Trinity Sunday, Year A (June 7, 2020)

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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Racism/Original Sin and the Feast of the Holy Trinity
Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13;

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:13

In his book “Red Letter Christians,” Baptist pastor and professor of Sociology Tony Campolo tells of sitting down to dinner in a restaurant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Seated next to the front window, he looked up from his plate to discover three little boys with their faces pressed against the window, staring at his plate full of food. The waiter came by and pulled down the shade, “Don’t let them bother you, enjoy your meal.” (Campolo, “Red Letter Christians,” P. 24)
Campolo went on to point out that pulling the shade on the suffering of others has been for far too long a common habit among American Christians.

To be totally fair, for most of the last fifty years many of us have made fervent and sincere pronouncements about our principles of inclusivity and non-discrimination. We have reached out with both genuine concern and active assistance to people suffering as a direct result of America’s racial imbalance. But, as the week following the death of George Floyd has shown us, it has not been enough, not nearly enough. And we must confront the reason why not.

It has not been enough because it has been the moral and political equivalent of putting a band-aid on a broken leg. We have treated the wounded without confronting that which is doing the damage, the beast running wild in the vineyard of the Lord. We have been dealing with the symptoms of racism without dealing with racism itself.

There are two “dull doctrines” of the church that can be helpful to us as we think about this. One is the doctrine we celebrate today, the mystery of the existence of one God in three persons, the Holy Trinity. The other is the church’s much neglected and often maligned teaching about “original sin.”

It is no surprise that people don’t like the idea of original sin, nobody wants to believe that our beautiful little babies are “born bad to the bone.” But original sin isn’t that – it isn’t about being born bad and only being made good by baptism. Original sin is a theological idea about the very nature of human existence. Our reading from Genesis one is a liturgical, poetic telling of the creation story. It reminds us that God made us and everything that exists – that over and over and over again God looked at what God had made and pronounced it good. The divine intention was goodness and harmony and peace.

But, as human history shows us in dismal and depressing detail, how “not-good” we are capable of being. Though we are created good, both our individual actions and the societies we create produce bad results, even when we act and create with the best of attitudes and intentions. Saint Paul summarized it perfectly in Romans 7:15 “For I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

In THE MESSAGE, Eugene Peterson translates it this way; “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”

That is original sin: We say we’re not racist, we try to treat everyone fairly and equally, we reach out to those hurt by racism, we make efforts to structure our churches, our workplaces, and our communities in accord with our outward commitment to equality. . . .

And yet – we must admit that if we are white, we are a part of the problem. Perhaps not intentionally or consciously, but because white privilege, has for 400 years been built into the very DNA of American society. Simply put, if you are white in America, you benefit from institutional racism. This is where the doctrine of original sin comes in. Original sin teaches us that just being human makes us sinful. It is built into the human moral condition. It is not something we choose to be, it is part of who we are. “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”

To say “if you are white in America you participate in white privilege” grates on some people. Many don’t feel privileged, don’t feel like they have received any great advantages in life. “Life is hard,” we think, “Everybody’s got problems to overcome.” Well, think about it this way: whatever problems you may have in life, if you’re white, being a person of color isn’t one of your problems and it doesn’t make your other problems worse. In America, it can easily be demonstrated, historically and statistically, that being a person of color is a problem in and of itself, and it makes all your other problems worse.

The important question is this: are we stuck in an endless cycle of good intentions and bad outcomes, of a shrugging forgiveness and tolerance of our own sins but no real help and change for those whom our racial sin hurts and hurts deeply? When I was a child and was caught being bad, I often cried out to my mother, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.!” One day she grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “I know you’re sorry. You’re always sorry. What I want to know is what you’re going to do about it.”

Our Second Lesson for today comes from another of Paul’s letter, this one to the church in Corinth. It is a line most Lutherans hear every Sunday as the Pastor greets the congregation following the entrance hymn. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:13

Most Sundays over the last 40 years I have said it without thinking very deeply about it, other than that the language has a nice warm feel to it: “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, love of God, communion of the Holy Spirit” – but a deeper look reveals the beginning of the path out of our racial/spiritual wilderness.

The words “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” invoke the early Christians’ basic conviction and message – that the human being Jesus of Nazareth died upon a cross and three days later God raised him back to life. This death and resurrection changed forever our human condition, and was done – not because of anything we humans had done to deserve it but because of the grace shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The words “love of God,” remind us not only that God in Christ acted to save us, but that God, from the very moment of creation, has acted toward all people of every race and nation with love and grace.

And the words, “communion of the Holy Spirit” tell us that our commonality, our togetherness, is not our creation, not something we make happen. We are made by God and connected to one another by God.

This blessing, repeated Sunday after Sunday, is a call to let God’s grace, love and communion live in us, and through us, in the world.

It is our calling to remember that our sins, including our racial sins, including our original racial sin, are always being forgiven by God’s grace in Christ. It is also our calling to show that grace to others, both in forgiving them their sins and in accepting the responsibility for the harm our sin has caused to others.

It is our calling to allow God to love us, even when we are the unlovable, sinful, and unrepentant. It is also our calling to love others, most especially when they are unlovable, and sinful, and unrepentant. And it is important that the love we share with them not be indulgent and cheap. It must be costly love, cruciform love, love that calls all of us through the eye of the needle of painful change and reconciliation.

It is our calling to pay attention to the communion of the Holy Spirit in our midst and to see and honor that communion, that connection with God that all people have – even when it is obscured by the rancor and division we have allowed to grow up between us. As God forces the original sin of separation to dissolve, we must trust that all people are God’s people and begin to live in the new kingdom of God’s love and hope, even while the fog and fear of the old kingdom of hate and distrust still reigns.

In the end, the only thing that keeps us tied to a socio-political system that props us white privilege, making people of color into second-class citizens, is our unwillingness to fully and completely embrace and trust the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

In his book, Dr. Campolo did not tell us what he did after the waiter pulled the shade. There are several things he could have done:

1) He could have shrugged his shoulders and, agreeing with the waiter, ate his dinner in peace, tossing a few coins in the directions of the boys as he left the restaurant.

2) He could have bowed his head and thanked God for his food and prayed that God would, somehow, make things better for those little boys.

3) He could have ordered three more plates and invited the boys in to eat with him.

4) He could have found them a place in an orphanage that his church supported, making sure they were better cared for in the future.

Or, he could have done a variation on all those things, knowing full well they were all “band-aids on a broken leg.” Then he could have also found a way to get involved in the long, hard, frustrating, unrewarding work of bringing about change in the society that had left those boys wandering the streets, on the outside looking in.

This week of racial unrest in this country has reminded us that we cannot pull the shade, we cannot not simply push back down those who have risen up in protest. We are called to repent of our original sin of white privilege, and to step out in whatever way we can to change what is broken in this world, remembering always God’s promise and blessing:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:13

Amen and amen.