Second Sunday After Pentecost/B
A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021
June 6, 2021
My family and I recently moved to new city: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. One of the rituals of meeting people is answering the question, “What do you do?” That’s never been a problem for me because I have been working since I was 14. But in January I retired. So it first, I wasn’t sure just how to answer this question. And then it occurred to me one day to simply say, “I’m retired.” Most people let it go with that, which I find interesting, since it really says nothing other than I don’t work for money. Some people ask some people ask, “What are you retired from?” To which I reply, “Well, I used to be a pastor.” Now the community in which we live is very diverse but on the whole it’s a pretty liberal place and of course more and more today being a Christian is seen as a conservative flag wave. So to avoid putting people off, I immediately tell them well I was a pastor of a Congregational Church. The problem is most people here don’t know what a Congregational Church is; this is Presbyterian and Catholic territory and evangelicals. Those are the three choices: Presbyterian Catholic evangelical, so I have to then explain, “Well it’s something like the UCC or like Unitarians, although I myself am not a Unitarian. Seeing this process has made me realize how carefully we divide people into categories. What’s your category?
Modern life is built on what’s called micro targeting. Micro targeting is a process by which we are all divided up into more and more and more categories. The categories are used to sell things including politics. You can see this process at work. Search the web for a product or information: retirement activities in Harrisburg, for example. The next thing you know, you get a slew of ads that promise retirement income, dates for people over 50, and medical ads I’d rather not mention. Our categories are also part of our identity. Because we have allowed ourselves to participate and to embrace the targeting, we have divided ourselves into categories, there is inevitable conflict.
We see it in our politics where elections are supposed to solve conflicts. Now that basic principle is being denied by a Big Lie and efforts to discourage voting. We see it in social lives where the business of wearing a mask or getting vaccinated has become a battleground. Even churches are divided.
So it’s a good day to read from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Christians. Division in the church is the reason he wrote them and what we call Second Corinthians is actually pieced together from several letters. The Corinthians are divided because some are following a new leader and refusing to listen to Paul. What’s Paul’s solution?
First, he points them back from their own party spirit to the one Spirit given by Christ.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.2 Corinthians 4:13f
For Christians, our first principle is always the Risen Lord. This is our source although, as Paul says elsewhere, “…we have this treasure in clay jars…” 2 Cor 4:7 What matters is the treasure, not the jar that contains it.
So what can we learn by turning to Jesus? Today’s Gospel reading is all about conflict. The culture of Galilee was full of categories. Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, free and slave, peasant and rich, city dweller, farmer, Roman, and so many others. Within these categories were others: Jews who were Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and people like tax collectors who were generally looked down upon. All the categories of our time—gender, class, race, ethnicity—existed then as well as now. So perhaps we can learn from this moment how to live in our moment.
Jesus has just started his ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested; Jesus began preaching the arrival of God’s rule. He begins to attract crowds and he chooses disciples. He casts out demons, he heals people. He also attracts conflict; scribes—we would call them lawyers—claim what he’s doing is wrong. But he continues and continues to attract crowds. Things come to a head over healing on the sabbath and the scandalous fact that he eats with sinners and women.
Finally, his mother and brothers come and send for him, apparently to get him to stop. This is his reply.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Now, in all the culture of the Roman world, in all the culture of the Judea at the time, the most fundamental category of all was family. Roman heads of household—fathers—could settle disputes within a family with the force of law. So this is astonishing: Jesus is taking this family value and stretching it to include everyone “who does the will of God”.
This is the signature act of Jesus: he breaks boundaries, he creates community. The scribes who oppose him aren’t enemies, they are family—if they do the will of God. The outcasts in the communities he visits aren’t outcast from him—they are family, if they do the will of God. Everyone isn’t just welcome, everyone is welcome. Everyone matters. Everyone is a child of God. In Jesus, the categories which conflict are transformed into communities of care.
This isn’t my insight, this isn’t a bright idea I had thinking about these readings, this is how Christian Churches spread. Historians tell us that it wasn’t mass conversions that led to the spread of the church, it was two great leaps forward, both of which occurred during pandemics. Lyman Stone is an historian who notes that during a great pandemic in the Roman Empire in the second century AD, as many as a quarter of the population died. The culture of the time cast out the sick but Christians cared for the sick, whether church folks or not. A century later, another pandemic struck and he notes,
It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”
What will historians say about us in this moment? Will they remember how we crossed boundaries to create communities of care? It starts with individuals, it starts with people like Bud. Bud’s in his 80’s. I’m guessing he’s retired, too. He recently flew on an airplane for the first time. That meant that he had to solve the problem a lot of us have had: how to open the door to the lavatory on the plane. It’s not obvious, and for some reason, the FAA doesn’t require that flight attendants provide directions in the safety briefing.
Now as an elder man, I can tell you, it’s hard to admit that you don’t know how to do something as basic as open a door. But Bud didn’t. The thing is, admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is tough. It feels like everyone else knows—like the world is divided between the cool people who know how to do something and you. Fortunately, Bud had the humility to admit to his fight attendant, my wife Jacquelyn, that he needed help. So she opened the door, talked to him and treated him the way we’d all want to be treated in such a moment: with dignity. She learned it was his first flight, so she got out a set of wings they keep for first time flyers, she got the pilot to announce over the PA that But was flying for the first time and had everyone applaud him. She got the pilot to take a picture with Bud after they landed. She made Bud a hero.
I’m sure that airplane had all kinds of people: children, adults, people nervous about flying, people anxious to get somewhere for something fun or important. Everyone was on their own until Bud became a hero. But in the process, the whole group also became something new: just for a moment, a community of care, a group applauding Bud and in their approval, accepting him.
Now today, tomorrow, the day after, this sermon is going to go in a file. In a moment it will be over. But what about you? What will you take with you? We can’t avoid the categories and conflicts of this time. We have this choice, though: we can accept them or we can follow Christ and break the boundaries. How Bud became a hero is simple: someone cared enough to see him not as a clueless old man but as a child of God and treat him that way. That’s how Bud became a hero. You can do that: you can do that every day.