Sermon: Stewards of Mystery*


Today is Reformation Sunday.

I had fully intended to regale my congregation this morning by recalling the origins of our particular faith, and share a bit of the history of our beloved Reformed tradition. And then I was going to extol upon the virtues of Presbyterianism, and talk about what makes it so very special.

But where I was at the beginning of this past week is certainly not where I am today. Indeed, none of us is where we were one week ago today.

Because today we are a nation in mourning with and for our Jewish brothers and sisters—God’s chosen people.

And we are also mourning today for the wounded soul of this nation—a nation which seems to be increasingly plagued by the hatred and violence that continues to infect its people.

We’ve all been watching this plague rain, once again, down upon the heads of the American people.

This past week began with the very real and pernicious threat of violence in the mailing of fourteen* bombs to high profile individuals, news media outlets, and public officials—including two former U. S. Presidents.

The week ended tragically yesterday with the vicious slaughter of eleven Jewish people who were joyfully worshiping God, ironically celebrating new life in their midst with a Bris ceremony. Six others were wounded; four of whom were police officers trying to stop the carnage.

So today is not the day to talk about the things that distinguish us as people of faith; today is not the day to laud that which makes us distinctively Protestant.

Rather, today is a day to remind ourselves of those things we all hold dear; those things which foster the common good and contribute to the welfare of all people. Today we are called to remember that which unites us as such diverse Americans: most profoundly the God-given freedom – that constitutional right – to worship God within the faith of one’s own choosing without fear of oppression or persecution or reprisal.

Yesterday that cherished freedom suffered a profound blow—for all of us.

Because when any of our fellow Americans have so inhumanely been robbed of the security and the assurance of that freedom, we have all been so deprived.

In a Statement of Union for Reform Judaism, President Rabbi Rick Jacobs responded to the shooting at Tree of Life Congregation with a message to the entire nation: “The slaughter of our brothers and sisters praying in their holy synagogue this Shabbat in Pittsburg breaks our collective heart.

“The murders took place during a prayer service in the Tree of Life congregation where, like synagogues all around the world, they were reading from Genesis recounting how Abraham welcomed perfect strangers into his tent. How painful and ironic that we live in a time when we have to temper our loving welcome to strangers as we protect our communities from violence and hate.”

In the same press release, Rabbi Jacobs went on to say, “This time the Jewish community was targeted, in what may be the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. Other times in has been African-Americans. Or Sikhs. Or Muslims. Or members of the LGBTQ community. Or too many others. What we know is this: the fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart. We mourn as one people along with all people of conscience.”

And, most certainly, we Christians – who are also descendants in the faith of Abraham – have cause to mourn with our Jewish brothers and sisters as well.

For this is also a day for us to remember that the one we claim to follow, Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed a faithful Jew. And as any good Jew, Jesus followed the tenets and doctrine of his native faith. And – although a dynamic new strain of faith emerged from his teachings, his life, his death, and his resurrection – Jesus did not come as the founder of new religion. He came essentially as a reformer of Judaism.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;” Jesus proclaimed from the mountain, “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill.” [Mt. 5:17]

Jesus would go on to say, in that same sermon, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” [Mt. 7:12]

In Christianity, we call this the Golden Rule. But virtually every major world religion abides by the same humanitarian code.

“What you yourself hate do to no man,” instructs Judaism.

“Treat others as you would yourself be treated,” say the Hindus.

“Hurt not others with that which pains you,” declares Buddhism.

“Do unto all men as you would wish to have done,” agrees Islam.

“Live in harmony, for we are all related,” affirms Native American spirituality.

If we are willing to peer beneath the surface differences – to look beyond the religious labels that we use – we might find that our respective `diverse’ faiths have much more in common than we might have imagined. And if, then, we are willing to take the time – along, perhaps, with the perceived risk – to truly get to know those of other faith traditions, other religious perspectives, we might just find that our own faith is actually enriched and deepened.

When later asked by a Pharisee which commandment in the law was the greatest, Jesus would clarify this universal moral code with his answer, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It’s just that simple. And that profoundly difficult.

And when a sly lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus follows up his instruction about the Golden Rule with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Do you remember the story? It’s about a man (a Jew) on the way to Jericho who is stripped and beaten by robbers and left in the ditch to die. A priest (most likely referring to a Sanhedrin—a high ranking religious leader in Judaism) sees him lying there and – not wanting to `get involved’ – crosses over to the other side of the road. Next a Levite (a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi, who traditionally functioned as assistants to the priests in worship in the temple) also happened by and saw the man, wounded and bleeding, and so passes by on the other side as well. Finally, a Samaritan (who were bitter religious rivals with the Jews) comes upon the injured man, sees his suffering, and is “moved with pity.” And so the Samaritan extended himself, takes care of the man—dresses his wounds and takes him to an inn where he charges the innkeeper to, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” [Lk. 10:29 – 37]

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks the lawyer. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replied. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.

In a true expression of grace, compassion, and unity – and in the shadow of a street lined with anti- Trump protestors – Tree of Life’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed President Donald Trump with open arms. Rabbi Myers would later tell a CNN reporter, “The president of the United States is always welcome.” Then adding, “I’m a citizen. He’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”***

Perhaps Rabbi Myers has something vital to teach us all about the `fabric’ which holds our nation together.

When I was living and serving a church in my home town of Wichita, Kansas, one of my dear friends, the Rev. Dr. Gary Cox (then a United Church of Christ Pastor of my sister’s church University Congregational Church) was diagnosed with a very rare, very aggressive form of cancer, which caused tumors to grow throughout his body. News of his diagnosis was devastating to all of us; family and friends alike.

On the eve of the first of a series of surgeries, I went to see my friend Gary in the hospital. He greeted me with a warm smile on his face and in such an upbeat manner that it took me aback a little. I sat down in a chair by his bedside, struggling to keep my own tears at bay. Struggling to find words beyond `hello’.

After a few minutes, Gary, seeing my angst, said in his very pastoral way, “Tom, I learned a long time ago that God is immortal and Gary Cox is not.” And then, looking me in the eye, he added, “And that’s a good plan.”

Some two-long-years later – after more surgeries and much painful chemotherapy – Gary was brought home for the last time and set up on a hospital bed in their living room. The day he became unresponsive, his wife Leigh called: “He so values your friendship and respects you as a colleague,” she told me. “Would you come over and pray for him. I think he needs help letting go.”

So I went over to Leigh and Gary’s, took a place, once again, next to the hospital bed he lay in, and prayed for Gary to allow the God – in whom he had such a deep and abiding faith and whom he had loved and served so faithfully – to take him at last into God’s full embrace. An hour later, Leigh called us back again to tell us that Gary had passed away peacefully shortly after we had left.

Gary was an amazing guy. He was dear, dear friend whom I will never forget. And even though Gary was a few years younger than me, I considered him not only a highly esteemed colleague, but a mentor and teacher as well. He had an enormous impact on my own faith development—both by his courageous witness of faith, as he confronted his own mortality; and also through his simple, yet profound, approached to Christianity.

Shortly before his death, Gary authored a book called, “Think Again: A Response to Fundamentalism’s Claim on Christianity.”[i] In that book, Gary offered what I believe is a faithful alternative to the religious arrogance, judgmental exclusivism, moral rigidity, and antagonism toward other religious faiths, which often passes (with a high degree of media coverage) for Christianity today. Through the process of writing his book, Gary was able to distill his Christian faith into a few simple words—words I still strive to live by: “Love everyone. Judge no one.”

I tell you this story because I also believe that that was essentially the Apostle Paul’s message to a deeply conflicted and divided church in Corinth. That congregation was dissecting their newfound faith and casting their allegiances to one leader over and against another. Even Paul was being harshly judged by many of the Corinthians congregation.

So, Paul reminded them that no one – save God – is in a position to judge or condemn another human being—for any reason. [1 Cor. 1:10ff; 1 Cor. 4:1ff]

And, furthermore, God’s answer to our human foibles and failings—our pettiness, our self-serving, our greed, our blind ambition, our hatred, our violence, our inhumanity against one another – is to show us yet a more excellent way: the Way of Love in Jesus Christ. [1 Cor. 12:31 – 13:1 – 13]

“Love everyone. Judge no one.”

Simple words: very easy to understand; very difficult to live by.

And the reigning reality of this world is that we see far more of judgement and condemnation than we do of justice and mercy. People seem to be much more consumed by anger and hatred than they are possessed of peace and love.

We see the face of would-be bomber Cesar Sayoc and gunman Robert Bowers on the news and we are not moved to love for them. Rather we feel what has become an all too familiar twinge of loathing and lust for retribution toward those who would enact such brutality upon others. It is infectious, this hatred.

With millions of other Americans, I watched the news coverage about the Tree of Life killings on Saturday—coverage which briefly broke away to air a commercial, ironically, of a movie preview rife with guns and shooting. It is insidious, this violence.

If the world is to be reformed of these global scourges, I believe it must be the people of faith – the people of all the faiths of the world – who come together to turn things around.

Make no mistake, we gather here this morning for reasons far more profound than to simply be consoled in our most recent grief and to be comforted of our anxiety over the uncertainties of an increasingly dangerous world.

For even the church can no longer guarantee safe haven from those dangers.

So, we gather here today to remind ourselves that fear can only be overcome by faith; and hatred can only be defeated by love. And furthermore, that we, as servants of Jesus Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, are to be found trustworthy in our calling to proclaim this more excellent way in both word and action, until the Lord comes again to bring light to all that is hidden in darkness and disclose fully the purposes of the heart. Through Christ Jesus.

 

*Expanded version.

**As of Monday, October 29th, a fifteenth bomb was intercepted by officials, addressed to CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

***This happened on Tuesday, October 30th, as funerals for the Tree of Life victims were beginning to take place.

 

[i] Cox, Gary, Think Again: A Response to Fundamentalism’s Claim on Christianity, University Congregational Press, January 2006.