Diversity Day

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015
Text: John 12:20-32, Romans 14:1-12
Preached at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, Blacksburg, Virginia

You’d think that a bunch of seminarians would be able to get the Lord’s Prayer right, but we never quite got it. One of the beautiful things about daily chapel at Princeton Seminary was that it combined so many different worship and theological traditions together — we had folks from all over the Protestant spectrum and with a whole host of different backgrounds, and every chapel service was a chance to find that intersection between your own story and the story of the person sitting next to you. Until it came to the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our… debts? trespasses? debts? trespasses?

Rumor had it that by tradition Princeton was a campus that used the traditional Presbyterian language of “debts” but that sometime in the past few decades a dissident movement had emerged to try and diversify the chapel experience, but the result had been that every time we got to that line in the Lord’s Prayer, the whole service would break down, everybody would just say whatever they wanted to say. Debts. Trespasses. Debts. Trespasses. And it seems to me that in one sense of course what we were doing was celebrating the rich theological diversity on the Princeton Seminary campus. It was our Pentecost moment, a little chaotic, but we all knew what everybody else was saying. On the other hand of course it’s possible that what we were really doing was engaging in a kind of passive-agressive catfight about Biblical translation and all that goes with it, and doing so in a place of worship, of all things. Just remember, kids: when you say the Lord’s Prayer, you’re not just praying to God, you’re also casting your vote for which is the most righteous theological tradition. Choose carefully. And loudly!

My suggestion — which is of course the right one — was that we just install some kind of neon sign at the front of the chapel, not unlike those roadside motel “No Vacancy” signs. “Today’s Lord’s Prayer will feature: Debts. Trespasses. Debts. Trespasses.” Everyone just do whatever the neon light tells you to do. But of course maybe it really is simply the rich theological diversity of the community. And of course the real truth is that we had just given up. Nobody liked it, nobody could fix it, we just put our heads down and did it. But of course, the truth is that the broader church is no more put together than our little seminary chapel. We don’t go to the same place on Sunday morning. We don’t sing the same hymns. Sometimes it feels like we don’t even read the same Bible. We definitely don’t say the same Lord’s Prayer. What does it mean for us to try and celebrate the unity of the church when the reality is that we are infinitely fractured, scattered, and segregated. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we gather this morning in a privileged and predominantly white congregation in a privileged and predominantly white denomination to listen to a privileged and entirely white preacher talk about World Communion Sunday, so let me ask you this: have we given up on the visible signs of our common life together? Have we given up on visible signs of the diversity of the one church God has given us?

That’s a heavy question, so let’s talk about food. For Paul, like for all good preachers, the problem starts with food. For Paul, the communion table is a metaphor for the church, as he writes Corinthian church that the way we approach this table is meant to be a visible sign of who we are. The rich folks are stuffing themselves, and the poor ones are going hungry, and Paul won’t have it. But today’s text from Romans feels a bit more comfortable with diverse approaches to the table of fellowship. It seems like the Roman congregation has been asking some questions about their obligation to old Jewish kosher laws. “Some believe in eating anything,” Paul says, “while the weak eat only vegetables.” (side note: it may seem abstract, but for those of us who love bacon this is critical stuff.) He continues, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat … Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?”

Now, let’s give this church some credit where credit is due. Back in Corinth the people are on the brink of tearing itself in two; they can barely stand to be in the same room with each other and Paul is barely holding them together. But these Romans seem more committed to the cause. Some of them are going to eat whatever they want and some of them aren’t and that’s great, they are respecting the diverse practices within their own congregation. Except, of course, that they aren’t, really. “Those who eat must not despite those who abstain,” Paul says. “Those who abstain must not pass judgment.” Which of course he wouldn’t be saying unless they actually were despising and judging each other. I imagine they are not sitting around one shared table. I imagine instead coming in the front door for the first time and figuring out exactly what table you belong at — maybe that table in the front, with all the bacon-wrapped shellfish — or, you know, the one in the back, with the weaklings and the hummus, “Look at all the different traditions we have in our church,” they might say… “each in their own place.”

All of which means I think that Paul is just a little bit less impressed with diversity than it might first appear. Yes, of course, it’s all well and good that the Roman congregation has folks with such different eating habits. But that doesn’t cover over the fact that they’re using those differences for the purposes of exclusion and rejection. It doesn’t cover over the fact that they’re using those differences to talk about who gets to be strong and who gets to be weak. What Paul sees in this congregation is really an abuse of power — somebody’s sitting in the front, and somebody’s sitting in the back, and somebody’s getting to decide who goes where. What Paul sees underneath this celebration of diversity is really the callousness of the human heart that uses diversity for its own selfish purposes. What Paul sees is that we can be diverse on the outside and still fundamentally broken on the inside.

Call it a debt. Call it a trespass. Either way. What Paul sees is that diversity is just the hand we’re dealt. What we do with it is called segregation.

When I was growing up we lived for a while in Atlanta, Georgia, and for a few years I attended a magnet school near downtown Decatur. The whole point of this magnet school of course was that Dekalb county was one of the most segregated counties in the country and the magnet program was in effect a school busing initiative in disguise. It brought white kids from the suburbs and black kids from the inner city together into the same classroom in the hopes of patching over some of the city’s deep racial wounds. Of course as 5th graders we didn’t fully understand the politics of why we were there. Until one day when a member of the School Board came to take a walking tour of the school. We were a bit of a petri dish, and people always wanted to look inside. But what I remember from that day was my fifth grade teacher explaining to us that just for a few minutes we all needed to get up from our chairs and rearrange ourselves to look a little bit more “integrated.” You know, let’s not have all the white kids sitting together. Let’s break it up a bit. Let’s make this school look on the inside the same way it looks on the outside.

Of course after our VIP had come and gone we went back to our regular corners. Of course we did, because we sat with our friends, and we were friends with the people we rode the bus with, and we rode the bus with people who lived in the same area of town we did because that’s how you make bus routes that make sense, and of course we lived in areas of town with people who looked just like us because in general white families had the privilege of purchasing homes wherever they wanted to and in general black families did not. Atlanta was then and is now an incredibly diverse city, and incredibly segregated. Diversity is the hand we were dealt. What we did with it was segregation. And as you might guess, the classroom is a metaphor for the school, the school is a metaphor for the city, and the city is a metaphor for the whole country: you can rearrange the seating just for a minute but the reality is when the day is over those with privilege and power will retreat to the corner they have made for themselves. And we did.

The corner we have made for ourselves.

After all, we in the church are not immune, even and especially on the day we celebrate World Communion Sunday. There is something undeniably beautiful about this day in the church calendar. In the music, in the decoration, in the the message we proclaim there is this deep reminder of the diversity of the church God has given to us, of the far-flung fellowship of believers of which we are but one small part. But I’m not so sure that “celebrate” is the right word. After all, the Presbyterian Church USA is 91% white. That’s not an outlier: most denominations in this country are overwhelmingly racially homogeneous. And of course what’s true for a denomination is true for a local church: most congregations in this country are places of extreme racial polarization, as Dr. King famously observed that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11:00 onSunday morning,” even this Sunday morning, even World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we most feel the gulf between the diversity of the church God has given to us and the segregation we have done in response. So maybe “celebrate” isn’t the right word.

The alternative, of course, is incredibly hard work. You know. This congregation has been at the forefront. In 1881 Blacksburg Presbyterian Church began outreach services to the freed black community in the New River Valley. At first people flocked to the new monthly worship but soon enough the crowds dried up, and this church admitted that the black preachers in the area “thought we were infringing on their rights.” That is, of course, that the black churches had quickly emerged as places of safety and security and resistance to a country full of white power and privilege. And of course they still are and understandably so. Which means that in a 91% white denomination our work is even more challenging. Because if we really want to respond faithfully to the gift of diversity God has given us — if we really want to create integrated and visibly diverse communities of worship — then it will take more than simply opening up the doors and dusting off the hospitality pads. Let’s not pretend that the burden of integration is on those who just can’t be bothered to come to our churches. Instead, let’s admit that the church is a metaphor for the city, and the city is a metaphor for the country, and the country is a metaphor for the whole human condition. Let’s agree that if we really want to create integrated and visibly diverse communities of worship, it begins outside these doors, in the struggle to eliminate the abuses of power and privilege that divide us before we ever get on the bus.

The good news, of course, is that we are not left to do this work alone: not on this day, and especially not in the days yet to come. As Paul navigates the diversity of this Roman church he, too, quickly turns his thoughts to days yet to come: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? “Why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus makes very much the same turn: some Greeks have invaded a Jewish festival and eventually Jesus’s final answer is to promise that when he is lifted up he will gather all people at his feet. In each text there is this hidden promise: that the invisible bonds we celebrate on this communion Sunday will appear on that day to come as the rich diversity of God in our midst, that we will on that day stand before God side-by-side with all those who on this day we consider only at a distance. That’s the good news: that what we celebrate today, if we celebrate today, is the promise of a day when the dividing wall actually comes down, a day when we all truly stand in the household of God, a day when we all get up out of our chairs and rearrange ourselves a bit and stay there, the rich diversity of God’s creation no longer subject to either our debts or our trespasses. That’s the good news. But it’s also the good work, and there’s plenty of work to be done.

Last fall I had the opportunity to go with a group of American Presbyterians on a study trip to South Africa, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of Apartheid. On the final morning of our pilgrimage we went to the early service of morning prayer at St. George’s Cathedral in downtown Cape Town. St. George’s is the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town, an office currently held by the esteemed Desmond Tutu, and the worst kept secret in Cape Town was that the Friday service of morning prayer was the one service of the week that Tutu himself would preside at. And so we went. And I had imagined it taking place in the main hall of the cathedral, a thousand of us squinting for a glimpse of this great man. But in fact this service was something more intimate — maybe 75 people, crammed into this side chapel where the pews surrounded the table on all sides.

The Archbishop is this tiny man with these bulging, laughing eyes. He may be both the oldest and youngest person I have ever met. And as serious as he was about the eucharist, he was equally joyful about welcoming folks to the table. Before we broke bread he asked anybody or any group who had not previously been to that service to stand and introduce themselves, and it turned out that we were pilgrims from everywhere. Members of an American yacht team, racing around the world. A large Norwegian youth group, in South Africa for recreation and formation. Alongside, of course, the people of St. George’s, and their friends from the upscale heights of downtown Cape Town and as well as from the townships around it. And then there was this group of African-American women, gathered up from churches all around the South, on their own spiritual pilgrimage. The one who introduced the group was coming from Waco, Texas — amazing, my parents live in Waco, Texas — and here we were gathered up halfway around the world.

Tutu began to read the words of institution — in English, and then in Khoso, and then in Zulu. Later, as the bread and wine were offered, the leader of this group of African- American women began to sing, they all began to lead us in singing, Let Us Break Bread Together. Let us drink wine together. Let us praise God together, on our knees. And somewhere as I sang along it struck me that I had not until this moment known what communion was. That we all had to leave home. That we all had to get on the bus. That we all had to be joined again, for the first time. In this new land. In this new home. Somewhere as I sang along it struck me that this moment was the feast of the kingdom itself. That the broken bread and shared cup had beckoned us from across every threshold of everything that divides us. It was ecstatic. It was other-worldly. It was grace.

And then the song finished, and we were dismissed to a time of greeting and passing of the peace. I went straight over to this woman from Waco. “I have family there!,” I said, and she lit up. And we tried to make some connection. Do you know such-and-such a neighborhood. Have you been to such-and-such a church? But we couldn’t find a shred of common ground. We didn’t have a thing to talk about. I didn’t know the areas she knew. She didn’t know the places I knew. And I admitted, well, my folks haven’t been there very long. But we both knew the truth: that an old black woman and a young white man could live in Waco together for years and never have their paths cross. I never would have known her neighborhood. I never would have gone to her church. I never would have heard her sing, save for the grace of God that took us both halfway around the world to share the table together.

And I tell you what. I hope that God grants me the grace to visit the kingdom again. I hope that I am blessed on that day to sit at that eternal feast and share the broken bread and the covenant cup with every child of God’s creation. But especially I hope I get to sit next to her. And I hope, by time I get there, that we have something to talk about.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s