The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 15
11th Sunday After Pentecost
20 August 2017
This week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry stated that “Moments of crisis are times of decision, and this is a time of decision.” Speaking out against the events from last weekend in Charlottesville and quoting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s last book, his statement repeatedly returned to “Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?” Our own Bishop Mary similarly responded to last weekends events from her time away on sabbatical, calling us to action and solidarity as a diocese in a state that contains the largest number of organized hate groups in the nation, including a registered and organized neo-nazi group right here in Santa Cruz.
Last week, I asserted that fear may be conquered by love and faith. In the balance between Chaos and Community, the former is where we allow fear to rule over us, where we allow the darkness to overtake us, and where we close ourselves in the cave beneath the mountaintop, where we stay in the boat, huddled and fearful against the winds and waves, seeking shelter from the storm until it passes. The latter, Community, is where, united, we take courage in Christ’s call to us as a community of faith, bound to courageous love in the face of trial and fear. Standing in the midst of the storm, Christ beckons to us to come out of the boat to stand firm against the chaos around us.
Amidst the political and market upheavals of this week, Presiding Bishop Curry and our Diocesan Bishop Mary both exhorted us to stand together in this time of division, to be a community of equality, a community of welcome to all of God’s children, and to stand together as a beacon of both hope and life to our wider community.
Beyond standing together, we have been exhorted to action in answering the outspoken hate besieging our nation by speaking out in love and in reconciliation, seeking to name and to heal the divisions that have never healed since the time of the Civil War a century and a half ago, that have never healed since the Civil Rights Movement a half century ago, and that have just this past weekend reminded us of how far we have yet to come as a nation before we can truly be united in equality and freedom.
Jesus tells us this week that it is what comes out of the mouth that tells of the defiled state of our hearts. Speaking to a group of people judging him and his disciples by a strict purity code, he dismisses the religious strictures that would keep the common people, the hungry, and the poor from being able to maintain ritual purity and good standing with the temple. Prior to this part of the gospel a group of Pharisees have criticized Jesus and his disciples for eating with unclean hands. Jesus, in return chastises these observably ritually clean Pharisees as proclaiming hypocritical teachings that demonstrate their unseen hearts as unclean. Turning this convention on its head in his teaching to the people in today’s Gospel, he vexes the religious authorities by turning the teaching back on them. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, he teaches, but what comes out of the mouth. What goes into the mouth passes through the body into the sewer. But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.
As Presiding Bishop Curry observed this week, this Sunday’s lectionary readings are again incredibly appropriate to our nations current events.
It isn’t our beginnings, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves that define who we are, but how we respond to them.
To that end, we miss most of Joseph’s story in our lectionary readings.
As some of you may recall, as a child Joseph had dreams and visions, which he interpreted to his family. Since his interpretations of the dreams were of himself being honored ahead of his ten older brothers, as well as ahead of his father, mother, and youngest brother, all of whom were bowing down before him, those ten older brothers took offense, called him a dreamer, hated him, and conspired against him to kill him, but ultimately sold him into slavery instead.
This week’s readings skip over Joseph’s time in Egypt as a slave, during which he was in the household of Potiphar, whose wife tried repeatedly to seduce him, and then told Potiphar that Joseph had tried to seduce her, which resulted in Joseph’s imprisonment. While in prison those in Pharaoh’s household learned of Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams when he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer who had been imprisoned for angering Pharaoh. Two years later, when Pharaoh had disturbing dreams, which none of his magicians or advisors could interpret, the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was called to Pharaoh’s service, interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that Egypt would enjoy seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. He recommended that Pharaoh store a fifth of all of Egypt’s crops for the first seven years in preparation for the years of famine. Pharaoh was pleased with Joseph and put him in charge of doing as he had recommended. By the second year of the famine, Joseph’s father, Jacob, sent his ten oldest sons to Egypt to buy grain. After a protracted ordeal by which Joseph was able to gather all of his siblings together in his palace in Egypt, including his younger brother Benjamin, today’s portion of the story picks up with Joseph confessing his true identity to his brothers, after which Joseph sends them back to Canaan to retrieve Jacob with riches, grain, pack animals, wagons, chariots, and an invitation to come and live in Egypt where Joseph could provide for them through the rest of the famine and where they could live in peace and prosperity.
Of all the members of Abraham’s extended family, Joseph led the most blameless life. He was faithful to God, to his family, to his wife, to his promises, and served those around him with integrity. Despite his blameless life, he was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused of trying to seduce his master’s wife, and imprisoned for over two years. Yet in all that he endured before coming into the prosperity that he finally enjoyed until his life’s end, he continued to serve, to have faith, and was blessed in all of his labors. Joseph, more than most, save perhaps Job, had every right to be angry with God, yet in every situation, whether in prosperity or in humiliation, God was with him. He chose to live not by expecting goodness to come to him, but by making good out of anything he was given.
When I observe that God was with him, I don’t mean to suggest special attention from God, rather I mean to point out that Joseph never turned his back on God. He never cried out against God, blamed God for his misfortunes, or abandoned his faith when his world seemed to be collapsing in on him.
Too often in our own lives and relationships we hear of people who are suffering loss or hardship abandoning God for not protecting them from the misfortunes of life. The age old question of “why do bad things happen to good people” has a whole branch of theology dedicated to it, but what we too often forget is that God doesn’t promise us a life without misfortune or hardship. What God promises us is to be in relationship with us no matter what. To love us no matter what. To forgive us and have compassion (literally to feel with us) no matter what. What we bring out of the situations of our lives, like Jesus explains to his disciples in today’s Gospel, is what describes the state of our hearts as we live in relationship with God and God’s creation in our good yet broken world. When we suffer, God is with us, weeping with us, feeling with us, hurting with us, and, in faith, working with us toward restoring our wholeness.
Paul, in this week’s Epistle, recognizes this gift and calling into relationship, no matter what, as an irrevocable Grace extended to every child of God. As I observed in my sermon from a few weeks ago, God calls all of us into this relationship, but it is always and has always been our choice whether or not to enter into it. It is also our choice whether or not to stay in relationship, as well as to seek deeper understanding of how we are uniquely called and uniquely gifted to live out God’s love in our world, no matter what our circumstances.
But it is also our responsibility as a church to dive into the uncomfortable and messy aspects of life and our faith, that by God’s grace we might help to nourish our hearts and minds in a world that is sometimes deeply troubling, and sometimes simply fails us.
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of it. It is not the circumstances in which we find ourselves that define us, but how we respond to them.
The defiling words and actions of those in Charlottesville who carried torches, screamed racist slogans and hateful ideologies, surrounded both anti-protestors and St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal church, who enacted violence against those opposed to them, and resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, betrayed hearts of malice, anger, hatred, racism, and violence. Where will we go from here? Chaos or Community? How will we respond? Will our words betray hearts defiled by the circumstances in which we have found ourselves, or will our Community stand up and proclaim Christ’s good news of God’s unconditional love for every human person, dignified by God’s image, and worthy of respect, equality, and freedom?
Since June, our scriptures have been hammering home many of the same realities of our life in faith and relationship with God. We are not called to a life of bliss, to a life of peacefully pursuing our personal faith-life in a bubble of safety, or to a life of complacently sitting on the path once we’ve found it. We are called into the journey of a lifelong relationship that draws us, both personally and as a community of interconnected and interdependent relationships, into deeply transforming encounters with all of life’s ups and downs. Our faith, as a relationship with the God who calls to us passionately and perpetually, is one that draws us, like Abraham and Sarah, like Isaac and Rebecca, like Jacob and Leah and Rachel to respond to life in faith, and like Joseph in this week’s reading, to define ourselves by our faith, compassion, love, and our reconciling hearts no matter what circumstances we endure. We—and all of creation—are interconnected, interdependent, and bound up with God’s divine spark of life and love. And we are called, perpetually, to step out from behind the barriers we’ve erected out of fear of our vulnerability, and into the full inheritance of God’s passionate invitation to live and love, to heal and reconcile, without walls, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the consequences.
The Canaanite woman in the second half of today’s Gospel reading could easily have sworn off her faith when rebuked by the very one to whom she turned for her daughter’s healing. Instead she turned the rebuke back on Jesus, demanding the inheritance of a child of God that her faith promised in relationship with God. What happens looks remarkably like Jesus learning a new breadth to his mission and ministry to ALL of God’s children, a call Paul takes up as apostle to the Gentiles after his conversion and calling on the road to Damascus, and which the Psalmist relates exultantly in today’s psalm:
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity! For there the LORD has ordained the blessing: life for evermore.
Presiding Bishop Curry’s address from this week on the Episcopal Church’s website includes links to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide,” which includes practical actions each of us can take both individually and as a community to speak out against hate crimes, hate rallies, hate inspired violence, and the general vitriol perpetuated by hate groups in the media.
At the outset of the guide, they advise us: Do something. In the face of hatred, apathy will be interpreted as acceptance by the perpetrators, the public and—worse—the victims. Community members must take action; if we don’t, hate persists.
Suggestions for action include picking up the phone to call local officials and government representatives, organizing community discussions, signing a petition, joining together in prayer, joining forces with local law enforcement and local advocacy groups, educating ourselves, writing to the press, being creative with the gifts we have at our disposal, and staying engaged in our many overlapping communities of influence through which we can work together to make a long-term commitment to standing up against hate in our community and our world.
Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community? The decision is ours.
May we seek the path of faith that responds to the world not out of our selfish and fearful desires for security, but out of our deepest desire for wholeness, love, and life no matter what circumstances surround us; and may we live our lives as an example of the unity to which we are called and by which we are sustained and nourished by our passionate, wild, relational God.