Acts 28: 1-6, 2 Timothy 2: 4-7, Philippians 2: 14-15
For those of you who don’t know the rhythm of the office here at Grace Presbyterian, let me share with you a small bit of our weekly pattern: we have our staff meeting on Monday, I choose the scripture and sermon theme on Wednesday or Thursday and then the office staff print the orders of worship on Friday. But, as you can probably imagine, sometimes a lot happens between Thursday and Sunday. For example, I remember, very vividly, finishing my sermon on the Thursday of Joy week in Advent 2012, just to turn on the news the next day and see that twenty eight people had been shot and killed at at elementary school in a quiet village called Sandy Hook that next morning. Two days before we were called to reflect on the joy of an infant Christ being born into the world, twenty children were viciously taken from this world in less than fifteen minutes.
Sometimes the scripture and the theme that is chosen in the middle of the week doesn’t match the events in our world that unravel before Sunday arrives. And then, sometimes, the scripture and the theme speak directly to the surprises that Friday and Saturday bring. This is one of those weeks. This week, which is the second to last week of a sermon series that we began in January, this week we were set to be talking about Paul’s exhortation for us to be blameless. Yesterday, Saturday, in Charlottesville, we saw events unravel before our eyes that reinforced the importance of this biblical concept being lived out in our lives of faith.
I want to give you a heads up now—we will be talking about racism and prejudice today. And I know that talking about prejudice and events like what is happening in Charlottesville can make people uncomfortable, specifically, can make white people uncomfortable. So I want to say now that, if you are uncomfortable discussing racism and prejudice, or you are struggling to process what is happening in Charlottesville because you don’t know where you agree and where you disagree with the parties involved, then you’re in the right place. Church is a good place to put yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable—I actually believe that churches that take the Good News seriously will often cause us in the pews and pulpit to feel uncomfortable much of the time, because Good News brings change and transformation into our lives, and change and transformation are rarely comfortable experiences.
The other thing I want to say before we jump into everything is that there is a lot of lecturing going on in our national conversation right now, and I’m not interested in lecturing anyone on this (which is weird, since technically a sermon is a lecture, but hopefully you know what I’m trying to say.) So if you’re fearing a sermon full of shame and guilt, then please, don’t fear, because that’s not where we’re going. Shame and guilt are not part of the good news God tells us. What I am interested in is our ability as a community of faith to engage in honest discussions about the deeply divisive, painful, and often confusing issue of race in America. Because I truly believe that it is through honest discussion that is free from shame and defensiveness, where we can share both the speakable and the unspeakable with compassion, where we can listen to the experiences of others and be transformed by those experiences, I believe that it is through honest discussions that are free from shame and defensiveness that we can bring light and hope and peace to darkness and suspicion and violence that we see in Charlottesville and that we experience every day. If by the end of this sermon, we cannot engage in this discussion, then I want you to tell me, okay?
We have a quirky little story as part of our scripture reading for today. Paul is traveling on a ship against his will, a prisoner in Roman hands, having escaped death at the hands of his Jewish brothers and sisters. While on a boat with other prisoners and many guards, they get caught in a storm and everyone starts freaking out! And they are sure, they are certain, they just know that they are going die. Paul tells them that, if they just don’t give up and keep weathering through the storm, God has told me we are going to make it. You just can’t give up. The first thing people were trying to do was jump. Those steering the ship struggle to believe him, but eventually, through Paul’s insistence that they just keep with it, going through this tumultuous, painful, difficult situation, they see that Paul is right—they make it to land (in pieces, but they make it to land) where they are greeted by the local natives with hospitality and warmth like nothing they could have imagined.
That’s where our scripture recounts this strange little story: Paul was gathering brush to put on the fire, when a viper bites his hand and hangs on. And seeing this unfortunate, deadly event, causes the natives to judge him: “This man must be a murderer!” they say to themselves. “Because, even though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”
And so what we see here are the people of Malta using their own system of faith to discern who Paul is and how he fits into the world: he survived a shipwreck, which means he is either favored by the the powers of the universe, or cunning enough to trick the gods. But he survived that shipwreck just to be bitten by a deadly snake, which confirms that he actually must have been really bad because the universe was determined to kill him. The people of Malta are trying to do is determine Paul’s guilt by the events he is dealt in life—sort of like karma, where what you put into the world is what the world will return to you.
And so, with one bite of a viper, the people of Malta determine that Paul is guilty. Only to be surprised by what comes next: Paul shakes off the snake into the fire and carries on unharmed. Scripture says, “They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.” They changed their minds. The one they had predetermined to be guilty they now deemed to be blameless, and blamelessness was so rare, so unique to them, that they had to think he was a god.
And, though their system for determining blame is not in line with how Christians interpret the world, the truth is that (in this particular scenario) Paul was blameless. In fact, seeking to be blameless was a big deal to Paul—we see him exhort Christians toward blamelessness throughout the majority of his writings. He requires bishops to be blameless in a letter to Timothy and then requires elders and overseers to be blameless in a letter to Titus, he assures the Ephesians that we as Christ’s friends are blameless in God’s sight, and he urges the people of Thessalonica to be blameless as they look for Christ to return. In another of our scripture passages for today, Paul exhorts the people of Philippi to “do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.” Being blameless was really important to Paul the Apostle, perhaps because he of all people knew the heavy weight of blame during his many years as Saul the Pharisee.
In another letter to Timothy, our third scripture for today, Paul tries to explain how we can work to become blameless: “Share in suffering like a good soldier in Jesus Christ. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.”
What Paul is saying is that our personal justifications and feelings must come second to the directives given to us by Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Like a soldier, we don’t get to back out of serving Christ and doing what Christ directs us to do just because we don’t want to suffer, or because we woke up to a bad day, or because we don’t agree with Jesus or feel like Jesus. Like an athlete, we can’t cheat in this game of faithful living no matter how much we want to win the prize of heaven. Like a farmer, the ones who put the most discipline and effort into tending to Kingdom principles will reap the best of the crop. In Paul’s thinking, being blameless comes with enduring and persevering toward to the right thing, even when we don’t feel like it, especially when we don’t feel like it. Blamelessness, in Paul’s view, comes with doing what is right by the Kingdom of God, even when it’s not what we want to do.
How many of you have regular conversations about blamelessness? Blamelessness is not something that we really talk about in our society today. I mean, we are in a world that loves to assign blame, that teaches us to rigorously defend ourselves from blame. But seeking actually to be blameless? That is not a value that I hear articulated in the mission statement of any non-profit or any social club, it’s not a priority expressed from any politician or any pundit, not in the language used by most churches or denominations. Being blameless is not what anyone anywhere is urging us to do. Apart from Paul.
So why? If it’s such a big deal to Paul and the early Christians, why don’t we talk about blamelessness today with the same urgency and priority?
It occurred to me that, maybe one thing we need to clarify here is that blamelessness and sinlessness are not the same thing. Maybe we don’t put focussed effort into being blameless because we are confusing the relationship between blame and sin, believing that because we sin on a daily basis, we can not be blameless—thinking we are already guilty before we start. But sin and blamelessness are not mutually exclusive and they are not the same thing.
If we sin, if I say something hurtful about my neighbor, for instance, I can still seek to be blameless—in fact, because I have said something hurtful to my neighbor, as a Christian, I MUST seek out blamelessness. I can seek to be blameless by admitting what I said, by repenting of it, by apologizing in humility, by committing to change the thoughts that drove hurtful speech out of my mouth. Blamelessness is not mutually exclusive with sinfulness—quite the opposite! The more we sin, the more we need to seek out blamelessness. Where sin presents itself, the drive to be blameless must increase, not decrease.
We know from the witness of scripture that the events in Charlottesville yesterday were wrong—from God’s affirmation of diversity through the Tower of Babel and the Pentecost, to the actions of Jesus who actively engaged in conversations across ethnic lines (such as with the Samaritan woman or the gentile woman or the Roman centurion), to the words of Paul himself who declared that there is no Jew, no Greek, no man, no woman, no human divisions at all are affirmed in the eyes of God. We know from the witness of scripture that racism and hate and prejudice toward any other human is wrong, because it was Jesus himself who told us that we don’t even have the right to hate our enemies, let alone people who have done us no wrong. We know through scripture that racism and hate and division are wrong.
However, many of us in this room also have experiences that have eroded our trust in those who are different than us. When I was twenty years old, I walked up on two young hispanic men trying to steal the radio out of my car, and it took months for me to get over the fear, suspicion, anger that swelled up and took me over in just seconds. For a lot of people in the United States, there is suspicion toward Muslims and Arabs (or anyone who looks like they could be Muslim or Arab) because of acts of terrorism done by ISIS. I have friends and loved ones who are people of color who have endured racial slurs, prejudices, and dismissive behavior from people who are white, and so they struggle with a similar fear, suspicion, and anger. Some of us here were taught to distrust people who look different than us, either because of where we grew up or the era that we grew up in, and so for some of us, distrusting another race was not a choice we made but a practice we learned. There are a lot of reasons why we as individuals struggle with racism, and usually, they are not reasons that are generated out of deep, pulsating hatred residing within us, but that are born out of every day living and contact with one another.
Many of us have a reason in our lives that could allow us to justify our distrust, suspicion, and fear of another group of people. But that is what prejudice is—it is distrust, suspicion, and fear of a whole people group. We all suffer from it, not one person in here is exempt, and we need to call it what it is: prejudice. We need to call it what it is because we can not transform anything that we are not telling the truth about. Sometimes I think that the instinct we have when we find prejudice rising in us is to feel shame. We know it’s not right, but we don’t know what to do to change it, and we feel like we can’t talk about it, because we’ll be judged for it, and so before the shame can wash over us, we move on—we either ignore it, or justify it, or defend it, but one way or another, we don’t face the shame we feel when we feel prejudiced, which leaves our prejudices unaddressed entirely. And they just fester there.
When we do not address our shame and prejudice, then we are not seeking to be blameless. We are not being diligent in following the directives of the kingdom, and we can’t keep on ignoring our sin if we want to grow and mature in our walk with Jesus.
So, if you are in this with me—if you experience prejudice and you experience shame and you don’t always know what to do with it or where to go with it, then let me tell you that this is precisely the place where the Good News steps in! This cycle between prejudice and shame is precisely what Jesus came to earth for: so that we would not be held captive to our sin and shame and brokenness anymore. We do not have to hide from our sins in shame—the Good News is that we can confront them, because we know that when we confront our sin and shame in the name of Jesus Christ that God will change that sin and shame and make us whole. Friends, that is what seeking blamelessness is: seeking to be made whole. And the Good News is that God makes us whole without reservation when we come to him in blamelessness. We just have to be honest. We just have to bring it forward. We can’t be so scared by shame that we don’t talk about the things that wreck our hearts and souls.
Friends, we need to be more diligent in doing this. We need to be courageous in confronting the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, that disgust us. We have to be bold in confronting the prejudices we hold, the judgements we foster, the mental superiority we maintain against others. We need to be courageous in being honest with the parts of ourselves we don’t like and that don’t impart life, and the parts of society that don’t impart life, and we need to offer them to God in the desperate faith that God will take them and change them into something more holy, will change us into something more holy. Because I honestly believe that God is less concerned with our justifications for maintaining prejudiced behavior and more concerned with our commitment and practices toward bringing unity and love and compassion into the world. I believe that is what God is concerned with: how are we participating in the kingdom breaking into the world now in all it’s justice and unity and hope?
Last thing, and I say this to us as a congregation that still has more white people in it than we do any other single race or ethnicity. What we see happening in Charlottesville is not a problem that is only in Charlottesville. White supremacy is not only in Charlottesville, or in the past, or in the South, or “out there” at all. The language of white supremacy finds its way into the parties we attend, the back room conversations at work, the internet websites we visit, the emails we forward, and the news we watch. White supremacy is not just “out there,” but here, in our daily lives as well. And we can’t ignore it when we encounter it.
This is because white supremacy or superiority is not a problem for people of color to solve. It is for white people to solve. It is first our problem as white people, it is our disease. Christian people who are white are uniquely positioned to address white superiority in the secret places where it thrives, and there is no one else who can do it. If we are to prioritize blamelessness in our lives, if we are to seek to be made whole, then we need to identify and recognize the ways that we can actively work against white supremacy in our world. There is no one else who can do it.