Grace and favor to God’s people in distress: A sermon for Proper 21A, 2018

 I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve sung our opening hymn “Praise my soul, the King of heaven.” But today was the first time I really noticed the first line of the second stanza “Praise Him for his grace and favor to his people in distress.” I don’t know about you, but I am distressed today. Distressed by events in our community and in our nation. I’m full of fear, anger, and despair and I struggle to find comfort in scripture or in the Good News of Jesus Christ, whether we can even hope or pray for, God’s grace and favor to us.

I was away last weekend, so although I heard about ICE’s activity across Wisconsin, and especially in Madison, I wasn’t aware of the total number of detentions and of the devastating impact it has had on the Latinx community—but not just our friends and neighbors of Hispanic background—all of us, with a number of businesses closing due to employees staying home, or the schools, where I learned that at one elementary school, teachers rode home on the buses with children to make sure their parents would be there to meet them. This isn’t over by any means, Rep. Pocan stated that ICE has targeted an additional 160 people in Wisconsin for arrest. So many of us are broken-hearted, angry, fearful.

But I wasn’t away or distracted the past few days as the drama in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings unfolded. Again, I know that this series of events has been anguishing, especially for women who have been victims of sexual assault. The hearings have brought up painful memories, widened division, and deepened fear, despair, and anger throughout the nation.

As an added factor contributing to my anger, fear, and despair—gun violence, the mass shooting in Middleton a week and a half ago, and the incidents around LaFollette High this week. In these past few months, gun violence has affected many of us here at Grace, our friends and members of our families.

I’m angry, fearful, broken-hearted at the climate in our country, at the toxic masculinity, white supremacy unapologetic, unrepentant, unchecked by the safeguards of civil discourse, the common good, or institutions meant to protect the weak and vulnerable and to foster the civil rights of all.

I know that we may disagree about the particulars of the political process or of the decisions made by our political leaders, but I don’t think any of us can disagree about the unprecedented suffering, anger, and fear that so many of our fellow citizens and neighbors are experiencing right now. Whatever you may feel about a supreme court nominee, or immigration, or climate change, or sexual assault, or gun violence, or any number of other issues, many people across this country, in this city, in the pews of this church are experiencing feelings and emotions that are causing pain and distress.

For me, for many of us, our distress, anger, and anguish are compounded by the religious divisions within our society. The very different ways in which Christians are participating in these larger cultural conflicts can be confusing and disheartening. We read of studies that show the partisan divide in our country extends to the pews. Indeed, partisanship helps to shape our religious commitments. All this may lead us to wonder what our faith has to say to us in these times. Have we just projected our own political views on Jesus and the teachings of the church, or does there remain the possibility that the gospel, our encounter with the living Christ, may be capable of challenging or transforming our deeply held views and help see the world and those around us, in new light?

Today’s gospel reading, then, comes into our cultural moment as the clear word of God as well as a challenge to our divisions. It’s likely one of those places where the gospel writer is projecting the concerns of his community in the latter decades of the first century back on to the Jesus movement itself. I infer this because of the curious, and anachronistic use of the phrase “because you bear the name of Christ.” That is usage that reflects the emergence of a Christian community in the later half of the first century, a community that distinguished itself from its environment with such language.

But to use the word “community” is itself an oversimplification of a much more complex reality. There were already by the 70s or 80s different Christian communities, that had developed somewhat different beliefs and practices. We can see this in the way St. Paul discusses unity and diversity in his letters, and we can also catch glimpses of this diversity in the gospels themselves, as the gospel writers interpret Jesus somewhat differently.

So Mark is writing in a context of Christian diversity, perhaps even disagreement and it’s reflected back in this particular episode. John, speaking for the disciples, tells Jesus that they had encountered an exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It was someone they didn’t know, someone who wasn’t in the group following Jesus through Galilee to Jerusalem. The disciples seem to have been outraged, offended. There may also have been a little jealousy. Mark reported just a few verses earlier in the gospel that someone had come to the disciples asking them to heal his son who was possessed by an evil spirit. They couldn’t do it, so Jesus did.

This time, Jesus uses the disciples’ worry about the actions of others to instruct them on how to understand and relate to others. His words are frankly remarkable, somewhat out of keeping with what he says elsewhere in the gospel. They are also out of keeping with attitudes among Christians throughout history, right down to the present. He begins by telling the disciples that no one who performs miracles in his name will be able to resist the draw of Jesus’ love. Then, those famous words, “whoever is not against us is for us.” And then, “whoever gives one of you who bears the name of Christ a cup of water will not lose the reward.” To put it in language that cuts to the heart of the inter-Christian conflicts of our own day, wherever we are on the hot-button issues, as Christians, there is something deeper, more important, that binds us together, our shared faith in Jesus Christ.

At a time when the demonization of one’s opponents has become so ingrained in our discourse and has lodged deeply in our minds, the idea that a gesture as small and insignificant as offering a cup of water may be the deciding factor. Or to draw on the image Jesus uses in the gospel, to receive a cup of water. So think about it, think about your fiercest political opponent, the one who has been most demonized in the news media and social media that you follow: would you accept a cup of water from them if you were thirsty?

That gets a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

And then there are the following verses, and especially the powerful caution against causing “little ones” to stumble. Do I, do we, with our strong convictions, our loud protests or statements, with our actions, and yes, even our sermons, do we cause others to stumble do we prevent them from experiencing the grace and love of God in Christ?

These are all hard questions, especially as we watch developments across the country and the world. But it seems to me that the church has to be a place that brings people together; a place where people of different ages, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and yes, different political perspectives, can come together and model a new community that crosses political, racial, economic, and other divisions, where people can forge deeper bonds and become the beloved community that we are called to be.

Beginning October 14, and continuing through November 11, our adult forums will address some of these questions. Using a curriculum provided by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, we will explore why civil discourse is so important to living out our Gospel call and solving the problems facing our communities, country and the world. I hope many of you will join that conversation.

But even if you can’t, I hope you will pray and reflect carefully and seriously on how you might approach and think about people with whom you disagree politically or religiously. John told Jesus that he and the other disciples prevented someone from casting out a demon in Jesus’ name. Think about that for a moment. He was so invested in his own identity, in his membership in the “in” group, that he prevented someone else from helping a person in deep suffering.

Do we by our actions or words, do we prevent others from helping those in need? Do we cause the “little ones” to stumble? Are there ways that, without compromising or deeply held commitments, communicate openly, honestly, generously, and compassionately, with those on the other side of the divide? Can we inhabit the world, the public square, social media, and this gathering place, in such a way that we model the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ?

I know it won’t get any easier in the weeks to come but that should be our goal, our mission, our witness and I hope you will join me in that effort.




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