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Saints For Today

Sermon – 1/16/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

I actually have two texts that I want to share with you this morning.  The first text is about 2,000 years old, and is the lectionary reading for this second Sunday of the epiphany season.  It is from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians--the introduction to that letter:

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The second text is about 10 years old -- this October, it'll be 10 years old.  It is the reading I have chosen for this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.  It is the second poem given by Maya Angelou on the Washington Mall.  The first poem you may recall was the one she gave at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, when she was thrust on the national stage with that beautiful piece on the pulse of the morning.  This poem she gave the following year to a much larger crowd -- the million man march.  Remember that?  Around 1/2 million, primarily black men, who were gathered on that day in October who were called to build their own communities to avoid drugs, violence and all forms of physical and sexual abuse, to register to vote, to support black causes and black businesses, and to bring the spirit of God back into your lives.

And Maya Angelou was only one of a couple women who were on that program, dominated by men.  One of the others was Rosa Parks, who of course the woman largely credited with starting the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery.  And here's what Maya Angelou said on that day to that group of black men:

The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.

Under a dead blue sky on a distant beach,
I was dragged by my braids just beyond your reach.
Your hands were tied, your mouth was bound,
You couldn't even call out my name.
You were helpless and so was I,
But unfortunately throughout history
You've worn a badge of shame.

I say, the night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark
And the walls have been steep.

But today, voices of old spirit sound
Speak to us in words profound,
Across the years, across the centuries,
Across the oceans, and across the seas.
They say, draw near to one another,
Save your race.
You have been paid for in a distant place,
The old ones remind us that slavery's chains
Have paid for our freedom again and again.

The night has been long,
The pit has been deep,
The night has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.

The hells we have lived through and live through still,
Have sharpened our senses and toughened our will.
The night has been long.
This morning I look through your anguish
Right down to your soul.
I know that with each other we can make ourselves whole.
I look through the posture and past your disguise,
And see your love for family in your big brown eyes.

I say, clap hands and let's come together in this meeting ground,
I say, clap hands and let's deal with each other with love,
I say, clap hands and let us get from the low road of indifference,
Clap hands, let us come together and reveal our hearts,
Let us come together and revise our spirits,
Let us come together and cleanse our souls,
Clap hands, let's leave the preening
And stop impostering our own history.
Clap hands, call the spirits back from the ledge,
Clap hands, let us invite joy into our conversation,
Courtesy into our bedrooms,
Gentleness into our kitchen,
Care into our nursery.

The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain
We are a going-on people who will rise again.

And still we rise.

I invite you to reflect with me this morning on the connection between these two texts as we prepare for the celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Two things stand out for me in Paul's introduction to his letter.  The first is that Paul says that the members of the Christian community in Corinth (and hence the members of the Christian community everywhere) are called to be saints.  And secondly, that those would-be followers of Jesus then, just as the would-be followers of Jesus today, are called by none less than God into this fellowship of saints.

And those are two powerful claims -- that we are called by God into Christian community and called to live as saints.  Now that does not mean that we are perfect.  Far from it, we would be in bad shape if you had to be perfect to be a member of this community.  But rather to be a saint is to be someone who lives a Godly life, whose values, and principles, and actions are shaped by the examples of Jesus and the teachings of our faith.  In short, we are called to be saints, or to be holy in how we live, work, and act as a community.  As the fellowship of God's people.

Now it's important to note that Corinth is not exactly Paul's favorite church.  When Paul refers to the abundance spiritual gifts that they have in Corinth, that's a nice way of saying 'you guys have gone crazy with the spirit!'.  And their divisions that have been created as a result are quite well known.  For Paul to call upon Corinth to be saints is like me calling upon Washington fans to be 'holy Huskies'!  You know, the two words just don't go together very well for me J.  It's tough sometimes to think of our rivals as holy, as people of God.  Especially after our men get such a drubbing as they did Thursday night on the basketball court.  Fortunately the women redeemed us in our ongoing rivalry with the Huskies.

You see that's exactly the point--that Paul is asking the most troubled, problematic, divided church to become something more.  To live up to the calling of Christ.  And that 'more' to which Paul calls them is not only in direct contrast to what they currently were, but it also was in direct opposition to the very basic structure of society itself, a society marked by strict hierarchical divisions of gender, class, race, rank, and status.  Divisions much deeper than the ones we know today.

And Paul counters those vertical, hierarchical inequalities with the horizontally shared equality of the community of Christ.  That equality is evident in the gift of the common spirit and the common meal of the Lord that Paul discusses later in chapters 11 and 12.  Of the meal, in which all persons were to share equally at the Lord's table, not a bit or morsel of bread of juice, but of a meal, to share equally, John Dominic Crossan says "it was not hand-out charity or welfare, but an attempt to participate in a new creation that acknowledged God as owner of all things and humans as but stewards of a world not their own". 

Regarding the gifts, it is evident for Paul that women as well as men, Christian Jews as well as Christian Gentiles, freed men as well as slaves, receive the same gifts of the one spirit and shared the same service of the one Lord in the name of Christ.  In the body of Christ, all people are equal at all levels.  Thus a saint-filled community will be evident in its visible equality in direct contrast to the visible inequality of the society around it.  And folks, we are not there yet.  As Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'we can see the promised land, where brothers and sisters of all races, languages, and cultures have an equal place and none are turned away at the table.  But we have a long way to go before we get to that promised land'.

The general assembly of our denomination, the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, has recently as just 4 years ago declared that racism is a sin which is still an ongoing reality within the church.  Within our congregations and structures and institutions.  And therefore, it committed us as a body of Christian believers to become an anti-racist, pro-reconciling community, which will eradicate all vestiges of racism from our church and will work to empower people of all racial and ethnic groups that we might be that kind of saint-filled community that becomes an agent of transformation for our society.  

One of the ways it has been working to do that is through the anti-racism training events that have been held across the nation.  I and several others were able to participate in that event here just a little over a week ago.  Chris Hobgood of the general minister and president of our church, told us that he expects this work of transforming just the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to take more than 30 years.  It's not because we are a church of redneck racists, but rather because our church looks so much like the rest of North America, where the lingering effects of centuries of overt racism run wide and deep.  As Maya Angelou said, the night has been long, the wound has been deep, the pit has been dark, and the walls have been steep.  

Time does not allow me even to scratch the surface of everything that we covered in those three days in that event at Northwest Christian College.  But let me just hit upon a couple.  First, we defined racism not as prejudice based on skin color.  It's one thing for someone to treat someone differently because of their race, but that is not the big problem.  The major problem is when you combine that racial prejudice with the power of institutions resulting in systemic injustice against large groups of people.  And the civil rights legislation of the 1960's only touched on one small part of such systemic racism.  And so racism is racial prejudice plus power.  And that is the evil that we must work to combat.

Secondly, the room where we met over there on campus was surrounded by a wall of history.  Rolls of butcher paper on which we wrote key historical events of the past 500 years.  And it was rather sobering to see how much of that history was defined by race.  And when you look at that history, a history that is inadequately taught in our schools and in our textbooks (at best), it is overwhelming.  Let me give you just 1 example.  The definition of "negro", to use the old terms, and "indian" by our governments.  State and federal governments defined a negro person as anyone with 1 drop of blood from an ancestor who was black.  So it didn't matter if you had 2 parents that were white, if your grandparents were white, if your great-grandparents were white, if you had 1 great-great-great-grandparent that was black, you, by definition, were black.  So our government said throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. 

How 'bout Native Americans?  Interestingly, we defined 'Native American', in an act of Congress, as someone who was a 1/2 descendent of one tribe.  You had to be 50%.  If you were 1/4 Cherokee, 1/4 Blackfoot, 1/4 Sioux, 1/4 something else, you were not a Native American, according to the definition of the American Congress.  So why the difference?  Why two different standards?  Think about what African-Americans had, and what Native Americans had that we needed for our country to grow and expand its power.  What did African-Americans provide?  Labor, cheap labor.  And shortly after we became a nation the importation of slaves became illegal.  But we needed as many slaves as we could get to continue to grow and expand as a country, therefore we wanted as many people defined as black so we could perpetuate and expand slavery.  What did Native Americans have that we needed?  Land.  Therefore we needed to reduce the number of Native Americans so that we could get as much land as possible.

In 1887, the Dawes act of the U.S. Congress decided that Native American people could not hold land collectively as a tribe.  There were no tribes of white people that owned land, therefore Native Americans couldn't do it.  So what are we going to do to correct this situation?  We'll give them all, each individual Native American, 160 acres -- those who could prove that they were Native American by being at least 50% descendent of one tribe.  What did that do?  Prior to 1887 there were 198 million acres owned by Native American tribes.  After that act, that amount was reduced to 48 million.  A reduction of 150 million acres.  It was the largest theft of land by our government in our history.  And it has no mention in textbooks.  This is the kind of thing that we have to become more aware of, and the ongoing impacts of that on our society.  

The third key concept, and perhaps more controversial, is the notion of white privilege.  Which says that to be born white in this country is to be born with a bank account of privilege which you draw upon throughout your entire life.  Whereas to be born a person of color, you are born with a deficit account that you constantly have to overcome.  And there's an easy way to test this out.  How many of you can honestly say that something during this week, prior to this morning, that some event happened that made you think "oh yeah, I'm a white person"?  Well we had a couple in the first service, nobody in this service.  Now think about how often does that happen?  Where something happens that reminds you, some form you had to fill out that reminds you that you're white, or some experience where something happens that reminds you you're white.  To be a person of color is to be reminded of that every single day.  

White privilege means you don't have to worry about things like racial profiling.  White privilege means you don't wonder if people think that you got that job, or you got that scholarship, or you got into that school, because of some racial quota.  White privilege means it never occurs to you that the person standing next to you checking out the clothes at the rack in the department store might be tailing you as the in-store detective to see whether or not you are shoplifting.  White privilege means that no one ever tells you that you are in the wrong neighborhood or that maybe you'd be more comfortable at that other church where there are more people like you, as happened to one of the members of our training event just a couple of weeks ago.  White privilege means it never occurs to us that we are being treated differently because of the color of our skin.  

White privilege is simply the other side of discrimination.  And until we own up to it and acknowledge it for what it is--the perpetuation of the abuse of power--we will never address the root causes of racism.  

To be the holy community of saints, or at least to strive to be such, means that we must commit ourselves to that vision of God's glorious realm where all of God's children have a place at the table and none are turned away.  

I began with a quote from Maya Angelou at the Washington Mall, so let me conclude with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in that same location, 30 years earlier.  In that famous speech that articulated for our nation this vision of what we seek to become. And he said:

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. 
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring. 

And when this happens, When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

May we join in that song.


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