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The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2023

The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Sermon for June 25, 2023 | Pentecost IV
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

As many of you know, we live and worship in a region of the country where the majority of the population – some 65% – have no experience of religion, none whatsoever, or they identify loosely with some form of religion but rarely if ever practice it. This means that those of us who gather here and in other houses of worship are clearly in the minority. We receive no cultural signals that promote participation in religion. Indeed, our US senators, both practicing Catholics, have never mentioned their religious affiliation in their campaigns for public office. And why would they? Isn’t it better to keep quiet about one’s religious identity or one’s faith for fear of sounding odd or preachy or just too “evangelical”?

Let me tell you, during my recent sojourn in Texas, I was struck by the easy manner with which the concierge at the hotel where I was staying asked me if I needed to find a place of worship while I was visiting her city. I was struck by participants at the conference I was attending who asked me if I was bringing my university students into a personal relationship with the Lord: something that had never crossed my mind since the university is not a church. I mean I was tempted to say, “None of your business,” but then thought that might not be the best response from a priest and a professor at a church-related school.

To tell the truth, we live in a society of compartments: religion private, politics public; spirituality private, sports public; morality private, entertainment public. In our region, many would say, “Keep your spirituality or moral convictions to yourself.” “You do your religious thing; just don’t let it creep across the fence from your yard into mine.” In other words, keep quiet. And my guess is that many of us might be perfectly content with all this because we’ve been raised to believe that our religious affections and affiliation are truly private.

It’s not surprising, then, to hear historians of religion and of culture claiming that religion in the U.S. serves a largely therapeutic function for many people: if anything, religion should make me feel good or at least better about myself; if anything, religious practice should empower the individual to become, in that now very tired cliché, the best version of oneself. And if it doesn’t, no worries. One can always find a therapist or life coach. I sometimes wonder, then, if Karl Marx was on to something when he wrote that religion can become an addictive drug that anesthetizes its practitioners to other people and the suffering of this world, an opium that leads them to focus only on themselves and their personal comfort.

Here’s the problem: if you view religion as something solely personal and private, the last thing you might want to hear is this: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” “Do not think that I have come to bring peace.” “Take up your cross.” “Lose your life.” At first glance, none of that sounds very private nor very empowering. What is Matthew’s Jesus suggesting with these uncomfortable words?

I am mindful of John Lewis, the US Congressman from Georgia, who marched with Dr. King and was one of the first to be bloodied in 1965 by racist police in the now famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. What few people know is that Lewis began his public life as a Baptist minister, a man who recognized in the gospels the charter for creating a Beloved Community of love and forgiveness, justice and peace, in the midst of political corruption, religious apathy, and economic hardship. What did Lewis say? “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this earth … Now, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of this nation.”

One might well ask, what does “good trouble” look like? Well, I’ve seen it in the members of this parish who have demonstrated peacefully on the streets before city hall in favor of environmental sustainability; in members of this parish who have testified on behalf of the homeless before a hostile city council; in a parish grandmother who has intervened in a family conversation and told her adult children that she will not abide their disparagement of people who identify as gay or lesbian; in the members of this parish who have worked tirelessly to ensure that all citizens can vote; in members of this parish who publicly support Advocates for Immigrants in Detention at a time when a good many elected officials in the nation demonize those who seek asylum and work. Indeed, is Lewis’ charge – to get into good trouble – not the very thing we promise to do when we renew the sacred vows of Holy Baptism that commit us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to work for God’s justice and peace?

In 1902, the Chicago journalist and syndicated columnist, Finley Dunne, wrote that the function of a free press is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Very quickly the phrase was adapted in this manner: “It is the business of the church to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable … for it is the very thing that Jesus did.” But is that so? We don’t seem to have too much difficulty in comforting the afflicted … but in afflicting the comfortable, including our own comfortable selves?

I am struck by the fact that each week we gather at this altar to encounter the presence of the crucified and risen Christ: someone who was put to death precisely for his affliction of the comfortable, the corrupt, the powerful, of those who viewed religion as nothing more than a comforting cocoon that sheltered them from others and the suffering of this world. I don’t know about you, but there are moments when I wonder if I should receive that presence into my often safe, comfortable, and timid life. Because to do so, would ask something of me, of you, dear friends, something more than thinking, talking, and praying about how we might seek out and serve Christ, and promote God’s justice and peace. As one receives the bread and then the chalice, the ancient response is not to remain silent or say Thank you but to say Amen: that is, “Let it be so.” Yes, I say, let it be so in my life, your life, as we walk out that door into a world that needs our good trouble. AMEN.




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