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Sermon on Ephesians 6 and Matthew 13

Ephesians 6:10-20, Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill
August 13, 2017

            The images splashed across my screens this weekend, as they did yours.  A circle of tiki torches lifted high.  Throaty chants of “Blood and Soil” echoing through the streets.  Flags unfurled to reveal a blood red field stained with a dark black swastika.  Clergy, cloaked in stoles bearing the signs of Christ, standing arm and arm across from militia clad in camo, carrying assault weapons.  The pepper spray, the shoving and beating of bodies, the car turned into a weapon of death.

I knew as it was happening that I’d be stepping into the pulpit this morning and wouldn’t know what to say.  That in some ways the most faithful and fitting thing we could do would be to replace the sermon with a time of prayer, silence, lament and confession.  But also I know that we as Christians have a responsibility to one another and to the world to speak, to strive to be small echoes of the word that spoke light into darkness and that took on flesh and fingernail to dig deep in the messiness of our world.  So I offer you this morning not a neatly polished, tightly crafted model of homiletics, but some raw and fragmented reflections that might be the beginning of more conversation around this community about the power of white supremacy and the particulars of a Christian response.  This week, more than most weeks, I’m regretting that preaching is, in the strictest sense, a one-way communication.  So I invite you, if you’d like an immediate opportunity to gather with other Christians to talk or pray, to join me after 11:00 worship in Vance Barron Hall.  Stay for five minutes, or stay for an hour; we’ll use that time in whatever way the group needs.

***

            I think I want to acknowledge first that we are, most of us, grief-stricken and numb.  That no human being takes in the visuals we saw yesterday without feeling a visceral pain.  And that beyond that, we are in many different places.  Some of us are surprised that such things could happen in 2017; others of us are too well-acquainted with the poison of racism to be surprised.  Some of us have a personal history with Charlottesville, or friends and family who live there; some of us feel those events are a world away.   Some of us feel called simply to weep; others are ready for action.  Some of us came to worship seeking hope, reorientation, a word from the Lord; others of us are simply trying to manage the fear; still others would prefer we not talk about it at all.

Secondly, I want to say that I am going to try today to speak an admittedly small word to the disease of racism that has for more than 400 years plagued our country and her people.  I’m not going to do that perfectly, because the history and scope of racial oppression is far beyond the bounds of any one sermon.  And because—like many of us—I am still learning how to talk about a topic that much of the world has been silent about for too many years.  And because I am yet bound by the power of racism and so am in the awkward, if not infrequent, position of condemning something I still participate in.  Because of all of this, there will be more questions than answers.

And the pronouns are going to be messy, because not all who worship here are white, but those of us who are need to talk about what that means in light of the gospel.  And we have to talk about it here, in the church, because in the words of Brother Joseph Wallace Williams, an Anglican Benedictine and a black man: “White supremacy lives in our churches. It has been baptized in our fonts. It has been ordained at our altars. It is depicted in stained-glass. It is reflected in staffing and leadership choices.  It resounds from the utter lack of voices of color that inform our sermons and Christian formation opportunities.”[1]

Part of what I’m wondering this morning is what it looks like to engage in corporate repentance—a full-facing of the centuries long sin that has swept us all up in its power and then a day by day practice of pulling that sin up by its roots.

***

            I want to spend some time also with the gospel lesson, which I chose early in the week and which looks different now under the light of tiki torches.  Jesus is preaching in Matthew 13 about the kingdom, the subject he addresses more than any other in the gospels.  Indeed these few verses contain five whole parables, as Jesus paints picture after picture of the kingdom. Perhaps so much ink is spilled on the kingdom because it is difficult for those listening to grasp it.  Jesus is trying to show them a picture of the realm of God, but their feet are planted firmly in the soil of the Roman Empire.  Is it any wonder that Jesus has to work so hard to show them another way of life?

Jesus says the kingdom is like a treasure buried in a field, like a pearl of great price.  Once it’s found, it’s worth giving all you have in exchange for it.  Those verses will grow more poignant in a few more chapters, when the rich young ruler approaches Jesus, hungry for eternal life.  But when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, the ruler walks away grieving, finding that price too high.

There are those who are capable of beholding in God’s realm a thing so precious that it renders everything else in their life secondary.  And there are those who glimpse its beauty but are too captive to other powers to embrace it in full.

And it strikes me today, that at points in our country’s history, there has been a vision cast of a world in which racial inequities are eradicated from systems and institutions, a world where all God’s children are welcome to bear the image of God imprinted upon them in all its fullness and uniqueness.  And while that vision has made for powerful rhetoric and admirable aspiration, it has not gained much traction in reality.  The question thus becomes more pointed to those of us with privilege, wealth, and power: will we give ourselves and all we have over to this vision, having glimpsed its beauty and knowing its preciousness, or will we find that price simply too high to pay?

***

            Next, some theology:

I’ve been reading Walter Wink recently.[2]  Wink was a New Testament scholar in the latter half of the last century who made a point of working out his biblical scholarship on the ground.  He moved easily from the halls of ivory towers to the streets of Selma, South Africa, East Germany, and Chile in order to hold the words of Jesus alongside the struggle for human rights.  Then, as now, there was no shortage of blame to lay at the feet of individuals.  It was easy to point the finger at the men in white hoods surrounding a burning cross, at the architects of apartheid, at the military dictator who presided over the “disappearance” of its citizens.

Wink, however, had little patience for personalizing evil in this way; instead, he drew the attention of the Christian community back to these words of Paul: “Our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  He helped us locate sin, not just in the individual, but in the larger Powers that are far greater than any one of us.

There are those in the Christian tradition who have taken the language of cosmic powers and spiritual forces and relegated them to a supernatural realm to do battle without interference from humankind.  But for Wink, the Powers are very much located within our world.  He critiques the modern worldview, which is quick to divorce material and spiritual realities.  Rather, Wink insists that every human institution or community has both a visible outer manifestation—so we see a nation, an economy, a faith community—and an invisible inner spirituality which gives the outer form shape and energy.  Understanding this is crucial, he says, because any attempt to transform a human system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer form is doomed to fail.

But key to Wink’s construction of the Powers is understanding that no Power is intrinsically evil.  Rather, the Powers are created good, the Powers are fallen, and the Powers must be redeemed.  When a particular Power falls away from the vocation for which God created it, it must be unmasked and recalled to its created purpose in the world.  And Wink says that the church—though it is every bit as fallen and captive as any other institution in society—the church exists specifically for the task of recalling these Powers to their divine vocation.

Many have observed that, whereas white supremacists used to don hoods to obscure their identities, those that gathered this weekend made no effort to hide their faces.  In some way, an unmasking has begun.  But many of the Powers that propagate white supremacy remain invisible, inextricably bound up in our structures, institutions, and media, where they thus have more power to coerce those who are unconscious of them.  And so I am wondering how we as a church might unmask those Powers and then beckon them back to the purposes for which they were created.  How might we strive not only against racist policies and practices, but also against the (often unconscious) spirituality that gives rise to them?

***

            And there is finally, this story.  A half-century ago, at the height of tensions and violence born of the struggle for civil rights, a group of black and white activists were gathered outside a church in Selma, Alabama, singing together, when a man from Montgomery took the microphone.  He reported that a group of black students who had been protesting in downtown Montgomery that day had been surrounded by police on horseback, who then waded into the group and beat them at will.  Police then prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours.

     “Upon hearing this news, the crowd outside the church seethed with rage.  Some started shouting that they should march.  Behind them stood, rank on rank, the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sherriff Jim Clark.  The situation was explosive.  A young black minister stepped up to the microphone and said, ‘It’s time we sang a song.’  He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?”  “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded.  “Do you love Martin King?”  “Certainly, Lord!”  “Do you love Martin King?”  “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song.  “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord.”  And then without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark?”  [The sheriff!]  “Cer-certainly, Lord,” came the stunned halting reply.  “Do you love Jim Clark?”  “Certainly, Lord”—stronger this time.  “Do you love Jim Clark?”  Now the point had snuck in: Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

The Reverend James Bevel then took the microphone.  We are not just fighting for our rights, he explained, but for the good of the whole society.  “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.  We cannot win by hating our oppressors.  We have to love them into changing.”[3]

I want to be careful in telling that story, because the Christian imperative to love has at times been used to dismiss or silence voices that cry out rightfully for justice and because that imperative is not uncomplicated when issues of power keep the oppressor safe and the oppressed at risk.  I want to be careful in telling that story because it is a little too easy to align myself with the activists, when the truth is that my own heart needs conversion.

But even a cursory study of the civil rights era reveals that the love of which the Rev. Bevel speaks is no meek and passive effort.  For those leaders, love was a plain condemnation of sin and a clear call to the other to come back to his or her true self.  It is a picture of the love we know in Christ, who came not to conquer but to convert, to turn the whole heart, mind, soul, and strength back toward its rightful home.

Weeks like this it seems a pipe dream, that any of it could really be redeemed, that any of us could be truly free from the systems and powers that bind us, that the long, long arc of the moral universe might one day bend toward justice.  But I find some consolation in these words of Walter Wink, written after he had spent decades witnessing the worst violence and oppression humans could inflict upon one another: “I have seen enough of God’s wily ways with the Powers to stake my life on the side of hope.  I believe even these rebellious Powers can be transformed in the crucible of God’s love.”[4]  May it be so in my life and in yours.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

[1] Personal Facebook Post, 8.12.17

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be.  The following paragraphs are my own attempt to summarize the first chapter.

[3] Wink, p. 177.

[4] Wink, p. 10

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.