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Monthly Archives: March 2020

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

 

Sermon Delivered on Sunday, March 1, 2020 (Adapted for print)

Throughout the six weeks of Lent 2020, we are considering the implications the kind of fast that God chooses—a fast that breaks the chains of injustice within our criminal justice system. When we think about the injustices within our criminal justice system, we often think about the injustices that can happen after a person is arrested for committing a crime: coerced confessions (by torture), money bond and pre-trial detention, innocent people being encouraged to take plea deals, wrongful convictions, mandatory minimum sentences and “three-strikes” laws, the use of solitary confinement (which is considered a form of torture by the United Nations), and the re-instatement of the death penalty. THAT’S A LOT OF INJUSTICE! But an unjust justice system does not begin with arrest, but with unjust laws and policies.

A Story of Oppression and Unjust Laws
Today, we read the story of an unjust and oppressive policy that was put into place by Pharaoh when he and the Egyptian people were deeply concerned about the growth rate of Israelites and the potential impact on Egyptian national security. Pharaoh’s solution was a new public policy: kill all the boy babies at birth.  (See Exodus 1:8-22).  Now, we would all consider that public policy oppressive and unjust, and say, “That ain’t right!” But that’s what Pharaoh ordered.

Pharaoh brought in two Hebrew midwives to implement the policy, but Shiphrah and Puah refused to carry out the policy. They understood that the law was unjust and immoral. So, when Pharaoh questioned why they were not carrying out his order, they lied. And God blessed them. Shiphrah and Puah are heroes—women who refused to cooperate with an unjust system and disobeyed an unjust law.

When Pharaoh could not get the cooperation of the midwives, he did something that is deeply disturbing—he went to his base, the Egyptian people—and ordered them to implement the infanticide policy, putting all Israelite women and baby boys at risk of state-sanctioned Egyptian vigilante-ism. There are no statistics on how many woman and children were killed under this policy, but the context would suggest that the threat of death was real–so real that Moses’ parents went to great lengths to protect him.

From an Egyptian point of view, this policy was justified. It was in the national interest. But we must remember that from God’s perspective, legal is not the same as moral and legal is not the same as right.

Two kinds of Laws
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King ,Jr wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Unjust laws don’t just show up. They are enacted and implemented out of fear and a need to control others. For five hundred years in this country expanded the institution of slavery for the building of an economy. After the abolition of slavery and the end of Reconstruction, southern states immediately began passing laws known as the Black Codes to ensure that the freed slaves would not be able to enjoy all the rights of citizenship. White fear of former slaves led to passage of unjust laws. Laws to preserve and promote white privilege and superiority were required. The Black Codes became the basis of Jim Crow laws that strictly controlled the former slaves—keeping them separate from white people on public transportation, in schools, public restrooms, restaurants and at drinking fountains. Interracial marriage was illegal. Voting rights were denied using literacy tests and poll taxes.

Some people challenged the constitutionality of the Jim Crow laws, but the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy Vs. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” treatment for blacks and whites under the law was constitutional. So “separate but equal” became the law of the land for almost 70 years.  The practice of “Separate but equal” spread from the South to other parts of the country—to California where it was used to separate Mexicans; to Oregon, where it was used to prevent intermarriage between whites and indigenous people. Race-based laws can be found in dozens of states between 1876 and 1965. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement that the old laws were challenged and more just laws were passed. (Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954 ended school segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended race based discrimination and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended poll taxes and literacy tests, and Loving Vs. Virginia in 1967 ended the ban on interracial marriage, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended housing discrimination based on race or religion.)

The Old Oppression in New Clothes
While these laws ending racial discrimination are still on the books, we cannot naively imagine that the problem of unjust laws has been eliminated. Don’t be fooled. New unjust laws and policies continue to be proposed to limit the participation of the poor and people of color as full citizens. There are many examples, but let’s look at one.

Let me introduce you to ALEC. ALEC writes a lot of laws for the government—especially state governments. ALEC isn’t an elected representative of the people. ALEC isn’t even a person. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of corporations and select legislators that write laws that primarily benefit the interests of big business and conservative social agendas. ALEC writes so-called “model bills” that are presented in state legislatures (often verbatim). In the past eight years, 2,100 model bills have been passed. For example, one member corporation, CoreCivic—formerly call the Corrections Corporation of America—builds and operates private prisons for states. CoreCivic has written legislation for states that included “Truth-in-sentencing” and “three-strikes” provisions in order to increased prison population—and thereby increasing the company’s profits. ALEC has written thousands of laws that support publicly funded private education, limit consumer protection, promote “stand your ground” laws, and chip away at environmental regulations.

Life in the New Egypt
We live in a new Egypt under a new pharaoh who acts to preserve his interests by denying (legally) the rights of those who are perceived to be a threat. Here is what history could write about life in the New Egypt (based on Exodus 1).

A new Pharaoh rose to power in New Egypt who didn’t respect democracy. He and his people were afraid of the increasing numbers of people who didn’t look or act or believe like them, and he decided that something must be done to stop the those people from taking over New Egypt. It was a matter of national security. So the new Pharaoh announced new policies: a travel ban from certain countries to his land and a policy to separate children from their parents when they attempted to enter his land without permission. Some objected, but the Pharaoh turned to his people, who shouted “Build That Wall!” and “Go Back to Your Country.” And the new Pharaoh looked the other way while his people attacked anyone that didn’t look like them and treated them as if they weren’t citizens of his land–which, in fact, they were. And the new Pharaoh’s agents sent the unwanted people to jail when they tried to enter and took their children and put them in cages. And some of the children were infants. And some of the children got sick. And some of the children died.

But there were men and women and children who rose up, like the angelic hosts of heaven, and refused to cooperate with the orders of the new Pharaoh and called the policies exactly what they were: racist and unjust. And they stood up and said “We will not follow your unjust laws that lead to death. We will not bow down to you. We will cry out to the One that is far above all human authority. And we will listed to the Voice who calls us to ‘break the chains of injustice!’ We will do justice in the land. We will enact just laws that give life. And we will set the oppressed free.”

A Call and a Choice
Honestly, that last paragraph is my hope for the Church in New Egypt. But it is not guaranteed. For too long, the church has cooperated with the new Pharaoh, believing that God requires us to obey the laws of the government—even the unjust laws. And for too long, the church has chosen to be silent while the new Pharaoh has unleashed destruction on people and planet. Now, a decision is required and Lent is a good time to choose. Will we be complicit with death or will we break the chains of injustice? Will we be Shiphrah and Puah, or will give into fear? Will we join the oppressor or will we set the oppressed free?

God says, “See, I set before you life and death. CHOOSE LIFE.” Choose liberation. Choose the break the chains.