I continue to reflect on Psalm 103’s fleshing out, in moving and poetic terms, what it means for us that the God revealed to Moses in the burning bush who as a Christian I see embodied in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is name Yahweh, the “I am Who I am”, the One who Lives or the One Who is.
Today I turn to the promise,
“Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and do not forget all Their benefits—
who works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.”
It is interesting to notice the ways in which various translations render these verses:
“For all who are mistreated,
the Lord brings justice.” – Contemporary English Version
“The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed.” – King James Version
“God makes everything come out right;
he puts victims back on their feet.” – the Message
“The Lord works righteousness;
does justice for all who are oppressed.” – Common English Bible
Ultimately, sickness is not just a warping of our bodies, which become wracked with illness, germs, cancer. Illness also warps our communities and relationships. As societies we can become sick.
Langston Hughes movingly described the ways in which our society became sick in his day, in his poem “Let America be American Again”:
“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
“(America never was America to me.)
“Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
“(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
“Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
“I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
“I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
“Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
“Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
“Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
“Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!”
Hughes’ moving and haunting words made clear that in his day and age there was a sickness at the heart of American culture, where whole classes of people were cut out of experiencing the fullness of life our society promises as a basic right which should be available to all. He knew deeply, through his lived experience as a black man living in a deeply white supremacist society, a lesson I think that the Christian tradition, together with I think the best impulses at the heart of all faiths, make clear: that no community can be great while building walls to exclude a single solitary soul. I cannot be great as an individual while living in a world in which others are held back from living out their own greatness.
This is the truth Dr. Martin Luther King expressed when he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” and “In a real sense all life is inter-related. … I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Right now, writing within days of the Inauguration of a president to the highest office whose claim to fame was language of exclusion, fear-mongering as cynical rallying cry to gain votes, and promises to build walls on our borders to keep out our neighbors, promises to deport some who live among us as neighbors based on where they were born, and promises to create watch lists for people based on their religion, a lot of people are full of fear. It feels I think to many of us who fight for justice on the one hand, are people facing into life-long experiences of discrimination on the other, and to those who live out both sides of the experience of oppression as well, that we are moving backward.
It can be easy to toss up our hands and give up. To feel defeated.
Clearly we must grieve when we see barriers to progress popping up and hear of ways we and others are mistreated. But the words of this text do not give me space to give up.
For, I am reminded, it is not just about human effort or activity. At the heart of the universe, beating like a heartbeat at the center of the world, is a movement toward justice.
We do, as societies, get sick. If we are talking about excluding or mistreating others as a way to be great, we are sick as a society. If we can accept this as something to tolerate as individuals, we have become sick. And when people speak and act claiming to be people of faith in support of such actions, they have lost their way and placed upon the altars of their so-called sanctuaries some sickly idol rather than the God who Lives, the God Who Is, that Moses spoke of, that Jesus embodied, and the Islam and many other faiths claim their prophets came to point back toward.
There is no sugar-coating this folks. These are signs we are sick, each of us in different ways and on different levels.
And yet, we are reminded – God stills lives, above and beyond our failing. This Living One, who Is, already is at work to bringing healing to this social sickness.
Where is God in these moments?
God is the one in Langston Hughes’ cry, calling us to see the inequities and injustices, calling us to join God in being forces of healing.
God is the one in the cries of countless women and their allies the days following the Inauguration, crying out for their lives to be recognized as mattering, for their voices to be heard, and for the lives of women and children to be protected.
God is the One I thing I experienced as, the day after the election, I sat with a group of faith leaders from all races from the United Church of Christ discussing what we can do to make sure our communities of color feel safe in the days ahead.
God is the One rallying several groups this coming week to join together to ask the question how can we work to protect immigrants through programs like refugee resettlement and the Sanctuary movement.
I am reminded this morning that, appearances to the contrary, injustice will not win. As Dr. King often said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Truth buried will not stay dead, but as Jesus rise again with even more power to wield.
I am reminded of an analogy friend and mentor Chuck Fager has shared again and again. The misogyny and white supremacy that are our sickness are what Scripture calls “powers that be”, which though started in motion by human hands have taken on a life of our own. It may feels as if we are children caught on the playground roundabout pushed to spinning. Chuck always would remind me and others that is what powers feel like. But as people of faith we are called to jump off the roundabout, opt out of the system of oppression and (for people of privilege at least) its benefits and, instead, take hands to the roundabout ourselves. As each of us push the roundabout of community life one set of hands at a time on our own, we can change the direction the world is spinning.
As a person of faith myself, I would add to Chuck’s analogy that we have to remember the promise of Psalm 103 is that it is not only our own human hands that come to play but, God’s hands are always ready to join ours upon this roundabout, adding a Divine push to the push toward justice. Together we can turn things aright.
This is what is meant when the book of Acts talks about the people of God turning the world upside down. It is too, I believe, what is meant by the symbolic portrayals of miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, healing of sick, casting out of demons, speaking to mountains and having them be moved. Ultimately though it may seem like a darkening shadow falling before us ensures an end, as we work together with each other, with the promise of God working together with us, we like Joshua can stop what feels like a setting of the sun in our social world.
That gives me reason for hope, to thank God.
Let’s hear and continue answering this call.
Your progressive redneck preacher,