“Echoes of mercy, whispers of love”
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
January 19, 2020
We’re going to begin today with a little test on what you just heard read in the Gospel from John. Please raise your hand to answer.
- True or false: In this lesson, John baptizes Jesus. True? False?
Technically, this is false. In the lesson, John only speaks about baptizing Jesus. He doesn’t actually do it.
- Multiple choice: Andrew and Simon were followers of
- Jesus. B. John. C. Other
The answer is B. John, although they seem to be thinking about following Jesus at the end of the lesson.
I know you could argue these answers, which is why I’ve never liked these kinds of questions. It seems there’s usually some ambiguity that might sway an answer or an exception that proves all the choices wrong –- or right. I liked the open field of the essay test, where you could explain and persuade, and address the complexities of a question. Plus, all the people who never studied wouldn’t get credit for guessing.
Multiple choice or true-false questions are a lot like social media forums such as Facebook, where your answers or responses to someone’s posting is either nothing or a multiple choice of little faces, indicating some vague emotional state: like, love, angry or sad.
I like Facebook, sometimes but I only communicate with people I label “friends” who tend to think as I do and I seldom see anything that doesn’t reinforce my own opinions. More on this later…
Today’s Gospel from John could not be more different from the quick responses of Facebook or the limitations of true-false or multiple choice. John the Baptist points out Jesus to Andrew and Simon and Jesus turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They acknowledge him as a rabbi – a teacher – and ask, “Where are you staying?” The reason they ask this is contained in the statement, “It was about four in the afternoon.” This time reference is a way of saying that it is almost Sundown and it must be the eve of the Sabbath because Andrew and Simon ask Jesus where he’s staying since travel must stop on the Sabbath.
Andrew and Simon follow Jesus, accepting his invitation to “come and see.” The two men must see something in Jesus to follow him and Jesus must see something in Andrew and Simon that could make them apostles.
How would you answer the question of Jesus, today, “What are you looking for?” Today?
Narrowing it a bit, let me ask what are you looking for when you come to church? For the Sacraments? For the comfort of friends and community or to sing and listen to the music? To hear about opportunities to serve or to learn about faith or the Bible? Perhaps you come because you don’t know where else to go when your heart is breaking, or life seems to be tearing you apart?
However, I want to add an additional reason to the list: to gain moral clarity. As we heard last week, like Baptism – church cannot be only about comfort – it must also be about challenge and growth.
As I was looking for ideas from my notebooks of 38 years of preaching, I was drawn to this statement by theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass. In response to clergy saying that we must not comment on secular events for fear of offending someone, she said this:
“If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil….I hope that sermons in the next weeks will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now we need to have some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans – how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.”
These words were written in January of 2011. The challenges to our morality have always been present but I believe that they have accelerated to a critical level.
Tomorrow, January 20th, is the celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, the only civilian in American history whose life is honored with a national holiday. It is also the third anniversary of the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, the third president in American history to be impeached.
What is the moral framework of Christianity? Not only the Ten Commandments, but what we learn from Jesus to guide us through the present times? I suggest some possibilities….
First, Jesus had reverence for the natural world, seeing it as a reflection of the glory of God. In Genesis, God bequeaths to humans the stewardship of the earth.
Listen to the words of one of the most respected bishops of the Episcopal church, a member of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, the former bishop of Alaska and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, Stephen Charleston: “I want to say two words that should be above politics: climate change….To deny climate change now is criminal and dangerous. We are spiritually responsible for the stewardship of the Earth. It is a sacred obligation, not a political football. The time to debate the reality of climate change is over. Reality is Australia.”
And yet, our government: pulled out of the Paris Accords – nations working together to save the earth; our government is rolling back protection of the nation’s water, so that corporations can have freedom to pollute at will.
It’s not just corporate, it’s personal. I was struck by the power of these words from a usually-softspoken local priest, Buff Grace: “Australia has millions of acres burning and a billion animals torched, an arctic ice sheet the size of U.S. and Mexico has melted, 1000s of scientists around the world say we are on course to bequeath planetary collapse to our children. Yet the U.S. keeps subsidizing fossil fuels with billions, SUV sales keep going up, industrial agriculture keeps replacing countryside’s of top soil with cities of pharmed-up livestock to feed us. How will you resolve your cognitive dissonance in 2020?”
Climate change is a religious issue of stewardship of the earth. Where you stand is relevant every time you go to a grocery store or turn on your water faucet.
Secondly, Jesus modeled humility, a word that means “connected to the earth.” He socialized with people of all economic strata, including tax collectors and “sinners.” Jesus modeled respect and inclusion: for children, women, the lame, the ill.
And yet today, disrespect and abuse of all kinds fills the airways, often from our highest leaders. It is not only the horrific actions of Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein but in name-calling directed towards credible, dignified public servants and in mocking those who have disabilities. It is disrespect of federal laws like those stating how critical national decisions must be made, and disregard for our most cherished document, the Constitution.
It has becoming so endemic that you almost can’t keep up with it. Where is the outrage? Where is the condemnation for this behavior? I’m not hearing it from religious communities. I see it mainly on social media. Martin Luther King said that the only judgment of others should be regarding “the content of their character.” What is the content of character of those acting in these ways? As for the retort that “boys will be boys” – is that enough for you?
Thirdly, Jesus always came down on the side of the poor. Yet poverty remains a wrenching problem in this country where some children in our city don’t eat if schools close due to snow emergencies, and where people can’t support a family with two full-time jobs. It is especially insidious in the African American community and this is where I want to turn our attention now in honor of Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. King’s last major effort was “The Poor People’s March” on Washington in 1968, uniting racism and poverty.
The first thing for white people to do is acknowledge we have a race. We are not some “norm” against which everything else is measured.
You may not know some of these facts: among legal cases resulting in the death penalty, 75% involve white victims, while lawyers seldom seek the death penalty when the victim is black. According to the 2018 State of Working America Wages Report, “At every level of the wage distribution, the gap between black and white wages was larger in 2018 than it was in 2000.” In 2018 blacks received only 73.3 percent of white wages.
What I must confess, however, is that I have never completely understood what the term “institutional racism” really means. I found out through a compelling article in the most recent issue of Minneapolis-St Paul magazine by a young woman named Nora Mcinerny.
She begins by saying this: “I know that nothing makes white Minnesotans more uncomfortable than talking about race, so hold on to your lefse, because that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
She goes on to say that so many fundraisers she has attended are the same: “Mainly white people drinking white wine and buzzed-bidding on guitars that Prince is rumored to have sneezed on.” The gala she discusses here is the Community Reparations Gala hosted by a racial justice network trying to raise money for a community reparations fund “to help create economic justice in the Twin Cities.” She wonders what the problem is. What reparations? What economic justice?
These are some of the things she points out: “The legacy of slavery and the economic effects are still felt today in a state with the largest income disparity between black and white people.…” A 2017 study of Minnesota commercial bankers showing they were three times more likely to meet with white borrowers than more qualified black borrowers, and that in 50 of the largest banks in the state minorities were more likely to have their loan applications rejected than white applicants….
She says, ”The tragedy is, at this gala, the speakers were mainly talking to black people because they’re the ones who showed up to address this inequity in our community… The goal for the evening was to raise $20,000. They made it, but barely. The proceeds would help fund two restaurants, one the only one in St Paul owned by a black woman and the other the only black-owned vegan restaurant in Minneapolis….Animal charities raise exponentially more money than any black-run community organization…“
She says, “I don’t come from a particularly wealthy family. You won’t find my last name on a building or a lake. But my family’s white skin and blue eyes made it possible for my grandfathers to use the GI Bill to buy homes. It gave them access to loans to start businesses. It gave them access to what it took to make money, save money, and pass down enough to keep our family going. All that benefited me, inherently, and it still does.”
The story of this little gala made me terribly sad, even as it showed me in living color what institutional racism means. King tried to teach us but I didn’t get it then.
Finally, we are paying a price for the polarization in this country – racial and otherwise, that’s for sure. And part of this polarization is caused by how we can only hear what we want to hear on social media. Polarization certainly is paralyzing federal government. The current Congress passed fewer laws than any Congress stretching back to the 1800’s.
What really surprised me doing this research is that we’re not as polarized as we may think. A study by the respected Pew Research Foundation found that 90% of us favor background checks for purchasing guns, including 3/4 of the NRA. (If we can’t ban guns, my thought is to ban bullets!)
That 73% of us favor alternative fuels being found to gas and oil.
85 % of us don’t think the dreamers should be deported.
73% supported supervised euthanasia.
It’s when these issues are attached to a political party, that the polarization occurs. And people vote parties, not policies.
What are we looking for? Jesus asks us. A lot of the very same things as the people across the country. And each one of us, internally, is fighting a great battle of some kind or other—with our health, our family, our jobs, our past, so much more. Great kindness is in order in the presence of our fellow humans.
In 1850 in Putnam County, New York, a poorly-trained doctor applied a mustard poultice to the eyes of a six-week old girl, rendering her blind. Eventually she was educated, grew up, married and had a daughter who died shortly after birth.
Years later Fanny Crosby had become one of America’s most prolific hymn writers, penning 8,000 Gospel songs and hymns during her lifetime, which spanned nearly a century. (One of them you will hear in a minute.) On her gravestone, in the self-effacing way women were often described during these times, this was written: “Aunt Fanny. She Hath Done What She Could.”
Jesus calls us to do the same, and gives us the blessed assurance of his presence with “echoes of mercy, whispers of love.”
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
Sermon title from the hymn “Blessed Assurance” by Frances J. Crosby, 1873.
Zaid Jilani, “What Is the True Cost of Polarization in America?” greatergood, Berkeleyedu, March 4, 2019.
Stephen Charleston and Buff Grace, on their Facebook pages
Lee de-Wit, “What is the Solution Political Polarization,” greatergood,berkeley/edu.
Nora Mcinery,“Mind the Gap,” St Paul-Mpls” magazine, January, 2020.
Debie Thomas,“What Are You Looking For?” Journey with Jesus, January12, 2020.