Monday, September 18, 2017

WE WILL NOT!

WE WILL NOT!
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR
September 17, 2017 (15th Sunday after Pentecost)

Daniel 3:1-18
3King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 3So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, 4the herald proclaimed aloud, ‘You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.6Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.’ 7Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshipped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
8 Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. 9They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O king, live forever! 10You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, 11and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. 12There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good.* But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.* 18But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the statue that you have set up.’
       
One of the most popular television programs today is Game of Thrones, the Home Box Office (HBO) series about the struggle for power and supremacy in a mythical place called Westeros.  In the program, one way the leaders of the various factions try to overcome their adversaries is plotting and trying to carry out schemes aimed at conquering their adversaries through violent means such as assassinations and wars.  But another way is by trying, through various strategies, arrangements, and appeals, to persuade the leaders of would-be rival factions to “bend the knee,” meaning swear allegiance and be ruled rather than remain separate and autonomous.   This sermon is about three young people who refused to “bend the knee” and who defied overwhelming imperial power.

What makes a minority people refuse to cooperate with a majority group of oppressors?  This is big moral issue presented in the passage we ponder today from the third chapter of Daniel.  There we read about three young Hebrew exiles who defied a royal decree and the threat of death in a furnace by refusing to serve the gods and worship a gold plated statue set up on the order of their Babylonian conqueror. 

The Babylonian Empire ended long ago.  Most people do not speak of it, let alone speak about the Babylonian king known as Nebuchadnezzar.  But the story of how three Hebrew youth boldly defied an imperial command and refused to “bend the knee” to a royal order to worship the gods of their conqueror has survived the centuries thanks to the Bible.  Children in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School continue to be taught that God delivered “the three Hebrew boys” from the fiery furnace.   

The story of their bold defiance of majoritarian authority and popular sentiment challenges us.  The young men – black elders during my youth typically called them “the three Hebrew boys” or “the three Hebrew children” had been named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah before they were taken to Babylon after Judah was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar.  They are remembered by many people by the names they were assigned in Babylon:  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  

Where did you first hear that story?  How old were you?  Who told you about it?  What impression did it make on you then?  What does that story mean to you now?   Where do you see yourself in this story?  And what does the lesson about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego mean as Little Rock, Arkansas, and the United States reflect on racial justice on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School?

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show us what it means to be faithful to God for people challenged by others who believe in the supremacy of their notions of Empire.  Every empire tries to teach its citizens and force the rest of the world to believe that it is supreme.  Its military is the most powerful.  Its culture is the most enlightened.  Its economy is the most prosperous.  Its people are elite.  It is not enough to be equal.  Empires are built on notions of superiority and supremacy. 

That is why notions of empire are ungodly.  Faithfulness to God challenges every imperial claim of supremacy.  Whenever any empire calls on people who know God to “bend the knee” and swear allegiance to imperial claims of supremacy –whether it is American exceptionalism, white supremacy, religious nationalism, or anything else – rather than God, people who rest their ultimate identity and faith in God know better.  People who know God understand that the idolatry of empire always includes the heresy of imperial supremacy. 

In the United States, the idolatry of American exceptionalism includes the heresy of white supremacy.  White supremacy caused European adventurers to claim they discovered this land and disrespect the presence and right of people who were native to it.  That heresy was responsible for the wickedness that resulted in the human trafficking, murder, rape, theft, fraud, and other evils associated with how this nation treated Africans, Latinos, Asians, and every other population of non-white persons. 

White supremacy was the foundation heresy for Jim Crow segregation after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War.  White supremacy is why public education was segregated based on skin color, with white children and black children being denied the chance to receive free, fair, and education together.

And in 1957, the heresy of white supremacy led to the Crisis of Little Rock Central High School when nine black students, supported by prophetic revolutionary people, bravely became pioneers for desegregation in public education in Arkansas.  They chose to defy Governor Orval Faubus, the 1957 version of King Nebuchadnezzar in Arkansas.  They refused to pay homage to white supremacy and continue going to school under Jim Crow rules.  In the words of our text, the Little Rock 9 and the people of Little Rock and Arkansas who supported, advised, encouraged, prayed for, and otherwise embraced their entry into Little Rock Central said, in effect, “we will not serve your gods [segregation] and we will not worship the golden statue [white supremacy] that you have set up.” 

Fast forward sixty years to 2017.  The Little Rock School District is still the largest public school district in Arkansas.  But public education has been on a path toward re-segregation for decades thanks to overt and covert schemes, practices, and policies driven by white supremacy.  Sixty years later, a gala commemoration has been planned for this coming weekend.  The eight surviving members of the Little Rock 9 will be re-united.  Politicians, pundits, celebrities, and other people will be here.  Mavis Staples of the legendary Staples Family music group will present a concert.  The Little Rock School District and National Park Service are jointly sponsoring these and other events organized around this theme – Reflections on Progress.  

The issue for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego involved keeping faith with God in the face of King Nebuchadnezzar’s claim about the supremacy of the Babylonian Empire and its set of religious deities.  The issue for the Little Rock 9 and the revolutionary prophetic people who supported their defiance of white supremacy involved keeping faith with their divine and civil right to equality and liberty in the face of Governor Orval Faubus’s effort to keep black and white children from attending public schools together.  The revolutionary defiance of Governor Faubus, white supremacy, and segregation was a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego response by the Little Rock 9, by their parents, and by their small contingent of supporters to white supremacy in Arkansas and the United States.  It was a defining moment when people faithful to God said, in effect, “we will not serve your gods [segregation] and we will not worship the golden statue [white supremacy] that you have set up.”

Faithfulness to God demands a deep and abiding sense of identity – meaning knowing God, knowing who we are, and knowing what we believe about God and about ourselves.  This involves a lot more than being able to recite a religious formula, be it the plan of salvation so often mentioned by evangelists or something else. 

Knowing God, knowing who we are, and knowing what we believe about God and ourselves includes realizing that humans live in a moral universe with God.  We live in a universe established by God as a place of harmony – think of the word community – where all creation is entitled to equal dignity, respect, protection, and nurture and where God alone is worthy of unconditional loyalty, obedience, and trust. 

Let me be plain.  God alone deserves our unconditional loyalty and trust.  God alone deserves our absolute obedience.  God alone is our source for ultimate meaning and the target of our hope.  Anything that opposes that belief challenges God’s place in our lives. 

People like Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, the prophetic revolutionaries who inspired and supported the desegregation of Little Rock Central High, and other prophetic revolutionaries understand that humans do not live to serve empires.  We live, along with the rest of creation, to be in community with God!  Every human notion and manifestation of empire demands that we decide whether to live as people made free in a moral universe with God and established by God or live as subjects and slaves of empire. 

Beyond that, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show that faithfulness to God produces a clash between people who trust the liberating and radically revolutionary power of God and people who have put their faith in notions of human empire.  When – not if – that happens, people who trust God will be required to choose between comfort, convenience, and conformity and hardship, persecution, and vilification.  For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that meant choosing to incur the fury of King Nebuchadnezzar and his threat to have them burned alive in a fiery furnace.  It meant risking the loss of their imperial titles, imperial perks, imperial dwelling places, and imperial privileges.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were probably not the only people who took moral and ethical offense to the notion of Babylonian supremacy. According to the Biblical account, they were part of a larger contingent of people from prominent Jewish families taken to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah in 605 B.C.  One might assume that other Jewish exiles were morally and ethically offended by the idea of worshipping Babylonian deities and bowing before a 90 foot statue erected in the name of Babylonian supremacy. 

What distinguished Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is their defiant refusal to lend their moral authority as followers of God to the idolatrous heresy of Babylonian supremacy at the risk of all the Babylonian empire offered by their obedience and all it threatened by their defiance.  Empires depend on promises of privilege to those who submit and cooperate with imperial claims and threats of terrible consequences to those who resist their claims.  However, they always seek legitimacy and validation from people who have moral authority. 

Nebuchadnezzar needed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to comply with his imperial spectacle in order to make the idolatrous claims of Babylonian imperialism seem morally legitimate.  However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not fear Nebuchadnezzar’s threats.  They were not willing to turn their backs on God and disown their identity as God-followers.  The issue for them was not whether they lived or died. The issue was not whether they retained prominent positions in Babylonian government.  The issue was whether they would disown God!  Would they put their moral authority on the side of Babylonian supremacy?  Their refusal to do so is a clarion call to faithful people in every age and place.  

What would Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego think of us?  What would they think about our eagerness to dress up, show up, and suck up for imperial claims of white supremacy and re-segregation disguised as a commemoration of the courage, faith, and bold witness of the people who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 under the bogus  Reflections on Progress theme? 

It is good that the surviving eight members of the Little Rock 9 will be re-united next weekend.  But prophetic people should, in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refuse to pay homage to the forces of re-segregation and worship the symbols of white supremacy associated with the Reflections of Progress hypocrisy planned for that reunion. 

Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we should say, “we will not!” 

·       We will not dress up and attend events designed to portray Little Rock and Arkansas as a progressive city and state.
·       We will not be charmed by the soulful singing of Mavis Staples into forgetting that agents of white supremacy on the Arkansas Board of Education dissolved the democratically-elected governing body of the Little Rock School District in 2015.
·       We will not lend our moral authority to ceremonies designed to pimp the commitment of L.C. and Daisy Bates, the Little Rock 9 and their families, and the other prophetic revolutionaries who defied segregation and white supremacy when schools that serve black and brown neighborhoods in Little Rock are being closed.
·       We will not pay lip service to “Reflections on Progress” when the current superintendent of the Little Rock School District and the Arkansas Commissioner of Education have apparently agreed to sell the former Garland Elementary School property to a charter school management affiliate of the Walton Family Foundation.
·       We will not pay lip service to “Reflections on Progress” when students in Paul Lawrence Dunbar Magnet Middle School – where each of the Little Rock 9 attended junior high school – are now threatened with loss of their gifted and talented classes and instructors.

Instead of attending the “Reflections on Progress” events, let us draw on the example set by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Let us take on a “we will not” posture.  Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, let it be said of us that we loved God so much, trusted God so much, and remained true to our identity as followers of God so much that we will not serve re-segregation. 

In God’s name, we will not stand on the side of oppression against the oppressed.

In God’s name, we will not be fooled.

In God’s name, we will not be bribed by trinkets, titles, jobs, photo opportunities, and perks.

In God’s name, we will not be pushed, pimped, or have our commitment to equality, liberty, justice, and love poisoned by ceremonies, songs, and speeches orchestrated by those who actively scheme against desegregation and equality.

In God’s name, we will not “bend the knee” to the heresy of re-segregation and idolatry of white supremacy.

This week is a Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego moment.  What will you do? 


Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

SEEING AND SPEAKING TO OUR SITUATION AS PROPHETIC PEOPLE

SEEING AND SPEAKING TO OUR SITUATION AS PROPHETIC PEOPLE
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
September 10, 2017 (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

Isaiah 59
59See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save,
   nor his ear too dull to hear.
2 Rather, your iniquities have been barriers
   between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
   so that he does not hear.

3 For your hands are defiled with blood,
   and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies,
   your tongue mutters wickedness.
4 No one brings suit justly,
   no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
   conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.
5 They hatch adders’ eggs,
   and weave the spider’s web;
whoever eats their eggs dies,
   and the crushed egg hatches out a viper.
6 Their webs cannot serve as clothing;
   they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
   and deeds of violence are in their hands.
7 Their feet run to evil,
   and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
   desolation and destruction are in their highways.
8 The way of peace they do not know,
   and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
   no one who walks in them knows peace. 

9 Therefore justice is far from us,
   and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
   and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
10 We grope like the blind along a wall,
   groping like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
   among the vigorous
* as though we were dead.
11 We all growl like bears;
   like doves we moan mournfully.
We wait for justice, but there is none;
   for salvation, but it is far from us.

12 For our transgressions before you are many,
   and our sins testify against us.
Our transgressions indeed are with us,
   and we know our iniquities:
13 transgressing, and denying the Lord,
   and turning away from following our God,
talking oppression and revolt,
   conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart.
14 Justice is turned back,
   and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
   and uprightness cannot enter.

15 Truth is lacking,
   and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. 

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
   that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no one,
   and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm brought him victory,
   and his righteousness upheld him.
17 He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
   and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
   and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.

18 According to their deeds, so will he repay;
   wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies;
   to the coastlands he will render requital.
19 So those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord,
   and those in the east, his glory;
for he will come like a pent-up stream
   that the wind of the Lord drives on. 

20 And he will to Zion as Redeemer,
   to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord.
21And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and forever.

        Isaiah 59 may seem an inappropriate passage as Little Rock, Arkansas approaches the sixtieth (60th) anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School on September 23, 1957.  There is not much about it that is celebratory.  Instead, Isaiah 59 is a prophetic indictment against an unjust society.   This chapter does not commend the state of affairs in that society.  It denounces and condemns it. 

The prophet makes it clear from the outset, however, that the situation could not be blamed on God.  See, the LORD’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.  Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2). 
It is uncomfortable and unpleasant to think and speak about injustice and about systemic, organized, and calculated oppression.  And often when people manage to engage in such uncomfortable and unpleasant thinking and speaking together, we try to shift the blame for social injustice onto God.  We think God has let us down.  God has turned off the divine hearing aid.  God is not strong enough to make things right. 

The prophet in Isaiah 59 overturns those ideas.  According to the prophet, societal injustice is a barrier between us and God.  God is neither puny nor unaware of our situation.  According to the prophet, a society can become contaminated by its sins (unloving and unfaithful behaviors) and iniquities (depravity shown by preference for oppression, hate, fear, and deceit over fairness, love, hope, and truth).  When that happens, injustice runs unchecked because people are infected by it. 

From that prophetic perspective, Isaiah 59 is a fitting starting point for our reflection on the state of public education, despite however uncomfortable and unpleasant it may be for us to admit.  Sixty years after September 23, 1957 – when nine black students, supported by L.C. and Daisy Bates and other courageous people associated with the Arkansas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), defied racial segregation in public education in Arkansas by entering the largest and most prominent public high school in the capital city of Arkansas – the harsh observations we read in Isaiah 59 apply to our society the same way they applied to the society to whom those words were addressed.

For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness (Isaiah 59:3).  Those words remind us about the history of brutality and treachery carried out against the cause of fair, free, and inclusive public education in Little Rock over the past sixty years.  Politicians opposed the idea of black students attending public school on equal terms with white students so much they tried to block the Little Rock 9 from entering Central High School in 1957.  The next year those politicians shut down the entire school district. 

If we are honest, we will admit schemes have been concocted over the past sixty years to cheat all children in the Little Rock School District from the opportunity to receive a free public education in schools that are racially inclusive and fairly administered.  In 1957, the schemers openly opposed racially inclusive and fairly administered public schools.  In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus – pretending that he was protecting public safety – ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the Little Rock 9 from entering Central High School.  In 2015, the Arkansas Board of Education dissolved the elected Little Rock School Board pretending that it was protecting public education.  In 2017, the Arkansas Board of Education – not the National Guard – is blocking children from attending public schools that are fairly administered and racially inclusive.  

If we are honest, we will admit that business, civic, and religious leaders in Little Rock have consistently schemed to frustrate efforts to provide children in the Little Rock School District with racially inclusive and fair public education.
 
School attendance zones were drawn for years to preserve some schools as enclaves for white students while maintaining all black schools until court decisions forced them to be redrawn. 

Real estate developers schemed with Little Rock civic leaders to expand city services to “white flight” developments westward.  City services must be provided to those upper-income neighborhoods, but the boundaries of the Little Rock School District were deliberately not changed.  This has allowed residents of those neighbors to live outside the School District and not have their property taxes go toward supporting the LRSD. 

Religious leaders and congregations claimed that public schools were not sufficiently moral, so they set up private schools where white parents could know their children would not learn alongside black children to any appreciable degree.  Again, those private religious schools have been established to the west of the Little Rock School District.

So, if we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that the words of Isaiah 59 apply to the state of public education in Little Rock over the past sixty years.  No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.  They hatch adders’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper.  Their web cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make (Isaiah 59:4-5). 

The nature of an egg is not determined by its outward appearance, but by what is produced when the egg is hatched.   The efforts about public education by self-serving politicians, real estate developers, and religious hypocrites over the past sixty years have been harmful– like the eggs of serpents – and useless – like spider webs are for covering oneself from nakedness.    

Sadly, this perspective does not come through from publicized events planned by the Little Rock School District and the National Park Service this month to commemorate what happened in 1957.  The theme for those events is “Reflections on Progress.”  But rather than celebrate, we should embrace the prophetic perspective found in these words.  Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo!  There is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.  We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.  We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully; we wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.  For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us (Isaiah 59:9-12a).

Prophetic people should beware the temptation to accept pleasant lies rather than face and proclaim unpleasant truth.  One of those pleasant lies declared in Little Rock and elsewhere in the United States – that white parents want their children to attend public schools with black children – has been obvious for the past sixty years. 

White parents, not black parents, moved out of Little Rock to Sheridan, Lonoke, Bryant, Benton, Cabot, and Conway.  Real estate developers planned communities to attract white parents who were looking to find houses in communities where black people would be a smaller minority of the population, meaning there would be fewer, if any, black students attending schools with white children in those communities. 

If we are true to our calling as prophetic people, you and I should, like the prophet in Isaiah 59, confront our society with the bitter truth that there has not been much progress toward racially inclusive and fairly administered public education in Little Rock over the past sixty years.  Staged ceremonies, events, and publicity stunts intended to show off the supposed “progress” cannot and will not change the truth we know too well.  That confession will set the stage for us to embrace some aspects of God we don’t often think and speak about. 

First, realize that God sees and is disgusted about the injustice others would have us ignore and deny.  According to the prophet, God not only sees injustice, God is disgusted by it.  Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance… Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.  The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw … and was appalled that there was no one to intervene (Isaiah 59:14-16). 

God is not pleased by ceremonies celebrating the courage of the black students who challenged racial inequality in public education in 1957when black and brown students in 2017 are shut out of advanced placement classes in high school.  God is not pleased by ceremonies touting “progress” when elementary schools that served black and brown neighborhoods are closed over the voices of the people who live in those neighborhoods.

That is good news!  It is good to know that God is disgusted by the things that disgust us.  To put it more colorfully, God is pissed!  God is sickened by the hypocrisy that passes for support for public education.  God is sickened by the games being played and lies being told.  God is sickened when people who have hijacked public education for profit-making claim they are doing so in the name of reform.  It is good to know that God is disgusted, appalled, and pissed! 

Jesus overturned the tables of money exchangers during Holy Week.  He chased the money exchangers from the Temple.  He called religious leaders hypocrites.  That conduct shows that we have divine authority to act with holy outrage about the systemic injustice and oppression going on in the name of public education!  Like Jesus, we have divine permission to be appalled, disgusted, and yes – pissed – about the hatefulness, hypocrisy, and deceit that is happening and that people want to conceal by using the surviving eight members of the Little Rock 9 as propaganda tools for their fake display of “progress!”  

God is not only displeased; God is determined to act when humans refuse to correct blatant and systemic injustice.  The prophet proclaimed in Isaiah 59 that God put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle (Isaiah 59:17).   

Fabricated ceremonies won’t fool God or stop God from holding the purveyors of injustice accountable.  According to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies … So those in the west shall fear the name of the LORD, and those on the east his glory (Isaiah 59:18-19).

Prophetic people should see and condemn the racial injustice that passes for public education in Little Rock and elsewhere in this society.  We should also declare that God is displeased about the way power and privilege have been abused to deny all children in this community to full, free, and fairly administrated public schooling. 

We should also proclaim God’s promise of prophetic presence and hope.  This is what comes in the last word of Isaiah 59.  [T]his is my covenant with them, says the LORD:  my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the LORD, from now on and forever (Isaiah 59:21).  

Yes, there are purveyors of injustice, but they are not unchallenged.  The Spirit of God is upon us.  The Spirit of justice is upon us. 

The Spirit of truth is in our mouth to speak truth when others conceive and hatch lies. 

The Spirit of fairness and revolution empowers and guides us to confront and overturn systems of oppression. 

God’s Spirit inspires us with boldness.  God’s Spirit sustains our hope despite sixty years of schemes, lies, and setbacks.  The Spirit of God not only calls us.  The Spirit of prophetic challenge and truth and hope will not leave us.  It will not leave our children.  It will not leave those who come after our children, “from now on and forever.” 

Let us confront and challenge the propaganda campaign surrounding the 60th anniversary of the effort to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in the power of that Spirit. 


Amen.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

A FAITHFUL APPROACH TO LAW, ORDER, AND JUSTICE

A FAITHFUL APPROACH TO LAW, ORDER, AND JUSTICE
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR
August 27, 2017 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)

Exodus 1:8-2:10
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews* you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’
2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses,*‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out* of the water.’

PRAYER BEFORE SERMON

Your voice burns within the depths of our being,
O God of our ancestors,
and draws us into your presence and service.
Hear the cries of your people
and speak a word of comfort,
that we may proclaim to all the earth
the glory of your name. Amen.

        Across the United States and elsewhere around the world, people are concerned about what some consider a resurgence of bigotry, hatefulness, white nationalism and white supremacy.  

·       We worship today two weeks and a day after a young woman – Heather Heyer – was murdered and 19 other people were injured in Charlottesville, Virginia by a white supremacy sympathizer who used a car as an instrument of terror and destruction. 
·       The evening before that tragedy, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and neo-Fascists marched onto the campus of the University of Virginia shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans.  They surrounded a chapel where people from many faith traditions and ancestries were assembled for prayer and preparation to protest against white supremacy and racism the next day.
·       Last Tuesday evening, President Trump boldly hinted that he would issue a pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Arpaio was convicted by a federal judge on the charge of criminal contempt of court for willfully disobeying a 2011 court order that required his agency to stop racially profiling Latinos.  On Friday afternoon, while national attention was understandably focused on the threat Hurricane Harvey presented to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coastal region, Mr. Trump announced that Arpaio would be pardoned. 
·       On Thursday evening, people gathered in the Old Supreme Court room of the Arkansas State Capitol for a public meeting concerning the Little Rock School District heard Commissioner of Education Johnny Key and members of the Arkansas Board of Education declare they do not plan to restore local governance to the Little Rock School District at any specific time.  The State of Arkansas dissolved the democratically elected Little Rock School Board of Directors on January 28, 2015.  Since that time, the largest public school district in the largest and most racially diverse city in Arkansas has been run by Commissioner Key, un-elected bureaucrat and former state legislator with no previous experience or education in public education. 

The passage we ponder today offers helpful moral, ethical, and theological light for us about how God’s people should respond to bigotry, hatefulness, nationalism and claims of ethnic supremacy that are disguised as appeals to “law and order.”  The book of Exodus begins with this lesson about how an empire – Egypt – was led by a ruler and regime who did not know their own history and who feared the Hebrew minority population.  That collective ignorance and fearfulness motivated the Egyptian ruler and ruling regime to oppress and enslave Hebrew workers.  When they could not work the Hebrews to death, the Egyptian ruler and his regime ordered the death of all Hebrew male babies – infanticide – and commanded that Hebrew mid-wives become murderers. 

But two midwives – Shiprah and Puah – engaged in a non-violent and subversive protest campaign against that scheme.  At Exodus 1:17 we read:  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  When summoned before the king to give account for letting Hebrew boys live, Shiprah and Puah claimed that “the Hebrew women … are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Ex. 1:19).  So Pharaoh – the title of the Egyptian ruler – ordered that all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile River (where they would either drown or be devoured by crocodiles).
 
The first ten verses of Exodus 2 show how one Hebrew family defied that decree.  A Hebrew husband and wife did not throw their baby boy into the Nile.  His mother hid him for three months.  When she could no longer hide her son, she built a basket, placed him in it, and hid him among the river reeds.  His sister stood watch to protect him.  After the Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the boy in the basket, the sister volunteered to find a Hebrew nursemaid for him – his mother.   

Pharaoh’s daughter did not obey her father’s royal decree.  Instead, we read how the daughter of a ruler who wanted to wipe out the Hebrew male population paid the mother of a Hebrew baby boy to nurse him, not kill him.  The daughter of a tyrant bent on murder and infanticide became the protector and sponsor of a boy she eventually named Moses.

One lesson this passage offers is that ignorance, fear, bigotry, and greed work together to cause hateful and oppressive results for immigrants and other vulnerable people.  The Egyptian Pharaoh and his ruling regime “did not know Joseph.” 

Why did they not know how their nation had been faithfully served and saved by Joseph, the immigrant great grandson of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham?    

Did the regime “not know Joseph” because Egyptian historians did not include Joseph’s service in accounts of Egyptian history? 

Did the Pharaoh “did not know Joseph” because Egyptian educators did not teach about Joseph and the contributions of Hebrews to Egyptian society?
 
Did the Egyptian ruling regime “not know Joseph” because there were no statues to remind them about him?

How else could anyone ascend to lead the Egyptian government and “not know Joseph?”

A second lesson in this passage is that ignorant, fearful, and hateful people will rely on “law and order” claims to justify wicked policies and practices.  The Pharaoh used fear of being overpowered by the Hebrew immigrant population to motivate Egyptian society against them.  Hebrew immigrants were considered national security threats, not neighbors. 

The fear-mongering, bigotry, discrimination, and violence against immigrants we read about in Exodus 1 are in keeping with the attitudes used to justify the policies and actions of Donald Trump, Joe Arpaio, Adolf Hitler, and other nationalists across human history against marginalized people.  Fear of being dominated and the obsessive desire to dominate others are foundation rocks for every “law and order” reaction to demands for liberation and justice. 

This passage also highlights the role of women as leaders in the movement for justice.  The Hebrew midwives – Shiprah and Puah – conducted the first non-violent subversive protest movement against tyranny that we find in the Bible.  The mother and sister of Moses concealed him and guarded him.  Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion for him and financed his care.  His mother nurtured him until he was old enough to be delivered to Pharaoh’s daughter, who reared him as her son. 

Women are not secondary characters in this account of the early life of Moses.  The heroes in this account are heroines – “she-roes.”  Women paved the way for Moses.  Without the courage and cleverness of Shiprah and Puah, there would have been no Moses.  Without the determination and resourcefulness of his mother and sister, there would have been no Moses.  Without the deliberate  decision of Pharaoh’s daughter to defy her father’s order to kill Hebrew boys, there would have been no Moses. 

Shiprah and Puah protected Hebrew boys because they feared God.  That’s important to remember.  They engaged in social protest because they feared God.  They did not obey the law – they were law breakers, not law followers – because the justice of God is always superior to legal rules imposed to dominate and oppress others! 

Shiprah and Puah disobeyed the law because they feared God.  They shielded Hebrew families from losing their sons because they feared God.  They misled ruling authorities because they feared God. 

Think of Shiprah and Puah as forerunners of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Remember Shiprah and Puah not only when you think about Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Coretta Scott King.  Remember Shiprah and Puah when you think about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jeremiah Wright, Jr.!

Remember Shiprah and Puah when you think about other women who refuse to “go along and get along” with ruthless men and oppressive schemes.  When preachers try to talk you out of following the unction of the Holy Spirit, remember Shiprah and Puah.  Acknowledge that you are competent to hear and understand God’s will without a male filter.  Trust that the same God who inspired Shiprah and Puah to confront and out-think an empire can and will inspire you to become an agent for love, truth, justice, peace, and hope.

In the same way the Egyptian Pharaoh and his regime “did not know Joseph,” many religious people do not know Shiprah and Puah.  Preachers and other religious people who provide cover as tyrants oppress vulnerable populations based on bogus fears about threats to national security and “law and order” do not know Shiprah and Puah.  Bible school teachers and counselors who say women and girls must obey and submit to abusive male leaders and tolerate misogyny do not know Shiprah and Puah. 

But more than that, they do not fear God!  They do not reverence God as author of life, love, and liberty for all persons.  They do not reverence the divine command that we love God with all our being and love one another –including persons who are different from us – as ourselves. 

Politicians and preachers who claim the right to lead based on maleness not only disregard the Biblical role of women in the life of Moses.  They disregard God’s influence in devout women to produce justice and liberation. 

The good news is that God works to produce justice in subversive ways – not by “law and order” – but in subversive ways!  We live to obey the subversive God of Shiprah and Puah!  We serve the subversive God whose love inspired a Hebrew mother and daughter to protect and defend Moses.  We are people of the subversive God who inspired a noblewoman to defy her father and the rules of his realm as being part of a conspiracy to save the life of a Hebrew boy. 

In the name of that subversive God, do not be afraid to resist the tyrants of our time who are oppressing immigrants and other marginalized populations. 

In the name of that subversive God, do not be afraid to work for justice for transgender persons.  In the name of that subversive God, rise up and resist President Trump’s order to ban transgender persons from military service.  In the name of that subversive God, resist his plan to discriminate against service members who are transgender. 

In the name of our subversive God, resist the effort to deny equal access to higher education to children of undocumented immigrants. 

In the name of our subversive God, let us live for justice and liberation for all persons.  In the name of our subversive God, let us stand against every law, resist every ruler, denounce every movement, and bravely overcome any threat and force for hate, fear, ignorance, and oppression. 

We are God’s subversive people.  We are subversive because God is subversive!  We are subversive because justice is always subversive to tyranny.  We are subversive because truth is always subversive to propaganda and deceit.  We are subversive because God’s love is always subversive to hate.  We are subversive, and in the name of the subversive love and justice of God witnessed by Shiprah, Puah, and the other women in this passage, let us work for justice and overcome the forces of “law and order.”


Amen.