A Sermon preached by Jess Cook
About a month ago, as plans for today’s visit began to solidify, I did what has become a customary practice when preparing to visit a congregation and I looked at the lectionary passages for the day. As someone who has a penchant for taking myself a bit too seriously, I’m a fan of preaching from the lectionary – not only does it draw a beautiful connection with all those who are using the same texts in worship on any given Sunday, but it also allows me to get out of my own way, so to speak, rather than getting caught up trying to find just the perfect text.
I’ve gotta say, though, the texts for this week had me second-guessing this process a bit. I confess that when I first looked at them, I wondered for a brief moment if maybe Kerra chose this week to go on vacation specifically to avoid preaching on these texts. (Like I said, I have a way of taking myself too seriously)
These texts are difficult, especially in times like these – we want comfort, we want to be assured that God is in control, that things are gonna be ok. Instead, both passages give us an unsettling image of God’s movement in the world. Jeremiah, the prophet known by God and consecrated a prophet before he was born, is the messenger assigned with the task of proclaiming that God has drawn near. While many of us may be excited by the idea of God’s closeness, especially in times as trying as these, the drawing near in Jeremiah isn’t pleasant. God is so close that everything is exposed – every nook and cranny of our individual and collective lives is laid bare before God; God’s word is a fire, a hammer breaking a rock into pieces, revealing everything that divides us from one another and from God.
Today’s passage from Luke isn’t much easier to digest. Luke, the Gospel a seminary professor once described as the musical among the four Gospels, with people and angels singing from the get-go, offers no consolation today. Gone are the melodic overtones of Mary’s Magnificat in chapter 1, when she sang about her soul magnifying the Lord, rejoicing at the baby in her belly. That baby, now the full-grown Jesus in the height of his ministry, in’t singing here. He hasn’t come to bring peace, but division. Households will be divided, Jesus says – parents against their own children and children against their parents. And again, there is fire.
So, yes, I thought about shifting gears entirely, finding a passage that rang more clearly, more melodically, in our ears. Yet, and I don’t know if this is the case for y’all, but I’ve found that when I’ve been spending a bit too much time hemming and hawing about something, especially when it’s something I’m being called to do but maybe don’t want to do, the Holy Spirit has a funny way of giving me just the little nudge I need to find my footing and take that step. Dr. Cannon, my beloved professor and mentor, used to talk about these moments as the times when you can feel God’s hand on your back, not with force, but nudging you on in just the way you need nudging.
As I was just about to shift gears and find the most feel-good scripture I could find, those nudges from the Spirit came. Two of them. The first was a story that came out of the recent mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, when I learned the shooter’s first victim outside that club two weeks ago was his sibling. Jesus’ proclamation about divisions in the family rings hauntingly true as we all seek to live in a world where a man not only opens fire on a group of people celebrating a Saturday evening, but when the first person he targets is his sibling?
The second nudge I got came from a friend of mine who’s a minister in the Methodist Church, and is one of the central figures in the current debate over the place of LGBTQ people seeking to live into their call to ministry in the denomination. This friend posted online recently that they were asked months ago to preach in the congregation where they grew up. Also a lectionary preacher, they are standing in front of the congregation that brought them up, in the midst of a denominational struggle that is threatening to divide them. For any of us who’ve been in the PC(USA) for any period of time, the memories of similar conversations happening in our own denomination are still fresh, I’m sure. We’ve all likely seen congregations divided, or lamented at the departure of churches from the denomination. When I began the process of ordination in 2009, I did so knowing that it wasn’t possible for me to be ordained at the time. My own home congregation in East Texas, the place where I learned how to be part of a church family, went through such a division. The bulk of people who taught me Sunday school or church choir, who led youth group trips and talked to me about college and career plans, left the denomination when my ordination became a possibility. “It’s just a difference of theology,” they said, while they called me an abomination.
These nudges, these gentle nudges of the Spirit’s hand on my back, always have a way of reminding me that ministry, and by that I mean the work of ministry we are all called to do, isn’t about taking the path of least resistance; it’s about following Jesus. My job, our job, is to say yes to the invitation. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy; in fact, I’ve found, more often than not, it’s often when I’m most uncomfortable that I realize I’m in the company of Jesus. When I’m nudged to think about something in a way I hadn’t previously thought, or when I’m challenged to recognize my own failures and shortcomings or I’m called in to see the ways my privilege has kept me blind to the spaces God is calling me – those are the moments when the nudge in my back isn’t just leading me somewhere; it becomes a reminder of God’s presence with me as I go.
As some folks may know, I was ordained as a Minister a little less than two months ago. The last step in my decade-long journey to ordination was an examination on the floor of Presbytery which, for folks who may not attend Presbytery meetings on the regular, is an oral exam where a candidate for ministry is asked a series of questions related to Presbyterian theology and ministry and, as you can imagine, I was pretty nervous. These nerves were calmed a good bit, though, when the first question was put before me.
“Jess,” the moderator asked, “what is the Presbyterian understanding of sin?”
Exhale . . .
While I realize I am somewhat unique in my, shall we say, robust understanding of sin, I come by this thoughtfulness honestly. Because, while I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, much of my time growing up was spent with the folks from First Baptist Church. While I knew I was loved and cared for in my home church, First Presbyterian didn’t have the size or resources to offer the kinds of summer camp options offered by First Baptist. I was about to start my freshman year of high school and was in Florida on a week-long trip sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Longview, with about 200 other high-school aged youth, when I was saved for the first time. I had never before had someone ask me questions about the state of my eternal soul, or tell me that saying a prayer could ensure that I would avoid hell. I hadn’t thought much about hell until that point, to be honest; it wasn’t frequently discussed at First Presbyterian. And I can almost still hear the surprise in my mother’s voice when I called to share the news that I had asked Jesus to be my lord and savior. “Umm,” my mother said, “we don’t really do that in the Presbyterian church.”
Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, my having been “saved” gave me the feeling of being somewhat superior, spiritually speaking. I saw myself as more evolved, or more devoted to my faith and to God than the people from my Presbyterian church. Though, I was also more afraid – of both myself and of God. I was exhausted going through the checklist every night in my prayers, asking forgiveness for even the most minor infractions, terrified that if I missed one sin, if I failed to confess every last misdeed, I’d be doomed forever.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this kind of thinking left me feeling siloed, shut off in my own exercise of futility as I scribbled my sins down on an ever-lengthening scorecard of my failures. One of the things I connect with most in the Presbyterian tradition is the way we look at sin not only as an individual act, but as a systemic problem. We confess our sins together every week because sin isn’t something that begins and ends with each of us, but it’s pervasive among and within all of us. So, conversations about sin aren’t just about the actions of one individual who opens fire on a crowd in Dayton, or a Wal Mart in El Paso, or a man who takes 3 police hostages in a drug bust in Philadelphia. Conversations about sin have to also be about the systems that lead to such violence, to the rhetoric that reduces a child of God to an issue to be smeared out of existence. While we each commit individual acts that separate us from God and one another, sin is communal, my friends; and while it would be simpler in many ways to maintain our own individual checklists of misdeeds, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to see not only the reason for those misdeeds, but also the ways in which they impact others.
While we have all likely had moments lately when the desire to silo ourselves among like-minded individuals has been strong, the Gospel challenges us to remember the ways in which we are all connected. We are called to work for a world where all of God’s children know they are seen and loved and able to live into a life of abundance. If we take seriously the idea that we all bear the divine, then every person we meet becomes an opportunity to deepen our understanding of God. Being honest about our sinfulness means calling to task governments or individuals that have aligned the language of religion and patriotism in a way that distorts them both, and it challenges us to see the ways in which we have all been complicit in maintaining and supporting systems that dehumanize and criminalize some while turning a blind eye to injustice all around. As church-going people, it challenges us, especially, to see the ways in which our own traditions have been misused to justify atrocity after atrocity, it means naming the things we’d most often like to leave unnamed, recognizing that sometimes keeping the peace may avoid conflict in the present, but it tears us apart in the long run, festering like an open wound. Looking around today, it feels like we are in the midst of a time when these wounds have gone ignored for too long; and, no matter which side of the political or ideological divide you stand on, the stench is noxious. And thank God for that, thank God for the stink. Because no wound can be healed if it remains unacknowledged.
Earlier in Luke, John declares Jesus as the one who will baptize with fire, and fire plays a big part in both of today’s passages. While it’s tempting to see this fire as a sign of damnation or hell, that’s not what’s going on. The fire in each of these passages is about purification, about being refined so that we may become the people God, whose every act is dome in love, is calling us to be. This kind of purification is painful because it often peels back the layers we’ve built up around ourselves, layers that give us the false sense that our identity should be built around anything other than who we are as children of God.
And this is what I most love the Presbyterian understanding of sin, because when we talk about sin, we have to talk about it within the context of grace. When we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, we do so in part to show that God’s grace is offered to us even when we do not have the capacity to ask for it. Our job is to nurture people in the faith, to teach them, and to learn from them what it means to be the community of God. The promises we make when we baptize people are not conditional. Our call is to affirm the belovedness of the people being baptized, and to remain open to the Spirit to show us new things. Our job is not to decide who is worthy – God does that. Our job is to say yes to the invitation to live into who we were created to be – to say yes to difficult conversations, to vulnerability, to challenging and being challenged when we fall short, to hearing one another’s pains and holding one another’s burdens and joys. Even more, our job is to say yes when we feel the Spirit’s gentle hand on our backs, nudging us to sometimes uncomfortable places, so we can discover the fullness and joy that awaits us.
One of the things I enjoy most about my job is offering support to other pastors. Because we are a national organization, many of these pastors are flung across the country, so the extrovert in me really delights in the opportunity to meet people face-to-face. Last February, Harry Zweckbronner, who’s the programs director at Camp Hanover, connected me with Bobby Hulme-Lippert, pastor of Grace Covenant in Richmond. A youth in his congregation had recently come out as transgender, and Bobby felt a bit out of his depth, so Harry connected the two of us. Realizing we were both in Richmond, we met over coffee and talk about how he could offer support for this young person. As most of us who know Bobby can attest, he’s an easy person to have coffee with. After some conversation about the youth, we began sharing stories of our lives, talking about the Bible, our theology, our respective evangelical upbringings, and how our lived experiences have informed the way we understand our call.
As we said goodbye, Bobby chuckled a bit and, shaking his head said, “God sure has a sense of humor.” Agreeing on principle, I asked what he meant more specifically. Bobby paused, looked at me, and said, “In the church where I grew up, More Light was seen as the enemy. . . and it really shouldn’t have been that way.”
I nodded in agreement. I’m sure that in the church where I grew up, had they known about More Light, it’s likely they would’ve also seen More Light as the enemy.
About a month later, I reached out to Bobby to check in and see how things were going with the youth. And, in a moment I can only describe as one of those times when the Spirit says jump, I jumped, and asked Bobby if he’d have any interest in getting together with me on a regular basis to discuss the Bible. He said yes. In the time since, we’ve met every other week, moving our way first through Romans and then Acts. We now discuss the lectionary texts for the week and each time we meet, I leave with a fuller image of the text than my own lived experience could provide. Our conversation isn’t relegated to the Bible, of course, yet our conversations are always rooted in the text before us, and more often than not, they come back to the ways we see God gently nudging us to remember our belovedness. There is a shared vulnerability that began with us simply saying yes to the invitation to fellowship.
I don’t need to tell anyone here about the need for a hopeful word in today’s world. The divisions among us are deep and seem to be growing deeper by the minute. Some days chaos seems too mild a word to describe the current state of things and, if I’m being honest, I feel like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. This time we are in feels like the Spirit’s hand on the back of the Church, guiding us to be a voice of hope and resilience in the midst of the storm. And I don’t mean a kind of flimsy, greeting card hope, but the kind of hope that keeps us grounded – hope that is free of naive projections, and is often borne out of and through the hardest experiences of our lives. It’s the kind of hope that has been through fire and has shed the layers of fear of ourselves and one another. It’s this hope that draws us together and invites us to lives that offer a glimpse of God’s beloved kindom.
All we need to do is say yes.