(repost) We worship an immigrant and refugee God

With the recent debate about how to handle families  at the US border, especially in light of the horrible treatment being reported at the southern border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!

Micah

jesus-refugee

I recently shared about the many texts which speak to the experience of displaced people, immigrants, migrants, and the many who face threat due to some federal actions going on here in America.   These actions are not just being taken in America alone, but similar moves to exclude and put up barriers to displaced people are going on throughout the Western world, as people respond in fear to the movements of refugees fleeing for their lives.

For those of us who claim to be people of faith, particularly people of the Book – which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim to be – this is deeply ironic.  In a real and profound way refusing to welcome displaced people with open arms is to forgot our own founding story.

great cloud of saints behind preacherDeuteronomy 26 puts it well when it instructs believers to pray the following prayer:

“5 … “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”

Here the story at the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, which lay at the foundation of both the Christian New Testament and also the Muslim faith as well, is laid bare:

The faith we have is borne of the experience of being migrant, refugee, displaced people.  Our ancestors in faith – Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, their descendants, the exiles from Judah under Assyria, Bablyon, and Persia – all experienced being displaced.  In fact one way to read the story of Exodus is a story not just about abram and saraislavery but about God’s feelings about how we treat those so displaced.   The descendants of Abraham find themselves in famine, so they flee across national boundaries to Egypt, through the work of their far-seeing son Joseph. Egypt treats these immigrants well, and so they prosper.  Then, a ruler who forgets Joseph and his family, forget that what makes a nation great is how it treats its marginalized people, arises.   He decides instead to oppress and mistreat these displaced people.

Ultimately this leads to disaster, as plague upon plague befall Egypt because of its choice.

The way Exodus is written, when read literally, is that God makes a choice to act and send plagues upon Egypt as if they are curses.  This poetically makes clear that God is not impartial when it comes to responding to the question of who is right – the wealthy, landed, long-term dwellers of a land comfortable in their property and status or the displaced people struggling on the margins, whose human rights lay in threat.  No, God takes sides, always siding with the poor, oppressed, marginalized.

This is clearly stated in multiple texts of the Hebrew Scriptures:

Moses-parting-red-sea“But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.” – Psalm 10:14

 

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,

is God in his holy dwelling.

God sets the lonely in families,

he leads out the prisoners with singing;

but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land” – Psalm 68:5-6

 

“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.” – Jeremiah 7:5-6

 

“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”—Jeremiah 22:3

8-1_tabernacle-entranceAgain and again, God is described as the one who takes sides, siding with the oppressed, marginalized, and forgotten – with those with the least power and weight to throw around in a community.  And particularly with the oppressed.

In fact in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is even at times depicted as a migrant God’s self.  God is the God of the wandering Aramean, and God for much of early Hebrew history is depicted as traveling in a pitched tent, the tabernacle which contained the symbols of God’s presence, with the people.  In fact when King David suggests to God that he build a great house for God to live in, God says that was never God’s idea and God was content to live as the people, as a migrant.

And early in his childhood, Jesus, too, is depicted as a refugee for child.  In Matthew’s Gospel, upon his birth, Jesus faces King Herod threatening all the boys born around Jesus’ age with death so his parents, like the early refugees of his ancestors during famine, Jesus’ parents bring him across national lines to hide for their lives in Egypt.  With Herod wanting his life, you can bet that Jesus, Joseph, and Mary didn’t seek papers from the government that sought Jesus’ life to make it legal before entering Egypt.  The One Christians like myself see as the embodiment of God, God as men with women & men to dwell, begins his earthly life as an illegal immigrant.

Though Islam does not view Jesus as God in the flesh in the way Christians do, it views his example as emblematic since he is viewed as a great prophet.  Also, their faith bursts forth among a highly nomadic people whose nation-crossing migrations mirrors that of the wandering Abraham and Sarah, whom they also look to as their spiritual ancestor.

All three traditions point toward a God that sides with such oppressed and displaced people.

take side with justiceYet, one need not take literally the language of God striking Egypt with plagues to see a powerful message in it.   After all, when Deuteronomy talks about warnings for the freed people of Israel of woes lying ahead for them like Egypt faced if they follow its example of mistreating the marginalized, displaced, and powerless among them it does so in a way that makes it sound like cause and effect.  If they oppress, naturally woe will fall upon them.

Removed from thought of curses from above, a real truth is spoken of here: As much as we want to divide our future from that of those around us, we are inevitably linked.  My fate as an individual cannot be divided from the welfare of those around me, particularly the seemingly powerless.  The fate of our nation cannot be divided from that of the most powerless in our midst, nor the welfare of nations around us.

This is what great leaders like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu spoke about, when they wrote

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

and

“My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons. . .  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

desmond-tutuUltimately to treat migrant people, displaced people, folks fleeing threats to their lives, well is not just selfless but also in our self-interest.  For when others discover fullness of life, feel secure, and can thrive, we all will thrive.  And to mistreat others, to push them out, only builds up feelings of alienation, mistrust, resentment, which can come back to haunt us when potential allies and friends in those communities we oppress no longer view us as one to support but enemies.

This too is what Jesus taught, when he warned us in Luke 6,

““Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38)

and in Matthew 7,

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

Ultimately, if we choose to pour out hatred, violence, mistrust, and mistreatment upon the least of these in our midst, we will find such negativity coming back to haunt us in ways we can only begin to imagine.  Likewise, if we choose to sow caring, understanding, acceptance, and love in the lives of those most at risk, we ultimately will find it strengthening not just them but our own communities, families, and lives.

We forget this lesson at our own peril.   May we embrace the call at the heart of these three great faiths, and choose to embrace the displaced people and the struggling in our midst.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Mid-week reflection — Seeing Others through Christ’s Eyes

I am going to begin sharing my mid-week reflections to the members of Life’s Journey UCC via email, in case any of these touch your heart or stir you to action.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

professional photo 1

As I think about what to share in my mid-week reflection, I remember Christ’s words to Saul in Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  These words came right after Saul ramped up a program of persecution against early Christians, a then persecuted religious minority.   Saul lost sight of these damascus roadothers as fellow bearers of God’s image, people of worth, but instead problems to be solved, disposable and forgettable, ones he can simply push aside or wipe away like garbage.  Saul’s conversion which leads him to become St. Paul the apostle comes when he recognizes that the Christ is in those on the margins, those on the fringes, those the world would dismiss as useless and dispensable.   He is reminded that each person is a bearer of Christ and no one someone that can be tossed away.

Saul’s experience reminds me of words of two other Christians in history whose spiritual journey forced them to face into our tendency as a society to lose our sense of the sacredness of each person, our tendency to turn them into labels like “illegals”, “strangers”, “welfare recipients”, “druggies” – forgetting that no one is a simple statistic.

Pádraig Ó Tuama, a Catholic queer writer from North Ireland writes of witnessing such dehumanization in the conflict in conflict between Catholics and Protestants, saying in Sorry For Your Troubles, “When I was a child,  / I learnt to count to five / one, two, three, four, five. / but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / one life / because each time / is the first time / that that life / has been taken”

Similarly, Deitrich Bonhoeffer , a pastor who stood against the fusion of far-right politics and religion under the NAZI regime in Germany, touched by how that regime led to a bonhoefferheartlessness to the suffering of others reminded us, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

It is easy as we are bombarded with the suffering throughout the world due to climate change, the pain and suffering of those seeking safety and a new lfie at our southern border, of those caught in conflict in the Middle East, and of those caught up in racial injustice in our own country, to become desensitized, losing our sense of compassion.   In the midst of the barrage of fearful news, we need to slow down and pay attention to significance of each individual, not forgetting they as we are bearers of God’s image, deserving of love, care, and respect.  Let us hear the voice of Christ calling us, as it did Saul, to compassion.

In God’s love and grace,
Pastor Micah,

Life’s Journey United Church of Christ, 2121 Edgewood Ave, Burlington, NC 27215

Worship — Sundays, 10:30 AM; Bible study — Tuesday, 6:30 PM

micahbroyal@yahoo.com     336-223-4910
OFFICE HOURS:  Tuesday and Wednesday 5-8pm

 

(repost) How to Treat Immigrants and Refugees — A Black and White Issue In our Faith

With the recent debate about how to handle families  at the US border, especially in light of the horrible treatment being reported at the southern border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!

Micah

refugeeI am writing on the heels of an amazing conference here in my new home of Durham, NC.  Duke University Divinity School sponsored a gathering called “Loving Your Neighbor”, a conference about involvement in the Sanctuary movement.

The Sanctuary movement is a faith-based movement where communities of faith such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, are set aside as “safe spaces” for immigrants, refugees, and folks seeking asylum of all sorts, including those who are undocumented.  The event was planned before the swearing in of Republican President Donald Trump but seemed prophetically timed, as it occurred just immediately following his making executive orders and memorandums targeted at immigrants and refugees.

anti-refugee

In fact, according to news reports, at the same time the conference was going on, individuals in route to the US were stopped at airports and told essentially “America is closed.  Go home”.  This included people who previously had been given a legal “thumbs up” from the government to come as visitors, as refugees, and even some who already had green cards to stay in the country.

During the conference, most of the gathering was looking at the questions of what is the history of this movement, how are current events affecting the way we can follow this example to respond to the changing needs of immigrants and refugees in need in our communities & world, and discussions of practical steps each gathered could make.

One aspect of the conference that stood out to me was how much Scripture came up  in our discussions about the issue of immigration and the refugee crisis.   In ways that felt very much akin to the fundamentalist Christian upbringing of my childhood, texts were quoted in a black and white way, as if they are to be literally followed.

Here are a collection of such verses:

refugees-are-human-beings-oki“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“God makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; God loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

“Long ago I gave these commands to my people: ‘You must see that justice is done, and must show kindness and mercy to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners who live among you, or anyone else in need.” (Zechariah 7:9)

“ I am the Lord, and I consider all people the same, whether they are Israelites or foreigners living among you.” (Numbers 15:16)

“ Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

As much happening in our political climate, this fact struck me as ironic.   How is it that political and religious conservatives, who argue long and hard for the need to take the Bible literally about texts whose meaning is in dispute: such as texts alleged to be about gay people by some (and sexual assault by others), who argue that the miracles of Scripture must be understood literally, can at the same time comfortably overlook texts such as these?   There is no dispute about the meaning of these texts among Biblical scholars: to be faithful people we are called to be ones who welcome immigrants, foreigners, and refugees in our midst.

exile

The people of Scripture were immigrants, foreigners, and refugees.   Their experience of God was one that came in large part out of the experience of exile, of slavery, of being victims of war and empire, yet finding through God’s presence in their lives resiliency and identity.   When we fail to be welcoming to the immigrant, pilgrim, alien, stranger – whatever term for refugee or displaced person – in a true and profound we,

we are failing to recognize and embrace God as God is known in the formative experience of the founders of our faith.

foreigner-bible

This is not just true in the experience of the Jewish people who make up the Hebrew Scriptures some Christians call the “Old Testament”.  It is true of the early Christians whom the writer of 1 Peter calls aliens and strangers in this world, and whom Matthew 25 warns that to fail to care for the stranger in our midst is to turn our back on Christ Himself.

Similarly that same theme emerges in the Quran, in which followers of Islam are warned that Allah takes the service done to others, or not done to others, as done or not done to Him.

Remembering displaced people, and responding with compassion not rejection to them, is a black and white issue in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Scriptures.

How is it that we can claim to be being faithful followers of the Bible – folks who say “God says it, we believe it, that settles it” – while embracing neglect for such people in our country?

In future posts, I want to share some themes from some texts and stories of displaced people in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament specifically.  But I want to challenge all of us to consider how we can respond to this challenge today.

Also I want to share a song by “Brother Sun”, which reminds us this same story of being people whose experience and identity was forged by the stories of displaced people is also the heart of our American story as well, which we forget at our own peril:

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Week in the Word: Be the Church — Week in the Word

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 21st,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church Be-the-Church-horizontal-e1490899709537in Alamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

 

Sermon           “Be the Church: Worship That Sets Free”       Pastor Micah

Scriptures: Psalm 103:1-6; Acts 16:16-40

These are the words of God for all God’s people.

May our still-speaking God open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  Amen.

What stands out for you in these words, either from the Psalms or the Acts?

 

martin luther king“We shall overcome… We shall overcome…  We shall overcome some day…”

Whenever these words are sung almost anywhere in the world, people’s hearts are stirred toward freedom.   Wherever in our world there are movements of people striving to fight for their freedom or the freedom of others, versions of this song break out.  This is because of how this song became a kind of anthem for the Civil Rights movement in our country, being sung by the likes of Mahalia Jackson and by the many people of all backgrounds who marched, prayed, were jailed, and lived out Martin Luther King’s maxim that “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man [or a woman] can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

Though they are connected with justice movements, the words of this song are not just some political rallying cry, but instead words of prayer and promise from a hymn of worship that rose up out of the experience of enslaved Africans and their descendants who, in the midst of slavery and mistreatment, heard in the stories of Holy Scripture a promise of freedom.  Through those stories, they encountered a God who sided with the poor and oppressed, a God who confronted Egypt, the most powerful empire of the ancient world, in order to tell its king, “let my people go.”  They came to know a God who frees the enslaved and oppressed, creating a free people from those once held in bondage.   They came to know God as the One who sets free the captives.  Through this, they embraced a kind of worship embodied by “We shall overcome”, a kind of worship that sets free.  No wonder such songs  have become the freedom cry of people in all times and places facing every kind of injustice ever since..

Yet, side by side with such hymns, such worship, such faith, there was and still is also worship that not only does not set free but in fact oppresses and enslaves.   Just 14 years ago, this was underlined when, 150 years after its formation, the Southern Baptist denomination officially apologized for the ways in which its own doctrine, worship, and iway of being church had been, from day one, a force for oppressing and marginalizing the very people who first sung “we shall overcome”.  They confessed how their denomination was formed for this very purpose in 1845, when it split from American slavery and marriageBaptists.  They formed because white southerners wanted to keep on owning slaves, even though the rest of  American Baptists already were condemning slavery as a sin.   These Southern Baptists cherry-picked Scriptures to argue that God’s will was for certain people – namely people of African descent – to be slaves, claiming people of darker hues fell under God’s judgment, due to the sin of a Biblical character named “Ham”.  They shaped their preaching, their teaching of Scripture in Bible classes and Sunday school, their prayers, their worship, all around this justification of treating fellow human beings, made in the image of God, as property to be used and abused.  It took 150 years for them to admit and confess that they had misused Scripture to turn their worship into worship that enslaves and which, since then, also was used to mistreat and discriminate, since that same theology was also used to justify racial segregation, racialized lynching, and many other ways people of color were mistreated then and now.  Of course, it is easy to pick on them, but they were but one of many American churches and denominations then and since who have twisted Scripture to justify such abusive treatment of others, corrupting worship into something that enslaves and oppresses rather than sets free.

In our reading from Acts, we see this same tension between worship that sets free and worship that enslaves at work, and we are reminded to be the church in the way God intends, we need to foster worship that sets free, laying aside and opposing all worship that enslaves or oppresses.

In going to the place of prayer, the same place where Paul had earlier met the wealthy Lydia as she was searching and longing for God, right where she had embraced the call to faith, Paul and Silas encounter a different kind of spirituality at work.  They encounter a woman who had become swept up in a kind of spirituality that, though it gave her and underground-railroad-immigrationothers hidden knowledge, ended in her becoming enslaved, used, and treated like property.   This same faith, a worship that oppresses and enslaves, had taken up root and spread like wildfire through the community to the point that, when people saw the faith of Paul and Silas doing what such faith naturally did – setting free the captives – those people swept up in this abusive faith turn on Paul and Silas.  They riot.  They rage.   Like every lynch-mob before and since, the crowd threatens abuse and even death at their hands to Paul and Silas.  Ultimately this ends with the two being thrown in prison, possibly with the justification that is for their own good, lest the crowds kill them.

Yet Paul and Silas’ worship, their faith in the God who sets free, cannot be bound.  Just as the tomb could not hold Jesus, attempts to silence cries for justice with tools like prison paul in prisonwalls are, in the end, fruitless. They are no match for worship of the God who sets free.   While Paul and Silas worship through prayer and song, an earthquake shakes open their prison.  Yes, Paul and Silas set free.  Yet freedom does not end there — rather, ultimately, the way in which they live out their faith frees not only them but also their fellow prisoners; and not just their fellow prisoners but even. their jailors.  Then as now, those who oppress and abuse others also lose connection with their own full humanity through oppressing those around them.  Freeing the oppressed opens the door for the oppressor also to be set free.  This is why Desmond Tutu told his fellow civil rights activists during their fight against racist oppression in South Africa, “Be nice to the whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity” and why he also told the mainly white proponents of that system of racial oppression, “ you may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come: join the winning side.”  Worship that sets free invites the oppressor to abandon every idol used to justify so they can embrace the God who sets every captive free and embrace God’s way of justice, becoming partners in God’s work of liberating and loving.  You see, even in the case of oppression, none have gone too far or done too much to return to God’s path of reconciliation and restoration, if they will but admit their failing and turn back.

Such worship also causes those the world has taught to embrace second-class status to instead  stand tall and refuse to bow their heads low anymore.  Tutu’s worship of the same God who sets free led him to say “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of human rights”.  Likewise, in our reading in Acts, Paul and Silas refuse to accept being treated as second-class and demand instead they be treated as ones fully in the image of God, children of God deserving  of respect.

In our time, as in theirs, sadly faith and worship can be corrupted.  For some, such faith can become a reassurance of being forgiven and accepted that is used to justify mistreating other people whom we deem too different, threatening, or inconvenient – whether at the marketplace, the school-house, or more recently at our southern border and even in people’s own homes in our neighborhoods and communities, as they are raided by ICE.

Today as then, too often religious language is used and Bible verses are twisted in churches to justify mistreating LGBT+ people, ignoring the calls for fair treatment of refugee-protest-afpwomen, justifying sexual and other abuse by powerful people, polluting God’s earth, or arguing for violence and war.  We see this when countless religious leaders line up in support of political leaders who are blatantly racist in how they speak and act, and who put in place policies that harm the very ones Scripture says God defends — the poor, the sick, those with disabilities, the immigrant, the refugee, the outcast and the marginalized.

This Scripture challenges us to cultivate such worship that sets free.  Worship that  sets free helps quiet the clamor of voices in our world that surround us with messages of hate and cries of fear, helping us quiet ourselves to hear the voice of Love that calls each and every one us God’s beloved children, worthy of respect and love, the voice that calls the earth the Lord’s and all who dwell therein.  Such worship reminds us who we are and whose we are, while also pointing us to who others are and whose they are.

Such worship is also liberating because it inspires us and others to rally and work for freedom.  To sing “we shall overcome”, “wade in the waters, for God’s gonna trouble the waters” or “we are singing, singing for our lives”  means never again accepting second class status for yourselves or others.  It means refusing to accept ourselves or others as being treated as any less than children of God of infinite worth.  It means making room for the oppressed, the least, and the last.  It means turning songs into actions, so our whole lives are rallying cries.

May we live such lives individually and together that even if we never raise our voices, all who encounter us at Life’s Journey will hear through our actions that song of freedom, and join their voices.  Amen and Amen.

 

Week in the Word: Be the Church — A United and Uniting People

Be-the-Church-horizontal-e1490899709537

This is the message I preached on Sunday, July 14th,  at Life’s Journey United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC, the first open and affirming (or LGBT+-welcoming) church in lifes journeyAlamance County, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Burlington, please join us!   Life’s Journey meets for worship services on Sundays at 10:30 AM, and is located at 2121 Edgewood Avenue, Burlington, 27215.  We also have a sermon-shaping Bible study most Tuesday nights at 6:30 PM in one of the Sunday school classrooms in the church.

Sermon: “Be the Church:”.  “Be the Church:  A United and Uniting People”.

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 15:1-29

Both our Isaiah reading and our Acts reading tell us of scattered and divided peoples becoming one.  In Isaiah, we see the words of Deutero- or Second-Isaiah, an anonymous return from exiledisciple of the original prophet Isaiah who prophesied after his death and after the exile of the Jewish people by Babylon.   They see how their nation was destroyed, their royal palace flattened, and even their holy temple snuffed out. They see so many of its members become exiles and refugees from their homeland.  Speaking from such a point of exile themself, this un-named prophet is inspired through their relationship with God  to see their situation from a different point of view: now they have the opportunity to become friends, allies, and partners with those with whom they are in exile, tearing down the walls between them, so that they can come to understand the truth and light of God, just as the people of Israel and Judah have.  They imagine a time when this time of being scattered refugees will end and all their people who are scattered will be able to be prophet isaiahunited again. This vision includes a home where even those not yet part of God’s covenant will be welcomed into God’s family, so even those who have been their persecutors will be gathered in and even those now scattered to the most distant islands not yet even listed in any map, shall be welcomed home.   This vision probably is a part of what of what Jesus had in mind when, as a rabbi schooled in the words of the Biblical prophets, he said he had other sheep who were not of his fold of the disciples then with him, who must be brought in, and when he prayed of all these scattered ones that they all could be one as he and his Father were one, the very prayer which we in the United Church of Christ look to as our inspiration for our calling to be a united and uniting people.

In Acts, we see the church in its infancy struggling to live out Isaiah and Jesus’ hefty vision of the family of God’s people being a united and uniting people.  We see the messiness and beauty that comes when they try to be ones who tear down barriers of division so that very different people with different perspectives can be welcomed and treating fairly.   In striving to extravagantly welcome all people as the Spirit showed communion of the saints 3them and us we must, the early church had grown and changed.  No longer was it a tiny group of Jews going to temple in Palestine, no different from those around them but in their shared faith in Jesus.  Now the church began for the first time to resemble what archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “the rainbow people of God”.  There are observant Jews who are committed to the way of Jesus.  There are people who have never stepped foot in a synagogue, who have no clue how to keep kosher, and who more closely resemble in dress, speech, and music the people of their own lands, which include places as varied as Asia Minor, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Ethiopia.   This movement towards extravagant welcome began for these early believers as it had for Second Isaiah, by tragedy and struggle.  The church in rainbow people of god.jpgPalestine went under attack by the powers that be for the ways it was counter-cultural and, in its words and actions, called into question the patterns of oppression in its day.   So Christians scattered, spreading the way of Jesus with them, being the church wherever they went through their actions, welcoming into their communities their neighbors and friends, many of whom looked and spoke and acted differently than them.

When we join these early believers in Acts, this fledgling movement is threatening to come apart at the seams.  Some long-time Christians who can date their faith in Christ to Pentecost itself, are worried about all these new folks joining up and calling themselves Christian. These new believers are people of cultures, races, and backgrounds very different than their own. As they join the faith, they are changing it, shaping it to reflect the needs and backgrounds of  their communities and cultures.   These new Christians and their churches don’t sing, prayer, worship, dress, or act like these original believers who can trace their faith to the days of Jesus.   I can almost hear them sneering and muttering to each other, What is the church becoming? Among these new believers, some still keep some connections to the old time religion of the first Christians. Others are new believers in communities that have never seen Palestine, with no connections to the Jewish culture in which Christianity began.  Some among them are happy to share their faith with these culturally Jewish believers, living and let live, accepting that some need the older more traditional ways of worshipping God; and others begin to feel they are the superior ones.  “We aren’t hung up on their rules, stuck in the past, and are really open to the Spirit”,

In Acts 15, we find representatives of all these different groups of people coming communion of the saintstogether and, with great effort, finding a way to lay their differences aside, find common ground together in their shared faith in Christ, and discover how to work together without having to lay aside the essential truths about who any of them are.  As a more modern voice of faith, the late James Baldwin, has said ““We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The decision they come to makes room for the continued welcome of churches and Christians that are reflective of and relevant to new cultures and times who thus barely resemble church as it once was, while also respecting the needs of long-time believers who value time-proven traditions.  The path they forge allows them all to walk arm in arm with other churches and Christians that understand Christ and worship God differently than they do.   It takes work, it takes listening carefully to all sides, it takes not assuming any one person or group has all the answers, it takes being open to the still-communion of the saints 2speaking voice of the Spirit, to get to this point.   To me, ultimately the way the decision is made, by listening to and valuing the many divergent and sometimes disagreeing voices in the church, is a living out of a principle Hindu faith leader and civil rights advocate Mahatma Gandhi once called “the many-sidedness of truth”.  Rather than truth being one sided, like the top of a table, Gandhi suggests that it is many-sided like a diamond.  To truly grasp the full truth of a situation involves looking at each possible facet, from every possible side or angle.   What Gandhi meant is that God speaks most clearly through us listening to the multitude of perspectives as fully as we can and looking for the truth that unites them all.  As Baldwin’s quote suggests, such listening ought never involve compromising on justice and fair treatment for anyone, especially a marginalized or oppressed person,  but it does involve making space for all people to also be treated with such respect, even those you deeply disagree with, so walls can be torn down and reconciliation come.

In this gathering of leaders at Jerusalem, those gathered  do just that. Ultimately they are stronger together through finding a way to make room for their differences, room to be reconciled to each other, and room to move together as one family in faith, expressed in many different ways.

In our own tradition in the United Church of Christ, finding a 150px-United_Church_of_Christ_emblem.svgunity that reconciles us into one family in Christ without erasing our differences is the foundation of who we are as a denomination.   Our denomination was formed when a number of very different denominations with very diverse ways of worshiping and believing chose to lay aside their differences which could divide them in order to  be reconciled with each other. Stepping out in faith, these pioneers in faith chose to live together out of this unity their shared relationship with Christ brought.

Here in the South working to be a united and uniting church meant in the early days being counter-cultural by resisting the pressure for racial segregation by having historically racially divided churches cross racial lines to gather together for worship, training, and mutual support in our denominational gatherings, even when crossing such lines to stand as one brought threat and harassment.

This call to be tear down barriers, to seek reconciliation, and to embrace both what draws us together in common and also the beauty in our differences, without ann atwater and cp elliscompromising the call to do justice, was beautifully pictured in the life of one United Church of Christ lay-woman, Annie Atwater of Durham.  She was an active member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ in Durham and her faith led her to speak up against unfair treatment of poor members in her community in general and the inhumane treatment of people of color under segregation.

As is depicted beautifully in the recent film The Best of Enemies, ultimately this fight against segregation forced Annie to have to work side by side alongside the then head of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan, C. P. Ellis.  As you can imagine, this outspoken activist for racial equity and this then leader of a racist hate group initially butt heads throughout the debate about the future of Durham schools.  Eventually, though, since she never gave up on this relationship, her persistent Christian life of relating to Eliis and others with both what the Gospel of John calls truth and grace,  both truth-telling and compassion erodes Ellis’s prejudices, and he concludes she and the families of color she represents deserve fair and equal treatment, being children of God like he is.  He renounces white supremacy and racism, abandoning the Klan, and joining her in her fight for civil rights for all and tearing down of barriers to racial reconciliation.  When many in the white community in Durham abandon C. P. Ellis for embracing reconciliation, the black community of Durham, including members of her United Church of Christ church, gather around him to give him aid and help him find his way.

I have to admit I hear echoes of this story whenever I hear how many of you here at Life’s Journey have, in the midst of some harassment and name-calling, chosen to stand side by side with members of our community of other races than yourself, as have some of you who have stood with the NAACP though you yourself are white, with people of other sexualities as some of you who are straight have by standing beside the LGBT community, and with people of other faiths as many of you have by standing beside groups like Burlington Misjad when they faced religious discrimination. We need to continue this work as a church.

Yet to be people who are united and uniting people we must not only continue in such areas of strength but also face into the fact that our community around us  remains still deeply divided into haves and have-not’s, too often with much of the money and power in the hands of people of one race, one gender, one background.  We must ask how we as a church together can work to tear down these barriers, working both for equal and fair treatment for all and a reconciling of all as one in our community.

We must also face into the painful truth that Dr. Martin Luther King named when he famously said 10 or 11 am Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America; and confess not much has changed since.  We must look around our worship service and ask what we have done or have failed to do in order to make our church a place where people of all backgrounds come and experience reconciliation rather than division, a tearing down of walls rather than a building of them up.  We must face into how much we might be still a segregated space and ask God’s help in learning our part in making our church become more and more  a place where God’s kin-dom comes here on earth as in heaven by embracing reconciliation and diversity rather than what just goes along with the tide of the culture around us that further splinters and divides.

I close with words of Martin Luther King from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, in which he expresses the heart and vision we need to be committed to being people of reconciliation.  He writes, ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All … are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 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…”   May we embrace this call to be ones who tear down walls of division, being people of reconciliation here in our church, and throughout our community & world.  Amen & Amen.