He Strengthens Me – June 21, 2015 – Philippians 4: 1 – 13

(This sermon is my address to the congregation regarding the shooting in Charleston’s Emmanuel AME church.)

Back in May, the comedian Louis CK hosted the season finale of Saturday Night Live. His opening monologue was very funny as you would expect of a comedian host. It was remarkable that he was able to address some hot button issues and keep the audience laughing. He talked about the Middle East, child molesters, and racism.

He identified himself as a child of the 70s who is mildly racist. He named the 70s as a racist time in history, as much of American history has been. He called his racism, mild and benign. He named that his racism is more of an awareness. For instance, if he were to go to a pizza parlor for the first time and it is run by 4 black women, he’ll go, “Hmm.” He’ll notice that the owners are not the expected owners of a pizza place. He calls that mild racism.

I can relate to that. I wouldn’t say I’m racist, but I notice when things seem out of the ordinary. For instance, a friend of mine was watching the news about the black teens at the pool party in Texas a few weeks back. She said, “What are those teens doing in a nice neighborhood?” She noticed that we wouldn’t normally expect to see a group of black teens in an affluent neighborhood. I admit, I thought the same thing. We, white people, take notice when we see people who are different from us in neighborhoods that are predominately white. Like Louis CK, I’d say I’m mildly racist as a product of my childhood context.

(I’m tempted to defend my mild racism based on my commitment to being a part of the Anti-Racism / Pro-Reconciliation ministry of the Christian Church in Illinois and Wisconsin. Though, what I do as an ally of the black community to raise awareness of systemic racism is not an excuse for the deep seated prejudice within. I participate in the AR/PR ministry because of the darkness within me. I confessed this sin before my congregation in hopes of helping the congregation recognize their prejudice, because I believe that if you grew up in a predominately white context, as most of us did, you probably have some prejudice.)

I grew up in a small town much like Bethany; however, there was no diversity in our school. The only person who wasn’t white was an Asian boy who was really smart. There had been 2 black students at the school when I was in high school; both left the school within a year, because they were treated as if they weren’t welcome. Nobody called them names or made overtly racist gestures, but these black students weren’t embraced the way new white students were. I think that is mild racism.

I’ve been thinking about mild racism in relationship to the outright racism of the shooter in Charleston this week. There has been a lot of talk about racism in the news this week. There was Rachel Dolezal who was pretending to be black. I find it interesting that the news moved from focusing on someone who wants to be black to someone who wants to kill blacks.

I don’t know what we do about mild racism. I don’t know what to make of someone over-sympathizing with a group of people to the point that she wants to become one of them. I don’t know what we do about white supremacists. I think the best we can do is not perpetuate language and thought that may be mildly racist and hope future generations don’t inherit it from us…and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is hope, joy, love, and peace.

Our Scripture reading today talks about the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding. From the passage, I would think of peace as being a serenity that comes from giving over all our worries and petitions to God and trusting Him. But, I think about Christ as the Prince of Peace and what that means from the Old Testament. Peace is then a way of life marked by reconciliation, work to be in relationship with others, trusting in God against all reason. Peace requires work, not passive existence.

My clergy Facebook groups were full this week of comments about how pastors around the nation were going to talk about racism in America. I came across a litany written by a pastor, Shawna Bowman, who is the pastor of a small, white congregation, like us. I want to share with you some of her thoughts. Her writing is about peace.

“Peace is not the absence of violence.

Peace is not quiet; Peace is not soft or gentle, not on this day.

This day, peace is demanding. Peace is angry. Peace will not sit by and let us pretend we’ve made it, when all we’ve really done is beaten down the brown and black bodies that carry the evidence of our injustice, that speak the truth of the hatred we’ve too-long justified.

It is time. It is time to truly seek peace.

If peace is truly what we seek then we must not turn away from the truth.

Peace is the breaking open of hearts, yours and mine.

Peace is looking into the world with our eyes wide open, not blind to color, but in awe of it.

Peace is lifting the veil from our assumptions and our leanings towards supremacy.

Peace is facing the deep seeded fear and prejudice within each of us.

Peace is confrontation. Peace is stubbornly refusing to abide by hate. Peace will make you careful and thoughtful and awkward. Peace will ask you to take risks. To call out ignorance, bigotry and hatefulness – even when it is small, even when it’s only a joke, even when the person doesn’t mean it, doesn’t know better, or doesn’t seem to care.
The very beginning of peace will be found in the river of compassion that flows into our cracked-open hearts when we call out the names of our sisters and brothers, when we see these faces, when we take this in…

This is Christ’s peace. This stubborn, demanding, angry, agitating for justice peace.

May this peace of Christ be with you.”

In the time of Christ, Pax Romana was the rule of the day. There was relative peace among the empire. The Romans occupied and oppressed all the territory where Christ ministered. Any uprisings were quickly squelched by the Roman soldiers who patrolled and monitored the streets.
When Christ entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey on Palm Sunday, there was a much more spectacular parade on the other side of town. Roman soldiers and leaders entered on their horses demanding the cheers and praise of all of the citizens who gathered, and many gathered. During this time, the Temple was trying to keep peace with the Roman governor so they could continue to worship God with little interference from the Romans.

Then, Jesus starts preaching the Kingdom of God. And, that got Him killed. Jesus showed us that preaching an alternative to the status quo,
preaching a new world order,
preaching as the Prince of Peace will get you killed.
Preaching peace is dangerous. But, that’s what the church is called to do.

The Apostle Paul says that we shouldn’t be anxious. We should pray with thanksgiving and present our petitions to God. And, then, the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. This is a great Scripture to read when we’re anxious and worried, when we don’t know if God is at work, when we’re getting impatient waiting on God. Then, we skip a couple verses and are reassured that we can learn to be content in all situations through Him who gives me strength. I think there is great material here to give us comfort and courage when we need it.

We can also take it as a call to mission. The peace of God which Paul talks about is what the people needed in a time when Christians were being persecuted in the Roman empire, when people are worried for their safety when they gathered for worship. Paul says that through this he is able to persevere in faith because Christ gives him strength to continue preaching the Gospel. Between peace and strength, Paul encourages his brothers and sisters to reflect on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable.

Paul’s words may be a call to action to the Philippians church to continue to do what is right in the face of persecution. Perhaps it is a call to us to preach the Gospel of hope, joy, love and peace in the face of violence and hatred. Nine innocent people were killed when they gathered for prayer and Bible study. They were targeted because their church had a history of preaching the Gospel in the face of persecution, violence and hatred. It is dangerous work to be ambassadors of peace, but He will give us strength to do what is noble and right in His Name.

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