Sunday, February 25, 2018

Telling The Truth: a sermon for a season of activism

Beloveds, it is good to be here. Will you pray with me?

Covenant-making God, we give thanks for this time together, for the gift of holy words, and holy truth. Make this preaching moment a sacred time, infusing it with your Spirit, that through your Word, we might remember the way you would have us go, and follow. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

Several years ago, I was on sabbatical with my daughter, and we spent a few weeks exploring the sights of London together. One of the great joys of that time was the freedom to explore, to find our own way. Unlike many of the museums here in the United States, the great museums of that city were free; we could visit over and over again, without price. By virtue of proximity, we were able to stop into our favorites for an hour or two in the course of a day’s activity, without worrying about how much the visit would cost.

We got to know each other’s ways quite well. Our tastes in art do not generally coordinate. I could wander stained glass galleries for days. I enjoy old illuminated manuscripts, and textiles. It was mostly the Victoria and Albert Museum that had my heart. My daughter – nearly sixteen at the time – had a thing for the Tate Modern. It’s hard to miss: this art gallery on the south bank of the river Thames, by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, across the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s, a bustling location packed with people, day or evening. Housed in a redesigned power station, with an observation deck and a soaring tower, it’s been called an industrial cathedral. On top of the building, there’s a lighted sign that announces in capital letters: ART CHANGES WE CHANGE.

The exhibits within provided a variety of answers to the question, “how can art change the world?” There was no piece we encountered that we could take lightly. Each one demanded the fullness of your attention. A swirl of soil, earth crusted on a canvas: Creation of the Planet. A tree of scavenged dry wood, bolted together, from a part of the globe hurt by industrialization. A tower of radios tuned to different channels, discordant sound blaring, points of colored light in a dim room: Babel. A plaster figure covered in lead, with pierced breast, hands, and feet. It was a lot for the heart to hold. Each piece named a truth, from the artist’s perspective: in color, paint, photograph, sculpture, word. And each demanded our response.

Truth manifested in the physical realm, in your presence, unsettles. There is only so much truth you can take before the desire to turn away wins, and you long to make some space between you and what you have encountered.

Peter knows this. Fresh from acknowledging the truth of who Jesus is, Peter, the rock of the church, is ready to shut it down. To name the Christ, the anointed one, is one thing. But to hear the living of it? The way in which Jesus speaks? This is already too much: too much suffering, too much rejection – but mostly, too much truth.

He said all of this quite openly. Jesus leaves no wiggle room. It’s all quite clear. Already Peter is ready to be done: let’s hit the rewind button and go back to that moment of innocence just before Jesus mentions suffering, and death. He does a snap evaluation of these words, decides they won’t sell (certainly he’s not sold), pulls Jesus aside and asks him to stop it with all the betrayal-and-suffering-and-death talk.  

Perhaps if we could manage to be done with the betrayal-and-suffering-and-ways-of-death, that might be a more reasonable request of Jesus. But we are so not done with the betrayal-and-suffering-and-ways-of-death. And for that reason we are in desperate need of a Savior who walks that road with us, as far as it leads. Who does not abandon us when we suffer, and teaches us what it means to speak prophetic truths in the places of suffering.

So Jesus, the Christ, Anointed One who walks the Way, continues speaking plainly. He speaks through artists, and writers, street protesters, high school students who will not be silenced no matter how many times they are rebuked. They make us uncomfortable. They remind us what a cross-shaped life looks like. They have given up the everyday to speak holy truth into the world, because something in their soul cries out and they can do no other.

If we search our hearts in a spirit of Lenten confession, we must admit, there are times we long to rebuke them; to take them aside and silence them. We cannot soothe our consciences and our anxiety while they continue to speak. It is difficult to have a moment of peace, because while they continue to speak, the Way of the Cross remains open. We see the gap, the parting in the crowd where there is room to follow, and we tremble.

Worse, yet: there is something for us to pick up. Heavy lifting, that. We do not want to consider the cross still sitting there, as he goes on ahead. His cross, his anointing is one thing. But ours? More truth, and too much.

Our anger, then, is a manifestation of fear. We talk back, arguing against disturbances of the peace. “Have you not spoken enough, and too loudly? Must you make us continue to look?” We would like to sustain an everyday, something with a semblance of normal. Perhaps, at some point, we disciples might go back and check on our fishing nets, our Facebook feeds, our to-do lists, without having to deal with all that.

We pretend our quarrel is with them – with the activists, the people who are too political for us, those who continually invade our down time with this contentious business, the people who will not let us enjoy a quiet meal with family – when our quarrel is really with him – with Jesus. We want to save our lives, the illusion of peace or comfort or the ability to walk away. We set our minds on what we have, or think we have. We do not want to see the way, open before us. If it is open, then we are called to follow - and that is too much to bear.

Jesus walked into places of pain, hunger, captivity, sickness, teaching a change of heart and life. Such change begins with holy truth-telling, and that will always make us uncomfortable. We are forced into considering topics that we avoid in polite conversation, lest they upset a carefully-negotiated family or community balance. But our faith invites us into conversation with a first-century brown-skinned Palestinian who spent his time crossing all the lines. We are called, dear Christians, to launch into uncomfortable conversations in uncomfortable places, precisely because we follow the way of Christ. Telling holy truth will provoke people. This, as the disciples said many a time, is a hard teaching. These conversations do not come without cost. We have to work at them.

We do not go seeking conflict, but recognize that conflict is often a byproduct of this Way. Jesus told us so: there will be suffering, and rejection, and death, when you go following him. And yet, he said: follow. Disciples following his way cannot avoid suffering and death, but the promise is that the way does not end there.

Follow him to the places he chose to go. As those who have ridden the London Underground might say, “Mind the Gap.” Where are the gaps between the reign of God and the way things are? Seek out the places of pain, and hunger, captivity and sickness. Find people traveling difficult roads. Go with them. Hear their pain and lift up their stories. Bring those stories into places where people pretend to be comfortable. Continue to open the way of the cross. Tell the holy, challenging truth, and let the seed of the Word take root.

This is the way new life comes. Amen.

Sermon on Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2B (Feb 25, 2018) 
preached at St Luke’s ELCA, Rome-Sullivan WI
in a season of youth activism against gun violence

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