2019 CTUCC Special Meeting: Rev. Nicewander's Sermon

by Kari Nicewander


5/18/2019

It was a seven hour drive home, and my gas tank was empty. A problem not easily solved in eastern Zambia, where there was a severe fuel shortage. Every gas station in the entire region was closed, and I was seven hours away from my house in Lusaka. A group of women from the rural congregation piled into my car to help. We had just finished a community health training, and they were committed to finding gas for me. We drove off the road for a little while, and then I was told to park. I waited beside my vehicle, and before long, a number of men approached, carrying plastic jugs full of fuel. It was illicit gas, but I paid for it, and hoped it would be enough to get me home. The drive began uneventfully, but about an hour into it, I stopped to get something to drink from a roadside stand. As I got out of my car, a young man approached. He had been involved in the previous day’s training. His mother needed a ride, he explained. She was bringing a baby to Lusaka, and with the fuel shortage, there were no buses. The baby needed to get back to her parents. I was worried about whether or not I would even make it back, but how could I say no, as I looked at Catherine’s hopeful eyes, as I saw baby Mary strapped onto her back. They climbed into the car
 
We had only been driving 20 minutes when the car stopped. It just slowed down, like it was running out of gas, and wouldn’t move forward any more. I sat on the side of the road, trying not to panic, wondering if there would be a place for me to stay in a nearby village, worried about how we could walk so far with the baby. Catherine was silent; I could tell that she was praying. I decided to try again. I turned the key, and the car miraculously started. Catherine quietly stated, “I am praying that we get there.” We continued on, but about thirty minutes later, it happened again. We were further out in the bush by this time. There were no villages around, and we were approaching some treacherous, twisting mountain roads. Catherine whispered, “You know what to do.” And so, I turned the key, and the car started again. We continued on. Thirty minutes later, the car stopped again, and I carefully pulled it over to the side of the mountain road. Again, I turned the key, and again it re-started. For the next four hours, this happened about every thirty minutes; my sweaty hands gripped the steering wheel, tears of fear leaked from my eyes, and my stomach churned with terror. The gas began to run low, as well, and I had no idea how we would make it home
 
But every time I got close to the point of panic, every single time the car simply stopped running, I felt Catherine’s prayers behind me, I heard her gentle words of encouragement, and I knew that I was not alone. I could keep on driving, keep on moving forward, keep on trying, because there was someone in the car, journeying with me, praying me forward, getting me home. We made it back to Lusaka, both of us laughing hysterically when we approached a border town, which had an actual gas station. And as I said good-bye to Catherine, I thanked her profusely, just as she thanked me profusely. We had needed each other in a way that could not be expressed. She needed to get to Lusaka, to bring Baby Mary to her parents, and I had needed Catherine, to pray me home, to remind me that I was not alone. I could not have gotten there without her
 
That long drive home was fueled by faith. We had God, and we had each other, and somehow, we arrived at our destination. Despite the fear, despite the challenges, a miracle happened, and we arrived home, bubbling with laughter and gratitude
 
When we journey together, through the suffering and the struggles, through the fear and the empty tanks, we arrive in the land of miracles. We have work to do. The car is filled with illicit, watered down fuel. The mountain roads are treacherous and deadly. The land sinks under injustice, fear, pain. But we can arrive, together, into the land of miracles. We can arrive, together, into the land of justice. We can arrive, together, into the land of freedom. Our world is broken down, and we need each other to reach God’s reign of peace
 
Paul lived in a broken down world, as well. And it was wildly obvious there, in the Corinthian church. Not only were they fighting about whose gifts mattered more, about who had access to the best food, they were also denying their very roots. They were working against their very purpose, the reason they were formed
 
The Corinthian church was founded by two refugees and a former convict; by a man who had barely escaped execution and two Jews who were exiled from their land. It was founded because of the persecution of the Roman Empire, and in spite of the violence perpetrated against a religious minority. It was founded in the midst of extreme oppression, hateful opposition, and crushing exploitation. And it was founded, very intentionally, to offer a resistance to the structures of domination and exclusion
 
The followers of Jesus had been driven out of Jerusalem, as persecution increased. They spread out, throughout the region, creating new communities, as they escaped the violence in their own homes. Paul, himself, had recently been stoned, and left for dead in Lystra. He was imprisoned, stripped, and beaten with rods. He was expelled from city after city after city. Paul was a former convict, an exile, a survivor of incredible violence. He arrived in Corinth, bearing the scars of persecution. And Paul was welcomed, fed and housed, by two people with a similar story – Priscilla and Aquila. Priscilla and Aquila were Italian. Born and raised in Rome. That was where their family was, their community, their synagogue. But in the year 49, the Roman ruler, Claudius, decided that he didn’t want Jews in Rome any more. And so he issued an edict, expelling every Jew from the city of Rome, forcing them from their homes, their communities, their synagogues. Forcing a wave of Jewish refugees to flee their land
 
And that is how Priscilla and Aquila ended up in Corinth. They knew persecution and oppression and hatred. And they knew they needed to offer shelter to Paul, this man covered with the scars of violence. And so, together, the three of them created a community. They created a church. They created a place of refuge in a volatile, hostile world. A place of love in the midst of an oppressive regime. A place of affirmation in a land that declared them unwanted. The foundation of the Corinthian church was a resistance to oppression, hatred, and rejection
 
Once this community is founded, Paul and Priscilla and Aquila move on, for they know that this resistance is vital. They know that they are called to create communities of love, all over their world. They know what it is to be rejected and beaten and abused. And they are determined to build up churches where people will experience God’s love, God’s affirmation, God’s justice. And so they travel on, together, that they might arrive in the land of miracles, that they might continue to create miracles
 
But in the midst of Paul’s journeys, he receives word that the church in Corinth is messing up. In fact, they are starting to replicate the very patterns of oppression and injustice that they were created to resist. And so Paul writes this letter, the first letter to the Corinthians, the words that we just read today
 
In our text, Paul uses the image of the body. And it is an image that would have been very familiar in that context. In fact, the body image was used all over the Greco-Roman world, in a political context, to demonstrate proper behavior. Alexander the Great, Emperor Agrippa, and numerous politicians and philosophers used this body metaphor frequently, to uphold systems of domination as natural and normalized. They explained that the body has a head, and the head is in charge of the body. The hands must do what the head instructs. The feet must do what the head instructs. The body will only function with a head, which is in charge of the entire body
 
When impoverished people rose up against the Romans, this metaphor was used to quell the revolt. “You are the hands and feet,” the Romans explained. “You must do the work, that is your role. We are the head. We must lead. That is our role.”And so, Paul’s body metaphor would have been no surprise to the Corinthian church. But the way he used it was completely subversive, and wildly counter cultural. Instead of emphasizing the importance of the head, he emphasized the honor given to parts that seem weaker. He emphasized that when one part is in pain, the whole body suffers. He emphasized how much we need each other. Instead of using the body as a metaphor for domination, Paul insisted on love. Paul insisted that we need each other, and that is how we undermine systems of domination, oppression, and injustice. It is only when we travel together, that we create miracles. And the thing is, the Corinthian church did create a miracle. The ministry of Paul and Priscilla and Aquila did create miracles. Because the Christian church, that little group of religious minorities, refugees, convicts, and exiles, flourished and thrived and grew. The Christian church, that powerless group of hands and feet, outlasted the Roman Empire. The Empire fell, the Empire collapsed. But the Christian church lives on. That is a serious miracle. We enter the land of miracles when we travel together. We throw off the reign of oppression, injustice, and tyranny, when we travel together
 
It is possible – it is possible – to dismantle injustice, to eradicate racism, to overthrown the powers of hatred. It is possible to do this work. The Christian church survived and the Roman Empire fell. Because the church knew how to live as the Body of Christ. The church knew that when we work together, we can arrive in the land of miracles. But we have to do the work. And we have to recognize that we need each other. Four years ago, we held a joint worship service with Immanuel and Faith Congregational, worshipping together at Faith. And in that service, Rev. Steve Camp and I decided to tell the truth about these past 200 years. The truth – that my church exists because we refused to be the Body of Christ. My church exists because we choose injustice and oppression
 
You see, Faith Congregational Church was formed 200 years ago, because people of color were only allowed to worship in the back of the church or in balconies. And so, the African American Religious Society of Hartford was formed, which became Talcott Street Church, and then Faith Congregational. My congregation, Immanuel, was formed only five years later, also out of Center Church in Hartford. A group of white people left to form their own congregation, because of a growing population and the economic boom of the 1820s. They left with the full blessing of Center, and took with them financial resources to plant a new church
 
Immanuel and Faith are sister congregations, both from the same mother church, only five years apart. But we were born from a very broken body of Christ, and Immanuel continued to perpetuate that racism, that injustice, that white supremacy. Immanuel continued to pretend that we didn’t need one another. And because of that delusion, because of that injustice, because of that sin, we lost out on the opportunity to truly be the Body of Christ, the opportunity to journey together, into the land of miracles
 
We need to tell the truth about our history – our racism, our misogyny, our homophobia, our legacy of injustice, so that we can build up a Body of Christ that refuses to give into Empire. Paul demanded that the Corinthians stop emulating the model of domination and oppression. Paul demanded that those Christians do better. We must do better. It starts with telling the truth. For only then, can we really journey together
 
Today, the musicians of Faith and Immanuel are leading together. And over the past four years, we have done Bible studies together, confirmation together, advocacy together, criminal justice reform together, traveled to Alabama together, held youth group together, done racial justice trainings together. We have worshipped together, many, many times. We sing together, we pray together, we travel together. For we know, that only together that we will arrive in the land of miracles. I will tell you, we have a long way to go. As a white woman, I know that I have a lot of work to do, and I know that our church has a lot of work to do, as well. But the journey is vital and the work is life or death. And so we are called to do this work, this work of truth and reconciliation and justice, for the Body of Christ is aching, and we can only heal together
 
Black and brown bodies are abused, exploited, incarcerated and killed in appalling ways and in appalling numbers. Women’s bodies are under attack, physically and legislatively. The small bodies of immigrant children are put in cages and die in detention. Flames tear through mosques and bullets tear through synagogues. The Body of Christ is poisoned with white supremacy. It is mired in injustice and hatred. It is broken. We are in desperate need of healing, of repentance, of change
 
If we are not talking about these things in our churches, if we are not building relationships across religion and race, if we are not addressing injustice and hatred, then we are not acting as the Body of Christ. Instead, we are upholding that Roman model of dominance, oppression, and subjugation
 
Our conference is doing something new, and as we gather together today, we are very aware that we will soon gather with colleagues from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, to build a new conference together. And in this building, in this creating of a new body of Christ, we must be vigilant. We must be determined. We must be dedicated. We must not waver. We will work against oppression and racism. We will be founded in our commitment to justice. We will be rooted in our duty to address our own bias and bigotry. For we can transform the world. We can transform ourselves. We can arrive in the land of miracles. I could not have made it home without Catherine. I was terrified on that mountain road, and there no way I could have kept going, without Catherine there. I needed her. We need one another. There are powerful forces in our world trying to keep us apart. But God is more powerful. God has done it before, and God will do it again. So let’s get going, together. The mountainous roads may be treacherous, but the land of miracles awaits. Amen.

Kari Nicewander



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