Sermons

bishopGuySermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mt Olive Lutheran's 75 anniversary
By The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D. -
 

Happy Father’s Day! Now let me also say congratulations to you on Mount Olive’s 75 anniversary as a congregation of our church. A lot has happened in since this community was founded in 1942: Santa Monica and Los Angeles have been transformed more than once; our church structures here and nationally have undergone evolution too. But your persistence, strength and faithful witness as a community have been and remain a blessing to your city, your neighbors, and to your fellow Lutherans in the synod. As your bishop, I thank you for that faithfulness, and for your congregation’s generosity to the church to which you belong. The world needs you; this city needs you; and your siblings in Christ in this synod need you, too.
 
To the text: today’s gospel is an odd one, and more than a little challenging. I remember that the last time I preached on it, I was so hung up on the apparent contradiction that it contains—that Jesus here tells his disciples to work only among the Jews, where in other places he sends them out to all the nations of the world—that I spent the whole sermon explaining how Matthew is not like the other gospels. I’m not doing that again! Let’s just pretend you already heard that sermon, and we’ll take it for granted that Matthew’s gospel has its reasons for showing us Jesus this way, and ask ourselves instead what it means for us right now and right here to hear Jesus say all this.
 
Imagine with me for a moment that instead of talking about the Jews of his time, Jesus is speaking to us Christians through this text about ourselves. In other words, imagine Jesus is saying “don’t worry about non-Christians, but go instead to the lost sheep of your own Christian fold. Proclaim to them the good news; heal and teach and help them.” You might say this makes no sense, because we Christians have (by definition) already heard the good news—how can we be “lost sheep”? But you’d be wrong. Even believers can lose their way; even churchgoers.
 
Here’s where the second half of the lesson comes in—the persecution part. It basically says that even spreading the good news to your own people will get you persecuted. And so it will, because they—and even we—don’t always want to hear it. Think of the times in history when prophets in the Christian church have spoken out to hold the church accountable to its own message, to the Gospel, and they have been persecuted by other Christians. Think of the early Christians whose picture of Jesus was different from others—they were condemned as heretics. Think of the medieval Christians who in a world of deep poverty challenged the incredible wealth and worldliness of the church—they were burned at the stake.
 
This year’s Reformation anniversary reminds us of Luther and the 16th century heroes who tried to keep the church from claiming divine authority for human rules—they were excommunicated and Europe was plunged into a century of war in the hope of wiping out their ideas and their followers. Those who fight against injustice in Jesus’ name have never been uncontested—rather imprisoned, martyred, silenced—sometimes by the church itself. Sometimes the sheep become the wolves.
 
And speaking Christ’s “good news” to Christians can still get you killed in modern times. Look at Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero. Just like Martin Luther, who lived a whole life under a death sentence, or indeed St. Paul—though martyred by Roman pagans, Paul understood very well what it meant to be rejected precisely by those who should have been listening to you all along. Our wolves can live inside the fold; even within our own hearts.
 
Think of all those in the church who have fought slavery, championed the equality of women, challenged racism, violence and war, social irresponsibility and environmental destruction, and—most recently in our own church—have lifted up the LGBTQ+ community. What has happened to them? Many we remember now as heroes were persecuted in their own time, by their own people—people to whom this “good news” didn’t seem good at all, because it helped someone else and not themselves. Nonetheless, we persisted: gentle as doves, wise as serpents, we persist still.
 
Today, this weekend, in the light of recent events and the anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, we Christians are again brought face to face with our nation’s original sin: the racism that makes the lives of some of our neighbors of less value than others. We live in a nation where we are shown daily that black, brown, and native lives matter less than white ones.
 
Racism is such a deeply painful reality in our lives that even those of us who know this to be true, resist hearing it and seeing it—we are tempted to push it away, to avert our eyes. Because if we are Christians, it hurts us all so deeply we scarcely know how to react. And because we are Christians, we know we must do something about it and we don’t always know what we can do. But we stand under this judgment: when our neighbors suffer for our lack of faith in God’s love for all, our faith is worthless both to them and to us.
 
This, I think, is the core of today’s gospel message: that when we try to live out Jesus’ gospel call we will encounter resistance even among those who should know and understand the message best. No one will persecute you as bitterly as the one just like you whose privilege you question, whose hypocrisy you expose, whose error you correct. We don’t need Muslim extremists to be hated as Christians; we’ve got hate enough right here in the Christian family. And it is among us that the harvest is ripe; it is here in our church where we should make a difference first.
 
It is here where the lessons for today really tell us what we need to hear—right in the few verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans we heard this morning: “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Not “God finally loved us when we got it all figured out and cleaned up our act,”—thank goodness!—but “while we were still sinners”—while we were still persecuting the One who brought the good news, that very One went and died for us.
 
And this is what Matthew’s Gospel calls the disciples—and us—to do: to be agents of reconciliation, messengers of grace, bearers of love. And not only to those who will thank us for the message, but especially to those near us who will not want to listen, and who may revile us for Jesus’ sake: the lost sheep of our own tribe. Jesus warns us this will not be easy, that it will bring problems and heartache, but that the harvest is ready and that this struggle to bring the harvest in will build us up to be a people of endurance and character and hope—a hope that will not be disappointed, as God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
 
So go, Church! Go declare the scorching good news of God’s love for all humankind, especially God’s love for those to whom we secretly consider ourselves to be superior. You will know if you’ve championed the right people when the privileged begin to criticize you for it, and say that you’re “divisive” and “stirring up trouble.” But the hot wind of the Spirit is blowing through the church and blowing the chaff away, leaving the good grain behind. Shout your faith, Mount Olive, for 75 more years and another 75 after that!
 

Amen.
 

The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Bishop of the SW California Synod, ELCA
Santa Monica, California
June 18, 2017


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      Santa Monica, CA 90405
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