The Church for the World

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Link to the PC(USA) Confession of 1967 (article referred to in the sermon is 9.44a)

A few years back my family vacationed on the Upper Peninsula. There is a church in DeTour Village, on the far eastern end of he UP. This church fills its pulpit in the summer with pastors who lead worship in exchange for a week in their manse. We did this for two straight summers and discovered what all of you native Michiganders knows – that the UP is a treasure. We explored the Soo Locks. We made it to Tahquamenon Falls. We biked around Mackinac Island. We’d watch the large boats pass between DeTour Village and Drummond Island. Honestly, it became some of the best relaxing we’ve done as a family. We were warned that the trip across the Mackinac Bridge could be perilous if the weather or traffic was bad. As we were packing up from our second trip there, we saw that there were severe weather warnings about thunderstorms coming later that afternoon. We decided that we needed to pack up and leave earlier than planned because we wanted to get across the bridge before the storms hit. The traffic was heavy, but we made it across. Not long after, they closed the bridge for the incoming storms. About a half hour after we crossed the bridge the skies turned black, which was strange since it was only early afternoon. Then the rains started.  I’m a fairly confident driver, but those rains were so heavy, all traffic on I-75 slowed to maybe 25 miles per hour for the next hour or so of our trip. We finally emerged from that rain and wind, but the rest of the drive home, we could see the storm in the rearview mirror. It was following us the whole time, but miraculously, we were always just a bit ahead of it. Thanks be to God. The days following that drive home, we heard stories about the damage the storm left in its wake all over northern Michigan. The storm had straight-line winds. Those winds took down entire portions of forest. I knew people who had significant damage to their homes “up north.” Wind is powerful. It changes things. It moves things.  These days, things need to change. They need to move. Only a few chapters into the Bible, it is clear that we humans are prone to mess things up. Adam and Eve think going their own way is better than trusting God. Cain murders Abel. Humanity’s wickedness brings about the Noah story. Even after this divine reset, humans are still going the wrong way. They begin building a tower towards heaven – the Tower of Babel – and the Lord decides it is best to cut them short in their efforts by confusing their languages. Thousands of years later Jesus’ disciples are gathered in Jerusalem. The resurrected Jesus has been gone for ten days, and they’ve been waiting for the promised Spirit. Suddenly, a violent rushing wind – a wind that is so powerful that it turns the whole world on its head – overwhelms them. This group with diverse backgrounds united in following Jesus finds themselves with gifts that they didn’t have. A reversing of the story of Babel is happening among them. There is no longer a confusion of language, but each has the ability to speak to the whole world about what God is doing in Jesus Christ.  It’s such a wild scene that those around them wonder if they’ve been hitting the sauce. How could these people be speaking in new languages? What are these strange things happening in their midst? What does this Jesus have to do with us? Peter has been on the path of healing after failing Jesus so miserably. He clears his throat and interrupts their questions.  Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,     and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,     and your old men shall dream dreams. In that moment, God began the church. This ragtag band was charged with reversing the brokenness of Babel – the sin that pitted brother against brother, mother against daughter. This would be then what we are still striving for today at First Pres, “A Christ-centered community of acceptance.” The church is the vehicle through which God would dismantle our individual and societal sins because the power of the Spirit would be with us. What began on Pentecost all those years ago continues in the church today, and Lord knows we have much work to do and much to repent of.  My heart is broken today. It is broken for the stain of racism that is so much a part of this world and particularly to our country. It is broken for the vicious divisiveness that has ruled our political discourse over the past couple of decades but that has intensified to a fever pitch in these days. Now, I am someone who likes to get things done early. In normal times, I start writing my sermon on Monday and have it completed by Wednesday. These are not normal times, friends. Yet, God’s Spirit has been with me, even as I grew frustrated that I couldn’t find time to write this week. The Spirit knew that I needed time to digest the rage I felt at the murder of yet another black person, this time a man in Minneapolis named George Floyd. You all know his story, as well as the stories of Ahmaud Arbery and of Brionna Taylor and of so many others. Racism is deadly. It is deadly for its victims. It is deadly for our society. And racism is even deadly to the very soul of the person in its grips. The movement of the Spirit on Pentecost began the reversal of this division, and disturbingly, here we still are gripped by it.  My heart is broken, but God is in the business of healing broken hearts and then sending them into the world to be healers. The church goes into the world to bring healing. God has blessed us with so much that equips us for this task, but as a church filled with privileged people, we must be willing to humble ourselves and receive that equipping. Just as the disciples were not fully ready to take their next steps without the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit, so we too need to seek out those things God has for us to make us ready for this work of reconciliation. It begins with prayer. The disciples were waiting and praying for God’s movement. Are we seeking the same?  But then it moves to hearing the cries and pain of our neighbors. Have we truly listened to the pain and suffering of our black brothers and sisters? Have we stopped and heard? Have you had real conversations with someone different than you? Person-to-person conversations are essential here. The “slactivism” of the internet isn’t enough. The church has so many resources at hand to help us be the church for these times. Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), penned a confession in the 1960s speaking to the brokenness of race in America, and here we are over fifty years later and not enough has changed. Listen to these words from The Confession of 1967.  God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers [and sisters] and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all [people] to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellow[persons], however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess. (9.44) Convicting and powerful words that we are still struggling to live into these days.  Protests have degraded into riots and looting throughout the country, even as close to us as Grand Rapids. In these we hear the cries for justice, not just for George Floyd, but for whole segments of our population who suffer at the hands of systemic racism. The rioting and the looting are destructive, but make no mistake that there is no moral equivalency that can be made between this destruction and the murder of a fellow human being. These riots are a symptom of a greater disease, and my prayer today is that the church lives up to its calling to be a force for healing divisions and for bringing reconciliation.    The evidence in Scripture is so clear that God in Christ has torn down the dividing wall of hostility. Paul spread this good news all over the world, and even in one of his earliest letters he addressed the ways that race, class, and gender divide us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” he writes, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). These are divisive times, and the church should be leading the way in the hard path of reconciliation and unity. A Presbyterian pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina recently observed this, “From the moment Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ he was setting up an architecture of the common good for those who followed him. The source of the dysfunction in our capacity to care about one another is of less consequence than the net effect of how our dislike of those who do not agree with us divides communities with growing speed. Our discord is a threat to the common good that Jesus called the church to champion.” Friends, we have much work to do, but as a Spirit-led church, God is equipping us to do that work.  John tells us of the resurrected Jesus joining the disciples in the Upper Room. It’s his quieter version of Pentecost, but it is no less powerful. Jesus breathes on his disciples – there’s that wind again – and speaks peace to them. And then he immediately speaks about forgiveness. There is power in naming our sin because naming it removes its potency in us. There is power in seeking forgiveness because it is in that where we learn God’s love for us and the ability to receive forgiveness from others. There is power in extending forgiveness to those who have wronged you, as well, because it releases the grip of anger and fear you hold onto apart from forgiveness.  These are fraught times, for sure. A pandemic. Hate crimes. Protests. Riots. Anger. Divisiveness. In these times, we are the church, equipped by the Spirit to tear down the dividing wall of hostility. God’s kingdom is unfolding around us. We are claiming the victory that Jesus won. Will we set ourselves to the hard work of reconciliation and unity, or are we content to continue down the path of brokenness and anger our entire society seems to be on? The first path leads to life. The other is deadly. My friends, choose life.