Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 22, 2014
A cowboy appeared before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. “Have you ever done anything of particular merit?” St. Peter asked.
“Well, I can think of one thing. On a trip to the Black Hills out in South Dakota, I came upon a gang of rednecks in a pick-up truck who were threatening a young woman. I directed them to leave her alone, but they wouldn’t listen. So, I approached the largest and loudest one and smacked him in the face, kicked his truck, and yelled, ‘All of you back off or I’ll kick your butt !'”
St. Peter was impressed “When did this happen?”
“A couple of minutes ago.”
Living like a disciple of Jesus—taking him at his word— can be downright dangerous. In fact, it can be lethal.
“Receive the light of Christ, a sign of the new life enkindled in you. Shine in the world to the glory of God the Father.” –Words that accompany the simple but striking ritual of passing a lighted candle to the godparent of the newly baptized. We’ve witnessed it here so very often and just two weeks ago. It may go entirely unnoticed but it carries a huge admonition about our accountability. Hidden beneath it is the message that our baptism is a call to public witness in the name of Jesus. And today, as he gives his disciples their instructions for going on mission, Jesus tells us that such a witness can have sobering consequences. Letting that light shine in the world can result in conflict, ridicule, and even separation from those who find it too disturbing—maybe even people we thought were our friends.
Much of what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel today is directed more to the disciples who were the first to receive these words—a people who were exposed to persecution because of what they believed in and stood for. We are very fortunate because we don’t have to fear persecution for our belief in Christ. We are free to practice our faith and to believe or not. But let’s not dismiss too quickly the admonition about being sent as sheep into the midst of wolves.
Let’s not forget that we are followers of the One who was rejected, hunted, and crucified; nor do we have any less need than those first women and men who followed Jesus to trust in God’s unfailing care for us and the counting of every hair on our head—which for some of us is much easier for God to do.
Clayton Schmit, Professor of Homiletics at Fuller Seminary in Pasedena, California, says that the gospel—the core message of Christ—is a challenge “to be inclusive, to be willing to touch the filthy, unholy mess of humanity in order to share God’s love. To sit beside the smug, rank, slovenly sinner and share a meal with him; to ask him to pass the bread and then eat it when it comes to you from his greasy, greedy hand.
“Or to smile at a harlot and offer her the possibility of dignity; to look at her and see not her painted face and tainted past but her promising future. Jesus called for change and when his followers lived a new kind of life, they got a lot of trouble for their efforts.”
When we bear the light of God’s love into the world, when we proclaim the gospel from the rooftops and shout the good news about forgiving one another instead of harboring resentment, seeking justice instead of keeping people beaten down, effecting reconciliation instead of proving who is right, giving up the unnecessary stuff of this world and giving of our resources to its people in need, inviting the ostracized and offering them a place at our table, fighting for the weak, we may well find that the world will hate us for it. That has always gotten Christians into trouble, and still does.
You may experience that if you won’t tolerate racial, sexist, ethnic, or homophobic slurs or jokes. You may see how many points you earn if you rebuke someone for sexual harassment aimed at a co-worker or refuse to collude with a business associate to do something unethical. You’ll get a glimpse of what Jesus is talking about if you stand up to a bully in the school yard or fight for an unpopular cause because you know it’s the right thing to do when your friends are on the opposing side. That baptismal candle can get you into hot water. It’s full of grace and power and when you take that light out into the world and shine it radiantly —be assured that you will find yourselves among wolves. Proclaiming God’s word can be dangerous. Sometimes that candle can be a little too hot to handle.
In 1965, those who marched for voting rights for African-Americans from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama were attacked by state and local police, in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” On the same day, Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, a dramatization of post-World War II trials Nazi war criminals, aired on ABC-TV. That night, many stations interrupted regular programming to show clips of the violence in Selma. Some viewers actually thought that the footage of police in military-style helmets and riot gear, brutally beating protesters, was a part of the movie.
One newscaster was later to say that the violence in Selma was so similar to the violence in Nazi Germany that viewers could hardly miss the connection. Although the Judgment of Nuremberg was a reenactment, it included actual footage filmed by American soldiers after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The horrific parallels were not lost on the American public watching their TV sets. Many responded with an outpouring of support for the next march in Selma. Truly amazing things can happen when we take the admonition of Jesus in this Gospel seriously: “Do not be afraid!”
We are not living in first-century Palestine nor are we exposed to persecution because of our faith like the first disciples of Jesus, However, we need to remember our own history and God’s grace in empowering us to proclaim the Gospel. There will always be someone, some people in desperate need of justice and deliverance and of our willingness to facilitate it. No one, no one should have to live in fear, in the dark, in secret, in the closet. Every beloved child of God can be proud of who she or he is because we are all made in God’s image and we all disciples of the here and now striving to help build the Kingdom of God.
Caroline Kennedy shared a story told to her by Harry Belafonte, at the 50th anniversary commemoration for the Civil Rights movement. Belafonte recalled how after a rousing speech delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King during a 1960’s Civil Rights rally, he turned to King and asked what was the point of speaking to these people. Wasn’t it just preaching to the choir? “Someone has to preach to the choir,” King replied, “Otherwise, they might stop singing.”
So today. I’ve been preaching to the choir. You must not stop singing. We must not stop singing. Let every voice be heard and shine in the world to the glory of God the Father!