This past week twelve disciples from University United Methodist Church followed Jesus to southeastern Kentucky for the Appalachia Service Project. We worked to make rural homes warmer, safer, and drier. We shared our faith through acts of loving service. We noted the healing that God is effecting in a region torn by environmental, health, political, and financial destruction.
The better we know God’s story, the more we can line up our story both in words and deeds with God’s story of freedom and healing, hope and justice. The early disciples’ disruptive acts of love caused riots to break out. Their names were maligned. They were thrown in prison. And yet they kept telling the story of what God can do. Not even death or threat of death stopped them. Our friend Jesus scandalizes us by meeting us where we are, loving us as we are, showing us a better way.
As our youth and college students are teaching us, this way may involve sleeping on floors, sharing chores, deeply listening, laughing together, entering another culture with sensitivity and respect, risking rejection, blessing others by naming their gifts, creating community that does not limit love.
When Jesus heals a leper, this is not just a physical cure of a medical disease. Jesus changes the man’s relationship with the society. He touches a man considered untouchable. He welcomes into the faith community a man who had been cast out due to his skin. God’s story of inclusion, grace, and love triumphed over human stories of exclusion and fear. This is the way of Jesus.
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While we worked with the Appalachia Service Project, serving among an area that still suffers from the injustices of yesteryears, the radio brought news of a fresh act of terror. Nine people were slain while attending a Wednesday evening prayer meeting and Bible study.
We listened to the radio report and longed for internet access or a television to give us more details, to satisfy the insatiable desire for more knowledge, for someone to make sense of the situation. But even if we’d had high-speed connections, it wouldn’t have helped.
Even Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart ran out of jokes, noting, “I have nothing—other than just sadness… Once again we have to peer into the depraved violence that we do to each other in… a gaping racial wound that will not heal and yet we pretend doesn’t exist.”
Where was the joy of cultures coming together to love and serve God and neighbor? Why couldn’t we just celebrate the good work that we were doing and close our eyes to the larger systems of unearned privilege and social sin and racist legacies? Are our servant actions not enough to heal this world?
So we tweet #prayforCharleston and shake our heads at the Otherness of a lone white shooter. “So glad I’m not like THAT,” I think. “Maybe he’s mentally ill”—forgetting that these comments both stigmatize those beloved children of God who have mental illness and also ignore the powers of prejudice that infiltrate our communities. Self-righteousness creeps into my mind and I start dividing the world into “those people” and specifically I point at “that person.” And then my heart breaks open and I know that pity for and self-righteousness are not enough.
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“Pity” is the word in most ancient manuscripts of Mark to describe how Jesus looks upon the man who comes to him for healing. But there is a variant reading. Some ancient manuscripts say that Jesus was moved with “anger”—that he was “incensed.” And there is a strong scholarly argument that this variant reading was the original.
Whether we look at the situation and respond with anger or pity, tiredness or grief, our own words fail. Only Scripture can partially suffice. Did you catch the cry of the psalmist that we shared earlier?
“O LORD… ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?’”
When the faithful go down to the dust, who is left to speak for God and to God?
Who will shout at God and proclaim to the world that we refuse to live in a society where it’s not safe for unarmed black people to go to church, walk in the street, swim at a pool party, or make a mistake?
Who will speak the truth of God? My seminary classmates got into a lengthy discussion on Facebook—how were we going to address this hate crime on Sunday? My colleague Michelle Ledder commented:
As a white AME ordained clergy person thank you for asking this question - as one whose heart is aching with a weight that doesn't seem like it will ever lift - I pray that preachers will speak - yes speak - in their sermons this Sunday about the murders that took place within Emanuel AMEC this week - as whites - we must be willing to face the unearned privileges from which we benefit and one of those is "whether or not" we will address the terror we have allowed white supremacy to impose upon our black and brown sisters and brothers in this country. Our black and brown brothers and sisters don't get to choose whether or not they deal with racism - i pray for preachers in white and mostly white congregations to help them see how we have contributed to the environment which supports, allows, or ignores the kind of terror we experienced this week. We need to hear from a God who weeps with victims and helps us all bear each other up as we figure out what to do next... for everyone on this thread who will preach this Sunday and all the Sundays, I pray your strength...
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I wish Jesus would sternly order me not to speak. I hate doing the work of looking inward and seeing and recognizing my own shadow side.
I never preach a call to others that is not first and foremost God’s call to myself. And I speak with fear and trembling because the gospel is so counter-cultural. It brings people from the outside to the inside and declares that the world as we know it is not the world which is to come. The gospel challenges every one of the narratives that our news cycles tell.
Jesus sternly commands man healed from leprosy to not to say anything about him, but to go straight to the priest. This is one of many times that Mark records Jesus warning those he healed to “Say nothing.” This was the “messianic secret,” Mark’s particular way of hiding Jesus’ importance in the narrative.
Until the end of Mark’s gospel, only demons call Jesus the “Son of God.” Each of those powers, Jesus told to be quiet! But at the end of Jesus’ life, when he’s hung on a cross—what we would today call a lynching tree or an electric chair—his identity is finally recognized. “When the centurion who stood facing him, saw that… [Jesus gave a loud cry and] breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).
In the midst of pain, God’s suffering love can be recognized and proclaimed. This is the first and only time that Jesus is confessed to be “God’s Son” by a human, a Roman centurion, one of the very ones who crucified him.
* * *
When Jesus told the leper not to share and mandated that the demons remain silent, he wasn’t issuing a command for all time. He was mandating silence only for a short time—until his greatest act of courage and love could be revealed to all the world, Gentile and Jew, slave and free. He mandated silence only until the Temple curtain was torn in two so that dividing lines could disappear and religious segregation be no more.
Those of us who know the death of Jesus and see the deaths of innocents continuing into this day—we have a responsibility to witness. Psalm 30 shows that we are only ever saved to praise. When we survive, we have the obligation to testify—both to the horrors and to renewed hope of grace.
One of the survivors at Mother Emanuel AME was told by the gunman that she was left alive so that she could share what had happened and why. We in this room are all survivors. The racial history in this country affects each and every one of us, white or black, Asian or Middle Eastern or Native American. And our call is to straightforwardly examine ourselves and our culture, to point out the areas that don’t line up with God’s desires for humanity, and then keep tossing the stones of our culture into the baptismal font.
On the Appalachia Service Project, we tossed stones into water and witnessed the ripples that resulted. Let’s send that cultural baggage straight into the baptismal waters, experiencing the death to self as we live for Christ—the whole body of Christ, black and white, old and young, male and female, slave and free.
In Mark 1, “[The surviving man] went out and began to proclaim [God’s promise of healing] freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country and people came to him from every quarter.” That witness draws the world closer to Jesus.
So, name and share. Cry out in pain. Share how God has acted through faithful disciples in the past—and—through us—will do so again. Speak up… even if powerful forces beg you not to. Speak out—even if it’s not the socially prescribed way to do so. Challenge the church. Change the culture. Open hearts, including your own. Seek God.
“Do not accept the grace of God in vain… Now is the acceptable time—now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2)