School is out at UC Davis, so my weekly Wednesday beat is on hiatus until September; I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, as part of a handful of Sundays of sabbatical coverage throughout the summer.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Preparing a sermon each week is an interesting task. It’s one of my favorite things about my job, and it can be the most difficult part of my job. There’s always so much to say, and each week, I get to say it through the lens of the lectionary. And as the three-year cycle of the lectionary rolls through, even though we get the same texts, the sermon is never the same. And that’s because the world is never the same. The preacher is never the same. The congregation is never the same.
If years have passed, and a preacher has nothing new to say, I’m just not quite sure how that could be. I think, sometimes, that I could preach on the same scripture every week and still have something new. Because the Spirit is always moving. I am participating in the world around me, and I am reading literature, and I am talking with my friends and family, and I am scrolling through twitter, and I am listening to the news, and there is never a dull moment around here. Sometimes the constant movement of the world around us is overwhelming, and it causes preachers—myself included—to scrap a sermon and start over. This happens, in particular, in the wake of national tragedy or a major global event or even the results of a sports game, especially if it’s your local team. And especially if it happens on Saturday.
There’s a saying, attributed all over the place, but we’re pretty sure it was Karl Barth who said it: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both.” He meant it for everyone, but it is most critical for religious leaders. So critical for preachers. In my life as a preacher, newspapers have been fewer and farther between, but I carry the whole internet in the palm of my hand. I sat down to write this sermon—like I do each one—having perused the news of the day on twitter, and taking into account the non-stop nature of our cultural development. Sometimes, someone tweets something that inspires me. Sometimes, someone tweets something that angers me. Sometimes, my entire timeline is dedicated to a breaking news story, and I know that that will dominate our hearts and minds for a while.
This week was one such week. On Wednesday, I awoke to news of a raging apartment fire in London, the official death toll of which has risen to 58. I kept scrolling to see that congressmen had been shot while practicing for their annual softball game, and that a UPS employee had killed three of his co-workers in San Francisco. On Friday, Amazon announced that they’re buying Whole Foods, and a lot of folks in the grocery industry—like Safeway, and Costco, and other giants of food in our nation—are wondering what this might mean for their jobs. Also on Friday, a jury in Minnesota acquitted Jeronimo Yanez of last summer’s murder of Philando Castile.
All of these news stories swirled around in my head as I read through this week’s lectionary texts, but none so heavily as this verdict. There have been so many black men and women killed by police in the last few years, that I have absolutely lost count.* Some of them stand out more clearly in my memory, like this one in particular, because it was broadcast on Facebook Live by Mr. Castile’s fiancée, who was in the back seat with her 4-year-old daughter. I didn’t watch it live, but it eventually made its way into my feed and it broke my heart.
Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the murder of the Charleston Nine, black church leaders and Bible study participants who were gunned down by a white terrorist. That violence touched us directly—the shooter was a member of an ELCA congregation, and two of the pastors had graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary—and so we acknowledged it more openly, including our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.
It is hard, as a white leader in a predominantly white denomination, to know what to say from the pulpit about another instance of racist violence in our nation.
In the case of Dylann Roof, he has been tried and convicted and sentenced; he is accountable for his crime in Charleston. In the case of Jeronimo Yanez’ acquittal, no one has been held responsible for this crime. Philando Castile was a beloved child of God, and he was murdered, live online.
The injustice of it all renders me speechless—and not a lot renders me speechless. Fortunately for me, the Spirit moves—and others speak. I have many clerical colleagues that I only know from the internet, and I turned to them this weekend for guidance. One such colleague, the Rev. Marcus Halley, is a black Episcopal priest in Minneapolis. He tweeted, on Friday, about not being scheduled to preach this morning: “I want so badly to articulate a new world, and my anger over the senseless deaths of POC at the hands of police prevents me from seeing it. So, until I can see it, I will commit myself to praying for it, hoping my words can paint a world I'm not sure I believe in some days.” Father Marcus folds his hands in prayer, and for a moment, I stop wringing mine.
Fortunately for me, and for Father Marcus, we have Jesus to turn to, to help us see. We have stories of compassion, and justice, and healing, and liberation, and resurrection to turn to. In the most serious of manners, I exclaim “hallelujah!”
The Gospel story we are given this week is very lengthy, and, in it, Jesus is far from speechless. He gathers his disciples and friends and sends them out, empowered to continue his work in the world. He sends them to “proclaim the good news”—the kingdom of God has come near—and to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” When we feel rudderless, Jesus’ instructions set the course. There is good work to be done. There is good news to be shared.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul makes it so clear. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we now stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). Again, I say, “hallelujah” because grace abounds. There is nothing that we have done, nothing that we have left undone, nothing that we can do, nothing that we can fail to do, nothing whatsoever that will affect the grace in which we now stand. We can sometimes get antsy here, as Lutherans, because we’re so nervous about the slippery slope of works righteousness. As Martin Luther reminds us, good works do not cause our salvation—we have obtained access to this grace through Jesus the Christ. Our good deeds are not a necessary component of some cosmic transaction—but they are necessary.
In our life together, we respond to the grace we have been given with gratitude to our God and by showing God’s love to our neighbor. Paul’s letter to the Romans continues: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5); and because of this, because of the grace we have received, because of the love we have been shown, because of the power that has been shared, we are moved beyond our own understanding to love and to serve and to bring forth the kingdom of God.
You may have noticed, though, as I was reading the Gospel text, that there were some caveats and some warnings. This good work of loving and serving and healing is not without its challenges. Some folks do not want to hear the good news, if it means they have to do something differently. (Some of us do not want to hear the good news, since it means we have to do something differently.) Some folks do not want to be healed, if it means they have to do something differently. And no demon is agreeable to being cast out, so that’s probably going to take some work.
There are a lot of stories of people reacting negatively to Jesus entering their communities—the folks who try to run him off a cliff earlier in Matthew’s gospel, being a shining example—and so he knows the disciples’ triumphal entries will be few and far between. He does not discourage them from going, or tell them to go only where it’s safe, or somehow make a way for them that has no trouble. He says, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra is an ELCA clergyperson and a community organizer in Los Angeles. She wrote a book about faith-rooted organizing, and devotes a lot of words to the ideas of Serpent Power and Dove Power, concepts developed right from this verse. “Serpent Power,” she writes, “is evident and measurable. It is the power of force, wealth, social influence, and numbers. There is nothing wrong with the use of serpent power with integrity….however, if all we use is serpent power, we have lost our unique call and contribution—the capacity to embody the power of the dove….When we take dove power seriously, we take seriously the best in people, the reality of the image of God in each of us, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.” We, as disciples of the risen Christ, must rely on our deeply held dove power. “We believe in the power of prayer. We believe in the power of truth and the power of love. We believe that there are contexts and moments in which moral authority is real, tangible, and effective" (74).
Jesus knew that the power at work in the world was mostly serpent power, and so the disciples would have to know how to maneuver through that. But they would also need to challenge serpent power with dove power. They did not need to be imbued with serpent power—their humanity and their society gave them that resource freely—but they needed the power of the Holy Spirit to be given to them, and the encouragement of Jesus to push them out into the fray. We do not need to be imbued with serpent power—our humanity and our society gives us that resource freely—but we need the power of the Holy Spirit to be given to us, and the encouragement of Jesus to push us out into the fray.
Again, I say, “hallelujah” because that has been done for us! As members of the body of Christ, we have all the power we need. We can, as humans interacting with other humans, use our power for good or for ill. And when folks use their power to hurt us, it can be hard to turn that around and just “shake off the dust” (Matthew 10:14). But it is my prayer, for all of us, that we will rely on our dove power, and that we will “be brave enough to be kind."