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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.

Pastor Ray’s message from June 21, 2020

 

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers, stepfathers and mentors!  Your role in creating a home with a solid foundation is of incalculable value.  The foundation is key whether it be the foundation of a family or a nation.  Jesus told a parable in Matthew 7:24-27 about a wise and foolish builder, but the parable speaks to the need for having the right foundation.  That parable is happening before our eyes. Let me explain with a parable of my own.

Hundreds of years ago, a beautiful house was built that became the envy of every household in the world. Its grand pillars and impressive design had become a standard for other houses.  Each generation that followed was proud of what their forefathers had built, and they did everything they could to preserve it. It seemed indestructible.  Storms had battered it again and again. It had been buffeted by winds, pelted with hail, and threatened with torrential rains. But the house had survived.  After each storm, repairs were made. Cracks in the walls were filled, sanded and painted. The exterior bricks were tuckpointed. The roof was replaced. The chimney was reinforced.  Every time the house survived a storm, the household gained confidence that the old house would stand forever.

But today, the old house is collapsing. A storm stronger than any felt in at least two hundred years is raging. This storm is exposing the truth about this old house. As beautiful and impressive as it is, this house was built on a faulty foundation.

Throughout the generations, the household thought the foundation was strong.  In fact, the household told stories of how the first generation of builders had built the house on trustworthy, absolute, self-evident pillars—truths that would protect and preserve the house no matter what.  But the truth is: the foundation was flawed. It was not a foundation of rock, but a foundation of sand full of dead men’s bones—a foundation mix of genocide and enslavement and dehumanization and marginalization held together by a distorted religious narrative.  God had ordained it to be.

But now, the old house is collapsing. Its season has ended.

How foolish to think that the truth would remain hidden forever!  How arrogant to think that a house can be built by founding itself on ‘God talk’ while ignoring the word in action.  How conceited to believe that strength comes from professing the truth without possessing the truth. This old house is collapsing. It will fall with a mighty crash.

But do not mourn for this house. It must fall.  Instead, rise up in hope; for a new house is being built.  And beneath it is a stronger, lasting foundation—the foundation of justice, righteousness and truth in the inward parts.  No longer can we accept godly platitudes mixed with ungodly practices. No longer can we be placated with façades of goodness that conceal hateful hearts and evil intentions. No longer can we tolerate the sludge of “church-ianity,” or whitewashed piety.

The new house will be built on what James calls “genuine religion.”  (James 1:27) Genuine religion mirrors the heart of God who welcomes the shunned and the shamed, protects the weak and the vulnerable, and provides for those who are essential but have been treated as expendable. Genuine religion rejects the “wisdom” of a corrupt world that grasps for power and profit, and treats people with contempt. Genuine religion listens to the cries of the oppressed, sees the conditions of the harassed, and rises up to take action against injustice.  Genuine religion raises its voice in the street and cries out with the prophets, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”  Genuine religion seeks shalom and pursues it.  Genuine religion loves not only the neighbors that look like me and think like me and live like me, but also the ones who don’t. Genuine religion hears the word and does the word.  The house built on this foundation will be blessed. This house will stand firm.

On Friday of this week, we celebrated Juneteenth, the Independence Day of the last slaves in Texas following the Civil War. This year’s celebration was unlike any before it. On Saturday, we also participated in the online March on Washington for Moral Revival organized by the Poor Peoples Campaign. More than 30,000 people gathered online to make a new commitment to  the poor and the marginalized.  On Saturday, Humbolt Park and Riis Park were filled with the celebratory music and culture of Puerto Rico in all its glorious diversity. And throughout the week, we continued to march for justice for George Floyd and others who have been the victims of excessive use of force by racialized policing. This is the storm.

The storm has arrived. The day of reckoning is upon us.  The old foundation cannot remain intact when the storm of justice flows.  It’s time to let the old house collapse so the new house – God’s house – built on liberation and equity can be built and occupied. And then – finally – all of us will be free.

Amen.

Pastor Ray’s message on Sunday, June 7, 2020

 

Today’s Gospel text is often referred to as, “The Great Commission.” It is Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples outlining what they are to do next.  It has become the church’s mission statement, its marching order, and the articulation of its fundamental goals.  As such, it has also become an evaluative tool, used to measure its effectiveness and success.

The Great Commission has motivated the church to send missionaries throughout the world to declare the Word of God in every language and establish cells of the body of Christ in every nation.  From the beginning, Jesus’ apostles went out to declare the Lordship of the Risen Christ and challenge the earthly and spiritual powers of oppression and death that held people in bondage. The disciples cared for the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked and provided for the poor in the authority and name of Jesus. And the followers of Jesus changed the world.

Let’s take a minute to take notice of what the Great Commission does NOT say.  It does NOT say, make converts.  The Great Commission isn’t about getting butts in the pews, but feet on the ground. It is not to have people who can quote a creed, but who are being transformed by the power of the Spirit.  It does NOT say make disciples of “some nations”. The Great Commission is not exclusive but inclusive of every nation, ethnicity.  It does not allow us to pick and choose who we want inside the circle and those we want to keep outside of the circle. . It does NOT say, teaching them to obey “a few” of the things I have taught you, but ALL. It is not selective for one’s own comfort or ease. Jesus taught some hard things. We are to obey those too.

The goal of the Great Commission is clear: MAKE DISCIPLES. Disciples are committed followers of Jesus who live under the LORDSHIP of Jesus Christ. Disciples are students who put into practice what they have learned. Disciples are not just hearers of the word; they are doers of the word. Disciples don’t just hold up a Bible; they open it. Disciples don’t pick and choose the commands they like and discard the rest. Disciples don’t justify themselves or excuse themselves; they confess their continual need for God’s mercy and grace and are changed to be the change.

We have a problem. We have plenty of church-goers, but few disciples. We have lots of people who can quote the Bible, but apply it selectively. And we have plenty of people who have decided that allegiance to Christ is synonymous to allegiance to America.

For generations, we have been baptized into a form of Christianity that holds the Bible in one hand and the American flag in the other. We have connected Christian faith to American greatness.  And our discipleship has been a commitment to the American dream.  And we have taken the Great Commission as a command to take the American Way to the ends of the earth by any means necessary.  The Great Commission has become the Great Oppression in our hands.

We have used this form of Christianity to justify genocide and slavery. We have used this form of Christianity to authorize wars and covert operations against those we call our enemies. We have used this form of Christianity to oppress.  We have used this form of Christianity to coerce conversion by force. And the reason? We have failed to recognize who is truly the LORD with all authority.

This week, we were faced again with the long history of our failure to live out true discipleship—obedience to ALL the commands of Jesus—especially the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This week has not only a day of reckoning for the politicians and the police, but for the church. For too long, we have been on the side of oppression. For too long, we have been on the side of division.  For too long, we have been on the side of racism.  For too long, we have been comfortable with Sunday mornings being the most segregated hour in America. For too long, we have chosen to be blind to our participation in the systems that destroy life—especially our economic system that values profit over people.

It took the vicious murder of George Floyd to open our eyes as a nation to the systemic racism that has infected our politics and our religion. I had a long conversation this week with some missionary friends from Spain. They were seeing the news and watching the protests, and they asked, “What are the churches doing?”

Here’s what I hope the churches are doing? I hope the churches are on their knees, repenting.  I hope the churches are recognizing their complicity by their silence. I hope the churches are finally standing up in solidarity and chanting “Black Lives Matter.”  I hope the churches are recognizing the truth about themselves—that they—no, WE—have failed to be the example of God’s inclusive love and God’s radical  upside-down transformation of the world where the last are first and the first are last. I hope the churches are waking up to the need to do justice and not just charity. I hope the churches are rejecting the faith that has been built upon the foundation of Manifest Destiny instead of the Lordship of Christ.

I hope.

I have hope. Last week, hundreds of people of faith marched through the south side in protest and in peace.

There IS an army rising up to break every chain! There are singers that are singing the songs of liberation. There are dancers who are dancing upon injustice.  This is what the church must do. This is what the Great Commission looks like in action.

And the mountains will tremble and the darkness will flee and the river will flow and the people will be set free by the power of Christ, the Risen LORD.  Amen.

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.