Sunday, August 26, 2018

14 Pentecost

August 26, 2018

Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69

+ Do you ever notice how certain words get hijacked? Words we once thought were nice, quaint words get hijacked by some not-so-nice people and all of a sudden the word becomes—and means—something else.

Certainly, we Christians have experienced this often in our life time. To some people Christians are seen as close-minded, bigoted and judgmental. We are viewed as people who fold our arms and sneer at anything we don’t like. We all are seen as terrible people because of a few very loud and vocal ones.  Which is a shame. People who think way that have obviously never been to St. Stephen’s!

It’s the same with priests. Let me tell you! Because of a few bad priests, all of a sudden we’re all seen as…well…you can guess.  And most of those people have never met me!

But one word that has been hijacked is one that what we often hear in relation to a bashing of the word “Christian.”  It is the term “Evangelical Christians.”

Evangelical Christians, even among other Christians, have been demonized. I have done it myself.

Being Evangelical in this day and age is equivalent to being a “Pharisee” in Jesus’ day. It is synonymous with hypocrisy and close-mindedness. And in most cases, you know what: that’s correct. Have you listened to some of those so-called self-professed Evangelical Christians? Many are just that, hypocritical and close-minded.  Many of them have a sense of righteous entitlement.

Many of them carry around a sense of rightness in being able to judge others.

A sense of we’re right and you’re wrong.

A sense of God is on OUR side.

A sense of: we’re saved and going to heaven and everyone who doesn’t believe the way we do or act the way we do are going straight to hell.

A sense of: I know what the real interpretation of scripture is.

These pharisaical evangelicals have actually done just that. They have hijacked Christianity. They have hijacked the Bible. And they have hijacked the very term “evangelical.”

And those things make me very angry.

They feel they are the standard bearers, the guardians of biblical purity. And very rarely do they see that what they are really doing is in fact embodying the very people Jesus preaches against again and again.

And we’ve all been on the receiving end of evangelical ire. Sadly.

But…my anger about evangelicals isn’t even about their puritanical stance, their sense of rightness. As I said, my anger has to do with their hijacking of both the Bible and the name “evangelical.”

Now, in the Anglican tradition, evangelical means something else. And for those of us who were Lutheran, it means pretty much the same thing as it does for Anglicans.  For us, evangelicals are simply people who strive to make sure scripture continues to be the basis for our Christian faith.

There is a long and fruitful Evangelical history in Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church. In fact, one of my personal heroes in the Episcopal Church was the great Evangelical writer, William Stringfellow, who along with his long-time partner, poet Anthony Towne, wrote several amazing books on scripture. I talk about Stringfellow a lot! Because he deserves to be quoted and remembered.

Now, personally, I have always been a bit wary of identifying myself as an Evangelical. Probably my reason for doing so has to do with the fact that we all know: being an Evangelical in our recent history means something I don’t want to be associated with.

But I am Evangelical in the sense that scripture is vital to my faith and my understanding of God, Christ and the Church.  I am Evangelical because I do believe in the authority of scripture. And I am Evangelical in the sense that scripture is the basis for my faith life, every sermon that I preach, how I see the world around me and how I view my own place in this world.

I love the Bible! And I say that without fear. I say it proudly. Because I do love the Bible! I have spent my entire faith life so-far, studying, pondering and wrestling with scripture.

In fact, when I was ordained a priest, the bishop asked me,

Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more  able minister of Christ?

And my answer was: I will.

I took that “I will” very seriously!

For me, that means reading and studying and wrestling with scripture on a daily basis. Which I have done almost every day since I was ordained. There were a few days when I was sick or in the depths of grief or pain when I simply couldn’t. But even on those days when I didn’t read it or study it, I can say in all honesty that scripture was still there, still guiding my life and sustaining me in illness or grief.  And I hope that, just as that vow promised, such daily study of scripture has made me a stronger and more able minister of Christ.

I am an Evangelical because I believe in Scripture. Now, I know that is loaded statement.

Do I believe literally in everything in the Bible?  That is not what I said.  But I do believe that God speaks to me through scripture. And because God does, I believe scripture to be the Word of God.

To go back to my ordination day, both as a deacon and priest, I knelt before the bishop, and said before God, the Bishop and the Church, this promise:

“…I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…”

Now, that vow is good for all of us who are ministers, not just ordained ministers. And, if you really listen, it’s a statement packed with meaning. I believe the scriptures to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation.

All of it? You may wonder. We may interpret that in statement, in what we are really professing here that through the scriptures God does speak to us.

God’s very Word comes to us through these scriptures. Which makes these scriptures incredibly powerful.  

We get an echo of this importance of the Word of God in our Gospel reading for today. In it, we find Simon Peter answering that question of Jesus, “Do you wish to go away?” with strangely poetic and vibrant words.

Peter asks,

Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

For all of us as followers of Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God (which we find contained in scripture), the Word of God made flesh—this is essential.  And powerful.  

This Word not only directs our lives, it sustains us, and feeds us and keeps us buoyant in the floods and tempests that rage about us.  The Word is the place to which we go when we need direction, when we need comfort, when we need to be reminded that we are deeply loved children of out God, when we need hope as followers of Jesus.  The Word is essential to us because, through it, God speaks to us.  The Word is essential to us because it is there that we hear God’s Spirit directing us and leading us forward.

The irony for me, however, is most poignant when I listen to those Evangelicals (and others) who use the Word in cutting ways.  We of course hear them all the time.  People who use scripture to support their homophobia or their racism or their blatantly anti-Christian political beliefs or their condemnation of others.

Because scripture is so powerful, people who do so are playing with fire. Or maybe dynamite might be the better image.

Now, any of you who have heard me preach for any period of time have heard me say this same thing over and over again.  And I will continue to say it over and over again.  I said it again and again:  be careful of using Scripture as a sword, because, I say: remember.  It is a two-edged sword.  If you use the Word to cut others, trust me: it will come back and it cut you as well.  It is just that powerful. And frightening.  It can destroy, not in just the way the one who wields it wants to destroy, but it can also destroy the one who wields it.

However—and this is a big however—if we use the Word to affirm, to build up the Kingdom of God, if we allow the Word to be, in our lives, the voice of God, the mind of God, the  then we in turn are affirmed. As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning:

“take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

That sword of the Spirit is an amazing weapon.  That sword of the Spirit is essential for all of us who are ministers.  It is a powerful device that carries more strength and influence than any of us probably fully realize.  And because it is so powerful, we need to use very, very carefully. It  needs to be handled like a loaded, very sensitive machine gun.

We need to use it not in anger, not in hatred, not in oppression, but in love.  When we wield this sword of the Spirit in love, we find love being sown.  When we wield this sword of the Spirit of God in compassion, we spread compassion.  When we wield this sword to shatter injustice and oppression and homophobia and hatred and fascism, we find justice and freedom.  When we wield this sword as a way to clear the way for the Kingdom of God, we find that we too become a part of that building up of the Kingdom.

We too are able to clearly hear Jesus’ voice in our lives.  Those words of eternal life that Jesus speaks to us again and again in scripture truly do break down barriers, build up those marginalized and shunned and, in doing so, we find the Kingdom of God in our very midst.

When a Benedictine monk or nun makes a profession of vows they pray a wonderful prayer.  Their prayer is:

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

I love that.

“Do not disappoint me in my expectation.”

This is our prayer as well as loved children of God and followers of Jesus. This is the prayer of all of who are called to be ministers—whether as lay people or as clergy.

“Accept me, Lord, according to your word, and I shall live. Do not disappoint me in my expectation.” 

We too have prayed to be accepted according to God’s Word.  The sword of the Spirit has swiped the veil of separation from us and has made us one.  And none of us, in this oneness, in this kingdom of God in our midst, is disappointed in our expectation. When all are seen as one, when all are accepted, when we see each other as loved and fully accepted children of a loving and merciful God, then our expectation will be fulfilled.

But we need to keep listening, to keep straining our ears for God’s words to us.  We need to keep listening so God can speak to us—so the Word can speak to us. And that Word needs to be spoken just as importantly, through us.

When God speaks to us, we respond.  When the Word comes to us, we then need to engage it.

This is what prayer is—holy conversation.

And as the Word is spoken to us, as we hear it and feel it, our response is the same as those who heard the Word spoken to them by Jesus.

“Yes, Lord, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

So let us hear those words of eternal life.  Let us embody that Word in our lives.  Let us share that Word through the good we do in this world.  Let us take back that word “Evangelical” and make it our own again!  Let us be good and accepting and inclusive and radical Evangelicals! (Those are not oxymoronic words)

And when we do, people will know.  People will know we are children of God. People will know who we follow.  People will know that the Word we embody in our very lives is the Word of that Holy One of God.

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