Renewed & Doing New Things

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Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

The Rev. Charles W. Quann gives a message about our budding relationship with Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House, PA at about 25:00 in the video.

Inspired by Pastor Quann’s message for us this morning, I want to share with you a different kind of translation of the first few verses of our reading from Romans this morning. It is from a contemporary, more paraphrased version, called “The Message” done by Eugene Peterson:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God]. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Romans 12:1-2, The Message

In the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear about what it means to be the Church. In Pastor Quann’s exciting message he too talks of what it means to be Church, to be God’s people. The Church, as Jesus says to Peter, is a bridge.

Peter confesses Jesus’ true identity as God’s Son, the redeemer of all flesh, all souls. And Jesus says to Peter, though Peter’s lips confessed these words, though Peter thought them with his mind, drew the conclusion with his senses and his sight and hearing of Jesus, and yet Jesus says that Peter’s confession is straight from God. Peter’s words form a bridge between spirit and body. Just us we, when we confess Jesus our Lord, when we pray here and in our homes, we form a bridge between God and our world. Another name for this bridge, this experience and confession of God here and now, is the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost.

And that, too, is what Paul is up to. This is the “now what” part of Paul’s letter. Previously, he’s explained that we are sinners, unable to want for ourselves what God wants for us. Paul then explained that we are rescued from this situation, not by our own actions, but by God’s mercy. Paul declares that in our Baptism we have been made to live in Christ here and in the hereafter. 

So, today is the “now what.” Here is the “newness of life” Paul had mentioned in chapter 6. Paul says, now that you know what has happened to you because of Jesus, because of God’s actions, now what we do with our bodies, our whole selves, our ordinary lives—is important. Our whole selves can’t be shaped by our culture completely. Our senses, our perception of things, have been renewed, have been made-again. And that is what allows us to do new things, as Pastor Quann declared, because God has transformed us. Each day is a new day, a new chance in prayer, in our everyday life, to discern what is the will of God for us and our community.

Now, the history of racism and racist ideas in our country is not news to you. None of you are naive, regardless of your political position. It is merely history. The Portugues began purchasing and selling enslaved Africans roughly in 1526. America as we know it, and it’s economy and culture is shaped by this slave trade. False ideas about African people that were perpetuated to justify this enslavement, that people with darker skin are deficient whether intellectually, morally and culturally, still have firm roots.

And Americans fought a horrendous civil war that ended in the abolishment of treating human beings as actual property in 1862, and made part of our Constitution as the 14th Amendment in 1868. That is only 150 years ago!

But what does a government do with millions of newly freed human beings? In a panic, General Sherman issued a famous field order in 1865 giving all freed men 40 acres and a mule of confiscated Confederate territory. And did you know that it was the United States Army that was in charge of the fate of these newly freed men, in an agency called the Freedmen’s Bureau?

Did you also know that after Lincoln was assassinated and Vice President Andrew Johnson took office, that Johnson rescinded the Sherman Field Order and ordered these lands in the south to be returned to their previous Confederate owners? Formerly enslaved folks were then given two options: to work for their former enslavers as sharecroppers, or be evicted. But evicted former slaves could be arrested for homelessness under vagrancy clauses laid out by the same Freedmen’s Bureau. Those who refused to leave and refused to sign sharecrop contracts and become peasants were threatened with arrest.

You probably all remember the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld the segregation laws “separate but equal” in 1896. But did you know that the Freedmen’s Bureau also started a bank for the newly freed Black Americans? Between 1865 and 1874 of 70,000 Black Americans invested for the first time; saw the dream of property ownership and financial stability. But, unfortunately, because of negligence and mismanagement The Freedmen’s Bank took on risky and bad debt elsewhere and literally lost all the Black money. Though accused of fraud and negligence, no bank heads were indicted on any charges. Some scholars claim that the failure of the Freedmen’s Bank and the loss of their savings led to a distrust of all banking institutions for several generations to come among the Black community.

Talk about being conformed to this world! And you know the rest of the history I think. Throughout the 1900s, of course, many Black Americans moved north in search of factory jobs and more opportunity, and an escape from the increasingly hot southern sun as industrialization in the 19th century had set climate change well on its way.

White folks, especially in Philadelphia and Bucks County wrote racial restrictions in the deeds of their property that ran-with-the-land in perpetuity. These deeds said: no one except of the white race may own this property. These restrictive covenant were deemed unenforceable in 1948, but they still remain part of many property deeds in our state.

You guys know all about the Civil Rights Act of 1968 signed by Lyndon Johnson and efforts of the civil rights movement headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lift voter suppression for Black Americans. Did you know that the presence of minorities in most northern cities and suburbs were deemed corrosive to property values by banks and lenders until the 1970s, and that banks simply would not lend to people who lived in mixed neighborhoods? This is the practices of both “block busting” and “red lining” you may have experienced yourselves.

You know that Black Americans are given longer sentences for the same crimes as white Americans of course. In 1986 a sentencing law passed that said possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggered a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same five years mandatory sentence applied only to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine! Black folks tended to use crack in large numbers. White folks tended to use powder cocaine in large numbers. You can see the outcome in our prisons.

But I’m not going to bore you with more history. The point is this: even when government laws and statues disallow discrimination, businesses and individuals have found ways around it. They still do. Why? The answer is easy. Because people are selfish. We are sinners!

Black families brought down property values because the banks said so—so keep them away. The news tells us Black Americans are violent and lazy—so put them in prison. In 2010, Black Americans made up 11% of Pennsylvania population, but represented almost half the folks incarcerated here.

This is what it looks like to be conformed to this world—to let false ideas and selfish fears rule our minds and our hearts. You and I both know there is no one way to Black, or white—and that we are all members of the same body of Christ. You and I both know there is nothing different about human beings of African descent, except access to opportunity.

But thanks be to God and our Lord Jesus Christ. Because in Baptism we are set free from the power of sin. The Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, into our actual communities, right here! Listen again to Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Paul in Romans:

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what [God] wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

God has freed us. Jesus has given us, the Church, the real power to bind and unbind. We are free to pray, to learn, to grow, and to help heal—and to do new things.

God has made us the bridge between worlds.