Where Do We Go from Here?: A Sacramental Framework for Confronting Racism

In moments of great crisis, we all come to the crucial crossroad of decision that will determine the shape and fortitude of our character. When chaos confronts us, there is the temptation to shrink away, to shrug in defeated resolution to the world as it is. We may celebrate the moral courage of those who have stood for human dignity and life even while facing overwhelming odds. But it is easier for too many of us to sit in silence and allow the wheels of uncaring oppression to trample down the most vulnerable in our society. We either cannot imagine that our voice matters against the tide of injustice or understand all too well the dangers of speaking out against injustice. Thus, we are rendered silent. Yet, the pressing obligation of neighborly love demands the unrelenting pursuit of peace and justice for all.

Dr. King proposed the appropriate question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”? The reality is that systemic racism enslaves all in society. Some benefit from its consolidation of power, but that does not diminish its enslaving power – for those who benefit, remaining enslaved can be more enticing. Dr. King recognized we are all enslaved to this racist system and that to work for the freedom of another is to simultaneously work for my own freedom. As he was famously noted for saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a reciprocal reality to human community. My salvation and freedom are interwoven with the salvation and freedom of my neighbor. The ability to opt out of acting against a system, it turns out, only furthers the bondage of our lives to a system that will not tolerate any alternative way in the world. Racism embodies a totalizing claim upon human bodies. It is a totalizing claim that values certain bodies over others and can discard those undesirable bodies without fear of repercussion or retaliation… until those who know their inherent worth can no longer bear the brunt of society’s denigration, devaluation, and destruction. The devaluing of any life cheapens every life. Saying “Black lives matter” affirms the value of lives that have too often been devalued by our society. So, indeed, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that too frequently the resources of the Church have been ignored when it comes to addressing these societal evils. Statements are easier to broadcast widely but cannot deal with the particularities of each context. Likewise, they ultimately do not provide character formation – although statements may be important as a tool for helping us articulate the world around us. The sacraments, with their unassuming elements and limiting/ed particularity, may not seem adequate resources for healing our racism and prejudice. How can being plunged in the waters of baptism relate to the suffocation of a black man on the pavement? How can the bread and wine sitting on the Table quench our thirst for racial justice and sate our appetites for true reconciliation (I owe much to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for his insightful work on the history of racism and the reconciliation of community in communion)? What does a crucified Lord say to a world filled with lynched persons (James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, provides the framework for this poignant and challenging lens by which to understand Jesus)? The sacraments appear too insignificant and small before the looming specter of white supremacy and racism. However, God often uses the seemingly insignificant to shine forth God’s glory and to invite us into a new way in the world.

The sacraments embody the new reality God has enacted and incarnated in Jesus. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is the new humanity. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the fullness of communion that was intended from the beginning. God’s identification with us is our very salvation for what God assumes, God saves. But, the manner of God’s coming in the person of Jesus should give us pause. Jesus did not come as a Roman emperor but as a lowly brown-skinned carpenter from the backwaters of Bethlehem. And, it is this same Jesus who is put to death unjustly by the political powers of that day. Jesus was publicly lynched by public officials and “church-going” folk. As James Cone writes, God becomes one of the lynched peoples of the world when Jesus hangs from the rugged tree.

The jolting identification in baptism with a publicly lynched Christ, by which we join him in his death, plunges us into a new identity by putting to death that which has been Death in us. We are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Beneath the surface, suspended for a moment, we recognize the fragile thread of life to which we cling. The waters press down and suffocate, preventing the inhalation of life-giving breath. “I can’t breathe.” The waters of baptism remind us that Jesus suffocated, struggling to draw breath as authorized agents of the government watched the spectacle until Jesus exhaled his final breath. To enter the waters of baptism is to be given a new way of being in the world that does not side with the powers and principalities of this world, but joins with those who are vulnerable and suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Eucharist is the meal for the baptized, for those who have embraced the way of Jesus and the cross. It is the means of grace for the journey. It nourishes us and instructs us in this present moment of chaos. This meal was the celebration of the Passover. It was the Jewish meal celebrating the deliverance of God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt. The meal reminded God’s people that God is not a God insensitive to the cries of the oppressed. Rather, in surprising revelation, God sees, hears, and knows intimately their suffering as God’s own suffering. God comes down and delivers them. The meal is also the ongoing reminder for God’s people that they must not then turn around and become just another Egypt on the scene of world history. They have been called out and set apart to embody the way of God, the way of neighborliness and generosity, whether in the scant landscape of the wilderness or the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The meal brings to memory the abiding call to live as those who seek the well-being and welfare of others (shalom) in the community. To break bread was to share life and peace with one’s neighbors. To break bread was to extend welcome, forgiveness, and blessing to those who gathered with you.

It should come as no shock when Paul calls the Corinthians to not partake of the meal if there is anything wrong between one of them and someone else. They are to go make it right and then partake of the meal. The meal cannot embody true communion if there is no reconciliation between persons. Wrongs must be confessed. Forgiveness must be sought. Humility must replace hubris. The hand of friendship must be extended. Communion invites us into the practice of receiving and sharing, seeking forgiveness and extending forgiveness, loving God by loving neighbor. The sacrament of communion offers us grace for the reconciling journey that seeks to heal the deep communal wounds which we have wrought on others. It invites us to confess our woundedness which has wounded others. We find that even in our brokenness God can take it and bless it for the sake of the world. To eat and drink at this Table requires that we see those we have hurt, hear their cry, and join them in the work of restitution. This happens at both the personal level and the social level because both are intertwined in the work of justice and righteousness (right-relatedness).

The sacraments ground us in a faith that draws us toward community, toward others. The sacraments do not allow us to withdraw into a privatized and individualized faith that denies the bodily, concrete realities of suffering in our communities. Rather, we are invited into the life of God, the life of Jesus, to join others in their suffering and to allow our lives to be poured out in self-giving love and service. The sacraments, by God’s grace, offer us patterns for the new creation life in our present world. They provide the doxological practices by which we are brought to awareness of our complicity in society’s deathly practices, our need for reconciliation to God and others, and the grace to join with those who suffer.

The sacraments provide the ground by which we are shaped by the cruciform life of Christ. It is a life that joins others in their suffering and embodies the hope of shared pain and communion. There is no communion outside the possibility of shared pain. But, as the cross is transformed by the resurrection from the spear of death to the plowshare of life, God is able to transform our suffering into the glory of God by which the world is renewed. Even as the mundane elements of the sacraments are transformed into the means of grace, so the ordinary gifts of our lives may be sacramentally taken, blessed, broken, and given by Christ for the healing of the world.

A Pastoral Letter Concerning Racism and the Church’s Life

              I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

            As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.

            A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.

            Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.

            Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.

            As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.

            I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Resourcing Discussions Concerning Racism, Privilege, and Contextual Theology

I was asked to provide a list of resources I have found helpful in thinking and shaping issues concerning racism and privilege. I’ve added resources that also deal with contextual theology because we all read from a place, a position, a framework. Privilege is often assumed and is typically hidden from our eyes, especially when we benefit from those systems. As such, it is helpful to be made aware of our position and its underlying assumptions.

Many of these titles have been very formative for me. Some of the ones I will list have been good to read just to hear dissenting voices from my own. I don’t necessarily agree with every position taken in every book, but I have learned something from each one and therefore offer them as helpful starting points to further conversation and learning. I will also try to categorize each book so that they can be held together with other books that approach privilege, racism, and contextual theology through a particular lens (i.e., preaching, community development, etc.). Some of these resources do not deal with privilege directly, but I certainly see application and overlap. I hope these are helpful!

PREACHING

  • Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope by Luke Powery
  • Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil by Christine M. Smith
  • Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Canon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen
  • They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas (A development of Dr. Henry Mitchell’s Celebration and Experience in Preaching)
  • Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies by John McClure
  • Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space by Sarah Travis
  • Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
  • The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence by Richard Lischer
  • The Liberating Pulpit by Justo Gonzalez
  • The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell
  • Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World – And Our Preaching – Is Changing by David Lose
  • Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale
  • The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching by Kenyatta Gilbert
  • Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall by Courtney Pace
  • Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life by Michael Pasquarello III
  • African American Preaching: The Contribution of Gardner C. Taylor by Gerald Lamont Thomas

HERMENEUTICS/INTERPRETATION

  • Reading from this Place, Vol. 1 by Fernando F. Segovia (collection of essays)
  • Soundings in Cultural Criticism: Perspectives and Methods in Culture, Power, and Identity in the New Testament by Francisco Lozada, Jr.
  • Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Riceour
  • Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith

COMMUNITY DEVELOP/ PARISH MINISTRY

  • When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett
  • Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development by Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Spark
  • The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings by Wendell Berry
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

Theology/Ethics/Memoirs

  • Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  • The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
  • Naming the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Unmasking the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley
  • Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh
  • Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh
  • Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William Cavanaugh
  • The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God by Sarah Coakley
  • The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas (collected essays)
  • Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann
  • Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
  • Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard
  • The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved by Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler, Jr.
  • Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission by Love Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, Amos Yong, et al
  • A New Sense of Direction” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi
  • God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu
  • The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
  • “The Content and Method of Black Theology” by James Cone (The Journal of Religious Thought)

MISSIONS

  • Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited by Jonathan Bonk
  • Cross-cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner
  • Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by Gary Nelson
  • Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore
  • Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter

FICTION

  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
  • A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

POP CULTURE

  • Decoded by Jay-Z (preachers should read this)
  • Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

DOCUMENTARIES/FILMS

  • “Just Mercy”
  • “The Banker”
  • “Hidden Figures”
  • “13th”
  • “Schindler’s List”
  • “Le Chambon: La Colline Aux Mille Enfants”
  • “Of Gods and Men”
  • “Roots”
  • “The Mission”
  • “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”
  • “Selma”
  • “Mississippi Burning”

Sermons

(start around 30:38 mark)

Exodus 3: “Out of the Desert, Into the Fire”

Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  These words rattled in my head as I heard the devastating news this week.  My heart ached as I asked my black brothers and sisters, “What shall we say?”  My heart ached for my friends who know all too well the deadly sting of racism and the violence that comes with it.  My heart ached for people I respect and love who wear a badge and serve their community as officers.  I cried over a world and a nation that nurtures hate and exercises violence against their neighbors.  I tell ya: “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”  And, that is the reason I preach today.

 

The sun beat down on the top of his aging head.  The spindly shrub did little to provide shade.  The sun was always unrelenting in the desert.  Moses sat at the base of the mountain; some called it Horeb, some called it Sinai, still others called it the mountain of God.  He sat watching his father-in-law’s sheep graze, much as he had for the past forty years.

His desert life, a hard life, was far removed from the luxury he had known before coming to the desert… escaping to the wilderness.  The sandy hills were barren compared to the lush, fertile soil of the Nile.  The life of the shepherd hardly compared to life as a prince.

Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s house, although it was pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t Egyptian.  He was a Hebrew – a people enslaved to Pharaoh.  Yet, somehow, Pharaoh’s daughter had taken him in and raised him as her own.  He enjoyed the finest in dining, education, clothing, housing, and sport.  He had power and authority.  His face was recognized anywhere he went.  Heads would bow and nod to show him honor.  But, here in the desert, sheep were the only subjects over which he ruled… and they didn’t seem too impressed by his previous status as a prince.

Moses recalled walking the streets of Egypt, admiring the splendor and wealth of the nation.  Egypt was growing, expanding, swelling ever more powerful.  Life seemed great.  There was so much to enjoy, so much to see, so much to do.

But, over time, Moses began to look more closely, to observe beneath the surface of Egypt’s beauty and power.  He looked past their military strength, their economic prowess, their political power, their social and economic domination.  Moses saw massive construction projects being built by those who lived in the tent cities in the poorest parts of town outside the walls.  He saw the thin, emaciated brown bodies that serving food to rich, fat rulers.  Egypt’s entire society was built on the backs of sun-kissed bodies.  For four hundred years Egypt crushed those bodies and ground them into dust, while Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptian power-holders profited and prospered – all at the expense of those expendable, sun-kissed bodies.

For four hundred years, Egypt used, abused, and discarded brown bodies in service to economic, political, and Egyptian societal gain.  Four hundred years of injustice visited upon the Hebrews.  Four hundred years of oppression.  Four hundred years of groaning under the whip of Pharaoh.  Four hundred years of resentment building up pressure that might explode.  Four hundred years of Pharaoh building a system that capitalized on the oppression of others.

We might imagine that this is all in the past, by-gone history, water under the bridge.  But, it’s sad to say, Pharaoh is ever so much alive and kicking.  Violence against brown and black bodies has been happening for more than four hundred years in these lands we call home.

We have benefitted from the labor of brown and black bodies.  We have been made more comfortable by brown and black bodies.  We have raised ourselves up on the backs of brown and black bodies.  And, we continue to utilize oppression the world around to maintain our power and privilege over those same bodies.  For well over four hundred years we have enjoyed the well-being of Pharaoh and Egypt, while others languished under our whips.  For over four hundred years anger has festered and violence has been the only way we know to diffuse the growing tensions… But, there is no lasting peace won by the sword.

Moses shook his head, remembering his failure, his inability to change anything.  It was a problem too big to tackle.  It was overwhelming.  He couldn’t overcome the odds.  All of his power had been exhausted in trying to change the system… and he failed.  He had resigned himself to accept that things are the way they are and that nothing would ever change.  Egypt was too powerful.  The desert was a place to hide from the world’s problems, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

He recalled his anger at the whip masters.  His fist balled up and his jaw clenched as he saw the brutality visited upon the slashed backs hunched over in agony.  His body shook as the rage threatened to swallow him up.  That’s why he was in the desert – he had allowed his rage to consume him.

He was walking through the streets of Egypt one day when he saw an Egyptian dressed in blue, wearing a badge of authority, using a club to beat and batter one of the Hebrews.  Moses didn’t even think, he jumped on top of the Egyptian officer and beat him until the man lay motionless on the ground in a heap.  The man’s head was bleeding and Moses realized the man was dead.  Without ceremony, Moses buried the man in an unmarked grave and swore the Hebrew man to secrecy.

But, Moses’ secret leaked out.  He learned that his sins were live-tweeted online and broadcast on the local news.  Social media blew up and Moses knew his time was short before Pharaoh would kill him.  So, he ran.  He ran away into the desert.  And forty years passed, but the pain and disappointment never faded, they only grew deeper.  Moses had tried to change things but the system was too big.  Moses thought violence was the answer, but that caused him to lose his influence and sent him into exile.  What is to be done when the broken system is so powerful and seemingly impervious to our protests and our call for change?

Do you recall why Israel became slaves?  Pharaoh was trying to deal with Egypt’s illegal immigrant problem.  Israel, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was a huge liability.  They were becoming numerous – quite a voting bloc to contend with if another nation decided to attack Egypt.  The final solution?  Put a burden so heavy on their shoulders that it would break their back.  Kill their children.  Kill their future.

Much like Pharaoh, we don’t mind turning our eyes away while others are used and abused.  We don’t mind being blissfully ignorant of our nation’s oppressive practices, especially if we benefit from the arrangement.  We love living in a nation of political prominence, economic excellence, technological transcendence, societal “superiority.”  We rarely think about the devastating impact we are having on other nations to maintain our escalating hunger for more wealth and comfort.  We sing about those things as if it is God’s very blessing upon us… when in reality, we have grabbed those things like Pharaoh by building our power and privilege on a mound of black and brown bodies.  And, standing in the pile of those bones, we rejoice with pride at the work we claim our hands have made.  But, in turn, we ignore the hands held open asking to receive a small pittance from the table of our comfort – primarily because those hands look so different from our hands, because they might take away some of what we claim as our God-given birthright.

Moses, like the sniper that killed five Dallas police officers, took matters into his own hands.  He was filled with rage at the injustice of the system and killed an Egyptian officer.  The denial of justice in society created a ticking time bomb that erupted in violence and death.  Unlike Moses, Micah Johnson learned too late that violence only births violence, it does not create justice.  Micah decided to live by the gun and he died by the bomb.  Violence did not solve the problem, but only escalated the violence.  Violence in Dallas tore apart six families, destroyed six lives, and still nothing has changed.  We are just as divided and just as violent.  Even if we don’t use weapons for violence, often times our words are weaponized for violent means.  We use our words just as effectively as guns to kill and wound.  Violence will continue to spill out into our communities until we deal with our society’s injustice toward black and brown bodies.  Violence will continue to spill over into our communities until we forsake our thirst for violence and violent retribution.

Something caught the corner of Moses’ eye.  A shrub nearby seemed to have caught fire.  God, it was hot out here.  He sat watching the shrub burn… and burn… and burn.  Yet, as Moses watched the shrub he noticed that nothing really changed.  The shrub remained the same size and shape.  No ash gathered at the base.  In fact, the shrub looked amazingly unharmed.  He stood and walked toward the strange bonfire: “I’ve got to check this out, why isn’t this bush torched?”

God was watching, waiting.  When Moses started moving toward the bush, God called to him, “Hey, Moses!”

Moses replied, “Hey, it’s me!”

God said, “Stop dead in your tracks! Take off your shoes, this ain’t no regular dirt.  This ground is different because it’s set apart, holy.  Allow me to introduce Myself: My name is I’M GONNA BE WHO I’M GONNA BE.  I AM the God of your family, the God of your people all the way back to Abraham.”

Moses dropped to the ground and buried his face in the sand.  He was deathly afraid to catch a glimpse of God.

God continued: “I’ve been taking notes on my people in Egypt, their cries are like a megaphone blaring out their suffering under their slave-masters.  I have experienced their pain and suffering.  Now, I’m jumping into the fray to pull them out of this pit and to bring them to a better living space.  You better believe Israel’s tears and wailing have caught my ear and my eyes have spied Egypt’s violent and hateful treatment of them.  And, guess what!?  You, Moses, are going to be the person that rescues Israel for Me from Egypt.

Moses was probably ecstatic to hear that after four hundred years, God was going to deliver Israel.  I can imagine tears of joy streaming down his face.  Then, like a deer in the headlights: “’Scuse me, You’re sending who?  I hate to throw a wrench in Your machine, God, but I’m nobody.  I’m not powerful anymore.  I’ve got no juice.  I don’t have the same swag I used to.  I don’t have that kind of influence.  I’m a criminal on the run, marked to be shot on sight.  Maybe You need to find somebody else for Your dirty work.”

God told Moses, “Stop sweating! I’m going with you. That’s how you’ll know I sent you.  And when you’re done freeing Israel, bring them back to this mountain to celebrate with Me.”

Moses wasn’t done giving excuses yet.  “Well, God, what do You expect me to tell everyone when they ask who sent me?  When they ask me the Name of the One I’m representing, what should I tell them?”

If God had eyebrows, they would’ve been raised: “Look, ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be.’  Tell ‘em ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be’ sent ya.  Tell Israel, ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of your family and people since Abraham sent ya to them!”

God didn’t stop there: “Go, get the people together, grab all of the leaders and tell them: ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of this family since the time of Abraham showed up and told me: ‘I reviewed the video footage of what’s happening to you in Egypt.  I’m busting you outta there and taking y’all to a place with plenty of good things for everyone.  They’ll feel what you’re saying, Moses.  Then, take Israel’s leaders with you and go on up to talk with President of Egypt, Pharaoh.  Tell Pharaoh, ‘God showed up.  Let us go out to the wilderness to celebrate with God.’”

(Pause)  God takes note of the marginalized and oppressed.  Their suffering is engraved in the palm of God’s hand.  Their cry pierces God’s heart like a spear jabbed in the ribs.  Their spilled blood runs down like red rivers down God’s thorn-pricked brow.  God knows the suffering of the destitute and dispossessed; the down-and-out and the downtrodden; the denigrated and the denied.  God knows their suffering as God’s own suffering.

And God wanted Moses to know it, too.  Sure, it was a bush on fire – nothing particularly special about that.  But, that fiery bush erupted in images of bodies lying cold on the pavement.  And God stood right in the middle of that fire so that the bush wasn’t consumed.  When God is present in the midst of the fire, even when the heat is most intense, God can preserve a dried up branch from being consumed.

God catches Moses’ attention with the fiery bush.  God draws Moses’ vision to the fires that seek to destroy God’s Creation, God’s people.  Moses begins to observe and pay attention to the flames of oppression, the flames that destroy community.  And, in seeing the fiery climate that threatens a vulnerable community, Moses’ heart is ignited by God’s Spirit to move.  Moses’ move toward the flaming bush is a step toward God.  But, God isn’t interested in just one step: “Take off your shoes, Moses, because I’m going to need both of your feet for this job.”

The news over this past year may be our burning bush.  Ferguson.  Baltimore.  Orlando.  Baton Rouge.  Charleston.  St. Paul.  Dallas.  God may be trying to get us to recognize our addiction to violence.  God may be opening our eyes to the deep-seated racism still entrenched within us and within our society.  God may be calling our attention to the fire-storm of hatred that leads to violence against others and the ambivalence which permits it to continue unchecked.

In recognizing, instead of ignoring, the fires that threaten to consume us all, we take one step toward God, but God says, “Now, I need both feet.  I’m sending you to represent me and to set my people free.  Free from violence.  Free from hatred.  Free from the denial of our responsibility for these problems.  Free from ignoring our responsibility to change our way of life.  Now, I need both feet, not just one foot… You’re standing on holy ground.  Quit hanging your head in the desert, avoiding the problems of Egypt.  Get in the game – the flames won’t consume you, I’m going with you!”

God warns Moses, despite God’s presence on this journey, it’s going to be hard work.  God says, “Don’t be shocked.  I know Pharaoh isn’t going to budge and let you leave.  He won’t change his mind unless he sees something greater than himself.  And, I’m about to reach out and slap Egypt upside the head with wonders, then Pharaoh will let you go.  And you won’t leave empty handed either.  I’m going to help you leave this place with Egypt’s wealth on your wrist, and new threads on your body and kicks on your feet, both you and your kids are going to be dressed to the nines, while Egypt will be stripped buck naked.”

God warns Moses, God warns us, confronting Egypt is difficult, dangerous work.  Don’t be shocked at the resistance to changing the way our society operates.  Confronting our broken system is hard, dangerous work because not everyone wants it to change.  Some are happy to keep the present arrangement – like Pharaoh – and will even use violence to protect it.  Protesting the wicked corruption of a society that gives advantage to some through the disadvantage of others, may result in crucifixion.

But know that God has already declared victory over the powers of injustice, violence, and death.  God has announced victory over systems of oppression that maintain those systems of injustice.  God says that those society’s will one day be stripped naked, laid bare.  Their glory will be their shame.  Their pride will be their ruin.  Their violent power will be turned back on itself.  Pharaoh wouldn’t relent from his ways until he saw something greater than himself; his arrogance kept him from seeing anything greater than himself.  It led to his ruin.  Let’s not be so prideful as to think that there is nothing greater than ourselves – lest we be stripped naked and our shame laid bare for all to see.

Where do we find God in the midst of such tragedies as we have witnessed this week?  If we wonder where God is at work, we will find God right in the heart of the fires that threaten to consume.  Where lives are being torn apart, God is working to mend them.  Where people are being torn down, God is working to build up.  Where people are being destroyed, God is working to bring new life.  It may be dangerous work, but there’s riches untold in joining our hands with God’s hands, which then joins our hands with the hands of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our world.

God is taking note of the violence and the oppression in our own neighborhoods and communities.  God knows that suffering as God’s own suffering.  God has jumped into the fray.  God wants us to know that suffering as well and to jump with both feet into the fires of injustice to free God’s people.  And we will know it was God that sent us because God will go with us, preserving us through the flames unto everlasting life.  “I’m not optimistic, no.  I’m quite different.  I’m hopeful.  I’m a prisoner of hope.”