David King is a rising sophomore at Haverford College and served as my intern this summer. He’s the sixth intern I’ve had in my time at Aldersgate, presently four of the previous five are engaged in ministry.
Here’s his final sermon for the summer on Romans 15.14-21
Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching. I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content. I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness. I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as our country is torn. But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I lack hope. I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.
I would be remiss to talk about something other than the events that occurred last weekend just three hours south of here, in the valley town of Charlottesville, where the home of local slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson overlooks the campus of one of the bastions of higher education in America.
On Saturday morning, just last week, a group of clergy from around the Charlottesville area and the broader Virginia community, led by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West, marched in silence through the streets of that American town, leading towards a confrontation with the largest nationalist gathering, to put it lightly, in two decades.
They marched, in silence, towards a herd of gun-carrying, Kevlar-vest wearing, pepper-spray boasting group of people who are perhaps more than ever responsible for bringing to the forefront the American plague.
They marched, in silence, towards a group of people possessed by a disease, a plague. Perhaps, one might even call it a demon. Or, if you are really bold enough, if you are Pauline enough, you might call it The Demon, The Devil, Satan.
When those clergy met with protestors, it was not vitriol that came forth from their mouths. They did not spew hatred and lies. They did not confront the Enemy, capital E, with the sword. No, rather, what sprung from their lips was a song, one that I think you would all be familiar with.
[Sing “this Little light of mine”]
Indeed, what rang across the streets of Charlottesville in rejection of the Demon they confronted was that song, a song of resistance, a song of children, a song of innocence and beauty. It was a song I learned in Sunday School, one that I’m sure you and you children did too. It was a song sung for decades in resistance of the hatred our society has propagated. And that morning in Charlottesville, it was song sung univocally, with no quivering in their voices.
In a word, it was a song sung boldly.
Or perhaps, boldly is the wrong word. Perhaps we should rather say that it was kauchesin, the Greek word found in verse 17 of today’s scripture. Translated in our text as boasting, it should rather be translated more accurately as “glorying.”
That’s what that song was. And the fact of the matter is, that’s what Paul’s writing has been about. His writing to the Romans, to the Church in Rome that he has never seen or visited, is glorying. It is that because, just like every other word in Romans, his writing is centered on the work of God in Christ, not his own. Paul’s work is always already not his own, but it is work through the strength of Christ and to the glory of his name.
[Sing second verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]
If you pay close attention to what Paul says in today’s scripture, you cannot help but notice that in every sentence, virtually every verse, there is some note that what he does, he can only do through a given grace, The Given Grace, of Christ.
Look at verse 15: “because of the grace given me by God.” And verse 16: “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (note it is not Paul’s Gospel, but God’s). And verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason.” And verse 18, “What Christ has accomplished through me.” And pay special attention here, note, the subject of that sentence is not Paul! The actor, the person that the verb is referencing, it’s Jesus!). And verse 19, “by the power of the Spirit of God.”
Paul cannot escape the fact that he can do nothing to spread the Gospel except through Christ. In fact, it’s a reality he does not want to escape, and neither did the clergy in Charlottesville last weekend. For while they were attacked, the attention was not on them. While they were hurt, the song continued ringing.
And while one might think that it was the strength of the individuals there, the song coming from their mouths, that sustained them, I’d wager that every clergy member there would vehemently disagree with you. I would even venture to say that they would use the very same language Paul uses in verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”
In fact, they might use an even stronger translation and say this: “For I will not DARE to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” for those clergy know much better than you or I that we are nothing, we have nothing, we can only be nothing, if we do not have Christ. If Christ did not die for the unworthy, for the most ungodly, then we have nothing.
But this is not bad. We cannot be anything without Christ because Christ was, is, our everything. I do not mean that in a cliché or meaningless way; that statement is the very thing we confess when we are baptized into the Church. Jesus is our everything, and it is only through him that we can speak, live, breathe, and have our being.
Those clergy knew that. And so did Paul, walking the roads of an all-too familiar empire 2000 years ago.
[Sing third verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]
“It is my ambition,” says Paul, “to proclaim the Good News.” The Greek word, “philotimoumenon,” which here translates as ambition, more directly means “to prosecute as a point of honor.” To proclaim, and to take honor and joy in that proclamation, is Paul’s missionary journey – and it’s ours too.
It is our missionary, apostolic vocation to walk the roads of the American Empire, and proclaim a different Lord, the only Lord. But the effectiveness of that message, as Paul knew all too well, has little to do with us and all to do with, in the words of Karl Barth, “the strange awareness of the presence of a wholly different and incommensurable factor – Jesus Christ.”
We are remiss to forget the strangeness to which we are called, as Christians. The strangeness of singing in the face of violence, of laying down the sword in the face of the barrel of a gun, of echoing the harmony of the heavenly chorus in the face of the Demon himself.
And let us not forget the power of this message. Let us not forget the power of this vocation. Let us not forget Paul. Before he started walking, neither Asia Minor nor Greece had heard of this radical Jew from Nazareth called Jesus. And when Paul set down his pen and joined his Lord in heaven, little communities had appeared all over Caesar’s empire, proclaiming and confessing the Risen Christ, the suffering and strange servant the prophet Isaiah foretold.
Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:
“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”
Something’s not right here. The parallels do not add up. They do not make sense. Those who haven’t been told will see? Those who haven’t heard will understand? Listening and seeing don’t match; hearing and understanding don’t match. It doesn’t make sense.
It does not make sense, that is, if we think that our first mission as Christians is to tell and force understanding. It doesn’t make sense if we think that our first mission as Christians is to do something at all.
Let’s look at this again: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” You will notice that there is no 1st person tense in this sentence. There is no “I.” It is all 3rd person. So when we interpret and read Paul, we have to also understand that our first mission, as Christians, is to let God do the work. We are not called to tell the Gospel, but to show it; we are not called to teach the Gospel, but to be a living witness to it. And that, my friends, is where the work of God becomes most clear. When we remove the first person, when we remove ourselves and our inevitably large egos, that is where the Gospel shines through, and where the work of God is apparent.
You know, that’s why the grammar of the song the clergy sang is so important. When their voices rang through the streets of Charlottesville, when they rose a song in the face of Nazis, the most venerable “I,” the individual, was shut out and shut away. It was there that the work of God became clear in the midst of the Clergy. For they knew, better than you and me combined, that they had neither lit the light nor provided the candle. They knew that all they needed to do was “let it shine.”
But do not mistake this for a passive stance, an allowance of the virulent violence that pervades and manifests our world. To speak of God, to sing of God is a bold stance to take, and one that glorifies the empty tomb.
Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching. I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content. I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness. I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as this country is torn. But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.
No, hope isn’t the right word. In the midst of the pain, anger, suffering, despair, brokenness, shame, disgust, and guilt, in the midst of it all, I stand here boldly. Or as Paul would say it, I stand here glorying.
I offer to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.