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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, March 13, 2015

"I'll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your homes or to your church."

When I first preached on "The Regard of God" in February, it was in preparation for joining the Moral March to the Capital with Historic Thousands on Jones Street.  A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to preach again, and this message seemed appropriate for the occasion, Shaw University Divinity School's Alexander-Pegues Ministers Conference.  This year's theme was "Resurrecting the Dream:  The Gospel and Socioeconomic/Political Freedom."

Since I preached it the first time, I had opportunity to hear the Mt. Level MBC seminary intern, Tyler Joshua Green, preach an excellent sermon on Matthew 17 and Jesus' struggle and determination to challenge the deadly structures of injustice in the world.  As he moved toward his conclusion, on the fiftieth anniversary weekend of the Selma march, he drew a powerful insight from John Lewis's descriptions of the events of Bloody Sunday.  It was a theologically powerful claim about the nature of the church.  I just kept thinking about it, and decided to rewrite the sermon with a different ending, expanding and "riffing" on what TJ Green had said.  So what you have below, in the spirit of Markan scholarship, the "alternate ending" of my sermon on "The Regard of God," offered at the early morning session of the Ministers Conference on March 10, 2015.  The text for this sermon was Isaiah 40:21-31.

When the economy crashed half a dozen years ago, the easiest thing to do was to relegate economic injustices to the realm of things too complicated for action.  Church people too often shrank back from the challenges the world was throwing at us and said, “[Sigh!] All we can do is pray.”  When I hear that, it often seems to be a way of saying, “We give up, and we don’t plan to use our energy trying to make a difference.  We will just leave it to God and ask God to fix it without us.”  That is a sad kind of prayer.

Praying is actually a big thing to do, if we do it right.  Praying, contrary to much of our actual practice, is not about changing God’s mind.  It is about God changing our minds.  If we had prayed seriously, we would have come out of prayer meeting working on a plan for action against economic injustice.  If God hates injustice, then praying ought to ignite hunger and thirst for justice in us.  That hunger and thirst should stir us to walk and not faint.  A congregation cannot do everything, but it can do something.  We can do the obvious things of offering relief to those who struggle, but we can also do the less obvious things of economic development, forming credit unions, insuring the health of our poor members, creating business incubators, growing fresh and healthy foods, investing in our neighborhoods, providing job training and jobs, shutting down the usurious lenders, pressuring businesses and governments to act justly toward the people.

For all the talking we professors do, you might not realize how much we learn from our students.  I came to Shaw University with an almost lily-white, bleached-out education.  My first day teaching undergraduates sent me to the library and the bookstore.  When I got the chance to teach in the seminary a few years later, I had to intensify my study to be able to teach black theology as an integral part of theology class.  Conversing with my students brought me step by step down a road of deeper understanding.  So if you hear me saying something worth remembering, be assured that my students’ hearts and voices are echoing throughout my words.

I say that because on Sunday at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, we had a first-year seminarian named Tyler Joshua Green preach.  I need to credit him with the next move I’m going to make in this sermon.  He was bringing his text into conversation with the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March.  He drew my attention to a specific quotation from Congressman John Lewis.  Lewis retold key events of Bloody Sunday, and the one I want to point out was the warning he says Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers gave them.

"I'll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your homes or to your church."  Six hundred people, two-by-two, had stepped out of the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, to carry their case to the seat of power in Montgomery.  At the front of the procession were the young John Lewis, a contemporary and fellow-soldier with our distinguished Dean Forbes, and Hosea Williams of the SCLC.  TJ Green pointed out the irony of Major Cloud’s instructions, and I’ve been thinking hard about that ever since.

Cloud told John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and the many who stood behind them that they had three minutes to leave and return to their homes or to their churches.  It seems pretty clear that the Major misunderstood what he was talking about.  Major Cloud thought the churches were a place to go and hide from the world, to escape from the world’s troubles, to ignore what goes on outside their walls and doors.  But the churches were not like that. 

Lewis, Williams, and so many more had been in church praying.  They seem to have known what prayer was about.  Through their prayers they had been drawn up into the mission of God.  Their hearts had become unsatisfied with the warm feelings they could get in the pews and aisles of their sanctuaries.  Their eyes saw through the stained glass windows and brick walls into a world where the beloved children of God struggled for a crust of bread to eat, for a book to study, for a job to earn with dignity, for a voter registration card to affirm their citizenship, for a safe street to walk without being shot down by vigilantes or police.  They saw a place where Jesus had walked among the outcast, the despised, the wretched of the earth.  Their prayers fortified their wills to be followers of Jesus.  They found sweet communion with a savior who walked in the dangerous and barren places of the world, and they did not want to miss out on a minute of being right where Jesus was walking.

The churches may have been a refuge in the storm, but they were, Oh, so much more than a refuge.  They may have found joy in singing and praising, but they were praising a God who was calling them to walk and not faint. The churches were not a place of irrelevance for the shape of the world of politics.  They were ground zero for the in-breaking of the Reign of God.  They were the launching pad for a Holy Spirit invasion of every stronghold and power base of evil in God’s world.  The churches were a place to see a new vision.  They were the strategy room to plan and prepare for taking on injustice.  They were the School of Truth that this Christian Band would be speaking to power.  They were the dressing room for any who would be clothed in righteousness.  They were the supply depot for any who would put on the whole armor of God.  They were the sign-up desk for everyone who would embrace the mission of God's Reign, saying, “Here I am!  Send me!”  They were the breeding ground of a liberating gospel that revolutionizes the world through a simple prayer, "God's will be done on earth!"  They were an empty tomb where dreams are being resurrected.

So when this conference is over, take Major Cloud’s advice and go back to your churches.  But don’t go back to hide and cower.  Don’t go back to ignore and doubt.  God has regarded our worship and our faithfulness.  God’s regard goes beyond those walls of the building and to all God’s children.  Therefore, go back to stage the next wave of gospel change.  Go back to live in the regard of God, to pray and be changed, to walk and not faint. 

Isaiah, if you are listening there in our great cloud of witnesses, this is what we will do.  We will go into the world because we have known.  We will make sure the poor in our neighborhoods have health care because we have heard.  We will stand up against the killing and locking away of our children because it has been told to us from the beginning.  We will create opportunities for education and jobs because we have understood from the foundation of the world.  We will go into the world because it is a sign of who we are and whose we arethose who belong to the One who spread the heavens as a tent for us to live in.  We do our Kingdom work as a foretaste of the new age God is bringing among us, who brings princes to naught and strengthens the powerless.  We go into the world under the everlasting, unsearchable regard of God. 

God is the one who has regard for us.  The everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth, created our little corner of it too.  God has regard for us.  We walk in the regard of God who does not faint or grow weary.  We go to our churches to be transformed and become part of a long walk to justice, to love, and to community.  Let’s plan to walk and not faint, thankful that we live and move and have our being in the regard of God.

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