Sunday, August 05, 2018

You Have a Name

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 11, Pentecost + 9, July 22, 2018
Ephesians 2:11-22
                11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
                14For Jesus Christ is our peace; in flesh Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, in order to create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So Jesus Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through Christ both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. 21In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

           [Slide]  On July 18, 1918, one hundred years ago this week, Rolihlahla (Rolilala) Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  His first grade school teacher gave him a new name, and he became known to most of the world as Nelson Mandela. 
           It was colonial practice to give “Christian” names to African children—a practice that couldn’t have been more mis-named.
           We learn from our lesson for this morning that when Jesus came to earth, he united all people.  You wouldn’t need a new “Christian name,” because you would already have one:  child of God.  And whatever name your parents gave you is a perfectly acceptable prefix to “child of God.”  Jesus would be very happy for Nelson Mandela to have been known as Rolilala, Child of God, for all of his life.
           Your name is Child of God, too. 
           Say it, your name, followed by “child of God.” 
           That is the name that no one can take from you.  Because Jesus gave it to you.
           Paul teaches us that Jesus united all people into one in his blood.  Previously, in the world of the apostles, there were two groups:  Jews and “everyone else.” 
           “Everyone else” had a few names.  We like to do that, don’t we?  Name the people who are “other.” In Paul’s world, the “other” were called “Gentiles.”  Or “the uncircumcision,” to show that they could not participate in the covenant with God because they had not undertaken the rite which binds Jews to the covenant—the rite of circumcision.  It should be obvious from that language that the other thing that bound one to the covenant was a relationship to a man—a father, a husband—which is why widows often become object lessons in isolation and precarious living.
           “The uncircumcision” is an unwieldy name, but it does the trick.  It clearly delineates someone as other. 
           “Undocumented” works the same way.  But it’s not enough, so we add other terms.  “Illegal” is one meant to make real people sound fully illegitimate.  Tack on “alien” if you really want it to sound otherworldly and strange.
           There are other words, but I have no intention of using them in this pulpit.
           Apparently the folks who use those words—those separation words…the words that function as rhetorical walls between “us” and “them”—apparently those folks haven’t read Ephesians.  They may still be working their way through Two Corinthians…I don’t know.
           Because anyone who has read Ephesians, anyone who has read the lesson before us this morning, has heard the Good News that the walls were torn down!

           But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
                14For Jesus Christ is our peace; in flesh Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

                Jesus did that!  With his body!  He broke down the walls between us and made us into one people!  One people with one name:  Child of God. 
           Whew!  Glad Paul reminded us. 
           …Cuz I think we forget, don’t we?
           We forget that Jesus tore down the walls between us.
           We forget that Jesus brought us near.  When we’re busy telling ourselves how undeserving and illegitimate we are, we forget that Jesus made us legit.
           Jesus brought you near and there is nothing you can do about it.  You are loved and forgiven and you can’t be unloved and unforgiven.   
           You are a child of God.
           Imagine a world full of people who know that they are loved and forgiven, who live without walls between them and other people, or them and God.
           Nelson Mandela could imagine such a place.
           [Next 5 slides, slowly]
           Mandela spent twenty-six years in prison for proclaiming such a place in order that his country might learn to imagine it.  Eighteen of those years were spent in the cold isolation of Robben Island, where he imagined that place where all people are treated as true citizens, regardless of the color of their skin, or the language they speak, or who they marry.
           And when he got out, he helped build that place. 
           He could have been bitter.  He should have been angry.  But instead of punishing those who had tried to destroy him and others, he offered them forgiveness and reconciliation. He reminded them that they were part of the Rainbow Nation that was being built in South Africa.  He met with leaders of the Aparteid era, offering reconciliation and peace.  “Courageous people do not fear forgiving,” Mandela told his people…and then he lived his words, helping to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings to expose the horrors of the Aparteid era, but offered amnesty to many of its proponents, so that the country could move on.
           Mandela was not an evangelist.  He kept his Christian faith largely to himself.  Late in his life, people discovered how deeply rooted that faith truly was.  I have no doubt whatsoever that he knew this passage, and that it informed his life and his work. 
           Rolihlahla believed Jesus.  He believed that Jesus had torn down the walls between us, and that we were called to tear down walls, too.
           The root of so much that is wrong these days lies in the fact that people don’t believe Jesus.  Hear what I said:  Not that people don’t believe in Jesus.  But they don’t believe the stuff he said.  They don’t believe that God loves all people.  Heck, they don’t believe that God loves them.  A message they carry home from church on Sunday morning, if what they are hearing is that they are Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
           Please please please hear me this morning:  You are God’s beloved.  God loves you more than anything.  So much that God named you:  Child of God.  You are loved…and forgiven…and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it…
           …Except help create a world in which everyone knows that they are a beloved Child of God.  You know someone who needs to hear this message. 
           Tell ‘em.  Then tell yourself.

[Put up final slide]

Values Matter

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 10, Pentecost + 8, July 15, 2018
                14King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching,] for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
  17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against John, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

           King Herod the Great…was a paranoid tyrant and inveterate builder, who liked to put his name on stuff.  How terrible for the people of Judea.
           Herod was a Roman “client king,” meaning he ruled Judea, but was ultimately responsible to Rome.  To some, including our Israeli guide, Chaim, Herod was a great king, responsible for huge building projects all over the kingdom of Judea.  Herod’s projects included the expansion of the temple mount, including the Western Wall, which remains today.  Also the fortress at Masada and the port at Caesarea-on-the-sea. 
           Raise your hand if you’ve been to all of those places.
           According to the gospel of Matthew, Herod was the madman who murdered all babies under two in and around Bethlehem, because of the rumors of Jesus’ birth.
           Herod had an interesting relationship with his children.  He named four of them after himself:  Herod, Herod II, Herod Archelaus, and Herod Antipas.  And he had three of his children executed for treason.
           When Herod died, his kingdom was divided into tetrarchies, ruled by three of his sons:  Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. 
           Herod Antipas got The Galilee, and he is the Herod identified in our lesson for this morning. 
           Herod Antipas.  Son of the tyrannical, easily-manipluated Herod the Great.  Tree and apple.
           Antipas was, at least according to the picture painted by the evangelist Mark and others, especially vulnerable to the manipulation of women.
           He liked John the Baptist.  He still had him thrown into the dungeon…but deep down inside, Herod liked John, even though John had taken him to task for marrying his brother’s wife.  Herodias, the wife, hated John, because John besmirched her name all over the Galilee.  But Herod Antipas protected John, because he thought of John as a righteous and holy man.
           I suspect that deep down inside, Herod wanted to think of himself as a righteous and holy man.  But he knew himself better.  He knew his weaknesses…almost as well as others did.  And he allowed himself to be captivated by the dancing of his stepdaughter.  (Go ahead and be a little grossed out by that—it’s called for.)
           This lesson is a study in contrasts, one from which we can learn much of use to us in this moment in our lives.
           John the Baptist, who is shown in icons doing what?  [pointing to Jesus, or sometimes near a lamb].  John is not Jesus, but he is an important figure because he is the first to recognize Jesus, when still a child in the womb. 
           John is the one who cries “behold!” and points to Jesus.  He precedes Jesus, not only as a prophet, but as a “righteous and holy man.”
           So there is both contrast and congruency with John and Jesus.
           Not so with Herod Antipas, who stands in stark contrast to both.  John and Jesus were men who were SO righteous and holy, whose values were SO consistent with their actions, that they were willing to lay down their lives to stand up for what was right, for their values.
           Did Herod have values? 
           I think he did.  I think deep down inside Herod wanted to do the right thing.  He feared John, Mark tells us, because John was righteous and holy.
           He protected John. 
           And he was “deeply grieved” when he got himself trapped into killing John.  Herod knew what the “holy and righteous” path would be.  He would stand up for John.
           But what did he do?
           And why?  [whine]  “Because my friends…I don’t want them to think badly of me…”
           You ever been there?  You know what the holy and righteous choice is.  But your friends are doing something else.  They’re having a grand time running down your supervisor in the break room.  They’re telling jokes that are “just a little racist.”  They’re participating in a system that is bankrupt of justice.  Little stuff like that? 

           Values matter.  And they’re not a matter of convenience.
           Values matter.  It is important for us to know and to be able to state our values.
           You have stated values.  What are they?  Tell me some of your values.
           What are our church’s stated values?
           How about our country?  What are its stated values?
           Stated values are important.  People should know where you stand.  What you stand for.  And if they are telling racist jokes in front of you, or expecting you to go along with unholy and unrighteous behavior, it is quite possible that your values aren’t as explicit as you think they are.  That your stated values haven’t been stated strongly enough.
           Stated values are important...
           But what’s even more important?
           Lived values.
           Even more important than what we say we believe is how we live out our beliefs.  And when those two are in conflict, it is our lived values which will carry. 
           Herod Antipas will go down in history as a weak man captive to his appetites.
           John the Baptist will go down in history as a rather odd man who was willing to die for the sake of holiness and righteousness.

           Values matter.  If we say we are a place building hope and proclaiming peace, but we’re not doing that, our words are empty.  They offer a clue, but there is still a mystery.
           If we say as a nation e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one,” but we start singling out some of the many as “unworthy,” then our stated values are in conflict with our lived values…and as individual members of the body, we have to decide what to do about that.
           We have a problem, my friends.  I think we all know it.  Some of our stated corporate values have become as meaningful as a promise from Herod the Great.  It’s not an insurmountable problem, and its not a new problem.  But it’s acute in new ways every week, and we have to make some choices.  We have to do some stuff.
           The first thing we’ve got to do is get clear on our values.  Know what they are.  Make sure they are stated.  Do people know what you believe?  Do they know what you value?  Is it clear?
           Then we’ve got to make sure that our lived values are consistent with our stated values. 
           We’ve got to be righteous and holy in word AND deed.  Let the world see our righteousness, feel our righteousness, know our righteousness.  Let it be contagious!
           That’s what makes us great.