I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in Davis.
As you may have heard, I was recently ordained—just two weeks ago, in fact—down south at my home parish of Bethlehem Lutheran in Encinitas. It’s so exciting to get to be with y'all this morning in an official capacity! Thanks for your support of the Belfry that helped in small and large ways to make calling me to serve there possible. Since Pastor Jocelynn has been on sabbatical since February (she returns August 1), I’ve been at the helm. The new responsibilities therein have included being the preacher each week! I have always loved preaching—inasmuch as I have always loved talking, and I have always loved the good news of Jesus the Christ—but this is my first full-time gig, and I am learning very rapidly just how much there is to say!
I often say that I self-identify as a word nerd. One of the best parts about that identity is that the words themselves rhyme. So good. In high school, I copy-edited the yearbook. In college, I worked in the Writing Center, helping students improve their papers and presentations. I pay an inordinate amount of attention to grammar in everything I hear and read. I was recently bothered by Presidential candidates—from different parties—who misidentified a group of nouns as adjectives and a group of adjectives as verbs, respectively. Words matter to me.
My seminary preaching professor, Tom Rogers, gave us approximately one million exercises to try with the words in our lectionary texts each week. During his class, we were expected to do all of them on our assigned weeks. Now, in our professional lives, we probably do a fraction—our favorites, the quickest ones. I’m grateful, in this new weekly role, for the word toolbox he provided me.
One of the things I do each week is excavate all the texts on the grammatical level. I mark up all the verbs, all the adjectives, and divide the nouns into categories of places and people. It helps me frame what’s going on in the story, or who’s doing and saying what to whom, and what’s being asked of us in the process. Looking at all the component parts of the text is different than the big picture. This week, the most grammatically, theologically, and ecclesially interesting text is the psalm. Let me explain.
By the way, I love that here at LCI you read the psalm on Sunday morning. Not every parish does, and that's a bummer. The fact that the lectionary compilers included an accompanying psalm for every day of the year—not just Sundays!—should tell us a little something about their value. Some of the more underrated words in our scripture, but the sources of so many of our great hymns and songs. This week’s psalm, number 96, is so excellent. It’s packed full of goodness. And it’s packed full of verbs! In the 13 verses we read this morning, there are 12 *different* verbs directed at the hearer.
Sing to the lord! Bless God’s name! Tell of salvation, declare God’s glory, praise, revere, ascribe, worship, tremble, say, rejoice, and exult! We’ll do a handful of those together this morning, fortunately, but a few of them have to happen outside these walls. We have instructions to follow; we have work to do; we have words to say.
On Wednesday, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton hosted a the third in a series of live webcasts from Chicago, with Mikka McCracken from ELCA World Hunger moderating, and guests Matthew Stuhlmueller and Rubén Durand, ordained pastors doing work in Chicago and around the country. (Did any of you watch? Stay tuned for the next one in October!)
The four of them talked about a number of things, particularly about how we as the ELCA can get outside of our Northern European ethnic bubble and out into the multicultural world we live in, inviting everyone in our communities to the table and to share stories. This is something we say that we are deeply committed to, but as the second-LEAST-diverse denomination in the United States, we have, um, room for improvement.
One of the most concrete suggestions they made was the vulnerable task of evangelism. Eek! We all take a step back when we hear that word. But what they suggested was not so scary. As the people of God, we are called to be in relationship with one another and with everyone else. In fact, there isn’t even supposed to be an “everyone else” with us. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, and that begins with knowing our neighbors. That begins with friendly conversations—not just transactions—with the staff at restaurants and in retail stores; that begins with notes of appreciation to our children’s teachers; that begins with civility between parents at the soccer tournament; that begins with kindness to our coworkers, especially those who work “below” us; that begins with slightly deeper small talk at coffee hour this morning.
We can’t invite our friends and colleagues and neighbors—let alone strangers—to join our communities if we have not truly joined our communities. If we are not truly connected to one another, we are not truly connected to God.
One of the most-asked questions during the webcast—and throughout our lives as Christians—is: how do we do that? What do we do? But this is where we are in luck, because of our psalm full of verbs! We can do so many things! We can sing to the Lord; we can bless God’s name; we can tell of our salvation; we can praise and worship and revere our God—these are all important in the work of the Gospel. As we live out our lives, everything we do can be done in the name of Christ. Our main man Martin Luther reportedly said once that a Christian shoemaker does not do his Christian duty by putting little crosses on every pair of shoes, but by making good quality shoes and operating an ethical business.
Evangelism can be beautiful in this way—if we are engaging our fellow humans in ways that are kind and just, we are doing what God has asked of us. Taking the next step—inviting someone to join in our worshipping community—is where we get all squirmy. It doesn’t have to so uncomfortable, though. I am certain that there are activities that this congregation does that are not worship services on Sunday morning. Things like service trips, and movie nights, and BBQs, and climate summits. Those things might intimidate a neighbor a little bit less, no? It’s funny, because all of those things are on the list of verbs our psalmist gave us. Aren’t those situations of joy, and of fellowship, and of work, and of celebration of creation?
Our work is not as hard as it sounds, anymore, is it? We know that all our neighbors are beloved, yes? Inasmuch as we are beloved children of God, so are all those who share in our community here in Davis and across the globe. The sort of odd story presented to us from the Gospel According to Luke this morning has something to say about that universality of God’s love.
In our story, a Roman centurion—a soldier of the occupying force in town—has a slave who is ill. We are told that he values this slave very highly, and many might romanticize that situation, forgetting that slavery is a human rights violation, not a business partnership. We should doubt that the values the slave highly for any reason other than the monetary value of that slave’s work. There is little benevolence to be found in this setup.
This Roman soldier is well-known in Capernaum—the story tells us that he built the temple for the Jews. He’s familiar, then, with this holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, that they talk about. He has heard the stories they’ve told about his power to heal. He has heard about a paralyzed man walking, and a blind man seeing, and a leprous man cleansed, and a hemorrhaging woman healed, and a possessed man exorcised. He has heard his Jewish subjects speak differently about this man than they do about the other so-called healers who travel through town. He has heard them say that this man is different. This man, Jesus, speaks to Samaritan women. And eats dinner with tax collectors. He touches the untouchable.
In a lot of our Bibles this story is called “The Faith of the Centurion.” I think that’s an error. This story speaks not necessarily to the faith of the Roman soldier, but of the faith of the Jewish people in his midst. It speaks to the truth of who Jesus is, and to the power of the God who sent him. That this man, Jesus, and therefore his Lord, YHWH, the creator of the universe is so enamored of humanity that he loves not only the Jews but the Gentiles! And if he heals the Jews, then, might he, in his depth of compassion and power heal the slave of the occupying Romans?!
This is what amazes Jesus. This recognition of the power of God to cross borders and boundaries and leap right past oppressive systems into the humanity of each and every person.
This all-encompassing power to heal and to restore and to make new is exactly what we are called to proclaim. When we sing to the Lord, when we bless God’s holy name, when we tell of the salvation that is ours, we are doing it because there should be no one among us who does not know! There should be no one among us who is not healed! There should be no one among us who is outside this love, my friends. No one.
As you leave this place today, carry this with you. Carry with you the deep knowledge of the love of God, and do not just keep it to yourself! Give each of those verbs a try!