Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Turning the Nightmare into a Vision of Hope

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17.  We baptized four children this day.

          What a very, very strange week we have had.  Bombs going off at the Boston Marathon, ricin found in letters to a US Senator and the President, a huge explosion and fire in Texas, a massive hunt for a nineteen year old that kept many of us glued to our televisions or computers or i-phones, and we even got a piece of hate mail here, an anonymous screed about the evils of gay clergy and the congregations who they “manipulate,” mailed from Nashville, Tennessee.

          As the week went on, I was so grateful of the coincidence that we were having baptisms today.  There is nothing like baptisms to get us re-grounded, re-focused, facing our fears but handing them over to the God from whom we can never be separated.  Whatever is wrong with the world, and this week it seemed like the answer was almost overwhelmingly, “a lot, too much.”  What we celebrate here today is the answer. If the world is sometimes a nightmare, here is where we renew the vision.

          Before the craziness of this week, I actually was beginning to think along these lines because of a news story I came across Monday morning.  Some of you may know the name of Melissa Harris-Perry, a weekend commentator on MSNBC.  MSNBC for quite some time now has been showing promos featuring its various hosts and commentators giving us a few sound bites on the theme “Lean Forward.”

          It was Melissa Harris-Perry’s turn last week, and she chose to talk about education and the raising of children in America.  Here’s the line that seems to have set off the controversy:

We need to break through the private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

          The howling about this statement over the weekend was fierce.  Her statement was generally interpreted to mean that children should belong to the state and not to their parents and that this dangerous idea that children belong to the community is the height of Socialist/Marxist/Communist ideology.

          Admittedly, “belongs” is a strong word and most parents would chafe to be told that their child does not belong to them.  But she did not say that she thought that children belong to “the state,” but “to whole communities,” two very different things.  I do not know if such an ideal is socialist or Marxist or communist.  But I do believe that it is both biblical and Christian.

          Sarah Palin tweeted that Harris-Perry’s comments were “unflippingbelievable.”  What is unflippingbelievable to me is that a Christian person like Governor Palin would not know that Christianity has been teaching this from practically the time Jesus first opened his mouth, and he was only emphasizing what his Jewish tradition had taught him and that teaching had come straight out of the Scriptures.  But I suspect she would call my understanding of the Bible “unflippingbelievable” also.

          I do not believe in any way, shape or form that the Bible is anti-parent.  “Honor your father and your mother” is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments.  But the Bible also clearly teaches several things that build on each other:

·       First:  Everything we have is an absolute gift, including all our relationships.  Nothing belongs to us.  “Possession” is not a word that should exist in at least the Jewish or Christian vocabulary.  That alone says that Harris-Perry is right. Children do not belong to us any more than anything else does.
·       Second:  We are not possessors of things and relationships we are stewards.  Stewardship is our way of life, not possessiveness.
·       Third:  Stewardship is not something we ever do alone.  We are stewards together.  Why?  Because every decision I make about my relationship to anything or anyone is part of a web.  It not only affects the object of my decision, but reverberates beyond it.  The Bible is not big on our notion of “privacy,” especially as an ultimate value.  We are, ultimately all responsible to each other for everything.
·       Fourth:  Jesus very clearly understands these values that are rooted deep in the Hebrew Scriptures and has a notion of “family” that is just about as expansive as it can be.  He asks

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” and pointing to his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50).

·       Fifth:  The followers of Jesus carried this way of life forward.  There is a glimpse of that in the Acts reading this morning.  This is not a traditional family as we think of it that Peter stumbles upon.  It is a community of disciples.  That is the biblical “familyunit.”
·       Sixth:  Baptism has been understood from the very beginning to be the continual creation of a new family of disciples, brothers and sisters who live in equality and mutual responsibility.

This understanding of Baptism is still in the rite we are about to go through even if we choose not to pay attention.  The very fact of having sponsors and godparents is a very clear sign that responsibility for this child belongs to a wider circle than just its parents.  And we are not being the least bit sentimental when we ask the question, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”  The spiritual upbringing of the children we are about to baptize is not the sole responsibility of their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.  It is not even primarily theirs.  It is primarily ours.  Why? Because we are taking responsibility for them here. We are making them members of our family.  For Christian people, water is thicker than blood.

And so, traditionally, we do not use last or family names when we baptize.  I like to tell people in preparing for baptism that there are no last names in heaven, in the kingdom of God.  And so do we say when we respond to their baptism and chrismation by saying “we receive you into the household of God.”  “Household” is a much more important word in the New Testament than family, especially as we tend to define family.

There is one Table in this house, and one Family that is fed around it, a community of disciples, brothers and sisters who live together in mutual service and responsibility.

What does this have to do with this crazy week?  First of all, when tragedy strikes we often get a glimpse of this desire of God for one family, one beloved community, because suddenly who you “belong” to is no longer important.  We call people “heroes” in these situations when they forget about themselves and serve others, often at great cost, sometimes even of their lives.  But in the eyes of God they are not heroes, they are being that “kingdom of priests” that is God’s vision for all of us.  They are acting out what is God’s dream for everyday living.

Second of all, it is only this expansive notion of community that can save us.  Often we say that it is only love that can save us, and that is right, but community is love in action.  Community is love taken out of the realm of theory and sentimentality and exclusive notions of who “belongs” to whom, and made real in the relationships of women and men, all human persons with each other and with the creation.  Love in practice means we all belong to each other and live in a world where the nightmare turns into the vision only when we live in mutual responsibility.

Oddly enough, that is the primary message of that strangest and perhaps scariest of the books of the Bible, the Revelation to John.  Evil is what divides and controls and enslaves, and it is only overcome by the action of one who takes responsibility for the whole world, the one John repeatedly calls “the Lamb who was slain.”  And this Lamb who was slain is also the Good Shepherd who gathers a community together, a new family,

…a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…

This image is such an important part of John’s vision that it is repeated six times in the book.  It is what turns the nightmare into a vision, a dream, of a new heaven and a new earth where weeks like we have had do not happen.

          Why is it so hard for us to get that we are all in this together, all of it, all the time.  If we truly believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God, than we must also truly believe that nothing can separate us from one another.  Perhaps we ought to say after we baptize someone what we say after we marry them:  “What God has joined together let no one put asunder.”

          In the midst of the nightmare that was this past week, it was also the 50th anniversary  of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Dr. King got it, and I’ll let him have the last word.

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

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