(Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28)
Sin is defined as separation from God, and the clearest sign – according to the Bible – of separation from God is separation from each other. The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, (in other words, don’t be separated from God) and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself (in other words, don’t be separated from your neighbor). We sin when we don’t love God faithfully and when we don’t love our neighbor faithfully. And, the clearest sign that we are not loving God faithfully is not loving our neighbor faithfully.
Not loving others faithfully has expressed itself in different ways throughout history. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam blames Eve for convincing him to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and Eve blames the serpent. At the moment of blame, they stopped loving each other faithfully. The truth is, each of them sinned because each chose to sin, and each of them needed to take responsibility for his and her own choice. Instead of blaming, they could have repented, confessed, and asked for forgiveness. We might be living in the Garden of Eden, still, if that had happened!
Throughout the history of human beings, we have not loved each other as we should. We have oppressed, persecuted, and killed each other relentlessly through political structures, social structures, economic endeavors, invasions, and wars. These atrocities have stemmed from national governments, state governments, and local governments. Take any group of people and they can find a way to violate one another.
Currently, in the USA, we are experiencing a heightened state of violating one another. The sin of chattel slavery that was present at the founding of our country reverberates throughout our history and into our present time. (The legal definition of chattel slavery is, “A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.”) Sin creates a wound and, if the wound doesn’t completely heal, it will continue to make itself known. The sin of chattel slavery continues to make itself known in our country.
African slaves brought to the USA were violated mightily. Even those who participated in the slave trade as business people or slave owners violated themselves. We cannot violate another without violating ourselves. That’s why the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are all inextricably bound together in God, in whom we live and move and have our being and, when we violate that inextricable binding, we hurt everyone – even ourselves.
In addition to the sin of chattel slavery, there is the sin of conquering the Native Americans through invasion and war, and the subsequent sin of prejudice toward immigrants over the centuries America has existed. Each new wave of immigrants to America has had to deal with oppressive prejudice against them, including Italians, the Irish, Asians, Middle-Easterners, Latin Americans, Jews, and Catholics.
How is the sin of chattel slavery reverberating today: through the resurgence of white supremacy, which targets those who are not white and (a certain kind of) Christian, which labels them as “other,” and which seeks to keep them separate or “in their place.”
This is, indeed, a grievous turn of events for we in America and for we Christians. We worship the God of Jesus Christ, who came to remind us that each of us is a beloved child of God and that God desires that we live in loving communion, a loving communion that mirrors the Trinity: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in perpetual, loving communion with one another, and we were created to do the same. The apostle Paul stated this in his letter to the Galatians, where he said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
We were created to live in perpetual, loving communion with one another, but we didn’t do so and sinned grievously. We were saved by Jesus Christ and redeemed so that we could recognize that there is no essential difference between us, regardless of race, religion, economic status, gender, or anything else. When we make anything about us a condition for separation, oppression, and persecution, we are turning our backs to God and serving another master, one we call Satan or the Devil or Beelzebub.
The scripture passage from the Letter to the Romans makes clear how we, as Christians, are to treat others. Today is a Communion Sunday, so we don’t have time to go line-by-line through the passage, but I would like to highlight a few verses:
12:09 – Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good . . .
12:13 – . . . extend hospitality to strangers.
12:14 – Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
12:15 – Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
12:16 – Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
12:17 – Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
12:18 – If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
12:19 – Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."
12:20 – No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." (In other words, you shame them.)
12:21 – Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Malevolent forces – whether human or spiritual – always seek to separate and divide. They create conflict and division. They are doing so, now, in our country. But we can stand securely on the rock of our faith, keep our eyes on Jesus, and do what we are asked to do as Christians, which is to “hold fast to what is good.”
That is what a group of people did in the small, German town of Wunseidel in response to a neo-Nazi march to be held in the town. They “gathered pledges of financial support for an organization against Nazism for every meter the neo-Nazis walked. As the neo-Nazis marched, they encountered writing on the street thanking them for raising so much money to fight hate. [They] even set up water tables along the route to ‘thank’ the marchers,” and fed them bananas so that they could keep up their energy, which calls to mind Paul’s command, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (12:20). This group of people were brilliant: They denounced evil even while they held fast to the good.
These are dark times in our country, but there have always been dark times. Instead of caving in to the darkness and doing nothing or sinning ourselves, we can hold fast to what is good even as we denounce the evil. Remember, John, in his gospel, stated, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4-5). The darkness has not overcome the light of Christ, and it never will. Let us stand strong and straight, hold fast to the good, and shine forth the light of Christ. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, September 3, 2017, the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost.