This Apocalyptic Moment

21 November 2016 | Christ the King
Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia

The Sunday we are celebrating – the last Sunday before Advent in the Church’s Liturgical calendar – is known as Christ the King Sunday. This year the Sunday falls in a time of Apocalyse.

The election two weeks ago was an apocalyptic moment, in the true meaning of the word. “Apocalypse” is a Greek word which means literally “Out of Hiding.” Things that are in the closet, things that are hidden, are being revealed. So it was on Tuesday the 8th of November.

That day we received a new leader of the nation – a central figure around whom the nation is defined. In the process, many things were revealed about the state of the nation and the powers in it.

So it was at Jesus’ coronation with a crown of thorns. So it was 19 centuries ago on the day that Jesus was crucified, and in the days which followed when he appeared to disciples after his physical death. The powers of the nation and Roman Empire revealed themselves by crucifying him. But the nature and power of God was also revealed. By the crucifixion and reappearance of Jesus, our ancestors had to face the strange nature of his Messiahship. They got what they wanted momentarily, but it didn’t do what they wanted. The nature and process of Jesus kingship, his Messiahship, began to be revealed after his physical death.

Every time we elect a President – the replacement for a King that our founders invented for this nation – we have an opportunity to examine the kingship of Jesus. Jesus, of course, never formally or politically reigned over Israel or any other nation. If his kingship was the true model, we are measured only by our distance from it.

But if Jesus was or is in any way really Christ the king, his kingship is a mirror, a lens, through which we must view all government each time we look, not only in our neo-royalty we call President, but also in the other ways we have diffused governing power – in legislatures and in our own citizenship.

Every Presidential election is an apocalyptic moment. For a moment we can view the state of the nation and world, and if we look carefully, we can identify the Kingship, the Christship, of Jesus.

  1. We have a single narrative;
  2. We have a single set of values; and
  3. We have a single identifying spirit.
  1. We have a single narrative.

One of the most stunning revelations of the past two weeks is the disclosure that the people of this nation are not listening to the same narrative. There is great division not in people’s opinions about a single narrative, but rather, in the narratives that form people’s opinions.

Revelations of the past week about Fake News and the enormous alt-right media world bring more and more to the surface. Fox News was the mild tip of the right-wing media iceberg. The mainstream media are not regarded as a neutral platform on which most of the citizenry stands, holding intelligent discussions about a mutually acknowledged reality. Churches are desperately divided. The so-called Christianity of one is hardly recognizable to the so-called Christianity of the other.

Building community out of different races, classes, and experiences is always difficult, but how can that be done if there is not even a single narrative to which both parties can relate? What narrative are people living in when they consider it normal to call Hilary a murderer, or Barack Obama a Muslim? Or what narrative are they living in when they think everyone who voted for Trump is a racist? Without a single story, without a unified narrative, we cannot proceed to mutual examination and discussion of reality.

We Christians have a single narrative – the Bible. It has never been so important. We may disagree about its implications; we may quarrel about what it says. But there is a reason that we are people of the Book. That is so that all can claim it, and argue about it, and seek to understand through it. There is no requirement that we come out with the same answer to a particular question – only that the source be held in reverence.

All Christianity is Biblical Christianity. No one has a corner on it. Perhaps people who call themselves Christian need to get down to using the Bible as a platform for some discussions across the chasms that divide.

We have at least one narrative – the most important narrative – in common, and we’d better get to work on it.

  1. The kingship of Jesus is identified by a single set of values.

It is not raw power, not control of the army and political machinery, not money or influence, that identifies the Messiah in Jewish religion, but the values he presents. We see them identified in all of our lessons this evening:

Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days…Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord is our Righteousness. (Jeremiah 23:4-6)

Colossians:

[Under Jesus’ kingship we have been] “rescued…from the power of darkness and transferred us into [a] kingdom [where] we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…. [I]n him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. …[I]n him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death. (Col 1:13-22)

The values of the true King are righteous behavior and good judgement. All powers are subject to this order and judgement. Righteousness comes before power. There is forgiveness and love. There is service and humility. There is recognition that truth – God’s truth – is primary. The Crucifixion is a great Apocalyptic moment in First Century Judaism because it makes it clear that righteousness is not in charge. Innocence and virtue are crucified. Falsehood and power are victorious.

In this election, we have seen the enormity and confusion of the great principalities and powers that are present in this nation as well as others.

But if any kingship is to go in the direction of the true Messiahship, it must continually strive for righteousness over power, for true judgement, and for finding the correct place for all things, visible and invisible, that make up this nation and make this nation part of the world.

We have a single narrative; we have a single set of values; and

  1. We have a single identifying spirit.

The spirit that is in Jesus – which we call the Holy Spirit – is the central identifier of the Messiahship. If Jesus is not the obvious king of this world, but rather the hidden king, then we see his kingship in the work of his spirit, whether in Presidents, or legislatures, or citizens. Jesus may be winning, but if he is it is not by people claiming to be his representatives as candidates, but rather by people serving him in spirit and truth.

Jesus’ spirit produces the righteousness of God. True order. True faith. True judgement. It brings about truth and reconciliation – the two are partners, twins, in God’s kingdom. Listening. Humility. Love. Forgiveness.

If Jesus is king, — if he is Messiah or Christ – then he is behind the scenes, working in spirit to bring about a world that is able to affirm his kingship. In his teaching, he made clear this long and tortuous path to his disciples – a path in which Messiahship is shared in the spirit:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)

The picture that Paul draws of the world in Colossians is a little like the MRI we got of this nation in this election. Principalities and powers. Prejudices. Violently divergent opinions. It reminded me of some of the illustrations in Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. All the monsters come out of the closet. In this Apocalyptic Moment, much is being revealed. Look quickly. The most important thing we must recognize, behind the curtain, is what it means if we say Jesus is our hidden King. If he is actually the Messiah, the Christ, the King, then

We have a single narrative; We have a single set of values; and We have a single identifying spirit. Because we know who the king is, we can live in this world by faith, hope, and courage as innovative citizens of that kingdom, no matter what our political starting point.               AMEN.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell

Invitation to a Life of Faith

17 October 2016 | Luke 18:1-8
The Importunate Widow

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

We go to God because we have no control. He invites us to relationship in prayer. The life in prayer brings faith in action.

  1. We go to God because we have no control.

In tonight’s Gospel, Jesus uses an adverse comparison to make us think – a method which he seems to have used fairly frequently. Here, in this story, we have a widow who is, she believes, being mistreated. She tries to get a judge to hear her case and decide in her favor, but he pays her no attention. The judge is described as an unprincipled public official – one who has “no fear of God (or) respect for anyone else.” Nonetheless, the widow keeps bothering him, knocking on his door, sending him e-mails, ambushing him on the way to his office. Finally, just to get her off his back, he does what she needs.

This judge is an unprincipled criminal, Jesus says. Yet even he will pay attention to the widow sooner or later.

And what, he asks, do you think God will do for those whom he loves – won’t he be at least as good, or better than that?

We all understand what feelings Jesus was speaking to. We pray for things, and we don’t see why God doesn’t take care of what we ask. If he loves us, we say, why don’t we get what we think we need or want? It’s a serious question – in fact, the entry question of prayer. A lot of people give up on God because they can’t answer the question. Many of the rest of us have a sinking feeling or a feeling of guilt because of it. We must be doing something wrong. We must not have enough faith. Otherwise what we want would be happening.

We go to God in prayer because so much of life that is important seems beyond our control and we need him to help us. Yet we feel that he does not hear our plea, — or worse, chooses not to act to make things right.

And Jesus says, “Of course he loves you. Of course he is acting. Do you think someone who loves you and cares for every hair on your head will not do at least as well as this crooked judge?” This answer may or may not feel satisfactory to us.

We go to God because we have no control.

  1. He invites us to relationship in prayer.

So, Jesus, how am I to respond to this assertion? What I asked for – I don’t see it happening. You are inviting me to keep asking, to be as rigorous and persistent in my prayer as that widow was, even though I see no results.

And here is the crucial time. If I am praying to a God who loves me, and if I am doing that persistently, what can happen?

What is going on here is the development of a relationship in the spirit. My voice, my feelings, my intentions, my desires are no longer the only agenda. There is a kind of a conversation.

To be sure, Jesus says, judgement is immediately established. That is, God’s truth and accurate judgement are his nature and character. Whenever we speak with him we are speaking to fairness and truth itself. Fortunately for us, it is tempered by his love and kindness.

Still, if he’s on our side, why doesn’t he remedy the situation?

Are we condemned to live in continual disappointment?

Or are we to take the next step of relationship – to believe in his self-sacrificing love and begin to look and listen. Prayer now becomes a dialogue. God may not be doing what we have designed for him to do. But he is the god of true judgement and fairness. We have the choice – whether we take it or not – of looking and listening at what is happening and trying to understand what he is doing.

Several days ago I talked with a young man who had awakened ten days before to find that his left side seemed paralyzed. It was a terrifying event. He stumbled and fell. He could not move his left hand or fingers. It seemed like a tumor, a stroke. We all pray something like this will not happen, that it was not true. He was rushed to the emergency room, to surgery. It turned out to have been an abscess in his skull rather than a tumor, and the prognosis for recovery was good. I spoke to him days after the surgery in the hospital. He was thinking of the people who had cared for him, minute by minute; of the love which he and his wife had shared during the time; of the conversations and thoughts about how they wanted to be living their life that they had been given.   He wept as he finished his story: “In the hardest moment of a life changing event,” he said, “you see God show up everywhere.”

We began with misery and a sense that the situation must be reversed. We now are receiving God’s mercy in ways we had not imagined.

We go to God because we have no control.

He invites us to relationship in prayer.

  1. The life in prayer brings faith in action

Jesus tells the tale of this insistent widow and this unjust judge. He suggests that we, praying persistently, should expect that God will be at least as responsive to us as the crooked judge was to the widow: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”

Then he slips in this little question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

All the time we’ve been acting as if this were God’s problem. God is on trial in our psyches. He says he is good, but he isn’t responding. That means either he isn’t really there, or he isn’t a responding type God, or somehow we have asked or acted improperly and aren’t getting a response.

But Jesus asks – he just suggests – that there may be something else going on here. This whole thing may be about something else. The emerging question is, are we going to be involved in God’s enterprise, or are we just expecting him to be the hero in our drama?

We begin by asking God to help us in a situation that is beyond our control. He invites us into a deeper and more constant prayer and we begin to listen. Then, perhaps, we begin to see his mercy and even to see in advance where God is going. Our eyes are opened in faith.

And when our eyes are opened in faith, we may find ourselves acting in faith – in what we see God is doing. Our agenda becomes his and we become change agents, daily transformed and a part of the world’s transformation in hope.

Faith is not separate from action. Faith is manifested in action. It is not a mental exercise. It is seeing something that is not yet and walking into it – and in the process, helping it to become.

I’m thinking we prayed about the racial segregation of Richmond – thousands prayed, with thousands of ancestors, for decades and decades. God gave us Richmond Hill, a vision to walk into in faith. Not just prayer –——- a Place of prayer. Then more prayer. What action comes from this? Many actions? As we listen in prayer we look in faith and try to walk into God’s answer.

There is no such thing as faith without works or action. Action is the unleashing of faith into life. Faith is not a set of words – it is finding the path along the cliff and walking on it; it is looking for the door hidden in the wall and walking through it; it is hearing a song in the darkness and walking toward it; it is knowing there is a way and seeing it emerge.

We go to God because we have no control.

He invites us to relationship in prayer.

The life in prayer brings faith in action.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

AMEN

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia

 

A good bad example

Richmond Hill  |  19 September 2016
XVIII Pentecost  |  Luke 16:1-13

I love the story of the dishonest manager. Jesus must have driven his pious listeners crazy. Here he was taking a clearly dishonest person and complimenting him, — using his behavior as an example of the behavior which they should emulate. Jesus uses an adverse comparison – the native survival instinct of a dishonest steward is somehow an illustration of the behavior which disciples – “children of light” — should follow.

It’s a tricky story. But in the conversation – in the challenge – I wonder if Jesus is not able to say things he could not say any other way:

  1. The opposite of dishonest, oppressive behavior is not inactivity.
  2. True relationship and economic relationship may not be the same thing.
  3. You have to choose.
  1. The opposite of dishonest, oppressive behavior is not inactivity.

God’s businessmen and businesswomen are meant to be sharp and convincing. The only difference here is whose business you’re in.

The steward was supposed to be in the business of his employer, but he was not doing a very good job. When it became apparent to him that he was going to be fired, he started using his employer’s money to buy friendship from some of his employer’s clients. It sounds an awful lot like a congressman who, before getting voted out of office, makes sure that he gets one last piece of special interest legislation for the various corporations and lobbyists who have been paying to keep him in office, so he can have a job when he gets out. We are familiar – too familiar — with this kind of behavior.

But Jesus is telling us to examine this behavior more carefully. The dishonest steward is engaged in a personal effort which affects his entire future. He is fighting for his own survival. As a person engaged in that kind of effort, he is using every resource he has, and scheming as hard as he can, to achieve the goal.

Most of Jesus’ disciples would assume, I guess, that simply not being a dishonest steward is enough. Not cheating, not lying, not stealing – this is the path of discipleship.

Jesus, on the other hand, admires the dishonest steward – not for his dishonesty, but for his dedication to the task, for his innovation, for his not being willing to give up: “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own people than the children of light are,” Jesus says.

During the past year, once or twice a week, I have sat with individuals and groups of people who are asking what they can do to make a difference in the public transportation system of metropolitan Richmond. It seems easy to say yes, it’s a good idea, and to believe really it will never happen. And this parable of the dishonest steward comes to my mind. What would the dishonest steward do? If it were about his survival, what would the dishonest steward do? Would he do nothing, allowing himself simply to be fired and be impoverished, in the street?

What does the dishonest steward have that we don’t have? Determination, unwillingness to quit, innovation, — what Jesus calls “shrewdness.” He is using his head, until he is successful.

I am aware that anywhere from ten to 200 young men and persons getting out of jail or prison in Richmond this year will give up on themselves because they can’t get a bus to a place of work – 9 out of ten jobs in metropolitan Richmond are not available on a bus line. I am aware that the leaders of the metropolitan community will say that they cannot afford public transportation, even though every other one of the world’s top 500 cities can afford it. I am aware that they will say it has nothing to do with racial segregation, even though I know it does. Even a dishonest steward knows that.

The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own people than the children of light are. The opposite of dishonest, oppressive behavior is not inactivity.

  1. True relationship and economic relationship may not be the same thing.

I’ve been wondering why Jesus chose this particular example of a shrewd, dishonest man to make his point about the children of this age and the children of light. Why did he choose this example of a man who bought dishonest relationship to replace his broken honest relationship?

I’m thinking relationship is an essential clue to what it means to be children of light. There is true relationship, and there is bought relationship. That is to say, there is relationship that grows through mutual respect, knowledge, affection, forgiveness – the bonds of love which are the core of the Holy Spirit’s work in this world. And there is commercial relationship, relationship of mutual interest, relationship of convenience, economic relationship.

We all are in both of these all the time. But I believe Jesus is raising the question of which one is essential to the children of light. How would you like to be the dishonest steward depending on the people you made dishonest deals with after you lose his job? Who is going to trust whom in these relationships? Now that he has lost the relationship with a master which included both personal trust and economic profit, how is that dishonest steward going to find trust again?

One rabbi, commenting on Jesus’ story, appears to have drawn this lesson directly: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he says, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Exactly what kind of eternal home might you hope to make with those persons who cheated the master with you? What would those persons be like? How would they treat you, once your money is gone?

America is a nation based on a powerful vision that every human being is important, regardless of race, creed, national origin – or any other distinction you might make. That belief, alone among all the founding beliefs of this nation; that belief, even though we have made a lie of it from the beginning; that belief is the most powerful divine foundation of this nation – a Holy Spirit work, a true Christian position, far more Christian than the establishment of Christian religion would be.

Working from that fundamental respect to a greater fairness, mutuality, and common wealth, — that is the great task which our foreparents set for us.

But there is the other set of values, which torment us and tear us apart in modern America. No loyalty of employer to employee, a belief that extreme wealth and no taxes is a legitimate position for persons in power, indifference to de facto segregation by race and income more egregious than the legalized segregation of the past, — these values are treating people like objects of economic relationship, where dishonesty would be natural if it served one’s purposes.

The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own people than the children of light are. The opposite of dishonest, oppressive behavior is not inactivity. It should be clear that true relationship and economic relationship may not be the same thing.

  1. You have to choose.

You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Mammon is an Aramaic word meaning material wealth. It has come to mean material wealth for its own sake — not just “dishonest wealth.” It is wealth pursued for its own sake – as a spirit, as an addiction, as a goal, as a converting power.

You have to choose, Jesus says. Where have you seen, where can you see, the God/Mammon split in your own life? It isn’t simply a renunciation of power. There is no condemnation of power here in this story. In fact, Jesus asks why the children of light seem to have renounced the power of activity and innovation along with their renunciation of unjust gain.

But no one can serve two masters, and there is a choice between God and Mammon. I have had an occasion several times to employ people who have worked for me and for another job. I have employed people who have split their times between two different contexts. I can tell you this experience is accurate. In my experience, it is virtually impossible for two employers and two environments to have the same loyalty from an employee, no matter how good the employee is.

No one can serve two masters.

When it comes to God and Mammon, Jesus says the division is absolute. Sooner or later, — maybe both sooner and later, you have to choose. You have to choose between comfort and risk, between security and challenge, between passivity and action, between truth and falsehood, between bitterness and forgiveness, between the wealth of God and his people, and the wealth of this world.

I can’t tell you how your choices appear, but can say this: The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own people than the children of light are. The opposite of dishonest, oppressive behavior is not inactivity. True relationship and economic relationship may not be the same thing. And I can tell you that you have to choose: you cannot serve God and Mammon.

Amen.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill
Richmond, Virginia

Fire to the earth

15 August 2016  |  XIII Pentecost   |  Luke 12:49-56
The Rev. B. P. Campbell

On the evening of October 7, 1983, I stood on the corner of Main and 17th Streets, on the South side of the street, beside an architect and developer named Larry Shiflett. The sky was a deep black, with bright stars. We were looking across the street at Main Street Station, the majestic brick railroad station in Shockoe Bottom. Smoke was coming out of the windows – the station was on fire.

Larry and his partner, David White, had purchased the train station and were renovating it into a shopping center. They were nearly finished. Now, it seemed, their entire investment was about to go up in smoke.

Main Street Station is a five story building with a beautiful clock tower on its side and a large train shed extending to the north. The brick complex of waiting rooms and offices at one end is called the Head House. The tile roof of the head house is steeply pitched, and goes up nearly three stories with dormer windows protruding from its sides. It was at that head house that we were looking as the smoke poured out of the windows. We wondered if the fire could be extinguished.

Suddenly, as we stood there, the entire roof exploded in flame. The fire that had been gathering and smoking inside the building erupted hundreds of feet into the sky. Burning, melting shards of the roof tiles sprayed upward, and the station was a giant roman candle illuminating the sky of downtown Richmond.

The fire had been smoldering, smoking, hidden, gathering strength. And suddenly it exploded. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50)

In his little book The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton reproduces this story from the Fourth Century:

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire? [LXXII:50]

Reflecting on the work of these same desert fathers, the great 20th century spiritual writer Henry Nouwen talks about silence and solitude. Solitude, Nouwen says, is “the furnace of transformation. …(It) is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self. … Jesus himself entered into this furnace.” [Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, pp. 25-26.]

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50)

How can we understand this except to say that Jesus saw the coming confrontation with the Jerusalem authorities and the Roman Empire – his own impending murder – and the impending resurrection appearances – as the explosive eruption of the fire of God’s Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist had used this language of prediction in his preaching: “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” [Luke 3:16]

We fail to understand the true power of silence and solitude, even while we properly exult in the calming and peace-bringing power of God’s Holy Spirit. There is a deep peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding. It grows and is fed by the Holy Spirit and its redemptive, transforming power. It is made present in the peace of silence. But that peace is not passivity. It is the inner assurance of a stability which permits the transformation of the world to break out in what looks like instability. It explodes in the Holy Spirit and in fire!

There are three things about the fire of the Spirit in tonight’s Gospel.

  1. The fire of the Spirit causes instability in relationships.
  2. The fire of the Spirit provokes instability in societies.
  3. The fire of the spirit defeats the passivity of virtuous people.
  1. The fire of the Spirit causes instability in relationships.

I was looking at this list of relationships that Jesus says will be made unstable through the fire of the Holy Spirit: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws.

We know only too well the instability that can occur in all of these relationships. What is significant in Jesus’ statement is that the distress in faily relationships it can be the work of the Holy Spirit’s explosive power.

Probably the impact of this is least visible in a society like our own, where familial relationships have shrunk to single family households, at best. But in much of the Middle East, still today, extended families and clans are the dominant form of social relationship. In that context, the individual self-discovery invited by the Holy Spirit can be obvious and dramatic.

A healthy relationship changes all the time. The Holy Spirit and spirit of love hold it together. On the surface, it may appear unstable – but the healthiest relationships are able to last through constant dynamic change through the power of the Spirit. Of course, not all instability is the work of the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus’ statement is so shocking. Destruction of relationship is sometimes just that – destruction, meanness, misguided opposition, control. In personal relationships that we see most clearly that the peace of God is a dynamic peace, one that demands relationship rather than static arrangement.

  1. The fire of the Spirit provokes instability in societies.

Wars and rumors of wars. Great instability in societies. Can’t you see? Every social change speaks to some reality, even if it speaks wrongly to it. Don’t you think that Donald Trump is trading on the work of the Spirit, even if he is blaspheming it? The society has been out of control, in the hands of manipulative, destructive wealth, destroying employment, taking away pensions, ripping apart communities. Injustice is inherently unstable. Demagogues use the instability of injustice for their own purposes. What horrible instability is involved in today’s Middle East and Europe? How are the great divisions of ethnicity and religion involved in the destabilization of stable societies?

You know how to predict the weather? Why can’t you see the signs of the times? We mistake stability for peace. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was more stable than that nation has been in the last 20 years. Was that peace? Virginia maintained enslavement of the population and racial segregation as official state policy for 363 years, until 1970. That was stability of a sort. Was it peace?

Today, metropolitan Richmond is stably based on segregating low income black people and some Latinos into underfunded, high poverty schools, and keeping them in their place by refusing to allow public transportation in 90% of the metro city? Where did that idea of stability come from? Will the spirit explode against it?

“If you want peace,” the Catholics say, “work for justice.” Nothing else than the dynamic quest for justice is ever truly stable. Its stability is a living stability.

  1. The fire of the spirit will undermine the passivity of virtuous people.

The fire of the spirit is the resurrection power of Jesus. Defeating passivity. Bringing love, justice, truth, cleansing power, transformation.

Jesus’ words strike a paradoxical chord in contemporary metropolitan Richmond, and probably in America as a whole. Here in this metropolitan city we have established a stable economic law of disintegration and fragmentation. We attempt to maintain peace by not being in relationship. We are separated into single-family households and travel in individual automobiles. We divide our communities by income, and race. We tax the upper income people less than lower income. We reserve access to employment to those who can afford to live near it. We give the least support for education to those who need it the most. We do not even have the most rudimentary form of contact with one another through public transportation. That’s our present so-called stability.

Passive acceptance of the structures of disintegration is our current status. The result of the structured disintegration is increasing injustice and violence throughout the nation. Is it not clear? The peace of God demands that we break through the barriers that separate us and deliberately send out ambassadors of communication. This means breaking social patterns and deliberately establishing relationships across geographic lines. Religion does a good job of sanctifying the present. It talks about the Holy Spirit. But if the Holy Spirit comes, it can undermine the passivity of virtuous people.

Jesus said,“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? [Luke 12:49-56]

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill

Discernment in the Desert

15 February 2016
I Lent | Luke 4:1-13 The Temptations

The story of the Temptations is one of the most important theological passages in the New Testament. It falls into the category which theologians call “Christology,” – that is, what was the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship, and what was the nature of his relationship to the God whom he called father.

Jesus has been baptized by John at the Jordan, and he has heard a voice from heaven saying “You are my beloved son.”   Immediately after this, he is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit for a significant period of time. It is described as a time of Temptation, and in our little cartoon version of Jesus and the devil, we see it in fairly simple form. But I think it represents a far more profound time of reflection and discernment for Jesus.

The story of the Temptations gives us Jesus’ strategy – his call – his understanding of how he might approach the transformation of human society. If we believe that Jesus accurately represents the methodology of God, it gives us a clear sense of God’s primary methodology for healing and transformation.

In this story, Jesus makes three discernments: he considers and specifically rejects three different strategies for the transformation of the world. When these three have been rejected, he begins his ministry and announces his own strategy for all to hear.

In the time in the desert, and through wrestling with and rejecting three strategies for transformation, Jesus

  • Identified what God doesn’t do.
  • Described the opening to the spirit.
  • Identified the path of salvation.
  1. Jesus identified what God doesn’t do.

A really good temptation always attempts to appropriate our better instincts. Then it’s just a little off –in a way that just misses the essence of things.

The three temptations we have here are all aimed at the goal we all share – the goal, we assume, of God; the goal of the Messiah-king whom God would appoint; the goal of any son who represented God. That goal is the healing and transformation of the world, the establishment of a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

In his time in the desert, reflecting on his call and vocation, Jesus asked whether he should begin putting the kingdom of God together by

  • taking care of the material needs of folks by turning stones into bread;
  • taking military and political authority over the nations of the world by whatever means necessary;
  • or drawing people’s attention to his leadership by jumping from the temple and being caught by angels.

Frankly, we don’t know if these things were possible or not for Jesus or anyone else. I know we say God can do anything – but do we really mean to say that God ever would do something he has told us is against his nature? These things may have been just pure fantasy. In each case, Jesus hears a verse from Scripture which suggests that he should not pray for these.

He has just been called, and called son of God. He’s wrestling with what that means. And what it doesn’t mean is these things. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen, or even that they may not be done and even done well sometimes. But they are not the end which God was seeking in Jesus. I think that’s probably because they have no transformative power. God did not create the world in order to control the world. He created the world in order for it to come alive and be transformed into a spiritual engine of extraordinary and unique capacity.

What’s fascinating, of course, is that we are still asking God for the things of the desert, asking God to provide the solutions which he clearly indicated are not a part of his intention — that is, if we believe Jesus is the representative of God’s intentions. God does not intend magically to transform stones into bread; he does not intend to control the world without transforming it; and he isn’t content just to attract people’s attention by signs and wonders.

All of these things may occur, and God may even use them for good, but they are not the core of his creative intention. Jesus identified what God doesn’t do.

  1. Jesus identified the opening to the Spirit.

It’s in the way that Jesus said “No” to the devil that we are given the privilege of seeing the gateway out of pure control and materialism which he was walking through.

Recall these responses. Jesus is trying to figure out what the voice from heaven at his baptism meant when it said “you are my son, the beloved.”

The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus responds with a statement from a sermon of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses said, “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Whether or not Jesus could be in the business of transforming stones to bread, this is not what is going on as his primary mission. Like Moses in the desert, Jesus is involved with material resources not only for food but because they are a window into the care and the guidance of God, which has been learned not only by satisfaction, but also by hunger. God is known in both the emptiness and the fullness.

Next the devil says that he will give authority over all the world’s people and governments to Jesus if he will worship him – presumably meaning using his methods of control. Jesus responds by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy again: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

The spirit of God is different from the spirit of the Devil. It is not the accomplishment itself – that is bringing the kingdoms of the world together under a single rule – but the Name and spirit in which the accomplishment is made, that is determinative. You cannot accomplish God’s ends by someone else’s methodology.

Finally, the devil suggests that Jesus should jump from the temple and get God’s angels to catch him. Again quoting Moses in Deuteronomy, Jesus says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test.” God is not to be manipulated. Faith and trust are not a game. The way of the spirit is to follow where the spirit leads. There are no trial runs.

In his work in the desert, Jesus identified the opening of life to the guidance of the spirit. God is known in both emptiness and fullness. You cannot accomplish God’s ends by someone else’s methodology. Faith is not a game – there are no trial runs. These insights provided parameters for Jesus’ essential vocation — what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes as “the race that is set before us” as well – where Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

Jesus identified what God doesn’t do. He identified the opening to the spirit. And he identified the path of salvation.

  1. Jesus identified the path of salvation.

The purported goal of all of the temptations was the proper order of the world – bringing about the longed-for kingdom of righteousness and justice which the prophets had predicted, a healthy and just human society. This was the work of the messiah, and it appears that it was Jesus’ work as God’s representative in that time and place. This transformation, this salvation, could not be accomplished by the usual methodologies, however. The path of salvation was a powerful and unusual path, right through the gateway pointed out by Jesus’ temptations.

When he returned from the desert, Jesus identified the path of: The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, that there is good news to be heard and identified, the captives are going free and the blind are seeing. This new way, a way of truth, love, and obedience, was fully bathed in the spirit and guidance of God – no tricks, no testing, no mistaken guidance or ugly spirit. It was instantly transformational on a small scale, and its integrity promised a level of salvation that was stronger than death.

Jesus retained the messianic goal to bring in the kingdom of God, but he pursued a different, authentic methodology – one which was completely dependent on the Holy Spirit of God, which moved through love, and which progressively involved more and more people as actors – one which could affect the entire world and spread across the ground – one which had both instantaneous and long-term effect – one which could continue its course for centuries, we do not know how many.

The paths he rejected were dead ends – attempted instant cures and conquests that had nothing to do with God’s hopes for creation and had no knowledge of the true spirit of God. But when Jesus identified the true spirit, he was on his way. There was nothing to be gained by the spirit of magic or control, he knew. In the name of the eternal God and his creation, the only way forward was the way of the Servant.

Following his baptism, trying to understand the particularity of his call, Jesus did a job for us that is essential to our own calls, our own lives and faith: He identified what God doesn’t do. He identified the opening to the spirit. And he identified the path of salvation.  AMEN.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia

Richmond and the American Dream: Revolution & Reality

Banner Lecture, Virginia Historical Society, 6 February 2016, by the Rev. B. P. Campbell

Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1780 and was incorporated in 1782. It is, in a sense, the child-city of the American Revolution.

The American Revolution enclosed within itself one major, deeply disturbing contradiction: It proclaimed equality and liberty for every human being, in words and actions that went around the world. But it also firmly established a system of race-based segregation and enslavement for half the population of Virginia. Liberty was stated publicly as a goal; enslavement was established firmly as a practice.

The contradictory pattern of this Revolution is the shape of Virginia, perhaps from its beginning in Jamestown. The pattern is the template for much of what has happened in Richmond since 1782. To a large extent – how much we must explore — metropolitan Richmond still follows this pattern in 2016.

Virginia history, authorized and taught for two centuries in the schools and universities of the Commonwealth by the free half of the population, has largely ignored the unfinished half of the Revolution which our conflicted forefathers bequeathed to us. Therefore, the problems and situations of those beyond the wall of privilege in metropolitan Richmond are viewed publicly as anomalies or unfortunate defects in an otherwise successful Revolutionary city, rather than the predictable result of the original design.

In Richmond, the crazy imbalance of the original design continues to play out, with destructive consequences. One of the world’s 500 largest cities, Richmond is governmentally and economically fragmented. Four different jurisdictions compete for location of businesses and location of the poor, leaving the highest tax burden on the poorest part of the city. The state and Federal government have spent over $1 billion in the last several decades on new highways pulling the city outward and drawing commerce from the center. Metropolitan Richmond’s urban sprawl is in the top one percent of the world’s top 500 cities. The central city has virtually exhausted its bonding capacity and has $600 million in deferred capital costs for education alone. Poor children in the inner city are jammed into racially and economically segregated schools which cannot possibly lift them out of poverty without either social integration or major increases in staffing and expenditure. The jail is jammed with persons who have no chance of employment when they have served their term. And the wealthy but fragmented metropolitan city cannot even manage a public transportation system to get citizens to work and job training.

It would be easy and accurate to say that issues of this sort afflict many American cities. But three things are unique about the issues of metropolitan Richmond.

  • First, we can trace them year by year from their origin directly through decades and centuries – sometimes even back to Jamestown.
  • Second, in almost every case metropolitan Richmond has the full resources needed to address these issues effectively. All that is missing is the political and social will.
  • And third, Richmond once aspired, and may still desire, to exemplify the original greatness of the world’s greatest nation – based on the principle of liberty and justice for all.

The dysfunction of metropolitan Richmond surely belies the intentions of its citizens. Historic attitudes of racism and class warfare have diminished. Education levels have grown. Power has been diffused. We might fulfill our destiny.

But there are powerful unconscious forces, it seems, which create havoc and decisively inhibit healthy consensus. These forces are masked by the repetition of a false historical narrative that describes Richmond to have been founded on a revolution which established equality and liberty for all. It was not. The principles were proclaimed as if for all, but intended for only half the population. At the same time, pervasive political, legal, and economic structures were erected which decisively prohibited both liberty and equality to the other half.

The hypothesis I am exploring is this: These discriminatory structures passed into the unconscious reality of Virginians. Even while no one will consciously advocate for them, their shape and spirit remain in place and will stay in place until identified and consciously dismantled. Moreover, the shame and guilt, the passivity and rage, and the collective helplessness before evil which these hypocritical structures created continues to paralyze the population even after they are gone. Richmond is trapped in a stew of hereditary hypocrisy. It systematically denies half its history.

There are measures for the magnitude of this denial. I have a copy of the 4th Grade textbook approved by the State Department of Education and required to be used for the foundational teaching on Social Studies by every child in Virginia as late as 1965. This means that it was the basic teaching for any Virginian who is 60 years old today, and for many who are younger. Out of 180 pages, the book refers to black Virginians on only three. Two refer to the benevolence of slavery at the time of the Civil War. The other mentions Booker T. Washington. There is no mention of the enslavement of half the population following the Revolution; no mention of torture or violence; no mention of Gabriel’s attempted Revolution; no mention of the extensive system of racial segregation established following the Civil War; and of course no mention of Jim Crow or the Civil Rights movement. How is this possible? What is more essential knowledge for Virginians?

The most stunning measure of metropolitan Richmond’s denial of its history is the hiddenness for more than a century of Richmond’s central role in the Downriver Slave Trade. This human trafficking involved from 300,000 to 500,000 persons of African descent who were sold from Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom between 1830 and 1860. At its peak, the trade itself represented more than $100 million per year in gross revenue, not counting the economic activity of the related industries and shops surrounding the market. The sale of persons occupied 30 blocks at the center of town, at the foot of the Capitol, surrounded by churches and synagogues. It accounted for 50% of the economy of a city of barely 40,000 persons. It was certainly a major factor both in Virginia’s entry into the War and in the complete silencing of opposition to slavery in Richmond in the 20 years leading up to the War.

How did this deep and long-lasting economic history escape the attention of Richmond historians for more than 120 years? It is strange: A city that is considered one of the most history-minded places in the nation is actually hiding from its own history. The true history of Virginia and of Richmond, its capital city, went underground in the collective psyche. Over and over again, regardless of the stated developments in legislation and policy, these destructive patterns have reasserted themselves, subverting the revolution itself.

My book Richmond’s Unhealed History simply tells the history of Richmond and Virginia for 500 years, allowing the reader to discern these patterns, if they indeed exist, for himself. But in today’s lecture, I am going to identify several of the most significant patterns which I believe act to subvert the intentions of the American Revolution in its own city of Richmond. The most important of these is the Compact of White Privilege. So I’ll describe the development of this pattern in detail, and then briefly identify repetitive patterns in Capital Formation, Dual Education, and the Disposal of Surplus Labor.

  1. White Privilege

At its beginning in 1607, life on Powhatan’s River was not in any way a satisfactory compact for English settlers. They were used without warning by the public-private partnership of the London Company as an invading army in a foreign country. 900 of the first 1000 died in the first three years. When Captain John Smith came to the Falls of the James in 1608, attempting to buy one of Powhatan’s villages for a permanent settlement, he actually traded a young Englishman, Henry Spelman, in payment for the village. Three years later, when Sir Thomas Dale attempted to move the main settlement to a high bluff called Henrico, nine miles below the Falls, Dale tortured and killed settlers who failed to obey his martial law. Most settlers had no rights.

Life for the majority of English settlers was miserable and deadly, not only because of the opposition of native Americans, but also because of the tyranny of their own countrymen. By 1620, Virginia tobacco had become so valuable in London that thousands of unemployed, misdemeanant, or credulous men were being shoveled off the streets of London and shipped in bondage to the Virginia tobacco fields. The king gave 50 acres of land to anyone who would import such a servant. The importing landowner then earned a 700% return in the first year and, if the man survived, 1500% profit in the second year on the bonded laborer. 50% of the imported laborers died in their first year. The white “servants,” as they were called, were slaves in everything but name. They could be bought and sold, and before 1660, few lived out their indenture of seven or more years.

Virginia was ruled by the Crown. In 1619 the House of Burgesses came into existence. It was to Virginia what Magna Carta had been to England. It gave to a few of the so-called “Great Men,” the wealthy plantation owners who had acquired vast tracts of land in Tidewater counties and controlled hundreds of servants, the ability to share some power with the King’s Governor.

There were a number of attempted revolts by white servants in the first 50 years, none of them successful. By 1660, some of the servants had managed to live out their indentures, and poor independent farmers were finding their way to the frontier. In 1676, Nathanael Bacon, who had acquired land on Curles’ Neck below Richmond and on Bacon’s Quarter Branch near Richmond’s Gilpin Court, gathered men to fight the Susquehannock Indians across from Westmoreland County on the Potomac. As his armed rebellion grew, it turned against Governor Berkeley. Bacon burned Jamestown and chased the Governor to the Eastern Shore. Mercurial in temperament and chronically unhealthy, Bacon died of “the bloody flux.” British warships finally subdued the rebellion at West Point, on the York River. The army that surrendered was composed of about 800 bonded men and tenant farmers. The army was half black and half white. At the time of Bacon’s Rebellion there were 8,000 bonded servants in Virginia, 6,000 of whom were of European heritage and 2,000, of African ancestry.

The threat of an interracial, class-based rebellion was not lost on the Governor or the Great Men. Over the next 29 years the House of Burgesses assembled what became the most important social charter of Colonial Virginia – the Virginia Slave Codes, completed in 1705. These codes established Virginia’s policy of “white privilege.” The codes assumed that the population of Virginia would include a large number of persons in bonded servitude. But they carefully distinguished between “white” servants and Negro slaves.

The word “white” was invented for the codes, used for persons of European heritage where the word “Christian” had formerly been used. The racial distinctions in the Slave Codes were not primarily economic. They were social distinctions which were clearly intended to “privilege” white servants over the Negro, Muslim, and other bondsmen working beside them in the fields. If a Negro and a white servant got into a fight, only the white servant’s testimony was accepted in court. The Negro was subject to whipping. The child of a Negro slave was automatically enslaved. In contrast, the Codes established physical protection for white servants:

[A]ll masters and owners of servants, shall find and provide for their servants, wholesome and competent diet, clothing, and lodging, and shall not, at any time …whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace.” [Hening, Statutes at Large, III:447.]

As Theodore Allen has shown in his remarkable work, The Invention of the White Race, the Virginia Slave Codes were patterned on a colonial policy already developed for the British West Indies. By giving privileges to white servants and yeomen, the Crown established a Compact of White Privilege which created a buffer class who would fight on its side to keep the black slaves in subjection.

This Compact of White Privilege, in the form of the Virginia Slave Codes, became the charter for the economic growth of 18th Century Virginia. At the beginning of the century England took over Virginia’s transatlantic slave trade from the Dutch, and Virginia’s Great Men shifted their eyes to Africa for free labor. During the 18th Century 114,000 captured Africans reached the shore of Virginia. In 1718 London also began exporting convicted felons to the fields of Virginia and Maryland, and 40,000 of these persons were sold to planters for terms of 7 to 15 years. Other European countries sent indentures and settlers to the Piedmont and the Valley. In the 18th Century, nearly 75% of emigrants to Virginia were in some form of bondage. Virginia’s transatlantic slave trade with Africa ended in 1774. By that time there were 300,000 white persons and 300,000 persons of African descent in Virginia.

The Great Men remained in charge, but they could not themselves fight a war. The American Revolution was dependent on the Compact of White Privilege. Our official narratives of the American Revolution never mention this unspoken compact. But it clearly offset the concept of human equality and liberty so far as half the population was concerned. In 1780, meeting in Richmond, the General Assembly voted to reward every soldier with a bounty of 300 acres and a “healthy sound Negro.” [Hening, ed., Acts of Assembly (Oct. 1780) X:331]

In Richmond, established in the last years of the Revolution, white privilege was seldom articulated, but always protected. A half-century later, the thousands of poor white boys who charged the Union artillery and were massacred on Malvern Hill in 1862, urged forward by the officer-descendants of the Great Men, were fighting, whether they knew it or not, to retain that scrap of white privilege. The overt racial segregation policies and laws developed in great detail in the period from 1880 to 1958 in Virginia, were affirmations of white privilege. The ascendancy of Harry Flood Byrd and his Democratic machine to dominate Virginia politics in the 20th century, was to guarantee white privilege. Byrd stood in the place of the Great Men, a direct descendant of William Byrd of Westover, who laid out the city of Richmond.

The General Assembly of Virginia, when it could no longer guarantee white privilege by overt laws of racial segregation, secured white privilege for the next half-century by forbidding annexation to the majority black city of Richmond. It firmly established in March, 1971, a wall of racial and economic segregation in the metropolitan city, giving enormous economic advantages to the mostly white surrounding suburban counties. The Compact of White Privilege was intact.

  1. Capital Formation:

Virginia’s initial capitalization was based on free land and free labor. An investment from England, through the London Company, was combined with land taken by force from Powhatan’s people and labor compelled from enslaved workers. The pattern assumed that capital, with its opportunity for growth and accumulated wealth, would belong to one small group of people, and that the great majority of people would live in a non-cash economy.

In 17th Century Virginia labor was a capital asset. One owned one’s laborers. A laborer was not only without capital or the ability to accumulate capital – his person was actually a part of someone else’s capital.

The Virginia Slave Codes revised this distinction, maintaining a virtually absolute wall between capital and labor, but moving it to accommodate the Compact of White Privilege. Whites who were not Great Landowners might anticipate eventual ownership of property. But Negro slaves were themselves carefully defined as “real property.” The wall had moved. Half the population might hope eventually to acquire capital. But the other half was deliberately excluded.

There was no abolitionist movement in Virginia – laws even prohibited the importation of abolitionist pamphlets into the state. Debates on ending slavery, when there was debate, focused on the impossibility of allowing hundreds of thousands of formerly moneyless persons to join the economy. Freed African-Virginia slaves were required to leave the state within 12 months. The only anti-slavery movement focused on Colonization of former enslaved Virginians in Liberia.

In the 1830’s slave owners discovered, through the rapid expansion of the cotton economy in the South, that their slaves were now valuable sources of Capital. Homes were destroyed, and settled men, women, and children were stolen from their communities.

The pattern: A significant portion of the population would never participate in the cash economy and never be able securely to do its own capital formation.

Black citizens established communities throughout Richmond in the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. But in the mid-20th century, through a policy called Urban Renewal, the white-controlled city government invaded or destroyed every major black neighborhood in Richmond. One third of the land was taken for roads, one third for industrial development, and one third was used for dense public housing. Black investment, which had been growing, was destroyed.

Jackson Ward, where black investment and leadership had been concentrated since the 1880’s, was torn apart by the building of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That road, which had been rejected in two public referenda, was forced on the city by Virginia’s General Assembly. It displaced one-tenth of the black population, destroyed 18 blocks of housing, and cut the black community in half. It is still stunning to realize that only four blocks north of the massive 80-foot deep canyon cut by the roadbuilders is a natural valley, still unoccupied, that could have carried the same roadway easily, inexpensively and without destroying a single home.

After 1970, the majority black center city of Richmond, representing 5% of the metropolitan city, was left in such debt that it could not renew its capital fabric, and its necessarily higher taxes and unavailability of new land provided a disincentive to capital investment. By leaving the historic city’s debt and expenses in the black district, the surrounding counties became low-tax enterprise zones. The state and federal governments built capital improvements to spur suburban development, including a $1.1 billion circumferential highway. All of the subsidized housing remained in the central jurisdiction – the fourth highest concentration of public housing in the nation. Full service public transportation stops suddenly at the borders of the central city. It is assumed that a significant portion of the population will never fully participate in the cash economy and never be able to do its own capital formation.

  1. Dual Education.

Between the time of Virginia’s first Revolution and the Civil War, it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Some did, of course, and some white persons – including notably Stonewall Jackson – disobeyed the law. The prohibition was designed to inhibit rebellion and prevent economic advancement.

The pattern is to assume that a significant portion of the population does not need to be educated or should not be educated beyond a certain level.

Following the Civil War, white public education began and blacks in Virginia developed schools. Throughout the Jim Crow era, Richmond underfunded its segregated black schools. Black teachers received much lower salaries. Some black schools in Richmond were in session only four months a year.

Virginia was unwilling to provide higher or professional education for black persons. This policy lasted so long that Henry Marsh, the first African American mayor of Richmond, and Doug Wilder, the first African American governor of Virginia, were both sent out of state to Howard Law School.

Virginia maintained racially segregated schools, and fought so hard to maintain them that, under Massive Resistance, it was prepared to close all of the public schools of the Commonwealth in 1958 rather than permit blacks and whites to go to school together. When, under Federal court order, Virginia could no longer overtly maintain racial segregation, it developed a more modern and sophisticated policy of racial segregation by political jurisdiction. Today many of the schools of Richmond and other Virginia cities are more segregated by race than they were in 1970, and are now segregated by income as well. The state notoriously underfunds these schools, and has threatened them with sanctions because they cannot produce the same test results as well-funded suburban schools whose students are the offspring of professional, college-educated parents.

  1. Disposal of Surplus Labor.

Enslaved labor, once it was not needed in the economy, became a cost-drag on capital. In the 1830’s, as black population continued to grow and farming became increasingly difficult, it was judged advantageous to seize 300,000 persons and sell them downriver, and to send as many thousands as possible of those remaining to an American colony in Liberia.

In the period following 1970, unemployment in the center city has reached as high as 40% in some neighborhoods. The jails are full. The state makes little or no effort to help children graduate from high school. And there is no public transportation to 80% of the metropolitan city’s jobs.

The pattern is that a significant proportion of the population is considered to be unentitled and disposable.

How might it be different?

Richmond is the child-city of the American Revolution. Are these the patterns that our ancestors intended? Are they accidental and inadvertent? Or are they a horrible violation of our ancestors’ ideals? How might they be different?

As I said at the beginning of this lecture, the entire population of Virginia was inspired by the grand vision of the American Revolution. This vision spread throughout the world: All men are created equal; Give me liberty or give me death. But from that beginning there has been a hidden, dark side to Virginia’s participation in this revolution, played out in the capital city of metropolitan Richmond.

The dark forces of discrimination, with their rigid legislated walls between haves and have-nots, subverted the vision. Even when it is no longer politically correct to push such policies overtly, they seem to control by unconscious or subversive pattern the continued development of our city.

There are signs of hope. The walls of discrimination are still firm, but they no longer are coterminous with race. The jurisdictions of metropolitan Richmond are much more inter-racial than they were. Moreover, African Americans have successfully entered the capital-owning class in increasing numbers. This too blurs the lines.

Once, at the time of the first American Revolution, Virginians articulated the dream of the nation and its people. Many of the leaders lived in the new city of Richmond. They led in the formation of a single nation, even while the seeds of subversion were developing in the child-city of their dreams. Right up to the siege of Fort Sumter, Virginians fought the secession of the state and the establishment of the Confederacy, only to have Richmond become its capital and their state its battleground. But Virginians then surrendered the pursuit of their own ideals to the Federal Government, and joined those who promoted discrimination and division. In 1861 and 1956 Virginians made the Federal troops and the Federal Government insist on what had been Virginia’s ideals of freedom and equality while we defended the opposite.

Is it too late? Can the people of this metropolitan city, and of this seminal Commonwealth, reclaim the ideals of our ancestors and once again lead the nation? Paradoxically, because of its delayed development, because of its denial, metropolitan Richmond may be in a position to lead by example and be economically successful. Most people do not believe in racial discrimination. Most people do not believe in abandoning the poor. Most people do believe in employment and education.

This city lies at the crossroads of one of America’s greatest port systems and America’s great north-south road – a position of great economic strength. Only its historic division holds it back, unconscious, repetitious, powerful. It reproduces itself in destructive patterns. Hypocrisy has drained our strength, locking us in conflict, passivity, and denial.

But the citizens of metropolitan Richmond are not racists any longer, are they? Are we? Are we that passive? Are we the exhausted victims of a confusing and hypocritical past? Is it possible to hope that we can renew our efforts to change the future? Can we believe that we may take up the quest for liberty again and, finally, complete here in Richmond the Revolution that our forbears proclaimed to the world?

by the Rev. B. P. Campbell
Banner Lecture, Virginia Historical Society
6 February 2016

Judgment, Holy Spirit, and the Unquenchable Fire

14 December 2015 | Third Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:7-18
Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia
The Rev. B. P. Campbell

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The most puzzling line from this passage from Luke’s Gospel tonight comes right at the end. After strong invective, a violent speech and the threat of unquenchable fire from John the Baptist, Luke concludes: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The word is Gospel. How could this possible be Good News?

Well, I believe it is good news. It’s just the full good news – the good news makes you catch your breath and marvel at the justice and mercy of God. One of my good friends, one of the founding board members of Richmond Hill, used to call this kind of good news the “x-rated good news.” It’s strong stuff. That means that it’s like rat poison to superficiality, but like gospel to those who seek God and are starved for eternal life-giving truth.

So tonight’s sermon is entitled “Judgment, Holy Spirit, and the Unquenchable Fire.” These are the topics of John’s preaching that we hear tonight. They are fundamental to Gospel and perhaps, as Luke suggests, there may even be Gospel in them.

  1. Judgment

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

We don’t have all of the details in John’s statements of judgment, but they are pretty comprehensive. Pharisees and other leaders were present, as well as soldiers and ordinary people. Everyone was addressed in this broad brushed condemnation. John called them all a nest of poisonous snakes.

John’s condemnation seems addressed to more than simple personal sins. He is addressing the whole structure of the society – the hierarchical religion perverting the principles of God, and using them to maintain money and power and privilege; the militarism, violence and oppression of the occupation forces; the centuries of empire domination; as well as the petty thefts, hypocrisies, and personal immoralities of the population.

It could just as well be today, as current events uncover the centuries of distortion, theft, conquest, exploitation, sin, racism, and shame which have produced Western Europe, Russia, China, India, Africa, and the United States of America. The history of our civilization is not a pretty one. Here in Richmond, we have a clear microcosmic picture of the narrative: European conquest and theft of the land and culture of a non-European people; slavery; an economy capitalized by stolen land and stolen labor; and a society unable to repent in an effective fashion either of its injustices to its own people, or its manipulation of the wealth of other nations for its own profit.

If you want to talk about judgment – true judgment – in line with John the Baptist, it is going to look pretty massive, just from our perspective alone. And that says nothing, of course, of our own petty thefts, hypocrisies, and personal immoralities.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John knew how to dish it out, but he really didn’t have much sense of where to go after that. He gave different people advice on the small personal amendments to behavior which they had in their power. But to address the great sins of the culture and the time which he saw, he didn’t have much advice. All he could hold out, really, was the hope that some wisdom was coming which he didn’t have a clue about: “One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The judgment is heavy, but at some level it is necessary and inescapable. The problem is, of course, that the massiveness of the disrepair of the world is beyond the capacity of one generation or one people to address, even if all were willing and desirous of it. But the other problem is this: if you don’t tell the truth about history, if you don’t discuss actual sin and hypocrisy and hierarchy and inequality, you get further and further from the truth.

Judgment. John was peddling it, and a lot of people came to face it, but nobody knew what to do with it. There was something else. Someone was coming.

  1. Holy Spirit.

John seems to have known about the Holy Spirit – in fact, you could and should say that John was imbued with the Holy Spirit. How else could he have seen his time so clearly? How else could he even have known that, with this clear and devastating thinking, something else was needed? And how else, in the face of this incredibly apocalyptic picture of the world, could he have felt the hope he felt – that a new spirit was coming? How, with all of this darkness which John so forcefully described and identified, could there be light? And above all, how could this light be enduring, eternal, even unquenchable?

The challenge which John identified so well – the fundamental challenge which defines the search for eternal life – is the ability to find both true judgment and rock-solid hope. They seem, in the calculations of John the Baptist and of most scholars and commentators, to be impossible. Cynicism and sophisticated scholarship agree; newscasters and citizens join the chorus. Religion pulls itself away from accuracy in order to sing uncontexted songs. We avoid being specific in church here in Richmond. 1200 churches, at least, will consider it inappropriate to talk about public transportation in sermons and worship, just as our ancestors considered it inappropriate to talk about the slave market, just as their ancestors considered it appropriate to steal native lands and import enslaved Africans in the name of Christianity.

Hope is terrific as a Christmas Pageant. But it is dangerous as a specific challenge to cynicism and evil, especially if money is involved. When faced with any piece of that great structural mess that John the Baptist identified, we cower and say of the great transformation, “It’ll never happen.”

Unless there is a holy spirit. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said in John’s Gospel, is the spirit of truth. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about…judgment:…

because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

In other word, in the face of the massive castle of shame which the world has erected, which John bemoaned, and which we have the privilege of seeing so very clearly here in Richmond, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong. The ruler of this world has been condemned. The spirit of truth will pick his way through cynicism and guide those who will listen into all truth.

Careful, of course. We are easily deceived. But our knowledge of our own frailty is also an easy excuse for inaction. The Spirit can lead, and the Spirit can correct – assuming the Spirit we are following is the humble spirit of Jesus – but the Spirit cannot act unless you say yes.

John saw the desolation of the world. He saw the need for change – but the only change he could see was personal admission of guilt and the need for change. What he could hint at, but not know, was the transforming, new-building, hope-founded work of the Holy Spirit, a work which is so different in Spirit from the paralysis of human judgment that, as John says, the one is not worthy of the other.

Judgment. Holy Spirit.

  1. The Winnowing Fire.

Now we come to the crux of this conversation: What could possibly be good about a winnowing fork and an unquenchable fire? “One who is more powerful than I is coming,” John said. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Well, without the Holy Spirit there is only “the Fire next time.” There is only the repeated destruction of things, people, societies, and cultures by the negative conflicts and competitions of forces that the world generates.

But if you can see, if you can believe, if we can hope, there is not only a home prepared for us hereafter in the bosom of the Father, but there is one to lead us, and a spirit of hope to identify, which brings the kingdom of heaven to hand right now. However it is preached, however it is presented, it is that spirit which is being prepared and identified again right now, here in metropolitan Richmond, at the end of 2015.

I don’t know about you, but I believe that on a personal level, life puts us through a pretty rigorous process from birth to death. The last few chapters are pretty difficult, in that we have absolutely no opportunity for escape. We all go out of here the same way. There is a lot of pain along the way, from the beginning to the end. It would be easy to see human life as tragedy – unless you had seen how God can bring joy out of sadness and triumph out of tragedy – unless you had experienced his salvation so definitely that you could not deny it. Then you know that true hope is not a flimsy wrapping thrown around a horrible package, but a rock-solid pathway to glory both here and in the world to come. That little baby is a survivor – and a servant – and a king.

In the light of this kind of thing, tragedy becomes a winnowing, taking the chaff away and exposing the truth of life and love and relationship. This is true individually, and it can be true collectively. If Richmond becomes the capital of reconciliation, it will be because God can use the destruction and evil as a winnowing fork, making the fire which destroyed the city and the Confederacy a part of his unquenchable fire – a fire of destruction, of course, but – if we can receive it – a fire that lights the pathway to his permanent kingdom.

We might, as we walk through this valley, see only destruction and death. But we might also see winnowing, and the sloughing away of chaff, and an increasingly unquenchable fire of judgment, the Holy Spirit, and rock-solid hope.

Is this what Paul means when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always?” Is this what Isaiah means when he says “the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light?” “So, with (this and) many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed “good news to the people.” Judgment. The Holy Spirit. The unquenchable fire.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill

Not an answer but an attitude

16 November 2015 | Proper 28 | Mark 13:1-8
Richmond Hill, Richmond, Virginia
The Rev. B. P. Campbell

My niece is married to a Salvadoran. We were together this weekend, and we were together experiencing the shock and outrage of the shootings and bombings in Paris. But I could tell that the experience was far different for him than it was for me. My nephew said that at least that many people are killed in El Salvador every week. And no one here knows. There had been bombs and awful casualties in Beirut, he said. And people did not seem to notice. Why was it so noteworthy – so distressing to all of us — that now it had happened in Paris?

My nephew is a refugee from Salvador. His family got him out of the country because his life was in danger from the gangs that terrorize there. His cousin, a young woman, was kidnapped six months ago and has not been heard from. She is one of thousands. He lives with this knowledge, with these prayers, with this outrage every day.

My daughter Susanna spent three years in Burundi a decade ago, and has been back as a consultant for foreign aid programs almost annually. Annie and I were with her yesterday in Washington – she was there on a brief trip from Switzerland to meet with the International Relations faculty at American University. We talked yesterday about what has been happening in Burundi the last six months. The current president has turned his back on democracy; his military seems to be murdering members of the opposition and threatening a renewal of inter-ethnic conflict.

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, Jesus told his disciples, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For ethnic group will rise against ethnic group, and nation against nation;… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

The passage in Mark’s Gospel which we read today seems like it was taken from todays newspapers and broadcasts. Why, we ask, does God not prevent this. Jesus does not answer. But he does give us a way of proceeding. It’s not an answer; …it’s an attitude.

  1. God does not control.
  2. These are the birth pangs.
  3. The Son of Man is coming.
  1. God does not control.

There really isn’t anything that seems much harder for Christians to say: God does not control. You know about this. How can he be God if he doesn’t control? And if he could control but chooses not to, how cruel is that?

I’m not able to argue about the logic of this: I am personally committed to the person whom Jesus says is his Father, and I am also aware that in the greatest and deepest way he is in control – but I am also clear that he is not causing the murders of Salvador, the bombing of Beirut, the violence in Burundi, or the mass shootings in Paris.

It is absolutely clear that God – at least the good God who would not give his son a scorpion if he asked him for an egg – that God is not controlling the events we speak about.

The only thing I can say that makes any sense of this is that Creation is a divine surrender of divine authority. That is, God’s decision to have a world of people, a world outside himself, is a decision not to control that world. Otherwise, there would be nothing independent of him. Just as a father or mother cannot control a daughter or son and allow them to grow up, so the God of the universe does not control the world.

But if God is not in control, what then?

One option – and the one chosen tacitly by many people – is that God is irrelevant. Why bother to speak of him if he cannot or does not control what is going on. Notice, I did not say that God was not powerful – only that he does not control. All I know is that he is like Jesus in his deep concern and active love, and in the fact that he does not control events like a screenwriter or puppeteer.

If God is not in control, another option is that he is deeply sympathetic to human beings. And that, of course, we believe to be true. No sparrow is lost without the heavenly Father knowing and sharing the trauma. This image is true, but does indeed leave it all up to human beings by themselves.

And then there is a third possibility – an area of discovery: Somewhere in between control and sympathy is a vast area of activities and actions. If God does not control, if he does not do everything, does he still do some things? Does he operate through his Holy Spirit? What does he do? When? How?

God does not control. But, Jesus says, what is going on in this confusion is the beginning of birth.

  1. These horrible events are the beginning of birth pangs.

Birth-pangs is a phrase you don’t hear every day. But the experience to which it refers is universal.

The same image Jesus uses here – the image of labor pains — appears elsewhere in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul says,

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;… (Romans 8:18-22)

These horrible events are the beginning of labor pains. It’s not an answer, but it’s an attitude.

I think there are several important points which this attitude reveals:

1) Just as a new life, a birth, follows labor pains, so also there is the possibility of new life after wars and rumors of wars, ethnic and international conflict. The world has seen this over and over again, even as it has also seen continued and recurring conflict. Talking about this kind of thing is really hard. I’m reminded of what the great economist John Maynard Keynes said in exasperation when economists kept saying to him that things would work out “in the long run.” “Yes,” Keynes said, “but in the long run we’re all dead.” Nonetheless, Jesus tells us to be on the lookout for new life even in the midst of death and destruction. It’s not an answer; it’s an attitude.

2) Second, Jesus is telling the truth about the hiddenness of the world’s death and evil. You can’t do anything about it unless it manifests itself, and sometimes things really have to go far before they are manifested fully. What kind of unhealed realities are being manifested today in Paris, Beirut, and Salvador? Does the burial of our own Slave Market here in Richmond give any indication of just how effectively evil can be hidden for centuries? Have we yet addressed the full and continued consequences of that evil? What’s ahead of us if we don’t? Keeping things hidden is a strategy for preventing resolution and healing. Disruption and violence are birth-pangs when they are the gateway to justice and reconciliation. It’s not an answer; it’s an attitude.

3) Finally, the threat and reality of death and destruction are the crucible out of which genuine faith, community, healing, and eternal life are born. Tough as this is, it is the ultimate gift we receive. That’s not the reason for evil and destruction. But it is a wonderful result, one too horrible and wonderful to hope for. It’s not an answer; but it is an attitude.

God does not control. These horrible events are the beginning of the birth-pangs.

  1. The Son of Man is coming.

Jesus studied the Son of Man in Jewish apocalyptic literature. He quotes the references to him in the Book of Daniel. (Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14) He seems to be far more interested in this character than in the Messiah, which is the title that his disciples keep throwing at him. One of the most beautiful references to this Heavenly Man is in the Book of Acts, at the stoning of Stephen. When Stephen is dying, Luke relates, he looks up and sees the Son of Man, as it were, taking him in to the Father. (Acts 7:54-56)

Stephen was stoned. People in Salvador are killed and kidnapped. People in Burundi are murdered. People in Beirut are bombed. People in Paris are machine-gunned. These very labor pains were just beginning, Jesus said, over 1900 years ago.

People were being murdered before that. Ethnic groups were in conflict before that; so were nations. But nobody suggested these events should be regarded as labor pains for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

That’s the option we have. We can regard them as labor pains for the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s nothing like the faith that is necessary, Jesus makes clear, for a person facing death. It’s a pretty bald situation. You have no power. You have no knowledge. You are not in charge. God is all there is. Yes or no is all you have. At the end of this entire apocalyptic passage in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus just flat out says that you can put your faith in the heavenly Son of Man. That’s the invitation.

What’s the point here? Can we only find God when there are explosions and violent death around us? Those would be labor pains – but Jesus invites us to appropriate the labor pains now – to seek justice now, to put our faith in God now, to live now as if sudden death were around the corner, to let those horrible events and our horrible fears be the birth-pangs of faith and eternal life for us.

Death will come to each of us. But in the meantime, the spirit of God is in the labor pains. The whole creation has been waiting for this day! We do not have to be afraid, for God is with us. Nothing can take us away from his love, and we can be a part of his building of a kingdom which has no end.   AMEN.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell

The Zebedee boys and the meaning of life

St. Andrew’s Church/Richmond Hill
Richmond, Virginia
October 18-19, 2015
Pentecost XXIV
Mark 10:35-45

In this morning’s story of the Zebedee brothers, James and John, we have Jesus’ core teaching about the purpose of life. You are familiar with the story. James and John are hoping that there is some reward in following Jesus. If Jesus makes it big – presumably in the next few years – they would like to have status in his government, or his religious kingdom, or whatever kind of glorious outcome they anticipate he may achieve.

The two guys are so clueless, that it is hard to know where to begin. But Jesus was incredibly strategic when he talked with clueless people – he has certainly been strategic when he’s talked to me – and he laid out for them a definition of the purpose of life that they could spend the rest of their days living into, and coming to understand. Jesus defined for James and John the goal which made life worthwhile – the secret of the kingdom of heaven – the way he himself lived. The words are one thing, but the understanding comes with the living:

  • The purpose of life is not status but service
  • This goal of service is transformational
  • Jesus teaches it by his own life
  • And shows us true religion.
  1. The purpose of life is not status but service.

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” The purpose of life is not status, but service.

This comment represents a constant theme in Jesus’ teaching. I could stop for a moment and ask you how you first learned this lesson – well, maybe you didn’t learn a whole lot about service, but you learned that status was not particularly helpful.

I remember working real hard to get elected to an office sometime in high school, only to find out I had no interest whatsoever in doing the work of the organization. I had no interest in service, only in status.

I think I’ll wait a moment: when did you learn that something you wanted wasn’t really much of a reward after all? Everyone does it. The world is full of people chasing after status, after the next reward, the next advancement, the next achievement, the next possession, the next lover, the next million. And many people never stop. They never find any other purpose to life.

I was thinking of what J. P. Morgan is said to have answered when they asked him, “Mr. Morgan, you are one of the richest men in the world. How much money is enough?” “I don’t know,” the great capitalist answered, “but it’s a little more than I have.”

Jesus says the purpose of life is not about status, but about service. But even when we get hints that status doesn’t satisfy, people don’t know how to take the next step.

  1. The goal of service is transformational.

Service is a very different kind of goal than status. Jesus doesn’t exactly make that clear to the Zebedee brothers. There’s kind of a hidden thing here. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” There’s nothing attractive, from a status point of view, in being a servant or a slave. Neither one is attractive or desirable for its own sake.

If you are seeking status, you are enjoying the title, the achievement, the status you obtain. But if you are a servant, you are enjoying being a part of someone else’s goals. The true servant is someone who is in touch with his master’s purposes and finds his meaning in being a part of them. There is something bigger than him or her going on. Their ego begins to subside.

The goal is not selfish, and it may really be good.

Here, of course, is the excitement of the servanthood which Jesus preached: the goals which one pursues are world-changing, soul-enhancing, life-saving, love-making, truth-telling spirit-filled goals that really make a difference. Big or little, they are the real thing. It really doesn’t make much difference in the world who it is who achieves status. The world is fickle, and people come and go. But when people are healed, encouraged, enlivened, and saved from death or despair, it does make a difference. And the person who is privileged to be enlisted in this kind of service becomes transformed himself or herself in the process. There is quality in a life of service. There is only quantity in the search for status.

Servant is not a desirable status. A servant of God is transformed into a humble player in a larger narrative. But life blooms in depth, meaning, and self-expression.

The purpose of life is not status but service. This goal of service is transformational.

  1. Jesus teaches it by his own life.

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s what he told James and John Zebedee and, when she asked, the Zebedee boys’ mother. And that’s how he understood his own life.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that Jesus didn’t seek status. He wandered around obscure townships in Galilee and, when he finally did get to Jerusalem, he followed a course which guaranteed that the authorities would find a way to get rid of him. The fact that he didn’t remain in obscurity is due to his return in the spirit after he died.

You will recall the story of the temptations, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. There we get a sense of his own inner questioning about goals. Should he take over the country by military means? Should he try to turn stones into bread and become leader by feeding everyone? Should he try to jump off the Temple and stun everyone into worship or submission? Even assuming these things were possible, he rejected them as having little or nothing to do with what life was really about.

Jesus went for service rather than status. Watch him. And here’s what’s really important to notice: “servanthood,” or even being a slave, as Jesus acted it out, is not being nothing. It is really being something by being who God calls him to be. His full personhood develops. And very important, he does not let himself be walked on just for the heck of it. If he is quiet or passive, it is to give people a chance to respond. He tells the truth wherever he can, and speaks up in many situations where others would be quiet. He doesn’t follow the formulaic religion, exactly, that the Pharisees and scribes are laying out for him, — he is rigorous about what really matters. Loving God and loving his neighbor as himself – that’s his religion.

Service, in Jesus, looks like trying to live out the vision which is set before him, day after day, and following the challenge into Jerusalem and the corrupt and narrow religion that Judaism had become.

The purpose of life is not status but service. This goal of service is transformational.   Jesus teaches it by his own life.

  1. And he shows us true religion.

True religion is about service, not status. That is the hardest thing for religious people to grasp. We can see how hard it is, because status-thinking even infects the church that claims to be built on the spirit of Jesus. Look what happens to the word “salvation” in Christian theology. “Salvation” really means finding life, discovering God and yourself, finding meaning, and loving the vocation to which God calls you. But Christians turn the word into a conferring of status. If you are saved, you are one of the elect. You are going to heaven rather than hell. You are really a good member of the right church, unlike those others who aren’t saved.

But the purpose of life is not status, not even “being saved” as a status. It is service. This goal of service is transformational. If you are into the service of God, you are not dividing people into good and bad, saved and unsaved, because God sends his rain upon everyone and everyone is his child. You are engaged in the joy of his kingdom’s coming.

True religion is not status, but service of God’s people in the spirit. The hour is coming and now is when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for that is what God seeks – the right spirit and the truth.

The Zebedee boys might have been good Christians, but they missed the point. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s a transformational concept. Your life is different. You no longer have a plateau or a throne or a destination. You no longer measure your life by your own achievements or status. You no longer think you either need to glorify yourself or humiliate yourself to find God. You are already drinking the wine of the kingdom.

The purpose of life is not status but service. This goal of service is transformational.   Jesus teaches it by his own life. And he shows us true religion.

AMEN.

Franchising the true vine

4 May 2015 | V Easter
John 15:1-8 | The True Vine

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8)

There is a true vine, and the true vine is invisible. Our relationship to the vine is abiding. You know the vine by its fruits.

  1. There is a true vine, and the true vine is invisible.

Remember Ukrop’s?

Until 2010, Richmond had a remarkable chain of grocery stores called “Ukrop’s,” – named for the family which started them and owned them. The stores had a very special quality – excellent food and really remarkable customer service. The Ukrop family was and is a family known for service and leadership in the Richmond community. In 2004 they were major donors to the renovation of this chapel because, Jim Ukrop said, he believed that this continual prayer for the city was very important.

As I said, what was really remarkable to me about Ukrop’s was the spirit of the people working there – the way the stores felt. One thing was, of course, that it was a family owned business and they kept it well staffed – the family got more than enough profit from it as it was, and was extremely generous to community causes. Nationally owned chain stores are constantly being milked by investors in the competitive Wall Street environment, and staffing is one of the first things to go. You can really tell the difference and it is instructive about what is going on in employment all over this country.

I once asked Jim about the spirit I felt in the stores. He talked with me about the training program they had for employees. But then he said, “Our goal is that people should feel better after they have been in our store than when they came. If that is true, no matter how much they have bought, they will be back.”

My conversation with Jim Ukrop got me into thinking again about the whole business of the spirit of an organization – a big organization – and about how you take spiritual qualities to scale in a large organization.

That is the business of the church, that Jesus is talking about in this passage. There is a true spirit, represented by the metaphor of the true vine.

Every church that has ever existed since Jesus has claimed to represent the true vine of God. How can there be so many true vines, especially when so many of them deny the genuineness of the other vines? How would you know the true vine if you saw it?

Well, tonight we’ll look a little more at the true vine. For now we need to say that there is a true vine, but it is not represented by a single institution. It is behind things. Just as when you seek to be present to God in prayer, or ask him to be present to you, the presence is invisible, so the true vine is attached invisibly to the branches.

Even the name of Jesus can be deceptive when identified with the true vine. There are literally millions of churches with the name of Jesus attached to them, and there are billions of minds with thoughts of Jesus in them, and it is impossible to measure how many of those churches and those thoughts have the true spirit of Jesus attached to them.

The true vine is a metaphor which identifies a spiritual relationship. If the name of Jesus as you carry it in your mind is not touching what you know to be true, then seek the truth and re-examine what you thought or were taught about Jesus! You may find that the real Jesus is closer to what you know is true than the character you thought was Jesus.

The search is worth it, because there is a true vine, and the true vine is invisible.

  1. Our relationship to the vine is abiding.

Jesus said,” I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”

Our relationship to the vine is abiding. “Abide” is here used as the word to describe our relationship in the spirit to Jesus. It is another word for the relationship that Jesus elsewhere calls “faith.” To abide in a place is to make your home there. It is to be consistent, to remain in a place or a relationship. It then becomes, for better or worse, the place of nurture, instruction, and information. In a grape vine or any plant, the nurture of the branches flows through the trunk or the vine to the branches. The branches are not self-sufficient. They produce for the vine, but they cannot exist on their own. They are permanently dependent, or related, to the vine. They “abide” in the vine.

As I said earlier, since my conversation with Jim Ukrop about his philosophy of grocery store management some fifteen or more years ago, I have done a lot more thinking and examination about the business of franchising businesses and organizations.

I’ve looked at the Walmarts, who control employees by stern economic measures and dictates. I’ve looked at the Starbucks, who seek to create a humane culture and charge more to create it. I’ve looked at the Marines, with their extensive and calculated training and the spirit of their units. I’ve looked at public education, the importance of spirit, and the failure of the current brutal methodology to bring quality and spirit to scale.

And I’ve looked at churches – denominations, local independent churches, churches that are heavy on doctrines, churches that have different organizational methodologies, churches that have bishops and churches that have apostles, churches with different spirits, churches of different cultures and races. How do you guarantee that the spirit of Christ, as you know Christ, will be present in a church?

I do not know any church, any denomination, where it is guaranteed that the liturgies or the beliefs or the clergy or the ethos will be true to the Spirit of Christ and help attach us to the true vine. But I do know that the Holy Spirit is active, and that Jesus can work through the churches.

Here, around this altar, we encourage one another to abide in him, as we come to know him in the spirit, with whatever words carry us closer and more truly to the spirit of God and life. It is no accident that this is a sacrament of wine – indicating the mystery of this relationship of branches to the vine. Three of our Gospel writers record Jesus’ final words at the Last Supper, the origin of this event, as these: Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14;25 and pars) The kingdom of God is at hand, he said. Tonight we drink the fruit of the vine anew. We seek in this spiritual and physical action to abide in him – to be related to the eternal, true God through his holy spirit, and therefore to be led more and more to find the shape of Christ in our lives.

Abide is a word for faith. Our relationship to the vine is an abiding one.

  1. You know the true vine by its fruits.

Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The true vine may be invisible. There may be no single franchise or trademark. It may turn up in a lot of places even without the Jesus name attached to it.

Our relationship to the vine is an abiding one. We do not know well, and we do not know the future, and we are always learning, but we have learned to abide.

Our judgement, our truth, our discernment, our invitation, comes from the fruits which the vine bears over and over again, in person after person, situation after situation. You know the true vine by its fruits. When the vine is there and the circulation is pumping, what comes forth is something that looks like Jesus.

St. Paul really did give us a good list in the letter to the Galatians: “The fruit of the spirit,” he said, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5: 22-23) Wherever you see this result, wherever this spirit emerges, look for God. These are not mechanical products that can be produced by any set of doctrines or verbal commitments or strategies or training programs. They do not occur automatically anywhere. There are things we can do to grow these fruits. We can learn how to nurture and support them. But we cannot guarantee them in any way, shape, or form, any more than a Superintendent of Schools can guarantee the quality of a classroom or a McDonald’s executive can guarantee the quality of service in his restaurant or a doctrinal confession can guarantee a healthy congregation.

These fruits come from abiding in the vine. They are new fruits, special fruits, fruits of the spirit, lively fruits, the kinds of fruit that encourage further fruit. They are abiding fruit. They overcome death and depression. They bridge great gaps between resources and needs. They cause people to step outside the habit patterns of generations and see possibilities they have never seen before.

There is a true vine, and the true vine is invisible.

Our relationship to the vine is abiding.

You know the true vine by its fruits.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

This is that day. The kingdom of God is here at hand. Abide in the vine. Drink the wine of the spirit. Open your eyes and let Christ bear fruit in you.

AMEN.

The Rev. B. P. Campbell
Richmond Hill
Richmond, Virginia