Fourth Week after Pentecost

Sermon by Rev. Sarah Goettsch on June 16-17, 2018

This was a big week in our house. We weathered yet another milestone in the boys’ transition from childhood to adolescence. It’s a controversial topic, I might add, one that might make you uncomfortable. The subject is whether or not it’s acceptable for an 11-year-old boy to still sleep with stuffed animals.

We have one stuffed dog, in particular, named Woof Woof, given to Christian even while he was still in the womb. When Jacob was a toddler, Woof Woof was then passed on to him and finally, to Philip. Of all the stuffed animals we received over the years, Woof Woof has been the undisputed favorite. And this has driven me crazy, especially in my early years of motherhood when I still had standards and when my OCD spirit was still optimistic….

Why did this particular stuffed dog drive me crazy? For purely prejudicial reasons. I didn’t like the way this dog looked. You see, the other stuffed animals were beautiful muted shades of blue and brown and green, teddy bears made of tweed with smart bow ties, creamy white stuffed polar bears, deep gray stuffed seals. These colors are all in my preferred color pallet, and so I tried to influence the boys’ choice in toys by surrounding them with my favorites, but they consistently reached for Woof Woof. (Free will is a funny thing, isn’t it?) See, Woof Woof is this garish shade of orange; one of Woof Woof’s arms is green, the other pink, one ear is purple, the other blue, the belly an even brighter orange. almost neon. You can’t miss him, to be sure, and you can’t lose him, God knows I tried several times to misplace or hide him. One time, even, the boys pulled him glaringly out of a bag destined for Good WIll. This is the beloved Woof Woof, and this week, the older two boys decided it was time for him to go (in their defense, they wanted Philip to give Woof Woof to their little sister on their dad’s side for her third birthday this week, which is sweet and noble). Philip, a tender-hearted boy, has struggled mightily with this. He stands poised with one foot firmly planted in childhood and one foot firmly planted in adolescence. He will be fine and will not be traumatized, because this is the definition of a first world problem. Nonetheless, watching this indecision regarding giving up this last remnant of childhood has been interesting and is directly related to today’s Scripture readings.

In an effort to offer a diplomatic solution, I asked Philip, “Can’t you choose something else to love?”

He says, “I don’t choose who I love, Mom.”

Yes, I realize we are talking about a stuffed animal here, but we’re actually talking about much more. We are talking about a person’s very being, and we’re talking about the inexplicable love of the human heart.

I don’t choose whom I love, Mom, says my 11-year old. Today he is referring to a stuffed animal named Woof Woof. In years to come, he will say this same thing regarding people, male or female, I don’t know and I don’t care. And he will come to realize you have no more control over the people you love as an adult than you did as a child with a death grip on a beloved stuffed animal. The heart alone leads in matters of love, leaving intellect, reason, religion and tradition in the dust. The human heart is a tender shoot, and in it resides a particular purity. And in this respect, the church has played its part in harming the tender human heart, especially in regards to its inclusivity–or more accurately–exclusivity of the LGBTQ community.

The church has left enough harmed tender shoots in its wake. It must change its ways, not because it is my particular personal social and political agenda, although that’s true. It must change its ways, because ways of inclusion–not exclusion–are God’s ways, that’s also true. Only very recently in history has the church made progress in the arena of human love. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopalian church was only in 2003. The ELCA allowed its clergy to be openly gay and allowed its clergy to perform same gender weddings only in 2009. These are steps but they aren’t solutions. The church needs to be more than just an institution that passes impressive-sounding resolutions or it will crumble into further irrelevance.  Instead, the church needs to be about working towards greater and greater inclusivity, not only in regards to sexuality, but in every way. May we gladly rediscover our sense of awe of the human heart, that tender seat of human love, in all of its expressions and manifestations.

Our reading from Ezekiel offers us stunning imagery in this respect, in that Ezekiel speaks of Messiah, whom Christians understand to be Jesus, as being a tender shoot, whom God plants on a high and lofty mountaintop, so that under his branches every bird and every creature will gather…and what more inclusive picture can Ezekiel paint than this?The tender shoot isn’t planted on a high and lofty mountaintop so that only the strong and mighty and powerful can gather under its branches, like some country club. The world doesn’t need another exclusive country club; that’s not Ezekiel’s vision of God’s kingdom, no, God’s desire is for all to gather under the branches and find shade and rest. There is strength and power in this image, for sure, a picture of a mighty cedar tree offering shade to all creatures, but it is a different kind of strength and power than we see in our world today.

The Bible doesn’t present Jesus as traditionally “strong” and masculine and macho; Jesus doesn’t enter into human history with a mighty procession (Palm Sunday is the opposite of that) as a tough guy or bully; in fact, Jesus doesn’t come to us in any predictable kingly way…flexing his muscles, swaggering like John Wayne (not that there’s anything wrong with John Wayne), challenging other men to a peeing contest, measuring whose whatever is bigger than whose–whether that be an army or appendage. Jesus doesn’t do this at all. In fact, even Jesus’ act of righteous aggression in Mark of flipping over the tables in the temple takes on a particular female edge if you’ve ever watched The Real Housewives of New Jersey. In short, Jesus decidedly does not embody all that is stereotypically masculine; Jesus embodies all that is completely human, and does so in a shockingly tender and new way that is neither male nor female, but entirely human.

A recurring theme in the Bible is that the small becomes mighty. So David is anointed king while still a young shepherd. God calls Jeremiah to prophesy while still a boy. God chooses Mary to be Jesus’ mother while she was still a young girl. And so on. There is biblical precedent for small, tender shoots growing into mighty branches in the Christian faith. We do not worship  kings Pharoah or Herod; instead we worship the one who became weak for our sake, who emptied himself of life so that we might be filled with life. God consistently lifts up the lowly by becoming lowly. We worship the one who shows us this new way–ultimate power in choosing to become weak, a God who decreases, so that we might increase….and what if we modeled that in how we relate to one another, in our friendships and families, a you first instead of me first that is based less on good morals, but on following in the footsteps of a servant God?

I love these Scriptures for Father’s Day, because they show us there is another way to be strong. There is the world’s way of enacting strength, which says things like, “boys don’t cry,” or “man up” or which flexes its muscle through threat, coercion and oppression. There is a worldly way that won’t even bake a wedding cake for two people of the same gender in the name of a Christian faith that does not speak for us all.  And then there is the way of Christ’s strength, who cries tears of compassion for the ones who are about to kill him, who prays for his enemies, who forgives an adulterous woman instead of calling for her execution, who heals a bleeding woman instead of convening a committee of men to determine the future of her uterus, who welcomes the crucified criminal next to him into his kingdom without first quizzing him on the catechism. There is another way of strength, a new way. There is the way of the servant God, the tender shoot of Jesus who grows into a mighty tree to nest and shade and offer refuge to all people; Jesus is the tender shoot who matures into a mighty tree of crucifixion, where the sin and shame of the whole world dies, where love is poured out on all.

There is special joy in this message this Father’s Day weekend, also PRIDE weekend in Iowa City, when we get to remind our fathers that Jesus embodies this new kind of strength, that there is an alternative to the popular machismo rampant in our news today, that, if we look to Jesus, we see that there truly is strength in compassion, there is power in vulnerability, that fortitude of character can also include things like empathy, mercy and forgiveness. I’m raising three boys who are asking questions like, “Is it ok for me to cry in public? Is it ok for me to wear a necklace under my baseball jersey that once belonged to my grandma? Is it ok for me to still love a stuffed animal?” The answers are of course yes.

And finally, how can we even speak of another way of modeling Christlike love and a new way of strength in this world without mentioning the horrific actions our country is taking at its southern border and the justification it is making by wrongly quoting the Bible? 2000 chidren separated from their parents in just 6 weeks? Prooftexting–or cherry picking Bible verses to prove one’s point–is a futile game for the dull and dimwitted. You can use the Bible to justify rape, incest or genocide if you wish. The Bible has been used to keep women in abusive relationships, legalize slavery and christen the atrocities of the Nazi regime. When we speak of the tender shoot of the human heart, how much more tender can we get than that of children, and furthermore children who have left their homeland behind and are now torn from their parents’ arms? There is no more tender and vulnerable population right now than this.

The biblical narrative of grace proves to us that Jesus would not rip away the infant from his mother’s breast. Jesus would not divide families, sending the little ones to sleep in cages like animals. And Jesus would certainly not appreciate our using his own words to justify these inhuman actions! Jesus himself was an immigrant child, for crying out loud!  Remember that? When the kings from the east came to pay homage to Jesus shortly after his birth, Jesus’ father Joseph was warned in a dream about King Herod’s intent to kill all infant baby boys, thus eradicating the newborn Jesus. Mary and Joseph take Jesus and emigrate to Egypt while Herod goes on his killing spree. They stay there until Herod dies and then return home. What if Jesus had been met at the Egyptian border by the same madness encountered at our southern border? What if he had been ripped from Mary’s breast and tossed into a cage like an animal? In short, you cannot claim the Christian faith and justify such actions. Even Pope Francis says, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian….It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am a Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.” Jeff Sessions and all these others who are biblically justifying these actions are doing so wrongly. I don’t know what Bible they’re reading and quoting, but it isn’t the Christian one. When these things are done in the name of Christianity, the church suffers, because our name and all that we claim and confess is publicly smeared, families suffer devastating pain and loss, and Christ suffers, because this is not God’s will.  When we speak of another way of strength, not the Jeff Sessions way, we speak of boldly opposing these actions, appealing to elected leaders, supporting partnership with the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project and their work with the immigrant population in our own backyard with increased fervor, and publicly denouncing this fake Christianity that makes the false claim that God is somehow pleased with what is going on.

This is not a digression; these current events offer a dimension to the vision Ezekiel lifts up before us, with Christ growing into a mighty cedar, so that creatures of every kind and every language and every ethnicity as well as every sexual orientation can find safety and take refuge in his branches. Ezekiel calls to us from 2500 years ago and says, “Here this is the image of God’s kingdom,” and we need his reminder now more than ever. Oppose, challenge, and subvert in the name of the weak and oppressed–this is the work of the Christian, because it is what Christ did.

Today we point to Jesus, who is Savior of both male and female and everyone in between, immigrant Son of God and Lord of all people, whether they know him or not, whether they confess him or not, whether they call him friend or spit on him–Jesus loves all people. We point to God the Father, creator of every living thing that creeps and crawls and walks and flies and swims, as God gives evolutionary power to the earth to do its thing, whose mighty arms protect, shield and embrace and do not divide. And we point to God the Spirit, who breathes on us and stamps us each with our own unique and beautiful image of God, who delights in our diversity, who calls to all people in all languages with the Gospel message of love and mercy and compassion.

When we speak of power in vulnerability, when we point to Jesus, who laughed and loved and cried even as we do, we call on the words from Malorie Blackman, in her book “Boys Don’t Cry”:

“Don’t you know that boys don’t cry?’ my friend Adam grinned.

“Shall I tell you something I’ve only recently discovered,” I replied, not attempting to hide the tears rolling down my face and not the least bit ashamed of them. ‘Boys don’t cry,’ but real men do.”

Jesus wept, and he was a man, and a pretty amazing one. He shows strength in being the embodiment of God’s complete love, in dying for all people on the cross, and in offering rest and safety and refuge to all creatures in his holy branches, including little dogs I may not like because of what color they are, your transgender neighbor, and the little child sleeping in a cage.

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