Falling in love with my spouse, Jen, was a surprise. We sensed that our relationship was a sacred gift, one of our callings in life. And yet, we struggled mightily with our own internalized homophobia. And so, that summer, we rejoiced and we agonized. We barely understood what was happening to us. How could we explain it to anyone else? Amid this turmoil, Jen went to Zimbabwe for six months. She had been invited to serve as a young adult steward for the World Council of Churches Assembly in Zimbabwe and to live and work with the family of a local pastor there. We went through many pre-departure rituals and then she waved one last time. I sat on the trunk of my rusty old Toyota Camry in the airport parking lot until the time of her scheduled departure. I watched the planes lift off, wondering which one held the person who secretly mattered most to me in the world.
Jen had been advised that she should ask someone from home to “accompany” her through this experience that would surely bring profound disorientation. She had asked me to play that role months before we knew what was happening to us. I wrote to her every single day. Sometimes I went on for pages and pages and sometimes I only had the energy to scribble a few sentences. But the daily writing was a comforting and grounding ritual. At the end of each week, I gathered up whatever I had written and mailed it. The letters that came back from her described her immersion in another world. At one point Jen accompanied the pastor on a weeks-long trip to visit villages in the wilderness of rural Zambia. They were crammed into the back of a van with other “evangelists,” a projector, and the “Jesus” film produced by campus crusade for Christ. Adding to the surreal nature of this experience was the fact that she was the first white person many of the villagers had ever seen. The letters she wrote by kerosene lamp during that time came to me filled with bugs pressed into the fibers of the paper.
This twenty-year-old memory surfaced as I pondered Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is our summer focus. I’ve been wondering if this decision to preach on Romans for the next two months will be a blessing or a curse! Paul is difficult. There are so many problematic things in his letters regarding the role of women, slavery, sexuality. They are among the biblical texts that have been most misused over the centuries to fuel anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence. Romans, itself, was written to churches Paul didn’t found and had never visited, so it doesn’t feel personal. It is filled with long, complicated arguments and seemingly abstract ideas. The contemplative tradition speaks of scripture as food that we chew over until it nourishes our hearts. Which leaves me wondering: how does the Spirit move in such heady rhetoric? How does Romans speak to our hearts?
It helps me to think about Paul’s story, even as I muse over my own. Something utterly earth-shaking happened to Paul, something that filled him with joy and agony, and caused him to question everything he knew about himself and the world. This pivotal story is told in the book of Acts, chapter 9. In his early years, Paul was Saul, a devout Jew who was utterly, and violently opposed to his fellow Jews who followed the Rabbi Jesus. Saul was on his way to Damascus, “breathing threats and murder” against those who belonged to “the Way” of Christ. Saul suddenly saw a light from heaven flashing around him. He fell down on the road and was struck blind. He heard the voice of Jesus calling to him. For the next three days he couldn’t see, and he didn’t eat or drink. Finally, he was led to find help in the home of a follower of Jesus named Ananias. In this encounter, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his sight returned. He ate, gained strength, and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Friends, I think I have a pretty good guess what your reaction might be to this morning’s passage from Romans. Dying to sin, baptized into death, sharing in Christ’s resurrection. Uh, no thanks. Please pass the poetry of the Psalms, the justice-y fervor of the prophets, or one of the less-preachy stories from the Gospels. The core concepts of classic Christian theology—sin and grace, cross and resurrection—are the ones we seem to struggle with the most. I think there’s a very good reason for that. We’re in the midst of a new reformation, a foundational shift in consciousness that requires us to re-imagine everything about our theology, our spirituality, and our Christian story. As Diana Butler Bass puts it, it’s a “rummage sale of ideas” that happens about once every 500 years. We’ve known for decades now that something new is trying to get born from the ashes of a faith mortally injured by empire, slavery and genocide.
These last three months; however, have added a breathless sense of urgency to this transformation. I don’t know about you, but I felt myself hitting a wall this week. I literally have a dozen tabs open on my internet browser at all times—many of them are articles I intend to read, videos I must watch. I need to learn so much about policing, and about the decades, even centuries, of re-imagining community safety that have gone on right under my oblivious nose. ISAIAH has issued a call to support the Minneapolis City Council in putting forth a ballot initiative calling for a change to the city charter, to remove the requirement that there be a police department with a certain number of officers. That language would be replaced by something new about a department of community safety that might or might not include police officers within it. It would also free the city from a toxic relationship with the police federation, which, under the current charter, the city cannot leave. This move is necessary, council members argue, so that we can actually implement whatever the city can imagine together over this next year, as we center the voices and experiences of people of color. I know it is radical proposal. And I don’t have all the answers about it. The perfectionistic tyranny of white supremacy that has colonized my mind wants the answers before moving to action.
Tre Johnson titled his June 11 Washington Post commentary with bluntness: “When Black People Are in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs.” He describes, with sorrow and rage, how those of us who move through the world with privilege react to the constant, unrelenting terror that people of color endure simply for being alive. Our predicable cycles of outrage and apathy, passion and paralysis have the effect of ensuring the situation can never change. I love reading and learning and discussing and I’m going to keep that up. However, I believe it’s crucial that white people do more right now than have book clubs. The time has come to surrender ourselves to the energy of this moment, to act in accordance with a new vision even without full knowledge of how it will be implemented.
Let’s remember, as we wrestle with Romans, that though Paul’s letters sound like abstract treatises, they are grounded in a deeply personal transformation, an unforgettable experience of coming alive. Just close your eyes for a moment. Listen with your heart. Think about your own life.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life. . . . We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
In other words, it is possible, here and now, in this life, to be fully alive. Getting there is a death and resurrection experience, because of sin. Sin is the mucky water we’re all swimming in; it’s the polluted air we’re all choking on. Sin is not an individual problem. It is our collective, systemic failure to live the love and justice that is our truest nature and deepest calling. Baptism into Christ is full immersion in grace that sweeps us out into the great deep, the primordial waters in which God creates. It is a soaring, surrendering, terrifying leap into systemic health. It is earth-shaking and frame-bending. It fills us with joy and agony. It causes us to question everything we know about ourselves and the world. Friends, when have you died like this and lived like this, even for a moment? I don’t believe that Jesus is going to swoop in and eradicate all suffering and injustice. I do believe that, in Christ, we can die to the hold sin has on us. We can receive the vision, the power, and the courage to walk in the imperfect, fragile newness of life he shows us, one step at a time. We can wake up each day and make the decision again to let God’s guidance, God’s peace, and God’s energy come alive in us. Amen.