Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 6, 2021
“Today We Believe”
The shock has begun to wear off, and now the questions are being asked.
January 6, 2021 will become a day recorded in our country’s history when we witnessed the fractures and the fragility of our democracy. We do not yet know if the attack on the US Capitol was evidence of the end of something, the “fever breaking” as columnist David Brooks described; or did we witness the beginning of something, leading our country to a place we once thought unimaginable. The shadows are still too thick for us to see clearly. But even though we are not able to see clearly, the feeling of distress, of dis-ease, cannot be ignored. We are breathless, our chests clenched tight, our bones weary from it all. The temptation is to remain numb, to shut down and hope the storm passes quickly. The questions bubbling to the surface of our collective and civil life may feel like too much, too complicated, too raw. But, my Beloved Community, the questions are vital – and even though it may feel frightening, we must begin to ask them.
Upon my ordination into Christian ministry, I took a vow in which I promised to minister with impartiality. I have an extremely strict interpretation of that vow and the accompanying ethical behavior I believe it requires. Amongst other things, I maintain that vow by never sharing my personal political opinions – not from the pulpit or in private conversation with anyone to whom I am a minister first. I am not perfect at this, but I strive to be the best I can be at living into that holy requirement that moderates my behavior and my words.
I feel it is important to remind you of this because what I want to reflect on with you today has nothing to do with politics. I will leave that to others. But what we witnessed on Wednesday was not about politics and I believe there are very real implications for the Christian church that we must confront.
Of all the images from that day that continue to haunt me the most, it is this: in the sea of violent rioters, I saw the flag of the Christian church being carried. The very same flag that we display in our own sanctuary. There were other flags invoking the name of Jesus, even one I saw that said “Jesus/Trump” – essentially placing those two in equal standing, a statement of profound idolatry. But, that is not what horrified me the most. It was seeing that flag, this very one we display, that shook me to my core.
Christian nationalists engaged in an attack on our government, attempting to overturn the will of the people, and in so doing left five people dead. And as a Christian church, we must ask ourselves what this means. We must ask ourselves what responsibility this leaves us with, and not allow ourselves to shut our eyes and wave it off with the shallow assurance of “that is not who we are, so we assume no accountability.” We do. We must. Otherwise we are complicit in the subverting of the Gospel.
Before I go on, I must pause and first offer my own confession and repent of my silence as your pastor on the rise of Christian nationalism. While I have at times spoken about it and we have had a few conversations about it, I thought of it as only a fascinating cultural phenomenon. Something to be looked at and studied, but so far removed from my reality that I never viewed it as a threat. Every religion has their extremists, I told myself, and because what I preach and teach is in direct opposition to it, I don’t need to denounce it. People know that is not who I am, and besides – they don’t need to be taken seriously anyway. But, on Wednesday as I saw someone carrying the flag of the Christian church to which I have dedicated my life through the rotunda of the US Capitol, I finally realized just how naïve I have been. I stand before you and repent of my sinful silence. And I humbly ask for forgiveness and grace from you and from God.
Christian nationalism is not a new phenomenon, and it most certainly did not begin with the presidency of Donald Trump. Its history can be traced back to the founding of this country. As much as we may like to, Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the rise of Christian nationalism. His hateful rhetoric may have emboldened the movement, but it did not create it. And Christian nationalism will not go away at noon on January 20th.
Mainline and progressive Christians have long wrung their hands in frustration as the world only seems to pay attention to those Christian organizations, leaders, and churches that focus on building walls to keep people out, instead of opening doors in radical inclusion. When the media speaks of Christianity it feels like they only focus on those who are preaching messages meant to shame and isolate people, trying to create a set of moral and ethical standards that are found nowhere in the teachings of Jesus Christ. As a minister in a progressive Christian denomination, I ask myself, “what are we doing wrong – why is no one noticing what we are doing, and what we are about?” When I introduce myself to a stranger, why do I feel compelled to explain myself, and why is it necessary that I far too often need to apologize for the pain my religion has caused people?
And why is that I need to now reconcile the public display of the flag of the Christian church in this sanctuary, with the public display of the exact same flag in the midst of an insurrectionist mob?
I don’t yet have the answers to these questions. All I know is that I, we, must ask them and struggle to find the answers. We have a responsibility to challenge those who claim the mantel of Christianity but use their words and actions to cause fear, chaos, pain, and death. And we do not have the luxury of ignoring or dismissing that fear, chaos, pain, and death done falsely in the name of Jesus Christ.
I do not yet have the answers to these questions, but I am asking that we seek them together as a community of faith. The task will never be complete, but we must begin, and I believe we must begin by turning to the ancient scriptures which have guided people of faith as they too sought answers. The scriptures are full of wisdom, some comforting and some uncomfortable, for us to draw on. But there is one story that has been on my mind this week. It comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan river and has been tempted by evil in the wilderness. We are now with Jesus as he returns to the town of his childhood. From the Gospel of Luke 4:16-30
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Jesus begins his ministry by declaring that the Lord’s favor is now upon the people. That the people, oppressed by the Roman Empire, would be free of their captivity. This is what the people were praying for, this is what the people had been waiting centuries for. And here was Jesus saying that their prayers were answered. The people rejoiced!
But, Jesus did not simply bask in their praise for telling them what they wanted to hear. He didn’t seize the opportunity presented to him – to embolden his own power by zeroing in on a message that would grow his base. Instead, he used the platform he was given to point to God and the radical love and inclusion of God – the radical love and inclusion Jesus was saying the people of God must emulate. Their prayers for God’s favor have indeed been answered Jesus said, but God’s favor is not exclusive for them. No, God’s favor extends to everyone – even those who you do not like. Jesus reminds the people that in the time of Elijah, many people were hungry and hurting, but God sent Elijah to a widow in Sidon – a people who were despised by the those listening to Jesus’ message. There were many lepers in the time of Elisha, but God cleansed only one, a Syrian – a people who were despised by those listening to Jesus’ message.
In Jesus’ first sermon, he told the people that God’s love was not exclusive to just those in front of him but was meant for everyone, even those who were hated by those listening to him. Jesus declared God’s favor was not exclusive, instead it was so inclusive it stretched the understanding of humanity. This was a bold and brave message, one for which Jesus was almost killed, because the scriptures describe that he was very nearly thrown off a cliff for his words of love and justice and equality.
Jesus had the opportunity to amass power and a following by telling a select group of people exactly what they wanted to hear – that they were better than the ‘other’, that God’s favor was meant just for them and no one else. He could have used that message to point to himself and to manipulate the people around him. But he did not. The teacher of our Christian faith instead taught the people that in the eyes of God all were equal, and that even though it may make you uncomfortable, or even angry, to be seen as equal to someone who looks, thinks, or acts different that you, we are all bound together in the same human family and we must live together in community. A community that shares abundantly, that denounces hate and self-aggrandizement, that works together to solve problems, and that makes clear that every person is a perfect reflection of God.
Christian nationalism corrupts this lesson and therefore corrupts our faith. As Christians we must openly and publicly condemn this corruption, and loudly and boldly proclaim the Gospel. We must not be shy or afraid, we must not keep silent. People tried to destroy the message of Jesus and tried to silence him – but Jesus passed through their midst and went on his way. He went on his way and showed what it means to live his lessons into reality. He went on his way and reached out to the oppressed and the outcast. He spoke truth to power. He told people what they didn’t want to hear but what needed to be learned. And all the while he did not point back at himself – he pointed to God. He pointed to all that is good and beautiful in this world. He pointed to what humanity can become when we make real the promise of God that we each carry within us.
Christian nationalism tries to silence this truth and we must not let it. We must continue to live that truth into reality, even when it is dangerous to do so. We must continue to speak truth to power. And we must continue to point to God. It will be hard, and the task will never be complete. But we saw on January 6th what could happen if we do nothing, if we remain silent.
We will do this together, you and me and the faithful across the world. We will do this together, and when we stumble along the way, finding ourselves breathless and afraid, we will hold tight to one another, to the ancient lessons of our faith made new every day, and we will point to God. All along we will raise our voices in praise, shut alleluia in face of hate, and we will pray boldly.
Let us be in prayer now:
Lord, you have always given bread for the coming day; and though we are poor, today we believe.
Lord, you have always given strength for the coming day; and though we are weak, today we believe.
Lord, you have always given peace for the coming day; and though of anxious heart, today we believe.
Lord, you have always kept us safe in trials; and now, tried as we are, today we believe.
Lord, you have always marked the road for the coming day; and though it may be hidden, today we believe.
Lord, you have always lightened these shadows of ours; and though the night is here, today we believe.
Lord, you have always spoken when time is ripe; and though you be silent, today we believe.
Today, O Lord, we believe. And we pray in the way we were taught by the teacher of our faith Jesus Christ, by raising our voices together and saying…Our Father…
 Based on “An Affirmation of Faith” from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals