Sixth Sunday after Pentecost — Sam Laurent

I did not want to preach about racism this week. That probably sounds bad. I’m not trying to dodge the issue, and I try hard not to live in denial of all the insidious ways racism has been encoded into our society. It’s not that I don’t care about racism. It’s that I’m so tired of all of the think pieces about it, all the people on Facebook saying “if your preacher doesn’t preach about racism this week, you should leave,” all the things that keep me oscillating between outrage and a ridiculous sense of righteous frustration. It’s exhausting. I’m diagnosing myself with think piece fatigue. Huffington Post syndrome.

A terrible event these days launches a million commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries. I like Facebook, so I end up immersed in think pieces shared by my wonderful friends. All well intentioned, many brilliant, but after a few news cycles, they sort of sound like a swarm of bees to me. It has a paralyzing effect on me, and my brain kind of just refuses to engage anymore. Instead of more meta-commentary, I start to yearn for something that will ground me, something that runs deeper than outrage without asking me not to feel outraged. Today’s Gospel kind of gets there, and I find that tremendously helpful, because I do believe I need to preach about racism.

This selection from Mark is pretty practical. The Gospel pulls us out of the global—out of the realm of thinkpieces bouncing around Facebook—and into the personal, because it turns out that’s where our most difficult choices happen. Today’s Gospel is about hospitality, where dealing with difference really happens.

It comes in two vignettes, one of Jesus preaching back home in Nazareth, and another of him instructing his disciples about the nature of their evangelism. Between the two, we start to see how difficult prophetic witness and welcoming the other really can be, precisely because people see the world differently.

In Nazareth, people are pretty impressed by Jesus’ teachings, but then they remember that he’s a hometown boy, nobody special. It would seem, to borrow a phrase from my Southern heritage, that Jesus is getting above his raising. “Prophets,” Jesus says, “are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And so, the Gospel says, he could do no deed of power there. That word. “Could.” He COULD do no deed of power there. The people—his people—rejected his prophecy, and this restricted what he could do.

And I bet the situation feels familiar to a lot of us. To welcome prophetic truth, especially when it arises right at home, is a great challenge. It’s one thing to extend physical hospitality, to offer a place to sleep and some food to eat, to our family and friends when they are in town. But to grant them space to be transformed, to be different than we remember them, to honestly hear them across the difference that transformation creates, is a much more spiritual form of hospitality, and much more difficult to obtain. We feel threatened and attacked when a loved one or an old friend does that. We wonder what happened to them.

It’s too tempting for me to read this as an example of why people resist taking down the Confederate battle flag. Hearing criticism of it from within the South must feel like an attack on how we used to be. But I’m projecting a lot. It’s probably fairer to say that this is why not much good conversation about racism happens anymore. To really hear someone you love say something you hate to hear is immensely painful, and we talk the most with people we love.

It takes a courageous sort of listening to hear your ways challenged by someone in your community. It takes an even more courageous heart to respond with compassion and conviction. The art of loving conversation about difficult topics is a real mystery. But it’s a matter of hospitality.

In the second vignette, Jesus tells his disciples how to go forth into the world. He commissions them to cast out unclean Spirits and tells them to carry nothing but a staff, to wear sandals, and to rely on the hospitality of those they meet.

This message cuts two ways for us. On one hand, as those who are supposed to be sharing the Gospel, we are called to do it through relationship. The things Jesus tells his disciples to leave behind—extra clothes, money—are things that give them a sense of self-reliance, when in fact ministry takes place in conversation and vulnerability. You need to share space with someone, and when mutual compassion takes place—when you honor them and they invite you in—the Spirit is active. And you need to honor yourself and your calling while you do this. If you are not welcomed, Jesus tells his disciples, shake the dust of that place off of yourself. Just like in a difficult conversation, compassion does not mean withholding your truth.

We are tasked with being the stranger, but also with welcoming the stranger. Richard Kearney, a philosopher and theological thinker, points out that welcoming the stranger means welcoming the unknown…that which is strange to us. It means not knowing if they are friend or foe, but extending a welcome to them anyway. In desert climes, hospitality is a necessity, as the harsh climate can easily prove fatal. In Christian practice, hospitality means trusting that God is at work in each person, and it means trying to honor God’s work in them. But it means we have to confront a true uncertainty.

This really sounds good. Challenging, but good. Putting it into practice is much, much harder, and here is where my sermon falls apart. The good people of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston welcomed the stranger. They make a practice of it. Dylan Roof went there as a stranger, and killed 9 people. What can you say in the face of that? There is nothing redemptive there. A million think pieces and sermons don’t diminish the horror of people extending welcome and a stranger responding with a gun.

In times when possibility seems exhausted and fear can paralyze us, the Spirit still speaks. Against the specter of racism, I believe radical hospitality and hope for the work of the Spirit are the basic elements of Christian response.

We are, it bears noting, in the season of Pentecost. At Pentecost, flames descend from above, fiery tongues commissioning the tongues of mortals as bearers of God’s word. These flames that descended on the disciples ignited those gathered around them, lighting them up as hearers and proclaimers of the Good News. A crowd had gathered around Jesus’ disciples to see what would happen next, now that Jesus was gone. Their differences were considerable; people came from different tribes and nations, their languages indecipherable to one another. Manifest as flames, the Holy Spirit commissioned those differences as sites of grace, as proof that God is God and the Gospel is Good News for everybody, with no exception.

Those sacred flames of Pentecost land right on our differences, and they do not erase them. Nationalities and identities are not erased or collapsed. Perhaps in the kingdom of God there is neither Jew nor Greek, but in Jerusalem that day and in the United States today, differences persist, and the Spirit works within them. Differences create interest, foster art…indeed difference is the source of motion. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost names difference as a site of potential and beauty, not as a limit of God’s grace. Sacred flames, indeed.

No such flames incinerated the black churches that have burned in the South in the last couple of weeks, especially those that were intentionally burned. These fires were started by those who would deny the Pentecost, who let their fear of difference ferment and distort into arsonous, terrorist hatred. These fires are another manifestation of the heritage of oppression—by force, law, and fear—on which white privilege is structured. By burning down churches, these fires would seem to want to make a sacred place a sign of fear and hostility.

But we live in the time after the Pentecost. We know that the flames that power our church are sacred, and not profane. The flames that can destroy a building can never destroy God’s church. Pentecost flames remind us of God’s Spirit, enabling us to hear and see across the human divisions we create.

In the end, today’s Gospel tells us that it takes more than faith. It takes courage to be a Christian. Admittedly, it takes less courage to be a Christian here this morning than it does in the churches that continue to be targeted by hatred. But it takes courage all the same, to greet the stranger, to hold close to those we disagree with, and to trust that by undertaking this hard work, we are offering some kindling for the sacred flames of the Pentecost.

It’s still impossible to find anything redemptive in the violence of the shootings at Mother Emanuel or the flames that engulf black churches. Those events remain tragedies, moments of humanity’s failure, and they simply hurt. We aren’t looking for a way to sugarcoat that pain. Rather, we need to find what happens next. The formula is an ancient one. Seek community, proclaim the truest truth you can discern, offer radical hospitality, and hold open a space for the Spirit, who can transform painful differences into places of true grace.