Where Do We Go from Here?: A Sacramental Framework for Confronting Racism

In moments of great crisis, we all come to the crucial crossroad of decision that will determine the shape and fortitude of our character. When chaos confronts us, there is the temptation to shrink away, to shrug in defeated resolution to the world as it is. We may celebrate the moral courage of those who have stood for human dignity and life even while facing overwhelming odds. But it is easier for too many of us to sit in silence and allow the wheels of uncaring oppression to trample down the most vulnerable in our society. We either cannot imagine that our voice matters against the tide of injustice or understand all too well the dangers of speaking out against injustice. Thus, we are rendered silent. Yet, the pressing obligation of neighborly love demands the unrelenting pursuit of peace and justice for all.

Dr. King proposed the appropriate question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”? The reality is that systemic racism enslaves all in society. Some benefit from its consolidation of power, but that does not diminish its enslaving power – for those who benefit, remaining enslaved can be more enticing. Dr. King recognized we are all enslaved to this racist system and that to work for the freedom of another is to simultaneously work for my own freedom. As he was famously noted for saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a reciprocal reality to human community. My salvation and freedom are interwoven with the salvation and freedom of my neighbor. The ability to opt out of acting against a system, it turns out, only furthers the bondage of our lives to a system that will not tolerate any alternative way in the world. Racism embodies a totalizing claim upon human bodies. It is a totalizing claim that values certain bodies over others and can discard those undesirable bodies without fear of repercussion or retaliation… until those who know their inherent worth can no longer bear the brunt of society’s denigration, devaluation, and destruction. The devaluing of any life cheapens every life. Saying “Black lives matter” affirms the value of lives that have too often been devalued by our society. So, indeed, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that too frequently the resources of the Church have been ignored when it comes to addressing these societal evils. Statements are easier to broadcast widely but cannot deal with the particularities of each context. Likewise, they ultimately do not provide character formation – although statements may be important as a tool for helping us articulate the world around us. The sacraments, with their unassuming elements and limiting/ed particularity, may not seem adequate resources for healing our racism and prejudice. How can being plunged in the waters of baptism relate to the suffocation of a black man on the pavement? How can the bread and wine sitting on the Table quench our thirst for racial justice and sate our appetites for true reconciliation (I owe much to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for his insightful work on the history of racism and the reconciliation of community in communion)? What does a crucified Lord say to a world filled with lynched persons (James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, provides the framework for this poignant and challenging lens by which to understand Jesus)? The sacraments appear too insignificant and small before the looming specter of white supremacy and racism. However, God often uses the seemingly insignificant to shine forth God’s glory and to invite us into a new way in the world.

The sacraments embody the new reality God has enacted and incarnated in Jesus. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is the new humanity. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the fullness of communion that was intended from the beginning. God’s identification with us is our very salvation for what God assumes, God saves. But, the manner of God’s coming in the person of Jesus should give us pause. Jesus did not come as a Roman emperor but as a lowly brown-skinned carpenter from the backwaters of Bethlehem. And, it is this same Jesus who is put to death unjustly by the political powers of that day. Jesus was publicly lynched by public officials and “church-going” folk. As James Cone writes, God becomes one of the lynched peoples of the world when Jesus hangs from the rugged tree.

The jolting identification in baptism with a publicly lynched Christ, by which we join him in his death, plunges us into a new identity by putting to death that which has been Death in us. We are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Beneath the surface, suspended for a moment, we recognize the fragile thread of life to which we cling. The waters press down and suffocate, preventing the inhalation of life-giving breath. “I can’t breathe.” The waters of baptism remind us that Jesus suffocated, struggling to draw breath as authorized agents of the government watched the spectacle until Jesus exhaled his final breath. To enter the waters of baptism is to be given a new way of being in the world that does not side with the powers and principalities of this world, but joins with those who are vulnerable and suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Eucharist is the meal for the baptized, for those who have embraced the way of Jesus and the cross. It is the means of grace for the journey. It nourishes us and instructs us in this present moment of chaos. This meal was the celebration of the Passover. It was the Jewish meal celebrating the deliverance of God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt. The meal reminded God’s people that God is not a God insensitive to the cries of the oppressed. Rather, in surprising revelation, God sees, hears, and knows intimately their suffering as God’s own suffering. God comes down and delivers them. The meal is also the ongoing reminder for God’s people that they must not then turn around and become just another Egypt on the scene of world history. They have been called out and set apart to embody the way of God, the way of neighborliness and generosity, whether in the scant landscape of the wilderness or the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The meal brings to memory the abiding call to live as those who seek the well-being and welfare of others (shalom) in the community. To break bread was to share life and peace with one’s neighbors. To break bread was to extend welcome, forgiveness, and blessing to those who gathered with you.

It should come as no shock when Paul calls the Corinthians to not partake of the meal if there is anything wrong between one of them and someone else. They are to go make it right and then partake of the meal. The meal cannot embody true communion if there is no reconciliation between persons. Wrongs must be confessed. Forgiveness must be sought. Humility must replace hubris. The hand of friendship must be extended. Communion invites us into the practice of receiving and sharing, seeking forgiveness and extending forgiveness, loving God by loving neighbor. The sacrament of communion offers us grace for the reconciling journey that seeks to heal the deep communal wounds which we have wrought on others. It invites us to confess our woundedness which has wounded others. We find that even in our brokenness God can take it and bless it for the sake of the world. To eat and drink at this Table requires that we see those we have hurt, hear their cry, and join them in the work of restitution. This happens at both the personal level and the social level because both are intertwined in the work of justice and righteousness (right-relatedness).

The sacraments ground us in a faith that draws us toward community, toward others. The sacraments do not allow us to withdraw into a privatized and individualized faith that denies the bodily, concrete realities of suffering in our communities. Rather, we are invited into the life of God, the life of Jesus, to join others in their suffering and to allow our lives to be poured out in self-giving love and service. The sacraments, by God’s grace, offer us patterns for the new creation life in our present world. They provide the doxological practices by which we are brought to awareness of our complicity in society’s deathly practices, our need for reconciliation to God and others, and the grace to join with those who suffer.

The sacraments provide the ground by which we are shaped by the cruciform life of Christ. It is a life that joins others in their suffering and embodies the hope of shared pain and communion. There is no communion outside the possibility of shared pain. But, as the cross is transformed by the resurrection from the spear of death to the plowshare of life, God is able to transform our suffering into the glory of God by which the world is renewed. Even as the mundane elements of the sacraments are transformed into the means of grace, so the ordinary gifts of our lives may be sacramentally taken, blessed, broken, and given by Christ for the healing of the world.

Table Fellowship with Tax Collectors and Sinners

Luke 5:27-32 records the story of Jesus eating with Levi the tax collector and various other riff raff (sinners) of the community.  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, shortly after he has described what that will look like by quoting Isaiah 61.  It is a ministry of setting the oppressed free, giving sight to the blind, healing the sick… proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s favor – Jubilee.  It is a ministry of freedom.  It is a ministry given to the outsiders, the no-good-doers, the dung heap of humanity.

Tax collectors were the traitors of the Jewish culture.  They worked with the Roman overlords and often took more money for themselves.  They were thieves and power-mongers.  Jesus was eating with them.  The sinners were the unclean, the unrighteous, the unholy.  They were outside the community as pagans or the ostracized members of the community.  They were worth the dirt they tread, at least in the eyes of good, holy folk, like the Pharisees.  Jesus was eating with them.

The church-goers, the holy people, the religious leaders were obviously concerned.  After all, “birds of a feather flock together.”  To associate with that which is unholy and unsavory made you one of them.  If Jesus, as a holy teacher, was as holy as he claimed, then he would know it was bad form, against the Law, unholy to associate – much less eat – with sinners and tax collectors.  Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus did.  It truly was Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s favor.  Freedom had come for those who were caught up in sin and the systems of evil.  Those who were considered exiles, outsiders, and outcasts found themselves welcome at the table, welcome in the fellowship, and a part of a community again.  It irked those religious leaders.

Jesus continues to host the meal of inclusion.  Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper (whatever title it may fall under) are the means by which Christ invites us to dine at his table.  Not because we are worthy of the invitation.  Rather, it is a table that offers us freedom once again, freedom found only in communion with God and with one another.  We find ourselves as sinners and tax collectors welcome to partake in a meal that looks toward the great banquet where all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will dine together in peace.  No longer will it be a table of insiders and outsiders.  It will be one at which all are welcome.  We are reminded of this every time we receive communion.  We were those who were invited when we were outside the community.  Now, in our joy, we get to extend the same invitation to those who are not yet eating at the Lord’s Table.

I remember a significant moment in my own life.  I found myself outside of the community of faith.  I was an untouchable.  Holiness was not a part of my life’s program.  Living a life aimed toward God was not my concern.  God managed to get my attention, but I wondered if I would be welcomed into the community.  Would I be welcome if they knew who and what I was.  My very first experience back in the Church was found through an invitation to a dinner.  I was welcomed, despite my rough edges, to the table as one of the community.  It forever changed the trajectory of my life.  When we invite others to join our table fellowship, we are an extension of the Lord’s Table.  We begin participating in that great final banquet the Lord has prepared for us all.  Who is gathered at your table?

Preaching for Special Services by Scott M. Gibson

Scott Gibson sets out to guide ministers in preaching for “special occasions:” funerals, weddings, baptisms, infant “presentations, the Lord’s Supper, and other occasions.  Any given year, many voices vie for attention in a worship service.  Various “holidays” and special interests can take up the majority of our services.  Employing a preaching plan for the year helps to avoid distraction.  As Fred Craddock notes in Preaching, without a sermon plan the smallest ripple of trouble in the community sounds like a “canon in the homiletically empty ear.”  The same can be said for special occasions.  Without adequate preparation and planning, they can become instruments of great harm.

            Gibson quotes D. W. Cleverley Ford, “The preacher’s responsibility… is to try and make the special occasion take on special significance” (18).  The hope is for transformation of lives.  Although I would hope that it is a moment of transformation for the audience, I disagree with his initial statement.  The preacher’s responsibility is not to make it a special occasion.  These tend to be momentous occasions by their very nature; we don’t have to work it up.  That being said, we can undoubtedly cheapen the moment if not adequately prepared through prayer.  Secondly, it is the Spirit’s job to bring about transformation – not ours.  We are a vessel, nothing more.  Thus, we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” 

            Regarding sermon preparation and delivery, Gibson notes that clarity is essential.  Haddon Robinson’s proposed that sermons should communicate the “big idea” in the Biblical passage.  Focused clarity prevents confusion in the pulpit and the congregation.  Gibson also argues that sermons should not be memorized.  By this, he means to highlight that sermons shouldn’t feel canned.  I disagree with Gibson at this point.  While the sermon should be heartfelt and it is best to have a manuscript, that does not mean that one cannot memorize the sermon or that memorization will make it sound canned.  Memorizing a sermon can actually free up a pastor.  The point is the same.  The sermon should feel natural and appropriate for the context.

            Gibson states that nobody remembers the pastor delivering the sermon at these events.  False.  For better or worse, pastors are often remembered because of these moments.  That is especially true if we don’t limit the event to only a day.  The sermon extends beyond that event because, hopefully, it is a Word from the Lord.  Extended care for the family or people involved in those special moments is a way sermons continues to preach.  The impetus for a preacher isn’t being remembered, but these special moments do forge deep bonds.

            Essentially, Gibson makes one point in his book over and over again.  Sermons for special occasions must be Biblically based, Christ centered, listener oriented, focused, brief, and gathered around a central idea.  He applies this to every scenario, unpacking this schema for each special occasion.

            Weddings are a worship service.  As such, the couple is not the center of the service.  God is the center.  In my estimation, Christian marriage is not initiated by us but is a grateful response and testimony to God’s work in this world.  As such, the sermon is an integral part of the service.  It is an opportunity to orient the couple and the community to God way that is most aptly demonstrated in marriage.  Theologically, Gibson states that the marriage relationship is three persons.  Yes, marriage is the one-flesh-reality of two people joined together under God.  But, marriage is also a communal act.  In its proper understanding, the marriage relationship is not outside the community that gives its approval for the marriage.  That’s why we don’t encourage eloping.  Marriage is not merely about the couple.  It’s also about the larger community, which we have all but eliminated in our individualistic, privatized culture.  Given the communal nature of worship and marriage, it is important that we carefully consider the people gathered to witness the marriage.  For this reason, each sermon should take into account the unique sets of relationships represented. 

            Gibson also suggests a five to eight minute sermon for the wedding.  Understandably, brevity can be a virtue in many setting.  But, brevity without depth of message is folly.  It is important that we give adequate weight to the occasion, both in the preaching and liturgy involved in the ceremony.  I worry that our inability to pay attention and be still for very long as a culture is the primary motivation for this suggestion.  Although important to consider culture, it does not mean that content is sacrificed for comfort.

            Six “sources of wedding sermon topics” are listed: theology of marriage, great wedding texts, texts that bisect an aspect of the service, a text that intersects with the couple’s interests or qualities, a text that reflects the personality of the couple, texts that capture the uniqueness of the couple as revealed by the meanings of their names” (40).  These are helpful sources for wedding sermons.

            Funerals, too, are worship services.  This is partly why eulogies have sometimes been deemed inappropriate.  Gibson argues that a “good word” about the deceased does not have to detract from a message about Christ.  Instead, it can be used as a way to talk about Christ.  Gibson points to the Wurtemberg ecclesiastical ordinance as a guideline for wedding sermons.  It should be a “public confession of the Christian hope of the resurrection, a last testimony of love, an earnest reminder of the approaching hour of death” (51).  Thomas G. Long is quoted: “What a Christian funeral does primarily is to provide a suitable structure and language for the worship of God at the time of death” (51).  The sermon gives voice to mourning while still proclaiming praise and hope in God.

            Gibson states, “Preaching by its very nature is evangelistic” (51).  He employs a narrow definition of evangelism, “missionary preaching,” which rests upon conversion as the function of preaching.  However, “evangelism” is more than “missionary preaching.”  It is “good news!”  And, in that greater sense, evangelism is embedded in preaching… even when it is to a community that follows Christ!  Preaching must be tactful and not emotionally manipulative.  A broader definition of evangelism helps prevent understanding preaching as solely about “getting people saved.”  It’s about pointing people to Christ, wherever their walk with God is. 

The funeral sermon must be personal and warm.  Notes from pastoral visits, visiting the family after the death, and observing photographs for personal details can be helpful for connecting the sermon with the family.  Don’t use complicated texts that require lengthy explanation.  Earl Daniel’s classification of funeral sermons is a useful tool: biographical occasional, and doctrinal.  Each of these areas can be a way to form the sermon.

Both baptism (any age) and infant dedication are significant moments in the life of the believing community.  Sermons help us orient to what is really happening in these moments.  Gibson makes the argument that the person(s) being dedicated or baptized are the focal point of the service.  This, again, is an unfortunate misnomer.  God is the focal point of the service.  Those receiving baptism or dedication are participants in what God is doing, but they are not the focus.  Again, I think Gibson is too enamored with our culture’s emphasis on individualism.  

            This book has few references and is predominantly Baptist in orientation.  Overall, the book was theologically impoverished and was redundant.  Out of the 109 pages of text, 108 of those pages could be scrapped and still maintain the “big idea.”  The method of preaching held up is deductive and does not seem to offer much space for inductive preaching.  I do not recommend reading this book.  There are others out there that would be far more beneficial on which to spend time and money.

“A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders” by Reggie McNeal

This book only has two sources that are cited.  And, one of those sources is Reggie citing himself.  By the author’s own admission, this book is not strictly academic or exegetical.  There are plenty of moments when I wish that McNeal used sources to firm up his argument and be more theologically concise.

The book starts by tracing the lives of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus.  By outlining their story, McNeal attempts to highlight the factors of influence that God used to shape each leader spiritually.  He concludes that there are six elements that shape spiritual leaders: culture, call, community, communion, conflict, and the commonplace.

Culture is the environmental factors that have shaped a person: socio-economics, time in history, geography, language.  These inevitably shape the earliest and most fundamental parts of each person.  Culture can have both positive and negative elements.  Regardless, culture has a profound impact that shapes people.  In order to “transcend” one’s culture so that it does not become a hindrance, the leader must understand where they come from, where they stand, and where they are going while taking others along with them.

The call ignites within the person a sense that God has something special planned for them.  It is both a matter of being and doing.  According to McNeal, this goes beyond the general calling that is issued to every believer.  Rather, it is a life of service to God for the Body of Christ, which is the Church.  But, how this is played out can be multi-faceted, ever-changing, and unconventional.  Most importantly, our calling should always be directed back to God, not toward ourselves or others.

Community suggests that we are not created or matured in a vacuum.  We are created as communal creatures and we are shaped as communal creatures.  No pastor is an island unto themselves.  This recent generation has recognized its need of community, despite the fact that they are often over-extended and isolated.  There is a drive to work in teams and in community, which is actually healthier and theologically grounded.  Pastors more than ever need genuine community.

Communion deals with our relationship with God.  As one of my pastors used to tell me, without the Spirit’s presence we are dry, dusty bones.  There may seem to be life on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story.  Eventually, that lack of communion with God becomes evident.  Not only is this true in the life of the leader but in the community that is being shepherded by the leader.  God initiates, guides, sustains, and accomplishes the work of ministry, we are simply called to respond to God’s leading.  To be a minister is to be called to be a vessel of God’s grace.  That is our primary responsibility.  Without the Spirit’s anointing, ministry quickly becomes joyless and a burden.  Ministry turns into program rather than progress.

Conflict attends every leader.  Sometimes it is the result of poor decisions and sometimes it is simply because we work in the midst of broken people.  Good leadership learns to weather these situations with God’s empowering.  McNeal suggests 8 strategies for dealing with conflict: get over it, choose your pain, examine your critics, look in the mirror, get good advice, be kind and honest, forgive, and make a decision.  Conflict can be used by God to shape us into the leaders He desires.  We are called simply to respond in faithful obedience.

Commonplace refers to the ordinary routines of life.  That is the crucible of life, not merely the extraordinary moments.  The daily decisions we make shape our character for those defining moments of trial and difficulty.  McNeal suggests four habits that help shape our character daily: look for God, keep learning, say yes to God, and stay grateful.  By doing each of these things in ordinary moments, we are trained to do them in extraordinary moments.

Overalll, I thought this book was insightful and helpful.  It made me wrestle again with my calling where I am at now.  Not being in too big of a hurry, but allowing God to shape me in the daily routine of life was a helpful reminder.  This book was not full of novel concepts, but highlighted things that we need to be constantly reminded of in our ministry.  In some ways, McNeal seemed to stretch the Biblical story in ways that it isn’t necessarily intended, overall he was faithful to the heart of Scripture and provided some good basis for his argument.  I would recommend this to other pastors to be reminded that leadership isn’t simply about learning the latest trends in ministry, but it really is a “work of heart.”