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God will not bless those who destroy God’s good creation.

Last week, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for over a year. Of course, our conversation quickly veered toward the pandemic, the plagues and the pestilence. We both agreed that it has been an unusual and difficult year. My friend predicted that the year 2020 would be used in the future as an adjective that will mean “horrific, dreadful, the worst imaginable. “

Q. “So how was your day?” A. “Work was a 2020 of a day.”

Q. “You don’t look so good. Are you OK?” A. “I feel like 2020.”

Actually, anywhere the word “Hell” could be used, we can now appropriately substitute “2020”.

He also suggested it should be an expletive, like what you might say when you smash your finger. “2020!” or “What the 2020?”

Yes. 2020 has been dreadful and horrific – worthy of an expletive. It feels like the earth is rejecting us. As you probably know, we ran out of names for tropical storms for the first time in 15 years. And the Hurricane season doesn’t end until November. If you’ve watched the news, you are aware that there have been more wildfires this year than ever before. We have watched the fires in California and Oregon destroy whole communities. But this year, there were wildfires in unusual places. Fires burned above the arctic circle in Siberia, Alaska and Greenland. In Siberia, the fires were fed by record setting temperatures. On June 20, it was more than 100 degrees in a small Russian town located on the Arctic Circle. Back in the US, it was 130 degrees in Death Valley on August 16, making it very likely the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere on planet earth. Despite the shutdown of factories and the quarantine of COVID, the levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere have actually continued to rise—a major factor in global warming. In May, it measured 417 parts per million (ppm), the highest levels ever recorded.

As temperatures rise, so do the earth’s oceans, impacting human and animal habitats. As temperatures rise, so does water temperature, causing more extreme weather conditions and the death of ocean wildlife. As temperatures rise, the ecological balance shifts, resulting in disruption of growing seasons, leading to famine. The earth is suffering. And when the earth suffers, we all suffer. And those who are poor suffer most.

There is no question that human activity has contributed to and accelerated climate change as we burn through fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal. Five years ago, leaders of 200 nations recognized the human factor and signed the Paris climate accord—a collective effort to address climate change through a reduction of greenhouse gases. The US signed the accord, but in 2017 our current president announced his intention to pull the US out of the accord. On November 4, 2019, he followed through on that promise. Since then, he has consistently acted to roll back environmental regulations to benefit fossil fuel industries. Clean air, clean water and even National Parks and National Forests are at risk. On November 4, 2020 – the day after the election – the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord will be complete. You think it’s bad now? Get ready, it may get a lot worse.

Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” But what happens when nations act as if the earth and everything in it belongs to them and they fail to protect it and care for it as God commanded? What happens when we fail to acknowledge God’s claim as creator of heaven and earth, and we steal the earth of its resources and pollute the air, and muddy the waters without any concern for the damage we do for future generations? When the earth thrives, we all thrive; but when we destroy the earth, we are destroyed. In the words of Hosea the prophet, when there is no acknowledgement of God in the land, “the earth itself becomes sick, and all who live on it grow weak; together with the wild animals and the birds in the sky, even the fish of the sea are dying.” (Hosea 4:3 CEB)

The earth is sick, and time is running out.

I just realized that this sermon has been nothing but bad news! Is there any good news to be found? Only one place. God, the maker of heaven and earth, is in the words of theologian N. T. Wright, “A loving God who wants to redeem a broken world, and has called us to make things new.” God loved the cosmos so much that God sent the Word, through whom all things were made, to announce the beginning of God’s new day. God defeated the powers of death and decay at the empty tomb, raising Christ from the dead, and seating him high above all rule and authority and reconciling ALL things in all of creation to God. And God has redeemed us to be the body of Christ, raised up in resurrected life to continue what Christ began. We are the children of God raised up in these days to make things new through advocacy for just environmental policy, through our votes, by changing our lifestyles and priorities.

God told the people of Israel, “See, I set before you life and death; blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 NIV). Today, life and death are set before us again. Will we be a nation of stewards that care for God’s good earth and everything in it or a nation of tyrants that plunder it for our own interests? Will we be a people who protect the planet and preserve the beauty and bounty of the earth for our children’s children’s children?

Our choices will lead to life or death. Choose life. Choose stewardship. Be the children of God, working by the Spirit of God to create and make all things new. Amen.

What happens when leaders listen to the wrong voices?

Every year for a century, Kimball Avenue church held an annual Thanksgiving dinner and fund raiser called “Harvest Home.” An offering was received at the meal in a wooden box with a hole in the top. It was referred to as the “Joash Box.” Some of you remember it. It still exists, stored in the parsonage basement, but it is falling apart.

It is called the “Joash Box” because according to 2 Kings 12:9ff, Joash, the King of Judah, set up a box with a hole in the top at the temple entrance to collect funds for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been neglected for decades. Joash took the funds that were placed in the box to pay for the materials and labor to repair the building.

When I hear about King Joash, I always think about the Joash Box and his commitment to the temple—not only to the building, but also to reviving the temple worship of YHWH. For years, God blessed the nation of Judah with peace and prosperity under the leadership of Joash. But what started out so well ended in the disaster we read about today in 2 Chronicles 24, when Joash ordered the murder of Zechariah by stoning. Zechariah was killed inside the Temple that Joash dedicated to the worship of God.

How did Joash go from a God-worshiper to state-protected murderer? It’s a story about leadership and who leaders listen to. Proverbs 11:14 says, “A nation falls where there is no wise leading, but it is safe where there are many wise men who know what to do.”

Joash became King of Judah at age 7. I don’t know any 7-year-old who is ready to lead a nation, but Joash was fortunate to have a wise advisor and mentor, Jehoiada, the high priest. With Jehoiada’s counsel and help, Joash was a good king and the nation was blessed. But after Jehoiada died, everything changed. A group of local leaders offered to advise Joash, and they counseled him to abandon the Temple and pursue idolatry. Idolatry always leads to injustice and oppression—acts God rejects. Despite warnings from God’s prophets, Joash refused to renounce the policy. The nation suffered. Finally Zechariah—the son of Joash’s childhood advisor, Jehoiada—was led by the Spirit to confront Joash and his advisors for abandoning God’s heart and God’s law. He announced God’s judgement on Joash and the nation. Zechariah spoke truth to power.

Because Zechariah spoke a truth that Joash had no interest in hearing, Joash took steps to silence God’s messenger. The leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and Joash gave the kill order.

That’s not the end of the story. Sadly, after Zechariah was killed, the nation of Judah declined. The peace and prosperity it had enjoyed disappeared. The nation was plunged into costly wars, economic collapse and political ruin. God abandoned Joash and the nation was thrown into chaos. And in the end Joash was assassinated.

What does God want us to hear from the story of Joash and Zechariah? The Apostle Paul wrote that the things that were written in the past, were written for our instruction (Romans 15:4). This story is a warning. When leaders listen to the voices of justice and righteousness, there is peace. Everyone thrives. However, when they listen to wrong voices, all hell breaks loose. When leaders surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear and use their power to silence opposing voices—especially those voices that call the leader to account and to doing what is just and right, the wicked are empowered to strut about. When leaders harden their hearts and close their ears and their eyes, the people suffer.

There are consequences to political arrogance and spiritual obstinance. Refusal to listen to the calls for justice and righteousness leads to destruction. God will not prosper the leaders that ignore the commands of God. God will abandon the leaders that refuse to seek God’s justice. God will bring judgment on the leaders whose hearts are hardened and who refuse to open their eyes and ears to the truth of God’s heart for the oppressed and afflicted. And ultimately, God will rise up and will depose the wicked and the proud and the arrogant who do whatever they please. It happened to Egypt and Pharaoh. It happened to Israel and Judah. It can happen now.

Like Judah, nations regularly come to a fork in the road – a moment of decision about what kind of nation we will be. Our nation is in a moment like that. There are voices that are advocating radically different futures for our nation. There are voices that advocate the revival of a glorious past that was built upon genocide, enslavement, oppression, militarism, racism, and unbridled greed. And there are prophetic voices calling for the establishment of a society built upon justice, equity, love of neighbor and morality. We can choose which voices we will listen to. We can also choose which future we will speak for.

The story of King Joash has a hero. His name is Zechariah – a man who boldly and publicly rebuked King Joash for abandoning his spiritual and moral responsibilities and leading his nation down a path of destruction. Though he lost his life for his boldness, his name is held up in honor. Jesus honored Zechariah as a hero and defender of God’s truth.

Our time has heroes too. Some names are familiar to us like Martin Luther King, Jr, who – like Zechariah – was silenced through murder, and John Lewis who survived attacks and refused to be silent. In the midst of a pandemic, we have heroes like Dr. Anthony Fouci who speak the truth while leaders lie and distort and deceive. In the midst of state-sponsored police violence, we have heroes like Bryan Stevenson and Black Lives Matter who speak justice while leaders use “law and order” rhetoric to maintain the status quo. In the midst of environmental destruction, we have heroes like LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, protecting the water. In the midst of economic greed, we have heroes like Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir dancing on Wall Street. In the midst of political corruption, we have heroes like George Blakemore in City Hall, daily speaking truth to power.

Our nation is going to hell. But God is sending the prophets. God is calling the church to stand up, speak up and get in good trouble. Maybe yet, God will have mercy and deliver us from evil. If we will only listen.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the spirit is saying to the churches.

God’s Solidarity With Workers

In 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama, delivered a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she made the memorable statement: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Immediately, there were people who challenged her statement about slave labor, and fact-checkers rushed to get to the truth. It turned out to be true. The White House Historical Association released a statement affirming that slave labor was indeed involved in every aspect of the construction of the Executive Mansion, beginning in 1792.

Using slave labor to build an executive mansion is not a new thing. As you can see from the reading from the prophet, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:14-17), God condemned Judah’s King Jehoiakim for using forced labor to build his palace. Jeremiah added that refusing to pay his “neighbors” for their work was the equivalent of literally building injustice into the walls. Jeremiah makes it clear how God feels about withholding wages from those who do the work.

But lest we think that this issue of slave labor and God’s condemnation and things of the Biblical past or early American history, we need to consider that our nation is still using forced labor to build wealth.

But you may object and say, “But we don’t have slaves anymore! We abolished slavery and involuntary servitude with the 13th Amendment.” While it is true that the 13th Amendment ended slavery officially in 1865, there is a significant exception that was written into the amendment. Let me read it for you, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

As director Ana DuVernay has shown in her documentary, “13th”, this exception was immediately utilized after the amendment was ratified. In 1866, Southern states passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to criminalize freed slaves. These laws made everything from talking loudly in the company of white women to walking besides railroad tracks to not having a job a crime, and acts that were formerly misdemeanors were turned into felonies with prison sentences. According to historian Khalil Muhammed, the “Black Codes” resulted in an explosion of the prison population. In Alabama, for instance, the prison population shifted almost overnight from 99% white convicts to 85% black convicts. And because of the 13th Amendment exception, convicted freed slaves could be forced to work through “convict leasing.” Convicted freed slaves were leased back to their former owners to work the plantation fields—without pay.

We no longer have “Black Codes,” but convict leasing and convict labor is still big business. Every state except Alaska has “prison industries” or a convict leasing program. Convicted prisoners do everything from building church furniture in Iowa to making Victoria’s Secret underwear in South Carolina to putting eggs in cartons in Arizona to making Honda car parts in Ohio. The average wage nationally for convicts is $.87 an hour. But four states–Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas—pay convicts nothing. No wonder author Douglas Blackmon has called convict leasing “Slavery By Another Name.”

Convict leasing is just one way that workers are denied wages. Undocumented workers are often exploited with low pay and wage theft. Workers are routinely misclassified as “contract workers” so that employers don’t have to pay benefits. And during the COVID pandemic, essential workers have had to strike for hazard pay and proper protection, and unemployed workers have watched their income evaporate especially since the federal unemployment extension expired (and has failed to be renewed). In some states, unemployment benefits are less than minimum wage.

Low-wage workers are suffering during the pandemic, but the richest people in America have gotten richer—amassing an additional $685 billion since the middle of March.

This Labor Day is literally a matter of life and death. In 1931, union activist Florence Reece wrote a song, “Which side are you on?” God has chosen a side. And we must too. God’s law is clear, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) James wrote to wealthy employers, “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:4-5) God doesn’t tolerate exploitation.

God always stands on the side of fullness of life. God stands with workers. And so must we. Just as God could not bless King Jehoiakim because of his exploitation of workers, God will not bless the nation that is built upon and maintained through worker exploitation and oppression. However, as Jeremiah reminded Jehoiakim that God blessed his father, King Josiah, because he gave justice to the poor and needy, there is hope that God will bless the nation that ensures that all workers the dignity and justice and the living wages they deserve, because workers should always be given what they need (See Matthew 10:10)

So, on this Labor Day as people of God, do something to stand on the side of worker rights and worker protection. Here are some suggestions:

Participate in Labor Day Moral Monday sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign online at 2:30 pm with Rev. Dr. William Barber.

Pray for Essential Workers – especially Chicago teachers and staff as they prepare for the first day of online school. Also remember child care workers, postal workers, farm workers, undocumented workers, and first responders.

Watch a documentary on worker justice and the origins of Labor Day. Here is one on the Haymarket Affair.

“The Kids are NOT alright”

The story of the 16-year reign of Ahaz in Judah (2 Chronicles 28) is a cautionary tale. In a list of Judah’s kings, Ahaz would be listed as one of the worst – if not THE worst – king in Judah’s history. It is the story of a leader who chooses to worship pagan gods and the consequences of his actions on the nation.

Under his leadership, Judah was led into the worship of the Canaanite deity named Molech. Worship of Molech included the sacrifice of children as a way of gaining the favor of Molech so that Molech would provide economic prosperity and more children. This sacrifice, known as “passing children through the fire,” was specifically forbidden by the God’s Law. In Leviticus 18:21, we read, “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the Lord.” However, despite the law, the Israelites began to practice Molech worship first under the influence of King Solomon, who built an altar to Molech on a high place in Jerusalem to accommodate worship by his foreign wives. (see 1 Kings 11:4-8). The altar remained in place until Solomon’s great-grandson, Asa, tore down the high places and restored the worship of God. However, within 2 generations, worship at the high places resumed and under the leadership of Ahaz, an altar to Baal and Molech was built in the Valley of Ben Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. There, Ahaz offered his own sons in the fire and led the people of Judah to do the same thing. In Jesus’ day, the valley was known as Gehenna. We know it as Hell.

What was God’s response to the sacrifice of children to Molech? The nation of Judah suffered. Over the reign of Ahaz, the nation of Judah became weaker, losing territory to foreign invaders and influence. Aram attacked Judah and took citizens to Damascus as exiles. The northern kingdom of Israel attacked Judah and took citizens to Samaria as slaves. By the end of Ahaz’s rule, he had shuttered the temple and the nation was in ruins. God’s prophets, Micah and Hosea, had spoken God’s words of warning, but Ahaz refused to change his ways. Ahaz died at age 36 completely powerless and dishonored. In the end, God ultimately abandoned Ahaz and Judah.

Be sure of this: God will judge nations on the basis of their treatment of their children—the most vulnerable among us. Nelson Mandela said it. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” And the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey said it. “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.” I believe the truth of these statements. How we treat our children reveals whether our values and morals are in alignment with God.

Our nation’s current treatment of children and our nation’s currently willingness to sacrifice the well-being of children for the sake of economic revival and profit reveals fundamentally that our nation is morally bankrupt despite all of the talk about being pro-life and the commitment of many religious folk to protect the lives of the unborn.

Many people of faith read the story of Ahaz’s sacrifice of his children and extrapolate that the practice of abortion is the equivalent sacrifice of our children to Molech. However, those same people who will use every means possible to shut down Planned Parenthood will be strangely silent when children are murdered in their classrooms or when children as young as 3 months are taken from their parents at our southern border or when leaders cut funds for children’s health insurance. As Sister Joan Chittister reminds us: “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.”

Government policy to separate children from their parents at the border is nothing less than child sacrifice. The threat to withhold funding from schools that do not reopen in the midst of a pandemic is nothing less than child sacrifice. The threat to reduce SNAP benefits for families, the refusal to extend benefits to unemployed parents and protect them from eviction and foreclosure is nothing less than child sacrifice. One in 3 black children and 1 in 4 brown children live in poverty, and there are over 16,000 children in Chicago Public Schools that do not have a permanent home. Our tolerance for such conditions is nothing less than child sacrifice. Shifting the weight of taxation from the wealthy to low-wage families is nothing less than child sacrifice. The desecration of the environment for profit that future generations will pay for is nothing less than child sacrifice. It is no different than Ahaz passing his children through the fire in order to secure the economic provision of Molech.

God cannot and will not bless the nation that rationalizes away the hunger and poverty of the little ones who are most vulnerable. God will remove God’s hand from the nation whose leaders treat children as if they are expendable and disposable. In the words of Jesus to those who would cause one of these little ones to stumble, “It would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

But God can and will bless the nation that treats its children as precious gifts from God – worthy of protection and provision, worthy of the fullness of life, worthy of our investment and worthy of dignity. And if God so values the life of children, then we must also value them and sacrifice FOR them—including holding our leaders accountable for the well-being of the littlest among us. God will leave no child behind. Neither can we.

In less than 3 months, we will choose our leaders. Before November 3, open your ears and your eyes; listen and see through the lens of God’s commitment to the protection and preservation of children – not just those in the womb, but those who are being sacrificed in life. And then, like the prophets of Ahaz’s time, sound the warnings and call for justice and righteousness. Maybe yet, God will bless this nation.

Leaders Matter

 

There is a long history of using songs to make political statements. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had its own soundtrack. The war in Viet Nam was accompanied by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.  But with the current state of affairs in our nation, there has been a resurgence of political protests songs, laments and calls to action including “March” by the Chicks (formerly known as the ‘Dixie Chicks’), “I Cry” by Usher and many others.  Even Neil Young has updated his “Lookin’ for a Leader” for 2020.

Long before Dylan and even Woody Guthrie, there was another songwriter named Asaph that wrote a stinging protest song. We know the song as “Psalm 82.” We read the lyrics today. Let me “sing” it for you.

It takes place in a courtroom.  Hear ye, hear ye, this court is now in session, the Honorable Almighty God presiding. The case before the court today: God vs. “the gods.”

Who are the defendants? The word translated “gods” or “heavenly beings” is “Elohim”, a name or title used almost exclusively in the Bible for Yahweh God. But several times in the book of Exodus, the word “elohim” is used as a designation for the rulers or judges of the people of Israel. These judges were responsible for carrying out the intention of the law. Most scholars believe that Asaph is using the word “Elohim” to referring to these human rulers–the judges, the policy makers, the kings and their advisors, the teachers of the Law without naming names.

God lists the charges against these “gods”

Count #1: Showing favoritism to the powerful.
Count #2: Perversion of justice.
Count #3: Failure to uphold the cause of the poor.
Count #4: Failure to defend the weak.
Count #5: Failure to rescue the needy.
Count #6: Failure to deliver justice to the oppressed.

The rulers have failed to do what God expects and what God demands. This song makes it clear that leaders matter. Political leaders are supposed to defend the weak and the fatherless, uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed, rescue the weak and the needy, deliver them from the hand of the wicked. The evidence is in. The rulers and their governments have been weighed on the scales and have been found lacking. Case closed.

The Verdict? The “gods” are guilty on all counts. The rulers have failed. Their governments have failed.  What was true in Asaph’s day was true in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, when the Lord announced judgement on the politicians of Judah. Like those described by Asaph, the leaders of Judah had failed to provide for God’s people and lead them to safety. Leaders who fail to do what is right will be declared “guilty” and will be sentenced. And the sentence is harsh.

Asaph declares, “You will fall like every other ruler and you will die.”

Here were are more than three thousand years after Asaph, and his song feels like it was written for our times. The “gods” of our day are also failing to do what God expects and what God demands. One need only look at the growing wealth inequality in the world and the blatant disregard for those who are most vulnerable to see the evidence. And it is not a partisan judgment. It is not just Republicans that have failed. Democrats are guilty too. Corruption and using power for self-interest comes in all flavors.

Asaph ends his song with a prayer: “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth.” We have seen the evidence. Our leaders fail and disappoint. Our prayer is that God will intervene and enact justice for the oppressed—and indeed, sometimes God does. The plagues of Egypt were in direct response to Pharaoh’s arrogance and hardness of heart. King Herod’s death (Acts 12) is attributed to God—a response Herod’s arrogance and belief in his own superiority and deity.

But let’s remember that God didn’t write this politically charged anti-government song. Asaph did. God didn’t speak from heaven to confront the oppression of Judah’s rulers. Jeremiah did. And throughout the ages, God’s people have arisen to give a message to the “gods”—the “titans of industry” the “oligarchs” the “oppressor class.” Today, more than ever, it is imperative that God’s people rise up to declare God’s legislative agenda, hold our leaders accountable, use our voice and our vote to elect those who will stand in solidarity with those who are to receive God’s justice, and remind them that they will be judged by Almighty God for what they do with their power.

Let us arise and sing. Let us lift up the voices of those who are so frequently silenced. Let us use our voices to declare God’s will for justice and love and call out the leaders who fail.

Hear the new Asaphs like Argentinian “Latingrass” band, Che Apalache, who call us to “sing about a better world, where new paths will soon unfurl. Of a land where freedom rings.” (From “The Wall”)

Listen and pray.  Listen, then sing. Listen, then stand up for leaders God can bless.

 

“The Wall” Lyrics by John Lawless of “Che Apalache”

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths have been unfurled
Of a land where freedom rings

From way up high on a mountain side
One can see the wide world over
From way up there it’s plain to see
Regardless of one’s race or creed
In our hearts we’re all the same

Come sisters, brothers gather near
For we’ve come to share our worries
We fear what some folks have been saying
About Latin Americans
The truth’s been misconstrued

There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall
Down along the Southern border
‘bout building a wall between me and you
Lord, and if such nonsense should come true
Then we’ll have to knock it down

‘Cause that idea won’t fly so high
As a wingless bird in a rock hard sky
So, no siree, we won’t comply
We’re going to stand our ground

To love thy neighbor as thyself
Is a righteous law to live by
But leaders sing a different song
They break us up so they stay strong
And ignorantly we’re strung along
Until we meet our doom

Yes, our leaders are so ripe with sin
They feed us chants to rope us in
But someday soon we’ll find, my friends
That we’re penned against The Wall

Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths will soon unfurl
Where no man’s blood shall stain the soil
Of a land where freedom rings

Defending the Poor

 

When Barack Obama was running for president the first time in 2008, he almost didn’t survive the early primaries after a video of his pastor surfaced. Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, preached a sermon on April 13, 2003, entitled “Confusing God and Government.” In it, he went through a long litany of the ways that the United States had failed to do what was just and right. And then he said something that was the equivalent of dropping an F-bomb. He said, “We’re supposed to sing, ‘God bless America?’ No, no, no. Not ‘God bless America.’ ‘God damn America.’”

Dr. Wright was immediately branded a leader of a dangerous hate group and vilified by the press. Barack Obama distanced himself immediately from Dr. Wright and the message, saving his candidacy. This week, I listened to that sermon again, and it seems as relevant today as it was in 2003—maybe even more so. And I heard it echoing in my head and my heart when we heard God’s word spoken through prophet Malachi this morning. Let me read it again. “You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me.” Malachi might as well have said, “God damn Judah.” Malachi was probably vilified too.

But why was the whole nation under a curse? Why couldn’t God bless the nation? Because the nation had failed to bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there would be enough food in God’s temple.

Now, the thing you have to remember is that God had commanded in Deuteronomy 26:12 that the tithes of every third year were to be “given to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.” The storehouse was similar to  the Chicago Food Depository. The food was donated and then distributed to the Levites (who had no land of their own) and the poor and at-risk groups. It was like a food pantry. But because the people had failed to bring the tithes, these at-risk people were suffering. The people were cheating God because they were cheating God’s people of their God-given rights.  And as a result, the nation was under God’s condemnation.

The principle here is that God cannot – and will not – bless a nation that doesn’t make sure that the rights of the poor are protected and defended, whether that nation is Judah or Israel or the United States.

And let’s be honest. Our nation doesn’t do very well taking care of poor people. Just this week, in the middle of a surge in the cases of COVID-19, our government leaders showed their true colors when they let the $600 federal unemployment benefit expire for over 30 million people and when they let the moratorium on evictions expire. Without the additional unemployment benefits, every unemployed person in Florida will receive $250 a week OR LESS in state unemployment benefits at a time when businesses are being shut down due to the virus. Experts are warning of a “tsunami of evictions.” Without federal protections, more people will fall through the cracks and end up without a place to live.

While people are out of work, facing eviction, and being disqualified for SNAP benefits, the wealthy continue to amass wealth. On the day Illinois shut down due to the pandemic, Forbes published its annual Billionaires Report. On March 18, 2020, the 15 wealthiest people in the US were worth 2.95 trillion dollars. Four months later, Forbes reported that these same people are now worth 3.66 trillion dollars—a 24% increase. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in America, saw his worth increase 60% since March 18. And for the record, he is now worth $181 BILLION dollars. (see https://americansfortaxfairness.org/billionaire-people/)

But while our elected leaders walked out of Washington on Friday without offering any assistance to the poor and vulnerable, they never once discussed rolling back the tax breaks given to the wealthy last year.

If God were speaking to our nation through Malachi, would God say, “God bless America?” or would God say, “When you steal from the poor you are stealing from me! When you have cheated the immigrant, the widows, the orphans, the Levites of their rights, you have cheated me! Bless you? No, I cannot. I can only damn you!

I don’t believe God wants to damn the nation.  God wants to bless the nation.  God says through Malachi, “Bring in the tithe.” God promises abundance for the nation that will distribute the abundance justly. God wants to bless, but God is waiting for us to do what is right for the poor and oppressed.

This week, we buried a civil rights icon: Congressman John Lewis. From the time he was 21 years old, he was a prophet, calling the nation to change its ways. For 60 years, he lifted his voice. His efforts resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that guaranteed the right to vote for every citizen. But he didn’t end there. He became what many people called, “the conscience of the nation.” As a congressman, he was arrested 5 times for advocating for justice for the poor and oppressed. Even in death, he raised his voice. On the day of his funeral, the NY Times published John Lewis’s final word to the nation, written just two days before his death. Entitled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of the Nation,” he expressed his hope for continued change.

 

You are the next generation in line to carry the baton and run the race. In less than 100 days, you and I will have the opportunity to use our vote to make a powerful statement about the change we must have in this nation—a change in the way that we treat the poor – especially those without homes and without jobs;  a change in the way we treat immigrants – especially children and families at the border; and a change in the way we distribute wealth. We must take up the mantle of John Lewis’s prophetic life so that the sick are healed, the hungry are fed and the poor and the oppressed are liberated. Maybe yet God will bless this nation.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

 

“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a strategist for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, uttered the phrase in 1992, pointedly reminding voters that under current President George H. W. Bush, the economy had gone into a recession and their lives were much worse as a result. The phrase hit a chord in the American public and Bill Clinton easily won the election for President.

The economy is God in the U.S.  Everything revolves around the “Almighty Dollar.” The economy has its own Bible, the Wall Street Journal. The economy has its prophets and priests. The economy is America’s Idol.

This has been true from the beginning.  The first settlement at Jamestown, VA, established in 1607, was an economic venture called the “Virginia Company.” It’s goal was to make money. Period. Slavery was brought to this county to provide free labor to ensure that landowners made money. Our nation is built on the foundation of capitalist pursuit of wealth.

In a series of sermons delivered to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr. identified “money” as America’s false God.  Initially, his civil rights work focused on voting and access to education, but after the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act were passed, King shifted his attention more and more to the ways that American worship of the false God of money was at the root of the evil of oppression.  The capitalist economic system was the noose tied around the neck of poor, the low-wage workers, the migrant farm workers, and the chronically unemployed.  This belief led him to form the Poor People’s Campaign to demand an “economic bill of rights” that included the right to full employment, the right to a guaranteed annual income, and the right to affordable housing.  We know what happened next. The prophet was killed.

Since his death on April 4, 1968, the economic disparities in America have only widened and the worship of wealth has only increased.  We see our national devotion to the god of wealth and money clearly in the midst of the pandemic.  The economy is the giver of life. The economy is the sustainer of the American way of life. “It’s the economy, stupid,” the prophets of the economy cry out.  “If the economy fails, we will all die,” the priests of the economy warn. “We must reopen the economy and make the sacrifices required,” say the acolytes.  And so we reopen schools and sacrifice our children. We reopen factories, sacrificing low-wage and immigrant workers. We sacrifice our grandparents. We sacrifice communities of color. We sacrifice the air we breathe. We sacrifice the water we drink. We sacrifice the land.  And we make the sacrifices because the Economy demands it.  In return, the Economy promises to make a few worthy people excessive wealth, and the rest get just enough to survive.

It was true in 1607. It was true in 1953 and it is true today. And all the while, we print “In God we trust” on the currency of the economy. And we say, “God bless America.”

But God does not bless idolatry. The prophets of the Bible again and again speak of God’s curse on the people who turn away from YHWH, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and their deliverer. But again and again, the people turn to the worship of false gods with names like Molech, Baal, and Astarte.  These gods were economic gods. The people trusted in these gods to grow their crops and improve their lives and protect them. The people sacrificed whatever was expected–including “passing their children through the fire” to get the promised benefits. This is the nature of idolatry. It is what believe to be the source of our   survival and wellbeing.

The Biblical stories of the people of Israel show us that idols ultimately fail to deliver. The power of idols is limited and temporary. They cannot save. They will ultimately disappoint and we will look back and realize too late that all the sacrifices we made were wasted.

God did not bless the people of Israel for their idolatry and God will not bless the people of America.  Every Old Testament prophet condemned the economic oppression they saw in the nation. From Amos to Zechariah, the prophets spoke against the economic systems that deprived the poor of life.  Their words are relevant to us today at a time when the economic systems are designed to create and maintain income and wealth inequality and when our leaders legislate for the interests of the profiteers over the poor.

But prophets also offered a word of hope and encouragement.  For instance, while God announced a curse on those who put their trust in human strength, military might, unjust gain, and any other false god through the prophet Jeremiah; God announcer blessing on those who make the Lord their hope and confidence and calls them to return to God for healing.  The prophet Jesus called us away from pointless accumulation and worship of things that are temporary to the pursuit of things that are eternal, treasures in heaven—treasures that come out of pursuit of justice and righteousness.

Jesus’s words call us to decision: which God will we trust? Which God we will worship? Which God we will devote ourselves to? Our choice is between Jehovah-Jirah and Capitalist Economy; between the Provider God of community and justice and the enslaving “god” of oppression and exploitation; between God’s economy of grace and the world’s economy of greed.  Our future will be determined by the God we choose and we cannot choose both.  Blessing comes when we “seek first the kingdom of heaven and God’s justice and all these things will be added to you.”

Let us be the prophets of the true God in this time. Let us call out our nation’s idolatry that is ruining us, and call our leaders to a new economy that puts people above profit and the environment above wealth.  Only then, will we be like the tree planted by the river that will survive and bear fruit even in the midst of a drought. Let us renounce the old “god” and trust in the true God who calls us to the beloved community where God’s abundance is shared by all.  Let it be. Amen.

“How God Feels About Foreigners”

 

Last Sunday, I led you in expressing grief over how the church in the United States—specifically the white church—has historically provided the theological support for slavery and white supremacy. Together, we confessed this sin and made a commitment to challenge patriot pastors and patriot parishioners by raising our prophetic voice.

This week, knowing that God is also grieved by this co-mingling of white nationalism and faith, I found myself asking, “What would be required of a people to receive God’s blessing?” As I was asking the question, I heard more disturbing news from our government that just added fuel to my grief.

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was in the news twice.  First, the news reported that ICE had changed the rules for international students, announcing that students enrolled in schools that will only offer online classes this fall will lose their visas and will be required to return to their home countries. If they don’t leave, they will be subject to deportation.

And while the news media was busy reporting about at-risk students, ICE quietly sent out letters to Chicago area citizens, inviting them to enroll in a pilot program called, “Enforcement and Removal Operations Citizens Academy.” The 6-session academy curriculum will introduce participants to ERO staff and give them an understanding of ERO processes.  In addition, AND I QUOTE,  “Attendees will participate in scenario-based training and exercises conducted in a safe and positive environment, including, but not limited to defensive tactics, firearms familiarization, and targeted arrests.”  Thankfully, some immigrant organizations got copies of the letter and raised the alarm!  The Interfaith Committee on Latin America posted, “This program trains citizens to perpetuate race-based violence and further normalizes hate crimes that already devastate our communities.” Other groups expressed concerns that ICE could use these trained citizens to spy on their neighbors and alert ICE about anyone who may be suspicious.

I have to tell you, this is upsetting.  And for those who are already at-risk, it is terrifying. It added to my grief, but my grief led me to Deuteronomy 10—a word of hope and a word of challenge that was read this morning.

Deuteronomy 10:18 says clearly says that God “shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.”  Hear that loud and clear: God loves foreigners. God provides for foreigners.  In Deuteronomy 10:19, God commands his people who were once oppressed foreigners themselves: You must love the foreigners too.  In Leviticus 19:34, God commanded the people, You must treat the foreigner as you would treat one who is native born. You must love them as yourself.  God does not tolerate the abuse and oppression of foreigners.  For God, there is no exclusion and no division. God rejects the language of “us” and “them.” God commands equal treatment. Jesus confirmed the command when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  TO CARE FOR THE FOREIGNER IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.  TO ABUSE THE FOREIGNER IS ANTITHETICAL TO THE LOVE OF GOD AND IT IS A REJECTION OF THE COMMANDMENT OF CHRIST.

Hear this: God, the God of gods and the Lord of lords; God, the mighty and awesome God; God, the deliverer is our God. OUR GOD DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THE AUTHORITY OF ICE, AND OUR GOD WILL NOT BLESS A NATION THAT MISTREATS AND OPPRESSES THE FOREIGNER. 

Back to Deuteronomy.  God says in Deuteronomy 10:12, that God requires those who fear the Lord to live according to God’s commands.  Jesus said that obedience and love are connected. Our love for God is evidenced through obedience,  And Jesus promised a blessing: The father and I will love them and make our home with them.  (John 14:23) God’s blessing is contingent upon just treatment of those made in God’s image. God will bless the people who liberate the captives, defend the vulnerable, and protect the foreigner. But be sure of this: God will oppose the people who exalt themselves and use their power to exclude and abuse.

While this news is challenging to our status quo, put your faith and hope in God.  God will rise up to protect and provide for the foreigner.  Indeed, God is rising up!  God is demolishing the dividing walls built on the foundation of arrogance.

And God is doing it…literally.

On January 29 this year, shortly after the President stood along his dividing wall and praised its beauty and declared that it would stand forever, a strong Santa Ana wind blew over a section being constructed near San Diego, CA.

Then, on July 2, The Texas Tribune published pictures of another section of the wall along the Rio Grande that was completed just months ago that is on the verge of collapse.  The pictures reveal gaps forming under the foundation due to rain runoff and soil erosion. Engineers that have inspected the wall say that it will eventually fall into the Rio Grande.

Are these just coincidence or is the God of the whirlwind and the God of the storm making a statement?  Is the God of gods and the Lord of lords speaking out of the wind and the thunder reminding us that nations are not blessed when they trust in militarism?  Is the God of Liberation announcing to Presidents and Pharaohs and kings: “You can build, but I will tear down?  Be assured of this: If the wind can blow away walls; If the flood can erode the foundations, then the fire of God’s justice has the power to melt ICE.”

As God rises up, so God’s people who fear the Lord and love the Lord with heart, soul and strength and obey the command of the Lord, also rise up to resist evil.  We have the power to rise up and speak. We have the authority to tear down the strongholds and break the chains.

This year, our power is in the census—making sure that every person counts.  This year, our power is in the election—making sure that our vote speaks our voice. This year, we must vote God’s values. This year, we must vote God’s heart for the oppressed, the vulnerable and the foreigner.

Let the walls fall down! Let the walls that divide us fall down! Let the walls built by arrogance and white supremacy fall down! Let love destroy what hatred builds. Let love welcome and protect those whom God welcomes and loves.  Let us tear down the strongholds by the word of the Lord and the power of the Spirit, and let love grow and bear the fruit of the beloved community and peace.  Amen.

“Sins of the Fathers”

Message given by Pastor Bruce Ray on July 5, 2020

 

Yesterday, I received an email with the subject line: “In God we still trust: Books for the American Patriot.”  The email was from a Christian book seller promoting an Independence Day sale.

I’m a sucker for sales. I couldn’t help myself. I took the click bait to see what books were being offered. Among the titles on sale were “100 Bible Verses that Made America,” by Robert J. Morgan, and “God’s Promises for the American Patriot” by Jack Countryman. Yes. It’s his real name.  But then there was Stephen Mansfield’s book, “The Faith of Barak Obama” which was highly recommended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was tempted. After all, it was 30% off. But I resisted.

But there was another book that captured my curiosity:  “The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America,” on sale for $22.99 – reduced from $44.99 – a 50% savings. It was cheaper than Amazon and Barnes and Noble!  Intrigued by the savings, I investigated further.

Here’s the synopsis:

“THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

 

I wondered who could possibly see the story of the US woven into the teachings of the Bible.  The Bible was edited by Dr. Richard Lee. I “Googled” him and discovered that he was the founding pastor of a 5,000-member church in suburban Atlanta – First Redeemer Church. He recently left the church to become President of “Here’s Hope America,” an Atlanta-based broadcasting company. His biography mentioned that he is frequently called, “America’s Patriot Pastor.”

That ended it for me.  I logged off.  “Patriot Pastor” sounds a lot like an oxymoron—like “jumbo shrimp” or “living dead” or “unbiased opinion.”  In my “unbiased opinion”, a patriot pastor is a fundamental piece of the problem in our country. The role of the patriot pastor is to be the State’s cheerleader, not the State’s conscience. The mission of the patriot pastor is to use the spiritual to support the structures of the political without any critical analysis. The goal of the patriot pastor is to preserve the status quo by wrapping the Bible in a flag. The patriot pastor has no interest in reforming the nation or transforming the systems. In the view of the patriot pastor, there is nothing wrong with the way things are. We’re fine.

Historically, it has been “patriot pastors” who have stood hand in hand with those promoting white supremacy. In 1861 (pre-civil war), Rev. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar and pastor stood in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and preached, “As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white, bondage is its normal condition. In itself, slavery is not inconsistent with the will of God. The Scriptures not only fail to condemn [it]; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.”

100 years later in 1961, it was “patriot pastor” Rev. Henry Lyon Jr., of the 3000-member Highland Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, who gave the local Citizens’ Council a “Christian” perspective after the attack on the Freedom Riders in that city.  He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city. If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian. If you want to get in a fight with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God.” The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

The problem with “Patriot pastors” is that they empower “patriot parishioners” like the people of The Heights Church in Columbus, MS, who, on June 18, 2020, voted out their pastor, Scott Volland.  According to Volland, he was fired because he spoke out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter and the removal of Confederate monuments in Columbus.  He was told by his church, “your agenda will not work at this church,” and “you don’t speak for the church.”

This co-mingling of Christian faith and white nationalism has been with us from the beginning of the nation. It is our original sin.  Patriot pastors and patriot parishioners have justified not only slavery and segregation, but also the relocation and genocide of first peoples nations.  This sin has perpetuated racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and every other ‘ism’ and ‘phobia’ that denies people full participation in life. This sin has justified the expansion of the American Empire into Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. To this day, Puerto Rico remains under the thumb of US colonialism. This sin has justified coups and interference in democratic elections around the world. This sin has built walls and separated children from their parents and incarcerated innocent people. This sin has justified hate of those our political leaders identify as enemies of the state—even when they are brothers and sisters in Christ. This sin is present today when we hold up the Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other. This sin is a cancer that is eating away at our souls.

The church in America doesn’t need patriot pastors. It needs to return to the Shepherd of our Souls, the prophet and pastor, Jesus.  Pastor Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he had to be born again of water and spirit. Rebirth by the Spirit is only possible when the old life is left to waste away and die—something Nicodemus struggled with.  We know from 2nd Chronicles 7:14 that God rebirths a nation when it turns from wickedness through confession and repentance—something our nation—and the American church—has never been willing to do with our racist systems and policies. Instead we have chosen to cloak ourselves in an individualized gospel of internal change that makes few demands on our collective external life.

Like the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time, this is a day to come together in sackcloth and confess the sin of our ancestors and our own sin of perpetuating it our generation.  The church must reject the poisonous drug of patriotic religion that weakens it and makes it a puppet of the status quo. The Church must instead drink the water of new life and rebirth by the Spirit to rise up as prophets of God’s kingdom.  Only by rebirth into a people of justice and liberation will the church be animated to act powerfully on behalf of the immigrant, the oppressed, the hungry, the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the captive.

This day of Independence is not a day to celebrate, for the American church is not free. It is held in bondage by the ancestral sin of white supremacy and racism.  It is a day to fast and pray, confess and repent of our wicked ways, and seek God’s forgiveness and healing.  Maybe God will hear from heaven and relent from bringing damnation on our nation and make us a nation that God can bless.

(Following the message, time was taken for collective confession and prayer.)

Message from Pastor Ray on June 28, 2020

 

Who could imagine that a strip of cloth could divide a nation? It is.  Face masks are at the center of the on-going political and culture war.

There was a battle in Orange County, CA.  Dr. Nichole Quick, Health Care Agency officer for the county, mandated the wearing of face masks in public in late May. She immediately received email death threats and was falsely accused of being unqualified and inexperienced in public. At one public meeting, several angry people showed up with posters of Dr. Quick’s face with a Hitler mustache and swastikas.  Dr. Quick resigned from her position several weeks later, and the mandate was adjusted to a “recommendation.” Face masks lost the battle in Orange County.

There was a battle in Springfield, IL. Illinois State Representative Darren Bailey refused to wear a face covering during the Special Sessions in April. The legislature had passed a resolution requiring face masks, but Rep. Bailey resisted. In the end, he was voted out of the chamber by a vote of 81-27.  Face masks won the battle in that State House.

What is going on? What is the big deal? Why is there so much resistance to wearing strip of cloth over your mouth and nose when the overwhelming majority of medical experts point to the evidence that when two people wear face masks and maintain physical distance of 6 feet, there is almost no possibility of transmission of the virus?

Is it ignorance and denial? Some people say, “The virus isn’t that bad. It’s not serious.” But if you know someone who has contracted the virus, they will tell you different. Is it arrogance? Some people say, “I’m young and healthy so it won’t affect me.” But the virus is increasingly infecting young people and healthy people.  Is it fear? Some people say, “If this continues, I’ll end up homeless and hungry! Open up the economy now!” But those states that reopened quickly are experiencing a surge in cases and are deciding to enforce more restrictions.

Maybe it is all of the above, but I believe the issue goes deeper. It actually goes to the heart of our society. Our culture is so focused on individual freedom that we no longer see that we have communal responsibilities.  People in this country make their decisions—including the decision to wear a mask or refuse to wear a mask—on the basis of perceived self-interest and the exercise of individual rights. In many people’s estimation, individual freedom and the right to choose must be preserved at all costs, even if it means death for someone else. Unfortunately, even churches have been guilty of asserting their constitutional right to freedom of religion in order to defy orders. We have chosen to act as if freedom is the right to do whatever I want and to pursue my own interests. Period. The freedom that Christ announced is not an invitation to exert rights and privileges, but the invitation to choose to live in right relationships with others. Christ gives us the freedom to choose love—a love that does no harm to one’s neighbor but instead looks out for the needs, concerns and interests of one’s neighbor. It is the freedom to give up my individual rights for the collective good.  It is the freedom to live as the interconnected body of Christ—members of one another expressed in mutual care and mutual benefit.

If we continue to act only out of concern for protecting individual rights and freedom—to “bite and devour one another” without concern and love (in the words of Galatians 5:14-15), we will self-destruct.  It is only when we covenant together for community benefit that is expressed through the protection those who are most at risk and vulnerable that we will experience the fullness of life—God’s beloved community.

Our nation, our world, is at a crossroads. Will we wear a mask or will we refuse to wear a mask?  The answer to that question goes far beyond a face covering. The question (and our answer) strips away the façade of our religion and reveals our true values—our guiding beliefs. The answer to the question reveals whether we love our freedom more than we love our neighbor. The answer reveals whether we value our individual rights more than our communal responsibilities. The answer reveals whether we seek own interests and exert our own sense of privilege to build up our own power or whether we serve our sisters and brothers to raise them up. The answer reveals the truth about who matters and who doesn’t, who is deserving and who is undeserving, who is essential and who is expendable, who will be called holy and who will be called abominations. The answer reveals whose stories we tell and whose stories we silence, what history we honor and what history we hide, and which symbols of the past we believe should be torn down and discarded and which ones should be preserved and honored.

This pandemic is showing us the truth about ourselves—and it is not very attractive. It is showing us that our hearts are masked and we are unwilling to listen and see. It is time to hear and heed the word of Christ and follow his example, expressed in Philippians 2.  “Have this attitude that was in Christ Jesus…”  Though he equal with God and having the rights of God, he gave up his privilege, taking on the role of servant to the least and the lost, finally giving his life. This is our call.  And only by following Christ in the power of the Spirit, becoming servants to one another, will we be raised up together to experience God’s beloved community.  May it be. May it be. Amen.