Sermon: Tell All the Truth, But Tell it Slant

The events of Charlottesville and political aftermath have been difficult for us. Perhaps most difficult for us as a church is to determine how we talk about racism.

Jesus began his ministry by talking with moralism, but as his crowds grew and opposition increased, he changed the method of his preaching by talking in parables. The beauty of parables is that they allow people to come around to the teachings on their own terms. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant … the truth must dazzle gradually for all the world be blind.”

In our faith, we believe in transformation. Jesus has faith that people can change. Those high school friends planting the seeds of racism on our Facebook feeds, the uncle who spouts racist rhetoric at the dinner table and even Nazis and white supremacists can change.

What are we to do? The world, more than ever, needs the nonviolent message of Jesus Christ. We ought to be kind to our enemies — those who need to hear the message. Hang in there with those people. Don’t blast with the truth. They can’t handle it. It has to “dazzle gradually.”

There is no depth to the love of God. There is no person who is beyond the light of truth. And if it is not us who shows them the way, then who will?

Sermon

“Tell All the Truth, but Tell it Slant”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Matthew 13: 1-17
Aug. 20, 2017

Task Force for Racial Justice

In an effort to open community dialogue and address issues of racial justice, Oconee Street UMC is launching a Racial Justice Task Force.

In response to a sermon last September, several church members have been in conversation about reaching out to racial minority communities in the Athens area to address issues of racial justice, especially in the area of criminal justice. The Oconee Street UMC Church Council approved the formation of a Racial Justice Task Force to serve in this ministry for a limited, two-year period, with the possibility that the task force may continue its work beyond its initial two years.

The church is hosting an informational meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 6 p.m. at 717 Oconee Street. The interest meeting is open to anyone who would like to know more about the aims of the task force.

For more information, email Dr. Robert Foster. 

Sermon: “The End of Racism”

The End of Racism
Sermon by Dr. Robert Foster
Ephesians 6:10-17 and 2:4-10
Sept. 6, 2015

Call to Worship (duo Amanda and Rick Martin)

Choir Anthem: “Give Me Jesus”

Sermon

A message from Dr. Robert Foster …
Today’s sermon was an effort to join in the larger movement this weekend responding to the call from — especially our sisters and brothers of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) — churches to focus our services this weekend on “Confession, Repentance, and a Commitment to End of Racism.”

I hope that you will find many things in this sermon encouraging in our struggle for racial justice.  Still, I must ask that as you listen to this sermon to please forgive me for using the phrase “colored people” at one point in this sermon to refer to people of other races.  All of you who know me understand that I would never use this phrase on purpose and that as an extemporaneous preacher I do not always know exactly how I will phrase things in any sermon.  I can only tell you that I was horrified when a close friend pointed this out to me after the sermon and I ask you to forgive me for using this phrase.

I say in the sermon that I approach racism like an addictive disease that I and this nation are still in recovery from, even when individually we have been in recovery for some years.  I am very sorry to have ironically pointed to my own continuing recovery from systemic racism.

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.

Being carefully taught

by The Rev. Lisa Caine

The following is the sermon delivered by Pastor Lisa Caine for the Dec. 8 service. The focus scripture is Romans 15:4-13.

It was Flannery O’Connor who said “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”  One of the ways we define ourselves as Christians is to confess we are people who have been awed by the love and grace of God and have not been the same since.  We do things differently.  When you get down to it, when we are at our best, we are just a bit odd.  When we are at our best, we try to bring peace to conflicted situations, we share love even with those who don’t like us, we offer joy to the sorrowful, and hope to the discouraged, all the while realizing that ours is often a minority voice.  The voices of conflict, hatred, sorrow, and despair can seem so much louder and more prevalent than the quieter voices of peace, love, joy, and hope.

This past week we were reminded of a voice of love and peace that was not destroyed by hatred and conflict, although for 27 years it was silenced in a prison cell.  Nelson Mandela died on Friday. Did you know his mother was a Methodist and he was baptized in the Methodist church?  In the face of the cruelty and hatred of apartheid in South Africa he became the pre-eminent voice for freedom and equality.  In his early years he did not rule out returning violence with violence, hatred with hatred. He despaired that because the violence leveled at black south Africans was so intense and so overwhelming, non-violence, turning the other cheek seemed to lead only to greater brutality, defeat and death.  What else was there to do but fight fire with fire?

However, in his 27 years of imprisonment he had a lot of time to think about things, and he had a choice to make.  He could feed his hate; he could become bitter; he could plot revenge.  Or he could change himself.  He could forgive his enemies, and he could learn to love them.  I am sure you have read many of the powerful statements he made over his lifetime, but the one that struck me this week is his affirmation that “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

When I read that statement, I was reminded of the lyrics from the Rogers and Hammerstein song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific.”  It is hard to believe today, but at the time it was written in 1949, it was thought to be terribly controversial, and wouldn’t you know it – a bill was introduced in the Georgia Legislature outlawing entertainment containing “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow,” and a lawmaker stated his concern that such lyrics could justify interracial marriage and thereby undermine the American Way of Life.[i]  These are the lyrics to this Marxist song that threatened our country’s foundations:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid,
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six, or seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Mandela was right; Rogers and Hammerstein were right: You have to be taught to hate and fear.  Jesus knew that when he said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  And then he added, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44)

It is this teaching of Jesus that makes us a bit odd.  We not only are called to love one another, but reminded that we can’t save our love, affection, concern, compassion, or care for those just like us – family and friends who agree with us, who hold the same values or viewpoints that we do, who speak the same language, or share the same religion, ethnicity, or nationality, or come from the same economic class.  Our love must extend to those most unlike us – the stranger, the outsider, those with whom we disagree and have nothing in common, even to our enemies who truly hate us.  We are to love them.

This kind of love Martin Luther King, Jr. said is not sentimental or affectionate emotion; this kind of love means love means understanding and redemptive good will.[ii]  It means holding positive, life-affirming thoughts about our enemies.  We are to pray for them, not that God will smite them dead, or convince them of how wrong they are and how right we are, but that God will bless them and care for them as God blesses and cares for us.

That’s a tall order since those who are carefully teaching hatred have so successfully justified it over the years, legitimating it as being in the service of something noble and good – God, truth, morality and values, country. We are taught to hate or fear those not like ourselves. When hatred and fear are connected to religion or to patriotism, guilt is never a problem because our violence is always necessary and good and redemptive, while the “other’s” violence is always bad and evil and destructive.[iii]  Richard Rohr has noted that  hate, “ is always sure of itself.” It has a sense of certainty and clarity, with no self-doubts, no self-criticism, and little patience with those who have questions.[iv]

As in 1949 America, or in mid to late-century South Africa, fear and hate become deeply entrenched, become ways of life, and exclusionary systems are put in place to institutionalize and legitimate them. And it is still so today.  We are still struggling with the desire to legitimate and institutionalize our prejudices against those perceived to be different.  Look at the Congress fighting over how to resolve issues concerning  undocumented immigrants, the poor, the hungry, and work equality for the LGBTQ community.

Just as hatred is carefully taught, so love also must be carefully taught.  The early Christians were set apart by their faith, and by their sense of having been touched by the love of God in the person of Jesus; he was their model to strive for and to be like.  And people would remark “See how they love one another.”[v]  But, maintaining that level of love and acceptance day in and day out is difficult to do.  Thus, many of Paul’s letters include teachings about love.   Writing to the Romans, he teaches and admonishes them to “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”  In other words, “give yourselves to others; make space for them, make no judgments about them, readjust your identity to make room for them.”[vi]  In First Corinthians, he tells them “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (vv. 4-6). In Galatians, he reminds them “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:13b-14).  In Colossians we read, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in harmony” (3:14).

This love that Paul talks about has to be carefully taught because love can be easily confused with self-interest or neediness.  We have to be taught to love others for their sakes not for our own, whether they are friend or enemy. I think this can be difficult teaching for those of us in the powerful majority to understand and to practice.  It can be more clearly seen in the love of the vulnerable, the minority, the person in a position of weakness, whose love can redeem the seemingly invulnerable and powerful person. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about how much the white person needed the love of the black person because of the distortions created by segregation and the soul-scarring that it caused. He encouraged his listeners to love the white person because “he needs the love of the Negro . . . the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.”[vii]

We can see that same kind of love, the love of the excluded for the excluder, in our own church today. Although many gay and lesbian people are leaving the church because of its stance on marriage and ordination,  there are those who stay, those who live lives of love just like the love that Jesus demonstrated and that Paul taught about, and in so doing are witnessing to us in the majority.  Some of us heard our friend Leland Spencer last June when he preached at the Reconciling Ministries Network worship service.  In his remarks he explained why he stays in the church this way:

I am often asked why I remain in the United Methodist Church, and my answer is long and complex, but it always includes a reflection on my baptism. I believe we get a glimpse of the church at its best when we baptize an infant, marking her or him for inclusion in the beloved community of God. I stay because the power of that sacrament is stronger than the Book of Discipline. I stay because I saw the church at its best when I grew up in a congregation that took seriously the vows it made at my baptism. I stay because week by week, babies are baptized in United Methodist Churches all around the world, and some day, about a tenth of those babies will grow up and identity as LGBTQ, and they may also feel called to ministry in the church that baptized them and nurtured them, or perhaps desire to get married by their pastors and in their churches. Now that will hold true whether folks like us stay in the church or whether we go elsewhere, so isn’t it better for those babies if we stay? Indeed, I stay for those babies, and I stay because at my confirmation my pastor invited me to touch water and remember my baptism, and then I made a vow to accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I didn’t know then that the church itself would be one of those forms. But I know it doesn’t have to. I have seen the church at its best, so I can’t give up on the church at its worst.[viii]

I think this kind of love shown by Leland and others who choose to stay and witness, will ultimately be the cause of change in our church.

The kind of love we are to be taught and then carefully teach others is an active, creative, welcoming, community-building kind of love, founded on grace, and full of compassion and forgiveness.  It is a love that includes, rather than excludes; that is open to change and shares power; it grows through peace and patience, trust in God and in one another.

I am so glad that we have this place to come where we can learn together and be reminded over and over again what it means to love one another and the world. I am glad for famous examples like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose trust in the power of love changed governments.  And, I am glad for friends like Leland whose patient loving witness to the church will change us as well.  I am glad that our children are being carefully taught by Sunday School teachers, like those who led us earlier in lighting the Advent candle of love, who love God and who love the children, and share that love every Sunday in their classrooms. Surely our children must be carefully taught by their teachers, by their parents, and by all of us – not so that they can be toughened up and hardened against the darkness of the world, but to make them bearers of light of the light of love to dispel the darkness.  May it be so.  Amen.


[i] “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” Wikipedia, quoting author Andrea Most “The Politics of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific,’” Theater Journal, 52, iii, Oct 2000, 306.

[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Antidotes to Fear,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1986,  519.

[iii] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, 2007, 135.

[iv] Rohr, 136.

[v] Bruce Bower, Stealing Jesus, 1997, 53-54.

[vi] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation,1996, 29.

[vii] King, 519.

[viii] Leland Spencer, “Bridge to Everywhere,” June 12, 2013