Pastoral Prayer: Lord God Almighty, you have given us good things. James reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from you, the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. But, it is often that we take the good that you give and make it ultimate, even above you. Remind us today in as startling a way as necessary, that the good gifts you give are not the means of our liberation, only Jesus does that. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
In his Thanksgiving Sermon in 1850 titled Union and Slavery, Reverend John T. Hendrick, preached,
The sum of the argument is this. Slavery has existed in the Church from the earliest ages; has been recognized under every dispensation, as one of the permanent relations of life; has been treated as properly a subject of rule; the holders of slaves are recognized as the servants of God, are spoken of in the highest terms of approbation, and are admitted to intimate communion with God.
Notice how Reverend Hendrick used politics in his sermon. There are a couple of things we may say about politics in a sermon. First, most often any use of politics in a sermon fares well so long as everyone in the congregation agrees with the particular position. Just ask Jesus. Second, when preaching about the kingdom of God, it is always politics. Matthew includes in his Gospel that Jesus preached the kingdom of heaven had come near and with it a new way to live in God’s good creation with our neighbors. That is politics. There is a third, any preacher that risks inserting politics into a sermon risks death. It is for, preachers and pastors, what Freud called the human death drive.
Reverend Hendrick was not alone in his aggressive defense of a way of life that included slavery as a natural element of God’s good world. Countless Southern preachers and pastors argued in their sermons that the practice of slavery was in fact part of God’s design and that the Church had been in support over its long history. Reverend Hendrick missed what was taking shape in Britain decades earlier as Wilberforce tirelessly worked to abolish slavery as part of his deeply held Christian conviction. He also missed these words from Gregory of Nyssa’s homily, his sermon, on Ecclesiastes in the Fourth Century,
I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?
(Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 336,6)
Our Gospel reading today begins with a verse often used in support slavery. Today, the verse is often used in support of unquestioned authority of men, pastors, and anyone who holds a high position. But, it would be a mistake to think that this is what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples,
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.
Jesus explains what he means. If you or anyone takes up his or her cross and follows Jesus you may be sure that you will do what Jesus did and when you do you will look like Jesus doing it. If Jesus’ critics were willing to call him Beelzebub, the ruler of demons, then Jesus alerted his disciples it would be the same for them. At the risk of death, or at least cancellation, and insert politics into this sermon, announcing the way of the kingdom of the Heavens includes the implication that those who do follow Jesus may expect to get what Jesus got while doing what Jesus did. In other words, having sent the disciples out to do what he had done, Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they would be met with the same criticisms and objections he himself had encountered along the way.
Gregory of Nyssa was doing the same work in his sermon on Ecclesiastes. He points out that the very notion of slavery, that is the enslaving of other human beings, runs contrary to the character of God who by his own action does not enslave us but rather liberates us. The way of God’s world in Christ Jesus cannot coexist with the Pride required to buy or sell a human being made in the image of God. His message ran counter to the prevailing story. The message that it has always been that way does not stand up under the weight of the declaration that Jesus is Lord and Master. There is a different way of life. Let me say that again. To resist God’s way in making the world new by suggesting that even God’s people have done it that way for its history denies that Jesus is Lord.
Any time we announce that God in Christ Jesus is busy making the world new by the Holy Spirit mediating to us the Good News of God’s liberating love, we are doing politics. The consequence of that Good News activity of God in the world reshapes how we see other people made in the image of God, how we view God’s good creation, and how we think about the present and the future. When the Church takes up this vision, it becomes the place God has in the world where the reign of Christ is on display.
But, we find ways to resist.
Jesus did not come to keep human idols in place. When we declare Jesus is Lord and announce that in Christ we have been set free from the Powers of Sin and Death, we are doing what those early Jesus followers did. We are announcing life-giving, life-saving news that declares freedom in Jesus to those captive to idols that keep things the way they are, just as we were.
What Jesus does next is nothing short of disruption. To make his point, that he did not come to keep human idols in place, he took aim at the family. It is not too harsh to point out that Jesus said there is something more important than the family. Remember, human idols are often created by taking something good and making it ultimate. If you listen carefully the obvious encouragement to focus on the family is also a stick used to beat people for the problems they face and the consequences they suffer. Ignoring the complexity of life and the myriad causes that keep people in what appears to be a never ending cycle. The reductionist assertion that it all traces back to the breakdown of the family is arrogant and lazy. Anytime someone does not want to do the hard work of exploring the reason things are as they are you may be sure you will hear, “It’s the breakdown of the family.”
Here, in a most unsettling way, Jesus insists that it is possible that the family may undermine faith. When something good becomes ultimate, we will have created an idol. In extreme language Jesus teaches his disciples that those who have been set free find their life when pledging their ultimate allegiance to the One who gives life and sets prisoners free.
Taking up the cross and following Jesus is in response to the Good News that Jesus is our liberation from the Powers that held us captive. The disciples have not only heard about it, they have seen it. Jesus wants no mistake, he has not come to give approval to the way the world offers peace. He rejects that patterns and habits found in the way of life offered by the Powers because rather than set people free, they are simply presented as cover for more captivity.
Again, Jesus uses strong language to describe the consequence of this good news. It will create adversaries. The Powers will oppose the disruptive message of Jesus but Jesus tells his disciples not to fear for he has defeated the Powers of Sin and Death. Rather than fear what may come to the world or to us, Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid.
Don’t fear . . . proclaim God revealed in Jesus.
John the Baptist languished in prison for his message of repentance and challenge to the politics of Herod. Having heard of Jesus he sent some to ask if Jesus was the One or should they look for another. Jesus told the messengers to tell John what is seen and heard.
Here Jesus tells the disciples what has been a secret is now revealed. What has been revealed in the light of the world and it is shining in all the dark places, exposing the darkness for what it is, a failed politic.
Don’t fear . . . death it has been defeated in Jesus. The Apostle Paul reminds the Colossians that our lives are now in Christ, hidden in God. Death may come to us physically, but who we are in Christ cannot be killed. That is, nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Don’t fear . . . you are more valuable than sparrows whom God sees when they fall. God knows your name and your face and his presence to you and investment in you points to the life we find when losing it for the sake of the Good News of Jesus.
The mission God has given us is to do what Jesus did and when doing what Jesus did we will look like Jesus doing it, ready to risk what Jesus received both from his critics and the Father.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may watch or listen here.