I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Davis.
I’m sort of going to start with the punchline this week. The Hymn of the Day is an old favorite, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Do you know it? I hope so. I hope you also recognized it in my sermon title, with that last noun left intentionally blank.
The lectionary texts for this week—and the state of our nation and world—lead me to wonder just what it is that we look like. What is it that makes it known we are Christians?
In his letter to the Galatians, this is the Apostle Paul’s concern, too. The church at Galatia is a group of pagan converts—not Jews. Some in their community are rabble-rousing on the question of circumcision. Should these new Christians need to enter into God’s covenant with Abraham in order to enter into the new covenant in Christ’s blood? Paul says no. Paul says, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” He does not mean, as many a preacher might say, that the new covenant is superior to the old, and that uncircumcision is better than circumcision. Neither is sufficient for salvation, he says. Those who are in Christ are a new creation, in which the status of the flesh is not ultimate. He brings it up as if to say, “the divisions you have created are not the point, but since you still think in this black-and-white, circumcised-and-uncircumcised way, I will make it plain for you.” “He insists that ‘only the love we show one another, not our physical markings, testifies to the God we serve.’”
Sometimes we wonder about why it’s relevant to read these old letters. They're not written to us or to people very similar to us at all, right? First century residents of the Roman Empire lived a pretty different life than 21st century residents of the United States of America. The reason we find these seemingly antiquated words to be, rather, timeless is because we are not as different as we believe ourselves to be.
When was the last time you “detected” someone “in a transgression” (as Galatians 6:1 indicates) and—instead of rolling your eyes, cutting them off two miles later, yelling back, plotting your revenge, or simply sulking—decided to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” When someone has committed an offense against me, my first reaction is rarely gentle. But this is step one in our Christian life. Basic human-to-human kindness.
Maybe, they’ll know we are Christians by our kindness.
Next, in this Galatians text, Paul implores us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Here in Christian community, it is not every man for himself. We are one in the Spirit.
The great Elie Wiesel—Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner—died yesterday at the age of 87. He was famous for his words, and he said a lot of things. But what I will never forget are these words of his: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference; the opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference; the opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference; the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others. The suffering of any among us is the suffering of us all. The burden of any among us is to be the burden of us all.
This is the first sermon I’ve preached since 49 beloved children of God were murdered at Pulse in Orlando. At first, I hesitated to bring it up, like it’s already old news, just three weeks later. As I worked on this very paragraph earlier this week, I got a notification on my phone from the Associated Press that the death toll in the terrorist bombing of Ïstanbul, Türkiye’s Atatürk Airport had been raised to 36. [It has since been raised to 41, with 239 injured.] This morning, I woke to the news of over 100 dead at the hands of Daesh in Baghdad, more than 20 of them children.
There is hardly time for the sun to set on one act of violence before we’re mourning another.
Certainly, they’ll know we are humans by our violence.
In the aftermath of violence, we are quick to pray and to mourn with our loved ones and to post on our social media feeds about how we cannot believe this has happened again. We write letters to our congressional representatives about their responsibility to keep us safe, to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, to keep bad people away from us. We wonder in private and in public about what it is that has driven these terrorists to do what they have done, what has made them so angry, what has made them so fearful. Rarely, though, do we as a nation confront these reasons head-on, before the next act of violence shatters our peace. Rarely, though, do we as a Christian community get out in front of this hateful political rhetoric—for fear that we are muddying the line between church and state.
Our violence, then, is not always gunfire, or suicide vests, or roadside bombs, or even fists. Sometimes, our violence is verbal. And sometimes, our violence is our silence.
They know we are Christians by our silence.
In these United States, whose independence and freedom we celebrate this weekend, we are well-versed in the inalienable rights of our Constitution. Our freedom to speak is, to me, the most precious. According to the First Amendment, we are free to speak our minds and hearts in the public sphere. We are not free of consequence, but we are free of prosecution. We confuse these two, a lot. And folks from every political persuasion and religious affiliation share in this freedom. Sometimes, that drives me nuts. Quote-unquote Christian voices, in particular. How quick I am to say, “Oh, no, I’m not that kind of Lutheran. I’m not that kind of Christian. I’m not that kind of American.”
They know we are Christians by our divisions.
They know we are Christians by our hate.
They know we are Christians by our fear.
Dear friends, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The human distinctions we have made (race, gender, class, ability, nationality) are not from God. Do not misunderstand me—they are real, but they are not from God and they are not ultimate. The Apostle Paul has invited us into a “distinction-free form of life.”
They can know we are Christians by another way. They can know we are Christians not by our silence, or by our divisions, or by our hate, our by our fear.
When you encounter violent speech—even when it’s subtle—you can say something. If a racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist, or xenophobic word is uttered in your presence, you can counter it. You can. When the “Christian” voices in our nation and world are not saying what you’d say, or what you believe Jesus has said, you can speak up.
You, Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, are a Reconciling in Christ congregation and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Sierra Pacific Synod are a Reconciling in Christ synod, and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are, a place where we claim All Are Welcome. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.
As followers of Jesus we are a people of non-violence. In the kingdom of God, there is no need for a stockpile of assault rifles. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.
They can know we are Christians by our prophetic voices.
And in our Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus sends us on our way! He sends 70 disciples into the neighboring towns—to “every town and place where he himself intended to go (Luke 10:1). Some among the 70 were likely hesitant; before, they had always gone a step behind Jesus—not ahead—watching him interact with people, hospitable and not-so. Some others were probably chomping at the bit, ready to take their discipleship out for a spin!
Jesus tells them as they go on their way to be certain that, upon entering each house, they proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God—“Peace to this house!” they’ll announce.
One of the surprising take-aways of this text is its emphasis on hospitality—not just provided, but received. We are well aware that our Christian vocation emphasizes being welcoming to strangers. We know that when a new person moves into the house next door, we should introduce ourselves and maybe bring over some cookies or a bottle of wine to say “welcome to the neighborhood!” We know that when a family we don’t recognize is in church on Sunday morning we should introduce ourselves and be sure they know when Vacation Bible School is.
This text though, turns hospitality from passive to active. Hospitality must also be accepted. We cannot just welcome others into our homes, to our tables, to our cultures, to our norms. We must go where we are foreigners. We must feel what it feels like to be a guest. Provide hospitality to strangers, yes, but also allow strangers to provide hospitality to you.
They can know we are Christians by our mutual hospitality.
The first half of 2016 has been quite an adventure, and shows no signs of slowing, let alone stopping. We can be discouraged by this. We can throw up our hands and refuse to participate any further. We can double down on our divisions.
Or, we can be the transgressive radicals Jesus calls us to be and we can instead speak peace to each house we enter. The peace of God which passes all understanding. “God’s peace is a peace founded on life, rather than death. On relationship, rather than enmity. On engaging and accepting mutual hospitality, rather than building walls of division.”
They can know we are Christians by our peace.
They can know we are Christians by our hope.
They can know we are Christians by our love.