Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Some of you know I have a little comic above my office desk that shows a preacher doing his thing with these words posted beneath him: “If this pulpit is being operated in a reckless manner, contact 555-4321.” I joke about it, but I also know I’m privileged to have a platform and a voice. I don’t take that lightly and I don’t ever want to abuse it.
I also don’t want to waste it. If I don’t address what’s happening in our country right now - when we are all being reminded of America’s long history of violence against our black brothers and sisters, when so many are protesting that long history of violence… If I don’t address what’s happening at such a time as this then what good am I, really, as a preacher? Like so many of my colleagues, I’ve known something needed to be said this week but struggled over what to say. Which texts should we read? What’s the best way to bring Scripture into conversation with the news? For heaven knows there’s ample material at hand.
For instance, I could have preached on the story of creation in Genesis, and all human lives, including black lives, being created equally in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). I could have focused on a story of liberation from oppression like the story of the children of Israel being freed from captivity in Egypt in the book of Exodus, a story often alluded to in spirituals sung by black slaves. I could have leaned into the words of a prophet like Amos, not only his admonition to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24) a line famously quoted by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, but also Amos’ word to countrymen who felt they were uniquely chosen and special in God’s eyes, as he delivered this word from the Lord to them: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” (Amos 9:7) I could have focused on Jesus teaching us to love our neighbors in concrete ways (e.g. Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 25:31-46). I could have looked to the New Testament book of James and its admonition that faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
There were so many directions I could have gone today it was hard to know where to begin. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t have to look far in Scripture for words to speak to our present situation. Texts about biblical justice are everywhere. Texts about loving our neighbor are everywhere. We also shouldn’t have to wait for a moment of profound disruption like this one to talk in church about race.
I think back over past sermons in which I’ve briefly mentioned the topic of race, occasional book group discussions, occasional worship services when we’ve paused for few moments to consider horrific acts of racially motivated violence. The fact that I can choose whether or not to include such things, the fact that we as a church can touch down on the topic of racial injustice for a few minutes here and there and then move on - these are classic examples of white privilege. So I’m calling myself out today. Racial equality and racial justice are worthy of more than a passing reference now and then from white pastors and majority white congregations. They are core issues for worshipers of the God who made us all in God’s image.
Will you be hearing more from me about this at church? You will. Will it make some of us a little uncomfortable when I bring it up? It might, myself included. But is the importance of giving the subject of race more attention in our mostly-white congregation worthy of our discomfort? Absolutely. It is not optional for us as followers of Jesus to learn how to be anti-racist. It is essential. And it’ll take some time and energy.
All this to say, I thought for a while about scrapping my original choice of texts for this morning to find something more fitting to the occasion. But have you ever had the experience of revisiting a passage you’ve read a bunch of times and suddenly seeing it in a new light? My original goal in this spring sermon series on Acts was simply to highlight the stories of lesser known characters, the ensemble who supported famous heroes of the early Church like Peter and Paul. Because most of us don’t see ourselves in their particular shoes, I wanted to be sure you knew about people like Lydia, this first century merchant who traded in purple cloth. Purple dye was a luxury item, meaning she was better off financially than many of her peers. She had an important role to play because she used her financial resources to help support those more famous itinerant preachers.
I thought you might want to know about this early female Christian – a businesswoman at that – since first century women were more often without resources of their own. She’s named, too, when many biblical women are not. And she appears to have quite a bit of autonomy. The text says she invites Paul and Silas into her home; no husband or father is mentioned. All of this is still important to know. After all, a story can teach us more than one thing at a time.
But this week I was really struck by the invitation, through Lydia’s example, to leverage our assets to make a difference. Lydia used her power and her privilege to support a cause she believed in. She went farther than just feeling something should happen, liking what the apostles were saying, nodding her head when she heard them speak. She dug into her own tool chest and found a concrete way to help, offering hospitality – food and shelter – to those who were proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. It took courage to do this. Inviting foreign men to stay in her house soon after they’d been released from prison wasn’t a small thing. But it was a tangible way to support Paul and Silas in planting a new church in Philippi.
And then there’s this marvelous story from Acts chapter 18. First, did you notice how Apollos is set up there? The text says he’s “eloquent,” “well-versed,” with “burning enthusiasm,” and willing to speak “boldly.” Trouble is, he doesn’t have all his facts straight! So this gracious couple, Priscilla and Aquila, recognizing his clear gifts for ministry, wanting to encourage him in every possible way for the benefit of the church, but not wanting him to preach the wrong message (eloquently or not), gently pull him aside and straighten him out so he can speak more accurately.
Chalk up another victory for the not-to-be-underestimated ministry of Christian Education! And say a prayer of thanks for every Sunday School teacher through the ages – including every one of you – who has recognized the importance not only of love and encouragement for our youngest disciples, but also a commitment to sharing the substance of our faith.
The teacher in me has normally identified with Priscilla and Aquila in this story. This week, though, I felt convicted to ask where I may actually be Apollos. If I’m going to be out there preaching the gospel, out there trying to speak the truth about what the Bible has to say to our society right now, I’d better be sure I learn everything I need to. Better be sure I get my facts straight. Where might I adopt a posture of humility, learning from those who know more than I do about important subjects at hand? Where do I need to be careful in my choice of words so I don’t – even with the best of intentions - do more harm than good? How might that be true for me when I want to speak about biblical justice? How might that be true for me when I want to speak about racial equality?
Sometimes it’s necessary for preachers to scrap what we’ve been working on in a given week and start over. I’ve done it before. No doubt I’ll do it again. But the life lesson for me this week was that I didn’t actually need to look beyond these texts I’d selected long ago to hear a word from the Lord speaking to me as a white American Christian in the first week of June 2020. I found lessons here about using my privilege and my financial resources to support causes I believe in. I found lessons here about the importance of humility and listening, making sure I really learn the truth if I’m going to try speaking the truth.
And here’s the thing - you might just be the Priscilla or Aquila to my Apollos, for I know some of you have important lessons to teach me. So I welcome opportunities like the one we’ll have later today to talk together about what’s been happening in our city and our nation, and where we are called to step into this conversation as followers of Jesus.
Meanwhile, back to that comic above my office desk? Just as I’d want you to let me know if I’m operating this pulpit in a reckless manner, I invite you to call me out if you feel I’m not saying enough. I’ll have to preach as my own conscience dictates – to do otherwise would be inauthentic and a violation of my ordination vows – but feel free to hold me accountable to doing so, and not steering clear of certain topics just because they make us squirm.
And if you wonder if there’s a role for you, remember it wasn’t the big names like Peter and Paul alone who spread the gospel. Lydia and Apollos and Priscilla and Aquila all made their mark on the early Church as well. In fact, they were instrumental in sharing the good news of God-with-us in Jesus, the good news of God’s power to redeem us from our sin and deliver us from evil, the good news of God’s love for all God’s children. They were instrumental in sharing this good news, and so are you. Amen.