God Acts Through the Inconsequential; God Arrives Unexpected: A Sermon for June 17, 2018.

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.

childrenSeparatedWe human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.

But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.

For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.

And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.

The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…

It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.

I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)

So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.

And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.

Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.

Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.

But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.

Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.

Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!

It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.

There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.

To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:

  • Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
  • Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…

And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!

Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.

But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.

As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Superstore’s Super Disappointing Health Care Episode

superstoreCastThe sixth episode of the third season of Superstore got a little political. The episode opened with employees of the store “Cloud 9”–a not-so veiled stand-in for Wal-Mart–commiserating about how they were avoiding routine medical care because they simply couldn’t pay for it.  One of the employees has an idea to start a “health fund”–they could donate money to the fund each month, and then when one of them had a really serious health concern, they could draw money out to pay for medical care.

The episode then unfolds by showing how this innocent and worthwhile intention would be wrecked upon the rocks of reality: employees were giving $20 a month, but frequently wanted to withdraw thousands. By the end of the episode, the two employees who had spearheaded the idea were coming up with solutions that will be familiar to anyone who has shopped for health insurance: various tiers of care based on how much a given employee paid, for instance, and having the sicker members pay ten times what healthy members did. The episode concludes with the employees admitting that coming up with a solution to the healthcare crisis was far harder than they had imagined.

The episode is disappointing because it begins with an honest portrayal of a problem that millions of Americans face–but by the end, the episode basically mocks those who criticize our current healthcare system, and seems to suggest that, for all its faults, this is the best we can hope for. But the episode only reaches this conclusion by misrepresenting the problem and obscuring the real issues at play.

The health fund that the employees pull together functions by having the very-low-income employees pay into a fund to help each other. While the employees’ willingness to contribute to this kind of mutual-aid arrangement is itself laudable, it should be obvious from the outset why such a plan will never work. You can’t get blood from a stone, can you can’t get the fortune you need to pay for medical care from a group of poor people. They just don’t have the money.

The real question here, of course, is: why are these people so poorly paid to begin with? Why don’t they have the resources they need to pay for basic needs like medical care? In short, the healthcare crisis in this country is not really about technology, or government red tape, or poorly-managed corporate bureaucracies–although we could be doing better in each of these areas, of course. The healthcare crisis in this country is simply one of justice. People can’t access healthcare because they are not paid a just wage for their work. It really is that simple. If people were paid a living wage, they could afford healthcare. Because they are not paid a living wage, they cannot.

So while I was happy and excited when this episode of Superstore began, because I thought the writers might take this opportunity to address a serious topic, by the end of the episode it was clear that no serious discussion of the facts was forthcoming. In fact, by presenting the mutual-aid health fund as the only option to respond to the problem of exorbitant health care costs, this episode may actually deceive its viewers. It is telling that none of the employees ever mentioned political action, or, say, a strike as a way of securing better healthcare (to be fair, it is worth mentioning that the employees did successfully strike on a previous episode, so this topic has been positively addressed by this program). And the characters never once raised the simple question of whether they were being justly paid. Their poverty was simply taken for granted, as an unfortunate but unremarkable feature of the world that they simply had to accept.

This is a pernicious message to present to viewers, and those of us who want to see a more just world should be concerned–though, of course, not surprised–to see this message reinforced on network television. While we should not expect any show that is broadcast on a network owned by wealthy interests to speak honestly about the injustice of our economic system, we should consistently call attention to this kind of deceptive, bait-and-switch messaging on serious topics. I say all of this as a fan of Superstore; it’s one of the few current sitcoms my wife and I consistently watch. But if we can’t criticize things we like when they misstep, then we really can’t criticize anything. I hope this criticism of the episode can be the beginning of a more serious conversation about the injustice of our healthcare system.