Sermon for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost
May I speak in the name of
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
On the evening of August 11, 2017, I was locked inside my church with 500 other people.
As the interfaith service began to wind down, the worship leader suddenly walked to the back of the church. He spoke quietly with someone out of my view, then headed back up to the front. *
Then he told us: “The Nazis are outside.”
I have no memory of the next few seconds. But, someone must have told us we were in lockdown. It wasn’t safe to leave.
Then the worship leader spoke again: “So, we’re going to sing loud enough to drown out their hate.”
This week, Facebook reminded me that I had made a recording in the sanctuary as we sang: “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine…”
…For some timeless period, we tapped on the backs of the hardwood pews in front of us, and stomped our feet to the rhythm. The candle flames danced on the altar.
In my memory, this moment feels almost like a dream. It felt like the Kingdom of God.
Meanwhile, back in the narthex, unarmed priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams were guarding the doors.
There was no police presence at first. Because the Nazis had called in dozens of false emergencies to deploy the Charlottesville Police away from their tiki torches and hateful chanting, as they marched through the University of Virginia’s campus across the street from the church.
The only things separating us from terror that night was “This Little Light of Mine,” our clergy, and the big red doors of my church.
But I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew was that I was singing and stomping my feet in the sanctuary where I had been confirmed only a few months earlier.
And, I felt peace. I had shown up – against my better judgment – because I believed that Jesus had called me to love my neighbors. And we were all there doing just that, despite the risks.
The next day, local clergy and congregations led hundreds of counter-protesters downtown to confront the hate of the Nazis. They took their little lights and let them shine.
These white nationalists could terrorize a community and murder an innocent person, but they could not overcome the way of love.
But, when national news networks broadcast the violence of that weekend in MY TOWN, they focused on the division.
They played footage over and over like it was a football game. They implied that there were winners and losers. But the division of that weekend wasn’t the problem. The problem was white supremacy, which is evil.
Those who stood up to it weren’t being divisive. They were answering the call of their faith, to love one another, even when it is risky!
Today, we meet Jesus at another risky time. His coming death is starting to weigh heavily on him. He cries out, “What stress I am under until it is completed!”
As the days of his ministry wear on and he gets closer to Jerusalem – where he will be killed – you can hear his parables become more urgent. And, today’s reading isn’t even a parable.
It’s straight-up apocalypse.
These words are intentionally prophetic. They recall the Messianic prophecies, like those of Isaiah.
But they feel shocking, because, up until this moment, Jesus has been showing everyone a new way to love one another. He has been blessing the poor, performing miraculous healings, teaching people how to pray, and recruiting women, tax collectors, and foreigners to his new way of living.
Along the way, some of his followers have gotten the impression that his ministry will ultimately result in some epic, political situation where Christ is the new king on earth. It’s not their fault, really. Their prophecies have always been interpreted to mean that the Messiah will bring peace on earth.
So putting two and two together, they think that Jesus will simply make the world good without too much struggle for them. And they will ride his coattails to power.
But today, Jesus says that’s not what’s happening. He warns his listeners that his mission isn’t a “get-peace-quick” scheme.
Instead, Jesus tells us that the peaceful kingdom we were hoping for won’t arrive the way we had hoped. To get there, we have to walk toward death and come back to life again.
This strange road is Christ’s way of love. It makes us act in service of others and deny claims to earthly dominance. It forces us to turn away from the easy road, and stop getting distracted by our fear.
Choosing this kind of love is difficult in a world that craves domination and supremacy. Families turn on one another. And people’s personal sense of security is turned upside down. When Jesus is let loose in our lives, things become awfully unpredictable.
The way of love seems divisive because it requires us to take risks that look foolish to a world preoccupied with power and security.
Speaking of which, this week was a doozy in national news…
Much of the country is either underwater or on fire, literally and figuratively. The former president is being investigated for stealing the Nuclear codes. Author, Salman Rushdie, was stabbed at a talk in New York. It seems that everywhere you look, vigilantes are storming federal buildings, conference centers, and places of worship.
Depending on what circles you move in, people are enraged, giddy, forlorn, optimistic, or apathetic. There are a lot of people on edge.
We are living in what some call divisive times.
And yes, we are divided. Too many of us are treating terror like a football game, with winners and losers.
But, Jesus isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. He’s not a fascist or a socialist. He’s neither rightwing nor leftwing. He doesn’t map onto our narrow and unimaginative political arguments.
Jesus isn’t building a political party. He’s certainly not advocating for vigilante justice. He’s busy, building a freaking kingdom! Christ’s kingdom is about creation, not destruction. And we are being called to follow him in the way of love, which is the farthest thing from earthly power and control.
Choosing love means choosing what and who Jesus chooses, even when it goes against the grain.
Jesus chooses the lost, the losers, the poor, the left out, the sick, the eccentric, and the lonely. He touches dead people and makes them alive again! He chooses everyone, especially the ones the world keeps telling us to hate!
When we begin to practice this kind of love more fully, we come to understand that Jesus’ prophetic proclamation in Luke isn’t a threat of a future apocalypse. He is merely telling the truth about the world as it is.
Because, when we choose to pursue the Kingdom of God over worldly power, we inevitably choose division. We can no longer blend in or be quiet. The way of love is loud, wild, and unpredictable.
And when we stand up and let love throw a spotlight on the evil in this world, we also risk the vigilantes coming for us. I wish that was an exaggeration.
But Christ is still calling to us, and we have to answer.
Will we uphold our baptismal vows to “resist evil, respect the dignity of every human being, and love our neighbors as ourselves?”
Will we do that even if it stirs up controversy in our families? Even when it puts us at odds with our communities? Even when it feels like the promise of the Kingdom is so far away?
Transforming the world in love when it is so bent on everything but love is one of the hardest things we can ever commit to. Jesus’ ministry was always too radical to not ruffle any feathers.
But as the writer of Hebrews reminds us today, we are not alone in this great and terrifying labor of love.
So many have gone before us, acting on faith and believing in God’s promise. Through miracles and tragedies, the faithful journeyed on.
They walked the way of love, risking division and danger, because they knew that these things were inevitable in a divisive and dangerous world. They could not avoid it. They had to answer God’s call.
Like it did for that great cloud of witnesses, violence encroaches on us. Christians in a so-called Christian nation are not safe when we choose the Kingdom of God over militant loyalty to political parties and nationalist ideals.
But, through faith, we believe that Christ’s Kingdom of peace is still before us. To build it here on earth, we must risk taking the way of love.
So, do not weep over our division. Division means someone out there is still letting God’s light shine. Someone out there is still following Jesus in his way of love.
*In talking this over with my spouse, I realized that I may misremembering some of the finer details of this moment. I’m not sure if we were explicitly told what was happening as it happened. Some details came out hours and days later. Such is the nature of trauma memory. For more on that, I recommend Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story.”