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Pentecost 14 August 21, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Sermon for Sunday, August 21, 2016 | Pentecost XIV | Proper 16
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, WA
Sunday, August 21, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Who is with us and who is not? It is a question asked by many groups throughout human history. Who is with us and who is not? It certainly is a question asked by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as this political season heads into its final phase. It was a question asked by many Israelites who lived with Jesus and his followers. It was a question asked by Luke as he wrote his gospel to Christ-followers throughout an empire that was beginning to look on them with suspicion. But, then, we might ask: why were the followers of Jesus regarded with skepticism? After all, if what you’re preaching is the simple message of love for God and love for neighbor, who would become agitated by the invitation to love? [no protests of Hallmark]
 
Indeed, the very first evidence we have of a political authority commenting on Christians comes from the end of the first century when a governor writes to the emperor and says, “I don’t know what do with these Christians. On the one hand, the two women leaders who spoke on their behalf declare that in their gatherings they promise to care for each other and do only good to everyone. On the other hand, they refuse to worship you, the emperor and lord of all lords.” I wonder: did you catch those two phrases concerning women leaders and the refusal to worship, to give one’s loyalty to a political leader?
 
At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares that his mission, his purpose in life, is to announce the coming of God’s kingdom to the poor, to captives, to the blind, to the oppressed, to those crushed by debt and the confiscation of their land. Thus, in sharp contrast to the emperor’s kingdom or any society that rewards winners and overlooks apparent losers, the Kingdom of God is marked by mercy, mercy for anyone and every one who suffers the diminishment and deformation of life, who suffers infirmity of body, or suffers a life-draining addiction, or experiences isolation, lovelessness, injustice: dimensions of diminishment that we, with all other human beings, experience to one degree or another. Here, says Jesus, there is mercy.
 
In a culture marked by patriarchy, marked by the privilege of being a male, Jesus declares that the woman released from her captivity to an oppressive ailment, is a daughter of Abraham. Thus the Kingdom or Presence of God is not confined to males and to physically healthy persons. Rather, it is open. But not only open, not only “welcoming.”. For in his gospel, Luke wants the worshipping assembly who hears his narrative to grasp that they, too, having been caught up into the Kingdom of God, are called to abandon the discriminations so widespread in their culture, discriminations that have seeped into their souls from the time of their childhood. Is this why they drew attention to themselves and became the objects of cultural skepticism: because they had begun to live in public their commitment to the indiscriminate mercy of God?
 
To every preacher and politician who invokes the name of Jesus while calling for Law and Order, I want to say: you’ve not read the gospels very carefully. Indeed, were you in my classroom, you’d be heading for a failing grade right now. Did you hear the charge brought against Jesus: “You have worked on the sabbath, the day devoted to no work. You – the ignorant peasant from the Galilee – have broken the law of God.” At which point, Jesus, a master of the frequently upsetting argument, responds by suggesting to his so-called “teachers” – whom he calls “Hypocrites!” [So much for being welcoming!] – that they have forgotten this salient fact: ||: the sabbath was instituted so that one could reflect on and give thanks for the saving, merciful work of God in human life :|| “saving” as in giving life anew to someone oppressed for 18 years; “merciful” as in forgiving and thus healing a broken relationship; “saving” as in promoting justice in the midst of social injustice; “merciful” as in . But more than that: giving thanks or making eucharist for God’s mercy, for God’s saving work in human life is to be internalized – internalized – so that it might form one’s action each day of the week.
 
Rodney Stark, the University of Washington sociologist, has written that “the simple phrase ‘for God so loved the world’ would have puzzled an educated pagan. And the notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.” Indeed, the very notion of being merciful to other human beings, so deeply rooted in Jewish teaching and the practice of Jesus, was scorned by political leaders and many educators, what the ancients called philosophers. For they regarded mercy as a pathological feeling, a defect of character, a weakness that was associated with women and thus to be avoided by males. How remarkable, then, that Luke would have us consider the mercy enacted by Jesus as a primary virtue. I wonder: was this why Roman culture or any society, including our own, would hold Christians in skeptical regard? And yet, as Stark argues, it was this very thing – this enacted mercy, enacted by small communities of Christ followers – that proved so attractive to people who lived in a merciless society, a society not unlike our own.
 
Dear sisters and brothers: may the mercy of God seep more deeply into the fabric of your life and mine, and the oppressions of this world world pass away. Amen.