Epiphany 5C Sermon (2022)

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 5:1-11;
1 Cor 15:1-11; Isa 6:1-13


Last week we pondered how the story of the cross changes what kind of stories human beings typically tell. The age-old plotline of the stories we most love to tell has the “good guys” winning out in the end over the “bad guys.” That way in which we tell stories reflects our overwhelming tendency of Us-vs-Them-thinking. We are the Good Guys, they are the Bad Guys, and the gods, the powers-that-be, want Us to win in the end.

But if the God of Jesus Christ is doing something completely new — like creating one new humanity, so that we must begin to let go of our Us-vs-Them-thinking — then the cross of Jesus is beginning to tell a completely different kind of story. Instead of leading Us into victorious battle against Them, Jesus surrendered to our human violence — with the Jews and Romans essentially representing the whole of humanity together — he surrendered to our violence in order to forgive it and to begin to transform it. The cross changes the plotline from Us winning a violent conflict over Them, to Jesus — and all of us who would follow him — choosing nonviolence in a way that seeks to unite all of Us. Last week, we looked at how the new story of the cross is even beginning to change some of our favorite stories, like X-Men and Harry Potter. In the coming weeks, we are going to take a closer look at how these stories are currently being written in history, especially movements that stand against injustice using nonviolent means.

Today, we need to spend a few minutes examining how the resurrection changes another element of human storytelling. If the cross changes what kind of stories we tell, the resurrection changes who gets to tell the stories that lead the human family into being one new humanity. There’s a very old saying we’ve all heard about who generally gets to tell the story: “History is written by the victors.” The winners get to put their spin on how to tell the story of history. To use an obvious example: Hitler and the Nazis didn’t get to write the history of World War II and the Holocaust. The Allies did. Hitler killed himself, and the surviving Nazis were put on trial at Nuremberg and executed. Throughout human history, that’s generally how things go — the winners get to tell the story by virtue of their winning.

But think about the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death on the cross and then his resurrection. Is there any normal sense in which Jesus might be declared the winner in his confrontation with the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate? They executed him, naked and humiliated on a cross! It was so insignificant to the Romans, who crucified thousands of insurrectionists, that they never kept a lasting record of it. In fact, that was central to their point. If you stood against Rome, such a humiliating death meant that you should be forgotten by history. Virtually all of the thousands who were crucified remain nameless to history. Except one. Whose name is now elevated above all others.

How did this happen? Why was Jesus the only one remembered among the thousands crucified by Rome? The only reasonable explanation is that it’s because God raised him from the dead, enabling his followers to write the story of his unique victory. It wasn’t the usual kind of victory in which someone wins a contest in violent conflict. No, this was the victory of someone who apparently let himself be defeated as the victim of violent conflict. It’s only because God raised him up to life on the third day that he and his followers now get to tell the story. And here’s the crucial, world-changing thing: It’s the story as told from the perspective not of the apparent victors but from the perspective of the apparent loser. Do you see how absolutely groundbreaking this is? History, they say, is written by the victors. But now, because of the resurrection, history can also be written by the victims. Resurrection means that the truest account of human history is being written in the light of the Forgiving Victim, Jesus Christ.

This past Tuesday marked the beginning of Black History Month. Do you think the Roman Empire would have ever instituted Jewish History Month? Of course not. To them the Jews were simply a bunch of losers. The Romans were the conquerors of the known world, and so they got to write the history. There weren’t any historians we can find who write the history of that time from anything other than the perspective of the conquering Romans. Except for Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. They were these pesky followers of an obscure Galilean Jew who insisted on the story of his execution being written from his perspective, as the innocent victim of Roman violence. And I propose to you today that the only reason that we are able to tell our own American history today from the perspective of African Americans is that the resurrection of Jesus made this shift possible. We can now tell the story from the perspective of all victims of violence down through history.

I realize that teaching things like Black History Month is controversial right now. But I respectfully ask that you stay with me a few more minutes this morning in ascertaining how our readings might compel us to understand history in this different way. First, that the truest history is told from the perspective of those who are marginalized, those who are on the underside of power rather than those who have the power. St. Paul, in this first installment of his amazing chapter on the resurrection of Jesus, insists on telling us who is the basis for this story. The story of our being saved from our sins of violence that cause Jesus’s death begins not with those who hold the power. The risen Jesus does not appear to the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate who sentenced him to death. No, the risen Jesus appears to this same lowly band of followers who had mostly abandoned him when it appeared that he had lost. He, Paul, had not only abandoned Jesus but had persecuted his followers. No, the who that were entrusted to tell the true story of human salvation were not the veritable who’s who of their time but the nobodies of the Roman Empire who we would never have heard of if not for the resurrection — God raising the innocent and forgiving victim of our violence from the dead. This true history will be told in challenge to the powers-that-be by those from the underside of power.

There’s also an element of this way of telling history behind our First Reading today, the dramatic call of the prophet Isaiah. It’s a vision of the heavenly throne room where Isaiah answers the call from God to bring a message to his people. For all the drama of the call itself, notice the message he is to bring. It’s a message about how hard it is for us to hear and see the message itself. It is a message that challenges the way that the winners, those who hold power, want their story to be told. God tells Isaiah from the outset that he will be bringing a message that will fall on deaf ears and blind eyes, and the consequences will be entering into yet another round of destructive human violence. The cities lying waste yet again. Our refusal to listen to our history from the underside of power results in our continual reliance on political violence to try to solve our problems with violence. This part about God’s message of peace being hard for us to see and hear — that’s the part of Isaiah 6 which is quoted no less than six times in the New Testament, mostly by Jesus himself, who is well aware of how hard his message of nonviolence is for us to hear through the din of our own violence. Two thousand years later have he heard him yet? Or will we succumb yet again to the age-old answer of political violence?

But there’s a second, and even more important, element to true storytelling that we need to end with today: if we are to be the who who carries this true history to the world, then it begins with an awareness of our own complicity in it. It begins with an awareness of our sin. We see this in all three readings this morning. Isaiah is at first reluctant to carry God’s message because he has “unclean lips.” Peter’s first reaction to Jesus is that Jesus should stay away from him because he is a “sinful man.” And Paul calls himself the ‘lowliest of all the apostles,’ because he didn’t just abandon Jesus like the other apostles, or even denied Jesus like Peter did, but he actively persecuted the messengers of Jesus himself. Yet God precisely chooses such sinners to carry the true story of our salvation from violence. Why? Because it begins with our being forgiven for it.

I have a good friend that wrote an amazing book about the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. We met a conference in 1995, and he gave me a copy of that book on computer diskette several years before it was published. It was life-changing for me on a number of levels. He titled it The Joy of Being Wrong. Strange title, right? The subtitle helps a bit: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. You see, it’s what happened on Easter that sets us on a path to be able even be able to see and hear the message God has for us, a message that confronts our sin of complicity in our own reliance on violence. We cannot hope to see and hear something so dark about ourselves if we haven’t first been forgiven for it . . . unconditionally, even while we are still at it. Jesus, as the Forgiving victim of our violence against him, gives us the joyful task of bringing that message of forgiveness to others. It is a joy to be so wrong when we know that we are also so forgiven for it. We are learning about how so very wrong we are about our own violence just at the point that we are also being given a chance at living out of it . . . just at the point that we know we are being saved from it. We have Easter Eyes that help us to begin writing a new, truer story of who we are as human beings.

So I’ll leave you with the question to ponder: Do you see how this might relate to something like Black History Month? It is about engaging our history as forgiven children of God so that we might move forward in new, more just and more true, ways. In the case of our American history, it is a deeper awareness of the our original sin of racism — not to get stuck in guilt — but to get unstuck from our sin by God’s forgiveness so that we might help to finally bring more fully into being the great insight that this country is founded on: that all of us are created as equal children of God to live in peace, with equal opportunity to flourish as human beings. I find that exciting and joyful, even in the face of lingering dangers of political violence. But I also firmly believe it is what we are called to do. To help write God’s new story of being human in Jesus Christ. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, February 6, 2022

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