I wonder how Paul found out about Aquila and Priscilla. Were they the friends of a neighbor he used to pass on his walk down the street to the market every week back in Tarsus? Were they the Hebrew school classmates of his sister’s husband with whom he had recently connected when they ran into each other unexpectedly in Athens? I’m making these people up, of course, but Paul seemed to have his network. Whenever God called him to a new place in order to teach about Jesus and form a community of faith for those who trust in him, he seemed to find some kind of support, someone who would receive him and encourage him, and, really, minister to him as he was called to minister in a new place.
It’s a good thing he had some sort of network in which to find shelter and work and support, because in many cases the task before him was daunting. Few people would have faulted Paul, I imagine, if he had said “No” each and every time when God told him to go. “No, thank you.” “No, because it’s really not all that safe.” “No, because don’t think they’ll listen to me.” “No, because here’s no way I have or can make enough money to live along the way.” “No, because it might upset people. It might be dangerous.”
Remember what we heard last week in the Acts of the Apostles? Paul and Silas stirred up trouble by preaching that the Messiah, Jesus, died and rose again from that death, that his power, his love, his salvation was for all people, not just a few. This proclamation, those who didn’t like it said, was “turning the world upside down” and that challenged their thinking, their understanding of who is included in God’s love, God’s covenant. It challenged their position, and they responded angrily, even violently.
And this week we hear a hint of the trouble with which Priscilla and Aquila were faced as Jewish believers of Jesus in Rome. The Emperor, Claudius, a Roman historian tells us, expelled them from the city for being followers of the Christ, likely for proclaiming Jesus is Lord, not the emperor.
The gospel can get you in trouble! And that makes it easy to start with a “no.” When new ideas spring up, when change seems needed, when our values seem threatened, when our comfort is disrupted, when our position isn’t popular, when it requires sacrifice to answer, the “No, because…” is right there on the tips of our tongues. Too often it’s our default answer, not just individually, but as a body. Too often it’s where we start when a new ministry idea is before us or a challenge to our comfort is presented for the sake of the gospel.
There were plenty of reasons for Paul to say “no, because” when he was uprooted and called in a new direction again, but Paul chose a different response. Knowing that he had been called to share the story of God’s grace beyond the Jewish family, knowing this mission was at the core of God’s desire for him and for others, Paul chose “Yes! How?” and the pieces fell into place. Aquila and Priscilla had recently come to Corinth to escape persecution as followers of Jesus. Likely they needed the support and extra help making ends meet, too. A common trade, tent-making, set them all up for better business. And a synagogue was already established where holy arguments about scripture and faith gave Paul an opportunity to talk about his experience as an apostle of Jesus. Acknowledging God’s call and leading and desire with a “Yes!” then pursuing the answer with the resources available with a “How?” opened the doors for the good news to be shared. “Yes! How?” brought new life, faithful ministry, and gave birth to the church.
Can we think of some “Yes! How?” moments in the life of our church? What about our desire to continue to support local businesses during this economic crisis brought on by the pandemic? Our “Yes! How?” turned into more Easter lily purchases (and therefore more support of our local nursery) than we have seen in years. Even moving to on-line worship, where we may have to stay longer than any of would like to is a “Yes! How?” when we could have said “No, because people won’t try this new technology. No, because it will never be the same as gathering together. No, because communion doesn’t count unless we’re all in the same room.” Answering “Yes! How?” to God’s call is what keeps the church alive and faithful to Jesus whose whole mission and ministry, life, death, and resurrection, was a big “Yes! How?” to the God’s desire to love all of creation.
By the time Paul writes his letter back to the church at Corinth whose founding we heard about in Acts, it sounds like maybe the “Yes! How?” spirit has been lost a little bit. Paul knows more about what’s going on than we do, but somehow this church that he founded some years ago is now caught up in disagreements and divisions. There are quarrels among the children of God and a picking of teams or choosing of sides. Everyone is lining up behind their favorite preacher and using these alliances as reasons to stand against each other. They are deciding who is in and who out based on a shared experience instead of recognizing the image of God in one another. Their human-made divisions are causing a spiritual problem, the fracturing of the children of God.
Friends, one of the great fractures among God’s children in our country, one of our biggest spiritual problems, is the sin of racism. A homemade cell phone video from Brunswick, Georgia brought that sin to front of the minds of many comfortable people,
many white people, I’ll say, who had no idea that Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old black man, was killed while out for a jog on February 23 and his known killers had not yet been arrested two and a half months later. But this sin of racism, it is always at the front of the minds of people who have to worry about whether going for a jog, or playing in park, or resting in their own home, or driving with a burned out taillight will get them killed today. The sin of racism is a sin of deep-seated division with origins far older than any of us, but with ramifications and manifestations that are no less present now than they were generations ago.
Racism is more than one person’s words or actions that we can denounce and move on from; racism is embedded in, woven into, and supported by the very structure of our society, a society that thrives on keeping people separated in good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, working class and upper class, urban and suburban, rich and poor, immigrant and American, white and black and brown. It’s a sin that has meant the prevalence of COVID-19 among the Latino community in Illinois is 3x time higher than the state average. It’s a sin revealed by the disparities in healthcare and wellness that have led to rates of death among Latinos with COVID in New York City to be more than 50% higher than those of whites, and over 100% higher for African Americans.
It’s a sin propped and perpetuated by the denial that some people move through this country with more ease than others simply because of the tone of their skin, and many of us don’t want that to change because it means giving up some of the benefits we receive, whether we asked for them or not, because we are white. It’s a sin that is killing us all as it drives us to seek only what is good for ourselves, not what is good for others and for creation itself. It’s a sin of human-made divisions, and as the Rev. Jan Edmiston, former co-moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) often says, “It breaks God’s heart. It makes Jesus cry.”
Confronting the sin of racism, dismantling its structures, individually, as a church, as a community, as a nation, has got to be a priority for Christians who proclaim a gospel of love, freedom from oppression, and reconciliation. People’s lives depend on it – and not just the lives of people of color, but the lives of people who move through the world with white privilege as well. It is one of the three priorities of the Matthew 25 vision for our denomination. It has been an important topic of learning and discipleship for some in our congregation. But we have to keep going. In the face of every “No, because…” we could ever think of, it has to become one of our “Yes! Hows?”
The how is, of course, the hard part, and I can’t wrap up this sermon with a quick and easy list of how to end racism. It’s as much a problem and sin for me as it is for anyone who benefits from its existence. But I have been learning a thing or two from friends and colleagues and others who are taking up this important work.
We who believe ourselves to be white or who benefit from the idea of whiteness,
- We need to listen to and believe the accounts of racism experienced by people of color.
- We need to spend as much or more time teaching our children not to kill those who are different from them as people of color are spending teaching their children how not to get killed. (My friend, the Rev. Angie Shannon, pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in Bowie, MD, asked this one yesterday on Facebook.)
- We need to let go of the belief that we know best what people of color need and start listening to what people of color are saying.
- We need to join their work and prioritize their priorities.
Our human divisions, Paul tells us, are healed when God’s children are united in mind and purpose. And I give thanks to our faithful God always because of the grace in Christ Jesus that makes it possible. Amen.
A video of the Zoom worship service during which this sermon was preached is available here.
Here are a couple of the Rev. Jan Edmiston’s blogs that address race and racism. She does it so beautifully and honestly I can’t help but share, even though these specific ones don’t include her now Presby-famous tag line, “What breaks God’s heart in your neighborhood?”