Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 6, 2012
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.
“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the people.” That’s the instruction we get at the conclusion of the reading of the scriptures. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit, ruach in Hebrew, the breath of God, a divine person of the Trinity, the life force that empowers God’s work in the world and in the church.
Sometimes I have to wonder what She is saying to the church or, perhaps more accurately, what kind of ear plugs is the church wearing during the reading of scripture when its actions, its behavior and its preaching seems so contrary to the message the Spirit has imparted to us. Sometimes there seems to be great disparity between what the Spirit is telling us and the church’s response to it.
One pastor who led a congregation that was so stuck in its old ways of doing things, so rigid in its understanding of the Bible, so closed minded to new ideas announced on a Sunday morning that he had substituted prune juice for the communion wine. “If the Holy Spirit won’t move you. “he told them,”…maybe that will.”
A confluence of stories I read in the printed media and on Facebook this past week near put me over the edge; perhaps, because there was so much so wrong about it. First there was the Vatican crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the thousands of sisters they represent, an attempt to control the way religious sisters live their lives in community and setting up a watchdog to monitor what they say and do—their events and their teaching in public.
It is an insult to these faithful women who have given their lives in service to the church, often working with the poorest and most challenging populations. Sister Joan Chittister, a progressive Benedictine Nun who is part of the worldwide leadership conference of women religious called the Vatican’s proposed strategy “immoral.”
Facebook was a buzz with the sermon gone viral given last week by the pastor of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In the clip, the Reverend Harris berates parents who see boys dressing like girls without “squashing that like a cockroach.” “Can I make it any clearer?” he yells on the recording. “Dads, the second you see that son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give them a good punch. OK?” Laughter and a few shouts of “Amen” can be heard in response. The sermon saw Harris urge parents of girls who are “acting too butch” to make them “walk like a girl and talk like a girl, and smell like a girl.”
After listening to the sermon Tuesday, a divinity professor at Campbell University called it “one of the most disappointing and un-Christ-like diatribes I have ever heard.” I have to wonder, however, hearing the loud laughter and “Amens” in the congregation, how many kids won’t only get a slap on the wrist but will end up in some ER with broken bones or worse.
On May 3, The Rev. Philbert Kalisa, a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Rwanda, began his sermon to the Episcopal Church Women of Connecticut with an apology: “Forgive me on behalf of my nation for what we have done,” he said, referring to the Rwandan genocide that took place 18 years ago. A million Rwandans were killed by fellow Rwandans in 100 bloody, brutal days. The genocide left 300,000 widowed and 400,000 orphaned, he said. The atrocities included rape and torture. Children witnessed unspeakable horrors. He noted that 85% of Rwandans called themselves Christian yet so many, including priests and nuns, participated in the genocide. Others who held steadfast against it were killed. At the end of his sermon Kalisa urged the group to “think bigger.” “The world is not only Connecticut,” he said. “Get out of the box and do God’s work and do God’s mission.”
A priest in Austria told the congregation at a First Communion Mass that “if you are not in the state of Grace” don’t come to Communion–and that includes those you who are divorced. And no one…not a single adult in the congregation came forward…in protest. And then article on Facebook entitled “Dumbing Down the Church,” by an Episcopal Priest ranting about proposals for new liturgical options being presented at our General Convention in July and his disdain for the practice of offering the Eucharist to everyone—not just the baptized. He says, “serving coffee in the narthex is hospitality, an Open Communion Table is not.”
Then the General Convention of the United Methodist Church voted down any new acceptance or equality of its gay and lesbian members. One resolution would have changed the Book of Discipline to say gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” a second have acknowledged limited understanding of human sexuality and refrained from judgement of gays and lesbians.” Both failed to win approval.
That was a lot to process in just a week. So I’m wondering what the rest of the Church is hearing from the Spirit in the readings to which we listened today. I hear a story of radical hospitality in the reading from Acts. The Ethiopian was clearly the outsider here, what the Greeks would call “ξεινος” (ksaynos)–a stranger or alien. Here was diversity for sure: a Eunoch who was not a Jew and whose ethnicity indicates he would have looked very different from Philip with his very dark skin. Philip engages in conversation with him, shares the Good News of God’s love and acceptance, and, when the man asks to be baptized, Philip did it. Here we see the Spirit acting in the courtier and in Philip. They listened. The Ethiopian asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Today the stranger might stand in our midst and ask “What prevents me from being fed with you at God’s Table this morning.” If we are truly listening to what the Spirit is saying to the people, the answers is “Not a thing. Absolutely nothing.”
John’s words about the nature of God as a consummate lover and our call to love one another further raises the question of what is the church hearing when these words are read? I believe the Spirit is proclaiming our uniqueness—being created in the image of God and what that implies for us. Certainly, it points us to a life in which we will respect the dignity of every human being, seek and serve Christ in all persons, a world where we are all equals in the eyes of God and where power and oppression are alien forces. And it seems so contrary to that kind of love that anyone would be denigrated or marginalized or abased because she or he was in any way different.
So I wonder where the Spirit is when I read about the oppression of any people that is generated and fostered and supported by religious leaders and institutions. I wonder what those religious leaders and those congregations hear that I don’t hear. I wonder how Christianity has become at times the driving force behind cruelty and exclusion and has become an obstacle to social justice for the most disenfranchised of people.
Then I come to the Gospel reading today and the image of the vine. Hardy vines were found everywhere in Palestine in the time of Jesus and the Old Testament often used the vine as a metaphor for the people of Israel. The Prophet Jeremiah used the image of the vine that had grown wild to illustrate how the Hebrew people had failed to fulfill the purpose for which God had planted and nurtured them.
The truth is that the religious communities and their leaders from Old Testament times and throughout history have often not heard what the Spirit is saying to the people. And, in fact, have done all they could to stifle the voice of that Spirit and have done their best to thwart and impair God’s healing and reconciling mission in the world. Perhaps the most consoling piece of this Gospel for me is the fact that God will step in and do some pruning because, from where I stand, there’s a lot of lopping and cropping and cutting back that is needed in order for the voice of the Spirit to be heard and unleashed in the world.
I don’t want to leave you with just my tirade about how churches and church leaders get it so wrong and do such damage to people, especially the most vulnerable. Our lives as branches and our stories as followers of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus tell us that we are all connected to each other and to God in Christ. We don’t have to sit back and listen to distortions about God’s Word or abide the abuses done in the name of religion. As we hear what the Spirit is saying to us who are God’s people, we can raise our voices to tell the Good News about the power of love and forgiveness and grace and radical hospitality—that in love, as John’s letter tells us today, there is no fear and that perfect love casts out fear.
We can unashamedly claim our place in the wider church as a community that affirms and rejoices in diversity because it was God’s idea first and we can as a faith community unabashedly and without apology open our table—God’s Table—to all who come hungry and thirsty for the feast God freely offers there. And we can stand in solidarity with those who become targets of hateful, even violent language and victims of oppression by raising our voices in their support and rebuking those who use religion to mask the face of God and humiliate and abuse others. And we can use our financial resources—our check books—to support a community like this that stands up for the truth of the Gospel; for, God knows, the institutions that spew nasty are well supported by their patrons.
“I am the vine,” Jesus tells us today. And we are the branches—the life bearing, life giving instruments of God’s love in the world who can make a difference. Sometimes we need to think bigger—to get out of the box and do God’s work and God’s mission. Sometimes we can’t just sit still and be silent. Sometimes we not only need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the people. We actually have to do something about it.