Proper 17B Sermon (2021)

Proper 17 (Aug 28-Sept 3)
Texts: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23;
James 1:17-27; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9

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. . . be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. . . . [T]hose who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing. (James 1:22, 25)

Doers of the word! That’s Emaus! You persevered through difficult times in the wider church, building such a special ministry here, especially by being doers of the word. Can you believe it’s been twenty years since I’ve preached in this space? It’s great to be back! Among such accomplished doers of the word.

When our family arrived here in 1994, Emaus had already begun a movement toward being doers of the word. There had been a spike in the homeless community, and Emaus jumped in with several other churches to begin the homeless ministry that eventually became H.A.L.O. (Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization), now with a permanent home in the DeKoven Center. In those first ten years of HALO — called R.E.S.T. back then (Racine Emergency Shelter Taskforce?) — Emaus hosted many homeless people every Friday night from October to April. And so much that went along with that, including three meals. Remember that? That was a perfect example of being doers of the word. You have been followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who showed us how to reach out to the most vulnerable. REST is a great example of that.

Did you know that possibly being an Anglo/Latino congregation is something Pastor Mary and I already began talking about in the late 1990’s. We could see that Emaus’ best chance to grow was to become more of a neighborhood church, and our neighborhood was quickly becoming more of a Latinx neighborhood. We could see that we’re not situated to be a church like Mt. Pleasant Lutheran, positioned on a main road with lots of visibility. We’re tucked back in this neighborhood, almost invisible, it seems. In fact, I was just talking to someone at another church I preached at recently, and she told me that she had worked as a teacher at Horlick (High School) for a number of years [only two blocks from Emaus], and she never knew Emaus was here! Invisible to those not in the neighborhood. But not invisible to neighborhood folks if we were doers of the word and truly helped serve them. Pastor Mary and I began to talk seriously and consistently about being a neighborhood church. We could see that our neighborhood was increasingly Lantinx, for example, as Emaus got into the Kids Hope USA mentoring program at Wadewitz in the late 1990’s. And involvement at Wadewitz turned into growing ways of supporting children and families with things like the advent of Neighborhood Camp, also in the late nineties. Pastor Mary and I could see that Emaus could no longer sustain two full-time Anglo pastors. But, perhaps, someday it could support both an Anglo and a Latinx pastor. I chose to leave, then, in 2001. It seemed prudent for Pastor Mary to be the one that stayed since she’s the one who speaks fluent Spanish!

Brothers and sisters, let me share with you today how proud I am at what you’ve accomplished! Guided by the vision of Pastor Mary, Art and Nancy Smith, and so many dedicated lay leaders, and then joining together with new Lantinx leaders, you’ve done it! You’ve become that Anglo/Latino congregation which serves the people of this neighborhood. You gone from a historical Danish congregation to an Anglo/Latino congregation that serves its neighborhood — from Danish worship services in the 19th Century, to Danish and English services in the 20th Century, to English and Spanish services in the 21st Century. I have a friend here in Racine — Mike Frontier, who was principal at Wadewitz when our family arrived in 1994 — who rightly praises Emaus as one of the few congregations who most fully expresses what Christian ministry is supposed to be about. In terms of our reading from James today, you are truly doers of the word.

You may be wondering a bit what’s been happening with me and my family these past twenty years. I’ve included a brief recap of our family’s whereabouts and status in your sermon notes. But I’d like to focus on what my ministry has been increasingly about since I was privileged to be one of your pastors here.

I can begin by saying that another good reason for Pastor Mary to have stayed in 2001 when I left is that she is much better with the doer part of “doers of the word” — which has truly served Emaus well. I’ve retired to seminar ministry partly because I feel I’m better with the word part of “doers of the word.” I emphasize understanding what the word from God is to us that shapes our doing. But it’s definitely a two-way street of doing shaping word, and vice versa.

There continues to be confusion about the word, as exemplified in today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus is embroiled in a controversy with the Jewish leaders of his day about the word. What is the word from God? How do we begin to sort through some of our human traditions? What are the ways in which we’re still trapped in our fallenness and projecting onto God what the word is. What are the ways in which we still get the word from God wrong? Jesus came to help us with that portion of being doers of the word, too.

What is the other thing that’s happened in the wider church over these past 20 years? Shrinkage. Our numbers of members are steadily decreasing. Especially the younger generation. Our children and grandchildren. Is there a remedy for this? We need renewal of two things. Renewal of mission, doing, and message, word. Emaus has been a shining example of the mission part. I’ve been trying to work on the message part. The old Protestant, Lutheran version of the Gospel — justification by grace through faith — is no longer adequate. Over the past twenty years scholars have been increasingly helping us to understand that the Gospel as justification is only a small part of Paul’s way of articulating that message, and probably not the most important part.

This summer the readings from Paul in Year B give us important examples of Paul proclaiming the Gospel in other ways. In June we read from 2 Corinthians 5 that ends with an amazing witness to what Paul simply calls “new creation.”

2 Corinthians 5:17-20 — So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ. . . .

God has launched something new since the first Easter which is underway, and we are called to participate in it. We didn’t read those last two verses back in June — I’m not sure why — since they are so important to showing us what that new creation looks like in such a broken world. We are to have a ministry of reconciliation. When we look around us still today and see so much division everywhere, you and I are called to help bring reconciliation. We are to be healers of those divisions, ambassadors of Christ.

And last month we were reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2. We didn’t read the first several verses then, which proclaim the Lutheran Gospel that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). But our reading picked up right after those verses with a “So then.” In other words, ‘you are saved by grace, so then here’s what that looks like.’ We continued on:

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

One new humanity in place of the two. For Paul that “two” was Jew and Gentile. For Romans, the “two” were Romans and barbarians. “In place of the two” simply points to all the different ways in which we human beings find ourselves divided. In Galatians Paul says that this means in our new baptismal identities, we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Do you see? All those way in which we are divided and broken and set against each other — all those ways are being healed in Jesus Christ. And you and I are called to be ambassadors of that healing, ministers of reconciliation. Do you see how big this could be for our broken world?

One of the people who’s helped me a lot since I left — I don’t think I had started reading his work until after I left Emaus — is Christian author Brian McLaren. Since then, I’ve read all of his twenty to thirty books, and we’ve even become friends. He’s been a wonderful guide to me on how we navigate this twin renewal of both mission, doing, and message, word. Mission and message, doers of the word. He has a book coming out next May (Do I Say Christian?) that he asked me to read the manuscript for, and to give feedback. He gave me permission to share a little bit about it. In the context of so many young people leaving the church, he dares to ask the question, “Do I Stay Christian?” How is it that you and I make the decision to stay in the church in ministries like this, when so many are leaving? Among his key insights is to sketch out ways of being human in an evolutionary time-scale involving chunks of thousands of years. A first stage of being human is know as hunter-gatherer, being nomads looking for food sources. In the last six or seven thousand years, we’ve slowly transitioned to the second and current stage of being human. It’s a stage of gradually becoming landed with agriculture and domesticated animals, cities and nations, and then empires and seemingly endless wars. It’s a stage characterized by exploitation of others and the environment, of trying to dominate those We deem as Them, and leading to so much conflict and division within the human family. The question is now about a possible third stage. What if in the biblical journey the story fo God doing a new thing — through the Hebrew prophets, and down through John the Baptist and Mary and Jesus and the disciples and Mary Magdalene — what if this is all about God moving us into the third stage of being human? One characterized by one new humanity created in place of all two’s? Characterized by gradually leaving behind exploitation and domination? Does that seem too wild? Too big? Too much of a dream? Or is this exactly what scripture is saying to us when Isaiah says that God is doing a new thing? When Jesus proclaims God’s reign, God’s way of doing things, coming into our midst? When St. Paul proclaims, “New Creation!” — ‘God is creating one new humanity in place of two’? Could it be that big? That you and I are in the midst of being part of the dawning of a new way of being human?

We now need a revitalized message that may be better suited to such a grand vision — a message featuring a Gospel of New Creation, or of One New Humanity. Jesus came to give us a new way of being human so that we can finally fulfill our vocations of being stewards with God of Creation, of caring for one another and our earth home. Each or us, in our time and place, in our own neighborhoods, can find our place by boldly being doers of the word, while also continuing to dream big dreams. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Emaus Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, August 28-29, 2021

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