Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

January 27: Don’t Confess, Comply

January 27, 2019

While perhaps most of you could care less about the denomination of which this church is a member, the Presbyterian Church (USA), or “PCUSA,” it is organized into — going from the top down, — the meets-every-other-year frequent disaster we call “The General Assembly,” Synods, which are near useless, presbyteries, and local congregations.

Presbyteries are definitely not useless, and this congregation is blessed to be one of twenty-five (down two in the past several years) in the Presbytery de Cristo, somewhat centered about Tucson. but extending to two churches in New Mexico. One of the major functions of a presbytery is placed in its Commission on Ministry, of which I was moderator for four years, ending two years ago next month.

And somehow, while serving on that Commission, I don’t recall whether it started before I became moderator, I accepted moderating the Session of the Papago United Presbyterian Church, which had four chapels, only two of which are in use, on the Tohono O’Odham — forgive me — “reservation.” Papago United is a “Native American,” an Indian church. Each month I would drive to Sells, which is a bit over an hour west of Tucson, or to Santa Rosa, which is better described as about fifty or so miles south of Casa Grande, a ways off highway Indian 15, but you might never find it on a map. The meetings were always at night, and I would generally begin my day at home in Tucson, drive to Florence for a few hours, go to Coolidge for Community’s Session meeting, then drive to either Santa Rosa or Sells, and finally back home about 9:30 or 10:00 at night.

But the members of the Papago United Session said they did much better if I were there, and since no one else has been willing to take on the responsibility of helping them, to accommodate me this past year, they went to meeting only every other month, and only in Sells.

Originally, I would say that three women and one man held this church together, and though one of those women was replaced by another and a fourth has been added, I basically do not allow them to follow the rules of being rotated off the Session. There is very little actual business transacted at the meetings, which is not to say that all is static, but I think they are right about functioning better when I am there, because I basically listen, ask, “Then do you want to do this or that,” and if all the heads nod, I say, “Write down, ‘moved, seconded, adopted.’”

And after 90 minutes to two hours, we adjourn with prayer.

And I get into my car and say a silent prayer, “Thank you, God, for letting me work with these people.”

It was a sense of duty to Christ’s Church that led me to accept this responsibility, but I cannot quite put into words why I have stuck with it. I certainly feel sorry for the problems they experience and for the way in which Native Americans got a pretty raw deal, to put it bluntly, when the US conquered their lands, and, indeed, created “reservations.” The Tohono O’odham nation has a good many square miles of land, but while parts of it are scenic, it is also rather useless, and their “towns” and villages are well away from where jobs are to be had.

And so to some extent, I guess I feel sympathy for what these four women and one man must do to serve a people who got the short-end of the stick. Yet, as I reflected, it was not a sense of sympathy, so much as empathy for these leaders and the sense that Native Americans had suffered injustice that holds them back to this day. Those, and a sense of admiration for those church leaders.

But a sense of injustice, heck, even sympathy, let alone empathy, as well, are not the same as guilt, and I do not feel any guilt, either for what was done to slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation, nor to the Native Americans: none of my families were in the United States until at least the 1870’s, if not for another decade, and none of them went further west than Iowa (it hurts to admit that I have some ties to Iowa). None of my ancestors would even have been here when Custer fell at the Little Big Horn.

So I feel no guilt, but an awareness of injustice, and of wanting to do what I can to right a wrong, to try to help overcome injuries of injustice. Those motivations in some small way might have played a role in my willingness to work with this Session, and certainly the admiration in which I held these leaders contributes to my continuing, despite a part of me that feels that six years is enough, but I am also, and probably even more, driven by this: I truly like these leaders. I admire them, yes, but I like them; in the truest sense of philios, brotherly love, Christian love, I love them. I have visited two of them in hospital or nursing home, and that love is the ultimate basis for my involvement.

But what is the point of all this and how does it relate to any of our Scriptures today?

Well, as usual, our Scriptures are part of the Revised Common Lectionary, which has a rather out-of-the-ordinary Hebrew Bible choice —  out-of-the-ordinary, but it offers a parallel with Jesus’ reading in a synagogue in our Gospel Lesson — a rather out-of-the-ordinary choice as our Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Lesson: a reading from the book, Nehemiah. Nehemiah and the book immediately before it, Ezra, deal with two individuals, one a priest, one a “governor,” who were involved in rebuilding the Temple and Jerusalem after Cyrus the Great had liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon, and one of Cyrus’s successors, Darius IV, had told them to return home and do this rebuilding. We just do not tend to read these two books nor their predecessors in the roll of history, 1 and 2 Chronicles, books which pretty well parallel what we read in 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, books from which we do read.

Within Ezra, a fairly short work, Ezra offers admonitions and indeed instructions for those Jews who had remained in Judah, the surviving kingdom of what had been Israel and Judah, and who had married “local” women who were not Jews. Ezra instructed them to divorce these wives and to send away their children to them.

Shocking prejudice, but a prejudice implicit also in 1 Chronicles, where the criticism of Solomon, the King known for his “wisdom,” was not that he had hundreds of wives and concubines, which certainly calls his “wisdom” into question, but that there were “foreigners,” non-Jews, among these wives. Indeed, the wives of Abraham and Isaac, among the first of the patriarchs, did not want their sons to marry the local Canaanite girls.

Now, on the surface, I find this offensive, though I do understand that to the writers of history in the Old Testament, the fear of foreigners, of non-Jews, is because they could and some would lead Jews to worship other gods and idols, to violate the Second Commandment (which I know did not exist at the time of Abraham and Isaac, but the Bible was written long after that), and it was their, that is, the Jews’, violation of that Second Commandment that the writers believed explained why, as they thought, God had punished them, such as in their being conquered by the Babylonians in the first place.

But no matter, prejudice, bias, it was.

So I have a question for you: Should today’s Jews be offering apologies to the non-Jewish inhabitants of what earlier in the twentieth century was termed “Palestine” for the words of, or for the actions recommended by, Ezra?

Was he not a “racist”?

And here is what led me to today’s message. This past Monday, we marked the observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  If your memory is like mine, just as for the assassination of President John Kennedy, I can tell you where I was when I heard of Rev. King’s assassination, the YMCA in Oak Park, Illinois, fifty-one years ago. But at any rate, one of our winter family members sent me a litany or liturgy she had found for the day, and while I confess I did not read that, I am regularly bombarded by that PCUSA to which we belong with items about “Racism” and about confessing the sins of the church and of, I guess, us, its people, that at least the PCUSA says are part of our “racist” past, and, I guess (which is more relevant), what it sees as “racism” in our present.

I am sorry; to me, racist is about the most pejorative accusation one can make about another or her or his behavior — though it might or might not be true about even our own parents or grandparents. But to me, some of this “racism” and “racist” bombardment smells of self-righteousness and moral superiority: “All of you who are not on the denominational staff in Louisville are guilty of racism and it is our job to remind you of that.”

Sorry. That is so off-putting to me as to be counter-productive if my real personal aim is to teach the two commandments Jesus gives us. Sitting in here on a Sunday and tearing our garments might make for great show and make us, too, feel self-righteous, but whom would it benefit?

I do want to separate this kind of brow-beating from something a bit different: apology. I would have turned completely away from anything even vaguely representing the concept of implying guilt on our parts, except for this excerpt from an item a friend sent the other night, an excerpt from an article written by the African American writer James Baldwin way back in 1946; my friend sent it to me because of Baldwin’s comments about religion, though the article — auto-biographical about a time in his late youth — was more about race. Yet this about the hypocrisy of which the Church has been and can be guilty did catch me:

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being . . . must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

I’m not so sure. Still, if there is someone who does feel wronged about his or her or her family’s or her ethnic group’s treatment in the past, we can certainly say we are sorry, and we can indeed, acknowledge that as a human organization that cannot possibly live up to all that it aspires, the Church of Jesus Christ, or perhaps it would be better to say, “parts of the Church,” has not and have not always lived up to all that our Lord would have us be — and in certain ways that is as true today as in the past.

Acknowledge it, but not in a sense of self-righteousness toward those of us who somehow do not get it, and not beat our breasts when we were not even around at the time, which seems at best theatric, at worst, self-delusional.

But as we apologize for what we do, well, let me divert to the Prayer of Confession we used today that I have certainly used in the past, a prayer by Sören Kierkegaard, “the dismal Dane.” Just as in today’s Prayer of Confession we read:

we acknowledge the shortcomings in, and the sin of, our lives, not to torture ourselves, not to make martyrs of ourselves by wallowing in anguish, but rather let us reflect on your loving mercy

Somewhat similarly, Kierkegaard says this, in another prayer of confession of his that I like to use:

Father in heaven, do not hold our sins up against us, but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of You each time our soul awakens reminds us not of what we have committed, but of what you have forgiven; not of how we went astray, but of how you have forgiven us.

And correctly or not, I think the point that any pastor should make is this:

It is not the confession, not the apology, that is important so much as the resolve to seek to do better in following the ways of our Lord.

Jesus really gave us but two commandments — as did God; truly, the rest were details of these two: Love the Lord your God with all your hearts and souls and minds and spirits, and love your neighbor as God has loved you.

And I think the late James Baldwin would agree with me. Love is the only English word that works, but it includes compassion and understanding and wanting justice for those whom we love — and God does not allow us to restrict those to whom the commandment obliges us.

I wish all of us had the privilege of having as real physical in-our-neighborhood neighbors those of other races or nationalities, and in particular, I wish that more often we were somehow together with those of other races or nationalities, for I would wish everyone to know the privilege I am blessed to feel, each time I leave those four women and that one man, those “Native Americans”: Thank you God.

After all my friends, if I could not love them, what kind of follower of Christ, let alone a pastor, could I claim to be?

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