Pastor Ray’s 2+ minute reflection on Jesus’ last word, “I thirst”, shared at Holy Friday service, April 14, 2017, at San Lucas United Church of Christ.
Pastor Ray’s 2+ minute reflection on Jesus’ last word, “I thirst”, shared at Holy Friday service, April 14, 2017, at San Lucas United Church of Christ.
From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Sunday, March 26, 2017
Jews are better than Samaritans. Everybody knows it. Jews are God’s chosen people. Jews are pure. Samaritans are not. And there’s “proof” to back up the claim. (See 2 Kings 17:24ff for the proof summarized here.)
First, everybody knows that Samaritan’s Jewish blood was diluted due to intermarriage.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians Empire. Many of the people had been taken out of Israel and resettled in other places. And through an act of the King of Assyria, other non-Jewish groups were brought into Israel to ensure Assyrian domination. These people intermarried with the Israelites that remained in the land, giving birth to “mixed race” children who became known as Samaritans. Because of their mixed heritage, Samaritans were unclean—just one step above Gentile ‘dogs’.
Second, everybody knows Samaritan’s Jewish faith was polluted.
When The Assyrian empire resettled Israel, the new people brought their own religions with them. But due to a spiritual crisis in Israel, Assyria also sent Jewish priests back to teach the people how to worship the God of Israel. As a result, the Samaritans developed a hybrid religion that included elements of other religious practices. They worshipped God (and other gods) at a high place on Mt. Gerazim, not at the Temple in Jerusalem—the “right” place to worship. Because of their mixed religion, Samaritans were not true Jews—just one step above pagans.
Samaritans were diluted and polluted and therefore ought to be excluded. Pure Jews had nothing to do with impure Samaritans. The people God had chosen had nothing to do with the people God had rejected.
Over time, the names of the Empire changed. The Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians. The Babylonians were defeated by the Greeks, the Greeks were defeated by the Romans. But hundreds of years later, Jews still had nothing to do with Samaritans. Jews didn’t go through Samaritan neighborhoods—unless they absolutely had no other choice. Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans. Jews hated Samaritans and would have been happy if God obliterated them from the planet.
And into this world of ethnic and religious division Jesus shows up. And Jesus can’t go around Samaria on his way to Galilee like every other Jew. No, he decides he “has to” go through Samaria. And then, he decides he has to take a pit stop in Sychar. And then, he decided to start a conversation with Samaritan—and a woman, no less. (See John 4:4ff)
From Jesus’ disciple’s point of view, this had to be the Road Trip From Hell! Every time Jesus makes a decision, it pushes them to interact with the almost pagan half-breeds they have been told ought to be avoided.
But Jesus is teaching his disciples—both his “then” disciples and his “now” disciples—that the old prejudices and the old divisions and the old exclusiveness and the old boundaries cannot be maintained in God’s new kingdom.
Jesus had to go through Samaria because God included Samaritans in the Kingdom of heaven! Wrap your head around THAT!
So, Jesus—who is on God’s Kingdom of heaven mission—crosses the lines and not just the territorial line of nationalism, but the cultural line of gender politics, engaging a woman, AND even the line of religious exclusivity. Not only is Jesus “nice” to Samaritans. Jesus breaks down all the barriers that separate them—even the religious walls. As the woman at the well reminds Jesus, the Jews say you can only worship God at the temple and Samaritans say God is to be worshipped at the high place. So, Jesus, what is the correct location? And Jesus’ answer is quite unexpected from a Jewish point of view: “The day is coming—and now is—when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” Jesus does away with the religious exclusiveness altogether! The correct answer is “neither!” Wrap your head around THAT!
Osvaldo Vena, professor of NT at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, (he’s an expert unlike me) says that John includes this story in his gospel for the benefit of his faith community that is struggling with the challenge of having Samaritans (both male and female) in their church. The lesson of John 4 legitimizes Samaritan inclusion as equal members in the body of Christ—fully equal so that even the women are to be included in the company of evangelists, teachers, and church leaders. Jesus’ action of crossing the ethnic, gender and religious boundaries shows us that the old boundaries cannot be maintained and should not be used as a criteria for keeping people out of the full fellowship of the church.
Sadly, the church has failed to learn and live out the lesson, choosing instead to maintain the old boundaries and old presumptions about the ‘other.’ White Europeans are more intelligent than Africans. And there’s “proof” to back up the claim! An American physician, Samuel George Morton, conducted studies of cranial capacity in the early 1800’s. He concluded that based on head circumference, Africans were mentally inferior to all other humans. His work legitimized white supremacy and justified the subservience and enslavement of Africans. Despite the fact that Morton’s research and his scientific method have been debunked, and despite that all subsequent studies have shown no correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence, the narrative of black mental incapacity persists—even to this day. Just 5 years ago, a study called The American National Election Study found that 44% of white respondents still believed that white people were more intelligent than black people. And you can find this belief present in every strata of white society including the church.
Sadly, the church needs to continue to learn the lesson of breaking down the boundaries of who is accepted within the circle of God’s new community. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we have been told stories about people that are so deeply embedded within us that we frequently aren’t aware of until we are confronted with a passage like John 4. We still maintain old stereotypes, old prejudices, old boundaries of exclusion based on presumptions about race (blacks aren’t as intelligent as whites), ethnicity (immigrants are criminals), gender (women are the ‘weaker’ sex), gender orientation (gays are perverted), youth of color (Latino kids in groups are gangs) and religion (Muslims are terrorists). We, like James and John, the Sons of Thunder, would prefer to maintain mistrust and disgust for the outsider/outcast and call down fire from heaven by drone to consume their villages, or incarcerate, or deport, or build walls. Jesus would show us a different way—the kingdom way that refuses to categorize people into “us” and “them”, “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”, but instead creates a new “us” in relationship to himself.
Jesus is stranger, indeed. The question is, will we be stranger too?
From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017
Let’s talk about bowels. Now you may think that bowels may be an appropriate topic for the privacy of your doctor’s office, but not for polite conversations and especially not for a public worship service. I assure you, bowels are a perfect topic for today and for “Stranger Love”, our fast for immigrant and refugee justice.
Bowels are appropriate because of how frequently they show up in the Bible–both Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word for bowels, ‘rachem’, is found 44 times, and the Greek word, ‘splanchnon,’ shows up 11 times. However, the word doesn’t always refer to the literal body part. Both the Jews and the Greeks believed that the bowels were the location of deepest feelings and emotions. Our culture puts the location of emotion and passion in the heart. For the Jews and Greeks, it was the bowels. We have several phrases that are similar–“gut reaction”, “gut-wrenching”, “gut-churning” that connote reactions of disgust, of being deeply disturbed, of aversion. But for Hebrews and Greek, ‘rachem’ and ‘splanchnon’ connoted reactions of compassion, mercy, and pity.
The English word ‘pity’ gets a bad rap. The English word is usually associated with feelings of concern for someone’s suffering from a distance. It has an air of separation and disconnection and condescension. It is rarely associated with taking action to relieve suffering. Not so with Hebrew and Greek. Pity is an action word. Pity is a “bowel movement!” Yes, I went there.
Today, we read the story about Israel’s interaction with Edom at Edom’s border (See Numbers 20:14-21. The Israelites had just left Egypt and slavery and were on their way to the ‘Promised Land.’ But to get there, they had to cross the land of Edom. Moses sent a message requesting passage through the territory and giving assurances that Israel would not use Edom’s resources (food and water) for themselves or their livestock without paying for it. Despite the assurances, Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass their their territory and proceeded to enforce the ban by military action. They turn away their flesh and blood (Edom and Israel were cousins since the Edomites were the descendants of Esau and the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob). Edom would not welcome them or show any hospitality. Edom cast off all pity. That’s what the prophet Amos declared many generations later. “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity; he maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever. So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.” Amos 1:11-12
They “cast off all pity.” A literal translations of the Hebrew is, “they shut their bowels”. And God, who is compassionate and merciful, who is described as “having pity on his people”, responds to the Edomite’s lack of compassion with an announcement of judgment.
The story of Edom is a cautionary tale. Don’t be like the Edomites. Don’t be the people who turn away their flesh and blood in their time of need. Don’t be the nation that “shuts their bowels” to those who are in distress, to those who need help, to those who are under oppression. God watches the nations and judges the nations in relationship to their response to those in need.
The apostle John reminds his community that love is more than words, but it is action for our brothers and sisters in need that comes out of the “bowels of compassion.” “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:16-18
The parallels between Edom and the world we live in are obvious. There are refugees seeking shelter from war. There are immigrants fleeing environmental disaster. There are people in poverty and deep distress. They are at our borders, seeking protection, seeing help, seeking refuge. But like the Edomites, our nation is shutting our bowels, casting off all pity, sending them away—back into the wilderness—even though we have the means to help them. And then our nation militarizes our borders to ensure they do not cross. Our nation has cast off pity. Our nation has shown contempt for our sisters and brothers, expressing hatred rather than love. Our nation has not heeded the warning. GOD IS WATCHING.
But we are the children of God–not the children of Esau. And we must must resist Edom. We must refuse to breathe in Edom’s toxic atmosphere of xenophobia and fear. We must not give ourselves over to the demands of Edom’s gods of self-interest and self-protection. We must not conform to Edom’s ideologies of hatred and rejection of the ‘other’. No! We worship the God who loves the “alien and the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.” And because God shows pity on those in distress by relieving their distress, we must also show pity. Our bowels must be moved by the passion and compassion of God. We must open our doors to welcome the stranger and provide for those who need refuge. Our actions will demonstrate God’s love for the immigrant and refugee, and God, who sees what is done, will say to us who have seen the stranger and welcomed her, ‘Come, you who are blessed; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
May we live out our calling as God’s people. Amen.
Kimball Avenue Church will be joining Bethany United Church of Christ and Pilgrim Lutheran Church to resettle a refugee family in the Chicago area through Refugee One. At the end of Lent, we will receive a special offering for the project. Individuals are encouraged to set aside an amount of money each day or week during our Lenten Fast From Xenophobia, “Stranger Love”, to help reach a goal of $6000 to support the refugee family. If you are interested in assisting in this project, contact the church through the church web site, or via our Facebook page.
From Pastor Ray’s sermon from the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017
It’s St. Patrick’s Day Week! Yesterday, we turned the Chicago River Green and today there will be a big parade on the south side with lots of Irish dancing and lots of Irish drinking. And on Friday, March 17, we’ll all officially be Irish for a day (because secretly we all wish we had been born Irish.)
My, how times have changed. Back in the late 1800’s, being Irish was not high on anyone’s wish list—at least not being Irish in the United States. As people from Ireland immigrated to the U.S., they were met with discrimination and racism. Yes, racism. Though they were white-skinned, they were considered an “inferior race.” Cartoonists of the day depicted Irish as apes—evolutionary links just one step above the animal kingdom. They were stereotyped as violent alcoholics by nature. The Irish were detestable to most Americans and they were treated with disdain and contempt. Employment ads often ended with the statement, “No Irish Need Apply.” Irish immigrants were blamed for all of America’s social ills. The Chicago Post wrote in the late 1800’s: “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”
Being Irish doesn’t sound like an honor. But the Irish weren’t the only ones who were vilified. The Chinese came to the U.S. as laborers to support the building of the Continental Railroad. But most people were suspicious of them because of their appearance and culture. Soon, white Americans complained that there were too many of them. They were taking jobs away from Americans. They were a threat to the purity of the white race. So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It prohibited Chinese immigration for 10 years. It was the first immigration ban based on ethnicity. It was renewed in 1892, and became permanent in 1902. The ban was not lifted until 1943! Imagine being Chinese in the U.S. during those 61 years!
At the core of the Chinese ban and calls for Irish deportation was the desire to maintain white racial and cultural superiority. For over 500 years, white Europeans had the power of wealth and weapons to define their superiority and determine the destiny of those they deemed inferior. And when power is married to a religious mandate like Manifest Destiny, all actions against the inferior races and classes are justified as God’s will. The United States ‘belonged’ to white people as a gift from God. One need only look at the treatment of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans to see the superior/inferior dynamic at work. “White” doesn’t make it right.
White America is not unique. The superior/inferior dynamic can be found in almost every culture and is as old as the Bible. In Exodus 46:34, we get a glimpse of Egyptian superiority. “Shepherds were detestable to the Egyptians.” Those immigrant Israelites who tended livestock were inferior and needed to be segregated in Goshen. In Exodus 1, a new Pharaoh rises and taps into the racist and classist attitudes. The prosperity of the immigrant Israelites is a threat to national security, and the superior Egyptians determine to do something about the “Israelite problem.” Thanks to their political power, the Pharaoh enacts public policy to contain the problem, limiting them to occupations of manual labor (the equivalent of slavery). When that didn’t work to contain them, the Pharaoh enacts a policy of population control through infanticide performed by Hebrew Midwives. And when that didn’t work, Pharaoh authorized “his people” (either the general public or the military) to kill all the boy babies. Superiority that is threatened always leads to identification, segregation, oppression, suppression, and attempts at annihilation. But God rises up and delivers the inferior Israelites from Egyptian superiority!
Will we always live out the superior/inferior dynamic? Are we to be forever caught up in this cycle where power defines superiority, where superiority (by default) identifies inferiority and where oppression is the outcome? Is there a way out? The answer is—‘YES!’ And ‘YES!’ is found in the Gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the cycle so that words like ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ no longer apply. Christ is all and is in all.
Jesus’ gospel elevates the lowly. As James writes, “Let the one in humble circumstances rejoice in her high position.” God chooses the weak things to shame the strong. God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise. God chooses the despised things and the things deemed worthless to bring down the things that are held up in high esteem. God exalts the humble. God delivers the oppressed. God seats the lowly among the princes. God honors the poor. God welcomes the outcast and sinner. God provides for the fatherless and the widow. God welcomes the alien and the stranger. God includes the outsider in God’s family.
But Jesus’ gospel brings down those who are supposedly superior. As James writes, “Let the high-born rejoice in their humiliation.” And as Paul writes to the ‘superior’ Romans, “Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but think with sober judgment.” To think of oneself as superior is to live in a condition of drunkedness with impaired vision, responses, and perception. Superiority is an illusion. The gospel delivers the ‘superior’ from their self-importance. God graciously opens their eyes to their emptiness. God delivers them into Jesus where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor brown, neither Mexican nor Chinese nor Mexican nor Irish, neither superior nor inferior.
So, do not accept the definition of “superior” or “valuable” or “better than.” It is a false identity. Only God is good. And do not accept the definition of “inferior” or “worthless” or “less than.” It too is a false identity—for God calls what God has made “good.” Each person bears the stamp of God’s image, but no person is God. God has brought us all to the foot of the Christ, where the ground is level, where each one is given grace, and where we all see yourselves as we truly are.
Sisters and brothers, in Christ we can no longer view one another from a human point of view and make judgment—superior or inferior—on the basis of human values and classifications. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. Let the one who is “great” become the “least” and the servant. Let us choose to see Jesus in each immigrant face. Let us renounce the superior/inferior label so we can receive all those for whom Christ died. Amen.
From Pastor Ray’s sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017
In 1974, the book, “The Spaceships of Ezekiel” hit bookstore shelves. Written by NASA systems manager Josef Blumrich, the book hypothesized and set out to prove that the Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God was actually a close encounter with an alien spaceship. The book was quickly debunked by the scientific and religious community as a creative, but flawed, interpretation of Scripture that was more about cashing in on recent UFO sightings than on pursuit of science.
While some may still believe that aliens have visited this planet, when the Bible speaks of “aliens”, it is not referring to extraterrestrials. In the Hebrew Scriptures, “aliens” were a classification of people that resided in a place that was not their original home. The words “stranger” and “foreigner” are often used synonymously or in conjunction with the word “alien.”. Aliens are outsiders. Aliens are people who are different. Aliens are “other.” In our context, we use another word to describe this group. Aliens are immigrants. And aliens are, by virtue of their “otherness”, a vulnerable people—at risk of oppression and abuse.
While God recognizes “difference” between alien and native born, God does not advocate exclusion. In fact, God advocates special attention and protection that leads to full inclusion and acceptance.
And the New Testament—Matthew’s gospel in particular—fleshes out God’s identification with the alien. Matthew presents Jesus, whom he has identified as “Emmanuel: God with us”, as an alien. In two instances in Jesus’ formative years, Jesus is the immigrant. First, he becomes the refugee in Egypt when Joseph makes a nighttime escape from Bethlehem and the coming genocide of Herod. Then, Jesus becomes the immigrant in Galilee after Joseph—out of fear for his family’s safety—settles in the backwater town of Nazareth—a place that is hardly on the map. (See Matthew 2:13 ff)
In both cases, Jesus would have experienced of being the outsider. In Egypt, Jesus would have experienced the “otherness” of language, religion and culture. He would have been an ethnic, cultural, and religious minority. And his returned from Egypt only to settle in Nazareth did not enhance his résumé. Nathanael expressed the prevailing distain for outsider Nazoreans when he asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Galileans were considered lower class. They were identifiable by their accent. (Remember Peter warming himself outside the trial of Jesus and being identified by the servant girl as “one of them.”) They were rubes, suspicious characters, not to be fully trusted. Sound familiar?
So why is “alien” status of Jesus important? Why does Matthew go to great pains to show us “refugee Jesus” and “immigrant Jesus” right at the start of his gospel?
Mike Angell, an Episcopal priest and blogger, writes:
“Seeing Jesus Christ as an immigrant gives us a lens through which we see his action in scripture. We see Jesus consistently including outsiders in his ministry. He reveals himself to a Samaritan Woman as the Messiah. He includes Matthew the Roman tax collector, and Simon the Zealot among his apostles. He ministers with women, children, lepers, and gentiles. Understanding Jesus as an immigrant outsider helps to articulate the Christological reasoning behind the need for the inclusion of the outsider.”
Matthew is committed to presenting Jesus as one who understands the immigrant experience and identifies himself with the alien and stranger. And Jesus’ treatment as the outsider is fundamental to understanding his statement to the goats in Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” The rejection of the stranger is a rejection of Jesus. Jesus knows the stigma of being an outsider. Jesus knows rejection. Conversely, when we receive the stranger and treat them with dignity and inclusion, we welcome Jesus, the immigrant.
That is why we must fast from xenophobia and fear of the outsider this Lent. The current climate in this country is to identify the “other” and act to protect ourselves from the threat they represent to “our country”, our way of life, our religion, our security.
If we want to welcome Christ, we must defend the immigrant and the refugee. If we want to welcome Christ, we must stand up for those who are oppressed as outsiders—people like Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old college student who was brought to the US when she was 7. She was detained by ICE and scheduled for deportation shortly after she spoke at an immigration rally. This, despite her protected DACA (Deferred Action for Child Alien) status. If we want to welcome Christ, we must speak up when immigrants and refugees are targeted for harassment and discrimination—people like Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, high-tech immigrants from India who were told “Get out of my country” before they were shot by a 51-year-old white man. Srinivas was killed. If we want to welcome Christ, we must act up to provide a welcoming place for the refugee and the asylum seeker. We must fast from our fear of the stranger and feast on love—the love that God has for us and the love that God has for the alien and the stranger; Love that is fleshed out in sacrifice, inclusion, and justice.
Because of love, Jesus went to the cross, where—according to the Apostle Paul—the dividing wall of hostility was dismantled and where one new humanity was formed. In this new community, there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, Barbarian or Sythian. There is no “other.” Those who were outsiders are now brought in. The alien and stranger are fully included. To rebuild the dividing walls and reject or marginalize the “other” is to deny the work of Jesus. Only by welcoming the stranger do we affirm the transformational work of Christ in and among us.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Follow the church’s 2017 Lenten Compact, “Stranger Love: Fast For Immigrant and Refugee Justice” at www.lentencompact.wordpress.com.
When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
John the Baptist (JB) seemed so certain. “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” He witnessed the voice from heaven when he baptized Jesus: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”, and he saw the dove descend. But now, JB is uncertain. He has moved from certainty to doubt. And doubt often leads to hopelessness and despair.
What has changed? For one thing, his circumstances have changed. We initially met JB in the wilderness by the Jordan River. People had travelled long distances to see him and hear him proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven, telling the crowds to repent and prepare for the arrival of the One; speaking truth to power as only a prophet can. The wilderness was a place where the prophetic voice was unbound and prophets were safe. But JB isn’t in the wilderness now. He is in prison, put there by the State (Herod) for speaking against the State.
And there is no sign of the kingdom of heaven. The Empire, which does not like talk of change and moves to silence the voices calling for change, is still in power. Where is the kingdom? Where is the coming One that was promised? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so certain. Was I wrong?
I have to give JB credit. He doesn’t let his doubts have the final word. He investigates and seeks confirmation of the vision of God’s reign. Sending a delegation to Jesus, JB seeks the answer. “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we look for someone else.”
Jesus doesn’t give a ‘yes or no’ answer. Jesus simply says, “Look and Listen.” And Jesus then points to evidence of the kingdom’s presence in the world—blind see, deaf hear, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the poor hear good news. This is the kingdom. This is Jesus’ work. Look. See. Listen. Hear.
In these days when the kingdom of Hell and the reign of death seem to have reasserted themselves into our national lives, I can relate to John the Baptist. There are days in the past several months when I have had my doubts—doubts about God, doubts about the future, doubts about whether the church is relevant anymore and doubts that the kingdom of heaven is near. And the kingdom of heaven seems far, far away…farther than it has felt in a long time. The news is full of confirmation that the Empire is still in power: Russia influences US elections; climate change deniers are in charge of the EPA; an oil executive will likely run the State Department, the stock market surges into record territory, benefiting the 1%; white supremacists advise the President-elect and hate has permission to go public. And the voices of dissent and the voices of change are intimidated and threatened. This feels like prison. It feels like the kingdom of heaven is being pushed back. This is the time that doubts rise to the surface. Were we wrong to believe that the kingdom of heaven is near?
Jesus would have us also look and listen. See and hear. There is evidence–small as a seed buried–but evidence just the same that God is still with us, and God is still at work. I see God in the US Army Corp of Engineer’s decision to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and protect the waters of the Missouri River. I see God in the ways that people are coming together to resist evil and promote justice and righteousness. I see God in an unexpected federal court hearing that could force CHA to replace the 525 units of public housing eliminated from Lathrop Homes. I see God in our Alderman’s commitment to replace at least 40 of those units in Logan Square. I hear God in the chants of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Las Posadas march for affordable housing. Look. Listen. See. Hear.
And after I see and hear, I am strengthened to return with renewed commitment to live and act in alignment with God’s presence. My doubts may remain and the future may be uncertain. Just look at JB’s future. He remained in prison and then was beheaded. He was silenced, but the message went on. “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
In the face of the present evil days, the message goes on through God’s faithful church. The day IS coming. And we continue to prophetically speak with renewed certainty that the future bends toward justice and that some day, we will overcome.
The following is an edited version of Pastor Ray’s sermon given Sunday, November 13, 2016—a faith response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Like many of you, I’ve spent that past several days processing the outcome of Tuesday’s general election where Donald Trump unexpectedly shocked the nation with his victory. On Wednesday morning, I listened to the deep pain and profound grief of family and friends—women, LGBTQ folk, people with disabilities, Latinx and African American sisters and brothers, and I watched as tears streamed down their faces. Again and again, they asked with fear in their voices, “What will happen next?”, knowing full well that history has already shown us what regularly happens next to people who are perceived as the cause of the problem. I felt their fear. Again and again, I was asked, “How could this have happened?” I don’t believe anyone expected me to have the explanation, but it moved me to seek an answer. How did this happen? How did the least qualified candidate in United States history become President?
The answer was deeply painful for me. Donald Trump won due to the votes of white men (60%) and the votes of white evangelical Christians—both men and women (over 80%). Of course, others voted for him, but without the support of evangelical Christians, he would not have been elected. Which deeply grieves me since I was born and raised in the evangelical tradition and I am still deeply connected to it.
I am grieved because people that look just like me and use the language of my faith selected the candidate that Jim Wallis of Sojourners (also a white man of Christian faith) called “ a man who embodies the most sinful and shameful worship of money, sex, and power, and—perhaps more than any other public figure in America—represents the very worst values of what American culture has become….” As a result, white evangelical Christians are now inextricably linked to the bigotry, the misogyny, the hatred, the cruelty, and the rudeness and crudeness of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. White evangelical Christians are now bound to white supremacy, hate, rape culture, homophobia and religious intolerance and with all those who want America to be great (code for white, male, straight, Christian) again. And all Christians are now implicated by association.
White Christians have communicated to our neighbors—women, Black and Brown Americans, those with disabilities, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community, “you are not and never will be fully accepted. You will never be equal. You are less important; less valued; LESS, PERIOD.” The white evangelical church demonstrated in the polling place that the they are more committed to making America great again than to following Jesus, who commanded us to “love the Lord our God…and love our neighbor as ourselves.”
The Shepherds—the theologians, the evangelists, the pastors, the revered representatives of the evangelical faith—have led the flock into the depths of hypocrisy, excusing behavior that the Word of God expressly condemns—adultery, sexual assault, abusive speech, false witness—and justifying a man who has arrogantly refused to confessed his sin. Christians have aligned themselves with darkness. Christians have chosen the road of Balaam. Christians have turned to Egypt and “drunk the waters of the Nile.” Christians have embraced the harlot.
Some may object and say, “We didn’t like the man. His words and his actions were disgusting and vile. But we had no alternative. We had a moral obligation. We were voting for the future and protecting the children living in the womb.” And in so doing, you have sacrificed the living children who now cling to their mothers in fear, anxiously wondering if they have a future.
Indeed, you have voted for a future, but it is not the new heavens and new earth where justice dwells that God announced through the prophets and that Jesus inaugurated. The future you elected is built on the sand of the past not the Rock. You supported the old racism. You supported the old misogyny. You supported the old bigotry. And you chose to rebuild the dividing walls of hostility that Christ destroyed at the cross.
Sadly, we have already begun to see your future, which looks disturbingly like the past. Hate crimes have spiked since Tuesday’s election with Muslims and blacks and gays the primary targets. A chapter of the Ku Klux Klan has announced a victory parade in North Carolina. Andrew Anglin declared of the election results on his Neo-Nazi website, “Daily Stormer,”: “Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this.” 1
And you helped to do this. What you thought was buried has returned to life. The demons you thought had been cast out have returned seven fold. Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.
God has a word of mercy for us. “REPENT!” There is a way forward. God’s prescription for a people infected with the disease of superiority and supremacy is this: “IF you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and IF you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, THEN [and only then] your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:9b-10) (NIV)
And Jesus is standing at the door of the evangelical church—poverty stricken, naked and blind as the Church of Laodicea—and he is knocking, inviting us to “Come, follow me.”
So we all now have a decision. Will we take the medicine God offers? Will we answer the call? What will be your next step?
For me, I can no longer self-identify as ‘evangelical Christian’ or even ‘Christian.’ Those labels have lost all credibility as a result of this election. From now on, if I self-identify my faith at all, I will self-identify as ‘Follower of Jesus.’
My next steps will be in the footprints of Jesus. And his footprints lead me to the very people so belittled and abused in this election. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36) (NIV)
Jesus is found in the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable; in those who have been stripped of their dignity and human-ness; in those who have been mocked; in those who have been rejected; in those who have been poisoned by the water; in those whose land has been forcibly taken from them; in those who are considered ‘less than’.
I will follow Jesus in these people. In repentance, I will offer my hands and feet to their cause. With ears to hear, I will listen to their cries. And with renewed strength, I will bear their burdens. I will humbly remember my Lord’s words, “the last shall be first and first shall be last” and “whoever wants to be great…must become the servant.”
So, if you are looking for me, you will find me following behind the women, the people with disabilities, the LGBTQ folk, the communities of color, the indigenous peoples, the immigrants, the laborers, the Dreamers, the chronically unemployed, the incarcerated, the Muslims, the forgotten and the displaced. And whatever power and privilege I have because of my race and gender and faith, I will offer it to them. For it is in them that I will find Jesus and through them that I will enter into the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s love.
I will follow the way of faith that joyfully welcomes the outsider, graciously includes the outcast and the sinner, boldly defends the vulnerable, and prophetically liberates the oppressed. I will model THIS faith for my children and grandchildren, for my congregation and for my community.
God has said, “Here is the way. Walk in it.” It is a narrow way. It is a way that leads to insults and persecution. It is a way that ultimately leads to the cross. But I will walk it, knowing that Jesus walked this way ahead of us and made it through; and knowing that there is a cloud of witnesses who have also walked it before us cheering us on.
“Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely. And let us run with perseverance the course that is marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning it’s shame.” Hebrews 12:1-2 (NRSV)
1 Southern Poverty Law Center
The following is a transcript of Pastor Ray’s sermon, delivered as a part of the Occupy Palm Sunday worship service with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church and Nuestra Señora De Las Americas on Sunday, March 20, 2016. The service was followed by a rally protesting the proposed replacement of 525 units of public housing with an equal number of market rate units at Lathrop Homes and an occupation of one of the 800 currently vacant units.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
I love Chicago. No, I LOVE Chicago! I grew up “rural”—first in Kentucky where our closest neighbor was a mile away and then in Illinois in a small town of 600 people. But the city of Chicago drew me like a magnet, and I vowed that one day I would live here. I kept my vow. I still love this city. The view of the skyline from the Adler Planetarium on a crisp clear morning can still make my heart skip a beat. Sometimes, as I watch the sunset from my rooftop, the rays of the sun hit the skyscrapers just right, turning them into bars of silver and gold.
I’ve been told that something similar happens in Jerusalem. Most of the buildings are made of white limestone, a material that reflects the light and changes colors as the sun makes its way across the sky. So I can imagine Jesus reaching the crest of the Mount of Olives that first Palm Sunday and seeing the walls of the city and the temple aglow with the golden light of the late afternoon sun, and thinking, “Wow! That’s beautiful.”
But let’s face it. Just because something looks like gold doesn’t mean it IS gold. Jesus knew that beneath the golden glow was a diseased heart. The temple of Jerusalem—the heart of Jewish religious, economic and social life—was filled with greed and exploitation of the poor. Those who were most vulnerable—the widow, the fatherless, the alien, the disabled—were the victims of oppression and abuse. So when Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem, his response is not awe and wonder. While everyone else is impressed with the magnificence of the stones, Jesus sees those stones as symbols of the injustices perpetrated against the poor…and he weeps. “If only you had recognized and followed the ways the peace. If only you had understood the year of God’s favor. But you have rejected it. You have chosen to be blind to God’s justice. The paths you have chosen are not sustainable and in the end, they will lead to your destruction. “
Yesterday, I decided to practice today’s Palm Sunday procession across the Diversey Ave. bridge over the Chicago River. I imagined Jesus crossing that bridge with me. As we came to the top of the bridge, my eyes were drawn to the south. There before me was a spectacular panoramic view of the iconic buildings of the Chicago skyline. “Wow!” I thought.
I have to show Jesus the sites. “Jesus, look over there. There’s the Hancock building. See how it boldly expresses its strength with the exposed X braces. It won all sorts of design awards. Isn’t it impressive? It’s named for a global insurance powerhouse. And over there is the Sears…I mean, the Willis Tower. It was the tallest building in the world for decades. It’s an engineering marvel—nine tubes of various heights bound together as one. Amazing, isn’t it? It’s named for Willis Holding Group, a multinational risk advisor. And there in the center—like an extended middle finger—is Trump Tower. See how the light shimmers off its multi-faceted glass skin. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s full of multi-million dollar condos, and it’s named after…. Well, you probably already know about him.”
And I look over at Jesus, and there are tears running down his face. I think, Yeah, it’s THAT beautiful. But then I realize that Jesus isn’t looking downtown. He’s looking east. I turn and look east too, and there laid out before me is the Julia C. Lathrop Homes public housing project.
And Jesus begins pointing at Lathrop. He points to make sure I see what he sees. He points to the chain link fences that surround and block access to apartment buildings. He points to the boarded up windows and doors. He points to the decorative shutters shedding their paint. He just points. And then he turns and looks at me with the dazzling downtown skyline as a backdrop, and says, “If only you recognized what would bring peace to your violent streets. If only you pursued justice. If only you understood the meaning of the year of God’s favor. If you did, you wouldn’t have turned this into a desolate place. Mark my words. Mark my words well. The day will come when YOUR place will be desolate. Then, what will you do?” Jesus’s words kind of sting, but I know what he means.
These vacant, boarded up apartments had once housed low-income families seeking the opportunity to improve their lives. Each building represented hope. Each row house represented the promise of a better future. But that promise had been broken. Instead, these same apartments now awaited transformation into a “vibrant mixed-income community”. These apartments now represent profit for developers at the expense of the poor. They now represent yet another betrayal of those who are in greatest need.
In that moment, I thought of all those families who continue to languish on housing waiting lists. (Pause) I thought about those people with disabilities who are forced to live in the indignity of shelters. (Pause) I thought about the tents under the Kennedy expressway viaduct. (Pause) And I understood why Jesus wept when he looked over the city. I wept too.
My name is Rev. Bruce Ray. I am pastor of Kimball Avenue Church and a founding member of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance. I am opposed to the Lathrop Home Planned Development application, and I am pleading with you to delay a decision about the application.
I am opposed to the application for the following reasons:
The plan eliminates 525 units of public housing for low-income families, while creating almost 500 units of housing for the wealthy. This is nothing less than taxpayer funded, city-sponsored gentrification.
In a letter sent yesterday to Alderman Joe Moreno, the Chicago Housing Authority called Lathrop an “isolated low-income area surrounded by one of the more vibrant and diverse neighborhoods on the north side”; in other words, the CHA views Lathrop Homes as “an island of poverty” at the western edge of Lincoln Park. But since low-income families have NO other options for housing in Lincoln Park to the East and gentrifying Logan Square to the West, Lathrop Homes is better described as “an island of affordability”. Approving this application will actually push low-income families out of what the CHA calls “an Opportunity Area”—the very area where they say they want low-income families to live! In addition, while the CHA calls the surrounding neighborhood “diverse,” the 2010 census data indicates that Lincoln Park is one of the least diverse neighborhoods in Chicago—both economically and racially. Approving this application will result in even less diversity. This is nothing less than taxpayer funded, city-sponsored re-segregation of the north side
In this same letter, the CHA said it is “committed to producing 525 new housing opportunities on the north side.” However, the letter did not include a timeline for replacement. In their words, “timing will be based on the availability and price of properties.” We all know that there are few available properties and that the cost for properties is high on the north side. The CHA’s commitment will quickly become, “We tried!” And those 525 units will be lost.
There is a Proverb from the Bible, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of fatherless.” Approving this application effectively moves the boundaries, allowing those with wealth to encroach on the land set aside by the government to ensure that low-income families had safe affordable housing on the north side. The Proverb ends this way: “Their Defender is strong, and he will take up their case—AGAINST YOU.”
Before you approve the Lathrop Homes application, you will have to decide “whose side you are on.”
On January 10, 1901, a small group of believers met to officially form the Kimball Avenue United Evangelical Church. Within the year, the group purchased land at the corner of Kimball and Medill and built a small frame chapel for worship. A lot has changed in the past 114 years, but the church continues to bring good news to Logan Square and beyond. Happy Birthday, Kimball Avenue Church!