“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.
As many of you know, Shannon and I have a small dog named Lucy. I love Lucy, for a million reasons, but today I want to focus not on her many stellar qualities, but rather on one of her defects. Lucy is nervous little dog. She is forever nervous that we might leave her alone in the house, or that we might not have heard the baby crying in the nursery. But what worries Lucy the most is a thunderstorm. Lucy hates thunderstorms. They send her into a panic. She paces back and forth, she follows you to the bathroom and hides behind the toilet, she attempts to burrow underneath you on the couch. Thunderstorms terrify Lucy. She acts as if we are taking artillery fire and she is the only one bright enough to run for cover. What is odd about all of this, is that in the 6 years I have known her, nothing bad has ever happened to her in a thunderstorm. She is inside, she’s dry, she’s safe. Nothing bad is even about to happen to her, she’s going to be just fine. The only trauma that she is actually experiencing is her worry and her fear. If she could just calm down, if she could just trust that everything was going to somehow be ok, she would be fine. The problem isn’t really the thunderstorm, the problem is her.
This dilemma is rather easy to diagnose in poor little Lucy, but it is unfortunately, not unique to her. Human beings are remarkable for our capacity to think ahead, to plan, to reflect and project, and to imagine all sorts of different scenarios and outcomes. This is both a blessing and a curse. While our imaginative abilities allow us to create incredible structures, organizations, and societies, they can also cripple us. For our imaginations always outstrip our ability to control events, things, and people. Realizing what little control we have can have the effect of setting our imaginations off, allowing them to run wild with all the negative responses, actions, and outcomes that the future could hold for us. We begin to worry, not just a little, but a lot. Think about the last time you drove yourself crazy with worry. Maybe you were away from your child for a period of time and you began to think about all the terrible things that could happen to them. Or maybe you had an important interview or meeting and you began to doubt yourself, began to think about all the ways you might mess it up. In either situation, the problem isn’t with the child or the meeting, its with your worry. You cannot control what will happen to your child in your absence, you cannot control the outcome of the meeting, but the thoughts of what might happen can cause you to suffer. Your troubled heart is what causes you the pain of this anxiety. The problem isn’t the thing you are worrying about. The problem is with you.
This realization, that you yourself might be the cause of your pain, can be a terrifying one. Because I can run away from many problems, but I can’t run away from myself. I can ignore many problems, but I can’t ignore myself. If I am my problem, than my problem can seem inescapable.
The portion of John’s Gospel that we heard this morning comes from what is often called Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus is fully aware that he will soon die. He knows that the time between his death and resurrection will be a difficult one for his disciples. Since he has been with them, they have found a new way of living. In following Jesus, each of them started a new life, and he had been there every day to help them along the way. In the days to come, they will have to get used to life without his visible presence. If they wish to continue in this new way of living, they will have to do it without Jesus walking by their side.
I don’t have a great sense of direction, and I although I call St. Louis home, I didn’t grow up there as a child, and I left there shortly after learning to drive, so I don’t actually know my way around my hometown very well. My favorite way to drive around St. Louis, is to drive with my friend Adam Wise. Adam is a native of St. Louis, and he has an incredible sense of direction. He once told me that he sees the city and the streets from a bird’s eye view, that it’s easy for him to visualize where our destination is and the route to get there. I believe him, because I’ve never been lost with him in the car. Driving with Adam in the car is wonderful. I go along without a care in the world, never paying attention to the route, because I know that he knows where we are going, that he will indeed get us there. As lovely as this feeling is, it can lead to real problems when I’ve had to drop Adam off somewhere. Getting there is of course, no problem. Adam gives me directions and I’m good. But once he leaves the car, I have to remember how to get back. All of sudden I have a moment of panic when I realize that I’ll be alone on the way back. I have this feeling that now its all up to me, and I am not up for the task, I am lost.
I imagine that this is how the disciple’s felt after Jesus’ death; lost and panicked. How would they continue without their leader? Were they up for doing this new way of life by themselves? Was it even possible to do it by themselves? I bet they started to really worry, to paralyze themselves with fear and uncertainy, thinking about all the things that could go wrong.
But Jesus has no intention of leaving them, or leaving us, all by ourselves. In his farewell discourse Jesus makes this most amazing promise, “Those who love me keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Jesus the Christ and God the Father will come to us and make their home in our hearts. For those of us who have discovered that we can be the problem, that it is our own troubled hearts that can cause us to suffer the most, this promise is life changing. I can’t fix myself, I can’t escape myself, I can’t grant myself the peace that I need when I am the cause of my suffering. But I am not alone. If I love Jesus Christ, even it be only faintly, only haltingly, only as best as I am sometimes able, Jesus Christ has promised that God will be with me. That God will make Her home in my heart.
We hear this promise from lips of the living Jesus Christ, but it is kept by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the term Jesus and the Church use to describe God’s continued, active, moving, and miraculous presence in our lives right now. A lack of attention to the Holy Spirit, can leave us with the impression that the greatness of God is in the past. God once created, God once took on human form in the life of Jesus, God redeemed us through Jesus death, and resurrection. While I believe all this to be true, all of these actions can be thought of as past tense. That God once created, once redeemed, once worked miracles in the lives of people, but no more. Yet that is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying here in John. Though he won’t physically be with them after the death and resurrection of Jesus, God will be truly and actually present with the disciples and with us, in the Holy Spirit. This Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of everything that Jesus has said. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus and the Father, come to live in our hearts, to make their homes with us. The miracles did not stop with Jesus’ death, they continue to this very day through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit we receive Jesus’ promise, “My peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” This is the first miracle that we experience in our lives. The miracle of God’s peace in our hearts. The miracle of our fear and the trouble in hearts being cast out by the Holy Spirit and replaced with the peace of God in Christ. There are a million things to worry about in this world. Our families and loved ones, our church and its stability, our country and where it is headed, the fate of our planet with a rapidly changing climate. To overcome any of these challenges we will need the miraculous and wondrous workings of God, for each and every one of them are beyond our control. But the first miracle of God, the miracle of peace coming to our troubled hearts is the one that must proceed all the rest. It is the miracle that makes possible the others. If we are to be a part of God’s transformation of the world, if we are to be a part of God’s coming kingdom, we must first welcome the peace of Christ into our hearts. For that is what saves us from ourselves. That is what sets us free from worry and the need to control. That is what ends the paralysis of our anxiety and liberates us to be a part of God’s liberating and loving action in the world. May we pray for the love of Christ that brings that peace to our hearts and may we go forth to share it with the world. Amen.
With approximately 500 people now officially running for President in 2020 we are beginning to hear folks make the case for what qualifies them to hold the highest office in the land. We hear how their experience as attorneys, or mayors, or senators, has prepared them for the job they seek. Qualifications are important things in our world. It is important that you have the required the knowledge and skills to do the job that you are called to do. It is important to only give benefits to those who qualify or the benefits might run out before they reach the intended party. It is important to qualify for the college you want to attend or they won’t let you in. It is important to be tall enough to ride the rollercoaster, or you could fall out. Qualifications are one way that we try to make sure that the right people are in the right place, that the right people get the right things.
Isaiah’s 55th chapter begins with the voice of God making an offer with an interesting qualification. God is inviting people to come to the waters, to buy food and wine and milk, to delight in rich food. But who is invited to this banquet feast? Who qualifies for this celebration with God? “Everyone who thirsts.” Everyone who thirsts? But don’t we all thirst? Is thirst not a universal need and desire? Its a lot like saying, “Everyone who breathes,” it emphasizes the idea that everyone means everyone. As the passage goes on, the invitation is extended specifically to those that have no money for they too are invited to come and buy wine and milk. Here everyone does not only apply to those who can afford to buy, those with resources, it means everyone regardless of their wealth. Why this insistence on emphasizing the universality of the invitation? Doesn’t everyone always mean everyone? Why spell it out?
Last Sunday we had a potluck lunch after our annual meeting, and Joe Praner, a man who has been coming to Mustard Seed Dinners with his daughters for months now, decided to come and to bring along a friend. When I entered the Fellowship Hall after the meeting, Joe approached me and asked for a favor. He explained that he’d brought his friend Salvador, a guy that he had met a few times scrapping metal over on Chef Highway, to our lunch. Unfortunately, when they arrived Salvador told him that he didn’t want to go into the church. He said that he felt embarrassed, that this church was a church for rich people, and that he didn’t belong. I went with Joe to meet Salvador, I got to use a little of my rusty Spanish, inviting him in, assuring him that he was welcome, that we wanted him to join us for lunch. I said I understood that he felt embarrassed but that he didn’t need to, everyone was welcome here.
Salvador did come in and eat with us, he even thanked me and said God bless you on his way out. But I’ve had to spend sometime over the past week thinking about why he might not have felt welcome here. We are a church that welcomes all, we preach and proclaim as often as possible, and yet Salvador didn’t think that all included him, he didn’t think everyone was a category universal enough to mean him as well. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made why he would feel this way. In our society, everyone is often a limited category. When we say everyone we sometimes mean all citizens of this nation; but of course that would exclude Salvador if he wasn’t yet a citizen. When we say everyone is welcome, we often mean everyone that can afford to purchase what is offered; folks without extra cash are often not welcome to even use the bathroom. When we say everyone we often mean everyone who can speak English fluently, who shares our culture, who look and dress and act as we do; I am sure that Salvador’s Mexican culture and newly acquired English exclude him from places and opportunities everyday. So when Salvador arrived in this goregeous, expensive, white, neighborhood, he knew that he didn’t meet the qualifications necessary to enter the church. His shorthand for saying this, was simply, “This is a church for rich people.”
Of course, I object, every bit as vehemently as all of you to this statement. Our church is not a church only for rich people, this place is for all people regardless of qualifications. This is so, because we proclaim that God’s love is for all people regardless of their qualifications. But saying something, and truly believing it are not always one and the same. Do we truly believe that God loves all of us, regardless of who we are, where we come from, and what we have done? Before your thoughts go off to how God certainly loves other people without qualification, I want us to pause and ask if we believe this about ourselves. Do you believe that God loves you? Can you truly, deeply, actually accept God’s love for you? I ask because I know how hard this can be to believe for some of us. Sometimes we are far harder on ourselves than we ever would be towards others. Of course God loves Salvador, of course God loves children, of course God loves those other nice Christian people at church, but me? Well I know myself too well. I know my flaws and my sins, and my selfishness, and all the terrible awful things I have done. If anyone knew all this about me, they couldn’t possibly love me. Sure God loves everyone, but not me, I don’t qualify.
Listen again to the Word of God from Isaiah, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters..” Who? Everyone. But certainly I’m not qualified. Do you thirst? Well yes, but I don’t have any money. “And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Me!?! Everyone, everyone, everyone. Everyone means me too. Everyone means you too. God wants this banquet feast, this glorious celebration and abundance and satisfaction for everyone. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, this is the Gospel. All qualifications have been removed. All who thirst, the wicked and the righteous, the Jew and the Greek, the man and the women, the poor and the rich, the gay and the straight, all who thirst are invited to come to the waters of God’s love. Even us.
I want more than anything for Salvador and for everyone who happens to encounter St. Paul’s United Church of Christ to know that we proclaim and believe that God’s love is for all. Everything that we do here is meant to communicate that fact to us and to the world. We collect food for the poor because we believe that God loves them and invites them to feast. We help to send books to prisoners because we believe that God loves the guilty and the innocent and redeems all people. We are working towards racial reconciliation because we believe that racism and its effects are in direct contradiction to our belief that God’s love is for everyone. All of this is tremendously important. But none of it will be truly convincing to Salvador, or to anyone else, if we are not able to believe it about ourselves. If each and everyone of us can continually attempt to accept the love of God, to trust in God’s love for us no matter what, than our message of God’s love for the rest of the world becomes far more convincing. We believe, may God help our unbelief. Amen.
My freshmen year of college, I fell head over heels in love. There was this beautiful, smart, redheaded girl, who for some strange reason seemed to like having me around. About a month into the semester we were both stupid, crazy in love with one another. So much so, that we were probably one of those obnoxious, oblivious couples too into one another and their public displays of affection to notice how nauseating we were. Anyways, this girlfriend and I were both in the same sociology class, taught by a professor from Iran whom we both adored, by the name of Mahnaz Kousha. One day in this sociology course the subject of love came up, and professor Kousha cited a psychological study on the brain chemistry behind our feelings of romantic love. According to her the brain activity associated with romantic love never lasts longer than 6 months. All passionate, romantic love ends in under 6 months. At the time, I didn’t give this a second thought. I was in love, what did I care what some brain research said about it. Maybe other people fell out of love in 6 months, but not us. We were both quite sure that we would spend the rest of our lives together.
Well, we did spend nearly 3 years together. But I must say, that the last 2 and a half years were not nearly as fun as though first 6 months. I don’t know if she was right about the brain chemistry, but Professor Kousha was certainly right about us- our romantic love, was more of an infatuation, and that infatuation burned out after 6 months. After that staying together was hard, it was a chore, it was work that neither of us were inclined to do.
The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has been called his hymn to love. Its beautifully written, almost too beautifully written. Its beauty has led to its popularity which leads people to pull the chapter out of its context to use it in weddings or write it on canvas, frame it and hang it on a wall. So we can be forgiven for thinking that Paul was nothing more than the original author of Hallmark Cards and sappy, inspirational posters. The truth is that what Paul is writing about has precious little to do with romantic love, and nothing at all to do with mere infatuation. The Greeks had three separate words for three separate connotation to the word love, where as English has only one, love. Eros is the Greek word for romantic, passionate love. Filia is the Greek word for brotherly love, love between friends. But Paul doesn’t use either of those words. Paul uses the word agape. Agape refers to a love that manifests itself in self sacrifice, a love that gives freely of itself to others expecting nothing in return. Agape is the love of God.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians is not a love letter between two individuals. It is a letter written by Paul to the congregation at Corinth. The cause for Paul’s writing is that word has reached him of great conflict within the church. Several of the members have come to think of themselves as superior than others, believing they’re spiritual enlightenment makes them more valuable to God than other members of the congregation. The wealthy are eating all of the communion meal by themselves and not sharing with the poorer members. There are power struggles between different factions in the church, followers of Apollo against the followers of Paul. In short, the church at Corinth is like every other church: they proclaim that they are follower of Jesus Christ called to love one another and the world, and they really mean it, but it turns out loving people, real people, is easier said than done.
At one of our New Members classes this fall, I got to sit one on one with a woman Amanda and chat. I asked her about her religious background, her own faith journey, and one of things she said has stuck with me. When speaking of how she saw God in the world, she said that she sees God in other people. Although the world is full of flawed people doing inconsiderate, hurtful, even terrible things to one another, nevertheless you can still find, with remarkable frequency, ordinary people doing incredible acts of kindness. In the midst of a world full of trials and trouble, Amanda said she still sees that love, those acts of kindness, and for her that is where she sees God.
Paul would have loved that. Because that is exactly what Paul means when he speaks of love. Listen again, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul lists the various gifts of the church members, things they can and should do, things like having faith, and he tells them they are all worthless if they aren’t done in love. What makes an action Christian, what makes it resonate with God and with our souls, what makes it truly worthwhile, is the love behind it and through it and beyond it. Love is the purpose of life, it is the reason for living, it is what being truly alive is all about.
Yet Paul goes further than that. He says this remarkable thing, “Love never ends.” Professor Kousha might have disagreed with him, but they were talking about two different things. Infatuation is a human emotion, whereas for Paul love, agape love, is divine, it properly belongs to God, to the eschaton, to the heavens. Eternal is an adjective used exclusively for God, because in truth all things end. This sermon will end, soon I assure you, this church service will end, this day will end. Cities come to an end, countries too. Whole civilizations rise and fall. One day this earth will be no more, and one day the sun too will end in a fiery blaze. All things end. All things except for God. In this life, on this side of eternity, we can never fully know God. God is beyond our comprehension. But eternity reaches out towards us. God reaches out towards us. This initiative of God, this extension of eternity into time, takes the shape of three things: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. When we practice agape love, self-sacrificing love, we are participating in God. Real, true love, agape love, is of and from God, it is God’s presence among us. The gift of the Christian life is the blessing to be a part of God’s love, to experience God’s presence when we are giving freely of ourselves.
We remembered our beloved friend and member, Ms. Penny Hendryx this morning. Ms. Penny loved St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. She was baptized here, she was confirmed here. She spent years playing the organ for worship, and years selecting the hymns. For all of her 92 years, Ms. Penny gave freely of herself to this congregation. And she did it, not because she expected something in return. She did it simply because this was the place that she encountered Jesus Christ. This was the place where she felt and experienced the love of God. Ms. Penny knew, better than most, that service to a loving a God is its own compensation. Yet as Ms. Penny was nearing her death her church family showed up. Following in exactly the example she set for us, you all, cared for her expecting nothing in return. Dorcas and Mosoba, Melisa Jean Marie, and Gabrielle all went to visit her in her room at Jefferson Health Care. Our youth group went and sang Christmas Carols to her in the dining room there. And in her last week, visitors from St. Paul’s were nearly constant by her side, Gwen, Sue, Tom, Melisa, Faye, Janet, Mr. George, myself. We all sat with her, prayed with her, read scripture with her, even sang to her. Few times in my life, have I ever felt the presence of God as strongly as I did in room 125 at Jefferson Health Care. God was there. In and through our love, our real self giving love, God was palpably present with Ms. Penny. That is the love that never ends. That is the love of God. May we seek it out, may we find it, may we treasure it, and may we find ways to give it away again and again. Amen.
For a couple of years I was the proud owner of a pickup truck; a white ford F-150. I bought the truck when I was working construction, and while it was helpful to haul around tools and materials, it was not a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and so on occasion, when we working at a particularly wet job site, my truck would get stuck in the mud. I can remember one time in particular, when my tires began to dig in and spin uselessly in the mud. After trying to free it myself several times, and only making things worse, I called over Cooter, who was our companies operator of heavy machinery, and asked if he could get it out for me. Having already tried to drive the truck out myself, I was hoping Cooter would hook the bobcat up to it and pull it out of the mud. But when he approached he asked for my keys and got in the driverside of the truck. Several times he revved up the engine and spun the wheels good and fast. They failed to find any traction and just continued to dig the tires deeper into the muck. When Cooter killed the engine and I got out of the truck I gave him look like, “What was that for?” and he shrugged and said, “Yup. Looks like you’re good and stuck, just wanted to check before I got the Bobcat.” Both Cooter and I had tried our best, we’d each gotten the Truck to give its all, and neither of us could do anything but make it worse. That truck couldn’t get itself out of that hole, try and try as it might, it only made things worse. We had to give up on the Truck ever being able to save itself, before anything could be done to help it.
At the beginning of the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, we hear that the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Interestingly enough, we don’t hear what exactly that word was. Often in the bible, the Words of God are specific, they are quoted, they come after a nice prelude like, “Thus saith the Lord,” but not here. In the 3rd chapter of Luke we hear that the Word of God came to John, and whatever those words may have been, they apparently lead him to begin proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We can deduce several things about what John must have heard from God from his proclaiming this baptism.
First, John learned that there was a problem. The problem was that people were sinful. People’s thoughts and actions and even parts of their being were warped by sin, turned away from their God-given beauty and righteousness and into something different, something worse. Sin had so infected the people that they caused harm to themselves and to each other, they took the gift of God’s creation for granted, they felt entitled to gifts of grace, and they convinced themselves either that they were worthless, or else that their worth was somehow greater than that of their siblings.
We can also deduce that John learned the people couldn’t stop sinning on their own. If sinning were easy to stop, there would be no need for the baptism, there would be no need to wait for the coming Messiah. One could just hear John’s proclamation about our sinfulness, politely agree, and then give up sinning. But instead, to those who can acknowledge their sin, John offers baptism. Baptism is a sign not only of their desire to change, to repent of their sinful behavior, but also a symbol of their need for God’s help to bring about this repentance and change. Baptism is also a symbol of God’s promise to save them from their sin. Even these symbols of God’s support was not enough, John told the people that soon another would come, one greater than he, and that one would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, that one, the Messiah, would truly and finally save them from their sins. What God’s Word told John was that salvation was coming, but that it could not come from sinful humanity itself. The sinners attempts to break free from sin are themselves marked and marred by sin. All of our best efforts to save ourselves are just like tires spinning and spinning, and only digging us further in. John has seen the problem, he has diagnosed our disease, but he is not the physician. John can assess our problem and he can point us towards a solution, but he is aware of his own limitations, he is not deluded enough to believe that he is the savior. John points to God as the one who can save, he tells the people to wait for one to come who is more powerful than he.
And then Jesus arrives. The Son of God, the awaited Messiah, is somehow just there amongst the sinners awaiting baptism. In the sentence just before we hear of Christ’s baptism we are told that John is going to be put in prison; he and his movement are considered criminal by the state authorities. So here we have the sinless, spotless, Son of God, sitting amongst a criminal gang of self confessed sinners and joining them in their baptism for repentance. The scene reminds me, of the Chappell’s dog Bubbles. Bubbles is an active and beautiful dog, with lovely mostly white fur. I have witnessed several times as this beautiful dog, with spotless white fur, goes out for a walk in the park and promptly lays herself down in a mud puddle. This is how I picture the sinless Son of God sitting with John’s group of criminal sinners. The spotless white fur of Jesus cozying up to the mud and muck of us sinners.
This of course, begs the question, why? Why would Jesus, one supposedly without sin, sully himself and his reputation by hanging with this group of criminal misfits? Furthermore why would the Son of God need a baptism of repentance? For what does the sinless one need to repent?
One good way to learn a little about someone is by hearing what others say about them. There are a nearly infinite number of different takes on who Jesus was and is, but there are some commonalities among, some themes that arise over and over. One of these themes, is that most people, especially people considered sinners, believe that Jesus is on their side. It’s incredible really, the sheer number of radically different people who are sure that Jesus understands them, their situation, and their choices. There’s a whole genre of rap songs about Jesus understanding thugs, songs contemplating if there’s a “Heaven for a G.” Drug dealers, bank robbers, and criminals of all stripes will claim Jesus as their own, the one who understands them, has compassion on them, and takes their side. The major reason that the issue of homosexuality is so controversial in the church is not simply because many churches condemn it, if that were all gay people would simply leave the church. The cause for the continued controversy is that so many gay people, considered sinners by a majority of the church tradition, are utterly convinced that Jesus loves them, understands them, and takes their side. This is the reason they remain in the church, the reason they fight for change from within, the reason that the controversy continues, and the reason that so many have come to see the Christian light of accepting and affirming our gay siblings.
This widespread conviction amongst those considered sinners that Jesus stands in solidarity with them is not without basis in the gospels. Luke’s gospel provides one of the primary supports for this belief in the crucifixion scene where Jesus hangs between two common criminals and declares to the one that he will be with him in paradise. Jesus, quite literally at the side of the criminal, declares his solidarity with him in eternity. Another such supporting story, is the baptism of Christ, the one we heard today. Jesus joins John criminal band of repentant sinners and he joins them in accepting their baptism of repentance.
What are we to learn from Jesus’ proximity to criminals and sinners? Is this a green light to sin away, to finally rob that bank you’ve had your eye on? By no means. Though the Christian faith takes seriously the conviction that all people are sinners, Jesus joins himself to a specific group of them. Hanging there upon the cross, Jesus is side by side with two criminals, yet his promise of eternal solidarity is given to only one of them. The repentant one. Indeed it is not just any group of criminals and sinners that Jesus affirms down by the Jordan, but the group who have heard the call to change and have answered it. Even more than this, Jesus, the sinless Son of God, joins himself to sinners who want to change, and who have come to believe that they cannot save themselves. Whenever people truly desire change and have come to the painful realization that it is them that needs changing, and that the them that is broken cannot bring about the change, at this moment of despair and surrender, Jesus is there. God is there. Not as another broken and miserable human warped by sin, but as the truly righteous one, the one with power to save, the one without sin, yet happy to be surrounded by us sinners. Once we have given up spinning our tires, once we have seen that our salvation is beyond our own abilities, it is at that moment that Jesus plops down in the mud with us.
I once heard this story, a story almost too cheesy to believe it actually happened, but a fitting story nonetheless. A man who had come to the end of his rope, a man who had come to the painful realization that his salvation was beyond him, once told it to me. He told me about watching an insect trying to climb up his screen door. He was just sitting there with nothing to do and watching this bug struggle to climb up the screen. The bug would make a little progress, 6 or 7 inches up the screen, and then loose its footing and slide back down. It would try again, struggling and straining with all its might to climb the screen, getting a few inches higher, and then sliding right back down again. This went on for a good while, the bug fighting to climb the screen, until it looked like the bug was running out of gas. The little insect had worn himself out, so much so that he just kind of gave up. He surrendered. He let go of the screen and started to fall backwards towards the floor. And just then, a pair of wings on his back fluttered to life, and flew him to the top of the door. The man who told me this story said, “Ain’t that me. Trying as hard as could to climb and getting nowhere. And the whole time I had wings and didn’t even know it.” May we have the strength and the courage to recognize our own sin. May we have the wisdom to know that we cannot save ourselves. And may we have the faith to surrender and to let Jesus be our grace, be our forgiveness, be our new life. May we let Jesus be our wings. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast