Thursday, August 21, 2014

God is STILL Moving: A Sermon in Response to Ferguson

Well friends it's certainly been a while!  Welcome back.  Many of my friends have reached out to me asking me to express my thoughts about the crisis happening in my own backyard.  You see I live in Bridgeton, MO better known as North St. Louis County, or the Greater St. Louis area.  While I serve in ministry in downtown STL I live just 10 minutes from Ferguson.  So this is my official return to blogging.  The following is the revised manuscript of what I preached Sunday 8/17/14 at Centenary United Methodist Church, St. Louis.  *Revised because typically I don't write a word-for-word manuscript to preach from but rather use bullet points.   It is impossible to express in words the passion that was expressed through my voice and body language on Sunday.  Nonetheless here it is. Thank you friends for encouraging me to raise my voice through the blogosphere. 

If I’m really being honest I haven’t prayed this continuously since my son Connor was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  As a youth minister I have felt tortured and am certain we all have stories of how this week has affected each and every one of us. I hope we’ll begin to share those stories with one another today.

Our community is in the beginning stages of Grief, first denial, for those unfamiliar with what it’s like in our black neighborhoods, “not in our community, not in our backyard.” Then anger, anger toward the horrible injustice, anger toward the response of police, anger toward the looting, anger toward the lack of answers, anger toward the way our community is being depicted around the world in the media.  The anger of a population of people who feel ignored and undervalued, of young people that fear for their lives and feel they have no voice.  Anger of mothers who wonder if their black sons will make it home from a walk to the store today.

So how do we begin to look at the complexity of this horrific week?

Where do we go from here? 

The task of a preacher is to proclaim Good News. To bring Hope. 

Where do we find good news in this situation?

What hope is there in any of this? 

Where do we see the movement of the Holy Spirit? 

Where is God at work in the midst of this nightmare? 

Because deep down I know that God must still be moving…

Honestly I had no idea what I was going to preach this week. I felt a little helpless, until the other night when Captain Johnson came into authority.  As a 40-year resident of Ferguson he promised to demilitarize the police presence, to walk and talk with protestors.  And though it didn’t solve everything, there was a very different response from crowds that night. It was a lesson for us all...Peace comes when we truly listen to one another, when we truly see one another.

People need to be heard, to truly be seen.  So how do we do that?

Yesterday Rachael and I answered the call put out by clergy to come together for a prayer walk in the Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown was killed.  We gathered for group prayer and then were asked to spread out into the community to stop, listen, and be a presence for residents. 

As we approached a group of young men I said to Rachael, “Don’t feel bad if this feels strange or awkward…even some of the pastors feel that way” 

That night I went home and thought a lot about just how scary that can be for people. Especially the first time you do something like that, walking up to total strangers to extend care.  It takes practice and so I think we need to be practical today with our theology.  So I’m going to talk about 3 steps we can take to move toward truly knowing our neighbors, listening to one another, and hopefully being a small part of bringing unity to our community. 

1. We have to recognize our fear of strangers, our fear of “the other.”  From a young age we’re taught about “stranger danger” which is a very good thing for children but doesn’t really work for adults in a Kingdom Culture, people who are trying to live and love like Jesus. 

I don’t know what caused officer Darren Wilson to shoot Michael Brown multiple times, I have my theories based on hearing so many witness reports, however, I do know that there is a pattern in our nation of violence against young black men, often based out of fear, a reaction to fear.  As a former youth minister that spent the 3 years prior to moving to STL primarily working with black teenagers the thought of someone fearing a young man simply based on his dark skin makes my stomach turn, my blood boil, and causes me to shake with frustration, but I know that it’s a reality we have to be honest about and deal with. 

Martin Luther King Jr. said,  “Men often hate one another because they fear one another.” 

I think if we are honest about who or what we are afraid of and begin speaking about it, we cast light into darkness and expose it, we can begin to deal with it and heal and move past it. 

1 John 4: 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;

It is God’s perfect love extended to us that transforms us into people who are able to love others as we were first loved by God. 

We have to allow God’s light to shine into the darkness of our fear of others and expose it and talk about it. It’s time to get real, and get honest, brutally honest and face up to our fears. You may have grown up hearing “don’t trust the police”, or “don’t trust the immigrants”, or the black people, or the white people, or the rich people, or the poor people, and you know it’s wrong but those thoughts still linger deep in the back of the darkest places of your mind. We need to allow God’s light to expose those dark places and start talking about them in a safe environment. 

2.  Begin to see others as children of God and as God sees them…

In the book Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman uses the example of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well, 
“He met the woman where she was, and treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be.  In dealing with her he “believed” her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.  He stirred her confidence into activity.  He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.”

When we see looters do we refer to them as the scum of our city, or dumb thugs coming in from the outside, or are we able to look past their indiscretions and see that even they are hurting, misled, misdirected young men and women?   

Friday night there were young men that stood and blocked the looters with their bodies. But still the temptation among these young men had to be so strong to join in, and the temptation to fight back against police that were facing them down again with tanks and weapons drawn had to be intense.  Some of the young men peacefully protesting did grow tired of the force they saw from police and began to try and face off with them.  Alderman Antonio French, who has become a household name in our community through this crisis, is known for his work with youth in North County, in the midst of this face off grabbed some of the young men and looked them in the eyes and said, “you’re better than this. I believe in you. You have a future. You’re better than this.”

He believed in them and they lived up to his expectation and backed off. 
He saw them as valued human beings capable of a future better than what a few angry youthful mistakes could result in. 

If you hear me say nothing else this morning, let me tell you what pastors have been saying all week,  Black Bodies Matter.  Young Black men matter! 

Seeing all people regardless of our fears, or their indiscretions as children of God is not an easy thing to do, especially if we have grown up with an ingrained hatred or distrust.  The good news is we aren’t the ones changing our outlook toward others, God is.  Romans 12:2 says, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Be transformed.  It doesn’t say go transform yourself, but BE transformed, allow God to begin to renew your mind and transform you.  Give God the power and Let God do the work of transformation.  I think we can all agree that there are prejudices we hold that we need to turn over to God.  Maybe they have nothing to do with race but instead have to do with politics, or social status, or even differing religious views.  God can transform our minds to love like Christ.  

3.  Extend Hospitality to Strangers and Enemies. 

As we begin to see others as children of God, regardless of their actions. We can then begin to extend hospitality to others.  Radical Hospitality as we often call it.   

In his book, I Was A Stranger, Arthur Sutherland talks about the task of hospitality toward those we consider to be strangers and even enemies.   His definition of hospitality: “In the light of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and return, Christian hospitality is the intentional, responsible, and caring act of welcoming or visiting, in either public or private places, those who are strangers, enemies, or distressed, without regard for reciprocation.” He writes, “Christians were once both strangers and enemies to God who now have been brought into relationship with God through an act of divine hospitality.”  He goes on to say, “The more clearly I see myself as having been once an enemy of God, as having been once far from God, the more I see my reason for being hospitable toward others.”

This means the hard stuff, that won’t happen easily. It means extending hospitality to ALL people whether they are looters, thieves of cigarillos, or even police officers that kill unarmed teenagers.  Notice I didn’t say “forgive them” I said, practice forgiveness because forgiveness isn’t always a once and for all action on our part it is something we need God’s help in, continuously, as we work through our own anger and distrust with the situation. We have to continuously turn it back over to God, knowing it is God who will to work God’s love and grace through us.  

This is the radical message of Jesus that is so completely countercultural and such a turn off to those who feel they have to hold on to their hate.  The hate is what fuels us, or so we think, when in actuality it is the hate that will eventually eat us alive from the inside out.    

4.  Listen to one another. 
People simply need to be heard, to be truly seen.  We cannot understand our brothers and sisters unless we are willing to LISTEN. 

When Captain Johnson listened, things changed. 

Last night someone posted something so relevant to this on Facebook about her day at the prayer walk…

“As we were leaving the prayer walk in Ferguson today, my daughter up on my husband’s shoulders still holding her sign, we approached a small group of African American teenagers on the sidewalk near the QT. One of them, with a football player build and a baseball cap says to us, “Excuse me…”
We stopped, and he said, a bit timidly, “I like your sign. It’s so simply made, but it says so much.” We said thank you, the teen offered up his forearm for Josh to bump, and we went on our way.
It was then that I really looked at the sign, that I at first thought was just made with whatever poster board was readily available to our freshly moved friend and saw what this young man saw…2 white pieces, 2 black pieces, taped together with the word EQUALITY written across it. And that’s when the ugly cry started, mercifully behind my sunglasses.
What if we hadn’t stopped when he spoke to us? What if we listened to all those years of voices that told us, That’s how people get robbed. One person distracts you and the others will rob you. Don’t listen. Don’t stop. Keep walking. I’m so glad we stopped to listen to what he had to say. We all need to listen more, even if we are afraid or it’s awkward or uncomfortable. He might have been afraid to talk to us nerdy white people, to compliment our sign, to look silly in front of his friends. We could have been afraid to stop because they were black teenagers, dressed how teenagers dress, looking how teenagers look. Because no matter how conscious our efforts to not judge, we are all dealing with years of biases and stereotypes and media feed that just.won’t.go.away. It won’t just disappear; it will take work and courage and self-examination and effort and dialogue to have actual, meaningful encounters with people who are different than us, to not just pat ourselves on the back because we have friends who are a different race, or because we live in a city with a diverse population, or because we don’t use the N word, so we can't possibly be racist. We have to listen. We have to HEAR. And we have to LOVE one another. Peace.”

Powerful powerful lessons are being learned right now.  Discussion that has been needed for decades is happening.   God is still moving!

Realistically I know that the steps I’ve laid out may seem impossible when we are facing injustice, anger, depression, and all the high emotions that go into a week of watching our community fall apart with the eyes of the world on us.  And maybe it’s too soon, I honestly don’t know.  But we have to start somewhere. 

The truth is none of these steps are possible if we aren’t growing in our relationship with Christ.  Because it is only through Christ that we are able to see a stranger, or enemy as created in the image of God.  It is only through Christ that we are able to seek justice while still forgiving unthinkable acts of violence.  It is only through Christ that we are able to extend hospitality to strangers and enemies and truly begin to listen to them, even when we don’t agree with what they are saying or are deeply wounded by their words.   

Colossians 3:12-17
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

When Paul writes, “clothe yourself” he is referencing the idea that when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are stripped clean by God’s grace and forgiveness, we are given a new life, we let go of our old self and now need new clothing. And so this clothing we are now to put on as new creations following the way of Christ, are compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  We are to bear with one another, bringing our grievance to one another, sorting them out and forgiving one another freely just as Christ first forgave us.  Paul goes on to say, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  It is this love that empowers us to see others as God sees them.  “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

We can’t extend that peace to others if we ourselves cannot find peace from within.  This week has been hard to find peace within, I’ve spent many nights unable to sleep as I am sure many of you also experienced.

Peace comes in recognizing that Christ is still on his thrown as Lord, and though we may not understand all that God allows to unfold we cling to God’s promises of faithfulness and daily cast off our fears and lay them at the foot of the cross.   And daily we seek ways to extend that same love and grace we’ve received to our neighbors, strangers and enemies and then work together in unity for justice and peace for all. 

In the Benediction/Close of the service I encouraged the congregation to stay and fellowship with one another over a meal (as we do weekly) but this time at our tables focus on discussion of two questions:

What fears have you struggled with this week? 

How can you be a peacemaker this week? 

Wherever you are reading this, PLEASE start talking and more importantly start listening.  God is still moving, stirring conversations and movements that can lead to true healing in our communities.  Thanks for reading.  

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