A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at the closing worship for the Beloved Community Conference at St. John's United Church of Christ on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. I bring you greetings on behalf of the people of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. Like you we are a people of the city. We are a people committed to making this city one that makes glad God’s heart. Like you we are trying to hear the cries of our children and look forward to working more closely together to ease those cries and together to turn them to shouts of praise to our God.
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-rolling stream.”
Y’all know that one? Right?
You bet we know it. That’s the prophet Amos. And we know when we hear that what is going to come next is something good. We know when we hear a preacher quote that scripture, someone’s gonna open a can of something on someone. And it’s going to be good.
A few years ago, I was at a conference and the keynote speaker was Dr. Esther Mombo. Now Dr. Mombo is a formidable woman. She is a scholar and a leader. She was the first female president of a theological college in her native Kenya. She was a tireless worker for justice and equality not just in Kenya but in all of Eastern Africa.
And so when Dr. Esther Mombo began her talk by pulling out Amos. When Dr. Esther Mombo began her talk by saying “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-rolling stream.” Man, I was ready to roll. I was settling in thinking, this is going to be good. She’s gonna open a can of something on someone.
And then she paused. And then this is what she said.
“If I could eliminate one word from human language it would be the word ‘justice.’”
If she were a TV set, I would be going like this to make sure I got the reception right.
And she must have seen that look in our eyes because she said it again.
“If I could eliminate one word from human language it would be the word ‘justice,’ because when we say the word ‘justice,’ our necks stiffen and our ears close.”
Now … she had my attention.
“when we say the word ‘justice,’ our necks stiffen and our ears close.”
And then she explained that the problem with the word justice is we too easily confuse two things: God’s justice and our justice.
Our justice is the justice of “I don’t just want to win, I want you to lose.”
Our justice is the justice of “I have defeated you.”
God’s justice is all God’s children are brought into the light of God’s love.
God’s justice is all God’s children are brought into the faith of God.
God’s justice is all God’s children are saved by the blood of Christ.
Our justice is retribution.
God’s justice is restoration.
Our justice makes us feel powerful.
God’s justice makes us rejoice in God’s power.
Our justice is about believing we know best.
God’s justice is knowing God knows best.
God’s justice is following the words of Micah “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”
God’s justice is remembering what God said to Isaiah, “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
God’s justice is remembering the words of Paul to the Corinthians, “I have made you ambassadors of Christ and given you the ministry of what? Of conquest? No. Of humilitation? No. Of demonization? No. The ministry of reconciliation.”
Now when your fine pastor the Rev. Starsky Wilson honored me and Christ Church Cathedral with the invitation to be the preacher this morning and sent me the information about this Beloved Community Conference and showed me the guiding scripture was Psalm 33:12, I turned to it in my Bible and I have to say I had the same experience I had when I heard Esther read that passage from Amos.
I read, “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.”
Yeah. I like the sound of that.
It makes me feel special.
It makes me feel that I am, that we are maybe more special than others.
It makes me feel that I am, that we are smiled on by God more than others.
It makes me feel like God maybe is on my side, and God stands against those I might see as not on my side.
I read that verse from Psalm 33 and I started feeling my neck stiffen and my ears close.
But then God did something.
God whispered in my ear. You know how when you want to get someone’s attention sometimes you don’t shout. When someone is shouting at us, it’s easy to tune them out. But when you really want to get someone’s attention, you whisper. That’s why God talks in that “still, small voice.”
So anyway, I’m feeling really happy about this psalm, feeling really happy about myself, about ourselves, … feeling my neck start to stiffen and my ears start to close. And then God says … very quietly.
I wasn’t finished yet.
Oh, OK. So then I read on in psalm 33.
Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage. … but then the psalm continues…
The Lord looks down from heaven and sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth—
He who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Hmmmm… OK. I’m starting to feel a little differently now.
Maybe God wants something different.
Maybe God wants to not just save my soul but to use me to save others’ souls.
Maybe God wants me not to get so confident in my own intellect, in the rightness of my cause, in the strength of my argument in my great army or my war horse.
Maybe God wants me to turn my life over to Jesus Christ, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Maybe God wants me to be an ambassador of Christ, an ambassador of reconciliation, an agent of conversion, even as I am still being converted.
In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island in South Africa where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months.
But he got together with his fellow prisoners and started a school. A school without books or pens or paper. A school where each taught the others everything they knew about anything. One day one of the guards asked if he could join in. And even though his fellow inmates objected, Mandela stood his ground and said they absolutely had to let him become a part of their community. Because the road to salvation for South Africa was not treating one another as the enemies they were, but looking forward to the day when they would be friends … and treating each other that way now in anticipation of that day.
It is because of that conviction. That conviction that we have no enemies but just future friends, that Nelson Mandela was able to lead a nearly bloodless revolution that no one in the world thought possible. It was that conviction that led to the scene on his inauguration as president of South Africa where his prison guards were led, not away in chains as defeated prisoners, but to seats of honor as friends on the platform next to him.
Now what Nelson Mandela was about wasn’t some weak, “can’t we all just get along.” And neither are we.
This is join us at the foot of the cross.
Join us as we fashion a world where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
Join us not in a world of tolerance. Our God is not a God of tolerance. You know what tolerance is? Tolerance is you stay over there and I’ll stay over here and we will “tolerate” each other … not bug each other. A God who loved us so much that God had to become human in Jesus Christ to live among us is not a God of tolerance and did not die on the cross to bring into being a kingdom of tolerance. Jesus is about join us in a world of the beloved community that reaches to the end of the earth. A beloved community where our salvation is intimately wrapped up in each other not just in here. And not just out in the streets of St. Louis. But in Clayton and Ladue. Webster Groves and Kirkwood. Creve Couer and Chesterfield. Urban, suburban and rural. Red states and blue states.
What Nelson Mandela was about and what we are about is not weak capitulation but bold action. But it is bold action motivated by love, not by hate.
It is bold action. But it is action motivated by a deep desire to have God change the
hearts of our sisters and brothers even as our own hearts are being changed by God and even by them.
It is bold action, but it is action that seeks not to defeat the enemies of God’s justice, but to appeal to the conscience of those who worship at the altar of self instead of the altar of God.
It is bold action, but it is action that means we must all take the logs out of our own eyes before we point out the speck in our sisters’ and brothers’ eyes. Bold action that calls us with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Desmond Tutu and Jesus Christ to be disciplined soldiers of nonviolence.
And so we must invite God boldly to act on our hearts, to purify them.
We must boldly challenge the idolatry of this culture, our worship of capitalism and consumption, and allow our own participation in it to be challenged.
Now in South Africa, the context where the questions of God’s justice were asked was Apartheid. So what is the context here? In 2013? In America? In St. Louis?
Well, my sisters and brothers, I believe it is still Apartheid. Because Apartheid is saying that you take the abundance that the land provides, and that this many people (tiny) gets’ this much of it (big) and that this many people (big) gets this much of it (tiny).
The context of our American society is Apartheid.
It’s Apartheid when the unemployment rate for White America is 7.2% and the unemployment rates for Black America is 14.1%
It’s Apartheid when Black America is just 12 percent of our nation’s population but makes up 44 percent of our prison population
It’s Apartheid when the child poverty rate for White America is 12 percent, but for black America it is 39 percent.
It’s Apartheid when the life expectancy for Black America is nearly five years shorter than the life expectancy for White America
So the context we are in is American Apartheid.
It is an America of gated communities and section 8 housing.
It is an America of St. Louis City and St. Louis County
It is an America of north of Delmar and South of Delmar
Now this conference is called “Justice and Jesus.” So do we think Jesus has something to say about this? Do we think Jesus has something to say about justice? Do we think Jesus had something to say about Apartheid in South Africa? Do we think Jesus has something to say about Apartheid in St. Louis?
He has a lot to say.
He has more to say about it than just about anything else.
He has something to say about a land like ours that produces abundantly.
In fact, he has a story to tell. It’s a story he tells in the 12th chapter of Luke.
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” ->->->->
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Hmmmm … Does that sound familiar?
Building bigger houses to store our stuff and then saying, “I got mine!”
You see any barns around us today?
We have barns full of income.
We have barns full of health care.
We have barns full of public safety
We have barns full of education
We have barns full of civil rights.
And what does Jesus say to the builders of those barns?
He says “This very night your soul is being demanded of you.”
Following Jesus means we don’t build up those barns, we tear them down.
We tear them down because income, health care, education, public safety, civil rights are not meant to be hoarded by the few, but are meant to be enjoyed by all of God’s children.
But we tear down those barns not just for the good of the masses, but out of love for the ones who built them. Because it is their very soul that is at stake. It is their very soul that is at stake. These barns are prisons that keep people from giving their lives to Christ, which is the greatest joy there is.
And before we start feeling too good about “us” being the ones tearing down the barns and “them” being the ones who build them up. Before our necks stiffen and ears close too much. Let’s remember Psalm 33 again. God looks at all humanity. And when God looks at all humanity, God sees 2 billion people that live on less than $2 a day.
When we talk about the 1% and the 99% and start pointing that finger, we need to remember that God looks down on all humanity and from that God’s eye view, we are the 1% and the rest of the world is the 99.
But that’s OK. That’s nothing to fear. Because this isn’t about human justice. It’s about God’s justice. This isn’t about us fearing God’s wrath, it’s about all of us needing God’s grace.
It ‘s about the whole world as the beloved community. No exceptions.
It’s about the whole world together tearing down barns and gathering at the foot of the cross.
It’s about us not believing in our own agendas but saying “come Holy Spirit and blow and burn and shape this world into your image … starting with us … starting with me.”
It’s about claiming that we are a people not gathered in fear in some upper room with Jesus, but profoundly changed by Jesus and sent into the world.
And we are a people sent, right? You know that we’re a people sent, right?
You know the Great Commission, right? Matthew 28. You’ve heard that before.
The resurrected Christ is with the 11 on the mountain in Galilee. The wind is whipping around. When the disciples saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. And then a hush fell over them as they waited for Jesus to speak, And Jesus said :
“Some authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. If you feel like it, go to some places where you are comfortable and share some things about me that nobody will find too offensive, baptizing them in a life that is pretty much like what they are in right now, and telling them to obey some of what I have commanded. And remember, I will check back in on you from time to time.”
That’s the Great Commission, right?
Oh, I’m sorry. Did I get that wrong?
If you look at the church today, you’d think that’s what he said.
Did he say something different? Let me check my Bible.
Well what do you know, that’s not what Jesus said. Here is what Jesus said.
He said ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
We are commissioned with the power and authority of Christ and sent to change hearts even as we are walking humbly with our God asking God to change ours.
We are commissioned with the power and authority of Christ to go and make disciples of Jesus together to grow this beloved community to the ends of the earth.
We are commissioned with the power and authority of Christ to tear down barns, knowing some of them have been built by our own hands.
We are commissioned with the power and authority of no one less than the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords not to be agents of our own justice but missionaries of God’s justice and love.
The justice of a God who yes loves Barack Obama but also loves Mitt Romney.
Who loves Claire McCaskill but also loves Todd Akin.
Who loves Angela Davis and Al Sharpton but also loves Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity.
Who loves all of them and all of us so much that God dreams nothing less than a banquet where we are all seated together and there is enough food for all. And if it seems like a long way from that as we sit in the middle of our American Apartheid, just remember how far we as humanity have come before.
In the darkest days of South Africa’s Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was scheduled to be a part of a political rally at St. George’s Cathedral in Capetown. The rally had been canceled by the government, so Archbishop Tutu said, "Okay, we’re just going to have church then." And church he had.
They gathered together in that Cathedral just like we are gathered this morning. Only in that Cathedral, the police were massing by the hundreds on the outside and they were there to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers.
You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording every thing that Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood there to preach.
And he stood up, a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, "This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil." That’s a wonderful thing to say, but very few people on the planet believed that statement at that point in time. But that didn't matter because he believed it. And the people in that church believed it. Then he pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, "You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked."
Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, "So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side"
And at that the congregation erupted. They began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back because they didn’t expect dancing worshipers.”
When the people of God start to dance, there is no power on heaven or earth that can stop us.
So we are here to say with Dr. King, with Nelson Mandela, with Mahatma Gandhi, with Desmond Tutu and in the name of Jesus Christ that "this system of American Apartheid cannot endure because it is evil."
We are here to say to the people who benefit from it, who would defend it, who would even beat us down to protect it that “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and we serve a God who cannot be mocked."
But mostly, we are here to issue an invitation. We are here to go out into the streets, onto the internet, onto every place where people try to defend and protect and uphold this American Apartheid and say “"So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, we invite you today to come and join the winning side"
So let us go. Go forth from this place. Go out into the streets.
Not with stiff necks and closed ears but with a humble heart and a passionate soul.
Go not to defeat and enemy but to love and convert a brother or sister.
Go not to start a war but to invite people into a dance.
Go to be and create the beloved community. A community that begins in our hearts and takes root in the streets. A beloved community not of our justice but God’s justice. A beloved community where Apartheid is a distant memory. A beloved community where all have enough and the music and dancing never, ever stops. AMEN.