possibilities for the people of god

My Bonhoeffer classmates coordinated the worship service at CRCDS on Wednesday, November 2, 2016. The scripture reading was 1 John 4:11-21. I had the opportunity to offer the sermon. Here it is.

My oldest child is almost 14, and has very particular tastes and strong opinions. Because APPLE — TREE. I put a lot of time and effort into gifts for this kid because of these opinions and interests, and I find it rewarding to deeply engage my creativity, resources, and this child’s perspective. Driving home from class one night in September, I had a true light bulb moment. I decided that for Christmas, I would give my child two tickets to see Hamilton in NYC. My light bulb quickly shorted out with the realization that there were only a handful of tickets available for one matinee sometime at the end of June, and that two tickets to Hamilton cost about the same as seven months of mortgage payments. We now console ourselves by listening to the soundtrack once a day, reading/watching any media coverage and performances by the musical’s stars, and by learning more about the real life people upon whom the musical is based.

There are a few central themes to this telling of Alexander Hamilton’s life that I feel are relevant or even parallel to the current sociopolitical situation in the United States today, and are also relevant to the Church’s response. The first theme is introduced early on in the musical; Hamilton asks his new friend, Aaron Burr, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This discussion of ethics and values happens a number of times throughout the course of the musical, and the tension between the two characters rises until [SPOILER ALERT] they duel and Burr shoots and kills Hamilton. The End. I’ve now saved you $4000 and a trip to NYC. You’re welcome. The second theme is Hamilton’s sense of urgency and purpose, and is expressed in the lyric, “I am not throwing away my shot;” a line that returns with every new opportunity that Hamilton faces. The final theme, woven through both acts of the show, is that we don’t know who is going to tell our story after we are gone, and we don’t know how our actions will be interpreted by future generations.

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the Presidential Election is looming, and that the current social and political situation in our nation is at best, tense. And don’t worry — I’m not going to tell you to not vote for the hatemongering, xenophobic, racist bigot. I’m going to talk about love. First John 4 tells us that God sent Jesus to the world as the manifestation of his love, and because God so loved us, we ought to love each other. The early church loved each other by sharing all they had, and making sure all community members’ needs were met. Verse seventeen is a promise full of hope:

By this, is love perfected with us, so that that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world.

He is in the world, just as we are in the world. It doesn’t say that God’s love is only abiding in us, and it’s not just that God’s Spirit abides in our hearts—God is present and active in this world, in the midst of mudslinging, in the midst of angry words, in the protesting, and in the brokenness. Verse eighteen:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

The earth is groaning for want of perfect love. The lament we hear from oppressed communities is utterly heartbreaking. The images and violence from Ferguson, Miami, from overpoliced neighborhoods around the country, and even as I speak, from the landlocked sovereign Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

The election on Tuesday is not going to change this. Policy, laws, systems — none of these things will bring comfort to our souls or assuage our fears. Diettrich Bonhoeffer said in The Church and the Jewish Question, “A state that threatens the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself.” I humbly suggest a slight change in his words to make this applicable to the US: A state, or political party, that inserts itself into the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself. When people in power claim to be lovers of Jesus on Sunday, but do not love their neighbors on Monday, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. When those same saints profess their love of God on Sunday, but on Tuesday cut Medicaid and Medicare funding for families and seniors in need, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Wednesday, when those powerful, saintly men condemn a rape victim for having a few drinks, but give the rapist a Get Out Of Jail Free card, they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. And on Thursday, when they send the National Guard to violate the civil rights of an indigenous people on their own sovereign territory, they negate the value of human dignity, and they negate the proclamation of the Christian message. That’s a lot of negation. I mean, I’m only on Thursday in my little illustration, and I haven’t even mentioned the two hundred seventy eight people of color who have been killed by police this year.

What are we standing for, my friends? If we stand for nothing, friends, what will we fall for?

In that same sermon, Bonhoeffer suggested three solutions, or “possibilities for action that the church can take:”

First, we can question the state about the character of its actions. “Governor Snyder, how do you explain as a person of faith, letting the water situation reach crisis levels in Flint?” “Mr. Trump, as a man of big faith, how do you respond to the KKK’s endorsement of you? The KKK is a notorious domestic terrorist organization, how does that fit into your faith practice?”

Next, we can embrace the victims of the state’s actions. This means we lament with the families and communities of those 278 victims of police violence. This means we stand beside the Sioux and 500 other tribes at Standing Rock—whether it is our physical presence, or making calls to your Congresspeople every day until they recognize your number on the caller ID, and until they step up. This means we find a better way to communicate to pregnant women that we believe in the sanctity of life.

And finally, Bonhoeffer says that it is not good enough to “Not just bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel, but to seize the wheel itself.” This is a really drastic option that Bonhoeffer says should only be used when the church sees the state is failing. I don’t know if we are quite there yet.

Where exactly is that perfect love of God? Are we hoarding this love that is perfected with us, storing it like a commodity, putting it in the bank? Friends, we can’t sit back any more and accept the things that are happening in our country. There is no more room for neutrality. Bonhoeffer said, “The neutrals pose a special problem—in the first place, there really aren’t any; they simply belong to the other side.” Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Our communities of faith need to be on the side of loving our neighbor, not the side of the oppressor.

We love because He first loved us.

This is our time — let’s not throw away this shot to infuse our neighbors and our communities with the perfect love of Jesus. We cannot throw away this opportunity to acknowledge the people who are suffering, the children who are hungry, the ones who are afraid. My friend’s 15 year old son dressed up as Luke Cage for Halloween on Monday. At one house, the white woman who answered the door told him he was pathetic, and he shouldn’t have been trick-or-treating because his costume was inappropriate. My friend was not present for that interaction, and her son was hesitant to share what had happened because he had been humiliated by a person who didn’t see him as a human. She saw him as a scary Black man in a bullet-riddled hoodie. She was afraid of a child in a costume that she didn’t understand, from a television series that was not made for her. She saw him and was full of fear.

We have an opportunity right now to take the love that has been perfected in us and use it to reshape and rewrite the social narrative of the United States. In the same way that a mama gathers up her child who is shaking and cry-talking from a nightmare, we need to grab a box of tissues, pour a glass of water, and embrace the people who are hurting and oppressed and afraid. And we need to hold on to them, and lift them up, and honor them.

Right before the Battle of Yorktown, according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, George Washington sings a very short but powerful song,

I’ll tell you what I wish I’d known,
when I was young and fully of glory:
You have no control
who lives who dies who tells your story.
I know that we can win,
I know that greatness lies in you.
But remember from here on in,
History has its eyes on you.

History has its eyes on us. History always tells what we’ve done, from the Early Church to the Crusades, to the Religious Right, and I promise you that History is making a detailed record of our comings and goings as a people of faith. What will our children and grandchildren say about us when we are no longer here? More importantly, what will the children and grandchildren of the people who are oppressed right now, say about us?

Let us move forward with the confidence of a people full of perfect love. May we grasp Bonhoeffer’s possibilities and question the character of the state and the people who represent us. Let us lift the wheel off of the oppressed, and not only bandage their physical wounds, but work to heal their emotional trauma. Let us not throw away a single opportunity to embrace our neighbor and to love our brother, so that the story of the people of God in this time and place becomes the story of how God’s perfect love brought healing and reconciliation to this land. Amen.

One thought on “possibilities for the people of god

  1. A delightful illumination of a question and a conundrum that, this year in particular, have both been looping around in my head. Why all this talk of love and no action from those who claim to love their neighbors? This talk of loving but not acting on it will surely be viewed through jaundiced eyes as history sees it. I mean that in all perspectives, from neighborhoods here to neighborhoods around the world in places like Aleppo. Your sermon brought those to the fore in a near poetic manner.

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