(A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A 2017, August 13, 2017, based on Matthew 14:22-33 and 1 Kings 19:9-18)
This week hatred and its hideous cousin, fear, reared their ugly heads once again. They showed up with all their usual terrifying baggage: tweets and taunts and threats, as they strutted across the world stage, looking for the next place to wreak havoc…. When hatred and fear arrived in Charlottesville, they were also packing torches and bats; they had also shed their masks and hoods, and the gloves were definitely off! One of their minions even turned his car into a missile of death and destruction, driving it into a crowd and killing one person, while injuring nineteen others. Sadly, two state police officers who were monitoring the protests also lost their lives in a helicopter crash….
For me, the horrific images of tiki-torch wielding white supremacists shouting the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil” only really began to sink in yesterday evening, after the memorial service for Samuel Tse was over…. I didn’t really have time to really think about it earlier, because, I spent Friday and Saturday devoting my attention to a very different world: a world filled with beautiful, loving people of different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, and nationalities…. In fact, it occurs to me that the wedding Robert and I attended Friday afternoon in Seattle and yesterday’s memorial service for Samuel were both glimpses of the rich diversity of the Kingdom of God.
At the wedding ceremony, most of the family and guests were of Korean descent; white people like us were a noticeable minority, and we felt very blessed that our friends, Sun Gil and Susan, had invited us to share in their daughter’s wedding. The whole evening was a joyful celebration of God’s love and human love, and I couldn’t help thinking, “We’re all God’s children—no matter what color our skin and no matter what language we speak. Why can’t other people see how beautiful this is?!….”
During Sam’s memorial service yesterday, my thoughts went in a similar direction: As I listened to the Chinese interpreter, I looked around the room and saw many beautiful children of God who happen to be of Chinese ancestry. I also saw a few other nationalities and races represented among Sam’s family and friends…. “This is the family of God!,” I said to myself. “These are the beautiful rainbow children of God….” Then Sam’s older sister got up and shared a heartfelt tribute to her brother. She mentioned that there were seven siblings in their family. So after the service I asked Sam’s daughter, Krista, “How many of your dad’s sisters and brothers are here in the United States?” “They were all here at one point, “ she said. “My dad sponsored them all to come here, but now one sister now goes back and forth between the two countries….” I also learned that Sam went back to China and adopted Krista and his younger son, Kalen, who is physically challenged, and who had suffered much abuse in China because of his disability…. “Yes,” I thought. “This family brought together by the power of love that reaches out to embrace the forgotten is exactly what the Kingdom of God looks like! I’m sure of it!…”
My friends, from talking with some of you this past week, I’m aware that fear has been palpable and sleep has been fitful for you this week, as it has for me…. I don’t know about you, but when I hear our Old Testament and gospel lessons for today, I strongly identify with the fear felt by both Elijah and Jesus’ disciples, especially Peter…. I think you and I can relate to the fear these servants of God experience, because as we strive to be God’s people in the world, we, too, will be overtaken by fear….. Sometimes our experience will be like that of the disciples sitting in their little boat in the midst of a great storm: In such times, our fear is precipitated by natural forces like storms, earthquakes, fires, floods, or else it’s kicked off by things beyond our control—things like diseases or accidents that cause us to lose heart and be afraid.
At other times, our fear is the result of our stepping out in faith for God and meeting resistance from the powers that seek to defy the ways of God…. That’s what happened to Elijah, when he showed up the false prophets of Baal only to find that Queen Jezebel had sent her minions to kill him. That’s why Elijah ran for his life and ended up hiding in a cave!… And that’s what happened to our sisters and brothers in Charlottesville when they tried to stand up and speak out against the evil of racism. And I’m proud to say that some of our own Lutheran clergy were among them!… I have no doubt that they felt cold fear sweeping over them, as they faced off against marchers carrying bats and torches and militiamen armed with rifles…. For some of these counter-protesters, their fear began when they found themselves trapped inside a church building by torch-wielding men who had the building surrounded. For others their fear escalated as they found themselves being pursued through the streets by curses and clubs and…a car….
Yes, our sisters and brothers in Charlottesville felt fear, and yet, my friends, they didn’t allow that fear to control or define them, because above and beyond their fear they trusted in the promise given to them in Holy Baptism: the promise that they belong to God forever. They trusted in God’s promise that love will win the day and that God is working in and through ordinary people like us to accomplish the extraordinary work of healing and reconciling this world….
I couldn’t help noticing that the same is true for Elijah and Peter in our Scripture lessons for today: I think the key to both these stories is that God doesn’t leave these two servants stranded in their doubt and fear. Instead, the Lord shows up in the midst of their time of trial to offer them reassurance, to restore them to right relationship, and—at least in Elijah’s case–to recommission him for service…. Pay attention to that, because this is one of the key lessons of our faith: God doesn’t leave us high and dry, stranded on a deserted desert island of fear, but is always searching for us, seeking a way to get through to us to assure us that we are part of something greater than what now meets they eye, for everything belongs to God, and we belong to God forever…. You know, the older I get, the more convinced I am it’s no accident that the phrase “do not be afraid” or some variation of it appears 365 times in the Bible: That’s once for every day of the calendar year, because you and I need to hear it pretty much every day. [Amen?!…]
So, reading between the lines of our Scripture lessons for today, here’s what I think God wants you and me to know: It’s normal for us to experience fear, especially when we’re doing some of the hard stuff God calls us to do—like stepping out of our comfort zone and calling out the sin of racism, or showing up and standing in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who happen to have a different skin color, ethnic background, or nationality…. And make no mistake, my friends: God does indeed call us to show up and to speak out wherever God’s children are being oppressed, because we all belong to God, and the storms won’t cease to rage until we realize that we’re all in the same boat. Together…. Our brother, Samuel Tse, whose life we celebrated yesterday, summed it up well when he said, “We are all immigrants and pilgrims on this earth. The journey is short, let us help each other, love each other, and thank God for being his child….”
Dear friends in Christ, like Elijah and Peter, you and I live in a time of grave injustice—a time when God’s children are crying out and Jesus is calling us to step out in faith and love, for the sake of our neighbor in need…and for the sake of this world God loves so deeply…. When I opened my email inbox this morning, my eyes landed on a very timely reflection by Lutheran pastor Anna Madsen, who offers two quotes that sum up where we find ourselves today. The first is from seminary professor Robert Johnson, who writes: “We have entered a time in Christian religion in which we must distinguish between the ‘Christian’ as a title of identity, and the ‘disciple’ who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ….” To this point, Madsen comments, “Truth. Do you only wear a cross, or do you daily live and die on one?… Lest we forget, the cross was a device of political execution…” . The second quote she lifts up comes from Aditi Juneja on Twitter, who writes, “If you’ve wondered what you would’ve done during slavery, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights movement…you’re doing it now.,,,,” Food for thought…and, I pray, not only food for thought, but fuel for action!
Sisters and brothers, Scripture tells us there is no fear in love, because perfect love—that is, God’s love—casts out fear. So, let us ask God to give us the power of love to overcome our fear, so that it does not confine or define us, because only God’s love has the power to overcome hate…. May the Spirit of our Risen Lord and Savior fill each of us with faith and courage. May we be inspired to live into our baptismal covenant by showing up for our neighbor in need—by standing up and speaking out in word and deed against the evil of racism that is rearing its ugly head in our midst…for what is evil, if it is not the complete absence of love? And what is evil, if it is not the total absence of God?!
As disciples of Jesus the Christ may you and I be the very presence of Christ for someone in our little corner of the world today and every day. Amen.