Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

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    Nov 24, 2019

    The Last Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Luke 23:33-43

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Pentecost

    Detail:

    A couple of years ago, I had a pretty awful experience. There was a neighbor who was pretty new to the neighborhood. To most people’s consternation, he had been flying a Confederate flag from his house. This was during a time when conversations about that flag were ongoing and I think he was trying to be provocative—he has lots of politically charged flags he liked to fly. But one day, while leaving for church, I passed his house. The confederate flag was gone and in its place someone had put up a rainbow flag, which often symbolizes the queer community. I made a mental note that today would be interesting for this neighbor. I had no idea just how interesting it would be for me. When I returned home after church, I passed by him again and saw that he had just discovered the new flag and I saw him typing furiously on his phone. I continued on home to have lunch and change. A short time later, as I was eating, my door bell rang. There was my neighbor, who asked if I had a flag missing. I was confused and said no. Then without saying anything else he turned and stormed off. I was really quite anxious about because he had, essentially, accused me of taking his property and done so in a rather threatening way. And so I went, walking to a another neighbors’ house to talk to my husband who was there helping out with house project. To get there, I had to walk by the neighbor with the flag’s house. Annoyed and a little scared, I decided I was going to stand up to him. He was sitting on his front porch and from where I was coming I could only see his head. I didn’t look at him until I was in front of the house when I turned and told him he was not welcome at my home. This was when he picked up the shot gun he was holding and told me exactly how many shells were in it and to never take his flag again—and this is the sermon version of what he said. I am sure that I looked as afraid as I felt, but I still managed to tell him that I didn’t take his flag, and to turn my back to him and walk away.

    Now I walk in the world in a pretty privileged way, I am a white, educated, married woman. Society is generally a place I can move in and around with quite a bit of freedom. I do not have to navigate economic, racial, or educational barriers. I am usually not afraid. But on that day I found myself face to face with someone who hated me because of how he perceived me, which was as a gay woman who stole his flag. It’s not the first time someone had made assumptions about me, but never had I been threatened because of them. It took a long time for me to feel safe, even in my own home. I dreaded having to drive by his house—which I had to do, everyday. Or walk by it, which we did often as a family. I found myself locking the storm door—in case he came back there would be some sort of latch between him and me. I found myself deeply afraid and deeply angry. There was a part of me that wanted to tell him off, tell him what I thought of him, but he was twice my size, and he had all the guns. My safe little bubble had been popped and I didn’t know what to do except be angry and afraid.

    But what I experienced as a terrible anomaly in my life—is a reality for so many, each and every day of their lives. Where safety cannot be assumed because there is no safety, no protection from abuse, or violence. Theologian, Howard Thurman, writes from the perspective of the African American community a community that has known what it is to live precariously, never knowing when violence will strike, never being sure if it is safe. Mr. Thurman has a lot to say about fear, about knowing it and about what Jesus has to say of it.

    “You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God.” he writes as he summarizes what Jesus came to teach us: you must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea—Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” Thurman’s argument is that Jesus came to teach this, but to teach it especially those among us who are most distraught, the most vulnerable, abused, marginalized, those who are the most disinherited. He starts with fear and writes that for these groups of people fear is an everyday reality that goes beyond simple anxiety. It “arises out of the sense of isolation and helplessness in the face of the varied dimensions of violence to which the underprivileged are exposed.” Fear is something we all know, but for some, those who do not have power in society, who cannot protect themselves, who are deemed unworthy—these are often people of color, indigenous peoples, political dissidents, prisoners, for any group that is vulnerable, the fear of annihilation is a constant companion. As Thurman points out, Jesus is a member of such a group of people suffering under fear and threat—a Jew living in Roman occupied Israel. And in our gospel reading today, we are witnessing Jesus experience the full brutality of Rome—the violence that is used to control whole communities of people by making examples of those who dare to stand against the powers that be. If anyone is entitled to their fear, it is those living under this steady threat of death and violence because there is indeed a lot to fear.

    Yet Thurman does not allow fear to stand—he does not see it as an acceptable tool to survival because fear does not lead to life. He writes that fear only leads to further separateness, that it further incentivizes of the oppressor, victimizing the oppressed, that “…this fear, which served originally as a safety device, a kind of protective mechanism for the weak, finally becomes death for the self. The power that saves becomes executioner…” In fear there is no hope, and “in the absence of all hope ambition dies, the very self is weakened, corroded. There remains only the elemental will to live and to accept life on the terms that are available.” In fear, nothing changes. To fear another human, he continues, “is to lift that [person] to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone.” In other words, fear separates us from one another, it separates us from ourselves, and most importantly, it separates us from God.

    In our gospel today emotions are running high and fear is certainly. Jesus and two others are being executed by the authorities and the crowd, the two criminals, and Jesus, are responding to it all in very different ways. The first criminal remains cruel in his anger, hate, and despair. He directs what he can at Jesus as he demands that Jesus save them all if he is who he says he is. The leaders taunt Jesus in his suffering. Aside from the physical pain, the psychological torture must have been on its own, unendurable. And yet, in the midst of all of this horror, one of the criminals rebukes the other, asking him: “Do you not fear God? In this crucifixion scene, there is so much to fear: the soldiers, the nails, the wood, the crowd, the authorities, physical suffering—all these things are terrifying. Yet that second man’s energy, his focus is on God—he might be feeling a lot of fear, but he is not stuck there, he remains able to recognition that God is still in the midst of all of this. And instead of hurling insults, instead of giving into despair, for this man, hope remains. He turns to Jesus and recognizes him for who he is and simply asks to be remembered and in Jesus this man is able to go home: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    We are living in a time of great fear, particularly of each other. We can choose to remain afraid and diminished. But as Mr. Thurman tells us, there is no way we can be justified by our fear be we the oppressed, or by inference, those of us who walk with privilege. Fear only leads ultimately, to hate, and to separateness. At the heart of Christianity, Mr. Thurman says is the love-ethic. This ethic he describes is not about warm cuddly feelings necessarily, but an undertaken discipline to see one another as human beings, as children of God, stripping one another of all the qualities that we place on them that make them the enemy. As Mr. Thurman writes, “the ethical demand on the more privileged and the underprivileged, is the same.” Those we may hear called “Illegals” and that bully from 5th grade—, the angry neighbor sitting on his porch with a shotgun… are all beloved Children of God made in God’s image. It is with love-work that we are set free to love, to forgive, to cling to hope, to see one another as God does.

    To do this Mr. Thurman argues we must seek a common sense of “mutual value and worth” brought together organically. Church, or as he writes: “the experience of the common worship of God” is the kind of place where this love-ethic can take root. But you and I know, as does he, that church is more often than not, just another silo—even in the nicest of ways, where like types of folks get together. But to stay this way is just catering to fear. Church is meant to be that place where humanity can come together in one body. It is not often we see this but when we do it is powerful. In Omaha Nebraska there were two Episcopal Churches in danger of closing down. One was a white congregation, the other was a black congregation. They were the end of their respective lives when they began to have Lenten services together. From that coming together in a season of reconciliation a brand new congregation emerged, the Church of the Resurrection and it has been thriving for over 30 years with ministries to Sudanese refugees and local school children. We need to be willing to mix things up in here and let some of the chaos of the world out there break into our orderly world in here—because in that chaos God will create something new, as God has always done. We need to break out of our little bubble and let things get interesting even if its not easy. I do not believe that true transformation comes without having to struggle for and with it. That we all have hard work to do.

    Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent begins. The gospel today tells us that Christ’s kingship is not grounded in oppression, in power over others, nor in victimization, but in God’s in Christ’s willingness to love fearlessly, and to see others as beloved human beings with whom he shared a common humanity. It is a kingship like no other in the world, it is another way. It is God’s way. In the words of one of Mr. Thurman’s poems: Thou must not make division. Thy mind, heart, soul and strength must ever search. To find the way by which the road To all men’s need of thee must go. This is the Highway of the Lord.

     

     

    Quotes from Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.