God can make a way where there is no way

Last night I watched an old media friend, Bill Moyers, talk deeply, quietly and honestly (what a blessed change of pace) with another old spiritual friend, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Like many I have felt wounded by the way Dr. Wright has been villified of late. (Go to the PBS interview by clicking on this site:
You see, I have known the Reverend Wright since before my ordination 26 years ago - not well, to be sure - but when I was a young pastor in the Michigan Conference of the United Church, Jeremiah came and shared his story, wisdom and reflections with a number of urban clergy over a two day retreat. When I was doing urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio I regularly heard updates about Jeremiah's remarkable ministry in Chicago, I heard him preach the closing sermon of our General Synod in 1985; and later, after I had become a strong ally with the African American clergy and community through my work as the Vice President of the Cleveland Board of Education, I studied with him (and other Black clergy) in a midweek Bible study in which I was the only white clergy invited. What's more, I have met and worked with young ministers raised up and trained in Dr. Wright's church - Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago - and know them to be clergy of the highest integrity as well as the most able to build strong, faithful and transformative congregations in the African American community.

So, to watch how both the Clinton/McCain campaigns have cherry picked sound bites designed to malign Dr. Wright in the hopes of discrediting Senator Obama, and, to listen to the media's constant misinterpretation of both African American preaching as well as the real relationship between a pastor and her/his congregation has been heartbreaking. It doesn't matter if it is Fox Noise or Chris Matthews: they get this whole thing SOOO wrong that I am often filled with tears.

But Dr. Wright said something last night during the Moyers interview that put this whole ugly episode into the perspective of true faith. He briefly alluded to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis (see Genesis 37-50 for the details) noting that "God can work evil into good." That is, sometimes those things that look and feel evil and hurtful to us - and are evil and hurtful in the moment - can also be used by God (and sometimes may even come from God) to work out a greater good. Dr. Wright pointed to Barack Obama's beautiful speech on race relations as one of the good things that have come out of his recent vilification. A deeper national conversation on our truest hopes and dreams about America, racial diversity and compassion is yet another blessing to come from this hatred.

This brings to mind a few other insights from scripture: First, is the word Jesus gave to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 11-12. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets you were before you." We used to be told in seminary that the job of the preacher is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Brother Jeremiah has simply been doing the Lord's work when he points out what hatred brings to flower - and he is not speaking hatred about America or Israel or any other nation. He is simply saying: if you act with violence against the blessings of life, you will often reap what you sow. So if we who love the Lord aren't getting into hot water when it comes to race and national priorities and all the rest... could it be that we aren't doing our job?

I came to faith in the summer of 1968: the year that Dr. King was assasinated, the year that Bobby Kennedy was gunned down, the year my high school youth group from Darien, CT. spent the summer learning how the church was changing the world - including spending time in Washington, DC just after the riots. It was the integrity and commitment of the Black church in partnership with White allies that touched my heart. It was critical reflection on the ministry of Dr. King - and those who influenced him - that led me to open my heart to God in Christ. And it was the deep and passionate preaching of African American church leaders that gave me a sense of hope for what America could become if we were open to the Spirit of the Lord. This inspiration took me into work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union, organizing Black woodcutters in rural Mississippi, serving two urban congregations (Saginaw, MI and Cleveland, OH), working as part of in inter-racial team to transform the Cleveland Public Schools (I was the Vice President of the Board of Education under the leadership of Larry Lumpkin), the founding of an inter-racial network in Cleveland to fight for quality education (WE-CAN) and 10 years of work in Tucson, AZ supporting and expanding the civil rights of the GLBT community. It is clear to me that part of the calling into ministry is exactly as Jeremiah Wright put it -- and Jesus was clear that when you follow in the footsteps of the prophets there will be costs.

Second, there are the words of Rabbi Paul in his summary of the mysterious Joseph stories in Romans 8: Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. And the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. God knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

So…with God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God's chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Until the PBS interview, it had never hit me how Rabbi Paul is retelling the heart of the Joseph story for those without an Old Testament background. He said much the same thing in Romans 5: We can boast in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. If the Black church can teach those in the majority anything, it has something to do with how God can make a way where there is no way - so STOP your whining and pick up the Cross and follow, for God's sake!

And third, is something John Dominic Crossan said about the Lord's Prayer (which I heard Marcus Borg paraphrase.) When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples how to pray - and gave them the Lord's Prayer - he was telling them two essential truths: 1) They are to imagine what creation would look like if God were the king and Caesar (or the President or whomever) were not; how would that make our lives different? 2) To say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is an invitation to confront injustice and intolerance on earth because earth is where the problems exist. Bigotry, segregation, sexism and poverty don't exist in heaven, in other words, they are truth on earth - so to pray in Christ's spirit is also to work against everything that separates us from love.

As a pastor who has served the local church for over 26 years - and as a white man of faith who has been an active part of the church for over 50 years - I know what happens when you preach and pray like Jesus: some people get excited and motivated, some stay asleep and others are offended. Sometimes those who are offended take you seriously enough to talk to you about it (most of the time they don't) and when this happens, something truly unique occurs: we learn how to be different - even disagreeing vigorously - without becoming disagreeable. We learn to practice listening - and patience - we learn to walk a mile in an other's shoes before judging - and we agree to disagree. Believe me, just because I say something on Sunday does not mean my congregation is going to do it! Or accept it! Or even want what I have to say!

As my friend, the president of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, likes to say: We can honor the value of different life experiences and cultivate an openness to others because we desire to see the face of Christ in everyone. Further, our unity is not dependent upon uniform agreement, but in our shared commitment to Jesus Christ. One of our key understandings is: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity. Ours is a risk-taking church because ours is a risk-taking God. In our tradition there is complete freedom of speech in the pulpit, but that also applies to the pews! You see, this is a dialogue - a dynamic conversation over time - that ebbs and flows and is more paradoxical than linear. It is church - the body of Christ learning how to be salt and light for the world - as John 3: 17 says: for God so loved the world... that Christ came to save (heal/repair) the world - not condemn it.

This is a sacred moment in American culture - a time when we could take another step forward towards reconciliation and understanding - if we can tune out the distractions of media manipulation, hatred and half truths. I have been blessed by my interaction with Jeremiah Wright. I have been strengthened and encouraged in my walk of faith by the people of color who have taken a risk on befriending a white boy of privilege. And I pray that I might be a faithful ally in the struggle for justice and peace. It is a complicated walk to love both God and country - a challenge I hold dear to my heart - and sometimes mistakes are made in loving both. But we must never confuse our beloved America for the Lord, for that is what the Scriptures call idolatry and those who worship false idols have hell to pay.

One of my tradition's greatest scholars, Walter Breuggeman, likes to remind us that whenever God's people find themselves at a moral or ethical crossroads, the way to find the heart of the Lord is to go to the sacred texts and stories that have been pushed to the periphery. The insights and experiences of those on the fringes will help us hear both the cry of the poor as well as discern what must be done to welcome and embrace the outcast. Jesus was explicit - and in so many ways the Black church has heard the Lord better than most - when he said: you will see me... in the hungry whom you fed, the thirst with whom you shared drink, the stranger you welcomed, the naked you clothed, the sick you comforted and the imprisoned you visited. (Mt. 25: 31-36)

I leave you with this clip, not from the Rev. Wright, but from Brother Bruce who took the old Civil Rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," and made it a love song, a prayer and a lament during the Seeger Sessions tour that looks towards all God holds dear for America. It is my prayer, too.


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