September 3, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Part One: Taking A Stand
(ninth in the series Church and State)
All summer, our sermon series has explored the dicey and dynamic relationship between church and state. We’ve considered topics like: If being Christian is no longer simply what’s “normal”, is there a new opportunity for sharing our faith? What happens when one person’s faith provokes them to give their life in military service and another person’s faith compels them to refuse to serve? Should there be a U.S. flag in the sanctuary?
Through all of these topics, there is still a question that rises to the top, and it’s this: As Christians, why do we need to care about political issues? Can’t we just love Jesus, and help people, and keep our faith and our politics separate, thank you… Or is this separation even possible?
Now if “political” means partisan, there are some clear and helpful boundaries. It is my commitment to you that Church of Peace will not endorse or oppose any political candidate or political party. But what happens when being “political” encompasses more than candidates, and parties, and elections?
We’ve seen how political issues and religious issues overlap. Whether or not we go to war. How people get treated while they are locked up. How we pay for schools. How we help people do things like eat and go to the doctor —these are political issues, and these are Gospel issues. And these are issues in which thoughtful, loving people don’t always agree. So believing that our faith informs our politics, how can Church of Peace, as a congregation speak with one voice and take a public stand? That’s the question.
You might be thinking, why would we ever want to do this?! I know. It might be the case that spearheading a protest or launching a direct action is simply not our style. We’re not all driving cars covered in bumper stickers, showing up ready to march, and chant, and risk getting arrested. There are those social justice churches out there that meet to make posters, and go to every rally, and bring bandanas soaked in vinegar in case there’s tear gas, and maybe that’s fine for those churches. That’s just not our scene.
It is also the case that we respect each other deeply and we do not all agree. Taking a public stand runs the risk that we might offend someone we love, and nobody wants that. This is that difference between believing something is true versus saying it out loud in public; the difference between believing the lives of Black people matter versus wearing a t-shirt that says Black Lives Matter. Whatever the issue —welcoming immigrants, working for peace— taking a public stand is a kind of coming out. And there’s no way to do this without taking a serious risk. There’s also no way to stay quiet without taking a serious risk…
In just a minute, we’ll hear the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul did not found this church in Rome. He’s writing this letter because he wants to visit them for the first time. He is writing to encourage the church to find their common voice even though the congregation is made of Jews and Gentiles. He is writing to ask them for money so he can go to Spain. And he is writing to share his own testimony.
Paul knows what it is to have your life saved by Jesus Christ. This letter is not merely an academic exercise in persuasion. He is not trying to meet some kind of sales quota by attracting so many new people into the Christian faith. It’s that in his own life, Paul has been convicted by the truth of the Gospel. Now he has to speak up. It’s like he can’t even help it. And it might be that we can relate.
As we prepare to hear the ending of the letter, it is worth remembering how it begins. Paul writes:
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9 For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel[c] of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you in my prayers, 10 asking that by God’s will, I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11 I am longing to see you so I may share some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine… For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith.”
May God give blessing to our reading and hearing of this word.
Part Two: Called By Name
Paul’s passion for advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ wraps up like this: Please give Phoebe whatever she needs. And let me give you my credentials by name-dropping some folks you’ve surely heard of. It makes you wonder, what happened to these massive theological concerns? God’s wrath upon seeing injustice! God’s mercy which is the power of salvation! Our own fierce battle with sin! All of this summed up by a thank you note and instructions to please greet Paul’s associates.
And so it is that Paul demonstrates an ecclesiological practice churches have heartily embraced over the years. It is the listing of names, and its humanness and holiness make this practically a sacrament. Consider all our lists of names: There’s the prayer chain, and the Food Pantry check- in book. There’s the annual report with its committee rosters. The poinsettia list in the Christmas Eve bulletin. The birthday list in the Visitor.
The listing of names is an undertaking that is so exquisitely human. I’ve been at this work a long time, and I’m convinced it is pretty much impossible to publicize any list of names and have there be no mistakes. God bless anybody who does that thing where they stand up and try to thank all the people who helped with an event. Have you ever tried this? I have. Somebody will always get forgotten. It is impossible to say all the names and get them right, and oh my goodness, we will keep trying.
The listing of names is undeniably holy. Each name represents a whole person with a whole story. A year ago last June, Kevin created a bulletin insert listing the names and photos of the people killed in the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub. We might not have ever met those people, but to read their names out loud in prayer is the work that summons the very power of God. Saying their names became an act of defiance against terror, a promise that we’re more connected than we know.
At Church of Peace, learning names expresses how we care for each other as a congregation. Spend a little time with us, you’ll discover that in one morning you can talk with George, Georgette, and Georgia. You’ll meet Emily with a Y and Emilie with an IE. You’ll meet one Gail Sederquist then you’ll meet another Gail Sederquist. And you’ll find that deeply caring for one another is the heart of our church. We are a card-writing people. We are a casserole-making people. We are an actually-praying-for-you people.
What if this impetus to come alongside our church family is the same impetus that compels us to look around the community and find ways to come alongside the people we don’t yet know?
In some ways, this is work we’ve already begun. Somebody asked, What is it like for Muslims in the Quad Cities? Deb arranged for us to visit the Islamic Center; Ed arranged for Dr. Lisa Killinger to come here and speak. Now opposing Islamaphobia is not just an issue for somebody else’s rally, but we are learning how to stand with our Muslim sisters and brothers here. You can see it happen at the food pantry.
We’re standing with children learning to read at PeacePals and the Book Nook, with adults who have lived through war and then come into this church to learn to read in English. As a congregation, we could speak with one voice in favor of literacy.
We are standing with those who are hungry by growing a garden to give fresh vegetables to those who come to the food pantry. Believing that people should have access to food is a political position, and it’s one we’re already taking.
Of course, our church is welcoming to those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. They can preach from the pulpit, and get married in the sanctuary, and yes, even use the bathroom. But it’s one thing for us to know that. It would be another thing for us to go public with this welcome, and maybe we’re ready…
There comes a point when your own personal faith reaches a light-filled longing and now it is not something you can keep to yourself any longer. This is stepping into Paul’s realization that I am not ashamed of the Gospel; there is something I need to say out loud. What if this is where we are as a congregation, so our tender care for each other is yearning to become our message to the world?
Paul ends this letter by remembering the names of the people who matter to him. Go and greet these friends. Know that in welcoming them, you are welcoming me. In welcoming them you are pointing toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to God be the glory forever.
I know Church of Peace will grow by going public with our passion for standing with those whom God loves. We will grow by meeting people we don’t know and learning how to pronounce their names. Stepping up in these directions will help our church grow, because this is what will help our faith grow.
It’s making posters and making casseroles. It’s standing with our own kids and with the children who live in Century Woods. It’s hearing how our loud cries for justice and our gentle good mornings can rise up together and give glory to God, God who keeps loving this world, who keeps calling us by name. What if we are more ready than we know… Amen.