Sermon delivered at Peace Lutheran Church, Puyallup, WA
Grace and Peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.
As I was gathering my thoughts to speak with you today I was thinking about who I should tell you that I am.
Well, my name is Joshua Sullivan, I am a Christian. I am also a candidate for ordination in the ELCA, in the Lutheran church, the same denomination as Peace Lutheran here in Puyallup. So, therefore, I’m a student. Specifically, I’m an intern at Ballard First Lutheran in Seattle and an intern at a non-profit organization called the Faith Action Network of Washington.
I’m also a voting citizen of the United States, and I think I’m still, technically, a citizen of the state of Connecticut, where I was born and raised, and—if you caught my plates in your parking lot—where my car is still registered! I am a husband too—my wife and I made the long, beautiful drive out here from the East Coast about two and half months ago.
I tell you all this because today, God in Scripture gives us the power and the wisdom to understand and navigate the anxieties and complexities of being Christians and being citizens—the anxieties and complexities of being firmly planted in this world but, ultimately, not being of this world.
You are, of course, asking yourselves, what is FAN? What is Faith Action Network? And why are you here? Well, for starters: I’m here because Pastor Nate invited me! And because I’m curious about the people of Washington state and I wanted to get a good look at you! So, where better than in Puyallup, right?
Seriously, FAN’s mission is to bring people of all faiths together in Washington state and to assist them in advocating for justice, making courageous public action, and lobbying for real policy changes in Olympia and D.C. Changes that help bring about a more just, more equitable state and country. FAN is 501c3 non-profit agency, which means FAN doesn’t tell you how to vote, in fact, we can’t endorse candidates according to our tax status. But membership in FAN helps you get in touch with your elected officials, it will help you to connect with other advocates in your area, and to learn about issues facing Washington that you might be interested in. Belonging to FAN, also, through your good-will donations, helps our staff continue in our work of keeping faith communities informed, and keeping the pressure on elected officials in our society. Think of FAN as a kind of middle ground, or a conduit, between faith-based charity and faith-based justice.
Ok, Maybe you’re already rolling your eyes at this young seminarian up here—this Christian student from the East Coast—poised to tell to you all about social justice and this mysterious thing called “advocacy,” right? Well, I’m also here today to preach the Word of God. And whether 22-hundred years ago like in the Book of Daniel, or even now, November 6th 2016—two days away from our nation’s election—the realm of the “political,” perhaps especially to people of faith, might feel like a tainted, cruel yet necessary evil.
Politics and power sure seemed that way to Daniel and to the Hebrew people. Daniel, after his vision, says his spirit was troubled within him. Whose spirit is not troubled these days, too? Between the two chunks from the Book of Daniel read today, Daniel actually does describes the four terrible beasts we heard about briefly. They emerge from powerful winds and surging waters—beasts full of strange metaphors and mythological imagery. A lion with eagles wings, a bear with three tusks, a leopard with four wings, and another, unnamed beast, with 10 horns with eyes underneath them, and one of the horns speaking arrogantly. Whoa, bizarre, fascinating stuff!
An angelic helper tells Daniel that the four beasts in his dream are images of the four powerful kingdoms who would come strolling through Israel on their chariots to conquer them and shame them, to destroy their temple or send them into exile.These are biblical political cartoons.
If Daniel were alive today and had a vision like this just last night, I wonder what he would see, you know? Maybe he might say, “And then rising from the chaos of the waters, I saw a great and ferocious elephant bull decorated with the finest jewels and purple clothing, with a ominous puff of hair on its head continuously trumpeting the most ferocious and cruel words from its trunk.”
Or, “And I, Daniel, in my dream saw a enormous female donkey with 30,000 scrolls that suddenly vanished all at once, only to appear again, slowly dripping from a vast spider’s web.”
It’s so tempting and—in a weird way—so comforting to think, along with Daniel, “What a mess it is out there.” The news coverage of this surly election season, which is so close to finally being over (praise God), has tried to drive home the point that we are completely divided and that things are simply gruesome. It truly is comforting to hear that our God is in control as we have heard in the Book of Daniel and Ephesians, and that justice will be served sometime, somewhere! This is definitely part of what Daniel is saying. What a mess it is out there, but God’s in control—God kills the beasts in the end—we can wait this out. As the second lesson from Ephesians puts it, we can wait it out until we receive the “riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”
But Jesus today teaches us that we cannot simply rest on God’s promises. The Gospel today proclaims that—as a part of our inheritance of Grace—we are inheritors of an astonishing relationship of God in the world, and witnesses to an amazing joining of God and the world. Jesus’s first sermon here in Luke could be called, “God AND the world, God IN the world.”
Daniel, in his vision, goes on to say that he saw the Eternal One, an “Ancient of Days,” on a magnificent throne—that’s God! And God gives everlasting dominion over all the nations, peoples and languages not to any of the scary kingdom-beasts, but to one like a “child of humanity,” like a “son of man.” Does that sound familiar? We, the Christian tradition, interpret this to be Jesus! Jesus, that human being who so perfectly embodied God’s will that we believe Jesus truly is God.
Daniel says, God’s perpetual love for us is made known to all in this realm. And this world, in which we move and breath and have our being, is also where we show our faithful response to God’s love. God’s love for us, most perfectly revealed through Jesus Christ on Christmas morning—when the Word became Flesh, when God broke into our world. And then, in reaction, God’s perpetual love for us is made known to all in this world through us, in our response to this gift of Jesus Christ.
The dominion of the Son of Man, of Jesus, means that the kingdom of God can be witnessed in this world! Don’t just wait for God to sort it all out! Though God in Scripture today does point us toward God’s promise of eternal life, and though this Sunday—All Saints Day—is a time when we remember with reverence and love those who have gone before us into God’s eternal presence. Yes, this is true. But God is also—it’s not a contradiction—God is also telling us this morning that this world, which God has created, is not “good for nothing.” Despite how easy and comforting it is to sit around and wait for the perfect justice of God.
We know our washing and our redemption in Baptism has already happened—and continues to happen! Just as Ephesians today says, “we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” We don’t praise God’s glory later. We don’t wait to be in the mysterious heavenly hereafter, but we praise God’s glory today! We have the Holy Spirit right now, this moment, as we gather together to hear God’s Word and share in God’s meal. And we carry the Holy Spirit with us as we go back out into the world!
The Gospel tells us as Christ’s followers we will be planted firmly in this world, giving to all, and loving the inevitable enemies that appear before us.
But I wonder though, if it’s even possible to hear such well-trodden Scripture as this Gospel reading anymore. Most of my Christian friends, when you ask them what is their favorite bible verse, they will tell you the Beatitudes—they point to this passage. They wear it like a Christian badge of honor. But I can’t remember the last time I gave my shirt away, let alone my coat… And do you pray for candidates of the other party? Do you pray for the enemies of Christianity, let alone the enemies of the United States? For some of us, Christ’s commands, in our Lutheran tradition, fall on deaf—or even indignant—ears. We know God’s grace and love is not about doing stuff.
Yes, it’s true, part of Jesus’ sermon today is like the other-worldliness of Daniel and the future-tense promises in Ephesians. You really could say that these “blessings” and “woes” of Jesus’ are calling attention to the brevity of our lives. As the prophet Isaiah famously says, “All people are grass, Their constancy is like the flower of the field.” Jesus says this fleetingness is a comfort to the poor-hungry-and-sad because they can only suffer so long before it comes to an end. Jesus also shows us, this shortness of life for the rich-full-and-happy is much, much more painful and poignant because it means a letting go of illusion, a release of hope in material gain.
Though many struggle to make ends meet here in Washington, many others do not. By world-standards we are, indeed, the rich and the full. But Jesus isn’t saying “woe” to us, like I wave my Jesus-wand and poof you’re unhappy. No, he’s saying how unfortunate for those who have thrown their entire lot in with this temporary world—to them the Kingdom of God appears to be an inconvenience. It appears as bad news—a loss, as opposed to a great, great gain.
Jesus calls attention, like Daniel does, to the eternal dominion of God, when he says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven…” Yes, on All Saints Day this points us back to Ephesians were it is so beautifully appealed that “with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which Jesus has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” This does feel like our faces are turned toward the other-world.
And wow, “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Wow! That is so beautiful, that’s so exciting! That is what you’all celebrate today, when you ring the bell for your departed loved ones. You acknowledge that they are with God, because God is eternal and above all.
But this is exciting not only because it’s so comforting to know God is in control. It is exciting also—and it is invigorating also—to imagine what we will be capable of when we believe that this inheritance is true and is truly for us.
What do we do when we trust this promise? What do the riches of this abundant inheritance and reward look like now?
Jesus does not end his sermon on the “woes”, oh no. He calls out to those who can truly hear his message—he calls out to you’all gathered here together in Jesus’ name and given ears by the Holy Spirit. He calls out to you and says, look, you are still here.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
With a foundation of trust built upon the glorious riches of God’s promises, we are called into relationship with our world! And, oh my God, can you imagine what that would look like to do good to those who hate you?
Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” What kind of a foreign policy is that? Jesus goes on, “and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Would Washington be in so much debt—would there be a McCleary case—if that was how we thought of money? If we all truly believed that God in Christ Jesus was in control?
God through our Scripture readings today is calling us into a deep, and spiritual relationship with this material world—this broken world of political powers, economic systems and public policies. Although these systems’ highest priorities will never be consistent with God’s will and God’s promises and God’s reign, still Jesus reminds us, and gives us the strength and assurance, that we are God’s chosen advocates—that we can speak up for the poor, the empty and the mourning, that we can discern just who that is in our cities and our state.
But, really, what does it mean to be an advocate? It really took me a long time to understand what advocacy actually was, and it’s my job—I was a little confused! So, I’ll close with a story. I live in Ballard, which is a neighborhood in north Seattle, and the FAN offices are in southern Seattle. It’s about an hour-and-15 on the bus. The buses in Seattle are wonderful thing, they’re often a frustrating thing, for sure, but more than anything they are a brilliant thing because they’re a public space and they’re a meeting place.
One time, about halfway through my commute, the bus came to a stop in downtown Seattle somewhere. The doors open, people on and off, you know, and the doors close. And the bus pulls up just a few feet to the red light beyond the bus stop. Now, a very soft spoken young woman, who looked new to the bus system, gets up with a start and goes to the, now closed, rear doors of the bus. She squeaks out, “Back door please.”
So, this time in desperation, she yells, “Back door!”
But her voice is still barely audible over the roar of the giant diesel engines and the whirr of over-head wires and as other rush-hour buses and trucks and cars come and go all around.
People in the back of the bus—you know the kind maybe—the rain-coated, and the wet-footed, the handicapped and the just-plain-maimed, the new-comers hungry for a tech-industry-salary, right along with the city’s minimum wage-earners, these folks—The People in the Back of Bus—suddenly, they shouted with her a third time, “Back door!”
Still, nothing happens.
This quiet and frightened young woman grows more distressed, she looks like she has no idea where she is, she’s probably already late, you know, the list goes on. At the sound of the ruckus, more people began removing their earbuds, their headphones, and again, more voices join together—we all yell, “Back door!”
The doors opened.
The young woman slips out. The doors close. The bus pulls away as the light turns green.
This is advocacy—experiencing the plight of a neighbor and giving voice to the voiceless by joining together.
Who is the “young woman” in your community? Who is the well-meaning bus driver—the one who has the power to grant release, but who just can’t hear the voices of their passengers? These are the details God would have us discern for ourselves. But I tell you we are all the People on the Back of the Bus. And God “enlightens the eyes of our hearts” and “gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that we can freely join our hearts and voices together.