Brothers In Conversation About Race (Part 10)

The question that still remains concerning race in America is the question of unity. What does it mean to live in unity with those who are not like us? What does it mean for the majority to recognize and accept the issues that are important to the minority? How can the minority who has been oppressed and still feels the remnant of that suffering move past the hurt to embrace unity with the majority? There are no easy answers to these questions but that does not mean we cannot attempt to have conversations that move us toward resolution. The prevailing sentiment is that we are too far gone; that people have dug their heels in and there is no room for negotiation or discussion. The prevailing sentiment is that any compromise will be seen as defeat; any concession of any point concerning what we believe about race/racism will be viewed as losing our principles. None of which is helpful. We have to be able to have discussions. We have to be able to honestly question each other and allow ourselves to be questioned. We have to be able to hear one another with the understanding that no one has all truth and no one is all wrong.

My hope that this is possible comes from my belief in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world. This week’s lection from John 17:1-11, reminds us that Jesus was given authority over all flesh to over eternal life (v. 2). The tricky part is found in the very next verse: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The unity we seek is in knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to know God? People have used their “knowledge” of God to justify many abhorrent behaviors and beliefs. Racism has been justified using scripture. Division has increased as people lay claim to God’s word as their own, refusing to believe that anyone else has knowledge of who God is. Yet, Jesus prays for all who are his followers. He prays that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This does not mean sameness but does mean an intimately close relationship that allows for difference without separation. We have to be willing to come back to the table and discuss our difference knowing that we are united in Christ. We have to swallow our pride and let go of our self-glorification born out of this belief that we fully know God. We have to admit our limited knowledge of God and embrace the knowledge that others have been given by Jesus Christ.

Until we face the problem with honest reflection, we will continue to live in the division and conflict we see in the world today. Until we let go of our need to be glorified, to have the light shine on our thoughts and beliefs, we will continue to fail to glorify God with the unity God intended. I’m ready, let’s talk.

Brothers in Conversation about race… ( Part 1)

As Americans, we know that we are divided on the issues of race and African American interactions with law enforcement. We even know what it takes to become united in relation to these issues but yet we choose to remain divided. Instead of listening to each other, we choose to throw around labels. Our beliefs become so ingrained in such a small amount of time that any rational conversation seems impossible. As a result, with each new incident of another African American dying at the hands of law enforcement only produces another string of #Blacklivesmatter vs. #Bluelivesmatter war of words. We continue to cover the same ground with repeated phrases; rehashing the same problems without offering any solutions. We know we can’t continue in this course of action because eventually we will simply destroy each other in our division. Yet, another day dawns, another African American dies, and the war of words continues. We all have a perspective based on our experience but that should not prevent us from seeking solutions.

 

Community out of Crisis (Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

As previously mentioned this morning’s service is a remembrance of the fatal shooting that took place on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. The shooting was and is remarkable for a number of reasons not the least of which is the congregation’s show of love and forgiveness, that kept the shooter’s intention of causing division and hostility from coming to fruition. It is the juxtaposition of the intentions of the shooter and the response of the congregation that makes this reading from Galatians appropriate for this morning’s sermon. Paul addresses the church at Galatia, who are having some difficulty with the notion of freedom. They obviously were having questions about what it means to live in Christian freedom and Paul writes this letter to them to provide an answer. It is this portion of Paul’s letter that informs our response, as we remember the Emanuel 9 this morning. It is only through the proper understanding of Christian freedom that we can create community out of this crisis.

Our reading today begins with Paul’s theological statement and focal point of the entire letter. Paul writes, for freedom Christ has set us free. Only a few words but packed with significance. First and foremost, it is done. Our freedom has been won completely once and for all on the cross. We are free though not all of us are living in this freedom. We are free though many mistake worldly freedom with Christian freedom. Freedom can be understood as choosing from several different options. As Americans we are used to having choices; we walk into a grocery store and there are four or five different brands of whatever product we are looking for from toothpaste to soup. Many equate the ability to choose with freedom but Christian freedom actually limits our choices. If we would live in the freedom that Christ offers, we are no longer free to go off on people; we give up our freedom of speech so that we speak as we are led by the Holy Spirit with patience and love. We give up our freedom of religion submitting ourselves to the only true and living God and pledging our allegiance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exclusively. We are freed but not for the sake of self-indulgence; not for the sake of doing whatever we want, living totally unrestrained. Paul says that living a totally unrestrained life is to subject ourselves again to the sinfulness from which Jesus has set us free. He frames this argue based on the dichotomy of either living by the Spirit or living according to the flesh. Flesh here is not to be misunderstood as Paul saying that the human body is inherently bad or evil. For Paul, flesh is shorthand for being self-centered and individualistic as opposed to being God-centered leading to loving and caring about others. For Paul, the works of the flesh include both material (fornication, drunkenness) and spiritual (sorcery, idolatry) desires. Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit has spiritual benefits but also helps us in our relationship to the material stuff of this world. So there is not a body/spirit opposition in Paul’s argument, he is not making a case for giving up material possessions and desires but rather it is the conflict created by disordered desires. The natural longing for God becomes idolatry; the natural longing for sexual intimacy becomes fornication. When disordered desire or living according to the flesh takes over we begin to act out of rage and anger; our zeal, our deeply held beliefs become the cause of factionalism and division. But whereas the flesh causes hostility, strife, and division the Holy Spirit creates community. The two are diametrically opposed to each other. You cannot live according to the flesh and according to the Holy Spirit simultaneously.

This opposition between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit has reared its head on numerous occasions in the church in general and in what becomes the United Methodist Church in particular. The church in general and United Methodism in particular has failed to live according to the Spirit. Colonial and early American preachers used Holy Scripture to support and justify the institution of slavery in this country. In the Methodist Episcopal Church this would result in a split between the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1840. The church missed an opportunity to bring community out of crisis; missed an opportunity to lead the country by setting an example of how to live according to the Spirit even when we disagree. Who knows if the different denominations had been able to work through the issue of slavery perhaps there would not have been a Civil War. The church failed again with the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939. This unification included the creation of the Central Jurisdiction, the only jurisdiction not based on geography and instead created based on race to satisfy Southern Methodists’ and their refusal to accept African American members into their annual conferences; again another opportunity for the church to set the example of living by the Spirit and eschewing the tendency to fulfill our self-indulgence; the church could have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation and discrimination but it is not until 1968 and the unification with the United Evangelical Brethren to create the UMC that Central Jurisdiction and racial discrimination in the United Methodist Church came to an end from a disciplinary and policy standpoint. But at this year’s annual conference a pastor stood up as we were debating a resolution addressing racism to recount how at his previous appointment members of his congregation stood at the door to prevent African Americans from entering the church. He did not say where in SC this was but he refuted the notion held by some that racism was not as serious a problem in SC and definitely not in the SC Annual Conference of the UMC. It is unwise and much too speculative to try to draw a line from colonial times to the massacre that occurred June 17, 2015 during the Bible study hour at Emanuel AME Church. However, as Dylan Roof walked into this Bible study intent on destroying community; acting out of self-indulgence with a plan to destroy this gathering of God’s children we are reminded that the church has to be the leading voice if we are ever going to live in the unity and harmony promised by God the Holy Spirit. By Roof’s own account, the love that he encountered at Mother Emanuel almost convinced him not to go through with his plan. He almost decided to walk away but he was controlled by his flesh. Dylan Roof’s beliefs had created such a zeal within him that he acted according to the flesh; he acted out of anger, malice, and divisiveness. He acted out of his enslavement to a belief that he had the power and authority to take human lives; that somehow destroying these people would give him victory. He is not the first and unfortunately as we see from more recent events in Orlando he is not the last of people who have been formed and shaped by this notion that they have unchecked freedom to take life; to destroy community, to do whatever they want to do. However, Paul makes it clear that attempts to destroy others will lead to our own destruction. “If…you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (v. 15) We get an image of two wild animals tearing and ripping at each other with claws and teeth believing that there is a victory to be had when in actuality with each blow inflicted on the opponent they are destroying themselves.

This is the message this morning, we need each other. God has created us all in such a way that we cannot survive without the help and support of others, there is just no two ways about it. Paul in his list of the works of the flesh lists, quarrels, strife, enmity, dissensions, factions among others but these point to the ways the works of the flesh promote division and a scattering into isolated individualism. The fruit of the Spirit on the other hand, creates unity bringing us all together in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is easy to hate Dylan Roof. That is what I want to do. I want to be self-indulgent and wallow in the hatred and anger and rage that I felt when the realization of what had occurred hit me with full force. That this fellow could sit through an hour of Bible study, pray with this group of people and still take their lives in cold-blood. But to be self-indulgent is not to be self-loving. To give my self-control over to the passion of anger is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide toward unity and wholeness. We are freed from these passions in Jesus Christ. That is not to say that there will not be conflict. Indeed, it was the openness of this congregation to unquestioningly welcome everyone who enters their doors that made it possible for this young man to do what he did. To live according to the Spirit is to live in the vulnerability that is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus loved without restraint; Jesus not only sought out those who were oppressed and abused but he also sought out the abusers and oppressors. Jesus did not condemn as he corrected; instead he constantly called to everyone to all who would listen giving every man, woman, boy, and girl a chance to experience the healing and wholeness he offered. If we are going to be followers of Jesus Christ we have to have a different understanding of freedom and power than those who do not follow Christ. Whenever, conflict arises and it will, we are charged by the power of the Holy Spirit to meet it with generosity meaning a humility that makes a space for others, patience that bears with those who sin differently than we do, kindness that seeks what is good for everyone, and faithfulness that will not let us walk away from this community God has given us. This is not optional or a suggestion but is a command. To meet this crisis or any crisis with hate and anger is to feed into the death and division that was intended by this horrible act but to be the church to be followers of Christ is to take seriously our responsibility to bring community out of this crisis. How can we, led and guided by the Holy Spirit turn what was meant for evil into good? How can we get beyond the initial coming together for prayer vigils and walks, which are good but only temporary? How can we see how God is creating a more permanent and intimate community out of this crisis? Hear me clearly, we are not in this alone; the Holy Spirit is with us to empower and sustain us. As Paul continually reminds us and the church in Galatia with the imperatives to walk by the Spirit (v. 16, 25), live by the Spirit (25a), be led by the Spirit (v.16, 18, 25b). Through these imperatives Paul asserts that we are either led by the flesh leading to unrighteousness, death, and destruction or we will be led by the Spirit leading to righteousness, life, and creation. We are called to action while being totally dependent on the Holy Spirit so that we are able to live in Christian freedom and bring community out of crisis.

To God be the Glory.

 

 

Meeting God at the Table (Luke 8:26-39)

It was a Friday night January 27, 1956, that changed the life of Martin Luther King. It was this prophetic moment that would give Dr. King the strength to carry on his march for justice. King slumped home after another day of meetings and tension over racist practices. He walked around the house thinking and pacing about the events of the day. Then the phone rang, a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” King’s fear surged; he hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at his kitchen table.

Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book Stride Towards Freedom.

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

While sitting at the table, King had an experience with God. It was this seminal moment that would forever fuel him in his fight for justice. Just days later his house was bombed and his family nearly killed. He would state, “Strangely enough, I accepted the work of the bombing calmly,…My religious experience from a few nights before had given me the strength to make it.” As crowds of angry people appeared in the streets, he spoke of the need to love those who hate you even more now. One year later King would awake to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his porch. It had not exploded and his family was not killed. But as he stood on the porch he recalled the moment when God meet him at the table.

In the Gospel of Luke, we encounter a similar situation of meeting God at the table. Jesus has been invited to the house of Simon who is a Pharisee.  Even though some religious leaders did not agree with him, Jesus do not cut them off. While at the house of the Simon, a “women of the city” comes in the house. This would strike some of us as odd. Here you are having a special dinner with God and in walks a woman who has been marked as an outsider. Now, the scriptures does not mention what her particular indiscretion was but she was considered a sinner. Some have labeled her a prostitute but that is not situated in the text. The only thing that is detailed is that she “was a sinner.” It specifically says in verse 37, “ behold, a women who was a sinner.” Though Simon sees her as a sinner in verse 39 (presently), the scriptures proclaims this was not her present condition. Because of her past, whatever that may or may not be, Simon continues to hold her captive to those sinful events.

It is unjust to be simply known by your past.

After hearing that Jesus was at Simon’s house, she crashes the party and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipe them off with her hair. She then begins to anoint his feet with the oil. Usually, people would anoint people’s head and not their feet. This woman’s appreciation of meeting God at the table gave her the courage to make a bold act of worship to Jesus. She is in intruding in a space where she was not invited, with a possession that a woman like her should not have had in the alabaster box ointment, and to top it off, she is, at least in the customs of that time -fondling the Christ. She also has her hair down, an action that theologian Joel Green denotes is similar to being topless in public. It would appear that this nameless woman is breaking all the rules in order to get a moment of forgiveness and love from the Lord Jesus Christ. She is willing to relinquish her valuable possession of self-worth for a moment at the table with Christ. I don’t know her desperation, needs, wants or desires but we do see in the scriptures that she was willing to be ridiculed and to break tradition in order to worship Christ.

So much so that her actions began to change how Simon saw Jesus. Simon replied to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Simon is now questioning rather Jesus really who he says he is because he is attending to this outsider. Ironically, Simon invited Jesus because of who he thought he was but then changes his mind because Jesus was actually being the Christ. Jesus then asks Simon a parable: “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” I think it is fair to surmise that this is a picture of salvation. We being sinners are forgiving of our sin debt by Christ’s death on the cross. We are justified–brought into right standing with God—by the love of Christ and his work on the cross. Jesus is highlighting a valuable point that we have a debt that no sinners will ever be able to pay… but he took it upon himself to pay the sin debt and became the sacrifice for our sins. Is that not a special Love!!!

He concludes the parable by saying that those who have much to be forgiving for never miss the opportunity to show that appreciation for that forgiveness. But, you Simon never offered to clean my feet, did not offer me sign of hospitality with a kiss, nor did you anoint my feet… but this women, this stranger, outsider did all of that and more. He says that her sins are forgiving and that her faith had saved her. Jesus did not mean that she had earned great forgiveness with her great love. But, that her love was the result of, not the reason for, her forgiveness- it was an expressive response to an inner joy.

This women having such appreciation for God that she broke the norms of society in order to meet God at the table. Dr. King was in the midst of trying times and meet God at the table. Every Sunday we get the opportunity to meet God at the table. We get to meet God at the table where the bread represent his Body that was beaten and broken on our behalf. Where his blood was shed for the remission of our sins. We get to meet God at the table where race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disabilities or denominations all take a back seat to the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the table we get to meet the Lord and Savior, who looked past our faults and say our needs. The table, the place where God in Psalms 23 prepares for us in the presence of our enemies.

It was at the table of my Great Grandmother where I meet God many days….  It was at this table as often as we meet, we entered into sacred places of peace with each other and had a meal.

Embracing Life: The Epitome of Growth

Life has the potential to be disastrous or a catalyst for the great. The position is one that comes through the ability to evolve and develop as a person; always being able to respond to difference with fact and detail through research.

I had to the opportunity to reconnect with some brothers from my past this week. It had been about 4 years since we last sat together as a collective group. We started with a simple mission of developing a core group of dudes that would change the city, while being submitted to Christ. We all had different talents and skills that we brought to the table that made us a formidable team.  We were all believers and wanted to build a movement that would do great things for Christ-in and outside the church.

As we grew so did the tension and egos that surmounts when you bring 7 to 9 personalities to the mix. We all had great ideas but refuse to humbly submit those ideas to God and to the others. We had our moments when we would be to the point of throwing blows on each other because we were so dogmatic about what we believed. Eventually, we started losing contact with each other. Some were tighter with others than the rest, so they stayed in touch but as a whole we stopped meeting on a weekly basis and pretty much went our separate ways.

Well as I mentioned in the first sentence, “Life has the potential to be disastrous or a catalyst for the great.” As we re-assembled, the look of exhaustion appeared to riddle the minds of us all. Not that we all had been living ungodly lives but I could see how much we have grown during the “grace period.”(as one brother so articulately placed it) I could see the questions swirling around as we talked. We had become greater men, we had attained new levels of wisdom-we had experienced growth.

I marveled and marvel at the impact of life upon the psyche, perception and purpose of men. Life has a way of breaking the strain and stronghold of pride and rendering you defeated unto humility. When pride can be exposed through the negotiating of life’s constant deal we fall victim to its trappings. But, when allowed to endure the hardship of being humble, we enter a beautiful struggle that is viewed by many as a testament of the love of God.

As I left those brothers, the what-ifs and what could have happened questions began to run through my mind once again. We could have started those companies and developed a church plant, and many other things that we had actually planned out as a team. Our perspective was wrong and our love for one another was weak, but mainly we lost focus upon the Lord Jesus. We became focused upon our own selfish pride and overlooked the impact of other brothers. The need for team was lost and we bought the hype of the emblematic Darwinist thought, “that only the strong survive.” We forgot about “in our weakness he is made strong” or “show brotherly love to all men.” Mos Def sums up the rhetorical thought that we left with that night in his song, Mathematics, “

Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics

Life broke us, but life also made us grow. We saw the need for other brothers…