Sermon for June 18, 2023 3 Pentecost
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7, Psalm 116: 1, 10-17, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8, 9-23
By the Rev. Dr. Kim McNamara
There is a lot I want to talk about in today’s sermon; perhaps too much. Today’s readings give us an opportunity to reflect on our ancient ancestors and their relationship with God. Our Gospel reading tells how Jesus empowered us to do God’s work in the world. As we prepare to acknowledge Juneteenth by saying the Covenant to Root out Racism together, it is a good time to think about one of the ways the world has used the words and acts of our Christian tradition to create a world of injustice — a world exactly the opposite of what Jesus tried to teach us about. By the way, it is Fathers’ Day, so let’s begin with an acknowledgement of the many fathers who have given us life and love along our journey.
Speaking of fathers, our readings today include a story about the father of Israel, Abraham. Our Old Testament story about Abraham’s three visitors seems especially meaningful to us at St. Hugh because of the icon on the wall in front of St. Hugh’s altar. Our icon gives us a sense of recognition and connection with this story of Abraham. One way to think about this story is from the perspective of hospitality. We are reminded that in providing hospitality to strangers we should always assume we are serving God.
Another way of thinking about this story is from the perspective of the Trinity. A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the Trinity and the nature of our Triune God; three-in-one, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Abraham, who had been talking with God for many years, knew, without a doubt, that the three visitors who showed up on that hot summer day were God. He was given the opportunity to provide hospitality to God by serving the three people, so he graciously invited them to stay for a meal and served them in the most enthusiastic way.
This story of Abraham and Sarah is especially engaging because of Sarah’s laughter. This story from Genesis has been used throughout the centuries to discount the faith of women, so it deserves to be put into context. Abraham laughed first. Although it does not show up in today’s reading, God and Abraham have already had a conversation in which God shares his plans to make a covenant with Abraham and his offspring through Sarah and promises that Abraham’s children will give rise to many nations. When Abraham hears God’s plan, he laughs so hard he falls on his face as he attempts to hide his laughter from God. Abraham wonders, can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?
Abraham had his laugh. In today’s story, Sarah laughs. Like Abraham, Sarah laughs when she hears the news that she is going to be a mother in her old age. Abraham is one hundred years old! Not only was Sarah baren, but she was long past her child-bearing days. It seems she laughs in disbelief, but perhaps it is the irony of life that Sarah is laughing at. Sarah’s laughter does not anger God. Sarah is not punished for laughing. God does for Sarah what he had promised. A son is born to Sarah and Abraham. When her son, Isaac, is born, she will tell everyone that she laughs in joy. However, her disbelief must have lingered still. We imagine Sarah’s wonder as she holds her miracle son in her arms. “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” Only God.
Before we leave Abraham and Sarah’s story, it is wonderful to think about their relationship with God. They know when God shows up; God talks directly with them about future life plans; and they can laugh at God’s plans without making God mad. In this relationship they are like family and know that God loves them. Better than that, they engage with God, listening for and following his instructions.
Moving to our Gospel reading from Matthew, our lesson describes the day Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to do the work he has been doing; the work of teaching the Good News of God’s love and healing God’s people. In this act, Jesus creates the first missionaries. By this act, Jesus ensures that his teachings and his works will outlive him. He sends ordinary people out into the world and empowers them to do the work people assumed only a God could do, proving to them that the ability to teach and heal God’s people comes from one’s belief in Jesus Christ. Here in church, we follow Christ’s teachings and act on our belief whenever we pray to God and ask for God’s mercy, for God’s healing, and for God’s blessing. Whenever we say the Prayers of the People, we are doing what Jesus asked us to do. Notice that Jesus does not force the work or the word on anyone but tells the disciples to go where they are welcomed. The ability to encourage, help, and heal others is a gift from God, not an obligation or, worse, a weapon.
Unfortunately, humans made a mess of the gift Jesus gave us. This act of sending God’s people into the world to do the work of God is referred to as the Great Commission. The term itself, Great Commission, was not a term Jesus used. In fact, the term does not show up until the 17th Century when people were being encouraged to become missionaries and bring Christianity to unknown lands where the indigenous people were considered pagans. Hundreds of years after Jesus sent his disciples out into the world, missionaries became a tool in the strategic building of empires. Imperialists had much to gain by the missionaries’ efforts to colonize wild lands and convert wild people. Sending missionaries out into the new world started the process of conquering the people and the land in a nonviolent way. There is a lot of controversy about the Great Commission. The controversy is not about what Jesus did, but how people ultimately interpreted and used the principles of the great commission. The message told to the missionaries was that they were saving nonbelievers by teaching them about Christ. However, the back story was that missionary efforts often served economic interests relating to trade and resources, as well as religious interests. Over time, as history showed, converting conquered peoples to Christianity was a powerful way of dominating people and exerting political control, not by spreading the good news, but by filling the people with fear and guilt.
Sadly, this is not at all what Jesus intended when he sent his apostles out into the world. Jesus had compassion for God’s people, who were harassed and helpless. He sent his own apostles out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Jesus feared that his friends would be betrayed, dragged before governors and kings, and flogged and persecuted. As it turns out, it was not the people the missionaries visited who caused the most problems. It was those who planned and financed the missionaries with the intention of claiming the new world for themselves. I wonder if Jesus knew just how badly his words would be coopted and corrupted to serve the governors and kings of the future.
Which brings us to Juneteenth. Today, we are honoring Juneteenth by reading the Covenant Against Racism, which was written by the Right Reverend Deon K. Johnson, Bishop of Missouri. In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday and it became America’s second national Independence Day. The history of Juneteenth goes all the way back to 1863. Juneteenth, a name created by combining the words June and 19th, honors the day in 1865 that the federal government declared all slaves in every state free. During the Civil War, slavery ended in different states at different times depending on whether they were confederate or union states. Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves were free beginning in 1863, not all states voluntarily abide by the federal law. Texas was the last state to free its slaves. On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into law, all slaves in the US were finally freed.
There is another reason for us to acknowledge and honor Juneteenth today. Many of you took part in our class this past Lent as we studied the history of racism in our country. In our class, we read the book, the Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, written by Jemar Tisby. The clearly written and well-documented book was challenging to read, especially as we learned the role of our churches in laying a foundation for slavery and justifying the treatment of people of color as second class citizens. The concept of the Great Commission was just one way our faith institutions were used as strategies of domination by kings. Even Abraham, who owned slaves, was used to justify those who considered themselves Christians but owned slaves. The book provides many more examples.
We would like to deny this ugly part of our history. “It was not us. This was in the past. We did not do this. Our church is not the problem. I am not the problem.” Even if we cannot deny our history of racism, then we would like to deny that it is still a problem in our world. Afterall, we helped to pass laws to prevent such abuse, including the Civil Rights Act, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation. However, once you participate in a class like ours, the awareness of our brutal history and power of the systems that have been created to oppress people of color in our society can no longer be denied.
While the information about oppression that we studied in our class was overwhelming and depressing, our class ended with a brief discussion of just what it would take to change our world. The author of our book, Jemar Tisby, offers us a framework for thinking about long-term change using the concept of an ARC, where A stands for awareness, R stands for relationships, and C stands for change. Reading the Covenant Against Racism gives us an opportunity to increase our awareness and make a commitment to change.
As we read the Covenant, you will find that it has two parts. The first part is a lament, in which we identify and acknowledge the systems of abuse against people of color that still exist in our country. Each one of these painful statements of lament are hard to say. Again, we would like to deny these statements, but there is a documented and undeniable history behind each. The second part is a covenant; a promise we make to learn about and attempt to change the systems of abuse. Reading the words of the covenant, we find the ideas that are presented to be challenging and daunting. However, if we keep the concept of the ARC in mind, we can understand how we are taking small, intentional, steps in a change process. By being aware of our history and our systems, we can begin to think about ways of changing the future. Reading the covenant supports our efforts to become aware, as well as to consider small actions we might take to change a powerful system that has been built on a long history of human power, domination, and greed.
As we read the covenant, those of us who are of European descent may feel like we are the problem. Reading the lament, especially, may bring up feelings of guilt. Our own privilege in today’s world cannot be denied. For thousands of years, the world has been structured to create and reward our privilege. However, as our covenant explains, recognizing our privilege increases our awareness of those without privilege. This awareness is not meant to turn the structures of social power upside down, but to empower us to question old assumptions, to encourage us to reach out a hand and lift others up, and to ultimately demolish the ancient structures of power that have been built based on the color of one’s skin.
In our Christian baptismal covenant, we made the commitment to “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Being aware of the issues and promising to do our small part to make the world better for all of God’s people gives us a place to begin the healing process. Our actions today, continue the work Jesus asked us do in the world.
In Jesus’ name, we pray.