Back to the Future


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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The old saying has never been more relevant. This Sunday, to begin the church’s program year, we sound the shofar, gather the community and welcome a special brass quintet.

Full Service Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Matthew 18:15-20 NRSV

The words of Jesus: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

John 4:23 The Inclusive Bible

The words of Jesus: “The hour is coming—and is already here—when real worshipers will worship God in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshipers whom Abba God seeks.

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A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.

Full Text of Sermon

Matthew 18: Context

In today’s passage from Matthew, we learn that the early church experienced conflict. They were, after all, people in a group, and that means there will be conflict. In the early Jesus movement, called The Way, followers of Jesus shared more possessions and spent more time together than in 21st century churches. In these early gatherings, adults were even baptized in the nude.[1] For the record, that’s more sharing than I signed up for. To address hard conversations, Jesus says:

“If someone sins against you, go to them alone. If they listen, you have restored the health of the community. But if they don’t hear you, take one or two witnesses with you next time. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the church;  and if that doesn’t work let such a recalcitrant one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Of course, Jesus hung out with Gentiles and tax collectors, hoping to melt their hearts into God’s way of loving. Here at Calvary we say “We welcome everybody, really.” But, hear me, we do not welcome all behaviors, really. In urban settings, we have to be clear on this, or we will be overrun with those who will test the limits of welcome by acting out and demanding outrageous things.

Sensitive topics are best addressed one on one, or in a small group, privately.[2] That’s where Jesus tells us to iron it out, speak your truth, clear the air, reconcile your differences, come to an understanding, but do so lovingly— that’s the will of Jesus in this passage. This passage is not a license to pull someone aside and let ‘em have it. It’s about reconciliation and restoring the community. It’s human nature to avoid talking about difficult things. If we don’t address them as they happen, in a timely way, later on all that we’ll have left is a false narrative based on misunderstood feelings.

Retentiveness

My grandmother, Phoebe, did not go to her cousin Mildred’s funeral, and when I asked her why, she said it was because she and Mildred were angry with one another. “What are you mad about?” I asked. She thought for a bit. “You know, I can’t remember. I just know that we’re mad.” Please don’t die mad at somebody for a reason you can’t remember. Talk through it. Don’t know how? Jesus tells us how in Matthew 18. With his life, Jesus showed us how.

A story of a sort-of homecoming service that did not go to plan
due to lack of shared history:

My Aunt Gretna was a woman of imposing stature, the first of the Floyds to get a college degree. She taught fourth grade and failed my best friend, Rudolpho, and that’s one of the ways I learned not to mess with Gretna. Aunt Gretna was a zealot[3], earning the title Patriot of the Year from the local John Birch Society.[4] She wrote so many letters to the editor that, when she died, the local newspaper conveyed condolences.

Aunt Gretna left our small United Methodist church, in part, because of the string of odd preachers the bishop kept sending us.  Around 1972, our small Appalachian foothill community was dispatched a pastor from New York. Can you imagine! Yankees marching through Georgia once again—and at the behest of the bishop. When I was a small child digging around in our muddy backyard, I learned firsthand about how Sherman had marched through our part of Georgia when unearthed some of the marble-topped furniture my great-grandmother, Alma, had buried in the backyard. She had buried her treasures there to keep them from Sherman’s troops who were burning and pillaging their way to the sea.[5]

Not too long after I dug up my great-parents’ buried treasure, Rev. Lash, Methodist Yankee[6] preacher, held a Sunday night worship service at the Plainville United Methodist Church. He had invited all the other churches in our community, and since we were given to leaving churches that offended us and starting new churches, Rev. Lash invited all six— you heard me correctly: six churches for 300 people, and every one of them was attended every Sunday. Rev. Lash’s invitation included one of our community’s black churches, the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church. Now, for those who don’t know, A.M.E. stands for the African Methodist Episcopal, a denomination which had spread into the Deep South, especially after the Civil War.

I remember thinking how strange it was that my father was worried about violence. He had been watching television and wondering if the demonstrations would reach our tiny community, and they eventually came on a very small scale, but that’s another story. Perhaps my father knew of a history I learned of only a few months ago: how our small Appalachian town was once predominantly African-American, which, by the way, explains the African genes in my 23andme report. The history goes that over a hundred years ago, two children were walking through a peach grove—one white, one black. The white child’s parent accused the black child of harming the white child. Deadly violence erupted, and the Ku Klux Klan got involved, murdering, with impunity, many of the black people in my hometown by binding them to the railroad tracks.[7]

I grew up knowing two or three black families, but children don’t know how to even consider such a history. This horror was our history and we still share a shameful history of violence, fear and white supremacy, all of which stemmed from the scourge of slavery, what Condoleezza Rice so adeptly calls “America’s birth defect.” Rice says, “We forget in the United States how long it has taken us to make ‘We the People’ mean people like me.”[8]

What’s more, I did not realize the significance of something else I learned about the very place I grew up in. A The Trail of Tears began in the next town over, Calhoun, Georgia, the town where I graduated from high school in 1882 1982. How could I not know these things? I was an honor student. I paid attention, mostly, but these were not high on the list of things essential for the whoever determined the curriculum. These were not seemly things to impart to school children who needed to learn not only about the world but about our own history.

So, when the Sunday evening joint worship service came around, my mother and father put me in the backseat of our Ford Galaxy and he drove us to church. I loved church. I was excited to be going back to our Methodist church on a Sunday evening, a worship time usually reserved for the Baptists. We got out of the car, walking down the cement walkway from the gravel parking lot.  I remember my mother reaching down to get my hand, and we stopped short because there was a commotion as we approached the front door. The pastor of the black church was kneeling on the front steps along with his congregation, eyes closed and hands raised in the ancient gesture of Christian prayer. He prayed for God to keep his congregation safe as they entered the white man’s church. “Do not let harm come to any of these your children, and do not strike us down, Father, when we enter.”

My mother moved me quickly back toward the car, squeezing my hand. Was she scared? Perhaps she wanted to protect her child from learning about the unpleasantness of the past. She might’ve done the right thing for the moment, but, in the long run — and what matters is the long run — we cannot help move anything forward by trying to ignore what actually happened, no matter how cruel. I tell this story because a version of it happened just last year in San Francisco. A young black woman left a church service when she realized that she was the sole black face in the sanctuary.[9] She knew history, at least the life and death parts of history. I tell this story because of the Nazi movements which are raising their hateful heads are not confined to American internet trolls; Nazis are once again on the rise in eastern Europe, especially in rural Hungary.[10]

Breaking Destructive Cycles

The Spanish-American Philosopher Jorge Santanaya[11] is famous for saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He actually said the following:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.[12]

It is time for this country to dismantle the scourges of racism and white supremacy, xenophobia and Islamaphobia, homophobia and transphobia and any other ism or phobia that denies the inherent goodness of every human being — and by that I mean every person is God’s child, created in the image of God and loved unconditionally. The church has “wrestled” long enough, conveniently categorizing these issues as political or divisive, when, in actuality these are issues of life and death. The word politics comes from the Greek polites, which means, among other things, citizens. In a very real sense, both politics and worship are the work of the people.[13]

DACA: 2017’s Trail of Tears

This week I received this text from my friend Julie who teaches at that same high school in Georgia: “Kids in the hall crying over DACA. I have nothing to do but hug them and tell them I have faith it’s going to be ok. So mad and heartbroken!” When will we learn that driving people from their homes is a shameful way to write our chapter of history? This is our chapter of history to write, and how we will compose it?

Perpetual Infancy is a Choice

I wish I did not have to talk about this next topic, but I do. Last week, a group of evangelical leaders issued a hateful statement, re-iterating all of the insults LGBTQ people have endured for decades. Most responses to the self-titled Nashville Statement[14] categorically admonished it as mean and crazy.[15] The mayor of Nashville even told them to take the city’s name off of the statement. Others had more measured responses. The Christian Century magazine ran a lovely article[16] but with a subtitle with which I take issue: “There are a lot of people who don’t know how a Christian can believe in the Bible, be gay, and celebrate their LGBTQ friends.”  This may sound insensitive, but I’m calling BS on those who claim to be “still wrestling” with understanding sexual orientation. We live in a time of readily-available knowledge, as easily accessed as typing on a phone screen. Living in San Francisco and claiming to not understand sexual orientation is a choice and tantamount to willful ignorance. Moreover, those who choose to forget are expressing a tacit desire to repeat the past and to take everyone down with ‘em.[17]

PC(USA)

I wish I could say that the Presbyterian response to the Nashville Statement was a shining beacon of God’s love, but it was not. I found it horribly disappointing.[18] Hear me plainly. The Presbyterian Church (USA) affirms LGBT people and same-sex marriage in the same way all people and marriages are affirmed. On paper, it’s a level playing ground, but, as Santanaya put it, I now say publicly to the Office of Theology and Worship, “when experience is not retained…infancy is perpetual.” The practice of the Presbyterian church, sadly, falls short of its policy statements.[19] We avoid taking stands on important issues because we fear conflict, but conflict is not the enemy. Hate and exclusion are the enemies. Violence and denial are the enemies, but perhaps the most pernicious enemy is apathy, and willful apathy is well, the worst.

Back to the Future

Here’s the Good News. Jesus goes with us to have these hard conversations. I know this because I take him at his word. He said so. At the end of all these instructions about dealing with community conflict, Jesus says “now remember, when we gather in these twos and threes to reconcile with those who have sinned against you, know this: I am there with you. You’ve got this.” Jesus will be present in today’s forum just like Jesus is at work through all of the helpers and responders already in Mexico, in Houston, in Florida.

In John’s gospel, Jesus says he’s already taken care of the future.  “The hour is coming—and is already here—when real worshipers will worship God in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshipers whom God seeks.” The time is coming and already is. The hour is coming and is already here. The future is on the way and has already arrived. We must release the cycles of the past and get back to the work of God, the work of creating a loving future, which is already here — foretold by Jesus, the one who already saves the future, and tells us so. The time is now, when we will tell the truth and be the church God calls. Rev. Joann and I are committed to walk with you into the future. Our hands are outstretched.

Get on board this train. There’s room for plenty more!

 

[1] https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/11538/is-it-true-that-early-christians-were-baptised-naked

[2] Calvary’s Behavioral Covenant reads as follows: “We practice…speaking directly to others, especially when we need to address a disagreement or perceived wrong and understanding that sensitive conversations are best done face-to-face.”

[3] I use the term “zealot” with love and respect for my late dear Aunt Gretna, much as Jesus was also called a zealot.

[4]  R. Stacy McCain, “Mark Potok and the Hijacking of ‘Hate’” April 2010, The Other McCain blog, accessed online at <http://theothermccain.com/2010/04/19/mark-potok-and-the-hijacking-of-hate/>  I am overjoyed to find an online article that lauds my dear Aunt Gretna while placing this story in conversation with 2017.

[5] This map show how the Union troops marched through Adairsville and Rome, spitting distance from my home. <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bc/SHERMAN%27S_MARCHES.jpg> (September 9, 2017)

[6] I apologize for setting up Rev. Lash as a “straw man” in this story, but that’s more or less how I remember it. Truth be told, he was a prophet, and had Rev. Last not invited the Mt. Zion AME to the Plainville UMC, I might not know the history of my community. So, thank you, Rev. Ken Lash!

[7] The Crisis: Record of the Darker Races, Volume 4, Number 5, September 1912, accessed online at <https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/civil-rights/crisis/0900-crisis-v04n05-w023.pdf>  page 221. (September 7, 2017) My thanks to Julia N. Autry for sending me this fascinating window into the past.

[8] http://thehill.com/homenews/news/332307-condoleezza-rice-says-america-was-born-with-a-birth-defect-slavery

[9] Shared by Tess Reynolds, CEO of New Door Ventures, one of our SF ministry partners. https://www.newdoor.org

[10] “Fighting Against Wight-wing Propaganda” Focus on Europe, Deutsche Welle, accessible online at <https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/focus-on-europe-video-podcast-deutsche-welle/id288958128?mt=2> (September 9, 2017)

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Santayana

[12] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana

[13] Ignatius Puthiadam, Christian Liturgy (2000) p. 19, accessed online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=ZNcIUpRGQoYC&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19&dq=leiturgia&source=bl&ots=c6eluLibpy&sig=oFuQFTiWZHjRcwdhMSvuIKfO4qw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiu8sr555vWAhUMxWMKHeYzC-YQ6AEIZjAK#v=onepage&q=leiturgia&f=false>

[14] https://drive.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://cbmw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/The-Nashville-Statement-and-Initial-Signatories-List.pdf

[15] John Pavlovitz, The Nashville Statement: A Plain Language Translation, accessible online at <https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/08/30/nashville-statement-plain-language-translation/> (September 7, 2017)

[16] https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/born-again-again/opposing-nashville-statement

[17] “Andrew Sullivan: The Religious Right’s Suicidal Gay Obsession” New York Magazine, September 8, 2017, accessed online at <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/09/the-religious-rights-suicidal-gay-obsession.html?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=s3&utm_campaign=sharebutton-t>

[18] Theology & Worship responds to ‘The Nashville Statement’ August 28, 2017, accessed online at <https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/theology-worship-responds-nashville-statement/> (September 5, 2017)

[19] Heeding Matthew 18, I contacted the Office of Theology and Worship directly and received an email reply from Skip Hardwick in which he politely doubled down on the initial unbeneficial statement which seems, in retrospect, to be a form of appeasement for the “Gentiles and tax collectors” who are refusing to hear science and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

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