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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 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.

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