To hear this sermon as preached, hit the play button below
United Church of Jaffrey
June 16, 2019
The “N word”
My youngest graduated from 8th Grade on Friday.
The ceremony took place in the gym, where rows of plastic chairs had been lined up in rows to accommodate all the proud families.
Cary and I sat in the bleachers next to some friends, and as we waited for the festivities to begin, a motley crew of teenage boys clambered past like a herd of elephants and sat down directly behind us, this maneuver never admitting the slightest pause in the urgent banter of their youth.
I pegged these kids as the older brothers of some of the 8th graders who were graduating – young men who’d gone through this same rite of passage not long before; boys forced by their mothers to attend, who had determined to make the best of the circumstances by sitting together and kicking up a swirl of derisive mocking.
Cary and I and our friends were doing our best to ignore them. But I’m not very good at tuning things out, and was feeling a little put-out by the band of loudmouths, and it was at this moment, when I was already a little bent out of shape, that I heard one of the boys use the “N” word.
The boy used the word casually. I think he’d been telling a funny story about someone, and instead of using the person’s name, he used the N-word. There did not seem to be any malice behind it. He used it, as you and I might use a pronoun or a job title.
Even so, I was aware of a tremor… a heightened awareness, as if a spell had been cast.
I turned and looked directly into the boy’s face.
The laughing and trash-talking paused for a moment.
As far as I could tell, he was a white kid. The friend that he’d been talking to was black.
I wanted to say something to the boy.
I wanted to stand up, turn around and confront him.
Last Sunday, after fellowship hour, I lingered around the parish hall as Dotty and Ken, who had provided the refreshments for coffee hour, puttered about in the kitchen.
I had an ordination service to attend later that afternoon up in Acworth, so it didn’t make sense to head home.
Besides, I was trying, at that moment, to come up with a compelling phrase to use for the church sign.
As they rinsed platters and ziplocked the remaining slices of dill cheese and pepperjack, Dotty and Ken and I struck up a brief conversation about the spring meeting of the Southwest Association that we’d attended together. The featured speaker at the meeting, which was held at Westmoreland United Church, was Reverend Don Remick, a bigwig from the Massachusetts Conference, whose elaborate dog and pony show is intended to help churches transform to meet the pressing challenges of our time.
As Ken managed the coffee grounds, that were still steaming I might add, he reminded me, with two words, of the gist of the presentation.
Not “Why” mind you, but the why.
Remick’s presentation started from the notion that vital churches – know why they exist.
They do not fixate on who they are, how many they are, or even what they are.
A living church is a church that has a real and honest understanding of their purpose.
Why God has called them into community.
This, I think, would be a good time to turn to the passage from the gospel of John that Dax just read for us.
The passage begins with Jesus admitting to a problem:
I still have many things to say to you, he says, but you cannot bear them now.
The problem appears to be that Jesus has more to teach us, but we’re not ready to hear it.
No sooner, does Jesus say this, though, then he declares that this problem has a solution:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…
So the Holy Spirit will complete Jesus’ teaching?
Kind of, but not exactly.
Listen to this next thing that Jesus says:
“for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears,”
By “he” Jesus is referring to the spirit. So, this line could read like this:
“for the spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears…”
Did you catch that?
Jesus is telling us a pretty remarkable and surprising thing about the nature of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit does not speak on it own.
The Holy Spirit will speak whatever it hears…
So, let’s get this remarkable teaching straight.
Jesus says “I’m not done teaching you. There is more.” Then he says: “The spirit will come and teach you more.”
And then he says
That the teaching of the spirit will not be something spoken.
The teaching of the spirit will be a response to what the Holy spirit hears.
This is a profound paradigm shift.
We have been listening to Jesus.
We have been listening to God.
Now God listens to us!
If God is listening to us… then we must know our why!
We must act with conviction.
Because that truth that the Holy Spirit teaches us, is the truth that the Holy Spirit hears.
Reverend Don Remick, who I spoke of earlier, provided a great deal of demographic information ass context for his presentation.
It all led to the same depressing conclusion —
Churches everywhere are shrinking.
Churches everywhere are closing.
The population in the pews just keeps getting older, and young people are not coming.
He didn’t need to tell me that. And I don’t need to tell you.
These sobering truths about the church are painful to those of us – like you and I – who see, quote clearly, the beauty of joining together in a community that is based on the idea that love is real.
These sobering truths about the church are all the more painful when we hear passages like the one we heard this morning from the Epistle to the Romans, when the Apostle Paul said:
we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God
What can we boast about today, when everyone assumes we are obsolete?
Since my other job, as an English teacher, brings me into contact with a lot of young people – in particular the under 20 set – I can tell you, though, that I often hear them say these four words – the four words that I used for a title of this sermon:
“I’m not religious, but…”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase…
“I’m not religious, but…”
But the reason I bring this up, is not so much because I hear the phrase spoken so much, as much as because of what follows the phrase.
The words that follow the phrase “I’m not religious, but…” will vary depending on what is being discussed, but the words will always acknowledge some deep need.
Some ethical concern.
Some encounter with mystery.
Some belief in justice.
In their own rather thoughtless way, these so-called “non-religious” people are giving us the ultimate back-handed compliment.
They claim to be not religious, while in the same breath, acknowledging that the things that are most deeply felt – the things that matter most – the most pressing needs for justice, and the ideas that contain within them their greatest hopes – all of these are contained in the idea of religion.
A Context for Moral Reflection
My conversation with Ken and Dotty in the Parish Hall reminded me, of course, of Reverend Remick’s big point.
And while we were talking, I bemoaned the fact that now, when no one goes to church, there is no longer a place in our society where we know we can go to develop our skills of moral reflection.
“For all its possible hypocrisy,” I said to them, “that, at least, was one important role the church played in our culture – it provided a context for moral reflection.”
That phrase: “A Context for Moral Reflection” stuck with me.
After Ken and Dotty left, I went out and wrote that on the church sign:
“A context for Moral Reflection”
Is this what we can boast about?
Is this our why!
I did not confront the boy sitting behind me at my son’s graduation.
I did not try to explain to him the critical error of his language.
And yet… I felt the wrong. The injustice. The deep historical wound that was opened.
I believe that this understanding is nourished by my intention, each week, to go to a place…
A place that provides a context for moral reflection.