Romans 12:9-21 Rev. Julie Yarborough
Jeremiah 15:15-21 Christ Church September 3, 2017
This summer at Christ Church we conducted a series of interviews we called Christ Church Storycorps. We heard from a number of our members about God’s call in their lives and how they responded. Mattie Azurmendi and Leslie Kepner talked about their passion for teaching. Amanda Block shared her vision to deliver fresh healthy produce to those who have trouble accessing it. Bola Lawrence shared her passion of engaging youth in anti-racism work. Tom Loughlin talked about the contributions of engineering to make the world a better place. John Houston shared about his vocation as the owner/director of funeral homes and the sacred practice of offering a service to families who are grieving. Lee Hilton spoke of her passion for sharing her story and creating community by encouraging others to share theirs.
We have so many gifted and talented people at Christ Church who are listening to God’s call in their lives and – in the words of Frederick Buechner – allowing their deep gladness to meet the world’s deep hunger. What a privilege it was to hear the stories of call from seven of our members this summer!
Today, I’d like for us to begin the process of discerning how God might be calling us as a congregation. How might our particular gifts and passions as a community of faith meet the world’s deep hunger? How might we be particularly poised for such a time as this?
In 1951, H. Richard Niebhur wrote a ground-breaking theological book called “Christ and Culture.” Its brilliant analysis of the ways in which Christians relate to the surrounding culture is still a classic today. Niebhur presented 5 different ways that the church relates to the culture, acknowledging that at any given time, the church might fit into more than one category.
1- Christ against Culture, in which Christians try to separate themselves from everything worldly, often living in community set apart from the world (Like the Amish, certain groups of Mennonites, or the cloistered Dominican Nuns who live next door.)
2- Christ of Culture, in which Christians look for ways to be in agreement with cultural norms. One example of this would be evangelicals who claim that the United States is a Christian country and venerate the American Flag as a religious symbol, believing that the culture is an extension of their faith. I would say that another example of this would be Christians that are not critical of culture, and don’t see the need to make any distinctions between their faith and the demands or expectations of the secular world.
3 - Christ Above Culture, in which it is believed that all that is good in our surrounding culture is from God, but that good needs theological interpretation in order to make sense. In this model, secular approaches are acceptable, but a Christian framework is placed upon everything.
4- Christ and Culture in Paradox, in which Christians and Culture are in cooperation, but also in constant tension with one another.
And the last category, which I think is most applicable to us as a congregation:
5- Christ Transforming Culture, in which culture is seen as something to be transformed for the better through human effort, with God’s help.
Niebhur’s thesis, though not perfect, has led generations of Christians to think about the ways in which we interact with the culture in which we live. As Bruce Guenther has pointed out, “the church is always culturally embedded.” How do we distinguish ourselves as followers of Jesus in this world? How do we live in the world but not of the world?
These questions are important for us to grapple with as a community of faith, especially in this day and age. What should our response be to the dominant voices in our culture? How are we as Christ Church being called to live out the Gospel in our community?
Our scriptures today give us some operating instructions. The passage from Romans 12 lays out a long list of guidelines for how Christians should act, both as individuals and as a community. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for the beginning believer – this list requires a real commitment.
Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Extend hospitality to strangers… Bless those who persecute you… do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good….
This is advanced Christianity for mature followers of Jesus, who are ready to go to extra lengths to share God’s love with all – to love not only their neighbors but their enemies.
Following the protests against white supremacy in Berkeley on Sunday afternoon, I heard an amazing story on National Public Radio of someone who took these injunctions to heart. I could tell you the story, but it will be more powerful if you hear it yourself:
(Click on “listen” at the top of the page and play to minute 3:28)
Tony McAleer is one of the founders of Life After Hate, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. When one of McAleer’s colleagues was a young man, he was being served at McDonald’s by an elderly African-American woman who saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. She looked at him, and said, “Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
That seed germinated for years until the man left white nationalism and dedicated himself to helping others leave.
“The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for those who have no compassion,” McAleer says, “But those are the people who need it the most.”
For White Supremacists, it often takes this kind of interaction with someone who has been objectified as “the other” for real change to take place. Asked about the mission of Life after Hate, McAleer explains:
“We try to help people reconnect with their humanity”—first their own unresolved pain and sense of being unlovable, then that of others whom they’ve mistreated, whose pre-emptive offer of grace often sets the whole process going.
These examples of transforming culture through Christ’s love may be extreme, but they may give us some ideas about how to engage in the world for such a time as this. How do we respond to the voices of hate that are getting louder? When I was in college, a professor of mine was fond of saying, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” What are the needs – the hungers - in our own community? What gifts and graces and passions do we bring to the table?
As we enter into a new year at Christ Church, we need to pray, reflect, discuss and discern how God is calling us as a congregation to engage with our surrounding culture and transform it. And God knows, there are many opportunities that are presenting themselves right now!
I received a phone call this week from the Rev. Robin Tanner at Beacon Unitarian. It has been one year since they hung a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the front of their building and they are discerning what steps to take next in the struggle against systemic racism. Knowing that we held race dialogue groups here last year, they have invited Christ Church to help them in that discernment. We have been engaged in this work already, but there is so much more that we can do. Perhaps God is calling us to take the next step.
A group of Conservative Evangelical Christians gathered in my hometown of Nashville, TN this week and issued a document known as the “Nashville Statement,” condemning homosexuality and transgendered people, and stating that God intended the institution of marriage to be solely between a man and a woman.
In response, a clergywomen’s group of which I am a member has issued a statement which reads, in part:
Houston is under water, China and Macau recovering from a typhoon, Venezuelans are starving to death, Syria is reduced to rubble, and all the side-eye is on Pyongyang and Washington, D.C. Christians have no shortage of opportunities to speak and act in love, toward the clear Divine goals of community, hope, inclusion, and resurrection.
Instead, the signers of the “Nashville Statement” have chosen
to speak a word of hatred and death to people who already
face increased statistics in that area. This is not Christian.
This is not prophetic. It is patriarchal and white supremacist self-gratification, done because it makes those who do it feel good, but it bears no recognizable fruit. The consequences of this will be borne by those who can least handle another blow.
I don’t know how God is calling us as a congregation to engage in the world around us – that is something that we need to discern together –but I do know that we cannot be silent when the voices of hate and fear are getting stronger. The process of discernment involves praying, discussing and working, with the Spirit’s help, to determine where God is at work in the world, and how we might join in that work.
And, as we just heard, we “have no shortage of opportunities to speak and act in love, toward the clear Divine goals of community, hope, inclusion, and resurrection.”
Speaking out in a prophetic way or acting on behalf of the marginalized is not without risks. Prophets are attacked, maligned, and - in this day and age - trolled.
Jeremiah found himself subject to attack and persecution. He felt betrayed and deceived and he let God know. He even called for God to bring down retribution on his persecutors - That’s hardly an example of overcoming evil with good. Even Jeremiah had difficulty taking the high road! Yet when Jeremiah expresses his anger and frustration, he hears the voice of God telling him to keep uttering those prophetic words, to serve as God’s spokesperson and God will give him strength. He hears God say, “they will fight against you, but they will not prevail over you. For I am with you, to save you and deliver you.”
God does not promise to make our way easy, but God promises to be with us in the struggle.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, where is God calling us to act -
To speak out against the voices of hate and division?
To offer hospitality to strangers?
To see humanity in others, even if they don’t see it in us?
How can we let love be genuine, hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good? How can we “live like the truth is true and go where love has not been found?”
May we discern the answers to these questions together in community, taking the operating instructions in Romans 12 as our guide.
1. Bruce L. Guenther, http://www.directionjournal.org/34/2/enduring-problem-of-christ-and-culture.html