A sensation of apparent powerlessness and near despair has made its way like the clouds of a Midwest thunderstorm into our national consciousness, and grown, even, as we’ve witnessed what used to be regarded as a simple transfer of power from one administration to another, turn into a truly deadly & powerful Regime.
Each and every day on social media, I am reminded by my fellows, just how bad things are. There has been a great sadness and near sense of despair among so many of us, beginning with the arrival of the Regime in January of 2017, and it has only gotten worse.
On many, many levels, there are firestorms nationwide – from coming industry fissures due to trade-wars; to brutal breakdown in race-relations; to the stigmating of religious groups of those other than white evangelical Christian; to the polarization of our political discourse as a result of ‘alternative facts’; to vicious race-baiting; and to the deplorably violent treatment of asylum-seeking immigrant families being denied rights clearly laid out in the Constitution.
Before I depress you any further, let me interject a moment of redemption, here, before we continue. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said that when he was a boy, and he’d hear about horrible things happening in the world, he asked his mother, “Where is God in all of this?” and her very wise reply was, “Look for the helpers; look for those who are seeking to make things better – that’s where God is.”
And so it’s true – despite the mistaken belief by our more evangelical brothers and sisters that God is in the “mighty forceful overthrow of evil, to make us all obedient to the Almighty,” the coming of God in the form of a vulnerable infant Child in a manger, who would pronounce forgiveness on the unforgiven, and would heal rather than harm, who would freely feed rather than demand proof of worthiness – the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth would teach us otherwise – that redemption comes through making things better – adding to the good, not merely excising the ‘bad’.
Since I used a Star Wars quote in the title of my sermon – “C’mon, kid – we’re not out of this yet,” from that moment in the first-ever Star Wars movie, where Han and Luke had just escaped being captured by the Death Star, and now had to face a swarm of tai fighters coming after them, I’ll use another, from the most recent movie, where Rose, a tech-support person in the Resistance tells her friend Fin, a Resistance fighter, she says to him, “Don’tcha see? This is how we’re going to win. Not by fighting what we hate. But by saving what we love.”
And so it’s true. There is a great old apocryphal story that’s not in the Bible, that tells of Lucifer and Jesus appearing before God the Father, and God asks them both, “How can I communicate with mankind just how much I love them, and want them to follow My ways, that they might have eternal Life?”
Lucifer stepped up, proudly, and declares, “That’s easy – give my demons full charge to use all our power against them, and put all those who would not obey You into prisons and cages and beat them until they obey.”
God doesn’t seem satisfied with this solution, and asks the question again, so that Jesus speaks up and replies, “Father, let me go and live among them – let me heal their ills – both spiritual, emotional, and physical – let me demonstrate your Love at every turn – in person – and then they might begin to know how deeply you care, follow your ways, and love one another.”
Clearly, we all know which route God preferred. But to some in the Church, you would think that they believe that Lucifer’s idea was much better.
For indeed, several times during the ‘culture wars’ of the last few decades, I remember hearing at least two so-called spiritual leaders from the Religious Right proclaim, almost with glee, “The Lord God does not necessarily want democracy at all – what God does want is obedience – pure and simple – and He may yet raise up a tyrant to rule us – just to bring us back to His ways.”
I think they got their wish.
But in a way, this horrible outcome really is beginning to bring the country back to Life, and even to God, in a way – at least to the God of justice, of equality, of compassion, of empathy, of solidarity with those on the margins or who are not free.
The people are rising up. ‘Christians’ – real Christians – followers of Jesus of Nazareth – from faith communities that believe in inclusiveness, not exclusion – are rising up and proclaiming the good news that God loves EVERYONE – not merely those who belong to our faith tradition, or just those who have peach-colored skin – we who are from a faith tradition or none at all, are proclaiming together the good news that we will stand with those who are victims of a tyrannical Regime – as believers, non-believers, and clergy, even, we are willingly being arrested – freely giving up freedoms for the sake of standing in solidarity with those who have no freedoms under this Regime.
The Roman persecutions of the Church began as early as 64 AD – just a few decades after Jesus’ death.
They weren’t persecuted merely because they proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” but mostly because they proclaimed that “Cesar is NOT.”
And you’ll note that persecution did not exist before the rule of a particularly narcissistic ruler – Nero – who wanted to be the only object of attention and affection by his people who would sit up the moment he appeared or his name was mentioned and declare him ‘Lord’. Sound familiar…?
They regarded the Empire of Rome itself to be the proverbial antiChrist, because the Roman way of ‘bringing peace’ – the Pax Romana, as it was called – was through brutal force, domination, humiliation, and a complete lack of human compassion for the marginalized – all values antithetical to the ways of the young prophet from Nazareth.
Important point, here: When persecution came, the Church did not regard itself as doomed – even though it went on for decades – and off/on for centuries.
The Church saw itself as both redeemed, and as the leaven in the world that could itself redeem the world. Indeed, as you likely heard me quote one other time I preached here, the emperor Trajan wrote to his governors asking them, “Who are these people – these ‘Christians’ – they’re embarrassing us – they not only feed their own poor among them, they’re feeding ours!” For despite serious persecution, they were busily redeeming the worst of it.
Tiny communities gathered in the Name of redemption – being redeemed from the sin-and-death methods of Roman rule, that demanded allegiance to the Emperor as a god, and that one could neither buy or sell without the ‘mark’ – a little slip of paper that showed that one had made a sacrifice to the Emperor.
But as they gathered, they supported one another to carry on the mission of doing good in the world in the midst of a world-gone-mad by being forced to live and breathe the ways of the Empire.
They prayed earnestly for one another; healed one another through their presence together; fed one another; and grieved and wept with one another when they would lose some of their members to the arena, to be torn apart by wild beasts, or committed to slavery and made to commit immoral acts; not to mention they all wrestled with God, together, as they did their best to truly do the hardest requirement of following after Jesus – ‘love their enemies’ even when their enemy they were called to love, in spite of everything, were the very people persecuting them.
Same as it ever was…this is the way of history, isn’t it? We went from our brothers and sisters living through literally centuries of persecution, to the Emperor himself becoming ‘Christian’, and putting an end to all that – only to persecute those who didn’t believe in the Christian way – so life became a nightmare for pagans, or for Jews.
Centuries more of similar persecution, as the Church herself became the alleged ‘guardian of the faith’, would bring us things like the Inquisition – in which thousands of alleged heretics were rounded up and tortured – and worse-yet, Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or be tortured or killed, even.
Which in-turn led to the Renaissance – not perfect, but a definitive improvement of things for almost everyone – and onto the Age of Enlightenment – and so-on.
For what were and still are known as 3rd world nations, however, their times of difficulty would only increase, as greater ease of living became the norm for Europeans…and slavery ensued, until Emancipation – but then Jim Crow…and finally, the Civil Rights movement here in America and the end of Apartheid in places like South Africa.
But throughout….throughout….the outlook was rarely spoken of entirely with complete despair….for, like the Hebrew slaves of Egypt; like the early Church at the height of persecution; like the victims of lynching and cross-burnings and humiliating segregation – the word was not “we’re doomed,” but instead was often and always, “Someday – redemption…” from the great legacy of all oppressed peoples that Almighty God does not abandon the lowly – that salvation – may be long in waiting and working for – but it is near – is nigh – and is on the horizon – even tho it sometimes took decades – even centuriesA number of years since the first of many young, unarmed African American men were slain at the hands of either vigilante neighbors or law enforcement, and upon the arrival of the more recent Regime in Washington, I found myself writing a song about it all, called Backwards Land.
Admittedly, as I began writing it, I was pretty pessimistic – I was not in the least bit hopeful that anything would come out of it all, except the torturous knowledge that it would likely continue to happen, again and again – and that those involved in speaking truth to power, those who rose up and declared that Black Lives Matter, were being stigmatized as ‘uppity’, and other racist terms used for an oppressed people having the audacity to speak up for themselves.But the more I worked on the song, I began realizing that I wanted it to be a vehicle for voicing both the frustrations, anger, outrage, AND the hope of a people declaring “No more!”
When I finished writing it, I felt relatively satisfied that I had fulfilled what I intended to do – mostly.
Until I went to record it for my most recent album I was working on.
The best I could get out of it was a Pete-Seeger-meets-James-Taylor type white—guys-sings-a-spiritual-ballad. Good intentions – low impact.
But my producer, Thom Butler, had other ideas – for he’d been a resident of New Orleans, near the 9th ward that was hit hardest both by racism, poverty, and by hurricane Katrina – and he knew what ‘hope’ and ‘redemption’ meant in the Black community – and so, we began arranging the song to truly reflect that same sense of hope that resonated so well with peoples like that of the ancient Hebrews in slavery; the persecuted Church encouraging one another to keep the faith, and Love one another and the world; and so-on…
And so, today, I share this song with you, on record – with the words of Representative – Congressman John Lewis, who marched the March on Washington in 1963, and spoke to that audience right before Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech, saying things that truly inspire hope, long before nearly any kind of progress was actually made towards gaining civil rights.
But what was Pastor Ron’s definition of faith from last Sunday? – the belief that you already have that which you are praying for, and acting accordingly?
Listen to the words of now-Congressman Lewis…
“The time will come, when we will not confine our march into Washington; we will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge. And we will march with the spirit of Love and with the spirit of Dignity we have shown here, today. For we must say, ‘Wake up, America – wake up – for we will not stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
His words were so uplifting and inspiring, we put them at the beginning of the song – the beginning of the journey that began in the streets of Washington in 1963, would follow through the entire nation, and even more people in more recent years, in the streets declaring “Black Lives Matter!” and reminding us “No justice – no peace!”
Until arriving at the choir-loft of Beth Eden Baptist Church in the heart of Oakland, CA, where Mickala Cheadle would belt out the second verse and choruses, backed by their amazing choir, while their pastor, Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster would declare, urgently, and truly with great hope, and promise for the future…
“I want you to listen to me now – because it’s important – because you are important! We are not marching backward – we are marching forward! We are not giving up ground – we are taking new ground! We are not capitulating to the forces of interposition and nullification!
”We are instead taking a new road, where justice will flow down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
“We do not, and will not live in a backwards land – we are taking up residence, in the Promised Land!”
These hopeful words give me hope – for the future – for our future – for the now, when the future may seem far away, sometimes – when it may be generations before real justice returns to our shores as a result of the damage being done by the Regime.
But both the people of this land, and the people of true faith in the Lord’s justice, are on the rise, and on the move. Indeed, perhaps the evangelicals were right – it has taken a tyrant to return America to God – but not to the God of oppression or white supremacy – but to the God of those willing to freely, but with great trepidation and an equal amount of Love, put our lives on the line, for true justice, mercy, and inclusion.
Keep the faith. And, as Han said, “C’mon kid…we’re not out of this yet.”
You can listen to a recording of this sermon at https://m.soundcloud.com/uccsunnyvale/cmon-kid-were-not-out-of-this-yet-782018