Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Preaching for Change

Who, Me?
Exodus 3:1-12 and Luke 10:25-37
March 7, 2010

It was February 1, 1960. I can imagine that the counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina had experienced a rather typical day: a few cups of coffee had been spilled, the sugar container had been emptied and refilled three times, and residue from a customer’s bacon and eggs was still on the edge of the counter. It was an ordinary day that became extraordinary when four African American college students studying nearby walked in and sat down. Today, we know that their peaceful demonstration led to change. As a result of their sitting down and countless others following them on the same stools, change came. The counter at Woolworth’s was open to all people six months later. Four people sat down in order to stand up for what they believed was right, paving the ways for thousands of others to have equal rights.

In a piece that aired on NPR, Franklin McCain, one of the four men who first sat down, remembered the many emotions that went through his head on that Monday afternoon. He shared how fifteen seconds after sitting down he "had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet." McCain continued, "It's a feeling that I don't think that I'll ever be able to have again. It's the kind of thing that people pray for … and wish for all their lives and never experience it. And I felt as though I wouldn't have been cheated out of life had that been the end of my life at that second or that moment."[1]

The person who has had the most profound impact on my life is a former bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa named Peter Storey. I was Dr. Storey’s student for two semesters where I was able to sit at his feet and hear stories of similar resistance. I have heard countless stories about the efforts of clergy and laypeople to fight against the evils of apartheid in South Africa. Dr. Storey was appointed to very large, all-white church at the height of apartheid. It did not take him long to start pushing the boundaries in that church. He started to question why the congregation was going along with the status quo of both the government policies and the church’s Discipline instead of living like Christ. He started to preach the gospel – a gospel without walls. Soon, more than half the congregation left. The worship services that were broadcasted across the nation were yanked from the airwaves. But Dr. Storey kept on preaching.

When it came to marriage, Dr. Storey was strictly forbidden from marrying a white person and a black person. It was something that the government and his church forbid him from doing. It was an offense that was punishable with time in jail. But, Dr. Storey did not listen to the government or to his church’s teaching. He listened instead to the voice of Jesus crying out from the pages of scripture – to the voice of a savior who said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to proclaim release to the captives.

This week, much of my attention has been captured by the momentous change that happened in our city when 151 couples arrived at the city courthouse to apply for a license to marry. On Wednesday, not only men and women were allowed to sign on the dotted line, getting the paperwork needed to stand and say, “I vow to be with you always,” but on Wednesday, this right to marry was given to all couples who are committed to being together in good times and in bad times, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do them part.

I’ve wrestled a lot this week because as a United Methodist pastor, I am strictly forbidden from presiding over a same-sex union. But this week, I have wrestled mightily with the words found in the Book of Discipline, the words found in scripture, and my understanding of Jesus Christ. I have also pondered the actions of a colleague and another United Methodist Church in this city who have publicly declared to offer radical hospitality to all people, creating a statement that reads, “Today we affirm that God’s grace is open to all,” and ends with “We will honor and celebrate the wedding of any couple, licensed in the District of Columbia, who seek to commit their lives to one another in marriage.” As I have read this statement and spent hours on the phone this week with other United Methodist Clergy in this city, I have thought about how this colleague is putting it all on the line. And still, there is not a doubt in my mind that God has led her to this place – that she, along with the four people who sat at a counter in Greensboro in 1960, and my colleague Peter Storey who put his very life on the line in order to fight against apartheid, are all following a call of God on their lives.

At the start of Exodus 3, Moses is keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses and the sheep have wandered far, beyond the wilderness, all the way to the mountain of Horeb. It is here, at the Mountain of God, where Moses sees a burning bush. A voice beckons from this bush, “Moses, Moses.” God then instructs Moses to come no further, to take his sandals off because he is standing on holy ground, and then God names the reality Moses is all too familiar with.

God says, “’I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” These words are beautiful words. I can imagine Moses was excited and delighted to hear these words, to know that God had a plan to deliver the people.

But, God does not stop here. God keeps talking.

In verse 10, God says, “’So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’”

Come, Moses.

I am going to send you.

You are going to be the one to lead my people out of Egypt.

I am not sure any of us would welcome these words, and Moses does not either, at least initially.
Moses responds, “’Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” God then offers the only response that is ever needed, “’I will be with you.’”

God has seen the misery of the people. Moses is familiar with this misery. And God calls Moses by name, appointing him to partner with God, leading the people out of Egypt.

Moses was faced with a challenge. He knew the misery of the people and how they were longing for the Promised Land. Moses was faced with a choice. He could respond to God’s call and do as God said or walk away, remaining a shepherd the rest of his life. But the challenge and the choice presented by God could also have two very different outcomes. The people could, indeed, be led into the land flowing with milk and honey or the people could remain in bondage.

I am convinced that we are surrounded by similar choices today. There are people all around us who have not yet been given access to the land flowing with milk and honey.

I think of individuals who live in this country – immigrants who know no home other than this one – but people who are not able to live fully and freely because they lack the necessary documents required for this freedom.

I think of victims of prostitution who are held under pimp control in a city where the pimp is so often protected from prosecution, rarely arrested, while the victim suffers as she goes from hotel to hotel room and gets arrested while the one holding the keys in his fur coat and sports car with very tinted glass is never arrested.

I think of people who have to choose between food for their children and the prescribed medication for their physical ailment because they lack access to affordable health care.

We who live in this city do not have to go far to discover someone living in bondage – someone yearning for the milk and honey of the Promised Land but faced with the scarcity of the wilderness.

In the story of the Israelites, God knows well the present circumstances of the people, and God is prepared to act decisively. God is prepared to bring the people out of Egypt and into that land of promise. God has a plan, but God cannot execute the plan alone. And this is why humans so often have the precious privilege of being caught up in God’s mighty acts of salvation no matter how scary or daunting or uncertain the act might be.

Walter Brueggemann explains, “In one brief utterance, the grand intention of God has become a specific human responsibility, human obligation, and human vocation. It is Moses who will do what Yahweh said, and Moses who will run the risks that Yahweh seemed ready to take. The connection of God and Moses, of heaven and earth, of great power and dangerous strategy is all carried in the statement ‘I will send you.’ After the massive intrusion of God, the exodus has suddenly become a human enterprise. It is Moses (not God) who will meet with Pharaoh. It is Moses (not God) who will ‘bring out’ ‘my people.’ It is Moses who acts in God’s place to save God’s people. Again, this is the odd joining of God and human history. The joining is done, however, through the vulnerable, risk-taking body of Moses, on whom everything now depends.”[2]

I wonder what would have happened had people in this country not stood up or sat down for an end to racial segregation.

I wonder what would have happened had the church and its leaders, people like Peter Storey, not taken a stance against a nation’s policies in South Africa, decrying time and again that apartheid was wrong.

I wonder what would have happened if pastors like John Rustin had remained silent on the sins of our own denomination – on this church’s policy of standing for slavery instead of saying that all people were and are created equal – that all people are created to be free.

And I wonder. I wonder what will happen when people like my colleague Mary Kay continue to stand up and say that the time has come for the United Methodist Church to stop holding people back from reaching the fullest expression of their humanity, when people like Mary Kay go against the Discipline while others work hard to change the Discipline.

God’s call can be so uncertain at times. And still, I believe we are all called to something. Every single person in this room has a call to do something.

I again quote Walter Brueggemann who writes, “An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy. We may imagine in our autonomous existence, moreover, that no one knows our name until we announce it, and no one requires anything of us except that for which we volunteer. The life of Moses in this narrative, as the lives of all people who live in this narrative of faith, is not autonomous. There is this One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned.”[3]

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have not been called to be autonomous. We are here and our being here is designed to throw us off-kilter. We are here in the presence of God and a fellowship of people who are trying hard to figure out what it really means to be faithful and as a result of our being in such company, we might find our lives being intruded upon or disrupted or redefined. We might experience a change – because this is the kind of God in whose name we worship and in whose presence we stand.

God has come down. God came down and spoke with Moses through a burning bush. And God came down again in the fully incarnate Jesus. Jesus is the one who has called my name. Jesus is the one who has disrupted my life. And Jesus is the one who I believe is still calling us to disrupt the ways of the world and sometimes the ways of our church so that all people can experience the gift of disruption – the gift of seeing chains fall off and bonds loosened.

Who is it that we have left on the side of the road?

Who is it that is not yet free?

What is God saying to us – to you, to me, and to all of us as a congregation – on this day?
[1] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18615556
[2] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreters Bible, Volume 1, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, 713.
[3] Brueggemann, 719

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