Sermon preached for Sunday, September 10, 2017
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matt. 18:15-20
© David B. Batchelder – 2017
I don’t know if recent times are any different from periods in the past, but it has seemed to me that we’re living in an era of intense, but resisted, re-examination.
People are discovering the history and motives around the erection of Confederate statues, and many are being removed in part, because the public is coming to understand how symbols function in a culture.
The NFL season gets underway in full today, with controversial quarterback Colin Kapernick still unwanted by a single team even though a growing number of players are carrying out their own symbolic gestures of protest during the singing of the National Anthem.
Last Sunday, a United Church of Christ minister named Robert E. Lee IV spoke out against racism at the MTV Awards. On live television, he said, “We have made MY ancestor an IDOL of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.” As a result of his appearance, it became necessary for him to resign as pastor of the church he was serving.
At a dinner gathering Tuesday night, for those who went on last spring’s trip to Israel and Palestine, we got talking about this MTV episode and it morphed into a discussion about the difference between bashing and denouncing.
Most of us can readily detect when someone starts bashing. But what about denouncing?
Is all denouncing also bashing and, if it is, what are we to make of the prophets?
On August 14th, just after we concluded a wonderful KIDS CAMP, a group of several hundred Christian ethicists issued a declaration. The number of signatories has now grown to more than 700 with people from every flavor of Christianity. The document is titled: “A Statement from Christian Ethicists Without Borders on White Supremacy and Racism.” It was organized by four ethics professors. The statement says we reject “racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and neo-Nazi ideology as a sin against God that divides the human family created in God’s image.”
What moved the organizers to speak out was that they saw themselves in a position similar to the confessing church in Hitler’s Germany in 1934 that authored the Barmen Declaration.They were particularly concerned because many of those involved in white supremacy and other movements also claimed to be Christians. Tobias Winright (one of the originators) explained that their statement focuses on Christian ethicists “because this is a Christian problem.”
I’d like to share some of this statement with you, But first, I should explain why I’m making reference to it in this sermon. It’s because of our Epistle reading, where the Apostle Paul instructs the church concerning its civic responsibility, that is, its obligation to the broader public by virtue of belonging to Christ.
In this discussion, Paul configures law and love in such a way that each is satisfied in the other. There is no opposition between them. There are no trade-offs. No compromises are necessary. Satisfy the one, and you satisfy the other, Paul says.That’s because, Paul writes, “one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
If a law is in conflict with love, don’t you think we ought to ask if something ain’t right? I believe Paul is trying to tell us just that!
In Eugene Peterson’s translation called, The Message, he places caption headings above sections of scripture as an aid to reading. The headings are not, of course, part of the inspired Word; they help guide our thinking. The heading Peterson has placed at the start of our Epistle reading is this: To Be a Responsible Citizen. A responsible citizen is always in debt to neighbors, writes Paul, but its not because we’ve borrowed money and can’t pay it back. It’s a debt of love.
For all the self-professed Christians in elected office, do you ever hear any talk of the debt of love when immigration comes up? I don’t. What I hear is that a person’s Christianity is meant for one’s personal life, but in matters of public policy, it doesn’t seem to apply in the same way. Well, who says? Not Paul!! I think Paul would say that that rationale is heretical, because we all owe a debt of love to one another. So Paul goes on in verse 10 to say, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
What happened in Charlottesville was a heinous wrong that violated the obligation to love. It was fueled by racist attitudes, actions, and speech that are the opposite of what we see in Jesus, and the opposite of what we hear from Paul. That is why hundreds of Christian ethicists have spoken out. Here is a part of what they are saying:
The evil of white supremacy and racism must be brought face-to-face before the figure of Jesus Christ, who cannot be confined to any one culture or nationality. Through faith we proclaim that God the Creator is the origin of all human persons. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”
The greatest commandments, as Jesus taught and exemplified, are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves; and so – as children of God, and sisters and brothers to all, we hold the following:
We reject racism and anti-Semitism,
which are radical evils that Christianity must actively resist.
We reject the sinful white supremacy at the heart of the “Alt Right” movement
as Christian heresy.
We reject the idolatrous notion of a national god.
God cannot be reduced to “America’s god.”
We reject the “America First” doctrine, which is a pernicious and idolatrous error. It foolishly asks Americans to replace the worship of God with the worship of the nation, poisons both our religious traditions and virtuous American patriotism, and isolates this country from the community of nations. Such nationalism erodes our civic and religious life, and fuels xenophobic and racist attacks against immigrants and religious minorities, including our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
We confess that all human beings possess God-given dignity and are members of one human family, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin.
We proclaim that the gospel of Jesus Christ has social and political implications. Those who claim salvation in Jesus Christ, therefore, must publicly name evil, actively resist it, and demonstrate a world of harmony and justice in the midst of racial, religious and indeed all forms of human diversity.
Therefore, we call upon leaders of every Christian denomination, especially pastors, to condemn white supremacy, white nationalism, and racism.
Now let me pause here to ask you : is this bashing or is it denouncing, as we hear it from the prophets, even Jesus himself?
You should know, if you don’t already, that your pastor, even though I am not a Christian ethicist by profession, finds this statement completely consistent with the life of Jesus and the call of the Gospel. I ran across something else this past week that is relevant to today’s scriptures. Its something a Nigerian theologian said. He’s Dr. Simon Mary Aihiokhai assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Portland. He said:
One must ask, what are the gospels? They are the reflections and witnessing of the early followers of Christ on the response of Jesus to the political and social realities of his time and how, even in his unjust death, he overcomes all powers aimed at silencing his voice. The resurrection is not just about the rising of Jesus from death, it is also about the vindication of truth spoken to power. Thus, when pastors speak boldly against the unjust structures in society, they make concrete the witnessing of Jesus to the world.
As you know, my mother died almost 3 weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking a lot about resurrection. After all, Presbyterians call funerals, A Service of Witness to the Resurrection. Here, Dr. Aihiokhai reminds us all that resurrection is not only a word of hope about God’s power for life in the face of death, it’s also about the power for life in the death-dealing patterns and structures of our society. May we at West Plano Presbyterian Church be faithful witnesses to God’s power for life, even when we face resistance, to the glory of God.