margins, and to be tortured and die because of their great love for us. That is the comfort. The comfort is not that we are “good people” or that we are doing everything right. The comfort is not that God never calls us to change; it is that God is with us in the change, standing by our sides as we confront our own greed and racism and bullshit. God is with us as we look at our trauma and holds us as we grieve and begin to heal. That’s the comfort. And that is the comfort we can preach to our people.
Some people will not want to hear that. Some people, beloved, will be unable to hear our words. They will reject us. We may be fired. We may make ourselves unemployable. I have many friends who already face great difficulty in getting a call simply because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their gender. I have many more who have difficulty in getting a call because they have spoken up too loudly and too frequently on the side of justice. And it sucks.
But we are in a place where we have the opportunity to dream a different world for our grandchildren, and in a position to use our words to bring a world that more closely reflects the Kingdom of God into being.
Historically, the white church has done a shit job of speaking up at times like these. We prefer the idol of comfort to the things God actually asks of us. We have a chance to do differently this time. Let us not fuck this up. Let’s burn that calf of comfort in effigy and call our people to the font to remember the promises made at their baptism, the covenant between us and God, and create something beautiful together.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.