“Think Justice!”

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A sermon preached on September 30, 2018 at the First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our hope and our refuge. Amen.

I

In July, I received a note from Ellen. She is 22-years-old, a college graduate with honors, a strong, confident young woman. This is what she wrote:

“I love all of you so much. None of this would be possible without you. My time with you had such an enormous impact on who I am, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done to get me to this point. You’re my family forever and always.    Ellen.”       (Written on her wedding day, July 8, 2018)

Thirteen-year-old Ellen came to us at Safe Places, an organization where my staff and I cared for women who had been abused, children exposed to violence, and young girls who had escaped the evil grip of human trafficking. When we first met Ellen, she was silent, lifeless, angry — hurt deeply in her soul. But after a few months, Ellen’s vivacious personality began to emerge. Slowly, she opened up her hurt place and let healing in. 

Ellen was eventually strong enough to be a part of our Princess Program, where girls who had experienced violence spent the summer learning and sharing, and discovering their inner courage, resilience, and sacred worth. After the summer, we celebrated the girls at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion with a grand ball, a very grand ball. 

When they put on their sparkling gowns, and the most glittering shoes I had ever seen, they believed — for at least one magical night — that truly they were princesses. Our wise staff taught them that even princesses can be violated, but they already knew that. They had lived through the humiliation of verbal abuse, the pain of physical and sexual abuse, and the long-lasting effects of emotional abuse. For many of them, it happened in the one place that should have been safe — in their homes.

II

Throughout history, we encounter stories of violence. Such is our story today, a story about how violence devastates Princess Tamar, King David’s daughter. Sometimes historians, biblical expositors and even story-telling preachers come upon stories that are hard to tell. This is one of those stories. It’s probably not included in any anthology of  “The World’s Most Inspiring Bible Stories.” It’s a story we don’t tell to our children. We might prefer to skip this story altogether. Theologian, Phyllis Trible, would call it a text of terror. And yet, it is the word of the Lord, and, as such, it offers some truths, some warnings, some questions, and maybe even a smidgen of grace.

So even though we find trouble in this text, God might just whisper, and gently nudge us to listen and to let the story reveal some important ways God calls us to do justice. 

Listen for the whisper of God in the reading of sacred scripture, 2 Samuel 13: 1-22.

In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her.

Now Amnon had an adviser named Jonadab son of Shimeah, David’s brother. Jonadab was a very shrewd man. He asked Amnon, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?”

Amnon said to him, “I’m in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”

”Go to bed and pretend to be ill,” Jonadab said. “When your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘I would like my sister Tamar to come and give me something to eat. Let her prepare the food in my sight so I may watch her and then eat it from her hand.’”

So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.”

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”

“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.

III

Indeed, there is trouble in this disturbing text. We discover it when we eavesdrop on Princess Tamar — daughter of King David, sister of Absolom, and half sister of Amnon. We learn that Amnon conspired to be alone with her. His sly servant came up with a plan, and she ended up in Amnon’s room. After hurting her, he rejected her harshly. He called for his servant: “Get rid of this woman! Banish her from my presence! Bolt the door after her!” 

He would not even use her name.

Tamar collapsed outside the door, plunged her hand into the cooling ashes of the fire, and rubbed the ashes into her hair. As she staggered away, she tore her richly embroidered gown as a sign of her deep-down despair. Even princesses can be violated!

King David was angry, but did nothing either to punish his beloved son or to comfort his despairing daughter. There was no consolation from father to daughter, not a single trace of compassion.  And her mother is silent.

Near the end of the story, we stumble upon a tiny touch of grace when we learn that brother Absolom takes Tamar into his home. But she is no longer a princess of royal lineage. She fades into oblivion and lives out her days as a refugee in her brother’s house, a desolate woman who will never marry and bear children. But did Tamar fade into oblivion? 

I don’t think so! Tamar’s voice was not silenced. She told someone her story, and that someone heard her, and remembered her story, and re-told her story, and told it at the right time to the right person so that this story made its way into our holy scripture. Thousands of years later, we do know Tamar’s name. Across all barriers of history and culture, and if we imagine, we can hear her speak across the ages:  

“I lost my life that day. Here in my brother Absolom’s house, I am a prisoner. I will never have children that will bear my name through the generations. I will not know that deepest of joys.”

IV

So just keep silence, King David!  Stay silent, mother of Tamar! Protect your violent son at all costs. 

What a deadly picture of family violence — the violence of a brother overpowering his sister, and emotional violence because both parents remained silent.

We might ask: where were the voices of her parents? We cannot help but wonder how Tamar’s father and mother might have responded differently. But this royal family decided to keep silence to protect Amnon.

In her sermon, “The Silences We Keep,” Rev. MarQuita Carmichael Burton speaks of “conspiratorial silence.” Reflecting on Tamar’s story, Rev. Burton speaks these words:

Reclaim our voices, shatter the façade of the deadly silence we keep. . .

We must trade in our torn robes and ashes for a bull horn and a listening ear and tell the truth of our story, so that our souls, minds, bodies and the people we say we love might be healed. 

As former silenced victims choose to no longer acquiesce to the demands of the clan elders and refuse the false healing promised by our conspiratorial muteness,  we move forward to reclaim freedom and wholeness on our terms, because we need it and so does the village.

V

In the end, it’s all about justice, and the Prophet Isaiah knew a lot about that.

Break every yoke!  Then your light shall rise in the darkness! 

You shall be called the repairers of the breach!

We have seen a breach, and from the abyss of that breach, the “Me Too” movement erupted. The movement is a wonder to behold, and perhaps the cry of “Me Too” is precisely where we find the movement of God. Secrets held for decades came out of the darkness into the light, and grief-filled silences found words. Tears flowed freely from hearts that held on far too long to painful stories.

But I wish that no person had ever needed to cry out “MeToo.” That no one had ever endured the horrifying violence that caused them to live with a silence and secrecy that held such power over their lives. 

I wish they had never felt the grief that tormented them in the voiceless spaces of their spirits. 

I wish that Tamar had always been a princess — loved, cherished, protected by her parents. 

But she was not. And so many of our sisters and brothers and neighbors and friends are not. 

We may not always know who they are, but perhaps it is most important for them to know who we are, a people committed to justice.

VI

Dear people of First Baptist Church of Christ, I marvel at the many and mighty ways you do justice — creating beloved community across racial and cultural and ethnic divides, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, seeing the sacred worth of every person. 

Can we also find ways to do justice within families? One in four of us in this sanctuary have experienced — or are currently experiencing — family violence. 

Among all the things that doing justice is, it is also being healers of the wounds that happen in the prisons of family secrecy. What does that mean exactly? 

I believe it means finding healing and gentle ways to give voice to a family’s secrets and silences. 

It means being ever a kind listener and never a judgmental voice. 

It means making sure that church is a safe and sacred space. 

It means keeping a watchful eye, always, over children, teaching them to be safe, not only from strangers, but from people they know and trust. 

It means being aware of the invisible wounds that others carry, and reaching out with tenderness that brings healing. 

If Jesus were among us today, I imagine him speaking justice to the unconscionable abuse of power that causes violence. He would call out husbands who abuse their wives, brothers who hurt their sisters, parents who harm their children.  Jesus might look into homes and cry out, “Woe to you!” 

And then, in his gentle, loving way, Jesus would reach out to the those who suffer violence, take their hands, and speak hope to despair. 

Jesus is not physically among us. but he left us in charge. So when we fail to seek justice in every place where abuse happens, we confine him. Joseph B. Clower, Jr. expresses this most eloquently in the final lines of his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus:

If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with his tears, her heart is moved with his compassion, her hands are coarsened with his labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among men [people].

 When we accept this weighty call and this daunting responsibility, the prophet Isaiah might call us repairers of the breach!

VII

So let’s end our story . . . Yes, Princess Tamar lost her royal status. But the final word in this story belongs to the brother who loved and esteemed her, and who honored her. In the chapter following our text, we learn that Absalom was the father of three sons and a beautiful daughter he named Tamar, in honor of his sister.  

Can you imagine Tamar taking her infant niece into longing arms that never expected to cradle a child who would carry her name? 

Can you imagine her full heart as she envisions the future of Princess Tamar the Second, daughter of Absalom, granddaughter of King David, niece of Princess Tamar the First?

What a surprise from God — anointing Tamar’s wounds with a holy, healing balm! 

And this is the very foundation of our Christian hope: the faith, the conviction, the assurance, the certainty that when Tamar was crying, God was listening. 

People of God, we must repair the breach and seize this holy task: covering survivors of family violence with the compassionate cloak of justice, confronting violence wherever it casts its shadow, following God into every place where justice must overcome oppression.

On the campus of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, there is a building that faces the interstate. On that building is a huge sign declaring a strong, prophetic message to over 100,000 motorists traveling past it every day. The sign reads “Think Justice!” But it means so much more! 

It means longing for justice, praying for justice, insisting upon justice — persisting, prevailing, creating — doing justice, breathing justice — in families, in communities, and to the ends of the earth. 

Then the mighty waters of justice will roll over us, and we will wade together in ever-flowing streams of righteousness. Amen.

The “Laughter of the Redeemed”

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So when the grand and glorious celebration of Christ’s resurrection is over, what do we do with our leftover joy? There is an easy answer to that. Celebrate Bright Week with laughter and loud singing, and look forward with great anticipation to Bright Sunday! You might be wondering what in the world I’m talking about. What’s Bright Week and Bright Sunday?

Well, just in case you didn’t know, Bright Week and Bright Sunday are real. genuine. bonafide things. Many Christian churches celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Bright Sunday, a day for joyful celebration. In fact, the entire week following Easter, called Bright Week, was set aside for the celebration of the Resurrection according to the 66th canon of the Council in Trullo:

. . . from the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God until New Sunday (or Bright Sunday) for a whole week the faithful in the holy churches should continually be repeating psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rejoicing and celebrating Christ, and attending to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and delighting in the Holy Mysteries. For in this way shall we be exalted with Christ; raised up together with Him.

The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, including the intriguing idea that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.

For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, the week following Easter Sunday, including “Bright Sunday,” the Sunday after Easter, was observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. Can you even imagine such hilarity in some of our most traditional churches?

Yet, theologians wrote about holy laughter. While languishing in a Nazi prison, Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann became fascinated by the ongoing celebrations of Jesus’ Resurrection by the early Christians that continued long after Easter Sunday. He called it “the laughter of the redeemed.”

And yet, we Christians are often viewed as offering a joyless and humorless Christianity.

Where is “the laughter of the redeemed?”

We have a Savior who, knowing that he was about to be betrayed, tortured, and crucified, told his disciples before his arrest:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

So where is our joy? Where is our laughter?

With great fondness, I remember the youth ensemble at First Baptist Church of Arab, Alabama singing an amped-up version of “Sunshine in My Soul,” lively, syncopated, full of unbridled joy! With a big smile on every face, the group sang this spirited, exuberant song about their sheer joy in Christ. Always, their offering of “Sunshine in My Soul” was a joyous event. I can hear it in my memory right now.

There is sunshine in my soul today.
It’s a glow so warm and bright.
That shines in any earthly sky
For Jesus is my light.
Oh, there’s sunshine, beautiful sunshine,
When the peaceful, happy moments roll.
When I look with love into my brother’s face, there is sunshine in my soul.

What a bright and joy-filled song! A perfect song for Bright Sunday.

Laughter, joy, fun, rejoicing!

I hope that during this Bright Week you will find sunshine in your soul. I hope that you will laugh hard and long during Bright Week, that you will pass joy along to those you love, that you will sing a song of joy or two, using your biggest, strongest outdoor voice. After all, it is Christ’s resurrection that we celebrate!

 

 

 

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.

Behaving in Church

 

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Pope Francis preaching as a child sits nearby

I was moved today by a statement a friend made in a conversation. She is a mother of young children, and she said that she loved worshipping with her children and watching their responses to the worship experience. It was such a contrast, I thought, to the typical responses of parents through the ages struggling to corral their children during worship. When my son was young, I did some powerful corralling myself trying to keep a very active boy still and quiet in church.

Looking back, I wonder what made me believe that worshipping always needed to be still and quiet. I wonder what I might have learned from my child if he had been encouraged to offer his own expressions in worship. And, of course, I cherish and miss those days of taking my very expressive toddler to “big church.”

There is a delightful article by Jamie Bruesehoff printed in The Huffington Post (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-bruesehoff/parents-kids-church_b_3909085.html) entitled “Dear Parents With Young Children in Church.”

I see you with your toddler and your preschooler. I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper. I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you . . . When you are here, the church is filled with a joyful noise . . . I know that they [the children] are learning how and why we worship . . . They are learning that worship is important.

I see them learning. In the midst of the cries, whines, and giggles, in the midst of the crinkling of pretzel bags and the growing pile of crumbs, I see a little girl who insists on going two pews up to share peace with someone she’s never met. I hear a little boy slurping (quite loudly) every last drop of his communion wine out of the cup, determined not to miss a drop of Jesus. I watch a child excitedly color a cross and point to the one in the front of the sanctuary. I hear the echos of “Amens” just a few seconds after the rest of the community says it together. I watch a boy just learning to read try to sound out the words in the worship book or count his way to Hymn 672 . . . I can see your children learning.

Jamie Bruesehoff’s words call us to cherish the children among us, just as Jesus did so long ago.

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

It seems that recently, Pope Francis mirrored the actions of Jesus according to a post by UCatholic.

A beautiful little girl with Down syndrome, got up from her seat during a papal audience and went toward the Pope. The security guards quickly moved in to take her back to her mother. The Pope stopped everyone and said to the girl, “come sit next to me.” The girl then sat down near him and the Holy Father continued to preach while holding hands with the little girl.

Our words matter. What we say to our children becomes a part their memories.

As a child, I heard some pretty strong words about my church behavior. I heard such words as an adult. I even said some of them myself. “Sit still in church! Quit wiggling around so much! Be quiet! Children have to behave in church! Behaving like that in church is not pleasing to God!”

Or maybe these words are more Christlike. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.”

Amen.