Apr 15, 2008

Sermon Title: Sinners under the Eyes of a Gracious God

Christopher Lee Halverson
M.Div. Student, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
Fourth Place, April 2008 Round

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today John shouts out from the Gospel of Matthew “Repent!” “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” God is going to rule in this world with power and might. “Now, I know,” John probably admitted to the cynics, “it might seem like the glory, and might, and rule of Israel has been crushed by Roman, by Greece, by Babylon, by Assyria, by its own people in the civil war between the Northern and Southern kingdom. It might seem like Israel is just a stump, nothing more than rot and ruin.” Yet, John believes something is about to happen. The history of Israel’s domination is about to be overturned. The great eschatological judgement has come!

John is announcing God’s coming rule. He is making way for God’s vice-regent to come baptizing with “The Holy Spirit and Fire.” And when God rules His promises are fulfilled. This vice-regent is a Davidic king who is coming to return to the throne of Israel. There will be an idealized king, an ideal David. A David, filled with the justice and the righteousness of God—A David who defends the poor—A David who, in the words of Isaiah, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

This is a scary proposition; this is a proclamation not to be taken lightly. When the religious leaders came down to the river Jordan where John was baptizing, they did not fully grasp this fact.

“He sees what you really have done!” says John. “Seriously! Repent! For the one that is coming sees the inner heart, he gazes beneath the fear of wrath, down to the center of your soul! Do you really want to draw attention to yourself with a fearful repentance, a repentance of convenience, of cowardliness… of covenant? That Abraham stuff isn’t going to cover you! This man who is coming sees things as they are, and he’s going to separate out the wheat from the chaff, and ‘the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’.”

Here is seems John the Baptist is channeling Jonathan Edwards, preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame, who wrote, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”… or perhaps Johnathan Edwards’ was channeling John the Baptist. At any rate, John is calling for repentance and warning that presumptions of righteousness are just not going to cut it, for he, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

An image that comes to my mind when I think of the difference between exterior and interior, between perception and reality, an image from my experiences with Mkate wa Leo, the homeless ministry my seminary is involved in, is Philadelphia’s City Hall. It is located in the center of the city. The iconic Love Park is near by, as is our slightly less famous landmark, the giant clothespin found in Center Square Plaza. City Hall a large beautiful building, Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn stands in statue form atop it. The mayor has an office there; the city council meets there.

But there is another side, an underside if you will, to this place. Underneath this building there is a series of underground walkways leading to SEPTA public transportation and to several shops. Off to one side, past an elevator, there is a fairly vacant section. Here, on hard concrete floors, propped against unyielding concrete pillars, one can find the homeless. Collapsed cardboard boxes for both pillow and bed, the far corner used as a urinal, this is where they live. A far cry from the powers above—the power brokers, and deal makers. This above ground monument, is in reality a mausoleum, a white washed tomb. If one uproots this stump the roots show, the underside appears.

“The worst thing about being homeless” I was once told, “is that people don’t see you, its like you become invisible.” This statement was later affirmed by Philadelphia’s own head of the Office of Supportive Housing. “Some people believe ‘the ideal solution is to do something so they can’t visibly see the homeless.” [1] Looking at the dual nature of the City Hall and noticing the action of looking away from the homeless, how can we say anything other than “Repent!” For he, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

Philadelphia has a serious homeless problem. People are living in destitution right underneath our noses and embedded in the very bowls of our city, and yet we have put on magical blinders that have given us such tunnel vision that we do not see our sisters and brothers suffering on the street. Our vision has become myopic, but more than that it has been curved in upon itself. After all why do we refuse to see? Because it would inconvenience us—because it would take time out of our day—because it might force us to see the similarity between we and they, I and thou.

The neglect of our neighbor has gotten so bad—the crowds of homeless in center city have become so gigantic—that even the most firmly entrenched blinders have scrapped against and been jarred by the homeless. The Mayor elect has described the situation so: “when day turns to dusk, Center City becomes ‘a Philadelphia version of a South African shantytown’.” [2] Having been so offended by squalor in the city streets action is being taken. There is a political solution in the works here in Philadelphia. Instead of the band-aid of shelters and handouts, the very area I have focused my own energies on, the city will focus on getting people houses. This is wonderful, no doubt about it! This really will help people, transform lives, and maybe even the city!

Yet, John the Baptist, informed by Isaiah and bristling at Pharisaic falsity, echoes in my ears. “Seriously! Repent! For the one that is coming sees the inner heart, he gazes beneath the fear of wrath, down to the center of your soul!” The problem of homelessness in Philadelphia is not simply sociological. We are still a people moved only by shantytowns in our backyards. We still have magical blinders bound to our eyes like perverse phylacteries. We are still curved in upon ourselves. The root problem of the eyes, of human indifference to the despoilment of the image of God indelibly possessed by our brothers and sisters, has not been changed. The root and foundation of our personal City Hall is still build in blindness.

I feel that the three words immediately after today’s gospel reading are so important to remember and read when reflecting upon the fire of John the Baptist, “Then Jesus came.”

The mighty King of Israel, the Great and Terrible Judge, this hatchet swinging hack, this thresher of men, pitchfork in hand, is none other than Lord Jesus. If there is anyone we hope can straighten out sight and heal hearing it would be he. Jesus who makes the blind see and the deaf hear. The anointed who is baptized with sinner folk, the son of man who has no place to lay his head. Yes, the ax is at the edge of the rotten stump, ready to uproot the whole thing. But that ax is not picked up; it sits there by the tree, rusting. Instead, a tiny leaf pops out of that old stump; a shoot of green stretches out of the dead tree trunk.

This is not fantasy—nor something located exclusively in Jesus’ generation, recorded for our mere edification—nor something we can only hope for in the future. We are caught up between these two times, yearning for both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection. And here we are given a foretaste. Radical transformation rooted in other centered love is possible. New birth is possible.

A little over five years ago now I was volunteering at a homeless shelter in Wyoming, transporting laundry and donations by van. Sometimes a shelter resident would ride with and help me load or unload things.

There was one resident in particular who would ride with me often. He happened to have a swastika prominently tattooed on his forehead. We worked together for several weeks and during that time I did my best to pretend I didn’t see his tattoo. I put on my blinders, because his appearance made me uncomfortable.

Then one day we were driving along and he said to me, “I know you look at it.”

“Look at what?” I asked.

“The swastika,” he replied.

I was this close to responding “What swastika,” but, by that time, I was staring at his forehead instead of the road, so I replied guiltily, “yeah. I do.”

“I got it while I was in prison down in Denver,” he said. This is, of course, just the kind of thing you want to hear while alone with a guy twice your size.

“Oh.” I said, looking back at the road.

He then told me how he had hated blacks and latinos, though he used much stronger language than that.

“Oh,” I replied again, limply.

He continued, “Then I got out. No landlord wanted an ex-con as a renter. The only place that would let me in was an African American co-op. It took a while, but I just couldn’t hate them any more.”

Christ turns us toward our brothers and sisters, so that we may see! That we may, like Francis of Assisi, turn to a leper and see Christ. That we may see a branch rise up from the root of Jessie. That we might see the kingdom of God, painfully not yet here, yet extraordinarily already here.

Amen and Alleluia.

1 http://www.philly.com/inquirer/hot_topics/15848292.html