The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16A): August 24, 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
The process of writing a sermon usually follows a predictable pattern for me. I read the scriptures appointed for the day—usually looking most closely at the gospel, since we hold the life of Christ and the words attributed to him as our greatest light—and figure out what is speaking to me. That might mean what words grab me first, or what puzzles me most, or what is most familiar, or even what is least familiar. I begin to ruminate on the selected snippet, and think about how it connects to our faith journeys, or to life at St. Michael’s, or to events happening here in New York and in the world. I then begin to write—not necessarily linearly, but just writing down what I am thinking about, what the connections are, and what scholars have to say about any or all of this. I then start to rearrange these puzzle pieces so that they make sense as a whole (hopefully!), and figure out a beginning and an ending.
Well, that’s the regular pattern. But there are times when what’s going on in the world is so pressing, so devastating, or even sometimes so joyful, that I am compelled to start with those events. Often these moments are characterized for me by questions that I can’t get out of my head; something that has happened that makes wonder about meaning, or ethics, or perhaps especially where God is in the mix and how I should respond to it. It is at those times that I begin sermon preparation with what is preoccupying my mind and heart and hope to find something in the scriptures that connects—or maybe even answers the questions that tug on me.
Of course, that’s what theology is all about. One writer has said that, “Theology is an expression of faith communities seeking understanding in relation to their lives.”[i] I hope that at least one of the reasons that you come to St. Michael’s is to work at giving context to your life and to our world. As one of the leaders of this community, I understand that it is my job to challenge you to do so—and perhaps it is also my job to put forth some of the questions. By the way, I hesitate to say that it is also my job to come up with the answers. That, I’m sure, is a responsibility that any shrewd person would certainly dodge.
This week has certainly been one where events in the world cry out for context—and for challenge. Events like the ongoing military and terrorist activity in Iraq and Syria that seems to be spiraling toward another war; and the breaking of yet another ceasefire between Israel and Palestine; and, most especially for me, the deaths in recent weeks of two unarmed black men at the hands of police—Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. All of these events have me asking questions about who we are as humans, who we are as a nation, and what our responsibility is in helping create the world we desire.
If am really honest, I have to confess that my most immediate reaction to such challenging events is often avoidance. I find myself feeling so powerless, so incapable of affecting any change that I just want to avert my eyes and hope the bad things will pass. I sometimes feel so defeated by the evil that often pervades our world. And since the incredible good fortune of my life means that the vast majority of this evil won’t affect me directly, my first inclination is to keep my head down and continue living in my small safe orbit. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the apostle Paul reaching out to me this week and offering a warning and an alternative.
Paul’s letter to the first Christians in Rome was written in about 58 C.E. – only a generation after the life of Christ. Unlike many other letters attributed to Paul, most scholars believe this letter was actually written by Paul. In fact, it may be the last letter we have from this prolific evangelist of the early church. The letter deals mainly with conflict between those Christians that probably still considered themselves part of Judaism and Gentile Christians—those who did not have Jewish ancestry or faith. Some of the themes Paul deals with in Romans are justification, grace, and law. Most scholars say that the thesis statement for this epistle is found in Chapter 1, verses 16 & 17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith.’”
The verses we read today are the opening of the second half of the letter. In the first half Paul establishes the universality of God’s love for all of us. He explains that God’s righteousness can be counted upon—that we are all recipients of God’s grace. In this second half of the letter, beginning with chapter 12, Paul talks about how we should respond to that amazing gift of grace.
Verse 2 is the one that jumped out at me. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
What might it mean for us to be conformed to this world? Well, I think that my desire to avoid those hard things that I don’t want to deal with is one way of conforming, or giving in to this world, or this age, as it is sometimes translated. Paul calls on us not to give in to believing that the status quo is the only way. We are called instead to a new way of thinking: “To be transformed by the renewing our minds.”
For me, this means facing the world as it is; it means opening my eyes to the evil in the world, and daring not only to speak out against it, but also to act to bring God’s will to fruition here and now.
The reality of our country today is that we are still racially divided—black and white are not treated equally in our society. To give just one example, members the African-American community often speak about “driving while black” – the high incidence of racial profiling on our nation’s roads, where according to a recent survey, black drivers are nearly three times more likely to be pulled over for an investigatory stop (that is, not for a traffic violation) than their white counterparts. And in those stops, blacks were five times more likely than white drivers to be subjected to a search.[ii] Stop and frisk is another example of such racial profiling by law enforcement. The reality of these policies and practices is that African-Americans, particularly young males, can expect to be targeted by law enforcement officials, even when they do nothing to warrant suspicion.
Cornell law professor Sherry Colb says that the “targeting harm” of these investigatory stops is that they send the message that one is the target of surveillance, not the beneficiary of protection. These stops undermine the minority community’s trust in law enforcement Sixteen percent of black respondents to a recent survey reported that they did not feel comfortable calling the police if they needed help, compared to only 5 percent of whites.[iii]
The roots of this kind of discrimination are much, much deeper than law enforcement policy. Such discrimination is rooted in our history, and we have not done enough to right the wrongs of the past. We have conformed, rather than transformed.
Of course those roots are entwined with the evils of slavery, and it’s shameful aftermath, particularly in terms of limiting access for African-Americans to economic prosperity and the ability to accumulate wealth, and in failing to recognize how much of the wealth of our nation was accumulated on the backs of the poor. I won’t go into all the details now, but I urge you to read a May article from The Atlantic magazine titled, “The Case for Reparations.”[iv] As Bill Moyers said, the article’s author Ta-Nehisi Coates is out to change how we think and talk about race, and he might just do it. Moyers also calls the article “must-reading for every American.”[v]
I believe with all my heart that it is God’s will that particularly we in the church are at the forefront of creating a world that values every person, and gives every person the chance to flourish. How do we transform ourselves into people who can transform the world? Paul says it begins by not just letting the world float by us, and therefore control us, but instead engaging our minds so that we can become the change we desire.
One way we do that is through dialogue. About a year ago we formed a racial justice task force here at St. Michael’s, which set out a plan to help our community become more engaged on issues of racial inequality. We have had some all-parish conversations, and we have begun a book group. Those activities will continue—look for more opportunities for these conversations in the fall.
But it is also important that we act. The task force determined that we should explore ways that we as a community might undertake hands-on activities to work directly to help bring about racial justice. We are behind in exploring the possibilities; I hope some of you will let me know if you are willing to help us begin that exploration.
This work is all about discerning the will of God – as Paul said, discerning what is good, and acceptable and perfect—and daring to be an agent for change in bringing about the will of God. We are called to do things that might put us outside of this world—we might not conform. But only in doing so, in being willing to step out of our own comfort zones, is there any opportunity to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.
One more thing: Earlier I talked about my hesitation to take responsibility for coming up with the answers to the big questions of our lives. I think that’s our job together. But more than that, I think it is actually our job to learn how to live in a world where the answers aren’t clear—to learn to live with the ambiguity of our messy world. And that is about faith. It is about really believing that each of us—that includes you!—is a child of God, a recipient of God’s grace, worthy of love and worthy of great things.
But that’s not all. Paul reminds us that we each have different gifts—different ways we can make change in the world. And notice that Paul also assumes that each of us is gifted. Each of us can contribute to bringing about God’s will here on earth. So none of us is off the hook! What are you doing to transform the world?
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole beings so utterly that our lives may only be a radiance of yours. Stay with us, and then we shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others; the light, O Jesus, will be all from you, none of it will be ours: it will be you, shining on others through us. Let us thus praise you in the way you love best, by shining on those around us. Amen.[vi]
[i] Fernandez, Eleazar S. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 374.
[ii] Epp, Charles and Steven Maynard-Moody. “Driving While Black,” in The Washington Monthly (January/February 2014). http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2014/ten_miles_square/driving_while_black048283.php?page=all, accessed 08/22/2014.
[vi] Newman, John Henry, as quoted in The Book of a Thousand Prayers, compiled by Angela Ashwin. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.) p. 28.