“Put Down Your Sword” – John 18:1-11

Sermon Context: Nall Avenue Church of the Nazarene, Prairie Village, KS.

There has been fear in recent days about the decline of religion in our culture, particularly around Christianity and diminishing attendance rates. There is a growing fear and trepidation. But it’s interesting religion has not gone away. In fact, spirituality in several surveys shows an increase. Though there may be a decrease in those who profess to be practicing Christians, there is an increase in those who would identify in some way as exercising some kind of “spirituality.” We have not gotten away from those practices and realities at all.

In fact, one of the prominent religious organizations gathers every Sunday in huge cathedrals. The faithful flock in and wear the liturgical colors. They gather for a time of worship and often their hands are raised in celebration and adoration of their idols. They have officials that work and walk the people through the four movements of the service. There is libation, drink and food, that they eat together. It is a place where families are gathered together and formed deeply by these liturgical rituals. “This is who we are!” There are even chants and song that talk about the life they share together in this place. It is powerful. If you have ever attended one of these worship services, you find yourself gripped by it. You get caught up in the fervor and the emotion of the moment. It is powerful. Very powerful.

The worship service is geared around something very damaging. The very thing it centers its life around is violence. There is a lot of violence in this place. Yet, the faithful gather to watch it every Sunday, to talk about their kingdom and their glory… and sometimes “the good old days.” Perhaps you would recognize this place as a place like Arrowhead stadium where the Kansas City Chiefs play football. It is a place of worship where the faithful gather every Sunday to sing songs of celebration, to proclaim there is only one kingdom. This is for the glory of the city, if you’re more of a Sporting Kansas City fan. There’s even a “Blue Hell!” There is life and death in these matters. There’s times of celebration and lament – all centered around competition, and winning, and being the best, and dominating the foe, putting them down. It’s a powerful liturgy.

I was brainwashed from a very early age. I didn’t grow up a Chiefs fan. I am a Cowboys’ fan. That’s a different kind of sinner. I grew up in the days of Tom Landry. So, I have been formed so that even when they have gone through their decline, I wonder each year if this will be the year they get the glory. Usually I’m disappointed. We are transfixed by this celebration of violence where men have become bigger and bigger, stronger and fiercer. They SMACK each other and we celebrate. It is like the days of the gladiator modernized with protective gear. We celebrate the ritual of violence against each other and it lets off the steam of our own desire for violence. I can celebrate the violence of others and relieve my own desire for violence.

Liturgies of violence deeply form us. This morning my 3 ½ year old daughter came into our room and exclaimed, “I got my laser beam! I’m going to find the bad guys!” She’s 3 ½ and she’s talking about bad guys! She doesn’t know “bad guys,” other than when she thinks mom and dad are the “bad guys” for correcting her. She doesn’t understand good and evil. She doesn’t understand the full complexities of life. She has been so deeply formed by television shows she has seen, the realities of our culture, that this morning she was talking about going and getting “the bad guy.” These liturgies capture our hearts, imaginations, and desires so quickly and at such an early age. They largely go unquestioned, unchallenged. Sometimes in the Church, the liturgies of violence are so ingrained in us we don’t question it but when we talk about being peacemakers it is questioned. We always have an excuse for not seeking out peace. “Yeah, but what if this happens?” “Yeah, but what if it’s against these kinds of people?” We’re quick to push down peacemaking, to question it. But the liturgies of violence go unquestioned.

We find ourselves in the midst of this story with Jesus and his disciples. Did you notice where they are? They have gone across the Kidron Valley and find themselves in a garden. Gardens are not where battles are fought. Gardens are places of respite, rest, wonder, and awe. We are reminded of something that is good and life-giving. Jesus would often go to these places for rest and prayer. He’d go to the gardens to escape, to connect, and to commune with God. He’d often take his disciples along with him to commune and pray with them. In Matthew’s Gospel, that is exactly what they have done. Jesus has taken the disciples and asked them to pray with him “for the hour has come.”[1] Every time he returns, the disciples have fallen asleep. The garden is a place of prayer and respite. So, we don’t expect chaos to erupt in the garden.

We can remember stories from scripture about other gardens, particularly the Garden of Eden. Do you remember God would come down in the evening and walk with humanity? God would walk and commune with them. There was something so good, and beautiful, and right there. Everything was in harmony. Relationships were working well. There was a connectivity to one another, not hindered by shame and hiddenness and brokenness.

There is a moment of betrayal in the Garden. Do you know the story? They were told not to eat the fruit from a certain tree in the Garden for doing so their “eyes would be opened.” There is a desire humanity will not deny. They take the fruit and eat it. Immediately, the realize they are naked. They experience shame and hide themselves. Yet, God comes to them in the Garden. The story follows humanity continuously moving east of the Garden, away from God’s presence. This movement away from God manifests as increasing violence in human communities.

Cain and Abel, two brothers, who should be out for one another’s welfare, begin to fight. Cain deceives his brother, takes him out to a field, and kills him with a stone. The story continues until we reach Lamech. Lamech kills a young man because the young man said something against Lamech. Lamech exclaims that if Cain would be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy times seven. Violence has exploded exponentially. It has grown from brother against brother to everyone being out for their own gain and against each other. Betrayal.

We should be reminded of these stories when Jesus is found in a garden and Judas enters the garden with betrayal on his heart. Judas has come with an ulterior motive. Judas comes seeking Jesus, not in the way of a seeking disciple. Judas has come to orchestrate Jesus’ arrest. Betrayal. The communion between God and Judas is being severed, torn. Judas wields violence against the Creator, against Jesus. Judas comes with a contingent of soldiers armed to the teeth, ready for battle. They have come to do harm. There is an authority placed upon these soldiers to arrest Jesus because the religious leaders don’t like what Jesus is saying and doing in the community. He has been talking about a Kingdom with a very different way of life than the kingdoms of this world. Jesus speaks peace to those who are not “peaced” people. He brings in outsiders and heals those who have been hurt deeply by society. People begin to get “up in arms” about this. They don’t like this Kingdom that looks out for the least of these. They don’t like a Kingdom that questions everything about how we have arranged our lives together.

Jesus comes as a disrupter. Not with a sword. Jesus does not come as conqueror using force. Jesus comes as one who pours himself out – who serves, who washes disciples’ feet. This is a strange king and a strange kingdom. Jesus proclaims a peaceable kingdom. This kingdom seeks out the good of the neighbor. For some, this way of Jesus is just too difficult. It calls too much from us. There is great risk in being a servant. There is great risk in loving people, especially our enemies. When you bow down to wash somebody’s feet, you expose your neck. To expose your neck to somebody, particularly an enemy, makes us vulnerable. Yet, this is the very thing Jesus does for Judas, bowing down and exposing his neck.

Jesus takes the bread at the Supper, breaks it, and hands it to Judas. Breaking bread in Jewish culture is like a peace treaty. To receive that bread is saying, “I’m looking out for your benefit and I trust you are looking out for mine.” Jesus gives the bread as a sign of peace. Judas takes the bread knowing that he will betray Jesus. Even though Jesus knows Judas’ intentions, he still extends the peace of God to Judas. Jesus knows that serving enemies is risky business.

Despite the risk, Jesus has an unarmed guard of disciples as they go to the garden. Peter has found a sword somewhere. He has no business with a sword. He’s a fisherman, not a soldier. When Judas’ group arrives, Peter may think this is the moment to rise and fight to establish Jesus’ kingdom. This is the moment! Peter said he would never abandon Jesus, even if everyone else does. He will be with Jesus to the bitter end! He pulls out the sword to protect everything he hopes and believes, to protect life and to secure it by all possible means.

Peter swings at the one person who doesn’t have a sword! He’s so brave! He swings at Malchus, servant and reporter to the high priest. Malchus has no sword. He doesn’t need it. He’s surrounded by soldiers. Peter spots the most vulnerable mark in the group and attacks. All Peter manages to cut is part of an ear. He swings with all his might, trying to protect, trying to hold on, trying to control the outcome… as we so often do. He is gripped by fear, not love. He is gripped by the narrative of redemptive violence – the narrative that violence can redeem, that violence is necessary. We believe violence saves. Peter draws the sword ready to protect everything. But redemptive violence is a myth. It cannot save.

Jesus tells Peter to stop, to sheath his sword. Jesus confronts Peter in his moment of standing up and tells him to back down. “Put away the sword.”[2] I totally relate with Peter. I imagined as a young boy that if my beliefs were ever threatened, I would stand up. I would be ready to accept whatever violence might happen and fight for everything I believed in. That’s a pretty natural response – to believe I can control the outcome and justify my violence.

I just can’t get around this Jesus character. He calls for some very difficult responses from us. “If you want to follow me, pick up a cross.”[3] Be ready to die, not take life. “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.” Jesus calls for some very difficult ways of living, risk-taking, entering so fully into this way of love that violence is no longer an option. I don’t know that I’ve been so gripped by Jesus that I can fully say I’ve cut myself off from these ways of violence. I know how effective violence can be to achieve my goals.

Peter knew how effective violence is. He observed how Rome utilized violence to assert their power. There was talk of peace but always under threat of the sword cutting down anyone who dissented, anyone who opposed the Empire. They used power to put down. Peter saw how effective it could be. There were also the stories of the Maccabees who defeated the Romans and kicked them out of Jerusalem for a time. Peter hoped Jesus would expel the Romans again. But Peter finds out that Jesus Kingdom doesn’t resemble the Roman empire’s way of violence.

My father once told me, “Don’t get into a fight. But, IF you do, fight to win.” I remember being told this as a young boy and being so deeply shaped by it. Of course, you can see I am not an intimidating figure. I didn’t seek out fights. But I found ways of utilizing violence to get things accomplished. My sister, who is a couple of years younger than me, was being teased in school. Understand that as a freshman in high school, I was a whopping five-foot-one and eighty-one pounds. I was all bone. If it was windy outside, I whistled because I was so skinny. I’m supposed to be the big, protective brother. So, I gather a couple of my friends who love to fight and are much more imposing than I am. We find her bully. My friends pick him up and pin him up against a locker. I threaten him. It was effective. It was powerful. Even though I was so small and diminutive, I felt real power.

There is an intoxication with violence. Power comes in all sorts of forms. It can be utilized against our spouse by the words we use. It can be against our children by constantly reminding them they don’t measure up instead of building them up. It is a violence that allows us to keep and maintain control over them. Or, we might think about someone breaking and entering and we want to protect ourselves or others in our home. The very first thing we go to is violence. We don’t ask this question: “When those moments come where fear and anxiety and chaos surround us, when I or those I love are threatened, how do I seek the most peaceful way?” How do I respond when I hear Jesus say, “Levi, put the sword away?” That’s risky.

Right after this scene in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, bound, beaten. He will be given a crown of thorns, mocked, spit upon. He will be dragged through the streets. He will be humiliated and, ultimately, crucified. The cross is a political sword. Jesus is pierced by the spear. Yet, the one who holds all power does not retaliate but absorbs that very violence in his own body and exhausts its power. The power of the sword has always been death. Jesus has conquered death by going and accepting the blows himself. If we believe Jesus isn’t simply wanting us to be good people, to whisk us away, but forms the church as a colony of heaven living in a culture of death then the call of Jesus is not just a pipe dream about the future. It is a call to lean into God’s way of life here and now. The cross is the establishment of that way.

The Kingdom is established in the cross in John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is focused on God’s glory, but by means of God’s condescension. It’s ironic. God’s glory is a crucified savior. God’s glory does not return violence for violence, fire for fire, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. God turns it upside-down and exhausts the power of violence by conquering death, Death itself, through the power of the resurrection. New Creation life blows like a fresh wind.

In the resurrection scene, Jesus is in a garden again. Jesus is in a garden when he is betrayed and now is in a garden when he is resurrected. New Creation things are happening. He has gone into the garden where everything has been death and violence. Now, being buried into the ground, risen three days later, not taking the way of the world but going the way of the cross, Jesus comes out of the grave as a victorious savior. Never once having swung a sword, yet having been pierced by the sword, Jesus is not defeated.

Some are quite fearful in the Church and utilize violence as a safety mechanism, something that gives us security. In that regard, I’m not sure resurrection has fully gripped us. The power of resurrection that has broken into this dark world has not fully gripped us because for so many of us death is to be feared. We fear death and, therefore, we hold onto life with everything we can. When we hold onto things in great fear, violence is usually the outcome. Can we trust God cares for us so we don’t have to be gripped by violence? Even if the very worse should happen, God forbid, does God love us so deeply that God won’t let death be the last word over us? Do I believe resurrection power is not something off in the distance but is now working its way in me, doing something different in me, so I don’t have to perpetuate cycles of violence that escalate? Can I embody an alternative way of being like Jesus, even at great risk?

We meet at the Table every Sunday. We gather at the Table to eat a meal that recalls our crucified Savior’s unwillingness to take our violence and turn it back against us. Even having received our violence, Jesus takes it into his very body and then offers us his peace. The bread, the body, broken for our sake. The bloodshed as an atonement for sin. Jesus offers his very life in this moment at the Table and in consuming the meal we are receiving in our bodies and lives the way of Jesus – to be broken and poured out for the sake of our world. We are not to return hate for hate but return hate with love. We are to sow peace in places of discord. We receive this meal with glad and open hearts knowing it calls us into something deeper than retaliation, unless it is retaliating to evil with good, hatred with love, violence with peace – the way of Jesus.

This is my Father’s world

O let me ne’er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong

God is the Ruler yet

 

This is my Father’s world

The battle is not done

Jesus who died shall be satisfied

And heaven and earth be one[4]

 

Though the wrong seems oft so strong, though the chaos seems like it might envelop us, yet we serve One who has gone headlong into the chaos, headlong into death, and has received new life and promises that same new life to us as those who embody the way of Jesus.

(Following Communion)

A story that captivates me is the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. They experienced the threat of violence and real violence. Firehoses, dogs, guns, bombs. There was real risk in the way of non-violence that King embodied. His witness is powerful because it confronted the chaos and darkness of this world through non-violence. We continue to celebrate his legacy because he embodied a different way of engaging the powers that surround us. It is a powerful reminder that violence may be effective for a short time, but love conquers all. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”[5]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Harrelson, John 12:23, 17:1.

[2] Harrelson, John 18:11.

[3] Luke 9:23, my paraphrase.

[4] Ken Bible, “This is My Father’s World.” In Sing to the Lord: Hymnal, 7th ed. (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing, 1993), 75.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., Vincent Harding, and Coretta Scott King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1st ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 65.

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“Why I Stopped Following the American Jesus”

This is a blog about my personal journey in moving away from a Jesus that was thoroughly American toward following the Jesus testified to in the Gospels.

 

Why I Stopped Following The American Jesus

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

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

Theology/Ethics/Memoirs

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Night by Elie Wiesel

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html)

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

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

“13”

“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)

Proclaim the Hope

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.

 

Preaching When Words Have Lost Their Power

This is a blog I wrote for the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Here is a preview of the work: “Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.”

You can find the rest of the article at the Center for Pastoral Leadership’s blog: https://cpl.nts.edu/index.php/component/k2/item/430-preaching-when-words-have-lost-their-power

“Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

Rev Levi Jones wanted to present a fifth post in order to discuss preaching practice in the proposed theological framework of the first four posts. You won’t find here a one-size-fits-all method for every sermon. Instead, Levi offers some suggestive insights into the proper posture of the preacher in preparing for the task, as well […]

via “Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

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.”