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Bishop Erwin’s Sermon for Synod Assembly Festival Worship, June 2, 2018

Sermon for the Synod Assembly Eucharist (Lectionary 9B)
The Land’s First People: Honoring Native Neighbors
June 2, 2018, Samuelson Chapel, California Lutheran University
The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Texts: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 81:1-10;
2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23—3:6


One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Grace and peace from God our Creator, and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let me begin with a word of welcome: this worship service, though it is at the center of the Southwest California Synod’s annual Assembly, is really a service of the whole family of God’s people; and I want to express a special welcome to our ecumenical guests and in particular our Native friends and guests. If you are Native American, I invite you to stand as you are able. (pause) I invite everyone to join me in welcoming these friends from many tribes, who honor us with their presence today.

We began yesterday’s assembly with an acknowledgment that we are gathered on the ancient lands of the Ventureño Chumash people; the territory of our synod includes other tribes as well: the Tongva, Tataviam, Tejon, and Kawaiisu. And further east there are many more tribes–including the Morongo, represented here this morning by members of the Morongo Moravian Church, who have a special relationship with us Lutherans by the fellowship our two churches share. We are all connected: by blood, by geography, by history—and all of these connections began in the God whose children we all are and are lived out in the world we inhabit together.

When our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted to reject the historic Doctrine of Discovery two years ago, we trying to say that as a church we would no longer use our idea of God, and what Europeans understood as God’s preference for European culture, as a way to diminish the value of other humans and their cultures, or to claim special authority over others. We will as a church no longer support the idea of a right of superiority over others based on an assumption that European Christian culture reflects God’s desire for the whole world.

We cannot by any action today undo the painful injustices done to Native people on this continent and throughout the Americas, but we can at least see this painful history with greater honesty for what it really is—irreparable harm—and we can pledge not to forget what was done here, in this land, where Natives have suffered because of the migration and settlement of new people, and have been made nearly invisible in their own ancient home, supplanted by strangers who now—ironically—complain about even newer newcomers.

Living in greater honesty about our shared, painful history is not easy, but it is necessary—the deep reality about our nation’s history is that our prosperity today is rooted in the exploitation, dispossession, and enslavement of Native American and of African people, and that these great injustices are at the root of our national story. To be able to speak this reality may feel shaming—and it is a indeed a shameful story—but honesty is freedom: freedom from delusion, and greater honesty should liberate us all—no matter who our ancestors were—to live together with deeper respect and compassion as neighbors and fellow-citizens.

Now what does all this have to do with Jesus? In this Gospel story from Mark of Jesus’ encounter with opponents, we see Jesus and his disciples accused of unfaithfulness to God because he and his disciples did not honor God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy by picking grains of wheat. Then—as though to poke his critics in the eye—the story says that Jesus then healed a man with a deformed hand on that same Sabbath. Now it’s on purpose: Jesus breaks God’s law—the ancient law we heard about in the first lesson from Deuteronomy, and cherished by God’s people for centuries.

What does the Third Commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy as a day of rest, possibly have to do with the Doctrine of Discovery, the idea that God gave European Christians a special mandate to conquer and dispossess peoples they believed were inferior to them? It may not be as far a stretch as it seems to say there is indeed a parallel, and not a happy one. What we see in both cases is a human attempt to harness the authority of God, and turn it into a tool for the control of other humans.

This doesn’t happen in a single step, through the dark imagination of a single person or generation, or nationality, but gradually. What began as a sign of God’s favor becomes a holy obligation to see things a certain way. Then that religious understanding becomes a boundary—those who share it are “in good with God” and those who don’t are rejected as “not God’s people.” Then the unfortunate but natural next step is the persecution of the outsiders by those who see themselves as God’s real people, superior to those who aren’t.

Jesus’ opponents in the Gospel of Mark are identified as Pharisees and Herodians, but those are only labels—his real opponents are those who claim God’s authority for themselves, and who use that assumed power to rule the lives of others in self-serving ways. This is a deep and ugly—but unavoidable—part of the human story: that we can take an idea like God’s love for God’s people, and turn it into a way to express hate for those who we don’t think are as much God’s people as we are. And even worse: this is pretty easy to do.

I think the story of God and God’s people that the Bible teaches us is that no matter how hard God tries to be the center of our story—loving, forgiving, and freeing us—we somehow cannot resist trying to make it about how God has given us authority over others. This is what Christians call “original sin”—the deeply embedded human inclination toward selfishness and tribalism. It is what turns “mine” into “so not yours” from our earliest days of childhood—that as we come to an awareness of our own selves, we cannot avoid creating an opposition to others. The laws of God—the Commandments—were not intended to create superior, self-confident, godly people, but to show us how our pride and self-centeredness divide us, and put us in constant, unconscious competition for everything: status, food, land, even love.

It is a distortion of a commandment God meant as healthy and healing for all, to take the story that God rested on the seventh day of creation as a way of helping humans accept their own need for rest, and use it to build a wall separating Sabbath-keepers from non-Sabbath-keepers. Jesus’ enemies are trying to claim authority over him by taking their authority from God instead—using the commandment to control Jesus.

We can almost see this story as funny: people using God’s commandment as a way to say that God (made flesh and living with them in Jesus) is not only wrong, but actually being unfaithful to God by his actions and teaching. It would be funny if it weren’t so painful. Because we do this all the time: we use our images of God, and even Jesus, to deny and obscure the God—the Christ—we should be seeing in each other.

Sometimes it can seem like the purpose of religion is to make people worse than they are by adding God’s power to our own natural selfishness. And then we end up with the kind of judgments that lead to hate and dehumanization. Non-Sabbath-keepers become law-breakers; law-breakers are dangerous; dangerous people need to be locked up; maybe it would be better for everybody if we remove the danger by removing the bad people. It’s a depressingly familiar path, and it leads very quickly to evil done in the name of good—even in the name of God.

We’re here today to try again to break that selfish cycle that leads us so easily from God’s love to human evil. We can interrupt it—for ourselves and for a time—but we can never end it. Every person, every generation, every nation must wrestle with the temptation to turn our own desires and fears into harm to our neighbors, and even to Creation—by projecting our wishes onto God, and declaring that what we want, God wants too—and what we fear, God hates.

We’re here today to turn ourselves around—to turn the focus back to God, and what God wants us to see, and know, and do: to see God’s love reflected in Jesus, revealed to us not in words scratched in stone but in flesh and blood. Jesus is not a lawgiver but a liberator: we make up our own laws, claim they’re from God, and Jesus shows us again and again that it’s not about us and our deserving, but about God, and God’s loving.

That’s why we need a forgiving God—we just can’t get this right by ourselves. And it’s why God came to us in human form in Jesus—so that we would stop looking for God in the clouds and over the rainbow, and accept that the clearest face of God we get to see in this life is the human face you’re looking into. Siblings, cousins, friends in God: when we look into each other’s eyes, we show each other the eyes of God. Let this be our joy today, too: to see Christ in one another. Amen.