Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Center Holds

[Sermon from Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015]
It is a bitter irony that we find ourselves this morning honoring Veterans’ Day and the armistice that ended the Great War, while Europe reels in the wake of Friday’s attack on France, the nation where World War I finally came to an end.  The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for what France yesterday called an act of war.  As voices clamor for retaliation, our call as followers of the Prince of Peace is to pray for peace, as well as the justice true peace demands.  Those who’ve perpetrated horror must answer for their actions.  And the other 99 percent of the followers of Islam must be loved as they follow their way of peaceful surrender to God.
It’s been a tough week.  Closer to home, we’ve seen the fraying of our state’s social fabric on the national news once again this week, as the University of Missouri became the latest flashpoint of our nation’s racial conflict.  We’ve seen reports of racial slurs hurled at students, vandalism of dorms, a hunger strike, threats posted on social media, and the removal of the university’s president and chancellor – all in the space of a little more than a week.  It was hard even to keep up with the story’s unlikely twists and turns as the days passed.
Amid the chaos and heartbreak of the past week’s news, I found myself remembering a poem composed a year after the Great War ended.  It’s “The Second Coming,” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  As Yeats wrote almost a hundred years ago, so it seems to be today: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”1
We could see that breakdown of the center in the coverage of the protests at Mizzou.  I was struck by a poignant video posted on social media and reported by The Kansas City Star.2  It shows former university President Tim Wolfe being confronted on the street by a group of black students.  It’s especially sad to me because the president knows the conversation is going to fail before it even begins.  A student asks him, “What do you think systematic oppression is?”  Wolfe says, “I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”  He may not understand systematic oppression, but he does understand that he and the students inhabit very different realities.  So he says it a second time:  “I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.  Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe you have equal opportunity for success….”  And that’s all you can hear of his response, because the students shout him down, demanding, “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression?!”  And then Wolfe turns and walks away.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” 
So what about the content of the students’ question?  Does the controversy at Mizzou reflect racism at a systemic level?  To me, that’s the real question underlying the racial discord our nation has been experiencing, especially in the past year.  We’ve seen a pattern:  Something happens that spurs the anger of black citizens, whether it’s conflict with the police, or black people being shot at church, or university administrators ignoring protests.  Whatever it is, something happens – and two competing narratives arise.  One narrative says these are specific, tragic incidents caused by broken individuals in a confluence of momentary circumstances.  The other narrative says these tragic incidents reflect a systemic power differential combined with prejudice – in other words, racism.  The chasm between these two narratives is vast.  It is so vast that, as multiple protests have sprung up in the past year, I’ve heard people say, in complete sincerity, “I just don’t understand what they’re protesting about.”  With the news from Mizzou this week, I think the chasm remains about as wide as it was a year ago, when protests in Ferguson, Mo., dominated the news.  Twelve months later, we’re really no better at entering into someone else’s narrative.  Things are still falling apart, and the center seems barely to be holding.
Uncertainty and chaos are nothing new, of course.  This morning, the lectionary happens to give us readings that speak to the uncertainty and chaos of two other significant moments in the life of God’s people.  The reading from Daniel is the end of a prophetic vision in which the writer describes how he hopes God will deliver the Jewish people from the reign of an oppressive Syrian ruler in the mid-160s BC.  Even though God’s people will be delivered from their suffering, the prophet says, the process won’t be pretty:  “There shall be a time of anguish such as has never existed,” the prophet writes (12:1).  But the outcome will bring life to those presently suffering and resurrection to the faithful departed; it’s a glimpse of the end of the age. 
Similarly, in the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus is warning the disciples about serious challenges for the Jewish people coming down the line in that time and place.  He tells them the Temple will be destroyed amid “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7) – a reality Jerusalem experienced when the Romans crushed a rebellion in 70 AD.  But here’s the point, Jesus says:  Don’t mistake passing chaos for the coming of the Kingdom at the end of the age.  All “this must take place,” he says, “but the end is still to come” (13:7).  Uncertainty and chaos may reign in the moment, but they’re not the end of the story.
So what is the end of the story?  Well, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ll be celebrating the feast of St. Andrew next Sunday, we would hear about the end of the story in the readings next week.  For the rest of the Church, next week is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent.  On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate what the author of the Book of Daniel was also celebrating: that the Kingdom of God, and the kingship of the messiah, supersedes all other claims of authority.  In the fullness of time, Christ will come in ultimate power, healing things that fall apart, holding all peoples together, gathering the nations before the glory of the heavenly throne.  Clearly that process is neither quick nor easy nor free of suffering along the way.  But it is the arc of history, the arc of reconciliation, the arc of the kingship of God.
So, in times of uncertainty and chaos, our call as followers of Christ the King is to be harbingers of his rule and reign.  That means two things:  First, we must consciously, intentionally, insistently refuse to lose hope, even when things fall apart and the center seems not to hold.  And second, as a sacramental proclamation of that hope in the power of our risen Lord and reigning king, we must bring our king’s rule to life in the here and now. 
I wrote about one example of that in the newsletter and bulletin this week.  At Diocesan Convention, Fr. Marcus and Cheryl Cementina led a session helping people talk about racism out loud.  People shared their fears of even addressing the topic.  We spoke about prejudices.  We struggled with the difference between political correctness and beloved community.  We raised the awkward question of whether black people should modify culturally conditioned behaviors to fit white culture, or whether white culture should flex to accommodate them.  It was a glimpse of the kingdom, I believe – a glimpse of what it looks like when the center does hold and community is knit together.
We’ve seen that here at St. Andrew’s, too, during this year of discord and division on our nation’s streets and campuses.  In May, we went to United Missionary Baptist Church on the east side to worship with our black brothers and sisters.  Our choir sang, and I preached, and we all raised our prayers together.  Then in August, the people of United Missionary Baptist came here and shared Eucharist with us, with Pastor Mike Patton preaching and their choir bringing down the house.  Well, in the coming year, we’ll keep moving down this road of reconciliation.  We’ll worship at United Missionary Baptist again on Sunday, Jan. 17 (and there will be worship here that morning, too).  For Lent, we’re putting together a series of shared Bible study, so we can learn firsthand how our brothers and sisters hear the Good News in a different context.  And we’ll be collaborating in mission, too, serving together as agents of healing and new life.  You’ve heard about the social-entrepreneurial start-up we’ve been supporting, Empower the Parent to Empower the Child, which trains moms for solid parenting and living-wage jobs.  Well, I spoke with Pastor Mike this week, and United Missionary Baptist is interested in getting involved, too, with some of its members serving as mentors for women in the program. 
We’re doing this because we worship a common king.  We’re doing this because Jesus is Lord over St. Andrew’s and United Missionary Baptist.  We’re doing this because Jesus is Lord over the protesters at Mizzou and the university’s administrative team.  We’re doing this because the Church, at its best, is the center that can and will hold, a sacred space we can inhabit together, where we can learn from each other and enter into each other’s narrative, without feeling the need to tear the other narrative down.  We worship a common king who longs to deliver us from both interpersonal and systemic harm.  We worship a common king who lovingly, peacefully, powerfully demands that we turn away from turning away from each other.  In fact, we worship a common king who will soon take William Butler Yeats’ poem full circle, though Yeats wouldn’t have seen it this way.  Advent is coming, when our common king will take off his crown, and bend down low, and enter into the muck and the mire of this blessed creation that always seems to teeter on the brink of despair.  Our king is coming, not in the regalia of power but emptied of power as he asks us to be, “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.”1

  1. Yeats, William Butler.  “The Second Coming.”  Available at:
  2. Williams, Mara Rose, and Tod Palmer.  “Tensions over racial issues at University of Missouri smolder amid calls for ouster of president.”  Kansas City Star, Nov. 8, 2015.  Available at:  Accessed Nov. 12, 2015.

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