Dear Centenary Family,
There is no doubt that these are challenging times in which to live. They are challenging times in which to be a Christian. We are still struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, wondering when, or if, life will ever return to some sense of normalcy. We are being forced to look at problems in our country that have long, difficult histories behind them—racism, police brutality, and injustice in a variety of forms. Some of us find ourselves torn between support for the goals of protests for more justice but uneasy about outbursts of violence and destruction of property. And all these things are happening as we in our denomination are in the midst of our own division and uncertainty about our future. We want the world to be more just and caring, but have to confess that often we as a church often can’t live up to the ideals we wish others to embrace.
One of the problems we as a mostly white congregation probably need to wrestle with is our white privilege—living in a culture where we do not have to worry about many of the things people of color have to worry about every day—things like how one will be treated in an encounter with police, or how lack of access to health care might impact one’s prognosis if you do become infected with the Coronavirus.
I was in a discussion yesterday where one Episcopal attorney I admire very much for his willingness to look at his own racism, and that of his congregation, acknowledged that one of the things that keeps us from making progress in our discussions about race is what he called the problem of white guilt. He elucidated. If we look honestly at the history of our country, and realize the intentional methods of discrimination people of color have faced—things like the denial of benefits of the G.I. bill to black soldiers who fought in World War II, and the intentional practice of red lining certain neighborhoods by banks to prevent African-Americans from having access to credit, thus contributing to our current disparity in wealth—it is almost too much too handle. It is too painful to look at. I think that’s right.
I’ve been trying to reframe some of the challenges we face right now in terms of our Wesleyan heritage and theology. First of all, while honest repentance is always involved in the process of redemption, we don’t need to let guilt stop us in our tracks. For one thing, we believe we’re all guilty! We’ve all sinned. Racism is certainly a problem for those who suffer its consequences. And it’s a problem for those of us who consciously or unconsciously harbor racist attitudes. (We all do, if we’d just be honest!) But theologically, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about our racism. It’s just another form of our sinfulness. If self-centeredness is one way to talk about the problem of original sin, well, we’re all struggling with that. What does God do with sin? We believe as Wesleyans, that through God’s preveneient grace, God makes us aware of our sin and need for a Savior. We believe that as we put our faith and trust in Christ, we are justified, or made right with God and accepted, in spite of our sin. But then, we also believe that God begins a work of grace within us to help us grow in grace so that the image of God in which we were created, marred and defaced by sin, begins to emerge more clearly over time. That image is seen most clearly when we begin to love like God loves.
So, one way to think of this time, is that is full of opportunities for us to experience God’s love for us in spite of our sin. But it is more than that. It is a time full of opportunities to move on toward perfection as Wesley would put it. And that perfection is a perfection in love. We have the opportunity to see God’s grace miraculously transform us from self-centered people to people who love without condition.
I’ve seen that kind of transformation take place in people’s lives. I’ve seen that grace at work here at Centenary. Think about our historical trajectory. One of the once leading churches in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a denomination formed because of racism, now aspires to be a church that bears witness to God’s love for all people. Wow! I think Wesley would say that is an example of God’s sanctifying grace at work.
Let’s not fool ourselves. We’re not there yet. All of us, myself included, are struggling to know how to love more fully, to become aware of our blind spots, our residual sin, our clinging self-centeredness.
As we worship, pray, and continue to serve together, we can help one another continue to grow in our capacity to love. I believe that in the days ahead the world is going to need healthy doses of God’s love. My prayer is that we will continue to be a congregation willing to examine our own struggle with sin in its many forms, humbly acknowledge the truth that we are all sinners, and joyfully accept God’s grace so that we might move beyond the paralysis of guilt and be transformed by the love that we’ve been freely given.
The sermon I’m working on for Sunday is based in Genesis 22:1-14 and my title is, “A Long Walk Home.”
I look forward to worshiping with you Sunday, and continuing this journey, even in these challenging times. Let’s see where God takes us, and how God changes us on this journey together!