I went to seminary with a young man by the name of Sam who looked like he walked straight out of J. Crew catalog. Sam was remarkably handsome, he was in great shape, and he dressed immaculately. Sam was smart and well educated, he was a graduate of Columbia University in New York. What’s more he was white, and straight, and to top it off he was very polite and kind. The way in which Sam seemed to so effortlessly check off all of the boxes of what our society considers to be normal, healthy, and good, drove me nuts. I still remember silently despising him as I stood outside our dorm smoking a cigarette after pulling an all nighter to not quite finish a paper when he waved hello to me as he finished his early morning run. He was just so together, so normal, he was the prototype of what our society thinks a nice, young man is supposed to be.
There is a tendency in religion to think that God only wants the best. This tendency is born of a desire to show love and honor to God, to recognize that God is holy. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to give God your very best. I encourage all of you to give the best of your lives to God and to the church, to honor God by making of your lives a living sacrifice. However, the tendency to imagine that God only wants the best can take a rather harmful turn when it is applied to people themselves. In ancient Israel, the priestly class sought to maintain the holiness of God by enforcing purity laws meant to insure that only those who were adequately prepared, the very best, could stand in the assembly of the Lord. This meant that anyone or anything that they deemed abnormal was prohibited from joining in the religious life of the community. One such prohibitive law is found in the 23rd Chapter of Deuteronomy where it says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
At first glance this seems a terribly odd and terrifically specific prohibition. Yet the practice of crushing a young boys testicles, or removing all their genitalia, was fairly common in the societies that surrounded Israel. Many of these Ancient Near Eastern Societies castrated boys to serve as eunuchs in their official courts and their harems. Such a practice was alien to Israel, and as such it was deemed impure, and eunuch’s were thus cut off from the assembly of the LORD. When you are trying to collect only your best to present before the LORD, when you are trying to make a congregation full of Sams, you simply can’t allow in people that are so atypical, people that are so different, people that don’t fit our mold of normal and good.
For years this prohibition was relatively uncontroversial simply because there were almost no Eunuchs in Israel. However, that began to change after Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After this conquest, many Israelites were forced into serving the courts of these Emperors, and in these societies it was only eunuchs who could perform such roles. Many Israelite men became eunuchs during the period in exile. This raised the question anew- would these Israelites, now eunuchs themselves, be allowed into the assembly? Could they be included in God’s love and grace?
As Christians in the 21st century our religious inheritance includes a prohibition against sexual relationships between two people of the same gender. Though this prohibition has always been somewhat controversial, in the last 60 years it has become much more so. Millions of people now live in committed, loving, sexual relationships with people of the same gender. And these people, courageous enough to be true to the person God created them to be, have insisted that they too have a right to share in the grace and love of God. They have insisted that they too belong in the assembly of the LORD.
The first strike taken against the prohibition on eunuchs in the assembly of God was taken by the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Thus says the LORD, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The word of God that came to Isaiah directly contradicted the earlier legal prohibition against eunuchs. Isaiah heard a new Word from God, a Word of inclusion and love, and he did not hesitate to speak this new Word against the old understanding.
When Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, set off a new religious movement, a new people of God, the question about Eunuchs and their place in the community was still a live one. The stance that the new community was to take was made known from the very beginning; it was made known by this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There are two points from this story I want to bring to your attention. The first is that it is God who takes the initiative. This is not a side project of Philip’s, its not a trivial, optional, issue on which there is much room to disagree. No, the angel of the Lord sends Philip to where the eunuch will be, and the Spirit of God instructs him to sit beside the eunuch in his chariot. From the very beginning, God makes clear that this new community will not be a community of only the most normal, most admired, most typical people. God sends Philip to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch.
The second point that I want to make is that ultimately it is Philip who must answer the question of the eunuch, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” God brought these two together, God helped bring the Word to the eunuch, but ultimately it is Philip, it is the Church, that must answer the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” When gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people come to the Church in our time, the same question is put to us, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” We know that the Spirit of God was given to the Ethiopian eunuch after he was baptized. We know that the word of God that came to Isaiah contradicted the earlier prohibition against them. So the question isn’t what the bible says, or what God wishes. The question is whether we will meet our LGBT siblings with the loving acceptance of God or if we will insist on worshipping normality and legalism instead. My prayer is that we will do our best to embody the Holy Spirit in welcoming all to be baptized, loved, and affirmed within the church. May it be so. Amen.
I used to swear a lot. Not necessarily in a mean or nasty way, it was more that I frequently accented my speech with a few four letter words. But then I became a Pastor and a father. Once people know that you are a pastor, they begin to apologize to you for using profanity; as if it were the first time you were hearing these words, as though they were defiling your virgin ears. As odd as this is, it does drive home the point that what we say matters. Around clergy, people often want to be good, to do good, they want to be perceived as decent and kind. And those four letter words, although sometimes useful, can undermine this effort. They can make you sound mean, or careless. After realizing this, I tried to cut down on my cursing, because I want to encourage people in doing their best to be kind, and I definitely don’t want to come off as careless or mean.
Yet as much as becoming clergy has chained my speech patterns, becoming a father has done so even more. My daughter Ruth is getting to the point where she can speak in whole sentences, and, of course, she learns to speak from listening to us. She is a parrot. She will repeat nearly anything you say. If you have any doubt that curse words can sound nasty or mean, wait until you hear a two year old say one. When it comes from the mouths of babes it is easy to see how such language can be ugly, nasty, or even mean. So I now try my best to limit my swearing, I try not to do it at work, try not to do it at home. In my former life, single, with no kids, and working construction, it seemed so natural to swear, but now I have changed, circumstances have changed. I’m not the same person that I was back then. And so know my behavior must change as well. Though I still bring them right out anytime I’m venting to a friend or family about my frustrations, I’m doing a lot better at limiting my swearing,
Our New Testament reading this morning was nearly the entirety of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This letter is unique in all of Scripture not just for its brevity but for its content. Although the letter is addressed not only to Philemon but to the others in his church, it nevertheless is written as a personal letter. In it Paul speaks directly to an individual, most likely Philemon, about a very personal matter; Paul wants Philemon to welcome home his estranged former servant Onesimus, as a brother. Paul is writing from prison where he has met and befriended Onesimus. He baptized him and ever since Onesimus has been helping Paulin his apostolic ministry. He has become a valued colleague and trusted friend to Paul.
We are not sure what is the cause of the estrangement between Onesmus and Philemon. It could be that Onesimus was an unfree servant in Philemon’s house who simply ran away. It might be that Onesimus stole something from Philemon. It could very well be both. But whatever it was, after having met Paul, the two of them decide that Onesimus should return to Philemon to try and make things right. Paul is unable to travel with Onesimus so he does the next best thing, he rights him a letter to take to Philemon. As it turns out, Paul doesn’t just know Onesimus’s master, he actually baptized Philemon as well. So Paul, using his authority, power, and privilege as an apostle, writes to Philemon to ask him to forgive any debts that Onesimus owes, and to no longer treat him as a servant, but rather to welcome him as a brother.
Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman empire in the first century. It was the way of that world. Though not nearly as barbaric as chattel slavery here in the United States, slaves did still belong to their masters, they were not free to leave or to live independent lives. It is therefore, not surprising that Philemon and his house had slaves, for that was the norm. But at some point in his adult life, Philemon converted to Christianity. He was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This conversion meant that he was living a new life, as a new person. He now belonged to Christ, he was now living in and for Christ. He no longer belonged to the world, and he no longer lived for it.
There are those in our day, and certainly in Paul’s day as well, who view belonging to a church as similiar to belonging to a country club. For them church is a nice place to visit with other like minded people, a place to feel that you are among the good and righteous, but certainly not an institution that requires you to change how you live and interact with the world. This is not the way that Paul viewed faith in God. For Paul, and for Jesus Christ, faith meant turning your world upside down. It meant belonging to a different kingdom, a kingdom in which the meek were blessed, a kingdom in which there was no male or female, jew or greek, free or slave, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Paul believed that faith called you out of the world into a life of service to Christ.
So when Paul meets Onesimus and hears of his estrangement from his former master and his fear of reprisal from Philemon, he knows how he can help. In the ancient church, apostles had incredible authority, their words were taken as divine revelation. This means that Paul could command Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and forgive his debts. However, Paul chooses not to command Philemon but rather to remind him what his new faith requires of him. Paul writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment… I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion, but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all , or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”
Previously, Philemon had treated Onesimus as the world treated him, as a slave, an inferior person. But now, Philemon has been baptized, he has begun a new life as a follower of Christ. What does this new life require of him? It requires him to see Onesimus as a brother in Christ and no longer as a slave. It requires him to forgive his debtors just as his debts have been forgiven. It requires him to see God in the face of his brother. It requires him to do all that he can to help Onesimus serve God as best he is able. Paul reminds him of his new faith, he reminds him of his new life in Christ and how this life requires him to treat Onesimus as a brother in the flesh and in the Lord.
The world of 1st Century Rome provided many reasons for one to view oneself as superior to others. Masters were superior to slaves. Greeks were superior to Jews. Men were superior to women. Romans were superior to Barbarians. All of these categories divided the people against themselves. In this respect not much has changed from the world of Rome to our world today. Our world is also full of reasons to view yourself as superior to others. The rich are superior to the poor. Whites are superior to non-whites. Citizens are superior to non-citizens. Those who work are superior to those who don’t. Our world is full of dividing lines, things that separate us from one another, things that justify our poor treatment of those different from ourselves. Yet we do not belong to the world, just as Philemon no longer did. We belong to God in Christ. We belong to the church and not to a country club. This belonging to God, this belonging to the church, makes demands upon our lives. It demands that we give up our feelings of superiority. It demands that we see others as siblings in Christ. It demands that we do as Paul did and lend every ounce of our power and privilege to set another free. This is what our faith requires of us. It requires us to acknowledge that we are no more than forgiven sinners and to extend that same grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we have received in Christ to all others. May we begin to see others, as Paul saw Onesimus, as beloved brethren in Christ.
With the horrific news of the fires consuming large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, I found myself thinking back to my one solitary experience in that part of God’s creation. In high school I did a summer foreign exchange trip to Argentina for a month. At the beginning of our stay the group of American students that I travelled with and the group of American students that I travelled with took a trip to Iguaza Falls at the beginning of our stay. Iguaza Falls are right at the border between Argentina and Brazil, they are the largest system of waterfalls anywhere in the world. And they are absolutely breathtaking. We spent a day hiking around the falls, and everytime we turned a corner I saw the most impressive, and beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen. This most beautiful waterfall would then immediately be topped by the one I discovered around the next corner. It was like they never ended, just waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. So much beauty, and so much water. Everytime I see a waterfall I’m astounded by the sheer amount of water running through it. It doesn’t even have to be a big waterfall, just the fact that the water continues to fall, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The water never stops, it just keeps flowing. Its been almost 20 years since I visted the falls at Iguaza and watched them pour massive sheets of water over the edge of cliffs, and they are still doing it today. The water never runs out it just keeps coming.
In the literature of the Bible the Jordan river plays an outsize role. The Jordan is actually a fairly small river, especially when compared to the Nile or the Mississippi. However, the land surrounding the Jordan, the majority of the land of Israel in the sixth century BCE and even today, is desert. It is dry and arid and without much vegetation. Like all deserts, water can be hard to come by in Israel. In the dry and desert land of Israel, the flowing fresh waters of the Jordan are salvation; they are the source of life for the people there.
Yet not all in Israel live nearby the Jordan. Many towns and villages are simply too far away from the river’s banks to rely on it as their primary source of water. These folks had to set their minds on another way of getting water- one such method was to build cisterns to collect and store rain water. By digging bowls into the bedrock and guiding rainwater runoff to them, people created a source of water in their small villages away from the Jordan. As ingenious a move as this was, a cistern still can’t compare to running, living, water of the Jordan. There are several problems with cisterns- for one the water in them is stagnant and can easily become polluted and start to stink. The worst thing about cisterns though, is that they are temporary. They can only hold so much water, water that can’t be replenished until the next rain. In the meantime the water can evaporate, or it can seep out of cracks in the cistern. Cisterns are always running dry, running out of water, needing to be refilled. Although they are necessary in places with no access to running water, cisterns are still poor substitutes for the living water of a river.
It was the prophet Jeremiah who first applied the analogy of running, living water to God. In the passage Delilah read this morning, God is taking the people of Israel to court, God is trying them for their breach of covenant. Although God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, and led them through the treacherous wilderness, nevertheless Israel was not faithful to God. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” The leaders of the people especially are condemned for the ways they forgot or turned away from God- the priests who don’t inquire of God, the lawyers and judges who do not know God, the prophets prophesying for Baal. Despite the fact that God was good to them, freed them, saved them, and provided for them, despite all of this, the people still turned to other gods, to the gods of the neighboring nations.It was not only the ancestors who rejected God, but also their children and their children’s children. The people had given up their God, the one true living God, in exchange for no-gods, for idols, for that which does not profit. “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate,” says the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. “ Though their God is powerful and merciful and perpetually generous, yet still these people abandoned the God of living water and chased after idols that cannot save them.
Oftentimes the Old Testament’s obsession with rejecting the worship of idols can appear to us as a relic of a past time; something that has little to no relevance for us today. There is a certain logic to this- I very rarely feel tempted to build a statue and begin worshipping it regularly. I imagine most of you are immune to this particular temptation as well. However, the problem with idolatry is not merely an objection to statuary, the problem of idolatry is coming to rely on, coming to trust, coming to have faith in something other than God. This is idolatry. And this is still very much a problem for our world, for the church, and for each one of us. We, as human beings have a tendency to trust in finite things, rather than the infinite. We have a tendency to believe that we can save ourselves, that we can find the answer to our problems apart from God.
What idols do we trust in today? For what are we willing to offer sacrifice? What about the right to bear arms? We trust in this right as part and parcel of a democratic society, we trust in it as part of our constitution, as an inalienable right. This trust, this faith in guns to provide safety and democracy, has led us to allow deadly weapons of war to be easily acquired by civilians, even teenagers. When these weapons of war take the lives of hundreds and thousands each year, vastly more than in any other place on the earth, we continue to trust in them. We view the slaughter of innocents as a required sacrifice at our altar to guns. And the more of these slaughters happen, the less safe we feel, and the more of us feel that we need to have a gun to protect us from all the other guns. The cistern is cracked, we have to perpetually pour more and more water into it, there never seem to be enough guns to keep us safe.
Our nation also spends the better half of all its resources on the military, more than all other countries combined. We trust that this huge military expenditure will make us safe, we have faith in it. Yet the wars and the threats never seem to end, or even to decline in frequency. Despite this, we pour more and more money into the Pentagon every year. It is a cracked cistern, it will always require more and more money.
Or how about growth? Economic growth is widely seen to be the panacea for all of our ills. Every nation needs to show a growing GDP, we need to produce more and more goods and services, we need our economy to continually grow so that we can all have enough. That such growth is exacting a terrible price on our environment, that it is leading to the burning of the Amazon, and the climate crisis, seems to be the sacrifice we are willing to make to the idol of growth.
These are just a few of our modern day idols, the cracked cisterns that we build to save ourselves. Just as the cracked cistern requires more and more water just to keep it level, so too do these idols require more and more of us, while providing less and less. The answer to this problem of cracked cisterns is to turn instead to the living water of God. If the Jordan and its limitless supply of clean, fresh water is right next to you, offering its grace, why on earth would you dig a cistern for yourself? It is God who saves. It is God alone whose love and care and provision never run out. It is God who requires nothing of us, but to surrender to Her. To give ourselves to the river, to the living water of God. The life that worship of idols brings about gets smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, more and more concerned with protecting what little you have to protect. That is a warped and awful way to live. The life that comes from worshipping God is open and expansive. If we can trust in God to provide we can truly live, opening ourselves to one another, being vulnerable before each other, and giving of ourselves to one another. This is the life that faith in God makes possible, a life of courage, trust, and generosity. May we foresake our idols, our cracked cisterns, and may we turn again to the living water of God. Amen.
11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
A little over a month ago, Shannon, Ruthie, Sam and I went to a family reunion in Colorado. Ruth and Sam are among the youngest of the various cousins and second cousins running around the place, and Ruth made fast friends with a little 9 year old by the name of Colson. Colson had taught her a new word that she hadn’t fully comprehended- the idea of a race. Colson would suggest that they race to the elevator and take off, with Ruthie gleefully running behind him. Things got a little confusing when Ruthie tried to use this new bit of vocabulary and would suggest to Colson that they race. Colson would ask, “Race to where?” And Ruthie would just take off running and screaming, “Race, race, race!” For Ruth race just meant run or chase, but for Colson, as for most of us, a race needs to have a destination. A goal. You can’t just race towards nothing, that’s pointless. That’s just running for the sake of running.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews used the idea of a race to talk about the life of faith. Life can be a long journey- it is, if nothing else, a passage through time. If we are very lucky we get to journey through childhood, to adolescence, to becoming an adult, to being middle age, and then an elder, and then eventually, at one point or another the race ends, we die. If life were nothing else but this passage of time it would seem quite pointless, quite meaningless. It would be living just for the sake of living. We are born, we live, we die. But why? What for? What is the purpose of this life? What is the point of this race, its goal, its destination?
This is the question of meaning, as in what is the meaning of life? There are countless answers to this question, some which are the results of thoughtful reflection and some of which are merely implied by the decisions that we make, by how we choose to live. A great deal of meaning in life is found through personal development- for young people, students, much of the meaning of their life is learning, becoming smarter, trained, and skilled is the purpose of much of their life. Once these skills have been attained the meaning of life may become their deployment within a profession: having trained for years to be a doctor the meaning of my life now consists in my work as a physician. We also find meaning in caring for others- be they aging parents or growing children. We can live for our children, find our meaning in their growth, development, and happiness.
Family and work are great ways of finding meaning in our lives, but they are also limited. We will not work forever, every good doctor comes to the time for retirement. Our parents will die, and our children will grow independent, hopefully. One day they will need us less, they will be less able to provide our lives with meaning. The problem with finding meaning in our children, our or work, is that they are finite, they are passing, they are temporary sources of meaning in an infinite world. Your work will come and go, eventually it will go entirely. Your children will grow and learn and need to form independent lives for themselves, lives in which they too must discover meaning, they cannot serve as your personal stable sources of meaning forever. These things will happen and yet the world will go on, it will keep spinning, and time will keep passing, and if you are still here, you will still need a meaning for your life, a goal towards which you are running. What goal might provide this meaning, what could be a permanent source of meaning in a world in which all things pass away?
Mystery names an inexhaustible depth of meaning. The meaning implied in a mystery is not so obvious- it is difficult to comprehend, it is a deep, somewhat hidden meaning. To uncover the layers of meaning in a mystery one must return to it again and again. I recently read a theologian talk about mystery by using the example of the play MacBeth. Here is Herbert McCabe discussing the meaning of MacBeth- “Take for example a play like MacBeth. It is quite clear that you can appreciate the meaning of this play at many levels. In the first place it is a good thriller about murder and intrigue at court. At another, slightly deeper, level it is a piece of English political propaganda slandering the memory of a perfectly decent king, who was however, Scottish. At a deeper level still it is a tragedy about a man over-reaching himself; about the relationship of human life with nature and especially with time. It is about how we belong to the cosmos and to the time that is given to us and yet seek to transcend this and to belong to ourselves, and it is about the revenge that time and nature take upon us. Now, you would not expect tot see all these deep meaning in a play when you watched it for the first time; you have to learn to understand it, and you cannot take short cuts to the depth.” A classic piece of art like MacBeth is a mystery because you can never finish probing to the depths of the meaning that it contains and suggests. The more you interact with this mystery the more layers of its meaning you come to discover and to relish.
At the last church I served, First Congregational Church of Berkeley, communion was only served on the first Sunday of every month during the worship service. There must have been some among the congregation for whom this was not frequent enough, because on the other Sundays of the month, after worship had ended and people had been dismissed, those who wanted would gather at the chancel steps for a small communion service. As one of the young associates I was often assigned to lead this after worship communion, and it soon became one of my favorite duties. There was one elderly man, Will Hurd, who was 90 if he was a day, who never missed communion. On these off Sundays, everyone who took communion had to really want it, it wasn’t part of the regular service so you had to make the decision to stay in the sanctuary as people were leaving and make your way to the front. This was most evident with Will. At 90 Will got around with a walker, slowly. It required a great deal of his physical strength to get up out of the pew, it required focus and concentration to amble with the walker to the chancel steps. The decision to stay and receive communion was one that cost Will something. But it was one he made every Sunday. I would watch Will struggle down the aisle each Sunday and wonder what this ritual meant to him.
Surely, Will thought about his family and all the times that they had taken communion together in that church and other churches. I imagine he thought of his parents with whom he first took communion. And the ritual itself, the words of institution, would have reminded him of those who took part in this ritual over 2,000 years ago when Jesus was not only in the bread but breaking it as well. I don’t know his theology, I don’t know how he understood communion, but I also imagine that at the least the ritual spoke to him of a God whose love for us leads to a giving of self, of body and blood, for us; that it spoke of a grace which allows us to stand in dignity and give freely of our own lives, our own body and blood, for others. And I like to think that Will also thought of us, those who shared the meal with him on that day, and all those who would continue to share the meal with him after his passing, as we do today. Of course, I am not 90 years old, I cannot imagine all of the layers of meaning that the eucharistic mystery had for Will, I can only continue on my own journey- unraveling more and more of the meaning of the mystery of God as I continue to run my race.
The author of Hebrews writes of the heroes of our faith from the Old Testament, reminding us of those who went before us in this race of faith. There were those whose trust in God helped them to lead nations, to fight wars, to build kingdoms. But there were also those whose faith lead them through difficult and trying times as well- those who suffered persecution for their faith, who were thrown to the lions, and forced to flee their homes. In good times, and in the worst of times, each of these held on to their faith in an infinite and infinitely loving God. Their faith helped them to conquer the obstacles before them and to endure the tragedies and pain that come in this life. Their faith in a living, loving God, gave them a destination to race towards, it gave the race itself a purpose, a meaning. They raced, they lived, so as to grow closer to this God of love, to more fully experience this love of God, and to witness to it in their own lives at every opportunity they had. We are connected to these ancestors in the faith, because we run the same race, we seek to serve the same God. Their race is our race. Its fulfillment depends upon us running and seeking to witness to God as they did, and it depends also on those who will run the race after us. Yet the fulfillment of the race, the victory, is never in doubt, for it has already been won, by the faith of Christ Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. No matter how difficult, painful, and tragic our lives may be, we know that Jesus who suffered on the cross for the joy that was before him, goes with us and before us. We are never alone. The God of Jesus Christ is always beside us and ahead of us, and a great cloud of witnesses cheers us on. Running the race of faith, going ever further into the mystery of a loving God, is one way of finding meaning in this life. It is the meaning offered by the Christian church, the mysterious meaning embodied in the ritual of communion. It is the meaning provided by the mystery of a God that loves all Her children and calls us to love them too. Amen.
11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
11:3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
11:4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
11:5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
11:6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
11:7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
11:8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
11:9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
11:10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11:11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
I spend a fair deal of time changing diapers these days. Not nearly so much time as my wife does, but it is still a daily task for me. Changing diapers can help one gain a sense of perspective. Because the thought occurs to you, that at one point in your life, someone also did this for you. At one point you too were tiny and helpless, you too were wailing and covered in your own poo, and someone else cared enough to change your diaper for you. It is possible to go your life without once changing a diaper, just as it is possible to go your whole life without ever helping the vulnerable. Changing diapers and helping the vulnerable are optional in this life. Having your diaper changed on the other hand, being the one who is vulnerable and in need of help, this is not optional. We were all once infants helpless in our poopy diapers, and if we’re lucky, we might live long enough to need help changing ourselves in old age. Once we grow older and stronger and a little more independent, we tend to forget that for much of our lives we were in need of help, we were vulnerable and we needed to be saved.
Although Jesus is rightly famous for referring to God as Father, the prophet Hosea, writing 7 centuries before Jesus, had already imagined God as a loving and caring parent. Listen to his description of God’s election of Israel while they were enslaved in Egypt and of God subsequently leading them through the wilderness, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephrahim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down to them and fed them.” Whether we believe God had anything to do with it or not, we are all, all of us, indebted to those who taught us to walk, those who led us with cords of human kindness and bands of love, those who fed us when we could not feed ourselves. In the Church we say that the love and grace and protection that we experience in this life are blessings from God. They are not earned, nor deserved, they are gifts for which we are to be eternally grateful. God did not leave us alone in our time of vulnerability, through parents, grandparents, loved ones, and community, God loved and cared for us, God fed us and taught us to walk.
Immediately after this beautiful portrayal of the intimate caring love of God, Hosea abruptly announces that the people have turned away from God. The result of this turning away is disastrous. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.” The cities of Israel will be destroyed by violence and they shall be taken away by a foreign power and returned to bondage as in Egypt. The people whom God chose as God’s own, the people that God loved as a mother loves her child, these people turned away from Her. These people brought disaster on themselves by refusing to return to God.
Twenty years ago we were all learning about a new and terrifying phenomenon- the suicide bomber. The events of 9-11 awakened us to the reality of this new danger, but the men who killed themselves and thousands of others that day, were merely a few among thousands that made the choice to end their own lives by taking as many innocents with them as possible. I can remember how incomprehensible this action was at the time. Who would do something like that? Who are these people? Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this phenomenon was to ascribe it soley to others, others who were somehow so unlike us that being a suicide bomber would make sense to them. It must be something about their religion or their culture that caused them to do this. So we labelled them radical Islamic terrorists. We learned that they were radicalized over the internet, where they nurtured a sense of grievance against the world, a sense of grievance so strong that it led them to hate those who were different from them, so strong that it could lead them to kill themselves and others in the name of God or country. We made sense of this insanity by locating it only in others, others a world away, others completely unlike us.
Over the last week our own country experienced three domestic terrorist attacks: in Gilroy, California, in El Paso, Texas, and last night in Dayton, Ohio. These are only the most recent of the now hundreds of such attacks that we have suffered in the past twenty years. These attacks are carried out by white men, men who look very similar to me. These men have nurtured a sense of grievance over the internet- where they found an ideology that blamed all their misfortune on black and brown people, on immigrants and Jews. These men purchased weapons of war and attacked innocent people, killed innocent people, and then killed themselves. Even those who did not kill themselves and were not killed by law enforcement, even they did not have a follow up plan. No plan for escape, no plan to continue their action, just the plan to kill as many as possible before being killed or captured themselves. The difference between a mass shooter and a suicide bomber is only in their choice of weapon, and the people they have learned to hate. That which seemed so incomprehensible that it could only be done by others completely unlike us, has become commonplace in our own country.
I do not believe that these shootings are the will of God. It is my strong belief that the God who loved us into life wills only the best for all of us. The God of which Hosea speaks, the Holy One who fed us all and led us with bonds of love, this God does not will for his beloved creatures to suffer. However, I do believe that sin has consequences. Just as Hosea believed that Israel’s turning away from God would bring their destruction, and just as Paul said that the wages of sin is death, I believe that our failure to love God and neighbor as ourselves comes with devastating consequences. We elected a President who openly demonizes immigrants and asylum seekers, who refers to populations of non-white people as infestations, who claimed that we are being invaded by Hispanic people. And now we have mass shooters who adore this president, who echo his language of genocide, and who give their lives taking the lives of others that they believe are inferior. Any ideology that values one group of people over all others, any ideology that demonizes other human beings, any ideology that uses the vulnerable as scapegoats for our larger problems is a sinful ideology. Adhering to it is turning away from the God who lovingly created us all. This turning away from God, this sin, has fatal consequences. The sword raged in the cities of Israel, the assault rifle rages in the cities of the United States.
What then are we to do? Are we doomed to reap the wages of our sin forever? Will these domestic terrorist attacks ever end? Has God abandoned us to suffer these consequences of our sin? Hosea did not believe that God had given up on Israel. Despite their sin, Hosea believed that God still loved and cared for God’s people. The cords of human kindness and the bands of love could not be broken by the people’s failures. Listen to Hosea’s words, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am a God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Nothing that we can do can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is no sin too awful for God to forgive. There is no situation that the love of God cannot redeem. When the people of Israel were dead in their sin, even then God called them to return. I believe that God has not given up on us either; God has not abandoned us to the consequence of our sin. I believe that God is calling us right now in this very moment to repent of our sins, to return to the ways of God, to once again walk hand in hand with our loving and merciful God.
But the decision to repent, to give up our sinful ways, and to heed God’s welcoming call is ours to make. To return to God we have to give up our sin. We have to stop thinking that United States citizens are somehow superior to other people. We have to stop believing that where you were born or what religion you practice determines your value to God and to the world. We have to start believing that lives are more valuable than legal precedent. We need to recognize that the vulnerable are not our enemies, they are our sisters and brothers, they are us. When people come to this country fleeing violence with their children in tow, we should recognize them as people who are vulnerable just like we often are, instead of making them out to be criminals, and monsters.
Our worship of whiteness and gun ownership is idolatry and it cannot and will not save us. If we wish to end this warring madness we have to return to the God who commanded us to love our neighbor and to honor all people. We must begin to recognize that evil is not only located in others; we must recognize that we are as capable of great evil as everyone else, and we that we are presently enthralled by this evil. This is what repentance will look like for the United States. It is our moral, ethical, political, and religious duty. My prayer is that God will give us the courage to face our own vulnerability, to see ourselves and Christ Jesus in the faces of the vulnerable, and to begin living from the truth that we are all vulnerable people loved by God and commanded to love one another. O God of love and power, make it so. Amen.
“Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” I love that song. I love it so much, I’m having us sing it today, even though it isn’t in our hymnal. Even though it meant I had to fight with the copier to get the insert printed out in the right size. I love it, because of the depth of meaning that it conveys. Swing Low Sweet Chariot has layers, upon layers, of rich meaning. This morning we read the biblical story of Elijah being taken up into heaven by chariots of fire. It is from this story that the song borrows its religious imagery. Elijah was a prophet of God during the period of the divided kingdom; when David’s kingdom had been split into Israel in the north and Judah in the South. In Elijah’s time the northern kingdom of Israel was wealthy and powerful, but its leaders were selfish and corrupt, in their hunger for power they ignored the laws of their God and paid homage to any God or any king that could aid them in their quest for power. It was a hard time to be a man of God; and Elijah’s life was one of near constant conflict and struggle. At one point it got so bad, that Elijah begged God to end it all, to bring him to death. Go refused initially, commanding Elijah to first annoint Elisha as his successor, but after this had occurred God relented. After a lifetime of faithfully serving God in a sinful world that persecuted him for it, Elijah was swept away by chariots of fire, never to be seen again. His God had taken him home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot is not a Jewish song, it was not composed by Israelites remembering their beloved Elijah. No, Swing Low was created by enslaved African people living in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these people were introduced to the story of Elijah, and of Israel, and to the whole of Christian faith by those who had enslaved them. The white slavemasters viewed themselves as Christians- they read the Bible, they believed in Jesus, they belonged to the church. These slavemasters saw no contradiction between their faith in Christ and their owning and brutalizing other human beings. Quite the oppostie in fact. The slaveowning class in the United States believed that Christianity justified the institution of chattel slavery, and they taught this belief to their children and to their slaves.
As the song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, attests, many of the enslaved Africans learned about the Bible, its God, and about the faith of Jesus Christ. Not only did they learn about it, many became believers. Yet the enslaved did not understand the faith in the same way as their masters. For like all people, they understood the Bible through the lens of their own context. When they heard the story of Elijah, a righteous man of God living in immoral times and persecuted by the powerful, they identified his situation with their own. Despite their faith and piety, the enslaved were made to suffer horrible pain and indignity. Much like Elijah, they too dreamed of an escape from this life of suffering and trial. What is more, they had come to believe, just as Elijah had come to believe, that their true home was not in this world of suffering, but rather with God. Home with God meant a time when their suffering would end. Home with God meant freedom. Just as God had come to deliver Elijah from this veil of suffering, so too would their God deliver them. And so they sang, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home. In the hands of the enslaved this story of Elijah came to be a story about freedom, about God’s promise to deliver the people from slavery. A meaning that the interpretations of the slavemasters had foreclosed. The Christian faith of the enslaved in their God’s deliverance inspired their hunger for freedom and fed their belief that it could be obtained. When they clandestinely made plans to escape the slave holding south, they used songs like Swing Low as coded language. To sing these songs of freedom was to let other slaves know their plans for escape, without the slavemasters knowing any better. This is what I mean by layers and layers of meaning. In the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot one can hear and feel the faith that set slaves free, one can hear the yearning for freedom, for home, one can hear the depth of the faith in a God who frees the oppressed, who will not leave them to their suffering, who will come to carry them home. The deep interwining connection between Christian faith and freedom is perhaps nowhere more perfectly and beautifully present than in slave songs like Swing Low.
From our perspective, one in which chattell slavery has been deemed immoral and unchristian and illegal for over 150 years, it can be difficult to see how our slaveholding ancestors could have believed their actions were consistent with Christian faith. Just this morning we read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How could anyone take a faith with such a profound emphasis on freedom and use it to justify the enslavement of other peoples? I believe that the answer lies in another concept of Paul’s, our slavery to sin.
I was once fortunate enough to take a two week long trip to Ghana, in West Africa. As you often do when traveling, we ate out a lot during this trip. Several times a day I would be asked what I wanted to drink- and after the first day I was already familiar with all the options available to me. If I wanted beer I could have Star or Guiness. If I wanted soda I could have Coke. If I wanted anything else I could have water, or tea. These were the options everywhere we went, options, but limited options. About an hour and a half after returning to Washington D.C. I stopped at a gas station, and went inside to grab something to drink. I was meet with 15 yards of refigerated shelves full of every conceivable kind of beer, wine cooler, soda, juice, sports drink, and energy drink imaginable. The options were overwhelming. I was free to choose any of these, thousands of drinks, and for a second it was paralyzing. I almost longed for the simple Star or Coke choice I had in Ghana.
When Paul writes that Christ has called us to freedom, he means that we are set free from the need to mindlessly follow the laws of a prior generation, from the strictures of tradition, for we have been called to a greater destiny: we have been called to be in Christ. As terrific as this news can be, it can also be overwhelming. There is a moment after liberation, a moment when one has been set free from the laws confining behavior in the past, when one can feel dizzied and disoriented by the infinite options placed before them. What should I choose? Does it matter what I choose? If I am free from the laws of the past, how am I to decide what is best?
Paul believed that freedom from the law did not mean freedom from the consequences of our actions. In fact, he was quite sure that using our freedom to make certain choices would lead us back in to slavery, slavery to sin. Slavery to sin is largely what Paul means by the desires of the flesh. In our freedom we can make choices that will eventually enslave us. Think of the alcoholic who is free to drink as much as he likes to dull his pain, and then no longer free to live without a drink. Think of the free choice to lie, and how it compels you to lie again and again and again. The use of freedom to satisfy sin, is the abuse of freedom, and it results in the loss of freedom and slavery to sin.
When the first slaves were brought to this country, white people chose in their freedom to participate in chattel slavery; to brutalize and abuse an entire race of people for their own benefit. The horrors that this choice brought upon the enslaved is obvious and well established. But this free choice to sin, to refuse to love their neighbors as themselves, also enslaved the slaveowners. It enslaved them to sin. Knowing how they had treated the enslaved, they lived in constant free that one day, should the power dynamic shift, the enslaved would do the same to them. This fear is well attested by the fact that the most brutal slave owning societies were also the ones in which the enslaved outnumbered the slaveowners. This fear and its corresponding desire for safety through cruelty and oppression is what Paul would call a desire of the flesh.
This is all ancient history of course. Slavery ended nearly 170 years ago. Yet as William Faulkner stated, the past is never dead, its not even past. In the United States we live with these two historic understandings of the faith are still very much alive. There is a strain of American Christianity which firmly holds that God chooses to liberate the oppressed, to set them free so that they can live with dignity in Christ. There is also a strain of American Christianity in which the presence of fear compels those with power to treat the powerless as less than human as undeserving. The good news is that in Christ we have been set free from blind allegiance to either of these strains of Christian faith, just as we have been set free from the law and tradition. The question for us is how will we use our freedom? According to Paul we have but two choices we can use it to serve the desires of the flesh and enslave ourselves again to sin, or we can use it to walk in the Spirit and produce the fruits of the Spirit. Our criterion for choosing is simple- does this faith, does this choice, increase my love for God, for neighbor, and for self? If it does it will be accompanied by the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we all have the courage to choose freedom in Christ, over slavery to fear and sin. May we find ways to choose faith over fear, love over oppression, and Christ over all things. Amen.
Before I begin I want to take a minute or two to thank some of the incredible people that worked to make this annual meeting happen. I want to thank the inimitable Debra Joseph, without whose sheer force of will five small churches could never have organized this event. I want to thank Cellie, for making the beautiful quilt that sits on our altar. Cellie runs a quilting ministry at Beecher UCC that produces hundreds of quilts a year to give to the needy. I want to thank Ron Bufford, a leader in our denomination, whose work has brought hundreds, if not thousands into the life of Christ in the UCC. But perhaps more than anyone else, I want to thank Rev. Earnest Salisberry, who has been blessing us to kingdom come with his incredible music. We are here talking about turning the world upside down, and getting a largely white room of UCC folks to sing, and clap, and sway to such beautiful, black music is more than a little revolutionary. You heard us this morning, not singing dirge like hymns, or corny praise music, but really getting down, getting the Spirit, as Earnest said, having CHURCH. So thank you, Earnest for sharing your gifts with us, for turning our little world upside down. Now, I’m going to attempt to do the same, to turn the world upside down in my own little way. I’m going to try to pose a question or two that we haven’t heard before, see if we can’t leave here thinking in new ways, just like Earnest had us singing in new ways.
On the 17th of last September, I was in a hospital room just a few miles from here, waiting for my wife to give birth to our second child. Her first delivery had gone really smoothly and I was expecting the same, when all of sudden the small crew of nurses began a flurry of nervous activity. You could tell they worried, but they were still trying to be good nurses, trying to keep a calm demeanor in front of the patient, trying to not to alarm my wife and I. So one of them calmly explained that the baby’s heart rate had dropped, and that it was probably nothing to worry about. Could just be that the kid was in an awkward position, so they tried rotating my wife to her side and everything was fine. This was a little scary for me, but it seemed like we had things under control. And then it happened again. This time, the nurses were failing to keep a calm demeanor as they frantically whispered back and forth, and then they called for the doctor. Something was wrong. I’ll never forget that moment and how it felt. My whole life was in that delivery chair, my wife Shannon, my unborn son Samuel, and something was wrong, worryingly wrong, seriously wrong. It felt like the bottom of my stomach fell out. It felt like my whole being was being sucked away from me. I thought my wife and child were dying and I was utterly powerless to stop it. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t call her a doctor, we are already in a hospital. I had nowhere to turn, I had nothing at all in that moment, nothing but God. I was completely vulnerable, the life of my wife and child were slipping before my eyes, and I was utterly dependent upon the mercy of God. Everything turned out alright, mostly the baby was coming before anyone expected, but even though the crisis passed, I will never forget that feeling of powerlessness.
In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel, we’re no longer a powerful people. Their days of empire in the time of David and Solomon were long gone. Mighty and massive empires from the North and the East, Assyria and Babylon, had descended upon the Israelites, they had crushed the Northern Kingdom, wiping it from the map forever. And though the Assyrian destruction hadn’t quite reached Jerusalem in the South, the Babylonians had. This fearsome empire routed the people of God, burned and sacked their holy city, and destroyed the very temple of God. And when they were finished, these horrible oppressors, they took many of the survivors into exile, forcing them to march to Babylon. Living there in Babylon, the people of God had precious little hope. There was no rescue mission forthcoming from Jerusalem. There were no friends or allies in Babylon. They were prisoners, brought to their new home in chains and forced to live in exile in the land of their oppressors.
It was to these oppressed and persecuted people that the word of God came through the mouth of Isaiah. Although they had no options, though they had nowhere to turn, though they were powerless, nevertheless they had reason to hope in God. God had the power to save them. And Isaiah told them that God could and would save them. Not because they had been righteous, for they had not. Not because they deserved to be saved. They did not. Not because there was anything great or special that they could give to God in return, for they had no such thing. God could and would save them for one reason and one reason only, because God is a merciful God. Because God chooses to show mercy to the oppressed. Their God had always been a God of and for the oppressed. God had chosen them as God’s people when they were oppressed slaves in the land of Egypt. And God had spat them out, when they became the oppressors of their sisters and brothers. And now, oppressed and persecuted in exile, God once again reminded them of Her choice to show mercy to the oppressed. Hear the word of God from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Salvation is the liberation of the oppressed. That is what salvation meant to the slaves in Egypt, it was what salvation meant to the exiles in Babylon, it is what salvation meant to Jesus Christ, and if we are to be a church of Jesus Christ, it must be what salvation means for us as well.
In certain circles, proclaiming that salvation means the liberation of the oppressed might constitute “turning the world upside down.” But this is the UCC, we ought to all be familiar with liberation theology, the mere idea that God is the God of the oppressed shouldn’t be all that new to us. But I want to take a step further if you’ll go with me. I want to tell you something that Rev. Ray Jordan shared with us, during our last clergy retreat, when we were discussing race and powerlessness. Rev. Jordan said that he had noticed a funny thing doing ministry with white people. Every now and then he would be sitting with a few of us white folks talking about a serious problem, a difficult problem, one for which there was no apparent solution. When it got to this point Rev. Jordan would suggest that they pray. And everytime the white people would look at him like he was crazy. What are we gonna pray for? Shouldn’t we do something instead? Having a problem that they couldn’t use their own power to solve was a new and novel experience for these white people, as it is for many of us. Ray said it reminded him of something his grandmother once said, “You don’t really know God, until God is all you’ve got.” I tell that story because it illustrates a truth that is often unacknowledged in our society- that broadly speaking, our society endows white people with tremendous amounts of power, while it does everything possible to keep black people powerless. White people, when faced with problems, have a dizzingy array of resources available to us, we have generational wealth produced from the labor of slaves, we have the support of the government and the laws of the land, we have the ability to call the police with no worry of being shot. White people have access to worldly power in a way that is specifically denied to black people. Broadly speaking, the history of modernity is the history of European colonization of nearly the entire non-white world, it is the history of oppressive empires who came to define themselves as white, and the corresponding oppression of non-white peoples. In the language of the bible, in the terms of the Old and New Testament, European nations and their descendants who claim to be white, are the oppressors, and all non-white persons, perhaps most especially black persons, are the oppressed.
If you’re willing to follow me here, if you’re willing to contemplate the historical truth that white people have played the role of the oppressor in modern times, than we are approaching an interesting question. If salvation means the liberation of the oppressed, and white people are the oppressors than it must be asked: Can white people be saved? Whew. That’s a doozy, its not one your likely to hear in many mostly white settings, so I’ll ask it again in case you missed it, “Can white people be saved?”
Because I believe this is a serious question about the salvation of our souls, I want to take it to my personal authority on salvation- Jesus the Christ. To attempt to hear what Jesus Christ has to say about the possiblity of white people being saved, I want to take you through the text we heard from Mark this morning about the healing of the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter. One day Jesus has ventured just outside his homeland of Galilee and into the urban area of Tyre, a wealthy trading port on the Mediteranean. Tyre was founded by the Phonecians, but they had been run out by Alexander the Great. Ever since, the city had served as an important center of economic and military administration for whatever empire happened to be controlling the surrounding area. Although Tyre was a very wealthy city due to their role in international trade, a quirk of the ancient world, had left them dependent upon the surrounding rural area of Galilee. You see, in the ancient world, shipping large quantities of grain, of food, was cost prohibitive. In order to eat, you had to grow the food nearby. And Tyre was enitrely urban, to feed their populace they relied on the exploitation of the surrounding Galilean populace. The people of Galilee, mostly Jews, were forced to produce the food that allowed for the affluent and abundant life of the Tyrians, while they themselves survived on the meager allotment left after Tyre had extracted its taxes. The Jewish Galileans were oppressed by their more powerful neighbors the people of Tyre. It’s a situation that should not be entirely foreign to white and black people living in the United States today.
So here’s Jesus, the Galilean Jew, walking around the city of Tyre, when all of sudden a Greek woman, from the Roman province of Syria, specifically former Phonecia, came and threw herself at his feet. The greek word here used for woman, is best translated lady, meaning that she was of the upper class. This wealthy Greek woman of Tyre, throws herself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
To help us understand this scenario, to continue with our modern day analogy, I’m going to translate it to New Orleans. We have this wealthy, white woman of the Garden District who desperately wants her daughter to be healed. And she throws herself at the feet of a black miracle worker from the Lower 9th Ward. You know what gets white women from the Garden District to go to the Lower 9th Ward? Nothing. Not a thing. Not a thing but sheer and utter desperation. This woman must have turned to every doctor she knew, every quack and religious healer and therapist she could find, before she made her way to this black man in the Lower 9th. A wealthy Greek woman of Tyre, simply does not ask things of a Galilean Jew. Not unless there was literally nowhere else to turn.
Here is Jesus face to face with the question: Can white people be saved? Can the very people who oppress the people of God, also have access to God’s salvation? It is at this moment that Jesus say perhaps the harshest saying attributed to him in all the gospel accounts. To the woman who is desperately seeking healing for her daughter, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. What a terrible thing to say. To call a human a dog, in any culture, is a cruel, degrading, insult. How could Jesus have said something like this? It doesn’t sound like Jesus does it? It sounds like something someone who felt they were better than other people would say. It sounds like something that an oppressor might say to justify their oppression of another people. It sounds a lot like, how white people have spoken of and treated black people in our country, in our time. In fact, it seems to rather succintly summarize the attitude of the city of Tyre towards the surrounding Galilean populace- by defining the Galileans as dogs, the Tyrians could insist that it was only proper that they, the children, receive the lions share of the food. That is precisely what I want to suggest. What’s happening here, in my humble opinion, is that Jesus has taken a popular phrase of the people of Tyre and turned it back upon the wealthy Greek woman begging for his help. He is reminding her of how her people have treated his own. You come to me asking for salvation yet this is how your people have spoken of mine, as dogs, as less than human, as undeserving of the fruits of our labor. On what grounds do you ask for salvation? On the grounds of your privilege as the oppressor? Do you demand it as something to which you are entitled, as something which I, a Galilean Jew, must provide to you?
To this devastating, yet accurate accusation, the wealthy woman of Tyre first responds simply, “Yes, Lord.” When Jesus reminds her how her people have oppressed and harmed his own, she simply agrees with the truth of the statement. Those of you who are familiar with the phenomenon of white fragility will appreciate how incredible this response is. She does not say, “Hey, wait a minute, my people were once oppressed too.” She does not say, “Hey, not all Tyrians are like that.” This remarkable woman says, Yes, Lord. You are correct. That is how my people have treated yours. This recognition of the truth, the reality of oppression, of our complicity in it, and its devastating effects on the oppressed, is certainly one necessary step towards salvation for all white people.
Yet it alone is not enough. It is what the woman says next that is truly remarkable. She says, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She identifies herself with the oppressed, with the derided and the downtrodden, with the powerless. She approaches salvation in the way of the oppressed- in the way of the powerless. For in reality, before God, that is exactly what she is, it is what we all are: powerless. Her wealth and her status and her race and her history and her education and her connections, none of it, not one bit of it, can save her daughter. All my education, all my cleverness, all my connections, all my parent’s money, all my degrees, all my whiteness, none of it could help to save my son in that hospital room. There at the feet of God, this wealthy Greek woman, sheds her privileged status, she divests herself of whiteness, she abandons all sense of entitlement and righteousness, and throws herself and her daughter’s life upon the mercy of God. It is upon hearing this that Jesus says, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
Can white people be saved? Yes, but it is incredibly difficult for us. Powerlessness is a terrible, frightening reality; one from which we run as fast as we can. Because the history of modernity has left white people with so much oppressive human power, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves, to believe that it is human power that saves. Human power can be a very useful thing in this world, but ultimately, before the ineffable reality of God, it is nothing. Our own power cannot save us. Wealth does not save. Military might does not save. The police do not save. Our whiteness will not and cannot save us. It Is Jesus Christ who saves. Our salvation is utterly dependent upon the mercy of God. More than that it is utterly dependent upon the mercy of the God of the oppressed. For white people to be saved we must recognize our powerlessness unto salvation and our dependence upon God. We must shed our investment in whiteness, in power, and invest ourselves instead in the liberation of the oppressed, for that is where salvation may found. My prayer for the UCC, for the South Central Conference, and for the New Orleans Association is that God will bring our white people to true repentance, that God will help us to see our true powerlessness and dependence, that God will help us to learn from our black, latino, asain, and native american sisters and brothers, and that we might truly be joined to the power of God that is working this very moment to liberate the oppressed. May it be so. Amen.
I’m not a local to New Orleans. I lived here almost 6 years now, but its not my native city, its not the culture in which I was raised. So there are certain customs and traditions that I wasn’t familiar with when I arrived, bits of your culture that I had yet to encounter. Before I came to New Orleans, I had, of course, heard of gumbo, but I’d never really seen real New Orleans gumbo. In my first year here, I was at church meeting where dinner was being served. Those of you that know me, know that I like to eat, so I was right up at the front of the line eager to serve myself. I took a big old paper plate, then I took a big helping of white rice, and then I got to a pot with this thick dark sauce with crab legs hanging out of it, and I figured whatever this is, a whole mess of it is going on top of my rice. Well, a few minutes later, one of my first friends here in New Orleans, Ms. Debra Joseph of Pontchatrain Park, sat next to me. She looked down at my plate and shook her head. “Baby,’ she said, “what are you doing with that gumbo on a plate? You don’t know gumbo goes in a bowl? Somebody’s gonna have to teach you how to eat, huh?” As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. She had beautiful paper bowl full of gumbo with a nice little mound of white rice on top, and I had a runny mess of gumbo sloshing all over my plate. I’ve come long way since then, I’ve learned from Debra and others, I may not eat a local yet, but I don’t embarass myself anymore, I at least know that my gumbo goes in a bowl.
The text I chose for this morning’s sermon comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and in it, Paul is hot. He is angry. He’s angry because there people in that church at Corinth who are eating the Lord’s Supper in the wrong way. He’s so angry about what the church is doing, that he tells them that when they get together its not for the better, it is for the worse. Somehow, the Corinthians are doing communion so wrong, that its not only not beneficial for them, its actually bad for them. The way they are doing it is harming their very souls.
So what is it that they’re doing wrong? Do they not say the words of institution in the correct order? Do they not all believe in the correct theology of atonement? Are they drinking the cup first and then eating the bread? What are they doing wrong? Many preachers have grasped onto this text, with Paul’s harsh words about those who eat the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner being gulity, as a way to enforce their own theological or liturgical prefences on their congregation: If you take communion without believing in just this way, if you take communion without it being properly blessed by the proper person, well than you are eating you’re own condemnation. But let’s take a look and see what exactly the problem is that Paul is so upset about. Let’s hear his own words about what those folks were doing wrong. Paul says, “When you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. WHat! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” Paul is angry because the church is divided. He is angry because certain people in the church have come to believe that they are more important, more valued, than other people in the congregation. From what we know of the Corinthian Church in Paul’s day, we believe that the Lord’s Supper was not yet the symbolic meal that we celebrate with just a taste of bread and wine, no, it was a full meal, a love fest, at which all were welcome to celebrate, to eat and drink their fill, in anticipation of the great banquet we will one day share with Christ Jesus. Well, these self important people, they were able to knock off work early, or they didn’t need to work at all, and when they got to church, they didn’t wait for everyone else to arrive. They dug in. They ate as much they pleased, they gorged themselves and they got drunk on too much wine. And when the rest of the church arrived, there was no food left for them, no wine for them to share. The poor, the servants and the slaves in the church who could not leave work early, they went hungry, while the wealthy ate their fill.
This is what makes Paul so angry. You see Paul believes that in worship we are joined with Jesus Christ, each and every one of us. In the true worship of God we shed our all of our worldly identities, our class, our race, our nationality, our status, all of these fall away, so that a real and true fellowship can be made manifest. In worship, and most especially in communion, we are lifted out of our worldly identities, we transcend ourselves, and we are made one with Christ and with one another in Christian fellowship. But the Corinthians are doing just the opposite. They are not shedding their worldly identities they are reinforcing them. They are not joining with Christ in his love for the least of these. The Corinthians are taking the holiness of worship and communion and using it to reinforce the sinful divisions that exist in the world between rich and poor, Jew and Greek, free and slave. They have taken this beautiful, holy, and transformative practice of the Lord’s Supper and they have defiled it with their worldly prejudices, arrogance, and greed.
Well, I’d like to say that Paul’s letter to the Corinthian’s cleared all this mess up. I’d like to say that that was the last time that Christians let the practice of the Lord’s Supper reinforce the divisions of the world, but you and I know that’s not true. And the folks here at Historic St. James, you know all about folks messing up the Lord’s Supper because that is exactly how the African Methodist Episcopal denomination came to be. I’m about to give a little history lesson, and I’m sure the folks of Historic St. James are already familiar with this story, so I’m asking you to please bear with me, and excuse the ignorance of us white folks. In 1786, Richard Allen, a formerly enslaved person, and newly licensed Methodist preacher, began holding services at St. Georges Methodist Epsicopal Church. A mostly white congregation, the church limited Rev. Allen’s to early morning services only. As he began to attract more and more black believers to worship, the white leadership at St. George’s decided that the black members of the church would have to worship seperately from the white members. When the church would gather for worship there were divisions among them. The white leadership decided that the worldly identities of race could not and should not be transcended by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the unity of the Body of Christ. The white leadership made plain that they valued the presumed superiority of their whiteness more than they valued the command of Jesus Christ that all his follower be one.
This situation left Richard Allen with a choice to make. Should he accept the second class status granted him by the white leadership and continue to serve St. Georges, or should he insist on the full equality of his people before God and leave? Standing here today, in the oldest African Methodist Epsicopal church in the deep south, Allen’s choice may seem obvious. But I want us to remember that it was anything but obvious at the time. This was 1787, slavery was the common practice in the North as well as the South. The entire country operated on the assumption of white supremacy, an assumption that was codified into law, and lived out everyday. Allen himself was born a slave and had to purchase his freedom. Everything in his culture, in his country, and in his world, shouted at Richard Allen that he was less than, that he was inferior, that he was in no way the equal of a white man. So where on earth did he get the idea that he was equal in the eyes of God and how did he must the strength of conviction to risk his life to proclaim it? I know where he got it. You know where got it. He got this idea that all human beings were of one blood, of common ancestry, and all beloved by God, from the Apostle Paul, from the Lord Jesus Christ, he got it from the Gospel, he got it from the very word of God. And it was that Word of God, that very presence of the Holy Spirit, that granted him the strength and courage to proclaim this dangerous truth to the sinsick white leadership of the church and anyone else who would listen. Anytime that person rejected and outcasted by our society finds the courage and strength necessary to boldly declare their humanity in the face of a world that denies it, you can be sure that presence of God is working. By the power of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, Richard Allen led the black members out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal and he founded this denomination and began the countless blessings that the AME church has poured out upon our nation and the world.
The Apostle Paul would have been quite disappointed to hear about the division of Christ’s church in 1787 in Philadelphia. When spoke of the divisions in Corinth, you could tell that any division was abhorrent to him, so much so he almost couldn’t believe it. “I hear that there divisions among; and I partly believe it.” But as much as Paul hated to see division in the church, he allowed that some division was likely to take place, he said, “for there must be factions among you in order that those that are genuine can be recognized.” The division at the Corinthian church allowed Paul to recognize that the wealthy and greedy and self-important in the congregation were not genuine. They had not truly come to believe and repent of their old lives, and it was obvious, because they were using the church to reinforce the divisions of society rather than build the unity of the church. In the church in 1787 in Philadelphia, at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal, it was Richard Allen and the black members who were genuine in their faith. It was the white leadership who had not fully come to believe, nor repent of their old lives. These white people clung to their white supremacy more tightly than they did to their faith, they refused to share in communion with their black sisters and brothers, and in so doing they brought the judgment of God upon themselves.
This is not just my opinion. As a matter of fact, the United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist body in the world, issued a formal apology for their past of racism against black people in the United States in the year 2000. They had a worship service where they invited representatives from the AME, The CME, and AME Zion to accept their apologies and their repentance. They even passed out sackcloth and ashes to repent in biblical fashion. Bishop Clarence Carr, of the AME Zion church was at that worship service and he had made this important point about the history and present of the Christian church. Bishop Carr said ``We were compelled to leave not because of doctrinal differences,not because of statements, but because of practice,'' he said. ``Not with what you said, but what you did. Not with symbolism, but with substance. And my hope is tonight that you would move from symbolism to substance.'' The problem wasn’t that the white leadership of St. George’s didn’t preach the right gospel, it was that they were unwilling to practice that gospel. Now I don’t come from the Methodist tradition, but you all may have noticed that I am indeed white. And this problem of white supremacy being practiced in the church, it is not, nor has it ever been, unique to Methodism. It is a sin that has so thoroughly soaked white America and the white Christian church that we almost don’t even recognize it. Its like the air we breathe. We gather in our all white churches as though we don’t know the history behind how they got that way. We were practicing the gospel incorrectly in the days of Richard Allen, we were practicing communion incorrectly in the days of Richard Allen, and we have not made the necessary changes to our practice. Each time we gather together as all white bodies to share the Lord’s Supper we risk once more reinforcing the divisions of the world, instead of lifting up the transcendence of the Body of Christ.
We, as the white church, need to do better. We’ve been doing it wrong and we need to learn. We’ve been loading our gumbo onto paper plates, and we need someone to tell us the right way to eat. We need to find the courage to ask forgiveness from God and from the black church for our sins. We need to find the humility to beg for the permission to learn at your feet. And so, on behalf of the white members of the church of Jesus Christ, and particularly the white members of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, I am asking your forgiveness for our racism and for our blasphemy. I am pleading with you to share with us what you know of Christ Jesus. Members of St. Paul’s, I ask that we approach the Lord’s Supper this morning in repentance for our sins of racism and division. I ask that we humbly approach the Lord’s Table this morning, seeking to learn from our black sisters and brothers, and fervently praying that through God’s grace and their own Christian hearts, we might be forgiven and joined with and one another in the Body of Christ. We live in a world filled with racism and sin. We live in a world crying out for grace, for love, for redemption. But if we can’t figure out how to eat together, if we can’t figure out how to love our sisters and brothers in Christ, we won’t bring about even a taste of God’s justice and love. May God humble us white folk, may God give patience, courage, and strength, to us all, and may God grant us the grace, humility and love needed to work together as sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus. Amen.
When I first came to St. Paul’s UCC, there was an 80 year old woman by the name of Colleen Defraites who came to church every Sunday. She sat next to Ms. Penny Leonard in that third pew on this side. She was a quirky old lady, and if you got the chance to talk with her you were likely to hear one of her catch phrases, a memory or statement that she would share whenever it seemed she had run out of other things to say. At a lull in the conversation, apropos of nothing, Colleen would sometimes give this identity statement, “I’m German, and Lutheran, and a democrat, and I will be until the day I die.” It was almost as if she was reminding herself, this is who I am.
It is a good thing to know your identity, to know who and whose you are. History is a part of all of our identities, we all come from particular people from particular places with particular cultures. This people and places and cultures are shaped by their histories and they in turn shape us. We are products of our cultures and our histories. It was no accident that Colleen a German and a lutheran found herself at St. Paul’s UCC in New Orleans. Our history is one of German, Lutheran and Reformed people who immigrated to this country in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Among the churches that these German Evangelicals founded was Salem German Evangelical Church, which would eventually become Salem United Church of Christ. Salem, which still stands at Camp and General Pershing Streets, was the congregation that birthed St. Paul’s here in Uptown. We were founded by working class German immigrants and their families who wanted a place to worship God together, to raise their children in the Christian faith, to honor that which was good and pleasing to God within their culture and their religious background. It was a noble, honorable, Christian thing to do, and we are the beneficiaries of this great and kind Christian work of these working class German immigrants. Without them we would not have this congregation, this Fellowship Hall, this sanctuary, this rich history, and we would not be blessed with their continued presence in our beloved Mr. George Luft, and his son Jordy Luft.
I love this history, I continue to study it, and I am quite proud of it. But history and identity are not necessarily the same thing. Who we come from and who we have been we’ll always shape who we become, but it does not have to fully determine it. Let me show you a little what I mean by that. There stands today on the side of Salem Church a brass plaque that states that Salem United Church of Christ is a German American Congregation. I know that statement to be true about the history of Salem, and even mostly true about its present, and nevertheless I am unsettled by it. I’m unsettled by it because I worry that it is not only descriptive of the church’s past, but that it meant be read as prescriptive of the Church’s future. I worry that the sign might be read to say, This church is for German American people, now and until the day that it dies. If read that way, the sign doesn’t stop at honoring the congregation’s history, it allows that history to determine its future.
Jesus and his disciples were not merely dropped out of the sky one day, they too had a history, they came from a particular people, with a particular culture, and a particular history. Jesus and every one of his first 12 disciples were Hebrew, they were Jewish people. Even in the first century, the history of the Hebrew people was long and storied. They had produced some of the most incredible, insightful, and divinely inspired religious writings ever to be read by human eyes, most of which we now revere as our Old Testament. They had a history of kings and kingdoms, and also a history of resistance and survival under the oppression of foreign empires. They had a religious law and culture that had guided and sustained and blessed their people for centuries. Jesus, and his disciples, were rightly proud of their culture, their religion, their people, and their history. It had so shaped them and their worldviews, that the New Testament, and the Christian faith itself is literally unintelligible without an understanding of the religion and culture preserved in the Old Testament. The Jewish culture, history, and faith, were a central part of their identity.
And yet, it is also true that Jesus’ ministry involved the proclamation of something new, something novel, something utterly unprecedented in the Jewish faith. In the proclamation of Peter and Paul and the early church that Jesus Christ is Lord, there was introduced a new, unique, and absolute allegiance to Jesus Christ into a Jewish faith that had heretofore only recognized the ineffable God as Lord. In their proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the apostles and the early Church, had set up a new criterion for faith in God. Faith in God meant following the risen Christ, before anything else. It meant being led by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, wherever that Spirit might lead you.
In the story that we read from Acts this morning, that Spirit leads Peter into an awkward situation. It lead him to break the very religious laws that his faith and his culture had taught him, laws on how to remember God in daily life and to live faithfully. For centuries the Jewish people had maintained a separate identity from the peoples that conquered them, by strictly adhering to their food and sabbath laws. These laws helped them to remember that they belonged to God, and were always God’s people. Yet, the Spirit of Christ, the new criterion of faith to which Peter and the disciples had pledged absolute allegiance, came to him in a dream and instructed him to break these food laws, to eat food which his faith had always proclaimed as profane. Next the Holy Spirit went even further, it told him to go into the house of a Gentile, not just any Gentile but a Roman governor, the very Gentiles that dominated his people, and to make no distinction between himself and these enemies of his people. Remarkably, Peter obeyed. He went against his culture, his history, the teachings of his people, and instead obeyed only the Spirit of God. And when he did, things only got worse. Because then the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius the Roman governor and upon his Gentile household. God God’s self blessed and baptized these Gentiles. As much as this blessing of Gentiles went against everything that he had been taught and had believed, Peter nevertheless felt he could not oppose it. Not while maintaining his absolute allegiance to the Spirit of Christ. And so he said, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
When you go around breaking with tradition, violating cultural norms, and religious law, there is bound to be resistance. When word spread about Peter’s eating with Gentiles, visiting them in their homes, and worse, baptizing them, the others in the church in Jerusalem were upset. They wanted to know why Peter had done this, why he had broken with tradition, why he had broken their religious laws. The reason Peter gives is simple, God called me to do it. All throughout his explanation he insists on God’s agency. It was God who gave him the vision that all foods were clean. It was God who brought him to Cornelius’ house and told him to recognize no distinction between them. It was God who appeared to Cornelius in a dream and told him to send for Peter. And finally, it was the Spirit of God that fell upon the Gentiles and baptized them. The reason Peter gave for breaking with tradition, for betraying the norms of his culture, and violating the laws of his religion was simply that his highest allegiance was to the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit had led him there.
In welcoming the Gentiles into full communion in the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit, did not condemn the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people. Peter and Paul, both of whom accepted Gentiles into the faith without their having to practice all of Jewish law, nevertheless maintained their own adherence to this law as much as possible. They were proud of their history, their people, and their tradition, and they kept practicing it as long as they could do so, without excluding or insulting their brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultures. What the Holy Spirit did was to let them know that God is greater than every history, than every culture, than every people. God and God’s gracious and loving will may be expressed and honored in each and every culture of the world, yet it is not and cannot be contained within any one culture. God transcends particular cultures and histories. God is always bigger than us and the love to which God is always calling us will always break the barriers that our histories and cultures and traditions place between us.
Here at St. Paul’s we have every right to be proud of our German heritage and tradition. And today, the week of Mr. George Luft’s 92nd birthday, we should celebrate that history and tradition especially as he embodies it: In his faithfulness and dedication to this congregation and to the Christian Church, in his kindness and openness to new people whom he has welcomed into this family of faith, and especially in his love for children. Mr. George embodies many of the aspects of our German history of which we should rightly be proud. Yet his welcome of Nigerian, Argentinian, Australian, Carribean, and Mexican people into this congregation also testifies to the God revealed truth that the love and grace and will of God are to be found in every human culture and as such they are all to be honored. My sincere prayer and hope for St. Paul’s UCC is that we will continue to honor the best parts of our history and tradition and culture, while also remembering that the Holy Spirit calls us to greater love and life precisely by the breaking down of historical, cultural, and religious barriers that separate us. May we look to the Holy Spirit as our ultimate allegiance and may we allow it to guide us to new life and greater love through relationships with peoples of all kinds. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast