Sunday, April 28, 2013
A version of this sermon was originally preached at HillSong on April 28, 2013 under the title “God in New Faces.”
It was my third year, time for my classmates and I to think about life after seminary. We were training to be pastors, chaplains, missionaries. Where would we end up?
I was sheltered, a suburban kid who grew up watching MTV and going to hang out at the Mall. For me, a night on the town meant driving to the Roanoke Civic Center to see professional wrestling. Ric Flair was in his heyday. In seminary, as I read the Bible, God shredded my sheltered, play-it-safe life.
I knew God wanted me to preach and a lead church. But what kind of church (beyond just whatever church would hire someone really young with limited experience) would call me? Pastors find their calling in different ways. For me, it was a direct, uncomfortable encounter with scripture. The words of Revelation 7:9 burrowed into me.
“There was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Every tribe and people and language; it was fall 1995. Almost everyone I knew was just like me - white, American, middle class, suburban. That was my entire world.
Imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, John was carried to Heaven in a vision. There he saw people from every language, tribe, and nation, all together, praising Jesus. I only knew one small subset of one tribe speaking one language in one nation. My knowledge of the people of God was pathetically small. That meant my knowledge of God was woefully impoverished. How could I be a pastor and lead a church, knowing so little? How could I even follow Jesus?
I had to serve a church where there were more than just white people. I needed diversity. God led me to Greenbrier Baptist in Arlington, Virginia. There’s not a more diverse community anywhere than what you’ll find in Arlington.
I had been at that church about 1 month, when the Promise Keepers rally came to the national mall. The ministry attracted 100’s of thousands of men to our nation’s capital for worship. Our church took a couple of refugees from Sudan. They had been persecuted and forced to flee their country because they were Christians. Like me, they had only been in DC about a month. Here they were, free to worship God with thousands of others. We also had about 10 guys from the Spanish congregation at Greenbrier. Two Africans, ten Hispanics and two whites guys – my Dad and me.
Over and over, for 9 years pastoring in Arlington, I had experiences like that. I met God in the faces of white American, black Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. I met God in Gypsies, Romany people. I met God in a community of Sudanese refugees, and the young Ethiopian woman who attended our church. I met God in the Pakistani man who gave me a copy of the Qur’an. Each new encounter was like seeing another side of God’s indescribable beauty. I realized I personally would never enjoy God in this way if I had met God in just one culture. I needed that diversity of people to expand my appreciation of who God is.
All those experiences came after I sat in my seminary classroom a few minutes before class and happened to read Revelation 7:9. Every tribe and people and language. The arc of my life changed by the reading the Bible that day and then reacting to what I read. I have gotten many things wrong over my life and career in ministry. I have made my share of mistakes. But one thing I did right was listen to God that day as I read Revelation 7 and waited for class to start. God told me to seek out people from tribes different than my own. I am so thankful I did that.
Seeing more of God is one of two primary reasons I press for the church to be racially and ethnically diverse. Most churches are mono-culture. Many of these mono-culture churches are great churches. But I believe God is calling our church to be so diverse that no single culture is the dominant one. God is calling us to be a church that embodies the vision cast in Revelation 7. We want people to meet God in God’s fullness here, among us. That can only happen if we are fully committed to diversity.
We have to celebrate numerous cultures. We have traditionally been a church of white people. I say that without any criticism. It’s not a negative thing. It just is. However, going forward, to see God, know God, and celebrate God, we have to understand the way Chinese culture works and Mexican culture, and the numerous expressions of African American culture; we have to allow these various cultural expressions of faith sometimes be the ones guiding how we come together. If you find us worshiping God or fellowshipping in a way that feels strange to you, step into it. Embrace it. What feels odd to you might feel comfortable to your black sister in Christ or your Mexican brother in Christ.
Understand that Mexican, Chinese, black, and other people of color have adjusted their expectations to white cultural practices for a long time. For us to be a truly diverse community, we white people have to be just as willing to give up our expectations sometimes. It can’t be everyone is welcome to come do things the way we white Christians have always done them. It has to be we all come together in humility, friendship, love, and faith in Jesus. We all get our turn planning and leading. This might be applied in the style of music or preaching, the kinds of food at our meals, or the pace of our social gathering. Each culture present gets an equal voice in how we do ministry and how we live together as a family of God. We become something new, something different from any earthly entity.
Seeing more of God is one reason for making diversity a priority in the church. The church’s witness is a second reason we promote diversity so that we are all empowered participants in church life. When we talk about our witness, we literally mean what we have seen and experienced. We have seen that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We have experienced salvation, rescue from sin and death. Because of Jesus, we are not alienated from God by our sins, but rather, with our sins washed away, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. As Psalm 34:8 says, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
Our testimony is the word we speak based on what we have witnessed. We testify that the world is fallen, dying in sin. Racism and institutions perpetuating a white, male hierarchy are societal manifestations of sin. Sin brings death and eternal alienation from God. Our church testifies to the specific ways the Gospel offers an alternative to the dark-realities of sin where we live.
When we talk about diversity and racial unity, we’re speaking out of our God-inspired Gospel witness. We should not seek diversity for diversity’s sake. Plenty of secular organizations do that. We seek diversity because the Kingdom of heaven, as seen in Revelation 7:9; is the most diverse place in the universe. We want people to find rescue from sin and to get a glimpse of the goodness of Heaven. As Revelation shows, diversity is one indicator of heaven’s goodness.
What we offer is a radical alternative to the violence and hatred produced by prejudice and racism. Recall the events in Charlottesville two years ago. Neo-Nazis paraded around protesting the removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. Counter protestors confronted the New-Nazis. The result was the death of a young woman.
Recall the incidents right here in our own town. In protests around the University of North Carolina’s removal the Civil War statue “Silent Sam,” there have been minor acts of violence though nothing as dramatic as in Charlottesville. In both places, whether the violence was a car ramming a crowd, or a fist in the face, one fact cannot be avoided. In the American Civil War, the slaves were black and plantation owners were white. Many black people still feel they have to carry the shame of that heritage and it hurts to hear white people today defend it. We can’t escape the racial nature of this conflict which so often turns violent.
The last examples are Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. In Texas, the killer, an American terrorist, targets Hispanics, ranting about an invasion. That includes our brothers and sisters in Christ who are Mexican. That includes people whose families go back several generations living in America. They are targeted because they aren’t white enough to be true Americans in the mind of this evil killer.
Charlottesville, El Paso, Texas, the killing of members of a black church in a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina several years ago – these a few of the way too many examples of brokenness in our land. In every case, the sin is based in racism, fear, and hatred. To respond to such evil, the church has to offer good news about racial diversity based in welcome, hope, and love.
Our testimony as followers of Jesus has to be based on what we’ve witnessed. There is something better – a kingdom in which people from every nation, tribe, and language are joined together in love for each other and desire to praise Jesus. By developing a multiethnic church that’s more concerned about the eternal Kingdom of God than any earthly nation, we point to something better. We create an environment in which we celebrate one another uniqueness and learn about the love of God in the ways we love one another. We help others who visit our church see the way out of the brokenness around us and the way into the beloved Kingdom of God. We say to the world, “this is what God’s kingdom is like.”
We exist as a church to help people find their way to God – all people. One of the many ways we do that is to intentionally celebrate our diversity and to work to make sure diversity is a core principle in our congregation.
Diversity helps us see more of God. I believe God has given me this vision for a diverse church. I pray you will embrace this vision too and we as a church will work to make our church a place where people come and get a glimpse of the Heavenly gathering of God’s family.