Sunday, June 7, 2020

Sermon: "Confessional Excerpts" (June 7 2020)


These last couple of weeks have been emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and even physically taxing. We were already worn out from the isolation and caution demanded by COVID-19, and now there’s a national movement of civil unrest that’s rightly demanding the last remnants of our energy and attention. One thought that’s been haunting me ever since the news of George Floyd’s death broke is that, if I’m this bone-weary after a week of mourning the sins of our nation and doing my best to stand against racism, it must be absolutely debilitating for those who don’t have that choice, whose very existence makes it impossible to ignore or deny the injustices of American society. This thought has convicted me that I can’t afford to look away, even when it’s hard to watch.

But observing isn’t enough. We all need to act, and as the Church, we’re especially called to act in a way that brings God’s Kingdom to earth. We need to “be the Church”, not just by learning and reciting the right things, but by DOING the right things. As your pastor, it’s my job to help you understand how to be the Church. But so much of these last few months (and especially the last few weeks) have been uncharted territory for me, and I’ve felt utterly, completely inadequate to the task.

And yet, one of the wonderful things about being the Church (with a big “C”) instead of just *A* church (with a little “c”) is that we get to listen to and learn from those who’ve gone before us. We get to share their voices when they speak prophesy, and we get to lean on their insight when words fail us. They, like us, weren’t perfect, but they tried to follow God’s will the best they could. And that’s an important place to start.

So today, instead of writing my own sermon, I’m going to borrow words from Scripture and from the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions (which is half of our denomination’s Constitution). These are words written years, decades, even centuries ago, but they speak to our current lives with startling clarity. I know that I normally say that context is imperative to any reading, but today I’m going to give you the source and context AFTER I read the passage. My hope is that it will help you to realize that these may FEEL like unprecedented times, but we’ve been fighting against these very same sins and injustices for centuries, and we’re not alone in figuring out what we need to do to “be the Church”

First reading: “Jesus came near and spoke to [the disciples], ‘I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.’”

This is “The Great Commission”. Christians come back to this passage over and over again to remember how to “be the Church”. The risen Christ himself tells us that ALL people of ALL nations belong in God’s family, and that following his commandments—to love God and to love one another—is the most important thing we can do. Are we willing to live this way?

Second reading: “As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life…We reject the false doctrine [that] there [are] areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

“The Christian Church is the congregation…in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world…that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance. We reject the false doctrine [that] the Church [is] permitted to abandon the form of its message…to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

“The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. We reject the false doctrine [that] the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

This is an excerpt from the Barmen Declaration. In 1934, a group of German Christians wrote this as an affirmation of their commitment to Christ’s gospel and a repudiation to the Nazi party’s agenda, which had begun to be imposed on German churches. The introduction to this Confession says, “…One must remember that to oppose the Nazis in 1934 was considered…to be at the very least unpatriotic, and, at the worst, an act of treason.” These “traitors” were declaring, at grave personal risk, that the Church and its message belongs to God, and that they would not allow the government to co-opt it for its own purpose. Are we willing to boldly proclaim the same?

Third reading: “We believe: that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people; that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged; [we believe] that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; [we believe] that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind; [we believe] that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly; [we believe] that for God, pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering; [we believe] that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right; [we believe] that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice and with the wronged; [we believe] that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

“Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

This is an excerpt from the Belhar Confession. It’s the newest addition to the Book of Confessions, approved in 2016, but it was written all the way back in 1982 as a theological rejection of the unjust system of apartheid in South Africa. It never explicitly mentions the events and context that precipitated its writing, but rather addresses truths of the Gospel that are denied by discrimination and segregation. It declares that God is not the God of victors and dominant forces, but of the oppressed and downtrodden. It proclaims that obedience to Christ demands witness and action against ALL injustice that is contrary to the Gospel, whenever it arises. Are we willing to take such action?

Fourth reading: “…There was a time when the church was very powerful…In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

I cheated a little bit with this one. This isn’t technically in the Book of Confessions. It’s an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in 1963. He was responding to a public statement “of concern and caution” made by several white religious leaders in the South. I felt it was important to include for three reasons: first, because the 2018 General Assembly considered adding it to the Book of Confessions due to its powerful witness. Second, because it speaks to our own history, how the American Church has responded (or not responded) to injustice in our own land. And third (and most importantly), because it’s vital to lift up and hear black voices during this time. They’re the ones who can most clearly see the truth of our nation’s racial sin. Their personal experiences are what can open our eyes to the reality that white people rarely see. I think it’s pretty clear what King was condemning in the church, both then and now: our apathy, our ineffectuality, and our unwillingness to work for the gospel and towards God’s kingdom, instead of just talking about it. We need to do better. Are we ready to?

These are the words of prophets. This is our heritage. May we learn from them and follow Christ’s lead as we seek to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Amen.

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