I mentioned in my last post that two sermons landed in the middle of current events that shook the nation and the world, the most recent being Ferguson.
The teaching team at my church, of which I was a part, had decided in early fall to do an Advent series on “Interruption” – how did Advent interrupt the world? We laid out the specific topics and the schedule. The topics included Advent’s interruption of our personal plans, of silence and darkness, of social order, of violence and finally of religion.
I volunteered for social order thinking I would address women’s issues in the church and society since I had been involved in that conversation for a number of years. But Ferguson changed my plan. Ferguson changed me.
In the weeks that followed I struggled with conflicted feelings similar to Kathy Escobar's and I read the articles, blogs and Facebook posts that responded to the tragedies in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York as well as to the protests in cities all over the nation.
As I read I noticed there were parallel tracks of reactions, defenses and frustrations between black experiences and women’s experiences in the church. I made a list of points of contact between the two spaces of injustice and came up with thirteen pretty quickly. My list included discussions of race and gender roles as social constructs, the problem of implicit bias, white/male privilege, inability to respond with authentic, non-defensive listening, lack of meaningful relationships that allow for stories of the other, inability to empathize or grieve with the other, etc.
Observing these parallels and knowing how the struggle against the institution of slavery both historically and biblically impacted the struggle against hierarchy and male dominance in the church, I knew I could not remain in the shadows any longer in the struggle of my black brothers and sisters to find justice.
So I have turned my face toward what is a new arena for me of advocating for racial reconciliation and justice. It began with my sermon on December 14. Since then a group has formed of people from my church who want to engage this conversation and figure out what it means to be a faith community that continues Christ’s mission of interrupting sin and hell on earth and participates in works of justice and reconciliation.
I want to share with you below an edited version of the sermon I shared with my faith community.
Our Advent theme this year is “Interruption.” Two weeks ago, Bob started us off by focusing on how Advent interrupts our personal plans. Last week Sarah talked about Advent’s interruption of silence and darkness. The question for us this morning is: How did Advent interrupt social order?
This has been a difficult teaching for me to prepare, for obvious reasons with what’s happening currently in cities across the country including Portland. Opinions of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson have been divided and the facts confusing. But I think we can all agree on one thing. The issue of racial injustice is complex and it is not going away.
I am convinced that we need to talk about justice issues that affect the black community. And we need to talk about it in church.
Following Ferguson, the grand jury decision in the case of Eric Garner exposed even more the reality of injustice suffered by blacks. And for many, New York erased whatever doubts were at Ferguson, including for many evangelical Christian leaders who are now voicing concerns about justice.
Last week Sarah asked us to respond to the idea of the church being "midwives in a world pregnant with hope" as she phrased it.These recent events have raised some questions for me.
Is this a time for the church to step up and act as midwives of hope, of justice and reconciliation? Is God breaking the collective silence that African Americans have felt from white, to be honest, a silence that most of the church has participated in?
Dr. Christina Cleveland, associate professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University, in an article published in Christianity Today, wrote this: "The American church, plagued by its own racial divisions, offers little in the way of healing and hope." But she says it was never meant to be this way. She asks whites to intentionally listen to and stand in solidarity with black brothers and sisters.
Then Dr. Cleveland makes this bold statement, "The unified family of God is the answer to the problem of race in America." I'd like you to sit with that statement.
The unified family of God is the answer to the problem of race in America.
If true, it has huge implications.
If Dr. Cleveland is right, then how did the church become the answer? How can she say this? I want to lay out why I believe she is right by going to the Bible. If we are to step up, we need our actions to be grounded solidly in Scripture.
Have you ever thought about Jesus/God being born a baby, vulnerable to the choices of others, vulnerable to the systems and social orderings in place at that time? No human has a choice of where and when to be born. But only in this one birth was there a choice. God chose a particular time, a particular place and a particular social system to take on human flesh. Behind that choice was a human history of social ordering and divine interruptions.
I’m going to take you on a wild roller coaster ride through the grand narrative of the Bible to give us a historical context for Advent and how it interrupted social order. I want to focus on two questions – what did social order look like and where was God in relationship to it? Buckle up and get ready.
The Old Testament and Social Order
Starting with Genesis we have the story of one man and one woman, created in image of God. They were co-stewards of creation, commanded to procreate a society, which we can assume will have perfect order, perfect harmony between God, humans, animals and earth. Creation harmony included an intimacy of divine presence in which God walked with humans in the garden.
But then in Genesis 3 Adam and Eve make a bad choice and sin enters the world. Their relationship with each other is damaged and their relationship with God is broken as he removes his intimate presence. As sin shatters creation, humans begin to create hell on earth. But even though God takes a step back to allow chaos to once again form on the face of the earth, he is still attentive to human society.
Hell on earth begins in Genesis 4 with the first murder when Cain kills his brother Abel and God hears the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground.
Then in Genesis 6 we read of the first annihilation of humans. But this catastrophic event occurs after we’re told God’s heart has been broken because evil has completely saturated humankind. So the floodwaters come while Noah’s family is spared for the reboot of a new society, hopefully one that chooses good not evil.
But that doesn’t happen. We get to Genesis 11 and read the story of the first division of the human race when God confuses the people with different languages because they have banded together to create a structure, the Tower of Babel. God interrupts their building project because that tower represented an organized, structured society in rebellion against God.
So God initiates a new plan in Genesis 12, a new beginning through one family that he will eventually form into what God calls “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Through this nation, the world is supposed to be blessed and is supposed to witness what social order looks like under the rule of God. This begins the story of Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob with his 12 sons.
Eventually this family ends up in Egypt. After many years Jacob’s family has grown into a very powerful force that threatens the current Pharaoh. God hears the cries of his people suffering under Pharaoh’s oppression by sending Moses to lead Israel’s escape. On the way to the Promised Land God gives Moses the Law on Mt Sinai, which lays out the rules for this new nation and just society. Moses also builds a tabernacle, a new place for God’s presence.
But once they get to their land and settle in, they fail to follow the rules and honor God. Social disorder sets in as each one does what is right in their own eyes, which we see in the book of Judges.
Eventually Israel is fed up with social chaos plus they feel vulnerable to outside enemies, so they abandon theocracy for a monarchy. This is the story of David and his efforts to build a nation with a just king ruling a just society. But it doesn’t work. His son Solomon starts off well, building an impressive temple for God’s presence. And he asks for wisdom to rule justly. But Solomon in his old age doesn’t end well. His sons and the kings that follow fail to be totally devoted to God and once again there is a social spiral downward.
During this period of the kings, prophets are sent one after another, condemning Israel of pride, idolatry, and specifically social injustice. The prophets warn them of two things: a coming judgment and a coming Messiah. But they refuse to believe or change. So the monarchy is stripped from Israel, the people are carted off into exile to Assyria and Babylonia, and God leaves the temple.
Eventually the Jews are allowed to return to their land under Persian domination but they lose the throne forever and they continue to suffer under foreign rule. All they have left are their priests and a sad looking temple rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. This ends the Old Testament story.
Between Old Testament and New Testament, we have what many call the 400 “years of silence” when there is no recorded word from God, at least none that make the final cut to be included in the Bible we have now. However there is a lot of activity during these transition years. There is a final purge of idolatry in Israel and the rise of powerful religious leaders. Social order is restored but it’s under the burden of extreme law keeping which unfortunately leads to religious oppression and exclusion in a social hierarchy that’s set up.
The Gospels and Social Order
It is at this point in human history that Israel and the world is interrupted with Advent, the coming of a long awaited Messiah. The Jews know the Messiah will be Emmanuel, “God with us” but when Jesus actually comes, they don’t even recognize God. For us, on this side of Advent, we do have a different perspective of this Messiah. So I’m going to slow down our ride for a bit and gaze briefly at the one who interrupted human history. What did Jesus show us about God?
In Advent, we see a God who identified with those in the margins of society because that is where he was born.
Jesus was illegitimate at conception, his family was poor and they were refugees in Egypt to escape Herod's massacre of male babies. In his ministry Jesus remained homeless and dependent on others, including women, to feed and house him. And he gathered misfits as disciples.
In Advent, we see a God who advocated for those excluded from mainstream society.
In Luke 4, Jesus stood up in the synagogue and declared his mission from Isa. 61: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
In the gospel stories of Jesus’ engagement with people, you see someone who consistently advocated for those excluded from the temple and for those excluded from community.
In Advent, we see a God who reached across social barriers for the purpose of reconciliation.
Jesus embraced and elevated Samaritans, lepers, and Roman soldiers, and women. He ate with the tax collectors and sinners…but he also ate with hypocritical religious leaders. Even as Jesus was suffering on the cross he welcomed the criminal next to him to be with him in paradise.
As we look at his life, we can see that Jesus made a distinction between story and system, between individuals and the social structures they lived in.
He responded with mercy and compassion toward people who were at the bottom of the hierarchy, who were the powerless in society, the outsiders: people like the blind man, the widow who lost her son, the woman caught in adultery, the hungry crowd of 5000.
He was compassionate toward the individual. But when it came to the system, Jesus had a completely different reaction:
· Jesus challenged religious systems that neglected mercy by healing on the Sabbath, purposely breaking their rules.
· Jesus challenged economic systems when he angrily overturned the tables in the temple that were selling goods and inhibiting worship.
· Jesus challenged political systems but not by conquering them as the Jews hoped a Messiah would do. Instead he established a new but subversive Kingdom. A Kingdom hidden in the hearts of people transformed by God’s love and loyal to the rule of God above any human authority. A Kingdom where love and justice and reconciliation would be evident and inviting... and confrontational. Jesus’ coming inaugurated a Kingdom with a new social order where the last are now first and the outside are now inside.
Let’s finish out our big picture ride through the Bible.
The Church and Social Order
We see that Jesus did not meet the people’s expectations. Instead of overthrowing the Romans, Jesus suffered and died at the hands of his oppressors. But in doing so he dealt a permanent blow to the power of death and sin and hell, both in hearts and in social systems. But these did not change overnight.
Instead his followers had to wait until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension when there would be a second advent, the coming of the Holy Spirit. It was at Pentecost that people from every culture, every economic level, both men and women, received the Holy Spirit who became the presence of God in bodily temples. At Pentecost, Babel was reversed. And at Pentecost a new humanity was created and unified in order to change the world.
From Pentecost on, the story of the church has not been an elimination of diverse cultures or even an absorption into the Jewish culture. Instead we see cultural identities being preserved at the same time that an alternative community is formed and united by faith in Christ.
A game-changing verse is found in Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. This verse is not about eliminating these social categories (I am still female) but about eliminating the social hierarchies that obstruct people from the Kingdom and discriminate between people or diminish their voices within the kingdom of God. The hierarchies have been turned upside down and the field has been leveled because we are a new and alternative creation, not only in our identity but also in how we live our lives as neighbors.
Finally we come to Revelation 21 where we read of heaven’s return to earth, where we see a vision for the whole world in which there will no longer be any social ordering of the powerful over the weak. There no longer will be any death, sorrow, crying or pain. Jesus will complete his mission of reconciliation and justice.
On that last day will the church, Jesus' hands and feet, be told, "Well done, my good and faithful servant!"? (Read the context of this praise from Matthew 25 and note the connection to social justice.)
The Church and Interruption
Advent interrupted. Jesus interrupted. I am sure the church is supposed to interrupt too. We already have examples in our own community of interruption, places where you are engaged in compassion for individuals and challenge of systems. We have examples like the Sugar Shack strip club in which our church decided to match any donations you made to the Indie Go-Go fund (BTW the fundraiser was successful and Evergreen made up almost 10% of the total needed!); we have Jason Fileta in our community who heads up Micah Challenge to end poverty; many of you bring meals and serve the homeless through Home PDX. Recently I became aware of some statistics showing the impact of organizations like EPIK to end sex trafficking in Portland.
I am grateful for so many of you who are involved in these examples of interruption. But I have to ask this question: Is God asking us to do more?
In these opportunities for involvement, Evergreen has already shown a willingness to become what Walter Brueggeman calls an “alternative prophetic community,” one that both criticizes what is broken and lives an alternative social order. Having women elders and teachers is a demonstration of that kind of community.
Last week we interacted with the thought of the church as midwives. Now I'd like you to consider how we can be an alternative prophetic community for racial justice. How do we stand with our black brothers and sisters, as Dr. Cleveland implores us to do? I have one suggestion on how we can start. No, how we should start.
Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, suggests we start with grieving, with lament alongside those who suffer. He says that grief is the most radical criticism of a social order. Collective lament has the power to break collective silence.
Grief also has the capacity to interrupt what Brueggemann calls a “denying and deceiving kind of numbness.” It is this numbness that keeps us from feeling compassion and shields us from the pain of those who suffer under systemic injustice.
Grieving requires a willingness to look inward for spaces that need interruption.
We not only grieve for the sin and death around us…but also for where it’s in us.
We grieve when the system fails people…but also when we are part of the system.
We grieve when we hear the stories of injustice...and when we act unjustly toward our own neighbor.
We grieve other’s experiences of discrimination…as well as our own hidden racism and microaggressions.
Standing with our black brothers and sisters will require willingness for our hearts to be broken in order to grieve alongside of them. One of the ways we can open ourselves up to lament is to read stories of the black community, to read their stories of pain and loss, of how they have felt the sting of injustice, in their history and in the present.
The Table of Interruption
As we prepare for communion, I invite you to consider how Jesus ended up experiencing the very suffering of his own mission from Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...
2 Corinthians 8:9 says: "Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich."
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted...
Jesus' own heart was broken as he was betrayed by one disciple and then was pierced with a soldier's spear.
and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.
Jesus became a prisoner, whipped and mocked and spit upon.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord's favor has come.Jesus grieved for Jerusalem. In the garden of Gethsemane with sweats of blood he mourned what his mission would cost him...and it cost him his life.
In coming to the Table, I’d like you to consider this: taking communion is both an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters and an act of subversion against a social order that dehumanizes the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the mourners.
Heb. 2 tells us that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. If taking communion is identifying with the life and sacrifice of Christ then it’s also identifying with brothers and sisters around the world, across the country, in our city.
So I invite you to come to the Table in solidarity and subversion.