A Sermon by
The Rev Barbara Mraz
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
June 11, 2017
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Matthew 28:16-20
One thing that has happened to me as a preacher more than once is to wake up Sunday morning with the idea that has eluded me all week, and not really having the time to fit into the sermon the way you would like. This happened today. I’ll explain it to you now and you’ll see the connection later.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novel “The Scarlet Letter”, set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony about 1650, Hester Prynne has a child through a relationship outside of marriage. The town condemns her to wear a scarlet “A” for adulterer on the front of her clothing, partly because she will not reveal the identity of the father. Released from prison, she must stand on a scaffold with her child, receiving the scorn of the townspeople. They gasp when they see that the red “A” on the front of her dress is embroidered with the finest needlework in golden thread.
Hold that thought.
Sitting at my computer last Thursday, I turned on MPR and listened to the Comey hearing as I worked. I realized again how much of my emotional energy is drained off every day by the latest news from Washington. I try to unplug, but that never seems to work completely and I’m never quite sure what actions make sense.,.
A recent article in Sojourners magazine said this: “When young Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was dismayed by the accommodation and support it received…. His conviction was that the form of Christianity dominant in Germany at the time lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and resist as a matter of faith. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to develop a community to nurture spirituality deep enough to withstand the tests of those days.”
How many of our own political opinions are formed by Christian faith – instead of long-held and unexamined attitudes, family beliefs, or economic factors? No matter where you are on the political spectrum, this is an important question. Resistance alone is a formless and often futile position; defense of the government must also be grounded in more than personal opinion and private politics. What underlies our resistance or support? How is that consistent with the Christian faith you practice, or at least, admire? THAT is a conversation worth having. Church should not only be a place where we listen to sweet stories about the Bible or are not challenged by the Gospel, where we come “for comfort only and not for strength.” Questions of morality, of justice, are as urgent today as they were at the time of Jesus, when the mighty Roman Empire has its boot on the neck of the first-century Christians.
Consider for a moment what it might be like to be surer of your religious convictions than you are, even what it would it be like to “come out” as a Christian, openly identifying yourself to your family, friends and co-workers as a follower of Jesus, a student of Scripture and part of a community nurtured by prayer, sacraments, and a commitment to social justice? What would it feel like to step up and own it? To have our political opinions and actions based on the teachings of Jesus? Some of you have doubtlessly taken this step, but I know it took me a long time.
For many of us, I expect, the very thought is terrifying. We may own being a churchgoer, even an Episcopalian, but the Jesus part? Every clergy person knows what it’s l like to have those planning a wedding or funeral ask us to “play down the Jesus thing.” I think they often do this as much out of respect for the diversity of people who might be present as from their own religious ambiguity.
Before I was ordained – which is a “coming out,” religiously, I suppose, a big concern for me was that people would put me in a box with those who claim Christianity but are on opposite sides than I am of important social issues, like gun control and immigration. I feared the judgment of my scary-smart friends, who saw religious faith as incompatible with intelligence and science, or who think of all Christians are evangelicals.
There are certain parts of Scripture that make it harder than others to self-identify as a Christian. Today’s Gospel is one of them for me.
For decades, by sheer luck, I have managed to avoid preaching on this text–- until today, that is! It’s called “The Great Commission”: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Often interpreted as the marching orders for the “Christian soldiers” of the church—this is the mandate to convert “all nations” to Christianity. It’s doubtful Jesus envisioned a global campaign of conversion here. Yet this verse is, in part, responsible for much of the evil done in the name of the Jesus, such as the Crusades and the treatment of Native Americans in our own state. The Great Commission has been the missionary slogan of the past century, fueling North American and European efforts at converting and also colonizing a large part of the world.
The term “all nations” is breathtakingly wide, from our standpoint. But the disciples were Jews and “all nations” meant the Gentiles, non-Jews. Jesus was a healer; an activist for justice for all; he didn’t try to convert the Samaritan woman who came to him. He listened to her; he understood her; he gave her gentle advice. He certainly didn’t try to baptize her! Baptism is a voluntary initiation into a community; it uses water as a sign of acceptance and love. It is not “fire insurance,” something that saves you from “hell.” It is an outward and visible sign of the reality of God’s love for us and a commitment to discipleship. It is not Archie Bunker sneaking off to church to secretly baptize his grandson because his father is a “dopey atheist” and Archie wants his grandson to “have religion.” Your can watch this episode from All in the Family with commentary on St. Johns’ blog.
So why Jesus? Why Christianity? When I taught Comparative Religion at The Blake School, I would always pose the same question to clergy speakers who came in from different Christian denominations: Who is Jesus for you? It kind of stopped them in their tracks—especially when I pushed them beyond their initial knee-jerk reactions– and this surprised me.
The answer that stated the truth of it for me was from the chaplain at Breck, John Bellaimy, who said, “Because it’s my story.”
It’s mine, too, the the way I experience the world. Also through what we call the Trinity (it is Trinity Sunday today): through God the Creator and source of life and love; through God in Jesus, one of us who shows us God is present with us even when we suffer and die and rise to new life – which most of on a daily basis; God the Holy Spirit, the mysterious presence who pervades the world and speaks to us in birdsong and begonias, in the faces of those we love, and in the whispers of what we call our conscience.
And there’s this: one of the great gifts of Anglicanism is its foundational principle that Scripture must be read in the light of the teachings of the church and our own reason and experience—and my reason and experience screams that this verse is NOT a mandate for conversion by any means necessary.
As Episcopalians we are a liturgical church—and we have four readings appointed for each Sunday in a three-year cycle. The big picture given by the lessons today is notable. The first words of the first lesson today from Genesis are these: “In the beginning….” while the last words of the 4th lessons, the Gospel are these: “I am with you always even onto the end of the age.” These words also are the final ones in the book of Matthew.
From the beginning to the end of the age…. This is the scope of God in our lessons today. The theme is presence. In Genesis, God first makes his presence known by stepping forth to create the heavens and the earth. In Matthew, God-in-Jesus promises his presence until “the end of the age.” So, as children of God, we are not called to convert others as much as to be present to them, not only to those across the world and the city, but also to those across the room.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the scaffolding art piece installed and then taken down from the Sculpture Garden outside Walker Art center in Minneapolis. The Walker, the artist, and the Dakota tribal representatives have all acted with dignity and courage as this drama has unfolded. The Dakota people were outraged to have such a painful memory memorialized in this way, that day when 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged in Mankato for killing white settlers who were taking over ancient lands. The number had originally been almost 300 but Minnesota’s first Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple kept President Lincoln up half the night getting him to reduce the number to 38. They were all simultaneously executed by hanging the day after Christmas on a scaffold build expressly for that purpose. The whole town was present.
Years ago I wrote an article for the diocesan magazine Soundings (when we had a diocesan magazine) about All Saints parish, the predominantly Indian Episcopal church mission church in south Minneapolis. They were doing a renovation of the whole inside of the building which was gutted and reconfigured re-plastered, and painted.
To facilitate this work, scaffolding or raised platforms, were installed on both sides of the sanctuary. Besides local grants, a group of Episcopalians from a church in Indianapolis donated $40,000 to the renovation project and a delegation came from Indianapolis to help compete the renovation.
In the article I wrote this: “Many of the people from Indianapolis speak of the personal growth and the deeply spiritual nature of their experiences with the All Saints community as well as a desire to return again. High on the scaffold Connie Shea from Indianapolis works next to a young Native man, a member of the Bear Clan, a gang prevention program at the parish. She says, “I work at a florist shop and I’m using my vacation to be here. I’m well along in hears and I’ve never been up on a scaffold before. I didn’t know I could do it. “
The article concludes with this: “Builders, plasterers and painters – white and Native American — stand high on the scaffold at All Saints on a hot summer afternoon, finishing the upper walls of the sanctuary. A startling contrast to the scaffold at Mankato over a hundred hears ago as history is amended through presence and love.” Just as Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A” was redeemed by her own creative imagination.
“Go forth to all nations” indeed, and partner with the Creator in rebuilding the world, embrace the person of Jesus whose love knew no boundaries, and let the Holy Spirit give you courage and a strong and confident heart, whispering what it is that you should do – and say — next.