[Programming Note: Last week’s sermon on depression and love received quite a bit of Internet attention, and I thank you for it. It’s both humbling and powerful to know how universal a story that is. I am going to try and more regularly post my Sunday sermons here, but fair warning: the life of a Sunday preacher bounces from topic to topic, as you will see in the sermon below. I hope you’ll stick around regardless.]
Sunday sermon from August 24, 2014
Text: 1 Corinthians 14:26-33, 37-40
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
“But all things should be done decently and in order…”
And so we have come to the most Presbyterian verse. Of all the gin joints in all the world, right? Here at the almost-not-quite-but-almost-at-the-end of this letter, at the climax of Paul’s long argument about the right practice of Christian worship and the right practice of speaking in tongues, he lands on the phrase that launched a thousand Presbytery meetings: all things should be done decently and in order. And I know that not all of you are well versed in the intricacies of Presbyterian humor, if it exists, but let me assure you that our love affair with decently and in order is no passing fad. In fact our entire book of governance is in some ways named for this verse itself — the Book of Order — we are a people who love order. We are people who love organization. We are a people who love signing things in triplicate. We are a people who love spreadsheets perhaps more than it is prudent to love spreadsheets, but isn’t it oh-so-satisfying to fill up all those little boxes, everything in its right place?
In fact I would argue that the Presbyterian understanding of “decent and and in order” is so fundamentally woven into our DNA that it comes out in ways even we don’t necessarily intend. To wit, I submit for your consideration the statement issued this week by the national office of the Presbyterian Church in response to the ongoing anger and frustration in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by an officer of the Ferguson police department named Darren Wilson. The statement emerged more than a week after the initial shooting, and after a week of protests that had seen clergy from around St. Louis both marching alongside demonstrators and later chaining their bodies together to create safe avenues of passage. These folks are speaking with their whole bodies. And then, into an atmosphere of tremendous anger and distrust, the national office of this denomination issued a call to decency and good order: “Therefore, as people of Christ committed to justice and love, we call for calm in Ferguson as work is done by state and federal officials to seek answers and bring justice.” Calm. Calm. As the situation got hectic, we did what we do best: we banged the gavel in the hopes that everybody would just be quiet for a second before this meeting gets out of hand.
“Calm in Ferguson.” I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. If I’m at my most cynical, it begins to sound like the statement you write when you feel like you need to make a statement but don’t really want to say anything that could get you in trouble and so you just try to fill space while arguing nothing of consequence. If there is some meat on this bone, it may be that “calm” is simply meant as a non-judgmental way of telling everybody to get off the street. Protesters, return to your homes. Cops, put your sniper rifles back in their holsters. Everybody back to your corner, “Order,” “Order,” and then, as it says, let the authorities do their job – as work is done by state and federal officials to seek answers and bring justice. There is an assumption in this statement that the current arrangement of political power in Ferguson is sufficient to seek the ends of justice: the police will sort this out, and if for some reason they can’t, the state of Missouri or the DoJ will come in and sort it out for them, and, regardless, you can be assured that the assigned body of your democratically elected government will be on the case. Calm. And I really don’t know if the signatories of the letter meant that level of implication. Maybe it’s as simple as this: we’re Presbyterians, and this is our default setting, and this will all pass much more easily if everyone just returns to their assigned box, calmly, decently, and in order.
But before I sign on for decency and good order in Ferguson I would like to know what Paul means by it in the first place. We have been in this letter all summer long and I hope by now you have gotten to know the rogue’s gallery of believers who call themselves the Corinthian church. They have been up to all sorts of nonsense, and at each turn of this letter Paul has exhorted them in the name of Christian unity, discipline, and mutual forbearance, and in this penultimate section he has turned his attention to the practices of Corinthian worship. You may remember that they were letting the Communion feast be overrun with symbols of worldly status, and that they have been arguing about the alleged superiority of different kinds of spiritual gifts, and in here in chapter 14 Paul finally lands that argument on what seems to be the specific complaint: some in the Corinthian congregation have been speaking in tongues.
Now, there is not a lot of room in the history of Presbyterian worship for the practice of speaking in tongues. It is the very definition of the sort of thing that we might consider indecent or disorderly – whether or not our considerations would be accurate. But let’s nip that argument in the bud. The apostle has no principled objection to speaking in tongues. His concern is for interpretation: that is, that if one person in a worship service is speaking in tongues without any provision for interpretation, it’s both entirely inhospitable to anybody who walks in off the streets of Corinth and also grants to that one person the kind of singular authority that got the Corinthians in a mess in the first place. So Paul is very concerned to keep his congregation on equal footing, and that means not allowing worship to be taken over by one speaker of tongues without anybody there keep him or her grounded. And that’s Paul’s solution: have speaking in tongues if you want; just have a separate interpreter; and, you know, if that’s really the Holy Spirit working, the interpreter won’t have any trouble.
But note the difference in priorities. At least for me, the assumption I bring to a text like this is that the speaking in tongues itself is a problem, that is, that some kinds of speech are just inherently disorderly. Why don’t we have speaking in tongues in worship on Sunday morning? Because speaking in tongues is weird and we don’t think it’s real and we don’t think it’s legit and therefore it feels monumentally indecent. But Paul’s concern is vastly different. He exhibits no hesitations about the legitimacy of speaking in tongues. His concern is rather that the practice not be used to elevate some members of the church above others, that it not become a wedge that further fractures the congregation. In this way it’s very similar to how Paul thinks about the shared communion meal: that the whole point is to live out the practice in such a way that the church expresses its mutual bonds and not in such a way that some people are the “in” crowd and some people aren’t. So when Paul talks about “decency and order” he’s not talking about suppressing any particular kind of aberrant speech or aberrant behavior. He’s talking about creating worship that recognizes the fundamental and equal dignity of everyone who comes, that everyone who comes has an equal right to participation in the life of the Spirit.
And there’s still more in his bag of tricks. You’ll forgive me for getting a little “Bible nerd” on you for a second, but here it is. A couple of weeks ago we read Paul’s language on the body of Christ in chapter 12, where some people get to be the arm and some people get to be the arm-pit and as a rejoinder to the obvious injustice of the armpit always being told to stay in its place we noticed that Paul actually has a particular sympathy for those parts of the body that we might otherwise think less honorable. And in fact the word that he uses there to represent the concept of honor – that is, which body parts have greater and lesser honor, and therefore presumably which kinds of ministry and service have greater and lesser honor – that word for “honorably” doesn’t show up a lot in the New Testament, but it does show up here in chapter 14 where we translate it as “decently.” Which is to say that we could in some ways translate this phrase in chapter 14 as Paul’s call to live honorably and in order, but even that would too easily let us forget Paul’s particular attention to the armpit. When Paul conceives of a body living together honorably he means that it lives together with particular attention to the welfare of the least of its members. His understanding of “honor,” and therefore of “decency,” has a decidedly moral dimension. Which means that Paul’s call to living “decently and in order” doesn’t mean clamping down on the speech of tongues we don’t like or understand. It rather means ensuring that everybody in the congregation has the opportunity to be heard. It’s not about shutting people up. It’s about giving everybody a voice. And, more to the point, it’s about fighting for their right to use it.
I don’t really suspect that that sounds like “calm.” We call for calm in Ferguson as work is done by state and federal officials to seek answers and bring justice. While this language wraps itself in the old familiar Presbyterian love affair with decency and order, there is nothing here to value and advocate for the voices that the existing order has failed to represent. There is nothing here of Paul’s moral imagination. Ferguson is 67% black, with a white Mayor, five out of six white City Council members, and a 95% white police force. How are Ferguson’s black residents expected to feel that their voices are valued and respected within the chambers of civic power when the local government is so radically out of alignment with its population? And of course the ballot box in theory should be the great equalizer, and I certainly strongly support the voter registration initiatives currently underway, but Missouri has one of the more restrictive photo-ID voter requirements in the country, and, a year after the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, there is no evidence to suggest that the promise of democratic representation is being realized for Ferguson’s most distressed populations.
So what happens to a people when they lose normal access to participation in their own governance? What happens when they lose their right to speak? No fewer than four black eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s death have told to the national media stories that more or less converge on one version of a sequence of events, but we have tried every trick in the book to discredit them, discredit their motives, poke arbitrary holes in their stories, and minimize their voices. What happens to a people when they lose normal access to the public marketplace of ideas? What happens when we forget that Paul’s sense of decency and orderliness in fact requires particular attention to the voices of those furthest at the margins? I submit that people will speak by whatever means necessary; they will speak in whatever way they can be taken seriously; they will speak with whatever language causes the world to respond; and the result will be the protests we have seen for the past two weeks. Most of those protests have been peaceful — in fact, more decently and in better order than the local government they’re protesting — but even the protesters that have descended to violence are nonetheless trying to say something. Yes, anytime a protest turns to violence we have a problem. Of course when something erupts on this large of a scale a few folks are going to get out of hand. But the bigger problem is that it takes violence for us to hear the cries of the oppressed in the first place.
There are so many things we could have said besides “calm.” We could have recounted the long history of the Presbyterian Church standing with and alongside victims of oppression and injustice. We could have lent our voices to the cries of inequality and injustice. We could have promised to begin conversations in our own communities, to take to our own streets in protest on behalf of all those whose voices are so routinely silenced. We do have a long proud history of speaking just such words of protest and hope. But I wonder if perhaps the most important thing we can say right now is, actually, nothing. Not that we stay silent. But rather that, instead of assuming it is always our turn to talk, that we insist in this moment on hearing the voices of those who never get a chance. Maybe we insist in this moment on hearing the stories of those who never get to talk. Maybe what we need — and I speak generally to a culture whose history is so wrapped up in the history of being white and prosperous, and I also speak specifically, to a denomination whose history is wrapped up in the history of being white and prosperous — maybe what we need is to stop telling our story, to stop telling anyone else’s story, to just stop, take a moment, and listen.
And here’s the thing. Maybe, if we listen, carefully, closely, with decency, maybe we’ll hear Jesus. Jesus, the one who spoke with outcasts. Jesus, the one who remembered the forgotten. Jesus, the one who commanded the mute spirits and they cried out. Jesus, the who speaks for all those who can barely whisper. He’s not sitting in church offices writing press releases. He’s walking the streets of the city. He’s speaking through megaphones and on ten cents worth of poster board. He’s leading the crowds in the great hymns of deliverance and promise. He’s telling the stories of those who have no other way to be heard. And of course he’s crying out from the cross, in solidarity with all those forgotten voices, and he’s doing it with his whole body.
In the winter of ‘98, as South Africa was still mending the most gaping wounds of Apartheid, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Tutu, was powerfully divided. The TRC was created to determine the true history of segregation and thus pave the way to healing, but it was helplessly stuck over the issue of whether to pardon a particular slate of ANC members. Tutu led the group on a three-day retreat to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for so many years. After one day of wandering through the living history, the group was ready for the inevitable slog of negotiation and unhappy compromise. But the morning of the second day, Tutu had other plans: “Today,” he said, “is to be a day of silence. Today we have to become so quiet that we can hear the Lord speak.”
So directed, the group dispersed: some to sit by the lapping waves, some to sit among the historic ruins. At sunset they reconvened, and shared their testimony: “The Lord made me realize how closely knit we have become!” “The Lord made me aware of the thousands of people praying for us.” And one woman in a soft voice began to sing:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble;
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Today we have to become so quiet that we can hear the Lord speak. We have to become so quiet…