Proper 4B Sermon (2024)

Proper 4 (May 29-June 4)
Texts: Deuteronomy 5:12-14;
Mark 2:23-3:6; 2 Cor 4:5-12

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 30:55): https://www.facebook.com/share/v/KBTehpu7Mgdxzg6T/

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE SAVED BY AN INDIGENOUS MAN?
FOR ONE THING, THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT IS ANTI-SLAVERY, PRO-LABOR

Three weeks ago, Jeff Alderson, Brad Larsen, and I were at the Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly.1 The themes of recent Assemblies have been focused on our core values. This year the theme is Courage. And the keynote speaker at the banquet was Vance Blackfox, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and current ELCA Director of Indigenous Ministries and Tribal Relations.2 He told his story — which I found quite inspiring — of growing up in a white-dominated world in which at every turn he was offered Jesus from a white perspective — a “white” Jesus. And, at every turn, he would politely say, “No, thank you. I already have a relationship with Jesus.” By the end of his keynote, it made sense that he would conclude with these words, “I think this is really cool: that I’m here tonight to proclaim to you that the one God sent to save you is an indigenous man.” Jesus of Nazareth.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I trust you understand the implications of what Vance Blackfox is saying. He had been offered a “white” Jesus throughout his life, but he remained anchored in his own experience of Jesus, because as an indigenous man himself he already had the most appropriate perspective from which to understand what Jesus is really all about. Since Jesus was himself an indigenous person in the first century, on the fringes of empire. Over several months now, we’ve been trying to renew our perspective on the Gospel: to see it as Jesus coming to give us the politics of God’s reign as something quite different than the politics human beings over the past millennia, namely the politics of conquering empires who come to exploit and extract the resources and labor of other peoples. God’s politics in Jesus represent a very different politics that resist those typical human politics. So indigenous peoples like Vance Blackfox are actually in a better position from which to understand what Jesus was all about — to understand that Jesus himself was an indigenous man on the margins of the Roman Empire in the First Century, and that his Gospel, his Good News, is all about resisting the typical politics of empire with alternative politics from God. My friend Brian McLaren sums up seeing Jesus as an indigenous man in this simple way: “He flips the script of civilization, trading the imperial love of power for the primal power of love.”3 That’s what we’ve been talking about for several months now, right?

You might remember (Transfiguration B and Lent 1B) that my friend Brian has a new book out with the daunting title of Life after Doom: Wisdom and Courage for a World Falling Apart. Having just read this book, I was ripe for hearing Vance Blackfox’s keynote address on having courage to face the many crises currently before us — chief of which are the numerous environmental crises due to climate change. Are the typical imperialistic human politics that led us into this mess sufficient to now lead us out? Or do we need an alternative politics based on the power of love rather than the love of power? Are we ready to hear the message of the indigenous man Jesus of Nazareth, guided by our indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ, like Vance Blackfox?

There’s another important aspect to that perspective of being indigenous people who have historically been trampled by empires — Native Americans in our time, the Jews in the time of the Roman Empire. Listen again, in fact, to that section of today’s Second Reading from Paul:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:8-10)

I can truly imagine hearing this from someone like Vance Blackfox, whose people have for centuries in our history been ‘afflicted, but not crushed; struck down, but not destroyed.’ Likewise, at the time of Jesus, the Jews had endured and survived centuries of being dominated by many other empires. Again, this is similar to the First Nations peoples of our land, who have endured centuries of brutal domination. Maybe, just maybe, it is their experience which we need to hear at this crucial time to have courage in the face of looming crises. Steve Charleston, a Choctow elder, puts it this way in his book We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope. He writes,

It feels like we are living in a time of apocalypse, an age when everything we take for granted is starting to collapse around us. It feels like the end of the world. . . . This situation is nothing new for me as a Native American. My ancestors already lived through an apocalypse. . . . Native American culture in North America has been through the collapse of civilization and lived to tell the tale.4

Are we ready to hear Jesus’s message as an indigenous man of the First Century, trying to help his people avert the crises of imperial politics in his day?

As I read more from the perspective of indigenous peoples myself, I hope and expect to share some of it with you along the way. This morning let’s do so for a few minutes from the focus given to us by our readings. Our First Reading and Gospel are all about the Sabbath. What are the sabbath laws and sabbath politics from an indigenous perspective? Deuteronomy 5 gives us the perfect example: the reason given for keeping the sabbath is to not follow the empire os Egypt who had enslaved them, exploiting their labor. They had been made to work as slaves 24/7. Keeping the sabbath as a break from work gives them the constant reminder not exploit the work of others. The politics of the sabbath are to respect the work of all laborers toward the furtherance of all life, not the diminishment of some lives in order to enhance the lives of those in power. The Sabbath commandment is an anti-slavery, pro-labor commandment. It is meant to enhance the lives of all, especially those on the margins of empire who are still exploited for their labor.

Jesus and his disciples bear witness to this in gathering grain on the Sabbath and healing a man with a withered hand. When they are confronted for breaking Sabbath rules, Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath is made for humanity, not the other way around. If their interpretation of Sabbath rules works to hinder the livelihood of others, then doesn’t that go against the Spirit of the Sabbath? David got bread on the Sabbath to feed his soldiers. Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is about life, not about simply following rules, especially if they become twisted to a means of controlling others rather than helping them.

Let’s briefly consider an example from our own time. In the past couple years, in both Florida and then Texas, the state legislatures have written state laws to preclude local laws around breaks for workers, especially the breaks crucial to working in such oppressive heat of their summer climates. City and county governments had responded to the situation of global warming by trying to protect workers from the increasingly dangerous conditions of hotter summers. The state legislatures undid their work. In the summer of 2023, the Texas Tribune wrote an article on this situation, beginning with these facts: “Heat kills more people annually in the U.S. than hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding. Texas has recorded 42 heat-related deaths on the job since 2011 — more than any other state, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.”5 The remainder of the lengthy article details the opposing views on the merits of overriding local laws with the new state law, which strangely places the burden on OHSA regulations. My question this morning is, ‘What if we evaluated the merits of such laws with the spirit of the Sabbath law?’ In other words, in the spirit of trying to resist the age-old exploitation of labor wrought by the typical politics of empire. I’m not saying we have to quote Deuteronomy 5 to State Legislatures — though if it seems that they’re predominantly Christian, it might be helpful to remind them of their own scriptures. But we can make the case without quoting scriptures. We can say something like, ‘Florida and Texas are two of the last slave-holding states. If we are mindful of that exploitation of labor — that theft of labor, really — how might we consider the arguments around these labor laws in light of that?’ Do you see what I mean?

Sabbath was made for the benefit of the whole of humankind, not to benefit one group at the expense of others. Jesus, the Son of Man, came to show us the new way of being human that is always and ever about protecting life and helping it to flourish — precisely from the perspective of an indigenous man on the fringes of empire.

I agree with Vance Blackfox that it’s cool to think about God sending an indigenous man to save us. And we might ask ourselves honestly: To save those of us who are not indigenous from ourselves? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, June 2, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 30:55): https://www.facebook.com/share/v/KBTehpu7Mgdxzg6T/

Notes

1. For more on the 2024 Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly, see https://milwaukeesynod.org/synod-assembly-2024/

2. For more on Vance Blackfox and his ministry, see https://elca.org/indigenous

3. Brian McLaren, Life after Doom: Wisdom and Courage for a World Falling Apart (St. Martin Essentials, 2024), page 120.

4. Steven Charleston, We Survived the End of the World: Lessons from Native America on Apocalypse and Hope (Broadleaf Books, 2023), pages 2-3.

5. Francisco Uranga, “Limited regulations make Texas workers responsible for preventing on-the-job heat injuries,” Texas Tribune, July 12, 2023, online at:
https://www.texastribune.org/2023/07/12/workers-texas-heat-wave/

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email