The great theologians of the last century had a common thread in their belief that faith and church cannot live outside of society. Bonhoeffer, the Niebuhr brothers, Tillich, and Tutu and Coffin all saw the role of church and religion to be in the daily dirt of humanity. They were not mystics, but saw that faith was meant to be challenged and lived out in our daily lives.
And although they sounded very modern in their thoughts of social action being a part of church life, as we read the account of the early church in the Book of Acts, we find that from its very beginning the church was a part of and was a critic of the society and the politics in which it lived.
This summer we are studying the Book of Acts. Last week was Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to the followers of Jesus and they then had the gifts and the calling to move out from their ‘upper room’, their place of comfort and security, into society to spread the good news of God’s love.
And …they, like Jesus, began to go into the community. Peter and John, who, from this very beginning, took on leadership roles and in these first chapters went to the temple and, having these gifts of the Holy Spirit healed a man who was described as being lame since birth.
And, the fact that these new people were in the temple, doing exactly what Jesus had done before, did not sit well with the powers that be. As you remember from the Gospel stories, Jesus was considered a threat to the Sadducees and the high Priests, and Peter and John were as well. They were arrested and put in custody until the next day when they had to go before the assembled rulers, elders, scribes, and priests. Peter pled their case and because the lame man they had cured the day before was standing …standing right next to him, well, the powers that be could not say too much in opposition.
And in verses 15-20 of the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts it says:
So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, ‘What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But let us keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather that to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Peter and John are amazing! Not only did they risk doing something that would help another, but did it at their own risk. What happened to those ‘Nervous Nellies’ that were hiding in that room in fear of the authorities linking them to Jesus and coming after them? Filled with the Holy Spirit, their knowledge of the teachings of Christ, and the love of God, they risked helping someone who would bring attention to themselves. They were called to complete the ministry of Jesus. And in doing so, they were rocking the establishment with their talk of God loving everyone. And they were on fire. What a great story!
We know that throughout history, people have risked going against the establishment, even at the cost of their safety and their lives to fight for what they believe is God’s message. Just in my lifetime, I have been inspired by the ‘faith in action’ of many people of faith….Alan Boesak and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, of Martin Luther King and William Sloan Coffin during the Civil Rights Movement, the women in the Council of Women and the Church who fought for women’s rights in our denomination, and for the leadership of the More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network which fought for full inclusion of LGBTQ folk. And this is just a small number of faithful people who understood that faith is a messy thing and that being faithful sometimes means being unpopular…. Unpopular, like Peter and John.
And look at where we are today. People are on the streets protesting, they are marching, and yes, they are also looting in cities across the U.S. It isn’t that racism is something new… It is a disease in our country we have had for centuries, but since this pandemic, our black siblings in God are having what one black leader called a triple whammy.
First – COVID-19 has been killing blacks in our country at a disproportionally higher rate. The reasons for this are many but include the poor healthcare and the living conditions of our poorer citizens, who are again disproportionally black. That should alarm the faithful whose foundational belief is all are created equal and loved equally by God.
Second – Because of this Pandemic, our country is in a financial crisis. And although our retirement accounts are not what they were in January, this has left black people in our country unemployed at (again) a disproportionally higher rate than whites.
And finally, third – Racial tension escalated because of three very public events. And, it isn’t as though these things are new or different, or don’t happen all the time…..it is just that given the other two situations adversely affecting blacks in our country and no-one seems too alarmed about it; these events became the tipping point. And you know what they are as well as I do. Ahmaud Arbery’s murder while out jogging; that white woman, Amy Cooper who called the police on the black man, who was an avid birder and who had only requested that she leash her dog; and then the final straw was the horror of the murder of George Floyd by the police.
And this really upsets us as people of faith. We believe in a just and loving world. So…We must ask ourselves what the Christian response is. We are people of faith and want to fix things… to make them right. After all, isn’t that what Peter and John did? But look again, because if we are like them, we also must realize that the path we walk is a very uncomfortable one. Because the reality is that what ails our society is another pandemic that has been around much longer than COVID-19. It is everywhere and in every part of our society. AND WE perpetuate it. AND WE benefit from it. We have to first look at our own prejudices and be willing, to be honest, and acknowledge and change our white privilege. AND….WE have to be willing to be really unpopular if we want to do the faithful thing. But….Riviera Family, we have done it before… We did it when we fought for desegregation in the schools and we did it when we fought for full inclusion of GLBTQ people in our church. We know the pain it takes, but we also know it is the action and response of faithful people.
At Riviera, we will be talking about how best to answer faithfully to this issue. Because we know we have to. The Session and Mission Committee will be talking about it in the days ahead. And I ask that you put a book on your summer reading that will help us get started. The title is ‘Waking up White’ by Debby Irving.