God is Watching

This sermon was preached at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland on August 20, 2017. You may find the audio file on the church sermons page.

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Psalm 139:7-12

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

There is nowhere we can go to escape God’s sight.

This is one of the most comforting and terrifying sentences of my life. God is always with me, God lives and dwells among us, God is now here. I hold to these statements in the deepest darkest moments of life.

Moments when I felt my life was in danger, moments I was in pain, moments I thought nothing could every get better. God is now here, I am never, you are never, we are never alone.

Jesus is sent to earth and is named Emmanuel, literally God with us. We are the Beloved’s and the Beloved’s is ours. And not only does scripture tell us that there is no where we can go to hide from God, there is also no earthly thing, nothing in all of creation to separate us from the love of God.

“38 For I am convinced” Paul says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You are fully know, unconditionally loved, and partnered with the one who adores you. Is there anything better news than that?

And then there are the other times… The times in which I wish I could escape God’s sight.

A colleague reminded me that while this Psalm’s references to “hand” (vss. 5, 10) can be comforting and serve as a guide, they can also weigh heavily. “Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful.”

The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee (vs. 7) from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm (vs. 11). Why would we flee from something beautiful? For me the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places might be burdensome.[i

When there is no where I could go, in all of creation or even inside myself that I can hide from God it means I am fully known. It means each thought, each sin, each terrible flash of judgment is known to God

God doesn’t just see the thoughtful, put together, ordered life I present to the world, my perfect selfie taken from just the right angle with just the right amount of smile. God also sees the me I attempt to hide from the world. The messy, chaotic, even hateful self that exists.

Last week I watched as white supremacist marched through the streets with torches and were threatening to burn down a church where clergy were holding worship.

The clergy had concluded a non-violent activist training event and were praying. The mob surrounded them, reports and tweets that said, “we are not safe.” When the police tried to get them to their cars through the back door a few were taken and beaten, these young white men with torches were protesting the removal of a monument of Robert E. Lee, violent and hateful from the beginning

They were Nazi’s, they were KKK, they were white supremacist.

They no longer felt the need to wear hoods, as they felt that their government would protect them, because their government, the president’s top advisers was one of them.

This is the moment where I say, God sees you. God sees every hateful moment of your sin, God sees your heart and weeps, and is angered.

It is one of those moments where I wished I believed in a vengeful God. The one my southern Baptist pastors used to talk about. I wished I believed that God would forced them to answer for their crimes as a harsh Ruler, a judge and that when their day comes they would be sentenced to burn in the flames of hell.

And there it is. Right there.

That’s my sin.

Because there is nowhere I can hide from God, but sometimes, occasionally, I wish I could.

Truth is we all want peace but in the face of conflict we want to fight. We sat here last November and talked about our awkward Thanksgiving tables and all the people that said, “how much damage can a president do?”

Some of us here marched in the streets in January and proclaimed slogans of love not hate.

But friends, when I saw White supremacist marching in the streets without hoods, I had hate in my heart in a way that made me want to fight, to throw stones, to turn into some shadow of darkness vigilante and end this now. My sin is, I wanted them to hurt. And this time it was easy, who doesn’t want to fight literal nazi’s and bring them down?

The truth is, I want to spew messages of hate right back at them. I want to use violence on them just as they used on an innocent crowd, I want them and their way of life gone.

But God is watching.

Thank goodness, God is watching.

Praise Jesus there is nowhere I can hide from God.

The path God has laid out for us is a difficult one. The path God has laid out for us is one of painfully slow, incremental changes, because the path God has laid out for us is peace. You got yourselves into this mess, and you have to do the work to get yourselves out.

God is watching.

Over the last week we have relived articles and conversations about the past. About the civil war that ended 152 years ago, conversations that compare modern day America to Nazi Germany and quoting great and inspiring civil rights activists from the 1960’s. And yes, let us learn from our history, but it’s time for us as a society to admit that we cannot hide our sins from God anymore. The sins of yesterday, are still the sins of today.

We can no longer talk about race issues as if they were something in the past. We can no longer look at white supremacy and over 200 registered groups of well armed, self-trained militia carrying assault rifles in the streets and call them fringe groups. They are here, we are a society that helped create them and God sees our sin, it’s about time we did too.

We are asking where God is in all this, and God is asking us where we are? We cannot pretend and say God is nowhere to be found in this, for God is now here. In and among us. Working through us to choose peace, to link arms and sing “This little light of mine.”

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God is in the hard work of leaving sin and hatred in our hearts and not fighting fire with fire. It’s not that being angry itself is wrong, we should be outraged, it’s what we do with it. God is using us, we who are fearfully and wonderfully made, to work all things for good.

Rene is not here this week, he is on a much needed vacation. When he is here Rene blesses us with his faith and leads us in the prayers of the people. He is heartfelt and sincere.

Rene starts the prayers proclaiming that God is good, all the time. And each time we discuss a tragedy he reminds us of what? God works all things for good.

What that looks like, I don’t always know. But I know it happens one person, one relationship at a time.

Diana Butler Bass, a church historian and speaker was in Charlottesville yesterday. Her daughter is a student at the University of Virginia and she gave this update on her FB wall:
When in Charlottesville, we went to the memorials for Heather Heyer. On the street where the car attacked the marchers, there exists an eerie holiness, a sacred sense born of sacrifice and suffering.

We walked mostly in silence. A pilgrimage to the pain of our own time.

At the top of the street, on the downtown mall, a preacher — one of those evangelistic sorts — was proclaiming the Gospel of Mark through a bullhorn, trying to convert passersby.

As we approached, he was nearing the book’s end, reading from chapter 14:

“She has done what she could to anoint My body in advance of My burial. And truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

And so, the Spirit moves. An unintended grace. In memory of her.

There is nowhere we can go that is not in God’s sight. And thank goodness. With God watching I am given the strength to meet violence with peace, to whisper words of love, which speak louder than hate.

God is now here, working all things for good. May it be so…

 

[i] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2329

Not My Christianity

It was 2005 and I was at my first official church face to face interview. We were gathered around a future parishioner’s dining room table and they asked me the questions they had come up with. Among some of the standards, they asked me this:

What is the biggest theological issue facing the church today?

This was one I had been waiting for, it was the height of gay ordination issues, and I knew where I was and I was unapologetic about it. I also knew that this was *all* the church was talking about and they wanted to know if it’s *all* I was going to talk about.

I talked about Matthew 25- to clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned. I saw their heads nod and their tension release, and so I added, “and we HAVE to find a way to reclaim Christianity from the radical right and not be afraid to evangelize progressive Christianity.”

Some strongly agreed, others thought the first part of my answer was “nice” enough to forgive what I just said.

I grew up with spurts of Catholicism and Methodism but my formative years were spent in the Southern Baptist church and I knew exactly how dangerous white evangelicals could be.

Over a dozen years have passed since I made that comment and last week, I knew we had failed, so far. Since becoming a Presbyterian in 1998, I’ve been working to spread the good news of progressive Christianity but it has not been enough.

 

For years Progressive Christians fought for gay rights, women’s ordination, women’s health and anti-racism. But as a whole we have not done enough. It is time for us to get out of our bubbles and stand up.

So fast forward to Sunday morning. I wasn’t preaching due to Stewardship Celebration Sunday, my role was to give the Call to Stewardship. I had mixed feelings about not preaching, but I now realize I wasn’t in a state to. I was pissed, I’m still pissed.

When I awoke this morning, I had nothing but sorry and anger, then the spirit moved and got to church and wrote this call:

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” -Luke 21:1-4

If we take the story of the widow’s mite on face value we are supposed to empty our bank accounts into the church’s account. (I mean, if that’s what God is calling you to do, who am I to stop you!)

But our world does not work that way, and I’m not sure Jesus’ did either.

“All she had to live on” is a phrase that has haunted me since the beginning of my ministry. What does it mean and how does it work?

Stewardship is about more than money. We talk about time and talents, but we need a new kind of stewardship in our world today.

A kind of stewardship that actually follows the teachings of Christ and the will of God. Not the false gods of prosperity we have created, but the God of love and justice, mercy and compassion.

We are called to give this world, “all we have to live on” because Christ taught us that people are more important than property, the prophets called for justice comes rolling down like a stream and we have polluted that stream with false idols and prioritizing ourselves over others and creation.

Today, here, now, is a call to discipleship. Will we be willing to put “all we have to live on” into what we believe? We will be willing to reject false teaching? Will we begin to truly understand that Christ has no hands but ours?

Are we willing to devote our lives to God and reject sin? Are we willing to stand up and claim our Christianity in the marketplaces? Are we willing to stand up to others who claim the same God and say, “I am a Christian, and God is a God of love, not hate.”

Now is not the time for random acts of kindness, but a wearing of the banner for the world to see.

All I have to live on is this: I am a Christian who condemns violence, who condemns hatred, who believes in peaceable living for all, who sees that it is my responsibility to care for the widows, the orphans, and the refugee.

Even Christ made a mistake, seeing the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter and less human than he, with her different color skin and her weaker gender, they were compared to the likeness of dogs, by Christ. That’s how strong the influence of power can be, the world convincing us that I and mine are better than you.

Give it up, Christ says, give it all up, just as this woman did. Take her example and literally, publicly, put in your two sense and surrender the thing that makes you powerful in this world.

Will you? Can you? Devote your whole self to God and serve Christ and the world with all you have?

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I share this with you because progressive Christianity cannot be indifferent to our faith any longer. We are so afraid of offending others that we have forgotten who we are.

If you want to answer this call then here’s what needs to happen. You have to stand up to injustice wherever you see it. You have to get involved politically. You have to find ways to give your privilege and power away and make room for others, YES.

But wait, there’s more. 

You have to know and study your Bible. You can’t be afraid of words like “Jesus”, “sin” and “judgement”. You need to be able to speak passionately about God, Christ, and faith and how your faith aligns with your politics.

Jesus never shied away from politics. Evangelicals don’t see them as two different things and neither should you.

You need to quote scripture like the rest of them, and in context.  You need to know your opponent’s arguments and be able to come back with why Jesus would NEVER have responded that way, be specific with examples. Be smart.

And why do all this? Because this is NOT a Christian Nation, but Christian nationalist have taken it over, and it’s past time to take it back.

#notmychristian

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I dedicate this post to my grandfather, who stopped attending church in the 1960’s because it got too “political” during the Civil Right’s Movement. I have learned through my ministry that it is impossible to keep politics out of the pulpit, it is possible to not bully from the pulpit, but if I preach scripture, I preach politics. 

(un)earthed

The city burns. The heart aches.

I tried to fall asleep last night but panic attacks took me over. Not out of fear of safety. My bio jokes that I live In “the safest part of Baltimore, the suburbs.” I didn’t sleep much, my eyes were closed, my body was still, but I was focused on my breath in sadness and tried to keep the attacks at bay.

It does not take much in a city like this to unearth racial tension. It is palpable. I cannot speak as a native Baltimorean. I cannot speak as a black person. I can tell you what I have been taught as a middle class, suburban, white girl growing up in the south.

My parents are good people, they are, and the story I am about to tell is a small piece of who they were, they have grown as people, please know that. They are products of their times and places, it does not excuse their behavior, but it was ignorance, in the best use of the word, they had no experience otherwise and the world they grew up in didn’t ask them to.

My parents grew up in the midwest where the first black people they saw were on TV. They moved to the south before I was born. My sister and I were raised in Bowling Green, Kentucky and Goodlettsville, Tennessee (suburb of Nashville) by 2 midwestern parents and 2 native Kentuckian step-parents.

There was an “us” and a “them”. I was surrounded by white people. In my neighborhood, in my social circles, all of it. “Nigger” was a regular curse word in our house, the ultimate insult hurled by my step-father. Racial jokes were told on a daily basis, to roars of laughter. I can still hear my step-mother’s “Buckwheat” impression.

One of the first friends I remember having was a mixed race girl with adopted white parents. She was okay because of that. My middle school my best friend was a black girl. One labor day weekend I was told I could invite a friend to the pool, I asked Belinda. I had to resend the offer. That’s when I found out the country club we belonged to was “exclusive”. In high school, one of my best friends was a black man. We were both told, separately by our parents that being friends was fine, but we were never allowed to date. He (and later is family) was the first and only black person I ever saw in my parent’s house.

However, it wasn’t so much the blatant racism, is was the subtle, culturally imbedded racism that had the real power. When spoken I could consciously disagree. I didn’t always verbalize it because these were my parents, but I sure as hell didn’t believe it. Well, later I didn’t believe it.

I was in the first grade when I noticed that I hesitated before drinking out of a water fountain after one of my black classmates. I froze after I realized it. I questioned myself, why would I do that? Was it a “long lost” picture of Jim Crow laws and “Colored” and “White” water fountains? Or was it just something bred in me.

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From that moment on I challenged myself (yes, I know how that sounds) and when we would line up for the water fountain I would make sure to stand behind one of my black classmates, or use the restroom they just came out of. By 7 years old I was determined to unearth the racial injustice already bred into my life.

I am so ashamed I never speak of it. I am ashamed and I am afraid that by speaking I will do more harm than good. And this is my vow in Christ. Do no harm. But it’s impossible, isn’t it?

I will never be fully aware of my white privilege, it is impossible for me to fully understand. It is intwined in my social and economic status. It is enmeshed in every part of my life.  The neighborhoods I live and work in are almost exclusively white. My children go to school in some of the best schools in the country where she is taught that a long time ago people owned other people, that there were laws separating them and that is all over now.

My sister is a school teacher in the Deep South, she’s taught in Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. When I am at her house I am uncomfortable with the way her friends talk about certain restaurants being “black” restaurants, and therefore wouldn’t recommend them. Being around black people is automatically unsafe. Yet, she fights in her schools as she watches they black students get treated as “other”. She stands up for them and their voice because it’s just wrong.

We must unearth our white privilege. We much dig deep inside ourselves and not pretend that we understand how the “black community” in Baltimore feel, not to mention the fact that the “black community” isn’t one little group of people organizing a pep rally. We’re talking about a city where black outnumber white by 2 to 1. A state where we have more black millionaires than any other. Yet oppression and racism is so intertwined it cannot be underestimated.

We must unearth injustice and then step out of the way for the people WITH the experience to speak. We must not look a looter and say “they” are all the same.

We must admit that we are part of a system, both racial and economic that has kept them poor and oppressed. We must admit that they have every right to be angry.

We must unearth our own fears and step aside giving room and a place for theirs.

Pray for Baltimore, pray for those oppressed, unearth your own fears.

This post is a part of the UNCO synchroblog. April’s them is “UnEarthed”. You can read the other posts in the series here