A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 5, 2012
Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth
Mark 1: 32-39
It was a typical first century home: one large room, divided into upper and lower portions by a single step. The lower part of the room was for stabling the animals each evening – which was how families not only kept their animals safe from predators and thieves, but how they heated their home on chilly nights. A sleeping cow is a warm beast. This part of the home would have been cleaned each morning (for obvious reasons) and covered with fresh straw. The mangers for feeding would have been filled as well. The upper portion of the room contained the fire for cooking, the utensils for eating, the storage of everything else the family owned, and was used for meals, worship, and even sleeping. Some homes had a second story room which could be reached by a ladder.
The brothers Simon and Andrew, along with Simon’s wife – and Andrew’s, if he had one – slept upstairs because Simon’s mother-in-law did not climb the ladder anymore. She slept on a mat near the fire, which helped with the chills. She had a fever, which was why she had not attended the meeting of the synagogue earlier that evening when Jesus demonstrated with such authority that unclean spirits, the powers that possess and oppress, have no place in God’s Kingdom.
As the young men entered the house, they were still talking excitedly about the way Jesus had commanded the spirit to be silent – and it had; to come out – and it did. James, John and Jesus tumbled in behind Simon and Andrew. And there on the floor was Simon’s mother-in-law, lying feverish on her mat beside the fire. It was the evening of the Sabbath, she had a home suddenly filled with guests, and she was unable to rise and offer even a minimum of hospitality. In the first century, the Sabbath was to end with a service of Havdalah, celebrating God’s creation of the world and anticipating the full re-creation of life in the time to come. But she could not prepare the food, light the candles; say the prayers that were required. What shame she must have known.
Jesus simply took her by the hand, lifted her up, and the fever left. And she began to serve them. God’s kingdom had come to the house of Simon and Andrew.
And all Capernaum brought their sick, and those possessed, to this house. They gathered around the door, and Jesus came out – to cure and cast out – to restore the health of the community, to demonstrate God’s new creation – which is God’s Kingdom. Or in the Greek: God’s basilea, which we might get a better feel for what Jesus is describing if we used basilea’s other translation: God’s Empire.
Stop and close your eyes for a moment. Reflect on the words “Kingdom of God.” Now try “Empire of God.” It has a different feel doesn’t it? You get the sense that this is an all-encompassing realm, ruled over by God. Now in Jesus’ day, the empire everyone knew was the Roman Empire. Rome dominated Palestine through military conquest, mass crucifixion, and extreme taxation. So imagine the impact of Jesus, a poor man living there announcing that God’s empire is dawning in the midst of Caesar’s empire right now. It was a massively political statement; seditious, in fact. And it was electrifying! And expansive! But also, perhaps, it felt impossible or, at best, unlikely.
Now if we were not looking for it, we might miss the danger of this moment. It would have been very easy, in fact it might have been expected, that Simon would hang up a sign over that door announcing Jesus’ residence. And Andrew would produce the first century version of the slick pamphlet announcing “God’s Kingdom has come to our home: Come and See. Bring your sick, your fevered, your possessed and oppressed. Come experience God’s intention for your life.” You see, Jesus could have, like so many other first century healers, become the village healer, bringing honor to this village, bringing pilgrims from other villages, bringing tourists and income to a poor people. He could have made of Capernaum, this tiny fishing village, the locus – of God’s Empire.
For just a moment, Jesus’ proclamation of God’s dawning empire message was in danger of becoming parochial – of or pertaining to only to that small locale.
Could the White Plains Presbyterian Church be in danger of becoming parochial in our belief and practice? Well, we are a Presbyterian Church with strong roots in the Reformed faith which descends from the sixteenth century reformations in Europe. Confessional banners representing this tradition hang on our walls, from Basel, Heidelberg, Edinburgh, London, Barmen and Portland, Oregon. This is an almost 300 year old congregation, with origins among the early Dutch and English settlers of New York, Connecticut, and Westchester County. Some of our members still have Dutch and English names. The great great grandfather of one of our members tracked down and caught the spy who was leaking valuable information to Benedict Arnold during the war of independence. Clearly, WPPC has a strong eye on its past! But we are also an intentionally multicultural congregation that is inter-racial, inter-national, inter-generational (and therefore inter-esting), with members from more than a twenty non-European countries and at least as many different theological and church traditions. We also look to other pasts and to God’s future.
February is widely celebrated as Black History Month. This year, during our observance of Black History Month we are featuring music and liturgy from Africa and the West Indies; from which members of our congregation come. We begin today in West Africa, with prayers from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and Senegal. Next week will be the West Indies. On the third week Central and East Africa. On the final Sunday of the month, which is also the first Sunday of Lent, we will worship with resources from the Reformed Churches of South Africa. On that same day we will also begin our five week Lenten Study of the Belhar Confession of Faith which grew out of the experience of South African churches.
Now, there is real danger that in featuring such liturgical resources we may treat cultures as fetishes – spices to enhance our local worship. If we merely sprinkle prayers and songs here and there without listening to the voices of those speaking to our US church from those communities and considering our connection to them, our worship will be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. We need to hear their appeals to us so that we can better understand what God is calling us to be and do right here in White Plains.
It is a very old view of human societies that thinks of cultures as distinct entities, closed off from one another, able to be celebrated or critiqued as wholes. But such a view is deeply flawed. – no culture exists apart from the influence of others – It is also increasingly true, as Cheikh Hamidou Kane has written that ”We have not had the same past, but – unquestionably – we shall have the same future”. The facts of colonialism and the complicity of western missionaries in this entire history, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, demand more of us today.
As evening passed into morning, Jesus got up earlier than rest and went off to pray. We hear that the disciples, when learning he had left the house, “hunted for him.” It’s the same word one would use to hunt down a wild animal that had threatened one’s flock or ones home, or to search out a lost and vulnerable sheep. They were frantic, desperate to find him and bring him back. “Everyone is searching for you,” they tell him, as one would tell a wayward child.”Don’t scare us like that.”
But Jesus counters that he must go on. He had been praying, discerning, listening to God, and so now informs his disciples what he had heard: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” Jesus, with his disciples, brings the message of the God’s empire to other communities, each of which must make it real in their own locale, but all of which are simultaneously called to understand themselves as part of God’s larger empire.
Jesus must GO ON : to the rest of Galilee, but also beyond – to Judah, Samaria, Tyre & Sidon
Jesus must GO ON : to people who were Jewish and to people who weren’t
Jesus must GO ON : to women and children as well as men
Jesus must GO ON : to talk with people who were powerful and people who were not
Jesus must GO ON : and, through his disciples, he does go on to the ends of the earth
And he still goes on. And wherever he goes, all are called to understand themselves not only as recipients of life abundant, but as related to one another in God’s growing empire, with covenant responsibility to one another – not simply to their own kin, neighborhood or social rank. Jesus goes on to every community, not only for the sake of that community but for the sake of God’s Sovereign Empire. We too are called to go where Jesus goes.
As we prepare to gather at our Lord’s Table, we remember the larger community into which God has called even us. We remember that, around the world, sisters and brothers are also gathering around this same table.
So this fifth Sunday after Epiphany, on our first Sunday on Black History Month, as we gather at the Table, we must ask: “Beyond music and liturgy, what do African churches have to say to us?”
In 1994 African Alliance of Reformed Churches called upon the entire Reformed movement to wrestle with the economic injustices and ecological devastations which are the result of the systemic exclusion of Africa and African people from the world economy. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), to which both they and we, as Presbyterians, belong, responded. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, now called the World Communion of Reformed Churches, is the third largest Christian body in the world, next to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox. In 2004, this body’s General Council, meeting Accra, Ghana, (West Africa) issued the Accra Confession. (Are any of you are familiar with it?) The Accra Confession calls for a new covenant for justice that recognizes that economic justice and environmental care are not simply issues to be addressed by the church, but that they go to the very heart of our confession of faith. “How can we say that we believe that Jesus Christ is lord over all life and not stand against all that denies the promise of fullness of life to the world?”
The Accra confession itself will be available through our church website (under the “Study” tab) and through my blog. But the delegates to that General Council also wrote a pastoral letter which, they hoped, would be read in every reformed church around the world. I want to honor that request this morning. Here is an excerpt from that letter which describes the delegates’ process of reflection and engagement that led to the writing of the confession.
Our most moving and memorable moments came from our visit to Elmina and Cape Coast, two “castles” on the Coast of Ghana that held those who had been captured into slavery, as they suffered in dungeons waiting for slave ships that would take them to unknown lands and destinies. Over brutal centuries, 15 million African slaves were transported to the Americas, and millions more were captured and died. On this trade in humans as commodities, wealth in Europe was built. Through their labour, sweat, suffering, intelligence and creativity, the wealth of the Americas was developed.
At the Elmina Castle, the Dutch merchants, soldiers, and Governor lived on the upper level, while the slaves were held in captivity one level below. We entered a room used as a church, with words from Psalm 132 on a sign still hanging above the door (“For the Lord has chosen Zion…”). And we imagined Reformed Christians worshipping their God while directly below them, right under their feet, those being sold into slavery languished in the chains and horror of those dungeons. For more than two centuries in that place this went on.
In angry bewilderment we thought, “How could their faith be so divided from life? How could they separate their spiritual experience from the torturous physical suffering directly beneath their feet? How could their faith be so blind?”
Some of us are descended from those slave traders and slave owners, and others of us are descendants of those who were enslaved. We shared responses of tears, silence, anger, and lamentation. Those who are Reformed Christians have always declared God’s sovereignty over all life and all the earth. So how could these forbears of Reformed faith deny so blatantly what they believed so clearly?
Yet, as we listened to the voices today from our global fellowship, we discovered the mortal danger of repeating the same sin of those whose blindness we decried. For today’s world is divided between those who worship in comfortable contentment and those enslaved by the world’s economic injustice and ecological destruction who still suffer and die.
We are part of a “global fellowship;” we cannot stop our ears to the questions and call of our sisters and brothers. This letter and the confession invite us to careful consideration of how our lives and choices impact other members of God’s family. The Accra Confession, calls for a new covenant for justice in the economy and the earth among Christian bodies. We must make the God’s empire a reality in our own locale, but we dare not make it parochial. Rather we live “from” this place toward our sisters and brothers. We reflect critically upon our faith and practice together as a part of a global fellowship. And through that we strive to discern what it means to lives justly in this place, in relation to our neighbors near and far, with our different pasts but a shared future.
This much we discovered for certain in Accra: more than ever, faithful mission today requires our connection – really it demands bonds of belonging – between one another as churches. The challenges we now face in proclaiming the Good News will simply overwhelm us if we confront them as individual churches alone.
As we come to the table today, it is a new covenant of justice, in Jesus Christ, that we affirm. It is a new covenant of justice in Jesus Christ, that we receive to live out. It is a new covenant of justice, in Jesus Christ, that entwines us as sisters and brothers together in a global fellowship. May our worship and our work be one, announcing God’s new way.