'Lambs Against Wolves," Old First Sermon 07.03.16

'Lambs Against Wolves," Old First Sermon 07.03.16

Psalm 30 and Luke 10: 1-11 and 16-20
(preached by Margaret Ernst, an Old First member and seminarian and Vanderbilt Divinity School)

It is very good to see you again. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been in this sanctuary and I have completed my first year of seminary, thanks be to God. I’ve learns many things, some of them incredibly useful and some of them maybe not, like how to use the word teleology in my daily life.

But I have been blessed with an amazing theological education so far and I will try to bring some of it to bear to today. But because there are many things I still don’t know and never will, please pray with me now. God, fill this place with knowledge of Your truth today. May the words of my lips and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you. O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer.

When I was a little girl, I was entirely obsessed with the idea of having magical powers. Calling it an “idea” might be putting it lightly. It was a full-fledged occupation, some might even say a vocation – for a seven-year old. I am not alone in this certainly, most children at some point in time become wrapped up in a world of magic and imagination. And for some of us it continues into teenagehood or adulthood in a mild to extreme obsession with Harry Potter or made-for-TV Merlin specials (raise hand) or now the very socially acceptable and grown-up Game of Thrones.

When I was young, my penchant for magical powers made itself known in elaborate fantasy plots I wrote in tie-dye colored notebooks and which I looked forward to acting out in my head when my family walked the dog. As the youngest child, the others might be walking ahead of me and my strategy was to drag behind about four to five feet, looking a bit absentminded on the outside but on the inside, oh on the inside, I was in the middle of the most emotionally complex scene you could fathom in a place that looked vaguely like a forest in Wales. It was always better if these walks were in the fall or the wintertime and the earth was slightly depressing-looking because all of the books I read about magic were usually set in medieval Britain. There were lots of dusty-haired girls wearing something that looked like a Celtic potato sack, with a sort of braid here, and a braid there, and a wistful look saying something like “Stop! Naomi! Don’t leave us.”

My favorite plot I liked to pretend about was one where there was a dying race of magical people. The main characters were some of these folks alive who of course were destined to learn the magical ways of their ancestors to save their world, which had come into the hostile grips of non-magical overlords who treated them with contempt and hatred. I would imagine finding a map in the corner of the woods and with that map I could carefully safeguard the instructions on how to make the world come alive again. Of course this was all with my (imaginary) baby brothers Finnbar and Rowan, and my imaginary horse, by my side.
Now these were only fantasies, but longing for special powers and a map for how to make our world right again is something we feel no matter how old we are. Especially when our world is full of racism. Especially when our lives are full of sexism, and homophobia and transphobia and Islamophobia and classism and economic exploitation. Especially when cheap shots and slurs masquerade as politics and fear as leadership. Especially when so many of our hearts and bodies are broken and hurting for so many reasons, and when no matter how hard we try to build up a new world and climb Jacob’s ladder, it just feels like evil has a better time of it and has got a shorter ladder to climb.

But, as we grow and we figure out how the world really works, there is a time when we rediscover some of the truth behind our childhood fantasies.
It’s a truth about how there’s bad power and there’s good power. In community organizing, they say it differently, that power itself is neutral. Power comes from podere which means simply “to be able.” Organizers say bad and good comes not from the presence of power but from the use to which the power is put.
As we grow we realize this truth that it’s sometimes really hard to tell the difference between bad and good power, between power-over, and power-with, and we learn that that somehow it’s our job is the transform the one into the other, again and again and again.

Maybe my childhood longing for magical power in an imagined world is just one of the reasons I have ended up in the work of justice in this world, why I have sought the path of freedom, why I have ended up trying to follow Jesus.

The power they talk about Jesus having is one that I have come to experience and not just fantasize about, and maybe you have experienced it too.
If we see things through the tradition of the gospel of John, we can understand this power as one that existed with God before Jesus himself, side by side with God at creation: the power of Wisdom-Incarnate, Wisdom-in-the-Flesh, the Word made flesh that had worked with God to weave the universe together and which had been God’s active agent in creation ever since freeing the Israelites, working in and through people filling them with power and bringing down empires and tyrants.

In the gospel of Luke, where today’s text comes from, we see the author understanding Jesus as the incarnation of this same power against oppression which had been the particular quality of the God revealed to the Jews in their history and experience. In Luke, we see Jesus and the people around him acting in ways consistent with this memory of the Jewish people. They were people hinged on the hope of God redeeming Israel from Rome as God had redeemed them before, as God had brought them out of Egypt, as God had brought them out of Babylon, and Assyria, as God had helped them navigate their place and negotiate their freedom in the midst of other empires for thousands of years.

The idea of a power shift becomes visible in Luke’s story when the angel tells Mary her son will be king of his people in a time when like in all puppet governments of a colonial system, kings were chosen from those elites who appeased them, not from unwed mothers from nowhere, like Mary, from Nazareth. Mary gets that power of God the angel promises will rest upon her and she starts singing about God stretching God’s mighty arm and bringing down kings from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, power over to power with. She has the audacity to say that she knows – she knows – that God will keep the promise God made to her ancestors and come to their help and fill the bellies of the hungry. In the Sermon on the Plain (because in Luke it is a “level place” Jesus stands on), Jesus says “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry.” Like his mother Mary before him, he says woe to you who place your stock and identity in that power over kind of power – woe to you rich, woe to you who are filled now. God is coming. Thy Kingdom come. There’s gonna be a power shift.
By the moment in Luke’s story that is our scripture for today, Jesus doesn’t have much time left, he’s headed towards Jerusalem, the place of his arrest and death by Rome. He seems to be getting a feeling this is coming, and that he can’t make this Kingdom come alone, he knows the importance of sharing leadership, and so he sends out Seventy people, of all genders (the text does not say only men). Seventy people to go out and be vessels of God’s power like he is. Two by two. Town by town.

Unlike many of his words in the New Testament Jesus here gives clear and practical instructions. He tells these Seventy what to bring: no bag, no purse, no sandals. (So those of you in close-toed shoes today and maybe brought a fanny pack, you’re good. He didn’t say anything about fanny packs. Cargo pants, also a creative option.) He says “don’t greet anyone on the road.” There’s the urgent feeling sort of like the third to last scene in a thriller movie where the hero is rushing to the side of someone in trouble and she’s got no time to shower and leaves her cell phone in the car.

Jesus tells them, these seventy folks somewhere on the road to Jerusalem where he will die how to make this kingdom of God happen, the kingdom that Gabriel told Mary about, this kingdom-without tyrants-kingdom, where the hungry-will-be filled, this power-with kingdom. He tells them to accept the hospitality of strangers in the process because “the laborers deserve their wages.” He’s telling them this kind of kingdom is work. This is real labor. In the words of poet Ellen Bass, this is a “scooping your holy water from the gutter” kind of labor. It’s not just talking a good talk or empty platitudes without doing the work kind of labor.
He says “be like a lamb among wolves.” Be like a lamb among wolves.

Where are the wolves in our lives? Who are they? What are they? Maybe, it’s clear who the wolves are for you. Maybe it’s crystal clear how they scrape at your neck and keep you down, or maybe they’re more hidden. Maybe these wolves are the powers that work behind individual people or systems against your well-being or the good of the whole.

Wolves are not always the “bad guys” in a simple child’s story where there are clear heros and clear villains. Wolves can be us, when we let our guard down. Wolves can be us when we crave that power-over power, or that let-me-step-on-someone’s-head-kind-of-power while I get ahead and not look behind and see who I’m crushing in the meantime. Wolves can be our fear, wolves can be our anxiety, our perfectionism.
Wolves live inside of us, howling for our attention, hoping we’ll give in to them and let them overtake us, while they eat our souls from the inside out.

And who does Jesus charge to go against and among these wolves?
What do you mean “a lamb.” (Sarcastic)
I recently had the opportunity to hold a friend’s baby goat and it fulfilled every dream I have ever had of getting to cuddle with farm animals. Now, that was a goat and I have never specifically held a lamb. If I did I would hope they’d be like the lambs on Easter cards – sort of an adorable cross between a My Little Pony and a cotton ball.
But I don’t think those are the lambs that Jesus is talking about.

He’s talking lambs against wolves.

These are not My Little Ponies, these are lambs like the lamb whose blood had the power to protect the enslaved Hebrews from the wrath of God in Egypt. These are like the lambs whose blood marked their houses safe to make sure they could get free after 400 years of slavery.

These are lambs like the one resting in the arms of the lion in the prophet Isaiah’s vision, the innocent lamb who while an inch away from the jaws of what we are told is avowed to destroy it, has the power of God and tenacious peace.

These are lambs with power like the early Jesus movement called Jesus, the lamb who Rome tried to kill, but got up from the grave. These are lambs with power that is the sign of life against all that is avowed to destroy it.

This spring I was blessed to see the freedom fighter and civil rights elder Diane Nash speak in Nashville, the town where she was a key leader of the Black freedom movement in the early 1960s, the work which continues today in the movement for Black Lives. Diane Nash talked about non-violence as not a “non” something, not a lack of doing violence but the presence of active, constant, agapic energy, the energy of agape. The energy of love.

But this is not just sappy, groundless love that Diane Nash meant. It’s love like the saint-prophet-truthspeaker James Baldwin talks about in The Fire Next Time: it’s “Love [that] takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

I suggest to you that Jesus commissioned those Seventy folks like you and me armed with not even with a bag or sandals but with agapic power. He sent them with the creative power of justice and balance at the heart of the universe, the Wisdom that brings together the waters and separates the sky, the Word that was with God at the very start.

The Seventy come back, breathless with awe, seeing what healing work this Wisdom is doing, saying “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name!” They seem to be afraid of their own power like so often we are or maybe they think it’s an illusion or maybe it’s going to their heads so Jesus tells them, “I have given you authority to overcome all the power of the enemy….but rejoice not in this, but that your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice not in what you are against but that you are a part of the work of creation. The active, constant work of creation with agapic energy, creation with love.

Today he might send the Seventy with the creative power and the Wisdom-Word of a grandmother loving her grandson who just came out as transgender, a grandmother who in spite of what the media tells her to believe, calls her new granddaughter by her correct, new name and says, “Baby, I love you and you are the image of God.”
Jesus might send them with the power of loved ones who come together around a friend is chronically ill to cover them with joy and laughter when there’s otherwise no reason to hope, and the power of the ill friend who knows to ask and receive their care.

He might send them with the power of a woman who publishes an open letter to the man who sexually assaulted her, because if the courts refused to hold him accountable then her story, and the stories of other survivors in the process of regaining the power taken from them, might light fires around the world to bring down the tyrant of rape culture from its throne.

Jesus might send them with the power of the people who dressed as angels to block the loved ones of the 49 Black and Brown, Latina, Latinx, queer and trans children of God killed at Pulse nightclub from those who dared to spew hate even at their funeral.

Jesus might send them with the power of teenagers just barely older than children who lay down in the streets of Ferguson after their friend had been killed by police, in spite of what adults including clergy told them was wise or strategic. He might send them with the power with which those teenagers marked the spots on the streets, like the Hebrews marked their doors trying to get free, power that sparked a worldwide, unstoppable reincarnation of Black liberation movement.

Jesus sends us too with power in the unknown, unseen, every-moment-kind-of moments too, not just superhero moments. He sends us with the power of our breath when everything in the world tells you can’t breathe. With power in embrace and in stillness. He sends us with power of courageous failure or humilty or knowing when to leave or change course for healing’s sake, as Jesus says to the Seventy, of knowing when to turn out the door because the peace you bring has not been returned.

“But remember, the Kingdom of God has come near you,” Jesus tells his folks to tell those who turn them away.
The kingdom of God has come near to you.

That means even when we’re the ones shutting the door on the Kingdom, even when it’s us who’s not exchanging peace when peace is offered, even when we are the wolves or wolves consume us, Jesus is saying that this is an “I’ll love you till it sticks” situation. He’s saying my people might wipe off the dust from your town after they leave you but the kingdom is gonna stick even if these wolves try to kill me.”

Even if it’s you that tries to kill me.
Even if it’s you that tries to kill me.

With God having that kind of hold on us, with that kind of power that by God’s grace we can become vessels for, every day, with our family, with our community, and when we look in the mirror, then the powers of hate, and the powers of violence, and the power of fear, will be brought down, by God, and by us, from their thrones.
Thanks be to God.