Virlina District Conference Sermon
1 Corinthians 1:18
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
A few years ago, I had the chance to attend a writing workshop in Minnesota. It was a great opportunity. I was excited. Each participant had to submit a writing sample before the week-long workshop so that everyone else in the group could read it and be ready with suggestions, critique and encouragement.
I knew immediately which piece of writing I would submit: months earlier, I’d had one of the most…interesting experiences ever in ministry. A beloved member of the congregation I was serving – a man who loved people and was deeply loved by people wherever he went, a man who created community and knit people together in all kinds of situations – had died, and I had the privilege of helping to officiate at his funeral.
Except this funeral wasn’t like any other funeral I have done before or since. This beloved man had spent a good portion of his life participating in Civil War re-enactments: even though he was not from the South, had moved to Virginia after a lifetime of Yankee breeding, he had found a community and a hobby with the folks who re-enact Civil War battles. He researched and assumed a particular persona of a Confederate soldier, and made dozens and dozens of friends in the reenactment community.
Because his illness was a long one, he spent the last few months of his life planning his own funeral, and plan it, he did. The funeral was to be an all-out, as authentic as possible, Civil-War era event. It was…incredible.
At the visitation, women clad in black petticoats handed out sepia-tone photo buttons of the deceased – an antebellum tradition. The funeral home was packed with people in period dress (you could barely move through the hallways with all those crinolines and hoop skirts). Robert E. Lee delivered one of the eulogies. When we made it to the cemetery (yes, part of the Manassas Battlefield), pall bearers lifted the coffin out of the hearse and placed it in an antique, glass-walled caisson – basically, a wagon – pulled by horses. Mourners in period dress lined up behind the wagon and walked the last mile to the burial site.
The most bizarre image of the whole day was probably the funeral dinner back at the church, where dozens of people dressed straight out of 1863 milled around the fellowship hall eating potato salad and macaroni and cheese.
It was one of the most bizarre things I had ever participated in, so I wrote about it.
I wrote what I thought was a warm, funny piece that conveyed both the absurdity of the thing and the abundant love that this man’s community had for him – evident in their willingness to bring his funeral vision to reality, in the flocks of people who showed up and the dozens and dozens who stayed.
I thought it was a great piece of writing.
And then, I got to the writing workshop. Before anything even started, a few of us went for a walk and started chatting among ourselves. We moved to the subject of our writing. One of my fellow writers, J, turned to me.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re the one who wrote that Confederate funeral piece. I had a question for you about that.”
“Oh yeah?” I responded, ready to talk about how great my writing was, how funny that funeral had been, how amazing the church is.
“Are there any black people in your church?”
It’s hard to explain how I felt when J asked me that question. I was confused: I didn’t exactly understand why she would ask that question in particular, but I felt the weight of it, nonetheless. I was angry: didn’t she appreciate the humor and warmth of the essay? I was indignant: how dare she assume that she knew something about MY congregation that I didn’t? And, honestly, I was ashamed: clearly there was something about this conversation that I was missing, something I didn’t quite GET.
I did not want to have the conversation that J was asking me to have. I didn’t want to think about race. I didn’t want to entertain the possibility that the way I was telling the story might be hurting other people. I didn’t want to consider that there might be another way of seeing the situation – and that this funny and heart-warming story of ministry in the south might hold some other, darker meaning. I didn’t want to think about flags and symbols of the Confederacy – flags and symbols that I had grown up understanding as part of my proud identity as a Virginian and a southerner – as flags and symbols of anything else at all.
I did not want to have that conversation. And she didn’t press the issue – she saw my discomfort, and she moved on. But her question kick-started what I have come to understand as a process of conversion and redemption in me, a process that, it turns out, has an awful lot to do with Jesus and the cross.
In the verse that Brother Roy has chosen for our conference theme, Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the power of the cross. We are so familiar with the cross today – plastering it on brochures and t-shirts and jewelry – that we might be prone to forgetting what a strange and upside-down thing it would have been for Paul to travel around the Roman Empire preaching about its power. The cross was not a symbol of redemption or divinity: it actually wasn’t a symbol at all. The cross was the very real means by which the Empire executed criminals. It was a torture device. It was not something people discussed in polite company, and it was not something that any religiously observant Jew wanted to spend much time thinking about.
And yet, here is Paul, showing up in city after city, visiting in synagogue after synagogue, preaching and teaching and trying to convince all these people that the CROSS – that instrument of torture and death – is about salvation, resurrection, and redemption.
“For the preaching of the cross,” Paul says, “is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.”
Paul’s task was not an easy one. In fact, we learn in Acts 18 that when Paul first arrived in Corinth and started preaching in the synagogue there, the people scoffed, laughed and refused to hear anything he’d say. In Corinth, in fact, the religious people hated Paul’s disruptive message about some savior on some cross so much that they became, Acts says, “abusive.” They hurled insults, threatened violence, and ran Paul out of the sanctuary.
I imagine that for those devoutly religious folks in the synagogue in Corinth, people who were perfectly content with their faith, their practice, their just fine relationship to God and one another, having Paul show up and ask them to think about Jesus, a convicted criminal, as the savior of the world, must have felt a little like how I felt when J showed up and ruined what I assumed to be a perfectly good essay by asking me “are there any black people in your church?” It didn’t go over very well.
So, Paul quit trying to convince the “faithful” in the synagogue and moved next door, where a marginally religious guy invited him to preach out of his own living room. The people in Corinth who heard and believed the gospel were the people who were willing to entertain an idea that called into question everything they thought they knew. The people who became faithful to Jesus in Corinth were the ones who humbled themselves and agreed to have the conversations that no one wanted to have.
Since that conversation in Minnesota, I have been learning to understand the meaning of sin and salvation – the gospel of the cross that Paul preached over and over – in a new way. Do you know that verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation? We usually read that verse to mean that the person who has come to Christ is made new, and that’s not wrong. But the Greek in Paul’s sentence is a little ambiguous, and it also might mean that for the person who has come to Christ, the ENTIRE WORLD looks different.
That’s how I feel, these days. J’s question sent me searching for whatever it was that I was missing. I’ve spent the last few years reading, listening, and paying attention to how people of color in America see the world, and it turns out that nearly everything I thought I knew for sure is…at the very least, incomplete. I have had to revise a lot of what I thought about God. I have had to confess a lot of sinful racism and white supremacy that I didn’t even know was part of me. Everything looks different through the eyes of the crucified Christ.
The theologian James Cone says that “what is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people.” Because of the ways that American society and culture (and politics and economics and theology) have been structured, there are truths about the world that we white people are sheltered from and prevented from having to see.
That quote from James Cone comes from a book he wrote called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” in that book, Cone asks Jesus’ followers to consider the ways that the lynching tree of American history is like the cross of Calvary, and the ways that we have hidden them both. Between 1880 and 1940, more than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched. Lynchings during this era were public executions perpetrated by mobs of white citizens. They were public spectacles: people came out in droves to observe the executions. Lynchings were extrajudicial killings meant to keep black people – no longer enslaved but living under Jim Crow legal systems – afraid and “in their place.”
This is not a conversation anyone wants to have, but Cone says that the cross and the lynching tree are intimately linked. He says that American Christians, in order to fully confess our faith in Christ who died on the cross, need to grapple with our history and legacy of lynching. “The cross,” Cone says, “…is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.” In order to see with Christ’s eyes, we need to learn about and see from the perspective of those who suffered lynching in America.
Lynching stories are violent, grisly, and horrific – just like the story of the cross. They are stories we do not want to pay attention to, and stories that need to be reckoned with. Two black men were lynched right here in Roanoke – William Lavender in 1892 and Thomas Smith in 1893. Like the crowds that shouted “crucify! Crucify!,” both of these men where lynched at the demand of huge mobs. Like the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothing, both of these men’s bodies were desecrated after their death. The 4,000 people that came to view Thomas Smith’s body hanging the day after he died even cut pieces of the rope that hung him to take home as souvenirs.
This is not a conversation we want to have. But hiding the history that shapes our present is hiding the cross.
Another hidden story from this part of the world happened right down the road in Danville.
In 1963, Danville was, like most of Virginia, a segregated city. And, like many places in the south, black people were organizing massive, non-violent protests to confront segregation and white supremacy. Young people in Danville gathered to form the Danville Progressive Christian Association. It was supported by SNCC, the national Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Giants of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Zellner and Avon Rollins all visited Danville during the summer of 1963 when the movement was at its height.
During the summer of 1963, movement leaders organized a series of nonviolent protests in Danville. They orchestrated a sit-in at Howard Johnsons. They occupied City Hall. On June 10, during a march through downtown, thirty eight protestors were arrested. Later that evening, more than fifty folks gathered at the city jail to hold a prayer vigil for those arrested. When they arrived, police met them. The police were not alone: the town had deputized the white garbage collectors and armed them with billy clubs. The deputized garbage workers beat those gathered to pray with billy clubs, and the police attacked them with fire hoses. Sixty-five people were taken to the local segregated Danville hospital with injuries. Today, the events are remembered as “Bloody Monday.”
Thurman Echols on Bloody Monday, 1963. Danville Register & Bee.
King continued to support the Danville movement. When he spoke at High Street later that summer, he admitted that the Danville police force was the most brutal and violent he had ever experienced. He planned to make Danville a center of his national campaign – though events in Birmingham that summer derailed those plans.
This summer, I got to meet some of the people who were singing hymns and praying when they got arrested that night in 1963. We sat in the fellowship hall of High Street Baptist Church and leaders from that freedom movement in the ’60s – Thurman Echols, Lawrence and Gloria Campbell, Carolyn Wilson – told us stories. Every black pastor in town was there.
One of our group asked Bishop Campbell, now a retired pastor but who had been, on that night in 1963, one of those praying protestors who ended up in the hospital: “did the white clergy support you?” His answer was swift and clear: “No. Not then, not now.”
“The hypocrisy of the white church,” he said, “is even more insidious now than it was then.”
I tell you what: the hypocrisy of the white church is not a conversation I want to have. I am a pastor in the white church, and I am complicit and guilty of the hypocrisy that Bishop Campbell named. But refusing to have it is one more way that we hide the cross.
It is tempting to dismiss these stories as things that happened long, long ago, in the distant past.
I am tempted to dismiss J’s question and Cone’s theology and Bishop Campbell’s accusation as unimportant, irrelevant, not something I need to take seriously, having nothing to do with faithfulness – either my own of that of the church that shaped me. But when Christ claims us, when we start seeing all the ways that the cross is being hidden even here, even now, when we start seeing things from the perspective of the ones still being crucified, it gets harder and harder to dismiss these invitations to confession and repentance.
And that’s what they are: invitations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance feel like accusations. Sometimes, invitations to repentance make us defensive and angry and indignant. Sometimes, our responses to an invitation to repentance are to double down, to refuse to see, to shove those crosses even farther back in the dark, to keep it hidden a little while longer.
Lord, do I understand those responses. I have them all the time. I would rather be preaching a sermon on just about anything else in the world this evening,but God keeps inviting and insisting that THIS is the repentance and confession that he’s calling me to do. It seems to me that every time I think I’ve confessed all I can confess, repented of every last drop of white supremacy, rooted out every tiny bit of racism in my soul, every time I peel back a layer of sinfulness, I encounter an even thicker, more stubborn layer beneath it. I do not want to keep having this conversation.
And that is exactly why I need the cross, and why the cross IS good news: I cannot save myself. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much I learn, no matter how many books I read or people I meet, no matter how earnestly I confess and repent, no matter how many painstaking and upsetting sermons I preach: I am not capable of redeeming myself. Only Jesus can do that.
That’s the good news that has come right alongside all this learning of horrific, violent, awful bad news: Christ, on the cross and walking away from the empty tomb, is redeeming every sinful reality and transforming every painful moment of our history into something entirely new, entirely different, entirely made up of grace and beauty. Ephesians chapter 5 says that “everything exposed to the light is revealed by the light, and everything that is revealed by the light BECOMES light.”
Our sinfulness isn’t just forgiven and forgotten; in the process of being claimed in the cross, we are also claimed in the resurrection. We who have died with Christ have also risen with him. What we learn to be sinful is, as we confess and repent and find ourselves transformed, converted into something new, useful, and redemptive.
There’s this great line in Romans: “But where sin increased, grace was present in even greater abundance, so that just as Sin ruled by means of Death so Grace should rule through Righteousness and lead to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.”
I think that our reluctance to have the hard conversations about the cross – the cross of Calvary as well as the lynching trees in downtown Roanoke, the firehoses in Danville and the Confederate flags all over our region – is a reluctance to face our own sin. That’s only natural. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting. But this is the promise of the gospel: where sin increased, grace is present in even greater abundance.
We have nothing to fear in facing our own sinfulness. We have nothing to fear in accepting all these uncomfortable invitations to repentance. Every time we do – each time we humble ourselves and lean into the hard work of attention, confession and repentance, Jesus is right there waiting for us, holding out grace in even greater abundance.
Thanks be to God.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 156.