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What Romans 16 has to do with Ferguson, MO – Listening to the Voices of the Stranger

This sermon is simply an arrow to the words of others; the narratives which have unfolded from Ferguson are largely divided along racial lines. Now is the time to listen to the voices which are often marginalized and dismissed. A list of the articles which I passed around on 8/17/14 is listed below; scroll down to the bottom to find them. I will continue to add more as I become aware of them. –E. Liu

Romans 16:1-16 – Listening to the Voices of the Stranger (Preached at Pres House on Sunday, August 17th, 2014 by Rev. Erica Liu)

I had been looking forward to preaching on this last chapter of Romans and I had a plan. We’ve spent the entire summer working our way through this dense and often esoteric treatise and I was looking forward to getting to the end of this letter because instead of theological arguments, we are surprised by a list of unfamiliar names. It’s when Paul finally talks about the church in the flesh–when he gives names of specific, everyday people who were doing their best to follow Jesus.

I had been looking forward to preaching this passage because it contains a treasure trove of heroes that rarely receives any attention as it is usually the apostles Peter and Paul who are recognized. This list, however, remains a list of strangers to most people. But it is where I first discovered that the early church had female leaders, indeed prominent ones who were deacons, apostles and more. It is also where I learned that male translators just could not believe or accept that a woman would be an apostle so they changed the female name Junias (identified as prominent among the apostles) into a male name, Junia, (v. 7) assuming that of course it must have been a mistake despite having absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

In this list I find glimpses of the people that were discounted and whose voices were perhaps marginalized for not being the right demographic, namely male, and some threads of their stories that tell of lives dedicated to faithfully serving God. Paul mentions them in brief at the end of his letter to the Roman church, but it is clear that there is much more behind each of these acknowledgments. In telling the audience to greet each one of these people, he in effect also says that these are people the church must listen and pay attention to—they have something important to say.

This is a powerful list, upending traditional norms by naming a wife first and husband second as in the case of Prisca and Aquila (v. 3)—denoting the primary leadership she provided not only in her household, but in the larger church. It is a list that without any self-consciousness commends Phoebe, a deacon, and tells the church basically to do whatever she says, a clear indication of her authority. There are more women who are named as co-workers of Paul’s—Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis—all this without any fanfare, leaving one to assume that these women were integral leaders in the church whom Paul respected and expected others would as well.

And yet we would be remiss not to notice how it was unusual given the societal norms of the time. A fully integrated church, where men and women were equals? That was not how Roman society functioned and the fledgling Christian church would have been seen as radical, maybe even a bit anarchist, in their practice of having women in full leadership. The dominant culture dictated that the authorities were Roman men—it was their voices and perspectives which were accepted as normative while others were dismissed.

So yes, I was looking forward to preaching this text because I think it is a powerful testimony of Christ breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that we humans are constantly building up; I find it to be a portrait of hope, where designations of outsider and insider become meaningless as all are welcomed equally as children of God. I had been looking forward to it with a clear plan until Ferguson happened. And then, I was redirected to take a look around our own tables and take an honest inventory to see what voices are missing—because we need those voices to get a taste of the full fellowship and grace Jesus intends us to experience when he invites us to break bread with him.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the PCUSA’s National Multi-Cultural Conference in Ft. Worth, Texas. It gathered church leaders from around the nation and beyond for a time of worship, teaching, and honest conversation. Joe Clifford, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, preached a challenging and provocative sermon at the opening worship, focusing upon Luke 24:13-25. It’s the story after the resurrection when two of the disciples are traveling the road to Emmaus, scratching their heads over what had happened trying to make sense of it all, when a stranger joins them and asks them what they are talking about. The two men are astounded at his question, and one of them, Cleopas, exclaims, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” To which the stranger responds, “What things?” The two men go on to “enlighten” the stranger about all that has happened, voicing their own incredulity and questions about the accounts some of the women have given about empty tombs and angels (because obviously a woman’s testimony was suspect). It is clear they have been hashing the events over and over, their conversation stuck in a loop with no new insight.

But then something unexpected happens. The stranger begins to share his perspective on the events which have occurred, bringing a whole new understanding to the two disciples. It is the same event, but told from this stranger’s point of view. They reach their destination in the village and though the stranger makes to go on his separate way, the two urge the stranger to stay the evening with them, extending the hospitality expected of any good Jew. But in an unanticipated reversal of roles, the stranger becomes the host as he presides over the dinner table, blessing and breaking the bread. This point, made by Rev. Clifford, really struck a chord with folks—it was the stranger, the unknown one, who walked with them, fed them, and opened their eyes to a whole new reality, and that stranger was Jesus himself. Clifford’s invitation was to ponder who the strangers are for us and to consider what it would look like for the church to invite the stranger in, to listen to his stories, to be hosted and fed by him.

Our scripture passage from Romans 16 is a call to invite the stranger in. Women were at the margins of society and Paul highlighted them in such a way that demanded the Roman church to listen, respect, and even obey them. It must have been uncomfortable for the church community and certainly startling for the society around them to observe. These were voices people were not used to hearing, perspectives that were foreign, stories they were not accustomed to following. And Paul urged the church to pay attention to them.

Today, as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, I would like to spend time listening to the voices that are not usually found around our table. All around our nation, the news has been ablaze with the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American young man who was shot down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a city just 5 hours south of Madison. The past week has given us images which look like they could be from the 1960s, with police in full riot gear using tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, and snipers to disperse crowds of protestors. Last night, the governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew which will take place again tonight.

Unless you have been under a rock this past week, I am betting that you have heard something about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri. But most of the mainstream media has been talking about it in the same way, maybe a bit like those two disciples on their way to Emmaus hashing it out over and over again. Instead of following this tired narrative, I would like to invite the stranger to speak to us today, for us to pay attention to the unfamiliar people just like Paul commended the Roman church to listen to the women listed at the end of his letter in chapter 16. These are voices that we dare not ignore if we are in pursuit of the grace and reconciliation that Jesus offers.

I have printed a selection of the “strangers” whom you might not normally find at your table and their perspectives over the events which have occurred in Ferguson this past week. Their voices are often dismissed, marginalized, or unheard. But they are important to pay attention to because they are our fellow siblings. They speak of a reality that many of us can choose to ignore simply by the happenstance of our skin pigment. This is not about agreeing with everything that is said, it is about recognizing those who are considered strangers by the majority and letting them lead this conversation. Now is the time for us to listen to the voices of the stranger, the ones who have walked this road and know it in a far different way that we must try and understand.

I expect that what you hear from these strangers may make you uncomfortable, that you will disagree with parts, maybe you will even be angry. That is okay—the work of reconciliation and justice inevitably includes some holy friction. And holy friction is not without purpose—it is honest engagement, rubbing up against each other’s differences in a way to create a spark which brings light. What has happened in Ferguson and in places all over our nation demands a response by us if we want to take seriously the gospel. So let us open ourselves up to listen to the voices of the stranger.

“Black Bodies White Souls,” Austin Channing Brown, Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison at Calvin College
“When Terror Wears a Badge,” Ryan Herring, Marketing and Circulation Assistant for Sojourners
“Theological Bankruptcy,” Yolanda Pierce, Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature, and Director of the Center for Black Church Studies  at Princeton Theological Seminary
“The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail,” Christena Cleveland
“In Defense of Black Rage: Michael Brown, police, and the American Dream,” Brittney Cooper, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University
The Price of Blackness,” Lanre Akinsiku
“White Christians: It’s Time to Stand with Your Black Brothers and Sisters,” Christena Cleveland
“A Letter from a Black Seminarian,” James Howard Hill, Jr.
“Men Without a Country: Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, My Father and Me,” Arthur Chu
“Cops Just Shot My Cousin Dead: Here’s why talking about it is quietly destructive,” Anand Jahi
“Black Lives Matter and Vigilance,” Mihee Kim-Kort, Pastor at UKirk Indiana
“America is not for Black People,” Greg Howard
“Black Rage,” Lauryn Hill (Song)
“Brother Speak: Hurt, Anger, and Hope in Ferguson,” Urban Cusp (Video)

All across the nation, peaceful protesters gathered for a moment of silence with their hands raised. Let us now close with this powerful prayer:
“I Raise My Hands: A Prayerful Response to Ferguson,”
Osheta Moore


For additional reading and resources, check out:
“Pay Attention to Ferguson: Some Resources,” Rachel Held Evans
“In which I have a few things to tell you about Ferguson,” Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist
“Preaching Reflections on Michael Brown and Ferguson”, Various Professors & Pastors
“Please Don’t Ignore It: Five Ways that Christians and the Church Must Engage Michael Brown’s Death”, Eugene Cho, Lead Pastor at Quest Church
“Different Rules Apply,” Matt Zoller Seitz
“12 Things White People Can Do Now Ferguson,” Janee Woods
“A Mother’s White Privilege”, Manic Pixie Dream Mama
“10 Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet”, Kate Harding
“11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People Immediately”, Derek Clifton
“10 Tips for Being a Good Ally”, Bruce Reyes-Chow
“Talk to Your Kids About Ferguson, ” Bruce Reyes-Chow
“5 Ways You Can Help Ferguson, Its Protesters, and Mike Brown’s Family”, Chris Tognotti
“Dear White Mom,” Keesha Beckford
“Reflections on Ferguson From a White Mother of Black Sons,” Cindy Cushman
“What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege,” Jeremy Dowsett

Media Awareness:
“When the media treats white suspects and killers better than black victims”, Nick Wing
“If they gunned me down”, Yesha Callahan

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