…with the Holy Spirit and with fire

Guest preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Luke 3:2-3, 15-17

This morning we’re going to be looking at biblical passages that refer to the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.  I hope that, as a result, we will end up with a clearer picture of the Holy Spirit and what the Spirit offers to us as Christians.

I’d like to begin, though, by talking about two things in particular that the Holy Spirit is not:

First, the Holy Spirit is not an afterthought.  You just might think so, if you focus only on statements like the Apostle’s Creed, which, after substantial descriptions of God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, simply says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” without further discussion.  If this was all you had to go on, you could be excused for thinking that there was very little to say about the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit was indeed an afterthought in the theological scheme of things.  But that is not the case.  The Holy Spirit is not a minor figure in the Biblical record.  As we shall see, the Bible has a lot to say about God’s Spirit.

Second, the Holy Spirit is not a ghost – not a small-“g” ghost.  Yes, in English we use the terms Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost interchangeably, but the Holy Spirit is not a ghost in the popular meaning of the term.   God’s Spirit is not a colorless presence hovering around the edge of our awareness, like some kind of wandering, homeless ghost.  God’s Spirit is not ineffectual like the ghosts we see in the movies, caught, as they are, in sad old houses, and unable to move on.  At the beginning of creation (in Genesis 1:2) the Spirit was present and moving – moving everywhere, never trapped and never stopped.  Nor does the Holy Spirit mean to scare us like popularly-imagined ghosts are supposed to do.  I originally wrote here that the Holy Spirit is not scary.  However, I remembered that the Holy Spirit is God, and God in God’s full power can sometimes be – and probably should be – scary to us.  That said, we still should not think of the Holy Spirit as some kind of scary and ragged old ghost.  God’s Spirit is something else entirely.  And this is made clear when we look at how the Spirit is actually depicted in the Bible.  Scripture describes what the Holy Spirit does as well as what the Holy Spirit is like.  We can learn a lot about the Spirit from both kinds of descriptions.  Let’s start with what the Holy Spirit does.

In the Gospel of John Jesus describes the Spirit as a counselor or advocate – the Greek word is paraclete.  In chapter 14 verse 26, he says, “. . . the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  And in chapter 16, beginning with verse 8, Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment. . . . he will guide you into all truth.”  As we can see, the Holy Spirit has the enormous responsibility of taking care of us.  As our counselor, the Holy Spirit helps to show us God’s will and leads us to the truth of all things.  The Spirit is truly “God with us” as we worship and as we work in the world for God’s kingdom.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul presents his understanding of spiritual gifts.  It is here that we learn two important things about such gifts.  First, they are given to the church by the Holy Spirit.  And second, as Paul says in verse 7, “. . .to each one the manifestation of the Spirit [that is, a spiritual gift] is given for the common good.”  Whole sermons have been devoted to the gifts of the Spirit, but it is not my intention to go into detail on this subject today.  The point I do want to stress is made in Ephesians 4:12:  the gifts are given “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ [that is, the church] may be built up . . .”  The gifts of the Spirit have a purpose, which is to build up the body of Christ.

This, then, is a very brief job description of the Holy Spirit – abbreviated, yes, but it does lay out for us several crucial points:  the Holy Spirit is “God with us,” our caregiver, counselor and guide, and the Spirit is the bringer of gifts from God that build up the church.  Of course, more – much more – could be added to this short description of what the Holy Spirit does, but the clock is not my friend, and I’d like to turn now to the question of what the Holy Spirit is like.

To do this, let me introduce you to a few of the words that are used about the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  In some cases these words are poetic and metaphorical, and I think that as we look at and think about them, we will begin to understand just who the Holy Spirit is.  And the picture we are able to build up is of a dynamic and powerful Person, as far from the colorless, hovering presence I mentioned before as it is possible to be.

The first word I want to call your attention to is fire.  As we saw in this morning’s scripture reading from the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist said that the Messiah, Jesus, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  You will also recall that when the Holy Spirit first descended on the infant church at Pentecost, in Acts 2:3, tongues of fire came to rest on each one present. I’d like to make two comments about how the Holy Spirit is like fire.

First, as we read in Luke 3, fire burns away chaff.  Chaff consists of the inedible parts of the stalk of wheat that cling to the kernel of grain.  Our chaff – that is, the things of this world that cling to our lives – is burned up in the fire of the Holy Spirit, leaving only the good wheat.  From this image we learn that the Holy Spirit helps purify us, enabling us to throw off and separate ourselves from the unworthy things that belong to this world.  In this way the Spirit draws us closer to God.  Of course, we are talking here about John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, which Pastor Allie preached about in the spring.  Sanctification is something we might well be frightened about – it certainly sounds like a process of loss as the chaff of our lives is separated from us and burned up. If we take our Christian life seriously, we must recognize that this is our destiny:  we will be purified – sanctified – and we will one day stand before God.  And the chaff cannot stand with us there.  What chaff in your life needs to be burned away?

My second comment about the Holy Spirit as fire is that fire wants to grow and move, and it is not easily contained.  This image tells us that the Holy Spirit is not easily contained, either.  Don’t be mistaken, God’s Spirit is dynamic, hard to contain and ultimately unstoppable.  Is that your experience of the Holy Spirit in your own life?

Our next word picture comes from the prophet Joel (chapter 2:28); it is repeated by the apostle Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17).  The image here is of the Spirit being poured out, like a liquid from a large vessel:  God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”  “I will pour out” – think about these words for a moment.  Don’t they convey a sense of generosity, even lavishness; don’t they depict a situation of plentitude and abundance?  God is not stingy with God’s Spirit; the Spirit is not dribbled out to us, one drop at a time, but is showered down on us.  This precious gift is not sparingly given.  Imagine some valuable liquid, like expensive perfume or a very fine wine.  Then imagine it being poured out in great quantities, being made available to just anyone, heedless of the cost.  That’s the picture we are given of the Holy Spirit.  And please notice, the Spirit is not just for a few of us; there is enough of the Holy Spirit to go around for all of us.  The Holy Spirit is not small or limited!  The Holy Spirit is not dainty or fragile!  These seem like pretty obvious things that don’t need to be emphasized, but sometimes we act as if the Holy Spirit is an insignificant, inconsequential part of our lives – perhaps a treasure, but a dainty, fragile treasure, kept out of harm’s way, high up on a shelf.  Remember, the Holy Spirit has been lavishly and robustly poured down on us.  We are abundantly endowed with the Spirit of God, so much so that that Spirit demands to be shared with others.  And that brings me to my next word image.

Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as rivers or streams, plural – streams of living water.  In John 7:37-38, he says:  “‘If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me . . . streams of living water will flow from within him.'”  And the gospel author then explains in verse 39, “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”  The image here is really quite wonderful, even awesome.  The Holy Spirit flows through the broken and patched vessels of our lives, like barely contained gushing rivers.  And these rivers flow out of us to provide living water to a parched and dying world.  In a dry, desert country like much of ancient Israel, the rivers were bringers of life.  They regenerated and revived the land.  Like those rivers, the Holy Spirit regenerates, revives and refreshes, and after we ourselves are refreshed, we become the channels through which the Holy Spirit revives the world.  There is a corollary here:  If we are the channels through which God’s Spirit flows out into the world, we must take care that we do not dam ourselves up.  We should – we must – keep the channels of living water open.  Moreover, when we are out in the world, serving as channels for the Spirit into that world, please keep in mind that we are not alone.  The Holy Spirit who flows through us is also serving alongside us as we work.  Don’t forget, we are not alone.  God’s Spirit is with us and in us – always.

The final word I want to mention in connection with the Holy Spirit is the word power.  This association of the Holy Spirit with power is found both in the Old and New Testaments.  For example, when Samuel anointed the boy David as the future king of Israel, 1 Samuel 16:13 says that “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.”  And in Acts 1:8, Jesus promised his disciples, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.”  Of course, power is implicit in the other images I have introduced this morning.  Fire and rivers – both are powerful.  But we need to underline the word power in connection with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is powerful, and we misunderstand the Spirit’s fundamental nature if we do not recognize that through the Holy Spirit flows the power of God.  And as the passages I have quoted above make clear, that power is available to us – to all of us.

What does the Holy Spirit offer us?  Many things, but this morning I’ve spoken in particular about God’s care and guidance, gifts for building up the church, personal purification, and power – that is, God’s power.  That’s a bit of a laundry list, but it all comes down to this:  the Holy Spirit wants to be a part of our lives and wants us to share in God’s power and abundance.  Yet so often we feel powerless and adrift, not taking part in the spiritual abundance that God and God’s Word have promised us.  How do we access this power?  How do we live an abundant life?  How do we become active partners in the work of this powerful and dynamic Holy Spirit?

If you are not a Christian, then there is a most important first step.  You need to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.  If you would like to do this, or to talk further about it, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next Sunday.

For Christians, the answer is simple, though not necessarily easy.  The Holy Spirit is with you and has been with you from the time you accepted Jesus into your heart.  You only need to acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit and welcome the Spirit into your life.  God’s power and God’s abundance – are these too much to ask for?  No!  But it may be a scary thing to do, because your life will almost certainly change.  If so, then be brave.  Invite God’s Spirit to fill your life and to guide and direct you.  George Croly, the author of our next hymn, put it this way:  “I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay, no angel visitant, no opening skies, but take the dimness of my soul away.”  Take the dimness of my soul away!  Do you want to pray this prayer?

Whatever and however you pray, be assured that God will answer you.  God will meet you where you are.  And remember, you can always draw closer to the Spirit through prayer, meditation and Bible study.  One terrific opportunity for study is coming up this fall, when Pastor Allie will be leading the after-service small group in a study of the gifts of the Spirit.  I strongly encourage you to participate in that study.

As we have seen, one of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to care for and build up the church.  If we, as a church, say yes to the Spirit, the Holy Spirit will change our lives dramatically for the better and will build up our church in ways beyond our imagination.  The Holy Spirit is waiting for our answer.  Will we say yes?

Prepare the Way of the Lord

I preached this sermon on the first week of Advent, 2014, before I began this blog.  In my most recent sermon below, I refer to some of the lessons I learned about race and racism during my time in seminary in Atlanta.  This sermon is where I first talked about that.

Scripture: Luke 1:8-20

I began to learn about racism when I was 23.

I knew what it was before then, of course.  I had read To Kill a Mockingbird and the I Have a Dream speech.  There was the occasional offensive comment from a relative at family gatherings.  For the most part, though, it all seemed fairly long ago and far away.  I grew up in this area and it was diverse and my best friends were often the children of first-generation immigrants from across the globe.  I grew up well-educated and worldly.  So I knew racism was a thing but it never seemed very real or personal to me.  I think that’s called white privilege.

But then I graduated college and moved to Atlanta for seminary and discovered that in my new home I could no longer pretend that racism was either long ago or far away.  Atlanta was a city with a heritage of Southern gentility and segregation.  It was the city of Scarlett O’Hara and Martin Luther King.  It was a place where people still didn’t like to talk about Sherman’s March and where I realized it was almost exclusively black people who rode public transportation.

Atlanta was the place where a colleague first told me, on the first or second day of a summer chaplaincy program we were in together, that he didn’t trust white people.  I was 23 and bright-eyed and believed that I was there to change the world, and I could not believe my ears.  It was that same summer where I had to come to terms with the fact that as we worked together to plan ethics lesson for kids in summer camp from a mixed-income housing community, I often approached things differently from my African-American colleagues, and I had to come to terms with the fact that my way wasn’t necessarily right.  I began to gain a better sense of where that distrust came from.

In class, in seminary, I heard the stories of my fellow students who were black, and I began to realize that the stories they told were often pretty different from mine.  It was in a discussion in my theology class that I first learned that there people in this country who, despite having never committed a crime, did not feel safe around police officers.  That had literally never occurred to me before.  Again, I think that’s called white privilege.

Those were some pretty hard lessons for me to learn.  I knew what racism was, but it was in Atlanta that I was forced to start to recognize it around me, and even in myself.

We’re here together today as a fairly diverse community of faith.  We’re different colors and we come from different places and our experiences are bound to differ.  And I admit that I’m nervous in broaching the subject of racism.  I don’t know what everyone’s experience here has been, and I don’t claim to speak for anyone.  What I do know is that once I would have idealistically said race wasn’t a big deal and I learned, and am continuing to learn, that it can be—not because we’re inherently different but because being white in America is not the same thing as being black in America.  (Which is also not the same thing as being Latino in America, or Asian in America.)  I’ve come to realize that color of our skin has the power to dramatically affect our experience in life.  That might have been obvious to some people, but it wasn’t always to me, because I’m white.

This is not the sermon I originally planned to preach this morning.  I planned to tell you about John the Baptist and who he was.  I planned to tell you that in this season of Advent, as we wait for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, John the Baptist is a figure that stands out.  He breaks into the familiar, comforting narrative and calls us to repentance.  I planned to talk about his message, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and what he meant by that.  I planned to give you all some sort of Advent calendar with a good deed for each day that was meant to help you prepare for Christmas.  I planned to talk about making room for Christ in our own hearts.  Another Advent, I think that would still have been a good sermon.

But then Ferguson happened.

It wasn’t a surprise, because we all knew, if we were paying attention, that the grand jury decision was coming of whether to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown.  We knew that people were ready to riot if there wasn’t an indictment and that the National Guard was standing by.  This also wasn’t a new thing, because Ferguson had been in the news since August when Michael Brown was killed.  I’ll tell you the truth, though, I had mostly forgotten about it until this week.  Then I spent most of this week inundated with footage of buildings being set on fire and windows being smashed in and protestors blocking the interstate.

And there was thoughtful conversation about what was happening, and then there were the people all over the internet yelling about who was right and who was wrong and Michael Brown was a great kid, or Michael Brown was a hoodlum, and justice was served or justice wasn’t served, and why were people always playing the race card, and people were calling each other all sorts of names.  One pastor in the St. Louis area said, “Everyone here’s a forensic expert.”

The truth is I don’t know for sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this particular case, but I do know that these riots are about a lot more than Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.  It’s about the fact that one in three black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.  It’s about the fact that black people are stopped more than white people in traffic stops, more likely to experience the use of force at the hands of police, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to get a harsher sentence when they’re convicted of the same crime as a white person.[1]  It’s about the fact that white parents teach white children, “If you’re lost, find a police officer,” and black parents teach black children, “Don’t ever let a police officer see you run unless you’re clearly in running clothes.”[2]  It’s about the fact that when you hear this story alongside the stories of people like Trayvon Martin, no matter what happened in any given case, it really begins to look like white people can assume black people are threatening, kill them, and get away with it.

It’s about the fact that in America, the color of our skin has the power to dramatically affect our experience in life.

I don’t think anybody thinks that riots and looting are a great and constructive way to solve these deeply rooted disparities.  Martin Luther King Jr, in an interview about his tactics and his commitment to non-violence in the civil rights movement, said in 1966, “I would hope that we can avoid riots, because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”  But he also said, “I’ve think we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

And he asked, “And what is it that America has failed to hear?”[3]

That’s something I think it’s worth it to talk about in church.

I am actually going to come back to John the Baptist here.  John the Baptist is a figure whose job it is to come before Jesus and announce him.  The Gospel writers identify him with the Old Testament figure of Elijah.  Elijah was a prophet who was supposed to herald the Day of the Lord, God’s day of judgment, which would be the beginning of a new age where everything was made right.  As Jews began to expect a Messiah, they also began to talk of an Elijah figure who would come before him and help usher him in.  When people began to understand Jesus as that Messiah, they also began to understand John the Baptist as Elijah.

The way we name people affects the way we think about them, and since we Protestants know him as John the Baptist, we may think of him primarily in that role, baptizing crowds in the Jordan River, and especially baptizing Jesus himself in the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry.  But our Orthodox brothers and sisters know him as St. John the Forerunner.  He is the one who comes before Christ to make way.  His job is to get people ready for this new thing God is doing, and he does that by calling people to repentance and baptizing them, purifying them.

It’s not an Advent story in the sense that Jesus has already long been born by the time he shows up at the Jordan River, but it is an Advent story in that Advent is about preparing ourselves for the new thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ, which is what we celebrate each year at Christmas.

All four Gospels have an account of John baptizing in the Jordan River, but Luke is the one who gives us a little more, connecting us more closely to the Christmas story.  Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before the birth of Jesus.  Six months before the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will have a baby, Gabriel appears to Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, to make a similar announcement.  Elizabeth isn’t a virgin, but she and Zechariah are incapable of having a child.  And yet God can work with this; they will have a child, and name him John.  Gabriel tells Zechariah that John will be set apart, special, filled with the power and spirit of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”   When Mary finds out she is pregnant, she runs to Elizabeth for comfort and wisdom.  In birth, as in adulthood, John comes before Jesus, paving the way.

It’s here that I pause, because like I told you, my original plan was to talk about ways we can purify our own hearts to make room for Jesus, like John tells us to.  That’s what he says by the Jordan River:  “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  He asks them to examine themselves and purifies them with the waters of baptism.  He is making them acceptable for a holy presence among them, just like you had to be ritually pure to enter the Temple so as not to defile the space where God lived.

But here, in this birth story that Luke tells us, it’s not just “Prepare the way of Lord” cried out to individual people.  St. John the Forerunner’s job is to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.  A collective preparation is called for.

And that’s why in the wake of Ferguson it didn’t seem like enough to talk about purifying our own hearts in the expectation of Christmas.  What, instead, does it look like to be a people prepared for the Lord?

I have to think that in part it means closely examining our collective sins of racism.  I’m not just talking about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and who’s right and who’s wrong.  I do mean, is a society where a much greater proportion of black men are stopped, arrested, experience force by police, go to prison, and receive harsher sentences, a people prepared for the Lord?

Is a society where white people generally seem to trust law enforcement and the judicial system, and black people often see reason to distrust law enforcement and the judicial system, a people prepared for the Lord?

Is a society where such disparities go largely unchallenged, a people prepared for the Lord?

These are complicated issues and I don’t mean to pretend that they’re not.  They involve economics and culture and cycles of violence and disenfranchisement and many, many differing perceptions.  Not everyone who shares a skin color shares the same experiences or the same story.  But the color we are does shape our story—in this country as well as in most places around the world.

If we are going to take Christmas seriously, it’s not enough to invite Jesus into a world where we, individually, are pure.  We should also want to invite him into a world that is just.

Of course in the end that’s not the way it works.  Our hearts aren’t pure and our world isn’t just, and Jesus enters into it anyway.  He is born into it and he redeems it by showing us another way, showing us what grace is, embodying the love that can’t be beaten down by those in power.

And yet John the Baptist cries out from the wilderness, telling us that while Jesus might be coming anyway, that doesn’t let us off the hook in the meantime.  If we’re not prepared, we might miss the whole point.

And so Advent is a time not just to skip ahead to Christmas, with its shepherds and angels and glorias and glad tidings of great joy, but to reflect on the brokenness of this world that Jesus is born into, and on our own complicity in that brokenness.  That is not just a message for those of us who are white, but this week did afford a pretty clear opportunity for especially those of us who are white to reflect on that.

And when we reflect, what is there to do?  These systemic issues are bigger than all of us, no matter how much we long for a just world.

I guess it really does start in each of our own hearts and lives, and I don’t know the answers, but I do think it begins with listening to each other.  Listening without assumptions and without objection and without calling names but with a readiness to take one another’s stories seriously and to be able to see the world in a different way through them.  This is something that each of us can do.

And people with more power and privilege should especially be listening to people with less.  If we’re white, we should make a point to listen to the experiences of people of color in our community and our country when it comes to issues of race.  If you’re a man you should make a point to listen to the experiences of women when it comes to issues of gender.  If you’re straight then you should make a point to listen to the experiences of LGBT people when it comes to issues of sexuality.  It’s not that if you’re none of those things then your story doesn’t matter.  It’s just that your—our—story has probably been heard.

And maybe listening will help us figure out where to go from there.

This has been a hard week for America, and it might continue to be.  The issues at stake certainly aren’t going away anytime soon.  But Advent is a hard season.  John the Baptist has a hard message.  There is nothing easy about making a straight path in a broken world.

And yet, still, here we are in a diverse community of faith as people of different colors and with different stories taking a stab at following Jesus together.  There is hope and we’re living it, even as there’s far to go.

The good news is that Jesus is coming either way.  The challenge is for us to still to make ourselves ready—as a just people, prepared for the Lord.

[1] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/

[3] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mlk-a-riot-is-the-language-of-the-unheard/

Drama in the Early Church: Culture Clash in Corinth

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-29

My college campus minister, David, told us once that he remembered the first time he willed himself to shake a black person’s hand.  The man, a preacher, extended his hand, and David found himself caught for a moment in an internal struggle between what was right, and what he knew.

David is white, as you may have gathered.  He grew up in Richmond.  He was a youth at the time, and he just retired this year, so that should give you some idea of the time period we’re talking about, which is to say, pretty long ago, but also not that long ago.

We’ve come a long way since then.

Or have we?

I met people in Atlanta during my time in seminary there who would have said we haven’t.  Who did, in fact, say we haven’t.  That kind of blew my mind, that anyone could say that, especially as we sat in a pretty integrated classroom discussing it.  I’ve told you before that there was a lot that I learned about race and racism in Atlanta that kind of blew my mind.  My time there challenged my assumptions in a lot of ways.  They were different assumptions, of course.  They were never about whose hand it was or wasn’t OK to shake.  They had more to do with thinking my bright-eyed attitude of “let’s just all get along and love each other” really, you know, cut to the heart of things.  As I found out, that was just the kind of thinking that really tended to resonate with other white people who didn’t think there were real issues to talk about.

It was almost a year ago now that Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, and I think it’s been a year of learning some similar lessons on a national level.  It’s been not only the year of Ferguson, but of Baltimore, and of Charleston.  Videos have been passed around social media of police shooting a fleeing black man in the back, and throwing a black teenage girl to the ground at a pool party.  Since the shooting in Charleston, black churches have burned across the South.

And in other news, in May, anti-Islam protestors gathered outside a mosque in Phoenix.  This week, Donald Trump made some xenophobic comments about undocumented immigrants, and his popularity soared in the polls.

Racism never went away.  But it’s back in the national consciousness now in a way that, for better or for worse, it hadn’t been.  I don’t think most of us, of any color, want to live in a world where these things are the case.  I also think most of us don’t know how to not.  We aren’t exempt from our country’s sins, especially those of us who have benefited from being white.  They’re also bigger than us and not so easy to change on a societal level.

It’s not easy to talk about race and racism.  It’s something that especially makes me nervous as a white pastor of a diverse congregation, because I can’t assume what your experiences have been, and because as I said, I’m aware that in my life I have missed the point before.

But I am also convinced that all these events of the past year and beyond have something to do with the Gospel.

The story of a young white man confronting his own prejudice in Richmond in the 1960s is hardly a shocking one.   But there’s another part to David’s story: it was the church that opened his eyes to new possibilities of what could be.

It was a church camp where, as a youth, he shook a black man’s hand for the first time.  It was working at Vacation Bible School that he met neighborhood children from both black and white families who started to challenge his stereotypes.  It was at church that his associate pastor gently poked at the beliefs and assumptions David had been raised with and helped him see the disconnect between those beliefs and what God actually wanted from him.   He became, eventually, a minister who tried to do the same for his students and the unthinking assumptions we arrived at college with.

Half of that story is about the racism of a whole culture and someone who realized he was a product of it.  But the other half of that story is about the church being the church.

We’ve been focusing off and on this summer on Paul’s letters, and the news of the past few weeks and the conversations it sparked swirled around me, it was this passage we heard from 1 Corinthians that I kept coming back to, about a diverse community that meets around a table, the culture that surrounds them, and in the midst of that, their job to be the church.

For some background, you should know that the church Corinth was just a mess.

Some of the Corinthian Christians are fighting over who baptized them: “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos,” they say; never, “I belong to Christ” (1:12).  Some of them are publicly suing each other in civil court and really making the church look bad (6:1).

Some people are eating meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods.  They say who cares because the pagan gods aren’t real anyway, right?  Other people are really scandalized by this, so they’re fighting, too (8:7).

Some people are complaining because women are getting up and speaking in church, right in front of the menfolk (14:34).

Other people are fighting about spiritual gifts and whose are better than everyone else’s (12:1).

The church at Corinth really had some issues.  But there’s something poignant to me about these issues.  Corinth, you see, was a port town which meant all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds were traveling through, all the time.   It was a Greek city which had been destroyed by the Romans at one point but then built back up by sending the people who no one else wanted to live there—people like freed slaves.  It had become a center of Greek culture in the midst of the Roman Empire, and a metropolis with metropolitan diversity and metropolitan depravity and metropolitan inequality.[1]

And in the midst of this city, a baby church, struggling to figure out how to be faithful in the midst of the culture that both surrounded them and shaped them.

Struggling with how to live according to the Gospel which often clashed with this culture around them that they couldn’t quite escape from.

They really seemed to get it wrong a lot of the time.  But that was what they were struggling to figure out, and that seems really, really relevant.

One of these struggles, in particular, had to do with how to do the hard work of loving and caring for one another across cultural dividing lines.

The church in Corinth, like the early church elsewhere, was actually a collection of small house churches.  They met regularly on their own but came together once in a while for the Lord’s Supper.  These house churches were probably segregated in the same way a lot of churches today are segregated: some were comprised of rich people, some were comprised of poor people, some were comprised of people of one demographic, and some were comprised of people of another demographic.  It wasn’t that they hated each other, necessarily, or were scared of each other, it’s just that you met with the people who it was natural for you to meet with.  They were your friends and neighbors.  But when those churches came together for communion, they were a pretty diverse bunch.

It sounds like this communion meal wasn’t so much a potluck as maybe a brown bag kind of deal.  People brought their own food and ate it.  But the thing was some of these people had a lot of food, and some of them didn’t.  Some of them could afford the good wine, and some of them couldn’t.

Or it might have been that the poorer people came late, and the rich people didn’t wait for them.  By the time they got there, most of the food was gone.  It’s hard to put together exactly what is happening from the letter, but what’s clear is that when the church at Corinth gets together for communion, some eat and drink to excess, and others leave hungry.

This passage isn’t itself about race.  There are plenty that are about race, including from Galatians which we looked at a few weeks ago: in Christ, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek.”  But this passage is about two groups of people with two very different experiences, yet part of the same church community, the same Body of Christ.  And of course in this case it’s not as easy as saying, “In Christ there is no rich or poor.”  Maybe in Christ there isn’t, but in Corinth there clearly is, and the church needs to come to grips with that.

You see, the culture around them might say that it’s OK for rich people to have more and poor people to have less; it’s unfortunate but it’s just the way it is; it’s normal, even, to not eat together.  The culture around them says that, but the culture of the Gospel clashes with that.  And it’s the church’s job in the midst of that to open people’s eyes to new possibilities.

Don’t equate anything too closely here.  In our world, white people aren’t always rich and people of color aren’t always poor, though racism and economics are pretty related.  Since we do not, in fact, live in 1960s Richmond, or even 1960s Arlington, we’re also not talking about the ethics of literally eating together.  Our own cultural story is more complicated than the one we read a few paragraphs of Paul’s letter (theirs probably was too.)  We’re talking here about a lot of different people with a lot of different experiences that depend on race and nationality and language and economics and what region of the country you live in.  But these things do culturally divide us, even in church, and racism does, I think, play a role in all of them.  And yet we are part of one community, and many of us do make up one Body of Christ, and we can do better.

Racism is present in big and obvious ways, like when a white supremacist walks into a black church and opens fire.

But it’s also present in mundane and almost imperceptible ways, like who’s part of our circle of friends, and whose standards of beauty grace our magazine covers, and the snap judgments we make about people walking down the street.

That’s the culture that we live in, but the church’s job is to tell a different story.

Paul says that what’s going on in Corinth isn’t really the Lord’s Supper.  They should realize that they are all members of one body.  They should care about each other, and share with each other, and not humiliate one another.  “Wait for each other,” Paul says, with beautiful simplicity.

Not just the rich for the poor, although it is the rich who are specifically called out here.  But all of them, one body, for each other.  Maybe no one else in Corinth does that, but the church can.

Our church story is more complicated than that, too, because here we are, in a lot of ways doing it better than the Corinthians.  I said I learned years ago that it wasn’t enough to just vaguely say we should all love each other and get along, but the truth is, as the pastor of this church, it’s really easy to think we’ve figured it out.  Of course we live in a pretty diverse area; this is not the deep South.  But I do see the beautiful diversity of this church as a sign of hope in the midst of everything going on in our country and our world.

As diverse as we are, I’ve never really encountered much division or tension based on race here. The events of this past year also make me wonder a little if maybe we have more to talk about here than I’ve realized.  I’m certainly not trying to drum up anything that isn’t there, but I wonder if there’s an opportunity to dig a little deeper and start having some conversations about our different experiences with race right here in our own congregation and in our community, to be more intentional about learning from each other.  I’m actually serious about that, and I’m hopeful that we might be able to do something along those lines this fall.

Maybe “waiting for each other” means taking time to listen to each other.

Maybe it means being open to risk our own comfort, or our own privilege, based on what we hear.  As various people have noted recently, the very reason black churches have historically been targets of arson is that they have been the ones to dare to imagine that the world could be different.  How do we live out our calling as the church in light of that?

The AME Council of Bishops issued a press release earlier this month in the wake of the Charleston shooting calling for the church and the nation to respond.

“President Obama,” it said, “in his stirring and eloquent eulogy correctly said we don’t need to talk about race—we have talked about it a lot.  The African Methodist Episcopal Church believes we must move beyond talk, we must act.”

Here’s how it goes on:

“First, on September 2nd, the A.M.E. Church will join with our sister denominations, the A.M.E. Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches, at a press event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where we will outline specific areas where the nation can act on race. These will include education, mass incarceration, reform of gun laws, poverty, and a number of other areas. In addition we will present a list of actions entitled, ‘And Justice for All,’ to the bipartisan congressional leadership. Racism plays a major role in why unemployment for blacks is always double the national average, and why blacks make up less than 20% of the population, but such a large portion of the prison population. Racism plays a role in drug laws.  Laws that are different for those in the cities, primarily black, and those in the suburbs, primarily white. Racism plays a role in why so many, in fact 20% of the population, and one of every five black children live in poverty. Racism plays a role in why 10% of the population controls 75% of the wealth.  Our call will not require talk, but action.”[2]

I think that’s something that we should pay attention to.

But I do think we can start by talking, in a way we actually haven’t much, in this particular church and this particular community.  Talking isn’t an end in itself, but maybe by doing our eyes will be opened to ways we can act locally.  What role does race play in our experiences right here in church?  What role does race play in our experiences in our community right around us?  What can we do?

Like I said, I may not be the person here most qualified to talk about racism.  The good news is that if you think I’ve done a pretty awkward or insufficient job, you can lend your voice too.

Like the AME bishops say, maybe the time has come for something more than talk.  But maybe talking isn’t a bad start.

Half of this story is about a broken world and a culture whose sins are both ours and bigger than us.

But half of this story is about a church that’s called to show that world new possibilities.

[1] New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, introduction.

[2] http://firstfridayletter.worldmethodistcouncil.org/2015/07/ame-council-of-bishops-demand-action-to-confront-racism/

Not quoted but also indebted to this article:  http://www.ecclesio.com/2015/06/racism-didnt-take-a-vacation-while-you-were-out-by-laura-cheifetz/

Disruptive Grace

Guest preacher: Minoka Gunesekera

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Paul wouldn’t make a very good Avenger. Or really general superhero at that.  In todays passage from second Corinthians we hear Paul ask for his audience to boast in weakness. I don’t think that this would end well in today’s society. We live in a world of super heroes as inspiration. We hear very little about weakness unless it is being shown as a fault in one’s persona. I would even argue that if you were to ask someone today “what makes a person admirable?” little to no one would say “oh it’s their weaknesses”. But Paul is proposing just that. That we should admire people for their ability to showcase weaknesses because when we showcase weakness we showcase God’s grace showing up in our lives to make us whole. Paul’s key to being an effective leader was to claim his human weakness and allow for divine strength, or grace to compensate rather than his own boasting.

I remember when I first got to Duke Divinity School. I think many of my classmates and I felt that boasting was the way to introduce ourselves. I spent the first few weeks trying to hide the fear and anxiety that whittled my bones instead of being honest with myself. And when everyone is boasting it is really intimidating! You aren’t meeting the real people, but rather the perception of a perfect person that they think you want to know. Well… a few weeks passed and I realized that boasting wasn’t  life-giving and certainly not life sustaining. When I started being real, I found others saw that to be commendable and they followed suit.  I think some of my closest friends today are people who I confided about my weakness and they in turn did the same. We allow grace to live in the moments of our weakness and together we tackled our first year of seminary!

And today I wonder… What were we all so fearful of? Showing ourselves to strangers? Or showing ourselves to ourselves? Being honest in all our ups and downs not only benefit others, but it benefits us. Rather than boast we must become vulnerable and claim our brokenness. When we hold ourselves and others to a standard of grace, and not perfection we leave room for God. Brokenness for Paul is manifested in the thorn in his side. Paul’s thorn is personal. His exchanges with the church at Corinth were messy and heated. Their relationship looked like a marriage on the brink of disaster. In the midst of his verbal exchanges with God, Paul pleads for divine intervention. These thorns that Paul is speaking of is like God pricking our emotional equilibrium in order to reminder us that the stability of ourselves is not in our own doing but in God’s grace. Paul’s  thorn and ours are reminders of our fallibility. We aren’t Avengers, but rather humans. We each have to deal with whatever is our thorn, but we aren’t dealing alone.  The grace that Paul is speaking of in today’s scripture is both amazing and disruptive. It takes away the pressure that our society brings to us. But Paul is pretty honest in verses 8 and 9. He asked for that thorn to be taken.  God gives a resounding, “No!” and Paul must deal with whatever disturbs him. He must come to terms with whomever pricks his nerves.

I don’t blame Paul for wanting his thorns to be removed. I can remember many of times when I have had tough situations and I chose to ask for the pain to be removed rather than the courage to more through it. In the months after my father passed away I prayed for the pain to be gone. But God answered me and answered Paul by saying “let my grace ease that pain”. God does not accommodate for Paul’s request for relief and he didn’t accommodate for mine. Instead, God’s grace, support and help will be what Paul needs. I feel like I am a stronger person for the practice in resilience I had to learn after my father passed away. That season of my life has been a teaching tool time and time again for me to help others be reminded that we must let God and grace do its work within us.

But how do we sit with grace and be okay with weakness? Not only okay with it but able to boast about it in a world that doesn’t seem to want to affirm those parts of us? I think that this is why grace is so disruptive. It isn’t meant to be easy because it isn’t derivative of this world. It gives life because it flips tables and asks us to remember from whom we were created and for who we are to live. As grace gives life it disrupts was is no longer for us.

The dominant narrative in our world today is strength through perfection. But the narrative Paul is preaching is strength through letting go. This is a narrative that we must not keep to ourselves. We as Christians have been entrusted with the news that the oppressive systems of the world lack staying power, authority and do not merit our loyalty. This news is what makes grace so disruptive and is so important we must share it with our words and through the example of our lives.

When we boast in weakness we attest to a world beyond our thorns. It is not that we won’t acknowledge that the thorns of our humanness exist but as Christians we do not sit in cynical contemplation that our thorns are our last existence. Our hope is built on nothing less that God’s amazing grace, shown to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus affected our salvation by his suffering. He wore our thorns proudly on his head. I believe that we have the power to effect change in our world if we give people the power to no longer have to be perfect and to give them permission to wear their thorns in visible sight.

I started this sermon talking about Avengers. And though we shouldn’t strive to be one, I think its okay to watch the movies. When most people saw the latest Avengers movie they saw the brute strength that the superheroes possess. They saw that strength overcome evil. But when I saw that movie I was captivated but two things, teamwork and grace. This team boasted as a team. When one needed help someone came to the rescue. To me this is how our life should work as well. When I talked about my insecurities to my peers it gave others permission to do the same, and also the open space for us to overcome the anxiety of needing perfection. In its truest form, Community is a beautiful manifestation of grace. The least human characters in the Avengers movie understood grace the best. In one of the last scene of the movie Ulton (a robot) is talking to Vision (another robot) about human beings. “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that. a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts” says Vision to Ultron. Ultron’s response, “I think you are naïve”. So which one are we? Are we like Vision who seems to understands the need of grace and desires to tell others about that grace? Or are you the skeptical Ultron who just forgets the power of grace in our failings. When God says “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”, I hear not about being perfect in all that we do well, but about trust. Our beauty and worth is not in our ability to be strong, or to last but rather in our ability to open ourselves to the mighty work of God through God’s sufficient grace.

So let us remember where there is pain, let us see grace. Let us pray that God’s grace can disruptive our human need to be perfect. Let us leave room in our lives so that God’s grace can transform not only us in this room, but the world. Let us flip the tables of racism, fear, and pain by boasting in what others try to hide. Paul doesn’t say not to be proud of who we are, but we must live our lives as a testament so no one will think more of us than is warranted by what we do or say. Our subversion away from the dominant narrative of perfection and towards a story of grace is what will speak louder than any boasting we could ever do.

Grace pushes us to deny the participation in our anxiety driven society. Paul asks us to live outside of the idea that we are beyond failure.  My prayer for you all today, and for us all who are a part of the Church universal is that we move towards being a hope-telling community. We must not keep hope to ourselves. We must boast in our weakness and for a hope in the God of love and grace. We must boast in a God who uses each of us to transform our brokenness into light. In the aftermath of events that we don’t understand; whether it is the massacre in Charleston or a unexpected illness in our own lives the world needs to see that we too hurt, but that we don’t stop there.

In a weekend filled with thoughts of freedom may we claim our pain as broken humans, but also our hope in God’s grace so that we can all be truly freed by a deeply sufficient God.