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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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Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Difference the Resurrection Makes

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016.

Acts 5:27-32
When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

The Difference the Resurrection Makes

         Today is the second Sunday of Easter.  We celebrated that high holy day last Sunday with joy, enthusiasm, humility, and gratitude.  We considered what it is to be eighth day disciples.  We gloried in the appearances and words of Jesus to his followers who had felt lonely and hopeless.  In the marvelous gift of Jesus’ resurrection, it begins to dawn on us that somehow, in innumerable ways, everything is different. 

Twenty centuries ago, Mary, Thomas, and their friends, came to realize that their concept of God’s power had been too small.  They searched their memories for words Jesus had spoken, deeds Jesus had done.  They realized how much they had misunderstood what had happened when they were with him.  In those last weeks of his life, those last days, even those last hours, he had pressed hard to explain to them why he had come.  He had corrected and clarified what kind of leader he was.  He had demonstrated and described the kind of community of ministry he wanted them to be.  He had poured himself out in words and acts of love that for them had in many ways seemed like any other day with any special friend. 

But it turned out, against their state of denial, that it was not like all other times.  At this time, on this day, those who plotted against him would not be denied.  The day Jesus’ enemies would arrest and execute him had exploded upon them.  They had kept telling themselves and Jesus that it was not going to happen.  Some had worried, but on the whole, all they could see ahead was a rising tide of Jesus’ triumph over the powerful elites, the wealthy oppressors, the religious snobs, and the Roman invaders.  Jesus was going to sweep it all away.  They had heard the preachers.  They had listened to their moms and dads tell the stories of the Messiah’s coming.  Some had read the prophetic writings.  They remembered how Moses and Miriam had led the people out of Egypt.  This is what they saw coming. 

It was not what came. 

They had misunderstood the message.  They had misunderstood the stories.  They had misunderstood the Messiah.  They had misunderstood their friend.  In a whirlwind of events, Jesus had been arrested.  His followers were confused, disorganized, afraid, unready.  As each hour passed, their disbelief only grew.  How could this be happening?  They saw him verbally attacked.  They saw him beaten and tortured.  They saw the conflicting interests of the powerful battle over what to do with him.  And finally, they saw him exhausted, abandoned, struggling to say a few last words, to show a few more moments of love, until he could bear no more, and he died.  A spectacle of violent power was brought down on this good man, and it did not stop until he was crushed.  Less than a day before, they had talked, eaten together, and shared treasured moments.  Now it was all swept away.

So when Mary and Thomas, a week apart, faced the realization that Jesus was now living, though he had been dead, they were mentally and emotionally overwhelmed.  What could it all mean?  Their friend who had been their hope had been brutally killed by the state, but now now he was present with them, talking to them, touching them.  That just does not happen.  We would call it “mind-blowing.”  It was not something they would get a good handle on in a few minutes.  It was going to take some time.  This resurrection, more intense and amazing than Jairus’s daughter or even Lazarus coming from the tomb, shook the foundations of reality.  And if this was the destiny of their friend Jesus, then he must be far more than they had ever imagined him to be.  Who was this Jesus they had followed?

The New Testament tells us that Jesus appeared to many people over a period of many days—not just on that Sunday morning; not just eight days later.  He appeared to a couple of friends on the road.  He showed up by the shore where people were fishing.  He met them in Galilee.  Jesus, the Word became flesh who dwelt among them, who moved in their neighborhood, was back at it again.  He hung with them and talked things through.  He made sure they understood the time they had spent walking and talking with him was only the prelude.  Now was to be the beginning of a world-changing movement.  Now, they would have to take up the task of doing greater works than he had done.  They would have to reorganize their lives around loving one another.  They would have to be ready for their men and women to rise up and lead, from young to old, toward a better world, a more just social order, a beloved community.

So although we are still in the season of Easter, and not yet at Pentecost, the lectionary has brought us this text from the book of Acts.  It is about the work of Peter and other apostles who were going about in Jerusalem preaching and doing mighty works.  Masses of people were following the way of Jesus.  The priests and rulers who thought they had gotten rid of the Jesus problem were frustrated and angry.  They tried arresting and threatening them, to no avail.  They tried putting the apostles in jail, but the prison could not hold them.  After the conversation in this text, the Council would have them beaten to try to scare some sense into them.  That was not going to work either.

Peter, we recall, had tried to start a war at Jesus’ arrest, had hung out on the fringes, had denied Jesus, and had run away brokenhearted.  Most of the other disciples had scattered, hidden, disappeared when Jesus was threatened.  Any who saw or heard the events did so from afar, from the shadows, from hiding places of their fear.  So how is it that they were so different in Acts 5?  They had come to realize that the resurrection changes everything. 

In their time with the resurrected Jesus, They had

remembered, recentered,

ruminated, meditated,

reconsidered, reconfigured,

contemplated, explicated,

reassessed, praised and blessed,

retold, grown bold,

understood, gazed upon the Highest Good

—God’s goodness revealed in Jesus Christ, their Messiah, their Savior, the Risen Lord, the Great Physician, the Liberator of the poor, the Ever-loving Friend.  With new focus on the depth of reality and of truth, they were changed.

What a difference the resurrection made!  In chapter 4, when instructed not to be preaching and carrying on about Jesus, they answered, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  After some more time of living in the glow of resurrection glory, and after a partial night spent in jail, their confession became even more precise.  This time, when chastised for continuing to teach in Jesus’ name, they answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 

What a powerful witness!  What insight into the truth they now had!  But if we are to understand what their statement means, we have to remind ourselves of some of their previous misunderstandings of Jesus.  Now, it was becoming clear.  But when he was alive, they were just about clueless.  Since the resurrection, the Holy Spirit had drawn them again and again to Jesus’ words and deeds.  New light had dawned upon their eyes, their ears, and their minds.  The resurrection had made all the difference.

Think back to the time Jesus began to tell his disciples that he was expecting his enemies to capture and kill him.  Peter said, “No.  That’s never going to happen.”  He told Jesus not to be giving in to that negativity, not to speak that into the world.  He thought by keeping a positive outlook and making the most of the resources at hand, Jesus could never have to suffer such a terrible end.  But, Jesus, who himself was not fond at all of getting tortured and killed, had to push back on Peter’s tempting proposal.  He told Satan to leave him alone.  He didn’t call Peter, “Satan.” 

He spoke up to the tempter.  Sure it sounds good to maybe plan for weapons to face up to weapons.  Sure the multitudes were on his side and could be persuaded to take up arms.  But Jesus had come to realize that he could not win against the violent powers of the world by taking up violence as his own means.  A victory of love has to come through loving people, no matter how wrong and harsh they might become.  So Jesus rebuked that idea and reaffirmed his faithfulness to God.  He would not settle for a short-sighted human strategy.  He would not take the path of the world.  He would be faithful to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly into the face of his enemy, loving the enemy even to the point of being killed by the enemy.  So he realized he would have to try again later to explain to his buddies and compatriots what the coming days were going to bring.

Peter really was not hearing it.  He did not even for a moment think that Jesus would be the victim of state-sponsored murder.  He was sure, if it came to a fight, they could win it.  So even at the last moment, in the garden, he grabbed his sword and tried to start the revolution.  Jesus had to rebuke him one more time.  That is the world’s way.  The world depends on swords and other weapons of violence.  Violence breeds violence, in an ever-downward spiral of destruction.  Jesus was not going to be one more link in an eternal chain of violence.  He explained again that the way of the sword is the way of destruction.  One who lives by the sword ultimately dies by the sword.  That is the world’s way.  That will not be Jesus’ way.  Jesus will obey God rather than any human authority or power, even the power of violence. 

Let’s take a look at a second way their understanding of Jesus was changed.  Since Jesus had risen, Peter had been mulling those words over.  He had been rehashing the events of those crucial days.  The resurrection made the difference.  He was realizing that what Jesus came to do was so much greater, so much more extensive, so much more revolutionary than he had ever imagined.

Before Peter drew his sword, another conversation had caused a rumble of anger and trouble among the disciples.  James and John, the Sons of Thunder, probably did not get their nickname from being pushovers and passive.  As they walked along, they had pulled Jesus aside.  The events were exciting.  Crowds were proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah.  They, like Peter, believed the war to end all wars was about to break out.  They were sick of the Romans putting their boots on the throats of the Jews.  They were ready to put their feet on some Roman necks.  Since they were so sure Jesus was about to give them that opportunity, they started thinking about who would have what status in the New World Order.  They asked Jesus whether they could be his vice-regents when he became King.  He was always talking about a Kingdom, so there had to be a hierarchy and some people in charge of everything.  They had been tight with him from the beginning, so why shouldn’t they get some recognition, some power, some position to shape the vision of the future? 

They must have pressed their point so loudly that everyone overheard their request.  People started fussing and griping.  Jesus must have rolled his eyes and let out a big sigh…  They just did not get it.  No matter how much he had tried to show them what he came to do, they kept thinking it was something completely different.  Seeing, they did not see.  Hearing, they did not understand.  So he set out again to explain.

He told them that in the world, people who are rulers tend to become tyrants.  They want to “lord over” others.  They like to dominate, control, and master people.  The world sees power as something that those on top press down upon everyone else.  Worldly power is power over others.  Then Jesus told them, “It must not be this way among you.”  Don’t accept the ways of the world.  Don’t obey the world’s existing patterns of domination.  God has another way, and I’ve been trying to show it to you.  Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.  Leadership is serving.  Leadership is working for the good of others, not just trying to keep everything good for oneself.  Servant leadership is what I have shown you.  It will be the way you should also live and lead.  Power in Jesus’ kingdom is not power over, but power with one another.  We care for one another.  Loving one another, we aim only to outdo one another in service, not for acclaim, but to see love blossom and expand far and wide.

Maybe a few of the disciples felt embarrassed.  Maybe they listened enough to have their consciences pricked.  Probably some of them kept grumbling about James’s and John’s arrogance.  Probably some were mad at themselves for not asking Jesus first.  Whatever way they reacted to Jesus’ correction of their view of the Kingdom, they clearly did not absorb the lesson.  According to Matthew and Mark, this conversation happened not long before Jesus rode a donkey colt into Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds who believed he would save them by coming to be the heir of David, their greatest king, a mighty warrior.  The disciples probably quickly forgot about the servant leader idea.  They started tasting the defeat of the Romans as they imagined this mass of people from the countryside and the streets forming itself into an army for battle.

So a few days later, Jesus was showing them exactly what he meant at their Passover meal.  He undressed down to the scant clothing of a servant and began to wash their feet.  They were alarmed, shocked, and upset.  He had rank in their cohort, so he should not be doing that.  Peter fussed with him.  They had not understood how to lead through service, and Jesus had to show them.  He washed their feet, one by one.  It did not diminish him.  Rather he grew in their hearts that evening.

Even with that dramatic lesson and explanation, they still struggled to get the point.  Luke tells us a dispute about who was greatest came up after the meal.  Jesus one more time talked over with them about how worldly thinking views power.  The leader, in God’s world, is one who serves.  Rather than greatness coming from size, strength, or any other means of domination, the greatest should appear as a child appears--one who would obviously not be a threat to others.  Even though we think of the one who gets served by others as the greatest, Jesus reminds them that he came among them as one who serves.  The way of the world is not the way of God.  Jesus says that he came to obey God, not human conceptions of greatness and power.  How hard a lesson this was for them to learn!  And no doubt they did not learn it at that time. 

But what a difference the resurrection made!  Now, in the temple and before the ruling priests, Peter and the other apostles were not arguing about who was in charge, who was greater, or who was going to get put down.  They didn’t tell the ones who arrested them, “You can’t do this!  Don’t you know who I am?  Are you trying to get yourself in trouble?”  They went to prison and waited to see what God would do.  If God had brought Jesus from the prison house of death and the grave, then God might very well bring them out of the jail.  On this occasion, that is what happened. 

Rather than being overcome by fear and anxiety, they found themselves changed by the resurrection.  They walked out of the prison with instructions to get back to their public teaching.  God’s messenger told them to get back to delivering the message of following Jesus into a life that goes against the grain of the world.  So they started at daybreak to disobey the ruling authorities.  Leading and serving people, healing the beggars, lifting up the kicked aside and thrown away people, serving them and elevating their lives toward Jesus’ Kingdom—this was to be their way.  They did not rush to the Sanhedrin and command the Sadducees to kneel before them.  They did not gather a crowd with clubs and swords to force the rulers to submit.  They simply ignored the worldly powers and their forms of domination.  They kept telling people that Jesus had shown them a new way to live.  They kept building a contrast society, a beloved community.  The resurrection had made a difference.

One last moment in the final day of Jesus’ life deserves our attention as we think about the difference the resurrection makes.  Jesus went on trial not only before the high priests, but also before Pilate.  Pilate took him into his chambers to interrogate him and consider his judgments.  At one point, he did exactly what Jesus said he would do.  He roared, “Don’t you know who I am and what power I have?  I can crush you if I decide to do so!”  He spoke as a tyrant.  He lorded over Jesus.  Jesus, who came as a servant, was unperturbed.  When asked if he was a king, Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. 

Be careful here, or you will miss his point as pitifully as the disciples did.  You might already be thinking that Jesus means his kingdom is in heaven, not on the earth.  You might think he means it is invisible and spiritual, not visible and material.  You might think that, but it would not be what he said.  Rather than take Jesus’ phrase “not of this world” to mean “not of the earth,” we do better to hear him say that his kingdom is not a worldly kingdom.  It is not a domination system like the kingdoms of the world.  It is not a structure that depends on violence to gain power.  That’s why he goes on to say that his followers are not fighting to keep him from being arrested.  That’s not the way he fights.  That’s not the way he wins.  Jesus wins because love wins.  Jesus wins because peace defeats war.  Jesus wins because enemies must be turned into friends.  That is why his kingdom is not a worldly kingdom.

Now although Jesus had been taken into the governor’s courts for this conversation, someone must have reported what they said, because it ended up in the Bible.  Maybe there were some of his followers nearby who were able to listen.  Maybe Pilate enjoyed bragging and telling the story, and it got around to Jesus’ followers.  Maybe they had to wait and hear about it after they could quiz the resurrected Jesus about what had happened on that day.  But someone told the story, and it was considered an important story to report in the gospels.  It was a clarifying story.  Placed alongside so many other things Jesus had said, it helped to put the puzzle together.  God has a way for us to live.  The power of love is a very different kind of power than the world.  Human authorities will prefer force and violence as means of domination.  But Jesus shows humans a better way to live.  It is not Pilate’s way.  It’s not the world’s way.  It is God’s way. 

What a difference the resurrection made!  There, fresh out of prison and living in the Jesus way, not the worldly way, Peter and the apostles were again brought before the ruling authorities.  They were asked why they did not obey the previous admonition to cease and desist from all their Jesus rabble rousing.  They were accused of slandering the rulers.  But Peter and the apostles could see that this domination must not be the way they must live.  Peter and the Apostles had been changed.  There were united to Christ in the resurrection.  They answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  Not a question this time, but a bold affirmation came from their mouths. 

“We must” began their statement.  Out of the chaotic mass of human social existence, Jesus has called together a new community.   We are united in him to be a body, a living organism.  We are a community with a mandate to follow Jesus. 

“We must obey God.”  It is not up to us to figure out how to gain power through domination.  Jesus, who came to us from God, showed us a better way, and that is the way we have to go.  

“Rather than any human authority.”  We know that you all are religious and political leaders.  We know you have put yourselves in charge and the Romans have let you do that.  But we don’t need to live in a world where people put themselves in charge over others.  We live in a different reality. 

It is the reality constituted when “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus.”  The resurrection has changed everything.  We now see that everything is different.  So we don’t live by human self-serving politics.  Our politics is the politics of Jesus, of serving, of loving our neighbor, of loving even our enemies.  We will keep on living that way, even if you use your domination power to try to stop us.

In this new confidence they began to preach a sermon to the chief priests.  They announced the resurrection.  They told about Jesus’ execution, hanging on a tree.  They proclaimed that the Resurrected One has been exalted as the Leader, a serving leader who saves the endangered and lost.  They tell them that the reason they can say all this is because they remember what Jesus did and said.  “We are witnesses.”  We have been thinking all this through.  Now we understand what a difference the resurrection makes.  God’s Spirit testifies with us that the resurrection has changed everything.  It’s not your world any longer.  It’s a different world from where you come from.  It’s the world reborn in the resurrection.

The apostle Paul would later write to the Corinthians that because of the resurrection, we no longer look at people from a human point of view.  He says that we used to look at Jesus that way—a crackpot, a con artist, a troublemaker, a pain in the neck, an impediment to our ambitions.  But we don’t see Jesus that way any more.  We see the world through the eyes of a loving God.  We look upon the world from the perspective of the bent knee of a serving Savior.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.  The old has passed away.  Behold, all has become new.  It is because of the life, the teaching, the servant way, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus that all has been made new.

The resurrection makes the difference.  Whatever ways that you have found yourself captive to powers of this world, the resurrection has made the difference.  We no longer have to try to gain power over others.  We may join with others to build power with one another for our mutual good, for the common good.  The resurrection makes the difference.  We can unite around the good that God has planned for the human race and for all creation.  We don’t have to give in to being divided, sorted, ranked, stacked, appraised, or crunched.  The resurrection changes everything.  We can unite in beloved community.  We can live this life God has called us to live because of the difference the resurrection makes.  Amen.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Fugitives from Injustice

The practice of preaching involves lots of listening and learning from others preachers.  There is lots of borrowing and using of preached materials--one wishes more of the borrowing and using included credit given where credit is due.  I don't deny that my preaching is shaped by many influences.  This sermon, in particular, depends heavily on the debt I owe to my friend J. Kameron Carter.

I have been blessed by his friendship in many ways.  As dads, we have supported and prayed with one another through the task of knowing how best to love our children as the gifts from God that they are.  As workers, we have hashed and rehashed, chewed over and stewed over the ups and downs of employment and collegial relationships on the respective plantations where we find ourselves earning a paycheck.  As theologians, we have run our current ideas by one another over coffee in conversations that seem to open up into so many vistas that there is never a good stopping point.

One such conversation that has gone on across many months is his reflection on Christology, engaging social theorists and classical Christian texts, from which he has been exploring the notion of fugitivity, of Jesus as fugitive.  As Jay might say, "dat joint has worked on me."  On this conversation, mostly I have listened.  My contributions have mostly been around my own efforts to understand Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist, his ministry under the constant threat of assassination, and his reactions to the political murder of John by Herod.

Finally, I felt compelled to try to think within this framing of Christology that has occupied many hours of coffee drinking.  I put it into the form of a sermon for chapel service at Shaw University Divinity School.  I first preached this sermon on Saturday, March 12, 2016.  Thank you, Brother J, for your generous teaching into the life of your friend.

Mark 6:12-16
12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
             14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

John 4:1-4
1Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” — 2although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria.

John 7:10-14, 25-26, 30-36
10But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. 11The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?” 12And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” 13Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.
             14About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach….
            25Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? 26And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah?...
            30Then they tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come. 31Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?”
             32The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering such things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him. 33Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. 34You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.” 35The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks? 36What does he mean by saying, ‘You will search for me and you will not find me’ and ‘Where I am, you cannot come’?”

Fugitives from Injustice

            This week at the Ministers Conference, Dr. John Kinney gave thanks that he has worked in a place that he can continue to learn by regularly engaging with students.  If we are faithful to God, we will keep on learning and having to change our minds.  I can agree wholeheartedly.  In the current Lenten season, as we seek to journey with Jesus and learn through his life what sort of lives we should live, I find myself going back into studies and sermons from my past to dig deeper.  How did Jesus’ life change when John the Baptist was executed?  What was it like for Jesus to continue to do his important work while under the shadow of death threats and people plotting against him?  How can learning about Jesus’ endangered life reshape my vision of the church and ministry in this critical time?
            The texts we looked at today, drawn from two different gospels, provide us pieces of a story.  It seems likely that a fuller version of how these stories fit together was well-known to people who through word of mouth passed down their remembrances of the activities and sayings of Jesus.  While it is not possible to piece together a definitive chronology of Jesus’ ministry years, the fragments we do have make evident certain patterns and relationships between events.  We can see more than mere suggestions of Jesus’ mode of life.  We see his strategic engagements of confrontation and withdrawal and his habits of prophetic witness and pragmatic self-preservation.
            Although the four Gospels provide different accounts of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, it seems clear that even in the early stages of his work he began to face serious conflicts.  John describes confrontations with the leaders in Jerusalem and their response in the form of persecution.  Under this state of affairs, Nicodemus avoided meeting Jesus publicly in the light of day.  Although the synoptic gospels do not describe an early ministry in Jerusalem, they convey a similar atmosphere of conflict early in Jesus’ ministry. 
             Matthew describes the harsh words John used in criticizing the Pharisees and Sadducees, and then shows Jesus continuing John's pattern in the first major discourse section, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Highlighting the shortcomings of the religious elite, the wealthy, and the powerful could not have won him many friends among those groups.  Mark gives account of how Jesus’ fame spread rapidly, drawing both fans and critics in greater numbers.  When he healed a paralytic and said, “Your sins are forgiven,” some began to accuse him of blasphemy.  He stood his ground and won over the crowd, much to the chagrin of his critics.  When Jesus called a tax collector to be one of his close followers, Pharisees began to challenge him for associating with outcasts, only to have Jesus stand up to them for turning their noses up at his friends.  Luke famously tells of Jesus’ invitation to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, where he makes the leaders so angry they try to kill him.  Thus, we should be fairly certain that from the early stages of his public life, Jesus was in conflict with the powerful people in his world who began to plot his demise.
As the passage from Mark indicates, Jesus’ aggressive teaching and work among the people eventually gets the attention of Herod, and not in a beneficial way.  Herod, troubled by his shameless murder of John the Baptist, seems driven by his guilty conscience to believe that Jesus is in fact John raised from the dead.  Herod’s paranoia becomes a fast-spreading topic of conversation, eventually getting back to Jesus and his disciples.  We have no reason to doubt that Jesus had been deeply affected by the murder of his cousin and mentor.  Knowing the hatred Herod and his family had for John, Jesus could easily deduce that Herod would be coming for him next, and the stories of Herod’s suspicion confirmed there was reason for fear.
Thus the fourth chapter of the fourth gospel tells a story of Jesus making a rapid retreat to Galilee.  Unlike some more bigoted Jews of his day, he did not take the roundabout Transjordan route through Perea.  Jesus did not share the same prejudice, and he was in a hurry to get away from those who were plotting to harm him, so he took a path straight through Samaria toward the cosmopolitan Galilean region where he could move more freely with less surveillance and fewer threats.
If we can accept some version of the timeline offered by the fourth gospel, then Jesus seems to have made multiple trips to Jerusalem, and perhaps across several years of public ministry.  The last passage we read describes one such trip which was cloaked in secrecy.  First, he told his brothers that he would not go.  But later, he sneaked into the great city and avoided being noticed for a while.  Eventually, he started coming out in public and getting into confrontations.  He seems to have had to go back into hiding from day to day, or even from hour to hour, because people were openly plotting to arrest and kill him.  He intentionally engaged them in argument, then slipped away before they could grab him. 
The gospel says, “his time had not yet come.”  In other words, he was not ready to be caught.  He was not ready to interrupt the subversive work he was doing throughout the countryside and from town to town.  He was not ready to be torn away from his close friends and his large crowd of followers.  They were part of a mass movement, and momentum was building.  He was making progress and wanted to see it through.  So his time had not yet come.  He was not ready to push the conflict toward its possible conclusion.  So he told them that even thought they would look for him, they would not find him.  He eluded their grasp and left them confused.
To borrow a term from my coworker and friend in ministry, J. Kameron Carter, Jesus was a fugitive.  He had taken on a fugitive mode of life.  As a fugitive, he was pursued by the powerful and their agents of police control.  He had become an enemy of the state, persona non grata, an undesirable, unwelcome in the synagogue or temple, a threat to the social order, a subverter of economic progress.
He was Trayvon taking a short cut through the neighborhood.  He was Michael or Rekia walking down the street.  He was Sandra driving into a new town where she was not known.  He was Renisha or Jonathan on a porch, knocking on a door to ask for help, outside their neighborhoods.  He was walking while black, driving while black, living while black—unable to be carefree and at ease in his life.  He had no place to lay his head.  He was living under suspicion, always at the edge of danger, ever aware of the threat to end his existence.
He was forced into constant watchfulness, powered by anxiety, as were those who had escaped slavery into the northern states during the era of slavocracy.  Although they had entered into territory which should have made them free, the perversity of white supremacy had allowed the Fugitive Slave Law to require citizens and police of the northern states to catch, detain, and return slaves.  The corrupt profitability of trade in human flesh meant that even free blacks were in danger of being falsely accused of escaping and forced to go south and be enslaved. Slave catchers and informers could be anywhere.  Fugitivity was the condition of life for escaped slaves.  The danger to black persons even today when they cross out of their assigned neighborhoods maintains a disturbing similarity to the Fugitive Slave Law system.  And yet by living in this fugitive condition, their very bodies announced the truth of a counterpolitical social order.  The truth of their existence was freedom.  The lie was slavery.
For Jesus to be a fugitive required in part that he keep a low profile.  It was not that he remained hidden away in a cave or a back room.  The gospel accounts tell us that he was regularly surrounded by crowds who went searching for him when he escaped their presence for a brief time.  In fact, it seems clear that he often found it hard to rest because of the constant barrage of people wanting to meet him, to hear him teach, or to be touched or healed by him.  Jesus was a revolutionary presence in his world.  People’s expectations were sky high.  And this popularity and fame is what was at the same time forcing him into a fugitive life.
Carter says that this fugitive life of Jesus constitutes a “zone of the new humanity.”  Jesus was enacting through his atoning life the model of social existence to which the church is also called.  It is a life that pursues a different purpose from that of the ruling powers.  Its end, its goal, the Reign of God, is a social order not authorized by the existing power structures and worldly economic and political order.  To the extent that churches or other religious systems accommodate themselves to the status quo, to the interests of the current regime and its overreaching power, they align themselves against the fugitive way of Jesus.  They take on the neocolonial role of the Sadducees, Herodians, and Pharisees, as supporters of structures of domination who gladly take their elite position just below the officials of the colonizing power structure imposed by the Roman empire.  Churches need to stop being that kind of auxiliary to empire.
Carter further says of the fugitive Jesus,

His mode of life, the way he lived, was fugitive from the order of things.  He cared for the poor, fed the hungry, hung out with menaces to society, refused to judge according to our measure of judgment (indeed, his judgment was against all judgment); he worked on the Sabbath, doing good and healing the sick even and especially on that day.  This was his mode of life, his way of being human.  And it was a threat….He was the quintessential enemy to both the religious order of things and, especially, to Roman imperial society.  And because of this there was massive collusion to kill him by his Jewish compatriots, Roman/Gentile society, and even within the fold of his followers, the disciples.  (David Kline & J. Kameron Carter, “Race, Theology, and the Politics of Abjection: An Interview with J. Kameron Carter, Part I,” The Other Journal, March 26, 2012.)

The forces which made Jesus into a fugitive, the empire and its lackeys, had a deadly purpose.  The fugitive Savior was not playing a friendly game of hide and seek.  The consequences of his fugitive ways were likely to cost him his life.  And of course, they did.           
            One hundred fifty-one years ago, not too far away from where we gather today, former slaves hunched down, sometimes having to hide among the crops in the field to dodge bullets that still would fly in their direction.  They were gathered together to study the Bible and theology, in the rudimentary formation of what would become Shaw University Divinity School.  Although by proclamation and by terms of surrender, they were free persons under the law, by actual conditions their efforts at betterment and uplift put them in danger of harm at the hands of those who wished for them to remain enslaved. 
            They were a fugitive people following the way of the fugitive Jesus.  As Kelly Brown Douglas notes, they were aware that the prophet’s claim that “My ways are not your ways” brought divine judgment on the slavocracy and its religious cheerleaders.  The so-called Christianity of the master class denied the truth of the gospel, leading our forbears to conclude that “everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”  In a world where human flesh is bought and sold, where a person’s body becomes another persons tool for profit or pleasure, where families can be broken apart by cruel commercial calculation, the first students at the Raleigh Institute understood that to follow Jesus was to disavow the social order.  The world needed to be turned upside down, and they were fugitives struggling to overthrow a perverse and corrupt social order.
             Like Jesus, they needed to stay alive long enough to do what they were called to do.  Also like Jesus, they would have to be willing to stare down a deadly system of power, and in doing so keep putting their lives in danger of violence, imprisonment, or death.  It might seem to be a useless plan of life, a hopeless struggle against insurmountable odds.  Why not find a way to fit in?  Why not trade away some dignity for survival, accept limited freedom in exchange for passivity?  But that was not the conclusion they reached.  They were, instead, the vanguard of a new order living under the conditions of fugitivity.  They embraced their fugitive lives because they served a risen Savior.
As Carter explains, Jesus’ fugitive life was not a mere isolated moment.  He was not a tiny, passing blip on the radar of human existence.  The movement he built in his fugitive life grew toward a tipping point.  Eventually, he pressed his fugitivity toward a full-scale confrontation.  Having demonstrated the truth about human existence, the truest way of living, he went toe-to-toe with his enemies. 
Unlike them, he refused a violent solution.  He turned his followers away from the idea of overthrowing one domination system in order to reinstate another one in which they could be the ruling elite.  He shut down his friends’ efforts to kill or harm their opponents, and offered healing even to the ones who would arrest him.  In other words, he was faithful to the end in refusing to live the life of worldly domination. 
Caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending prisoners, loving each neighbor (even the ones who are enemies)—this was his mode of life even until the end.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  Believing that the way of love is the true path to joy and fulfillment, he fixed his gaze on the joy that was set before him.  That was how he could endure the cross and despise its shame.  For his followers, it seemed that his arrest and execution was the end of their hopes.  But they were wrong.
Jesus became a fugitive from his tomb.  In vindication of his faithful life, God raised him from the dead.  Through the resurrection, we may be united to Jesus in his fugitivity.  We may along with Jesus live in contradiction to the domination systems of this world which would deny that black lives matter.  We may reject the respectability politics that tell us the world will accept us and reward us if we will merely follow its rules and avoid rocking the boat.  There is an outcry today among young people who look upon a world in which the government and the corporation and the church have turned their backs on them.  Following the rules is not working.  Trivial traffic stops can quickly turn to life and death situations through no reasonable cause.  Stop and frisk policies make the prejudice of the enforcer adequate reason for a beat down.  When they speak up in their own defense, they are met with militarized policing; they are fired for pointing out unjust wages and organizing workers; they are labeled as lost and narcissistic and unreachable.  They have become outcast in their own homeland, and then blamed for bringing it on themselves.
The church cannot concede to respectability politics.  The world’s interests and purpose are not our interests and purpose.  We follow a fugitive Savior.  If we are to be the body of Christ, we must live in that resurrected fugitive mode.  Going along to get along is not an option.  Carter argues that we can understand Jesus’ death and its atoning power as his descending “right into zone of death, the fallenness of the creature. His death witnessed to a [fugitive] mode of life, and his resurrection was an affirmation of that mode of life; a distinct way of being human was complete and full and utterly accomplished in him” (Carter, ibid.).
United to him in his atoning life, death, and resurrection, we also become participants in this mode of life as fugitives from the regimes of this world, from the established ordering of society.  We take up a revolutionary way, a subversion of the oppressive, violent ways of this world.  We are made new, and as a cadre of the new creation, we press toward the overthrow of corrupted, perverse systems of death.  We do so with prophetic witness and pragmatic perseverance. 
As Dr. Gina Stewart proclaimed concerning the ending of the Gospel of Mark, we receive the news of the resurrection as a shocking awakening to the breaking in of a world of love and justice.  The women at the tomb received an assignment to organize the disciples and meet up with Jesus in Galilee.  They did not run around making a ruckus and provoking a new crackdown on Jesus’ followers, but they worked carefully and faithfully to build a movement ready to go public.  Ultimately, they got their marching orders from the fugitive Savior.  They strengthened themselves for the struggle ahead.  Behind closed doors, they built trust and community.  The made strategic plans and considered alternatives.  They deepened their resolve to give their lives fully to God.  They looked out for one another. 
Then one day there was a sound as a rushing mighty wind.  They were filled with power as the Holy Spirit came upon them.  They went out and filled the streets.  They proclaimed the coming of a new world order.  They saw it breaking in.  They saw the “powers that be” taken aback and confused. 
And they demonstrated for us, heirs of their movement centuries down the way, that we also may become fugitives from the regimes of this world in the struggle to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  Amen.

Friday, April 08, 2016

This Ain't Right

This week my youngest daughter sent our family group a text message.  It said, "Guy I grew up with in Durham was shot and has died."  Her siblings and I exchanged a few texts as we learned about the young man.  His name is Cortnay Garner-McDougald.  #SayHisName

The two of them were students together at George Watts Elementary School, at Brogden Middle School, and at Riverside High School.  "Earliest I can remember him is fourth grade."  That's pretty far back.  They weren't best buddies, but they saw each other, passed each other, and sat in class together sometimes.  "He was in a couple of honors classes at Brogden" that she was also in.

All that the newspaper had to say was the place where he was found, shot in the head, dying at the corner of Grace and Liberty Streets.  The police found him in response to a reported shooting.  A young man's damaged body on the street corner.  Some mother's child.  Some father's son.  Someone's grandson, nephew, friend.

I wanted to know more about him.  The picture the newspaper offered was a mugshot.  He had been arrested previously, on the same Grace Street, along with some other young men, charged with shooting into a dwelling.  Why is that all I can find out?  Although he had lived in this world for at least 25 years, the only accessible information was about an arrest, his being shot, and his death.  He had not been tried for or convicted of any crime.

That's not the world I want my adult children to have to deal with.  Four days later, as I write about Cortnay, there is no obituary other than listing his name and a funeral home.  The funeral home website does not list his name.  Someone knew him.

Was there a church or other faith community that he had encountered?  Did they learn his name?  Did they write it down?  Did anyone wonder where he was when they did not see him in Sunday School, at choir rehearsal, or in the service?

A friend I have recently gotten to know, Royce Hathcock, talked to a group of students at Shaw Divinity School last Saturday.  Among many important things he said, one stuck with me.  Royce said that at his church, Tapestry, they were trying to be a community that keeps up with people.  They were not first interested in finding more people; rather, they want to stay in relationship with the ones who have already come their way.  Royce and some other church people in South Raleigh were devastated when their friend, Akiel Denkins, was shot and killed recently in their neighborhood.  They had known him.  He was in and out of their classes and churches, but they stayed in touch with him.  When Akiel died, it was not a head-scratching moment to try to figure out who the young man was.  It was a piece of their heart that was broken.

Royce was not claiming to be part of a perfect church, but there was something basic to being a church that his words expressed that day.  Somewhere, family and friends who had kept up with Cortnay had their hearts broken.  No one is telling their stories in print.  I can only wonder if there is a church who knew Cortnay and is grieving his absence.  This ain't how things should be.  It is never the will of God that a young man get a bullet through his head.  God wants life for us, a life of loving one another.

May God's Spirit surround the people who love Cortnay Garner-McDougald.  May God's Spirit make us lovers of the young men and women in our neighborhoods and cities, loving enough to keep up with them.  May we be found accompanying Jesus life-giving mission at the corner of Grace and Liberty Streets.  #SayHisName
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