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[Kara Slade] Surely Kin to Me (?)

In May 1970, a 23-year-old black Vietnam veteran, Henry Marrow, was killed in Oxford, NC.  The circumstances of his death, and the subsequent acquittal of his accused killers by an all-white jury, touched off riots and arson in Oxford, including the firebombing of a tobacco warehouse that sat almost across the street from where this sermon was preached.  I (Kara Slade) wrote it with one eye toward the events in Ferguson, MO, and the other towards the history of the community in which I hoped to bring a word of confession, conviction, and hope.  The following sermon, delivered on August 17, 2014 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oxford and based on the RCL New Testament texts for the day [Matthew 15:10-28 and Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32], is the result.

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like to begin this morning by noting that there are some sermons that I’m excited to preach, some words that I can’t wait to get up here in the pulpit and share with you. This sermon is not that. To be honest with you, I’m terrified this morning. I’m terrified because the word that the Holy Spirit gave me to give to you is one that might touch on some painful things. But just as a surgeon causes pain in the process of healing an illness, sometimes the proclamation of Word of God can be the same way. All I know is, what I can’t do is ignore those painful places and hope that they go away on their own – because they very obviously won’t. I can’t get up here and pretend that what happened this week didn’t happen, and that what has happened in the past in our own community never happened either.

This week I have been haunted by the images from Missouri: a young man shot, a neighborhood in flames, the anger and the shouting and the lines of police and the feeling that everything is spinning out of control, that everyone is acting out a role in a predetermined script called “riot,” rather than seeing each other as neighbors. I have been haunted even more knowing that many of you know all too much about what it’s like to live through the middle of that script. Knowing that neighborhood in Missouri has all too much in common with this neighborhood. Knowing that my own home diocese is in some sense still scarred by, and still repenting from, the death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels in Hayneville, Alabama, the young Episcopal seminarian whose feast day the church observed last week. Knowing that today the lectionary gives us a set of readings that focus like a laser beam on what it means to be chosen, what it means to be excluded, and what it means to be reconciled to each other. I mention these things not because I am trying to be political for the sake of being political or to dredge up an uncomfortable past – as I hope y’all have figured out by now, I preach Christ, not causes. No, I do so because, God help me, the church has put me in this job of being a physician of the soul, and because I believe that the convergence of this week’s events and this week’s lessons might just be the occasion for healing. And because as a child of the Deep South and the great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, God knows I need that healing as much as anyone.

Now, I’ll confess that I asked Sherry to use the expanded Gospel reading in the bulletin today because on Monday I didn’t really want to wrestle with Matthew 10:26, where Jesus tells the Caananite woman, ’It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ I just didn’t want to deal with a passage where Jesus seems to be calling a woman asking for his help a dog, because she belongs to the wrong people – because she is a Caananite and not of the house of Israel. This verse has been the subject of debate among Biblical scholars and theologians for years, with many people trying to explain or to get around what sounds like such an uncharacteristic saying. But it’s been a long week from Monday to Sunday. It’s been the kind of week that calls all of us to wrestle with the difficult parts of Scripture until it blesses us. And I think one of my friends, a young man who is a priest in another diocese, put it very well this week on Facebook. He said something to the effect that this passage confronts us with whether or not we really believe in Jesus’ full humanity and his full divinity – which I do. If we see his full humanity – and uncomfortably so – in the words I just quoted, we also see that the passage doesn’t stop there. We also see his full divinity reflected in verse 28: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” And I would say that the juxtaposition of the two confronts me with my own brokenness – with my own worst tendencies to limit God’s grace to my own house: my own friends, my own family, my own nation, to the people who look like me. To that impulse God says in this text, quite firmly and clearly: no. God says, in my kingdom everyone is in – but on my terms, and not yours. But – please note – that to the corresponding impulse that says I can fix the brokenness in others and make everything come out all right through sheer good will, God also says no: Instead, God says, You want to do a righteous thing, but remember, only I do a righteous thing.

And so this passage also reminds me of my own place within the story of redemption. Contrary to the five hundred year old error that has equated America with the promised land, and people who look like me with the chosen people of Israel, I can’t be like the disciples, thinking I can choose who to help and who to send away, which lives matter and which lives don’t. No, in this story, we aren’t the disciples. We are in the position of the gentiles, and we too are offered the kind of healing that may at first only look like crumbs of hope. This week those crumbs have looked like Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who walked alongside the demonstrators rather than confronting them expecting the worst. It looked like Wayne Smith, the Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri, standing in the midst of a crowd in Ferguson and listening – not directing, not trying to control the conversation – just listening. And it looked like the class of black and white pastors I lectured to this week at Duke, all of whom were struggling to figure out how to proclaim the Good News in a country where the hymn I quoted at the beginning of this sermon – the one that talks about the church as one great fellowship of love that crosses the boundaries of race and geography and economic situations – is very much a distant goal and emphatically not an achieved reality. We can only sing that hymn as a prayer, and not a statement of fact. Not yet, not here, not anywhere. And I say that not because I am a political liberal, but because I am a theological conservative, and because I believe wholeheartedly in the reality and depth of human sin, both of individuals and of the systems that those individuals take part in. If there’s one thing we’ve seen this week in Missouri – just as many of you saw all too clearly first-hand here in Oxford, it’s the depth of human sin. It’s the absolute separation from who we were created to be that keeps us from seeing each other as neighbors.

And so today the word I want to leave you with is not one of cheap reassurance or of easy answers. Not a plan of action, but a reminder of the only One through whose power those sins can be forgiven. And that is the only basis from which any of us can respond to the deep wounds that this week laid bare. This week I’ve often been reminded of a passage in Karl Barth’s commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, where he warns against the folly of any attempt to prescribe a merely human plan of action for curing societal ills:

There is no positive possession of men which is sufficient to provide a foundation for human solidarity; for every positive possession—religious temperament, moral consciousness, humanitarianism—already contains within itself the seed of the disruption of society. These positive factors are productive of difference, since they distinguish men from one another. Genuine fellowship is grounded upon a negative: it is grounded upon what men lack. Precisely when we recognize that we are sinners do we perceive that we are brothers. Our solidarity with other men is alone adequately grounded, when with others—or apart from them, since we may not wait for them!—we stretch out beyond everything that we are and have, and behold the wholly problematical character of our present condition. Men fall short of the glory of God.

We are called to stand beside our neighbors – all our neighbors – not because we’re nice people, but because we’re sinners and they are too. Only when we stand before the Cross together do we realize the depth of what we have in common – and the falsity of all our pretensions to the contrary.

And then, only then, can we look across the aisle, across town, across the country and see our neighbors for who they are – as brother, as sister, as friend. Only then can we sing in hope of a church that is already coming but not yet fulfilled, even as we lament with those who yet mourn:

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.

Amen.

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