Sermon Preached on June 23, 2019 – Pentecost +2
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42 and 43
Clothed in Christ
It’s been quite the weekend in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, as we gathered to consecrate the 10th Bishop of Maine, The Rt. Rev. Thomas James Brown. On Friday the clergy of the diocese welcomed our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, at a clergy luncheon which opened the diocesan celebrations this weekend. Bishop Curry opened by thanking us for being Maine, for our witness in powerful ways: welcoming and feeding, we’ve been responding to the needs of the greater community for quite some time. He noted the response most recently to asylum seekers as another moment of our faithful and powerful witness to the Church and the world.
Bishop Curry spoke of focusing on the core teachings and the spirit of Jesus. And noticing some years ago, when he studied the language of the abolitionist movement, that they spoke as those who follow Jesus; they referenced of the teachings and person of Jesus. And in similar study of the language and theological arguments made by those who defended slavery, he noticed that they steered clear of Jesus and his teachings. They were forced to other places in the theological canon – like the letters of Paul, which they then distorted to their own purposes. But the life and teachings of Jesus have nothing to say in support of slavery.
Bishop Michael also noted that the times the Church has gone off the rails – are those times when theology may follow the doctrinal Jesus, or the idea of Jesus, but we have lost the teaching and person of Jesus.
Then he said these words – which stilled the room: “Consider where we are now.”
Those who are the public face and voice of Christianity and align themselves with power (on either side of our political divide), consistently avoid the teachings of Jesus and the spirit Jesus embodied in his person. They don’t speak like those who are followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
He then said, “I would submit that when the public face of Christianity doesn’t follow and talk and bear witness to Jesus, to the way of love as the way of life, then we have a huge marketing problem.”
We need to bear witness and embody being the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement – so the world can see this alternative to what they see and hear otherwise. Living out our following of Jesus, no matter how we are changed and transformed as an institution, because we will be changed, we are a Movement, and what survives the varied changes of this world, (will not the stuff of institution) but the Spirit of God.¹
The “Spirit of God” brings us to a story told by our preacher at yesterday’s consecration, Rev. Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran pastor and Professor Emerita at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She told a story of serving at a New York City parish and being the one telling the children’s sermon on Pentecost. Because the parish shared a wall with the hotel next door, there were no windows down one side of the sanctuary. For Pentecost, an artist had created large, 4ft. tall paper dancers, to decorate the wall – each dancer had a Pentecost flame over their head. She asked the children what they thought of this – the wall of dancers with flames of the Spirit, and one little boy answered, “It’s not safe.”²
He’s right, isn’t he? It’s not safe, following where the Spirit leads, choosing to follow Jesus is not necessarily a safe path.
Think about where Jesus goes in today’s Gospel: After having taken his disciples on a boat across the lake, during which outing, a windstorm came out of nowhere and nearly killed them, (had Jesus not calmed the wind and sea himself) his disciples were shaken and confused. They are even more confused when they arrive on the shore, and Jesus goes straight to this man possessed by a Legion of demons. This is the last place Jesus should be, and he does this deliberately; goes to a man who is a gentile (not a Jew), who is unclean (possessed by unclean spirits), living outside the community in the place of the tombs (an unclean place). This is NOT a place a Jewish rabbi should be, but Jesus goes there intentionally. Jesus restores this man to his community and family. He heals him of that which enslaves him. Giving him new life with those he loves, a life lived in community. There is nowhere that God won’t go, there is no one outside of the people of God, no one outside of the Children of God… No one.³
We hear that in Paul’s letter as well – the distinctions which we use to measure one another’s worth: race, sexual orientation, gender, class, ethnicity, ability, fitness, wealth, beauty, age, … the list is long, uncharitable, and petty. Those barriers, divisions, and classifications through which we define against one another are of our own making. They are not of Christ. Our needing to compare and contrast, build ourselves up by tearing another down, are not the actions of those who belong to the community of Christ.
As Paul writes: (Galatians 3:26-28 NRSV)
“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Professor at the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon, Dr. Elisabeth Johnson makes this interesting observation:
The Babylonian Talmud includes a morning blessing to be recited by every Jewish man, thanking God for not creating him a gentile, a slave, or a woman. While it is not certain that this prayer pre-dates Paul, it demonstrates the power these three categories held in the ancient world. Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, is a radical dismantling of these primary identity and boundary markers.⁴
Given the primary identity and boundary markers of our own time, perhaps the declaration would be: “In Christ there is no longer Black or White, Citizen or Immigrant, Homosexual or Heterosexual, male and female.” The question before us is what would it take for a radical dismantling of these? According to Paul, when we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ, and find our primary identity and value in Christ. Everyone who belongs to Christ, shares fully and equally in the inheritance of God’s promises and the call to live as God’s children and heirs. No matter what other identifiers we might be tempted to put upon someone, once baptized into Christ, they are a full member of the promises of God. We are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. Everyone shares equally in God’s promises and in the mission to which God has called us.⁵
And yet, that’s not how it feels, does it? Particularly when we “consider where we are now,” as Bishop Michael said.⁶
We live in a country plagued by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. These are the demons of our time – this is our Legion, that oppresses and possesses. As in our Gospel story, not only is the possession itself evil and tormenting, but the response of the community is like-wise haunting. For they would rather the suffering continue, than have to face loss of control and the unknown future that Jesus is offering through healing and restoration.
Likewise, our Legion oppresses and forces people out of community – chained and controlled, into places of despair, with all the accompanying shunning and degradation. The community participates in the oppression, preferring sickness to change in the status quo.
Yet, Jesus through the love of the cross, casts aside all divisions, reconciling us to God and one another. That’s how Paul expects the members of Christian communities to live – as those who are of Christ, who are Christ’s own. Living and acting as if we are in the very Presence of God, because whenever two or three are gathered we are in the Presence of God. To live like those baptized into Christ should live. Clothed with Christ, as he says.⁷
Once we are clothed in Christ, we are of Christ, and nothing more matters. How could it? Could there be more to reach for, a higher status than clothed in Christ? How could we judge another, “Christ clad” member as ‘less than’? For when we look at them, we see Christ.
When we are all one in Christ, and living our lives in community, we can let go of those distinctions which separate us, and enter into real, authentic, equal, and beloved relationships, belonging to God and each other, creating beloved community. Easy to say, but harder to DO, I know.
I think it helps to consciously clothe ourselves and one another in Christ. By naming our insecurities and vulnerabilities, those names we are called, labels we carry, and renaming them in Christ.
It might go something like this:⁸
Instead of the labels which burden you and injure your soul say: “Because I believe I am clothed in Christ – I reject the hurtful and mistaken labels cast upon me:________________ .” (name your painful labels here. For me those would be: immigrant, foreigner, just a woman, towel-head, outsider, always an exception.)
Then continue with these words:
“And I choose to hear instead: God’s words, ‘You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ And those of my baptism: ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.’”
And summarize with:
“I am God’s beloved child. I am Christ’s own forever.”
Now clothed in Christ, choose to do the same for others. Saying to them, “I call you beloved.”
No matter what the world says; or what we do or is done to us; God will always know us and regard us as Christ’s own, God’s beloved child. With this promise of a future in community with God and one another, may we go out to witness to all that God has done for us, and be those through whom God acts to do the same for others. Calling others by a new name, “I call you beloved.” Creating a new future for them and for us all. Amen.
1 Comments made by Michael Curry, at Maine clergy luncheon, June 21, 2019, except where noted as direct quotation, paraphrased from my personal notes.
2 Rev. Barbara Lundblad, Pastor and Professor Emerita at Union Theological Seminary in New York, sermon preached on June 22, 2019, for the consecration of The Rev. Thomas James Brown, Bishop of Maine.
3 Originally preached in sermon on this text, 2016.
4 Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29, Workingpreacher.org, June 20, 2010.
5 Elisabeth Johnson, Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29, Workingpreacher.org, June 20, 2010.
6 Comments made by Michael Curry, at Maine clergy luncheon, June 21, 2019, except where noted as direct quotation, paraphrased from my personal notes.
7 Drawn from ideas presented by Jane Lancaster Patterson, Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29, Workingpreacher.org, June 23, 2019.
8 Exercise inspired by a spiritual practice for growing in loving kindness, (which was paraphrased from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön) and suggested by Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation series,
Conscious Love: Weekly Summary, Saturday, June 22, 2019, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, CAC.org.