June 17, 2018

2018 June17

Proper 5 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


As you all know, I have several university-branded hoodies. That's because I worked at a university, my sister works for the University of Southern California, and I have degrees from three universities. I learned very quickly that I cannot wear my USC hoodie in a college town like San Luis Obispo. One evening, I was walking through town, on Higuera Street, and I got many hoots & hollers, thumbs-ups, and offers of hi-5s from students walking up and down the street. I didn't understand why until one person said, “Hey! USC! Good job last weekend!” I responded with something like, “Yeah! It was great! Thanks!” Of course, I had no idea what the person was talking about! That's because I am not a USC devotee; it’s simply that my sister works at USC, and she gave me a hoodie for Christmas.

 

All of today's readings have an element of being cautious of what you see on the outside of a person. The writers want us to know the authenticity of the person is not seen from the outside, but it's seen on the inside. Even someone calling oneself a Christian does not guarantee that they will share your values as a Christian. I’m sure that each one of us has an example of when a conversation about our Christian faith with a fellow Christian quickly became uncomfortable due to differences in expressions of the Gospel.


Understanding that the authenticity of a person is on the inside has serious implications for the identity politics that we have been playing for the last 20 years. Gender, age, nationality, religion, etc: each person is an individual and their contribution to society is based on their capabilities and what is on the inside of them rather than what we judge them to be when we see them externally.


I mention identity politics not because I want to get into a political conversation or debate, but because it is so fresh on our minds, and we have been encouraged to see society through the lens of identity politics over the last 20 years. Identity politics has come to polarize us rather than bring us together, which was its original intention. When we consider who we are going to vote for and what is going to happen to our tax dollars, we see that the notion of externalities versus internal character goes well beyond what any politician or sociologist can say to us.


The Old Testament reading and the Gospel help us realize that those who are easily overlooked can become Mighty and Powerful: They just need to be identified and nurtured in the right way. Here in California, we may not get the type of mustard that grows so big that the birds build their nest in them, but for the last several months we see that, with one or two small rains, we get hills that are covered in blankets of yellow wild mustard.


One aspect of the American Dream is that anyone can achieve their pursuits, or at least anyone can pursue their pursuits. They just need to have the desire and motivation inside themselves to go for it! We are a nation which loves a Rags-to-Riches story, or a story of the underdog winning. Our national narrative is David defeating Goliath. The David who defeated Goliath is the same person in our Old Testament reading today: David, the youngest son of Jesse, who was not in consideration for King of Israel, since that he was out in the field! He was a rags-to-riches, underdog, mustard seed character in the story of ancient Israel.


Our Old Testament and Gospel readings focus on the power within those who seem weak and small. Our Epistles focuses on the inner character that makes us good and holy, rather than succumbing to the evils around us.


I have been working on a report for the Colleges Commission on the potential of our College Ministries. Reading some of the external resources and listening to the people at the 4 universities in the Diocese, I am discovering just how deep the Christian problem of what our external identity vs. internal identity is. Christian blogger Adam Gill wrote a scathing assertion:


“All-in-all, we want something that’s real. Something that is unafraid of engaging in discussion on science, reason, and thought. People of color (POC), females at large, and the LGBT community have put their foot down on a predominantly “eurocentric-patriarchal-authoritarianistic-gospel.” You see, to us it’s not “gospel,” it’s a means of pathologically controlling us by heaping great amounts of shame, guilt, and trauma over us via a moralistic deism. These lies, this false gospel, biblical inerrancy, whatever it might be, they have to stop.” (Gill, 2018)


No wonder we find it so hard to admit that we go to church or that we are Christians if there is that much hostility. In part, we have allowed others to tarnish what it means to be a Christian, which has become the external identity of the American Christian to most outsiders. The resulting challenge is to express our internal identity as Christians by showing people that recognize our faults, and we turn to God as the prime example of love for all God’s people.


St Paul wrote in our Epistle 2 weeks ago that we have this “treasure” in earthen vessels – in clay jars. That treasure is the Love of God. But what people see is a tarnished cracked and broken clay jar. To others, that clay jar represents hostility, judging, hatred of certain groups of people, and a call to conform to a narrow moral code. Yet, by our Baptism, we are washed clean – externally – with water as, inwardly, we receive the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a Sacrament, our Baptism also suffers from an image problem in that it is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As we proclaim our Baptism by professing our faith, we also need to show the inward and spiritual grace.


What we want others to see and feel and know is the Love of God. The challenge we have is to overcome what they see externally in order that they will see who we are internally and be drawn into the love we have to offer which comes from the Love of God. We have to overcome the external image of the American Christian and show our internal faith so others are drawn into this experience so they can have their own experience, so they can become vessels with that treasure inside of them. This is why the best way to get new people into church is to invite people you know. They know the internal you, and therefore they trust you. They know the love that it is inside you. It’s my job on Sunday morning to ensure that we don’t betray that trust, and that they see the internal Christian externally when they come to St Stephen’s.

 

Today’s scriptures suggest that we might have the strength to do that: We might have the strength to seem small and young like David, yet become the most revered King that Israel has ever had. We might have the power within us – the potential within us – to take that love which feels as small as a mustard seed and spread it around as far as the eye can see like the yellow-blanketed hills around San Luis Obispo.


I have heard many sermons on the parable of the mustard seed would suggest that we as Christians plants to seed and others and that it will grow, and the mustard seed is the love of Christ. Has anyone else heard that analogy applied to the Parable of the Mustard Seed? If you read the parable again, you will see that it has nothing to do with mission and evangelism. It is the Kingdom of God that is like a mustard seed. It is the Kingdom of God appears small at first but takes over the hills all around us.


Indirectly the Parable of the Mustard Seed is definitely about mission and evangelism – it has implications for mission and evangelism. For we are the Body of Christ! The Body of Christ receives the Kingdom of God. And if we are receiving the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom of God through us will grow like the mustard seed.


Like David and like the mustard seed, we have to overcome what others think about us, what other see externally, what Adam Gill says keeps Millennials from coming to church.


What the Colleges Commission report is also showing me is that just over 42% of incoming Freshmen in 2016 believe that integrating their spirituality into their lives is “essential” or “very important”. A similar number believe in God “absolutely” or “fairly certain”[1]. OK, it’s not a majority, but it shows that there are people interested in their spirituality. If we look at a Millennial externally and assume that the one standing in front of us is part of the 58% percent whose belief in God is less than “absolutely” or “fairly certain”, or that they are not interested in us as Christians, we fall into the trap of not understanding the potential of David or the power of the Mustard Seed. The internal aspect of many Millennials – many people – is that they are searching. This is true for all age groups. And


it is for us to open up ourselves
so that we can show the Love of
God to them, without conditions,
because God’s love comes
without conditions.


Today’s readings have both literal and spiritual meanings to them. On the literal end, we will continue to hear about the rise of David throughout the rest of the summer. The Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed serves as an earthly illustration of a Divine truth whose comprehension goes beyond our human limitations. Spiritually, we are called to show the Love of God that is within us to others. Yes, we have an image problem – what people see on the outside of the Church does not always reflect the Love of God that dwells inside our clay jars. In some respects, it’s not new: Jesus had an image problem, too!


Whether you want to cling onto the mustard seed as an analogy for mission & evangelism, or view it as an illustration of the power of the Kingdom of God, let our worship remind us, our participation in the Eucharist embolden us to be the people whom, by water and the Holy Spirit God has made new in Jesus Christ our Lord, to show forth God’s glory in all the world. If we need the words “The Love of God is within me” printed on a hoodie to help us, then let’s do it!

 


[1] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/belief-in-god/

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