The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

History is Happening—A Sermon on Abraham, Nicodemus, Jesus, and Us

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Here we are in week 2 of Lent, in week 10 of the quarter. If you’ve been keeping up with a Lenten discipline that involves fasting—giving up meat, perhaps? Coffee? Sugar? Chocolate?—you might be feeling a little...tense. You may be wishing you’d given up finals for Lent.

Whether you're fasting or not, in the season of Lent, we take time to reflect on our sin, our shortcomings, our growing edges, the things we’ve noted in the margins to remember to do differently or better next time. And yet, we do this every year. We know that, over and over, we will need to return to this season of reflection. The new goals we set, the new selves we envision, the patterns we try to unlearn are so precarious that we just pencil in six weeks of “reset” every year. Hey, at least we’re honest.

This self-awareness does not always extend to the collective, though. As a church, as a society, as a nation,  we have a tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again, with no recognition. But we even have a little catch phrase for when this happens: “history is repeating itself,” we say. “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana philosophized.

So we turn to the lectionary, our system of studying our history. The gospel reading for today is a pretty famous exchange between Jesus and a pharisee named Nicodemus. He comes to see Jesus under cover of night, asking his burning questions. I love Nicodemus for this. I can just imagine that he has been lying awake at night for days. He has heard that this man, Jesus, is called the Son of God; he has heard him declare forgiveness of sins; he has heard him proclaim freedom from the systems that oppress. Nicodemus has probably tossed and turned, wondering how this could be. As a Pharisee, it’s his job to know everything there is to know about God and about God’s relationship to the Jewish people, and how they are to be in relationship with one another. Everything that Jesus says throws him for a loop, because it challenges his knowledge and his assumptions. Jesus speaks of new ways of being children of God.

A lot of people love the Gospel According to John, because it’s so different from the other three gospels, and it has a different way of presenting Jesus. In these chapters, “water is turned to wine, dead friends are raised, feet are washed, women are called by name”—but it is also a very challenging gospel. You know me, I love some both/and Lutheran paradox, and John is just so binary, “so much either-or: ‘I am the way, the truth, the light, the gate, the shepherd, the whatever—believe it, or be condemned.” [1] That’s the general interpretation we’ve had for years and years. It’s hard for me to look at these texts—as someone who knows and loves many non-Christians, especially a particular Jewish man, my fiancé Jonathan—and see any room for anyone else. There is some latent and some blatant anti-Semitism in John’s gospel.

We cannot, as American Christians in 2017, allow history to be repeated like this. We have to treat these stories with extreme care, and we have to treat our history with some of that Lenten self-awareness of wrongness. “We have to tell the truth about this gospel: all that lofty language form a historically dislocated Jesus distracts us from the truth that this gospel is violent. It tells lies about itself. It blames the wrong people….how do we even begin to address this?”[1]

Part of me, and part of you, maybe, just wants to say that these stories are so wrong and so backward that we should just ignore them and give them up. But the trouble is, we can’t do it that way. We have to face our history. We have to acknowledge the way that we have misused the words of Jesus in the past—to hurt Jews, to hurt women, to hurt people of color, to hurt queer people, to perpetuate slavery and apartheid and colonization—and say that we will do so no longer.

In doing this, we can also remember to include our other siblings in our quest for righting historical wrongs. Muslims as well as Christians and Jews lay claim to Abraham as an important ancestor. Our Genesis reading tonight lays out that fundamental claim that Abraham’s faith would make him the father of us all. In our Christian history, we have claimed that Abraham’s faith is proof that it is not the works of the law that free us, but the grace of God. This is true for us, but Abraham’s story is not just ours. An Anglican scholar named Clare Amos wrote about this in her commentary on Genesis. “Surely, Abraham, by definition, cannot be the exclusive possession of any one of the Abrahamic faiths! The portrayal of Abraham in both Christianity and Islam emphasizes that he was….someone who worshipped the One God before the establishment of a specific religious creed or system…’...Abraham was not a Jew or yet a Christian; but he was truth in Faith and bowed his will to God’s’ (Surah 3.67).” [2]

We have one advantage in this change—it’s Lent. We are reading these stories right in the midst of that time we set aside to reflect on the ways in which we have been wrong, and commit ourselves to not being wrong in the same ways again. We can do this. We can read these stories with the whole Jewishness of Jesus in mind. We can read these stories without blaming Jews or Judaism for the wrongs of the society in which Jesus lived and died.

Why is this so critical? In 2017, we are seeing a resurgence in anti-Semitism that reminds us of nearly a century ago in our global history; the events of the Holocaust were so terrible, we pledged “Never Again” as a world community. We are seeing a rise in Islamophobic and other racist violence, too, even here in Davis. The people who perpetrate these attacks—verbal and physical—often identify as Christians, or are bolstered by words they hear from people who identify as Christians. This is where our history can lead us.

Or, we can choose to act from our Christian history of liberation. We can look at Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and know that exclusion and oppression are not the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We know that the words of Jesus can be life-giving, not death-dealing. We know that all are welcome at the table. We know that the Truth has set us free.

In Genesis, God said to Abraham, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing" (12:2). For the rest of Lent, let’s give up lazy anti-Semitism, and let’s take on the hard and good work of blessing. History does not have to be repeated. But the blessings of the good news of Jesus the Christ ought to be repeated, loud and clear. Amen? Amen.

[1] The Rev. Anne Dunlap, “3.2.17 Resisting Anti-Judaism in John” on The Word is Resistance, from SURJ.
[2] Clare Amos, “Genesis” in Global Bible Commentary, 10.

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