by Philip Hougen
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, from Jesus Christ . . .
You’ve got to love lectionary preaching, don’t you? I like to start my sermon preparation in prayer. For today’s sermon, it went something like this:
Jesus, I want to take your word seriously, but what am I supposed to say to these people? (It’s not about us, is it?) I mean, I don’t know these people, Jesus, and they don’t know me. And I’m supposed to tell them to hate their families and give up all their possessions? Jesus, help me. Amen.
My first attempt to interpret the gospel lesson was to figure Jesus didn’t really mean “hate.” Hate your father, your mother, your children, your spouse, your sisters? I did a little word search on that and found out that the word could be translated “abhor” or “detest.” It didn’t get me anywhere!
So then I looked at the context, thinking that this lesson is not about us. There were other instances when Jesus said kind of tough words about family relationships. When disciples told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are outside trying to find you” Jesus said, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters except those who are a part of the kingdom of God?” It seems harsh, doesn’t it?
In another context, the same Jesus says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He even says, “Pray for those who persecute you” and that we should love our enemies.
When we put this all together with what we know about Jesus and what we think about Jesus, and what we hear Jesus saying to us, what can he possibly be getting at?
Jesus was living in a community in which individual identity was defined by the family, the tribe, the clan, the nation to which you belonged-- it was communal. And these human constructs gave individuals a sense of belonging so they knew who they were.
We know that this was important, for Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem. He was of the house and lineage of David, Bethlehem was the City of David. Of course, he grew up in Nazareth – and can anything good come out of Nazareth? It makes a difference where you come from. I know, I’m from Iowa. Can anything good come from there?
It made a difference if you belonged to the tribe of Benjamin or the tribe of Levi. It made a difference which party you affiliated with. Were you a Pharisee? Were you a Sadducee? Or a Samaritan or an Egyptian or a Greek or a Roman or an Ethiopian? It made a difference to who you were. Families, ties, clan, party and nation. That was Jesus’ day, wasn’t it?
And what happened so often with family, clan, ties, parties and nations? They divided God’s children. The Jesus who comes into our midst wants to form a new community. It means loving our neighbors and then defines neighbors as all God’s children. It means praying for those who would persecute us; loving our enemies. And maybe it means overcoming those human constructs that give so much meaning to our lives: our families, clans, tribes, parties and nations. Maybe it means overcoming some of those things that we think identify us so we can recognize the presence of God in the community which is formed around Jesus. It’s a new community. It’s a beloved community. It’s a different community.
And what about us? I mean, we are forming a community. It’s a new academic year for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. We are coming together as students, and faculty and administration and staff. What tribe do you belong to?
Think about it for a moment. We’ve got students. We’ve got juniors, and we’ve got middlers, and we’ve got muddlers. And one person told me he was a middler plus. We’ve got students who are working toward an M.Div., and an M.A. and an M.A.T.S. a Ph.D. What tribe do you belong to?
We have a faculty. We’ve got full professors and we’ve got associate professors, and we’ve got assistant professors. And we’ve got adjunct professors and retired professors and we’ve got emeriti professors and we have – isn’t it amazing the categories we can come up with?
And we have an administration. We’ve got vice presidents – several of them – and we have assistant vice presidents and we have assistants TO vice presidents. Which category are we in? Even in this very small community, we have all of these categories. Somehow, human beings have this need to put ourselves in categories. So I ask myself, what do you, reverend, pastor, doctor, retired bishop, part-time interim president (I’m sure glad I didn’t hire an assistant!), what do you have to say to this?
It’s really important to listen to what the words of Jesus might be saying to us at this time. As we begin a new academic year and as we form a new community, the people who are among us for the first time, people we haven’t met yet, people who may seem strange to us, and to whom we might seem strange, people who might be finding a hard time in the community -- what might Jesus be saying to us about hospitality? About loving? About coming to a home? About making a home for one another? Ultimately, I want to suggest we gather around the table of the Lord.
This is an academic community. Sometimes people call it an ivory tower. Let me tell you, this is the real world. Jesus wants to speak to us in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of the fracturing of our identities, in the midst of what is, frankly, a little bit of a fragile institution in the midst of a fractured church. Sometimes it seems we are flying apart in midst of the world and in this place. Jesus comes, in the midst of that fractured-ness. He calls us together and says, “I want you to be one.”
I want to tell you a story that illustrates for me how hard it is to be one.
In 1968-69 school year, I was a student here. I’m really old. And a group of us went to a place in the neighborhood to hear this young, dynamic African American preacher by the name of Jesse Jackson preach at his new organization, Operation Breadbasket. It was the first time I heard him. The story I want to tell you is about the next time I heard him.
It was at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, 20 years later. I was a delegate to that convention. At that time, Mr. Jackson was an unsuccessful candidate for president. He may have helped pave the way for others. He gave a great speech. Ever since 1968, Jesse Jackson had been one of my heroes, and he still is. Nothing in this story is meant to cast aspersions on him, but only to say how tough it is to be one community together.
While I was a delegate, I made a new friend, Ernie Whitecotton, from Sioux City, Iowa. We sat together for most of the sessions and I kind of enjoyed his view on things. We could both be a little bit cynical, but we were both excited to be there.
Mr. Jackson gave his speech, and there was nobody better to rouse thousands. He had us in the palm of his hand. As he rolled through his speech, we rose to our feet and applauded a number of times. In the midst of the speech he gave one of the great lines, about how we are all in this together. It goes like this, “Now some of our ancestors came to this country on immigrant ships and some of our ancestors came to this country on slave ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Tens of thousands of people rose to our feet, cheering. Then I suddenly realized that my friend, Ernie sitting next to me, was still in his seat.
I sat down. Ernie is a Native American. "Left out again, one more time," Ernie said.
Everybody’s had that same experience -- where everybody in the room feels like they’re part of the group, but there’s that one person who feels, for one reason or another, that they’re left out. That person feels like they don’t belong to the right family, the right tribe, the right clan, or the right nation or the right party.
The word that Jesus might have for us today as we begin the new community of the Lutheran School of Theology at this place, is, “Let nothing tempt us to separate ourselves from each other.”
I think the invitation of Jesus is “Come to the table of the Lord.” We have the opportunity to do that as a community every Wednesday morning. We can gather around the word on Mondays and Tuesdays and Thursdays. I suspect that this is an important place for us to gather because it’s here in the broken bread and the spilled wine that we can sense the oneness we have only in Christ. In spite of family, clan, and tribe and nation and party, we can be one with Jesus, who invites us to this table.
So is the scripture about us? Yes and no. Absolutely about us: We need the acknowledge that we are part of the human constructs that divide one human being from another. But in another sense, it is not about us because no matter how well we do, we can’t save the church, we can’t even save the seminary. We certainly can’t save the world. It’s not on us because Jesus has already been sent to do it for us.
It is in Jesus that the church can be saved. It is in Jesus that the world can be saved.
It is the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ, that creates new community. Let it be our prayer that this community, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, that we would be the community joined together in the love of God, gathered around the table.