Sermon: “Progressing Faith by Grace and Deeds”

“Progressing Faith by Grace and Deeds”
Sermon by Aaron Farnham
June 21, 2015

Sermon Audio

I am particularly indebted to James Thobaben and Joseph Okello for their indirect and direct guidance while preparing this message.

I fancy myself methodical. In the expedience and efficiency that come from good, well executed practices I see a beauty and grace of movement that I enjoy. I tend to be content in myself most when I follow a daily, ordered, routine especially when I notice progress toward a long term goal. It is no wonder, then, that my preferred life illustration comes from “The Tortoise and the Hare.” (Andrea would likely summarize what I have just laid before you by saying I am annoying.)

Alas, the rabbit holes I have pursued in writing this sermon have been numerous. Trying to follow them all would leave Alice with the desire to stay in Wonderland forever. Alas, no matter how far I wandered I kept noticing I was circling something, and last Wednesday’s attack brought me in a downward spiral toward that something as quickly as it would jerk Alice back to reality. Hence, anything right and good that come from this message will be by the Holy Spirit’s grace in this place.

My understanding of theology has grown to hinge on the right and capacity for self-determination: Autonomy. In fact, in the final paper I wrote in my philosophy of religion course I presented the importance of autonomy to such an extreme that I was offered the opportunity to declare the logical outcome of my thoughts was not my personal belief or face the possibility of being invited to walk away graciously from the seminary for theological differences. Why would autonomy be so important to me that it could have taken me to that point? In a nut shell, God created humanity to be in relationship with God. For that relationship to be genuine humans must have the autonomy to choose or not choose a place in God’s story of love. If God had created us without the right and capacity for self-determination humans would be mere pawns or slaves to a tyrant self-absorbed in his own pleasure. From my limited perspective, that doesn’t jive with the God of Scripture when Scripture is looked at through a holistic lens that sees the overarching theme of God. To spell it out, I believe that overarching theme is love.

As Methodists we believe that one must make a choice to be in relationship with God, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a person must make a decision that God cannot and will not make for the individual, but the Holy Spirit will provide all God’s grace to see that decision, which is available by Christ’s work, carried through. To be clear, by being in relationship with God I mean deciding to love God, to love Jesus Christ and to love the Holy Spirit. As an aside, I am referring to ideal situations. My God is big. My God is bigger than my capacity to understand, and I am confident that in that lack of understanding God has a means for those who, by being in a broken world, are unable to make an autonomous decision to be in said relationship.

Dr. James Thobaben, the pastor of Mt Zion UMC in Mercer County Kentucky, and Dean of the School of Theology and Formation, Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Professor of Bioethics and Social Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, is fond of illustrating the theme of relationship with God by relating that when he loves God primarily he finds his capacity to love his spouse and children grows exponentially. On the other hand, in times when he has put his relationship with his spouse before his relationship with God there is a very noticeable drop in his capacity to love her. When I ponder this illustration I dwell on Matthew 22:36-40 which in the NIV reads;

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As stated in this passage we must understand and accept the former as a necessary precursor to the latter.
Traditionally Christians with a Methodist heritage have relied on the Wesleyan Means of Grace as the foundational activities of engagement in relationship with God. These include individual and communal practices of piety and mercy. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to read a list of these activities. However, I do wish to highlight a few works of piety (the individual practices of reading, meditating and studying the scriptures, prayer, and regularly attending worship, and the communal practice of Bible study) and one work of mercy (the individual practice of giving generously to the needs of others).

Now please consider some people who through the joys and perils of lives long and short made decisions to love God as Christians in the Methodist tradition. A tradition which, like the majority of the universal church, recognizes each week as a mini reminder of what I believe to be the most important Christian holiday: Easter. Throughout the world each Wednesday there are Bible studies, services of worship, communion and prayer. Yes, pragmatically, Wednesday is the midweek apex, but it reminds us of Ash Wednesday as we approach the first day of the Christian week, Sunday, which is the Christian Sabbath to remind us each week of Christ’s Easter Sunday victory over the powers that held us subject.

Last Wednesday, as other Christians today and the saints for centuries before them, twelve disciples gathered to pray. (That number is not lost on me.) And I remind you, prayer is an autonomous act of love toward God which helps facilitate the Holy Spirit’s outpouring of grace. According to the accounts I have read a thirteenth joined the twelve and they, recognizing his need, his spiritual depravity, gave generously to him in prayer and other deeds. They gave so generously that he admitted to police officers that he almost did not follow through with it because everyone was so nice to him. They loved God first, and that love allowed them to love their neighbor who would suddenly turn on them and take their lives. To borrow from the first Epistle of John, they lived in love, they lived in God, and God in them.

Through those twelve people it is apparent to me that the Holy Spirit offered this man all of God’s grace and as a fully capable autonomous individual he made the wrong choice, he made a bad choice, and he made the most painful choice he could as he decided to reject God and proceed with his plan. Along with the hearts of so many people he broke God’s heart, and I believe the first mourner of this event was the Holy Spirit which had and still does fill Emanuel AME. We know that God’s grace still fills that church family because family member of those murdered have publically forgiven the man who pleaded guilty to this crime.
Nevertheless, killing our fellow Christians was a hate crime. It was a hate crime that had nothing to do with the faith they displayed. There are many investigative questions to be asked in response to last week’s massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston. The standard who-what-where-when-why-and-how’s will be combed over and rehashed by people with and without official duties. It will be an intense and integral mode of healing in the mourning process for those with direct ties to the victims.

Removing faith from the equation the biggest scientifically measureable difference between the victims and the perpetrator was they had more melanin…It isn’t that simple.

It isn’t that simple. We live in a culture that is dependent on hierarchies, marginalization, otherness, dominance for personal gain often even to the point of hindering our offspring and throwing survival of the fittest out the window… We live in a culture very much like the one we encounter within the New Testament. Both are cultures that breed hate and racism. However, if you are a Christian you cannot deny that Jesus’ ministry suggests that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized first through the marginalized, the hated, the oppressed and the other. If you are a Christian you cannot deny a place at the table, in the communion of saints in the church universal because the story, God’s story, is one of love primarily for the spiritually, physically, emotionally and culturally subjugated.

Some argue that in our culture all of Christendom is marginalized, but frankly, that position is as important today as saying Hashtag All-Lives-Matter. If it wasn’t a means of overlooking the systemic cultural problems facing the marginalized in our communities it would be a wonderful complement for a “Pie in the Sky” faith. Marginalized lives matter just as much as those of the ones marginalizing, but in a culture that denies them that equality and ignores the racism that promotes it the Church must demand that marginalized lives are valued because “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world”. Not just those of the people in power and certainly not just those with a particular melanin threshold. Furthermore, call me old fashioned, but I reject the notion that one’s human essence is a thing alone on an island or some sort of expression of nothing or everything as various modes of Modern thought would leave us thinking. I believe the human essence is an embodiment of the image of God, and human identity comes, sometimes only by grace as I said earlier, with the necessary autonomy to reject or accept that embodiment. If the essence of each and every human being is the image of God then we absolutely must be against hatred, racism and marginalization. Because to not be against them is to be against the God we love.

While I take great comfort in knowing the nine people who died in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal accepted and nurtured the image of God within them I was overwhelmed with fear and disgust at the news of their murders. I found myself repulsed. I’ll be honest, if it had been my friends or family that were slaughtered after some form of worship with their attacker I do not think my personal relationship with God is where it would have to be able to do what the families of the slain have done by forgiving the murderer so soon. I acknowledge that I have a long way to go in my pursuit of Christian Perfection.
We talk about our Methodist connection and typically mean United Methodist connection by that, but we share linage with the AME. In fact, Emanuel AME’s website illustrates how marginalization at the hands of late 18th century Methodists in Philadelphia brought about the denomination’s formation. These are our brothers and sisters. Likewise Depayne, Sharonda, Cynthia, Clementa, Ethel, Tywanza, Myra, Daniel and Susie were our sisters and brothers, and we should mourn with their families just as the Holy Spirit has mourned since that night even as we worship on a Sabbath intended to remind us of Christ’s victory on the first Easter Sunday.

I dare say that mourning with the immediate community of Mother Emanuel because “our hearts go out to them” is the obvious action, it is the safe action, it is the act of conventional wisdom trying to grope at the same solution which has yet to bear real fruit. You see, conventional wisdom rarely takes into consideration God’s laws. Conventional wisdom tells one spouse to love the other spouse before anything else. Conventional wisdom would tell us that if we ignore racism and racists they will vanish. Conventional wisdom would tell twelve African Americans who all knew each other intimately to be immediately wary of an interloping twenty something white male. Conventional wisdom would tell 26 year old Tywanza to save his own life rather than offer to die in place of his 87 year old aunt Susie because he was a good black man with a good future ahead of him. Besides, she’d already lived a good long life herself.

To best love our church family at Emanuel AME, to best love the marginalized we must first love God. It is my hope and prayer that at the very least you will come away from this message with a duty to pray for a minimum of seven days over the families of Clementa, Cynthia, Daniel, Depayne, Ethel, Myra, Sharonda, Susie and Tywanza, Emanual AME, the African American community at large that finds itself continuously under siege, and the judicial system that will dole out justice according to the letter of the law. Please give thanks for the lives and the examples of the nine, pray for the healing of the two survivors that were shot, pray for the emotional state of the woman who was intentionally left unharmed, pray for good restorative and healthy grieving, pray that people would learn to love God so they can learn to love people and pray for the grace, peace and realization of God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

That is the easy request. Now comes what I am uncomfortable with. Please pray for Myra, Ethel, Clementa, Susie, Depayne, Tywanza, Daniel, Cynthia and Sharonda’s murderer, Dylan. It is easy to pray for those we love, for those we know would be in worship today if they were still alive. It is an entirely different experience to pray for God’s blessing upon someone we do not love for very just reasons. I believe the generous giving the twelve people in that prayer service bestowed on this spiritual void individual would have been in vain if we do not step in for them and pray God’s grace mercy and peace poured over him no matter what the judicial system decides for him.

Yes, as we mourn those who have pasted and pray for their families and church I am asking you to pray God’s blessings upon a racist. C.T. Studd, as turn of the 20th century missionary said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.” Praying for Dylan, in the way I have discribled, will firmly plant us as some of Studd’s shopkeepers.

Finally, I would like to share with you’re the words of Sister Jean German Ortiz as quoted on Emanuel AME’s homepage saying, “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

BENEDICTION (inspired by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s spiritual doctrine according to Emmanuel AME’s website) As we leave today may God our Father, Christ our Liberator, and the Holy Spirit our Nurturer pour grace upon and from us so that the world will recognize all of Humanity as Sibling.