You are free to reprint these resources for use in worship. Please include the attribution “RootsOfJusticeTraining.org, 2015.” If text is spoken but not printed, we appreciate printing in your bulletin a general “Thanks to RootsOfJusticeTraining.org for some of the [prayers/text/ideas] used in this service.”
God of Light, you provide us with food for our bodies and our souls, but we are impatient. We want to reach the promised land now, and not be uncomfortable along the way. Prepare our minds, soften our hearts, open our eyes so that we can see the light that you shine to chase away the shadows of injustice.
-Phil Morice Brubaker, RootsOfJusticeTraining.org 2015
[A version of this reading was initially presented at a Candlelight Vigil for Justice in August 2014, at Metropolitan Baptist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma.]
One [as an introduction]: Will you join me in a responsive reading inspired by the challenging, truth-telling, hopeful words of great teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Howard Thurman, theologian Dr. Georgia Harkness, and theologian Dr. Pamela Lightsley who visited Ferguson soon after the killing of Michael Brown. Let us join responsively in a spirit of prayer.
One: O Holy One, Open our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the work of neighbor love.
Many: We remember Michael Brown. We remember many brothers and sisters. We seek justice in Ferguson. We seek justice in [your city]. Show us a way to justice.
One: Ferguson is “a Kairos moment in our nation’s history—that appointed moment wherein a critical change will and must take place.”1 We have an urgent need for new forms of solidarity. Not just in Missouri, but in all our communities, there is distrust; in our bodies, pain; in our souls, anxiety and unrest.2 Yet it is easy to freeze up, to say nothing, to wait…
Many: Open our mouths to speak now with courage.
One: “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.”3 It is devastating to have one’s back up against a wall.
Many: Open our ears to hear now with courage.
One: Our community does not live as one when any neighbor is “under constant domination by just the threat [of violence] in a perpetual war of nerves.”3
Many: Inspire us to listen now. Stir up in us a restlessness to uncover now the walls of injustice we enforce and the walls we resist. Embolden us to seek the wisdom and experience of all who are gathered here.
One: “At times when the strain is heaviest upon us, and our tired nerves cry out in many-tongued pain
Because the flow of love is choked far below the deep recesses of the heart,
we seek to… live again in love’s warm stream.”3
Many: My neighbor’s back is up against the walls of injustice right now, threatening to prevent this ever flowing stream of love.
One: “We want more love; and more and more until, at last, we are restored and made anew!
Or, so it seems.”3
Many: My neighbor’s back is still up against the wall right now.
“‘More love,’ we cried; as if our love could be weighed, measured, bundled, tied…
One: ….It is not more love we seek, but for more power to love…
Help us make love eternal, always kindled, always new…”3
Many: Awaken us to the walls of injustice in our hearts and in our communities.
One: Inspire us to go to the walls now and listen.
Many: Fill us with the desire to have each other’s backs at the wall as we work for justice.
One: Solidarity is a verb and ally an action that insists on “the profoundest fellowship, understanding, and love.”3
Many: Let us work for justice in community with all who live with their backs up against the wall.
One: Justice is work. The fiction that walls of injustice serve some good just adds more barbed wire cutting off neighbor from neighbor. Remind us that no human being is more or less human than any one of us. Remind us that “a person is a person, no more no less. The awareness of this fact makes the supreme moment of human dignity.”3
“There is a spirit abroad in life of which Judeo-Christian ethics is but one expression.
Many: “It is a spirit [of justice] that makes for wholeness and for community…
One: “There is a spirit that broods over the demonstrators for justice and brings comfort to the desolate and forgotten who have no memory of what it is to feel the rhythm of belonging to [humanity]…
Many: “…we seek to make justice where injustice abounds, to make peace where chaos is rampant, and to make voices heard.…”3
One: Speak, listen, and live in community now moving toward a time when “what I seek for myself I desire with all my heart for friend and foe alike.”3
Many: Show us a way into justice.
Spark a collective urgency to practice a solidarity unsatisfied with the walls of injustice that keep neighbor from seeing and loving neighbor.
Open new pathways for the work of neighbor love.
Here together we seek the collective courage we will need.
(1) Dr. Pamela Lightsley, “Eyewitness to the Turmoil in Ferguson”
(2) Dr. Georgia Harkness in Laurence Hull Stookey’s Let the Whole Church Say Amen
(3) Dr. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (p. 39, 40, 104, 73); Meditations of the Heart (p. 84-85, 165); and The Luminous Darkness (p. 112-113)
– Mindy McGarrah Sharp, RootsOfJusticeTraining.org 2015
Children’s Sermon Ideas
Darkness and light. Most children (and lots of adults!) know what it’s like to be afraid of the dark. When we can’t see, we stumble and trip. We worry about what might be lurking, unseen. Daylight brings a sense of peace to many.
But part of the human condition also seems to crave the cover of darkness. Evils like racism, misogyny, classism, transphobia, and heterosexism are given space to flourish and thrive when they are given cover. When we are unable (or unwilling) to see and name bigotry, sin thrives.
Your props for this children’s sermon are a shoebox and a flashlight. Cut a hole that’s just the right size for your flashlight in the lid of the shoebox and then cover that hole with dark paper or tape. Place a small item inside the shoebox (perhaps a small action figure or an everyday household object). Cut a small peep-hole in the side of the box. Pass the box around to the children and ask what they see inside (the answer is hopefully “nothing, it’s just dark in there.”) Talk with the children about darkness and allow them to reflect on what can be helpful when they are in the dark (“A light!? I’ve got a light right here!”). Now, remove the paper/tape from the top of the box and place your light inside it so it is shining down into the box. Pass it around again and the children should be able to see what is inside.
Talk to the children about the passage from John and how Jesus has come to the world to shine a light. There are things in our world that are unfair and unkind (racism, other bigotry). God shines a light on those things and helps us to see that they are not okay. We, in turn, can shine a light for others and name things when they are not right. We can call out actions or systems that are unfair. Shining a light is powerful because we cannot fix problems unless we know they exist. We are called to be light-shiners, namers of injustice.
– Caela Simmons Wood, RootsOfJusticeTraining.org 2015
Please note that the common theme that ties all of today’s lectionary readings together is that of salvation, otherwise referred to as redemption, liberation, deliverance, and healing.
Numbers 21: 4-9 and John 3: 14-21
The story of Moses and the bronze serpent is one of many disturbing stories in the book of Numbers, stories that seem to portray a petty and vengeful God. In this story God sends poisonous snakes to kill the people because they were complaining about the fact that they had no food or water in the wilderness! Seriously? Isn’t that a bit harsh? Who wouldn’t complain in a similar situation? So the instruction to Moses to make a bronze serpent so that those who looked at it would live strikes me as the least God could do given the circumstances!
Be that as it may, the image of the bronze serpent became a powerful symbol of redemption and healing, which is no doubt why the writer of John’s gospel attributes the following words to Jesus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)
What is interesting about this text is that it is part of a conversation that Jesus had with a Pharisee – a leader of the Jews – named Nicodemus, who came to see Jesus at night. Now, remember that according to this gospel’s version of events, this conversation took place after Jesus had challenged the religious, economic, and political power structures through the direct action of overturning the tables of the money changers and driving them out along with those selling cattle, sheep, and doves. So here was someone who represented those very power structures coming to see Jesus at night, presumably because he did not have the courage to approach him in this way in broad daylight. Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus talks to this member of the Jerusalem elite who came to him under cover of darkness about darkness and light?
Although the earlier part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is not included in today’s text, Jesus had already told Nicodemus that no one could see the Kin-dom of God without being born from above, that is without being born again. As Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out in their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, “Birth status was the single, all-important factor determining a person’s honor rating. Ascribed honor, the honor derived from one’s status of birth, was simply a given… To be born over again… would alter one’s ascribed honor status in a very fundamental way… Thus, a second birth… would be a life-changing event of staggering proportions.” Malina and Rohrbaugh go on to underline the reality that in Jesus’ day, the extended family meant not only the source of one’s status, but also “functioned as the primary economic, religious, educational and social network.” Imagine what it would have meant to Nicodemus to lose all of this. Rebirth was not only a private, individual event, but a radical change in terms of status and in terms of family membership. To be reborn was to lose one’s old status and community and gain a new status and community.
What I have discovered in my antiracism and anti-oppression journey as a straight, white, middle-class male, is that while it is indeed frightening to think of the radical implications of Jesus words to Nicodemus – to renounce the systems that have ascribed honor and status to me simply because of the fact that I was born a straight, white male, thereby risking the loss of whatever networks that gave me access to – I have been welcomed into new networks and new communities of people.
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2: 1-10
Psalm 107 is a hymn of praise to God for redeeming the people from their trouble, saving them from their distress, and delivering them from destruction.
All of this is good and well for those who have indeed experienced God’s deliverance in time and space. But what are we to make of the millions in history who suffered and died without experiencing such deliverance? What about those who are suffering and dying even as I write these words and you read them? In times past, preachers got away with promising eternal life after death or pie in the sky to those who suffered in this life.
My wife and I spent many years living and working with the Mennonite Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I confess that I was embarrassed and ashamed to hear that many previous missionaries had indeed preached this very message, even while they enjoyed access to decent health care, a decent education for their children, permanent shelter, and a much higher standard of living than the average Congolese. While I refused to preach a purely future and other-worldly salvation, I continued to enjoy the benefits of my North American salary and everything that went with it. My various roles included a significant amount of preaching and teaching in different settings and I attempted to communicate a more holistic view of salvation – not just individual, but collective, not just spiritual, but also physical and material, not just future, but past and present – but as long as I was benefiting from my status and most of the people around me continued to suffer, it became more and more difficult for me to talk about God’s salvation.
After returning to North America and attending a Damascus Road antiracism training, I was challenged to raise the question Tobin Miller Shearer raised in a recent reflection: Blessing or Privilege? In other words, those things that I had previously thanked God for because I saw them as a result of God’s blessings in my life, were they the result of God’s blessing or the result of the unearned privileges I had as a white, middle-class male in this society? If the truth was closer to the latter, could I in any way relate to Psalm 107? Does Ephesians 2 shed any light on the subject?
I am going to agree with the general scholarly consensus that Ephesians was most likely written by a disciple of Paul and not Paul himself. Regardless, it was written to first century Christians in the province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital. I am going to suggest that at least part of what it meant to grow up in an impressive and relatively wealthy city like Ephesus was to have access to a lot of things that most people in the countryside did not have access to. Along with that, I am going to suggest that having access to these privileges conditioned the Ephesians in such a way that they might have internalized a certain sense of superiority, especially with regard to those who were not from the big city. Could it be, then, that this internalized sense of superiority is a part of what the writer is talking about when saying to them, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins, in which you once lived, following the course of this world…” (Eph. 2: 1-2a)? If so, this text speaks to me in a powerful way.
Because I am white, because I am straight, because I am male, because I am middle class, and yes, because I am Christian in a society where all of these identities mean that I am part of the dominant group, I have internalized a sense of white, male, Christian superiority. How could I not? Could this mean that I and those who share my social identities were also “dead through the trespasses and sins” in which we once lived? The good news comes in verses 4-6: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” In spite of our conditioning and internalized superiority, God has made us alive together with Christ!
When I attended that antiracism training back in 2000, I believe God gave me the opportunity to be made alive together with Christ, but I don’t see this as a once-and-done sort of a thing. In the words of Walter Wink in his book The Powers That Be, “Because the ego has been entangled with thousands of tendrils from the alienating system of domination, the process of dying to one’s conditioning is never fully over.” Another way of putting it is that the experience of death and rebirth – to return to the image Jesus used in his conversation with Nicodemus – is something that recurs over and over. It is about dying again and again and again and it is also about being born again and again and again. For me, this experience of salvation is continual. And it happens in the context of community. To quote womanist theologian Monica Coleman in her book Making a Way Out of No Way, “Salvation is participation in a community that ‘makes a way out of no way.’”
– Rick Derksen, RootsOfJusticeTraining.org 2015
Phil Morice Brubaker is coordinator and trainer with Roots of Justice.
Rick Derksen is a trainer with Roots of Justice and serves on the ROJ board. He’s an antiracism organizer with several Seattle-based activist groups including European Dissent, EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex), and the Seattle Race Conference committee. His identities include white, male, partner of 40 years, parent, grandparent, ordained Mennonite minister, and part of Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church.
Mindy McGarrah Sharp is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ethics
Phillips Theological Seminary and author of Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology.
The Rev. Caela Simmons Wood is pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Manhattan, Kansas. Pastor Caela is passionate about racial justice, LGBT rights, and gender equality. You can read her sermons at her blog.