Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

Romans 5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Imagine going to church four times a day for a week. With lectures in between. And 2,000 pastors by your side. With singing!

Of course, it’s the middle of May, so most of the pastors are tired, maybe a little cranky, and need the blessed assurance that can only come through going to church four times a day, for a week, with lecture in between.

Or beer. But that’s not the answer. So it’s church four times a day, for a week, with lectures in between. And all of this happens somewhere in America, with a church large enough for 2,000 pastors, surrounded by reasonably priced accommodation and reasonably priced food.

This time it was Atlanta, and the organizers of what one speaker described as “Woodstock for preachers” provide a theme and a slate of twenty or so presenters. Walter Brueggemann was there, and Anna Carter Florence, and Otis Moss III, famous for being Oprah’s pastor in South Chicago.

This year the theme was “Prophetic Preaching in Times of Change.” The theme was obviously set many months ago, but remarkably prescient in anticipating the surge of anger and fear that has dominated the body politic of our neighbours to the south.

And as Canadians looking in—there are usually a couple hundred of us, when the dollar isn’t too scary—as Canadians looking in we have the task of translating to our context or simply enjoying the ride. Yet many of the ideas expressed, and the occasional shout-out to Canada, remind us that we’re not as different as we like to think we are.

Of course Donald Trump came up. In the very first lecture, Leonard Pitts—Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Miami Herald—suggested this may be the angriest time in US history. With the middle class angriest of all—in a time that by almost every measure things are better than ever before. Trump, he argues, by displaying such “lavish anger” has tapped into something that is alive in the land.

And all this is happening in a country where the vast majority of the population claims to be Christian, a faith and tradition that still counts anger as a deadly sin. All this is happening in a country that claims to be “one nation under God” but has decided to follow the path of anger rather than grace.

And all that anger is very far from the foundational text Liana read this morning. St. Paul provides what amounts to a manifesto for the Christian life, when he writes his letter to the Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Peace and grace through Christ, and an end to fear, knowing that we are reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It’s a wonderful vision of new life in Christ, but it gets lost somehow when so many indulge in anger and fear.

So why all the anger and fear? What makes generally well-meaning and well-adjusted people give into the anger that fills the public conversation? Is it the persistence of the message? Or is it something deeper, more profound?

We know that change and a sense of loss that goes with change can manifest itself in fear and anger. So we can take the two leading slogans and test them against this hypothesis. A candidate claims that he wants to “make American great again” and we hear loss. Ironically, when said candidate was asked to name that time that American was great—the time that we might imitate—he couldn’t do it. His answer was “when I’m President.”

Or that other slogan, “time to take our country back,” again implying loss. If you’ve lost something, you try to take it back—that part seems clear. What’s less clear is ‘take it back from whom?’ So with an African-American in the White House, when a majority white movement starts saying ‘take our country back’ it begins to seem a little clearer what’s implied in the rhetoric.

Back in Atlanta, more than one speaker confronted some variation on this theme. Brueggemann addressed it head on when he said “take our country back” means taking back advantage, taking back the privilege that we think we’ve somehow lost. He spoke of the white, western advantage that many of us pastors in the audience enjoy, and then reminded us that the scriptures afford us no such advantage.

“God,” he said, “begins with advantage and then moves against advantage” as the story unfolds. We begin as God’s chosen people (advantage) but through disobedience find ourselves in exile (disadvantage). We imagine that we are somehow unique as followers of Christ (advantage) but then discover that “In Christ there is neither Jew not Greek, slave or free, male nor female (disadvantage). Even at Pentecost the Spirit creates the church in a rush of wind and flame (advantage) and then days later Peter has a vision and speaks saying:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10.34-35)

So the task of the church, then, is to imagine what it would mean to live beyond advantage and recognize that disadvantage is more in line with the story of our faith. So, as an example, when someone forwards an email that complains about not being able to say “Merry Christmas” anymore, I’m going to look at in terms of loss of advantage. Of course the premise is wrong, since in a free society we are still free to say “Merry Christmas” until we’re blue in the face, but there is a sense that we lost the advantage of being in society where everyone was Christian and “Merry Christmas” was what everyone always said.

In other words, the church has moved from the centre of the nation to the edge of the nation and we sense loss. We moved from being the chosen institution that defined much of moral agenda of the nation, to what now feels like exile. We moved from being a so-called Christian nation to one where there is no favoritism—only the common good that binds us together.

And we can even go a step further, again with some help from our old friend Walter Brueggemann. In the lecture that followed his sermon he suggested that an excessive sense of chosenness will inevitably lead to violence, citing Joshua’s various campaigns as the Israelites entered the promised land. But he wasn’t finished. In another example of chosenness that leads to violence he said “is there anyone here from the Anglican Church of Canada? According to your own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, your denomination is guilty of having committed cultural genocide through running First Nations residential schools. Anglicans, in Canada.”

Those of us from the United Church were busy looking at our shoes, knowing that we too were found guilty. And so it is that when the church claims a place at the centre of society we tend to adopt whatever the government of the day wants rather than what God wants, an excessive sense of chosenness that led to violence.

I want to end with a story of giving up advantage, taking the first step toward reconciliation and new life. Few of us traveling to Sudbury in ’86 had a sense of the momentous decision before the court, or the extent to which offering that first apology to Canada’s First Nations would transform our denomination’s sense of itself.

And almost equally momentous was the process to get to the apology, for the Moderator and the other leaders suggested the decision be reached by consensus, rather than voting. Seems simple enough in theory, of course: take a group of people, discuss a matter at length, ask them throughout the day ‘can you live with this?‘ until everyone is on side.

It made perfect sense to begin this journey of reconciliation with a decision-making method given to church by the very people that we were seeking to apologize to, and it displayed remarkable optimism to imagine it could be done with 350 people in the room.

By the end of a very long day, a long day of the Moderator asking and re-asking if the Commissioners could live with the decision, there were only three holdouts, three of 350 who couldn’t get there by consensus and couldn’t let go. The court moved to a vote, and it was at that moment that our First Nations sisters and brothers decided to leave the meeting, and leave Commissioners to the up or down vote that comes when consensus fails.

All stood as our friends left, and in the silence and the sadness of that moment, someone—off in the corner of the room—started to hum “Amazing Grace.” One by one others joined in—humming and not singing—until the sound filled the room. Commissioners voted through tears to make an apology.

That day we began to give up advantage in favour of God’s amazing grace. We moved against advantage and tried on humility instead. And for us, and others, it was the beginning of new life, in Christ. Amen.


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