The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 22
18th Sunday After Pentecost
8 October 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
With all the language around killing in today’s gospel, it is hard to get away from the theme of violence and heartbreak that this past week has held.
This past Tuesday at 9am Pacific, we joined with Episcopal Churches across the nation to toll the bells in memorial of those slain last Sunday night at the Country Music Festival in Las Vegas. We rang Calvary’s bell 60 times. One for each person Stephen Paddock killed and another for the over 500 others he wounded as he shot into the crowded arena from his hotel room window. For each toll, the name of one slain was read in brief memorial.
This week, Bishop Mary wrote words of both comfort and challenge to all of us, stating:
There will be as many points of cognitive dissonance around Vegas as there are people reading this reflection. There will be much searching for how to make sense of something that makes no sense, given how we see such an event.
In these last few days we will have offered lament, mourned, prayed, and spoken passionately of what we believe to be the roots of violence in America. We will find ways to explain, argue and rationalize the event. It helps us to feel better. We cannot hold the enormity of this pain for very long. Our minds will need relief.
A consequence, however, is that we will forego self-examination and transformation, individually and as a nation. We will give up. We will give in. You and I will let slip from our minds and hearts this intentionally disturbing imperative we sign onto at baptism, offered by the Gospel and the God of Peace whom we worship. The yearning for equilibrium will overwhelm us.
We will settle into some reasonable ground between, say, our national self-rhetoric of how great we are and events like Vegas, which speaks confrontational truth about the deep and soulful wounds of America and her people.
Jesus, whom we follow, created cognitive dissonance everywhere he went. He was an agitator—on purpose. May he agitate us now. The Bible is filled with thoughts that disturb us and challenge us to deep self-examination, transformation and the hard work required by both. No matter our politics or rationale of why terrorism happens internally in America (even as we fear it so much from outside our borders), may our arguments that draw us back to psychological equilibrium remain insufficient, incapable of offering us reasonable peace in these days.
May we have the courage to remain with the deep and prayerful disturbance offered to us by the God of Peace.
Today’s gospel is a prime example of the Jesus who creates cognitive dissonance.
We have in our first reading, amidst the other nine commandments, the command against murder. We have in our Psalm an acknowledgment of God’s goodness, mercy, grace, and peace, we have in our epistle a dismissal of human self-righteous piety, counting it as nothing but loss compared to the calling of Christ—who summarized the commandments in love of God, and love of neighbor as self. And then in today’s gospel we have Jesus indicting the religious authorities of his time as having killed God’s prophets and plotting to kill God’s own son. And on their own word, in response to his story of the landowner whose tenants killed the landowners servants and plotted to kill his heir, they ought to receive the heavy hand of vengeance, of being cut off and replaced with those who will bear the fruit of God’s kingdom.
As Bishop Mary ponders in her reflection on this week’s events, Jesus’ constant challenge to the religious authorities, to the religious and social conventions of his day, is not just their inaction, but their complicity in the cycles and systems of violence, domination, and oppression that plagued God’s children in that time and place.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus’ teachings to the crowds focus on compassion, grace, love, forgiveness, healing, and God’s desire for relationship, while his teachings to the religious authorities focus on their willfulness and complicity in the systems of violence, domination, and oppression. This Sunday’s parable is aimed at me, at Bishop Mary, at all of your clergy who are held accountable for the ways in which we either hold God’s word hostage—stone it, kill it—or set it free to inspire the hearts and minds of all those who trust us enough to invite us into their faith lives.
Part of yesterday’s worship at the Episcopal Church Women’s Honored Woman luncheon was Bishop Mary’s discussion of the Bible as a book that holds up a mirror to us of the full range of human response to God. The Psalm included a prayer of honest and raw human emotion in the desire for God to wipe out our enemies, and Mary’s response was that sometimes, if we’re honest, that is just what we wish—even momentarily. But, this isn’t the final word. Nor is Christ’s indictment of the religious authorities the final word for good clergy who sometimes get in the way more than they intend—rather it describes the relationship between our hearts, our minds, and our actions.
When Bishop Mary talked about Jesus being a source of cognitive dissonance, she described it as The mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. Its occurrence being a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals and values. In today’s gospel, when the religious authorities finally get that Jesus is talking about them, they are faced with just such an occurrence. As teachers, they hold God’s word captive, using it as both shield and weapon to protect their own power and privilege in an unjust and violent system. Realizing their complicity has just been laid bare, they seek for Jesus’ arrest rather than changing their behavior.
As we rang the bells, one for each person shot and killed by Stephen Paddock, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at a 64 year old white man I have never met. I found myself angry at a hotel that allowed him to carry ten bags full of weapons and ammunition to his hotel room. I found myself weeping for the pain and anguish he put those people and their families through. And suddenly, with all those others he killed and wounded, I found myself also praying for Stephen Paddock—a horrifically disturbed and broken human being. With many, I have been struggling with this, yet another example, in the recent bouts of violence that continue to challenge our society. I struggle not just with the senselessness and needlessness of the acts of violence and hatred, but with how to respond.
As Bishop Mary reflected, and now again with the religious authorities in this week’s Gospel, I am, and each of us both individually and as a community, is being called to self examination and transformation as we seek both the root of and the means to address the violence endemic in our society. It is present down to the very words we use in every day language. Mary’s example was the struggle she experienced in trying to find a suitable replacement for the simple word bullet-point to describe a non-ordered list in a document or presentation. While she finally settled on info-point, her point was that we must start somewhere, and if we’re to make any difference in our lives and world, the first place we may consider looking is ourselves.
For Paul, cognitive dissonance took the form of recognizing all of his self-righteous piety as actually destructive to Christ’s call to love as God loves. For the wandering Israelites, it took the form of awe and fear of God’s word—of an intimacy with God that was too close and too real, and the desire to go back to just hearing Moses’ voice. To our Psalmist it is the recognition of the tension between faith and action, between God’s glory and goodness and the secret faults that distance us from that same God of love, which becomes the familiar prayer—may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer. To the religious authorities in today’s gospel is takes the form of being faced with their complicity in the cycles of violence, oppression, and domination that God’s whole history with God’s children sought to overturn, and which, by their interpretation of the law as it expanded into centuries of tradition, they were perpetuating to their own advantage.
Where is our cognitive dissonance? And perhaps more revealing, once we name it, can we take the steps we must take in order to overturn it in cooperation with God?
We promise in our Baptismal Covenants to live lives worthy of the Gospel of Christ: We have promised to both seek Christ in all persons as well as to serve Christ in all persons. We have promised to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have promised to strive for justice and peace. We have promised to respect the dignity of every human being. And yet, we find sometimes that we fall short. In times such as this week, when we see how short we collectively fall in keeping these promises, may we also be reminded that the promise we make is “I will with God’s help.”
Holy one of life, love, and healing, in response to Bishop Mary’s call to our diocese to sit with the cognitive dissonance of this week and take up the challenge of self-reflection and transformation, may we also be reminded that you are with us to sustain us, to hear our prayers for help, to sit with us in the mire of our struggles, and to accompany us through them. With the religious authorities, you may challenge us with the realities of our short-fallings, but as with the crowds, so too you are there to inspire us, to lift us to new life and hope, to teach us how to do more as a community of faith, and to sustain us with your Spirit as we seek toward and work together to make a difference in our lives and world.
Be our comfort this week, as we sit in the struggle.
Remembering the 59 lives taken in Las Vegas last Sunday night, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered the following prayer. Let us take a moment of prayer and remembrance.
You are the creator of us all. We are altogether your children.
When one rejoices we all rejoice; when one suffers we all suffer.
We come to you tonight, Lord, with sorrow in our hearts,
for 59 of your children are no longer with us,
and some 500 of your children are hurting physically and emotionally,
and one of your children took their lives,
and they are all our sisters,
they are all our brothers,
they are all your children.
And so Lord God we come before you now with sorrowful hearts;
hearts so sorrowful that words cannot convey.
We come before you asking you Lord, receive the souls of those who have died,
that they may rest in your love and rise in your glory.
We come before you now asking you to comfort and heal their loved ones who weep.
We ask you, Lord, to take those who are wounded and afflicted and bind up their wounds and heal them.
But Lord we ask you to heal us; to heal your human children;
to help us to find a better way;
to teach us to love and not to count the cost.
Heal your human family.
Heal your creation.
And then make us instruments of your peace.
This we ask, Lord God, in the name of your son Jesus, who died and rose again for this world that you so deeply love.
In His name, and for the sake of the entire human family and all creation we pray. Amen.”