Thursday July 30, Keynote 4 – “God’s Story Is Still Being Written”
God is with us no matter where the story takes us!
Jeremiah 29:11 “Jeremiah’s Prophecy to the Exiles” (God does not abandon us. )
John 20: 19-23 “Jesus Appears in the Upper Room” (God often enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways.)
Some of the Jeremiah Project Youth and Omayra Gonzalez (conference theme assistant) come out on stage. They do an interpretative dance to the song “Brother” by NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw. Music fades about 2 and a half minutes in. The Jeremiah Project Youth freeze in position on stage and Omayra steps forward to share her story:
When I was 2-years-old, my father died, and my mother and siblings moved from a big house to a smaller one.
A few years later, at the age of 5, my big sister got really sick.
Since we lived in a small town that was literally in the middle of literally nowhere and no access to medical services, our family moved three hours away to the capital of San Juan so my sister could be seen by a specialist and receive care in a large hospital.
For some of you, three hours is nothing. But for our family it was far and difficult without a reliable car or public transportation.
Over the course of the next few years, my older brother Omar and I moved from one house to another while my mother and sister stayed in the hospital.
My brother and I were exiled from our own rooms to live in my grandparents’ house to live with my aunts or uncles homes. We never had one permanent place to call home.
It was strange not having what other kids have: a complete family and a home. It felt lonely, but we were not alone. You see, when my father died, the first person to visit my home was a Presbyterian pastor. And the pastor’s visit inspired us to regularly attend church.
You remember when Andy talked on Monday about people in the church who make promises in baptism to care of others? Well, the pastor and congregation comforted us as we grieved my father’s death. And after my sister got sick, church members, young and old, would visit us, help us with our schoolwork and even provide us with food.
You might be thinking: “That’s the church’s job to take care of people who are grieving and hurting.” But it wasn’t just a job to them. They weren’t helping because they had to help. They were helping because they truly loved and cared for our well-being.
Some of them were youth just like you. The could’ve ignored us or viewed us as those “poor kids with a sick sister and a dead dad.” But they didn’t. The treated us like we were part of their family…because we were family.
Song begins again at 2:38. Jeremiah Project return to the center of the stage, clapping and singing together with Omayra:
Brother let me be your shelter
Never leave you all alone
I can be the one you call when you’re low
Brother let me be your fortress
when the night winds are driving on
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
Be the one to light the way
Bring you home
There are times in our lives—moments in our stories–where we are abandoned, rejected, isolated or exiled by others.
Maybe it was a time when your family was forced to move into an apartment and wear thrift-store clothes because of cutbacks at your parent’s place of work.
Or maybe it was that time when the minister of your church preached that homosexuals were going to hell and your stomach twisted up in knots knowing that your family would have to leave because you were gay.
Or maybe it was that time when the school jock intentionally, who thinks your nerdy and weak, dumped a tray of food on you, prompting everyone in the cafeteria to howl with laughter.
Or maybe it was that time when you walked into a store and several white clerks looked at you suspiciously and asked you repeatedly if you were in the right place simply because you were black.
Experiencing exile is a difficult and disorienting time because you suddenly discover that you don’t fit in anywhere.
You are not welcome.
You are not worthy.
You are not like everyone else.
And in those moments, it seems as if there is no chance of being treated like the unique and beloved creation that you are…no way of returning “home” to a place where you are unconditionally loved and accepted.
It seems as if the despair of exile will last forever and forever and forever…
The ancient Israelites knew first-hand of what it meant to be exiled.
In the Book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian Empire, run by the ruthless King Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem, destroying the temple and burning the city.
And soon thereafter, Nebuchadnezzer orders several deportations of the Jewish people to Babylon. The first deportation included the Jewish prophets like Jeremiah.
It is Jeremiah whom God calls to be a messenger to the Jewish people who are suffering at the hands of the oppressive Babylonians. And Jeremiah speaks an encouraging message from God:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
When all seemed hopeless,
when exile and despair appear to mark the end of the journey,
God tells the people that the story isn’t over…
There is more to be written. There is a future with hope.
The troubadour Manola learns this lesson in the animated film The Book of Life. Manola, tricked by Xiballba the god of Death and facing exile to “The Land of the Forgotten,” begins the long and arduous journey to return “The Land of Living” (via the Cave of Souls)…
“You are not living the life that was written for you,” the Candlemaker tells Manola, “You are writing your own story!” (Kapoosh!)
And you are writing that story with others. The connections we have and the connections we make lend to the shaping and continuing of our stories.
We are not alone. There are other people who are with us in our ongoing stories of exile and despair—people from our present and our past, including those who are no longer living.
As the writer of the Letter of Hebrews tells early Jewish Christians living under Roman occupation:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
The hope that exists in exile is that our story continues because of the people who walk alongside us and the people whom we carry in our hearts push us onward.
Our culture often teaches through story that in order to survive, the main character must persevere single-handedly and emerge as the sole victor or hero.
But that’s a false notion. We are not alone when we experience exile and despair.
We are not alone because there are others who are by our side and within our hearts.
We are not alone because God is with us. And God never abandons us.
Yesterday I shared with you the story of the Selma Marches and Bloody Sunday. As you might remember from the film Selma and your history books, Dr. King and his fellow Civil Rights activists were no strangers to exile.
The unjust laws of Jim Crow and segregation that permeated the South pushed blacks to the furthest edges of town into remote rural areas.
And blacks that lived in town were exiled to their homes where they would lock their doors out of fear of lynch mobs and the Klan. Civil Rights activists—deemed thugs, animals and agitators by white authorities—were exiled to dark jail cells for non violently protesting and standing up for their dignity and rights.
Being carted off to jail in chains like an animal was an dehumanizing experience that took its toll on those activists, including King himself:
Feeling great exhaustion, doubt and despair about their fight for equality, Martin Luther King Jr considered giving up and disbanding the movement. King wondered if maybe the story of the struggle for black freedom was written, was over.
But then God reminds King through his good friend, the Rev. Ralph Albernathy, that there is hope.
God has not abandoned King or the activists or the black race.God is with them and God tells King not to worry, not to fear because like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the Lord will take care of them.
The Lord will deliver a suffering, oppressed people from exile just as God eventually did for the Israelites and later for the first Jewish Christians.
The Lord God, King realized, will deliver the people from the violent system of segregation and racism. And King also learned soon after that fighting non-violently for a future of equality could result in great injury and death from those who don’t follow God’s plan to do no harm.
During a peaceful protest, a young black activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson is chased into a local diner and killed in cold blood by the police.
Upon hearing the news, King goes to the morgue to meet with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grandfather:
God, King tells Jimmy’s grandfather, was the first to cry.
Even in the exile of grief over a life that was cruelly and unjustly taken from the world, God is with Jimmy Lee’s grandfather and King and all those who know they can be killed because of the color of their skin.
Even as violence and death surrounded King and black citizens in Selma, the South and the entire nation, every minute of every day,
God was with them and God was saying:
“I have a plan for you, a future with hope.”
God enters our stories in unsuspecting and surprising ways, even when we are fearful, worried and grief stricken as those twelve disciples were following the death of their teacher centuries ago…
The Jeremiah Project Youth re-enact a modern version of John 20:19-23 “Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room post crucifixion” Jesus suddenly appears or photo bombs a group selfie taken on an iPhone.
The disciples are in exile.
They are frightened and they are hiding inside a house with locked doors, likely huddled up together in the dark.
Any moment, the religious priests and Roman authorities could find them, charge them with treason and kill them like Jesus.
But then suddenly, when all seemed lost and hopeless, the risen Christ appeared before them and said: Peace be with you. …Receive the Holy Spirit.
And they did. They received God’s peace and God’s breath of grace.
And they lived out that peace and grace with every fiber of their being.
Their story wasn’t over.
They clung to Jesus’ promise for their lives, God’s plan for a future with hope.
They, with the help of God and one another, continued to write their story.
King and many black people, during that turbulent time of the 1960s, clung mightily to God’s promise that they would receive a “future with hope.” And they faithfully held tightly to Jesus’ promise of peace and grace.
They knew their story wasn’t finished. And with God, one another and many more standing alongside them, they continued to write their story.
Fifty years later, African-Americans still believe fervently in those promises of God.
Now, that might sound peculiar to many of who us who are white.
Have we not moved past segregation, racist laws, lynchings and the burning of black churches?
Have we not become post racial and started living into a hope-filled future?
Haven’t we as a society done enough to bring about equality?
Certainly, many strides have been made. Institutional, legalized segregation is non-existent, and color barriers have been broken in every aspect of life.
Things are definitely not the same as they were half a century ago.
But that doesn’t make us post-racial.
We are, in fact, deeply entrenched in matters of racial injustice. The stories have constantly flooded our TV screens and social media feeds for more than two years.
Stories that we must not forget or turn a blind eye toward:
–The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice (and) Walter Scott, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner
–The shooting death of Michael Brown & the protests in Ferguson
— The death of Freddie Gray in police custody & the protests in Baltimore
—The racially charged Charleston shooting which left Rev. Clementa Pinckney and 8 church members of Emmanuel AME Church dead.
–The July 19 shooting death of Samuel DuBose.
–Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president, who pretended to be a black woman for much of her life.
–The fiery debates about the Confederate flag that led activist Bree Newsome to temporarily remove of the flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of Jesus” before it was immediately hoisted back up.
And if those stories aren’t troublesome enough, there are the daily realities of inequality. For instance:
–The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.
–In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal. Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.
I don’t share these examples of racial injustice to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists or that all law enforcement officers are bad folks. (There are many dedicated men and women in blue who daily risk their lives to do what is right.)
But I mention them to raise consciousness (mostly among white society) that we still live in a system where African-Americans are mistreated because of the color of their skin.
I bring up the problem as a reminder to white Christians that we called by God to value and appreciate another person’s race because of the unconditional love of God that binds us as the body of Christ.
We can’t sing “Justice Flow Down” or dance to the energizer “Revolution” (by Kirk Franklin) with any integrity if we don’t actually believe in the words of those two songs; if we don’t actually believe in doing what the songs suggest—which is
standing alongside and hearing the stories of those who are hurting, those who are being oppressed, those who are being exiled.
standing alongside and hearing the stories of our black brothers and sisters who are suffering from the stings of racial prejudice every day.
White folks can’t turn away from the racial upheaval we see in numerous communities and say “It’s not my problem.”
Because, frankly, it is our problem.
When one of the members of Christ are hurting, the entire body of Christ hurts.
When an entire race of people is living in exile (right among us, no less!) we must walk alongside them and give encouragement as they continue to write their story—a story that is to be heard and received and respected.
And regardless of who is in exile,
regardless of who is hurting,
regardless of who is being oppressed,
we must all put our trust in a God who shows up in our midst
and who calls us to share a vision
Toward the end of the music video at approximately, 2:45, 17 people, Jeremiah Project Youth and Small Group Leaders, appear on stage and around the inside of Anderson, holding up signs with the following messages:
“I Want A Better Day!!!”
“When We All See Justice…”
“We’ll All See Peace.”
“I Am The Change”
“Love One Another”
“See God In the Other”
“Listen to the Cries of the Hurting”
“Talk About Race”
“Lift Up the Oppressed”
“Welcome the Stranger”
This afternoon in Small Groups you will be asked to take pictures while holding signs of God’s plan for you (“a future with hope”)—which may be very similar to the signs you are seeing now in this auditorium—and you’ll be posting those photos to Twitter & Instagram. ….
Your story is still being written.
What will it look like?
Go and find out
with one another