I have been in some pretty sketchy places over the years. Earlier this week I was telling my wife about one of the rooms I stayed in on my recent trip to Africa, and I heard myself saying, “You know, once I got used to the rats, it wasn’t bad at all.” I remember taking the youth group into an incredibly seedy fast food joint a number of years ago, and a very disturbed and clearly hallucinogenic patron could not quite make up his mind whether he wanted to order food, throw up, or make a pass at Jessica Prevost, so he did all three of those things. In that order. As I recall, I was not among the finalists in “Youth Group Leader of the Year” that season.
Here’s a photo of me in another sketchy place. I’m standing at the door to the bus station in Dangriga, Belize. In case you can’t make it out, the sign on the door at the bus station in Dangriga, Belize reads, “Live Customers Only.”
I’ll let you sit on that for a moment. “Live Customers Only.” What do you suppose happened there, and how many times must it have happened, to lead someone to say, “You know what, Luis? I’ve had it. I’m sick of this. Put up a sign. We’ve got to have some sort of policy about live customers only.” Really? How many places in the world is this a problem – too many dead people trying to take the bus? It was a sketchy place.
I hasten to add that I was not in Dangriga for the purpose of visiting the bus station. I was there because, well, I wanted to get on a bus. We were heading into the heart of that country to visit the Central American rain forest – a place of beauty and wonder and awe. And because I believed that that destination was worthwhile, I found myself clutching my sixteen year old daughter a little closer as we waited in this sketchy place, surrounded by broken, but live, people.
February is Black History Month in the USA. It is not a religious observance, per se, but it does provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are vis-à-vis race relations in the US, in Pittsburgh, in Crafton Heights, and in our own lives.
And I don’t know whether it’s connected or not, but during Black History Month, Pittsburgh Presbytery will be taking a vote as to whether a document called The Belhar Confession should be included in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. The Book of Confessions is a collection of faith statements written over a span of about 1700 years that helps to shape our journey toward faithful discipleship in Christ. The Belhar document is a statement that was written by a group of South African theologians as that nation and its cultures wrestled against the demon that was the apartheid system of racial oppression, torture, and death.
I like the Belhar Confession. I think that it is Biblical, practical, and wise. If you’d like to read it for yourself, there are some copies on the table in the back of the room – it’s just a few pages. Unlike every other document in our Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession is rooted in the global south. Nearly all of our other creeds and statements, such as the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Declaration of Barmen, and everyone’s favorite, the Second Helvetic Confession of 1536 come from the north of Europe. It’s not wrong to have a Book of Confessions that is rooted in one place; it’s just incomplete.
Some of my friends will look at the title of this message and say, “The south is going to rise? Yeah, baby, you know it will…” For many, that phrase evokes echoes of this nation’s civil war, or as some of my friends insist on calling it, “the war of northern aggression.” Saying that the South will rise is another way of saying that the bad old days of slavery and Jim Crow are going to come back.
You will not be surprised, I hope, to learn that this is not what I mean. When I say that the South will rise, I hear it as a message of hope. Christians with life experiences that are different than mine will gain prominence in the world. As this happens, the global church will be made more complete and will more adequately reflect all of God’s intentions for humanity. When I say the South will rise, I do not mean to imply that the North will fall. All of us can be lifted. The fact that the Belhar Confession is under consideration by a church with roots in Switzerland and Scotland is an encouraging sign that perhaps the South is, in fact, rising.
What can we learn from the Belhar Confession? Well, let’s go back to the bus station in Dangriga. I knew, even before I saw the sign, that I was in a difficult place. Similarly, you don’t need me to tell you that this world is damaged in significant ways. We are surrounded by things that are not as they should be.
The Belhar Confession names some of that brokenness this way:
that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly…
Do you hear what that says about the world in which we live? That it is full of injustice and hatred, oppression and hunger; that there are too many who are orphaned or widowed or captive or poor. The world is not the way that it should be!
But remember, I didn’t go to the bus station in Dangriga in order to visit Dangriga. I had a destination in mind: the rain forest. The bus station was simply the place from which I started.
The Belhar document reminds me that the places where we begin are not necessarily the places for which we are destined. The kinds of brokenness that surround us now are not God’s purposes for his beloved children. God’s intentions, as stated squarely by Jesus in John 17 and Paul in the letter to the Romans, are for God’s people to live together in right relationships, connected truly and authentically with God and with each other.
The Christians in South Africa put it this way:
that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another…
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted…
that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind…
Isn’t that where we want to go? We don’t need to stay where we are – it woudn’t make sense to stay in a place that is broken. Doesn’t that passage describe God’s purposes for the church?
But how do we get there? How do we leave the bus station and get to the rain forest? How do we pull away from the brokenness and separation that surrounds us and grow into the community to which Christ calls us?
Well, back in Dangriga I got on the bus. Listen to me, beloved: I did not make the bus. I did not drive the bus. I had no information as to the safety inspections of that bus. All I know is that if I was going to get my family to the rain forest, we were going to get on that bus. The bus was a given to be enjoyed (or endured) – an experience with many languages, many children, many baskets of produce, many, um, delicate aromas, many chickens, and a few turkeys. That bus was the means by which I would leave the station and arrive at the rain forest.
Similarly, God has given this world a means in which to leave the brokenness of our present condition and grow into the fullness of his intentions for us. The vehicle in which he intends us to arrive at his purposes is, well, us. The church is God’s instrument of healing in the world.
Make sure that when you hear me say that, you understand that I mean the church as it is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not necessarily the institution that sits on this corner and enjoys a tax break every now and again. If God is going to do what God says God is going to do, then it’s going to happen because the church – the whole church, the one church – will point to those intentions of God. And the only way that we can do this is in the strength of Jesus Christ.
Listen one more time to what Belhar says:
that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world…
Note that the strength and the power that is given to the church does not come through political policy or worship style; it’s not based on skin color or moral purity – it is based in the unity that we have received as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.
The church is one. The church is the Body of Christ. We are not supposed to be Christ’s Body, or going to be that Body some day. By definition, the church is one and the church is Christ’s.
In 1982, a group of Christians came to see this in South Africa, and they rejected the sin of their age: an evil system of racial hatred and segregation that had been enshrined not only in the national law, but in the church doctrine. The brothers and sisters in that time and place rejected apartheid as false teaching and repented. That is to say, they changed direction.
Beloved, as we stand on this corner at the beginning of 2015, we confess that like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, or Paul writing in a prison cell, or believers living in Capetown thirty-five years ago – we are not where we should be. We have been called to walk towards God’s best for his children. And in this time and this place, I need to say that I will walk in that direction, and that I will walk the only way that the church knows how to walk – with everyone who has been called of God. I can’t go only with the people that I like the best, or with the folks with whom I feel most comfortable. I can’t go only with people who think I’m right all the time, or who speak in a language that I understand flawlessly.
As we seek to be the church, the Body of Christ, in this time and place, may we be ever-increasingly aware of the unity that is ours in Jesus.
I get it. Black History month is an artificial construct. It can be downright hokey. But let’s use it anyway. Let’s use these days to learn something of a culture that may not be our own. Let’s listen for stories we don’t know. Let’s consider where there are places that we may need to repent, or turn around, or try again.
It’s not a black thing, and it’s not a white thing. We don’t do this because it’s politically correct, or because it will make us feel all warm and gushy inside. We do this because the unity of the Church is a given; it is essential to the very life and being of the church. We ought to live like that unity is not merely an idea, but a reality; and if we deign to call ourselves the church, we ought to live like the Lord has called us to live.
We may not be where we want to be, and we are not where we are going to be – but God has shown us his intentions. – where he wants us to be. And, so far as I can see, there’s only one bus out of this place, and it’s called the church, the Body of Christ. May we be that body – that living, breathing, very much live body – in this place and time. Amen.