Sermon Archives

Sunday, July 18, 2021
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11 (Year B)
The Reverend Canon Ronald Spann
Salt, Light, and Peace

Good morning, Church. Today we’ve logged another Sunday since we passed the point where pandemic statistics turned in favor of public worship. The curve on our attendance chart has climbed noticeably. Math students have a term for that kind of point on a curve– an inflection point.

In the quiet first months of last year’s pandemic shutdown we got some early hints that we would pass several inflection points before all was done. During that unexpected timeout we saw brilliant landscapes and skies we hadn’t seen in ages. We also saw deferred maintenance projects that we could no longer put off or deny.

In late spring of 2020 George Floyd’s tragic death threw another deferred maintenance project into full view. His death under Derrick Chauvin’s knee marked another inflection point in the pandemic. It’s rather haunting to look back at it a year later in the light of the condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida.

Like Surfside, it laid bare the faulty framework of our democracy.

Like Surfside, George Floyd would be just one more body pulled out of the rubble of a collapsed, generations old structure whose foundation had been built on the sand of white supremacy.

Like Surfside, it made it undeniably clear that any structure that is demonstrably unsafe for some is unsafe for all. So long as America is unsafe for black lives, it is unsafe for all lives.

Like Surfside his death has posed a strategic choice. Surfside has moved on from its strategy of rescue and demolition for one of recovery and rebuilding. Will America stick to a strategy of shoring up an old foundation or move on to the demanding work of building a new foundation on the rock of justice for all.

That’s the bad news. Where’s the good news?

Hello, Church. Are we not Americans who are also Christians who have been called for such a time as this? Jesus says that we disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Do we have the salt and light it takes to spark our neighbors’ hunger and thirst for the justice of the Kingdom we pray would come into our world?

Today’s lectionary passage from Ephesians could not have come around at a better time. In these 11 verses Paul models a blend of three attitudes and practices that can stoke our fire and brighten our light.

First, this passage brims with Paul’s practice of speaking the truth in love. Speaking truth means grounding ourselves only in what is real, and Paul’s way of addressing the Ephesians is a case study in being real.

For instance, he doesn’t play down the fact that the Ephesian church is comprised of two distinct ethnic groups, a “you all” and a “we all”, Jews and Gentiles. He lets the culturally Greek Ephesians know that he sees them; he doesn’t say “I don’t see ethnicity” or, “I am ethnicity-blind.”  Paul stays real. Acknowledging our differences is healthy; overlooking them is not.

You and I need to be very clear at this time because America has passed another inflection point on a curve that’s headed down. It charts what you could call the statistics of a pandemic of lies. This alarming curve demands that we confidently speak the truth in love and not just “tell it like it is.” An Anabaptist proverb puts it like this: truth without love kills. Love without truth is a life.”

The second thing Paul models in these verses is his attitude toward race: there is only one race, the human race. His powerful image of the one new humanity that Christ forms in his Body out of the two groups only makes sense if each group is authentically human.

We need to pour our salt and light on America’s never resolved ambivalence about African humanity. You who call yourselves white are caught between fascination and repugnance by how the physical traits and cultural expressions of those who call ourselves people of color contrast with yours. That ambivalence sprouted generations ago from the seed of suspicion that maybe we are of a different kind of humanity. Both faith and science repudiate that suspicion and validate a common humanity.

Third and last, in these verses I find that Paul supremely models to us his total commitment to the ministry of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is the fruit of ending hostility and making peace. So whatever else the ministry of reconciliation is, it begins with what Jesus calls learning the things that make for peace. For Paul that begins with proximity, that is, by closing the gap between Jew and Gentile buy going as a Jewish disciple of Christ into their Gentile world.

But how do we bring salt and light to the work of creating proximity? You see, peacemaking is a risky business. It requires stepping into a place of weakness and vulnerability. While those you approach are armed to the teeth, you go unarmed.

You may remember a risky incident in the rioting after Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted. A white truck driver ended up in a Watts intersection where throngs of angry black Angelinos were ready to drag him from his cab and beat him mercilessly. Suddenly a young, lone African American man put himself between the crowd and that driver and managed to get him away from the throng to safety.

That’s an amazing story of peacemaking. Not only did his act benefit the driver, it benefitted that angry throng, saving them from themselves. Jesus’ death was to the benefit of Jew and Greek alike. Are we willing to take such a risk?

I find irony in how at this historical moment amid the turmoil left in the wake of George Floyd’s death many of us are seriously re-evaluating what it means to speak of the ministry of reconciliation.

What many would now say about racially broken America is that there never was a relationship in the first place. So, what’s to reconcile?

I understand that, but I also challenge it. You see, enmity is a relationship. It is a hostile, death dealing relationship, but it is a relationship. Our American heritage includes a natural enmity between our groups organized around caste and color. We are not at peace with one another. Our enmity is pandemic and our only hope is the vaccine of reconciliation.

My hunch is that it’s the weakness and vulnerability of the peacemaker’s role that makes us want to back off of the ministry of reconciliation. We don’t like feeling or being seen as weak and vulnerable. Maybe, as some think, conciliation is a better word, because reconciliation presupposes a previous relationship that needs restoring.

So how can we share our salt and light? By adopting for ourselves Paul’s apostolic model by imitating him as he was an imitator of Christ. For the joy that is set before us we can dare to be weak as the secret to our strength.

Look, I am an African American, a black man of working-class origins addressing a majority group who likely think of yourselves mostly as white and American, and far more likely to be of upper-middle class and wealthy origins.

But we are also Christians, professed disciples of the Christ into whose body we have all been baptized. I say without hesitation that I love you because we are sisters and brothers, members one of another.

Because I love you, I feel bound to speak truth to you in love. I am aware of your many ambivalences about the ministry of reconciliation as American Christians. You struggle in contradictory ways with the shame that stigmatizes those who call themselves white in America because whiteness has a tragically shameful history. American Christianity provided the biblical justification for slavery and apartheid that at this inflection point our American republic must reverse.

The Cross is your medicine for healing that shame. Jesus has identified with it by enduring the shame of crucifixion, thereby opening the door to the freedom of forgiveness. Crux est medicina mundi. That’s an ancient Latin phrase that means, The Cross is the medicine of the world. It imparts to us a health that demands a healthy lifestyle, a robust morality and a vitality that comes from access to God the Source through the One Spirit.

This hour is our inflection point. The task before America and American Christians is generational, and we probably won’t live to see all that we would like to see, but it will be enough. I feel hope in your gestures of entering into sacred conversation, of working to tear down the dividing wall of hostility at Alter Road between the Pointes and the Jefferson-Chalmers corner of Detroit. I honor your growing desire to learn the things that make for peace.

So now I ask you to lean into your identity as ministers of reconciliation and through Christ offer your salt and light in sacrifices that are pleasing and acceptable to God. Amen.