Wrestling With God

A Sermon for Sunday August 3, 2014, Genesis 32:22-30 and Matthew 14:13-21

We live in a fearful, violent and broken world:

The rising death toll of children killed in Gaza amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

An outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa that has claimed 729 lives and infected more than 1,300 people.

 War in the Ukraine that has already resulted in the killing of nearly 300 people aboard a commuter airplane.

Strife in Syria, Libya, Nigeria and China where numerous civilians have been attacked and slaughtered by terrorist groups.

The hundreds of thousands of children and youth who have fled to the U.S. border to escape atrocities in Central America only to be met by armed and angry protestors.

Drug addiction, domestic and child abuse, gun violence, murder, teen rape, racism, homophobia, sexism and political bickering runs amok in our towns and cities.

All of this turmoil around us (in addition to our own personal worries and struggles) is enough to make us lock our doors, shut our blinds and curl up in a ball underneath our beds.

There are many people who attempt to lead a safe, secure and insulated life where no harm can touch them or their loved ones.

Some believe that if it is not happening directly in their own back yard, there’s no point bothering with what’s going on anywhere else.

Others focus on wealth and an accumulation of things to distract them from the pain that is consuming their neighbors.

Most of them, however, are just plain scared as they tip toe through every moment of life, constantly wondering when the sky might literally begin to fall into pieces.

But tiptoeing is not a luxury for people of faith, especially ones who are called to follow Jesus.

Treading softly through life or retreating into a dark corner wasn’t an option for the people of the Book and neither is it an alternative for us, the ones responsible for sharing the Book and living out God’s story.

When birthrights have been stolen and you’re on the run for your very life from a brother who has sworn to kill you, there is no tiptoeing or hiding.

In the midst of conflict and chaos,

fear has to be confronted,

violence has to be transformed and

brokenness has to be healed.

Like Jacob, one must wrestle with God who draws people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

One must grapple with God’s call to practice reconciliation, compassion and love.

And that wrestling with God and God’s call—the gut-wrenching, mind-bending, heart-aching discernment of the soul—changes a person and the world.

That deeply profound struggle dislocates the joints and marks a person’s body with pain, making it impossible to run away from or ignore the agony of others.

In the blood, sweat and tears that comes with….

tending a garden that provides fresh produce for low-income families;

spending time with homeless veterans;

cleaning a homeless shelter;

talking to the homeless on the streets,

learning about poverty issues, and

playing games with underprivileged kids in Asheville, NC;

and

digging the foundation of a Pentecostal church;

leading Vacation Bible School;

assisting with a medical clinic;

making friends with folks who’ve never been in relationship with white Americans;

worshipping in a different tradition in San Pedro, a province of the Dominican Republic

…one sees the face of God and recognizes that life is a blessing to behold.

It is not to be dreaded or taken for granted as senior and elder Lauren Borders (who spent a month in the DR before joining the mission trip team) explains:

Sometimes we like to glorify mission. We like to pose with children like Disney World characters and convince ourselves that happy people could never be as poor as they are. And it makes us feel a lot better about the need we stand in the midst of.

I spent six weeks in the Dominican Republic, which was just long enough to move past the “glory” stage. When you’ve been swinging a pick-axe and shoveling on a work site for two straight weeks or someone tells you that you cannot hold a crying child because she’s covered in scabies, you tend to wake up. Waking up saved my life. I have found that now that I’m back, I can’t live on the surface. It’s a lot harder to take blessings for granted.

Working for God is really hard, especially when it seems as if everything is caving in around you. But one of the most important things that I learned on this trip was that most people don’t really care. I met youth and adults, including our own, from all over the country who are up for the challenge. And I found out, to my surprise, so was I.

God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will. And when I held a small boy whose stomach is severely distended in my arms, I realized that I was tricked into coming here. I was tricked into loving on a Dominican child who probably is in desperate need of affection. I was tricked into swinging a pick axe. Because when I take a step back from both of those situations, neither of them really sounds like they were originally on my summer to-do list. God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will.

I am so thankful to have been called to spend my summer in the Dominican Republic. I am so grateful to have been woken up to the reality of the hurting and I am so grateful to have seen the determination of my church family. I am so grateful to have been tricked into experiencing a deeper love. And I look forward to being tricked in the future.

The fear and violence and brokenness of the world can be so overwhelming that it is tempting to dismiss the trouble all together and remain in our own protective little bubbles.

Like Jesus’ first disciples, we sometimes want to ignore the bedlam and dump the problem on someone else so we don’t have to take responsibility.

But there is no ignoring or tiptoeing or retreating.

When the hour is late and the world seems bleak, we can’t demand that the crowds of people in pain be sent away.

Even when there are hecklers—people who say it’s foolish to serve the poor or go to another state or country to serve alongside others—we can’t give up and walk away dejected. Nor can we expect someone else to fix things.

We can’t even put it all squarely on Jesus for him to do it all by himself either.

Not that Jesus can’t do it by himself; he most certainly can. It’s just that Jesus would prefer that we be a part of what he is doing.

That tricky Jesus says to us: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

And we must give those in need something to eat, something to drink, something to wear, something to heal, something to protect, something to trust—something that acknowledges their worth as human beings created in the image of God.

We must provide love, mercy and hope that is always abundant, never scarce and eternally satisfying.

Once we do such challenging things, we see the presence of God among us and we are instantly and forever changed by the encounter.

There is no going back. There is only forward.

Jacob didn’t return to his outlaw ways. Jacob persevered through his hardships and helped bring forth the 12 tribes of Israel.

The disciples didn’t resume lives of apathy. They kept following Jesus and doing difficult ministry, inching ever so closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Similarly, the youth and adults who attended this summer’s mission trips haven’t gone back to being the people they were before their experiences in Asheville and the Dominican Republic.

They have wrestled with God and God’s call. Their minds and bodies have been stretched. Their eyes and hearts have been open. They have been changed.

And they are determined to be the change for others, even if they have to tussle with that calling for the rest of their lives.

At the close of their eye-opening trip with Asheville Youth Mission, the Middle School Youth devised a mission action plan they would like to implement in this congregation and community very soon. Over the next year, they want to:

  • start a clothing drive competition between adults and children & youth to see who can collect the most clothes for the low-income and homeless
  • create a community garden on the church’s grounds to feed the poor and hungry in Duluth
  • clean up and take care of the church’s labyrinth
  • volunteer (more) with Family Promise, Rainbow Village and Duluth Co-Op, and
  • participate in the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Hunger Walk/Run in spring 2015 

After spending 10 incredible life-changing days in the Dominican Republic, the High School Youth desire to continue helping the community they grew close to in San Pedro by

  • sharing their stories and raising $20,000 in funds to complete the church building project.
  • returning to the country next summer to work on the project with their Dominican brothers and sisters and build stronger and deeper relationships with them.

In the meantime, they plan to be more involved with mission work in their church and community and to practice more humility, compassion, love, tolerance and peace toward people who are vastly different from them.

And both the Middle and High School Youth want nothing more than for this congregation to join in the grueling but amazing work God has called them to do.

They want you to lift up your head and raise your hands, 

They want you to open up your eyes to the needy ones 

They want you to stand out…oh you know that’s how we gotta live

They want you to stand out…just like ones that came before us did

They want you to stand out from the rest

And wrestle with God’s call to make this world better.

The only question is: are you ready to rumble with them?

Amen.

Be Revealed

A Sermon For January 19, 2014, Amos 5:24, Galatians 3:27-29, John 1:29-34

[Race Relations Sunday/Baptism of three sisters, 3, 2 and 9-months-old during the 11 am worship service]

In one of several emotionally packed scenes from the epic film 12 Years A Slave, Edwin Epps, who believes the Bible sanctions his right to abuse slaves, becomes enraged when he discovers that the young female slave Patsey left the plantation.  Upon her return, Patsey, who daily picks more than 500 pounds of cotton to avoid a beating, reveals to the fuming Epps that she went to another plantation to ask for soap so that she could bathe:

Epps, unwilling to believe her story and angry over her act of defiance, forces another slave, Solomon Northrup, to whip Patsey. Eventually Epps grabs the whip from Northrup and brutally lashes her. In essence, Epps like many slave owners of the time, refuses to recognize Patsy as a beloved creation who is claimed by a loving God in the waters of baptism.

12 Years A Slave-posterThe dehumanization of Patsey is taken from the pages of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir whose film adaptation recently netted a Best Picture Golden Globe Award and nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor, best supporting actress and best screenplay. 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Northrup, an African-American musician from New York—a free man—who is kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

12 Years A Slave has garnered much attention for its accurate portrayal of one of the darkest periods in American history. And the notice the film is receiving is timely considering that many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) commemorate Race Relations Sunday in their worship today as a way of honoring the birthday and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King on Monday.

Along with other 2013 movies like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, the big screen retelling of Northrup’s life as an indentured servant has stirred up immense conversations and feelings about the occurrence of slavery and racial discrimination—both then and now.

Film critics and moviegoers have observed entire theaters sobbing throughout the entire 2 hours of 12 Years A Slave, including grown men covering their eyes or turning away during especially graphic scenes.

It’s remarkably powerful to think about how 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the history of that horrendous time can still evoke suck heartbreak and lament.  Quite possibly, we mourn the sins of the past because the same hateful mindsets thrive mightily in today’s climate.

While slave plantations are non-existent in this country and the nation is half a century removed from the days of segregation, lynching, vicious police dogs and water-hoses and the cross-burning Klan, slavery and racial discrimination creeps into every part of society nowadays.

We still live in a world where people fail to honor the love of Christ in another human being—

  • A report from the 2013 Global Slavery Index found that nearly 30 million people around the world are living as slaves.[1]
  • A U.S. government study reported in 2012 that more than 42,000 adults and children were found in forced prostitution, labor, slavery or armed conflict worldwide.[2]
  • Surveys conducted in 2013 by the renowned Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of blacks and 16 percent of whites see “a lot of discrimination” toward blacks; And 70 percent of blacks and about 37 percent of whites say “blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.” [3]
  • Statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors hate and bigotry show that hate groups have increased dramatically in the last six years, from 149 to 1,360.[4]
  • Since January 2013, the news have been filled with stories of racial discrimination, racists attitudes and cultural assumptions:

Racial Discrimination Collage 1

The Trayvon Martin case;

voters protesting the Supereme Court’s decision to strike down a section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act;

Celebrity Chef Paula Deen who testified in a lawsuit deposition that she used the “n-word” and threw Old-South plantation-themed parties; and

Phil Robertson, the star of the hit reality TV series Duck Dynasty who told a reporter that the impoverished black adults he worked alongside as a teen were always happy, happy, happy and never complained about their civil rights.

Racial Discrimination Collage 2

Megyn Kelly, the Fox News Anchor who insisted that everyone should accept that Jesus was a white man when he was actually a Galilean Jew born in Roman-Palestine;

African-American teen Christopher Rougier who was told by a teacher at his New Mexico high school that he couldn’t dress up as Santa because he was black;

An MSNBC segment in which host Melissa Harris-Perry (who is bi-racial) allowed a panel of guests poke fun at former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandson; and

African-American actress Tamera Mowry who told Oprah Winfrey that she had been called “a white man’s whore” because her husband is white and they have a bi-racial child.

Racial Discrimination Collage 4

New York-born Latino-American pop singer Marc Anthony, who traces his heritage to Puerto Rico, was widely blasted on Twitter for his rendition of God Bless America at the All-Star Game. Many felt that it was wrong for an illegal Mexican to sing an American song;

America’s Got Talent competitor, Sebastien De La Cruz, a 11-year-old who received similar criticism for singing the National Anthem in his native San Antonio during the NBA Finals between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. Several people on Twitter accused the boy of being an illegal who snuck into the country to sing the anthem;

Nina Davuluri, a native of New York who became the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned the winner of the 2014 Miss America Pageant, was attached on social media for being an Arabic terrorist. Others ridiculed Nina for her family ties to India, labeling her “Miss 7-11”; and

Last week’s episode of the hit series How I Met Your Mother in which the all-white cast put on yellow make-up and dressed in stereotypical Asian attire to foster an ongoing gag about humorously slapping a good friend.

Racial Discrimination Collage 03

Justine Sacco, a former PR executive for IAC Media Company, who made headlines by tweeting: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white;” and

Famous comedian Steve Martin who in response to a question about how to spell “lasagna” tweeted: “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”

And pop legend Madonna, who on Friday (talk about sense of timing) used the n-word “as a term of endearment” in an Instagram photo of her white teenage son.

As Christena Cleveland, a researcher and social psychologist at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn, put it in a December magazine article:

There is still a long way to go. I don’t think people understand when we are separated; nothing good can come from that. All we do is misperceive each other. All we do is develop these boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ I don’t think a lot of majority-culture Christians understand how bad these issues really are.”[5]

Judging by the racial diversity of the congregation here at Pleasant Hill, I would surmise that many actually do understand how bad racial discrimination is these days.

At the same time, I also realize it’s easy for anyone to respond to these examples of racism by saying “Oh it’s not as bad as it was 50 years ago,” or “there are a few members in my family who use the n-word but that’s just an older generation that is set in their ways” or “you can’t judge racial tensions by the dumb and ignorant things people say on social media or TV.”

Maybe those responses have a ring of truth to them. But maybe the examples of racial discrimination I just mentioned also reflect the prejudice that occurs on a daily basis in average cities and neighborhoods across the country.

In case you’re unsure, let me offer personal stories from some non-white friends I spoke with this weekend about the ways they experience racial discrimination:

As a parent, I’ve had the opportunity to get know some of the church families whose children are my 5-year-old daughter’s peers, like Ted and Abby R. and their two children.

Ted, who is black and hails from Chicago, is a new elder on Session who serves on the Christian Education Committee. Abby, who is white and grew up in Oregon, is on CE’s Preschool Board and both parents teach church school.

This past August, Ted and his daughter were out shopping when Ted noticed another shopper react oddly to him.  Bewildered by the person’s actions, Ted immediately posted on Facebook: “Just had an old lady see me in Wal-Mart and clinch her purse. Shaking my head.”

……………………………….

One of the most valuable ministries here at the church is our partnership with Rainbow Village, which holds its After-School tutoring and mentoring program in the upstairs classrooms during the week.  The success of the program is due largely to the incredible leadership of its program director SB, an African-American mother of two grown boys and a grandmother of two toddlers.

SB said to me over the phone that what she often finds most disturbing is perceptions of who she is based on the color of her skin. She told me that over the years, some whites, after meeting her, would later remark privately to her employer about how Sondra is so well spoken and articulate. “They seem to be impressed that I’m not talking ebonics,” she said. “I wonder how they thought I’d be. Wouldn’t they think that if I work at Rainbow Village, I would be professional?”

SB says that while she believes race relations have come a long way, there is still more to be done. She says she longs for the day when she doesn’t have to over-worry about perceptions or even take precautions when speaking to her sons about how they should behave in public. “I always tell them to be polite as they should but I usually have to tell them more. I tell them that if the police are talking to you, don’t move. Stand still. Give short answers. Don’t reach into your pockets, even if nothing is there. I think it’s wrong that I have to be over cautious and give such special instructions but it’s what I have to do.”

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, whites have ever been given those type of instructions, much less have to worry that their words and actions might be greatly misconstrued by authorities.

And yet the shooting deaths of Trayvonn Martin and much more clear-cut cases—like the killing of Florida A&M student Jonathan Ferrell and 19-year-old Renisha McBride—gives every parent and guardian of a racial and bi-racial children enough reason to give precise directions about behavior, all to ensure more innocent blood isn’t spilled.[6]

…………………..

An inspiration to me in my ministry is Derrick Weston, a 34-year-old African-American and Presbyterian pastor who is director of the Pittsburgh Project, a non-profit community development in Pennsylvania.

Derrick has a passion for talking about church transformation and issues of poverty and racism. When I asked him to share his experiences with racial discrimination, he wrote me the following email:

Where I have most commonly experienced racism is in the area of other people’s expectations of me. Assumptions about how I should dress, how I should talk, what kind of music that I *must* like, assumptions about my athleticism (which were almost always wrong!)… I don’t think most people think of those things as racism, but they certainly are. When you tell people that they are not allowed out of the box that you have for them, that is oppression….I had some awful things said to me when I served a church in Springfield, Ohio. Worries that I would bring “my kind” to the church. Lucky for them, “my kind” wouldn’t go anywhere near that place.

……………………..

WorrPHOTO-Cover-and-Bruce-720x380ies over “another kind” coming inside the Church is a statement that our denomination’s former moderator, the Rev. Bruce Reyes Chow, has also heard in his ministry along with other racially charged comments. Several months ago Bruce was sitting in a coffee shop when a white person came up to him and said in their best Asian accent: “You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.”[7]

Bruce, who is a California born Asian American with Filipino and Chinese heritage, writes in his book But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race, that we can’t afford to brush aside or ignore the racism that pervades our society:

When we choose to dismiss or avoid these difficult conversations, we reinforce and remind people of color that they are still the other. We are not expressing a willingness and yearning to embrace the wonderful complexity that is brought to the larger human family…We must keep talking about race and how we engage the conversation, because how we do these things impacts the ability for people of color to full live and achieve in society.”[8]

How we have these conversations about race—how we engage others about their experiences and stories—also impacts the ability for the newly baptized to speak boldly and confidently of God’s love for all races and cultures.

For Christians, our starting point for having these conversations and working toward racial reconciliation is immersed in the words of the apostle Paul who wrote to the early church in Galatia:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

Our desire to create racial harmony and seek out the holy in another human being is attuned to the wild cries of John the Baptist who witnesses the baptism of Jesus:

Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” (John 1:29-42)

Our purpose for carrying out the promises we just made for those three girls at baptism–to nurture people in the love and mercy of Christ–is rooted in the prophetic words of the vine grower Amos who proclaimed:

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Our baptisms in Christ remind us that regardless of our cultural differences, we all belong forever to God.

Our baptisms remove the sin and injustice from our lives, washes away the hate, the discrimination and misperceptions we have toward those of another race.

Our baptisms free us to be rivers of justice and streams of righteousness and peace for people of color.

Our baptisms in Christ reveal us as beloved creations that are called to love one another, especially those who are mistreated because of their differences.

So may it be. So may it be.

Amen.

………………….

Preacher’s Note I: Following the sermon, the congregation sang the Hymn #757 “Today We Are Called to Be Disciples” from The Presbyterian Hymnal: Glory to God. For the Benediction, I read stanza three: “Pray justice may come rolling down as in a mighty stream, with righteousness in field and town to cleanse us and redeem. For God is longing to restore an earth, where conflicts cease, a world that was created for a harmony of peace.”

Preacher’s Note II: As I researched the topic of race relations for this sermon, I found several articles that provided eye-opening insight into the issue, allowed me to process my thoughts and feelings, and that should be shared with others as a way of continuing the conversation:

–‘12 Years A Slave’ Inspires True Conversations About Slavery, NPR Morning Edition, Jan 16, 2014

Seeing Opportunity In A Question: Where Are You Really From, NPR Morning Edition, November 11, 2014

White Men, Black Female Bodies, and Renisha McBride, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, Nov. 19, 2013

No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing ’12 Years A Slave’ by Cathleen Falsani, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 28, 2013

The American Church’s Absence of Lament, by Soong-Chan Rah, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

After Racial Strife, New Pledge Commits Christians to Unity and Solidarity, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote, by Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 24, 2013

The ‘S’ Word, the ‘D’ Word, and ’12 Years A Slave’ by Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 17, 2013

Waiting For Another MLK by Carlos Malave, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 16, 2013

–’12 Years A Slave’: A Film Of Moral Gravity by Brian McLaren, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

How Feeling Each Other’s Pain Changes Everything, by Christena Cleveland, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 15, 2013

–‘12 Years A Slave’—Could It Happen Again? by Paul Louis Metger, Sojourners Magazine, http://sojo.net, October 14, 2013

–Some Brief Thoughts on ‘The Butler’ by Derrick Weston, from his blog http://derricklweston.wordpress.com, August 14, 2013


[1] New Global Index Exposes ‘Modern Slavery’ Worldwide, BBC, October 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-24560937

[2] U.S. Traffiking Report Reveals ‘Modern Slavery’ Toll, BBC, June 19, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18514626

[3] For African-Americans, discrimination is not dead, Pew Research Center, June 28, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/28/for-african-americans-discrimination-is-not-dead/and King’s Dream Remains An Elusive Goal, Pew Research Center, August 22, 2013, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/08/22/kings-dream-remains-an-elusive-goal-many-americans-see-racial-disparities/

[4] Southern Poverty Law Center, “What We Do”, http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism

[5] Chasing the Dream: The Year’s Best Film, 12 Years A Slave, exposes religion’s ugly history with race, by Emily McFarlane Miller, Relevant Magazine: Faith, Culture & Intentional Living, Nov/Dec. 2013

[6] During the 11 am worship service, I removed—in the interest of time due to having three baptisms and a Choir Anthem—the paragraph where SB talks about the instructions she gives to her sons and two paragraphs that followed, regarding how whites don’t have to worry about such things and the killings of Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride. I did preach these words at the 8:30 am worship service.

[7] How I Survive Everyday Racism by Bruce Reyes-Chow, August 30, 2013, Huffington Post: Religion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-reyeschow/how-i-survive-everyday-ra_b_3833714.html

[8] Excerpt from But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, p.22-24. Self-Published. 2013.

Re-Think Church: Advent-Photos

Like many Christians, I’ve been participating in Rethink Church’s Advent Photo-A-Day. Although I have been taking and sharing a photo per day on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I keep forgetting to also share the pics on this blog. So, 21 days late, here is what I’ve witnessed and re-thought during this Advent Season:

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.20.31 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.20.45 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.20.56 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.21.06 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.21.20 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.21.29 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.21.39 PMScreen Shot 2013-12-21 at 8.21.48 PM

 

 

 

 

 

Be What We Were Made to Be

A Sermon for Sunday October 27 (Reformation Day & All Saints’ Day ) Romans 12 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.

Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.

For more than 20 years, during the days that lead up to Halloween, the memory of a significant event in my life resurfaces like The Creature From The Black Lagoonthe death of my friend Bonkey Nezariah McCain, who at the age of 17 was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the late evening of Friday, October 30, 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama, and pronounced dead at 12:01 am on Saturday October 31.

My tearful mom shook me from my blissful sleep later that Halloween morning to tell me the horrifying news. I staggered out of bed in utter disbelief. It was hard enough to comprehend that a beloved member of our church’s youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian and a fellow classmate at Shades Valley High School had died, but more difficult to fathom that he was killed.

A member of SVHS’ football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been innocently celebrating their win over another school by eating at a local Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.

Bonkey’s death shook the community. Bonkey was a remarkable young man who had a deep love for God and people. He had that unique ability of making friends and connecting folks to one another regardless of their differences. And he had big dreams of getting a higher education, playing in the NFL and doing good for others with the gifts God gave him.

The day Bonkey died, I was awoken to the harsh reality of fear, pain and sadness. And yet, in the midst of the shock and grief, my instinct (like many of my church friends) was to not crawl back in bed and isolate myself from the world. My immediate desire was to shower, get dressed and be with my friends.

Within a few hours, our youth group had gathered in one of our friend’s homes. We sat there and held one another as we cried and lamented and expressed our anger over a senseless death. We made phone calls to share the news with friends who lived and attended Presbyterian churches in other parts of central Alabama. They immediately got in their cars and drove to Birmingham. By dinner that evening, there were close to 50-60 people, youth and adult advisers from eight separate high school youth groups, squeezed inside a friend’s living room. Holding onto one another, we cried some more and we told stories about Bonkey’s life and we prayed.

And our advisers reminded us that God grieves with us and yearns for us to live together in love and hope and peace.  They cautioned us to not become jaded by the brokenness and pain of the world. They encouraged us to push against the culture of selfishness, hate and violence by showing God’s goodness in all that we say and do…together.  They proclaimed to us that we—despite our momentary anger and loathing over Bonkey’s death—were called to continue to be the mercy-filled body of Christ in our daily lives.

Our advisers, our God-bearers of the faith, echoed the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the early Christian church in Rome:


Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without ever thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God…God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you….

The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. …

In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other…

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply ….Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone…Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do…Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

I realize that Paul’s letter may sound too idealistic and naïve to 21st century ears. Paul’s instructions don’t seem feasible during a time in which there is great upheaval divisiveness, and bitter contention in our nation and world.

To some, they are nice-feel-good words that you say to cheer people up. It’s not practical advice.

Except that Paul’s teaching about how Christians should live is actually possible to practice and not some pie-in-the sky idea. Paul’s message is firmly grounded in real-life experience. Paul, like many Jews and Gentile followers of Jesus in those days, lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and its cruel emperor who decreed himself a god among mortals.

The apostle knew that the only way followers of God could survive the ruthless, conquering military machine of the Roman Empire, the great body politic, was by becoming a part of a body that is greater than any corporate entity, nation, kingdom or ruler—

The body of Christ.

 Made up of chosen people who each find their meaning and function from the body that has shaped them with exquisite design and awe-inspiring purpose.

Paul believed fervently that human beings were created by God to be together and live as one body in love and gratitude to the Creator. To detach one’s self from the whole body of Christ served no purpose.

A person could be alive and functioning but essentially that person was dead in their soul because of their detachment, as useless as a cut-off toe. The individual was like a re-animated corpse that aimlessly wanders the countryside looking for opportunities to rip off the parts of living bodies.

AMC's Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images

AMC’s Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images

Many of us can identity with that metaphor of zombies (which is all the rage these days)—an individual or an individualized culture that seeks to devour our uniqueness, turning us into mindless creatures that fit into societal norms regardless of the harm it does to fellow human beings.

That allegory is so relatable to our lives and world that 3-16 million people tune in every week in the Fall to watch a show about an apocalyptic world overrun with zombies called The Walking Dead, which is set in metro Atlanta and currently being filmed an hour away from here in the Peachtree City area.

The reason for the show’s popularity may surprise those who have never watched an episode and suspect its all for the sake of guts and gore or just get twitchy watching gruesome stuff. But The Walking Dead actually offers a much deeper over-arching message about humanity that is loaded with spiritual and societal themes—particularly individualism v. community.

At one point in the story, Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy of the fictional King County, Georgia, gives a group of survivor’s the “from now on it’s my way or the highway speech” if they are planning to outlast the widespread zombie epidemic. The group is reluctant at first but quickly decide that Rick’s leadership is exemplary and his intentions are in the right place.

However, over the course of several episodes, Rick and his friends, who have sought refuge in an abandoned Georgia prison, encounter the residents of a nearby town called Woodbury and its leader, The Governor. A crazy narcissistic dictator, The Governor views himself as the savior of civilization and is willing to resort to the most deplorable measures to achieve that goal.

Courtesy of Google Images,  Photo Collage of still images from AMC's The Walking Dead, Episode 15 "This Sorrowful Life" March, 2013

Photo Collage of still images from AMC’s The Walking Dead, Episode 15 “This Sorrowful Life” March, 2013, Courtesy of Google Images

Because other survivors are always a threat to his quest for supremacy, the Governor threatens to attack Rick’s group at the prison unless they hand over a particular group member to be tortured and killed. Realizing that he has been losing his sanity and was wrong to ever assume sole leadership, Rick gathers his fellow survivors for a meeting. With sorrow in his eyes, a lump in his throat and guilt in his heart, he tells them: [1]

When I met with the Governor, he offered me a deal. He said he would leave us alone if I gave him Michonne. And I was gonna do that to keep us safe. I changed my mind. But now Merle took Michonne to fulfill the deal and Daryl went to stop him and I don’t know if it’s too late. I was wrong not to tell you. And I’m sorry.

What I said last year, that first night, after the farm, it can’t be like that. It can’t. What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are, it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me.

This is life and death. How you live…how you die, it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together.

There have been numerous moments in my life and ministry where I thought I was solely in charge, the only person making the tough calls and decisions, which were always absolutely right.

I have become, at times, too well adjusted to a culture that thrives off personal success, self-importance and fierce individualism. I have gone from being self-reliant and independent to arrogant, pretentious, judgmental and hateful in seconds. I have been, as my 5-year-old daughter Katie says, a “butt-butt.”

I have been like the demented Governor who is hungry for power and his own needs to be met at the expense of others or I have been like a crazed zombie who rips into others without thinking about the pain and suffering it causes them.

And all that conceited desire to be absolutely right and satisfied all the time (which were my choices) has always separated me from God and the body of Christ.

That’s why I need others to keep me from being detached from the body of Christ. I need that community of faith—made up of people from every time and place—to keep me connected, to keep me in check, and to remind me of the Creator’s unconditional love and my worth as a member of Christ’s body, God’s kingdom.

Intuitively we know that we are the greater good, not because we are perfect and do everything right but because we are the people of God. We know that each of us is so much better when we are together and not alone. We are so much better when we are “marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body.” We are so much better when we “just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other.”

The most well known saints of our time, the ones who seemingly look as if they did things all on their own, understood the importance of togetherness and community all too well.

Martin Luther King Jr. needed Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and John Lewis and thousands of other civil rights activists during the days of segregation. Never could he have fought the battle alone.

Mother Theresa needed the Missionaries of Charity to help her care for the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta, India and other impoverished countries for more than 50 years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu needed the Rainbow Coalition and the support of Christians in the West to lead non-violent protests against apartheid in South Africa.

Even now, we need one another to do ministry in our country and across the ocean. Because Lord knows, not a single one of us can do it alone. Try to teach all the church school classes by yourself or single-handled lead both Middle and High School youth groups or do every part of Family Promise or the Red Cross Blood Drive or Rainbow Village ministries alone and you’ll witness disastrous results.

Foremost, an individual who chooses to go solo or walk away from the body of Christ will likely forget their meaning and their purpose in the first place. Without the body of Christ to remind that person who they are and whom they belong to, the individual could end up leading an unfulfilled life.

The gospel truth is that we need one another to live. We were wired to be nothing less than a community that does God’s work together—loving deeply, blessing our enemies, discovering beauty in others, avoiding revenge and overcoming evil with good.

This we know.

This we trust.

This we believe.

So “let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be.”

Amen.


[1] AMC’s The Walking Dead, Season 3, Episode 15: “This Sorrowful Life” March 2013

Rain Down

Courtesy of Google Images and iBibleverses.christianpost.com

Courtesy of Google Images and iBibleverses.christianpost.com

A Pastoral Prayer for Sunday September 15, 2013, inspired by the hymn “Holy Spirit, Rain Down” which the congregation sung prior to the prayer:

Holy Spirit,

rain down your peace and love

in a world that is so desperately in need of such things

rain down your peace and love

on the broken, the sick, the poor, and the prisoner

rain down your peace and love

in communities such as Colorado where homes and lives are literally being wiped away.

rain down your peace and love

so that they may rise above the waters and carry one another to higher ground

rain down your peace and love

in places torn by violence and war, from our suburban neighborhoods and city streets to cities, towns and countries across the ocean

rain down your peace and love

on those who experience abuse, torture and injustice

rain down your peace and love

on children who suffer at the hands of madmen—

whether it be in Syria or in our own country.

rain down your peace and love

on the city of Birmingham, the deep South and the nation as it remembers

the deaths of 4 little girls—

Cynthia Wesley,

Carole Robertson,

Addie Mae Collins,

and Denise McNair—

who were putting on their choir robes when the bomb of madmen erupted through their church 50 years ago today

rain down your peace and love

as we reflect on the Light that has since shined through those dark days of racism and segregation

as we ponder how the ugliness of prejudice and hatred and injustice still pervades our society

rain down your peace and love

on the Church, grounding it in your promise that we will be loved and never abandoned

rain down your peace and love

on our very souls, transforming our hearts and opening our eyes to see you more clearly in our lives

Holy Spirit,

rain down your peace and love

as we pray together in the way Jesus taught his disciples, saying: “Our Father…”

Remembering 4 Little Girls: The 50th Anniversary of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

God still has a way of wringing good out of evil…And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair

4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair

Tomorrow, Sunday Sept. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four little girls as they were putting on their choir robes prior to that morning’s worship service.

As a reporter for The Birmingham Post-Herald (1998-2001) I was assigned the task of covering the re-opening of the case when authorities, in May 2000, discovered new evidence implicating two ex-Klansman who had been long-time suspects of the crime.

I preached a sermon last year about confronting evil in which I shared my experience interviewing Thomas Blanton Jr. in August 2000, eight months before he was convicted of the bombing.

Reporting on Sixteenth Street Bombing case  and interviewing those who were connected to the event in 1963 and 2000-2001 was an eye-opening experience. I was immediately thrust into the history that shaped my hometown of Birmingham and the deep South, and ultimately my identity as a pastor and a Jesus-follower who believes whole-heartedly in justice, equality and love for others, regardless of race, creed, culture, gender and sexual orientation.

Carolyn McKinstry from her book "While The World Watched" Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)

Carolyn McKinstry from her book “While The World Watched” Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)

My faith and belief that the Light will always shine in the darkness is strong because of the encounters I had with those who lived through the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. One of those individuals who served as an inspiration to me as a reporter and whose words echo in my life and ministry today is Carolyn McKinstry, the author of While The World Watched (2011) in which she reflects on the day of the Sixteenth Street bombing, her friends who were killed that day, the Civil Rights movement, and her life since.

On Tuesday May 1, 2001, a few hours after Blanton received a guilty verdict in the Sixteenth Street Bombing, I had the privilege of interviewing Carolyn McKinstry outside the church.

Here is the story as published in the Wednesday May 2, 2001 edition of The Birmingham Post-Herald:

………………………

Church member glad to see chapter end

by Andy Acton

Birmingham Post-Herald

Carolyn McKinstry awoke Tuesday morning feeling unsettled. She was still feeling restless when she went to her job as a consultant with Accenture. Throughout the day she had a hard time concentrating on her work. The restlessness wouldn’t subside.

Later that afternoon, after stopping briefly by Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where she is a member, she went home. Ten minutes later she received a phone call from friend Antoyne Green, a reporter at WBRC-6. Green told her that Thomas Blanton Jr., an ex-Klansman, was found guilty of murder in the bombing that killed her four childhood friends 37 years ago. The verdict came a week to the day after the trial started.

“I felt this surge, and it was this overwhelming relief that we can move forward with our lives and the church can move forward with what it needs to do,” said McKinstry, who was 14 years-old and sitting in the sanctuary of the church on Sept. 15, 1963 when a bomb exploded beneath her. Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were killed in the blast.

On Tuesday, Blanton, 62, became the second man in 24 years to be convicted of murder in the bombing that turned the nations eyes to the civil rights struggle that had inflamed racial tensions in the South. Former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977.

McKinstry, now 51, said after Green told her the verdict, she was silent for a few minutes, what she described later as shock. While standing outside the church Tuesday evening, McKinstry said she and others who were close to the four girls were not expecting another guilty verdict.

“I think we had emotionally detached ourselves because we didn’t want to be disappointed,” said McKinstry.

There was a look of both relief and reflection on McKinstry’s face as she stood in front of the church steps. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about the verdict.

“Now it has an ending. It has a final chapter, a chapter we can live with, an ending we hope will help the family have some feeling of closure,” she said.

McKinstry said friends and family members were surprised the verdict came so quickly. “We felt like we’d get 1963 repeated,” she said, recalling the feeling that the bombers never would be brought to justice.

A vice president of the church’s board of directors, McKinstry said the bombing and its aftermath will be a “great teaching tool” to share around the world and with future generations.

“This story was all about hatred and racism….These were four very beautiful young girls, and they will always be missed by their family and church,” she said. “We want to make sure the events that led to their deaths aren’t repeated.”

Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.

Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.

McKinstry said the church will remember the four girls with a special service Sunday. “We will reflect on those times and God’s goodness,” she said. McKinstry said the church will also open it’s doors today through Friday for anyone who wants to pray and reflect on the bombing. By Tuesday, about 50 people had come inside the church’s sanctuary to pay their respects to McKinstry and other members, she said.

The story of the bombing may have one more chapter left. The trial of Bobby Frank Cherry, a 71-year-old ex-Klansman, who was to be tried with Blanton, has been postponed pending a medical evaluation.

“Our position has always been that we left things in the hands of God,” McKinstry said. “If the system says he is fit to stand trial. If the system says he is guilty, then he should go to jail. We leave that in their (the system’s) hands and God’s hands. …We will remain low-key and reverent. A lot of our posturing (throughout the Blanton trial) has been out of respect for the families.”

……………………………….

For those of you who are reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing or learning about it for the first time, check out the extraordinary documentary 4 Little Girls by Spike Lee and to read all the mainstream news articles you can find on this tragedy, including this excellent piece from Time Magazine: “Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham is Resurrected”

I also encourage you to lift up prayers for the families of Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae, and Denise who long for the day they will see their girls again; for Carolyn McKinstry; for the congregation of Sixteenth Street; for the city of Birmingham that continues to move forward toward equality; the victims of racism, slavery and other forms of injustice today and the men, women and youth who fight hate and intolerance through peaceful and non-violent means.