June 23, 2015

A sermon of lament for Charleston

a sermon preached on 6/21/15

I had a plan for today.

There are a number of things going on and I feel God is leading us.  There are important things to share about our future together.  In truth, I am genuinely excited about these things God is doing in our little church
·         Feel a change in the air,
·         God is breathing life and purpose into us.
·         God is knitting hearts together.
 So the plan was to talk about what God is doing in us and how to give ourselves to it.

I planned to begin a new series called FutureProof, where we looked at 1 Corinthians 15 and talked about our future.  In particular, with all of the transitions and comings and goings, I wanted to talk about hope and the kinds of things we're promise.  In fact, Rev. Doi was so encouraged by all that is going on, he mused out loud about skipping his sabbatical.  That is good news!  So that was the plan. 

After that?
Well in the quiet of the summer, we are trying to hammer out some things about house churches.  We need more centers of connection and discipleship, so we are hoping to do the legwork now and reboot house churches in the fall with a renewed emphasis on discipleship.And of course we then we have the holiday season, advent, when we contemplate the incarnation and celebrate.  And the plan was that, connected in intentional discipleship groups, cheered and encouraged, in the new year, we could begin another extended consideration about race and justice in a thorough way. 

That was the plan.

But all that changed last Wednesday when a man walked into a prayer group in Charleston South Carolina and killed 9 people.  I am sure, by now that everyone has heard what happened, whether online, in print or on TV.  We all have heard of the terrible killing in Emmanuel AME Church of Charleston. 

What do you say in the face of such tragedy?
What kind of response do you have?

It seemed a greater indignity to not talk about the week's events.

In Romans 12, Paul writes that we must, "14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."  Today we must mourn with those who mourn.  Members of the Body of Christ were violently taken from their families, and this is something that must affect us all, if at a distance.  We have to learn to mourn and share in God's righteous grief at injustice.

These are the nine people who were killed last week.  
·         Cynthia Graham Hurd,
·         Susie Jackson,
·         Ethel Lance,
·         Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor,
·         The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney,
·         Tywanza Sanders
·         Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
·         Rev. Sharonda Singleton,
·         Myra Thompson,
Grandmothers, daughters, fathers, coaches, pastors, state senators.
They were people with families.  They are people who were loved, people who mean something to God. We must open our hearts to them and pray that God would comfort their families in their loss.

Make no mistake, theirs is a powerful witness to the gospel.  They invited the killer in.  They welcomed the stranger at the door.  The Pastor asked him to sit next to him.  They prayed together.  They treated him with the dignity and humanity he was not able to have.  They blessed the one who persecuted him. 

There is no greater sermon to be preached this morning than the response of the families at the arraignment who, through tears, forgave the killer.  They confronted his evil and exhorted him to repent.  They refused his evil the last word.  The footage of this, of the families response, is staggering.  A friend remarked that it was the single greatest argument he had heard for Christianity.  They returned forgiveness for violence in an eye for an eye world. 

These nine are martyrs who lost their lives offering love in the name of Jesus. 
They are a part of the legacy of AME church that has doing it for centuries in the face of injustice, and this morning we remember their faithfulness, and their resistance to the idea that some lives are worth less than others. This is right in the eyes of God. 

I also want you to understand that  from first to last, this act of terror was entirely about race. 
In the ensuing days, all manner of disturbing talk on media airwaves has come out.  Predictably folk have rushed to describe the white killer as a lone gunman who was mentally ill.  They have labeled it an attack on Christianity. 

But don't be fooled.

The killer said it was about race.  His recently discovered manifesto is all about race.  His website supporting apartheid is about race.  That people so quickly want to ignore the killers own words and the most obvious physical evidence and to assign other causes; talk about mental illness, religious persecution, gun rights, is a testimony to how deeply ingrained it is in the fabric of our country to ignore the power of race at work in us.

We can't take comfort and console ourselves by saying that he was a lone killer, a deranged man, an anomaly, as if such violence and hatred towards black people is the exception, and not the norm for many.

African American churches have always been targets.  The AME church was birthed in protest to racism, it was a church outlawed and attacked.  We remember the 60's when black churches were targeted with firebombs and guns, when the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham Alabama, became a symbol for the civil rights movement. We remember the black church burnings that took place in the 90's in Alabama.  We must recognize and deal with the ways the scales of justice are tilted away from people who do not look like  dominant white culture in our country.

A faithful response to the events in Charleston must take seriously that the system we live in, whether or not you believe it or experience it this way, leads to the death and oppression of black people on a consistently high rate.  Injustice here follows a sliding scale based on the color of your skin.  The events in Charleston expose to the rest of the country once again, what black folk have long known, that there are powers and principalities of racism that have a claim in the spirit of America

Do you know that among the murdered was a state senator, Pinckney?
Though all the capitol flags were flown at half mast, by law, the confederate flag, the very symbol of the  war to preserve slavery as a way of life, could not be lowered in respect even at the state capitol? This is the same war the killer said he wanted to start again.  And as the killer rose to kill the saints around him, he told them that he had to, he had to kill them because black people they take our women and are taking over our country.  As obscene as this is, it is eerily similar what Donald Trump said just one day earlier about Mexican immigrants as he announced his candidacy for president.  He railed against Mexican immigrants taking women, taking over. 

Regardless of what you think about Trump as a political candidate, how is it ok say this on national tv?  Is it such a popular opinion that no one cares?  You see we have criminalized melanin. 

So I want the testimony of these 9 brothers and sisters to haunt us.  Our understanding of how the world works must be challenged.  We need to be a part of hte hard questions about this place.  What kind of forces conspire to bear this bitter fruit so consistently in our country?

Our Text this morning is from Jeremiah, Ch.6.
Jeremiah 6
Take warning, O Jerusalem,
    or I shall turn from you in disgust,
and make you a desolation,
    an uninhabited land.

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Glean thoroughly as a vine
    the remnant of Israel;
like a grape-gatherer, pass your hand again
    over its branches.

10 To whom shall I speak and give warning,
    that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
    they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
    they take no pleasure in it.
11 But I am full of the wrath of the Lord;
    I am weary of holding it in.

Pour it out on the children in the street,
    and on the gatherings of young men as well;
both husband and wife shall be taken,
    the old folk and the very aged.
12 Their houses shall be turned over to others,
    their fields and wives together;
for I will stretch out my hand
    against the inhabitants of the land,
says the Lord.

13 For from the least to the greatest of them,
    everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
    everyone deals falsely.
14 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
15 They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
    yet they were not ashamed,
    they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
    at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.

In the 6th C BC, God called Jeremiah to prophesy the impending destruction and captivity of Jerusalem.  Soaked in injustice and idolatry, God judged Jerusalem.

This word is a warning. It is a call for Judah to examine her national habits for the Babylonians would come like a gleaning, picking every last morsel from them. Because God's people could not hear Him calling them to repent.  They ignored the things he had said, and His wrath, his punishment stirred at the injustice. 

And look!  God's accusation is that everyone from greatest to least is looking to get ahead, do well.  Succeed at any cost.  Dishonesty was the norm. And their injustice crystallized as an unwillingness to care for the wounded, those trampled under the rush to get ahead.  All the while, people claim "Peace, peace, when there is no peace," unable to admit or deal with the injustice in their midst.  "Don't make a fuss" they say.  The status quo will get us there.  Like the surrounding nations they pursued their own gain, acting shamefully, committing abominations, following after false idols.   

This oracle is a warning to listen!  It is a warning to be sensitive to the suffering around.  It is a rejection of rthe insistence on "peace, peace" while everyone pursues unjust too busy, too self interested, to care about the injustice and dishonesty that results.  When the wounds of God's people are treated carelessly, his wrath is stirred.

We must treat this wound of injustice in our nation with great care.  We must learn to listen to the suffering louder than the dollar and convenience.  We cannot ignore the wounds anymore.  We cannto ignore race because we think we see colorblindness.  We cannot cling to abstract principles and theology that defend our position in a system from which we profit. 

Because we do profit from it. 

Our nation, the most prosperous nation in the world, was founded on the land of Native Americans with the Labor of African slaves.  There is a wound here we struggle to even talk about, that we still profit from.

All the talk this week of a lone wolf, a crazy man, is another way to cry "peace, peace,"  when there is none and ignore the cries of black folk in our country who testify to a daily experience of violence.  It is treating the wound carelessly.  It is ignoring how ingrained the dishonesty of racial inequality is in our society.

I know some of you here today have tasted this bitter fruit as well, even if only in part;from people telling you that you speak English really well, to jobs not offered because of a perceived lack of potential to people telling you to go home.  Race is the wound of our time and place. 

Be careful not to say "peace, peace." 
"Everything's fine"
We must be careful not to close our ears.  People are dying because of the racial injustice deeply ingrained in our civilization, dying because of a primal wound in our country.  We must not treat the wound carelessly!

So what can we do as a Church?  How can we respond as the People of God?

First, we must admit we are involved in the problem.  That sounds weird.  I realize as a white man it means something different from me.  I know that we are a largely Asian American church.  But even that label isn't fair.  It does not do justice to the vastly different experience of Japanese American and Vietnamese Americans.  It doesn't do justice to the Mexican American experience, the different Latino experiences.

Most of us are here, by and large, because someone came here to get ahead, to thrive.  From greatest to least, we are here for gain though not unjust.  Remember the prosperity of this place was created at expense of at least 4 million Native Americans living in the land we claimed, and that land was worked by 10 million African slaves.  All of us, from Sons & Daughters of the American revolution to recent immigrants stand to benefit currently from how this place began unjustly.

I don’t know what to do about that?  I certainly can't fix it on my own.  But we can and must bear witness to the truth of what has happened.  We must.  We must acknowledge the fallenness of our national myths, our best ideas about country and governement, all these things are fallen before God.  Our history tells the truth, and if our loyalty is to Jesus and the peaceful to the Kingdom He brings, then we must speak the truth about our history.  

The second thing we must do is learn to lament.
No healing without sorrow.  Lamentation is a mourning that things are broken beyond what we can fix.  It is a confession before God.  It is sorrow over what has happened; sorrow for our inability to be just, sorrow for our indifference, sorrow for the shattering loss people have experienced.  It is  sackcloth and ashes.  

The power of honest lament is great, saving even the wicked city of Ninevah.
See it is in the psalms, the prophets; there is an entire book called Lamentations...
Jesus himself laments over Jerusalem, weeping for its hard heartedness. 
It is a kind of sorrowful truth telling that puts yourself in the story.    

So I would like to lead us this morning in a liturgy of lament.  This morning, there are many churches who have chosen to participate in a liturgy of lament, to be right before God.  Leroy Barber has recommended it to churches.  It doesn’t fix things, it doesn’t make the problem go away, but it is a start in truth and I do believe God has said we must be part of the answer.

If you will stand,  I will read aloud the confession, and then congregation the response.  
Afterwards we will take a moment of silence and then worship God around the eucharist.  

[at this point, we participated in the Liturgy of Lament for Charleston at http://onechurchliturgy.com/] 

February 21, 2015

On being the product of someone else's imagination

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy-the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men. A weird life it is to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could become real.
Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)


January 28, 2015

Where healing comes from is ambiguous

Living with ambiguous loss requires a spiritual tolerance -no, spiritual comfort-with ambiguity. Simply put, it requires faith.  Not all professionals are trained to accept this way of thinking, but pastors and people of spirituality have a head start.
However we come to find more comfort with the unknown and unsolvable-and temper our needs for control and mastery-that transformative growth will paradoxically increase our effectiveness to ease the suffering of others who must, through no fault of their own, continue to live with the pain of ambiguous loss. - Pauline Boss, Pastoral Psych (2010) 59:139
Jesus, at first glance, is the exemplar of this.  Can you imagine anything more ambigous than what His life must have been?  Certain of God's goodness, but without Siri to tell him where to go? The Gospels are so certain about some things, the important things, but God in human form automatically introduces ambiguity into the story of God, because humans are ambiguous and contingent people, no?  And yet, He can minister to us, because He knows us so.

Also, I think she just accidentally denounced the prince of evangelical theological commitments.

October 21, 2014

The black & white law.

It is difficult for white folks to “see” racism as something other than personal bias.  Seeing and perceiving structural inequalities is one of the most challenging barriers to white people engaging in a Godly, biblical justice-seeking.  We say “I’m not a racist” and assume that the problem must be one of “inner city culture” laziness, etc., to explain other groups’ struggles.  We explain that there are good ones and bad ones in every culture;  good ones unconsciously defined by the ability to get ahead and make nice with white culture.  You know how it goes:  KKK members are racist but I’m not.  I just think people are poor because they are lazy welfare queens with hypersexual partners.  The Evangelical church, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and a personal Gospel has helped reinforce the belief that racism is primarily interpersonal and relational.  Think, Promise Keepers. (We hugged; we cried.  Some of my best friends are black!)

How stunning to see it then, in our laws.

Our church has a little group reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  It hits like a hammer. She spends the first two chapters outlining a brief history of the racialized policing of black people the sublimation of this policing as the war on drugs.  It draws out the staggering numerical difference in how black people are policed and sentenced. We just finished Chapter 3 which raises a powerful question:
“The central question, then, is how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results.” p.103
I can see the problem of the cop on the street: it looks like we are deliberately policing some people more than others based on color & class, but I was stunned to learn of the systemic legal refusal to acknowledge a problem. 

The fourteenth amendment was passed  to protect everyone’s right to have full and equal protection and benefit of all the law.  It guards what the Civil Rights act of 1866 established.  But in 1987, the supreme court heard McClesky v. Kemp which argued there is clearly racial bias in criminal sentencing.  Statistics clearly demonstrated that crimes against white folk received far harsher sentences.  The Supreme Court however ruled against it, arguing that to “prove” racial bias exists under the fourteenth amendment,  you would have to prove intent.  Like a confession.  Alexander writes:
...in 1987, when media hysteria regarding black drug crime was at a fever pitch and the evening news was saturated with images of black criminals shackled in courtrooms, the supreme court ruled in McClesky v. Kemp  that racial bias in sentencing, even if shown through credible statistical evidence, could not be challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment in the absence of clear evidence of a conscious, discriminatory intent.  p.109
This, in effect means that the court only recognizes blatant, explicit bigotry.  When, Adolph Lyons was stopped by the LAPD for a blown taillight and ordered at gunpoint out of the car was choked out, he argued that his constitutional rights were violated in part, because of his race.  The court ruled against him, too, saying that :
Lyons would have had to allege that not only would he have another encounter with the police but also to make the incredible assertion either (1) that all police officers in Los Angeles always choke any citizen with whom they have an encounter whether for the purpose of arrest, issueing a citation for questioning, or (2) that the City ordered or authorized the police to act in such manner.  p.129 (cited)
Together, these cases create an environment where racial bias does not exist unless the policeman or the department says out  loud  “I don’t like black people and I am doing this because you are black.” 

Utterly ridiculous.   We have made race legally impossible to see outside of explicitly stated personal intent.

I find it fascinating (horrifying) that our inability to see race is reflected in our laws.  The only racism that exists in white society is clearly expressed interpersonal hostility.  What does this mean?  How should we understand this?  A deep psychoanalysis seems in order.  Is there is a deep epistemological problem of whiteness in here, or is it just a natural function of power?  When your world is the norming norm, you can explain everything and narratives that disturb it are outlawed for convenience.  

So much so, it seems that even Christians submit to western explanatory power over the Gospel.  "We're all God's children" becomes a way to ignore difference instead of a reason to listen to other narratives.  And there is a deep way we ignore, systemically, that we are still the ones who put Jesus on the cross; we are the Romans.  Our best laws and order still kill the Christ.  We believe in our rightness, not our forgiven wrongness.  Anyways, it was stunning to be talking about the difficulty whiteness has in seeing structural injustice and then opening the book and seeing it in our laws.  There's really no new news here, so in summary and in conclusion, I find these three things at work together somehow; an emphasis on personal interaction, a private salvation, and our societal legal structure; but only God can save.

August 21, 2014

10 Confessions

Ok, to keep the blog rolling, some things that I have been chewing on, in addition to Ferguson, over the past few weeks: a little narcissistic sketch of my inner life.

1. I may be a theobrogian by birth.  I grew up on the CA coast: everyone I knew was a dude or bro. brojah, brojicima, lamer, boze, barn' - a host of local talk.  But I don't want to be a theobrogian unaware of my social position and white-supremacy in the world; not rigidly unable to decenter my own views and position, not tone deaf to other voices, especially those oppressed or hampered by the societal system I profit in.  

2. Last Sunday I tried to speak on Ferguson.  Woke up that morning from terrible nightmare.  Right before service, our host church had a domestic violence confrontation, but did so in a way that moved the conflict right in the middle of our Sunday school. Coincidence? There is a deep spiritual component to racism.  Prayer and action are inseparable.  I want to talk about it at church, but not online.  There are more, better places to learn from people who know.  Ill try and post up a bunch of links, but until then, check the Twitter.

3. But of course all that happened was normal: this is the way the world is, and church has to be a choice between escaping and dealing with the way this world is.  I am excited to study The New Jim Crow together.  The immigration issue still looms large for us.  I don't know how to grow in a way that brings folks along in this, and wonder why the Holy Spirit doesn't convict more.

4. I really don't know enough about Bultmann and Husserl.  I have always aspired to.  Now? Not so sure.  It really doesn't mean much to my church in a practical way, and I don't see it addressing the world's problems. What I really lack is any kind of political theology at all.

5. Weird conversations with family ahead around 2A supporters as racist - look how they abandoned Ferguson.  Also that the Washington football team name is racist...  People are quick to regard the power inherent in language as "P.C." to dismiss it.

6.  ISIS seriously challenges my nonviolent convictions.  Is it right to stand by without intervening on behalf of the Yazidi?  Are there other ways to intervene while people are being beheaded?  Is this, as the Pope opined, a justifiable use of force?  For how long?  What is a faithful, responsible nonviolent strategy?

7.  My inner life theology is screwed up.  I hear the call to lose my life as a denial that life is good.  So give it away.  By this distortion, it would be better if I were not here; more resources for everyone else.  I sometimes relate to God as a consumer of souls, not a provider.  Sin.  And weird sin.  I dont hear people talk about this feeling.

8. My fear is that people who are in ministry and screwed up are ultimately more successful and effective (faithful?) in the Kingdom of God.  It seems the more rigid and assured you are, the more you can accomplish.  I often feel like deep seated unresolved issues work themselves out as passion, dedication and energy for the mission.  So I know all these amazing people doing great things, with great platforms, but I don't trust them or feel safe around them.  But then, I don't feel effective, either.  I also feel too damn old to be worried about this.

May God bend out the kinks.