A sermon preached at
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Sunday, January 15, 2017
The Rev. Dr. James Gertmenian
Text: Isaiah 49:1-7
Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to be sharing worship with you . . . and how honored I am to be standing in this pulpit today. When I moved to Maine nearly two years ago after a four-decade career as a Congregational minister, one of the first people I met was your rector, Ben Shambaugh. He was helping to introduce me to Preble Street, the amazing agency that works to eradicate poverty, hunger, and homelessness in our community – first, by providing vital services to those in need and second, by advocating for public policies that strike at the root of these failures of our social contract.
I’m a regular volunteer with Preble Street now, and I know some of you are as well. Since I met Ben, I have come to admire him as a community leader, a man who brings qualities of compassion, wisdom, and faithfulness to his work as a servant to those most in need. I trust that you who call St. Luke’s home know how blessed you are to have him as your pastor. (By the way, I got to hear Ben play the tuba in a band concert in the park last summer. If you get a chance to experience that side of your rector, don’t miss it!)
Another connection I have with St. Luke’s is that one of your choir members, Chris Johnston, and I are both summer residents of Great Cranberry Island, off Mount Desert and have been friends for thirty years. Through Ben and Chris, I have learned about this good congregation, the work you do to make Portland a better city and to provide spiritual nurturance for all who enter your doors. It’s an impressive story. So, once again, thanks for welcoming me here.
I will confess that this particular Sunday, preceding, as it does, both Martin Luther King Day and Inauguration Day, elicits in me a troublesome mix of feelings. I don’t think I’m alone.
If you take Dr. King’s ideals on the one hand and lay them up against the current realities of our national life on the other, the contrast is deeply disturbing. There is promise in this current moment, to be sure. Dr. King would never let us forget that. There is promise and possibility in every moment.
But there is peril in what’s ahead as well, the risk of real setbacks for the most vulnerable among us, and none of us here today can possibly know whether it will be the promise or the peril that will prevail in the short run.
In the long run, though, we do know. As Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Today I want to reflect with you on the role of the church in bending that arc, in bringing that justice. Will you pray with me?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be ever acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock, our Redeemer, and Friend. Amen.
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The prophet Isaiah proclaims:
Yahweh called me before I was born,
and named me from my mother’s womb.
God made my mouth like a sharp sword,
and hid me in the shadow of the hand of the Most High;
The Almighty made me a polished arrow,
and concealed me in God’s quiver.
The Holy One said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Isaiah 49:2-3, The Inclusive Bible
All through the latter portions of the Book of Isaiah, there are descriptions of this unique and mysterious figure, The Servant, sometimes called The Suffering Servant. There is considerable scholarly discussion about just who it is that Isaiah is referring to, this servant whom God has called, the one who is to speak like a sharp sword and who is the “polished arrow” in God’s quiver. Was the prophet speaking of himself? Perhaps. Or was he imagining, as Christian commentators have traditionally suggested, the coming of Jesus? Some would say so. On the other hand, could he have had in mind a succession of great historical leaders, including, say, Dr. King?
And then there is the conjecture that the Servant being referred to was the nation of Israel itself? Theories abound, but I wonder whether the whole conversation is little more than a distraction from a larger, terrible truth that we understand instinctively, that we know all too well in our hearts. You do know this truth. You know it almost without my saying it: the truth that in this time and in this place, the servants whom God chooses, the ones who are to be a “light to the nations,” the ones who bear the awful and wonderful burden of God’s transforming love in the world is . . . us. No savior, high and set apart. But us.
God knows that we are at a juncture in history where the polished arrow of divine love – love for the stranger, love for the outcast, love for the homeless and the hungry – can no longer lie unused in God’s quiver. Rather, it needs – desperately needs – to be aimed and shot into our nation’s heart, for that heart seems to be hardening of late and only such a wound, the wound of profound love, can heal it. This is a matter of the nation’s spiritual health and, no less important, of our spiritual health . . . yours and mine. For we are the instruments of God’s love.
Several years ago, well before the most recent election, a friend of mine wrote: “Never before has the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ so haunted our national conversation than at this pivotal moment in our history. We are increasingly divided into rich and poor, employed and unemployed, making it and not making it, empowered and disempowered, in ways that mock our democratic ideals and steal the bread of hope from our children.”
When I read those sentences, I found myself nodding in agreement, and I recognized, as I did so, that my heart was very heavy. When my friend said that the question “Who is my neighbor?” haunts our national conversation, he chose exactly the right word, because the concern for others, especially vulnerable others, that we once believed was central to American culture now feels like a ghost of itself. That great communal spirit – a spirit that often swept aside partisan divisions – is no longer driving the national agenda but merely hangs over it as a voiceless shade of something that once was.
What has happened to us? Where is America’s soul? The vigorous and robust communitarian ideals that brought us out of the Depression and saw us through the Second World War – ideals that placed the common good above narrow interests – those ideals now are shrinking to whispers that are routinely drowned out by the strident voice of an altogether different ethic, an ethic of hyper-individualism, libertarian self-involvement, ideological purity, Social Darwinist heartlessness, and anti-intellectual fervor.
Let’s put it more plainly: the selfishness of our lesser natures has taken over vast regions of the national soul; we are, quite literally, demon-possessed. We appear to be more impressed by swagger than by sympathy, more attracted to success than to sincerity. We no longer seem so interested in nurturing the vast, inclusive community that we once envisioned we would become . . . inclusive of the immigrant, inclusive of the poor, inclusive of those who are different.
Now we shut doors . . . and too often we shut our hearts as well. There are surely many individual exceptions to this at the grass roots, some of them right here in this room, without doubt in this parish, but in high places, among decision makers, in certain segments of the population, and, sadly, in America’s public persona, the idea of shared sacrifice, where the individual finds his or her meaning in community rather than naked individualism, appears to be lost.
The notion that much is required of those to whom much is given is portrayed as an attack on individual rights and liberties. Taxation, particularly progressive taxation, is equated with Socialism, with the implication that that’s a terrible thing. Assaults – more and more overt – are made on voting rights.
And here is the scandal that chills my blood and that makes this an appropriate subject for a sermon: this ethic of selfishness, this culture of contempt for the poor, contempt for the earth, contempt for science, contempt for the Other, is claimed by some to have its roots in the Christian religion, and many of its most vociferous apostles cloak themselves in Christian language. But what Christianity is this?
They talk about personal responsibility and self-reliance as though these were the core Christian values, which they aren’t. Those values owe more to Horatio Alger than they do to the New Testament. Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in an entirely different place. The heart of Christianity has to do with community, with helping one another, with being in this together, not with the rugged individualist who goes it alone.
And, by the way, the next time someone piously quotes to you the saying, “God helps those who help themselves” as a justification for gutting social programs, will you please remind that person that those words do not come from scripture. They were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth; instead, they came from Benjamin Franklin. What Christianity is this?
These folk exalt and admire people who wield great power, extol the harsh and pitiless writings of Ayn Rand, celebrate society’s “winners,” and boast of what they call “muscular Christianity.” But where are the words of the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “The first shall be last, and the last first.” “Power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul said.
What Christianity is this that we are hearing from in America? Most egregiously, it is used to justify and protect enormous concentrations of private wealth, often even claiming that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and poverty a sign of God’s disfavor. This is known as the “prosperity Gospel,” and some of its prominent apostles will be very visible this week. But do you remember what was said of the early Christian community? Listen: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
That the message of Christ could become so twisted, so foreign to itself as it has in this country is a testament to the ability of the human mind to rationalize nearly anything. We need to say to those who adopt an individualist, Social Darwinist, survival of the fittest package of public policies: “Fine. Make your arguments. Proclaim your values, if you will. Even get elected and enact them. But do not call them Christian. Because
In the end, God will not be mocked. Selfishness that comes cloaked in religious finery will ultimately be exposed for the fraud it is. The flimsy garb of piety cannot disguise the grotesque shape of a perverted gospel.” What must ultimately emerge – what will ultimately emerge – is the undisputable truth that the heart of the Christian gospel is compassion. The soul of the Christian religion is justice. The mode of Christian practice is community. And the ethic that rules the Christian life is love.
We don’t know what Republican leaders will do over the next four years. We don’t know what Democrats will do, either. But while we care about those things, our deeper concern should lie elsewhere . . . our deeper concern should be for what the church of Jesus Christ will do. Will the church just go along to get along? Will it be the compliant acolyte to the culture of contempt? Or will it – will we – do this, this impossible but necessary thing: will we follow the Christ into the most dangerous places, as Dr. King did, and say the most dangerous thing: that the justice of God is deeper and the mercy of God wider than the justice and mercy of human beings?
Will the church – will we – provide sanctuary for those who are menaced by state power? Will we hear, heed, and amplify the cries of the poor? Will we resist the erosion of human rights? Will the church – will we – steadfastly, doggedly, faithfully work to rebuild a culture of compassion in our country? There’s no doubt. It is daunting work. It can look hopeless. It did for Isaiah. He said, in the passage we read earlier, “I have toiled in vain. I have exhausted myself for nothing,” but then he added, “yet all the while my cause is with God.”
And if you are wondering just how we might be what God calls us to be, my colleagues from Preble Street are eager to be in conversation with you after worship, to learn more about what you are already doing and to invite you into a new partnership of advocacy particularly on behalf of those who are homeless in our community, rebuilding the culture of compassion.
My dear friends here at St. Luke’s, this is a soul-testing time for the church and for all of us. Much will be demanded of us. Risks will have to be taken, including the risk of losing the uneasy peace that some congregations maintain by staying out of the fray. But God says, “I called you before you were born” for this time . . . that you might be my sharpened sword of truth, my polished arrow of justice.”
This really isn’t a “Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t” kind of thing. We’ve been called. We’ve been called out. We’ve be named as the servants who are to carry, in our very bodies, the incorruptible gospel of powerless love that will always . . . always . . . always overcome the forces of loveless power. In the name of Dr. King . . . in the name of Jesus . . . in the name of God, let the church rise to its best self in this hour of testing. Let us receive and wear the mantle of the Servant. Let us not step aside, lest we lose our very souls. Let us step forward, loving boldly, and so proclaim the glory of God.
May it be so. Amen.