The Signs Point To…

There are no two ways about it: our Gospel reading for this morning is tough. How do we respond to this Jesus who challenges us, calling us hypocrites and telling us that we don’t know how to interpret the world around us? This is not the image of Jesus that we want to resonate with. This is not the same Jesus we will meet in just a few months, as a babe in his mother’s arms, while the angels proclaim, “Peace on earth! Goodwill to all!” This is not the gentle teacher and healer who we encounter throughout Luke’s gospel, or even the Jesus from earlier in this chapter of Luke, who instructed his disciples not to worry about how they would care for themselves, because God desires nothing more than to care for them.

Or is it?

Jesus is well into his years of ministry now, and well into his journey to the cross. From the very beginning, when he read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then preached that the scripture had been fulfilled that day in the hearing of the assembled Galileans, he was very clear on his mission. His mission was the cross: that through his death and resurrection he would provide forgiveness of sins for all people, for all time. And he demonstrated this again and again through his words and his deeds.

Throughout his ministry, we see him offering sign after sign supporting this proclamation that the prophet Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled: he healed lepers and dined with tax collectors and sinners, declaring to the Pharisees, “those who are well have no need of a physician.” He preached, “blessed are the poor….but woe to you who are rich.” He raised the dead. He sent out the seventy, giving them the power to cast out demons and to reject those towns that did not offer their hospitality. Over and over, those who are healed from disease or demon, those who find blessing or salvation in Jesus’ presence and words, are saved because of their faith. 

And the writer of Hebrews echoed these signs: in the first part of our reading for today, he lists prophets, kings, and ordinary people – starting with the Hebrew slaves, on the run from the powers that be in Egypt who forced labor from them. He continues with Rahab the prostitute, an outsider who sheltered Joshua’s spies when they went to get the lay of the land in Jericho. Yes, he talks about acts of power and might – conquering kingdoms, being mighty in war – but he also talks about those who are powerless – mocked and flogged, tormented and persecuted. The great common denominator between all of them was their faith. 

And not just faith as in a passive noun, something that you just have and maybe take for granted; no, these people – both the people who were changed by Jesus and the people that the writer of Hebrews cites – allowed their faith to shape them, and to push them to action. 

This can be threatening to the people around them, the people who don’t see the world 

through the lens of faith as a catalyst to service. We see this playing out in the gospel of Luke. The Pharisees – the sect of Judaism that most strictly interpreted the law of Moses in the centuries before and after Jesus lived – were so threatened that he would upset not only their interpretation of the law, but their very way of life, they collaborated with the Jewish authorities and even with the might of Rome itself to remove Jesus as a threat. 

Where do we fit into this picture? Who are we in these stories? Are we the disciples? 

Are we the Pharisees? What about the Israelites or the Egyptians, Rahab or the people of Jericho, Samson or the Philistines, David or Saul?

Or do we, like most people the world over and throughout history, defy simple categorization? Are we people who just want to go about our lives, trying in our simple way to live the way Jesus wants us to live, taking care of our families and those who suffer in our communities, and tut-tutting over the greater societal problems because we don’t think we can make a difference, and what does Jesus really expect us to do, anyway?

But let me ask you: what signs do you see today? How do we interpret the present time?

Five years ago, riots and civil unrest erupted for five nights after the shooting death of Michael Brown. In the five years since, there have been 4,400 fatal shootings by police. 

Unarmed African-American men are four times more likely to die in a police shooting than unarmed white men. Thirty-six percent of all unarmed people who are fatally shot by police are African-American. For comparison, only 13% of the total population of the U.S. is African-American. African-American parents routinely teach their children that the police are a threat. With statistics like these, it’s not hard to see why.

This is indicative of a larger culture of gun violence in our country. Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook, there have been 2,182 mass shootings, resulting in 2,462 killed and over 9,000 wounded. This has continued to occur despite the overall decline in the rate of murder and violent crime in the U.S. But even given that declining rate, 

39,000 people died of gun-related injuries in 2016. Fourteen thousand of these deaths were homicides, and 23,000 were suicides.

Just over two years ago, white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, 

shouting “Jews will not replace us!” while students from the University of Virginia counter-protested. Riots erupted, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in Charlottesville. One person died, and several more were injured, when they were rammed by a vehicle driven by a white nationalist.

Violence perpetrated by white nationalists was responsible for at least 40 deaths in 2018, including the 17 students shot at Parkland and the 11 killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Other white nationalists work to change the public discourse by employing tactics such as a lack of empathy, extreme rhetoric, and the willingness to dehumanize those who disagree with them. 

Trans people are also at risk for being victims. Some of this is the commission of violent acts against them; trans women of color are at particularly high risk of being assaulted or killed. But other types of victimization are the direct or indirect result of the way the propaganda of white nationalists and anti-LGBT groups have impacted our public discourse, as well as our sense of responsibility to care for those who are different from us. Recently, a young trans woman who had not had gender-affirming surgery was involved in a car accident. When paramedics responded to the scene and discovered her male anatomy, they stopped treating her and started mocking her. She was transported to the ER, where she was not treated and died of blood loss.

White nationalist rhetoric in the U.S. continues to increase, lumping those who seek asylum (a legally-protected process at the border) with those who seek to cross the border illegally, impacting both government policies and the popular imagination.

This summer, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen of Hispanic descent, who has never lived outside the United States, was detained by ICE for a month and accused of forging his documents. He is only one of hundreds of cases over the past few years. 

Children and their parents are separated by force, held in camps that Holocaust survivors label concentration camps. While not everyone agrees with this label, most agree that the extreme temperatures and lack of food, water, and basic sanitation is inhumane.

Are you paying attention to these signs? How do we interpret the present time? Do you see a post on social media regarding Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that calls them a vile, profane name or wishes ill for them, and bemoan the words about the person you support while praising the words going the other way? Whatever your thoughts on immigration reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the rights of people to own assault-style rifles, how do you view the people on the other side of the debate? Do you bemoan the level of public discourse while expecting the other side to elevate their game first? Do you allow hate speech – of any sort – to stand when you encounter it? 

Do you see a connection between the violence that we inflict on each other with our words and the dehumanization that occurs when we start to talk about “us” versus “them”?

Do you see a connection between the dehumanization that we inflict on each other with our ideas, and the level of violence in society? 

How do we interpret the present time? Where does Christ call us in the midst of these troubled and frightening times? 

These signs of terror, of violence, and of hate are not the only signs visible to us. In our own community, we work to feed the hungry and clothe the naked among us. And we do so without regard to religion, race, or ethnicity. 

Some of the kids who survived the Parkland shooting, as well as parents of children who died at Sandy Hook, have become activists, working to bring about an end to gun violence in our country. 

A lawyer gave up her place in a high-profile law firm in LA to move back to El Paso to fight on behalf of refugees who have been wrongfully imprisoned at the border. 

Border Servant Corps, a ministry of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Crucez, New Mexico, has been working for years to ensure that immigrants who cross the border 

have access to needed resources, such as clothing, food, and assistance with bus passes to where jobs are waiting for them.

At the Churchwide Assembly just over a week ago, the gathered delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring the ELCA a sanctuary denomination, 

saying that we believe that Christ calls us to welcome the stranger, including immigrants and refugees, advocating for reform to the immigration system and for treating refugees and immigrants humanely. It is left up to each individual congregation to determine what this means in our daily practice of faith. 

At a candidacy retreat that I attended this past week, our bishop-elect, Susan Candea, 

shared with some of us that fully one third of the conference of bishops of the ELCA are women, for the first time in history. She said that these women are the most diverse in age of any group of bishops in the history of the ELCA, and include a native Puerto Rican and a woman whose first language is German, as well as an African-American woman elected from an overwhelmingly white synod. In addition, the conference of bishops includes two openly gay bishops for the first time in history. Her words of hope to us were that she sees a church eager to embrace diversity and change, electing leaders to help bring that change about. 

So how do we interpret the present time? Where do all of these signs point, both the terrifying and the hopeful? 

I believe they point to the cross. I believe that, in this time of great challenge and great change, Jesus asks us to accompany him on his journey. Jesus asks us to stake everything in our lives on the notion that our only saving grace is to be found in Christ. 

I believe that, if we REALLY believe that Christ is our sure and only salvation, Jesus asks us to act like it, stepping out and speaking up in faith and love. If we believe that Christ is our sure and only salvation, Jesus tells us that the cross will be the mirror 

through which everything else we see, do, and say is reflected. The filter for our words and deeds will be, “does Jesus call me to say or do this?”

As the Reverend Lenny Duncan said in his book “Dear Church,” “If we are dividing what is life giving from what is empire, if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t, 

if we are dividing what is love from what is hate, then we are walking the path of our savior.” Jesus calls us to renounce hate – in all its forms, whenever and wherever we encounter it – and actively work to bring about the kingdom whenever and however we can, in ways large and small: by pushing back against hate speech whenever we hear it, however common, however insidious. By elevating our own game so that we don’t dehumanize another group of people, by word or by deed, by accident or on purpose. 

By listening to how Jesus calls each of us to join the fight against gun violence, or racism, or the inhumane treatment of people based on their ethnic or gender identity. By following the signs to the cross. 

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