Sojourn Sermon – August 27 08/27/2017
Sojourn Sermon – August 13, 2017 – Matthew 13:22-33, Romans 10:9-13
So, I’m really not a fan of The Lord of the Rings. I know in a lot of protestant circles that statement is akin to questioning the divinity of Christ, but I stand by it. My issue is the faceless depiction of evil Tolkien portrays. I have a similar problem with G.I. Joe. You know where the enemy is depicted as monstrous and inhuman such that the morality of violence directed at them isn’t really a question. As a myth, such a story is deeply troubling, to me. Because if we see ourselves as Aragorn, Gimli, Frodo, or Legolas, then those faceless monsters, the Orks and Uruk-hai, can be imagined as anyone who be different than us…
We’ve seen how this mythological logic plays out in lived experience in our own day. We’ve heard the language used to describe Muslims, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants – terrorists, perverts, criminals, drug dealers, dangerous, rapists, lazy, immoral – perhaps inhuman or monstrous wouldn’t be too far a stretch for those who believe such things. And they’ve been treated as such – people called “criminal aliens” have been deported even though they have no criminal record. People of color killed, threated, and incarcerated seemingly indiscriminately. LGBTQ folk endangered and having their rights stripped away. Muslims harassed and even barred from entering our country. It just goes on and on and on.
It is this kind of mythic logic that drove the violence in Charlottesville this weekend. White nationalists, neo-nazis, alt-right militias need this kind of fear of the other to thrive. They peddle a narrative that says, much like Sauron’s forces of darkness, dark forces are at work to destroy their way of life. Fear of the faceless other, is at the center of what they do.
But despite the fact that I believe that the kind of mythic logic we encounter in Lord of the Rings’ has either infiltrated and influenced how we see and respond to the other or is a reflection of our cultural response to the other, there is one scene in the Books that has become my mantra these last few weeks.
Frodo, the hobbit who has had the great misfortune of being given an evil ring that threatens to engulf the realm in evil, is speaking to his friend and mentor Gandalf on their way to destroy the ring. Frodo, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of his task confides in Gandalf saying, “I wish the ring had never come to me.”
And Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
I’ve repeated this line to myself over and over again, asking, “What are we to do with these times we have inherited?” I’ve asked this of myself and of my family, but more importantly for our time tonight, I’ve asked this of Sojourn too. I’ve asked this of our community. What are we to do with the time that is given us.
Since I started at Sojourn – the country has spiraled out of control, and my read on our community had been that we have been rearing to go – to do something – to present a counter narrative to the one we read in the news every day.
Gandalf’s statement to Frodo, as the question we face in our own day, is about identity – who are we to be in times such as these?
I’ve been totally consumed with these last few weeks as it pertains to Sojourn. Who are we, as a community to be?
So I want to make a pitch for a possible vision for Sojourn in the coming year or so. Over the past few weeks we’ve been wrestling with a number of ideas – we’ve been discussing the idea of becoming a sanctuary church. We’ve been working to implement a children’s curriculum. We’ve been discussing a change in worship space. And for those who don’t know, a group of people in Greeley as asked if it would be possible to have services similar to and maybe associated with Sojourn in Greeley on the first and third Sunday’s of the month. So the leadership team and I have been exploring what that might look like or if would be even possible.
And so I was sitting there a few weeks ago, just sitting with all of this. Moving worship locations, becoming a sanctuary church, children’s curriculum, the possibility of bring a proposal to the congregation that we also hold services Greeley for a while – and I was overwhelmed. This is a lot…And I wondered if we could handle it at a congregation. Could we take all these proposals, all this change? Could we make such large decisions all at once? It is even a good idea to try?
But then I realized something – these ideas just kind of bubbled to the surface. We never sat down to just come up with random ideas. These ideas grew out of people’s passions or out of people longing for something like what we have. These ideas grew out of a need from people who care deeply about the future of our congregation. And that is because we, as a community are rearing to go. We want to be that counter narrative.
So as I was sitting there, feeling overwhelmed, I began to think about what this all means. And I thought that as separate ideas of how to respond to the times we face, it felt, like I said, overwhelming. But what if we shifted our focus? What if we took these ideas and let them become guiding principles? What if we put all these ideas together and let these ideas be a road map of where we are going?
So in response to this I draft a document that I am calling a strategic plan. I’ve shared this document with the leadership team and I’ll be sharing it with you this week. You all saw part of it if you read the proposal to adopt a statement on sanctuary. This document is an outline of who I believe we, Sojourn, are being called to be. It is an unfinished document; it needs a lot of input from you. But my proposal is that we take these ideas and let them guide our path to becoming who we are called to be.
Like I said, we are making big decisions. And in many ways, I feel like I am asking a lot of us. But I’m not going to shy away from that prospect. In fact, I want to lean it to it all little, and really challenge us.
In the Lectionary, the primary topic of the tenth Sunday after Pentecost is faith. And what it means to have faith. Paul’s discussion here about salvation and justification in Romans 10 has so often been used to perpetuate a kind of psychological faith. “Confess with you lips and believe in your heart,” Paul says. If you can say it out loud and feel convinced it is true in your inner being – then you’re good. But this reading is based one of the most intense translation debates the is in NT studies. How do we translate pistis Christou, faith of or in Christ, and dikiasune theou, righteousness of God? What do these even mean?
The Reformers, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and so one, tend to translate these as what we call “objective genitive,” or as relationship that describes an object that can be directed toward something or possessed by someone. So the translation goes – faith in Christ is something that we possess and direct toward Christ. And righteousness belongs to God and is given to us through grace. In Protestant circles, this has been the dominant theological model for almost half a millennium.
Since the 1950s, however, Pauline research, through interaction newly discovered Jewish sources, and interdenominational dialogue with catholic and orthodox Christians, began to question this translation such that today, many, if not most NT scholar believe this should be translated as a “subjective genitive” – something that describes the character of something. So the righteousness of God means the righteous character or activity of God. And faith in Christ, might better be translated as, faith of Christ – Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s righteous activity in the world.
Protestants have tended to push back here because such a translation and theological model excludes substitutionary atonement and places less of an emphasis on grace as freely given, while placing more emphasis on human response to divine initiatives.
And while this is all very technical and remote, I think this reading is deeply important for the question, what are we to do with the time we are given because it has everything to do with faith. The righteousness of God and the faith of Christ are the mechanisms by which everything is being made right or justified in the world. Having faith means we bind ourselves to that story of God making things right through Jesus and we live as if it were true. That’s what faith is, and when we have this kind of faith, we are justified, we take part in the making right of things in the world.
Peter, I think is an example of someone who has this kind of faith. And I love this story in Matthew 15. I was surprised when I was doing research for this sermon to find that a lot of commentators think this is a negative example of faith. The argument is that Peter should have taken Jesus at his word, and in Peter’s asking Jesus to call him out onto the water, this story amounts to putting God to the test. And maybe there’s an element of that, but I think Peter is on to something here. Something very instructive.
So the disciples are out on the boat and they see what they think is a ghost walking toward them. Jesus reassures them that its him. And Peter comes up with the ultimate text because if it is really Jesus, he’s going to ask them to do something ridiculous. Think about it, if it is really Jesus, he is going to ask them to do something they thought impossible. I mean this is the guy who told the disciples to a crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children – then they did it.
Jesus is constantly asking the disciple to ridiculous things – go out into the country side heal the sick and preach good news… oh don’t take anything with you.
So to me, Peter’s question makes perfect sense: “Lord if it is you, command me to come out on the water.”
I think this is a wonderful vision of faith. Because when God calls, it is rarely, if ever, a call to an easy, simple, safe task. It’s usually more like, “Leave your livelihood and follow me.”
And this is what I think it often feels like to have the kind of faith Paul talks about. It often feels like stepping out onto the water. Participating in God’s redemptive story and the making all things right through Jesus doesn’t always feel like a solid path – it’s dangerous and stormy and we may sink if we lose sight of who is leading us.
Jesus’ question to Peter is the kind of question you ask in hindsight, when you look back on trials and ask, “Why did you doubt?” We all probably have experiences like this, when we look back and ask, “Why did we doubt.” But of course it is much more difficult to ask that when we are sinking. This question, though, offers us hope, that in the future, we might look back on our current situation and ask, “Why did we doubt.” As Paul’s quotation in v. 13, which is from Joel 2, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
So these past couple months, I’ve been feeling like I’m being called out of the boat. I left my job making pizza because it’s not what I feel called to do, and wanted to devote myself to ministry, which in turn would be better for my mental health. And I’ve been getting really excited about Sojourn – I think we are looking at really exciting opportunities. I’m excited about adopting a statement on sanctuary; I’m excited about our children’s program; I’m excited about the possibility of a new worship space. I’m excited about the possibility of offering something in Greeley. When I think about all these things together, I feel kind of like I’m come to a drop off on a rollercoaster. You know that kind of anxious excitement. I feel like Sojourn is full of kinetic energy just waiting to be released on Fort Collins and Northern Colorado.
And my pitch to you tonight is – let’s get out of the boat. Let’s have the kind of faith that calls us to scary and uncertain things.