Sermon June 7, 2020 Exam Time IICor13:5ff Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever had the exam dream? It's not always about an actual exam, of course. Presumably it takes whatever form is most consistent with our own deepest apprehensions about being 'tested' on some kind of content we're meant to know....
But it's the dream about arriving at a moment that demands preparedness, and we're unprepared.
I've heard from many theatre-people in our congregation about the on-stage version, where in the dream there's the sudden horrified realization that you never learned your lines, or possibly didn't even know you'd actually been CAST in this play, and what play IS this anyway....
My own personal version, apart from the regular exam-dream version in which I always arrive at the exam realizing that I've never attended the class – with the classroom always weirdly a classroom in my high school about which in real life I have only good memories...
But my own personal clergy version is unsurprisingly landing in a pulpit with no sermon. Kind of predictable and boring, except for the fun mysterious part where it's ALWAYS and every time, the pulpit at St. Andrew's. Which at least is kind of amusing, at least once I've woken up and gotten through shaking it off.
Because the exam dream, in whatever manifestation, does always require a certain amount of shaking-off. That feeling of not being ready, not meeting the moment at precisely the moment when the moment needs to be met – it is NOT a good feeling. It's a relief when we realize it's just a dream, but the feeling of it can kind of linger.
There's an uneasiness, a discomfort. It needs some shaking off, when it's permeated us in a dream. "Not cool, subconscious mind," we tell ourselves, and we bat it away for the rest of the day until it goes away.
"Am I meeting this moment". The very fact that the exam dream even EXISTS is testimony to how profoundly that's a question that we carry in our bones. In the centre of our humanness, at the heart of who we are.
"Am I meeting this moment" – we do have expectations of ourselves. That we'll rise to the occasion. That the principles we hold most strongly will manifest in our words and in our actions when they're demanded.
What we hope for is that we'll meet the moment. Our entirely human subconscious worry is that we won't. Our best human response to living between these two poles is to keep trying. God being our helper.
But sometimes, in some moments, and notwithstanding all the trying, what's actually required is for us to succeed. To meet the moment and rise to the occasion and manifest the principles we hold most strongly... for real.
It's certainly true that Paul the Apostle, in his various letters to various congregations in the ancient Mediterranean basin that are in our Newer Testament, is not notable for being gracious about just "giving it all our best effort" and trophies for participation.
Paul the Apostle is one seriously passionate preacher and when he exhorts the early Christians to meet various moments in various ways, he tends if anything to display very little patience with mitigating circumstances and moderate half-measures.
The faithfulness he works to nurture in the earliest Christians can't be separated from its principles. Faith in an unconditionally loving God who desires mercy and peace and justice can't be separated from actively living in ways that are merciful and peaceful and just, as grounding principles. And Paul's not exactly famous for letting that slide.
But sometimes, in his letters that are part of our Newer Testament, he's actually even MORE vehement about it.
Which frankly is saying something, given that his resting level is JUST DO IT – but he does in fact have an extra-strength level.
And it's what we get from him in the passage from II Corinthians that we heard earlier. It's actually one of the reasons why the specific letters from Paul that are in our Newer Testament have a specifically meaningful value to us. Because they're not 'theoretical'. They're written to actual people about actual events those people are actually dealing with. And so they give us insight into faithfulness beyond 'theory'. They give us insight into faithfulness 'on the ground', as it were, in the earliest church.
In the case of the second letter to the Corinthians -- that is, to the little church in the city of Corinth and all the Corinthian people in that little church -- the 'on the ground' that Paul's addressing is pretty much a whole lot of arguing over who's the BEST at being Christian...
... and who's not at all good at it and should obviously be chucked out. They've been bringing some fun lawsuits against each other over what 'real Christians' eat and don't eat, and how 'real Christians' pray and don't pray, and what this whole "share everything in common" actually means and who gets to decide –
They're just a mess of conflict. Which Paul's already addressed to some degree in his FIRST letter to them, and now he's given it a go afresh in this second letter.
But he's losing patience. He never had a ton in the first place, and with the church in Corinth? It's rapidly depleting. And so as he's closing out his second letter to them, he ramps things all up to full strength.
Sometimes, in some moments, what's required is not trying but succeeding. Meeting the moment and rising to the occasion and manifesting the principles held strongly that are not optional... for real.
So what does Paul say to the Corinthians in the mess they're in? "Examine yourselves," he says to them. "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith."
"Test yourselves," he says to them. "Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?"
"Unless," he says to them, "you FAIL to meet the test. And I hope you will not find we have failed." He's speaking here, of course, of his own and the disciples' failure to CONVEY to the Corinthians what living the faith actually looks like –
But ultimately the point for the Corinthians is to test themselves. To examine themselves. IS the faith living within them? ARE they rising to the occasion? ARE they meeting the moment at hand with an active living visible manifestation of the principles that that faithfulness can't be separated from... if it's really faith in a loving God who desires mercy and peace and justice. If it's really faith in the loving God who if all of that God were squished up into a person, would act and speak and be like Jesus.
Paul's already, um, passionate under any circumstances. But this is extra-strength Paul. Who's looking at this maelstrom the Corinthians are currently labouring within and saying, you know what? Enough. Examine yourselves. Test yourselves.
Are you operating within this moment AS CHRISTIANS, OF PRINCIPLE, faithful to the example and spirit of Jesus within you? Because I hope, he says to them, that you are.
Sometimes what's required is not just trying but succeeding. Sometimes what's required is meeting the moment and rising to the occasion and manifesting the principles held strongly that are not optional... for real.
To be honest, I think we're sort of always in that moment. Just one of the many reasons why mercy is perhaps God's greatest characteristic, and humility should pretty much always be ours. There's a reason we append "God being our helper" to basically all the things, and it's because 1) we need help, and b) we really really need help.
But stll... there are moments and occasions when we CAN and when we MUST ante up with clarity. To articulate a principle because it's fundamental to our faith.
I saw a video a couple of days ago that you may have seen too. There are a lot of videos we're all watching. I just want to talk about one. It was taken in Buffalo, NY, and it was a team of riot police walking along to clear a sidewalk, and an older white man – he was 75 – walked toward them and was shoved to the ground. He hit his head and was bleeding.
And over and over, in the responses to that video, what a whole load of people kept saying was that it was his fault, he should've known better. Than to walk up to riot police like he had. That it was hardly the police's fault – he was asking for it, he literally walked right up and got in their faces. That if he didn't want to get shoved, he shouldn't have approached them. That they were doing their job. And it's on him.
That reaction was incredibly telling. And I want to focus on the particularity of that 75 year old white man, as opposed to what we should all know quite well is the broader context of the racism – here as much as elsewhere – that shrieks out its own urgency to be addressed in this regard –
Because the reaction to the particularity of that 75 year old white man is ITSELF telling. It speaks to our acceptance as a culture of a reality in which we've ceased to automatically expect our police to exercise the same degree self-control that we expect of each other.
Now, I'm not saying that a great many actual police don't in fact exercise self-control all the time. In fact, I suspect they do. What I'm saying is that those responses suggest that we've ceased as a society to automatically expect it.
If there was a time when we might have automatically expected that the first response to a 75 year old unarmed white man approaching a wall of police wouldn't be him shoved to the ground, we've apparently passed that time. So that it's "on him" for approaching in the first place.
That's a degree of normalizing social brutality that makes this a 'moment' we need to meet, as people of Christian faith. An 'occasion' to which we need to rise. Not that there aren't broader implications because of racism that make it manifestly less likely that most of us in our congregation are ever going to actually experience this normalizing of social brutality – and that's a whole moment and occasion too –
But a normalized social brutality, letting go of the automatic expectation that police will exercise the same degree of self-control that we expect and require of one another and ourselves, it can't just sit there, and we don't react to it as people of faith. It can't.
Because in the same way that it was people of faith who asked out loud "what does it say about a society that grants itself the right to murder?" in relation to conversations about capital punishment...
It now has to be at least people of faith who ask out loud "what does it say about a society that grants itself the right to go straight to a shove?" And even, frankly, straight to a lot worse.
What it says is that we've come to accept as normal and rational and reasonable a degree of brutality that is none of those things.
I think we started accepting it in situations we imagined and understood warranted them. And believe me, I don't live in fairyland in this regard. But what happens is that it seeps out -- as such things do -- into our cultural ethos. Just as it's the countries with the death penalty that have the highest murder rates, it's where social institutional brutality becomes most normalized that brutality itself becomes most normalized.
And that is not a good thing.
The Apostle Paul looked at the Corinthians with all their conflicts and he hit the wall. "Examine yourselves," he said to them. "Test yourselves. You KNOW how you're called to be as people of faith – are you actually doing it?"
It's kind of intimidating. But he's not wrong. Because there ARE times when all our best principles in theory are pretty much dust if we're not making them real.
So I think this is a testing moment. I think it's a waking up and listening moment, in terms of making ourselves aware of the very real racism in this place that roughly 98% us may never have experienced ourselves, but I think it's actually a testing moment for all of us as people of faith.
Because I don't believe that we want this to be a place in which social brutality is normalized. In which we cease to automatically expect the same self-control in those we've armed to protect us as we expect from each other, and then that pervades what life is like here.
And as people of faith, we don't just 'get' to speak to what we want life to be like here. We're actually meant to. Especially on behalf of those who are less safe and more vulnerable than we are.
So this is a testing moment. Does our faith compel us to meet it and rise to the occasion? I hope it does. I hope we can be courageous and firm and clear.
Because if this is a testing moment, the good news is that we ARE prepared. Our faith is deeply grounded in principles of mercy and peace and justice, and in the example of Jesus who embodied them. We know how to be, and what we hope for. We know what to write to those who need to hear it.
Paul hoped the Corinthians would trust they were prepared and rise to the occasion. And they did! God being our helper, we can too. Amen.