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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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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 2
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

(Continued from previous post)

Jesus’ proclamation about rivers of living water was a promise of the Spirit. It was the Festival of Tabernacles this time. On another festival day, Jesus would already have ascended into heaven. On that day of Pentecost, after his death and resurrection, the Spirit would come, bringing rivers of living water. Its sign on that day would be flames of fire. But on this parched day in Jerusalem at the beginning of the hot summer, Jesus promised life-giving water that would flow in and through and from the lives of all who followed him. Praise be to God. What a blessing he was pronouncing. Anyone thirsty can come to him. Anyone ready to follow can go ahead and take a drink. And the water will be so wet, so quenching, so cooling, that it will transform the drinker into the source of a great river of refreshment and life to share with others. No wonder the crowds were ready to follow him. He was fulfilling right before their eyes the promises of God through the prophets. He was proclaiming the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. And as Jesus was glorified, then the Spirit’s presence would be poured out.

The chapter ends by reminding us how things go in this world. We end up back in the private chambers of the powerful. In the council chambers, in the office of the chairman, in the legislative committee, in the lobbyist’s private club, in the closed session, in the national security agency, in the cabinet chambers, in the oval office, people with money and connections and official status try to make the rules, bend the rules, break the rules, and rule the rest of us. They heard what people were saying. All their efforts to neatly do away with Jesus were not working. Their own police officers were afraid to arrest Jesus.

“Were you deceived by him, too?” they asked, but it was not really a question. It was an accusation. Then they made a clear statement of the class divisions that governed their view of the world. They said that people with an education don’t get fooled by Jesus. We know our place, and we know his place. But that crowd out there is full of ignoramuses. They don’t know the law. The law is our playground. We own the law. They know nothing. They are a bunch of god-forsaken, empty-headed morons. Because they don’t know what we know, they are cursed. We are the blessed ones. And we do not intend some half-breed bumpkin from Galilee to interfere with our way of running this city. We will defeat this man one way or another. Who elected him president of Jerusalem? We are the ones in charge, and don’t you forget it.

A lone dissenter in the room spoke up. Nicodemus, a secret admirer of Jesus among the Pharisees, asked whether a person who is charged under the law should get a hearing. But this group was way past dealing with procedural justice. Jesus had challenged them too many times. The law would now become a tool of their wills. They would twist it in whatever ways seemed useful to get this man out of the way. It might take some time and planning, but they were confident they could prevail. They did what we would expect. They questioned Nicodemus’s loyalty. “Are you with us or against us? Maybe you are a Galilean too. Are you part of that mongrel race? Maybe you are aiding the terrorists. Where is the yellow magnet that should be on your car? Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? You don’t let your daughter date Galileans, do you? Do you believe in miscegenation?” I guess Nicodemus decided to shut up at that point. He had been around long enough to know who ran things in the city of Jerusalem.

The next chapter shows how the authorities raised the stakes in their efforts to bring Jesus down. It is the story of the challenge to Jesus about a woman caught in adultery. But it turns out to be one of his greatest triumphs. He pressed them so hard and made them so angry they called him a Samaritan and said he was crazy again. But he did not let up, so they picked up stones to stone him to death, but he was able to disappear into the crowd.

What can we learn from Jesus’ days in Jerusalem during the feast of Tabernacles? First, we can see how the crowd was not fully aware of how the powerful forces at work were affecting them. They knew to be wary of the authorities, but they could not always see the way that these authorities were working to keep their privilege and advantage over others. In public, it seems that there is a debate going on between different points of view, which are worthy of consideration. But often at least one side of the debate is based on lies and deception. Someone says that this country tried to buy weapons grade plutonium. Someone says they have labs capable of producing nuclear weapons and chemical weapons. But if it is not true, then the whole debate was thrown out of balance by falsehoods.

Did the Hurricane cause the damage, or did the inadequate levees lead to flooding? Was there an adequate evacuation plane, or were the poor and the prisoners simply left to die? Was it impossible to bring in water and food and busses and trailer houses, or were the decisions and resources caught up in red tape and negotiations about how much profit the no-bid contractors would make? It’s easy to say in public, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” but what is really happening in the rooms where decisions that affect life and death are being made? The Road Home promise of up to $160,000 for homeowners took months to get organized, only to find out that not nearly enough money has been appropriated, that the money is being held up at both federal and state levels, and that as much as one-third of the funds are being taken off the top of the grants to homeowners to pay the government’s expenses rather than rebuild the homes.

Somewhere, people are making decisions, and someone is benefiting from these decisions. But the people whose homes were destroyed seem to be on the outside of all those benefits. Parts of New Orleans where the wealthy and powerful live are bustling and booming. But not far away one can see devastation in block after block of the residential neighborhoods where the average working families lived, where blacks owned homes that were flooded and destroyed, and where the poor found low-cost housing. The city’s population is half what it was before the floods from the broken levees. People wait for information. They share what they have heard. They debate the merits of this or that proposal. But mostly their fates are determined in secret places where the powerful divide up the pie.

We can also learn that the powerful make use of this confusion and lack of information to manipulate, to divide, and to conquer. The ones in power are benefiting from the status quo. They have no interest in seeing things change. They are set in their ways. They don’t want the empowerment of new groups. They don’t want any new ideas to shake up the world they have just where they want it. So they leak out enough information to keep people divided, to keep them afraid of somebody else. All the while, they are looking for ways to prey on the poor and weak. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the investment in recovery seems like it will never arrive. The city leaders say they can’t spend money there since it is almost completely deserted by its residents. The backroom discussions with developers are full of proposals to get this land and redevelop it with expensive, high-rise condos. Some rumors say Donald Trump has bought up many of the lots in the Lower Ninth Ward and that he has plans for luxury housing. One organizer explains how the homeowners, whose homes are completely demolished, are stuck in a waiting game. If they can’t get assistance, they can’t rebuild. If they can’t rebuild, they can’t move back. If they can’t move back, they can’t do much on their own to get the rebuilding started. How long will their patience last? Their pockets are not as deep as the speculators who can find venture capital and leverage big financing from banks. Who will be able to wait the longest? Are the decisions already being made that will force out the long-time residents who fell victim to this enormous flood?

We can also learn that when people are bold enough to speak the truth, there can be a turning of the tide. Jesus kept speaking the truth to power. He was careful and strategic. He did not let himself get isolated and alone to face the powers. He planned the right time. He brought the right message. He called it what it was—people with power who loved to be treated as VIPs and who did not want the people to know the truth. They did not like their masks to be taken off. They worked ever more intensely to find a way to get rid of him. He knew that the day would come when they would give him their very worst, and he knew he would be ready for it. But he also knew that he must plan for himself when that time would come. He had some building to do among his disciples and the crowds that were following him. He had to lay the groundwork. He had to get them ready to face the task that would come.

And when that time would come, they would have the power of the Spirit giving them life. God’s Spirit would be poured out on the sons and the daughters to prophesy. The old would dream, and the young would put their legs and arms and voices to the task. And out of a desert there would flow rivers of living water. One of the old who is dreaming a dream is the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian of Atlanta, GA. He has gathered his allies across the nation and across the denominations. Out of his dream has come the organization Churches Supporting Churches. The vision is to have three churches in each of twelve districts of New Orleans, a total of 36 churches, receive the support they need to become the leaders of redevelopment which serves the common good, the working class, the poor, and all ethnic groups. Those 36 churches will be matched with ten churches each from around the U. S. and Canada, who will pledge their support at the level they are capable of giving. These 360 churches and more will become the allies who help to build a new city in which the gospel is not a way of placating the masses. It will be a city in which the gospel helps to shape the very neighborhoods that emerge from the destruction.

The young men and women who are leading the way are pastors whose church buildings are destroyed or damaged and whose congregations are scattered across the continent. Aldon Cotton told me that when the storm was over, he rushed back thinking that the disaster would have everyone turning to the church and seeking God. He was disappointed by what he found. People were too stunned and angry to want to care about God. Moreover, most were gone. There was not even a handful of people in the neighborhood from which to rebuild a church, much less enough to fill the dozen churches that had gathered in the neighborhood before the storm. He had no home to live in. He had no building to meet in. There was no income for the church that had previously paid him as a full-time pastor. His library was a drenched, muddy mess. He quickly realized that he would have to have a whole new way of thinking about his work as a minister.

Through Churches Supporting Churches, devoted pastors like Rev. Cotton have banded together to retrain themselves. They are learning to think and plan strategically in a holistic way they never had before. They are learning to analyze their obstacles, to understand political and economic systems, and to negotiate for the good of their neighborhoods. They speak to all who need to hear, and they work together so that they cannot be merely ignored or set aside. They depend on their allies in other places for advice and support. Churches from Brooklyn and Queens, New York, who have experience in housing development, are sharing their expertise and encouragement. Churches with teams of carpenters or youth groups send workers to deal with specific needs and tasks.

The Spirit is at work in the cities where people grow, live, struggle, and overcome. In the wilderness of the Lower Ninth Ward where the Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church building used to be, where only a bare slab remains, there will be rivers of living water. In the Central City where the Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church has no place to meet, Jesus is calling to anyone who is thirsty, “Come to me and drink.” In the Mill Grove community of Durham, all who believe may receive the Spirit of God to work God’s good will in them. In East Durham, in Trinity Park, in Old Farm, in Walltown, in Old North Durham, in Summer Meadow, along Alston Avenue, shall flow rivers of living water. The atoning life of Jesus has shown us the way to walk and live in the truth so that we may confront the powers with the very power of God’s Spirit.

It’s a strange thing to say, and the pastors and laypersons I met in New Orleans were careful how they said it. They said that they would never blame God for the terrible losses that people in the Gulf Coast region have endured because of the hurricanes. They said that they did not mean that they thought the terrible conditions of their neighborhoods were a good thing. But they also said that they were finding themselves to be in a unique position for envisioning what the power of God can do. Without buildings and church power structures and committees and ongoing patterns of doing things the same way year after year—with all those things swept away in the flood, their eyes have been opened to what God might do to make their neighborhoods better places to live than they were before. Their ears have been opened to listen to their neighbors and learn what they hope a church can offer to their lives and their community. They feel like they are getting a fresh start. The wind of the Spirit is blowing in that city.

Is the wind of the Spirit blowing here in this city? There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is among us, prodding us, burning within us, calling us, awakening us, convicting us, comforting us, drawing us ever nearer to God. Are we seeing what God’s Spirit is doing around us? Are we hearing what God’s Spirit is saying through the people God is sending our way? Have we drunk of the water Jesus offers to all who thirst? Has it overflowed in our congregation to be a stream of living water flowing into the lives of others?

Perhaps today you need to come to Jesus in faith to receive the drink that will quench your thirst. He is the one who can forgive your sins. He is the one who can ease your loneliness. He can answer the questions that are nagging at your conscience. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.” He is the way, the truth, and the life. Through him you can come to know God. If you are ready to follow Jesus, then come today to offer yourself a living sacrifice.

Perhaps you have let yourself drift with the crowd. You’ve debated the possibilities without true insight into what God is at work to do. You are ready to set aside the foolishness and confusion and set your eyes firmly on Jesus. You are tired of claiming to know Jesus, but living as if all that water of life is dammed up inside of you to be protected and hoarded. Let it flow out from you starting today. Let your life be a channel of blessing to others. Come today to let yourself be guided by God’s Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on Pentecost so long ago in Jerusalem.

Perhaps you are in this city but not united with any church. You have been meaning to take care of this, but you have been too preoccupied with the day-to-day matters of work and bills and family, as if you could work all those things out without a constant acknowledgement of God’s call on your life. Maybe you have been straying from your service to God, and you need to make yourself accountable to this congregation on this day, saying from henceforth I will covenant with you to serve our Lord. Come today to unite yourself with this church. The doors of the church are open. All who thirst, come to the Lord Jesus today.

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