February 18, 2018

2018 Feb18

Lent 1 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger on February 18, 2018

I have a particular fondness for the Noah story, largely because at the end of all the flood business – a flood event that decimated the entire known world, after spending 40 days on a boat with all of the worlds animals 2x2, after settling on the land and being the only 8 people left in the world – after all of that, Noah gets drunk and passes out, and his grandson Canaan is cursed for ever for his dad Ham seeing his dad Noah naked.


The flood story is great. I have always enjoyed it, and don’t really have any conflict between the science and my faith. I saw the movie that was released in 2014 starring Russell Crowe. The production value was enormous, but not because of the flood effects. The movie starts out with this loving and pious family, then quickly turns into several graphic battle scenes, as with most Russell Crowe films. The battles go all the way up until the boat is sealed and the rain starts. Lots of people die – and that’s before the floods. After that, I don’t know what happened because there was so much violence that it overshadowed the rest of the film – as with most Russell Crowe films.


But the important part of the Noah Story is the part of it we hear today: The Covenant.

 

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

 

The covenants that God makes with humanity establish a promise that we will always be the focus and object of God’s love. And each time – as the writers of The Bible want to emphasize – it is humanity that breaks the terms of the covenant.


A covenant is a binding agreement that is freely entered into by two or more parties, which typically includes terms, oaths, and a ritual. The covenants with God were initiated by God for salvation. We respond to God through our faith. In the Noah Story, the rainbow was the sign of this covenant.

God also made a covenant with Abraham, that his posterity would be as numerous as the stars and that Abraham’s descendants would have the promised land. God made a covenant with Moses that the people of Israel would be God’s people, God would be their God, the people would be freed from the Egyptians, and they would enter the Promised Land. This covenant was to be lived out by them in terms of the Ten Commandments. This is what we, as Christians, refer to as the Old Covenant, and we refer to the testimony to the Old Covenant as the Old Testament.

 

The New Covenant is the new relationship with God through Jesus Christ, initiated at the Last Supper:

 

“This is my blood of the new

covenant which is shed for you

and for many for the forgiveness

of sins.”

 

Jesus’ end of the Covenant was vanquishing death through His Crucifixion and Resurrection; our part of the bargain is that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The testimony to this Covenant is contained in the Gospels and the writings we refer to as the New Testament. I know that seems very basic, but sometimes it is good to be reminded of the basics. There is a small bit of controversy over the use of the terms Old Testament and New Testament with regard to our relationship with our Jewish Brothers & Sisters, but that is for another time.


As Episcopalians, we have a covenant with one another. Becoming a Christian involves Baptism, and as part of the ritual, we the people enter into the Baptismal Covenant with those being baptized. The Baptismal Covenant is in the BCP on page 304. You can turn to it now, if you like.
The Baptismal Covenant is unique to The Episcopal Church. And I’m so Episcopalian that I didn’t realize that until I read an article about it last week. I have regularly quoted the last part of the

 

Baptismal Covenant as a youth minister at the Cathedral in San José, in seminary when people were being mean, and in my ordained ministry. To discover that it is unique to The Episcopal Church was a surprise, such that I spot-checked it by looking at the Baptism liturgies for the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church in America and the United Methodist Church. The Methodists refer to their Baptism liturgy as the Covenant of Baptism, but they don’t have a clear covenantal part of the liturgy like we do.

 

The question-and-answer version of the Apostles’ Creed is normal, but the subsequent five questions are the unique part, and put us, the witnesses of the Baptism, in covenant with the Baptized and all of God’s people with regard to how we, as Christians, will live out our faith.

 

  • Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 

The part I quote most often is that last question:

 

We are called to respect the
dignity of every human being.

 

This, along with all of the other covenants we have entered into with, or been drawn into by God are not easy. The covenants with Noah, Abraham and Moses were all damaged by humanity through lack of faith in, and reliance upon God. So, God came as Jesus to sort us out. As good Anglicans, we give ourselves some wiggle room in our Baptismal Covenant, and so the answers to the 5 questions is a resounding: “I will, with God's help.” We recognize that the challenging requirements of our faith require a reliance on God.


The first 4 questions are not wholly unique. Other Baptism liturgies use similar language or language that alludes to requests being made.

 

What is specifically unique to

The Episcopal Church is the cal

to respect the dignity of

every human being.

 

In an article in The Living Church, Calvin Lane looks at the Baptismal Covenant through the lens of worth and utilitarianism. He points out that we in the United States tend to monetize human beings: another person deserves my respect solely based on their economic contribution to society. Those who contribute more (meaning, the wealthy) deserve more respect than those who have a negative economic impact on society (meaning the poor). For Lane, the Baptismal Covenant, and its Episcopalian-unique charge to respect the dignity of every human being, challenges us to go beyond the monetization of persons and to find the image of God within each one. Lane writes:

 

“When we say that we believe that every human being has dignity in fact we are laying on the altar the lie — the fairy tale — that we earned our resources by the sweat of our brow; we sacrifice the pretense of autonomy. When we say those words of the Baptismal Covenant we are in effect saying that our money, time, and energy have been given to us by God who not only exists but is sovereign.”

 

It is hard to respect the dignity of every human being. We, as the St Stephen’s Family, have had conversations about welcoming all, and I have preached about it a lot. The exercise of preparing this sermon made me think about how the Baptismal Covenant helps make possible our unconditional welcome. For the last 40 years, we have been challenged at every Baptism we have attended to respect the dignity of every human being, without conditions on who that human being is. After awhile, it sinks in and becomes a part of who we strive to be as Christians, not simply words we recite.


One of the aspects of hosting The Vagina Monologues that Bishop Mary and I only realized by being present on Wednesday is that we took our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being to a new level. For me, there was a realization that, as a society and as a Church, we have failed to respect women, women’s bodies and women’s experiences, and have made them inferior to men. The content that was used to get me to that realization was challenging and made me cringe several times. Yet, it was an important mode of delivery of the message of systematic marginalization and monetization of women, their bodies and their experiences.


The Mayor, Heidi Harmon, offered a personal monologue in which she revealed that she received emails stating that she should not be participating in what was described as “disgusting”. At the end of the monologue, the Mayor spoke:

 

“Being in a production like this is what love looks like. This is what it looks like to love myself. This is what it looks like to love my friends. And this is what is looks like to love my community. And that is the furthest thing from disgusting.”

 

I have to agree with the Mayor. Yes, some human activity is disgusting. But expressing real, lived experiences of the person God made us is not disgusting…challenging, yes…disgusting, no.


Tonight, we will be welcoming in a cast of 5 transgendered persons who will present an unique performance of The Vagina Monologues, 5 persons who no longer identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth, but identify with their God-given gender. It is not something I’m going to stand here and try to explain to you or claim to know anything about. What I do know is that the Church has a history of not respecting the dignity of transgendered persons. I would say that some of that lack of respect may have come from a lack of understanding and experience. I think many of us have turned a corner, and we are working and respecting transgendered persons while we catch up on the understanding and experiences. And with the help of God, we will.


Tonight’s performance may make some of us feel even more uncomfortable, and our call to respect every human being will inevitably come with some discomfort. As medical doctor Denise Taylor said in her personal monologue:

 

“I am not a natural performer or public speaker...The tiny personal discomfort I feel standing here now reading these words pales in comparison to the experiences of those members of our society who cannot take the risk to step forward and tell their stories of abuse and mistreatment. My comfort zone is no longer relevant when others suffer. In honor of our beautiful setting, I will end with a quote from the Bible – 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it: if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Let this be the guiding force in all our lives.”

 

During Lent, during our almsgiving, fasting and prayer, we can meditate on the Baptismal Covenant and discover for ourselves those circumstances in which we feel uncomfortable respecting the dignity of particular human beings. On Ash Wednesday, the Presider says:

 

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

 

That self-examination, to me both as an individual and a spiritual leader, is the most important element of Lent. If you don’t give up something for Lent, of if you don’t make an appointment for one-to-one Sacramental Confession, I’m not going to call you out on it. Lent is time for self-examination, which for Christians usually results in prayer and meditating on God’s holy Word. This Lent, include in your self-examination those circumstances in which we feel uncomfortable respecting the dignity of particular human beings. As part of that self-examination, consider Calvin Lane’s words:

 

“When we say we will respect the dignity of every human being we sacrifice the lie that we are gods. We lay down the myth that we are in charge rather than stewards of every cent, every morsel of bread, every breath God has lavished upon us since we emerged from the womb.”

 

With the help of God, let us continue to our welcoming, worshiping and working with and for all of God’s people, regardless of their economic or societal worth to anyone else. Each person has societal worth simply as a Child of God. When we see the Image of God in those we sometimes fail to respect:

  •  let us be the rainbow,
  •  let us be the sign of our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being,
  •  let us see Jesus in them and be the angels who wait on them.

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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