Sixth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Last week, I preached one of the longest, hardest sermons I’ve ever had to preach. In the wake of so many monumental events, it would have been downright irresponsible, even negligent, not to address them. We Christians are called to speak and to act when things happen in our world.
But if I am going to be honest, I was not satisfied with what I preached. I felt I could have said more. I wrestled with how much to talk about the issues of racism and same-sex marriage, because they are so very difficult to talk about. One is difficult to talk about because of something called white frailty, where anything that challenges our view of ourselves is immediately explained away so that we don’t ever have to look at ugliness or confront our duplicity in injustice. The other is difficult to talk about because, for reasons I cannot yet fathom, sexuality is often the ‘litmus’ test for whether one is a true Christian or not, an idea that is, frankly, ridiculous and insulting. But it’s there, and more congregations in the ELCA have been divided over the issue of sexuality than any other issue in recent years, which is sad.
Because of these barriers, I found it extremely difficult to preach last week. I was not the only one. The Rev. Ruth E. Hetland, an ELCA Pastor in Texas, did preach a sermon in which she didn’t hold back as much. I preached mostly on racism, she focused more on the Supreme Court decision. But even she was not satisfied. She writes in her blog:
“I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now … I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people. Spineless. Neither hot nor cold. A hypocrite, really. I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth. How dang noble, Ruth. Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry. I’m ashamed of it.
This is my confession today. I am not brave. I have been the opposite of brave.”
As it was her confession, so it is mine. I am not brave. I have been the opposite of brave. For most of my life, actually, I have been the opposite of brave. Being brave means risking it all. And last week, I was not willing to risk it all. I was not willing to tackle the truths of these issues that stare me straight in the eyes. And for that, I sincerely beg for your forgiveness. I let you down. I didn’t trust you. I was too afraid.
Speaking truth is never easy. It never has been.
When God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet to the Israelite people, Ezekiel couldn’t have received a more hopeless mission. It’s so hopeless, that when God tells Ezekiel to stand and receive his mission, Ezekiel is incapable of doing so, and the Spirit of God has to physically lift Ezekiel up and make him stand and receive his call. This is how terrifying the words that Ezekiel is to preach are.
Ezekiel preached just before, and then after, the Babylonian exile, when the kingdom of Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem and sent its people into exile. God sends Ezekiel to preach to the Israelite people, whom God calls a rebellious house, a nation of rebels, a people even whose ancestors rebelled, and who themselves are stubborn and impudent; a people who, according to God, brought this calamity on themselves.
I don’t blame Ezekiel for falling on the ground and refusing to get up. What good is it to send him to a place and people where his words won’t be heeded? It sounds a lot like misery for the prophet. And you would be right to think so. The Israelites have no intention of changing their ways and have a vested interest (so they think) in ignoring Ezekiel. As expected, they oppose Ezekiel whenever they can.
Similarly, when Jesus goes out on his mission, he often encounters hostility to his message. Roman authorities, temple leaders, Pharisee aristocrats, all have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, which Jesus upsets. But his most disappointing opposition comes from his own home town, his own people. They don’t see him as a prophet or as someone whose words have any meaning in their perception—they see the son of Mary, the carpenter, nothing more. So great is their lack of trust that he only performs a few miracles for his home town. And let’s not forget that, near the end of it all, Jesus gets executed for his teaching and preaching. I, too, would be afraid to preach a message that would get me killed.
When Jesus sends out his disciples, it is assumed that they will encounter some hostility, and possibly danger, as they carry out their mission. That’s why Jesus gives them instructions for what to do when they encounter opposition: say what you have to say, and move on.
Whenever God’s truth is spoken, there is, inevitably, resistance and hostility. It is no different for us.
We are a people, a church, that must constantly deal with at least two competing messages: the message of the world, and the message of God. If I could, I would list all the ways in which those messages are opposed. But if I did that, I would run into another problem.
David Lose mentions something interesting about the ways in which Ezekiel’s and Jesus’s and the disciples’ problems are usually interpreted: in most cases, we put ourselves in their position. We love to be Ezekiel, preaching the truth to a rebellious nation who will not follow our rules. We love to be Jesus, who is rightfully disappointed in his neighbors when they won’t listen to him. We love to be the disciples sent out to preach the good news and to shake the dust off of our feet at those who won’t listen to us.
But is that who we are? David Lose contends that we might not be, and he does so by asking tough questions: What if we are the rebellious people who need to hear the fiery words of a prophet spoken to us? What if we, in our blindness to the way we understand things and people, are unwilling to see Jesus for who he is because he doesn’t fit our mold? What if we are the people who refuse the disciples, and have to have dust shaken off at us?
It gets more and more complicated the deeper you go, doesn’t it? There is no room for hubris when it comes to the mission God has for us. For in our hurry to give “the truth” to those around us, we neglect that we, too, are in need of truth, and we are just as likely to ignore it as anyone else.
It is hard to find any good news in these stories. Ezekiel, Jesus, the disciples, they were all called to proclaim impossible words to impossible people. That’s we we are called to do, too. We are called to proclaim and to hear impossible words.
There’s no way we can possibly do this alone. Last week, I had enough trouble speaking the truth about the racism that is strangling our country and the hatred against same-sex marriage that is destroying good people whom I love. How could any of us do this alone?
But are we alone?
There are many things about Jesus’s sending out his disciples that are worth mentioning; how they aren’t to take any luxuries or basic necessities, relying on the hospitality, generosity, and decency of strangers; how they are to find a place to stay and actually stay; how they are to cast out demons and heal the sick and preach the good news; and how they are, if they are not well-received, to simply move on. But there’s one detail that, today, sticks out more to me than any other detail as being “good news”. When Jesus sends out the disciples, he sends them out in pairs. Nobody, not one of them, has to go alone.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that Jesus sends them out this way? Do you think it’s a coincidence that when Mormon Missionaries are sent out, they, too, are sent out in pairs?
When Jesus sent the disciples, he knew that their journey would be perilous. And he sent them out with everything they needed. Notice, they didn’t need bags, or bread, or money, or extra clothing. All they needed was a staff to support them on one end and a companion to support them on the other. They needed each other if they were going to have any hope of speaking the news Jesus had given them to preach.
Look around you. Seriously, look at the people around you. These people—they are more than just your family, and just your friends, and just your neighbors, and just members, and just visitors, and just strangers. You all—we all—have been called by God to do the impossible, to speak the truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it, and to hear the truth we don’t want to hear either.
We have been called to challenge our country’s obsession with itself, putting itself in the place of God at every opportunity. We have been called to seek justice for everyone affected by the blatant racism that infects our society, racism that benefits nearly all of us, and which we are more than happy to ignore. We have been called to confront our church’s problem with accepting everyone who isn’t a cisgender heterosexual man, and to proclaim that injustice done to any one of us, no matter their sexuality or gender identity, is an injustice done to Jesus Christ himself; we will not stand for it.
And we have been called to do it together, with and for each other. To address the most difficult issues, to answer the toughest questions, to make ourselves vulnerable to being hurt, to being laughed at and scorned for our message. By giving the good news of God, we risk this from both everyone “out there” and the people in our own families and communities. But what we risk, we risk together; and what we preach, we preach together; and what we suffer, we suffer together; and the good news that we share, we share together.
Even poor Ezekiel, who had his own impossible task, didn’t have to do it alone. Just as Ezekiel couldn’t even stand in God’s presence without God physically standing him up, so too could Ezekiel not preach God’s words to the Israelites without the power of the Holy Spirit.
In your baptisms, you joined Christ in his death and resurrection. In your baptisms, you received the Holy Spirit, that same spirit that lifted Ezekiel, who gave him the words to speak and the courage to do it, knowing that the Spirit of God was always by his side. In your baptisms, you died with Christ, putting to death the old selves that were slaves to sin and fear, the fear that keeps you silent. You have already died with Christ. It’s time to rise.