Sermon for August 11, 2019

We all have been deeply pained by the mass murders that took place a week ago in El Paso and Dayton.  This is not a cheerful way to begin a sermon, but as Americans and Christians we must face what is happening in the country.  The murderer who killed so many in El Paso was inspired by what is called ‘white nationalism’.  White nationalists fear the growing number of people of color in the country. As you know newspaper editorials have condemned this ideology. The New York Times gave several examples of how institutions should oppose white nationalism: banks, internet platforms, and the entertainment industry. The editorial also wrote “Church leaders should feel called to denounce white nationalism from their pulpits.” That sentence stood out and shouted out at me. The church is called, that is called by our Creator, to denounce white nationalism, or any nationalism that destroys the God-given worth of any human being. This may seem easy enough: there are plenty of Bible passages that speak of our unity in Jesus Christ and perhaps one of the clearest recalls the meaning of baptism. The apostle Paul would say that when we are baptized, we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, and now we can add white or black, for we are now one in Christ Jesus our Lord. As you know, we can quote all the right Bible verses, but what about our lives, are they righteous, or properly aligned with the will and Word of God? And I think we must do more than denounce what is evil, important as that is today. We must faithfully announce the gospel, the healing for the nation which comes from Jesus Christ.

In troubled times like these, the words of our lessons speak very clearly and urgently. A verse from the second lesson from Hebrew jumped out at me: “they desired a better country, a heavenly one.” This may sound like a spiritual great escape, forget about any hope for this world, and hope only in heaven, where God has prepared a place for us, an eternal home of no more evil and death. But escape is not the meaning, but faithfulness. The lesson today began with that famous description: faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Although there is much we do not see or understand about God, by faith we trust God: God has not abandoned this world to despair, but is at work to through us, to be the church, and together face the evil of white nationalism, denounce it, but also announce the healing love of Jesus that can work miracles in people’s lives.

Do we have the faith that the gospel of our Lord Jesus can change lives? The reading from Hebrews began what is called the “Roll Call of Faith”, mentioning people from the Scriptures—named and unnamed—who remained faithful even when their situations seemed to deny any reason to have faith. Our lesson spoke of Abraham and his wife Sarah. We heard that by faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when he was called to leave his homeland and travel to a foreign land. The text said he did not know where he was going. The land was promised to him and his descendents, but Abraham owned none of it, his life was nomadic, traveling around and living in tents. Abraham’s obedience was fortified by his faith that God would lay the foundation for a city, that is God would be the architect and builder. The book of Hebrews uses the image that we are all travelers through this life, seeking a permanent home built by God, our eternal life with God. There used to be the old expression of Christians who were so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good. But my former Bishop in my Canadian days countered by saying “You cannot be any earthly good unless you are heavenly minded.” The reading from Hebrews would say we must remain heavenly minded for our earthly journey of faith can raise questions.

Again we have the example of Abraham and Sarah. They were promised descendants. But the couple was childless. In the reading from Genesis Abraham had been bothered by this problem but he figured out a solution. A slave from his household—in ancient times wealthy people had slaves—would become the heir, a perfectly legal solution for the time. But God has veto power, and he vetoed Abraham and Sarah’s solution. They will have their own child. God assured Abraham: as you cannot count the stars in the night sky, so great will be the number of your descendants. Abraham believed and God counted that as right: faith in God, trust in the promises of God to work things out, is to be rightly aligned with God, or righteousness.

Many descendants start with one. And the many stars on a clear night seemed to be clouded over, doubt threatened to overcast, or cast over the promises of God. Abraham and Sarah were old, the old man near 100 and the old woman 90. The reading from Hebrews was not very complimentary saying Abraham was “as good as dead” and Sarah was barren. But by faith they received power of procreation. The power, the grace, the miracle had to come from God: Sarah gave birth and God chose the name, “Laughter”, for the boy, or in Hebrew, Isaac. This lesson is saying faith is more than saying “I believe in God.” Faith is to trust God to fulfill the promise of a better homeland. Again we think of heaven, but here is the interesting thing. If you know the ending of the book of Revelation, it has this beautiful vision of heaven and earth coming together, the dwelling place of God is with humankind. The vision is of a new creation. This does not mean escape from earthly troubles, but the God-provided faith, hope, and love to engage them. I think this lesson is calling you and me to have a radical trust in God and desire a better country, a better America, a better world. This desire is affirmed by Jesus who said in the Gospel today, “Have no fear, little flock, it is your Father’s desire and good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Now there is a treasure to set our hearts upon. There is the treasure to inspire us to denounce white nationalism; there is the treasure that calls us to announce the healing mercy of Jesus. White nationalism is like a kingdom of this world that unfortunately some folks cling to: it is a kingdom of fear of the other, it is a kingdom of hatred of others who are not white, it is a kingdom even of violence perpetrated against them. We are indeed discouraged by what has happened lately in Dayton and El Paso, and sadly too many other places. The promises of God seem to be clouded over by fear, hatred, and violence in our midst. But do not fear, little flock, the kingdom, the rule of God is yours, his promises cannot be broken. We are not abandoned to deal with fear, hatred and violence alone, as we heard in the Psalm, “Our innermost being waits for God, our helper and our shield.” We believe and we hope because God’s steadfast love is ever upon us.

Do not underestimate the power of God to be our help and shield, to revive and refresh faith. There is a new book titled “Dear Church:  A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” The author, Lenny Duncan, is a pastor in the ELCA. And the whitest denomination is the ELCA. Lenny had a criminal record: drug offenses and sex trafficking. But the Savior Jesus did not give up on him. Jesus knew the brokenness in this man. Jesus was not turned off by his tattoos all over his arms, piercings, gang-style attire, and criminal record. Lenny desired a better life, and Jesus obliged. Lenny became a Christian, at first kind of a free-lance, bouncing about from church to church. Attending a Lutheran Church one day, the pastor stood at the Communion table and said “This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, and neither do we.” He said this welcome was revolutionary to him. He wrote, “Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked up the aisle. I mean you loved me, you really loved me. This welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before.” He later discerned a call to be a pastor, and he is devoted to make the ELCA a better church, “not so white” but calling for true change that people of all races truly feel not marginalized or shoved aside, but welcomed, understood, and celebrated for who they are.

As we live our lives on this earth, we do so with the gift of God’s kingdom, meaning Jesus is with us to lead us on. With his steadfast love we can remain people of faith, the assurance and conviction that his healing power can work through us for a better country.