Sermon–February 18, 2018


Lent 1—Year B

February 18, 2018

William Bradbury

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

The first letter of John offers this truth: “Whoever does not love abides in death.” But as a species we know how to deal with such truths, don’t we! We turn love into a feeling, even a very deep feeling! Like, “I feel terrible about those poor students and teachers who were murdered in Parkland Florida on Ash Wednesday.”

But John is a disciple of Jesus, so he isn’t taken in by emotions if they are not backed up by our actions. As he says, four verses later: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”


What do we say about those who have at least some power to enact laws to make it harder for mentally ill, homicidal teenagers to purchase military-style assault weapons, and yet do absolutely nothing?

According to John, no matter how deeply we feel, if we do nothing, then what we are feeling isn’t the love made visible in Jesus Christ, because Jesus enacts his love. John writes: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us….

Paul also understands Jesus and his love the same way, as he says today: “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous….”

Christ laid down his life…Christ suffered for sins once for all: Why?

Two reasons—For John, because Christ laid down his life for us, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” 

For Paul, “Christ suffers for us once for all… in order to bring us to God”.

Of course these are not two different reasons, but two sides of the same reason: to be brought to God is to be transformed into little Christs (which is what the word Christian means) who lay down their lives for others.

I think I know now a little how Carlyle Marney, a Southern Baptist and one of the greatest preachers of the last century, felt, when during the height of racial injustice in the 1960s, said he had stopped asking God to end the systemic evil of racism against Blacks, because it would take city councils across the south just one vote to end legal segregation and these city councils were largely run by members who belonged to his denomination.  Why bother the Almighty to fix something that could be easily handled by those who claim to serve Christ?

That’s like asking God to stop water coming out of a garden hose belonging to our neighbor who is standing right next to the spigot.

Friday morning the headline of an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Timothy Egan reads: “Stuff the thoughts, hold the prayers and do something to stop school shootings.”

Egan writes: “The next politician to express sorrow over the slaughter of students at a school without offering any specific remedy should be run out of office, for cowardice and failure to protect American children.”

So what do we do as those who have received the enacted love of Jesus Christ?  

It depends on what part of the problem engages you, where Holy Spirit leads you.

If your focus is ending the sale of assault-style military weapons with large ammunition clips, then get involved in fighting the wealthy companies who make millions off of the sale of these weapons, and whose sales go up after such shootings, and help lawmakers have the courage to take on the gun lobby.

If your focus is on mental health, then work for the improvement of the mental health of teenagers and for the improvement of the agencies that are charged with identifying kids sliding toward violence.

If your focus is school security, then work for meaningful security in our schools, like those who live in gated communities do in Parkland, Florida.

Maybe we all can agree that these shootings are a symptom that our social order is quite sick and therefore that it will take the good will and good action of a significant percentage of people to work together to heal us.

But now I want to take issue with Carlyle Marney’s decision to quit praying for God to heal broken social systems. Jesus himself is driven, we are told, to face the forces that deform human being during his 40 days in the desert. He doesn’t run from them but confronts them, and not just for 40 days but during his entire ministry, until the last great confrontation when the evil systems put him on the cross and he lets them—so that by their evil they end up destroying themselves.

This story shows that Jesus doesn’t just heal this person and that person, while leaving the social systems untouched so they can continue to destroy people.

It will not do to say, as some do, that is Jesus religious but not political. To be political means to care about the “polis”, which in ancient Greek means a city-state, where the people are.

I got some new tires the other day and I was thinking, if the tire business ever got slow all they’d have to do is pour a barrel of nails on the streets of Chelmsford and Lowell and there’d be lots of new business pulling nails out of tires.

But at some point someone is going to ask the question, “why are so many tires getting nails in them”, and instead of just taking one nail out at a time, which is a big help, he’s going into the streets to find the source of the nails and see what can be done about fixing the source of the problem.

So too Jesus is concerned with healing the systems of oppression, inequality, and injustice that is cause so much sickness to spread.

Therefore when he trains us to pray, he doesn’t say, Now I want you to ask God just to heal one person at a time, as good as that would be. Rather, he tells us to pray, “Abba, Father, your Commonwealth come, your purpose be done, in our world as in your heaven.”

As we pray we are committing ourselves to cooperate with Christ in healing those systems that work against the creatures of God.

Paul reminds us “in Ephesians 6:  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Even if you don’t want to take this description of spiritual forces literally, Paul’s description still functions as a metaphor for powerful social systems, from family systems to national systems to corporate business systems, that can either deform people or contribute to human flourishing.

Eugene Sutton, the bishop of Maryland told some of the clergy last week that Jesus was political but not partisan. I like that!

And the bishop calls on us, like Jesus, to love people and have positions, and not vice versa.

“Whoever does not love abides in death.”

So we are joined with Jesus in his consecrated life that enacts the love that lays the foundation for the Commonwealth of his Abba.