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Put Things in Order
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 7, 2020
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
A Reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Every once in a while, the back door of our house starts to beep. We have this security system that came with the house, that we don’t fully utilize, and we don’t fully understand, but every once in a while, it starts to beep. It’s this very intermittent, quiet beep, it’s like a smoke detector losing a battery sort of beep, just intermittent enough to drive you slowly insane if you let it, and for a long time, it was driving me slowly insane. Because we’re not using this particular pre-installed security system, I had no conclusion to draw except that the machine itself was going out of order, but it wasn’t simply something we could just unplug. What we discovered, instead, was that there was a button we could press that would make the beeping stop, for a while. Sometimes it stops for weeks. Sometimes it stops for days. Sometimes it stops for an hour, or just a few minutes. You can press the button and make it go way. But eventually, inevitably, this out-of-order old security beep comes back just to haunt you.
Except, it turns out, that the security system actually works just fine. It turns out that the problem is the door. It turns out that the door doesn’t close quite right. About six months after the security system started beeping at us, we stopped being able to close the door without also turning the padlock. It just wouldn’t hold in the frame. So, for a while, when we came into the house we would shut the door and we would immediately padlock the door just to keep the it closed. This, of course, means that somewhere the seal wasn’t quite up the standards set by the security system, which is why the beeping was starting in the first place. And so, we had the contractor come and take a look at the door to fix our door. And what he did was he put a little shim in the frame to help the door stay in alignment. And it worked, for a while. And then the season changed. And the wood expanded, or the wood contracted. And then one day, the door wouldn’t stay closed again. And then the beeping came back. Because the door itself was out of order.
Except, it turns out, that the door works just fine. The problem, you see, is the foundation of the whole house. That’s what the contractor said, the next time he came to put a shim in the door. He said, look, I can keep patching up this door. But really, the door is fine. The problem is the frame, it’s tiny changes in the frame, which probably have to do with tiny shifts in the foundation, which is just sort of what happens with houses. So, we can fix it for good. But it’s not simple, and it’s not cheap. And if you want my professional advice. My professional advice is, every once in a while, we put a shim in the door. And every once in a while, you press the little button that makes the beeping stop. Because you don’t want to have do the kind of repair that you’d really have to do to make this thing go away. The problem isn’t the beeping. And it’s not the door. If anything, the beeping and the door are both doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. The problem is the whole house.
So, all of us have been having one of those weeks where the house won’t stop beeping. It’s not quiet, and you can’t ignore it. Last weekend and into this week, protesters gathered in anger following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and, in turn, all over the country, we’ve seen footage of massive protests and police crackdowns. We’ve seen severe curfews, we’ve seen press denied access to critical areas, we’ve seen hundreds of injuries from tear gas and rubber bullets, even here in Austin. We’ve seen our own armed forces called into patrol the streets of our nation’s capital, and then turn gas onto a park full of demonstrators. The footage floating around social media this week looked eerily familiar to me, until I realized where I’d seen it before — in museums in South Africa dedicated to the history of apartheid, in exhibits chronicling the uprisings and the police crackdowns that ultimately overthrew the system. The names are different, and the details, of course, are different. But you can just tell when something is breaking.
The only question is: what’s broken? What’s out of order? You could argue, of course, that the protesters are the ones out of order. What gives them the right to cause such disturbance, to create such inconvenience, this beeping that won’t go away with such a simple press of a button. Maybe they need to check their values. Maybe they have their priorities wrong. Maybe they’ve just been cooped up in quarantine for too many weeks and it has to come out somewhere. Or maybe the protesters are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do when the door is out of alignment. Maybe the protesters are saying in the only way they can that the state of policing in this country is what’s broken. Maybe what we have are police departments that have inherited too much military surplus and haven’t checked their rules of engagement, and now we see the consequences of those policies and if we just fix those policies, if we just get the armored vehicles off the streets and the body cameras back on the officers, if we can put the shim in the door, then the beeping will stop.
Or maybe the police are doing exactly what we want them to do. This, I think, is the most sobering option, for maybe the police are doing their jobs perfectly, and it’s the foundation of the whole house that needs repair. Maybe the armed soldiers standing guard at the Lincoln Memorial, and the APD officers firing on medics and innocent bystanders, maybe there’s nothing broken about that behavior, maybe instead, it perfectly executes, maybe it precisely executes the racism and the fragility and the white supremacy that lives in the foundation of this country and has lived there since they day it was built. And I think we know enough to stop saying maybe. What we are seeing is not actually our city or our country coming apart. It’s working perfectly. These protests are what activism has to look like in a country that has never valued black voices. This policing is what law enforcement has to look like in a slave economy that never got fully dismantled. The system isn’t breaking. This is how it was designed. The problem is in the foundation. The problem is that the whole country has been out of order since the very beginning.
“Put things in order,” Paul tells the Corinthians, in these final verses of the second letter, and he says it, and I can feel my inner Presbyterianism come alive. We love order. Our Presbyterian sensibility is based in some part on being decent and in order. We love to call things to order. We have an order for worship. We have a whole Book of Order. We have a strong instinct for what the process should be, and what the rules should be, and whose turn it is, and how to play fair. We love a good decorum, and I think when decorum gets violated, when people take to the streets, when the world feels a bit unglued, I think our Presbyterian love of decency and order sometimes gets a bit triggered, like: who are these people speaking out of turn? Who these people who aren’t staying in their place? Why have they not gone through the appropriate sub-committee? And yet Paul doesn’t write: “Keep things in order.” He writes, “Put things in order.” Something’s already broken. It’s been broken. He’s spent twelve chapters laying out for them exactly what’s broken. The invitation is now to come along and restore the order that has so evidently been lacking.
Actually, even that is an odd translation that I don’t love. The Greek verb Paul uses here shows up elsewhere in the Gospels when the disciples are mending their fishing nets. It’s a verb of restoration and repair. And it’s a reflexive verb, meaning that you do it to yourself. Repair yourselves, Paul says. Pull yourselves together. Do the hard work. And if you need reminding of what the order should look like. If you need reminding of what the right order sounds like, Paul reminds us one more time: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” That old Trinitarian benediction. That old three-in-one. That old recitation of what the foundation is, and should be. That old reminder of who we are and whose we are, and for whose purposes we are. This, for Paul, is the foundation underneath the foundation, the order of all things: it holds us, and it gives us courage, and it gives us conviction. And it calls us to do the work. It calls us to make the repairs. It calls us to order, every single time.
In just a few moments we are going to have a slightly unconventional service of ordination and installation for our incoming elders and deacons, duly elected by you at our congregational meeting last February, duly trained, duly examined by session in May, and now ready to enter into office. And they have all spent some time learning about order. We’ve gone through the manual. We’ve read the protocols and procedures. We know just exactly how to use that book. But. Nothing in the constitutional questions for ordination that we ask demands of them anything about maintaining order. Instead, what we ask is: will you be subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit? Will you allow God’s order the room that it needs to work? Will you allow God’s order the space it needs to breathe? Will you allow God to call you out of turn? Will you allow God to go around the system? Will you allow God to work dis-orderly? Will you seek this order — the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit – will you open yourselves to this order, will you repair yourselves for this order, will you rebuild from the foundations for this order? Will you do the hard work for this order?
Because we’ve got to do the hard work, friends. We’ve got to repair ourselves. We’ve got to pull ourselves together. We’ve got to do the hard work. We’ve gotta do the justice work. We’ve gotta do the peace work. We’ve gotta do the love work. And yes, speaking to a predominantly white congregation in a predominantly white denomination, and as an entirely white pastor, we have to do the anti-racist work. As long as there are bodies lying in the streets, we have to do the work. As long as our communities are overrun with systematic inequalities and rampant divisions, we have to do the work. As long as we have to keep reminding ourselves that Black Lives Matter, we have to do the work. As long as the beeping continues, we have to do the work. The long work. The painful work. We may have to dig to the very foundation. But I promise you. What we will find there. What we will find underneath. What we can build on and rebuild with. It’s the same as what holds us and binds us and calls us and orders us. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the love of God. And the Communion of the Holy Spirit. May this Triune power be with you in the hard work. Today, tomorrow, and forevermore. Thanks to be God.
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