Sermon of the Week:
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Keywords: Bible and Newspaper, Sanjeet Singh Saluja, The Love Commandment, Holy Spirit, God Moves as She Will.
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
One of the maxims we learn in preaching school
is to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
That maxim often attributed to a theologian named Karl Barth
who more likely actually said something like:
Take your bible and your newspaper. Read both.
But interpret your newspaper from your bible.[i]
The point of both of these sayings, it seems to me
is that you’re missing something if you try to understand what is going on
by just reading the bible, or by just following the news.
If you just read the bible, but don’t connect it to what is happening in the real world
to what is happening today,
then what kind of faith is that, really?
Something like doing math with no word problems,
no real world examples.
As if you would want to
“find the area of a rectangle of with the sides of 53.3 and 100”
instead of asking
“the sides of the football field are 100 yards long and 53.3 yards wide,
what is the area of that football field so that we can get enough sod for next week’s game?”
Math is math, but it helps us understand this actual world of ours better.
The same with theology, and this life of faith.
Read the bible, but connect it to what is happening in your life, in this moment.
And, on the other hand, reading the newspaper, by itself,
without connecting it to the deeper movements of life
to the larger purpose of a God that loves you, that inspires goodness
to a God that we meet in the person and the life of Jesus Christ…
we think that there’s something missing there too.
It isn’t so much that you can’t find ultimate meaning there,
or that God is ONLY found in the act of reading the scriptures…
anyone who has gone on a hike in the mountains at sunset knows differently,
anyone who picks up a newborn child for the first time
has surely experienced the awesome power of God.
But these stories of our faith,
which have nurtured thousands of generations of people
to help see and understand the God that is
moving and acting and mending and renewing in their midst,
these stories are here as a gift to help us do the same as well.
How could we understand the resurrection in its fullness
without the story of Thomas, for example,
that disciple who was out on a grocery run or who knows what
when the other disciples were locked in their apartment
worried and afraid after their leader had been arrested and killed
that disciple who missed it when the risen Jesus showed up and shared a word of peace
and set their worried hearts at ease…
Thomas is like all of us, in a way, not quite sure what to make of the testimony of others
“we have seen the Lord”
Uh uh, not me, not until I see him myself, and touch those wounds with my very own hands…
and Jesus, patient and apparently just fine with Thomas’ scientific inquiries
shows up just for him next week, overcoming Thomas’ skepticism with grace and compassion.
Or, again, how could we get our heads around the full impact of Easter morning
without thinking carefully about that story
of the disciples heading off Easter morning toward Emmaus,
how, again, the risen Jesus appeared to them on the road
and they didn’t see that it was him,
but they talked about what had happened
and Jesus tried to explain it all
but later, after they welcomed him to dinner
and they sat down and he broke the bread
and his familiar words flooded over their hearts
and they finally saw and understood and were burning with joy.
Those were a couple of the stories we read during worship in April,
as we move through this Sermon Series that I’ve been calling
“Because He Lives, there’s hope for you.”
And I remember that Barth saying, as I’m trying to make sense of this world of ours
by reading the news and trying to get my head around all of this pandemic mess we’re in.
The news has been largely dreadful, and we’ve been praying for those impacted by Covid-19
those who have died
those who haven’t but have lingering physical effects
and then their families and their neighborhoods too…
and local communities all over the country are trying to figure out what is the right balance
of prudent care through continuing to shelter in place
vs getting out into the world again,
and how to do that, you know,
mask or no mask…keep physically distant…stay home when you can
still stay with just your shelter-in-place family when you go outside…that sort of thing.
I’ve been worried by how hard it is for us to coalesce around good science,
and frustrated by how this has become a struggle between so-called liberty vs prudence,
instead of seeing how our greatest liberty is in exercising good choices
on behalf of the needs of others
and how the greatest prudence understands the complex costs in both staying home and going out.
So we might not want to read the newspaper all that much these days, is my point.
That’s been the case for a lot of people for a while now,
which means that Karl Barth’s idea of a sound sermon sounds like a real loser of a proposition…
except, maybe not so much sometimes.
Every so often, you see something, yes in the news,
that makes you gasp at its beauty and marvel at the meaning of it all.
So it was for me this week,
when I read the story about Sanjeet Singh Saluja,
a physician and the associate director of emergency medicine
at the McGill University Medical Center, up in Montreal Canada.[ii]
Did you hear the story about Dr. Saluja?
He is an adherent of the Sikh religion,
which is a faith that goes back to the Punjab region of India
and is distinct from the other religions often associated with that nation: Hinduism and Islam.
Americans often know very little about Sikhs.
I would probably know very little, too,
if it were not for some study in world religions back in college,
and making a friend there that had some connection to the tradition.
Most of the time, we just recognize the turbans and the beards that all Sikh men wear.
Honestly, we often get even that wrong,
and Sikh communities have experienced considerable religious intolerance and violence
by people unfortunately seeking to lash out against Muslims,
and who target Sikh homes and places of worship instead.
There are about 700,000 Sikhs in the United States, and about 500,000 in Canada,
and one of them is Dr. Saluja, of the emergency department at McGill.
The important detail to share about this story is that the turban and the beard
are not just about rugged good looks.
They are a tenet of their faith, called Kesh.
The idea is that Sikh men let their hair grow naturally, all of it,
out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation.
They don’t trim or cut any of the hair that God blesses them with.
“It is an essential part of being a Sikh. It is an essential part of my identity,” Dr. Saluja said.
All that hair on the head is combed twice a day with a kanga, a simple wooden comb,
and tied up in a rishi knot, which is then held in place with the turban.
Most Sikhs take this practice very seriously, as does Dr. Saluja.
And for most Sikhs, it doesn’t impact other activities very much.
You can drive around, do your work, engage with other people.
You just have your hair up and your beard rather long, and some would surely say, glorious.
But what do you do when you’re an ER doctor
and suddenly you’ve got this crisis on your hands
where you have to put on close fitting respirators and personal protective equipment
and get super close to intubate a patient?
On a normal shift, there were plenty of people who could do that work
who could help accommodate his beard by stepping in.
But this is not a normal crisis.
All hands on deck. We need your help stat.
What do you do?
What would you do?
Well, that’s a complicated thing,
and I’m not a Sikh and I’m not about to judge someone for their decision in that sort of moment.
Other religious traditions have somewhat similar obligatory religious practices.
Some keep a particular set of dietary rules, others pray at certain times,
or break bread and pour the juice of a grape into a cup to share.
And I get it, I think we all get it,
when you’re faced with a moral sort of challenge,
what do you do when the things that give you your meaning and your identity
bump up against the real world demands of the moment, you know?
So I understand that not every Sikh would have done what Dr. Saluja did,
and I don’t judge them for that.
But as he reflected about the crisis at hand and the amazing set of skills he had developed
skills that could help save lives, and the conundrum of this obligatory thing in his life,
in that sort of moment: Sanjeet Singh Saluja shaved off his beard.
The picture on the McGill Reporter newspaper that I read
shows a smiling Dr. Saluja in an impressive black turban
clean shaven, certainly for the first and probably only time in his life.
I know I made the right decision, he said.
…There is still tremendous sadness—the saddest thing I’ve ever done.
[But], I have always viewed my work at [the hospital]
as a chance to fulfil my faith’s expectations of service.”
Said his colleague at work, Dr. Cernovitch,
“When faced with a very difficult decision, he chose to serve people.
How can you not read that sort of story in the newspaper,
the same week that you’re reading these words from the Gospel according to John
and not see the connection?
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…
I appointed you to bear fruit,
fruit that will last…
so that you may love one another.
Not all of his Sikh peers agreed with his decision,
not everyone understood the choice that he made,
but for him it was clear: he was going to make the loving choice
and would lean in, so that he could use his medical training to save lives.
In this struggle between two moral imperatives, he landed on the side of serving his neighbor.
So that story had me in tears this week,
a Christian reflecting on the life and love of Jesus Christ,
taught something about it by the sacrificial acts of a devout Sikh all the way up in Canada.
And, you know what, I was glad that I read the newspaper that day.
It reminded me of the good in our world,
the power of compassion to inspire people of Good Will to do amazing things
costly things, sometimes,
so that others can simply live, simply survive.
That story reaffirmed for me the potential and the possibility of humanity,
and, behind it, the machinations of a God that sometimes works outside of the bounds I understand
because God is free to be who God will be.
Which brings us to this reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The scene opens with Peter, one of the more prominent disciples,
preaching to a rather diverse audience.
They’re in Caesarea, which was a city north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast
largely made up of people who were Gentiles, people who weren’t Jewish.
Chronologically, this is several weeks after Jesus’ death,
Pentecost has come and gone,
meaning the church was starting to take shape and spread out to the world
one city at a time, starting in places like Caesarea.
When you read the story of those early days,
it is clear how chaotic everything is.
Sure, Jesus was around for a while, until he wasn’t…
that’s a story we’ll look at next week.
But even with Jesus no longer physically there
they feel his presence, and most powerfully,
the presence of God through the movement of the Holy Spirit among them.
That presence helps them see and understand that God hasn’t left them,
but God is going to help them form new communities
and learn new ways of serving and loving each other.
It was an incredibly powerful, amazing, life giving feeling.
It must have been profoundly moving, after all that tumult, all that stress, all that confusion
to feel that God was still there, no, more than that, that God was indeed leading them forward
just as God has always done,
and that if they had eyes to see
they had a role to play in the new world, in the Realm of God, that was taking shape.
But here’s the kicker,
they didn’t even think to ask about what this might have meant for the rest of the world
for those Gentiles in Caesarea or Decapolis or Antioch or certainly not Rome.
This is before the Apostle Paul would make it his life’s work to build communities
where Gentiles and followers of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob
could figure out how to be one church together.
So, that’s the scene,
and Peter starts preaching to this crowd,
telling them about Jesus and his death and the new life that followed.
I honestly don’t know what he was expecting.
Know your audience, Peter.
What do you THINK that these Gentiles are going to do about all of that?
And wouldn’t you know it,
somewhere in the middle of his sermon,
that very same spirit of God comes and settles on those in that crowd
Jews and Gentiles
those who are in, and those who were definitely not, at least they didn’t THINK so.
What is clear, is that THAT wasn’t what they expected.
And people saw it, and remembered Jesus’s teaching about “sheep not of this fold”
and the parables Jesus shared of welcome of God for those not at the table at the wedding feast
and it clicked for them…
and they welcomed them as siblings of the faith though the waters of baptism. Gentiles!
One of the most wonderful things about following God on the way of Jesus
is that we get to see and appreciate the movement of God where-ever she might be.
I mean, I know that it feels like
so few of us who are following God on that way of Jesus seem to get that.
We can be pretty closed minded.
We can think that “the way, the truth, the life, no one gets there except through that narrow gate”
implies that we KNOW the mind of God,
rather than leaving all that up to the grace of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
But if we have eyes to see,
we can observe how following Jesus inclines us to be open to seeing God
in all sorts of diverse places,
maybe in those Gentiles when the spirit settles on them,
maybe even in the sacrificial love of a Sikh doctor all the way up in Montreal
and that we can see Jesus working there, in some strange way that we do not understand
even if that’s something that only we can see and appreciate and grasp,
and not require that of the good Doctor,
so he can go ahead and follow the commandments of his faith, and his conscience,
the best he can on his own good terms.
For us, for those of us who have found ourselves moved by, indeed saved by
the love of God in Jesus Christ,
we have our own commandment: to love one another.
And we can appreciate that love where-ever we see it,
and certainly, in a clean-shaven smile of a beturbaned doctor.
Thanks be to God.
Where all this leads me
is to affirm that the Spirit of God blows where it will
and our job is to simply marvel at it, and claim it
as part of our own good journey.
That spirit, free as it is, always has a certain shape to it.
The stories about it we read in scripture
always depict the spirit as drawing people together,
helping them see the connections between God and the world
and then sending them out to do something good and life-giving and positive and true about it.
The Spirit of God is a force that leads to compassion and love and welcome.
And it breaks down the labels we human beings might construct and instead says,
yeah, you can do it, you’re good enough to join this club, you’re in!
And through that gift, we participate in the work of Jesus Christ himself, for the glory of God.
Where do you see that Spirit moving in our world, today?
Maybe if you look around,
maybe read a newspaper or two,
you might just see it, God sparking new life
even during these awful days.
So may we open our minds and our hearts to the amazing power of God in this world of ours
and as we accept our place within God’s community of welcome
may we realize that God’s values can be our values
and we can live our lives in a way that loves one another, just as Christ has loved us.
May it be so.
Image credit: Coptic (Egyptian) Icon entitled “Jesus and his Friend” or “Christ with Believer.” Original in the Louvre
[ii] See https://reporter.mcgill.ca/sikh-doctor-shaves-beard-in-order-to-keep-serving-covid-19-patients/ (accessed May 16, 2020)