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A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This is Amy Laura typing.  I am so very grateful that The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade has agreed to allow me to post this sermon.  Her words continually help me to remember whose I am. 

 

The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Hamlet, NC

September 11, 2016

Proper 19, Year C RCL

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

I preached slightly different versions of this sermon twice this week: once at a morning Eucharist at Duke Divinity School and then today, September 11, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hamlet, NC. The homiletic and pastoral challenge on this occasion was to note the anniversary of the 2001 attacks without participating in either sentimentality or nationalism. Ironically, the lectionary provided me with a tremendous gift. Fr. Stuart Hoke, the vicar of All Saints’, was a priest at Trinity, Wall Street in September 2001, and I was very aware he would have preached a very different sermon than this one. (In fact, he preached this morning at the 9/11 commemoration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.) The lectionary readings opened the door for me to give the only sermon I could on this occasion, as someone who participated in the days and years following September 11, 2001 in a very different capacity.

The Epistle and Gospel readings this morning were:

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

My words for you this morning require a caveat – or maybe two. The first is that I wish I had 30 minutes to talk with you about these texts instead of the brief time I have, because I have a lot to say that won’t get said. The second is that in order to think about how to read the lessons we just heard, we may need to consider first how NOT to think about them.

In a seminary community like the one I work in, and I think in many churches too, it’s easy to hear today’s Gospel as a summons to heroic ministry. Yes, I could tell you to be like Jesus, to welcome sinners and eat with them, to go after the lost sheep with conviction and zeal. And that would be a fun sermon to preach – much more fun than this one. Telling people to be pastoral and welcoming is like crack for nice Episcopalians like me. And it’s certainly true that the notion of the imitation of Christ is a prominent feature in Anglican spiritual practice. But as a theologian, one of my constant concerns is not so much to tell people to be like Jesus as it is to point them – and myself – towards how much we need Jesus.

And that’s what I think these texts are ultimately telling us. They aren’t marching orders for ministry so much as they’re about what Rowan Williams called “the anarchic mercy of God,” the mercy that “ignores order, rank and merit.”(1) And that is the mercy offered to you today, even as it was offered to St. Paul. Even as it has been offered to me. Let me explain.

While I know it’s early in the morning for such things, I’m about to get very personal and very real for a minute. As we come to the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I can’t help but read Paul’s words today with a shiver of recognition: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Because I, too, am all too familiar with violence – the kind of violence that sits behind a desk and acts at a bureaucratic distance.  I recognize far too much of myself in Robert MacNamara’s account of the firebombing of Tokyo that killed 100,000 civilians: “I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”(2)

But I received mercy. I remember walking outside my office at Langley Air Force Base, looking up at the sky, and saying “My God, is this what my life is going to be?”

Now admittedly, God’s resounding “no” to that question involved five more years of harrowing experiences that I never want to repeat. But that, too, was a kind of mercy. The mercy that raises the dead and turns the chief of sinners into an apostle won’t do much for those who think they’ve got it all together. And that’s part of my story. That’s how I ended up in this pulpit.

I don’t know all of your stories. I don’t know what precisely has brought you to this place or to this point in your lives. Maybe sometimes you still wonder the same thing. What I do know is who has brought you here today. And I do know that for church people it can be much easier to make a propositional claim that the lost sheep and the lost coin matters – and much harder to know yourself first as that sheep, as that coin, as the one over whom heaven rejoices. As the one who stands in need of mercy.

As my favorite dead Danish philosopher says, it is a little mystery that it is better to give than to receive. The greater mystery is that it is far more difficult to receive than to give.(3)

That is where we are today, on this strange anniversary in our nation’s history and on this seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. In his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth reminds us that the primary ethical action – the starting point of Christian life together – is repentance.(4)

And so it’s particularly fitting that we come to the end of the summer and begin the new school year, with all its new challenges and new opportunities, with repentance in mind. Each one of us has particular things to turn from, but the same particular One to turn to. Christ Jesus, the one who came into the world to save sinners, whose grace is overflowing, and who has appointed you – yes, you – to his service.  My brothers and sisters, your sins are forgiven. My sins are forgiven. That – and only that – is the condition of possibility for the work of ministry that is yours and mine.(5)

Remember that, especially when it seems like everyone but you has it all together, when you just aren’t sure you can get everything done, when you wonder yet again why you came here. And while I can’t answer that question for you, I can point you along the way, as T.S. Eliot did in Little Gidding:

What you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning  From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled  If at all. Either you had no purpose  Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured  And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places  Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,  Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–  But this is the nearest, in place and time,  Now and in England.

If you came this way,  Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season,  It would always be the same: you would have to put off  Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity  Or carry report. You are here to kneel  Where prayer has been valid.(6)

Welcome – or welcome back – to this place that is also the world’s end. Here, prayer has been, and is, valid. Here is the free and difficult gift of grace. Can you receive it?

 

(1) Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (Cowley, 1991), 17.

 

(2) This quotation appears in The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary by Errol Morris that I recommend very highly.

 

(3) See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

 

(4) See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, in the commentary on Romans 12 entitled “The Problem of Ethics.”

 

(5) I remain grateful to Amy Laura Hall for first saying a variation on this to me at my ordination to the priesthood.

 

(6) T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, online version at http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html.

[Alan Felton] Why did I go?

We are delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton, pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, to Profligate Grace once again.

I stood on the muddy quad in front of Duke Chapel today and heard the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer.  Why did I go?

Photo by Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning), via Twitter.

Photo by Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning), via Twitter.

I don’t know the motivations of all those who gathered at Duke today. I imagine some standing there were merely curious.  There were a few news reporters and security personnel paid to stand on the fringe of the crowd.  I’m sure others were there to support the free speech rights of American Muslims.  But, why did I go?

The whole event was somewhat anticlimactic.  Anyone who came out expecting to see fiery protests or anything worse was sorely disappointed.  The call to prayer was explained. It was sung in English and Arabic. The Muslims left to go into the basement of the chapel to pray (which they have been doing for years with much less attention).  I spoke to a few friends and then wandered off to eat lunch and think more about the sermon I will preach on Sunday at the church I serve.  I posted a photo of Duke Chapel on my Face Book page with the caption “The chapel is still standing” lest anyone think the bell tower had been brought crashing down on us by the words of the adhan.

There were no protests against the adhan or Muslims yet, in the days leading up to today’s event, many objections were heard. The loudest voice of opposition came from Franklin Graham, son of the great evangelist Billy Graham. This is not the first time Franklin Graham has loudly voiced invective against Muslims.  He has been a fixture on Fox News in recent years denouncing Islam and proclaiming dire warnings against those who adhere to it.  Earlier this week he called for alumni and other supporters of Duke University to withhold financial support until the decision about the adhan was reversed.  He quickly got his way.

Franklin Graham may be crowing in victory but what he did in the past few days has revealed something vile and disgusting within the soul of many Christians.  He has spouted a theology of ignorance, intolerance, and fear.  Graham has spiced up his comments with a dash of American exceptionalism and a pinch of childish bullying along with a spoonful of good ol’ fashioned misunderstanding.  The whole recipe is indescribably delicious to many yet it is hard to see much Christianity in what Graham is saying and doing.  His stand on Muslims seems to be inspired more by the gospel of Dick Cheney than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am not naïve about the dangerous rise in Islamic fundamentalism.  There should be appropriate concern about ISIS and Al Queda and Boko Haram. We should all grieve and condemn the recent hateful and deadly attacks in France and Australia and Nigeria.  The rising tide of violence and extremism across the world is a cause for concern and attention.  I do not believe Islam and Christians are identical in what we believe.  There are clear differences that must be acknowledged.

Islamic extremism and the violence of terrorism however was not at all what the hoopla at Duke was about this week.  The uproar in fact had very little to do with Islam.  The real issue in play is instead something rotten at the core of much of what passes for Christian faith these days.  The problem is not Muslims wanting to pray at Duke.  The problem is the reaction of many Christians when they hear about this desire.

Franklin Graham’s words and actions perfectly illustrate this problem.  The underlying dilemma with Graham and his ilk is that they are consumed by fear rather than being filled with hope. Fear has long been the weapon of choice by demagogues and ideologues throughout history.  Fear is the well-played card played during every election.  Fear is the constant undercurrent in our society today.  I am always amazed at how gullible we the people are to unspecific “threats” and meaningless “raisings” of the so-called terror alert system.

Living in fear may be something many Americans find acceptable, but fear should not influence Christians in the same way.  Christian faith is ultimately about the hope given to us by Jesus Christ who died on a cross and rose from a grave so that fear might be banished from our hearts once and for all.  Jesus is the center of Christian faith, not a beautiful chapel or a preacher claiming to be a defender of that faith.  Faith that can be eroded by the expression of another, albeit different faith, is not much faith at all. Jesus cannot be diminished by the adhan or any other non-Christian religious observance.  The only thing that can diminish Jesus is when Christians choose to replace him in their hearts with the scourge of fear.

Allowing the adhan to be sung at Duke Chapel today was not the beginning of the end of Christianity at Duke or in this country. It was instead a mark of generosity and hospitality that is at the core of believing in Jesus and living by his example.  Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV).  Yes, I know many Christians are not allowed to freely express their faith in other nations.  This is a concern.  Yet, instead of responding in kind, I choose to respond as Jesus tells me to do.  I choose to live with the hope of Christ as my lodestar rather than the fears preached by Franklin Graham.

Why did I go to Duke today to hear the adhan?  I went because Christ led me there.

 

 


[Alan Felton] What would you do?

We’re delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton to our pages on this fourth weekend in Advent.  Alan currently serves as the pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, and in his copious spare time he’s also a preceptor at Duke Divinity School.

What would you do?

What would you do if year after year unarmed members of your community were gunned down in the street by police officers?

What would you do if year after year the legal system returned no justice for these acts of violence?

What would you do if you lived under the constant pall of suspicion and distrust by your neighbors of other races?

What would you do if the American dream of peace and prosperity were denied to you over and over and over again?

What would you do if you were repeatedly told to respect a “system” that was never designed to respect you?

What would you do?

You might do what was done recently in Ferguson, Missouri.  You might do what was done in Los Angeles a generation ago.  You might do what was done in Watts and other communities still another generation in the past.  You might just go out burn the bitch down.

Media outlets were quick to broadcast the anguished reaction of Michael Brown’s mother hearing that her son’s killer would not be indicted on any criminal charge.  That broadcast included the boiling over anger of Michael’s stepfather who repeatedly screamed to “burn this bitch down.”  Part of Ferguson went up in flames soon thereafter.

The media was quick to focus on this angry response and blame it for the violence happening in the wake of the grand jury’s action in the Michael Brown case.  The media was quick to do this because it allowed them to take the focus off the real crime, the killing of an unarmed black kid, and return to telling the comforting myth that our system “worked” even though not everyone agrees with the outcome.

The media also wanted to feed the desire to name “good” and “bad” guys.”  The violence was quickly dismissed as the work of a few criminal elements or “outside agitators.”  The so-called looters were obviously “bad” elements.  They were the anomaly.  They were misguided.  They were the ones who didn’t respect the process.  Maybe (never said directly but strongly implied) they were the ones who just didn’t know their place.

Yet, what would you do if were Michael Brown’s mother or father or stepfather?  What would you do if your son’s body had been left lying in the street on public display for nearly five hours after he was gunned down? What would you do if your dead child’s character had been demeaned and vilified for months after his body had been assassinated?  What would you do if you were part of a community where these things and worse happening are not unusual but the norm?  What would you do?

I grieve the violence in Ferguson.  I am sorry for those who lost their businesses.  Yet, I don’t grieve them more than I grieve the death of Michael Brown.  Insurance can rebuild at least most of what was lost in the flames of Ferguson.  There is no replacing what was lost when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met in the street on August 9.

That’s why I urge us to not be so quick to condemn a grieving stepfather when he cries out “burn this bitch down.” I don’t condemn him because that is exactly what I wanted to do when I heard the decision of the grand jury. My first inclination was to go grab a rock or a bottle or whatever I could get my hand on and go throw it through a window somewhere.  My first thought after hearing the news from Ferguson was “I hope they burn that bitch down.”  I didn’t go to any of the marches taking place that night or since because I was sorely afraid I would pick up a rock or make a Molotov cocktail and start doing just that.

I’m white.

I’m well educated and middle class.

I don’t have to worry that my son will be harassed or shot by police.

I’m the son of a retired police officer.

I’m a pacifist, a student of Gandhi and King.

I’m a pastor.

I received the news from Ferguson sitting in the church I serve with the cross of Christ I preach under every week in front of my eyes.

And, still, all I could think was “yes, let’s go burn this bitch down.”

W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”   For those of us who are protected, always have been protected, and always will be protected by the American legal system, maybe it is hard to understand the angry reaction to the grand jury decision.  Yet, for those who not only read what Dubois wrote, but live it every day, it’s not so hard to understand the anger and the violence.

I can’t possibly understand the depth of anger and grief experienced by Michael Brown’s family.  But, I can refrain from condemning them.  I can try to walk a few feet in their shoes.  Maybe if more of us would do that, we might go from wanting to burn this bitch down to celebrating justice for all.

[Kara Slade] Surely Kin to Me (?)

In May 1970, a 23-year-old black Vietnam veteran, Henry Marrow, was killed in Oxford, NC.  The circumstances of his death, and the subsequent acquittal of his accused killers by an all-white jury, touched off riots and arson in Oxford, including the firebombing of a tobacco warehouse that sat almost across the street from where this sermon was preached.  I (Kara Slade) wrote it with one eye toward the events in Ferguson, MO, and the other towards the history of the community in which I hoped to bring a word of confession, conviction, and hope.  The following sermon, delivered on August 17, 2014 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oxford and based on the RCL New Testament texts for the day [Matthew 15:10-28 and Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32], is the result.

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like to begin this morning by noting that there are some sermons that I’m excited to preach, some words that I can’t wait to get up here in the pulpit and share with you. This sermon is not that. To be honest with you, I’m terrified this morning. I’m terrified because the word that the Holy Spirit gave me to give to you is one that might touch on some painful things. But just as a surgeon causes pain in the process of healing an illness, sometimes the proclamation of Word of God can be the same way. All I know is, what I can’t do is ignore those painful places and hope that they go away on their own – because they very obviously won’t. I can’t get up here and pretend that what happened this week didn’t happen, and that what has happened in the past in our own community never happened either. Read more

[Kara Slade] Knowing Ourselves as Known

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade at the opening Eucharist of the Scholar-Priest Initiative conference, at Duke Chapel, June 26, 2014

2 Kings 24:8-17, Matthew 7:21-29

Since confession is good for the soul, I’d like to begin with one of my own. I panicked a little – well, more than a little – when I saw the lectionary texts for this evening. Ordinarily, I’m the first to sign up for anything with a homiletic difficulty setting of “extreme,” but our lessons from 2 Kings and Matthew seem a strange word indeed with which to begin this conference. We have come together to talk about “welcoming theology home,” and yet in today’s Gospel we hear what sounds like a decidedly un-welcoming word from Jesus:

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”  Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”’ Read more

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