Sermon On The Anniversary of Michael Brown’s Death #Ferguson

Dir. of Admissions, Rev. Tripp Hudgins preached this sermon at All Souls Episcopal Parish, Berkeley, CA. You can listen to it here. It was also carried on Sojourners’ blog.


Lord, I believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief. Make these words more than words and give us all the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Matt Morris begins his song of lament:

How many hours, Lord?
How many hours
Will he lay out in the sun
Under the gaze, Lord,
Under the gaze
Of Darren Wilson’s gun?
Four hours…
Four hours…
Is four hours long enough
For Michael Brown
To lay out in the sun?

It has been a year.
A year since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
A year since Ferguson erupted.
And they aren’t done yet.

Students from the Pacific School of Religion and American Baptist Seminary of the West are there now with students from Eden Seminary studying with activists and theologians asking the same question that many in this country are asking, “Do black and brown lives matter as much as others?”

Getting ready for our civil disobedience action today. Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. — with Jean Jeffress, Demitrius Burnett, Marvin K. White and Alex Haider-Winnett.
Getting ready for our civil disobedience action today. Please hold us in your thoughts and prayers. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. — with  Prof. Sharon Fennema, Jean Jeffress (ABSW), Demitrius Burnett (PSR), Marvin K. White (PSR) and Alex Haider-Winnett (PSR).

They are standing in the streets chanting with the crowds gathered there, “Tell me what a family looks like; this is what a family looks like.”

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Tell me what a family looks like.
This is what a family looks like.

From Baltimore to Berkeley, people are asking the question. Do black lives matter? It has been a year and we cannot seem to find an answer to the question. “Of course they do” some people state. “Then why is it so hard for so many to be black or brown in this country?” is the question that follows.

“Maybe if they just pulled their pants up and turned the music down,” is a common enough retort. Then, as I hope you can see, we’re back where we started.

A young man walks into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and nine lives come to a tragic end. The “politics of respectability” cannot save black and brown lives either. You can be a respected member of the state government, a pastor, a grandmother, and none of that will matter. You can be President of the United States of America and it won’t matter. Your race will be a strike against you.

You fail to signal when changing lanes.
You turn your music up too loudly.
You dress like a young punk because you are a young punk…
You talk back.
You exercise your right to speak your mind and…
…nowhere. It gets you nowhere. It gets you killed. And you despair.

How many years, Lord
How many years
Has the freedom song been sung
Under the gaze, Lord
Under the gaze,
Of a white man with a gun?
Four hundred years…
Four hundred years…
Four hundred years is long enough
Under the gaze
Under the gaze
Of a white man with a gun.

But it doesn’t end there, either. No, the reach of this thing is larger. This violence, this greed, this fear knows no bounds of race, color, creed, gender…

Zachary Hammond, an unarmed white nineteen year old, was killed in a drug bust in a Hardee’s parking lot where his friend was found in possession of ten grams of marijuana. No one said a word except for the #BlackLivesMatter movement social media community. There was no outrage from the white community (whatever that is) about the death of one of our own. The #AllLivesMatter community said nothing. Nothing. Why is that?

The media, too, was silent. The only stories published in major news outlets were about how there were no stories published in major news outlets.

We do know what sells column inches and website clicks, don’t we?

What do we think is normal?
What have we become accustomed to?
What do we think is necessary to maintain an orderly society?
What do we think is just and fair?
What do we believe is Beautiful, Good, and True?
Does an orderly society necessitate the deaths of its young women and men?
This is our sad truth.

“O my daughter, O my son! Would that it were me…”
No, our voices are silent.
Or we’re fearfully sitting at home grateful that it is not us, it is not our son.

The power of empire is seductive. King David strove for it. His son, Absalom, longed for it. In a tale that rivals Game of Thrones in its chaotic violence, rape, incest, fratricide, and plain old murder, the kingdom is in an uproar. There is no one innocent and good in this tale. There is no helpless victim here.

Yet, Absalom hangs from a tree, executed by those whom King David charged with Absalom’s safety have taken it upon themselves to execute him. Guilty or not, insurrectionist or not, they took power into their own hands and executed Absalom. They lynched him.

After all the clamoring for power, lives are destroyed. Heartbroken, the king wails.

“O Absalom, my son, my son. Would I had died in stead of you!”
But he didn’t. And his rule continued.

I’ve been pondering the death of Absalom, David’s hubris, and the brokenness of systems this week. What if we looked to the death of each and every victim of violence as our son, our daughter, the person with whom we would readily change places if we could?

The body hanging lifeless from the tree is your child. Weep, for your soul has been crushed and your future is uncertain. You have broken covenant with God.

Weep. Wail. It is your daughter dead in the jail cell. It is your son’s body lying in the street. “How many hours, Lord, how many hours…”

To live in the covenant is always a choice. It is a choice we frequently avoid.

Our national story is not a new one. Our predicament is not unusual nor are the choices we are making.

People of the Christian faith especially should recognize what is afoot in all of this. Those of us who gather week after week and hear the story of a man executed by the power of the status quo should find none of this surprising.

Jesus wanted us to see past the false promises of the power of empire in all its social forms: political or religious. Instead, he wanted us to broaden our vision. Empires demand the deaths of their young people to keep order.

“I am the bread of life,” is an invitation to see a larger world than what empire can promise us. It is a world where hunger is satisfied and thirst is quenched.

This is the covenant that Jesus envisions. This is the fruit of your baptism. To live into this covenant is a choice we all must make every moment of our lives. Will we live into this covenant or won’t we? Do we have the strength today?

There are people in the streets begging us to choose to live into the covenant.
They are begging us to live into the life Christ proclaimed.
They are begging us to live in love.
They are begging us to live in truth.
They are begging us to create a life where black lives matter as much as white lives and where empire is not the last word.
They are begging us to speak out.
They are begging us to rise.

Church, arise! Be resurrected!
Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.

Punks and prostitutes followed him, people who likely had ten grams of something in their pockets while their pants hung down too low, followed him. They played their music too loudly. They marched. They caused trouble. But so did he.

He was accused of false teaching.
He was accused of public disruption.
He was accused of insurrection.
They marched and sang.
He was executed.
His body hung from a tree.
And yet he rose.
The stone was rolled away,
and he rose.

Friends of God, take, eat.
Live in love.
This is the bread of life.
This is God’s insurrection.

Amen.

God is not done!

It was when I was about ten years old that we did not have a TV set at home. In fact, we did not even have electricity in the village where I grew up in Korea. But I remember everyone’s ears pricked up to this radio live report: Neil Armstrong was stepping down on the surface of the moon and we got all excited about this historical event of 1969.

But I hear there are people who believe that the Moon landing was just a Hollywood showcase and that the US Government has been lying to us for 40 years now.

We still deal with the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars after that tragedy are still not finished. But if you go online, there are conspiracy theories arguing that the collapse of the twin towers was an act of controlled demolition orchestrated by government officials of this country. Wow…

Also in Korea, there are some people, especially young ones, who do not believe that there was Korean War at all. Again, wow.

Throughout history, the same thing has been true with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many people who think the resurrection was fake. Some people have argued that Jesus’ body was stolen by someone. If that was true, how would you explain what happened later on: how did the disappointed disciples after Jesus’ death go back to Jerusalem and later give their lives for the Gospel of the resurrection? Could it just happen? I personally cannot make that connection. What would have been their motivation?

From the very beginning, there have been many folks who did not want to recognize the risen Christ Jesus.

John Lennon of the Beatles once said: “Christianity will go… We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Now, John Lennon has been gone since 1980 but Christianity is still going! And it is going strong in many parts of the world.

Six weeks from today, I will be going to East Africa to do some volunteer teaching for ministers there.

As you can imagine, people’s lives in that part of the world are tough; resources like water and food are so scarce that people are always hungry and thirsty. The living conditions are beyond your imagination.

But one thing I saw last time was this: churches are on fire. People love Jesus. People give their lives to God. People experience the power of the Holy Spirit. People are healed from their illnesses. There are miracles happening in people’s lives.

God is not done with the world. God reveals himself in the works of millions of people who are followers of Jesus Christ in every corner of this planet.

When I was in Uganda six years ago, many pastors had more than one church because churches were growing and there were not enough pastors. The majority of them give their lives with no pay; they want to learn; they have this hunger for education; they have the desire for the Bible and theological education.

By the time I come back from this trip, I know I will be exhausted physically, but I will be much stronger spiritually.

I want to go there not just for the people, but for my own spiritual formation. I want to be challenged; I want to be energized; I want to be empowered by the spirit of God; I want to be refilled by the power of the risen Christ that is among those Christian men and women who, despite all the difficulties they face, never give up their hope and continue to work to spread the Gospel.

I believe they are the true role models of Christian faith in this day and age. How can you give your lives without even getting paid? Do you think it is possible without the conviction of faith? Do you think it is possible without the presence of the risen Christ?

In Luke 24: 13-35, two disciples are on their way home to Emmaus. They were like retreating German soldiers after World War II dragging their feet with their heads down. Even though they had heard from some women about Jesus’ resurrection, they said, “No, it can’t be true.” “No, I don’t believe it.” “Get real; it is done; we are going home.” No hope, no dream; the only thing they had were regrets and disappointments.

But Jesus was not done with them. Jesus was there walking with them even though they did not recognize him. Jesus was reminding them of the biblical promises about himself, the messiah. And it was when they sat down and broke the bread with them that they recognized it was Jesus. Coming right back to Jerusalem, they realized they were not the only ones that Jesus had revealed himself to.

Before, everyone was disappointed; everyone was down; everyone was hurt; everyone was broken; everyone was sad; everyone thought it was all over. Now, after that evening, everyone was joyful; everyone was convinced; everyone was rejuvenated; everyone was hopeful; everyone was ready to do anything even though they would not get paid.

Folks, here is the bottom line: God is not done with us. Our life hangs in the balance of whether we believe in the resurrection or not.

I know American churches are struggling; I know churches here are all dragging their feet just like those disciples who were heading to Emmaus.

But Jesus is here with us; the risen Christ is walking and talking with us in every step of our life.

God is not done with us. Your life and my life can become transformed by the same power of Jesus Christ who transformed the disciples 2000 years ago and many others these days in many parts of the world.

The future of your life and my life, and the future of all the churches can not only become changed but we can also transform this world… Not by our power but by the power of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of all.

God is not done yet. Because of that, God is calling you and me to open our eyes and open our hearts so that we recognize Jesus, the risen Christ, not just with our heads, but in our hearts and minds and in lives and actions.

Every Sunday should be Easter; the joy and excitement of Easter should be our everyday experience. It is what God wants from us; He wants us to recognize His presence no matter where we are.

Church! Before this service, I am sure that some of you came here with doubts and uncertainties about your faith. But now and after this moment, I hope and pray that we have this unwavering faith in the risen Christ so that we not only live a new life in faith but we can also share this good news of Jesus Christ with others in this world.

Christ is not done with us; he is walking with us reminding and empowering us with his presence.

Amen.

Mentor Preaching at ABSW

Last night was Mentor preaching night at ABSW.  The class, led by Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, invited me to come hear their sermons.  Topics ranged from “Rest” to “Emerging Church,” “Discipleship,” and “Community Organizing/building,” to “Honoring Elders,” “Living Life Well,” and “Imagining the City as the Beloved Community”.  It was a joy to hear the sermons of eight students that had entered seminary fall of 2012 at which time I had them all in the Introduction to the Old Testament course.  They each stood with tremendous poise and presence and orated the depth of their thinking on their topic of choice for their senior projects.  I was so very proud and pleased!

Preachers

 

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD is Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at American Baptist Seminary of the West at The Graduate Theological Union

Why Are You Here?

Director of Admissions, Rev. Tripp Hudgins, offered this devotional to our incoming students this morning.

Good morning. My name is Tripp Hudgins. I’m the Director of Admissions here at ABSW. I’m the guy who sends you the nagging e-mails about matriculation forms and I-20 worksheets.

Hi.

I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Table in 2004 at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, IL. I am also a student here at the GTU working on a PhD in Liturgy and Ethnomusicology.

Welcome.

“In the beginning,” the Gospel of John begins with a song, a hymn. “In the beginning.” I like the idea that all creation begins with a song…a moving, sustained, pitched, Word; a sound.

It is a time for beginnings. Welcome. We’ve been waiting and preparing for you. And we’re very glad you are here. It is an exciting time in the life of a seminary when the new class of students arrives. It also makes us a little nervous.

Like you, we too will be changed by our time spent together over the next few years. We learn together in seminary. Learning is never a one-way street. We are excited and nervous. Perhaps, you have some idea what that feels like.

Welcome.

When Dr. Miles-Tribble asked me if I wanted to lead a devotional for you, our incoming students, I immediately said, “yes.”

It’s the preacher’s curse, you know.

“Do you want to say something?” they ask.

“Yes!” we shout without thinking about how wise it is to jump at such an opportunity. Maybe a little more caution would be the better course….a question or two in return.

Perhaps the response should be “Why?” or “Maybe. What do you have in mind?” We’ll have to be ready for the possible reply to those questions, of course.

“Because the Spirit has told me to ask you” (the least common but most often imagined response to the question, “Why?”).

The more common response goes something like this…

“Well, you were standing there looking like you needed something to do…so…how about it?”

As with a great many things, preaching always a little bit of both; ministry is comprised of the movement of the Holy Spirit and the need to get something done.

Welcome to the reality of this holy labor we call “seminary.” It is not glamorous, no matter how we try to spruce it up. It’s hard work, plain and simple. As the old song goes, “Jordan is a hard road to travel.” But it is always a labor of love for we serve the God of Love.

But you already know this.

You’ve likely been at the work of ministry for some time, working in your congregations, leading worship, teaching, or taking care of those in need. Of course you have. This is what it means to follow Christ Jesus, to follow the footsteps of the Savior, to do justice and to love mercy. You know that this road well.

Incoming Students 2014
The 2014 Incoming Class

This is what it means to be one of the baptized.

But the question remains…why are you here? Why this work? Why now?

Why are you in seminary?

Maybe you were just standing there looking like you needed something to do.
Or, maybe, the Spirit has asked you to do a new thing.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God.

Sometimes we’re simply called to begin again.

Look at the faculty. Take a moment. Look around you. They too had a first day of seminary. They too had this very beginning. They weren’t born with doctoral degrees.

They know the road. They know the work, the fun and the difficulty of it.

So, we know where you are. We are with you, even at the beginning.

I remember when I started seminary in 2001 (It was the second time I had started seminary, but that’s another story for another time). I was in Chicago. I remember that it was only a month after the Twin Towers were destroyed in New York City. I remember the media coverage. I remember what it felt like to begin seminary when it seemed like so much was changing in the world all at once.

I remember that beginning. And I call it to mind for us this morning because of the news of the last couple of weeks.

It’s hard to avoid the news in the United States.

It blares from every screen in every home, airport terminal, and sports bar. It tweets and updates at us relentlessly. So, it is likely you know about what’s happening in Iraq and Missouri. You know what’s happening in Kiev and Syria. You know about what is happening right here in Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco.

You know what’s happening here and back home.

And you know what’s happening in The Church, our congregations and seminaries, the challenges we all face. This is in the news, too.

This is why I have to ask you, at such a time as this, why are you here?
What are you responding to? Who are you responding to?

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

Not one thing…
Not one thing…
Not one beginning…
…begins without God being present within it.
Not one beginning is uttered without the Word being in it.
Every word a new Beginning
and every new beginning
full with the promise of the Word.

But it’s not an easy thing to live into, is it?
In the face of violence and racism;
of state-sponsored murder and
armed religious extremism,
the beginning can be an uneasy place.

Poet Langston Hughes wrote:

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heartstrings freedom sings
All day everyday.

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry
If you had known what I know
You would know why.

When I asked Dean Flesher what this devotional should be about, she said something like “Get them excited about theological education.” I don’t know if I’m doing that yet. So, let’s get back to the text for a moment longer.

What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is darkness and there is light. John’s Gospel makes it very clear right from the beginning that people have the power to choose the light or the dark. We can act justly or we can act unjustly. We can live in the world as if love were real or as if getting our share were the only thing that mattered. But John’s Gospel remembers for us the reality of creation, the beginning of it…no matter what we have made of it since the beginning, but it’s purpose, it’s nature.

So, you will study Church history. You will study scripture. You will read several translations of this very passage at some point. You may even come to me and say, “Tripp, what you said about the Prologue to John’s Gospel doesn’t follow my translation of the Greek.” You may ask, “How did you come to your hermeneutical approach and the interpretation you presented to us?”

I will likely respond with something about banjos and Jesus.

You will learn more about worship leadership. You will construct theology. You will sing and pray and read and write, and write, and write, and read some more. You will learn what it means to serve a congregation. You will learn what it means to renew a neighborhood. You will learn what “liberation” means when freedom walks with pierced hands and feet. You will learn all this and so much more.

This is your labor of love for the next few years.

And here is where I rest my hope for you and for all of us here today.

In the beginning, God’s Word offered us a song.
And in the song was light.
And as The Voice was raised in a shout of praise,
the light spread throughout Creation
and the Song was called Promise,
and the song was called Peace,
Justice and Mercy.
The Song was called Truth,
The Song was called Beauty,
The Song was called Goodness.
The Song was Life and the Life is Christ Jesus
the prophet,
the poet,
the poor teacher
with no place to rest his head.

“What are you doing here?”
My prayer for you is that you will, in your time with us, find that song.

2014 Commencement Address

This is the text of the Commencement Address preached by Rev. Debora Jackson, DMin. at the 2014 Commencement Service at Lake Shore Baptist Church, Oakland, CA. 

To the President of American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Rev. Dr. Paul Martin,
To you, the members of the Board of Trustees and distinguished faculty,
To you, the members of the graduating class of American Baptist Seminary of the West, 2014
To you, the family and friends of the graduates and seminary
Good Afternoon

I am here today to share a word with you on this beautiful afternoon, but my job is made all the more difficult because I am…discouraged. That’s right, I’m discouraged. Here I am at the ABSW Commencement – this is supposed to be the pinnacle of your seminary experience, a defining moment, what you have spent the last several years – your blood, your sweat, your tears, your prayers working to complete, this is supposed to be like the cherry on top, but I’m here as your speaker admittedly discouraged.

And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, what’s up with that?”

But allow me to explain myself. I’m discouraged because I worry and fear that we failed you – you the graduating class. I mean think about it: You are here because you have completed your studies to achieve your Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, or even Doctor of Ministry degree. Your education has prepared you to serve the church – maybe as pastor, or associate, maybe in Christian Education, or Mission Leadership. And in your heart of hearts, you hoped to serve a
nice suburban church in a small community, maybe with about 150 people. Well guess what? Those churches don’t exist – or increasingly they don’t. And even if they do, they can’t afford full time staff.

Maybe you wanted to serve in urban ministry. You felt called to serve an urban church in the city. Maybe you felt called to lead a city mission. Maybe you hoped to minister in a non profit organization that supports the poor and underserved. Well
guess what? Those churches are in decline, those mission organizations can’t afford staff, and those non-profit organizations; they don’t have any money.

And then the overwhelming majority of you as graduates are women. Oh my sisters, I hate to say it, but churches aren’t really looking for us. For many of us, the phone does not ring. And if it does, it’s a call from someone who wants you to speak on Women’s Day, or it’s a call from someone who wants to you “speak” for $100 when the standard honorarium is $300, or it’s a call from a church that’s on it’s last legs and with it’s last gasp is calling you in hopes that you will serve.

And I haven’t even gotten to the finances. Many of you are leaving seminary with thousands of dollars of debt. And if you are fortunate enough to receive a call, the majority of you will not be paid enough to offset and pay back the debt that you have amassed.

So yes, I am discouraged.

And the sad truth of the matter is that after my tirade, I would imagine that you are discouraged too. We’ve been prepared for assignments that do not exist. That full time pastorate is increasingly moving to extinction as churches continue to face decline.

We are filled with knowledge for which there is little application. Oh sure, I’m glad that I learned of Origen and Augustine, Eusebius, and Tertullian, but truth be told, I’ve yet to meet anyone outside of my Systematic Theology courses who has ever
cared anything about what any of these people said.

We are members of the most over-educated and yet least paid professions in the country. We’ve amassed more education than medical doctors, psychologists, even lawyers, and yet we command a starting salary that’s sadly equivalent to what is being made by kids who have received their high school diploma.

These are the realities that discourage us. These are the realities that try our hearts and souls. These are the realities that make us question our call and sometimes question our God. Ah, but if we could only step back. If we could take some time to reflect, we might start to see some new patterns emerge.

Think about it. God told us not to remember the former things or to consider the things of old. God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the
desert.” These words are as relevant today as they were when first inspired. I believe that God is truly saying them in our midst. See there’s a reason why the “traditional” pastoral roles of the past are decreasingly able to be found. There is a reason that the standard roles in urban and suburban churches aren’t there and that the non profits are being limited in their tried and true approaches. God has a new plan and a new way for us to do ministry. God has a new notion about how the gospel is to be forwarded.

God has something else for us to do. And I am convinced that as we are discerning and seeking of that new way, God will faithfully reveal his plan to us. Then more people will come to know our God. Then more people will come to believe in our
God. Then more people will a part of the coming kingdom of our God. But we need to understand that the new ways will not fit into the old paradigms, just as new wine doesn’t fit in the old wine skins. We need women and men with a burning desire to discern God’s plan. We need women and men with a hunger and willingness to blaze new trails in the wilderness. We need women and men who will fearlessly and boldly step forward saying, “Here am I send me!” You are those men and women.

You are those leaders.
You are the ones who won’t see the limits.
You are the ones who will see the possibilities. You are the ones who can see the potential.
You are the ones who will lead us into new ways of ministry, new ways of mission, new ways of service and new ways of being.

And because God is doing a new thing, he is extending a new call.

I remember when I first acknowledged my call into ministry. Almost from the moment that I acknowledged that call, I felt compelled that I would be a pastor to pastors. Yes, I was sure that God was calling me to be a pastor to pastors. But I also remember the ambivalence I felt in response to that call, because I remember thinking, “What job is that? Is there even such a thing as a pastor to pastors?” After all, I am a Baptist – we don’t have bishops and such hierarchy – or at least not supposedly – and in that regard, I found myself sort of doubting my call, thinking, “God can’t be calling me to that because that job that doesn’t even exist.” It didn’t make sense. Well, one day, I was in my office – I had yet to surrender my corporate job even though I was in seminary, because after all I was the Chief Information Officer of an Energy Services Company. It pays a little better than ministry… My phone rang. It was a woman who had received my name and contact information from a friend.

She was relocating to the Boston area and reached out to me to make connection. Interested in why she was coming to the area, I asked, “So, what do you do? What is bringing you to Massachusetts?” She said, “Well, the best way to describe my job is that I’m a pastor to pastors.” Well I tell you, I actually dropped the phone. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I was hearing God say, “Why would I call you to something that doesn’t exist?”

That might be your story today – to what is God calling you? What new endeavor, what new ministry, what new mission field is God making space for which you will fill? You see, God gave me a heart and a burden for clergy recognizing that so many
of us are so busy ministering to others that we do not recognize the need to be ministered to ourselves. And so this is what God has called me to do and I’ll tell you, when I first felt that tug, I was certain that there was no such job.

But God can make a way out of no way.
God can make streams in the desert.
God can make pathways through what is impassable.
God can exalt the valleys.
God can level the mountains.

God can do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine by the power that works in us.

Step out in your call and trust God to fulfill that call in you. And really that’s my third point. You see, it has not yet been revealed what you will be. Your ministry may not look like mine. Your experiences won’t be just like mine.

Your call is not exactly like mine. But that is a good thing because God is doing a new thing. And while you may not know what it’s going to look like, and while you may not be sure about how you will proceed, you may not even know where you will go or what you will do, I know that we serve a God of increase. I know that we serve a God of addition and multiplication. I know that what is to be will be greater than what has been. And while it may not yet be revealed, I believe that it’s going to be greater.

I believe that it’s going to be better. I believe it’s going to be glorious. Why. because I believe in you.

So let me tell you something – you may not be certain of the application of your degree, you may not know where you will go from here, you may have debt up to your eyeballs, but trust God’s call on your life, because if God brought you to it, then
he will bring you through it.

You may feel a call for a roll that you’ve never heard of before, but be emboldened by simply saying, “I’ll go where you want me to go and I’ll do what you want me to do.” You see nothing but decline in your midst, but trust that you’re part of remnant, you are like Gideon’s winnowed forces, you have been called for such a time as this and God is about to do a new thing in you because you’re open to receiving it and open to believing it.

Go from this place with the boldness of God. Go from this place with the courage of your conviction. Go from this place with the power of the Holy Spirit. Go from this place with the love of Jesus Christ. Go with a full heart. Go and know that I am no
longer discouraged for when I look at you by the grace of God, I can only be encouraged.

WHAT’S INSIDE

Dr. Paul M. Martin, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology

American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley California

Having come forward now from the greed and avarice displayed during the season of thanksgiving by the commercial world with Black Friday, feeding the profit margin of merchants, to Small Business Saturday, focusing on the needs of Mom and Pop enterprise and through Cyber Monday stuffing the pockets of the internet/online business, we now move to the commercialization of Christmas, the most sacred of days for the worldwide Christian Community.

I am reminded of the sacredness of Christmas in the words of the Gospel writer Luke when he says,

“And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” 

(Luke 2:7 KJV)

I remember from my Sunday School days, my Junior High Class Teacher, Rev. Seth Toney, a mentor and friend of mine saying that this particular text reminded him a big gift in plain wrapping.

In this season of Advent and Christmas I wonder how much attention you and I pay to wrapping paper. As we scurry to get gifts for those we love during this season we will spend a considerable amount of time in the wrapping of these gifts. We spend precious moments in selecting the right ribbons and bows, paper and other accessories that adorn every package. We even ponder a selection of ornaments that suggest the importance and value of the contents. Fine wrappings usually mean that there is a fine gift inside. Poorly wrapped gifts often suggest that the giver was thoughtless at the least and the gift inside shabby at the best.

I have come to understand over the years that beautiful wrappings on the outside don’t always indicate the value of the gift on the inside.

I remember reading some time ago a great little story that will amplify this concept.

The story centers on a mother who had two sons from whom she received gifts at Christmas. She had not seen them for some time. One son was very wealthy and the other was a beggar who made the streets his home and selling of bottles and cans his vocation. One gift was beautifully wrapped in the finest paper. The other gift was wrapped in what appeared to be newspaper.  As she opened the elegantly wrapped gift from her wealthy son, she was surprised to receive a coffee cup. On the bottom was the price tag of $1.98. Upon opening the gift wrapped in newspaper from her beggar son, she found two dollar bills and a note that read, “you gave me your all, now I give you all I have!”

Though wrapped with newspaper, the mother cherished the two dollar bills and tucked them away with joy! One son had much but gave little. The other had only two dollars to his name but gave to a mother who had given him her all, all that he had in return. The moral of this story is “the wrappings couldn’t hide the love.”

My understanding of scripture teaches me that this must have been the way it was when Jesus was born. He came wrapped in swaddling clothes. The shepherds found the King of Kings and Lord of Lords lying in a manger in a barn. He was shabbily dressed living in the worst of conditions. But his swaddling clothing couldn’t hide the love inside. He was a bundle of love and joy to his parents and to the entire world.

Life has been good to us in spite of the circumstances that for many have been extremely grievous. There are many people who continue to be fooled by what’s on the outside, but God is never deceived. He is not impressed by what’s on the outside because he knows what’s beneath the wrappings. This has to be a word of encouragement to all in our society who are being overcome by circumstance. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power. Power that will liberate us from those chains that hold us captive to our circumstance. I still believe in the power of the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to empower us to overcome injustice in the society. Read again Matthew 16:13-20 to be reminded of why Jesus established the Church.

As we prepare to give gifts to our favorite institutions, special people and loved ones at the close of this year let us be sure that we are giving from hearts of love. When we give with hearts of love, it won’t matter what the wrapping, ribbons and bows might be, if any at all. What will matter is the thought expressed by our gifts. Therein lays the value of all the gifts we give.

As Christian, we thank God for giving us the baby Jesus. He was a big gift of hope, joy, love and salvation, all in one package. Though he was wrapped in swaddling clothes under the shabbiest of circumstances, he proved to be a big gift despite his humble and plain wrapping.

TO GOD BE THE GLORY FOR WHAT HE HAS, IS AND WILL DO!

MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY KWANZAA AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Stones, Cry Out!

A sermon preached by Jennifer W. Davidson, PhD

At American Baptist Seminary of the West

October 15, 2012

 

Scripture Texts:

Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-5, 9-11; 3:17-19

Psalm 22:25-31

1 John 4:7-21

 

Photo courtesy of NWHM.org

Her name means “Grief Stricken.” Malala. She was named for an Afghan girl of the late 1800’s, a warrior and a poet who led the Afghan’s into battle against

the colonizing British. This is her namesake; a girl who died before she reached the age of 20. Grief Stricken. Malala.

She is today a fourteen year old girl, who, if she lived in my hometown, might be in ninth grade Biology, sitting next to my own son in High School. They were born only three months apart—my son and Malala – three months in time, but worlds apart.

Malala is fighting for her life today. She was transferred from a hospital in Pakistan to greater safety in the United Kingdom. Why is Malala fighting for her life? Because she dared to fight for the right of girls to receive an education in her home town of Mingora, in the Swat District of Pakistan.

When she was only eleven years old, Malala became well known around the world when she kept a blog for the BBC. One of her entries, dated January 3, 2009, described her fear and anxiety and her astounding courage and determination to pursue her education even then:

“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat.

My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.

Only 11 students attended class out of 27. The number decreased because o the Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to [other districts] with their families after this edict.

On my way from school to home I heard a man saying, “I will kill you.” I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

Eleven years old.

Just this past week, three years after Malala wrote that blog entry, she refused to give in to the increasing threats and warning letters. She did not stop her advocacy work for girl’s education, that had been getting increasing attention worldwide. So last Tuesday “masked gunmen approached her school bus

and asked for her by name. Then they shot her in the head and neck. ‘Let this be a lesson,’ a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said afterward. He added that if she survives, the Taliban would try to kill her again.”[1]

The lament cried out powerfully in the voice of Habakkuk rings and resonates with clarity into our twenty-first century world tonight:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?

Or cry to you, “Violence!”

and you will not save?

Why do you make me see wrongdoing

and look at trouble?”

The words taste bitter in our mouths. Too much suffering. Too much violence.

“The law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”

Written sometime between 609 and 586 BCE, the words of Habakkuk – and God’s response to him—were composed in the midst of a brutal occupation of Judah

with corrupt puppet leaders reigning.[2]

Habakkuk’s confrontation of God, likely took place in a liturgical setting—in the midst of worship. This is no private weeping or whispered agony. This is full-throated, public agony. This is the heart-wrenching sob the clutched stomach in the midst of worship.

This heartache, these accusations, are not hidden away from view—not at the time that they were spoken, and not now—preserved as they are in the heart of scripture. God allows our grief its full expression –  her name means “Grief-Stricken” – Malala – because God knows that if we are awake then these tears of anguish will overcome all of us at one point or another in our lives.

The prophet stands at the watchpost, waiting to hear what God will say. We hold our breath. We wait, too.

God’s Word comes.

Write the vision;

make it plain on tablets,

so that a runner may read it.

What is that vision?

First, God reminds us what it is not. Why do we need to be reminded? Because the powers in this world would have us forget. Because gunshots fired into the head and neck of a fourteen-year-old girl in Pakistan, because gunshots fired by a Neighborhood Watch member in Florida into the defenseless body of a boy buying skittles for his little brother at half time—try to pass themselves off as the truth. As if death has the last word. As if threat of violence—and violence itself—is enough to silence God’s people.

As if the collusion of corrupt powers and governments which keep

“61 million girls and boys shut out from even the most basic of primary schooling”[3] is the end of the road and not the beginning of our work.

This is why we need to be reminded of what God’s vision is not.

Pride. Arrogance, Wealth, and Insatiable Death are identified as contrary to God’s vision. So much so that “the very stones will cry out from the wall” against the unjust use of power. Even stones that have been crushed into “plaster will respond from the woodwork.” When the people fall silent the walls will shout. Proclaiming that God’s vision for the world is vastly different from that of the world’s most powerful and vicious.

In the days following Malala’s shooting the stones started to cry out. The walls started shouting. Protests broke out across Pakistan. Islamic leaders spoke out against the violence. Gordon Brown, U.N. Special envoy for global education,

writes that “Demonstrations for Malala have spread  [through Pakistan and beyond]— not just to Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, but around the world.

…For one Malala shot, there are now thousands of even younger Malalas ready to come forward. We may not yet be seeing a 2012 Asian autumn led by children to mirror the Arab spring, but the spontaneous wave of protest we are witnessing

shows that children are more assertive  of their right to education than the leaders who promised to deliver it.”[4] The stones are crying out— and they have the voice of children. The plaster in the woodwork is shouting. The Spirit of God is moving.

What is the vision? We see a glimpse of it in our psalm reading. Like the Habakkuk text, the verses of the Psalm tonight are also proclaimed in the midst of a lament.

This lament is most familiar to Christians as  the lament that was on the lips of Jesus as he suffered the worst that the powers of pride, arrogance, wealth, and insatiable death could levy against anyone. Jesus cried out the words that begin this Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the light of the resurrection, however, our eyes not only take in the agony of the cross, but also the vision of God’s redemption offered to the least of these—

to the ones whom pride, arrogance, wealth, and insatiable death always exploit.

This is God’s vision— hear the stones cry it out now: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the Lord.”

When the least of these are cared for—and who is more “least” than the 600 million girls who live in the developing world—girls like Malala? When the least of these are cared for and given full dignity, then God’s true character is revealed for all the world to see. In seeing every last little one thrive, our hearts will leap in recognition of God’s dominion. Our response—the response of the whole earth—

will be to worship in praise and adoration the One who cares for the least, the lost, and the little.

God’s dominion is unlike that of other kings. The uniqueness of our God, who bestows dignity and life on the forgotten and forsaken ones—is the astonishing good news that must be proclaimed to future generations. So that all may recognize God.

We recognize God not in God’s fierceness and fury, but in God’s steadfast love,

in God’s lovingkindness, in God’s hesed and shalom.

God’s steadfast love, God’s lovingkindness, God’s hesed and shalom

they sound like abstract concepts, ideals; they have almost a dreamlike shimmer to them.

But they are nothing if not made concrete, if not made real, if not embodied in our relationships with one another.

Why is a little girl named Malala such a threat to the vicious powers of this world? Precisely because God’s kingdom breaks into this world in the lives of those the world dismisses. God’s kingdom breaks into this world in the lives of “nobodies.” In the lives of girls like Hagar and Miriam; in the lives of girls like Tamar and Ruth; in the lives of girls like Mary and Elizabeth, in the lives of girls like Malala.

God’s love is poured out on the world in the life, death, and resurrection

of a singular nobody—In contrast to the misuse and abuse of power in the world,

God’s love hung from a cross and swept away the tombstone.

This is the outpouring of God’s love for us and for God’s broken, breaking, hurting, and hurtful world—that we are ourselves empowered to love.

It is God’s love for us that transforms our hearts of stone. It is in our love for one another that we come to know God at all.

This is God’s vision made plain, so plain that even those speeding by can read it.

This is God’s vision made plain, plainly different from the vision of oppressive rule today.

Even when all evidence continues to be to the contrary: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines…” we must remain faithful to God’s vision of abundant life and love offered graciously to all. Even when the man Jesus hung cursed on the tree, we continue to rejoice in the Love that is our salvation, in the God who makes our footing steady and sure even in the midst of turmoil and danger that surrounds us.

Grief-stricken and emboldened by Love—we cry out with the stones: Your kingdom come, O God, your will be done. Amen.


[1] Nicholas D. Kristoff, New York Times. October 13, 2012. “Her Only Crime was Loving Schools.” (Accessed October 15, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/opinon/kristof_her_crime_was_loving_schools?r=0.

[2] See Valerie Bridgeman’s introductory essay to the book of Habakkuk in The Peoples’ Bible, published 2010 by Augsburg Fortress Press.

[3] See educationenvoy.org

[4] See Gordon Brown, “Malala’s Next Fight,” at www.educationenvoy.org/press