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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, August 29, 2008

What Are We Waiting For? Part 2

Here is the second part of the sermon, continued from the previous post.

What Are We Waiting For?
Part 2

Romans 8:12-25

Paul wrote in verse 19 that all creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. He goes on to say that creation groans in labor pains for redemption, for the renewal of creation, the new creation that God has already set in motion in the redeeming work of Jesus. All of creation groans. We try to make our way in life by using fossil fuels, but the system of manufacturing and consumption spins out of control until the world’s climate starts to be changed, pollution affects our air and waterways, and finally competition over limited supplies of fuel drives gasoline prices higher and higher. Creation groans in labor pains for redemption.

The two young men long for a world in which people treat one another well; they long for it without hope that it can really happen. The people across the Middle East and Africa long for rulers who will not sacrifice the lives of the people of the land in order to hold on to their power. They long for the powerful nations of the world to stop playing power games over their resources and lives. All creation groans for the children of God to be revealed. The poor people of this country long for their leaders to invest in people’s health and lives rather than more and more weapons. Creation is groaning all around us. The children of the world long for the opportunity to eat, learn, be healthy, and grow up to have families and homes, rather than being forced to work in sweatshops, to wander as refugees, or to be kidnapped to become child soldiers or part of the modern slave trade. All creation groans, longing for redemption.

Two Sundays ago, I had the opportunity to visit a former Duke Divinity student who is a pastor at a small town on the north side of Burlington, Vermont. Driving down through Vermont, along Lake Champlain and across the three large islands in the northern part of the lake, I had the privilege of seeing another piece of the beauty of God’s creation. This week in Kentucky a group of professors I was meeting with hiked up into the mountains to see a natural stone arch formed by the power of waters which once flowed where now there is a deep gorge and a thick forest. We don’t have to look very far beyond our parking lot at Mt. Level to see the great variety and complexity of the vegetation, animals, and landscape that make up the earth on which we are blessed to live.

Maybe if I could just step outside, get out of the rat race, and look at the beautiful countryside, I might be able to convince myself that things are just fine in the world and that nothing remains to be redeemed. But even in the midst of this beauty, I suspect you could tell me why what seems to be beautiful and complete falls short of perfection. Divisions among people because of skin color, social status, and economic opportunities no doubt affect the lives of people in Vermont just as they do in North Carolina. Economic and political decisions made in Washington, D. C., Beijing, Moscow, London, New Delhi, Jerusalem, and Teheran play a role in how many refugees are compelled to seek asylum or a new start. Offshore outsourcing of industry has turned the economy of places like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Vermont upside down, as factories close and jobs go away. Creation groans for our redemption.

Yes, all creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. Who are these children of God? What will we see in their revealing? What are we waiting for? First we should note that they are joint-heirs with Christ. They have been adopted through a new birth into the very family of God. They are God’s children. Previously they were orphans, living without love or hope, with no purpose or meaning, nothing in which to place their faith. But having been adopted, now they are heirs of all that God has given in creation. They are a new race of God’s children, acknowledging with Paul in Athens that God has made all nations of people of one blood. They are joined to Christ as the beloved of God, and they are joined to Christ in the mission of God’s love. They have received the Spirit of God that sets them free.

Why is the gift of the Spirit a gift of freedom? Having been joined to Christ and the Spirit, the children of God can set aside their fears of what the powers of the world might do to them. They can give up their fears of people who are different from them. They are free to live and love with the kind of self-giving commitment Jesus had. They can give up their own privileges for the sake of others as Jesus did. With their lives joined to Christ and the Spirit, nothing can destroy them. They can even risk their livelihood and their lives, knowing that God will be with them in life or in death. The whole of creation awaits the revealing of the children of God, a people who like Jesus are willing to suffer if they must to see God’s demands for justice carried out. They know that the blessings they receive from God are not for hoarding but for sharing. I think I would like to know that kind of person. I’d really like to have that kind of person live in my neighborhood. I’d be eager to meet a group of people who lived that way.

I hate to say it, but when I read about church people, I don’t always see people like this. When I talk to church people, I don’t always hear about the risks they are taking for the poor and marginalized, the beloved of Christ. Too often, so much attention and effort goes into managing the organization that the church forgets about being God’s plan to display the character and nature of God in the world. We may be the only image of Jesus that people ever see, so we don’t want to be out of focus and blurry.

Paul teaches us in Romans and elsewhere that the community of people who live God’s way are the very definition of the glory of God. He says that as we grow in grace, as we grow in our Christian lives, as we grow as God’s people, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. In this way, it will be as if we see the glory of God in a mirror. Did you get that? The glory of God is something Paul says we should see in the mirror, not because God is satisfied with us to stay stuck where we were on the day of our baptism, but because God will walk this road of life with us to change us to be more and more in the image of the true humanity revealed in Jesus Christ.

Jesus, our joint-heir, is the measure and standard of our humanity. He is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters who bear a family resemblance. Joined to him in baptism, we commit ourselves to become like him in his humility, his generosity, his faithfulness, his gentleness, his peacefulness, his patience, his kindness, his meekness, his hunger for justice, his purity of heart. People who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God are the very purpose God had for creation, the true image of God in humanity, the revealing of the glory of God. This is why all creation groans, longing for the glory of God to be revealed in the children of God.

So on the day of your baptism, you probably could not see all that God intends for you to be. Even years later, we see our failures and our shortcomings. We have far to go to take hold of that for which God has taken hold of us. So we press on toward the high calling. We run with perseverance the race set before us because of the glory that is being revealed to us and in us. We hope in Christ, for Christ is the hope of glory. With patience, we await that for which we have hoped, a creation which measures up to the goodness, beauty, and justice God has intended from before the foundation of the world.

What Are We Waiting For? Part 1

I've been sitting on this sermon for a while, reworking it a couple of times. Here is the first part of it.

What Are We Waiting For?
Part 1

Romans 8:12-25

Just before we perform baptisms here at Mt. Level, Pastor Turner calls for and receives a public confession of faith from those who have come to be joined to Christ. In the joy of that moment of confession, he usually turns to the rest of the congregation and asks us whether we who are present remember our baptisms. That is not such a hard memory for Baptists to dredge up, and the question encourages us to look back upon our lives so far following Jesus.

Some of those present have a rush of joy as they start to remember how their lives have changed over the years from that day they entered the waters of baptism. A few have in mind the harmful ways of living that God’s grace has helped them leave behind. Others have in mind the ways they have learned to trust God and walk in faith. Someone may remember the joy of growing to know the ways of God and finding a direction or purpose for living. Someone else may relive the joy that comes from having become God’s instrument and living in a way that serves and builds up other people.

Looking back on what has happened to us, we practice what Jim McClendon called one of the remembering signs of the church. We remember what has died with Christ, what has been buried with Christ, how our lives have been raised to walk in the ways of Christ, how we share in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Remembering helps us to join with the newly baptized in this community act of the church, this shared event of baptism that unites us to Christ and to one another.

A while back there was a very good feature film called Tender Mercies, starring Robert Duvall. It is the story of a middle-aged country singer whose life hit bottom through egotism, selfishness, anger, and alcoholism. The troubled character’s life had declined and dissipated to the point that he was drifting from place to place, ruining whatever remaining friendships he had. In the story, he ends up at an isolated Texas roadside motel and gas station, and that’s where his redemption begins. Struggling to get sober, he finds his way into a Baptist church, receives the good news of God’s love, and starts to learn the joy of giving of himself for others. Eventually, he is baptized, along with another character in the story, a young boy. In their conversation after the baptismal service, the question is asked, “Do you feel any different?” The answer, which probably comes as no surprise to folks like us, is, “Not yet.” Feel any different? Not yet.

So on the one hand, at Mt. Level we can look back on the years since our baptisms with joy in seeing how God’s work in our lives has unfolded. Yet on the other hand, the movie’s question reminds us how at the beginning of the process, we could not immediately see what God was up to in our lives. Today’s text reminds us, right at the end of the passage, that we were saved in hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. When we can see something already, we don’t have to hope for it. We already have it. But that is not how so many things work. Some things we have now, and others require waiting with hope.

When we entered the waters of baptism, we reached a great milestone in our pilgrimage toward the Reign of God. The hopeful act of baptism marked our commitment to place our trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. It depends on what situation you were in at that time just what the hope was. Maybe you did not see your way out of the traps of sin that were unraveling your life. You had determined to unite yourself to Christ to gain the strength to lay aside the weights and besetting sins in your life. Since you had been unable to turn your life around on your own, accepting baptism demonstrated your hope for a different life that was as yet unseen.

Perhaps you were a child who was recognizing longings you could not completely understand. It was a longing for something more of life that had been kindled by hearing the stories of Israel, Jesus, and the church and singing the songs of faith. You had come to recognize the love of God revealed in Jesus. You knew that Jesus loved you, and you knew that the church people loved you. So you were ready to say that you would walk hand-in-hand with the ones who had pointed you toward this love and this way of living. You were living in hope of what you could become in the hands of God, but you did not see it yet. It was part of the mystery of the life that God was already unfolding in you.

Whatever our situation at the time of our baptism, it is a time in which we do not yet see the full results of what we hope God’s grace will do in us. We are saved in hope, and we hope for what we do not see. God is not finished blessing when we climb out of the waters of baptism. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of humanity all that Christ has for us. As Jeremiah told Israel, God has plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give us a future and a hope. As Paul wrote in chapter 5 of this same letter to the Romans, hope does not disappoint. As he wrote to the Philippian church, God who began a good work in you will bring it to its completion.

A couple of weeks ago our family was at the gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. One evening in particular took us out of the ordinary events of the group. After an evening worship service, we walked down to a public area by the St. Lawrence River, in the town of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec. That night, a sixteen-year-old girl named Maggie was baptized.

It was a moment of great joy for her and for those of us who had watched her growing up in the faith. It was an opportunity for us to dwell in the hope of what God would continue to do in her life, in the lives of other young people present, in the lives of the old folks present, and in the work for justice and peace that many of them are doing in the name of Jesus. After she came up out of the water, one of the men started singing one of the good old songs, “Down by the Riverside,” a baptismal song. We come to the waters of baptism and lay down all the things from our lives, good and bad, so that we may offer ourselves to be remade and renewed by God. On that evening we joined in raising our voices to promise that we would lay down our burdens, we would lay down our swords and shields, and we would study war no more. A few of the town’s residents gathered to hear and see our witness, perhaps a bit puzzled by this crowd of people having church outside at the edge of the main business district.

Among the observers were two young men of about twenty years of age. When they saw us gathering, they made their way to get a view of the action. They heard us singing “Shall We Gather at the River,” and one asked in a loud voice, “Don’t these people know that God doesn’t exist?” They may have considered disrupting the observance, but instead became more than a little intrigued with what was happening. They conversed with several people over the next twenty minutes, sometimes intent on trying to get us to make some harsh or judgmental statement which would confirm their idea that Christians are hateful people who hold on to ideas that don’t make any sense. Apparently that part of their expectations went unfulfilled. Instead, they got a chance to see that there are Baptists who don’t fit their stereotypes of vengeful, unquestioning people with no compassion for anyone who does not agree with their ideas.

Both of the young men asked questions about how they could get their baptisms, performed on them as infants, reversed. They wanted to be unbaptized. They could see no reason to find hope in their baptism or in the church. One said he was an atheist and a nihilist, a person who does not believe there is a god nor that there is any purpose to the existence of the world or human beings. He said he thought we were more like biological machines.

As far as they could see it, there was no hope revealed through the church or baptism. Too much wrong in the world stood in the way. We did not hear detailed stories of their personal pains and hurts, but it is very likely that part of their disdain toward the church comes from direct experiences with Christians failing to live up to the name. But there is no point in my trying to psychoanalyze them. Whatever the cause, one can observe that they were not ready to hope in what is unseen. Too much of what they do see—the history of Christian failures to stand for peace and justice, the suffering of the hungry, Christians they have known who displayed hatred and bigotry, Christians unwilling to respect the questions these young men have about the possibility of faith—yes, too much that they see in the world leads them to despair rather than to hope.

I wish I could tell this as a story that would wrap everything up neatly in a storybook ending, with the young men seeing the light of faith and asking how to follow Jesus themselves. That’s not how it ended up. When most of the crowd had walked back to the campus, they called me aside to talk for another ten or fifteen minutes. I tried to respect their questions and resentments. They spoke to me with respect. I suggested some things they may not have thought about. They were willing to reconsider some of their assumptions about Christians. In the end, they were thankful for the conversation, and they acknowledged that all Christians don’t fit the stereotypes they had built up. They were surprised and seemed to be pleased to meet Christians who longed for the world to be better in some of the same ways that they longed for. The questions they asked and the challenges they made definitely revealed that they longed for a better world, whether or not they had much hope to see it.

Continued in next post . . .

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Just Peacemaking

Just peacemaking is the name for the body of work and writing by Glen Stassen, as well as an approach to peace and justice shared by many others with whom Glen has worked over recent decades. Recently Daniel Schweissing wrote an interesting post about his own interest in the just peacemaking paradigm. He links to more extensive writing by Michael Westmoreland-White discussing the principles of just peacemaking. I encourage you, as I am, to take some time to learn more about this important intellectual project and witness to Christian ethics.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mexico City Olympics and U. S. Civil Rights

In 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. One event many people remember was the medal ceremony for the 200 meter runners. Two African Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists and looked down away from the flag. The Olympic Committee was so angry, they were sent home and stripped of their medals. You can read about this story in blog posts by Duane Shank and Jerrod McKenna. Keep following the links, and you will learn even more. It is an intriguing sequence of events in a year of great turmoil and change.

I was struck as I read the statements and watched the video clips. I was 10 years old when these Olympics took place, and I remember the protest clearly. It was the first widely televised Olympics, and the first time I was paying attention. I remember a getting a feeling that the protest was inappropriate. Listening to some of the criticisms in the online clips, I was reminded of the vocal criticisms of Smith and Carlos.

White folks who have sought to come to grips with their formation in a racialized world have learned that even when they have made progress, they still can be surprised to discover uncritical responses embedded in their racialized historical memories. I found myself looking at these events with the eyes of a 10-year-old who had been taught not to hold racial hatred but who was confused by the intersection of racial injustice, sports, politics, and patriotism. My initial memory of the events brought back the judgment that these young men should have found another way, another time, and another place to express their political views.

For decades I have been critical of the devotion shown to the U. S. flag, freely referring to it as idolatry. Moreover, I have been intensely engaged in issues of race intellectually and personally for over a decade. It would seem that I would have thought through Mexico City by now, but I guess my attention never settled on it long enough to think through my earlier reactions. This time, as I read about the political context in the U. S., the International Olympic Committee, and Mexico, I was awakened to a whole new way of looking at Smith and Carlos. As I learned of their deliberate acts of protest, it made complete sense.

Whatever I've learned, there is always more. I look forward to the opportunity to watch the new documentary about these events, Salute!, and to looking at Tommie Smith's book Silent Gesture.
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