Friday, February 11, 2011

5th Sunday After Epiphany Sermon: Radical

Living into Radical Inclusivity
5th Sunday After Epiphany
Gospel Text: Matthew 5.13-20

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Austin, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where Packers’ game makes Steelers’ hands unclean.
From forth the fatal linebackers of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd teams play this night;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their game bury their fans’ fights.
The fearful passage of their fans’ great love,
And the continuance of their fans’ great rage,
Which, but their game’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the six hours' traffic of our television’s sage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

My apologies to Bill Shakespeare. But I had to think of something dramatic to open my sermon for such a dramatic occasion as Super Bowl Sunday Forty-Five. Yes, today is the day of television commercials, pop superstar headed half-game shows, parties galore, and the Green Bay Packers versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. And so. The Packers and the Steelers are notorious for their large and sometimes violent fan bases. I lived in Steelers’ country for four years while attending college in northwest PA and I experienced firsthand a lot of the Steelers fan-base. As someone who follows football peripherally, but do not follow it religiously, I find it curious the intensity many have, us Ravens fans included, when it comes to sports. It makes me think of an Italian proverb my Italian friend told me: She said “In Italia, we have a saying. You can change your family, you can change your husband or wife, you can change your friends and your nationality. You can even change your religion. But you can never change your football team.” And although she was talking about European football, what we call soccer, I think the same holds true for many of us when it comes to American football.

What is it that can serve as a division between you and someone else? For me, it’s not sports, it’s politics. I have very passionate political beliefs. And there is nothing wrong with that, with being passionate about anything. Having strong and passionate beliefs and sharing those with others is wonderful! And standing up for what you believe in is necessary, and can be good and valid cause for division. The problem for me comes when I let my passions divide me from someone else, when I let it get in between my relationship with another person: whether a friend or family member or anyone else, when I let my beliefs separate me from others in this community or cause harm, I am doing something wrong. Is who wins the super bowl really enough--is who is in the president’s office for the next four years--are these things really enough for me to stop loving my neighbor as myself?
What can separate you from another person? It might be football, it might be politics or religious beliefs, jealousy anything, really.

The early Christian community was even more divided than football or politics might divide us. Believe it or not, the early Christian community had two main competing denominations. I bet you didn’t know that even before the Reformation there were already denominations within the Christian Church. We had the Christians of Judea and the Gentile Christians. The Judean Christians were very much Jewish, and they followed the law of Moses. Led by the Apostle James, Jesus’ brother, these Christians still worshiped at the Temple, still followed the dietary restrictions, such as not eating pork or shellfish, and they preached circumcision. In other words, many of them believed that since Jesus was Jewish and spent his entire life in Judea, someone who wanted to be Christian had to be Jewish first. To many of the Judean Christians, Christianity was a Jewish denomination, not a separate religion.

The second Christian community was led by the Apostle Paul. Paul preached that you did not have to be Jewish before you were a Christian, that indeed, Jesus’ message was meant for everyone. Anyone could be Christian so long as they were baptized into Christ Jesus.

The two communities were often at tension. And it was in this context that the Gospel of Matthew was written. So Matthew wrote his Gospel and selected the stories about Jesus that would most likely respond to the division between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. So, Matthew picked stories about Jesus that focused on unity and getting over divisions.

This particular gospel story is no exception. Jesus is speaking to a crowd right after the beatitudes and he stresses the importance of the law and the prophets. Following the law and the prophets gives one an insight into this community of wholeness. Saying that the law and the prophets are irrelevant is the opposite of what Jesus is about. So what is Jesus saying here?

What Jesus is saying here is that those who think Jesus came and put an end to the law are wrong. Also, those who think that the law is salvation are wrong. What Jesus is saying is that his coming brings about a new understanding of the law, his coming fulfills the promises the law brings, the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and the ancient Israelites thousands of years before, the promise that God loves us and God will bring about peace and healing for our broken world.

And so Jesus invites his listeners into this community and tells them that this community is not just for the people listening to him on that mount, it’s not just for those who follow the law, it’s not just for those who do not follow the law but still follow Jesus, no, what Jesus is saying is that God’s fulfillment of the law is for everyone. No exceptions. And so, we are to be like lights that cannot be put out, like cities on a hill that can be seen by all, like salt, a catalyst to get things cooking. Yes, Jesus said you are a catalyst to get things cooking, you are what can get this radical inclusivity moving, this welcoming community on the road.

Did Jesus say that his coming was going to put an end to the law and the prophets? No! He says by his coming he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. By his coming he brings about the fulfillment of the community, the unity of the brokenness. By his fulfillment of the law and the prophets, Jesus fulfills the law which preaches unity and wholeness. He fulfills the prophets that beg for the poor the be fed and the outcast to be welcomed. By Jesus’ coming, Jesus does not abolish the law and the prophets, no, but he ushers in a new understanding of the law and the prophets.

So, back to the Gospel writer Matthew’s community torn apart—those who believe they must follow the law and those who do not yet still call themselves Christian. Who is right here? The Gospel comes alive to them through these here Jesus’ words and shows them, shows us, what it means to be a community. A community where the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. So whether you were a Jewish Christian or a Gentile Christian, you were welcome to be a part of the full community of God. Because, you know what? No one had it right. In fact, anyone who claims full understanding of the law, anyone who excludes another from this table, from this fellowship, from this gospel of the incarnate God, has misunderstood what Jesus was all about. That goes for people on both sides—the Judean Christians and the Gentile Christians.

And what does this mean for us, on the day of the Super Bowl, two thousand years later? It means, well, for one, if you are a Ravens fan, you are welcome here. If you are a Packers fan, you are welcome here. If you are a Steelers fan, yes, even a Steelers fan, you are welcome here. It also means that if you are Lutheran, you are welcome here. It means that if you are Catholic you are welcome here. If you are Presbyterian, a Messianic Jew, a nondenominational charismatic Christian, a Baptist, a Methodist, a seeker, a Mennonite, an Episcopal, Orthodox, you are welcome here! See where I’m going with this? It means that whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are male or female, whether you are gay or straight or anything in between, white or black or red or yellow, sad or happy, dying or full of life, sick or in full health, young or old you are welcome here. You are a part of this one community, of this unity of Christ that brings unity out of discord, harmony out of dissidence. Sinners all, me and you: We. Are. Welcome. Here.

So, brothers and sisters. Is that where it ends? No! Jesus says you are the light of the world. You are a city built on a hill that cannot be hid. You are the salt of the earth! We let our light shine before others by living into this radical inclusivity, this radical unity, this radical fulfillment that Christ brings. We shine our light brightest by opening our arms and embracing the stranger. The youth today, by their Soup-er Bowl activities, are shining their lights in this world of darkness. We can follow their example, because we let our light shine by forgiving, healing, loving, caring, and welcoming. So, my brothers and sisters. You have been given a light in baptism and the word of God. Together, let us go into the world and let it shine. Amen.


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