Sermons

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell

Year C: Zechariah 12:8–10; 13:1; Psalm 63:1–8; Galatians 3:23–29; Luke 9:18–24

 

It happened that as Jesus was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen.” And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” But he charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”–Luke 9:18–24

 

As I launch into this sermon I urge you to get comfortable. It will take me longer than the normal 10 minutes of sermons preached from this pulpit. The task ahead of me today is one I’ve tried to simplify, but I can’t.

 

There is some debate about the purpose of sermons. Do we preach because we want to paraphrase the Bible for the people? Do we preach because you expect a sermon? Do we preach to help individuals realize that there is a caring God who accepts each of us as we are? Do we preach to make an ancient text relevant today? Or do we preach to throw light on how God is working in our world? For members of this congregation who have heard me from this pulpit over the years, it is obvious, at least to me, that I preach to throw light on how God is working in our world. This is a change in focus for me. Before preparing a sermon I look to see if I have anything in the file that I can use. This week I found a sermon from the summer of 1986. In that sermon I preached that the point of this morning’s Gospel was that Christ is with us in our individual suffering.

 

That no longer seems adequate to me in light of the hate crime committed last week in Orlando. I have heard many inadequate responses to the horror of that event. For instance, the relatively new pastor of Mother Emanuel[1] Church in Charleston[2] stated that in reflecting on what happened in her church, and in Orlando, that God must have permitted it for reasons that at the moment are obscure. I reject this as an unhelpful and hurtful response. I do not worship a God who permits for whatever obscure reason such evil to happen in Orlando, or Charleston, or San Bernardino and on and on in a horrible list of tragedy.

 

I have heard and know people who reasonably assert that there is no God because a righteous God would not permit a tragedy like this. I do not worship a God who is omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent. I find no support in the Bible for a God who is “omni-” anything. God did not permit this. He didn’t stand idly by and let it happen to satisfy some cosmic divine plan. God, as I worship God, was in the midst of those who were shot. God is always with those who suffer.

 

I have also heard some so-called religious people say that they refused to lower their flags to half-staff because the victims were LGBT.[3] Obviously the woman quoted, for instance, on “Morning Edition” this week and her pastor have never read this morning’s Epistle to the Galatians in which Paul says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Were he writing today he would say, there is neither black, nor Asian, nor Hispanic, nor white, and there is neither LGBT nor straight, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 

Whatever the motivation for this hate crime, it is clearly not sanctioned by God as punishment for being LGBT. God loves us all. The Bible as a whole and the Gospels especially show us that God particularly identifies with those who are the most vulnerable. In this case the largely Hispanic LGBT men and women killed and wounded in Orlando.

 

I have also heard many say that this is a tragedy and the last thing we need to do in response to it is Gun Control. As my congressman, Jim Himes, said this week, does anyone really believe that Jesus says in the Gospels that the only response to a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun?[4] As you may have heard, he also boycotted the moment of silence in the House because it was insufficient and led to no action. As a member of Congress from Connecticut, he is particularly aware that the silence after Newtown/Sandy Hook led to absolutely no action.

 

So, I am going from preaching to meddling.

 

To turn to this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks the disciples: Who do people say that I am? Peter, who as you’ll recall I never tire of saying, has rocks between his ears and got his nickname, my Christian name, because of the rocks between his ears and not because he was the rock on whom the church was established, always gets it wrong. It should not be a surprise that when he exclaims that Jesus is the Christ of God, Jesus rebukes him for this response. Why? We call Jesus the Christ so much that some believe that his father’s name was Joseph Christ. Jesus continues in today’s gospel to talk about suffering. Peter was looking for glorification. He hoped that the messianic expectation of Israel was being realized in Jesus. If so, then he and the disciples looked forward to a future in which they would be exalted, triumphant, and successful. Instead, Jesus points to the reality of evil in this world. He will not be a military figure, and he will not seek power. He, Jesus, sees Christianity as a constant struggle against evil, and there can be no compromise. Jesus points ahead to the crucifixion and resurrection. Evil continues to exist, we saw it early last Sunday morning, and we have seen it many times before. It is insufficient for the church to focus on our little individual sins when we live in a society so compromised by evil. Jesus is saying to Peter that there can be no compromising with evil, yet we experience that there is rampant compromising in our world in which evil sets the terms of success. We believe or act as if the sign of success in every arena in our society is wealth. It is not true that he who dies with the most toys wins, but I have heard Christians say it. There is no exaltation in American society for those who witness to a different reality. The aphorism that St. Francis is the most admired and least emulated saint is very true. Jesus said that the sign of success is to serve the vulnerable and sacrifice oneself extravagantly.

 

We believe or act as if a sign of success in the kingdom is our possession of things we did not achieve. I didn’t achieve being a white, male, heterosexual. I can’t be proud of that. It describes who I am, but it does not make me inherently better than women, people of color, and LGBT people. I don’t struggle to be white, male, and heterosexual. Sometimes I struggle with the assumptions imputed to me because of my birth, but I don’t awaken every morning and decide to be white, or male, or straight. There can be no pride or shame in that which I was born into.

 

Christ clearly says this because he talks not only about his suffering but that of his followers, as we heard a few minutes ago: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24, NRSV translation).

 

The tragedy in Orlando points out for the umpteenth time that we compromise with evil to our peril. Jesus refused to compromise, and he was crucified. His only promise to you and me is that we will be treated no worse than he was. In being one with him, we are called to a difficult and challenging life in this world. We will share in a resurrection like his, but that is only because in this life we complete his suffering in the world.

 

We are called as a church to say enough is enough and actively support those who realize that prayers without action, silence without prophetic speech and action, is powerless and a delusion. We are not to be resigned to evil. Taking up our cross means we have to take action, not simply prayer but actually doing something, to fight evil, in this case a deadly armed society.

 

It has always seemed to me that the benefit in this life of being Christian is the possibility of community. Our community has been grievously wounded by the violence of this world. The actions of one man, whose motivations are being scrutinized and debated but will never be known with certainty, once again makes this clear. He bought his weapons legally. He made claims that he was performing on an international stage, although I think he was committing an atrocity of hate, but he clearly found a community to embrace him in death and make him a martyr.

 

Evil exists. It will continue to exist regardless of what we do this morning. But we do not need to make it so easy for evil to destroy, especially at such a dramatic and horrific level. We can take action but will we? After Newtown/Sandy Hook it appeared that something would happen, and instead the conversation was diverted and focused on mental illness. Will the conversation now change to Islam when it should be on taking the tools away from those who employ them? Will the conversation turn to talking about someone who was confused about his own sexuality rather than talking about the harm done by weapons intended only for war? True, there are many ways to kill people. As we saw some years ago, fertilizer can kill. But can we as a Christian community continue to compromise with evil?

 

So, if we want to find Christ in this event look to the LGBT men and women who died. You will find him there.

 

Copyright © 2016 Peter Ross Powell

All rights reserved.

 

 

[1] They spell it with one “m.”

[2] The Reverend Betty Deas Clark: “Well, my first response was just as they were in Bible study on that Wednesday night, so was I. And so I guess my first line of questioning was, why them? And then it was to say, it could have been me. But to say where was God, I never asked that question, simply because I truly believe that God is omniscient. In other words, he’s everywhere at the same time. And I believe that if God allowed it, he had a reason for doing so. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/reflecting-on-the-charleston-church-massacre-one-year-later/, June 14, 2016.

[3] http://www.npr.org/2016/06/14/482055743/latino-community-in-orlando-bands-together-in-wake-of-massacre. For all the unity, the issue of many of the victim's sexuality is causing a little tension. This woman called in to one of Orlando's most popular Spanish-language radio stations to say her friend refused to mourn gay victims. Unidentified Woman #1 (Speaking Spanish). She's not going to put her flag halfway because that's not what her flag is all about.

[4] The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. apparently agrees that a good man with a gun is the answer. He told the student body at Liberty University earlier this year that he was armed and therefore would’ve stopped the San Bernardino shooting. Of course how a handgun would stop an AR-15 is left unsaid. http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/6971/fearing-our-fears?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork