Grace, Truth & Transformation 1-15-17

Isaiah 49:1-7 Islands, listen to me!  Pay attention, distant peoples!  YHWH called me before I was born, and named me from my mother’s womb. God made my mouth a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of the hand of the Most High.  The Almighty made me into a sharpened arrow, and concealed me in God’s quiver. The Holy One said to me, “You are my Servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” I had been thinking, “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing!”—yet all the while my cause was with YHWH, and my reward was with my God. Thus says YHWH, who formed me in the womb to be God’s Servant, who destined me to bring back the children of Jacob and gather again the people of Israel: “It is not enough for you to do my bidding, to restore the tribes of Leah, Rachel, and Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; I will make you the light of the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Thus says YHWH, the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One, to the one deeply despised, the one abhorred by nations, the one enslaved by despots:  ”Rulers will stand when you walk in the room and court officials will pay homage because of YHWH, who is faithful, because of the Holy One of Israel, who chose you.”

As usual, I am excited about Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend. After all the holidays where we talk about giving, but look forward to getting, here is a holiday that has not been corrupted yet by greed, gifts and getting. Rather it focuses on making our world a better place. We continue our sermon series on Covenant commitment today, using the topics set out by a conservative critic from Good New Magazine, who challenged Christians who focus too much on grace and mercy and not enough on truth and transformation. The passage Nancy read is the second Servant Song from Isaiah in the first Testament. That passage is the basis for the message today, but we also think about how we are called like Jesus’ first disciples, Andrew & Simon Peter, in our reading from the Gospel of John. Listen to the Word of God for you this day from the first chapter starting at the 29th verse.

 John 1: 29-42 The next day, catching sight of Jesus approaching, John exclaimed, “Look, there’s God’s sacrificial lamb, who takes away the world’s sin! This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘the one who comes after me ranks ahead of me, for this One existed before I did.’ I didn’t recognize him, but it was so that he would be revealed to Israel that I came baptizing with water,” John also gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and she came to rest on him. I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘When you see the Spirit descend and rest on someone, that is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,’ now I have seen for myself and have testified that this is the Only Begotten of God” The next day, John was by the Joran again with two of his disciples.

Seeing Jesus walk by, John said, “Look!  There’s the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what John said and followed Jesus. When Jesus turned around and noticed them following, he asked them, “What are you looking for?” They replied, “Rabbi,” –which means “Teacher”— “where are you staying?’ “Come and see,” Jesus answered.  So they went to see where he was staying, and they spent the rest of the day with him.  It was about four in the afternoon. One of the two who had followed Jesus after hearing John was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. The first thing Andrew did was to find Simon Peter and say, “We’ve found the Messiah!”—which means “the Anointed One.” Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who looked hard at him and said, “You are Simon ben-Jonah; I will call you ‘Rock’”—that is “Peter.”

January 15, 2017

Covenant: Grace, Truth & Transformation

In my Bible Study every Wednesday morning, 6 to 10 pastors get together to study and plan for the service a week and a half ahead. The Wednesday before last it was my turn to lead the study about this passage from Isaiah, the second Servant Song, and I told them what I was planning to talk about this morning. One of my dear colleagues at a mostly white church out hear in the suburbs reacted strongly to my proposal and said that he didn’t think his people were ready to hear about what I was proposing, which involves talking about the history of lynching in the US.

At first I thought, maybe he’s right – maybe we aren’t ready to talk about such a heavy subject, even on Human Relations Weekend. Maybe I’ll get in trouble if I talk about racism, even on MLK weekend. Then I thought, no, we have to talk about it, even if we’re not ready. This weekend especially, and particularly in this sermon series where we are talking about God’s grace and our response to that grace. We can handle it folks. We have to talk about it, even though it is difficult to face. Think you can handle it? I hope so, because this it the only sermon I’ve got!

In our passage from Isaiah this morning the prophet, who is writing from exile in Babylon, speaks for a ‘servant’ who has been called by God from before birth. Isaiah is claiming for one of the first times in human history that there is one God of all creation, and that this one God is known especially by and through the desperate, exiled diaspora of the Hebrew people. Despite all evidence Isaiah claims (again) that they are the ‘light to the nations.’ They are called to be a blessing to the world, a servant, a light.

Isaiah is inviting the people of Israel to accept the grace of God, to look at the truth of their situation and to transform their reality into life-giving action and love. Isaiah has been with them through this whole painful ordeal of course. He knows as we do that the first response we tend to have when we are exiled or injured is to lash out, to blame other people, to blame immigrants or people of other religions or other countries. Isaiah invites the exiled, hurting people of Israel to be transformed into a blessing for others, wounded healers rather than hateful victims.

Sarah Fields says that “hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.” When we come into a time of a lot of hateful and fearful rhetoric, it is a cover for actually dealing with the fear, dealing with the feelings.

So this brings me to talking about this difficult subject – the history of racism in our country. This is not a comfortable topic. It may be one of the most difficult topics of all for our society. If we are going to be a light to the nations, however, if we are going to be a blessing to others, we have to accept God’s grace, tell the truth, and work for transformation.

All of us are happy to accept God’s grace and mercy. We love accepting that grace. It’s free. You don’t have to do anything to receive it. We accept this gift without having to pay, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any cost. Rev. Kenneth Levingston, whose sermon inspired this service, emphasizes that Christ’s suffering on the cross was the price paid for all the grace we receive. He also wants to say that we are called to respond to the gift of God’s grace by facing truth and working for transformation.

I think part of the truth that we have to face to heal our nation is the truth of a history of racism. I am very excited about the work of Brian Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery Alabama. Brian Stevenson is the author of a book called Just Mercy, which I highly recommend, and brother of Howard Stevenson, a professor at University of Pennsylvania. He believes that facing the truth of lynching in this country for instance will be healing for our whole country.

He and folks from his team are collecting soil from lynching sites all over the country. They put the soil into jars with the name of the person who was killed as a memorial to that individual. He points out that in Montgomery Alabama there are dozens of memorials to the confederacy, but almost no markers to the history of slavery there.

So he is creating a museum in Montgomery which will house over 4,000 jars of soil, representing the thousands of people who were hung in lynchings around the country. The museum will contain markers, like gravestones for each person, and each marker will have a duplicate to send to the actual site of the lynching when it will be accepted as a memorial and testament to the life that was taken.

Mr. Stevenson models his work partly on the work of folks in South Africa and their truth and reconciliation commissions which led to great healing from the devastating effects of apartheid. The idea is that mercy and grace is offered to those who perpetrated crimes, with the expectation that those people will accept that grace by telling the truth and allowing themselves to be transformed in love. This is a deeply Christian concept – one of the best examples we have in our time of the beauty of our faith in practice.

I saw movie Friday night called “13th” which I also highly recommend. I would like to show it at St. Luke, even though it is painful. Directed by Ava DuVernay, who also made Selma, 13th is about the 13th amendment which was supposed to end slavery, but left a loophole, which has been exploited in various ways ever since. The amendment says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

DuVernay along with Stevenson and Michelle Alexander and many others today, are pointing out how that exception for crime has been exploited. Brian Stevenson says that essentially slavery never ended; it just evolved. Thousands of Black people were imprisoned at the end of Reconstruction and then forced to work as enslaved people.

Today, the prison population in our country has skyrocketed. One in three Black men in the US can expect to go to jail sometime in their lives, as compared to one in 17 white men. This is not because of higher rates of crime. The movie shows it is more because of the profitability of the prison-industrial complex. We have 4% of the world’s population in the US. Guess what % of the prison population? 25% of people in the world in prison are in the US!

OK, were you ready to hear this today? By now, maybe you are getting tired of this painful history, feeling like it is political rather than spiritual. But let me bring it back to our theological and spiritual point. Grace is ours. Mercy is ours. We have been forgiven. We would like that to be all there is to it. But it’s not. We are called by God to respond to that grace with truth and transformation. I’m telling you this grace is a wonderful, sweet gift, well worth claiming. This grace will heal us individually and as a community and as a nation. It is well worth claiming, not painless, but deeply healing.

When we lose the hate, we have to deal with the pain underneath. We can do it. I have to make one last point from the movie, the 13th. Brian Stevenson (again. He’s a brilliant man.) makes the point toward the end that we like to think that slavery is completely in our past, that if we lived back then we would have done something about it. We would have spoken up. We never would have allowed that kind of thing to go on around us. But when we know that 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated, a third of them Black, mimicking past patterns of oppression and even enslavement, the grace of God which we accept calls us to live out our baptism to combat the evil we deplore, to live out our faith, to accept God’s love, to live out God’s love, to speak God’s love, to accept God’s love, to offer God’s love, to become a light to the nations.

Responsive Hymn:  3127   I Have a Dream