Greenwood Forest Sermons
A Generous Sower

A Generous Sower

July 15, 2020

Since we’ve been at home more than usual, we’ve done a lot of planting. We thought it might be fun to establish some things while we were actually able to water them! We’ve planted a garden, growing tomatoes, peppers, peas, and various types of greens. We planted herbs for the first time in years, making our own pesto and mint tea. We’ve established some small green giants in the back yard that we are watching grow. My mom planted a moonflower vine with my son Isaac that’s already grown all the way up our bird feeder. The crepe myrtle tree in our back yard was fertilized and watered this spring and is blooming for the first time since we moved in our house! The flowers in our front porch planter are actually still alive! We are normally not home long enough to even notice these things, much less water them, and we’ve enjoyed watching our plants and trees come alive and our garden yield fruit. I am known for my lack of watering, and my mom has poked fun of my husband and me a few times, saying, “See what happens when you actually water and fertilize!” It’s a classic illustration of the old saying, “You reap what you sow.”

            It’s true a lot of times that we reap what we sow. If you put in the time, dedication, and hard work, you can often count on seeing the fruits of your labor. But we all know that the old proverb doesn’t always ring true. There are times when no matter how much attention you give a plant, it just doesn’t grow or before you even notice, it gets eaten up by a beetle. There are times when you put a great deal of time in a project only to watch it all fall apart, and you have to start all over again. There are times when you are dedicated to changing some behavior pattern and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to change. There are times when you are work hard at a relationship, and regardless of your sacrifices, it all falls apart. We don’t always reap what we sow.

            It’s something Jesus knew well. He tells this parable in the midst of great opposition to the gospel he was preaching. He was sowing, but all his work wasn’t producing fruit. The seed of Jesus’s teaching had fallen on rocky ground filled with thorns. The Pharisees were challenging him; he was about to be rejected in his own hometown; and John the Baptist’s head was about to be put on a platter. In Matthew 13, in the midst of this opposition, he tells eight parables about what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus’s teaching is stirring up crowds; it’s so many people that he has to get into a boat to preach while the crowds stand on the beach. While Jesus allows the crowds to overhear what he’s saying, he is most concerned with teaching the disciples what the kingdom of God is like.

            In our text for today, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a generous sower. The sower in this parable is extravagant, wasteful even. It’s like he knows absolutely nothing about farming. Why is he not tilling, preparing, and carefully calculating?  Did he even bother to weed or water or fertilize? Why is he just throwing seed everywhere? Why is he wasting good seed, throwing it on rocks and shallow ground? Why is he not just saving his seed for the good soil? The sower sows with reckless abandon, unchecked generosity, undisciplined abundance. As perhaps should have been expected, the seeds that fell on rocky ground sprang up quickly, but since they had no depth of soil, they were scorched by the sun. Since they had no root, they withered away. The seeds that fell among the thorns died as the thorns grew up and choked them. The seeds that fell on good soil brought forth grain though. And while that might have been expected, it didn’t just yield normal results. The seeds that fell on good soil brought forth a yield of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold! As one theologian says, “Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year, and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee!”[i] This magnitude of growth is a miracle!

            Even though what happens seems to not be entirely up to the soil, these questions arise: What are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship? Why is some ground hospitable and other ground not hospitable to the values of the kingdom of God? The text says that the evil one can come and snatch away what is sown in our hearts. It warns us that if we are not rooted, we will fall away when faced with trouble or persecution. It cautions that the cares of this world and the lure of wealth chokes out the word of God’s kingdom. We are tempted here to find a way to distance ourselves from the bad soil, claiming that surely, we must be good soil. But it’s not that simple. I imagine we have all types of soil residing in us and in our communities, and we need to open ourselves up to the possibility of what we need to do to cultivate good soil. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “Like Peter, we think that we will be able to follow Jesus, but when faced with the power of Rome, and the leaders of Israel it is hard to remain faithful to the crucified Lord. Peter, like so many of us, is too ready to follow Jesus. To be too ready to follow Jesus means that we fail to understand that we do not understand what kind of Messiah this is. Discipleship will hurt. The word cannot flourish among those who continue to be shaped by the cares of this world…The lure of wealth and the cares of the world darken and choke our imaginations…The gospel becomes a formula for ‘giving our lives meaning’ without judgment. Too often those who propose strategies to recover the lost status and/or membership of the church do so hoping that people can be attracted to become members of the church without facing the demands of being a disciple of Jesus.”[ii]

            But to stop with a moralistic story about what kind of soil we should strive to be misses the main point. A seed produced an amazing yield in spite of many setbacks, and the extravagant, generous sower is the one who makes it all possible! This story isn’t ultimately about us; it’s about a God who shows extravagant love to all of us and seeks to take root in even the most unlikely places. As disciples, we might try to do what is wise, cautious, and careful. We might try to run our churches like good businesses, making the kingdom into something that it’s not. But as another theologian says, “The sower in this text is anything but a good businessperson. He seems willing to just fling that seed anywhere. Maybe he does so in order to remind us that the gospel might be bigger than good business principles, bigger than just good soil. Perhaps this sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that ‘anywhere’ is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity. This sower throws seed not only on good soil, but also amid the rocky, barren, broken places, in order to suggest that God’s vision for the world is itself often apprehended in strange and broken places.”[iii] This parable is about the generous sower, a God who will never give up on us, a God who will keep flinging boundless love, a God who seeks to take root in even the most broken of places.

            How do we show the world what the kingdom of God is like right now? How do we model the love of the generous sower in a time when our mindset of scarcity has taken over? Our soil is filled with thorns. We are anxious and fearful of what the future is going to bring. We are carefully calculating all our decisions as we attempt to plan for the upcoming fall and winter. We are dry and in desperate need of water and fertilizer. We are feeling untethered from our roots, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to affect our nation at an alarming rate. There is no end in sight. All we see is what we lack. We are consumed by worries about lack of resources, lack of PPE, lack of enough ICU beds, lack of funding for our school systems to have what they need to open safely for both our students and our teachers and staff, a lack of time for increasing demands. These are very real problems, and yet it seems like there has to be another way. It seems like if maybe the world valued different things and put its resources in different places, we could navigate this crisis differently. What should our response be as disciples of Christ?

            As a church we find ourselves trying to figure out how to best care for our community in the midst of this crisis, and at the same time, this crisis has amplified our worries about the future of churches. The cares of this world are consuming us. The desire for stability is threatening to choke out our imaginations. And yet God keeps throwing seed on us. God keeps trying to bring life into barren places. And God is calling us to be disciples of that kingdom, to be like the generous sower, to be extravagant in our love, to believe that growth can happen after many failed attempts, and to believe that God can actually work a miracle!

            The Faith and Leadership Institute asked a number of leaders about the long-term viability of churches in the wake of this crisis. Bill Wilson, who worked with us during our visioning process, responded this way: “The Church has an opportunity to show the world what healthy people do in times of crisis. Rather than panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection, we run toward the needs in our culture rather than away from them.”[iv] Another ministry leader said, “God loves the church. But God loves the world more. Do whatever you can to love the world now, and don’t worry about your infrastructure. If churches focus on the money, they’re going to have a hard time. If they focus on what they can do culturally, I think they’ll have a fighting chance.”[v]

            As the shelter in place orders were put in place in Wichita Falls, Texas, and it became clear we were facing a global pandemic, First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls reached out to its local healthcare system, United Regional, to ask how they could help. The human resources director of the healthcare system told the church that what they really needed was childcare for essential workers as many of the daycare centers had closed. First Baptist had shut down its own childcare center when the county schools shut down, but they agreed to help. They now offer exclusive care to employees of United Regional so that the healthcare workers can focus on doing their jobs and not worry about their children. [vi] When Greenwood Baptist Church in Boone, NC recognized there was a huge need for childcare for essential healthcare workers in their community, they turned their licensed center into an Emergency Child Care Provider site and became a place where healthcare workers could secure free childcare spots through the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.[vii] Even though First Baptist Church in Woodstock, GA had closed its doors for Sunday and Wednesday night services, it opened its doors to provide free childcare exclusively to employees of the healthcare providers and other employees of its local hospital. The pastor of First Baptist Woodstock said, “I don’t think it’s the role of the church to run from a problem. We have to run towards it and do what we can to help.”[viii]

            We can’t take our cues from the world and lose our ability to dream of another way and work to make that other way possible. As Bebe Moore Campbell writes in her novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir, “Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody.”[ix]Greenwood Forest, you are filled with the spirit of generosity and are always looking for ways to show the love of God to our community. Don’t let fear or the cares of this world choke your imagination for how we can keep showing up right now. While you might feel dry, we do not lack abundance. Don’t give into the temptation to panic and devolve into self-absorption and self-protection. Open yourself to being tilled and watered and fertilized, to being shaped into a disciple of the kingdom of God. And take heart, because no matter the state of our soil, God is in the business of miracles! Jesus can enter into the most broken of places and create life and growth. Be like the generous sower. Love with wild abandon. Seed with extravagant generosity. Even though you don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, let God spread you on the rocks, on the weeds, and on the road. Amen.

 

[i] Talitha Arnold as quoted in “Pastoral” reflection in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Edited by Bartlett and Taylor, 236.

[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, 129.

[iii] Theodore J. Wardlaw as quoted in “Homiletical” reflection in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, Edited by Bartlett and Taylor, 239.

[iv] https://faithandleadership.com/will-church-financially-survive-covid-19-pandemic

[v] Ibid.

[vi] https://www.texomashomepage.com/news/local-news/first-baptist-church-offers-childcare-to-united-regional-employees/

[vii] https://www.hcpress.com/news/greenway-baptist-church-child-development-center-offering-free-emergency-child-care-for-eligible-essential-workers.html

[viii] https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/woodstock-church-offering-day-care-to-health-care-workers-fighting-the-coronavirus

[ix] Bebe Moore Campbell, Singing in the Comeback Choir, 131.

Freedom’s Coming and It Won’t Be Long

Freedom’s Coming and It Won’t Be Long

July 7, 2020

The great theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, used to tell a story about his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose. Nancy was born a slave and lived on a plantation in Madison, FL until the Civil War. Howard and his family cared for her as she aged, and it was always Howard’s chore to read the Bible to her. Even though she couldn’t read or write, she knew her Bible well and requested specific readings from young Howard: sometimes the psalms, sometimes Isaiah, oftentimes the Gospels. However, with the exception of the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, she never requested the Pauline epistles. When Howard came back to visit her on summer break during college, he finally asked her: “Grandma, why do you never ask me to read to you from Paul’s letters?” Her answer had a lasting impact on him. She said: “In the days of slavery, our master Old man McGhee would bring in a white minister occasionally to hold services for the slaves. McGhee would never allow a Black minister to preach to the slaves. But the white minister always picked something from Paul’s letters as his text. Three or four times a year he preached on “Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters…as unto Christ.” He would go on to explain how it was God’s will that we were slaves, and that if we were good and happy, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if freedom ever came, I would never read that part of the Bible again.”

It is for good reason that people with their backs against the wall have often rejected dominant interpretations of the writings of Paul. As we have been talking about the last three weeks, Christians have misused and abused Paul’s words in Romans and elsewhere to support toxic theologies of every variety. Evangelicalism has used Paul to forward a surface-level and individualistic type of faith that isolates and shames certain people, and shifts attention away from systemic problems. Nationalist religion has used Paul to suggest that all governments, no matter how unjust, are God-ordained and that civil disobedience against unjust laws and systems is outside of God’s will. Patriarchal religion has used Paul to suppress the God-given gifts of women in life and ministry. Homophobic religion has used its misreadings of Paul to exclude and harm LGBTQ people. Slaveholder religion has used Paul to justify and undergird the great evils of chattel slavery and white supremacy in this country. But here we are today, listening to words from Paul that seem to spit in the face of all those who would appropriate him in order to maintain bondage and oppression. This Paul is caught up in the liberation that God intends, not just for people, but for the whole of creation. This Paul is a freedom-fighter who, in solidarity with nature itself, longs as a woman in labor for God’s justice and love to pervade our world.

Americans love to talk about “freedom” and this is the weekend when our freedom fetish is on full display. You probably heard or saw the word hundreds of times over the past few days, from advertisements, to clothing, to political speeches, to music. It seems to have unmatched rhetorical power for people in this country—simply shout the word freedom on the street or in a crowded room and people are liable to begin cheering spontaneously. Freedom has become such a cliché in America that there are parody songs and internet memes that satirize our freedom fetish, but many Americans don’t understand these things as satire (how do you satirize a satire?). My favorite example of Americans taking the freedom thing too far happened WAY back in 2003 (which factoring in the length of 2020 was 50 years ago). When France refused to support the proposed invasion of Iraq, the illustrious US House of Representatives changed french fries and french toast to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” on all three House cafeteria menus. Riding the post-9/11 wave of patriotic fervor, restaurants all across America followed suit, scrapping all references to French fries in the name of freedom. The name “freedom fries” began to fall out of favor as support for the war in Iraq plummeted but the House menus kept freedom fries and freedom toast until 2006, when leadership changed. This is an admittedly ridiculous example but it raises a serious question: what do these Americans mean when they cheer for “freedom?” Is it the same kind of freedom that Paul is talking about when he exuberantly proclaims that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God?”

The meaning of freedom has always been deeply contested in this country. From the very beginning there was an irreconcilable contradiction between the high-minded rhetoric of the founding fathers regarding the God-given right to “liberty” and their refusal to extend that liberty to all God’s children. BBIPOC have long raised their voices to alert America to its great contradictions, and to bear witness to an alternative freedom that is possible. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said “If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all people equally. Give them the same laws. Give them all an even chance to live and grow.” When called upon to speak at an Independence Day celebration in 1852, Frederick Douglass said,

"Why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!...But, such is not the state of the case. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn."

In 1935, Langton Hughes likewise wrote,

“O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free…

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,

One of the powerful voices of the Black Freedom Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, bore witness to the contradiction of American freedom at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. After recounting how she was arrested for organizing voter registration drives in Mississippi and then beaten and sexually abused in jail by the police, she said “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook, because our lives are threatened daily, in America?”

The unresolved contradictions of America’s past are on full display in our current moment as well. In the first week of May, as several states were discussing plans to re-open their economies, Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be An Antiracist wrote a gripping piece for the Atlantic called “We Are Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic.”[1] In the piece, Kendi describes the two fundamental understandings of freedom that have always been in tension in American social and political life, and shows how these different understandings of freedom, which led to secession and the Civil War, are also on display in the COVID-19 pandemic. Kendi says “Slaveholders desired a state that wholly secured their individual freedom to enslave, not to mention their freedom to disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned. The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom to infect. Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing. The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom from infection.  The slaveholder’s freedom to seceded from Lincoln’s “house divided against itself”—divided between the freedom to and from. Americans went to war. Americans are still waging this same war, now over COVID-19. There is a war between those fighting to open America back up for the sake of individual freedom, and those fighting to keep America closed for the sake of community freedom. A civil war over the very meaning, the very utility of freedom.”

So what kind of freedom does Paul mean when he says “the freedom of the glory of the children of God?” There is a clue in verse 12. Paul says “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” The freedom that characterizes the glory of those who have been adopted into God’s family is life in the Spirit, as opposed to life according to the “flesh.” The meaning of the word “flesh” is key. Western Christians often hear that word and think that it references particularly carnal sins, or think that Paul has something against bodies. But that’s not what “flesh” means. Flesh and body are actually different words in Greek so Paul says body when he means body. No, what Paul means by living according to the flesh is living according to one’s own desires, serving one’s own belly as Paul says in Romans 16:18, or what St. Augustine called living incurvatus in se—living curved in on oneself. The concept is more akin to a posture of selfishness than some kind of licentious sin. The Common English Bible translation makes this very clear by translating the Greek word as selfishness instead of flesh, knowing that the latter is often misunderstood. Listen to the first half of Chapter 8 up through the beginning of our passage for today from the CEB translation: “The law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace…People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God. But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you…So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation (we are debtors), but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live.” The freedom that Paul says is the glory of the children of God, the freedom for which all creation groans, is life beyond selfishness. We will truly be free, we will truly live, when we embrace our obligation to God and to each other.

Here in the “land of the free,” many who think they are free are actually enslaved by their own selfishness. Many have made idols of their own bellies, caring more about their personal desires and autonomy than about God’s command to love one’s neighbor. As we have seen in recent weeks, plenty of our neighbors can’t bring themselves to suffer even the slightest inconvenience in order to ensure the health and wellbeing of the community, all in the name of their individual “freedom.” But this is not freedom. This is enslavement to sin and death all the while thinking you are free. Biblical freedom on the other hand, is the opposite of the unfettered autonomy and individualism that Americans seem to prize so dearly. It is the freedom to be bound to each other in Christ. The freedom that brother Paul is describing is freedom from sin and hatred and death that comes by Spirit-filled obligation to the beloved community made possible by Christ.

Our communities are in labor pains right now. With all of creation, they are groaning for freedom from infection, freedom from lack of affordable healthcare, freedom from lack of affordable housing, freedom from food insecurity, freedom from poverty, freedom from patriarchy, freedom from homophobia, freedom from white supremacy, freedom from violence and brutality. Our world is longing for the freedom that only comes when we recognize that God has adopted us all as children. At this moment, in this already-but-not-yet, in-between time, there is much pain and suffering as we groan for freedom. Paul speaks a word to those who are suffering in the struggle for liberation: the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed to us. The new birth of freedom is coming. God’s will is liberation for all God’s children—and God gets what God wants in the end. There are people led by the Spirit of God all around us who are acting as midwives for liberation and justice and love. We can be midwives of God’s freedom and justice and love too. [One year ago today, 40 of us were in Alabama on the Freedom Ride, learning from the saints of the Civil Rights Movement what it means to be midwives of God’s liberation. We have been on the road since then and 50 people are now continuing their midwife training in our antiracist reading groups which will inform our antiracist action in the world. But we must not stop—the journey to liberation is not about any one experience or choice but about the daily, the hourly, striving to be led by the Spirit into more of the life God wants for you and the world.]

So today, as every day, we face a choice: are we children of God or are we children of Washington and Jefferson? Do we call out to God as “Abba! Father!” or do we trace our lineage to the so-called founding fathers? Are we led by the Spirit or are we led by the “Commander in Chief?” Do we place our hope in our adoption into God’s family, or do we place our hope in our citizenship as Americans? Is the Lord our God or are our own bellies our God? This Independence Day weekend, I pray that we will develop a new imagination for the world as it should be. I pray that we will learn to hope in a world that is not rooted in what has been possible in the past, in what we can see right now, but in what we have not yet seen but know is possible with God—that world for which all of creation groans, the world where the first fruits of solidarity and liberation and justice and love become a plentiful harvest for all. I pray that we will embrace a new (but very old) conception of freedom—a freedom that is not about the flesh’s desire for toxic individuality but which frees us so that we might be bound to each other in mutual affirmation and just relationship. That’s the freedom that I long for, that I hope for. It is just around the corner if we are ready to receive it. But we must make our stand with the Spirit of God on the side of the liberation for which all creation groans. As the freedom songs say “Which side are you on, friend, which side are you on?” cause “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom’s coming and it won’t be long!”

 

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/what-freedom-means-trump/611083/

The Evil Close at Hand

The Evil Close at Hand

June 29, 2020

A few weeks ago, my two year-old daughter Hannah was being her normal feisty self, explaining to me exactly why she wanted something, and I looked at her and said, “You are so sassy!” She looked me right in the eye and said, “I’m not sassy; I’m strong!” Well, I guess I’ve done something right! It’s also clear I’ve passed along my strong, determined personality to my daughter. I appreciate determination; I think it’s a quality that will take you far. I’ve been called stubborn quite a few times, but being a determined person has helped me to stick with things when they got hard and accomplish many goals I’ve had for myself. Paul’s words in Romans 7 unsettle me: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” What do you mean you can’t do it, Paul? Where is your willpower? Where is your determination?!

I grew up believing that if you knew the right thing, all you had to do was choose it. After receiving the knowledge of the Roman Road’s path to salvation, one is enlightened, and one should now be able to do what is good. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life. If we confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that Jesus has been raised from the dead, check. We are good. Change of mind equals change of heart. If you wanted to do the right thing, then all you had to do was make up your mind to do it! Apparently, I skipped over Romans 7. But if I had read it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have resonated with me; it would not have held up my simplistic understandings of what it means to be saved. I only began to resonate with Paul’s words after I became a parent! Now I understand! I have on several occasions quoted to my friends when confessing something about my parenting, “I do not do what I want but the very thing I hate!” I snap at my kids even after I’ve decided I will remain calm and ignore their undesirable behavior. I find myself talking negatively even after I’ve made up my mind that I will only frame things in a positive manner. Becoming a parent has laid me bare in so many ways; it has humbled me as I’ve realized that I can’t always do the right thing or always parent in the way that I think or know I should. There have been so many times when I was determined to handle a situation in a different way only to find that my sheer willpower wasn’t enough to change my behavior. I’ve learned that generational patterns don’t just vanish into thin air. I’ve learned that a lot of them time my actions are a response to my own deepest fears and worries. We are humans bound to our histories, our upbringings, our societies, our desires, and our fears. We are bound to these things in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Last year, my husband and I decided to seek out some help with our parenting practices. We engaged in a type of therapy that was immersive, where a therapist watches you interact with your child and provides feedback. Like I said, parenting has come with so much humility! There’s nothing more intimidating! I’ll never forget the day that sweet woman whispered in my ear: “Lauren, where are you right now? I can see you. You are years down the road; you are in your head imagining your worst fears coming true. I need you to stay right here and only worry about being in the moment and how you are responding for the next five minutes.” While challenging my mindset, this therapist helped me to work on my behavior patterns, to be in the moment, and she measured my success by my behaviors. She didn’t care what I thought about parenting style or techniques; she focused on shifting my actions. Sometimes I wanted to declare, “Hey! I majored in religion and psychology in undergrad! I’m trained in pastoral counseling!” But even though I might know all the right answers, the truth is that with something as complex as the journey of parenting, I need practice! Being with this therapist helped me to understand that I get caught up in things that are larger than me, things that cannot be undone by sheer willpower. This process helped me to understand what Paula heard from her mentor that she told you about last week: “We may know something intellectually, but we have to practice it for it to become a part of who we are.”

For me, it was becoming a parent that really complicated my sense of my own ability to choose the good. It might have been something else for you. Paul’s words in Romans 7 are brutally raw and honest and invite us to confess how evil has been close at hand for us. It’s something addicts know all too well. They have gained humility that can be learned from. The first two steps of any twelve-step program are: 1. Admit that you are powerless over sin and can’t help yourself. 2. Believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. Paul was certainly living testimony of someone who knew the good and who couldn’t just muster up the power to always choose it. Paul was zealous for the law of God, and yet, he ended up doing great evil by persecuting and murdering the followers of Jesus. He believed he was keeping the law, defending it, in fact. Paul confesses this contradiction in himself. This description is actually where Martin Luther’s phrase “at the same time righteous and sinner” comes from. Luther said that believers often find themselves pulled in two different directions. We arrogantly think that we have the power to always choose the good on our own. But if we could be freed from sin by just a little more willpower, all we would need is a really good life coach – not Jesus!

Our beliefs about our ability to choose the good are formed around our ideas of sin. We often think that sin is simply failing to live up to some standard or missing the mark. We believe sin is an individual action that we can either choose or not choose. There are people who make good decisions and people who make bad decisions – good apples and bad apples, sheep and goats. But sin is so much more than this. Sin is wrecked relationship with our selves, with others, and with God. And in our text for today, Paul talks about sin as an “active, aggressive power that takes hold of God’s good gifts – even the law – and bends them toward death.”[i] He describes sin as something that dwells within us. He describes the sin that lives within fallen humanity. It recalls what God said to Cain when he said, “Sin is lurking in wait for you.” It infects us as individuals, but it also infects our society, our institutions, and our systems. Sin is the evil that is close at hand. It controls us in ways that we don’t often fully understand. It’s not just bad behavior. It’s something that resides in us and tries to kill us from the inside out. We are trapped in it.

Paul’s word here feels depressing and fatalistic and might lead us to the conclusion that sin is all-encompassing and unavoidable and that we are all just doing the best we can so there is nothing we can do about it. But Paul doesn’t stop there! Paul is writing to those who are in Christ, who are living under a new rule and a new life. And while he confesses that we do not have the willpower or determination to rescue ourselves from sin, he says God does! He asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” His answer is: Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God! We don’t have the power, but God has the power. Through the Spirit of God, we can resist doing the evil that lies close at hand. We who are baptized into Christ, buried with him, crucified with him, raised in him can allow him to dwell in us and release us of our captivity to sin. Through the power of the Spirit, we can go about the work of repenting of our sin and repairing what is broken. We can bridge the gaps and go about restoring right relationship to self, others, and God.

Jim Wallis has said that racism is America’s original sin, and it is clear that we have work to do to repair this evil that is close at hand, a lot of work to restore relationships that have been ruptured because of white supremacy. Paul’s lesson on sin this morning has a lot to say to us about the sin of racism. As we set about the work of becoming not just “not racist” but anti-racist, it’s important that we make theological connections, that we see this work as spiritual work, that we understand that our salvation depends upon it. The sin of white supremacy literally kills black and brown children of God, and it destroys the image of God in all of us. And we have to reckon with the fact that ridding ourselves of this sin is not just about individual determination or willpower. It doesn’t matter our individual commitments to just choose the good or our individual feelings that we are “not racist” or our individual relationships with people whose skin color is different than ours. We are being short-sighted when we see racism as something that can be addressed purely as individual sin.

We show that we aren’t seeing racism’s power as systemic sin when we say things like: “I don’t see color; I just see people.” “I don’t care the color of anyone’s skin. We are all the same.” “I only judge people by their actions.” “I didn’t mean any harm by what I said. My intentions are good.” “I think things will be okay when the next generation comes of age. Some people just have to die.” “I marched in the sixties; I thought we were beyond this already.” We also show that we don’t see the power of the sin of racism when we think it only resides in bad apples and not in us. We show that we don’t see racism’s power when we think we can get rid of it by only removing certain people from their positions of power and replacing them with other people who will make better choices but largely leaving our systems, our laws, and ourselves the same.

Antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo says that we need to distinguish between prejudice and racism. She reminds us that prejudice is prejudgment about another person based on the groups to which they belong. She says, “All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it. People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness. [But] Unfortunately, the prevailing belief that prejudice is bad causes us to deny its unavoidable reality…We then feel the need to defend our character rather than explore the inevitable racial prejudices we have absorbed so that we might change them.”[ii] She goes on to say that, “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors….Many whites see racism as a thing of the past…yet racial disparity between whites and people of color continues to exist in every institution across society, and in many cases is increasing rather than decreasing….Individual whites may be ‘against’ racism, but they still benefit from a system that privileges whites as a group.”[iii]

DiAngelo cautions us, “White supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists.”[iv] She says that when we refuse to examine the racism that dwells within us because of our own shame around it, it leads to something insidious – aversive racism, which is racism that professes egalitarianism but avoids interaction with those of racial or ethnic groups to which one doesn’t belong. This behavior is implicit or unconscious. She says an example of this is “holding deep racial disdain that surfaces in daily discourse [maybe by flippant uses of stereotypes, for example] but not being able to admit it because the disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs. [And this] Aversive racism only protects racism, because we can’t challenge our racial filters if we can’t consider the possibility that we have them. [We operate] under the false assumption that we can’t simultaneously be good people and participate in racism.”[v] As Paul would say, I delight in the law of God ,but I am captive to the law of sin, wretched human that I am.

Hear Paul’s words again. Hear them as prayer. Hear them as confession for our participation in the sin of racism, the evil that is close at hand. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. When I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” This morning, I invite you to confession. I invite you to honesty. I invite you to humility. I invite you to be reminded that that while you can’t save yourself by your own good intentions, Jesus can rescue you! While we collectively can’t save ourselves from the evil that is close to all of our hands, God can deliver us! The Spirit can work to excise the sin of racism from our world, from our very bodies. The Spirit can repair what is broken. The Spirit can restore broken relationships. We just have to come just as we are and surrender ourselves and allow the Spirit to dwell within us and break every barrier down. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[i] Feasting on the Word – Year A, Vol. 3, Bartlett and Taylor, Eds. Quote from Ted A. Smith.

[ii] White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, 19-20.

[iii] White Fragility, 20-24.

[iv] Ibid, 33.

[v] Ibid, 45, 47, & 49.

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Where One is Gathered

April 14, 2020

Rev. Lauren Efird

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