at Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California
Sunday, May 8, 2005
I had heard of you but had never seen you. Growing up Baptist in the Bronx, I didn't know much about California or anyplace west of the Hudson River for that matter! But I grew up and the call was on me to urban ministry, and anyone who tries to do serious urban ministry will eventually get the word about what is going on in this place, and so I had heard of you, Allen Temple, and I knew that someday I would have to come here to see you with my own eyes, and to tell you thank you! Because the simple fact that you exist, that somebody somewhere gets it, that there is a church in America that understands what time it is, well, that is worth shouting about, and now that I am finally here I want to tell you how beautiful you look from up here, people of God! Allen Temple, home of that remarkable shepherd of the sheep and fearless prophet of the Lord, Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Senior, author of On the Jericho Road, A Memoir of Racial Justice, Social Action, and Prophetic Ministry, a book I have read twice now, and have come to see as a source of hope and inspiration! And I am so thankful that Dr. Smith practices an open pulpit, and has invited me to address you this morning. And I want to pay tribute also to the First Lady of this congregation, the love of his life, and to say that Sister JoAnna is in our thoughts and prayers, always. And I bring you greetings from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and say to you that I come in peace as a friend and as a brother, and I trust with a word from the Lord. But first I want to say as a Baptist and as a peace activist how honored I am to be in a place that nurtured the faith of a woman like U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who in 2001 cast the lone dissenting vote in the U.S. Congress against the administration's use of forceówhich we now know was a blank check to wage war without endóand to say, she is a profile in courage, and whatever church helped produce her is a church I want to know more about!
This morning I want to say a few words in the spirit of the prophet Amos, about three transgressions, and even four. I want to name out loud three transgressions, and a fourth, that cripple our nation this morning, and are eating away at the heart of this great society like a runaway cancer. I want to speak of three transgressions, and a fourth, that are founded on illusions and that threaten to loose the ties that bind us, and if left unchecked will shred the social fabric of our nation beyond repair.
But first I want to say that our situation is not without hope, because we are not an abandoned people left to fend for ourselves, there is a word from the Lord this morning. And for every terrible transgression and even for four, there is a word of grace and mercy, and there is yet time for repentance, for our God is a gracious God. For three transgressions, and even for four, there are four words of grace: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given. Let me turn your attention to the gospel of Mark, chapter 14, verses 22-26.
Would you pray with me this morning?
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our redeemer. Amen.
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, 'Take; this is my body.' Slowly, and with great difficulty I am coming to understand that our lives are not our own, that there is One who has a prior claim on us. This One gently calls to us, never coercing, in a voice of love, but firmly, and with respect for our fragile condition. In the reading from the gospel we hear the voice of this One, our brother Jesus who has gone on ahead of us, and the voice says four things: we are taken, we are blessed, we are broken, and we are given to the world. As it was for Jesus the prophet so it is for us who dare to take up his prophetic ministry. Our lives are not our own, we are taken. We are blessed. And then, just as surely as that One, we are broken by the harsh realities of the world. And then we are given back to the world, as its life sustaining force, and bread for the world.
There has never been a true prophet of God who was not taken. To be taken means that our life is borrowed from God, and to God we must return. To be taken means that our life and our words don't belong to us; we can only speak the things we've been given by the One who has taken us. The bible is replete with prophets who have been taken. Some, like Moses, claimed that they had no gift for speaking, to which God responds, "Prophet, who made your mouth? Go tell that fathead Pharaoh to let my people go! (the Percesepe translation)" Some, like Elijah, are taken dramatically, whooshed right off the face of the earth. Some, like Jeremiah, complained bitterly about his prophetic calling, preferring to be liked rather than hated for the message that he was called to deliver, but discovered that when he kept silent that the word of the Lord was in his bones like a flaming fire, and he was taken! And then there is Jesus, the fullness of God incarnate, taken in every pore of his body and then blessed at his baptism and proclaimed as the beloved of God, Jesus the prophet who speaks truth to power, who takes on the Roman Empire itself, and the ruling religious and economic and political elites, Jesus is taken and blessed and then brutally broken on a cruel cross, and then given to the world as its hope and its salvation. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets, the very model of what a prophet is and does, and anyone who feels called to prophetic ministry should take a closer look at what it means to be a prophet and ask himself or herself one large question: How will I look up on wood? Because that is your future, prophet, you are looking at it: All prophetic roads lead to the cross. For the prophet there is no royal road, there is only a thin path through the wilderness, so if you're interested in being popular and well loved, then you'd better find another profession, am I right, Pastor Smith? Doing God's will put you in some awful predicaments. God's trail leads along some tricky paths from time to time. You follow God ñ you'll wind up in a dungeon with lions. You follow God ñ you'll wind up in a fiery furnace. You follow God you'll wind up going through the valley and the shadow of death. I'm saying God's path does not always lead across some happy mountaintop!
Jesus was taken, and he was blessed, and then he was broken and given to the world, but then, so was Martin, and Malcolm, and Gandhi, and so will you, if you enter into this Way as a follower of Jesus the Christ.
There are some who may tell you that the era of the prophet is over, that we are done with prophets, but let me tell you the prophets aren't done with us! In an age with no prophets, if necessary, God will speak through the jawbone of an ass, as in the day of Balaam! God is always raising up prophets, our problem is that we refuse to listen to them.
Sometimes we must reconsider the words of the prophets, because we didn't hear them the first time. Speaking for myself, as a white man of privilege, I know that this nation has still not caught up to where Dr. Martin Luther King was in 1967. Dr. King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, a year to the day that he gave his historic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War. Today in America there may be some who remember the entirety of the "Dream Speech" of 1963ónot just the twenty second sound bite that gets trotted out for his birthday-- and some may even be acquainted with the "Letter From A Birmingham Jail," but most ignore the prophet's Vietnam Speech of 1967, and the "World House" chapter in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, published also in 1967, which King begins with a story:
"Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together." This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great "world house" in which we have to live togetheróblack and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hinduóa family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
"For three transgressions, and for four," the prophet Amos thundered, "I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals; they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way." "For three transgressions, and for four," the Lord says through Amos, "I will not revoke the punishment, because they have ripped open pregnant women in order to enlarge their territory." O, I tell you, not much has changed in all these years, and so it is right, it is appropriate that we re-visit the three transgressions that beset every nation who would be empire, and to remember that the Good Book from Genesis to Revelation, from Egypt to the whore of Babylon, has not one good thing to say about empire! Dr. King names the three transgressions for us, an unholy trinity, and I want to re-visit them today, and add a fourth. Prophet King named them clearly as racism, materialism, and militarism. And, I want to add a fourth, bad religion, that is, religious absolutism that demonizes the faith of others while refusing to take to log out of one's own eye! So let us consider each of these in turn.
1) Racism is a theological heresy based on a powerful illusion. Racism is an illusion driven by the demonic belief in white superiority. My friend Eugene Rivers has a powerful word to those of us of the lighter hue, that we had best decide whether we want to continue to be white or whether we want to follow Jesus, because we can't have it both ways. And I have been greatly helped by Professor James Cone, who has a special word to white theologians like me, that within our own communities of faith we have a moral obligation to speak the truth to our own folk and to not play. But this ideology of racism, Brother Cornel West says, it is especially difficult to deal with because it is not rational, it resists logic and rationality, it is irrational. So how does one deal rationally with what is irrational? Jesus said to his disciples, there are some demons beyond your powers that cannot be driven out except through prayer and fasting.
The renowned psychologist and civil rights leader Dr. Kenneth Clark died this week. Dr. Clark's groundbreaking studies of black children in the south revealed racism's heartbreaking psychological damage to children, damage so deep that the Supreme Court cited in its 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools. Dr. Clark's research found that black children in both the South and the North overwhelmingly said white dolls were nicer and prettier than black dolls, and black dolls were bad. Well, 1954 didn't change much. The damage was so deep that in the mid-1980s researchers found that two thirds of black children in the U.S. and three quarters of black children in Trinidad still preferred white dolls over black ones. The leader of the Trinidad teacher's union responded to the findings by saying, "Even in Trinidad, where 85% of the people are black and we have a black government, we have not recovered from 400 years in which blacks knew the white man as the boss." Dr. Clark was asked in 1995 interview what the doll test would show today. He said, "The doll test today would not be that much different." The people may have been set free from Egypt, one of my preacher friends says, but they took their Pharaoh with them. The prophet King's word to all oppressed people everywhere was and is today, "Let Your Pharaoh Go!"
King wrote, "[Racism] is a treacherous foundation for a world house. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization." "If Western civilization does not now respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all."
2) The second deadly transgression is the belief that poverty is permanent and cannot be overcome. King tackles this illusion, stressing that there is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. How timely King's words are today, when we examine President Bush's recent budget. What our president fails to understand is that budgets are moral documents that reflect the values and priorities of a nation. The biblical prophets frequently spoke to rulers and kings, speaking out for the dispossessed, widows and orphans, the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the least, last, and lost. People of faith are called to speak in the same ways, especially when we consider that the President's final budget resolution includes cuts to Medicaid of $10 billion, and cuts of $6 billion to programs that empower the poor, disabled, abused and neglected, as well as billions in cuts to food stamps. In Luke's gospel we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The President's budget gives $70 billion more in tax cuts for the rich man, while Lazarus is left once again begging for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. These are misguided priorities. Poverty reduction should be a moral imperative in politics. More than 36 million Americans live below the poverty line, 45 million without health insurance, 13 million hungry children. It is an illusion to say that poverty is eternal and there is nothing we can do about it, and the church should be crying out in anger, NO! A budget that scapegoats the poor, fattens the rich, and asks for sacrifice only from those who can least afford it is a moral outrage. A church that was practicing its religion would say so, and in a loud voice! These budget priorities would cause the prophets to rise up in righteous indignation, as should we. Our nation deserves better vision and better leadership. Worst of all, to listen to the President, you would think that Jesus himself was part of his administration, on the White House payroll, offering up policy advice that is pro-war, anti-gay, pro-gun, and pro-wealth. But my bible says, "Come now, you rich people, weep and for the miseries that are coming to you! Your riches have rotted and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts!"
If our President and the congress really wanted to follow Jesus, really wanted to practice their religion, they should remember that the one they claim to follow began his public ministry almost 2,000 years ago by proclaiming that God had anointed him "to bring good news to the poor."
3) The third transgression is militarism and war. Militarism is the third problem that humankind must solve in order to survive in the world house.
Now number two and number three are connected. A society with an unfair distribution of goods and services requires violence to sustain it. Violence is the only way some are able to deprive others of what is justly theirs. Inequality between rich and poor can only be maintained by violence. The Domination System requires nothing less than perpetual war and "justified violence" to sustain itself. And number one is connected also to number three. See, I live in a poor neighborhood, forty-five percent poverty rate in my neighborhood, and I notice that we see a lot of army recruiters up and down our block and in the high school across the street, and who is signing up? Don't let anyone tell you there is not a military draft in this country, there is a poverty draft taking the flower of our youth every day in neighborhoods like yours and like mine. Let's tell the truth!
Jesus rejects violence. When his disciples request permission to call down fire from heaven on inhospitable Samaritans, Jesus rebukes them. When a misguided follower cuts off the ear of the high priest in an attempt to save Jesus from arrest, Jesus rejects the act: "No more of this!" he says, (Luke 22:51óan injunction the early church took literally for the next three centuries, when it lost its way under Emperor Constantine and became the religion of Empire. According to Matthew's gospel, Jesus says, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." The apostle Paul summarized the view of the early church: "The weapons we use in our fight are not the weapons of a dominated existence but God's powerful weapons which we use to destroy strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). On their missionary journeys the disciples were instructed not to take staffs even for self-defense. When reviled and rejected, the disciples are to bless; when cursed they are to pray for those who abuse them. Following the example of God, they are to love and do good to those that hate them.
The Last Supper celebrates Jesus' nonviolent breaking of the spiral of violence, as Jesus absorbs the hatred of his opponents with the sacrifices of his own body Jesus rejects the military option as a way to redress Jewish grievances against Rome, the occupying power. He refuses to lead troops in a war against Rome, or to defend his cause through violent means. He endures the shame and humiliation of the cross rather than prove false to his own nonviolent way, setting us an example. Throughout his brief life Jesus discovered a way of opposing evil without becoming evil in the process.
The United States spends more on defense than the next fifteen nations combined. Our troops are stationed in seventy-five countries. We are beginning to resemble extinct dinosaurs who suffered from too much armor and too little brain! The trouble with violence is that it changes not too much, but too little. Nonviolence, as Jesus taught it, is more radical because it is more truthful. Violence always ends up calling on lies to defend it, just as lies and liars call on violence to defend them. By contrast, truth is naked, vulnerable as Christ, its only weapon Christ's own, God's love. Now, I am well aware that our nation is at war, and in time of crisis, uncertainty, and policy debate, one would think that Christians in the United States would agree: When in doubt, we should support our leader and remain loyal to our nation. But our leader of course, is Jesus Christ. Our nation is the people called church, spread around the globe. This is the family of God, and it embraces all nations, all colors, all genders, all people. Hatred, strife, domination, division, and war are not family values, nor are they kingdom values. Love, above all things, is what God values most. If we fail in love, we fail in everything, for God is love.
The present war in Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; evaluated in terms of its wisdom, justice, purpose, and motives, it is the worst war in America's history. As Christians we naturally feel for the Iraqis, so cruelly oppressed by Saddam, and of course as Christians we love and support our military men and women, but as Christians we cannot in good conscience support their military mission. They were not called upon to defend America but rather to attack Iraq, when Iraq had not attacked the U.S. Our troops were not called to die for, but rather to kill for, their country, in an illegal and unjust war opposed by the UN Security Council and virtually the entire world, including our own Baptist denomination and the President's Methodism. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters serving in the military?
Dr. King said that "Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows." But the U.S. has an addiction to militarism and to war. Like any addict, the U.S. is in denial about its addiction and is in need of a twelve step program!
For three transgressions, and for four! All three of these transgressions are rooted in a powerful illusion: the illusion that some people are more important than others. This is a lie straight from the pit of hell, but it has a powerful hold on the hearts and minds of our countrymen. Now, just this week I was in Atlanta, not far from Duluth, Georgia, where we had a four alarm media emergency regarding a MWWóthat stands for Missing White Woman! Jennifer Wilburn has had her fifteen minutes of fame, skipping town after getting cold feet about her upcoming wedding, to which 600 people had been invited. Poor Jennifer. For a solid week her face was plastered on billboards and streamed into the nation's living rooms: Egads, a white woman was missing! Long hair, sweet face, a little hyperthyroid around the eyes, maybe, but certainly white enough, and woman enough to qualify as a national media emergency worthy of pre-empting everything else going on in the world on the three major cable news networks! In Fear Nation, a missing church-going white woman is big news. Even a brain dead vegetative white woman can come to symbolize absolute purity, and elicit pious political speeches about "the culture of life", while around the globe and in Dayton where I work and here in Oakland disappearances are unnoticed, genocide is ignored, hunger, disease, poverty abound, schools are broke and preventable mortality and suffering are neglected when the corpses and victims are dark or poor!. And sure enough, when the MWW surfaced and told her story, it was the same sorry, racist story we've all heard before: she lied, saying a Hispanic man with two guns had kidnapped her. O listen, the unholy trinity of three transgressions is founded on the illusion that some people's lives are worth more than others. The bedrock illusion that supports all others is the belief that some people are better than others because of the color of their skin, or because of their wealth and privilege, or because they are citizens of the Empire, and all these here colonies filled with poor brown and black and yellow folk best get in line and realize that the oil 'neath the soil is ours or we'll blow 'em to bits, with shock and awe!
For three transgressions, and for four! The final transgression is the belief in religious absolutism, the illusion that those who practice a faith different than our own have nothing to teach us as Christians.
Some years ago I started an interfaith direct action justice organization working on issues of justice and fairness in our community. We were Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. We often worshipped together. One day I couldn't find the phone number of my friend Marianna Gevirtz, the Reform Jewish rabbi at Temple Sholom, so I called the vice president of our organization, the Imam at the Nation of Islam congregation down the street. And when I got him on the phone, he laughed at me. And I said, Mustafa, what's up with that, why are you laughing? And he said, Gary, do you know what you just did? And I said, Unt uh, what? And he said, here you are, a Christian, right, and you just called the black Muslim to get the phone number of the white Jewish rabbi! And we laughed together, amused and grateful that the walls were coming down all over town because we'd chosen to get serious about practicing our faith, leaning to do it together.
While he was in South Africa for 23 years, Gandhi rejected the efforts of Christians to convert him. One day he had gone to hear his friend Charles F. Andrews preach and was not allowed in the church because of the color of his skin! This experience and others like it convinced him that the way he saw Christians living did not correspond to the way of Jesus. Gandhi wrote, "I consider Western Christianity in its practical working a negation of Christ's Christianity. I cannot conceive Jesus, if he was living in the flesh in our midst, approving of modern Christian organizations, public worship, or modern ministry. If Christians will simply cling to the Sermon on the Mount, which was delivered not merely to the peaceful disciples but a groaning world, they would not go wrong."
The story is told about a reporter who once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization. The playful Gandhi responded, "I think it would be an excellent idea!"
Although he never became a Christian, Gandhi throughout his life maintained a profound respect for the meaning of the cross. He reminded Christians that God did not bear the cross only 2000 ago, but bears it still today and God dies and is resurrected from day to day. Gandhi also expressed this belief in his identification with Christ's crucifixion and in his great love for the hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it Lord that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
We must awaken from the illusions that haunt our waking dreams. Arise, awake, sleeper, and Christ will give you light! The great Hebrew prophet Isaiah promised that one day God would "destroy on this mountain the net that is cast over all peoples, the veil [of blindness and illusion] that is spread over all the nations." According to the gospel, that day dawned with Jesus of Nazareth. O help me, Holy Ghost, give me Jesus! It's Jesus I want, you can keep the rest! Who was it who repudiated the Roman imperial system of his time? Jesus! Who envisioned social reconstruction from the bottom up? Jesus! Whose radical teachings turned the topsy-turvy world right side up? Jesus! Whose practice of inclusiveness and equality questioned all forms of political and personal domination? Jesus! Who embraced Isaiah's vision of a domain freed from the madness of waróof swords beaten into ploughshares, of lions lying down with lambs? Jesus! Who was it who showed extraordinary concern for the outcast and the marginalized, who was it who welcomed women to ministry and said whosoever may come, who was it who welcomed children and said "Do not prevent them, let them come to me," who was it who rejected the belief that high-ranking men are the favorites of God, who was it whose subversive proclamation of a new order demolished the old way of domination and replaced it with compassion and communion? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! It was Jesus who brought to fruition the prophetic longing for the "Kingdom of God," God's domination-free order. It was Jesus said repent, believe in the good news, another way is open to us. It was Jesus who called for an end to the Domination System, built on lies and sustained by inequality and violence. The fact is, for anyone who cares to study it, that almost every sentence that Jesus uttered was an indictment of the old order of domination, or the disclosure of an alternative to it. As Walter Wink puts it, Jesus' vision was so radical, so far ahead of its time, that if Jesus had not lived we would not have been able to invent him. Finally, Jesus offered to us the contradiction of the crossólife given, not takenóas the only power that can remove the "veil" of blindness and illusion over the nations.
O people, we must move quickly from illusion to prayer, we haven't much time. The world is spiraling out of control, this death train is running off the track. We have to discover and claim our gifts of peacemaking, and then we have to get to work in organizing ourselves to make a difference. There are many who would join us if we called to them. For that to happen, we must be in relationship with them, white and black and brown togetherówe shall overcome! Let justice and peace embrace and kiss each other. We must get smarter in the way we organize. In our world, the "net over all peoples" has become a noose, and the deadly logic of domination is pushing history into a dead end. But it doesn't have to be this way! Repent, believe in the good news! I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold, I'd rather be his than have riches untold, I'd rather have Jesus than houses or lands; I'd rather be led by His nail-pierced hand ,Than to be the king of a vast domain, Or be held in sin's dread sway; I'd rather have Jesus than anything, This world affords today. I woke up this morning feeling kind of down/ I called on my best friend, She could not be found/ But I called on Jesus/My life He can hold/ I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold.
Well, I flew here from Atlanta to tell you, that's good news, I don't care what they say, that's good news. That's good news, y'all. Hear ye, the word of the Lord. Amen.