For this week’s week in the Word, I would like to share with you a moving and though-provoking sermon from Land of the Sky United Church of Christ, a progressive community in Asheville.
In this sermon, Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss speaks to many of the tensions we all face in our Christian journeys. You can here more of her sermons at http://landoftheskychurch.org/worship/sermons/ or check out the directions and time and visit Land of the Sky one Sunday you are in the NC mountains.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
“The Elephant We Live With”
Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss
June 12, 2016
Duke Divinity Professor Dr. Willimon tells a personal story about one Sunday following church, when a parishioner stopped in the greeting line to say, “Pastor, you’ve got to talk to my daughter. She’s got this crazy idea of dropping out of college.” Sufficiently concerned, Dr. Willimon called the student directly. “Janie,” he said, “what’s this I hear about you dropping out?” And Janie explained that, yes, she did plan to drop out of college to travel and work with communities battling poverty. “Janie,” he replied, “What in the world made you think it’s a good idea to quit your schooling?” “Well,” she said, “the idea came to me after I heard your sermon about giving up what you have and following Jesus.”
Dr. Willimon paused. “But Janie, I didn’t mean that literally,” he managed to sputter. “Your schooling…” But she interrupted, “Well, maybe Jesus intended to say more than you did.” You see, sometimes we come to worship for a word of comfort, but according to Dr. Willimon, we might get something better—the shocking “good news that Jesus’ ways are not our ways.” The vital task of preaching responds to the urgent human question—is there a word from the Lord? Does God have anything to say about the state of our world, our hearts, our lives? And preachers bear the privilege and responsibility, the terror and sheer joy of standing here week after week insisting that God does indeed have a word for us today. In this day of climate change, mass incarceration and addiction, in this day of chronic illness and rape culture and white supremacy—in this day, God still has a word of shocking hope. We live in harrowing times. One night in Nicaragua I was gathered with my clergy leadership group, planning a training for church leaders. The sun had set, the doors were open to cool the heat of the day, as we prepared for our journey into the mountains the next day. As we sat together, contemplative and exhausted, the question arose: Following the tragic violence at Mother Emanuel AME, how many of us had ever worried about a mass shooting in the midst of preaching? We went around the circle and every single one of my clergy colleagues admitted that they had thought about it. In the midst of delivering a word of hope, we’ve thought about it. As a stranger wanders in and it’s clear their soul is burdened, we’ve thought about it. As we preach about third-rail issues, we’ve thought about it. As we bring our identity into the pulpit—some of us women in what has long been a man’s vocation, some gay and out, some African American, we’ve all thought about it. One colleague, a black male, said he heard growing up that he would never make it past his teens. In his neighborhood, young black men were expendable and endangered. He was never supposed to reach midlife, to be a pastor, a leader. And that anemic expectation of lowered skies was uttered like a curse, over and over. The elephant in the room, the elephant we live with, is that our culture is making us sick— in mind, body, and spirit. Capitalism, with its for-profit prisons and corrupt corporations, is making us sick. Consumerism, whispering we’ll be happy if we can just have this one thing, is making us sick. White supremacy, claiming divine privilege, is making us sick. Rape culture, which prizes a star athlete rapist above the girls assaults, is making us sick. Climate change, with rising ocean levels and red-alert air quality, is making us sick. Rugged individualism, in which a single mom is supposed to hoist herself by her own boot straps, is making us sick. We are sin-sick, and in our brokenness, we seek a balm. And so we also live in a society rife with addiction—addiction to work, frenetic lifestyles, cell phones and social media, to alcohol, prescribed painkillers and street drugs, to porn, to spending, to escape in whatever way we can. Our culture is a sickness unto death, endangering God’s exquisite creation, and too few of us believe in our ability to change intractable problems. It feels apocalyptic, this moment in human history, as we hurtle toward destruction. But we’d rather not name the elephant we live with, who now has a mascot running for the highest office in the land. Many had hoped we could get to revolution by way of an election, but that’s not how it works. Revolution begins with me and you. And church is the place where we get to name hard truths and ask a question shot through with shocking hope: Is there a word from the Lord? The Apostle Paul too lived in apocalyptic times—he believed in the immanent return of Jesus Christ. That he was living in the end-times. And so he made a theological move that functions as opiate for the masses—he talked about heaven, about shucking these earthly bodies which make plain our sickness and stress. Our outer nature is wasting away, he said. And that’s the truth, for every one of us. But then he shifts into a widely-held notion of his day that body and spirit were separate and would part ways after death. You can almost hear his discomfort with the body as the metaphor trips him up…our earthly tent of a body longs to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. But, oops, that leaves us naked if we’re taking off our earthly dwelling. So, Paul clarifies, “we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” Despite this halting discourse, Paul lands upon something so significant, so bold, so prescriptive, that it is nothing short of revolutionary. He proclaims, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” In other words, what we see around us—this apocalyptic world careening toward chaos—does not determine how we live. Our faith—our trust in the God of hope, our holy imagination that there is another way—our faith determines how we live. Today’s gospel text about Jesus healing a blind man interrogates Paul’s conflation of eternal life with heaven. You see for Jesus, eternal life begins now. Today. In this very moment. Eternal life is not some heaven above the clouds, it is the kingdom of God being built right here, in the belly of an empire culture. Can you imagine a more subversive conspiracy? In Jesus’ context, you may remember, a blind man was not simply blind. He was cut off, shut out, exiled from the social and religious fabric of human life. And this man longed to be healed. Do we want to be healed? It’s a question Jesus sometimes asked—do you want to keep living like this? Because sometimes we think we want to be healed, but it’s hard to move beyond our wounds—to trust, after so many closed doors and missteps, that another way is possible. It’s worth considering this morning, here in this place. Do you want to be healed? From your frenetic lifestyle, with its digital distractions, saturated in scheduling demands, do you want to be healed? From addictions that take the edge off, from increasingly violent images of women and girls all too accessible, do you want to be healed? From wounds sustained at the hand of the church, through “the barrel of the Bible,” do you want to be 2 healed? From our utter failure to live in right relationship with creation, to humble ourselves to the foundational wisdom of the earth, do you want to be healed? What separates us from one another also separates us from God, and Jesus asks: do we want to be healed? This healing in the gospel according to Mark doesn’t fully take the first time. Which is to say: it’s a process. It requires persistence, feedback, second tries. Sometimes we heal, and then we need to heal some more. Healing isn’t magic and sometimes, it’s not a cure, but the internal renewal that enables us to withstand chronic conditions with brilliant resilience and a village of support. Jesus’ healing usually ended with a restoration to community. So it’s interesting that he instructs this man, “Don’t even go into the village.” After being cured, the purification process required showing yourself to the priest, then waiting a period before returning to the temple. Why, then, did Jesus command this man not to go into the village? I can’t help but wonder if the village from which he came was not a place where he could sustain his healing. Bethsaida was the town where he was known as the blind man, and people had passed his outstretched hands beckoning for alms so many times that they became blind to him. Could it be that in that village they could not extricate him from an identity as chronically needy? That the one granted vision could not be seen anew? Sometimes a holy healing requires that we leave communities that enabled our sickness, that turned the other way as we were abused, that quietly abided our addictions or hateful habits. Sometimes, thanks be to God, Jesus says, “don’t even go back there. There’s nothing for you.” But how hard it is to leave and find home somewhere new. The Rev. Heidi Neumark pastors Trinity Lutheran in Manhattan and directs the church’s homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth. She tells the story of how this unlikely shelter came into being. Unlikely, because her congregation had already committed itself to extensive outreach among the Latino community and was now fully integrated. Unlikely, because the queer homeless youth of New York City are some of the most vulnerable, having been thrown out of their homes or fleeing abuse. So when the congregation met to discuss this ministry proposal, there were many voices opposed. Some didn’t want to detract from current ministries, others simply felt uncomfortable, and this is one of the church’s greatest sins—“child sacrifice on the altar of avoiding too much controversy.” Some, representing the Latinos in the congregation, said their culture was not as open about sexual identity and this would draw attention to a church already sheltering vulnerable immigrants. And that’s when Patricia stood up. Her father had died in Mexico the year before, and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral because she’s undocumented. Can you imagine the pain of not being able to return to the family fold, to speak your mother tongue in the land you called home, as you grieve the loss of your father? But the church saw Patricia’s grief. They decided to offer a memorial service for her father. She thought no one would come, they didn’t know her father. But they did, in droves. Even those who did not speak Spanish came, because grief speaks every language. And they wept with her. They groaned in grief. They lifted her up when she collapsed under the weight of it all. They came alongside her and encircled her with love. And so Patricia stood up with tremendous conviction at that meeting and said, “I used to be uncomfortable around gay people, but my people know what’s like to be hunted down. I vote that we build this shelter.” And wouldn’t you know it, Patricia’s words rippled out, and like the movement of God’s Spirit, one by one, minds were opened, hearts were changed, a shelter was built. On its opening night, Patricia organized the Latina mothers of the church to serve the first wave of youth a warm feast of crispy tostadas and refreshing lemonade. Some would say it was a foretaste of God’s heavenly banquet where the outcasts and immigrants sit side by side to enjoy holy abundance. Others would say it was the kingdom come to earth, made manifest in one New York burrow, among the very youth told they weren’t worth the bother. But here, they were. Here, their primal identity was beloved children of the most high God, and the meal tasted of dignity and raw joy. You see, the word from the Lord for our day might be that we need to imagine and live into the kingdom where the last are first. That we live not according to the tired tropes that clutch at our lives, but according to faith, according to trust that God makes a way, according to the alternate vision of the kingdom reality that in God’s economy there is more than enough. The word from the Lord for our day might be a surge of grace, the Spirit’s torrent of generosity that not one of us has earned. It might be to build the bold ministries we dreamed up last Sunday in a world that says the church is dying. The good news for troubled times might be that God “chooses not to work within the confines of the advantaged,” but from the margins. So today, let us ready our hearts for the 5 shocking hope made known in Jesus Christ, whose ways are not our ways. For that, I say, thanks be to God. Amen.