Grace

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 5, 2015, by Christopher L. Webber.

Lectionary Reading

America TwoMany years ago  my best friend and I decided to go to  a conference in Wichita Kansas.  You can guess how long ago this was by the fact that we decided  to drive there from Long Island. We stopped overnight in Pennsylvania  and got to Wichita late in the afternoon,  checked in to the hotel, and went down  to the restaurant for dinner.  It wasn’t a formal conference dinner  with speakers and all that;  just dinner in the hotel restaurant  before the opening session. We sat there for a long time  and finally my friend said,  “Does it seem as if we’re being ignored?”  I just figured the staff was really busy  because the place was full  and they’d get to us sooner or later. Eventually they did.  But my friend was black  and he saw things out of different experience.

On the way back we needed to find a motel for the night  and stopped at one in the middle of Missouri.  I went in first with my friend right after me  and told the clerk,  “We need a room for two.” “Sorry,” he said, “but we’re full.  There’s another place  down the road that might have a room.”  Well, maybe they were full.  It’s not impossible.  I’m sure it happens.  But I’ve gone into a lot of motels  before and since and never been told, “We’re full”  except that one time.  Maybe the clerk was telling the truth,  but because my friend was black,  we couldn’t be sure. And I realized that if you are black in America  that kind of thing happens a lot  and you can’t ever be sure  you’re being told the truth.

I remember another time  when my friend came for a visit,  and arrived in a rage  because he’d been stopped, basically,  for driving while black. Later he became a bishop  but he died before he was 50 of a heart attack.  He had chronic high blood pressure  and nothing in the world we live in  was helpful for that condition.

We’ve been reading through my favorite part of the Bible,  for the last month and will be until almost the end of August,  seven more weeks, working through the six books of  Samuel, Kings, Chronicles. We have two weeks coming up for David and Bathsheba;  don’t miss it!  But we read these books  because they describe the rise and fall  of the first Jewish state.  They show us God at work in history,  shaping a nation and people. It’s a brilliant depiction  of the interplay of personalities and power,  the interplay of a high calling  and the realities of human weakness. Today’s first reading ends:  “David became greater and greater,  for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  That’s the critical factor:  “the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”

You see, the Old Testament is the story  of how God was at work in one tribe,  one nation, “to shape” as the Bible says,  “to shape a people for God’s own possession.”  The project had a brief time of glory  under David and Solomon  and other times, more times,  of exile and defeat. But always there were prophets to call them back  to God’s purpose for them,  to explain to them the relationship  between their faith and their fortunes, to call them to repentance and renewal,  to remind them of God’s purpose,  God’s promise.

And then, two thousand years ago, the time was right  for God to take the next step,  to take the knowledge of God  the Jews had acquired and expand it beyond one nation,  to send the knowledge of the God of Israel  out to every nation, to plant in every language  and tribe and nation and people  the knowledge of a God of love,  the knowledge of a Creator with a purpose,  the knowledge of a redeemer  able to bear the crushing load  of human sin and failure  and take it away for ever.

The early Christians understood  that the gospel was universal;  it was good news for everyone,  for everyone,  unlimited by nation or race. One early Christian wrote that  “Every America FiveFatherland is for them a foreign land  and every foreign land a Fatherland.”  Christians were at home everywhere but never quite comfortable anywhere.  Christianity, in other words,  was no longer to be a national faith  but a transformative faith. As such it transformed the Roman Empire  and survived the collapse of the empire  and embedded itself  in the rising nation states of Europe  adapting itself to northern Europe as Lutheranism  and Calvinism to England as Anglicanism  to southern Europe as Roman Catholicism,  to eastern Europe as Orthodoxy.

So Christian faith was at work  in a variety of ways,  transforming cultures  but becoming divided and divisive  in the process because while Christians had a generally valuable  influence within their various cultures,  they also adapted themselves to those cultures  so that the Christians in Germany  no longer understood the Christians in Spain  and the Christians in Italy  no longer understood the Christians in Holland  and even the Christians in Scotland  didn’t understand the Christians in England and sometimes the Christians in England  didn’t understand each other. And all of those differences came here:  all those multiple expressions of Christianity  enriching this nation and also dividing us but creating the yeast  that would begin to do  what Christianity had not done before: to transform society.

You see, in the Roman empire  Christianity was too young and too weak  to do much more than change individuals  and in the middle ages and later it was too divided to do more than influence nations.  In the Roman empire, slavery was simply accepted.  Peter and Paul just assumed  that there would be slavery and they taught slaves how to be Christian slaves  and owners how to be Christian owners.  It never imagined that slavery as an institution  could be eliminated. It also never occurred to them  that marriage could take new forms  or that human beings could make choices  about the environment. At the end of the Bible we do read of a new heaven  and a new earth,  indeed, the Second Epistle of Peter says,  “we are looking forward to new heavens  and a new earth,  where righteousness is at home.”  Imagine that!  A world where it’s normal  to do justice! But the early Christians couldn’t imagine the details,  couldn’t imagine we could get there  before the second coming. And who could blame them  when you see what a mess we’ve made of it  even here, even here.

But suddenly, just in the last two weeks,  we have been able to begin to visualize  a whole new world in which God is at work in us,  at work in you and me  and even the Supreme Court  to change not just individuals,  not just nations,  not just societies, but the shape and pattern of human life.  We’ve had a shooting in South Carolina,  two Supreme Court decisions,  one about marriage and  one about health care,  and along with that  the constant new weather crises  that begin to make believers even out of  skeptics and deniers. So there are signs of hope.  Change is possible.  We can do better.  We can be moving on  toward a truly transformed society.  Just maybe we can move beyond racism  and tear down the flags that America Oneendorse it.  Just maybe we can look at human sexuality  in broader ways and ask God’s blessing on loving, stable relationships  that move beyond the narrow limits of biology.  Just maybe we can look at the violence  that lurks in all of us and begin to limit the use of the weapons  that make that violence so terribly dangerous. Maybe we can move beyond the Affordable Care Act  to a truly universal health care system.  Maybe we can begin to use  the tools available to us to move beyond a fossil fuel economy  to a world that gets clean energy from the sun  instead of deadly, destructive energy  from fossil fuels. And perhaps most important of all  can we as Christians be the yeast that enables those transformations,  the yeast that transforms the lump.  It’s the role of yeast to disappear  as it does it’s work. Jesus said we are to be the leaven in our world,  not to compel transformation  but to be the yeast at work  invisibly, within.

Perhaps the most remarkable  of all the remarkable events in the last two weeks  was the President’s eulogy in South Carolina. Remarkable in many ways,  but not least that it went beyond the usual, political,  “God bless America” to point out that, as I’ve been saying,  and the President said it,  “that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”  Yes.  Amen. That’s right. It’s not just about individual redemption  but about our collective salvation.  It’s about dealing with racism and sexism and  violence and self-centeredness  in our world. It’s about seeing, again as the President said,  seeing that the “sweet hour of prayer  actually lasts the whole week long.”
Can we, at last, begin to see that,  can we begin to see that God’s purpose is  far beyond our narrow and petty  individual concerns, can we begin to see that  and to play a truly transformative role  allowing God’s Holy Spirit  to work through us and change society?

What the President told us  and what we need to remember is  that it’s the work of grace,  God’s free unmerited gift of grace working through us toward God’s purpose.  God’s grace at work:  that’s a powerful theological statement and I don’t know of a time  since Lincoln’s second inaugural  that a President has seen God at work  to challenge and transform a nation  and a culture  and used specific Christian theological language  to say so. But isn’t it time we Christians  tried to come together then  to open ourselves  to the work of that amazing grace?  America SixWe have been blind,  but now we can see: we can see God at work to root out racism  and provide health care for the poorest and neediest  and we can thank God for what’s happening  and come together to let God work  through us to fulfill the dreams  that God plants in every human heart.

Some people, especially on the liberal side  of the political and social spectrum, scoff at the notion of American exceptionalism, the notion that God had or has a special purpose  for this country.  I don’t scoff at it at all. In fact, I think it’s pretty obvious  that this country has always been  like a city on a hill  with a torch lifted beside the door to draw others, on the one hand,  draw others from all over the world  into a unique experiment and on the other hand to serve as a model  to other nations and people that need models  and are inspired by this nation  to hope and work for  a similar freedom. “David became greater and greater (we read) for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”  David served God’s purpose –  royal exceptionalism – chosen out, not for his own benefit,  but for the sake of others. And David wasn’t always a paragon of virtue,  far from it;  he failed his people in numerous ways, but God used him nevertheless,  and for all our faults and failings  God can use this country nevertheless.

You know, it’s not the force of our arms  that will transform the Middle East,  but the example of a nation where Christians and Muslims live together in peace.  Didn’t we learn as children that you can make the other child say “Uncle”  but it doesn’t change anything. It’s not superior force that makes a difference  but the examples of others. I remember being told once by a missionary in Japan  that the most effective  Christian missionary in Japan was Martin Luther King, Jr.,  but Martin Luther King never visited Japan.  He never visited Japan but he made a witness  to the transformative power of love. People on the other side of the world  saw a country being transformed by that power  and it made a difference.

So I believe in American exceptionalism. No country influences the culture of the rest of the world  the way this one does.  And that’s in spite of the lingering racism  that I felt myself through my friend, it’s in spite of the violence that tore us apart  in Sandy Hook in Connecticut;  it’s in spite of the people and parties  that drag their feet  on all the work that needs to be done  to serve the poorest and neediest,  to break down barriers of sex and race  to remember our founding documents with their affirmations of human equality,  and of certain unalienable rights  which are still far from realized.

Martin Luther King used to ask,  How long? How long will we have to suffer injustice?  And he would answer his own question: “Not long! Not long, because the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.  How long will justice be crucified and truth buried?  Not long! Not long, because:  Mine eyes have seen the glory  of the coming of the Lord;  His truth is marching on.”  Let that be a vision we renew this  Independence Day weekend  and ask God to help us  make a witness to God’s purpose.

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain . . . Golden Gate Bridge
O beautiful for patriot dream That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam  Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw.
America! America! God shed His grace on thee.
Amen.

© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

 

 

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