Identifying Religion and Identity Politics, Old First Sermon 05.29.16

Identifying Religion and Identity Politics, Old First Sermon 05.29.16

I said in the children’s story, that Luke’s Gospel can be considered a series of amazements– the shepherds at the angels news, his parents when they found him as a young man in the Temple talking with the priests and scribes, the crowd when Jesus makes a lame man walk, and again when Jesus exorcised an evil spirit from a boy, and as we heard today, when Jesus himself was amazed by Cornelius’ faith.

Another way to think about Luke’s Gospel however: Luke writes his narrative around an organizing question: “Who is this Jesus?” It is the question asked by shepherds out in a field, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing”. It is really what was asked by a gathering in a synagogue in Nazareth, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”. It’s asked by the followers of John, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Who is this man born in Bethlehem, this teacher, this preacher? How is one to make sense of him and his ministry, to trust what he says and understand what he does?

I guess one could extend my point — answering this question “Who is Jesus” it’s is not just the theme of Luke, but of all the Gospels, it’s an answer we are also to try for in the living of our Christian lives.

I used to catch my ex-wife when she was reading a novel, skipping to the end of the story to see how it turned out. I wonder how many of us really would want to do that with our lives? But essentially, that’s what now reading the stories of Jesus might be like for us. We already know the story all the way to it’s ending. As I say in the baptismal liturgy:
For you, Jesus came into the world.
For you, ministered to the outcast and the alone;
For you, he healed the sick and raised the dead;
For you, preached good news of the Father and a kingdom coming;
For you, he suffered the loneliness of Gethsemane and the agony of Calvary;
For you, he die, and on the 3rd day he rose;
All this, for us…

When I’m baptizing a baby, I add, “All this for you little child, and you know nothing of this…”

When it comes to reading the Gospel stories of all this, we who are older often know much more… all the way to the ending — At least to the point of Jesus’ ending or the beginning of the church, even if we don’t know where it all might lead us…. So on one level, like the disciples, we can worship with great joy because we know that this is a story with a happy ending. We read the story knowing at least in part who Jesus is. You might say, latter day readers know the answer to the question Luke was using. But on another other level, when it comes to where this Jesus will take us… and what our encounter with him might make of our lives… well, I don’t know about you, but at least for me, there’s still some mystery in that question. When we factor ourselves into the story, we don’t really know the ending, do we?

Isn’t our open question not really who is this Jesus, but who we are or who we are to become in light of Him? What happens if we put ourselves more in the place of the author of an unfinished, living story? …and we’re writing a story the end of which we were not sure of yet. What happens when like reporters, not only do we need to describe who this Jesus is, but we also want to write about the effect he has on others. What becomes of their lives because of Christ? The effect he has on us! The writer of Luke-Acts explores the traditional questions of who-what-when-where-how. But, church, the ending with a Gospel story is left up to the reader, interpreter, believer… the ones who then live the story and its Truth out. Isn’t that so?  The end of the story is ours to complete.

The reading this morning is a story of an event that occurred when — “Jesus had finished all his sayings.” (Luke 7:1) that is, after his “Sermon on the Plain;” the Lukan version of the Beatitudes….Jesus telling a great crowd what it looks like to be a disciple. He has talked to them about love and what it means, loving friend and enemy alike. Next we are told the where — Jesus finds himself back in Capernaum. There he is met by a group of the elders from the synagogue. They ask him to heal the slave of a centurion posted in the town. It would seem Jesus is being asked to practice what he preached.

There are many “who’s” in this story: Jesus, the elders, the centurion (whom we never meet directly), the friends of the centurion, and the sick slave (also whom we never meet). Might we think of the centurion, a gentile, and a representative of the empire that is oppressing the nation, as an enemy or at least the representative of the enemy in the preaching that Jesus is now called to practice?  After the important who, the gentile centurion, perhaps the what and the how are the most intriguing elements in this story.  The centurion does not presume to come to Jesus himself. One might wonder if he would not be surprised if Jesus were to refuse to speak to him. Would Jesus want to be seen speaking to much less ministering to a Roman soldier? What would that do to people’s perceptions of Jesus’ ministry?

There are several elements of the what.  First, many important members of the community are willing to speak to Jesus on behalf of an outsider. He may not be a Jew, but he should be considered a friend of the Jews as he paid for their synagogue.  We also learn more about the centurion from the fact that he is willing to reach out to the rabbi on behalf of his slave.  He cares enough about this person to seek Jesus’ help. (Could it be that his slave is a Jew?)  The centurion has heard about and honors the power of this teacher and healer. He also respects Jesus enough to send another delegation to tell Jesus he does not have to come to the house. We need to remember that Jesus, a rabbi, would be rendered unclean if he were to go into the home of a gentile.  But the centurion is aware of Jesus’ power. He knows that Jesus only has to “speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

That is the what of this story. Jesus does speak the word. Even if he never went to the centurion’s home. Nor touched the slave, whether the slave be Jew or Gentile, male or female.  The striking element of this story if that Jesus is the one who is amazed — not the centurion, not the various groups that go to speak with Jesus, but Jesus himself.  Jesus is astounded at the Faith — or as I suggested in this week’s E-pistle, the Trust of this “enemy”, This outsider’s TRUST engenders a “long-distance” healing of another. Or maybe many.  The centurion somehow recognized who Jesus was — the elders and residents of Capernaum did, at least somewhat, too.  Jesus was the one who actively loved his enemy. Jesus healed the slave of the centurion because of his owner’s faith.

Church, do we know who Jesus is?
And do we know who we are in Jesus’ light?  Are we willing to approach Jesus, for our own needs, for our friends’ needs, for our enemies’ needs?  How then do we want to answer the questions about how this story ends? How do we wish to live out our faith and trust in Jesus?  Church, humans are tribal animals. We sometimes pretend we’ve evolved. But truth be told, we’re not doing very good these days with that cover-up.  I suspect tribalism is sort of wired into us from back before when we were really humans. Before we left the forest!  Our clans were about protection. Maybe that’s why even today, “other” by default is seen as a negative.  But our clans are also about belonging. About our sense of identity. A clan from which we get our name, a close-knit tribe whereby we fit into the larger whole that is overwhelmingly beyond us.

What if because of Christ,

  • Because we say we want to follow him,
  • We want his story to complete ours,
  • What if OUR clan is to be identified by our refusal to define ourselves over against our enemies’?
  • What if OUR tribe is gathered by a love that extends and extends us not just to those who are like us?
  • Or to those who like us, or love us,
  • What if Christ’s love calls us to love and serve our neighbors, friend and foe alike?
  • How’s that begin to sketch a new ending?

In the UCC, to be ordained, I had to promise — that I would seek to regard all people with equal love and concern, and to undertake to minister equally to the needs of all. AND

…that, as an ordained minister in this communion, I would ecumenically reach out toward all who are in Christ, and show Christian love to people of other faiths and to people of no faith.

What if those promises are not just mine as an ordained minister, But are ours as the beloved community of those baptized, The calling and responsibility of every member of the church?

What if as Christians we are expected, as a group BECAUSE OF OUR FAITH, To identify with others all the way to our enemies?

I want to end my sermon this morning with a poem.  As such, you need to listen carefully, as much for what is not said, as said,  And let yourself go into what is implied,  Even let yourself finish the meaning:

If someone said: dip a thin litmus strip into a beaker full of a spinning distillation of you

would it satisfy a judging of your acerbic self?

would it prove anything about the whether and if of your life and your place in this spiral galaxy

and how close you are permitted to spin toward holiness

could someone send your DNA off to a sterile lab in Quantico

and decode your worth and potential and inevitable cause of death

maybe a hidden camera somewhere is scanning your retina looking for some reason to let you in the door or rather not

To hell with it all:

stand in the free wind and breathe in from your diaphragm and let the whirl of oxygen redden your blood

chant in ancient melody lines that you exist without apology or regret

and you are foreign to nothing not even God

so offer your healing matchless praise with primitive abandon while you still have breath

and song

and mind

in space and time