Sermon Building for June 19th, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here!

Over the last two days I’ve been thinking deeply about the readings, and relating it to what I’m finding in the real world. I am struggling with the hateful rhetoric in the aftermath of the homegrown terrorist action in Orlando, a crime targeted towards the Latinx and LGBTQ communities. I am saddened in particular by the ways that other Baptists are reacting. I am ashamed that we share a spiritual heritage.

When I consider the actions of Jesus in the Lukan story that is our periscope (text) to preach from, (found here – Luke 8:26-39) I find them to be the opposite of this divisive and hateful preaching that is coming from Baptist pulpits. At the core of this story, I find a Jesus who, having proved his mastery over the forces of nature, takes a moment to prove that he has mastery over not just the supernatural world, but is still deeply part of the world of humanity.

Jesus and his disciples disembark from the boat, having left behind the suddenly stilled seas, and walk up the shore. Pushed off course, perhaps, they find themselves in the land of the dead – tombs all around them. This is not an encouraging place to be. Indeed, knowing the rest of the story as we do, it is easy to see the foreshadowing that the author of Luke/Acts (the same author wrote both books, and I contend that it is meant to be a single gospel – but that’s another post for another time) is accomplishing in the aftermath of the quiet of the once violent storm. This liminal place between this world and the next has a unique occupant – one who greets them in a singular manner.

Naked, for his mind is beset by demons, living far outside society because they refuse to let him near, a man comes out from among the tombs and addresses Jesus – instantly recognizing him as “Son of the Most High God.” I think at this point it is important to note that the ONLY people in Luke’s Gospel who have called Jesus “Son of God,” or “Son of the Most High,” have been angels or demons. No human has called him such, nor has Jesus called himself such. Even the term “Son of Man” has not been used. Instead Jesus has been called a prophet by the crowds and his disciples. In many ways, I don’t think even Jesus has agreed yet that this is who he is.

You can read the story yourself, see how Jesus treats this person – troubled and lost in a wilderness of the mind – who has been cast out of normal society. Jesus does not condemn him. Nor does Jesus rebuke him. Jesus asks his name. Jesus talks to him calmly, rationally, treating him like a fellow human being, not a demon. When the demon answers with the name Legion (might this have been a very self aware schizophrenic), Jesus doesn’t immediately banish him. Nor does Jesus act in anger or harm the man. Instead, he honors the request of the “Legion.” Even these demons Jesus treats with respect.

What Jesus does is transformative. When the swineherds, who fled in fear to get a mob from the town (a different legion, no?), return with a crowd, they find the whole situation changed. Here is Jesus, talking with the formerly possessed man, very much in his right mind. He is now clothed, and they are talking as teacher and student might. And when it comes down to it, the people of the countryside do not know what to do in response to Jesus transformative healing.

Like people have since time out of mind, they react in fear to something different. This man – whose place in society, or rather outside of it – had been set is now restored to them. They just don’t understand. They cannot accept that such transformation is possible – it means they may have been completely wrong about rejecting this man in the first place. So they tell Jesus to leave. And acting in love in the face of their fear (and remember – Yoda taught us fear leads to hate), Jesus abides by their request. He gets right back in his boat and leaves.

When the man begs to follow Jesus, Jesus turns him back to his community, telling him that he now has a message of the Good News of God’s Love for his community. He who was rejected by the community now has a truly prophetic voice – for he has been alive, and he has occupied a space between, and he has been restored to community. Sometimes it takes living in the in-between to truly understand where one has come from.

I see three amazing things in this story. 1) Jesus loves everyone involved, even the demonic powers, even the hateful people. 2) It was an act of hospitality (asking the man’s name, talking to him as a human and not fearing him) which helped restore the man from a space in between to a space of community. 3) Jesus empowers the man to speak love, even knowing that the fear of the community is strong.

Let me be clear – while some view this as a parable of dealing with mental illness (and indeed, there are lessons to be gleaned from this viewpoint), I am not seeing the story in this light, at this time. Instead the supernatural forces, and the very natural (but not acceptable) fears of the community of the Gerasenes, which are the heart of this story leap out at me. Particularly this week, the fearful, hateful reaction of the crowd seems so normal – and tells me that we have not grown much as a species in the last two thousand years.

It doesn’t help that I am reading Frank Herbert’s Dune right now. I read it every year, at some point. It is a seminal text. It is foundational (no – not Foundation – that’s Asimov) for me. Between Dune and the hateful Baptists, two things come to mind.

The first is that I have this phrase I use – often – when I am talking about my faith and my faith tradition: “I’m Christian, but not that kind of Christian.” Almost always followed by, “And Baptist, but not that kind of Baptist.” Far too many of my friends have been scarred by their faith traditions – particularly those of a Christian bent. I say those phrases because it’s true – I am a Christian, and a Baptist – but I am not the kind of Christian or Baptist that most people think of. Sadly, in our culture today – and among my friends who were hurt by people of faith – Baptist tends to bring at best the image of a bible thumping, hellfire and brimstone, exclusionary preacher. At worst, it invokes Fred Phelps and his kin at Westboro. I am not ashamed to be Baptist, but I am ashamed that Phelps and his kind share a spiritual heritage with me.

That brings us to now – where though Westboro is mercifully quiet, other Baptist pastors are spewing their hate in the name of the gospel. It would be one thing if this were happening somewhere one might uncritically think to expect that (say the Midwest or the backwoods of Minnesota), but the preachers I have heard this from are from as close as Sacramento, as Arizona. These spiritual kin to Fred Phelps have lamented not the 50 people killed in this horrible attack, but rather that more people did not die. I want to speculate on their true thoughts but I will limit myself. I am not in fact a mind reader. I can only judge what they say. But what they are saying is in no way what I would understand Jesus to say. I cannot believe that Jesus would be disappointed that more people did not die.

The second thought I had is one that I have often when I read Dune. I read it for the first time when I was in Second Grade. I got two ideas out of it. The first is that water is precious, and the second is that you can make religion say anything that you want it to. Linked to my first idea – that is exactly what these hate preaching pastors are doing. They are using religion – specifically Christianity, and the Baptist name – to hold up their message of exclusion, violence and loathing. I wish I could say that this was particularly un-Christian, but there is a fairly significant history of this kind of rhetoric in Christian thought in the last two hundred years. I wish I could say this was not Baptist, but the Baptist name is thoroughly wrapped up in hate speech like this.

All I can do is make sure I speak out as a Christian and a Baptist. I must claim these mantles as my own – and I must speak loudly. I can grieve the loss of life – and specifically the targeted attack on LGBTQ persons. I can denounce the hate and I can speak out – preach – my understanding that Jesus would NOT agree with these hate filled ideas coming from these independent Baptist pulpits. I can stand for Baptist principles – Soul Liberty, Priesthood of all Believers, Church Liberty and Religious Liberty. I can speak against what these antagonistic Baptist preachers are saying without denying them a right to say it.

So I think there is my sermon title – “Baptist? Why, Yes I Am!”

And now I need to get some more rest…

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Sermon Building for June 19th, Part 1

So if you’re interested, I’m going to share my process for building my sermon for this Sunday. I’ll post my thoughts and process on here. I’m hardly the most skilled person I know at this process of exegeting and then writing a sermon. I do however, have the advantage of still being a student. You won’t get the impressive but difficult to follow short cuts. I will share links (where available) to my resources, they will be in bold italics. I will also try to lay out how the various moving parts of this come together. This will be, to the best I can manage, the wholes process.

I’ve known I was preaching on June 19th for over a month now. However, with the end of a semester at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, and some extensive travel for work, I’m only just now really getting started. So let’s start with pericope (text) options. I’ve only briefly read these before now.

First Baptist Church of Berkeley generally follows the lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings, which every Sunday yields several options of texts. So what does the lectionary offer for this Sunday? Follow this link to Vanderbilt’s Lectionary site: June 19th, Lectionary Texts

**May the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my true hope.**

Before I even consider the texts, just like in true meditation, I try to bring forward all the thoughts that I’m having – many about what is going on in my life and in the world. If I don’t acknowledge them, they may seriously skew what I’m reading in the texts, and not to the good. They may also guide my readings, if I bring them to conscious thought. Besides – supposedly Karl Barth said that one should preach “with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.”

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub weighs heavy on my soul. The rhetoric of the Presidential election, and the people subscribing to one candidate or another, I cannot keep out of my thoughts. The fact that this is my last Sunday as Seminarian-in-Residence at First Baptist Berkeley, I am keenly aware of. My upcoming move to Washington is very much in my mind. There are places of the world still locked in violent conflict – Syria, and other parts of the Middle East (middle compared to what?), the struggle between the cartels and the government in Mexico, the all but forgotten annexation of parts of Ukraine. Breathe in – breathe out.

I also need to take into account who I am. I am middle class, aged 18-35, white, male, straight, cis-gendered Christian. I have the privilege to ignore almost all of the things above. I need to remember that I read from this place of privilege. If I begin to think this is the only way I can read this, I can easily marginalize the people who don’t look, sound, or think like me. I’ll never totally negate the bias I have, but by being aware of it, I can reduce the effect of my bias.

I’m not going to preach on all the texts. It is important that my sermon be more focused than that. I should think carefully about what the texts are, which ones I want to touch on, which should be in the service. At first, the Elijah story drew my attention (1 Kings 9:1-15a). There is something of the lament, of asking God why and of suffering in it. As I look at the other readings, I see the Gospel reading (Luke 8:26-39). You should know, I’m a sucker for the Gospel of Luke. The Jesus in this Gospel is one who speaks to me – a teacher, a healer, a compassionate and passionate and very human person. Here is a text that speaks about an outsider, someone pushed to the fringe of his culture, rejected for being who he is. And Jesus response is amazing – not banishment, but hospitality, not fear, but empathy, not control, but freedom. And the response of the people to the miracle of a man who had lost himself restored to them – fear. The newspaper is screaming at me – I think I found my pericope (text to preach from).

Someday I’ll preach from a Hebrew Scripture, but this Sunday, it will be the Gospel.

Looking at the Epistle (letter) reading (Galatians 3:23-29), I see that it too speaks to hospitality and inclusion. Looking at the Psalm options in the Lectionary for the week, Psalm 42 and 43 speaks to my own heaviness of heart, but also my hope in God’s healing and love. So I will use these readings.

My next step is to read these texts again, and again, and again. Especially the Gospel, as that will form the core of my sermon. The first reading is just to read them. I use the New Revised Standard Version for this. I will read them a second time, looking at alternate readings. A site like Bible Gateway lets me look at one version (NRSV Luke 8:26-39) or even compare them Side By Side. I choose the NRSV because I like it. I choose the New King James Version for the poetry of it all. I choose the Message Bible because of the more colloquial slant of the language. The third time I read it, I’ll take into account the stories which come before this one (Jesus True Family, Jesus Calms a Storm), and also what comes next (Jesus raises Jairus’ Daughter and Heals the Woman with the Hemmorhage, Jesus sends out the 12, Feeding the Five Thousand). In this context – I’m now seeing this as part of Jesus defining the Heavenly Realm, its new order, and how we are freed to do our part in it.

Need to get some rest, but I will continue this tomorrow…