Sunday, January 10, 2021

Phil Kniss: In holy and in hopeless place

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ identity announced
Luke 3:1-22; Micah 6:6-8

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Let me start with a quiz.
I’ll give a scenario, then ask you a question.

Imagine you’re part of a religious group—
a large, well-organized, influential, long-standing religious group.
But your group is living completely within
an even larger, and secular, Empire.
And your group is losing ground against the Empire.
Whereas your religion and way of life
used to be prominent and protected,
now it’s under pressure, threatened,
in a minority, and maybe won’t survive.
To make matters worse,
your group is splintering into all kinds of factions,
groups with completely different values and priorities,
and polar opposite visions of what the problem is
and how to fix it.
Got it? Now here is the question:

Was I describing (A.) the Jewish community of Luke chapter 3—
the family of faith of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth?
or (B.) our faith family—North American Christians of 2021—
a family in which some members
gathered in mass protest at the Capitol on Wednesday,
and some of those engaged in a horrific, violent insurrection?

Correct answer? (C.) Both of the above.

As I prepared this sermon,
I thought I might have to stretch a bit
to have our prescribed text speak to present realities.
Then I realized, no stretching is needed.

You could lay side-by-side
the Gospel of Luke and the Jan 7 edition of the Washington Post,
and find all kinds of points that connect to each other.

But wait! you object. They are not us.
Yes, it’s tempting for us peace-loving Anabaptist Christians,
to think we have nothing whatsoever to do
with the violent chaos that descended on Washington last week.
But surely you noticed all the signs saying “Jesus Saves,” didn’t you?

You might argue, “They’re not talking about our Jesus.”
And maybe I’ll grant that . . . but only to a point.
Because they also read the Gospel of Luke.
They sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at church this time of year.
Their children learn Bible stories the same way ours do,
from loving, tender Sunday School teachers.
They pray.
They fast.
They take communion.

And some of them joined the Jericho March on DC last week.
The Jericho March is a Christian movement,
that does not promote violence, to be clear.
They publicly disavowed the physical attack on the Capitol.
But they were praying for an overthrow.

They did organize hundreds of Christians
to march 7 times around the Supreme Court on Tuesday,
and 7 times around the Capitol on Wednesday,
while all that was going on,
singing, shouting, and blowing rams’ horns,
and praying for the same result—
that the walls of Washington would miraculously fall down,
that God’s enemies—Joe Biden and Democrats—
would be defeated,
and that God would reverse the illegal election,
and keep God’s man, President Trump,
in office another four years.

I point this out not to ridicule them,
or distance them from us,
but to speak the painful truth that they also worship Jesus.

That should not surprise anyone who reads the Gospel of Luke.
The Jewish world of Jesus also felt threatened and fearful
and oppressed by God’s enemies.
Even though they all read the Torah,
kept the Sabbath,
followed the law,
and honored Abraham as their father,
they were entirely splintered over different political visions.

Some were collaborators with Rome.
Some tried to secretly rebel against Rome,
but not in a way to draw attention or get in trouble.
Some believed a spiritual victory would come,
if everyone could somehow achieve purity under the law.
And some plotted insurrection.
They carried short swords under their robes,
in case they ever had an opportunity to use them
against Roman authorities.

Yet, they were all part of the same beleaguered Jewish community.
And Jesus had disciples from various of these groups.

This is what happens when a once-powerful religious group
starts losing a grip on its power and privilege.  It reacts.
It might fight (with sword, or prayer, or both).
It might accommodate.
It might just give up and join the oppression.

In Luke 3, down at the Jordan, John the Baptist preached
a baptism of repentance to all these groups—all of them.
He said, “Return to God’s vision of justice and faith!”
Your future does not depend on what Caesar does or doesn’t do.
Remember who you are!
Reclaim your identity as children of Abraham.
Return to the God of your ancestors.
Repent—together—of the practices of injustice
that pervade this community.

Don’t mistake John as someone preaching
only an individualistic repentance and salvation.
Luke, the historian, sets the date of this story about John the Baptist
by naming all the political leaders currently in office—
leaders of both Empire and religion . . . in the first verse.
“It was while Tiberius Caesar was Emperor,
and Pilate was Governor,
and Herod was tetrarch,
and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,
that the word of God came to John.”

That’s an obvious signal.
While all these hifalutin office-holders thought they spoke for God,
God instead spoke to John, Zack’s boy,
who dressed in camel-hair and lived off the land.

I wonder who the camel-haired prophets are today?
In today’s divided and anxious politics of fear,
and antagonism, and white supremacist ideology,
that extends directly into and throughout the Christian community,
who is standing up for the whole Gospel of God,
revealed in Jesus,
a Gospel people who refuse to bow to an Empire,
but also refuse to bow to fear,
and to the practice of enemy-making,
and self-protective violence.
Who are the prophets who will look, with real love,
into the faces of their own religious family members,
and invite them, like John the Baptist did,
to “produce fruit in keeping with your faith.”
or say, “I see you have two shirts.
I know someone who has none. Might you share?”

And who will, in the name of Christ,
unmask the powers that continue to oppress
the poor, the immigrant, and the outcast—
whether those powers are of the State,
or of our own Christian community.

Who will steadfastly refuse to dehumanize anyone—
including true believers in Q-Anon or Trumpism
or Christian Nationalism?
And who will steadfastly refuse to deify anyone—
to not worship any human person
or institution or political party?
But will instead, with courage and clarity,
witness in word and deed to God’s kingdom of
peace and compassion and justice for all?

Who will take up the prophet’s mantle?
Who will look to John the Baptist and to Jesus,
as shining examples of how to live a whole life of protest,
in the midst of Empire,
while staying true to the faith, and to the community?

You know . . . just like the people who flocked to John
to listen, to repent, and to be baptized,
we are also called to change our way of thinking,
to reorder our lives,
and to publicly align ourselves
with the non-violent, non-fearful, non-egocentric,
and non-vindictive, Gospel of Jesus.
And to mark that commitment publicly.

Even Jesus did that, by requesting baptism.
Jesus was not so much repenting of personal sin,
as he was making a public declaration.
He was openly turning away from any selfish agenda,
and aligning his life with God’s larger agenda.
That’s what we are called to do as well,
in our baptism,
and in our Christian life.

It is the kind of clarity offered by the prophet Micah
in today’s other reading.
The priorities of the religious life are clear.
Not burnt offerings, or a thousand rams, or rivers of oil, Micah says.
But God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walk humbly, with the God who loves us.
Who is with us.
Who is for us.

Because along with this call to clarity and courage,
I also call us to show compassion, and to comfort each other.
These are hard times.
Excruciatingly hard.
And frightening.
And traumatic.
And uncertain.

We get tired. Too tired to move.
Much less, get organized and start a new kind of movement.
That’s why we are in community.
We have differing gifts.
Some preach. Some pray. Some plan.
Some just try to ease pain.
And some just rest, so they can heal.
We start by repenting, and remembering who we are,
and what God’s vision of justice looks like.
And then we support each other in whatever way we can.

Let’s sing a song that’s new to us,
but written some time ago by John Bell, of the Iona Community.
It could have been written for this week.

“When trouble strikes and fear takes root.”
Receive this song as both honest lament, and word of hope.
Sung to the familiar tune of “when I survey the wondrous cross.”
Sing with us, will you?

When trouble strikes and fear takes root
And dreams are dry and sense unsound;
When hope becomes a barren waste,
The doubts like mountains soar around.

Our wandering minds believe the worst
And ask, as faith and fervour fade,
“Has God now turned his back on us
forsaking those he loved and made?”

God says “See how a woman cares.
Can she forget the child she bore?
E’en if she did, I shan’t forget:
Though feeling lost, I love you more”

“My dearest daughter, fondest son,
My weary folk in every land,
Your souls are cradled in my heart,
Your names are written on my hand.”

Then praise the Lord through faith and fear,
In holy and in hopeless place;
For height and depth and heaven and hell
Can’t keep us far from God’s embrace.

—Phil Kniss, January 10, 2021

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