June 19th, 2016 Pentecost 5

Sermon for June 19th, 2016 Pentecost 5

In the Name of God: Our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.

Beloved, the words of St Paul, from his Epistle to the Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Or, in the version of these words we just sang in the Gradual hymn:
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

Beloved, if you had asked me a week ago what I planned to preach about today, what I really would have been thinking was, OK, can I really preach a sermon two Sundays in a row?

But what I would have said was, that I thought we’d pick up where we left off last week, with comments about how the lectionary readings for the Sundays on the Liturgical calendar are sometimes familiar, and sometimes they are strange, and I thought I’d probably start with the Old Testament lesson, with God’s disgust at those who “who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels,” and note that lots of people in the BBQ business in North Carolina are in serious trouble. Although I have to wonder concerning the “broth of abominable things,” if it matters whether it’s a vinegar-based broth or a tomato-based broth.

And I might have had a look at today’s Gospel reading, in which we see an example of a two thousand year old medical diagnosis of what we today would call mental illness.
You have to admit, that story with the demons inhabiting this poor guy, and their exile into the Gadarene swine, who immediately behave like lemmings, running over the cliff and into the water, is a great story, with drama and conflict, AND the swine again – swine are important creatures throughout today’s readings — and its a whole lot more interesting and entertaining than a modern medical description of schizophrenia.

So, that might have made a good sermon, or at least a sermon, for the day.

But since last week, several things have come together that mean I’m not going that way, today, after all. Today, for me, lies in the shadow of two events. Two events – a year apart – that for me encapsulate some of the challenges we face as God’s people, today, as a community of the forgiven, a community loved by God, and set free from the faithless fears and worldly anxieties that confuse our days and keep us awake at night. For these are the kinds of events that we might want or need to make sense of.

As I drove home after church last Sunday, I discovered the news media were filled with the unspeakable horror of the events in Orlando, Florida, the events that were unfolding upon us, even as we gathered here, last Sunday, about how a man who claimed to have believed he was acting as an agent of God walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people.

That’s one of the events – and the other event I was reminded of this week came in an email to the clergy of the Diocese of North Carolina by our Bishop, Bishop Anne, who this week asked all parishes in our diocese to recognize today as Stand Up Sunday, and Stand Up Sunday is about the fact that it has been one year since a white man, white like me, walked into a Bible Study class at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC, and killed nine people.

Now, there is a lot of discussion in the media about the shooter in Orlando. Even though he was born in New York City, there seems to be some confusion about his actual status as an American. But in the case of the shooter in Charleston, there is no doubt. We recognize him. He’s a white Lutheran from Columbia, South Carolina, with a Southern accent and a passion for wrapping himself in the Confederate flag.

He is reported to have said his purpose in shooting all those good folks in South Carolina was to start a war between white and black folks, to divide Charlestonians, and to divide us, violently, one from another, along racial lines, because, as he put it to the black folk, whom he was shooting, in a church, “you are our enemies, and you have to go.”

Both these incidents remind us of the tangled relationships among some of our deepest and most powerful feelings, feelings I suspect all of us have at one time or another – feelings of fear, and humiliation, and hatred, and resentment – and our deepest anxieties about our vulnerabilities and the risks we face in life, — and our uncertainties about the unfamiliar and the strange, about people different from ourselves – the superficial differences that seem to obscure our common humanity — and the stories we tell to make meaning of our lives, to enable us to function in this world, that often seems unpredictable and uncertain and full of danger and risk.

In those stories, there are wars going on, and people are winning and people are losing, and the world as we know it is coming to an end, unless we join up, embrace a cause, become a warrior, identify an enemy. And if in all the talk about Islam, we think that as Christians we are somehow exempt from all that, then I wish to remind you of the words we read a moment ago in the Old Testament Lesson, words attributed to a very angry and vengeful God:

See, it is written:
I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay . . .
their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the Lord
I will measure . . .
full payment for their actions.
Thus says the Lord:

Or, to put it another way, Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

And if you think this vengeful, wrathful God is only a figure from the Old Testament, just have a look at the Book of Revelation, with its cosmic battle between God and Satan, and with people being thrown into the fires of Hell to experience eternal punishment for their sins.

So there is a lot of that kind of talk in the Bible, and yet, and yet, Paul does say, in his Epistle to the Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, reading the Bible is complicated. One of the reasons it is complicated is that the stories it tells are very human stories, and the characters it creates for us are very human characters. And the stories we find in the Bible meet the needs of these very human characters.

That means that these characters have all the complexities of human beings, even of some human beings we are familiar with, and all the complexities of motives and passions and fears and envies and desires and jealousies with which we are all too familiar in our own experiences and in our own lives.

When you add God as a character into that mix, then things get even more complicated. The God we meet in the Bible is often depicted as a God of vengeance, a God of settling scores. Biblical texts often divide people into groups – groups familiar to us, groups like families and tribes and nations and classes of people. And God is on our side, and not on the side of those other people.

You’ve got the descendants of Abraham and the people of Egypt, the people of Israel and the Philistines. And those groups are in conflict with one another, and God takes the side of the people who tell the stories.

Sections of the Old Testament, when Israel is under duress, show God promising vengeance, promising revenge, promising to – in the words of the psalmist in Psalm 137, written when the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonians, and taken away into captivity in Babylon:
O daughters of Babylon, you will be destroyed; happy will be the one who does to you what you have done to us, Happy shall he be who takes your children and smashes their heads against a rock.
Beloved, we don’t read those verses of Psalm 137 when it shows up in the Readings appointed from the Psalter, but they are there, and they tell us a great deal about the role God plays in many of these stories.

God is – in these stories, often simultaneously — the liberator of His people, leading them to freedom out of slavery in Egypt. But he is also their avenger, destroying other peoples, often doing things like part the seas, or cause a city’s walls to fall down, or cast down fire from the heavens as much to show off his power over human life as to further the cause of his people.

The story of Israel’s exodus from slavery into freedom, under the leadership of Moses has been called the great story of human liberation. But it is also a story in which God deliberately hardens the heart of Pharaoh so that he will refuse to let God’s people go, so that God can show off how powerful God is by inflicting ever more horrendous suffering on the people of Egypt.

Sadly, I think this image of God – so often used by adults when I was growing up as a form of crowd control – you know, you’re under judgment, you face judgment at the hands of at least a potentially very angry God, so you better do this or that, you better be nice, not naughty, You better watch out, you better not cry, Better not pout I’m telling you why, OH WAIT, NO, That’s another story.

This image of God as avenger is, I think, a projection into the heavens of some of the darker aspects of being human, for to be human – if we are honest about it — is often to be fearful, to feel vulnerable, to feel humiliated, whether there is reason to feel threatened or not. And when we feel fearful, feel vulnerable, feel humiliated, our instinct is to look around for someone to blame, to decide that others are responsible for our own fears, our own sense of vulnerability, to believe we are someone’s victim.

This is known in the religion business as TEAPOT theology. You know, the mess I’m in is the fault of Those Evil Awful People over There.

We seem to need a scapegoat, an other, someone or some group different from us, to blame, to feel superior to, to single out for punishment, for discrimination. And to feel resentment, to feel anger against whatever other person one imagines is getting the better deal.

The list is long of those in this country who have gotten the dubious distinction of serving as the majority’s scapegoat. Its been Native Americans, its been the Irish, its been the Jews, and from the beginnings of the nation its been – and continues to be – people of color. Right now, its people from Mexico, and Muslims, and of course gay people.

All too often, its some ordinary other person minding his own business who happens to be around when we are feeling fearful or anxious and looking for someone to blame.
And once we figure out who to blame, then we look around for a God who will take revenge for us, who will affirm our fears, and settle our scores.

This is why its important for us to read the Bible with our minds, and in the context of our understanding of history, and of the people who have come before us, and most especially in the context of our experience as God’s people, in this place and in this community,, and at this table where we come together each week, at God’s invitation, to bread the bread and share the cup, and greet each other – who once were strangers, and now are friends.

As Paul writes to the Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Fortunately for us, the God who is the avenger of the fearful and the wrathful and the agent of their revenge is not the only dimension of God we find in the Bible.

The Psalm for today – Psalm 22 – shows us a belief about God that takes a radically different view. For this God is not concerned about winning and losing, or about vengeance, but about the very people whom God in other parts of the Bible finds disposable. This God is concerned about the outsiders in Israeli society, in the case of Psalm 22, about the poor:

For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;
neither does he hide his face from them; *
but when they cry to him he hears them.
My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: *
“May your heart live forever!”

In the Old Testament, God simultaneously can affirm Israel’s uniqueness among all other people in the world, and also remind God’s people that they are to be a welcoming people, a people who regard the stranger as one of them, for, God says, “You too were strangers once, in the land of Egypt, and I brought you out.”

As we read the Bible in the context of history and with the experiences of God’s love we have shared together in this place, we can see, in the biblical stories, how Israel came to see God more and more as the God of everyone on earth, not just of the people of Israel. And when the God of Israel holds the people of Israel to account, it is in the voice of God we hear in Psalm 22, asking the people of Israel how you have treated the stranger, the outsider, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the people who are different from them.

Consider people who are different from you as one of you, says God, for they are my people, too. Welcome the stranger, for the stranger is my creation too. And, however you see yourselves as being different from the today, you were once in the same situation they are in – the stranger, the outsider, the ones labeled as different.

And, so, eventually, we get to Paul, who in his Epistle to the Galatians says that in Christ, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, when we as Episcopalians are at our best, we welcome the stranger, regardless of the stranger’s class, race, color, gender identity, whom you love, or how many times you’ve been born. For we too were strangers once and we too were welcomed here.

Beloved, the folks in our tradition who are the most fearful of the stranger, of people different from ourselves, are often the people who are the most worried about judgment, and about the rules, and about obedience to God.

Strange, isn’t it, that the single most repeated commandment of God in the Bible is the command to “Fear not,” “Be not afraid,” for God is with you. Someone has counted, and the phrase “Fear Not”, or “Be not afraid” occurs in the Bible over 150 times.

“Fear not; for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you; yea, I will help you; yea, I will uphold you.”

“Be not afraid, be strong and of good courage, for God is with you, and will not abandon you.”

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to ALL people, for unto us is given the Child of God, who comes to overcome all that can separate us from God, and to teach us that we are all children of God, one in Christ, beloved of God, welcome at God’s table.

As the hymn puts it:
In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.

Beloved, our faith as God’s people, as the community of the forgiven, based on our experiences in our life together in this community, is that God is acting to overcome everything that separates us from him, that God in Christ comes not to be served, but to serve us, so that when we come to God’s table, we come in joy, to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved and free, in awe and wonder to recall Christ’s life laid down for us.