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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, July 15, 2016

A World Fit for Naomi

This is the second reflection/sermon on the horrible violence that continues in our world, preached last Sunday after a week in which police killings of black men rocked Baton Rouge and Minnesota followed by a mass killing targeting white police officers in Dallas.  Some preachers may try to deal with such events by simply continuing to preach on topics already scheduled, ignoring current events.  That seems all wrong to me.  Biblically and theologically, it is a season that calls for lament.  Lament is an honest crying out to God for an accounting and for divine action and presence in the midst of all that is going wrong in the world. 

These deaths, though remote from Durham, still can be personal to each of us in a variety of ways.  We may know someone who has suffered in the same way.  We may know someone who is in the same kind of work.  Or we may have found ourselves in a similar situation such that "there go I, but by the grace of God."  One of my connections on this day was my daughter's birthday; thus, the title represents my struggle with hopes and fears for her life, the lives of my other children, and the lives of so many more who must face dangers and aggressive evil in the world.

As I have done several times recently, I draw on multiple texts from the Revised Common Lectionary to piece together a narrative and argument.  I suspect that this time that the centrifugal force of my anger and hurt have led me to be more "all over the place" than I usually let myself be.  If at times it seems that I am digging down in my knapsack for everything that makes me mad, grant the patience that it also may be an opportunity to speak to as wide as possible a range of different hurts and fears in the congregation.  In retrospect, I have never had so many mothers and women come to offer their thanks and appreciation for a sermon when it ended as this past Sunday.  May that be a learning opportunity for me about how I flesh out an argument when I preach.


Amos 7:7-9, 12-13
7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.
7:8 And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;
7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."
7:12 And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;
7:13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."

Colossians 1:9-14
1:9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
1:10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Psalm 82
82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
82:2 "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
82:3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
82:4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."
82:5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
82:6 I say, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
82:7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince."
82:8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.
 
A World Fit for Naomi
to Bear Fruit in Every Good Work

         I was eager when asked to preach on July 10, a special day in our house.  Naomi was born down the road at Duke Hospital on July 10, 1989.  A couple of things immediately went through my mind, perhaps not in this order.  First, I thought it would be an opportunity to reflect on Naomi, and so many other Mt Level children, as a gift of God to us.  Second, I thought it would give me a chance to tell an embarrassing story about her.  Well, I would not really want to embarrass her too bad.
         Naomi came into the world full of energy and joy.  Many of y’all know her for her grace in worshipful dance, but you may not know that she started practicing her dancing almost as soon as she could walk.  There was a time when she would take a bite of food, climb out of her chair and dance a loop from room to room in the house, then climb back up to continue her meal.  She also was a very creative child in making up words to suit her understanding of the world.  One of those words was the name she called me for a while.  We don’t really know why she combined the words Mommy and Daddy to come up with “Momdy.”  But for a while, when she was 2 yrs old, I was Momdy.  Well I could go on and on, but telling stories on Naomi is not my main purpose today.
         Many of you could easily start in telling fun and funny stories about family memories.  Even when life is hard, families and children can show resilience in finding ways to be joyful together.  We can thank God for making us able to be resilient and to see that life need not be judged by its worst moments.  It’s not always easy to see that.  In the deepest periods of my grief over Everly’s illness and death, you all stood by me.  You saw me step into this pulpit and struggle to speak, even weep at times.  I felt like I had become the crying preacher.  And I’m not sure that today is going to change that pattern. 
Today is a day of sorrow, a day for worship through lament.
         “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?” the Psalmist cried having lost home, family, and everything else she or he loved.
         “How long, O Lord?” the prophets asked, watching the injustices of the world.
         It’s been a week for calling out to God.   In Baton Rouge, a man was already pinned to the ground and still shot.  In St. Paul, a man cooperating with the officer who stopped him was still shot.  Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—two people’s lives were taken from them, from their families and communities.  As people began to rise in the liturgy of protest across the nation, another mass shooting took place in Dallas, targeting police officers.  Five died:  Lorne Ahrens, Brent Thompson, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Patrick Zamarippa.  How many lives must be lost to the evils of racial fear and hatred, God?  How long can this go on?
Every name points to a family, to moms and dads, to sons and daughters, to brothers and sisters.  Bullets have destroyed relationships, traumatized loved ones.  Our hearts break when we hear a boy crying for his daddy, when we hear a little girl trying to comfort her mother.  And it’s only human that we start thinking about our own loved ones.  What kind of world is this for our children and grandchildren?  What kind of world is this for the young people who live on our blocks and in our neighborhoods?  Is this a world fit for Naomi?  I know it’s not the world I want for her.
The reading from the Prophet Amos reminds us that too often the world has not lived up to God’s standards for justice.  He tells about a vision in which he sees the Lord holding a construction tool.  The tool is a plumbline.  It’s a simple tool that relies on the force of gravity, and it has been used at least back into the days of ancient Egypt.  The plumbline, sometimes called a plumb bob, combines a weight and a cord or string to measure whether a beam or other element of a building project is vertical, whether it is perpendicular to the ground.  This is similar in its function to a tool many of us may have used or seen, a level.  A level usually is used to judge whether a beam is horizontally level, and it actually also operates through the force of gravity.  When a builder hangs a plumbline, gravity causes it to hang straight toward the gravitational center of the earth.  The string forms a straight vertical line that can be used to measure whether a wall is being squared up properly to build a strong and stable structure.  If the structure is out of line with the plumbline, then it needs to be corrected.
So when Amos sees this vision of the Lord using a plumbline, it is a vision in which God is taking a measure of whether Israel is lined up the way it should be.  God is checking to see whether the structures of Israel have gotten out of whack.  Has Israel become crooked?  Are Israel’s public officials, rulers, and other powerful people out of line, bent, and twisted?  God is not going to ignore a misaligned society, according to Amos.  The rulers and religious institutions are in for an inspection, and being found to be crooked and out of whack, they will have to be set right.  Some boards and masonry may have to be knocked down so they can be rebuilt the right way.  Some people in charge will have to be replaced.
If we were to read the whole book of Amos, we would find that a wealthy class has conspired with the rulers and the priests to let greed win out over justice.  The poor are suffering.  They are becoming slaves in service of an oppressive ruling class.  The systems of political and economic justice that God had given to Israel have been ignored and discarded.  Israel has gotten out of whack, and the priests and prophets who should be upholding the law and looking out for the people are themselves in on the corrupt system.  Amaziah, high priest of Bethel, is angry with Amos for criticizing the temple and the king.  He challenges Amos for daring to speak against the house of worship and against the king.  He says that Amos should not say such things in the king’s sanctuary.
Does Amaziah not understand what he is saying?  Isn’t the house of worship dedicated to God?  Isn’t it God’s house?  Yet Amaziah says it belongs to the king.  He calls it a temple of the kingdom.  Help us, Lord, if we have become the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.  Help us if we have become the governor’s sanctuary and the temple of the General Assembly. 
Are we unwilling to speak the truth in our churches because we dare not offend the powerful?  Do we believe our preachers have crossed the line if they criticize the mayor, the manager, the governor, the legislators, the board chair, the police chief, or the sheriff?  Have we gathered here to worship the social structures and the status quo as if whatever is happening in political and economic life is the will of God? 
Lord, give us the courage and hard-headedness of Amos!  He told Amaziah that he was neither a prophet (by which he probably meant a well-trained messenger from God, perhaps from the priesthood like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others) nor was he the son of a prophet (by which he probably  meant a disciple or trainee working under a prophet).  He was a farmworker who did not let his particular job nor his lack of training  keep him from doing what God sent him to do.  Let us be ready, whether we are trained prophets or not, to speak the truth God gives us to the powers that oppress and abuse people.  The plumbline does not lie.  Social forces have warped the world we are in and gotten it all out of line.  It’s not producing and protecting justice.  God is expecting us, like Amos, to stand up for justice.
Psalm 82 creates a dramatic portrayal of God’s judgment upon the bent and crooked systems and structures of our world.  It describes an imaginary divine council, as if there were a pantheon of gods who came together to argue and negotiate the fate of the world.  It was not uncommon to believe such a thing possible in the ancient world, with the common assumption that every group of people, every tribe or nation, had its own patron god.  Some of the Bible’s stories imply that the various gods battle against one another for territory and for devotion.  According to this Psalm, a council of divinities has gathered, and in walks the God of Israel.  When God walks in, the politics of the meeting change. 
It says God claimed the seat of judgment.  That would seem to be the highest place.  This telling of the story quickly makes it seem that those who would pretend to be gods are being put in their place.  Having taken the seat of judgment, God speaks to principalities and powers gathered there.

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

This Psalm helps us to understand what is out of line from Amos’s vision of the plumbline.
         First, it says they are judging unjustly.  The decisions made by powerful people are showing partiality.  The wicked thrive because the legal system is twisted to help the powerful.  Bribes and influence peddling are distorting the fair distribution of goods among the people.  Abuses and oppression slip through the courts, and no one is held accountable for clearly unjust acts.  The Psalmist calls out all who are abusing the system to benefit some and harm most.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we must stand up against an unjust legal system.  Whether the abuses happen in the North Carolina General Assembly, in the US Congress, in the police department, in the district court, in the banks, in the boardrooms, in the jailhouse, in the fast food chain, in the immigrant detention center, in the housing authority, in the big box stores, or in the social services department—the time has come to change the way things are being done.
         Second, the Psalmist names our duty as “giving justice.”  People deserve better than they are getting.  There is a right response to human dignity and a right response to wrongdoing.  The right response is justice.  When justice is denied, society starts to crumble.  The efforts of the powerful and wealthy to benefit themselves without care for others will eventually destroy the system which is benefiting them.  An unjust social order destroys itself from within, but the tragedy is how many people are harmed and even killed by injustice while the corrupted system remains in place.  The antidote to this road to destruction is to restore a system of justice for all.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we have to fight back against unjust laws and unjust conduct of the legal system.  Those who do wrong should face consequences and have opportunities to repent and change their ways.  Those who have been abused should be restored to their just and joyful state of living. We have to take to the streets and to the halls of decision-making to be faithful to God.  Seeking revenge is no form of justice, but a continuing corruption and expansion of injustice. 
         Having said to give justice, the Psalmist restates this charge with additional demands.  The Psalm has God telling the others gathered in the council to “maintain the right” of the ones who are being abused.  Giving justice is not only setting things right that have already gone wrong.  It is also promoting a system in which justice is the standard operating procedure.  It is making sure people have what is rightly theirs before they become destitute.  Extending the availability of health care to tens of millions more people is an attempt to maintain the right.  Yet if the laws are flawed and create opportunities for powerful corporations and their executives to overcharge for drugs and medical procedures, there is still much more to be done.  If the system continues to shut out millions of people, to allow medical bankruptcy to be the most common form of bankruptcy, and to use medical care as an ideological tool for party politics rather than a cause of justice, there is still much more for us to do.  God’s gift of health to creation should not go to the highest bidder nor be denied to those whose jobs pay less than a living wage.
         Part of our duty, according to the Psalmist, is to rescue and deliver the poor and needy from the hands of the wicked.  Whether it is the abuse of usury through payday loans charging 300% to 700% interest, or the speculative real estate deals that put renters out of affordable housing to redevelop neighborhoods for gentrification, or the high risk financial transactions that led to a worldwide economic crash that put hard-working people out of jobs and homes, we must be about the work of rescue and deliverance.  We can’t sit idly by and watch governments that bail out supersized banks, that allow the very people who destroyed the economy to continue getting richer rather than go to jail, and that leave unemployed people without health care, without homes, and without hope for a job that pays a living wage.  We have to open our hands, our buildings, our pantries, and our wallets to those who have been put out, cast aside, nickeled and dimed, and kicked to the curb.  The work to rescue those harmed by the injustices of the world is part of the work of giving justice.
Third and finally, we should note that the Psalmist is naming the ones who are being abused and should be given justice.  The list includes the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, the needy.  Just to make sure, the Psalmist mentions the weak twice.  The point is that some have access to the halls of power and others do not.  The ones who have had to depend on a just social order to protect them are now being abused.  Their weakness is not a lack of ability or strength, but it is a lack of connections, of access, and of anyone to call on for help.  They are not in the noble families.  They don’t have money to grease the palms of those who might help them.  They lack many basic necessities.  They are deprived of what any person must have to thrive and flourish.  Symbolic of this kind of weakness is the orphan.  Lacking parents, the protection of orphans falls to other family members or community members, and orphans find themselves subject to the whims and indifference of society.  The plumbline shows that the treatment of these people fails the test of verticality—the way they are treated is not upright.  With Amos and the Psalmist, we must take the side of those who are being oppressed and work together for justice.
This imaginary council of gods has failed to measure up to God’s standards for justice.  So God reminds them of their true nature.  While they imagine themselves to be gods, they are not.  They are mortal.  Their end will come.  Like every human institution and government, they will fall.  Then the Psalmist concludes the Psalm by praising God and proclaiming the truth about who God is.  “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”  It’s not a council of equals, a group of gods in competition.  It’s a room full of pretenders who must now face the only true God.  The Psalmist calls for God to rise and judge the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions, the rulers and authorities, the pretenders and posers and wannabes.
As I pointed out earlier, often the Bible presents the idea that the various nations may have their gods in competition with the God of Israel.  We tend not to think quite that same way about the nations and the gods, although perhaps we are not as far from that world as we think.  But it is definitely true that if we examine the ways that we act, it seems like we expect to find rescue and salvation in the world.  There are clearly many gods in our imagination.  These pretenders, these false gods, find their social embodiment among the governmental, corporate, patriarchal, and intellectual structures and systems of our world.  We look to these powers for salvation, although we seldom use that language.  We keep the salvation language locked up in church, but we live as if we still need many more saviors outside the halls of worship.
Who in our day are the gods gathered in council?  What are the names of the gods offering us salvation from the challenges of our lives?  What powers are we calling on to get a leg up and prove ourselves better than others?  The Psalmist reminds us that no matter what idols and false gods the world is calling on for salvation, only one God is the true judge and savior of the world.
Only a week ago, across this city and the nation people elevated an idol in their churches by pledging allegiance, not to the God of Jesus Christ, but to the flag.  Many sang songs of war and battle to demonstrate their hope for salvation rooted in the nation and its military might.  The idea of America has become a doctrine of salvation.  It is a belief that by spreading the power and influence of this country, the world will be saved.  Statements of faith about “the greatest country in the world” accompany a theological understanding of America as God’s chosen nation.  These unbiblical and heretical ideas penetrate into institutions that pose as churches, but instead act as the king’s sanctuary, the temple of the kingdom.  Amaziahs all over this country seek to silence the prophets and protect the status quo of power that has its origins in genocide of the native peoples and enslavement of Africans.  God is judging the idols of nationalism and calling us to justice.
Another god of our time is whiteness.  Pale skin functions as a sign of chosenness, a sign of destiny, a sign of superiority in our world.  Darker skin remains a sign to many of condemnation, of evil, and of danger.  Thus some like Dylan Roof rest their faith in protecting the white race by seeking to kill the descendents of Africans, even as they gather in church.  Others with less overt in their racist ideas continue to act out this same worship by labeling children like Trayvon, and Tamir, and Michael, as a menace, as a threat, as a monster.  The fiction of race has had deadly consequences for half a millennium, and it remains a powerful doctrine of salvation expressed in the aphorism, “If you’re white, you’re right.”  The differential treatment of people of color in the legal system and through mass incarceration has given rise to the phrase, “the new Jim Crow.”  One way or another, the legal system seems committed to salvation through destruction and degredation of dark-skinned people.  God is judging the idols of whiteness and racism and calling us to justice.
Another false god of our day is the gun.  The NRA has steadily repeated its religious mantra of salvation that the only way to stop bad people with guns is to have more guns in the hands of good people.  The gun is the means of salvation.  Arm everyone with all sorts of powerful weapons, and this idol tells us we will be safer and more able to defeat evil.  What else is a gun but an instrument of violence?  Some might demand that I do homage to hunting and the long heritage of providing meat for the table.  I can acknowledge that without being turned away from the truth that people who are buying and gathering guns are doing so out of fear that they will have to try to protect themselves from marauding enemies, either from beyond our borders or already within our borders.  Guns are being offered as a way to be saved from immigrants, criminals, and jihadists.  They tell us that guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  But guns make it so much faster and easier for people to kill people.  I would have to reply that guns don’t save people; love saves people.  God is judging the idols of guns and gun violence and calling us to justice.
         Another false god of our time is the border wall.  Some would claim that America can be saved, and all of us with it, if we could just keep out all the foreign people trying to undermine our prosperity and society.  The reasons given are differences of language, differences of culture, differences of religion, and scarcity of the goods that everyone needs.  If we can keep out the outsiders, we’ll be saved.  The God of Jesus Christ has invited all outsiders to come and be part of God’s peoples—all of us who are Gentiles are welcome.  Keeping people out is not God’s way.  God is judging the idols of xenophobia (fear of outsiders) and racial and religious hatred, and calling us to justice.
The Psalmist says the gods were gathered in council, so there must have been many of them present.  Who else was there?  There is the god of money that promises us if we can get enough, we will have everything that we need.  Of course, we always need just a little more.  It is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the god of superficial, chauvinist Christianity that twists the faith of a peaceable, non-violent Jesus into a call for holy war against Islam.  Yet we are called to love our enemies.  It is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the god of virility and sexual conquest that promotes male sexual domination to prove one’s power in the world.  Elevating oneself by harming others is ultimately destructive of oneself.  Patriarchal power over women is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the false god of fortified bathrooms.  Fearing what they do not understand about the variety of sexuality in creation, people grasp at harmful solutions to complicated issues requiring understanding and reconciliation.  Hate Bill 2 is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is the false god of consumption that says we can be somebody if we wear the right labels on our clothes, drive the right vehicles, eat the right foods, join the right clubs, and in every way stay abreast of the trends.  But this neverending consumption in fact consumes us until we disappear into our possessions.  Consumption is a false doctrine of salvation.  There is a false god of respectability.  It tells us that if we just go along to get along, if we keep showing ourselves to be respectful and respectable, we will be saved from the dangers of the abuse of power.  Respectability discourages protest.  It tells the young people to go home and stop talking about “Black Lives Matter.”  It looks for fault in the ones who have been abused, as a way to prove to ourselves that it can’t happen to us.  But this week and the past two years are sure reminders that respectability is a false doctrine of salvation.
         The gods gathered in council are not saviors.  They are idols, bent on using and abusing us for our own destruction.  They distract us from the trust in God that we ought to have by urging us to trust in idols, in salvation by other means.  They discourage us from standing up for the truth of God’s salvation because we are too busy trying to earn a false salvation that promises everything but delivers death.  Guns, money, nationalism, whiteness, and every other false god only draw us away from the one true God who is demanding that we live justly, love mercy, and walk in God’s way.
         The Psalmist’s description of God’s judgment and victory among the false gods of this world is a foreshadowing of the victory of Jesus over the powers and authorities.  Our text from Colossians today speaks about how the people in that church and in that city have grown in their faith and in following the ways of Jesus to the point that they are bearing much fruit for God.  Their love and their faithfulness to Jesus’ ways have become well known.  Since we know Jesus and we know what the Psalmist has written here, we can infer that their bearing of fruit must also include a flourishing of justice in their community.
         Beyond the first chapter of Colossians, Paul goes on to write about the victory of Christ over evil.  He says that the thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities, and powers are subject to Christ because they are part of the creation that Christ himself accomplished.  Moreover, through his cross and resurrection he has disarmed them and made a public example of them.  He has judged them and now rules over them.  God’s purpose for the structures and institutions of human life is that they contribute to our flourishing, that they serve the good of humanity and all creation, that they give justice to all God’s children.  So just as the Psalmist says, now Paul repeats that we must be about the work of giving justice and maintaining the right, rescuing and delivering the unjustly treated.
         Joining Paul in his prayer for the Colossians, I also pray for our world to be this kind of world.  Although many who seek their own benefit and ignore the good of others are at work to twist this world away from justice, the work of Christ among the Colossians reminds us of the hope for transformation of a corrupted world into a community of love and mutual service.  That is the world that I pray and I work to send my children into.  It is the world that we as God’s people long for.  It is a world in which Naomi can bear fruit in every good work.  Through our prayers and devotion to the God of Jesus Christ, the seeds of that fruit and that good work are planted in her heart and in the hearts of Mt. Level’s children.  Yet we have seen horrifying reminders this week of the continuing struggle against evil, against the false gods and idols of our day, and against the forces that would turn us and our children away from our calling.
         Thus, we continue to join with Paul in his prayer for the Colossians that they will be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power.  We will need strength to face the evil at work in our world.  We will need strength to break through the intense misunderstandings and divisions that keep people at odds over race, class, guns, money, and power.  We will need strength to get out of bed day after day to take up the cross of Jesus and live for justice in an unjust world.  We will need strength to love when it seems hate is winning the day.
         Our hope rests in the power of the God of Jesus Christ, who has, as Paul tells the Colossians, “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  As he has rescued us, now we are sent into an unjust world to continue his work.  Jesus has redeemed us.  Jesus has forgiven us.  That is the world into which we may enter:  the loving fellowship of Jesus, a world of redemption, a world of forgiveness.  That is a world fit for our children to respond to the calling to give justice.
 

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