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"Nothing Can Separate Us" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - May 21, 2017

posted May 31, 2017, 1:36 PM by Plymouth Church UCC


Recently I started thinking about doing one of those DNA tests which help you explore your ancestry.  But as soon as I started thinking about it, I heard stories of people surprised by the results.  Like the friend who thought of himself as Italian but found out he hadn’t inherited any of the Italian DNA from the family tree.


The case of a cop in Michigan surprised me even more.  The cop, about my age, grew up thinking of himself as a white man with some Native American ancestry.  His father didn’t share much about his ancestors, only to say some of them belonged to the Blackfoot Tribe.


Some people thought his name - Cleon - sounded black, but he looked white so the cop didn’t think much about it.  That changed when his daughter came down with a genetic disorder associated with African-Americans.


A genetic test revealed the cop’s ancestors were European and African.  The cop found his identity, who he thought he was, thrown into a whirlwind.  Now he’s suing his police department for racial discrimination and creating a hostile work environment.  He claims supervisors and fellow officers made racial taunts; the city says Cleon initiated these comments and, before he learned of his African ancestry, often made racist comments.  This is a Dave Chappelle show come to life.


And yet Cleon’s case points to a larger question we all face: who are we?  Does our skin, our DNA, our cultural heritage determine our identity?


This kind of question - who are we? - lay behind Paul’s testimony in the Letter to the Romans, especially in the chapter we heard today.  Our reading began with Paul making a distinction between “the flesh” and “the spirit.”


Modern Christians often struggle with Paul’s language.  It sounds dower, body-shaming, as if Paul didn’t want us to enjoy and delight in our bodies and the physicality of life.  But reading Paul as if he were a prude misses the point of his argument.


Paul faced a dilemma: how do we talk about sin?  Many people in his day wanted to talk about sin as something “those people” did.  As if to say, “We’re holy; but they over there are sinners.”  And this current still runs deep in our own culture.  Too often we think, “We’re good; but ‘those people,’ whoever those people happen to be, are bad.”


So when people divided themselves between the good people over here and the bad people over there, Paul came along with a new vocabulary to talk about sin: the flesh and the spirit.  Suddenly the divide between good and bad, which had been projected onto other people, came to reside in us.  Paul wanted people to say of themselves, “I am both good and bad; both saint and sinner.”  Or, as Paul wrote elsewhere, “I live in the flesh; in faith I live.”


But this insight - that we are both saint and sinner - can be hard for us to see about ourselves.  Just think how hard it is for us to talk about the dynamics of racism or homophobia or Islamophobia that affect us.


Recently I got into a conversation with an Evangelical pastor from the western suburbs.  The pastor was trying to say he was welcoming of gay and lesbian people.  I pushed back because, as I read on his website, the church believed homosexuality incompatible with the Bible.   In fact, I said that it seemed to me he was homophobic.  He took great offense at this.  “That’s an awful thing to say about someone; I’m not homophobic,” he insisted.  “But you won’t marry gay and lesbian couples, will you?”  “Of course not.”  Our conversation didn’t come to agreement.  But it reminded me how hard it can be to hear when someone points out our involvement in oppression.  We want to think of ourselves as good people; but really, we’re saints and sinners at the same time, the good and bad can both be found in us all.


Paul knew this.  He framed sin as something so central to our experience that it was the very skin on our bodies, our flesh; an inescapable reality that shaped how we interacted with the world.  This can be hard to realize.  But Paul wanted us to know that we are bound up in the brokenness of the world.  We can no more escape the reality and structures of oppression and prejudice then we can escape our own skin.


Many of us faced these uncomfortable truths in our “Dismantling White Privilege” curriculum.  Certainly I found myself reading about white privilege and seeing uncomfortable truths about myself.  Thinking about white privilege and the justice system reminded me of my own teenage experience.  I worked at a Boy Scout Camp down in southern Virginia during the summers.  During days off from the camp, my friends and I explored the mountains.  An older staff member told us about a fantastic place to go swimming: a good-sized stream ran across a series of limestone bluffs, creating deep pools in the weathered rock.  One problem: it was on private property.  We set off, eight of us, parking our cars at a distance from the farm and creeping over the fence.  It was magical; and we were having so much fun that we didn’t notice the police arrive.  Eight white teenagers; we got off with minor tickets and a stern talking too.  I can imagine how differently it would have played out with eight black teens trespassing in rural Virginia.


And I think of the time a white UWM student stayed at our house to watch our dogs while we went on vacation.  Coming home late one evening, he realized he’d locked himself out of the house.  We were camping so he couldn’t call us.  And he couldn’t wait because of the dogs.  So he popped the screen off of a basement window, forced it open, and crawled inside.  All the while a neighbor stood at her sink, washing dishes.  The student was sure she saw him.  But she never called the cops.  I guess in Whitefish Bay, people don’t get suspicious about what white folks are doing.


We don’t want to think of ourselves as prejudiced, or as benefiting from racism, or our good neighbors as racist.  And yet, there it is when we look searchingly at our lives.  Because the good and the bad exist together, we are saints and sinners.  Which is why Paul spoke of sin as close to us as our flesh: something we can’t pretend doesn’t contain us.  


And yet, even as Paul evokes the image of sin being as close to us as our skin, he made clear the power of God to transform us.  That move to speak of God’s transforming power was the first of the four unison readings that punctuated our scripture lesson: “But we are not in the flesh; we are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us.”  Paul’s being playful with his language.  We are not in the flesh.  Well, of course we are.  But Paul wanted to make clear the more powerful reality shaping our lives: we are in the Spirit.  And the rest of our reading explored what it meant for us to be reshaped by the Spirit.


As an adoptive father, I’ve always loved the words Paul used to explain the Holy Spirit.  “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  We all know what it means to live with a spirit of fear, that quiet dread, that active anxiety, and those unspoken phobias which contort our soul.  Fear of the other, fear of our own inadequacy, fear of the unknown; it powers the prejudice and oppression in the world.


And in contrast to this, Paul spoke of a spirit of adoption.  Someday I’ll just preach on this verse, but today I want to just note the contrast between fear and adoption.  Adoption involves choice and gift.  It is the choice of the birth parents to place a child; it is the gift received by the adoptive parents of a treasured child.  Adoption is the gift of a home to an orphan and the choices faced to make sense of identity.  While the spirit of fear constrains and constricts; the spirit of adoption opens us to the choice and the gift of life.


Paul went on to say, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  At one level this suggested a connection to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, our abba, who art in heaven.”  But I’m also aware of how Paul upends the patriarchal culture of his day.  In Paul’s world, family relationships were ruled by the father of the house; his children were whomever he called “son” and “daughter.”  But Paul upends this hierarchy.  Our relationships are now determined by the youngest, by the child calling out “Daddy.”  The family and relationships are not defined by power and authority; but by the cry of a child.


The spirit of adoption, that spirit which defines relationships not on the basis of power but on the witness of the vulnerable, works inside of us.  We live as a mixture of good and bad, saint and sinner, flesh and spirit.  Our hope comes from the spirit working to heal us.  “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”


We’re working through deep issues of power and privilege in our congregation, trying to look at our own implicit bias, and facing the ways racism and structural inequality affects us.  In this moment, I find assurance in the Holy Spirit speaking through the inadequacy of our own speech.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our stammers.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our tears.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our uncertainty.


Last weekend we had Dr. Erin Winkler and Ex Fabula back to Plymouth to think with us about the issue of how children learn about race.  During the Q&A after her talk, a mom asked Dr. Winkler how to talk with her children when she herself wasn’t sure what to say.  “We don’t have to have all the answers.  In fact, we can’t wait; we can’t wait until we know everything to start talking about race.  Instead, our children need to see us struggling with the questions.”  Dr. Winkler’s short answer spoke a lot of truth: when we face hard questions, we don’t need to wait for the perfect answer.  Instead, people, and especially our children, need to see us struggling with the questions.  Andrew, whom we baptize today, doesn’t need perfect parents and perfect godparents.  Andrew, like all our children, instead needs to see and know imperfect parents and imperfect godparents who struggle with the real questions of life; people through whom the spirit speaks in our weakness.


And lastly, even as Paul made clear that we were not as good as we often think we are, even as Paul made clear that prejudice is as close to us as our skin, he gave hope.  Not just that we are children of God.  Not just that the spirit is working through our weakness.  But that we can’t be kept apart.  The spirit of God will knit us together no matter what. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


I use these words as an assurance of pardon whenever I offer it in worship because it speaks so completely to me of the power of God to transform and overwhelm the brokenness of our lives.  We could paraphrase Paul with all the realities in our world that seek to break apart true community.  For I am convinced that neither racism, nor privilege, nor inequality, nor incarceration, nor phobia, nor prejudice will be able to separate us from the love of God.


Cleon, the white cop, was shocked to find out he was part African.  But it also shocked him to realize all the prejudice he had never noticed before.  I pray that he comes to experience the Spirit - adopting him as God’s own child, working through his weakness - till he knows the healing the Spirit brings.  Cleon wasn’t sure about his identity after he learned more about his flesh.  Paul wants us to know the spirit matters more for our identity.  Who are we?  Beloved children of God.


For the great spirit, the holy spirit, the adoptive spirit, brings us all in, regardless of our brokenness, renewing and restoring.  And for that I say, “Alleluia and Amen.”






  • Eligon, John, “A Sergeant Who Learned He’s Part Black Says He Faced Racist Taunts at Work,” New York Times, May 12, 2017.

  • Meharg, Gwen, “Spirit of Adoption” (artwork)

  • Wright, N.T., “Commentary on Romans,” New Interpreter's Bible.