Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 10, 2020
Prepared for the Television/Online Broadcast of Trinity, Worcester
In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
In response to our scripture readings this morning, Lutheran Pastor Bekki Lohrmann asks the question: “How can it be that we have a God who is depicted as a bastion of security, and yet faithfulness consistently costs people their lives?”
In Psalm 31 (1-5, 15-16), we sing the psalmist’s hope this morning that the Lord is refuge … a castle for safe keeping … rescue from enemies and persecutors … and yet, in our scripture readings this morning, there is no refuge, safe keeping, or deliverance from persecutors for people faith.
In our reading from Acts (7:55-60), we read about Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Stephen was stoned to death for professing his faith in Jesus Christ.
Our second reading this morning, is taken from First Peter (2:2-10). First Peter is a letter written to new Christian converts. These early Christians were not rescued from suffering – they suffered because they were Christians and the letter does not promise escape from their suffering, but the promise of faith within suffering.
Our Gospel reading from John (14:1-14), this morning, comes from what is known as the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the early pattern was that Jesus performed a sign and then provided interpretation. Here in this farewell discourse, the order was reversed. Jesus explained the sign that was to come – the sign of the cross. But again, for Jesus himself, there was no refuge, no safe keeping, no rescue from his enemies. Instead, it was death on the cross.
As Pastor Lohrmann asks: “How can it be that we have a God who is depicted as a bastion of security, and yet faithfulness consistently costs people their lives?”
Perhaps it might be helpful to know that Psalm 31 is described as a psalm of lament. The psalmist didn’t sing from a place where the trials of life had been overcome. Rather, the psalmist sang of a living hope in the midst of sufferings and trials.
Psalm 31 was not sung as proof that everything will turn out all right, it was sung as a prayer we might use when we are lamenting, mourning, and suffering. O God, Incline your ear to me! Rescue me! Save me! Take me out of this net that ensnares me!
In the Gospel of Luke, we read Jesus himself praying this prayer from the cross. That’s what some scholars see in Luke 23:46 when Jesus from the cross cries out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A direct quote of Psalm 31:5.
In this time of national trauma, as we mourn the deaths of nearly 80,000 of our fellow Americans and over 250,000 brothers and sisters around the world from Covid-19 … as entire industries from food, entertainment, and travel teeter on the brink of collapse … as life has been changed in drastic ways … Psalm 31 can give voice to our national prayer: God, listen to us! Rescue us! Save us! Take us out of this net that ensnares us!
But again, in light of the scriptures today, in which Jesus prepared his disciples for his crucifixion, in which Stephen was stoned to death, and the first Christian converts in Asia Minor were instructed to find hope in their suffering … what exactly is the bastion of security God provides? To use the words of Luther’s famous hymn: “How exactly is God our Mighty Fortress?” when Christians experience life no differently, and sometimes worse, than others?
Pastor Lohrmann’s answer … “Our scriptures for today set us straight. In God, we are left entirely vulnerable and completely protected.”
Yes vulnerable to sin and death like everyone else … AND completely protected.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” instructed Jesus hours before he was arrested and handed over to be crucified. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2)
Professor Wesley Allen warns: “This theme is usually misread in terms of Jesus preparing space for his followers in heaven. But our contemporary concept of heaven as the abode of souls of believers was not shared by John. John’s understanding of eternal life focuses on the present as much as the future. By “life” and “eternal life,” John is … concerned with the quality of life in relationship with Christ and one another now.”
This promise was less about a future suite in God’s heavenly mansion with our names on it, and more about relationship with Jesus Christ! The promise of Jesus taking us into relationship with himself and with each other.
Pastor Lohrmann suggests the protection we find is in this promise of Christ “I will come again and will take you to myself.” (14:3) With a nod to Mother’s Day, she sees our mother’s womb in this promise. She continues … “like the security of a mother’s womb, which is a different protection than the stone walls of a caste …the safety we experience is inside our mothering God, physically hooked into a system that pumps life and truth into our bloodstream.”
What if we understood safety, and protection, and security that way? The security and safety of life lived in the womb of God? Security, safety, and life not only received from the womb of our mother, but from the other life in the womb?
As humans, we think of a mother’s womb carrying one baby, sometimes two, on rare and exceptional occasions three or more. I don’t think it’s helpful if this image leads us back to ourselves – imagining the womb as place of our personal hibernation or separation from the world. But, what if we imagined the womb of our mother God holding within it the body of Christ – understood the body of Christ as the whole people of God? What if we understood the womb of God encompassing the whole church on earth?
What if we understood the nourishment we receive in God’s womb, coming from both God and each other? And might we imagine this time we are in right now, as a time God is taking the body of Christ into her womb in a special and unique way right now?
Some say we’re in this pandemic for months … what if this was a time when the church pulls back from some of the things it does, in order to grow and be formed in new ways in God’s womb? Not to be pull back from everything, because in the womb is life!
In God’s womb the church lives, is fed, and grows! In God’s womb, the church continues to be fed God’s Word through the umbilical cord of grace – pumping life and truth in the church. In God’s womb, the church is shaped, and is formed, and grows in prayer, service, compassion, generosity, mercy, humility, and self-sacrifice.
In this way, alive in Christ in God’s womb, not just during this pandemic but at all times, the protection and security we find, is found in relationship! In relationship with God through Christ, and in relationship with each other!
If this pandemic has revealed anything, it’s the truth that we are NOT self-made men and women. We are NOT rugged individualists who survive and thrive through our own hard work, ingenuity, and determination. We need each other! Our life, our health, and our salvation literally depends upon other people nourishing us, supporting us, bringing life to us! And, others need us! They need us to stay home and stay apart from one another, and yet at the same time, they need us to report to duty to stay socially connected as compassionate, helpful, thoughtful neighbors and citizens.
Alive in the womb of God, it’s for this reason the church has left the building and we film in an empty church for the eighth weekend in a row. We do this, to bring protection and healing and safety to the most vulnerable and to the entire population. It’s for this reason the church is complying with public health directives so that we as the church can participate in bringing healing and life to the world.
It’s for this reason I added my name to a letter from faith leaders in Worcester that appeared in the Thursday edition of the Telegram. We wrote: “As faith leaders, we write to state unequivocally that any public health-informed prohibition of in-person worship gatherings is not a violation of our freedom to exercise our religious beliefs. We believe such directives are aligned with the core tenets of our faith to love our neighbors as we love ourselves …We are all in this together …”
Yes, Stephen was martyred, and the early Christian converts suffered for their faith, and Christ died on the cross. But the Good News of God as bastion of security for us today is not that following Christ provides protection from all evils of the world. Christians, no matter how fervent our prayers, are subjected to this virus and subjected to other physical pain and suffering, not in proportion to our faith, but because of the reality of biology.
The Good News is that Stephen, the early Christians, and Jesus, alive in the womb of God, knew that nothing, not even death itself, would separate them from life lived in God. In faith, they knew their place had been prepared for them in God’s living and holy house. In that faith, they held fast and held firm – knowing that as they approached their physical deaths – their eternal life in God’s house had already begun!
The Good New we celebrate today IS the bastion of security we find in life lived in Christ, held in the womb of God. In baptism we proclaim the hope that we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever! In baptism, we proclaim the hope that nothing, no sin, no death, no virus, can ever separate us from life in God’s womb.
In faith, trusting this Good News, may you be held and sustained even in those times because of your faith you experience sufferings, persecutions, or even martyrdom.
In faith, trusting this Good News, may know the promise that Christ takes you, yes you, to himself in relationship as a living member of the body of Christ so that you may live in relationship with the communion of saints forever.
In faith, trusting this Good News, may you know that nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from the promise of life in the womb of God, made a member of Christ’s body by grace.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!