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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Why I'm Not Mad at Colin Kaepernick

There is a modern form of religious fervor known as nationalism.  It is a doctrine which holds that the place of one's birth deserves one's ultimate loyalty and devotion.  The cardinal virtue called forth by nationalism is patriotism, displayed through emotionally charged commitment to love nation and its symbols.  The liturgical practice of nationalism involves postures of reverence and obeisance to symbols such as the national flag, enthusiastic singing of hymns and anthems to the nation, and recitation of creeds such as the pledge of allegiance.

While standard Americanized Christian theology has found it easy to merge devotion to God and Country, my own understanding of following Jesus can't help finding contrasting and conflicting visions of the proper loyalties and loves required by nationalism and Christian faith.  The assumption that the modern fiction of borders should create divisions of ontological hostility--meaning that it is right for me to love and support people on my side of a border and wrong of me to equally love and support people on the other side of a border--contradicts most of what the New Testament teaches.  Moreover, adopting a stance of suspicion, fear, and animosity toward those across the border, which much nationalistic religion seems to affirm, requires a Christian to disavow the very virtues that the Lord exhibited and taught.

While Jesus observed among his closest followers a kind of ethnocentrism that is akin to nationalism, he took numerous opportunities to challenge their prejudices.  When they would have preferred to walk around the territory of Samaria, Jesus walked straight through it.  While they would have avoided talking with a Samaritan woman, he was direct and friendly in acknowledging the common humanity they shared.  While they would have denied sharing the good news of Jesus' transformative ministry among neighboring peoples, Jesus lampooned their views by first refusing the request of the Syro-Phoenecian woman, then granting it with compassion and respect for her faith.  There are other examples from Jesus' life and words, but let these suffice to point toward a refusal on Jesus' part to let human-constructed ethnic and national boundaries determine who we should and should not love.

In the New Testament Epistle to the Ephesians, a crucial text further addresses the ways that human beings divide themselves into antagonistic groups.  Ephesians 2:11-22 draws the focus upon the divisions that exist between Jews and Gentiles.  The writer asserts that in the work of Christ, those "who were once far off have been brought near."  The made-up and hyped-up reasons that would keep groups apart have become nothing.  Jesus "is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."  Whatever sorts of ethnic, linguistic, nationalistic barriers that human beings want to erect have been made irrelevant by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The book of Ephesians is talking about ecclesiology, that is, about what the church is supposed to be.  When people become part of God's family, when they become part of one body, when they are joined together into the household of God, the other kinds of divisions take on a very different meaning.  They are no longer excuses for domination of some by others.  They cannot justify violent behavior; on the contrary, in Jesus' dying, he is, "putting to death that hostility."  They exist as the beautiful mosaic of divine blessing in the world:  not as reasons to resent and reject one another.

Thus, the church should not know boundaries.  If you are a brother or sister of mine, regardless of what political power wants to claim you within its borders, we are in the same church.  If you are my sister or brother, my duty is to care for you and seek your good.  Jesus has set out to "create in himself one humanity in place of the two, thus making peace."  A Christian church should know no nationalisms, no ethnocentrisms, no jingoisms.  When two modern nation-states enter into conflict and war, a faithful church would refuse to join that cause.  The loyalty of the church and its members should be transnational, because we are "no longer strangers and aliens," but one family.

A key difference between the demands of the calling of Christ and the demands of the calling to patriotic nationalism can be found in Jesus' own words in the Gospel of John 15:13.  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."  Jesus' understanding of love, demonstrated in his own resistance to the empire and its oppression toward the poor and outcast, was to continue his resistance until he was arrested, tried, tortured, and executed as an enemy of the state.  He laid down his life.  Along the way, people suggested he should take up the sword, but he refused.

Here is the difference.  Nationalism asks me to be willing to lay down my life, but first it asks me to be willing to kill other people.  Being willing to die for one's friends is not the same as being willing to kill for national interest.  The religion of nationalism calls for a full sacrifice of one's life and of one's conscience and character.  As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I must not submit to a wholly contradictory vision of the world in which I am expected to be a killer. 

So for decades I have not offered anthemic devotion to country by singing "The Star Spangled Banner."  Nor have I made an idolatrous pledge of allegiance to affirm my ultimate loyalty to the god of nation and war.  A song which glorifies the technology of war and the steadily operating machinery of death asks me to turn from the way of Jesus.

Colin Kaepernick's reasoning is not the same as what I have offered so far.  He is not addressing a conflicting pair of faiths as I have described and advocating what I am--conscientious objection to war.  He is not directly questioning devotion to country as a high ideal.  Kaepernick is protesting for the sake of the high ideals of country--he is expressing a longing for the ideals to become reality.  He is asking for a nation of high ideals, such as equal justice before the law, equal opportunity, and due process of law, to live up to those ideals.  On these matters, I agree with him.  To refuse ultimate loyalty to the nation and to reject the religion of nationalism does not mean that I also reject any good that might rise from the political community of humanity here in the United States.  The ideals of justice, of equality, and of fairness are ideals I also hold.  I appreciate the good that I receive from being a citizen of this nation, and I long for the goodness to overcome the many ways this nation has fallen short of its ideals.  

This particular song upheld as the national anthem was originally written with multiple stanzas.  In public events, people sing only the first stanza.  There is a third stanza which has stirred significant controversy as historians have studied it.  It speaks of vengeance against the enemies, particularly those who as "hirelings and slaves" have spread their "foul footstep's pollution" on the "land of the free and the home of the brave."  Frances Scott Key was a slaveholder, and while fighting in a previous battle at Bladenburg, his troops faced and were defeated by the British who were employing escaped slaves to join in the war with the promise of emancipation.  Some historians argue that Key held a special resentment and hatred toward these slaves fighting for their freedom, which he expresses in this stanza.  Other historians dispute that conclusion, and Key recorded no commentary on the meaning or context of these particular words.  It seems to me to be a compelling argument, and it adds another reason to question the practice of singing such a song with patriotic fervor.

Political dissent is at the core of what it takes for human beings to do better toward one another.  People must be able to articulate and challenge the failures of society to live up to its ideals.  The often unspoken, yet original sin of racism and white supremacy continues to bear fruit of bitterness in the United States.  Challenging the ways that social behaviors fall short of moral aspirations is the duty of those who have eyes to see and a voice to speak.  There was a time in our family's life when my beloved Everly asked me the question that must not be so different from the one Colin Kapernick heard echoing in his own conscience:  "How will we explain our inaction to our children when they ask us why these things have happened in our community?"  The only answer we could have given would be that we had failed our morality, failed our conscience, failed our God.  So we did what we knew we had to do.

I am pretty sure Colin does not think his kneeling is going to suddenly make injustice go away.  But if no one asks the hard questions, demands a hearing, and ultimately enacts resistance in public, there will be no chance of seeing change come.  No doubt, he realizes as other who risk to take a stand against the dominant ways that more people will misunderstand and be hurt than will be awakened and inspired.  There really isn't any easy way to confront systemic injustice.  People will get angry.  They will accuse you of the opposite of what you are trying to do.  But in the words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan,
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk.
You may be the head of some big TV network.
You may be rich or poor; you may be blind or lame.
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are.
You're gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
I pray for all of us that we can get clear on who it is we are going to serve.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.  Let me invite you to do the same.  I ain't mad with Colin Kaepernick. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Everly and Stand Your Ground

On the weekend in July near the date that marked three years since Everly died, I began writing this post.  It seemed a good time to return to an idea that started to germinate when I was writing a book review back in February.  Kelly Brown Douglas, in Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God, addresses many aspects of whiteness and its theopolitical underpinnings.  As I worked through her excellent presentation, certain parts of her argument drew me into thinking about Everly's work over a quarter century of leadership in transforming how mathematics is taught in public schools.  On that weekend, I started to write about ways that Douglas's theological work and Everly's work in math education are challenging the same kinds of problems.  Now, almost three months later as I celebrate her birthday, I'm going to finish it.

Everly's earliest efforts to influence the way that math is taught began soon after arriving in North Carolina, fresh out of her MS degree in math education from the University of Texas in Austin.  Administrators quickly recognized that as a classroom teacher, she had the potential both through example and leadership to reshape math teaching in a way that more students could have an opportunity to succeed in what is too often thought of as a subject matter for only an elite few.  However, as soon as she was elevated to a position of leadership, she began to meet resistance from the experienced teachers who were already sure that the way to teach math had to be pretty much the same way that they were taught math.  In other words, they, who had emerged as some of the few to succeed in math in a previous generation, seemed satisfied to continue the same pedagogy that rewards only a few.  They were among the few who are able to decipher a code of learning targeted at a narrow portion of the classroom.  It is not surprising to me that this first cadre of organized resistance was made up of an all-white group of teachers.

At the time, Everly and I were not particularly sensitized to the way that math functioned as a marker for racial difference in many education systems.  Even though we were in our mid-twenties, we had not previously lived and worked in places where we met and interacted with African Americans on a regular basis.  In the particular communities of Texas where we grew up, ethnic difference was more directly defined by Mexican American and Anglo American communities.  Having moved for the first time into the South, rather than the Southwest, we were only beginning to get direct experience of the racialized structures of education.  Her teaching both in Chapel Hill and in Durham played a role in reshaping her understanding of the role race plays in math education, especially as it became more clear who had access to higher math classes and who did not.

When Everly got the opportunity to become the coordinator for mathematics education in Durham Public Schools, she intensified her study of the way young people learn math.  That led her into conversations across the country about the gaps in mathematics achievement that show up between minority and majority communities.  She became engaged with leaders who were challenging the idea that some people by their genetic heritage will not be good at math.  She found many of the education leaders in Durham and elsewhere unwilling to have those conversations.  Some bosses told her to stop saying "achievement gap" in public meetings.

Before long she had successfully navigated the federal grants process and received a $5 million plus, four-year grant to revamp math teaching in Durham.  The focus of the program was to change curriculum and the culture of math teaching.  She set out to implement a new curriculum based on study of how math is taught in the countries where students achieve highest on international math tests.  Using a teacher-led, grassroots process, she led the Durham school teachers to select one of the reforming math curricula that the National Science Foundation funding was seeking further research on.

Implementing the curriculum would not be possible within the culture of traditional math teaching.  Everly implemented a district-wide professional development which took every elementary teacher and every middle- and high-school math teacher through about 100 contact hours of training.  The math curriculum schedule for professional development in Durham during those crucial years had over 250 times as many training events as any other teaching field.

The curriculum program was called RAMP:  Realizing Achievement in Mathematics Performance.  Influenced by civil rights leaders Robert Moses and Charles Cobb who through the Algebra Project were advancing the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement into reforming education, she insisted that every child have access to learning higher math.  With Lisa Delpit she championed teaching the same level of skills to all students.  She embraced Carol Malloy's research on the centrality of access to higher math as the barrier for black achievement.  This ruffled feathers in schools where principles and teachers had colluded to steer certain students, often by skin color, away from algebra classes to keep only an elite group of high achievers taking the high-stakes tests by which schools would be compared and graded.  Pushback came from parents who were not used to seeing poor or black children in certain math classes.  When those minority students were making good grades in math, the scuttlebutt assumption was that higher math courses were being "dumbed down."

Kelly Brown Douglas talks about the history and continuing legacy of Anglo-Saxon Exceptionalism, a version of white supremacy that identifies intelligence and political expertise as the heritage of a specific group of Northern Europeans.  Elsewhere and other times, similar ideas were expressed as Aryan mythology.  This particularly inherent giftedness of a people group justifies their management, supremacy, and control over the destinies of other groups.  Their Manifest Destiny, as Douglas also points out, demands that they extend their power and influence over greater areas, regardless of the wishes of others who may contest their claim to lands and goods.  As Douglas goes on to argue, the Black Lives Matter movement has risen up to challenge the heritage of these aspects of white supremacist ideology which still lead to systemic repression of minorities, even in a world of "racism without racists."

Everly strove to press this agenda against an entrenched belief that there is one good way to teach math that has been used successfully from eternity.  If only 10% of US students are excelling in math, then how can we believe that the way it is being taught is adequate?  Instead, a false belief in the supremacy of a particular genetic pool, children who really may not even need a teacher to help them understand math, has become a justification for not really trying to teach the rest of the students.

Could it be that children of various backgrounds might be trained to solve problems in different ways?  And could those strategies be effective if not immediately shut down by the canonical and only acceptable form of problem-solving being passed on by the elitist tradition of math teaching?  What if the order of courses (algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2) and the concepts and content of those courses were reorganized in a way that coordinates with brain development, cumulative learning processes, and the usefulness of the math processes for collateral science course learning?  Yet many teachers and successful math student parents assume that "since I learned math this way, it must be the right way to learn it."  Accepting the failure of most children seems far from good educational practice.  Trying to cure the problem by doing the same thing harder and with more testing just sounds dumb.  As Bob Moses has insisted, we need to give up the idea of a "math gene" that only a tiny minority has, and start trying to teach in ways that all students can learn.

Everly found the resistance to these changes daunting.  Some schools in Durham did all they could to "opt out" of change.  Some parent groups, unable to accept success of minority students, pressed to have the curriculum changes reversed.  Everly's doctoral research was showing that the change was real.  White students' achievement was going up.  Black students' achievement was going up even faster and the gap was closing significantly.  RAMP was good for all groups.  But social inertia can't always handle the truth.  People make up their minds based on deeply embedded prejudices that keep them from seeing the light that is breaking in.  Some high administrators decided that they would rather stop the complaints than try to understand and defend the progress.  Everly was "reassigned" within the school district to work on a project she philosophically opposed, a clear invitation to find another job.

She was quickly snatched up by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and she carried her research and agenda to address the statewide curriculum.  After several years of successful work for North Carolina, she went to the Texas Education Agency to lead a statewide curriculum reform there in the second largest state school system in the US.  She made many important steps there, including having a curriculum reform adopted by the State Board of Education.  It was her last professional action, and the final vote took place while she was in the hospital struggling through her first chemotherapy treatments.

Bodies don't mark off some for intellectual achievement and others for backbreaking labor.  Failure to innovate, to listen, to teach creatively and constructively are the central barriers to achievement in mathematics.  May Everly's tribe increase, and may her work continue to inspire and bear fruit for all children.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A World Fit for Naomi

This is the second reflection/sermon on the horrible violence that continues in our world, preached last Sunday after a week in which police killings of black men rocked Baton Rouge and Minnesota followed by a mass killing targeting white police officers in Dallas.  Some preachers may try to deal with such events by simply continuing to preach on topics already scheduled, ignoring current events.  That seems all wrong to me.  Biblically and theologically, it is a season that calls for lament.  Lament is an honest crying out to God for an accounting and for divine action and presence in the midst of all that is going wrong in the world. 

These deaths, though remote from Durham, still can be personal to each of us in a variety of ways.  We may know someone who has suffered in the same way.  We may know someone who is in the same kind of work.  Or we may have found ourselves in a similar situation such that "there go I, but by the grace of God."  One of my connections on this day was my daughter's birthday; thus, the title represents my struggle with hopes and fears for her life, the lives of my other children, and the lives of so many more who must face dangers and aggressive evil in the world.

As I have done several times recently, I draw on multiple texts from the Revised Common Lectionary to piece together a narrative and argument.  I suspect that this time that the centrifugal force of my anger and hurt have led me to be more "all over the place" than I usually let myself be.  If at times it seems that I am digging down in my knapsack for everything that makes me mad, grant the patience that it also may be an opportunity to speak to as wide as possible a range of different hurts and fears in the congregation.  In retrospect, I have never had so many mothers and women come to offer their thanks and appreciation for a sermon when it ended as this past Sunday.  May that be a learning opportunity for me about how I flesh out an argument when I preach.

Amos 7:7-9, 12-13
7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.
7:8 And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;
7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."
7:12 And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;
7:13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."

Colossians 1:9-14
1:9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
1:10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Psalm 82
82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
82:2 "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
82:3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
82:4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
82:5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
82:6 I say, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
82:7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince."
82:8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.
A World Fit for Naomi
to Bear Fruit in Every Good Work

         I was eager when asked to preach on July 10, a special day in our house.  Naomi was born down the road at Duke Hospital on July 10, 1989.  A couple of things immediately went through my mind, perhaps not in this order.  First, I thought it would be an opportunity to reflect on Naomi, and so many other Mt Level children, as a gift of God to us.  Second, I thought it would give me a chance to tell an embarrassing story about her.  Well, I would not really want to embarrass her too bad.
         Naomi came into the world full of energy and joy.  Many of y’all know her for her grace in worshipful dance, but you may not know that she started practicing her dancing almost as soon as she could walk.  There was a time when she would take a bite of food, climb out of her chair and dance a loop from room to room in the house, then climb back up to continue her meal.  She also was a very creative child in making up words to suit her understanding of the world.  One of those words was the name she called me for a while.  We don’t really know why she combined the words Mommy and Daddy to come up with “Momdy.”  But for a while, when she was 2 yrs old, I was Momdy.  Well I could go on and on, but telling stories on Naomi is not my main purpose today.
         Many of you could easily start in telling fun and funny stories about family memories.  Even when life is hard, families and children can show resilience in finding ways to be joyful together.  We can thank God for making us able to be resilient and to see that life need not be judged by its worst moments.  It’s not always easy to see that.  In the deepest periods of my grief over Everly’s illness and death, you all stood by me.  You saw me step into this pulpit and struggle to speak, even weep at times.  I felt like I had become the crying preacher.  And I’m not sure that today is going to change that pattern. 
Today is a day of sorrow, a day for worship through lament.
         “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” the Psalmist cried having lost home, family, and everything else she or he loved.
         “How long, O Lord?” the prophets asked, watching the injustices of the world.
         It’s been a week for calling out to God.   In Baton Rouge, a man was already pinned to the ground and still shot.  In St. Paul, a man cooperating with the officer who stopped him was still shot.  Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—two people’s lives were taken from them, from their families and communities.  As people began to rise in the liturgy of protest across the nation, another mass shooting took place in Dallas, targeting police officers.  Five died:  Lorne Ahrens, Brent Thompson, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Patrick Zamarippa.  How many lives must be lost to the evils of racial fear and hatred, God?  How long can this go on?
Every name points to a family, to moms and dads, to sons and daughters, to brothers and sisters.  Bullets have destroyed relationships, traumatized loved ones.  Our hearts break when we hear a boy crying for his daddy, when we hear a little girl trying to comfort her mother.  And it’s only human that we start thinking about our own loved ones.  What kind of world is this for our children and grandchildren?  What kind of world is this for the young people who live on our blocks and in our neighborhoods?  Is this a world fit for Naomi?  I know it’s not the world I want for her.
The reading from the Prophet Amos reminds us that too often the world has not lived up to God’s standards for justice.  He tells about a vision in which he sees the Lord holding a construction tool.  The tool is a plumbline.  It’s a simple tool that relies on the force of gravity, and it has been used at least back into the days of ancient Egypt.  The plumbline, sometimes called a plumb bob, combines a weight and a cord or string to measure whether a beam or other element of a building project is vertical, whether it is perpendicular to the ground.  This is similar in its function to a tool many of us may have used or seen, a level.  A level usually is used to judge whether a beam is horizontally level, and it actually also operates through the force of gravity.  When a builder hangs a plumbline, gravity causes it to hang straight toward the gravitational center of the earth.  The string forms a straight vertical line that can be used to measure whether a wall is being squared up properly to build a strong and stable structure.  If the structure is out of line with the plumbline, then it needs to be corrected.
So when Amos sees this vision of the Lord using a plumbline, it is a vision in which God is taking a measure of whether Israel is lined up the way it should be.  God is checking to see whether the structures of Israel have gotten out of whack.  Has Israel become crooked?  Are Israel’s public officials, rulers, and other powerful people out of line, bent, and twisted?  God is not going to ignore a misaligned society, according to Amos.  The rulers and religious institutions are in for an inspection, and being found to be crooked and out of whack, they will have to be set right.  Some boards and masonry may have to be knocked down so they can be rebuilt the right way.  Some people in charge will have to be replaced.
If we were to read the whole book of Amos, we would find that a wealthy class has conspired with the rulers and the priests to let greed win out over justice.  The poor are suffering.  They are becoming slaves in service of an oppressive ruling class.  The systems of political and economic justice that God had given to Israel have been ignored and discarded.  Israel has gotten out of whack, and the priests and prophets who should be upholding the law and looking out for the people are themselves in on the corrupt system.  Amaziah, high priest of Bethel, is angry with Amos for criticizing the temple and the king.  He challenges Amos for daring to speak against the house of worship and against the king.  He says that Amos should not say such things in the king’s sanctuary.
Does Amaziah not understand what he is saying?  Isn’t the house of worship dedicated to God?  Isn’t it God’s house?  Yet Amaziah says it belongs to the king.  He calls it a temple of the kingdom.  Help us, Lord, if we have become the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.  Help us if we have become the governor’s sanctuary and the temple of the General Assembly. 
Are we unwilling to speak the truth in our churches because we dare not offend the powerful?  Do we believe our preachers have crossed the line if they criticize the mayor, the manager, the governor, the legislators, the board chair, the police chief, or the sheriff?  Have we gathered here to worship the social structures and the status quo as if whatever is happening in political and economic life is the will of God? 
Lord, give us the courage and hard-headedness of Amos!  He told Amaziah that he was neither a prophet (by which he probably meant a well-trained messenger from God, perhaps from the priesthood like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others) nor was he the son of a prophet (by which he probably  meant a disciple or trainee working under a prophet).  He was a farmworker who did not let his particular job nor his lack of training  keep him from doing what God sent him to do.  Let us be ready, whether we are trained prophets or not, to speak the truth God gives us to the powers that oppress and abuse people.  The plumbline does not lie.  Social forces have warped the world we are in and gotten it all out of line.  It’s not producing and protecting justice.  God is expecting us, like Amos, to stand up for justice.
Psalm 82 creates a dramatic portrayal of God’s judgment upon the bent and crooked systems and structures of our world.  It describes an imaginary divine council, as if there were a pantheon of gods who came together to argue and negotiate the fate of the world.  It was not uncommon to believe such a thing possible in the ancient world, with the common assumption that every group of people, every tribe or nation, had its own patron god.  Some of the Bible’s stories imply that the various gods battle against one another for territory and for devotion.  According to this Psalm, a council of divinities has gathered, and in walks the God of Israel.  When God walks in, the politics of the meeting change. 
It says God claimed the seat of judgment.  That would seem to be the highest place.  This telling of the story quickly makes it seem that those who would pretend to be gods are being put in their place.  Having taken the seat of judgment, God speaks to principalities and powers gathered there.

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

This Psalm helps us to understand what is out of line from Amos’s vision of the plumbline.
         First, it says they are judging unjustly.  The decisions made by powerful people are showing partiality.  The wicked thrive because the legal system is twisted to help the powerful.  Bribes and influence peddling are distorting the fair distribution of goods among the people.  Abuses and oppression slip through the courts, and no one is held accountable for clearly unjust acts.  The Psalmist calls out all who are abusing the system to benefit some and harm most.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we must stand up against an unjust legal system.  Whether the abuses happen in the North Carolina General Assembly, in the US Congress, in the police department, in the district court, in the banks, in the boardrooms, in the jailhouse, in the fast food chain, in the immigrant detention center, in the housing authority, in the big box stores, or in the social services department—the time has come to change the way things are being done.
         Second, the Psalmist names our duty as “giving justice.”  People deserve better than they are getting.  There is a right response to human dignity and a right response to wrongdoing.  The right response is justice.  When justice is denied, society starts to crumble.  The efforts of the powerful and wealthy to benefit themselves without care for others will eventually destroy the system which is benefiting them.  An unjust social order destroys itself from within, but the tragedy is how many people are harmed and even killed by injustice while the corrupted system remains in place.  The antidote to this road to destruction is to restore a system of justice for all.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we have to fight back against unjust laws and unjust conduct of the legal system.  Those who do wrong should face consequences and have opportunities to repent and change their ways.  Those who have been abused should be restored to their just and joyful state of living. We have to take to the streets and to the halls of decision-making to be faithful to God.  Seeking revenge is no form of justice, but a continuing corruption and expansion of injustice. 
         Having said to give justice, the Psalmist restates this charge with additional demands.  The Psalm has God telling the others gathered in the council to “maintain the right” of the ones who are being abused.  Giving justice is not only setting things right that have already gone wrong.  It is also promoting a system in which justice is the standard operating procedure.  It is making sure people have what is rightly theirs before they become destitute.  Extending the availability of health care to tens of millions more people is an attempt to maintain the right.  Yet if the laws are flawed and create opportunities for powerful corporations and their executives to overcharge for drugs and medical procedures, there is still much more to be done.  If the system continues to shut out millions of people, to allow medical bankruptcy to be the most common form of bankruptcy, and to use medical care as an ideological tool for party politics rather than a cause of justice, there is still much more for us to do.  God’s gift of health to creation should not go to the highest bidder nor be denied to those whose jobs pay less than a living wage.
         Part of our duty, according to the Psalmist, is to rescue and deliver the poor and needy from the hands of the wicked.  Whether it is the abuse of usury through payday loans charging 300% to 700% interest, or the speculative real estate deals that put renters out of affordable housing to redevelop neighborhoods for gentrification, or the high risk financial transactions that led to a worldwide economic crash that put hard-working people out of jobs and homes, we must be about the work of rescue and deliverance.  We can’t sit idly by and watch governments that bail out supersized banks, that allow the very people who destroyed the economy to continue getting richer rather than go to jail, and that leave unemployed people without health care, without homes, and without hope for a job that pays a living wage.  We have to open our hands, our buildings, our pantries, and our wallets to those who have been put out, cast aside, nickeled and dimed, and kicked to the curb.  The work to rescue those harmed by the injustices of the world is part of the work of giving justice.
Third and finally, we should note that the Psalmist is naming the ones who are being abused and should be given justice.  The list includes the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, the needy.  Just to make sure, the Psalmist mentions the weak twice.  The point is that some have access to the halls of power and others do not.  The ones who have had to depend on a just social order to protect them are now being abused.  Their weakness is not a lack of ability or strength, but it is a lack of connections, of access, and of anyone to call on for help.  They are not in the noble families.  They don’t have money to grease the palms of those who might help them.  They lack many basic necessities.  They are deprived of what any person must have to thrive and flourish.  Symbolic of this kind of weakness is the orphan.  Lacking parents, the protection of orphans falls to other family members or community members, and orphans find themselves subject to the whims and indifference of society.  The plumbline shows that the treatment of these people fails the test of verticality—the way they are treated is not upright.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we must take the side of those who are being oppressed and work together for justice.
This imaginary council of gods has failed to measure up to God’s standards for justice.  So God reminds them of their true nature.  While they imagine themselves to be gods, they are not.  They are mortal.  Their end will come.  Like every human institution and government, they will fall.  Then the Psalmist concludes the Psalm by praising God and proclaiming the truth about who God is.  “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”  It’s not a council of equals, a group of gods in competition.  It’s a room full of pretenders who must now face the only true God.  The Psalmist calls for God to rise and judge the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions, the rulers and authorities, the pretenders and posers and wannabes.
As I pointed out earlier, often the Bible presents the idea that the various nations may have their gods in competition with the God of Israel.  We tend not to think quite that same way about the nations and the gods, although perhaps we are not as far from that world as we think.  But it is definitely true that if we examine the ways that we act, it seems like we expect to find rescue and salvation in the world.  There are clearly many gods in our imagination.  These pretenders, these false gods, find their social embodiment among the governmental, corporate, patriarchal, and intellectual structures and systems of our world.  We look to these powers for salvation, although we seldom use that language.  We keep the salvation language locked up in church, but we live as if we still need many more saviors outside the halls of worship.
Who in our day are the gods gathered in council?  What are the names of the gods offering us salvation from the challenges of our lives?  What powers are we calling on to get a leg up and prove ourselves better than others?  The Psalmist reminds us that no matter what idols and false gods the world is calling on for salvation, only one God is the true judge and savior of the world.
Only a week ago, across this city and the nation people elevated an idol in their churches by pledging allegiance, not to the God of Jesus Christ, but to the flag.  Many sang songs of war and battle to demonstrate their hope for salvation rooted in the nation and its military might.  The idea of America has become a doctrine of salvation.  It is a belief that by spreading the power and influence of this country, the world will be saved.  Statements of faith about “the greatest country in the world” accompany a theological understanding of America as God’s chosen nation.  These unbiblical and heretical ideas penetrate into institutions that pose as churches, but instead act as the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom.  Amaziahs all over this country seek to silence the prophets and protect the status quo of power that has its origins in genocide of the native peoples and enslavement of Africans.  God is judging the idols of nationalism and calling us to justice.
Another god of our time is whiteness.  Pale skin functions as a sign of chosenness, a sign of destiny, a sign of superiority in our world.  Darker skin remains a sign to many of condemnation, of evil, and of danger.  Thus some like Dylan Roof rest their faith in protecting the white race by seeking to kill the descendents of Africans, even as they gather in church.  Others with less overt in their racist ideas continue to act out this same worship by labeling children like Trayvon, and Tamir, and Michael, as a menace, as a threat, as a monster.  The fiction of race has had deadly consequences for half a millennium, and it remains a powerful doctrine of salvation expressed in the aphorism, “If you’re white, you’re right.”  The differential treatment of people of color in the legal system and through mass incarceration has given rise to the phrase, “the new Jim Crow.”  One way or another, the legal system seems committed to salvation through destruction and degredation of dark-skinned people.  God is judging the idols of whiteness and racism and calling us to justice.
Another false god of our day is the gun.  The NRA has steadily repeated its religious mantra of salvation that the only way to stop bad people with guns is to have more guns in the hands of good people.  The gun is the means of salvation.  Arm everyone with all sorts of powerful weapons, and this idol tells us we will be safer and more able to defeat evil.  What else is a gun but an instrument of violence?  Some might demand that I do homage to hunting and the long heritage of providing meat for the table.  I can acknowledge that without being turned away from the truth that people who are buying and gathering guns are doing so out of fear that they will have to try to protect themselves from marauding enemies, either from beyond our borders or already within our borders.  Guns are being offered as a way to be saved from immigrants, criminals, and jihadists.  They tell us that guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  But guns make it so much faster and easier for people to kill people.  I would have to reply that guns don’t save people; love saves people.  God is judging the idols of guns and gun violence and calling us to justice.
         Another false god of our time is the border wall.  Some would claim that America can be saved, and all of us with it, if we could just keep out all the foreign people trying to undermine our prosperity and society.  The reasons given are differences of language, differences of culture, differences of religion, and scarcity of the goods that everyone needs.  If we can keep out the outsiders, we’ll be saved.  The God of Jesus Christ has invited all outsiders to come and be part of God’s peoples—all of us who are Gentiles are welcome.  Keeping people out is not God’s way.  God is judging the idols of xenophobia (fear of outsiders) and racial and religious hatred, and calling us to justice.
The Psalmist says the gods were gathered in council, so there must have been many of them present.  Who else was there?  There is the god of money that promises us if we can get enough, we will have everything that we need.  Of course, we always need just a little more.  It is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the god of superficial, chauvinist Christianity that twists the faith of a peaceable, non-violent Jesus into a call for holy war against Islam.  Yet we are called to love our enemies.  It is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the god of virility and sexual conquest that promotes male sexual domination to prove one’s power in the world.  Elevating oneself by harming others is ultimately destructive of oneself.  Patriarchal power over women is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the false god of fortified bathrooms.  Fearing what they do not understand about the variety of sexuality in creation, people grasp at harmful solutions to complicated issues requiring understanding and reconciliation.  Hate Bill 2 is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the false god of consumption that says we can be somebody if we wear the right labels on our clothes, drive the right vehicles, eat the right foods, join the right clubs, and in every way stay abreast of the trends.  But this neverending consumption in fact consumes us until we disappear into our possessions.  Consumption is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is a false god of respectability.  It tells us that if we just go along to get along, if we keep showing ourselves to be respectful and respectable, we will be saved from the dangers of the abuse of power.  Respectability discourages protest.  It tells the young people to go home and stop talking about “Black Lives Matter.”  It looks for fault in the ones who have been abused, as a way to prove to ourselves that it can’t happen to us.  But this week and the past two years are sure reminders that respectability is a false doctrine of salvation.
         The gods gathered in council are not saviors.  They are idols, bent on using and abusing us for our own destruction.  They distract us from the trust in God that we ought to have by urging us to trust in idols, in salvation by other means.  They discourage us from standing up for the truth of God’s salvation because we are too busy trying to earn a false salvation that promises everything but delivers death.  Guns, money, nationalism, whiteness, and every other false god only draw us away from the one true God who is demanding that we live justly, love mercy, and walk in God’s way.
         The Psalmist’s description of God’s judgment and victory among the false gods of this world is a foreshadowing of the victory of Jesus over the powers and authorities.  Our text from Colossians today speaks about how the people in that church and in that city have grown in their faith and in following the ways of Jesus to the point that they are bearing much fruit for God.  Their love and their faithfulness to Jesus’ ways have become well known.  Since we know Jesus and we know what the Psalmist has written here, we can infer that their bearing of fruit must also include a flourishing of justice in their community.
         Beyond the first chapter of Colossians, Paul goes on to write about the victory of Christ over evil.  He says that the thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities, and powers are subject to Christ because they are part of the creation that Christ himself accomplished.  Moreover, through his cross and resurrection he has disarmed them and made a public example of them.  He has judged them and now rules over them.  God’s purpose for the structures and institutions of human life is that they contribute to our flourishing, that they serve the good of humanity and all creation, that they give justice to all God’s children.  So just as the Psalmist says, now Paul repeats that we must be about the work of giving justice and maintaining the right, rescuing and delivering the unjustly treated.
         Joining Paul in his prayer for the Colossians, I also pray for our world to be this kind of world.  Although many who seek their own benefit and ignore the good of others are at work to twist this world away from justice, the work of Christ among the Colossians reminds us of the hope for transformation of a corrupted world into a community of love and mutual service.  That is the world that I pray and I work to send my children into.  It is the world that we as God’s people long for.  It is a world in which Naomi can bear fruit in every good work.  Through our prayers and devotion to the God of Jesus Christ, the seeds of that fruit and that good work are planted in her heart and in the hearts of Mt. Level’s children.  Yet we have seen horrifying reminders this week of the continuing struggle against evil, against the false gods and idols of our day, and against the forces that would turn us and our children away from our calling.
         Thus, we continue to join with Paul in his prayer for the Colossians that they will be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power.  We will need strength to face the evil at work in our world.  We will need strength to break through the intense misunderstandings and divisions that keep people at odds over race, class, guns, money, and power.  We will need strength to get out of bed day after day to take up the cross of Jesus and live for justice in an unjust world.  We will need strength to love when it seems hate is winning the day.
         Our hope rests in the power of the God of Jesus Christ, who has, as Paul tells the Colossians, “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  As he has rescued us, now we are sent into an unjust world to continue his work.  Jesus has redeemed us.  Jesus has forgiven us.  That is the world into which we may enter:  the loving fellowship of Jesus, a world of redemption, a world of forgiveness.  That is a world fit for our children to respond to the calling to give justice.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Charleston, Pulse, and Power

When the opportunity to preach came a week after the Pulse nightclub killings, and it was also so close to the anniversary of the Mother Emanuel killings, I knew that I must try to elucidate the gospel's relevance to a world faced with mass murder that goes even into the places believed to be sanctuaries.  Thanks to my friends Revs. Herman and Pinkey Graham, pastors of God's Property Church, for the opportunity to work on this message.  It was also a Father's Day Sunday, so that theme winds its way through the sermon.  The association of maleness and fathers with violent power is a cultural pattern that must be challenged, and there is in both Dylan Roof and Omar Mateen an element of the perceived need for men to prove themselves and their convictions through violent acts.

It has been several weeks of travel and staying busy with teaching summer school that have slowed down my posting of this sermon preached on June 19, 2016, at God's Property Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC.

1Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die:  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Galatians 3:23-29
         Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 8:26-39
         Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

The Power that Comes Through Being Clothed in Christ
         The text read from Galatians is one of the great baptismal texts of the New Testament.  Many of us are most familiar with texts, such as from Romans, that compare baptism to being united with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  Going under the waters is a symbolic death and burial of the old self, and a widely used baptismal statement says we are “raised to walk in newness of life.”  Here in Galatians, Paul uses another comparison to describe baptism.  He says it is like putting on a new set of clothes.  Verse 27 compares baptism to putting on Christ.  The garment we wear, by being put into the waters, is Christ himself.
         This baptismal teaching has far ranging significance.  If we delve into the common uses of the Greek word baptizo, we find that it also was often used with reference to garments.  When a piece of cloth was to be dyed another color than its natural white or off-white color, the process of dipping it into a vat or basin of dye was named by this same word, baptizo.  Having been dipped in the dye, the fabric comes out a different color.  It is changed, and its appearance is different.  The same should be true of us.  Having been dipped into Christ, the dye of his character should change our appearance.  Who we are should become marked by who Jesus is.
         As I already mentioned, Paul takes the garment image further by saying that in baptism we have clothed ourselves in Christ.  Our outward appearance, by this description, takes on the appearance of Christ.  We don’t push the metaphor too far to wonder whether such an image describes a change of the whole person including the inner self.  Becoming clothed in Christ is not merely a superficial fa├žade.  It is a change of our appearance that illustrates the change that has happened in the fullness of who we are.
         The message to all Christians, but especially to Fathers today is that the image our lives show to the world should be the image of Jesus Christ.  What does it mean to fulfill one’s human destiny?  It is to grow in the grace of God poured out to us by the Spirit.  This grace is displayed in living as God intends one to live.
         Paul repeats the language of our unity with Jesus Christ in the next verse.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Having put on Christ, fathers and mothers, men and women, enslaved and free, in-group or out-group are united to one another in Christ.  What has divided us is now obscured by the clothing we all are wearing—the same Jesus who lived and died to save and transform us.  It is the way of Jesus that shows up in who we are, putting into the background our gender identity, our skin color, our primary language, our social rank--every way that we might classify and divide ourselves from one another.  Having been united to Christ in baptism, we are “in Christ Jesus.”  You are in Christ Jesus.  He is in Christ Jesus.  She is in Christ Jesus.  Each one of us is in Christ Jesus through our baptism.  And because Christ is one Lord, in him we have been united to one another.
         United in Jesus, united with one another, there is no longer any place to pull rank or claim status over one another.  Paul, through his understanding of the way of Jesus, is challenging the patriarchy that is rampant in the cultures of his day.  Greek cultures ranked the property owning Greek men, the fathers who headed households of wealth, at the top of society.  Below them were ninety percent of the people who did not count as citizens:  women, children, slaves, and barbarians.  Not only the Greeks of Galatia, but also the Jews held men to be above women. 
But Paul says that this has changed in the community of Jesus.  Baptism into Christ evens the playing field.  The old saying is right that “there is level ground at the foot of the cross.”  So being a father does not mean pulling rank over everyone else.  Being a father means a partnership with one’s spouse; it leaves a space for sharing equally in the tasks of the household and the formation of the lives of God’s gift of children.
So on Father’s Day, Galatians 3 reminds us that God has brought us together as a team in the church to share in the beloved community.  God didn’t pick winners and losers based on our genes and our genitals.  God holds all our uniquenesses and differences as valuable and good, yet puts them in the background when compared to becoming like Jesus.  United to him in baptism, our destiny is to conform to his image.  Together in Christlikeness, fathers are on the team to make this world the blessed place God created it to be.
Too often, we have created stereotypes that distort the nature of men and women.  Then, as men, as fathers, we try to live up to the stereotypes, no matter how unnatural or how unlike us they feel.  In our culture, no man wants to be thought of as unmanly.  Boys and young men often feel compelled to take dangerous risks or behave erratically in order to prove to their peers that they are a real man.  This kind of overcompensating testosterone driven activity proves nothing other than we can be driven to the point of stupidity by stereotypes and the social enforcement of them in our communities. 
The Old Testament lesson for today from 1 Kings 19 sheds some light on the way that fathers may distort the way they think of their power in the world as men.  It is a familiar story about the Prophet Elijah.  Elijah spent a large amount of his life on the run.  He was under threat of a corrupt king and a highly devoted religious queen, with whom he was constantly in disagreement and conflict.  Ahab despised him for challenging the corruption of the royal court.  Jezebel despised him for rejecting the religion of her family heritage.
Let me chase a rabbit here.  I think we all can agree that Jezebel is not presented to us as a model character in the Bible.  In her commitment to the religions of her family heritage and the power those religious systems should bring, she was a zealot.  She promoted these idolatrous practices and did not take kindly to the resistance she faced from Elijah and others.  Like so many other royal figures in the Bible, when she met with opposition, she felt justified in imprisoning and executing her enemies.
Yet for some reason, many people revel in singling out Jezebel as worse than all the others.  It seems that she gets the worst reputation in this royal court mainly because she is a woman.  Ahab was no icon of virtue folks.  He held the throne, and he shared his power with Jezebel.  She exercised her power with often malicious intent, and so did he.  We need to be careful about how we save our harshest criticism for women who exercise power.  There is no doubt that Jezebel is wrong, but she is in a long line of wrongdoers, most of whom were kings and their courtiers, false prophets and nobility.  You don’t hear people referring to their enemies as an Ahab, however. 
To get back to this story of Elijah, he has won a great victory, yet he fears the revenge of Ahab and Jezebel.  So he runs away.  God sends angels to care for him and strengthen him, but he keeps running away to Horeb, the mountain of God.  When he gets there he hides in a cave.  After he’s rested a bit, he begins a conversation with God that turns out to be mainly whining about how Ahab, Jezebel, and lots of the other Israelites don’t like him, don’t like what he says, and don’t like what he does.  He implies that his problems are God’s fault.  He is in the middle of a bigtime pity party.  He is basking in the glory of his own mistreatment.
He probably want’s God to go blow something up.  He wants to see the royal palace crumble in upon itself and take the king and queen and their minions to an early grave.  Maybe he wants people to be afraid of him like he is afraid of the king and queen.  We may not know the specifics of what he wants, but we do know that he is feeling deeply sorry for himself and wants God to get up and do something about it.
What do we want God to do?  What kind of power do we want God to show?  Human beings like Ahab and Jezebel, caught up in human, worldly power, love to demonstrate their power through threats and violence.  They have no qualms about doing harm to others to make a point.  They love to intimidate, and can’t stand it when someone does not back down. 
Maybe Elijah was wishing for some of that kind of power.  In fact, he had recently claimed for himself that kind of power in the contest between the prophets and their gods at Mt. Carmel.  He arranged a great demonstration of the power of God, and he ridiculed the failure of the priests of the false gods of Ba’al and his pantheon.  But Elijah seems to have been carried away by success.  The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Milpah, the God of Israel had rained down fire to consume the sacrifice and the altar and the water around it and even burn the dirt on which they built it.  The prophets of Ba’al had no success.  In a fury, Elijah turns the people on the false prophets to lynch and murder them.  Nowhere in the instructions Elijah received did God say to commit mass murder as a sign of victory.  Having taken up violence as the way to victory, Elijah found himself caught up in the unending cycle of violence.  Angry that he had done such a deed against the priests, Ahab and Jezebel vowed to get revenge.  And thus the cycle continued. 
Now, it seems, Elijah thinks he is about to get swallowed up in this orgy of bloodshed.  He doesn’t have an army at his beck and call.  So he is hoping God will intervene with power to confront power.  In that frame of mind, Elijah gets instructions from God.  God says to step outside the cave onto the mountain and await further communication when God passes by the mountain.  So Elijah steps out there.
What did he want from God?  Did he want to see some kind of unbridled power?  Is that what Elijah was believing that the exercise of power should be—intimidation, violence, and destruction?  Far too often, men in our culture have accepted the false belief that real power is demonstrated through rage and violence.  For instance, Nathan McCall tells the story of growing up in Virginia Beach in a community where rage and power were held in awe.  He says that even if a boy did not want to be violent, it was pushed upon him by a culture that tested boys by their willingness to “go off on” somebody.  Gaining respect and surviving, as he tells it, depended heavily on people thinking a boy might just go crazy and lose all control in a violent rage.
Another feature of that cultural milieu, according to McCall, was the understanding that boys could victimize girls at will.  He describes horrible events that destroyed young women’s lives simply at the whim and opportunity of young men to employ violence to get their way.  Such sexual abuse through violent control was part of what the culture told the boys would make them into men.  McCall said it was a terrible way to believe the world should work.  He reports that he lives with guilt for what he stood by and saw happening around him and for the posturing he did to get by.
Like McCall had to learn that power does not have to mean violence and rage, Elijah had a lesson to learn as well.  He stepped outside the cave as instructed.  There on the mountainside, he began to observe a great spectacle of nature’s power.
First he observed a great wind so powerful it was dislodging boulders and breaking them against one another, splitting rocks off the mountainside.  Surely, Elijah must have thought, this is God.  God could send stones crushing my enemies and breaking down their strongholds.  Maybe he wished that he could have a voice like that wind.  A great terrifying, bellowing voice of anger and rage would go far in frightening his enemies.
Too often, fathers get caught up in a rage, shouting and chastising, berating and belittling.  Consequently, too many children grow up wondering if Dad really loves them or if Dad is always angry with them.  Lord, I have prayed in confession and sought forgiveness far too often for the times I let my anger slip over into shouting and rage, intimidating and frightening my children.  To exercise power through rage is not really power, but weakness.  It shows the inability to control one’s emotions and to solve problems with reason and creativity.  It shows the failure of patience and compassion.  Elijah learned the lesson here, because he found that God was not in the great rock-busting wind.
As Elijah continued to wait, he saw, and surely felt beneath his feet, a great earthquake.  The mountainside shook.  The other mountains, hills, and valleys around rumbled and moved.  The power of an earthquake frightens people.  Elijah may have wished to be able to shake the ground in Samaria under the palace of Ahab until it collapsed to the ground.  He probably thought that if God would repeat this back in Israel, there would not be any reason to still be afraid of the king and queen. 
Tearing things up, throwing things down, knocking things over—sometimes we are fooled into believing that this how to show power.  Fathers sometimes reach their wits’ end, that is the end of their creative and rational thinking, and start knocking things around.  Not merely the fear-inducing booming voice, but now also the physical harm becomes a way to demonstrate power.  But such power has no ability to excite love and loyalty.  It is a very limited and toxic form of power that intimidates and undermines relationships. 
I have far too many times overheard the conversation among men that they need to show their families who is the boss, and the implication is that pushing people around or smacking people around is the way a man stays in charge.  But this is not the way of God.  Jesus came as a friend and servant, not as a bully.  There was no place in his world for that kind of harmful interaction.  In fact, Jesus warned the crowds listening to him one day that if they might be inclined to harm a child, they should think twice and figure out how to stop themselves.  He suggested they go down to the grist mill and pick up the two-ton grinding stone and put it around their necks.  He said then they should go over and throw themselves into the sea.  Drowned under a two-ton weight, they would be better off than if they did harm to a child. 
Power does not come from violent behavior toward our loved ones.  Even if we want to blame them for provoking us, Christian virtue says we should rise above the debasing temptation to violence.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Elijah realized quickly that although the earthquake was a spectacle, God was not in it.  He was still waiting to hear from God.
Then a fire began to spread across the mountainside.  Wildfires, forest fires, brush fires, do great damage.  Every summer we see news reports of fires in Florida or Texas or California or some other place, pushed by hot winds and fueled by dry vegetation.  They rapidly sweep across countryside, hills, and valleys.  Firefighters get caught in their path and lose their lives.  Homeowners evacuate and return to find charred remains of their homes.  Certainly a fire is powerful through the heat of destruction.
Fire is often a weapon of war.  Setting fire to crops and cities has been a strategy to weaken the enemy through starvation and lack of shelter.  Firebombing industrial cities using carpet bombing as a weapon of mass destruction has left scars and resentment across the world.  Fire is so destructive that the Bible often uses it as an image of the utter destruction that evil brings upon God’s creation and of unending suffering for those who turn against God.
Fathers may be tempted to let loose their anger like a fire to demonstrate power, but when they burn the bridges of their relationships there may be no obvious path to recovery.  Destroying relationships through trying to control or damage the egos of others may seem to be powerful, but it is a self-destructive path.  Driving away those we love destroys us as well.  It isolates us and leaves us stewing in our own self-justifications away from anyone who cares for us.  God did not make us to be lonely, solitary beings. 
Neither Omar Mateen nor Dylan Roof found the path to true power.  They thought power came through destroying others.  Dylan had a moment of uncertainty, he says.  He began to wonder whether it was right to kill people who had been so warm and welcoming to him.  But he still had this distorted, upside-down view of power, so he shouted his accusations and fired his bullets into the gathered people of God in Mother Emanuel AME Church one year ago.  And last week, Omar decided the notoriety of killing a crowd of people was more important than the sustained relationships of his family and friends.  He would show everyone his empty power as a final act of self-destruction.  This is not what God made us to be, and it is not what power is in human relationships.  God made us for community.  Strengthening relationships with love is God’s plan for fathers.  In the wake of these destructive events, when young men thought their path to power in the world should come through violence, the church has a crucial witness of love to offer to all those who suffer from such outrage and violence.  God has made us for love, each one of us, in all of our differences.
Elijah may have thought that a fire sweeping across the land would solve all of his problems.  But as the fire passed by and displayed its destructive power, Elijah realized that God was not in it.  God’s power was not to be demonstrated in destruction. 
The wind, the earthquake, and the fire had passed, each with its semblance of power.  But Elijah was rebuked by their emptiness.  They were sound and fury, signifying nothing.  They were not the way of God.  And when they all passed, all that was left was “sheer silence,” the barest of sounds, a whisper, a breath, a rustle of wind.  The King James Version calls it a “still, small voice.”  The rabbis speak of “the daughter of a voice,” something smaller and more delicate than anything we might bellow.  God’s greatness and uniqueness is such that God has no vocal chords as we do.  God is not possessed of a mouth and tongue as we use for speech.  God is Spirit, and the association of Spirit with wind and breath in the biblical languages gives us an idea of how the Israelites, and Elijah among them, might imagine the Word of God coming to them.  In this blessed quietness, this holy quietness, Elijah must open his heart, his mind, his ears to hear what God will say.  Not through destructive power and spectacle and intimidating noise, but through a faint breeze, a barely-heard whisper, an intimate shared conversation, God speaks to Elijah.
In all his arrogance and self-pity and confusion, Elijah is finally getting the point.  God is finally getting through to him.  So Elijah steps out from whatever protected spot he had sought during the wind, earthquake, and fire.  He wants to be all ears for God’s voice, this still small voice of calm, this tiny wind that has the power to rule all creation.  Elijah steps out to listen.  He covers his face, in awe of the moment of being in God’s presence so directly.
It’s not like he could give up on his self-pity.  He starts in again to whine about his situation.  He thinks he is God’s only asset, God’s only faithful one.  He believes his end is near.  But God doesn’t address the problems Elijah can’t get off his mind.  Instead he starts giving instructions.  Today’s reading only includes the first line, which is telling Elijah to start walking toward Damascus to get ready to do another task.  The story goes on to reveal that from God’s point of view, it is time for all these players to retire.  Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah have reached the end of their days of leadership.  New rulers and a new prophet are about to arise, and Elijah will help anoint them to their task.
But the answer Elijah gets right off the bat is that power comes not from rage and violence and destruction, but it comes from getting down to the work that God has given him.  Instead of running away, hiding out, and plotting for how to destroy his enemies, God want’s Elijah to set about obediently helping to put the torn up world back in order.  God will not be without a witness, and before Elijah is off the scene, there will be a new prophet to arise.  God will not long tolerate injustice, so there must be judgment on the evil that rulers do.  But as far as Elijah is concerned, God has some work for him to get started on, so he needs to get moving.
The power that God has given us as fathers is to do the work of building good relationships.  Sharing in the joys and struggles of others rather than dominating them is the path to a life of joy.  In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul goes on to describe the way the power of the Holy Spirit can work in us.  The fruit will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Patience, not rage.  Kindness, not intimidation.  Gentleness, not violence.  Faithfulness, not destroyed relationships.  Peace, not conflict.  Self-control, not going off on people or losing it.  Joy, not anger.  Love that builds up and strengthens oneself and all those around us.  That is what we put on when we put on Christ in baptism.
The gospel lesson for today comes from Luke 8.  It is a familiar story of Jesus’ visit to a remote village, the country of the Gerasenes.  When he came on land on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee, he encountered a man living among the tombs, naked, frenzied, wounded, scarred, and enraged.  The man was living the opposite of what God intended for him.  What had driven him to this condition?  Was he mentally ill?  The gospel story describes him as possessed of many demons.  Had he destroyed all his relationships and through violence gotten himself thrown out of town?  Certainly people feared him, for they chained him, although unsuccessfully.  His rage, his violence, had destroyed his life.
But when Jesus comes to him, he heals all that is broken in him.  The demons are driven away.  The man comes to himself.  They help him get cleaned up, and perhaps tend to his wounds.  The get him dressed decently in clothes.  The man is, as the text says, “clothed and in his right mind.”  People did not know whether to trust that or not.  They were afraid of him and of Jesus.  But Jesus comforts the lonely man.  He tells him he has a job to do.  Having turned from his previous destructive ways, Jesus says to share his life and hope with others.  He says to go back to his home.  You know there are some broken relationships.  People are going to be afraid, but they need to hear how God has changed him.  He needs to testify of all that God has done for him.
This is the power that God gives us.  It is not a power of intimidation and threats.  It is a power of joy and thankfulness.  It is the power that comes from knowing who we are and whose we are.  God has work for us to do—to build loving relationships, to serve one another, to bless one another.  There is a way of living in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is what God has called fathers to do.
As many as have been baptized in Christ have also clothed yourselves with Christ.  You are all dressed up in Jesus.  Your presentation to the world is of the way of life Jesus lived.  Step into that work God has for you.  Step up to love.  Step up to patience.  Step up to gentleness.  Step up to faithfulness.  Step up to Spirit-filled living.  Open your ears to hear the breath of God’s Spirit guiding you to do the work God has called you to do.  Lay aside every encumbrance of empty, false power.  Be clothed with Jesus Christ.  Get decked out with meekness, peacemaking, and hunger for justice.  Gussy up with a pure heart, a humble spirit, and good works.  Rock that outfit with love of God and love of neighbor and love of enemies.  Clothe yourselves in Christ Jesus.  Unite yourselves to him and to one another.  In that unity, we rest and live in true power, in the power of God who loves and made us for love.
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