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The Lamb of God and Systemic Liberation

MLK Day 2020Message for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany and Dr. Martin Luther King Sunday on John 1:29-42 on January 19, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

He had everything—the world was his oyster. Beyers Naude’ had been a pastor in the white Dutch Reformed Church in the South Africa for twenty years, he came from a prominent family, and many speculated that one day, he would become Prime Minister of South Africa. Throughout his life, he had been indoctrinated with two beliefs:

1. The divine order of apartheid and the separation of races;
2. A theology of a privatized faith in a God who cared only about personal sin, and that the Gospel was not at all political or communal.

In the 1950’s Pastor Naude’ had seminary students who worked with him and they visited and preached in the Black African townships outside of Johannesburg. They would come back and tell him stories that things in their country were wrong, very wrong. They reported that the people were desperately poor and suffering and that this must not be what God wanted for them.
This troubled Naude’ because he was taught that when you live according God’s order, life should be good, so he went with the students to see the townships for himself. He then did thorough study of the Scriptures to discover if God’s word really did order the separation of the races. After an exhaustive study, he concluded that all he had been taught was a lie.

In 1960, after the Sharpville Massacre, an event where South African police shot and killed 69 protesters, most of them in the back, Naude’ renounced apartheid. The next day, he was kicked out of his congregation, and became a man without a church, without a people, without a country, and without a community. Why? Because he realized that to follow Jesus, the “Lamb of the God who takes away the sin of the world,” is to fight systems of sin, to overturn societal injustice, and to dismantle laws and structures of oppression that benefit one group of people and press down others into untold suffering.

Naude’ discovered that the great sin of the Western church is to preach of our alienation from God only as our own personal wrong-doing. This understanding of sin results in us turning a blind eye to the structures of oppression in society in which we participate, that benefit us while dehumanizing, marginalizing and even killing others.

While Naude’ was taking a Christian stand as a follower of Jesus, the “Lamb of God” in South Africa, Dr. Martin Luther King, was taking a similar stand in this country—challenging all of us to see sin structurally in the systems of society that let some in and keep others out, rather than viewing sin as just a list of my failings for the week.

Like Beyers Naude, Dr. King saw an inseparable link between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and policies. In the Black church tradition in which King was raised, people’s material condition was not separated from their spiritual condition. King was raised with and preached a message of liberation for both soul and body. His understanding of Christianity demanded a critique of the political order and required social action to bring about justice for the poor and marginalized.

While we have grown accustomed to a private, personal Christianity, Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel calls us to oppose systemic sin and work for liberation for all people. This may not seem obvious as you listened to me read our Gospel text today. But this becomes apparent when we remember the story in Exodus about the Israelite’s flight from Egypt where they were slaves for 400 years. God sent Moses not simply to preach about personal sin, but to liberate God’s people from bondage in Egypt. God sent 9 plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go—but those hardships did not convince Pharaoh to dismantle the oppressive slavery that benefitted Egypt and oppressed the Hebrews.

The night of the 10th plague—the death of the first born, the Israelites were instructed to kill a lamb, and place its blood on their door frame—over the top lintel and down the sides, so the angel of death would “pass over” their household. They would be spared from death that night as they fled from Egypt. The Passover festival of the Jews celebrates the liberation of their whole nation from an oppressive system of slavery.

So when John the Baptizer calls Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he is reminding us of the liberating event of the Exodus and freedom from the sin of slavery. John announces Jesus as one who brings not just forgiveness for individual wrongdoing, but as the Lamb who brings communal liberation from oppression.

When Andrew and Peter hear John call Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” they immediately follow Jesus—so that they can join him in his liberating work. This is the full implication of what the Gospel-writer of John means when he says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” There is not oppressive sin system great than the Word made flesh who is the light of all people.

Jesus offered free health care and healing regardless of age, gender or nationality; he fed people who were hungry without asking if they deserved it or had the right papers; he held up enemies as examples of faith and called us to love them; he treated women with equal dignity to men; he refused to fight violence with violence; and he over-turned the tables of the money changers at the Temple who made faith a commodity that some could afford and others could not. Jesus worked against every unjust structure of his time, and did not participate in any system that oppressed others.

Historian Jemar Tisby writes “To King and many other Christians, racial justice was core to the biblical message. Racial segregation and the other ills it created — like the wealth gap, unemployment and under-education — were an affront to the image of God in all people. Christians had an obligation to transform the systems and laws that allowed racial inequality to persist…King wanted to see people of faith empowered by their belief in Christ and his example, to fight for the ‘beloved community.’”

Many of the issues of under-education, the wealth gap, and issues of poverty continue today along with others like the mass incarceration of black men, and the criminalization of refugees. In every situation of injustice, the Lamb of God, who frees us from all systems of sin and human brokenness, calls us to ask ourselves, “what does liberation from this oppression look like? How does Jesus, the Lamb of God call me to participate in the salvation that brings justice and helps to build the beloved community?" Some suggestions for today:

• In addition to giving out Hunger Helpers lunches to the homeless, we also work with Faith in Texas which is advocating with our local leaders for affordable housing in our region.
• While supporting the St. Luke’s Women’s health kits, school kits and layettes for Lutheran World Relief, we call, write and become relentless advocates for changes to immigration policy, keeping families, together, treating people humanely, taking care of unaccompanied minors. We support our denomination in advocating for international policies that address the systemic violence that cause people to flee their native countries to begin with.
• In addition to praying for Puerto Rico, we can call our representatives to push through resources to support people who have been devasted by storms and now earthquakes, and that delaying resources to our Spanish-speaking territory is an unacceptable form of racism.
• We can join our new book study of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US and work to dismantle racism in our own church.

When Beyers Naude’ publicly renounced apartheid, he lost his entire white community, but he gained something far more precious. Jesus liberated him from the oppression of sin to dwell in the Kingdom of God. He was embraced by a community he never imagined would accept him—black south Africans. He followed Jesus, the Lamb of God into the work of liberation, and when he died, “Uncle Bey” as the Black South Africans called him, was given the longest funeral procession in the history of South Africa.

Today when we sing at Communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world” we commit ourselves to the One who liberated Peter and Andrew, who liberated Beyers and Martin, and who liberates us, not only from our own personal sin, but from the systems that oppress us and others. And as we are fed at his table, we are given the strength to share this ministry of liberation, so that every man, woman and child might exclaim, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

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Baptism as Testimony

Gods TestimonyMessage for the Baptism of our Lord on Matthew 3:1-12 given on Sunday, January 1220, 20 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

How would you react if I asked you to come forward today and share your testimony? Many of us—especially if we were raised Lutheran or in other the mainline Protestant traditions, find the concept of testimony and even the word itself somewhat off-putting.

We are people of the mind—of ideas and reason and sound theology. We are known for great Bible study, for understanding the historical and cultural context that shapes the Biblical text. We study the original languages and send our pastors to seminary for three years of master’s level academics to make sure they not only have a good intellectual foundation, but also, tools for on-going critical study of the scriptures, the history, and mission of the church. And there is great stuff there—I am not knocking it since I am a product of it. It’s where we are most comfortable—where we can argue about ideas and interpretations.

Testimony can seem a bit too emotional and subjective. How do you argue with someone’s experience? Is there one way to experience God or are there as many as there are people? How do you have a standard, a measuring device, a way to know what is true and real, and what is not? And who wants to get into the wishy-washy world of feelings anyway—isn’t that why we are Lutherans after all? We can argue about salvation by grace and what it means, but we don’t have to experience it and feel it, do we?

Or do we?

Jesus may have an answer for us as he comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This happens so early in the story that Jesus has not even done or said anything at all, yet. He was born during an oppressive government census giving him an inauspicious birth in a donkey shed. He received extravagant, impractical gifts by foreign dignitaries which probably financed his family’s emigration out of the country driven by unprecedented violence as they fled into Egypt—a reality we see repeated over and over today as families flee Honduras and other countries.

When the threat from King Herod killing the male Jewish children ceased, Jesus and his family settled in Nazareth of Galilee where he finished growing up. Jesus has not said or done anything at all, except to survive—and maybe in his circumstances, that is remarkable enough. All Jesus does is show up. He arrives at the Jordan with others who are ready to make a fresh start and open their hearts and lives for the new thing that God is doing. Jesus survives and shows up. That’s it.

He speaks one sentence when John thinks he should be baptized by Jesus instead: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus essentially says, “Let’s do this baptism because this is what God wants us to do.” John goes along with him.

When Jesus submits to John’s baptism, the heavens open up to him and everyone hears God’s voice—"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Did you hear that?
God gives the testimony in this passage. Not Jesus. Not John. Not the bystanders. Not even us. God speaks and gives the testimony: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

In the Gospels of Mark and Luke—God speaks directly to Jesus and says, “YOU are my beloved son”—it’s a private conversation. But in Matthew—God is speaking to everyone. God is giving an emotional testimony to all who can hear it, about who Jesus is and how God feels about it: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Jesus does do not much to deserve this glowing testimony—he survives being born in human flesh and manages to make it, even under threat of death, through adolescence, puberty, young adulthood, and all of it—a full 3 decades—and he shows up on time at the river. But that’s enough for God. God adores him as a loving parent and is pleased and joyful that he’s there and he announces it to everyone within earshot. God’s testimony, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

It’s not a doctrine or a rational argument. And it’s pretty emotional. What if that’s really the message at all of our Baptisms? That God is giving a testimony—an emotional, heartfelt witness to the world of the pleasure and joy that we survived and showed up—that our family brought us to the font and the waters of salvation and new life for a relationship with the parent of all humankind. That God wants to open up the heavens above each one of us and say to everyone around, “This is my daughter, the beloved. This is my son, the beloved. I am so pleased and joyful that you are here to have a relationship with me.”

When God created you and claimed you and washed you clean from sin in Jesus Christ, God didn’t write a theological argument about it, God gave an emotional testimony—"You are mine, I am so happy, I love you.” Maybe, just maybe that might give us a testimony in response. A testimony that starts—not with words—but with a life that embodies, and bears witness to God’s testimony that we are beloved.

• That everything that we’ve done is forgivable, that everything that has been done to us is healable.
• That the God who is overjoyed just because we showed up today to be loved and to love God back can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
• That the God who opened up the heavens over Jesus, sent his Son so that we might know that we, too, are just as beloved and wholly embraced in the arms of eternal love and the touch of the Spirit’s presence.

When we hear God’s testimony over us, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. The is my daughter, the beloved, with her I am well pleased,” then we can hear God say this over every person we meet—because isn’t that also what it is to "fulfill all righteousness" and to do what God wants?

To hear God say over everyone, “this is my beloved child….Betty, this is my beloved daughter, Tom, this is my beloved son, Shirley, this is my beloved daughter, Ralph, this is my beloved son," and so on and so on, across every culture and class and creed and even faith. Many of you bore witness to this kind of life and embodied testimony at the Interfaith Service for Peace and Fellowship at Congregation Beth Torah last Sunday.

Today Pr. Sileshi Borana is joining St. Luke’s as an official member, and we hear God say, “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” What we affirm today is not that he is ordained, although we are grateful to receive his pastoral gifts and ministry. What we celebrate is that he is baptized—that he is God’s beloved son, as we are all God’s beloved children. As he joins the church, we affirm our baptismal vows together, and we remember that God’s makes a testimony about Sileshi, as God does about all of us—that God is pleased and overjoyed that Sileshi has survived and continues to show up to love God, and serve God in a life that is a testimony to what God has done for him.

Who knows? Maybe after hearing God’s testimony, some of us Lutherans might also one day share in words and even feelings, a testimony about what God has done for us!

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Letting Go and Creating Space for the New!

Leeting Go and Making Space for the NewNew Year’s NOT Resolutions: What I am Letting Go, so I can Create Space for Something New!

I wrote this for St. Luke's January, 2020 newsletter about lessons I have learned largely from 12-step teachings, and which I continually need to apply anew each year!

As we continue to assess and re-assess our New Year's goals, perhaps we might look at them from a different angle. Rather than a list of new behaviors, what if we stopped negative behaviors, so our new choices had space to take root and grow? Here are some behaviors I am working on stopping, along with positive ones to replace them!

1. I Am Letting Go of Resentments: A wise friend once said to me that, “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” Our hopes and expectations of other people—how they are to think, act and behave—are often only lodged in the space between our ears. We often forget to communicate what we need, want or expect and then become angry when our family member, co-worker, or friend fails to meet our often-unspoken expectations. If you find yourself feeling resentful or angry, ask yourself first, “What were my expectations? Did I communicate them? Are they realistic and respectful of others’ boundaries, well-being, and self-determination?” Instead of building resentments, strive for the positive behavior of being honest with yourself first about what you want and need, and then communicate these openly with those with whom you are in important relationships.

2. I Am Letting Go of Trying to Control Others: This is difficult when we are invested in the choices and successes of people we love. What do we do when we fear others’ choices are hurting themselves or others? We can certainly share our concern for their well-being with love. But if they are an adult then it’s time to “Let go and Let God.” They have a God, and it is not us. When we repeat the same advice over and over, we seek to exert control over someone else. Instead, strive for the positive behavior of allowing others the integrity of their own choices, even when you disagree. Everyone must live with the consequences of their own choices, both positive and negative. People remain the same until the pain of remaining the same is the greater than the pain of change. It’s not our job to decide when someone is ready to change; we can still love them and detach from their choices, and stop taking responsibility for their consequences.

3. I Am Letting Go of Denial: Denial of reality can be a safety mechanism to protect us from information for which we are not psychologically ready. But we also engage in daily denial—“I can eat as many cookies as I want and stay healthy; I can spend money freely and not budget; I can still do everything at age 85 that I could do at age 55,” and so on. Much of our daily stress comes from behavior that denies the reality right in front of us, compounding those issues in a vicious cycle. A positive behavior to strive for is acceptance. The first time I heard the phrase, Acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today, I did not accept it! There are many things I do not want to accept: my own limitations, a friend’s illness, human brokenness—the list goes on. But “acceptance” does not mean agreement with, nor affirmation of the issue. It simply means that I accept reality as true. Extra cookies cause me to gain weight. I cannot do what I could 30 years ago. I need to spend within a budget if I do not want to go into debt. When we accept the existence or fact of what is real, then we become empowered to choose how to respond and what action to take. These wise, informed choices based in reality, move us toward health and lower stress.

I hope you will join me in trying to let go of these three unhealthy behaviors—resentments, control, and denial—so that there is space for more honesty, clear communication, integrity, detachment, acceptance and healthy choices in 2020!

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Our Prayers Implicate Our Action

Our Prayers Implicate Our ActionInterfaith Candlelight Service of Peace and Fellowship - A response to the recent anti-Semitic and other faith-related violence in our country

Sunday, January 5, 2020—5 pm

Congregation Beth Torah
720 W Lookout Dr, Richardson, Texas 75080

I helped to plan this service of the Richardson Interfaith Alliance, but could not attend since I am still recovering from hip surgery. I am grateful to St. Luke's member, past President and active RIA member, Shirley Sigler who read this statement on my behalf!

Thank you all so much for coming. I was so disturbed, as we all were, at the violent, anti-Semitic attacks in New York during Hanukkah. I messaged my dear friend, Rabbi Elana expressing my grief and anger at these actions, along with my friendship and support. At the same time, I felt like my words were inadequate, having done this several times since we had met.

While the prayers and positive thoughts of others are comforting at times of distress, crisis, and violence, and they are an important part of my Christian tradition, we are called to more. The motto of the Lutheran denomination is “God’s work, Our hands.” Our prayers are not an end in themselves, but they implicate us in taking action, so that we participate with God in helping make those prayers a reality. “God’s work. Our hands.”

Today is a first step in taking peaceful action in 2020—to put our bodies where our thoughts and prayers are. When one suffers, we all suffer, and the gift of the Richardson Interfaith Alliance is to keep us ever mindful that we are one humanity. I envision Richardson as not just a place of tolerance—but a city where we learn from each other, celebrate our gifts, and build a stronger community through sharing our religious traditions, and cultural practices.

I encourage each of us to take a second step tonight in being a peacemaker and commit to building at least one new relationship in 2020 with someone of a different faith or culture. Become a bridge-builder and bring others with you—doing holy work with our hands, putting our bodies where our prayers lead us, and ensuring that no one suffers alone. Thank you!

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