We Have Been Called Beloved: (a Pride sermon on justice and what’s next)

**Originally preached for the 8:00 service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 28, 2015**

Mark 5:21-43

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ 32He looked all round to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

————-

Once, long ago, there was a woman who lived near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We do not know her name. But we do know that, in a pivotal moment, she dared to believe herself worthy of love. We can imagine that she was born into this world with the same innocent expectation of love and belonging that we’re all created with. Perhaps the home of her childhood reaffirmed this conviction. Perhaps her parents held her and smiled at her and told her she was a gift as she grew.

But then, one day, she began to bleed. She began to bleed as all women do—and in the patriarchal custom of her time—she was set apart like all women were because her bleeding made her unclean in the eyes of her community. She might have had to endure only the occasional isolation and ostracism that her fellow women endured. Except that her bleeding never stopped. Week after week and month after month and on and on for twelve long years.

As long as she was bleeding, she was unclean—unwelcome in her community and in her world. And so she was isolated always. Cast out from her family. Looked down upon even by the other women who encountered her. She was denied safety and resources and dignity. The disgusted expressions that slid over her as she walked past, and the sharp whispers the mingled with the soft patter of her footsteps told her over and over again that she was wrong. Dirty. Broken. Bad. Nobody told her that she was good. That she was loved. Nobody held her in their arms. Nobody ever even touched her.

She tried every remedy she could think of. She spent every penny she had. And she prayed and she prayed. Nothing seemed to work. There was no relief in sight. No promise of reconciliation and restoration to her community. Only loneliness and bleeding and pain.

And then one day, in a busy marketplace, she sees a man moving through the crowd with his followers. She hears the whispers and for once, they aren’t about her. “It’s him,” she realizes. The rabbi she had heard about. They say he is a healer.

Driven forward through the crowd by desperation and anguish, and perhaps, too, by the tiniest lingering echo of the divine words that sent her into this life—words which not even 12 painful years of rejection and oppression could steal from her—she rushes toward the man. Maybe her path was made easier by those who moved out of her way for fear of touching up against her unclean body. Hand trembling with hope, she reaches for his cloak. In a single moment, everything shifts profoundly. They both feel it. Her bleeding ceases immediately. He turns to look for her and she approaches, shaking, fearing another dismissal. Another rejection.

Instead he looks deep into her eyes and praises her, saying, “Your faith has made you well.” He is not afraid of her touch. He does not tell her she is unclean or wrong or bad. Ringing out underneath the words he speaks is a deeper message. The same one that echoed through her as she dared to approach him. The same divine words that sent her into this life. In his touch and his praise and his welcome, Jesus tells the woman, “You are beloved.”

And then his disciples are moving him along and before the woman is even out of sight, the public space is overtaken by sounds of wailing and deep, unfathomable grief at the death of a beloved daughter.

——

Two thousand years later, there is a man. His name is Jim and he too dared to believe he was worthy of love. Jim dared to believe he was worthy of the love of his partner, John, and together they dared to believe that their love deserved to be called a marriage. Jim was not alone. He was joined by millions of other gay and bisexual and queer Americans who sought equality and acceptance. But like the woman long ago, Jim and his fellow LGB people faced a hostile world. A world that for many, many years told them that they were wrong. Dirty. Broken. Bad.

Many of these people were cast out of their families. They were isolated and ostracized from their communities. They were oppressed. They were denied safety and resources and dignity. And they fought. Driven by desperation and anguish but maybe also by the tiniest echo of the divine words that sent them into this life—they dared to believe they were worthy of love. They pushed against the crowd, they gave it everything they had, and they stood in the full truth of who they were. And then they waited, shaking with hope even while they feared another dismissal. Another rejection.

Then in one pivotal moment—a profound shift. One fine summer day, in a hall of justice in a busy national capital—5 Supreme Court justices looked squarely in the face of gay Americans like Jim Obergefell and bisexual Americans like me and said this:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

It is so ordered.

Ringing out underneath these words, resounding in the joyful cheers and tearful embraces of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people across this country—are the divine words that sent us each and all into this life: “You are beloved.” They are the same words that our own denomination sought to embody as it embraced a more inclusive understanding of marriage—a shift that also officially went into effect this week.

But even as celebrations began, there could be heard in the streets and in churches wailing and crying and deep grief at lives lost so recently in an act of terrible violence that painted in sharp relief our country’s sin of racism. On Friday morning, President Obama stood at a podium to celebrate a more just America. And Friday afternoon, President Obama stood at a pulpit and sang out Amazing Grace. He was there to eulogize Clementa Pinckney and to comfort his grieving widow and children.

There is much—so very much to hold this week—more than even this great instance of progress and equality and this devastating time of tragedy. This was a week of moments and we must hold them all as best we can. But moments also come and pass, and the question we must—as people of good faith—ask ourselves now is, “what happens next?”

What Jesus does for the hemorrhaging woman is profoundly important. He embraces her. He claims her in love. But then he moves on. He has more work to do. Others to heal. More examples to set. Miraculous as Jesus was, that single moment of touch did not undo all the years of pain and deep internal wounding that the woman experienced because of her isolation and oppression and ostracism.

Jesus leaves the community behind to do that deeper healing work because he knows that for that healing it is not the woman, but the community itself that must transformed. Jesus has told the woman “You are beloved,” but he leaves her community to live into that truth with her and prove it.

We are called to do the same. Jesus’ healing act on that day in the marketplace embodied the love that created us and the love we were created for. It is a love that will always stop in the midst of things to honor and embrace and lift up people who are marginalized and oppressed. It is a love that rejoices with the joyful and weeps with the grieving. It is a love that transcends our boundaries of division and brokenness and demands nothing less than justice for all people.

The love of Christ—shown to that woman and demonstrated to all of us and for all of us in his dying and rising again—that love is a love rooted in covenant. The same kind of covenant that God made and faithfully kept with the people of Israel. The same kind of covenant that Jim Obergefell and John Arthur sought to live into as a married couple. The same kind of covenant that we are all called into as a community of faith and as people of God. Covenant love does not assume we will be perfect, but it hinges on our commitment to seeing the face of God in one another and seeking to honor that sacredness.

The love that Jesus enacts to that bleeding woman and to us is a love steeped in grace. Amazing grace. And it is a love that we are called not only to receive, but to enact and embody. Jesus doesn’t leave the woman because he doesn’t care. He leaves her because he trusts her community to care as he does. To take up where he left off. To love her as he has loved her.

Jesus loves us enough to trust us to love one another. And that love can transform the world.

We have had a week of moments. We have witnessed grace. In the moves toward justice for LGB people. In the forgiveness offered by the families of those murdered in Charleston. But we can only honor the grace of these moments by committing to living out the sort of transforming love we’ve witnessed until grace and justice are not limited to historic moments but belong to every moment.

As President Obama said in his eulogy on Friday, “We act out God’s grace when we take down a flag that symbolizes racism, but God doesn’t want us to stop there.”

We must ask ourselves how to care for those whom Jesus has called beloved. Our siblings of color who are still weighted down with the deadly burdens of white supremacy and racism. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who still face workplace discrimination. Our transgender friends and family who face transphobic violence and prejudice. Queer people of color who face double discrimination. Immigrants who face detention and deportation and deplorable conditions.

Jesus has made it clear that these people are beloved. They are worth stopping for—worth immediate attention. They are worth embrace and inclusion and justice.

How do we continue where Jesus left off? How do we allow ourselves and our communities to be transformed so that the real and deep healing can begin?

Certainly we rejoice with those who rejoice. Absolutely we cheer and embrace when justice is done and moves toward equality are achieved. But we also grieve with the families of the nine murdered in the Charleston massacre. We also hold and honor the righteous anger of those who are persecuted by the very systems meant to protect them. We cannot be comfortable in a world that is broken. We must name our complicity and strive to dismantle it. We cannot go back to our work and our daily living while those whom Jesus loves—whom we are called to love and care for—continue to suffer. The work is not done. People are still bleeding.

We watch for the moments, the pivotal moments. They are all around us.

Once, there was a woman. A trans Latina immigrant woman. Her name was Jennicet. For many long years she suffered from discrimination and isolation. From lack of resources and lack of justice and care. She fought tirelessly alongside others like her, but their cries went unheard and unheeded. One day, she finds herself in the presence of a person of power, the president of the country she calls home. Driven by desperation and anguish, but perhaps also by the tiniest echo of the divine words that sent her into this life—she dared to cry out, disrupting a speech with calls for justice and healing.

Once, there was a woman. A young black activist. Her name was Bree. She watched with growing rage as the country around her showed careless disdain for the lives of black people like her. In the wake of unspeakable racist violence, she listened to talk of finally dismantling the symbols of racism still decorating halls of power. She knows that, likely, the talk will dwindle and fall away long before any real work is done. One day, she stands before a flagpole at the state house in South Carolina where the confederate flag still flies. Driven by desperation and anguish and the tiniest echo of the divine words that sent her into this life, she scales the pole and takes down the flag, calling out to those who wait to arrest her, “In the name of Jesus, this flag must come down.”

How will we receive these moments? These women? We know what Jesus would do. Stop and embrace them, and then charge us to do the deep, long work of healing.

The faith of these people dared them to believe they were worthy of love and justice. Our faith dares us to believe that we are up to the task. With God’s help—always with God’s help.

We have been called beloved. The bleeding woman, and Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, and the Charleston 9, and Jennicet, and Bree. And us.

We have all been called beloved. How will we live it out? Until we are transformed. Until the world is transformed. Until every moment is grace. Until the healing is done and, indeed, our faith has made us all well. Amen.

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Until We Wake Up: A Sermon on Charleston, Racism, and Faithfulness

**Originally preached for 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago on June 21, 2015.

Prayer for Illumination:

God of mercy and of grief,

This day we lift up to you Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson. For these your beloved children, O God, we pray that your peace—stolen from them in life—might embrace them in death. And for us, O God, we pray for deep, unavoidable discomfort, trembling courage, and a little holy rage. In the face of their unearned eternal slumber, God, we pray that you would wake us up to your truth. Calling upon your Holy Spirit to fill us and transform us, we pray. Amen.

 

Jesus Stills a Storm (Mark 4:35-41)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

————–

About 5 years ago, I was on a boat trip with my parents near Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We were exploring a coastal river when, seemingly out of nowhere, a storm rolled in. The water got choppy, rain pummeled down, and thunder crashed overhead. We couldn’t get back home without crossing back through dangerous open water and there was nowhere nearby to dock. Calmly, my parents lowered the plastic rain shields and prepared to ride the storm out. I tried to play it cool, but actually, I was terrified. Before long, I was crawling into the storage space in the hull of the boat, and hunkering down with Lillie Grace, our yellow lab, who’d crawled in sometime before. I felt foolish, but I couldn’t help it. I was afraid.

As a young child, I could not have been more fearless about water. I couldn’t get enough of it. I especially loved the thrill of it: tubing at high speed behind a motorboat, racing friends on jet-skis. At age 3, I was already brazenly jumping off the high dive. I didn’t have the slightest inkling that water could be unsafe. But somewhere along the way, that changed. I had a couple of scary moments where I felt like I might drown. Friends got hurt pulling the kind of water stunts I loved. I got older and learned just how much there was to be afraid of.

When I first started working on this sermon a little over a week ago, this story from my own life was supposed to illustrate the value of childlike faith and trust. It was meant to suggest that trusting in God’s faithfulness looked something like my unmitigated childhood love for water. I looked at Jesus sleeping in the boat, and I wrote this line, “Jesus’ certainty in God’s faithfulness turns a scary, tossing storm into a rocking cradle that lulls him to sleep.”

But four days ago, a 21-year-old white man showed up for bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and then opened fire on people while they prayed. 9 of them are dead. He was quoted as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Of the few that lived through this heinous act of anti-black violence, one was a 5-year-old girl who survived the massacre by lying among the bodies of those she loved and playing dead. Just like her grandmother had taught her.

The image of this little girl has remained caught in my throat and heart. How different our stories are. At age 5, I felt certain that not a thing in this world could hurt me. But only a child that knows otherwise could think to play dead in a moment of chaos and panic. What reality, I wondered, could compel a 5-year-old child to know such dangers? The answer, painfully clear, is the reality of being black in America in 2015.

I hope that tonight someone will cradle that little girl from Charleston in their arms and rock her to sleep. But I suspect that no one will ever again convince her that there is nothing that can hurt her—nothing to be afraid of. She knows better.

In the days since Dylann Roof murdered 9 people from the church that welcomed him, it’s become clear to me that true faithfulness—ours to God and God’s to us—absolutely must look different than the uninformed trust and entitled fearlessness that I once knew when I was young. What I’ve idealized from my childhood, what I’ve called innocence, was actually ignorance granted by privilege. I didn’t know about the dangers of the world because I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to because I was wealthy and white.

The truth is that there is much to fear in this world. And those of us that manage to live without fully knowing this—whether as children or adults—are surely doing so at the cost of others’ safety and freedom.

So the events of this week challenge us to look at this story again. Through eyes blurred with tears from this latest crime in a truly endless list from our nation’s violent and racist history. We look to see what truth this piece of Gospel might speak into our very broken world today. And there are so many questions.

For one thing, what is our storm?

At first, the answer seemed obvious to me. People are dying. Black people are dying. Black people are being brutalized by the very agents sworn to protect them and killed by young white men they welcome into their communities. And even while it is happening, white people are taking up news space by claiming to be black. Others are attempting to explain away the racial elements of crimes like the Charleston massacre by blaming mental illness or suggesting that it is solely a matter of gun control. And underlying all of this violence and these equivocations is deep-seated racism. Surely, it would seem, that racism is the storm raging around us and threatening to overwhelm us.

If so, then we white Christians must re-center ourselves in this story. We’ve been taught to assume that we’re the main characters. The protagonists. If not heroes, then at least beloved fools. But if the storm is indeed racism, then the truth is that we’re not the ones in the boat. We’re a part of the storm. Even unintentionally, our enculturation and privilege make us complicit in such systemic injustice. That we rarely notice is proof of just how insidious it is.

On the other hand, a wise friend challenged my initial assumption that the storm is racism. Racism and white supremacy, he pointed out, have been around as long as we’ve been a country and before. For many of us who are white, we forget about racism until moments of particularly explosive violence draw it to our attention once again. But people of color who confront realities of race and racism in this country every day know better. That 5-year-old girl from Emanuel Church knows better. The sins of racism and white supremacy aren’t some sudden storm threatening to topple us. They’re the water we swim in.

My friend had a point. Perhaps the storm isn’t the evils of racism and violence at all, but the protest and unrest and holy righteous anger that is rising up against the tide and saying “Enough. Enough. Enough. Black lives matter.” Perhaps the storm isn’t something we need God to protect us from. Perhaps the storm is a great and mighty wind of God’s justice.

Traditionally, scholars point to Jesus’ calming of the storm at the end of this passage as the key component. They claim that his demonstrated dominion over the elements in this moment establish him as the son of God. But I think what happens before that is essential to consider. The storm rages around the boat, and Jesus has no interest in calming it. When he awakes to find the disciples petrified, he’s surprised by their reaction.

Maybe we’re not meant to jump too quickly to calm. After all, Jesus doesn’t. I have spent a lot of this week reading and listening to and learning from black friends and colleagues about how I might, as a white person, process and respond to the Charleston shooting. And one thing that has been pointed out several times is how quickly we as Christians (especially white Christians) jump straight from horrific tragedy to talk of healing, peace, and reconciliation. Certainly these are the things we hope for in Christ, but we’re not there yet. The lament and anger deserve to be heard and held.

The disciples are quick to cry out for calm and protection from the storm, but if the storm is one of holy unrest and justice, then we must endure and engage it. We must allow ourselves to be moved by it, perhaps even swamped by it. Calling too quickly for calm and peace means silencing the roars we’re meant to hear so that we can focus again on the voices and narratives that we find more comfortable.

Jesus is surprised by the disciples’ reaction to the storm. “Why are you afraid?” He asks them. “Have you no faith?”

In his commentary about this text, Presbyterian pastor Michael Lindvall draws a semantic distinction between the phrase “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and the Bible’s oft-repeated line, “Do not be afraid, God is with you.” The first, Lindvall points out, is what parents say to calm a frightened child. But it’s not entirely true because, of course, there are things to be afraid of. The second, so central to our faith story, doesn’t suggest that there is nothing worthy of fear. It simply suggests that God is faithful to us even in the face of fearful things and that that faithfulness should transform our fear into something else.

Jesus’ challenge to his followers suggests not so much that fear is unwarranted, but that they are called to courage in the face of that fear.

So are we. There is plenty to fear in our world today when it comes to racism and hatred and violence. Until we can acknowledge the full scope of that frightening reality, we will be powerless against it. But we cannot be paralyzed by our fear either.

In his eulogy for the victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, Martin Luther King Jr. offers a challenge.  Speaking of the victims’ he says, “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

The relevance of these words today reveals how much work remains. We must join in dismantling the toxic status quo upon which we float. We cannot hunker down in the boat and pray for the storm to pass. God isn’t just with us in the calm. God is in the whirlwind too.

I have to admit something to you. Even after all of this re-examining of this text, there is one question that still really troubles me. It has since the first time I ever read this story. Why is Jesus asleep?

Whether the storm is racist violence or holy protest, it seems like the one thing Jesus should not be is asleep. He should be awake engaging the storm or inspiring the disciples. Why is he asleep? I think it’s a fair question.

But if we read this text from Mark and are angry about Jesus’ seemingly disengaged slumber, we must look at the lives of these 9 lost in Charleston. At the lives lost not just in the past year when acts of racist violence have finally come to the attention of white America but over the whole troubled history of our country. We must think of a 5-year-old girl playing dead on the floor of her church. And we must ask: who is the body of Christ in this world today? And who has fallen asleep in the boat?

It is us. And we must awaken. Not to paralyzing fear or panic. Not to unearned, dangerous calm. But to the storm. And the way that it moves us.

We may feel overwhelmed, but there are things we can and should do.

We who are white can teach our children to see what we have not. We cannot protect their innocence at the expense of black lives. They will only learn that some lives are expendable. We can listen to the testimony of our black friends and siblings in Christ. We can trust their experience and resist the urge to explain or justify. We can educate ourselves and take action. And we can admit to ourselves that this whole conversation makes us uncomfortable and defensive. Then relinquish our defensiveness and lean into our discomfort. We must let go of the boat for a moment, and embrace the storm.

We will try and we will fail. And we must try again. We must summon within ourselves a knowing trust (not an ignorant trust) that the world hinges not on our faithfulness to God, but on God’s faithfulness to us. Our attempts to root our sense of rightness in our own flawed faithfulness to God or whatever gods we create—will always pit us against the storm and one another. They will always make us seek out comfort and calm – even when it means silencing the righteous outrage of those who suffer.

God knows this about us. God knows how very broken we are. And the hope for us this day and every day is that God loves us still. Loves our siblings of color who suffer and die at the hands of our racist world. And loves those of us who are buoyed along by the broken status quo. We can’t begin to imagine that sort of love. But it is that utterly incredible love that transforms the world. It destroys brokenness and makes all things new.

God’s faithfulness both endures and rejects our demand for comfort. God’s love doesn’t quell our fears but asks us why we cower in fear when there is work to be done. In unswerving, steadfast, indomitable love for us, God lets the holy storm of protest and justice rage on. Until we wake up. Until we wake up. That is faithfulness. Amen.