(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 13, 2016)
I made a commitment long ago to be as honest and transparent as I can be as pastor of this church.
Not that I had a whole lot of choice, I’m not really the best at putting up a false front. It’s one of the reasons I don’t play poker.
This past week has been full of really big and difficult things. We prayed a prayer of blessing for Cindy Johnson earlier, as she made the decision to resign this week. The tensions and differences we face as a church and Yearly Meeting play a part in her decision to resign, and there have been other things this week that have shown me we have more difficulties ahead of us as a church. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.
Our church was on the front page of the Newberg Graphic again, in a damaging way. I would like to clarify that to the best of our knowledge, there were no allegations that sexual abuse occurred at our church; rather, the conduct was alleged to have taken place at other locations. I give you my word that I have worked very hard behind the scenes this year to make sure we do all we can to make our church and Yearly Meeting safe places. We are setting practices that show zero tolerance for abuse, because we want to be safe and transparent. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.
We had an election that emphasized how divided we are as a nation. It’s incredibly difficult to figure out how to think about moving forward, what our priorities should be as followers of Jesus. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.
I’ve struggled mightily to decide what to say today.
We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help. What words or thoughts will help us get there?
Two weeks ago I asked us to look at the soft place in God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, those on the outside, those who are on the margins. We saw that the unjust deaths of Abel and Naboth had a claim on God’s heart. I said two weeks ago, “As dark as the world may get…for all the times we see power winning, might making right…there is this strong thread through the bible that reminds us God is not behind it. God is on the side of those trampled unjustly by power.”
Today we had planned to look at the prophets Amos and Micah, who saw oppression coming not just from evil Kings like Ahab, but saw oppression from a group of people that selfishly pursued wealth at the expense of bankrupting others. These prophets were some of the first to say the oppression had so worked its way through God’s people, that God was going to act in a mighty way. They were going to lose their kingdom, lose the promised land, lose everything and be forced into exile.
For the prophets, the exile was a sign of what was the original title: “The Mother Bear Place in God’s Heart.” God doesn’t just weep with the oppressed, God rises up to break the power of the oppressors in a shocking way. I thought of Walter Brueggemann, and his book that radically changed me, called “The Prophetic Imagination”. He shows how the prophets didn’t just confront kings of their wrong, but confronted the way that the system of kings, whether individually good or bad, valued wealth and power more than equality and submission to God.
That’s when I started to get some clarity about what to say today.
Whether a good king or a bad king ruled, God’s true prophets reminded us of God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, the ones wounded and taken advantage of. Bad rulers could not ultimately stand against God, and good rulers were not excused from treating people justly.
Whether a good king or a bad king ruled, God’s true prophets reminded that God was not aligned with the power system, with the ones in charge who were bringing oppression. God would not give approval to whatever the king said, even if the king was doing it for a good goal.
Jeremiah is a great example of this. He went right to the temple, during the time of a good king, and he challenged all the people not to rest on their history, their signs of religion like the temple.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. (Jeremiah 7:3-8, TNIV)
Whoever is President of our nation, God’s challenging word to you and me remains. The prophetic truth is loud and clear. We must change our ways and our actions, and deal with each other justly. We must stand up for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.
Our allegiance is clear. It is to God.
And what the bible shows, what history shows, is that power rarely submits to God. Power tries to use God for its own ends, to maintain the ones who are in power. But God stays apart from power, and with those who are wounded by it.
Brueggemann writes about Jeremiah’s grief. Jeremiah was sounding the alarm, and no one listened, no one would hear his grief. Brueggemann writes:
“The second dimension of his grief, more intense, was because no one would listen and no one would see what was so transparent to him. So his grief was kept sharp and painful because he had to face regularly the royal consciousness, which [kept saying] ‘peace, peace’ when apparently only [Jeremiah] knew there was no peace.” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 47)
A temptation for us in this season is to join the ones who say ‘peace, peace’. A temptation is to speak only of hope, to be a glass half full person and say “maybe things won’t be so bad”.
Yet speaking only hope ignores the reality of the pain of our differences as a church. It ignores the pain of victims of abuse. It runs the risk of silencing those who have legitimate fears about what will happen to them as outsiders in this new presidential administration. Hope without lament for the injustice of the world is not God’s hope!
Everything in me says this: the church must listen right now to those angry and in pain.
I am in this role, where I am pastor of a church with widely divergent political and theological views. There is huge pressure to not take sides. I get that. I feel the weight of it.
But I feel the same Spirit who prompted Elijah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah moving in me. I hear the Spirit of God, God who lets injustice have a claim on God’s heart, I hear the Spirit of God asking me to listen and not dismiss the cries of those who are angry and scared right now.
This is more than sour grapes over losing an election. The outcry is not being created by media coverage. Foreigners, and Muslims, and people of color, and women are saying that the poor treatment they have received over and over in their lives is now being legitimized and emboldened by people in places of power.
I believe we as the people of God have only one proper response. We must not legitimize those injustices ourselves. We must speak and act against them whenever we see them. The powers of Evangelical Christianity have aligned with this new administration, yet we must remember that our allegiance is clear: it is to God and God alone. And the bible teaches us that God stands with and for the oppressed and the outcasts. We must as well.
We have teachers in our church who have been on the front lines of caring.
I’ve been praying for you this week. I’ve been proud of you this week. We haven’t had things here like the headlines from Silverton, where students were suspended for yelling threats at Latino students. Our teachers have been listening with, crying with, standing for all students. I’m sure it’s been exhausting, but thank you.
Where do we all find the strength to move forward?
How do we avoid lashing out at those we disagree with, whether it’s politics or church disagreements? Is there a place for lament and for hope?
Of course Jesus is always the best place for us to look. Look at Jesus. He gathered followers who were Roman insider fat cats like Matthew the tax collector, as well as radical outsiders like Simon the zealot. Jesus sent such mixed messages: how could you be friends with a sell-out to Roman power, and also with someone who wanted to kill in order to end Roman oppression? How could you call people to faithfulness to God, but criticize the most righteous ones in that society, the Pharisees?
It led to his death on the cross. His humility and obedience, Philippians 2 says, led to his death at the hands of human power. Yet God’s resurrection power got the final word. For 40 days, resurrected Jesus walked and talked and ate with the disciples. The book of Acts, chapter 1 describes the last time he was with them.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 1:4-5, TNIV)
Something new is coming. Something you need, a gift, a promise. This makes them wonder if Simon the Zealot’s way is finally going to win:
So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1:6-9, TNIV)
The promised gift of the Holy Spirit was going to give them power!
They had no idea how much they were going to need it. They had no idea how much it was going to cost them to be witnesses, to be ones who point to Jesus Christ in every part of the earth.
They needed the gift of the Holy Spirit to give boldness to speak about Jesus, to stand up to persecution, to endure stoning, to be chased from their homes and exiled all over the known world. Power and love and hope is exactly what they needed.
I find it powerful to realize that while they waited in the very center of Jewish power…they were in Jerusalem when the Spirit came, and it helped them speak in other languages to give hope and truth to the foreigners and outcasts who were there. The day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and formed the new church of Jesus Christ, is just another in a long line of examples of how God’s heart is always for the outsiders.
“No, I am not at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel. I’m serious about building a new, diverse, worldwide kingdom of God.” Peter preaches it on that first Pentecost: it is the message of the prophets, the message of the prophet Joel. God’s Spirit is going to be poured out on everyone: men and women, young and old, Jew and foreigner.
God is making an inclusive community, because God’s heart is always for the unincluded, the outcast, the outsider.
I began today with a refrain: we need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.
I’ve been drawn to Pentecost in the book of Acts as a reminder of what we need in these divided times in our nation and in our church. God, we need your Holy Spirit to fill us! We need your love, life and power to live in us!
Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Jesus Christ. Give us your eyes to see the wounded and oppressed whom you love. Give us your patience when we feel wronged or misunderstood. Give us your boldness to speak your good news. Give us your strength and courage when we suffer.