Skip navigation

Pastor Ray’s Pentecost Message 5/31/20

Until this week, our main focus was on the infectious disease of COVID and flattening the curve of  transmission of the virus so we could reopen our businesses and get back to normal. But today, nobody is talking about COVID.

And we shouldn’t. Because we need to talk about another virus that has been infecting our nation for generations.  We need to talk about the virus of white supremacy.  This virus came over on the ships of the Virginia Company and the Mayflower and took root in the soil from Plymouth Rock to Jamestown. Indigenous people were the first victims of the virus, but 401 years ago, those who were infected went to the shores of Africa, enslaved its people, and brought them to our nation to serve the superior race.

This virus has been so deeply embedded in our nation that even when the slave trade ended, it continued to spread in mutated forms and was embedded in our laws and policies of segregation, separation, discrimination and ghettoization. There were no institutions that were immune to its effects.  Our systems of law enforcement, criminal justice, healthcare, education and economics all bear the marks of the virus. Sadly, even the church has been a hot-spot of the virus’s spread.

Over the years, people have risen up to identify the virus and called out its destructive effects, but most people denied its existence. Occasionally, people took action to contain the virus—even eliminate it.  They challenged the laws and resisted the policies. They worked to pass new laws to end the virus, but this virus was resilient.

Today, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, there has been a resurgence of the virus. We need to acknowledge its presence and its impact. We need to say what it is and what it does.  The virus of white supremacy is SIN and it results in the death and destruction of those who are not white. We need to confess our complicity in its spread. We need to recognize that the virus infects not only our institutions, systems and laws, but it infects our spirits and destroys our moral center. It is not enough to contain the virus.  It is not enough to vaccinate against the virus.  It is not enough to keep our distance from the virus.

This virus is an evil spirit. We don’t need to control it, we need exorcism. We need deliverance. We don’t need to learn how to live with it.  As painful as the process will be, we need to learn how to live without it. We don’t need reformation, we need transformation.  We need a new spirit—the Holy Spirit! We need the viral love of God spread in our hearts that takes over our bodies so we take action for God’s new creation—the new heaven and earth where justice dwells.

And nowhere do we need this transformation more than in the Church.  The Church in America that has been silent for too long because it has been infected too long.  The Church has called itself pro-life, but it has regularly supported the politics of death.  The  Church has been satisfied with the status quo because the status quo has served its purposes and goals.  The Church that has more concern for its structures than the structural inequities in the community. The Church maintains an outward appearance of godliness and holiness, but denies its power.  The Church is so focused on life in the hereafter that it cannot bother itself with life here and now. The Church has chosen comfort over honest confession and safety over the least of these, our siblings.

That first Pentecost, God sent the promised Holy Spirit, giving birth to the church. We need Pentecost again. We need rebirth. We need moral and spiritual revival.  We need the purifying fire. We need the winds of change. Send the Holy Spirit, O God!

Send the fire and purify the church. Send the Holy Spirit, O God!  Send the winds to carry the church back into the world. Send the Holy Spirit, O God! Revive us again! Send the Holy Spirit, O God!  Have mercy upon us. Amen.

Pastor Ray’s Sermon from Ascension Sunday, March 24, 2020 

 

There are two questions that are on everyone’s mind right now is, “When will this be over?” and “What’s going to happen next?” We want information and answers. Knowing helps us to feel in control. But often, we ask the questions with specific expectations and hopes. We want it to be over sooner than later. And when it is over, we want to go back to normal. And when the answers are uncertain—or worse, when the answers aren’t what we want to hear, we feel frustrated and angry. This week, when the governor announced the beginning of Phase 3, you could hear the excitement and relief. Finally, we could start the economic engines. (Va-room, Va-room!) Then Mayor Lightfoot told us Chicago would have to wait a little longer. (Squealing tires) You could hear the disappointment and frustration as she applied the brakes.

I feel that same sense of expectation and frustration in the questions of the disciples. What’s going to happen next, now that Jesus is raised from the dead? Is this the time when Israel will be restored? Jesus’ answer is not just disappointing; it’s frustrating. (Squealing tires) Jesus’ answer? “It’s not for you to know.”

But their question reveals a deeper problem. It is not just that the disciples are impatient. It is not just that they want some certainty and stability. Their problem is that they are hoping for the wrong thing. They understood the political implications of Jesus’ resurrection. After all, the resurrection confirms that Jesus is the Messiah. So they expect the answer to their “What-happens-next” question to be: “I’m going to get rid of the Romans and re-establish King David’s throne and everything is going to be like the good old days. We’ll be back to “normal” in no time.”

Jesus’ answer not only applies the brakes; he then turns the car in another whole direction—away from Jerusalem, away from Judea, and toward “the ends of the earth!” The answer to the “What-happens-next” question is, “I’m leaving, the Spirit is coming, and you’re going!”

The answer to the “What-happens-next” question is: “I’m leaving, the Spirit is coming, and you’re going!”

 

Jesus’ answer reveals God’s global plan-demic: The kingdom of heaven changing the world. God’s plan begins in Jerusalem, but spreads like a virus to the “end of the earth.” God’s plan is not just the end of Roman occupation, but the beginning of a whole new human social order built on the foundation of liberation, equality, peace and justice. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t fit into the old wineskins of nationalism and sectarianism and ethno-centrism. The kingdom of heaven breaks down the old containers of class, race, gender, and religion. New wine skins are needed.  New wine skins are being filled with new wine.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus answered that question with this parable: “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Yeast is an invasive fungus. A small amount put into flour and water will spread throughout the dough, causing it to rise. It changes the composition of the dough. The flour and water are transformed. Yeast is the agent of change.

I recently learned about “imaginal cells” inside caterpillars. These dormant cells are key to their transformation into butterflies. They activate after the caterpillar forms the pupa. Initially, the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the imaginal cells as it would a virus, but soon is overwhelmed as the individual imaginal cells merge and start to share information. The imaginal cells ultimately destroy the caterpillar, turning it into a mass of goo. These cells continue to divide and grow to become a totally new creature–a butterfly–with no genetic connection to the original caterpillar. The old is destroyed; something entirely new is created. The imaginal cells are the agents of change.

“But you…” You will receive power (wait for it!) and you will be my witnesses. We are the invasive fungus that spreads God’s love and grace until the entire world is changed. We are the agents of change. That makes us “fun-guys!”

By the activation of the Spirit, you and I are the imaginal cells, carriers of the transformative gospel code. And as we go forth by the authority of the risen and ascended Christ, the world will be transformed by God’s radical grace and inclusive love. We pray, “Your kingdom will come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are the answer to that prayer as we announce the dawning of the Day of the Lord  all things will be made new. The new creation will be birthed, and the world will be transformed.

The transformation has happened throughout church history. It is the story of the church in the book of Acts. And the transformation continues today. Thanks to the pandemic, we are in the midst of a transformational moment. This is our moment. This week, I watched the imaginal cells growing in Logan Square. God’s people, activated by the Spirit, won City Council approval for 100 units of affordable housing on the Emmett St. parking lot. The dough is being transformed. The caterpillar goo is becoming a butterfly. What began when Christ ascended is continuing. Jesus is seated at God’s right hand.

So, go, invade the world. Go, spread the gospel DNA. Go, and be the change-agents of God’s new world.

Mother’s Day Message delivered Sunday, May 10, 2020

Pastor Bruce Ray

 

We’ve all heard the stories know about how protective mama grizzly bears are of their cubs. But nothing compares to the devotion and protectiveness of the female Pacific Giant Octopus.  Unlike most animals who reproduce regularly, a female octopus will reproduce only one time in her life.  And that one time, she will lay 200,000 eggs at once!   But what really sets apart the octopus mother is her commitment to her offspring.  Once she lays her eggs, she keeps watch over them for an entire month until they hatch—never leaving them for a moment, not even for food. She will nearly starve to death in order to protect the eggs from predators.  Some octopi have even been found to eat their own arms.   Now THAT’s commitment to your children!

Today, we read the story of a mother that was as committed to her daughter as a Pacific Giant Octopus (Mark 7:24-30).  Now I have to forewarn you that this is not really a sermon about mothers or a sermon for mothers.  It’s about God’s commitment to God’s children and about the stories we choose to tell about God and others.

But let’s go back to this story.  A mother had a daughter who was very sick, and there was nothing she could do to help her.  What mother doesn’t worry when her child is getting sicker by the day.  What mother doesn’t feel helpless after trying everything. But then she heard that Jesus was in her town, so she immediately went to see him and seek his help.

But you have to think about this. Consider that this mother had nothing going for her—and everything against her.

First, she was a woman coming alone to Jesus—there is no man is in sight. In Jesus’ day, that’s just not proper.

Second, she is a Gentile.  And the Jews called Gentiles, “dogs.”  For the people around Jesus—and in Matthew’s telling of the story, the crowd included Jesus’ disciples—this woman was just a bitch—no better than an unclean animal.

Last, Matthew also calls her a “Canaanite woman.” That’s another strike against her.  If you remember the stories of the Old Testament, the Canaanites were considered the worst of the worst. According to the stories, they were extremely vile and wicked. They did evil things like sacrifice their children in the fire—making them terrible parents. When stories are told again and again about a group of people, it becomes the only story people know and believe.

By all standards, this evil Canaanite bitch who came from a long line of child-neglecters and child-abusers had no business coming to Jesus, let alone ask for Jesus’ help.  But this mother wasn’t going to be controlled by the racist narrative that had been constructed about her.  She wasn’t going to let attitudes of Gentile inferiority and Canaanite wickedness stop her from seeking help.  She wasn’t going to let the stories, the status, the pressure to fit into the social norms and any other obstacle stand in her way.  In the words of the song, she wasn’t “gonna let nobody turn her around.”  Don’t mess with this mama.  Her daughter needed help.  So she was bold—bold enough to go to places and do things that put her at great risk.

And what did she get for her boldness? She got “put in her place,” that’s what!  Jesus’ response is shocking!  Jesus had never before turned down a request for help and healing.  Jesus healed everyone who came to him and answered every request for help!  But this time, he rejects the request!  Jesus replies, “It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.”

What the…? Was Jesus just as racist as everyone else? Did he believe and repeat the narrative of Canaanite wickedness everyone else believed? Or was this some strange test of this woman’s faith?  Whatever it was, this woman did not take “NO” for an answer.  She was not going to let Jesus (or anyone else) think that she was just some wicked Canaanite bitch that would sacrifice her daughter in the fire. “Even the dogs get the crumbs,” she said with faith and confidence.

Jesus can only affirm her answer and her faith. He then tells her that her request has been heard and answered.  Her daughter was healed. Think about that for a minute! Jesus confers upon her—the wicked Canaanite bitch who had no man to speak for her—the full blessings of the children of God.  Jesus’ act was a direct challenge to the evil Canaanite narrative and the racist hatred that she had dealt with her entire life.

How often we hear and repeat the stories that dehumanize people—and ultimately give us permission to treat them like dogs.  Again and again we hear the story that immigrants are taking away our jobs and that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers and thugs.  Again and again, we hear the story that LGBTQIA+ people are abominations and predators. Again and again, we hear the story that black men are criminals and black mothers are lazy welfare queens. These stories are not God’s stories. These are the stories that are told so some can claim God’s blessing for themselves and justify their contempt and mistreatment of those who are not like them. These stories justify separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in cages.  These stories justify assaulting people who speaks another language and telling them to “go back to where they came from.” These stories justify bullying gay teens. These stories justify murdering a black man out for a jog because he was running away and claiming it was done in self-defense.

God tells different stories—stories that challenge the old narratives of guilt, condemnation and inferiority. This story of the Gentile mother seeking help is God’s story. The story of a woman caught in adultery is God’s story. The story of the promiscuous Samaritan woman at the well is God’s story.  God’s stories are stories of boundless grace and limitless mercy; stories of extravagant love and radical inclusion; stories of unexpected blessing in unexpected places.   And these stories teach us that God is committed to all God’s children—not just the Jews, but the Gentiles too; not just the men, but the women too; not just those we think are deserving, but those who have been labeled “undeserving” too; not just the saints, but the sinners too.   God—like the Pacific Giant Octopus—is willing to give up everything—even the life of God’s Only Begotten Son—to give life to all God’s children.

Jesus is challenging us to reject the stories passed down from generation to generation that demean and destroy others, and to tell the new stories of God’s extravagant love.  Jesus invites us to act out those new stories with every person we meet.  And Jesus calls us to live out God’s radical inclusion together so everyone who calls on the name of the Lord can receive the blessings of God’s salvation.

Go, tell these stories; live these stories; be these stories.

Amen.

Message from the 3rd Sunday of Easter Rev. Bruce Ray

Luke 24:13-35

This morning, we heard the gospel story of two followers of Jesus who were on the road to Emmaus three days after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were discussing the events of the past few days—going back and forth in conversation, trying to process everything that happened to understand and make sense of the events. But under the words, there is deep, deep disappointment and grief. It is expressed in the phrase, “We had hoped….”

It is an expression of something we have all felt. Disappointment comes when our expectations are not met.  The higher our expectations, the more disappointment we feel when reality doesn’t deliver. Grief is real for us when “we had hoped, but….”
“I had hoped that this relationship would last a lifetime, but…. I had hoped that she would have been healed, but…. I had hoped that I would get an A on that final exam, but…. I had hoped that I would get the job, but….

We had hoped… these disciples say.
WE HAD HOPED THAT JESUS WAS THE MESSIAH.  He was a prophet, a mighty teacher, a powerful miracle worker.

WE HAD HOPED THAT JESUS WOULD RESCUE ISRAEL.

BUT….  Our leaders condemned him to death and he was executed—crucified, hung on a cross and buried.

High expectations met a devastating new reality, resulting in deep disappointment and grief.

But for these disciples, there is now a new layer of emotion: CONFUSION.  They have heard reports that some of the women saw angels and some of the men confirmed that Jesus’ body was missing.  But it’s been three days since the burial.

One might think that HOPE might arise in the hearts of these disciples, but the fact that they are now leaving Jerusalem and are heading to Emmaus reveals that they can’t afford to hope.  Going to Emmaus is resignation to reality.  There is nothing left for them in Jerusalem. HOPE IS DEAD.

Enter the stranger.  After finding out what they are discussing, the stranger offers the disciples a different understanding of the events–one that he is is supported by the prophets of the Bible. And he takes them on a walk through the Bible—to show them God’s plan.

It’s hard to accept that you have missed the truth–especially when a stranger is telling you.  What the stranger pointed out was that their expectations of Jesus were off.  In fact, their problem wasn’t that their exceptions were wrong, but just incomplete.  Their expectations weren’t too small; they weren’t big enough. Their deepest disappointment was that Israel wasn’t rescued.  They were hoping for the wrong conclusion. Their hope had been that Jesus would be a certain kind of Messiah—a nationalist Messiah that would “rescue Israel.”

Their hope was for a restoration of political independence from Rome. Their Messiah was too limited. They missed seeing God’s bigger plan–the plan revealed in Scripture. The Messiah was not coming just to rescue Israel, but was coming to rescue all of creation and transform the world. The Messiah wasn’t coming just to kick out the Roman oppressors, but to end oppression entirely. The Messiah wasn’t coming just for the Jews, but for Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female.  He was coming to free the cosmos from its bondage to death and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth—starting with a grave robbery.

But even after the Bible study with Jesus, they still couldn’t see or understand. Until… Jesus broke the bread—an act of hospitality and inclusion. An act of generosity and grace. And act of unity and community. And suddenly, the stranger is no longer a stranger. Jesus was with them, welcoming them to experience this new life. He wasn’t the Jesus they had expected. He was not the old Jesus returned, he was the new Jesus—the Jesus who was not bound by space and time, the Jesus who ended the reign of death, the Jesus of a new creation. The Jesus who was eating with them in the kingdom of heaven. They encountered the Risen and Glorified Christ.

It is only then, in the table fellowship with Living Christ that new hope could rise. Their disappointment could not survive in the presence of Jesus–the fulfillment of all expectations.  Their confusion was replaced with understanding, holy heartburn and joyful anticipation of what is yet to come.

When we walk through our week; when we face frustration, confusion, and disappointment; when we struggle in the midst of the injustices of the world; Jesus meets us right where we are and walks with us. But he challenges us to see things from a different point of view—the view from the end rather than the view from the moment.

Our moments – our current reality – eats away at hope, but every time we gather together on the first day of the week; every time we hear the word of the Lord; every time we break the bread and give thanks – we  see Jesus anew. And we remember.

We remember that we are not alone. Christ is with us and we are with each other.
We remember that injustice does not have the final word. Oppression will cease.
We remember that suffering—even unjust suffering—gives way to glory.
We remember that just has Christ was raised from the grave, we too are raised to new life.
We remember that we are the body of Christ, welcomed by God into community, invited to participate in God’s liberating work where there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Gentile, but we are all united in Christ.
We remember that God’s love for the world and God’s plans for the world are total liberation and transformation.
We remember that though we face challenges and difficulties and injustices, we will overcome through Christ who overcame death. We will survive. More than that, we will thrive; because we have seen the Lord;

We have seen the future; we know the ending of the story. We are a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come. So we declare the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia! Amen!

Easter Message by Pastor Bruce Ray

 

During this shelter in place, it is hard to keep track of what day it is. Thank God for Sundays. It has become my touchstone. It keeps me oriented. And it is good to be with you this Sunday—Christ is risen! Amen?

Have you ever wondered why the resurrection happened on Sunday and not on a Tuesday? Or a Wednesday?  I believe God chose Sunday on purpose.

In God’s seven-day calendar, the first day of the week is always associated the creation. On the first day of creation, God said, “Let there be Light” and BAM, there was light.

And on the 7th day of creation, God rested. The Sabbath was set apart as a day of rest and enjoyment of creation. It was the end of the cycle. And the number came 7 came to symbolize completion. Interestingly, the first day of the week also became known as the 8th day. The number 8 in Hebrew literally means “fat” or “abundant.” The eighth day was the first of a new series. A “renewal.” And the number 8 came to symbolize regeneration and the renewal of all creation—the beginning of a new series—a new era of fatness and superabundance.

So it is on the first day of the week that the women went to the tomb. This is the first day of God’s new creation, and the 8th day of God’s superabundance. It was as if God said, “Let there be life” and BAM, there was an empty tomb. This is the beginning of God’s new heaven and earth where righteousness and justice dwell. In the book of Revelation, chapter 21, God announces, “the old order of things has passed away… I am making everything new!”

Theologian NT Wright has said: “God’s new world, the future world as God intends it to be—has broken into the present. The world has already been turned upside down. We don’t need to wait until some future time for God to do something to make things right. God has started the process already. It started on Easter Sunday. God has brought the future into the present in the person of Jesus Christ.”

The resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s promised plans for the world—plans to prosper us and not destroy us. Plans to give us a future and a hope. Isn’t that exactly what we need right now? In these time of coronavirus, it doesn’t feel like we have a future—and so many have lost hope. Take heart; rejoice! God is making all things new!

The old order is crumbling. And while everyone—especially our leaders—promise that everything will “go back to normal” sooner than we think, Easter shouts out, “going back to normal” is not the way to survive. The “old order” is the way of death.

To go back to normal is to go back to the old creation marked by oppression and inequality, the haves and the have-nots, domination and abuse. The old order is marked by environmental destruction and violence and hatred and discrimination. The old order is littered with the bodies of sweatshop workers, migrant labor, desperate immigrant, black and brown prisoners. The old order is good for a few, but it is killing the world. We need to let the old order die so God’s new creation can burst forth.

Instead of wishing for the old normal, God invites us to receive God’s new normal. A world that is changed and is life-giving. Many people are imagining that world. One of the most powerful voices is coming from Kitty O’Meara. Her poem, “And the people stayed home” envisions a new future out of the death of the old normal.

 

 

The resurrection is God’s invitation to go forward into a new life—a life that is marked by righteousness—everything in the right order and in right relationships. This is the new order where all share in the abundance of God; where the lion lays down with the lamb; where the chains of injustice are broken; where the slaves are set free; where swords are turned into plowshares; where there is no male or female, slave or free; where love and peace reign.

The resurrection is just the beginning. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! And you are raised with Christ. You are a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away and the new has come. Today is the beginning of God’s new normal for all of us.

In the words of the old gospel song by Bill Gaither, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives.”   Amen.

Pastor Ray’s “Palm Sunday” Sermon

 

For the first time in 9 years, our Palm Sunday will not conclude with a march to the Logan Square Eagle monument with the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance. For nine years, our congregations have imagined how things would change if Jesus entered our community. We’ve imagined affordable and public housing, mental health, living wages, protection for undocumented immigrants, an end to violence and more.  A common feature in Occupy Palm Sunday has been our chants.  The chants identify what we want.  “What do we want?  Fill in the blank.  When do we want it?  Now!”

The central chant for Palm Sunday has always been “Hosanna!”  The crowds who surrounded Jesus as he entered Jerusalem shouted it over and over again.  We normally think of the word as a shout of acclamation and praise, and it can mean, “The Lord saves.”  The word declares that God is not far from us.  God is arising in power to deliver us. God is our salvation!  The Messiah is coming.  And when the Messiah comes, change happens.  Hope comes alive. No power on earth can stop it.  Chains are broken, the sick are healed, the blind receive their sight, the poor hear good news, prisoners are set free. There is joy!

But as Reza Alsan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, reminds us, the word is really a prayer.  Hosanna comes from the Hebrew, “Yah, shaw, na,” which means, “Lord, save us!” It is the cry of people who are facing terrible trouble, who feel helpless and desperate. Like our “What do we want?” chant, the crowds fill in the blank with, “Save us”. When do we want it? “Now! Save us now!”

Honestly, I’ve heard this chant again and again over the past weeks as we have watched the coronavirus spread. Every day, we are told to take new precautions to protect ourselves.  Every day, we watch the numbers rise.  Every day, more people die.   And every day, we feel more and more desperate. We feel helpless. We feel vulnerable to its economic impact.  We cry out, “Lord, save us from the depths of despair in these days of disaster. Lord, save us from this disease!  Lord, save us who are on the front lines without adequate protection. Lord, save us from the fear and anxiety that we’re not going to have enough!.  Lord, save us from the creditors that are demanding payment when I’ve lost my job. Lord, save us from ineffective leaders whose only concern is their own interests and wellbeing.”

So, on this Palm Sunday, we cry out again to God, “Hosanna! Lord, Save us!”  The ‘us’ includes the sick, those with chronic illness, those over the age of 60, those who have lost loved ones in a time of social distance, the unemployed, nurses, doctors, the grocery store clerks, the first responders, the letter carriers and delivery personnel, the undocumented, and the incarcerated.  It is all of us.

Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday. We remember that shortly after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, he was arrested, detained, falsely charged, unjustly tried, wrongfully convicted, and executed. Jesus’ story is the story of thousands of people in Illinois who are trapped an unjust criminal justice system—especially those being detained in jails simply because they are too poor to post bond.  People like Lavette.

 

 

Right now, more than 4,500 people—mostly Black and Brown people just like Lavette—are trapped inside Cook County Jail, not because they are guilty of a crime, but because they are too poor to pay money bond to be released.  By law, these men and women are presumed innocent until proven guilty, yet they are trapped in a place that has become a hot spot for the coronavirus outbreak because social distancing is impossible in a jail.  In effect, innocent detainees are facing the possibility of a death sentence. As of yesterday, 221 detainees have tested positive for the virus and 15 are hospitalized.  Those who work in the jails are also at risk.

Scripture reminds us that whatever we do to our most vulnerable siblings, we do to Jesus. This Holy Week we must decarcerate Christ. The churches of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance  are partnering with the Chicago Community Bond Fund to raise $5000 between today and Maundy Thursday to guarantee the release of one of our incarcerated siblings by Easter.  $5000 represents the average amount of money needed to be released from jail. 

Open your ears and hear their cries, “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”  Let’s join our voices with theirs, crying out, “Lord, save us!” And then, let’s join the liberating work of Christ.  Let’s make this the week that we break the chains of injustice and set the captive free.

And when we gather again on Easter, we will shout together, “Hosanna!” But this time it WILL be a shout of praise, “The Lord saves! The Lord saves!  Hosanna! Hosanna!”

To make a contribution to set an innocent person free from Cook County, go to: https://secure.givelively.org/donate/chicago-community-bond-fund/lsea-palm-sunday-fundraising-action  

To see the daily updates on the coronavirus in Cook County Jail, go to: https://www.cookcountysheriff.org/covid-19-cases-at-ccdoc/ 

Sermon delivered by Pastor Ray from Sunday, March 29, 2020.  (adapted for posting)

 

I am beginning to understand what it feels like to be in bondage. The coronavirus has become like our jailer. It has separated us from one another, pushed us into solitary confinement and locked us up in chains of fear and anxiety. If we do venture out of our bubble cell, we are haunted by thoughts that the virus will find us and send us deeper into the pit. We are extremely aware of what we touch and where we put our hands after we touch something. We are extremely aware of the people around us—the person who stands too close, the person who coughs, the person who wipes their nose and then touches the produce in the grocery store. We feel completely vulnerable. There seems to be no protection no matter how many times we wash our hands and sanitize our door knobs. And there seems no end to the news of suffering and grief.

Like the people of Israel who were bound in the chains of slavery (Exodus 2), I’ve cried out to God for deliverance from my chains and for the removal of the jailor. “Lord, save us! Break the chains that bind us!”  But God is silent.  There is no answer. Nothing changes. In fact, the situation gets worse every day. More people get sick. More people die. And with every new statistic, the chains tighten around me. I am not just chained by isolation and the chains of fear and anxiety, but new chains appear, taking hold of my soul—chains of helplessness and hopelessness, chains of despair and abandonment. I was having trouble sensing God’s love and presence. I prayed, but there was no answer to my prayers.

But here’s the thing: God is silent until God speaks. After years of seeming abandonment by God, God appeared to Moses and spoke: “I have heard. I have remembered. I am aware of the suffering. I have come down.” (Exodus 3:7-9) The Israelites, I’m sure, questioned God’s love, God’s care. They may have even questioned God’s very existence. But just because God is silent, doesn’t mean God isn’t there with us, aware of our bondage and the chains.

My friends, the story of the Israelites teaches us that though our situation is difficult and challenging and though we are bound by invisible chains, God has NOT abandoned us. God hears us. God sees us. God knows our suffering. God remembers God’s covenant of love. And just as God came down to break the chains of suffering, so God will come down to break the chains. God will help us. God will deliver us. God always acts according to God’s plans—plans to give us a future and a hope.

But here’s another thing I don’t want us to miss: God told Moses, “I have come down to rescue them,” but the next thing God said is strange: “NOW YOU GO. I’m sending you. You must lead my people out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)

When God comes down to rescue God’s people, God raises up an agent of liberation.
God came down and raised up Moses, sending him to liberate the Israelites from their bondage. God came down and raised up Esther, sending her to the King to protect the Jews from annihilation. God (literally) came down in Jesus  and announced freedom for the captives free and good news to the poor. (Luke 4:16-22)

So, who is God raising up as agents of liberation now?  I believe God is coming down and is raising up the church by the power of the Spirit to break the chains of injustice and lead God’s children to God’s new heaven and new earth. Filled with the Spirit of God, we are the people with the power. We are the people with the hope. We are the people, armed with the powerful name of Jesus to break every chain.

In the name of Jesus, we break the chains of fear with faith. In the name of Jesus, we break the chains of despair with hope. In the name of Jesus, we break the chains of hoarding with generosity. In the name of Jesus, we break the chains of misinformation with the Truth. In the name of Jesus, we break the chains of violence with justice and peace. We break the chains of disease. We break the chains of poverty. We are people empowered and equipped by God to do the liberating work of God.

So, let the church rise! Let the church hear the call of Christ. Let the church stand in the gap to intercede for the least and the lost. Let the church share. Let the church be good news for the poor and the oppressed. Let the church rise up to do the liberating work of God!

Amen!

Sermon delivered on Sunday, March 22, 2020 (revised for print)

Several people asked me this week if I thought the virus was sent by God to punish the world for its wickedness. It’s not a new question. Throughout history, disasters have been attributed to the divine as punishment. We even have it in recent history. Some people announced that HIV was God’s wrath against homosexuals in the 1980’s. This pandemic is no different. From church pastors to world leaders–and even Kourtney Kardashian–people are claiming that COVID-19 is God’s punishment for everything from the acceptance of transgendered individuals to persecution of Christians to colonialism by the West to generalized “world evils.”.  And our own government officials refer to COVID-19 as an “Act of God.” God must be behind it, and God must be punishing us for _______________ (fill in the blank).

But my answer is “No.” I don’t believe this virus is a lightning bolt of God’s wrath. I am of the opinion that humans are the root cause. Historically, we’ve done a very good job of bringing disaster on ourselves thanks to arrogance, competitiveness and greed.  I’m more of the opinion that God has given us over to ourselves–for the record, not a good idea. For instance, our rape of the planet for fossil fuels, the fouling of our rivers and streams with toxic chemicals, the cutting down of forests, just to name a few, have unleashed all kids of destruction and devastation. Human presence has done more harm to God’s good creation than anything else–no wonder it groans! And when it groans under the failure of humans to care for it (as God intended), it tends to reject us.

I’m sure that God is not happy about any of this, and I’m sure there are plenty of days that God has wondered if it was worth forming the earth into the “dirt creatures” and putting them in charge of God’s beautiful garden.  But no, I don’t believe God has sent this disaster as divine punishment. On the other hand, I DO believe God can and will use this crisis for good. Because that is who God is. As much as God dislikes what humans have done to themselves and God’s creation, God still is love–as evidenced by God coming in the flesh and tabernacling with us. It’s called “mercy” and “grace.”

I believe that God uses crises and challenges to invite us to return to God—to repent of our destructive ways. My favorite C. S. Lewis quote is this: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Let’s be honest. We’ve been deaf for way too long time. But when God shouts, it is only to awaken us to God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace. And now that God has gotten our attention, God wants us to do some self-reflection and return to God with newfound humility and heartfelt confession.

I believe that God also uses crises and challenges to bring us into right relationships—not only into a right relationship with God, but into right relationship to ourselves, to others, and even to the rest of creation. For too long, we have done whatever we’ve wanted in the name of freedom and liberty. We have treated others and the earth with distain. We are self-sufficient. We have no need for living in community or for thinking about how our individual actions may negatively impact the common good. Suddenly, thanks to this pandemic, we are forced into the realization that we are intimately connected–for good or for ill. One person’s choice to be in public with a fever, cough or sneeze puts everyone around them at risk.  It took an order to self-quarantine (kind of like a disciplinary time-out) for us to remember that we are in this together–and only by looking out for the interests of others will we get through this.  Isolation also reminds us how much we need the connection of community. This is God’s invitation to reset ourselves toward God’s heart–and to orient ourselves toward one another in love. This is the essence of the Kingdom of heaven.

Finally, I believe that God uses crisis and challenges to give us an opportunity to do God’s work and show God’s love to the world through our actions and choices. Whether it is in opening our wallets to help those who are suffering financially due to work closures or finding creative ways to encourage those who cannot self-quarantine because their work is considered “essential,” or sharing messages of hope online, we have an opportunity to make a difference and point others to the sufficiency of God’s grace. We can be the hands of Jesus.

When the early church in Acts 4 faced a crisis, they began to practice a kind of socialism—a “Jubilee” sharing of what they had so there were no poor among them. They took seriously the call of Christ to feed the hungry, give shelter to the wanderer, care for the sick and advocate for the incarcerated. And they had so internalized “love your neighbor as yourself” that when 2,000 people were dying every day in Rome from the Antonine Plague of the mid-2nd century, the “resurrection people” were ready to offer help and hope. Historian Sarah Yoemans has suggested that the spread of the plague was a major factor in the spread of the gospel. This pandemic is an opportunity for us to put our words into action—to creatively love and connect with each other—especially toward those experiencing physical and economic hardship. It is an opportunity to choose a different future.

All this to say that as hard and challenging and frustrating and anxiety-producing as this pandemic is, it is not God’s wrath, but God’s (tough?) love full of opportunity.  It is ultimately, a gift of right relationships and renewal of faith, hope and love. As hard as this crisis is, it is our opportunity to participate in the creation of God’s new heaven and earth–where justice is right at home.

When this is over–and it will be over–we will grieve what has been lost, but we will also rejoice at what we’ve discovered.  And by God’s grace, we will refuse to go back to the way things were–because that way was killing us.  By God’s grace we will hold on the new ways we’ve learned and continue to live into the Jubilee revolution marked by justice, equity, care for the vulnerable and a life-sustaining social order.

Let it be, Lord. Let it be. Amen.

…even when church is cancelled.

With all that is happening in the world, it is more important than ever that we “be the church.”  Though we have shifted our worship to an online format and our face-to-face encounters are restricted, we have the opportunity (and we must make the opportunity) to love our neighbors in creative ways. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Make sure “social distance” doesn’t become “social disconnection” that results in “social isolation.” Distance is appropriate. Avoiding large crowds is essential to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  However, we need to guard against isolation. Senior citizens and other at-risk groups already face the challenge of isolation. If we are going to “love these neighbors”, we need to be intentional about reaching out to those who are most vulnerable and supporting them.  Many do not have online access or social media presence.  If you know someone in a high-risk group, One of the best things you can do is reach out to them by phone.  It’s personal and they need to know you care. Ask if you can read a verse of Scripture and pray with them. See if they need assistance picking up groceries or medication.  And if its good for high-risk individuals, it’s good for everyone. Reach out. Period.
  2. Share, not Shop. Yes, we all feel out of control and people shop to regain a sense of normalcy. But hoarding toilet paper IS NOT NORMAL. Really, no family I know need 2 cases of TP in the next 3 weeks!  Instead, you can feel the same sense of control by SHARING!  Sharing communicates that we are in this together and we will get through this together.  It builds community without competing for resources.
  3. Refuse to feed the Panic Beast “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I’m not suggesting that we deny the existence of the problem, but let’s post data and messages that help, not the hype that harms. Please don’t share conspiracy theories or unverified news hype online (or off-line). It only increases the anxiety and mental stress that more and more people are feeling. Adding to people’s mental stress is not love—it is cruelty.
  4. Pray No, this is not a pat answer. Prayer is a fundamental spiritual practice. It affirms our faith in a God who is active and engaged in the world and welcomes God’s intervention and help. It also reinforces a self-understanding that we are limited and are in need of God’s help. So, come before God through Jesus to intercede on behalf of the world God loves.
  5. Feel free to add your creative ideas to Be the Church!

Rev. Bruce Ray, Lead Pastor

Fifty-five years ago, on March 7, 1965, a crowd of about 600 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, beginning their 54-mile march to the Alabama state capital in Montgomery to demand the right to vote. As they came to the other side of the bridge, the crowd came face to face with a wall of Alabama state troopers in riot gear and gas masks that had been ordered to Selma by Governor George Wallace to stop the march.  Using a bullhorn, Major John Cloud told the marchers to return to their homes or their churches. He declared that the march was an unlawful assembly. The marchers stood their ground. Tensions mounted.  Again the Major demanded that the crowd disperse, but the marchers remained steadfast.  Finally, the police took action—pushing the marchers back and then chasing them on horseback, beating them with nightsticks. Dozens of marchers were injured. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The entire attack was filmed by a crew from ABC News. The footage was shown that night, interrupting the premier broadcast of the movie, “Judgment at Nuremburg.” Fifty million people watched in shock as armed police attacked unarmed citizens. It was a turning point in the struggle for voting rights.

I was 7 years old. It was a turning point in my understanding of injustice.  The political powers that make unjust laws use their agents to enforce those laws. State-instituted oppression will always be followed by state-supported harassment of those who are oppressed and will ultimately lead to state-sanctioned violence against those who protest their oppression.

Selma was not a new thing. The use of police, National Guard and armies to harass, intimidate and control has been a tactic of the powerful for thousands of years. Jesus became the innocent victim of state-sanctioned violence. He was arrested by the temple police in the middle of the night, illegally tried by a Jewish court, convicted on the basis of false testimony, sentenced by the Roman governor and then tortured by Roman soldiers. And then, he was crucified—executed by the Roman state.

Unfortunately, Selma wasn’t the end of police brutality. Even in this country, fifty-five years after Selma, we still see the agents of our own government misuse and abuse their power. Every year in the United States, law enforcement officers kill over 1000 people—mostly people of color. In a country that says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, police have acted as judge, jury and executioner with impunity. Chicago has an especially long history of police misconduct and violence. Fifty years ago, Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, was assassinated in his sleep by the Chicago Police Department with the support of the FBI. Mayor Richard J. Daley famously told the National Guard to “shoot to kill” protesters following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And in the last 10 years, we have more stories of needless deaths at the hands of Chicago law enforcement acting as judge, jury and executioner: Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier, Bette Jones and so many more.

Chicago’s Police Department was so bad that the US Department of Justice began an investigation of the in 2015. Two years later, the Department of Justice released its report. It found “reasonable cause to believe that the Chicago Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.” which prohibits unreasonable seizure. The department found that CPD officers’ practices “unnecessarily endanger themselves and result in unnecessary and avoidable uses of force. The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies in training and accountability, including the failure to train officers in de-escalation and the failure to conduct meaningful investigations of uses of force.” (to read the entire report, go to: https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/925846/download)

The report generated a lot of talk, but little change. The chains of injustice don’t break easily. Though the police department promised to implement changes, we watched video last week of two Chicago police officers shooting and critically wounding a man whose crime was crossing between subway cars. And the reality of a police-state was evident in February when the Department of Homeland Security announced that ICE agents would be sent to Chicago and other sanctuary cities. This week, there were reports of ICE agents detaining shoppers in our community.

This is not about individual law enforcement officers, but about systems of racist policing that targets poor communities of color and immigrants that ignore the constitutional rights of due process and the God-ordained basic human rights given to everyone.

Are we doomed to these systems of unjust law enforcement? Are we hopeless in the face of injustice? The answer is a resounding NO! When Daniel faced the lions, God intervened and set Daniel free. When Jesus was crucified by the Roman empire, God intervened and raised Jesus from the dead. The Sundays of Lent are called “little Easters”—a reminder that though the world is a broken place, God has a plan to heal the world and break the chains of injustice.

And even in Chicago, I hear some chains falling. On Tuesday, March 10, the city’s Committee on Public Safety Committee will vote on the GAPA ordinance that was developed by the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability after a two-year community-driven process. The ordinance will create the “Community Commission for Public Safety and Police Accountability.” When passed, Chicago will have the only civilian police accountability oversight commission in the US. This is the kind of systemic change that breaks the chains of injustice in the criminal justice system. This will prevent police brutality and improve public safety.

When passed by committee, the full city council will vote on the ordinance on Wednesday, March 18. Community Renewal Society has led this effort, and we will be with them at City Hall on March 18 to celebrate the victory.

Even with this victory on the horizon, the work of breaking the chains of justice is not over. There is more and more evidence that we live in an oppressive police state—from the increased use of facial recognition software by police departments to cameras at every corner to the SWAT teams on CTA platforms to ICE agents.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The work of sowing justice is hard. The wait for justice is often long. But we know that God will give us the harvest.

So now, in hope and faith, we sing with the saints of Selma, “We shall overcome! We shall overcome! We shall overcome someday! O deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.”

END