8/13/2017 1:44:00 PM
Who Brings Good News: Righteousness and Charlottesville.
Righteousness is a funny word. It’s not a ha-ha funny kind of word but one of those words usually reserved for fantasy novels or cross-stitched and hung on dining room walls. It's also a word scattered all over the Bible and one….that even I, as a trained religious professional, don't always know what to do with. I know that righteousness has something to do with God. And righteousness should be something that I want. But when I take this word that Paul uses at the start of our reading from Romans today, and try to get to the center of what it means, I'm left with something in soft focus. Now, it's not really fair to jump into Paul’s letter right at this point and with only these few verses to look at. Paul is actually in the middle of an argument that he started in chapter 9 and will conclude in chapter 11. We're basically jumping into the middle of Paul’s train of thought and that makes this passage tricky. If we’ve studied Paul before, know the book of Romans well, and understand the different logic tricks Greeks and Romans used to make their point, then jumping into the middle of Paul’s argument isn't as frightening as it could be. But if we haven't done that kind of work, what then? What do we do with righteousness? We might decide to avoid Romans all together. Or worse, we might assume that a superficial reading focusing only on a few verses in this letter is all that we need. But I think there's another option. We can come to this text knowing there are things we don't know. We can enter today's reading knowing we bring our own definitions, assumptions, and understandings to the text. We don't have to understand righteousness right away. Not getting it is...ok. God wants us to bring ourselves as we are, fully into these texts because these texts are bringing God fully into us.
On Friday night, as I went to bed, I did what I always do: I grabbed my phone and opened up my social media feeds to get one more look at the world before I called it a day. And in between the cat pictures, animated gifs, and articles telling me what kind of avocados I should put on my toast, I saw pictures that terrified me. In the middle of the night, on a darken college campus in Virginia, a crowd of a few hundred, mostly young men, were bringing more than just themselves to Charlottesville. They also brought lit torches. They first assembled at the edge of the campus of the University of Virginia. Most carried tiki torches that lit up their white faces in a yellow and orange spotlight. No one tried to hide who they were because they weren't scared of being found out. They were there to make others afraid. As they marched through the campus, they chanted slogans like “Blood and Soil” and “You will not replace us.” They matched their white supremacist slogans with nazi salutes and violence, encircling the 20 or so college kids on campus who protested them. And once the march started to break up, they headed towards a local church where over 700 clergy and faith leaders were hosting a prayer service for justice and peace. After that service ended, they couldn't leave for several moments because the white supremacists forced them to stay inside. The Friday night terror march was just a precursor to the big event scheduled for the next day. These torch bearing people wanted a fight and they were planning to bring it.
Now, when it comes to events like this, I….take it personally. I read and watch, becoming absorbed as the event plays itself out. I pay attention because, as a Mexican-American, I can’t look away. When a neo-nazi screams “end immigration,” I know they're not inviting my brown skin self to stay. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told to go back to my own country even though New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado were comfortable places for my ancestors hundreds of years ago. When a white man waving a Confederate battle flag shouts, “you will not replace us,” I've read enough “think pieces masquerading as serious thought” to know he's advocating for a world where my mixed family, where my 2 kids, don't exist. I can't pretend that this is only a problem in other places because I’ve seen Confederate flags flying just across the reservoir from here. And the church itself, can't ignore this stuff either. In a photograph taken yesterday, a black police officer was standing guard, protecting the Constitutional right for these neo-nazis and members of the KKK and armed militiamen to say their hate filled words. And in that same picture, a white supremacist is holding a sign calling the Jewish people the children of Satan with using verses from the gospel according to John to defend that kind of hate and evil. [Note: After I preached this sermon, I discovered this photograph was taken in July but I believe the message is the same.] As a Christian, a pastor, a person of color, and as a father, I don't have the option to ignore when Charlottevilles happen because that kind of ideology feeds a hate and evil that is part of my life everyday.
When Saturday morning came to Charlottesville, the clergy gathered again for a sunrise service. Like the night before, I was following it through social media and more. I saw as men and women, Jews and Christians and Muslims, bishops, pastors, priests, and deacons, including bishops from our own denomination and colleagues I went to school with, marched. They headed to where the rally was taking place and they brought with them their collars and stoles, kippas, hijabs, and that's...it. That's all they brought. They stood between the white supremacists and the counter protesters. When the white supremacists finally arrived, they came ready for a fight. They wore body armor and helmets. They brought shields and clubs. Some were armed, wearing army fatigues and carrying AR-15 rifles. They were hoping for violence. They were hoping for confrontation. They wanted to incite terror. So they banged on their shields, shouted slurs against Jews, African-Americans, and gays. They made as much noise as they could...and the assembled clergy, without a weapon in sight, just...sang. They met the evil in front of them with the love of God in the song - this little light of mine. In the face of this one-sided hate, bigotry, and violence, these God-fearing interfaith men and women, met this evil by singing about the light God gives them. And this light lets them stand in the face of hate and sing, sing, sing.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, isn't asking them to bring their rhetoric or intelligence or understanding to the problem of righteousness. Instead, he's too busy telling them to stop trying to bring God down and instead see how God is already here. When we take this passage and make it some kind of test, where Jewish law and faith in Jesus are put against each other, we cheapen what we already have in God. We pretend that there's some kind of work, some kind of thing we need to make ourselves believe, to get God on our side. But if we instead remember that the “you” in this passage isn't general, that Paul is really talking only to a community of Gentiles, then this passage is less about what the community needs to do to get on God’s good side and, instead, is about God being with them right now. God, through their baptism, has made adopted them as beloved children. They are now newly chosen, bound together in an inclusive story that includes a Jewish savior who, on the Cross, opened his arms to all. Paul’s thought process is focused on these Gentiles, on these Romans, alone. And because they know God, because they are baptized by God, and because Jesus died for them, they now get to bless others like God blessed them. They now get to share God’s story with their family and friends. They now get to pray and worship and sing every Sunday morning. They get to be like Jesus to all who are in need. They get to do all these things not because they are righteous but because God is. And God’s righteousness means that God keeps God’s promises - these promises of love, hope, fidelity, and mercy to all of God’s children. It's God’s righteousness that let's us be God’s people. It's God’s righteousness that let's us know that love will never be overcome by hate. And it's because of the hold God has on each us, that we get to stand tall in the face of evil, confront racism and white supremacy in all it's forms, and undo it's hold on us and our communities because we bring a different kind of torch, we have a divine kind of light, a light that Jesus gave to us, and we’re called to let it shine, today, tomorrow, and forever.