May 24, 2020


One God, One People

Preacher:
Passage: John 17: 1-11

Bible Text: John 17: 1-11 | Preacher: Earl Zimmerman |  

Synopsis: Our Christian faith emphasizes qualities such as care, humility, and empathy which bond us to each other and to God. Jesus prays in John 17 that we might all be one just as he and God the Father are one. He asks God to make us a holy people and that we might be spared from the world’s corruptions. I’m deeply concerned that racism is one of the corruptions that has ensnarled the church. President Trump has taken American partisanship to a whole new level in his mean-spirited tirades against opponents, especially racial minorities. How can we explain that the most solid base of his support is white Evangelicals but also includes white mainline Protestants and white Catholics? How can we resist and transcend the demagoguery of fear and hate?

 

In my sermon two weeks ago, I talked about our human need for connection in relation to the need to self-isolate during the current pandemic. I referred to the former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy’s book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection” where he discusses the unique challenges we face in our busy, transient, and individualistic society.

Dr. Murthy says, “Christianity, like the other major religious traditions, emphasizes connective qualities such as care, humility, and empathy because they help bond congregants to one another and to God.”[1] I want to explore that more deeply. Ever since becoming our pastor almost eight years ago, I have been aware that building human connections poses special challenges for our churches here in the Metro DC area.

Finding ways to bond outside our regular worship services is especially difficult in our community compared to many other localities. I relate that to our busy lives, to transportation gridlock, and to our diversity. Even finding a time to hold our bi-monthly church council meetings can be a challenge because we need to plan around our busy work schedules, family responsibilities, and other activities.

When I first became our pastor, we had a delightful book club led by Michelle Sinclair. We met at the City of Fairfax library and it was a wonderful venue for learning to know each other better as we discussed different books. It was a place for people to test out our church without making a complete commitment. The same has been true of the youth meetings led by Johnny Hsu and Virginia Chen.

The adult Sunday School class, that regularly met before the worship service, was another place for people to connect as we studied the Bible or different topics related to Christian faith. That became impossible to sustain when various participants moved away. Then John Kliewer, who had helped lead it for years, became ill and passed away. We tried a mid-week evening study group in its place but were not able to get enough participants.

We have created other ways to connect such as our monthly potluck lunches following our worship service. This year, the need for social distancing has forced us to cancel that and other bonding events such as our annual church retreat. We’re now learning how to connect virtually. But it can’t take the place of physically gathering even though it allows some who live at a distance to join us.

Jesus’ disciples are actually listening in on his prayer life in John 17. It’s a heartfelt prayer as Jesus anticipates his approaching death and departure. Earlier, in chapter 14, he told them that he will not leave them as orphans. This is going to be tough but you will not be alone because God will send the Spirit Advocate to defend, help, and strengthen you.
When we allow the Spirit to work, loneliness and despair disappear. Relationships are renewed, and hearts become healthy. When we allow the Spirit to work, assurance abounds, and blessings bloom. Faith is formulated, and love is lifted.[2]
Jesus is praying that we may be one in the same way that he and God the Father are one. Biblical scholar Gerald Sloyan says that Jesus is calling on God to make us a holy people. While we are to be spared the world’s corruptions, we do not withdraw from the world in a gnostic way. Jesus expects the world to be a better place for his having been here, and his disciples’ too.[3] As Jesus and God the Father are one, we are also one

I’ve been thinking and praying about how we might be spared from the corruptions of our world while remaining engaged. At the beginning of this social distancing I read the biography of John Adams, the second president of our country. What stood out was the partisan spirt and bitter political divides that were part of our country from the beginning. This divide was related to the institution of slavery, which led to the Civil War almost a century later.

As God’s people, we will want to especially guard against such partisanship. This is part of the political culture of our two-party democracy and almost every national politician is infected by it to some degree. President Trump has, however, taken it to a whole new level with his mean-spirited tirades against opponents and especially against racial and other minorities.

He began his political career by propagating knowingly false birther conspiracies against former president Obama, insinuating that he was a Muslim born in another country. He has especially attacked immigrants, Hispanics, and black people, calling African countries names that I can’t even repeat in this sermon. He has discriminated against sexual minorities.

More recently he has been attacking China to hide his own failure to take necessary early action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He recently verbally abused a Chinese American reporter who questioned him about that. He’s known for verbally abusing women reporters of color. What’s especially concerning is the criminality and lawlessness of his administration. Our president consistently places himself above the law and repeatedly tells lies and accuses others of fabricated wrongdoings to divert attentions from his crimes. He’s a master demagogue.

We need to brace ourselves because this will get uglier as we approach the presidential election this fall. The president and some of his most fervent supporters are already claiming that the only way he will be defeated is if the election is stolen from him. We may even encounter a situation where his tries to postpone the election or refuses to concede.

I have never preached like this about a political leader before. I refuse to preach partisan sermons but this isn’t a partisan matter. It goes beyond conservative and progressive political persuasions. All people of conscience, no matter what your political persuasion, and especially followers of Jesus, must be able to call out such behavior for what it is. I’m deeply concerned about where our country’s heading and I’m especially concerned about our churches.

Our president has tapped into a deep political reservoir of white supremacy in American Christianity. African Americans have experienced this for a long time and can recognize it for what it is. Such white supremacy is especially prevalent among white Evangelicals but also among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. It’s one of our world’s corruptions that has entered the church.

It’s necessary to call this out for what it is. Our churches should be able to unequivocally affirm that we’re a community where God’s love transcends all human barriers that oppress people and exclude them from full participation. And that, while respecting differing beliefs and understandings among us, we commit ourselves to not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, gender, social and economic status or sexual orientation.”

As we have been working on this statement on full participation regardless of who we are as God’s children, our discussion focused almost exclusively on sexual orientation. I’m equally concerned about the other forms of discrimination in our churches, especially white supremacy and racial discrimination. This has deep roots in the institution of slavery, a founding sin of our nation. Many Christians supported slavery and even quoted the Bible to defend the indefensible.

We break such oppression by naming it and calling it out as sin. We recognize the roots of racism in ourselves, seeking forgiveness, and turning from it through the power of God’s Spirit at work in us. I also pray for our president, that God’s Spirit may convict him of the error of his ways, and that by the power of this same Spirit, he may repent and be healed.

While we hate the sin, we love the sinner. Dr Murthy tells of Derek Black a young man whose father was the founder of the white power website called Stormfront. His godfather was David Duke a former Grand Wizard of the KKK. Derek was deeply immersed in white supremist ideology when he became a college student at New College in Florida.

When a college message board outed Derek, he was widely condemned by much of the campus community. A few fellow students, however, reached out to connect and have thoughtful conversations with him. “Their willingness to listen and share with respect and compassion gradually changed his beliefs and helped him realize how destructive his original values had been.”[4]

Reflecting on this, Derek recognized “that real meaning and purpose in community comes from having a common cause rooted in belief. . . But when the beliefs that serve as a basis for connection are based on hatred and fear, they distill a poison that slowly corrodes the integrity of the community and, ultimately, the wellbeing of its people.”[5]

This is the challenge for American Christians. We will deny the gospel if we allow the poison of hatred and fear of others to distort our churches and our lives. It will destroy our Christian witness for generations to come. My prayer is that we will instead be able to confront and transcend the demagoguery of fear and hate, and that, in the words of a familiar spiritual, we will be able to live out the truth that:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

 

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
 

[1] Vivek Murthy, Together (HarperCollins), 65-66.

[2] Andre Johnson, “Reflections to the lectionary,” The Christian Century (May 6, 2020): 23.

[3] Gerald Sloyan, John: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 197.

[4] Vivek Murthy, Together (HarperCollins), 68.

[5] Ibid.

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