Sermon: Sunday, February 20, 2011: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18  •  Psalm 119:33-40  •  1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23  •  Matthew 5:38-48

Preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Oak Park, IL) at the beginning of their 75th anniversary celebrations as they prepared for congregational conversations about their core value of diversity.

Grace and peace be with you, sisters and brothers, in the name of Jesus – the light of the world. Amen.

To begin I just want to say a word of thanks to Pastor Nolte and to all of you who have been part of the planning around this ongoing celebration of your congregation’s commitment to diversity as a core value. It is an honor to be invited to share in your worship and to preach, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I also want to thank all of you for opening up your church to the synod’s “Deepening the Welcome” event here yesterday. It was an amazing gathering with somewhere around 150 people in attendance, engaging speakers and insightful discussions about how our congregations can move past the stance of welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities through our doors, to a place of deeper understanding, solidarity and justice.

That is huge work, so it is good that we do not do it alone. Along those lines, I want to bring greetings to you from your sisters and brothers at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, some of whom were here yesterday for the conference, and who are worshipping with Pastor Jeff King this morning so that I can be with you. It is a wonderful reminder that we share this ministry with one another, and that we’re all in this together.

IMG_0189I’m wearing another such reminder this morning, a stole that was given to me on the day of my ordination almost five years ago by two seminary classmates. One is a Methodist pastor serving a congregation in Washington, DC, the other is a UCC pastor serving just around the corner here in Oak Park at First United Church. You probably can’t see it from where you’re sitting, but you’ll have a chance during the passing of the peace. The stole I’m wearing is green, for use during the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost when the church focuses on the light of God made visible in Christ for all people, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that sends us into the world carrying the good news that in Christ there is no longer east or west, Jew or Gentile, male or female – all are one.

The way this stole was put together, the green sections near the bottom have words and incomplete sections of scripture. Originally the artist constructed one huge green panel on which you could read all the scriptures and see all the references. But as a part of the project, she divided that panel up among many different stoles so that scattered all around the country – maybe even the world – there are people wearing stoles that carry part of the picture. That’s a reminder to us that none of us is doing this work alone, that we are all playing our part in the much larger picture of God’s unfolding grace. Or, as Paul puts it to the Corinthians this morning, “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” (1 Cor. 3:10)

Thinking back to my seminary days and the core value of diversity that we are lifting up this morning as we consider Jesus’ challenging call to “be perfect” as the One in whose image we are created is perfect, I’m reminded of an occasion when practicing what we preach was more difficult than it seemed.

I attended the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a predominantly Methodist school, though with only half of the students coming from the United Methodist Church and the rest of us representing not only other mainline Protestant traditions, but also Pentecostal, Evangelical, Roman Catholic and other traditions as well, we were a pretty diverse bunch. Moving to Atlanta from Minneapolis, Minnesota I was struck by other kinds of diversity as well. Many of the students at Candler were African-American and coming out of the historic Black Church tradition. Many others were international students, and a good number of those were Korean Presbyterians and Methodists.

What I mean to say is, we were not all alike. We did not speak with the same accent. We did not sing the same hymns. We did not baptize in the same way, or celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the same way, or preach in the same way, or pray in the same way. We all confessed the same Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but we did not even agree on what that meant – or if those were still the appropriate words to use to convey our commitments to Christ.

That level of diversity created conflict. Mostly it was respectful conflict, but not always. As I’m sure you all know and have experienced in your own lives, when human beings are confronted with difference, we have an unfortunate habit of trying first to ignore it, then to deny it, then to attack it and then, if we must, to reluctantly tolerate it. It’s not so common for us to actually embrace difference and diversity as necessary and beneficial dimensions of human community – much less look upon them as God’s gifts to us.

And so it was with us pastors-in-training, and maybe we were even worse than most. There’s something about pastors, or maybe it’s just me, that likes being right and having answers, and it can make it hard for us to remain open to the rightness of others who are different from us. In the years that I was at Candler, we were struggling deeply with racism, and in particular we were struggling with the forms of white privilege that lead white people and the churches in which we are the majority to assume that our ways of being, thinking, speaking, singing and praying are better and preferable to the ways of being, thinking, speaking, singing and praying common to many churches where the majority of people are people of color.

In response to our struggles, the school convened a series of town hall conversations on race to which we were invited, not required, to attend. Turnout was alright. It could have been better. I think some people were scare
d to attend because they thought they would be challenged in public, and others were apathetic because they’d lived through some other version of this conflict in another setting. Some were enthusiastic about these conversations because it was the first time they’d ever been offered space to have this kind of dialogue, and others were exhausted because they’d been having this dialogue their whole lives long. I would guess this sounds pretty familiar to all of you as well.

At a town hall meeting about halfway through this series of conversations, one of my peers rose to speak, voicing a thought I think many in the room were feeling. He said something along the lines of, “look, we’re all Christians here. We are brothers and sisters by baptism. Can’t we set aside all of the labels that are causing all this pain and division? Can’t we agree that in Christ there is no more black or white, male or female, straight or gay? Can’t we all just get along?”

Though there was plenty of head-nodding in the room, there was plenty of grumbling as well. He didn’t quite get the reaction he was looking for, and he was at a loss to understand why.

I shared a story from a period earlier in my life, when I was still in college and my kid sister was still in high school. My little sister is adopted, she’s from southeast Asia – Thailand to be exact – and has beautiful brown skin and wavy black hair and gorgeous almond shaped eyes. That’s all I ever heard about her growing up, how pretty she was. So I was shocked and upset to learn one summer, while I was away at a summer internship, that my sister, who was away at summer camp, had been bullied by a group of girls who refused to let her into the swimming pool because of the color of her skin. They’d teased and taunted her, telling her that they didn’t want her to get the pool dirty with her brown skin.

I shared with my classmates that I absolutely agree that we are called by baptism in Christ into a new family in which we are all brothers and sisters, but that I didn’t believe that meant we were called to just get along – because when someone is bullying, or teasing, or oppressing, or injuring one of your brothers and sisters, you don’t tell him or her to just let it go and get along. You stand up beside her or him, and you work to make sure that your beloved sister or brother never has to go through something like that again.

For weeks now we’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew gospel. In the Beatitudes we were called to be peacemakers. In latter verses we were asked to imagine ourselves as salt and light, bringing out the best in the world and preserving it against its tendency toward decay, shedding light on injustice and driving out fear. In the passages from last week and this week we hear Jesus quoting passages from Hebrew law, “you have heard that it was said,” and then calling his companions to exceed the demands of the law and to deal with one another in love.

This week it comes to a head.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

This is more of Jesus’ “above and beyond” language, calling us to rise above what is required of us to embrace what is truly necessary to bring about change in the world.

I want to stop here and just clarify a couple of things that I think can get confusing. If we were to back up a few verses in this chapter of Matthew we would be reminded that Jesus begins this passage by saying, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill… for I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees was a legalistic righteousness that rested on a confidence that we could know and do what is right in the sight of God. In Matthew’s own community, gathering in the early years of the church, there was deep disagreement about which laws needed to be kept and which could now be discarded. In these verses from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is speaking to his followers, and to Matthew’s community, and to us, about the limits of the law.

We need the law to restrain our own worst impulses, to build a hedge around the places where human behavior becomes manipulative, coercive, violent and destructive. But if that’s all there is to life, then what kind of vision for the world to we have to offer? If all we can say about life by the grace of God is that we don’t kill one another, commit adultery, get divorced, make false promises, or take revenge, then what kind of sales pitch is that?

Well, actually, it would be a pretty good one – since we’re generally not good at even keeping the law, which is why we can give thanks that in Christ Jesus the judgment of God rests not on our successes (which are too often few) or our failures (which are too often great) but on God’s grace and mercy (which are too much to truly comprehend).

But it goes beyond that. Because we are freed in Christ to love and serve the neighbor, we can go beyond the sorts of questions that legalism leads us to – questions like

  • “how many of them do I have to hire to avoid charges of discrimination?”
  • or “when will they ever be satisfied?”
  • questions that ultimately boil down to “what is the minimum required of me?”

Instead, freed in Christ to love and serve the neighbor, we can ask the sorts of questions that spring from grateful hearts, responding to the love of God we’ve seen in Jesus – questions like,

  • “what can I do to keep our children safe from bullying?”
  • or “how can I be a part of extending the protections that come with marriage to loving couples regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity?”
  • questions that ultimately lift up the cross as the way Christians come to know God in the world, by choosing to suffer and struggle alongside those whom the world scorns.

This is why I think Jesus instructs us to love our enemies – not in order to reinforce our sense of persecution, but rather because he understands that too often we imagine enemies where we could find friends and allies, even brothers and sisters, if we could just embrace an ethic of love over an ethic of obligation.

This is the struggle of diversity. It means leaving behind the safety of presuming ourselves to be the ones with the answers. It means allowing that other people’s ways of being are as valid as our own. It means building bridges across lines of difference without chalking up other people’s wounds to water under the bridge. It means taking seriously the waters of baptism that makes us family to one another. It means standing up for your little sister, and sometimes it also means standing up to your older brothers and sisters when they need to be challenged on their privilege and assumption. But doing it all in love, out of a sense of freedom and the joy that comes with knowing that we are not in this alone.

So, Good Shepherd, as you celebrate your 75th anniversary this year and you look at this value of diversity that you have called one of your core values, I want to commend you for all the ways that you have led
the church and society over the years in confronting racism and heterosexism and able-ism in the church. You have been salt and light, even within the body of Christ. And I want to remind you that you have partners in this work. The movement for the full inclusion of all God’s children in God’s church is ongoing, and we all need to be working together to encourage one another when we feel tired or defeated – which is why I am, again, so grateful for the hospitality you showed the synod by hosting yesterday’s “Deepening the Welcome” event.

Let’s continue to create these opportunities for dialogue and support and encouragement. I want to know more about what you are doing to open the doors of your church to the people of Oak Park – particularly as you look at some of the accessibility issues that make it difficult for people with mobility impairments or illnesses to call this church their home. We are really struggling with that at St. Luke’s, and we could use your help leading the way. And I want to share with you what we’re doing at St. Luke’s to make marriage equality a reality for couples whether they are straight or gay, Christian or interfaith, because I think we’re doing some exciting, evangelical work.

The perfection God calls us to is not a solitary endeavor. We will not be judged individually against a heavenly scorecard. Instead, we are being perfected together, each of us wearing just a fragment of the mantle of God’s grace. Created in the image and likeness of the God who calls to each of us with the voice of love, we are called to be that voice for one another and for the whole world – calling out to all our brothers and sisters of every land and race, income and ability, gender and sexuality. Not grudgingly because we must, but joyfully because we can.


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