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II Peter 2.1-3, 17-18

Jude 1-25

Hey, Jude

(Overlooked and Underpreached – II)

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was prominently featured in this week’s congressional hearings on the January 6th insurrection, spoke last April at San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church as part of what’s being called the “ReAwaken America Tour.”  Flynn sounded more like a revivalist than a politician, though sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.  Flynn said to thousands of attendees, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we need to have one religion, one nation under God and one religion under God.”  It made me wonder which religion Flynn would like that to be?  Zoroastrianism?  Buddhism?  The Quakers?  Who gets to choose what the one religion under God is going to be?  In a slightly ironic counterpoint, I listened to the January 6 hearings Tuesday afternoon while getting ready to attend the American Repertory Theater’s production of “1776,” a wry reminder of the founders’ suspicion of intermingling religion with the affairs of state; the American Rep’s 1776 added to the irony with a cast composed entirely of women, transgender and non-binary actors.  If there is a more striking contrast between two views of the relations of church and state, I’m hard pressed to think of any this morning.

I wonder when the last time was an entire book of the Bible has been read from the United Church pulpit.  If today was the first, it may not be the last; while Jude is the second-shortest book of the Bible, the shortest is Obadiah, whom we may be revisiting in our series on the often overlooked and underpreached books of the Bible this summer.  In some ways, reading a book like this straight through gives us a better sense of the intent and context, in ways that reading only brief passages, as we generally do on Sunday mornings, does not.   We can hear that it is a letter.  We hear what prompted the letter:  certain fractious factions within the church trying to steer the entire church away from truth.  People were exchanging their own history for a fabricated present and thus a precarious future.  Forgetting the ways of God they seek to manufacture their own truth, and thus their own salvation out of little more than whimsy:  waterless clouds, fruitless trees, waves foaming with shame and wandering stars that leave only darkness in their wake.  And at the same time we have to deal with the awkwardness that is hearing first century ideas with twenty-first century ears.  “See, the Lord is coming with tens of thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”  Yikes!  This has an unmistakably Old Testament aroma to it, God wreaking vengeance and terror on the faithless.  How are we supposed to read this and take anything away for ourselves besides being terrified lest we make one wrong move?

To be honest, this was my question this week when I read through Jude.  What does this clear warning back in the days when the church was still finding its footing say to a church that, twenty centuries later is as deeply entrenched and part of the global establishment as any human institution can possibly be?

It is safe to say this morning’s New Testament lesson, the letter of Jude, is one of the least-known books of the Bible.  How many of you have heard of Jude’s letter before this morning?  Two of the reasons for Jude’s obscurity are its size and its location:  the slight twenty-five verses of Jude are tucked between the little read third letter of John, and overshadowed by its gargantuan neighbor Revelation. In fact if we know anything at all about Jude, it is probably the final two verses which make up that lovely traditional benediction of the church, “Now to the One who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever; Amen.”

But the book deserves a better reading than it usually gets.  There were three people in the New Testament named Jude, and two of them were apostles:  the better known is Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus; the other apostle is, as the Bible very carefully phrases it, “the Judas not named Iscariot.”  But we know that neither of these is the writer of this morning’s letter.  However, there is a tantalizing third possibility, for in the beginning of the reading, the author identifies himself as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,” leaving James unidentified as though everyone who read it would know who that is.  We know with reasonable confidence that one of the leaders of the early church was James the brother of Jesus, and evidence also suggests that Jesus had more than one sibling.  Some biblical scholars believe that this little letter, written very early in the church’s history, before the gospels, and around the same time as Paul’s earliest letters, may have been written by Jesus’ little brother.  Mind you, this is no more than an educated guess on the part of scholars, and Jude himself gives us nothing else in the letter to go on, but the possibility is a provocative one.  It could also be that the opening salutation, “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,” simply means they were brothers in Christ, as we are sisters and brothers in Christ, but still, it’s fun to consider the possibilities.

The ReAwaken America Tour that General Flynn was representing last April is part of a broader movement that can best be described as Christian Nationalism.  Christianity Today describes Christian Nationalism as “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way… and that it is not merely an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future.”  I wonder what this means to Jewish Americans, or Muslim Americans, or folks like you and me who are both Christian and American, but who remain very leery about wedding patriotism with one singular expression of belief – I wonder what it means to hear folks say that to be American you must also be Christian.  “For certain intruders have stolen in among you,” Jude wrote, “who pervert the grace of God.”  They are people who “slander whatever they do not understand… grumblers and malcontents… bombastic in speech and flattering people to their own advantage.”  And then there is that striking series of images, which by the way, echo the words Peg read for us from II Peter, which shares a good deal of the same ideas as Jude’s letter:  “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.”  Retired Navy chaplain Steven Dundas observes, “We are actively witnessing the demise of the Establishment Clause and protected liberties of all at the hands of Christian Nationalism, [which has] a direct hand in promoting ideologies that have grave, real-world consequences.  We must vehemently reject all rhetoric that threatens American freedoms now – including the inaccurate interpretation of the gospel that fuels Christian Nationalism.”

Like the church of Jude’s day, it is often true that the most serious threats to the church, to Christianity, come from within our own house, not from some imaginary threat from without.  You may have read earlier in the week, a white supremacist group in Rhode Island was handing out recruitment papers, and among the places they targeted were churches.  What made them think a church would be fertile ground for recruitment?  Remember:  when the people with the loudest voices and the largest megaphones broadcast their own peculiar notions about Christianity that rejects or minimalizes the reality of black Christians, of gay and lesbian Christians, and by definition of all non-Christians – “one religion under God” – then the rest of the world is not going to bother parsing out who is reflected in the deepest darkness of those wandering stars, and who is not; they’re going to lump you and me in with the loudest of the Christian nationalists.  Which is why you and I and all the Judes of this world need to say “No, this is not who we are – this is not Christianity – this is not who God is or how God works.”  Our voices may not be louder, but they must be insistent and consistent.  Our God is not the god of Christianity alone, but the god of every one of God’s children on earth, by whatever name God is called.   It is up to all of us to call this out as much as it is up to each of us. Jude wrote, “Beloved, build yourselves up on you most holy haith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire.”  Or, as another more recent prophet has written, “So let it out and let it in… don’t you know that it’s just you, hey you, you’ll do, the moment you need is on your shoulder.”

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