“Death Becomes You”

This sermon was inspired by several people: Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Valarie Bridgeman, Academic Dean at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, and Lois Malcolm at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

Just a few days ago, there was a gathering of 2,500 people at the National City Christian Church in Washington, DC. Another 700 filled a nearby Lutheran church that opened its doors for overflow. Later that night, this group conducted a candlelight procession that ended at the White House, and more than 100,000 watched by live stream. The people who had come together were part of a new organization called, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” By “crisis,” they mean not only the President and those around him but the spiritual crisis of the nation that put him there. They intentionally decided to avoid using the word “Christians” and instead refer to themselves as followers of Jesus, which is understandable at a time when “Christians” are often found rationalizing or even promoting what followers of Jesus would find abhorrent. The political culture of lies, racism and misogyny. Turning away the sick and the poor. Exploitation of land and sea. And separating immigrant children from their parents. In a late May study, 68% of White evangelical Protestants say the U.S. has no responsibility to accept refugees from around the world. 45,000 will be admitted this year, the smallest number since 1980.

This is but a short list of crises we are experiencing.

In our Gospel text, Paul was dealing with crises too. The church community in Corinth, and Paul himself, were inundated by charges of “vacillation and callousness,” among other things. It had gotten so stressful in Corinth that Paul didn’t travel there on this trip and instead he sent Titus to deliver this second letter that we read from. Paul’s teachings had caused so much conflict that, in his words, he chose “to spare them” from his presence. Not visiting with this community that he loved was painful for him. “We have this treasure in clay jars… we are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

In the midst of all that was going on around them, Paul reminded his friends not to lose hope. And the clay jars—common, cheap and fragile earthenware—are simply a metaphor for the vulnerability of our mortal existence. But Paul doesn’t depict these extreme hardships in order to highlight his own strength amid adversity. Later in the letter he mocks displays of prowess. And he does not present hardships as an ideal of suffering to follow. Instead, his point is to stress that God’s “shining” through us occurs precisely as we rely solely on God’s promises of justice and mercy in spite of what may happen to us. He says, “We are given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in the way we live—in our flesh. Death is at work in us, but the life of Jesus is also in you.”

What defines our identity is nothing other than embodying Jesus’ life. In other words, we no longer need to live to preserve our identities as Christians or progressives, or anything else. We can let our identities and all the baggage attached to it die and simply be followers of Jesus in spite of what happens to us. Death is not always a tragedy. We can let our identities and all the baggage attached to it die and simply be followers of Jesus. In this way, death becomes you. I know that I need to let go of my tendency to be overbearing and harsh in times of high tension and pressure. When I get that way, people around me shut down and my relationships suffer. And that means my relationship with God suffers.

So I ask you to take a minute of silence to think about this question: what parts of your life can you let go of— or let die—in order to live your life more fully as a follower of Jesus? I’m not going to ask you to shout it out or anything like that. Just take a moment of quiet and have a conversation between you and God. What parts of your life can you let go of— or let die—in order to live your life more fully as a follower of Jesus?

Let’s explore this a little further in our Old Testament reading from the book of Samuel. First of all, who was Samuel’s mom? [ Hannah ]. Hannah is distraught, as she was unable to have a child and she promises God that if she has a son that the boy will be faithful to God. Hannah has Samuel, who becomes one of only two biblical characters who are identified as a Nazarite. Nazarites took a special vow in exchange for receiving special gifts from God. Samuel’s birth made her sing, and she sang a famous and prophetic song that leads me to believe she was as much a prophet as Samuel would become. As a boy, Samuel hears a voice that he doesn’t recognize as God. The story of Samuel, though, doesn’t begin with God’s voice. Rather it starts with his mother, who bore him, prayed for him, and who sang over him. This prequel to Samuel’s call ought to invite us to consider our own call. This is from Psalm 139:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. I was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

Samuel was known to God before he was born and we also were known beforehand. Three times God spoke to Samuel before he had his “a-ha” moment, with the help of Eli. If nothing else, this story shows that God is persistent. But it also shows that if we are open to receiving God’s word, God is still speaking.

Those in the “Reclaiming Jesus” organization have created a “Confession,” a statement of clarity about what God is calling us to say and do, and in what God is calling us to believe and reject. The Confession reads:

WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness.

We REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership.

We BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class.

We REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God.

WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself.

We REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God.

WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives.

WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.

WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.

We REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.

We BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples.

We REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.

There are no guarantees that our call will be easy. As followers of Jesus, we will surely experience crises. But each of us is called to be a prophet. Each is called is to continue to listen for the Voice, and then to speak and do what we hear. God, speak to us. Your servants are listening. Amen